“Shopmas,” Advent & Christmas

An Advent/Christmas Interview with Bishop Mark Lawrence

In late November 2019, I had an opportunity to chat with Bishop Lawrence about Christmas and Advent. What follows is a condensed version of our conversation – Joy Hunter, Diocesan Communications Director


Door of the Bishop's residence

Bishop, How do you observe Advent?

It’s different now from how I observed it as a parish priest. As a priest I lived through it with a congregation. We’d begin by making Advent wreaths. Sometimes we’d put lights on trees and bushes around the church. We put out the Christmas crèche and each Sunday add one more figurine.

During Advent I’d begin the services saying: “One candle lighted.” I’d look at the crèche, “No baby Jesus in the manger! It’s the First Sunday of Advent! Good morning!” Then the next Sunday it would be: “Two candles lighted. No baby Jesus in the manger. It’s the Second Sunday of Advent.” And so on. Then on Christmas Eve or Day I’d say: “Five candles lighted. Baby Jesus in the manger. Must be Christmas. Merry Christmas!”

Those were things we did as a community. They build the sense that this is a season of expectation. But as a Bishop I’m in a different church every Sunday. So I don’t go through the season with a community. I look forward to getting back to it someday!

What do you think of the secularization of the season, all the commercialism?

I like to call the season between Thanksgiving and Christmas the “Shopmas” season. Santa Claus is everywhere. The lights are sparkling. Christmas trees are aglow. Everything’s out for Christmas. But it’s really focused on and driven by shopping and nostalgia.

Some clergy rage against it, but I actually like Shopmas.  I’m nostalgic about it. I love going through the stores hearing “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” or “The weather outside is frightful.”  I like the songs. I enjoy them.

My problem is right in the middle of that secular, nostalgic season: the church pulls out of the mothballs John the Baptist. He’s raging like a furnace, calling us to repentance. He kind of ruins the whole thing, but he’s there in a good way. He’s kind of the spiritual Scrooge. He works against the secularism of the culture.

So two warring factions?

Bishop's snowy fenceAdvent is filled with a paradox. There’s the paradox of the works of darkness and the armor of light; mortal life and immortality; humility and the glorious majesty; the second coming of Christ in glory and his coming in humility at Christmas. For those who like paradox, it is a glorious season that we don’t want to sweep away too soon with Christmas.  The Collect for the First Sunday of Advent encapsulates it well.

The church year always begins with Advent, right? And the lessons focus on the Second Coming of Christ at the close of the age. We begin with the end in mind.

If you know how all of human history ends, you know where to put your weight. You know how to live your life. And the Church says it all ends with the Second Coming of Jesus, his Parousia—the coming of Jesus in glory to restore all things and judge the living and the dead.  It’s a brilliant thing the church has done. If we jump too soon to preparing only for Christmas—and Jesus coming among us in great humility—we miss that.

The business world understands this. They could have gotten it from the church year because we begin with the end in mind, then go right into Jesus coming in great humility—which of course lasts for 12 days. With that we’re counter cultural, because the world has already moved on after Christmas day, but we continue on with it for 11 more.

So I’m guessing you don’t do any decorating until Christmas Eve?

Oh, no! Here in Charleston I usually put out greens along the wrought iron fence the first Sunday in Advent. And decorating inside is a long process because we’ve collected all kinds of things over the years. Allison has a whole collection of Santa Claus figurines. I carry down all the boxes from the fourth floor to the second or first floors. I put up the Christmas tree and decorate it, but Allison does all the rest. It’s a big job. It’s part of our ritual.

Will you be using an Advent devotional this year?

I pray Morning Prayer every day, but in Advent I’ll also pick a Christmas or Advent book to read during that month. Last year it was Advent with Evelyn Underhill. The year before Waiting on the Word: A Poem a Day for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany by Malcolm Guite. And the year before that, The Meaning is in the Waiting: The Spirit of Advent by Paula Gooder. That’s the usual thing I do.

Allison and I usually watch our favorite Christmas movies like “The Muppets Christmas Carol.”

You’ve got to be kidding me!

Bishop Lawrence reads "A Christmas Carol" to Diocesan staff at Christmas partyNo! It’s one of the best Christmas Carol productions. Michael Caine as Scrooge and Kermit the Frog as his clerk.  They really keep to the heart of the story and do it well.  And there are wonderful songs in it. When the grandkids are here, we watch “Home Alone”, “Polar Express” and “The Santa Clause.”  Allison and I will watch “While you were Sleeping” among others.

That’s not a Christmas movie! That’s a rom-com.

It takes place at Christmas! It’s all about the loneliness at Christmas and how important family is at the holidays.

Any Christmas memories from your childhood you’d like to share?

Oh, many, many. I remember when I was a kid, and it started to get cold, I’d lie next to the floor heater behind my father’s lounge chair and figure out odd jobs I could do to earn money to buy presents for my brother and sister and mother and father. I’d rake yards, deliver newspapers, mow lawns, collect bottles. My advent devotion was looking through the Sears catalog for things I wanted for Christmas (though sometimes my mother had an Advent Calendar on the fridge).

And I’d clean out the fireplace because I always liked fires. That’s one thing I miss, there’s no fireplace in the Episcopal Residence.

How is the celebration you grew up with different from the one you and Allison created with your own children?

Clearly the one our kids grew up with was far more focused on the community of the church, decorating the church as well as our house. And our kids growing up always had parishioners around, and were performing in Christmas Pageants, singing in the Jr. Choir or acolyting at Midnight Eucharist or the New Year’s Eve Vigil and Party at the Church.

We might go to church on Christmas morning, and Allison would ask someone, “What are you doing today?” If she’d hear, “Oh, we’re not doing anything” or “We’re alone,” she’d invite the person to our Christmas dinner. That might also happen on Christmas Eve, too. Our kids always grew up with people from the church at our home and family gatherings.

Favorite holiday food?

allison's_santa_cookiesAllison makes galettes and raisin cookies and a spinach casserole that’s just delicious.

Do you have any words of advice for new parents on how to celebrate Christmas well?

I would say it’s important to build family traditions—give your children a heritage and rituals but don’t get hyper about them.  Build in a rhythm of seasonal expectation and joy. You balance the season of Advent with Christmas.  Don’t make Christmas day alone the thrust of everything. There’s a reason why the church has 12 days of Christmas. One day cannot live up to the expectations we put upon it.

What do you look forward to most?

When we lived in Pennsylvania, it was getting a fire going in the fireplace, a cup of coffee and a good book especially on a snowy day. Everything slows down. Everything is quiet. Just enjoying the season. I was also on the board of the local Salvation Army and rang the bell at the kettle.

