Reflections by Jerry Webber

Thursday, August 16, 2018

A Case for God . . . Not the Experience of God

2 After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. 3 His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. 4 And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.

5 Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 6 (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)

7 Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”

8 Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what “rising from the dead” meant.
(Mark 9:2 - 10)

The Transfiguration story is important at several levels. It is especially challenging to those who have given themselves to an intentional journey of deepening life in God. Within a narrative full of movement (Jesus took . . . led them . . . they were coming down . . . all indicating journey and action), Peter gets struck by how "good it is for us to be here" and his desire to erect shelters, tabernacles, or booths. His suggestion that they create a memorial marker speaks to the perpetual human tendency to freeze spiritual experience in time, to codify the experience in order to remember it and perhaps to have it again at some later time.

Did you have a meaningful spiritual experience at this particular retreat center? Then go to that place again, and see if you can replicate that experience.

Did you sense God speaking to you through this book or author 10 years ago? Then read the book again, or another by the same author, and God will repeat the vision.

Did you find a particular set of spiritual practices meaningful to you as an adolescent? Then return to those practices in order to have a similar spiritual experience.

Did something significant happen to you today? Take a picture, post it to Facebook, and set it to your social media timeline. Next year on this date you'll be reminded of what happened today.

Was a particular sermon or worship experience meaningful to you? Buy the cd of the sermon and service . . . you can replay it as you drive around town, and be reminded always of the way you felt God come close in that experience.

Of course, these methods are not all bad, and I'm not suggesting there is never a place for them. All of them, however, are attempts to recreate a particular experience of God. There are so many different ways to build shelters and set up monuments to spiritual experience, just as Peter suggested on the mountain.

The real danger in the spiritual life is that the experience itself becomes a commodity, sought in and for itself. Most humans are complete addicts in this way . . . when something feels good, especially when we feel we have tapped into the numinous in a significant way, we want more of it. We want to repeat the same experience of peace . . . we want to have the same sense of generosity again . . . we want to know ourselves loved deep-down, not just for a moment, but always.

Addiction to spiritual experience is especially seductive, and because it is "spiritual," we assume it must be good. If a little is good, then more must be better, right?

Hear Thomas Merton:

The one great danger that confronts every person who takes spiritual experience seriously, is the danger of illuminism or, in Monsignor Ronald Knox's term, "enthusiasm". Here the problem is that of taking one's subjective experience so seriously that it becomes more important than truth, more important than God. Once spiritual experience becomes objectified, it turns into an idol. It becomes a "thing", a "reality" which we serve. We are not created for the service of any "thing", but for the service of God alone, Who is not and cannot be a "thing". To serve Him Who is no "object" is freedom. To live for spiritual experience is slavery, and such slavery makes the contemplative life just as secular (though in a more subtle way) as the service of any other "thing", no matter how base: money, pleasure, success. Indeed, the ruin of many potential contemplatives has been this avidity for spiritual success. (The Inner Experience, ed. by Thomas Hart, p. 139.)

The language of "idolatry" hearkens back to the Ten Commandments, which begin with the command to have only one God. To be sure, to use the language of idolatry for something which is seemingly good, like spiritual experience, seems extreme. Yet, that is the very nature of idolatry. Even good things that are not God must not be worshiped.

Let me be clear. I'm for spiritual experience.
Worship may be a spiritual experience.
Retreats may provide an experience of God.
Spiritual practices may open us to spiritual experience.

But spiritual experience is at least one degree away from God. As Merton says, the goal of the spiritual life is not experience, but God . . . to know God in a direct, unmediated way.

For this reason, the Christian mystics have proposed silence and solitude as the most basic contexts for knowing God, rather than some setting in which emotions and excitability were the driving forces. In silence and solitude, there are no words to get in the way, nothing about silence and solitude that can truly be described or prescribed, no way for the experience to be manipulated in order to get a particular experience of God. There is only God in the naked silence.

Also, this is the reason many of the great monastic traditions -- going back to the Desert Abbas and Ammas of the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries -- gathered in places which seemed extreme, building monasteries in places that were not lush or aesthetically abundant. Deserts, rocky outcroppings, and frigid tundras have provided monastic settings which tend toward the extremes. They have been chosen most often because their fierceness lends itself to the rawness and immediacy of God, rather than to an excitable religious experience. (20 years ago, Belden Lane's book, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality, was a testament to this fierceness.)

Again, please do not diminish spiritual experience. Most all of us are prodded forward by spiritual experience, even the experience of God. But the goal is not more experience. The goal of life is God.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Beyond Gathering Information

A poem to ponder today . . .

