Katie Bowler had made it. Four years ago, she was teaching as an Associate Professor of religion at Duke Divinity School. It was her dream job. She was married—to her high school sweetheart. They had a 1-year-old little boy. Life was fine, glorious even, except that Katie had this niggling pain in her gut. Sadly, irritatingly, it grew worse. When the pain became too intense to ignore, she began making the rounds of doctors. “It’s all in your head,” said several. “Looks like your gall bladder might need to come out.” Said another. If she was walking on campus and she experienced that increasingly more common knife-stab in her belly, she’d have to sit on a bench, or lean against something. She guzzled down gallons of Pepto Bismal. Then one day the pain was so excruciating, she went to her doctor’s office and said, “I am not leaving here until you give me a diagnosis.” The doctor ordered a CAT scan. Finally, finally, he had it. That’s the good news; he had a diagnosis. The bad news? She had stage four colon cancer. Sound the alarm, send out the wailing women!
She suffered through an operation, and chemo. Now, four years later, she is still alive—that is quite a feat. She wasn’t supposed to live more than four months after the diagnosis. But Katie is a rationalist. She knows that one day her body will stop responding to experimental immunotherapy drugs. Then, that will be the end of her.
As I said, Katie is a theologian. She’s also a writer. She wrote a well researched, and much acclaimed book on the Prosperity Gospel—you know, the Prosperity Gospel? The prosperity gospel has it that God is like Santa Claus—God will give you riches, good health, success and joy, if you but believe in him and are good little boys and girls. It is a prevalent notion in the Old Testament, sadly. According to much of the Old Testament, if something bad happens to you individually, or as a nation, it’s because God is smiting you—you deserve what you get. If something good happens, God is rewarding you. That was what her book was about--debunking the Prosperity Gospel.
Since Katie is a writer, once she had her diagnosis, she began writing letters to her now five-year-old son; to be opened after her death. She wants him to know how much she loves him. She doesn’t want him to ever. ever feel abandoned. She wants to assure him: She did not plan on dying.
As I said, Katie is a writer, so once she was out of the hospital, besides writing those love letters to her son, she also determined to write another book, this one about her experience of having to face imminent death. Last year that book was published and immediately became a New York Times best seller: Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I have Loved.
In part it is about her own processing of this turn in her life, but she also includes helpful pointers on how to respond to someone who is in the throes of disaster, trauma, pain, or impending death. She’s endured a lot of heartache from people who want to offer their advice and sentiments. I thought I’d share some of those with you. Katie categorizes people by their responses to her own precarious life situation. Three categories: The minimizers, the fixers and the teachers. And here I will just say, that I am guilty of being all three: maybe you are, too.
The Minimizers want to make light of the horror of it all. So for example: “At least the doctors know what it is now,” or “At least you can still work. “At least your hair has grown back.” Others not specific to Katie’s situation include: “At least you’re still young enough to remarry, or “You DO have OTHER children.” Then there are the fixers--people who offer little one-line philosophical zingers like: “Dwelling on it all the time, won’t make it go away; You brought this on yourself; This too shall pass; It’s for the best.” Finally? The teachers: “I have read about other drugs you can take. Have you tried those? Are you eating enough brussel sprouts? Cancer is caused by too much stress. Just relax.; Maybe you should be researching best hospice facilities in your area. Here are a few names and addresses to get you started.”
Katie doesn’t have a specific category for religious responses, so I’m offering those here. For those of us who are religious, these can be especially brutal, either because they make us question our own faith, as in, if you just had more faith this wouldn’t have happened to you, or you’re not praying hard enough.”Bcause they are so odd or even cruel, they can make the rest of us embarrassed to call ourselves religious.
Here’s a religious response that I think is odd, or funny, in a dark way—“If you separate his ashes, he will never get to heaven.” Like poor God is hunched over his heavenly puzzle- table trying to fit together our cremains. If those cremains are scattered? Well even God can’t do the impossible!
Maybe you have heard or even offered some of these religious responses: “He’s in a better place; Heaven needed another angel; God has a plan, you’ll see; God never gives us more than we can handle; God definitely wants to teach you something;” or Katie’s favorite, probably because she has offered it herself, and of course, now she has heard it over and over again; “Everything happens for a reason.”
