Reflection on Marlena Graves’s New Book: A Beautiful Disaster

The doctor opened the door for a second time while I waited in a small examination room. She apologized for delay; I’d been sitting in the empty room for 15 minutes waiting. Apparently the Infectious Disease specialist was in a meeting. She sighed with force, “Of all days he had a meeting!” My chest X-ray taken just 30 minutes before revealed a foggy substance in my both my lungs, pneumonia. And while pneumonia is a big deal, the fact that I got it while in the Middle East, meant it had the potential of being a civic disaster. Apparently, I had met enough of the criteria for MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome) to raise alarm. A few hours later I found myself in a special hospital room equipped with a self-contained airflow system having my nose and throat swabbed by a Lab tech in a hasmat suit. That was a first.

It was during this ordeal last week, having returned from Israel, that I read the bulk of Marlena Grave’s new book Beautiful Disaster, A: Finding Hope in the Midst of Brokenness. This was orchestrated by God no doubt! My MERS scare serves as something of a microcosm of my experience with the wilderness of pain, suffering and uncertainty.

This post is quite a bit longer than my typical review. I’m participating in a Blog Tour for the book and I wanted to engage it in a real and honest way. There is a Blog Tour website with other contributors’ reviews, promo videos and a book giveaway as well.

Over the course of the last year I have been delving deeply into my story of suffering. A story of abuse and neglect on the one hand, and accomplishment disembodiment and survival on the other. Marlena’s book comes to me at a time when I have been thinking and writing about the same things. I love the book’s title “Beautiful Disaster”. There is a present tense to the phrase. The Bride of Jesus is a cadre of beautiful disasters, whether we truly acknowledge it or not.

I’ll start right out of the gate with a critical reflection. The impression I was left with after reading the whole book was this present-tense sense in the title was slightly at odds with the perspective Marlene takes in the book. While I read the title as a present name for the life of the church lived between “the Comings”, I got the impression that Marlena’s orientation was more past-tense. The perspective of the book on our lives as disasters had a rearview orientation, at least to my ears—she was at an early point a beautiful disaster. But in the present through her cooperation with God in suffering, she is on a forward moving progression. While still “beautiful” (no doubt!!), I got the feeling she thinks she’s not as much a “disaster”. I don’t know if I’m reading her right here and I’m open to being corrected and maybe this is in fact her point. To be sure, there are statements that softly qualify the “progressive” point of view, but they are sparse.

As I reflected on the whole book, I felt an absence of any significant abiding tension in her relationship to brokenness. There was little angst left in her. This rearview perspective stood out to because it doesn’t reflect my own relationship to my suffering and pain.

Marlena styles herself as a guide who has “come through” and “learned” the hard lessons of brokenness through the wilderness. Indeed, I do think she has much to teach and has the experience that gives gravitas to her advice. Her movement though it seems to me is mostly in one rising direction. The book intends to be a message of hope for broken people: “I did it, so can you; and so must you do!” Maybe this is true of her – maybe she has overcome her brokenness, her angst, her struggle with her suffering; or maybe over reached (from my perspective) to offer a robust hope to the reader. Either way, I’m not as optimistic as she is in this book about our ability to be self-aware and to overcome brokenness of every kind.

Such damage can be done to a person either by the evil perpetrated by others, as in the case of sexual abuse, or through their own willfully sinful decisions to cooperate with evil and sabotage health, that they will struggle their life through untying the knots of brokenness. The beauty of grace, as I’m coming to understand it, is not that we are so self-aware, penitent of our depravity and willful in our obedience. Rather the scandal of God’s grace is that in spite of our lack of self-awareness, our inability to repent fully of our sinful habits for one reason or another and our failure to obey God, he nevertheless lavishes us with his grace. We are disasters. But we are beautiful disasters in God’s sight. As Christian speaker and author Brennan Manning, who struggled with alcoholism all his life, liked to say, “With God, it’s ok not to be ok.”

I think what motivates God’s grace is not pity for us—here I’m not characterizing Marlena’s view. But empathy and identification with us. God sees in us the familial reflection of himself, the potential of his image, now broken and soiled by evil. He longs to know us and to have relationship with us because we are his. He delights in us because we bear his image. He is our Father. His image in us is not so marred that he doesn’t recognize it. Here I am pushing against the Augustinian definition of Total Depravity. What motivates God’s grace is his grief over what we’ve become by choice and by being victims of evil.

God’s grace is not like that of a distant rich uncle who rescued a niece or nephew from a distance, disconnected and condescendingly. Rather, like the story Jesus told about the father and the prodigal son, God graciously, scandalously engages with us in our suffering and sinfulness, or, I should say, in spite of our sinfulness. We are Beautiful Disasters to be sure.

