By Daniel Martins

Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through the hours of this night, so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life may rest in your eternal changelessness.
— The Book of Common Prayer, Compline, p. 133.

I was in my early 40s when I first realized that my memories and recollections were beginning to outweigh my dreams and aspirations. What was marginally true then is massively true now as I near the completion of my 71st trip around the sun. “Now that I am old and gray-headed,” the psalmist prays as he seeks divine forbearance (Ps. 78:13), and … well, now that’s me! A full year now into retirement, I have come to a point in my life when the impetus to wax autobiographical naturally ascends, and a preoccupation with current events recedes.

I attended six consecutive General Conventions — three as a deputy and three as a bishop — and the one in session as I write is not my seventh. I’m not there, and, while there are some people I would enjoy running into in the corridors, I’m not sad about missing it. I am sad about missing the imminent Lambeth Conference; even though I was in office as a bishop diocesan for more than 10 years, and so would normally have attended a Lambeth Conference, pandemic-caused delays have prevented this. And while I care deeply about some of the issues that will be before convention, and about the welfare of the worldwide Anglican Communion, I will not be voraciously consuming every scrap of information that escapes either assembly. My mind and my heart are in a different place, because I am in a different season of life.

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The Compline collect quoted above refers to the “changes and chances of this life,” and I find my attention drawn to such things a great deal of late. It has been reported that Abraham Lincoln offered Robert E. Lee command of Union forces at the beginning of the Civil War, but Lee declined, citing a prior loyalty to his home commonwealth of Virginia. Who knows how history might have been different had Lee been of a different mind?

Changes and chances.

I was reared in a pan-evangelical Christian milieu in the 1950s and 60s. For the most part, I was just along for the ride, because that’s what my family did, until early in my high school years. Then, a certain individual was called to take charge of youth ministry in my church, and he changed my life. Through his ministry — both his direct testimony and via the programs he was in charge of — I became a serious and intentional disciple of Jesus Christ. Would I even be a practicing Christian today without Pastor Dave’s influence? I don’t honestly know.

Changes and chances.

Because of that vital youth ministry, I sought out a college with an overt Christian commitment. In a required introduction to Christian theology course, I was, for the first time, exposed to creeds generated by the first four ecumenical councils, and the debates around christology and trinitarian theology that birthed them. It took me years to realize as much, but that course influenced the direction of my life in profound ways.

When I entered college, I intended to major in political science as a prelude to law school. When I sat down with my academic advisor, a poli-sci professor, he made an offhand comment that perhaps my schedule wouldn’t have space to accommodate my participation in the college band. That throwaway remark precipitated a major vocational crisis for me. After a great deal of consultation, prayer, and discernment, I changed my major to music. As a result, I acquired resources that would significantly enhance the ministry I had not even imagined yet, to say nothing of introducing me to the woman I would eventually marry! What if my advisor had not been moved to make that remark?

Changes and chances.

Since my family was in Illinois and I was in college in California, and since money was tight, I stayed on campus during spring break of my freshman year. Because I was a music major by then, I was familiar with the practice room building. Most of the rooms were equipped with a piano, and, in one of them, for some reason that I still do not know, there were several copies of the Episcopal Church’s Hymnal 1940. One day, just to kill time, I sat down at the piano and started playing through that volume. I felt like I had stumbled over a treasure chest. “Where have these hymns been all my life?” I asked myself. And then I realized powerfully that if there’s a church that actually sings these hymns, I probably need to be in it. That day in the practice room I became an Episcopalian, though I didn’t know it yet, and even though I had not yet darkened the door of an Episcopal church. What if I had decided to take a nap that afternoon rather than play the piano?

Changes and chances.

By the fall of my senior year I was already married, and Brenda and I were regularly attending a Lutheran church, enjoying our exposure to a form of the historic Western liturgy that we had studied as music majors. Around that time, the position of choir director became open. Feeling both qualified and desirous of the extra income, I applied for it. I ended up not getting the job, but had a decent interview with the worship committee, and I was certainly a plausible candidate. What if they had picked me? How would that have affected my life? I strongly suspect I might now be a retired ELCA pastor rather than a retired Episcopal Church bishop!

