Book Review: The Hardest Peace

Some of you may know the name Kara Tippetts. She was a young pastor’s wife and mom of four who blogged at Mundane Faithfulness, first as a mom blogger, but then sharing God’s grace in her diagnosis and battle against cancer. She passed away about a year ago and her blog now runs archives of her past posts. She came to national attention when, in the midst of her own battle, she wrote an open letter to Brittany Maynard, who was planning to employ physician-assisted suicide to avoid the downward spiral and suffering of a brain tumor, to beg her not to take that route, to promise that God would meet her in her suffering.

I didn’t read Kara’s blog regularly. I would look at the occasional post that someone linked to on Facebook or their blog. But it was too raw, too intense, too much (for me) to read every post.

Hardest PeaceBut I got her book, The Hardest Peace: Expecting Grace in the Midst of Life’s Hard when it was on sale. And just recently someone asked me if I knew of anything to help a woman she knows who is struggling to face her own cancer diagnosis, so I thought I’d read this and see if it would.

Ecclesiastes 7:2 says, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.” Nothing wrong with feasting (God planned some into Israel’s calendar, Jesus attended a wedding feast), parties, joy. But someone’s death or dying turns the heart and mind turn to the eternal like perhaps no other situation. We’re reminded that eternity is real, that life really is but a vapor, that Jesus provided a way for heaven, and not this world, to be our final home. That heaven isn’t a cheery add-on to a nice life, but it’s our real home, and this world is just one we’re “strangers and pilgrims” in.

And in Kara’s situation, it was not “just” illness, suffering, and death that she had to wrestle with. It was leaving her husband and children, and finding the peace to trust God that He would work this for good in their lives, and struggling to believe that this was His best for them, even praying for the woman who might some day take her place.

Kara gives us a brief biography of the kind of home she grew up in, of coming to know Christ as Savior, of going to work at a camp as a very raw, green, and unconventional recruit but experiencing life-changing growth in that place. Of meeting her husband and having to learn to put away the anger she grew up with. Of her four children, her husband’s ministry, a difficult church situation, moving to plant a church only to find their new home in a fire zone from which they had to be evacuated. And then receiving her diagnosis, fighting it with surgery and treatments, having it spread, and finally accepting that God was calling her home. She says in this trailer to a documentary made about her that she felt like a little girl at a party whose dad was telling her she had to leave early, and she was “throwing a fit” about it.

“Jason recently said in a sermon, ‘We want suffering to be like pregnancy—we have a season, and it’s over, and there is a tidy moral to the story.’ I’ve come to sense that isn’t what faith is at all. What if there is never an end? What if the story never improves and the tests continue to break our hearts? Is God still good?”

“It would be easier to shake my fist at the test results and scream that this isn’t the right story, but to receive—humbly receive—the story no one would ever want, and know there is goodness in the midst of its horror, is not something I could ever do in my own strength. I simply cannot. That receiving comes from the One who received His own suffering for a much greater purpose than my own.”

“That though the hard might come and our hearts be broken, that brokenness isn’t bad. The tears are evidence of our love for one another. They did not stop that day, and they will not stop in the days to come. But tears are a gift, not something to withhold or bottle up—they are the essence of the best of life.”

“Trusting God when the miracle does not come, when the urgent prayer gets no answer, when there is only darkness—this is the kind of faith God values perhaps most of all. This is the kind of faith that can be developed and displayed only in the midst of difficult circumstances. This is the kind of faith that cannot be shaken because it is the result of having been shaken. Nancy Guthrie, Holding on to Hope.”

“Sometimes the hardest peace to find is the peace in saying good-bye and leaving the work of justice and reconciliation to Jesus.”

“Hard is often the vehicle Jesus uses to meet us, point us to that peace, and teach us grace.”

“If the hardest is asked of us, we believe grace will be there.”

“Dear heart, the purpose of life is not longevity.”

“But because I believe God’s plans for me are better than what I could plan for myself, rather than run away from the path he has set before me, I want to run toward it. I don’t want to try to change God’s mind—his thoughts are perfect. I want to think his thoughts. I don’t want to change God’s timing—his timing is perfect. I want the grace to accept his timing. I don’t want to change God’s plan—his plan is perfect. I want to embrace his plan and see how he is glorified through it. I want to submit. Nancy Guthrie, Holding on to Hope.”

“Seeking grace has been a theme since I met Jesus, but it wasn’t the very air I breathed to get through each moment—each scary, hard moment. The looking has now become my practice. The names of the graces, the gifts I don’t deserve, is new to me. But I do not believe you need to face cancer to see the value of looking for and naming the graces in your own moments, days, weeks, lifetime. To capture this beauty in this weariness, even if your story doesn’t look like mine, will enrich your moments, give you a new perspective, and help you lift your head in the impossibility and pain in living. Hard is hard.”