But now I look forward to our family coming, which as you know is quite large, and having a few days after Christmas to do things with grandkids or our adult children, and the good holiday food. I look forward to the Advent season with all its paradoxes. I look forward to the literature of Advent and Christmas (George MacDonald’s Gifts of the Christ Child, Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales, Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory, W.H. Auden’s For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, and so many others), the CSO concerts, and the movies of Christmas.

Oh, and as a clergyman I looked forward to a few days off after Christmas and still do. There’s a thousand things to do between Thanksgiving and Christmas when you’re in parish ministry and for your parishioners too.  And though I had lay Eucharistic ministers and deacons, I tried to get to our shut-ins between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

What about the services?

I always used to look forward to the Christmas Eve service. It’s one of my favorite services, but it’s complicated. It’s not always an easy sermon to preach. And sometimes I put too much expectation on it. You’re trying to balance all kinds of things and all kinds of expectations.  But it can also be just wonderful.

So managing expectations is important?

You have to let each season fit in with what happens that year. If you try to relive everything, you just make yourself frustrated and unhappy trying to make the perfect Christmas. Christmas is rarely perfect. And it’s always going to be different, but you may look back upon it and think, “There was something quite lovely about that year.” You remember January 3, 2018? It snowed in South Carolina right during the Twelve Days of Christmas—what a gift for us in the lowcountry!

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The Bishop’s Bookshelf

Thinking Strategically About Book Choices; An Interview with Bishop Mark Lawrence

I’m an avid reader, always having at least one and sometimes several books on my nightstand. But I choose books based on friends’ recommendations. Perhaps in reading this you’ll be challenged, as I was, to rethink your choices before selecting your next book.   Joy Hunter, Editor

Bishop Lawrence's BookshelfBishop, I sense you’re a voracious reader. Would you use that term to describe yourself?

I would say as a parish priest I was, but as a Bishop less so, because the schedule and demands – which are voracious – have truncated that.

How many books do you read a month?

Far less than I wish, unfortunately. About two a month.

What are you reading right now?

This summer I’m rereading Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth. I’m also listening to two lecture series on the tragedies of Shakespeare and looking for opportunities to attend performances of those plays. Remarkably, we’ll be at the Utah Shakespeare Festival in August, and they’re performing Hamlet and Macbeth. There’s also a haunting performance of Lear by Anthony Hopkins in a movie version.

I’m also reading Landscape and Inscape: Vision and Inspiration in Hopkins’s Poetry by Peter Milward and The Man Who Went into the West: The Life of R.S. Thomas by Byron Rogers. (Thomas was a Welsh Poet and Anglican Priest). So I’ll reread his poems along with this recent biography.

How do you go about deciding what to read?

Often I will choose a reading project. When I was in parish ministry, I did this all the time. I’d read books in three areas: preaching and teaching, leadership, and pastoral ministry.

For preaching and teaching I would read 8 to12 books per year in theology, commentaries on the scriptures, homiletics or preaching. For leadership I’d read books from the secular world whether it be a book by Stephen Covey, Warren Bennis, Peter Drucker, James Burns, John Maxwell, etc., as well as in the Christian world and certainly biographies of leaders in various walks of life. The other arena was books on pastoral care, what’s known as pastoralia. That was for many years what I did in terms of my calling or vocational reading.

You’re very strategic in your reading.

I just don’t always read the latest thing. I make a reading plan for the year.

One year I did a study of the artist Winslow Homer. That summer I was asked to do the wedding of the son of a parishioner. It was on Long Island. While there, I went to the Met and of all things, they had a temporary exhibit on Winslow Homer. His paintings were brought from all over the world. And, serendipitously, there I was. It was astonishing!

The year I did Grant Wood we were traveling cross-country and our route took us through Cedar Rapids, Iowa where Wood lived. There’s a whole museum dedicated to the work of Grant Wood, Marvin Cone and other Midwestern painters of that school. I could go on with many other such “coincidences,” such as the year I did Frank Lloyd Wright. Another year I listened to symphonies of Tchaikovsky and read a biography on Tchaikovsky. I won’t bore you with more.

What made you decide on Shakespeare this year?

One reason is that I had lectures on audio books by the renowned critic Harold Bloom and by Prof. Clare Kinney, so I could listen to the lectures. And what good is listening to lectures on the Tragedies of Shakespeare if you’re not going to re-read the plays?

I also remembered something Loren Eiseley wrote years ago about Charles Darwin. He said that later in life Darwin picked up a Shakespeare play, began to read it, and discovered he’d lost the capacity to read and appreciate it. He’d been studying in such a focused way for so long, he had lost something. Imagine not being able to appreciate the breadth of the human condition. I don’t want to get to that place. So let’s delve back in.

I hadn’t read Shakespeare seriously since I was in college, and he has a lot to say to someone my age. It’s a shame when one only reads great literature in college and then only gives oneself to read the latest novel that’s been published and talked about on the New York Times best seller list. Should Brothers’ Karamazov or Crime and Punishment only be read by someone in college?

Have your children picked up your reading style?

Well, Chad’s the headmaster of a classical Christian school. We had a family gathering last Tuesday, and his daughter, who’s between her junior and senior year in high school, was reading on her own Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky. Joe was reading a recent translation of The Odyssey. All our daughters are certainly lifelong learners. Chelsea and her husband, Jason, are always reading something, listening to audio books. So—yes, I guess they have.

One difficulty is we have lost the Western tradition that flows from the Hebrews, Greeks and Romans that helped shape who we are as a people. It is systematically being rooted out of our culture, out of our educational system. It’s most unfortunate!

What book has stuck with you recently?

I read Michael Hyatt’s Your Best Year Ever at the beginning of the year. It’s a book about thinking strategically about the year ahead and the arenas of your life. I’d say it’s a book most Christians would benefit by.

If we’re talking spiritual books, what are the top ones you’d recommend to others?

That would depend on with whom I was talking. I have never read – what was the big book for so many years? Purpose Driven Life? I’ve never read The Purpose Driven Life because when it came out, I was trying to step away from the driven life. Gordon MacDonald wrote a book years ago in which he had a chapter that described the difference between the called life and the driven life. I was trying not to be driven. But that book has been very helpful to many people. I’m not trying to knock it.

I do delve into books that may be popular at the time, like What’s so Amazing About Grace by Philip Yancey. I’ve read books by Dallas Willard and Lewis Smedes. I guess on that level, I do read books that would be called semi-popular—Soul Keeping, for instance, by John Ortberg.

Do you get books from the library or buy? Print/Kindle?

I don’t get books from the library, though I used to check out audio books there. But I don’t have a cassette or CD player in my car anymore. It’s all digital. Sometimes I’ll get the book, and I’ll also have it on audio as I spend so much time on the road. I like to listen to books while I’m in the car. I recently read/listened to Paul: A Biography by N.T. Wright. That would be a good book, published recently, that someone might want to get.

Do you have a certain time of day you set aside for reading?

