For the last couple of days I have been rearranging the 2000 volumes in my library. Going through the shelves, taking one and putting it with its companions as to subject or concern is a kind homecoming among old and beloved friends. Some are much older than my 67 years. Another arrived this afternoon in the mail. Upon entering my new digs, people often question, “Have you read all these books?” “No, I say, explaining the collection are the guidebooks for my exploration of what it means to be human. There are few mathematics or accounting books, but many history, psychology, literature and religious studies. These members of my intellectual tribe travel on together. We set out on the journey almost 4 decades ago in Albertville, Alabama. There were many fewer then. Now we have moved into a office building, resting after five moves these past 36 years. I open one, reading my notes written in pencil (I have never been confident enough to write in ink) that are the marginalia of my life. Notes made in the margins. Scribbles marking my place in a book and the thought in my head.
I looked a for a particular title and after a time my eye spied it, my hand reached and my eye remembered the cover. It is a modest volume, 9 by 5 inches and only an half inch thick. It’s title, “A Letter To A Man In The fire” by the late Reynolds Price. It’s subtitle are the two questions a young medical student asked Reynolds (who survived cancer though paraplegic). Jim Fox asked, “Does God exist and Does He Care?” What a question? Mr. Price then wrote Jim a letter of 86 pages honestly speaking to those questions with the kind of honestly a cancer survivor owes a cancer patient. He spoke of faith, not the easy recitation of empty platitudes or even the unthinking repetition of ancient holy writ. No, he struggled to say that he did believe that God does exist and that somehow in the mix of chance and circumstance where the innocent are afflicted and the rain falls on the just and the unjust. He then says the things that has resonated in my soul ever since the day I first read this letter. Now, let me stop. I know its unfair. But please believe me that I have a good reason. We shall here again, please be patient with me.
I moved to Mississippi in 1989 to take up the rectorate of The Chapel of the Cross in Madison. The Chapel was an ancient (1848) Gothic revival treasure that by the late 20th century was filling with the new suburbs of Jackson. I took up and took to my task at hand. In those first days the community numbered around 125 souls. We had the elegant church, a five room sharecropper house served as as everything else save too rundown single-wide trailers that served as educational space. The place began to grow. Over the next decade the place grew rapidly. I imagined it was like driving a bus with no brakes. Careening down the road and every time I risked a glanced over my shoulder the bus was longer and packed to the gunnels with more people. By the end of the decade the community was nigh 900. I celebrated Eucharist 4 times on Sundays, taught, opened and closed. This went on for years until I was almost used up. In 1998 I was rescued. The Vestry instructed me to find a priest for the team. So I did. The Reverend Doctor David Christian come onboard and we moved to 6 masses on Sundays: 7:30, 8:45, 11:00 & 5:00. The middle two were doubled: a mass in the church and one in the parish hall (now named for David). He and I waited until the two processions were ready to move. Then and only then did we decide which one of would go to which service.
David went to seminary from a medical practice. He, his wife and two kids moved from Jackson MS to the General Seminary of the Episcopal in New York City. He after his first academic year he did Clinical Pastoral Education at a city hospital, working as a chaplain, learning the ropes of institutional ministry and learning about himself in the work of a priest. That hospital routinely gave each person who came on staff in any capacity a physical. David’s physical revealed that he had a very serious non-symptomatic cancer in one lung. The only thing to do was remove one entire lung. They did that very thing leaving David with one lung and a very tenuous diagnosis. To everyone’s amazement. David lived, finished his last two years of seminary and returned to Mississippi. He told me once that he believed that he survived because he was so thrilled and happy with what he was doing that it pumped his immune system. I don’t doubt it. Upon returning to Mississippi, David was assigned to the parish in Bovina, MS. Only behind the Magnolia Curtain would a town be named for the genera of medium to large-sized ungulates!
