Laughter on the Pathway of Lament

When we read about women in the Bible, there’s a tendency to flatten them out into cardboard characters, one-dimensional and distant.  Kate Merrick was in that camp as well, intimidated by the fabulous woman of Proverbs 31, judging Bathsheba, missing the depth of Mary’s sacrifice in saying yes to God, and brushing Sarah off as that old lady who had a baby.

Then, her nine-year-old daughter died of cancer.

Desperate for moorings in an ocean of loss, Kate looked to the Truth of Scripture and found there a community of women who had suffered as she was suffering.  When she delved into their stories, her collision course with bitterness and despair slowly turned toward joy and peaceful acceptance of the will of God.  In And Still She Laughs, Kate Merrick is still writing from that liminal place between tangible grief and the new normal that finds its way to the surface, so her words are raw and real, and just about right for me in these days following the death of my mum.

Like breaking in a new pair of jeans, like the bathing suit that fits everyone differently, like a water balloon that if you let just a little bit out it might explode on everyone, Kate employs multiple metaphors to bring her readers into the world that opened up to her when she joined the ranks of the bereaved.  Still longing for the old jeans, and having realized that grief looks different on everyone, she encourages readers to throw her book across the room if it helps — and then to come back to it later at a different stage of grieving.

A Path Through Grief

Since a Western understanding of living “blessed” only served to drive Kate further into bitterness, she turned to the stories of biblical women, for whether one reads Bathsheba as roof-top temptress or helpless victim, the ultimate outcome of King David’s moral lapse was the loss of their baby son.  Bathsheba’s story became a virtual grief support group for Kate since so many of their story-points coincided:

When I was the only woman I knew who had experienced death so close to my heart, I remember how she had too.  . . She whispered strength, dignity, and fearlessness.  When I was comforted with a pregnancy, I remembered that she had been too.  She showed me how to be loyal to another child while grieving the first.  She held my hand in the gloom, leaned close to my ear and whispered, ‘Me too.'”

Then there was the dawning realization that, like Sarah, grief and bitterness were leading Kate toward a “bitter, hardened laughter, like a waste product of a sick heart.”  Sarah’s Old Testament story sounds idyllic from a distance:  remarkable beauty, a godly husband with unlimited assets, a bevy of servants, and exotic travel opportunities — and Kate is convinced that Sarah “was covered in swanky accessories.”  (Sure, why not?)  But then, there were the empty arms, and the seemingly empty promises of God:  Sarah had waited so long that even good news elicited bitterness, bubbling forth in a sneering laugh alone in her tent.

Opening the heart to a journey of grief puts a mother in company with Mary, who demonstrated that a yes to God can lead to a sword through the heart.

“The yes doesn’t always make sense.  We don’t fully understand how God works, but we read in 2 Corinthians 1:20: ‘For all of God’s promises have been fulfilled in Christ with a resounding ‘Yes!’ And through Christ, our ‘Amen’ (which means ‘Yes’) ascends to God for his glory.”

Ultimately, Kate realized that her bitterness was directed toward God.  She had lost sight of the truth that, in her suffering, Jesus was suffering with her.  In the midst of our own Romans 8 groaning, we need to hear, again and again, that we are foreigners on this planet, but we do not grieve without hope.  Like Mary, Bathsheba, and Sarah, we are citizens of heaven and live in anticipation of a day in which death will be swallowed up in life, the empty arms of grieving mums will be filled, and the laughter our hearts long for will never end.

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This book was provided by Thomas Nelson in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

You can read an excerpt from And Still She Laughs and check out the book trailer here at Ann Voskamp’s place.  

There’s lots more of Kate Merrick’s great story telling here on her own blog.

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A Mosaic of Images on Joy and Prayer

I come from a tradition that is suspicious of written or scripted prayers, believing that spontaneity is a sign of sincerity and casting askance glances at those who must borrow the words of others in order to talk to God.  Then I became a mother and realized that not only were my own words in prayer untrustworthy at times, but there were also events in life for which words would not come. Praying the examen of conscience at the end of a day has often given my tired brain a place to go and an outline to guide my conversation with God.

