Seasons of Sorrow

One November day in 2020, Tim and Aileen Challies learned the stunning news that their 20-year-old son, Nick, had suddenly died. He had not been ill. There were no known congenital health issues. He was playing a game with his sister and their friends at college when he suddenly collapsed. Efforts to revive him failed.

Though grief never goes completely away, it is probably at its most intense the first year. Like many of us who write, Tim processed what he was thinking and feeling by writing. Some of what he wrote was published on his blog. But much was not. He gathered his writings from the year into a book titled Seasons of Sorrow: The Pain of Loss and the Comfort of God. The book is laid out across seasons, beginning with fall, when Nick died, through winter, spring, summer, and then fall again on the first anniversary of Nick’s passing.

Nick was a young man training for gospel ministry. This is not the first time I have wondered why would God take someone with so much potential to heaven instead of allowing them to do His work here. We don’t know all the answers. But we do know our times are in His hands. Anyone’s death, but especially that of one so young, reminds us that we’re not guaranteed a certain number of years. By all accounts, Nick used his time here well. May God give us grace to do with same, with a heart fixed on eternity.

Even though the book deals with the recent loss of an adult child, much of it can be applied to any loss. I found help and comfort in dealing with the seventeen year loss of my mom, who died seemingly (to us) too early at 68.

One of the things I appreciated most about Tim’s testimony was his desire to honor God in the midst of his grief. There is nothing wrong with grief and tears. Jesus wept with his friends at the loss of Lazarus, even while knowing He was about to raise him from the dead. We don’t go off on a season of grieving and then come back to faith in and peace with God. Tim demonstrates that we can trust Him through and in the midst of grief.

Tim wrestles honestly with what he knows of the goodness of God in circumstances that don’t seem good.

One aftermath of loss is fearing more loss.

I, whose son collapsed and died, cannot fall asleep in the evening until I have received assurance that both my daughters are still alive and cannot be content in the morning until I am sure both have made it through the night. Nick’s death has made us face mortality and human fragility in a whole new way. My children may as well be made of glass. I’m just so afraid that if Providence directed I lose one, it may direct that I lose another. If it has determined I face this sorrow, why not many more?

How, then, can I let go of such anxiety? How can I continue to live my life? The only antidote I know is this: deliberately submitting myself to the will of God, for comfort is closely related to submission. As long as I fight the will of God, as long as I battle God’s right to rule his world in his way, peace remains distant and furtive. But when I surrender, when I bow the knee, then peace flows like a river and attends my way. For when I do so, I remind myself that the will of God is inseparable from the character of God. I remind myself that the will of God is always good because God is always good. Hence I pray a prayer of faith, not fatalism: “Your will be done. Not as I will, but as you will”  (p. 76).

Another section that particularly spoke to me was when Tim found his longings for heaven mixed up with seeing Nick again as much, and sometimes more, than seeing Jesus. He confessed this to a friend, ending with the thought that he must sound like a pagan. The friend replied, “No, you sound like a grieving father” (p. 122).

And I’m content to leave it there. It was God who called me to himself and God who put a great love for himself in my heart. It was God who gave me my son, God who gave me such love for him, and God who took him away from me. The Lord knows I love the Lord, and the Lord knows I love my boy. I’ll leave it to him to sort out the details (p. 122).

Ecclesiastes 7:2 tells us, “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.” God doesn’t condemn feasting and gladness: He incorporated such into Israel’s calendar year and tells us the joy of the Lord is our strength (Nehemiah 8:10). But we do tend to learn deeper lessons through mourning. I appreciate Tim’s sharing what he experienced and learned with us.

(I often link up with some of these bloggers.)

What’s On Your Nightstand: August 2017

The folks at 5 Minutes For Books host What’s On Your Nightstand? the last Tuesday of each month in which we can share about the books we have been reading and/or plan to read.

