Between Heaven and the Real World [Book Review]

How has 2017 been for you? At the end of last year I was surprised to see so many of my Facebook friends share that 2016 had been one of the hardest for them. There was a familiar theme with these end of year posts: 2016 had been especially hard in one way or another.

For me, 2017 has been one of the hardest emotionally and spiritually. I’ve been through a difficult season of spiritual dryness, the challenges of fathering three young children and working on marriage was a challenge I constantly felt I was failing, the church I co-pastor was growing and the added stress of overseeing so many ministries and leaders was wearing me down, and I just felt tired all round.

To help out of this difficult season I began reading biographies. I started with reformers like William Tyndale, Nicolas Ridley, and John Calvin. And then a few months ago I saw that the biography of my personal favourite Christian artist – Steven Curtis Chapman – had been released and I finally finished it over these holidays.

For those who don’t know, Steven is a songwriter and performer of contemporary Christian music, has released over 20 albums, won 5 Grammy Awards, and 58 Gospel Music Association Dove Awards (more than any other artist in history). He has sold over 10 million albums, and has 10 certified Gold and Platinum albums.

I became a Christian in 2001 and was shortly afterwards introduced to the music of Steven Curtis Chapman. His music has remained a staple in my personal listening ever since. His music and lyrics have always come at timely points in life. I’ve played and sung ‘I Will Be Here’ at multiple weddings for friends, and to my own resplendent bride I sang Steven’s song ‘We Will Dance’. In times of hardship and lowliness to mountain highs and joy Steven’s songs have been with me to encourage and articulate my emotions, feelings, and faith.

But the book itself doesn’t need for you to be a fan, though I think it certainly helps – especially in quite a few places Steven retells his story in a way as though he was writing the lyric to a particular song. And in a few instances his life story helped inspire those songs.

In short though, having read this biography, I have been immensely encouraged to keep persevering in my faith and keep pressing forward to the Day when we SEE that it was all true.

The book itself can be roughly divided into three parts.

The first part deals with Steven’s childhood, upbringing, and entry into the music world. To be honest I had to wrestle with this part of the book as unfamiliar names and places and references just piled up. There are some sweet moments, and his relationship with his own father certainly shaped not only his personality (especially his ‘Mr Fix It’ personality), but also his parenting for the future. Thematically there are some important themes of Steven’s life which are brought up in this first part and trace themselves through the rest of the book. And even though this was the least familiar part of the biography for me, I persisted because I knew what would happen in part three, and I wanted to push through to that.

The second part details Steven’s rise to music stardom, marriage and family joys (and woes), and culminates in the adoption stories of his three girls – Shaohannah Hope, Stevie Joy, and Maria Sue – from China.

This part of the book really begins to pick up. Now the music and albums I am familiar with is being spoken of and stories are being shared about their creation. All fascinating for the fan. And the stories of his children, especially his adopted girls, are tender and lovely. Stories of how Maria would lose dots on a ladybug chart for poor behaviour, and the way that Steven would have to lovingly discipline her are heart-warming. But knowing that the song ‘Cinderella’ was inspired by Maria makes what happens next all the more profoundly tragic.

The third part of the book opens with the accident. Maria’s accidental death when she was run over in the family drive way by her older brother Will. Grief and the process of moving through it and finding some healing take up the remainder of the book. If you haven’t gotten a box of tissues already then you will most certainly need it here.

Overall three major themes in the book struck me clearly and encouraged me deeply.

The first was the humility of Steven. Humility in recognising that as his musical career was beginning to take off that the impact it had on his marriage was intense. Recognising this, and humbly questioning whether he should drop it all and get a ‘regular job’ to provide the sort of predictable life that his wife, Mary Beth, had always hoped for. Humility in recognising that even though he had written the song ‘I Will Be Here’ that his own marriage was not bullet proof – and they would wrestle with these challenges for a long time.

Humility is also wonderfully on display in a story I didn’t previously know. First, Steven constantly doubted his singing ability, and when it seemed to be affirmed with worldly success he doubted his motivations in performing. There is an earnest, and wonderfully encouraging, desire that his music lift up Jesus and not Steven. And in the kindness and goodness of God, this desire has been met with the help of loving Christian mentors and his family – especially his wife, whom he writes ‘remained unimpressed with my celebrity’!

The second theme that runs through the entire book are the prayers of Steven. His prayers are short, simple, and powerfully and refreshingly honest and open. He prays about his weaknesses and fears. The most heart wrenching prayers come when he stands at the deathbed of his daughter Maria, pleading with God to raise her and bring her back – like he did with Jesus before. And his desperate prayers continue as he wrestles with how to live without her, and how to lead his grieving family through this as well. His prayers have encouraged my own – if only that I should pray more and just be honest with my struggles through them.

Finally the key theme that shines most strongly in the final part of the book is hope. What conceivable hope could there be after the loss of a child? Steven and his family wrestle with this – they are not superheros who simply trust and declare the sovereignty of God, it took them quite some time to get there. But once they did, even though they grieve (and still do), hope in the future resurrection and new heaven became their anchor. Steven writes,

“Of course, we still have plenty of days when the weight of grief comes and knocks the breath out of us again. Tears come freely without warning or even any explanation. We know there’s a day coming when every tear will be wiped from our eyes – just not yet.

We understand that we really are in between heaven and the real world, living day to day with the sure hope of heaven before us. And we also know how important it is for us to show up in the here and now, where God has us today. This life is so short, and there is much good to be done and much love to be shown in these few days we have on this side of the veil.

So we make it out prayer to live with our eyes wide open to SEE what’s right in front of us and with our eyes looking forward in anticipation of SEEING Jesus and Maria – with all her ladybug dots glued on for good!”

This book is a refreshing, honest, and authentic journey of someone trying to live out their faith in Jesus Christ. He’s no awesomely powerful Christian, but his life to date shows what trusting in an awesomely powerful Saviour might look like: a journey with hills and valleys sometimes much steeper and deeper than you would think, and yet knowing we’re going to make it and get there through trusting our Saviour Jesus. Sometimes the journey between the real world and heaven is longer than we expect.