How Do We Transform Tragedy? Conclusion

[For the full interview recording with Pamela Q. Fernandes, see my August 17, 2018 blog.]

Pamela: Would you have any names of books that people could also can read if they want to do an additional commentary or study the book of Job?

Gordon: Let’s see. There’s a book by Habel, H-A-B-E-L in the Old Testament Library series. It’s very scholarly, but it’s also very stimulating, 1985, that’s a one-volume. But there’s another one by Wilson. It’s a little bit more popular, a major commentary by Gerald Wilson, New International Commentary, based on the New International Version of the Bible. That would be good. It was Habel’s book that I read that later just turned me on to the book of Job and reawakened my love for it. There’s also a three-volume series of books by David Clines, which is, as you can imagine very technical, as Habel’s is as well. And then the other book that affected me and stimulated me by Jack Kahn, K-A-H-N. He wrote, “Job’s Illness: Loss, Grief, and Integration. A Psychological Interpretation.” That’s the book that gave me the idea of a progression or a transformation, or the change in Job. Usually if you look at the book it’s all talking, without seeing Job’s movement through it all. I’ll give you one good example, at the beginning of Job talking with his friends, he talks about, “He,” meaning God: He, He, He. Kahn explains around, I think it’s in Chapter 9, that Job changes the person dramatically from He to You. Now, some people have interpreted this as prayers. Well, they’re not really prayers in the technical sense; they are addressed to God, but the same anger is there. And they’re not worship…anyway, that gives you an idea that Job is not static. That the process of talking with friends brings about changes within him, and leads him through these kind of negative stages which I mentioned. So those are the major books  that helped me.

Pamela: Tell us a little bit about your own book. Because I read the book and there’s so much personal stuff in it. You know, your own personal experiences, your own personal tragedies. So tell us a little bit about your book. Where people can find you if they want to contact you, what do they do?

Gordon: I had a personal motive as well, in all of this writing. And that is my son and daughter-in-law have been treating for chronic fatigue illness for over 30 years. And it’s been very tragic. They’re both highly talented people. Musically, they were both graduates of the Wheaton Conservatory of Music at college, and yet have been, as far as life is concerned, on the shelf. So I began the book with my first experience of being confronted with our daughter-in-law’s illness, which changed our son’s life and changed our lives as well. So there’s a personal motive for wanting to get their names and their story into people’s minds, so that they not be forgotten. And that their lives mean something. Juli’s father has also written a book about them. And so we’ve been able to devote our time to helping people be aware of their lives and be a witness for Christ during this time.

Yes, it’s available on, amazon.com in both paper and in eBook. Or, I have a website tragedytransformed.com which offers my book for sale. I also have a blog that I write for regularly, www.gordongrose.com, that’s my name G-O-R-D-O-N- G-R-O-S-E.com. And I deal with subjects related to the book of Job, and related to hope, addiction, recovery, hope in death and dying, and hope in mental illness. I’m on Google Plus, Gordon Grose. I’m on Facebook.

Pamela: Any last words that you have for people who are dealing with tragedies?

Gordon: Sure. When I wanted to write the book, I wrote it in a way which lays out the story of Job according to how we experience life, and I made it in a way that people can grasp because we go through these experiences and stages. It’s not exactly the way the book of Job itself is laid out. So it should appeal to people. The chapters begin with the story of somebody I interviewed, a number of people with different experiences. I have a story about a lady in Chapter 8 who lost her husband suddenly through an automobile accident, for example, who fell asleep at the wheel.

I have a story in Chapter 6 of a former mental health client, who was very, very disturbed and who gave me permission to write his story in my book. And when I preached my launch sermon at my home church, I called and invited him, and he was there. So that was very exciting. But that deals with mental illness. I have a story of a man who went through depression after he lost his wife in divorce and he lost his job the same year. He wanted to die. He tried to, he planned it, he rehearsed it, and I write what happened to him. I have a story of a natural disaster, and I have my own son and daughter-in law’s story as well, the beginning of it. Each chapter begins with a story of someone I interviewed, and then ends with self-help suggestion how we can work through these painful experiences, and in the middle, of course, I deal with Job and his similar life experience.

I hope my book will be a handbook of healing to help sufferers navigate that suffering and hope it would even accelerate their healing, their recovery and their coming out the other side of the grief. So I’m hopeful that the book will have a healing effect on people, and bring them hope and encouragement, bring them closer to a personal experience with God, if they don’t already have one. And if they do, it will draw them even closer.

Pamela: So thank you so much Gordon for spending time and talking about this.

Gordon: I welcome the response from people as they hear me, and as they perhaps are motivated to read the book for themselves.

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How Do We Transform Tragedy? Interview Part III

[For the full interview recording with Pamela Q. Fernandes, see my August 17, 2018 blog.]

