New City Press, Hyde Park, N.Y., 2012; $11.95.
Looking back over some 45 years of marriage, Tom and Mary Hartmann are convinced that God always was present in their household. “Gifts From Heaven” chronicles God’s action in the authors’ marriage and within their large family, with 10 children.
The many stories they tell, dating all the way back to the house they purchased early in their marriage when they could afford virtually nothing, reveal the Hartmann’s firm belief that only the hand of God explains the outcome of key events in their lives.
“Providence manifests itself in every family,” the authors believe. People who view God as a Father should not be surprised by his “wonderful works” on their behalf, they comment.
It seems important to say what the Hartmann’s book is and what it is not.
— It is not a book about a couple who led a “charmed life, a fairy-tale existence in which everything always has a happy ending.” It is not about people who never felt “unlucky” or who were the beneficiaries of a “distant philanthropist” God.
Like others, the Hartmanns experienced “moments of darkness when,” at least for awhile, they wondered if God “had failed to help” them. Later they could see that God simply had acted differently than they expected.
— It is a book about divine providence, which the authors take with uncompromising seriousness. “We were regularly lifted up and encouraged by the concrete help we received from God’s generosity, what we called Providence,” the authors write.
Their book offers many stories that “recount how we managed to meet our needs – both the basic and the extraordinary,” the authors explain. In these stories, God’s generosity is viewed by them neither as a dream nor “a pious idea.”
They confess they still are “trying to understand the real meaning of Providence.” They found over and over that “it always seemed to be mysterious and always full of surprises.” The Hartmanns explain:
“We have faith that God loves us immensely and are convinced that every event in our lives somehow demonstrates that divine love.”
None of this means the Hartmanns look upon God as a grand puppeteer who moves human beings along, with no collaboration on their part and no exercise of free will by them either.
The authors recognize that grace builds on nature, and that people must strive to develop their gifts and talents. They knew God expected them to do their part.
This book is not a work of theology. I cannot help wondering, though, if it is something adult study or retreat groups might use to prompt discussions of God’s presence and action in ordinary life.
Over the years, the Hartmanns were asked again and again whether they “worried about having so many children to provide for” and how they would “put them all through college,” given his income as a college professor and hers as a nurse whose time available for work outside the home was limited by a commitment to being home with the children.
It is not surprising that this couple, despite limited finances, wanted the best educations possible for their children. In their stories of how things were managed and how events unfolded when it came to their children’s educations, God’s hand decidedly is at work.
For the Hartmanns, the recognition of divine providence is itself a valued dimension of education. They explain:
“We should realize that living through the experiences of needing Providence helps children learn about the generosity of God and helps them set their priorities straight, so that they learn to ‘strive first for the kingdom of God.’”
I appreciated the discussion in “Gifts From Heaven” of the importance of serving in Christian life as agents of God’s providence. Naturally, providence at times arrived in the Hartmanns household because someone else was serving as God’s agent to them. Through others, they “experienced the great love of God.”
The authors write, “Whether they realize it or not, people do have the power to help reveal God’s generosity by being generous with the gifts that God has distributed to them.”
The Hartmanns advise readers that “when we love, we participate in the actions of God, and acts of God always reach far beyond human expectations, sometimes revealing things that seem more divine than human.”