Reflections by Jerry Webber

Friday, December 30, 2011

Spiritual Reading for the New Year

Some of my first childhood memories are of my mother reading books to me. I have other memories, a little later in childhood, of tagging along with my dad to a bookstore in Ponca City, Oklahoma, where he got his Western novels. He always had three or four books ready for reading on the table beside his favorite chair.

I got my books from the Ponca City Public Library and from the book fairs that came every year to Washington Elementary. My mother would give me an allowance and I would carefully do the math to find out how to get the most books for my money. Perusing the books was fun . . . picking them up at the book fair and taking them home was even better!

Later, I was shaped by a mentor who said to me, "Be careful what you read . . . every choice to read one book is a choice not to read every other book."

I still love to read. At any given time I have a handful of books that I’m somewhere in the process of reading. The day, the mood and the setting determine which one I pick up at any given moment.

And because every choice to read one book is a choice not to read every other book, I generally give a book two or three chapters to win me over. If I’m not engaged after three chapters, I put it down (The "Three-Chapter-Rule"). Another title awaits. I don't have time to spend with a book that doesn't engage me.

So here at the end of the year, I thought I'd share some of the books I've read in recent months. These are books I commend for those interested in spiritual reading as we enter into a New Year.

The Breath of the Soul: Reflections on Prayer
, by Joan Chittister. Chittister offers short, two-page reflections on various aspects of prayer. Without being heavy-handed, she gently helps us shape a significant life of prayer. She's a good writer, and as a Benedictine, she's practiced at prayer.

Falling Upward and A Lever and a Place to Stand, both by Richard Rohr. There are a few writers on the spiritual life I trust implicitly. I don’t always agree with everything they write, but they speak from a place of integrity and authenticity. Rohr is one of those writers. I find him to be a reliable guide in matters of the spiritual life. Falling Upward is Rohr's take on a spirituality for the two halves of life. A Lever and a Place to Stand is a sort of introduction to a contemplative stance toward life. If you are interested in spirituality and the Twelve Steps, try Rohr's Breathing under Water. I'm in that one now.

To Bless the Space between Us, by John O’Donohue. O’Donohue was an Irish Catholic priest, poet and philosopher who died (at a young age) as this book was published. It is a book of original blessings for the thresholds of life, written with an earthy hope and a deep conviction about the power of blessing – God’s blessing and our own. I've grieved his death. He was about my age when he died. I wish I would have known him.

Manifesting God, by Thomas Keating. Keating offers an introduction to contemplative prayer. I’ve read him for almost two decades now and am always helped by the way he communicates difficult truth in very plain and simple ways. I trust him as a spiritual guide in the same way I trust Chittister and Rohr, for in their own way, each speaks out of the inner well of their personal encounter with God.

Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith
, by Henri Nouwen. Compiled ten years after Nouwen’s death, the book collects some of Nouwen’s unpublished papers and talks about the spiritual journey. Nouwen has long been a trusted spiritual guide, but I didn't find this to be one of his better books (there is probably a reason some of these talks and articles largely went unpublished until now). Still, if you love Nouwen, you will find this book helpful.

Listening for the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality
, by J. Philip Newell. Newell deals with the critical foundations of Celtic spirituality by linking theological ideas historically with Celtic writers. I thought the book started out strong (the first two chapters had me very excited!) and then tailed off by the last couple of chapters. Nonetheless, those interested in Celtic spirituality will enjoy the book.

Sacred Space 2012
. This is a daily devotional book I’ve used for several years. I still use it for my morning prayer. A scripture passage is provided for each day of the year, as well as suggestions for prayer. Many folks find it to be a helpful resource for daily prayer. Produced by Irish Jesuits, it is also available online at

Love That Dog, by Sharon Creech. I love the other books I’ve put on this list. This is the one I hope you pick up, though. You can read it in less than 15 minutes. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll cheer. It’s written for children, but I’ve never found an adult who didn’t love it. I first read it several years ago at the recommendation of a friend who knew I loved poetry. She thought of me because some familiar, classical poems make an impact on the boy in the story. In the years since first reading it, I go back regularly for a quick read of the book, just to remind myself of the power of poetry in evoking the soul.

Those are my recommendations. I hope some new reading is on your list for 2012. Try the "Three-Chapter-Rule." Remember, every choice to read one book . . . well, you know the rest.

Sometime early in 2012 I'll post a list of books that are on my waiting list, that is, those I've either just started or are "on deck," waiting for the "Three-Chapter-Rule."

Happy reading in 2012!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Birth: A Poem

On Christmas Day I shared a guided meditation that I've called The Cave of the Heart. You can find that meditation in the post previous to this one.

After praying with the "Cave of the Heart" image a few weeks ago, the meditation continued to unfold for me over several days.

