PHPC welcomed Kate Bowler on October 25. Read below for an edited version of the conversation!
What did you learn by studying the prosperity gospel movement?
If you get down to the studs- what do you need from God? Sometimes I felt like the people I met in those healing rallies were the most honest.
At first I thought the prosperity gospel was just about money. But I didn’t realize it was fundamentally a theodicy- an explanation for the problem of evil. People wanted to be able to thumb through their own lives- their own biographies- and ask- “was God really there? How would I know?” People were looking for evidence that God was in their lives.
Say a little about the word “blessed.”
Blessed used to mean “even so, in the end.” It spoke to salvation. But in the last 10 years it has taken on this note of luck.
I love the idea that I can manage my way out of any problem. I love the idea that I am scrappy, determined, I have a sense of humor- I mean, what can’t I do?
But when it all fell apart so quickly, I realized I had been more interested in upward mobility than in anything else.
What has changed most since your diagnosis?
It really changed how I saw everyone. You feel like everything is cracked open. All the sudden everyone on the bottom is just like you. You just realized that we are all so fragile.
I became really desperate- in a good way. I was so grateful for all the people who tried to remake me with the sheer force of love.
When you are that desperate, you realize that you are that open to the love of God and the raw need of community. That has made me so much more invested in what the church is supposed to be, and what we need to be.
Where you every angry with God?
I mean yeah, I was pissed. I wasn’t so much angry for myself, but when I looked at my husband I always thought- what a bad deal. And when I looked at my parents- they had finally launched us all, they were supposed to be retiring. They were supposed to be done. I remember my mom was cooking thanksgiving and was trying to teach me something when I wasn’t supposed to live another year, and I remember thinking “how brave that she is pretending to teach me something as if I’ll be here. That is bravery.
What are your thoughts on suffering now?
Everyone’s life seem so obvious. Everyone seems to have a rhythm- something to do, somewhere to go. But the second your life falls apart, there seems to be nothing in particular to help hold you together. And I have a really hard time finding spiritual language to define that.
When my life was coming apart at the seams, there was nothing bound about my suffering. I just wanted people to linger and pray, and there was not a lot of places that made me feel like I wasn’t a loser! I needed Lent to remind me that my suffering was not an affront to God- that it’s okay for it to be messy.
God are you here?- that was one of the greatest surprises to me. In moments when I have been the most unsure of things, God has been present. God’s love has been so present everywhere. When I was in the hospital, God’s love was so present- it was like a river of floaty wonderfulness. I guess that was the Holy Spirit. I think that’s kind of his jam. I guess her jam, technically.
I love the experience of time with my son, because in those moments, time just unspools.
I think there are times that God gives us, that we have with one another, where there is this “more-than-enoughness” that bubbles up from the deep- this quality time- and it gets me off my stop watch- and I think that’s what God intended.
How has prayer been a part of your journey?
What I wanted so much when I was sick, was for people to pray for something with deep anticipation for something that was better than we could hope for. What was so frustrating about my mainline Christian friends, was that they could never pray for what was unimaginable. I wanted them to pray for the unimaginable- that somehow there would be more than enough! I wanted them to pray for my healing! Or to fill up the end with beauty! There was kind of a politeness to their prayers that I kind of resented, so secretly I would pray with the pentecostals, cause they were in it to win it!
There was also something about the duration of pray- they call it “tarrying.” The longer you spend in prayer- the more you feel fragmented bits of yourself come together, and I really came to cherish that. I couldn’t do it for myself. I needed other people to pray that identity back into me.
Even if people just pray the psalms! The psalms are audacious enough! Just don’t pray proverbs. Proverbs is bossy.
What gives you hope?
It’s been such a humbling experience. I think the experience of community gives me hope. I think having a better grasp of good news gives me hope. I have tons of hope for better doctors, etc. that give some hope. I have taken such comfort in not trying to run the spiritual math of my life anymore. I’m not expected “good as new,” anymore. I’m expecting wholeness- on a different level.
I am hoping for a boldness too- for all of us. The great surprise for me, in the presence of God, is that in our worst moments, God really does promise to be there. So I’m kind of banking on that, that we cannot just grind the gears, but that we can expect God to make a stunning experience.
What brings you joy?
The things I thought were the basics of my life, have become the everything. So I find myself getting really emotional and grateful for the gift of beautiful friends, the health of my parents, holidays, beautiful liturgical holidays.
What should people say and not say to those who are suffering?Acknowledge.
I found the people I loved the most, I was the most likely to lie to, because I could tell my pain was a pain on their shoulders. So we all ran around lying to each other for a while.
Minimizers are my least favorite- those who start everything with “at least.”
I was sitting with someone recently who had a worse diagnosis than I did, and I wanted so badly to build a bridge between us- to say- we’re the same, you and I. But I knew I couldn’t. I couldn’t fix it. All I could do was acknowledge it.
Everyone wants a solution- because if I can find the cause then I can find the cure.
The best lie I have loved is that I can work through any problem.
To say that I am blessed, is to say that I have been the recipient of absolutely outrageous love. And it’s hard to reach for the word blessed instead of the word lucky, but I like the word blessed if it feels a lot like love.
What’s your next book about?
I wrote a history of women in popular ministry. I was trying to explain why women have so few positions in institutional ministry, and why they are often driven out and what they do.
I think people are really hungry for theological resources to explain the world around us.
I am working really hard to be steeped in the beauty of the opportunities that God gives us now. So what I have now is my kid is going to be a pirate for Halloween. I hit my 15-year wedding anniversary, which I never thought I’d hit.
I have a lot of hopes that I will live to see my husband lose his beautiful hair, but every time I walk up to a scan I am a little terrified. It feels like you walk up to the edge of the deep, take a deep breath, and if the scan is good, then you get to take a step back and get to be a basic target mom for a few more months, and then you do it again. It’s a liturgy I’m getting used to in my life though.
I didn’t realize there was such a tight script around being sick- especially for women, who are socialized into performative optimism.
When I feel like I’m drowning, I try to remind myself that I’m not to be trusted. So I don’t have any difficult conversations after 8 pm or before 10 am. I need my strongest self. I get sleep. I only watch comedies. There is no This is Us. I listen to things like Sandra McKracken’s “Beautiful Songs” worship albums- something so beautiful that it feels like a cushion. I try to be outside a lot, because it feels harder to cry under an open sky. I demand that everyone hug me. I try to find things that delight me. And I pray that the God that loves me will make that known, and I pray that I can be okay with not having all the answers.”
Grief is about loss. We lose things all the time. And we need one another to put each other back together and to remind each other who we really are- who we are in God- who we are to one another. And I am so aware that cancer is a casserole illness. It’s a disease I can tell people about and they’ll bring you food. Your husband leaves you? I’m so sorry. Zero casseroles.
Life is always in the details. But I was so rushed. I have this thing I do now- where I try to memorize this moment, each day, where my day peaked.
I know that when I was prayed for- not to be weird- but I can feel it. I can feel myself being lifted up by that love. So when I pray now, I try to be less selfish and more diligent, in lifting people up above the water, because we’re all drowning at one point or another.