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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The Viral Shuttering of Other Gods

Shutters with wordsThis is an edited version of a sermon given by Bishop Mark Lawrence on Palm Sunday, April 5, 2020 at St. Michael’s Church, Charleston SC. View the video.

I received an email last week that included a brief message that I’ve been ruminating on ever since. It was from an acquaintance of mine, Bishop James Wong, who is the Anglican Archbishop of the Indian Ocean. Let me share part of it with you.

“In three short months, just like He did with the plagues of Egypt, God has taken away everything we worship. God said, “You want to worship athletes, I will shut down the stadiums. You want to worship musicians, I will shut down Civic Centers. You want to worship actors, I will shut down theaters. You want to worship money, I will shut down the economy and collapse the stock market. You don’t want to go to church and worship Me, I will make it where you can’t go to church.”

I imagine he could have mentioned others: You want to worship health; I will empty your gyms and fill your hospitals. You want to worship recreation; I will close the Magic Kingdom and gate your parks. You want to worship travel and exotic places; I will dock your cruise liners and ground your planes. You want to indulge in the nightlife; I will close your restaurants and bars and shutter your cities.

Well that has the ring of truth to it—mostly! Yet not entirely. It could be understood to mean God sent this coronavirus as a judgement on the world. Yet I for one am not ready to say that. I am inclined to say it is a judgement upon our idols. It reveals to us how frail life can be and how vain at times our pursuits. You will remember the first two commandments of the Decalogue. “God spoke these words and said: I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods but me. You shall not make for yourself any idol.” The reformer John Calvin said, “The human heart is a factory for the making of idols.” When we give ourselves to idols, embracing God’s good gifts separate from Him they invariably turn empty and let us down—whether as individuals, communities, or even nations. “Claiming to be wise they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man….” (Romans 1:22-23)

The Judeo-Christian scriptures teach us that life is meaningful and good. That evil, which is parasitic, brings disorder into the healthy and good order of God’s creation. This evil includes destructive infectious disease like the coronavirus and non-infectious disease like cancer. It includes moral corruption such as human trafficking as well as the moral corruption that most of us partake in whenever we willfully choose to turn away from God and from what He has declared as good. This happens often in our daily lives. In big ways and in small ways.

Some years ago, when our children were young I was playing Monopoly with them. I understood strategy well. I purchased all the “green” property on the board as well as Boardwalk and Park Place and put up houses and hotels. I bought the railroads. Soon my oldest daughter close to bankruptcy left the game. Then my son Joseph landed on my hotels, and after mortgaging all his property, said, “Dad, I’m going up to bed.” I said, “Joe, I’ll loan you some money.” “No, Dad I’m sleepy.” That left only our daughter Emily. Soon she was left bankrupt. “Well, Dad, I’m going to bed.” “Please, Emily, here’s some money, stay in the game.” No, it’s late. I’m tired.” Left alone with my money, my property, my hotels and houses, I collected it all, folded the board and faced the fact that it all goes back in the box.

All too easily, we can live our lives without any reference to God. Yet as Dr. Christopher Wright notes, we do not live life without him. “He is the source of our lives, of our health. It is God’s creation that gives us the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe.”

Whether it is the work we yearn to get back to, the sports we miss, the recreation, or travel we are presently denied, it is God who is the source of it all. The beauty in art and music; in the sunset over the creeks and marsh of the low country; the glow of the moonlight through the pines; the glistening of the gas lamps on a misty Charleston street at night; the surprise in the rush of a covey of quail flushed from the bush; the warmth of handshake, or the voice of a longtime friend who greets us from behind—God is the author, giver and invigorating power behind all that makes life worth living. The question this virus and quarantine forces upon us is what happens when we do return to “normal” life. Will we enjoy the gifts of a gracious God with or without a relationship to him?

Every blessing and every sorrow that comes our way is used by God to draw us to himself. The God who in the wonders of creation dazzles us with beauty comes to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is through him that we come into the eternal life of the Father—the giver of all that is true, and lovely and gracious.

When loss and sorrow break our hearts, he who wept at the death of his friend invites us with the words: “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

When life’s path seems obscure, the way ahead most foggy, faith brings us under the Lordship of Jesus Christ assuring us that the hands, which hold the future, are the same hands that touched the leper, healed the blind, and bore the nails upon the cross.

When our goodness fails, as it always does, the forgiveness of the cross washes us, heals us, and shall ultimately transform us. And when our lives draw to an end, or we close the eyes of a loved one at a bedside, he is the one who comforts us, “Let not your hearts be troubled, you believe in God believe also in me…I go to prepare a place for you that where I am you may be also.” When all other gods fail: when all our idols are shuttered—He who is the beginning and the end will remain.

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Faithfulness in an Age of Pandemic

A Pastoral Letter from The Rt. Rev. Mark J. Lawrence

March 17, 2020

Bishop LawrenceGreetings in the strong name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit in whose fellowship we, by the grace of God, are most richly blessed and favored to abide.  Peace, hope and love in Christ Jesus!

