Deliver us, O Lord, From the Peril of Invincible Ignorance

Sometimes it's best not to know

“The unconscious comes to the aid of the conscious ego when it is grappling with a task that is beyond its capacity.” Anthony Stevens from Private Myths

What help could come our way if we were willing to pay attention to our dreams and visions. The resolute determination to avoid a meaningful connection between the inside and outside of our being almost rises to the level of what the Roman Church calls “Invincible ignorance” — the ultimately fatal decision to not accept the truth.

However, in the past year I have been in sustained conversations with men who are working with their dreams and I observe the amazing change in them as them as they take seriously this communication. I have observed one fellow getting “unstuck” in his career as he listened to the coaching of his sleeping dreams. He had never considered such work, but now calls me with reports of his nocturnal adventures.

I am more convinced than ever that soul work is the principal task of priests & deacons in parishes. It requires vigilance not to succumb to the tyranny of the immediate, losing focus on the essential task at hand. The institution of the church no doubt needs maintaining but only when that maintenance supports the Cure of Souls, as the ministry of the Church. So long as Church leaders, lay and clergy, keep that in mind the institution thrives and souls are augmented.

As Saint John writes in Third John chapter one verse two, “Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.” (KJV)

Even as your soul prospers, what if our life reflected the health of our soul? Would it look like Dorian Gray’s portrait? Some of the problems of life do not depend on our personal functioning. Other people’s choices can make a difference in the prosperity or famine of one’s life. However much of our dis-ease comes from within and Jesus warned when he said that what defines comes from within not what sort of food that is eaten.

John Sewell 2010©

A Strong Silent Dreamer

Joseph - Toulouse Lautrec

Joseph – Toulouse Lautrec

Joseph is the silent partner of the Holy Family. No word he spoke is recorded in scripture. He was a man, however, who paid attention to his dreams.  It is for his dreams that we remember him.  Men and Women are different in many ways and there also seem to be some differences between the dreams of fathers and the dreams of mothers: Mothers tell us who we are and Fathers tell us who we are to become.   Mothers are about origins/birthing, the nesting frenzy of booties, cribs, gowns etc.  There is only one beautiful child in the world and every mother has it! On the other hand, Fathers tend to look to the future and show up at the hospital with baseball mitts, footballs and open college accounts on the day their child is born.

We see some of the same issues in the story of the nativity. Mary gets most of the attention and nearly all of the credit.  Joseph gets little attention and no credit at all. Yet Joseph is the ordinary-extraordinary man that God chose to be the earthly father to his only son, the Christ.  The thing that strikes me about Joseph is that he is a man who pays attention to his inner life.

Flight into Egypt - Henry Ossawa Turner

Flight into Egypt – Henry Ossawa Turner


Scripture records four of Joseph’s dreams.

  1.  Mary is pregnant.  The child is not Joseph’s child.  As he was pondering what to do he fell asleep and dreamed.  A messenger (angel) of the Lord appeared to him in his dream and said, “The child is the product of the Holy Spirit so do not fear to marry Mary. ”So Joseph took Mary and went to Bethlehem and the baby was born in a stable in a crowded city.  And the angels came to the shepherds and the shepherds found the stable.  Time passed. It appears that the baby family settled in Bethlehem, as that is where the Magi found the family, tradition says two to three years later. Here Herod enters the story.  He is the stereotype of the “wicked king”.  He learned from the mysterious eastern visitors that a “new” king had been born and decides to kill him before he can become a problem. Recently I learned that Herod had one of his 11 palaces in sight of Bethlehem, a fortress-palace called the Herodion.  In my mind I see the King standing on the single high tower of  the place watching the torches move from house to house while his henchmen did the terrible injustice to the innocent.

    James Tissot

    James Tissot

  2. After the Magi have departed by another way, true to form, Joseph had a dream.  An angel told him that Herod would kill the child and that the holy family should flee to Egypt. Joseph arose right then and by night took Mary and the child and traveled to Egypt.
  3. After Herod had died, in a dream, an angel instructed Joseph to, “Go home.” Back they go from Egypt to Judea.  Back in Judea Joseph is uneasy about the new ruler, Archaleus, Herod’s bouncing baby son.
  4. In yet another dream an angel gives further instructions, “Do not stay in Bethlehem.  Archaleus is as evil as his father.”  So they settled in Nazareth and Jesus was known as a Nazarene.
Christ in the Carpenters Shop - John Everett Millais

Christ in the Carpenters Shop – John Everett Millais


Where would we be today if Joseph had not paid attention to his dreams? Joseph was sensitive to the realities of the spiritual world. He becomes for us a model of faith. Had Joseph not been in relationship with God he could have attributed the dreams to indigestion caused by the pizza he ate last night. Or maybe because of the stress he had been living with. This radical openness to God, this willingness to be led by the Spirit is a critical component of what it means to be used effectively by God.  A Hasidic tale speaks of the “faith treasure” that lies within each of us, if only we will pay attention to the guidance given us.

