How to Handle Adversity

how to handle adversityWell, I hesitated about blogging on this book. If you take a look at my blog, you’ll note I do not follow any set format. Poetry, fiction, essays, and non-fiction books fit in a variety of genres. As a Christian, I’ve also never hesitated to write about books I read pertaining to my faith. The “problem” with being a Christian is that many people typecast you, which we are better at doing to others rather than having done to us (I know I am). Yet, I like stretching out, so here I look at a book written by someone likely typecast as a fundamentalist.

Background: My youngest child (I have four) was diagnosed with neuroblastoma cancer at age 4. After over 2 1/2 years of the best treatment he could get, he passed away just over a year ago (May 7, 2013) at the age of 6. I remember sitting in the waiting room everyday while he was going through radiation, and I would pick up Charles Stanley’s “In Touch” magazine and read his column. This is not something I would normally read, but when waiting for your child during radiation, you grab something. Anything. The typecast of the fundamentalist is that of fire and brimstone, but Stanley’s work was always friendly. Grandfatherly even (and he is in his 80s, so that makes sense). He wrote as one who knows his beliefs are right, and is comfortable talking with those who may disagree with him. In other words, instead of being defensive, he was open minded.

Because of what our family has experienced, I’m naturally drawn toward writings addressing grief, evil, and the Christian faith. When I was offered a Kindle deal on Stanley’s book, How to Handle Adversity, I decided to take a more serious look on how Stanley would address my way of life.

Stanley pulls no punches, and I appreciate his honesty. I certainly did not agree with him allSermonCentral-Contributor-Charles-Stanley_160x190 the time, but he does not hesitate to state his beliefs. A question that often arises in the midst of adversity, and certainly in the death of my little boy, is “why?” Why did this happen? Why to this child? Why to any child?

[Note: Given the context, I’ll follow Stanley’s reference to God as a male, and the capitalization of the pronouns.]

I’m comfortable knowing that such an answer is beyond my grasp. I don’t know why this happened, but I still believe in the goodness of God. Stanley is more clear in his thinking: “Some things are so important to God that they are worth interrupting the happiness and health of His children in order to accomplish them.”

As a result of this thinking, Stanley sees adversity coming from three different areas: God, Satan, and sin. The sin area is the easiest to understand, and answers the “why” clearly. If my sinful life leads to my adversity, I do not have far to search in finding the problem. And it is easier to address and overcome.

As for coming from God, Stanley offers many ways we benefit from adversity.  “Adversity, however, is not simply a tool. It is God’s most effective tool for the advancement of our spiritual lives.” Not surprisingly, Stanley often turns to Paul’s letters and life as an example of someone who saw adversity as God’s working in his life (including shipwrecks, prison, betrayal, and the mysterious “thorn” in his side).

Stanley (who keeps his arguments based on a rather literal interpretation of Scripture) also points out what he calls “the old standby” of adversity Scripture, James 1:2-4

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

While noting that these verses are often used to oversimplify sermons on adversity, he sees the foundation for our thinking in this verse. It clearly impacts his direction as he explores the areas where we benefit from adversity: we focus attention on God, are reminded of His love, pushed to self-examination, see His faithfulness demonstrated, and allows us to comfort others.

I’m not sure why God cannot do all this in less painful ways, which is where I see Stanley’s argument falling apart. He can give us reasons he thinks we suffer, and he can back it up with how he sees Scripture supporting that, but no one really knows why. If it was that clear, there would be a lot fewer books written about it.

Stanley goes from here to talk about our response to adversity, which he obviously states needs to be positive for our faith. Becoming bitter, withdrawn, and angry are ways we turn away from God, at the very time we need to be trusting in Him.

One area which surprised me was Stanley’s take on Satan. “You know that if God is behind it, He is going to use it for your good. If Satan is behind it, you know he works under God’s supervision.” In other words, even the work of Satan falls under God’s domain (which makes theological sense), but quite often we see this as the battleground: God vs. Satan. I’m glad Stanley does not slip into the error of blaming all bad things on Satan — but it is still confusing as to why God would allow Satan to do this (except, for Stanley, the reasons given above explain why). My view of Satan differs greatly, but is not the focus of this review. Still, it seems Stanley’s theology does not match his literal reading of Scripture, so he hits a wall here.

