5 stars

sun-does-shine2018 has been a very good reading year for me, and I can recommend several books to you, depending on your tastes and interests. But I finished one last night that I want everyone I know to read. I can say that about two books I’ve read this year, actually: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, which I’ve already mentioned here before and now The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton (Bryan Stevenson wrote the foreword and plays a major part in Hinton’s story.)

Ray Hinton’s story of being convicted of a crime he did not commit and incarcerated on death row for almost thirty (THIRTY!) years is all at once heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, and blood-boiling — yet it somehow manages to be hopeful and encouraging. It helps that Ray is just plain likeable, a regular guy in Alabama who loves his mama and good food and football but was treated with monstrous injustice by the State of Alabama. (I hate to lump all of the individuals who did him harm into that innocuous “State” term.) It is maddening to read about how the system does not work for poor black people like it does for those who can afford good representation.

I so badly want to believe that governments can be trusted, that people in power are acting according to the law, doing their duty. This ISTJ wants to believe that rules are followed. But they’re not. People and systems can be corrupt and lazy. And, after all, we’re born with that bent:

total-depravity

Ray Hinton was wrongly convicted in 1985 and finally set free in 2015. I was a junior in high school in 1985, and between then and 2015, I went to Auburn, met my husband, had two children, lived all over the world, got divorced, and started a whole new life with Paul. So for just about my entire adult life, Ray was sitting in a tiny cell in Alabama, his freedom stolen from him by people who were dishonest, incompetent, selfish, racist, and just plain evil.

[Hinton’s book, along with Just Mercy, has me re-thinking some things related to the death penalty. Hinton believes that capital punishment equals murder, but I don’t agree. When the state takes the life of a person who has taken a life, I don’t believe it is the same thing as murder. But if the person is innocent? And has not been tried fairly? Well, that is murder.]

Here’s a little glimpse of Ray Hinton, in the early years of his imprisonment:

No one can understand what freedom means until they don’t have it. It’s like being wrapped in a straightjacket all day every day. You can’t make a choice about how to live. Oh, what I wouldn’t give to have a choice to make–any choice. I think I’ll go for a walk rather than go to bed right now. I think I’ll have chicken for dinner. I think I’d like to take a drive and just see where I end up. I didn’t begrudge Lester [Ray’s best friend] his life and his choices. I was happy for him. I wanted nothing more than for him to be happy. I would be sorry to miss the wedding and sad not to be able to stand next to him and be his best man. I had to get out of this place. I thought about the children I would never have if I didn’t get off death row. I wanted a son. I wanted to play baseball with a son someday. And basketball. I wanted to take him to Auburn games so he knew there was only one team in Alabama that mattered. I wanted to show him the woods, and the river, and the quiet beauty of a night spent in the country. I wanted to show him how to fish and teach him how to drive. I wanted to show him that anything was possible in this world if you only had faith.

My breath caught and I stopped pacing.

Faith. How could I teach anyone about faith when I didn’t have it?

“Oh God. Help me, God…”

(You know right where I smiled in that first paragraph, don’t you?)

And I have to share this bit from when Ray asked the warden for permission to start a book club on death row:

“Look,” I said. “These guys need something to focus on besides what the guards are doing and not doing for them. Besides the heat. Besides the fact that our food tastes like dirt. You know? It’s a way to keep the peace. A book club will help things stay more peaceful.”

He nodded.

“You can’t have guys spending twenty-three hours a day thinking about death. It makes them crazy. And when people go crazy, who know what they’ll do.” It may have been a bit much, but it was the truth. I wanted him to believe that if we had books on the row, it would keep the inmates quiet. But really I knew that it would set them free. If the guys had books, they could travel the world. They would get smarter and freer. There was a reason back in the slave days the plantation owners didn’t want their slaves to learn to read. Charlie Jones [the warden] probably had family who once owned my family, but I wasn’t going to bring that up. I wasn’t going to show him anything but how a book club would keep the peace.

He got his book club, at least for a little while.

