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? Which is your favorite?  It’s embarrassing to be questioned as to my favorite as it would be to be asked that question at a family reunion.  “No,  I say, explaining this collection are the guidebooks of 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.

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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.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

Gain Disguised as Loss!

Peace Pilgrim born Mildred Lisette Norman

The peace pilgrim was a woman who walked more than 25,000 miles, carrying on her body her only possessions.  She crossed America for nearly three decades witnessing to the simplest message, “This is the way of peace: overcome evil with good, falsehood with truth and hatred with love.”  I’m told that she wandered through Jackson Mississippi at least once and I suspect that she came through Memphis as well

PEACE PILGRIM’S STORY

This story is in her own words.  “Let me tell you a story about an answer to prayer. I was picked up late one night by a young policeman as I was walking along a lonely highway.  I believe he was thinking in terms of protective custody.  He said to me, ‘Why, nobody in this town would walk out along this highway at this time of night.’ I said to him, “Well, you see, I walk completely without fear.  Therefore I’m not attracting things which are not good.  It says, “That which I feared came upon me. But I fear nothing and expect only good.”

He took me in anyhow, and I found myself in a cell.  The floor was littered with old newspapers and cigarette butts and every old thing.  The accommodations consisted of a single mattress on the floor and four ragged blankets.  There were two women attempting to sleep together on that single mattress. The told me there had been eight women in that cell the night before with those accommodations. There was a rather nice feeling among the prisoners in general.  They said to me, ‘You’ll need two blankets because you’ll be sleeping on the floor.’  So I took a newspaper and cleared a place on the floor, and put one blanket downs and the other blanket over me and slept comfortably enough.

It wasn’t the first time I had slept on a cement floor, nor the last.  If you’re relaxed you can sleep anywhere.  When I woke up in the morning I say this man staring through the bars.  I said to him, ‘What time does court convene?’ He said, ‘I don’t know.” I said ‘Well, aren’t you a policeman?’  “No,’ he said, “I just like to look at the girls.’ It was one of the town sports.  Anyone could come in right off the street and see what they had there today: ‘Let’s go look at the girls!’

One of the women was middle aged and was being held for being drunk and disorderly.  It was her seventh offense, she told me, so it wasn’t so hard on her.  But the other was an eighteen-year-old girl.  She felt her entire life was ruined because of this experience.  I said, ‘It’s my second time and I certainly don’t think my life is ruined!’  I got her all cheered up and we talked about what she’d do when she got out.  She was to get out that day or the next day.

Then they changed the guards.  I never saw a matron.  The new guard saw me and said, ‘What are you doing in there? I saw your picture in the newspaper.  I heard you over the air.’  Then they just let me go. But before I left I got a broom from the man who cleaned up around there and gave it to the girls so they could clean up their cell.  I also got them a comb; their hair was all matted.  They had been there about a week without a comb.

What I really wanted to tell you is that the eighteen-year-old girl was a deeply religious person.  She had been desperately praying for help.  I believe that I was picked up off the highway that night and set behind prison bars in answer to her prayers.”

PEACE PILGRIM – PAUL & SILAS

Paul and Silas in Prison – William Hatherell

This is the story of a woman at peace.  Peace is not the opposite of conflict it is richer than that. Peace is a growing oneness with God and that peace may produce a conflict that doesn’t look very peaceful.  I am struck by the similarity between her story and the story of Silas & Paul (Silas should first billing occasionally) in chapter 16:16-40 of the Acts of the Apostles.   Paul and Silas wandered around proclaiming the Good News of the Resurrection.  When they cast out a demon from a slave girl her owners were furious and they wound up in jail. An earthquake opened the jail in the middle of the night and the jailer was ready to kill himself because if any of the prisoners escaped he would have been executed anyway.  But none of the prisoners had gone anywhere.  The jailer discovered in Paul and Silas a power beyond anything he had ever seen before.  He and his household were baptized.  Both the jailer and the slave-owners had a religious experience.  For the jailer it was good news and to the owners of the slave girl, who lost their investment it was bad news.

GAIN DISGUISED AS LOSS

The experience of Paul, Silas and Peace Pilgrim could be described as GAIN disguised as LOSS.  Jesus dying on the cross and laid in the tomb was gain disguised as loss. How do we live into this “up-side-down” way of thinking which discerns gain disguised as loss?  In her writings Peace Pilgrim speaks of four preparations for a spiritual life which I think point toward gainful loss.

 A:     ASSUME RIGHT ATTITUDES TOWARD LIFE:

“Stop being an escapist or a surface-liver as these attitudes can only cause in-harmony in your life.  Face life squarely and get down below the froth on its surface to discover its truths and realities.”

