The Mother of Your Fear

I have a shelf in my library where reside the volumes that speak most deeply to my soul with the sustained whispering that great writing gives .  One volume is The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America by David Whyte.  I have returned yet again to this wisdom from the Yorkshire poet.

Chapter two is a treatment, an exegesis almost, of Beowulf.

The mythologist Joseph Campbell used to say that if you do not come to know the deeper mythic resonances that make up your life, the mythic resonances will simply rise up and take you over. If you do not live out your place in the mythic pattern consciously, the myth will simply live you, against your will. Beowulf is welcomed by Hrothgar, and that night lies in wait for Grendel with his men inside Herot, Hrothgar’s great hall. Sure enough, in the ensuing fight, Beowulf mortally wounds Grendel, who then staggers back to die in the mere. That night there is tremendous feasting and gift-giving. The problem, it seems, has been solved in one swift movement. But that night, as Beowulf sleeps with his men in a different hall, something else comes from the swamp to Herot, fights off the best warriors, and retreats with its human victim: Grendel’s mother.


The message in this portion of the poem is unsparing. It is not the thing you fear that you must deal with, it is the mother of the thing you fear. The very thing that has given birth to the nightmare.

Here it is.  I am afraid that I will not be enough.  What man is not?  What is the mother of my fear of inadequacy?  Why, not to be enough and in the end to not be AT ALL!  Yup, you got it!  Not wonder we are willing to loiter along the the lakefront, the edge of the mere!  We would do almost anything to avoid plunging headfirst into the dark waters of the unconscious where the shadow knows and as Whyte writes, “men pray for dry feet.”

Yet, we are unsatisfied circling the lake.  We look deep into the water, seeing our reflection in the surface, telling ourselves that, Yes, we will sign up to be the latest narcissist falling in love with our own reflection on the surface of the liquid before us.  Anything to avoid falling headlong into our destiny, the soul-work that awaits us all.

My wife gave me her first gift before our hearts ever spoke of marriage.  It is a framed prayer that has sat on a table in my library for about thirty years.  It says,  “Oh God of second chances and new beginnings, here I am again.”  And so I am.

JWS – March 5, 2018  10:20 PM


June 26, 2005

NOTE; Obviously this is an old sermon.  The themes are exactly the ones I struggle with today.  You can interpret that several ways.  I’m not sure myself.  I feel the same issues but with greater intensity. As our Lord says, “Work while it is day for night is coming when no man can work.” John 9:4



Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

Almost ten years ago I was interviewed for the local evening news in Jackson, Mississippi. The young reporter came to ask my opinion about prayer in public schools.

I thought long and hard about how to say what I thought.

For one thing a sound bite format is not kind to Anglican ways of thinking. Most issues are more complicated than that.

Secondly as a minority church in a sea of free-church Protestants, Episcopalians have some inkling of what it is like to have the “majority opinion” forced on us.

I am sympathetic to the concerns that prompt such controversy. But in many ways we have entered a post Christian era in this country. Which is to say that we can no longer assume that Christianity and culture are contiguous. I thought back almost twenty years to an article from the October 1986 issue of Christian Century. Here is an excerpt from an article by William Williman.

Fox Theater Greenville SC“THOUGH I COULD NOT have known it at the time, a momentous event in my faith journey occurred on a Sunday evening in 1963 in Greenville, South Carolina, when, in defiance of the State’s archaic Blue Laws, the Fox Theater opened on Sunday. Seven of us made a pact to enter the front door of the church, be seen, then quietly slip out the back door and join John Wayne at the Fox.

Only lately have I come to see how that evening symbolizes a watershed in the history of Christianity in the United States. On that night, Greenville, South Carolina – the last pocket of resistance to secularity in the Western World – gave in and served notice that it would no longer be a prop for the Church. If Christians were going to be made in Greenville, that the church must do it alone.

There would be no more free passes for the church, no more free rides. The Fox Theater went head-to-head with the church to see who would provide ultimate values for the young. That night in 1963, the Fox Theater won the opening skirmish.

In taking me to Church, my parents were affirming everything that was American. Church was, in a sense, the only show in town. Everybody else was doing it. Church, home, and state formed a vast consortium working together to instill Christian values. People grew up Christian simply by growing up American. All that ended the night that the Fox Theater opened on Sunday.”

Dearly beloved, take nothing for granted!

We can no longer assume that people who come here for the first time on Sunday morning have any idea about what we believe. The truth is that we often are not all that sure ourselves.

• Some come because it is what they have always done.
• Some come because it is good for the children to get values.
• Some come because one can make business contacts at Church.
• And some come because they are hungry for God.