The difficulty with my life is no week is the same. The one normal thing is it’s abnormal. There’s very little rhythm to the week, to the month. One of the things I miss the most as a bishop is the rhythm of the church year. It’s often discarded for the Bishop’s visit. I like the church year, appreciate it, live in it. I still do, to some degree, but it’s not as easy to do now nor is it as fulsome as it was in parish life.

What advice would you give someone who says, “I’ve got no time to read… after work I’ve got personal email, Instagram, Facebook, TV…and I’m bushed by the end of the day. Reading takes too much energy.”

With modern technology one is not relegated to the programming of the networks. For instance, recently Allison and I watched the old Monk series. Have you ever watched those? They’re wonderfully entertaining. We watched all eight seasons. No commercials. We just had fun. One of our daughters said, “You guys need to have more fun!” I was kind of sad when we finished it.

There’s a great BBC Series on Dickens’ Bleak House—it’s outstanding. If you’re going to spend an hour watching television, make sure it’s good. Something lighthearted like Monk, which is wholesome, or educational, gripping, and soul broadening such as the Bleak House series or Sense and Sensibility; all those kinds of things are out there.

If you could have everyone in the Diocese reading one book this year (other than the Bible), what would it be?

I can’t imagine having one book everyone in the Diocese would read or should read. It depends on the person, but I would like to have most of our priests read a book like Your Best Year Ever—something to get them to think more strategically about how they live their lives, how they do their ministry, how they balance things, how they grow. Many Christians would benefit from reading Dr. Henry Cloud’s Nine Things You Simply Must Do.

I’m surprised to discover how many people just kind of drift through their life, the month, the year, whatever, without any strategic thinking about intellectual, emotional, or spiritual growth. This spring I listened to a lecture series on the Biblical Wisdom Literature and read again through this great tradition found in Job, Proverbs, wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, as well as the Psalms and Jesus. “Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the markets she raises her voice; at the head of the noisy streets she cries out.” And the Psalmist says, “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.” (Ps 90:12)

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Open the Door – It’s Christmas

Man standing by barn

A Christmas message from Bishop Mark Lawrence; December 24, 2018

“Close the door!” shouted my mother as I dashed down the back steps—wild runnin’ with my dog. “Close the door” she shouted again, raising her volume sharply. But I had a can of worms, a bag of hooks and a fishing pole, and was three houses down the alley by the time her sentence concluded. “Close the door, you weren’t born in a barn.” And she should know. It is a bit ironic that my mother spent the first 20 years of my life trying to get me to act like someone who wasn’t born in a barn, and I’ve spent almost fifty years since as a disciple of Someone who was.

It is on behalf of the One who was born in a barn that I write to you as a messenger who is searching for a particular sort of person. The type of person I’m looking for is probably not all that numerous. I am not sure a church E-news is the ideal place to find one. But this is where my soapbox is—so this is where I’m searching. The sort of person I am after is the seeker. It is not just the conscious seeker, however, for sometimes, people are seeking and they do not know it. G.K. Chesterton once said, “The man who knocks on the brothel door is really knocking for God.”

I suspect it was the same for him who had a message to deliver on that first Christmas night in Bethlehem. Messengers can show up anywhere. One showed up in a field near Bethlehem and found an unlikely audience in a bunch of sheepherders.

There were a lot of people in Bethlehem on that first Christmas Eve— and different types too—with different reasons for being there, just as there will be in your parish church this Christmas Eve.

Mary & Joseph were there. They were in Bethlehem right beside the Christ Child, as near to him as they could get. The Bible says, “Mary treasured all these things”—that is everything said about and happening around Jesus. She pondered these things in her heart—meditating upon them. It may be an alien experience for the typical seeker, but there are folk at church on Christmas for this same reason, to worship Jesus, to ponder his life and work, even to delight themselves in him—as Mary and Joseph must have delighted in him on the first Christmas Day. Pulling back the swaddling cloths and gazing at him. As Bishop Sheen noted years ago, when Mary and Joseph looked down at the Baby Jesus—“It was the first time anyone had ever looked down into heaven.”

There were Innkeepers in Bethlehem too. Most likely they lived there all their lives. If you had asked they would have told you that Bethlehem literally means “The House of Bread”. There is something beautifully fitting that he who referred to himself as the Bread of Life, and the Bread of Heaven should have been born in a village whose name means “The House of Bread.” The Innkeepers were in Bethlehem because it was their job—their duty. I suspect some of us will go to church for reasons not unlike this—because we see it as our duty. The real danger for us Churchgoers is that we can so easily make the Church a house of duty rather than a house of bread. Then we end up like the Innkeepers in Bethlehem doing our duty but never nourishing our souls on the Bread of life. It is sad when the Church becomes a lodge to run, an inn to manage, and not a House of Bread where we may feed our souls on the Bread of Heaven!

And, there was of course, the Shepherds. I confess they always interest me at Christmas. They represent the seekers for whom I have a message. The first Shepherds came to the stable barn in Bethlehem seeking the Baby Jesus because an Angel’s words brought them. Perhaps someone reading this message is like some Bedouin shepherd drawn by an angel of inner need. One young, raw-boned, hardy and handsome. Another winded, toothless, crusty and smelling too much of wine. To such as them, I am commissioned to bring message of hope and promise: “For to you is born a Savior who is Christ the Lord.” Not to nameless and faceless multitudes—but to you. Every child knows there is a world of difference between gifts under the tree and a gift given to her.

Some years ago a story appeared in the newspaper of a two-year-old boy named Steven Selfridge. Six dogs ravaged him three months before Christmas. He spent several months in a hospital trauma unit. The night before he would undergo another marathon plastic surgery he made his way to a paper fireplace where stockings hung and a voice bellowed—“Ho! Ho! Ho! Christmas is coming Steven and I’ll have gifts for you.” The voice was that of Steven’s surgeon playing Santa. The gift the doctor had in mind was a reconstructed face. That was good news to read—but not nearly so good of news for me as it was for Steven and his parents. There is a difference between generic good news and good news to you. Jesus Christ is God’s indescribable gift, wondrously wrapped, mysteriously and personally delivered.

You may not need reconstructive surgery but perhaps you need a new heart. Jesus said that sin and evil dwell in our hearts. The kind of reconstructed heart each of us needs only a Savior can bring.  The prophets of Israel promised such a day when God would deal once-and-for-all with that which is our biggest problem: the human heart. We are after all a riddle to ourselves and to others; “God’s problem children” in need a Savior.

