On a chilly Tuesday night in late February this year a crowd gathered at the National Press Club to hear Kate Bowler discuss questions of suffering, blessing, and how we can live faithfully amongst the two. Months later, I still reflect on Bowler’s hopeful and honest insights into suffering, grief, and blessing.
The Trinity Forum, a DC based organization engaging life’s greatest questions in the context of faith, hosted this conversation entitled “Finding Blessings in Imperfect Days.” This event featured Kate Bowler, a New York Times bestselling author, professor of the History of Christianity in North America at Duke Divinity School, and self-described incurable optimist.
Bowler is the author of many books, including “Blessed: A History of The American Prosperity Gospel,” “Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved,” “No Cure for Being Human (And Other Truths I Need to Hear).” Bowler’s discussion this night was on the topics explored in her new book, “The Lives We Actually Have: 100 Blessings for Imperfect Days.”
A simple scan of Bowler’s books reveals the witty yet heartfelt approach she brings to life’s toughest realities. Many of her titles prod at the glitzy yet ineffective responses we give to suffering. Martin Luther King calls these “easy answers and half-baked solutions.” These can be the prosperity gospel’s loud and glaring promises of health, wealth, and popularity. They can also be the seemingly innocuous phrases we hear during tribulation, such as but not limited to: “Everything happens for a reason” and “It’s all God’s plan.”
Standing before a crowded room, Bowler joyfully joked about these “easy answers and half-baked solutions”, kindly mocking the “#blessed” and “live your best life” mantras. She acknowledged however, with sobering honesty and deep sadness, their hollow attempts at alleviating human suffering.
Bowler remarked “We all have become our own televangelist of good, better, and best” and “We live under the weight of the person we thought we would be.” She likened us to runners going through life as though it were an obstacle course, grasping for empty statements at every setback and trying our hardest to believe them. Yet we find little comfort in our efforts, and as Kate makes clear, little truth and little love.
Bowler shared her own story of suffering: diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer at the age of 34. A young mother and wife, Bowler grappled with how this could possibly be God’s plan. She told of her own attempts to muscle out a reason for her suffering, a lesson to tell, a bright side to find.
Instead of a self-concocted reason for her suffering or a bright side to her pain, Bowler told about a God who walks with us to the edge of our suffering. Rather than comfort in answers and reasons, Bowler found comfort in presence and love—the presence and love of God even in her own anger and pain—the presence and love of the church expressed in simple acts of care, like offering rides to the doctor and putting warm socks on her feet while she slept.
Bowler spoke about the “blessings of these imperfect days.” They weren’t blessings she forced or pitiful “on the bright side” statements—like her hair not falling out during chemotherapy (as some tried to convince her). “Truly”, she told us, “Blessing and gratitude must mean something greater than that.” Bowler spoke of blessing as similar to joy: a surprise transcendent gift.
A stillness fell on the room as Bowler spoke about blessing. She spoke ofhow blessing comes through recognition of our own limitation and dependency, and our acceptance, our surrender, to receive a gift we did nothing to illicit or deserve. Blessing might reveal itself in the loving presence of a friend, the joyful laugh of a child, the beautiful blue of a sky, the feeling of God with you, around you, and before you. We have done nothing to earn or create these moments, Bowler said, yet here they are, surprising us with joy despite our grief and happiness despite our pain.
These “blessings in imperfect days” call us to wake again tomorrow and live. As Bowler demonstrated, they invite us to fall into the arms of loving community and accept the grace we all too often exchange for perfectionism, obstacle courses, and false fronts.
They remind us that life is not an obstacle course for us to conquer, but perhaps a winding journey with beautiful pastures and craggy shores. Most importantly these blessings awaken us to a “God who walks with us to the edge of our suffering” and comforts us not with explanations and reasons but simply himself.
On the other side of our suffering, we may look back and see a lesson learned, a loveliness forged out of the shards of sin and pain. Yet amid brokenness when we can’t see a lesson or fathom a reason for such grief, we receive a God who walks with us to the edge, who meets us in our suffering. Instead of twisting the knife of reason into the wounds of our suffering, we can, like Bowler, be able to say “God is here. We are loved. It is enough.” Perhaps that is better than any reason.
Listening to Kate Bowler, it was clear that she knew suffering, yet also the love it called for. She listened thoughtfully and compassionately to the crowd’s own questions about suffering, their own experiences with brokenness and pain. She responded with love—shared tears and honest encouragement. She closed out the night with a prayer from her newest book. We all sat together and listened to her simple yet beautiful words of faithfulness, humility, and love. In that moment we were not only united in our shared experience of suffering but also a shared hope. It was a beautiful moment, a blessing on an imperfect day.