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I read Kate Bowler’s memoir, Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved, in two sittings last week. I want to read it again, more slowly, taking time to sift it through the sieve of my heart and mind and experience. But without that second read, the bit that I am most present to is the bit she writes about the connection between Christianity and things.
Kate Bowler has recently been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. She does not know how long she has to live. As she tells her story, she weaves it together with her research on and experience of the prosperity gospel – her area of expertise as a historian.
Though Kate rejects the core tenets of the prosperity gospel (among them, an American-dreamish limitlessness), she is so very gracious in her analysis of the movement’s groups and individuals, for I think she sees herself in the prosperous ‘other’ and understands why they draw the conclusions they do. She writes in her preface, “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.”
And even now, having rejected her own prosperity gospel (that, for example, “God had a worthy plan for [her] life in which every setback would also be a step forward”), Kate can appreciate and understand the truths the prosperity gospel twists.
For example, their focus on the tangible.
When it comes to Christians touching and cherishing things, she gives first prize to the Catholics “who are always making everything into something you can run through your fingers or, if it’s bolted to the floor, at least take worshipful pictures next to.” But second prize goes to the prosperity gospel and their belief in the power of touch and the possibility that items (like cut squares of revival meeting tent canvas) could be saturated with holdable healing power.
They call these things ‘points of contact,’ the mediation of sacred power through objects. It is like God reaching out through something, bridging that last divide between divine and human, invisible and visible, spirit and flesh. These are points of contact, but they cannot be called sacraments because that would be too Catholic and it looks too Catholic already.
Though Kate would reject the healing power of these things, she gets the simple power of objects, making sure important things are within reach of her bed at home.
And I get it. Though I would like to put my house in a sieve and shake it hard and long until only the most necessary and valuable things remain (our photo albums, the piano, my coffee maker, the girls’ loveys), I get the value of things. Things that have stories and sentimental value, yes. But also things that I associate with the presence of God. Things through which I experience the presence of God.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s oft-quoted line threads through my love for both “Captial-S-Sacraments” and “lowercase-s-sacraments”: Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God. So, a big fat YES to celebrating the Sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as often as possible… and Yes to the sacrament of washing already-clean feet, save for sock-fuzz, on Maundy Thursdays… and Yes to the sacrament of the weekly pre-service peppermint I receive from a young parishioner as I’m running around trying to get my ducks in a row… and Yes to the sacraments of tears and pots of soup delivered to the grieving.
And Yes to the sacrament of presence and touch.
Kate teaches future pastors at Duke Divinity School. She is realizing that, as a professor of history, she has given them very little in the realm of pastoral theology. Wistfully, she writes, “I did not tell them how few of their words are needed but how much their hands are wanted, a hand on my back as I tear up, a hand on my head for a soft prayer for healing. When I feel I am fading away, these hands prop me up and make me new.”
Jesus got this. Jesus WAS this. Jesus is this.
This morning, I spent a while turning every page of the gospels to look for the things in Jesus’ life. What things were precious to him? What did Jesus touch with his hands?
Aside from the whip he made and used to cleanse the temple and the water and towel he used to cleanse the disciples’ feet, the only things Jesus seems to have touched were food and people. And he did a lot of that.
And so, I visit a dying man in my congregation. I bring lasagna and jello salad and my family, including three exuberant children, excited to swing on the hammock and scramble over the rocks by the river in his back yard. I sit with him in his living room. We listen to music. We both cry. I clasp his hand in wordless prayer.
The sacraments of tears, music, food, presence, touch.
This is his body, given for us.
Have your heart right with Christ,
and he will visit you often,
and so turn weekdays into Sundays,
meals into sacraments,
homes into temples,
and earth into heaven.
Charles H. Spurgeon
Charcoal and graphite image by Erika Farkas
Well, this was excellent.
Thank you for sharing this. I really appreciated your comments about what little Christ held in his hands.
“The sacraments of tears, music, food, presence, touch.” Yes! Thanks, Heidi.
So true and so beautiful! Thank you.
Thanks Heidi for this wonderful article on the subjective nature of Christianity, how things becomes magic wands connecting us to Christ, to God. I’ve heard Christians warn others not to become too distant from the church or they will lose their connection to true faith. The fear is that with distance, the church will lose its hold, its effectiveness in the believer’s life. In a sense, even the church, along with its sacraments, has this magical power (that Kate Bowler is talking about), this subjective power to pull us in to a personal experience of God. It’s as though the teachings of Christianity are not enough to convince. And now Kate Bowler seems to go much further by seeing or believing that things have a kind of sacramental power to pull us in, to make God real. Is this what might be called the battle between emotion and reason?