Perhaps 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
Samuel 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.
Summer 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.
Jesus 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!
Ash Wednesday, February 14, 2018
“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,
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.”
In 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!
The Right Reverend Mark Joseph Lawrence
“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,
Mark Joseph Lawrence
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Last week I was in Cairo, Egypt for the Global South Conference—but I hasten to add my heart and mind was in prayer for those in the path of Hurricane Matthew—especially those of us in South Carolina and the diocese. What little internet connection I could find and whatever spare time I had was spent in following the Hurricane forecasts and in spotty contact with those who were here. I admit there were more than a few anxious moments for me last week as well as a cancelled flight previously scheduled for Charleston on the Saturday Hurricane Matthew chose to arrive.
Now on this Thursday after the storm it is a lovely fall day here; 76 degrees with a light breeze; one could hardly ask for more pleasant weather—yet I know that in other parts of the diocese parishioners are anxiously watching the reports on cresting rivers; waiting for power to be restored to their homes; for insurance adjusters to get back to them; for roads to be cleared from falling trees; for swollen river-closed bridges to be opened so they can return to their homes and discover what Hurricane Matthew and the accompanying waters have dealt them. Allison and I had only a house to put back together and we suffered not even the loss of frozen foods. Others elsewhere were not so fortune—and then there is the unspeakable pain of those in Haiti and southeastern North Carolina. It calls to mind the poignant words of W. H. Auden:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just
walking dully along; (Musee’ De Beaux Arts)
The poet’s thrust, among other points, is the irony of how one person’s suffering often occurs while another is having a quite pleasant or just normal day.
I have noticed, however, among those of us whose lives appear already back to normal that there is a “weariness “or perhaps a lingering emotional strain from the events of the last week—an accumulating toll I suppose. We cancelled several diocesan meetings in order to allow people to attend to their personal cares or the needs of their neighbors. I’ve noticed many of our congregations have done the same—some of necessity and some from a sensitive wisdom regarding capacity. There are seasons not to be driven to do but to be, to pray, to intercede—and along with a helping hand—to give thanks. Put simply, from all the reports we’ve received from our congregations, we in the diocese have sustained very minimal damage to our church and parish properties, and with the exception of fallen trees and a drastically changed beach and Privateer Point we were relatively unscathed at St. Christopher which, given it’s barrier island location, is quite remarkable. Indeed from Grand Strand to Hilton Head, from Cheraw and Marion to Blackville and Walterboro the report is that we are fortunate beyond anything we could have expected.
There are also many examples of parishioners and congregations reaching out to those in need around the diocese—St. Bart’s, Hartsville, hosting a spaghetti dinner for those without electricity and for students at Coker College; Trinity, Myrtle Beach, opening their doors for folk to recharge cell phones; the congregations on Edisto Island assisting those on the island with food and safe water; St. James,’ Blackville, helping parishioners when a tree fell on their home; St. Helena’s, Beaufort, collecting food to help 50 families in their local community —and far too many other examples to list. Along with such actions may I urge our parishes and missions to have a sustained time of thanksgiving for God’s protection and provision this Sunday perhaps using one of the General Thanksgivings (BCP p. 836) or an adaptation thereof as well as intercessions for those still in need.
Please also consider a special collection to assist Water Mission’s efforts to get safe water to those in Haiti, along with identifying appropriate ways to assist the needy in your local community—members and non-members alike. We have been fortunate, indeed. May this leave in us a profound gratitude; a gratitude which brings invariably a fresh lilt even for those who walk with a strained or weary step.
The Right Reverend Mark Lawrence
Note: This article first appeared in the Charleston Mercury. It is reprinted with permission.
The canyon of the Middle Fork of the Kings River in the Sierra Nevada is—to put it simply—magnificent. A world to itself in remoteness and grandeur; it has been described as a “primitive Yosemite”. The river is fed by snow melt and springs that originate on the peaks that surround Muir Pass and the even higher 14,000 foot Palisade Crest where the southernmost glaciers in North America rest. It’s crystalline; tumbling waters roar beneath towering domes and sheer granite walls. There are several trails and trackless canyons by which one can get there. None of them are easy; and to get out more difficult yet. Getting out is what became my challenge.
