Before Worrying, Consider….

Swallows on a telephone wire by Hassan Pasha, UnsplashRecently I finished re-reading Mary Oliver’s Owls and Other Fantasies, a book of poetry and essays about birds—hawks, hummingbirds, herons, and a dozen others. It reminded me of a day in the middle of May twenty years ago when swallows arrived en masse in my neighborhood in California. I first noticed them on a Friday morning; it was my day off. They flit above the broad street separating our house from our neighbors. As I studied their activities, there seemed to be a question as to where they would light. They put little daubs of mud on the wall of the west side of our two-story house, high up near the eaves of the roof, and perched temporarily in what from below appeared a defiance of gravity. I peered around the corner several times during the day to see this wondrous sight; their flattened bodies spread to the wall as if hit in mid-flight and stuck on a diesel truck’s radiator.

Evidently, something about the site must have appealed to them for I went out a week later and several mud nests adorned the high places under the eaves. It was a wise choice to build their mud nests where they were shielded from the afternoon heat yet could glean the vesperal glow of the setting sun. It made our back yard, which I thought resembled already an aviary, almost a small conservancy. Now when I had a poor Sunday preaching I could sit on the bench in our Mediterranean garden and emulate St. Francis preaching to the birds. I do not suppose the swallows knew I was a priest, any more than they were familiar with the words of Psalm 84:

The sparrow has found her a house
and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young;
By the side of your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God

Maybe our heavenly Father sent them to remind me of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount: Therefore, I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body what you shall put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing: Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Mt. 6:25-26

In one of her poems Mary Oliver writes, “How important it is walk along, not in haste but slowly/looking at everything and calling out Yes! No! … To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.”  This is especially true if what we seek is an attentive life with God in the midst of a world that distracts us with busyness and fears. As Leighton Ford suggests, we need to learn to discern God’s presence in all things.

I share this that we may learn to trust in the Father’s providential care—especially in those matters that lie beyond your capacity to change or control. The next time you grow anxious, stop, quiet your heart, and prayerfully consider the birds of the air, the heron standing ever so still in the shallows and your heavenly Father’s providence over even the sparrow that falls to the ground, or small daub of mud upon which the swallow deftly and peacefully rests from her darting flight.  

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A Lenten Discipline for a Shuttered Season

Open Bible, Photo by Timothy EberlyLent begins today, and as the effects of this pandemic continue to shutter and mask so much of life, I search about for a fruitful Lenten discipline to embrace.  I found mine from last Sunday’s gospel reading. The Transfiguration narrative (Mark 9:2-9) has left me like the disciples longing to see Jesus alone and upon hearing the voice from heaven—“This is my beloved Son”—to listen to him. To see Jesus, to really see him is to follow him. To listen to him is to obey him. That surely gets us to the heart of Lent, to taking up one’s cross, and following Jesus to his.

The liturgy of the church teaches us that a holy Lent is observed “…by self-examination and repentance, by prayer, fasting, and alms-giving; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”  (BCP 2019 p. 544)  All of which can be done even during a pandemic. One practice particularly helpful for seeing and listening to Jesus in a shuttered and masked season of life is the last mentioned in the invitation from the Prayer book—reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.

In the middle years of the 1550s, Princess Elizabeth was held under guard on Queen Mary’s orders. She had been moved from her confinement in the Tower in London to Woodstock, a dilapidated hunting lodge of her late illustrious father, Henry VIII. It was a cold and wet estate even in the summer, and as the season gave way to autumn, grew unbearable even for those servants the suspicious Queen had charged to watch her half-sister. Elizabeth, who seemed to have much time on her hands for rumination, removed as she was from the intellectual, cultural, and social pursuits she found so alluring, did have at least one book to console her. Carolly Erickson, in The First Elizabeth, tells us “an English translation of St. Paul’s Epistles that belonged [at the lodge] has been preserved.” In it, on a blank space she wrote a passage that gives us a glimpse of her meditative life.

“I walk many times into the pleasant field of the Holy Scriptures, where I pluck up the goodly some herbs of sentences by pruning, eat them by reading, chew them by musing, and lay them up at length in the high seat of memory by gathering them together; that so having tasted the sweetness I may the less perceive the bitterness of this miserable life.”

On the silken corners of the book were various mottos that she embroidered with her own hands: “Heaven my Fatherland”, “Christ the goal of life” and “Blessed is he who reading the riches of scripture turns those words into deeds.”  There was also a star of gold with the inscription in Latin, “Tenacious virtue overcomes all, Elizabeth the Captive.” With her life in constant threat by the Queen’s disfavor and jealous fear, removed from the various things of the court she found so stimulating, she may well have given way to despair. Instead, she gained strength from God’s grace as she read, meditated upon, and memorized, through rumination, the sacred scriptures. In silence and isolation, her capacity for tenacity and inner counsel deepened.

As events proved, it was to be one of the last times in her long and eventful life she would be left so alone with her own counsel and meditation. Not that she became saintly, but she did become a woman of shrewd and expansive intelligence, whose competence to listen to counsel, while keeping her own, is justly renowned.

Too often, we chafe at our life circumstances, not knowing the end of life from the beginning, reckoning neither the time nor the season. Wisdom and prudence, however, is harvesting from each season the fruit or grain that is there. The future Queen Elizabeth seemed intuitively to know what time it was even as a young women in her early twenties, reading, chewing, and memorizing the scriptures making sweet a bitter and disappointing season of her life. May a similar grace pervade this season of ours as we take up the scriptures—perhaps for a Lenten walk in “the pleasant field” of the Gospel of Mark (the gospel assigned for this lectionary year) with the goal of seeing Jesus alone that we might follow him; and listening to him, that we might obey him.

