Saturday, May 11, 2019

Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy {A Book Review}






This decade, and especially the last 2 ½ years, have given me ample opportunity to grow well-acquainted with grief. Grieving, however, is not something I seem to be mastering with practice. Granted, I have some idea now what to expect: the initial physical as well as emotional incapacitation, the unexpected and inevitably inconvenient waves of fresh tears, the gradual lessening of the intensity of those first days, the sadness of firsts and anniversaries.

Deep down, I know that lament is the wise, healthy, uniquely Christian path through grief. I know the components and biblical basis for lament, the genre of at least one-third of the Psalms; I’ve even shared it with others at retreats and on my blog. Some of us neglect lament because of simple ignorance; others, like me, neglect it because it is hard work. After the initial all-consuming grief of the first month or two or six after a loss, it seems easier in the moment to stuff it into an emotional closet and slam the door. Maybe even padlock it. Sadly, it grows behind that door and will break through more powerfully and perhaps destructively at some later date if we persist in that pattern. (At least, that has been my observation. I am not a pastoral or mental health professional.)

Pastor Mark Vroegop’s excellent new book, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament, addresses both obstacles to lament: lack of knowledge and lack of motivation. He takes a pastoral and Bible-rooted approach to lament and extends its application beyond my previous reading and thoughts. This is the first published resource I would pull out for sharing the ideas of lament with a ministry professional or someone at a place in their grieving process where they might be ready to read again and take their own laments to the Lord. Moreover, it is the best book I have read so far in 2019, in its author’s success at the task he set for himself, the worthiness of that task, and the content’s suitability to my own place in life.

Pastor Vroegop’s book comprises 3 sections: a consideration of 4 lament Psalms for learning to lament, a thoughtful examination of the biblical book of Lamentations for learning from lament, and a personal and corporate applications section for learning with lament. The corporate application thoughts particularly expanded my thinking beyond previous study, but I think his ideas are good and helpful as a means of grieving together in the body of Christ, whether in small groups or as a congregation. He commends to the reader congregational lament as one helpful, healing response to tragedy, such as this week’s school shooting, and some of the weighty, painful social issues, such as racial conflict, that we face.

Here is one illustrative paragraph from the application section that may prove useful even separated from the greater context of the book:
I’m not naive enough to believe that lament is the single solution for racial tension. There is much work to be done in listening, understanding, addressing injustice, and fostering hope. But I do think lament is a starting point—a place where people from majority and minority backgrounds can meet. The beauty of this biblical language of sorrow is its ability to provide a bridge robust enough to handle outrage and empathy, frustration and faith, fear and hope. Lament can be our first step toward one another when racial tension could drive a wedge. It is a God-given means for vocalizing complicated and loaded pain. For centuries lament has been the minor-key voice of people in pain. It is the language of loss that should be prayed together. While lament can be applied to moments of individual loss, its redemptive power is multiplied as we pursue it together. Whether it is expressed in a funeral, modeled in a sermon, prayed or sung in a worship service, applied in a small group, or voiced in the middle of racial tension, lamenting together is an essential ministry of the body of Christ (2555).

To further support his intention of the reader using these thoughts and not stopping at comprehension, he closes each chapter with reflection questions suitable to individual or group use. I found these helpful, stretching, and thoughtful. The four appendices provide additional tools for the reader’s practice of lament: examples of complaints in the Bible, a sampling of Psalms of lament, a worksheet or template for processing one’s own laments, and examples of the but/yet emotional pivot common to the laments of Scripture. Though brief, these do add value to the book.

The easy-to-remember structure he uses for biblical lament can be expressed in 4 words: turn, complain, ask, and trust. First, the lamenter turns to the Lord, which can be surprisingly difficult when enduring pain we know He could have stopped but didn’t. Then the lamenter complains or cries out, asking the honest how and why questions and refusing to respond to pain by “giving God the silent treatment.” Then the lamenter asks the Lord for help, comfort, relief, healing,…. In deep pain, especially prolonged and intense pain, it is unbelievably easy for devout believers to stop asking. Perhaps we have already prayed our hearts out and the Lord said no, so hoping again with fresh requests feels to risky. Perhaps belief in God’s willingness to hear and answer is wavering. Vroegop encourages us to use the discipline of lament to push past those fears and ask boldly, with big requests. Finally, most laments in Scripture end with a resolution to trust God in the pain, however He may answer. The author shares anecdotes of the use of lament in community, which allows the faith of a person near the pain to bolster the trembling faith of the person in the depths of the pain. I have experienced this but not connected it with the practice of lament.

