Reflections by Jerry Webber

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Remembering Gene: One More Movement Inward and Outward

I woke up Tuesday morning stunned to learn that one of my very good friends did not wake up. Now two days later, I'm still in shock. And I'm not alone. I don't think any of Gene's family or many friends saw this coming. No one covered our blind-side on this one.

I have a lot to say about him, but I'll hold onto most of it. So many persons have their own angle, their own perception of Gene founded on unique relationships shared with him. What I might say represents only a one aspect of this person loved by so many of us. But I'll share a bit of my perspective, now added to all the others.

I experienced Gene as a gregarious and genuinely friendly person. I was with him in numerous settings through the years . . . times of prayer at local and far-away retreat facilities . . . mission endeavors and rebuilding/construction settings . . . monastery pilgrimages and out-of-town conferences. . . . We were in small groups together . . . he was regularly in classes I taught. . . .

Gene's two categories seemed to be "friends" and "those yet-to-be-friends." It was not uncommon to find him engaged in conversation with complete "strangers" (that is, "yet-to-be-friends") in out-of-the-way hotel lobbies or monastery lavender fields or on construction sites nailing 2x4's. I'm a high introvert, so I admired Gene's ability to flow naturally and with ease among people.

But there was another movement that Gene increasingly explored in recent years. He also had tapped into his soul's deep spiritual hunger. For all his love of people and conversation, he was growing a corresponding love for silence and the prayer of quiet. He had an expanding awareness of God and himself that may have surprised him. His attentiveness to God, self, others, and the created world provided him a reservoir from which to draw life. He found life in solitude and places of beauty. He was faithful to his centering prayer practice.

His love of silence and solitude, however, did not trump his love of people and companionship, but rather extended them and deepened them. In fact, he drew life and nourishment for prison ministry and mission trips and construction projects from his growing inner life, from the quiet times and spaces he sought regularly.

So what I want to say about Gene has to do with his life that moved intentionally inward, toward the Source of all that is . . . and then his life that moved intentionally outward, engaging the world in transforming ways in prisons and depressed city neighborhoods and on mission sites around the country.

Gene made a difference. And the difference he made arose from the way his heart continually was being shaped inwardly.

It's too easy to fall off on either side . . . to give ourselves either to an introspective inner life that dismisses the needs of the world . . . or to give ourselves in action and mission without any inner source to animate and propel our service in the world.

Gene was not perfect. We each live with our own peculiar tension, attempting to balance between attending to the inner life and then expressing ourselves in the outer world. But he was intentional with both movements. He knew the value of going in and out the gate. And more than giving lip service to either one, he invested his life in both his own soul-nurture and in the needs of the world.

I'm not eulogizing Gene in order to suggest that any of us need to be like him. Gene was finding his own way, as I have to find my own way . . . as each of us, ultimately, must find our own way.

But Gene's way was a delight to watch.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Holding the Tension of the Extremes

I tend to live much of my life in a huge chasm between what I know to be true and my actual practice. In relatively unimportant matters, as well as in life-situations that could make a huge difference, I know more than I do. I live with a huge disconnect between what I know and what I actually do.

Over the past week I've seen this pretty clearly within myself. A week ago I went for another round of tests related to the cancer that lives in my blood. In the tests that came back that day I learned that over the last two months the counts signalling the lymphoma's presence in me have remained level. No change in two months. And that information has thrown me for a loop.

I'm going on six months of treatments now. For the first month and a half of treatments I showed no improvement, so I changed to a new course of chemotherapy. About two months of that more aggressive treatment regimen brought some progress as the numbers slowly indicated a growing health in my blood. Now, however, I've learned that over the last two months my body has held steady, with neither improvement nor regression.

Frankly, that news was disappointing to me. It was more than a little discouraging. It certainly was not what I had expected. This course of treatment was to last for six months, so I've pinned some hopes on having it completed around Thanksgiving. I expect progress. I expect that if I'm going to put in the time feeling miserable with the chemotherapies and drugs that are my daily diet, there would be some progress.

I know better than to set my expectations like that -- I've written in this space over the last few months about the hazard in those internally-manufactured expectations -- but I'm not always able to practice what I know. I know that I'm invited to live day-by-day, to experience daily sustenance and not to project my expectations for the future on some artificially imposed date ahead of me. Yet, over these days I've found myself swimming in discouragement over the test results and even despair as I've started more treatments this week.

