We have lived in the 20th and 21st centuries, and pretty much everyone agrees, we are living in difficult, troubled times. There is plenty of calamity and struggle to go around. It seems we’re always facing natural disasters, wars, refugees displaced, trafficking, famine in some part of the world, political upheaval, and the fall of great institutions. And now, the Corona virus.
But I’d still much rather live here and now than in the 14th century. If you think hope is in short supply these days, you should study up on life in the 1300s: people had the sense that everything was falling apart. Because it was. The 13th century was a high point; but historian Justo Gonzalez calls the 14th century “The Collapse.”
For one thing, there was all kinds of trouble with the church, which was careening like a car with the wheels flying off from one crisis to another. For example, the Pope and the King of France got into a heated argument, which led to the King trying to kidnap the pope, who died shortly after from the shock. Nice. The popes got so bad some folk just elected a new one, but the old one didn’t leave, so now they had two popes on the ropes.
Some priests who had taken vows of celibacy ran around openly with mistresses. Some monks who had taken vows of poverty unabashedly lived in the lap of luxury. Christianity had all kinds of weird superstition and paganism mixed in so that what many people believed was a far cry from biblical faith. The church was a mess.
Nature also seemed to conspire against them to make everyone miserable. The 14th century marked the beginning of what geologists call the “Little Ice Age.” The Baltic Sea froze over, and the cold and heavy precipitation caused massive crop damage, widespread famine and massive starvation the following year.
But none of that could compare to the horror of the Black Death which broke out in 1347. We are very concerned about the Coronavirus today. We probably ought to be more concerned about the flu, which kills about 10,000 in the U.S. each year. But the bubonic plague was a whole other level of horrific. By the time the plague had passed, about 1/3 of the people who lived between India and Iceland were dead. No one had seen anything like it. It swept through and sometimes killed its victims in less than 24 hours. It was highly contagious and often stayed for months. Historians estimate maybe 20 million people died from the Black Death – Europe’s population declined by about 50%. In Paris, about 800 people died every day. Home after home was left empty because entire families were lost. In some convents and monasteries where people lived in close proximity, everybody died. Those that survived were depressed.
If you escaped the plague, you just might die as a victim of violence or in one of the wars that raged in the 14th century. You had the Hundred Years War that started between France and England. And there were many smaller wars and local skirmishes in which knights were hired to come and lop off some heads to settle a dispute. Violence was everywhere, and innocent people suffered horribly from it. Life was cheap and death was everywhere.
In fact, they were kind of preoccupied with death. They made these grotesque death masks and talked and wrote a lot about death, what happened to corpses, and the torments of hell. One historian described it as “a ghoulish time.” Another historian, using obvious understatement, called it “a bad time for humanity” and “a period of anguish when there was no sense of an assured future.”
And to some degree, those sad traits present in the 14th century describe our world today, don’t they?
I mean, we have our own natural disasters, one after another, with hurricanes wiping out life for millions, destructive tsunamis, earthquakes, and growing apprehension about global warming and the destruction of the planet.
And even with all our medical advances, we still live with the threatening shadow of disease and death hovering over us. Right now it’s the Coronavirus, before that it was SARS or MRSA. Cancer lurks around every corner, stalking its next victim.
And violence and death is still everywhere. We live in the homicide capital of the nation with more murders in Baltimore than New York City. There are shootings every day. The daily news reminds us: another car accident fatality. Opioid use is at epidemic levels. Among young people who are supposed to have a positive outlook on the future, suicide rates are skyrocketing. Anxiety and depression is off the charts.
The laws of the land endorse termination of pregnancy when a baby is viable and capable of living outside the womb; millions of lives are “terminated” and it’s not even news. Maybe it’s no wonder there are growing genres of music and entertainment becoming darker, and some of our video games – rated M for “mature” — are designed to allow us to sit and kill people for hours on end. Ours is a culture of death.
We have our own crisis of hope today. With many feeling like things are falling apart. The future is uncertain.
And sadly, we live in a time when many people don’t look to the church as a place of hope or strength, purity or help. Their jaded perspective or unfortunate experiences tell them the church is filled with hypocrites, irrelevant, or messed up. So the number of people attending church declines, and it’s enough to leave you wondering where things are headed.
But here’s the thing. God is always alive and well. And his Spirit is always vibrant and moving in a remnant of his Faithful. There are always bright lights. I hope to inspire you to shine a little brighter in a dark time.
That’s how I feel when I think about Julian of Norwich. Faith survived in the 14th century, and no one better symbolized how HOPE and LOVE wins out over despair and hate more than Julian of Norwich.
Julian may be one of the most important Christians you have never heard of.
In 1373 she was thirty years old and had a near death experience. She’d been really sick, and the end seemed near. They called the priest to administer Last Rites. He held a crucifix in front of her and told her to comfort herself by concentrating on the face of her Lord. As s she did, she fell into a kind of trance and saw some powerful visions, manifestations of the Lord, which she would later call 16 Showings or Revelations.
To everyone’s complete surprise, she rapidly recovered, and spent the rest of her life trying to understand what happened to her and what the revelations meant. For the last 40 years of her life she lived a solitary life as a nun, a recluse in a tiny cell – an anchorage built into the wall of the St. Julian’s Church at Norwich.