Light When It Comes by Chris Anderson is a guide book for the practice of “paying fierce attention” to life in order to enhance one’s prayer life and to ensure that we catch all the stories that matter.  At the end of the day, it is helpful to me to remember that I have an audience with God and to review the events of the day with thanksgiving, paying attention to emotions, to the ways in which guidance has come and miracles have happened.  It is also a time to offer up all the failings and disappointments for forgiveness and grace and to make plans for a more Christ-centered tomorrow.

In the midst of this reflection, I find that life distills down to a series of moments.

“The only place I can be is the moment.
Everything else is an abstraction.” (25)

Chris Anderson intersperses his teaching on joy and prayer with vivid re-tellings of moments from his own life in a way that I found to be jarring at first:  a story about a yellow warbler calling “sweet-sweet-sweet-sweeter-than-sweet”  jostles around between a vignette from a funeral and a description of the sound of his son playing the harmonica with a Bruce Springsteen CD.  Eventually, though, these disjointed stories began to “appear in their real potency,” just as the unsettling stories of Scripture do when we let them speak for themselves and to communicate beyond the stained glass and the flannel boards.

Reviewing the events of the day in the presence of God is an opportunity to face the darkness as well as to remember the joy.  This too is part of the paying attention, part of the humility that acknowledges that “God is greater than our hearts and He knows all things“– including the things we wonder about.

The author examines servanthood from his perspective as a church member and a deacon, acknowledging his own mixed motives (the only kind of motives available to humans), and the thirst that tries to satisfy itself with something other than Living Water (Praise?  Order?  Certainty? No, these do not quench the thirst . . .)

He portrays service as a learning process:

“Whatever else it is, the story of Jesus is the story of letting go and the giving up we have to do every day of our lives.” (86)

This paying attention to life means that God shows up in surprising ways:  in the midst of confusion, on the days when I don’t like myself, when what I really need to do is to stop analyzing and to start trusting. It is a recognition of the humility of a simple “and” when viewing the pieces that make up the mosaic of our lives, not striving for or forcing our way into “thus” or “therefore” before light has come, but offering up the individual events, both good and bad, so that the creation of the mosaic is, in the end, left to God.

Chris closes with two premises that bring the pieces together into a joyful whole:

  1.  “God is present in every moment and in every molecule.  His grace and His love are nowhere less than complete and full, anywhere in the universe, anywhere in time.
  2. The love of God and the grace of God are freely given, are nothing but gift, [and] there’s nothing we can ever do to earn them.  No matter how much I read or pray or do good works, I will never be more loved by God than I am in this very second.  Yes, we should strive to be better, we should strive to be more moral and faithful people, but not in order to merit the love of God but rather as a loving and grateful response to it.”

Having said all that, it is not in premises that Light When It Comes urges us to find our life, but rather in the blessed randomness of holy joy that flows into the wildly disjointed pieces of our moments and our days, making of it all a gift.

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This book was provided by the William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the box at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging  communities on a regular basis.  They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week.  I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.

Till We Have Faces (5): Why Should Our Hearts Not Dance?

Welcome to Week 5 of our discussion group around C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces.  I haven’t taken time to figure out how many of us are reading through the book together, but I have become aware that as many of us are reading and sharing our insights, there are also many who are following along with the discussion with the plan of reading the book in the future.  Having said that, thank you for your great thoughts, and let’s get started with the . . . 

. . . Plot Summary (Chapters 10-12)

It truly was Psyche, standing alive and in good health on the far side of the river!

Leaving Bardia behind, Orual forded the river with plans of rescue and reunion, but was confronted instead with a riddle to be solved:  Should she trust her eyes — which showed her nothing but rags and wilderness — or should she believe Psyche’s account of an invisible palace and an unseen god who is now her husband?  Unable to sway Psyche from her resolve, Orual re-crosses the river for the night, but,  in the early twilight wanders back to the river and glimpses Psyche’s palace through the mist — but only for a moment.  Was this a lifting of the cloud from her mortal eyes — or a trick of the gods?  Bardia reluctantly weighs in with with a truth statement that Orual  was unwilling to reach on her own, but which strengthens her resolve that the time has come to confront the gods.