It seems like such a long time since the last Nightstand post, with August being such a busy month for us (surgery, family vacation, two birthdays, eclipse viewing). Then again, with the way the last Thursday of July fell, we did end up with the last week of July coming into this month’s post rather than last month’s. But at any rate, let’s get to it, shall we?

Since last time I have completed:

The Death of Ivan Ilych by LeoTolstoy, audiobook, reviewed here. You could say it’s the psychology of one man’s dying, which sounds morbid, but actually is very moving.

The Thirty-nine Steps by John Buchan, audiobook, finished but not reviewed last time, reviewed here. Classic man-on-the-run story. Excellent.

Unlimited by Davis Bunn, reviewed here. An apparatus that may be a new source of free energy has gotten one man killed and another man nearly so by people wanting it for wrong reasons. Excellent.

All Things New by Lynn Austin, reviewed here. Adjustments have to made after the Civil War ends, and some people handle them better than others. Very good.

Threads of Suspicion by Dee Henderson, reviewed here. A new governor’s task force investigates cold cases, and one involves a missing college student. Very good.

Surprised by Oxford by Carolyn Weber, reviewed here. True story of an independent young woman studying at Oxford and not expecting anything but a great experience and education but who is confronted with the claims of Christ. Very good.

Lessons I Learned From My Grandchildren by Delia Halverson. Not reviewed. Not recommended. Disappointing.

I’m currently reading:

Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy, audiobook.

Taking God At His Word: Why the Bible Is Knowable, Necessary, and Enough, and What That Means for You and Me by Kevin DeYoung (Just finished this one this morning! Hope to review it soon.)

The Story Keeper by Lisa Wingate

God Is Just Not Fair: Finding Hope When Life Doesn’t Make Sense by Jennifer Rothschild

Up Next:

The Sea Keeper’s Daughters by Lisa Wingate

Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry

Love in Hard Places by D. A. Carson.

Jane Austen: Christian Encounter Series by Peter Leithart

And if I get through those, I have book gifts stacked up from Christmas, Mother’s Day, and my birthday to explore!

Praying for Houston and surrounding areas this morning. I lived there for a while and have family and friends in the area. Last I heard last night, one sister’s power was off and the flood waters were almost to her door. Rescue boats were in the area, but were picking up emergencies first, and then they decided to stay put overnight. I am waiting to hear the situation this morning. One local friend has a sister in ICU in Houston in serious condition, but the family there can’t get to her due to the flooding. A lot of people have been evacuated, and more rain is expected.

(Sharing With Literary Musing Monday)

A word about “negative” book reviews

img_1931I’ve seen more than one blogger say that if they can’t write a positive review about a book, they just don’t write one. And I can appreciate that. But while I don’t want to come across as unduly critical and nitpicky, I think it’s important to be honest and disclose when a book has issues. Here are a few reasons why:

I appreciate honest reviews myself. A number of times I’ve gotten a book due to rave reviews from a blogger only to be surprised by a sexual scene or something a little off. When I look at Amazon reviews of a book, I look at a couple of the positive and a couple of the negative. Granted, some of the negative reviews there are ridiculous, but even that gives me an indication that if that’s the only bad thing someone has to say about a book, then it’s likely to be ok. On the other hand, I’ve saved myself the exposure to a sexual scene by reading some of those reviews.

Since readers have told me they have bought books based on my recommendations, I feel a responsibility for how I present them. Several readers have told me they appreciate my book reviews for that reason: they have a good idea what they’ll be getting into if they pick up a book I have reviewed. I would feel awful if someone read a book I recommended and then came back to me dismayed because they ran into something objectionable.

But I also like to be honest in my reviews in the hopes that the author will take it as a constructive criticism. I know most authors won’t see my reviews, though I have heard from a handful. And I have seen some authors’ blogs where they brush off any kind of criticism. In fact, one Christian author I don’t read any more due to sexual scenes in her books had a post expressing woundedness over the criticism she was receiving instead of taking it to heart. I don’t know why she feels compelled to be so explicit in books that are otherwise very good, but you’d think that, since readers object to it and she’s losing readers because of it, she’d scale it back a bit. Maybe she has more readers who say they like it.