Pamela: As we talk about this transformation, are there any steps to doing this transformation? Let’s say somebody is going through something really difficult, what are the steps that can take them through this transformation of their tragedy?

Gordon: Overcoming negative emotions is important. And you notice in my book, I identify Job’s depression in Chapter 3: He wants to die and he’s very angry with God. He goes through fear, he has five major images of God as hostile to him. “The arrows of the Almighty are in me…My spirit drinks their poison.” Job sees God as an archer, and his body is pierced with poisoned arrows, and his life is seeping out. So he has to go through all of this very, very negative and painful emotions and finally gets to grieve. He doesn’t grieve until Chapter 29: And that’s over half the book. With 42 Chapters, 28 divides the book in two, but Job doesn’t begin to grieve until Chapter 29. And very often that’s true with people: they feel angry. But if you notice, some people will sue the doctor because the doctor operated on their loved ones, and the loved one didn’t survive. They blame the doctor. And it’s easier to get angry and focus all of your energy on the anger toward a specific person, than actually to simply grieve and let go, and realize that your loved one has gone and you could never have done anything to change the outcome.

Grieving

To grief is very difficult, but sometimes it comes later rather than right away. And of course, all of these feelings can be mixed up. So there’s not a clear-cut, step-by-step process. I heard Elizabeth Kübler-Ross discuss her so-called, “Stages of Grief.” But she says there’s no such thing. “Publishers preferred me to put my ideas into some form which they could organize. But anger and denial and acceptance and depression are not something you bolt from one to the other and you never pull back,” she said. By overcoming negative emotions, walking through the pain and not avoiding it, we find transformation. Also, maintaining social support. People can’t do anything and yet they’re very important. Many times I have sat with a widow who lost their husband, and they poured out their heart at the funeral home or at their own home and after an hour of non-stop grieving, I have felt totally helpless. “What am I going to do to help this person?” I wonder. And they say, “Thank you so much, Pastor. I don’t know what I would have done without you.” Well, I’ve helped them by listening, caring and sitting with them for a long period of time and hearing all the pain. Everything they can think of, that’s so painful.

That takes a little practice and a little training on my part, but it’s worth it to offer that kind of listening ear if you are a person that has some empathy naturally. So decide the time and let people pour out their heart. Maintaining a spiritual life also helps. I think it’s important as a foundation towards transformation because it gives you some stability. If you read my book there’s a passage from Boethius, who lived many centuries ago, and who tried to deal with suffering. The people at that time were dealing with slavery. Each culture would attack and control, and eventually enslave the people next to them. People endured slavery, death, and plague. He wrote The Consolation of Philosophy in order to bring comfort to Christians. He likened life to a big wheel, and at the center is God. The closer we get to the center of the wheel, to the heart, the less change there is, the less circular ups and downs of life. So maintaining a healthy spiritual life is important, a buttress against the vicissitudes of life, personal discipline in reading Scripture, along with a church and small group.

Social Support

Pamela: Do you think people who have a spiritual life do better than people who don’t?

Gordon: Well, I think so. That’s kind of my own opinion. I certainly think people who go to church also receive a lot of social support because they’ve got a Bible study, they’ve got a prayer group, they’ve got a pastor, they’ve got elders, who, when they learn of your difficulties, will come and support you. So the spiritual life leads to a lot of just plain human contact and support at a time of crisis.

Pamela: Also, I wanted to ask because when I read your book, I was wondering why you picked Job. I mean, there are lots of people who’ve gone through plenty in the Bible. You’ve got Paul, and you’ve got Peter, and you’ve got Stephen, and you’ve got Jesus Himself. But why did you pick Job, of all the people that you could pick as an example of dealing with tragedy? Why did you pick him?

Why Job?

Gordon: Well, I’ve had a life-long love for the book of Job. In 1960 and 1961 I took a course at Brandeis University a Jewish school in Waltham, Massachusetts, and it got me into the book of Job. I just got so excited especially reading it for myself. Well, it lay dormant for many decades, until I gave a workshop on the book of Job at a pastor friend’s church. “You need to write a book on Job,” he said. “No, no, no, I’m not…”, I said.

And after that… Anyway, one thing led to another and I retired from my counseling  ministry at Western Psychological in order to write. And, by the way, the book took me 12 years. So from 2003 to 2015, I was engaged 5 days a week, 3 hours a day in the library putting this together. Again, my life-long love for the book of Job, a difficult book, but I wanted to make the book understandable to modern readers. The structure is complicated, with three friends, each of whom give a speech. Job responds after each speech. Then they do this three times. So it’s very complicated and it’s so easy to get lost. Each of the friends had a different perspective on Job’s suffering, although they share the one assumption that he’s done something wrong. But they also approach it in a different way.

