Reflections by Jerry Webber

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Hearing Voices at Christmas

Ahhhh . . . taking a break from roasting chestnuts on an open fire to write a little something about Christmas. . . .

I noticed a few things about the birth narratives as Christmas approached this year.

1. There seems always to be an invitation . . . an invitation to hear, to act, to go, to stay.

Mary, Joseph, shepherds, Magi . . . they don't seem to move by compulsion and coercion nearly as much as they hear invitations and then respond with their lives. They move, they take action. They are not asked to take on a belief system as much as they are invited to step more deeply into God's design for the world.

2. The invitations come in the midst of real life.

Into ordinary life the angel announced "good news" to Mary, which may have sounded at first blush like very bad news.

Joseph struggled with a real dilemma, with a pregnant fiancee' in a culture that had no tolerance unwed mothers.

The work of shepherds was interrupted, first by the angelic birth announcement and then by their decision to leave work in order to "go and see."

3. Only those who have "ears to hear" actually hear the invitations.

I'm struck by the number of dreams and angel visits in these birth narratives. Extraordinary voices are speaking and inviting, but not everyone has ears to hear them. Mary hears, as does Joseph. So do the angels and the Magi. Herod hears, but his hearing is too much clouded by his own self-preservation.

I'm challenged to live in a world that does not encourage me to hear deep voices . . . and to not lose touch with those deeper voices that speak from within me and from outside me. I'm challenged to recognize them and to act on those which offer healing and wholeness to the world, somehow straining the others that invite me to self-preservation and self-aggrandizement.

More and more I'm coming at life invitationally. I lived a long time out of compulsion and duty, out of obligation and "have-to." I see more than ever that the way of God with me tends to be the way of invitation.

"What is the invitation of God to me in this situation?"

"How is God inviting my own growth in this situation?"

"How is this situation a God-invitation for the healing of others and the world?"

So in these days of Christmas I'm asking for the grace to continue to hear voices. I'm asking for the courage to live more fully into the invitation that is extended toward me.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Lies We Buy at Christmas

I don't mean to mislead by the title, "The Lies We Buy at Christmas," but I'm not on a rant about shopping and malls and commercialization. I'm as tired of those rants as I am of the actual commercialization.

Actually I'm thinking this morning about Christmas carols. We all sing songs mindlessly, I realize that.

[Digression: I'm occasionally shocked when I hear a song that I enjoyed from my youth/young adult years -- the 70's and 80's -- and pay attention to what the lyrics are saying. "I like that song, but I didn't know it was saying THAT!!" Hmmmm . . . maybe that's why my mother didn't want me listening to those radio stations!]

As someone who gives attention to corporate worship experiences, however, I try to pay attention to the message that songs convey. What does a song say? What is its tone? When people sing it, especially in a setting of worship, what do they carry away?

[Confession: I'm not a big Christmas carol guy. I'll sing them . . . if you make me. But I'm not someone who tunes the car radio to ALL-CHRISTMAS-MUSIC-ALL-THE-TIME beginning Thanksgiving. To my knowledge, I've never gone "dashing through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh." So why sing it? Last week at a Christmas party we sang, "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones we used to know." I've NEVER known a white Christmas, so I have no dreams of one. "And may all your Christmases be white"? Nothing against Bing Crosby, but if that's his Christmas blessing for me, I'm cursed!]

Really, though, I'm not as concerned about Bing Crosby and "White Christmas," or about the fantasy world of "Jingle Bells" nearly as much as I am the "religious" Christmas songs we sing that make Jesus into a fantasy character.

"Away in a Manger" may be a sweet lullaby, but it offers an image of Jesus that is pure fantasy. "The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes." Really? I thought the point of Christmas was that God became one of us, that God took on human flesh, that God entered the world fully human, not as an invincible Superhuman, but as a vulnerable, authentic person. Have you ever known a human baby not to cry . . . at least once, at least at some point? The carol doesn't feel honest to me. It misses the point of Christmas. Maybe it's fine to sing at family gatherings or at the Garden Club, but it's not a worship song.

There are other songs, as well, that present some stylized, photo-shopped Jesus, the kind of Jesus was wish for, the kind of Jesus we want Jesus to be.

On the other hand, there are Christmas songs that are intensely real, songs that refuse to airbrush God or our lives.

"O holy Child of Bethelehem, descend to us we pray.
Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels, the great glad tidings tell.
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!"

And I particularly like the old monastic chant that has thankfully made its way into our hymn books . . . and hasn't yet been purged from them:

"Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
and with fear and trembling stand;
ponder nothing earthly-minded,
for the blessing of his hand,
Christ our God to earth, descendeth,
our full homage to demand."

"King of kings, yet born of Mary,
as of old on earth he stood,
Lord of lords in human vesture,
in the body and the blood;
he will give to all the faithful
his own self for heavenly food."

So I sing selectively during Advent and at Christmas. My life is already full of enough lies. I don't need to propogate more of them.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

. . . And We Are No Different Than Tiger

I wrote yesterday that Tiger is no different from us.

Today, the corollary: we are no different from Tiger.

Sure, he has his blind spots and temptations, his weaknesses and moral compromises.

So do I. So do you.

We're not interested in degrees of moral failure. The ego wants to set up a framework where some weakness is better than other. It's another way our fragile ego defends itself, claiming that someone else's failure is much worse than my own.

"I haven't hurt as many people as she has."

"I haven't fallen as far as he has."

"I haven't been as ruthless in wounding others as she has."

The game goes on and on and on. It's the kind of illusory game our false self loves to play, making life and morality into some kind of competition or comparison contest. "I may be bad, but at least I'm not as bad as . . . "

Further, Tiger's concern for his image and reputation, while excessive, may not be any greater than yours and mine . . . we just don't have millions of dollars riding on it!

We are not different from Tiger at that point. Our egos are defended as is his. Our illusions about life and ourselves are buttressed by all sorts of defenses, frameworks, and mechanisms.

And perhaps -- like Tiger? -- we can live so long and so well within those defenses, frameworks, and mechanisms that we don't know who we truly are beneath them.

I can't say a single word about Tiger's sense of soul or spirituality. I don't know where he is in that sense. I do know, however, that the core of life is about coming to some sense of who God created us to be, and then to live out of that original purpose so that our lives offer meaning to the world.

First, though, we have to come to some sense of that purpose within our selves. And THAT task is not a matter for image and persona. It is a matter of essence and being. Those answers are not found in ad agencies, with p.r. firms, or from looking at the name plate on your desk. You won't find your essence and being by noticing the kind of car you drive, the way your children act, or how well-connected you are to friends.

Your essence is who you are in the interior, in the deepest places -- heart and soul -- where you are connected to God.

Tiger's situation is not hopeless. In fact, the events of the last two weeks provide him a marvelous opportunity to engage a journey of a different sort, toward a significance built not by athletic prowess, wealth, or public image . . . much like the invitation extended to you and me day by day . . . an invitation to journey into the life that is really life beneath the pretense and illusion. In that sense, we are no different from Tiger.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Dismantling Image and the Self's Illusions: Tiger is no different from us

Waiting in the grocery store checkout line this evening it was strange seeing that Brad and Angelina were not on the tabloid covers. Some things you just get used to in the ordinary run of life-events. For whatever reason, Brad and Angelina seemed to have monopolized the check-out line tabloids for several years now.

But a radio report this afternoon noted that for 16 days in a row, the New York Post ran a Tiger Woods-related cover story today. And sure enough, there he was, splashed all over the checkout line magazines in my neighborhood grocery.

For all the salacious material in the various rags, the one that caught my attention said simply, "Tiger Suicidal!" Who knows the truth of that headline. It was written in all likelihood to sell magazines and not to report "inside information." Is Tiger really suicidal? No one outside his inner circle would know. He has been reclusive since the car accident two weeks ago.

What is most apparent from the entire episode is that Tiger has deliberately cultivated a squeaky clean image. His extreme privacy has kept the public from knowing details of his personal life. By cultivating and attending to his public persona, Tiger has made hundreds of millions in endorsements. He is recognized around the world, and his image has provided a forum for his money-making machine.

The problem is that image and persona are never reality. They are illusory, built on the information and person we project into the outer world. Image and persona are manipulated impressions that we cast into the world in order to influence how we are perceived. They have little or nothing to do with what is most real or most deeply within a person. Instead, they have to do with manipulating opinion, with the way we are presented to others.

In the spiritual life, the phrases for this image and persona is the false self, the illusory self, or the ego self. At the root of this part of ourselves is the desire to control what people think about us, how others see us. We all do this, in hundreds, even thousands of ways. They are ways that we've learned from infancy and childhood to throw a particular image into the world.

As children some of these images served to protect us from harm. They helped us make sense of a difficult and dangerous world. They helped us cope when, as children, we did not have the spiritual, emotional, or psychological tools to handle all that life threw at us.

One difficulty in this projection is that we often start to believe the illusion of the persona we are casting into the world. We believe our press clippings, so to speak. Without a solid sense of who we are on the inside, we believe the illusions we've cultivated. Either that, or we live in deathly fear that the reality beneath the illusions will be exposed.

