July 2010


Eugene Petersen describes living out the Christian faith as “a long obedience in the same direction” and it’s in fact the title of a book he has written about the Psalms. By this he means to suggest that life as a believer takes place in the ordinary unglamorous business of being obedient and faithful to what God calls us to. It is long and slow and hard. 

A bit like digging ditches I imagine. Not that I can say I’ve ever had to do that literally but “Digging Ditches” is the unglamorous title of a timely book I read this last month while on holiday. Written by Helen Roseveare, a British missionary doctor who spent 20 years in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, it was being promoted as a good summer read, when I visited my mother’s church, All Soul’s in London.  It did not disappoint. 

While living in Uganda just across the border from where Roseveare worked 50 years before me, I first learned about her.  (A talk she had given had inspired one of the physicians I was working with there to become a medical missionary!)  There, I read about Roseveare’s fascinating story in her two previous autobiographical books, “Give Me This Mountain” and “He Gave Me a Valley” (both of which I highly recommend) and wondered if she was still alive.  (Amazingly, she is.)

In “Digging Ditches” Roseveare finds herself in another valley – this time returning to England to care for her ailing mother and yet with a heart that yearns for the hands on day-to-day life of missionary living and doctoring in Congo.  As she wrestles with what God is now calling her to do, he draws her attention to the phrase in 2 Kings 3:16, “Make this valley full of ditches” . 

She realizes this is it.   This is her new call: the unglamorous ordinary work of digging ditches. And she concludes that God is convicting her to be faithful, to be obedient in the here and the now, in the UK and not in East Africa, and to trust him in the valley where he has her. As she digs, she is reassured that he will come and fill those ditches with water, with blessings as he promised Elisa (v17).

And so that’s what she does. At times with great humility;  at others with  tremendous reluctance. And God is faithful. In unexpected and surprising ways.  Over the stretch of many tough years, a new calling for her life unfolds and in the process, she is further matured and changed.

Not a particularly well written book,  (it has some short sections that are tedious), “Digging Ditches” will  nevertheless be an encouragement – and a reminder even – to those of us who need to be nudged to continue moving forward in the long, slow journey of obedience.

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What makes a white Jewish woman raising her own brown children in working class Brooklyn, when she’s asked about her race, claim she’s just “light skinned”, and then change the subject? The answer is a complex one and not unconnected to the fact that when she took up with her first husband at the age of 20 after fleeing an abusive rabbi father and a disabled mother, she was disowned. Cut off from her family. Considered dead. Literally.  And yet she survives and ultimately thrives. “The Color of Water”  is a stirring story of race, resilience, loss, and ultimately of hope and redemption.

In a delightful read, writer and jazz musician James McBride describes his remarkable mother who survived 2 husbands and raised 12 children, all of whom went onto attend college and most who also went to graduate school.  Woven into her incredible story is his journey of self-discovery. In this book, he describes his  deep love for but ambivalence toward his mother and his coming to terms with what it means for him to be a black man in America with a white mother.  This is not a new book.  It came out over a decade ago, but has made such an impact that it  is now even standard reading in many high schools across New York City and in the whole country.  Don’t let this book’s age discourage you.  If you’ve not read this, it’s another excellent summer read, one I’ve recently indulged in myself, with great pleasure.

This book spent many, many weeks on the NY Times bestseller list and that was why I was both surprised and pleased  to read in his acknowledgements that McBride – and his mother – thank Jesus first and foremost above all else for their extraordinary stories.  It’s not hard to see why.