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On Broken Legs: A Shattered Life, a Search for God, a Miracle That Met Me in a Cave in Assisi


This beautifully-written literary memoir shows us how God uses personal crises to both shatter and rebuild our faith.
“To everything there is a season, A time for every purpose under heaven.” —Ecclesiastes 3:1, NKJV
The cross is evidence that grace can be violent, messy, and encountered in the most incongruous places. It’s nothing we can ever fully understand. Maybe that’s the point. Deeply personal and honest, award-winning author Wendy Murray...

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This beautifully-written literary memoir shows us how God uses personal crises to both shatter and rebuild our faith.
“To everything there is a season, A time for every purpose under heaven.” —Ecclesiastes 3:1, NKJV
The cross is evidence that grace can be violent, messy, and encountered in the most incongruous places. It’s nothing we can ever fully understand. Maybe that’s the point. Deeply personal and honest, award-winning author Wendy Murray Zoba’s spiritual memoir On Broken Legs ravages the myth that “real” Christian life must be untarnished and sublime. From the simple wisdom of children to surprise miracles from a beloved saint, Wendy found out that God used the chaotic seasons of her life to bring her closer to His heart. With a literary, pensive voice, she discloses an obscure, albeit essential, secret: We follow God best on broken legs. Tyndale House Publishers

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Zoba, a senior writer for Christianity Today, tells of falling into an emotional abyss and slowly, painfully, finding her way out. She and her pastor-husband divorced, her boys all left the nest for school or work, friends abandoned her, she had gallbladder surgery and she was in a car accident. This "devastating season threw into chaos everything" that had undergirded Zoba's life and faith and sent her into a months-long period she describes as "the Dark Night," echoing St. John of the Cross's "dark night of the soul." While Zoba recounts tangible steps in her journey to healing (relocating to North Carolina, building a house, traveling for work), the bulk of her narrative focuses on the less tangible emotional journey, which her insightful writing clearly captures. Her months of seemingly fruitless prayer (daily, sometimes nose to the carpet) were followed by small signs of hope and-eventually-painstaking progress. Zoba experienced an emotional miracle on a pilgrimage to Assisi, a spiritual shift that gave her the assurance to move forward again with complete abandonment to God. Those who have had trouble finding God in the midst of great loss will be comforted to find a companion in Zoba, and will cherish her literary map to "the Dark Night." (Oct.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781576836439
  • Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers
  • Publication date: 9/7/2004
  • Series: A Modern Girl's Bible Study Series
  • Pages: 176
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.90 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Wendy Murray Zoba is an award-winning writer and author of nine books, including Sacred Journeys and Generation 2K. She earned a master's degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and previously worked as a regional reporter for Time magazine. Wendy's essays have twice been included in The Best Christian Writing (2002 and 2004). She's worked as an associate editor and senior writer for Christianity Today and presently serves as editor of GOD magazine. Wendy has three grown sons and lives in western North Carolina.
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Read an Excerpt

On Broken Legs

A shattered life, a search for God, a miracle that met in a cave in Assisi
By Wendy Murray Zoba


Copyright © 2004 Wendy Murray Zoba
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-57683-643-6

Chapter One


* * *

I begin in the fall because that was when my divorce papers were filed, though the feelings exacted from such an event cannot be measured by days or months on a calendar. That September the fissure, as I've described it, gave way to collapse and I slipped into the breach. No adequate words describe what the collapse felt like, nor the subsequent disorientation. Little things that once made up the ballast of my life were carried away as if by rushing waters: chats with neighbors, phone calls from friends, cookouts, and bike rides to the pool. I found support, of a kind, from a few chosen friends during that time. Practical help was something else. I needed to have a garage sale and kept thinking I'd receive offers to help. I couldn't manage a garage sale in the best of times and was hopeless during this crisis. But no offers came. Once when I was still living with my husband, an old friend visited, a pastor, and funnily, I thought he'd be, well, pastoral about what was happening. We'd shared good times before the day he visited, and I thought he'd say, "Why don't we three go out for coffee?" I pictured him wanting to help us both. But when I walked into the room where he was chatting with my husband, the way he said a muted hello signaled he did not mean to rise from his chair. Oddly, I'd already made the awkward motions of greeting him with a hug, and so he was constrained to rise and force his smile. For a strained three minutes I sat, my stomach bloated with pain, making chitchat. I didn't begrudge people their reactions. It just surprised me. I couldn't say which was lonelier, living as a pastor's wife or being that wife in a disintegrating marriage.

The neighbors no longer waved to me when I pulled out of the driveway in my car. They no longer said, "Hi Wendy! How ya doin' today?" Our neighbors next door had a patio party; one friend in a lounge chair holding a beer; another slipping in and out of the back door. People I'd once chatted with easily in side yards and garden plots. I went to the back to water my flowers, putting me within spitting distance of the merriment. No one acknowledged me.

