Trusting God Through Tears: Remembering Sidney Joy (Part 2)

In 2013, Lauren Allen lost her 3-year-old sister Sidney in a tragic accident. In Part II of this article, she shares about some of the people who helped her get through that dark time, and some things you can do to help a grieving friend.

by Lauren Allen

Someone who really helped me hang on to my faith in that area was my former youth pastor, Derek. The way Derek lived, and still lives, his life for Christ never ceases to amaze me. He always took the time to ask me how I was doing. If I was having a bad day, he would drop everything, no matter how busy he was at the moment, just to listen. He wouldn’t ramble on about how “the sun will come up tomorrow” and “life will go on”. He always reminded me that even in hard times, God is still good. He would finish our conversation by praying over me and reminding me that he would continue to pray for me. I truly believe God used Derek in my life to show me how all I had to do was trust God, and everything else would fall into place.

Supporting a Grieving Friend

One thing I was asked to talk about in this article is how you can help a friend or family member who is grieving. To be completely honest, I am still not sure how to answer this question. The answer is different in every situation. The loss of a parent, I’m sure, is much different than the loss of a sibling, or the loss of a friend. Losing someone is different for every person, but pain and loneliness always occur in various ways, shapes, and forms. Some people need a phone call or visitors every day. Others just need to be alone. For me, I just needed someone to listen when I needed to talk. Someone who wasn’t going to try to tell me how everything was going to be OK, and that God had it all under control. I already knew that in my heart, but believe me, I got sick of hearing it. I would say that the best thing you can do for someone who is grieving is to just let them know that you are there for them. Don’t bug them 24/7, but don’t distance yourself from them either, even if they don’t respond to you right away.

It will take some people a long time to respond. It is extremely hard to tell people how you’re feeling; especially when you know they won’t understand. It’s even harder opening up to someone you rarely talked to before your loss. Don’t be offended if someone who is grieving doesn’t open up to you. It’s a hard thing for them to do, and if they aren’t ready, then they aren’t ready. They may never be ready. You can’t expect someone who you’re not close with to just spill all their feelings out to you. Don’t preach to them. Don’t make it about you. Don’t talk nonstop and overwhelm them. Simply sit, listen, and be there for them. Here is a list I found of 17 things to keep in mind when helping someone who is grieving (some of them I’ve already mentioned):

  1. Everyone does not grieve the same way.
  2. Be there. Make them a priority if you really want to help them.
  3. Be silent together. It may feel awkward for you at first but they need it sometimes. Don’t make them feel like it’s their job to keep the conversation going.
  4. Be specific when offering help. They aren’t thinking ahead; they are just trying to get through the day. If you know something needs to be done that you can help do, offer to do that.
  5. Bring food. No, you can’t have enough. It helps feed all their other visitors.
  6. Take initiative in practical things. If you see dishes in the sink, it doesn’t hurt to do them. Little things like that can be a huge help.
  7. Use Bible verses with care. Not all verses about death apply to their situation.
  8. Don’t be offended. Guaranteed, they are not trying to hurt your feelings.
  9. Invite them to do things. Breakfast, lunch, coffee, movies, etc. Wait a while before any big, upbeat gatherings or parties. They won’t feel like “partying” for a while.
  10. Don’t send them a never-ending text they might feel they have to send a long reply to. Just short “thinking about you” texts can put a smile on their face.
  11. Give gift cards. It gives them a reason to go out to dinner or helps them buy stuff they need (example: guests that come to visit use toilet paper…when you have a lot of guests you go through a lot of toilet paper).
  12. Some things don’t need to be said. Think it through before you say it.
  13. Don’t compare grief. Every situation is different.
  14. Run interference for them. If you see someone talking their ears off, politely interrupt if possible.
  15. Remember that this is not about you.
  16. Remember holidays, special days and anniversaries. The simplest things like sending a card, text, or even a quick phone call can let the family know that you’re thinking about them.
  17. Be slow to complain around someone who is grieving.


Be Tactful when Asking Questions

In particular, something I really want to caution you about is asking someone who is grieving “How are you doing?” This was a question I hated answering. It was never going to be the typical answer, “good”, and I felt bad saying that I was “just alright”, but I also wasn’t going to lie and make it seem like life was normal or fine. I was miserable, but no one wanted to hear that. If you are going to really ask someone how they are doing, make sure you are prepared for a real answer, no matter how uncomfortable it may make you feel.  Be sincere when you ask or don’t ask at all. I will say this again, though…they may not open up to you. And that’s OK! At least they will know that you really care about them. That’s all some people need.

Grief Does Not End

Something else to be very careful about is putting a time limit on someone’s grief.  It takes time; so please don’t rush them. I am learning that grief never ends, it just changes. I beg you, PLEASE check yourself and make sure you are not rushing someone through their grief. Don’t push them to get rid of loved ones’ belongings, give them away or even move them. They will do those things when they’re ready. Don’t change the subject when they start talking about their loved one. That’s their way of grieving. Just listen. They need that. Posting pictures on social media, or sending a text saying how much they miss their loved one or how lonely they feel is not a cry for attention. It is their way of reaching out. It takes no more than a minute to send an encouraging reply just to let them know that you are there for them.

Sharing is not a Cry for Attention

A long time ago, I posted a picture of Sidney with the caption, “Feeling so lonely”. One comment suggested that I was posting pictures for attention, and also that I never wanted to hangout when they asked me, although that particular person had never actually reached out to me, either to ask how I was doing or if I wanted some company.  My only intention in posting that picture was to share Sidney’s sweet smile, hoping it would bring a smile to someone else’s face. Suppress the motivation to make someone else’s grief about you. It’s not about you.

Not everything I have written above applies to every person experiencing grief. I cannot speak for anyone else when I write this; I can only speak from my own experience and tell you what has helped me get through this very, very difficult time.

