It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old…or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!
You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
***Special thanks to Jennifer Nelson of Hannibal Books for sending me a review copy.***
Mary Anne Phemister is a nurse, author, mother, grandmother and wife of noted concert pianist Bill Phemister. The Phemisters live in Wheaton, IL. She has also co-authored Mere Christians: Inspiring Stories of Encounters with C.S. Lewis.
List Price: $14.95
Paperback: 160 pages
Publisher: Hannibal Books (September 30, 2009)
AND NOW…THE FIRST CHAPTER:
A large, beautifully carved Chinese chest rests on curved wooden legs in my kitchen. Long-legged cranes decorate the top and sides in various poses. One bird in the background looking wide-eyed and perplexed, I’ve come to call “the bewildered one.” She reminds me of my mother, full of questions she dare not ask.
A furniture maker in Hong Kong sold this beautiful chest to my parents during their early, happier years of married life. Being practical and resourceful, they knew that this fragrant, camphor-lined vault could store and preserve the many curios and keepsakes that they would be collecting over the years to ship back home, someday. A skilled Chinese woodcarver had chiseled these revered birds into the outer teak frame, knowing full well its commercial appeal. Throughout Asia, red-crested cranes are symbols of long life and good luck.
My parents, however, believed in divine providence rather than in lady luck. To them, the force that operates for good or ill in a person’s life is not as capricious and precarious as luck. Good fortune is not the result of mere chance; it is part of God’s plan. Unfortunate circumstances, like the time my father almost died of food poisoning, are blamed on the enemy of our souls—Satan, the devil or the evil one. Hence, even when God allows bad things to happen to good people, it is not without some purpose. God is teaching us something or testing our faith. Our job on earth is to trust God, who has clearly instructed us not to lay up treasures on earth where moth and rust corrupt. Nevertheless, the few curios they brought home in this chest, fortified with camphor against pesky moths, could not be considered real treasures, merely mementos to display at missionary meetings.
My parents firmly believed that one should not—must not—expect to reap the rewards of living a virtuous life here on earth. However, in the life to come, all would turn out right. Then, all life’s troubling questions would be answered to our satisfaction. “All things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose” was a bible verse I had memorized at a very early age. Thus, I have always known that life has meaning and purpose. I have never doubted God’s goodness, although I have often questioned His methods.
This core belief, that all will turn out well in the end, that good will triumph over evil, that God rewards the faithful, was the force that enabled my mother to endure the countless challenges in her life. Her unshakable faith held her fast after the death of her infant son, Johnny, the puzzling alienation of her brother, Andy, and throughout her unhappy marriage to my father, notwithstanding all her attempts at being the good wife.
My parents’ acquaintance began at the suggestion of my father’s sister, Agnes. She had met Violet in Buffalo, New York and knew of her intent to go to Tibet as a missionary. Agnes suggested to her brother, Al, who was living in Shanghai at the time, that Violet would make him a good helpmeet. My father, who was on the lookout for a wife, then began a correspondence with this devout woman with a winsome smile, recently graduated from the Nyack Missionary College. Al eventually succeeded through his letters in persuading Violet to join him in China. Thus, Violet Anna Agnes Gibson and Alexander George Kowles were married on the very day the steamer docked in Shanghai harbor, September 6, 1938. She was just six days shy of turning thirty. Al, two years younger and two inches shorter, regretted these facts most of his life.
Why my parents went to China was never a mystery to me. In church service after church service they told of how God had laid on their hearts the burden for the lost. They were dedicated to answering the Master’s call for reapers to work in the harvest field for lost souls, as they would express it. They were merely obeying the great commission to go into all the world to bring the message of God’s love and salvation to people in heathen darkness. These words and phrases I heard often. I have never doubted their sincerity and resolve. They were more committed to their duty to obey Jesus’ imperative to preach the Gospel than to any other obligations, even to each other. Their marriage, based on their sincere desire to serve God, seemed to them at the beginning, to be God’s will. But before long, my mother began to recognize the smoldering notion that she had made a grave mistake. Where was God in this? How was God going to work this marriage out to his good?
