Review: Sarah’s Laughter

Sarah’s Laughter, Vinoth Ramachandra. Carlisle, Cumbria, UK: Langham Global Library, 2020.

Summary: An exploration of suffering, whether through illness or physical decline, human or natural evil, and the embrace of grief, lament, doubt, questioning and more, and what it means to hope amid our struggle.

I thought a long time after listening to an older, respected teacher began a talk with words something like this: “As one gets older it becomes clearer that there is much in life that is hard, and that hurts.” This new work by Vinoth Ramachandra carries a similar message and it comes as a stark challenge to a lamentless church that proclaims a form of Christian life that moves from victory to victory.

Ramachandra has seen the hardness of life first hand, witnessing the bloody civil war in his native Sri Lanka, and the complicity of global powers that profited from the arms sold that perpetuated the conflict. He observes the staggering consequences of climate change for the poor of the nations and the unique vulnerability of the poor in our present pandemic. And he has grieved the loss of a wife to cancer. So much suffering leads him to ask two questions of God. One is “Why, Lord?” The other is “How long, O Lord?” They are questions that do not beg a theoretical explanation and this book is not an attempt to offer one. Rather it invites the unvarnished expression of our pain and doubts and questions, even as do the “psalms of darkness” in scripture. We both wonder about the existence of God and rage at what seems the unfairness of it all to the God we doubt. His message comes as a special challenge to many Western churches (at least white churches) where lament is not a part of either the liturgy or the life of the church.

In subsequent chapters he explores the anguish of Job, an anguish that both questions and seeks God, and is not answered by friends who can only muster arguments of divine justice and retribution. He explores the testimony of scripture and theologians to the grief and pain of God, the tears of God, the suffering of God with us culminating in the “handing over” of his son who “dies both at our hands and with us.” He wrestles with the realities of natural evil from animal predation to natural disasters, from which he observes the poor dying in disproportionate numbers, while reminding us that human evil is far worse.

Ramachandra considers what it means for the church to live as a community that holds grief and hope together. He believes that this is a creative place, one of forgiveness, of making meaning, of pursuing justice, and of anticipating a new creation. It is also a place of waiting. Ramachandra calls us to a faith that “is about faithfulness in action rather than knowing all the ‘right doctrines.’ ” It is a life lived both with all our questions and griefs, and yet in faithful and hopeful actions that follow in Christ’s steps, both to the cross, and beyond.

This is a far cry from “happy, clappy Christianity.” Ramachandra writes a book that unflinchingly looks at the hardest realities, the hardest questions we may ask and the most painful cries of our heart. And yet he also explores the possibility of a life still lived toward God, by faith and faithfulness, where doubt and belief, lament and joy live together. This book is for those whose life is hard and hurts. Inevitably, that will be all of us.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Shaped by Suffering

shaped by suffering

Shaped by Suffering: How Temporary Hardships Prepare Us for Our Eternal Home, Kenneth Boa, with Jenny Abel. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: A study of how suffering may shape a person for eternity with God, based on 1 Peter.

There’s a lot of suffering in the world. Even in ordinary times. Illness. Injury. Chronic pain. Broken relationships. Depression. Death. That’s just a sample. We want to know why this happened. We want to know how this can be reconciled with the goodness of God. That’s not what this book is about.

The authors have a more focused purpose. They are writing for those who believe, and particularly those whose trust in Christ includes a hope beyond this earthly life, in the words of the creed, a belief in “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” They believe suffering forms us in this life, and prepares us for that eternity. They write:

   The qualities we most admire in people are seldom forged in times of ease but in times of adversity. All the heroes of the faith suffered in some way, whether in an internal or external, chronically or as a result of a single crisis. Some suffered even to the point of death. While no sane person eagerly runs into the arms of suffering, believers in Jesus today often avoid it at all costs. Our most earnest prayers are too often, “Take this painful thing away” instead of “Use this for your glory” or “Keep me safe” instead of “Embolden my faith in this danger or threat.” This book takes a hard look at our perspective on suffering and challenges us as believers (myself included) to see it more as God would have us see it: from an eternal perspective. (p. 2)

The book follows 1 Peter, a book written to Christians facing imminent persecution under Nero, making this “the Job of the New Testament.’ They begin with Peter’s assumption of the inevitability of suffering and the hope of restoration (1 Peter 5:10). They consider how suffering purifies as fire does gold in a crucible. They explore the meaning of hope beyond death and the present joy amid suffering in the anticipation of that hope.