David Ignatow

This tree has two million and seventy-five thousand leaves.
Perhaps I missed a leaf or two but I do feel triumphant
at having persisted in counting by hand branch by branch
and marked down on paper with pencil each total.
Adding them up was a pleasure I could understand;
I did something on my own that was not dependent on others,
and to count leaves is not less meaningful than to count the stars,
as astronomers are always doing.
They want the facts to be sure they have them all.
It would help them to know whether the world is finite.
I discovered one tree that is finite.
I must try counting the hairs on my head, and you too.
We could swap information.

I haven't read much poetry by David Ignatow, but I'm imagining his tongue planted firmly in cheek . . . as if knowing the number of leaves on a tree could tell all you needed to know about the tree . . . or as if counting the stars in the sky gave you all the information you needed about galaxies and solar systems . . . as if knowing how many hairs were on your head could exhaust the richness and complexity of being you.

Does having "facts" or the right information mean an object is finite, limited, able to be thoroughly understood or defined? Even in a culture where truth is reduced to "alternative facts" I think we know better than that.

**Take a look at a tree, a real tree, outside your window or from your porch. Better yet, go sit underneath a tree.
Then make your own list of what is important about that tree.
What makes it a tree?
What sustains it?
How would you describe that particular tree to someone who had never seen a tree before?
Or how would you describe that particular tree to someone who has seen thousands of trees before?
What makes this tree the unique tree it is?

**When the night-sky is clear, spend a few minutes sitting or lying underneath it.
Are you able to count what you see?
Notice what you see . . . what nuances make certain stars stand out more than others?
You don't have to imagine or conjure up something for the stars to mean . . . just enjoy watching what is.

**Consider your own life.
In what ways are you more than the hairs on your head?
What do you consider the most important information about yourself?
Are you willing to discover something else that would supplant that particular information as "most important" about yourself?
What do you most like about yourself?
What about yourself would you most like to change?
What truth abides at the core of you and shapes your daily life?
Think of a close friend. What would he/she say abides at your core and shapes your daily life?
How many hairs are on your head?

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Spirituality as Subtraction, not Addition

Decades ago my wife and I knew a man who loved to tinker with woodwork, doing some minor carpentry around his house. At some point, he decided to build an extra room onto his house. With family members helping in the project, he added the room. But one room was not enough. Soon he decided he needed another . . . then another. I don't know how many rooms he added in all, but over the years his house took up nearly every foot of his city lot. This amateur carpenter never took anything down, only adding to his existing house until it ate up his entire property.

We were guests in his house a couple of times, and when he would give us the tour of the latest project, we would walk through a room to a doorway cut in the strangest place, spilling into a misshapen hallway that led to the next room, where the same pattern would be repeated. It was the only way he could get everything to fit together. I suppose in an emergency there was only one way in and one way out, because the home seemed like an endless chain of rooms and angled hallways that had to be navigated single-file. The entire layout was connected, to be sure, but was only loosely held together by the builder's latest whim. While I'm sure the layout made sense to him, to others nothing seemed to cohere.

Because we regularly passed the house in our coming and going, my wife began calling it the "Add-on Extravaganza." It became something of a game to drive by and see what the latest project was, the next "add-on" in the extravaganza.

His way of adding on to his house was far removed from a renovation or refurbishment, in which walls are taken down, the existing arrangement of the house is altered, and the old bones of a house are given new life. In a renovation, something has to be subtracted before something else can be added. If you want more space for a kitchen, you demolish a wall and open up space into a dining or living area. In the end, you most always have to get rid of something in order to make space for something else.

In our desire for a deepening connection with God, persons who engage an intentional spiritual path often thrill to find new prayer methods, retreat experiences, spiritual books, conferences, and classes that hold the promise of another step toward awakening. I know this temptation well. The appeal of a new book or a gifted teacher can be overwhelming. It is quite easy for any of us to begin to add this teaching to that experience . . . to add this prayer practice to my bagful of spiritual disciplines . . . to add a new understanding of my own inner landscape to all the understandings of myself I've accumulated through the decades. Add add add add add. . . .

Jesus told a short, "the kingdom-of-heaven-is-like . . ." parable.

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field." (Matt. 13:44)

It's one of my favorite parables on many levels. The field represents many things, including your life. If the field is your life, then treasure is within you. But the parable emphasizes that in order to apprehend the treasure, you much first sell what you have.

**Sell what you have in order to buy the treasure.
**Empty yourself of whatever fills your interior rooms in order to make room for the treasure.
**Spend whatever you currently have in order to receive this priceless treasure.
**Make any sacrifice necessary in order to claim the treasure.

