LENT IV

The Prodigal Returns Home – Robert Barnum

The Pharisees believed that keeping the law would earn them God’s presence and love.  Jesus told them that they had it backwards. God is already present and he already loves you.  God’s love makes possible keeping what of the law is worth keeping.  This made the Pharisees very unhappy with Jesus.  The Pharisees, bless their hearts, are the sort of folks that would turn a party into an exercise in etiquette. 

The truth is that you can only get into the kingdom because of grace.  Getting your tickets punched will never get you in. In fact it can keep you out!  To make that very point Jesus told a series of parables ending with today’s Gospel reading, which we call the prodigal son.

LITTLE BROTHER LEAVES HOME.

A man had two sons.  The youngest said give me my inheritance now, a request which in essence says I want you dead.  In fact the father did just what his son asked him, he legally dropped dead on the spot and probated his own will, giving his younger son his inheritance.

  • Little brother liquidated his assets and skipped town with his pockets full of cash.  He settled in another country and set out to make a name for himself.  Just imagine it:
  • He bought a candy apple red Lamborghini racing chariot.
  • He had a penthouse apartment exquisitely decorated with original art in the best zip code in town.
  • He had long three martini lunches and always picked up the tab.
  • He threw lavish parties and had lots of friends.
  • He vacationed at ski resorts on Mt. Hermon.
  • He got interested in the NASCAR-chariot race circuit and even raced himself for a while.

The bank kept calling but he never returned the calls. Then one day a registered letter arrived.  He had been spending the principle for a long time.  The letter informed him that he was flat broke.  His friends wouldn’t return his phone calls and his girl friend took up with a fellow better equipped to keep her in the manner to which he had made her accustomed.

So he had to go to work.  The college education his Daddy had paid for and that he had played for didn’t qualify him for much.  Just then the economy took a nosedive toward depression and the bears ate the market. 

Things were bad.  He finally was so desperate that he took a job slopping hogs. This is the worse thing a yuppie Jewish boy could wind up doing.  It’s the sort of fate that strikes fear into the hearts of Jewish mothers.

Little brother was in the pigpen, reduced to eating pig feed.  But then He came to himself, which in the original language describes something like awakening from a dream.  He said to himself, “Self, what is wrong with this picture?  Back home even the hired hands have more than enough to eat.  I know what I’ll do.  I’ll go to my father and say, ‘Father, I’ve sinned against heaven and against you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of the hired hands.’”

So rehearsing his speech he went on toward home.  His daddy had been watching for him, as an old black preacher put it, “the old man had been watching for him with his nose pressed to the window pane.” He had compassion on him, his heart went out to him.

Now an aside about compassion: compassion should not be confused with pity.

The question to ask is: “Can you celebrate with the people you are helping?”  If you can’t it’s probably pity and if you can it’s likely compassion.

Pity focuses on the differences between people. Pity is being sorry for one who is weak and inferior. Pity is done from a safe distance, preferably from above the one pitted. Pity separates us from the one pitied.  Pity ends in the “giver” feeling good about themselves across the divide between the pitying and the one pitied.  I not sure that pity has much divine content.

Compassion knows that human beings are more alike than they are different.  Compassion on the other hand, moves us toward the one in trouble and says, “We are in this together.” Compassion is the flow and overflow of the fullest human and divine energies.  As Paul writes the Christians in Corinth, “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given the ministry of reconciliation to us.” Compassion is always consummated in celebration!

THE FATHER’S RESPONSE:

Now back to the story at hand. The father felt compassion and that energy overflowed into reconciliation as he ran, embraced and kissed his son.  The son then began to get his ticket punched, begins his well rehearsed speech, “I’ve sinned against heaven and before you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son!”   —- But notice he doesn’t even get the part about going to work as a hired hand at minimum wage out of his mouth, cause his father shushes him and starts giving orders to the servants.  The old man says, “Go and get:

  • A robe – the best one – he is to be dressed as an honored person.
  • A ring – a signet ring with the family crest – his status as a son is restored.
  • Shoes – few people had shoes – bare feet indicated poverty even slavery. Shoes give safety and power. The old spiritual expresses this exactly, “All of God’s chillun got shoes.  When I get to heaven I going to put on my shoes; I’m going to walk all over God’s heaven.” Shoes are for sons!