My wife, Allison, dropped me off on the eastern side of the Sierra near Bishop, California for what was to be an eight day solo backpacking trip. The Great Basin desert stretched out behind me beneath the rising morning sun as I made my way up one of the canyons that Mary Austin once referred to as the Streets of the Mountains. The Lodge pole and Jeffrey Pines, the aspens, and willows glistened, washed clean by the previous night’s rain. Since it was part of my three month sabbatical I was approaching the trip as a spiritual retreat; an octave. That alone explains why I made what was for me an unusual decision (which I only occasionally regretted)—I left my fly rod at home. Having visited earlier in the summer several beehive monastic sites of the early Celtic monks in Ireland I even called my domed backpacking tent my “beehive hut”.
The trip took me over three mountain passes the highest of which was 12,000 foot Muir Pass and 90 miles of trail—from the arid heights of the eastern Sierra to the magnificent coniferous forests of the western side—of which the renown English Botanist, Sir John Hooker, once told John Muir: “In the beauty and grandeur of individual trees, and in number of species, the forest of the Sierra surpasses all others.” The first half of my trek was over the high country of the Sierra but it was the second half of the trip for which I was most eager—for its rugged remoteness. This was after all primarily a silent retreat for my soul. I didn’t expect it to try both soul and body.
On day five I left the loveliness of Grouse Meadow and after an effortless mile and a half hike arrived at the junction of the Middle Fork and John Muir Trails. I forded a swiftly flowing Palisade Creek and started down the canyon toward Simpson Meadow. The fording brought to mind a word of warning from a trail crew I met in upper Le Conte Canyon. “How is the trail down to Simpson Meadow?” I asked. The response came quickly—“Spectacular but poorly maintained in places.” And then came an ominous warning from a trail worker shoveling sand—“Be careful fording the Middle Fork of the Kings at Simpson Meadow!”
The trail down the Middle Fork Canyon was breathtaking. Everywhere offering grand views both down the canyon as well as up toward the Sierra crest. It was one of the highlights of the trip for me. Each mile brought spectacular cliffs 4,000, to 5,000 thousand foot canyon walls and the river festooned with waterfalls, deep pools, raging rapids. But each impressive water fall or rapids made the words of warning echo in my ears—“Be careful fording the Middle Fork of the Kings!”
Just a mile or so past Devil’s Washbowl things took an ironic turn. As I rounded the talus rock of a side canyon there was a stench of smoke. I thought at first it was a simple campfire—but wondered who might be in the canyon and why they’d have a campfire on a rather warm afternoon. Too soon it was obvious this was no campfire but a forest fire.
The entire canyon was filling with smoke—above me, behind me, in front of me, down trail below me. My first thought was—“Where is the fire?” and the second—“What should I do?” Suddenly I heard a helicopter flying over Windy Cliff a granite wall some 4000 feet above me. Was the fire on the rim to the south? Was it on Granite Pass region? That would close off my route to Cedar Grove and the South Fork of the Kings River where Allison was to pick me up in three days? If so I would have to head down to Tehipite Valley and hike up the grueling canyon wall—a 3,000 foot ascent in a mile and a half over loose rock and sliding sandy soil. I had come down that trail in 1969 when I was 19 and was well aware of the demanding 30 miles of trail that route traverses.
Was the fire in the canyon itself? In that case I was walking into it. That too may cut off my way to Cedar Grove and this was complicated by the ominous fact that the wind was blowing up canyon toward me and may well mean I might not be able to hike faster than it spread so that I might need to take refuge in the river itself—no worries now about fording the Middle Fork!
Then there was the concern that if it was in the canyon it would mean I’d have to hike back the way I’d come, up and over two 12,000 foot passes which would be a three to four day hike. My overarching concern was Allison and how to get out in time (with no cell phone reception) to alleviate her fears if for some reason my route to Cedar Grove was blocked. My other concern was breathing the smoke was aggravating my sinuses and lungs and the longer I kept hiking the worse it would get. Weighing my options I decided to press on to Simpson Meadow and see if the trail had been posted in some way.
