Book Reviews, Existentialism, and the Meaning of Life

I got a book at the library this week and it’s kind of gotten under my skin. I finished it yesterday and it’s one of the few times where I felt like writing to the author, not to praise him, but to say, Hey, Mister, You forgot to write the ending to your book, would you mind finishing this??? 

The book is The Tourist by Robert Dickinson. I just randomly grabbed it off the library shelf and read the little blurb about the storyline. It was very tame. Tourist group goes out, they come back and one of the tourists is missing. I’m thinking, some kind of mystery. But at the very bottom of the blurb, in smaller print, it says, “…orignal conspiracy thriller…” and that sounded intriguing. So I took the book home, started reading and immediately got annoyed because the book is written in First Person, Present Tense. And was thinking, there is no way this entire novel can be written in this style. It’s going to drive me crazy. But then as I read more I realized this is a time travel book, and if you’re writing time travel, you really have to write Present Tense. And the First Person thing just seemed to be this author’s Pet Quirk. 

By the last chapter I was flying through the pages, could not wait to see how he was going to solve the mystery and tie all these loose ends together. I was pretty excited. The story was interesting, complicated, and I had all kinds of ideas in my mind of how he might end it. And then, the book just kind of dribbled to a stop. Mystery was left unsolved. I was left, still not sure how all these pieces fit together, and very upset. I think at the very end he was trying to be artistic or something and I guess I was supposed to be moved. But I wasn’t. I was annoyed. 

I have read a lot of bad books. I have stopped in the middle of a lot of bad books and just walked away. I have plowed through mediocre books. And then I have been gripped and awed by masterpieces. I think what is so aggravating was that this book had potential to be Good. Not a masterpiece, but definitely a page turner where you walked away satisfied and ready to recommend it to everyone you know. And it felt like he got lost in his story, didn’t know what to do, so he just hastily wrote a couple more paragraphs and then pasted on THE END. (Ok, I’m being harsh, maybe with more thought and analysis, I might understand how his ending is good, just not seeing it right now.)

I’m going to dive a bit into the story though, because it’s got me thinking. On the front of the cover it says “The Future is Already Written”. And that’s really a key point to the story. All these people live in a dystopian society where time travel is a regular part of life. And they have records of their own lives from the future so there are no surprises. They know when they’re going to die. They know all the major events that will happen. If something goes wrong, people already know about it and have made provisions to fix the mistakes or at least deal with the outcomes. And then at the very end (SPOILER ALERT) everything goes off script. Near death experiences, failed rescues. And it’s at this point that one of the main characters feels alive for the first time. When he’s no longer walking out his predestined life and suddenly everything is up in the air and anything could happen. 

The book has a depressing ending. But it seems to me that it’s because the story plays out perfectly the worldview that we are simply organic beings crawling around on the surface of the planet and then one day we die. The end. That is a depressing world view. I’ve read a couple other novels lately and they all seem to hold that same perspective. Our lives have no real meaning. Get as much pleasure as you can while you still exist and then die and cease to exist. (Except of couse, for the euphemism that says, you live on your loved ones’ hearts. Which I guess means, when no one remembers you anymore, then you are truly dead.) 

Interestingly enough, yesterday, my second grader was telling me this inspirational chant they do every morning to start off the day at school. One of the lines was “I have a reason for being here!” My mind instantly went existential. The meaning of life. I asked her what she thought that meant. What’s your meaning for being here? She’s very literal and said it meant that she was at school to learn things. Ah yes. Ok. And then I told her (just in case she didn’t know) that our reason for being alive (here!) was because God created us and he loves us. 

Unlike the poor characters in The Tourist, our lives do have purpose and meaning. Love God. And obey his command to Love your Neighbor.

“What is the chief end of man? To glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” Westminster Catechism

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. Ephesians 2:10

And unlike the characters in the book who just faded away to nothing, we are eternal beings. 

 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. John 3:16

Our death here on earth is simply the next birth that ushers us into an eternity with Jesus. 

While I didn’t expect the book to have a Christian theme, I was hoping that the character’s story arc would lead them to discover at least one or two of the important themes. Like the value of human life. The richness of serving other people. The goodness of the earth. The absolute complexity and awesomeness of the universe that we live in. But instead the book was a window to how meaningless life is when you remove God from everything. 

In the end I have a sense of relief. Thank you Lord that my life has meaning. And sadness. Lord, what about all those people who truly believe their life is meaningless and death is the end? And I feel an urgency to tell people, there’s more. Dig deeper. Search for the truth. Life lived the way it’s meant to be, following Jesus, is exciting, purposeful, full of love and joy. 