Many come for a bundle of reasons.

Regardless of how it has been in the past, the culture will no longer prop us up. If we are going to be Christians and make Christians we will have to do it the old fashioned way: by depending on God and each other, and that, my fellow Episcopal Christians of Saint John’s is a choice.

Christ and sword

Christ and sword

W. F. Albright translates the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:34 this way: “Do not think thatI have come to impose peace on earth, Do not think that I have come to impose peace on earth by force; I have come neither to impose peace, nor yet to make war. I have come to divide . . . a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A man’s enemies will be members of his own house.” Albright continues, “Jesus does not come to impose peace by FORCE. On the contrary, his coming will involve painful decisions. He will not interfere with human freedom.”

We are free to choose. The culture will not prop us up. It may no longer be good business to be Christian. In point of fact the Gospel is increasingly not the worldview the culture proposes.

And yet the call of Jesus is clear, “Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

The country is anxious. Many want props. But I am not convinced that legislating props will do the job. When we venture beyond the safety of cultural Christianity, (civil religion) we will find that life is changing. Several things become evident.

• We want to see all bad in others and not in ourselves.
• We don’t know the reality of the Gospel all that well ourselves.
• We have majored on minors and minored on majors.
• We despair.
• We see the bad in others and not in ourselves.

This produces self-righteousness and contempt that is alien to the Gospel. A poem from He Sent Leanness, A Book of Prayers for the Natural Man by David Read


“Lord, I am quite convinced that I shall not be at home in heaven. Is this all Thou hast to offer? Thy eternal City as men have described it seems unbearably cosmopolitan. There are some nations (which I will not at present specify), some denominations (which shall be nameless), one political party (Lord, Thou knowest), and many types of musicians (if such a word can be applied to them at all), with whom I could not possibly live. Could I, perhaps, have a quiet detached mansion on my own, with a few specified visitors for short periods?”

Most of us are not that honest! By being “good” and keeping some of the rules we see ourselves as O.K., rather than saved by grace and NOTHING else. [Period]

• We don’t know the reality of the Gospel too well ourselves.

We’d have something more to share than rule and moral codes. We know the form but deny the power there of. We are always prepared for God to do nothing. When he does something we are ill prepared. We do not live as if there is a resurrection. We live as if we hoped there might be something, but we are not sure what it is.

• We have majored on minors and minored on majors.

Christians have been busy fighting about number of issues. Many issues cannot be “solved” or “voted on” and put to rest as much as we might like. We will have to pray and live through most of them. It is messy but throwing stones and being willful will not promote the Kingdom of God.

We have gotten things backwards. We build buildings and then try to figure out what to do with them, rather than preach the Gospel and build buildings to house the community that grows from that Gospel. We are in the process of looking at long range building here. But we are not doing neutron bomb evangelism: kill the people and save the buildings.”

For much of the late 20th Century the Church rearranged the deck chairs on the luxury ship Episcotanic. And when we do venture out beyond the doors of our churches we look around and we despair.

• We despair.

We act as if there is nothing that can be done and that God is finished. Despair is a sin!!! To despair is to say that God cannot act. We have never yet had to face any real difficulty for being a Christian. The most that we have ever suffered is mild embarrassment — and that not for long.

Let me be clear this morning about what I believe. Let me make a brief “I have a dream speech”. I believe that Saint John’s exists for one reason and one reason only: to be a place where souls are transformed in relationship to God! God in Christ Jesus calls us to follow him, and this journey is not one of convenience. It is a cross we pick up not a hammock. The Journey to God begins with you and with me.

There were three friends who were eager workers, and one of them chose to devote himself to making peace between people who were fighting, in accordance with ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’. The second chose to visit the sick. The third went off to live in tranquility in the desert. The first toiled away at the quarrels of men, but could not resolve them all, and so, in discouragement, went to the one who was looking after the sick, and he found him flagging too, not succeeding in fulfilling the commandment. So the two of them agreed to go and visit the one who was living in the desert.

They told him their difficulties and asked him to tell them what he had been able to do. He was silent for a time, and then he poured water into a bowl and said to them, ‘Look at the water.’ It was all turbulent. A little later he told them to look at it, and see how the water had settled down. When they looked at it, they saw their own faces as in a mirror. Then he said to them, ‘In the same way a man who is living in the midst of men does not see his own sins because of all the disturbance, but if he becomes tranquil, especially in the desert, then he can see his own shortcomings.”

I long for Saint John’s to be like a desert place where we become still and see ourselves and in that stillness hear the call of God. That is why we are here. Welcome in name of the resurrected Jesus!

