And by his own gracious light he wants us to understand the following things: the first is our noble and excellent creation; the second our costly and precious redemption; the third, everything which he has made beneath us to be of use to us and which he sustains out of love for us...And so he means that it befits us to know that that greatest deeds have been done, as Holy Church teaches. And in contemplating this with thanksgiving we
should pray for the deed which is now being done; that is, we pray that he should rule and guide us to his greater glory in this life and brings us to his bliss: and he has done everything to this end. (Julian of Norwich, chapter 42)
As I was kneeling at the altar at the Episcopal church we visited yesterday, I was reminded of a prayer I've often made throughout these past years. "Lord, grant me strength for the journey." To see the elements of the eucharist, bread and wine, as strengthening my soul is not new. What was new, yesterday, was realizing that strength and wisdom, love, peace, joy, gracious expressions of God's love, constantly surround me. They are not something that God needs to give me, as much as what I need to open myself up to. My prayer is the acknowledgement of my lack, yes, but not a means by which God unlocks the heavens. Grace has already been poured out, I need only to open myself to God's love, flowing in its many and varied forms.
This seems to be what Julian of Norwich is getting at in the passage above. If we come to God begging, we miss what is true. God desires to grant us every good gift. He wants to "guide us to his greater glory in this life and bring us to his bliss." To accomplish this, His strongest desire, "the greatest deeds have [already] been done." He has made us, formed us His "noble and excellent creation." Secondly, He has, through the life and death of His Son, Jesus, brought us back into open and free connection with Him and His life-giving, joy-bringing, love-delighting Spirit. Finally, He has made and continues to sustain the world around us for our blessing.
This morning, I found myself slightly anxious, my brow furrowing once again, reinforcing those indelible creases I noticed just a few weeks ago. The self-imposed pressure of writing regularly on this blog was making me anxious. I caught myself up short. Wait - how was this at all connected to the point of this blog, which is to choose joy? If I can't be joyful, why do I even bother? It's true I have some thoughtful points to make, maybe even helpful comments to folks who wander onto this site, but my life has to be first and foremost about joy, or it's all bogus.
After a minute or so, I realized that I had lost my focus. I had forgotten to begin the day with gratitude. God has given me so many good gifts. As Julian mentions, the gift of life, of his love, of his provision. He's also given me desires, planted in my heart, that He wishes to fill. He continues to surround me with His love. In fact, I am living in the ocean of His love. Some days swimming, some days floating, some days surfing, some days diving deep. This is what's true. This is what God wants me to remember today. To be grateful and let the joy flow in.
Yesterday I found a website that is helping me understand a passage from Julian of Norwich. The website, entitled "People of the Second Chance,"
features blogs written by people who have hit rock bottom, yet somehow were able to accept the radical grace of God and start again. As part of their mission statement they state: "We are not ashamed of our scars, wounds, or failures and leverage them as a source of strength and character development."
The passage I've been pondering from Julian of Norwich comes in chapter 38 where she says:
"God also showed that sin shall not be shameful to man, but his glory; for in the same way as God's justice gives every sin a suitable punishment, so God's love gives the same soul a joy for every sin."
Punishment for sin makes sense to me as a part of justice (I see it in the cause and effect language), but what does it mean for God 's love to give the same soul a joy for every sin? What the website shows in a powerful way is that people who have made a mess of their lives (and in some way, we all fall into this category) are the greater recipients of God's grace. Because their soul is truly broken, they can do nothing else but rely on God's rescue and restoration.
When Dan and I were first married, I discovered a broken tea cart in my mom's attic. It had been given to my mom by a family friend, someone I'd known and loved, and one of the wheels, walnut like the rest of the table, had been shattered into several pieces during a move. My mom put the pieces in the attic, not willing to part with the table, although despairing of it ever gracing the dining room again. But I knew that Dan's grandfather was a whiz at repairing antiques, so I asked if we could have it and see what he could do. You can probably guess the end of the story, and the tea cart has been with us ever since. In showcasing the ability of a family craftsman it is doubly a "graceful" piece.There's a lot of grace in the work of Julian of Norwich, more perhaps than many of us might be comfortable with. The God she describes refuses to blame us for the things that cause suffering and pain in our lives and in the lives of others. This God sees that we, like the table, cannot help the face that we are broken. It doesn't make the brokenness any less painful, any less "wrong," in the sense that it causes distress. The truth stands, and some amount of culpability is acknowledged. And yet there is some way in which God accepts that this is the way things are, the way things had to be (sin is necessary, Julian has stated earlier). God prounces with accuracy the state of affairs (judges rightly) and then stands willing and eager to show his re-creative ability, his restorative powers, so that what was thought useless could become in time useful again.