Obviously I don't know what is going on within Tiger Woods' home during these days he has holed himself up there with therapists and relational experts and p.r. persons scrambling to save his image. But the headline that said, "Tiger Suicidal!" was no surprise. For any of us, when the illusions of the false self get exposed, it comes at a price of extreme embarrassment and utter humiliation. Our ego takes such a tremendous hit as this image we have projected gets dismantled that we can honestly not know who we are any more.

It can be literally the most painful and difficult experience of life. While not in Tiger's shoes, I've had my share of embarrassment and humiliation through the years. I've been there several times myself. Even a couple of weeks ago I found myself utterly humiliated over a stupid comment I made to another person, exposing my fragile ego and plummeting me into a deep depressive state for a period of time.

But mostly what I want to say is that this humiliation, which feels like the end of life as we know it -- Tiger considering suicide, if true, would not be uncharacteristic -- may be one of the greatest gifts we can ever receive. The humiliations reveal to us all the false systems we've invested in. They show us how we've built our lives on illusions. So the humiliations themselves have a dismantling function. They have the power, if we'll let them do their work, to take apart the false ideas about ourselves we've projected into the world. They can bring us back to reality about ourselves.

To do so, though, we have to receive the humiliations and explore them, question them.

"Why has this experience humiliated me?"

"What raw nerve has this humiliation touched off in me?"

"What is left of me after this humiliation?" (The humiliation is never about our essence or our core. It is most always about what we have projected outward to others about ourselves, and thus is at the periphery of life. The deepest, most soulful part of us can always withstand humiliation. In fact, it often revels in them, because it gives us an opportunity to live more soulfully.)

"Why am I embarrassed that others are seeing this truth about me? In other words, why am I humiliated that they see that the life I have projected is an illusion?"

In truth, so much of life is given to image and illusion. I hear churches talk about the image they want to project to the community around them. Rarely have I heard a church talk about how they want the community to see who they really are. (Mercy Street at Chapelwood UMC is a life-giving exception.)

In corporate life, companies want to present an image that will draw clients and customers. As with an upscale meal, presentation is everything.

I've said before that St. Francis of Assisi, among others, prayed for one humiliation a day. It was his way of staying grounded, of being reminded that he didn't have to live out of the images and personas that people had of him. He could be real, and in being real could make a real difference. It was his way of noticing all the illusions and pretenses that were a part of life, a way of cutting through the lies about himself and living out of his truth.

Humiliation is not easy to talk about. It is hard. It's difficult. It's also an underrated spiritual discipline if we're going to live an authentic, honest, real spiritual life.

Stumbling over Joy

Like many other life-realities, I'm aware that I can't really define joy; I do, however, know joy when I experience it.

Joy seems somehow bound up in the essence of things, the inner reality that sources an outer way of living in the world.

Pursuit of happiness does not guarantee joy. Happiness is merely intoxicating, the thirsty man or woman drinking salt-water. Happiness requires another outside condition or external stimulus to produce more happiness.

Joy, on the other hand, lives internally somewhere around soul-level. It is deeper and longer-lasting than happiness, not necessarily giddy but most always tied to gladness and gratitude.

The prayer in Psalm 43:3 implores God to send out light and truth in order to guide the steps that would lead me to my deepest joy and gladness.

The divine messengers brought an announcement to working people (shepherds), saying, "Don't be afraid; I bring you good news of great joy for all people" (Lk. 2:10).

"Don't let your fear freeze you. It keeps you stuck in the mindless repetition of your fragile life. I have news that will shatter the frozenness and set you free to live."

To me, the "shattering of frozenness" and the "freedom to live" get to the essence of joy.

Friday, December 11, 2009

A Rilke Poem about Mary for Advent

And then that girl the angels came to visit
Rainer Maria Rilke

And then that girl the angels came to visit,
she woke also to fruit, frightened by beauty,
given love, shy, in her
so much blossom, the forest
no one had explored, with paths leading everywhere.

They left her alone to walk and to drift
and the spring carried her along.
Her simple and unselfcentered Mary-life
became marvelous and castlelike.
Her life resembled trumpets on the feast days
that reverberated far inside every house;
and she, once so girlish and fragmented,
was so plunged now inside her womb,
and so full inside from that one thing
and so full – enough for a thousand others –
that every creature seemed to throw light on her
and she was like a slope with vines, heavily bearing.

[Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. by Robert Bly (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1981), 35.]

This week I've been aware of Rilke's image of Mary as a "forest no one has explored, with paths leading everywhere." I've listened to those words for several days and allowed them to weave their way into me.

To be as open as Mary, as utterly unpretentious . . . paths would be everywhere. Everything would be a path. Wherever I walked, the path would become the ground beneath my feet. Walking on, I would make the path.

In saying, "Yes, let it be to me," Mary assented to a path "no one had explored," a path that led "everywhere."


Sunday, December 6, 2009

A Working Advent

Last week on an Advent retreat we were encouraged to consider past Christmas seasons in which life and love poured into us, as well as considering Christmas experiences from our past in which life was drained from us.

Like others, I have my own memories, many of them from childhood long ago. I considered Christmas traditions in a small Oklahoma town, small houses crowded shoulder-to-shoulder with family members, lumenarias lighting the streets in a "rich part of town," and attending special community-wide programs.

As I thought about my experiences, it became clear that I remember Christmas as simple and unpretentious. As I thought about each memory, however, my adult eyes recognized that every memory of a simple Christmas required that someone, somewhere work to provide the experience . . . my parents or extended family . . . persons setting out lumenarias through an entire community . . . ministers and community leaders who worked to put on Christmas programs. My simple Christmas was someone else's working Christmas.

Without fail, though, during Advent we will hear people lament that Christmas has become so commercial, that we have lost the simplicity of Christmas. As I thought about it last Thursday, I wondered if there ever was any such thing as a simple Christmas.

It certainly wasn't simple for Mary and Joseph. Neither was it simple for shepherds working their herds, interrupted by angel singing.

Has Christmas ever been simple? Even the Dickensian picture of a Christmas Carol Christmas was not simple, no matter how it is portrayed in cinema. With no electricity, thus no refrigeration and no modern cooking convenieces, putting together a meal would have been a huge chore, from gathering the food, preparing the food, cooking the food, etc. Simple? Bah humbug!!

I remember when my own children were in their youngest years . . . I suddenly had great appreciation for my own parents and their efforts in wrapping gifts, assembling bicycles, laying out gifts, and cooking meals. Like my parents, I worked hard to provide good memories for my own children.

That insight came together for me with the Scripture text for the first week of Advent. From Matthew 24:36-44, the text refers to the coming of the Kingdom of God. It is a quintessential Advent text about waiting for the coming of God's Kingdom.

At one point in the text Jesus says that two men will be in the field working. One will be left and the other taken. Two women will be working at the mill. One will be left and one will be taken. There is no direct explanation about why one is taken and the other not, just the next word of Jesus: "Be alert!" "Keep watch!" So the key seems to be attentiveness, that one person was keeping watch as she/he worked and the other was not.

But therein is the other lesson. With an impending religious event of significance (the coming Kingdom of God), these persons were working. If someone said to us, "The Kingdom of God is coming!" our tendency would be to stop working and go to prayer, or get to the church, or do something that feels religious. We want to be found doing something that feels religious when something of religious significance is on the horizon. The persons in Jesus' lesson, however, just keep working . . . but they work in a different way. They work with attentiveness. And that, in itself, is its own kind of religious!

I hear that as my Advent invitation . . . to keep working, but to do so with attentiveness. At Advent and Christmas, the occupational hazard of those who work within the church is busyness. It is easy to lose oneself in activity. And every year we lament communally how busy we are. We vow to change, to be less busy, less frantic.

But I also realize that the work we do at Christmas provides memories for others. In a sense, our busyness is a gift we offer to others, so that others might have the simplicity we remember from bygone days. Our work in providing services and activities and ministry projects fills our schedules, but it helps others be connected to God and to the world in life-giving ways.

So my Advent invitation is not to stop working this Advent. It is not to take more time getting away to a retreat center . . . though that would be really nice. The invitation I sense from God is to work, to be busy, to do what I do, but to do so with attentiveness, watchfulness, and intention.

Christmas may not be simple for me, but if my watchful work helps someone else move through the season with simplicity, then that is a Christmas gift I will offer.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Rilke's Birthday

On December 4, 1875 Rainer Maria Rilke was born. His birth was a disappointment to his mother, who had wished for a daughter (thus, his name). She dressed Rainer as a girl early in life, and perhaps treated him so.

His father, on the other hand, dreamed of a life in the military for Rainer Maria -- can you imagine the tensions between mother and father? -- and sent him to military school, but Rainer was often sick and did not last in those academies.

Early in life he showed a native ability for words and images. He spent his adult years as a poet, living in most every corner of Europe and giving some time as a personal secretary to the sculptor Auguste Rodin. Inspired by Rodin and Cezanne', Rilke felt his calling was to "make things," not sculpted or painted, but "written things."

I was first handed a Rilke poem about 15 years ago by a wise nun. I was not much interested in poetry at that time, so mostly the poem bounced off me. Something within me, though, intuited that Rilke wrote about something important, so I kept at it. Over the years I grew to have a greater and greater appreciation for his poetry.

