Book Review: Call the Midwife, by Jennifer Worth

Have you seen the movie Julie & Julia? There’s a scene where Julie Powell says of Julia Child, “I’m dying to meet her. I would like to be a bridesmaid in her wedding in 1946. I realize that would take an inexplicable episode of time travel, but that is the sort of thing I think about.”

Have you seen the television series Call the Midwife? The above quote from Julie Powell is how I (Helen) feel about that show. But not only would it take an inexplicable episode of time travel for me to transport back to the world of midwifery in 1950s London to be friends with Jenny, Chummy, Cynthia and Trixie, it would take in inexplicable overcoming of my squeamishness around blood and needles, which I think is actually less likely than time travel.

If you haven’t seen the series Call the Midwife, check it out! The first two seasons are available on Netflix, and the third season is currently airing on the BBC in the UK. It will run in North America in the Spring of this year, on PBS. Telling the tale of a group of young midwives working with nuns in London’s East End, the show is heart-warming, very well produced, and based on the autobiography of Jennifer Worth, or Jenny Lee, as she is known in the show. Here’s the trailer for the first season:

Michael and I started watching Call the Midwife in late December, and when I found out it was based on an autobiography, I ordered it from the library. Reading this book comes at an interesting time, as I’ve also read Half the Sky this month, a book about the effects of discrimination towards women, and how ending that discrimination would be completely transformational for the entire world. One of the topics addressed in Half the Sky is the lack-lustrous care (or complete lack of care) women receive throughout their pregnancies and in child-birth in many parts of the world. We know little of this in the West today, particularly because since women have been allowed to vote, their lives and the lives of their children have taken on greater value in the eyes of politicians. In Call the Midwife, we see an era when the lives of young mothers were beginning to matter more and more, especially to the hard-working community midwives.

call-the-midwife-jennifer-worthAs Jennifer Worth (Worth is her married name) begins the story of her time serving as a midwife and district nurse in London’s East End, she says:

“Fictional doctors grace the pages of books in droves, scattering pearls of wisdom as they pass. Nurses, good and bad, are by no means absent. But midwives? Whoever heard of a midwife as a literary heroine? Yet midwifery is the very stuff of drama. Every child is conceived either in love or lust, is born in pain, followed by joy or sometimes remorse. A midwife is in the thick of it, she sees it all. Why then does she remain a shadowy figure, hidden behind the delivery room door?”

Upon recognizing that midwives were largely ignored in the literary world, Worth sought to change this, documenting the fascinating experiences of her youth (she was twenty-two when she began her career as a midwife). Her chapters go back and forth between stories of some of the more unusual births she attended, to hilarious and heart-warming stories of the nuns she lived with in the East End. What touched me most, however, and what is perhaps left out of the television series Call the Midwife, is Jenny’s journey of faith throughout the book. She comes to Nonnatus House by accident, thinking it to be a private hospital (it was a convent), and though she initially scoffs at the religious life, by the close of the book, the nuns, their lifestyle, and their deep love for the inhabitants of London’s East End, have had a profound effect on her, pointing her to the Source of their love.

While this is a beautifully written book, I do have one caution. You may remember from the television series that Jenny meets a young woman named Mary, a girl who fled Ireland for London, and was lured into prostitution. Mary escapes her brothel when she discovers she is pregnant. While the show touches on her background lightly, Worth describes in great detail her conversations with Mary, which include her first experiences witnessing prostitution in London. Be warned that there are a few very graphic paragraphs; this is not done in a gratuitous way – Worth is simply describing the way a young girl was exposed to prostitution. Tales such as Mary’s were likely all too common in the East End, and a major aspect of Call the Midwife is Worth’s describing the shocking realities she was exposed to in her career as a midwife and nurse. Still, these paragraphs made me very uncomfortable, and I ended up skipping ahead until I could continue with a less graphic part of Mary’s story.

All in all, if you love the show Call the Midwife, I would heartily recommend the book on which it is based. If you have not seen the series, you have plenty of time to catch up before the third season begins in the Spring on PBS!

