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.

Review: A Year of Living Prayerfully

A Year of Living PrayerfullyA Year of Living Prayerfully by Jared Brock, Carol Stream: Tyndale House, 2015.

Summary: Jared Brock and his incredibly patient wife Michelle go on a year long pilgrimage that takes them to the Vatican to meet the Pope and to Westboro Baptist Church and many other places alternately delightful and weird in a quest to deepen their prayer life.

OK. I was really prepared not to like this book. It appeared to be a knock-off of A.J. Jacobs’ A Year of Living Biblically and Rachel Held Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womanhood. Frankly, I thought the cover a bit cheesy (although reminiscent of Jacobs’ book).

I was pleasantly surprised. What I found instead was an alternately amusing and thought-provoking spiritual pilgrimage that not only deepened the writer’s prayer life but challenged mine.

Beginning with a conversation that described the movement from crisis praying to kingdom prayer, Brock and his wife embarked on a journey taking him to New York, Israel, Europe, Asia, England and back to his home in Hamilton, Ontario. They began by praying and celebrating Sedar with a group of Orthodox Jews. Daily prayer with the men of the synagogue renews his thirst for prayer.

In Israel they encounter the crassness and commercialism that exploited the center of three major faiths. Brock can only pray for Jerusalem’s shalom, and in that the shalom of the world. He goes to Mt. Athos in Greece and experiences both silence and the Jesus prayer. Then they head off to Italy and through a strange set of circumstances, a meeting with Pope Francis.  Francis says that “prayer was opening up your heart to God” and asks them on parting to pray for him. From there, they went on to Spain and hiked a short distance of the Camino in winter and looked in vain for one who received the Campostela (a certificate for hiking the equivalent of 124 miles).God answers their prayer while waiting in line at the airport behind a man who had done just that. He spoke of completing the walk in silence, communing with God. France, the kitchen of Brother Lawrence, and Taize’ were their next major stops. Most moving was the account given them of the assassination of Brother Roger, who founded Taize’, and those who continued the prayers, and extended forgiveness to a woman who did not know what she was doing.

Apart from a Quaker prayer service and an attempt to meet Billy Graham, who was too frail to do so, the next part of the book gets weird. They visit a “nudist church” and meet some very unconventional Christians carrying out ministry to a population few try to reach. They are encouraged on their own to try sitting naked before God in prayer. They meet a physician who prays as well as heals the sick, humbly and with sometimes miraculous results, and then attend a Benny Hinn crusade that seems more about prosperity (at least Benny’s prosperity) than a gospel of healing. Then weirdest of all, they visit a Tony Robbins conference that ends with walking on burning coals. This section closes with a visit to Westboro Baptist Church and the determination to pray down the love of God upon this benighted and hate-filled church.

After a risky journey to North Korea and a visit to Yonggi Cho’s church in Seoul, the Brocks end up in England visiting Keswick, where he finds the photo of a young Scotsman who was one of the first Hundred who followed Hudson Taylor into missions with China Inland Mission. The young Scotsman was his great-great-grandfather. He is challenged by the “boiler room” in Spurgeon’s church–the prayer meeting that fueled Spurgeon’s ministry and the prototype of modern 24/7 prayer. He ends in his home town of Hamilton, at a site of a revival in the 1850s that was part of the Third Great Awakening.

The narrative is broken up with quotes by either the individuals he is meeting or famous “people of prayer”. One of those I appreciated most was this by St. Teresa of Avila: “You pay God a compliment by asking great things of Him.” Brock’s writing style is conversational and even colloquial at places making the book an easy read. Yet I had several “takeaways”:

  • The silences as well as our words are important, not only in singing but in prayer.
  • Prayer is about communing with God, about being in God’s presence and carrying that through our lives.
  • Prayer is something done in and through our embodied life.
  • Finally I was struck anew with the transformative power of prayer.