I’ve gone on long enough here, so I’ll just say one more time: Please read this book. Both  Just Mercy and The Sun Does Shine were loaned to me (Thanks, CK!), but I’m going to get my own copies. If you do read them, let me know what you think.

“…the peace of God is not the absence of negative thoughts…”

[a repost from March 2014]
walkingwithgodFrom Tim Keller’s Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering:

Today, when you read books or websites on overcoming anxiety and handling fear, they usually talk about removing thoughts. They say: Do not think about that; do not think those negative thoughts. Control your thoughts, expel the negative ones. But here we see the peace of God is not the absence of negative thoughts, it is the presence of God himself. “The God of peace will be with you” (Phil 4:9).

Christian peace does not start with the ousting of negative thinking. If you do that, you may simply be refusing to face how bad things are. That is one way to calm yourself–by refusing to admit the facts. But it will be a short-lived peace! Christian peace doesn’t start that way. It is not that you stop facing the facts, but you get a living power that comes into your life and enables you to face those realities, something that lifts you up over and through them.

Many believers have experienced this peace of God. It is not just positive thinking or willpower. It is a sense that no matter what happens, everything will ultimately be all right, even though it may not be at all right at the moment. In my experience, people usually break through to this kind of peace only in tragic situations, often in the valley of the shadow of death. Here is a metaphor for it. If you have ever been on a coast in a storm and seen the waves come in and hit the rocks, sometimes the waves are so large that they cover a particular rock, and you think, ‘That is the end of that rock.’ But when the waves recede, there it is still. It hasn’t budged an inch. A person who feels the ‘peace that passes understanding; is like that. No matter what is thrown at you, you know it will not make you lose your footing. Paul of course is the classic example. He is beaten; he is stoned; he is flogged; he is shipwrecked; he is betrayed; his enemies are trying to kill him. There is wave after wave, and yet–there he is still. ‘I have found a way to be completely poised under any and all circumstances,’ he said. All the waves of life could not break him. And he says it isn’t a natural talent of his–you and I can learn this.

That is the character of Christian peace. It is an inner calm and equilibrium but also a sense of God’s presence and an almost reason-transcending sense of his protection.

 

“You want a warrior Jesus.”

[This morning I spent some time reading through the private blog I kept a few years ago while walking through a deep valley. For the moment (I’ve learned that things can change in an instant), the path is much smoother, but these words resonate nonetheless.]

place-of-healingFrom A Place of Healing: Wrestling with the Mysteries of Suffering, Pain, and God’s Sovereignty by Joni Eareckson Tada:

Here at our ministry we refuse to present a picture of “gentle Jesus, meek and mild,” a portrait that tugs at your sentiments or pulls at your heartstrings. That’s because we deal with so many people who suffer, and when you’re hurting hard, you’re neither helped nor inspired by a syrupy picture of the Lord, like those sugary, sentimental images many of us grew up with. You know what I mean? Jesus with His hair parted down the middle, surrounded by cherubic children and bluebirds.

Come on. Admit it: When your heart is being wrung out like a sponge, when you feel like Morton’s salt is being poured into your wounded soul, you don’t want a thin, pale, emotional Jesus who relates only to lambs and birds and babies.

You want a warrior Jesus.

You want a battlefield Jesus. You want his rigorous and robust gospel to command your sensibilities to stand at attention.

To be honest, many of the sentimental hymns and gospel songs of our heritage don’t do much to hone that image. One of the favorite words of hymn writers in days gone by was sweet. It’s a term that doesn’t have the edge on it that it once did. When you’re in a dark place, when lions surround you, when you need strong help to rescue you from impossibility, you don’t want “sweet.” You don’t want faded pastels and honeyed softness.

You want mighty. You want the strong arm an unshakable grip of God who will not let you go — no matter what.

bittersweet

Some of you know some of my story — of how my husband of twenty-two years insisted on walking away from our marriage. This happened over four years ago, and sometimes it’s hard to believe it’s my story. Friends have encouraged me to write more about that experience and what I’ve learned, but it’s really hard for a variety of reasons. First, it’s not only my story. It’s also my children’s, and I’m sensitive to that and to the fact that he is their father. Second, I don’t want to overshare, and I don’t want to dwell. And, honestly, it still stings. But I think I should share what I can, because I remember how very desperate I was for every morsel of encouragement and hope when I was in that deep, dark valley. If my story can help someone else, I’m selfish to keep it to myself. So if I can figure out ways to put my thoughts together, I’ll share them here from time to time.

