I have just finished reading a new book by author and Duke professor, Kate Bowler. Her book, Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I Have Enjoyed, is an honest accounting of her recent and on-going struggle with colon cancer. She spoke of the “gospel of prosperity” which seems to have infected much of our religious practice and belief in this country…and I am hard pressed to find my own way beyond that mind set.
Lately, I’ve been plagued with questions about life changing (life threatening) events like incurable diseases that literally steal one’s life away, car wrecks caused by things like irresponsible drivers with cell phones or violent weather that catches drivers en route … “unfair” events that happen seemingly at random, catching their “victims” unawares, unprepared for devastating changes to the lives both of the victim and to those who love them.
Not long after I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, a well-meaning friend offered to pray for healing for me. I shied away from the offer, not sure such “Healing” was or could be real. What was the matter with me?! Didn’t I believe God is powerful enough to do such a miracle? Was I afraid of what might happen, or how I would feel if, after such a prayer, healing did not happen…?
In the ten years since that event, I have often wondered about that reaction, wondered if I blew my one chance to actually be rid of this insidious degenerative disease. Was I thinking that I could boldly soldier on, making the best of it, banking on God’s goodness to keep the disease from causing too much damage to my existence? Was I naively waltzing into the future, believing that because God is love, He would keep me from suffering? Did I honestly think that the power of positive thinking would keep the illness at bay?
Ten years. In that time, I have watched a wonderful friend, a gifted pastor for 37+ years who has been struck with a virulent form of Parkinson’s that responds to none of the current treatments. It’s like Parkinson’s on steroids. He should still be painting, writing, hiking, teaching, and mentoring! Instead, he has become a prisoner in a body that doesn’t work, bedridden except for the vigilant care giving of an amazing wife. Yet, they keep living, facing daily challenges, and, word has it, they are even working on a book using technology that lets him type on the computer with his eyes! I find myself wondering at my friend’s demeanor…why is he not railing at God, shaking his fist angrily at what he has lost. What is God thinking of, allowing him and his family and community to suffer such devastating loss?!?!!
I have another friend of similar age and malady who has very few “people resources”. No church family. Essentially no natal family. Few resources. No hope. And I find myself at a loss as to how to help her. She was a teacher for more than 30 years. She worked as a dog trainer and treated my own dear Kelsey as her own when I left my pet at the kennel. Yet, now this friend is but a shell of her former self, an aging, angry, defiant elderly child locked inside a body that defies her every demand. She exists in direct contrast to my aforementioned pastor friend.
My ”list” of unfairness grows longer each month. There is the 5-year-old son of a young woman to whom I taught piano – beautiful family. And the son has cancer. As grateful as I am for places like St. Jude’s Hospital, no one should ever have to take one’s child there! And there are several dear ladies in my church who are facing down recurring cancers that would seem to steal their lives away long before their loved ones are ready to let them go. And on and on and ON….
So, what is the secret to coping with such devastation? I’ve been, it seems, one of the lucky ones in the coping department. I’ve lost much of what I used to do, of who I was before. I don’t want to review those losses here. I just want to find some answers. I want to know the secret to surviving the devastation with the rest of my soul intact!
With each loss, I have allowed myself to grieve, sometimes for months. At times, I have revisited some of those favorite lost places…the organ bench, my school and dearly beloved classroom. I have railed against the injustice. Raged at the unfairness of it all. I have wiped away many tears that rise, unbidden, at the words to hymns or anthems or poems or scriptures that have touched nerves still raw from the most recent loss. I have hidden, often, behind a barrage of busyness, seeking to replace favorite activities with other things to occupy my mind and emotions.
(Don’t get me wrong: learning to make teddy bears from old coats has been fun. Making memory bears to help
others with their own grief has largely filled some of my own yearning to make life better for someone else.
Photography has pulled me outside into a world, giving a new understanding of the World Maker’s creativity. I have connected with friends over impromptu luncheons; worked on our home, making it more handicap accessible; built an outdoor hardscape complete with fire pit, stacked stone walls, graveled seating area, and flagstone walkway. I have especially enjoyed friends and family around campfire cook outs and s’mores. I have enjoyed the freedom to be with grandkids and help my kids as they have moved more deeply into their adulthood….
But still the question remains: Why do bad things happen to good people? How do some folks seem to cope so well, rising above the devastation even as life ekes away?
If I take an honest look at my pastor friend, I realize he and his wife are “simply” living one day at a time, enjoying the good that comes their way, piecing together an existence different from what they had planned or expected, but they are continuing to live each day, not skipping anything. Even as bleak as the future might seem, there is still a goodness in life that is worth savoring, cherishing, relishing. And perhaps, therein lies the secret, the answer to my original question. Keep living, day in and day out, searching for what is interesting, refusing to allow Parkinson’s to invade one’s soul. Don’t skip anything! I have Parkinson’s, but Parkinson’s does not have me!
In Kate Bowler’s book, there is a moment in her story that cut through the devastation, offering a truth that I too have experienced, along with many others who have experienced a brush with death. In the midst of the chaos and devastation came a sense of being Loved, a sense of Peace … Dare I say it? … A sense of God’s peace. Even after that feeling faded, very often the one who had the experience was left with an indelible imprint, as if they were somehow “marked by the presence of an unbidden God.”
Personally, I cling to the memory of those experiences. I have no scientific proof that they happened, but I do know that experience, that Presence changed me. So, I accept the challenge of living in the present, not skipping any thing, savoring the good, determined to live on the happy side of existence, while also trying to keep my feet on the ground, based in the reality that the “gospel of prosperity” is a lie, but the Kingdom of God is real.