Those who shake their family tree may be pelted with details they’d rather not know. The blight I encountered in my particular grove was cancer—multiple varieties, hereditary strains. Suddenly I feel a deep kinship with the unending parade of friends and acquaintances who are hearing the word cancer breathed into the air of clinical spaces. I’m thankful that God has hand-picked a few writers who have suffered the effects of cancer to speak from their experience, for while it is true that no two cancer journeys are identical, it is also true that shared grief is lightened.  

A journey through cancer and a journey of joy would seem to be two very divergent paths, particularly if the cancer is terminal and strikes in the midst of a season of health and productivity. However, Steve and Sharol Hayner have invited readers into their experience of Joy in the Journeya hard pilgrimage through pancreatic cancer, chemotherapy infusions, side effects, intense pain, and loss. They pull back the curtain on grace lessons from their day-to-day struggle to live their way into acceptance and peace.

Joy in the Journey avoids sentimentality, instead singing in the key of biblical lament. Abounding in grace, Steve writes through days in which he “prays his goodbyes” to the people he loves and to his career as president of Columbia Seminary. Sharol walks her own grieving with traveling mercies that allow her to wait through the weeks of unanswered questions and the months of serial unknowns.

Disappointing test results, a galloping malignancy, and nine short months of living and dying with a terminal disease demonstrate on a macro scale what those of us who believingly follow Christ know well:  life is fraught with—even characterized by—tumultuous days. Able-bodies and good health make daily adjustments to circumstances and changing relationships a bit easier, but in all the unmet expectations that are part of “every normal, mundane day,” it is clear we are being prepared—through our daily disciplines and laborious attempts to follow Jesus—for darker seasons and deeper following. 

It is our response to suffering of all types that determines the impact the suffering will have on our souls, and Steve’s thoughtful reflections from the valley of the shadow yield helpful reinforcement toward a right response:

  • When Jesus is all you have, you soon discover that Jesus is all you really need.
  • As long as you have life on this earth, you have a call.
  • God will never give up in his work to transform you into the likeness of Jesus.
  • Joy is not about your circumstances, but rather about being held and sustained by God’s love.

Obviously, there is no “right way” to transition out of this life, nor is there a “best way” to grieve, but this stunning memoir and tribute to a godly man puts a spotlight on a melding of grief and gratitude that is both reassuring and motivational. For those who are trusting God’s faithfulness, it is possible to claim the gift of joy even in the darkest days.

In Just Show Up, Kara Tippetts and Jill Lynn Buteyn are standing in the door together, and this record of their conversation is raw and real. Kara, author of The Hardest Peace, writes from the perspective of a cancer patient in her final days. (Kara passed away in March 2015 shortly after the book’s completion.) Jill speaks as a close friend who has offered her hands and her heart in service to Kara and her family. What emerges from their shared writing is a chronicle of the painful, long good-bye called cancer; of the agony and the awkwardness of a friendship in which cancer is the unwanted third wheel; and of the need for both parties to put all pretense aside and fall into the rhythm of God’s choreography.

This pouring out of words about friendship and suffering would be enough if that was all that lived between the covers of Just Show Up—but it’s not, for, in the “showing up” life, Jill and Kara learned valuable and practical lessons about loving and saying goodbye:

  • The uncomfortable dance of giving and receiving help can be relieved somewhat by clear communication. For example, rather than vague call-me-if-you-need-anything statements, offer to grocery shop, to provide transportation to appointments, to assist children with school projects.
  • Put your giftedness at the family’s disposal. If you are a skilled photographer, offer to take pictures of the family. Put your organizational skills to work managing their mail or other details.
  • Don’t become overwhelmed or neglect your own family responsibilities. If you add a caring role to your life, subtract something else to make room for it.
  • Mourn the loss of your relationship as it used to be, but then find a new normal.

Just Show Up is a devastatingly practical book on the theology of suffering and the sovereignty of God.  Mourning the brevity of Kara’s life, both friends assert the truth that “suffering is not the absence of God’s goodness.” Kara’s hard process of dying was cause for mourning, but also for finding “the smallest good and expand[ing] on it.” Kara made the choice to be transparent about her suffering and to live her final days in a community that wrapped her in love.  Just Show Up is the story of suffering being redeemed, “of God showing up in the midst of community here on earth.”