One fruit of the meditation came out in this poem, which became an expression of my desire to be open to whatever God wanted to birth within me, as well as my yearning for some hiddenness and solitude in the midst of a very full Advent season.


For some it is enough
to have a place to sleep
out of the cold
a modest cave
to deflect the swirling
wind unobstructed
across the cold plains;

Not that the necessary births
cannot emerge from the
street-corner tumult,

But I always say:
Do it in private

Let the cavern womb what
is trying to be born in you

What wants to save you.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Cave of the Heart: A Guided Meditation for Christmas Day

[Note: Two or three weeks ago I was praying with the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola. In one particular meditation on the birth of Jesus, the writer described his birthplace as a cave dug into the side of a hill just below Bethlehem. Before reading those words, I had a set scene in my mind for the birthplace of Jesus, a stable scene behind an inn that I had carried in my imagination from childhood.

For the first time in my life, I saw the birthplace as something other than that old scene I had envisioned for decades. I saw the hillside cave in such vivid detail that not only did the birth of Christ come alive for me, but I also envisioned the cave as a place in my heart.

This guided meditation comes from that prayer experience. It considers the birth of Christ, and so it is appropriate for Christmas Day. As I prayed with this image, however, the cave became more than a place Christ as born 2,000 years ago. The cave became an image for that part of my heart where the conceiving and birthing work of God continues to happen within me.

I share the meditation with you here as my Christmas gift and offering for you. If you decide to use it for prayer or meditation, read it slowly. Pause as needed, shut your eyes for a few minutes, and let God's Spirit lead you. The goal is not to get through the exercise quickly, but to linger with the parts of the prayer that seem to have substance for you. And don't be afraid to use your imagination, what some have called, "holy imagination." In other words, don't censor where your soul wants to lead you. Take in the experience. Let it happen.

In a day or so I'll share with you a poem that came to me out of this meditation experience. jw

I sit still and settle into prayer. . . . I consciously take several deep breaths, each one slower and deeper than the one before.

As much as possible, I lay aside the things that preoccupy my mind and distract me. I want to become aware of God, who is present to me at this very moment.

In my imagination I see a small Middle Eastern town on a hilltop, crowded with people who are bustling about and tending to important business . . . Some people are eating or drinking . . . others are talking on the streets . . . while others are buying or selling in the marketplace. I notice the seriousness with which these people are tending to their affairs. The rush of activity is obvious.

I allow my gaze to move outside the confines of the little town . . . down a hillside, to a small grotto dug into the earth.

It is the kind of place created to shelter animals from the elements of weather . . . but in this shallow “cave” are a man and woman, along with several animals. I take a moment to let my mind shape this scene for me.

The young woman is in labor and the man is assisting her with childbirth. I let my imagination fill in the details of the scene . . . what happens . . . what is spoken . . . where I am in the cave.

Perhaps I talk to this holy family, or just stand aside and watch, or maybe I take the place of one of the animals. I ask God to help me understand the significance of this event of which I am a part. I stay with this scene in the hillside cave as long as I’m able.

At some point I realize that there is also a cave in my heart . . . It may seem as if I live most of my life on the streets of activity and in the marketplaces of busyness, but there is within my heart a cave.

This cave is an interior space where the really important things in my life are conceived and given birth. . . . Conception and birth do not happen on busy street-corners, but in the privacy and hiddenness of the cave. . . . I notice where that cave is within me.

I may find that much of my life is spent on busy streets and in crowded marketplaces. How might I ask God to help me spend more time in the cave? If I can ask God for more "cave-time," what might God say back to me?

Then I ask God to help me see what is being conceived in my heart . . . what is being brought to birth within that cave of my heart. I ask God for the grace to find a life-giving rhythm that includes time in this quiet, interior cave . . . and time on the streets engaging daily life, people, and events. . . . I talk to God about both the busy streets of my life, and the hidden caves of my heart. I make this my prayer.

When I feel like my prayer has completed, I say the Lord’s Prayer as a way of bringing the prayer time to an end.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Christmas Eve Benedictus: For Prayer and Meditation

The Song of Zechariah, also known as the Benedictus, is prayed daily each morning in the Liturgy of the Hours. It is taken from Luke 1:67 - 79, the prayer of Zechariah after the birth of a son (John) to him and Elizabeth. It is one of three "canticles" early in Luke's Gospel (Mary's Magnificat and Simeon's Nunc Dimittis) that are used in the daily prayers of the Church. It also is the Scripture passage given for reading and prayer on Christmas Eve.

I am especially drawn to the Benedictus. I have prayed it from prayer books and in monastic settings for years. Its words are ingrained in my consciousness. They have been life to me. (I've included the text of the Benedictus below, as well as a way to prayer or meditate on the passage.)

