Philip has written so many amazing books like Where is God when it Hurts?, Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference, and What’s So Amazing About Grace. His new book called, Where the Light Fell: a Memoir, just released. You can find all of Philip’s books online or at your local bookshop.
Kate Bowler: There’s that sick feeling you get when something should have happened, when someone should have stepped in, when someone left you hanging in a time of deep need: a person you love, a community, a church, a pastor, a doctor, a friend, maybe God. You’ve been let down. It can be very easy to wonder what was the point? Was I wrong to have trusted this person or in this place? Is there anything of value here to keep, even if most of what it should have been is in ashes now? I’m Kate Bowler and this is Everything Happens and I’m here to let you off the hook for having to live your best life now when things don’t feel good, better, best. Thanks a lot Joel Osteen. When I was growing up, there was a Christian author that people turn to to talk about their disappointment. He’d written books with titles like Disappointment with God. Church, Why Bother? What’s so Amazing About Grace? Where is God When it Hurts? What good is God? I’ll never forget my boyfriend, later husband, he was dealing with a loss in his family, and he looked very sheepish, holding a stack of those very books in the checkout line. It was hard, countercultural even, to say I’m disappointed. And until I read the memoir of our guest today, I honestly had no idea how much the wisdom of these books cost him. Philip Yancey is the author of 25 Books with 17 million books in print, so yeah, you might have seen them around. Former President Jimmy Carter, also the president that I named my chemo pack after, called him his favorite modern author. And he has been a spiritual guide for so many, and I am so grateful to be talking with him today. I love my new friend. Hello!
Philip Yancey: Hello. And it’s my pleasure to be with you Kate. I followed your own career and learned so much from both your speaking as you hit the media in ways that many people have not, and you’re rich books that come out of a background not that different from mine and ended up in a place not that different from mine. So I keep feeling I’m not the only one out there. Yeah.
Kate: Aw. Well, I’m grateful to be your spiritual cousin. Your wrestling with disappointment started before you can even remember. And it began with your dad and a test of faith. And if you don’t mind starting back there in that hard place, what happened?
Philip: Yes, I was only one year old, so I have no conscious memory of that. I had a brother who was three years old. Very young family. My father was 23, and he and my mother were planning to go to Africa as missionaries. In fact, they had raised supporters who would contribute to the make it possible for them to do so. Then suddenly, my father was struck down in the midst of a feared pandemic, which in 1950 was polio. Yeah, it wasn’t coronavirus. And it was especially feared because it mostly hit children and nobody knew what caused it. Where it came from, unlike most adults, he was paralyzed. There was a minority of people. He was completely paralyzed. You see some people still limping because of going through it. But in his case, he couldn’t move at all. He could move as his neck just a little bit, but could not even breathe on his own. So he was put in which they called in an iron lung, which is a machine that created a vacuum. And by pumping air in and out, it would force his lungs to contract and then expand the contract and expand. And he lay in a ward in a charity hospital, the only place in Atlanta with iron lungs. The noise was constant, he just lay there staring at the ceiling. Yeah, that’s all they could do. The fluorescent lights, he had a mirror on the side and he could kind of glance, move his eyes and glance in the mirror and see people as they pass the door. But no one dared to come in the polio ward because they were so feared. Except in this case, my mother, who would take a bus every day and spend the entire day with him. Eighteen years later, I found the real story. I was going through a scrapbook with articles and photos and memorabilia from our family with my girlfriend, who became my wife. We were at my grandparents house. She was fascinated, wanted to know all the Yancey family history. And suddenly a tattered paper, little newsprint folded yellow paper fell out onto the floor and I reached down and picked it up. And I recognize my father in the picture. He was lying in a bed. He was being spoon fed by a younger version of my mother and underneath it said that a minister believed in faith healing and against medical advice and taking himself out of the iron lung and checked himself from that hospital out and checked himself into a chiropractic center, which was not really equipped to deal with polio patients. And it went on to quote their confidence that God would heal him. Why would God quote, take a young missionary so fervent, so committed? It was like someone poured ice water down my spine because here was a central fact of my existence that I didn’t even know about. And yet there it was, journalists had checked it out, the photos were there, the facts were there. For 18 years, my mother and others had kept this secret from me. And it explained a lot, as my memoir goes on to tell, because that decision proved to be fatal. My father died nine days after he was checked out of the, out of the hospital, and my mother decided to try to overcome that, replace what he was going to do with her two sons, myself and my brother. And that didn’t turn out the way she had planned or predicted. And that’s a story that started my own quest into suffering and grace the two themes that I tend to write about again and again.