So think again of those Shepherds out in the fields on that first Christmas night. It was not that they were miserable. Most likely they were not. At least not all the time. Much of that evening passed in the usual way, as much of life is passes in the usual way. A few words; a little bread; a little cheese; a little wine; a conversation over firelight: but no one spoke of his fears; no one spoke of his guilt; no one spoke of his sins. But when the Angel spoke to these Shepherds—“To you is born…a Savior…” each knew the struggle in his heart being addressed. Each knew what part of him cried out for a Savior. Just as you, perhaps in your quieter moments, know what part of you cries out to be set free, to be forgiven, to be fulfilled. Maybe like these Shepherds you are a seeker. Some seekers wait in lonely rooms with the background noise of a television, disillusioned, weary of life, and afraid of death— passively waiting for news. Others wonder why their lives feel so empty when their schedules are so full. Still others look for a deeper understanding of life’s meaning and purpose.

The truth is that at the essence of our lives we are made for God. Created for friendship with him. When that is not pursued; when we ignore or deny it; when we hide from him because of something we do not want to give up or don’t want him to change; when we attempt to fill our inner emptiness with things or possessions; with adventures no matter how exciting; with entertainment no matter how sophisticated; when we fill every corner of our lives with people—even family, friends, or lovers—but not God, it all ends feeling rather empty and purposeless. There is no emptiness as empty as a full schedule empty of meaning. A long life with no future.

So, I come with a message; the message the angel gave to the shepherds: “To you is born a Savior.” .What they did not know is how costly this salvation would be. The road from the manager to the cross was a journey of unspeakable suffering and immeasurable love. Still, the One who walked it has a message for us. Unlike my mother who called out to me, “Close the door, you weren’t born in a barn.” I say to you, “Open the door of your heart to One who was born in a barn and yet was the maker of all things; laid in a cattle trough yet Lord of heaven; rejected by men yet worshipped by Angels; small enough to hold yet great enough to adore; the One who was, and is and is to come! He humbles himself again to knock on the door of your heart. “Behold,” he says, “I stand at the door and knock and if anyone hears my voice, I will come in to him and sup with him and he with me.” Phillips Brooks lovely Christmas Carol eloquently witnesses to this:

How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given!
When God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.

 Let him fill your life with meaning, cover your past with the blanket of forgiveness, today with joy and peace, and give you a future filled with the hope of eternal life. Open the door—it’s Christmas!

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Thanksgiving—the Normal Christian Life

Farm in the fogPerhaps the faces were not as colorful, the voices so resonant or the rooms as bright as they remain in my memory. For the past is not merely what actually happened or what really was—it is also what we remember and how our memory has shaped our understanding of what we are and how things should be. Even now as another Thanksgiving holiday draws near a score of memories, some half-remembered, half-forgotten pictures march across the screen of my mind. The faces of relatives who gather for the family dinner; a few brown leaves hang tenaciously from stark branches; here and there a leaf, which Mr. Weatherspoon’s omnivorous rake somehow missed, dot his otherwise immaculate yard; and the ubiquitous fog—always it is foggy on Thanksgiving Day where I grew up. Continue reading

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Summer—When Living is for Now

little boy sitting on grassSamuel Barber begins his great oratorio, Knoxville: Summer of 1915 with James Agee’s suggestive words—“It has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently—talking gently, undulating in astral motion….” Front porches with rocking chairs or blankets on the grass on a summer night are less common for many of us these days.   Even fewer people seem to have heard Barber’s oratorio or read James Agee. But I guess most who have grown up in the south at least have heard from the song from Porgy and Bess:

“Summer time and the livin’ is easy. Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high. Your Daddy’s rich and your Momma’s good lookin’ so hush little baby, don’t you cry.”

What made me think of these memorable songs of summer is not the cultural calendar that marks the first day of summer as June 21st or the Memorial Day weekend, which for many opens the season. Frankly, it was the Church’s calendar, which marked the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after Pentecost as Ember Days. Ember Days are vestiges of the early centuries in the Church’s life as it evangelized an agrarian society. Some years ago I wrote on my blog of “Life’s Fallow Seasons”. It is the natural theme for the Winter Ember Days, which follow St. Lucy’s Day, December 13. There are also Spring and Fall Ember Days—for the seasons of seedtime and harvest—the sowing and reaping seasons of life.

The spring reminds us that there are seasons of life when we live for the future; that not every hour, day, or season of life is for now; when we realize the present needs to be the doorway for tomorrow. We realize during such seasons that today’s decisions, sacrifices, and duties will pay dividends in the future. A constant theme of teachers of the young or of financial advisors like Dave Ramsay. This is irrefutable wisdom and has far less to do with age then we sometimes realize. The American poet, Archibald McLeish once observed, “At eighty, you have to begin to look ahead.” Preparing for the future is as much for the elderly as for the young. An older couple arranging for their funerals or making out a will, less blinded perhaps from the illusions of the busy middle years of life, are in that moment living and planning for a tomorrow that is sure to come. Yet there can be danger in always looking ahead. We can be stuck in a perpetual mode of preparation. Always preparing for some tomorrow and never getting around to living for today.

friends standing in summer sunSummer Ember days remind us that there are days—even seasons—where life’s living is for now. While we know fall and winter will come—and we need to be prepared for such seasons—today isn’t always a day to prepare for them. Today is first and foremost a day to live. Today matters. It can be working, fishing, sitting and enjoying life—but it is for now. In today’s world we need to hear that somedays, some seasons are for living—not the reaping of the past—not sowing for the future but living for today. The man who takes a vacation so he can do his work better or the person who has a picnic on the 4th of July so he can work harder (or more efficiently) on July 5th has not yet understood what a picnic or holiday is. I have known some clergy over the years who did not take their vacation days. Frankly, sometimes they were not always the most effective priests. Not because they did not rest—but because they did not drink deeply enough of life.

Summer Ember Days and Sabbath bring a similar message to us. Philo, a Greek speaking Jew in first century Alexandria wrote in a defense of the Sabbath to his Greco-Roman peers: “It’s object is rather to give man relaxation from continuous and unending toil and by refreshing their bodies with a regularly calculated system of remissions to send them out renewed to their old activities….” This, however, as true as it is on one level is actually not the spirit of the Bible. In this defense of the Sabbath, “rest’ takes on a utilitarian purpose. Nevertheless, the Bible’s view of the Sabbath is not something we observe to enhance the efficiency of work—as if we are first and finally beasts of burden. As Jesus said, “The Sabbath is made for man not man for the Sabbath.” The great Jewish scholar, Abraham Heschel notes: “The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life…not for the purpose of enhancing the efficiency of [man’s] work. The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of the Sabbath.” The Summer Ember days along with the Sabbath remind us that today is a day to live. Life is now and now is for living.