The world around her was ugly and bleak. Everyone around her was succumbing to hopelessness. But Julian reflected on the things God had shown her and delivered a message of hope and optimism in the future. She wrote Revelations of Divine Love, a description of her visions and what they meant. It was all about the love of God, so incredibly real to her! She shared the deep and powerful love of Jesus and its power to rescue, redeem, hold, and help us always.
To people overcome with sin, struggle and suffering on every side, she described love’s triumph over it all with words that are as beautiful – and personally moving — today as they were then:
Thus our good Lord answered all the questions and doubts that I could bring up, saying for full comfort to me: ‘I will make all things well: and I can make all things well: and I shall make all things well: and I will make all things well: and you shall see yourself that all manner of things shall be well.’” (Revelation 13)
Her conclusion is often quoted because it summarized her mystical experience of God: “Thus was I learned that love is our Lord’s meaning. And I saw fully surely in this, and in all, that before God made us, he loved us.”
Ben’s translation: The main thing is this: it’s all about love. That is what God wants us to know, to experience, to understand. Before God even made us, he loved us. What the world needs now – in times like these — is God’s love through Christ.
What is so incredibly striking to me about Revelations of Divine Love is what I would call Julian’s unfailing faith-based optimism. When you look at what was going on in the world around her, and how everyone saw the Day of Doom just around the corner, it’s incredible that she is so confident in the future because she believes in the power of God’s love. So she just KNOWS that “all shall be well.” “She looked past the horrors of her time to see the Last Day when the great love of God will stretch from one end of the universe to the other for all to see.” (Timothy Webber)
She wasn’t putting her head in the sand. She didn’t just candy coat things. She didn’t just skim over the ugly or put a good face on a bad situation. She was just very sure of God. She had a fresh encounter with God. She had peered deeply into the face of our Lord and what she saw was Love.
As a result she was absolutely confident that the love of God will have the last word and that the ones who faithfully receive his love will share in the Victory. And she gave that incredible gift to the people of the 14th century.
And it seems to me that’s exactly what people need in the 21st century. It’s what the people in your family need. It’s what the people in your neighborhood need, and your church, your city. To know there is a love that is bigger than evil, a love that is brighter than darkness, a hope that is stronger than death.
She never succumbed to being molded by the ugly and the fear and the sadness around her. The cruel forces of nature and disease, the corrupt push of government, the disappointing weakness of the church, even death itself did not dissuade her. She had experienced God and his love. She was constant and confident that however things may appear, in the end, love wins.
I wonder, what if more of us were like that? What if, like Julian, we dove deeply into an encounter with God and got so filled up with the love of Christ that the Spirit of love in us made us confident and beautiful and strong and pure and winsome and, well, Jesus-like?
She makes me want to be like that. She makes me want to avoid being sucked in to the mindset of the world, caught up in the political ranting, the cultural criticism, the doomsday talk. I want to be filled enough with the love of God that I can bring it to someone else. Because at the end of the day, that’s about all we really have to offer … the good news of the love of God through Christ.
And you can be sure of this: just as surely as God used Julian in the 14th century, God is sending you and me in the 21st. Someone caught in a horrible hopelessness needs to have their perspective radically ransacked by the incredible love of Jesus. But that won’t happen if churches are consumed trying to add more fog machines or rearrange cutesy surface level stuff or merely tinker with the worship set.
No, what we need is a near-death experience like Julian had, because it’s only when we’re desperate and dying that we truly reach for Christ in the way that fills us. Dying to self, surrendering at the end of ourselves in a desperate shout of need is how we receive a fresh revelation of Jesus. Finally we drink deeply of God’s love.
I don’t like to get sick, let alone die. But I also know that it’s only when I die to self, like a seed going in the ground, that I am ready to stare into the face of Christ and be filled with his love. When that happens to us, we are filled with Jesus’ love enough to have something real happen in us.
Let that happen in you. You may not be on your death bed, but still you can allow yourself to desperately cry out for a fresh vision of Jesus’ love. Die a little to yourself, come to terms with your desperate situation, in order to be to be filled with Jesus’ love. As you experience healing and a real change in you, you will know deeply that nothing is more powerful than the love of Christ. You will find in yourself a confidence in God.
And then live out of that overflow. Let that guide your hard work, your ministry, your life. Stand and preach out of that overflow. Spend your life trying to grasp how wide, and deep, and high, and strong, and amazing is the love of Christ. And when you get a glimpse of it, share it. Tell it. Live it. Ooze it. God’s love coming to you will find its way through you to others, and when it lands on them, it is the most contagious and powerful force in the world. It has the ability to spread rapidly, creating genuine joy and deep peace in incredibly difficult times.
I hope they come up with a vaccine or something. I hope the natural disasters let up, and the wars and shootings cease. But what the world needs now – above all – is love.
Because the love of Christ gives us the very thing we all desperately want to be true, but are secretly afraid might not be true…but which all people who have tasted the love of God know is in fact true … the confidence that “All will be well. And all will be well. And all will be well.”