202 Good Friends’ Good Books

Three years ago, Pastor Jim Garlow preached a series of sermons on the hereafter in San Diego’s Skyline Wesleyan Church.  Those sermons were reworked and recently published as Heaven and the Afterlife (Minneapolis, MN:  Bethany House Publishers, c. 2009), written with the assistance of Keith Wall.  Garlow begins with an assessment of death, contending that “the veil between life and the afterlife is thinner than we think.”  Humans have a peculiar “intimation of immortality,” an inner awareness that this life is not our only life.  Still more:  “a surprising number of us have had some encounter” (p. 20)—labeled Near Death Experiences or NDAs—with an eternal realm beyond death’s door.  That “millions of ordinary folks” have had such experiences affirms “what people of faith have long believed:  Death is not an end but a doorway we walk through as automatically as we take our next breath. The nonphysical part of us is not a mythical fantasy; it is our truest essence, created in God’s image, the part of us that survives our travails in this life to begin a new journey in the next” (p. 31).   Jesus’ promise of eternal life (Jn 3:16) to all who believe in Him directly touches this innate hunger of man’s heart.  

Exploring “what lies between worlds” leads Garlow to consider the importance of dreams, the  reality of ghosts, the living presence of departed loved ones, and the importance of angels and demons, territory often neglected by Evangelical writers but widely discussed in the broader world.  For those of us who have sensed (often in dreams) the presence of a lost loved one, it is comforting to read that a chaplain in a Texas hospice “reports that 64 percent of the bereaved who responded had an afterlife experience following the death of a loved one.  Furthermore, an astonishing 98 percent of those said the encounter had brought much comfort and helped them cope with their grief, even many years later” (p. 73).  

“C.S. Lewis once wrote, ‘There is no neutral round in the universe:  every square inch, every split second is claimed by God and counterclaimed by Satan’” (p. 68).  Consequently, both Scripture and human experience acknowledge the presence of good and evil spirits.  Garlow has “no doubt that honest-to-goodness, God-sent angels do indeed exist and participate in our lives, probably far more than we realize.  Dozens of absolutely convinced people have told me of their encounters” (p. 94).  They are God’s messengers—beings such as Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael.  They appear repeatedly, almost routinely  throughout the Bible, which “portrays angels as literal, personal entities who play a role in historical events and individual lives” (p. 95).  They are “superhuman,” but “they aren’t all-powerful or all-knowing” (p. 97).  And in certain critical moments of our lives we may suddenly behold them, carrying out God’s work in our world.  So too Satan, the “Father of Lies” carries on his rebellion against God and His Truth, the Word through whom all things are made.  Lots of folks believe in angels—wearing angel pins and watching TV shows.  Less want to allow the existence of their demonic counterparts.  But Scripture and history warn us about their activity, especially evident in tempting us to live selfishly, to embrace “a ‘Luciferian spirit’—that is, ‘It’s all about me.’  Egregious self-absorption says, ‘I will, I want, I will get what I want, I will exalt myself’” (p. 122).  Each of us chooses to serve God our self.  Taking Satan’s bait, choosing to serve self, we inadvertently join Satan in his Hell-bound rebellion.

Especially in our times of grief, many of us begin to realize (with D. L. Moody) that heaven is not “far away.  It is within speaking distance to those who belong there” (p. 133).  Heaven’s right at hand, not in outer space.  Heaven’s another realm of reality, wherein our departed loved ones, through the grace of God, reside.  They are part of that eternal “communion of saints” with which we, the living, commune.  In the Christian tradition, those who die in a state of grace enter the “first heaven,” a place of bliss, the “paradise” Jesus promised the thief on the cross, wherein they await the final resurrection of our bodies and Judgment and entry into the “second heaven.”  That “heaven,” the Bible suggests, will be a restoration of God’s initial plan for man, here on this earth.  “This means,” Garlow says, “the new heaven is not ‘up there somewhere.’  It is intertwined with this earth, no, in another dimension—heaven is here.  As Paul Marshall explains, ‘Our destiny is an earthly one:  a new earth, an earth redeemed and transfigured.  An earth united with heaven, but an earth, nevertheless’” (p. 164).  Having celebrated the beauty of Heaven, Garlow deals honestly with the prospects of Hell for the impenitent.  But he also offers “hell-avoidance strategies” in the book’s final sections.  Neither universalism nor annihilationism nor purgatory nor reincarnation rightly reflect the Truth of eternal life through faith in Christ.  

