About shepsewell

I am an Episcopal priest and have just retired as Rector of Saint John's in Memphis, Tennessee where I served for the past fifteen years. Now I move into ACT3, a new non-profit, where I work with individuals, families and the City from the perspective of Bowen Theory and Family Systems Theory.

Tuesday – February 21, 2018

Cotton-Patch-Gospel

Mark does not tell us what happened to Jesus in the wilderness, only that the angels waited on him. In the Cotton Patch Gospels, (the Gospels recast in Georgia in the 1950’s), an angel arrived bearing a chili cheese dog for Jesus.

Each of us is driven into our wilderness, there we are tempted & there we are waited on by angels. We will face adversity, find subtle temptations and run into angels along our way. What angel (messenger) will bring us consolation today?  Wait, watch & enjoy! Thanks be to God.

Meditation – Monday in Lent I

1200px-Temptations_of_Christ_(San_Marco)

Temptations in San Marco, Venice

February 19, 2018

Mark does not tell us what happened to Jesus in the wilderness, only that he was tempted by Satan, not how the evil one did it. Temptations are tailor made for us. Perhaps an inventory of temptation and weak points is order. What are they (there is always more than one)? Foretold is forearmed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Outside heaven is a can with a sign – discard all tickets here

stough-rt-rev-furmanThe Late Bill Stough, Eighth Bishop of Alabama, used to say that outside the gates of Heaven there are huge trash cans with big signs beside them saying “DISCARD ALL TICKETS HERE!” Because you can’t get into heaven with a ticket. There are no tickets good enough to get us in. That’s not how you get in. In fact those tickets which we have spent our lives getting punched WILL KEEP US OUT IF WE INSIST ON PALMING THEM EARN OUR WAY IN! The tickets we have spent our very lives trying to get are as useless as lottery tickets the day after the winning ticket is drawn.

Of course,  all humanity has won the lottery of God’s love. It’s rigged that way.  All one need do it accept the gift of the already.  I appreciate God’s folk who have given me taken my had, inviting me into the Household of God.  Men like, Bill, who loitered by the door of the Kingdom to invite the unexpected wanderers into God’s house.  He ordained me over 36 years ago setting me onto the way of a servant of God’s people.  Having come to the end of that 2nd Act, I press on the ACT3!

JWS+

theotokos

The Theotokos (God Bearer)

“A person, whether human or divine, cannot be known — as a person rather than an image except by immediate presence.  If we want to project an image, either of Christians or the Church, we can do that by means of television, magazines, books, billboards, movies, bumper stickers, buttons, records, and posters.  If we want people to know Christ, we must be there face-to-face, bearing Christ within us.” 

Virginia Owens – “The Total Image or Selling Jesus in the Modern Age”  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quote

The symbols of the sacraments no longer simply point to something: they also enable us to participate in it.

David Brown & David Fuller, Signs of Grace: Sacraments in Poetry and Prose, [1x]

Christ Trumps Everything!

leafing corss

At present I cannot ascertain where the following analogy entered my collection of such. I’ll continue to look for the source.  I’ve come to believe that this principle, this reality is the root of all genuine faith.  If we are in Christ and nothing can separate us from the love of Christ then nothing, no nothing must separate us from each other.  Christ trumps everything.

“An analogy can be helpful here: Imagine a woman, whom we shall call Betsy, who has a heart the size of the Grand Canyon.  She is gracious, loving, devoid of prejudice, and with an understanding and empathy wide enough to encompass everything and everybody.  Because she is so loving, she has a very wide variety of friends and one night she decides to have a party and invite them all. She rents a hall to hold everyone.  And her guests begin to arrive. Men, women, and children show up, of every description, ideology, background, temperament, taste, social standing, and religion.  A curious mixture of persons fills the hall. Liberal and conservative, fundamentalists and feminists, Promise Keepers and New Agers, priests and anti-clerics, union presidents and bankers, animal rights activists and persons involved in the seal hunt, meat-eaters and militant vegetarians mingles with each other.  Present is president of the local pro-life association, but the president of pro-choice is also there. Ian Paisley is there, as is the leader of the Irish Republican Army.  Alt-right and Al-left are there keeping one eye Betsey and one on each other.

Given the mix, there is a fair amount of tension, but because Betsy is there, because she is the center of the room, and because they respect who she is and what she stands for and is enough engulfed in a certain spirit of tolerance, respect, decency, and charity to stretch them beyond how they would normally feel, think, and act.

As you can imagine, such a gathering would work only while Betsy was actually present. Should she have to excuse herself and leave, or should persons get preoccupied in ways that would make them forget the real reason why they were there, you would soon enough get a combination of fireworks and dissipation that would empty the room.  This particular mix of persons can be brought together and kept together only around one person, Betsy.  Everything depends upon her presence and upon those present having her wide empathy whole they are in that presence, that is, upon being in her spirit.” [Pp. 119-120]

  Of course the point is that the apostolic community is built around the person of Jesus, the Christ, and nothing else. Outside of a focus on his person and happens in us and between us when we sense his presence, we get into terrible conflict and play sick and destructive games.

