Everything Happens For a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved

My niece, Laura, recently sent me a link to a podcast called TTFA: Terrible: Thanks for Asking. I thought it was witty and funny, a little irreverent and provocative. The particular interview was with Kate Bowler, the author of the book, Everything Happens For a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved. The segment is entitled: Life after Certainty. (ttfa.org)

Kate Bowler grew up in a Mennonite background which she named a collective faith; “God shows up with people and casseroles.” You don’t suffer by yourself and the community had very low expectations of material goods; theirs was a God who prided Himself on closeness.”

So when a new mega church came to town, she began to be curious about this faith where the congregation gave an offering to the pastor to buy a motorcycle that he then drove around on stage. She called this new theology the Prosperity Gospel; basically God wants you to prosper; and faith was a spiritual power that brought you wanted; cars, kids, wife, wealth, health and a good life. God will give you what you want. It was so different from her modest faith and so fascinating to Kate that she focused on it for her senior thesis in college and for her master’s degree.

She started attending a lot of mega churches to learn more and understand the attraction. Some of the common wisdom in the prosperity gospel seems pretty mainstream these days; “Everything Happens for a Reason.” “God has a plan.” “God closes a door but opens a window.” “The best is yet to come.” “God is building a choir of angels.” (at death). She became a professional academic digging into prosperity gospel in society.

What’s the prosperity gospel? “It’s a language of faith,” she says. “You release the power with words and thoughts.” Everything must be positive. Words are like magic that make it come to pass. Health, wealth and things going well for family will come to you. There were frequent healing rallies for mental illness, physical illness, and acquiring wealth–a belief that all things could be made right in their lifetime; anything is possible; it demands enthusiasm; it expects miracles; “if you think the right things, your life will be better.”

The Prosperity gospel seems encouraging, but it has a sharp edge; what happens if it doesn’t come true? Then of course, it’s your fault and you need to fix it. That’s extremely hard when there’s a serious illness, loss of a child, or a suicide, for instance. “It feels like an indictment,” she said. “If I’m sick, my body had to fit into their belief.” You feel like a failure. If good things happen, thanks to God. If bad things happen, it’s on you.

When I was in a theological seminary, 1999-2003, the professors called this prosperity gospel the Theology of Glory. Same idea. They contrasted this theology with what they felt was more the reality of life; the Theology of the Cross. Good things happen; bad things happen, but God is in it all. As part of that training I was a hospice chaplain for three months, visiting people who were deemed to have less than six months to live. One in particular had lived her life purely by the Prosperity Gospel. She was so positive, bright, charming. She had a beautiful home on a lake and 3 cars in the driveway. She was absolutely devoted to praying and reading her Bible. I remember that Bible so clearly; she had used yellow marker to underline all the passages about healing. And the ones that Jesus spoke of , she also underlined in pink. Most of her New Testament was underlined with some kind of ink and side notes she had made. The pages were worn and bent with her constant reading. The trouble was that this huge tumor in her bowel kept growing. For a few months, her friends from church came to pray and read at her bedside, staying positive and pronouncing that Jesus would heal her. But when she didn’t get better, she told me, they stopped coming. I sat with her weekly for those months, as she struggled with reconciling what she had been told and what was the reality of her life. It was one of the greatest lessons in my life to just listen and be present. This had been her truth that had held her for so long. It pained me to see how she struggled when it no longer supported her. One day as we lay in the bed together propped up, and she was reading me more verses, she stopped and looked at me and said simply, “Maybe Jesus thought of it another way.” I nodded, “Maybe so.” She came to her theology of the Cross in her own way.

Living with these existential questions is complicated and messy at best. With Kate it became messy. Just at the peak of her life, when she had the job she dreamed of, the husband who loved her, the child she waited for, she received news that she had stage 4 cancer. And she realizes that even though she had studied the prosperity gospel for years and knew its limitations, she dropped into that way of thinking herself. “Didn’t I think I was earning myself out of this by having a hard working life?” Even as an objective observer, she was looking for certainty like everyone else. We want to figure out the mechanism for it to work out. When it doesn’t, how does hope feel? “I was going to out-cheer cancer; I was going to be the best cancer patient to deserve to be saved,” she said. “I never stopped auditioning for the role of deserving love.” Finally she began to write out all her questions and frustrations. “Why did I think I wouldn’t be here? What secret prosperity gospel do we all have?” she asks.

