I have often been bothered by phrase, “you are so blessed.” It isn’t the phrase per se that is bothersome, but rather its application. Give birth to a healthy child — you are so blessed! Receive a promotion at work — you are so blessed!
But sometimes children aren’t healthy, or even born at all. Sometimes jobs aren’t found or kept, let alone a promotion received. What then?
I recently became a bit fixated on this line of thought, so when I had an opportunity to interview Karen Beattie about her new book, Rock Bottom Blessings: Discovering God’s Abundance When All Seems Lost, I jumped at the chance.
In Rock Bottom Blessings, Beattie addresses the “blessing” issue head on. In the early chapters of her book, Beattie discusses financial struggles she and her husband went through, and how those struggles impacted her life and her faith. Setting up her theme nicely, in Chapter One Beattie recounts hearing a friend tell a financially well-off woman that the woman “is so blessed.” Beattie recalls that she almost choked on her latte when she heard this — what, then, did Beattie’s lack of financial security mean about God’s feelings toward her?
Making herself even more vulnerable, Beattie goes on to share her battle with infertility and her fruitless attempts at international adoption. Similar to the latte scene, Beattie describes receiving a message from a friend also traveling down the adoption road. This friend happily reports that she and her husband have been blessed — an anonymous donor is paying their adoption fees! Again Beattie scratches her head; has she fallen from God’s favor?
In her search for answers, Beattie successfully ties snippets of her personal life to theological explorations that bring her ever closer to her final destination: “that it is the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ that inspires us to find blessings in every season of our lives and to be utterly transformed by God’s riches.”
Making the decision to write a book—especially one so deeply personal—is a big one! What did that decision-making process look like?
I’ve heard writers say that the book you are meant to write just finds you. That’s what happened to me. While my husband and I were going through our financial crisis, and my life seemed to be falling apart, I started writing down what I was going through in order to make sense of it all. After awhile, I thought maybe it could become a book. I put together a book proposal and pitched it to a few editors and agents, who weren’t interested.
Then, an editor at Loyola Press, Vinita Hampton Wright, whom I had met but didn’t know well, put out a call on Facebook for “female writers who were going through a transition.” I sent her a few writing samples, thinking she was looking for writers to contribute to an anthology. I didn’t send her the book proposal. But I had lunch with her and her boss, Joe Durepos, one day, and we talked about my book idea. They suggested I send Vinita chapters as I was writing it. So I did that for a year. Eventually I had enough chapters for a book. I don’t think I would have finished writing the book if it hadn’t been for the encouragement of the editors at Loyola. The finished book turned out to be something different than my original idea.
Like you, I have often thought that telling those in “good” life circumstances that they are “blessed” can be hurtful to those who are struggling, as it implies those who are struggling are not blessed. However, when I’ve suggested this to others, I’ve found strong disagreement. Did you encounter disagreement with your message at all, especially within your personal faith community? Has anyone in your personal life suggested that if you were “doing the right thing,” you and your husband would not have gone through such tough times?
No one ever came out and said it. But I do think it’s an underlying assumption, at least in some faith communities. One reader, someone whom I grew up with but hadn’t seen in years, told me that when she was growing up she believed her family was “blessed” by God and maybe even more spiritual because they had a lot of money. I’m not surprised, because that belief was very prevalent in the church of my childhood. Now this friend and her husband are in the ministry, and she no longer believes that God’s blessing is tied to monetary wealth.
But that thinking isn’t unusual. If someone’s life is going well and they have a lot of material wealth, the rest of us sit back and wonder, What am I doing wrong? And does God love them more than he loves me? Where do we get those messages? In my book I was trying to unravel some of those assumptions, and help people to understand that blessings may look a lot different than what we think.
What blessings have you received through writing and publishing your first book?
When I finished writing the book, and before it was accepted for publication, I remember thinking, “I’m glad I wrote this, even if it never gets published.” I fell in love with the process of writing a book. It’s a huge challenge, and there was satisfaction in simply completing it.
It also gave me an opportunity to figure out what was going on in my life. Author Parker Palmer says he became a writer because he was “born baffled.” I was born baffled, too. And during our financial and personal struggles, I was so puzzled as to why my life was turning out the way it was. I wrote the book in order to figure it all out. Also, the responses I have gotten from readers have been incredible. If I can help just one person by telling my story, then it’s all worth it.
I noticed that you use phrases regarding “asking Jesus into your heart” in quotes. Do the quotes indicate a disbelief in, or derisive feelings towards, the “sinner’s prayer?”
There’s language that’s used in the evangelical and fundamentalist subculture that after a while didn’t hold much meaning for me. What does “asking Jesus into your heart” mean? I asked “Jesus into my heart” many times as a child. So if salvation is a one-time event, then when did I actually become “saved?” My understanding of salvation has changed. For me, salvation has been a process.
I was fascinated by your discussion of Mary—whether the Catholic Church takes the right approach to her treatment or not—and your internal debate about whether praying to Mary about infertility and adoption might be helpful. You didn’t resolve that issue within the pages of your book, and I’ve been curious to know—have you reached a final decision on Mary?