Reflection

If ever we doubted that these two sisters see the world through differing lenses, Orual and Psyche’s meeting Beyond the Tree draws the difference large!  Big-Sister remains in her adversarial position against the gods and has framed her account of all the happenings as a “charge against the gods” (117).  With multiple metaphors (“two bits of a broken bone”; “a rasping together of two worlds”) (120) Orual makes it clear that she feels that the gods have stolen her sister away from her and her world, and that the land beyond The Tree is a dreadful place.  In the midst of their stand off, she admits that she hates “all these cruel, dark things,” (124) that she wants no part of it, and she begs Psyche to come back to “the real world” (125) with her.

Bearing witness to Psyche’s tale of life among the gods brought to mind C.S. Lewis’s real-life indicator for one’s having been in the presence of God:

“The real test of being in the presence of God is, that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object.”

According to Psyche’s experience, what Orual insisted on calling the “real world” grew pale beside her sighting of the West-wind.  Humans appear as pale as lepers beside deity, and her only awareness of her self (as a mortal) was that we are  “small” and “dirty” by comparison (111).   Psyche described her husband coming to her in “holy darkness” (137), which amounted to an appalling condition of secrecy and horror to Orual.

Once again, Lewis puts words in Bardia’s mouth that are truer than Bardia knows.  Did anyone else catch his shadowy allusion to the Professor’s assessment of Lucy’s sanity in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe? As it was with young Lucy, so it is with Psyche:

“One has only to look at her and talk to her to see that she is not mad.”  (LWW 48)

Some Issues to Ponder

Orual saw no palace, tasted no wine, witnessed no banquet, and ultimately dismissed the only vision she was granted of her sister’s new world.  Looking back to Chapter 9 and Orual’s journey on horseback up The Mountain where “the whole colored world with all its hills was heaped up and up to the sky,” I’m wondering about the glimpse of happiness she had then and the voice that came to her “like frolic” saying “Why should your heart not dance?” Was this another invitation — rejected out of pride and self pity?  Psyche repeats the invitation almost verbatim a few pages later, including herself in the merriment:  “Why should our hearts not dance?”

A glimmer of a New Testament story popped into my head as Orual was trying to decide if her vision of the palace was “real” or merely the mockery of the gods.  For a few blissful minutes (or seconds?) Peter discovered that he could walk with Jesus on water, and he found that his feet were dancing on the swells of that stormy sea — until doubt put an end to the dance.  Years later, near the end of his life, I wonder if Peter was thinking of that evening as he wrote words of encouragement about believing without seeing to scattered believers being tested by fire.  Was he recalling the momentary, inexpressible, and glorious joy of walking on waves, of joining Jesus in a watery dance of faith?

Orual is willing to “dance” only on her own terms.
She has defined happiness as a return to the way things were.
She has seen that Psyche is happy in her new life, but this new happiness is unacceptable to her.
Orual has given a name to her resolve to end this happiness . . . and she is calling it “love.”

Your Turn

Orual could not sleep during her night on The Mountain.  She listed physical discomfort (the cold and the lay of the land), “the Riddle” that was plaguing her mind,  and then she mentioned “Another Thing” that kept her awake.  Any thoughts on what that other thing was?

Psyche’s face was painted on her journey up The Mountain:  “It made my face stiff till it didn’t seem to be my own face.”  The god who comes to Psyche under the cover of darkness refuses to let his face be seen.  Orual has been limited and defined for her entire life by the appearance of her face.  C.S. Lewis is dropping hints about the odd title for this story, but we don’t have all the pieces yet.  Any thoughts on this puzzle?

Have you ever been on the receiving end of Orual’s brand of love?  Do you ever find yourself re-defining love to justify something you think needs to be done?

Next Time

Since there are only two chairs in every room — the chair of faith and the chair of unbelief — I am challenged by this tale of two sisters to be very careful before making the decision to sit anywhere else but in the chair of faith.

Next Thursday (February 9th), I’ll be here having read Chapters 13-15 and will look forward to meeting with you again.

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A Theology of Happiness

When I pause for a minute to ask my self what I really want in life, my unedited first response is . . . well, embarrassing.  I want to be happy, and my shallow definition of a “happy” life looks something like this:  a vehicle that never breaks down, children who behave well and experience a measure of success, a maintenance-free house, and a healthy body.  Now, truly, there is nothing wrong with any of these lovely things — or even with my desire for them.  However, life on a fallen planet makes their simultaneous fulfillment unlikely, at best.  This is why those of us who believingly follow Jesus Christ must find our way to A Different Kind of Happiness — one that does not depend upon a problem-free life.