I want to thank all the people that have been there for me and my family and have kept us in their prayers. You have truly been a blessing to us. Thank you to my friends who haven’t left my side through all of this (you know who you are). A special thank you to my best friend Julia. I couldn’t have written this article without her excellent grammar skills and support. And thank you to everyone that took the time to read this. I hope it allows you to help someone you know who is grieving.

    “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death, or mourning, or crying, or pain; for all these things have passed away”.

                                                       Romans 8:18

I also want to thank Lauren for being so open and authentic, and being willing to talk about such a difficult ordeal. Sidney’s life touched many people, even in memorium and Lauren’s story is comforting to others who have lost people dear to them. I believe many of the insights she shared in this piece will encourage others to reach out to the hurting with confidence and compassion. — Marie


Trusting God Through Tears: Remembering Sidney Joy

In July 2013, then-16-year-old Lauren Allen’s life was forever changed when her precious little sister drowned. Her family’s strong faith in God sustained them through the dark days, but grief is a long journey. In this 2-part guest blog, Lauren allows us to know Sidney better, and takes us through her own journey of grief; trusting God again; and re-discovering joy in Him. Lauren is 18 years old and is Manager at Clearview Farm in Sterling, MA.

by Lauren Allen

Sunday, July 14th, 2013 – the first day of vacation.  We had spent so many vacations at the cabin in New Hampshire.  So many good memories were made there …until that day.

It started off just like past “first days” at the cabin.  Mom and Dad were busy cleaning up the outside so we could enjoy the rest of the week.  Maggie, Kelsey, and Sidney were all playing on the dock in their lifejackets, fighting over whose turn it was to use the rope swing.  I remember feeling sick that morning and had trouble sleeping the night before.  I went outside for a few minutes to see what everyone was up to, and then went back upstairs to lie down for a while.

As I went downstairs later, I remember hearing the bathroom door shut.  I looked out the screen door and saw Dad power washing the house, Mom cleaning the gutters, and Maggie and Kelsey on the dock.  But where was Sidney?  I asked Mom and remember her saying, “I think she went inside”.  I did a quick look around the living room but she wasn’t there.  I figured she was either in the part of the yard I couldn’t see from the screen door, or she was playing with the girls.  I looked for her out of the upstairs window but still didn’t see her.  After searching the whole cabin, there was still no sign of her. I remember going out onto the deck and yelling, “Where is Sidney?”

Once we all realized she was missing, everyone began searching and yelling her name.  I remember scanning the lake, looking for a little yellow lifejacket, and thinking ‘She has her lifejacket on; she probably just floated down to the neighbors’, because that would be just like Sidney.  I started looking up by the dirt road and scanning neighbor’s yards and docks. I had walked about 100 yards down the road when I heard my mom scream.

Those 100 yards felt like the longest run in the world.  The next thing I saw left me speechless and afraid…it plays over and over in my head.  I saw my baby sister spread out on the deck of the cabin, my Dad trying to revive her, my Mom with her face to the deck begging God for a miracle, and my two little sisters crying on the steps.  I hugged my sisters as tight as I could and made them look away.  I remember my Dad looking up at me, and in that moment, I knew there was no happy ending to this vacation.

I rushed the girls up to the bedroom, where I shut the door and turned on the TV to try and calm them.  I told them that everything was going to be OK and that the doctors were going to help Sidney.  Once they had calmed down some, I snuck out onto the balcony overlooking the deck…and I wish I hadn’t.  There were my parents, just how I had left them, with my precious baby sister in her pink tutu swimsuit and princess water shoes.  She had blue marks on her face and looked as cold as ice.  I remember saying out loud to myself that she was going to start coughing and sit up and that everything was going to be OK. The medics arrived and started taking her clothes off to hook up machines.  I couldn’t watch any more.  Both my parents ran into the bedroom to change, hugged the girls and me, telling us it would be OK, then left in the ambulance.

A neighbor stayed with the girls while I called my older siblings and my grandparents.  Within 45 minutes my brothers were at the cabin.  There was nothing we could do but sit and wait.  It felt like time had frozen.  I don’t remember how long we sat in that living room, but sometime later I heard two car doors shut.  My brothers met my Dad and a lady from the town church at the door, and all I remember hearing is my Dad very quietly saying, “She didn’t make it”.

The Blur of Grief

All we could do was hug each other and cry together.  Dad told us that Mom hadn’t been ready to leave the hospital, so he was going back to get her.  Shortly after he left, the pastor and elders from our church arrived.  Then my older sister and more cars full of family and friends.  No words could be said, there were just hugs to be given and tears to be shed.  When my Dad returned with my Mom, the decision was made to pack up our things and head home.  With everybody’s help, we were on our way home within half an hour.  I remember feeling numb the whole time.  I didn’t want to eat.  I didn’t want to sleep.  I didn’t want to talk.  I just wanted Sidney.

The week after Sidney died was all a blur to me.  Actually, the whole year after Sidney died was a blur.  I don’t remember much except just trying to keep up with school.  I remember feeling like people outside my family had forgotten about Sidney.  It was easy for me to feel this way because my family and I dealt with her loss every day (and still do). Because of our age difference, many people don’t realize that Sidney and I were best friends.  She was my little Sid and I was her Wauren; she was my go-to dance partner and cuddle bug.  Every single night for the last year and a half of her life, she would carry all her binkies, blankets, stuffed dogs and sippy cup into my room and climb into bed with me after everyone else was asleep.  Most of the time, I wouldn’t even know she was next to me until I woke up in the morning.

The few times I heard her come in were summer nights when she would trip over the fan at the end of my bed.  On cold nights I miss my little heater with all of her blankets. Sometimes I wake up from a dream and think she’s really there in bed with me.

