A Christianity which is not basically mystical must become either a political ideology or a mindless fundamentalism.
Alan Watts – Behold the Spirit: A Study in the Necessity of Mystical Religion.
I became an Anglican almost four decades ago because of the tradition’s high tolerance for ambiguity. To my dismay, even Anglicans, when confronted with the paralyzing anxiety of our time, have polarized.
The left has become political ideology. The siren of our present time, whispers that all boundaries are evil. Openness is the cry of our time. What my progressive relatives fail to see is the distinction between barrier and boundary. It is the difference between a castle wall and the membrane of a single cell. The cell wall, if I remember from ancient junior high science, is a semi-permeable membrane. Substance flow in and out as may be. The cell wall is there not to keep “stuff” out so much as to promote the integrity of the organism!
The family on the right have descended into mindless fundamentalism. Now mind you, it is more sophisticated than your garden variety, but it is mindless nevertheless. Rabbi Friedman used to warn us not mistake mental activity for thinking. There is a longing for the golden age of purity (a time that likely never existed). In this Episcopal Church my right wing brethren have withdrawn into sanctuaries of purity in the geography of certainty. The castle wall around the body ecclesiastical is a barrier to further contamination and thinking.
Both extremes have something to say. Both extremes say it. Nobody hears the useful ideas because the noise is too great. Closing our eyes, while sticking our fingers in our ears and singing “our old familiar fight song” may take us to our happy place; there is, unfortunately, no joy in the morning when we awaken from our hang over after a night drinking from the fire hose of pernicious rhetoric
I refuse to give up tolerance for ambiguity. The truth is discovered by pulling the extremes toward the middle and living in the tension of the competing forces. Fr. Hubbell, Chaplain at University of Kentucky in the 1970s said,
Trying to stand in the middle of the road is a good place to be run over.
I admit looking in the mirror at the tire prints on my soul from time to time. But in all truth, I do not know where else to stand.
In hope, in spite of the facts.
©John W. Sewell
Jesus assured his followers that, “perfect love casts out fear.” The outcry against Syrian refugees brings to mind, “perfect fear casts out common sense as well as love.”
Living things instinctively view the “different” as potential threat. While, mistrust is in many cases warranted, human beings, at our best, are not merely instinctual, but seek by responding to, as Abraham Lincoln once said, the angels of our better natures form a community worthy of our place in creation.
Such union is always in jeopardy, as anxiety tempts us to regress, operating solely by instinctual, automatic unthinking, response. The challenges of this present time require thoughtful reflection which instinct cannot do. Since 9/11, terror is personal and local. Anxiety is paralyzing and never far from us. There are many things to fear. What we must do is not become our fear!
Syrians refugees now ask for entrance and solace among us. Though we are a nation of immigrants, fear of strangers, motivated by agendas that do us no credit, tempt us again. We are told that the wicked might slip in
among the refugees. That is likely, however, clear thinking advises us that rejecting these in need arms our enemy more than protects us. These are the very people who have paid the most to these killers. Let us embrace them as the friends they can be. They are not our enemies.
In this Thanksgiving week, let us hold fast the values that raise us above instinct, while employing thoughtful vigilance in guarding all we hold dear. We are better defended by thoughtful response than fearful reactivity.
In hope, in spite of the facts.
©John W. Sewell
Rector, Saint John’s Episcopal Church
The Holy Days are coming, those occasions that by the rhythm of once a year but all our lives mark the seasons of living. We live in a country that has the double whammy of Thanksgiving followed a month later by Christmas. We have double helpings of feasting and double visits from family. One raises our cholesterol and the other our anxiety.
I have learned that while the Holy Days are Holy they are not always happy. In fact I am convinced, particularly this time of year, that only orphans think that having a family would solve all their problems, the rest of us know better. How to survive the Holy Days? I suggest that you might want to read (or go back and read) Screamfree Parenting. “Ah,” you say, “It’s not my children that are the problem.” To which I say, “Take out the word parent and put in living.”
Screamfree is a way of thinking that focuses on our own functioning rather than the functioning of others. To prepare for the Holy Days, we might ask ourselves some of the following questions. On Thanksgiving and Christmas when families gather:
Who will experience the most anxiety and who the least?
The country is anxious, states, cities, neighborhoods are anxious. How to do deal with this anxiety during the most anxious time of the year? As my teacher, Ed Friedman, used to say that, “consistency is only possible when we Focus on our own functioning. Breathing in and breathing out is a good focus when anxiety rises. Getting more oxygen aids thinking and breathing may be the only thing that we can control. Stick to the facts not what we think they meant by the words they spoke. If things get more than we can take find an excuse to take a walk or visit a sick friend and then come back later. If you are out of town, hotel rooms are neutral.
Now I will see if I can take my own advice. In addition to the national and religious holy days we also have the annual parish meeting on this coming Sunday, December 8th. Please come and join us as we take council in this annual gathering of the parish.
Let’s focus on the things that matter so that we are not distracted and miss them.
I am fascinated by the discovery of the atomic slime in Savannah. It reads like bad science fiction and yet there is a lesson of hope for us in it. There are two sorts of conditions: level one — so toxic that nothing can survive and level two where the response of the organism makes a profound difference.
All too often we mistake level two for level one assuming that our response makes no difference when in fact our functioning makes the difference in the outcome. High anxiety results in our overlooking possibilities that may make all the difference.
Do you remember the old TV show MacGyver? In every episode, the hero, MacGyver would find himself in some situation that appeared to be a level I situation. But he takes a hairpin, the contents of his fountain pen and some aluminum foil and escape. His response to the situation made all the difference. Most situations we encounter in life are level II. But all too often we go around mistaking level II for level I circumstances. Our response is crucial. We must dig deep into our faith and find the resources that conquer fear. As our Lord said, “Perfect love casts out fear.” And as Christians we believe that the worst things that can happen to us are never the last things.
For Jesus has overcome the world.