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On Tuesday, January 30, we publish Telling Stories in the Dark by Jeff Munroe. It will be our first Reformed Journal Book. We’re hoping it’s the first of many. Here’s an excerpt from the end of the book.

“Hope is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul, / And sings the tune without the words, /And never stops at all.”Emily Dickinson

Several years ago, when I was working in youth ministry, I was helping out at a camp in Northern Michigan. We had been doing an activity at night in the woods, and after it was over, I stayed with the person cleaning up. We loaded all the gear—including at least a dozen lanterns—into the bed of an all-terrain cart, but there was so much stuff we filled the passenger seat as well.

“Go ahead,” I said, “I’ll just walk back.”

It wasn’t until he drove away that I realized I had made a mistake.

I was alone in a woods in absolute, utter, complete darkness. It was an overcast night and there was no moon, and since my cell phone didn’t have a signal out there, I had not brought it and its built-in flashlight with me. Once the taillights of the maintenance cart disappeared, I was alone in the dark. I put my hand in front of my face and waved it, just to see if that cliché was true. It was. I could not see the hand in front of my face. In a matter of seconds, I lost the trail and was plodding into the underbrush, hoping not to walk into a tree or step into a hole or wake an animal better left sleeping. The land was hilly, and I knew if I wasn’t careful, I would wind up falling down a slope. I knew the right direction to walk, but what if I got turned around?

As I was thinking about that, I found a big spider web with my face. It’s hard to stay calm with a spider web on your face. And then I heard rustling sounds around me. It’s even harder to stay calm when you are alone in the dark with a spider web on your face hearing rustling sounds around you. I was hoping those noises were being made by squirrels or chipmunks and not bears or wolves. That was only the beginning of the wildlife possibilities. I’d seen wild turkeys going up into the trees to roost at night—what would happen if I disturbed one of them? Wild turkeys can be maniacal when backed into a corner. Plus, there were deer everywhere in these woods—what if one of them came at me with its antlers? The overwhelming temptation was to just sit down and wait for the morning. Maybe I could tough it out—the sun would rise in another eight hours. I wondered how long it would be before anyone noticed I was gone.

I didn’t sit down. Instead, I just kept putting one foot in front of the other What should have been at most a ten-minute hike took the better part of an hour. I walked into camp with spider web silk in my hair and burrs on my clothes. I felt like someone should kill a fatted calf for me, for I was lost and now was found—yet my return was anticlimactic, my wife didn’t even know I was lost, she simply thought I was elsewhere in camp, attending to other things. 

I have thought often about that experience as I’ve done the interviews in this book. Putting one foot in front of the other to keep going even though you’re in the dark is an easy metaphor for facing traumatic loss.


Death became omnipresent during the pandemic years. Of course death is always with us, but we usually keep it at arm’s length through denial and inattention. The pandemic focused our thinking—as millions have died worldwide, every one of us left has wondered if the pandemic might bring our demise. A sore throat or runny nose would get me thinking if I was ready to die.

Nicholas Wolterstorff

How should we think about death?

Nicholas Wolterstorff, echoing the Apostle Paul, called death “the great enemy.” Death ends relationships, and ends life, which God called “very good.” Untimely death, like the deaths spoken of in this book, is an outrage. … Dylan Thomas wrote of raging against the dying light, but one wonders what good it would do. Our enemy does not fight fair. It’s estimated 117 billion people have lived in the history in the world. Death’s won-loss record is 117,000,000,000 to 0.

Not all of us experience death as an enemy. When someone is suffering, like my mother in the grip of unrelenting Alzheimer’s, death doesn’t seem like the enemy. It comes as a friend. Anne Lamott writes, with her typical humor, “Death is not the enemy. Snakes are.” She continues, speaking of death as it comes to those who have lived long lives: “Somehow, as we get older, death becomes as sacred as birth, and while we don’t exactly welcome it, death becomes a friend.”

The point she eventually goes on to make is that although we have a fear of death instilled in us from childhood, death is actually a transition to a new life and as such is not to be feared. I feel a poignant paradox here: Death is both enemy and friend.

Frederick Buechner wrote a beautiful meditation on dying that speaks of death as a transition. Like many, Buechner was afraid of flying. In Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABC’s of Faith, he starts by imagining being on an airplane.

He describes the agonizing moments as an anxious passenger simply eyes the flight attendants, listens to all the ominous sounds as the plane taxis and guns its engines, feels the vibrations of rumbling along the tarmac and the surge upwards into the air—until finally the plane breaks through a sea of clouds to a clear sky. Then, he concludes:

“Possibly the last takeoff of all is something like that. When the time finally comes, you’re scared stiff to be sure, but maybe by then you’re just as glad to leave the whole show behind and get going. In a matter of moments, everything that seemed to matter stops mattering. The slow climb is all there is. The stillness. The clouds. Then the miracle of flight as from fathom upon fathom down you surface suddenly into open sky. The dazzling sun.

