I've tried to learn from life events beyond my control, including cancer (his spelling, not mine) and the death of a spouse. I've thought deeply and written candidly about their physical, emotional and spiritual impact. While I'm unique, I'm not special. Our experiences may be different but we're on the same flight from the past to the future and we can encourage one another on the way.
This book caught my eye in a Speakeasy email back in November or October because of his reference to his wife's death to kanswer. Kanswer sucks. When it claims a life, when it deprives a family of someone beloved, one of the ways in which that person can be honored is through the telling of her or his story. I thought the entire book would be the telling of her story, but I was mistaken in that assumption. I'm enormously grateful that this book is more than the story of her illness and her death.
This book is Mike Hamel's story - and not only the story of losing his wife, but also the story of finding himself adrift in a sea of questions and emotions, of doubts and ambiguities, and how he is making his way along the journey. Some people write reflective books like this with the tantalizing promise of explaining how they found their way back home to a strong and unshakeable faith. Some write about the Bible verses that inspired them along the way and the sermons that answered their questions. Some write only about the joy of the Lord being their strength, refusing to be truthful about their anger.
Mercifully, this book is not like that. This book speaks of the ravages of time on the body and the ravages of false assurances of easy answers on the mind and spirit. This book challenges the believer and the doubter. This book unearths gems like these -
Early in the book, Mike explains that he made the decision to no longer be a teaching pastor in a church and dedicated his life and time to writing. Once I no longer felt responsible for leading others, I delved more deeply into what I thought I knew about God. When I started pulling on some loose threads, parts of my theology began to unravel. Through the holes I saw some troubling discrepancies between the goodness of God and a suffering world. I prayed for help but the heavens went silent. My spiritual life cooled. My relationships with God and his people changed. (p. 6)
I believe theology reveals more about its authors than its subject. I believe asking questions is not a sin, even if we sometimes come up with the wrong answers. (p.18)
Just as there's something in us that recoils from suffering, there's also something that resonates with pleasure. I don't mean the excesses of hedonism, but the small sips of life's ambrosia: a child's laugh, beautiful music, the touch of warm skin, variegated sunsets, a good night's sleep, ocean waves, fresh fruits and the ten thousand taste buds to enjoy them. (p.36)
As my faith has wavered under close scrutiny I've come to lean more heavily on hope to keep doubt from debilitating me completely. I'm not alone in this regard. Many have questioned or abandoned the faith of their youth but are reluctant to lose hope. Faith is the light and hope is the heat in a relationship with God. I see the two intermingled as in a flame. Flames cast shadows, an apt metaphor for doubt. Not everyone is troubled by the shadows, but I am. (p. 179)
Rare is the pastor, rare is the follower of Christ willing to admit to a cooled spiritual life and changed relationships with God and God's people because of the silence of heaven. Rare is the book that lays out such confessions, questions, pondering, and wondering and leaves so many of them unresolved. Rare is the author who speaks angrily of death and dying and then tenderly about fresh fruit and life's pleasures. Rare are the books that speak so candidly about doubt, loss, death, fear, atheists, agnostics, evangelicals, Catholics, widows, pastors, heaven, hell, the Bible, prayer, homeopathy, and the placebo effect - and manage to hang together coherently. This book is rare and precious for all those reasons.
Warning: do not read this book if you want easy answers to your big questions about suffering and God and evil and kanswer. Do not read this book if you want to be told what to think and believe. Do not read this book if you are safe and comfortable and have no questions or doubts about what, why or in whom you believe.
Then again, you should read this book even if you want easy answers, want to be told what to think, and are completely secure and satisfied with your faith journey. This book will raise some questions that are worthy of consideration and will prompt you to think and rethink, consider and reconsider your positions and stances. You should read this book if you have lost a loved one to kanswer and think you would find solace in reading someone else's experience of that same painful outcome. Read this book if you find yourself wondering about the practice of parsing Scripture to suit our own needs and agendas, a practice we tend to criticize in others but defend in ourselves. He calls it "weighing Scripture" - and he dedicated a chapter of that same name to this prickly topic. Read this book if ambivalence and ambiguity about the things of God have found their way into your deepest and darkest moments.
I certainly don't agree with everything he says in this book. For example, he shares the story of obtaining medical insurance even after being diagnosed with kanswer. (Yes, he has had kanswer as well - more than once.) He wonders if being able to get insurance was a miracle or merely the result of having a fortuitous connection with someone who walked him through the application process. At the end of that chapter, the author writes this: "Daily miracles" is, after all, a contradiction in terms. Well, anybody who reads this blog or knows me personally knows that I completely disagree with that statement.
He also wrote: We have vast networks of highly specialized pain cells but no nerve cells dedicated to pleasure, which appears to be a product of neurochemical processes alone. (p. 36) What about the nerve cells of a woman's clitoris? Perhaps I misunderstood him here. Perhaps I don't know enough about neurochemical processes - but I questioned and commented on that statement in the margin of that page.
There are a few other places in the book where I underlined passages or drew boxes around them and wrote, "No!" "I disagree." "Not true." Even then, I was deeply and attentively engaged with the writing. This book encouraged me to stay strong and maintain hope on my faith journey. It offered me reasons to be more grateful in and for my life. It increased my desire to write more candidly about my own uncertainties and my yearnings, my pain and my losses. I highly recommend this book.
Indeed, we will be landing shortly - landing on the other end of the journey we call life. I thoroughly enjoyed the questions and challenges, the insights and exploration this book provided regarding the remainder of the flight. Traveling mercies to Mike Hamel and to all of us.