Discerning Reader Editorial Review
Reviewed 04/09/2008 by Mark Tubbs.
Recommended. Real-life account of a missionary support couple’s life in Kenya.
This book made a good impression on me from the get-go by prefacing the first chapter with a John Piper quote from Don’t Waste Your Life: “The world is not impressed when Christians get rich and say thanks to God. It is impressed when God is so satisfying that we give our riches away for Christ’s sake and count it gain.”
All You Can’t Leave Behind is “the story of two American twenty-somethings who heard a whole lot of talk about reaching the lost and going to all nations, but didn’t see a whole lot of it happening.” So the author and his wife, teachers Ryan and Heather Murphy, along with their infant Micah, set out to change that sad state of affairs, one family at a time. At the time of publication, they had been teaching missionary children at Rift Valley Academy, a Christian boarding school in Kenya, for about two years.
On his website, Murphy outlines three goals of the book:
1) Educate Church about missionary life in the 21st century
2) Inspire people to live sacrificially for the lost
3) Encourage current missionaries
Early in the book, Murphy informally relates his theology of missions. Having been called to fulltime missions, his lament over the current state of missions is only natural: “the main vehicle that churches seem to use when it comes to ‘missions’ are short-term missions trips with devout and passionate individuals who are often untrained cross-culturally. They are whole-heartedly committed to give a few weeks of their time to reaching the lost, and then they return to suburban living. If you study history, the real change, the powerful movements of God, began through long-term, career individuals who devoted not 20 days to a people group but 20 years; people who gave more than a few weeks of sweat; people who gave their entire lives.” While Murphy does not disparage the devotion of short term missionaries and the worthy intentions of the churches that send them, he does maintain a strong sense of the need for fully committed lifelong missionaries.
Because the book is written in diary form, the reader is swept along on the Murphy’s experiences of raising support, making the move, trying to learn to love soccer, mountain climbing for the first time, and buying a vehicle in Kenya. But if these experiences were stretching and daunting, other harrowing life-and-death situations tested them to the limit: their son’s malaria, their nephew’s hospitalization, their colleague’s loss of a son, their friend’s death to cancer, a missionary child’s accidental asphyxiation, and the seemingly ubiquitous African experience of crime and violence. In what is one of the most faith-building sections in the book, Murphy relates these tragedies as lessons in learning how to sing the song “Blessed Be Your Name” from a place of first-hand experience.
Despite these hardships, the Murphys continue to ask themselves whether they are rich or poor: “Which is it? Struggle and sacrifice or easy living? It’s a hard call. Compare us to the average American, we have it rough. Compare our life to many other missionaries, we’re living it up. Compare our experiences with a missionary 100 years ago and you couldn’t even associate the word ‘sacrifice’ with what we do.” Here are echoes of Piper’s discussion of a Christian “wartime mentality”, also found in Don’t Waste Your Life.
As you might expect from a missionary story, interrelated themes of faith and trust crop up everywhere. Murphy offers a paradox as food for thought: “It’s funny how it took faith to step out of this ledge, but it was also faith that we found out there.” This paradox is the flip side of the biblical maxim that God will give us just the grace we need in the midst of the trial. Themes of fatherhood, protection, and provision also weave their way through the book. Murphy sympathetically recounts the stories of fathers who lost their sons to death, including Abraham: “If God took their sons, He could take mine. Micah is not ‘safe,’ I cannot protect him. His life is not in my hands; it’s in the hands of the God who sometimes takes precious first born sons.” Hard things, but true things.
Physically, the book is a good shape and size for holding in one hand, although I would have appreciated hardier binding. In the writing itself, some evangelical clichés proved a tad irritating, as did the preponderance of pop culture references. This book could have you running back and forth from your computer googling “Toto”, “Biggest Loser”, and even the title of the book, which turned out to be a song title by U2. These issues arise, I surmise, from Murphy’s substantial creative control over his first book. In the hands of a first-time author, such control can be a two-edged sword. At times I felt myself wishing the book had gone through a more ruthless edit.
That said, there are some occasions of superb craftsmanship. One paragraph resembles the writing style of one of my favorite Christian writers, Paul David Tripp:
“The party starts from day one of a person’s rebirth. It begins on the first day the first believer in the jungles of Papua New Guinea says, “I want Jesus.” On the first day warring tribes in Ecuador share bread together because they accept that their enemies are actually their brothers in Christ. On the first day a prostitute on the streets of Calcutta says, “I was made for something better than this.” On the first day someone dying of AIDS in Africa looks up into her doctor’s eyes and says, “I want the peace I see in you.”
Elsewhere in the book, Murphy goes beyond merely quoting Piper, seeming to channel him for a brief instant:
“You can’t step across cultural boundaries without going and moving and missing and giving and losing. You must sacrifice. There are no shortcuts to making lasting impacts on the lives of others.”
For a twenty-first century missions account, you can’t do much better than All I Can’t Leave Behind: A Rookie Missionary’s Life in Africa.