Review of Bowler, Kate. Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I Have Loved. Random House Publishing Group.
By Gary Furr
Kate Bowler begins her book in the doctor’s office. “I had lost almost thirty pounds by the time I was referred to a gastrointestinal surgeon at Duke University Hospital.” And then, the thud of reality.”
ONE MOMENT I WAS a regular person with regular problems. And the next, I was someone with cancer. Before my mind could apprehend it, it was there—swelling to take up every space my imagination could touch. A new and unwanted reality. There was a before, and now there was an after. Time slowed to a pulse. Am I breathing? I wondered. Do I want to? Every day I prayed the same prayer: God, save me. Save me. Save me.
There are plenty of books about the problem of suffering, but every now and then one comes along that makes us feel it. All humans eventually suffer in life somewhere along the way—but it is undeserved, unfair and untimely suffering that is the most crushing variety. Enter Kate Bowler, a professor at Duke Divinity School and church history. Bowler’s first book came from her dissertation, a study of the Prosperity Gospel, entitled Blessed: A History Of The American Prosperity Gospel. She befriended and studied the world of name it and claim it Christianity, embodied in the megachurch worlds of Kenneth Copeland and Joel Osteen.
This book, though, is a personal one, a wilderness wandering through the most difficult and intractable questions all religious people face: why suffering, why now, why me? She gets my vote for the most interesting title of the year and she does not disappoint. Kate is a wickedly funny writer but also gut-wrenchingly honest about her journey through Continue reading Everything Happens for a Reason? Review
This morning, I pulled on my clothes at 5:30 am and headed to the hospital to be with a member going into surgery. It took me back to August of 2001 when my “baby” sis had breast cancer. I wasn’t pastor that day. I drove to Atlanta, took the day off, and went to be with my family as she fought the toughest fight of her (maybe any of our family). She is 12 years my junior, and I left home for college when Amy was only 5. I adored her more like a doting uncle than a brother, although as adults I have loved her as a peer. She is smart, lovely, and, it turned out, a fighter. She went through it, survived, and is going strong. Still, I went back to that day, years ago, when I sat, helpless, in a waiting room, unsure what the coming hours would bring. It taught me some lessons.
Wednesdays are usually the busiest day of the week for me—surpassing even Sundays. Last week, though, Vickie and I spent the day where so many of our members find themselves at one time or another—in the waiting room. As we awaited my sister’s surgery, I found myself in the unusual position of being the recipient of visits.
As a family we had gone through all the decisions, phone calls, prayers and anxiety that patient families do. Now the day had come and we had to—wait. Here are some of the lessons I learned for just one day.
The greatest enemy in the waiting room is boredom. You talk, laugh, tell stories, and every now and then find yourselves staring at each other, waiting for something else to say. Long periods of blanking it out interspersed with imagining “in there.”
There are so many feelings for just one day. Fear stops by in the morning and pops back in when you least expect it. Hope, love, frustration, weariness, impatience and irritation. They all pass through. All you can do is sit while they fly through your brain.
People have truly different ideas of what the phrase “Dress appropriately” means.
Family, friends and church members are a comfort. You don’t have to say much. Just seeing a face and knowing a connection does something for you. All day long people I hadn’t met from her church came by and said, over and over in a dozen ways, “We care about you.” It was truly humbling. Many friends came by, and two graciously gave us over an hour of their busy lives to sit and help us laugh the time away. Three church staff came to comfort us, and they did.
It is neat to just be “her older brother from out of town.” No tie.
Hospital food must come from a single warehouse. I had the same thing I ate the last time I had a hospital meal. Some of the vegetables seemed to be prepared to drum up extra business for the gastro unit. (Editor’s note: this is better now)
Time is timeless in a hospital. That explains why nothing starts when it is scheduled and why things go on longer than you were told (reminded me of the little Catholic boy who visited a Baptist church with his buddy for the first time. “What does it mean when the preacher takes off his watch and lays it on the pulpit?” he asked. “Don’t mean anything at all,” sniffed the Baptist boy.) It is why surgery feels like eternity when you are waiting on it.
You overhear some really interesting conversations. Over in the corner a man from Jamaica recited the entire genealogy of his family to two kinswomen, loud enough for us to hear intermittently. “No, no, no, you’re Uncle Elias, see, he was my brother’s cousin…” That went on for two hours, forming a Caribbean Book of Chronicles until they finally, I think, got back to the present day. I believe the conversation only started with a single question about a nephew. “Sorry I asked,” I imagined them saying as night fell.
There is plenty of time to think about important things—how much you love the important people in your life, how wonderful the church can be when the chips are down, what really matters in life, and how connected we all are.
There are a lot of people in trouble in this world. People from everywhere. People who wouldn’t say hello to each other on the street smile and ask each other how it’s going.
Thinking about my friends back home praying for us helped. God truly is with us, even in the waiting room.