One Rilke poem in particular saw me through some of the darkest days of my life. I found the poem -- or the poem found me -- while on retreat at the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque several years ago. I could not put it down for days. Then over the next many months, I lived out the storm to which the poem testified . . . I wrestled with angels, as the poem suggests. The poem ushered me into a season of life that was deeply and painfully transformative. This is the poem:

The Man Watching

I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can’t bear without a friend,
I can’t love without a sister.

The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.

What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.

When we win it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestler’s sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.

Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings

One man said of Rilke that he is too fiercely honest and interior for most American readers, who prefer poems about flowers and clouds and bumblebees. I don't know about that.

I do know that he has had a deep and lasting impact on me. He is one of my 3 or 4 most helpful spiritual guides.

So this morning I have been glad to honor his birth by spending time with his words and images and prayers. I've also noted that he was my age when he died.

I sense that I have not yet come to the end of his influence.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


I quickly tripped through the pages of a book yesterday to see if I might be interested in a cover-to-cover reading. Did I want to give my time to this book in particular?

(I hold closely the advice of a mentor early in life: "Be careful which books you read. Every choice to read one book at any given time is a choice not to read every other book." In my neurosis, then, I don't do "casual reading" well!)

In one section the author wrote about the rise of monotheism, and the way that played out in the Abrahamic religious traditions: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. I didn't catch the entire context, but he wrote about the violence of these three Abrahamic traditions toward one another. The phrase he used for that violence among these three faith traditions was, "YAHWEH-on-YAHWEH violence."

At once it struck me as a clever phrase and at the same time a very sad, even pathetic commentary on our faith traditions. That we should be known more for violence than for anything else really sets heavy with me. It feels like a tremendous weight, a burdensome sack that we must lug around. Indeed, much of the world sees these three great Abrahamic religions as violent and bloodthirsty.

Shortly after 9/11 I was forwarded an email that castigated all Muslims. The email noted that the United States is a "Christian" nation and railed on and on about the evil of Muslims in the general population, how each Muslim should be made to leave the United States, and about how anyone even suspected involvement in the 9/11 attacks should be killed.

Then, there was the line that said, "Muslims hate. Christians love. Let's get rid of the Muslims and get our country back to its Christian principles."

I doubt that the writer of the diatribe realized what he/she was saying. The email was anything but an expression of love. The difficulties in the email were too numerous to comment on here. It's enough for me to say that the spirit of the email seemed contrary to the spirit of Jesus.

"Yahweh-on-Yahweh violence" . . . it cuts every way, aimed by others toward us and often aimed outward from us.

I have no answers for our bent toward this violence and hatred . . . only my own wrestlings with the darkness and violence within me. And I notice that there are persons who live into a spiritual journey in such a way as to make a difference in their life-world, persons whose hearts are slowly tenderized by love in such a way that love then becomes what they have to give the world. That seems to be just about the last hope.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Advent as "Play-Like"

My theology professor in seminary felt like adults were so drawn to Advent because it gave grown-ups an opportunity to "play-like." For four weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas we pretend that we don't know Jesus has come.

In a sense, we suspend reality for a few days. We "play-like" we live in the days before Jesus' birth . . . we imagine the waiting, the expectation, the pregnant hope. We read again how the Hebrew prophets imagined that God would send a servant who would suffer with and for the people.

We pretend surprise at the angelic announcements . . . we imagine the courage the first hearers of glad tidings must have felt . . . we try to ramp up our "joy" and offer it "to the world" as the earliest worshipers at the manger did.

For years, Advent gave me an opportunity to "play-like." I suppose now I love Advent so much because I don't have to "play-like" now. I'm familiar with my own interior darkness, the darkness of disease, and the darkness of the world around me. I find that waiting and pregnant hope stretch me beyond myself and deeper into the heart of God.

It seems most often that "the light shining in the darkness" is something like a pinhole on the night horizon, and I have to be remarkably still and attentive to notice it.

So we play-like, and wait, and hope, and watch.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Seeing God with Francis of Assisi

Tomorrow is the first day of Advent. Between now and Christmas many of us find ourselves in more public settings than usual . . . shopping in stores, attending Christmas programs, holiday gatherings with friends.

You'll see many faces over the next few days, and underneath each face will be common yearnings, a good measure of brokenness, but also some hope for a life healed and whole. At an interior level, each person you see will have the image of God imprinted upon their innermost soul, an image that cannot be altered nor lost.

Sometimes it's easy to see that image . . . yesterday I saw it several times in simple, quiet acts of kindness.

Sometimes it's difficult to see that image . . . either I am in a bad place, self-focused, and my seeing is off kilter, or those I encounter are acting in self-interested ways. (It's a recipe for dynamite when my own self-interest meets your self-interest . . . two universes collide that are ordered around different centers . . . in that place arises anger, violence, hatred, and all the defenses that put us over-against one another.)

So these words from a book I picked up yesterday at the bookstore remind me of what I am seeing in every face and situation.

Lord, it is easy to believe in you and see you where there is power and success and riches. It is harder to see you when you are powerless and a failure and poor. And, yet, you are both -- the God of power and might, all-powerful and glorious forever, and also the self-emptying God, who does not cling to equality with Godhead but empties himself, becoming as we are, even to accepting death on a cross. Help me to see both your faces, Lord; help me to see that they are really one.

from Tales of St. Francis: Ancient Stories for Contemporary Living by Murray Bodo, O.F.M., pp. 32 - 33.

Friday, November 27, 2009

A Day in the Bookstore

Any day spent in a used bookstore is a good day. I spent over two hours today in a bookstore that was new to me. It was floor to ceiling books. Old books, new books, first edition books, all books that someone else did not want. That feels like an invitation to me . . . someone has to care for these books!

So I came home with books, unwanted books adopted to my shelves . . . .

-- a couple of books about Francis of Assisi;

-- a book of the writings of Julian of Norwich;

-- a book about Christian mysticism by a Jesuit writer;

-- a book on the interior soul-landscape of the Christian by an Episcopalian priest;

-- a collection of Thomas Merton's poems;

-- a book on the seasons of the soul written by a couple of Benedictine nuns;

-- two books of spiritual exercises;

-- a poetry book by a poet who is fairly new to me.

It was a good day. Opening the books slowly, lovingly in the bookstore, was like hunting for and uncovering treasure. I'll go through the same process with each one in my home. I'll open them slowly, browse through them, get to know them, and listen for which one might first invite me more deeply into her pages. With the books to which I sense that invitation, I'll spend some time in the days ahead.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Adult Children at Thanksgiving

I can't take any credit for having two great children. As infants and children they were delightful. As every family has their challenges, so we've had our share. We may not have always worked through them well, but we've come out on the other side of many difficulties.

Now they are adults. Early on, people said to Paula and me that the joy of having children was mostly experienced in their youngest years and then much later if/when they brought grandchildren into the world. The early years with our two were wonderful . . . I cannot yet vouch for the grandchildren part of that. I have, however, experienced tremendous joy in having both of them as my good friends as they've become adults.

I've seen some parents try to do the "best friend" thing with their adolescent children, and that never seemed to work for me. But now that my children are 26 and 22, I can call them my very close friends, and do so gladly.

We laugh together. We share our writing and our poetry together. One or two words set off secret, inside jokes only shared within our family circle. We karoake in the car -- on one particular Christmas carol we each have our own part . . . it may be our single best Christmas tradition.

Both make a difference in the world . . . both teach English in public schools . . . both love kids and give their gifts and creativity to kids who need positive role models . . . both could do something more "lucrative" vocationally, but have chosen this path for life.

A breakthrough moment came on a two-week vacation a couple of summers ago . . . actually the "moment" lasted all two weeks. We travelled through New England and the Atlantic Provinces of Canada. We fished and boated, watched theater and bagpipe parades, visited lighthouses and art museums, hiked and road horses. It was a magical two weeks. The four of us came to know one another in new ways, traveling, eating, hiking, and bunking together. We turned a corner over those few days, growing to love and respect each other in ways we couldn't have imagined previously.

Having children may be one of the few things I've ever done right . . . not just "having children" (and not that I was a good parent) . . . but having these children, Sarah and Bradley. Today on Thanksgiving, I give thanks for them.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Solitary Person: A Rilke Poem

The Solitary Person
Rainer Maria Rilke

Among so many people cozy in their homes,
I am like a man who explores far-off oceans.
Days with full stomachs stand on their tables;
I see a distant land full of images.

I sense another world close to me,
perhaps no more lived in than the moon;
they, however, never let a feeling along,
and all the words they use are so worn.

The living things I brought back with me
hardly peep out, compared with all they own.
In their native country they were wild;
here they hold their breath from shame.

[ Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. by Robert Bly (New York: Harper & Row, 1981), 87.]

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Mystery of the Interior

This wonderful line from a D. H. Lawrence poem caught my eye . . . "no man knows, no woman knows the mystery of the interior."

I don't see the interior of those I encounter day by day. And I recognize my own interior very slowly, and sometimes at great cost.

This is the poem:

The Heart of Man

There is the other universe, of the heart of man
that we know nothing of, that we dare not explore.

A strange grey distance separates
our pale mind still from the pulsing continent
of the heart of man.

Fore-runners have barely landed on the shore
and no man knows, no woman knows
the mystery of the interior
when darker still than Congo or Amazon
flow the heart's rivers of fulness, desire and distress.

(D. H. Lawrence, Poems, p. 214)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Rabbits and Ducks: What Do You See?