The Girl Sidney Was


So who was little Sidney Joy, exactly? Well, for those of you who never had the pleasure of knowing her, she was her middle name in human form: Joy.  She was a little class clown, always making everyone laugh.  Wherever she went, there were smiles.  Sidney loved to dance, to any kind of music that was playing.  That little girl had moves!  For some reason, she loved the song “Call Me Maybe”.  Usually not something you hear a three-year-old singing, but it made everyone laugh.

She loved watching TV, but only if she had someone to cuddle up to.  Her favorite shows were Curious George, Shaun the Sheep, and Wallace and Grommet, although she called them “Shaun the Sheeps and Wallace and Wommet”.  She was a little “mommy” to all her stuffed doggies and anyone younger or shorter than her.  Two of her best friends were a little boy named Andrew from our church, and her nephew Nate, who is only 8 days younger than her. It warms my heart that both boys still think and talk about their best friend Sidney. Honestly, it puts a smile on my face when anyone talks about Sidney. It’s comforting and lets me know that people still think about her. So, if a memory of Sidney ever comes to your mind please don’t hesitate to share. I will warn you that I may cry…but it’s a good kind of crying.

Sidney loved to swim; she was a fish and would spend hours in the tub.  She loved her footy pajamas, and if you were at our house around bedtime, you were definitely getting a goodnight hug.  She always wanted someone to lay with her at bedtime, too.  Countless nights and nap times I fell asleep in her bed.

Sidney made our family fun. She kept us laughing and smiling. She was a big part of our joy.

What happens when that beautiful little ray of sunshine is removed from the picture? When you lose your joy?  Life becomes dark and sad.  Smiles fade and laughter turns to silence.  Passion you once had, for anything and everything, becomes nonexistent. Life appears pointless and painful.  Your only thoughts are “What’s the point?” and “How could an all-powerful and all-loving God allow me to go through this much pain?”

Where is God When it Hurts?

How do you learn to smile again? How do you learn to have joy again? How do I fill this huge, Sidney-sized, hole in my heart? It definitely has not been an easy thing for me to learn, and believe me, I am still learning and struggling. You have to find your joy in the One above. The One who knows exactly how you are feeling. The God who never left your side, and is hurting with you. He knows the pain of losing someone you love. This is, of course, easier said than done. How do you find joy or hope in the one person that could have prevented you from going through all this pain? You trust that what He has in mind is best. I have thought over and over about the things I could have done differently the day Sidney died; things that may have kept her alive.

Yet the truth is, it wasn’t my decision. God made the decision and said, “Her time is done here; it’s time for her to come home”.  He called HIS little girl home. Learning to accept his decision is, no doubt, the hardest thing I have ever had to do. Many days I still struggle with it. In my heart, though, I know God has a reason for everything. If even one person is led to Christ or sees the love of God for the first time, because of Sidney’s death, it will all have been worth it.

In the second part of this article, which will run Wednesday, Lauren shares some practical ways of supporting and helping a grieving friend – as well as some cautionary insights. I am extremely grateful to her for her willingness to share her story, and encourage others who are grieving a loss or want to help someone who is. 

Olympic Champion Scott Hamilton is Not First (and why we love him for it)

by Marie Notcheva

Sarajevo Olympics, 1984. With Canada’s Brian Orser (left) and Czechoslovakia’s Jozef Sabovcik 

Two-time Olympian and 1984 gold medalist Scott Hamilton is happy being in second place, and he delights in sharing the secret of his contentment. The semi-retired figure skater has a vibrant faith in Christ, Whom he credits for sustaining him not only on the heights of the medal podium, but in the depths of cancer treatments; failed relationships; and self-doubt.

As hard as it is for me to believe, it was 31 years ago that I watched Scott take the gold medal in Sarajevo. As a wide-eyed middle school kid, I was fascinated by the Cold War drama of East German Katerina Witt vs. American Rosalynn Sumners; the impossible heights of Scott’s and Canadian Brian Orser’s triple jumps and Russian splits; and the incredible beauty and pageantry of the sport of figure skating. I was hooked.

We all were rooting for Scott to win – not because his long program was the best (by his own admission, it wasn’t a clean skate); but partly because he was just so darn likeable. That shouldn’t be a factor in determining athletic championships, but in figure skating – the most subjective sport there is – we fans cheer hardest for the most authentic-seeming competitors.

Scott in the 1980’s

As an aside, one podium moment that made a great impression on my 12-year-old self was Rosalynn’s graceful demeanor taking the silver medal next to Katerina Witt. It is hard for today’s generation to understand the pressure and tension of certain sports during the Cold War, and how much was at stake. As disappointed as she had to be, Ros smiled sweetly and was very gracious during the post-medal ceremony press conference towards her arch rival – no hint of the diva-like behavior that often characterizes high-level skating.

But I digress. The fact of the matter is, Scott Hamilton was, and is, a Really Cool Guy© – before, during and after his National, Olympic and World Championship wins. However, that fact completely misses the point and he would probably find it patronizing – because Scott wants the world to know that he is Second – second to his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Recently, friends of mine in Albania translated and subtitled Scott’s “I Am Second” video for use in a Christian students’ meeting….a fact Scott himself found so cool he sent a personal video message. He seemed as tickled to know he has friends in Albania as a student was to know they have “a brother who is an Olympic champion”. It was an extremely thoughtful and much-appreciated gesture.

The Backstory – and New Life

One lesson I learned as a student was never to “idolize” sports stars or other celebrities, even “Christian celebrities”. More than elsewhere, we Americans do tend to put our “sports darlings” on pedestals; granting them near saint-like status. This is particularly true of female figure skaters and gymnasts. Then, when the tabloids report unflattering news about them, we have the nerve to be collectively surprised. Our idols have “fallen”, because we forget that sports stars, (while exceptionally talented), are still flawed human beings with clay feet like the rest of us. Many athletes are, indeed, truly good role models and have given back; helped others; and deserve personal respect and accolades – including Scott Hamilton. But they all have had personal journeys and setbacks. Scott is transparent enough to share these with his fans, and point them to the lessons he’s learned along the way.