Later in the passage, Julian says: "and then God brought cheeringly into my mind David and innumerable others of the old Jewish Law, and in the new Christian Law he made me think first of Mary Magdalene, Peter, Paul, Thomas of India and Saint John of Beverly, and also innumerable others: how they are famous in the church on earth with their sins, which are not shameful for them, but are all turned into glory. And therefore our kind Lord gives us a partial vision here on earth of their perfection in heaven; for there the badge of their sin is changed into glory."
How many of us, I wonder, live some part of our lives in shame? We know that we have shortcomings, or that we have wounded those around us. We feel that we have used up what grace might have been doled out to us. And so we shuffle along, refuse to open up certain doors, shun relationships that would expose our weaknesses.
The People of the Second Chance are committed to shouting down that doomed way of thinking, to gently, but boldly open the walled-up closets of our secret sins and usher in the light of grace.The people who share their stories have found a new source of joy. Like Julian, they know that grace is endless, and for those who are humble enough to receive it, there awaits a badge of glory - a testament to God's love and ability to make all things well.
I've picked up Julian of Norwich again after taking a bit of a hiatus. Blogging on her "Revelations of Love" during Lent was deeply meaningful, even though I only made it through 1/3 of her writings. The book I was using needed to be returned to the library, and since the copy I'd bought was still on backorder, I'd not finished reading through to the end. But a few weeks ago I led a retreat which included some reflections from Julian, so I grabbed the library copy again. It's been great having it back in the house.
Here's the phrase that drew my eye this morning:
"...for my love rejoice in me, for of all things you might please me most by that."
Our breakfast reading was one of our favorites, Psalm 103
, which begins and ends with the phrase: "Praise the Lord, O my soul." I mentioned to Dan that I had been reading Julian of Norwich earlier and been caught by the phrase above. I wondered aloud if God might be more delighted with our rejoicing in him than in our obedience. Dan pondered for a moment and concurred. "I'm thinking about how it feels when you do something I ask you to do," he said. " I may be pleased, but it's an entirely different feeling from that of when you compliment me, or appreciate me."
After our morning psalm, I usually offer a prayer. There were things to be thankful for this moring (our refrigerator did not totally die on us, but revived after vacuuming the coils) but after our conversation it seemed appropriate to use the prayer as a way to "rejoice" in God. As I turned my focus toward Him, as I took time to truly acknowledge His love and kindness, to value His grace and generosity, to enjoy His creativity - I could feel the delight that it brought His Spirit - a sense of warmth and expansiveness that comes to each of our souls when we're seen and loved for who we are.
Isn't it amazing that we can bring joy to the heart of God? What a gift that our praise matters - for the both of us.
“[Christ] brought to mind the attribute of a glad giver; a glad giver always takes but little heed of the thing that he gives, but all his desire and all his intent is to please and solace him to whom he gives it; and if the receiver takes the gift highly and thankfully, then the courteous giver sets at nought all his cost and all his travail for joy and delight that he has because he has pleased and solaced him that he loves.” (Chapter 23)
It's Easter Monday, maybe not a true holiday (although the college around the corner is closed) but a good day to reflect on where this Lenten journey has taken me. Blogging through the "Revelation" of Julian of Norwich has brought new insight and although I haven't made it through all of her writings, what I have pondered has settled deep into my heart.
In posting this final passage, I find myself wondering how well I am receiving the gift of Easter. Whether I allow it the power to change my life or, once the holiday is passed, if I'll sink back into old patterns of thinking and acting. In one of Julian of Norwich's visions, (posted here
) Jesus asks her whether she is well-pleased with his sacrifice. His pleasure comes not only because it shows the depth of his love, but also because it is the way for us to experience fullness of life, to "one" with him.
How does this happen? What actually transpired on the cross on Good Friday is the subject of much theology, but at the very least I think there is an exchange. For our broken and estranged lives, we are granted the life of God. The salvation Jesus brings is about healing and reconnection; it includes forgiveness and restoration. The Spirit (which is poured out on Pentecost) grants us full access to divine love and power, including a companion and guide to life in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Great gifts, all. And yet I wonder how many Christians find themselves continuing to struggle with guilt, a sense of distance from God and/or lack of clear vocation. The fruit of the Spirit - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control - are nice ideas, but not abundant realities.
