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About the Author
Catherine McNiel is a writer and speaker who seeks to open eyes to God's creative, redemptive work in each day-while caring for three kids, two jobs, and one enormous garden. Catherine's first book, Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline, was an ECPA finalist for New Author. She's on the lookout for wisdom, beauty, and iced coffee.
Read an Excerpt
Hope is a path on the mountainside. At first there is no path. But then there are people passing that way. And there is a path.
Lu Xun, Chinese essayist, 1921
Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.
Desmond Tutu, in an interview with The New York Times
Winter holds on tight, this early-March morning; I'm beginning to despair that it will ever end. But today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. My family and I crowd the church aisle, jostling each other a bit as we stand in line. We came here to mark a sign of early spring: the cross of ash etched on our foreheads.
This season of spiritual preparation reflects our current reality precisely. Lenten means "springtime" in Middle English, which itself comes from the word lengthen. The sun arches back toward us, leaning in to life, sunlight hours growing longer each day. The darkness has not won; the world will thaw again. It is time to prepare for new life. The ashes on my head are the charred remains of last year's Palm Sunday branches, declaring that we have gone around the cycle once more: Life retreated to death, now doubling back toward life.
But not yet.
Hope comes bundled with endurance and long waits in ambiguity. We have been barren and cold, but life was not entirely snuffed out. We endured and held on for the thaw to come. Hope builds the bridge that pulls us out of suffering and points us toward the path — the arduous, winding, uphill climb — leading, eventually, to joy. Hope steps out boldly and brings an umbrella.
Leaving the church, we encounter the most amazing surprise: a breath of warm, fresh air. Sunshine. Mountains of snow dissolve everywhere, shrinking, dripping, soaking, forming trickles running headlong into babbling brooks along my street curb. Bundled in my coat and boots, I drink in every drop of this miracle. Have we made it? Did we survive the darkness and cold? Is it time to come alive again?
Then I see it, the sign I have been waiting for: a sliver of green, peeking through the crystals of melting snow. The first shoot of the first spring flower.
In the early morning light of this new day, fresh air fills my lungs, defrosting my winterized body as newly formed rivulets dancing over the ground fill my ears. Plenty of ebbs and flows lie ahead as the days lengthen toward warmth and light; plenty more ice and cold will come before springtime wins out.
But today, there is something new. Our dripping, melting, now-muddy yard turns my thoughts toward life and fullness. The ashes on my forehead remind me, long before Resurrection Day, to begin, to prepare the way. What was alive is now dead — from the brown, withered leaves in my yard to last year's celebration palms, now ashes on my skin. We step outside to gather the decaying flora not because of grief but because of hope.
Life is coming.
Since time began, the earth has spun its inhabitants through a yearlong drama of life and death and life again. The springtime chapter of this drama hints at the ultimate redemption: shalom. This ancient Hebrew word means wholeness, and it describes a world where everything is put right. Not just one or two things settled and lovely but all creation in harmony. One author describes it like this:
The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom. We call it peace, but it means far more than mere peace of mind or a cease-fire between enemies. In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing,wholeness, and delight — a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.
This is what the Gardener was singing about as he nurtured each tiny seedling in his garden, as he breathed life into all living things. Shalom has been our destination all along, the shape God has in mind as he molds and forms us.
But our world clearly doesn't overflow with wholeness just now. From our most intimate relationships to the most global affairs — and everything in between — we are at war. Conflict and catastrophe pervade every community, group, and interaction between you and me, us and them, people and nature, children and parents, future and past.
Yet we believe the days are lengthening. From the garden beginning to the eternal city of light at the end, the Christian account of the world is a story of hope. We are a people of eschatology, citizens of a Kingdom that has been promised and begun, but not yet seen. We journey through darkness, bearing crushing burdens and devastating realties, but we have heard the notes of a beautiful song. As Jürgen Moltmann says: "From first to last, and not merely in the epilogue, Christianity is eschatology, is hope ... the glow that suffuses everything here in the dawn of an expected new day."