The tone of the book is also very argumentative and people don’t like to read something in which they talk past each other, and they’re angry. Well, for all those reasons people today, I think, just avoid the book of Job. They read a little bit at the beginning and the end. I wanted to make the whole book understandable. It’s much less well-known than say Jesus, or Paul, or Peter. And we have these 42 chapters for the book of Job. So that’s a sizable amount of material that seems to me needs dealing with. And then too, it has have such a powerful, compelling life story. The story in this case  is a compelling drama, this conflict with God, “Will he or won’t he?” Is the big question in the book of Job, will Job curse God and die, like his wife wanted, and like the Satan said he would, predicted he would, “If you take it all away from him. He’ll curse you to your face.” Well, does he or doesn’t he? And the book has Job on the edge all the time. He’s just so close to doing that, and yet he never does.

And finally, the experience of meeting God, in which Job unexpectedly meets God when God decides to confront him. And Job had tried every trick, every means possible to bring God face-to-face with him, all to no avail. Then God speaks! Isn’t that the way God will work as well for us? We try our best human efforts to manipulate God and other people; we love to manipulate circumstances, to control our life, and nothing works. But when we give up and yield and surrender, then God moves in an unexpected way in our life.

So those are the reasons that it was a very personal choice on my part, but basically, because I’ve had a life-long love for the book of Job Job since 1960-1961.

 

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How Do We Transform Tragedy? Interview Part II

[Note: to hear the entire interview with Pamela Q Fernandes, see blog for August 17. In next week’s blog, I’ll publish Part III.]

Preparing to Face Tragedy

Pamela: Explain to people, how do you go about transforming a tragedy in your life, especially when you’re so upset, you’re broken down, and you can’t see the light ahead of you. You can’t see God’s grace, nothing. So how do you transform that tragedy in your life?

Gordon: There are some things that we can do, some practical things we can do to prepare ourselves. And then I’ll answer the idea of transforming. For one thing, attend funerals. Somebody in your life dies, go to their memorial service. Go to their funeral. Go to the visiting hours, if there’s visiting of the body. This is something which we tend to avoid. And we console ourselves with, “I want to remember them as they were. I don’t wanna see them dead.” But we have…and I grew up, my early days in ministry which I performed and attended many funerals. They were dead, they were in a casket in front of the church. And, yeah, it is painful, but that is something that a person can do because that’s part of life.

Visit the dying. You know somebody is critically ill, go to them in the hospital. Visit them at home. Kübler-Ross wrote a very important book on death and dying in ’60s and ’70s. And she says this, “When we care for the dying, they give us a gift.” The gift is the ability to accept your own death. So visit the dying and the critically ill. Listening to others’ pain is something that we can do, too. Ordinarily, we change the subject. Somebody starts to choke up and grieve over the loss of a loved one and we want to cheer them up. Instead, what we can do is learn to listen to their pain, and say, “Honey, just talk to me. And I’m just gonna sit here and listen.” You don’t have to raise their loved one from the dead in order to comfort them, to help them. You do need to show that you care, and that you understand what they’re going through at least. So those are some things that we can do to prepare for our own tragedies when we depend on other people to come and support us.

Transforming Tragedy: Perspective

Now, you mentioned about transforming tragedies. Tragedy usually leaves us different than when we began the experience. Some people go down into bitterness because of what’s happened. And some people blame God, it’s a major source of atheism. “If God can allow children to die of cancer, I can’t believe in that kind of a God.” So they become very bitter and irreligious and reject a God who’s worshiped because of the suffering that people go through.

On the other hand, a lot of people, after they go through suffering, are transformed into a greater trust in God. And Job was bitter for much of his book. His anger is palpable. He is just inconsolable, and the friends try and they try to reason with him and nothing works. I think Job is a good example of transformation because he comes to a new perspective on life. I mentioned earlier the struggle with control over life, and this was the import of the Lord’s message to Job at the end of the book, in which He confronts him with nature, with the clouds, with the rain, with ice, and snow, over which we have no control. He confronts Job with the animals who give birth and who die, and they are not in man’s purview. They are completely apart from human beings. They have nothing to do with the city in which we live. And yet they live and they die. Learning that perspective, you know, we are divinely created but we’re also human and part of the natural world as well.

And then of course, there were the two huge chaos monsters over which Job has no control. Human beings have no control of Behemoth and Leviathan. Reading Job with understanding can help to transform us through perspective that we begin to see our frailty, accept it, and then gain perspective. Leading the lives of Godly people can be a help to transform our own suffering. Bible characters who endured great difficulties and overcame them, faced difficult circumstances, with a positive attitude that they had to learn can be positive models for us.

