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+
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
• 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
St Michael Archangel
Michael can be asked for protection against any sort of physical or spiritual danger.
Prayer to St Michael Archangel
Holy Michael, the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our safeguard against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray; and do you, O Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God cast into hell Satan and all the evil spirits who wander through the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.
~ ~ ~
The Archangel Raphael is the Angel of Healing.
Prayer to St. Raphael, Angel of Happy Meetings
O Raphael, lead us towards those we are waiting for, those who are waiting for us! Raphael, Angel of Happy Meetings, lead us by the hand towards those we are looking for! May all our movements, all their movements, be guided by your Light and transfigured by your Joy.
Angel Guide of Tobias, lay the request we now address to you at the feet of Him on whose unveiled Face you are privileged to gaze. Lonely and tired, crushed by the separations and sorrows of earth, we feel the need of calling to you and of pleading for the protection of your wings, so that we may not be as strangers in the Province of Joy, all ignorant of the concerns of our country.
Remember the weak, you who are strong–you whose home lies beyond the region of thunder, in a land that is always peaceful, always serene, and bright with the resplendent glory of God
~ ~ ~
The Archangel Gabriel is the Angel of Guidance.
Prayer to St Gabriel, for Intercession
O Blessed Archangel Gabriel, we beseech thee, do thou intercede for us at the throne of divine Mercy in our present necessities, that as thou didst announce to Mary the mystery of the Incarnation, so through thy prayers and patronage in heaven we may obtain the benefits of the same, and sing the praise of God forever in the land of the living. Amen.
~ ~ ~
Prayer To St. Uriel, Archangel Of Justice
O Illustrious St. Uriel, the Archangel of God’s Divine Justice, as you hold the heavenly scales that weigh our lives on earth, we ask you to intercede for us, that God may forgive us all our sins. Obtain for us the grace of true repentance and conversion of heart that we may be spared of the punishment we deserve. Offer our prayers to God in our search for true peace and happiness founded on truth and justice. We pray for those who are suffering of inhumanities, dying because of injustice and the oppressed due to manipulation and exploitation. We also pray for our less fortunate brothers and ourselves. Present to God the Father all our petitions through Jesus Christ our Lord together with the Holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen
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
Every person’s mystical experience varies in length and intensity. Have you had a mystical experience? Here are a few defining characteristics:
1. Conscious Unity
The boundaries of where you perceive your individual consciousness and identity (ego) to begin and end vanish. Instead you’re left with a boundless and infinite union with all that is around you.
2. There Is No Time or Space
With a lack of a definable identity or spatial recognition, your sense of time feels infinite. You go from perceiving time from moment-to-moment as a static individual, to perceiving it as a stream of eternal present moments.
Without time space is endless.
Because your sense of identity is gone, your ability to separate “your” (now non-existent) surroundings into individual “spatial” elements also disappears.
3. Objective Reality
Without a discernible identity comes a sense of greater “objectivity” as though you’re experiencing a much more intricate and profound reality. Everything doesn’t just feel perfect, everything “is” innately perfect.
Much of your ecstatic feeling comes from an immense sense of gratitude. This gratitude is an overwhelming sense of awe at “your” (now non-existent) insignificance in comparison to the vastness of existence.
5. Life Is Seen As Sacred
In fact, your sense of gratitude is so vast that you feel almost undeserving of having the opportunity to experience such a miracle. You develop a new sense of respect for the sacredness of life that allows you to be here.+
6. You Understand Paradox
Our sense of self or identity creates duality in our perception of reality (“I” am separate from “That”). However, the moment this separation disappears, you’re left with a non-dual reality which your intellect finds paradoxical in comparison to what it is accustomed to.
7. The Experience Is Indescribable
The overwhelming magnitude of emotions and intuitive understanding you embody makes the attempt to even describe it feel limited by language and insulting to the depth of the experience.
8. The Experience Is Temporary
The very nature of a mystical experience is its transience. Eventually you end up returning back to your habitual way of life, but the experience changes something deep inside.
9. The Experience Is Life-Changing
After experiencing such a state, suddenly death isn’t as scary as it used to be, and the beliefs or ambitions that you once held to be so important immediately lose their meaning. In fact, the mystical experience often awakens a thirst to try to bring as much of that experience back into our regular day-to-day lives as possible.
The Mystical Experience Is Only A Taste
There’s a useful term in the Christian doctrine known as “Grace.” This word basically means that we receive mercy and love from the divine because it wants us to have it, not because we have done anything to deserve it.
Many people confuse having a mystical/spiritual experience with actually cultivating a spiritual life. To me, however, these experiences are brought by grace, but our appreciation of them is directly proportionate to our development of soulful maturity.
If the grace of a mystical experience is given to a 10 year old child, they will no doubt feel the experience but the degree in which they experience it will vary compared to someone who has undergone maturation; the deep exploration of their psyche, and who has learned to live life from the seat of their soul.
For the child it will be a great experience that will eventually fade and become a distant memory. But for the man who has dedicated his life to cultivating soulful maturity; to tilling the soil of his soul, this experience becomes the seed that is prepared to blossom. This might be the very tipping point that leads to the ultimate spiritual awakening.
This is precisely why I emphasize so much the necessity of soulwork and the journey of soulful maturity. Without widening the gap through which we connect to Soul, the mystical experience has no deep long-lasting impact on us. But with it, we taste the fragrance and essence of eternity.
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.
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
Growing Yourself Up & Calming Yourself Down
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.