YWAM Turner Valley’s Mountain Venture DTS

MVDTSfeature2Love outdoor adventure and interested in missions? This summer, YWAM Turner Valley will be running a new DTS program with a special focus: from the Rockies to the rice fields! The Rockies portion of the DTS consists of 12 weeks of lecture themed with the nature and character of God, and will include Bible study, prayer, and a variety of speakers who will share on topics such as evangelism, world view, godly relationships, and missions. Mountain excursions will also be a major feature of this school, and may include hiking, biking, horseback riding, camping, canoeing, rafting, and more! These adventures, together with lectures, will equip students to share the love of Jesus with others, which will be a vital part of the eight week outreach to follow.

YWAM Turner Valley has long-term relationships with contacts in SE Asia, and the DTS outreach team will serve there, doing everything from mercy ministries, teaching, running children’s programs, evangelism, and service projects. At the end of it all there will be a week of debrief and re-entry teaching as each students prepares to share about their experiences with friends and family.

WeeklyTimeChart10001This exciting new DTS begins on July 14th, and will wrap up after outreach on December 5th. Interested? Want to learn more about the Mountain Venture DTS? Go to YWAM Turner Valley’s website to learn more!

Book Review: I am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb

I am certainly not the first person to write about I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up For Education and Was Shot by the Taliban. Published in late 2013, it is on many best-sellers lists, which is what prompted me to read it.

I Am MalalaAs the title outlines, this book is the autobiography of Malala Yousafzai, a young woman who, with her father, was an outspoken proponent of education for girls, particularly in her native Pakistan. The book opens with a prologue describing the story of her shooting, which happened in October 2012 when she was fifteen years old; the Taliban has claimed responsibility for targeting Malala. What follows is a description of the events leading up to the attack, outlining Malala’s life in Swat Valley, part of the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and the history of Pakistan, a nation created on August 14, 1947 as a homeland for Muslims. Malala’s involvement with speaking for the education of all children is highlighted in particular, a subject about which both she and her father are passionate.

While Malala’s story impressed me and captured my heart, it was Malala’s father, a school owner who champions the education of girls, who stood out for me. Coming from a part of the world that often prizes sons over daughters, and does not always encourage the education of girls and women, Ziauddin Yousafzai was not only adamant that his daughter should receive an education, but was (and continues to be) a courageous advocate for the educational rights of all. Malala’s story would not be what it is without the father who cheered her on as she took up the cause of girls’ education, a cause that in the eyes of the Taliban that threatened their nation, was considered anti-Islam. (Malala often writes of how the Quran actually does not bar women from education).

This book was an excellent follow-up to my last read, Half the Sky. I certainly recommend it as not only an engaging story, but as a way to understand the challenges that face the issue of accessibility to education, especially for women and girls. In her epilogue, Malala states that

“around the world there are fifty-seven million children who are not in primary school, thirty-two million of them girls. Sadly, my own country, Pakistan, is one of the worst places: 5.1 million children don’t even go to primary school even though in our constitution it says every child has that right. We have almost fifty million illiterate adults, two thirds of whom are women, like my own mother. Girls continue to be killed and schools blown up…The most shocking attack was in June in the city of Quetta, when a suicide bomber blew up a bus taking forty pupils to their all-girls’ college. Fourteen of them were killed. The wounded were followed to the hospital and some nurses were shot” (p. 312).

Malala, now sixteen, miraculously survived being shot in the head, and now lives in Birmingham, England, where she was flown to receive further medical treatment. She is the youngest person to have ever been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, and continues to campaign for access to education through the Malala Fund, a non-profit organization that champions community-led programs and education advocates all over the world.

In Half the Sky, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn outline how education is a major tool in the fight against poverty, maternal mortality and morbidity, the spread of disease, and the trafficking of girls. While education does not promise an end to the sorrows we face as a result of The Fall, it is a major step forward in caring for and extending God’s love to the “least of these.”

Jesus, show us how the church can be a part of bringing access to education to all. Show us how we can shine Your light into the world by being voices for the equality of men and women. Give me a heart to pray for those who do not have access to schooling, and those who do not know the great love You have for both Your sons and daughters.

Tunes for Tuesday: Liz Vice’s “There’s A Light”

While we were in Chiang Rai, Thailand this summer, I got an email that built an anticipation in me; this season of anticipating finally came to fruition last week. The email was from a music collective called Deeper Well; this collective is responsible for a lot of the worship music I have been listening to lately. One of my favorite bands coming out of Deeper Well is The Followers. On their second album, there is an especially soulful track called “Enfold Me;” the vocalist for the song is Liz Vice. The email I received while in Chiang Rai said that Liz Vice was working on a solo album.