And all this giving-up in order to receive does not happen in the context of a grinding, regretful sacrifice, as if spending and emptying were onerous tasks to undergo. The treasure is of such magnitude that the "selling" is undertaken with joy, what St. Clare of Assisi called a "laudable exchange." We exchange the small joy we have in our hands for the greater joy or the "pearl of great price" . . . the unimaginable joy -- because it cannot be imagined -- of this treasure.

There is an unmistakable "sell-buy" dynamic at work here. We cannot simply keep adding on, adding on, adding on, without at some point acknowledging that finding this treasure means there are things I have to release in order to apprehend it. I must let go of some things in my life-world in order to fully receive -- or "buy" -- some other things that bring life.

In other words, I cannot hold onto life as it is or life as I experience it now, and merely add-on components of the spiritual life if I want to become the person God created me to be. Spirituality is not an add-on extravaganza! In reality, it is more about subtraction than addition. Some things must be sold, released, emptied, and let go of, in order to make space within us for the treasure we seek.

Personal transformation is more like home renovation than an add-on extravaganza. Bit by bit, some walls are coming down, colors are changing, modes of access are becoming more spacious. There is some demolition involved, and very often the deconstruction is painful. But also, something new and beautiful is being built from the old bones of our lives.

In the life that is continually becoming, this process will take us to our final breath.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Thomas Merton: The Will of God as a Creative Act

The will of God is not a "fate" to which we submit but a creative act in our life producing something absolutely new (or failing to do so), something hitherto unforeseen by the laws and established patterns. Our cooperation (seeking first the Kingdom of God) consists not solely in conforming to laws but in opening our wills out to this creative act, which must be retrieved in and by us – by the will of God.

This is my big aim – to put everything else aside. I do not want to create merely for and by myself a new life and a new world, but I want God to create them in and through me. This is central and fundamental. . . .

I must lead a new life, and a new world must come into being. But not by my plans and my agitation.

[Thomas Merton, The Intimate Merton: His Life from His Journals, ed. by Patrick Hart and Jonathan Montaldo, (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999) p. 125]

Thursday, August 2, 2018

The "Who" and "What" of Wheat and Weeds: Part 2

Jesus then told them this story:

The kingdom of heaven is like what happened when a farmer scattered good seed in a field. But while everyone was sleeping, an enemy came and scattered weed seeds in the field and then left.

When the plants came up and began to ripen, the farmer’s servants could see the weeds. The servants came and asked, “Sir, didn’t you scatter good seed in your field? Where did these weeds come from?”

“An enemy did this,” he replied.

His servants then asked, “Do you want us to go out and pull up the weeds?”

"No!” he answered. “You might also pull up the wheat. Leave the weeds alone until harvest time. Then I’ll tell my workers to gather the weeds and tie them up and burn them. But I’ll have them store the wheat in my barn.”

(Matt. 13:24 - 30)

In the parable's landscape, if the field stands for my life or your life, then the wheat and weeds represent those qualities or characteristics which make up who we are, how we see ourselves, and what we do in the world. I'm calling these aspects of ourselves the "what" which lies within the field of my life or yours. We may judge some of those qualities as positive and helpful (wheat), while considering other characteristics to be negative, harmful, or unwanted (weeds).

The parable suggests we cannot presume to know what is wheat and what is weed within our interior field; therefore, Jesus encourages us to allow everything to grow in the field and leave the work of separating the two to God.

This "letting be" can be arduous work in itself. Our notion of what is right and what is wrong can be deeply ingrained within us, and to find something within the field of our lives that does not sync up with our vision of what it means to be "religious" or "spiritual" can prompt us to move heaven and earth to remove the "weeds." At the very least, finding weeds within the plot of our lives can lead to overwhelming guilt and shame.

"Let everything grow in your field," the parable teaches.

There is another level at which the parable may be read, this one suggested by Jesus himself. It is social in nature. In this interpretation, the field is the world. The wheat and the weeds represent various people in the world -- the "who's" sown in the field -- some who do good and work for life . . . others who are more destructive and whose presence diminishes life. But people, scattered throughout the world, embody the images of wheat and weed.

[I would argue that no single person is completely "wheat" or completely "weed." Rather, each of us exist as some combination of wheat AND weeds, some confused mixture of the two . . . with most of us trying to maximize our wheat and trying to hide or minimize our weeds. . . . all a matter for another essay at some other time.]

