Polishing God's Monuments was an unexpected surprise. A book that arrived (as do so many others) without any fanfare, I quickly skimmed the four endorsements and paused only when I saw Bruce Ware's name and his claim that this title is "so gripping and moving and inspiring that one cannot put the book down." Based on my respect for Bruce Ware, on the enthusiasm of his endorsement and on the track record of the publisher, Shepherd Press, I decided I should at least give the book a try. Am I ever glad I did!
Polishing God's Monuments is the story of a young woman and her devoted husband who have faced a lifetime of mysterious, devastating illness. Written by Jim Andrews, the young woman's father, the book intersperses narrative with teaching, experience with theology.
When she was young, just a senior at Wheaton Conservatory of Music, Juli Andrews contracted mononucleosis. Though mono is not usually a devastating or long-lasting illness, in Juli's case it set in motion a bizarre series of events that culminated in her being diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (now referred to as Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome) and eventually a horrifying accompanying disease known as Multiple Chemical Sensitivities. This is an affliction that causes some patients, and Juli among them, to become extremely sensitive to chemicals that do not bother most other people. Paul, Juli's husband, contracted mononucleosis and then CFS at around the same time as his new wife. The young family was devastated.
Juli's condition left her in terrible condition, unable to care for herself and often unable to do even the simplest things. Her chemical sensitivities rendered her unable to handle even the fainest smell of perfume or the chemicals used in inks and fabrics. Eventually she even developed extreme sensitivity to light, to the chlorine in water and even to the presence of electricity, leaving her lying day after day in the cold and the dark. Her disease left her unable to live even a semblance of a normal life for year after year. But through it all her husband tended to her, cared for her, and searched far and wide for something, anything, that might alleviate her condition.
This is the story Andrews tells in this book. A pastor for the last seventeen years and a seminary professor before that, the bulk of the narrative comes in the form of letters he wrote to his congregation to keep them updated on the drama of Juli's life. But woven between these touching letters is straightforward theology--biblical reflections on the nature of suffering, the character of God, and the important discipline of looking to what God has done in the past to remind us of His faithfulness in the present and the future. That discipline, which Andrews refers to as "Polishing God's Monuments," gives title to the book.
Andrews writes about suffering from the perspective of one who has seen suffering in a close and personal way and one who has suffered by watching and participating in the afflictions of the ones he loves. He writes well and in a way that equally affects the heart and the mind. The following is drawn from the web site of Lake Bible Church where Andrews is pastor:
"Though some think of Jim as a cerebral preacher, he is not your typical academic. True to his down-to-earth "country roots," he comes to the pulpit with a dead-on, look-you-in-the-eye, tell-it-like-it is prophetic style that never hesitates to go toe-to-toe with the conscience. As he himself describes his preaching philosophy, he strives in the pulpit "to herd biblical truth and the issues of life into violent collision at the intersections of the mind and heart." Jim models that old adage that sees the preacher's job as "comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable." He candidly explains that his ministry is not for "navel gazers, but for star gazers.""
Those collisions between truth and life at the intersections of the mind and heart are evident throughout the book. He constantly shows how truth must prevail even when it seems impossible. And he writes the book in such a way that it must bring comfort to those who are suffering while at the same time afflicting the hearts and consciences of those who are far too comfortable.
As long as the Lord tarries we will all suffer. Whether we suffer through disease or persecution or just the difficult situations that come with this life, suffering is inevitable and unavoidable. Though we do all we can to alleviate and avoid it, we know it is always lurking, always waiting to show it's ugly face. It does us good to be prepared and to arm ourselves in advance with good theology regarding sin, suffering and the sovereignty of God. Though our doctrine will always be perfected in the midst of the battle, it is nevertheless wise to be prepared. This book brought me face-to-face with the sovereignty of God not despite suffering, but in the very midst of heart-rending suffering, arming me for the suffering that I know must come. I learned from the faith of this family that God has allowed to suffer--I learned that God is faithful to His promises, that He is sovereign, that He is sufficient, and that He can bring joy through even the greatest pain.
There are at least two potential dangers in writing a book in this format, alternating between narrative and theology. The first is that the story may so overshadow the teaching that the teaching gets lost in the narrative. Alternatively, the teaching can so overshadow the story that the narrative seems to be little more than a desperate attempt to lend credibility to what is taught. Andrews strikes a near-perfect balance between these, using the narrative to springboard useful, biblical discussion of serious issues.
As I closed the cover on this book, 294 pages (yet only one day) after beginning, it struck me that this is undoubtedly one of the best books I've read so far this year. I skimmed back through my files to see how many other books I've read in 2007 and can see that it is at least sixty or seventy. So it's no small thing to realize that this is one of the best. I simply can't recommend Polishing God's Monuments too highly. I wholeheartedly agree with Bruce Ware who writes, "To enter into this theological reflection on suffering is to accept the challenge to grow deeply in Christ, and to cherish the sure and certain promise of the gospel." This book gripped my heart and helped me cherish the promises of the gospel like few books I've read recently. I commend it to you, trusting you will benefit from it as I have. Perhaps the greatest tribute I can render Polishing God's Monuments is this: I read almost 300 pages about suffering and pain, yet closed the book with tears of joy in my eyes, rejoicing at the greatness of our sovereign and gracious God.