A Harrowing Hallelujah: An Interview with Author Heather Gilion + Book Giveawayby Chad Thomas Johnston on Jul 26, 2011 • 7:14 pm 16 Comments
Though He slay me, yet I will hope in Him. – Job 13:15
Before I met Heather, I only knew who she was because life’s fatal finger had smeared ashes on her forehead, making her something of a living reminder of the reality of death in this world. I read about her in a newspaper, alongside all the other tragedies one might expect to find there. She and her sister Holly, both of whom were only a few years older than me, had become widows on the same day when their husbands died mysteriously while on a canoe trip together. While this in itself was horrific enough for me to remember, it was their response to the tragedy that struck me dumb. After going through a period of mourning, Heather and Holly defied all expectations and dedicated their lives to ministering in the name of the God who took their husbands from them.
Were Heather and Holly living in denial? Had they repressed the memories of the tragedies that had befallen them? Were they outwardly professing joy to protect their Christians brothers and sisters from their doubts? Or were Heather and Holly simply joyful Christians who could only respond to tragedy by placing their hurting hearts in the hands of the One who had the capacity both to give and to take away? These were things I wondered, and I was fairly certain I was not the only one who saw Heather and Holly as existential enigmas.
I later found myself playing bass in a church band with Heather, and meeting her did nothing to resolve the mystery. I expected to see scars, but more often than not I saw smiles. One thing was for certain: The girl in the newspaper article was real.Years later, as I began preparing my own manuscript for my agent to pitch to prospective publishers, Heather contacted me out of the blue with questions about the publishing industry, as she and her sister had written a book together. I knew right away that I needed to read it.
As we exchanged emails, it dawned on me that I had kept Heather at arm’s length when I had been in the worship band with her because I had not been sure what to make of her. I read Dancing on My Ashes and found it to be something of a harrowing hallelujah. I know now that Heather is among the kindest, most intriguing, and unique people one could ever hope to meet. It may be, in fact, that she is a total weirdo, and I mean that in the best way possible (I consider myself a weirdo, of course.).
Sometime after I left the worship band in the fall of 2004, Heather married Dallas Gilion, who served as a leader of sorts in the band, playing guitar and singing alongside us. Since Dallas is taller than most buildings, I can only imagine that their two boys – pictured below in dapper neckties – will someday dwarf downtown metropolitan structures like their father before them. It is fitting that Heather would marry someone so tall, as she and her sister Holly have both lived unusually large lives – full lives, like the heroes and heroines of the Bible.
I promised Heather I would interview her for my blog several months ago, as I thought my readers would find her story compelling much as I did. Without further ado, here is our exchange:
What kinds of responses have you gotten from your readers thus far? Have you heard from other young widows?
I remember the moment I held the first copy of the book in my hands, and this thought crushed my giddiness: “Who in the world is going to want to read this?” Yes, Holly and I had a “unique story,” but there are lots of people with heart-wrenching stories out there, and here was ours in black and white. I resolved my fears and let go of my expectations in that moment, vowing that no matter if we sold 10 or 10,000, that wasn’t the point of it all. If one person was better for reading it, if it was a piece of someone’s puzzle that God wanted to use in their darkest hour, or if it could bring hope to the hopeless, or serve as an awakening to the apathetic, then it was all worth it!
Holly and I both have received hundreds of messages, emails, and letters by snail mail from readers that have been moved to share with us what they have gained from reading the book. Hearing from others doesn’t get old, let me tell ‘ya. It’s completely humbling to be a part of the way God loves people. The book is not just for young widows, but when it does find its way into their hands and we get to connect with them specifically, it is an extra sweet blessing for us personally. Over this past year we’ve been connected with a number of widows of all ages and at various places in their own grieving processes, and our conversations are usually filled with tears, laughter, tears while laughing, and a lot of head-nodding because we understand one another in a very deep way. A friend of a friend from college heard about the book while in the throes of watching her husband battle cancer. She and her husband have four kiddos. We both knew it was not by chance that she ran across an article about our book. She finished the book not long before her husband passed away. She described to me how, through tears, she and her husband felt “ready” for the next leg of the journey. She said in a way, she felt like she was supposed to read our book to prepare for the road ahead. I know Holly and I were given many books after we lost our dad and our husbands.