Kate: Yes, and it’s such a beautiful title “Where the Light Fell.” So you have this sense that, like faith is casting this really long shadow on these two little boys who are suddenly part of a much bigger story that they can’t possibly have chosen. You and your brother sound like very brilliant, sensitive kids who are very aware that there was just a lot at stake in your decisions. That faith was not just a kind of set of beliefs, but it was like a fully formed world that you had to learn to live inside.
Philip: That’s right. We grew up inside a bubble. It would gradually get a little larger, but we had this in high school days we were in this pretty extreme fundamentalist church and we thought there would be maybe a hundred and twenty people in heaven and that would be our church, maybe a few more. But those are the only ones we were confident in. And I look back and I think of the constant diet of hellfire and damnation and guilt that was dished out to those same hundred and twenty people and we would go forward and confess their sins, and then we’d hear the same sermon. And very few people came from the outside. Why would they? The church would just make them feel worse. But we would put up with it because we believed we were the chosen ones.
Kate: You and I know maybe too much about the history of fundamentalism in America. And, you know, it has such a long tradition rose to the fore in the 1920s as a response to modernity. So sometimes I think people imagined fundamentalism as just kind of a calcification, but it was in so many ways in a moment in which people were first starting to self-identify as liberal or as conservative Christians in our culture and their denominations, et cetera, et cetera, insert a whole lecture series I have that I am dying to give right now. But that part of fundamentalism has been a response to just how radically our culture has been adjusting to changes in our relationship to science and faith and the university and the world and and whether or not people of faith feel like they get to still be arbiters of culture. And in those years, fundamentalists, you know, not the same thing as what we now call evangelicals, but you’re really doubling down on that idea that faith had really exacting standards, very clear boundaries of right and wrong. So for people who who didn’t grow up in that bubble, I wonder, why did faith feel so much like certainty in your home, especially for your mom, do you think?
Philip: I guess underlying a lot of that assumes certainty is a kind of fear. When you’re living in a culture that has some parts to it that offend you or or that scare you, it’s easy to define yourself by how different you are from the rest of the culture. Nowadays it’s primarily identified as a political movement. You ask the average person in New York, for example, what is an evangelical? And they’ll tell you that’s a racist, that’s a supporter of Donald Trump, that someone who’s anti-vaccine. You know, these are political things that was not true at all when I was growing up. In fact, we heard almost nothing about politics until until John Kennedy ran for president. And then we got concerned about what will happen with the Catholic becomes president. And rather, we we defined ourselves against the culture, by our behavior, things we didn’t do that we thought were wrong. So at the top of the list were things like drinking and smoking, there weren’t many drugs back then, illegal drugs and on down to is bowling OK because they serve liquor and bowling alleys and is it OK to swim with boys and girls together? And is it OK to roller skate? Looks a lot like dancing, you know? I mean, these are the issues that at least in the South in those days that we were struggling with and we were trying to be separate.
Kate: One of those markers of difference became a story of who you would be, how you would carry the torch of faith forward that you would fulfill. So much of your father’s promise. What kind of call was put on your life and your brother’s life after his passing? And how did you come to realize that you were like, you’ve been picked for a certain kind of existence?
Philip: There’s a story in the Bible, in the Old Testament part of the Bible, about a woman named Hannah who wanted a child above all else. And she prayed and prayed and prayed and then she prayed, God, if you just give me this child, I’ll give him back to you. But she did have a child, his name was Samuel, and she took him to the temple and he was weaned and said, This is my sacred child and I give him to you, the priest, he can serve God the rest of his life. That story, I have to say, is one of my least favorite stories in the Bible, because of course, unbeknownst to me, my mother had this burden of having trusted God in a way that turned out to be a betrayal. She expected God to heal her husband, he did not. So she was trying to come up with some way to come to terms with that, a great failure. And she decided, Oh, well, maybe God will do that, not through him, because he’s dead but through his sons, through my son. And so she literally gave us to God, as Hannah had done to her son. At first that felt pretty good. You know, we felt very special. We had been set apart for this noble cause. Yeah, which was very specific to her: be missionaries in Africa to replace your father who never got there. And we did not follow that path in different ways, and as we started growing up, as we went through adolescence, we were we were kids, we were young boys. We didn’t practice our piano lessons, we didn’t clean the room, we slammed the door. You know these things and my mother didn’t handle that very well, I would have to say. And then my brother became one of Atlanta’s original hippies back in the mid 60s, and that was a terrifying thing to her. She didn’t respond in a healthy way. She almost cursed him. In fact, they didn’t have any contact with more than 50 years. Five – Oh. So she’s got two children, one she hasn’t seen in over 50 years, and I am a Christian author. I’ve made my living kind of in the middle of the faith working for Christianity Today magazine, writing books about issues of faith. But it’s it’s a little different kind of faith than she approves of, so she doesn’t really approve of my books, and it really feels betrayed again here she had trusted God for her husband and he died. And then she had given us to God with very specific parameters around it, and neither one of us turned out in a pleasing way.