In the end, perhaps the book can be judged on its success. As someone dealing with adversity (to put it mildly), I do find much of what Stanley saying to be true. My faith has grown, but on the other hand, I’ve see other people’s faith destroyed by similar events. Stanley’s advice will help some, and miss the point with others.

I was impressed by Stanley’s writings, since people with so many books to their credit often get sloppy. His tone is friendly and welcoming, he knows his Scripture passages, and he knows that some of what he says may sound glib — he is concerned about hurting people. In the end, that is why I like the book. I may not agree with all of it, but Stanley seems like someone you can talk with and instead of becoming angry with disagreement, he’ll engage you in conversation. That is a way I would not mind being typecast.


The Will of God as a Way of Life

the will of god Jerry Sittser has a remarkable gift for taking complex theology and applying it to everyday life. Many people are good at telling you how to live a Christian life, but  their theology may be weak. Sittser is a theologian, and he supports his points with numerous scripture references. In his book, The Will of God as a Way of Life: How to Make Every Decision with Peace and Confidence, the only thing not to like is the title. The subtitle makes it sound like a self-help book. While you will walk away with a new insight, this is no simple, “follow these three steps to better decisions” book.

Instead, Sittser dives head on into the theological issues surrounding the will of God. God’s sovereignty, our free will, calling, and the role of suffering in our lives, all get ample attention.
But what grabs me the most is his opening conversation about God’s will for our life. What do we mean we say “it is God’s will?” And how about following God’s will. What if we make the wrong decision and head down a different path? Sittser explores these questions, and provides an answer.
“As I struggled with the issue of discovering God’s will, I came to a startling conclusion. The will of God concerns the present more than the future; it deals with our motives as well as our actions; it focuses on the little decisions we make every day even more than the big decision we make about the future. The only time we really have both to know and to do God’s will is the present moment. We are to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. These are the basic responsibilities Jesus challenges us to pay attention to.”
In other words, that job we are deciding on, that relationship we are struggling with, that question about our direction in life, are missing the point. Following God’s will is reflected in how we live now, not in what the future holds for us. “We can, in good conscience, choose from among any number of reasonable alternatives and continue to do the will of God.”
And just as how this no simple self-help book, Sittser encourages us to seek God’s direction in scripture, but not as as how-to book. “The Bible does not tell us what to do in every situation. It establishes guidelines and principles, not a long list of rules. It sets the overall direction.”
I should also note his strong work in the area of suffering and God’s will. I reviewed his book, A Grace Revealed, which explores this topic in depth. He also deals with it in A Grace Disguised. Sittser’s entire family was in the car when it was hit by a drunk driver, and he lost his mother, his wife, and a daughter, in an instant. He understands suffering.
He sees God’s story in our lives as a story of redemption. Like reading a novel, the author knows the plot, but the characters are learning as they go. But here, the characters know the ending, and it is a good ending. “Sinfulness and tragedies and suffering and everything else never have the final word. God has the final word. The cross is irrefutable proof that God’s hidden will, mysterious and unfathomable at times, is real and redemptive.”
Sittser never dismisses suffering, but he recognizes our limited viewpoint. It is a humble viewpoint, and thus better focused on living God’s will in the present, confident in the future.

Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes

mastermindMaria Konnikova’s title to her book, Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, makes it sound like a self-help book. Instead, between the covers we find a exploration of how our brain works, with Sherlock Holmes as our recurring role model.