I will close with this quote from Karl Barth found on page 308: “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.” Perhaps in such a disordered world, living prayerfully may be the sanest response.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

April 2014: The Month in Reviews

Another month and another pile of books read! This past month I read of pilgrimages fictional and real, and collections of essays on the future of reading, of politics and religion in the past, and the present relevance of a martyred saint. I read books on big questions, worthy dreams and good and beautiful lives. I explored Winston Churchill’s leadership during World War 2, and a text promoting an alternative to the war around ‘origins’. In case you missed any of the reviews, here is the list with links to my review posts.

1. The Edge of the Precipice: Why Read in the Digital Age ed. Paul Socken. This collection of essays is an exploration of the future of reading and the promotion of reading of great literature by those who love to read and love great literature. It is also thoughtful about the impact of digitization on reading.

2. In Search of Deep Faith by Jim Belcher. Belcher recounts a sabbatical journey with his family through England and Europe exploring the lives, and visiting the sites where those lives were lived out, of his heroes of faith–C. S. Lewis, William Wilberforce, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer among them. His vignettes of these people and his “keeping real” the ups and downs of family life on ‘pilgrimage’ made this a great read.

3. Big Questions, Worthy Dreams by Sharon Daloz Parks. This is an oft referenced work on the spiritual longings of young adults and the role mentors may play in faith and values development.

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4. Politics and Religion in Enlightenment Europe, James E Bradley and Dale Van Kley, eds. This collection of papers chronicles the relationship between various religious reform movements and the political structures in their host countries during 18th century Europe–an interesting exploration of the almost unavoidable relationship of religion and politics in another setting.

5. The Good and Beautiful Life by James Bryan Smith. This is the second volume in his Apprentice series and explores how the Sermon on the Mount represents the core of Jesus’ teaching on how one indeed can live a sustainable good life. The book includes “Soul-Training’ exercises and is useful for both individuals and group discussions.

6. The Pilgrim’s Regress by C. S. Lewis. This is Lewis’s first work following his conversion and reflects something of his own spiritual journey. As an early work,  it may not be his best but read it if you love Lewis and you are curious about “why regress?”.

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7. Mapping the Origins Debate by Gerald Rau. Rau’s purpose in this work is to delineate the six (not two!) models of origins of the cosmos and life held by different people and how each of these addresses the evidence around the origin of the cosmos, of life, of the species, and of human beings. His does not advocate for a particular view but shows how philosophical presuppositions and one’s definition of “science” shape one’s interpretation of the evidence and which of these models one is most at home with.

8. Winston’s War: Churchill, 1940-1945 by Max Hastings. This is neither strict biography nor war history but a look at Churchill’s leadership as Prime Minister of Great Britain during World War 2. It gives a balanced treatment of Churchill’s indispensable ability to rally his people and woo American support, and the flaws in his relationships with his war commanders and his perception of Britain’s post-war future.

9. Bonhoeffer, Christ, and Culture, Keith L Johnson and Timothy Larsen, eds. This book contains the papers give at the 2012 Wheaton Theology Conference, which focused on Bonhoeffer, and sheds valuable light on his Christ and Word-centered theology, the transforming influence of the Harlem Renaissance in his life, and Bonhoeffer’s decision to participate in resistance against Hitler and how he reconciled this ethically.



That’s the month in reviews. Look for reviews in the next month on a collection of Manhatten Project materials, faith and science in Antebellum America, a new biography of Harriet Beecher Stowe, a landmark work on genocide and American foreign policy and more! Thanks for reading!

Review: The Pilgrim’s Regress

The Pilgrim's Regress
The Pilgrim’s Regress by C.S. Lewis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Most don’t consider this one of Lewis’s best, and truthfully, neither did I. But even “inferior” Lewis is better than much that is out there.

