Review: Translating Your Past

Translating Your Past, Michelle Van Loon. Harrisburg: Herald Press, 2021.

Summary: A guide to making sense of one’s past and how our family history, traumas in previous generations, our genetic makeup, and for many, how adoption help us understand our lives and place in the world.

For many of us, our family stories have chapters or whole parts that are opaque to us. Or some of the pages are missing. Yet our families literally have made us who we are right down to our genetic material. The stories include the good, the bad, and the ugly, and known or unknown to us, have contributed to who we are. Knowing those stories give us a better sense of our place in the world and a better self-understanding. It might be something as simple as the baldness that runs in my family to a propensity for alcoholism or particular health issues. Tragedies in previous generations get passed down and color our existence. Yet the stories are often gibberish to us. We need help “translating.” That’s what this book is about.

Michelle Van Loon shares out of her own journey including the traumas that touched her grandmother and mother. She acknowledges that we might not always want to know our family’s past but observes that what remains concealed cannot be healed and we miss out on the treasures, the gifts that have come to us through our forebears. She argues for the importance of our family histories from scriptures that make so much of genealogies and family history. In some way, the whole Bible may be read as a family story culminating in Jesus the Messiah, and leading to our eventual incorporation into that family.

She discusses genetic testing, the predispositions to certain diseases they may reveal and the surprises for those who discover their genetic heritage is not what they thought. Yet this genetic code reveals the unique way our inheritance from two different people makes us utterly unique creatures in the image of God, a source of wonder. We also receive unwanted gifts in the form of intergenerational traumas that may be transmitted in epigenetic expression, activating genes that may otherwise be silent. It can be hard to understand why God permitted this trauma, but Van Loon addresses finding hope that these need not have the last word in our lives. There are also patterns that often repeat from generation to generation. In the case where these are unhealthy, understanding is the first step, an important one of honesty. This may make sense of the unwritten “vows” we make. And this offers the chance of breaking free, of establishing new patterns. Sometimes the “gaps” reflect hard things, and the perpetuation of the family a certain resilience.

Adoption creates a unique situation as one comes to grips with both the birth families from which one arises and the family that has given a home and their love. She discusses the core issues adoptees face: loss, rejection, shame and guilt, grief, identity, intimacy, mastery and control and the options adoptees now have to relate to both families. The question of who our people are takes us as well into our race and ethnicity, and how these have shaped us.

Van Loon expands “family” to our faith communities, and doing so makes me wonder whether the physical communities that our families have inhabited also shape our stories. My wife and I grew up in the same town and have become aware of the values and outlooks that came from growing up in that town and their influence on our families and our shared family.

Ultimately, Van Loon believes our stories, even with their hard parts, may speak of the story God is writing in our lives and encourage us. I find this so. Both of my grandmothers’ Bibles sit close at hand as I write. My one grandmother died when I was very young and I have no memory of her, the other later, but to know of their faith, and to have heard stories of my one grandmother’s prayers for me from those who knew her, and to see how God has answered those is powerful–how God has worked across generations. I am not simply the genetic inheritance I’ve received from them, but I share in their spiritual inheritance as well, a source of profound thanksgiving. I’m grateful for this reminder from Van Loon’s book.

Her book includes two helpful appendices–a toolkit which may be used to discuss or personally reflect on the chapters as well as a second that provides specific resources for tracing our family histories.

Genealogy research has grown in popularity over the years. The genetic tools add a new dimension. What Van Loon offers is perspective that helps us translate information into meaning–leading to healing and growth in some instances, pride and thanksgiving in others, and a greater sense of our place in God’s world.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Becoming Sage

becoming sage

Becoming SageMichelle Van Loon. Chicago: Moody Press, 2020.

Summary: An exploration of what Christian growth looks like in the second half of life.

One of the dirty little secrets of Christian discipleship is that most of the resources that have been developed focus around the early years of the Christian life, and most around the issues of the first half of life. What is a Christian to do who lives beyond his or her forties?

Michelle Van Loon proposes in this book that we move from what a Christian believes and does to growing in the wisdom won of hard life experiences, in other words becoming sage. Drawing on the work of Hagberg and Guelich, she argues that most church discipleship programs address the first three of six stages of Christian growth: 1. “God I believe in you”; 2. “God I belong to you.”; and 3. “God, I’m working for you.” At mid-life, we often hit the wall and all the earlier answers seem to stop working. She calls this “God where are you? I’m alone in the dark.” We face loss and we move from certainty to humility. If we persevere, we move into Stage 5 where we pass along what we’ve given, and Stage 6 as we prepare for and move toward the conclusion of our lives (“Lord, I’m coming home”).

Van Loon explores the process of growing sage through our changing relationship with the church and how we deal with wounds and disappointments. She describes our changing relationships with family and friendships that fade or endure and new ones that develop.

She explores that changes that inevitably happen to us bodily. She observes:

Becoming sage means growing into the tension of wasting away and being renewed. It is not an either/or proposition, but both/and. As unlovely as the notion of suffering and decay are, Paul tells us here that eternal glory is being created through them.