Thirty-five years ago someone showed me a paper with a bunch of strangely shaped sticks and odd spaces. The person said, "What do you see?" I saw sticks and odd spaces. The person said I should look for Jesus in it. I looked and looked and looked. At some point, in the arrangment of the figures, I saw the word, "Jesus." Once I saw it, that was all I could see.

Years later, someone showed me another picture and said, "What do you see?" I looked closely. In one respect it looked like a young Victorian woman wearing a fur around her collar. From another vantage, though, it looked like a haggard old woman.

More recently someone showed me yet another picture and said, "What do you see?" I knew better this time. I had seen "Jesus" before. So I was discriminating in my gaze. It was a rabbit. No, it was a duck. Finally, it was both a rabbit and a duck, depending on how I looked at it. But once I saw the rabbit and the duck, I could forever see the rabbit and the duck . . . as I can now forever see both the young woman and the old woman . . . as I can now forever see "Jesus" in the sticks.

In a class recently we talked about a mystic-way of seeing God, self, others, and life. Someone asked a question: "Why can't everyone see this way?" Indeed. It's a great question. Why not?

The "rabbit and duck" picture came to mind for me. Some of us are so locked in on seeing "rabbits" that we are completely oblivious to the duck in the picture. And some of us are so focused on the "duck" that we couldn't possibly see the rabbit in the sketch. Once we see both of them, we cannot see anything else. We will always see both of them.

That initial seeing is hard, though. We're hard-wired by the systems of family, society, vocation, and even religion to see in certain ways. We're not encouraged nor rewarded for seeing any other way. Every so often we'll realize that our traditional ways of seeing are limited and insufficient, but mostly we live trapped in the small world of our narrow vision.

I've said before that I think that's what metanoia is, the Greek word usually translated "repentance." It is literally taking on a larger (meta) mind (nous). It suggests seeing the world more expansively, seeing the world more wholistically, seeing the world as the realm of a God who cannot be contained in our limited understanding. Maybe metanoia would suggest that we begin to see rabbits and ducks and whatever other mysteries the sketch might hold for us. It suggests that we open ourselves to all the possibilities.

When I made the comment to the class about the "rabbit-duck" picture, they got it. People began to share about their own "rabbits," their own "ducks," their own challenges in seeing a world that includes both . . . and knowing a God who loves both.

It was a graced moment. It was a moment that gave me hope, both for my own seeing and for the seeing of the world.

What do you see?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Granite Countertop Illusion

I confess that my wife holds the remote in our family. I know, I know, my manhood is in question. That's just the way it is in our home, at least most nights.

Her hold on the remote means that the default evening television channel is HGTV. Homes, gardens, renovations, interior design, outdoor living space . . . I consider it a dangerous, dangerous station. She loves it!

A couple of weeks ago one show followed a young twenty-something couple as they tried to find and purchase their first home. The couple, new in the community, had rented a home for several months. Near the end of the show, the young man was interviewed about the house search. He said, "I don't think we can be happy until we own a home."

Those words caught my attention. I looked up over the top of my computer wondering if I had really just heard what I just heard.

I was still considering that line when the next show began a few minutes later . . . another couple looking for their first home and another line that caught my attention. This time the woman viewing the home with a real estate agent entered the kitchen, noticed the appointments in the kitchen, and said -- with a bit of an attitude -- "I just won't be satisfied unless I have granite countertops."

That was it. They moved on. I couldn't, though, leave those two comments alone. My immediate thought was, "Who told you that you had to own a home to be happy? Who says that granite countertops are keys to satisfaction." Where did that thinking, that belief system come from?

I heard those statements as cultural values that folks have adopted without considering them critically. We all hold certain belief systems because of the groups of which we are a part . . . our families, our religious communities, our neighbors, our regions, our nation . . . we are a part of various "tribes" which give us identity and whose values and norms we adopt. Most of the time we adopt those values and norms uncritically. We don't ask where they come from. We don't question them. We don't recognize that they may be in conflict with other values we hold dear.

So in a sense, we all have our "granite countertops," those things that we are convinced will make us happy and complete. We take on a system of belief and hold it tightly, often as a part of our membership in a group of belonging. Before long we are protecting the system, pledging devotion to it, and allowing that system to order life, even if it is no more than the style of kitchen countertops.

For modern North Americans, relationships, jobs, material possessions, image, status, or financial security can become a "granite countertop."

The illusion is that something else in the outer world will satisfy us and make us complete. But that lie cannot sustain our lives. When the illusion is that happiness comes from "granite countertops," we can recognize it and even laugh at it.

When relationships, job, or image become our granite countertop, we may not see quite so clearly. Yet, the spiritual path invites us to name our granite countertops, to call them the illusion that they are, and to find in God that which is substantial enough to hold up the weight of our being.

Not even granite countertops are weighty enough to bear the essence of our souls!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Musings about Prayer: Part 2

Most of my asking in prayer is self-interested asking. It is self-interested in that I ask for my own benefit. It is self-interested in that I ask according to what I think another person or situation needs. I pray from my own vision of life and propriety and what it means to experience well-being. And my own vision of life is always very narrow and very short-sighted.

I bring a basic assumption into my prayer. I assume that God is interested fundamentally in wholeness and healing for me and for the world. Wholeness is central to God's nature. Putting broken things together is what God does. God wants my fractured life to be whole. God desires that the brokenness and divisions of the world be healed.

Persons moving toward wholeness and a world being healed embody the kingdom of God in our midst. Healed persons bring healing to the world. Transformed persons transform the world.

When I acknowledge that God is invested in wholeness for the people of God and for the world, it changes my prayer and the way I ask. All of a sudden, I realize that my asking for things, for creature comforts, and for outcomes to situations that favor me may not bring wholeness. In fact, for God to give me some of the things I ask for -- both for myself and for others -- won't bring healing, but will only create deeper wounds. My prayer can actually be counter to what God truly wants to do in the lives of those for whom I pray.

The bottom line is that I don't have the big picture. I don't see very far down the road. I don't know what I need for wholeness, nor what others need for healing. At best, I see only the outside of situations.

But God, on the other hand, sees beyond my limited sight. God knows my inner landscape. God knows the wounds beneath the surface in any situation. And God is working for wholeness.

Prayer, then, is the way that I offer my life and others to God for this soul-healing, for this inner wholeness. Rather than tell God what I think should happen in my life, prayer invites me to find ways to offer my life in surrender to God. Rather than instruct God in what to do for someone else, prayer invites me to offer others sincerely to God for healing and wholeness.

In effect, prayer invites me to bring persons into the presence of Jesus. Like the persons who carried a paralyzed friend to Jesus (Mark 2:1 - 5), I hold out persons to his gaze and touch. I know that I don't know everything.

In prayer I do what I'm able to do. I bring people to God.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Musings about Prayer: Part 1

Years ago I read a fiction story which contained a line about prayer I've remembered for decades. The characters discuss why some prayer is answered and other prayer is not. They consider that is could be due to the fickleness of God or to the manner of the pray-er's asking. None of the explanations satisfy, though.

Finally, as one character departs, he says simply, "Why God chooses to answer some prayers and not others, I do not know. All I know for certain is that it's always right to ask."

That line stayed with me. "It's always right to ask." For years that has been my prayer-baseline. It's always right to ask. Even when my asking is petty and immature, I can still ask.

Western expressions of Christianity, however, have made prayer all about asking. Books, conferences, and workshops focus on the proper way to ask. It's as if I could learn some code for asking that would force God to answer the way I want to be answered.

If I use certain words in asking and a particular inflection of voice, my prayer will be answered . . . no, God will have no choice but to answer the prayer. It's a heady thing to feel like I can control God by using the right words and mannerisms. I don't necessarily feel that I'm manipulated God, but that is what I'm doing. So I not only ask, but I ask in a particular way.

And I ask for particular things. I pray for health and job and house. I pray for what I want in the lives of people around me. It's always right to ask, remember? Sometimes, though, my asking seems to be very much focused on myself and on what I would like to see happen in my life and the lives of those around me. And I realize that my sight is not 20/20. More than a little self-centeredness creeps in.

I've prayed that way for a long time. I've taught that way of prayer. It has held an important place in my journey with God.

I think I've stalled out in that prayer.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Guerilla Marketing for the Church

The email hit my inbox last week from some group selling church products. Its subject line described "high-powered guerilla marketing tips" designed to help local congregations attract people. The article gave tips for using “guerilla marketing” to spread the love of Jesus Christ to communities and save budget money at the same time. “Guerilla marketing” was defined as tactics that involve PR stunts, community functions, and other creative ways to draw persons to public events.

The words "guerilla," "stunts," and "tactics" were prominent in the article. (If you check out the dictionary meaning of "guerilla," you'll find phrases like, "irregular warfare," "harrassment," and "sabotage." Is that what the Church has come to stand for?)

Frankly, I found the guerilla talk funnier than offensive, and more than a bit pathetic. I suspect there is a market for the "stunts" and "guerilla tactics" the email suggested. Maybe it's just sad.

I wondered if those who wrote the article proposing guerilla marketing as a “tactic” for growing the Church really believed what they were writing. Did they believe that because the Church is concerned with matters of Spirit and eternity any tactic is legitimate? What “PR stunts” might draw people into a deeper connection with God? I haven't discovered those stunts yet.

