A review of Picking Flowers on Dusty Roads, Oddny Gumaer.

Oddny is a Norwegian missionary who fell in love with a US ex-drug addict, Steve Gumaer, while she was leading Bible studies for Japanese students in Tokyo. They moved to Thailand working with Youth with a Mission, (which they renamed Youth Without Any Money!).

In 1994 they had a chance encounter with a refugee camp, and for the first time met the Karen people, fleeing from their home state in Burma. There are more than one million Karen people hiding in the jungles of Burma, displaced, or living in limbo in refugee camps along the Thai border.

Oddny says in that first visit, the Karen refugees showed her what Christianity really looks like. They came across a woman in the camp, Rose, who had started a school and cared for orphans in her own home. She was in desperate need of resources.

After that visit, Oddny was reading 1 John and two verses hit her hard (3:17-18): “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need and has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in them? …let us love with actions and in truth.”

Oddny and Steve started Partners & Relief Development to help support Rose and care for the displaced children of Burma.

There are several things I really like about this book:

  • Oddny’s passionate love for the Karen children shines through every page. Having children of her own has only intensified the connection she feels. She has truly loved in action, entering the jungle with supplies and health training initiatives to support the people, at great personal sacrifice and risk.
  • The charm of the book is the style it is written: a collection of stories of the people she has met, journaling, biography, pieces of wisdom, anecdotes, brief Bible commentary, quotes from the talks she gives in schools, summaries of the conversations with politicians, a brief history of Burma and some lovely photos.
  • Oddny is very honest about her faults and struggles. This is not a ‘holier than thou’ guilt book. It is empowering because she expresses how God uses ordinary people in amazing ways. At one point she says: “Maybe I’ve come here to learn not to be impressed by myself, but instead to see that I am weak and dependant. In the convenience of my own world, I don’t often see this.”
  • I also like that she has moved beyond meeting basic needs, to educating school children and church groups, as well as advocacy at the highest levels of government; in spite of her own lack of confidence in those roles. God has opened the doors for personal meetings with government ministers in the UK and Norway.
  • Oddny is constantly relating her experiences to living and parenting in the first world. At one point, recounting observations of Karen children playing in a village, she comments: “I’m not the first person who is concerned with the damage we’re causing our children by bringing them up in a world that moves so fast and that’s so full of activities that they’ve lost their ability to imagine, wait, be still, and create.”

Towards the end of the book she describes the lessons she has learned from her adventures with the Karen:

  1. God loves me no matter what… in spite of all my shortcomings.
  2. I’m living my life for Him… my life is a love offering to God.
  3. Look around you… focus on the lilies, not the weeds. This is an encouragement every time she feels overwhelmed by the needs of the Karen. She thinks about all the lives saved, enriched, strengthened and set free by the work of Partners.
  4. Trust God through the worst… and know when to take a break!
  5. Listen to God… while acknowledging it is hard to discern what he is saying. Oddny comments: “It seems to me that the best way to hear God is to quiet myself and to listen to my heart… [and] to listen to the advice of others. I think those two things can get us at least close to where God wants us to be.”

This book was written in 2011, just when there were some positive moves politically in Burma. While celebrating the positives, Oddny cautions that it will take a long while to restore the Karen people to their rightful homes, and in the meantime they will still need much support for their children to live their lives to the fullest.