Contrary to our inclination to avoid or wish to escape suffering, the authors explore how we might prepare for suffering. The invitation to suffer is a call to imitate Christ, learning submission both to God and earthly authorities. Perhaps for me some of the most challenging words were in a chapter on ministering to others, and the call to intercession that “prays through.” Ultimately we live for eternal glory and as called people.

The discussion, closely following the text of 1 Peter, is mixed with stories both from Christians in history, and from the authors’ own lives. This is what enables the writing to transcend the nostrums that are singularly unsatisfying to those who suffer. Boa and Abel help us listen to an apostle intimately acquainted with suffering, one who knew he was destined for more. At present we face a pandemic and economic collapse. We all want life to go back to the way it was. What if it doesn’t? What does it mean to lean into Christian hope when the way to it is through suffering? This book, and perhaps the study of 1 Peter, may be for such a time as this.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Living in Bonus Time

living in bonus time

Living in Bonus TimeAlec Hill. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: The President Emeritus of InterVarsity/USA recounts his experience of surviving cancer, how he experienced disorientation and growth, and reframed his purpose in life in light of his “bonus time.”

I still remember the day when I opened the video from then President of InterVarsity/USA, Alec Hill, and heard the news that he was stepping down from his position to fight a rare form of cancer, Myelodysplasia Syndrome (MDS) that could take his life within eighteen months. I work for InterVarsity and Alec had energetically led us in fourteen years of growth. He communicated personal concern for us as a couple when my wife faced a cancer diagnosis for us. I was stunned, and joined with thousands of others in prayer for him.

alec hill

Alec Hill

This book describes his journey from that time onward. The first part of this book describes a journey of descent.  A bone marrow donor match was critical to his survival. As it turned out, his brother Grant was an exact match. For Alec, this meant toxic chemo and full body radiation to destroy his white blood cells, while Grant received injection to boost his stem cell production. Hill describes the side effects of this treatment, including the risk that any infection could kill him, requiring isolation from all but his wife Mary, and scrupulous sanitizing of surfaces. He also describes the struggles with depression and the “dark night of the soul” through which he went, and his struggle to hang on to the disciplines that had sustained him in health. He struggled with why this had happened to him. Had he done something to cause it? He warns against the prosperity preaching and false messengers who unhelpfully approached him. And when the treatment worked and his blood counts rose and health returned while friends in treatment died, he wrestled with survivors guilt.

The second part of the books focuses Hill’s transition to new realities as he realizes that he is among those who survive cancer. He describes the lessons of control–over-control like that of Steve Jobs, who thought he could out-think pancreatic cancer, or under-control, which becomes passive in the face of cancer. He recognizes that appropriate control involves humility, trust, gratitude, and rest. Cancer forced him to learn dependence on others–family, friends, professional caregivers, and other cancer patients. In this section, he also discusses the challenges caregivers face and the needs caregivers have for self-care. Perhaps the most significant chapter in this book was his one on identity. He talks frankly about the experiences he faced in self-perception, bodily changes including those affecting sexuality, social roles and spiritual identity. He writes:

Cancer is a watershed event that divides our lives between BC (before cancer) and AD (after diagnosis). If given a choice between our BC and AD selves–what we look like, how we feel, how we perceive others regard us–most of us would gladly select the former.