One of the saddest pictures during this early stage is remembering how I'd walked across the grassy field near our home, returning from the bank. I'd just opened a separate bank account with a hundred dollars remitted to me from my son in repayment for a speeding ticket. It was 90 degrees and the field grass stuck to my legs. My purse hung crossways across my shoulder, and I carried awkwardly the plastic Rubbermaid step stool/tool box tote, my "free gift" for opening the account. I remember thinking, I have a hundred dollars in the bank and a plastic step stool tool box tote.

I am left to cobble together imperfect illustrations of what these moments felt like by recalling various incidents around this time. An episode occurred a few months prior to the filing, that, looking back seemed a portent. I was pruning a bush in our front yard when in the snap-snap-snapping. I felt something that seemed more sinewy than a branch. A mourning dove lighted from the bush, dropping to the ground, incapacitated, flapping her damaged wings in a desperate and futile attempt to take flight. She hobbled across the street into a neighbor's yard. I called my (then) eighteen-year-old son Jon (the only son still at home) and together we searched that yard for the stricken bird. We never found her.

After that, Jon finished the pruning. He was hacking away when a branch dropped to the ground in which he found a nest holding a downy baby mourning dove. Jon said, "You killed its mother."

"I killed its mother!" I reeled.

Already stricken with the thought of the damaged bird dying alone somewhere in the neighbor's yard, now I stared benumbed at the orphaned nestling.

"I'll get milk!" I said.

Jon responded with typical dispassion: "Birds don't drink milk. They eat worms."

We named the baby bird Maynard and settled him into a box, wrapping him in towels and socks. I dug three fat worms from the back garden and brought them to Jon, who tried feeding them to Maynard. But Maynard wouldn't eat. "That's because baby birds eat only partially digested worms their mothers eat and bring back up," he said. "And since you injured and probably killed the mother, it has no partially digested worms to eat. Maybe you should take the worms and chop them up so they'll be almost as good as partially digested worms."

"I simply can't do that. You just have to accept it," I said.

Later that day, Jon came to me. "The birds are mad at us. I feel a lot of negative energy coming from them." He was correct, of course. The birds were mad at us that day. More to the point, they were mad at me. I'd killed one of them, a mother in its nest.

That's what it felt like when my neighbors turned away, and when help with a garage sale could not be found. The desperation and futility of that hobbled mother bird trying to regain flight after I had mutilated her, offered an apt, if ironic, picture of my own desperation and futility carrying the Rubbermaid step stool/tool box tote across the dry grassy field that sweltering day. Maynard, his searching beak tilted now this way, now that, hoping for food from his mother, was the picture of my helplessness catching the drift that our pastor friend did not intend to rise with a hug.

Maynard's mother had been the only terms he'd known for survival in this world. But I had killed her and now he was helpless. Maynard would not be saved without some other terms, outside intervention, terms he could not dictate or control. It came to me dimly, in these small disorienting moments, that I too would not be saved except by terms beyond my reach and control.

That September, as the first stages of the Dark Night cast early shadows, between bouts of stomach trouble and sleepless nights, I'd been reading in the psalms. One stood out because it reminded me of Maynard: "Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it with good things." I didn't know what this could mean. Maynard had opened his mouth wide, but his source of predigested worms had been taken away. He opened his little mouth and there was no mother to fill it, at least in terms he understood.

I wondered what was one to ask for when opening one's mouth wide. Even if I knew what I wanted to ask for, how would I know I was asking for the right thing? What if I opened my mouth wide, asked wrongly - not knowing how to ask aright - and received no filling? What if after opening, asking, wondering, and receiving no filling, I lost hope?

My known world was being swept away in a rushing river. My praying felt hollow. So much of my understanding of God, my sense of his intimate acquaintance and participation in his activity, had been predicated upon prayer. Not only prayer but the sense that it means something when I pray; that such acquaintance and intimacy affects something. My world had broken apart. I'd fallen into the breach. I felt my prayers had failed.

God, presumably, was in his heavens. But I'd concluded he had his own way of doing things and wasn't interested in input from me. Still, I kept praying, I can't say why. I didn't believe these prayers would be acted upon - maybe sympathetically doted over - but not resulting in an effectual change. It seemed at the time rather a kind of relaxation exercise, like rhythmic breathing, that humored everyone - God, Jesus, me - everyone. We sat there, all of us, the picture of repose as I prayed and prayed and prayed and I'd hear them whisper, She's pathetic. I didn't mind. I was pathetic.

Where does one go after exerting trust in prayer and finding disaster?

* * *

The good news, according to the gospel writers, begins with John standing in a river, bringing bad news: "The ax of God's judgment is poised, ready to sever your roots. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire." People came from cities and towns to hear it - city people, coming to the wilderness. Was it for the spectacle? Was it for a second chance? What did John possess that they so craved?

Jesus asked the same question: "Who is this man in the wilderness that you went out to see? Did you find him weak as a reed, moved by every breath of wind? Or were you expecting to see a man dressed in expensive clothes?... Were you looking for a prophet?"

He says, "From the time [of John] until now, the Kingdom of Heaven has been forcefully advancing." What kind of personality could bring forceful advancement of a spiritual kingdom by rendering bad news? Good news often arises out of bad news, and so it was with me. My journey began like Mark's gospel, with the ax. The good news is, it resulted in the forceful advancement of a spiritual kingdom amid the wreckage of my life. But only after the ax.