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Christmas Eve – A Life Remembered

“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ….” Titus 2:11-13

Joshua Christopher Davidson first saw the light of day in December 1922, the third child of Jack and Helen Davidson. He was born at his parents’ home on Evans Avenue, and so close to midnight that no one could ever say if he was born on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. He was baptized on the sixth day of January 1922 at St. Stephen’s Church on 8th Avenue near Walnut Street in McKeesport, Pennsylvania. He spent his first Christmas Eve 1923 at home with his mother and siblings, while his father, Jack, and his paternal grandparents attended the Midnight Communion service at St. Stephen’s.

Pocket knife1933  Josh was 11 years old. The Depression Years. In the spring of the year, FDR began his famous Fireside Chats. And although the average worker was making 60% less than the pre 1929 wages, the hope of the New Deal had somehow lifted peoples’ spirits in the Monongahela Valley. Young Josh sang that Christmas Eve in the Boys Choir. It was his first Christmas Eve at the Midnight Service—and if you had asked him years later, he would have told you it was the best Christmas of his childhood. When he opened his present on Christmas morning, he grinned from ear to ear. It was the pocketknife he had been admiring all fall every time he went into the five & dime. He spent the lion’s share of the day whittling a piece of wood into a miniature manger for the baby Jesus.

1943  Josh was not home for Christmas Eve. He was to turn 21 near Cassino, Italy in the middle of a horrible war. He was an infantryman in the 5th Army under Lt. General Mark Clark. They landed in Salerno in the late summer, marched north up the Italian Peninsula meeting heavy German resistance at every turn. When they reached Cassino, 75 miles south of Rome, the German fortifications halted them to stand still. They had been there since early November and had seen some of the worst fighting of the entire war. In fact he had seen such horrible suffering, and so many of his fellow soldiers had been mangled or died, he wondered if he even believed in God any longer. When the army chaplain announced Christmas Eve Communion for the troops, Josh wasn’t even planning to attend. But while he was arranging his duffle bag, he reached in his pocket and felt the pocketknife he was given ten years before and thought of Christmas back home. Mother and Father would be saying special prayers for him at the Candlelight service at St. Stephen’s—Ruth, his high school sweetheart kneeling beside them. So he went.

The chaplain spoke on the Promise of the Angels: “Glory to God in the highest and peace, good will toward men! Peace — maybe you soldiers find it hard to believe in peace. I tell you men there never will be peace, true peace, and lasting peace until the Son of God is born inside the hearts of men. For when Jesus is born in a man’s heart, that man is born again and the peace of God flows into him. You can have that peace tonight, a peace with God that will last forever.” At an altar call Josh went forward and as he prayed the prayer of invitation he felt a strange warmth fill his heart—it seemed he understood for the first time the blessing from the Book of Common Prayer, “The Peace of God, which passeth all understanding,  keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God….”

1953  He was 31. How dramatically the world had changed in ten years and so had his life. Ike was president. The Eisenhower years had the economy booming. After the war, Josh returned to McKeesport, married Ruth and landed a job with G. C. Murphy Company. He and Ruth had their first child, Sandy, who was 4 years old and John who was one, and another child on the way. They were busy buying their first home up on Riverview Avenue. He had heard Bing Crosby’s recent hit, “Silver Bells” playing in the store so many times he knew it all by heart. On Christmas Eve, after he closed the store at five, he and the family went to his parents for dinner. Ruth then took the children home and he went with his mother and father to the Midnight service at St. Stephen’s. As he knelt in the pew after receiving communion, the pocketknife slid in his pocket and he remembered that night 10 years before in Cassino, Italy, how the Lord had come into his life. Now he had a wife, two children, a good job and his own home. “Thank thee, Lord” just didn’t seem adequate—a paltry thing to say. In the candlelight the words rang out, “Silent Night, Holy Night, all is calm all is bright.”  Quietly he prayed, “I give you my life, Lord….” hardly knowing what he meant by the words. When he got home he trimmed the tree, unloaded the tricycle for Sandy, and looked out through the back window under the soft glow of the Christmas Tree lights. He saw all of Christy Park below the river’s bluff. All was calm; all was bright. God was good!

1963 Now 41 he wondered how it had happened that more people called him Mr. Davidson than Josh. Sandy was 14, John 11, Rick 9. Ruth taught Sunday School, he helped with the Boy Scout Troop at church, and Church School Camp. Life seemed pretty good. Though he sensed there were strange changes afoot in the world. Just a little over a month earlier John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. What would come next? He was a bit frustrated with the church, even though he was a vestryman. He liked the more fiery sermons of Billy Graham and lobbied for more evangelism. Yet come Christmas Eve, there was no place he’d rather be than St. Stephen’s.

1973  At 51 he wondered how life had grown so complicated. They had moved across the Boston Bridge. His son, John, after a brief stint in Vietnam was attending Penn State. Rick who still lived at home had given Josh and Ruth a scare by getting into drugs, but now he was working at the Duquesne Mill. Since his father died two years earlier, he and Ruth spent Friday evenings taking his mother shopping. Ruth had taken a part-time job at a jewelry store at the Eastland Mall. And so he left the office early on Christmas Eve day to pick up Sandy and her husband from the airport. They were living in Atlanta. Sandy was now eight months pregnant and how shocked he was to see his daughter looking so round and maternal. He had been so busy this year it was not until he reached in his pocket for his pocketknife cutting the airline tags off their luggage that all the normal emotions of Christmas began to reach through his hectic schedule.

He was a Lay Reader that evening at the Candlelight Service and when he stood to sing the sequence hymn, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, the words of the hymn almost knocked him over—O ye, beneath life’s crushing load/Whose forms are bending low/O rest beside the weary road/and hear the angels sing!  “Oh, Lord,” he prayed, “I’ve been so busy lately; I’ve hardly had time for You!”