In 1999, Scott published his autobiography, “Landing It: My Life On and Off the Ice” (Kensington; 340 pgs.) I read this at the time, and it was a wonderful, in-depth and personal look at his rise as a figure skater; the details of touring and competitive skating, and his relationships with other champion skaters. The reader really got to know Scott personally, as he transparently shared about even highly personal details of his life. Diagnosed with cancer the previous year (while on tour with Stars on Ice), he included details about his treatment, and the support of other skaters. One line in particular stands out from “Landing It” – Scott mentioned fellow champion skater, Paul Wylie, “who is very religious, asking how he could pray for [him]”. Scott described himself as not being particularly religious, but was touched by Paul’s concern.  “Landing It” was a very enjoyable memoir which any skating fan would enjoy.

And then……Scott became a believer; met and married the love of his life Tracie; and a benign brain tumor was discovered. With his trademark self-deprecating humor, he added this to what he calls his “personal collection of life-threatening illnesses”. And then, he wrote another book: “The Great Eight: How to Be Happy (When You Have Every Reason to be Miserable)”. In this second book, targeted to a more mainstream-audience, Scott illustrates through anecdotal experiences and biblical principles, what helps to keep his mind and emotions on an even keel – and live a satisfying, successful life of joy, no matter the circumstances.


Biblical yet Relatable

What makes “The Great Eight” so good is that Scott’s writing is personable, down-to-earth and relatable, but not too heavily “doctrinal” which might put off some readers. Released by Christian publisher Tommy Nelson, Scott’s message remains faithful to Scripture; yet the reader never feels “preached to”. As a biblical counselor, I am used to reading tomes that connect “orthodoxy” with “orthopraxy” (doctrine with practice), and subconsciously screen all books for how true they are to Scripture. While the title has a “positive thinking” connotation, Scott demonstrates throughout his “eight principles” how correct and positive thinking is, indeed, the fruit of a renewed mind.

Scott does not write like John Macarthur, or Charles Spurgeon. He writes like a friendly figure skater who really loves his family, God, and fans – and we appreciate him for it. And he is thoroughly biblical, without being overtly theological. In Chapter Two, “Trust Your Almighty Coach”, he makes a strong case for the sovereignty of God – although he never uses the term. He shows, through his own difficult life experiences (including childhood illness, failed relationships, and even a growth-inhibiting brain tumor he was born with) how nothing is coincidence in God’s grand plan.

“The divinely-scripted pattern goes back to the very beginning of my life when I was an unwanted pregnancy and was adopted by my parents. I went from being somebody’s unwanted orphan to being a prized child who couldn’t have had more love showered upon him……Trust your Almighty Coach, and beautiful things can happen.”

In subsequent chapters, he exhorts the reader to embraces losses and failure as opportunities for growth.

Touring in the late ’90’s, before his cancer diagnosis

I especially enjoyed Chapter Four, “Keep the Ice Clear”. In it, Scott warns the reader against his lifelong Achilles heel – people pleasing (what the Bible calls “fear of man”). “Pleasing others may seem like a noble, selfless pursuit, but when taken to an extreme, it is a recipe for unhappiness,” he writes. As transparent as he is a polished performer, Scott tells us about the strain his unwillingness to confront others in love has put on some of his most treasured relationships. He then goes on to demonstrate the connection between positivity, happiness and smiling throughout trials – and being happy. James 4:7-8 reminds us to “resist the devil”, he writes; and reminds us that God gave us the gift of humor to ward off avoid negativity. A healthy dose of humor, and being able to laugh at yourself is also key:

“In 1978, I put together a routine to the tune “Short People,” by Randy Newman. There I was, nineteen years old and all of five-foot-nothing, skating around the rink to this song that proclaimed “short people got no reason to live.” The crowd just ate it up. …..If you are the kind of person who takes yourself too seriously, then pray that you are never the subject of a parody sketch on Saturday Night Live.” P. 113

Nature abhors a vacuum, and happiness doesn’t germinate simply by refusing to give in to negativity. Scott rightly points out that practicing one’s true passion – regardless of setbacks – increases day-to-day satisfaction. Of course, for him this meant ice skating – including in middle age, following his cancer treatment. As much as I love skating, his advice resonated with me as a writer. Whether a book contract or a blog post well-written and published, I enjoy the same deep satisfaction from writing as he does from landing triple axels. It was sage advice to anyone – don’t just sit there; do something to hone your craft. The satisfaction of a job well done after investing hard work is part of cultivating positivity.

Scott and son Maxx at 2015 show

Putting Yourself Last

Fatherhood was one way Scott learned the value of putting others and their needs above his own, and the example of his mother Dorothy’s selflessness was a model he learned early on. Again, while Scott doesn’t quote Scripture to illustrate this beautiful principle, he gets the message across by sharing self-deprecating anecdotes from his youth. After “The Great Eight” was published, Scott and his wife Tracie adopted two Haitian children. Tormented by the plight of children orphaned by the earthquake in 2010, they became parents of four (the Hamiltons already had two biological sons, Aidan and Maxx).

The Hamilton family in 2014. L to R: Aidan, Jean-Paul, Tracie, Scott, Evelyne and Maxx

Scott has also given back by establishing his own foundation, the Scott Hamilton C.A.R.E.S. Initiative (Cancer Alliance for Research, Education and Survivorship). Scott has spoken at and done a tremendous amount of charity work to help cancer sufferers, and radiates caring – even for people he’s never met. An empathetic friend to family, fans and strangers alike, he himself recognizes the importance of compassion and empathy:

“I firmly believe that God made us in His image, and that is a perfect one….One of the biggest barriers to people feeling happy about themselves is that they feel inferior, or shameful and bad about their looks or something in their past. But once you see yourself as a truly perfect creature created in God’s image who only needs to get in touch with that, the pressure of all those negative feelings lifts and you can move on. It is life changing.” (p. 176)

This is not some vapid “self-affirmation” nor a denial of our sinful condition – Scott deals with how he handled guilt over past sins earlier in the book. It is an embrace of grace, and a realization of our identity in Christ – the One to Whom Scott joyfully points. Scott Hamilton was the most enjoyable male figure skater ever to grace the ice, and he is a truly inspiring brother in Christ. His book, as well as his personal gesture to my friends and me, is a true encouragement.