Grief, Joy, Christmas

It’s Christmas Eve and I find myself wavering back and forth between joy and happiness and guilt and worry. 

In other words, I am fully human. Even though I somehow think I will get superpowers when holidays come around and I will cease to have stress and grief and daily troubles. After all, it’s Christmas! Right? 

This Christmas I have all my children home, the first time in three years. My heart is full. Our house is cheerful, we were able to get presents for everyone, we have everything we need and a little extra. We’ve had a great advent season of daily bible readings with the kids. We’ve had great church services helping us bring our focus on Jesus. It has been a good Christmas season. 

And then, at the same time, a friend of mine unexpectedly died a couple days ago. Another friend of mine is in the process of losing her mom to cancer. Another friend just lost a famly member unexpectedly. So much grief. So much heaviness. 

Kind of like the first Christmas. 

Mary, pregnant and unmarried, having to deal with all the presumptions people are making of her. Joseph with a new wife, but in name only, watching her carry someone else’s child, not the way he was planning on starting his marriage. A trip to Bethlehem because of the whims of a conquering nation. Bad timing, Mary is about to give birth. Then, they get to Bethlehem, the baby is definitely coming, right now. No place to stay. No warm welcome. No comfortable place to settle in. Birth. Mary’s first. First labor, not knowing what to expect. Not knowing if you will survive the process. And then the baby is here. But no proud grandparents to announce the news to friends and family. No friends and family. 

But then a bunch of shepherds come running in. Telling stories about angels and heavenly hosts. And I’m sure Mary and Joseph remembered vividly their own encounters with angels. And there is of course this brand new baby filling their hearts with joy as only a new baby can. 

Grief and Joy. Suffering and Hope. Christmas.

We are in good company. 

This season I pray that we can have peace. That we can accept our grief but give ourselves permission to have joy as well. That we can have happiness and not feel guilty for feeling sad at the same time. 

In the end, we cling to the hope that All is Well. 

“All is well all is well

Lift up your voices and sing

Born is now Emmanuel

Born is our Lord and Savior”

Michael W. Smith

Emmanuel, God is with Us. We go through our trials here on earth, but we are no longer alone. We have hope for a future with Jesus where every tear will be wiped away. No more sorrow. No more grief. 

Until that time comes, we move forward. Tears in our eyes. A smile on our face. Grief, Joy. Christmas. 

May you all have a Merry Christmas filled with joy and may you have peace to feel all the emotions that face you this season.

And Peace on Earth

It is early in the morning. I am the only one awake. I’m sitting out in my living room, all the lights off except my Christmas Tree which is glowing softly. I had been lying in bed, wide awake, my mind fretting on a million things, so I finally decided to just get up. 

Right now I have one of the pieces from Handel’s Messiah running through my head. “Glory to God, Glory to God, Glory to God in the Highest…….And Peace, On earth……Good will toward men, toward men, Good will toward men, toward men…” which of course comes straight from Luke 2:14. 

Thinking back, this year has been insane. We have weathered some really hard things. I think about the violence our neighborhood and schools have seen this year. I think about the crazy ups and downs we’ve had with our foster daughter. I think about the stressful medical situations we’ve gone through with different family members. Loved ones who passed away. A lot of uncertainty in our country and the news always blasting gloom and hopelessness. 

It’s been a hard year. 

1 Thessolonians 4:13 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.

This verse talks about grieving death. But I think it is appropriate to say that we don’t grieve, in general, without hope. Whether it is over the death of a loved one, over loss, over enduring trauma, or anything else that hits us hard. We don’t grieve without hope. 

The next verses in Thessolonians 4 go on to say that Jesus died on the cross for us and he will return one day and take all of us up to be with him. And so we know that this time on earth is just a chapter. Not the final credits. The story is just beginning. We look forward to eternity with Jesus. And that is our hope. 

And this brings me back to the angels singing Glory to God in the Highest and Peace on Earth, Good will toward men. 

It’s been a hard year. I’m sitting up early because my mind is worried about a lot of things. But, I don’t worry or grieve or live life as someone without hope. I know that I am at peace with God. Jesus made the way for me to be at peace with God. Before Jesus, all my sins made it impossible for me to come close to God at all. After Jesus, well here I am. I’ve endured a crazy year. I am looking at more craziness right now. But I have peace. I feel God’s good will toward me. I feel surrounded by his blessings and mercy. I am overwhelmed with thankfulness. 