So, yes, this was a raw, wrenching read in many parts. But it was still a good and necessary one, because we all have to face our own mortality, and there is no guarantee we won’t have to do so for 60-80 years. We need to be ready.

And whatever our “hard” is, as she said in the last quote, when we know Jesus, we can trust Him for the grace to meet it.

(Sharing at Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)

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Laudable Linkage

Here are some noteworthy reads discovered this week:

Testing Your Faith in Divine Intervention. On blaming God instead of people when tragedies happen and on why God does not always intervene, among other things.

The Kind of Complaint That’s Pleasing to God. HT to Challies. “If the Father appeared and spoke with us face to face, his words would have no more weight in our hearts than the ones he has already spoken. If we find his words in Scripture to fall short, we would also find his personal visitation unsatisfactory.”

The Myth of God’s Silence.

How to (and How Not to) Minister to Families Battling Cancer.

22 Facts About Sleeping That Will Surprise You.

This had me smiling:

Happy Saturday!

“But if not…”

Since our pastor has been diagnosed with cancer and given only 6 months or so to live, he has had a couple of sessions of combined adult Sunday School classes in order to discuss with us some issues and some of his vision and burden for us. A couple of weeks ago he was feeling poorly enough not to be able to make it for Sunday School for one of these sessions. Our assistant pastors took that opportunity to share a bit of their perspective and then a few men prayed for the family. That time was greatly beneficial and therapeutic for me: outside of our own family and sharing of thoughts on blogs or Facebook with other members, I hadn’t really had a chance to partake of that kind of sharing and praying together. Though I’m sorry our pastor was feeling so sick that day, I think the time was very well spent.

Though those who prayed aloud mentioned varying aspects – the pastor’s physical needs, grace for his wife and family, his two daughters who were getting married in what was supposed to have been one of the best summers of their lives, direction for the youngest daughter scheduled for college in the fall, and many others – there was a recurring theme in several of them. They prayed for the miracle of healing (and it would take a true miracle) and promised to give God the glory for it, but, acknowledging that might not be God’s will, prayed for His grace for the family and our church.

I’ve known some who belittle the Christian faith to point to this kind of praying as a lack of faith, as providing an “out” if God doesn’t answer prayer the way we ask, or even a lack of evidence for God since we can explain away the lack of an answer with it’s not being God’s will. But that’s not why we pray that way. We have good Biblical precedent.

In Daniel 3, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were threatened with being thrown in a fiery furnace if they did not bow down and worship the king’s golden image. They refused and replied, “Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king.  But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up” (verses 17-18).

Jesus, in the garden of Gethsemane the night before He was crucified, prayed, “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done” “Luke 22:42).

Someone once said, “Prayer is asking God to align you with His will rather than asking Him to be aligned with yours.”

Can God heal someone diagnosed with cancer and only months to live? Sure. Why doesn’t He do so every time we ask Him to? I don’t know.

In Goforth of China when Rosalind recounted their miraculous deliverance during the Boxer rebellion, she had been asked why God didn’t deliver all the missionaries in China at that time. Some were horribly murdered. She responded:

Truly a vital question, which could not lightly be set aside! Humbly and prayerfully we pondered this “Why” in the light of Scripture. In the twelfth chapter of Acts, we read of Herod’s succeeding in putting James to death by the sword, and directly after comes the story of how Herod was hindered in carrying out his intention to kill Peter who was delivered by a miracle. Then who could read that marvelous eleventh chapter of Hebrews with its record of glorious martyrdom and miraculous deliverances without being thrilled? In face of these and many other passages, while still unable to answer the “why” we saw our Almighty God used His own prerogative to glorify His name whether in the glorious martyrdom of some or in the miraculous deliverance of others (p. 129-130).

James was killed while Peter was delivered. Uriah was killed while David lived. Many Hebrew babies died while Moses was rescued. Not only was Moses answered “no” to his request to see the Promised Land, but God admonished him not to speak about it any more. Jesus escaped Herod while the rest of the children under 2 in Bethlehem were slaughtered. Many people were healed, but God answered Paul’s request for deliverance with a “No” and a promise of His grace instead. The people in the first part of Hebrews 11 experienced glorious deliverance: the people at the end experienced trials, mocking, imprisonment, stoning, being sawn asunder, homelessness, “being destitute, afflicted, tormented” – yet these were included with the rest as “having obtained a good report through faith” (verse 39) even though they weren’t delivered.

