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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He Knows the Way that I take

He Knows the Way that I take

 

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As this is a holiday weekend here I’ve had more spare time than usual, so today I decided to take myself to the local woods  for a walk. As soon as I arrived there, I realised that it was during this very week in 2013 that I had walked there with a friend while Leah and Nic had their photoshoot done. Alison Hill did an amazing job of those photos and Leah loved them.

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I was so emotionally fragile at that time (shortly after Leah had been diagnosed) and a walk in the woods with a friend was just what I needed. As all of these memories came flooding back I was glad that the woods were very quiet today. I needed to be alone with my thoughts. As I walked along I enjoyed taking photos of anything that caught my eye:

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When I came to my favourite bench, I sat for a while and studied the photos that I had taken. Most of them were of the path. I reflected on this for a while, then I used my phone to look up Bible verses that mention the word ‘path’. I was somewhat surprised to discover that the word path is used quite often in the Bible. Here are some of the verses I found:

You make known to me the path of life;

   you will fill me with joy in your presence,

   with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

Psalm 16:11 NIV

 

Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.

Psalm 119:105 NIV

 

Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.

Proverbs 3:5-6 NIV

 

Earlier today I had also read this excerpt from Streams in the Desert which mentions paths:

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After coming home from my walk I looked in my diary to see exactly when I had taken Leah for her photoshoot and what I had written about the event – I had certainly been in a very distressed state that day due to all that was happening. As I glanced over some of my journal entries, my attention was suddenly caught by something I had written on the 5th January 2014 while I was sitting with Leah in the ICU in Belfast City Hospital. Leah’s diagnosis had recently changed from PCP pneumonia to probable pneumonitis. On the 4th January, one of the consultants had taken me aside and had spelled out in words of one syllable what the implications of this new diagnosis were i.e. that Leah was very unlikely to survive. I was still praying and believing for Leah to be healed but as I wrestled with God regarding all that was happening, I had transcribed some words of an old hymn into my journal:

Yea, choose the path for me, although I may not see,

The reason Thou dost will to lead me so.

I know the toilsome way will lead to realms of day,

Where I shall dwell with Thee, O mighty Saviour.

 

There is that ‘path’ word again, all of this serves to reinforce for me the truth of Job 23:10; “He knows the way that I take” and He is with me every step of the way.

 

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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Wrestling with God

Wrestling with God

One of the devotionals that I regularly use during my daily time with God is the First 5 app  from Proverbs 31 Ministries. This app is free to download and is compatible with iOS and Android. The First 5 app provides written Bible teaching Monday through Friday, with a teaching video every Saturday that includes a summary of the learning from the previous week.

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A few weeks ago the weekend teaching was based on 2 Corinthians 12: 8-12 and was presented by Lysa TerKeurst, who is president of Proverbs 31 Ministries. Her message was entitled Perseverance through Pain. Earlier this year Lysa had a significant health scare which resulted in her undergoing surgery to remove half her colon. The results could have been devastating, but she has made an excellent recovery. At the time Lysa wrote on her public Facebook page:

I have no words. Except “thank you.” Thank You, God. Thank you friends who prayed me through this. Thank you to this surgeon who finally figured out why I was in excruciating pain for days and days in that hospital bed.
Thank you that I still get to do life.

In her weekend teaching Lysa referred to her recent illness and recovery and talked about finding joy during difficult times and about the gift of experiencing God’s grace despite the pain. However Lysa is very clear that she doesn’t want to offer ‘easy answers’ to those who have prayed for healing for themselves or their loved ones and instead of God saying ‘yes’ He has apparently said ‘no’. Lysa talked about the death of her sister as a result of ‘a medical tragedy’. She said that after her sister died, she very much did not want people to offer her ‘easy answers’ as to why this tragedy had happened, because she needed space to ‘wrestle well’ with God.

Lysa’s phrase about wrestling well with God really resonated with me. I’ve written here before about wrestling with God. I don’t feel that I ever ‘lost’ my faith during Leah’s illness and death, however I have ‘wrestled with God’ over it all and I continue to do so as I seek to reconcile the events that have taken place, with what I believe to be true about God and about life. Tragedy and suffering definitely alter the lens through which everything is viewed.

Last weekend my husband and I watched the film Shadowlands, which is based on the romantic relationship between Oxford academic C. S. Lewis  and American poet  Joy Gresham, her death from cancer, and how this challenged Lewis’ Christian faith. We had previously watched the film when it was first released in 1993. This time round we found the film absolutely heart-breaking and we could identify with so much of it. However our recollection of watching it on the previous occasion many years ago, was of it being a ‘nice love story with beautiful scenery and a sad ending’!

