Review: The Gift of Hard Things by Mark Yaconelli

The Yaconelli name is a familiar one to those in youth ministry. Mike Yaconelli was one of the founders of Youth Specialties and a legend in the youth ministry world. His son, Mark, is also a recognized figure in the youth ministry world.

One of my favorite Mark Yaconelli moments occurred at the 2008 National Youth Workers Convention (NYWC). Mark talked about joy and its relationship to darkness. He then told a story about the turmoil of his parents' divorce and how in the midst of it, he attended an awkward junior high dance where no one danced. When the DJ threatened to end the dance early, Mark promised to dance... And he did. So, at the end of his talk, a disco ball appeared and Mark broke out in dance – a perfect illustration of joy. The moment was incredible – one of my all-time favorites at the NYWC. It was also in this moment that I learned what a gifted storyteller Mark is.

Gift Of Hard Things

For this reason, I was excited to read Mark's book, The Gift of Hard Things: Finding Grace in Unexpected Places. To be clear, this book is not a youth ministry book but for those familiar with Mark, it is vintage Yaconelli storytelling. My husband and I actually read it together, a chapter at a time, taking time to savor and reflect both on Mark's stories and their meanings. Each chapter deals with a seemingly negative event – like burnout, disappointment, and difficult people – and unpacks how those things can actually be gifts. For those interested in doing this more formally, each chapter in the book contains a reflection as well as some “actions” to help you put what you've read into practice.

One of my favorite chapters in The Gift of Hard Things: Finding Grace in Unexpected Places was “Initiation: The Gift of Powerlessness”. In this chapter, Mark shares the story of a rite of passage he created for his sons. As a parent, I was captivated by this story and by the idea of creating rites of passage for my daughter. Beyond that, however, I've continued contemplating Mark's conclusion that “I do not have the power to keep my children safe. I do not control their physical, emotional, or spiritual lives. My faith in God does not keep me from tragedy and suffering. My love for God will not keep my children from disease or violence or tragedy. But what I can do, what lives in me deeper than my anxiety and helplessness, is trust.”

Having heard Mark speak on the dark night of the soul before, I also really enjoyed the chapter entitled, “The Dark Night: The Gift of Darkness.” In it, Mark talks about the transformation that occurs during the dark night – a “period in our spiritual journey when God's work in us is obscured, hidden.” He concludes, “The dark night teaches us to trust the hiddenness of God, knowing that our theologies, our practices and even our experiences of God are limiting.”

The Gift of Hard Things: Finding Grace in Unexpected Places is a short book, less than 150 pages even. But don't let that fool you. It's filled with stories, some of which will leave in you tears, others of which will have you howling with laughter, but all of which will enable you to encounter God in the hard things.

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Disclosure: I received a free copy of The Gift of Hard Things: Finding Grace in Unexpected Places in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Jen Bradbury on Youth Ministry

Jen serves as the director of youth ministry at Faith Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. A veteran youth worker, Jen holds an MA in Youth Ministry Leadership from Huntington University. Jen is the author of The Jesus Gap: What Teens Actually Believe about Jesus (The Youth Cartel). Her writing has also appeared in YouthWorker Journal, Immerse, and The Christian Century. When not doing ministry, she and her husband Doug can be found hiking, backpacking, and traveling.

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