I've spent quite a lot of time recently in Genesis and Exodus, exploring spiritual formation themes in the first two books of Moses. The article stood in contrast to the Exodus narrative, where God is revealed as I AM WHO I AM, where persons move toward liberation amidst darkness and cloud, and then wander from place to place in a stark wilderness as God shapes them inwardly and outwardly for the Promised Land.

What would guerilla tactics for Church growth and spiritual nourishment look like up against a forty year journey in the desert? Would guerilla marketing suggest a “stunt” or “tactic” that might trump the long, slow work of spiritual formation? Those questions arose within me. They seem like relevant questions, given our current Church and cultural milieu.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

A Poem about Following by William Stafford

Saint Matthew and All

Lorene – we thought she’d come home. But
it got late, and then days. Now
it has been years. Why shouldn’t she,
if she wanted? I would: something comes
along, a sunny day, you start walking;
you meet a person who says, “Follow me,”
and things lead on.

Usually, it wouldn’t happen, but sometimes
the neighbors notice your car is gone, the
patch of oil in the driveway, and it fades.
They forget.

In the Bible it happened – fishermen, Levites.
They just went away and kept going. Thomas,
away off in India, never came back.

But Lorene – it was a stranger maybe, and he
said, “Your life, I need it.” And nobody else did.

[William Stafford, The Way It Is, (Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press), 228]

Monday, November 2, 2009

Allegro: A Poem by Tomas Transtromer

After a black day, I play Haydn,
and feel a little warmth in my hands.

The keys are ready. Kind hammers fall.
The sound is spirited, green, and full of silence.

The sound says that freedom exists
and someone pays no taxes to Caesar.

I shove my hands in my haydnpockets
and act like a man who is calm about it all.

I raise my haydnflag. The signal is:
“We do not surrender. But want peace.”

The music is a house of glass standing on a slope;
rocks are flying, rocks are rolling.

The rocks roll straight through the house
but every pane of glass is still whole.

[From Tomas Transtromer, The Half-Finished Heaven, trans. by Robert Bly (Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2001), 12.]

Monday, October 26, 2009

Silence at the Crossroads

In ancient Greek culture, temples often would be built near the intersection of two roads. Men or women who were travelling and came upon the intersection might not know which road to take in order to get to their destination. So at those crossroads they could go into the temple, meditate in silence until the way forward became clear to them, then continue on the journey.

I find that to be a remarkably helpful symbol for life.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Writing Myself into a Corner

I wrote the poem (previous post) about delight and belonging yesterday morning. I reflected on it later in the day and again this morning.

I don't claim to be a premier poet. I don't write poetry in order to be profound or to publish poetry. Mostly I write for myself. I write what bubbles up within me. Sometimes the act of writing poetry is a way to get onto paper what my inner landscape looks like at that moment. Most of the time it's not noteworthy, but is simply a helpful exercise for spiritual reflection.

Every once in a while something I write resonates very deeply within me and feels like a truth that I hadn't yet considered in my head. My soul tells me something about life and reality that my head has blocked out and my ego has resisted. While it may feel new, the words imagine a reality my soul has tried to tell me about for a long, long time.

I noticed yesterday one way this often happens for me in poetry: I write some words into a poem that paint me in a corner. The words trap me. And to get out of the corner, I must gently let myself down into a deeper, more interior listening in order to hear the voice of my soul. In some ways it's like giving myself an ultimatum, then listening to see how my soul responds.

Yesterday in the middle of the poem, I wrote, "This you must get / and come to believe / with your life: . . ." And I didn't know what the next line would be. I wrote myself into a corner in order to listen for what would come next.

What do I believe you must "get, and come to believe with your life?" If I thought about it long enough, I'd probably respond with several things. I wasn't interested, though, in what my mind thought about what I must believe and live. I wanted to hear what my gut said, what lives in me at the level of soul.

Then I wrote almost immediately as I listened: "The energy of delight will carry you home." I don't recall that I've ever thought that before consciously. I hadn't read those words anywhere. I don't often think about delight . . . though delight has been with me more than usual since working with the Genesis 1 - 2 accounts recently for a spiritual formation study. I don't do delight very well. I'm much more accomplished at earnestness. That delight arose in the poem was a surprise to me.

The more I listen for what arises from that well of soul, the more familiar I become with the voice that is uniquely mine, the voice which God has planted within me, and with which I am invited to speak into the world. This is one of the ways I'm learning to attend to that voice.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Poem about Where You Belong

The years spent building your own castle
will not come back to you;

The stones of your dreams
and the mortar of who you should have been
now blocked in place.

Delight never did live there,
but a dull obligation
to some shadowy ideal
handed to you before
you could refuse to
take it.

This you must get
and come to believe
with your life:

The energy of delight will
carry you home;

all the small things you carry
will be gone
before you arrive,

even the stuttering steps
that are your heritage
cannot keep you -- in the
end -- from the place
you belong.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Overheard: Richard Rohr on Spiritual Power

Untransformed people seem to think that problems can be solved by external force, which is to change things from the top down or from the outside in. What the Word of God moves us toward is several kinds of spiritual power. That’s where things are not just externally changed but really transformed, and not transformed from the top down but from the bottom up, not from the outside in, but rather from the inside out. Or as Jesus puts it, “Clean the inside of the cup and dish, and the outside will take care of itself” (Matthew 23:26). . . .

Spiritual power, however, is the ability to influence events and others through one’s very being. Evolved people change others interiorly through who they are, and through their sharing of wisdom, but not through mere external pressure. It is a slower process, but much more long lasting.

[from Richard Rohr, Things Hidden, 88 - 89]

"Danger" Poem

I tell my story of a stormy night
when the oaks were uprooted
and the mangled bottoms
pulled out of their foundations.

You watch how it happened to me
as an onlooker curious
to see if anyone, finally,
fell over the edge.

The easy chair was comfortable;
it was safe to hear
the edge-story from there.

Something stirred in you about
the time one foot stepped
onto air -- I saw it in your
eyes -- but you quickly
retreated to solid ground.

Someone has to explore beyond
the "danger" sign;
maybe your day has not yet come.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Thoughts on Being God's Will

Most of my life I've considered God's will as a bull's-eye to hit square on. If you miss the bull's-eye, you miss God's will. Since each moment of life comes as a unique moment of opportunity, to miss the bull's-eye at any point means to run the risk of missing all the moments that would flow out of that opportunity. It's a dicey proposition.

It seemed easier to miss God's will than to do God's will. I think many of us have lived with that fear. Some of us, because God's will seemed so out of reach, gave up altogether.

I think differently about God's will these days. I don't talk so much about doing God's will as I talk about being God's will. Doing God's will implies that the bull's-eye speaks to what we do with our lives, how we earn a paycheck, what we do to pay the bills, how we spend our time.

"Should I move there or stay here?"

"Should I take this job or that job?"

Doing God's will involves our choices and decisions. It entails our actions, where I do and what I do.

On the other hand, being God's will is simply another way of saying that the first issues in life concern our being, our essence, the core of our life.

Who we are is more important than what we do. We don't hear that message often from culture. We are enculturated to do, do, do. Our compulsion, therefore, is toward doing the will of God.

Being God's will means that our first task in the spiritual life is attending to the God-connection within us, allowing God to birth in us the person God created us to be. We attend to what lives in us at soul-level. We open our lives at the deep layers of our being in order to be shaped and formed by God's Spirit.

In order to live in this state of being, we are invited to some sense of our original purpose. Why am I here? For what purpose did God create me? What does my original and authentic self add up to? What unique essence has God placed at the core of my soul?

This sense of being gets worked into my life as the spirit or essence with which I do whatever it is I do. So rather than find a bull's-eye of doing, I express my unique personhood in whatever I do.

It also means that I carry my unique being or essence wherever I am. God's will -- and my life -- becomes transportable. God's will is not about living in a particular location or having a certain job. Wherever I am and whatever I am doing, I live life with a certain spirit, a particular essence that is the fingerprint of God within me.

Being God's will is more important than doing God's will. In fact, being precedes doing. If you do it out of your unique connection to God, you can do God's will anywhere . . . as long as you take your self there.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Tonight: A Poem about Wednesdays

Tonight again
I will stand up and talk
emerging from my cloister
to furrowed brows and tilted heads

a new roomful gathered under the artificial lights
who have mostly grown tired of themselves
and their flimsy inheritance

I will tell my strange stories
and talk my nonsense
to nervous laughter
and curious stares

casting seed from my meager pouch
across that carpeted space

some of it will be trampled on the way out the door
and some lost among the thickly packed chairs
and some carried discreetly, carelessly to the hallway trash
and two or three kernels I will not see again
for twelve months or so
until the fragile sprout breaks the soil
stretching downward and upward
toward a home
long hidden

If you are that one
tonight I will come.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Forget Technique . . . Build a Life

The Christian spiritual path can easily be turned into another set of practices and techniques that we are to master in order to have a spiritually formed life. After many centuries in which spiritual disciplines and practices were ignored by large numbers of Christ-followers, today the language of spirituality seems to be everywhere. Books and seminars tout the benefits of spiritual exercises. The spiritual life is presented as a series of practices, techniques for experiencing God's presence.