Others’ Support

And then I would say social support. We need people. We cannot go through a tragedy on our own without people to talk to, to listen to us, people who understand, who care about us. And this was, in fact Job’s experience, because he had three friends who didn’t understand everything, but who never left him. And so he was able to find them at the beginning, and yet they were there at the end as well, as was his wife. So he had social support of those who listened to all of the ups and downs of his complaints, chapter after chapter.

And so I think social support is quite important: friends, family, church, small groups, neighbors. We have to learn to live with a new normal; the person is gone, or we’ve lost our home, I’ve lost my job. And so it takes time, and it takes support from others, and it may take some personal growth, inside as well, we are social creatures. I’ve been noticing how much horses are social creatures. And they kind of race together, you know, we got five or six horses and we have some not too far from where I live, you see them and they keep an eye on each other and they feel comfortable being close with one another.

Pamela: And I think this is very important because in today’s world, people have just isolated themselves. In the sense they’re with their social media, or they’re with Facebook, or they’re with Twitter, but they have no real, you know, connections. So a lot of people are depressed, a lot of people are dealing with their own tragedies where they’re not seeking the comfort of their churches, or the social support. So I think social support is really something that people should look at more carefully.

Gordon: That’s a very good point. I’ve went to the mall a few months ago, and there’s a young man and this young woman were holding hands, and he was on his cell phone texting. So that really got me: someone truly was focused elsewhere.

 

 

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How Do We Transform Tragedy? Interview Part I

Below is my 2017 Soundcloud.com interview with Pamela Q Fernandes, doctor, and author, about my book Tragedy Transformed: How Job’s Recovery Can Provide Hope For Yours (2015). The transcript of Part I follows.

Gordon: Well, first, Pamela, let me thank you for your kind invitation to join with you today on this podcast. My name is Gordon Grose, G-R-O-S-E. And I’m a pastor and counselor, and now recently an author. I pastored 3 congregations over a period of 25 years, different places in the United States. I did counseling with Western Psychological and Counseling Services in Portland, Oregon, where my home is, for about 11 years. And I’m now counseling on a volunteer basis at a place called Good Samaritan Ministries, which offers counseling without a fee, and the whole ministry is supported through donations. By the way, this is a worldwide ministry, with locations in 23 nations and 18 in Africa. Two years ago, I published my book the first one I’ve written on the subject of recovering from tragedy based on the book of Job in the Bible. I’ve been married 57 years as of next month, July 9th. We have four children, eight grandchildren, two great grandchildren, and one great coming.

Pamela: So you’ve actually had a very long career in counseling? You’ve also experienced lots of people with tragedies and things like that, right? You’ve met these people, you’ve seen this happen.

Gordon: Well, in pastoring, you certainly see it all the time. There’s constant funerals as there are weddings and births of babies. So you get an experience of ministering to people in deep grief. And as a pastor you have a great privilege of being essentially in the front lines, seeing firsthand how people respond, and working with them to bring about comfort and resolution, and trust in God in spite of the loss which they are experiencing.

Preparation for Facing Tragedy

Pamela: So do you think that there are some people who, you know, are better equipped for tragedy? I mean, is there a way that somebody can be better prepared for tragedy? Or it’s just that when it hits us, that’s the time you come up with whatever defense or coping mechanism you have?

Gordon: That’s a good question. One of the things I struggled with in the book, and I noticed that a very well-known author, Timothy Keller, struggled with it as well in his book “Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering,” and that is denial. The subject of death, or grief, or loss is something we prefer not to think about. It’s not easy to promote something to get people to face when they don’t want to. And grief is denied because it’s very painful. People, including me, have things to do in preparation for after my death, with the funeral service suggestions that I want to make and with the ways that…well, I have take care of one issue. But it’s something which I delay and it’s in my iin-box, but I never get to it, because it’s something that it’s easy to put off. There’s a French author, I think it’s Michel de la Montaigne who wrote a book called “Divertissments” and it’s the French word for diversions.

And in life we use a lot of diversions. We are heavy into sports; we are heavy into entertainment and movies and televisions, and everything helps us pass the time and diverts us from some of the real issues that face us such as health and illness, and death. We don’t even talk the word death anymore today. If you notice, we always say “passed” or “passed away.” And one of the things I’m going to instruct my pastor, is to please indicate to the congregation that Gordon has died, that he has not simply passed on, or passed away, but that he is actually dead. And I feel quite strongly about that. I’ve worked with people to help them face their suffering and face their death with God’s strength. And I find that is the best way to help people.

Job’s Most Important Lesson

I think the biggest lesson that I learned about  life, that I learned from the book of Job about which I wrote. If you recall the story, Job was a magnificent success. And he had enterprises in every direction, and a large family. One day he lost it all. Well, what was it he had to learn? He had to learn, which he didn’t until the end of the book, that there are some things in life over which we have no control. And they’re truly tragic. We can think of natural disasters that come upon us: earthquakes, and tornadoes, and floods. And people have done nothing wrong, but they have to suffer and they have to go through these things; there are times when we don’t have control over our own lives. And it’s something that is very difficult to live with, but if people can get their mind and heart around the fact that I cannot control a lot.

