Reflections by Jerry Webber


Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Inner Freedom: Turning Sideways into the Light

I've done some reading about the Tuatha De Danann, an ancient tribe out of Irish mythology, whose lore has significantly shaped the Irish people. One part of the myth is especially appealing to me.

[Note: I realize that most often the words "myth" or "mythology" are used to suggest things we consider to be untrue, as in, "That's just a myth." In fact, a secondary dictionary definition says that mythology refers to something many people believe to be true, but in fact is not. Actually, however, myth and mythology speak to that which is perennially true about the human condition. Greek mythology, for example, is intended to speak to who we are as humans, why we are the way we are, and how we came to be as we are. The same might be said of other traditions of mythology. I confess that I've learned these things from my two English-teacher children, who have taught me more about the great mythological traditions that I ever picked up in high school or college English courses.]

My interest in the Tuatha De Danann mostly has revolved around their final battle with the Milesians, a more violent tribe seeking to acquire the land of the Tuatha De Danann. In earlier battles, the two tribes fought using magical powers, with neither tribe able to gain the upper hand. The way many Irish storytellers spin the final battle, the Milesians finally defeat the Tuatha De Danann on the field of combat and then consign them to the underworld, where they became fairies.

But there is another version of this final battle that catches my attention. According to this particular legend, the Tuatha De Danann were a colorful people, an artistic people, a generally peaceful people not given to combat. So in that last battle, as the Milesians gathered to fight and then charged the Tuatha De Danann, the Tuatha De Danann refused to fight. Rather, they "turned sideways into the light" and disappeared into the underworld.

I'm intrigued that there are different versions of the story, different interpretations of the myth. With a certain mind or outlook, you can argue that the Tuatha De Danann were defeated, that they lost on the field of battle and thus were punished with banishment to the underworld.

But with another mind, you can say they "turned sideways into the light" and disappeared. In other words, they declined to fight on the terms of those who opposed them. In a sense, they chose an imaginative option as a way of engaging their situation. They turned sideways into the light and engaged on their own terms, in a way that was consistent with who they were, congruent with their own interior makeup.

I'll confess that most often I don't feel that I have a choice but to engage on the field of battle laid out for me . . . to fight or to engage according to the norms of society, culture, workplace, or religious assumption . . . as if I were compelled toward a certain action or stance. When this happens within me, I may have the feeling of being trapped, of being in a corner with limited options. I might say something like, "I have no choice," or "I couldn't help it," or "I have to do this!" or "I'm supposed to do this or that." For any of our actions that have the sense of "supposed to" or "ought, must, should" about them, it is worth asking yourself, "Who said so?" Or, "Who created this expectation?"

I know how easy it is to get into a place that seems confining, with little option but to engage in constraining ways. In some respects, it is simply easier to fight the Milesians on their own terms.

I'll grant that there are realms where we truly have few options . . . IF we want to remain a part of that realm. The workplace, for example, is likely a place where someone else has established the rules of engagement. You may not have the option of "turning sideways into the light" and still remain a part of that particular body. Your employment may depend on engaging according to the norms of that particular place. Creativity or imaginative thinking may not be encouraged or accepted.

In most realms of life, though, there are in fact many, many possibilities -- "with God all things are possible" the angels continually announce throughout the biblical witness -- and the sense we have of being trapped, of being forced or compelled into one stance or another is more likely a matter of our own inner freedom . . . or lack thereof. We are simply not free enough inwardly to make the hard choice, or to take the creative stance, or to imagine a possibility that has yet to be seen.

This is the long, strenuous work of inner freedom . . . to discern our own interior, to know our own interior makeup . . . and thus to be free within our own depths to respond to God, self, others, and the world in a way that is life-giving, merciful, peace-making, and compassionate.