Over the last 24 hours, I've specifically named in myself the tendency to swing toward one extreme or the other without holding the tension of the middle ground. Rarely are life-situations all bad or all good, no matter how devastating they may seem at the time. Always there are pulses of Spirit coursing through events that we may or may not notice. But I tend to gravitate to the extremes, labeling a doctor's report or a chance encounter or a challenging situation as either totally "good" or totally "bad." I think of it as all darkness or all light. I leave no room in the middle to hold the tension of these extremes.

It seems like the mark of a mature person is the capacity to hold these extremes without judging them, to stand in the middle of them with some balance and openness. I'm not near that place.

I know better than to do my life in gravitating to those extremes, yet I'm seldom able to carry out what I know. And in that sense, I often create my own misery. I create my own mental framework that locks me into a certain vantage point which narrowly defines the situation I'm dealing with. I choose for one extreme or the other -- in this case, discouragement and despair -- when there are a number of other options available as well.

Ignatius of Loyola, the 16th-17th century Spanish saint, has been a tremendous teacher for me, guiding me to see with more clarity. In lining out a spirituality that helps persons move through all the ups and downs of life, he says things like:

**Have no fixed determination for one thing above all other possibilities . . .

**All life-situations carry the hope and possibility of shaping me into the person God created me to be . . .

**There is not a single option -- of all the possibilities for my life -- that will guarantee my happiness . . .

**A stance of openness in life leads to balance, and thus to true inner freedom . . .

**Christ is present in all things . . .

There is no happy ending tonight to this saga. I'm still in the middle of it. I'm still discouraged, trying not to swirl into depression. My body is pumped full of chemicals, the drugs that are supposed to be my healing. I'm tired from little sleep. I feel irritable. Right now I have little fight in me.

There are things I know to be true tonight, but I struggle to live them.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Choose for a Discerning Life

One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles: Simon (whom he named Peter), his brother Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called the Zealot, Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor. (Luke 6:12-16)

In a book I use for daily Scripture readings, reflection, and prayer, Luke 6:12-16 is the text assigned for today. It describes Jesus spending the night in prayer on a mountain. The next morning he gathered his disciples (apprentices or learners who follow) to himself and chose twelve of them to be apostles (literally, "the ones who are sent").

The traditional reading of this passage says that prayer is crucial to the life-choices we make. It points out that before this most critical "choosing" -- which would shape the entire future of his ministry and of the Church -- Jesus spent a significant amount of time in prayer. Decisions need to grow out of our prayer, the interpretation goes. It implies that the bigger and more far-reaching our decision, the weightier should be our prayer.

The entire matter raises the issue of discernment. How do we choose? On what basis do we make decisions? These are questions with which we struggle, ingrained in our daily living as they are.

The track that most of us take was offered by the book I used for my prayer this morning. In essence it says that the larger the decision, the more earnest our prayer should be. It goes something like this: "Jesus had a huge decision to make regarding the persons he would send into the world as his emissaries. That decision was so weighty and significant that he spent all night praying about it; therefore, like Jesus we should devote ourselves to prayer in order to discern the directions we should go. And the more significant the decision before us, the more we should pray."

We see how that gets played out most everyday in our life-world. Persons faced with a significant decision about job or moving to another city or a medical condition or where to go to school will become very serious about prayer. They will enlist others to pray. They don't want to make a faulty decision. In fact, prayer may be one piece of a larger pattern that persons undertake in order to make a decision.

Some in the Church talk about engaging a "process of discernment." That language is popular currency these days, and speaks to the belief that when faced with a major life-decision, I can roll out a process that will lead me to the right answer. In following the steps of the process, I'll know what to do and when to do it. A "process of discernment" provides a formula to follow, some prescribed steps to take.

It implies that I can arbitrarily lay a process or pattern on top of my life and then come out at the other end of the process with some kind of result or product: A good decision. In the context of Luke 6:12-13, that process may involve extended, night-long prayer.

Here's what I see: Jesus did not go to the mountain to spend a night in prayer because he had a major life-decision to make the next day. It was the pattern of Jesus' life to spend significant periods of time in prayer. Jesus lived in constant awareness of his communion with God. His connection with God was constant. His formal times of prayer were frequent. So spending the night in prayer was a regular practice for Jesus, not an emergency measure that suddenly seemed important because a critical life-choice needed to be made the next day.

Further, because prayer was the habitual pattern of his life, it gave him the resources to discern, to make the right decisions at the right time. He didn't have to shift into "emergency-prayer-mode" because a critical decision loomed. He didn't have to initiate a special "process for discernment" when it was time for a major step. The resources he needed for those times were already there because they came in the normal, everyday, everynight flow of his life.

I'm not discounting special prayer here, or prayer that is particularly earnest in certain seasons of our lives. But I am suggesting that our best discernment grows out of a daily attentiveness in which I attend to God day-by-day and attend to the flow of my own life.