My MERS scare, which by the way is not yet over, reveals a lot about the way I have learned to deal with pain, death, disappointment, and fear. This way of relating reveals that the wilderness in and of itself does not provide the necessary condition for healthy and flourishing lives. When faced with something painful, my approach is to be heroic. I will survive! I face pain with a rock-chiseled chin. I rise above it. Now I’ve come to this not by discipleship at least not intentionally, but by my own childish resources of13 years old when trying to figure out how to negotiate suffering. What’s more, it wasn’t conscious—at least I never sat down and worked out a plan on how to survive. I drew on my own resources—there weren’t any others by the way—in the moments of pain my body developed a method for relating to it: accomplishment combined with disembodiment (evacuation), intellectualization and minimization of the extent of evil and pain.

In my MERS ordeal I did what what I always do, I minimized the potential danger and I tried to silence my wife’s fear – treating her condescendingly and delegitimizing her emotions by demonstrably asserting they were both unnecessary and inappropriate. This wilderness did nothing to cause me to be self-aware or to better know God. And this inability to “learn” from the wilderness cannot in every case be chalked up to hardheartedness and willful rebellion. I don’t question the tenet that humanity in general is in rebellion against God. Or that this is a significant factor in our inability to learn from wilderness journeys the Lord leads us through. This what the Scripture levels against Israel in the wilderness of Paran and Sin in Numbers 13-14. However, having just recently stood in that desert at the bottom of the Holy Land in the southern Negev where Israel failed to be faithful, I’ve grown empathetic of Israel’s faithlessness. Imagine the most barren and mountainous desert you can, one with nothing but rocks, sand, and deep rift canyons tearing through the landscape. It is desolate.

But in cases of personal trauma perpetuated by Evil there is a knot that must be untangled. It just isn’t enough to tell such a person “you need to repent”. “You need to confess your sins”. I’m not saying we don’t need to do that very thing, we do. But we need to understand of what we are repenting. We need to untangle the ways we have joined evil against ourselves and others. But this is several steps into a process. It will do no good to say such a thing at first.

For me, I learned to live disconnected from my body and in my head. I theologized—that is the intellectualization of faith wrapped in God-talk—a rationale so that in my way of seeing things it was next to holiness “not cry over spilled milk”. I had a prooftext too: Gen 50:20: “What you meant for evil, God meant for good”. I don’t dispute the truth of this verse, but I’m living proof that it won’t lead to a flourishing life if by it we rationalize a disconnected relationship to our pain. We will never develop empathy for others, which is a foundation of deep relationship, if we’re not first empathetic toward ourselves. We must mourn our pain first, before we are able to live out Gen 50:20.

Surely my default position is not a path to self discovery and divine revelation in the wilderness. And, if it weren’t for a year’s worth of therapy, with an excellent therapist I might add, I would not be able to name any of this. But as my MERS story illustrates, even now I often still don’t respond in a healthy way in the moment even after all the hard worked I’ve done.

So while I’ve learned to learn lessons in the wilderness, there’s a huge difference between being convinced of something intellectually and reflecting that with our bodies. As Jamie Smith says in his books, Desiring the Kingdom and Imaging the Kingdom: our bodies know what your minds cannot. In his philosophical anthropology project based in neuroscience and social science and the philosophy of body, Jamie is seeking to get at the knowledge our bodies possess. That particular knowledge which is between instinct and mental reflection. The knowledge that most directly affects our behavior. Our bodies are immediately related to the world in a way our intellects are not. Before we have to time reflect our body responds. Jamie has theorized quite convincingly why we can learn things intellectually but not have any power to change our habits to be in line with the idea. His research reveals that we live most out of our pre-cognitive knowledge, rather than out of our conscious reflection. Listening to what our bodies are saying to us is crucial. Becoming curious about our bodily importment in the world is essential. This kind of sophisticated anthropological account of human beings is lacking in Marlena’s account of the wilderness experience as a learning place for broken people.

Marlena has experienced deep pain and has come through it so she has the life experience to speak to us about brokenness. But the hope she offers seems to lack an element of realism informed by the kind of anthropological account offered by Jamie Smith. To me she seems now largely “beyond” the struggle of her brokenness as she has “applied Scripture”, “preformed disciplines”, “practiced obedience” and “lived in community”. I rather doubt that is the whole story, and she can correct me, but that’s the sense I got when reading the book.

For those who have suffered trauma, we need an expert “reader” of story, to read our story, in Dan Allender’s words. A trained and gifted exegete of stories. This is a well-trained therapist. So I’m afraid when it comes to those who most need to hear a word about brokenness, at best the thoughts contained in the book will fall on death ears – they certainly would have on mine a year ago. Or, at worst, they will set someone up with an unrealistic expectation only to crash them into greater levels of despair when they are unable to overcome brokenness through disciplines and repentance. Many of use have and do these things and still struggle with angst, fear, anger and disengagement.