“But you’re here,” my mother would say, dodging my question whenever I asked her why she stayed with my father for all those painful years. So, it was my existence and that of her other three children that enabled her to endure and be faithful. To her, the ever self-sacrificing handmaiden of the Lord and Al, divorce was unthinkable. God must have some purpose in it for her, she often reasoned throughout her prolonged heartache. It was her duty to persevere, to keep up family appearances for the sake of us children and “the ministry.”
I’m sure now that it was her strong sense of duty, her belief that marriages are made in heaven, her determination to endure to the end, bound and kept her locked in that disappointing marriage. Like the flight plans imprinted in those cranes’ brains, the mechanisms that steered the course of my mother’s life were those strongly implanted religious beliefs. I have inherited some of my mother’s sense of adventure, her perseverance, as well as strong religious beliefs, but for me, marriages cannot possibly be made in heaven. Where does it say that in the Bible? People make those choices, some good, some unhealthy. Somewhere along the line I have learned, contrary to family maxims, that if you make your bed, you don’t necessarily have to lie in it. You can get up and move, especially when one encounters, emotional, physical, sexual or even spiritual abuse.
Never once did I hear my mother question God’s sovereignty. To her, that would imply that the God whom she trusted with all her heart had led her down the wrong path. In her theology, and reinforced by my father with quotes from the Bible, that it was God’s will that she submit to her husband. She was committed (and coerced) to love, honor, and obey him until death intervened. “I accepted the future in simple faith that the Lord was leading me all the way,” she said. Simple faith did not permit her to question. A professional Christian counselor was out of the question, even if there were any around to be consulted a half century ago. Seeing a counselor pre-supposed that intense prayer and fasting and Bible reading were inadequate remedies to life’s problems. She told very few about her anguish, and never to her children while we were growing up.
During the time my mother kept the Chinese chest in her small apartment, it lay shrouded under a heavy, black brocade cloth. Stacked on top of the chest sat her phonograph player, her photo memory books, and piles of assorted record albums. Out of sight, the noble cranes lay hidden for decades until my mother moved into an assisted living residence. I remember her broad smile when I told her that I would take good care of her beautiful camphor chest, this lovely thing she bequeathed to me. She had begun to distribute her “things,” as she called them, to her four children. My mother lived to be eighty-nine. Clues to her life had been locked away in that Chinese chest for most of those years. In time, it was my joy to unearth some of the mementos and letters she had penned to her mother when she first sailed to Shanghai on the Empress of Japan to marry “by faith” a man she barely knew.
As I look at those cranes now, embedded in that chest that has come down to me, the bewildered one in particular seems to encapsulate much of my mother’s fascinating, woeful life. She, like the cranes, had mated for life, despite the unhappiness she endured. I suppose that if we children had all turned out to be preachers or missionaries to a foreign country, she would have felt some recompense, but none of us did. Throughout her lonely migrations to strange and foreign lands she kept searching for a resolution to the sadness she was feeling but could not verbalize. God did not provide the reconciliation to her husband and brother that she had so desperately prayed for. To bolster herself, she often took comfort in the words of the old hymn: “It will be worth it all, when we see Jesus; life’s trials will seem so small when we see Christ.” I am sure that now she has found the answers in heaven and has found peace–the peace that passes understanding. What has she learned over there? What have I learned from her life experiences? How does one resolve the problem of pain in a Christian worldview? C. S. Lewis has helped me understand what my mother knew and quietly bore: many questions in this life are left unanswered. Life in Christ is a faith journey indeed. The Bible reminds us that “our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed to us.” (Rom. 8:18 NIV) Trust and Obey were the three little words that guided the choices my mother made throughout the bewildered maze of her life.