Reflections by Jerry Webber

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.]