Q & A With Author Karen Beattie

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.”

Q & A with Karen Beattie

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.

Your Christian Hypocrisy is Showing: On Pope Francis and the U.S. Congress

The message of Christ is not often so clearly presented in American media as it was yesterday, nor is that message as clearly contradicted in the same news cycle.

Yesterday, Pope Francis, while not actually changing any doctrinal stance of the Catholic church, clearly asserted in a rare and frank interview that compassion and mercy must be the light that radiates from the global church for the world to see, rather than the church’s current “obsession” with gays, birth control, and abortion.

At the same time that the Pope’s words were cycling through the media, other words were also coming through loud and clear: those of Republican lawmakers who have decided that the least of these will remain just that and, accordingly, voted to slash the food stamp budget by almost $40 billion.

The juxtaposition presented between these two events is striking. It also represents an enormous divide among Christians, and, frankly, demonstrates why so many feel Christianity is a religion full of hypocrisy.

Read the rest of today’s post at Sojourners.

As We Forgive Our Debtors

Foreign debt relief doesn’t seem all that enticing a topic.

It involves large numbers and terms like “hedge fund” that may not be as familiar to us as terms like “orphanage.”

I would dare to say that most of us love to help others.  To this end, we are spurred to advocacy by images of starving children, AIDS ravished families, and inadequate health- and educational facilities in third world countries.

Unfortunately, reading about internationally waged legal battles over billions of dollars of debt just doesn’t strike this same heart chord.  It’s an “over there” type of issue but without the moving pictures to “bring it home” to us.  It’s also a bit boring, frankly, and we tend to assume that what we’re hearing about is “fake money.”  For instance, when we read that Zambia must pay off a debt incurred in the 1980’s, but now with millions of dollars of interest added, it kind of slides through our ears as a ridiculous notion.  After all, one can’t squeeze blood from a turnip.

But there are those who know better.  They know that if they just keep wringing that turnip, they will eventually get blood.  God, the Catholic Church, and now the US through President Barack Obama, have all condemned this practice.  Given that the big guns have spoken on the issue, it is time that our community of social justice advocates takes a closer look at debt relief and its nemesis: vulture funds.

A Familiar Comparison

Most of us are familiar with debt collection agencies: Johnny fails to pay Company A the $100 he owes it.  Because it is a pain to go after Johnny’s $100, Company A agrees to sell its rights to the money to Company B for $10.  Eventually Johnny pays up, and Company B makes a $90 profit.

This isn’t such a bad set up—after all, Johnny incurred a debt that he’s obligated to repay,  and what does it matter to Johnny if he pays $100 to Company A or Company B?  Either way Johnny is out the cash.

That’s a nice and neat scenario, but what if Johnny didn’t borrow the money?  What if instead, his wife, who has now run off with the mailman and is nowhere to be found, borrowed it in Johnny’s name without his permission?  Or what if Johnny did borrow the money, but he did it to pay off hospital bills incurred from an on-the-job injury, then because of that same injury, expenses snowballed and now he’s penniless?

A Different Sort of Collection Agency: Vulture Funds

There are “collection agencies” that buy the debt of entire countries.  They buy it for pennies on the dollar, then go after the whole shebang plus exorbitant amounts of interest.  These people are called “vulture capitalists,” and they run what have been come to be called “vulture funds.”

Here’s what the experts have to say about these funds:

Often, these companies operate with little transparency as shell companies (a company set up exclusively to pursue one goal, in this case, poor country debt).  Vulture funds are known to be established in tax havens like the British Virgin Islands to avoid financial constraints and oversight.  Often, because of the secretive incorporation strategies and locales, there is limited or no information on who actually owns and manages these vulture funds. 

As of late 2011, 16 of 40 Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) surveyed by the IMF were facing litigation in 78 individual cases brought by commercial creditors.  Of these, 36 cases have resulted in court judgments against HIPCs amounting to approximately $1 billion on original claims worth roughly $500 million.

The main reason these guys are called “vultures” is that they specifically target countries that are close to having their debt partially or totally forgiven.  Debt forgiveness is a practice put into place to provide systematic debt relief for the poorest countries so that these countries can instead spend their limited funds on eradicating poverty.

Poor countries that are eligible for debt cancellation are especially vulnerable.  Vulture funds have been known to track the debt relief process, buy debt of nations that are going to get debt relief and then sue the country after it has received a windfall of resources thanks to debt cancellation.