In the final pages Garlow reflects upon the traumatic of his younger brother’s death (a tragedy that brought him and me together, solidifying a friendship that has now lasted for 35 years) and his lovely wife Carol’s ongoing struggle with cancer.  

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Dean Nelson, a professor of journalism at Point Loma Nazarene University, has just published God Hides in Plain Sight:  How to See the Sacred in a Chaotic World (Grand Rapids:  BrazosPress, c. 2009).  The book’s title reveals its message, encapsulated in one of Augustine’s statements in his Confessions:  “’God is always present to us and to all things; it is that we, like blind persons, do not have the eyes to see’” (p. 15).  Fully present in all things, God awaits our attention, our clarified vision, our openness to His revelation.  As “John Wesley said, ‘The pure of heart see all things full of God’” (p. 23).  Consequently, in a passage that sums up Nelson’s thesis:  “’It is well to have specifically holy places and things, and days, for, without these focal points or reminders, the belief that all is holy and “big with God” will soon dwindle into a mere sentiment,’ said C.S. Lewis.   “We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God.  The world is crowded with him.  He walks everywhere incognito.  And the incognito is not always hared to penetrate.  The real labor is to remember, to attend.  In fact, to come awake.  Still more to remain awake’” (p. 22).  

To discern God’s presence in our world, Nelson uses as windows the seven sacraments of the Christian tradition.  But this is not really a treatise on the sacraments as means of grace.  It is, rather, an effort to use them as keys to developing a sacramental vision whereby one sees all of creation as grace-full, since, as the “Second Vatican Council said, ‘There is scarcely any proper use of material things which cannot be directed toward people’s sanctification and the praise of God’” (p. 22).   Thus, rather than dealing with the sacrament of “ordination,” Nelson discusses the sacredness of finding, and following, one’s proper vocation.  Therein there is great grace—doing what is purposeful and good.  

The sacrament of communion, central to the liturgy of the Church, gives Nelson an opening to celebrate “setting the table” in various venues.  Eating together, rightly done, is a sacred act.  Families gathered around the table enter into a holy bond.  Friends enrich their associations by sharing meals—and seeing something more than camaraderie in their fellowship.  “It is no coincidence that Jesus called himself the Bread of Life,” Nelson says, “and that he told the woman at the well that could provide her with water that will quench her thirst.  It’s no coincidence that he changed the nature of the wedding at Cana by turning water into wine, and that he fed five thousand with one basket of bread and fish” (p. 68).  After all, He came to us as “A Host,” and as such, “He provides what we need and more, and we usually experience the ‘more’ when we eat together” (p. 68).  

In the chapter entitled “Finding the Current,” Nelson stresses the value of the sacrament of confession, finding freedom from the past through honesty, humility, repentance, and letting God shatter the shackles of bad experiences.  “Confession, writes Philip Yancey, establishes the proper positioning between creatures and their Creator.  ‘I cannot receive healing unless I accept God’s diagnosis of my wounded state,’ he writes” (p. 81).  And making such confession, Lauren Winner says, “’puts us in the company of people who can speak truth in love to us, about our sin, about the need for amendment of life’” (p. 82).  

Pondering the sacrament of confirmation, Nelson emphasizes the importance of deepening both our discipleship in following Christ and our commitment to righteous living.  “’Superficiality is the curse of our age,’ said Richard Foster in the opening sentence of his book, Celebration of Discipline.  ‘The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people’” (p. 98).  The “deep people” Nelson knows are distinguished by their cultivation of silence and solitude, by reflecting on the real meaning of life, often seeing new vistas and gaining fresh insights easily missed by their more superficial peers.  Yearly backpacking trips to Yosemite with close friends have proven highly significant to Nelson, bringing him into an intimate relationship with nature, a transparency with his brothers-in-Christ, and an awareness of God’s Presence—“a Presence that has been there all along.  ‘We cannot attain the presence of God,’ Richard Rohr said.  ‘We’re already totally in the presence of God.  What’s absent is awareness’” (p. 106).  To attend, to become attentive, to finally see Him as the Holy One wholly present in all things, is to become confirmed and mature in the faith.