Larry Crabb offers helpful clarification for my happiness-seeking heart by tying my understanding of happiness to the notion that happiness comes from loving others sacrificially.  Because this flies in the face of our instinct for self-protection and desire for instant well-being, Larry’s argument unfolds over the course of over two hundred well-constructed and earnestly compelling pages.

We’ve long distinguished between happiness and joy, but Larry uses the words interchangeably, instead creating two helpful categories of happiness:

  1.  “Second Thing Happiness” — which requires at least some of the things on my list in order to feel good;
  2. “First Thing Happiness” —  which is entirely different and “develops when we struggle to love others with a costly love that is possible only if we have a life-giving relationship with Jesus that is grounded entirely in His love for us.”

Does this sound unrealistic?  Does it sound as if it contradicts what we know and experience on this “narrow road that leads to life?”  No one would argue with the truth that the happiness and joy that Jesus experienced in His time on this planet came from giving Himself. And only the gloomiest of theologians would argue against the notion that God is supremely happy, and that He wants to draw us into that happiness.  Yet, at the same time both Old and New Testaments describe Jesus as a Man of Sorrows “and acquainted with grief.”  He was a free agent, entering into suffering — and doing it on behalf of unworthy people, (Romans 5:7,8).

The good news that God draws us into involves life on a narrow road.  For Larry Crabb, this has included a cancer diagnosis, ongoing treatment over a period of years, several recurrences, and now a new episode of treatment being ushered in just as he was grappling with the concepts in this book.  Misery like this is just one of the symptoms of this life under the sun.  However, Scripture, prayer, and a life centered around spiritual discipline offer us a glimpse of life from above the sun in which we pray for grace to relate to others in a loving way that puts Him on display no matter what our outward circumstances.  Larry calls this the prayer “that God always answers.”

The jarring truth that we look for our happiness in all the wrong places is supported by two facts that sound distinctly heretical:  (1)Sinful urges come from a place within us that is experienced on a deeper level than our redemption; (2)Sin delivers a pleasure that Jesus never provides.

If that’s the case, then, how is it possible to find happiness along with a life of holiness?

“In order to compete with sin’s appeal, holy desire, the longing to live a Christlike life that displays the relational beauty of Christ to others, must be rooted in faith.  And that faith exists only when it is lodged in the certainty that soon it will give way to an incomparable experience of joy that will forever destroy the appeal for sin.”

The goal of Christlikeness is always a long way off, but life on the narrow road is designed to “squeeze” the unholiness out of His followers, leaving them free to follow hard after the prize of knowing God at any cost and to hate anything that obscures the reality of God’s loving presence.

The antidote to our persistent “Broad Road Thinking” is a heavy dose of the Gospel which Larry examines in the context of seven probing questions:

  1.  Who is God?  God is relational, a three-Person community of love, fully committed to the happiness of others.  Even His glory is relational.
  2. What is God up to?  He is devoting His unlimited resources to forming those who receive the gospel into disciples who relate like Jesus.
  3. Who are we? We are relational persons with a potential waiting to be realized, created to know joy in knowing God, with potential to put Jesus on display.
  4. What’s gone wrong?  As a race, we’ve rejected God’s identity as “the source of all that is good.”   We look elsewhere for goodness and happiness.
  5. What has God done about our problem?  He killed His Son.  Of course, this will seem of little consequence if we persist in settling for “Second Thing Happiness.”
  6. How is the Spirit working to implement the divine solution to our human problem?  This side of heaven, “we experience the Holy Spirit’s presence most richly in our darkness and distress” and “His power most potently in our weakness and failure.”
  7. How can we cooperate with the Spirit’s working?  By never giving up on ourselves and others; by battling for a better love and seeking to truly know one another; by giving in both word and deed.

What would happen if we threw ourselves into this battle for a better love?  The happiness that Jesus experienced on this Earth coexisted beside the worst kind of anguish and suffering.  It was fueled by deep and significant relationships.  Truly His narrow way is the way that leads to life.

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This book was provided by BakerBooks, a division of Baker Publishing Group, in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”Subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews from Living Our Days delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the box at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging  communities on a regular basis.  They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week.  I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.

Fabulous and Full of Life!

Everyday, the townspeople of Thrim would ask, “Hey, Yoj, how are you today?”

