Reflections by Jerry Webber

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Carrying Wind and Open Spaces

I give you these lines from a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke:

Don't be afraid to suffer, give
the heaviness back to the weight of the earth;
mountains are heavy, seas are heavy.

Even those trees you planted as children
became too heavy long ago -- you couldn't carry them now.
But you can carry the winds . . . and the open spaces . . .

[Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. by Robert Bly]

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Sitting Still before "What Is"

I'm aware of a desire within me for my life-circumstances to be different, to live in a world that is not my reality. It's not hard for me to spend some fantasy time in that particular world, day-dreaming about what life would be like without the disease that is my constant companion . . . what it would be like to have a different job . . . how life would look if I lived in a place of scenic beauty . . . what it would be like to travel across Europe on an endless budget.

My challenge after nearly three months of chemotherapy -- with at least three yet to go -- is to stay connected to what is real and actual right now, without mindlessly ripping the current days off the calendar as the prelude to "when-things-get-back-to-normal."

Truth is, this is my new normal, at least for now. Early in this process of therapy I was challenged by the phrase in Jesus' model prayer that petitions, "Give us this day our daily bread." The invitation I heard in those words was to find bread each day, sustenance for that day, without racing ahead to what life would be like at the end of the treatments.

How am I being given bread today?

In what ways am I being sustained right now?

So in a sense I'm invited to stand still before what is. I'm called to trust what is, the actual stuff of my life. That's hard to do. It's difficult not to live in the fantasy of "what-if."

The what is of my life contains disease, messy relationships, unfulfilled longings, sometimes-frustrating work. What is stands counter to what ought to be or what should be or even what I would like to be. What is is the stuff of my life as it is, not as it might be. This is the reality of my life from which I cannot flee.

I'm not locked into what is in a deterministic way, but the what is reality of my life represents those companions with which I must make life's journey.

For instance, it is tempting to wish away the disease I live with, to think that life can only be good if it is totally eradicated. I can pin all my hopes for life on the "healing" of the disease, thinking that life will finally be good again when the disease is finally behind me. But that is not what is in my life.

So do I have the strength of spirit to sit patiently before what is, to wait for it, to be still before it, and to trust what it is shaping in my life?

Some days I live into what is, and other days I push against it. The path, as I've experienced it, is not straight and level.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

No Frontal Assaults: Spiritual Formation through the Back Door

In my readings for several weeks I've been drawn to the word "mercy." It happened again a couple of days ago, Jesus saying to those who accused his followers of breaking the law, "I desire mercy, and not sacrifice." Over and over again I hear the Scriptures calling for mercy, calling us as humans to mercy.

Perhaps we are invited to mercy because it is at such a premium in our world.

Or perhaps we are called to mercy because acting mercifully, especially toward those who harm or offend us, runs counter to the way most of us are programmed.

So in my prayer I wondered aloud about how to get "mercy" into me. How do I go about acquiring mercy? If Jesus says I should desire it and have it, how does that happen for me in a very practical sense? How does mercy get into me and become a part of what I do? More importantly, how does mercy get into me and become a part of who I am?

The Church doesn't do a very good job helping us with things like mercy . . . love . . . forgiveness . . . compassion . . . hope. I'm afraid that the extent of our help is to tell people that they should have these virtues. We even set up committees and ministry teams to allow people to do things that are merciful or compassionate or loving. We may have helped people have outlets for periodic bursts of these virtues, but we haven't done a very good job of helping folks get mercy, love, forgiveness, and compassion into the DNA of their souls.

Our agenda has been to preach sermons and teach Sunday School lessons about mercy, to define it, to give examples of it -- sometimes strikingly from some historical luminaries -- and to encourage persons to be merciful.

For the most part, it has come down to motivation and persuasion. Christian leaders find their job in motivating and persuading as many people as possible to take some action by an act of the will. We come at it with a head-on attack.

As with other virtues, we use a frontal assault. We act as if persons could be changed by an act of the will, by merely deciding to be merciful or loving or forgiving, so we attempt to persuade them to do so. Short-term change may happen that way. Long-term change almost never does.

So how do I get mercy into me? How do I come to have mercy at my core, directing my energies from a merciful, loving, and compassionate center?

It does not happen directly by frontal assault, but through the back door, by indirection. Like the formation of our inner life, these virtues come as the byproduct of other disciplines and spiritual practices. In other words, you open yourself to a merciful and loving life by aiming at the kind of life that will shape your interior, which then will organically produce mercy, love, and compassion.

If mercy is inside me, then mercy is what will come out of me.

That seems to be the way with all growth and maturity. To get to the destination -- in my case, a merciful life -- you must seek the road that will take you there, and then you must walk it diligently.

