Pause, Pray & Withdraw Projections

 

Twin Towers

Seventeen years ago, I turned, coffee cup in hand,  and witnessed the second plane crash into the Trade Center Towers in New York.  It is fair to say that the world has not been the same since that day.  I was almost half-way through my thirty-six year public ministry of Episcopal priest.  I have watched the cultures and peoples of this planet become more and more anxious caught between the twin imperatives of living things: Survival and Reproduction.  Also known as the force for individuality and togetherness.  These two, universal forces work on all protoplasm. The tension, even contradiction, between them Bowen termed, Chronic Anxiety.  This is the life force tuned to face challenge real or imagined.  No two systems react the same way facing the same challenge.

I began studying Dr. Bowen’s teachings over thirty years ago and had the privilege to sit at the feet of one of his students, Rabbi Edwin Friedman.  While this way of thinking is contrary to most of the thought in the marketplace of ideas in the West, I found it profoundly useful and have employed it ever since.  I believe this thinking is the reason Saint John’s Episcopal Church was voted one of the fifty best places to work in Memphis TN for five years in a row.

Emotional-relationships

It appears that chronic anxiety is at a historical high in the West.  Our country is badly polarized, such that we are almost incapable of communicating.  The gifts and skills for finding common ground for the good of all is not just out of fashion, it is on the extinction list of states of being.

Someone asked me recently what they should read and study about challenges of our common life on this planet.  First of all, let me be very clear, THERE ARE NO QUICK FIXES! Trust no one who tells you that.  Trust no one who tells you to listen them and only them.  DON’T DO IT.  Also, all who claim to follow Jesus, must recognize and accept that racism, bigotry and such are not standards of measure AVAILABLE TO CHRISTIANS.  If that is one of your life tools, STOP IT.  We are called to love all equally for his sake.  There is not greater law than this.

John Sewell

The following is a modest annotated bibliography of books I consider of great value today.

  • Bronner, Stephen Eric, The Bigot: Why Prejudice Persists, Yale University Press, 2014. ISBN-13: 978-0300223842      New to me but very interesting. 
  • Edwin Friedman, Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.  Revised Edition, May 2017. ISBN-13: 978-1596272798  – Freidman died twenty years ago AND his critique is more accurate today than then.  I encourage any thinking and feeling person to read it. 
  • Hoffer, Eric. The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements  Harper and Bros. 1951.  The title of Hoffer’s opus entered the English lexicon defining extremists.  Every American adult should read it.
  • Papero, Daniel V., Bowen Family Systems Theory. Allyn and Bacon. 1990.  One of the best introductions to Systems Theory I know.

 

 

 

The Incarnate Word Born in Us

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Christ Presented to the Nations – artist: John De Rosen – Lady Chapel at Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Memphis. Tennessee

“We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of Man is begotten in us.”

– Meister Eckhart, 1260-1328, German Dominican

The birth of the Divine Son in the human soul is the very center of Eckhart’s teaching.  After contemplating this notion for some years,  I find that at the end of the most challenging of my thirty-five years of ordained ministry,  this is the core of my affirmation of faith.  My collection of works by and on Eckhart has grown from a couple of books to several shelves in my library.  My discipline is to read Eckhart every day. I commend his work to you.  It is difficult reading, yet paradoxically very illuminating.

Merry Christmas Eve.  John Sewell+

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Johannes Tauler 1300 -1362

“In prayerful silence you must look into your own heart. No one can tell you better than yourself what comes between you and God. Ask yourself. Then listen!”    Johannes Tauler

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Jacob-Böhme

Jacob Bohme 1575 – 1624

 

Not wisdom, but the Spirit of God, is the center, or the discloser. As the soul is manifesting itself in the body by means of the flesh, and as the latter would have no power if it were not inhabited by a living spirit, so the wisdom of God is the corporeity of the Holy Spirit, by means of which He assumes substantiality, so as to manifest Himself to Himself. Wisdom gives birth, but she would not do so if the Spirit were not acting within her. She brings forth without the power of the fire-life; she has no ardent desire, but her joy finds its perfection in the manifestation of the Godhead, and therefore she is called a virgin in chastity and purity before God.” (Tilk., ii. 64.)

Bohme, Jakob, 1575-1624;

Hartmann, Franz, d. 1912. Personal Christianity, a science : the doctrines of Jakob Boehme, the God-taught philosopher (Kindle Locations 1693-1698). New York : Macoy.

