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Monday, January 22, 2018

"Mending Broken Branches" (Elizabeth Oates)

TITLE: Mending Broken Branches: When God Reclaims Your Dysfunctional Family Tree
AUTHOR: Elizabeth Oates
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2017, (240 pages).

Marriages break up. Divorces happen. Children suffer the consequences. Can we escape from our past? Maybe. Will we be free to live well in the present? That depends on how we are healed. In spite of the high place of family in society, these are some of the modern struggles family go through. It pretty much describes the landscape of the cliché: “No family is perfect.” While that is true, it is also true that some families are more imperfect than others. This is often what society means when they say “dysfunctional families.” Writing from her own broken background and a determination to heal from her wounds, author Elizabeth Oates uses the planting metaphor to help us make sense of our past, our present, and our future. The purpose in this book is three-fold. First, we are given the space to grieve our past. Second, we learn to be equipped to deal with our present circumstances. Third, we are encouraged to build a healthy and hopeful future.

Part One helps us work through our past to find our true significance in Christ instead of the “transactional relationship” with Santa Claus. Readers will learn about being bold to open the dreaded Pandora’s Box of any shame in the past. Oates uses a familiar plant model to craft out our past. There is the root of the problem which is a failure to find our significance in Christ alone. There is a need for pruning, where we tackle head-on the heavy baggage from the past. Our family of origin is not to be blamed or praised but accepted. The sprouting willows and branches are like opportunities and spaces for us to acknowledge our past. Just like a branch that can grow in any direction, once we are safely anchored on a trunk, we grieve with all the space we need. We need not feel alone because we are not the only ones that have baggage from the past. Every family do. Slowly but surely, we learn to let go and move forward. Whether it is shame or lost childhood; failed dreams or broken realities; the positive thing to do is to acknowledge our various stages of grief. Here, Oates uses Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief model. It would have been better if the author had acknowledged this in a footnote but I suppose the model is popular enough for most people. This journey to the past ends in the embrace of the Heavenly Gardener, God Himself.

Part Two deals with the external factors around us. We need to build “garden gates” and learn the importance of boundaries which are necessary not only to protect ourselves, it helps us manage expectations with other people. In “beautiful arrangement,” she contrasts the use of contracts versus covenants, before affirming the need for the latter. As the plant blooms, it is like our responsibilities increasing and roles becoming more complex. Then there is the winds that blow, which Oates equates to how we harness opportunities and practice the art of communications. The storms of life represent the conflicts that occur. The metaphor continues with the physical intimacy as in protecting our own private gardens. Let no weeds divide us! Sustain our relationships with living water, full of grace and filled with forgiveness.

Part Three deals specifically with the relationship with husbands and children. There are tips about communications, connecting, and conversing about tough issues of the heart.Tree houses and forts are two further images of what it means to play with kids, parent their growth, and praying for their physical and spiritual development.

My Thoughts

It takes one to know one, and this book gives us an insight into how a broken person not only redeems her past but helps others to be healed as well. Elizabeth Oates shows us that there is no such thing as beyond redemption. For God has come to us in person to tell us that we are significant already in Christ. We do not have to be bogged down by the baggages of the past. Let me share three thoughts.

1) Her Honesty
I appreciate Oates for her honesty in revealing her own past. As we read the many models and frameworks discussed, we consider those in the context of her own past and how these models had personally helped her. She hits the mark right from chapter one, that we are significant not because of what we had done or not done but in God alone. After all, if God is for us, who can be against us? Her most revealing parts are in Part One which deals with the past. Oates had briefly mentioned about the popular view of children from divorced families on page 4 without describing whether the “popular view” is true or not. At least, she could have said a little bit more about that. I gather that she was battling this common perception and trying to project a view of “not all of them are true.”

2) Her Affirmation that We are not Alone
Right from the start, we read of a whole list of “fellow broken branches.” This gives us a clue about an important part of reconciliation and redemption: Being with people who understand. Emotional struggles are best understood heart to heart and the list of friends and supporters demonstrate that. Like a broken twig that needs to be healed, we need to lean upon others from time to time. When we are healed, we can become that branch for others to lean on. We depend on one another. I believe this is more important than any techniques or models in the book. The personal connection that we are not alone will be more beneficial than a thousand appendices of theory and best practices.

3) There is Hope
Behind each of the questions at the end of the chapter is a chance for us to express our hope in God and in our recovery from the past. Sometimes, we might be tempted to write down a politically correct response or some smart-aleck answer from our heads. I would advice against that. The more important thing is to find ourselves in the brokenness of life, just like Christ who came down to us even when we are imperfect and homeless sinners. Honesty about the answer is more valuable than parroting known answers that sound good in the head but empty in the heart.

All in all, while this book is written primarily for a women audience, it can give other genders in insight into what our wives or women in general struggle with. I applaud Oates for her honesty and appreciate the way she has provided a path forward for people struggling with their brokenness. Once again, it takes one to know one, and Oates certainly knows what it means to be broken. The question for the rest of us is: “What about us?” “Do we dare to deal with our past?”

Sometimes I wonder about the use of the word ‘dysfunctional’ on certain families and question: “Truth is, which family on earth isn’t dysfunctional?” In the Bible, Cain murdered his own brother Abel. Abraham had many wives. Isaac blessed the wrong son. Jacob deceived his own father. Joseph was betrayed by his very own brothers. In the New Testament, the disciples too had their share of dysfunctional backgrounds. The seven churches in Revelation had their share of problems as well. All of them had one thing in common. They had a God who restores, redeems their families, and gives them hope for reconciliation. Perhaps, this book needs to be read with an open mind. We don’t have to wait until something horrible happens before we consider the need for mending broken branches. We can use what we learn from the book to pray for those who are affected. We can prepare our hearts to learn from the mistakes of others. We can also take time to appreciate our families more. Don’t just presume they know we love them. Show it.

Author Elizabeth Oates writes from a broken past. The ugly face of divorce has plagued her family for generations, including her own parents. She has felt neglect and loneliness; brokenness and depression. At the same time she has also experienced healing in God and hope for a better tomorrow. She is co-founder and vice-president of Project Restoration Ministry. She and her husband live in Waco, Texas with their five children. She blogs and mentors women who had experienced or are experiencing brokenness in their families.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of Kregel Publications without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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