A Look Back to a 2006 Mark Lawrence Address—“Who are these birds that can sing in the dark?”

Posted by Kendall Harmon

We meet this morning in this lovely city of Charleston. Inside the walls of this great old historic edifice—we can only hope the wisdom of the years might seep into our minds that we might rightly appreciate the present, and more importantly imagine an even greater future for tomorrow. It is of course serious stuff we do here today.

Our beloved Episcopal Church has entered into a time of crisis quite unique in her history. And this flagship diocese of South Carolina has to negotiate right in the midst of the narrow strait and stormy seas the finding of a new helmsman. Like Magellan’s crew continuing their circumnavigation of the globe after their captain is gone. No easy task. All just a little nerve-racking. Serious business, I tell you. Serious business. A man could lose his footing; a diocese could lose its bearings. My wife suggested to me that you all might be under a lot of stress…. I told her, “Well I’m under a little stress myself!”

I have among my bookshelves in my office at the church a small book written by Michael Henshall, Bishop of Warrington, England. It’s made up of letters he wrote to his newly ordained son, Nicholas. In one of the letters the bishop mentions some counsel Archbishop Michael Ramsey gave to him at his ordination in 1956—“Always pay your bills on time. Always answer your mail on time.” Bishop Henshall said he thought at the time the advice was pretty banal. Later he grew to see how often we fail because of small procrastinations. It reminded me as I read it of my ordination to the priesthood 25 years ago. I was full of idealism; having, so I thought, a deep commitment to prayer, study, servanthood, sacrifice, and ministry in the Holy Spirit. I didn’t get to pick the preacher as many do today. I didn’t think at the time it was all that good of a sermon. I still don’t. But the preacher said something that stuck with me because it seemed to me at the time so trite. He said, “Don’t be a grumpy priest. Don’t forget to smile.” Now at 56, and two and a half decades after my ordination, it doesn’t seem so trite a charge. So facetious a warning. It is a constant with me—I have to watch out for grumpiness. It would be the gravest mistake if we who profess and call ourselves Christians allow our difficulties, struggles, and spiritual battles to cause us to lose our joy. G. K. Chesterton called joy, “the gigantic secret of the Christian.” Well why not. The Gospel begins with joy and ends with joy.

I was hiking one day on Mt. Desert Isand in Maine when I came across a Ladyslipper on the side of the trail. I knelt down to study it. I thought, “What a beautifully formed wildflower.” It brought me joy. And when I got up to hike there was a new lilt in my step. But it was a serendipitous, happenstance joy. Too many Christians seem to think that this is how our joy should be, just something we come across as we go through life. But Christian joy is a cultivated flower, planted, nurtured and water in cooperation with God’s grace. So I remind you of the joy of Christmas, even on this morning in September. “Behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior who is Christ the Lord.” Read next the resurrection appearances and you’ll see this same joy everywhere between the lines of the narrative. The Road to Emmaus disciples run back to Jerusalem and discover Peter too has seen the Lord. They all share their stories and Luke writes, “While they disbelieved for joy….”

One of the staggering things, though, about John’s Gospel is that the closer Jesus gets to the cross the more he talks to his disciples about his joy. “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” He prays to his Father, “But I am coming to thee; and these things I spoke in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves.” Then to his disciples again, “I will see you again and your hearts shall rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you…ask, and you shall receive, that your joy may be full.”

The French spiritual writer, Louis Evely has written, “Our sadness measures exactly our attachment to ourselves. The place we give to joy is the place we give to God. We believe no more in him than in joy.” Is our religion only a religion of the cross? Of sacrifice? Of denial? Of spiritual battles? Is there no place for the empty tomb, the lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore, a charcoal fire, and the risen Christ with fish on the shoreline in the morning mist as the sun rises above the Galilean hills—and a voice calls out, “Children have you caught any fish?” “No.” “Cast the net on the right side of the boat….” (He wasn’t talking politics when he said “right side.” Nothing here about theology). No maybe I’d better put it… “starboard side of the boat and you’ll get a catch.” Joy you see runs right through the gospels from beginning to end.

The late bishop, Festo Kivengere, Anglican bishop in Uganda and well-known evangelist related how one day he was coming from the cathedral feeling very good that he had preached a fine sermon. (You can often tell how a preacher feels about the morning sermon by his gait as he goes to his car after the service when nobody is watching). Then a dear lady, 70 years old, illiterate, but a real saint, took his hand and thanked him for the message. Then, very quietly she said, “Bishop, what’s wrong? You seemed rather dry.” There was no despising or criticism, he said, just redeeming love. Before he could answer, she said, “Just take it to the Lord.” So bishop Kivengere went home and got down on his face. “I took it to Him—and it was the beginning of blessing. I’m learning we need to be in a blessable posture in our hearts in order not to hinder the stream of the Spirit.” So each of us needs to be in a blessable posture this morning so the Holy Spirit can move among and upon us.