1983  He was 61 and a full-fledged grandfather. Six grandchildren. They didn’t sit in the family pew that Christmas Eve. His granddaughter was singing in the Junior Choir at the 7:00 p.m. Family Christmas Service and Ruth had insisted on sitting up front. He complained but in truth didn’t mind. He had experienced a special touch of God’s grace that year, “A new freedom in the Spirit” is how he described it to any who would listen. He loved to hear and talk about the “Joy of the Lord.” He had even started raising his hands in worship at the occasional hymn and the Doxology. After taking an early retirement he even thought of becoming a vocational deacon until he felt led to start a local chapter of the Brotherhood of St. Andrew as well as a men’s bible study and fellowship group. What really made the evening service for him that year was when an old work associate, whom he had long been witnessing to and inviting to church showed up at the worship that evening.

1993  Seventy-one. The first Christmas in 47 years that he didn’t spend with his wife Ruth. She died in late spring from cancer, which she had been struggling with for two years. Josh wasn’t even going to put up the Christmas decorations but his daughter-in-law, Sue, John’s wife, had come by with their two teenagers and a freshly cut tree, saying, “We’re not leaving until the tree is up!” Sandy and her husband, Kent, were flying in from Georgia. All were going to John and Sue’s for Christmas Eve dinner. Josh thought he would just drive home but the kids (who were hardly kids now) insisted he go with them to St. Stephen’s. It was a cold snowy night. He got out of the car, put his hands in his pockets, steeled his heart and will, and headed in like a soldier going into battle. It wasn’t until he went to sit in the pew that he realized he had been clutching his pocketknife tightly in his hand as if somehow this would keep him from breaking down. The choir sang Handel’s “And the Glory of the Lord.” “Maybe,” he thought, “God’s glory can be seen in the suffering of God’s people if they submit faithfully to his will. What was it the Apostle Paul had written ‘I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us’.”

2003  Josh was 81. It would be his last Christmas. He spent Christmas Eve at a personal care home watching the service on TV from St. Thomas Church in New York City. On Christmas Day his granddaughter Megan and her eleven-year-old son, Jonathan Riccomini, visited him in the late afternoon. “Anyone drop by today, Pap Pap?” “Just a man from the church with a poinsettia.” “Did you know him?” “No. He was a new member of the Brotherhood of St. Andrew. You know I started that some 20 years….” “I know, Pap Pap,” she said interrupting him. She had heard the story so many times before. Josh looked at his great grandson. “How old are ya?” “Eleven, sir.” “Are you in that confirmation class down at the church?” “Yah.” “See that drawer under that there poinsettia? Go over there, get that pocketknife and bring it here. That’s it.” He clutched it one last time and then gave it to the boy. “I’ve had this knife for 70 years. Every time I put my hand around this knife I feel God’s mighty hand holding me. It’s yours now. You take it. And whenever you hold it you think of your great grand pap and the great God Almighty.” As they left, the hues from the setting winter’s sun shone golden on the windowpane. Josh said to himself under his breathe, “God is good, God is good.”

Joshua Christopher Davidson died on February 2, 2004. It was a cold sunny winter’s day when they took his casket to the graveside at the McKeesport-Versailles Cemetery. As they prayed the Lord’s Prayer, a cold gust of wind hit his family hard in the face. Young Jonathan Riccomini thought he was going to burst into tears. But he reached in his pocket, wrapped his young fingers around the old pocket knife and as he did he felt for the first time the mighty hand of God wrap warmly around him. When he came to he looked up only to see the priest’s hand raised and saying the blessing, “May his soul, and the souls of all the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.  Amen.”


*This was a sermon preached on Christmas Eve at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in McKeesport, PA where I was rector for thirteen years.  Joshua Christopher Davidson (whose fictional name speaks volumes) is not a real person. He has lived, however, in the lives of those parishioners I was honored to pastor during those years in the Mon Valley, and who allowed God’s grace to train them “… to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope…”

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The Marriage of the Virgin

Until I was standing before Corrado Giaquinito’s Marriage of the Virgin, I had never thought about the wedding of Joseph and Mary. Certainly, I had read countless times in Matthew’s Gospel how Joseph took Mary to be his wife, but of the wedding, I had given little attention. Seeing the Italian painter’s rendition changed that. He portrays Joseph looking humbled, stooped—as if bent by life—weighed down by burdens. Mary, conversely, stands upright, aglow and with an otherworldly gaze, illustrative of a graceful abandonment to a divine providence. 

The Marriage of the VirginBehind them stands a Hebrew priest replete with regal robes, bearded dignity, and wonderment at the descending dove hovering above the couple, emblematic of the Holy Spirit’s immanence. Behind and above the priest is the Ark of the Covenant, the holiest symbol of God’s promise and presence. Further back and higher still, a cloud-filled sky that on closer study reveals not clouds but rather seven angelic faces.

Painted in 1764-65 as part of a larger work entitled Scenes from the Life of the Virgin it graced the Church of San Francisco in Palazzo, Naples. A fire eventually destroyed the Church and the individual paintings were separated. The Marriage of the Virgin now displays its captivating portrayal of the coming incarnation of our Lord in the Norton Simon Museum of Art in Pasadena. The painting and even more the event it portrays makes for a timely meditation during these last days of Advent as Christmas draws near; for the wedding took place before the birth—but according to St. Luke and St. Matthew not before the conception of the child. Only Matthew’s Gospel gives us the pertinent information that Joseph, distressed about Mary’s pregnancy, knowing he had known her not, was planning to put her aside, until of course the dream. The pioneer psychiatrist, Carl Jung, writes in one of his books about the “great dream”—the dream that gives profound direction for one’s 

life. That is what Joseph’s dream was when the angel told him, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.” Joseph followed through with the dream’s guidance and the wedding took place.

