Everything Happens, but not ‘for a reason’

It’s possible to fill a book (and a few people have done so) with lists of things Jesus did say. Some of them are quoted so often by well-meaning Christians that they attain some kind of untouchable status. The one I’ve heard the most is ‘Everything happens for a reason’. It’s been quoted to me when I’ve been ill or sad or having a tough time; I’ve heard people who are ill or sad or having a tough time say it back to me. It’s helped me get through, they say. The idea seems to be that even if things are awful, God has secret plan for this and we’ll find out in due course.

I don’t believe that, and never have. I believe something rather different that can sound rather similar if it’s not spoken to or listened to carefully. It runs like this: God doesn’t make or cause bad, painful things to happen to us. But so good and creative is he that he’s able to recreate even what seems lost to make something better out of it. I don’t know if it’s right, but it makes sense to me.

Everything Happens

I also don’t know if Kate Bowler, the author of this book, believes that. She’s a Canadian theologian and church historian living and working in America, who has stage four cancer. As someone who has researched and written a lot about the prosperity gospel movement (the idea that God wants Christians to be happy, healthy, and wise and we can be if we just ask the right way), the idea that ‘Everything Happens For A Reason’ is something she was well used to hearing, along with several other sub-Christian truisms that just don’t work when things go wrong. Hence on the logo of the excellent podcast she hosts, the last 3 words of the main part of the title are crossed out. So it simply reads thus: ‘Everything Happens’.

Jesus didn’t promise health, wealth, success or even happiness. He asks us to take up a cross and expect to suffer. I’m writing this in Holy Week, so Jesus’ cross is even more at the forefront of my mind than ever. This books is an account of Kate Bowler’s journey with diagnosis and illness, processing the different responses she hears herself and others giving to the situation. It’s short, easy to read, and painfully, beautifully honest. You might say it’s the story of a woman taking up her own cross, and just how bloody hard that can be to do – and for those who love the one carrying it to watch.

I’ve been in pain for 20 years (Ankylosing Spondylitis), and there’s no prospect of that changing. I have depression, anxiety and PTSD. I have 2 learning disabilities. Having scoured the Bible, listened to countless talks, read a lot, prayed some, listened and been spoken at, cried a lot, considered suicide a few times and much else besides not least working as a priest for 18 years … I too have concluded that everything can and does happen to Jesus-disciple and the rest alike. The rain, cancer, depression, Ankylosing Spondylitis and mental health issues and everything else all fall on the just and the unjust alike. They don’t bother to check what you believe before invading your life; there’s rarely a reason apparent; and it’s often hard to see what beautiful something God may bring out of it. I trust that God will do that, but I may be wrong. I do know, though, that even if I am wrong God is still good, and He’s still with me and not letting me go. So when everything happens to me, as it does to Kate Bowler, and is it does to all of us, I am not alone. I am seen and accompanied and heard and held. I just wish it didn’t hurt so much in the meantime.

This books offers no answers; but it gives us a story we can find ourselves in. Which is why we all need this book, an inoculation against the seemingly appealing lies of finding a reason when there may be none to find.

A lament for a diseased body, a question redefined … and maybe a calling

How annoying, how unsophisticated, how inconvenient to my intellectual pretensions when a cliché appears to have more than a grain of truth to it. In this instance I’m thinking of “A problem shared is a problem halved”. It’s not true of course, not in the literal sense. If I talk to you about a problem with money, it doesn’t mean that my debt is halved (unless you’re both very rich and also a very free giver). It does mean, if you listen well, that the secret has lost its power. It is in the light now, with someone I trust, and while the situation hasn’t objectively changed, it has done so in a subjective sense. It feels different.

I was diagnosed with a chronic disease in 2000, our first-second year of marriage. I had, it turns out, been experiencing the symptoms for a long time. Severe ‘shin splints’ whilst running or playing football weren’t, it turned out, shin splints. Some nights I would sleep well, many others I would be unable to sleep past 3 or 4 a.m. Not for the reason that newly-marrieds are supposed to lack sleep. Pain would wake me and keep me awake. With diagnosis came treatment, which has been a long journey. The journey is still ongoing. I reached a kind of equilibrium: accepting I had a disease around which my life needs to be centered, and being willing on days I felt able to, to ask for prayer for healing or strength or comfort. It’s a balancing act to be sure. Ironically I’ve never been very good with physical balance; but emotional, theological and spiritual balancing seems to come somewhat more naturally more to me.

In learning to orient life around this reality we (I include my wife in this, for it inevitably exacts a toll on her also) to a certain extent forget what it is we’re carrying. In integrating the joint possibilities of total remission or a wheelchair in later life there’s a strange forgetting that goes on. Until you meet someone else.

It wasn’t until I took a phone call a few weeks ago that I began to recall what we had been carrying. A mother who knew us through a church had found about my diagnosis and got in contact to say that her daughter also has the same disease and wondered if we’d like to all get together for dinner. We did. It was the first time we had deliberately and consciously sat down and chatted with others who had actual, real, personal experience of this evil but strangely relatively unknown disease. A week or so later I discovered a Facebook group for people with the disease.