See the restoration:

  • the robe of honor,
  • the ring of inheritance, and
  • the footwear of prestige!
  • AND if that wasn’t enough –  for sheer delight (which is one of the things God does best of all).
  • kill the fatted calf = eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!  And they began to celebrate.

Remember that compassion overflows and brings us together which leads to celebration.

[Simon Tugwell says that the last temptation of the younger brother was to insist on being a hired hand.  If his father won’t punish him he will do it for him.  Which is what we do when we let someone convince us that we are no good  and not acceptable].  The boy can’t really come home and be a hired hand.  He has to be a son or nothing.  AND THE SAME IS TRUE FOR US:  IT’S SON OR DAUGHTER OR NOTHING.  NO HIRED HANDS HERE THANK YOU VERY MUCH!  

So they had the mother of all parties.  Everybody who was anybody was there and as the society writer for the local paper put it, “a good time was had by all!”  WELL NOT QUITE.

THE ELDER BROTHER’S RESPONSE.

The elder brother was in the field looking at the crop of cabbages. As he came close to the house and heard the strains of the local dance band he thought, “What is this, music and dancing and it’s a week night? What is going on here?  So he spied one of the boys who worked on the place and the boy explained.  “Your brother has come and your father has killed the fatted calf because he has got him back safe and sound!”

The elder brother was in the field looking at the crop of cabbages. As he came close to the house and heard the strains of the local dance band he thought, “What is this, music and dancing and it’s a week night? What is going on here?  So he spied one of the boys who worked on the place and the boy explained.  “Your brother has come and your father has killed the fatted calf because he has got him back safe and sound!”

[Robert Farrar Capon says that if you are looking for the Christ symbol in this story look no further than the barn.  The Christ image here is the fatted calf who is just waiting to drop dead so there can be a party.  Behold the Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world.]

Even Biblical illiterates remember the Fatted Calf

FATTED CALF!  We can’t really comprehend what a big deal this was.  We think nothing of having steak any time we choose to haul out the grill. In the ancient world eating meat was a rare experience. In the first century people who could afford it kept a calf, and fed it real good so that it got really fat. When they killed it they had a huge party and ate the whole things there being no way to preserve meat for long.  A fatted calf was barbecued only on occasions of surpassing importance.  The old man kills the fatted calf as an act of wanton joy!

Big brother, hereafter to be known as Bubba, was so angry that he stayed outside.  He wouldn’t dignify this nonsense with his presence. His father came outside and pleaded with him.

 [Simon Tugwell describes the elder brother as, “a good man in the very worse sense of the word, the kind of goodness that if you insist on it will cost you your soul.”] 

Bubba begins his tirade, “Listen, all these years, I’ve been working like a slave.  I’ve never disobeyed your command; yet you have never even given me a goat that I might have a goat-roast, and celebrate with my buddies.  But, this trifling no-account son of yours comes slinking home, the very one who has devoured your property with harlots and you have killed the fatted calf!”

PROSTITUTES? Who said anything about prostitutes?  Nowhere does it say that little brother hung out with prostitutes.  Even if he had, Bubba couldn’t have known about it.  But what we can say with certainty is, that we now know what Bubba would have done if he had gone!  You can’t not tell your story.

Bubba was good, earnest so busy getting his ticket punched that it never even occurred to him that his father had already divided the property between the brothers.  Bubba already owned the plantation.  He could have killed the fatted calf himself if he had wanted to, let alone settle for goat burgers.

His father said to him, “Son you are always with me and all I have is yours.  But we had to celebrate and rejoice because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life, he was lost and has been found.”  Bubba’s response is not recorded.

WHAT IS JESUS TELLING US?

  • The criteria for entering the Kingdom of God is being lost and dead  and  knowing it. By the end of the story almost  everyone is dead:
  • The father is legally dead because he has probated his own will.
  • The younger son is dead to the old of being – he died to it back in the pig-pen.
  • The fatted calf is dead so there can be party.
  • The only one who is alive is Bubba, who is so busy being alive on his terms that he misses the point entirely.