I was delighted to have such a gifted fellow as a colleague and so we were off to the races. Honestly, I don’t recall how long we lived in Eden together. I do remember that David was cancer free for at least a decade and even was cleared to buy life insurance. But one day he went into town for his routine physical. There was cancer in his remaining lung! Gobsmacked out of denial the parish and greater community sank into depression. Introverted by nature, my friend David turned deep inside to process this news. Reluctant to intrude his contemplation, I resisted giving him, A Letter to A Man in the Fire, though that was my first thought. A few days passed.
A knock at my office door, “Come in.” It was David. “Sit,” I invited.” He continued to stand in the door. “On my way to my doctor’s appointment I stopped by Lemuria (the world-class book store in Jackson) and having a little continuing education money left, bought a book.” From behind his back he produced a thin beige volume, “A Letter to a Man in the Fire.” “Would you believe that I have a copy of that book for you, synchronism, huh?” “At least,” he said, “I was afraid to read it for several days.” “Now you have, I asked?” Nodding, he opened the book and begin to read, framed in the door.
My bred-in-the-bone conviction about you is that you’re bound toward a goodness you can’t avoid and that the amount of calendar time which lies between you and that destination is literally meaningless to God, though surely of the greatest importance to you.
That was the very passage I wanted to show him. He closed the book, looked at me, saying nothing. Our gazes met for a few seconds. He closed the door and went down the hall.
We never spoke of the book again. He soldiered on. So did I. I was not wise enough to realize that while the cancer diagnosis predicted that David would not die an old man, it also marked the beginning of the end of my work in that place. Used up, I sank into a deep depression and in 2001 was hospitalized for eleven weeks. I resigned by years end.
The end of the story did not come immediately. David continued his ministry at the Chapel. Chemotherapy staved off the killing blow but prevented him prospering. He spent a long of time meditating, praying in his office behind a closed door.
I moved to Memphis, TN as interim rector for Saint John’s Parish in 2002. At mid-year in 2003, I was called to become the sixth Rector the Parish and continued in that job until February first of this year. I was not there when the end came.
In early Summer of 2005 after celebrating the early Eucharist at the Chapel of the Cross, he retired to his office for quite a long time. Then he phoned his beloved wife, Frances, and asked her to come for him. They drove to the hospital and he died a day or two later.
The books on my shelves are my old friends. There are stories in pencil on many of their margins. They traveled with me as they instructed me for my work on the journey. One day they will go with someone else, but for now, we continue our work together.
I live in hope, in spite of the facts.
John W. Sewell,
August 5, 2018
Holy Icon of the last Russian Imperial Family
Icon of Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, Son Alexi, and Anastasia, Marie, Tatiana and Olga. Suffering has never left the earth this past Century as Christendom continued it’s decline and is soon no more.
This photograph is of the cellar room where the Emperor and family were murdered by order of Vladimir Lenin. The empire they ruled has passed away. In its place is a Kleptocracy of brutes and thugs.
What has not passed away and shines clearly one hundred years on is that their last thought was of the Christ Jesus. So indeed their hideous death finds it’s redemption in the words of Frederick Beuchner,
“For Christians the worst thing that ever happens is never the last thing to happen. He who loves you most deeply will judge you most finally.”
The Right Reverend Michael Curry, Bishop of North Carolina holding forth in the pulpit at Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Memphis, TN. at convention 2006. He was good then.
As The Most Reverend, Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, he was above splendid today at Saint George’s, Windsor UK preaching at the Celebration of the Marriage of TRH The Duke & Duchess of Sussex. The Gospel was preached.
I was really proud of being an Anglican today. I was proud of being a priest of a church led by Michael Curry. God bless you sir. God bless the marriage of Prince Harry and his Duchess.
I promised some I would download this sermon on my blog. So here it is. I recount the story of the lynching of Ell Persons on May 22, 1917 in Memphis TN. Listen, as I recount those events and speak to the hope that is in us.
Last Sunday afternoon, I preached at the Chapel of the Cross, Madison, Mississippi. It was almost seventeen years since last I stood in that ancient place, built by slaves of bricks made from the very ground on which it sits. Fr. Ben Robertson, present Rector of the parish, was very kind to invite me “home” again.