I’m not sure how to spell this out clearly enough. I could make you a giant list of things I’m worried about. Legitimate things. Legal issues we have to look into concerning our foster child. Problems with the inner city schools our children are attending. Financial worries. The normal worries of, “Are my kids going to turn out ok??” The everyday worries, “This family is eating way too much junk over the holidays, how do we get back to eating healthy again??” Nagging worries like, “It’s only ten days to Christmas and I haven’t bought any Christmas gifts yet.” So many things that try to steal our peace. And yet, I am at peace. And Jesus is the one that did that for me. 

And so I sit up early and hum to myself, “Glory to God in the Highest”, and I hand my worries back over to God, get ready for another busy day, and know that I have Peace. 

No More Christianese, Please

Lately I have really been struggling with “Christianese” . These are the set platitudes that Christians murmur to each other all the time, catch phrases that we say without giving much thought to the meaning. “God has really blessed you!” “I’m believing God for a miracle!” “You just need to press in and pray!” 

I am “blessed” because my husband recovered quickly from Covid. What about those who lost their husbands to covid? Are they Not blessed? I am “believing God for a miracle”. And then the miracle doesn’t show up. Must be because you didn’t believe enough? I see that you are really struggling in this area, you just need to press in and pray! And if you continue to struggle in this area it means that you have a bad prayer life and you just really aren’t a very spiritual person. 

I have this image of tapestry in my mind. And, this is not an original image to me, I’ve read many illustrations about seeing life as a tapestry. But here we are staring at the bottom side of the tapestry and everything is backwards and messy looking. We can’t see the other side where the beautiful picture is being made. And I feel like we have everything backwards. 

What if someone being miraculously healed, saved from the brink of death, is actually not the great prize we see it as. Think about a Christian who knows they are going to one day be walking face to face with Jesus, living in paradise. They’re at death’s door, and they are miraculously saved. It almost seems like a big let down. Oh great. I was hoping that my work on earth was finished and I could finally go get my reward, but instead now I have to wait even longer and do even more work. 

We pray for people to be saved from trials, but scripture tells us over and over again that it is during trials and tribulations that our faith grows, our maturity grows. We are refined, the dross is burned away. We are sanctified. But, in our upside down view of things, we see those trials as lack of blessing, lack of prayer, lack of faith. 

Can I just say, “Christianese” can be really offensive. When I am bowed down to the ground with depression, barely able to move and someone suggests to me that I just need to get into the word and pray more…that is not helpful. How about, I see that you are really struggling and I imagine prayer and Bible reading are really difficult right now. I just want you to know that I am standing in the gap for you and lifting you up in prayer. Here, I’ve written out this Bible verse for you, I hope it comforts you. Is there anything in the physical realm I can do to help you? Do you need help getting hooked up with a counselor or a therapist? Can I check in with you regularly so you know you are not alone? 

When my loved one is at death’s door, please don’t tell me that you believe God is going to heal them. What if he doesn’t? Is God still good if my loved one dies? Am I still loved and cherished if they die? Does their death signal a lack of blessing or protection? How about, I am praying night and day that God’s will be done in your loved one’s life and in your life. I am praying that you both have fresh revelation of how loved you are and how secure you are in God’s hands. Can I read Psalm 139 aloud to you? So we can be reminded how deeply and intimately God cares about every detail of your life? I am praying strength and peace for you! What can I do physically to help you? Meals? Help to get to appointments? Financial assistance? 

When I am going through trials and tribulations please don’t act like I have somehow fallen out of favor with God because I am going through these things. “I just need to pray more so that God will forgive me for whatever I did wrong and put me back on the Nice and Easy path that I crave.” How about some encouragement along the lines of, God must have some really important plans for your life because I can see how he is strengthening your faith, maturing you and refining you into an even stronger person than you were before. I can see how you are growing through these trials. I am praying for supernatural strength for you and praying that God will use these things to draw you even closer to him. How can I help you physically? Is there anything tangible I can do to ease your burden and let you know that you aren’t alone while you go through this hard situation? 

I know that every platitude that has been told me has been done in love and good intentions. I’m not mad when people say things that were meant to be helpful, but just aren’t. I see their heart, I know they care about me. But, we can do better guys. Let’s really think about what we say before we say it. 

God Comfort Us

This past week a very dear friend of ours passed away unexpectedly. It happened right at the same time that my dad was fighting for his life in a covid unit. My dad is now much improved and we are giving thanks to God for saving his life. But, that opens a giant can of worms. How do you give God glory for saving someone, healing them, and then at the same time have an incident where God did not save. Did not heal. 

I have had quite a few Christian friends who have lost loved ones during this pandemic. And it seems like we have to be really careful how we speak. Saying that God really loved your sick family member and that is why he healed them and they got better…it just seems to imply that God did NOT love those who died. And we know that is not true. 