As I was suggesting, this wedding is worthy of a few days meditation as we prepare our hearts for Christmas. Giaquinito’s painting with the images described above of Joseph, Mary, the wonderment of the Jewish priest, the Ark of the Covenant, clouds, which are really angelic faces, the descending dove above the holy couple make good material for meditation, at least as theology, but not as history. The wedding ceremony as portrayed in 18th Century Italian art is not as it would have taken place in first century Israel. Marriage was a purely civil contract and was not a religious rite. As the archeologist Roland de Vaux states, “The chief ceremony was the entry of the bride into the bridegroom’s house. The bridegroom wearing a diadem and accompanied by his friends with tambourine and a band proceeded from the Bride’s house. She was richly dressed and adorned with jewels, but she wore a veil, which she took off only in the bridal chamber… [while alone with her husband]. Next came a great feast…which normally lasted seven days or longer.” It must have been awkward for Joseph and Mary to go along with the torch procession knowing what they knew, while not knowing so many other things about the future. 

Ponder this strange situation for Mary and Joseph. The civil contract with its non-religious ceremonies designed to prepare for a consummation that they knew would not take place (at least until after the child was born, if even then). Imagine also the religious or spiritual dimension unperceived by any except Mary and Joseph, portrayed so profoundly, yet anachronistically by Giaquinito in his painting. I find myself meditating on both dimensions of the wedding—the historical event as biblical scholarship describes it, as well as the theological rendition that the artist has rightly yet unwittingly placed on the event,  assuming a wedding with religious rites, influenced as he was by his own era. 

To reflect on both helps one to perceive the paradoxical reality that confronts us in the birth of Christ. At Jesus’ birth, the historical event and the theological truth occur together. The baby is the Savior; the child is the Son of God, born as all babies are born—it was the conception, after all, not the birth that was miraculous. No one present at the birth would have seen anything particularly unusual. When the shepherds went to Bethlehem, the pertinent detail was a child lying in a manger; otherwise, they would not have been able to tell this birth from any other. 

It happens not on a religious day in the Jewish calendar but on just another day. It happens in Bethlehem not only because the prophet foretold (which of course he did), but because a civil ruler decreed an enrollment for taxation. The religious and the civil, the secular and the sacred converging, each playing their role as they always do no matter how much we try to keep them apart or categorize them, and never more so than when God took upon himself our human nature to redeem fallen humankind. I suggest we give a little thought to the actual wedding of Mary and Joseph as both an historical and theological event and to their awkward, even lonely waiting  while (as the poet says) “A tiny seed unfolding in the womb/Becomes the source from which we all unfold/And flower into being.” It might help us get our minds around what happened on that first Christmas morning and what it means for us today. 

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All Saints Day – A Team Photo

Bishop Lawrence's high school wrestling teamThere are particular days in the Church calendar set aside to honor the heroes of the faith,   such as Peter, Andrew, and the Virgin Mary. All Saints’ Day, November 1st, however, comes as the Church year ends—the last of the major Saint’s days before Advent ushers in a new year.

In an age of the celebrity, All Saints’ Day is a needed reminder that the Church, indeed the Christian life, is a team photo, not an action shot of a franchise player making a spectacular game-winning catch in the closing seconds of the game. Luminaries in the Church may dazzle us with their accomplishments and holiness. Reading the biographies of such men and women as Augustine of Hippo, Martin Luther, St. Teresa of Avila or Susannah Wesley, often inspire us with their brilliance, sacrifices or indefatigable labors. Even people in our day, such as Billy Graham or Mother Teresa can awe us with their accomplishments. Yet these distinguished Christians would be the first to acknowledge the network of “rank and file saints” who enabled their ministries to shine brightly, and without whom their labors would have faltered.

The Collect for All Saints’ Day (BCP2019 p. 622) refers to the “…one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of [Christ].” It alludes to this vast network of believers from every tribe, language, people and nation who have been and are part of the team. All are included in the 360-degree team photo that surrounds us as a great cloud of witnesses. In the Eucharist, we join our voices with their voices and celebrate the communion we share with them in the life and worship of our Lord.

When I wrestled at Bakersfield High School, I used to look at the photographs of wrestlers and teams of the past above the practice mats. Strategically placed to inspire us during 3-4 hour workouts, the wrestlers in these photos took on legendary qualities, inspiring us to work harder. They made us realize we had a noble tradition to live up to. I suppose the wrestlers of earlier generations were not much different from us. Indeed, a photo of my teammates and me now hangs above the practice mats right there among the photos of other generations. We were certainly far from famous; closer to rank and file plodders; yet we challenged one another, set records, and in the end won championships that eluded others.

When you and I gather to worship this All Saints’ Day, whether in-person or virtually, it will be as a team, caught in snapshot fashion in the middle of our life’s course, hardly aware of how our faithfulness today may influence those who come after us. Knit together with believers around the world and down through the ages we follow both luminaries and ordinary saints “in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that [God] has prepared for those who truly love [Him].”

Hope to see you in the team photo!

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What Makes a Day Count? A Summer Journal Entry

Journal Entry August 13, 2020, (Farmhouse near Wytheville, VA)

Farmhouse near Wytheville

Farmhouse near Wytheville

I had a good four-mile jog this morning over these rolling hills and country roads near this farmhouse where we are staying for a few days. I stopped occasionally to take photos of the farmlands, hillsides and distant mountains, as well as the wildflowers along the road, or just to walk awhile to take things in and appreciate the scenery—to learn again to be attentive.