Sure there are many concerns in the larger church. Struggles aplenty. This is serious business. So serious we dare not do it without joy of the Gospel. There’s no reason to let our concerns, ours struggles, our worries—our battles steal our joy. My grandmother used to have songbirds in her kitchen. She kept them in a cage. And they would sing to her throughout the day. Sometimes they’d make too much noise during one of her soap operas that she’d put a veil over it and they’d grow quiet. “Grandma” I asked, “why do you put that towel over their cage?” She said, “Mark, birds can’t sing in a darkened cage.” Yet you will remember Paul and Silas. Arrested in Philippi. Beaten with rods and put into stocks in the Philippian jail. Still there in the darkened prison that night they sang songs of praise to God. The jailer and prisons must have thought to themselves, “Who are these birds that can sing in a darkened cage?” May they say of this Diocese of South Carolina, in these stressful, troubling and sometimes-dark days, “Who are these birds—that can sing in a darkened cage? Surely the joy of the Lord must be their strength!”

(Hat tip to a blog reader and Lent and Beyond.)

Filed under: * Anglican - EpiscopalEpiscopal Church (TEC)TEC BishopsTEC ConflictsTEC Conflicts: South Carolina* Christian Life / Church LifeParish MinistryMinistry of the OrdainedPreaching / Homiletics* South Carolina* TheologyPastoral Theology

12 Comments
Posted October 8, 2011 at 7:00 pm [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



1. trimom wrote:

I swear, +Mark Lawrence is the best. THE. BEST. BISHOP. Is there a wonder why the people of SC love him so much?

October 8, 8:25 pm | [comment link]
2. TheVeryRev wrote:

But where are his Communion Partner bishops? We have not heard a work of support or outrage.

October 9, 10:38 am | [comment link]
3. Ed McNeill wrote:

#2, That is a most excellent question.

October 9, 11:20 am | [comment link]
4. Blue Cat Man wrote:

I read this after Lent and Beyond had it posted recently.  As this was before he was our bishop, I had not read it until recently. WOW! He really showed in this address exactly what we would be getting if he became our bishop. Now that he is, I have had several opportunities to listen him preach and teach. He is a fine preacher and teacher.  Not everyone can say that of their diocesan bishop. I can. ALLELUIA!

October 9, 8:38 pm | [comment link]
5. Cennydd13 wrote:

2.  If they don’t support him, then they’ve all got weak knees.

October 9, 10:39 pm | [comment link]
6. Undergroundpewster wrote:

I know why the caged bird sings…

“I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
  When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
  When he beats his bars and he would be free;
  It is not a carol of joy or glee,
  But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
  But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
  I know why the caged bird sings!” Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)

October 10, 10:54 am | [comment link]
7. evan miller wrote:

Wonderful.  I do so envy the Dio. of South Carolina, even in the midst of their troubles!

October 10, 4:11 pm | [comment link]
8. Pageantmaster ن wrote:

He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.

It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fulness of Christ.

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.

Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.

From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
Ephesians 4:10-16

Prayers for the wonderful Diocese of South Carolina and its fantastic bishop. 

Bravo Bishop Mark - I will stand up for him.

October 10, 4:41 pm | [comment link]
9. CBH wrote:

Last night I discovered YouTube videos of KJS meeting with SC Clergy some while ago.  I plan to watch all of them; however #4 is a masterpiece of theology by Bishop Lawrence with such “charity and clarity”.  I recommend them all.  I can’t comprehend how anyone can sit on the fence here.

October 11, 10:15 am | [comment link]
10. CBH wrote:

Oops,  I forgot to explain how I located them: 

http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=SC+Bishop+Mark+Lawrence&aq=f

October 11, 10:18 am | [comment link]
11. PeterL wrote:

perhaps some of the communion partners don’t see themselves as so important and influential in God’s eyes.

October 11, 11:20 pm | [comment link]
12. Barbara Gauthier wrote:

Archbishop Bob Duncan had a similar line when he spoke at Wheaton College several years ago.  He summed up the Gospel in this one sentence:  “Jesus became a Man of Sorrows that we might become a People of Joy.”

Barbara Gauthier

October 12, 11:07 am | [comment link]
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