Once at the trail junction that leads up the canyon wall toward Granite Pass and the trailhead at Cedar Grove, I was standing beside the note-less trail sign wondering what to do. So I paused and prayed for guidance. To my astonishment just after finishing my prayer two backpackers came down the Granite Pass Trail. The fire they said was not up there. They hadn’t encountered smoke until they had come down into the canyon. So I had the information I needed. Having breathed the smoke for several hours I was not of a mind to stay. I would hike out.
It was late afternoon and I had already hiked over twelve miles that day. The trail up was a 5,000 foot ascent in five miles with no water source for over six and a half miles. The climb was relentless, the trail dusty, unrelentingly steep, poorly constructed. The only thing positive I can say about it is that it never had to lose altitude in order to gain it! By the time I got to the top of the ridge above Dougherty Meadow it was dusk. I began the descent, lost the trail as dusk yielded to darkness, and as one old packer once said of the Monarch Divide over which I was hiking: “It’s sure great up there. But it ain’t no place to be wandering around in the dark.” And in the dark I was; but hearing the creek I made my way to it.
In the darkness beside the creek I prayed and then looking up saw on a ledge above me what looked like a primitive campsite. It was—or a least someone had obviously stayed there before—and thank God it would do for the night. I pitched the “beehive” tent by the light of a headlamp and getting some water didn’t bother to cook dinner—to tired to be hungry. Mixed a sport drink and crawled into the tent (without the rain cover), ate a few slices of summer sausage and lay on my back looking up at the emerging stars. Several key moments during the day God had provided me the directives I needed (“some have entertained angels unawares”?). So while exhausted—my Fit-bit registered 46,936 steps and 20.59 miles— I just lay on my back and looked up at the stars in wonder.
I had spent the first half of the day’s hike concerned about a dangerous fording of the river with a forty pound backpack and then quite abruptly found myself concerned that I might have to take refuge in it from wildfire; I finished the last hours of the day parsimoniously sipping water as I hiked up a waterless, grueling ascent until my canteens were as dry as the tongue that stuck to the roof of my mouth—a day of ironies. Now as my watch noted 10:00 p.m. my thirst was quenched; and looking up at the wheeling sky the words of the psalmist described the movements of my soul:
O God, you are my God; eagerly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you
as in a barren and dry land where there is no water….
My soul is content, as with marrow and fatness,
and my mouth praises you with joyful lips.
When I remember you upon my bed,
and meditate on you in the night watches.
For you have been my helper, and under the shadow of your wings I will rejoice.
My soul clings to you; your right hand holds me fast. (Psalm 63)
It was a day of testing. T. S. Eliot was right when he wrote in the Four Quartets: “Old men should be explorers”—Explorers of the landscape— the geography of the physical world and the geography of the Spirit—of the inscape, the soul. While I could write of other days experiences on this hiking octave, day five brought what every true pilgrimage needs: fears, challenges, and blessings of earth, air, water and fire—a test for the body and refinement for the soul.
The famous radio personality and early pioneer of television, Arthur Godfrey, grew up in an era very different from today. It was a time when a boy could wander down to the blacksmith shop on a lazy afternoon and watch the smithy work at his anvil and forge. It was a favorite pastime of the young Godfrey. Sometimes he would watch the blacksmith sorting the scrap metal. The man would pick up a piece of metal from a holding bin, turn it this way and that in his large hands, then either toss it into the fire to be softened and hammered into some useful tool, or thrown into a junk heap to be discarded. From this experience Arthur forged a simple prayer which he used all his life. Whenever seized by his own sense of sin or some personal moral failure he would pray—“The fire, Lord, not the junk-heap.” It is a prayer that captures two essential dimensions of Ash Wednesday and Lent— a prayer for pardon and a prayer for purity.
Let’s take pardon first.
“Two men” said Jesus “went up to the Temple to pray, the one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” So begins a parable appointed to be read in the daily office for Ash Wednesday—Luke 18:9-14. At first blush it seems quite simple. Most of us have heard it before; but if you read it again and again with the purpose of explaining it to others you may find, as I often have, it is a most disconcerting parable. This is not two men just happening to drop by the synagogue or church around the same time to pray about a problem in their lives. This is going up to the Temple for the evening sacrifice—the place of atonement.