The Benedictus is also a wonderfully appropriate Advent prayer. The images fit perfectly with this season of watching for light and waiting in hope.

So for the last three years I've used this prayer as a centerpiece for the weekly Contemplative Worship experience of which I am a part. I personally find it to be a beautiful expression of Advent hope for myself and the world. Others have responded well to it, as well, and found life in its words.

Last weekend, a worshiper in that service noticed that we were still using the Benedictus in worship, especially the last two verses, once or twice in each service. This person noted that had used the same prayer last year in worship, also. She was simply making the observation about the Canticle's prominence in worship.

I responded to her comment by saying, "Yes, we've used it for three years now . . . and we're going to keep saying it until we get it right!"

We all laughed. Of course, I didn't mean, "Until we all say it the right way," or "Until we get the cadence right," or "Until the intonation suits me."

I meant, "We're going to say it until we really open ourselves to its truth."

That is, until we live in the truth that one has come to us to save us from enemies, both enemies in the outer world, but mostly enemies in our internal world . . .

. . . until we open ourselves to worship God without fear and intimation, but in mercy and loving-kindness . . .

. . . until we really get the mercy and compassion of God as it is extended toward us without condition, and then live in it more than talk about it . . .

. . . until we live in the light of God, no matter how dark our situations or our "shadows of death" seem.

. . . until our feet our guided onto the path of peace, so that we not only speak of peace, but actively live into the peace of God for all people.

The Church has been praying the Benedictus daily for centuries. We're still trying to "get it right." And we'll be praying it for a long time yet to come.

Luke 1:67 - 79

His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied:
“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us—
to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

A Meditation

On this eve of the birth of Christ, try this for a meditation:

Read through the Canticle of Zechariah once more.

Pick out the line or phrase that seems to have your name written on it.

Pull that line out of the prayer, and then stay with it for a few moments.

Take several tries at putting it into your own words. Paraphrase it.

How is that line being lived out in your life?

Whisper the line quietly several times, until you sense the phrase sinking from your head down into your heart.

Then carry that line with you as a breath prayer through this Christmas Eve.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

More Mary . . . A Model and a Prayer for the Contemplative Life

Two days ago I posted a blog here that I had written for my meditation at A Daily Advent ( The reflection was based on Luke 1:26 - 38, the Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday of Advent. That meditation briefly explored grace and "favor," trying to locate grace as the character of God that is not based on the worthiness of the recipient.

That same text is repeated today, so at A Daily Advent I took a different look at Mary, this time focusing on Luke 1:38 and writing about Mary as a model for the contemplative life. I also suggest Luke 1:38 as a kind of breath prayer to carry through the next few days.

I've included the gist of the post from A Daily Advent below.

Luke 1:38

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me according to your word.” Then the angel left her.

I wrote two days ago about Mary and the elaborate back-story the Church constructed centuries ago about her life, as if to justify her "favor" with God on the basis of her merits. In short, the Church formulated a "history" for Mary that was pristine enough that she stood out as the one who deserved to be the Holy Mother of God. As I said then, that historical reconfiguring of her life doesn't witness to God's grace, but rather to her goodness. I don't think that's how God works in human life. Grace and favor are always about God's choosing, not Mary's deserving or our deserving.

Further, I don't need that back-story to know that Mary is perhaps the best New Testament model for the contemplative life available to us. She modeled a life of radical trust and union with God. Let me explain.

She was simple. She realized she had not earned this "favor." She took things that happened to her and around her, and she "pondered them in her heart." She "treasured them in her heart." That is, she didn't make a huge, public show of her connection to God. She didn't parade her interior life in the public eye. She didn't make a fuss about what she notices of God's work in the world. She didn't flaunt her holiness. She didn't showcase her experience of the Divine in front of others. Rather, she drew her God-experience into her heart and let it incubate there.

Mary did what her Son would later suggest we all do when we go to prayer. In the Sermon on the Mount he taught us not to pray in a way that draws attention to ourselves (on the street corners and busy intersections of life), but to withdraw to our secret room, that is, to our inner room where we meet the Father in private.

Mary got it.

She is a esteemed as the Mother of God not because of the intricate story the Church imaginatively told about her, but because of what we know from the report of Scripture.

In fact, her words at the conclusion of this text are probably the best mantra for the contemplative life I know. They state simply and succinctly the essence of life with God, the very fundamentals of union with God.

"Here I am. Let it be with me according to your word." Or, "Let it be to me as you have said."

Here I am. I am where I am. My soul is not in the past, locked into old narratives. Neither am I living in the future. I am not in some other geographical location. I am where I am, physically and spiritually. I am who I am.

It is a real gift for any of us to say, "Here I am," to be present without distractions, to allow all the aspects of our personhood (body, mind, soul and spirit) to show up in the same place at the same time.

This is so hard for me to do, but Mary not only said it. She did it.