Pamela: Cannot control, yeah.

Gordon: That’s, I think, about the best they can do. So that when it happens and they realize, “Oh, that’s right. I remember now, somewhere somebody told me that you can’t control everything.”

Next Week: Part II

 

 

 

 

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Slavery In America (Concl.)

In his dialect, preserved by Hurston, Kossula, 86, describes the slaves’ brutal treatment in the barracoon. “When we dere three weeks a white man come in de barracoon wid two men of de Dahomey. One man, he a chief of de Dahomey and de udder one his word-changer [translator]. Dey make everybody stand in a ring—‘bout ten folkses in each ring. De men by dey self, de women by dey self. Den de white man lookee and lookee. He lookee hard at de skin and de feet and de legs and in de mouth. Den he choose. Every time he choose a man he choose a woman. Every time he take a woman he choose a man, too. Derefore, you understand me, he take one hunnard and thirty. Sixty-five men with a woman for each man. Dass right” (53).

Cudjo also describes the anguish of separation. “Den de white man go ‘way. I think he go in de white house. But de people of Dahomey come bring us lot of grub for us to eatee’ cause dey say we goin’ leave dere. We eatee de big feast. Den we cry, we sad ‘cause we doan want to leave the rest of our people in de barracoon. We all lonesome for our home. We doan know what goin’ become of us. We doan want to be put apart from one ‘other” (53-54).

The history of world empires, from ancient times to now, can be seen as the desire of one people, tribe, or nation, to dominate their neighbors. And their neighbor struggling to remain free. Such domination throughout history often resulted in the enslavement of the weaker party. We often admire the “winners” success stories (e.g., Genghis Kahn). That the Dahomey, richly rewarded by white slave traders, willingly massacred rival tribes is part of the tragedy of human history. Cudjo’s story, though not unique, still creates anguish for him and his people in the retelling. We cringe in reading his story.

The Bible book of Job also reflects such human history. In his depression Job (Chapter 3) calls on the image of slavery to describe his longing for relief from suffering through the peace of death: “Captives also enjoy their ease; they no longer hear the slave driver’s shout. The small and the great are there, and the slave is freed from his master” (vv. 18-19 NIV. For a contemporary practical treatment of the book of Job, see my Tragedy Transformed: How Job’s Recovery Can Provide Hope For Yours, 2015).  Slavery also continues in some societies today, where Christians in particular have been singled out for domination. The desire to exploit others through subjugating people conquered in warfare reflects a widespread human tendency, eradicated only with great difficulty, as we see in the “one more trip” story of the Clotilda.

For a first-hand experience of what it’s like to be captured, deported, and enslaved, the reader can do no better than Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon.

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Slavery in America: Book Review

Review: Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,” Zora Neale Hurston, (NY: Amistad/HarperCollins), 2018. Ed. Deborah G. Plant. Foreword by Alice Walker. #1 Best Seller in African American History (Amazon.com)

I cannot underestimate the importance of this slim volume (171 pages, from the Foreword by Alice Walker to the end of the Bibliography). This previously published (in scholarly journals) account of an important facet of the American experience takes its place among other significant works on American slavery. By recording the first-hand story of “Cudjo Lewis” (his American name; named Cudjo because of his birth on a Monday, Lewis a anglicizing of Oluale, his father’s name), a survivor of the Clotilda,last known “slaver” bound from West Africa to Mobile, AL, in March 1860, Hurston has made a significant contribution to our history. After the United States outlawed the “Illegitimate Trade” it continued to make its owners so much money that some few risked the run with their human cargo. The Clotildaescaped capture, but after its one-and-only run, its co-owner/captain William foster scuttled the ship to cover his piracy.

Zora Neale Hurston

Author Hurston died in 1960, but in 1973 Walker purchased and engraved a stone to mark Hurston’s grave: “A Genius Of The South.” Hurston wrote four novels, (most notably, Their Eyes Were On God), folklore, an autobiography, and over 50 short stories, essays, and plays. She attended Howard University, graduated Barnard College in 1927, and attended Columbia University. Born January 7, 1891, she grew up in Eatonville, FL, and died in Fort Pierce, FL, in 1960.

Kossula: Abducted

19-year-old Kossula, whose name means, “I do not lose my fruits anymore (i.e. my children do not die anymore,” part of the Isha subgroup of the Yoruba, in the midst of his initiation for marriage, awoke to the predawn slaughter of his dazed townspeople by rival Dahomey women warriors. Well-paid by slave traders, the Dahomey found a rich reward in capturing and selling slaves. The bloodthirsty horror Cudjo witnessed, the loss of his family and townspeople, and the indignity of being chained with others to be marched to the sea traumatized him. But so did being held in a Barracoon (Sp. “barracks”), a stockade for holding slaves until they could be sold. Now caught between the two worlds of West Africa and the United States, he belonged to neither.