I’m a long-time Holmes fan, and thinking like Holmes seems like an admirable goal. But as Konnikova shows, it is not an easy feat. Our brains have been trained to think like Watson — to think like Holmes requires not only a change in thinking, but a great deal of practice to have any success.
Holmes is well known for his power of observation. He and Watson can walk into room, but what they observe is completely different.  The fact is, most of us are like Watson. But take heart! “Our brains aren’t stupid….We don’t notice everything because noticing everything…would make us crazy.” Instead, Konnikova lays out how Holmes succeeds in observing more than most: he is selective, objective, inclusive, and engaged. “
Many of these we can understand in theory, but Konnikova provides multiple examples (at times, a few too many) to show how our brain does not always work this way. We let our background biases alter what we see, we follow a line of thinking even when the evidence points elsewhere, and we are distracted by elements which do not matter. Only through conscious effort and training can we overcome many of these challenges. Holmes (and it is good to remember he is a fictional character) trained his brain early on to have the abilities it possesses.greensherlocksm
A trait not often applied to Holmes, which Konnikova sees as essential, is imagination. “It uses the building blocks of all of the observations that you’ve collected to create the material that can then serve as a solid base for future deduction.” In other words, once you have the different elements, it takes imagination to create the picture. Holmes is too often portrayed as a human robot, when it is his ability to be imaginative that sets him apart. 
What Konnikova also focuses on is Holmes’ willingness to sit and think. “A three-pipe problem,” he might say.  “If you get only one think out of this book, it should be this: the most powerful mind is the quiet mind. It is the mind that is present, reflective, mindful of its thoughts and its state. It doesn’t often multitask, and when it does, it does so with a purpose.” Brave words in a loud world, and Konnikova is no stuffy old professor. She is a maria konnikovadoctoral candidate in psychology at Columbia University. A Harvard grad who learned her Holmesian lore by hearing her father read the stories to her in Russian.
It is that knowledge and clear love of the canon that makes this book so interesting for the Holmes fan. While she can quote psychological studies at length, she also quotes Doyle often. The stories serve as ways to illuminate what we know about the brain, but her thinking provides new insight to the stories. One will return to Holmes with fresh eyes.

A Grace Revealed: How God Redeems the Story of Your Life

Jerry Sittser understands a grace revealedpain. He understands loss. He understands grief. But more importantly, he understands that our life is a story of redemption, of connection to the person of Christ. While we cannot forget, nor should we forget, our painful times in life, we need to know that the God’s story for our life is not over.

This is no mere glib, theological chatter. Sittser’s family was in a car hit by a drunk driver nearly 20 years ago. In an instant, his mother, his wife, and one of his daughters, was gone. Three generations of women gone all at once, and Sittsler suddenly finds himself the single father of two daughters and a son — all young.

Sittser wrote about the incident four years after it happened, in “A Grace Disguised.” He now returns with more distance from the event. But what makes this work so powerful, is that Sittser is not writing a memoir, but using his story to tell the story of God’s working out our redemption. “This book will not tell a sweet and simple story about tragedy leading to triumph. Still, I hope it will tell a redemptive story.”

And it does. Sittser is inspirational not in that he, twenty years later, he is “handling” the tragedy well. Instead, he inspirational in how he seems himself in the context of a larger story, and he trusts God’s authorship. This is not a self-help book, it is not called, “Using God to Feel Better About How Bad Life Is.” It is about redemption. “Redemption involves the story of how God reclaims and restores us into a living relationship with himself so that we can become the people that God has always intended us to be.”

Sittser organizes the book in way which focuses on redemption as a story. Chapters are about characters, “Scene and Setting,” “Plot,” “Author,” and other story devices. The Bible itself is explored as a story, and in six of the most amazing pages I’ve ever read, he summarizes the entire Bible by relating it as a story. Sittser focuses on scripture for what he explores, and he quotes scripture (often at length) to show the story of redemption. So many books today, including Christian books, spend more time quoting other authors than returning to the source, which makes this book so strong, theologically speaking.

This is not surprising. Sittser is a professor of Theology at Whitworth College (and, I was pleased to learn, a fellow alum from Hope College). He has a unique gift for be theologically grounded, but clearly able to write for the layperson. And his unfortunate credentials in suffering create an authentic voice.

