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Telling Stories in the Dark: Finding healing and hope in sharing our sadness, grief, trauma, and pain

By May 15, 2024 One Comment

Telling Stories in the Dark: Finding healing and hope in sharing our sadness, grief, trauma, and pain

Jeffrey Munroe
Published by Reformed Journal Books in 2024

How comfortable are you with suffering? One of the challenges of Christian community, including the care offered by pastors, is how we keep company with our pain. Our culture is addicted to Hollywood endings, and our churches are sadly not much different. As a pastor myself, I often feel tension with the testimonies we celebrate. We revel in stories of God as the triumphal victor who delivers the Davids from the Goliaths, rescues families from credit card debt, and heals patients from the ravages of illnesses. Certainly, accounts like these encourage and comfort, and there is a place for this. 500 million sold copies of Chicken Soup for the Soul can’t be wrong.

But sometimes, after a meal of soup, you find yourself hungry a couple of hours later. What about the times when there are no easy answers, or maybe no answers at all? What about the times when brokenness is so brutal it radically changes how we relate to ourselves, our loved ones, and even God? Is God still alive and at work?  Is there strengthening and encouragement to be gleaned from these stories too? Telling Stories in the Dark, by Jeffrey Munroe, is for those hungry for complexity.

To quote poet Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, one of those interviewed in Munroe’s book, “Grief is being totally present with your love for someone no longer with you.” Grief and love are intertwined throughout each of these ten narratives on pain. While this book is about loss, there is so much love to be found. Grief and love, isolation and identity, darkness and hope are all polarities. Still, each informs the other in communion, just like how Munroe and his interviewees unflinchingly bear witness to their shared suffering. These essays offering first-person accounts of suffering and responses to those stories by Munroe and other pain experts are honest, diverse, and both unique and relatable – just like the experience of suffering itself.

Perhaps the bravest and most sating part of Munroe’s work is that he doesn’t force the hope. Each story prioritizes the honesty of the human experience, trusting that the hope belonging to the Holy Spirit will bubble to the surface. In particular, Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer’s account of the loss of her son and her strength in being present to unimaginable and excruciating pain is ironically laced with hope. As she treads water in the chasm of loss, she proclaims, “I am the mother who learns how to love him now.” Sometimes, it takes indescribable grief to understand indescribable love.

Munroe’s entry point to this collection is the idea of “the stewardship of pain.” This phrase was coined by the great writer and pastor Frederick Buechner, for whom Munroe has a great affinity. In fact, Munroe previously authored Reading Buechner: Exploring the Work of a Master Memoirist, Novelist, Theologian, and Preacher. Munroe describes the stewardship of pain as a redemptive process that helps us receive the unexpected gifts of pain instead of burying, numbing, or avoiding it. As Munroe quotes Buechner, “Being a good steward of your pain involves being alive to your life. It involves taking the risk of being open, of reaching out, of keeping in touch with the pain…because at no time more than at a painful time do we live out of the depths of who we are instead of out of the shallows.”

It is apparent to the reader that Munroe values the openness of pain stewardship in his own life, and he brings that openness to those he interviews. The questions he asks his conversation partners are expansive, generous, patient, and respectful–the posture of one who has shared friendship with suffering.

This is the table Munroe has set for those who choose their own openness to Telling Stories in the Dark. This is no fast food, and there is no shortage of flavors to experience. There is the bitterness of anguish and the saltiness of tears–both those told in the book and the ones shed by the reader. There is the flickering dimness of those trying to see in darkness. There is blood, and there is bread. But make no mistake; this table hosts a feast–a feast where all are fed and drink of the same cup–where no one is alone because all are included. And like the best dinner parties, there is that arrival where experiences and stories flow honestly and vulnerably. One shares, and the rest listen, and at the holy end of those words, the table realizes, “I am not alone.” Reader, might you read this book and know you are not alone.

Beth Carroll

Rev. Beth Carroll is the Senior Pastor of Oakland City Church in Oakland, California. She is a graduate of Western Theological Seminary and Hope College, both in Holland, Michigan.  She is married to Richard Perez, who is a theatre artist, and she has three kids - Josiah, Natalie, and a cat named Kate Spade.

One Comment

  • Jack Ridl says:

    This most valuable, brave, comforting book deserves the stunningly beautiful, lyrical, rivetingly articulate prose found here.
    Ever grateful

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