Oh, that’s right. You lost your father, too.
People didn’t know what to say to us, so they said, “Here’s a book!” (Laughs.) I should say, there were some books among the piles that really did encourage my heart, and there were others that just annoyed me. But we hope that our book finds its way into the hands of those who are hurting. (Hopefully, it won’t be one of the annoying ones in the pile! *Wink*)
Upon reading your book, I found myself thinking that you and your family were like transplants from the Biblical era to the modern world. Your book contains stories of answered prayers, miracles, and a general sense that God is somehow intimately involved in your lives in a way that defies dismissal. Do you feel anything like a kinship with the people whose stories were chronicled in the Bible?
Of course every time I lace up my sandals and slip on my tunic, I think, “Mary would be proud.” (Just had to say what I was picturing when I read your question.) If you mean there are similarities because we are a bunch of messed up individuals that run to God, run from God, run to Him again, love other things too much, witness His nearness and love all because of grace, and are forever changed because of it … then I would say, “Yes.” Sometimes it’s like looking in the mirror.
It’s refreshing that the Bible is full of misfits and sinners. I don’t know how long I believed that, because of all my faults and shortcomings, I wasn’t worthy of God’s love – that I wasn’t worthy of being a part of His grand story. But that’s the beauty in Scripture. With every page turn, you read these stories that pull you in, speak to your existence and make you realize we are all just a bunch of sinners in need of something … Someone … bigger than ourselves who can invade our weary days and bring about real life!
My mom, Holly, and I feel a real connection with the book of Ruth. Where else would you find a story about three widows living under one roof? Talk about an extreme coincidence!
The title of your book is Dancing on My Ashes and, as I read the book, I could not help but think how much you and your sister have in common with Job. Your story is one of loss, but also of great gain. In the face of loss, many people become bitter toward God, but you and your sister became closer to the One who took your husbands away. Do you relate to the story of Job?
Also, is your reading audience ever incredulous about the way this great tragedy brought you closer to God? I think it’s an amazing story precisely because it is so remarkable and – I suspect to many readers, somewhat counterintuitive – that you would turn to God precisely when He has “slain” you (to quote Job).
There’s a chapter in the book in which I confront my fear of dreaming again. Job was the book the Lord used over and over in my life to speak not only about my loss, but also about who He is and how I should view Him … and then it was a call to dream again. To be honest, Job was a hard book for me to swallow. If you were to glance through my Bible, you would see some areas of Job heavily highlighted. And if you look real close, you might even notice some pages crumpled and tear-stained. Our subtitle, “Learning to love the One who gives and takes away” is taken in part from a verse in Job.
I wouldn’t say that I suffered to the degree Job suffered, but it was definitely a book in the Bible that allowed me to see that I wasn’t alone in my questions and in my despair. Ultimately, Job reveals who God is and where He is when my world falls apart. He’s not out to get me but, at the same time, He’s a sovereign God who does as He pleases. Sometimes the “as He pleases” is what we struggle to wrap our brains around.
We are always meeting others who say, “I just don’t know what I would do if faced with such loss.” Or some just shake their heads, as if to say, “I couldn’t and wouldn’t do that.” Which obviously makes me sad because I’ve been on both paths. I spent a season mad at God, ready to walk away from everything I believed. I felt that not only had God let me down, but He had also left me for dead, and He was not to be trusted. Bitter, angry, and ugly … that’s how I would describe myself at that time. The short of it is, I wrestled with God and He won. He won my heart.
