Jan is an artist, writer, and ordained minister in the United Methodist Church. She serves as director of The Wellspring Studio, LLC, and has traveled widely as a retreat leader and conference speaker. With work described by the Chicago Tribune as “breathtaking,” she has attracted an international audience drawn to the spaces of welcome, imagination, and solace that she creates in both word and image. Jan’s books include The Cure for Sorrow, Circle of Grace, and the recently released Sparrow: A Book of Life and Death and Life.
Jan’s latest book is Sparrow: A Book of Life and Death and Life. You can find it here. Jan also wrote The Cure for Sorrow, Circle of Grace, In Wisdom’s Path, and In the Sanctuary of Women, all of which are linked here.
The Cure for Sorrow was our Everything Happens Book Club choice for February of 2020. You can find a video about the book and discussion questions to guide your reading, here.
Barbara Brown Taylor in her book called An Altar in the World, says, “Whether you are sick or well, lovely or irregular, there comes a time when it is vitally important for your spiritual health to drop your clothes, look in the mirror, and say, “Here I am. This is the body-like-no-other that my life has shaped. I live here. This is my soul’s address.” After you have taken a good look around, you may decide that there is a lot to be thankful for, all things considered. Bodies take real beatings. That they heal from most things is an underrated miracle. That they give birth is beyond reckoning.”
Kate and Jan talk about Nora McInerny and how she has fought the thin language of moving on. You can listen to Nora’s episode on the Everything Happens podcast, here.
Kate Bowler: Hi, I’m Kate Bowler, and this is Everything Happens. Look, the world loves us when we are good, better, best. But this is a podcast for when you want to stop feeling guilty that you’re not living your best life now. We’re not always getting the pandemic body of our dreams. I used to have my own delusion, a living, my best life now. I’m a Duke professor, wine and cheese enthusiast, wife and mom, Instagram gold. Then I was diagnosed with stage four cancer. That was four years ago. And I’m still here. And now I get it. Life is a chronic condition. The self-help and wellness industry will try to tell you that you can always fix your life. Eat this and you won’t get sick. Lose this weight and you’ll never be lonely. Believe with your whole heart and God will provide. Keep this attitude and the money is yours. But I’m here to look into your gorgeous eyes and say, hey, there are some things you can fix and some things you can’t. And it’s okay that life isn’t always better. We can find beauty and meaning and truth, but there’s no cure to being human. So let’s be friends on that journey. Let’s be human together.
Kate Bowler: What does it mean to be blessed? If you were to scroll through social media, you’d assume that blessed are the ones with gorgeous families and matching chambray outfits, open style floor plans or easy beach vacations where no one could possibly end up throwing sand. But Jesus had other things in mind. He said things like, Blessed are the weak. Blessed are the vulnerable. Blessed are the grieving. What if blessed isn’t exactly what our culture thinks it is? What if a blessing is something a bit more mysterious, a bit more comforting? And what if blessing could be an act of stubborn hope? Today, I’m speaking with someone who believes in the mystery of blessing. The Reverend Jan Richardson is an artist, writer and ordained minister in the United Methodist Church. She serves as director of the Wellspring Studio and leads retreats and conferences. She often collaborated with her husband, the singer songwriter Garrison Doles, until his sudden death in 2013. Jan is the author of Circle of Grace, Sparrow, and The Cure for Sorrow, which is honestly one of my very favorite books to give people going through hard times. Seriously, if you ever want, like a beautiful, non bossy book to give someone in pain, take a look. The Cure for Sorrow is just transcendent. And I feel so grateful to be speaking with the author today. I feel like I’ve been looking forward to this forever. Jan, hello.
Jan Richardson: Hello, Kate. I have been looking forward to this so much. Thank you. I’m so glad and grateful to be in conversation together with you today. And so grateful for your words about blessing. And also grateful for the way that you invite people into conversations that are both hard and joyous and that in itself is a blessing. So I have been looking forward to what I have been anticipating will be a hard and joyous conversation with you. And I’m glad to be in that space. Thank you.