SOULWorks 6

SOULWorks Healing Service

To be church is to celebrate the word of Christ and the Eucharist.  This is more than just going to church on Sunday. To build our life around Jesus means that there has to be real sharing of life together, namely that we pray together; that we celebrate some of our everyday joys, fears, and feasts together; that we are responsible to each other and open to each other as regards mutual correction and challenge; that we are responsible together for the ministry of the church; that we have some common sharing of finances (even if this means only that we contribute to the support of the local congregation and its work.)

The First Weekend

 

farewell chausble left behindThis is the first weekend of retirement.  For almost four decades I have lived, working weekends, forgetting what a “weekend” was although I heard of them regularly. I’m told by others, ahead of me in this journey, that it will take about six months to become used to this rhythm of life.

What to do tomorrow?  I could visit the Quakers? I could visit my Egyptian Coptic friends at Saint Mary and Saint Roulis?  I could spend time at “Bed-springs Baptist” as a friend put it long ago when he slept in on Sundays.  I want to systematically visit the churches in the Memphis Christian Pastors Network and see what I can learn.  Exciting possibilities and I thank God and the Church Pension Group for making it possible.

Pray for me as I pray for you. In hope, in spite of the facts.

John+

 

 

ACT3? What is ACT3?

1049 Chresthaven street view

ACT3, 1049 Cresthaven Road, Memphis, Tennessee ACT3Memphis@gmail.com

Two Octobers ago I was in Washington DC at a conference honoring, my teacher, the late Rabbi Edwin Friedman my teacher. As I sat there and the voice in my head I have known for 47 years said, “John, Today begins the Third Act of your life.” Nothing more. For a year I pondered, finally realizing that my work here was the end of ACT2. Last Wednesday I stepped down from my job as Rector. I did not step down from my work: The Cure of Souls. Stephanie Brown and I with the help of many are founding a new Non-profit, called  ACT3, Cresthaven Road 38119.

Sant Vincent of Lerins

Universality – Antiquity – Consensus

What is ACT3?  I begin with a confession of belief.  My deepest held value is faith in Jesus the Christ.  Having spent four decades moving through the various permutations, polities, styles and whatever of God’s church,  I today affirm my adherence to the Counsel  of Saint Vincent of Lirens when he said, “That a Christian should believe in what all Christians, at all times and in all places have agreed upon.”

I close this act with a thankful heart and a sign of relief.   Increasingly, I understand the hopefulness that my late spiritual father, Bishop Furman Stough longed when he often said with the twinkle in his eye, “I am grateful there will be no church in heaven.” Amen, preach it brother.  I end ACT2 with gratitude for those who have helped me along in the faith and a sigh relief that I managed to get through 36 years oversleeping only once on Sunday.

ACT2 was largely formed by teaching and thinking of  Dr. Murray Bowen, founder of the Georgetown Family Center in Washington DC, and the natural systems theory that bears his name.  I studied at the feet of Rabbi Edwin Freidman, the second most important rabbi in Christian History, at least for Anglicans.  Marilyn and I were sent to hear Ed lecture, as we prepared to marry over 31 years ago.

Through the workings of the Holy Spirit, the Ether and The Good Ole Boy & Girl club we call Episcopal Church, I began to make my way to Bethesda and under the influence the most brilliant mind I personally have ever met.

By way of analogy Edwin Friedman was Mark to Murray Bowen’s Peter. Neither of them was the savior, but they knew his message in and out.  The theory that bears Dr. Bowen’s name is also called Family Systems Theory.

Murray said, “A self is only possible in the presence of other protoplasm.”  Therefore self is relational not solitary. All living things have a strong impulse to join, herd, tribe.  At the same time there is an impulse to be and I.  The tension between The We and I. pulling and pushing, Bowen defined as “chronic anxiety.”

Failure of Nerve

When anxiety is low most people muddle through.  As anxiety rises soon the maturity or lack thereof began to sabotage functioning. High chronic anxiety marked by extreme polarization of our country is sobering evidence of the dangers of immaturity.  If this thinking interests you read Ed’s book, Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.  If you want to talk about it,  shoot me a line.

I want to spend the balance of my working life, coaching, teaching and focusing on issues of systems from a Bowen perspective.

