say it (again): a review of “a force of will”


I know I said this a review of Mike Stavlund’s book, A Force of Will: The Reshaping of Faith in a Year of Grief, but I’m going to start by talking about why Patty Griffin is a great songwriter. Trust me: they’re connected. I finished the book last week aFOW_NewSparrowsnd was so moved and challenged by what I read that I when I sat down to write about it I came up with more angles than a high school geometry class. It wasn’t until I was riding home from the Patty Griffin concert at the Haw River  Ballroom last night that I found a way to funnel my thoughts and feelings into something that didn’t look like a second grade finger painting project.

One of the songs she didn’t sing last night is “Rowing Song” from her record called “Impossible Dream.” What kills me about the song is its profound simplicity. The first verse begins,

as I row, row, row
going so slow, slow, slow
just down below me is the old sea
just down below me is the old sea

On paper, the words don’t look so different from, “row, row, row your boat gently down the stream,” but she keeps going . . .

nobody knows, knows, knows
so many things, things, so
so out of range
sometimes so strange
sometimes so sweet
sometimes so lonely

and then comes the lines that still leave me breathless:

the further I go
more letters from home never arrive

In ten ordinary words — none with more than two syllables — she breaks your heart and then concludes,

and I’m alone
all of the way
all of the way
alone and alive

And that’s just the first verse. I could go through the rest of the song and much of her catalog and show you time after time where she takes words we know and offers new dimensions of resonance and in a well-crafted turns of phrase. The more I listen to her, the more I am called to remember it is better to say something true than to try and say something new. I realized as I rode home last night that Mike had done the same thing in his book, which describes the year or so following the death of his child, Will, who was a twin and was born with heart issues and a cleft palate and died a few months after he was born. (Wow — that’s way too brief a description for all the family went through, but I hope he will understand.) Though their situation is not something most of us have to live through, he describes feelings that go back as far as Rachel weeping for her children (Jeremiah 31:15) and beyond. And like the stream of humanity before him, he worked to make meaning out of faith and life in the face of almost indescribable loss.

I wasn’t thirty pages into the book when I found myself moved by his words, much like I continue to be caught by the first verse of “Rowing Song.” He was talking about the “palliative repairs” the doctors had to do for Will: “a repair designed to work well enough, and for long enough, to get the patient to the next point in his or her treatment.” (25) As he describes what was happening to his little boy he says, “I think faith is palliative, too” (26) and then elaborates:

Like a writer’s drafts, or a backpacker’s tent, or a scientist’s hypothesis, or a gardener’s weeding, or a parent’s relationship with a child, our present faith only needs to work for its appointed time and should in fact be flexible, temporary, and transitory. We shape it as best we can and then let it be shaped by God, ourselves, and our community. Maybe faith is only and ever palliative, intended to start us on a journey of eternal collaboration with our Maker. (29)

I was sitting in my favorite coffee shop when I first read the passage and said, “Yes!” loud enough to make two or three people look up. I felt both resonance and gratitude. Resonance in being reminded that faith is fundamentally relational rather than propositional and gratitude for his courage to answer the call Shakespeare extends in the closing lines of King Lear:

The weight of this sad time we must obey.
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. (V.3.342-43)

From my own experience with depression and the deaths of my father-in-law, Reuben, and my dear friend, David Gentiles, I understand that grief pulls us into ourselves, even to the point of self-absorption. Even Jesus cried from the cross, “Why have you forsaken me?” What faith brings to the mix is a path that transforms the journey inward into one of connectedness. Grief, loss, death, uncertainty, and even loneliness are essential strands in the fabric of what it means to be human. So Patty sings in the second verse:

you just have to go, go, go
where I don’t know, know, know
this is the thing
somebody told me
a long time ago

Though I don’t know if Patty and Mike have ever met each other, I somehow imagine they have both spent time reading what is one of my favorite books of the Bible: Ecclesiastes. Though we don’t know who wrote the book, we have attached a name, Qoheleth, which is a Latin transliteration of the Greek translation of the Hebrew title of the book (confused yet?); many simply refer to the author as “Preacher.” That name pulls up images from my Southern Baptist roots and I see a weathered and weary soul — in jeans and boots, I suppose — who is pretty beaten up and yet too wise so surrender to cynicism. He’s sitting under an old pecan tree that’s only a few years older than he is and just as weary somewhere in Central Texas on a timeless and torrid August afternoon when he looks up at the less-than-sheltering sky and then at us and says, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” (Ecc. 1:9)

At the top of the back cover of A Force of Will are these words (in capital letters):


Mike doesn’t wrap up all the loose ends any more than Patty Griffin makes everything work out in the last chorus and yet I find in both the same thing that keeps me re-reading Ecclesiastes: an informed hope that knows, as Paul says directly in Romans 8, nothing can separate us from the love of God. Nothing. Period. In that spirit, Mike talks about the “acceptance” phase of grief being, in his experience, perhaps more aptly named “exhaustion.”

Now, this is not the same thing as defeat. In my experience anyway, it is actually energizing and empowering to come to this place of exhaustion — to accept, finally, those things that cannot be changed, and those things that can be redeemed, and those things that lie in the mysterious space between. (211)

At church today we said a hard goodbye to a beloved associate pastor and her family as she moves to the next chapter of her ministry and leaves us to do the same. After we shared Communion we sang,

for the wonders that astound us
for the truth that still confounds us
most of all that love has found us
thanks be to God

Yes. And thanks for those like Mike and Patty who keep calling us to live into that love and reminding us that we do it together.



  1. Will get Mike’s book soon; thanks for the introduction to it.

    Also, I must take exception to your reference to “second grade finger painting project[s]”; as I saw when I did part-time janitorial work at the elementary school, while I was also doing work in the graphic design world — children are frequently brilliant designers and artists. A lot of their stuff was moving and inspirational and simply way better than work that the “professionals” were winning awards for (picture any number of ads or artworks that look painted with mud and old housepaint onto rusty pieces of tin — you get the idea).

    Kidding, a bit. But the children are brilliant.

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