Book Review: Even in Our Darkness

Book Review: Even in Our Darkness

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From the moment that I started reading this book, I couldn’t put it down. I read the first half last night, until sleep finally overtook me. I read the second half this morning when I woke up. I informed my husband “I will just read one chapter, then I will have breakfast.” My husband however knew me well enough not to expect me downstairs until the book was finished. As soon as I’d finished the book and had breakfast, I went at the housework like the Duracell Bunny, trying to make up for lost time!

I had read a review of this book a few months ago here. The fact that’s it’s recommended by Ann Voskamp, Matt Chandler, Dr John Townsend and R. T. Kendall along with Sam Storms’ very positive review convinced me that I needed to place this book on pre-order with Amazon, as it had not yet been published in the UK at that time.

Even in Our Darkness ~ A Story of Beauty in a Broken Life  is essentially the life story of Jack Deere. Jack grew up in Texas in a very dysfunctional family, the oldest of four children. His mum was volatile and at times beats him mercilessly. His dad was his childhood hero, but died by suicide in the family home when Jack was twelve years old. Jack then became a “wild child”.

At the age of seventeen, Jack became a Christian and his life changed dramatically. On the outside he lived an exemplary Christian life and was a role model for other young people. In private he continued to battle his besetting sins.

Jack has a brilliant mind and is a gifted communicator and within a few years he secured a prestigious teaching post at Dallas Theological Seminary, while also pastoring a church. He married a woman that he loved deeply and they had three children.

Jack subsequently was asked to leave Dallas Theological Seminary due to his association with  John Wimber and the Vineyard Movement. Jack wrote several popular books and thousands came to hear him speak. Jack and his wife ministered side by side and witnessed miraculous healings. Sadly, their younger son Scott was a troubled young man, who died by suicide in the family home Christmas 2000.

All Jack’s wife ever wanted out of life was to be a wife and mother, her son’s death pushed her over the edge. She went into a downward spiral of addiction and substance abuse. She interpreted Jack’s attempts to help her as him trying to “control” her. She accused him of being abusive towards her and left.

To find out how the story ends you will have to read the book. There are so many threads running through this story that I found it riveting on many different levels. There are currently 97 reviews for this book on Amazon.com and 83 of these are five star reviews. I haven’t read all the reviews, but from what I’ve read it seems that each reader interprets this book through the lens of what is relevant to them personally.

Naturally I read the book through my lens of being a bereaved parent. These are a few of the thoughts that came to me while reading this book: It is possible to experience trauma in life and subsequently become a Christian and believe “Everything is okay now, all that stuff that happened in the past doesn’t affect me anymore.” Everything does indeed appear to be okay until tragedy strikes, then you find yourself teetering on the edge of sanity and wondering if the version of Christianity that you’ve known up until now really is sufficient for such a time as this.

Hopefully however, as you walk through your own personal valley of the shadow of death, you will discover the theology of suffering and feel the nearness of the God who sticks closer than a brother, just as Jack Deere and many others have done. I will conclude with a quote from the penultimate chapter of the book:

The people who recover from the wreckage of their trauma are the people who can write a new story for their lives where their pain betters them. ~ Jack Deere 

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God on Mute ~ A Book Review

God on Mute ~ A Book Review

Many years ago, before we had children of our own and life became crazy busy, we used to run a children’s Bible Club every week in our garage for all the local children. One of their favourite songs to sing each week went like this:

Sometimes God answers ‘yes’ when I pray.
Sometimes God answers ‘yes’ when I pray.
Sometimes God answers ‘yes’ just because He loves me so.
But I know He always answers when I pray.

Sometimes God answers ‘wait’ when I pray.
Sometimes God answers ‘wait’ when I pray.
Sometimes God answers ‘wait’ just because He loves me so.
But I know He always answers when I pray.

