Does God Exist And Does God Care

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? Which is your favorite?  It’s embarrassing to be questioned as to my favorite as it would be to be asked that question at a family reunion.  “No,  I say, explaining this collection are the guidebooks of 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 sat 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.

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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 subtitle33: 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.

Chapel of the Cross

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.

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Elohim create man – William Blake

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 letter to a man in the fire

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.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

A 100 Years on no one was ever arrested.

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.

May 21, 2017 “The Lynching of Ell Persons”

May 21st, 2017
The Rev. John W. Sewell
Beloved, this must never happen again.  In the name of God the Holy One, it must not happen again.
John

Data is a Form of Substance Abuse

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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,

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 “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

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“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?

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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.

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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

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+

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]