Perhaps it seems too good to be true. Maybe we're so used to being concerned and worried, or powerless and distracted, that the idea of living robust and confident lives just doesn't feel right. Or perhaps we've bought the idea that "being Christian" or "spiritual" is about a live that feels "sacrificial," one where we sigh and say, "well, that's just what I need to do. It's not about being fulfilled, it's about being obedient."
(more after the break)
What words do you grasp onto for your Easter Saturdays? Those days that we're caught between, waiting on a promise, the fruit of a seed planted deep in dark soil. Marks tells us that the night Jesus was betrayed, he gives his disciples these words: "But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee." Simple words to hold onto. I will rise from the dead. I will meet you and talk again. These words, like trails of crumbs, are meant to help his followers find their pathway home, but by Saturday, the events of Friday afternoon have banished them from their minds; the panic and fear has stolen those phrases like so many crows and so they wander deep into the woods.
I want to look at the disciples and ask them why they weren't listening, why they missed these critical signposts which could have given grounded them in God's perspective. Until I remember the Easter Saturdays I have faced. Days when I have wandered lost, when fog has rolled in and familiar landscape taken on a twilight tinge.
Blogging through Lent, I've discovered new words, words that soothe my mind, as a rosary might calm an anxious touch. Fresh words that still sound vaguely familiar: "All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well," Jesus says, to comfort and encourage Julian of Norwich. Which echoes words of Paul who says, "All things work together for the good to those who love God, and are called according to His purpose." and later in the same chapter "Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus."
All. Well. Good. Nothing. Love. Christ. Words for the Saturdays.
Sunday evening we had some friends over for a "Lenten salon." After a tasty pork dinner flavored with invigorating conversation, we headed into the living room for a more "reflective" time focused on the season of Lent. It was soon apparent that for some, the traditional way of observing Lent (giving up something that you like) was not a particularly helpful practice. As one of my friends said, "For me, it seems like I've been in a desert place for so long, giving up something doesn't make any sense. I need more in my life, not less."
The comments reminded me of the years I decided to give up Advent so that I could celebrate Advent. The cookie baking, holiday entertaining, Christmas shopping and greeting cards stressed me out so much that the joy and peace of the holiday (gifts that were to be opened and used every day!) were crowded out in favor of...what, exactly?
I think that was part of the sentiment expressed in our living room. The death and resurrection of Christ is about life and that more abundantly. In making that our focus every day, we are entering the spirit of Lent - allowing the seed of God's love to ripen and flower in our lives. To think of Lent as only a time to give up something one likes for a period of time, to embrace suffering (albeit so small) or discipline for its own sake misses the mark. It's not that saying "no" is all that bad. It's only that we should be more interested in increasing the frequency of our saying "yes."
I'm reminded of a song written by Darrel Evans:
I'm trading my sorrow
I'm trading my shame
I'm laying it down for the joy of the Lord
I'm trading my sickness
I'm trading my pain
I'm laying it down for the joy of the Lord
And we say yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord
Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord
Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord Amen
The same friend who spoke at the salon about her desert experiences had set up a meditation area in the corner of our living room. On it, she placed a piece of student art entitled "Sorrowing Madonna," (I cannot decipher the artist's name), a bowl of kosher salt, a plank with several hollowed out indentations, a basket and a pen and some paper. At one point in the evening she commented on the tears streaming down the Madonna's face and spoke about her own tears, and the reasons behind them. She encouraged us to take some time at the end of our evening and consider what we might want to relinquish into God's care during this Lenten season. We wrote those down and placed the papers in the bowl. Finally, as a way of making this memory tactile, we took a little salt, and after tasing some, placed the rest in one of the indentations.
Giving things up is not always a bad idea, especially if it hinders our health, whether spiritual, physical or emotional. But we should receive something better in the process. Sacrifice in and of itself doesn't impart holiness, or even a better life. It is a means to an end, not the end itself.
One thing that I've learned through reading and blogging on Julian of Norwich, is that God is a God of more - more love, more grace, more comfort, more compassion, more freedom, more "blissful beholding." Say "no" if it's helpful. But let Lent encourage us to be about the "yes" - the "yes" to practices and beliefs that allow more of the God of love to fill us with Himself. Which is, after all, the truth we celebrate this coming weekend.
