“Humor is the universal solvent of the abrasive elements of life.”
Former Senator Alan Simpson speaking of President Bush “41”
“Humor is the universal solvent of the abrasive elements of life.”
Former Senator Alan Simpson speaking of President Bush “41”
Every October 15th, my mind turns to this odd little man, a Polish Jew, converted to Christianity, becoming in due season, the Anglican Bishop of Shanghai. The years of life spent at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL I sat opposite his grace’s stained glass window for at least three services a day.
We remember him because of the extreme example of the work of the Spirit was done in and through him. He was fully paralyzed expect for minor use of one hand. With that limitation also came, as he said, “patience, otherwise I would never have sat and translated the Scriptures into Mandarin Chinese. And indeed this thing came to pass and we are amazed not for his stamina but for his interpretation of his circumstances. JWS
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.
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.
The following is a modest annotated bibliography of books I consider of great value today.
“All the greatest and most important problems of life are fundamentally insoluble. They can never be solved, but only outgrown. This “outgrowing” proved on further investigation to require a new level of consciousness. Some higher or wider interest appeared on the patient’s horizon, and through this broadening of his or her outlook the insoluble problem lost its urgency. It was not solved logically in its own terms but faded when confronted with a new and stronger life urge. – Carl Jung
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
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.”
In the late 1970’s I attended a Symposium at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky. It was titled, From Under Our Rubble, in response to a series of essays by Russian thinkers, From Under the Rubble, edited by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. My wife and a friend, Mark Vaughn attended as the house-guests of Father Henry Parker, the Chaplain of Berea. It was a glittering assembly of thinkers. Dr. Elton Trueblood, weighty friend of the Quakers was chaplain. The Right Reverend Stephen Neill, architect of the Church of South India preached. The Rev. Father Ramzi Malek O.P. led prayer and taught of the soul. His brother, Charles Malek, was once President of the United Nations General Assembly. One of the leaders of the Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C., whose name I cannot recall, spoke on ministry. These stand out in my memory. These men and women caught my imagination as speakers, I knew Elton and Henry as friends. Over forty years later, I cannot calculate the influence they exerted on my Christian development. I am grateful, simply grateful. Mark and I have remained friends of soul all these decades and I am grateful beyond measure for his counsel and companionship on the way.
About thirty years ago, I came across my first copy of From Under the Rubble in an antique mall in Birmingham AL. I have had several copies since, usually they become gifts for others. Among first rate essays, one of them has shaped me for the journey. It is Repentance and Self-limitation in the Life of Nations by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. It was here that I first encountered the notion of “self-limitation.” I rather like Rabbi Friedman’s term “self-regulation” better, but nevertheless, it was there that I began the contemplation that discovered Tzimtzum in mystical Judaism.
“After repentance, and once we renounce the use of force, self-limitation comes into its own as the most natural principle to live by. Repentance creates the atmosphere for self-limitation.” A page later he writes, “After the Western Idea of unlimited freedom, after the Marxist concept of freedom as acceptance of the yoke of necessity — here is the true Christian definition of freedom. Freedom is self-restriction! Restriction of the self for the sake of others.”
There you have it. I have never been the same since that day.
As the author points out, “once understood and adopted, this principle diverts us – as individuals, in all forms of association, societies and nations – from outward to inward development, thereby giving us greater spiritual depth.
I came across this painting on the internet this afternoon and its title prompted my detour through the 1970’s. Memories are powerful, especially when they serve to keep us humble. The day will come when people will scrap the graffiti of tribal war paint from the faces of our common humanity and discover again the face of the Son of God, hidden as always among us.
Until that day, I live in hope, in spite of the facts.
John W. Sewell ©
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.
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.”
“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