Scott’s website is here:


Gospel Conversations: How to Care Like Christ (Review)


Gospel Conversations: How to Care Like Christ
By Bob Kellemen
Zondervan, 2015
400 Pages
ISBN-10: 0310516153
ISBN-13: 978-0310516156
Publisher’s Price: $18.99

Review by Marie Notcheva

“Gospel Conversations” is the second in Zondervan’s Equipping Biblical Counselors Series, following “Gospel-Centered Counseling” (which I reviewed here). This project came out of a seminar author Bob Kellemen gave for decades in local churches, “What to Do After the Hug”. Kellemen noted that attendees certainly didn’t lack a heart to care for the hurting, but that “they often feel ill equipped to know how to care in a Christ-like way”.

Kellemen caught my attention in the Introduction: “Through [Gospel Conversations] you will develop twenty-one biblical counseling relational skills so you can care like Christ.” Terrific! I like to give hugs. I often feel inept to help my friends in their struggles; let alone formulate an agenda for a formal counseling session. So reading not only about our end goal (helping counselees apply the whole Gospel narrative to their whole lives) but also organized, nuts-and-bolts advice on relational skills promised to make me a better counselor.

In all of his writing, Kellemen’s emphasis on personal involvement and caring for the counselee comes through, and “Gospel Conversations” is no exception. We are not, as he says, like the “UPS deliveryman”, simply delivering the hope of the Gospel and leaving fellow believers there. Detachment is not a biblical principle – like the author of Hebrews, we exhort, encourage and point one another back to Christ with our whole lives. Each chapter is concluded with probing questions for counselors in training, designed for use in a small-group setting. Kellemen also includes his trademark “Tweet-sized summaries” of each chapter’s main theme.

To Give Biblical Answers, We Must Ask Biblical Questions

In the earlier book, “Gospel-Centered Counseling”, Kellemen outlines eight questions to answer the biblical counselor’s foundational question: “What would a model of biblical counseling and discipleship look like that was built solely upon Christ’s gospel of grace?” The starting point is, of course, the Word of God – the end goal, progressive sanctification. Sandwiched between these “bookends”, we need to examine our view of the Triune God; who we are in the grand narrative of Scripture; the root source of our sin problem; how redemption changes us; the role of the Church community; and how our future hope of glory changes how we struggle with suffering and sin.

Once we have the foundational questions in mind and understand that our role is to be “dispensers of Christ’s grace”, we can turn our attention to developing “Biblical Counseling Relational Competencies”.

“Relational competence is our ability – given by grace and cultivated by our dependence on the Spirit – to express the character of Christ in our relationships with people so they experience our love as a small taste of Christ’s grace and are changed by His grace.”(p. 129).

Kellemen then devotes a full section to each of the following: sustaining, healing, reconciling, and guiding.

“Competent to begin counseling, we now have someone sitting in front of us whose world has caved in on them. In their suffering, how do we help? What do we do after the hug? How do we care like Christ?” (p. 120).

Sustaining – Meeting Counselees on Their Road to Retreat

Counsel that is biblical sustains people by encouraging them to face suffering face to face with Christ and His Body. It doesn’t deny doubts (about God’s personal interest; His goodness) but rather “climbs into the casket” with the counselee and confronts their doubts. It embraces the sufferer and reminds them of God’s ever-present care, even in the midst of their fears. To help counselors sustain their fellow believers, Kellemen uses the acronym “GRACE”. Over the course of two chapters, he lays out the importance of Grace Connecting; Rich Soul Empathizing; Attuned Gospel Listening; Comforting Spiritual Conversations, and Empathetic Scriptural Explorations. Listening well to both Scripture and our counselee’s story enables the heart attitude that sustaining another’s face demands. As Kellemen explains, connecting with our counselees graciously is not a counseling intervention; it is a mind-set of personal involvement with deep commitment to their maturity.

Healing – Where is Jesus in Our Faith Story?

In several of his books, Kellemen discusses the need to “crop Christ back into the picture” of a counselee’s devastated life. In “Gospel Conversations”, he explores ways to help believers find Christ’s healing hope: Redemptive, Relational Mind and Soul Renewal; Encouraging Communication; Scriptural Treatment Planning; Theo-Dramatic Spiritual Conversations (how we interact in the “drama of redemption”); and Stretching Scriptural Explorations (RESTS). Spiritual healing “involves journeying with people back to the heart of God”, and enabling them to understand anew, through the Gospel narrative, that His heart is good.

“Rather than going astray, and thus moving far from God and becoming less like Christ, Christ’s prayer for us in our suffering is that we would conform to His image. As His suffering in the garden led Him to cling to His Father, so our suffering can lead us to abide in Christ. Our suffering can bring us to the humble realization that without Christ we can do nothing (15:5). As we abide in Christ, we become like Christ, and we produce much fruit through Christ for the glory of the Father.

Jesus models in His life and ministry that suffering well involves honestly facing, and deeply feeling the pain of life in a fallen world, which drives us to cling desperately to the Father of all compassion and the God of all comfort…” (pp. 186-7).

In this section, Kellemen effectively paints a portrait of the God Who truly understands, is ever-present, and fully empathizes with us in our sufferings. As in his previous books, we come to see the God of All Comfort so intimately that we want to make others know His healing love as well. (True story: while reading this chapter, I typed several pages-worth of his discussion of John 10, and sent it to a struggling friend through Facebook Messenger.) His reflections are just that moving.