Road in summer sunsetJesus took one look at his disciples freshly returned from their missionary adventures and said, “Come away by yourselves to a lonely place and rest awhile.” (Mark 6: 30-32) It was rest with the beauty of God’s creation; it was rest with those with whom they shared much of their lives; it was a rest away from the disorienting world; and it was a rest with Christ. It was a much-needed season for rest and for Sabbath. The traditional translation of our Lord’s teaching in Matthew 11:28-30 is so well known and we pass over it too quickly. Perhaps, Eugene Peterson’s rendering may help us hear afresh: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I will show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

Yes, the fallow season has its rest—the earth rests that we may rest—but it is a passive rest that waits and prepares for springtime and for sowing. The rest of summer is an active rest—that is it does not anticipate so much as it delights, enjoys, and is. Oddly enough, it often ends up shaping life more that we realize. This is not because it plans to; but almost because it doesn’t. Take it from one who has heard more eulogies than the average person. When grandchildren, nephews and nieces get up at a funeral or wake to share memories of the departed relative more often than not the memories they share and that shaped them are moments and experiences of some vacation, or weekend with their grandparents, great uncle or aunt. It wasn’t a time set aside or planned to be formative of the future or reflective of yesterday. It was intended only to be a time for now; for today; for the evening; a time of “rocking gently—and talking gently, undulating in astral motion….” and in the process it seems the moving stars inexorably shaped a future, a life, a child, anointing another with delight. Summertime—when the living is for now…when today and eternity matters!

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Seeking a Lenten discipline? Don’t be surprised at what you need

Ash Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Man in hammockDear Friends,

“O Happy Guilt” today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.  More often than not, when I served as a busy parish priest a glimpse of Lent right around the corner could fill me with dread.  But occasionally, in my later years, it brought a calmness not unlike reading a book on the spiritual life by Evelyn Underhill; or spying a bud opening on the Early Elberta Peach tree in the backyard; or a glance around a corner to see a long missed friend dropping by with some time to spare and an inclination to get caught up on one another’s lives.

I remember one Shrove Tuesday when a parishioner left a note in my mail slot, “Fr. Mark, when you get the time give me a call.  I need an appointment.  Time for a spiritual checkup.”  The handwriting didn’t look frazzled.  No trace of dreadfulness in the phrasing.  If any mood came from the note, it was anticipation—more akin to a visit with one’s travel agent than an appointment for a root canal.

Time for a spiritual checkup.  That’s what Ash Wednesday is.  And Lent, well, among other things, it is a spiritual shape-up plan for one’s Christian life; a godly housecleaning before a welcome visitor; a spring spading and planting of the garden; or even a long intimate walk with Christ.  Repentance, after all, once you commit yourself to it, usually ends in joy.

The Roman Emperor, Hadrian, was once accosted by an old woman, whom he brushed aside by saying he was too busy.  She replied, “Then you’re too busy to be emperor,” whereupon he stopped and listened to her.  I mention this anecdote because for all too many in the church as they move into the Lenten season the pace of their lives will quicken, and many will add to an already pressured life what they feel are the demands of a well observed Lent.

The outward forms of Lenten discipline are not spelled out in the prayer book with any specificity, nor should they be.  I suspect that if each of us went to a doctor of the spiritual life, as one goes to a physician for an annual checkup, the diagnosis, and subsequent prescription for our maladies would be quite different for each of us.  I suspect that in many cases we would not find the soul doctor’s orders some dreadful duty of denial, but a welcome relief that we would readily embrace.  I can easily imagine a devout, busy Christian exhorted by a doctor of the soul that what he or she needed for a Lenten discipline was some physical exercise; to keep Sabbath; to read a good novel; see a good movie once a week; or even to learn to laugh again.

One memorable spiritual master in Twentieth Century England was Fr. Hugh Maycock.  Connected with Cambridge from 1944-1952, and Oxford 1952-1970, he was a formative influence on many young scholars.  One of his former students, Kenneth Leech, in recounting what he learned from Fr. Maycock, noted two unusual disciplines:  The value of sleep and laughter.

Sleep and prayer are closely related.  Both call for slowing down, a relaxed condition, “an abandonment to trust.”  Many committed Christians today live their lives in a permanent state of semi-exhaustion.  To embrace a discipline of proper sleep would be spiritually helpful, a true preparation for the Sabbath rest of the people of God.  Then there is the importance of laughter.  Leech writes, “Laughter is necessary to our sanity:  a person with no humor is like an iron bridge with no give in it.  It is vital too that we learn to laugh at ourselves.”  Laughter has been shown to have therapeutic qualities for the mind and body.  It also has value for our life with the Lord.

So, how do you go about choosing a Lenten discipline?  Don’t just decide in knee-jerk fashion to give up chocolate, coffee, or some equally unfruitful undertaking.  Rather, seek the advice of a wise, discerning Christian friend.  Ask the counsel of a priest or “lay pastor.”  Prayerfully listen to God while in prayer or in church or out for a walk.  Just don’t be too surprised at what you hear.  It may be surprisingly delightful prescription, such as, “slow down,” “sleep more,” “laugh a lot!”  Of course, there are some who will need to hear, “get the lead out,” or “quit nursing your wounds,” or “ask me to help you forgive, and get on with your life.”

Certainly, I know the downside of the season as well as anyone.  There are Lenten hymns I don’t care for—some dirge like, others drab.  The Kyrie can’t compare with the Gloria—and mea culpa doesn’t yield itself to the full-throated praise of the heart, as does Alleluia!  Still I have to admit when the pall of purple or sackcloth finally gives way on Easter morning, it is like the end and the beginning of all things.  The packed car starting out for vacation; the tied-fly cast lightly on the water; the closing of a good book: the opening of a better one.

May a blessed Lent come your way,

+Mark Lawrence

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A Christmas Message from Bishop Lawrence

The Promise of Christmas: “Every Lock Must Answer to a Key”

“O come, thou Key of David, come, and open wide our heavenly home;
make safe the way that leads on high, and close the path of misery.”

Christmas KeyIn many adventure stories and great epics, there comes a telling moment when a door or a lock must be opened or all will be lost. Such a moment takes place in J.R.R.Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring when Gandalf, Frodo, Aragorn and the others come to the The Doors of Durin. Here the key that opens the door is a spoken word, Mellon: the Elvish word for “friend.”   In other stories, what the sojourners need to complete their journey is an actual key that when inserted, fits the lock, turns the tumblers, and the mysterious door or lock is opened.

