“Material Blessings” and Divine Providence

Again I am writing to connect with Diana Trautwein in her “living the questions” series.  This weeks question is “Why do bad things happen to good people.

My first thoughts about this question were to write about what I believe is a false notion of Divine Providence, the idea that God’s favor is manifest in material blessings.  I am in the midst of a synchroblog myself, called Spirit of the Poor, in which the question has been asked about right behavior being rewarded by God, and wrong  behavior being punished by God, so I want to say a bit about that.  But then I want to respond more directly to Diana’s wonderfully wise post.

There are two stories I want to share about this notion of Divine Providence.

The first story is about my experience in Nicaragua on a delegation three months after Hurricane Mitch devastated the country.  In one town, three thousand people were buried by a mud slide.  Thirty inches of rain, yes, thirty, fell in three days.  Everyone put their hand up to their chest and said “the water was up to here.”  In one small village, where I knew many of the people, they said they gathered in the church and had the children pray, thinking the children were more innocent than they were, so God might hear the prayers of the children more than their own prayers.  Then they prayed, “God, if you can’t hear our prayers and those of our children, please listen to the prayers of our brothers and sisters in the north because we know that they are closer to you than we are.”  We were mortified.  This is what happens when we think that material blessings are a sign of God’s favor.  The poor internalize the idea and believe that their poverty is a sign of God’s disfavor. 

The other story is from a book I studied recently called Heavenly Merchandise.   It is a study of Puritan theology from 1620 to 1750.  The book traces how this concept of Providence gradually changed the Puritan view of wealth and economics.  The group that first came to our shores (and I live in Boston, so I mean our) came hear to escape the economic system of England; to create a society which prohibited the charging of interest, and prohibited all of the economic practices of capitalism.  Because the flow of new immigrants stopped around 1640, they fell on hard times.   They started thinking that their dire situation indicated that they were out of favor with God  Then  when some members started trading practices with other colonies, their situation improved.  The notion that God now looked on them with more favor took hold.  This notion became a theology of Divine Providence, and  by 1750 it had grown to the point that a young man choosing between the ministry or being a slave trader found both professions equally valued in the church’s eyes.  I belong to a UCC church which descends from this tradition.  I know that we still have that theology deeply ingrained in our lives.  I know it is wrong, and is, at root, the reason we ask the question that Diana poses “why do bad things happen to good people.”    So with that, I will move to what Diana wrote. 

I am so glad to read her words: 

I would have to say that the ‘why’ part of it has pretty much disappeared from my vocabulary.

What can I do to offer comfort/support/encouragement/hope to people who are struggling?

 

I want to tell my personal story, and give away the ending (of the story)  with other words of Diana. 

Quiet. Stillness. Contemplation. Meditation. Wordless prayer. These are the gifts, these are the invitations 

I discovered that I had Prostate Cancer about 6 years ago.  I chose a radiation treatment which the doctors thought had a good chance of getting rid of the cancer.  Four years ago I discovered it had metastasized into my bones.  I have gone through a variety of treatments since then.  One doesn’t expect to get rid of the cancer, just slow it down.

 Up until last April I didn’t really feel the cancer.   But I knew that there were two vertebras which were affected by the cancer. 

 I got a call from a friend who has some psychosis.  He was in the emergency room and had been there all day and was hungry.  Would I come and wheel him to the cafeteria.  I did, and upon return to the emergency room he asked for help getting into his bed.  As I was stabilizing him, he started shouting “I’m falling, I’m falling.”  I was in an awkward position and had to give all my strength to get him into the bed.  The two vertebras were crushed in the process.  For a month the doctors thought I had thrown out my back.  It wasn’t until I fell down walking that I had an MRI and they discovered the cancer had caused the damage.  I had two back operations; one in May and one in August.  So from April until September I was in bed on my back. 

But durring this time, I realized that I could still pray.  I spent many quiet hours in bed, just being quiet, meditating and praying. 

The treatment I was on failed and in September I started Chemo Therapy, so that as I was trying to recuperate from the surgeries, my body was taking a hit from the chemo.  But that period of quiet, of lying for months on my back gave me the serenity to deal with my status in this life/death cycle.  I don’t consider my situation as a “bad thing” that is happening to me.  I have a wonderful family and church community, and I will live until I die.  But God is with me. 

right there, in the middle of the mess, is where God is sure to show up 

Diana, thank you for your post.  You have acquired a lot of wisdom in your work and I thank you for sharing it with us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About Newell Hendricks

I have lived a good life. Maybe a counterculture life, maybe a normal life. I have written operas, built houses, been involved with cross-cultural education between Latin America and the U.S, and hardly ever had a job I have helped raise two wonderful children with my amazing wife. It's been a good ride. And I go to church. I've just finished a book of stories from my life, I am still connected to an organization in Nicaragua that promotes sister relationships between communities, faith communities, or schoold, and to the extent that my cancer doesn't pull me down, am attempting to share some of what I have learned, or at least tried out. Welcome, and let's share.
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14 Responses to “Material Blessings” and Divine Providence

  1. It’s kinda funny (although maybe not) but in our 9 month search for a house, when we found one that felt right and then lost it to another bidder, then had the chance to buy it again, we asked the kids to pray because some part of me believed God might be more hesitant to disappoint them than he seemed to be when it came to my husband and I. I guess at the root of that is the fear that God doesn’t really love us and won’t really provide for us, which ties in with your story of the puritans – if God won’t provide (as we want) then we’ll provide for ourselves through any means possible and call it providence. Fascinating history. So glad you linked with Diana and blessings on your journey ahead. I’d love to hear more about those quiet days of prayer.