I read the books. I hear the presentations. It's easy to believe that the Christian spiritual life consists of a series of techniques to which we should devote ourselves. I know this is communicated to folks because I often deal with persons on the back end of this blitz. I talk with folks who feel that they've messed up the technique, or they feel paralyzed because they cannot get the technique right. They can't get the prayer just right. They can't sit silent enough for their centering prayer practice. They feel guilty because lectio divina eludes them.

Rather than get caught up with technique, the aim of Christian spirituality is to connect us more intimately to God. The spiritual life enables us to be attentive to the God-connection at the center of us, the connection that anchors the soul.

Spirituality is not a performance or a series of practices to master. Rather, spirituality is a life to live, a life-giving connection with God that nourishes and sustains, a life that is offered willingly and sacrificially for the benefit of the wider world in God's name.

Any techniques we may utilize are merely in the service of building a life. They are not the end toward which we aim, but tools that help us grow in the graces of God.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Overheard: Gerald May on Relinquishment

It is important to note that the spiritual growth process involves far more relinquishment than acquisition. In our culture, we are conditioned to expect growth to involve acquisition of new facts and understandings. . . . Although some new facts and representations may help us along the way. . . the essential process is one of transformation, not education. It is, if anything, an unlearning process in which our old ways are cleansed, liberated, and redeemed. . . . Obviously, we cannot “conduct” spiritual growth. At bottom, it is God’s work. It is grace.

(Gerald May, Addiction and Grace, 105-6.)

Friday, October 9, 2009

Our Real Spiritual Guides

Who wants Trouble and Suffering? I'd like to avoid them if possible, to have them visit the house next door, but never show up on my porch. If they do come to my address, I'm not likely to throw out the welcome mat. I don't want to show Trouble and Suffering even a glimmer of hospitality . . . they may find a room and stay!

Actually, my knee-jerk response to Trouble and Suffering is to mumble and moan and -- sometimes quietly and sometimes passive-aggressively -- groan about "my miserable lot in life."

I may come around to prayer about them, and my first prayer is most always, "God, get them out of here!" Sometimes Trouble and Suffering come as a situation, sometimes as people, sometimes as an expectation or obligation. Removing the situation or the people or the expectation/obligation to a far away place seems to hold promise for getting rid of my stew. "If the presenting problem is removed, the thing that is touching my sensitive spot, then I'll be better," the thinking goes.

And then I come to what is going on inside me when Trouble and Suffering come around. Why my extreme reactions? What has this pair touched off within me? What turf am I defending? What do I have at stake in this situation emotionally?

I cycle through these patterns often. The situation can be as small as a minor irritation on a given day at work or it can be as major as daily life with a terminal disease. Either way, it seems like removing Trouble and Suffering would make for a more pleasant existence.

Only it doesn't work that way. Even when Trouble and Suffering are sent packing, I'm still left with myself, my own inner landscape. I may be free of that which was pushing my emotional buttons, but I'm not free of my own interior. The wound within me lives on.

In fact, one of the huge fallacies in modern life is the thinking that goes something like this: "My life would be wonderful and put together if she were gone . . . or if this situation were better . . . or it he would treat me right . . . or if I had the right job." We act as if -- and may even believe! -- that our happiness is dependent upon everything being properly arranged in the outer world.

This isn't to excuse all the crud that happens around us, nor to excuse the perpetuators of the crud around us who take advantage, abuse, and live mindlessly. It is to say, though, that I'm not responsible for their crud, only for my own.

In my most aware moments I realize that Trouble and Suffering may be the best spiritual guides I have. They put a finger on my tender places, on the spots where I am still developing, the places where my stance toward life is immature and incomplete. They invite me to become more attentive to my own interior landscape, to become familiar with what lives inside me, to notice what jerks me around on the inside, to see myself as I really am, not as I want to be (or think I am).

It pains me to admit that Trouble and Suffering are my best spiritual guides; I know from experience, though, that it's true.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Overheard: Ted Kennedy, Poverty, and the New Testament

Stories about the late Senator Edward Kennedy have floated around since his death. They portray a man who used his influence on behalf of those who had little or none of their own. The sway of this man born into wealth and privilege helped countless persons on the underside of life. His deep passion for people has impressed me a great deal.

A friend referenced a recent tribute to the Senator in Christian Century magazine, written by a columnist from the Boston Globe.

“I asked [Senator Kennedy], ‘Where does this rabid concern about poverty come from?’ And he looked at me like I was from Mars. He said, ‘Have you never read the New Testament?’”

Friday, September 25, 2009

Levertov and the Source of Creativity

In a class a couple of weeks ago, discussing the Genesis 1 creation account, I said that authentic creativity comes from within, from the soul of a person. The human person may rearrange some pieces in the outer world, on the periphery of his/her life, in a way that brings about something unique; however, true creativity arises from the innermost core of a person -- that place at which we are most connected to the Divine -- and brings into being something that did exist previously. I said that this may be part of what it means to be created in the "image and likeness of God."

This morning I read this poem by Denise Levertov. It's good to hear another voice, just to know that I'm not entirely crazy all the time!


They speak of the art of war,
but the arts
draw their light from the soul's well,
and warfare
dries up the soul and draws its power
from a dark and burning wasteland.
When Leonardo
set his genius to devising
machines of destruction he was not
acting in the service of art,
he was suspending
the life of art
over an abyss,
as if one were to hold
a living child out of an airplane window
at thirty thousand feet.

(Evening Train, p. 79)

Monday, September 21, 2009

On Yearnings and Sieges

This poem/prayer from Rilke's Book of Prayer caught my attention today. It accurately describes my own inner resistance to what I need most in life, to that which if it overcame me, would be the life of me.

You many unassaulted cities:

Have you never yearned for the enemy,
that he might besiege you
for long irresolute years, until

in hopelessness and hunger you receive him?
He extends like the land beyond your walls,
and he knows he can hold out longer.

Look from your balconies:
there he camps. He does not tire
or diminish in size or strength.
He sends no messengers to threaten
or to promise or persuade.

He who will overcome you
is working in silence.

(Rainer Maria Rilke, I,49, Rilke's Book of Hours: Love Poems to God)

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Overheard: James Finley on Freedom

Our deepest freedom rests not in our freedom to do what we want to do but rather in our freedom to become who God wills us to be.

(James Finley, Merton's Palace of Nowhere, p. 73)

Friday, September 11, 2009

A Pig Poem in Response to the Elephant Poem

Wednesday night I used the William Stafford poem (the post below), "A Ritual to Read to Each Other," in a class in which I discussed some of the ways we get stuck in places we didn't intend to make home . . . we get lost holding the tails of the elephants before us . . . patterns others have made prevail in us . . . we follow the wrong god home and miss our star.

At the class I also offered a poem I had written earlier in the week as I considered Stafford's poem while reflecting on my own prodigal experience. Later, a friend referred to Stafford's poem as "the elephant poem" and to mine as "the pig poem." This is what I wrote:

At the time you followed
where they led
taking for yourself
the patterned life
they offered

You had no way of knowing
how stuck you
would become
in that far country
sucking pods
with pigs

and how much energy you'd need
to point yourself toward home

and how you'd have to leave pigs
littered alongside every homeward stretch of road

and how the dark and strenuous journey
back would become your life.

A Ritual to Read to Each Other by William Stafford

A Ritual to Read to Each Other
by William Stafford

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dike.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider –
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give – yes or no, or maybe –-
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

(In The Darkness around Us Is Deep)

This is one of my favorite Stafford poems. An inner stirring within me confirms its truth.

Patterns made by others prevail within me. Taking the tail of the elephant in front of me, I'm liable to get lost and miss the circus, or to follow the wrong god home and miss the star written with my own name.

So it is important to wake up -- awake people need to be awake. Sleeping through life, those familiar patterns prevail and I'll fail to recognize that my feet are only stepping where the elephants in front of me have gone.

I've spent enough years missing my star.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Overheard: Rilke on Unfolding

I want to unfold.
Let no place in me hold itself closed,
for where I am closed, I am false.
I want to stay clear in your sight.

(Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Doggie Awareness

My brother-in-law, married to a vet (so he should know these things!), says that animals are aware --whatever THAT means! -- they just don't know it.

In considering doggie and kitty awareness, I've come up with my own corollary for humans:

Humans are not aware, and they don't know it.

That is, 99.9% of the population lives in a fog of drowsy unawareness and inattentiveness, but live under the ego-illusion that they are completely aware and know most of what they need to know.

What a grand lie!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Kingdom Rearrangement

This morning, praying the Our Father with a body of worshipers, these words met me again. I seldom consider them deliberately, but this morning I heard them:

Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is done in heaven. . . .

I mostly was taken aback by my mindless recitation of words that invited God's kingdom to come in my life. Those basic words, "Your kingdom come" are as radical and world-altering as anything I can imagine, yet the words slide from my lips so easily, so mindlessly, as if simply uttering the words were enough to set my heart aright.

I've reflected a lot lately on my own kingdom, the kingdom defined by my ego and controlled by my false self. That kingdom feels so pervasive, so all-encompassing within me, so overwhelming, that I can easily be discouraged. Change sometimes feels far out of reach. That kingdom is firmly entrenched within me, a pillared structure that feels secure and defines how I see the world.