I encourage you to hear the rest of the podcast as she explores friendship during crisis and friendship in the chronic long haul of illness. (“I need a chronic, incurable friend.” )Not to ruin the story, but she is still alive 5 years later, laughing often, living on the edge. Hear her wisdom from this place also on her Ted Talk or visits her website, katebowler.com.

“Everything happens,” she summarizes, “and we don’t know the reason.”

Maybe it’s not about climbing a mountain

I realized after driving home last night from seeing my friend who has cancer, that my whole way of being with her and with her diagnosis shifted. I didn’t do anything or figure it out or make a new plan. But as I drove home with the sun still high in the sky at 8:00 p.m., the mountains glistening like diamonds, the birch trees greening in the softest hues imaginable, I realized I was at peace with everything just as it was.

There was no logic to it. Just days before I was lost and stumbling and angry and trying hard to climb a mountain of emotions. Yet now that seems so far away and even amusing to me. It must be grace to feel such a turning to acceptance, but even more than acceptance–which seems to have a passive reluctance embedded in it– it’s like aligning with the truth.

It reminds me of the question the spiritual teacher, Jeff Carreira ( jeffcarreira.com) often asks: “If there’s no problem, what is here?” That seems to sum up where I am. If I don’t look at her illness as a problem, I am open to seeing so much of what else is here that is truly divine, like the beauty of Eagle River Valley as I drove home. Or the deep stillness we had together as we meditated and mused about how to transform hate into peace. Or sampling together a new recipe I found for spinach artichoke lasagna and loving it and saying it was good.

My friend said it in another way; “I’m so grateful I can eat. It tastes so good again. And drink without throwing up. And walking, yes walking standing up straight.” It’s so simple. Just be here now. She is showing me, living it. I’ve said it so many times. It has come and gone in my practice. Yet I feel this as a turning point in my soul life. I do not need to reject anything. Anything. If instead I turn to what I want to reject, things soften, open up and relax–amazingly enough. It’s not that they might soften, open up and relax. They actually do. I’ve learned this repeatedly on my spiritual path in the Diamond Approach. Yet, my friend’s pain and suffering and life-threatening disease seemed too much to turn toward in these past months. Grace reminds me now, even this is not too much for Love to transform.

I want to say this isn’t a way of avoiding the real pain of watching her deal with her cancer and all that it means for her and her family. I’m not rejecting that either. It will arise again. And I will allow myself to feel it and turn to it and see what else is there. I will be met. There is a deeper foundation that holds it all now. I don’t even want to name it, but it is here now.

Julian of Norwich was a nun and medieval mystic who wrote the oldest surviving book written in English by a woman, The Revelations of Divine Love. She received visions during a life-threatening illness and recorded what she was shown. One of these is “If there is anywhere on earth a lover of God who is always kept safe, I know nothing of it, for it was not shown to me. But this was shown: that in falling and rising again we are always kept in that same precious love.” 

I will end here with the quote from that book that is most familiar, reassuring and challenging to me– beyond logic, yet I want to live its wisdom: “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Eagle River Valley in springtime

Learning How to Climb a Different Mountain

I’ve been a visitor to Denali National Park since 1975 and each time I approach the entrance, I feel a strange elation–for I’ve learned from experience, anything can happen here. This vast wildness fuels the wild naturalness in me. I both relax into the letting go of all my roles in life as I pass the final checkpoint at Savage River and then tense with the excitement what may happen here where I’m not in control–where beauty may overwhelm me or wildlife thrill me or an awakening may come here just being close to Denali itself.

Once I literally bumped into a moose as I hiked through a thick spruce forest during the rutting season. My partner was calling for the bull, but instead we bumped into one of his harem, eyes red, hormones flowing. I was so close I looked up into her nostrils that were flaring, ears laid back and eyes wide open. She didn’t move, but she huffed, her breath hitting my face. I didn’t move either. I stared into her fear and confusion and she into mine. Then I backed away, saying soothing words, “There, there, momma, so sorry, so sorry,” and she granted me the mercy of standing still while I backed away. She could have stomped me down, but instead we were wild and close.

I once saw caribou in the rain on the Toklat River so near I felt I could be part of the migration. I still remember that bend in the wide braided river where they were moving to an ancient rhythm that I couldn’t sense. But I felt their purpose and a kind of wisdom old and slow. Their eyes shifted to take me in as I sat and sketched them. A pause. And then a continued slow, undeterred walk to the inner siren that moved them one and all down that gray slate river, leaving me behind and just a little desolate.