These two experience, the one across a dinner table the other across the ‘virtual’ (but no less real) reality of social media have worked a strange magic on me. Suddenly there are safe places to ask questions about the disease and its implications which I had never allowed to bubble to the surface simply because there was nowhere safe enough to take them. Suddenly the story of my wife and myself was not just the story of the struggle of two people, but one caught up in a much bigger story in which many, many others are also writing their own chapters.

This experience of suddenly, 14 or so years after diagnosis, experiencing that we are not alone has been one of the removal of a burden I hadn’t even allowed myself to remember I was carrying. I can feel lightness on continually aching shoulders. My back and joints are, of course, no less pained. We’re not talking physical healing here. It’s deeper than that – the healing of no longer walking alone but having eyes opened and seeing there’s a crowd walking around us we’d never noticed before.

In laying that burden of solitariness down I’ve realised what it is that I am carrying. A lot. Pain (on a bad day the equivalent of a severe childbirth), fatigue (a symptom of the disease, the hardest to treat and the most emotionally debilitating), the endless medication, the financial cost, the things I am may not ever be able to do (I miss playing football and running), the dread of cold and wet weather, the  people who don’t believe you really have a problem, the people you think for reasons you can’t articulate don’t believe you, the passing it off as ‘a bad back’, the dread of sleeping somewhere with a bad mattress, the injections, feeling I need to move those chairs because there’s no one else to do it and living with resultant pain for days, the comments like “You’re young to have a back problem”, the well-meaning ham-fisted attempts to help about which you need to be polite, the way it affects intimate aspects of our lives, the taking a long journey at holiday’s beginning and end and living with resultant pain for days, the broken sleep for both of us, the needing to stretch and shift every hour or so … You want more? I could give you more. I typed that list without even thinking, and I could go on. I really could. Along with the relief of discovering we are not alone has come through the “Yes, I have that too” of other sufferers a kind of grieving at grievances foregone. If you need to get on, you don’t have time to mourn. So I’ll be catching up with some of that, I think.

It’s no coincidence that there’s a correlation between this disease and depression. Intense pain and daily fatigue is hard to bear. Trapped in that emotional spiral it’s tempting to ask a common question “Why me?”. “What have I done to have to bear this?”. “Who sinned? Me or my parents?”

As ever, Jesus’s answer isn’t so much an answer as it is a redefinition of the question. He’s whispering a question in my ear. What if, He gently lilts, this is a gift? A gift for being faithful with a few things so you’re being entrusted with much? What if this isn’t a punishment but a calling, asking me to teach with words and deeds and struggles how to seek healing alongside learning to live with what you have? Not that God wishes this on me. Far from it. He wants me to transcend it. To allow Him to show me and others that there’s more to pain than pain, more to a sufferer than a diagnosis, more suffering than just the suffering.

I don’t feel that I’ve been faithful, I can’t see where God may have got the idea that I can drink this cup. I don’t claim much for myself. Bad days can be bad indeed. Many parts of me feel broken and wounded. I’d love the cup to pass from me.

As the prophet sings, however, “Let the broken hearts stand as the price you’ve got to pay”.

In that lament there’s a kind of peace, and a path to healing.

Amen. Let it be to your servant as you will.

On near death

I gave a friend a hug today. Nothing that unusual there because I like to hug and (mostly) like being hugged; but it was a more heartfelt hug than normal. He’s a few years older than me, and will soon be leaving this country to go elsewhere. It was the first time I’d seen him for a while. He took a journey recently; a holiday. During that holiday he took a walk – which was also nothing unusual. He was in excellent physical shape; but on the walk he had a cardiac arrest which nearly killed him.

He spent 3 days in an induced coma, and was lucky to escape with his life. Today he told a few of us the story in detail, touching on feelings and implications and changes which will have to be made as a result. He pointed out that he saw no tunnels of light, no departed relatives beckoning to him from the other side. He woke up, asked what day it was and took it from there.

These things change you. We all know these things happen but to hear an ‘I’ you know well say it as he sits next to you is hard. It’s much harder to live through, of course. He’d hadn’t changed, but he had changed. There was nothing visibly wrong with him. He was the same man as I saw him last time, if a little slimmer. He looked well. He spoke, though, with even more authority than before; had a bearing and sense of the urgency of God’s call on his life which shone.

It’s made my friend thankful too, as one may expect. It made me thankful also. Thankful that he’s been restored to us.Thankful, too, that I have an awareness of my mortality. I’m 40 later this year, but for years I’ve lived with pain  – at times debilitating, so bad I go into shock. My rheumatologist once told me that on a very bad day I experience a level of pain somewhere in excess of a normal experience of childbirth; telling me that was her way of getting me take my pain seriously and acknowledge it for what it was (at this point I always feel compelled to point out that this rheumatologist was a woman and a mother). Living with an incurable, chronic, painful disease at a relatively young age (it doesn’t affect my life-span and is now well managed with a cocktail of medication) leads me to many challenges but also gives many gifts. It makes me aware of my dependency  – on others, on God. My inability, my limitations, my frailty. Not so much that I’ll run and not grow tired, soar on wings like eagles and so on, as not have to run at all if I can’t. There’s been a significant grace in learning about and accepting what I can’t do, and in not needing to tire myself out trying to do. That I am, somehow, fearfully and wonderfully made not despite my illness, but because of it.