Sometimes there are reasons why prayer isn’t answered, or at least isn’t answered the way we’d like. God has many reasons for allowing suffering, but we can’t know all the reasons or see the big picture of what He is doing in the world or even in the life of any one person and his or her sphere of influence. But those who know Him can trust Him as a father. Even the best of fathers has to sometimes say “no.”

Why does God have to use such means to accomplish His purposes? Somewhere I read that Elisabeth Elliot wrote that, though she had heard many wonderful stories of how God used her husband Jim’s death in many people’s lives, that knowledge still didn’t really satisfy. Didn’t God save people and call them to His service through other means than someone’s death? Sure, all the time. Why was that required this time? She didn’t know, but she trusted that God had His reasons. In “Thy Calvary Still All Our Questions” in the book Rose From Brier, Any Carmichael wrestled with this:

This is a Why? of a different order from that of the little mosquito. It is immeasurable greater. It strikes at the root of things. Why is pain at all, and such pain? Why did God ask Satan the question which (apparently) suggested to the Evil One to deal so cruelly with an innocent man? Why do the innocent so often suffer? Such questions generally choose a time when we are in keen physical or mental suffering, and may (the questioner hopes will) forget our comfort. They seize us like fierce living things and claw at our very souls.

Between us and a sense of the pain of the world there is usually a gate, a kind of sluice gate. In our unsuffering hours it may be shut fast. Thank God, it is shut fast for tens of millions. But let severe pain come, and it is as though the torture in us touched a secret spring, and the door opens suddenly, and straight upon us pour the lava floods of the woe of a Creation that groans and travails together….

O Lord, why?

After considering several answers which did not really satisfy her, she wrote,

But, though, indeed, we know that pain nobly born strengthens the soul, knits hearts together, leads to unselfish sacrifice (and we could not spare from our lives the Christ of the Cross), yet, when the raw nerve in our own flesh is touched, we know, with a knowledge that penetrates to a place which these words cannot reach, that our question is not answered. It is only pushed farther back, for why should that be the way of strength, and why need hearts be knit together by such sharp knitting needles, and who would not willingly choose relief rather than the pity of the pitiful?

…What, then, is the answer? I do not know. I believe that it is one of the secret things of the Lord, which will not be opened to us till we see Him who endured the Cross, see the scars in His hands and feet and side, see Him, our Beloved, face to face. I believe that in that revelation of love, which is far past our understanding now, we shall “understand even as all along we have been understood.”

And till then? What does a child do whose mother or father allows something to be done which it cannot understand? There is only one way of peace. It is the child’s way. The loving child trusts.

I believe that we who know our God, and have proved Him good past telling, will find rest there. The faith of the child rests on the character it knows. So may ours, so shall ours. Our Father does not explain, nor does He assure us as we long to be assured… But we know our Father. We know His character. Somehow, somewhere, the wrong must be put right; how we do not know, only we know that, because He is what He is, anything else is inconceivable. For the word sent to the man whose soul was among lions and who was soon to be done to death, unsuccored, though the Lord of Daniel was so near, is fathomless: “And blessed is he whosoever shall not be offended in me.”

There is only one place we can receive, not an answer to our questions, but peace — that place is Calvary. An hour at the foot of the Cross steadies the soul as nothing else can. “O Christ beloved, Thy Calvary stills all our questions.” Love that loves like that can be trusted about this.

There are many strong and positive verses about prayer that we can rely on, yet we have to include “if it be Thy will” and trust that even if God doesn’t heal or deliver or provide like we wanted Him to, He is still good and wise and accomplishing His purpose.

God is doing good things in our own church and across the country through our pastor’s situation. One of our church members has shared some of those things. If you feel led, I’m sure all involved would appreciate your prayers. In addition, some are attempting to help raise funds for the family’s needs through https://www.idoitfor.org/Tom/.

tom

Eternal Glories Gleam

Our church was stunned and heartbroken yesterday to learn that our dear pastor has cancer of the liver and pancreas and is only expected to live 6 months to a year.

He had been losing weight over the past few months, had been really sick the past few weeks, went to the doctor – thankfully a member of our church and long time friend – last week for tests, where it discovered both his liver and pancreas are full of cancer. The pancreatic cancer is incurable and inoperable. He is having biopsies this week to confirm it, and there is a small chance that what they saw on the scans is not cancer, but everything else points to it. They are planning to start chemotherapy in hopes of slowing it down to some degree, but of course that carries its own set of problems.

He is in his early 50s with a wife and three daughters, two of whom are getting married this summer, and the youngest is schedule to go to college in the fall.

