Sunday, February 24, 2019

Everything Happens For A Reason - The Prosperity Gospel

I received a text late Sunday morning, February 4, 2018, from our youngest daughter, Anna, that Philip, her friend of ten years, had died eight months after being diagnosed with stage four colon and liver cancer.

 Initially, she debated whether to come for the memorial service. (Anna lives in Oregon.) Mike and I left the decision to her; after much thought she decided to attend.

Anna Arrives Home and the Visitation

Picking her up at the airport Thursday evening, the day before the visitation, gave our family unexpected time to be together. Friday afternoon, Anna and I drove to the small farming community where Philip was raised, arriving at the church an hour after the visitation began.

Anna was anxious and the intensity of experiencing the loss of a long-time friend was palpable. I offered encouragement as we walked through the gravel parking lot to the church, reminding her that she possessed great courage to come and offer comfort to Philip's mother and father.

Although we had to wait over an hour, that time enabled me to observe how Philip's parents greeted each person with gracious hospitality, listening carefully to the condolences offered. Our time came to talk to the family. I finally met Philip's mother and father about whom I heard so much. Anna was embraced with love and warmth. She spoke kind and consoling words despite her sadness.

The Memorial Service

The memorial service was Saturday morning, where several persons - family, friends, work associates, and a former teacher - spoke about a man who loved adventure and enjoyed fullness of living during his 35 years.

The Luncheon and Kate Bowler

At the luncheon following the service, I sat next to Philip's high school art teacher. She was one of the speakers and shared samples of his art as well as the impact he had on her life. As we were talking, she said, "Well, you know everything happens for a reason. Sometimes it takes awhile to figure out why."

I looked at her and hoped she didn't share these thoughts with Philip's mother and father. I remembered a book I just read, Everything Happens for A Reason and Other Lies I've Loved, written by Kate Bowler, an assistant professor at the Duke University Divinity School.

Kate also completed extensive research on the prosperity gospel for her graduate studies, and published Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel.  The essence of the prosperity gospel is the "quintessentially American belief that God rewards the right kind of faith and that if you are suffering you must have done something wrong." (Faith and Leadership, Duke University - "Kate Bowler - Not All Pain Has to Be Explained," February 6, 2018).

Kate Bowler continued, "When someone gets sick or unfortunate circumstances arrive like a job loss,  impaired relationships, and illness, etc., the reason is because the person has done something wrong. Misfortune is seen as a mark of God's disapproval while fortune is a blessing from God - the core beliefs of the prosperity gospel."

My Response

In those moments of fresh grief and remembrance, I was not going to express my opinion to this woman who a few minutes earlier explained she was spiritual, but not religious - words I've heard before and believe they mean something different to everyone who speaks them.

Thirty-five-year-old Kate Bowler wrote Everything Happens for A Reason and Other Lies I've Loved,"  after she was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. She says, "My body was failing me. Pain rippled through my limp arms. I was no longer proof of anything that testified to the glory of God, at least not in the eyes of the people around me. I was nothing like a sign or wonder." (page 19)

When asked in a TIME magazine interview (February 5, 2018) if she felt Christianity had failed her, she answered, "Sometimes it felt like that, in part because of the stuff people said using the Christian faith to be incredible trite. Christianity, also saved the day. You really want a brave faith, one that says, in the midst of crushing brokenness, there is the something else there, the undeniable, overwhelming love of God."

I do not believe everything happens for a reason. I feel people say these words because the thought offers "understanding," they don't know what else to say in tragic circumstances, and in a strange way it brings comfort to them and the suffering family.

I can't think of a reason for a previously, healthy, productive, joy-filled young man to get cancer or for a child to be raised in a home that is harmful or for a baby to be born with birth defects or for a child to have learning difficulties, for a shooter to kill students in Florida and Connecticut - or any other tragedies and challenges life brings. There is no reason. There may be causes for such happenings, but not reasons.

I can rest with the situations I described above for weeks and never come up with a reason why - as the teacher thought. Things just happen and there is no length of time to determine when an answer will come, because there is none. There are causes for tragedies, but not reasons - cancer cells start to grow in a healthy body; emotionally disturbed parents try to raise children; chromosomes aren't divided properly to produce healthy children; unstable persons use guns inappropriately.

God's Assurance

The prosperity gospel is inaccurate and leads people away from God, who promises over and over to be with us when our hearts are crushed and we are broken from varying circumstances.

For example, these three passages describe God's presence:

Deuteronomy 31:8 - "The Lord himself will lead you and be with you. He will not fail you or abandon you, so do not lose courage or be afraid."

Matthew 28:20 - "And I will be with you always, to the end of the age."

John 14:27 - "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid."

Individuals can grow through unfortunate events and find deeper meaning in life. Those who know God can find the value of intimacy with God's companionship, compassion and mercy.