The Tuatha De Danann were almost sure to be defeated by the Milesians on the battlefield. Rather than engage in a traditional, acceptable way, they chose to engage in an imaginative way that was consistent with who they were, with their core ethos. While some Irish storytellers name this "defeat," I would argue that doing so is not defeat, but wisdom and creative imagination and the inner freedom to engage the world out of our truest and deepest center.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Velocity's Pull on the Spiritual Life

I have circled around the word velocity recently as a descriptor of my spiritual state. Velocity describes the reality of a life which gets ramped up slowly, subtly, without my noticing. As life's velocity increases, insidiously calling for more -- more time, energy, attention -- daily existence begins to feel out of sync, careening wildly from moment to moment. Velocity keeps its foot pressed to the gas pedal.

I remember a phone conversation with a mentor decades ago, the man who was most responsible for my vocational path, who influenced my choice of seminary, who was an early role model in so many ways. Separated by miles, I asked him over the phone how he was doing. I still remember his answer these decades later: "I'm lurching from crisis to crisis."

I knew then, as I know now, that "lurching from crisis to crisis" is no way to live life deeply, though I knew from experience exactly what he was suggesting. I've lurched from crisis to crisis aplenty in my own life -- often wearing the lurch as a badge of honor -- and I suspect you recognize lurching as a part of your own experience, too. Especially in the West, lurching is assumed to be the norm, not an aberration. In fact, if pressed, many of us would insist we don't have a choice, believing pedal to the metal is "just the way life is for me."

Like riding a super-train, I can live at such velocity that I observe the landscape through which I travel as a blur, as here-one-second, gone-the-next. I become a traveler speeding through the terrain as swiftly as possible.

That kind of velocity also means I lose touch with people. Connections get frayed. I don't have time for conversation. Actually, I don't have time or patience for anyone or anything not traveling at the same velocity at which I am traveling.

Family members don't respond to texts quickly enough to suit me.

Being put on hold by someone at the mega-corporation and listening to elevator music for an hour feels like an insult to my self-importance.

Deadlines I had not anticipated feel like an affront, a personal insult: "Don't they know how busy I am?"

Emails go unanswered for days.

Excessive velocity has all sorts of ripple effects on me.

About 20 years ago, I read Henri Nouwen's words: "Without silence and solitude it is impossible to live a spiritual life."

You can frame Nouwen's statement -- which has proven accurate, at least in my own experience -- in any number of ways.

**Without time to be still, life will be a blur.

**If you don't make space to ask, "Who am I?" and "What am I doing?", the oughts, musts, and shoulds will consume you.

**Without silence and solitude, life will be an endlessly repetitive cycle of lurching from crisis to crisis.

**If you don't pause to sit still regularly, you can never truly know the "you" who lives inside your skin.

**If some external thing, some external person, or some external norm determines your velocity, you will miss the one life that is hidden inside you.

** If your existence is all strategy, time-line, and accomplishment, you'll never connect with people in a life-giving way. People will be your accessories or they will get in your way.

I walked over an acre of land yesterday in about two hours. For several months I've been on the speeding train, so over dirt and rock I walked slowly. I had no agenda but to set foot on as much of the soil as possible. I wasn't trying to accomplish anything. I felt no compulsion to hurry. I merely wanted to walk, to notice, to listen. The late Gerald May called it "the power of slowing."

Several things stood out to me. I'll mention one.

The birds (Cardinals, Eastern Bluebirds, among others), the plant-life (60 foot oaks, irises, hostas, rose bushes, and pine trees coming up volunteer), the clouds, breeze, and drizzling rain . . . all did not care one bit about my velocity, about how busy I have been . . . not one care that my tax return needs to be tended to, that I have phone calls to make, appointments to keep, details about life that require some strategic maneuvering on my part.

Schedules and plans and "lurching from crisis to crisis" don't mean a thing to the created world . . . the created world which, after all, has a wisdom all its own. Only I, as the human in that setting, had felt the compulsion to travel faster than a human is made to travel.

Whether my velocity allows me to participate in this other, more inviting world or not, creation goes on singing, breezing, drizzling, foraging.

At question, at least for me: "In which world is my deepest, hidden self most invited to participate?"