And once I saw the rare jaeger, hovering about the muted green tundra. The bus driver stopped and jumped up out of excitement to point it out to the six of us on the nearly vacant bus. It was raining hard, yet just then, in that very moment, the clouds parted and a shaft of sun spotlighted the rare and beautiful bird as it searched for sustenance, glistening and sparkling in the raining sun; and for a few moments I did not know I was a soggy tired body in a bus. I was the rain and the sun and the ferocious intent of that bird.

And once I was making noise as I walked up Tattler Creek, the creek making almost as much noise gurgling and chuckling and most likely gossiping as was its namesake, when a golden grizzly broke out of the alders and brush up above me. She had heard me and chose to give me my leave. How humbling when she was the queen of this place. With one swat, she could have barreled over me, impatient with the intrusion. But she showed me compromise. Her body moved effortlessly up the steep side of the canyon, body golden and flowing, her head and legs a dark brown. I began to breathe again, felt my aliveness.

And this was the place I first climbed a real Alaskan mountain. I was helping out with a sheep survey with a biologist friend of mine. We were on our way up to count Dall sheep on Igloo Mountain. It was thus the first time I also learned about how to weave my way through alders, which always seem to be at the base of the mountain. If you fight them, they will fight you back. But if you go slowly and feel the branches and where they give, you can almost feel elegant in the process. The slope suddenly steepened after breaking through the alders and I couldn’t stand up anymore. With my hands clutching for a hold and my feet searching for purchase, each step was an effort. Lungs burning and calves aching, I was taking big steps to keep up, but then my partner whispered, “Small steps, small steps.” I adjusted. I felt the rightness of this rhythm. Small steps changed my breathing, and I felt the needed surrender to the terrain. We climbed and traversed until near the top, the slope eased and we were in the wonder of alpine flowers–dryas octopetala, moss campion, pink pincushion, dwarf harebells–all clinging to a scratch of tundra. It was here at the very top that the Dall rams abide. We could follow their narrow trail, marked with tufts of white hollow hair and little balls of scat. At one point, I made the mistake of looking down. Only six inches of trail kept me from plunging a couple thousand feet down a rocky slope. I wavered. But I was already on the trail. My only choice was to do as I had done. To focus on what was right in front of me and take another step. We found those Dall rams, crawling on our bellies, slowly, taking our time. The thrill of seeing those regal animals on that mountain top altered my soul.

This altering of soul I remember– climbing that mountain and the wildness of that park– as I now live in wild times, when anything could happen. And yet I’m not relaxed and there is not the same anticipation as I had visiting Denali. What I’m learning now is how to climb the mountain of uncertainty that comes with having my dear soul sister so ill with metastatic cancer. And if not insult enough, during a pandemic. It’s unimaginable not to be able to be by her side, not able to give her a hug or hold her hand. And after 9 weeks of chemo-induced vomiting, diarrhea, weakness, brain fog, and insomnia, it wasn’t worth it. It didn’t work. It didn’t work. On now to the experimental treatment. The journey stretches out ahead dark and unknowable. A narrow trail with lots of exposure. How am I to be with her? It’s like climbing a mountain– through thick alders, struggling up a steep slope, finding it hard to breathe, wavering with gut-wrenching fear. So these old old lessons arise as I hold the memory of that first ascent of Igloo Mountain. Old wisdom is what I need now. Maybe that is why it comes back to me–learning how to climb this unnerving mountain has me staggering. The mountain says, “Move with the same elegance through obstacles, sensing the way through.” I know on one hand this wisdom holds true. It’s exactly what I need to do. But I’ve barely broken through the alders of this mountain. Really, I want to just scream, throw things and demand a better explanation from whoever God is in this.

I got to see her last night–on her back deck, both of us with masks on, 10 feet apart. She wearing her blue cap to keep her bare head warm and me in my turban, trying to imagine no hair. She’s thinner. She’s reflective, grateful and gracious as always–still pays great attention to detail, still loves to talk about her grandchildren, still brightens with creativity. Others have gathered too to wish her well, make prayer flags, dance in her labyrinth while she watches and we all howled. We are her wolfpack. It’s good, I tell myself. This is enough. This moment. This laughter. This joy. This deep connection. But in my car on the way home, I feel a little desolate.