Lord, I am so oriented to making minutes, hours, and days “count”, which is not always the same as being attentive or even less getting “… a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12) No, my focus is often more about getting things done or frankly sometimes just getting to the next thing. Even now, I find myself experiencing some inner stress that I will not make this vacation day “count”—while having no specific criteria for what “counts” or “matters” means or even looks like. Is it doing something like my morning jog over these rolling hills, farmlands and country roads? Yes, I believe so. Is it some reflective journaling—such as what I’m doing now? Yes, I think that is something that matters. But how much? And when is it that I’ve written something that I can point to on a vacation day and say, “That’s it!” that paragraph, that journal entry counts?  Do other people even think in these terms or look at life from this perspective?

Horses on farmEugene Peterson begins his book Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life at It’s Best with a few sentences or questions that may at least be similar to what I’m trying to get at. “The puzzle is why so many people live so badly. Not so wickedly, but so inanely. Not so cruelly, but so stupidly.” To mention this book by Peterson raises yet another check off point. Whether an unusual jog (like this morning); a hike (like I plan to do tomorrow); a meaningful journal entry; a significant family gathering (surely Macy’s baptism during the family outing to Presque Isle last Saturday “counts”); the tour of the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum (that I did yesterday); Do each of these make a vacation day count? Does reading on a vacation day make the day matter? Well, it certainly seemed to during our vacations in Maine in the 1980s and 90s, especially when it was part of a study project I was pursuing, such as—Gregory the Great, St. Augustine, St. Ambrose, Phillips Brooks, and others. Because one is reading about someone significant or a significant work such as Dante’s Divine Comedy or Eliot’s Four Quartets does that make what one is doing significant? If I spend an hour or two this afternoon reading this good but not great book, Run with the Horses, will that help to make this vacation day count?

Fence and farm near WythevilleHow about just sitting on this farmhouse porch looking out on this pond and the green hillside, an opening patch of blue in an otherwise cloudy sky, the cattle and sheep grazing, a hawk flying overhead; hearing the birds chattering; and feeling the light wind across my face. The swallows start swirling about in their darting and dancing flight to feed, as butterflies float on the breeze, and the wasps busy above in the wooden eaves. I watch a dandelion seed drift in the wind above the white cross fence its destiny unlike mine all but assured.  When all suddenly changes with a banging thunderclap and a torrent of rain. The cattle, sheep and horses that were grazing together all huddle according to their kind and go their separate ways.  The horses first to leave making their way I assume to their stable and barn. The sheep go down the hill out of my sight. The huddled cattle remain on top of the hill.  The storm in time passes and a cool wind changes the temperature and a gaggle of geese land on the pond. Will all this count? Will this make the afternoon matter?

The American poet, James Wright, lying in a hammock on William Duffy’s farm in Minnesota, not all that different I suppose from this farm in Southern Virginia, lifted his eyes to see a chicken hawk floating over looking for home and experienced an epiphany of sorts that he had wasted his life. Did that, rather paradoxically, make the day or his life count? It certainly made a significant poem, at least for me; I have remembered it for 50 years as one of the better poems of his generation and of the “deep image” genre.

Finally, it may be best to pause and pose before myself an even more telling question. As Annie Dillard prophesied some years ago, “It’s not good days that are hard to come by but good lives.” So, here is an important question or two from early in Peterson’s book. “What does it mean to be a real man, a real woman?” What shape does mature, authentic humanity take in everyday life?” Here’s my catch—if good lives not good days are what are most needed and surely authentic humanity is defined by such, what things in a day or kind of days actually count in making for a good life? I no sooner write this sentence than Allison turns down the farmhouse road back from her day’s adventures gladdening my heart. I think in the overarching scheme and stretch of life every good life surely must include such days as I’ve spent here. Days or moments that allow one time to observe, reflect, and think.  As the psalmist prayed, “So teach each us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”


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The Calling of a Bishop Coadjutor

On July 9, 2020, Bishop Lawrence sent the following message to the Diocese. 

Dear Friends in Christ,

Bishop LawrenceYesterday I announced to the clergy of the diocese my decision to call for a bishop coadjutor.  This call for a bishop coadjutor is not an announcement of my retirement nor my resignation. Retirement is a relatively recent development—before the mid-20th Century very few people “retired” or could.  Certainly one can hardly imagine the apostle Paul or any other apostle for that matter retiring.  Nor is it my resignation as your bishop. It is, however, a necessary and important step for this latter to take place in the future.

A bishop coadjutor is elected to succeed the diocesan bishop upon his resignation. Several things led me to this decision at this time—foremost of which is prayer. On March 19 of this year I turned 70. Of course, we were already in the early pandemic quarantine across the country. As it dragged into April, I began to prayerfully consider several matters that were converging. Recently, by which I mean at least the last 60 years, the bishops of the diocese were required to resign at 72 years of age. While there is nothing in our diocesan canons or in the canons of our province that require a bishop to resign from his diocese at 72, it does seem prudent to honor the practice of recent predecessors rather than establish a new precedent. Since an election process, with the consent of the College of Bishops, and planning for a consecration can normally take eighteen months to 2 years it seemed prudent to begin the process now.

Secondly, Allison and I have 19 grandchildren some are all but grown and others are moving quickly through life’s early stages.  Being with them at important life passages becomes increasingly challenging for a bishop with a full diocesan schedule. With our family spread across South Carolina and Pennsylvania, and extended family still in California, these primary loyalties of the heart call to be honored.

Thirdly, there are many opportunities waiting to be explored in the years ahead if God should so will. The French essayist, Montaigne said, “There is nothing more remarkable in the life of Socrates than that he found time in old age to learn to dance and play on instruments and thought it was time well spent.” Well I hasten to add I am not there yet—resignation as bishop that is. No, I have many tasks, duties and commitments here before this can take place. Yet it is essential for me to take this step of calling for a bishop coadjutor in a timely fashion.