Sometimes God answers ‘no’ when I pray.
Sometimes God answers ‘no’ when I pray.
Sometimes God answers ‘no’ just because He loves me so.
But I know He always answers when I pray.

It is very easy to sing these words as a catchy little tune. It is much harder to believe and accept them when the prayer to which God has apparently said ‘no’ to relates to saving the life of your teenage daughter.

Since Leah died there has never been a day when I haven’t talked to God in some shape, form or fashion. Yet, I no longer know exactly what I believe about prayer. Although I pray diligently for people to be healed and helped, while some prayers are answered in the way that I want them to be, others clearly aren’t.

For this reason, I recently read a whole book about prayer. It’s called God on Mute:Engaging the Silence of Unanswered Prayer by Pete Greig. Pete Greig is a writer, church-planter, pastor and founder of the 24-7 Prayer movement. 24-7 Prayer is an international, interdenominational movement of prayer, mission and justice working in more than half the nations on earth.

God on Mute was written out of Pete’s personal experience of the miraculous power of prayer alongside the pain of unanswered prayer and his own struggles with that paradox. Just after the birth of the 24-7 Prayer Movement as well as that of his second child, Pete’s wife Sammy was diagnosed with a massive brain tumour. Subsequent surgery to remove the cancer was successful, but Sammy continues to suffer severe epilepsy, despite fervent and heartfelt prayer for her complete healing.

I found this book very helpful. Pete is not afraid to ask the hard questions, the kind of ones that you might think about in bed at night, but wouldn’t dare admit to anyone in case they might think that you had lost your faith (or your marbles). He also has a wonderful sense of humour, which I very much appreciate.

The way that Pete writes around the story of his wife’s illness and (partial) recovery made the book very readable for me, while at the same time there is also plenty of theological substance to it. Pete is clearly very well read and he quotes plentifully from other relevant writers and speakers.

In Chapter 1 Pete says regarding his wife’s illness:

“Outwardly, I tried to give an impression of stoic endurance, and there were times when I did feel very calm. But I was also scared that Sammy might die if I didn’t pray enough, or if I didn’t have enough faith, or if I didn’t fast enough, or if I didn’t bind some disembodied principality, or if I didn’t repent of some root sin, or if I didn’t strap her on a stretcher bound for Lourdes, or if I didn’t agree with Benny Hinn. Surely I thought, God would not disqualify her on a technicality?”

If the author had been standing in front of me at that moment I would have hugged him. In some of my darkest moments since Leah died, I too have wondered about some of the things that he mentions here and it was a relief to have this very Godly man, whom I greatly admire, tackle them openly in his book.

One very emotional part for me was in Chapter 5 when Pete describes a situation where the wife of a missionary couple in his church was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Pete was really struggling with this until this woman’s husband came to him and said:

‘Pete, many times in our lives Barbara and I have needed to exercise faith. Faith for healing in the face of sickness. Faith for finances when we had no food in the cupboard or when we lost everything. Faith for guidance. But this time, God has asked us to trust Him in a different way: to have faith not for healing but for dying. The challenge she’s facing is to die well, to die peacefully, to trust God and to love God in the most frightening days of her life.’

At various stages in the book Pete addresses possible reasons for unanswered prayer – he cites fifteen in total. Something that particularly resonated with me was contained within the section: Reason 5 -Doctrine:  ‘Some prayers aren’t answered the way we think they should be because our understanding and expectations of God are wrong.‘ In this portion he states ‘Preachers who say that it is always God’s will to heal simply have no theology of suffering.

Overall, I found the 300+ pages of this book very readable. I felt that the author completely understood where I was coming from with my doubts and my questions about prayer. The various quotes and references he includes in the book have helped me to think about prayer in many different ways, some of which I had not thought about before. I definitely would recommend this book to anyone who is struggling with the issue of unanswered prayer.