And so I sit here and wonder, how do we give glory to God for the times that he has healed, without inflicting wounds on those who did not get the healing they needed. 

I feel like I need to pull back a bit and look at the big picture. The Westminster Shorter Catechism asks the question, “What is man’s primary purpose?” and the answer is, “Man’s primary purpose is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” I think we have a hard time holding onto that purpose. 

If we are honest, we would say that we are here to enjoy our families and friends. We are here to enjoy and explore the earth. We are here to serve other people. We are here to enjoy the pursuit of happiness. I don’t think glorifying God and enjoying him forever are something we think about a whole lot. If we’re being honest. 

And if you look at the reasons we think we are here: loved ones, adventure, service, happiness; then death does not make sense. It cuts all of that off. It is the end of all those things. It’s also the end of us enjoying the person who has died. And that just sounds horrible. 

Death was not part of God’s original Garden of Eden Plan. Death entered in with sin. And it wasn’t until Jesus came and made things right that we really had anything positive to say about death. Now death means that we are present with God. (Spoiler alert: Revelation tells us that one day Jesus will bring an end to death too.) 

When a believer dies they have fulfilled their ultimate purpose. They are now with God, face to face, glorifying him and enjoying him forever. When we mourn, we are mourning for ourselves. Our loss. We are the ones suffering. Not our beloved who has passed away from this life into a glorious reunion with Jesus. Knowing this does not diminish our pain or shorten our time of mourning.  But maybe it can change the way we talk, the way we view healing versus death. 

Death is not something we seek after. After all, God has put us on this earth for a period of time, and he has things he wants us to do while we are here (Ephesians 2:10). God is the only one who knows when that time is up. And according to Psalm 139:16 the number of our days were decided long before we were born. While healing prolongs our time here on earth, so that we can fulfill God’s plans for our lives, death ushers us into our ultimate purpose, to glorify and enjoy God. 

Despite all this head knowledge, it doesn’t make it easier to accept the loss of my friend. And I counted him as a close friend, and I think most people who knew him also considered him a close friend. It was because he was genuinely interested in every person he talked to. He gave his full attention, asked questions, remembered past details. When he talked to you, you felt seen and important. I can’t imagine our church without him and all the creativity and imagination he brought to any project he tackled. 

While I know that he is in heaven enjoying God, I know that his family and friends are without him. And that is a tragedy. And while I know that one day, it will all make sense. I know that it doesn’t today. And I’m angry at the suffering. And I’m heartbroken at the pain. And life seems upside down and backwards. 

Blessed are those who mourn. For they will be comforted. 

God comfort us. 

“Don’t Talk” a poem

Tired.

Weary.

My brain has turned off. 

I have reached full capacity. 

Do not tell me anymore what is in the news. 

Do not tell me of yet another tragedy. 

Don’t try to rehash what happened. 

Don’t ask about solutions.

As if my tiny bit of wisdom could somehow fix the unfixable. 

Don’t talk. 

Cry. 

Come alongside me and mourn. 

This is a time for sackcloth. 

Ashes. 

A time for solemn silence. 

I don’t want to hear the talking heads on the tv. 

I don’t want to have discussions on what possibly went wrong. 

I just need silence. 

Let us mourn together. 

In silence perhaps our souls can mend. 

And maybe, we can talk, discuss, plan, fix everything…

Tomorrow. 

Fat Fridays: Fighting Stress

Emotional eating has always been a thing for me. It’s a source of comfort for every imaginable problem. Since I started this journey, about six weeks ago, I noticed that after the first couple weeks, food stopped having such a strong hold on me. I haven’t been tempted to grab something every time my mood swings. I think a big part of it is that I am losing weight, and I have a definite goal that I want to achieve this year, and that goal has been front and center in my mind. No, I don’t want to just eat whatever, whenever. I wouldn’t reach my goal if I do that!

This week has been a bit of a test. On Wednesday I received word that my father’s cousin had died, (someone I had made a connection with online and who often commented on my posts and engaged in conversation with me), and then that same evening I received word that a dear lady from our church (who had long been a source of encouragement to me) had also died, of covid. 

I admit, my first reaction was that I just wanted to binge eat. Forget this diet. I’m just going to make a bunch of food and eat it. Maybe I will feel better. But, by the grace of God, I walked past the fridge and went in my room and cried instead. Which is actually what I needed to do, instead of trying to stuff the emotions down with food. 

The next day I was pretty out of it. We’ve had a lot of death in our neighborhood due to gun violence and everything just seemed to be crushing me down. My trainer asked how things were going, and I mentioned briefly what was going on. She suggested that I use exercise as therapy, and later that day I went outside for a long brisk walk in the sunshine. It helped. 