Here is the path ahead as clearly as I can see it.  At our Standing Committee meeting on May 5, 2020 I announced my decision.  Our diocesan canons places  the search process under the authority of the Standing Committee. For the past two months, they have been working on the details of the search process. I will leave it to them to outline the details in the days ahead. However, the preliminary plan is for an election to take place sometime in May of 2021. This would allow the elected candidate to meet with the ACNA College of Bishops in June of that year. The candidate if confirmed by the college would then be consecrated at a date scheduled by the Archbishop and the Standing Committee in mid to late fall of 2021. The time at which I hand the crozier to my successor can be decided at a future date, but beginning the process of succession now at least allows it to take place in a timely manner before my 72nd birthday in March of 2022. While some have asked, what is next for Allison and me and “Where will you go?”  I can only say, “I haven’t the slightest idea.” I have long felt the best way to prepare for what’s next in one’s life is to finish well where one is. I have a full-time job at present and, frankly, I do not see that changing in the foreseeable future. So let us all press on to the upward call in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Yours in Christ,

The Right Reverend Mark Joseph Lawrence
Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of South Carolina

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Standing in the Breach

The second meditation in a series on the national unrest and call to prayer by Bishop Mark Lawrence

man prayingIf it is true as author Shelby Steele has stated in a recent interview that “racism is endemic to the human condition,” and, I believe it is, it is so because sin itself is endemic to the human condition. To address endemic racism in ourselves, others or our institutions whether it is a prejudice, bigotry, guilt or shame, which hides in the shadows, or that, which parades itself in public, we shall be more successful if we invite the Holy Spirit to journey with us. He after all is not only the promised “Helper,” the One Jesus taught would be sent; he is also the One who shall convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgement. (John 16:7-8)

Racism is a dark dimension of sin that is difficult for most of us, regardless of our ethnicity, to admit is in us. We sometimes hear someone say, “There is not a racist bone in his body!” One might as well say, “There is not a sinful bone in his body.” For most people such a statement would be nonsense. Perhaps for some of us it is more accurate to say, “God’s grace is bringing me forgiveness for and deliverance from the sin that clings so closely to me, including prejudice.” That at least is my prayer.

Therefore, as we continue in this octave of prayer for our nation while in the midst of this crisis of pandemic and quarantine, with tensions about policing, protests, violence and race, and throw in political jousting for good measure, I invite you to what I believe God’s Spirit has been urging us—that is, to step into the breach. The prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah spoke of standing in this breach—through both prayer and action.

Thus says the Lord GOD, And I sought for a man among them who should build up the wall and stand in the breach before me for the land, that I should not destroy it, but I found none.” (Ezekiel 22:30) 

And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; /you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;/ you shall be called the repairer of the breach,/the restorer of streets to dwell in. (Isaiah 58:12)

This begins for many of us with intercessory prayer and should lead to prayerful action. Consider the juxtaposition of two black men killed in recent acts of violence.

Most reading this meditation will have heard of George Floyd and his last words, “I can’t breathe.”  His name and words are placarded around the world.  His funeral watched by millions. The context of his death and the words so painfully uttered form a simple eloquence Shakespeare described well when he penned the lines, “O! but they say the tongues of dying men/Enforce attention like deep harmony:/Where words are scarce, they are seldom spent in vain,/For they breathe truth that breathe their words in pain.” George Floyd through social media has become the archetypal victim and his dying words the rallying cry of a generation that has taken to the streets by the thousands. Upon the archetype whether inherent or not virtue is conferred. To watch even a portion of the eight-minute video clip is to feel the painful scab ripped from the deep wounds of those who have suffered from centuries’ old prejudice and the futility of any who would seek to deny it or put on a band aid to stay the bleeding.

The name of retired police captain, David Dorn, a 77 year old black man murdered during the lootings that accompanied the protests in St. Louis on June 2 fewer have heard of.  He died defending a friend’s pawnshop. His body was found on the sidewalk at 2:30 a.m. He served his community as an officer for 38 years and dedicated his free time to helping disadvantaged youth. His widow, Ann Marie Dorn, remains a sergeant on the police force. The Ethical Society of Police, which has represented black officers in St. Louis since 1972 in  addressing race-based discrimination, said of David Dorn, he was “the type of brother that would’ve given his life to serve them if he had to.”  As it turns out, he did. Nevertheless, he like Floyd is a symbol now, not of victimhood but of individual and community initiative. Yet this will never play so well on the screen or in the street. Frankly, that is about all that I know of him. Except this, one of those young black men fleeing the scene of the crime is overheard on the pawnshop camera saying “C’mon, man, that’s somebody’s granddaddy!” These words spoken by a young man in the midst of violent crime testify to a conscience and heart that is still able to care. This too is the human condition: that in the midst of violence a young man’s heart can still care and he the sort of young person retired Police Captain David Dorn was set on reaching.

To stand in the breach, to kneel in the place prayer is to hold all of this in our hearts before God: the young marching in peaceful protest; a looter and burglar fleeing the scene of  violence perpetrated by his companion in crime; and all the George Floyds and David Dorns of the world . It is not only to stand in the breach, it is to have one’s heart enlarged. In the words of Edwin Corley, intercession “… is the principle by which praying people allow their own spiritual hearts to become enlarged enough to take on [through prayer] the care of others.” To share in the compassion of Jesus Christ for this world where so many people are like sheep without shepherds. To ask God’s Spirit to address our own “…feelings that have become calloused and remote for most of the people around [us].”  May God work in us a deep feeling of love and compassion for His people. So we lift up those suffering from the Covid-19; those working for a vaccine and cure; those burying their loved ones either from the pandemic, the street violence or the normal stuff of life; for those who have lost their business and jobs from quarantine or fire, rioting and looting; for those who continue to suffer the weight of racial injustice; for police officers who risk their lives in their daily round of duty; and those for whom the killing of George Floyd makes the world feel less safe.  That may sound almost like a litany. It is—or at least a prayer list. We pray for the light of Christ to come into our darkened world, and after this week of prayer and fasting to show each of us what the next step is, so we might fulfill the promise of our Lord. “You are the light of the world…let your light shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” 