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The Beauty of Solitude

The Beauty of Solitude

I am very much a people person – I really enjoy meeting people and spending time with family and friends. However I also enjoy solitude. The topic of solitude came up in one of my devotional readings this past week and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Solitude can be defined as ‘the state or situation of being alone‘. It is very different to loneliness:

Language… has created the word “loneliness” to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word “solitude” to express the glory of being alone.Paul Johannes Tillich

The Bible commends the practice of solitude, with verses like ‘Be still and know that I am God.Psalm 46:10. It’s hard to ‘be still’ when we are surrounded by people. During His adult life on earth, Jesus set us an example by regularly taking himself away to a quiet spot to pray. Matthew 14:23, Matthew 15:29, Luke 5:16 Luke 6:12

When our children were small I used to be glad of their nap time just to get a bit of time to myself; to read, to pray and sometimes just to think a situation through. In later years when I returned to working outside the home, it became very difficult to get time alone and I found myself struggling emotionally and spiritually.

Isolation is aloneness that feels forced upon you, like a punishment. Solitude is aloneness you choose and embrace. I think great things can come out of solitude, out of going to a place where all is quiet except the beating of your heart.Jeanne Marie Laskas

Eventually a few years ago, after a particularly stressful time in my life, I came to the conclusion that ‘being sleep deprived was preferable to being God deprived’ and I made a decision to start getting up earlier in the morning, before anybody else was awake, in order to enjoy complete peace and quiet and to be guaranteed some time alone with God. It was one of the best decisions that I’ve ever made.

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I often think back (with some amusement) to an incident that happened many years ago when I was young and single: my friend Julie and I were away somewhere overnight and we needed to get back on the road early the next morning. At bedtime I asked Julie what time she was setting the alarm clock for but I was very taken aback by her reply: she calmly explained that she needed to get up quite early in order to have time to read and pray before we set off for the day. I firmly told Julie that I needed my sleep and that she could call me shortly before it was time to leave. When I woke up the next morning Julie was already fully dressed and she was sitting quietly with her Bible and her copy of Operation World. I guess it took me another 20 years to learn from her example – maybe I’m a slow learner?!

In Bristol Children’s Hospital Leah could choose what time her day began. Unlike me, Leah wasn’t a morning person, so she usually didn’t start her day until 10.00 am. I generally started mine at 8.00 am, which gave me two hours to read, pray, shower, dress, eat breakfast and gather my thoughts, before Leah woke and needed me. That little piece of ‘solitude’ helped me to survive in what was a very stressful situation.

I remember being in the transplant unit  with Leah and feeling terribly traumatised by how ill Leah was and by everything that was happening around us. I read up online about the effects of trauma and I discovered that there was such a thing as ‘post-traumatic growth’. There and then I prayed and asked God that no matter what happened in Leah’s situation, that He would help Leah and I to trust Him every step of the way and that the eventual outcome would be ‘post-traumatic growth’ and not ‘post-traumatic stress’.

I don’t find life easy by any stretch of the imagination, but getting up early most mornings to enjoy a little solitude, to read my Bible and pray and gather my thoughts, helps me to face the day. I believe that this practice has helped towards building resilience into my life.

In his sermon entitled Take a Break from the Chaos David Mathis tells us:

You need a break from the chaos, from the noise and the crowds, more than you may think at first. You need the spiritual disciplines of silence and solitude.

This sermon is well worth reading, or for more in depth reading on the topic you can download a free PDF  of David Mathis’ book Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus Through the Spiritual DisciplinesI haven’t read the whole book, I’ve dipped in and out of it. I especially enjoyed the chapter entitled ‘The Clock’ which discusses ‘time management’ from a Christian perspective and his epilogue which is entitled ‘Communing with Christ on a Crazy Day‘, because there are some days when I find myself wishing that I had never got out of bed! In closing I will share a quote from this book that resonated with me:

We might get alone and be quiet to hear our own internal voice, the murmurs of our soul that are easily drowned out in noise and crowds. But the most important voice to hear in the silence is God’s.