He has been preaching through the book of Romans, and providentially we were in the latter half of chapter 8 yesterday, which was so applicable to his situation. As he spoke to us yesterday, one of his concerns was that we think in a right way about his situation, that we not think God is mean or unfair or unkind. He had different men from the church read passages like Psalm 23 and II Corinthians 4:7-11:

.But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.

And II Corinthians 4:16-18:

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

And II Corinthians 12:9-10:

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

We know and love and take comfort in those truths but sometimes we tuck them away for “some day…”

Ecclesiastes 7:2 says, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.” Not that there is anything inherently wrong with feasting or celebrations: God created some for the Israelites to enjoy, and Jesus attended a wedding. But when someone faces death, certain truths crystallize into sharp focus. All of a sudden the petty irritation that was bothering me that morning wasn’t important. I was reminded that death comes to us all, sooner to some than expected, but God’s grace so wonderfully provided that we can be forgiven; that heaven is real; that this life really is but a vapor; that however good it is, heaven is better. I was reminded that we weren’t promised a life free from suffering on this earth; in fact, the Bible gives us plenty of warning about it and promises God’s help for it and assures us that He really, truly is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble (Psalm 46:1).

Last night a line from a hymn kept coming to mind, “Eternal glories gleam afar.” I couldn’t remember what hymn it was from, so I looked it up this morning and was surprised to find it was from “I’ve Found a Friend,” a song I haven’t heard in ages. The stanza containing that phrase says:

I’ve found a Friend, O such a friend! All pow’r to Him is given,
To guard me on my onward course, and bring me safe to heaven.
The eternal glories gleam afar, to nerve my faint endeavor;
So now to watch, to work, to war, and then to rest forever.

In situations like this, those eternal glories aren’t quite so far off: they are up close and personal.

This is going to be a heart-wrenching journey, especially for this man and his family, but also for our church as a whole. I know you all have your own churches and issues and prayer lists, but if you feel led, I’m sure all involved would appreciate your prayers.

Book Review: Wednesdays Were Pretty Normal

Wednesdays-Were-Pretty-NormalWhen Wednesdays Were Pretty Normal by Michael Kelley showed up on a list of Kindle books on sale at the time, the sub-title caught my eye: A Boy, Cancer, and God. Although I’ve wrestled with the truth of God’s allowing suffering many times and come to some kind of peace with it, I still have to go through those truths some times, especially concerning the suffering of a child. Even though I knew this book would be heart-rending and gut-wrenching, I wanted to hear the story and hear how the author dealt with it. I think I am so often drawn to books like this because I know the truths the author has learned are not going to be just armchair theology: they’ve been tested in the extremities of real life, life that isn’t going the way one would have expected or hoped.

The story begins with a visit to the doctor to treat a rash on two and a half year old Joshua, the author’s son. A blood test showed that Joshua had leukemia, with 82% of his blood cells affected. Immediately questions flooded Michael’s stunned mind: the physical (Are you sure? He looks fine! How do we treat this? Is Joshua going to die?) as well as the spiritual (Why, God? Did we do something wrong?).

Michael then tells about Joshua’s three year chemotherapy regimen, the effects of not only the chemotherapy but also the massive amounts of steroids, time in the hospital, the strain of not being able to play with other kids or even go on a fast food playground due his immune system, hair loss, etc. The title comes from the fact that Wednesdays were the day before Joshua’s regular cancer treatments, so he was feeling his best and those days were more normal than the rest.

But most of the book is spent on how the author dealt with his son’s illness and its effects spiritually. Having grown up with his basic needs being met and without any really major problems, he “realized faith had never been hard. It had never been work. But it surely was now.”

“This was a moment when we couldn’t just have faith; we had to choose faith. It had to be as conscious as any other decision….If my family was really going to choose faith, then we would have to come to grips with the fact that there are parts of God and His plan that at best we don’t understand; at worst we don’t even like. We could no longer pick and choose certain parts of our belief system; we had to embrace it all.”

“There is nothing quite like pain to force long-held ideals and beliefs from the comfort of intellectualism into the discomfort of reality and trying to square with them there.”

“Coming to the knowledge that you thought you knew something inside and out and then figuring out you really don’t know it at all is a strange feeling.”