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With Groanings too Deep for Words; Meditation 1

The first meditation in a series on the national unrest and the call to prayer by Bishop Mark Lawrence

Early Saturday evening I was driving back from Summerville having just ordained one of our transitional deacons. Nearing Charleston, quite at the spur of the moment, I chose to take the Meeting Street off ramp. As I rounded the curve, the traffic was backed up in the way I would usually say to myself, “Darn I made a wrong choice.” Now I know it wasn’t a wrong choice. Protesters, most of them young, some black some white some brown, accompanied by several police officers were walking up the off ramp onto I-26. Some chanted, raised fists, or carried signs reading “I Can’t Breath” and “BLM” as they walked between the cars in front and behind me. Later Saturday evening the looting began and the helicopters were flying over the Charleston peninsula well into the wee hours of the morning. Charleston like many cities across the country was in travail.

The words in The Exhortation during the ordination of a deacon ring in my ears, “Furthermore, you are to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns and hopes of the world.” And elsewhere, “You…are to guide the intercessions of the Congregation….” Those words too ring in my ears. For as clergy are fond of saying, “Once a deacon always a deacon.” So even as a bishop my diaconal calling still grips me. It is now five days later, ten days after the cruel killing of George Floyd, and three months into this pandemic, and my spirit is still not at rest. It should not be. Tuesday morning I expressed my unrest to our Standing Committee and later to our diocesan staff. Some priests have asked me if I was going to be addressing our present crisis. “Bishop, we need to know what you think—we need to hear from you.” Frankly, I do not know what I think. I am still struggling to know what I feel. I suspect I am not alone.

I have resisted writing until now because I’m weary of reading and hearing words about this present crisis—this pandemic, quarantine, rising unemployment, racial injustice, violence, the Catch-22 of policing—and the rage and fear that dominate so many in our citizenry today. I cannot but believe many in the world too, like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, cry out “Words! Words! I’m so sick of words! Sing me no song! Read me no rhyme. Don’t waste my time. Show me!” Nevertheless, as a Christian I remind myself that I am not to grow weary of well doing in the midst of this or any other travail.

So let me turn to what I know. This convergence of sufferings is among other things a call to prayer. A cry—perhaps a howl—shared by all the creation for freedom from the havoc and corruption of sin. Moreover, it is equally a call for positive action from us who, in spite of our insufficiencies, are the aroma of Christ to God for our world. There are things we can do as individuals, as the Church, and as a nation. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a recent op-ed wrote that while protests will take our country only so far, “The road to healing must begin with respectful but honest and deep conversations not judgements, about who we were, who we are and who we want to become.” Notice she wrote “begin” not end. Some of us who lived through the 60s and 70s have had those conversations. We may have had them in the 80s and 90s as well. Nevertheless, yesterday’s conversations are not sufficient for today. Whatever conversations long time members of the diocese have had in the past—and some of you will know—it is clearly time now for another today.

St. Paul writes that creation has been subjected to futility and is groaning to be set free from its bondage to corruption; it yearns for freedom like one groaning in the pains of childbirth. Therefore, we as believers also groan inwardly. Nevertheless, the apostle offers us the promise and hope that we are not in this alone. “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26) While some may interpret this as groanings for our individual struggles, and it certainly is, I believe it is also the groaning of the indwelling Spirit for our sisters and brothers around us. It is the Spirit’s call to prayer as well as a call to action; one we dare not resist, quench or grieve.

This is the first of several meditations I will be writing for those making this journey of prayer and fasting, a journey Archbishop Foley Beach has requested of our Province to undertake during this octave. Along with specific prayers, such as those the Archbishop referenced in his letter to the Church, may I also suggest that you allow yourself time to listen to the Holy Spirit’s groanings within you. Sometimes such groanings of the Spirit are not only too deep for words; it is also painful for us to allow ourselves to follow where it leads. Still, to walk in step with the Spirit is to walk with the Lord and Giver of life “… who will cause all things to work for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

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Easter and the Coronavirus; In Interview with Bishop Lawrence

An Interview with Bishop Mark Lawrence by Joy Hunter

Bishop, for many of us this will be the first time in our lives we won’t be in church on Easter morning. No Easter lilies; No packed crowd singing “Welcome Happy Morning;” No flowering of the cross. No big Easter dinner with extended family. The feeling of malaise is giving way to something darker. How are we to approach Easter this year?

Lilies and "Easter & Coronavirus"There’s some remarkable irony there. Just think about that first Easter morning when Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James, and Salome went to the tomb on the first day of the week just as the sun was rising. They were not going in the way you and I go to the Easter morning service with a great deal of expectation and hope, waiting to say, “Alleluia, the Lord is risen,” and hear one another say, “He is risen indeed, Alleluia!” They were going with spices to anoint the buried body of Jesus. They were hardly in a mood of expectation, of joy, of hope. They were going there overwhelmed by life, overwhelmed with what they had lost, what they did not have, who they could not see, the one they could not hold.

If we go through all of the Easter stories, one after another it is of Jesus appearing to a relatively small group of people. Not in a religious setting. Not in a synagogue, not in a temple, but in a home. It may be that we need to rediscover the power of the resurrection to lift us in the midst of our gloom, in the midst of our daily lives. It’s not something we have to go to to experience him, but whenever we gather in his name, he can be among us. That’s one aspect we need to cultivate and, perhaps, rediscover.

To be honest, I will miss it too—Easter morning at church. I will miss singing, “Welcome happy morning.” “The Day of Resurrection,” all of those great Easter hymns. I think I can play them here at home. In fact, I think I will!