Something you may not know about me (Michael) is that I have a special place in my heart for soul/gospel music. Seeing the movie The Commitments as a teenager probably contributed to this. As I received this email, letting me know that Liz Vice’s soul/gospel album was due out shortly, the season of waiting began.

The wait is now over as Liz Vice has released her album, There’s A Light. The album is available for free through Noisetrade or Deeper Well’s website. I have been listening to it non-stop for the last few days, and I have to admit I am as moved by the soulful music as I am by the gospel-filled lyrics. I go back and forth between listening to what Vice is singing about, and how she is singing it. It’s pretty rare for me to find that balance in an album. One stand out song is “Empty Me Out.” Sometimes it’s the simplest of lyrics that are the most profound:

Empty me out/Fill me with You/Lord there is nothing/I can give to You/I lay down my life/Here at Your feet/You give me life/So completely.

I died with You/Was buried with You/The moment I believed/I rose with You/Ascended with You/Into the Heavenlies/Lord, it’s not me/It’s You inside of me/Jesus, You are all/These eyes can see.

When you lay these lyrics over a melody with the groove of this song, I dare you to not be humming this tune for the rest of the day.

Mid-January Resolutions

I (Helen) actually did make New Year’s resolutions at the beginning of 2014, but I’m only just getting around to sharing them now (only 16 days late…!). Surely you can make resolutions any day of the year? I think so.

Last year my resolutions were to: knit a pair of socks, drink more water, sew a dress, and read 25 books. One out of four isn’t bad, is it? I actually knit two pairs of socks though, so surely that must count for something. As for drinking more water, I seem to do a good job of this until about October…then all I want to drink is tea. As for sewing a dress, I can only attribute that to being a big chicken scared of sewing my own clothes, and as for reading 25 books, I read 15, which isn’t too bad. The beauty of New Year’s resolutions is that if you don’t keep them, at least you took a step in the right direction, right? That’s what I’m telling myself. Good thing my New Year’s resolutions don’t involve buying a gym membership.

So without further adieu, here are my resolutions for 2014:

  1. Read 20 books. More doable than 25, I think. Check out my review from the first book I’ve completed in 2014, Half the Sky.
  2. Make a good batch of jam. I have tried making jam a few times in the past, and every time it ends up runny. In the words of someone who received the “gift” of one of my jars of jam, “It tastes good when you can catch it on a spoon.”
  3. Read through Psalms devotionally. Last year I read through the Bible at the same pace as the students, but I missed out on Psalms. This year I’m aiming to meditate on a Psalm a day.
  4. Deeper intimacy with Jesus. This involves more specific goals, such as having regular, more meaningful devotional times and spending more time listening to the Holy Spirit.
  5. Sew a top, a skirt, a dress, and a pair of shorts/pants. Oh boy. Sewing clothes scare me, as I have this fear that as soon as I go out into the world in something I’ve sewn, it will fall apart around me. I feel intimidated cutting into fabric and then not having the skills to sew it up properly. This year I’m going to get over this fear and just make something already!
  6. Knit myself a pair of socks.
  7. Only buy second hand clothes or make my own. I’m exploring what it looks like to be a responsible consumer, and this is hopefully a step in that direction. The exception to this rule will be a bridesmaid’s dress – don’t worry Jill – I won’t sew my own!
  8. Spend more time outside being active.
  9. Drink more water. Even when it’s cold outside. I’m sucking at this so far.
  10. Generosity. Trusting God that He will give us the means to be generous, whether it’s through hospitality, giving, or anything else He might lead us in.

What are your New Year’s resolutions? Or for January 17th, should I say?

Book Review: Half the Sky, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

“Mahabouba [a fourteen-year old Ethiopian girl, sold to a sixty-year old man to be his second wife] couldn’t afford a midwife, so she tried to have the baby by herself. Unfortunately, her pelvis hadn’t yet grown large enough to accommodate the baby’s head, a common occurrence with young teenagers. She ended up in obstructed labor, with the baby stuck inside her birth passage. After seven days, Mahabouba fell unconscious, and at that point someone summoned a birth attendant. By then the baby had been wedged there for so long that the tissues between the baby’s head and Mahabouba’s pelvis had lost circulation and rotted away. When Mahabouba recovered consciousness, she found that the baby was dead and that she had no control over her bladder or bowels. She also couldn’t walk or even stand, a consequence of nerve damage that is a frequent by-product of fistula…

Mahabouba’s uncle wanted to help the girl, but his wife feared that helping someone cursed by God would be sacrilegious. She urged her husband to take Mahabouba outside the village and leave the girl to be eaten by wild animals [women with fistulas are basically modern-day lepers because of the odour resulting from their incontinence]. He was torn. He gave Mahabouba food and water, but he also allowed the villagers to move her to a hut at the edge of the village.