K.B.: Thanks. I’ve always thought of you as having just a shared brain with me about my obsession with blessing. As you know, my background is in this history of the prosperity gospel, which has this very aggressive definition of what blessings supposed to be. You pray hard, you believe hard. God is going to give you health and wealth and happiness. But then, you know, in this culture permeated by hashtag blessed as this display of unexpected but completely deserved gifts like new car hashtag, bikini body, hashtag blessed (laughter). So many years ago, you began crafting a different kind of blessing. But how does your understanding with blessing contrast with this hashtag blessed world?
J.R.: Yes, I’m so familiar with the ways and certainly have experienced the ways in our culture that you that you describe so well that you articulate so well, you know, hashtag blessed a dynamic that so many people treat as a way of somehow keeping score, that blessings are a way of keeping tally of just precisely how benevolent God is toward us and just how much Jesus likes us and how fond he is for us. And that manifests in good things and lovely things and enjoyable things and events. That’s pretty foreign to the tradition of blessing that we find within the Jewish and Christian traditions and other traditions as well, where blessings are something very different than that. They appear from Genesis through Revelation. And they always appear as something that has, there’s a toughness to them. They’re often in poetic form. There’s a beauty to them. But there’s, I know you know, that in the English language, blessing, you know, to bless shares a root with the word blood. And I think there’s something about the blessing that has a living heartbeat that can be passed from one person to another. There is no kind of situation, there is nothing in the circle of experience, our experience, our lived human experience that lies outside God’s desire for blessing for us, which translates to God’s desire for wholeness for us to have whole hearts, even when they’re shattered.
K.B.: Everything you said sounds exactly, it’s just like landing exactly right in my little heart. Your books are so easy to just highlight the crap out of.
J.R.: Hey, can I use that for an endorsement for my next book?
K.B.: Yes, yes, yes absolutely.
K.B.: Well, one thing that I just highlighted was when you wrote, a blessing is at its most potent in times of disaster, devastation and loss. When God’s providence seems most difficult to find, a blessing helps us perceive the grace that threads through our lives. That makes me think like blessing is also like an act of storytelling, like it helps us be like no, is there a plot here that isn’t just? And then the hero loses everything.
J.R.: Right, Yeah.
K.B.: I like it too, that it also takes us away from the idea that blessing is like, and now I pronounce this magically better or even sometimes like I’m magically spiritual, like a blessing does this. So I know we have blessings for like transitions, but there’s nothing, there’s just nothing formulaic exactly about it. Like, it doesn’t, it’s not a guarantee.
J.R.: Right. Yes. And Amen, to there’s absolutely nothing magical about it. And one of the things I love about blessing’s is that they really do take the most ordinary of words, speak into, you know, drawn from the most ordinary, and by ordinary I don’t mean easy. By ordinary, I mean the life and death kind of stuff that we are constantly living with in some kind of way. And they, the blessings emerge from those experiences and they speak into those experiences. And they’re not magical. They’re not hocus pocus. They are drawn from that lived beating heart kind of experience or the ending of a beating heart kind of experience. And part of my experience of a blessing is that a good blessing invites us into a space where it doesn’t try to make sense of something, but it assures us that even when we have a hard time believing it or imagining it, that God is somehow present there. And a blessing has a way of naming that and inviting us into that. Sometimes when we can’t even necessarily believe every word of the blessing, but it invites us into that space.
K.B.: Yes, a little what if. Yes. Would you mind reading one of your blessings? I was thinking especially one of your blessings for Lent called Blessing the Body.
J.R: I’d be glad to.
J.R.: This blessing takes one look at you, and all it can say is holy. Holy hands, holy face, holy feet, holy everything in between. Holy, even in pain. Holy, even when weary. In brokenness, holy. In shame, holy still. Holy in delight, holy in distress. Holy when being born, holy when we lay it down at the hour of our death. So, friend, open your eyes. Holy eyes. For one moment see what this blessing sees. This blessing that knows how you have been formed and knit together in wonder and in love. Welcome this blessing that folds its hands in prayer when it meets you. Receive this blessing that wants to kneel in reverence before you. You who are temple, sanctuary, home for God in this world.
K.B.: I love that.
J.R.: Thank you Kate.
J.R.: That reminds me of one time when Barbara Brown Taylor said something like, you know, at some point every now and then, you just got to take off all your clothes and stand in front of the mirror and say, this is God’s address. What you’re describing is so, it’s so hard in our brokenness to feel like anything good lives there. And then to think that God, God self might actually stick around. It’s so beautiful.
