Book review: Signs of Life

May 4, 2020 by

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Each day can carry with it reminders of what we have lost.

As time passes, we lose our youth, shedding as well some of the dreams and ambitions we once cherished.

Signs of Life

Signs of Life

We may lose a sense of invincibility, realizing that the health and well-being some of us took for granted is in jeopardy and that we are all too human.

A loss of zeal, of expectation, of the careful image we’ve cultivated for ourselves: Such losses, sometimes so ordinary that they seem not worth mentioning, are part of our human condition.

They can also be transformative, Stephanie Lobdell writes, helping us understand the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in significant and powerful ways.

In Signs of Life: Resurrecting Hope Out of Ordinary Loss, Lobdell uses the losses in her own life — both ordinary and extraordinary — to profoundly explore what the Bible has to say about loss and the ability of loss to break us open, allowing light to shine through what may seem to us like darkness and despair.

Lobdell, a campus pastor at Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Ohio, shapes each chapter around the death of some thing in her life, though these deaths are not necessarily physical. (The only memorable death scene is the loss of Mama Dog, a sweet stray Lobdell’s family cares for until Mama Dog is hit by a car and killed.)

The chapters serve as a vivid reminder that Lobdell, like her readers, has faced challenges in her professional and personal life that have disrupted her understanding of herself, of the world around her, of God. Through this disruption, Lobdell finds comfort in Scripture, as biblical characters also grapple with similar losses, leading them — and her — to a deeper relationship with a living God.

I was especially moved by chapters that narrate Lobdell’s struggle to define her calling, including one chapter she titles “The Death of Revival.” After heeding God’s vocational call to become a co-pastor with her husband, and after serving in a church for a considerable amount of time, the couple is almost blindsided by a contingent within the church who asks to speak with Lobdell personally (and purposefully when her husband is unable to join her), and then assails Lobdell with scathing critiques of her work. There had been troubles in the church — warning signs of one kind or another — but Lobdell is undone by the criticism, especially as she feels the couple has created some positive changes in a difficult congregation.

Perhaps I resonated most with this chapter as the daughter of a pastor, well aware of the sacrifices a pastor makes for her congregation, including the sacrifice of her family’s time and resources.

Lobdell authentically recounts the pain she experienced as she listened to disgruntled parishioners leveling verbal attacks on her work within their community — work that she cherished and that she believed was making a difference for the kingdom of God.

The accounting Lobdell faces compels her to contend with her pride in that work, with her complicity in the church’s struggle for power and control, and with her longing to make the church into something new and different.

Exploring Christ’s resurrection, however, Lobdell realizes that Jesus had to die to be resurrected and that sometimes “to live, some things needed to die” — including her own hope of reviving the rural church.

Most compelling in Signs of Life is Lobdell’s re­telling of biblical stories within the paradigm of loss and hope, allowing readers to see Scripture anew. In a chapter on “The Death of Hope,” she tells of Abraham and Sarah laughing with skepticism as they hear Sarah will carry a child — unbelievable news after years of longing and emptiness.

Lobdell beautifully weaves together Sarah’s story with that of Mama Dog, the stray who arrives on Lobdell’s porch, bringing light and companionship to a family — and then a church — burdened by fractures and loneliness.

For Sarah, Lobdell says, “Resignation and bitter cynicism darken her vision.” When she hears she will give birth, Sarah “laughs the sour laughter of the angry, of the disappointed. But as she looks up, the messengers of God catch her eye, and her stomach drops. And for a flash, for the briefest of moments, she wonders: Could it yet be? Hope flutters within her ever so slightly.”

A season of darkness is lightened for Lobdell with Mama Dog, who slowly trusts in Lobdell to meet her needs, who becomes a faithful companion to Lobdell’s daughter and who provides the church’s youth group members a solace and comfort only a furry friend can offer. Hope is born from bitterness, God’s grace manifest in a stray dog.

As a lover of dogs, this sign of life holds special meaning for me. Lobdell’s retelling of Scripture in concord with Mama Dog gives the story new power as I grapple with the bitterness and cynicism endemic in our time.

Lobdell’s exploration of Sarah’s story allows us to see more fully the power of God’s grace to break through Sarah’s cynicism, resurrecting hope where there was darkness.

In its entirety, Signs of Life offers this reorientation of the biblical narrative and also of our everyday encounters and the seemingly ordinary losses we experience day by day. Lobdell challenges readers to look from death into life, bearing witness to the power of Christ’s resurrection as a symbol of hope blooming from the losses we face.

Melanie Springer Mock is professor of English at George Fox University in Newberg, Ore.


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