It's not enough to make a rational case for mercy, to set out a logical formula for mercy, or to use massive amounts of persuasion and motivation to get people to act mercifully. The question ultimately is, "How do I get this inside me so that mercy is a part of who I am?"

So I move toward mercy through the back door, or at the very most, side-ways. I endeavor toward third things, that then really open up my interior to live a merciful life. In effect, then, I'm not working on mercy, but on the state of soul from which mercy comes. I'm doing a third thing -- some spiritual discipline or practice of prayer -- that shapes my interior in a way that allows my soul to produce mercy in the world.

A frontal assault on mercy will not work. While it may reap short-term results, in the long haul a direct, full-bore approach does not last and does not transform us inwardly. You can grit your teeth and be merciful on the outer fringes of life, but if you want mercy to be who you are, to arise organically from within you, there has to be another way.

I'm asking questions about what that back door is for me, about what those third things are for me that will produce mercy in my life. Perhaps silence and solitude are on the list, and prayer, but I'm thinking that regular interaction with persons who are very different from me might be a part of my back door as well. Or might I be led to more -- not less -- involvement with those who have harmed me or offended me? I'm still open to answers.

Whatever the road for me, ultimately I want mercy to be who I am, not just what I do.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Needle Eyes on the Way to the Kingdom

Mark 10:23 - 27

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!"
The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God."
The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, "Who then can be saved?"
Jesus looked at them and said, "With human beings this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God."

This passage causes concern and a certain nervousness among readers. I've heard persons come to all sorts of interpretations for "eye of a needle" in order to escape its difficulty, things like making the "eye of a needle" a gated opening in an ancient walled city. Even without making the "eye of a needle" some large portal in a city wall, the passage raises concerns. Other folks write off the passage as applying only to the "rich," and most of us -- no matter how much or how little we have -- don't count ourselves as "rich."

The traditional reading of this passage equates the "kingdom of God" with "heaven"; thus, most people think the passage says something like, "It is hard for the rich to enter heaven."

But the "kingdom of God" is not a catch-phrase for "heaven." It refers to an orientation, a framework for seeing and doing life, a way of orienting oneself around God and the structures of God. While humans are made to live fully into this God-oriented life, it is hard for us to do so because so many other frameworks and orientations live within us and tug at us. Jesus mentions one such difficulty. "Riches" and possessions too easily become the center around which life is oriented. And that is not only an indictment on those who have a surplus of possessions. Often, those who have little live out of such an all-consuming desire for more that every part of life is oriented around accumulating an abundance. A life-framework that is oriented around possessions and "riches" is not oriented around God.

It is hard for persons to enter a new way of orienting ourselves toward God and life, something like stuffing a camel through the eye of a needle. It is a life-long challenge.

It is hard for the rich to make this paradigm shift. More than the rich, though, it is hard for anyone to make this shift, because we all have a complex and tangled root-system that serves as our basic life-framework. We carry values and allegiances and motivations that determine our orientation. We justify some of them with labels like "religious" or "Christian" or "God-given." Others simply live within us apart from our recognition of them.

In reality, then, it is hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. It is also hard for the prideful to enter the kingdom of God. It is hard for the self-sufficient to enter. It is hard for those who have titles and status to enter. It is hard for those who blindly love their tribe to enter. It is hard for those caught in the traps of competition and comparison to enter. It is hard for those who feel they have all answers to enter. It is hard for all of us to enter the kingdom of God.

I think it's very possible Jesus mentioned the "rich" as merely one example of the difficulty of entering the kingdom of God. He very well could have mentioned any number of other things that you and I hold onto for life.

And this is what we find very hard. We find it hard to orient life not around any number of other things, but around the radically different values of the kingdom of God. It takes a huge paradigm shift to let go of one orientation in order to adopt another. The old framework almost has to be pried from our fingers. We grasp it, clutch it, hold onto it for dear life because it is all we know. Or if not all we know, it is at least what we know best, what we can control, the rules to the game that we know how to play by.

The kingdom of God presents us with a radically alternative orientation, one that takes a great long time to grow into. It is one which we may not truly want to invest ourselves in, yet this framework is the true and authentic structure of the cosmos. This kingdom's orientation represents how the world was made to function and what the world was made for. The rest of life is an illusion, a huge falsity, until we begin to align ourselves with this orientation. We live false, we live a lie until we come to it.

Living a transformed life, a life being formed by the Spirit of God, means that this passing through the needle's eye becomes a part of our life-long journey. This needle's eye kind of life is the only way toward a life of love, mercy, and compassion.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Dreaming of an Expansive Life

The language and symbols of spiritual stories are nuanced. If we interpret all spiritual teaching with a rigid, "one-size-fits-all" schematic, we will miss the deeper truths that might be intended for us. Teachings that open us to the Spirit are pliable, shaping themselves around specific persons and events so that we experience truth at ever-deeper levels of our being. To apply a single interpretive mindset across the board to all spiritual language misses the point.