This is akin to the idea that lies behind the fifth verse in the ancient Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” This well-loved hymn is based upon the O Antiphons; which are seven Latin prayers that the early church composed to prepare the faithful for Christmas. Each of these prayers takes up one of the mysterious titles the Church found in the Old Testament and attributed to Jesus the Messiah. These names are rooted in prophetic passages mostly from The Book of Isaiah. The verse quoted above regarding the Key of David is illustrative of this tradition.   It draws from two separate passages that reveal great human need and deep longing:

I will place on his shoulder the key to the House of David: he shall open, and no one shall shut; and he shall shut and no one shall open.” (Isaiah 22:22)                

“to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” (Isaiah 42:7)

Many people all around us today live in prisons of despair and gloom. The doors of life have shut them out from opportunities and dreams or shut them in to lives of misery and hopelessness. The Anglican priest and poet, Malcom Guite, has suggested that the mysterious titles of the Advent Antiphons may be an ideal way for us to open conversations with the seeker or agnostic. Such designations as our “Wisdom from on high,” “Light or Dayspring,” “Desire of Nations,” “Root of Jesse,” or this one I’ve chosen here, the “Key of David”—any of these may allow honest exchange with the secularist when our speaking too soon the name of Christ might only alienate. They might acknowledge they need wisdom to order their lives and show them the path of knowledge; or a light or dayspring to disperse gloomy clouds of depression or dark shadows of death; or perhaps they even yearn for the desire of nations and races to live in peace. Let us take the one I have noted above, the Key of David. Many people are looking for the key to success; or, perhaps, a key to live a happy life. Others need something or someone to unlock the addictive patterns of behavior that trouble them. To set them free from the prison of their past. To deliver them from bitterness, blame, guilt, or shame. To help them forgive and be forgiven—or to help in “the thousands natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” When the self-help projects and resolutions, or even their religious striving has failed or left them empty, what then? Time to remember the probing question Martin Luther posed for every preacher’s sermon—“Does he know anything about Sin and Death, the Devil or Judgement?”

Malcom Guite observes in his Advent-Christmas book, Waiting on the Word, that the sonnet he wrote for this Antiphon was addressing his own experience of depression:

“Even in the darkness where I sit
And huddle in the midst of misery
I can remember freedom, but forget
That every lock must answer to a key”

 Therein is the great message of Christmas that both the struggling secularist and the struggling Christian needs to hear—“every lock must answer to a key.” Even if the locked door or the chain that holds the prisoner in some dungeon would wish to resist, when the right word is spoken or the true key fits and the tumblers turn, the locked door must open. The one born in Bethlehem and lying in a manger, who shall bear the curse upon the cross, is the Key of David that unlocks every door of bondage. As St. Paul summarizes in the Letter to the Galatians, God not only unlocks, he swings the door wide open for the Spirit’s transforming freedom:

But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, Abba! Father! So in Christ you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir.” Galatians 4:4-7

 In the story of each of our lives, there will come a telling moment, maybe even many, when a door or lock must be opened or the path will be thwarted and all will be lost. We shall then need to trust in the Key of David, even Jesus Christ, who unlocks the door to God’s provisions and mercy and shuts the door on darkness and misery.

O Come, O key of David, Come. You open and no one can shut; you shut and no one can open.

I still remember an Advent Sunday 25 years ago at St. Stephen’s, McKeesport, Pa. I noticed Bernie out of my peripheral vision as the acolytes, choir, chalice bearers and clergy processed up the side aisle and then down the center aisle to the chancel steps. As acolytes, choir and the clergy took their places I stood at the Rector’s Prayer Desk. Bernie was standing, hymnal-in-hand, just a few pews back on the lectern side of the church where he and his wife Joan usually sat.   As we sang verse five, “O come, thou Key of David, come and open wide our heavenly home;” I glanced over and saw Bernie collapse, and slump abruptly in the pew. As the singing continued, his wife assisted him unobtrusively out of the sanctuary, and accompanied him to the hospital, where he died that evening from cardiac arrest. Joan and Bernie were more than parishioners they were also friends. So in the midst of grief and loss at Christmastide, we took solace in this, that Bernie knew this Key of David, as did his wife, Joan. They knew the One who delivers us from sin and death, and the fear of judgement—the Key that unlocks the door and opens wide our heavenly home. This is but one of the many great promises of the Christ Child who was, and is, and shall be. He is the Key to which every lock must answer and every door swing wide! Our Emmanuel—God with us, O Come let us Adore Him, Alleluia!

Merry Christmas,
The Right Reverend Mark Joseph Lawrence

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I am lashed to Christ and lashed to you. Writing following SC Supreme Court ruling

Bishop Mark LawrenceDear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

“I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.”  Psalm 16:8

Thursday evening Allison and I returned to Charleston.  We were on vacation with family in California when the South Carolina Supreme Court issued the long awaited ruling.  Obviously, it was not the favorable ruling we were seeking.  Therefore, we returned home as soon as possible.  Frankly, it is a grievous decision for us on so many levels.  Perhaps you, as do I, have to fight despondency as I consider its many ramifications for us as a diocese, and especially for our congregations and clergy. For make no mistake—if this ruling stands how we carry out God’s mission and the ministries he has given us will dramatically change.  You may already have received from previous diocesan communications , the diocesan website or from local news, the gist of the court’s conflicted 77-page opinion. Therefore, I will not rehearse it here.  My purpose is more personal.

Today, thousands of Christians around the world are holding you, the congregations of the diocese, as well as our clergy and bishop in prayer.  Even more specifically, yesterday Anglicans on this continent were lifting us in constant prayer.  As you may know, we recently voted as a diocese to affiliate with the Anglican Church in North America, and this summer their Provincial Assembly joyfully received us as full members therein. What a comfort it is to know that our Archbishop, the Most Reverend Foley Beach, asked the bishops, clergy and laity of the ACNA to pray and fast yesterday on our behalf.

Many of those praying and fasting have in the past walked away from their church buildings, buildings they built and maintained, and in some cases, where their families worshiped for centuries. Some left by choice; others after years of litigation. I do not mention the latter, however, as if the legal issues in our case are fully resolved. They most certainly are not, though they are clearly challenging. Rather, I want you to know the sort of Christians who are praying for us; and while holding us in prayer, many are fasting. They have paid a price to follow their Lord. We are part of a provincial body of Anglican Christians and they are walking this hard road with us. Their fellowship at such a time is greatly comforting to me and I hope it is for you.

I also want to tell you what our next steps are. First, this Monday, August 7, the Standing Committee and I will meet with our lead legal counsel, Mr. Alan Runyan. I assure you that our legal team is looking at the various options before us.  Second, this Wednesday I will meet with the deans of the various diocesan deaneries, and that afternoon, Mr. Runyan, Canon Lewis and I will meet with all the clergy of the diocese. Please keep us in your prayers.  Many important decisions are before us and we want to be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ and walk in step with the Holy Spirit.

Finally, I am honored to be your bishop, and, God willing, I will remain so as long as you and he will have me.  I have been deeply encouraged by Psalm 16 where David, as psalmist, confesses that he has no good apart from God. The LORD is his chosen portion, his cup and his lot.  Yet in verse 3, he also acknowledges that along with finding comfort in God in the midst of dreadful setbacks he also finds encouragement from the people he serves:  “As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight.”  Serendipitously, as if to illustrate this truth to me, when Allison and I arrived in the Charleston airport late Thursday afternoon walking to get our luggage we saw two familiar faces— members of St. Michael’s and the diocese—Dr. Alston Kitchens and her husband, Greg.  They greeted us with smiles and hugs, and assurances of their prayers. They embodied many of you; the ones with whom we have cast our lot.  Ten years ago, when I was going through a difficult consent process as your Bishop-Elect I wrote, “I have lashed myself to the mast of Christ and will ride out this storm wherever the ship of faith will take me.”  As you know, it brought me here.