Who’s really alive?  As Jesus says two chapters later in Luke 17, “Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.” [Luke 17:33]

Like the elder brother we can do NOTHING to earn God’s love.

Like the younger brother we can do NOTHING so terrible that we can lose God’s love.
All we to do is reject or accept God’s love.  That is what God has given us in Christ Jesus. As we look toward Holy Week and Easter,

REMEMBER: the gift of eternal life begins now not later. God is throwing a party in our honor. We are the only ones that can keep us out.

Amen.

Pause, Pray & Withdraw Projections

 

Twin Towers

Seventeen years ago, I turned, coffee cup in hand,  and witnessed the second plane crash into the Trade Center Towers in New York.  It is fair to say that the world has not been the same since that day.  I was almost half-way through my thirty-six year public ministry of Episcopal priest.  I have watched the cultures and peoples of this planet become more and more anxious caught between the twin imperatives of living things: Survival and Reproduction.  Also known as the force for individuality and togetherness.  These two, universal forces work on all protoplasm. The tension, even contradiction, between them Bowen termed, Chronic Anxiety.  This is the life force tuned to face challenge real or imagined.  No two systems react the same way facing the same challenge.

I began studying Dr. Bowen’s teachings over thirty years ago and had the privilege to sit at the feet of one of his students, Rabbi Edwin Friedman.  While this way of thinking is contrary to most of the thought in the marketplace of ideas in the West, I found it profoundly useful and have employed it ever since.  I believe this thinking is the reason Saint John’s Episcopal Church was voted one of the fifty best places to work in Memphis TN for five years in a row.

Emotional-relationships

It appears that chronic anxiety is at a historical high in the West.  Our country is badly polarized, such that we are almost incapable of communicating.  The gifts and skills for finding common ground for the good of all is not just out of fashion, it is on the extinction list of states of being.

Someone asked me recently what they should read and study about challenges of our common life on this planet.  First of all, let me be very clear, THERE ARE NO QUICK FIXES! Trust no one who tells you that.  Trust no one who tells you to listen them and only them.  DON’T DO IT.  Also, all who claim to follow Jesus, must recognize and accept that racism, bigotry and such are not standards of measure AVAILABLE TO CHRISTIANS.  If that is one of your life tools, STOP IT.  We are called to love all equally for his sake.  There is not greater law than this.

John Sewell

The following is a modest annotated bibliography of books I consider of great value today.

  • Bronner, Stephen Eric, The Bigot: Why Prejudice Persists, Yale University Press, 2014. ISBN-13: 978-0300223842      New to me but very interesting. 
  • Edwin Friedman, Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.  Revised Edition, May 2017. ISBN-13: 978-1596272798  – Freidman died twenty years ago AND his critique is more accurate today than then.  I encourage any thinking and feeling person to read it. 
  • Hoffer, Eric. The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements  Harper and Bros. 1951.  The title of Hoffer’s opus entered the English lexicon defining extremists.  Every American adult should read it.
  • Papero, Daniel V., Bowen Family Systems Theory. Allyn and Bacon. 1990.  One of the best introductions to Systems Theory I know.

 

 

 

Data is a Form of Substance Abuse

AA

For some time I have been struck by the marvels and perils of the Internet. There is an amazing amount of information out there. On a daily basis I feel not just bombarded with but torpedoed by data. There is simply not enough time to read everything that demands my attention. I feel more inadequate than ever. My late teacher, Edwin Friedman used to say, “That in the late Twentieth Century data was a form of substance abuse.” People are treating information like any other addictive substance. When anxiety rises anxiety is bound by looking for more data. We read data and momentarily feel ok. Soon anxiety rises and the cycle begins again.

Friedman also said that there was a desperate search for data and technique supporting the notion that if people just knew enough and had the right technique they could do anything. But that is not true. The organizing principle of Western culture is found, for good or ill, in Genesis chapter 3. Regardless of how much Eve and Adam. To overcome the gaps, between why and why not.