But do not mistake hope for safety. Hope breaks us open. Hope is never naive to suffering, is synonymous not with optimism but with courage. Hope knows with certainty that life overflows with both beauty and pain, and we cannot know which will rise to meet us. Trembling with possibility, hope sidles up boldly to despair, nestles close, and puts down roots. These two — hope and despair — stand always side by side, each determined to outlast the other. If we choose hope, we must join the standoff, with hearts and hands wide open, fighting the urge to fade into despair.
Not all that comes to life in spring will survive. All the most precious things are vulnerable; one new life will die quickly, suddenly, while another thrives and grows. Others will lie dormant, blossoming only after hope has faded. Life offers no guarantees. Except, perhaps, this one: We will, all of us, encounter beauty and pain, both so gripping and vast they will rock us to the core. These are the terms, the facts of life. And in full realization, we open our eyes and hearts to another year of what-may-be. There is no alternate way forward.
It's so much easier for us to keep our hearts closed and hardened, isn't it? When our eyes open to the pain, the danger, the trouble, it takes courage to pry our hearts open long enough to come alive. But when we live closed off and hardened, we pave over the garden with concrete; we shut the door to possibility, to coming alive.
The apostle Paul was well acquainted with this ever-present tension between hope and despair. He exhorts his readers to hang on to hope, to find our courage in the undying love of God even as the world offers no protection against death. As he says, "In this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have?"
If God is for us, who can be against us? ... Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? ... No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Yes, darkness looms, palpable. The groaning is real, and despair always whispers at our backs. But the Christian faith centers itself, from first to last, in the hope of shalom, that redemption will come not only for you and me but for all creation. That the guarantor of this promise is none other than the Creator himself. That "creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God."
And so, we begin. In spring, we declare that light and shalom are gaining ground. That ultimately, the Creator will breathe new life into the dead bones piled all around us. Fully aware of the fine print on life's binding contract, we carry on, one step in front of the next, pouring ourselves into the void, into the future. Into hope.
On the heels of winter, born out of the broken shell of death, new life bursts forth. We are so vulnerable, so fragile; the risk is high, the chances uncertain. Surely floods and drought, weeds and pests will assail us. Openhearted, we tenaciously offer everything we are to the same world notorious for its fierce tendency to utterly destroy.
We believe that in the end, every bit of creation shall be caught up and made new.
The Facts of Life
When you live in the north, as I do, thawing can take your breath away. We have made it through months of bitterly cold dark days and nights. We speak of "surviving" winter without exaggeration: even now, the shelter, food, heat, and immune system required to endure these months cannot be taken for granted; not everyone makes it through. Death comes in winter. We see it all around.
But then, almost imperceptibly, springtime invites us to come alive. Green grass reaches up from black soil, birds sit determinedly on nests, the first brave daffodils burst forth, and if you look closely enough, you can see tiny buds on the trees. Kids strip down to T-shirts and shorts and start running — I've been known to join them myself. It's as though our own tenacious desire to live again flings open the season, as though in our spirits, we're all cooped-up children along with the birds and buds. We will find redemption here if it kills us. We scramble to get out of the house and let our spirits soar in the almost-warmth like a newly born colt stretching long legs for the first time. Nature faithfully continues the gorgeous, spellbinding drama of life and death it has cycled through for unfathomable ages — and we humans are every bit included.
As the northern ground comes alive from months of frozen death, my family and I dig up the soil. We plant tiny, microscopic seeds and tentative, fragile seedlings. Buried in the elements, they begin to open, to take root, to come alive. Soil is the mother of all life.
But soil itself is death.
The rich black layers of compost that we spread over the garden each spring are the grass cuttings, table scraps, and rotten tomatoes of last year. Collected over months, foul and decayed, this life-giving substance embodies life turned to death — ready now to receive and give, ready to become the womb of new life.
On this Earth, there are no exceptions. We were formed from the dust, and to dust we will return — as Ecclesiastes reminds us. We are fashioned and every day sustained from life that has died and only through death was transformed to become the womb of another living being. Eventually we, too, will be put in the ground to nourish and nurture new life. I'll be the first to admit: It is hard to accept these terms.