Reconciling: Facing Sin Head-on; Being Changed by Grace

As we move forward through the counseling process, sin is exposed. Repentance and the familiar “put off/put on” practical exhortation of Ephesians 4 becomes part of the counselees’ homework. The need for grace becomes apparent, and we counselors, as Kellemen writes, have the privilege of being “dispensers of grace”. True to form, he gives us a helpful acronym to outline the relational competencies needed for reconciling: Probing Theologically; Exposing Heart Sins; Applying Truth Relationally; Calming the Conscience with Grace; Enlightening Spiritual Conversations; Empowering Scriptural Explorations (PEACEE).

Correct theology is crucial to understanding the heart-motives behind our behavior, and every social or relational problem ultimately points back to our relationship with God (p. 247). Before we diagnose or correct issues that arise, we need to probe the root cause of “spiritual adultery”. There are a number of reasons one may be “drinking from broken cisterns” to replace fellowship with God, and these are the points Kellemen explores – with the end goal of reconciliation between Christ and counselee.

A very important point is that repentance is between the counselee and God – “our job is to care-front” (p. 261). This is a crucial distinction in understanding biblical confrontation correctly, and Kellemen spends several pages on the goal and spirit in addressing sin in another. Our role is to assist the counselee to put on the armor of God and attack Satan him or herself; not to attack the counselee. We are not able or called to “play Holy Spirit” to another; but rather, as Kellemen points out, to “leave the conviction to God”. In this way, our counselees can ultimately receive the message that they are forgiven, welcomed home, renewed and empowered to live holy lives.

Guidance that Fans Struggling Faith into Flame

In the final section, Kellemen cautions counselors against seeing reconciliation (dispensing grace; seeing change) as the end of counseling, or viewing counseling itself as a “problem-centered reactive response to trouble”. He characterizes biblical counseling as a form of discipleship, which I thoroughly agree with. Therefore, ongoing discipleship which focuses on progressive sanctification (guidance) is the ideal model for the local church. His acronym for guidance entails: Fanning into Flame the Gift of God; Authoring Empowering Narratives; Insight-Based Action Plans; Target-Focused Spiritual Conversations; and Heroic Scriptural Explorations (FAITH). This is not “Take-Two-Scriptures-and-Call-Me-In-the-Morning” biblical counseling; it is shepherding a fellow sojourner on to vibrant, life-long, Christ-following.

“To grow in Christ, we must understand and apply who we are in Christ,” Kellemen states at the outset. Underlying any real soul-transformation is a deep recognition of our identity and position in Christ, whether the struggle is adultery, social anxiety, or addiction. Remembering who we are (and Whose we are) is the cornerstone of ongoing guidance. Kellemen also cites the distinction between Christians’ “universal” identity in Christ, and their “unique identity in Christ. A large part of offering guidance – the “one-anothering” work of discipleship – is affirming both types of biblical identity.

Throughout Gospel Conversations, Kellemen focuses on maturing as counselors before and while providing Christlike soul-care to fellow believers. Far from listing a litany of “principles and practices”, he skillfully demonstrates, through historical anecdotes and case studies, how to expose the heart issues present in different scenarios, and how to empathize fully and presently. Knowing how to listen well; see how the whole Gospel narrative relates to the counselee’s whole life, and ‘crop Christ back into the picture’ lays the groundwork for ongoing discipleship that is truly biblical.

By working the “relational competencies” Kellemen discusses into all encounters, biblical counselors will be more effective ministers of the Gospel in all of their relationships – both inside the counseling office and out. Gospel Conversations is a comprehensive and much-needed book that addresses the whole person – empathetically; compassionately; and perceptively – just as Christ would.

The reviewer hard at work.
The reviewer hard at work.

“We Need Real Textbooks” – Meet the ‘Student-Translators’ of Albania

chris-vanderzeeThis article first appeared in Magazine Way in two parts. *All names have been changed in order to protect identities. 

Marie Notcheva ©

It’s an ‘open secret’ in some Albanian universities that professors use students to translate large volumes of academic material. These makeshift textbooks are then used for the next year’s courses, often sold at a profit to the instructors. Working without pay, these student-translators are expected to produce texts from often poorly-written material in addition to their regular course of study. Refuse, and the professor may fail them for the year. The result? Textbooks that are full of errors; exploitation of already-exhausted students; and a degradation of the translation industry itself. One Tirana student is speaking out.

Last June, during university final exam season, I received the following message from “Elvis”, a third-year Tirana student in a medical field:

“Marie… said something about how important it is to correctly translate a text related to medicine. A mis-translated word in medicine is fatal. Teachers in my university tell their students to prepare projects, and that ‘project’ contains information in English. What the student must do is to translate it into Albanian. That is all. Nothing else. And they are all medical articles. What they do with these translated projects is they publish their own book next year containing this information, which these students translated into Albanian. They are just students; I am a student, and I have been told 4 times to translate medical articles from English into Albanian. Imagine how dangerous it is to translate a medical article. One mistake in medical books may cost a life. This is how it happens in Albania. All the time. You have to translate it, otherwise the teacher will fail you or remove a grade from you.”

Knowing I am a medical and courtroom interpreter in the United States, and have also accepted many translations over the years, Elvis was asking my advice on how to address the delicate, ethical issue of using untrained students to translate professors’ material – to be published under the professor’s name, usually for profit.

Without “repercussions”.

Evidently, when a university professor “asks” a student to do a “favor” not included on the course syllabus, the student is not, realistically, in a position to politely decline – if he values a passing grade.

Never mind that these students are not being paid anything for their efforts.

Not the Modus Operandi Everywhere…Yet Still a Problem

It should be noted that while instructors at certain universities do utilize student translators, and then keep records of students who purchase their books (penalizing the ones who don’t with lower grades), this is not common practice in private universities or at the University of Tirana, which has a reputation as being among the best.