Since then, [an abandoned project] Mr. Eco’s enthusiasm for the marvels of the Internet has been somewhat tamed. Now he finds himself pressing for ways to teach young people how to control the flood of information available on it before it overwhelms them. ”The problem with the Internet is that it gives you everything, reliable material and crazy material,” he said. ”So the problem becomes, how do you discriminate? The function of memory is not only to preserve, but also to throw away. If you remembered everything from your entire life, you would be sick.”

He likes to compare the computer (he has eight) to the car (he has two): both are tools that people must first be taught how to use. ”We invented the car, and it made it easier for us to crash and die,” he said. ”If I gave a car to my grandfather, he would die in five minutes, while I have grown up slowly to accept speed.” A Lover of Literary Puzzles by CELESTINE BOHLEN Published: October 19, 2002 How does an existing organization get un-stuck? Professor Sherry Turkle at MIT, on the Technology Channel once said “It is not a question about what technology is doing for us but what technology is doing to us!” She goes on to say that the first thing that people used to look for was meaning but that is not longer the case. Now the first thing people look for is mechanism. Mechanism sounds suspiciously like technique fueled by data.

The Big Book of Alcoholics declares, those who will not recover are those who are “constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves.”

Beware the god of False Hope

I have forgotten where I first read this,

people-jumping-off-cliff false hope

 “Sometimes I pray to the god of False Hope that his Love Brigade doesn’t draft me up for service, Again.”

How often have I been drafted by the brigade, willingly believing the propaganda of the quick fix, the effortless relationship and the inevitability of progress?  When I am unwilling to do the hard work or in case  of resurrection to have the work done to me, I am high-jacked, not just by the bad but often by the good rather than the best – Grant O Lord that I not “settle for” the first available, whatever that might be.

Oh God of 2nd Chances & New Beginnings, here I am for ACT3

IMG_6060

“How is retirement?” “It’s going very well, strange but fine,” is my usual reply.  A common line is you look like you have really lost some weight?”  After the third time, I latched onto, what is now, a standard response, “Oh,  I am at least a thousand people lighter.” My cardiologist was thrilled that I had retired.  All the numbers speak to my body being thrilled as well.  Sleeping in on Sunday, an activity known in Alabama as “attending Bed-springs Baptist” has aroused no guilt.  We did make it to Easter Day, let the record show.

I have devoted a lot of time getting my new office up and running.  The car no longer automatically heads west from Shepherd Lane.  Now it heads East instead, which is the direction of enlightenment.  Now what?

IMG_6063

After a very helpful pep talk from an old and valued friend, this is now my practice. Most days,  I drive to 1049 Cresthaven Road, Memphis, TN 38119 and there I go to work.  What is my work?  At present,  I’m diving deeper into Bowen Theory than I have ever done before.  The Triangle is the object of my quest.  I shall understand that little beast if God is gracious.  The Triangle is the basic molecule of relationships.  It consists of three people or two people and an issue.  Triangles are also very fluid moving such that two points are in and one is out.

But suppose, one wanted to grow oneself up, while calming oneself down?  What if one decided to take maximum responsibility for ones own self, focusing on one own functioning?  Bowen called that Differentiation or more precisely, taking up the work of  “Differentiating a Self.”  Trust me if you should truly entertain such a notion for even half a day, everyone in the primary triangles you inhabit will know.  In addition, if you should take up this “self to differ” the reaction will be progressive and predictable.

It will develop on this wise: 1. “You are wrong”; 2. “Change back”; and 3. “If you do not, these are the consequences” [Bowen, 1978, pp. 216]

Hell hath no fury like you arouse when you fool with someone’s heirloom triangle!  Some of them have been around for eons.  Remember,  when someone leaves or dies, people are standing line to take the vacancy.

IMG_6068

This is the view as I write, not bad.

How is retirement?  Well,  I’m lighter, but not sure what else, just now… I live in hope, in spite of the facts.

April 5, 2018, John Sewell ACT3 1049 Cresthaven Road, Memphis, TN 38119

 

What I hope ALL Christians Learn by Following Jesus.

