Reflections by Jerry Webber


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 . . .

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

What Rest?

"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest." (Matt. 11:28)

I was particularly sensitive to Jesus' words in Matthew 11:28 when I read them a couple of days ago. They caught my attention on the long end of a stretch in which I've dealt with health issues that brought several weeks of lean sleep.

Ahhh, but to be able to sleep again. Rest, sweet rest.

In my naivete', I've supposed that this was the rest Jesus promises. Rest. Sleep. A pause from the demands of work. Respite from the constant houndings of daily life. A moment free from "forced" creativity. Eight hours of non-interrupted REM sleep.

But when I read the passage this time, I asked some other questions of this rest.

What is the rest Jesus gives? Is is rest from physical exhaustion? Is it emotional rest? Is it rest from carrying the burdens others place upon me? Is it rest from health concerns?

And I began to consider other kinds of rest . . . rest from trying to control everyone else around me . . . rest from being attached to outcomes . . . rest from worry about things I cannot control . . . and rest from the control I try to exert over the way things turn out, that they should look the way I want them to look. . . .

Is it rest from my compulsions?
Is it rest from my attachment to security?
Is it rest from my attachment to good health?
Is it rest from my attachment to comfort?

I realize that so much anxiety and worry comes when any of these things are thwarted, when my attachment to them is threatened. Truly, the anxiety and worry represent "no rest", no sense of well-being. They are wearisome, draining, exhausting, pulling out my interior resources, spending energy on that over which I usually have little control.

For this season of my life, I sense that rest is not getting plenty of sleep. As always, I reserve the right to change my mind about these things . . . but for today, rest looks more like letting go of compulsions and releasing attachments.

My experience has been that only in the context of a vertical, Divine-human, I-Thou relationship, do I recognize these compulsions and attachments. The contemplative journey gives me the space to see myself more and more clearly, to see what is more true about myself, and to name the compulsions and attachments which are illusory.

Further, it gives me some language -- even if limited -- to speak to these compulsions and attachments. And it gives me some practices that are well-suited for breaking up the hardened soil of the attachments in order that I might live more freely for good and healing in the world.

Jesus, it would seem to me, is much more invested in this kind of liberating rest that heals me and heals the world than in my prospects for getting a good, eight hour sleep.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Advent's Slow Crawl

This past Sunday was the First Sunday of Advent.

The season of Advent is intended for preparation, waiting, and expectancy, beginning four Sundays before Christmas. Advent themes of hope, love, peace, and joy are intended to prepare our hearts for the birth of Jesus. In Advent truly conceived, that birth is not a faraway event represented by a calendar date, but rather a birth that takes place continually within human hearts as we make room for the coming of Christ within us.

For me, though, the season of Advent begins as more of a slow crawl. I don't get a running start, or even a rolling start into Advent. In the United States, the first days of Advent fall on the heels of Thanksgiving, travel, Black Friday, and gatherings with family and friends.

Advent crawls out of the blocks. I have to make myself speak the words and sing the songs. I'm grateful for the season, the colors, the candles, the readings, just not quite ready for it.

But Advent doesn't inquire about my readiness, nor does it particularly care whether or not I'm prepared for the season. It doesn't mind that I'm road-weary from travel or overloaded with tryptophan or that Black Friday and Cyber Monday have stuffed my inbox with two email ads for every one I can delete.

Advent comes, ready or not. It comes . . . to announce a coming.

Christ has come . . . Christ is coming . . . Christ will come.

Christ comes always, continuously, in every time. Christ comes everywhere, relentlessly, in every place, welcoming or not.

This is my slow crawl into Advent. I don't feel bad about it -- though years ago I did -- but rather just accept it for what it is. I'll come around. I'll get there eventually.

Give me a bit . . . I'll catch up to you.