The movement to a God-structured framework is difficult work. The movement to another framework requires a gigantic shift in consciousness, a kind of seismic shift toward an end that I have not yet seen. To invite God's kingdom to come within me means a lot of painful releasing of my own kingdoms and the rebuilding of a structure for life that is ordered around a new way of seeing, hearing, thinking, and feeling.

Old kingdoms die hard. New kingdoms are still harder to come by.

This shift takes place over time. It will be difficult, painful even. Some days I'm eager for it. Other days I resist it with all the strength I have. Still other days I simply get repulsed by my feeble attempts to step into it myself -- yet another illusion of my imposter self.

This morning I prayed sincerely, "Thy kingdom come." I felt my helplessness to get there on my own . . . and at the same time, my deep desire to do life in that kingdom.

Friday, September 4, 2009


Is there any more basic sin than having self at the center of our universe? My needs/wants . . . my people/family/tribe . . . my situation/feelings/predicament . . . is this as close as it gets to what the Church teaches regarding original sin?

Maybe Calvin's "total depravity" isn't so much about the thoroughness and depth of our personal wretchedness (as some of us are prone to believe) as it is about how pervasive is our self-centeredness as a human family. Self-absorbtion is everywhere . . . thus when my eyes are clear and I'm honest, I see it in ME!

Lately I've thought about this bent toward self-interest related to much of life, including the big issues of our day. (I'm trying not to go off like a loose cannon today on something like healthcare, though I'm tempted . . . perhaps another day.) We've lost -- or perhaps never had -- some notion of the common good, that is, what is helpful for someone else outside my skin.

For instance, culturally we've made the Gospel good news for those who are wealthy, healthy, and already have an abundance. In fact, the Gospel is used as rationale for how the prosperous get prosperous. But that's alien thinking to both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures.

I'm not very good at it, but I'm trying to ask different questions:
How is my life offered for the little and least?
What might I be asked to sacrifice -- something that would benefit me personally -- for the good of those who have nothing?

A society may have no claim on us for that kind of sacrifice. I'm wondering, though, where that spirit of sacrifice lies within those who name themselves Christians. As God-bearers is there not some inner impulse to give self in God's name on behalf of others? And am I allowed to pick and choose what I want to sacrifice to benefit another and what I want to accumulate for myself?

This is a long, long road.

Overheard: Merton on "Success"

A few years ago a man who was compiling a book on Success wrote and asked me to contribute a statement on how I got to be a success. I replied indignantly that I was not able to consider myself a success in any terms that had a meaning to me. I swore I had spent my life strenuously avoiding success. If it happened that I had once written a best-seller this was a pure accident, due to inattention and naivete, and I would take very good care never to do the same thing again. If I had a message to my contemporaries, I said, it was surely this: be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success. I heard no more from him, and I am not aware that my reply was published with the other testimonials.

(Thomas Merton, quoted in James Finley, Merton's Palace of Nowhere)

Too Many Callings

Too many callings
have come
and gone.

Now you are oblivious
to any voice but
your own.

Friday, August 28, 2009

On Holy Ground Today

I notice that we tend to project a certain aura upon places where we have experienced unique encounters. Some places become holy places for me because of what I have experienced there: A monastery in New Mexico . . . an island off the British Columbia coast . . . the bird-feeders in my back yard . . . a hiking trail in Nova Scotia . . . a quiet corner at a local retreat center.

If I'm not careful, I'll attribute to these places a mystique that is peculiar to them above other places.

If you press me, though, and ask, "How do you know these places are holy?" I would answer something like this: "I know these places are holy because all places are holy!"

I wouldn't have given that answer a few years back. For 16 years as a senior pastor I was highly invested in whether or not people showed up at a particular location for worship on Sundays. I was highly invested in that location because I preached sermons there week in and week out . . . my average prep time for a Sunday morning sermon was about 20 hours, so I figured people needed to show up and hear my erudite expositions on Holy Scripture and life.

Ha! Most often folks were at the golf course, or on a boat at the lake, or sitting in a deer stand somewhere . . . worst of all, sleeping late when they could have been listening to me!!

The excuses I heard from these folks -- backsliders, no doubt!! -- were generally not very creative. Occasionally someone would volunteer an explanation like, "Pastor, I can worship God as well on a golf course/lake/deer stand/duck blind/fill-in-the-blank as I can in the church building."

"Oh really? How did worship go for you as you stood over that 12 foot putt on the 18th hole, trying to break 100 for the first time?"

"How did worship work for you as you sat shivering in a deer stand at 6:30 a.m. wondering if your toes were still attached?"

I really didn't say those things in reply. But to those who insisted they could worship somewhere else just as well as they did in the brick and mortar we called the "Church," I did want to ask, "Did you?" "Did you worship God as you hit that 5-iron?" "Did you worship God as you skied across Lake Houston?"

This morning I've gone back to re-read Meister Eckhart, a 13th century Christian mystic, who reminds me that the person connected to God carries holiness with her or him wherever they go. Yes, all places are holy because they are created by God, sustained by God, and mirror God's generosity.

Beyond that, though, there is this idea that as humans intimately connected to God -- as bearers of God -- the places we go are hallowed by the God within us. God is no more present in the Chapel or the cathedral than on the lake or in the countryside as we live there mindful of the One who energizes and animates all things.

This is a small sample from Eckhart:

Whoever really and truly has God, this one has God everywhere, in the street and in company with everyone, just as much as in church or in solitary places or in [the prayer] cell. . . . That person carries God in his/her every work and in every place and it is God alone who performs all the person's works. (Meister Eckhart: The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises, and Defense, trans. by Edmund Colledge and Bernard McGinn, p. 251-52)

Monday, August 24, 2009

Discovering Your Voice

In the world of Hebrew prophets, Jeremiah was a particularly angst-ridden God-messenger. Conscripted as a youth by Yahweh to speak harsh God-words to his own people, Jeremiah resisted his God-vocation continually.

It tore him up to say difficult things to those close to him, though he must have known they were true. The people around him paid homage to everything imaginable -- everything except God -- and Jeremiah saw the dead-end street they traveled. All he could do was warn them in speech and symbol. Still they wouldn't heed his warnings.

Several times he seems to have wearied of this lonely vocation. During one period of public ridicule and mockery, Jeremiah said, "I give up. I just won't speak about God any more. All it does is bring me reproach and insult." Then, after a so-brief pause, he went on, "But if I quit and promise not to speak of God any longer, or vow never to speak God's word again, I can't do it. God's word becomes like a fire in my heart that I cannot hold in. I cannot help but let it out!" (Jer. 20:7 - 9)

Rilke wrote a poem about Jeremiah, playing on this idea that the prophet spent a lifetime speaking words he didn't want to speak, words sourced in God and not within himself. And near the end of the poem, Rilke puts into Jeremiah's mouth the desire to hear his own voice again. After years of speaking with God's voice, he says, I'd like for once "finally to hear my own voice again."


Once I was as tender as young wheat,
yet you, you raging one, were able
to inflame the heart held out to you
so that now it boils like a lion's.

What a mouth you demanded of me,
back then when I was almost a boy;
it became a wound; out of it now
bleeds year after doom-pronounced year.

Each day I sounded with new afflictions
which you, insatiate one, devised,
and none of them could kill my mouth;
consider now how you will quiet it

when those we devastate and crush
are finally lost and driven far away
and have perished in the danger:
for I want then amidst the rubble-heaps
finally to hear my own voice again --
which from its first moments was a howling.

(trans. by Edward Snow)

Rilke captures Jeremiah's intensity, I think, and his anxiety. And this desire to hear his own voice again stays with me.

"I want my voice back!" is a bold prayer, a brazen thing to insist before God. I have some questions about that:
  • He was so young when God placed this vocation upon him; what had he ever heard of his own voice?
  • After this prayer would he recognize the voice as his own?
  • What is Jeremiah's authentic, truest voice? Was it his God-voice? or his post-God-voice? or at that point in his life, would they be one and the same?
The questions about Jeremiah's voice, of course, have prompted musings about my own voice, about how I speak into the world with God's voice, with my voice, or with some combination of the two. I'll continue asking the questions.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Metanoia and the Kingdom of God

I wrote an article last week for the informational newsletter we send out at The Center for Christian Spirituality.

I didn't intend to post the article here, but I realized that I have Gen-X friends who will not believe anything they can't find online. (You know who you are -- did you hear my deep SIGH and see me roll my eyes?) So here it is online. It must be true now.

Metanoia and the Kingdom of God

”Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.” (Matt. 3:2, 4:17)

John the Baptizer preached, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand” (Matt. 3:2). Jesus followed, repeating the same message (4:17): “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.”

What did they mean by “repent?” And what was the reality called “the kingdom of heaven/God” to which they pointed?

I read scholar after scholar try to couch the imagery of the New Testament idea of the “kingdom of God/heaven” in contemporary language. Sociologists dissect the political and social context of the first century to come up with contemporary analogies. Linguists try to find vocabulary equivalent to the “kingdom of God” that brings understanding to modern minds. Theologians attempt to place the kingdom of God into the larger movement of God in human history.

I’m still confounded. Their attempts point me in the right direction, but I’m still unclear about what the kingdom of God looks like. If it’s a physical place, I may have missed it.