Isaac, a poor Jew, lived in an old hovel many miles from a large city.  One night he dreamed that if he would make the long journey to the far-off city, he would find a bag of gold hidden under the bridge leading to the city’s main gate.  The man was so poor he had nothing to lose, so he ventured forth on what seemed like a foolhardy trip. Isaac, slowly and arduously, made his way to the city.  After many days of walking, he finally arrived.  But to his dismay, Isaac saw that the main bridge leading to the gate of the city was heavily guarded.  Upset and lost, the poor man stood there under the bridge, hoping for an opportunity to make a search for the treasure.  His disquieted presence soon caught the attention of the captain of the guard, who looked down on the poor figure and shouted, “What are you doing here, old man?”

Isaac, in the simplicity of his poverty, told his dream to the captain.  Hardly able to contain his laughter, the captain replied, “Why you old fool, where would we be if we took notice of our dreams?  Why, only last night, I dreamed that if I were to journey to a small village, miles from here, I would find some treasure hidden behind the fireplace in the miserable hovel of an old Jew named Isaac.  Be off with you, old man.  Take your foolishness elsewhere!” And, of course, Isaac went home as fast as he could and found treasure behind his own hearth.

The question is how do we become like St. Joseph?


Morton Kelsey, in his book, Encounter With God, gives us some hints.  He says:

Act as if the spiritual realm exists.  Churches are full of people who live as if the physical word – the world of the five senses – is all there is.  What if we began to act as it the world of scripture, which assumes there a supernatural, were true.  How would that change how we live our life?  Would we be different at our jobs?  Begin by saying, “There is a realm of realty that is beyond the purely physical world. I want to know more about that realm.” Pray and ask God to reveal this spiritual to you.

Begin one’s pilgrimage with serious purpose.   What would happen if we engaged our spiritual life with the same energy that we do our jobs?  What would happen? Be as honest with oneself as possible.  We must be honest before we are able to face and grow through many things.  Denial is the mark of human nature since the Garden of Eden.  We hope that if we don’t admit that there is an elephant in the living room no one else will notice either.

Begin spiritual disciplines:

  • Keep a journal.
  • Keep records of dreams.  God still speaks to us from our unconscious.
  • Read and study the spiritual life.
  • Pray, experiment with prayer.
  • Give of time, talent and money to this parish and beyond.
  • Practice the faith – we don’t have to get it right every time – faith is a laboratory.

 Seek God.  It is important to become as open to God as we know how and then expect him to meet us. As Scripture states if we draw near to God, God will draw near to us!”  God speaks to us in many ways.  On many occasions, I have heard the word of the lord coming from the lips of someone who never knew that what they said had some power for my life.


 Many of us are walking around, hunting and hoping for what might have been or what might be but that is where it ends.  The Good News today is that God is at work in the world.  The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light. And they are us!  I invite you and me to be open in this New Year to the possibilities that God has for us.

 Folks in Alcoholic Anonymous speak of the “consequences” of alcoholism.  I have a dream that Saint John’s will be a place where people encounter God with all the extraordinary “consequences” such encounters entail.  What consequences await us this year?  We have new dreams and we have the old dreams that have yet to come to pass.   Dreaming dreams is part of my job, but the dreaming of this community is everyone’s responsibility.  What is your dream?  What is your dream for you, your family, and this faith community?

Dreams require sacrifice. As Robert Johnson puts it,

“Sacrifice really involves the art of drawing energy from one level and reinvesting it at another level to produce a higher form of consciousness.”  In 2014  what are we willing to sacrifice that we may become whole in body, mind and spirit?

 Here also Joseph is a sign and a model to us.  Tradition says that Joseph was much older than Mary. Here his whole life has been uprooted by this mysterious pregnancy and birth attended by angels, shepherd, and wise men.  He is faithful to the call of the angels in his dreams.  He pulls up stakes time after time, moving to new towns and a new country.  He goes back to Bethlehem with Mary and the boy and sets up his carpenter business all over again.  Luke tells us that Joseph was alive when Jesus was twelve and in the temple.  After that he disappears from the scriptures without a trace.