The sacrament of marriage—“weaving the family web”—leads Nelson to celebrate the goodness of his own wife, Marcia, and children, Blake and Vanessa.  The selfless, irrational love of God often finds its finest illustration in Marcia’s gracious touch or in moments with his kids.  “I find,” he asserts, “my greatest understanding of the nature of God in my life as a husband, father, and son” (p. 121).  Caring for sick children enables one to grasp how God, our Father, feels such compassion for us, even when we’re less than perfect.  Though “the hard part of parenting is giving our children freedom” (p. 127), rearing them to rightly develop into mature adults allows parents to understand how God made us as free moral agents.  “Being a parent,” Nelson discovered, citing Henri Nouwen, “is like being a good host to a stranger . . . .  We don’t really own them.  They are on loan.  ‘This is good news.  We don’t need to blame ourselves for all their problems, nor should we claim for ourselves their successes.  Children are gifts from God . . .  They are like strangers who ask for hospitality, become good friends, and then leave again to continue their journey’” (p. 127).  

Just as baptism initiates us into a new life, so too there are important points of beginning to be, of assuming an identity, that shapes our destiny.  Nelson tells the story of his initiation in to the Order of the Arrow as a Boy Scout.  He would never, thereafter, be quite the boy he was before.  Something in that ritual impacted him, for many such “traditions are a means by which we experience a larger world than the one we previously knew” (p. 148).  Joining the elite company of the Order of the Arrow, he became a “member of Something Else” (p. 148).  “Baptism is what Thomas Merton calls ‘the sacrament of illumination.’  It is a means by which we discover who we really are” (p. 151).  And who we really are, in the most basic and eternally significant sense, is children of God adopted into His family through the atoning work of Christ.  

Finally, pondering the somber reality of death, evident in the sacrament of last rites, prompts Nelson to share several emails he received from his close friend and colleague, Larry Finger, in his last months.  The two shared a love for “certain writers:  William Faulkner, Garrison, Keillor, Frederick Buechner, Flannery O’Connor” (p. 165).  They struggled with the role of God in Finger’s anguish.  In one passage, he discussed how he held on to the faith that God not only “’is, but that he hears me.  And I hear him’” (p. 169).  Consequently, he said, “’I’m scavenging for words to live by and to die by.  Words are a way of hearing, a way of hearing from God.  In moments of despair especially—and at times, at least for very brief periods, it is a despair—words lift me out’” (p. 169).  Larry Finger died.  So did another of Nelson’s close friends, Dana Walling.  We cannot avoid “the valley of the shadow of death.”  Nor can we avoid grieving when they pass away.  But, he declares, our grief “will eventually give way to grace when we let it” (p. 177).  And in the midst of it all, he’s “convinced that acknowledging the presence of death—of ours and of those around us—is one of the healthiest ways we can live” (p. 179).  

This is a fine work, combining personal stories, apt quotations, and insightful reflections.  It’s gained accolades from the likes of Frederick Buechner, who says:  “Dean Nelson has a lively, conversation writing style, and this book has wonderful and valuable things to say.  I won’t soon forget them.”  Eugene Peterson writes:  “Dean Nelson is God’s spy, looking for God in all the times and places most of us would never think to explore.  He doesn’t miss much.  Combining the readability of excellent writing and the reliability of sound scholarship, God Hides in Plain Sight is better than a spy novel.”  Enough said!

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After pastoring for many years in an inner city church in St. Paul, MN, David and Lisa Frisbie launched a second career of speaking, writing, and counseling—they are co-directors of The Center for Marriage & Family Studies.  Publishing prolifically during the past decade, with ten books to their credit, they have established themselves as trusted guides in the area of marriage and family.  Their latest book is The Soul-Mate Marriage (Eugene, OR:  Harvest House Publishers, c. 2008), wherein they call for couples to commit themselves to “TV”—transparency and vulnerability—in order to find God’s best for them in the holy estate of matrimony.  

First, however, comes some oft-needed de/construction, beginning with “melting the masks” that are almost always in place during the courtship process and thereafter all too frequently keep husbands and wives from really knowing each other.  “You won’t move an existing relationship to a deeper level until you’re willing to let people see you as you are, for who you are, without pretending to be more cool, more smart, more together, more self-controlled, or more anything else than you really are” (p. 23).  The masks must melt.  Then various emotional walls (often built carefully during childhood and adolescence and heightened in marriage) must crumble as well if intimacy is to develop.  “Regardless of who constructs the walls or who begins building them first, the pathway to genuine intimacy is strewn with rubble:  broken bits of brick and stone that fall away as the walls crumble and the couple finds or returns to a meaningful unity” (p. 82).  Then the “ghosts” of the past—especially when they involve sexual aspects—must be “busted.”  Capping it all off, there is a necessary “dying to self,” a decision to serve one’s spouse.    