The final part of the book describes how Hill came to terms with “bonus time” (a phrase he draws from soccer, where at the end of regulation time, the referee can extend the play with bonus time. He identifies how survivors often show growth in grit, spirituality, and boldness (e.g. why am I afraid what people think when I’ve had cancer?). Surviving cancer can lead to a clarifying of purpose as one faces one’s mortality. He proposes that clarified purpose comes through surrender of control to reliance on God, assessment of our responsibilities, resources, capabilities and calling, and attentiveness that requires slowing down. For Hill, it meant a shift from executive leadership in a fast-paced collegiate ministry to the thoughtful mentoring of young leaders. He concludes with a pair of chapters on redeeming the time and on wonder that get to the most important aspects of bonus time–savoring one’s life, loving, living freely, giving of himself, and delighting in wonder.

No two cancers are alike. Neither are cancer journeys, some of which end one’s life and some that pass through the valley of the shadow of death into survivorhood. One thing that is true is that one is not the same–physically, emotionally, mentally. There are bodily changes, fears of recurrence and survivor guilt, and chemo brain. But there are also the opportunities of additional years of life and the question of how one will live those years. Alec Hill has given an incredibly honest, but also life affirming account of his journey. He takes us through his process in the hope that it will be helpful to others. In this, he practices something he learned through cancer–no one survives alone, but rather with a host of others who walk with one on the way–including other survivors. He supplements his own story with those of others, questions and scriptures for reflection, and a helpful bibliography organized around chapter topics.

This is a wonderful resource for cancer survivors and caregivers. It should be noted that Hill’s Christian faith pervades this memoir, not in a preachy way, but rather as what sustained him and helped him as he clarified what life in the bonus time of surviving cancer would look like. Hill’s aim is not that people imitate him, but rather through his reflection questions and insights, discern their own paths in “bonus time.”


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: 12 Faithful Men

12 Faithful Men

12 Faithful MenCollin Hansen and Jeff Robinson, editors. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018.

Summary: Twelve thumbnail biographies focused on pastoral leaders who served faithfully through suffering.

Pastoral ministry is not for sissies, contrary to some popular stereotypes. The hours can be long, you often encounter people at their worst (and sometimes at their best), your call is to be faithful to God’s word, and a shepherd of God’s people. Sooner or later, conflict and criticism homes in on you. Pastors not only help the suffering. If they are at all faithful to their work, they are the suffering.

This is a book to give courage to pastors. It consists of twelve thumbnail biographies of faithful men (I would hope a companion volume on faithful women is forthcoming–there are a host of examples). Some are quite familiar: Paul, John Calvin, John Bunyan, Jonathan Edwards, John Newton, Charles Spurgeon. Some you may have heard of: Andrew Fuller, Charles Simeon, J.C.Ryle. And some like John Chavis, an early Black preacher; Janani Luwum, the Ugandan archbishop martyred under Idi Amin; and Wang Ming-Dao, a Chinese pastor who led the house church movement under Mao.

What they all have in common is that faithfulness in ministry led to some form of suffering. A number went to prison, including Paul, John Bunyan, Luwum, and Wang Ming-Dao. Others faced controversy with their people, including Calvin and Edwards and Simeon. Spurgeon struggled with the black dog of depression throughout his ministry. Chavis, highly educated and even a tutor of white children was barred from preaching, though licensed, simply because he was black.

Each of the biographers in this volume explore the ways these men were formed through suffering. For Paul, suffering portrayed what he proclaimed, focused him on eternal things, authenticated the integrity of his ministry and destroyed self-glory. Calvin came to understand through the suffering of exile the call to exile we all share. Prison plunged Bunyan into the scriptures such that Spurgeon comment that if you cut Bunyan, he would bleed “bibline.” Fuller learned through the heartbreaks of the death of his wife and son, and another wayward son, to give comfort to all who struggled with similar circumstances. Simeon pressed on despite great opposition in prayerful, humble expository ministry from which might be traced the University and Colleges Christian Fellowship in the United Kingdom, InterVarsity/USA and the ministry of John Stott, Kent Hughes and others.