Someone, clearly pleased with this judicial ruling, recently sent me an email sardonically asking when I was leaving town.  I wrote back, “I’m not leaving town.”  I am lashed to Christ and lashed to you.  We will see in the midst of this present storm where the ship of faith will take us.  Ironically, I do not suspect that means leaving town, regardless of what else may change. This, dear friends, is what I know and want to remind you of—in favorable and unfavorable rulings from human courts, Christ is still Lord, he will come again to judge the living and the dead.  His kingdom will have no end.

Yours in Christ,

Bishop Mark Lawrence's signature

Mark Joseph Lawrence

XIV Bishop of South Carolina
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Homes for Christmas

 

Homes for Christmas

There are many words associated with Christmas.  A word association would yield various responses such as Christmas—presents, candles, tree, shopping, carols, Jesus.  But I’d be surprised if in a group of twenty people at least one didn’t say—“home”.   Christmas is one holiday most people want to celebrate at home—just ask one of our servicemen or women.  The popular song of the WW II era expresses this sentiment well:

I’ll be home for Christmas/You can count on me

I’ll be home for Christmas/If only in my dreams.

Even among those who are not concerned about being “home” for the holidays, chances are they at least want to be with family or close friends.  Certainly the heart of the Christmas message is not about home or even family, yet, when the angels first announced their message to the shepherds, “Fear not … for to you is born a savior who is Christ the Lord”, the breathless Bedouins did in fact find the Holy Family there around the manger.   While perhaps not a house or an inn, the stable was a home—at least for the night!

Of Joseph, we see only vague shadows.  He seems to have shunned the spotlight.  A righteous man, discreet and compassionate, he was by trade a carpenter or as some New Testament scholars suggest, a “house builder”.  More importantly, if Jesus and his stepbrother James (Acts 1:14; 15:13; I Cor. 15:7) are any indication, he was a “home-builder”, which is what we so desperately need from men today.  We know a little more about Jesus’ mother, Mary.  Of her great, self-less obedience to God’s awesome call there is no doubt.  Her holiness, purity of heart and humility are evident whenever she appears on the pages of Holy Scripture.  Still, glimpses into the life of the holy family are rare.

Three qualities, however, seem evident.  First, there was a firm, but loving authority in the home.  This can be seen in the one episode where there was a misunderstanding between Jesus and his parents. (Luke 2:41ff)  A second familial practice was implicit in this event:  they were faithful in keeping holy days, as well as in Sabbath and synagogue worship.  Thirdly, both Mary and Jesus demonstrated a deep intimacy with the Hebrew Scriptures.  Great portions of the Law, Prophets and Psalms appear to have been memorized.  We might like to know more about their daily lives, but this much we may safely assume:  There was a strong, positive and loving discipline; a sure trust in God’s providential care; a commitment to regular worship; and a deep and practical knowledge of the Scriptures.

How such qualities are needed today in our homes—where

  • the Bible is read and children hear and see their parents reading and praying the Scripture
  • prayers are said as individuals and as families
  • parents and children go to church and worship together
  • God’s name is spoken with reverence and where his teachings are believed
  • wholesome and proper authority is respected

It was from this kind of home that Jesus went out to minister to a hurting world.  For those of us who are parents or grandparents is there any better gift we can give our children or grandchildren than a decision to model our home and family in this way?  Perhaps you’re a young couple just beginning your marriage or recently engaged.  Decide now to keep your Bible nearby and read.  Say prayers together (the Prayer book has Family services for this) and attend worship together.

During Christmas some homes come under added stress.  This is true for those already torn by excessive arguments, marital struggles, addictions, unruly children, busy schedules, or un-forgiveness, bitterness, and nursed resentments.  Perhaps through God’s grace the greatest gift one can give a husband or wife, parent or child is the gift of forgiveness, a clean slate and a rekindled, loving relationship.  This is one of the gifts the Christ Child can uniquely bring—for he was born to save his people from their sins. (Matthew 1:21)

This is also a time to remember those whose homes are broken.   A divorce has shattered the dreams that once united two people; a single parent now struggles to do what even two parents sometimes find too demanding.  We should not forget that even Mary came one dream away from being a single parent. (Matthew 1:18ff) In yet another home, a widow makes her way in a now lonely house.  How important it is to remember that Mary and Joseph shared the joy of the baby Jesus with the aging Simeon and the widowed Anna. (Luke 2:22ff)  They were brought into the glow and circle of Christ’s family and so the Church should do the same today for those who live alone as we share our lives and our homes.

Finally, we should remember there are many who are homeless—political and religious refugees, war-scarred, battle-wearied, and hungry www.persecutedchurch.com —some in Iraq, Iran, Syria, or in Egypt and Ethiopia where we have diocesan partnerships.  These are places where the gospel was first heard and where the Holy Family found refuge and now where the Church hangs on by a thread of hope and prayers of the saints.  Let us remember them at our Christmas Eucharist and throughout this Christmastide.

It is a wonderful gift to be home for Christmas, or to be with family and friends.  It is even a greater blessing to have Christ and the joy of Christmas in our family, our friendships and our homes.

A blessed Christmastide to you and yours,

+Mark Joseph Lawrence

XIV Bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina

 

 

 

 

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You Matter to God—Mind, Body and Heart

In condensing three 45-minute teachings given to some 400 plus men of the Diocese of South Carolina I have found it necessary not only to leave out many precepts but even more reluctantly the illustrations that gave it whatever flame and power it had to grip the mind and heart with truth. Nevertheless it cannot be helped—what is offered is but a skeleton. The theme of the day was—You Matter to God—Your Mind Matters, Your Body Matters and Your Heart Matters.

Your Mind Matters

Man thinking

“What the heart desires, the will chooses and the mind justifies.”

Donald Coggan, the 101st Archbishop of Canterbury noted that “The journey from the head to the heart is the longest and most difficult we know.” I would hasten to add it is also one of the most important we shall ever make. It is a journey some never begin and others abandoned long before it is finished. What makes it important is that it is the road we travel with God—one he delights for us to make. Jesus when asked by one of the religious leaders of his day “What is the greatest commandment?” answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” St. Paul writing to early Christians in Rome admonished the believers to not “Be conformed to this world (this age), but be transformed by the renewal of your minds.” The great teachings of the Bible and the Christian faith—such as the Creation, Revelation, the Fractured human condition, along with God’s Redemption, Judgment and Eternity all imply that we have the duty to think, and to act upon what we think and know. To be sure our minds just as our bodies and our hearts have partaken of what Christian theologians refer to as the fall. The result of this participation is that there is a fracture not unlike fault lines across a geographical region. It runs through our minds so that we do not always think rightly. It runs through our bodily appetites and desires so that we don’t always desire rightly. And it runs through our hearts so that we don’t always “feel” or emotionally desire rightly. Yet this gives us no reason to retreat from thought. Rather it is a motivation to avail ourselves of what God has revealed and think carefully and deeply about it. As the Anglican theologian and statesman, John Stott wrote some forty years ago in a marvelous short book entitled, Your Mind Matters, “Faith is not an illogical belief in the improbable—faith is a reasoning trust in the character and promises of God.”

