The sting of death and the silence of God

I’m not meant to be writing this. I’m meant to be compiling a sermon for this Sunday addressing the fifth question in our church’s ten-week series: You Asked For It.
The question is a predictable one: How Can a Good God Allow Suffering?

I sit down to create.
I picture myself before the congregation and my mind fills with theodicies.

God is sovereign over our suffering, I say. He is wise and good and does all things according to the counsel of his will!
I quote promises: He works all things for the good of those who love him! What they intended for evil, God intended for good! (I put emphasis on the ‘intended’ to prove that God isn’t passive in all this.)
And besides, I say, God created a perfect world. Our suffering is the product of our sin! We are the authors of our downfall! The engineers of our pain! The masterminds of our misery!

I’m cruising now. Equal parts Bill Lane Craig and Clive Staples Lewis. The noisy, clamouring counter-arguments of the World fall dumb beneath the sweep of my theodicean scythe. 


And then it all falls apart. The arguments go to dust in my mouth and I choke on them. 
I make a fatal error. I remember my oratorical training and search for an illustration to ground my abstract arguments in experience. 

And I see Her.
A picture of my Mother flanked by her family.
It’s her alright, but, it’s not her, too. Not really.
The portrait has been arranged to capture the family-in-full before it’s too late. Something to call to mind the beauty of what was. An image to outlive the fragility of memory.

She’s sick.

Cancer is advancing through her body like a militant host. Taking no prisoners. Defiling an image bearer like so many mercenaries pillaging a once pacific realm.

She’s sick and she's tired. 

The makeup is helping cover the dark rings around her deep brown eyes, once effulgent, but now fixed in a faraway gaze. 
The face, once continuously animated by lucidity and often arranged to form her characteristic grin, is now drawn, weary.
The hair, once thick, has been robbed by a final attempt at drug-induced redemption. The wig in its place tries valiantly, but fails to replicate what was.
She smiles, but it is the smile of a woman in deep, inequitable pain. 

The picture undoes me.
And it helps me see clearly.

The rhetorical supposition. The theological explanation. The philosophical abstraction.
It all serves a purpose. But its purpose is not to convince or elucidate or justify or compel… Its purpose is to protect. 
To protect me. 
To protect the boy, just turned 8, from going back into that room. That room of vacancy. That room of grief. That room that held the body, but released the soul of my dead Mother.

I remember that room. 
I remember seeing her there, but knowing she was gone. I remember kissing her cheek and receiving nothing in return. For the first time in my life an expression of affection went utterly unanswered. Perfectly unreciprocated. 
There was nothing but a vacant lot where love once dwelled.

“O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”

Where? Seriously, where?
It’s here, damn it! It’s here! It’s in this room. It’s in this woman's bed. It’s in this boy’s heart.
It takes up the space vacated by peace and goodness and comfort.

It's here.

So. For now.
To hell with your theodicies. They are inept. Deficient.
They only enhance the sting and reinforce the void. 

So. For now.
I’m with Jack.

He was a wonderful apologist, our Mr. Lewis. Brilliant in mind and strong in faith - in spite of the fact that he, too, lost his Mum when he was young. And then, as if to prove that Death cares not for equity, his wife died too.

Soon after, and still reeling, he wrote:

When you are happy, so happy you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be — or so it feels — welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.
— C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

I’m sure, come Sunday, I’ll extoll God’s goodness. I’ll tell those gathered that He is good and trustworthy and benevolent. That He is present in our sufferings. That He is sovereign over our miseries.

I'm sure all that is true.

But for now.
As I stand alone in my Mother's room. All is silent. All is dark.

How God Saved Me

Classic Christian kid, me. All grace before meals and prayers before bed. Sunday School gold stars plentiful as their astronomical similitudes.

Good stock too. Anglican on Dad's side going back to Cranmer, or something. Baptist on Mum's.
Best of both worlds, me.
Dad helped lead the church. Mum was theologically trained, a missionary, a chaplain, an offer to be the first female Baptist pastor in Australia... Good stock, that.

