By Beth Felker Jones –
There are so many losses right now. Vacations. Celebrations. Planned evenings with friends. Jobs. Mental health. Precious human beings.
As we live through a deadly pandemic, it is OK to feel the losses. It is OK to ache as carefully laid plans have to be put away. It is OK to grieve loved ones and economic hardships.
In these difficult times, there are three Christian principles to guide our thinking.
1. Creation is good. One of the most fundamental truths of Christian faith is this: creation is good. God made the world, God loves the world, and God has good purposes for the world. Just read the first chapter of Genesis and notice how many times the word good is used. All those things we care about? They matter. God cares too.
The early church rejected the false teaching known as Gnosticism. Gnosticism taught that spiritual reality is good, while material reality is evil. Against this, the church leaned on what scripture shows us about God as creator. Creation is not evil. God made it, God loves it, and God has good purposes for it.
Paul is talking about a Gnostic-like teaching when he writes against those who “forbid marriage and demand abstinence from foods” (1 Timothy 4:3). We know this instinct: the instinct to look at the delights of this world and turn up one’s nose, to try to be above the joys of feasts and warm human love.
Throughout the pandemic, I heard lots of rhetoric that spiritualized the faith and minimized the real human losses we were going through. But God’s revelation teaches us otherwise. God created feasts and flesh “to be received with thanksgiving … for everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Timothy 4:3-4). God made these joys, God loves these joys, and we receive these joys with thanksgiving.
The joys of this life are precious. Friends laughing together is precious. Youth groups playing silly games together are precious. The chance to be together is precious.
And when we lose these things, it’s OK to say “ouch.”
Our God is the God who made this world and loves it. Our God is the God who cares about the intimate realities of our lives. And our God is the God who knows our grief. He’s carried it in his very flesh, in the body of Jesus.
2. We are bound together. In the midst of one of the most terrible plagues imaginable, Martin Luther wrote a pastoral letter in 1527 entitled “Whether one may flee from a deadly plague.” He reminds his readers of our obligations to one another. Pastors need to take care of their people. Those in public office need to take care of their cities. Parents need to care for their children. We’re not alone in this; “we are bound to each other in such a way that no one may forsake the other in his distress.”
Luther navigates a distinctively Christian way of dealing with the threat of death. Life is good, and it is to be protected. At the same time, death has been overcome in Jesus, and so it has no ultimate say over us.
If neighbor love, including self-love, means keeping safe, we keep safe, and when it means risking death, we risk it freely because we know that, in Christ, we have everlasting life. Luther’s confidence is in God. He reminds us to cling to God’s promises and to what Christ has done for us.
Neighbor love can mean risking everything, even death, by being physically present for others: Health care workers. Cleaning crews. Caregivers. Cashiers. Cooks. Warehouse workers. Delivery drivers. Pharmacists. Sanitation workers. Custodians. Government workers. People sweating it out to restock the grocery store shelves. And so many others. Luther would have us, “take courage in the fact that we are mutually bound together.”
After building people up for risky-neighbor love, Luther also has words for people who don’t take the plague seriously: “They are rash and reckless, tempting God and disregarding everything that might counteract death and the plague. They disdain the use of medicines, they do not avoid places and persons infected by the plague, but lightheartedly make sport of it and wish to prove how independent they are …. this is not trusting God but tempting him … such people behave as though a house were burning in the city and nobody were trying to put the fire out. Instead they give leeway to the flames so that the whole city is consumed … if some are so foolish as to not take precautions but aggravate the contagion, then the devil has a field day and many will die.”
Neighbor love can mean staying home, self-isolating to “flatten the curve.” Quarantine is what neighbor love looked
like for most of us. And that kind of neighbor love is also risky, painful, and self-sacrificial. There are those who did hard things to love their neighbors this way: Students. Teachers. Parents. Those who are alone and lonely.
With Luther, let’s speak back to the devil, who would terrorize us out of loving our neighbor as God would have us do: “Get away you devil with your terrors! …. If you can terrorize, Christ can strengthen me. If you can kill, Christ can give life. If you have poison in your fangs, Christ has far greater medicine. Should not my dear Christ, with his precepts, his kindness, and all his encouragement, be more important in my spirit than you roguish devil, with your false terrors in my weak flesh? God forbid. Get away devil! Here is Christ, and here am I, his servant in his work. Let Christ prevail.”
3. Rejoice and pray. “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer” wrote Paul (Romans 12:2).
Julian of Norwich did her praying in the 14th and early 15th centuries. Her book, Revelations of Divine Love, is the first book of theology written by a woman in the English language. We don’t know her real name, but we call her Julian because it was the name of her church.
Julian lived two lives. The first was a life in the world: a life of household concerns and running into neighbors on the street. We don’t know for certain, but it’s likely she was married and had children.
The bubonic plague swept through the town of Norwich twice in Julian’s lifetime. The pandemic took a third of Europe’s population. It was terrifying in its contagiousness and efficiency, and because people didn’t know how it was transmitted, fear and misguided attempts at self-protection increased.