When it comes to life, I am greedy, insatiable. I want the life side of the coin without the death side. I want to dance without paying the piper. I know I'm not alone in this. We push against the reality of death, hardly believing that our allotted turn will come swiftly and surely to an end, that everyone we love is like the grass of the fields.
And yet, death itself is not the enemy.
From my vantage point — where my loved ones and I form the center of the universe — death certainly appears dressed to kill, the limiting factor in my greed for life. But when I step outside my own desires, I see something much bigger and more beautiful at play, a drama of creation and redemption as unfathomably vast and long-standing as the universe. A dance set in motion by God himself.
Death and life, together as one, form the great paradox. They introduce themselves as opposites yet come to us always intermingled. Neither can exist alone. Within this paradox, we live out every day given us. The irony is that, if we could in our greed destroy death, we would not open the doors to everlasting life, but rather to the cessation of life. One cannot exist without the other.
And yet ...
Christians believe that two thousand years ago, the Creator entered this world as part of creation. He was born and lived as any human does. And then, in Jesus, God walked all the way up to death and surrendered, allowing himself to be consumed.
Consumed, but not contained.
The boundaries could not confine him, the center could not hold. Death began to explode, unravel, become undone. By dying, our Creator destroyed the reality of death.
Jesus became the firstfruits of hope, of a new harvest, a harbinger of a new world — one that is not born and fed from decay. A life that does not end in death. An eternal thaw.
N. T. Wright says, "This is part of the point of Easter that is very hard for us to think about: Easter commands us to think about a non-corruptible physicality, about a physical world that isn't subject to decay and death anymore."
I read Wright's words on Easter Day to my eleven-year-old son, and he pondered them. "A garden that can grow forever, without compost? Without soil?" he asked, incredulously.
Yes. This is the incredible, astonishing hope of the Resurrection: a life without death. A garden without soil.
Can it be? This sort of earth is literally impossible, unbelievable.
And yet, as a Christian, I choose to step into this hope, into this lengthening toward shalom. I choose to believe that the Creator can and will release an encore that retains the beauty without the pain. I choose to stand inside the Kingdom of God and the hope of resurrection. A world where strength exists without injustice, where delight exists without poverty, where love exists without hate, and where life exists without death.
We use this word hope so poorly. We say, "I hope we get pizza for dinner," but this is desire, a counterfeit. Hope fortifies desire with trust, with faith, with desperateness and risk. Hope grows deeply rooted, with much to lose and much to gain, unafraid to look loss, disappointment, and despair in the face while still proclaiming its courageous message: The most powerful forces in the universe may yet be those of life and love.
And so, we begin. The Gardener is at work, and we are a people of eschatology, doggedly joining our Creator, kneeling in the dirt and the rubble, sorting through the broken things with an eye for redemption. We are looking for him everywhere, dusting for his fingerprints. We are building a world brand-new on the debris of the world destroyed ... again, and again, and again.
With our arms covered in compost, gently packing seeds into the womb of death, my family and I step into the perilous wonder of spring: the hope of a world made new.
No matter how dark and cold your life may be today, new life is beginning somewhere. Remember that hope begins before we perceive it, lying almost dormant in a season of near death. Where do you see signs of thawing? Where is hope starting to break through? What is coming to life in your home, family, community? In your heart, your mind, your spirit?
Walk outside and take inventory. Whatever the season or weather in your portion of the earth, allow yourself a moment to take it in, to soak up the newness and miracle of future hope. Take a deep breath, then another. Remind yourself to notice this work of God in creation when you step outside, rather than just hurrying past.
Look inside and reflect. God is at work, right now. What new life is God calling forth in you?
develop a habit of recording signs of life. When you peer into the darkness of your life and find a sliver of God's light, leave reminders for yourself (perhaps a calendar notification or a note on the mirror). Collect these and look back on them when times get hard, and remember hope dawning in the darkness, God's shalom breaking through.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "All Shall Be Well"
Copyright © 2019 Catherine McNiel.
