Beautiful and Terrible Things: A Christian Struggle with Suffering, Grief, and Hope

Christian M.M. Brady
Westminster John Knox Press, 175 pages
Reviewed by Brian L. Cole

“This book is my lament.” Near the very end of “Beautiful and Terrible Things,” Christian Brady offers this confession to the reader of this profound reflection on unspeakable grief and how Christian hope persists. I came to the book with some awareness that Brady, both a university academic and an Episcopal priest, had a young son die from sepsis. I was prepared to hear how Christian and his wife, Elizabeth, and their daughter lived through Mack’s death and, hopefully, survived and flourished. However, this book is so much more than the story of the Brady family. Through Brady’s story, we are witnesses to a comprehensive theological reflection on suffering, grief and hope. It is a lament that moves both Brady and his readers to praise and hope, while rooted in the world where unexplained suffering visits the innocent and undeserving.

The title of the book comes from a Frederick Buechner quote where his definition of grace includes “beautiful and terrible things will happen.” For Brady, this is a more graceful way of saying, “It is what it is.” In our lived experience in the world, regardless of our Christian faith, things will happen in our life where no tidy reason will suffice. The cancer that took your aunt’s life is not because of your uncle’s sin. The job loss was not because God wanted you to slow down. Beautiful and terrible things will happen.

What Brady does so well in this slim volume is find a way for the givenness of suffering in the world to, somehow, be a reason for faith, hope and love to grow in the Christian community instead of being overwhelmed when the unspeakable occurs. We inhabit a world both where God loves all and we suffer. Through careful reading of Scripture, reflections on his own grief and a particularly timely examination of the Mother Emanuel AME Church massacre, Brady shows us a compelling view of the Christian story where Good Friday and Holy Saturday show up in all of our lives — and linger before the meaning and purpose of a lasting Easter joy arrives.

Unlike other books on suffering and the Christian life, Brady goes further than saying God does not desire our suffering; he also stresses the need to consider the power of meaning-making and purpose in how we interpret the sufferings we all will endure in time. This additional work suggests that this is a book worth reading and rereading over time as all of us move through our own suffering or walk with others who are still early in their grief.

Each chapter of the book ends with a fitting prayer from the Book of Common Prayer. The prayers, along with helpful questions for individual reflection or group discussions, give this book a sense of being a mature devotional guide for the long-haul work of Christian faith that has been deeply touched by the world’s suffering.

Brady and his wife wanted to make sure that Mack’s life, cut tragically short, would be remembered. In writing such a careful and clear reflection on where God abides in the midst of suffering and grief, Brady has added to the number of those whose lives will now be blessed by Mack’s.

Brian L. Cole is 5th Bishop of The Episcopal Diocese of East Tennessee.