There are some ramifications of cancer in the family that you would expect: pain, financial considerations, hospital time, weariness of working long days and spending long nights with a child who is not feeling well, etc. But the author deals with some that I probably would not have thought of otherwise. One was his own loss of identity. He’d left his job as a pastor to fulfill a dream of writing and speaking while his wife worked full time, but when this happened, she needed to stay with Joshua, so Michael has to find a regular 9-5 office job that he disliked. “I missed my old life. Everything that had made me feel important and significant was gone, and I was facing a crisis of self-identification. I felt poor, not just in the wallet but in my sense of self. Poor is more than a description of a financial state. It’s a state of being. And according to Jesus, being poor is being blessed.” He found comfort in the story of the rich young ruler. “People defined him the same way we define him today – as rich, as young, and as a ruler. Jesus wanted more for him. He wanted to get to this man’s core, to his real self. Selling his possessions would strip this man of his marks of identity. Only by stripping those things away, in that moment of crisis, could he define himself the way Jesus wanted – by his faith.”

One of the concepts that spoke the most to me was the idea of being “between.” When Joshua went into remission, the chemotherapy and everything involved still had to continue, and his father felt like his life was paused, stuck between “the good old days” when everything was normal and the future when everything would hopefully be normal again. A couple of instances in the Bible of God’s ministering to people similarly “stuck” in a “between” time helped, like Paul’s thorn in the flesh and God’s promised grace in II Corinthians 12:9-10 and Jeremiah’s prophesy to Israelites who were going to have to remain in captivity for a number of years (Jeremiah 29, especially verse 11).

“The good parts of living “in between” are many. Such a life makes you realize more and more that this earth is not your home, and you consequently begin to long for heaven. A life between develops perseverance and character that wouldn’t have been there otherwise. And a life between forces you to a dependence on Jesus that you might not have chosen except for the pain.”

“This was going to be a long journey. A journey of years. There was to be no immediate relief for the pain, but as Paul discovered, that didn’t mean the Lord was absent.”

“The days when we were at the end of our rope were also the days when the sustaining grace and strength of God were to be most visible. He did not promise us that the pain would go away; but he did promise that in the midst of it, His grace would be all that we needed. We were left with the hard choice of believing that to be true. We had to choose to trust not in our own ability to be patient with a child on steroids, or even to get out of bed in the morning, but in the One who promised He would be strong in our stead. But the great news of the gospel is that the power to sustain us comes from Jesus, who knows even better than we do what it is like to have one foot in heaven and one foot on earth. Sustaining grace for life between comes from One who knows both the glory and the pain.”

“[Jesus] was more than capable of eradicating cancer from my little boy’s body. But He didn’t. And maybe that’s because, in His wisdom, He knew that doing so immediately and publicly would be, in some way, short-changing the ultimate healing He wanted to accomplish. Living in the meantime has brought to light diseases I didn’t know I had. It’s brought to light my shallowness…my idealistic view of faith…my dependence on circumstances [and more]. Had Jesus chosen to heal Joshua immediately and pluck us from the grip of the meantime, these diseases would have remained firmly implanted in my heart and soul…From that perspective, Jesus’ refusal to heal immediately is really His commitment to longer, better, more complete healing.”

“Hope is the confidence that even during the meantime God is still busy.”

“It’s not that I thought God was using my son as some sort of object lesson to me: that wasn’t it at all. It was more the sense that, whether we knew it or not, the Lord was using cancer to break up unplowed ground in my heart.”

“I didn’t have the luxury of a passive faith any more…Real faith is active. And it’s hard. Faith is something you have to fight for. It’s something you have to choose. And you have to fight and choose in the face of evidence rather than with the evidence on your side.”

I have a multitude more quotes marked, but I probably should not reprint that much of the book. 🙂

There were a couple of places I didn’t quite agree with the author’s interpretation of a passage, but I don’t feel the need to delineate those here.

I didn’t realize, when I chose this as one of my books for the TBR challenge, or when I started reading it some time back, that I’d be smack in the middle of it when my son and daughter-in-law’s child arrived 11 weeks early. Though the health situations for a preemie and a cancer patient are very different, parts of the book especially ministered to me at this time, especially the sections about life being “on hold” in a “between” phase of a long medical situation.

Overall I would highly recommend this book not only to those with children who are ill in some way, but to anyone who wrestles with why God allows suffering.

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

Laudable Linkage

Here are some interesting reads from the last couple of weeks:

8 Evangelism Lessons From an Unlikely Convert.

Gospel-Centered Counsel For Moms. “So often, in our sincere desire to be gospel-centered, we skip over a biblical diagnosis and assume we know what the problem is.” Excellent post.

When Your Friend Is Paralyzed With Fear.

How Cancer Changed Me For Good.

When You’ve Lost Your Joy in the Midst of Marriage and Motherhood.

Help for the Blindsided, when a past sin blindsides you with shame and sorrow.

Sanctification In the Season of Singleness.

Bosses Don’t Give Gold Stars — and Other Career Advice.

DOMA and the Rock.

Hope you have a great weekend!