Intimate, Raw, and Hopeful: A Review of Beth Scibienski's "Who Is God When We Hurt?"

Here’s what I dislike about most books on grief and suffering--generalities. Far too many of these kinds of resources spend the bulk of their words on non-specific, Instagramable wisdom. That’s not what I want when I’m hurting. I said to my friend Brittany recently, “When I read a book about someone’s grief, I want the details. I want to know what flavor ice cream they binged on.” We said, it’s the details that make you feel like you’re reading a real person’s story. It’s in the details where you connect and relate.

The details are what I love about Beth Scibienski’s new book, Who Is God When We Hurt? In it she shares her experience taking care of her husband as he battles MS, a story undergirded by a treasure trove of stories from her time as a pastor. Scibienski tells us the color and texture of the carpet in her bedroom as she lies on it crying. She tells us the exact words she yelled at her husband and later felt guilty for. She tells us why she goes to the chiropractor. She tells us what she promised her husband in her bespoke vows at their wedding.

This book is real and raw, intimate and personal, but when you read it you don’t feel like a stalker, watching from afar. You feel like a friend, brought close, invited in. Scibienski’s voice is warm, likable, and trustworthy. You’re rooting for her, and you’re eager to follow where she’s leading. I found myself surprised by how much I connected to this story. Though I’ve never been a caregiver and though I’ve never lost a spouse, Scibienski’s words felt like a truth I’ve lived. In seeing her pain so clearly I felt seen myself.

Many times in this book, Scibienski talks about the community of people around her, enabling her, lighting the dark. That’s a theme I found myself coming back to again and again in my own writing on grief. Scibienski covers that ground generously and beautifully. As she closes, considering her titular question, “Who Is God When I Hurt?” Scibienski writes,

“Who was God when I hurt? God was the one who loved us, in sickness and in health. God was the one who stayed beside us, and looked exactly like our close friends, our neighbors, and our church family. God was the one who didn’t shy away from my tears. God was the one who held my hand. God was the one who made sense of medical bills. God was the one with the stethoscope.

God was the pharmacist who asked the best questions. God was the dance of my closest girlfriends as they packed up my kitchen, having to move when I didn’t want to. God was the dance of my congregation who embraced Pete with a walking stick, a walker, a rollator and eventually a wheelchair. I didn’t have to ask “where was God?” because I knew who to look for when I needed God the most.”

My other favorite quote from this book comes in a meditation on anger. Scibienski writes, “Anger is not something to avoid or ignore. Anger collects data. When I stopped long enough to listen to my anger, I learned what I needed.”

Anger collects data.

Yes! If you’ve ever lost something huge--a person, a path, your normal life--you know anger. Scibienski lets her anger work for her, leading her to a better understanding of her emotions and needs.

If you’re a caregiver for someone who’s terminally ill, I highly recommend this book. If you’re someone, anyone else, I still recommend it. It’s a masterclass in the work of redemption, turning something devastating into something both devastating and beautiful.

Get your copy HERE.

Planet Fitness, The Depravity of Humanity and Why Most Rules Are Good

I work out at Planet Fitness. I don't work out particularly often or exceptionally rigorously, but I do work out on occasion when the cold isn't so cold and the tasks don't tie me to the desk. 

Today was one of those days when I drove to Planet Fitness, got out of the car, and walked directly to the one thing I always do at Planet Fitness. If you've never been to this particular brand of gym you won't know that every location includes a section devoted exclusively to "The PF 30-Minute Express Circuit." It's a set of weight machines and cardio exercises you alternate between for a period of thirty minutes. On the wall you'll find a long list of instructions on how to do this properly. There's a red and green light system to help you know how long to do each activity. Machines and boxes for step exercises are numbered for orderly execution of the circuit. 

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Every time I do this circuit, I follow the rules precisely. 

And every time I'm there, following the rules precisely, someone else comes in and messes everything up.

Some people decide they just want to use one machine for twenty minutes (which means I don't get to use that machine when it's my turn). Other people decide they'll go in whatever order they choose (which means I may miss three or four machines). Some people stand super close to the machines and use free weights (putting those machines out of commission). 

The circuit only works if everyone using it follows the rules.

Since no one ever does, every time I go to the gym I'm viscerally reminded of the depravity of humanity. 

Follow the rules, people!! There's a reason for the rules!

If you know me, you may find this posture amusing. Because I am not exactly a rules person. Just this week I engaged in three or four public rants on the stupidity of city residential housing restrictions. I'm a libertarian who won't register as a libertarian because I don't like boxes. I wear white jeans whenever in the course of the year I decide I want to, and I wear black with navy. I don't like unnecessary rules. But I do like the kinds of rules that, when followed, create peace and dispel chaos. 

Like circuit training rules. Or God's rules. 

I'm reading in Exodus right now about how to make restitution when your bull boars you neighbor's bull, how not to cook goat, and how to make amends when you mistreat your slave. Sometimes when I read these sections of scripture my eyes glaze over. Today though I was thinking of how helpful these rules must have been to the early Israelites and how hard it is to maintain peace with your brother without rules. 

King David will say of the law of Moses, this law about bulls and slave treatment and bride prices, "I run in the path of Your commands." He's able to run, because law simplifies life.* When we follow the rules, we avoid chaos and disruption.

I have this friend who recently got in trouble with the law. She's been making good choices since then, but every few weeks that past mistake births some new set of disastrous consequences. Every other day she's tripping over her prior disobedience, her schedule, plans and desires spilling on the ground like marbles, rolling out of reach.

That's how it goes, isn't it? Disobedience sows disorder. 

Sometimes disorder isn't the worst thing. Some rule-breaking honors what's true and good. Some disorder upturns systems or power structures that require upturning. 

But some rule-breaking, most, messes everything up. And not just for us. When we break the rules we mess things up for everybody. 

This happens in marriage when one spouse commits to submission and the other won't. When one spouse is faithful and the other isn't. When one spouse is vulnerable and the other refuses. Both are punished.

This happens in a family when a child disobeys his parents and gets expelled from school or arrested and now the parents are paying court fees and reconfiguring work schedules and trying to explain to their friends what's happening. 

This happens in church life when two hundred people offer grace and three loud people extend hate and those three voices are the only ones anyone hears. 

This happens on Facebook when people are discussing something civilly and someone jumps in to be a jerk and suddenly everyone is brought down. 

Everyone is affected by anyone's disobedience.

Rules exist for the purpose of harmony. 

I needed to hear that today. I needed the reminder that God doesn't arbitrarily assign things to right and wrong columns to test our loyalty or self discipline. God has reasons for rules, one of the prime ones being peace among His people.

 

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*Maybe you're thinking, Law simplifies life for David--the male who's not a slave or a bride being purchased. And you're not entirely wrong. Still, the law does uplift people at the bottom of power structures. And when the law is followed women and slaves in this time period receive much better treatment than outside the law