Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd May 3, 2020
In the 10th verse of the 10th chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus is remembered saying, “I have come that my sheep may have life and have it abundantly.” How does one have abundant life in the midst of life restrictions? These have not been easy weeks and for some who have lost income or family members, these have been incredibly difficult weeks. We are finally moving slowly out from under the restrictions, but we still have a ways to go. Instead of gritting our teeth and bearing it for a few more weeks, how can we live life abundantly now, in the midst of restrictions?
Quite a few years ago, I experienced a devastating situation, not knowing what the outcome would be nor how I would get through it. My spiritual mentor told me that I needed to find God’s deep-seated peace within, regardless of the outcome. I knew she was right. And so, I spent some anguished months in prayer and in conversation with my beloved partner and good friends. I don’t know if I ever arrived at this depth of peace, although I was able to begin dipping my toes into it, by the time I received word of an outcome was as positive as it could have been. I still wonder if I would have been able to find the depth of God’s peace had the outcome been different.
That was when I learned the most important lesson in my Christian walk. We can’t wait for things to get better in order for us to feel better. Our Christian faith has tried to teach us this for two thousand years but most of us haven’t paid much attention. Perhaps during these difficult times, we might be encouraged to know that the Christian message of peace, joy, even life abundant, was particularly directed towards those enduring tremendous trials. John’s gospel was written at a time when Christians were beginning to be persecuted.
It seems like an oxymoron, a contradiction of reason, and yet just like an oyster pearl, the pearl of our faith is formed by our response to a painful irritant that may be long-lasting. How we respond is key to how we will be. We need to stop living in an “if only” world—If only this situation would change, I will be well. Instead, we need to inhabit an “in spite of” world—in spite of this situation, I will be well. We have two millennia of wisdom from our Christian ancestors in the faith, who have struggled with this very question in the midst of their own challenging situations.
Julian of Norwich was a respected Christian mystic who lived in solitude as an anchorite in Norwich, England during the 14th and early 15th centuries. She survived the Black Plague—possibly because she lived in solitude. The Black Plague was a new form of bacteria, originating in China, for which there was no immunity. The first wave of the plague killed 40-60% of the English population. The most immediate consequence of the plague was that it brought an end to the Hundred Year’s War. When a decrease in the population caused a shortage of labour, wages rose, to the consternation of the landowners. The upper class resisted this wage increase, leading to the Peasant’s Revolt, which eventually ended serfdom. This was the socio-historical context of Mother Julian’s life.
She is most well-known for her revelations that speak of God as both Mother and Father. In the midst of life’s trials, she tried to help people see God as a tender, gentle parent who loves us completely. She wrote in her Revelations of Divine Love, “we are securely protected through love, in joy and sorrow, by the goodness of God…All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
Even in the midst of death and sorrow, Mother Julian taught us how to be well deep within our souls. So how do we achieve this impossible state of wellness that is unperturbed by chaos and suffering? It begins, for her, with prayer. And it might begin for us with a well-known prayer written by Reinhold Niebuhr:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can
And wisdom to know the difference.
When we are able to change dire situations, God gives us the wisdom and the courage to do so. God never asked us to simply put up with dangerous or intolerable situations. Rather, God expects us to engage in an active type of prayer. There’s a well-known story of a man who was stranded on his roof during a flood. Someone came by with a rowboat, telling him to come into their boat, but he replied, “No, it’s OK. I’m praying that God will save me.” A motorboat then came up, inviting him to jump on board but he answered, “No, it’s OK. I’m praying that God will save me.” Finally, as the floodwaters continued to rise, a helicopter came, lowering its ladder to him, but he waved them off shouting, “No, it’s OK. I’m praying that God will save me.” The flood water then swept him away and he drowned. When he came before God, he asked, “Why didn’t you save me? I had faith in you!” God replied, “I sent you a rowboat, then a motorboat and finally a helicopter—what more did you expect?”
God gives us the wisdom and the courage to change dire situations. God is expecting us to be the hands and feet of Christ to change what we can. All will be well when we are willing to be God’s answer to our prayers.
A poem by L. R. Knost reflects this type of active prayer:
Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world.
All things break. And all things can be mended.
Not with time, as they say, but with intention.
So go. Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally.
The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you.
But when we are in situations that are beyond our control; when we cannot change them, how can we be the light? How can things still be well? That is when we move to a contemplative type of prayer—the serenity of acceptance, of which Niebuhr speaks; the confidence in God’s goodness and love of which Mother Julian speaks. This type of prayer teaches us how to live out of wellness and fullness, in spite of our circumstance.
When I walk early in the morning, serenaded by the birds, or sit in the sun for a few moments and soak in life in its fullness, I am reminded that all is well. I am reminded that life continues in all its abundance, even in the midst of death. Waiting with God, rather than acting with God, is so much harder for me. But we need to learn both active and contemplative types of prayer for us to truly know, deep within, that all is well.
Celtic poet, John O’Donohue, reflects the type of contemplative prayer we all need right now, as we wait and watch:
This is the time to be slow,
Lie low to the wall
Until the bitter weather passes.
Try, as best you can, not to let
The wire brush of doubt
Scrape from your heart
All sense of yourself
And your hesitant light.
If you remain generous,
Time will come good;
And you will find your feet
Again on fresh pastures of promise,
Where the air will be kind
And blushed with beginning.
Today, just as things are right now with you and your household, may God help you see life in all its abundance, so that you may confidently say with Mother Julian, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” Amen.