2017 update: In the waiting room, you are all the same. Democrat, Republican, affluent suburbanite, poor rural family, educated and street smart, old and tired and toddlers rambunctious. We are one in our waiting. Too bad we can’t keep that in us when we go home. The man next to me is worried about his wife, the lady over there and her friend are laughing, someone else praying. If we all hang in there, we’ll get through the day. Wait. Pray. Hope.
If we learn to look at life with the eyes of the artist, we
will see an entire universe that is “a gift of mercy.”
It’s odd that a musical preacher who writes songs, cut his teeth and got called to ministry during the Jesus Movement of the 1970s would have met Pat Terry so late in life, but that’s the way life winds sometimes. I had heard of the Pat Terry group back when he was starting out—Pat is just a bit older than me. I heard his songs, but my musical journey got put on hold for a long time as marriage and children and years in graduate education and pastoral ministry took me in different directions. I continued listening to music and playing and singing, sometimes in church and mostly by myself for my own pleasure.
Pat Terry, meanwhile, was on a journey of his own, too. After many years, first in the very spontaneous and joyful Jesus Movement musical world, and then for a while in the increasingly industry-captivated contemporary Christian musical world, he moved on. He had a good, long run as a commercial songwriter in Nashville, with a string of songs for many well-known artists like John Anderson, Travis Tritt, Kenny Chesney, Alan Jackson, Tanya Tucker and the Oak Ridge Boys. He learned the Nashville craft and all the while continuing his own inner journey of writing from the heart.
Please forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you.
The wonderful New Testament scholar George Beasley-Murray once wrote that what the gospel of Mark imparts to us in nine verses, the gospel of John spends five chapters. John 13-17 is the home of some of the richest, most direct and powerful sayings of Jesus. It is called by scholars, “The Farewell Discourse.” Words from a dying man to his beloved friends. He says, “I love you,” again and again in many ways. He tells them things that need saying. Death concentrates the mind and focuses life.
My friend Paul Robertson, who is a Chaplain and CPE director in Houston, Texas, told me about a book by Dr. Ira Byock called, The Four Things That Matter Most: A Book About Living. Dr. Byock is a physician specializing in palliative care at Dartmouth Medical Center and a professor of palliative care at the medical school there. Palliative care, if you don’t know the lingo, is about helping people to die with integrity and comfort, easing the journey to death. So it may seem odd that a book that is about dying and making peace with death would have as its subtitle, “A Book About Living.”
He says that these are the “four things” that matter most, and that before we can die, or live for that matter, we must say them to the people who matter to us the most. This is a wonderful book, one I recommend you read. It’s short, beautiful and on target. Here are his four things:
Please forgive me.
I forgive you.
I love you.
Some thoughts from Dr. Byock that spoke to me:
“I’ve learned from my patients and their families about the painful regret that comes from not speaking these most basic feelings. Again and again, I’ve witnessed the value of stating the obvious. When you love someone, it is never too soon to say, “I love you,” or premature to say, “Thank you,” “I forgive you,” or “Will you please forgive me?” When there is nothing of profound importance left unsaid, relationships tend to take on an aspect of celebration, as they should.”
“When you love someone, it is never too soon to say, “I love you,” or premature to say, “Thank you,” “I forgive you,” or “Will you please forgive me?” When there is nothing of profound importance left unsaid, relationships tend to take on an aspect of celebration, as they should.”
“I also encourage them to say good-bye. ..The word good-bye derives from “God be with you,” a blessing that was traditionally given at parting and, in some churches”
During Holy Week, we focus on an intense experience of saying goodbye. Grief is a very perilous and important experience in every way. When we grieve, we don’t get our way. When we fail to grieve, we don’t really live.
This week, liturgically, we start moving toward some plain speaking, gospel wise. Forgiveness is costly. Love wins, death loses, but not without shedding blood and dying. Commitments: simple, plain. Nothing complicated, but not easy. And you need to say some things that seem simple, but are really doors into the rich treasures of the heart.
I need forgiveness.
I know you love me, God.
I love you.
Thank you for what you’ve done.
Here I am.
The extraordinary center of our gospel may well be in 2 Corinthians 5 when Paul says
19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.
Far more of our lives are engaged with these two verses than almost anything else other than eating, sleeping and breathing–reconciling ourselves to life, God, our histories, our destiny, limits, and, finally, one another. “Be reconciled” is a wonderful word for us this week. Simple words.
For more about Ira Byock’s book, click the image below.
This wonderful arrangement was written by our minister of music, Dr. Terre Johnson, after the Enterprise tornado a few years ago that killed several students at the local high school. It has been performed across the country, including the White House. I hope it blesses you today. There is hope.
I put it here today as I mourn the third anniversary of the death of my dear friend, Philip Wise, gone far too soon from cancer at age sixty. God be with us all in our sorrows, that they purify and call us to our better selves and to the depths of love.