Book Review: My Hands Came Away Red

HandsIn the novel My Hands Came Away Red by Lisa McKay, eighteen-year-old Cori decides to spend her summer on a backpacking mission trip in Indonesia. Though she has a vague desire to do good, to help people, to “spread the love of Jesus,” her main purpose for going is to get some time away from Scott, her boyfriend. Cori is a Christian, but her relationship with God isn’t as close as it once was. Scott is not a believer, but he wants to marry Cori. So Cori needs time away to think, to sort things out.

After meeting the mission leader and the five other teens who will be going on the trip, they spend several days in a grueling boot camp. Then they travel on to Indonesia where they will help build a church as well as performing puppet shows and such. They meet Mani, the son of the local pastor, whose English is best and who acts as an unofficial liaison between the mission group and the church folks.

The group learns there is a tenuous peace between the Christian and Muslim villages. The Muslims view those who convert from Islam to Christianity as traitors, and Mani’s father is such a convert. But, though they are advised to be careful, no serious trouble is expected.

After several weeks of work and getting to know each other in the process, when the thatched-roof church is nearly finished, the mission group leader’s wife falls suddenly and dangerously ill. As the leader, Gary, makes hasty plans to get the group ready to leave, the kids protest. They can finish the church in the next couple of days and catch the next boat to meet up with Gary. Reluctantly, Gary agrees.

When the church is finished, the teens decide it needs a cross on top, so they go into the woods to find a suitable log. Nearing the village on their return, they hear angry voices. Mani stops the group close enough to listen, but far away enough not to be seen. Men from a neighboring Muslim village are angry that Christians have attacked their village, and, grouping all Christians together, they call on this village to answer for it. Mani’s father tries to explain and calm, but tempers flare and fighting breaks out. Mani’s parents are killed before the group’s eyes. One of the teen guys rescues Mani’s younger sister, Tina, while Cori tries to help Mani’s father. But it’s too late. The horrified and shaken teens head back into the woods. Mani says it would be no use to try to go back to the village. Their best bet would be to hike through the mountains to a neighboring village and then to the airport.

Thus begins a harrowing three-week journey in which the teens are tested in almost every imaginable way.

My thoughts:

Though teens are the main characters, and this book would be good for teens to read, it’s not just teen or young-adult fare. I found the story riveting. First, from my own standpoint, I don’t think I could have survived what the teens went through. And secondly, as a parent of young people, I can imagine what the parents went through with news of fighting in the area and no word from their kids.

On top of the physical hardships and mental and emotional strain they all face, some of them, especially Cori, wrestle with their faith. Reading Bible passages about God’s protection seem hollow after what they witnessed. Yet, to whom else can they turn?

Before this summer those words [Romans 8:28] were part of whole set of trusty beliefs that defined my life. I knew they were true the same way I knew it really was good for me to eat my green vegetables. God is good, and everything works out for the best . . . and we all live happily ever after. I was so naïve. It’s not that I don’t want to trust those promises I’ve always believed in, but I just don’t understand

_____

If God didn’t see fit to save them, who’s to say that we weren’t all going to end up dead in this whole mess? And I hardly saw how that might produce a rich crop of faith, hope, and peace in my life. Unless it was in my heavenly life. Which, as much as I believed in heaven, was hardly a comforting thought.

In some ways I wish Cori’s faith struggles were more resolved by the end, but then I think part of the author’s point is that there are some things we can never resolve. One of the other teens tells Cori, after everything is over physically, but not mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, that sometimes you “just have to make a choice based on what you know about God. And relax and trust for the rest of what you don’t know” and “You know, life’s a journey…Some questions get answered later. You can’t stop traveling just because that’s not now.”

Besides the story itself, I loved the clearly-drawn characters. And I love the Jip and Kiki story game that started back in boot camp and helped distract the kids on their trek. One of the teens would start with, “Once there was a boy named Jip,” who loved chocolate and had a pet monkey named Kiki, and each one would add a few sentences, often based on what the kids themselves were going through.

In the author’s afterword, she shares that though the people in the story are fictitious, the circumstances, the fighting in the villages she named, were very real. The author’s own international and even inter-continental upbringing informs her writing, making it even more realistic.

