Reflections by Jerry Webber

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.