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?” “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.

IMG_0008

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.

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.

elohim-created-adam

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.

david Christian

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

 

 

 

 

 

Going Through Home, Again.

Chapel of the Cross Madison MS

The Chapel of the Cross, Madison, Mississippi, 1848

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.

16

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).

Chapel_of_the_Cross_04

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+

 

 

Pentecost XV

James Christensen

James Christensen – The Parables of Jesus

MATTHEW 20 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers* for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.

These workers are the best in town. Given a level playing field they come in first every time – often with a bonus! He goes and hires more at 9, noon, 3 and just an hour before quiting time.
8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought [HERE COMES THAT BONUS!] they would receive more;  So here it comes – but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it,

Rembrandt - Parable of the Workers in the Vinyard

Rembrandt – Parable of the Workers in the Vinyard

 • they grumbled [murmured] against the landowner: Where have we heard that before, it began with Cain, Lot & family, don’t forget the poster children – the children of Israel in the desert for forty years, driving Moses crazy. No wonder he kept asking God to kill him, “Just kill me” – You know that original sin is the only doctrine that is so obvious that no one contradicts us. You have a perfectly lovely baby – Dorothy Biedenharn – only yesterday, handing out with Dad at SOULWorks – just glad to be there – but give it 18 months or so and it’s Katy bar the door. You hear it before you see it, the metal piercing whine that grates on the ear and enrages the heart.

They complained, not just about it amount of money… 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’

13 But he replied to one of them, “Friend” or in Southern, “Bless your heart, Bubba , I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”

Is your eye evil because I am good?”Or are you envious because I am generous?’
Envy, the green eyed monster, is always accompanied by its buddies: the sneaky, shifty, sly, Slander and Murder, shadowy, tall and terrible, violence – who is known as much reputation as by presence: whether it be a flash mob at Kroger or ISIS. But the ring leader is Envy – the very vermin that Lucifer the beautiful loosed into the world out of malice and spite.

Here we see the two economies:

•  Economy of scarcity, lack and fear
• Economy of the Kingdom of Heaven, in contrast is abundant, pressed down & overflowing and bullish on the future.

Them There & Then – Us Here & Now

A story from the Chapel of the Cross years is instructive. Robert Farrar Capon, of blessed memory, lectured at the Chapel of the Cross back in the 1990’s.  He was teaching that salvation is Grace plus nothing!  No hedging your bets just straightfoward grace. Robert was ruthless about grace!   I’m telling you, I have learned more about grace from Robert than anybody.

So Robert reinterates, “It’s Grace plus NOTHING.  A lawyer raised his hand and asked, “Why be good?” That’s a fair question of course. Why be good?  With a twinkle in his eye, Fr. Capon replied, “BECAUSE IT’S MORE FUN!”   So, you’re saying, it doesn’t matter how you live, said the lawyer his voice revealing his tension and barely restrained outrage. “I never said that,” Robert said, “Of course it matters how you live! – But it doesn’t earn you anything”

Well that did it! Robert just ripped the bloom off their bush. The Room divided right down the center.  One half of the room were righteously offended, while the other half aroused up in hope. Do I need to say that they righteous didn’t show up the next night?

Well the other half did return and here they cam dragging their friends – the halt and the lame – blind – none physically but of spirit – those abused by the Church of their understanding! So the room was full.  I realized that I had just witnessed what happened when Jesus taught.

You see we are called to a life spontaneous, creative and playful . Jesus promised us that we would be absolutely free, fully joyful and always in trouble. Ready at a moment’s notice speak a good word for Jesus, Therefore as Hunter Thompson put it:

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside/sideways in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow Jesus ! What a Ride!” HUNTER S. THOMPSON.

September 21, 2014 – Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Memphis, Tennessee

JWS