Date: March 14, 2021
Bible Text: Numbers 21:4-9, John 3:14-21 | Bailey Pickens
When I was about eight my grandmother was making me jelly toast, which classically begins with butter on the toast, over which is layered the jelly, and I became very upset. It seemed very wrong to me that there should be butter on the toast in addition to jelly. She of course explained to me that this is always how she had made jelly toast, that all the jelly toasts I had loved before had in fact had a foundation of butter, but I would not listen and insisted I wanted only jelly on my jelly toast, no butter. I felt absolutely righteous in this demand and appalled that my grandmother, and my mother, who supported her, had somehow, through either ignorance or malice, been serving me an adulterated version of what should be a very pure food. Two ingredients. It’s right in the name.
Obviously my grandmother was right. It tastes better with butter because that makes it a little richer and the salt amplifies the taste of the jelly. I came around relatively quickly after a couple of very principled breakfasts.
The real problem was that I thought I knew how the world best worked and insisted upon it, but I was just not correct. I was a kid and toast is low-stakes, but this problem persisted—I fought reapplying sunscreen for a long time, and I still constantly believe I know how things most truly are, or should be at least, despite a distinct lack of facts. It is hard to accept what doesn’t fit with my idea of things, jelly toast or governance or my own goodness. Acceptance itself is a difficult word, meaning as it often does not just glancing at the truth of something but also allowing it to come in and stay. How many truths there are that we would rather not allow in.
This is not really a modern problem, although the ways we frame it, with focus on what I personally cannot accept or the multiplying of many highly personal individual truths or what have you might be. Take Julian of Norwich, for instance.
We call her Julian of Norwich because we don’t actually know her name, just the name of the church she attached herself to, St. Julian’s. She was an anchorite, a particular kind of religious solitary who committed not only to solitude but to stability of place: They lived their entire lives in small rooms built onto their local church. The rooms typically had three windows: one angled toward the altar to allow them to watch the elevation of the host during Communion; one through which they received Communion; and one that faced the outdoors, through which light came in and via which they received bodily necessities like food, or could talk to people who sought them out.
In 1373, when the anchorite at St. Julian’s Church was thirty years old, she became so sick that she and everyone else thought she was going to die. She received her last rites and her priest came to be with her. Then, instead of dying, Julian received what she called shewings, or revelations. She was shown visions she had prayed to see, of the suffering of the crucified Christ, which she desired so that she could become more compassionate and loving; but she was also shown visions of God’s overwhelming and all-sustaining love for the world. And as she saw these visions, she asked a question:
AFTER this the Lord brought to my mind the longing that I had for Him before. And I saw that nothing prevented me but sin. And so I looked, generally, upon us all, and I thought: If sin had not been, we should all have been clean and like to our Lord, as He made us. And thus, in my folly, before this time often I wondered why by the great foreseeing wisdom of God the beginning of sin was not prevented: for then, I thought, all should have been well.
Julian immediately regrets thinking about this, feeling that such questioning should be avoided. But it’s important to understand what she is asking: She understands sin as the ultimate source of every kind of privation or unhappiness, a much broader concept than “a person does something bad.” She wonders not just why people do bad things, but why badness, pain, suffering, are allowed to exist at all. I wonder this too, all the time. And she gets, after a fashion, an answer:
But Jesus, who in this Vision informed me of all that is needful to me, answered by this word and said: Sin is behovely; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.
“Behovely” is a word we haven’t used for centuries, probably. It’s preserved somewhat in the phrase “it would behoove you to…” to mean that you ought to, it would be better if you did. Behovely means a host of things: Necessary; useful; beneficial; inevitable; natural; appropriate. Julian wonders, the way I’m sure most people have, why things were even allowed to go wrong to begin with, why God didn’t just stop that from happening. And Jesus does not give her a laundry list of reasons; rather he tells her that sin, the root of all that is wrong, all suffering, all pain, all sorrow, is behovely, that it has its place and purpose, but that nonetheless all shall be well. The destruction that sin wreaks, its negative effects in the world, are simply not all there is; Jesus is there, crucified and yet alive, and is finally what is most real. But sin and its effects are to be, in a particular way, accepted: not loved or lauded, but recognized as what is.
