Book Review of:
A Beautiful Disaster by Marlena Graves
A review by Dan McDonald
To put it simply, A Beautiful Disaster by Marlena Graves, is a most beautiful expression of how God shows his love for us in our journeys through the wilderness, and how he uses our wilderness journeys to lead us to fullness of life. We enter seasons in the Wilderness and are shaped by the journey and we can exit these seasons with a renewed and strengthened vitality of life and faith. In describing this work as a beautiful work it would perhaps be impossible for me to speak of this book as good in a way that would be hype or hyperbole. I wrote of a book earlier in the year that it was so good that I could not put it down until I finished it in one evening. Of this book I will say that it has been so good that I had to put it down often so as to consider my life, to pray, and to ask God to help me in the ways this book has shown me where I can grow so much more than I have been willing to imagine.
I have followed Marlena Graves on Twitter for a few months. I have appreciated how she interacted with others on the site. She was respectful of others, careful to set forth thoughts that were uplifting and careful not to write in a way aimed at triggering controversy. When I discovered she had a book ready for publication I was confident it would be a book worthy to read. I have not been disappointed, only grateful that it exceeded all my high expectations.
Marlena identifies in her Christian journey with the ancients of the early church who journeyed into the desert wilderness to meet Jesus, who had after his baptism gone into the wilderness. The wilderness was the final training ground for our Lord between his baptism and his earthly ministry. I remember a speaker who would have confirmed Marlena’s thoughts about how important the wilderness is in the development of the spirituality of God’s people. The speaker spoke of a word play in the Hebrew language to which rabbis sometimes referred. The Hebrew word for wilderness is Midbar, spelled out with the consonants Mdbr. The Hebrew word for word, as in the word was Debar or Dbr. One of the Hebrews words for son was bar or br. The rabbis thus described how Israel was led out to the wilderness for in the wilderness the Word is revealed and by the Word so are the sons of God revealed. Marlena may not have used this speaker’s insight in her book, but her entire book is a testimony to the truth of this reality that we go into the wilderness to have our wild ways confronted and transformed by the word as we are taught how to be made once more the little children of God living unto their Father in the kingdom he is pleased to give us.
The way Marlena writes is to take incidents from her own life where she learned truths from God’s Word and was taught lessons through the wisdom of those who spoke with wisdom and insight regarding spiritual things. I remembered a book written by the Russian Orthodox monk, theologian, mathematician, scientist, and martyr Pavel Florensky (1882-1937) entitled The Pillar and Ground of the Truth. In all honesty I was able to understand only a portion of what he was saying. But I learned to appreciate the Christian tradition more fully from him. We often think of the Christian tradition as being about church history, the creeds, the dogma that the church has embraced or the various authoritative aspects claimed by the defenders of the Christian tradition. But for Florensky the glory of tradition is that in the Church by the Spirit in Christ unto the Father we share in a life that produces life. We remember the ancient pathways and the past because the Spirit who teaches us and the Church in which we live and have our being are both living beings with a memory to be remembered as we are taught in our experiences the things of Christ. Florensky described the believer learning the lessons of holy tradition as one who absorbed the lessons of the ancients. We absorb into our beings words and wisdom expressed to us through the memories of the Spirit and the Bride who together call us to Christ. That description of one absorbing the holy tradition in their experience of life seemed to come alive for me when I read Marlena describing events in her life and then understanding the significance of them through the words of Scripture and the wisdom of the spiritually insightful she recognized from throughout the history of the Christian tradition from the ancients to contemporary writers. As a reader I began to realize that I was reading someone whose wisdom flows from her willingness to sit at our Lord’s feet and listen to what he is teaching her about the whole of her life.
For me an example of a most valuable insight I learned from her was in a portion of her book where she wrote about waiting and how we wait. We wait for things we desire and we wait for an end to seasons of difficulty and trial. For both our desires and our trials the waiting for what we desire can be a difficult task. She suggests how we are to wait. She tells us that we are to wait by embracing the sacrament of the present. She writes about that in terms she knows as a wife and mother. How does she wait for those things she desires that God has seemingly promised her but not yet? There are tasks and life opportunities in the present. We are to pursue those things be it by doing service to someone, by being a wife that helps and serves her family, by doing such mundane things as folding the laundry. We wait by serving our Lord and his people and doing our assigned tasks in our present stations of life and so we embrace a sacrament of the present.
One will discover many similar simple profound insights into a life lived before God in the pages of this beautiful book. She writes powerfully how easy it is for us to exchange our need to learn to love others with a desire to have influence upon others. We imagine we are wanting influence to do good to others, but our need and our ambition ought to be to love one another and having influence must never ever compete as a motivating force with our desire to love one another in our Lord. She writes beautifully on what it means to fear God. I won’t attempt to describe it for she handles it so much better than I ever would. She also presents us a beautifully written description of what it means to be saved as little children before God. There is so much about this book to commend. It is a book written by one with a vision for the kingdom of God and a way of communicating it that reveals the goodness and love of the God who is teaching us all things even if the teaching sometimes takes place in a desert wilderness.