If I were an author, I’d want to know if readers thought part of my book dragged in places or didn’t make sense or whatever. Hopefully most of those issues would have been worked out by having people read and critique the book before publication. But if any remained, I’d want to know to improve my future writing.

I tend to be a bit harder on Christian fiction, for a number of reasons. Books written for the King (which Christian fiction should ultimately be) are held to a higher standard. I’ve heard people summarily dismiss Christian fiction as being poorly written. I have to smile when they say that about all Christian fiction, because I think to myself, “You haven’t read it all.” There is some poorly written Christian fiction, but I wouldn’t say the percentages are higher for this genre than any other. Nevertheless, because I have heard it so criticized, I want it to shine and be the best it can be and prove the naysayers wrong. Also, since Christian fiction portrays spiritual truth to some degree, it needs to be in line with the Bible, or else it is not truly Christian fiction. I know there are some areas of controversy in Christendom, and I don’t have an issue with a different opinion in most of those cases. But when it comes to bedrock inarguable truth, like who Jesus is and how one comes to know Him, whatever a book shares about that needs to be clear. I said before in The Gospel and Christian Fiction that I don’t feel every Christian book necessarily has to have a conversion scene or to fully present the gospel, but whatever it does say needs to be clear and accurate.

And, obviously, Christian fiction should be the one place Christians can be assured of clean reading. That doesn’t mean there should be no sin in a book, as I said in Edgy Christian Fiction. You don’t have a plot without conflict and you generally don’t have conflict without sin. But how it’s presented makes a lot of difference.

No one likes everything about every book. When I read blogs whose book reviews are constantly filled with gushy praise, it makes me a little suspicious, especially if they disclose they’re getting their books for free in exchange for a review. It sounds like they’ve found a way to support their habit. I know that’s not always the case: some people are just naturally more effusive than I am. But I have gotten books based on those kinds of recommendations only to be disappointed.

I do generally avoid books that I don’t think I am going to like in the first place. That’s one reason I don’t usually accept unsolicited books for review. I get requests from time to time based on the fact that I write about books a lot, and at first I would check the sample chapter or link provided, and most of the time they’d be pretty awful. I’m not going to accept a book like that and then have to write negatively about it (besides already having plenty of books stacked up to read anyway).

So I am expecting to like most books I read and fully planning to write a positive review. But if I come across something that jars for some reason, I am not going to “trash” the book or the author, but I’ll likely mention it. Not every little thing: for instance, in one book recently, the author kept describing a certain expression by saying that the space between the person’s eyes narrowed. And I tried to picture what that would look like, and wondered if people could actually do that. It struck me as odd, especially as the author used that phrase several times over. If I were asked to critique a book, I’d mention something like that. But in a general review, that kind of thing doesn’t affect the overall quality of the story, so I don’t see a need to mention it.

My reviews here are different from what I’d write if I were writing for a magazine or newspaper. Those would be a lot more concise. Here, I’m reviewing the book but I am also writing down what I thought about it while it is on my mind so I can remind myself if I come back to it later.

Even in mentioning problems in a book, I try to express that in a civil way without sounding like I am just trashing the book or author. I have seen Amazon and Goodread reviews that would make an author cry for good reason. There is no need to be hurtful and go into attack mode.

I’ve also read reviews at these other places that reveal that the reviewer just didn’t “get” something about the book, and their negative opinion is based on a misunderstanding. I hope that is not the case with my reviews, but as I am human, it’s very possible. I do welcome different opinions.

So that’s why I sometimes mention negative features of a book. I don’t read with red correcting pen in hand just looking for things to disagree with, but if something stands out that I think affects the quality of the book, or that I think would be detrimental to readers, I’ll mention it in, I hope, as kind a manner as possible. Sometimes explaining that takes a bit more space than the good things I want to bring out about the book, but, unless the negative is really bad, I hope to portray the book in its best possible light.

(Sharing with Literary Musing Monday)