I have been reading Tony Woodlief for some time. First at this blog, Sand in the Gears, and then in places like the Wall Street Journal, World Magazine and National Review Online.
So when his book, Somewhere More Holy: Stories from a Bewildered Father, Stumbling Husband, Reluctant Handyman, and Prodigal Son, was released I quickly added it to the TBR pile. As usual these days, it took me a little longer than expected to get around to reading it. But as I expected, it turned out to be a powerful read.
A snippet from the publisher’s blurb:
Acclaimed columnist Tony Woodlief pens the poignant and powerful story of his search for meaning in the midst of tragedy. When he and his wife lost their adored little girl, his trust in God turned to bitter anger. As he and his wife struggled to save their marriage and his faith, they discovered that home is more than just rooms and a roof. Home is a place where people are sometimes wounded or betrayed. Home is also where God is strong in the broken places.
Tony is the kind of writer I enjoy: honest, intelligent and always interesting. I don’t always agree with him but I almost always come away appreciating his perspective. He has a sense of humor and an awareness of his own limitations that I find refreshing.
Andre Malraux wrote of Whitaker Chambers that he “had not come back from hell empty-handed.” I think the same can be said of Woodlief.
For more on why, see below.
Tony has gone through the worst nightmare of every parent: the death of a child. And he passed through this trial not in a flash of a moment type accident but rather through the slow painful process of watching her suffer and pass away in his own house as he watched helplessly.
Something like this sends waves crashing through your life and few are those who can escape the devastation. And Tony is brutally honest about this. He admits it challenged his faith to its core. He relates how it impacted his marriage and nearly – along with his own behavior – destroyed it.
Tony doesn’t offer pat answers and easy theology; nor does he sugar coat things. Instead, he offers honest descriptions and his fragile efforts to piece life back together.
But this is not simply a story of tragedy and redemption. The book wraps this element of the story into a larger theme: that our homes are holy places and that living as part of a family is both an act of worship and a reflection of our relationship with God. This is not done via theological ruminations (although there are a few moments) but rather through anecdotes and experiences.
Neither Tony nor his wife Celeste came from what you would call “stable” or well-adjusted two parent homes and they both brought the luggage of these experiences to their marriage and young family. And if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, they faced the tragedy of losing their young daughter.
The world is littered with families destroyed by much less than this. But that is the amazing thing about this story: Tony and Celeste refused to give up on God, themselves or their family.
Tony doesn’t pull any punches. He honestly relates his struggles of faith in the aftermath of his daughter’s death – and tries to both puncture the too often offered cliches and Sunday School answers and offer what insights he has gleaned. He admits to his selfish actions and the unfaithfulness that nearly destroyed his marriage. He admits to the daily struggles and failures that come with being a husband and father.
But as alluded to above, Tony didn’t come back empty handed. He brought back wisdom, humility and a sense of humor. He gives us a glimpse into how grace and faith can overcome the darkest tragedies and how love can overcome more than you can imagine.
This is not an easy way to learn about what grace and forgiveness really mean when lived out but it is a powerful illustration and reminder.
The result forces the reader to think about the choices they make in life; about the people that are important to them; about refusing pat easy answers and instead choosing to accept mystery and grace.
I don’t want to imply that the book is all tragedy and melancholy. It is not. Much of it is simply humorous exploration of what it means to be a father – to be part of a family trying to build a “home.”
And I should add this caveat: this book will be enjoyable to anyone who appreciates good writing and good stories. But in my opinion it will be much more powerful to those who are married and have children.
So much of what Tony does is relate and highlight the incredibly rewarding and nearly impossible task of being a parent. Tony writes about the emotions – the highs and lows and everything in between – what many don’t talk about but experience every day while trying to raise their children and grow their marriages.
And if you don’t think raising three boys is always one step from the loony bin you haven’t spent enough time with children and have forgotten your own childhood.
Along the way, in both tragedy and humor, Tony sketches out some thoughts about what it means to create a home – a real place of love, freedom and faith – amongst the chaos of life.
It is not hyperbole to say that families are the foundation of society and they are under siege everyday in our culture. Tony has used his own experiences and his skill as a writer to offer encouragement to those of us trying to protect those we love and raise a family.