One of the things I’ve found curious as I’ve moved through these past years post-divorce is how my previous life seems like it’s not my life. Everything I found out was such a shock, such a complete and total up-ending of the life we built for over two decades, that I really don’t know what was real and what wasn’t. I’ve questioned everything.

But as I decorated the Christmas tree last week and unwrapped hundreds of mementoes collected throughout all those years, I was reminded that YES, I did live that life. It happened. The memories are real. I really did visit those places, make those friends, worship in those churches, make a home over and over again. I cared. I loved. I didn’t just dream it. And even thought that life is gone now, I still remember.

hulasanta

so many memories of our 8 years in Hawaii on the tree

mosaicstar

evidence of my brief foray into smashing plates and making ornaments

japanorn

a souvenir from our 2 years in Japan

britorn

I bought this one in my favorite city — London

So I decorated the tree feeling that now ever-present sense of bittersweetness. I felt sorrow but I wasn’t crushed by it. I took joy in remembering and was thankful for that. Surely that’s progress, right? I can’t take credit for the progress, but I know the One who can.

If you’re where I found myself about four years ago, or if you know someone who is, I can tell you that it gets better. It’s not a straight line, but more like a crazy stock market graph with lots of highs and lows. Pain hits at the oddest times , and it still hurts to say “ex-husband.” But God is always good and faithful, and I’ve found that He comes through for me. It’s often not in a way I expect or even want, but He’s faithful. Even when I’m hanging ornaments on a tree.

This I know.

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“…with some pleasant inns…”

cslewisFrom A Year With C.S. Lewis:

The Christian doctrine of suffering explains, I believe, a very curious fact about the world we live in. The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.

–from The Problem of Pain

“God was working all night long…”

storminsideFrom Sheila Walsh in The Storm Inside: Trade the Chaos of How You Feel for the Truth of Who You Are: [emphasis mine]

In 1956 Cecil B. DeMille directed the epic movie The Ten Commandments, in which the Hebrew-born Moses, an adopted Egyptian prince, becomes the deliverer of the Hebrew slaves. It’s hard to forget that moment when Charlton Heston, cast as Moses, raises his staff over the Red Sea and the waters part in seventeen seconds. It was a moment of pure drama back in 1956, but it’s not the way it happened. The way it actually happened is far more meaningful to us as we face life’s inevitable storms. We read the story in Exodus 14.

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. (Exodus 14:21–22 ESV)

All night long! It didn’t happen in a moment. God was working all night long through the darkness. We don’t know how long the night will be, but we do know this: no matter how things appear, God is at work—all night long! Only the morning light will reveal what God has done. Do not despair or give in to the chaos of what you feel. Stand strong on what you know is true.

God’s faithfulness

[A repost from August 2014]

On January 1, 2012, I began to read through the Bible using the 3650 plan. I had no idea on that first day of that year just how full of suffering 2012 would be. (Isn’t God good not to overwhelm us with future knowledge?) I used a brand new ESV Bible, and I marked it up, sometimes jotting a date beside a Psalm. Oh, what a treasure that Bible is to me! Immersing myself in Scripture was truly a means of grace that terrible year, and now I have such reminders of God’s faithfulness jotted in margins. It’s almost like a journal.

This particular Bible is fairly compact, so while I’m using a different one in my daily reading, I take this one to church. Last Sunday as I was flipping to the Psalm we were reading, I passed Psalm 57 and saw the note:

psalm57

Psalm 57 was the one I “happened” to read on that dark day as I worked my way through the 3650 plan. And how appropriate it was! Just look at God’s encouragement to me on that saddest of days:

Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,
for in you my soul takes refuge;
in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
till the storms of destruction pass by.

