When 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.)
What an excellent review this was, Barbara. The book is going to go on my wish list at Amazon! I’ve gone through cancer with two close friends this past year. I am looking forward to seeing how much I can glean from this man’s perspective of going through it with his son. Thanks so much!
I’m living “between” normal and normal in a different way (long story), but I can identify with the truths you shared here. Thanks, Barbara.
I really enjoyed this review too, Barbara and found the just the quotes you shared touching my heart. This will definitely be going on my TBR list!
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What a wonderful, incisive review! The quotations are very touching and I think I’d relish this book.
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