Some people who are sown in the world look appealing. They appear to be doing good for others (perhaps advocating for a cause we find admirable or beneficial) or seem to be successful in their own right; however, in reality they cause fractures. They divide and separate. Appearances notwithstanding, they do not bring life and healing to the world. The parable acknowledges that we cannot presume to know, from the ways things appear, what impact this person has on the well-being of others and the planet.

On the other hand, there are some who appear to be weeds. They live on the fringes or they seem disreputable. We might think of their behavior or lifestyle as scandalous. We can see little in their lives which seems life-giving to us; yet, some of these people are wheat, according to the parable. They are subversively bringing life and wholeness to the world.

The parable admonishes us to allow everything in the field to grow without trying to rid the world of one thing or the other. I find this a remarkably difficult stance to take in current culture, given my own observation of what seems to be life-threatening and harmful. I want to judge, to presume to know who is good and who is bad, who to support and who to protest.

The ongoing, insidious temptation for religious people is the tendency to judge others. Those on an intentionally spiritual path are not exempt from this tendency to judge, and in fact may be more prone to judgment than others.

I find it easy enough to judge others according to the light I have at the moment. Further, I presume my way is THE Way, and then judge those who have chosen some other way. Of course, in such judgments, I am always the wheat and you -- if you don't agree with me -- are always the weed.

Don't be quick to judge others, the parable teaches. Don't be presumptuous enough to label either wheat or weeds in the world. Don't assume what you see is all there is. Any assemblage of people, whether the Church, the coffee group, or those gathered at the halfway house, is a strange and confusing combination of wheat and weeds. Every person in the field of the world is full of complexity and holds within themselves an awkward mixture of wheat and weeds.

Including me. And you.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The "Who" and "What" of Wheat and Weeds: Part 1

Jesus then told them this story:

The kingdom of heaven is like what happened when a farmer scattered good seed in a field. But while everyone was sleeping, an enemy came and scattered weed seeds in the field and then left.

When the plants came up and began to ripen, the farmer’s servants could see the weeds. The servants came and asked, “Sir, didn’t you scatter good seed in your field? Where did these weeds come from?”

“An enemy did this,” he replied.

His servants then asked, “Do you want us to go out and pull up the weeds?”

"No!” he answered. “You might also pull up the wheat. Leave the weeds alone until harvest time. Then I’ll tell my workers to gather the weeds and tie them up and burn them. But I’ll have them store the wheat in my barn.”

(Matt. 13:24 - 30)

For years I've heard this parable used as a text on discernment, that is, how to distinguish wheat from weeds, good from evil. With even a casual reading of the parable, however, you can see that interpretation runs counter to what the parable teaches. Rather than instruction on how to determine what is wheat and what is weed, the parable in essence says, "Don't bother with worry over what is weed and what is wheat. In many cases you won't be able to figure out one from the other. In pulling out what you think is bad, you may in fact be rooting out something life-giving. And in cultivating what is good, you may be encouraging something detrimental to wholeness. Let it be for now, and trust God to do the weeding out when the time is right."

Thus, the parable serves as a cautionary word against judgment and presuming to know how to sort out the good from the bad. After all, our notion of wheat and weed is most often personally or tribally referenced, so that our investment in what is good or bad shapes how we see. Something I see as completely wheat is seen by another person -- perhaps from a different political party, a different nationality, a different race, a different sexual orientation, a different worldview -- as weed. Only in our arrogance do we stand in our own center and claim our own view to be absolute Truth. Yet, such arrogance lives within each of us. It is the arrogance of our own presumed "knowing" that Jesus cautions against in the parable.

Let me offer you a couple of levels, beyond the background above, on which to consider the parable. I'll write about the "what" today, and then shift the field a bit to reflect on "who" in the next essay.

Consider the parable as a story about your own inner world. In the parable's language, your life is the field. And in the field of your life, the Farmer has scattered good seed, wheat-seed. There is treasure within you, and the capacity to do good in the world. You have gifts woven into your unique DNA, that when shared with the world bring life and light and healing. Inside you is the image of God, the God-seed if you will, that is full of life and waits to germinate, blossom, and produce fruit. Within you there is wheat.

But according to the parable, there is also weed scattered within you and me. We are each neither fully wheat nor fully weed. The field is not "either-or," but "both-and," both wheat AND weeds.

Each of us acts daily out of self-interest, an ego-centrism that is hard to weed out. Or perhaps we carry within our body some condition that limits our capacity to do what we'd like to do, and we think of that limitation as a weed.

The "what" of the parable -- at least as I'm presenting it -- are those qualities, traits, and characteristics within me or you which we want to characterize as wheat or weed. In fact, the "what" may include all the interior material that makes up my life, what it means for me to be me and you to be you.