Is there a way to enter Holy Week and Easter on a deeper level during this time of social isolation?

The power of Jesus’ resurrection in the daily life of believers doesn’t have to be related to us walking through these (Holy Week) events in the way we’re used to doing them. We can allow him to meet us in the ways that he wants.

I think of those two disciples walking to Emmaus on Easter day. They met him as they traveled along the road, which is the way most of us meet him, as we’re traveling along the road of life. They met him while they were in the middle of their need, which is how most of us meet him. They met him without recognizing who he was, which is the way most of us first approach him. And they met him thinking, at first, he was a stranger, which is who he is to most of us when we first encounter him. It is strange – this whole situation we’re in. But we can still meet him or he us. We can encounter him and it can be life transforming. Sometimes you have to let go of what you think is most precious in order to discover He who is most precious of all.

How will this Easter be different for you?

Well, I won’t be in church on Sunday. I’ll be in church on Saturday doing a video recording which will be used on Sunday. Easter I will be home. To be honest, I don’t know what that will be like. It might be quite enjoyable. It will be very different, too, because usually we have a large family gathering. We may have some family come, but we won’t have all of them here. If we did and someone got sick, a lot of people would have to go into quarantine!

Is there anything you’ve been struggling with, personally as we go through the pandemic?

You know what I struggle with? I struggle with what to make of it. Is it some aspect of our fallen human state and world, an evil which is manifesting itself in ways that we need to eradicate? Or is there something more that we as a people need to grapple with, things we need to reflect upon?

In some ways I’m eager to get back to normal, but in some ways there was a lot about the normal that wasn’t necessarily wholesome. Life for many of us has been busier. As TS Eliot put it years ago, we find ourselves “distracted from distraction by distraction.” That’s the normal. During this pandemic there have been more distractions for me than there were before and more disorienting distractions than there were before. The pace hasn’t stopped, the busyness hasn’t stopped, the phone calls have increased, the text messages have increased. I’m thinking to myself, I ought to be using this quarantine to go deeper with God, deeper in prayer, deeper in intercession for the world, and preparing myself, the Diocese and the church for whatever is going to be on the far side of this, that God might want to do.

If all we’re doing is filling our lives with busyness, making more and more videos, and spending all our time trying to learn this technology so we provide things for and stay connected with people but get no connection with God, no connection with the deeper things of the soul, it’s been a profound waste of a crisis.

It’s true, that much of our church life, as we know it, has been removed. And our clergy are desperate to find a way to replace it, to try to stay connected with their people; meet their people’s needs. But what if that’s not what we should be about? What if we need to be still and know that he is God? That he will be exalted among the nations. That he will be exalted among the earth.

I feel an odd sense of disconnect from what I think I ought to be connected with during this time of quarantine; consumed with busyness when I wonder if what I’m really being called to is the quiet place of prayer, reflection and study and time of soul.

Jesus’ appearance to Mary was one on one. The appearance of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel at the tomb was to three women. The appearance of Jesus on the road to Emmaus was to two disciples. He appeared to Peter and even on Easter night when he appeared to the disciples in the upper room, Thomas wasn’t there. None of the appearances until much later was to any number greater than what would appear the 10 of the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) request. So evidently, you can have the hope, and the power, the joy and the reality of the resurrection without a big building filled with people and so maybe what we need to focus on is the power of the resurrection in our homes, in our day-to-day lives, in the midst of our immediate family.

How has social distancing affected your work-life? Home-life?

It really hasn’t affected my home life at all except that I haven’t been around my adult children and grandchildren as much as I would like and so I miss that. Work life? Some, because I’m usually on the road a lot. I suppose it’s affected work the most because when I meet with people I meet them as a whole entity, a physical person. You pick up things from them that you don’t pick up through a virtual meeting. So it’s a really strange environment. One becomes more and more aware of the importance of the incarnation that God took on our human form, our human condition. In one way that’s limiting. But to appear to everyone on a screen is not the same as embodied human interaction. There’s no virtual substitute for life lived in relationship to people.

Right now, there’s no method to prevent and no medicine to cure this deadly infection. What is your spiritual prescription for us, as the people of this Diocese?

Part of the Christian answer to that is in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He has removed the sting of death. We don’t sit lightly towards it. We grieve just like other people at the loss of loved ones. We don’t seek to be foolish as we look at death, but we don’t have to fear what comes next. The Christian answer to all of that is “We are more than conquers through Christ who strengthens us.” “He who has begun a good work in us will bring it to completion” so be still and know that he is God. “He will be exalted among the nations. He will be exalted in the earth.”

That is part of the Christian answer to all of this. Along with the fact that we need to be in intercession and in prayer for our world, for those who are fearful, for those who are suffering, for those who are dying without the hope that the gospel brings, for those who are on the front lines caring for those who are coming into the hospitals and the ICU units, many of whom may be there because of their commitment to our Lord Jesus Christ, who have entered into this life as a nurse or as a doctor as their Christian calling. Others are serving as missionary doctors, many with inadequate tools, no ventilators at all. For researchers in medicines and vaccinations. And for our political leaders.

So in the midst of that we need to be in prayer. There’s plenty to keep us occupied if we only look at it through the priorities that God has for us at this time. We can go about our daily lives with a sense of purpose, faithfulness and love.

I told some clergy in our smaller congregations during a recent Zoom call of a scene in the movie version of The Hobbit. Lady Galadriel asks Gandalf why he included Bilbo Baggins in the dwarf’s dangerous mission against a dragon? Gandalf answered, “Saruman thinks that it is only power that keeps evil in check. But that is not what I have discovered. I’ve discovered it is often the small, kind, and loving act that keeps evil at bay.”

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