I find comfort and hope in those images. As I think of the people whose stories I’ve told, I see hope and resilience as threads that hold them together. One of the places their resilience comes from is the hope that death is not the last word, but a transition to something else, something beautiful beyond our imaginations.

“Hope is the thing with feathers,” Emily Dickinson famously wrote, “that perches in the soul.” She goes on in that poem to speak of hope as a bird that doesn’t stop singing, regardless of storms and gales.

I love that image. Hope, like a songbird, perseveres, regardless of life’s storms and gales. It is resilient. And, like Buechner’s airplane, it has wings.

The people whose stories are told in this book all remain hopeful, despite the worst happening. Hope does not ignore reality. In their own ways, the people featured in this book put into practice the words of Wendell Berry: “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.” Those words come from Berry’s poem “Manifesto,”and Berry ends that poem saying, “Practice resurrection,” which is another thing the people featured in this book do.


When I worked for Western Theological Seminary, I was out in California making calls with the seminary president. At the end of a very long day, we visited an older man named Frank. His wife was out, the sun was setting, and it was obvious Frank was sitting in the late afternoon gloom crying. We asked what was wrong, and Frank took us into a back bedroom and showed us a picture of his son, Frank Jr., who had killed himself a few years earlier.

“I’m just sitting here thinking about my son,” Frank said. Our eyes filled with tears, too. It was such a sad scene. What can be said or done in the face of such sadness? We just sat in the dark with Frank. We had planned to spend 15 or 20 minutes with him, but wound up being there over an hour, until his wife came home. After we left, we drove the first half an hour or so in silence, feeling the weight of Frank’s grief.

Sometimes the only answer is to sit in the dark with someone.

As we sit, we often remember.

As we remember, we recall stories we might wish to tell.

And that healthy instinct—if we are as honest as Buechner urges us repeatedly to be—can help us bypass a forest of theological arguments to reach toward a compassionate connection with ourselves and our loved ones.

What came clear to me as I worked on this book is that as much as throughout my career I have held up theology as essential, there is so much bad theology out there about why traumatic events happen and what God is supposedly accomplishing through these events that I believe we’ve reached a tipping point where we just need to keep our mouths shut and simply love people instead of offering explanations for the unexplainable.

I go back to what our old professor told Roger Nelson about the agonizing death of the professor’s son: Even if God himself were to write down the reasons why this awful loss had happened, our professor would wad up the paper and throw it back in God’s face. Real people need compassion and empathy, not our explanations. Besides, God doesn’t need a defense attorney. Pastoral considerations often should take precedence over theological positions. I wish everyone putting forward those positions could see the fire in Nick Wolterstorff’s eyes and hear the pain in his voice when he calls those positions grotesque and repugnant.

Something is strangely out of whack when theological pronouncements further wound already suffering people.


  • Jean Scott says:

    I’m eager to get the book, Jeff. But I wonder if you meant to have the bird ‘signing’ or did you mean ‘singing’? This book is one I want to read!

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    What a winning invitation to read your book, Jeff.
    Resilience. Presence. Being alongside of someone is “God with us” I’m sure.

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    Thank you for the whole of this: from stumbling in the dark, to believing and living into resurrection hope, and the outrage and despair of an untimely death that will always be a part of our family. Navigating life after this kind of a loss is exactly like stumbling around in the dark and nothing short of grace and time will ease it. I can’t wait to read this book. Thank you.

  • George Vink says:

    Halfway through it.

  • Henry Baron says:

    Jeff, what you say about bad theology resonates with me.
    The Church continues to suffer from indulging or succumbing to it.
    Maybe every seminary classroom, every church, and every synod assembly should feature an impossible to miss sign: Be still and know that I am God.
    And maybe your book should become required reading?

  • Dave Tanis says:

    I guess it’s actually 117,000,000,000 to 1. The extra zeros are needed but don’t make much difference. But the “1” does. It is in that one that we move and have our being.

    • JEFF MUNROE says:

      Dave – I fixed the big number (which, like my earlier typo, is correct in the book’s manuscript) but did not add the “1.” While I clearly understand your point and wrestled with that in the writing process, I thought it important to affirm that Jesus actually died before being resurrected.

  • Steven Tryon says:

    The amazon link is missing the initial ‘a’. Otherwise correct. Duly pre-ordered.

  • Mary Swier Bolhuis says:

    What you did for the man alone in mourning reminds me somewhat of the Jewish ritual called “sit shiva”. It begins after the burial of a close family member and consists of friends quietly sitting with the family. There is a somewhat lengthy list of things that may happen during this time which lasts 7 days, but it chiefly involves being present, giving silent comfort.

  • Mark S. Hiskes says:

    Beautifully put, Jeff–as is the book. What a gift this book is.