"He wishes that we know that he pays heed not only to noble, great things, but also to little and small things, low and simple, to one and to the other; and this is what he means when he says: "All manner of things shall be well;" for he wishes us to know that the least thing shall not be forgotten. Another understanding is this: that there are evil deeds done in our sight and such great harm taken that it seems to us that it would be impossible that it should ever come to a good end; and we look upon this, sorrowing and mourning because of it, so that we cannot rest ourselves in the blissful beholding of God." (Chapter 32)
There are certain questions that have risen throughout the ages as people have pondered the knotty paradox of a loving God and the presence of horrific evil in this world. Philosophers have spent lifetimes developing "theodicies," which the American Heritage dictionary defines as "A vindication of God's goodness and justice in the face of the existence of evil." Some have posited that God could not have made a world in which we were honestly free, unless we were given the choice to not follow God, and from that choice springs all the evil in the world. There are other theories as well: God gives us the opportunity to develop qualities of character in struggling against sin; He gives us the chance to build connections with people that will last through eternity; Sin allows God to show the extent of His love in a sacrificial way that would have been unnecessary in a world without sin.
That these questions have not only occupied our present age is demonstrated in the fact that they are much on the mind of Julian of Norwich as well. She struggles, as we might, with the insistence that all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well, aware of the "great hurt that has come by sin." I find it interesting that she is not given an answer to the question "Why?" Rather, she is given assurance of the outcome.
All things - whether small or large, through accident, immaturity, or blatant choice shall be made well. This is to be a present comfort. But as for the means or the reasons, God does not obligate Himself to tell us His ways or "his secrets." These are "hidden and concelaed from us: that is to say...all that is our lord's secret counsel, and it belongs to the royal lordship of God to have his secret counsel in peace, and it belongs to his servants, for obedience and reverence, not to desire to know his counsels. Our lord has pity and compassion on us because some creatures busy themselves with this; and I am sure that if we knew how greatly we should please him and ease ourselve to leave it, we would." (Chapter 30)
This encouragement to have simple trust in the goodness and greatness of the Lord is perhaps the biggest challenge to our faith, especially when we see the pain and suffering of the world around us. We are to allow God His secret counsels, and not to seek to understand all things. This seems odd, until perhaps we remember the story of Job, where God never answers a question that Job poses either. He merely shows Himself, and Job is silent.
Julian resolves the paradox in the following way: "There is a deed which the blissful Trinity shall do on the last day, as I see it, and when the deed shall be done, and how it shall be done, is unknown to all creatures that are beneath Christ, and shall be until it is done...by this deed he shall make all things well. And the reason he wishes us to know is that he wises us to be more eased in our souls and made peaceful in love, leaving the beholding of all the tempests that might hinder us from truth, rejoicing in him."
How we address the problem of evil might depend on what we see first. If we start with the pain and suffering around us, we may find it impossible to focus our eyes on a loving God, distracted by the "tempests" from beholding him. If, however, our sight is dazzled at first by the greatness and majesty and love of the God who speaks to Julian, and if we believe that this love floods the earth, it is perhaps easier to have faith that the evil we see around us fades in comparison. Not that we excuse it, or sit idly by while people murder and rape and accuse, but that we are not overwhelmed. Rather, we choose to embrace God's perspective, to trust in His love and allow some questions unanswered.
" 'It is true that sin is cause of all this pain, but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.' These words were said very tenderly, showing no manner of blame to me nor to any that shall be saved. Then it would be a great unkindness to blame or wonder at God because of my sin, since he does not blame me for sin." (Chapter 27)
If I'm slowing down with my posts on Julian of Norwich, there are two reasons. First, wedding plans are taking over a bit of my life, and that plus some other obligations are keeping my mind from focusing as well as I would like. Second, I'm hitting some stuff that's tougher to chew on.
Take the passage above: "God does not blame me for sin." How does that square with "being accountable" for my actions? And if I'm not blamed, or meant to feel shame, then won't I just do anything that I feel like, whether or not it's good for me?
These questions remind me of some that are circling now with the recent discussions concerning Christian universalism (the doctrine that all will ultimately be saved, and hell will one day be emptied). If God saves everyone, then what's the point of evangelism? And perhaps even more pertinent, what's the point of living a "godly" life?
I recently stumbled upon a blog ((here)
by Roger Olson, professor of theology at Baylor University, who, although not a universalist, has this to say:HOWEVER…What I would like to ask people who get so worked up about universalism is this: What difference would it make in your life if suddenly God revealed to you in a way you couldn’t deny that he is going to save everyone?
I have posed that question to students for almost 30 years and one response has been common and very enlightening. Many say “I would think it unfair for God to save people who didn’t have to give up all that I have given up to be saved and I would stop witnessing and supporting missions and striving to live a holy life.” (Of course, this is a paraphrase. No one student ever said it exactly that way; it’s more of a composite of common comments and class consensuses out of discussion of the question.)
