I’ve been recommending Kate Bowler’s Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved like it’s going out of print. In fact, I recommended it to the man next to me as I cast my vote in the Ontario election last month. Reader: he promised to order it directly.
Not since Paul Kalanthi’s When Breathe Becomes Air have I gone on a self-appointed publicity tour on behalf of an author I’ve never met.
I first encountered Kate Bowler when I received a one line email from a journalist friend. Suspicious of the email’s spartan contents I opened it to read:
“Hannah - You may enjoy this wonderful woman. Especially poignant today! Book looks wonderful too.”
My curiosity piqued, I opened Kate’s NPR interview from February. It only took reading to the end of the first paragraph to know that I was reading the words of someone who was committed to telling the whole story:
"Married in my 20s, a baby in my 30s, I won a job at my alma mater straight out of graduate school. I felt breathless with the possibilities. Actually, it's getting harder to remember what it felt like, but I don't think it was anything as simple as pride. It was certainty, plain and simple, that God had a worthy plan for my life in which every setback would also be a step forward. I wanted God to make me good and make me faithful with just a few shining accolades along the way. Anything would do if hardships were only detours on my long life's journey. I believed that God would make a way. I don't believe that anymore."
I was hooked. As I waited for my copy of Everything Happens for a Reason to arrive, Kate seemed to be everywhere. A short post about the NPR interview on social media brought in an unexpected flood of comments. Everyone I knew, it seemed, had a story of Kate.
Part memoir, part theological reflection, Everything Happens for a Reason chronicles the lived-experience of its author Kate Bowler – a young theologian diagnosed with terminal cancer. Deeply funny and heart-wrenching all at once, Kate details the irony of being the first academic to write a comprehensive history of the North American Prosperity Gospel movement only to be diagnosed with terminal cancer at the age of 35 shortly after publishing her findings.
It’s hard to know where to begin in a review of a work just 166 pages in length that covers everything from conflicting theological frameworks to the challenge of advocating for oneself in an obscure medical system. Perhaps the singular, most remarkable gift of Kate’s work is her provision of a humanized, accessible framework for un-eulogized suffering as a person of faith in a deeply broken world. It’s most distinctive feature most certainly is its ability to hold a bit of each of us within its pages.
While not many within my acquaintance would label themselves as adherents to a “health and wealth” gospel, I’ve been there with the best of them. I’ve prayed for favour, for healing, for that left-hair-pin turn that will somehow lessen a tragedy into a near-miss opportunity to trust that it will “be all right in the end.”
Who among us hasn’t held onto a theologically decontextualized version of “I know the plans I have for you”? Or better yet: “All things work together for good for them that love the Lord.” We appreciate a theology of suffering, but only from a distance. We prefer to engage with suffering from an anecdotal perspective. At worst, when forced to confront pain, I have too often chosen to engage from an emotive or theological lens. I’m afraid that the dissonance between my questions and the theological frameworks I’ve been handed will be too much. I’m afraid of what my questions will sound like if spoken aloud.
Kate challenges that notion. She is funny, irreverent, and unapologetic in her questioning. Her book is punctuated by humorous stories of pre-surgery gaffs and tongue-in-cheek comments. Among them: “Cancer clinics try to be places of encouragement, and for that we can offer them a slow hand clap.”
Kate opens up the space around her for people to encounter one of only two unavoidable truths we haven’t been able to avoid or explain away: we are born and then we die.
Kate is unequivocal in her rage and questioning:
“God I don’t just want to know you better. I want to save my family.”
“It is at moments like this – when I feel everyone’s eyes on me, watching my progress and my attitude for signs of the gospel – that I am gripped with fear.”
“Thy kingdom come, I pray, and my heart aches. And my tongue trips over the rest. Thy will be done.”
“I am starting to worry that I will die here, apart, away from my home among the Mennonites of Canada, away from that delicious feeling of being folded into something.”
“I am the death of their daughter. I am the death of his wife. I am the end of his mother. I am the life interrupted. Amen.”
Yet, Kate doggedly retains her sense of faith. “At a time when I should have felt abandoned by God, I was not reduced to ashes,” she says when describing her palpable sense of God’s presence. And then, just as calmly she states that she knows the emotive assurance of this truth will at some point leave her (as all emotive experience do) and leave behind the truth they served as vehicles to impart.
St. Augustine called it “the sweetness.” Thomas Aquinas called it something mystical like “the prophetic light.” But all said yes, it will go. The feelings will go. The sense of God’s presence will go. There will be no lasting proof that God exists. There will be no formula for how to get it back.
But they offered me this small bit of certainty, and I clung to it. When the feelings recede like the tides, they said, they will leave an imprint. I would somehow be marked by the presence of an unbidden God.
Kate invites the reader to go through the motions of an ordinary life marked by a sense of impending, looming terminus. “I am stuck in the present tense. I have lost the ability to make extended plans, to reach into the future and speak its language,” she writes.
Reader, I do not mind telling you that I sobbed my way through most of this book, on a train no less on which I tried to keep my unladylike snuffling to a bare minimum for fear that my seatmates may sound the alarm.
After all that, I got stuck writing this review. As in, I hit a dead wall that has lasted for over a month. I mumbled any number of excuses, but the reality is that Kate’s story hits too close for home in this season. I know I’m not alone.
Kate’s book found me in the middle of my own series of scans, that while gratefully clear brought a certain clarity and time of prayerful wrestling that I was a stranger to before. And then, when I reopened this file a few weeks ago, I received a call letting me know that my mentor – a year younger than Kate and the father of two young boys, the youngest less than 6 months old – has been re-diagnosed with cancer. I return to this line: “Thy kingdom come, I pray, and my heart aches. And my tongue trips over the rest. Thy will be done.”
Kate’s book is a call for people of faith to undertake the hard conversations. To trade trite platitudes for complexity. To take comfort in serving a God who holds our fear, our rage, and our questions with the same grace and love with which he receives our thanks and praise. To trust that the theological frameworks we have been given are robust and strong enough to withstand the weight of our fleeting questions. To suffer as body, mind, and spirit people. To suffer well, bravely, honestly, painfully – together – a people marked as Kate says, “By the presence of an unbidden God.”
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