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





Note:  Cavafy uses the other Mythic system of the West.  The images are different but the tug of pilgrimage, not vacation, but soulful travel in search of God.  Of course, as the poet points out, the treasure is within you.  Jesus once said, “the Kingdom of God is like a treasure hidden in a field.”  The treasure is closer than we know.  So, here is Ithaka.

When you set out for Ithaka
ask that your way be long,
full of adventure, full of instruction.
The Laistrygonians and the Cyclops,

angry Poseidon – do not fear them:
such as these you will never find
as long as your thought is lofty, as long as a rare
emotion touch your spirit and your body.
The Laistrygonians and the Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – you will not meet them
unless you carry them in your soul,
unless your soul raise them up before you.

Ask that your way be long.
At many a Summer dawn to enter
with what gratitude, what joy –
ports seen for the first time;

to stop at Phoenician trading centres,
and to buy good merchandise,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensuous perfumes of every kind,
sensuous perfumes as lavishly as you can;
to visit many Egyptian cities,
to gather stores of knowledge from the learned.

Alexandria, Egypt

Alexandria, Egypt

Have Ithaka always in your mind.
Your arrival there is what you are destined for.
But don’t in the least hurry the journey.
Better it last for years,
so that when you reach the island you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to give you wealth.
Ithaka gave you a splendid journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She hasn’t anything else to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka hasn’t deceived you.
So wise you have become, of such experience,
that already you’ll have understood what these Ithakas mean.

Constantine P. Cavafy


Light is the Word

We travelers, walking to the sun, can’t see

Ahead, but looking back the very light

That blinded us shows us the way we came,

Along which blessings now appear, rise

As if from sightlessness to sight, and we,

By blessing brightly lit, keep going toward

The blessed light that yet to us is dark.

Wendell Berry   Sabbaths  –  1999 VI

The House of God & Gate of Heaven … & I did not know it


Blake 2

After the painting Jacob’s Dream by William Blake and Genesis 28: 11-17

A young man leaving home
For long years to be gone
Might fall asleep and dream,
His head upon a stone.

A stair appears that bends
In spiral toward the light,
The bright Orb where it ends,
Though he sleeps through the night.

Darkened, below the stars,
Angels in constant motion
Walk up and down the stairs.
Delight and clear devotion

Make graceful all they do.
The light and dark are bound,
Heaven to all below,
Bright stair and stony ground

Inn one light joined. In sleep
The dreamer wakes. He sees
Above the stars the deep
Of heaven opened. Is

He living, then, his part
Of Heaven’s earthly life?
And what shall be the art
By which this sight can live?

Darkened upon the earth,
He fills with light, is made
A witness to high Truth
And so a man afraid.

His land – this meager sod,
These stones, this low estate –
Is the household of God.
And it is Heaven’s gate

Wendell Berry,  2004

“Creation conti…


“Creation continues incessantly through the medium of man. Man emulates and assimilates nature producing poetry of word and form”

Anton Smit Sculptor



Pentecost el greco

Pentecost – El Greco

Today we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit fifty days after the Resurrection. The reading from the Acts of the Apostles describes the day of Pentecost and the indwelling of God’s Spirit in a new way, more continuous and more manifest than had been experienced before. The ancient Aramaic translation of the Pentecost story puts it this way, “And as the days of Pentecost were fulfilled, they gathered together as one. And there was from the stillness of heaven a sound like the stirring of Spirit, and the whole house was filled with it, where they were staying.” The spirit then fell upon them as tongues of fire. After Pentecost the word, God, as they had defined it, was no longer adequate to describe what the Christians were experiencing. As John Polkinghorne puts it, [The Faith of a Physicist, pg. 146] “The early Church felt that it experienced divine power present within it with a peculiar intensity and personality.”

They looked into the Hebrew scriptures for ways to explain what had happened.  The language of spirit (ruah) was used in the Old Testament in relation to creation (Genesis 1: 2f.) The Spirit brooded over the waters of chaos in creation. In both Greek and Hebrew, the word for spirit means also ‘breath’ or ‘wind.’ This is the sense of today’s Gospel reading. On Easter afternoon, the disciples were huddled behind closed doors for fear of the authorities.  Jesus came and stood among them and showed his wounds. And as the disciples rejoiced he said twice “Peace be with you!” Then he said, “As the Father has sent Me, so I also send you.” Then, when He had said this, He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” This verse can be translated, “Receive the holy breath.” He then says, “If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven him, but if you do not forgive someone, his sins are retained.”