‘Then they took the door off,’ she added matter-of-factly, ‘so that the hyenas would get me.’”

At once heart-breaking and hopeful, Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn is a collection of stories like the one above – stories of women struggling (particularly in Africa and Asia) under prejudice. Because of prejudice against women, women around the world are prevented from receiving an education, do not have access to healthcare, and are considered second-rate citizens by both the men in their lives, and by themselves. This prejudice results in slavery, prostitution, skyrocketing maternal mortality and morbidity rates, rape, selective abortion, and an inability to even dream of a life beyond abuse in which women can make meaningful contributions to society. The bright side of this book, however, is that there are solutions. As Kristof and WuDunn highlight an issue in each of their chapters, they also offer stories of those who are making a difference, whether through the development of fistula hospitals in Africa, offering incentives to Cambodian parents to keep their daughters in school, or creating opportunities for women to contribute to their families’ incomes through micro-financing.

Half The SkyThis book opened my eyes to the horrors women face around the world. The stories are captivating, and that is the intention; it has been proven that stories are more effective than statistics, and this book does an incredible job of incorporating both, while focusing on the lives of real women. This book moved me to want to do something (the authors include a very helpful closing chapter on what can be done, and an appendix of organizations that are actively working to see that girls and women have access to education, health care, freedom from abuse and trafficking, and business opportunities that can help them to elevate themselves and their families out of poverty). While I’m still processing how to apply what I have learned from this book, and what practical steps I will take, I cannot walk away from this book not doing anything.

One great step I (and you) can take, is to pray. In February, Michael and I will be leading an intercession time at YWAM Turner Valley based on the struggles and strategies we have learned about through this book. A note I must make about Half the Sky is that it is not written from a faith-based perspective. While this book is incredibly challenging, and the solutions offered are extremely hope-filled, prayer is missing from the equation. I encourage anyone interested in reading this book: take time to pray to read as you pray. Take time to ask God about His heart for the countless people who struggle in societies that do not value women. Take time to ask God how you can respond. Take time to ask God about the practical solutions offered in this book, and how you can contribute, shining the light of Christ into the world.

You are probably asking, “What happened to Mahabouba?” This fourteen year old girl had heard of a missionary in a nearby village. After a night of fending off hyenas, she crawled to the doorstep of that missionary. He saved her life, and took her to the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital:

“There Mahabouba found scores of other girls and women also suffering from fistulas. On arrival, she was examined, bathed, given new clothes, and shown how to wash herself. Fistula patients often suffer wounds on their legs, from the acid in their urine eating away at the skin, but frequent washings can eliminate these sores.”

The hospital in Addis Ababa is run by Catherine Hamlin, an Australian gynaecologist who has devoted her life to transforming the lives of poor Ethiopian women. She has presided over more than 25,000 fistula surgeries, and has trained others in the practice. Though many women can move on to full recovery, Mahabouba had to settle for a colostomy, a procedure in which the patient has a hole made in the abdomen, so that feces can leave the body to be stored in a pouch that is regularly emptied. Colostomy patients require ongoing care.

At the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital, Mahabouba was given access to education and a purpose for her life:

“At first Mahabouba simply changed linens or helped patients wash, but gradually the doctors realized that she was smart and eager to do more, and they gave her more responsibilities. She learned to read and write, and she blossomed. She found a purpose in life. Today, if you were to visit the hospital, you might well see Mahabouba walking around – in her nurse’s uniform. She has been promoted to the position of senior nurse’s aide.”

I highly recommend Half the Sky, but be warned: this book will open your eyes, move you to tears, and there will be no turning back. God does not equip us with knowledge to have us sit on it – we are called to action. I’ll be sure to follow up as to the action I take, and I encourage you to keep me accountable to that.