Kate: You’re very gentle in the way that you describe your mom as both a very impressive woman, someone who put herself through Bible College and received a master’s in theology and raised two kids as a single mom and taught Bible classes and was very beloved as a teacher and as a minister, someone who just always ministering to other people.
Kate: And also that she had a very dark part of her that was often violent and moody and and frankly, quite cruel. What was that like reconciling those two truths side by side as a kid?
Philip: I guess I thought I had two mothers, and I never knew which one I would come home to. Yeah, there were pressures that she was bearing that as a kid, I couldn’t possibly understand, financial pressures. We lived in a trailer. It was eight feet wide and forty eight feet long, smaller than a lot of the RVs I see on the highway here in Colorado, where I live. And that’s where two teenage boys grew up and included having a piano that my brother could practice on.
Kate: Amazing yeah.
Philip: So we could never get away from each other. Yeah, and we never went out to eat. We wore hand-me-down clothes that came from some missionary barrel with holes in the socks and pants that were too short. You know that that was our life. I went to five elementary schools in six years because every time the rent went up, we had to move and very often bait and switch, you know, they’ll give you a cheaper price first year and then they’d raise the rent. Well, then we’d move and find the cheaper price again at another place. So every year we had to come up with a new set of friends in the new school, new teachers. It was disruptive, but I think the the emotional storms hit more in our teenage years when she sensed ‘I’m losing control.’ You’re right. She she did some very gallant things, very noble things. She made a vow which may have been a mistake when she made a vow: I won’t remarry because I need to pour myself into my sons. I think looking back, she probably would have been better off if she had been open to remarriage and had someone to share that burden, had someone to love her because she had needs she came from a family much more dysfunctional than ours, and two boys can’t meet the needs of a thirty five year old widow.
Kate: Oh, the way you describe being that kind of perceptive kid who really understands that they can’t be all the things, they can’t be the father who’s been lost, they can’t be the provider and the and that certainly you and your brother were such different people wrestling with, you know, the same questions and completely different responses, like two little peas in a pod who are who are who are living through the same trauma, frankly, but with so much awareness of the world and yet so little agency. Hmm. Sounds like she grapples with some very profound disappointments of her own.
Kate: The way you write about her experience with her grandfather, I sounds like if you don’t mind me putting it this way, kind of a terrible person. Violent, drunk, molested his own oldest daughter. Your mom is watching her own family struggle with whether to forgive the unforgivable in this patriarch. But grace, as you write about it, is always just hiding in the corners. How did her grandfather try to make amends? What did that, what did that teach you about grace?
Philip: He had 10 children, my grandmother being one of them. After a dissolute life of cruelty and alcoholism, he had a remarkable conversion at a I think it was a Salvation Army Rescue Mission. He was just a drunk and to get a good meal you had to attend the service. It wasn’t a long service, and he thought it was only polite when the minister said, “Pray this prayer.” He prayed the prayer and, by golly, it worked. And he cleaned up his life, he sought out his children who had not heard from him in probably 30 years. He sought them out one by one. And he didn’t ask them for anything but forgiveness. He said, I know I was wrong. I can’t possibly make it up to you. I just want to say I’m sorry. And they all thought, Well, he’s setting us up to hit us up for money or a place to stay or something like that, or he’s going to fall off the wagon again. But he didn’t. And one by one. Nine of them forgave him. One of them did not. And that was my grandmother. He lived the last years of his life on the same city block, I think it was eight doors down. I remember going to that house where my great aunt lived. And every time my grandmother went to the grocery store or took a trolley downtown Philadelphia she passed the house where her father lived. Not once did she ever go in. He had done some things that were, in her mind, unforgivable. You can’t just say, I’m sorry, they don’t go away. And so she stuck to that. I remember my mother telling me a Catch 22, when her mother said to her after she had apologized for something “you can’t possibly be sorry. If you are really sorry, you wouldn’t have done it in the first place.”.
Kate: Yes. Yes.
