There is a disciple few of us know by name. We’re introduced to him in the first chapter of John, and his name is Nathanael. When Philip finds him to tell him about “him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph,” Nathanael is immediately wary. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he asks.
At first glance, we might think that Nathanael’s question reveals him to be a cynic. But cynics don’t follow when they’re invited to “come and see,” as Philip invited Nathanael. And cynics aren’t described as people “in whom there is no deceit,” as Jesus describes Nathanael. No, Nathanael isn’t a cynic. He’s a straight-shooter, a man completely unskilled in the craft of cunning. Nathanael is a man that tells a kind of truth that doesn’t have to qualified and hedged, a truth that is not slick and marketable.
That is also my friend and writer, Marlena Graves, who’s just recently released her first book, A Beautiful Disaster.
I first met Marlena in New York City last November – and immediately liked her. She has this wide-eyed earnestness about her. She asks questions. She likes to listen. Late last fall, both of us had just recently finished the first drafts of our manuscripts, and there I was, all elbows and knees about my writing, preoccupied and self-conscious about its faults. But Marlena was almost breezy when talking about her book. I couldn’t help wondering how she could be so convincingly humble and yet say things like, “I think I’ve written the best book I can, and I’m happy with it.”
But that’s Marlena, at least as I’ve come to know her more online and now through her book. As if to highlight how I've described her, here is one of my favorite lines from her book (from the beginning of Chapter 9, “The God Who Sees Me”):
“I can sometimes be a fine piece of work.”
A Beautiful Disaster: Finding Hope in the Midst of Brokenness is a book that journeys through the wilderness and tries to make sense of pain in the context of faith. As Marlena describes, “I entered the scriptural narrative, and the narrative entered me.” Pulling from the lives of Biblical figures and monastics and adding to that canon her own painful childhood experiences, Marlena writes hopefully about the loss and suffering of the desert.
Deserts bloom, she insists.
There is so much profound beauty and wisdom in Marlena’s book that I simply find it difficult to narrow the scope and pick something to share with you. I want you to read what she says about identity: “If we desire to find out who we are, we have to confess who we have been.” I want you to read what she says about ambition: “Saints are intentional about living a quiet, hidden life. They are not involved in noisy efforts to draw attention to themselves.” I want you to know her sobriety about spiritual transformation: “The process of dying to ourselves takes a lot out of us. We vacillate between putting to death the deeds of the flesh and hanging out to familiar death. . . We don’t like to die even when it’s good for us.” My notes on A Beautiful Disaster are nearly 2,400 words: it's as if in the process of reading, I wanted nothing to slip from notice.
But maybe what I like best about Marlena's book is how she treats the subject of human desire. (That's a curiosity for me.) How do we want in the wilderness? Because the wilderness, of course, is a place for doubting God’s goodness. The sheet metal sky, the aridity, the tyranny of the sun: how can God be good when life is not? Why does he not hear our prayers, answer them, and rescue us immediately from the desert’s misery?
Because the desert teaches us to trust.
“It is we who must learn to receive God’s gifts. Only a soul wide awake, a heart tenderized through suffering and sacrifice while in communion with God, learns to receive with gratitude. God desires that we know him as loving and most generous, always providing for his children and for those who do not even acknowledge him. With the same affection expressed toward the older brother in the story of the prodigal, he beckons us, saying, “Everything I have is yours” (Luke 15:31). . . So much of provision is a matter of seeing. If we could but see."
Because the desert teaches us to die.
“Provision in the wilderness may look like death. In our dying, we are as a single kernel of wheat, buried in the ground, dying, and producing many more kernels. In a mysterious way, and for reasons known only to him, God uses our mortification—the thousand little and spectacular deaths we die in this life—as a means of provision for others. Our deaths to self are a means of grace for others and vice versa.”
Because the desert teaches us to wait.
“Waiting tempers disordered passions and allows us to deal well with reality. We might come to understand that things aren’t as bad as we thought or are far worse than previously imagined; God uses the wait time to develop in us fortitude that keeps us from being destroyed by our circumstances. We realize that we don’t need this or that thing or relationship to be whole, whereas before, when we had what we thought we wanted and weren’t waiting on anything, we never thought we could live without it.”
Because the desert to teaches us to want.
“It’s hard to think of the wilderness as a pruning experience, but at times it is. Pruning is always painful because it involves loss. It can involve loss of good, luxuriant, and fruitful branches in our lives. When God begins to prune these fruitful branches, we seldom recognize it as pruning. We are aghast that God would mess with something so fruitful, something that brings us joy. His actions hardly ever make sense to us at the time. We may even consider the pruning a punishment or a curse. The pruning experience always reminds me that God’s ways are not our ways. I confess that I sometimes wish my ways were his ways. I really do. . .
God is pruning us in order to work all things out for our good and for the good of others. This includes the good of creation, for he is redeeming all things.”
I hope you’ll buy your copy of Marlena Graves’s, A Beautiful Disaster, and find the gospel hope for believing:
"The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; The desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus. It shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing."
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Enter a giveaway (sponsored by Brazos Press) to win Marlena's book!