Deconstruction done, there follows a re/creation process of “birthing the real”—forging a mature, healthy romance that barely began in the courting stage.   “When romance grows as it should, two mature individuals begin to forge a lifelong friendship that is based on mutual respect, shared values, and compatible temperaments” (p. 145).  

Sacrificing for each other, encouraging each other, looking out for each other make for an ever stronger, creative romance.  Having studied, both in scholarly literature and in hundreds of counseling sessions, both healthy and unhealthy marriages, the Frisbies conclude:  “Among other other variables, one significant fact emerges:  Successful long-term marriages are very good at birthing the real.  That is, these relationships are places where two mature adults bring a high level of self-awareness into the marriage, and then go on from self-awareness to a realistic, reasonable, clear-eyed view of the relationships itself” (p. 148).  

With an honest realism regarding the marital relationship, a couple is ready to master the “difficult dance” of relationship development.  As good dancers know, at times it’s important for the man to lead, and at other times the woman assumes that role.  It’s a reciprocal movement, following the music.  Rightly done, there’s no struggle to see who’s in charge.  In marriage, consequently, each person finds his or her strength and flourishes while carrying it out.  In some cases it’s the man who handles the finances, but in other instances it’s the woman.  Learning to embrace the other’s strengths, to allow him or her to develop God-given abilities, is central to “learning the dance.”  

Finally, and best of all in the re/creation process, is “living the love.”  It is in fact possible for husbands and wives to deepen their love for each other throughout the decades of a “soul-mate marriage.”  Great marriages, where couples are “dancing well,” are possible.  The Frisbies have observed—and write about—them.  Better than the “pretty good” marriages many couples accept, “great marriages are exceptionally rare.  They are also extremely possible” (p. 187).  When two persons mutually serve each other, practice TV, learn to dance, and daily look for ways to better love, there will be a great marriage.  Preeminently, greatness in marriage is “about God, finding your life to a lifelong partnership with Him.  It’s about seeing the life partner God has granted you, dying to self as yu daily sacrifice for her or his good” (p. 194).  

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Dennis Apple recently published Life After the Death of My Son:   What I’m Learning (Kansas City:  Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, c. 2008), a moving record of—and reflection upon—a father’s grief.  His son, Denny, died in his sleep on the family sofa in 1991.  During the next several years Apple kept a journal, wrestling with the loss, pondering all the unanswerable questions.  After more than a decade, Harold Ivan Smith urged him to make public what he’d experienced and learned.  Consequently, this book was written, the author declares, to give parents like him hope.  “You can survive the death of your child.  You can, with God’s help, redeem this disaster and turn it into something that will make a difference in the world” (p. 9).  

But first he describes the years of unmitigated grief he and his wife endured before any healing could take place.  “Parents who have lost a child are in a fog for years, not just hours or days” (p. 12).  Like professional athletes, bereaved parents must learn to “play hurt,” to go on with life’s tasks, all the while weeping when by themselves.  Time really doesn’t heal the hurt, as it does a broken bone.  But in time one gains the strength, and perhaps the calluses on the heart, to get back to living life more normally.  In the process, however, “Grieving parents feel anger and resentment toward those who are trying to push them to a quick resolution of their grief” (p. 26).  

Similarly, grieving parents wonder about God’s whereabouts.  As Apple wondered, writing in his journal, “Does God care about losses like this?”  It seemed He didn’t.  Consequently, he lacked “the heart to care any more” (p. 63).  Prayer no longer seemed “the answer” to his problems.  “I felt as though God had abandoned me” (p. 64).  The sole consolation seemed to be Jesus’ words on the Cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  But, a decade later, he would come to believe that he “didn’t know that God was doing severe work on my soul while I was still in the fog” (p. 71).  

Beyond sharing his grief, Apple offers suggestions to parents who have lost a child regarding healthy ways to memorialize him or her, including how to deal with birthdays.  Small groups, journaling, writing poems, reading books, exercising, telling your story will all combine to enable one to be a “wounded healer.”  He also stresses the importance of the church in the grieving process.  Folks may not do it perfectly, but there is great support and grace available in a fellowship of believers.  And in time, with their help—and God’s grace—it’s possible to begin to live again.  

This is a deeply honest book, describing what it means to lose a child.