Let it be with me according to your word. A surrender. But more, an openness to the design of God in her life, to the action of God which was mysterious and beyond her comprehension. Yet, she did not shut out God's hand. She did not close the door to God's invitation.

This is the stance of the contemplative, who steps into the cloud or walks into the darkness not knowing what is ahead, not knowing what she will find, but trusting the One who calls and invites, believing that even if the Divine work is not fully understood, it is still good and life-giving. Even when the God-path is unrecognizable, it is still a path that leads to life, wholeness, and the essence of what it means to be fully human.

You might want to make these two simple sentences your prayer for the next week. Carry the prayer on your heart. Whisper it with your lips. Let the depth of the prayer anchor you for the week.

"Here I am. Let it be to me as you have said."

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Mary and the Grace That Really Is Radical

I've posted the thoughts below on my Advent blog, A Daily Advent The Scripture text is the Gospel reading for today, the Fourth Sunday of Advent.

The Church, both historic and contemporary, has talked a great deal about "grace," but usually in ways that have not been "graceful."

We ("we" because I'm a part of the Church) have talked about grace with our lips, but been more concerned to punish "sinners" and those who do not measure up to some artificial standards.

We have spoken of "mercy" and asked liturgically for "mercy," but have not witnessed to mercy in our life together.

On the whole, those who follow Christ have little experience of "grace" as a practiced way of living. For most, it is an empty concept, just one of those church-y words devoid of impact, something the pie-in-the-sky crowd talks about on Sundays.

Maybe the words below can speak a bit more about the radical nature of grace as an alternative way of ordering life. It is intended simply as a piece for daily devotional use.

Luke 1:26 - 38

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.”

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me according to your word.” Then the angel left her.

"Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." . . . "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God."

Mary was perplexed and pondered the words. I imagine myself receiving this greeting, this statement of being favored by God.

What did I do to deserve this?

Why am I favored?

I immediately want to make the "favor" about something I've earned, a reward for some kind of good I have done or something I have accomplished.

"I've been faithful in my little bit . . . so now I'm receiving some favor." There is a deep well of that kind of deserving that lives within me.

The Church didn't help us with this one through the centuries, making up an elaborate back-story about Mary and her lineage with the intent of showing how perfect Mary was, how spotless and sinless she was. The point was to suggest that Mary was chosen for this role because she deserved to be chosen by God . . . that this was a reward for her meticulous and morally perfect life.

The implicit message was that you could only be chosen by God if you were morally perfect. You could only be "favored" if you were sinless. You could only bear God's Son in the world if you measured up. You could only receive God's grace if you were completely blameless.

Many of us have lived underneath these overt and subtle messages from the Church for a lifetime. We have heard the messages and internalized them, so that now the message of deserving and perfection comes not only from the Church, it also comes from within us.

Followers of Christ everywhere have lived under these false, "anti-grace" messages for centuries.

If indeed the choosing of Mary by God was a graced choosing, then the Church's imaginary back-story has to be thrown out.

You get a hint of the radical grace (the language of "favor") in the story by noticing Mary's reaction to the "grace-greeting." She was perplexed. She had to ponder it. Apparently, she couldn't find any rational reason for the choosing. She couldn't understand what she had done to deserve this "favor" or grace.

If the Church through the centuries had really allowed this to be a story of grace, the back-story about Mary might have remembered that she was a rebellious teenager, often in trouble with parents and authority figures, and living counter to the social (and religious!) norms of her day.

In fact -- though I have no evidence for my imaginative re-interpretation -- the scenario I have suggested may be closer to Mary's truth . . . which would explain, perhaps, her perplexity at Gabriel's greeting, and what she had to ponder in her heart.

Because in the end, for whatever her actual history, the "favoring" did not rest on Mary's merits, but on the God who extended the "favoring."

Likewise, when I enter the passage and hear that I, too, am favored, this favoring does not exist because of what I have done or who I am; but rather it comes to me (and you!) because of who God is. That's how it always is.

I don't need to understand it or analyze it or pick it apart. I am invited simply to rest in it. Like Mary . . . "Here I am . . . let it be to me as you have said."

Friday, December 16, 2011

Holy Spontaneity

For 34 years I've been engaged in ministry as a vocation. That means I've walked through 34 Advents and Christmases.

[Well, I guess technically I only have about 30 Advents under my belt. In the evangelical tradition of which I was a part for the early years of my spiritual journey, Advent was not observed and I wouldn't have known a thing about the word. I "discovered" Advent as a high-church Baptist in Fort Worth, Texas . . . and remember that first Advent being blown away by the colors, the symbolism, the richness of the days preceding Christmas. It was one of the most life-giving "discoveries" of my life at that time!]

