Review: Heartland by Sarah Smarsh

heartlandIn Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, author Sarah Smarsh honestly and fearlessly tells her story of growing up in poverty during the 1980s and 90s on Kansas farmland.

Through her experience growing up as the child of a dissatisfied teenage mother—and being raised predominantly by her grandmother on a farm thirty miles west of Wichita—she gives us a unique, essential look into the lives of poor and working-class Americans living in the middle of our country.  (Scribner Publishing)

In telling her story, it felt as if she ploughed up memories from my own farming childhood in Kentucky; not that I have experienced all the same traumas. However, we do share feelings of being “less than,” embedded by societal dualism of poverty vs. wealth, as well as a sense of family dysfunction that no one seemed interested in calling out by name.

“Nothing was more painful to me than true things being denied,” Smarsh writes. “The defining feeling of my childhood was that of being told there wasn’t a problem when I knew damn well there was.”  A book about class, identity, and the plight of rural farmers also became – for me – much-needed confirmation that my similar memories have value. A very personal, yet unexpected, response to her openhearted memoir.

From conversations with her imaginary daughter to strife-filled stories of her family’s generational struggle with poverty, Sarah Smarsh holds nothing back. She laments being constantly reminded as a child of all she didn’t have, “like running a hot marathon next to a cool reservoir from which you’re not allowed to drink,” while also celebrating her ultimate success as a professor and journalist – tempered by the process of trying to reconcile where she is with where she once was.

Heartland also gives frank insight into the lives of those waging daily battles against dysfunctional family cycles while simultaneously struggling to earn a living wage. As Smarsh’s story explains in heartbreaking detail, “It’s impossible to pay the citation for expired auto insurance” when you can’t even pay the initial insurance bill after “fifty hours a week holding metal frying baskets at KFC.” Then try explaining such a situation to a person who has never missed a payment on anything and never had to work a double shift to pay the insurance bill.

Bottom line:  The people who need to hear such stories are maintaining their distance from the people who are living them out. Heartland helps shorten that distance.

Lent – Good Friday

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When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. (Luke 23:33-34, 44-46)

You are indeed my rock and my fortress;
    for your name’s sake lead me and guide me,
take me out of the net that is hidden for me,
    for you are my refuge.
Into your hand I commit my spirit;
    you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.

Psalm 31:3-5

“A new sort of power will be let loose upon the world, and it will be the power of self-giving love. This is the heart of the revolution that was launched on Good Friday. You cannot defeat the usual sort of power by the usual sort of means. If one force overcomes another, it is still ‘force’ that wins. Rather, at the heart of the victory of God over all the powers of the world there lies self-giving love, which, in obedience to the ancient prophetic vocation, will give its life ‘as a ransom for many.’” (N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion)

Lent – Day 34

Today’s Thought: It sure is windy out there…

The 40 days of lent are coming to an end, as Holy Week begins tomorrow. This morning I’m forced to turn my attention elsewhere as the deadlines of my seminary work loom large… books to read, research to explore, papers to write. The demands of the day have begun. I know you’re facing your own set of deadlines.

It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.” — C.S. Lewis

Try to come out of the wind sometimes today, and I’ll promise to do the same.

Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. (James 4:8)

Lent – Day 32

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Today’s Thought:  Can faith and questioning co-exist?

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1)

There have been many times when I’ve read Hebrews 11:1 and felt immediate guilt about the long list of questions I have about the Bible and God. If I really have Christian faith, doesn’t that mean I’m supposed to stop asking so many questions? Aren’t I just supposed to have faith?

Oftentimes, those feelings of guilt originate with the Christian community we grew up with—the faithful around us who told us to stop asking so many questions. I don’t know about you, but that just made me want to ask more questions! Were they afraid of questions? Worried that others would assume they were lacking real faith? Which brings up an interesting question:  Why do questions equate to unfaithfulness for so many Christians?

Author Sarah Bessey writes:

“Just when I think that this time I’ve settled something once and for all, I find a new angle or a new question arises or I read something that pushes against my answer – relationships, encounters with God and Scripture, circumstances even – and I’m left again, wondering. Perhaps this is the shift we’re really talking about – not settling down on our answers, building temples their weight was never meant to hold…. my catalog of right answers grows smaller every year.”  (Bessey, Out of Sorts)

It was a game-changer for me to read authors like Sarah Bessey, Rob Bell, and Rachel Held Evans—questioners who also had deep faith. To know it’s not only okay to question, but to keep questioning, and to keep adjusting the answers, is a truth reaffirmed by my seminary professors and fellow students. Questioning doesn’t even mean that you’re having a faith crisis or some dark night of the soul. It means we can strengthen our faith and sharpen our insights even in the blurriness of not-knowing. Admitting we have questions, yet still believing there’s a God in heaven… that’s real faith.