Indeed it was home to me from All Saints Day, 1989 until midnight of New Years Eve 2001. It was a rich time. I learned many things as the congregation grew from 125 or so to the mid-800s in a decade. Of course in that time, I received more credit and blame than I deserved (is it not always so?). When people remarked on the growth, I learned to reply, “I can’t make people come here, but I can keep them from staying,” (that too is always true).
So many people I loved in Mannsdale have departed to greater life. As I reverenced the altar the other night, trough the clear glass of the altar windows the tombs of the dead were framed by magnolia leaves. Some, I had said the words over their mortal remains, Chapel members having dug the grave as they continue to dig them even today. Sitting through the night with the dead is a rare privilege we can give each other. Keeping the establishment open all night does not appear on the business plans of the funeral industry.
I struggled to find the right words. Finally, I settled on a series of meditations from Easter Week 2016, ending with the last three paragraphs from my sermon on Easter Day 2015. Please find it embedded below.
I suffered burnout in 2000 and 2001, culminated by an eleven week stay at Menninger Hospital in Topeka, Kansas. I recovered but realized late in 2001 that I could no longer sustain the kind of workload that required at least twelve her days on numerous days per week. So, I stepped down. Later in Memphis, I found that I had Type 2 Bi-polar disease and through the support of Marilyn, Doctors and my staff at Saint John’s, I have come to a good place with that disease. It is, by the way, the most under diagnosed disease of American adults.
“You can’t go home again,” as Thomas Wolf declares. You can, however, “go through home again,” as I have learned about the various “homes” of my life. It was healing to go through The Holy Ground of the Chapel of the Cross last Sunday. God bless you all who welcomed me home and saw me off back home to Memphis. I love you all.
I live in hope, in spite of the facts.
John W. Sewell+
“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?
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.
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
SUFFERING IS THE PROMISE LIFE ALWAYS KEEPS!
Nowhere in the New Testament is there a description of the resurrection itself. That mighty act of God was unseen and it is indescribable. When the women reach the tomb, the resurrection has already taken place. What they find is the sepulchre empty and the stone rolled away. Their first reaction is not joy but perplexity. They have come to pay their last respected and they do not know what to make of this. They fear that the body of Jesus has been stolen in an act of desecration. No one was expecting Jesus to rise from the dead. Many Jews believed in a general resurrection at the end of history but no one expected a particular resurrection within history. In our own day such a notion seems strange, a sort of wishful thinking, as if we are whistling in the dark to assuage our fears in the face of the universal evidence of fallibility and death. And yet at the same time we seem convinced that if we could just get enough power, know enough and expand beyond our limitations that we can fix it ourselves.
Jake is struggling through Grand Central Station in New York City with two huge and obviously heavy suitcases when a stranger walks up to him and asks “Have you got the time?”
Jake puts down the suitcases and glances at his wrist. “It’s a quarter to six,” he says.
“Hey, that’s a pretty fancy watch!” exclaims the stranger.
“Yeah, it’s not bad. Check this out” – and he shows the man a time zone display not just for every time zone in the world, but for the 86 largest cities. Jake hits a few buttons and from somewhere on the watch a voice says “The time is eleven ’til six'” in a very Texas accent. A few more buttons and the same voice says something in Japanese. Jake continues “I’ve put in regional accents for each city”. The display is unbelievably high quality and the voice is simply astounding.
The stranger is struck dumb with admiration.
“That’s not all”, says Jake. He pushes a few more buttons and a tiny but very high-resolution map of New York City appears on the display. “The flashing dot shows our location by satellite positioning,” explains Jake.
“I want to buy this watch!” says the stranger.
“Oh, no, it’s not ready for sale yet; I’m still working out the bugs”, says the inventor.
