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.

Counterfeit Books: Be on the lookout!

LOTOEarlier this week, Christianity Today reported that both Amazon and several of its third-party sellers sold counterfeit copies of Tish Harrison Warren’s Liturgy of the Ordinary. Warren issued a statement on her blog, as well as photos to help identify counterfeit copies of her book. According to Christianity Today, it is estimated that IVP Press has lost around $240,000 in retail sales over the past nine months as a result of these illegal sales—which also means no royalties for Warren.

Check out the links above for all the ugly (albeit informative) details, and head over to IVP Press to purchase the real version of Liturgy of the Ordinary at its current 40% off sale price of $9.60.  It’s an amazing piece of writing—one that Tish Harrison Warren and her publisher deserve to get paid for.



Is it just me, or did anyone else experience an Easter hangover this year? It could’ve been the consequences of too much country ham or corn pudding.  Maybe it was that second helping of broccoli casserole with a third yeast-roll chaser?  Yep!  I’m fairly certain I can blame carb loading for at least a small part of my post-Easter melancholia.

I also think there’s the tiniest bit of a letdown when a big project comes to a close, and Easter was the finish line for my Blog-Every-Day Challenge for Lent. I worked long hours at times to pull it off, but I’m proud of myself for staying with it (considering my penchant for quitting). To be honest, sitting down every day with my marked-up Bible and MacBook felt like reuniting with a long lost home. To borrow a well-worn phrase from John Wesley… I felt my heart “strangely warmed.”

So while Lent 2019 is now officially in the books, you’ll still find me hanging around here at 5 A.M. Thoughts, carb hangover notwithstanding!  In the meantime, I’m including a couple of interesting links below.

The first is an explanation of the Christian Year, including the current liturgical season of Easter (also referred to as Eastertide and more than just one Sunday). If you’ve never been affiliated with a church that follows the liturgical calendar, it can be a little overwhelming. This resource from College Wesleyan Church is extremely helpful.

Secondly, for all you Biblical Greek fans (or exegetical wannabes), an article from Christianity Today about who the New Testament writers had in mind when they wrote all those “you” verses.

From Relevant Magazine, an article by theologian N.T. Wright on Easter, Atonement, and the Real Message of the Cross.

Lastly, but of utmost importance, a link to the official GoFundMe page for Rachel Held Evans if you feel led to help with medical expenses. RHE is the author of Searching for Sunday and Inspired, as well as serving as co-curator for the Evolving Faith Conference.  Recently, she was hospitalized with flu and has had serious, unexpected complications.  She is currently in ICU in a medically-induced coma.  This talented author, wife, and mom (as well as her family) needs your prayers for strength.

Thanks for reading! I’ll see you back here in a day or two with more 5 A.M. Thoughts. Until then, here’s a little something from N.T. Wright for you to ponder…

Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven, but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord’s Prayer is about. ― N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope


Lent – Day 25


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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Currently Reading

gods universeI remember watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series as a child and being awestruck by it, yet also wondering… Where does God fit in this? How does he figure into the universes, galaxies, super novas, and life? I even remember asking if it could be possible that God created evolution (a suggestion quickly brushed away by both my science and Sunday School teachers). I didn’t understand. Why couldn’t science and religion just get along?

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Curtain #3: The Bigger Picture

This is the concluding segment in the series “Behind the Scenes.” Drawing back Curtain #3, we’ll find what Acts 3:1-10 has in common with the scripture surrounding it and examine possible next steps in the exegesis process.

Are you sick of looking at Acts 3:1-10 yet? Sometimes I sit with a piece of scripture so long that I get restless, ready to move on to something else. But there are times when I don’t want to leave because it feels like it’s become a part of me. Like reading an amazing novel that builds a world with characters you don’t want to leave, coming to the end of your analysis can be bittersweet. Today, we’re going to look at how pieces of scripture sometimes live on in other verses—maybe even throughout the entire Bible—as a unified theme. Let’s go back to the very beginning of Acts…

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Curtain #2: Finding Meaning

This is Part Three in the series “Behind the Scenes,” where I give you a look at how I contemplate—and then write about—scripture.  Curtain #1 was all about slowing down and reading closely. In today’s installment, we slowly pull back a curtain of words to find deeper meaning.

I have to admit… the teacher part of me wants to ask if you read Acts 3:1-10 three times, out loud, but after I left classroom teaching I promised to only use my teacher voice in emergencies. (Having a superpower comes with responsibility.) So whether you’ve read the scripture once, twice, or none, we’re just gonna jump in and give it our best. We will definitely make mistakes, both large and small, but you know what?

We will learn from our mistakes. Ready? Let’s go!

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Curtain #1

This is Part Two in the series “Behind the Scenes,” where I give you a look at how I contemplate—and then write about—scripture.

I’d love to know how low my blood pressure goes when I’m neck-deep in reading a piece of scripture for the umpteenth time, because I’m pretty sure alarms would be sounding if I were hooked up to a hospital monitor! Much like Ruth Haley Barton in the quote I shared with you yesterday, the longer I sit in quiet contemplation of just a few verses, the more the swirling sediment of my soul begins to settle and—instead of trying to control and lead my own thoughts—I feel myself releasing control. It’s in that thin space where focused attention and attendant silence meet, allowing me to follow where the Holy Spirit leads.

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