And the teaching of the parable simply says, "None of us can accurately see what is wheat and what is weed in our own life. We may find some personal trait unpleasant . . . or we may struggle with some condition that feels debilitating . . . or we may think of some very good qualities about ourselves. . . . But we are not God, who alone sees all the way through us."

The parable cautions us against pulling too many of our interior weeds, those things -- I'm calling them "whats" -- that make up our interior world. I have learned this lesson the hard way. Once I became intentional about my connection with God years ago, I immediately wanted to get rid of the bad habits, debilitating conditions, and unpleasant feelings I felt hindered my connection to God. My language was, "I'm going to obliterate them!" as if I knew what was best for my life. Now, decades later, I am still learning that some of the experiences which seem most unpleasant to me, difficult and even paralyzing, are the ones shaping me most, deepening my connection with my own self, God, others, and the world.

I don't always resist judgment, just as I can't stop presuming to know what is best -- I'm finding this open stance to be especially difficult in the contentiousness of contemporary life, in which I want to presume to know what is wheat and what is weed -- but I am a work in progress. I recognize my limited ability to see what is true and what is false, what is wheat and what is weed, at least this morning as I write this piece.

Practical Helps

**In your prayer, ask God for the grace to give you a spirit of generosity, especially with yourself. "God, I'm asking for the grace to be generous with myself." This is a very Ignatian form of prayer which acknowledges that we do not generate this generosity (or whatever you are asking for) on our own. Rather, we receive it as a gift, as grace.

**Pray the Freedom Prayer:
"God, free me from the need to control what my life looks like."
"God, free me from my need to be perfect."
"God, free me from my impulse to judge myself."
"God, free me from my need to control my relationship with you."

**Regularly practice some form of Christian contemplative prayer, perhaps Centering Prayer or Christian Meditation. These more interior forms of prayer each have at their heart a continual letting go of thoughts, images, and mental commentaries. Practicing the prayer regularly, you will find that the "letting go" which takes place during the prayer time may be extended to ordinary life. Then, the compulsion to judge yourself or to presume that you know what is best for your life can be released in everyday life just as it is in the time of prayer.

I'll share some reflections on the "who" of wheat and weeds in the next post.

Monday, July 30, 2018

A Consideration on Planting the Mustard Seed

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which someone took and planted in a field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet:

“I will open my mouth in parables,
I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.”

(Matt. 13:31 - 35, NIV)

The two short parables in today's reading, taken from Matthew 13:31 - 35, subtly depict situations of scandal. The mustard tree (or bush, depending on which commentary you read), was an undesirable plant that most persons would prefer to root out of their field or garden.

Yeast was a symbol of that which was unclean and generally unwanted. (Note that the Jewish festival celebrated "Unleavened Bread," not "leavened bread.") The presence of yeast was scandalous.

Yet, these two undesirable elements are likened in differing ways to the kingdom of heaven.

The first image has often been misrepresented in preaching and teaching. Matthew records Jesus' words, not as, "the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed," but as, "the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and planted in a field." While there may be connections between the mustard seed and the kingdom of heaven (the tiny seed having influence beyond its proportionate size), at least here, Jesus connects the kingdom of heaven to the entire process of planting the mustard seed in a field.

In other words, it is not enough to hold a mustard seed in your hands and say, "this is what the kingdom of heaven is like." No, the kingdom of heaven is like holding that scandalous seed, and then throwing the seed where it does not seem to belong, where you would not want it, where the seed does not seem to fit.

As an undesirable plant, one that has a corrupting influence on its surroundings, it will take over. [I wonder if mustard trees/shrubs were the "kudzu" of the Ancient Near East. Kudzu is the invasive vine that has taken over much of the Southeastern United States over the past couple of decades. I saw a couple of acres of kudzu last weekend on a road trip through rural Arkansas, and was reminded of its corrupting, invasive nature. It had overtaken trees, telephone polls, and even houses alongside the highway.]

So the kingdom of heaven is likened to the act of putting something small and subversive where it doesn't seem to belong . . . planted into human lives . . . tossed into political systems . . . sown into social dynamics . . . dropped into vocational decisions . . . this small seed gets thrown into places it doesn't seem to belong and it begins to alter the shape of those realities in what some might consider perverse or counter ways.

The seed of this kingdom is sown in me . . . in humans . . . in the landscape of the world. The act of sowing, planting, throwing, and scattering is an unmistakable part of the kingdom of heaven, so that the scandal of the kingdom is embedded where it does not seem to fit.