I cry out to God Most High,
to God who fulfills his purpose for me.

He will send from heaven and save me;
he will put to shame him who tramples on me.
God will send out his steadfast love and his faithfulness!

My soul is in the midst of lions;
I lie down amid fiery beasts–
the children of man, whose teeth are spears and arrows,
whose tongues are sharp swords.

Be exalted, O God, above the heavens!
Let your glory be over all the earth!

They set a net for my steps;
my soul was bowed down.
They dug a pit in my way,
but they have fallen into it themselves.

My heart is steadfast, O God,
my heart is steadfast!
I will sing and make melody!

Awake my glory!
Awake, O harp and lyre!
I will awake the dawn!

I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples;
I will sing praises to you among the nations.

For your steadfast love is great to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the clouds.

Be exalted, O God, above the heavens!
Let your glory be over all the earth!

Oh, how good God is to us with His Word! This Psalm was true for David in the cave as he fled from Saul thousands of years ago, and it was true for a brokenhearted, grieving, and weak woman in southwest Georgia on a hot summer day in 2012. And it’s been true for countless believers in between and since.

I knew, even in the depths, that God was with me and for me, and I had to take every step in faith because I just couldn’t see how He would work out His plan for me. And, of course, I have no idea what’s coming, what other valleys He will lead me through.

That year I marked every reference to God’s steadfastness and faithfulness I came across because I clung to that aspect of His character. And He proved Himself over and over. He still does, even as He reminds me in this joyful season of life that He has been with me all the way — comforting me, strengthening me, and preparing me to meet Paul. It is good to look back and see how God fulfills His purpose for me.

I begin this Sunday full of joy and gratitude at how good my God has been to me. He was good to me in that valley, and He is good to me today. He is good all the time.

With a joyful heart,

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“But you can believe that God understands it.”

bestillFrom Dr. Wilson Benton Jr. in Be Still, My Soul (25 Classic and Contemporary Readings on the Problem of Pain):

You are one person living at one place, at one point in time and even if God chose to explain to you how all of the pieces of his giant puzzle are fitting together in a manner consistent with his own righteous and holy and gracious nature, so that he may faithfully fulfill his promise in your life and work everything that happens to you for your good, you couldn’t understand it. But you can believe that God understands it. And you can believe that God is loving enough, and powerful enough, and wise enough, and gracious enough, and faithful enough to you to do what he says when he promises to work everything for your good.

…finitum non capax infiniti.”

bestillFrom R.C. Sproul in Be Still, My Soul (25 Classic and Contemporary Readings on the Problem of Pain):

Things may appear to be without purpose or meaning. Their ultimate purpose might elude us for the present. Yet if we fail to see purpose in what happens, we must remember that our view of things is limited by our earthly perspective.

An important slogan in theology is finitum non capax infiniti. This means, “the finite cannot grasp the infinite.” The limit of our comprehension is the earthly perspective. We do not have the ability to see things sub specie aeternitatis — “from the eternal perspective.”

The eternal perspective belongs to God.

“Let history finish.”

bestillFrom Philip Yancey in Be Still, My Soul (25 Classic and Contemporary Readings on the Problem of Pain):

In seventy years we can develop a host of ideas about how indifferent God appears to be about suffering. But is it reasonable to judge God and his plan for the universe by the swatch of time we spend on earth? Have we missed the perspective of the timelessness of the universe?

Who would complain if God allowed one hour of suffering in an entire lifetime of comfort? Yet we bitterly complain about a lifetime that includes suffering when that lifetime is a mere hour of eternity.

In the Christian scheme of things, this world and the time spent here are not all there is. Earth is a proving ground; a dot in eternity–but a very important dot, for Jesus said our destiny depends on our obedience here. Next time you want to cry out to God in anguished despair, blaming him for a miserable world, remember: less than one-millionth of the evidence has been presented, and that is being worked out under a rebel flag.

God is not deaf. God is as grieved by the world’s trauma as you are. His only son died here. But God has promised to set things right.

Let history finish. Let the orchestra scratch out its last mournful warm-up note of discord before it bursts into the symphony.