An equivalent example might be marrying a rich person because you know they are just about to die and you want all their money.  Vulture-y indeed.

Yes, but if the country had paid back its debt to begin with, this would never have happened, right?



Almost always—or dare I say just “always”—the reasons for default are out of the peoples’ hands: natural disaster, unforeseeable financial crisis, and, more often than not, corrupt leaders who rack up debt knowing that they, personally, will never have to worry about paying it back out of their own pockets.  For example, Rwanda is paying off debts from the government responsible for its genocide, and South Africa is paying off debts from the Apartheid regime.  Like Johnny and his no-good wife, someone else has signed on the dotted line, agreeing to give your life away.

That doesn’t seem fair to us, but it still isn’t necessarily an enticing topic.  Where are the images of starving children?  Of poor women with tired eyes and strong hands?  Who cares if a government—a corrupt one at that—has its hand slapped and is dragged through court for years on end?

We should.

We are smart and sophisticated.  We know that poverty is the root of much of the world’s problems, yet we often feel helpless to fight it at a deeper level—at the root.

Envision many of the world’s problems as an enormous tree.  The roots—poverty—are sunk deeply and stretching into the ground.  The yawning branches above include inadequate education, lack of clean drinking water, famine, AIDS orphans, and all the other issues that spur our hearts to action.  Cutting the branches is a good thing, but I would argue that we are not actually helpless to address the deeper issues; we can indeed fight poverty at its root.

A significant way of doing this is advocating and volunteering for, and donating to, programs that advocate for both debt relief and for the end of vulture funds.  As governments struggle to pay back debts plus exorbitant interest to these vulture funds, they are forced to levy taxes and fees on the most basic of necessities.  Governments are unable to establish the services its people need, such as hospitals and schools, because all the money is going to paying back not just debt, but debt quadrupled by unfair and predatory practices.


When you donate $1 a week to an AIDS orphan,
pen letters to a young girl who is going to school on your dime,
write a check to fund clean drinking water,

how great would it be if the countries your money is going to could afford

to buy anti-viral drugs,
to build adequate schools,
to provide necessary infrastructure

instead of spending all their money on paying back decade’s old debt that somebody else incurred?

Forgive the Debt, Lose the Vultures

Poverty is the root of the heartstring problems, and when vulture funds swoop in, buy a country’s debt, then add on exorbitant interest, these problems only get worse.  Strike the root, and the tree will fall.

The Biblical importance of ending poverty can be found in Deuteronomy 15:4 (“There will be no one in need among you”), and in Leviticus 25, which sets forth the laws of Jubilee, a periodic pardon of debt when the mercies of God would be particularly manifest.  Economic experts speculate that

Such “clean slate” decrees were intended [by Babylonian kings] to redress the tendency of debtors, in ancient societies, to become hopelessly in debt to their creditors, thus accumulating most of the arable land into the control of a wealthy few.

This sounds very familiar even in our modern times—remember the rally cry “We are the 99%?”

…the Biblical legislation of the Jubilee and Sabbatical years addressed the same problems encountered by these Babylonian kings, but the Biblical formulation of the laws presented a significant advance in justice and the rights of the people.  (emphasis added).

If God wants to significantly advance justice and the rights of the people by wiping the slate clean, who are we to disagree?

As a nation of do-gooders, we must not simply work to make sure “there will be no one in need among us.”  We must also fight those who exacerbate the injustices of the world.  When we fight vulture funds, we are digging up the roots.

So when you are sitting at the kitchen table going over finances long after the kids are in bed, debating how best to spend your limited time and funds to hack away at the branches of the poverty tree, I ask that you remember you are not helpless against its root.  Sadly, there are no “ban vulture funds” mission trips.  There is no “fight vulture funds” equivalent to Habitat for Humanity where you can feel the weighty hammer in your hands and know you are building something lasting and of value.  But there are ways you can help.  There are organizations, such as Jubilee USA, that fight vulture funds, and they need your help to fight the good fight.  So while we can’t hop on a plane and spend ten weeks battling vulture funds in Zambia, we can use our money, time, and voice to assist those, like Jubilee, who are banding together people of faith to act on the Godly principles of helping the orphan and widow, and forgiving debts, as we forgive our debtors.

If you’d like to help fight vulture funds, please visit https://www.crowdtilt.com/campaigns/help-fight-vulture-funds.