 Joseph, the patron saint of workers, is also the patron of people who keep on keeping on. Those who put one foot in front of the other, day after day, week after week, many coming like Joseph to the end of their life or rope without seeing the thing they have hoped for and had been promised.  Apparently Joseph died before Jesus began to proclaim the Kingdom of God. Joseph was more faithful than successful.  He is the patron of the doggedly faithful. What a moment it must have been when Jesus went to the place of the dead proclaiming the resurrection?  I’ll bet that right behind Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and Elijah was the man who first taught Jesus what it meant to call somebody Abba/daddy. Pray that we, like St. Joseph, will be open to God’s working in our lives.  Pray that we will hear God’s call in our dreams and then with patience and courage follow where God leads in 2014 and in the age to come.


Flight into Egypt - Edwin Long

Flight into Egypt – Edwin Long

The Spirit and Body are One

Christ is Risen! Death is no more.


On that great day we shall be free from consequence and sin and the end of all ending shall end.  We shall be one, even as the Father, Son & Spirit are one, for so our Lord commanded and what he commanded is true, not almost but always, for the spirit and body are one.

No longer shall we find division in ourselves, no contradiction nor even paradox be found for the spirit and body are one.

For all shall be raised, as our Lord has been raised with body the same yet new; so shall our bodies and spirit reunite, continued yet new for the spirit and body are one.

Fallibility and consequence, fact and value, concept and expression; indeed all pairs of opposites will be present yet welded/layered/melted/completed for the spirit and body are one.

On that great day, the dead in Christ will rise, meeting the Son in the air, the living caught up with the dead and reunion and union; all nuance, unique and rare, elegant and spare completed and there and then the Spirit and body are one.

No sleep, fatigue or pain; no peculiar debris remain for the will of the one, yet three, holy one, from to age to come, our spirit and body are one.

JWS – April 14, 2013 at  2:44 AM

Rector’s Address at Saint John’s Annual Parish Meeting

I suppose one of the good things about rising age is the perspective gained from traveling over that much geography.  One of my favorite writers, Morris West, titled his memoir, A


Cover of "A View from the Ridge: Testimon...

Cover via Amazon


View from the Ridge, looking back over his life just before slipping into the next life in valley beyond.  I have not yet reached the ridge but I can look back over a few foothills. This is the 10th time I have attended an annual parish meeting at Saint John’s.  Ten years is a long time.  I was 51, I had hair, I also was a lot heaver than I am today for which I am grateful.


As I look over this nave, In my mind, I also see in their old accustomed places some of those who greeted me here in 2002 and have gone before us into that perfect rest.


*        Stan Gafford – at 92, Stan took up tap-dancing to meet chicks.


*        Sara Jane Prothero wrote the date beside the hymn every time that hymn was sung in church.   Geoff keeps it up today.


*        Harry Wilcox who every animal at the Memphis Zoo, and their mate, their progeny and all their names.


*        Carol Leatherman, a force of nature, instructed me in the family secrets of old Memphis.


*        Louise Carr who on her deathbed, called her financial adviser & moved money in 5 figures to the memorial fund in honor of her husband & daughter who preceded her in death and waited to embrace her only hours later.


They & many others have departed this life in the faith & fear of God, waiting for that great day, when we all will be with Jesus and he will wipe away all tears and death will be swallowed by life.  In the communion of the Saints all those who ever loved God in this place, join us this morning as we gather and order our common life.


This year I have found a clarity, verging on high definition, about this Christian experience we share.


I see that there are two parts of ministry: my job & my work:


*        My job is Rector:  I was made chief steward of this place ten years ago, to husband the resources, to guide and serve this community until I surrender this privilege to the Bishop at some future day. I intend to deliver this institution into his hands hopefully a little better than I received it. This is my job.


*       On the other-hand my work is “the cure of souls.”  When I was installed as rector in September 2003 with precise & archaic language, I was given “charge of the cure.”  This means that in a sense I am a “player-coach,” in that I do my own soul work, while I coach others as they as they their soul work.


One would think that my job & work are exactly the same and I say with sorrow that such is often not the case. The tyranny of the immediate, the speed of communication & the maintenance of the fabric of the institution often obscures if not blinds me to the deepest concerns of ministry.  For several years now, I have admitted to myself that while the institution of Saint John’s is in pretty good shape given the anxiety in the Episcopal Church, soul work is not the focus of our common life in a way that deeply transforms lives. Yet, the simple truth is that this place exists for one purpose and one purpose only: that here people safely experience God. That is why this room is filled with world-class art, better music than I have ever dared hope for and indeed treasures of all the arts making this Church aesthetically exquisite; in addition the liturgies are carefully planned, the altar carefully prepared and the buildings a faithfully cleaned and with the care that the occasion of meeting God in the breaking of the bread deserves.