Thursday’s TheologianI pray that when people, often well-meaning, try to quiet your questions or placate you or numb you, you would remember that God has not given you a spirit of fear but a spirit of love and power and a sound mind (2 Timothy 1:7).  –Sarah Bessey, Christian author and lay theologian

Lent – Day 31

Today’s Thought: Waves

I found this quote from Catholic priest and author Henri Nouwen, and it struck a nerve. Painfully so.

“Many of my daily preoccupations suggest that I belong more to the world than to God. A little criticism makes me angry, and a little rejection makes me depressed. A little praise raises my spirits, and a little success excites me. It takes very little to raise me up or thrust me down. Often I am like a small boat on the ocean, completely at the mercy of its waves. All the time and energy I spend in keeping some kind of balance and preventing myself from being tipped over and drowning shows that my life is mostly a struggle for survival: not a holy struggle, but an anxious struggle resulting from the mistaken idea that it is the world that defines me.”

Wednesday’s Wisdom: A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? (Mark 4:37-40)

Join me in meditating on these words today, and remember: God is in the boat with us.

Lent – Day 30

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Today’s Thought:  ‘New’ is a process.

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:17-18)

I remember reading those words from the Apostle Paul about being a “new creation,” then taking a look around me one day and wondering why my big box of new hadn’t arrived yet. Surely it should be here by now!

It has taken years of making mistakes, rebuilding, more mistakes, worse mistakes, starting over (multiple times), and seriously… where-in-the-world-was-my-brain mistakes, for me to realize that becoming a new creation through the love of Christ isn’t accomplished in a single altar call. So if that’s what you’re expecting, well… You might want to sit down for this.

Becoming that new creation doesn’t happen in a blink of the eye. Becoming that new creation is a continuous, oftentimes lifelong, journey. It’s showing up every day and learning—many times the hard way—what it means to let the old self die on the cross with Christ, while the new self walks with the resurrected Christ. This quote from Nadia Bolz-Weber, Lutheran minister and theologian, says it perfectly:

“God was never about making me spiffy; God was about making me new. New doesn’t always look perfect. Like the Easter story itself, new is often messy. New looks like recovering alcoholics. New looks like reconciliation between family members who don’t actually deserve it. New looks like every time I manage to admit I was wrong and every time I manage to not mention when I’m right. New looks like every fresh start and every act of forgiveness and every moment of letting go of what we thought we couldn’t live without and then somehow living without it anyway. New is the thing we never saw coming—never even hoped for—but ends up being what we needed all along.”

I am a Christian. I am a new creation. And, I’m still working some of the kinks out… but now I do that with God.

Tuesday’s Truth: “Radical obedience to Christ is not easy… It’s not comfort, not health, not wealth, and not prosperity in this world. Radical obedience to Christ risks losing all these things. But in the end, such risk finds its reward in Christ. And he is more than enough for us.” ― Dr. David Platt, Southern Baptist pastor and author

 

Lent – Day 27

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Today’s Thought: Bless you.

The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. (Numbers 6:24-26)

My husband has been suffering from a bad cold this week, and I’ve spent a good amount of time saying, “Bless you.” When I taught high school, I would say “bless you” to my students even when they burped, coughed, or hiccupped! “I didn’t sneeze,” they would say.  And I would tell them, “People aren’t blessed enough these days. Take all you can get!”

This quote from author Barbara Brown Taylor conveys the urgency in making time to bless others:

“All I am saying is that anyone can do this. Anyone can ask and anyone can bless, whether anyone has authorized you to do it or not. All I am saying is that the world needs you to do this, because there is a real shortage of people willing to kneel wherever they are and recognize the holiness holding its sometimes bony, often tender, always life-giving hand above their heads. That we are able to bless one another at all is evidence that we have been blessed, whether we can remember when or not. That we are willing to bless one another is miracle enough to stagger the very stars.”

May the Lord bless you today, and may you bless someone in return.

Friday Faithful: “The real issue in life is not how many blessings we have, but what we do with our blessings.  Some people have many blessings and hoard them.  Some have few and give everything away.” –Mr. Rogers

 

 

Lent – Day 25

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Today’s Thought: Just a Psalm.

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10)

This week, I’m sharing a few of the most basic—and, I believe, oftentimes taken for granted—elements of Christianity. Yesterday, it was prayer as conversation with God. Today, it’s the Psalms as prayer, worship, and Christian identity. Anglican priest N.T. Wright sums it up beautifully…

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Lent – Day 23

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Today’s Thought: What might the life of Jesus tell us about the nature of God?

For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your sons marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you. (Isaiah 62:4-5)

As we read the first few chapters of the Gospel of Mark, it becomes obvious that the Pharisees and scribes are not handling Jesus’s presence well—mainly because he doesn’t seem interested in following their well-established religious rules and traditions. Mark’s narrative moves quickly as he lists one example after another of Jesus asserting his authority, just to have it questioned. Now, in Mark 2:18-22, he faces more questioning from the crowds of people following him.

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