As the coronavirus COVID-19 has increased its spread we have all received from local, state and national authorities ever more restricting guidelines for gatherings and social distancing. There is something hauntingly biblical as the guidelines have narrowed from 100 to 50 and now to 10 persons for public gatherings. And, of course, we remember St. Paul’s teaching, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” (Romans 13:1)

In the 12 plus years I have been your bishop, I have known my share of joyous hours as well as those heavy of heart. These last few days since cancelling our Diocesan Convention have fallen in both categories. Giving a further directive to our clergy yesterday to cancel on-site worship services for the next two weeks has been troubling to them and to me. However, it has also been quite encouraging—alive with possibilities.  As I talked with our rectors in the Charleston deanery and with the deans of our diocese yesterday, I was heartened as they shared ideas and ways they are pastoring and caring for their parishioners during this season. What a godly and sacrificial group of clergy serve our congregations. Throughout this week, I will continue to have conference calls with the clergy in our deaneries to share ideas for ministry and support.

The church down through the centuries has faced many crises.  During the Yellow Fever outbreak in Philadelphia in 1793 Christian clergy and laity distinguished themselves in caring for sick; the plagues that visited London and other cities and towns of Europe during the Middle Ages and later, became the things that saints were made of. During wars and rumors of war, on battlefields and through bombing raids, the church continued to gather, lifting high the cross of Christ. Missionary doctors and nurses, military chaplains, parish clergy, nuns, and mendicants, like St. Francis embracing confidently the leprous, caring for the sick and dying, have been hallmarks of our history that we as believers rightly celebrate.

Nevertheless, I suggest that faithfulness in an age of pandemic means a church united and confident enough not to meet, at least not in the buildings we normally call the church. To live out our faith in our homes and with our families offers us an opportunity to grow deeper in prayer and in the fruit of the Spirit. This time of social distancing, worshipping and keeping in touch with others online and through small group fellowships provide us an opportunity to cultivate the spiritual disciplines of silence, solitude, journaling and reading and mediating on Holy Scripture. Increasing our family time and personal devotions might make this the most fruitful and memorable Lent ever. For the busy parent with children out of school and restless, Brother Lawrence’s little classic, Practicing the Presence of God, might be just the perfect Lenten reading!

As Anglicans, part of our heritage has been to maintain a sense of care and engagement with our community at large, including a sense of national responsibility.  Ours has not been a separatist tradition. Our history traces back to having been a national church as the Church of England. One of the strengths from this heritage is that we have had a sense of sacrificing for the common good, of laboring for the betterment of society, and for contributing and preserving the richness of our culture and civilization. I believe it is time to draw upon that now.

Quite simply we need to think of the good of our community, bearing witness that by moving our worship services online and practicing social distancing we are protecting our neighborhoods, towns and cities, our nation, and our world. As the Rev. Dr. Greg Snyder put it in a letter to his congregation, we are like a forest fire crew fighting a wildfire by cutting a swath in the forest, creating a fire break in order to prevent its spread. As the saying goes, we all need to do what we can to Flatten the Curve.

The President designated last Sunday a Day of Prayer and our Archbishop Foley Beach encouraged us to participate. Perhaps your church did. May I encourage you to continue with his call. You can find it here.

I also ask you to pray for our clergy and parish leaders as they look for creative ways to minister to our people and explore technological ways to shepherd the congregations under their care through live stream services and gatherings during this unusual season.

On a diocesan level, we are working to assist every congregation in exploring live streaming or online worship for their parishioners. Our Canon to the Ordinary, Jim Lewis, forwarded a listing of resources to the clergy yesterday for training in that technology.  In addition, churches offering livestream worship services in the Diocese may be found here.  You and your family may want to follow the service in the ACNA prayer book.

As a lowering in on-site attendance lessens financial giving, remember to be faithful in your offerings and, for those able, to give additionally to help your church meet needs of those who will experience extreme financial difficulties as a result of the coronavirus restrictions. The Diocese is working to assist congregations who have not yet developed online giving, to do so.

Allison and I will be praying for you, your family and congregations daily that we will be more than conquerors through Christ who strengthens us.  We love you and, more important, God loves you!

“Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” (Jude 24) 

Yours in Christ

The Rt. Rev. Mark J. Lawrence
Bishop of The Anglican Diocese of South Carolina


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Springtime: The Seedtimes of Your Life

What are you sowing?

planting seedsToday is an Ember Day in the Church’s Calendar. So is this Friday and Saturday. Mostly they go unnoticed—you may have never heard of them.  Ember Days in the Western Church trace back as far as Bishop Callistus of Rome in A.D. 220.  Pope Leo the Great (440-461) gave a series of Ember tide sermons—harvest (fall), vintage (or summer), seedtime (spring) to sanctify the agricultural society of his day.  These sermons, timed with the seasons and crops, reflect an era when Christians (and others) lived closer with the earth and the agrarian life.

The Church’s calendar later connected these seasons with other holy occasions; St. Lucy Day (December13th) for the winter or fallow season; Ash Wednesday with spring or seedtime; Pentecost with the vintage season or summer; and Holy Cross Day (September 14th) initiating fall or the harvest.  These turnings of the year sanctify the seasons.