The book is a pilgrimage narrative that reflects Lewis’s journey from early religious instruction (humorously portrayed by the Steward who presents the law both seriously behind a mask, and with a wink and a nod). John, the pilgrim in this story subsequently sights a beautiful island, and eventually strikes out in quest of the island moving successively through instances of sensuality portrayed in the southern lands, and arid science and philosophy in the northern lands. He is joined be Virtue, refusing the help of Mother Kirk until they stay in the Valley of Wisdom. What happens then and their further adventures, I will leave to the reader.

The value of the book is the chronicle of the inadequacies of the different places John (and Lewis) explored before coming to faith. Some of the figures he encounters offer pointed commentary on the thin fare of the day (Mr. Sensible and Mr. Halfways in particular). Some of the references are more obscure and assume you are as familiar with theological, literary and philosophical currents of the day as was Lewis. He later admitted in a preface to the third edition of the book that some of this was needless obscure.

The ending after his decisive encounter with Mother Kirk seemed unsatisfying. This book was written shortly after Lewis came to faith and may reflect his own lack of experience in post-conversion pilgrimage. His later works are certainly richer in this regard.

I would not recommend this as the first book of Lewis’s to read. But for those who love Lewis, you will appreciate the light this sheds on his spiritual journey that will sound familiar if you are acquainted with Surprised By Joy. You will also appreciate the survey of the other prevailing thought currents Lewis engaged in his day, and the nascent forms of many ideas that come to fuller expression in later works.

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Review: In Search of Deep Faith

In Search of Deep Faith
In Search of Deep Faith by Jim Belcher
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jim Belcher and his family were at a crossroads. He’d spent ten years pastoring a church from its very beginnings into a thriving congregation. He made the bold decision to resign. His wife needed a respite from the bubble of pastoral ministry. And he was facing a significant question as a parent: how do I help my children come to own a “deep faith” in their own lives, not just an inherited faith that disappears when one is removed from a Christian social context, but an enduring faith?

Belcher’s answer was a pilgrimage through England and Europe revisiting the sites where thoughtful and courageous Christians he had looked to as heroes lived, and sometimes died for, their faith. This book is a kind of travel or pilgrimage narrative of that year.

The first part of the book follows their journeys in England exploring the martyrdom of Thomas Cranmer, Sheldon Van Auken’s struggle for a meaningful faith, the life and places of C. S. Lewis, and the conversations that changed the life of William Wilberforce, who changed the course of British history with regard to slavery.

The second half of the book (Parts Two and Three) recount their journeys through Europe. He begins, interestingly enough with the life and art of Van Gogh, and his struggle between despair and belief. They move on to the French village of Le Chambon, where Andre Trocme and a village of Protestant Huguenots hid and saved thousands of Jews from the Holocaust. We shift then to Holland and the German prison camps where Corrie Ten Boom lost her sister but held fast to her faith for the same courageous act of protecting Jews. Then we consider the life and death of Bonhoeffer, and the equally courageous decisions of the von Trapp family, both like, and unlike their Sound of Music counterparts. We end with Heidelberg, and Martin Luther, and finally the soldier’s cemetery at Normandy.

Belcher interweaves the narrative of his travels and interactions with family with the narratives of each of his heroes. And this also seems to have two major parts to it–the challenge of ordinary obedience in things like home school lessons and our Jekyll-Hyde struggle with sin during their stay in England. In Europe, and particularly as they witnessed the sites of courageous acts and even martyrdom, they wrestle with what constitutes a deep faith that sustains one through despair, danger, suffering, resistance, and in the face of death. It does seem that when Belcher realizes that the education in faith of this pilgrimage is more important than math and writing and grammar lessons that they all are opened up more to what God had for them on this pilgrimage.

I’ve read other narratives of many of the lives he profiles but I found Belcher wrote with a concise freshness that brought people like Lewis and Bonhoeffer to life in new ways for me. Perhaps it was the act of inhabiting their places. And I appreciate that Belcher “kept it real” with regard to the struggles as well as the moments of insights his family faced on this pilgrimage. One of the best books I’ve read so far this year.

[I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through a contest hosted on Goodreads.]

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