David Mathis

When Your Family’s Lost a Loved One ~ A Book Review

When Your Family’s Lost a Loved One ~ A Book Review

Having finally got a few days to myself, I am disciplining myself to start working my way through the mound of unread books on my bookshelves. One of these books is When Your Family’s Lost a Loved One: Finding Hope Together  written by David and Nancy Guthrie and published by Focus on the Family.

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Nancy and David Guthrie have one surviving son and they buried two children in infancy due to a genetic condition called Zellweger Syndrome . This is the kind of book that you could keep within reach for the first two or three years after a family bereavement, for all family members to dip in and out of, as they feel able. It is relatively easy to read, and very helpful. Nancy is a gifted writer and speaker. I was so blessed to have been able to hear her speak live in Belfast, last year, at the Irish Women’s Convention.

This book covers every aspect of family grief; such as preserving the marriage relationship, parenting grieving children, surviving holidays, displaying photographs and belongings of the person who has died, dealing with ‘well-wishers’, holding on to your faith, all discussed in a realistic and practical way.

The book also features interviews with others who have experienced different types of grief, such as the loss of a spouse, a parent or the loss of an older child to suicide.

This book is written from a faith perspective but in a sensitive way – we aren’t expected to smile and be happy just because our loved one is in a better place.

The closing chapter is entitled ‘Going On‘ and here Nancy writes:

“There comes a time in our grief that we realise we have to figure out how to keep on living, how to incorporate the loss into our lives. We want to feel normal again, to feel joy again. But even entertaining that prospect feels like a betrayal of the person who is gone……..If we choose to let go of the pain, or at least let it become manageable, it doesn’t mean we love the one we’ve lost any less. And it doesn’t mean that person’s life was any less significant or meaningful or that we will forget. Perhaps it’s not so much that we let go of our grief, but that we give our grief permission to lessen its grip on us.”

I have read several of Nancy’s books and always find them to be sensitive, helpful and easy to read. This book would make an excellent gift for any family who are seeking to navigate their way through grief in the context of a strong Christian faith. Nancy closes with the words:

Your loss has given you a new appreciation for life – and a new anticipation of eternity.

A discussion guide to use with this book is available here.

Colors of Goodbye ~ A Book Review

Colors of Goodbye ~ A Book Review

Despite my determination NOT to buy any more new books until I had made some inroads into the pile of unread titles weighing down my bookshelves, as soon as I read about the new book written by September Vaudrey and published last month, I was hooked. Within minutes my fingers had navigated the familiar keys of my keyboard, the book was ordered and it was on its’ way.

Colors of Goodbye

As soon as it arrived, Colors of Goodbye: A Memoir of Holding On, Letting Go, and Reclaiming Joy in the Wake of Loss captivated me with its tasteful cover and the delicate artwork that marks the beginning of each new chapter. I couldn’t wait to start reading it. I read the entire 292 pages in less than a week. There is much about September’s journey as a grieving mother that is different to mine, but there are also many similarities. September’s 19 year old daughter has a car accident and she is in a coma. They are told that she is ‘brain dead’.

September is a natural writer, she shares openly and authentically with her readers how she processes everything that happens:

Praying and hoping that God will perform a miracle and heal Katie.

Wondering if she should tell her adult children everything about Katie’s medical condition before they fly home or if she should wait and speak to them face to face, but thereby run the risk of them being informed via social media or text whilst en route?

September describes being alone with her daughter in ICU and noticing how quiet it is, save the beeping of the monitors and the rhythmic whoosh of the ventilator. She holds her daughter’s hand and asks herself “Is this real or is it a parent’s worst nightmare?” I too was that parent, alone in an ICU room with my unconscious daughter and the sounds of beeping and swooshing, knowing I would never again hear my daughter’s voice or feel her loving embrace.

Interspersed with these details are references to September’s unshakeable faith in a God who cares and her unfaltering sense of humour – I felt so at home in this book.