Each year is very different, but also very much the same. While Christmas brings its own nuance, in 34 years the pace of the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas has not changed a bit. It is fast and constant. Long ago I stopped lamenting how busy life becomes at Christmas time. It does no good to gripe and complain about being exhausted or tending to special services and projects or about spending time shopping for friends and loved ones. I go into the season knowing that I'm going to be busy and that my time will be pressed. I acknowledge that my calendar will fill quickly and that my interior introvert will ache to run off into a quiet room, shut the door and hide for a few days.

But neither do I completely give in to the parts of the season that seek to divert my attention from God's work in me and in the world. One practice that helps keep me sane through Advent is what I call "holy spontaneity." It is the sort of spiritual discipline that is appropriate for any time of year, but seems especially beneficial around the busyness of Christmas.

In my vision, "holy spontaneity" simply means that I take time occasionally during December to do things that are unscripted. By "unscripted," I mean things that are not on my calendar. "Holy spontaneity" -- for me, anyway -- is made up of things that are not on the map of my life and that have no motivation behind them. In other words, they are not things that I do in order to accomplish something specific.

For me, they fit well within Eugene Peterson's definition of "sabbath time," that is, wasting time for (and with) God.

For example, during Advent I may take a drive without a specific destination. I'll just drive and see where the road takes me. I'll give attention to what I see as I drive. If I feel like stopping at a park I'll stop. If I need to get out and walk, I'll walk.

Or I'll go to a store or a mall, not to shop, but just to walk around. I'll notice people. I'll notice the colors in the store, the decorations. I'll be deliberate in compassion for those who work in those stores. I don't need to buy anything and I have no agenda. I just go.

Or I'll take a walk, just to walk. In order for it to be "holy spontaneity" for me, I'll take a different route than I usually take for my evening dog-walk. I won't plan the route, I'll just walk.

Granted, none of the things I've just mentioned sound particularly "spiritual." But in the midst of a season that can feel rushed, wearying and over-calendared, a bit of holy spontaneity can be life-giving.

Maybe this works well for me because my life is so scheduled, so tightly regimented. My calendar fills up and I have little room for flexibility. I know what needs to be accomplished each day -- whether I actually accomplish it is another matter!.

So holy spontaneity is simply doing something for which there is no plan, no agenda, no script. It means taking a piece of time here or there to be open to something unscripted that arises, to attend to what may come up without trying to force or manipulate something to be significant.

To the extent that holy spontaneity is a spiritual practice that highlights surprise, it lends itself to being more present to each moment, more aware of what is happening in the "right now."

You might want to give it a try in these last ten days before Christmas. You may find that a few moments of holy spontaneity give renewed depth and meaning to all your other moments of busyness and obligation.

And if, as you read this, you find yourself thinking, "There's NO WAY I have time for that!", then maybe this is the spiritual practice that would serve you best this Advent.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Amazed at What You Find Within

Thomas Merton followed Bernard of Clairvaux (12th century) in writing about the three Advents of Christ. The first Advent, Bernard said, was the coming of Christ in human form, born to Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem.

The third Advent will be the coming of Christ again at the end of the age.

During the season of Advent, we give most of our time to the first Advent, and a little less to the third Advent.

We seem to be slowly recovering the second Advent, which according to Bernard and Merton, is the continual coming of Christ into our lives in our times. This is an ongoing Advent that happens every day within us and in our world. Christ is born into our life-world momently, whether we notice his coming or not.

Thus, Meister Eckhart and others have urged us to prepare a space within our hearts for his birth every day -- not just for one day or one season a year!

Merton put it this way in Seven Storey Mountain: "The soul of a monk is a Bethlehem where Christ comes to be born." And not only monks, but all who give themselves to Jesus in openness and with intention, are invited to open up the stable of the heart, the Bethlehem of the heart to allow Christ's birth within.

I am drawn to meditations and art that help me open up to this birth. It can be hard to trust that God could birth something of value within me . . . yet deep within I believe that is what God does in and with each one of us. Like Mary, we open ourselves to God's work within us and we, too, bear Christ constantly in our lives.

These words, written by Kathleen Norris, helped me believe today that Jesus is being birthed in me.

The job of any preacher, it seems to me, is not to dismiss the Annunciation because it doesn’t appeal to modern prejudices but to remind congregations of why it might still be an important story. I once heard a Benedictine friend who is an Assiniboine Indian preach on the Annunciation to an Indian congregation. “The first thing Gabriel does when he encounters Mary,” he said, “is to give her a new name: ‘Most favored one.’ It’s a naming ceremony,” he emphasized, making a connection that excited and delighted his listeners. When I brood on the story of the Annunciation, I like to think about what it means to be “overshadowed” by the Holy Spirit; I wonder if a kind of overshadowing isn’t what every young woman pregnant for the first time might feel, caught up in something so much larger than herself. I think of James Wright’s little poem “Trouble,” and the wonder of his pregnant mill-town girl. The butt of jokes, the taunt of gossips, she is amazed to carry such power within herself. “Sixteen years, and / all that time, she thought she was nothing / but skin and bones.” . . . Told all her life that she is “nothing,” the girl discovers in herself another, deeper reality. A mystery: something holy, with a potential for salvation. The poem has challenged me for years to wonder what such a radically new sense of oneself would entail. Could it be a form of virgin birth?