J.R.: Thank you. And I think that’s part of the power of a blessing. I think that’s part of the the grace and invitation of a blessing is that one of the things it does is that it can invite us into a space where I’m not sure I believe that right now, but maybe it if I wander around here a little bit and absorb the words and let them work on me.
J.R.: Sometimes when I’m writing the blessings, things configure or words configure, ideas configure that even I have to chew on some. Is that really true?
J.R.: And that’s part of the grace of blessing.
K.B.: Oh, that’s beautiful. Yeah. We have this really beautiful community here at the Everything Happens project that just that knows that just either because of the professions they’ve chose or the or the wisdom they’ve accidentally bumped into in their lives, whether they wanted to or not, that they just know that we need words for that in between because our lives are defined by so much beauty and then so much sadness. And you’re you just really become one of our pillars of that we sort of lean on when we talk about grief. And I’m so grateful to you for that. You, of course, didn’t want to become an expert in grief but it’s something, you know, very intimately. If you don’t mind telling me what happened. Your husband, Gary, seemed to be going into a very uncomplicated surgery when things didn’t go as planned.
J.R.: Yeah. Thank you. Yeah. Gary and I had just gotten married in the spring of 2010 after being together for a long time and knowing from virtually the outset that we would be making a life together. And then just barely three years later, he went to the doctor, he was having something going on with his throat and just went to the clinic to get it checked out and came back and some hours later and said, I have a brain aneurysm. In the course of doing the checking out of the throat stuff that turned out not to be a problem, they had done a scan that revealed the presence of this unruptured aneurysm. We had hoped he would be able to have a simple, simpler, less invasive procedure called the coiling. Once the preliminary testing was done, it became clear that he would need to have, because of the size and placement he was going to need to have surgery. He went into surgery in the afternoon, and when the surgeon still wasn’t out at 11:00 p.m. and midnight, one, two, three. Finally, at four o’clock in the morning, he came out and said it did not go as we anticipated. And there had been a clot that became evident during surgery and they’re not sure whether it had already been there or something about the surgical procedure triggered it. Gary had a massive stroke on the operating table and never regained consciousness. They had some hope for some measure of recovery. But complications cascaded and two and a half weeks later, he died.
K.B.: Oh Jan, yeah, that must have just ended a world.
J.R.: It did. That is a good description of it.
K.B.: I am so struck that in the midst of so much grief that you turned to the act of blessing. That might be counter-intuitive for people who think like, couldn’t we have, like the tradition of curses in Christianity (laughter). Wouldn’t that be a great time say for bringing out an old goodie (more laughter).
J.R.: Oh, my gosh. I’ve done I’ve done my share and probably a few other people’s share of cursing as well. And that’s somehow part of the process, too, I think.
K.B.: I mean, maybe you just did it, like, instinctively. But like what was behind, like the turn back toward blessing in the midst of grief?
J.R.: There are some things that are hard to remember about that time. I mean, I remember one of my friends, one of my good, good friends, telling me not long after Gary’s death, you know, Jan, your executive functions are going to take a hit for awhile. And that definitely was true. And memory is I remember everything, you know, everything about Gary, but just kind of, just that, oh, gosh, that morass of time after his death. I don’t know that it was a conscious choice exactly. I’m going to continue to write blessings. I think I didn’t know what else to do. I think I was so desperately in need of a blessing, and needing to articulate, you know, something of the awfulness, knowing and trusting or trusting at least that that’s, you know, the awfulness is somehow part of the blessing, and I say that in an entirely unsentimental kind of way. This is not about looking for the silver lining. This is not, you know. Oh, my gosh, you’re denying anything. Anything that has transpired. This is, you know, taking the pieces of the broken heart and sitting with them and waiting to see what the spirit is going to create with the pieces, knowing that it will never be the same. Blessings really inhabit those threshold spaces of mystery. And we find some words to bring to bear on that. And anyway, so I think it was in part an act of desperation that I wrote blessings before Gary died. And maybe I can write some blessings after his death and they’re not going to be quite the same kind of blessing. But there was something in there that I needed. And that was in a time that when I eventually got clear and at some point after Gary died, that I had to stop assuming that some of the things that were true about me and about my life before his death, we’re going to be also true after his death that there’s been something about blessing and that’s part of the mystery. They’re part of what carried me across the threshold and continue to carry me.