This is a very tall order and one that I would say more often than not we do not manage to fill. Take, for instance, the Hebrew people on the road from Mount Hor around Edom. They have been fed with Manna since sixteen chapters into Exodus, which was two books ago but you might recall that in it they were led through the sea on dry land into freedom; they have been given water from a rock, quail from nowhere; they have been provided for continually. And, to be fair, they have been eating manna for a long time and the road is a tough one. But a habit of theirs is accusation: unable to accept either the privation or the provision of their present life, they demand to know why Moses took them out of slavery just to kill them in the desert, something that was not true the first time they made the accusation and isn’t true this time, either. And so they are beset by poisonous snakes, who actually do kill them in the desert.
Absolutely this is a troubling story. It’s troubling if you read it to mean that God actually did send snakes to kill the people; it’s troubling if you read it to mean that the snakes happened to be there, but the people immediately assumed God had done it; it’s troubling if you read it to mean that this didn’t happen at all but is something people thought God might have done. But the shape of it is absolutely true: That acting as though something in fact healthful but which we don’t like is capital punishment can invite death that is very real indeed.
And what happens when the people cry out? God fixes it. This is crucial: death by snakebite, narratively, was a problem that arose because of human error and bad behavior, and God acts to provide aid anyway. There is healing for anyone willing to just look up at the snake: that is, for anyone willing to look reality in the eye. Again, a tall order.
John 3 shows us the truth of the story: That given the world as it is, yet God will act in it to heal… and some will not want it. The judgment in John 3 is not punishment. It is the clear truth that not everyone will want to look up for their healing, because to accept that you need healing can deal such a blow to our egos, our senses of self, our ways of being, that it seems better to forgo it entirely. And it is easy for us to say, That’s wild, that’s silly, no one would choose not to accept the reality of their sickness or injury and be made well. But that isn’t true, and we do know it. Look around: people choose this all the time.
We cannot be healed if we will not take the medicine. We cannot take the medicine if we will not accept that we are sick. This is true of individuals and it is true of humanity broadly and it is true of the societies we build. How sick have we as a nation become because we have always insisted that we are well? How many of our citizens are in poverty and dire need? How many of us have died because of an illness we chose to believe was mostly not real, or if it was, it did not require of us meaningful sacrifice or change in behavior? How many tanks and bulletproof vests and riot shields do our police, the armed branch of our government, take into crowds of ordinary people? How many black and brown people meet suspicion, derision, presumed guilt, violence, death, in this place we call post-racial? How many civilians in Muslim countries have died for attending weddings or living in particular villages? How much of this have we chalked up to mere opinion and not deep values? We imagine threats—welfare fraud and erosion of work ethic, infringement on rights to congregate or have bare faces, the always-dangerous dark-faced man, terrorism everywhere—and in militating against them we cause real and actual death.
But this perhaps is abstract enough to agree with. I can say also: this is true of societies but it is also true of the people who build them. Do we imagine that, though we live in a society that is very sick, we ourselves are well? Do we imagine that our souls are not corroded? Do we imagine that none of this touches us, that we share no values or beliefs with them? Do we imagine that we always love the light when it enters the darkness of the world? Do we imagine we simply need to talk more nicely? If we cannot accept the reality—not the goodness, but the reality—of how our own selves are shaped by what is worst in the world, then we will not be able to look up for healing, either.
There is an idea called radical acceptance you might find in contemporary Western Buddhist writing and in dialectical behavioral therapy. It is a first principle: That before you can change anything, yourself, other people, the world, you must first radically accept what actually is. You need not approve of it, or like it, or enjoy it, or desire it; but you must fully and totally, with every part of you, accept that it is true, that it is. That acceptance is the place from which you will be able to work for change.
As long as we do not want to admit that something is wrong, or just how wrong it is, in us or outside of us or both, we will be hamstrung in the good work God has made for us to walk in. It is frustrating to have a broken foot, but it is better to take the brace and the crutch and let it heal than to walk on it anyway. It is heavy to acknowledge that sin is in the world and in us, but it is better to receive forgiveness than to stay sick. It is painful to say aloud that darkness rules so much, but it is better to bring light in. It is hard for us, as Jesus told Paul in his converting vision, to kick against the goads, to struggle fruitlessly against the reality of things, and it is better to go where God is leading, where Christ has opened the path for us.
I want to invite you to a hard thing this week: To name what you know to be true but have turned away from. What is it that you need to, not celebrate or love, but radically accept? What inside you is caught between digging and transformation? What about our world is pressing on you for acknowledgement? What small denial have you held onto like a leaky umbrella? Name it. Say it out loud. Sit with it and everything that comes up when you do: anger or sadness or fear or exhaustion or pain. Let those be: They too are behovely. Christ’s work on the cross was sufficient for us and for everything. All manner of thing shall be well. Trust, and let it be.
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