Morning Worship Column: True Depths of Humanity Found in God’s Grace and Wisdom

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“The wisdom of God is deep within us, the creativity of God, the essence of the expanding universe is deep in us, deeper than the barrenness in our lives and the dead ends in the world,” said the Rev. John Philip Newell at the 9:15 a.m. Monday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. His sermon title was “Wonderfully Made,” and the Scripture reading was Psalm 139:1-18.

Julian of Norwich, he said, wrote that we are not just made by God, but made of God. We are not fashioned from afar by a distant creator, but we are the essence of God.

“We have the capacity to give birth to what has never been before,” Newell said. “Our yearnings for oneness, for union, are far deeper than the fear or hatred or separation in our communities and the world.”

What would it look like for “Godness” to be the center of our faith, to wake up to who we truly are, he asked. Newell told the story, attributed to Indian Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello, of a father who is trying to wake up his son for school. The son tells his father he hates school, the children tease him and education is boring. The father replies, “You have to get up. It is your duty. You are 45 years old and you are the headmaster.”

“We need to wake up to who we truly are. We are fearfully and wonderfully made,” Newell said.

Jesus’ central teaching, he said, is that we need to be born anew, we need to find the deepest truth in us and come to faith again. Because Jesus was a rabbi he was not taking original sin as our origin, but believed that what is deepest in us is of God, not opposed to God.

“I was at an interfaith dialogue and a woman asked the rabbi, imam and me what we thought of original sin. The rabbi answered first and said, ‘By original, do you mean original and creative sin?’ He allowed 300 Christians to laugh at the absurdity that has dominated our landscape,” Newell said.

We can laugh, he said, or we can “weep, weep, weep at the untold wrong done in the hearts of millions of brothers and sisters obscuring what is deepest in us.” Newell told the congregation about a dream he had at Lindisfarne, “in a country to the south of Scotland whose name I have forgotten.” In the dream his daughter, Kristen, a beautiful young woman who is a dancer, was being told she was ugly and stupid. At first she looked perplexed, then hurt and then inarticulate.

“That definition had found its way in and now she was believing it. This is what we have done in the Christian household. We have given the impression that what is deepest in us is opposed to God. It is our obsessive compulsive disorder in worship that we can’t get through [a service] without saying what shitbags we are,” he said. “If every time I had a conversation with my wife that began by my saying what a shitbag I am, she might accept it once, but if it went on, the marriage would be sick.”

Newell kept repeating his daughter’s name, Kristen Margaret Iona, to himself. Kristen means “Christ one,” Margaret means “pearl” and Iona is the pure gift of God of the energies who we are yearning for.

“I know enough about my dreams to know that the dream was about the haunted part of my soul that doubts its own beauty, purity and sacredness,” Newell said.

The theologian Pelagius wrote that to look at the face of a newborn baby is to see the face of God freshly born. Newell said that Pelagius is the most misunderstood Christian teacher. Theologians accuse Pelagius of teaching that humans do not need God’s grace.

“When you study him you find he believes we need grace, but it is given not because we are in opposition to God but as a way to reconnect with the sacredness that is in us,” he said.

Pelagius, he said, wrote about the grace of nature, like the birth of a child which is pure gift of God; the grace of illumination, when the eyes of the heart are washed to see the shining sacredness in each other; and the grace of forgiveness, that “enables us to live again from our true depths made of God. Who will say that a newborn child is opposed to God?”

When Newell looked into the face of his first grandchild, he said, “I saw the face of God freshly born and I experienced God looking into my eyes with the peace and calm of one who knew herself to be most blessed.”

We need to exorcise any suggestion that what is deepest in us is in opposition to God. Thomas Merton, while walking down a street in Louisville, Kentucky, saw the people around him with faces shining like the sun. He felt that he had glimpsed the light of The One and thought, if we could only see this way all the time. There would be a time that there was no more war or cruelty or greed and people would worship each other. Merton was not sure humans could take that risk.

“Let us take the risk of adoring one another. It is better than fearing and demonizing each other, hating and destroying one another. We are fearfully and wonderfully made. We need to see that in the face of another, in the mirror and even in those most opposite,” Newell said. “Praise thee, we are fearfully and wonderfully made; praise thee, we are fearfully and wonderfully made, praise thee, we are fearfully and wonderfully made. Amen.”

The Rev. Robert M. Franklin presided. The Rev. Virginia Carr, rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Westfield and vicar of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd at Chautauqua, read the Scripture. The Motet Choir, under the direction of Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, sang “If Ye Love Me,” by Philip Wilby. The Randell-Hall Memorial Chaplaincy and the Geraldine M. and Frank E. McElree, Jr. Chaplaincy Fund provide support for this week’s services.


The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the recap of the morning worship service. A life-long Chautauquan, she is a Presbyterian minister, author of Chautauqua’s Heart: 100 Years of Beauty and a history of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. She edited The Streets Where We Live and Shalom Chautauqua. She lives in Chautauqua year-round with her Stabyhoun, Sammi.