Friday, 25 March 2011

Sewanee visit (2)

It was a pleasure to visit Sewanee, a place about which I’ve heard for many years.  Should you go to the website of the University of the South you’d be able to read some of the history of this fascinating place which was planned to be the “Oxford of the South”.

The University owns some10,000 acres of mountain land, known as “The Domain”. At the heart of this are some very fine and handsome buildings, including the All Saints Chapel -  which is more like a Cathedral.  The School of Theology is a quasi-independent school within the University, and it was at this school that I visited my friends.

Karen Meridith from Cambridge days (yes that is the correct spelling of her last name)  arranged a simple dinner party at which I got “caught up” with her, with Tracy Wells Miller (Cambridge) and her husband Thomasjohn, and with Wayne Farrell (Sarasota).  Wayne’s wife Trish was sadly unable to join us.

I was able to attend two seminary services and to participate in a seminar for “middler” students, as well as enjoying the community lunch at which I was introduced to the assembled diners – faculty, staff and students.  My good and former colleague from Cambridge days, the Revd Ben King now teaches at the School of Theology – and he joined us all for this lunch.

At Sewanee some students are allowed to wear academic gowns  (it all depends on their GPA – “Grade Point Average”) – and it was “very southern” to see young men in boat shoes (with no socks), shorts – and a dress shirt with bow tie – all surmounted by a black academic gown.

Sewanee is fairly remote.  The nearest airport is a piddling little affair in Chattanooga – it is served by no more than four airlines.

I got off the interstate on my way to and from Sewanee, and drove through un-manicured mountain terrain – with a few small towns and great evidence of rural poverty.  Many folks live in fairly run down trailers.  It all “felt” very “red-necky” and I could imagine that Barack Obama would have no traction in this part of the world. 

Indeed I saw many men with huge bellies and straggly beards – fitting right into my stereotyped image of Tennessee Mountain Men.  

At breakfast on Thursday I listened to the conversation of two women (I was not eaves-dropping – they had very loud voices). They were Americans. They were speaking English. But their dialect was so pronounced that I understood not a word.
The whole area is over supplied with small fundamentalist Churches.

I spent my first night in a Days Inn Motel in the small town of Monteagle. It was the worst Motel of my life. The owner or manager was downright surly, to the point of being rude.  My door would not lock properly, the tissue dispenser was half hanging off the wall, and the bath tub was unpleasant.  The Motel offered breakfast, which featured some old looking fruit loops, some silver dollar sized bagels, and some generic white bread for toast. I chose not to eat, glad that I had an apple in my bag.  When I decided not to stay for a second night and went to the office to get a refund of my prepaid bill, the owner’s first words were “what’s wrong”.  I did not have the time or patience to tell her, but I will be writing to the Days Inn franchise to express my complaints.

I spent my second night in a “La Quinta” Inn in Chattanooga. The desk clerk was the model of southern politeness, the room was clean, and the bed was as comfortable as beds can get.  There was a “real breakfast”, with scrambled eggs, sausage patties, “gravy” (a southern staple!), fresh fruit and juices, good lookin’ bagels, and a waffle iron for “make your own waffles”.

It was a good trip. I was so happy to see my good friends again. 

Now I am glad to be back at home


Thursday, 24 March 2011

Sewanee visit (1)

The two days I spent in Tennessee this week were mostly devoted to visiting four friends who happen to be at the School of Theology of the University of the South in Sewanee, TN.

I’ll write some more about this visit tomorrow. In the meantime you can view the unsorted and unedited photo’s of my trip at my flickr page

FYI.  Regarding the photo’s

1.Wayne (Farrell) is a senior seminarian from St. Boniface on Siesta Key, Sarasota, FL.  His wife Trish was sadly unable to join us for dinner.

2. Karen (Meridith) was a parishioner when I was Rector of St. James’s, Cambridge, MA.  She is now the Director of the Sewanee based programme, “Education for Ministry”.

3. Tracy (Wells Miller) was also a Cambridge parishioner. She is now a middler seminarian at Sewanee.  Her husband Thomasjohn is in one of the dinner part pictures.

4. Ben (King) is the Associate Professor of Church History. He and I were good colleagues when he was first a Curate at the Church of the Advent in Boston, and then the Episcopal Chaplain at Harvard.


The University (owned by southern dioceses of the Episcopal Church) has its own Chapel -  “All Saints Chapel” -  which is more like a Cathedral!

The School of Theology (Seminary) also has its own “Chapel of the Apostles” where I shared in Morning Prayer at 8:10 a.m. on March 23rd, and later that morning for the 11:00 a.m. Community Eucharist.

Monday, 21 March 2011


There’s the Suwannee River in south Georgia and north Florida.

Stephen Foster wrote a famous song about this river -  it is called  "(Way Down Upon the) Swanee River". “Swanee” is the way he abbreviated  “Suwannee” so that his song would scan.

