“Seeking Understanding When Everything Has Fallen Apart”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
11th of 12 in “Unraveled” Summer Sermon Series
23 August, 2020
A week and a half ago, a childhood friend of mine who has been chronicling her battle with Metastatic Breast Cancer for the past several years, posted on her Facebook page: “As of today I am on Hospice. It was a big challenge for me to make this decision. It means no more medical intervention. Just things to make me feel more comfortable. My Oncologist agreed and I said Yes.” Only a couple weeks earlier, she had posted a photo taken from the driver’s seat of her car with the comment, “This is a pic of me picking up [my 16-year old daughter] at work… I just want to have more of these moments.”
I haven’t been in touch with Rhonda in any substantial way since high school. But we had grown up a few houses apart and we played together as children. As young adolescents, we “taught summer school” for the littler kids in the neighborhood in an upstairs room in her garage. We went to church and youth group together, had occasional sleep-overs, swapped a few secrets, etc.
Although I may have been one of her first friends in town (she moved in around fifth grade), we were never best friends. Rhonda had lots of friends—even then she was tall and beautiful and more confident than I. (As I recall, she had a modeling contract when we were in high school; I was what they called a “late bloomer”.) She was part of the popular crowd, but she wasn’t conceited like some of them were; she didn’t act as though she was superior. Even then, I think I understood that was because she had suffered some tragedies and traumas in her life that kept her humble—events I could never have imagined or guessed, had she not told me about them. I knew her life wasn’t perfect.
After high school, we gradually lost touch personally as life took us in different directions. But with the magic of Facebook, we were reconnected as “friends” some years ago. Rhonda’s pictures and posts told the story of a woman whose character and life was not so different from the one I’d known as a child, though by then she had two children of her own: still beautiful, cheerful, kind, generous, faith-and-family loving. I also saw an ambitious, immensely hard-working woman who was building not just one, but two different businesses, and apparently very successful with both,while also single-parenting.
Naturally, the mind poses the question, “Why her?” Just as it asked, “Why Adam, why his family?” and “Why these other wonderful-faithful-people-we-know who have suffered greatly, or died too young?” Maybe you’ve even thought at one point or another, “Why me, God? Why me??” Naturally, the mind seeks understanding when everything unravels.
And, because human beings have long been drawn to the orderliness of cause-and-effect theories, and because we have this notion that God’s justice should not allow good people to suffer, individuals since before the days of Job have speculated that those who suffer must somehow deserve it. It’s rarely as cut-and-dried as that in our thoughts, of course, but it can feel difficult to vindicate God’s goodness and justice when we consider some of the real evil and suffering in this world.
This is what the entire Biblical book of Job wrestles with. Job was a good man, a righteous, God-fearing man, and the integrity of his character was unimpeachable. Until, that is, he lost everything. Then his friends started interrogating him, asking him what secrets he was keeping from them, or himself, or trying to hide from God.
But there were none: Job knew he was innocent. And he refused to compromise the integrity of his character by confessing to something false. He also refused to follow the advice of those who suggested he should curse God. He doesn’t curse God—but he does demand a hearing. And the argument is robust, and plaintive, and passionate, and compelling. And, in the end, God reveals that there is no possible way for a mere mortal to understand all that the Almighty comprehends and contends with.
There is no way to explain infinite things to finite minds, and there is no satisfying answer to the problem of suffering. Especially if we’ve somehow accepted the idea or expectation that we will be rewarded with happiness and prosperity for doing and being good. Where does that idea come from, anyway?
Kate Bowler, a professor at Duke Divinity School, believes that misplaced hope and misguided understanding is at least partly responsible, especially in 21st-century North America. She spent years researching and feeling drawn to the popular movement in our culture called the “prosperity gospel”, which is embraced by millions of Americans, and preached by celebrities like Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, T.D. Jakes, and Paula White.
The prominent and appealing (though simplistic and misleading) message of the “prosperity gospel” is that God wants nothing more than for his followers to be healthy and wealthy. That we can control the shape of our life simply by mustering determination and working hard and smart. That health and wealth represent the sure signs that we are blessed—that God is pleased with our faith-driven efforts.
Blessed is what Bowler titled her book about her findings. It’s what many millions pin their hope on: that their earnest efforts and positive attitudes will be rewarded with God’s blessings – particularly of physical and material prosperity. Not long after her book was published, Kate Bowler was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer at age 34. She quips that she was the first to note the irony that she was “obviously not therefore #Blessed.”
She published a second book shortly thereafter in 2018, chronicling her realization that she’d been tacitly subscribing to that false gospel. It became a best-seller by the title, Everything Happens for A Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. In the introduction she writes,
“The prosperity gospel 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.
“I would love to report that what I found in the prosperity gospel was something so foreign and terrible to me that I was warned away. But what I discovered was both familiar and painfully sweet: the promise that I could curate my life, minimize my losses, and stand on my successes. And no matter how many times I rolled my eyes at the creed’s outrageous certainties, I craved them just the same. I had my own prosperity gospel, a flowering weed grown in with all the rest. Married in my twenties, a baby in my thirties, 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 God would make a way. I don’t believe that anymore.”
What she does believe, and what she shares in the book, is that some of the lies we’ve loved (like, that “everything’s gonna work out”) might not be as satisfying as other truths—like, that God is here no matter what, even if they don’t work out. That God will be with us in the worst moments of our lives, won’t abandon us, and in moments of profound weakness and vulnerability that look nothing like “blessedness” to the rest of the world, God reveals the divine self and presence to us in surprising and powerful ways that have nothing to do with, or at least aren’t contingent on, our physical health or material wealth.
Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, shares some beautiful reflections in this brief clip of an interview I’d like to share with you: https://www.theworkofthepeople.com/in-the-depth
Like the Archbishop, we remember the stories, the testimony, the character, the lives and spirits of those whose world has completely unraveled. Those who have spent time in the depths—deep, deep in the valley of death’s shadow. And, what I have observed of families and friends whose journey has brought them there, is that they, like Kate Bowler, attest to the presence of God there. To a sense of God abiding with them, even in the depths of their suffering and grief. To the gift of an abundance that has nothing to do with health or wealth as a meaningful indicator they are blessed or embraced by God.
It’s a truth that resides at the very heart of our Christian faith: this life will present us with experiences of suffering—and sometimes, very good people will endure unimaginable suffering and grief, in ways that confound our understandings of God and justice. Our faith is symbolized by the cross, which has become so commonplace we might forget the horrific scandal of suffering and humiliation it represents.
But the Good News is, first: that even the most appalling suffering does not have the final word. Resurrection and divine transformation do! And second: that God, in Christ Jesus, has also made it clear that when everything has unraveled, completely fallen apart, there are no depths or throes of hell where we might find ourselves where God is not already present, ready for us, loving us, abiding with us through it all. What a Blessed assurance. Amen.
 Kate Bowler, Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved, New York: Random House, 2018. xiii-xiv.