I’ve had some nausea since I first learned about it 10 weeks ago. It does make me sick. I’ve learned to say those same soothing words to myself as I said to the moose when I’m torn open, “There, there, I know, so sorry, so sorry.” I’ve backed away from the brute force of my friend’s reality at times, but I’ve never been in denial. In fact, I am what they say, “preparing myself.” Oh yes, there are “flowers” of defiant, rugged beauty along the way, delicate and hardy as those alpine flowers. I’ve seen love in the tenderest of ways that tip me back to balance and hope. The new treatment seems to be helping. I’ve seen some miracles. But I’m just starting up that steep slope, breathing hard, aching, reciting my mantra, “small steps, small steps.” Finding my way to the top.

View near the top of Igloo Mountain, looking across to Cathedral Mountain in Denali National Park 9/19

Zuihitsu: A Perfect Form for the Times

I was introduced to a new writing form today on a forum I follow called 49 Writers. ( Alaska is the 49th state to join the Union.) They’ve devoted a post a day to bridge the gaps in meeting with fellow writers during the pandemic restrictions. Today’s post was from John Morgan of Fairbanks who defines a zuihitsu as ” a Japanese form involving loosely related prose sections, often numbered. Calling on free association, it makes use of diary material, lyrical fragments, and brief essays. The word zuihitsu means “follow the brushstroke.”” I’m intrigued to give it a try.

Feels Like Spring: May 3, 2020

  1. The buds on the birch tree by the deck have hesitantly emerged. After all, it was still 33 degrees last night. But those 55 degree days of sun are alluring. Local wisdom says when those buds are as big as a squirrel’s ear, we can plant. I’m watching for squirrels.
  2. I’m planning a party for a friend who is on cancer treatment. She’s been on strict quarantine of course. Yet with precautions, she and her husband agreed that some social interaction would be healing. But I never had to take into a consideration that I could kill someone if I had a party. We are planning the distance apart we can take on the deck and everyone is to BYOM–bring your own mask. Sanitizers will be at the base of the stairs to the deck. No food. Provide your own drink and glass. If you bring a gift, wipe it down with chlorox wipes or just don’t bring one. Whew. Sounding less like a party. Counting on Love to carry us through.
  3. My three year old granddaughter told me yesterday that “My shadow very loves me.” I said, “Oh how do you know?” She explained,”Because when I’m swinging or running or on my scooter, it always comes with me.” Very love.
  4. Took a deep breath and tried going to Costco for the first time since the shutdown. The variety of masks in colors, styles and sizes alone is engaging. But when I got hemmed in by carts near the cheese aisle, I had some momentary panic. I don’t want to think of my fellow human beings as toxic to me–but I did.
  5. If not for the pandemic, I would be at a campground in Capitol Reefs National Park right now. But the Park is closed, my reservation money has been sent back and we couldn’t drive our camper through Canada anyway with the borders closed. I haven’t been home in April for a long time. So I’ve planted seeds, seeds and more seeds. My dining room table is now the greenhouse. There is that moment of looking a seed that is almost microscopic and trying to believe that will become a green thriving plant. Yet they are pushing up through the black soil and leaning with all their might toward the light of the window. It’s hard to believe a virus so so much smaller than that seed can kill. Yet I see the statistics every night on the late news. I’m glad it’s the season of long days here where I rarely see the dark anymore. I’m leaning into light too.
  6. A notice went out from the local church that if the church buildings open up again for worship, there can only be 20 people inside. And no communion. No greeting handshake, no sharing of the peace. And no singing. “A singer can spray up to 27 feet,” the message advises. I notice I’m humming hymns much of the time these days as I putter in the yard. No conscious intent to do so, they just arise. My latest is What Wondrous Love is This O My Soul.
  7. My mother is still in isolation at the rehab facility after her fall and resulting hip fracture. It’s 3500 miles away from me. Her dementia keeps her isolated as well from understanding where she is, why she is there and why the heck we don’t get her out of there and take her home. The adjoining facility for those in assisted living has an outbreak of Covid19. I wait for daily updates and send her emails through the social worker.
  8. One day at a time has taken new meaning. I wake up, sense my body and with a sigh of relief say to myself, “I’m not sick.”
  9. I didn’t want to write about the virus today.
  10. ” It is I who must begin. Once I begin, once I try– here and now, right where I am, not excusing myself by saying things would be easier elsewhere, without grand speeches and ostentatious gestures, but all the more persistently–to live in harmony with the “voice of Being,” as I understand it within myself–as as soon as I begin that, I suddenly discover, to my surprise, that I am neither the only one, nor the first, nor the most important one to have set out upon this road. Whether all is really lost or not depends entirely on whether or not I am lost.” A poem by Vaclav Havel.