So, when I travel and speak, I see it in their eyes; they are at that crisis of belief that I understand all too well. They don’t have to have lost their spouse or their child or their job, but here they are, disenchanted with God and struggling with whether or not God truly should be Lord of their lives. It’s a no-brainer decision for some. My sister Holly would be one of those people. There was no other choice for her. For others, the tug-of-war rages for quite some time. I’ve had people say, “I’m happy for you, but I just can’t run to Him like you’ve described.” I’m glad they are being honest with me, but my heart breaks because I know the road they journey down will only bring more frustration and heartache.
I read Jon Krakauer’s book Under the Banner of Heaven a few years ago, and it tells the true story of two fundamentalist Mormon brothers who kill a woman and her baby, believing God told them to carry out these heinous acts. Throughout your book, you write of God speaking to you. Your sister even has an experience that mirrors the Biblical calling of Samuel by God – she hears Him calling her name in the night, goes to your father, believing he has been calling her name, and finds that he has not. This happens again, and your father tells her it is God who is calling her.
That being said, I have a few questions for you: Have people voiced skepticism to you regarding stories such as these, citing incidences like the one chronicled in Krakauer’s book as evidence that many people claim to hear from God? If you could say anything to a skeptical public about this aspect of your book, what would it be? Finally, what does it actually mean to “hear God speak,” and how should Christians talk about it when it comes to an unbelieving public?
Hmmmm … Interesting question. Not sure if I’ll be able to answer it briefly, but I’ll try. I’m sure there are those that quietly wonder if God is indeed real, and if I really have “heard” from Him. That’s fair. There have been many times I have heard others say they’ve “heard” from God and I haven’t believed them. It’s usually because what they’ve “heard” goes against God’s character, or it seems as though it might be more about pushing an agenda than anything else. So I’ve been the skeptic. I can only share my relationship with God with as much honesty as I can, using words that fail me and don’t even come close to capturing His otherness. A voice that, to me, has never been audible, but has been real just the same. A voice that echoes in the depths of my being and usually doesn’t make me happy, but makes me whole. A voice that brings revelation not focused on future or physical blessings, but of my depravity colliding with His love, which in turn is a real blessing.
After someone reads our book, I’m not usually defending whether or not I’ve heard from God. I’m usually faced with the many people that struggle with longing to hear from God. “Why won’t He tell me what He wants me to do?” “Why can’t I hear His voice?” The great thing about God is that He is relational. Even if you look at the Trinity – three in one – you see community. He invites us into this community, to know Him and be known by Him. He longs to speak to us through creation, in His Word, through others (His creations), prayer (conversations with Him), and through His Spirit, which lives in those that love and follow Him. So, yes, I hear this still, small voice as it echoes within my heart. Sometimes I miss what He’s saying. There are other times I haven’t wanted to hear what He has to say. But when I listen, I’m better for it.
It’s unfortunate that we have all heard stories like you mentioned. I hate when God gets a bad rap for something that’s not His doing. When you get into matters of “faith” and “hearing from God,” some people become cynics and skeptics because it’s not something concrete, and that frustrates them. They don’t want to simply believe that God is who He is and that He loves them the way He does – that’s too abstract for them. Obviously, it’s easier to believe in something you can hold in your hands. Tangible proof is a glorious thing, no doubt. For those that make a decision to follow Christ, would it feel more real if they received some kind of certificate in the mail stating, “You are now a Christ follower”? Would that make them feel more secure? If that’s the case, I could start an online, not-for-much-profit assurance company that provided a “Saving Certificate.” But I fear that wouldn’t help either. Did I just get that concept from a scene from Tommy Boy? I think, yes.
Wow. That’s deep. Like a bathtub. Or a pickle jar lid. (I kid.) (That rhymed!)