But then it happened. 17 happened. 17 and drifting. 17 and itching. 

Mum, with Jesus for a decade by now, and Dad, still labouring to raise 4 kids on his own. They had done enough. 17 had come and it was all my fault.

Was the Prodigal Son a 17 year-old?

My Dad worked two jobs to send me to an elite private school. He scraped every cent. He scraped every plate to make dinner stretch further. He didn't eat if we ate out. He didn't buy clothes between '89 and '99. You get the picture - I've already embarrassed him.

But I made sure it was worth all the sacrifice. I studied hard and was made dux of the scho--

Not really. I wasted just about every day. I set up a couch in the 7-11 carpark near school and drank Slurpy syrup and smoked Marlboro Reds. I drank Foster's Extra between classes and drew little pictures on my uniform. I skipped class but swindled marks by having an elite-level ability to talk shite.

Now I was 18 and everyone had gone to Uni. Except me. I hadn't gone to Uni. Uni was for the studious and the cowardly.
Instead I went to America. Land of the brave, and all that. 
I signed up to work at a Camp because they would give me a visa and meals and somewhere to sleep.
It was a Salvation Army camp. The Salvos. The tin-shakers. The Red Shield Appeal. Good ol' Salvos.

I didn't know they were Christians. They didn't know I wasn't. We collided and I was fired.
"We'll send you to a nice Jewish camp in Cali."

Whatever. I'm just here for the longitude. I'm here because it's not home. This is my "distant country" (Lk.15v13)

They ended up changing their mind. I could stay, but...
But then all the Hell started.

"Grandad passed away." I hate when people say that. "Passed away" - like death isn't a rapacious monster.
Cyril Charles Smith. One of God's own. Best Man without the bad speech.
And then the girl whose pictures were all over my cabin dumped me. That didn't take long. Week two.
And then I got sick. Nearly died, they said. "Fever of unknown origin".
And then I was healed. A 250 pound football player laid his mitts on me and prayed to his God and I got better all at once.
And then the campers started freaking-the-hell-out.
Kids from the ghetto. Kids from the projects. Black kids who carried guns and had the faraway gaze of old men. They started getting really scared. Scared enough to cower and to cry. They said there were ghosts in the room. Dark shapes and weird movements. Then a kid's bag caught fire and the unplugged radio in my room started playing the Top 40. I heard footsteps at night over the sound of my thumping heart. I've never been so scared. I didn't sleep with the light off for more than a year. Legit.

And then God just upped and saved me.

I had a Bible with me to make my Dad feel better.
A family photo, an international calling card, a Bible. That'll stop him worrying.
It was given to me when I was 13, and it still had that 'just pressed' sheen. The gilt-edge pages were gleaming like it was 1993. I cracked it open and left it on my bedside table hoping it would ward off bad vibes, or ghosts, or Satan himself.
It was my imitation leather amulet. My gilt-edged talisman. My holy juju.

My room mate told me to read it. To read Job. The one about suffering. The one about Satan. The one about God's mysterious ways.

It took me a while. There's a lot to get through. But the last chapter changed everything. It stopped me in my tracks. It hit me like a terrible lightening bolt of divine beauty. It made me fear God. And love Him.

I've underlined it in every Bible I've owned since. It made complete sense of everything then, and does to this today:

Then Job replied to the Lord:
“I know that you can do all things;
no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.
“You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.’
My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes.

Blog Rebrand

Dust & Ashes.

The main drawback with this blog is that it's written by me.
My writing has always been pathetic because I've always written with the audience at the forefront of my mind. What will they think of this piece? How will they view me in light of this sentence? Will they laugh at this hilarious anecdote? Will they swoon at this delicious turn of phrase?


I hope Dust & Ashes is the product of a growing in self-awareness. Namely, the recent realisation that I am not God.
During a particularly brutal season of depression and burnout, a mentor was kind enough to say:
"Jonathan, you are dust."


He was quoting Psalm 103:
As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.