Saturday, November 26, 2016

Advent Anticipation

Advent is the season that anticipates the birth of Christ, the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. For centuries, the Church has paused during Advent to consider the meaning of this birth, to anticipate the birth of the Savior not only at Christmas, but in every moment of life. This year, Advent begins Sunday, November 27. Songs of longing and anticipation characterize the season, as well as the sprinkling of Christmas songs that begin to engage our hearts in the resounding joy of new life and the birth in Christ to which we are all invited.

This Advent, I'm interested in some of the characters in the traditional nativity narrative. Typically, the characters get analyzed and summarized in stereotypical ways, so that we find a handful of life-lessons in their presence at the Nativity. This year, I want to take a little different track. What if we approached the story of Jesus' birth and the characters surrounding his birth as if they were each alive somewhere within us? The approach reflects my growing understanding that we as humans are much more alike than we are different . . . that all of the foibles and glories of the worst and best among us also live within me. So what would it mean, for example, if I believed that something of the shepherds from the Christmas story lives on in me? What if the spirit of the Magi were also within me? What if there is a part of me that is like the angels, who proclaimed and sang at Jesus' birth? What if I found a corner of my life that was inhabited by the ruler Herod?

The method is akin to what one might experience in a form of Ignatian meditation and prayer. It is a way, I believe, in which we can each personalize the Birth story . . . that is, not hold it at arms length to analyze it, but to allow it close in order to personalize it. Not only, then, do I enter the story, but the story and its characters enter me!

So for the next four weeks, I'll use poetry and scripture to write about some of these characters, in hopes that we will be able to locate them within our own interior . . . and in hopes that we will recognize the Christmas story as our story. I'll post thoughts several times a week on my Daily Advent blog (www.Adailyadvent.blogspot.com).

Tomorrow we begin. We'll consider the Magi, and using poetry and story we'll try to locate and be in touch with the Magi living within each of us. In the following weeks, we'll give attention to the shepherds, the angels, Herod and the innkeeper.

I invite you to make the journey with me.

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Soul's Sadness and Love-Dogs

Within my soul I've felt a deep sadness in recent days. Something tender and unhealed within me has been touched by the world around me. My sadness has mingled with anger, and I've swung between the two in regular rhythms.

I'm also feeling desperate on behalf of others who are hurting in ways that are much more tangible (and real) than my own superficial difficulty, by those who regularly find themselves marginalized because of skin color, national origin, orientation, gender. A few of these persons I know by name, and vast millions have names and identities I do not know . . . but with them I nonetheless share a common life in this world. We are more the same than different, and of that I am confident.

This poem goads me on, presses me on down the path, pushes me to not give up or give in, says to me that even the sadness and anger of loss are full of union. Rumi's wisdom tills the field for connection.


Love Dogs
by Rumi


One night a man was crying,
Allah! Allah!
His lips grew sweet with the praising,
until a cynic said,
“So! I have heard you
calling out, but have you ever
gotten any response?”

The man had no answer to that.
He quit praying and fell into a confused sleep.

He dreamed he saw Khidr, the guide of souls,
in a thick, green foliage.
“Why did you stop praising?”
“Because I’ve never heard anything back.”
“This longing
you express is the return message.”

The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.

Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup.

Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.

There are love-dogs
no one knows the names of.

Give your life
to be one of them.


[trans. by Coleman Barks, in Robert Bly, The Soul Is Here for Its Own Joy: Sacred Poems from Many Cultures, p. 155 – 156.]

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Learning: A Poem by William Stafford

I have lots of reasons to love William Stafford's poetry. This poem is one of them . . . simple, straight, spare.

Stafford was a pacifist and a conscientious objector. It's worthwhile to spend some time keeping company with this poem.

Learning
by William Stafford

A piccolo played then a drum.
Feet began to come – a part
of the music. Here came a horse,
clippety clop, away.

My mother said, "Don't run –
the army is after someone
other than us. If you stay
you'll learn our enemy."

Then he came, the speaker. He stood
in the square. He told us who
to hate. I watched my mother's face,
its quiet. "That's him," she said.