“Lediana”, a third-year Finance major in Tirana University’s Economics faculty, points out that there are very good and professional-level instructors at accredited universities. She has never encountered this problem, and the incidence of using students to translate is relatively low.

“The professors who teach in the University of Tirana, Polytechnic University, Faculty of Sciences or Arts University of Tirana mainly ask some Master’s Degree candidates for translation, not the Bachelor Degree students. They ask their best students and in return give them higher grades or make them exempt from some course projects.

“I want to add that they don’t tell students what they are really doing; often they just ask them to translate 20-30 pages as a course project,” she explains.

Elvis concurs: “It is so common in [the general medicine university] it’s like a routine. Basically, that’s what we call a “project”. Imagine….most of these books I have studied might have been translated by students. It’s crazy.” His friend, a student in Durrës, notes the same problem – while she has never been approached to translate, her textbooks are full of errors. “My sister, who doesn’t even speak English, has been asked to translate some books for her teachers because they know I can do it,” he adds.

A Precedent is Hard to Break

According to “Blerta”, who earned her Bachelor’s Degree at the University of Tirana’s Faculty of Social Sciences in 2003 (and her Master’s Degree in 2006), the practice of using students to translate professors’ work was more wide-spread in years past.

“At that time, the Dean of the university, who was a professor of psychology had several published books made entirely from student translations. He would give a chapter to each, and it was considered “course work” you submit before entering the exam. You couldn’t say “no”.  Personally I liked doing it, because the extra reading helped me (also internet access was so limited), but it was difficult in terms of terminology. Once he said he would pay us $10/ page, and I planned to buy furniture at home as a gift for my parents who were paid very low rates. Of course he never gave us any money.”

She also cites numerous cases where professors gave students the option of translating for them, with the “reward” being exemption from final exams for their efforts. Across the board, however, professors are known for publishing the students’ work under their names – errors and all.

“In one case, the head of the sociology department translated a huge book, “Introduction to Sociology” by Anthony Giddens. It was around 400 pages, all translated by her students. I have read that book, and you could tell it was translated but not edited – from chapter to chapter the same term was translated in different ways.”

All of the students I interviewed for this article cited the problem of error-filled textbooks.

“Text books I have to say have so many grammatical errors! But not all of them,” says Lediana. There have been perhaps 2-3 books in the 3-year Bachelor’s program I have attended. But as I said, this is true only for the best universities. Luckily I study in the Faculty of Economics which is rated as the most fair and professional one. I have never been asked to translate anything, nor have any of my classmates. Maybe the Master’s students may have experienced that scenario, but all I have heard are words from other students or seen some really bad book translation and assume they have been translated by students.”

Several years ago, Elvis’ college, the University of Medicine (UMT), split off from the University of Tirana – bringing with it all sorts of problems. Diplomas were delayed, and when they were finally awarded, graduates found they were worthless – the university was not accredited with any educational institution. However, the biggest practical problem, according to Elvis, remains the coerced student translation – resulting in dangerously-inaccurate textbooks.

“I might have been learning many wrong concepts during all these years, because students like me translated them in order not to fail the class. Crazy people work in my school. If you read my textbooks, you will find unlimited grammar mistakes. It’s as if the whole book was run through Google Translate. It is so terrible…not to mention that there are books that they did not used “ë” or “ç” letter at all.”

In one biology textbook, Elvis said, he found over 100 mistakes in only a few pages of text. Evidently the source document was in English, and the harried student tasked with translating it into Albanian ran it through Google Translate. “Instead of saying “quhen” – ‘are called’, it was written “qihen” which means ‘are being fucked’”, he laughed.

1This is what some of Tirana’s future doctors and nurses are being given as academic material.

When Volunteerism Becomes Exploitation

 Interestingly, many of the students I have met studying in Tirana speak and write English almost on a native level. If students genuinely wish to “volunteer” their skills by translating their teachers’ books, is that really a problem?

Yes. Time constraints, pressure, technical terminology and the sheer principle – using students to do qualified, professional work which – compromise the quality of the textbooks and put students in an unfair ethical situation. The professors hold persuasive psychological power over them, and they know it.

In the United States, interpreting and translating are both highly-regulated fields, especially when legal or medical wok is involved. Although the certification process is different, organizations such as ATA (American Translators’ Association) and NAJIT (National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators) exist, in large part, to ensure qualified, professional translators are providing service; to uphold a standard of ethics in the profession; and to protect the rights of professional translators. Translating 3,000 words per day is considered a very respectable day’s work (keep in mind the average textbook has over 100,000 words).

Going Rates for Translation

When I last bid for a translation project online, perhaps 15 years ago, Bulgarian translators were working for $.03/word, and Albanians for as little as $.02/word. Although there is no minimum standard wage for translations, the industry average here in the United States is between $.10 – $.12/word (although most freelancers charge more for a minimum fee when given small projects.) For large-volume translations, such as books, the per-word rate might be lower, as most professionals use software such as TRADOS to catch repetitive word recognition. Straker Translations, a firm specializing in Albanian translations with a significant online presence, charges between $.13 – .19/word, depending on language pair and turnaround-time.

By contrast, a professional translator who works in Tirana told me that (depending on textual difficulty and turnaround time), 900 lek would be considered a fair rate there (about $7.30).

Please note: Translation is real work; requiring a certain set of skills. We all like to be paid for what we do; and no one translates for free.

Unless, of course, your university professor so highly esteems your language skills that he asks you to – as a “personal favor.”

“Hello Marie,” began Elvis’s recent voice message.

“It happened again…a teacher of mine gave me a text, over 100 pages of medical information. It’s a project of an Asian student. He is using it to teach, and he asked, “Elvis, can you translate the first chapter? And then we will continue.” I actually translated those first 8 pages in about one hour, several days ago but I haven’t yet sent him the document, because I want him to realize that translation takes a while and that I’m busy. If I sent the e-mail as soon as I had the translation, he will think, ‘oh, that was quick!” Now, he is demanding that I meet him tomorrow and give him the work I’ve completed.”

