So often when we think of the lives of missionaries, we either rhapsodize over the exotic places they serve and the selfless lives they lead or we critique the patronizing or paternalistic attitudes exhibited by some of their worst examples. It just shows how little we understand about the reality of their lives. In her new book, City of Tranquil Light, Bo Caldwell remedies our stereotypes.
This is a quiet, reflective, extended meditation on the lives of a man and woman who devote their entire lives to serving a village in North China in the early pre-WWII decades of the 20th century. Based on the lives of her maternal grandparents, Caldwell crafts a work of historical fiction that is rich with poetic descriptions of the Chinese landscape and people, warm with love of place and people, and uplifting and yet non-sentimental in the telling. Alternating between first-person narration by Will Kiehn and letters by wife Katherine, the story develops thoughtfully and slowly. We trace the challenges and joys of their love for one another and the blessings of ministry as well as the hardships of drought, famine, disease, and loss --- all against the backdrop of a nation changing, a nation on the brink of civil war. Will and Katherine loved a place and a people, and the insight given through this story helped me better understand how a life of such privations can be preferred over one of relative luxury.
It is an honest story. Will and Katherine have to deal with a deep personal loss, one that left them estranged for a time and filled with doubt of and anger towards God. And yet the overcoming of these difficulties is not a facile one but one gradual, even partial, the loss never understood, the wound never completely healing. Somehow, that is encouraging. As Will says near the end of the story and of his life, "To search for a reason. . . seems futile. I have come to accept that at present I have only a partial view of reality; there are answers I will not be given until I leave this life. I know that my God is the Lord of wheat fields and oak trees, of mountains and valleys, and that His answers, like His works, often require time."
It is also a deeply encouraging story. It oozes with hope that imperfect human beings who seek after God and falter, doubt, and even disobey at times can be used for great things in the lives of the few or many. It even demonstrates the purpose God has for the aged, as Will, knowing that he can no longer serve in China and will live out his days in a senior citizens' facility, reflects on how "[m]y days and nights are uncomplicated now. I rise early and follow a schedule of prayer, for I believe that is how I am best able to serve at this time in my life." What great works have come of the prayers of the aged, those now consigned to the fringe of society? And just when I thought that the great "message" of the book was complete, the author deals so tenderly with the loss of a spouse that Will has served with all his life, the grieving that follows, and the life rejoined. This too is encouraging.
In the end, however, it is not enough to tell an honest and encouraging story. It must be told well. Caldwell manages that with aplomb. Her relatively spare prose gives the narrative a spaciousness like that of a poem, allowing plenty of room for the reader's mind to imagine and reflect, slowing the rush to climax and allowing us to "live" the book. In other words, it's not a page-turner but a page-holder: you want to pause and dwell on a phrase or an image as you read, holding it just a while longer before moving on. It is also told well because of the extensive research Calwell put into it, something she describes as slow but thorough. She is able to merge much of what she read about the lives of missionaries in Will and Katherine and yet bring it into sharp focus by eliminating the multitude of tangents and distractions that crop up in real life. It is a work of subtle beauty.
I highly recommend this book. It will inspire and encourage and maybe provoke some to a life of service among another people in another land, to be a real missionary. And yet it will make us all better human beings. Isn't that one of the reasons we read fiction?