One thing I love about the Catholic Church is that there’s room for mystery and awe. When I decided to become Catholic, I had many questions such as, do the elements in the Eucharist actually become Christ’s body and blood? And can Mary really hear my prayers?
But now I’m okay with not really knowing that answers to those questions. As far as the Eucharist is concerned, I sure hope the elements become Christ’s actual body and blood, because I can use all of Christ I can get. And when it comes to praying to Mary, I think, why not? I’d love to have Mary as an advocate. I still have my doubts, but I’m okay with not having everything nailed down and certain. I’m trying to embrace mystery.
Let’s talk about the prosperity gospel, which you spend a bit of time on in your book. Do you find this doctrine completely false and harmful? Why do you think so many Christians take this message as truth?
Yes, I think the prosperity gospel is false and harmful. And I think it has seeped into our culture and our churches without us knowing it. It reduces God to a Santa Claus who only gives good things to people who do the right things. I think that belief is very harmful, and it sets people up for disappointment in God. And if the prosperity gospel is true, then where is there room for grace?
I think Christians take that message as truth because they want it to be true. Who wouldn’t want to believe that if you just have enough faith or pray hard enough, a new house or a shiny new car or that perfect job will be yours? It gives us some amount of control. But it’s not true.
Your prayers for a child seem to have been answered, although not in the way you originally envisioned. What is the status of your adoption journey at this time?
Our three-year-old foster daughter has lived with us for over a year. We hope to adopt her within the next 6 months or so. The process is moving forward—it just takes awhile. Adopting from foster care requires a lot of patience.
You poignantly describe the scene of tucking your daughter in at night, while she physically struggles against you. Can you talk a little about your walk through that and where you are now?
Things have settled down quite a bit. The first six months or so were harrowing and exhausting. I think any new parent experiences shock during the first few months, whether you adopt or give birth. So we had the experience of being first-time parents to a toddler. Yikes. Add to that the confusion and disorientation of our daughter, who had to adjust to a new home and new caregivers. But thankfully, she has attached to us, and we have attached to her, and things are going really well. We’ve also had a lot of help and advice along the way, for which we are very thankful.
What advice do you have for couples who are thinking of adopting, or have just begun the process?
I would say to follow your heart. If you have the desire to add a child to your family through adoption—just go for it. It’s a beautiful experience. International adoption has become much more difficult in the past 10 years or so. But I know of many families who have recently adopted children from other countries, so I know it still is a possibility for some. And for those who are considering foster care and might be afraid of “the system,” I would say, the foster care system needs good families to step up. Be courageous. Don’t be afraid to enter into the broken system and try to make a difference. It can be very rewarding.
In your book, you write quite a bit about your conversion to Catholicism. In that discussion, you point out weaknesses of prior churches you attended, and how those weaknesses impacted your faith walk. Given the recent online conversations about why young people are leaving the church, I thought you might have an opinion on what churches could do to hold on to their younger congregants, and perhaps might even have a word or two for the young people who are considering “doing their own thing” outside of the church walls.
I can’t speak for everyone, but I know for me the non-denominational churches that I attended in my 20s and 30s became not enough. There wasn’t enough beauty, or mystery, or deep meaning. When I first stepped foot in the Catholic church I now attend, I was overwhelmed with the beauty of the architecture, stained glass windows, and icons. I believe beauty and art are signposts pointing us to God, as are the Sacraments. I was at a place in my faith where I needed those tangible reminders of God.
Some might say that you have indeed been truly blessed with abundance. You’ve published your first book, you have a child at home, you have found a strong church community in which to grow. What about those who never have their prayers answered in the way that they hope? Does your message of finding blessings in the hardships apply to those who never experience anything other than hardship?
Well, I wouldn’t say I’ve had all my prayers answered in the way I had hoped. My life looks very different than what I imagined 20 years ago. I’m very grateful I’ve had the opportunity to publish a book, and become a foster mother, and for a strong faith community. And yes, my life feels abundant at the moment. But I always say, “It’s a mixed bag,” and I’m sure there will be more struggles ahead. I went for years longing to have a child, and it seemed as if my waiting would never end. Now that I am a mother, it’s HARD. And there are other things going on in our lives that are difficult.
For those who are experiencing prolonged suffering, I do believe there is hope for resurrection. Maybe it’s not going to look like what you imagined or prayed for. But if you believe in the paschal mystery, the life, passion, and resurrection of Christ, then you can believe that there will be new life that comes out of that suffering in some way, shape or form. Sometimes we just need to have the eyes to see it.
Do you have anything you would like readers to know about you, your book, or your prayers for those who read your words?
I pray that those who are suffering will find hope by reading my story. I like this quote from the poet Rumi: “Where there is ruin, there is hope for a treasure.” May readers find treasures in the midst of whatever struggles they may be facing.
Karen Beattie has a master’s degree in journalism and has written about women’s issues, the arts, and spirituality for several publications, including Christianity Today, Today’s Christian Woman, and Midwest Living. She currently works as writing director for a digital creative agency. She lives with her husband, daughter and geriatric cat on the north side of Chicago.