You might think that there are more encouraging things one might say to a depressed person, but for me, it was wonderful news. God's compassion is linked to this realisation...

God is God. I am Me.
He is Creator. I am Creation.
He is Sovereign. I am Servant.
He is Lord & King. I am Dust & Ashes.

This blog serves as the receptacle for my musings. I'll be posting regularly, but with brevity.
Yours, JS

A word on being Reformed, but not Restless (or Ruthless)

If we should be ashamed of our being Reformed it's because we have a tendency to be lacking in the patience and tenderness of our Teacher, not because of the truth we embrace. Gentleness, candour, and forbearance should be the sweet fruit of our theology - not their sour antitheticals!

As John Newton said: “The views I have received of the doctrines of grace are essential to my peace; I could not live comfortably a day, or an hour, without them. I likewise believe... them to be friendly to holiness, and to have a direct influence in producing and maintaining a gospel conversation; and therefore I must not be ashamed of them.”

Throwing off hindrances and entanglements

[Posted for CONTEMPLATION & REFLECTION, not necessarily IMITATION]

So far this year I have completely thrown off:
Sugar [to prevent fat ACCUMULATION]
Alcohol [to prevent INEBRIATION]
Smart phone [to prevent DISTRACTION]

The outcome in each case was:

Which turned to:

Due to a beautiful increase in:

It should be noted that my actions were driven more by REACTION than INSTIGATION because I am one of those dullards who learns more by the need for CONTRITION than the presence of CONVICTION.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.
- Hebrews 12:1-2

66 Words on Each of My Favourite Fiction Books Of 2016

The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Hardback | 1200 pages

Comprising 4 full-length novels and 56 short stories, I imagined I would read one or two here and there, perhaps finishing them all by the age of retirement. I read it in a month. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle manages to blend his droll narrative style with a kind of 'orchestral' plot that builds here, meanders there, and often climbs to a grand crescendo before the end.

Best of: The Valley of Fear

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Paperback | 544 pages

I picked this book up at a newsagent and expected as much out of it as that admission promises. But, oh my word! Brilliant. I'm not sure who Anthony Doerr is, but he writes beautifully. The story is wonderful and unique and sad and fraught, the characters are expertly constructed, but more than all that, it's just beautifully written. Like words painted by an Old Master.

Best of: Marie-Laure. Everything about her.

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

Paperback | 1076 pages

I read Pillars because I like Epics and was told this was one. It's not. It's just a long story. That said, it's a decent read - the first half especially, before it lags. It's hard not to think Follett has a good 500 pager on his hands - or a TV miniseries (as it turns out). I'd still recommend it if it weren't for the gratuitous sex.

Best of: The first 500 pages.

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

Paperback | 288 pages

I remember adoring the movie as a child, which makes it more disappointing, because I didn't love this book. Which is strange. It's got everything I need: written by a British gentleman from another era, featuring talking animals, replete with quaint olde time language... And I still didn't love it. Or even like it, much. I guess they can't all be classics, even when they are.

Best of: Graham's vivid descriptions of his beloved riverside world.

Harry Potter: The Complete Collection by J. K. Rowling

Paperback | 3422 pages

7 best-selling novels, not a word of which I had read before. Why? My loyalties lie with legends like Tolkien and Feist and Martin and Brooks (okay not Brooks.) However... it turns out these Potter books are really very good. As in almost every case, it's the combination of a self-contained world, a solid plot, and careful character development that suspends disbelief and wins the reader.

Best of: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

The English Spy by Daniel Silva

Paperback | 496 pages

This, the fifteenth in the series, is arguably the most complex story yet, set just months after "The Heist" (#14). This is in my top 5 of 16: the scale is vast, taking in The Troubles of Ireland, featuring an ex-IRA bomber, the Russian, Israeli, and British intelligence agencies, set in virtually all the locations of previous books, this is Silva doing what he does best. 

Best of: Silva's depth of research and attention to detail.

