The last two weeks have been hard ones in the church I serve. (Those of you who are there will know why.) We’ve been impacted by several losses, both in our church and in our community, none of them easy. And so I found myself driving to church on the morning of Pentecost to lead a service that was meant to be jubilant, except that I was tired and empty and drained. To make matters worse, the service was bilingual, which meant I was going to be taking my weary brain through both English and Spanish, a language I speak quite poorly (if we’re being charitable about it).
I got into my car, and made the first turn; that’s when I saw it. Pulled up ahead of me, waiting for light, was a car whose license plate read TDOBIEN. If I hadn’t been thinking bilingually, I might have missed it, but there it was in blue and white: todo bien, all is well. I started to laugh, and joy entered my heart again. Indeed, all is well.
Caught in a vision of the Holy God, Julian of Norwich spelled it this way: All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. And those words were not foolish optimism, but the very heartbeat of the universe. For Julian was not Pangloss. She did not have a naive belief that what seemed to us to be evil was really good. Instead, she was speaking out of a direct encounter with the God who redeems all things, not negating evil, but working through the crooked lines we draw and the dark pain we suffer to bring forth the fruit of light and joy.
Listen to what she says: “And thus our good Lord answered all the questions and doubts I could put forward, saying most comfortingly as follows: ‘I will make all things well, I shall make all things well, I may make all things well, and I can make all things well; and you shall see for yourself that all manner of things shall be well.'”
Hold fast those words, for they are a pledge from one who loves you. Like a lover babbling, “I will keep you safe forever,” or a parent to a child, “I will always love you,” so our Lord God babbles to us: “This pain will not last forever, for it is not the reason that I made the world.” If God is true, if any of what we believe is true, then God, who created this world to be a delight, will restore it to its purpose by and by. And we, whom God made to dwell in it and tend it, to walk with God and rejoice in God, we, too, shall be made well — all our hurts healed, all our bent limbs straight, all our hearts unclenched at last.
Julian goes further: when we suffer because of our love, or when we try to act in loving ways but fail, those pains are not lost at all, but transformed in the sight of God. She says, “Because of the humility which we gain through this, we are raised by God’s grace right high up in his sight, with great contrition, with compassion and a true longing for God. Then we are immediately freed from sin and suffering and taken up into bliss and even made into exalted saints. By contrition we are made pure, by compassion we are made ready, and by true longing for God we are made worthy. As I understand it, these three are the means by which all souls come to heaven….Although a man has the scars of healed wounds, when he appears before God, they do not deface, but ennoble him.”
This is strong stuff: neither a denial of human suffering nor an exaltation of unnecessary suffering, but a reading which gives purpose to the suffering we cannot avoid because to love on this earth is to open ourselves to pain. We are none of us perfect; even the best of us have sharp elbows and barbed words, and so to risk love is to know that we will be hurt. And this world is not perfect: children go hungry; too many live alone; the Powers That Be do not always reward what is good — and so acts of mercy do not always bring about the result we intend. We are mortal, and so even the greatest love will, one day, be laid in dust. But Julian says that the wounds we earn in taking in these risks, the ones we get from trying to live as human beings in a world that is broken, are not scars, but marks of glory in the eyes of God. This difficult work of being broken on the world’s hardness wakes us from our torpor, shows us in unmistakable terms the terrible gap between what is and what should be, and the anguish of that insight propels us back to ourselves, to one another, and to our God.
So, then, nothing is wasted. Nothing is wasted. And all manner of thing shall be well, because the One who wills it will not be thwarted. Because the One who wills it loves us, and will not allow us to be lost.
Thanks be to God.