This Ember day, coming as it does right before spring, is a season focused on sowing, but it is of interest to more than gardeners and farmers. The agricultural practice of sowing seed became for the biblical writers a metaphor of the spiritual life.  Hosea used it figuratively of God sowing Israel in the Promised Land; Jeremiah, for God making Israel fruitful; Zechariah for sowing Israel abroad in the diaspora; and the Psalmist by fashioning his prayer from the metaphor:

 “He who goes out weeping, /bearing the seed for sowing,
 Shall come home with shouts of joy, /bringing his sheaves with him.”(Ps. 126)

 Later Jewish writers told of “God sowing virtues in the soul” much as we approach the Lenten disciplines as cooperating with the Holy Spirit’s work and God’s word in sowing the new life of the Spirit and the rhythms of grace into ever-deeper aspects of our lives.

Jesus uses this image of sowing in his well-known Parable of the Sower to teach about the Kingdom of God.  The Sower going out to sow tossed the seed abroad in the field of the world.  That is trust God and share the Gospel.  Share the Gospel and trust God.  So also in other parables such as the Growing Grain and the Mustard Seed the sowing metaphor found a place in his teaching (Mark 4:26-32).

 St. Paul, likewise, used the metaphor of sowing to teach essential principles of the spiritual life.  As he notes in Galatians 6:7-10: “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.  And let us not grow weary in well- doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”

Then again, in 2 Corinthians 9:6 he takes up this metaphor afresh: “The point is this: he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully  Each one must do as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.

So, too, with these spring Ember days or seedtime. It is an opportunity to reflect upon the simple but profound truth that there can be many spring times in our lives—days for sowing and planting.  Spring is not just a season for the young. Sowing and planting can refer to sowing words of encouragement; to prayers cultivated in private; gifts and alms planted in secret; sharing an experience of God’s faithfulness; writing a letter, email or text to friend; a note to someone going through a difficult time; a hug, a hand on the shoulder, or a greeting on the street.

What are we sowing in the lives of others throughout our day?  There can be spring times everywhere—the seed of good words, prayers, and alms.  And, of course, the cultivation of virtue in our lives, which will yield the fruitful harvest of a happy life for oneself and for those with whom we share our home.

It may be the summer—autumn—even winter in your life but a season of sowing can still be yours. I think often about what I can sow in the lives of my grandchildren and for the next generations. Remember David’s words in Psalm 71:17-18: “O God, from my youth thou has taught me, and I still proclaim thy wondrous deeds. So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, till I proclaim thy might to all the generations to come.”  He is sowing for a harvest he may never live to see but will bless the generations yet to come.

Theodore of Tarsus was a Greek monk who came to Rome to teach in AD 667.  When the Archbishop of Canterbury died the Pope turned to Theodore for what he thought would be a transitional primacy.  Theodore arrived in Canterbury in 669.  He immediately began visiting all the dioceses in England.   When he died 20 years later at the age of 89 he had ordained indigenous Anglo-Saxon Bishops and leaders throughout England and established the two fold provincial system of Canterbury and York, which is still in place today. He may have accomplished more for the English Church than any Archbishop in history.  Who could have anticipated when he arrived in Rome at 66 that within two years he would have another spring—a great seedtime—a transformative season of sowing?  It would bring forth in the next century the high water mark of Anglo-Saxon Christianity influencing all of Europe with its intellectual and missionary thrust.

I could go on to name others who experienced a seedtime in the winter years of life.  Take the British Vicar, William Keble Martin, who spent what precious free time he had from his parish work studying flowers.  Serving in the parish well into his seventies he simultaneously carried out a passion for gardening.  Robert Morley, in his book, The Pleasures of Age (written when the British actor was in his ninth decade), noted that Fr. Marten was 88 when he sowed the seeds of his great avocational pursuit, finally publishing, The Concise British Flora in Color, a bestseller of its day! Like Martin Luther, when asked what he would do if he knew Jesus was coming tomorrow, said, “I would plant a tree.”

What, my friend, are you planting?


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“Shopmas,” Advent & Christmas

An Advent/Christmas Interview with Bishop Mark Lawrence

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

Door of the Bishop's residence

Bishop, How do you observe Advent?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So two warring factions?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will you be using an Advent devotional this year?

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

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

You’ve got to be kidding me!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Favorite holiday food?

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

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

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

What do you look forward to most?

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

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

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

What about the services?

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

So managing expectations is important?

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

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The Bishop’s Bookshelf

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

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

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

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

How many books do you read a month?

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

What are you reading right now?

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

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

How do you go about deciding what to read?

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

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

You’re very strategic in your reading.

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

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

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

What made you decide on Shakespeare this year?

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

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

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

Have your children picked up your reading style?

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

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

What book has stuck with you recently?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Open the Door – It’s Christmas

Man standing by barn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thanksgiving—the Normal Christian Life

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

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Summer—When Living is for Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ash Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Man in hammockDear Friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May a blessed Lent come your way,

+Mark Lawrence

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