For instance, in biblical narrative we tend to think of darkness as "bad," representing evil. And we tend to think of light as "good," representing healing or God. Many times that interpretive framework is accurate. There are plenty of times in the Bible when we are encouraged to leave the darkness -- and the "deeds of darkness" -- in order to walk in the light.

Or another interpretive framework says that nighttime and darkness are the times for sleep. And since slumber, dullness, and inattentiveness are major impediments in the spiritual journey, darkness and nighttime become symbols of the time we sleep or are inattentive to the presence and activity of God. We may not be actively engaged in evil-doing, but we are dull and sluggish of spirit. We are sleep-walking through life. So encouragement to step into the daylight in spiritual language is often a call to "wake up!" Light, then, represents spiritual alertness, seeing, awakening, and enlightenment.

Still, there is another interpretive framework for darkness and light that we frequently miss, especially in spiritual stories. Night and darkness also can represent dreaming, the deepest longings of the soul, the time when our controlling mind can no longer govern what lives in our souls. Dreams are very often wild, free, vivid, imaginative, untamed, and portray a world where "all things are possible." When we sleep and dream, we are in a state of consciousness in which our minds can no longer put the brakes on what lives deep inside us. Dreams are the soul's vocabulary, telling us in symbolic language of possibilities that in our waking hours we wouldn't let ourselves imagine.

In the same way, daytime in spiritual story can represent a flat-earth view of life that is constricted and confined, bounded by rules and limitations, hemmed in by "oughts," "shoulds," and "musts." We may prefer to live in the daytime world because we fear being out of control, so we shut out the language of the soul. Especially in our culture, we tend to think that the daytime world of work, home, leisure, and responsibility is the only world there is. We stop dreaming and stop listening to the soul.

So as the nighttime represents expansiveness, creativity, and the vitality of the Spirit, the daytime can represent constriction, control, and a firmly-held, ego-driven life.

The Bible is full of dreamers. Joseph and Jacob in the Old Testament, and Peter in the New Testament were each given dreams and visions that opened them to God and to new realities that they could not have envisioned in their own thinking.

In our cultural setting, if we're not careful, living only in the daylight hours, we grow small and constricted, living only as far as our minds can imagine. We tend to call this the "real world." Actually, we only live in this "real world" --which we can personally control and manipulate -- out of fear of the other world of Spirit where we are not in control. This is flat-earth living!

If, on the other hand, we can live in a more imaginative balance, our lives grow larger, fuller, and more expansive. We begin to fill out the purpose for which we were created. We dare to reach out, to touch stars. We envision new possibilities. We begin to listen to the wisdom of our own souls, where we are most deeply and intimately connected to God.

David Whyte's poem "What to Remember when Waking" speaks to this tension between nighttime and daylight.

In that first
hardly noticed
in which you wake,
coming back
to this life
from the other
more secret,
and frighteningly
where everything
there is a small
into the day
which closes
the moment
you begin
your plans.

What you can plan
is too small
for you to live.

What you can live
will make plans
for the vitality
hidden in your sleep.

[in David Whyte, The House of Belonging, 26 - 28]

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Larger Citizenship

Two world sporting events have caught my attention lately.

For over a month I've followed the World Cup. Played in South Africa this year, it is the World Championship of Football ("soccer" to those in the U.S.A.).

The World Cup is a big deal on the world stage. It is played every four years in a different location. And since soccer is the world's sport, the World Cup is embraced most everywhere as the pinnacle of sport . . . most everywhere but the United States. If you can imagine the anticipation of the Super Bowl in the United States and multiply that many times over, that's how the rest of the planet esteems the World Cup.

I first woke up to the World Cup in 2006 when on a mission endeavor to Estonia. Hotel lobbies and restuarants had televisions tuned into the games, with interested futball fans gathered to watch. It was obviously a big deal. I remember eating in one Estonian restuarant as a large group of people sat around a television watching a match that involved the German team. I wondered what interest a group of Estonians had in a German match. After awhile I realized that they were interested simply because the larger event was important.

The other event that I follow every July is the Tour de France, a three-week cycling extravaganza that circuits France. The race winds through the plains and mountains, from border to border. I watch the daily telecasts to see the beautiful French countryside and to be blown away by the majestic mountains. But I'm also drawn by the international flavor of the event. Many of the riders are from Europe and some from North America. There are a few Asian riders, some from South America, and some prominent Australians.

Frankly, Americans don't pay much attention to the Tour de France. Lance Armstrong from Austin won the Tour seven times in the last decade, but still the race hasn't entered the consciousness of most Americans -- beyond asking, "How did Lance do today?"

