By the Rt. Rev. Henry N. Parsley, Jr.,
Visiting Bishop for the Diocese of South Carolina
In this short Life that lasts an
How much — how little — is within our
- Emily Dickinson
During times like this, I often find myself revisiting sources of wisdom that were helpful in previous uncertain days. In my 71 years of life I have lived through many unsettling events, as have most of you. The polio epidemic of my childhood, Vietnam, Katrina, 9/11, the Iraq War, the Haitian earthquake, and the Great Recession come to mind. Now it is the COVID-19 pandemic. Paul Tillich, in a phrase that has long stuck to my mental socks, called such times “the shaking of the foundations.”
When life is shaken, this wise theologian wrote, we are reminded that God “is the foundation on which all foundations are laid; and this foundation cannot be shaken. There is something immoveable, unchangeable, unshakeable, eternal, which becomes manifest in our passing and in the crumbling of our world. On the boundaries of the finite, the infinite becomes visible.” Those are words worth keeping close at hand in the living of these days.
We are all moving through an emotional process. It is like what we experience in times of grief, involving various stages like denial and bargaining and anger. Denial seeks to minimize a crisis. Bargaining seeks to find a way to stop it or get around it. Anger seeks someone to blame. This process is as natural as rain. We see it being played out publicly in the responses of some of our leaders as well in the secret chambers of our hearts. [When can we get back to normal? Who will fix it?] It is important to listen for this and understand it.
Such experiences make us ask: “What are the real foundations of my life?” They put us in touch with life’s uncertainty and of our own human vulnerability, from which we naturally want to be defended. Our recent history of affluence and scientific achievement and national power have made us feel like we have life under control. Suddenly we are facing a situation that we cannot control, at least not quickly, and we are having to live in very unsettling uncertainty.
It is thought that Shakespeare wrote his great play, King Lear, during one of the pandemics in Elizabethan England, when London theaters were closed along with the churches. The play tells of a king who had great wealth and absolute power, only to have his life shaken to the core. In the storm, he begins to see himself truly and says, “They told me I was everything. ’Tis a lie. I am not ague proof.” Lear is able to be redeemed as he accepts his vulnerability and discovers his capacity to love. These firm realities bring joy in spite of the breakage around him.
The bard knew that it is when familiar foundations shake that we have a chance to break through to the truth. For it is then that the deeper foundations of life are exposed. It is no accident that on the day of the cross the earth was shaken, we are told, as the deepest truth of God’s love was being revealed. “On the boundaries of the finite, the infinite becomes visible.” In our vulnerability God’s sovereignty is revealed. Accepting our fragility opens our eyes to the immoveable, eternal love that is our true dowry and destiny.”
John Rippon’s hymn says it well:
How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
is laid for your faith in his excellent word!…
When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
my grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply;
the flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.
The soul that to Jesus hath fed for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to his foes;
that soul, though all hell shall endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no, never, no, never forsake.
This is the foundation on which all other foundations are laid, which cannot be shaken.
The Rt. Rev. Henry Nutt Parsley, Jr.
During the uncertain times created by the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, leadership of the diocese will send out regular meditations on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays for the next while as we all adjust to a new chapter of living and being the Church.