[Meditations on Mary: With Essays by Kathleen Norris (New York: Viking Studio, 1999), 30 – 31.]

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Advent Prose -- An Ancient Prayer for the Season

On December 9, 1962, Thomas Merton referred in his journal to a text that was shaping his prayer for peace. The text is called, in Latin, the Rorate Coeli, and is taken from Isaiah. The Latin text is attributed to Aurelius Clemens Prudentius, a 4th century author, and has been said or sung for centuries during Advent, mostly in Anglican and Roman Catholic settings.

After seeing the reference in Merton's journal from 49 years ago, I was curious about this ancient text. I found that it is commonly known as The Advent Prose, and in some circles used quite frequently for liturgical prayer in corporate worship during this season.

But it also is helpful as a personal, devotional prayer-tool. As I've stayed with this prayer over the last few days, I've found it compelling, and its imagery has led me to some unexpected places in my own meditation. I'll share The Advent Prose (Rorate Coeli) with you below. You can find more information about it at

The core piece of this section of the prayer is taken from the Latin translation (Vulgate) of Isaiah 45:8, and is a prayer for God to bring forth a Saviour.

Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour forth righteousness:
let the earth be fruitful, and bring forth a Saviour.

Be not very angry, O Lord, neither remember our iniquity for ever:
thy holy cities are a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation:
our holy and our beautiful house, where our fathers praised thee.

Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour forth righteousness:
let the earth be fruitful, and bring forth a Saviour.

We have sinned, and are as an unclean thing,
and we all do fade as a leaf:
our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away;
thou hast hid thy face from us:
and hast consumed us, because of our iniquities.

Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour forth righteousness:
let the earth be fruitful, and bring forth a Saviour.

Ye are my witnesses, saith the Lord, and my servant whom I have chosen;
that ye may know me and believe me:
I, even I, am the Lord, and beside me there is no Saviour:
and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.

Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour forth righteousness:
let the earth be fruitful, and bring forth a Saviour.

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, my salvation shall not tarry:
I have blotted out as a thick cloud thy transgressions:
fear not for I will save thee:
for I am the Lord thy God, the holy one of Israel, thy Redeemer.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Christmas Illusion

Years ago I heard someone talk longingly about their past experiences of Christmas, lamenting how commercial and complicated Christmas had become. This person spoke of childhood memories of Christmas. "Christmas was much simpler then," is how the matter was stated.

He spoke of going to Christmas Eve services as a child . . . his fascination with candles lit and held by persons across the worship space . . . the beauty of the Christmas carols sung by hundreds of worshipers on that holy night . . . the colors and smells in the worship place . . . seeing everyone dressed up for that very special service. In retelling the childhood memories, there was the longing for "simplicity" and "simpler times."

It caused me to consider my own experiences of Christmas as a child. I thought of several things that had seemed very basic to my experiences of Christmas in Oklahoma; upon further consideration, however, I realized that they were actually not simple at all. What I experienced as "simple" was, in fact, hard work for someone else.

Christmas Eve services required ministers to preside, choirs to sing, ushers to ush, persons to prepare the space beforehand and to clean the space afterwards. My part? I got to attend and then go home.

Large family gatherings required that someone clean house, gather groceries, prepare the meal, and then clean up the mess afterwards. My part? I ate the meal and then took a nap.

You see how it goes. . . .

When I became a parent, I realized that my work was only beginning when the children went to bed on Christmas Eve. Of course, they wanted to stay up late to get a peek at Santa Claus. So even after going to bed, they lay there unable to sleep. Or sometimes they faked sleep in order to get an early glimpse of their Christmas presents.

Thus, it was usually very late when someone (you've guessed who!) had to assemble the bicycles, set up the toys, wrap last-minute gifts, or -- the most stupid idea I ever had -- set up the trampoline in the backyard, beginning around midnight. When the kids went to bed, well, that was the beginning of my night! There was nothing simple about it . . . except the perception.

That the season is or should be simple is an illusion . . . usually carried from childhood. It is the Christmas illusion. Advent and Christmas are no simpler than any other season of daily life.

So you might hear things like, "We (folks tend to speak in "we" language about these kinds of illusions rather than "I" statements) need to get back to the real meaning of Christmas."

The real meaning of Christmas is that Christ comes into our world, that Jesus is embodied in our lives, that God took on flesh to live among us and within us.

