Monday, February 10, 2020

Promises in the Dark

Promises in the Dark, Eric McLaughlin

This book is for anyone working through what it means to cling to God’s promises while facing hard times, both your own and that of others.

Eric and his wife serve as medical missionaries in Africa, first Kenya, and now Burundi. He has written this book as a reflection on what it means to walk with those in need without losing heart.
“I want to tell stories from my life and work these last several years. Stories of joy and pain, beauty and tragedy, redemption and lament. In the end, they are mostly stories of trying to find God’s light in dark places, both in the world and in my own heart. They are stories of struggling to understand and remember the promises God has given. The storytelling is very intentional because while both theoretical discussions and practical advice have important roles to play, my hope is that the narratives add something else. I hope you can feel the tension and identify with it.”
And this is exactly what he has done. Each chapter starts with a story that introduces the point, and then he leads the reader to God’s word and God’s character, fleshing out the implications, both in his own situation but also further afield. Each chapter finishes with some questions for reflection, which bring the reader very closely to the issue, considering their own response to God, who he is and and how he acts.

Chapters address topics such as: promise, despair, hope, time, ordinary, prayer, suffering, mystery, consolation, resurrection and redemption.

I appreciated his observations on the ordinariness of life and sometimes how we just keep going. He openly acknowledged the reality that we know there is always more to do, more that could be done, but sometimes a line has to be drawn. I valued the comments about coming to peace with boundaries and that a tender heart shows that you aware of the tension.

His comments on prayer remind that we come to God in our insufficiencies, and turn to him more when we truly know we are incapable. And, yet, we do still live with the pain of unanswered prayer.

I really liked his question when considering evil. So many people ask, “If there is a God, why is there evil?” McLaughlin says:
“Yes, there is great evil in the world, but there is also all this goodness in the world. It’s everywhere, and it’s palpably real. If God isn’t there or he isn’t good, then where did all the goodness come from? Its presence also cries out for explanation. If we would speak of the “problem of evil,” could we also speak of a philosophical “problem of good”?”
I copied numerous quotes as I read, and I include a few here to give you a taste:

Considering his calling to serve his neighbour:
“What does the reaction of my heart reveal? Well, it seems I like this calling more in theory than in practice. I like serving, but not serving this guy. I want to love, but when it comes to loving someone right in front of me, I so often come up short. I know my calling, but I don’t want to do it. Thus, this realization is also a calling to repentance.”
The reality of our insufficiency for our task:
“We can dress up our skills. We can train for decades. We can try and style the circumstances to capitalize on our strengths. Those aren’t bad things, but they don’t erase the inescapable truth that we are and will always be insufficient to the task in front of us. The needs around us will always outstrip us. We will always be utterly reliant on the action of God in our relationships, in our work, and in the world. In this we follow the way of Jesus.”
Considering lament:
“Lament is a means of grace to us in some of our most desperate times. Lament offers the freedom to come as we are and bare our hearts. Lament offers the comfort that our crushed hearts do not repel God, but rather that “the Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” We can even pray “The Lord has become like an enemy” or “O Lord, why do you cast my soul away?” or “Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?” Whatever the state of our hearts, the Bible has been there before us. These are the words of Scripture in the mouth of one who is brokenhearted. The Lord is near to such as these.”
On suffering:
“Since moving to Africa, there’s probably no single theme that has felt so urgent to me. No other problem has felt so pressing: if I can’t find some way to at least think about all the suffering around me, then I won’t last long here... Hunger, pain, disability, and death are everywhere. How can we go forward with all this suffering? I knew it could be bad, but feeling how pervasive and destructive suffering really is has challenged me on a whole new level. Where is God in all this suffering? Is there any promise that can sustain us?” 
“If we want to be present when we can help, then we must also be present when we can’t. We can’t know ahead of time whom we can help. Sometimes, we can make a great impact. Other times, we can’t. The two are inextricably linked, and situations don’t sort themselves out ahead of time into categories of “able to help” and “unable to help.” We follow Jesus into the darkness, and it is here that the light can shine the brightest.”

I didn’t feel I got the full value from this book at the time that I read it, and so I plan to return to it again later. I do believe it would be excellent reading for anyone on the mission field (whether doctors in Africa or in other roles), but also anyone who wonders what it means to continue to cling to the promises and character of God when life is challenging.

I’ll leave McLaughlin with the final comforting words:
“The promises of God are given to sustain us on this road. They are not ethereal abstractions, but rather promises as real and everyday as the dust of the path we walk. Though it’s never easy, we find, along the way, the reminders and the whispers that the promises are true and that the one who promises is faithful. He has placed these promises in the dark, precisely where he knows we need them.”

I received an ecopy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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