I had heard this book highly recommended years ago and have had it on my TBR list since then. Somewhere recently I read that someone bought the rights to the book for a movie, and the book was being re-released. That brought it to the forefront of my attention again, so I decided now was a good time to read it. I am glad I did. I hope the film does it justice.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Book’s You Loved)

Advertisements

Book Review: Helen Roseveare: On His Majesty’s Service

Roseveare Helen Roseveare was a missionary to the Belgian Congo in Africa, later named Zaire, from 1953-1973. I first became aware of her through Faithful Women and Their Extraordinary God by Noel Piper several years ago. I wanted to read more about her, so when I saw Helen Roseveare: On His Majesty’s Service by Irene Howat on sale for the Kindle app, I decided to try it, even though it was part of the Trailblazer series of biographies for children.

The first few chapters deal with Helen’s childhood in England: terrorizing nannies with her brother, moving several times due to her father’s job, going to boarding school in Wales. She had a strong desire to be first and best at as much as she could, and she didn’t make friends very easily. In a Sunday School class, she decided she wanted to be a missionary even before she became a Christian. Confirmation classes in her church caused her to take a more serious look at herself, but it was in a camp some years later that she became a believer. She became quite conscientious.

As a teenager during WWII, Helen wrestled with the devastation and unfairness of it all, especially the unfitness of young people losing their lives. Once when a German plane was shot down, Helen was horrified to learn that her mother was among the people trying to save the young man, though he later died. Her mother explained that he was just a boy fighting for his country, like their boys, and had a home and family.

Helen became involved in helping at camps and the GCU (Girl Crusader’s Union) while in college. She never lost her desire to be a missionary doctor, and soon after college she went through missionary training and then went to the Congo. She was plunged into medical service right away. From her earliest days she felt the need to train the national workers and open a nursing school. She had to set up a hospital from the ground up, with students and church members and even patients helping.

But civil unrest was rumbling in the distance and drawing ever closer. Helen had opportunity to leave many times, but she felt she should remain. Finally rebel soldiers did take over Helen’s area. Probably because this is a children’s book, the author did not go into much detail or mention the multiple rapes Helen endured. She sums it up this way:

Things too terrible to tell happened to her at the hands of Congolese rebel soldiers, things so horrible and shocking that she wished she were dead. In a way that we cannot understand they were part of God’s plan for her and she knew that, even at the time. With her body battered and broken and her back teeth kicked out, Helen survived when others did not. But she survived to endure further months of terror.

After several months of captivity and cruelty, Helen and a few others were released and sent back to England for a long recovery.

After fifteen months, went back to Africa, to Zaire, building more hospitals and training more medical workers.

When Helen went back to England years later, she stayed active speaking at schools, GCU gatherings, and churches. When someone wanted to make a film of her life, she traveled back to a warm welcome in Zaire and was thrilled to see how the work was progressing.

One of the most well-known stories of her life was one I had heard but didn’t realize happened to Helen until I read it in Faithful Women and Their Extraordinary God. It’s told in detail here. A woman had come to the hospital in labor with a premature baby. They could not save the woman, but the baby was safely delivered. Yet they had no way to keep the baby warm: they usually used hot water bottles, but were out. The baby also had a two-year-old sister. When Helen had prayer with the orphan children the next day, she told them of the little girl and baby and the need for hot water bottles. One ten-year-old girl named Ruth began to spontaneously pray:

God, please send a hot water bottle so that this little baby doesn’t die. And, God, it will be no use sending it tomorrow because we need it today. And, God, while you’re at it, will you send a dolly for the baby’s sister who is crying because her mummy has died.

Helen “didn’t think the Lord could do that.” But that very afternoon a truck delivered a parcel containing soap, bandages, babe sweaters…and a hot water bottle and a doll! Helen tells this story here:

Since this book was published in 2008, it doesn’t contain information about Helen’s death in 2016 at the age of 91. Zaire is now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The writing in this book is not the best: it’s a little choppy, with several odd scenes involving unnamed people that I think were made up in an effort to illustrate something in Helen’s life. But It’s still a good book overall, with a good overview of Helen’s life.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books,  Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

 

31 Days of Missionary Stories: John Paton, Missionary to Cannibals

John Paton is the source of one of my all-time favorite missionary quotes. After a struggle, “dreadfully afraid of mistaking my own emotions for the will of God,” he offered himself and was accepted as a missionary to the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu). Most, including his pastor, were dead set against his “throwing his life away among the cannibals.” In a classic exchange, one “dear old Christian gentleman repeatedly exhorted me, ‘The cannibals! You will be eaten by cannibals!’ At last I replied, ‘Mr. Dickson, you are advanced in years now, and your own prospect is to soon be laid in the grave, there to be eaten by worms. I confess to you that if I can but live and die serving and honoring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by cannibals or by worms. And in the great day my resurrection body will arise as fair as yours in the likeness of our risen Redeemer.’”