Then, Julian’s life in the world ended. Julian’s second life was lived as an anchoress. She was walled away from the world.
Admittedly, this will sound incredibly strange if you haven’t heard of it before. The life of an anchoress was a dedicated ministry to a church and a town. The anchoress (or anchorite, if a man) was walled into a cell, or anchor-hold, attached to a church.
Julian would have stepped into her cell, and then stone walls went up. She wouldn’t leave until her death. But this wasn’t a burial alive, and even though it was a life set apart, it was still a life for the world. In her little room, her anchor-hold, Julian would have had three windows: one to the street, one to the sanctuary, and one to care for her needs (food, laundry, books, and presumably the chamber pot).
Even though it was a life set apart, it was still a life for the world. Julian was there to pray in place. She stayed put in order to commit herself, body and soul, to prayer for those outside those windows. In 14th century Norwich, you couldn’t call your pastor or text a friend, but if you needed prayer, at any time, you knew where Julian would be, and you could talk to her through her window.
Imagine Julian. Perhaps she’s walking back and forth in her 9 foot by 11 foot anchor-hold. Perhaps she’s sewing. Perhaps she’s looking through her window towards the altar in the church. She’s praying. But is she feeling the warm presence of God? Is her face aglow with peace? Is she able to pray without her attention wandering? Maybe. But maybe not.
Julian writes that, when we pray, “frequently our trust is not complete, for we are not certain that God hears us … because we feel absolutely nothing (for we are frequently as barren and dry after our prayers as we were before).”
Reflecting on barrenness in prayer, Julian tells us that the Lord showed her something wonderful: “I am the ground of thy praying.” Prayer isn’t about us. It’s about God. In this, says Julian, “our good Lord shows a powerful encouragement.”
“It is not our praying that is the cause of the goodness and grace that He does for us, but God’s own characteristic goodness.” And she counsels us, “our good Lord wills that this be recognized by His lovers on earth, and the more that we recognize this, the more we shall pray.”
Paul wrote: “Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints” (Ephesians 6:18).
Julian encourages us to “pray inwardly, even though it seems to give thee no pleasure…” Pray, “though thou sensest nothing.” Pray, “thou thou seest nothing.” Pray, “though thou thinkest thou canst achieve nothing.” Julian wants us to find freedom and trust in knowing that God is the “ground of thy praying”
“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).
In quarantine, we’re like Julian. We still have windows. Our prayers should be that God would help us turn to our windows and pray for the world. Maybe this time and space of being walled in can become an anchor-hold. Maybe we can find a new freedom for prayer. Maybe Julian’s experience can set us free from our own desperate efforts to get our prayers right. In the truth that prayer is about what God does and not about what we are doing, Julian finds comfort from “all our doubtful fears” (42).
We fear for our health and that of our loved ones. We’re tempted to put our own safety and security before that of others. We’re terrified of economic collapse. We know fear. We know terror. We know sleepless nights.
Julian’s world was crumbling, too. And yet, she turns us toward the cross of Christ. She tells us to look steadily at Jesus. She reminds us that He is with us and for us. She asks to see the abundance of Christ’s blood spilled for us.
Here’s her account of one of her visions of Jesus’s blood: “the abundance was like the drops of water that fall off the eaves of a house after a great shower of rain, which fall so thick that no man can number them … because of their roundness, the drops were like the scales of herring as they spread over the forehead … This showing was alive and active, and hideous and dreadful, and sweet and lovely. And of all the sights it was the most comfort to me that our God and Lord, who is so worthy of respect and so fearsome, is also so plain and gracious; and this filled me with delight and security of soul.”
Julian is not ignoring the turmoil of the world. She’s telling us where to look so that we can live in that world. Where the plague destroys, the blood of Jesus flows. Where some put their own safety over those who need them, Jesus draws near. Where violence threatens, Jesus is our refuge. Where human leaders would impose hierarchy, Julian saw the blood of Jesus flowing for all, making no distinctions between priest and sinner, rich and poor, healthy or sick. Where the church creates false obstacles between us and God, Julian saw that the blood of Jesus clears those barriers away. And where people were scared of bodies and blood, Julian offered the grace of God.
Jesus’s body, Jesus’s blood covers and heals. The blood of Jesus is his intimacy with us. It’s been poured out for us. It’s flowing freely in a world that seems to be crumbling. He is with us. He is for us. “For truly,” says Julian, “it is the most joy that can be, as I see it, that He who is highest and mightiest, noblest and worthiest, is also lowliest and meekest, most friendly and most gracious.”
Like Mother Julian, we are able to turn our eyes to the cross. “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:19-20).
When it seems our world is crumbling, we can remember that God’s goodness is sure. Where we ache, we can turn to him for solace. When we are terrified, we are reminded that Jesus cares for us – and that his blood is free for all.
Beth Felker Jones is associate professor of theology at Wheaton College. She is the author of several books including Practicing Christian Doctrine: An Introduction to Thinking and Living Theologically. This essay is adapted from Pandemic Prayers, a special Kindle devotional she wrote which is available on Amazon.