“But look at this”, and he proceeds to demonstrate that the watch is also a very creditable little FM radio receiver with a digital tuner, a sonar device that can measure distances up to 125 meters, a pager with thermal paper printout and, most impressive of all, the capacity for voice recordings of up to 300 standard-size books, “though I only have 32 of my favorites in there so far” says Jake.
“I’ve got to have this watch!”, says the stranger.
“No, you don’t understand; it’s not ready -“
“I’ll give you $1000 for it!”
“Oh, no, I’ve already spent more than -“
“I’ll give you $5000 for it!”
“But it’s just not -“
“I’ll give you $15,000 for it!” And the stranger pulls out a checkbook.
Jake stops to think. He’s only put about $8500 into materials and development, and with $15,000 he can make another one and have it ready for merchandising in only six months.
The stranger frantically finishes writing the check and waves it in front of him.
“Here it is, ready to hand to you right here and now. $15,000. Take it or leave it.”
Jake abruptly makes his decision. “OK”, he says, and peels off the watch.
The stranger takes the watch and walks away.
“Hey, wait a minute”, calls Jake after the stranger. He points to the two huge, heavy suitcases, “Don’t forget your batteries.”
For every advance there are unforeseen consequences. In all truth humanity is unlikely to be powerful enough, know enough or become immortal on our own terms.
It is done another way in the Divine economy. John records Jesus saying, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies it yields a rich harvest.” These words of Jesus define the paschal mystery – the mystery of faith; namely, in order to come to fuller life and spirit we must constantly be letting go of our present life.
There are two kinds of death and two kinds of life.
Two kinds of death
There is terminal death and there is paschal death. Terminal death is a death that ends life and ends possibilities. Paschal death, like terminal death, is real. However, paschal death is a death that, while ending one kind of life, opens the person undergoing it to receive a deeper and richer form of life. The image of the grain falling into the ground and dying so as to produce new life is an image of paschal death.
There are also two kinds of life:
There is resuscitated life and there is resurrected life. Resuscitated life is when one is restored to one’s former life and health, as is the case with someone who has been clinically dead and is brought back to life. Resurrected life is not this. It is not a restoration of one’s old life but the reception of a radically new life.
Jesus did not get his old life back. He received a new life – a richer life and one within which he would not have to die again. The mystery of faith, the paschal mystery, is about paschal death and resurrected life. The resurrection is the triumph of life over death. God is the God, not of the dead, but of the living. Therefore his Christ must be found, not among the dead, but among the living. The last word lies always with God and life. John Polkinghorne, in Searching For Truth, Meditations on Science and Faith, writes that the resurrection of Jesus is a triple vindication.
- Vindication of Jesus himself – A priest friend of mine was once confronted by woman, upset by all the controversy in the Church. She said to my friend, “If Jesus knew how his Church had turned out he would turn over in his grave!” All too often we live as if that were true. Good Friday marks a failure. The death on the Cross of a well-intentioned but ineffectual man. “He saved others let him self himself,” they had said. But he did not save himself. He experienced the consequences terminal death. He was really dead. But now it is revealed that the reports of his death, though true, were not the end of the story. He is vindicated. He death is a paschal death. His message of love and life through surrender is vindicated.
- Vindication of God – Someone once caught W. C. Fields, the great comic actor, reading the Bible. Mr. Fields was not a believer so the man was puzzled at the sight. “What are you doing the man asked?” W. C. Fields replied, “Looking for loopholes.” The good news, Mr. Fields is that you don’t need loopholes. God has acted. Despite the appearances on Good Friday, God did not abandon the one man who wholly trusted himself to him, and stood by him in death and beyond death. God proved himself indeed to be the God of the living. God is vindicated by the resurrection
- Vindication of human hopes. It is almost to much to hope for. It is like awakening from a nightmare and with a start realizing that we are safe after all when we thought all was lost. The old barriers, the hard crust of alienation that grew around the human heart is pierced by the power of new life. God loves us. As Polkinghorne says, “The intuition deep in our hearts that life has a meaning and fulfillment which death will not be allowed to frustrate, the truth of the assurance that came to Julian of Norwich that in the end all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well. Death is real and a real ending, but it is not the ultimate end, for only God is ultimate. The last word on human destiny does not lie with the fact of death but with the greater fact of a faithful Creator and a merciful Redeemer. If we matter to God now, as we certainly do, then we shall matter to God forever. At death, we shall not be cast aside like broken pots on some cosmic rubbish heap. Human beings are not naturally immortal, but the faithful God will give us a destiny beyond our deaths. As Christians we know that this is not a mere theoretical possibility, for we have the resurrection of Our Lord as the foretaste and guarantee, enacted within history, of the destiny that awaits us all beyond history.”