Next: Conclusion

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Everything Happens For A Reason (Doesn’t It?) Concl.

[This is the second of a two-part review of Bowler’s Everything Happens For A Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved (Random House, 2018), an account of her diagnosis with cancer against the backdrop of the prosperity Gospel, about which she had previously written. See my June 22, 2018 blog for Part I.]

What Life Lessons Did Bowler Receive?

  1. Minimizers told her she shouldn’t feel so upset (e.g., dying before her son grows up), because, as one woman in the prime of her youth writes, “It doesn’t matter, in the End, whether we are ‘here’ or ‘there.’ It’s all the same.” Heaven, of course, Bowler comments, is the Christian’s true home.
  2. Teachers (not the professionals) focused on how Bowler’s cancer should be “an education in mind, body, and spirit.” “I suppose that this is the ultimate test of faith for you,” writes one man, hoping “ I will have the good sense to accept God’s will.” He will pray for her remission, he reassures her, “and if you die that your suffering will be minimal.” Thanks, Joe from Indiana, she writes. Another Teacher hopes, “you have a Job experience.” Bowler can think of nothing worse, losing everything, including one’s children. “Do I need to lose something more to learn God’s character?”
  3. Solutions People taught the hardest lessons. “Keep smiling! Your attitude determines your destiny!” says Jane from Idaho. These are people who, by the weight of a solution-focused theology (e.g., prosperity gospel), have been unable to grieve…A bitter seed has been planted in a young father who must take his brain-dead child off life support while his extended family, steeped in prosperity theology, rails against him for his inability to prevent his child’s death” (116-119).

Such people accept no disappointment, defeat, or death. Their answers for every setback: “You didn’t have enough faith” or “God has a better plan.” They provide easy answers to imponderable life dilemmas. They fail to read the whole book of Job, who did nothing wrong, and whom God led through a long process of facing his negative emotions and transformed with a new perspective. This I detail in Tragedy Transformed How Job’s Recovery Can Provide Hope For Yours(2015). They also seem to skip the cross of Jesus, whom they profess as Lord. Where do today’s persecuted believers around the world fit?

A Grain Of Truth?

The prosperity gospel does, however, contain a grain of truth: If you expect miracles, you will experience them; but, of course, not all the time. Christians who exercise believing prayer for God to heal often receive healings; but, of course, not all the time. Expectation for the God of Hope to act in His sovereign will sometimes lead to unusual blessing, but, of course, not all the time. How to negotiate great faith without confusing our will for God’s challenges us all. The book of Job was written to deal with this very issue–the exceptions, when, in spite of doing everything right, life goes against us.

What (Not) To Say

In two appendices, Bowler explains things we should not say (to those in tragedy) and things we may want to. As one example of “Absolutely never say this to people experiencing terrible times, a short list: Well, at least…” to which she replies, “Whoa. Hold up there. Were you about to make a comparison? At least it’s not…what? Stage V cancer? Don’t minimize.” As an example of “Give this a go, see how it works, a short list: I’d love to bring you a meal this week. Can I email you about it?” To which she replies, “Oh, thank goodness. I am starving, but mostly I can never figure out something to tell people I need, even if I need it. But really, bring me anything. Chocolate. A potted plant. A set of weird erasers…”

I cannot recommend Everything Happens highly enough. Bowler’s book is worth more than one read; I’ve just begun my second.

Questions to Ponder

  1. What has been your experience with people Bowler describes as believers in the “Prosperity Gospel”?
  2. How do you deal with life’s exceptions, when in spite of your best, godly efforts, circumstances go against you or your loved ones?
  3. How would you respond to a friend or relative who, in tragedy, questioned God?
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Everything Happens For A Reason (Doesn’t It?)

Book Review: Kate Bowler, Everything Happens For A Reason And Other Lies I’ve Loved, Random House, 2018.

Against the backdrop of the American prosperity gospel, about which she wrote a history (Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, Oxford, 2013), in Everything Happen For A Reason Bowler details how, at 35, thriving in her seminary teaching, married to her high school sweetheart, and with the birth of her son, she struggles with a stage IV colon cancer diagnosis.

Televangelists, with whom she had talked, “claimed spiritual guarantees for how to receive divine money. I held hands with people in wheelchairs praying at the altar to be cured.” She tried “to understand, how millions of North Americans had started asking God for more” (xii). But she also saw something else. “Believers wanted escape from poverty, failing health, and the feeling that their lives were leaky buckets” (xiii). People with “bleak medical diagnoses…broken teen agers or misfiring marriages” sought salvation, rescue, and “a modicum of power over things that ripped their lives apart at the seams” (xiii).