A cancer diagnosis launches a family into the unknown, but four words link the heart to the anchor of God’s steadfast love: No matter what happens.

Giving thanks—no matter what happens—was the challenge facing Lauren Chandler as she rode the daily waves of parenting and ministry in the storm of her husband’s battle with cancer. Gratitude is a current that runs through Steadfast Love, Lauren’s lifeline to her readers.

A navigational map as well as a ship’s log, the truth of Psalm 107 fills the sails of a tale that, like the psalm, is also about worship in the desert, a chain-shattering God, and finding sea legs on a storm-tossed ship. Lauren connects the dots from Psalm 107 to passages that demonstrate the richness and depth, the commitment and jealous devotion of hesed, the Hebrew word for God’s steadfast love.

Another current running through Steadfast Love is the saving gift of community. Lauren speaks of the faithful wounds of a friend saying, “[She] valued my good more than she valued her standing with me.” She relates how the web of relationships in a community “made God tangible . . . put flesh on the unseen.”

Like the psalmist, we are invited to find hope in the process of praising God for his continual deliverance and in remembering his faithfulness in the past. Although we know the words of Scripture are God’s message of hope for the darkest of days, there’s a tendency, when we read about women in the Bible, to flatten them out into cardboard characters, one-dimensional and distant. Kate Merrick was in that camp as well, intimidated by the fabulous woman of Proverbs 31, judging Bathsheba, missing the depth of Mary’s sacrifice in saying yes to God, and brushing Sarah off as “that old lady who had a baby.”

Then, her nine-year-old daughter died of cancer.

Desperate for moorings in an ocean of loss, Kate looked to the truth of Scripture and found there a community of women who had suffered as she was suffering. When she delved into their stories, her collision course with bitterness and despair slowly turned toward joy and peaceful acceptance of the will of God.  And Still She Laughs is Kate Merrick’s missive from that liminal place between tangible grief and the new normal.

Ultimately, Kate realized, in her suffering, Jesus was suffering with her. In the midst of our own Romans 8 groaning, we need to hear, again and again, that we are foreigners on this planet, but we do not grieve without hope. We are citizens of Heaven and live in anticipation of a day in which death will be swallowed up in life, the empty arms of grieving mums will be filled, and the laughter our hearts long for will never end.

For most of our lives, we are living on Holy Saturday, and Broken Hallelujahs by Beth Slevcove looks squarely at the reality of waiting for resurrection and walking in a hope that feels, at times, beyond hope. Beth’s poignant memoir of grief begins with her brother’s diagnosis with brain cancer and moves alongside a parallel narrative of spiritual formation.  

“God, are you kidding?” became Beth’s prayer and anthem of loss, sung as she groped toward enough light to stay on the way of faith. Disappointment and unmet expectations led, eventually, to a howling lament, and, like the psalmists who poured out their sad hearts before God, she found that the “answer” to her cry was not an answer at all but a Person.  At the end of each chapter, Beth challenges her readers to dig deeper in a “here’s what worked for me” tone through exercises that require three healing behaviors:

  • Listen to your body
  • Engage through projects that foster creativity
  • Connect with God through heightened awareness of his love and trustworthiness

There is a tendency in Christian circles to soldier through grief and to minimize feelings of loss “as if each of us is only allotted a small amount of grief and we had better put it to good use on something really important.” Allowing ourselves to feel authentically opens our hearts to “see the beauty, feel the joy, hear the laughter, and be touched by God’s innumerable graces that course through our veins and sneak into our circumstances.”

We are constantly being called upon to hold simultaneously in our mind and heart two irreconcilable conditions:  the way things should be and the way things are on this fallen planet. In Broken Hallelujahs, Beth Slevcove concludes that transformation and wholeness will come, but not through giving up on the beauty and order that we long for, nor by stuffing our disappointment.  

Our hearts long for a depth of spiritual discernment that will enable us to hear the voice of God and to follow with certainty. We dread the hurt and disappointment at the end of rabbit trails that we thought were “The Way Home.”  The broken hallelujahs, sung by and with the suffering during these days of shadow and longing, will one day find their way to a full-throated, “grief-enriched” hallelujah—not in spite of our suffering, but because of it.

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