[Stafford, The Way It Is, p. 9]

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Post-Election: A Pastoral Letter

I am the pastor of a Contemplative Community in Houston, Texas. It is a diverse community of seekers, who are intentionally engaging a life-stance rooted in the Christian mystical/contemplative tradition. For months, the Presidential campaign had sent ripples through the community, making conversations awkward and straining relationships. The election itself only served to bring those tensions closer to the surface. As a clay-footed pastor of this beautiful and imperfect community, I wanted to speak into our life together in a healing way. I wrote this pastoral letter to my "flock" about 24 hours after the election results were in. I include the letter here as I sent it to my congregation.



I have struggled over the last 24 hours to know what to say to you as your pastor. Some, I realize celebrate Tuesday’s election as a victory. For others, it is simply relief to finally be done with it. Others have found themselves numb. Many have expressed grief and anger (“sad” and “mad” are both primary emotions, but very different, though sometimes hard to distinguish). The uncertainty felt by some has morphed into fear in others.

In short, I’ve seen no “typical” or generic response to the election. We each feel what we feel. Our emotions are not right or wrong . . . we don’t need someone to fix us or to quote a Bible verse to make us feel better . . . we don’t need to gloat that we were right and others were wrong . . . we don’t need to feel vindicated if identified with the majority nor defeated if identified with the minority.

The aftermath of the election was sure to be this way, regardless of who became the President-elect. Either way, his/her supporters were going to be at odds with her/his supporters. The strain felt among families and friendships, in workplaces and congregations for months leading up to Nov. 8 has now become an awkward tension as we collectively ask, “What’s next?”

Institutions and structures change, shift, fall, are rebuilt . . . that includes nations, political structures, companies, and even the Church. It is one – of many – reasons Jesus said not to place faith in the institutions, in leaders, in political parties, or even in the Church. He foresaw, for example, the fall of the Temple as a religious and national institution within Israel. His words were heard as blasphemy, especially when he said that he would build another Temple, this time in the human heart. But Jesus was forever taking these outer events and symbols, and pressing them inward toward the heart. He asked interior questions about outer events and happenings in the world.

Therefore, wherever you are with the events of the last few days, I invite you to tend the garden that has been given to you. Trying to solve the world will lead to frustration, despair, and ultimately more anger. You can’t fix the world singlehandedly – as even President-elect Trump will learn in the coming days. But you can tend the garden that is yours. That garden, first and foremost, includes your own soul. That garden also includes your relationships, those within your sphere of influence. Tending your garden is not about fixing someone else’s garden, not about locating all the problems “out there” in others, or in the system, but rather about turning the soil of your own life. It’s about working your side of the street.

How am I trying to do that in this season? First, I begin with myself, my own stance, my own feelings. I do soul-work in a deeply honest way. It shifts from finger-pointing at others to a personal glance.

So I take inventory of how it is with me.
• “What does it feel like to be Jerry today?”
• “And what has been touched in Jerry that has produced these feelings? What values have been threatened? What core values have been touched, so that I either celebrate or lament?”
• “What does it feel like to be Jerry feeling this feeling?”

I ask this of myself, not to become more inward focused, not for the sake of introspection, and not in order to judge myself as a failure, but in order to be familiar with myself and my own landscape. I want to be aware – or conscious – of my own interior, in order to see what is at work within me. This is a part of the illumining work of God’s Spirit.

I want to let this work take its time in me, because I realize that most often, my first reaction (the first glance or first gaze) is self-protecting, self-serving, and not grounded in love. Usually the first glance is defensive, judgmental, and categorizing. When I press myself to stay with the interior work, I can often get to that second glance or gaze, which most always includes threads of mercy and the capacity to see self and others more generously.

Second, I want to become aware of my mind’s chatter . . . whether it is the chatter of election elation, or the chatter of election analysis, or the chatter of fear and despair.

[The internet and social media can be a great gift, but they can also feed the worst impulses within us. Consider a fast from news feeds and social media for 24 hours or so. In my experience, these sources only feed and perpetuate my mind’s chatter, increasing the number of “monkeys” jumping around from swing to swing within my head. It’s almost impossible for me to cease my mind’s chatter when I’m constantly feeding the monkeys more food.]