September writes through her pain and talks us through some of the challenges of being a grieving parent who is parenting grieving children. She speaks of her and her husband being together, yet alone – he doesn’t know what it feels like for a mother to lose a daughter and she doesn’t know what it’s like for a father to lose his little girl. Their four other children are teenagers and young adults and between the six of them they demonstrate a range of grieving styles. September describes the delicate process of learning to respect each other’s ways of coping. Her stoic husband Scott describes their grief and loss as being like an amputation – ‘the wound will eventually heal but we’ll still be missing an arm.

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September gives us insight into her thought processes as she endeavours to both hold on and let go. To find enduring ways to remember Katie and honour her place in their family, whilst at the same time not wishing to turn their home into a ‘Katie shrine’. September talks about the gaping wound in her soul that her daughter’s death has created and how easy it would be to fill this hole with bitterness, anger and self-pity. On the three year anniversary of her daughter’s death September discovers that the sorrow that has been her constant companion since Katie died was now mingled with ‘an inexplicable sense of peace and unapologetic sparks of joy’. September writes of this discovery:

God, always the gentleman, had not rushed me or demanded I accept this life whose story line still horrified me, and perhaps always would. He had simply continued to invite and to fan little embers of joy beneath the ashes as constant reminders of His love for me. He had not forgotten me or my family or our pain.

September’s authentic voice, as she writes movingly about the life and death of her beautiful daughter Katie and life after loss, has helped me to reflect on my own grief journey. Whilst travelling through the story of this grieving mama, I have revisited some of my own difficult places and found little pieces of healing. I highly recommend this book to anyone seeking to navigate the minefields of grief and loss while holding on to their faith in a loving God.

In this 6 minute video September and Scott talk about their loss. Scott says that he has good news and bad news: the good news is that you won’t always feel this way, that gradually the intolerable ache softens, the bad news is that you never get over this. He says that he’s learned to get on with life, but the loss of his daughter is always just below the surface. September says that in the almost eight years since Katie died, that God has continuously showed up in their story, usually in the thumbprints of other people – especially when people don’t forget your child and they don’t forget your sorrow – she describes ‘church’ as a community of people who do life together.

Breaking Bad News

Breaking Bad News

As most of you already know, Leah’s first blood test was on her fifteenth birthday – New Year’s Eve 2012. She died 16th January 2014. Her illness spanned one year and sixteen days.

In effect, this means that every month contains some kind of ‘anniversary’ – these ‘hidden anniversaries’ vary in terms of painful intensity. I try hard not to dwell constantly on the past or ‘wallow’ in negativity, but some dates and events are so traumatic that they are very deeply etched into my brain.

Sadly, today is one of those dates, one of the many days that I wish I could erase from my personal history because it continues to feel so very painful. Three years ago today I answered a ‘withheld call’ and grappled to process the very unwelcome information that the stranger at the other end spewed in my ear. While I was conversing with this doctor, Leah, quiet and dignified, sat beside me and did an internet search of ‘myelodysplasia’ and ‘bone marrow transplant’ on her smartphone.

I did an internet search today to see what kind of information Leah might have been confronted with that day as she ‘googled’ while the doctor and I talked. The first article that came up was this one that states ‘Myelodysplasia syndrome is rare in childhood, and most children have a rapidly progressive course.’ The second one states that: ‘The disease is most common in adults, especially elderly people, and the course varies, ranging from an acute, rapidly fatal illness to a chronic, indolent illness.’ and ‘Infection, rather than progression to AML, ultimately results in the demise of most patients with MDS.‘ I had to stop there as I could no longer see through my tears.

Six days later, on Thursday 25th April 2013, Leah participated enthusiastically in her annual Girl’s Brigade display, just like she had done every year since she was three years old.

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Saturday 27th April 2013, undeterred by her recent diagnosis, Leah had an amazing time away for the weekend with her Girl’s Brigade Company.