A young woman named Franny, in J. D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey, had been driven to near despair with life's superficialities and betrayals. "All I know is I'm losing my mind," she says. "I'm just sick of ego, ego, ego. My own and everybody else's. I'm sick of everybody that wants to get somewhere, do something distinguished and all, be somebody interesting. It's disgusting - it is, it is. I don't care what anybody says."

This incited in her a desire to pray. Yet Franny did not know how to pray. That is, until she latched onto a little book called The Philokalia, which espoused the spiritual benefits of repeating the "Jesus Prayer." She clung to the book tenaciously and explained to her skeptical lover:

[I]t starts out with this peasant - the pilgrim - wanting to find out what it means in the Bible when it says you should pray incessantly. You know. Without stopping. In Thessalonians or someplace.... Then he meets this person called a starets - some sort of terribly advanced religious person - and the starets tells him about a book called the "Philokalia." Which apparently was written by a group of terribly advanced monks who sort of advocated this really incredible method of praying....

Well, the starets tells him about the Jesus Prayer first of all. "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me." I mean that's what it is. And he explains to him that those are the best words to use when you pray. Especially the word "mercy," because it's such a really enormous word and can mean so many things....

She said praying this way had a "really tremendous mystical effect on your whole outlook," as if something was supernaturally appropriated in repetitive praying. I saw the transaction implied by the word "mercy." To pray "have mercy" suggests that for the petitioner there are no names to drop, nor anything to bring, no hopes or dreams, no claim to stake, no honor to defend, no project or plan or intent to explain. Only nakedness and madness or queerness, things that typify the human predicament. Fatigue perhaps, perhaps regret, perhaps collapse, that is all. It is opening one's mouth wide and asking for nothing, waiting to receive whatever is given.

Jesus asked city people, What did you go to the wilderness to see? A prophet? A locust-eating freak? Maybe they hoped for a second chance. In any case, they went to see a man named John and stumbled onto something they had not been looking for. Their journey turned on them. Instead of hailing a delivering prophet, they discovered a peculiar man, a bearded eccentric who spoke bad news about axes being laid and fruits showing repentance. The real journey for those seekers began the way my journey began for me, in inhospitable territory where terms of survival are surrendered. Only One can bring about a rescue. I, like Maynard, opened my mouth hoping for something while asking for nothing, willing to take whatever was fed me, if only I might live. It was as mysterious and inauspicious as that.

* * *

We tried feeding Maynard chopped worms (Jon did), alas, to no avail. I held the little bird in my palm and stroked his downy, bony back. I spoke to him in reassuring tones, the way a mother would speak to a baby. I spoon-fed him warmed oatmeal with a little sugar. He latched his little beak to the spoon and siphoned the gruel, bit upon bit.

I knew the time had come to take Maynard to the animal shelter when he began to think of me as his mother. On the third day after we'd pulled him from the nest, I walked into Jon's room to speak to my son. Upon hearing my, by now, familiar voice, Maynard squeaked and squawked and flailed his little wings in an effort to make his way out from the socks. He was greeting me. My voice and presence had evidently left its mark.

The people at the shelter expressed surprise that Maynard had eaten oatmeal from a spoon. How odd, it seemed, that this little bird had attached itself in complete trust to the one who'd snapped the wings of its mother.

And so, that September, when the divorce papers were filed, the friends stopped calling, the neighbors stopped waving, the one I thought would be pastoral made an obvious retreat. The descent began. The ax had been laid. The picture had changed. A voice arose in the wilderness that changed the terms of survival, the summons of a locust-eating freak. Maynard was not given predigested worms from the mouth of his mother. He was given oatmeal from a cold metal spoon. But he was helpless. He took it.

When I thought of how it was supposed to be in the Christian life, in relationship to how it ended up being, the thought occurred to me, This isn't how I pictured it. Still, I quickly understood there was no place to go but where the hand that fed me led me. God first led his people, Israel, into the wilderness as part of their deliverance from Egypt. They were tested there. In the wilderness they, and I, were forced to decide whether to abandon humanly concocted devices and follow him truly, blindly, into the dark, or whether to stay safe in old habits and familiar routines even if it meant returning to bondage in Egypt.

My descent began in September. Shadows closed in. Where could I go? Whom else should I follow? I will follow you, even if on broken legs.


Excerpted from On Broken Legs by Wendy Murray Zoba Copyright © 2004 by Wendy Murray Zoba. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Foreword 9
Acknowledgments 11
Introduction: Endings 15
Fall 23
1 Surrender the Terms 25
2 Bless the Mundane 35
3 Enter the Chaos 45
Winter 55
4 Follow the Signs 57
5 Nose to the Carpet 65
6 Trample the Despair 73
Spring 83
7 Face Upstream 85
8 Strip Your Altar 95
9 Receive Your New Garments 103
Summer 111
10 Hold On! Hold On! 113
11 Fight for Air 125
12 Let Go 133
Fall 143
13 Move Stones 145
Conclusion: Beginnings 157
Reader's Guide 159
Notes 171
About the Author 175
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