Some form of contemplative prayer – Centering Prayer or Christian meditation – that invites you to disengage from thoughts and feelings may be especially helpful, so that at least for a few minutes, you can let go of the chatter and the cycling of your analytic mind.

Third, consider carrying a breath prayer along for this season of your life . . . a phrase that you can breathe or whisper as you move through your day, especially when you find yourself overwhelmed by the situation. Whisper the prayer as you work, as you walk, as you drive, as you eat, as you wait on hold. Let the simple prayer itself hold you.

“Be still and know that I am God.” (Ps. 46:10)
“The earth is yours, and all that is in it.” (Ps. 24:1)
“You are the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (Ps. 27:1)
“In your light I see light.” (Ps. 36:9)

Finally, I affirm that we are a diverse spiritual community made up of persons from across the political, racial, socio-economic, educational, sexual orientation spectrum. We do not represent a single political vantage point. A glance across the Chapel on any given Sunday morning, and I see a multitude of life-situations and perspectives, each with meaning for that particular person. Our task together is love and mercy. It is the growing edge for all of us, especially in our life together and in our witness to the world. We each find different ways to embody the life of Christ to the world. None of us do that in the same ways. We are united by the common quest to deepen our lives into the heart of God for the transformation of the world . . . not by common perspectives or beliefs or ideologies.

We may not always sense it at a surface level, but we are one in the One who has called and named us.

I am glad – and sometimes overwhelmed – to be your pastor in a time such as this.

In love and peace,
Jerry

Friday, December 18, 2015

For Those Weary of Planning for and Talking about Christmas

"I'm tired of planning for and talking about Christmas. I just want some space to sit with it, apart from the many self-imposed distractions and tugs that scatter my attention."

I said these words last week to some friends as we talked about our experience of Advent and Christmas. I've been planning Advent and Christmas services since early November. I've been talking about Christmas, both in writing and in speech for almost that long. I'm tired of it. I'm tired of talking about the concept and planning for the experience. It feels blasphemous that I should want something to be ended before it has even arrived -- especially something so "holy" as Christmas. Yet, that is the honest truth about my interior state.

And I feel this way not only about the planning that is part of my daily work. My personal planning for Christmas is nearly shot, also. Day after day I'm haunted by inner voices that whisper, "But what are you going to buy so-and-so? . . . and what about a gift for what's-her-name? . . ." Shadowy voices rumble around within me, voices of compulsion and drivenness. Some years my gift-giving is divinely inspired -- the year I gave my golfing friends Titleist golf balls inscribed with, "MEDITATE THIS, THOMAS MERTON!" -- but not so this year. It's been a grinding chore. I'm about to give in, now one week before Christmas, go to Amazon.com, and hit the "BUY!" button: "Squatty Potties for everyone!!" I'd have them in hand for distribution by December 22.

One of my friends, to whom I vented about my weariness over Christmas talk and planning, asked a helpful clarifying question: "If you were able just to sit with the season, what would you find?"

I don't know what I'd find. I believe there would be much less compulsion and drivenness crowding the soul-space. Maybe there would be simple openness, even emptiness. As it is, I sit each morning in my mauve rocker with the worn armrests, reading Advent and Christmas texts, waiting for something to come at me . . . waiting to hear . . . waiting to catch a glimpse. Little seems to move toward me. It's mostly just sitting in a space in which precious little seems to be going on . . . except the compulsiveness, the self-guilt over my sad gift-giving, and the weariness that accompanies those voices.

In fact, I feels something like a kind of "virgin" through the season, as the Virgin Mary entered her own experience in emptiness and simple openness. (I have more thoughts on the "virginity" to which the season invites us . . . I may share them in this space in a few days.)

To be sure, I look at my calendar and see services, events, gatherings, where I am compelled to have something to say about Christmas . . . and I will gladly step into those places . . . after all, I'd hate to waste all this great planning and strategizing of the last two months.

But mostly, I'm longing for no thinking, no words, no strategizing, no talking about. Instead, simply a sitting-in. A being-with.

And IF you find a Squatty Potty under your Christmas tree . . .