Having registered this criticism, I do, nevertheless, want to commend this book as a good attempt to point in directions of health through brokenness. Marlena has a story of brokenness to tell. Her story is one of faith-filled struggle through desert-like realities. Marlena’s metaphorical desert wandering provides guidance to those willing listen. She lights a narrow path of faith and discipleship through the mysterious ways of God. I think Marlena is succeeds in convincing a reader to embrace suffering, what she calls “the wilderness”, as a necessary, non-negotiable way of “being formed into the image of Christ”. Marlena has found herself in a constant cycle of wilderness wanderings and she has become accustomed to this “in and out”, the “yin and the yang” of a maturing spiritual life. It has been through the wilderness that she has healed. What once devastated her, now has become an invitation to deepen her relationship with God and others. What once was seen as a burden from the pit of hell, is now looked at as an opportunity to understand grace, compassion, stability, repentance, courage and faith. This book is a report on Marlena’s perspectival change.

The account is just one way to envisage how one can come to embraced the wilderness for its potential, rather than resented for its pain. She says rightly of the wilderness: “The wilderness can be a difficult place, but it’s also the place where miracles and epiphanies occur, the place where we come to know and see God” (pg 194). She concludes the book with these five wilderness lessons:

If the wilderness has taught us anything, it has taught us that (1) God loves us dearly, (2) he is faithful in bringing about life, (3) he does it in his time, (4) he does it in the most unexpected ways, and (5) we can trust him (pg 204).

Marlena’s insight is a deeply biblical perspective proven by the way her prose engages Scripture on every page. The presence of scripture though is not in the number of verses she quotes – this is not a proof text for a Godly perspective on suffering; rather her engagement with scripture has to do more with mimicking scripture – living into the Story of God and allowing it to shape the pattern of her life and her way of being in the world.

The book is well-written, filled with anecdotes from her life experiences alongside analogies meant to inspire imagination drawn from observations around her. Marlena’s thoughts are shaped by God’s story but they are also informed by leading spiritual guides of the past and present. A impressionistic sense is that she found Dallas Willard and Frederick Buechner especially helpful in her journey. And rightly so. Not surprisingly also, she seems to have found the desert fathers and mothers of the early centuries of the church an important resource. I was glad to see she interacted with my colleague at North Park Brad Nassif’s work on the desert fathers and mothers. She quotes at length a passage from his CT article (pg 8).

Marlena’s book deals with themes orbiting around suffering. Themes like identity, waiting, living in the present moment, solitude, obedience, remembering, and the importance of Christian community to name just a few. But as John Ortberg and Laura Ortberg Turner point out in their foreword, the book’s central theme concerns the nature and character of God. It is this topic that matters most when one discusses suffering. Here Marlena is able to capture the complexity of God’s relationship to suffering. On the one side, the Bible teaches that God leads into the wilderness of testing purposefully. It teaches us that “God uses the desert of the soul—our suffering and difficulties, our pain, our dark nights (call them what you will)—to form us, to make us beautiful souls” (pg 6). Here’s a powerful statement:

God-haunted wilderness experiences teach us that we are God’s beloved, and his adoration for us is incomprehensible. He misses us and wants to be with us even more than we want to be with him. I know this is so because I know how desperately I want to be with my children and in good relationship with them. And I am not the perfect parent our heavenly Father is, perfect in all his ways and perfect in his parenting. As we walk with him, rest in him, and play under his watchful eye, we will catch him gazing at us. Ours is a God who cannot take his eyes off us . . . It’ll do our souls good to contemplate God’s goodness to us, his adoration of us, and his enjoyment of us, his infinitely beloved children (pgs 191, 193)

On the other side, she holds this in tension: God is not the agent of the evil done to us. God does not murder, rape, abuse, starve, and neglect in order to teach us a lesson. Instead God has entered into the suffering of humanity. God suffers with us as he suffered for us on the cross. He mourns empathetically for us. He bore our suffering. He bears it still. She writes:

Eventually, thoughts about God’s suffering began to trickle into my understanding. I thought about how Jesus endured unimaginable suffering on earth and how God still suffers by what he sees. I couldn’t accuse him of not empathizing with my suffering or the suffering of others. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I’ll never comprehend his suffering. God suffers. Our God suffers. He suffers with you and me and the millions we don’t see (pgs 135-36).

God isn’t’ the author of evil, because he himself suffers evil. How this is so is beyond full comprehension, but it is a truth running through the whole God story. And it is a truth that can get ingrained into our imagination and transform the way we look at our brokenness.

God will ultimately redeem this world and rid it once for all from Evil. How? By bearing that evil. By entering into the disaster of my story, your story and the story of the world and making it beautiful. But this beauty is eschatological. And we are wise to keep this present in our minds. The promise, for example, to “Those who mourn” in Jesus’ second Beatitude is “for they will be comforted” (Matt 5:4). We can look at the disaster of our lives as beauty today but it is only because of God’s eschatological revelation, one that has broken into the present evil age to be sure, but one that is often held only as a hope and never fully a present realization. Some will no doubt be blessed with a fullness of health in this life, but In my way of putting it, we may very well be bent until the fullness of God’s redemptive purposes are realized in his second advent.

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

 

 

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