Reflections by Jerry Webber

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!

Truly -- A Poem by R.S. Thomas

R. S. Thomas was a Welsh poet and pastor, a wonderful, earthy weaver of words.


No, I was not born
to refute Hume, to write
the first poem with no
noun. My gift was

for evasion, taking
cover at the approach
of greatness, as of
ill-fame. I looked truth

in the eye, and was not
abashed at discovering
it squinted. I fasted
at import's table, so had

an appetite for the banal,
the twelve baskets full left
over after the turning
of the little into so much.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Morning Watch

I read poetry this morning
wet-eyed wonder
printed words
lift lightly off the page
settle over me.

That which is common comes
stumbling from the tombs
while these winged messengers
take flight to
loosen the grave-clothes.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

A Walk by Rilke

Already my gaze is on the hill, that sunlit one,
up ahead on the path I've scarcely started.
In the same way, what we couldn't grasp grasps us:
blazingly visible, there in the distance --

and changes us, even if we don't reach it,
into what we, scarcely sensing it, already are;
a gesture signals, answering our gesture . . .
But we feel only the opposing wind.

(Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. by Edward Snow)

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Dark Night of the Soul

This summer a number of folks connected with The Center for Christian Spirituality read Gerald May's Dark Night of the Soul for our Summer Reading Series. We discussed the book last week, sharing stories of our own interaction with the book.

In the book May interprets and clarifies the work of 16th century Spanish mystic John of the Cross. For many people John's writing is difficult to grasp, full of theological language foreign to modern readers. May cuts through much of the difficulty and provides a very accessible and helpful interpretation of the dark night of the soul. This was my fourth reading of his book and again I found it extremely beneficial.

In the aftermath of this most recent reading, I find myself grateful that my own experience has broadened enough to make some sense of the dark night of the soul. For years I tried to read John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, knowing they were important spiritual guides, but really clueless about what they were telling me.

Over the years, though, as my own experience has grown, as I've explored wider and wider interior terrain, I've come to have personal, inner confirmation of the truths they speak of. It is not that my own experience validates John of the Cross or Gerald May . . . they don't need my validation. The validation happens within me and for me, in order to help me make some sense of my own spiritual journey.

There have been moments over the last fifteen years when I've felt crazy. (It's likely that I was crazy!) It's the feeling that I'm out there at the end of the limb all by myself, that I've finally drifted too far off center, I've crossed over a line beyond orthodoxy. Then I read a John of the Cross, a Gerald May, a Teresa of Avila, a Richard Rohr . . . someone speaking a truth with which my own experience lines up. And within me rises up an internal validation of my own life-experience, a validation of the life-path I walk.

I sometimes read what someone else writes or speaks and within my deepest being -- the soul of me that is most alive and attentive -- something shouts out, "I KNOW this is true because I've been there . . . my experience has confirmed this reality for me!"

The bottom line is that spirituality is not about concepts and ideas and understanding. Spirituality is about a lived experience, about life in all its rawness. So it is not enough to sit idly on the sidelines, thinking lofty thoughts, or imagining what the spiritual life is all about. Spirituality is encounter, authentic engagement with God, self, others, and the world.

So when my own experience aligns with what I believe to be true about life and God and journey and relationship and transformation and illusion, then there is a validation and an integration of that truth woven into the fabric of who I am. That kind of thing has happened to me with the material on the dark night of the soul. My experience has said to me, "At least for you, sojourner, this is truth."

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Rebirth by Antonio Machado

In our soul everything
moves guided by a mysterious hand:
ununderstandable, not speaking,
we know nothing of our own souls.

The deepest words
of the wise men teach us
the same as the whistle of the wind when it blows,
or the sound of the water when it is flowing.

(Antonio Machado, trans. by Robert Bly)