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Beguiled by Beauty: We are Made for the Beloved June 14, 2020 Psalm 16: 7-11 Rev. Nancy Talbot at Mount Seymour United Church
“All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be exceeding well.” These now famous words were first written by the anchoress who became known as Julian of Norwich. Julian, a medieval mystic, lived mostly in cloistered seclusion during one of the most tumultuous times in England’s history. She was a survivor of the Black Plague which took the lives of 60% of the population around her. She witnessed the beginning of the Hundred Year’s War, The Peasants Revolt and the Inquisition in which those considered to be religious heretics were tortured and often put to death. She lived through famines and floods.
And so although her words “all shall be well” may sound a bit patronizing, “there, there, don’t worry, everything’s going to be okay,” in fact there is nothing patronizing or wishy washy about them at all. They are words born out of a deep and abiding trust in the goodness of life and the love of God.
What’s most striking about these words is that they were spoken in direct contrast to the message of the church of her time, who both thought and taught that all the disasters befalling its citizens were happening because God was angry with the people. And of course, there was and still is no shortage of biblical back up for that kind of thinking.
But what Julian both believed and taught was that although the Black Plague and all the political and religious unrest and persecution of her day was part of their story, it was not the entire story. In the long flow of life, Julian believed that God is making all things well.
In our day and age, the church, at least this church and many likes ours, no longer teach that pandemics are caused by God’s anger. And yet many of us still have a cause and effect understanding of God. When something bad happens to us, we subconsciously find ourselves thinking that we have done something to deserve it. Or, we find ourselves taking a quick scan of our lives to prove why we don’t deserve it.
Both beliefs suggest that somewhere in our thinking we have latched onto the idea that God causes things to happen in our lives because we either have or haven’t done what we were supposed to do or behaved as we have been told we should behave.
In contrast, Julian of Norwich and many others want us to believe that we are loved regardless of whether or not we do or don’t do what we are supposed to do. Plagues, pandemics, suffering, loss are simply part of life. They are part of the risk inherent in living this mortal life.
Dr. Wendy Farley, whose book this Beguiled by Beauty series is named after, says that because many of us have misplaced ideas about God’s rejection of us, we end up going through life with a marred image of God. When that happens our suffering can become quite soul-destroying. She would say that God never rejects us, God always loves us but because we have a misconstrued image of God, we misconstrue our relationship with God. I might go further to say that because our image of God is marred, our image of ourselves is also marred.
This week, as I was thinking about our misplaced idea of God’s rejection of us and our misconstrued images of God, I found myself thinking about my own earliest images of God. The image I had, fortunately, was very much of a benevolent figure, but he was definitely old and white. He wore a white robe, had a long beard and lived somewhere up there. And he was definitely all knowing. I attribute my mostly good behaviour as child to this belief. I did not want to get caught out by a God who might reject me if I did something wrong. I certainly didn’t want anything bad to happen to me.
Consequently, I learned to only love myself when I was being and doing good. It was an exhaustingly high standard to meet and it set me up to subconsciously believe that God only loved me when I was being good or when things were going well.
I was well into my twenties before anyone ever suggested to me the possibility that God could be imagined as a woman, let alone as a presence without any gender, or that God might not actually be all knowing and all powerful or that God loved even the most horrifically behaved people. It was even later that I discovered that the handsome white Jesus who hung on the wall of the ladies’ parlour in my childhood looked nothing like what a Jewish man in his early 30’s living in first century Israel and Palestine actually would have looked like.
I can still remember the way my mind was blown wide open the first time I saw a black Jesus and a Chinese Jesus, an Indigenous Jesus and even a female Jesus.
Imagine my utter shock when I discovered that Julian of Norwich who was born in 1342 called Jesus “Mother.” All of this doesn’t even begin to address what happened to my understanding of myself and of God when my image of Jesus was also wrapped up in what I would now say was a misconstrued understanding of why Jesus died on a cross.
It now pains me to think of what it does to one’s image of oneself, to grow up never see yourself mirrored in the image of Jesus or the image of the Divine.
The point Dr. Farley is making when she speaks of our misplaced ideas about God’s rejection of us and the marred relationship we have with God because of those ideas is that it’s only when we disconnect our suffering, from God as the cause of our suffering once and for all, that we are liberated to remember God’s goodness. Our task, she says, is about remembering God’s goodness. Far too many of us go through life feeling unnecessary separation and longing because we have not or cannot remember God’s goodness.
Dr. Farley says that when this happen we can become habituated to a low-flying understanding of ourselves which she calls a form of identity theft. It is not who we truly are.
One of the ways we heal the wounds of our forgetfulness is through contemplative practices, practices that unlock us to see and experience God’s goodness and therefore our own goodness and the way that we are made for the Beloved.
There are many, many practices to help us remember God’s belovedness and ours, one of which is slowly and contemplatively listening for God’s word to us in scripture.
When I listened for God’s word to me in our scripture reading from Psalm 16, the line that leapt of the page at me was the very first line that includes these words “even at night my heart teaches me.”
It made me think of a Wendell Berry poem that someone sent me back in mid- March when we were first told to go home and stay home, when our churches, and schools and businesses closed their doors and the streets became barren and we became frightened by this mysterious virus that has changed our lives so quickly and so dramatically.
The poem is called The Peace of Wild Things and goes like this:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives might be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.*
When I first read the poem, I thought that Wendell Berry literally gets up from his bed and goes and lies down by the water when he is frightened. Perhaps he does.
But it occurred to me that when despair for the world grows in me and I am wakened in the night by my fears, I too can go in my mind’s eye to the place where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water. I can remember, without ever leaving the comfort and the warmth of my own bed, the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I can remember still waters and day-blind stars and I can rest in the grace of the world.
In the words of the psalmist, even at night our hearts can teach us. We can remember God’s presence, always by our side. We can know, deep in our beings that nothing can shake us, because God will not abandon us. We can rest in the grace of knowing we are loved and cared for and more than worthy of that love.
Even when things are not going well, even when uncertainty and despair is all around, we can remember that in the great flow of life, God is making all things well. All things will be well again, I know.
*From The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry (Counterpoint, 1999)