What we do with that is up to us, of course, we can come and eat bread & drink a sup of wine leaving in the same shape we were in or we can come with expectancy meeting the resurrected Jesus in the bread of heaven & the cup of salvation.  This place, this beautiful place, this “home place” is here serving  as – an open space – where we  in that great ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­choreography of grace  dance with God & each other here on Sundays & the Holy Days.


And yet, more is needed.  For a long time I have sensed that how we have done church, the way I experienced church as a boy, is no longer working.  Each generation faces the unique challenges that comprise life in that day.  We are no different, but discerning the signs, it appears that we live at a cadence point in history. Naively I thought that modern went on forever.  But, what we call modern is no longer the cutting edge of speculation and innovation but is the label of a history, like the Victorian or Colonial era.  Not all generations lives through at such a cultural pivot, but we do.


It is not as if Christians have not been here before, in anxious years, look for a life-giving way forward.


§  In 70 AD, the Temple was destroyed and Christians adapted and proclaimed the never-changing truth of the Gospel as the Church was freed from persecution and became the religion of the Roman Empire.


§  In late Antiquity as the Roman Empire in the West crumbled, Christians adapted, proclaiming the Good News of God in Christ and evangelizing pagan Europe.

Roman empire in 117 Roman Empire Contested ter...

Roman empire in 117 Roman Empire Contested territory (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

§  The end of modernity is such a time, a reinvention must happen if the Gospel is to go to all the world.


For the past 500 years we have done church pretty much as we have experienced it in our life time.  But that way no longer works.


The day when the culture propped us up is no more, the public schools are no longer the Protestant parochial schools & Blue laws no longer protect us from competition; no longer can we prosper by a sort of genteel ignorance of the faith, while hiring people in collars to do our Christianity for us.  I’m not saying folks were not Christian & I’m not saying that they were unconcerned about faith.  What I am saying is that the future requires a kind of commitment and formation that we have not needed for centuries.


Living forward, each believer will need to be self-feeding, taking responsibility for the health of her or his soul. We have not done that sort of intentional soul work for a very long time. Past generations worshiped in churches sitting on various corners and  waited for folk to wander in. The un-churched no longer seek us out and we are at a loss as to what to do.  For we live at the end of a chapter of history, the page is not yet turned but we prepare for whatever this next chapter brings.


Let us not succumb to a fixation on survival, a sure and certain path to death, no let us rather embrace the adventure ahead of us, for the plot thickens & The Holy Spirit will guide us as Jesus promised.


Your clergy, three priests & two deacons are committed to soul work, in us and in this place. I have prayed for 2 years & when I ran out of options to will it into being and slumped over exhausted, a way forward appeared.  This better thing is the EPISCOPAL SPIRITUAL LIFE RENEWAL that began at Holy Spirit Parish in Lake Forest Ill. You can read about it on the Webb page of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago. Bishop Johnson supports, & your vestry has voted to become a pilot parish for this process & we are already underway. This is the process:


*        Between January 19th & February 10th every member of Saint John’s is asked to take an online survey.


*        This survey is anonymous; no one will know who took the test


*        This survey examines two key questions:


          ^    What is the Spiritual health of Saint John’s


           ^   What is Saint John’s role in the formation of souls.


*        In March, we will receive the results.


*        A team of Saint John’s communicants will work with this material over a period of months.


*        By late spring, they will advise us how best to proceed given what we have learned from each other.


*        Then, God willing, we will organize Saint John’s that all our resources serve the soul work of the people, supporting them in the various ministries emerging from their soul work.  We will pray, learn & do what is  required to grow our souls up. Growing ourselves up and calming ourselves down is the greatest contribution we can make to our culture and this Republic we love.


§  This is what I ask all of you to do:


§  Ask questions, go online & read about Episcopal Spiritual Life Renewal.


§  Above all, please take this survey.


I am hopeful today in a way I have not been in a long time. I want to invest my remaining years of public ministry in this place. The words of Paul in his letter to the Christians in Ephesus come to mind over and over and I ponder the call of God.  Ephesians 4:11 The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.


Over twenty-five years ago I awakened from sleep with a dream, it was simple, a single il_430xN.5223215picture, if you will.  In my dream I was a member of a Christian community and we were planted a orchard.  To plant an orchard is an act of faith as the trees will not bear fruit for years.  Some of those planting would not benefit from the fruit they would bear.  Later, I came across a quote from Martin Luthers where he said, “that if he knew the world would end tomorrow he would plant an apple tree today.”


 I have a realization sense that you are that community and that Memphis is that orchard.  Let us go this adventure together.


In the name of God, Father, Son & Holy Spirit.  Amen.