Three young men hid themselves on a Sabbath in a barn in order to smoke.  The elder discovered them and threatened to flog them for their misbehavior.  One young man said, “I deserve no punishment for I forgot that today was the Sabbath.”  The second youth said, “And I forgot that smoking on the Sabbath was forbidden.”  The third young man said, “I, too, forgot.”  “What did you forget, he was asked?”  He replied, “I forgot to lock the door.”

Facing the truth about our motivations and what we are doing is essential to life in the Spirit.

B.  LIVE GOOD BELIEFS.

The word “good” comes from the same Indo-European root word as the words gather and together; it means being joined or united in a fitting way.”  Harmony and connectedness is a part of spirituality.  Peace Pilgrim said, “Begin by putting into practice all the good things you believe.”  Good beliefs are not just pious thoughts. To do the good is to see that all things, including you and me belong to a greater whole AND to begin to act like that is so.

C.  FIND YOUR PLACE IN THE PATTERN OF LIFE.

Peace Pilgrim said, “You have a part in the scheme of things.  What that part is you can know only from within yourself.  You can seek it in receptive silence.  You can begin to live in accordance with it by doing all the good things you are motivated toward and giving those things priority in your life over all the superficial things that customarily occupy human lives.”

When a man whose marriage was in trouble sought his advice, the Master said, “You must learn to listen to your wife.”  The man took his advice to heart and returned after a month to say that he had learned to listen to every word his wife was saying.  Then the Master said with a smile, “Now go home and listen to every word she isn’t saying.”

We must learn and find our place in the scheme of things. John quotes Jesus in chapter 21 of his Gospel where Jesus prayed for the disciples; “…that they would be one, as the Father and the Son are one.”   That is our place in the things of things.

D.  SIMPLIFY LIFE TO BRING INNER AND OUTER WELL- BEING INTO HARMONY.

The Peace Pilgrim writes, “Unnecessary possessions are unnecessary burdens.  Many lives are cluttered not only with unnecessary possessions but also with meaningless activities.  Wants and needs can become the same in a human life and, when this is accomplished, there will be a sense of harmony between inner and outer well being.”

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Wendell Berry

That brought to mind the words of the Kentucky agrarian poet, Wendell Berry, “Don’t own so much clutter that you will be relieved to see your house catch fire.”

GIVING IS NOT LOSS BUT GAIN

The story is told of the time before time, when the world was young, two brothers shared a field and a mill.  Each night they divided the grain they had ground together during the day.  Now as it happened, one of the brothers lived alone; the other had a wife and a large family.  One day, the single brother thought to himself, “It isn’t really fair that we divide the grain evenly.  I have only myself to care for, but my brother has children to feed.”  So each night he secretly took some of his grain to his brother’s granary to insure that his brother was never without.

But the married brother said to himself one day, “It isn’t really fair that we divide the grain evenly, because I have children to provide for me in my old age, but my brother has no one.  What will he do when he is old?”  So every night he secretly took some of his grain to his brother’s granary so that he would never lack for anything.

As a result, both of them always found their supply of grain mysteriously replenished each morning.  Then one night the brothers met each other halfway between their houses, suddenly realized what had been going on, and embraced each other in love:

GAIN DISGUISED AS LOSS IS AT THE HEART OF THE GOSPEL

The longer I read the scriptures the more I am struck by the symmetry of the whole book.  We see this today in the reading from the Revelation to Saint John, which are the last words of the Christian Scriptures on matters of redemption and consummation.  The words at the end of the Revelation to Saint John are the antidote to the words in Genesis 3:24 which says, “God drove out the man; and at the east of the Garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.”   Ever since our ancestors, Eve and Adam, were evicted from paradise, humanity has been trying to get back in. But the Bible tells us that we can’t go back only forward.

  • The Old Testament is the record of the journey from Eden to the Promised Land.
  • The New Testament is the continuing saga of the people of God who are joined by God’s Son in our pilgrimage to God.
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Painting Faith

Our Lord by his death and resurrection overcame sin and death.  In Christ Jesus God has reconciled the whole world to Himself.  Hear again the words that are the last words of God on the subject: “The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”  And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”  And let everyone who is thirsty come.  water-in-wellLet anyone who wishes to take the water of life as gift.  The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.”  Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”

When we think of our lives, the regrets, losses,  brokenness and those things that make no sense to us it is important to remember that these events are the middle not the end of     the      story. The story is not over yet!

In Christ Jesus GAIN is disguised as LOSS. Let us never forget that in the end all will be well.