What Is Most Difficult?


On my way to celebrate Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve 2016, Saint John’s Episcopal Church in my 15th year. 

Someone asked me what was the most difficult part being a priest?  I hadn’t really thought too much about it these past thirty-five years, so I had to ponder a moment.  The one who asked opined that death and burial was the most difficult. That is true but not the answer. Then it came to me.  The most difficult part of my work is to want so much more for people than they want for themselves.  Yeah, that’s it.


Constance & Her Companions: Martyrs of Memphis

Van Gough

Van Gogh – Crows and Field

“Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die it abideth alone. John 12:24 KJV


As a child it is a shock to learn that things end. For example a pet dies and we learn a couple of things:
• One is that parents are not as omnipotent as we had thought they were AND
• Some things can’t be fixed!

No amount of yelling, weeping, begging, threatening, hoping or screaming at the heavens with our fist shaking with rage phases the smooth impenetrable walk of reality.

Having bounced off that wall, we propose not to let that happen again. You want to know from whence control- freaks come? Right then, right there, reality shall not come nigh me again, thank you very much.

Through careful planning and enough money; you do realize that is really why money is so important. Money will keep many wolves away from the door and keep them at bay for a long long time. But the longer we live and the safer we become — shielded by the investment of the CORPUS (interesting expression that) of our assets we find ourselves strangely alone.How we get out of this solitary confinement of ego safety?

David Richio says that there are five universal truths we must KNOW AND EMBRACE in order to live healthy and productive lives.
This is not fun. My hair is a victim of change and ending. You may not know it but today is international RedHead Day. My hair was copper red as a child. Do you think anyone will wish me a happy Redhead Day? No, my hair faded and then let go.

You our ego we can retreat into the past, the good ole days of our memory. Of course these days never existed except in our selective memory. Sam Keen calls selective memory, nostalgia. Nostalgia, he calls, “diseased memory.” Our beloved South has been trapped in that flytrap for pushing two centuries and you see what that has gotten us. As native Memphian, Alan Lichtman puts it, “IF YOU GET STUCK IN THE PAST YOU ARE STUCK ALONE.”

The most unfair that American parents teach their children is that Life IS far! You sign up for soccer and at the registration there is a fee for a trophy! What? You know that children aren’t stupid. When everybody gets a trophy it doesn’t mean anything! Life is not fair.
The Rain falls on the just and the unjust.

If you want to make God laugh just tell him your plans. Expectations – it has to be just this way.
• Psychosis – 2 +2 = 6
• Neurosis is 2 + 2 = 4 But I won’t have it!
Psychosis will get you medicated
For Neurosis there is no cure.

People don’t have to want to let us down – it’s just inevitable – The Church is a laboratory of relationships. Here we learn the discipline of forgiving each other and ourselves. It’s messy but like democracy better than any alternative. This is why people get married, you know. Not, because you won’t get let down, cause you will. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.” Marriage is a container for love.

Suffering is the promise life always keeps. If you don’t know that yet you will. No one gets out of this life alive!

Today we celebrate the feast day of Constance and her companions the martyrs of Memphis. During the yellow fever epidemic of 1878, Constance, the other Episcopal sisters and priests remained in the stricken Tennessee city nursing the sick and burying the dead until one by one they too sickened and died. Charles Carroll Parsons is a good example of what I’m getting at.

  • Things Change and End
    He was in the West Point Class of 1861 – Those cadets studied together in the Fall Semester and tried to kill each other in the Spring.
  • Life is not Fair: He watched friends, comrades die – He almost died himself. Battle of Perryville
  • Things do not go according to plan
    He left the army and became a priest,  He embraced the vocation of peace only to become with the violence of plague.
  • People will love you but will also let you down
    His wife died.
  • Growth comes through Suffering
    Yellow Fever in 1878

The Reverend Charles Carroll Parsons He got sick. All the priests were sick – knowing that he was dying (he had seen that enough times) he prayed the prayers for the dying for himself

Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant Charles. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen

“Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringth forth much fruit. John 12:24

We do not die just once, you know, death comes to us many many times before the hour of our personal demise. Every time we bump up against things changing and ending. Whenever we realize yet again that life is not fair; When our plans go awry, when people let us down and when we suffer – When by grace we know and embrace these truths, the words of Jesus describes us “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” We get lots of practice laying down our lives IF we will embrace the truth of our Lord’s words.