Change happens with our money and our intangible treasures as well. We come to terms that we can’t take anything with us, and need to think how we leave these things behind well.

One of the most perceptive chapters is on the “U” curve of happiness. She discusses acedia (often known as the “noonday demon”), a kind of weary sadness that comes over many in midlife. Van Loon doesn’t have simple answers for this but rather the persevering faith that allows Christ to deconstruct and transform our relationship with Him.

She describes the movement from doing to being, from being “world changers” with the hubris this carries to those who by quiet faithfulness heal the world. We learn to impart what we learn and begin to prepare for facing our own home-going, our own death.

People hitting midlife are leaving the church. Some decide that when the answers they learned in their early years as Christians don’t work or satisfy, that there is nothing there, particularly when the church offers nothing, no vision of the second half of life. The issues Van Loon discusses often aren’t discussed. How do we deal with the disappointments of the church itself. How do we come to terms with the bodily changes that remind us of our mortality? How do we fruitfully invest what we’ve earned and learned? How do we prepare to die well when no one talks about this? Van Loon breaks the conspiracy of silence and casts a rich vision of the second half of life, a vision of becoming sage, going deeper into Christ and Christ-likeness in a lifelong journey of discipleship.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


Review: Born to Wander

Born to Wander

Born to WanderMichelle Van Loon. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2018.

Summary: An exploration of the theme of our pilgrim identity as followers of Christ, and how this makes sense of the seasons of transition and loss, and struggles for control in our lives.

It seems we spend our lives searching and longing for home. We move, we change jobs, churches, and sometimes, relationships. We experience transition and loss. Sometimes the restlessness is an inner one–a longing for God knows what. Michelle Van Loon, a writer who has know seasons of transition, dislocation, and loss in her own life, suggests that instead of efforts to control our lives and settle, these longings point us as Christians to our identity as members of a pilgrim people longing, and wandering toward our true home.

In this book, Van Loon explores three kinds of pilgrimage:

  • Moral pilgrimage focuses on every day obedience to God.
  • Physical pilgrimage emphasizes a bodily journey to a holy site in order to seek God.
  • Interior pilgrimage describes the pursuit of communion with God through prayer, solitude, and contemplation.  (p. 14)

In the eleven chapters that follow this introduction Van Loon explores this idea of pilgrimage through a combination of biblical reflection, personal narrative, and formative insights. Uprootedness is explored through the life of Noah, sentness through Abraham, being waylaid on the journey through Israel’s Egyptian years and displacement through Israel’s wilderness wanderings and grumblings. The warnings Israel is given as they cross Jordan remind us of the two ways we might choose, and the hope of restoration, even when we choose wrongly.

Van Loon speaks tellingly of the subtle ways idolatries divide us from God and others. She observes:

“…I’d like to suggest that most of us have a personalized collection of housebroken idols vying for our love every single day.”

She especially singles out our idolatry of nuclear families, and how difficult this idolatry is for those who are single.

She speaks of the importance of remembering, here as elsewhere using word studies to explore several passages (Josiah’s kingship, Lamentations, Psalm 137) to consider how remembering leads us into pilgrimage. In “Trekked” she explores the value of physical pilgrimages, particularly to “thin” places where we might experience the sacred. “Sojourned” considers the journey of the disciples following Christ. She warns of how reaction to preserve ourselves in a decadent culture might divert us from the pilgrim life:

“A desire for self-preservation is a reaction against a decaying culture. A reaction is not a calling–and it is not an option for a pilgrim. We walk toward God not in reaction, but in response to His invitation to follow, no matter where He leads.”

She concludes in her chapter “Revealed” with the use of the word “Come” –the invitation to follow but also the revelation that the bridegroom is coming for his bride, that becomes the pilgrim’s cry, “Come, Lord Jesus.” Pilgrimage is not hopeless wandering, but a journey toward the day when we will truly be welcomed home,

What I most appreciated about this work is that it reflects a second half of life spirituality–a spirituality that moves beyond the first flush of life in Christ, new jobs, homes, and marriages. It is a spirituality for those who have lived long enough to get beaten up by life at times and who are wondering how to live when the old answers don’t work as well anymore. Where do we go when we experience disillusionment, when the rising career trajectory crashes and burns, when the group we felt so close with scatters? Van Loon’s openness about her own experiences invites us to explore how these disrupting and displacing experiences may be God’s way of calling us into a deeper journey with him, one that involves leaving the homes of self-protection and control for the uncertainty of trusting to God’s protection and leading on pilgrimage.

The book is designed for personal reflection with questions and writing space at the end of each chapter and a prayer that expresses back to God and personalizes the themes of the chapter. There are so many places where we face the choice of clinging to the safe and familiar, even as circumstances may be wresting these from our arms; or choosing to step into the unknown of a pilgrim journey. This book make a good companion for those considering embarking on that journey.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.