I appreciate the inclusion of examples of African American, Chinese and African examples and would hope that the western Church might hear more examples of Christian faithfulness around the world. In a culture where it seems that the most common prayer is that things would go “smoothly,” the honest portrayal of the various forms of suffering that is the lot of faithful pastors is both a bracing word, and a welcome balm. I suspect many pastors wonder if they are alone, and if they have done something wrong if they are not “prospering.”

The biographies are short, rather than exhaustive, averaging about fifteen pages, making this ideal for devotional reading. While more lengthy and definitive works have been written about many, the focus on the theme of endurance through suffering and God’s provident work makes these pithy biographies welcome support amid the press of pastoral duties. Buy two of these, one for your pastor, and one to understand and pray for her or him (and other faithful pastors around the world).


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Suffering and the Search for Meaning

SufferingSummary: This book surveys seven different approaches to the question of why pain and suffering if there is a God. This serves both as an introduction to the subject of theodicy and provides pastoral and personal resources for responding to people in pain, including one’s own suffering.

Suffering raises profound questions for every human being. For the Christian or other theists, it raises the question of how we are to understand a good and powerful God allowing evil and suffering. But even for the atheist, who can only say that suffering is, there is still the profound sense of the “wrongness” of suffering and why one thinks it wrong. Then there are the times where suffering becomes real in our lives, or for someone who we care deeply. At times, the numbness, or the outrage of suffering leaves one thinking no answers make sense. Yet few of us wish to live our lives believing it is really all senseless. We try to make some sense out of suffering, or are in the position of walking along others as they make their own sense out of it.

This is a book for those times. What the author does is survey seven approaches to this question that have helped Christians over time. The approaches are:

  1. Perfect plan theodicy: that all suffering is a part of God’s perfect plan
  2. Free will defense: that suffering is a result of human free will used badly.
  3. Soul-making theodicy: this approach finds meaning in how suffering changes us for the better.
  4. Cosmic conflict theodicy: this approach recognizes the role of the devil in directly or indirectly causing suffering.
  5. Openness of God theodicy: God doesn’t foreknow the choices we make, only the possibilities, but how we actually exercise free will is only known to God when we act. This approach has much in common with the free will approach.
  6. Finite God theodicy: God is not all powerful, the “when bad things happen to good people” approach.
  7. Protest theodicies: These are expressions of outrage against terrible evil claiming no God could permit such evil.

For each approach Richard Rice outlines the basic contours of that approach, why it is attractive as a response to the question of suffering, and what the drawbacks of the approach are.

His concluding chapter, titled “Fragments of Meaning” explores how one uses this material to help the suffering, whether the suffering is “theirs” “ours” or “yours”. Each is a unique situation with unique pastoral requirements. He suggests that in formulating our own theodicy the twin questions of What kind of world did God create? and What kind of God created the world? are key to the theodicy we form. Rice would suggest that most will form a bricolage, an understanding drawn from the fragments of different theodicies rather than favoring only one. For the author (who favors open theism but evenhandedly presents each view) his own bricolage consists of these four statements:

  1. God is Lord and God is Love.
  2. Suffering is real and suffering is wrong.
  3. God is with us when we suffer
  4. Suffering never has the last word.

What I most appreciated about this book was the conciseness and clarity of explanation of the different views as well the pastoral sensitivity that realizes that these are not “answers” we give, but resources on which we draw as we try to make sense out of our own suffering or walk alongside others. For those looking for the “right” answer, this is not the book, but as the author observes, in Job, even God does not really “answer” Job.

Review: C. S. Lewis and the Crisis of a Christian

C. S. Lewis and the Crisis of a Christian
C. S. Lewis and the Crisis of a Christian by Gregory S. Cootsona
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book does something different from most books about C. S. Lewis or his works. The purpose of this book is neither biography, nor an exposition or critique of part or all of the writing of Lewis. Rather, the writer seeks to introduce Lewis through the lens of the existential crises of life, as Lewis experienced them, as the author experienced them, and as we may experience them, either as atheists or Christians or in our common humanity.