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    • Emily, Thank you for your charming illustration of my post. I’m sure there are similar events in all of our lives if we were open to examining our actions as you seem to be able to do. In your post you wrote:
      “I have learned, am learning still, to endure the pause between call and response, to open to the space between what is and what will be and to sink down into what is there, to trust in the slow unfolding.”
      Those were some of the words that caught my imagination. I love the call and response form in music and life. In music, the timeing has to be right. It takes a skilled leader to indicate when the community needs to jump in, or wait. I guess it is our job to pay attention to the leader.
      I am glad Diana has this series. I keep telling this story and, Diana, I am sorry for repeating, but I knew Diana in my high school church group. We haven’t been in contact in 53 years!!! Anyway, nice to be in contact with you.

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  2. Juliet says:

    Newell I so agree that we find God in the mess. In the places we can’t understand, can’t define. There where we are alone, misunderstood, cast out, There is God. God-with-Us. I don’t find that this necessarily makes sense of the situation but somehow I’m often no longer asking to make sense of it.

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    • I should have given the attribution of that line to Diana. It stood out so strongly that I assumed everyone would know. But we all agree, you, me, Diana, that we find God in the mess. I don’t really feel bewildered by not making sense of life. It is life, and I am familiar with a lot of angles in this life, and find God is everywhere. Thanks for responding.

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  3. hisfirefly says:

    I too am often saddened by those who believe they are only in God’s will, walking in His favour when they have financial prosperity…
    they will never taste the true richness of the truth of His love

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    • It is sad and very harmful to justice in our world. I have a thirst for experience, and have no need of keeping experiences away from me with wealth, which is the way wealth is usually used. All of our family vacations were camping. How much of our wonderful times would have not happened if we stayed in motels? Anyway, thanks for stoppin by.

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  4. poetry joy says:

    Newell, you write so movingly and poignantly yet sparely of your life/death health challeges. They must have shaped your thinking a great deal, particularly in the enforced rest periods. As Kelly says, I too would love to hear more about your experiences with the “quiet days of prayer”. Maybe a blog series, article or book is in order? I agree that we find God in the midst of the muddle, mess and mayhem of our days. Right in the centre of it all, He is there to pour out His love and grace and filling the ache inside. Bless you for sharing your story and enhancing our own journey in the process. It’s an honour to meet with you here and on Diana’s site. Blessings of peace and rest as you battle on.

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    • Joy, One of the things I did in that period was finishg writing my book, which is a collection of 30 stories from my life. The last 4 stories were of the period of my activism. So as I lay there, I both prayed and thought and remembered and prayed and thought. I was used to writing by walking around. I wondered if the stillness brought out a different style, but I think I found a way to think while being still. When I got well enough to sit up, I wrote down the last 4 stories.
      I used to be very active – riding my bike across the state and chopping enough wood each year to heat my house in Cambridge. I had to get used to being inactive. My first stay in the hospital, I decided that the one thing I could do was to be attentive to those who served me. I consciously remembered the names of all of the nurses and nurses aids and the cleaning woman. It felt good to have a job to do – to be attentive to those around me. I think it was that first week that I realized that I could always find some positive role to play. So when I came home, I could be attentive to my loving wife, and when I was alone, I could pray. So that’s not an article or a book, but is some of what I have to say. Thanks for your interest.

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      • Juliet says:

        ‘To be attentive to those around me’
        That is a wonderful thing to give to anyone. Being noticed and heard means so much.

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      • poetry joy says:

        What fruit to emerge from such a dark place! I agree with Julet above. As a former nurse, and now a person in need of a carer myself, I can fully identify with her thoughts. We could all do with being more attentive to our lives and the people around us. God is training me to ‘listen to my life’ this year and it is already reaping huge benefits. Thank you, Newell, for sharing how God gave you the ability to be still, think and write from a changed perspective.

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  5. pastordt says:

    Oh, Newell. This is just all kinds of rich! Thank you for writing so poignantly of so many powerful truths. Your historical look at the American/western view of providence evokes all kinds of responses, primarily one of strong assent. We do hold that belief – that wealth/health/prosperity are signs of God’s blessing – in very deep places, I think. You give powerful testimony to what can happen inside us when we let that false belief slip away. Your own story just shines with the TRUTH — that even in the most adverse circumstances, we are loved and held and blessed. I love the way in which you chose to personalize and externalize what was happening inside you during your months of enforced rest and stillness. Reaching out to caretakers is a beautiful example of loving our neighbor – truly lovely. Thanks so much for faithfully reading, commenting and posting, Newell. It has been a privilege to read your words.

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  6. Pingback: Q & A — Tuesday Wrap-Up: Week Seven

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