Philip: I mean, where does that go? It tells you what, it’s that trap of unforgiveness. If no one will budge, then it just gets passed down. And I saw that hard knot of unforgiveness passed down from my grandmother to my mother to my brother. And I would hear him say those very same words to the women that he divorced or left, you know, stopped living with. He wouldn’t forgive them. They had crossed a line. And I would say, Do you ever see them now? No, I’ll never speak to them as long as I live. Yeah. And grace was lurking in the corners, it was lurking mainly by its absence because I realized this is, there’s no end to this, it just goes on and on. It’s like these feuds in Appalachia that just continue generation after generation. And I had seen that in my own family, and grace was really the only thing that can break that chain that chains the people who won’t forgive.
Kate: There was this one line that I had to stop for a bit because it was so beautiful. When the unforgiven grandpa thinks that he’s finally been forgiven and then gathers his, what he doesn’t realize is his granddaughter in his arms and says, Oh Sylvie, you’ve come to me at last. And you write, “the others in the room didn’t have the heart to tell him that the girl was not Sylvie, but her daughter, Mildred, my mother. He was hallucinating grace.” The way we hunger for it, even if we know that there’s no good math to being forgiven the way we want so desperately to be restored to each other. That is an unfairness to the person who suffers. The one who’s been the one that bore the pain, but man like there’s a weird, wonderful, horrible freedom in just accepting love, even from people who have truly disappointed us.
Philip: I don’t know if you know this, Kate, but my wife was a hospice chaplain for a period of time. She’s retired now. Sometimes you do have those deathbed reconciliations, but often you don’t because you can’t solve a lifetime of regret and defensiveness in just one scene like that. You’re right, we’re all thirsting for grace. It’s a powerful, powerful force. It can set us free, but it goes against our instinct because we want to be the right one. And grace means taking that risk of saying, I’m sorry, even if it’s not my fault because really it doesn’t feel like my fault. Sometimes I have to ignore that and just start there.
Kate: There’s this beautiful moment you had with your brother who had walked a very hard path, who had a terrible stroke and who had lost so much of his own ability, and it sounds like that must have been a tremendous loss because of his just sheer brilliance, just how amazing he was at picking up any talent and then being able to sprint with it. And you gave him some of that forgiveness that you longed for, didn’t you?
Philip: Yes. I learned early on, if you cross my brother, he doesn’t know how to negotiate. The only way he can respond is to amputate, would be one way of saying it. So I can’t think of a single relationship he had where the person confronted him and he didn’t just break off relations with my mother, with his counselor with this psychiatrist whom he loved and trusted, with one woman after another. You crossed the line with them, and it’s over. But we all have these kind of family things, these landmines that we step around in this crazy old uncle that we don’t know how to treat. And the thing that we dare not speak their name, you know, family secret, the skeleton, the suicide, the gender issues. And so often we go through all of life dancing around the most important parts.
Philip: And one of the things I love about the Bible that was new to me when I started reading it as an adult, because when I started reading it as a child, it was all about judgment and sin and stuff like that but now that I read it as an adult, it’s about common humanity. It’s about people who make terrible mistakes. The greatest heroes in the Bible, people like King David – murderer, you know, adulterer, Moses – murderer, Peter – Betrayer, Paul – human rights abuser, you know. And yet it’s as if God gave us these characters to say, OK, no one can say, I can’t deal with your material and make something worthwhile of you. In fact, the greatest heroes are the are the ones who fell the farthest.
Kate: It’s amazing to me to how much we need other people to mirror back those true, beautiful things that just feels too hard, though, to believe at the time. Cancer has always made me feel like really disposable. Hmm. Really not valuable, especially because, you know, usually by the time I get some kind of treatment or diagnosis, it’s been a really hard losing fight with the health care system. One of the loveliest things that’s ever been said to me is my sister just kept saying, You are loved, you are loved, you are loved, you will not disappear. And like that reminded me of that, I think something that people who grew up in very punitive religious upbringings might need to hear that you told your brother, you said, I know you think God hates you, but it’s not true. God is not like anything we heard about growing up. God loves you and wants you restored.
Philip: Yeah. That was such a moving scene, I was sitting in the lobby. I and his wife, and we’re only allowed in five minutes every two hours. My brother was comatose. He had no reflexes whatsoever. About a third of his brain had been destroyed. When you walk in his room, you could actually clap your hands in front of his eyes and he wouldn’t even blink. The doctor would hit his knee with the reflex hammer, and he wouldn’t even move. So here he is, just staring straight ahead. And yet my wife, because she’s worked in hospice, said he can still hear you. Hearing is the last sense to go, so talk to him, talk to him. And it’s awkward, you know, really to talk to a person you don’t even know if they’re there. Yeah. Just staring straight ahead. But always five minutes, every two hours, I would lean down and and whisper in his ear exactly what you said. God is not the kind of person we we thought he was, Marshall. There are a lot of people praying for you. I’ve been getting emails all day today. God loves you. God wants you restored. And here’s this body lying there with no responses whatsoever. And yet, every time, every single time a single tier would start in the corner of his left eye and track down his cheek. It was chilling to see that. And it happened again and again. Now he has no memory of that now. But it just shows that somewhere deep inside him, and I don’t know if a theologian would endorse this or not, but it convinced me that God looks on us at the moment of our greatest faith, our greatest desire and closeness to him. I think that’s how God sees us all the time when I follow Jesus around in the Gospels, certainly how he treated people. He didn’t bring out the worst thing they did. He always brought out the best thing they did and looked at them not as disposable in your word, but as worthy as redeemable.
