Hannah, thank you for joining us at the Westminster Confession of Funk hosted by CrossPolitic.
The Clouds Ye So Much Dread was such a delight to read. But it is obvious that a lot of tears and pain was required to fill this particular pen with ink. Do you find it odd to have people tell you that they are enjoying the book? Because I enjoyed the book.
I’m really glad to hear that people have enjoyed it. A lot of tears were certainly poured into the book, but a lot of laughter as well. In fact, I recently wrote an essay for Desiring God about the role that humor played in our hospital experience, and I hope some of that comes through in the book. When Psalm 23 says, “He prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies,” that captures something of the Christian experience of suffering. Our “enemies,” including the last enemy, which is death, may be very near at hand, and yet the Psalmist tells us that even in that fearful context, God is right there with us, laying out a feast so generous that our cups overflow the brim and slosh onto the tablecloth.
How did you land on the title? And Where does it come from?
The title comes from the poem-turned-hymn by William Cowper, “Light Shining Out of Darkness” (most commonly known by the first line, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way”), and this verse in particular:
“Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.”
I have loved that hymn for a long time, and I especially appreciate the way Cowper describes God’s habit of pouring out his richest blessings as a result of the hardest circumstances. As the book was shaping up with an emphasis on fear, that verse kept running through my head, so it was one of the first ideas for a title that I submitted and ended up being the one that stuck.
At what point did you know that what God was teaching you and your family through your son’s cancer would become a book?
I suppose when Canon Press officially asked me to write it. I really do enjoy writing, and I’ve blogged some and published a few short essays over the years on a variety of topics, including our experience with cancer. But a book is different. I never had a burning desire to write a book. In fact, I had a hard time with the thought that I should expect anybody to pay money just to read the thoughts in my head. It seemed almost arrogant. So it wasn’t really my idea, and despite the encouragement from various people, I still had my doubts about the whole endeavor right up until the day I submitted the final draft. The main thought that kept me writing was the hope that this book might be something that could genuinely bless other people.
In a footnote you mention that people will quote Rom. 8:28 to you ad nauseam when you go through trials, but that you should believe it anyway. (That note made me splurt my coffee with laughter in Starbucks, by the way. Everybody looked at me, so I just held up the book and said, “It’s about childhood cancer,” and went back to reading.) Often friends don’t know how to be helpful, but would really like to be. What can you tell people that want to be supportive of friends going through trials?
That’s a hard one, since everyone’s needs and personalities and circumstances are different, and your ability help will vary depending on how close you are to the situation. There are so many “what not to say” lists online that I hate to create another one. But here are a few thoughts that may or may not apply in all cases:
• Read the situation and assess your own heart before you open your mouth. Before you say something, even a Bible verse, ask yourself if the words you’re about to say are actually going to be helpful right now to the person who’s suffering or if you’re just parroting a platitude to make yourself feel better. It’s possible to say true words badly. Grief and suffering make us feel uncomfortable, so it’s common to try to skip straight to the happy ending instead of first weeping with those who weep.
• Focus on meeting tangible needs—meals, cleaning, money for medical bills, etc.—instead of just trying to find a quick verbal fix for their grief and distress. As the initial distress subsides, and as you understand their situation better, you may find more opportunity for comforting words.
• Avoid trite secular platitudes. Phrases like, “You’re full of inner strength!” or, “Sending good vibes your way!” are not going to do much good—and may even make things worse when the sufferer know full well that her inner strength is completely sapped and that vibes, whether good or bad, just don’t travel. When somebody is clearly feeling as though his chest has been split wide open and his heart is being cut with a knife, these cheap sayings are about as helpful as a box of smiley-face Band-Aids during open heart surgery.
• If you’re not very close to the person who’s suffering, find someone who is close to the situation and ask that person what the needs may be rather than asking the suffering ones directly. Then commit to follow through.
• If you *are* someone who’s close to the family, offer to be the buffer between them and the rest of the world that wants to help. Our dear friend Annie became the contact person for all offers of help, and she could honestly tell people, “Thanks, but that probably wouldn’t be helpful to the Griesers right now.” In the first several months of dealing with cancer, we were already overwhelmed with new information and huge decisions. By taking the pressure off of us to politely field all those phone calls and emails and offers of help, it freed us to focus on the most important things.
• Don’t dish out unsolicited advice or drop heavy hints that indicate how you would deal with their situation differently.
• Don’t, don’t, don’t share your own horror stories of similar situations. This is not a competition to see who has the most harrowing tale to tell.
