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Kate Bowler, historian and professor of American religious history at Duke Divinity School, published a piece in the New York Times called “What to Say When You Meet the Angel of Death at a Party.” It went viral and gave her an opportunity to write an best-selling memoir.

Back in May, fellow blogger Heidi S. DeJonge wrote a lovely post about Kate Bowler’s memoir. Heidi focused on the ways that touch and physical things mattered to Kate, diagnosed with stage four colon cancer, and the ways that touch mattered to Christ. 

I recently read Everything Happens for a Reason, And Other Lies I’ve Loved and heartily agree with Heidi’s assessment of Bowler’s book. Bowler is a gifted writer and imbues a difficult topic with a warm sense of humor. I love her references to her staunch Mennonite in-laws, with their thick braids, hearty homemade breads, and exuberant four-part hymn harmonies. I love that Bowler and her son attempt to match pitch with the coffee grinder each morning and that she taught her son the maniacal Vincent Price laugh and has “never regretted it.” I love that her husband gave her a pep talk that included the words “do any of them look like they can crank out an enormous baby? Those little wimps? One lady just asked for filtered water, Kate. Filtered water!” during a pregnancy panic attack during a birthing class. And that she wore a Tonya Harding costume to a party. With props. 

I’m impressed with her sense of humor and dry wit. But also with her work as a historian. I am currently reading Blessed: A History of the Prosperity Gospel by Bowler (more on that later when I’ve finished it). Bowler was the keynote speaker at the Conference on Faith and History back in the fall of 2016 and her humor and insight on cancer and death, the prosperity gospel, and the role of women and bloggers in the realm of theology were inspiring.

How she managed to write a popular article for the New York Times, research and write two books with a third on the way, as a professor and mother of a young child and get regular treatments for stage four colon cancer is also inspiring (or makes me feel worse about what I manage to accomplish? Tough call there). However, Bowler is honest about the ways that she believes working hard is how she chooses to deal with pain and uncertainty of her diagnoses. Bowler is also very clear about the proper responses to people in the midst of tragedy and pain: affirm the pain and difficulty, and show love – don’t just say things but show love. Simple. But it isn’t simple, or people would not keep trying to solve, minimize, explain away or punish the pain and tragedies of others, as Bowler so eloquently explains.

If I could add something to Bowler’s insights about pain, life, and the gospel, it would be the significance of sharing that pain. Bowler is honest about the difficulty of sharing – how much detail about her treatments is appropriate? How much to keep private? But it seems clear that one of the best ways to cope with tragedy is to share it. Bowler wrote a piece and sent it to the New York Times, she wrote a memoir, and now hosts a podcast. Not all of us are writers, but the point is that she worked through some of the pain by sharing it with others. I am reminded that others – loved ones, acquaintances, and even strangers can wound, but also have the capacity to help carry the burdens of life. Likely you’ll be both wounded AND loved by sharing the tragedies and pains of life. But better to take the chance than to try and bear the burdens of pain and tragedy on your own.

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.


  • mstair says:

    preparing for the pain

    Inevitable in our age of life-prolonging pharmaceuticals? I wonder if “working through it” is a different coping method?

    “Surely a person wastes away like refuse,
        like clothing that a moth eats.” (Job 13:28)

    Faith is God’s gift. I pray we receive a portion when it’s our turn.

  • Kathy Davelaar says:

    Thank you, Rebecca. Meaningful to me.

  • Cathy Smith says:

    Thank you for this post. Once a week I visit a friend with cancer. I try to help and not to hurt. I make mistakes, but I show up. It’s the showing up that counts, more than the words …

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