That sounds like bad news doesn’t it. The good news is that if we embrace our many little deaths a different, new kind of life, sprouts in us. It is a kind of life based not on our merit or achievement. It’s a kind of life that is free of the competition that so rules our ordinary existence. It is a life of grace — where the energy for our being begins at the end of our striving. Our Lord promised us that if we believe in him he will not let us go.

Frederick Buechner said it best, I think, when he wrote, “The worst thing that ever happens to us will not be the last thing that happens to us.”

Practice-Oriented Religion

“I want to suggest that the idea of practice holds the key to thinking about how people

Robert Wuthrow

Robert Wuthrow

with multiphrenic*  selves may be able to participate effectively and in a morally responsible way in the civic and economic arenas.  The critical issue is not whether people change their minds, even if they do so frequently, and it is not whether they draw inspiration from many different sources, rather than one; It is whether or not they take their spirituality and their moral concerns seriously enough to spend time reflecting on them, deliberating over them, and connecting them with their behavior.

Put simply, practice should not be conceived in opposition to theory, but in contrast with flakiness.  Practice is the effort that goes into having good reasons for what one believes and that demonstrates the seriousness of these beliefs by thinking about them and incorporating them into everyday life…”       Robert Wuthnow

How do we make disciples?  Clearly, Jesus did not say:  affirm these facts; do as little harm as you comfortably can;  when harm is unavoidable without change take up denial as method so that ignorance is mistaken as innocence; and having all you could reasonably do,  you will inherit eternal life. What Jesus did say was, “Follow me.” 

Richard Rohr

Richard Rohr (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The truth is that people are not abandoning the church of their fathers in the face of the demands of Jesus.  They are leaving the Church (all of it) because we are not Christian enough!  As Richard Rohr puts it, “we don’t need more orthodoxy (right belief) but orthopraxy (right practice).  He is right.

That is why at Saint John’s we have taken up the method of Renewal Works.  The recommendation of the Renewal Team from their work with the survey data was that as a congregation we engage the Bible as we are not conversant with the sacred text.  In response to this recommendation we launched the Saint John’s Reads and Bible challenge.  200 adults pledged to read the scripture every day this year; 80 of that number pledged (signed a card even) to read the entire Bible in a year.

Crossed Red and Green Laser BeamsA laser is not different light than your garden variety defused illumination; a laser is light that intensely focused. That focus is geometrically more powerful than dispersed light.  What is happening among us is not something novel and new, the Holy Spirit is moving us with subtle elegant nudges: a quickening here, an ah-ha there, a bit of insight tucked just so  as the view finder is adjusted a slowly, almost imperceptibility the but in real time with real power.  The outward sign and the inward spiritual grace is joy!   JWS

*Having multiple identities pieced together from the multiplicity of mediated messages in our environments.


Objects of Contemplation

Chinese scholar's objects

Chinese scholar’s objects

Chinese scholars kept small objects on their desk to aid in contemplation. Having found that an attractive notion, I began to collect small objects that invite reflection. They “live” on a tray on the ottoman in my office.

The small ceramic skull always prompts comment. We don’t like to contemplate our mortality. I once was invited to address the Kiwanis Club in Albertville, Alabama about the Hospice where I volunteered as a chaplain. I asked each man to repeat aloud after me, “I’m going to die.”  What a awkward moment. It was a memento mori – reminder that I am mortal. I was never invited again.

Death is real and so is resurrection. But we need to acknowledge the first before we can attain the second . All that is required is that we be dead, a state we can all attain. So there is good news after all. All God requires is that we be dead to ourselves and alive to him. What he really wants from us is our permission. He will do the rest. Christ is Risen!


2008 – Saint John’s Memphis, Tennessee – John W. Sewell
The English author and Christian, G K Chesterton wrote, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed.”
We do not gather today to tell each other that death exists. We already know that death exists. We gather today to tell each other that death is defeated. This is the day of resurrection!
Mary Magdalene in the desert - Puvis de ChavanneMary Magdalene in the desert – Puvis de Chavanne

Mary from Magdala came early in the morning on the first day of the week accompanied by other women to the tomb of Jesus. They brought spices to complete the burial rites. When they arrived the stone was rolled away from the tomb entrance. Then they realized that something had happened. On this morning of resurrection, with your indulgence, I want to borrow from Robert Farrar Capon and his meditation on death and resurrection.