Alleluia, Alleluia, Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia, Alleluia.
• 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
• 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
It was a brutally cold December weekend, unusually so, for Memphis Tennessee. At St. John’s we canceled the 8:00 AM’s holy Eucharist that morning so that our staff would not have to be out quite so early. So about 9 o’clock or so the choirs were upstairs preparing for the service. Eucharistic ministers and acolytes checking the readings into whether or not there that they had found the right pages. Altar Guild was going to and fro adding a bit of water to the flowers, while the first arriving ushers stacked service bulletins by every entrance.
Coming from my office to the church, the elevator doors opened revealing a man sitting on a bench by the Bride’s Room. He clutched a steaming cup of coffee in both hands. Not knowing him, I introduced myself. He said his name was Kirby (not his name). Later I heard the back story.
Kirby had literally found no room in the inn in downtown Memphis. Turned away from the last available shelter he began to walk east. He walked all night, realizing that to sit down to rest was to tempt death. So he kept walking. About 9 o’clock on that Sunday morning he was walking up Central Avenue and apparently the first place he had found people stirring was St. John’s. Trying the door he found it unlocked. Hearing sounds upstairs, he followed the sounds and discovered the choir rehearsing. The organist choirmaster, Dr. Ward, realizing that he was dangerously chilled, got him some coffee and settled him on the bench by the elevator. It was there that Deacon Emma spied Kirby and invited him to church. Kirby settled in a pew, say 10 rows back. A parish family was seated in the pew behind him. At the conclusion of the Eucharist, the husband asked Kirby, “Man, do you have a coat?” The answer, no. That man took off his own elegantly, fine overcoat and put it on Kirby and they parted ways. That man was Joe Orgill, laid to rest with his ancestors today in Bolivar TN.
Having recently retired as Rector of Saint John’s, I did not have the privilege of preaching today at his funeral. I regret that I could not tell the story of that day when the Kingdom of God came near us on a frigid Sunday morning. We live in an age of malignant narcissism fueled by greed, self-entitlement and hubris. I will testify that such was not the case with my friend Joe Orgill, III. He would not approve my telling this story, I ask his forgiveness.
In the March issue of Harper’s, Rebecca Solnit explored the relationship between empathy and power. She turned to psychologist Dacher Keltner’s study of the rare proximity of empathy and power.
While people usually gain power through traits and actions that advance the interests of other, such as empathy, collaboration, openness, fairness, and sharing; when they start to feel powerful or enjoy a position of power or enjoy a position of privilege, those qualities began to fade. The powerful are more likely that other people to engage in rude, selfish, and unethical behavior.
Joe was acquainted with power, wielding some, more than some. Yet the atrophy of morals and soul, pixelated by power, was not his lot. I can testify that I was in a place just yesterday where the staff knew Joe well. Their unanimous chorus was sorrow at the passing of such a good man. The waiters, ushers, servers of this world always know the truth about such things.
Godspeed brother. I rejoice to know you. I count it my honor to be your priest. You brother, practiced Christianity, day in and out, year by year. I testify that on a very cold day, when you gave Kirby your coat, you did what Jesus would have done had he been in church that morning. But, then Jesus didn’t need to be incarnated that morning because Joe Orgill, III was here and the Kingdom of God was manifested among us.
Rest brother, we’ll meet again.
John W. Sewell