What does this reveal? It suggests to me that people who respond that way have not yet experienced the joy of knowing Jesus Christ and the abundant life he gives. I’m not saying they’re not saved; I’m just saying they are missing out on an important aspect of being saved.
Is salvation drudgery? Would God be any more unfair to save everyone than to save me? If you know the joy and peace that comes from being saved and having a relationship with Jesus, why wouldn’t you want everyone to know about that now–in this life?
As I continue to work my way through Julian's writings, I ask myself this question: "Can a God who loves me deeply, who sees me standing, who attaches no blame, be strong enough to pull me toward becoming like Him? Or do I need threats or cajoling to enter into His life of love? And if so, why?
"All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well." (Chapter 27)
Like a discoverer who's been told of a stunning vista that lies ahead of her, I've finally arrived at the promised destination. "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well" was the first phrase that I connected wtih Julian of Norwich and one which prompted this sojourn into her writings. And so, when I came upon it in Chapter 27, I was eager to understand that context in which it appeared. What I found was a bit surprising, to say the least.
Julian begins this chapter by musing that the only thing standing between us and God is "sin." For God's love is constant, yet we cannot see Him in His beauty and glorious love because of sin. She then wonders, as many have before and since, why God has allowed sin to enter into the world at all, a question that is often referred to as "the problem of evil." "This stirring," she says, "was greatly to be shunned, and nevertheless I mourned and sorrowed for it without reason or discretion. But Jesus, that in this vision informed me of all that I needed, answered by this locution and said; "Sin is necessary, but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."
I was struck by the fact that in all the times I have heard this phrase quoted, never once have I encountered the preamble to it - "sin is necessary." This is more than I bargained for, and will take some time to unpack. It seems there are deep theological implications if I take it in certain ways, and today is not the day to dig into those.
But, I have been living out a possible interpretation of these words, to see how it fits, trying it on for size. Here's how it goes: "Stuff happens. Mistakes get made. Even if we try our best, there's still junk. Sometimes it's atrocious, sometimes it's petty, sometimes it's intentional, sometimes it comes despite our best efforts to do well. No matter what or why, God stands behind this promise that all shall be well, no matter how big or small."
It's a reality check to my idealism - no matter what, people (myself included) are going to mess up. So I shouldn't be surprised if bad stuff goes down. But it's also an unbelievably amazing promise to hang onto. God promises to clean everything up. To restore what was lost and to reconcile what was torn apart.
There's more in this chapter to ponder, and big questions to wade into, but as I've been living my "normal life"-taking care of friends, planning a wedding, trying to write a blog, I'm taking comfort in this: stuff happens, but God's got it covered.
"And after this, with bodily sight and in the face of the crucifix that hung before me, which I beheld continuously, I saw a part of his passion: contempt, spitting and soiling and buffeting and many languourous pains, more than I can tell and frequent changing of colour." (Chapter 10)
My oldest daughter has been talking a lot about "messy" recently. She's written about it, spoken about it, and has explored the concept through art. According to her, life is inherently messy but that's OK. In the midst of the mess, God can speak to us. And from the mess comes insight and healing. We shouldn't run from messy, but learn to embrace it. Even if it's icky or we're uncomfortable, messy can be good. Hmmm, I think when we talk. Great concept.
Here's the rub. I just figured it out this morning. I don't like messy. I don't like gunk and hurt feelings, and misunderstandings and quarrels, and making mistakes and getting it wrong. I don't like being confused, or picking up other people's trash, or seeing friends around me in pain. I JUST DON'T.
So when I come to the passages in Julian of Norwich that talk about blood and drying skin, and sweat and skin tearing, I let my eyes keep reading and disconnect my mind and my emotions, letting them go some place untouchable. Except that now, as I'm writing this, it's touching me. And I realize that for us to be alive, Jesus had to embrace all that was messy and ugly and hurtful and broken, that He had to live into it and die by it.
I don't like that I have to be OK with messy, but I know that I have a good role model. I know that when it feels like I'm falling, God still sees that I'm standing. I know that His love, at least I'm trying to believe that His love is so big, it looks at the mistakes I make as I try to figure this all out, and covers it over. I'm choosing to believe that there's no condemnation no matter how I do today. That it's the effort that is perfect, and even when it's not, even then there is grace.
Original artwork by Aletheia Schmidt. Images of doves in corner uncovered in process.