“Let me borrow for our purposes imagine an egg, the ubiquitous Easter egg, and let that represent the whole time of my life. Now since the first of the grips on my life is my own, I shall represent that by putting the egg in my left hand and closing my fist around it: behold, my times are in my hand. But since the other grip on my life is God’s or more precisely, the grip of Jesus who as the Eternal Word of God makes and reconciles me at every moment – let me represent that by making a second fist over my left hand with my right. Behold again: not only my times but even my very holding of them are totally in his hand as well. The illustration is going swimmingly. We have even touched base with Psalm 31:15: “my times are in thy hand.”


Three  Eggs

Examine next, however, the differences between those two grips. As I hold my life, I have only a weak and partial purchase on it. Any one of a thousand accidents can snatch it from me in an instant. And even if nothing goes wrong, I can hold onto only the smallest portion of it at any given moment: of all my times, only the present is really in my grasp. The past I hold only in remembrance – mental, physical or psychological; and the future I hold even less adequately – in guesswork, hope or fear.

Worse yet, I hold none of those times fully. As far as my present is concerned, I have an effective grip only on what I’m actually paying attention to at the moment. The pencil in my hand is under control; the bread I forgot I was making is now a hopelessly over-risen mess in the kitchen. And as fat as past and future are concerned, things are worse still. Even if my memory of the past is better than it was of my bread there is no way I can go back to remedy a single mistake or improve a single performance – or even make sure I have not remembered the whole of it partially, tendentiously or wrong. And as fat as the future is concerned, there is simply no way of getting to it al all. Except of course by waiting. But that does no good because by definition the future as such never arrives. When it does turn up, it’s only one more present: what is really yet to be just hides out there in the dark as before.

Broken Egg

Broken Egg

In other words, not only is my grip on my times weak and partial, it is also unreconciled and unreconcilable. Imagine the hard-boiled egg that represents my life as a peeled, sliced one. And while you’re at it make it extremely large so that it can have as many slices as I have days – but leave all the slices together as a whole egg. Now then. As I go through the egg of my days slice by slice – beginning with my birth at the big end, proceeding delightedly through the days of youth and yolk and coming at last to the ever-decreasing slices of nothing but white – I can have a real influence only on the slice I happen to have reached and on the portion of it I have managed to pay attention to. If I wasted or abused a previous slice I can do nothing to help that now; any yolk I didn’t eat today remains uneaten forever.

The dodo egg - Madeline von

The dodo egg – Madeline von

In God’s grip however – as he hold the slices of my time – all my days, past or future, are simply present. To me they may be then and then but to him they are all now. The yesterday I cannot reach is as accessible to him as the pew we sit on this morning is to us. The future I can only guess at is as known to him as any other slice of the whole egg he holds in his everlasting now. God, in other words, is the eternal contemporary of every moment of my times. Accordingly, there is no moment of them that is ever lost to him – and consequently no single, briefest scrap of my life that is not as he holds it safely ensconced in eternity.

Eternal life therefore, is not another life after this one but simply this life as held eternally by Jesus – by the Wisdom of God who mightily and sweetly orders all things, even the things we disordered. And death? Well, for openers death is just one of the boundaries delimiting the things that make up a particular life. But it’s a good deal more than that, and if you now put all the images together you’ll see how.

hard-boiled-egg-slicesBring the peeled sliced egg down to size againand put it back in my left fist inside my right fist. Then ask: what happens when I die? Well, obviously I lose my grip on the egg: my left hand, if you will, becomes …nothing. All its records of its dealing with the egg, all its knowledge of details, all its mistakes, all its missed opportunities simply cease to exist when it does. When I’m dead: I have no brain to think with, no nose to smell with, no eyes to see with – nothing at all good, bad or indifferent with which to hold onto a single thing.

