My friend Mike Stavlund is a remarkable guy. He leads Common Table, an emerging church in Washington DC that has as its members a good number of people I quite adore. He teaches at Wesley Theological Seminary. He writes at his blog and at Patheos and at The Hardest Question. He is very, very serious about barbecue. And though I’ve never partaken of his pork shoulder or other such delicacies, let me tell you: the word on the street is that this guy knows his business. Mike is an involved dad whose love for his daughters and his wife shines through his eyes like stars. He is a poet who can write beautiful words and not be remotely, not even one bit, not even for a second, hoity-toity about any of it. It’s just not in him at all. (He’s from the midwest.) This somehow makes his poetry soar that much higher, because you don’t have to block out the poet; you just take the whole thing, poet and poem, in one delightful gulp. He is also annoyingly handy- as in, he can literally build anything. And fix most things. He would get very high ratings for his life skills in a post-apocalyptic world crisis scenario, is what I’m saying. Mike could single-handedly get us back on track with his gardening and his handyness and his rousing poetry for our needy souls.
He also wrote what I sincerely believe to be the single best memoir on grief from a Christian perspective. Literally the very best one. It’s called A Force of Will. If you only ever have ONE book that is on your shelf for you or for anyone you know during a time of grief, you absolutely should get this one. You should get five, really, just to have a few on hand for people who will need them. Why is this the best book?
Well, it’s a memoir. It’s not a theological or philosophical discussion. It’s not a self-help program. It’s a companion, which is the thing you need most in times of grief. Mike and Stacy lost their beautiful and strong son Will when he was four months old. Mike wrote this book as part of his grieving process, and also because he was handed a whole bunch of grief books that were entirely unhelpful and he wanted to pass on what he would have wanted someone to say to him.
The book is breathtakingly vulnerable. It will tear you to pieces on the inside, it’s so vulnerable. One of the things I love about Mike is that he isn’t a blinker. He doesn’t blink his eyes. He doesn’t shift around if things get uncomfortable, or retreat into conversation about the weather. He just looks straight at you and asks how you are and you know you can skip all the intro stuff and just go there. He will tell you if he is having a bad day. He isn’t a blinker. And that comes out in everything he writes. He doesn’t flinch in saying all the most difficult things. And I think that is such a freeing thing for people in grief, because often you feel stuck in a world of tip-toe-ers. And that can feel so lonely, like the wrong kind of quiet, and so disingenuous, and as if everyone is discounting or not paying attention to the fact that your world is unraveling. Mike couldn’t do that if you paid him a million dollars. He’s not a blinker. He goes there, and he tells you every single thing he felt and all the ways he still grieves, and it creates room for you to join him there, if you need to. I would like to learn how to be more like my friend Mike in this regard.
Because the single biggest thing people need in grief is solidarity, or empathy, a kind of I’m-here-with-you-ness. And the way Mike walks the reader through his own grief is like a gracious companion who really understands. And it feels just like that- like graciousness. It’s like communion and community in a book.
Also, Mike has this ability to talk with hope about his faith while still being entirely removed from any BS factor. (Again, he couldn’t fake that if he tried.) His faith is strong and centered and real, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have some dark night of the soul moments, and that doesn’t mean he still doesn’t. And anyone who grieves and tells you differently is either lying or out of touch with themselves. And in his openness, we see him struggle with normal human emotions like selfishness and resentment and envy and anger. And we see him move always back to love, to a God who suffers alongside us. And that, too, is what we need to know most in our grief. Not God the powerful, not God the triumphant, but God the sufferer. That God is revealed in this book’s pages–and that is probably Mike’s best gift to us all.