Kate Bowler has been on a media blitz since publishing her second book “Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved.” I’ve been tuning in to as many appearances as I can, including interviews, podcasts and her recent TED Talk, which reached one million views in record time.
In addition to being a wife and mother, Kate is associate professor of the history of Christianity in North America at Duke University’s Divinity School.
Bowler has spent her adult life as a scholar of the “prosperity gospel,” a uniquely American phenomenon. Her first book tackles this strain of theological thought. Crudely summarized, it’s built around the idea that God rewards good, faithful, hardworking people with an abundance of material blessings, including health and wealth. In other words, you reap what you sow.
Her latest book is more personal. At age 35, Kate was diagnosed, somewhat out of the blue, with stage four cancer. In her TED Talk she speaks about the moment the doctors gave her the news. Instinctually, she responded, “But I have a son.” Mothers of young children shouldn’t get terminal diagnoses. Bad things should not happen to good people.
Before being diagnosed, Kate described herself as a mere observer of the prosperity gospel, not someone who subscribed to it. I also like to think that I’ve sidestepped this line of thought when it comes to my faith.
After all, Jesus disavows the very notion with the story of the blind man in John’s Gospel. The disciples ask Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus replies, “Neither he nor his parents sinned.”
Despite knowing that story, I find it hard not to be shaped by our national ethos: that if you’re a good, hardworking person, good things should happen to you.
Two-and-a-half years ago my mom called to tell me that she had been diagnosed with a terminal illness. My response was similar to Kate’s: My mom is a kind and generous woman with a steadfast faith in the Lord. Our family strives to be hardworking and generous. How was this God’s path for her? How was this our fate?
One of the first things I did after getting the news was to call a priest who has been a loyal counselor. Both of his parents had succumbed to cruel diseases. His words were simple. He said, “There will be people along this journey who will surprise you with their compassion and kindness. Pay attention so you don’t miss those moments.”
That has been my experience. I’ve watched nurses and health care professionals make a personal investment in my mom and our family. Complete strangers have sent messages pledging their prayers. Extended family members have become indispensable. Co-workers have moved mountains to accommodate appointments and last-minute needs.
Kate shared this revelation: “In a time in which I should have felt abandoned by God, I was not reduced to ashes. I felt like I was floating on the love and prayers of those around me.”
But she also shares that she knew there’d be a time when those feelings of love would fade. Her friends assured her that the feelings would “leave an imprint,” which would make the dark times easier to endure. Three years later, she’s found this to be true.
Death is a strict teacher. Its rules are unflinching and it doesn’t care what you think about fairness. But life is also a teacher with lessons of its own.
Jesus tells the disciples that the man was born blind “so that the works of God might be made visible through him.” In some instances, this means miraculous healing. But in many cases, the works of God are made visible through selfless acts on the part of caregivers and loved ones, and the patient’s humble decision to accept that kindness.
I’m not certain that everything happens for an intelligible reason. But with faith I am willing to wager that it all might happen out of love and for love.
Italiano Ureneck is associate director of the Center for the Church in the 21st Century at Boston College.