Jesus breathes on them giving the Holy Spirit to the disciples. They had been behind closed doors for fear of the Jews. He tells them that they may forgive sins and retain them. I have been wondering? Is Jesus telling the church to be the moral police as has so often been the interpretation of this passage? Or is he saying in another way what he said in so many other places, namely, that we are to forgive everyone?  If we retain sins is it because we can choose whether or not to forgive OR because we are unwilling or unable to forgive?  Did our Lord not tell Peter to forgive infinitely?  If we do not forgive is it because we are able to inhale the holy breath?

I am learning that deep breathing and fear are not compatible. Years ago and far far away I studied  Yoga.  The word comes from the Sanskrit and means union, from the words “to join”. Yoga is a technique for promoting “mindfulness.” — to become still and in that stillness to awaken and become conscious.  To breathe and stretch promotes consciousness of one’s body one is present in one’s body.  The yoga tradition says that each human being has a certain number of breaths to breathe in their lifetime. To breathe rapidly and shallowly is to waste our very life. Although I doubt there are a set number of breaths per life, shallow rapid breathing does not promote health.  Is the same true in the life of faith?

It is difficult to panic when breathing from the diaphragm.  When we panic we breath faster and more often, which in turn promotes more fear and less thinking. When we are afraid we have more trouble forgiving than when we are centered. The gospel tells us that perfect or mature love casts out fear.  When we are centered we can choose to love rather than become our fear. After Jesus breathed on the apostles they were no longer afraid. They went into the streets proclaiming the good news of God in Christ to the very people from whom they had earlier hidden.

Like deep breathing, the presence of the Holy Spirit is incompatible with paralyzing fear. So it stands to reason to me that where we are afraid is the very place the Spirit is likely to be manifested.  Alan Jones, Dean of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco says, “The Spirit is present in three open spaces in our lives: in the unpredictable, in the place of risk and in those areas over which we have no control.”

We do not know what is going to happen. Not long ago I read an essay by Umberto Ecco  where he speaks of flying…

A century or so ago the airship was invented. What a wonderful thing people thought, to be able to travel through the air just like a bird. And then it was discovered that the airship was a dead-end invention. The invention that survived was the areoplane. When the first airships appeared, people thought there would subsequently be a linear progression, advancement to more refined, swifter models. But this did not happen. Instead, at a certain point there was a lateral development.

Heinderberg Crash - Sven Sauer

Heinderberg Crash – Sven Sauer

After the Hindenburg went up in flames in 1937, [killing 35 people], things began to move in a different direction. At one time it seemed logical that you had to be lighter than air in order to fly in the sky – but then it turned out that you had to be heavier than air to fly more efficiently. The moral of the story is that in both philosophy and the sciences [and I would add life] you must be very careful not fall in love with your own airship.

We must resist the temptation of thinking that we should know more than we can know. Life is unpredictable.  But the Spirit is always present to guide us into all truth. If we breathe deeply of the breath of life that Jesus gave the disciples we can with courage live in the open place we call unpredictable.

To be alive is to risk.  Yet we are so afraid of risking.  We run the numbers, buy insurance, take polls as if by some incantation or marshaling of force we shall at last be secure.  But it is an illusion. As Helen Keller, a woman who knew a good bit about challenge once wrote,

“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”

Let us go on the adventure of our lives. The Spirit is always present in the open place we call risk.

The promise of our Lord is the gift of the Holy Spirit, the heavenly dove, the bird of open spaces, of the unpredictable, the risky and uncontrollable. Our part is to become quiet and be still, facing our fear that the love of God will be manifest in us.  Yoga or whatever it takes.  Wendell Berry speaks of the process in one of poems from SABBATHS.

  • I go among the trees and sit still,
  • All my stirring becomes quiet
  • around me like circles on water.
  • My tasks lie in their places
  • where I left them, asleep like cattle.
  • Then what is afraid of me comes
  • and lives a while in my sight.
  • What it fears in me leaves me,
  • and the fear of me leaves it.
  • It sings, and I hear its song.
  • Then what I am afraid of comes.
  • I live for a while in its sight.
  • What I fear in it leaves it,
  • and the fear of it leaves me.
  • It sings, and I hear its song.
  • After days of labor,
  • mute in my consternations,
  • I hear my song at last,
  • and I sing it. As we sing
  • the day turns, the trees move.
  • Wendell Berry.

fear prevents the breathing that produces song.