John Sewell

 

Leave Taking 2003 – 2017

EPIPHANY 4, January 28, 2018 – Saint John’s Memphis, Tennessee 20111

farewell me and m

I was warned in advance nobody can really prepare you for the circumstances you face in ministry. If they told you just wouldn’t believe it. In 1981 I left Seabury-Western with every intention of doing the sort of careful, appropriate liturgies Lee Mitchell trained me to do.  I was assigned 2 parishes 30 miles apart. One of them was Fort Payne, the seat of Knox County, Alabama.  There I became the deacon-in-charge of Saint Philips,

Saint Philips Fort Payne housed literally in a former school house, painted bright red, the flowers were red, and the dogwood was red. Even the newly minted deacon’s hair was red in those days, at any rate I set out to inflict on them everything I had ever thought about doing in ministry – all at once.  But then reality reared its head in the vineyard of the Lord. It came about on this wise…

The organist at Saint Philip’s was actually a Presbyterian elder who lived with his Momma and ran title searches for a living.  His name was Erskine Davenport (you can’t make this stuff up!)  Well I laid out the service and got the bulletin ready, we were singing some lovely hymns and it being Rite I, the Willan Mass setting that we all know and love.  We sang the Kyrie and that went pretty well.  Then we got to the Sanctus/Benedictus, I opened my mouth to sing and then I heard the entire congregation recite the Holy, Holy, Holy and I learned a lesson that day that has stood me in good stead all these 36 years.  You can’t sing what the organist can’t play!  [wait]  O and did I mention that Erskine had cerebral palsy?  I didn’t think so.  From that very first Sunday – we arrive at this very last Sunday a day of Farewell. .

18-01-28-Demoniac-in-Synagogue

Look at the Gospel reading for today:  MARK 1:21 They went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching— with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

Note that Jesus taught with authority not like the scribes.  Scribes – scholars who spoke with verbal footnotes, spouting bibliographies as they taught.  Jesus spoke from his core, his experience – his being one with the Father.  All he did in the flesh he accomplished through his obedient humanity.  So we’re not off the hook.  Then he did a little psychic housekeeping for a fellow on the back row.  His reputation got around in a hurry.  This is the Jesus we seek union with.  This is Jesus we must experience directly personally.

I grew up Southern Baptist and they taught me things: Principally Bible content and the inescapable reality that each of us owe God one soul.  However, I had an itch that was never scratched there.

Christ Church Albertville

Christ Church, Albertville AL.

chapel of cross

Chapel of the Cross, Madison, MS

Saint Luke Mountain Brook

Saint Luke’s, Mountain Brook, AL

High altar Saint John's

Saint John’s, Memphis, TN

I wandered the halls of John Wesley who taught me about life in the Spirit and came in due season to The Church of England.  Our practice of pulling the extremes toward the center is not easy, after all the middle of road is a good place to get run over. But at our best it a life-giving posture that most any Christian can practice

I get ahead of myself.   When I was a sophomore at The University of North Alabama, 47 years ago, I joined a Bible Study sponsored by The First Methodist Church of Tuscumbia.  There was a hunger among us, a kindredness, a growing belief and experience that God is real and that God can be experienced, directly.  In those days we thought nothing of praying all night.

One night in the manse of a Cumberland Presbyterian Preacher, the group prayed with me to contract, I’ve learned to call it.  Tzim Tzum, the Jews call it, to make room for the Holy Spirit – the third person of the Trinity- Karl Rahner called the Spirit: God penetrating history and existence – For God to have a freer hand, more room to operate, that I be more conscious of his call and that he have the option to call on me day or night and that what he had given me needed to be available to the Work of Christ in the World, God had first call on it.

Later that night, I drove home to the farm where four generations of Sewell’s have lived and went to bed.  The next morning when I awakened and was aware of being me in my body:  I found I was praying in the Spirit.  I have never been the same since.

That is not to say that “I and all I know from that day to this, lived happily ever after ever.  Almost 20 years ago I was hospitalized at Menninger Hospital for depression, later diagnosed as (type 2) Bi-Polar disease.

Thank you for taking a risk and hiring a crazy priest 15 years ago.  It has been intimated of late that perhaps “Poor Saint John’s can find a rector who doesn’t talk quite so much about Jesus.”  While intended as derision, I count it a badge of honor.   I’m asked what is the hardest part of this Job/Work?   Wanting so much more you than you have wanted for yourselves.

I knew I was getting old when I learned about 2 years ago that people were collecting, The Sayings and Aphorisms of Father John.  Let me share some of them with you this final time.  If it’s worth doing at all, it’s worth doing poorly.  We have low standards not no standards. Father Bronson Bryant, mentor and friend of my soul, said to me about 35 years ago, “Oh John, We are always prepared for God to do nothing.”

I’ve pondered what to say today.  Most of it comes from the last five years as the culture changed and the churches continue shrink.

Today, in Church and out of Church, there are thousands of souls who realize in varying degrees of clarity that what they want from religion is not a collection of doctrinal ritual symbols, nor a series of moral precepts. They want God himself, by whatever name he may be called; they want to be filled with his creative life and power; they want some conscious experience of being at one with Reality itself, so that their otherwise meaningless and ephemeral lives may acquire an eternal significance.