And everyday, Yoj would answer, “I am fabulous and full of life!”

And why shouldn’t he be?  Yoj was the happy doll maker who awoke each day with a song on his lips and dinner invitations almost every night — until one day a mysterious stranger from the Shadowland arrived with promises of influence and wealth.

Without a thought or a prayer, Yoj followed the stranger to a gray land of small dreams and regret.  Is his happy life in the Kingdom of Thrim forever lost?  Is there hope of joy for the other residents of Shadowland?

Journey through The Kingdom of Thrim with author/illustrator Janis Cox where young readers will learn that you just can’t put a price tag on joy.  When all the color goes out of Yoj’s world, he learns that the path to fulfillment and peace comes through using the unique gifts that God has given.

Opportunities for Family Discussion

The imaginary Kingdom of Thrim comes under the jurisdiction of the God of heaven, which opens the way for conversations about gifting and true happiness.  Yoj’s predicament reminded me of the story of the Gibeonites with whom Joshua threw in his lot without first consulting with God through prayer.  Reading this account as a family is a good follow up to the story.  How are Joshua’s and Yoj’s situations similar?  How are they different?

A number of good biographies have been  written about the life of Eric Liddell, Olympic runner and disciple of Jesus Christ.  He knew all about the joy that comes from doing what God had designed him to do, and is famous for having said, “God made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.” After having read both stories, help your children to reach a conclusion about what Yoj would have said, “God made me _____________, and when I __________________, I feel His pleasure.”   Test their awareness of their own unique gifting by asking, “How would you fill in the blanks?”  Be prepared to share your own answers as well!

It’s clear that Yoj and his friends from the Shadowland learned the glorious secret of Colossians 3:23,24:

23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, 24 since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.

The Kingdom of Thrim is the true home of all who put their whole heart and soul into doing what God has designed them to do.

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This book was provided by the author in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Be sure to visit author Janis Cox’s website for more information about her and her books!

Subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews from Living Our Days delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the box at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging  communities on a regular basis.  They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week.  I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.

 

Finding Abundance in the Shadow of Death

A journey through cancer and a journey of joy would seem to be two very divergent paths — particularly if the cancer is terminal and if it hits in the midst of a season of health and productivity.  However, Steve and Sharol Hayner have invited readers into their experience of Joy in the Journey  — a hard pilgrimage that took them through pancreatic cancer, chemotherapy infusions, side effects, great pain, and loss.  They pull back the curtain on grace lessons from their day-to-day struggle to live their way into acceptance and peace.

Throughout Steve’s illness, the Hayners kept family and friends up-to-date using the CaringBridge website, never intending to write a book.  However, their authentic writing and the deeply theological truth they share work in tandem so that Joy in the Journey avoids sentimentality, instead singing in the key of biblical lament.  Abounding in grace, Steve writes through days in which he “prays his goodbyes” to the people he loves and to his career as president of Columbia Seminary.  Sharol walks her own grieving with traveling mercies that allow her to wait through the weeks of unanswered questions and the months of serial unknowns.

Disappointing test results, a galloping malignancy, and nine short months of living and dying with a terminal disease demonstrate on a macro scale what those of us who believingly follow Christ know well:  life is fraught with — even characterized by — tumultuous days.  Able-bodies and good health make daily adjustments to circumstances and changing relationships a bit easier, but in all the unmet expectations that are part of “every normal, mundane day,” it is clear the we are being prepared — through our daily disciplines and laborious attempts to follow Jesus — for darker seasons and a deeper following.  It is our response to suffering of all types that determines the impact the suffering will have on our soul, and Steve’s thoughtful reflections from the valley of the shadow yield helpful reinforcement toward a right response:

  • When Jesus is all you have, you soon discover that Jesus is all you really need.
  • As long as I have life on this earth, I have a call.
  • God will never give up in His work to transform me into the likeness of Jesus.
  • Joy is not about my circumstances, but rather about being held and sustained by God’s love.

Obviously, there is no “right way” to transition out of this life, nor is there a “best way” to grieve, but this stunning memoir and tribute to a godly man puts a spot light on a melding of grief and gratitude that is both reassuring and motivational.  For those who are trusting God’s faithfulness, it is possible to claim the gift of joy even in the darkest days.


This book was provided by IVP Books, an imprint of Intervarsity Press, in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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