K.B.: That’s a perfect word. I think my absolute favorite blessing of yours is a Blessing for the Brokenhearted. And I have read it out loud bazillion times. And now I would really prefer if you would read it in your voice. Would you mind?
J.R.: I would be glad to Kate and I’m grateful for the voice that you have given to it as well. This is just briefly a blessing that I wrote as we were coming up on the first Valentine’s Day after Gary’s death, Blessing for the Brokenhearted, it begins with an epigraph from Henry David Thoreau where he says there is no remedy for love but to love more.
J.R.: Let us agree for now that we will not say the breaking makes us stronger or that it is better to have this pain than to have done without this love. Let us promise we will not tell ourselves, time will heal the wound when every day our waking opens it anew. Perhaps for now, it can be enough to simply marvel at the mystery of how a heart so broken can go on beating as if it were made for precisely this. As if it knows the only cure for love is more of it, as if it sees the heart’s soul remedy for breaking is to love still. As if it trusts that its own persistent pulse is the rhythm of a blessing we cannot begin to fathom, that will save us nonetheless.
K.B.: This one is deeply hopeful. I just think it is a very stubborn blessing this one. It’s like it’s determined in a way that I love.
J.R.: Thank you. Stubborn. Stubborn has been a word that keeps recurring for me, particularly in the context of hope. Yeah, just it’s been such a such a thing to learn. In the wake of Gary’s death, that hope is stubborn.
K.B.: I was talking to my friend Dr. Willie Jennings the other day and he said, I will be disciplined by hope. But you’re somebody who makes sure that hope is a thing that you’re always on the lookout for. Your new memoir, Sparrow, began when Gary was in the hospital. You wrote down everything you wanted to tell him when he got out of surgery. And then after he died, you picked up the document months later and continued writing what became a series of conversations. Tell me why the sparrow has been such a powerful image for you?
J.R.: That sparrow kind of like the blessings that sparrow has been kind of sneaky as well. It’s somewhere along the way, Psalm 84 became an absolute favorite for Gary and me. And it’s this, you know, it’s that beautiful psalm where the Psalmist offers the image of the sparrow and the swallow who make their nest make their home at the altar of God. There was something about that that was really, really compelling for us. That particular Psalm inspired one of Gary’s very favorite songs of mine, which is saying something because I have a lot of favorite songs of Gary’s but one that he called I Will Be a Sparrow. And when it came time to decide my pastor friend Bob, who officiated at Gary’s memorial service, he, shall we say, strongly encouraged me to think about sharing a song of Gary’s at the outset of the service and where I thought I wouldn’t be able to bear to hear Gary’s voice that day. Bob, in his quiet, steady wisdom, said, perhaps it’s something that we will all need to hear that day. And that was the song that kept coming to me. I will be a sparrow. And that’s what we listen to as we gathered for that day. And I found just that sparrows kept showing up in the wake of Gary’s death and in tangible ways, you know, literally flitting across my path and in poems that came my way with mysterious timing and other readings. And in that spirit became for me, you know, not so much a kind of a sign of Gary’s ongoing presence, but something of a witness to the ongoing, enduring, stubborn presence of love that continues, you know, even through the rending of grief. And those sparrows somehow became a testament to the testimony to that.
K.B.: I love it, too, because it’s like delightful. It’s not like an anchor. I just I love that it’s such a beautiful combination of, like, lightness and heaviness. You have such a powerful way of accounting for the fact that there’s just no good math for grief. You write like grief is the least linear thing I know. So it just made me want to ask you, like, what has surprised you about how grief works, or doesn’t, or it just happens, or it just keeps happening?
J.R.: Oh, my goodness. That I’ve been thinking lately about how grief is full of hidden rooms and some of those rooms hold explosives.
K.B.: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
J.R.: And some of those rooms hold treasures. And we don’t know quite what we’re gonna get when we open the door or when or when the doors open for us, because that’s just you know, that’s one of the that’s how grief works, is that we it comes on us not by choice typically, and not something that we would have willingly opened the door to. Not something we would have chosen to welcome in the end. And certainly my experiences in my ongoing grief, I still don’t get to open all the doors. There are some I have some choice about and have some intention about. And that’s part of grief’s invitation, is to figure out what you know, what’s the invitation to us? How am I being called to move in this threshold space, in this broken space? There’s this remarkable provision that comes can come to us in our grieving as part of the hidden rooms that opened to us in grief that don’t go in an orderly or linear fashion, we kind of have to wander and stumble our way around. When those treasure rooms open to us, that’s an amazing thing.