• The supernatural is real
• Take up Nondual thinking
• Thinking Systemically (Bowen Theory)
• To follow Jesus is to serve
• Difference between job and work
• Regardless of the event, first ask, “How is my functioning contributing
to this situation?”
• Suffering is the promise life always keeps
• God knows the outcome. God does not choose the outcome. That’s your
job.
• Judge not! I mean literally mean, Judge not at all.
• Become Biblically literate
• Journaling is essential if you mean to grow in soul.
• More Orthopraxy not more Orthodoxy
• Practice Constant Prayer (literally)
• Honesty is more important than religious talk
• Tithing as a way of life.
• It’s hard to go back to plowing when you just ate your ox!
• Faith not certainty

The Mother of Your Fear

I have a shelf in my library where reside the volumes that speak most deeply to my soul with the sustained whispering that great writing gives .  One volume is The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America by David Whyte.  I have returned yet again to this wisdom from the Yorkshire poet.

Chapter two is a treatment, an exegesis almost, of Beowulf.

The mythologist Joseph Campbell used to say that if you do not come to know the deeper mythic resonances that make up your life, the mythic resonances will simply rise up and take you over. If you do not live out your place in the mythic pattern consciously, the myth will simply live you, against your will. Beowulf is welcomed by Hrothgar, and that night lies in wait for Grendel with his men inside Herot, Hrothgar’s great hall. Sure enough, in the ensuing fight, Beowulf mortally wounds Grendel, who then staggers back to die in the mere. That night there is tremendous feasting and gift-giving. The problem, it seems, has been solved in one swift movement. But that night, as Beowulf sleeps with his men in a different hall, something else comes from the swamp to Herot, fights off the best warriors, and retreats with its human victim: Grendel’s mother.

grendel__s_mother_by_jonathanblackmore-d5lt3sh

The message in this portion of the poem is unsparing. It is not the thing you fear that you must deal with, it is the mother of the thing you fear. The very thing that has given birth to the nightmare.

Here it is.  I am afraid that I will not be enough.  What man is not?  What is the mother of my fear of inadequacy?  Why, not to be enough and in the end to not be AT ALL!  Yup, you got it!  Not wonder we are willing to loiter along the the lakefront, the edge of the mere!  We would do almost anything to avoid plunging headfirst into the dark waters of the unconscious where the shadow knows and as Whyte writes, “men pray for dry feet.”

Yet, we are unsatisfied circling the lake.  We look deep into the water, seeing our reflection in the surface, telling ourselves that, Yes, we will sign up to be the latest narcissist falling in love with our own reflection on the surface of the liquid before us.  Anything to avoid falling headlong into our destiny, the soul-work that awaits us all.

My wife gave me her first gift before our hearts ever spoke of marriage.  It is a framed prayer that has sat on a table in my library for about thirty years.  It says,  “Oh God of second chances and new beginnings, here I am again.”  And so I am.

JWS – March 5, 2018  10:20 PM

 

DIFFERENTATION

farewell chausble left behind
Growing Yourself Up & Calming Yourself Down
John Sewell

February 27, 2018

I retired 27 days ago from public ministry as a rector of a parish.

As I pass the end of public ministry, my pace slows. My hands sorts papers from forty year old files. I notice that I seldom say, “I might need that later.” Oh, I do not go empty handed into ACT3, but what I choose to carry with me are tools, reference and memories. I consider it fair trade the unconsidered energy of the sobriety of my youth. Today I sit amid the debris of five churches, sermons from twelve revolutions of the three year cycle of Eucharistic readings, the papers are dog eared, faded and fit for kindling, not much else. The impulse to be done and hurl the contents of boxes into the fires of Gehenna tempts me. Maybe tomorrow.

While it is the same old stuff of my life it is in a new place. For the first time since 2002, my office address has nothing to do with the consecrated ground of the tax-free institution called church. 1049 Cresthaven Road, Memphis, TN 38119 is my place now. It is a very nice thousand square feet with abundant windows and good lighting from sun and fixtures. From here we launch counter-offensives against chronic anxiety.

JWS+

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