The Black Widow by Daniel Silva

Paperback | 400 pages

Silva's Gabriel Allon thrillers are fantastic. Fast-pace, grand-scale, ripped-from-the-headlines plot, global setting, believable characters. I've read each of the 16 books in the series in the first month they were published. This one rates somewhere in the middle of the top 16. It's good, but there's only so much more you can get out of a (albeit brilliant) character like Gabriel Allon. He's finally looking tired.

Best of: Silva's treatment of radical Islam. 

The Martian by Andy Weir

Paperback | 384 pages

I've got this thing about not watching the movie version of any book I like. LOTR did it to me. And The Hobbit. And The Narnias. So I haven't seen The Matt Damon Martian because I enjoyed this book. It dragged it's feet a little half way through, that aside, I was hooked from the opening lines:

I’m pretty much fucked.
That’s my considered opinion.
— Mark Watney

Best of: Watney is the true and better MacGyver.

Carpark Collisions and a Trip to the Snooze Bus

It’s called a suicide note when someone writes something before they kill themselves, right?
What’s it called when you’re writing something and you die before you finish?
What if something kills you mid-sentence?
Is that a homicide note? 

I’m just wondering because I’m sitting here writing, but there’s a good chance I’ll be gone before I’m finished. I just want to be upfront about that.

But why? I hear you ask.
It’s because I’m the proud father of a three year old who doesn’t sleep.

A three month old? You say.
No, (you’re not listening.)
A three-year-old. 
Practically an adolescent.

And does he not sleep? I hear you say.
No. He does not.

Well, that’s not strictly accurate.
He does sleep.
He sleeps between 19:14 and 22:07. 
Then he wakes. And wakes again. 

He cries.
He hollers.

He rips open the delicate fabric of our sub-consciousness and chews it up with mouthfuls of hot, salty tears.

He wails.
He vociferates.

And then, with one of us at his bedside, he settles back down for another preciously limited interval of silence.

Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance: The five stages I go through every time my son wakes up during the night.

As I write this I look over at my wife.
I’m almost certain she’s my wife.
She looks different.
She looks at me different.
She looks at me distant.
She’s a waif.
She’s a wraith.
She’s a sailor cast adrift in a sea of heavy fog.

Or maybe it’s just my vision.
I have lazy eyes. They just want five more minutes.
They’re the reason I crashed into another car in the Coles carpark last night.
Crashed is a bit extreme. 
It was more of a forceful rub.
A deep tissue collision.

They say driving tired is like driving drunk.

Maybe the cops should run traffic stops for tired drivers.
Have you had anything to sleep tonight, mate?
No. Nothing to sleep, officer.
Get out of the car please.
You’ll need to step into the Snooze Bus.
You’re under a rest.

I know you think I’m being silly, but the Snooze Bus idea has legs.
Get an email to the Police Chief. Let’s do this.

But before you send that email, please pray for us.
We could really do with some sleep.

Haiku the Psalms 1-5

I have to admit, I googled 'Haiku' to find out what it was. 

Then I had a go. I tried to Haiku Psalm 1.

I did it because of a conversation I had recently with Dr. Peter Adam. 

He told me how he encourages people to dwell on Scripture - to meditate on it - rather than reading something and moving on.

I figure if I #HaikuThePslams it will help me do this. It will force me to read deeply enough to formulate a feeble 5-7-5 poem. It seems to have worked, for me at least.

Here goes the first 5/150...

To have fruitful life,
Live by the stream of God’s Word.
Drink truth and beauty.
— Psalm 1
The kings of the world
Pool their hatred to mock God.
The King of Kings laughs.
— Psalm 2
Enemies will say,
You are beyond God’s reach. Stress!
God says, You’re mine. Sleep.
— Psalm 3
Food and drink are good,
But when life is difficult,
Get your joy from God.
— Psalm 4
Here’s a mystery:
God can’t abide evil men,
He hates all who sin.
Yet when I sought him,
He flung wide the door, In love
He beckoned me in.
— Psalm 5