I don't watch these events because I know much about either of them. I don't know all the rules of soccer, and I'm still learning the strategies of team cycling. And I'm not interested in them because I want to root for the United States to "win another one!" I'm interested in them because they are important to other people in the world. Sure, they are sporting events, and they are not significant in terms of major world events. But they are embraced by a wider audience than "my tribe" or "my nation." To me, that makes them important.

Frankly, you can read online comments posted by Americans about these two events that are absolutely embarrassing. Many of them diminish these sporting events simply because they are not important in the United States. It's pretty common to find a large group of people who agree, for instance, that if the World Cup really were a big deal, the United States would be the big favorite to win it. But since the United States has never come close to a World Cup title, the event -- and the sport -- must not be that important.

Such thinking smacks of arrogance and ignorance. "If we can't win, it must not be important!" "If we're not good at it, the whole thing must be irrelevant!"

I don't have interest in these two events because I want to see the United States win the World Cup. I don't lose interest in the Tour de France if Lance Armstrong has no chance of winning. I watch and have interest because I'm not only a citizen of the United States of America, but because I have a larger citizenship. I'm a citizen of the human race.

My own small world -- even my own country -- is not the only context for my life. Like you, I am a part of a larger family, with a larger, more expansive citizenship.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

To Look Good or To Feel Good?

The old Saturday Night Live sketch had Billy Crystal playing "Fernando," a celebrity interviewer in "Fernando's Hideaway." Fernando wore a pretentious ascot as he interviewed various luminaries and repeated in a thick Latin accent, "You look mah-velous!"

This is going to sound strange at first, but I thought of Fernando in recent days as I've started another cycle of chemotherapy. Stay with me for a minute.

One of Fernando's tag lines, after proclaiming to his guests, "You look mah-velous," was to tell them, "You know, it is better to look good than to feel good."

That line popped into my head several times over the last couple of weeks. Over those days I saw many people who know that I'm currently in treatment for lymphoma. So as I moved toward the treatments this week, several times people said to me things like, "You really look good!" Or, "You seem to be feeling good!" I felt like a guest on Fernando's Hideaway.

The truth was that I probably did look pretty good, or at least better than the last time they saw me!

And further, I probably did feel pretty good, or at least better than a few days before!

So I received the kind words of my friends, grateful for the encouragement they offered.

But I also wondered if those were the only two options. While how I look and how I feel may be some indicator of what is going on within me -- in my blood and in my bone marrow and with all the counts that determine my body's physical health -- my "looks" and my body's "feel" are not the final measure of my physical health.

The reality that is most crucial to me is not how I look or even how I feel -- though obviously I'd rather feel good than not. I'm most concerned about the actual state of my body. I wouldn't mind looking terrible if the cancer within me were eradicated. I've even gotten used to feeling rotten periodically -- thanks to the chemotherapy, steroids, and other meds that I take for my "health" -- for the benefit of knocking down the cancer.

So in my experience, Fernando didn't have it exactly right. Looking good and feeling good are not the only options.

Sorry Fernando. There is another reality beneath what I look like and feel like. That's the one I'm interested in tending these days.

Transformation: Becoming the Exact Original of Who You Are

Laurence Freeman says this about transformation and becoming the persons God created us to be:

"By being rooted in this place of transformation which is not geographical but spiritual, our own inmost centre, we are changed from being an approximation, an imitation of ourselves, into the exact original of who we are." (Laurence Freeman, Web of Silence, 28-29)

I'm drawn to Freeman's turn-of-the-phrase, that we are kept from living the life for which we were made by living as "approximations" of ourselves . . . that we are hindered from being the "exact original of who we are" by living as "imitations" of ourselves. Stiff words. And true.

We slip into the cultural programming of daily life without consideration of consequence and are lured with siren calls to success, validation, and well-being. We assume that we are what we think. Or else, we are what others estimate us to be. We are fragile people. We need affirmation. The legitimate soul-hunger within us is cheapened into a grab for superficial ego-strokes and momentary validation.

Without a significant spiritual practice to sustain us, we live very much on the periphery. By "significant spiritual practice" I refer to some practice that accesses the inner recesses of our souls, that dips into the region of our lives which knows we are more than external validations and cheap ego-strokes. A regular practice of contemplative prayer, meditation, and silence/solitude enables us to touch the inner depths of our selves. By regularly accessing this interior reservoir we become more and more familiar with the "exact original of who we are."

Freeman writes about the "re-programming" that happens through prayer and an "ordered life." Prayer, meditation, and praxis re-orient our inner life so that we live more and more from our inner soul-reservoir and less and less from the periphery of "approximation" as "imitations of ourselves." At this interior point God does the work of transformation within us.

Freeman's words encourage me. Contemplation and prayer are not auxiliary to "real life." They are, in fact, the source of life, the well from which we draw our lives and ultimately from which the life of the world will be transformed.