The extended examination of Lamentations struck me as unusual (never having heard a sermon on it or read perhaps even a single complete book chapter on it) but useful. Jeremiah’s need and complaints were extreme indeed, so this section fleshes out just how specific and ugly our complaint prayers are free to be. Vroegop also highlights the gem of a statement of trust at the heart of the book (in Lamentations 3).

Pithy, memorable sentences starting with “Lament is…” or “Lament [does]…” are scattered throughout the book. These would be worth compiling into a handout if using this in a grief group. Perhaps that would even be another useful appendix in a future edition. Here are several:
  • Lament is the honest cry of a hurting heart wrestling with the paradox of pain and the promise of God’s goodness (Kindle location 336).
  • Lament is a prayer in pain that leads to trust (370).
  • Lament creates a path through the messy wilderness of pain (1166).
  • Lament is the language of loss as we grieve together (2566).
  • Lament helps us embrace two truths at the same time: hard is hard; hard is not bad (2602).
  • Lament is the bridge between dark clouds and deep mercy (2612).
All in all, I found this book extremely helpful, clearly communicated, and pastoral in tone and tenderness. I intend to buy copies for some of the pastoral staff at my church (most likely to have direct care of grieving people) and a couple to have on hand as the need arises with others. I highly recommend it. Those who do not have direct care for the grieving or an immediate need of guidance through their own grief would find it useful in loving the grieving people they know who need encouragement or permission to turn to the Lord with their honest complaints and biggest requests and help to trust Him in the middle of the pain.

The author himself can perhaps conclude this reflection best:
Lament is how we bring our sorrow to God. Without lament we won’t know how to process pain. Silence, bitterness, and even anger can dominate our spiritual lives instead. Without lament we won’t know how to help people walking through sorrow. Instead, we’ll offer trite solutions, unhelpful comments, or impatient responses. What’s more, without this sacred song of sorrow, we’ll miss the lessons historic laments are intended to teach us. Lament is how Christians grieve. It is how to help hurting people. Lament is how we learn important truths about God and our world. My personal and pastoral experience has convinced me that biblical lament is not only a gift but also a neglected dimension of the Christian life for many twenty-first-century Christians. A broken world and an increasingly hostile culture make contemporary Christianity unbalanced and limited in the hope we offer if we neglect this minor-key song. We need to recover the ancient practice of lament and the grace that comes through it. Christianity suffers when lament is missing (300).

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Crossway provided my free copy of this eBook in exchange for an honest review. In this case, that was a delight to provide.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Lack {Five-Minute Friday}



Lack and I are no strangers. Most mornings I wake up knowing my lack of strength  and competency to meet the demands of the day. To get out of bed is to count on the manna showing up one more morning.

Yet in my emptiness the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ dwells. The cracks in my earthen vessel are the places His glorious light shines out to the watching world.

The Japanese make precious art from cracked clay pots like me by repairing them, not with Superglue, but with gold. Kintsugi, they call it. This strikes me as gospel imagery. The Lord Jesus Christ enters our brokenness and makes it a beautiful display of His grace. He transforms our lack into something infinitely more beautiful than mere competence. His glory is better displayed in our weakness than our strength. His provision for my lack comes like an arrow pointing back towards Himself.

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth likes to say that anything that makes us desperate for God is a blessing. Today, Lord, I praise you for the blessing of lack.



Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Brainstorming {A Poem}

Moose Tracks, February 2019

Brainstorming~
A misnomer, perhaps,
For something less like storming a castle,
More like splashing in a puddle,
Finding pictures in the clouds,
Wandering through an unfamiliar garden,
As surprised as anyone
At what lies around the next bend.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Flourish {Book Review}


“Does it spark joy?”

This question seems to be everywhere lately, thanks to organizing maven Marie Kondo’s book and Netflix series. We could perhaps rephrase it, “Does it help me flourish?”

Flourish—The OED defines it this way:
(of a living organism) grow or develop in a healthy or vigorous way, especially as the result of a particularly congenial environment

Lydia Brownback’s new book Flourish: How the Love of Christ Frees Us from Self-Focus seeks to help readers grow in Christ in a healthy or vigorous way. She does not look to the state of our junk drawers and closets for this, however. She asserts that the biggest obstacle to our flourishing is self.