K.B.: You’re like who did this floorplan? It’s not very intuitive. There should be bathroom here, there should be a rec room.
J.R.: Just let me have a word with this architect. There’s way too much basement here.
K.B.: It just keeps going down. Why? You say two things like, I felt like I could do 15 minutes at a time. And that really made a lot of sense to me. Like the idea that in the midst of because grief time to me feels very sludgy. You know, it’s just it’s very gooey time. And I’ve hated it. Sometimes it just it does it helps organize your brain when you can just set these little short horizons and make little tiny decisions like bit by bit.
J.R.: Mushy and gooey. Yes, that’s, those are great, great descriptions of grief time. And I’m a little taken aback that you quote me as saying that I could plan 15 minutes at a time because my memory is that I was doing all the plan on like two minutes at a time.
K.B.: Haha, we’re going to max out on thirty seconds here.
K.B.: It does remind me of one of my favorite Netflix shows is the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, when she was always in her underground bunker, she was like 10 seconds at a time. You know, that’s how that goes.
J.R.: That’s exactly part of how the gooey, mushy grief time works is that we keep breathing, hopefully, and praying for the grace and not always consciously because, yeah, cause grief, grief so often robs us of the ability to dream. And that’s particularly as an artist and a writer, that so much of what I experienced about grief is that grief has this ability to just gut our capacity for imagining and dreaming and envisioning and planning. Because what did all our dreaming and imagining, envisioning and planning get us when we’re here at this place? But that eventually becomes one of the greatest gifts, is that the dreaming in time wakes up again. It’s stubborn, it’s part of hope that my imagination. I think the gift of our imagination is one of the most remarkable things that has the ability to come to life again after grieving. And so I think that’s part of what helps us move from being able to plan two minutes of the time to 10 minutes at a time to you know, 15 and 20 and then days and weeks ahead.
K.B.: I like that, too, as a promise to where you like. Don’t worry, my dear. You will wake up like it’s still in there, because I think the feeling is always that it well then it’s gone. It’s gone. I’m gone. There is a person who knew me and loved me. And I think that’s something we hear a lot from, from this beautiful community is like a very deep fear that like what if the person I am or was is just gone forever?
J.R.: Yeah. Yes. One of my core questions at the heart of writing my new book, Sparrow, was who am I when the one you know, when the person who has known me best in all the world is gone from this world. And I yeah, that and that continues to be a question for me. And too, part of my experience of grieving is that in the aching and the rending of the loss that I continue to live with on a minute to minute daily basis, there’s this deep awareness that my heart is held now by somebody who lives in eternity. And that poses lots of questions, too, because it can be kind of hard to get up and make breakfast and, you know, do laundry. And, you know, when you know, my heart has been torn open to eternity and the way that grief and deep loss can do to us.
K.B.: I was very resentful of that. To be honest, I thought I was pretty pissed and very pissed about this topic because I just thought, well, you know, if I die then and my kid is two like what I wanted was to know him when he was three and four. And what does eternity mean? Like, thank you. Thank you fullness of time. I’m not super interested in it if I miss out on this part.
J.R.: It is not a satisfying consolation prize. That should not be something that you and your son and family ever have to think about.
K.B.: What you are describing is true. There is a feeling of a moreness. It’s just that from here, what we wanted was this.
J.R.: And this is you know, this is, we’re made for this. This is, you know, we’re made for this daily messy, wonderful, messy again, you know, life together.
K.B.: I want this stupid life.
J.R.: Yeah, exactly.
K.B.: Yes. And the enoughness that we experience when we really just when our hearts are beating with love. You’re like, no God like this, this was enough. I didn’t. Thanks for promising more. But I was, this was absolutely more than enough thanks.
J.R.: Exactly. Thank you for that. Amen to that.
K.B.: I have been upset about this topic. Thank you.