Kate: Yeah, it does seem like one of the strange, wonderful questions about grace is when and if it should be given. I mean, there’s this moment where we see everyone’s humanity clearly, and for some parts, I imagine we ought to say that was just brokenness and insincerity and hypocrisy. You’ve done that a million times because I’ve read your articles. You can be quite gloriously combative about things you think just are Christian hypocrisy in particular. And then it feels like what you’re asking us to do, though, too, is to explore that kind of soft places where where we we find beauty and truth and love, even though even though people’s humanity conspired to maybe be cruel or couldn’t love the kids they had and tried to love a children they they had invented too long ago.
Philip: I think some people will be quite surprised by things they read in it because maybe they saw me as one in a line of dispensers of biblical wisdom. And I’m not, I’m a person who had to fight for the shreds of faith that I have. And at the same time, a person who was graced by God.
Kate: Your memoir reads like a prequel for all the rest of your work, and it really helps make sense of those lifelong questions you’ve been wrestling with around the mysteries of grace, or feeling disappointed with God, or wondering what prayer or hope in others is for. And I’m just so grateful you took the time today to trace that grace you’ve discovered. Thanks for being with me.
Philip: Well, thank you for having me.
Kate Bowler: My conversation with Philip stirred up a big, big question mark for me, a spiritual question mark. And it’s about grace. Here’s the question stated as a problem. We don’t know how to get through the things we’ve done and the things done to us. And this is the subject of a lot of spiritual debate about grace. What is it? Does it just happen or do we have to do something to make it happen? And can I have some? Grace according to the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, is God’s quote “free, undeserved favor.” The great theologian Thomas Aquinas called grace “a good making habit that inclines us to seek God and make us worthy of eternal life.” My friend Willie Jennings says “grace is the ability to see through God’s eyes for a moment.” It feels hard to figure out how Grace shows up. As a gift, as a gift we give others, as a work we do, as God’s work on us, as a mystical moment where we see through God’s eyes, or very human acts, regardless of how we feel. Does it mean that we have to forgive people, all people? And while I do not expect to solve centuries of Christian debate on this topic today and have now realized that I have upset basically everyone in any Christian corner, I will say this: grace is regardless of our theologies of it. It is what Philip would say a scandal because it forces us to think about a love that is unearned, undeserved and unmerited. All we know sometimes is that we need it. So blessed are we the graced. We who don’t deserve it, whose failures haunt us, the things we said, the things we left unsaid, the decisions and addictions and broken relationships that have ripple effects we still feel today. Somehow, we are the recipients of this mysterious gift. Grace doesn’t erase the pain or harm we’ve caused, but grace, still for us, the redeemable. And if we are by implication, that means they are too. Yes, even them. The rude neighbor, the estranged father, the unforgiven ex, the boss who screwed you over, the doctor who messed up, the selfish pastor, the family member who did the unthinkable. Despite what we have all done and left undone, we are graced. So blessed are all of us who wrestle with unforgiveness and ungrace. You who make amends, you who are reaching out for forgiveness. You who say you’re sorry, even when sorry will never be enough. You who find the bridge to forgive someone the wrong they’ve done, even when you can’t forget, or can’t go back, or they aren’t nearly sorry enough. Blessed are we who live here in this mystery in this scandal of grace.
Kate Bowler: Our work on the Everything Happens podcast and with the Everything Happens initiative is made possible because of our partners and generous donors Lilly Endowment, the Duke Endowment, Duke Divinity School and Faith and Leadership an online learning resource. And a huge thank you to my team who makes this work not only possible, but fun. Jessica Ritchie. Harriet Putman, Keith Weston, Gwen Higginbotham, Katie Mangum, AJ Walton, Katherine Smith, Mary Jo Clancy, JJ Dickinson, and Jeb and Sammi. And if you’d like to be a human with me, come find me online at KateCBowler. I also have a weekly email that might be the right dose of love and courage you need. Sign up KateBowler.com/newsletter. This is Everything Happens with me, Kate Bowler.