In the past, I have always had this mentality that I can’t start a diet until my life calms down. Like, adding a diet and exercise to an already stressed out life would just send me over the brink. But this year I am realizing that the exercise and diet are actually tools to help deal with the stress. Bingeing on donuts does not help you deal with stress. Knowing that you are eating healthy DOES make you feel better though. Like, the world is falling apart, but at least I am taking care of my body! 

In other news, I woke up early this morning and took my fasting blood sugar and it was 96!! I haven’t had a reading below 100 in years. That also made me feel better. 

So, my takeaway for this week is diet and exercise aren’t causing me stress, they’re fighting stress. 

Shadow

My son Joshua got a kitten last year. We decided to not get her fixed right away. Let her have one litter of kittens so our kids could experience the miracle of life. I conveniently forgot that hand in hand with the miracle of life comes the tragedy of death. 

 

My foster son has been asking me for a kitten for five months. Five very long months. Practically every day we would have a conversation about kittens. Finally, our cat became pregnant and we promised him that he could choose one of the kittens. He chose a very sweet little black kitten with white markings, named him Shadow. 

 

This morning we discovered that in the night Mama Cat had decided to move her kittens. She had put them in a dangerous place and the little black kitten had gotten squished somehow and had died. 

 

They brought him to me in their hands, crying, hoping that I could fix it. I frantically looked for any signs of life, ready to rush to the vet immediately, but the kitten was dead. And I sat there crying, because it was a sweet innocent little thing. And it was my foster son’s. And he doesn’t deserve this kind of tragedy in his life. 

 

One of my daughters brought me a cloth that we could wrap him up in. My husband dug a hole in the back of the yard. We had a funeral. We buried him and then shared our memories. I told the kids that it’s customary to put flowers on a grave and they ran and found flowers. We fashioned a tombstone and my foster son wrote his memorial on it. 

 

And right now life just feels sucky. 

 

Rest in Peace little Shadow.

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Will You Mourn With Me?

Emotions. Emotions are a difficult thing. In fact, sometimes they are an overwhelming and scary thing. When we are shaking with rage, shivering with fear, gasping with sorrow, all we want is to be calm. We want the storm to be over. We want to be safely on the other side. In those moments of intensity, emotions are the enemy that we must squash as quickly as possible. 

 

We say words like, it’s ok, it’s going to be alright, just calm down now, settle down… As the person who seeks to comfort, we seem to be allies with the notion that emotions are bad and must be disposed of as soon as possible. 

 

And so, from a young age, we start pushing those emotions down. No, I need to stop crying. I need to calm down. I need to get over this. I need to distract myself. Just don’t think about it. I’ll be over this soon. 

 

And right now, as I try to help one of the kids in my care process some real genuine pain and loss and confusion and anger, I find myself assuring him that these emotions are ok. It’s ok to be angry. You have permission to feel all these things. And I wonder, how do I teach myself this as well? How do I model this behavior when I still haven’t figured it out? 

 

I run from intense emotions. Flee. Stuff it down. Take deep breaths, blow it away. How do I undo all these habits and patterns that have shaped my life? How do I just sit and mourn? How do I allow myself to feel the anger that I have every right to? How do I just permit the sadness to wash over me? 

 

Emotions are scary. 

 

I wonder why? 

 

I think about this child in my care and wonder, what is best for him? His emotions are so overwhelming that he is struggling to function. And if I’m being completely honest, I would just like his emotions to go away. They are really messy. They are really hard to deal with. They make life complicated. 

 

In the old days, when people died, people would gather, have a time of public mourning, weeping, remembering. They would change their clothes to reflect their grief. 

 

If only we had such rituals in place to deal with other forms of grief. 

 

When I miscarried the first time, I think I would have taken great comfort to put on black clothing for a period of time. To cover my face with a black veil. To have a monument that I could visit and cover with flowers. 

 

We need these visual rituals. No. Some of the things we are mourning and grieving aren’t physical deaths. Maybe it’s a separation, maybe it is a dissolving of something that was good. Maybe it’s simply loss of innocence. 

 

I think it  would help to put on mourning clothes, pour ashes over my head, tear my clothing, hire a group of professional mourners. It would signal to the world, I am in pain. I need time to deal with this. I’m not ok. I need you to be sad with me. I need you to join me in this pain instead of trying to pull me out of it. I need you to be angry with me over an injustice served, over a wounding that was given. 

 

What we need is to be able to sit and stay with our hardest emotions, and have people come and join us. 

 

And all of this reflection tells me what I must do to help this child. I must be angry with him. I must be sad with him. I must join him. And maybe, maybe we will heal together.