Further, while the word “repent” is a gospel-word, it also has been used and abused in churches and among Christians. Thus, the word “repent” is loaded with a volatile emotional charge. Some of us may connect it with hell-fire-damnation preaching, or with evangelists preaching revival sermons, or with lengthy altar-calls.

At least in my history, “repent” connoted a change in behavior, especially in areas of morality. “Turn around,” “change your mind,” or “change your behavior” was the message. “Stop doing the immoral thing you’ve been doing and start following God,” the word suggested.

That idea of changing your behavior or turning around comes from the Hebrew word often translated “repent.” The word, shub, literally means to turn around or to change directions.

The Greek word used in the New Testament for repentance is metanoia. The prefix meta carries several possible meanings, including “beyond,” “outside,” “larger,” and “greater.” Noia is from the Greek nous which refers to the mind.

Actually, then, metanoia – or the idea of “repentance” – refers to taking on a different mind, a larger mind. It suggests movement out of a narrow living and seeing in order to adopt a larger frame of reference. We all have a narrow mind, a limited scope, a tunneled vision by which we view God, others, self, and the world. Repentance is the invitation not simply to change our mind or to change our behavior, but to see a larger God-world that is saturated with God’s presence, a world “charged with the grandeur of God” (Gerard Manley Hopkins).

And because repentance is so closely linked to the kingdom of God (by John the Baptizer and Jesus), perhaps within metanoia is the clue to the mysterious language of the kingdom.

I’m beginning to think that the kingdom of God is a state of being, an awareness or consciousness of God’s presence and action within me, others, and in the world. As a state of awareness, to enter or see the kingdom I have to see differently. The narrow, small ways I’ve seen myself, others, and the world have to be replaced by a broader, more expansive awareness. In effect, I’m trading in my small sight for the capability to see the largeness of God’s presence and work in the world.

Metanoia is the movement from the smaller to the larger, into this wider beyond-mind, while the kingdom of God is the state of being in this larger place, this alternative reality.

And those who enter the kingdom of God are those who take upon themselves this way of being that Jesus taught and modeled in his life.

The spiritual journey is about this movement of metanoia and this state of being deeply and intimately connected with God and the God-world. So the spiritual journey is about repentance and the kingdom of God.

Indeed, the kingdom of God is close at hand.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Prayer, part 1

I describe prayer as communion, a "being with" that is transformative.

The vehicle of prayer is a growing attentiveness, a waking up that draws us into a deeper and deeper communion with the One at the center of life.

In prayer -- real communion as speaking and listening -- we attend ever more deeply to God, self, others, and the world.

In prayer, because we are changed, our relationships are transformed; that is, how we relate to God, others, the created world, and yes, even our selves is made new.

That's a shift in thinking for me. For years, even as a pastor, I didn't pray much. The Church taught me that prayer was talking to God. Those who prayed best, at least from my experience, were those who had a lot to say to God that sounded very pious. I learned that there were certain words God liked and other words God didn't like. If you used the right words in the right order with the right intonation, you would probably get what you asked for.

It was always implied that what you said to God needed to be prettied-up and acceptable to God. Honesty wasn't allowed. So because my life wasn't very clean, I didn't pray much . . . only when in trouble, or desperate, or called on to offer a public prayer.

Thus, when the stuff started hitting the fan for me about 16 years ago, I went back and began to get honest with God. It took time. At first I couldn't really believe it was prayer, but a lot of what I was reading in the Hebrew Psalms sounded just like what I was feeling, so I tried it.

Now, these years later, my prayer continues to evolve. I have yet to explore the final frontier. I feel very much like a beginner in prayer. Every time I settle into a new routine or pattern for my prayer, thinking it is the final stopping place for me, I'm led into a new landscape for prayer. It's a pretty amazing experience!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Overheard . . . from Rilke

The transformed speaks only to relinquishers. All holders-on are stranglers.

--Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. by Edward Snow

Friday, August 14, 2009

A Different Kind of Coinage

In his journal on August 17, 1874, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote: "As we drove home the stars came out thick: I leant back to look at them and my heart opening more than usual praised Our Lord to whom and in whom all that beauty comes home." Later he wrote this poem about his experience under those stars.

The Starlight Night

Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!
Down in dim woods the diamond delves! the elves'-eyes!
The grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies!
Wind-beat whitebeam! airy abeles set on a flare!
Flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare!
Ah well! it is all a purchase, all is a prize.

Buy then! bid then! -- What? -- Prayer, patience, alms, vows.
Look, look: a May-ness, like on orchard boughs!
Look! March-bloom, like on mealed-with-yellow sallows!

These are indeed the barn; withindoors house
The shocks. This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse
Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.

Most of the intricacies of a Hopkins poem escape my notice. This one is no different. What I noticed this morning was the idea that to be attentive to this scene that Hopkins describes, one must "purchase" it or spend something of oneself to apprehend it. He says, "Buy then! bid then!" How does one buy such wonder and beauty? What coinage does any of us have at our disposal that could pay for such awe?

The currency Hopkins proposes is not the riches most of us pursue and give our lives for. Wealth, success, status, and image have no worth in noticing the scene before him.

He suggests something else altogether: "Prayer, patience, alms, vows."

This is the coinage we spend to be attentive to the world, to God, to others, and to self. Hopkins implies that without these coins we won't notice, we won't see, we'll live blind to what is all around us.

Best then, to fill our pockets and purses with a different kind of coinage.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Overheard . . .

An idea isn't responsible for the people who believe in it.
--Don Marquis

Unskilled Labor, part 1

In order to give a day to work in a Hurricane Ike recovery effort in Galveston, I had to fill out a form which asked, among other things, about my proficiency in various types of labor needed to rebuild a hurricane-damaged home. The range of responses went from 0 (totally unskilled at the particular task) to 5 (proficient and state licensed in the particular task) on about 10-12 items.

At my most generous, I gave myself a 0 on most of the tasks, a 1 on a couple of them (I had done them once or twice previously), and a 5 on one of them (I rated a 5 on being a "Willing Helper," though after submitting the form I realized that I had lied . . . I'm not always that willing!). The very act of filling out the form was an exercise in self-awareness and humility.

I came up against my 0-ness and 1-ness when actually doing the work earlier this week. By the time I showed up for work in Galveston on a 100+ degree day, all the desk jobs were taken. Working in the heat with my hands at reconstruction was my lot for the day. All sorts of things came to my mind as I prepared window trim and capped water pipe, including my own severe limitations for that work.

As I worked, though, I also became conscious that I am capable of doing some other things that were not on the list. That application form was not exhaustive. I do have some gifts, some things to offer. They may not have been needed nor required that day, but on other days they are asked of me. So as I worked I held those two things in tension . . . my willingness and inability in some areas of life where I have firm limits, and my gifts in others areas of life (also with limits) that are called upon at various times.

As I move onward, I carry all that I am, both ability and inability, strength and weakness.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Happy Birthday, Dad

My dad died over a decade ago. In recent weeks I've uncovered a memory of him that had been hiding beneath the surface of my mind for many years.

It was the fall of 1965. I lived in Ponca City, a nice north-central Oklahoma town of about 25,000 people where there was strong civic loyalty and a sense of familiarity. My dad worked for the local radio station as an on-air personality. In the fall he broadcast the local high school football games for the radio station.

That year the Ponca City High Wildcats had a halfback named Odell Lawson who was great. After graduating in 1966 he played college football, and then 4 years of professional football. He was a big deal in Ponca City. Every Friday evening the Wildcats played at home (I lived three houses away from the football stadium) we watched Odell Lawson do amazing things running with a football.

I was only 7 years old. Though it was the mid-60's, I knew nothing about civil rights or injustice. I didn't know anything of tension between the races. I didn't know the wider issues of the day. I did know, however, that in Ponca City, most blacks lived in one part of town (South Ponca) and most whites lived in another part of town.

That's the back-story. Now, the memory of my dad.

The Wildcats were playing a football game out of town. My dad drove to the out of town games to do play-by-play for the radio station. And for this particular Friday night, my dad invited me to go with him. You can imagine what a thrill it was for a 7 year old boy! It didn't matter how far we had to drive and who we played. Just to travel out of town with my dad to a football game was the biggest thing I could imagine.

The night of the game dad drove the car owned by the radio station for business. After we picked up the car at the station, we drove to South Ponca, off the paved streets and onto some dirt roads I'd never seen before. We stopped in front of a house where an older African-American woman waited on the front porch. As she walked toward the car, my dad turned to me in the back seat and said, "Son, Mrs. Lawson is riding to the game with us. She wants to see her son play tonight."

So she did. Ossie Lawson rode with us. She watched Odell play that out of town football game. Dad said later that she needed a ride because she had no car. She cleaned houses for a living. But that was it. That was all dad said about it. It was no big deal to him. Consequently, I didn't think it was a big deal for a white man to give a black woman a ride to a high school football game in 1965.

All these years later I see that it was a VERY big deal! But I didn't know that. I began to learn at a young age that people are people. Dad didn't have to explain it. He didn't have to justify doing it. In front of his son, he just quietly did the right thing for a woman who loved her son.

That memory has resurfaced for me lately with a lot of gratitude attached. I stayed with it for quite a while yesterday, on what would have been his 73rd birthday.

Happy Birthday, Dad!