But when my grip goes, God’s grip does not. The egg about which the left hand could do so little even while it had it, is still held for endless exploration in the right hand. All the days I could not keep are stored for me at home in him. My death therefore is not simply an end; it is an absolution. It is my release from my own radically imperfect way of holding my life and my introduction at last to the best of all possible ways of holding it in the hand of Jesus.

Jesus came to raise the dead: to take those who had completely lost their grip and give them back every last one of the days that he, as their resurrection and there life, had always held for them. He never met a corpse that didn’t sit right up then and there because, although it may have been dead as a doornail on its own terms, it was alive willy-nilly in him and just couldn’t help showing it.

Pietrolussu - Lazarus just as it happened

Pietrolussu – Lazarus just as it happened

When Jesus cam to raise Lazarus, the dead man’s sister Martha had her doubts. Like the rest of us she could imagine eternal life only as something out there – as a blessing to be achieved only after the protracted clanking of some religious or philosophical contraption. And therefore when Jesus told her her brother would rise again, the furthest thing from her mind was that it would happen on the spot: “I know,” she said “he’ll make it at the last day.” but what Jesus in effect said to here was: “Wrong! He’s made it now. I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, eve though he’s dead, will still live. And whoever lives and believes in can’t possibly die in eternity – because in eternity is exactly where I’ve got him for good.” Lazarus, in short, might lose his own grip on his life but he could never shake loose of Jesus’. Ergo forth he comes when the Word who holds him speaks his name.

One more refinement of the illustration and we’re through. If you want to do justice to the note of believing that Jesus insisted on with Martha, put a glove on the left fist. Do you see now? The life of faith is simply the constant willingness to trust that just beyond that glove there’s another hand that holds out life along with us. We are invited to believe not that we will rise or that we will have eternal life, but that we have it right now and that we can enjoy it at the price of nothing more than slipping off the glove of unbelief that’s the only thing separating us from it.”

Now go back with me to the beginning of this day of resurrection. There at the tomb are the women, timeless icons of faith and redemption. Consider Mary of Magdala – she stands at the tomb on that morning as the counterbalance to Eve at Eden. As Craig Keener puts it, Mary at the tomb is the reversal of Eve at the fall. As she was at the fall now Mary is at the arising. As Eve ate to the lost of innocence now Mary delivered from demons is witness to the restoration of humanity to the new walk of life.

Mary Magdalene and the Holy Women at the Tomb - James Tissot

Mary Magdalene and the Holy Women at the Tomb – James Tissot

Eve was witness to the coming of death now Mary is witness to the coming resurrection. One saw the victory of death — the other the victory over death.

The ubiquitous Egg – is a symbol hope and resurrection and a symbol of the perfect state of unified opposites. Our God has acted and now the old splits of good & evil, sin & virtue, life and death are overcome and united in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, our Lord.

My friend, David Bargetzi, says that it is a greater sin not to dance in Easter than not to fast in Lent.

Resurrection is come let’s dance.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Breathing In and Out: Toward a Real Spirituality

It’s about breathing. Dr. Helen Barnes (a hero of mine) when asked what she was going to do when confronted with the results of a catastrophic event replied, “I going to breath in and I’m going breath out.” If the goal of the Christian journey is union/oneness with God and sin/alienation is what separates us from God, then a foundational issue is how do we face reality, the totality of reality? Humans use rationalization, denial, avoidance and other strategies to format reality to fit our needs and wants.

What is God’s will for humanity? I believe that God intends humans to mature. Maturity comes from facing challenge. Whatever moves us away from reality toward unreality is not Christian spirituality. I think often of the remarks of the late Dr. Edwin Friedman on the nature of idolatry.

“The problem with the worship of idols is not the actual worship but what that worship denies. Idolatry in any age and in any form is always the false promise of immediate security,the pretense of certainty at the expense of the more painful experience of the growth that can only come by facing challenge. Taken out its primitive context, idolatry has many forms, from substance abuse to bend others to our own will, to the panicky search for the right answer. Always, however, it denigrates the power of a human being to cope with reality, always it goes in the direction of reducing one’s threshold for enduring pain, always it dilutes the resolve to develop the emotional stamina to manage crisis, and therefore it always denies the spark of the divine.”

We are called to move into the future in faith, breathing in and breathing out, learning from our experiences, developing stamina along the way that leads to the maturity of our souls.