Cootsona summarizes the life of Lewis around crises he experienced as an atheist, apologetic crises he grappled with as a Christian, and the existential crises of suffering, evil, and death that every human being must face and that Lewis faced in his own losses of mother and wife, as well as in his own final decline.

But this is not simply biography. Around these three major types of crises, Cootsona introduces us to what Lewis said and wrote about these matters. Thus, this book could serve as an introduction to the relevance of Lewis’s writing for a new generation of reader.

First of all he concerns himself with “crises” of atheism. One of these is the self-contradictory and self-defeating nature of naturalism–if there is no design, if all is random, and if rationality is an epiphenomenon, then our certainty about these assertions, and this very sentence are up for grabs. Naturalism can offer no real sense of meaning, yet we act as if life is meaningful. Finally, even though we can posit no basis in naturalism for any transcendent moral law, we act as if it is so, that there are things that are really wrong.

Then he moves on to crises peculiar to embracing Christian faith. One of these is the crisis of pluralism: how may we believe in the uniqueness of Christ when there are so many alternatives. Isn’t this simply one myth among many? In this context, Coosona introduces us to Lewis’s famous “liar-lunatic-Lord” trilemma. Secondly, he explores the question of authority and the nature of biblical authority. Here he “outs” Lewis as not among the inerrantists. Yet Lewis believed the Bible was authoritative because of Christ and the Church’s witness, because, for its human faults, it carried the Word of God, at even sections Lewis might consider “mythical” (such as the creation accounts) were not fictional but true, and that the Bible forms the lives of those who read it, including Lewis. Lewis believed the miracles that were recorded as historical facts, including the miracle of the resurrection. Thus, Lewis challenges both fundamentalists and liberal skeptics in the way he reads and understands the scriptures.

The final section explores existential questions. One is the question of emotivism. Ought I base my decisions simply upon feeling or are there moral standards that I might live by regardless of feelings? Second, how do we make sense of suffering? He explores not only the arguments in The Problem of Pain but also those in the more intensely personal A Grief Observed that explore both where purpose may be found in suffering and yet the fundamental mystery we face in much suffering. Finally we see how Lewis regarded death, including his own approaching death.

Throughout, Cootsona weaves together his own experiences, Lewis’s life and writing, as well as how this has proven helpful to others. Cootsona introduces us to some of his own archival research along the way where this illumines how Lewis might approach a question. Yet his priority focus is to demonstrate how the works of Lewis that are available to most readers address these crises of life.

That begs the question: do we need this book if we have Lewis’s books on our shelves? Strictly speaking, the answer is no. But for the skeptic or young believer who is not well-acquainted with Lewis, this book can serve as a helpful doorway into the works of Lewis. The book also serves as a basic apologetic for Christian faith for a person who is asking the questions or wrestling with the crises the book explores. I do think the book would be helped with recommended readings of Lewis at the end of each chapter relevant to the chapter discussion. There is a bibliography at the end that includes some material on where to start in reading Lewis and includes a lists of his works, biographies, and other scholarly work on Lewis.

[This review is based on a complimentary e-galley version of this book provided by the publisher through Netgalley. I have not been in any other way compensated for the review of this book.]

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A Healthy View of Health

Last week, I posted reflections on our pastor’s message on the Christian in Sickness under the title “A Healthy Attitude Toward Sickness“. This past Sunday he spoke on the Christian in Health.  One of the assertions he made at the beginning caught my attention. This was that, when we consider things on a global scale, health is not the standard experience of human existence, but rather sickness in some form or other. Instances of full, abundant health are the welcome exception. Some of the sicknesses may be chronic, such as inadequate nutrition or chronic parasitic afflictions or malaria. In other cases, infections or illnesses readily treated through our advanced medical care go untreated and may threaten one’s life or quality of life in serious ways.