And there is Sewanee in Tennessee.  I’ll be there for a couple of days to visit four friends (Tracy Wells Miller, Karen Meridith, Wayne Farrell and Ben King) who are part of the School of Theology at the University of the South.

I’ll be in touch again later in the week.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Sermon for March 20th 2011

Sermon for March 20th 2011
The Revd. J. Michael Povey at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Punta Gorda, FL
Genesis 12:1-4a;  Romans 4: 1-5, 13-17;  John 3 1:17.

George Crane, Esq. came pedalling his bike up to me one Sunday afternoon as I was getting into my car on Allen Street in Pittsfield, MA.

He greeted me and then asked “what did you think of this morning’s sermon?”.  The sermon had been given by a Congregational minister in a Methodist Church. It was one of those January “week of prayer for Christian unity” services.

To be truthful the sermon had been dreadful -  it was filled with half hearted pabulum.  But there is honour among thieves, so I was cautious in my judgement on my Congregational colleague.

“Let me tell you something”, said George. “You preachers are always telling us that God loves us, but when are you going to tell us what we are supposed to do about it?

“Point well taken George!”.  His words freed me from the fear that I would offend someone or another by my preaching.  (That’s a besetting sin of many preachers)

From then on I chose to speak boldly and without half-truths.  It got me into some trouble, but it also enabled many parishioners to breathe a sigh of relief as I broached questions  which were in their minds – e.g.: war, hunger, women in the ordained ministry, welcoming lesbian and gay Christians, and questions about the Virgin birth, the miracles etc. – but which few preachers had ever addressed from the pulpit.

I was reminded of all this when earlier in the week I read today’s passages.  I came upon a verse which had been drummed into me from my childhood.  They are the words of the famous John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life”.

For you see, I was raised in a Fundamentalist Church.  And if I heard that verse once I heard it a thousand times.  The message was always the same.  “Believe what this verse says, and you will be saved”.  Indeed I “gave my heart to the Lord Jesus” when I was about nine years old.  My elders and teachers assured me that I was now saved.

Now there is nothing wrong in knowing that we are being saved by the grace of God.  But when I was maybe 13 or 15 years old, I began to ask “but why am I saved”? It was an early form of George Crane’s later question “what are we supposed to do about it?”

The answer I received was “you are saved so that you can witness to your faith, then other people will be saved, then they will witness and yet more folks will be saved”.  I thought “why?”  "Is there no more than this, that our faith is a simple formula, to be repeated from one generation to the next?"

For, to be sure, those who encountered Jesus were never given a pat answer or a simple formula.  Indeed, Jesus can sometimes be obtuse, as in today’s reading.  Nicodemus is a good man.  He begins a conversation with Jesus with a statement.  “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God”.  

Was he anticipating the start of a pleasant conversation about religion?  Or did his statement mask a question?  Was he in fact asking “have you come from God, do you represent the presence of God?”

Jesus ignores the statement, and avoids the implicit question.  He responds by speaking not about himself, but about the kingdom of God. “No one”, he says, “can see the kingdom of God without being born from above”, and then “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the spirit”.

Alongside Nicodemus we respond “how can these things be?”   

Jesus does not give Nicodemus a simple formula, nor will he do so for us.  At one level this is all very frustrating.  How we wish that our Christian faith would be as simple as ABC. 

David Howell puts it this way:

“Sometimes I think our congregations (we)  are looking for a spiritual rule book, a kind of Christianity for Dummies, which would carry in it the logical steps from one to twelve that would lead to spiritual completion. In a society where the self-help section in the bookstore is one of the largest, most folks are looking for a simple way to organize their steps to spiritual mastery. The problem is that life is messy, challenges in life are complex, issues are not clear, and following Jesus is more a matter of following a way of life than following a set of rules.” (David Howell in Good Preacher.Com)

Howell “nails it”.  To be a Christian is to engage in a way of life, not to follow a set of rules.  

For you see, if it were a simple matter of following rules it wouldn’t be any easier. For each of us would try to find all those reasons why the rules do not apply in our cases, or to discover ways around the rules.

That’s why Jesus said to Nicodemus that “no one can see the Kingdom of God” without being born from above”.  As John Petty puts it “It is a matter of revelation, not knowledge--a new vision of life, rather than merely understanding the old vision better”.  (Website “Progressive Involvement”)

That new vision of life has to do with the Kingdom of God into which Jesus leads us.  It is a way of life in which enemies are to loved; in which the last become first; in which wealth is seen as a false God; in which the hungry are to be fed; in which the poor are blessed.   

It is impossible to think ourselves into this way of life.  No amount of rules can get us there.

But if we come to Jesus in the night of our own pride, confusion, sinfulness and doubt then we shall open ourselves to the unpredictable wind of the Holy Spirit.  That same Spirit will give us a new way of life  - moving us way past rules into a scary and wonderful experience of eternal life -  here and now!