On a very personal note, this was a profoundly moving book for me. Myself a father of four, I am also the parent of a six-year-old who has been battling cancer for nearly three years. There is no longer much hope that this will be cured, and we have wrestled with this reality. I have written openly and honestly about this process since the outset, and many people have said, you should write a book. Well, Sittser has written the book I would want to write, and done it far better than I could ever do.

I knew at the outset that his voice would be one I understand. “God has written and played the key role in the story of salvation, which promises to redeem our stories….This glorious story of redemption turns on the work of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and Savior of the world, who came into this world to make us new, which he accomplished through his life, death, and resurrection. It is all his doing, a gift of pure grace. But we must receive this gift and make it our own, like children growing into adults.”

That last line challenges us to not feel sorry for ourselves, but to accept God’s grace and trust in his story. How many of us have wasted our lives, filling it with bitterness over real and imagined tragedies, instead of recognizing that God is not done writing our story. But we need to accept that gift, and accepting gifts requires humility. Some people are blessed with a natural humility, others learn it the hard way, but those who never see themselves in a larger context, who center their world around themselves instead of God — well, there is the true tragedy in life. A stepping out of the story God is writing.

Sittser shares the story of a woman who, after many years of struggling, decides to meet the man who murdered her brother. And she tells him as she leaves, God wants him to know that “It is not too late to become the man that God designed you to be.” Our stories are not over.

Who Is This Man?: The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus

who is this manThe essential premise of John Ortberg’s Who Is This Man? The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus, is that Christianity has had a great impact on society. Hardly earth shattering news. Somehow, Ortberg seems to think this legitimizes Jesus for the world, but, of course, it does not. A Christian will not point to the lived out faith as proof that Jesus was Christ, but instead focus on Jesus. Ortberg does show ways the influence of Christianity has spread, but he tends to focus on the all the good ways, instead of the evil. He gives passing mention to some errors, but if you want to focus on the role of Christianity in the world, you have to address the Inquisitions, Christian support for slavery, Christian countries warring, and countless examples of individual misuses of Christ’s teachings.
One thinks of Gandhi’s reply to why he rejects Christ.  “Oh, I don’t reject your Christ. I love your Christ. It is just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Which is one of the few quotes in the world which does not make it into this book. Ortberg strings quote after quote after quote together, quite often from four or five unrelated sources, on a single page. Sometimes they relate, sometimes they do not, but you want to hear more from Ortberg and less from everyone else. These are broken up by some very bad, classic “preacher” jokes which are often forced into the text.
Clearly, I found this all annoying. What he does have to say of value is what you would pick up in any history of Christianity class or text. Now, let it be known that I’m in the minority here. This is book is very popular and has spawned many study groups. If it succeeds in getting people talking about their faith, there is something going right. And many may argue that I get Ortberg’s goal wrong. An arguable point, so feel free to disagree in the comments.
And just when it seems that all hope is lost for the book, I do find some saving grace (pun intended) as  Ortberg turns his attention at the end to the three essential days in Christianity: Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. Here we get a glimpse of what Ortberg has to share if he quits quoting others and writes his own thoughts. His reflections on each of these days are simple, but strong. Especially interesting are his thoughts on the Saturday, when no hope existed. If you are looking for devotional reading for Easter Weekend, use these three chapters. As for the rest, spend time instead with a good history of Christianity. And never confuse Christians with Christianity — we are stumbling lot seeking the perfection of Christ, but always falling short.

A Gift of Love

a gift of loveMartin Luther King, Jr is well known for so many reasons. A civil rights leader, great orator, great Christian, great pacifist. It is no surprise to find all those elements in “A Gift of Love: Sermons from ‘Strength to Love’ and Other Preachings.” As sermons, they are rooted in the Christian faith. But his call for civil rights, his call for a non-violent struggle, are prominent throughout. King was a preacher of the moment, responding to the needs of his congregation and beyond through the lens of his faith. And his strong oration style can be heard even in reading the sermons, as he brings home his points with a cadence which cannot be missed.