Changes and chances.

In the early years of this century, blogging enjoyed a moment in the sun. The advent of more immediate forms of social media — Facebook and Twitter and their cousins — eventually siphoned off a lot of that energy, but I decided to jump on the bandwagon in 2005, which was perhaps the peak of the medium. I parleyed my participation in a General Convention listserv, where I had acquired a reputation as, I like to think, an articulate and principled, but always irenic, spokesman for traditional and orthodox positions in the ecclesiastical discourse of the time, and from that I developed a not insignificant blog following. Without taking the pixels now to connect all the dots, I’ll just say that there’s a fairly clear line between my decision to start blogging and the viability of my eventual candidacy in the discernment and election process that ended in my consecration as Bishop of Springfield. What if I had opted to remain an obscure parish priest in an obscure diocese rather than enter the fray of “national church” debate?

Changes and chances.

In 2016, I made my first visit to Rome. Brenda and I went Caravaggio-hunting in various parish churches, visited the Vatican Library and St. Peter’s Basilica. We descended into two catacombs, and prayed at the tomb of St. Paul in the majestic Basilica of St. Paul’s-Outside-the-Walls. I found myself in awe of these artifacts of a church of double apostolic foundation. What if I had made that visit while I was in my 20s rather than in my 60s? Would I be a Roman Catholic today? I think there’s an excellent chance.

Changes and chances. And this was just skimming the cream. I could have mentioned myriad other crossroad moments, when a relatively small factor could have nudged me in a slightly different direction, and it becomes impossible even to speculate what my life would be like today, and who I would even be at the early end of my eighth decade. The changes and chances of this life are, for good or for ill, what have made me who I am today.

Part of what I learned in that college introduction to theology course concerned the doctrine of providence, that God is not absent from any situation or interaction in the created order, or in the lives of those whom he has made in his own image. It requires some mental agility to affirm this doctrine without falling into a sort of que sera sera attitude, or a naive construction of 1 Timothy 6:15: “God is the blessed controller of all things,” such that whatever happens can be unquestioningly attributed to the will of God. The doctrine of providence, the notion that God is present and active in and through the “changes and chances of this life” invites us into territory that is rather more subtle and mysterious.

In my “old and gray-headed” state, I’m still puzzling this out. I think I’ve come to this much of a conclusion, however, and it’s that providence is a medium of grace, and that God’s grace is ubiquitous and indefatigable. I am continually amazed at how God’s ongoing project of the redemption of the world finds a way to triumph in situations that look hopeless. Our God is an opportunistic God, and there is no crisis or tragedy or pocket of human suffering that is beyond his will to hijack and exploit for his redemptive ends. I have much to learn yet before I can look God in the face without being turned to dust, but I have, at least, learned this much.

On the television in my living room, the screen saver is set to a slideshow of some 500+ images from my life, Brenda’s life, and the life we have shared for the last 50 years. As these images rotate in the background, and even more so when I pay attention to them, the weaving together of the changes and chances of my life becomes a luminous work of art, present to me in a wonderful way. And I rest in the eternal changelessness of God.

About The Author

Bishop Daniel Martins is retired Bishop of the Diocese of Springfield in the Episcopal Church, which encompasses central and southern Illinois. He is also secretary of the Living Church Foundation’s board of directors. Among the members of the House of Bishops, he hangs out with the group known as the Communion Partners. He has previously served parishes in the dioceses of Louisiana, Northern Indiana, and San Joaquin.

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Mary Barrett
12 days ago

Beautiful.

Fr. Lou Midura
10 days ago

What a beautiful piece. Thank you so much….chances and changes and God’s providence. So glad I took the Chance and read. God bless

10 days ago

great article. Thank you, Bishop. Karen and I also spent time in Rome as well in the summer of 1995 as a part of a study-class. We too are partial to Carivaggio’s work and saw several pieces. We also enjoyed a wonderful mass at St. Paul Outside-the-Walls, and heard a wonderful Anglican African Choir aid us in worship. Blessings.

10 days ago

correction: St. Paul’s Inside the Walls

7 days ago

Thank you, Bp. Martins.