The implication was that Elvis would be unable to refuse the remainder of the project, as he had already done several pages. I suggested he might refer his professor to a certified Albanian <-> English translator to take it on, either in Tirana or the United States. “Are you kidding me?” he laughed. “In Albania no one would pay for translations. It would be his entire salary…they choose Google Translator over everything.”

The quality control issue extends beyond academic texts. “Albina”, a translator who graduated from University of Tirana several years ago, told me that while she personally has not encountered students being coerced into translating for professors, she does know of publishing houses that hire students for book translation.

“This has seriously damaged the quality of foreign literature being translated into Albanian,” she said. “When people who simply ‘know English’ are hired to “translate” or “interpret”, it really devalues translation as a profession.” Elson adds, “Trust me when I say that Albanians do not hire translators at all. Not even editors. They say, ‘Oh you speak English. You can help me with something’. We reply, “But my English is not proficient enough,’ and they counter with, “That’s not a problem at all”. Elvis then qualifies his statement a bit: “Well, not all Albanians. Teachers at my school who happen to write the books and the subjects for us.”

Need for Reform

According to a student in the UMT’s pharmacy faculty, the first reform that must be made is editorial. “The head of each department should, at the very least, be checking the books for obvious errors before approving them for the students,” he said. Of course, as he added, the students should not be given material in English in the first place; but with so much of academia’s literature being produced in English, it is not feasible to expect original research to be published in Albanian at the same rate. The source texts are not the problem; the means of translation and distribution is. “I am surprised that the professors do not check the translation before using it as a final material,” Albina said. “I thought that if it is something the school needs officially, they would always hire professionals…but apparently not.”

I suggested the universities might allocate a budget for translation of necessary textbooks, to ensure quality and not put students into an unethical situation. Since the industry rate is several times lower in Albania than in Western Europe or the United States, the work would be done locally but not necessarily in-house. Master’s Degree candidates, as Lediana pointed out, might be better equipped to take on such projects, but should always be compensated for their work – from the university’s budget; not from the professor’s pocket.

Most importantly, students need to find their voice. The longer such accepted practices are allowed to continue, the more difficult it becomes to stem this sort of unethical behavior. Quality standards and principles of professionalism are hard to maintain when cash-strapped educational institutions, exhausted students and underpaid professors need to get through the day. In the end, however, all suffer from these (and similar) shortcuts. A future generation of doctors, nurses, and other profession deserves a quality education – which is, in large part, contingent upon quality translation of technical literature. The era of using students and Google Translate must end, if all Balkan universities are to be on a global playing field.

The Rolls-Royce of Macaroni and Cheese

The International Melange of Deliciousness – a hybrid of cheese culture

In my entire writing career, I have never done a food blog or posted a recipe. Not that I mind cooking – it’s just that it’s a distraction from the more interesting things in life; namely, writing. (You people have no idea how many meals I have burned while working on articles or book manuscripts!).

Food is just not all that interesting to me. It is simply a way to keep from dying. Besides, “foodie blogs”, like arts and crafts, are more the domain of perfectionist home-school moms who grind their own organic, grass-fed grain to make homemade bread and raise their own free-range, gluten-free chickens and stuff like that.

I don’t do any of that stuff because:

  1. I’m too busy doing other stuff; and
  2. Frankly, I don’t care enough to bother.


That being said, sometimes, perhaps once every 6 years or so, I astonish myself with the sheer awesomeness of something that comes out of my kitchen. Like tonight, for example. I felt inspired to make homemade mac ‘n cheese, rather than opening a box with the incandescent orange “cheese-like product” packet. But not just ANY macaroni and cheese, mind you! Oh no. This mac ‘n cheese is high-class – with Wisconsin cheddar, Swiss Jarlsberg, and Bulgarian kashkaval. It is:

The Rolls-Royce of Macaroni and Cheese

Because cheese is God’s way of letting us know He loves us, and wants us to have a nice day.

What You Need:

  • 400 g macaroni
  • 1/2 cup butter (4 Tbs)
  • 1/2 cup flour (120 ml)
  • 3 cups milk (750 ml)
  • 1 cup grated cheddar (250 g)
  • 1/2 cup grated kashkaval
  • 1/2 cup Jalsberg
  • 1/2 cup white cheese (feta)
  • 1/2 tsp salt

Now, here’s what to do: 

  1. Boil and drain the macaroni like a normal person.
  2. Melt butter over medium heat; whisk in flour. Now here’s the part where you have to pay attention to what you’re doing: while whisking flour, do NOT be watching TV, or texting your editor, or your daughter, or your buddy Dritan in Albania. The flour will burn and you’ll have to throw it out and start over; so make sure you whisk well.
  3. Pour in the milk and keep whisking it (see note above, so lumps don’t form). Add salt. When it gets thick, take it off the heat and dump in the shredded cheese, except for the feta, mixing well.
  4. Now it’s a melty, gooey cheesy mixture! Doesn’t that look good? Dump the macaroni back into the pot, and mix it all up.
  5. Now pour it into a greased casserole dish, sprinkle more cheddar on top, and bake at 350° (177 Celsius) for about 15 minutes. When you serve, mix in some Bulgarian white cheese to give it extra zip.
Happy children enjoying The Rolls-Royce of Macaroni and Cheese

You now have happiness on a plate. Adults will be happy. Kids will be happy. World hunger will be eradicated. World peace will be achieved, through the harmonious blending of an international array of cheeses. Your taste buds will rejoice and sing “The Star-Spangled Banner”….oh, and The Rolls-Royce of Macaroni and Cheese goes well with Chardonnay or Savignon Blanc.