What is a Theodicy?

That movement, she says, is “a theodicy, an explanation for the problem of evil. It is an answer to the questions that take our lives apart: Why do some people get healed and some people don’t? Why do some people leap and land on their feet, while others tumble all the way down? Why do some babies die in their cribs and some bitter souls live to see their great-grandchildren. The prosperity gospel looks at the world as it is and promises a solution. It guarantees that faith will always make a way” (xiii).

Her research led her to look beyond the false promises of the movements’ leaders into her own heart. Bowler found alluring “the promise that I could curate my life, minimize my losses, and stand on my successes…I had my own prosperity gospel, a flowering weed grown in with all the rest” (xiii-xiv).

Why, God?

Reporting her cancer diagnosis, Bowler describes her plea to God for life with three simple questions: “Why? God, are you here? What does this suffering mean?” At first, she reports, “I could hear Him. I could almost make out an answer. But then it was drowned out by what I’ve now heard a thousand times. “Everything happens for a reason” or “God is writing a better story.”

Bowler’s well-written Preface leads the reader through her equally well-written journey, from the anxiety of her cancer diagnosis through the news that she might have a rare form of cancer with excellent prognosis. But what most galls Bowler is how people treat her. Instead of living with her in the moment of her anguish, she finds “three life lessons people try to teach me that, frankly, sometimes feels worse than the cancer itself.”

Life Lessons?

What three lessons do you believe people want to share with Bowler? What lesson(s) would you want to share with her? In my next blog I will reveal Bowler’s three Life Lessons well-wishers seek to teach her.

 

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Martin Luther: 500 Years of Freedom – Review

Martin_Luther__The_Man_Who_Rediscovered_God_and_Changed_the_World__Eric_Metaxas__9781101980019__Amazon_com__Books

We find it hard to overestimate the impact Martin Luther made on our modern world. If the Enlightenment opened the literary resources of the distant past to inform the present, including Erasmus’s publication of the New Testament in the original Greek, Martin Luther made at least as important a contribution toward our world today. Without him we would still lack our modern values of equality, liberty, and individual responsibility. Eric Metaxas’s Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World, (New York: Viking, 2017) celebrates Luther’s life and legacy after 500 years.

 Before Luther

Before Luther, the Roman Catholic Church contained the repository of all truth—scientific as well as religious. Luther’s challenge, hardly the major assault on institutional authority perceived by the Church, simply asked the Pope to show Scriptural support for the prevalent doctrine of indulgences. Indulgences, the sale of certificates of forgiveness for oneself, one’s relatives and for even before the sin was committed, so offended Luther that he felt compelled, in 1517, to post his “95 Theses” on the Wittenburg church door. That act showed no disrespect, but, as was common in that day, simply called for a theological discussion. But the Roman Church had to suppress any challenge to the Pope’s authority, especially from a German Augustinian monk. Indulgences also represented an important source of church revenue.

Eric Metaxas

Eric Metaxas, bestselling author of Bonhoeffer, Amazing Grace (on William Wilberforce), If You Can Keep It (on American Liberty), and other works, details how a simple, godly monk confronted the highest human authority. That triggered an explosion felt around the world, not only of his time but which also extends down to ours, 500 years later.

Metaxas’s book sets the record straight regarding many of the myths surrounding Luther: Was he not born into a peasant family? Was he not so warped by his severe upbringing that he saw God as an overbearing Father, who needed placating by extreme submissiveness? Did he not, on a trip to Rome, observe the evil of such a decadent church that he felt compelled to reshape it into his rigid German image? These and other such popular myths Metaxas lays to rest (p. 3).

Luther’s Conversion

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The year prior to his death (1545) Luther describes his insight into the Scripture, which so long ago (early 1517) liberated him from his inability to do enough to satisfy a righteous God. “…the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. Thus a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me” (p. 96).

Scripture study and theological reflection informed Luther’s lectures and sermons during his years of theological teaching at Wittenburg University: the Psalms, the books of Romans, and Galatians.

Aftermath

After the Reformation began, Luther opposed Thomas Munzer and his radical Anabaptists who practiced another baptism after adult conversion. But why Luther promoted suppression of The Peasant’s Revolt of 1525 mystifies some. Although he had led a movement for freedom from ecclesiastical authority, the consequences of such freedom burst all bounds of reason, but especially of Christian submission to God. The peasants, many still untouched by the message of Christ’s love, became bloodthirsty in their quest for liberation from feudal dependency. After they steamrolled his call for moderation and Christian restraint, Luther called on the German princes, as authorities ordained by God (Romans 13:1) to suppress the rebellion and to restore order.