John and his wife, Mary Ann , arrived on the island of Tanna in 1858. The Tannese were curious about them and the Patons had to learn to communicate by gesture and trial and error until they learned the language. They found the people scantily clad, friendly but deceptive, thieving, glorying “in bloodshed, war, and cannibalism,” superstitious, and worshiping nearly everything. When the Patons began to teach them that God wanted them to ”throw away their idols and stop their wrongdoing,” persecution began.

Mrs. Paton and their baby boy died in the same month in 1859. “But for Jesus, and the fellowship He gave me there, I would certainly have gone mad and died beside that lonely grave.”

After a time some men came, like Nicodemus, at night to talk to John. A few believed, but persecution was the norm. John was in danger of his life many times. Sometimes he was led to hide somewhere, but other times, while men were facing him with spears, he kept on about his work as if he didn’t notice them, and God restrained their hands. Once he even directly challenged them to go through their rituals by which they curse people by making incantations over a piece of food from which that person has eaten, to prove that his God was greater than theirs, and God prevailed. He did have to leave the island eventually, escaping for his life. He went to Australia and Scotland to report to churches there. He came back with a wife and many new missionaries. The islanders were amazed that missionaries would return after the way they had been treated, and said, “If your God makes you do that, we may yet worship Him too.”

John and his new wife settled on the island of Aniwa. Though they faced some of the same problems as in Tanna, the Lord did bless them with a fruitful harvest there. Amazingly “the sinking of a well broke the back of dark religion on Aniwa.” The island did not receive much rain and much of the drinking water was not good. John decided to try to sink a well; the islanders thought he was mad. “Rain comes only from above. How could you expect our island to send us showers of rain from below?” The chief was afraid that Paton’s “wild talk” would cause the people to never listen to his word or believe him again. They were also concerned that he would die in the hole he was digging, and then the next English ship that came by would hold them accountable. He was able to persuade them to help him by offering fishing hooks for labor. They gladly labored, though they still thought he was going mad, until one side of the well caved in; then they were afraid and worried and would help no longer.

John was able to shore up the side of the well and take precautions against another cave-in. He had prayed about the location of the well and struggled with the fear that they might find salty water rather than fresh.

Finally the day came that he broke through and found good, fresh water. He filled a jug, climbed out of the well, and called the people over to taste it. They were amazed at the water he found and grateful that he would share the well with them. They offered to help him finish it in earnest. Later the islanders tried to sink several wells in various villages, but they either came to coral rock they could not penetrate or to salt water.

Chief Namakei asked if he could “preach” one Sunday. The book records one of the most beautiful sermons I have ever read. The essence of it was that, though they laughed and disbelieved when “Missi” (teacher) said he would find “rain coming up through the earth,” yet Jehovah God answered his prayers. “No God of Aniwa has ever answered prayers as the Missi’s God has done….The gods of Aniwa cannot hear, cannot help us like the God of Missi.” He felt that since what the Missi had said about the invisible water under the earth was true, then what he said about the invisible God was true, too, and he would worship Him. “He (Jehovah) will give us all we need for He sent His Son Jesus to die for us and bring us to heaven. This is what the Missi has been telling us every day since he landed on Aniwa. We laughed at him, but now we believe him.”

There followed a great burning of idols of many of the islanders and many were converted. They began to come to the church services and were baptized. John wrote, after a communion service, “At the moment when I put the bread and wine into those hands, once stained with the blood of cannibalism, now stretched out to Jesus, I had a foretaste of the joy of heaven that almost burst my heart in pieces. I will never taste a deeper bliss till I gaze on the glorified face of Jesus Himself.”

PatonJohn wrote his autobiography in three parts at three different times in his life. Benjamin Unseth used about one-fifth of the material in the three parts written by Mr. Paton to form a shorter biography simply titled John Paton, part of the Men of Faith Series published by Bethany House.

(You can see other posts in the 31 Days of Missionary Stories here.)

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)