The Rev. Jim Sell served faithfully as Rector of Christ & St. Luke’s from 1990-2005. In the past several years, Jim and his wife have been active members of this parish. Jim died in his sleep on Friday, September 30, 2022. He wrote this the day before and sent it to a group of friends. We share it with you today in his memory.
We get a lot of newcomers in our church. Most often they are frustrated by the slowly ebbing possibilities in their old church community and are hoping to find something fresh and new.
The individual I met last week was different. He was not raised in any church. He said that while his parents did not demean religion, he was gently warned to avoid Christianity’s perpetual debates and differences. “All they will do is cause turmoil in innocent people. Then, they will force you to choose up sides. It can really get very awkward.”
But, now as a well-educated adult, he was curious. He wondered what it was that people like me found so compelling about the life we live. You need to know that I am completely retired, but not burned out. I find great contentment in sitting quietly with my wife in our little comer of our church. But, when this man stood before me and practically pleaded for me to tell him about who I believed we were, a fire was reignited in my belly. “Thomas” (as in doubting Thomas), I think the single most defining uniqueness of this congregation, and the vast preponderance of American Episcopal Churches, is that we honor every spiritual journey as unquestionably authentic.”
From there, I began the testimony which is the very center of gravity of my whole life and value system.
Because we are alive, we are, de facto, created in the image of God. Therefore, every single spiritual journey is undeniably true. To be in this world is to be engaged in a quest, seeking to understand who we are, why we are here and what is to become of us. Whether we call it spiritual or not, there are times when we are compelled to wonder what or who it is that causes us to move through our personal stories.
Some might say it is merely the ebb and flow of history. Others might attribute it to a kind of determinism wherein we are caught in a kind of Skinner Box with no real personal choices. Other cultures have other vocabularies.
But, for the last 4,000 years or so, something has been gnawing on us, in the so-called western world. The three Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam believe that our individual experiences are the test case for every religious truth.
Much of the time we have no clue where our journeys are taking us. We are simply too busy living to pay much attention. There is food to put on the table, jobs to attend to, families to care for, fun to be sought out, and sleep to be negotiated. We trust that Jesus’s most popular prayer has efficacy. God’s kingdom is moving forward. God’s will is overarching and being accomplished, and we are not abandoned. We are not irrelevant, or accidental or unnecessary to the great saga of the human race.
Even when we consider whether certain physicists and mathematicians could conceivably be right when they hypothesize the non-existence of God, the upshot of that debate is that we know we would be dwelling within, “a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury and signifying nothing,” if it were true.
Since the time of Abraham, the religious experiment has undergone virtually an infinite number of evolutionary changes. There were three profound experiences atop high places from which everything else derived: Moses on Sinai, Jesus on Calvary and Muhammad on Jabel al-Nour (a mountain cleft near Mecca).
To dismiss those transformative moments would amount to massive naivety. It would leave western civilization spiritually and morally bankrupt. And yet each of those moments set the stage for one cascading waterfall of religious interpretation after another.
The trickling down of each produced so many streams of faith and practice that no one could keep up. Frankly, most of them were nothing much more than sources of anger, resentment and the polarizing war Thomas’s parents warned him against.
As far as I am concerned, I, too, want to be spared these obscene conflicts. To borrow from Soren Kierkegaard, “Let me work out my own salvation in fear and trembling.” (And, perhaps, joy.) Do not try to shove your haranguing down my throat. I will not listen and I will walk away unconvinced.
Which all leads me to why I am an Episcopalian. Things are different with us. When I went to seminary, back in the late 1960s, I sort of waited around for some professor to ask me what I believed. I assumed there was some litmus test that I had to endure to make sure I was a legitimate candidate for ordination. It never happened. No one ever said, “Okay, Sell. Let’s hear your personal creed. And you better make it good!”
Instead, I was actually encouraged to wonder and speculate about all the things I did not understand or honestly believe. My faith ended up being constructed upon a bedrock of faith–not analytical data points. The conclusions I arrived at were founded in mysteries wrapped in metaphors. They were inferences and possibilities that encouraged me to plunge deeper into faith, not fact. The irony of it all is that my faith is strong where others think it looks weak and weak where other brag about their strengths.
And I go to church because I know I cannot stay away. I rely on my fellow worshipers to honor me with their tolerance, kindness, and generosity of spirit. I trust that they are engaging in the same interior dialogue with God that I am. We may end up with different answers to our most pivotal questions and, surprise of surprises, we can affirm the validity of all of our quests.
And then, there is the icing on the cake. I love the way we worship. I like our music, our Eucharist, our preaching, and how we pray.
On Sunday mornings I need language that aspires to grace, classical norms, and universal truths. I want to be imbued with a sense of the eternal. Spare me from rock concerts, academic lectures, and any other popular cultural expressions. I want to know I am on holy ground. I want to be fed by timeless symbols that are utterly inclusive. I want to hear a sermon that comes from the heart, which is honest and true. I never want to hear something canned or artificial or intellectually silly. Spare me from haranguing of any kind. I want to be able to look at myself in the preacher’s reflected message and try to figure out where I fit in
I have a parish I adore. I walk home with the joyful reaffirmation that I am “a child of God and an inheritor of the realm of heaven.” That gives me more than I need. It gives me the “peace of God that passes all understanding.”