The Struggling Times: Facing Illness, Loss and Grief

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                                                    Reflections on August 7, 2022

                       The Struggling Times: Facing Illness, Loss and Grief

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. — 2 Corinthians 4: 8-10

In you, O Lord, I seek refuge;

          do not let me ever be put to shame;

          in your righteousness deliver me.

Incline your ear to me;

          rescue me speedily.

Be a rock of refuge for me,

          a strong fortress to save me. — Psalm 31

This morning, I’d like to offer some thoughts on the ways in which we yearn to be blessed when we are facing some of the hardest times in our lives.  In July, I spoke about the way in which the term blessing has been “co-opted” if you will by popular society; it has become overused and appropriated in our culture to speak about all of the good things that people somehow feel we deserve to own or accumulate. Too often we consider “blessings” to be just those things that feel “good” to us. And yet, the Celtic tradition extends blessing to the most challenging times of our lives, especially times of loss. We can imagine that if we feel the times in which we live are particularly difficult, that for ancient peoples, the frequency of suffering and sickness and death defined the lives of all people and they sought to make meaning of those times as well.  They understood that they were as much a part of life, if not more a part of life, than the times of celebration and joy.  Daily life was hard as so much was unknown and so they embraced a spirituality, an understanding of God, who was with them in all the moments, and especially in the hardest ones.  Very few people go through life unscathed.  We have all experienced some form of struggle or suffering, whether personally, in our families, or among friends.  Often, it is in such times that we appreciate the ways in which our faith may sustain us and give us strength and courage.  It is in such times that our communities may offer support and that God is present through those who show up to care for us.  What blessing might we find in those circumstances—not in spite of those circumstances but perhaps because of them? Blessing does not deny sorrow but deepens and moves us through it.  Let us pray, O Holy One, bless us this day wherever we find ourselves in life.  Bless the broken places and the broken hearts.  Grant us your strength and your hope this day and in all times. We ask this through your Son, Jesus. Amen.

          During the Lenten Season, our Worship was inspired by a wonderful book by Kate Bowler and Jessica Richie called Good Enough.  We shared some of the very honest blessings for daily life which they included in this book and which reflected their own lived experiences of suffering and loss.  Since that time, I have read more about Kate Bowler’s life journey and I’d like to share a little of that this morning.  Kate is an associate professor at Duke Divinity School and the author of several books.  Her own journey has not been easy.  At age 35, in the midst of a life that was unfolding exactly as she had hoped…married her high school sweetheart, mother of a little boy, pursuing her dream job in academia, she was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.  In a wonderful TED talk she did several years following that time, she recounts the story of receiving the call that would change her life…after being told of this hard, hard diagnosis, and she responded, And all I could think of to say was, “But I have a son. I can’t end. This world can’t end. It has just begun.” She continued, “And then I called my husband, and he rushed to find me and I said all the true things that I have known. I said, “I have loved you forever, I have loved you forever. I am so sorry. Please take care of our son.”

During treatment, she began to work on a memoir entitled Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved in which she grapples with making sense of life after her cancer diagnosis.  As one writer explained, “A common thread uniting all of Bowler’s projects is the search for honest language about life’s hardest moments.”  And don’t we all want honesty and something that rings true to us when speaking about the essential things of life?  We yearn for language that resonates with our own lived experience.  She has found that to be true as well. 

Before her diagnosis, she had published a book entitled, Blessed, in which she had shared her extensive explorations on what is called “the American prosperity gospel.”  Bowler was trying to make sense of this growing movement that has taken root in the US in many megachurches.  “Put simply, the prosperity gospel is the belief that God grants health and wealth to those with the right kind of faith.”  Many of the televangelists preach this gospel, including Joel Osteen.  People flock to hear its teachings and believe that blessings will come to them if they just have enough faith; blessings of health and wealth will go to those who feel entitled to them.  When bad things happen to us, we try to make sense of them.  We have platitudes to share or we attempt to wrap our minds around that which just doesn’t make sense.  Or, we undertake extensive research to find cures that can change the trajectory of the prognosis.  It is a very human experience to bring rational thinking to a complex problem; however, as we often discover, there are not always simple answers for why bad things happen to good people…or for that matter, to any people.   And people do have the best of intentions, but too often, we project our own thinking, our own beliefs onto others, imagining that it may bring comfort when too often, it just doesn’t.

Kate Bowler shared an example of this as she explained, “It is the reason a neighbor knocked on our door to tell my husband that everything happens for a reason. “I’d love to hear it,” my husband said.

“Pardon?” she said, startled. “I’d love to hear the reason my wife is dying,” he said, in that sweet and sour way he has. My neighbor wasn’t trying to sell him a spiritual guarantee. But there was a reason she wanted to fill that silence around why some people die young and others grow old and fussy about their lawns. She wanted some kind of order behind this chaos. Because the opposite of #blessed is leaving a husband and a toddler behind, and people can’t quite let themselves say it: “Wow. That’s awful.” There has to be a reason, because without one we are left as helpless and possibly as unlucky as everyone else.”

(NYT, Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me, Kate Bowler, Feb 13, 2016.)

          Countless pages of Scripture are dedicated to writers seeking answers to life’s hardest questions, dedicated to calling out to God to be with them in their suffering.  From the book of Job to the Psalms to the Gospels, we hear the voices of ordinary people seeking healing, seeking compassion, seeking love.  Each of us may have our own understanding of life’s hardest questions framed by our own faith and journeys in life.  I have found over time that I have far more questions than I do answers.  I know that suffering is real and I do believe in a God who is near to us in all moments, but especially in the hardest ones.  I also believe that Jesus’ suffering in life and on the cross was a way to help us understand that God does enter into our suffering.  I don’t believe it happens for a reason or to teach us a lesson.  We may choose to learn important things; we may choose to widen our own capacity to love and be present; but people are also broken by suffering; people are forever changed.  As a community of faith, we believe that we are called to be the presence of the divine to one another.  We are called to show up and hold a hand and sit with a friend.  We are called to love one another. 

Kate Bowler underwent a cutting-edge immunotherapy and is now in remission.  She founded the Everything Happens project at Duke to promote compassion in our world.  After all she has gone through, she has said that she believes this…that “Life is so beautiful.  Life is so hard….and  It is the everyday acts of compassion which will see us through the hardest times.” 

These days, Bowler drops her 7-year-old off at school most mornings. It often goes like this: As they scurry to reach the school front door before the bell rings, her son will tug on Bowler’s hand, pulling her back.

“He says, ‘Oh mom, let’s not waste our time,’” Bowler says. “Meaning, ‘let’s not rush this’.”  “He’s exactly right. It’s weirdly wise.”

Bowler savors those everyday mornings. Meanwhile, in her podcast and her writing, she continues to seek better ways to express difficult truths, to acknowledge that life rarely amounts to a neat equation.

(Duke Today, Nov 2021)

I’d like to close with a blessing she included in her book, Good Enough.  Perhaps it will resonate with you or it will remind you of someone in your beloved circle who has or is going through a time for which there are just sometimes no good words to share…