Everything happens for a reason. Yes, God had a reason for Katie’s stage four colon cancer, a reason for the flooding in Mozambique, a reason for the Holocaust, a reason for the downing of the twin towers on 9/11, a reason for the shooting last week in New Zealand. God caused those things intentionally, maybe even with malice. “God’s ways are not our ways.” That’s scriptural, by the way.
To all those responses to tragedy, Katie says NO! And guess what? So does Jesus!
And that brings us toour scripture passage today. See how nicely I was able to transition here? The people Jesus has been preaching to in Luke, ask THE question we all wrestle with, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” If they didn’t bring it on themselves, as the Prosperity Gospel proponents believe, then why? It’s what I would ask Jesus, wouldn’t you? Probably even the first thing we’d ask Jesus.
If you were listening carefully as I read our scripture passage, you will note that Jesus doesn’t answer his followers—as is so often his way. Don’t you hate that? Instead he says, “You are no better, than those Jews that Pilate had killed, their blood mingling with the blood of their sacrifices at the temple in Jerusalem. But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He continues, “Neither are you any better than those poor souls who died when the Tower of Siloam fell. Stuff like this just happens, and they could happen to you, too. Therefore, make your soul ready. Repent.”
What a disappointment. “You mean, Jesus, you don’t have a formula, a prayer, a mantra we can repeat that will save us?” Instead, Jesus simply says repent. Is THAT all? Nothing new here. John the Baptist advised us to do that. The prophets of old commanded us to do that. Probably we’ve already tried that and nothing happened. Repentance doesn’t pay the bills; it doesn’t stop a loved one from dying; it won’t heal our ailments; it won’t keep body and soul together.
Jesus isn’t talking about keeping body and soul together, though. He’s speaking in spiritual terms. If you want to save your souls, repent.OH.
So now I want us to take a brief excursus—at least that’s what it’s called in theology text books. An excursus is a footnote, or a side note explaining something. I am stopping in our discussion, to do an excursus on the word repent.
To repent simply means to “turn from.” The Greek word is metanoia, and the Hebrew word is shuve; Repent does not mean lying on your back on a bed of nails; nor does it mean walking on knees up the hard, cold stone steps of Chartres Cathedral. Repent means to turn away from one thing and turn toward something else.
What is it we turn from? We turn from the ways of this often madding world--the scramble to make and then hold on to our money; the will to be always in the right even to the extent of being self-righteous. End of excursus.
Jesus is telling his followers, turn from the ways of this world, and concentrate on healing and growing your souls, your spiritual selves. And that really is the reason we do religion at all, isn’t it? We are primarily spiritual beings. We want to get our souls in tune with God, because we believe that is what ultimately matters. Whether we live or die, that part of us which is eternal—that which is infinite, lives on. How that happens, again, Jesus doesn’t say. It remains a great mystery. But we who are Christian? We know that it’s true.
So, I started with Katie’s story, and I want to end with her story. We will hope that she stays around for a long time to come, which includes long enough to write a sequel. Until then, we will settle on what she knows now that she didn’t know going into her ordeal. Not that God was trying to teach her anything, get that? Yet has her experience taught her some important lessons.
First, to those who would say “Everything happens for a reason,” she offers, better, “Everything happens, period.” Don’t minimize, philosophize, or use another person’s suffering as YOUR teaching moment. Better to offer a simple, “I’m s-o-o-o-o sorry,” then give a hug, and if appropriate, sit down and listen.”
As to where God is in Katie’s suffering, she says she has witnessed God in some profound ways--in the faces and voices of her family, friends, coworkers, the people at her church. And, she has a new appreciation of suffering, She says, “My own pain has been the secret key opening me to the pain of other people….I see it in the face of the tired mom struggling to get that jar off the top grocery store shelf while her kid is screaming; I see it in the hand movements of the elderly husband rearranging his wife’s hair as she receives her chemo treatment.”
Finally, in the three months following her diagnosis, when she was in the hospital and then at home, after beginning of her chemo treatments. ….she says, “I felt God’s presence, in a way I’ve never felt him before. It’s like the way you feel when a friend is holding you. I felt great love.”
That feeling eventually subsided, but she is convinced that the love is still there; and she knows it will be there at the end. May it be so for you as for me. Amen