Skeptic gives way to mystery and mercy of God
Those who pick up Rhoda Janzen’s latest memoir will undoubtedly find the book as warm and funny as the title sounds. It’s written in the same irreverent, conversational style as her previous bestseller, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. Readers with strong denominational roots will once again find themselves inwardly howling (or wincing!) at the frequent, nostalgic references. However, it would be a mistake to read too much personal insecurity into the “fat” question.
Janzen’s latest book explores multiple themes – romance, miracles, and self-discovery – but, above all, this is a story of personal courage. By submitting graciously to the things in her life she cannot change, the author offers her readers powerful life lessons in reliance on God and coping steadfastly with adversity.
“People always ask where God is in the midst of suffering,” Janzen writes. “To me it’s a strange question. When you go blind, when a neighbour kills your son, when you come down with a spanking case of cancer, God is in exactly the same place where he always is. He’s where you put him.”
For Janzen, albeit in measured, incremental steps, where she places God is precisely at the centre of her life. He’s always nearby in her blossoming relationship with her boyfriend Mitch, his Spirit is also particularly real in the Pentecostal church they attend, and he’s closest of all as she confronts the deadly disease that threatens her life.
Moreover, the profound impact of her rediscovered faith is most notable in her changed attitude. Formerly a professional skeptic, she now makes room for the mystery and mercy of God: “It became clear that prayer really did make a difference. If I hadn’t surrendered to divine will, I would have been fretful, maybe even angry. But it wasn’t like that.… The peace in my spirit was so powerful that I was never afraid.”
How inspiring to know that God is nearest when he’s needed most, in the dark, frightening moments of life. Even though she seems uncomfortable using biblical language to describe her transformation, perhaps so as not to spook her secular readers, Janzen is nevertheless forthright in her convictions: “When I thought of my old life, shut off from God, I knew I’d rather have cancer with faith than health with denial.”
Most of Janzen’s readers are undoubtedly female, yet as a male, I was interested in it for many reasons. For one, it’s fascinating to read about PhDs embracing faith (A graduate of UCLA, Janzen teaches English and creative writing at Hope College, Holland, Mich.). And, part of my own identity is woven into the ethnic and cultural references sprinkled throughout the book. But most significantly, I think everyone loves a miracle story. It reminded me again of what Scripture says: “Nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).
—Marv Klassen is a high school teacher in St. Catharines, Ont., and an elder at Southridge Community (MB) Church, St. Catharines, Ont.