In Somewhere More Holy, Tony Woodlief offers a serious account about tragedy, God, family, and grace. He also spins a great spiritual yarn which can move you from laughing to tears in mere moments. One of the strengths of this book is that it is not another bland self help book that promises “Your Best Life Now.” I’ve always wondered anyways about Christians who do not even realize their best life is in Glory. This is a very honest confessional book that really contrasts itself with the prosperity gospel and the kind of superficial Christianity that eschews a theology of suffering.
Soon after Woodlief and his wife’s conversion to Christianity, their three year old daughter Caroline is diagnosed with a brain tumor. She was soon dead. The author offers a lot of emotional devastating details of the heartbreak of losing their first child along with the tragic details of physically watching their little girl waste away. “God never promised everything will work out okay in your lifetime, and that each trouble you face will yield a blessing out of all proportion to the pain,” says Woodlief. The story goes on. Woodlief talks about how he drifted apart from his wife and family and was even unfaithful. His home was breaking apart and he was too angry with God and his circumstances to care. He plotted to leave his wife. But he came to a realization that he really had nowhere to go and everything he cared about was right at home.
He seems to profoundly recognize that his wife extended immense grace in his situation and he is now happy he has a front door to enter. He praises his wife for not giving him over to destruction. He offers an exceptional thought from a Greek Orthodox Priest named Aimilianos of Simonopetra, who says “It is an adulteration of marriage for us to think that it is a road to happiness, as if it were a denial of the cross.” And while the priest and the Church understand the joy of marriage and its level of suffering, much of our society sadly views marriage as a means of self-fulfillment and an arrangement rather than a sacrament.
Woodlief has four boys now and he takes us on a spiritual journey through the rooms in his house explaining how the grace of God abounds. He weaves together devotional thoughts about the power of the incarnation within the stories of his family. He understands that through the incarnation we do not just receive a glimpse of God, but can better understand ourselves. It was Martin Luther who said the angels are envious of humanity, “They worship Christ, who has become our Brother, our flesh and blood.” Woodlief says of helping his young sons clean themselves in the bathroom:
Dad, does this look clean?. . . Cleanliness is next to godliness, I think to myself in these moments of degradation. And if God can see me in these moments, perhaps he will forgive all the times I supposed I was better than anyone else.
The author offers some beautiful thoughts on a theology of death too. Towards the closing he admits, from the experience of losing a child, “If you love anything, you must live with the reality that you may one day lose it.”
This is an impressive account because it does not pretend to have easy answers for life’s tragedies, heartbreak, and shame. It only offers up the ancient truths of grace, incarnation, resurrection, and divine love. It is a deep contrast with the spiritual glibness that many in today’s culture and churches encounter. It is confessional and authentic and I think by allowing himself to be vulnerable readers will easily relate to his story.
The book reminds me a little of Treasure in an Oatmeal Box which I read long ago when I was younger. Both books see the beauty in children and understand they offer a lot of spiritual insight. Both authors are excellent at telling a story and capturing the greater purpose and value of life. They also both deal with heartbreak, tragedy, and perseverance. I am sure fathers and mothers of children will receive a lot of insight and will have a lot to ponder with this account. But this book is really for anybody who has felt heartbroken, betrayed, or separated from God. The beauty of the cross of course is just how much triumph and victory can come out of the deepest depths of evil, and how the world is transformed because of it. American slave culture and the Appalachian people always possessed a strong theology of death and resurrection because of the immense trials and suffering that surrounded those communities. I always like to listen to Appalachian bluegrass and gospel music because it doesn’t pretend to soften the blows and pain of human suffering but deals with it head on. And it always struggles to deal with pain and tragedy with the redeemer in mind. Woodlief says of his daughter Caroline, and of that day when he will wake to sleep no more:
I believe in a God who loves even the likes of me, and so I believe I will wake once more after my body betrays me, to the sound of singing. I am sure the songs of angels must be beautiful, but it will be the warbling of a little girl that my ear searches out. It has been so long since I have heard her voice. It has been so long, but I needn’t wait forever. Spring is coming, a spring with unfolding colors, enduring warmth, life that doesn’t mourn its own passing.