I’m told that hospital consultants ( and other senior staff) attend training sessions on how to break bad news to patients. To this day, it remains incomprehensible to me that anyone would think that it’s ‘acceptable practice’ to call a parent who you have never met and deliver such devastating news to a mother and child over the phone on a Friday afternoon.

Here is a portion of what I wrote in my journal later that day:

Blog post 19 April 13

I did not ‘google’ anything at that stage – I was scared and I didn’t want to know. It was Sunday night before I became aware of how much Leah already knew. I then asked her to show me what she had been reading online and we talked about it together.

I never imagined that anyone but me would ever glimpse some of my journal entries or that a day would come when I would share my thoughts and feelings as openly as I do now. However, writing is therapy. I derive enormous comfort and encouragement from following the blogs of other bereaved parents and some who have been bereaved in other ways. Not in a voyeuristic sense of course, it just helps to know that I’m not alone and that I’m not going crazy.

Me too

I follow several blogs of people with a Christian faith and I also follow some blogs that aren’t written from a faith perspective. Sometimes I have the time to read all the blogs that I follow, other times I don’t and I periodically do a ‘catch-up’.

A blog that I have recently started following and that is really blessing me is called  thelifeididntchoose (Walking in the Valley of the Shadow of Death). Melanie writes regularly and her posts are reasonably short and they are easy to understand. She writes from a faith perspective and she is authentic and real about how difficult this road is that we walk on as bereaved parents.

This morning as I sought strength to face yet another ‘hidden anniversary’ I clicked on  Melanie’s blog post from Thursday 14th April 2016. I knew immediately that it was God’s word for me in my situation. She quotes from a book by Nicholas P. Wolterstorff entitled Lament for a Son.

If sympathy for the world’s wounds is not enlarged by our anguish, if love for those around us is not expanded, if gratitude for what is good does not flame up, if insight is not deepened, if commitment to what is important is not strengthened, if aching for a new day is not intensified, if hope is weakened and faith diminished, if from the experience of death comes nothing good, then death has won. Then death, be proud.

So I shall struggle to live the reality of Christ’s rising and death’s dying. In my living, my son’s dying will not be the last word. But as I rise up, I bear the wounds of his death. My rising does not remove them. They mark me. If you want to know who I am, put your hand in.

~Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son

I read these words and thought “Yes, that just about sums up how I feel, both the positive and the negative!”

The Gift that Keeps on Giving

The Gift that Keeps on Giving

Before we went to Bristol I read the daily devotional Streams in the Desert via an app on my mobile phone. I was being blessed and helped by these devotional readings, which were first published in 1925.

While Leah and I were in Bristol one of the ways in which friends and family from home blessed us was with post – lots of it. We were the envy of the other families staying in Sam’s House because most of the post was for Leah and I.

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Every time Leah moved to a new hospital room, her boyfriend Nic helped to arrange her cards so that she could gaze at them from her bed and receive encouragement from them. During the weeks that Leah and I were able to stay at Sam’s House, her cards adorned our room there too.

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One day in August 2013 a package addressed to me was deliver to Sam’s House. The first thing I always try do is guess who a parcel is from. However the handwriting on this parcel was unfamiliar to me.

When I unwrapped the package there was an array of pocket sized items, thoughtfully chosen for my situation; lovely lip balm, pretty tissues, M&S boiled sweets, scented alcohol hand gel – all such necessary items for the circumstances that I was in at the time. Best of all, there was a beautiful leather bound copy of Streams in the Desert. All of this from a “Bible study friend” at home in N. Ireland.

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This little book, along with my Bible, has been a treasured part of my life since then. I would describe it as the daily devotional that reaches the parts that other devotionals don’t reach. Two and a half years on and it continues to be the gift that keeps on giving. I never cease to be amazed by how relevant it is to how I’m feeling or to what I am going through.

Here is an excerpt from today’s reading:

Streams in the Desert 16 April 16