We want to see how wrong teaching about God can give us wrong ideas about God and how these wrong ideas keep us from flourishing (12).
Any teaching that sets self-love as the highest good is false teaching, and we are susceptible to it because it appeals to that deep yearning for affirmation we feel at our very core. That’s why it hooks us. It just feels so right. And there is an inescapable link between self-love and self-focus. Self-love and self-focus are really just flipsides of the same coin. They always go together. That’s why self-love, the sort that the apostle was writing about, directs our energies, thoughts, plans, choices—and even our theology—inward, making ourselves the center of all things (13).

This challenging book considers six manifestations of self-focus, and I expect that readers will find that at least one of them resonates (more than one for readers like me). The chapters discuss the traps of self-consciousness, self-improvement, self-analysis, self-indulgence, self-condemnation, and self-victimization. Some of those labels are fairly self-explanatory (see what I did there?), whereas a couple may seem less obvious. A substantial discussion guide appended to the end of the text provides guidance through relevant Bible texts for each subject and invites the reader’s personal application of the ideas.

On self-consciousness, Brownback writes:

Whatever the issue—our appearance, our family, our home, our kids—we quench the joy of our faith and mar our witness of Christ if we live self-conscious lives. It seems counterintuitive, but happiness comes not from being thought well of but by thinking less of ourselves altogether(20). 
It is trust in the Lord that frees us from the snare of self-consciousness. If we shift our gaze away from ourselves and up to the Lord, we find that he is trustworthy and faithful to be all he has promised to be and to do all he has promised to do. 
Something amazing happens as our trust grows: our thoughts are a lot less self-oriented, and there’s new joy in living. We taste the freedom that comes from living under the gaze of One. He loves us, and we have nothing to prove because Christ proved everything for us (25).


She contrasts the bondage of self-improvement with the freedom of true Christian transformation:


The way out of the bondage of self-improvement is to recognize that in Christ, there is none of that old self left to improve. We can simply let go of all that. This is what it means to “die to self.” It’s not about fixing our bad habits; it’s letting go of everything about ourselves—the good, the beautiful, the bad, and the ugly—and cooperating with God’s Spirit as he begins the lifelong process of making us resemble Christ himself.
How about those bad habits we want to change? Frustration will be replaced with peace and joy when we begin to live out of our changed status. We went with Christ into his death, but then we were raised with him from the dead, which gives us a whole new reality from which to frame our goals (39).


Regarding self-analysis, she addresses the compulsion to “take our emotional temperature all the time” and the restlessness of constantly adjusting our circumstances to manipulate our feelings into something like happiness. She writes, “Self-analysis is good and right when we do it under the light of Scripture. It’s destructive and sinful when the aim of all that internal rooting around is merely personal happiness” (51). Again, “A life curved inward, analyzing and evaluating every mood change and desire, is a stunted, joyless life” (55).




The chapter on self-indulgence may be the most counter-cultural for American readers. She tries to trace the fine line between necessary and restorative self-care and pleasant but potentially selfish self-indulgence. She challenges readers to observe their attitudes when a particular treat is denied them, whether that be chocolate or a favorite beverage or “me time” or a vacation. She does not pull punches in tackling the idea that a vacation is a fundamental right or need. (She does not oppose embracing travel opportunities or making family memories through time away from home. The point is whether that truly falls into the need category.) Further, she asserts that love of comfort, expressed through whatever one’s pet indulgence is, can be an idol. Like all idols, in looking to it for life we find captivity or worse, but for the grace of God. She writes, “Our comforts become a prison of our own making…. We need to keep in mind that our particular indulgence isn’t the idol; comfort is. Indulging is merely the way we worship the comfort god” (68-69).

The self-condemnation chapter also resonated with (i.e., convicted), this oldest-child perfectionist. Counterintuitively, perhaps, Brownbeck writes, “Scripture is where we learn that failing to reach personal goals isn’t necessarily sinful, but having a perfectionist spirit that demands it is” (76). Stop a moment and reread that. I’ll wait.