For hundreds of years Western man has been convinced that he could ultimately solve every one of his problems by doing something about it. It is a beneficial exercise in humility for him to come up against a problem about which he can actually do nothing. Yet the problem has to be solved. The situation would be maddening and impossible if that were all there is to it. But that is not all, because, as we have seen, mystical knowledge is something given to the soul by God, and there is a sense in which it is already being given to the soul—now and always.

In this same sense, God is the most obvious thing in the world, the most self-evident, and union with God is the primary and most unavoidable reality of our lives. Yet God is so obvious and so unavoidable and so close to us that we are not aware of him. To try to see God is like trying to look at your own eyes, for he is nearer to us than we are to ourselves.  Alan Watts

 “The Word is always being born, but if he is not born in me, of what use is that to me.”  — Meister Eckhart

frog 2

Forty-five years ago I dissected a frog. I say that not by way of confession but to examine a paradox.  As is common in secondary science curriculum, during a unit on anatomy one of the exercises involved dissecting something. At Lexington High School in Lexington Alabama, we were not so exalted as to warrant fetal pigs so we tackled the more prosaic amphibian. The lab reeked of thermaldohyde as we took up scalpels and performed exploratory surgery on the supine corpse.  The exercise was informative as to vascular systems and the ordering of bodily functions.  At the end of the smelly process by my station there was a small pile of frog parts.  I had learned a lot but the frog wouldn’t hop.

frog

What do it mean by this?  Experiencing God is the goal.  Learning facts about God, while useful, can never replace union with the Lord Jesus.  This brings me again to the knot I am worrying these days.  What is needed must move us beyond mere “frog data” to “frog hopping.”  How do we hop?  We take up those ancient practices that formed the first Christians in faith that the Holy Spirit that led them into truth will do the same for us.  But then I experienced the really of giving up ego control.

 

In the winter of 1978, I was driving on the Bluegrass Parkway in the central Kentucky. 1978 was a brutal winter over all this country. Snow was deep and the road icy and dangerous. I say that because I was literally had seen no other car for miles and hours. Well, I was doing pretty well, having experience in icy weather. That was when it happened. Suddenly, without warning the car began to spin 360° – as the landscape began to spin, time slowed & I thought, I hadn’t planned on this what and I going to do after the car turns upside down? My right foot and leg and already learned that slamming on the brake was a really bad idea. Steering wildly had no good outcome.

car on ice

Then I had that moment of clarity. A thought came to me, one so outrageous and counter-intuitive I would never have entertained had I any other option. But, I was flat out of options. There was simply nothing I could do to fix my problem. I could makes things worse but not better. I took my hands off the steering wheel, held them in mid-air. No longer in charge, having given up any power I had remaining was just along for the ride. The car righted itself. Now, I was headed in the wrong direction and grateful. What I learned that day in the frozen hills of Kentucky has served me well all these years and decades in two different centuries.

Dealing with matters of power and faith is like driving a car on ice. Doing what comes naturally, is almost always not the thing to do.

Let me share with you what I have learned the past 5-years of Renewal  Works –  On the National Episcopal News Feed on Friday, Jay Sidebotham described renewal works and spoke of  Saint John’s as an  example of what can happen when people experience God. .

  1. Saint John’s exists as a place to encounter God. Period. Nothing else. If people cannot find God here. It has no reason for being.  In the coming years more than one Episcopal Church in Memphis will fail.  It might be this one unless people find God consistently at 3245 Central Avenue.
  1. Clergy must re-invent themselves.I am not a professional Christian.  I cannot be Christian in your stead so you need not bother with it.  Only you can be a Christian for you.I am here, Bob is here, Dean is here next Sunday, to practice our own Christianity and Coach you in yours.

We are player-coaches not truant officers.

I have my job and my work.  My Job is to keep this place going, tend the functions, services.  My Work  is the Cure of Souls –

  1. Lay Ministry is the way forward. Lay initiation, lay leadership is the only way forward.  Now that Western Culture is no longer Christian Culture – leadership from above WILL NOT WORk!  Leadership from below will.  That is why we took up Renewalworks and invented SOULWorks these past five years.

Two Octobers ago I was in Washington DC at a memorial conference for Rabbi Edwin Friedman my teacher.   As I sat there and the voice in my head I have known for 47 years said, “John, Today begins the Third Act of your life.” Nothing more. For a year I pondered, finally realizing that my work here was the end of ACT2.  On Wednesday I step down from my job as Rector.  I do not step down from my work:  The Cure of Souls. Stephanie Brown and I with the help of many are founding a new Non-profit, called ACT3, 1049 Cresthaven Road 38119. – Is my new laboratory of faith.  The moving van comes tomorrow.   I love you.  In the name of God …