The Pharisee prays “standing by himself;” the Tax Collector prays “standing far off.”
The Pharisee is definitely thinking about himself, his spiritual journey, how he’s doing (a very good practice after all)—and he rightly evaluates as he thinks of others, “There but for the grace of God go I.” That is he is thankful he is not guilty of the sins of so many others—and for a moment God is addressed. Yet, then a dangerous movement takes place. His focus shifts. Rather than continuing to look up to God his eyes look downward not merely upon the behavior of others but toward actual people—“even this tax-collector.”
Most of us know this long gaze cast at the other’s sin from the vantage point of our successes—however we may measure success or spiritual maturity—Bible reading, prayer, helping others, generosity, volunteerism, recycling, tolerance towards others beliefs, etc…. But suddenly with this gaze we find ourselves standing with the Pharisee and our spiritual or inner life like his turns sour.
This Pharisee despite all his religious striving (after all he fasts twice a week and gives 10% of his income—what priest would not want him in his congregation?) hasn’t an ounce of humility. Certainly he has a moral conscience. It tells him “do this, don’t do that; this is right, this is wrong.” But it seems to focus only on his behavior not towards his heart. His conscience is like a plow that only scrapes along the surface of his soul. Its blade has not dug deep enough to break up the hard ground of his self-righteousness. He is a man who has forgotten his need for forgiveness; he seeks no communion with the Unseen because his eyes have grown weary with what they have seen; he has no desire to be something better because he is weary with what he is. His is a religion that keeps him tied to surface needs. If there has ever been a time he felt the lamb of the evening sacrifice was being slaughtered and cut for him—its blood spilled for his sin—it has long since been forgotten. Just a little sprinkling of incense upon the coals of a side altar is sufficient for his insignificant trespasses….
His is the sort of religion found in many places today that allows a man to keep his self-righteousness — or a woman to keep her superiority over others – intact. And that my friends is too often my problem too—so, frankly, giving up chocolate, or meat or even an evening cocktail just doesn’t allow the blade of God’s plow to dig a deep enough furrow for true repentance or to receive through faith the needed forgiveness that yields a corresponding love for God and others. (Luke 7:40-50)
The tax collector’s prayer in contrast is disarming: “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” He doesn’t look or ask for some divine process within his soul to make him right in the sight of God; he doesn’t even ask for God to make a right spirit within him; rather he looks only toward an act of God given on his behalf. Yet this is the prayer that receives the sentence of justification pronounced by the One—who on the cross became the Lamb of the Sacrifice—who is himself both Priest and Victim. Jesus declared it was the Tax-collector, not the Pharisee who went home with his life right in the sight of God. Martin Luther once counseled a troubled believer after his conscience had been convicted and forgiveness proclaimed, “You should not believe your conscience and your feelings more than the word which the Lord preaches to you…. This is the real strength to trust God when all your senses and reason speak otherwise; and to have greater confidence in Him than how you feel.”
And so here’s a good prayer for Ash Wednesday as we begin another Lenten season:
“God be merciful to me a sinner!”
So, then, what about Purity?
Is this not also a theme of Ash Wednesday? Well, yes, and here too a text of Holy Scripture emerges from the day’s assigned liturgy: Psalm 51. This psalm which David prayed after Nathan preached the word that harrowed the king’s conscience and brought him to his knees was not a prayer that asked for pardon alone; the sense of pardon also brought a yearning for purity:
“Create in me a clean heart, O God
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.”
His pardoned and penitent heart seeks God’s grace for holiness, purity and transformation; for that which he does not have in himself, cannot give himself, and certainly does not deserve for himself.
The relationship in our lives between the prayer for pardon and the prayer for purity is akin to the relationship between justification and sanctification. As the theologian, Donald Bloesch notes succinctly: “Justification confers a new status whereas sanctification instills in man a new character.”
Ash Wednesday and Lent puts us in mind of our need for each.
While affirming the priority of the prayer for pardon (the tax collector’s prayer that looks to Christ’s justifying work on the cross); so also there is a place for the prayer for purity (the prayer of David for the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in our lives).
Both movements are found in Arthur Godfrey’s profound but simple prayer, “The fire, Lord, not the junk heap.”