Book Review: What We Talk About When We Talk About God, by Rob Bell

I (Michael) read a book this past year called You Are Not So Smart, by David McRaney, which talked about the cognitive biases that lead us to make decisions less rationally then we’d like to admit. One of these biases is connected to the fact that we often consume information that supports what we already believe. The books we purchase, for example, show that we often read within a certain line of thought. This is why websites like Amazon and Google make so much money advertising to us – they know if they can figure out what we think, they can target us with ads for books that contain corresponding content. With this in mind, this year I have been trying to read books by authors I know I might disagree with. I am not as conservative in my ideology as some of the institutions I am associated with, but I much more enjoy being one of the more left-leaning people in the room, as opposed to feeling like I am the most right-leaning.

I say all this because some might be surprised I would spend my time both reading and reviewing a book by the often controversial writer Rob Bell. For many, Bell removed himself from their reading lists with his take on heaven and hell in his last book, Love Wins. Now I’ll admit I was not a fan of that book. Part of the reason for this was because of the more vague and universalistic stance Bell presented around people’s eternal destiny. An even bigger reason for my lack of appreciation for this book, however, was that Bell was often vague and even contradictory in what he was communicating. Much of what he had to say about the language and imagery we use for heaven and hell being outdated and even unbiblical I actually have to agree with. As someone who looks at topics like heaven and hell through the lens of those who originally wrote and read the Bible, I see that some of what I have heard in church culture over my lifetime is inaccurate at best. However I may feel about what Bell wrote in Love Wins, I know he has the ear of this generation’s young Christians; to comment on his work without having read it may result in my losing any voice I might have in the lives of young people who come to our campus.

What We Talk About When We Talk About GodThe cover of What We Talk About When We Talk About God reminded me how much Christian culture is as affected by the cult of celebrity as secular culture. When you look at the cover, the first thing you see is “Rob Bell,” then in much smaller and almost hard to read font, is the title. I saw this recently with a Timothy Keller book as well, so it is not about one side of the spectrum or the other. It does go to show that it is not the content of these books that sell them as much as it is who is writing them. Just tell the reader that so- and-so has a new book out, and they eat it up. I’m guilty of this, but it is still a strange thing to see so clearly in the graphic design of the book.

The other thing I quickly realized about this book is that Bell does not necessarily have me in mind as his audience. I say that in the sense of my being a Protestant Evangelical that accepts the belief in God most clearly expressed in Jesus through the Bible, and longs to communicate that idea to others. Instead, Bell’s audience seems to be those who struggle with the tension between an internal sense of spiritual influence in the world, and the way in which God is often represented in Western Christian culture. He even goes so far as to say, “As a pastor I have constantly seen people who have a compelling sense that their spirituality is in some vital and yet mysterious way central to who they are – but the dominant conceptions, perceptions and understanding of God they’ve encountered aren’t just failing them but are actually causing harm.” In many ways, I think what might cause some Christians I know to reject this book is because they don’t share this conviction.

Though I won’t say that all the ways we talk about God in Western Christianity are harmful, I have seen in my own studies that there are quite a few that are. As such, much of what Bell writes does resonate with me. I can see that the questions he is asking of how we go about talking about God are coming from people who find themselves outside the mainstream Christian culture, and how he responds to these questions is in a way that is attempting to be free of Christian “buzz words” or jargon. That said, I did at times find myself disagreeing with what was said or at the very least, nervous about how things about God would be understood by what Bell was avoiding saying.

In the end, the strongest part of this book was in the three ideas Bell focused on when he got to talking about God in the book. He focused on three words: “with,” “for,” and “ahead.” To summarize, Bell suggested when we talk about God, we are referring to one who is with us, for us, and ahead of us; “with” us in that God is not absent from human history or creation; “for” us in the expression of the life and work of Jesus that demonstrated that God is for our freedom from the burden of a broken world; “ahead” of us in the sense that the Bible, when studied properly, shows principles that do not anchor us in the past, but draw humanity forward into that which God has planned for us. In these three areas I have a hard time disagreeing with Bell. I may have used different language to speak of it, but the ends would be the same. In this way I think that a discerning reader could benefit from reading this book.

I certainly did not agree with all that Bell wrote or how he said it, but I do leave my time reading this book challenged and encouraged. I would recommend reading it, if for any other reason, than as a way to round out your perspective. If you want to be heard by those who may be influenced by Bell’s writings, I encourage you to come from a place of having read the book and being able to respond to what he actually wrote.