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.