• Pray. This is actually huge. God answers prayer in real life. So don’t just say, “Praying for you!” on a social media post and then not do it. That’s called lying, and Proverbs says that lying lips are an abomination to the Lord. It’s kind of a big deal. If you’re gonna say it, pray it.
You write that catechisms, psalms and hymns, and scripture you memorized as a child all caught fire and shone as beacons as you walked through the shadowed valley of your son’s leukemia. What advice would you give to parents, knowing that we are all raising children that will be tackled by the realities of a death-soaked world?
First, immerse yourself in stories of God’s faithfulness and deliverance. Read the Bible with your kids, to your kids, and around your kids so that they learn the patterns of God’s work in the lives of his people. Go to church—every week—where the word is preached. Sing Psalms. You’ll never absorb Scripture more easily than when it’s set to music. Memorize creeds and catechism questions. They may not be easy for kids to understand at first, but their understanding will grow as they do. These are long-term investments that can pay huge dividends in times of adversity.
When small hardships happen (flat tires, head colds, etc.), these are the training ground for big hardships—the shorter jogs leading up to the marathon. So during these smaller trials, it’s an opportunity to live out Philippians 4:6 in front of your kids: “Be anxious for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Worrying is bad.
Worrying and complaining aloud in front of your kids is truly the worst thing you can do to prepare them for facing trials. Instead, trust God to be who He says He is, thank Him for His past, present, and promised goodness, and then bring your requests to the One who can actually answer them. This pattern doesn’t change during greater difficulties; it just intensifies.
Throughout the book you have a fair number of interesting observations about middle-class blindnesses. (Throwing away things that don’t ‘spark joy’ is an upper-class luxury. That the poverty line is not an accurate description of poverty. In spite of a metropolis laden map, we still think of Africa as poverty-stricken in the extreme.) Where did you learn to question for normal middle-class narrative?
I hadn’t really thought of that as theme in the book, but I see what you’re saying. I think hearing stories of the kind of poverty my mother’s family faced and then later living overseas and seeing how other parts of the world live gave me a perspective on our way of life that I wouldn’t otherwise have had. It especially gave me an appreciation for how good we have it and how easy it is to assume we somehow deserve all this wealth and comfort.
Paul writes that sometimes we suffer so that we can be a comfort (2 Cor. 1:4). Have you reached that point? Have you and your family been able to comfort others with the comfort that Christ has comforted you?
It’s hard to know sometimes what the effect of our words or actions has been, but I hope we’ve been able to bring some of that comfort to others. This book is really an extension of that desire.
What is something that was invisible before but now you embrace with thankfulness?
When something as important to you as the life of your own child is at stake, it has a way of bringing things into focus and showing you that all the other stuff that used to seem so central is actually just the icing on the hundred-layer cake of pure grace. So now, I’m just more aware of what a blessing the everyday, humdrum routine of life really is. One breath after another. Healthy blood cells dividing and growing just under the surface of our skin. The way the sinking sun sets the landscape into sharp relief. Baseball. Homework. Piano lessons. Pizza. Nickels pulled from the couch cushions. The crunchy sound of studded snow tires on ice. All five of my living, breathing children sitting at the dinner table making noise and messes and ridiculous puns. Just grace upon grace upon grace upon grace.
When did you find time to write?
Usually at night after the kids went to bed. As I was nearing the finish line, my husband would often take some of my usual duties in order to give me an extra hour or two to write. Also, I stopped trying to sort socks into matching pairs. Very freeing.
Is writing more of a discipline or a therapy?
Yes? Writing does help me formulate my own thoughts more clearly, which I find helpful. But when I write for other people, it’s only with lots of painful editing and rewriting and deleting. It’s hard work. I’m a terribly slow writer.
What advice would you give to encourage other writers?
There’s only one good reason to write anything: love. If I thought what I was writing was not a way of loving God first and then my neighbor, I would stop today.
Do you have any other projects that you are working on that we can look forward to?
Haha! Isn’t that like asking someone who’s just given birth, “When are you planning to have another baby?” Honestly though, aside from perhaps an occasional essay, I don’t have any new writing projects lined up right now—but give me a few months to recover and I may have a different answer. Normally, you’ll find me on the graphic design end of publishing, making other people’s words look good in print. My degree is in graphic design, and I still love the visual problem solving that design work involves. But I also enjoy writing and hope to keep that part of my brain from atrophying as well, so I’ve tried to find a happy balance between visual and verbal work. So far, so good. All that to say, my life is very full, but I plan to continue writing here and there as I’m able.
Hannah, thanks so much for joining us at The Westminster Confession of Funk.
My pleasure! Thanks for the invitation.