The Wisdom of Meister Eckhart

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Eckhart 2

The Generosity of Infinite love in an act of love, creates us in the image and likeness of love for love sake alone, moment by moment, moment by moment. The generosity of God is poured out into our life such that we are the generosity of God. Apart from and other than the generosity of God we are nothing, we are nothing, we are nothing at all.

– James Findley – Mesiter Eckhart’s Living Wisdom : Indestructable Joy and the Path of Letting Go.

Perfect Fear Casts Out Love (& Common Sense).

Jesus assured his followers that, “perfect love casts out fear.” The outcry against Syrian refugees brings to mind, “perfect fear casts out common sense as well as love.”

Living things instinctively view the “different” as potential threat. While, mistrust is in many cases warranted, human beings, at our best, are not merely instinctual, but seek by responding to, as Abraham Lincoln once said, the angels of our better natures form a community worthy of our place in creation.

Such union is always in jeopardy, as anxiety tempts us to regress, operating solely by instinctual, automatic unthinking, response. The challenges of this present time require thoughtful reflection which instinct cannot do. Since 9/11, terror is personal and local. Anxiety is paralyzing and never far from us. There are many things to fear. What we must do is not become our fear!

Syrians refugees now ask for entrance and solace among us. Though we are a nation of immigrants, fear of strangers, motivated by agendas that do us no credit, tempt us again. We are told that the wicked might slip in

painting by Anna Shukeylo

among the refugees. That is likely, however, clear thinking advises us that rejecting these in need arms our enemy more than protects us. These are the very people who have paid the most to these killers. Let us embrace them as the friends they can be. They are not our enemies.

In this Thanksgiving week, let us hold fast the values that raise us above instinct, while employing thoughtful vigilance in guarding all we hold dear. We are better defended by thoughtful response than fearful reactivity.

In hope, in spite of the facts.

©John W. Sewell
Rector, Saint John’s Episcopal Church
Memphis, Tennessee

“We are here tonight because we are searching.”

DaVinciCodeIn November, 2002, I led three conversations about the issues raised in The Da Vinci Code. Months earlier the cover caught my eye in a bookstore. Because I have a long fascination with Leonardo (he is never called Da Vinci), I bought to read as a diversion. I found nothing new there but it was a good page-turner. Then an interesting phenomenon arose. People old and young, male and female began to ask my opinion of the Code particularly could it be true that Jesus and Mary of Magdala were married and perhaps even had a child. These questions continued through the summer with such frequency that I realized that this book provided a teachable moment. I prepared to have a conversation about the book with interested members of the congregation I serve. A press release was sent to the newspaper and they wanted an interview. The publicity produced six hundred attendees at the first gathering. Toward the end of that first meeting a woman stood up and said, “We are here tonight because we are searching.”

What about the novel by Dan Brown brought so many people into church for a conversation? When questioned by a reporter about why I thought so many people were reading this book, I replied, “It is filled with delicious Christian heresies.” We are talking junk food for the soul, good tasting but of dubious nutritional value. Did Jesus marry Mary from Magdala and have genetic descendents? The Last Temptation of Christ, another novel, considers that marrying his girl Mary, having children and growing old as an ordinary human being was indeed the last and perhaps most pernicious temptation Jesus faced. There is no compelling evidence that Jesus married at all. But people are asking, “what am I to believe and why?” That is a very valid and enduring question.

The church teaches that Jesus is fully human and fully god. I believe that he is? That is an act of faith for me but increasingly I suspect that it is true because it is not the easy way out. Humanity likes the quick fix, the black or white option – clear cut and simple. Heresy, from the word, “to choose”, is the tendency to choose a part of a notion and carry it to a logical conclusion thereby ignoring the complexity and richness of the fuller reality. As Northrop Frye writes in his book entitled, Anatomy of Criticism, “…the full metaphorical statement “Christ is God and Man” is orthodox, and the Arian and Docetic statements in terms of simile or likeness (are) condemned as heretical.” The heresy is to not be willing to live with the tension of the paradox, but rather to want reality easily understandable.

The Da Vinci Code introduces many people to the fact that there were many weeds in the early garden of Christianity. There are many reasons that they didn’t become the dominant form of Christianity. In some cases they couldn’t compete in the marketplace of ideas and in others they were eradicated by the political power of the state allied with the church. The church has not always covered itself in glory by mercy and justice.

All that notwithstanding I think the principle reason that classical Christianity endures to the present is the fact that the easy way was not the way chosen. The fact that the church chose the way of paradox and ambiguity as the most authentic way to live in the mystery of God revealed in Christ is the most telling reason for the enduring power of its life and message. That is how I explain six hundred people showing up on a Wednesday night to talk about a novel.

JWS