I don't need to run off and hide in a hole to live out that real meaning of Christmas. I am invited, rather, to engage life as it is, not as I wish it to be.

In truth, spirituality is not an escape from the real, not a way to hide from responsibilities and relationships. It is, rather, a different way to engage what is real. It is a way of entering into life as it is, not life as we wish it would be. Spirituality means engagement and encounter, not escape.

So it is of no use for me to try creating a "perfect Christmas" or to get back to some idealized notion of what we should see and feel through Advent and Christmas.

The perfect Christmas is not the one where we hide our heads in the sand, but rather the one in which we engage life-as-it-is with and for God.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A John O'Donohue Blessing for Advent

I don't think O'Donohue wrote this for Advent, but it fits -- at least for me.

For a New Beginning
John O’Donohue

In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plenitude opening before you.

Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life’s desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

[John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space between Us (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 14.]

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Thoughts on Prayer for the Season Ahead

The Church as an institution largely has failed in her task to develop people of prayer and Spirit. We could each list our reasons for the failure, and perhaps offer our own testimony as to how or why we missed the spiritual connection even in the midst of the body charged with handling spiritual matters.

I have my own litany of reasons for the impotence of the Church in helping people connect with deeper meaning and the Source of all life, and many of them are tied to personal experience and observation.

It is especially significant, I believe, that the Church has failed to help people connect more deeply and consciously with God in prayer. It has been devastating to contemporary life that prayer has come to mean discourse with God in which the one praying gets what he or she wants from God.

I don't think that's an entirely faulty supposition . . . it's just not the full extent of prayer, nor even the primary reason for prayer. Prayer that presents a wish-list to God for God's approval and satisfaction turns God into a celestial vending machine to which we go in order to get what we would like to have . . . most of the time what we cannot get for ourselves without outside help (health, self-esteem, prosperity).

Again, that way of prayer may be fine and good, but it is not enough to sustain our lives, to hold up the weight of who we are.

Rather, prayer is a life-stance, a way of being in the world with and for God. Prayer is not something that we do from time to time, and prayers are not something that we say from time to time. Prayer is who we are, the life we live in intimate connection with God.

Prayer is the consciousness we carry with us moment by moment that all of life concerns God -- not just Sunday services of worship or an occasional small group at the church.

Prayer is the awareness that we are not alone, but rather that God is with us always (in time) and everywhere (in space).

Prayer is the realization that my very life in an embodiment of God in the world, that Jesus walks where I walk and that Jesus touches what I touch.

In other words, prayer is an all-encompassing, unifying force that draws all of life together.

Because prayer is a life-stance and because it does take in all we are and all we do, we are wise if we can cultivate ways to be more consciously open to God who is present always and everywhere. We are wise to find ways to remind ourselves that we are never apart from the Source of our lives. We are wise if we can discover practices that remind us of our soul's ongoing connection to God.

Reminders of that connection are especially important in seasons like Advent and Christmas. They are important, not because these are holy seasons -- they are holy seasons -- and not because our devotion during these seasons is more important than devotion at others times.

We need to be reminded of our connection to God in the days preceding Christmas precisely because there are so many other things screaming for our attention. There are people calling our names, and the inner voices of our own expectations, and the desire to be all things to all people that fills up our calendars during December.

Please hear this: When the other voices and noises and obligations get loud, we do not lose our connection to God. No, we are still connected, as we are always connected, to the Source of everything. But we do lose our awareness (consciousness) of that connection. We can easily get swept into the tide of the season, we stop living mindfully, we get caught up in other concerns and get pulled by other centers of gravity.

Some specific spiritual practices may be important for you this Advent season. They would be practices or disciplines that would ground you through the weeks until Christmas, and would serve to remind you that all of life is prayer.

Your practice could be spending more time in saying prayers . . . but it could just as easily be something else that served to remind you that ultimately, all of life is prayer.

If you could find a spiritual practice that helped you stay aware of your life-giving soul-connection to God through this season, that's the practice I'd commend to you. If you stay faithful to that practice and carry through Advent that God-awareness, I'll promise you are more prayerful and fulfilling Christmas.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Resisting a Microwave Life

It's just my preference, I suppose, but I've never thought food tasted particularly good when microwaved. That goes back to the earliest days of microwave ovens -- and I think I had one of the originals in the early 80's. . . the thing seemed as large as a billiard table! -- right up to present.

The idea of "instant food" appeals to the part of me that wants what I want right now. Beyond food, though, the idea of instant anything is a symptom of the culture and the times. Instant communication, instant gratification, instant response-times . . . we aren't very practiced at patience and waiting. (Black Friday shopping stories became horror stories for some . . . the rush to grab and possess NOW seems bred into our contemporary psyche.)