Do I still want to be healed? Yes. If people offer to pray, if words are given in church that seem to hit home, I let people pray for healing. God can heal me. He may yet do so. I see no contradiction in accepting the limits of my condition as well as believing in and allowing other people to seek the possibility of God healing me. I tend to let others do the praying for healing because I’ve run out of energy for it myself – it’s been a long time, and others are better at it than me. I do ask, but I let faithful friends and co-journeyers do it for me more often. That’s one of the blessings, actually – the love people shower on you sometimes. I know my friend has experienced that too.

Some people have called this sort of thing God’s ‘severe mercy’. It’s a clever attempt to express something almost inexpressible to a culture bent on distraction and misdirection from ultimate realties. That in even the darkest, most difficult places, grace does something bizarrely inappropriate which also makes perfect sense. I don’t believe God causes these things; but the God who specialises in raising the dead can make beauty out of ashes. Being near death, conscious of it, peering over its precipice at your own vulnerability can make you almost perversely alive, on an almost annual journey from Maundy Thursday to Easter Day.

It’s a journey worth taking; so find your limits.

My friend gave my full permission to write about his experience.

 

 

Finding Hope and Meaning In Suffering by Trystan Owain Hughes

It’s often said that it’s easier to be creative about sadness and suffering than it is about joy and happiness. It’s also often said that for those who follow Jesus, the fact and presence of suffering in the world presents the most significant philosophical, ethical and practical challenges. Those two statements may be cliches, but they are cliches with a weight of truth and experience behind them; tragedies are considered higher art than comedies, and Christians have spilt a lot of theological ink confronting the issue of suffering.

Trying to explain or understand suffering, whilst it may be valuable, can obscure something important. How do we live in it and through it? How do we it do it ‘well’ as people who call themselves Christians? We may accept that it poses us theological and other types of questions, but that doesn’t necessarily help us deal with tragedy and pain when it hits home. Understanding can get us so far – but what we need alongside that are tools to help us live well through it all. That’s where a book like this one, Finding Hope And Meaning In Suffering by Trystan Owain Hughes comes in. It’s a short book, clocking in at 101 pages which seeks to do just that.

As for us all, the author has experienced his own measure of suffering and it’s from that space which he writes – he’s the Anglican Chaplain at Cardiff University who was diagnosed with a degenerative spinal condition at the age of 34. Those two realities – exercising a pastoral ministry and his own experiences of suffering – have caused him to reflect deeply on what God gives us that may enable us to flourish and grow in even the most hostile of environments. It’s a short – and brilliant  – book, which really should be required reading for anyone who suffers, cares for someone suffering or desiring to grow as an effective disciple of Jesus. I’m not sure that anyone’s left out by that. This book is a prime example of how depth and weight can go hand in hand with readability and brevity.

The structure is simple. There’s an introductory chapter on the fact of suffering itself. He then, in two chapters lays two simple but profound foundations for living well in suffering. First comes awareness: living in the present moment in such a way that we are alive to the presence of God around us. Second comes acceptance: not resignation to suffering, but the radical acceptance of God’s goodness in even the darkest of places. There then follow a series of ‘building blocks’ – chapter by chapter reflections on aspects of life which create the space for life to grow in tough contexts: an awareness of and interaction with nature, the gift of laughter, the place of memory,  the significance of art, the call to keep on helping others.

Every chapter engages with a variety of sources: these may be Biblical, more generally Christian, other faiths, or a variety of artistic expressions – from Jewish Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl to the TV show Heroes and onwards to Kylie Minogue. That’s one of the book’s real strengths – that even in such a well and concisely written book, there’s enough different perspectives for all of us to find something we ‘get’; this book may be the result of much thought, prayer and study – but it’s there to be read on the commute to work or lying lazily on the couch on a Sunday afternoon. This is a book which actively invites you in with its breadth of sources, the author’s own experience and the fact that it doesn’t so much try to explain as to give you something to go away and work into your own pattern of life and discipleship. One point on that – there’s a few spoilers in here about books and films. Place the reading of this book on hold, for example, if you’re are reading or planning to read Ian McEwen’s book Atonement or you’re saving up the DVD for a Christmas treat. You don’t want that surprise ruined.

That’s a minor quibble, really. Here’s another one, of a very different type. There’s so much richness here that to limit the book to the topic of suffering may be selling it short, limiting the impact. The suggestions – the foundations and building blocks – are valuable for living through suffering precisely because they are valuable for all of life. In other words they  (along with other practices) help us live life as God intended it to be lived – to the full. This isn’t just a book about how to live well in experiences of suffering – it’s a book about how to live life well for God in the world to which He calls us.

So this is a book to read, re-read, practice and digest, to buy and to give. Even if – or perhaps especially – you’re not really suffering. Because, as a book like this shows us, it’s worth living life well, whatever the scenery.

I rated this book 5/5 on goodreads.com