Driving to the Airport

After the luncheon, Anna and I drove three hours to reach the airport so she could board an early evening flight to Oregon. She was so tired, she leaned back in the passenger seat and rested.

When we reached the airport, I pulled next to the curb so I could have a few minutes to offer last minute encouragement. I told her to be gentle with herself, to let her memories come through, write about them, cry and take good care. I reminded her of the great courage she demonstrated by traveling so far to be present to Philip's parents, bringing comfort, expressing compassion and showing care.

Releasing my hands from around her shoulders was so hard. I wanted to continue to walk beside her as she processed the experiences of the past few days as well as deal with her grief. However,  depended on God, who offers companionship and mercy in all circumstances to those who call upon him to care for Anna and Philip's family in the days ahead.

Questions for Reflection

1. When have you experienced the loss of a close friend or family member?
2. What were your emotions?
3. How did you respond to the circumstances surrounding the loss?
4. In what ways do you help others who are  dealing with a death or other trying circumstances?
5. What advice can you offer to those dealing with difficulties based on your own experience?

Prayer: Loving and caring God, so many times tragedy and trying circumstances come our way. You are the first to cry when these events happen and the first to be available to console and comfort. Thank  you for your care that settles in our soul when we are distressed or when we celebrate. We are thankful we can always depend on you and you are always there for us. Amen.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Praying Through the Colors

I  am always looking for new ways to connect with God. As an artist, I am drawn to color. I noted one day, even pastors have trouble praying.

Writer and pastor, Elizabeth Myer Bolton says, "Sometimes I find it hard to pray. I know that may sound odd coming from a pastor, but it's true. If Jesus were standing here beside me, one of the first questions I would ask is that same soft and vulnerable question the disciples asked so long ago, "Lord, teach us to pray." (Luke 11:1-4.)

As she presented this request to God, she began to think of color as an avenue to prayer. In the  days to follow, she would choose a new color each morning or each week and then turn her attention to God as that color came into sight.

One day she took note of the blessings of yellow around her. "Such a perfect color against the doldrums of winter. A bowl full of lemons, and found egg yolks from one of our neighbor's chickens, the color of black-eyed Susan's waiting for spring, the sweet, powdery lemon drops my great-grandmother loved to eat. I will give thanks to God for the bright yellow rays of the sun that rise every morning to greet us, and warm us. I will say a special prayer for the Haitian man driving the yellow taxi cab going down the street. I will pray for the woman in the subway station who is wearing a yellow hat."

New Ways to Pray

One day, I decided to choose a color, as Elizabeth suggested and pray through the color. Starting with blue, I kept alert wherever I went looking for something blue. I saw a child wearing a blue coat, a blue box in the grocery store, blue fabric when I went to the quilt store, blue shoes on a woman standing in line at Target, and many more. Focusing on blue, helped me stay present to my environment and present to God.

Over the next few weeks, I prayed through yellow, purple, green, brown and red. Finally, running out of colors, I chose orange.

Other than the fruit or the changing leaves in the fall, orange is not a common color in the world around me. However, my experience with orange came to represent a moment of deep connection to God.

Praying with Orange

On one of those orange days, when I hadn't seen a single orange item, I drove a friend in the late summer to see my work on display in an art exhibit downtown. On a busy four-lane highway, I heard a siren. The ambulance approached from a side street. I slowed down and let it pass by.

Unfortunately, a truck behind me, did not notice my car and slammed into the rear end. My car jolted and shook. I felt a crunch from the rear of the car and heard glass shattering. I was afraid my car was going to blow-up because the impact was near the gas tank. Fortunately, the across-the-shoulder seat belt restrained us from being thrust forward.

After the ambulance sped by, I pulled my car over to the narrow berm. My friend, who was uninjured, calmly called 911. Soon a policeman arrived to gather details and get insurance information from the truck driver and myself.

Forty-five minutes later, the policeman sent us on our way. We were so thankful that we weren't hurt and I could still drive the car. My friend and I decided to forego the art show and return home.

Finally Orange

Easing back into the line of traffic, I had to make a left turn and go down another street until I could make a right turn and start back to where we lived.

The stoplight I approached turned yellow, then red. In that moment, I had a flashback to what just happened. I felt anxiety, wondering how I could drive my car home. I gripped the steering wheel tightly offering grounding for the present. I finally let out a deep breath realizing how fortunate my friend and I were not to receive any injury.

Before the light changed, I looked up at the vehicle in front of me, and saw orange! A bright orange sign was propped on the back of a semi-truck. I don't remember what the sign said, all I know the sign was orange, and orange was my color that day. Oh my! Despite my weakness and distress from the collision, when I saw orange, I felt God's presence and offered silent prayers for God's protection an hour ago.