The Gutenberg printing press, of course, disseminated Luther’s ideas far and wide. That such an important technological innovation should lead to spreading the message of grace and freedom, well used by Luther and by his supporters, we in our day of rapid technological advances can readily understand. Publication of his tracts and papers at times not only outdistanced the Church’s ability to suppress his heresy, but also his own ability to control what resulted.

Flaws

Luther marred his later years by publishing On the Jews and Their Lies, which Metaxas calls “vile and intemperate.” His reversal from an earlier, empathic understanding of Jewish resistance to Christianity mystifies us. It wasn’t Luther’s obscure tract as such which scandalizes us, however, but rather its’ use in Nazi Germany four centuries later. “That the Nazi’s cynical master of propaganda,” says Metaxas, “would find the few vile words Luther had written against Jews and broadcast them to the world, ignoring the 110 volumes of Luther’s other writings, is of course, fathomlessly cynical“ (p. 417). That’s what propagandists do.

Much of Luther’s life cannot be covered in this short review: his marriage to nun Kathie (Katherine von Bora), his grief at the death of eight-month old Elizabeth, his Anfechtung (anxiety), or his relationship with Johannes von Staupitz, his academic and spiritual mentor. I hope I’ve written enough, however, to stir you to also read Metaxas’s Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World.

Hindrances to Fellowship with God: Suffering and Sin

Two great obstacles hinder our fellowship with God. In our suffering, we erect a barrier: How could God allow such unfair treatment as I’ve experienced? I responded to this issue through looking at Job in Tragedy Transformed: How Job’s Recovery Can Provide Hope For Yours (2015). But Martin Luther addresses the second great obstacle to fellowship with God: our sin. Here Luther brings to bear the message of grace from St. Paul: The just shall live by faith.

[Source: Lucas Cranach portrait. www.commons.wickimedia.org]

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When God Doesn’t Fix It – Review

When_God_Doesn_t_Fix_It__Lessons_You_Never_Wanted_to_Learn__Truths_You_Can_t_Live_Without_-_Kindle_edition_by_Laura_Story__Religion___Spirituality_Kindle_eBooks___Amazon_com_We set the date (for my husband’s operation) for late April to give our parents enough notice to be in town for the week. Then we left the surgeon’s office with a handful of paperwork and a pamphlet that promised to answer all our questions. The pamphlet was reassuring and confirmed what the doctor said. Day one they would do the surgery. Martin would spend days two and three in the ICU, day four in a regular bed, and be released on day five. After that he’d spend a few weeks recovering. It was reassuring to think that five days after surgery, our life would begin returning to normal.                    

I felt relieved, almost happy. God is going to fix this” (When God Doesn’t Fix it, 29).

Laura Who?

Few books, however gut-wrenching, make me cry—but this one does. Laura Story, GRAMMY award winner, singer/songwriter, certified GOLD for her 2011 song Blessings records her journey with husband Martin. As a young wife, mother, and worship leader, Story tells us what she learns from Martin’s incapacity from his brain surgery complications (i.e., meningitis), and its treatment: a hole drilled into his skull to relieve pressure on his brain.

The operation was successful, but left Martin unable to care for himself. Fix chronicles the lessons Story learns through this uncharted territory of God’s will for her and family’s life. But she precedes each Lesson (“Truth”) with a Myth that sets our expectations to be shattered. Example: “Myth: God’s primary purpose is to fix broken things; Truth: God’s primary desire is to fix my broken relationship with Him” (41).

Myths We Tell Ourselves

Story’s style, as the introductory example shows, is informal, warm, and engaging. The content is excruciatingly painful, as husband Martin requires a second hole drilled into his skull, loses his short-term memory and requires full-time care. But Story is up to the task of honest reporting on Martin’s progress, however meager, God’s provision for their family’s needs, relating their crises to Scripture, and, finally, drawing crucial lessons (“Truths”) to counter the “Myths” we tell ourselves.

I have a personal affinity with Story as she describes Martin’s plight, in that in my Tragedy Transformed: How Job’s Recovery Can Provide Hope For Yours, I describe our son and daughter-in-law’s struggle with chronic fatigue, now recognized as a bona fide medical illness (myalgic encephalomyalitis/chronic fatigue syndrome, or ME/CFS). The word “intractable” came to me studying Job. What do we do when, like with Job, life brings us situations not amenable to our best skills and knowledge, when chaos rules, and our only options require time, patience, and waiting on God.

“Myth: Contentment begins with understanding why. Truth: Contentment begins with asking how God might use this for his glory” (146). I’m pleased to award Story’s Fix a five-star rating.

Laura Story, When God Doesn’t Fix It: Lessons You Never Wanted To Learn, Truths You Can’t Live Without, W Publishing, 2015.

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