All Shall Be Well
Can we talk about hope? When I say ‘hope’ I don’t mean passive wishful thinking. I don’t mean hope in being naively optimistic. I mean a spiritual hope, rooted in the promise of a loving God.
To hope doesn’t mean we can expect to get what we want and to hope doesn’t mean we can expect to go back to the way things were before.
Hope is an embrace of the unknown.
We just heard the story of the prophet Ezekiel being led to a valley of dry bones. Ezekiel says that the Israel people have lost hope. They see the suffering and they can only conclude that the best days are behind them. But God has the power to give life to the driest and deadest things imaginable.
Likewise in the Gospel of John we heard about Jesus raising to life his friend Lazarus. Of course this miracle doesn’t come quickly or easily. When Jesus learns about the death of Lazarus, he weeps.
That’s significant. John’s Gospel goes to great pains, throughout the Gospel narrative, to portray that Jesus knows exactly what’s coming and exactly what he’s doing. And yet, even knowing that he’s about to raise Lazarus from the dead, Jesus weeps for his fallen friend. He grieves with real tears that I’m sure all of us can relate to.
St. Julian of Norwich was a woman who lived in the middle ages in England. She authored the oldest known book written in English by a woman called “Revelations of Divine Love.” She lived a lot of her life as an anchoress, which means that for years, she chose to live all day, every day, 24/7, alone in a room set up on church grounds. This room had two windows. One window looked into the church, so she could participate in worship. The other window faced the street where she could interact with the public, pray with them and offer them spiritual guidance.
Does this sound familiar? It’s a bit like the life we’re living now. Whatever device you’re watching this on is your window to worship. It’s also probably what you use to connect to your friends and family. All of us right now are living in a confined space, looking out at the world through small windows.
And what’s more familiar: It was early in Julian of Norwich’s life, 1348-1349, that the Black Death ravaged England. Julian watched as this disease brought death to her community, in numbers that make the current COVID-19 pandemic, as bad as it is, look like a walk in the park. Modern scholars, studying records from the time, think that the Black Death killed between 30 and 60 percent of the population of England during just that two-year period.
Just imagine that for a second. Imagine that kind of plague sweeping through New Bern, leaving 6 in 10 people dead. Think of what they’re going through right now in places like New York, New Orleans, and Detroit, and multiply the death toll by 10 or 20. Imagine the grief, the social and economic upheaval, the sheer chaos of a plague that swept through town like wildfire and killed more than half of the population within the span of weeks or months.
Julian herself fell ill in 1373, probably not from the bubonic plague, but from a sickness that was so terrible that a priest was sent to her room to administer Last Rites. And it was as she was in the room, nearing death, that she received a series of visions from God — and then miraculously recovered from her illness. She wrote down the visions she had received, including her most famous line: “All shall be well. All shall be well. And all manner of things shall be well.”
Think about that. Julian had every reason to curse God, watching the world fall apart around her, watching her own health fall to pieces.
Keep in mind that in the 14th century they didn’t really understand the cause of disease… and there was no shortage of preachers who claimed that the Black Death was God’s punishment for the world’s sins: for worldliness, or fornication, or heresy. And as people dropped like flies, that seemed pretty easy to believe. Even decades after, it’s pretty easy to imagine people’s fear that God wasn’t finished punishing them, that any year now he would send another plague to finish off the ones that managed to survive the first one.
And yet, there sits Julian, socially distancing in her anchorite’s room, writing that “all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
This wasn’t pie in the sky. She wasn’t wearing rose-colored glasses. She knew as well as anyone that for a lot of the people around her, all wouldn’t be well. Just like Ezekiel, she had watched her town turn into a valley of dry bones.
But she still knew that God is faithful and just, that even as sickness and death surrounded her that God was with her.
That’s what hope is.
I don’t know what awaits us in the coming weeks and months. But I do know that God’s not done with us yet.
Even in this time of social distancing and stay-at-home orders, God is finding ways to breathe life into these dry bones.
Right now we’re figuring out, sometimes in fits and starts, how to be church in a new and different way, to connect with one another when connecting seems to be at its hardest.
Right now we’re discovering inspiration from brave doctors and nurses, who are putting their own lives and health on the line to provide others with the medical care they need, despite massive shortages in equipment and resources.
And right now we’re learning a whole lot more about ourselves and our society, especially the importance of people we overlooked before and still probably don’t pay enough, like grocery store clerks, truck drivers, restaurant cooks, crop pickers, warehouse workers, trash collectors.
And, God willing, when we’re on the other side of this new plague and able to gather together physically again, we’ll remember the lessons we’re learning in these difficult times, we’ll remember just how dear our community is, and we’ll be even stronger. I sincerely hope so.