Often when I meet with the new members I am confirming or receiving into the Church I remind them of what the Anglican reformers were keen to teach—that “What the heart desires, the will chooses and the mind justifies.” That is, what the heart gives itself to think about, meditate upon, or yield to, sooner or later the will chooses; and once the will has chosen what the heart desired the mind will go to work to justify what the heart desired and the will chose.

A contemporary Christian writer and preacher, Tim Keller, has put it this way: “Whatever captures the heart’s trust and love also controls the feelings and behavior. What the heart most wants the mind finds reasonable and the will finds doable.” This may at first blush suggest to the reader that the heart is more important than the mind. However this fails to take into account an important truth, namely that “the good which the mind cannot discover, the will cannot choose, nor the affections cleave to.” (John Owen) Thus we are back to the Christian’s mind being able to understand what God has revealed so that the heart can yearn for that which is eternal and gloriously good. Once the mind has received the greater good that God has revealed the heart can then yearn for, the will can then through God’s grace choose, and the mind can find imminently reasonable and therein cooperatively embrace. Indeed, God renews our minds as we allow his Word and his Spirit to form and shape our thoughts and imaginations and thereby gain a Spirit-formed mind. As we study God’s Word and reflect upon what He has revealed his Holy Spirit both humbles and expands our mind bringing an understanding that comforts us even as it challenges us; strengthens us even as it tears down and uproots our pride.

Your Body Matters

Man doing push ups

Since God chose to give us physical bodies we are not to despise, neglect, or see them as inferior to the mind or the heart. Body and Person are interchangeable.

The Psalmist declares of God: “With your very own hands you formed me; now breathe your wisdom over me so I can understand you.” (Psalm 119:73) Then in Psalm 139 we come across these well-known words: “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made….” The great theologian, St. Augustine of Hippo, summarized well this wonder that we too often neglect: “Men go abroad to wonder at the height of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motion of the stars; and they pass by themselves without wondering.”

Since God chose to give us physical bodies we are not to despise, neglect, or see them as inferior to the mind or the heart. Body and Person are interchangeable. We are not a mere soul with a body or a body with a soul. Certainly Jesus suggested the body was secondary to the soul and yet we should remember that he spent much of his ministry healing people’s bodies or to say it more correctly, healing them. Both our minds and our resurrected bodies are destined for eternity.

Nevertheless, the body, though wonderfully made, shares in the fracture of the fall. Its desires and appetites can lead us astray just as much as the desires of the heart or the wrong thinking of the mind. As a pastor I’ve noticed through the years that students who are walking with God while in high school too often fall away while in college. In my experience this usually has more to do with yielding to the appetites of the body—excessive drinking, partying, sexual experimentation, and the like, than with intellectual doubts—at least to begin with. But of course what was desired by body and heart and chosen by the will needed at some point to enlist the mind to justify. When we are led by a sin darkened mind “the bodily passions war against us and so lead us into sin”— but the body guided by a renewed mind can be used for great good—

So what do the Scriptures teach us regarding our bodies?

  • We are to present our bodies as a living sacrifice…. (Romans 12:1)
  • We are taught not to yield or give over any part of our bodies as instruments of sin—eyes to pornography, bodily members to inappropriate actions…. (I Cor 6:13)
  • Our bodies are actually members of Christ and as such belong to him—and if married to our spouse. (I Corinthians 6:19)
  • Our bodies are “temples” literally indwelt by the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 6:20)
  • We are expected to glorify God in our bodies (I Corinthians 6:20)
  • We are to become students of our bodies, knowing how to control them in honor

(I Thessalonians 4:4)

  • We are to recognize that physical exercise/training is of some value (I Timothy 4:8)

Your Heart Matters

It is all too common for us to give intellectual assent or belief in Jesus Christ and in the gospel but to actually set our hearts on someone or something else for our sense of worth or life’s value. The head may then be in one place and the heart in another. All heart and no head brings us one set of problems; all head and no heart brings us quite another. What

Man and woman holding hands

All heart and no head brings us one set of problems; all head and no heart brings us quite another.

is the Heart? Biblically speaking the heart is our inner center—the inner person where our emotions and will reside. It is “…the spring of all our desires, motives and moral choices.” It is here that many spiritual and moral battles are fought and won or fought and lost. Why does it matter? Along with Jesus’ teaching that we are to love God with all our mind he also references the commandment to love God with all our heart. “Man” said God to the prophet Samuel when he was sent to anoint David (“a man after God’s own heart”) to replace King Saul “looks on the outside of a person but God looks on the heart.” “Blessed are the pure in heart they shall see God” declared Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. “God searches the heart” wrote St. Paul. Elsewhere he notes that God shines in our hearts with the light that comes from Jesus. The Book of Proverbs admonishes to “Keep vigilant watch over your heart, that’s where life starts” or as another translation puts it: “Watch over your heart with all vigilance for from it flow the springs of life.” To watch over or keep the heart is to protect our hearts by God’s grace and Spirit from the influences that might jeopardize our integrity. It is also to grow in our capacity to understand others, to care for people, to seek after God and follow his will. Our minds often reason but our hearts are needed to understand. For in the midst of life’s challenges the heart can be bruised. “Insults have broken my heart so that I am in despair.” (Psalm 69:30) Thus all too often it is in the heart that resentments and bitterness take root. But as we open our hearts to God he pours his Spirit into us to heal and to reshape or re-program us. Indeed, St. Paul prays for the early Christians in Ephesus and elsewhere that God will enlighten the eyes of their hearts to see what God has called them to and to be strengthened in the inner person that Christ may dwell in their hearts.

Life’s Great Journey

Hiker staring at mountains

One of the greatest of all journeys is the journey with God from the head to the heart.

Our lives are often filled with many journeys; some across diverse habitats and landscapes or into foreign or exotic lands. But one of the greatest of all journeys is the journey with God from the head to the heart; it courses through mind, body and emotions. It is as Archbishop Donald Coggan noted “…the longest and most difficult that we know.” Yet perhaps the most important we shall ever make. It begins when at God’s call we say “Yes” and take the next step. You may find, then, as did John Wesley, quite by surprise, your heart “strangely warmed.”


This article first appeared in the Carolina Compass. It is reprinted with permission. 

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