Featured Reviews, VOLUME 6

Jeffrey Gallagher – Wilderness Blessings [Feature Review]

[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”0827243081″ locale=”us” height=”333″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51pMDscQDtL.jpg” width=”217″ alt=”Jeffrey Gallagher” ]Sojourning Through the Storm.

A Review of

Wilderness Blessings:
How Down Syndrome Reconstructed our Life and Faith

Jeffrey Gallagher

Paperback: Chalice Press, 2013
Buy now:   [ [easyazon-link asin=”0827243081″ locale=”us”]Amazon[/easyazon-link] ]  [ [easyazon-link asin=”B00CA67PNC” locale=”us”]Kindle[/easyazon-link] ]


Reviewed by Chad Abbott

There is not one human being on the planet whose life could not identify with that of a stretch of road or a path in the woods. Having grown up in the flatlands of Illinois and now living in the beautiful rolling hills of Kentucky, the extremes of these roads seem to remind us that life can be a journey of all different pathways and in all kinds of weather. They can be long flat and enjoyable journeys. Life can be filled with sharp turns and rocky roads. Life can be walks up winding hills and long stretches of uphill. A quick hike in the woods reminds us that the terrain presents itself as extremely beautiful, but we always have to be careful of the roots of the trees popping out on the path, the rocks that are uneven, or the stick in the middle of the path that is filled with mud after a good rain. We can also find ourselves sojourning on such paths in the midst of a storm that we didn’t see coming. We know these things because life is an ongoing encounter with all of these varied terrains. Life is filled with a series of moments and interconnected realities that shape our lives into the kind of people we are going to be. What defines us is our response to and our living in light of the terrain we must face on the road that is our journey in life.  When a rough and edgy uphill terrain or a dark and stormy day is something we must face in life, we can either see that experience as an opportunity to experience blessing or we can wallow in self pity, anger, and fear.

Those who follow in the path of faith understand from reading stories like Job or the Israelites after Egypt that perhaps the wilderness of pain in the world is not something we can run from, as much as we would like to.  The Israelites after facing the uncertainty of the wilderness upon crossing the Red Sea wanted to turn back to the safety of Egypt because it offered a security the wilderness could not provide, even though Egypt represented a place of bondage.  So, we can either return to our various bondages, or we can find blessing and faith and hope in the midst of the unknown wilderness terrains of our lives.  Pastor and Father, Jeffrey Gallagher knows what it is like to sojourn in the midst of a wilderness, a terrain that is rough to travel through, a storm of sorts, and yet find hope, blessing, and faith.  In his book Wilderness Blessings Jeff directly speaks to how the birth of his son, Jacob, who they discovered had a heart problem and Down Syndrome, pushed his family directly into the wilderness and out into the unknown.  Such an experience in life can only do one thing: change your life completely.  And that it did for Jeff, his wife Kristen, and their other son, Noah.
The Gallagher’s journey began when they were going in for a rather routine check up and ultrasound for their second child only to discover that there were some concerns with the pregnancy.  As it turns out, upon giving birth to Jacob, they discovered a couple of things they had to address rather quickly. They had to do surgery on Jacob’s aorta and they also found that he had a heart defect that would more than likely mean surgery to completely rebuild one of the chambers of his heart.  But, they also discovered that he had Down Syndrome.  Jeff and Kristen spent the first several weeks of Jacob’s life at Children’s Hospital in Boston as the amazing staff took them through surgery and kept their son stable with monitors, wires, and breathing tubes.  Eventually they were able to take him home, but with the understanding that they knew they would need to, in the not so distant future, bring him back so that they could do surgery on his heart.
After about 7 months, they brought Jacob back for his open heart surgery only to discover that their already difficult journey was about to go deeper into a wilderness of pain and struggle and fear.  The initial surgery went very well, but shortly after the surgery his nurse started to notice some small changes in his breathing and temperature. She kept an extra eye on him when all of a sudden things became very scary.  Jeff and Kristen were driving from their home in Maine to Boston when they received “the call” from the hospital that they had nearly lost Jacob, but that they were able to save his life.  For weeks, the Gallaghers spent their waking hours in hospital rooms with beeping monitors and the all too common feeling of worry and fear that parents experience while at Children’s Hospital.  In the end, Jacob was able to recover from his surgery and be able to breath and have a functioning heart and is now living very well with his family in Maine.
Rev. Gallagher wrote this book to tell his family’s story of what it is like going through the wilderness.  Jeff had taken all of his musings and updates that he had given family and friends on the CarePages website and decided to make a book of theological and spiritual reflections upon their family experience.  What I found so striking about this text is Jeff’s willingness to admit when times were hard, but did not lose faith and trust in his Creator.  He never moves into cynicism or loses hope, but rather he takes his experience as an opportunity to find blessing and peace.  He shares very clearly such a peace with others without being trite or dismissive of the pain that all human beings experience.  Another very moving part of this book is Gallagher’s very strong approach to advocating for those on the margins.  With a son that was born with differing abilities, Gallagher draws upon the work of disability theologians to bring attention to our need as the Church to welcome all people.  On so many levels this text reminds me of Henri Nouwen’s famous phrase, “Wounded Healer.”  I believe that it is because Jeff and his family were able to see blessing in their wilderness experience that they were able to offer words of comfort, healing, and perhaps more than anything, a non anxious presence for those who experience suffering.  Jeff does not seek to explain suffering and pain with shallow theology, but simply expresses it as a journey through which to learn more about God, about our lives, and about the world.
This text should be read by anyone who is a person of faith and with its constant references to Jeff’s church and church life in general, it should be read by every pastor.  It should be read by anyone whose journey has experienced the wilderness and wondered if it is possible to come out on the other side intact.  If this well written text does anything, perhaps it reminds us that with the wilderness can come blessing and grace upon grace.  No matter where the road of life has taken you, I suspect that you will be able to find yourself in this book and find a hopefulness that can be a guide for your journey.
Chad Abbott is a pastor in the United Church of Christ and serves a congregation in Alexandria, Kentucky. He most importantly is a husband to his wife, Shannon, and a father to his 2 children, Isa and Solomon (8 and 3), and their dog, Zoe. Chad is a half and full marathon long distance runner, a vegan, writer, musician, and absolutely loves jazz.


C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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