The weaknesses in the sermons are more a matter of their context rather than their thinking. Some of them slip toward self-help language, but they reflect the growing awareness of psychology in one’s thinking. Some of the world political issues are now a moot point, and some of what he sought we have reached.

But that our world has not reached the racial integration he sought is clear, and shameful, 50 years after some of these sermons were preached. What does come through in reading these sermons is King’s faith. He was a Christian, and he interprets what he sees through those eyes. These sermons will not allow him to become a secular hero. The civil rights movement was an expression of his Christian faith. His pacifist viewpoint, which was strengthened by the example of Gandhi, was rooted in his Christian faith.

I will not attempt a break down of each sermon. I read this over a long period and was more interested in their impact on my own faith than that of a book review. His sermon, “Antidotes for Fear,” was given to me by a doctor treating my son, who has been battling cancer for over two years. He is not likely to survive another year, and King’s words spoke to my condition. What stronger testament is there to one’s power as a writer or thinker that 50 years later, they still reach people where needed.

What Doctors Feel: How Emotions Affect the Practice of Medicine

Physician Danielle Ofri’s latest book, “What Doctors Feel,” is part of her ongoing attempt to bridge the patient/doctor gap, as seen in her earlier works. While this latest work focuses on the emotions doctor’s go through, Ofri’s point is that those emotions impact care. Learning more about what doctors feel can help, not only the medical profession, but patients as well. What becomes alarmingly clear is that little is done to help doctors deal with the range of emotions that run through them. As a result, doctors suffer burnout, patients are treated with more distance, and the medical profession as a whole suffers.

As medicine becomes more high tech, there exists the possibility that the distance will grow. Ofri cautions us not to be fooled by such possibilities. “No matter how many high tech tools enter the picture, the doctor-patient interaction is still primarily a human one. And when humans connect, emotions by necessity weave an underlying network.”

Much of the issue is found in the training of the doctors. Ofri shares the work of the 19th century physician and teacher, Sir William Osler, who encouraged young doctors to create a distance between themselves and the patient. The idea centers around the ability to make more logical decisions when the mind is not clouded by emotion. Osler did not want the doctors to treat their patients as mere subjects, but he did not want them distracted from making clear medical decisions.

That training remains, and Ofri uses stories to tell about the times when ignoring the complete care of the patient, in the interest of medical care, led to disasters. Conversely, she shares stories of when doctors have failed to keep that emotional distance, and as a result, better decisions were made. Nevertheless, she bemoans “the consistent and depressing observation that medical students seem to lose prodigious amounts of empathy as they progress along the medical training route.”

Not surprisingly, doctors hit the normal range of emotions. Grief, joy, sadness, guilt, shame, anger, and frustration are all part of the range any normal doctor, or person, will go through. What is different, is the intensity of the emotion. If I make an error in this book review, I may feel guilty, but I do not carry the weight of causing the death of someone due to that mistake. Doctors do.

Where the books wanders at times is when Ofri focuses too much on lawsuits and medical errors. But her point in addressing those areas point out the feelings of guilt and shame that doctors experience. Our tendency to sue for every real or supposed error, contributes to our own problems in the medical world. “Unless we can somehow defuse the shame and loss of self-definition that accompany the admission of medical errors, the gut instinct to hide an error will always be the first lynx to pounce upon the heart.”

Ofri clearly wants us to address the emotional needs of doctors, for their sake and for the sake of patients. Doctors who feel safer making an emotional connection will provide better care for their patients. How we are to improve the system is not clear, but Ofri’s intent seems to simply get the issue recognized. There have been inroads made, and she highlights the work of Herdley Paolini at Florida Hospital, where they have developed a program to address the emotional needs of all their staff. But, clearly, much work remains.

While doctors and patients will benefit from reading Ofri’s work, perhaps legislators and hospital administrators, those with the most power to change the situation, should read this book. Regardless, Ofri’s point is clear. When a doctor and patient interact, they are really two humans interacting. Emotions will be part of the relationship. Perhaps we should pay more attention to what those emotions mean in the medical world.