April 18: Surprising Gifts
By the Rt. Rev. Henry N. Parsley, Jr.,
Visiting Bishop for the Diocese of South Carolina
During the past six weeks, the rhythm of our life has been dramatically altered. Under the restrictions necessary to combat the COVID-19 pandemic we are staying home, distanced from friends and neighbors, while unable to move freely and do many of the things we used to do regularly. Familiar outings and sports events have vanished. Calendars have lots of erase marks. The fever of life has slowed, and many are finding that we have a lot of time on our hands.
A memorable Simon & Garfunkel song of my youth advised, “Slow down, you move too fast. You’ve got to make the morning last.” Heaven knows the mornings are lasting these days, for many of us. And it does not always “feel groovy.” Isolation, disruption, and social distancing are hard on the spirit.
I do wonder, however, if there might not be a strange gift in all this. Let me hasten to say that I am not diminishing the suffering many are experiencing or the damage to our social and economic well-being. There is no naiveté here; this is a tough and heartbreaking event.
As Easter people, however, we are bidden to look for the unexpected. The resurrection narratives frequently tell us that the disciples were huddled up in fear in the days after the cross, only to be radically surprised by the mysterious presence of the risen Christ. These stories urge us always to keep our eyes open for the surprising gifts that can appear in the most difficult times.
I believe that being forced to slow down may be one of the most surprising gifts of this pandemic. As I have listened pastorally to people’s struggles over many years, a recurrent theme has been the breathtaking pace of life and its erosion of our spirit and our relationships. I will never forget a military couple who once came to me for marriage counseling. In the midst of one of our honest, hard conversations, the naval captain said, “the real problem is that we have not made time to take care of our souls.” Quiet recognition of this truth sunk in. As they began to set aside time to be quiet and share their feelings, to worship together and enjoy simple things, their relationship began to heal and flourish again.
At the heart of the Scriptures is the rhythm of the sabbath. The fourth commandment about keeping sabbath is actually the longest of the ten. Sabbath comes from the Hebrew word shabbāth, which actually means to stop or to cease. One day a week was meant for intentional stopping, ceasing from all work and simplifying in order to reflect, renew intimate relationships with God and family, and savor the pure gift of being alive. It is meant to be soul time.
A rabbi once called the sabbath, “a cathedral in time.” Jesus said that the “sabbath was made for humankind,” made, among other things, to slow us down. Without it we can become consumed by our own consuming. We move too fast. We forget that life is a gift, and not something we create ourselves. After keeping sabbath for a time we can return to our work refreshed and re-centered.
The whole earth is experiencing something like this at the moment. Musicians are playing instruments on balconies in New York. In the canals of Venice, clear water and fish are visible again. The people of Punjab in India can see the Himalayas after over thirty years of pollution block. The skies over LA are blue. Families are reporting how they are rediscovering simple things. People are leaning out of doors and windows to cheer for health care personnel and frontline workers. Slowing down is making us able to see beauty and goodness that we can easily miss in our customary busyness and rush.
The Chinese word for crisis includes both the character for danger and for opportunity. The present stopping in our lives can become a surprising gift if we allow it to slow us down and rekindle the ancient rhythm of the sabbath.
As we struggle together through the dangers of this crisis, do not miss the opportunity. Take time to ponder the things that really matter, to befriend the spiritual depths of life, and to deepen your relationship with God and each other. It just might somehow make us better people, better families, and a better world.
The Rt. Rev. Henry Nutt Parsley, Jr.
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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.