Praying with Color

Following the accident, I continued the practice of praying through colors. I found flowers, clothes, boxes in stores, cars, highway signs drawing me to God. But out of all the colors I saw, bright orange was not just a sign on a truck, but a sign of God's loving attention toward me in my moment of need.

Reflection Question

Choose a color at the beginning of a day. Look for the color wherever you go. When you find the color, pause for a moment and remember you are in God's love and presence. Maybe you will say a short prayer or ask God to open your heart to hear what God might say to you. Offer to God what is in your heart.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for teaching us a fresh way to pray through the array of colors around us. Seeking you through color increases our awareness that you are everywhere. Amen.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Praying with Bread - Bread for Communion

I recently received an email from one of the pastors of the church I attend asking me to bake five loaves of bread for communion the next Sunday. Five loaves seemed overwhelming, so I agreed to bake two.

I hardly felt worthy to bake communion bread, as I was dealing with anxiety, anger, frustration, loneliness and confusion as well as forgiveness in the tangled web I imaged my life. I was afraid all of my feelings would transfer to the dough I kneaded and molded.

Baking bread is usually one of the ways I connect with God. I even wrote and presented several times, a day-long retreat called "Praying with Bread."

Today, however, I was in a different state of mind. I went through the motions mechanically, not prayerfully or reverently, gathering and combining numerous ingredients, putting the smooth dough in my favorite brown glass bowl for the first rising. The bowl was the last of a nesting set we received forty-four years ago as a wedding gift. The bowl held hundred of batches of dough, but today's batch was the first to become the body of Christ.

Rising Dough

The dough quickly doubled in size. I took half the dough from the bowl, powdered a handful of flour on the sticky places, molded a circle and put in a buttered aluminum pan. I repeated the procedure with the remaining dough.

Before placing the pans in the oven, I studied the loaves. In those mounds of flour I saw the yeast of anger, loneliness, resentment, anxiety and other areas of disconnect in my life, along with forgiveness blended into bread for God's people on Sunday morning. Oh, my!

When I slid the two loaves in the oven, I prayed that all negative feelings would bake out of me and right to the heart of Jesus, whose body I formed that day.

Sunday Morning

I walked into the sanctuary the next day and found a pew close to the front, in sight of the two oval forms of bread covered with white cloths resting in the middle of the altar. I thought about the sugar, flour, yeast and milk, which I had plucked from noisy grocery shelves days before, now transformed into one of the most meaningful parts of Christian liturgy in a quiet church on Sunday morning.

Then, I recalled my prayer the day before, as those loaves entered the oven. As I sat in the pew and examined my heart, I realized that even before receiving communion, I felt peace. The negativity had burned away, my feelings now resting in Jesus' heart.

Mike and I assisted the pastors serving communion. I baked the body of Christ, and gave the body of Christ to the congregation, completing a very holy cycle.

Lent Approaches

As we approach the season of Lent in a couple of weeks, I can't help thinking of the bread served at the Last Supper. Who baked the loaves used that night? Maybe the person was someone like me, filled with anxiety, anger, loneliness and other troubling concerns? Maybe they felt that same sense of release and relief in baking the bread?

Someone always has to prepare the bread to offer God's people - I pray each baker always finds release as they pass along through the body of Christ, a blessing and peace, to all who believe.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for the way a simple task, baking bread, became a way to healing and peace. Remind us that all we do is a pathway to your presence. Amen.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Sowing Seeds at the Grocery Store

One day on the way to an art class, I stopped in a local grocery store to purchase an orange and an apple for a mid-afternoon snack.

I stood in the checkout lane behind an off-duty Marion County sheriff whose food filled the belt. Noticing my two small purchases at the end of his order, he said in a booming voice, "I'll pay for her fruit. I am a seed sower. I like to be a seed sower!"

I was flustered at first. "You don't have to do that."

He smiled. "I like to be a seed sower."

I thanked him for his generosity. "I will pass on your kindness in the future."

Following him out the store, I saw him load his groceries in the sheriff's car right next to me - the only two cars in the parking lot.

I thanked him again and we offered each other blessings for our day.

His kindness reminded me of Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 9:11 - "We have sown spiritual seeds among you. " The sheriff was living out these words written by Paul, flowing from the love of God in his heart.

Paul wasn't talking about sowing seeds that result in plants, but "spiritual seeds" that when "planted" through acts of love encourage the recipient to ponder the kindness and perhaps "sow it forward" to someone else. Love sows love, you might say.

For Your Reflection

How can you declare and demonstrate, "I am a seed sower," like the sheriff did to me?

Prayer: God, living and moving among your kingdom is what we do in our jobs, in stores, at parks, and in all of the places we go. Remind us to be "seed sowers" in whatever form that may take. We know you bless our efforts to spread your message of love everywhere. Amen.