Sarcasm aside, hearing from God usually causes equal frustration. But it’s probably because believers have used God’s voice as a trump card. Too many times I’ve heard, “Well, God told me to” or “not to” as a way of doing what they want to do. And then who can debate them if “God said”? I think I broke up with a boy in college because “God told me to.” I thought it might help me let him down easier. And, hey, “Sorry, take it up with God if you don’t like it.” We are a flawed people that love to run away with our feelings, and sometimes I think we want to hear what we want to hear and we make God into this wishy-washy, say-what-we-want-to-hear kind of God. His voice will never lead you to sin; it will always be in line with His character and with His ultimate agenda … which is for His glory and your good.
You talk in your book about experiencing something like a calling to write. Are you writing anything at the moment? If so, what is it? Or is it Top Secret for now?
I am writing. I won’t say exactly what I’m writing at the moment, because I’m still trying to wrap my brain around it. But what I will share is this quote from Anais Nin:“If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it.”
Writing is now just something I do, a way I worship my God. It’s one way I process life: my beliefs, struggles, failures, joys, questions, and revelations. And I understand more than ever that it’s not just for me, it’s to share with others. I’m looking forward to more time to write and then, when the time’s right, I hope to share it with others.
I know you and your sister frequently speak in public, sharing your unique stories with all who will hear. Do you ever find new nuances in your story as you retread old ground in this manner? Conversely, do you ever find it difficult to share such a painful but powerful story over and over? Maybe another related question is – does the power of the story ever dim or numb-out as you tell it over and over again, or does it retain its vitality and remain evergreen with the passage of time?
We’ve shared our story for the last 11 years and I don’t think there has been a time that, in the telling, there weren’t tears shed. It is painful to remember, but there is purpose in the remembering. If I’m constantly remembering, then I’m never forgetting. And I’ve come to see that the real tragedy would be to forget. To forget all the ways in which God has loved, carried, and fought for me as I’ve traveled this road of loss and healing would make the road all for naught. I’ll be honest – there have been times I’ve cried out to the Lord and said, “I can’t do this anymore! I can’t tell this story one more time.” My heart at times fears it won’t be able to relive the devastation of those dark nights. But even though there are usually tears as I tell my story, on my end and from those that listen, there are also tears of great celebration over the joy that comes in the morning. I’m not the same gal I was a decade ago. Death, grace, and living life with your eyes open changes you.
My favorite thing about your book is your candor and the almost childlike way in which you respond to the events in your life. Even though there is a certain initial melancholy in your response to things in your life throughout the book, you always seem to return to a bedrock belief in God. How would you describe yourself if pressed to do so (and I am pressing you to do so)?
I don’t know … I’m just a girl trying to figure out how to live in this crazy world. By reading this you might gather that I’m in love with my God. Most of what I do, how I do it, and why I do what I do revolves around pleasing Him. I get it wrong many days, but I strive to get it right. Some other things people should know about me: I love Fruit Loops. I’d drink Dr. Pepper if I wasn’t in my mid 30s. I love being a mom to my two wild boys. I can’t touch my toes or swim. I’m gaga for music (not really a fan of Lady Gaga – she might have a few songs that are fun to run to, but I’m talking about music in general). I love to sing. I’m married to the cutest guy in the world (and I am not trying to diss you, Chad, but I fear I am) and he completes me. Man, that should be in a movie. As you can tell, I’m a mess. The end.
Has your husband Dallas grown any taller since the last time I saw him? Because the church was talking about raising the ceiling in the sanctuary just so he could stand up straight …
If anything he’s probably shrunk a little. Isn’t that what happens after you hit 35?
I don’t know. I’m not there yet. I turn 33 in September. Give me time to shrink, Heather. Be patient with me.
Contact Heather at:
In the comments box below, tell us why you want a copy of Heather’s book. Whoever wants it the most – and Heather will be the one judging the comments – will win a copy of it. That’s right. I am Oprah, and Heather’s book is the car I am giving away. I dare you to drive it on the Interstate, people.
You have until August 29th to submit your comment. May the one who wants the book the most win!