by Gwen Groff, Bethany congregation
Lent begins with the reminder, “…to dust you shall return.” In this season we hear Jesus tell his followers, “I’m turning toward Jerusalem. I’m going to die there. Come with me.” It is a counter-cultural invitation. If much anxiety is rooted in our fear of death, we have to stop avoiding death. We are in the right season for this.
In the last sermon that I preached with a physically-present congregation, I quoted Julian of Norwich, using the familiar words in our hymnal. “All will be well, and all will be well, all manner of things will be well.”
At that time, I had no notion of the journey we were embarking on. I did not know we would not gather the following Sunday. I did not know COVID-19 had already arrived in our small, spaciously populated state.
“All will be well” is not a glib platitude. Julian, born in 1342, lived through three rounds of the Black Plague, the Peasants’ Revolt, and part of the Hundred Years’ War. Before she heard God’s revelation that “all will be well,” she had been so severely ill that she was administered last rites. To say “all will be well” was not an optimistic claim that we will not experience suffering. It was a promise that in our suffering we are held within God’s being.
Since that Sunday, Paul’s assurance in Romans 14:8 has been repeating internally, as I walk, cook, and sit in silence: “Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” That also is not a glib promise. It does not deny death or the pain of death. But it affirms that just as God holds us now as we live fully and love life, God holds us as we face death, as we move through death, and as we discover what follows after death.
Those words from Scripture first came alive for me when a friend described her midwest community’s response to the Palm Sunday tornadoes of 1965. She was a child in Indiana when 137 people died and 1200 people were injured on that one Sunday. She experienced, up close, the reality that people you love die, people grieve hard, and relationships with those people and with God continue.
I marveled at her attitude in the acceptance of death. She is a person in love with the world, life, and people. But she has a real sense that death is not the end, and that “Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.”
I have at times thoughtlessly associated the acceptance of death with despair or purposelessness. A neighbor said to me last week, “If COVID-19 would have happened the year after my husband died, I’d have been out there trying to catch it. But not now. I love life again. I want to live.”
Acceptance of the reality of death is not a death wish. And loving life doesn’t create a fear of death. We may fear death most when we sense we haven’t lived fully.
Another neighbor in the “high risk” category summed this up: “I want to live to be a hundred. But if I die now, boy—we’ve had a good run.”
I take Paul’s words in Romans to mean our life with God somehow continues through death and beyond. Can I hold that hope if my parents (in their 90s), quarantined in a nursing home, fall ill? Can I remember that promise if I am short of breath? And can I maintain that perspective if civilized society starts to disintegrate? How can we, as the body of Christ, behave as if we know that whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s?