Excerpted by permission of NavPress.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Opening: The Garden xvii
Chapter 1 Thawing: Hope 3
Chapter 2 Clouds: Faith 15
Chapter 3 Beauty: Intimacy 29
Chapter 4 Heavens: Wonder 47
Chapter 5 Abundance: Purpose 63
Chapter 6 Toil: Faithfulness 75
Chapter 7 Harvest: Gratitude 91
Chapter 8 Leaves: Surrender 103
Chapter 9 Twilight: Trust 115
Chapter 10 Snow: Rest 129
Chapter 11 Wilderness: Dependence 141
Chapter 12 Salt: Endurance 155
Encore: Resurrection 167
Discussion Guide 175
What People are Saying About This
I am the weary traveler McNiel is writing to, and her book is such a tender invitation to trust, to rest, and to embrace whatever season I find myself in. Through prose saturated with kindness and clarity, she provides a much-needed reminder that the life I’m seeking is not found in the busyness, or the chaos, or the things that overwhelm me, but in the beauty of nature and the goodness of God. The “Cultivating” sections at the end of each chapter provide practical steps that feel less like a to-do list and more like mile-markers on a path to the divine.
If you enjoy Barbara Brown Taylor, you’ll love Catherine McNiel. She awakens us to the cathedral of the everyday, the altar that calls us to worship.
Catherine McNiel’s prose is, itself, further evidence of the abounding beauty of a world touched by God’s presence. All Shall Be Well will open your eyes to the lush and lively wonder of his redemption in every season and every situation.
“Our God is not far off. From the very beginning, Christians have declared that the Creator is not only transcendent but immanent.” With these words, Catherine McNiel plants the foundation for an ingrained display of God’s beauty and goodness among us. While we often wonder where he is amidst the thorns and weeds, All Shall Be Well reminds us that God is still here, tending his garden . . . for us.
In this hurried life, we can become so indifferent to and unmoved by God’s glory all around us. We race from here to there, missing the beauty of his works. In All Shall Be Well, Catherine McNiel slows us down and takes us on a journey of seeing and believing. God is found in the beauty and the pain, the flowers and the thistles. His goodness to us is enjoyed by pondering his wonders.
I want to write like Catherine McNiel when I grow up! With rich insight and delicious turn of phrase, this book gently replants the reader’s soul in the seasons. This is a truly helpful work for those of us who don’t know what to do with our anxiety, restlessness, and creative yearnings. McNiel gives us the ground from which to say, “All shall be well,” regardless of the season of soul in which we currently reside.
Catherine’s writing is more than beautiful. It is transcendent. Seen through her eyes, the everydayness of living bursts forth with abundance, spiritual meaning, and God himself. Catherine is a wise soul, and her readers will enjoy this journey with her through the spiritual seasons of life. I greatly appreciate and highly recommend this book.
With her trademark insight and beautiful writing style, Catherine McNiel leads readers like she’s our personal spiritual director. She invites us to wonder at God’s mysterious presence, while continually pointing her readers to God’s renewal of all thingsto the spring in our winters. If you’re longing to connect deeply with God and with his messy, abundant creation, you will find those longings expressedand metin these pages.
With vibrant and poetic words that touch all the senses, Catherine invites us into an intimate connection with our creator, no matter the season in which we find ourselveseven the dark days of winter. Then, not wanting to leave us without practical tips, she provides simple yet profound disciplines to cultivate life in the Kingdom now. This is a book I’ll return to again and again.
This book has done more than teach me: It has nourished me. All Shall Be Well, rich in imagery, theological depth, and soulful introspection, is exactly the kind of book I like to read and recommend. McNiel grapples insightfully with the paradoxes of being human and loving this beautiful, broken world. I want more and more people to read her valuable work.
Grounding, lyrical, and rich with meditation and metaphors, McNiel turns our eyes to the wonders of God all around us and invites us to cultivate simple practices of awareness.
All Shall Be Well beautifully and poetically reveals the seasons of life. From the dead of winter to the promise of spring, Catherine McNiel teaches us that our God is present and listening, calling and leading no matter what our circumstances are. She reminds us that our faith is a journey of spiritual formation, a character-shaping relationship with the Creator God. Nature calls; read this book.