Someone once asked a famous Mississippi doctor what she was going to do in the face of a crisis and she said, “I’m going to breathe in and I’m going to breathe out.”  In matters of faith and the spirit it is the least and the most any of us can do.



















































































































Proper 25A

Today’s Gospel lesson continues the confrontations between various Jewish groups and Jesus.   In last week’s reading, the Pharisees asked Jesus if it were lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor or not?  They hoped his answer would arouse the Roman government who collected the taxes or alienate the people who despised paying the taxes.  He said,  “Give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor and give to God what belongs to God.”

Woe unto you...  James Tissot

Woe unto you Pharisees – James Tissot

In today’s reading they try their luck again, “perhaps he was just lucky last time.”  They send an expert in the law, a lawyer, to ask a simple question, “Teacher, which is the great commandment of the law?”  This was a point much debated by the religious leadership.  You notice that Jesus does not enter the debate but goes right to the point.  He said, “You shall love the lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind.  This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like unto it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

There was an old woman that loved to dip snuff.

  • When the preacher preached against adultery,
    • she said, “Amen, preach it.”
  • When he preached against drunkenness,
    • she said, “Amen, preach it.”
  • When he preached against stealing,
    • she said, “Amen preach it.”
  • When he preached against the evils of tobacco,
    • she said, “Huh! he’s quit preaching and done gone to meddling!”

So long as Jesus talks about loving God, that’s preaching.  But when he talks about our relationships with others, he’s meddling.  When Jesus says, “on these two commandments depend or hang all the law and the prophets,” the sense of it is that these two commandments are the two hinges on which the door of faith hang.  With only one hinge the door doesn’t quite work right.  The door never quite operates smoothly.   If one loves God, then one in turn works out that love for God in the marketplace of daily life.

Thomas Moore says that:

  • the mind thinks,
  • the body does
  • and the soul Imagines.

Paul Ricoeur in a sermon preached at the University of Chicago in 1980 speaks to the language of imagination that Jesus uses.  “ … The use by Jesus of an extreme language, such as the extravagance of a parable, or the hyperbole of the proverb: a log in the eye or a camel through the eye of a needle. Parable, paradoxes, hyperbolas, and extreme commandments all disorient only to reorient us.  But what is reoriented in us? – And in what direction? I would say that what is reoriented by these extreme sayings is less our will than our imagination. Our will is our capacity to follow without hesitation the once-chosen way, to obey without resistance the once-known law.  Our imagination opens us to new possibilities, another way of seeing, or acceding to a new rule in receiving the instruction of the exception.

As Ray Hart suggests in Unfinished Man and the Imagination, while the will is the intention to a specific project, the imagination is the intention of dominant direction.  It is at the level of dominant direction that we are overtaken by the disorienting logic of Jesus.”

Jesus answers Pharisees - James Tissot

Jesus answers Pharisees – James Tissot

Then Jesus said to the Pharisees, “Since you are all here, let me ask you a question, “What do you think of the Messiah?  Whose son is he?”  They said, “The son of David.”  He said, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’?   “If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?”  Jesus seems to be deliberately disorienting us to reorient us.  This work is done not in the will as I have often thought.  If I just tried harder, if I just worked harder.  If I just held my mouth just so and wished real hard.”   But what has to be reoriented first is not our will but our imagination.

What goes on us in this process of reorientation?

Disorientation: We realize that the way we thought things were is not the way they are. There are other possibilities some of, which are scary to us.  We are threatened. We then have a choice to make: will we continue in this new way of imagination or will we decide to turn and willfully go in the other direction?  This is the dilemma facing the Pharisees.   Jesus has just showed them that Messiah is superior to David. But what does that mean?

Reorientation:  We put ourselves in the place of others. We can see the possibilities and visions of God’s call to us. We will to move in the direction that the vision beckons.

·        We put ourselves in the place of others.

Many of the ethical problems that confront us are born from a failure of imagination.

·     We can see the possibilities and visions of God’s call to us.  The Kingdom of God is the chief message that the rule of God is breaking out in the world, one heart at a time.  We are called to live as authentic human beings.  We are free to choose.  And we can choose to turn to God and be energized by the Holy Spirit into a new creation.

·        We begin to make choices and will that we move in the direction that the vision beckons. This is not easy or convenient

At  10:39 we baptize the Higley twins  into the Body of Christ – the Church in this place.  These brothers are born with imagination.  Children often see  clearly the foolishness of adult systems and say so.  Our culture will work that out of these boys, as they grow older.  We make some promises to God on their  behalf.  We promise to bring them  up in the Christian faith and life.   We promise to immerse or marinate these brothers in the Christian faith and life. To do this we must re-orient our imagination – and allow the Spirit to guide us that we continue in the way that leads to our and their loving God with all our heart, soul and mind and our neighbors as ourselves.