She shines the light of the gospel of Christ on the tendency to obsess over faults and failures, real and imagined:


Whether our struggle concerns real sin or the personal failures we define as sin, self-condemnation inhibits us from finding comfort in the gospel. Instead we berate ourselves and become critical and judgmental, not only toward ourselves but toward others too. Such misery is caused not primarily by anything we are doing or failing to do but by our inward curve.
Past sins can dominate our thoughts as we rehearse over and over what we did or said and the hurt we caused. Allowing such thoughts to dominate inhibits us from comprehending how thoroughly the gospel deals with sin and guilt. If we’d only look away from that—away from ourselves altogether—and direct our gaze to Christ in his Word, we’d see that Christ’s sacrifice trumps our sin in every respect. Jesus didn’t die on the cross for any sin of his. He took on himself our sin—yours and mine—and bore the guilt of it so we don’t have to. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). Quite frankly, if God has forgiven us, who are we to condemn ourselves? Christ died for all the sin—past, present, and future—of those who are united to him by faith(75-76).


That chapter also spends some paragraphs on discernment of whether a choice on a debatable matter is sin, looking less at the action than at the motive, and on the popular notion of self-forgiveness.




The final chapter considers ways in which self-victimization can curve a life inward and subtly deny the gospel. Gently, Brownbeck cautions against finding one’s core identity as a victim of past abuse to the neglect of the present/future riches of identity in Christ; using “victim” in place of “sin;” and believing that wounded (traumatized) people can’t live effectively now until dealing exhaustively with their past.

She does not deny the real trauma and profound wounds that too many have experienced in this broken world. She does, however, lift the reader’s eyes toward Jesus as the ultimate victim and our example in how to respond to being victimized ourselves:


Grasping the magnitude of sin—both ours and others’—is vital to getting unstuck from past trauma and flourishing as disciples. One way to strengthen our understanding of sin is to realize that Jesus himself was a victim of sin, and we are the ones who victimized him. All sin deserves death, and Christ experienced this in full on the cross, but the horrendous death he suffered was for our sin, not his own.
If we miss this, we’re likely to become bitter, angry, depressed, discouraged, or downright hopeless. We can flourish instead when we understand that Jesus “did” victimhood for us. When he was scorned, mocked, and rejected by loved ones, he didn’t grow bitter. When he faced the anguish of the cross, he didn’t sink down in despair. When he grew weary from the endless demands on his time and energy, he didn’t insist on personal space. When he saw people he loved suffer from the sins of others he loved, he didn’t lash out. Instead he prayed. He sought his heavenly Father. He forgave. He healed. He loved. And he grieved (97).
Letting go of a victim identity isn’t to deny what’s happened to us. Victimization is very real, and the scars remain. But they can be just that—scars. Scar tissue is present, but it’s no longer a wound that needs constant attention. We learn to live with it, and often we find that it becomes a testimony to God’s faithfulness. The same can be true of our sin scars. And no matter what we’ve suffered, the best is still to come (98).

In summary, Lydia Brownback’s latest book provides a helpful, biblical mirror to show us where we have the spinach of self-focus in our spiritual teeth. As with Ms. Kondo’s work, this is not a book for those who want to walk away unchanged and unchallenged, but it would make a good guide for those who want to get their eyes off themselves and turn them more fully toward Christ. The discussion guide/homework makes it well-suited to use in a small group setting, especially for a group that has been together long enough to share areas of struggle with honesty and trust.

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N.B.: My copy of this book is a complimentary PDF provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest and timely(ish) review. Page numbers are from that edition. Also, the product link is an Amazon affiliate link. Purchases made through that will drop a few virtual coins in my tip jar.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Remember {A Poem}

(Response to Psalms 77 & 78)



Remember,  O my soul,  lest you forget: 
Remember God's promises. 
Remember His works.
In the relentless, protracted unanswered prayers, 
Strengthen weak knees
With the memory of answers in your past. 
When pain strikes your soul with amnesia, 
Remember the victories of others.
Read, and remember:
The forty years of manna,
The water from a rock--
Twice--
Elijah's widow's flour and oil,
Daniel's bed amid the lions, 
His friends' fourth man in the furnace, 
Peter's angelic locksmith,
Lazarus' vacant tomb.
Remember Corrie's vitamin bottle, 
Darlene's ninety-nine bananas,
The thousand unlikely eucatastrophes
You've heard and read and lived. 
Remember, O my soul, lest you forget; 
Lest you forget, remember. 

The active, conscious remembrance of God's past faithfulness
Fuels your perseverance in present faith.