Many of us tend to enjoy health for relatively long stretches of time, where we begin to assume this is the norm and a right rather than a gift. This was brought home to me recently when I was bitten by a dog tick in my backyard, and spent two weeks of watchfulness for a possible serious illness that could result from that bite. I’ve spent the past 24 years working in that yard and this never happened before. Several years back, I was running half marathons, and in the midst of this contracted cellulitis in my right arm that got so bad I was hospitalized and put on intravenous antibiotics because other antibiotics were not working. Had these not been available or worked, I’m not sure I’d be writing this blog!

Rich’s point was not to get us to live in dread fear of the next looming sickness but rather in recognizing health as a gift to respond in worship, service, and friendship. God is the giver of all good gifts (James 1:17) and when we enjoy health, thanksgiving and worship make sense. We are also healthy to serve, including serving the sick, and healthy in order to enter into community “just because”, rather than because there is some need we or others have. Sometimes it is just a joy to hang out and enjoy good things together.

As I’ve reflected on all this, I’m struck with one further thought about health. When we are healthy we have some sense that “this is how life was meant to be”, and I believe that is right and not to be denied. Sickness, suffering, and death were not God’s original intention for human beings, nor are they the ultimate end for those who trust in Christ. Our moments of health are glimpses of our once and future destiny and pointers to the new life already at work in us, even while we deal with the physical decline of these present bodies (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).

In many areas of the Christian life we share our future hope by bringing it into the present. We look forward to God’s peace where the lion and lamb will lay down with each other and we pursue peace. We look forward to God’s people from every nation gathered in worship and seek to reach those from every nation with Christ’s gospel. We believe in a renewed creation in the new Jerusalem, and so we seek to tend God’s present creation toward that day. And similarly, it seems to me that our belief in new, resurrection bodies no longer subject to illness, pain and death should move us to the work of not just comforting and caring for the sick, but as much as possible to not only alleviate but to prevent the suffering of illness, and particularly for those who lack these resources. For example, things as cheap as mosquito nets, and low cost water purification systems are saving the lives of thousands of young children. I work with young, mostly healthy graduate students, many doing biomedical-related research. I see this work as an act of worship providing means to extend God’s gift of health to many more people.

So I would suggest that one further way we might think about the gift of health is as an opportunity to seek the blessing of that gift for others who don’t have the same access to it as do we. Along with health, God gives gifts of expertise, skill, financial resources and time. How might we use these to extend the gift of health and the experience of the goodness of God to others?

This post also appears on our church’s Going Deeper Blog.

Review: Shaped by the Cross: Meditations on the Sufferings of Jesus

Shaped by the Cross: Meditations on the Sufferings of Jesus
Shaped by the Cross: Meditations on the Sufferings of Jesus by Ken Gire
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Helmut Thielecke, the distinguished German theologian, visited the US in 1963 and was asked what he thought was the most important question Americans were facing. His response caught many by surprise. He replied that he thought the question of how Americans deal with suffering the most significant. He recognized that the American response was one of simply trying to eliminate suffering but never that suffering could be the raw material to shape our souls.

Ken Gire relates this story as part of this collection of meditations on the suffering of Christ centered around Michelangelo’s Pieta. The book includes photo images of the sculpture taken by Robert Hupka at the World’s Fair in New York in 1964, when the sculpture was there on loan. Each image is from a different vantage point and shows the statue illuminated against a black background. The chapters in the book move back and forth between reflection on the Pieta from these different perspectives and biblical material reflecting on the suffering God, the humanity of Christ, the wounds Christ suffered, the suffering of Mary, the body of Jesus as a broken sacrifice, and the resurrection. Word and image come together in taking us into both what Christ suffered and how as his disciples, his body, we may enter into and be transformed by suffering when it comes. The closing chapter recalls The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe when Aslan breathes life on the menagerie of animals frozen into statues, and reflects on the liberation of the living Christ from death, from stone to be the first of many who will know this new life.

Each chapter concludes with a prayer and questions for personal or group reflection. This would be a marvelous book to use during Lent for personal devotions, or group study.

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