There is a part towards the end of the film (at 1hr 55 min) after Joy has died when C. S. Lewis is grieving deeply and he joins his academic friends/colleagues at a social gathering. Lewis says to his friends:
I wasn’t going to come tonight but then I thought I would.”
One of his friends responds:
Life must go on.
Lewis’s answer to this comment begins with the line:
I don’t know that it must, but it certainly does.
He then entreats his friends with the words:
Don’t tell me it’s all for the best.
Undeterred by Lewis’s heartfelt plea, one of his friends (one who wears a clerical collar) begins to give him a theological explanation for what has happened. At this point, C. S. Lewis, overcome with emotion, shouts at his friends, then apologises and quickly leaves. His parting words, said under his breath are:
I just wanted company tonight.

My husband and I have no recollection of this scene from the first time that we watched Shadowlands, but needless to mention, it impacted us greatly this time around. Although I feel greatly blessed by the many people that I have in my life who understand grief and loss and who continue to provide emotional support whenever I need it, I could also relate to this scene in which C.S. Lewis just wanted his grief and loss acknowledged and didn’t want to be offered ‘easy answers’. The scene is so heartfelt and poignant.

C. S. Lewis is also an excellent example of someone who knew how to wrestle well with God. His books continue to inspire long after his death and he is often quoted by other writers and speakers.

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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.

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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.

Remembering Merryn

Remembering Merryn

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I am really struggling to put my thoughts into words after attending Merryn’s Service of Thanksgiving today.

Leah was diagnosed in April 2013 and some of the members of Merryn’s extended family immediately came on board in their support of us.

Then in July 2013 came the devastating news of Merryn’s diagnosis. I was very concerned, as I perceived Merryn’s diagnosis of neuroblastoma to be far more serious than Leah’s diagnosis. Well, none of us know just how these things are going to work out, do we?

A few months after Leah died in January 2014, our church organised a walk and a climb in memory of Leah to raise funds for Merryn. This raised £9,100 for the Merryn Lacy Trust

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I followed closely the posts on Facebook written by Merryn’s parents. Recently, as I read these posts and looked at the photos of Merryn, my heart sank. I could see that Merryn was a very ill little girl and that her parents were hearing and seeing things that no parent ever wants to hear or see. Jenny and Michael did their best to inject hope and positivity into the posts that they wrote, but I could sense their heartache and their despair.

I remember the days of the ‘positive spin’. I can recall discussing this with another cancer mum when Leah and I were in Bristol. This mum and I agreed that the daily reality of caring for our very ill children and witnessing their suffering, was at times so harrowing, that there was no way that we could inflict the undiluted truth on the unsuspecting public.

‘Positive spin’ was a technique that we deliberately employed, to protect our friends and our family, from the full extent of how difficult and distressing our circumstances truly were. Of course, we also wanted to preserve hope – ours and everyone else’s. Hope was our lifeline. We became experts at finding hope, when humanly speaking, there was little to be found. I remember ‘celebrating’ and writing any day that I don’t get bad news is a good day, when an ICU consultant told me one day that there had been no further deterioration in Leah’s condition. After days of being consistently told that Leah’s condition was steadily deteriorating and that she was unlikely to recover, I clung to whatever hope I could find, all the while praying fervently for a miracle of healing.

I recollect sitting on the hard chairs outside ICU in Belfast City Hospital, writing updates about Leah’s medical condition, trying to be as honest as I could and give enough accurate information so that people could pray for us, but then also injecting as much ‘positivity’ as I could muster. I clearly recall writing the last update on Wednesday 15th January 2014 and thinking “Vicky, the time for ‘injecting positivity’ has come to an end, just tell it like it is.” With an aching heart I wrote the words that no parent ever wants to utter: “At present it looks likely that end of life care for Leah will be put in place tomorrow Thursday.

On Wednesday past, the 4th May, a friend contacted me at work to tell me that Merryn had died. I was heartbroken, I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I sat alone in a Clinic Room and sobbed for all who knew and loved this beautiful little girl.

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Today, a white coffin was once again brought in to Kilfennan Presbyterian Church. Such a heartbreaking sight. I found it so hard to witness the pain etched in the faces of Merryn’s family members, knowing the road that they now must walk. This road of grief and loss and sadness.

There was comfort too, the comfort of friends, of family and of faith. In the weeks and months and years to come, Merryn’s family will need every ounce of this comfort.