K.B.: You give us more and more language for the that feeling of befores and afters. And I really like what my friend Nora MacInerney, she lost her husband and they had their young child together. And she was really resentful of all the talk about like, well, okay. So then. Okay. So then now what? If she ever loved again or if she ever was happy or if she ever had a variety of different beautiful things happen, they’d say, oh well, I’m so glad for you that you moved on. And she became really frustrated with, like, the thinness of the language of moving on. You thought about that in really like delicate ways. How do we give a little bit more? I don’t know. Freedom to people to have like happiness after or worry that we really lost something we can’t get back. Like, how do we open up that space?
J.R.: There were times, fortunately, not a lot of times, but there were times, particularly the first few years after Gary’s death, where I would sometimes get a question that went like um. Are you better now?
K.B.: Right, right, right.
J.R.: I remember talking with somebody who said, I look forward to your being all back, which just did a slow burn in me. And I’m really clear that continuing to make a life for myself here in this place, there’s no going backness to that, that it’s a, I do feel this really clear but not always clear this ongoing invitation to live. There’s that’s also, I think that God’s desire for us and that would be the desire that is the desire of the beloved, the one whom we have lost. That would be that is their desire for us to live, you know, to live in this life. But again, it’s with that sense of, you know, something has rended that no longer allows me to live only. And in this world.
K.B.: What a good way of saying that Jan. That’s right. Something has happened that doesn’t let me only live in this world. Geeze that’s good.
J.R.: That sense of that we are called to live and to continue. But it’s not going to be in a way that relate to ever completely divests us of our grief because that’s now part of who I am, that love that I was that I have been and am so extraordinarily fortunate to experience with Gary and the grief of losing the in the flesh, daily lived experience of that, you know, the grief of losing that will always be with me, even as that love inspires me and informs me as I continue to figure out what it means to make a life in this world, this world that has suddenly, you know, became ever so much bigger than I had really wanted it to be with Gary’s death. Those are hard, hard things to find language for.
K.B.: That’s a good prayer, though. It’s like, God, this world became bigger than I had hoped and I am not thrilled.
K.B.: Your ability to add very, delicate language to our deep hungers and our deep fears and then our deep hopes is something that has been just a huge gift to me. And so thank you for the stubbornness that that represents because you’ve decided to keep doing it. And in a culture that would have would have preferred a much simpler explanation. Thank you so much for being with me. This was a real gift.
J.R.: Thank you so much, Kate. It’s been a gift to me. And thank you for inviting me to be part of the conversation to join with you in that ongoing search for further language for these things.
K.B.: We’ll figure it out, though. I think we can totally figure it out.
J.R.: Word by word.
K.B.: Years ago, my friend’s neighborhood flooded. The nearby river, had washed out the bottom two floors of people’s homes. And so some friends and I drove out to help people clear out the wreckage of what was left. It was all of their belongings, everything they loved, waterlogged and about to become a giant mold trap splayed all over the neighborhood. So basically, everything had to go. I was cleaning out this yard, throwing clothes and headboards, and old board games into a dumpster, and I reached for this tricycle and everyone around me all at once yelled. No, no, no, no, not that. My first thought was. But this neighbor doesn’t have a kid. I knew he lived alone. But my friends said quietly, Oh, no, that’s Chris’s tricycle. They lost him when he was four. The neighbor cleared his throat and gently took back the tricycle. And he said to me, a stranger and a completely dumb college student. Yes, I’m sorry. I’ll need to keep that. I will become a lot of things, but I need to remember that I was that kid’s dad. That really stuck with me. Because, yeah, the floods will come. It will take almost everything away. We will keep losing the landmarks of who we were, who we are. And we need more accounting for the ways that we can remind ourselves. But yes, I am still also that. What we need is a blessing for this space. A minute, a breath, a small way to say I am this. And I am that. I feel joy. And I am heartbroken. I feel nothing in this moment and everything the next. Nothing will be okay again. But wait. Even though it’s hard to believe now, no we do not move on or forget. But we can allow life to take up the space it demands, hoping that one day our love will outweigh our sorrow.
K.B.: This podcast wouldn’t be possible without the generosity of the Lilly Endowment. Huge thank you to my team. Jessica Richie, Keith Weston, Harriet Putman and J.J. Dickinson. Don’t miss an episode, be sure to subscribe to Everything Happens wherever you listen to podcasts. And I’d love to hear from you. Find me online at KateCBowler or at Katebowler.com. This is Everything Happens with me, Kate Bowler.