Van Ens: Two very different people teach us about dealing with setbacks (column)
February 10, 2018
Two women are in races of their lives. One races the clock to cross a finish line. The other runs out of time because her life approaches the final finish line.
Skier Mikaela Shiffrin is expected to win at least three gold medals in alpine skiing during the Winter Olympics. Kate Bowler, Duke Divinity School's professor of theology, gets ready for another kind of race. Fighting stage IV colon cancer, this 30-something patient reads medical charts that label her condition "noncurative."
Both women "win" differently as they deal with adverse conditions.
"Don't judge each day by the harvest you reap," advised Robert Louis Stevenson, "but by the seeds that you plant." Shiffrin reaps victories on ski slopes and plants seeds for Olympic Gold. Bowler adapts. Denied the harvest, she plants seeds to cope, teaching us that spiritual stamina helps when life slides backwards.
Shiffrin enters the 2018 Winter Olympics after a string of wins. At the Sochi Games four years ago, when she was 18, Mikaela won the gold medal in slalom, writing her name in skiing's Olympic history book as the youngest winner. At age 22, she dominates the World Cup circuit, racking up 41 titles (through January 19, 2018).
Sports Illustrated magazine writer Tim Layden expects Shiffrin to win multiple gold medals. "Last year she won the World Cup overall title, awarded to the skier with the most total points across all five disciplines (slalom, giant slalom, downhill, Super G and combined, and indicative of the best skier on earth" he writes. "In races often decided by the blink of an eye, she sometimes wins by a nice cleansing yawn" ("Pump Up the Volume," Jan. 29 — Feb. 5, 2018 Double Issue, p. 91).
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Contrast winning those gold medals with Duke theology professor Bowler's trials. Incurable cancer causes her great pain. She's a young mom of a two-year-old who can't understand that Mommy's leaving him. She leans on her rock-like husband, while writing the final chapter about her short, significant life.
Bowler discloses her struggles with malignant setbacks in a memoir, "Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I've Loved." She has studied desperate, down-and-out people who see their lives shrivel and die. They often invest in a variant of Christianity that attracts a wide following in the U.S. — the Prosperity Gospel. It promises that God rewards believers with financial blessings and smiles showing perfect teeth. Who wouldn't want health and wealth as kickbacks for following Jesus?
Bowler knows these promises are fake, but her longings for them are real. She doesn't want to die. Neither does she accept snappy, trite answers for her predicament. "That everything happens for a reason" sounds nice but isn't true, she says. Instead, she relies on the biblical promise: "God gives power to the weak. And to those who have no might, He increases strength" (Isaiah 40:29). But that's no magic formula.
In her memoir, Bowler writes of finding gold in leaden, dying days. "What if rich did not have to mean wealthy, and whole did not have to mean healed? What if being people of 'the gospel' meant we are simply people with good news? God is here. We are loved. It is enough."
Shiffrin sows seeds of success and reaps the harvest at Winter Olympic Games. Bowler slips on deadly slopes. She is denied the harvest of seeing her child grow up, feeling her husband's long-time support and reaping academic laurels.
She plants seeds amid a giant setback. Really a gold medal effort, isn't it?
The Reverend Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt CREATIVE GROWTH Ministries, (http://www.thelivinghistory.com) which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations that make God's history come alive.