When I live in daily awareness of my life with God, noticing the rhythms of my life, attending to the places of light and love, as well as attending to the shadows, I grow as a discerning person.

When I notice daily the patterns of consolation and desolation within me and around me, I grow as a person able to make wise choices.

When I live in awareness of what brings life to me and to the world, as well as what drains life from me and the world, I grow as a person able to choose out of inner spiritual resources. My choices increasingly reflect the light and life of the One to whom I am connected. All of life, then, becomes the field for my discernment, not just the big steps or the major decisions.

By this approach, discernment is not a "process" in which I engage when something big is on the horizon. It is not an artificial "plan" layered on top of the choice-of-the-day. It is a lifestyle, a way of doing all of life in which I grow as a discerning human being, a person intimately connected with the God of Life.

Obviously, coming at discernment this way is not a quick and simple fix. To become a discerning person takes intentionality and time. It invites me to be still, to listen, to become aware of those things (for me, others, and the world) that bring life and those things that take away life.

This way of discerning does not yield quick results. It can be slow and messy. When we set our hearts to this course of wisdom, we make a decision for the long haul, believing that over time, God will shape our hearts until we become the kind of people Jesus was . . . persons who do the right thing at the right time because we have chosen to live our lives intimately connected to the One who is our Source.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Halfway Home?: Measuring Steps I Cannot See

The weekend before a new cycle of chemotherapy I tend to have some anxiety about the new round of treatments. I've been through the routine enough to know how the treatments and accompanying medications change my body and thus how I feel through those days of therapy. My body does weird things and I feel out-of-sorts emotionally. My sleep patterns and eating patterns are disjointed. I gain at least 10 pounds over the span of a few days. I have to stay isolated as much as possible for the first 17 days or so of the cycle while my immune system is low.

I get what I've come to call "wounded-cat-syndrome" . . . I want to crawl behind a sofa and hide, keeping other people away from my discomfort and out of my line-of-fire. If I'm going to feel out-of-whack, there's no use in others feeling that way, too, so I tend to curl up in a corner, out-of-sight, out-of-mind. (I know, I know, I hear all the arguments to the contrary . . . but right or wrong, that's how I feel!)

Last Sunday I knew that the next morning I would start the chemo cycle again. I began to brace myself for what the next few days would bring, including the changes and altered routines I've mentioned above. The Monday treatment would begin the fourth cycle of this particular chemotherapy regimen. My oncologist says that the protocol calls for six cycles.

So it occurred to me Sunday that I was halfway through the process. Three down, three to go. And honestly, that was little encouragement. It feels like I've been doing this forever. Some days it is difficult for me to remember life before these treatments. In some respects this therapy schedule has become my life. I live in the rhythms of each 4-week cycle, knowing which days are likely to be days when I feel like the pits and which days I'll probably have energy. In many ways, my life right now is shaped by these rhythms.

The kicker? I wanted to believe that I was farther along than halfway. I was tired of this routine, weary of the seemingly endless cycles. I wanted to be at the end, not at the midway point. It was sobering to appraise where I actually was.

As I sat with that realization, I noticed my interior system of measuring the days. I had measured where I was by the length of time from the beginning of the treatments . . . and by the time yet projected in front of me. I had accepted that particular system of measurement as the template for my life without questioning whether there were other ways of thinking about my life.

Are there other ways of thinking about life? Is my essence more than the steps I've taken and the steps that are still in front of me?

What else defines me? What else speaks into my personhood? I had to ask myself those questions.

In reality, measuring the days past and projecting the days to come is an easy way for me to manage the days, to control my expectations. It fits life into a schematic that is trite and predictable and becomes a template that I can easily manage. It occurred to me that "trite," "predictable," and "manageable" were not words I wanted to use in describing my life.

So I moved toward other questions that had to do with the meaning of the days . . . questions that asked about forming and shaping and growing . . . questions that asked not about control and manipulation, but about exploration and wildness. How might those things measure the days?

I realized immediately my need for God's grace if I were to move toward the untamed parts of life. I need the grace to let life be what it is. I need grace to live with the tension inherent in this time of my life.

This is the poem I wrote out of my reflection.

Till now you've measured the journey
by the number of steps taken
and the distance ahead stretching long
into cloud and darkness;
days morph into a long, weary trudge.
The wind does not blow
nor do the wild geese fly.

But the person who lives inside you
knows there is no map for this way;
your measured steps mean
nothing to this one
who wrestles for your freedom
and will not give in to
the siege that would make
this journey a mere
passing of time.