Spirituality is not immune from the microwave syndrome.

I say often to people that there is nothing quite as slow and sloppy as prayer and the spiritual life. There is just no way to take short-cuts, no way to get to a destination without putting in the time and work.

It's not that people -- including me -- haven't tried to speed up the process. In the days when I was first exposed to spiritual disciplines and to various forms of prayer, I was so excited by my discoveries that I wanted to be an immediate expert. Because I had found something that was life-altering, I wanted to share it with others. I wanted to be farther down the road. I wanted to teach things to others I barely knew myself. Looking back, the results were not so disastrous as they were comical . . . at least I hope they were comical and that I didn't do serious harm to the folks I was dealing with.

There are many things in life, though, that cannot be sped up. The created world is a wonderful teacher . . . crops cannot be rushed to fruitfulness . . . the human body cannot be sped to physical growth . . . the animal kingdom has its own rhythm and pace.

And so spiritual progress cannot be hastened along. It happens deliberately, in God's own time. I was very mindful of this slow, unforced process recently . . . a lesson from another part of life.

In August I made a commitment to begin training in order to run a 5k race with my son on Thanksgiving Day. I began running in August, augmenting the exercise regimen I already followed. My lung capacity and leg strength built up slowly . . . some days I felt all of my 53 years, and other days I felt spry and fit.

In late October, about a month before the target date, I got sick with some kind of infection that put me on the shelf for over two weeks. I stopped running and gave attention to getting my body healthy again. I realized, though, that I was losing time in my training program that I could not get back. When I finally was able to start training again, I had to go backwards and build up my times and distances again.

I realized in those days that there was no quick way to train. There was no shortcut. There was nothing that could make up for the time I had lost, at least in the short term. With the race less than two weeks away, I could not make up for lost time. One day, I literally thought, "I have no microwave oven to put my training into." It was a sobering thought.

For instance, to double up or triple up on the training would have knocked my body completely out. What my mind said was, "Do more. Training harder. Work at it more diligently. In the two weeks that remain, if you work hard enough you can make up for the two weeks you missed." But it doesn't work that way. Thankfully, I resisted my microwave impulse. But that I considered the thought said to me that I'm not immune to the desire for a microwave life.

I'm guessing that you won't have to look long or far to find your own tendency toward a microwave life. It will be different than mine, but I'm guessing that it is there somewhere.

By the way, last Thursday morning I ran the race, the 5k . . . I didn't burn up the course, but I didn't do bad for an old, slow guy.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Advent Dawns

I notice that my life follows definite rhythms, not always predictable, but always moving, changing, shaping in different ways.

I've come to think of them as the seasons of my life. Certain seasons in my work, for instance, have a rhythm in which I experience either more or less energy, depending on the season.

My health follows a particular rhythm. In times of poor health or chemotherapy treatments, I have less energy and I'm able to engage a bit less in the rigors of daily work.

I've learned that if I can identify the season in which I find myself, it will help me to enter into it and move through it in ways that are life-giving and freeing. I have learned this lesson the hard way. I spend many years resisting seasons in which I found myself. I was convinced that life should be always "upward and onward," getting better and better, ever fluorescent, flowering and prospering. That's not reality, but I was convinced that life should be lived that way.

When I began entering into the seasonality of life, I realized that each season has its own energy, its own pace, its own needs. For instance, if you think in terms of literal seasons, winter has a different energy than summer and fall. Spring has a different energy than fall or winter. There are things appropriate to one season that may not be appropriate to another.

So a huge part of knowing myself, or "noticing my own life," is to identify where I am at any given moment, and to allow myself to be in that place as honestly and faithfully as possible. It is freeing for me to let myself be where I am, rather than trying to force myself into another place or another pattern that is not appropriate to the moment.

Some of my personal seasons move around the Church calendar. In my background as an evangelical Baptist, I did not honor the movements of the Church year much. I've discovered through the years, though, that there is tremendous energy in my life's movement in unison with the rhythm of the wider Church.

So Sunday, November 27 begins the season of Advent. It is a season of color, of patience and waiting, and of preparation. Its disciplines are helpful for me, and always seem to fit the season of my soul.

I realized last week, as I was going through the routine of breaking in a new journal, that it would begin primarily with my Advent journey for 2011. There was something significant in that for me . . . looking at a book of 196 pages, all blank, with lines awaiting me. Who knows what will make it to those pages? But some of the first things to appear there will be prayer and reflection from this season of Advent.

At another website I'll offer brief thoughts on the daily Scripture readings for Advent. You can find those reflections at I invite you to join me there over the next five weeks as we explore the season of Advent together.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Anniversaries and Thanksgivings

I'm not as faithful as some when it comes to anniversaries . . . and neither am I as forgetful as others. I remember my share of them . . . and then there are some markers unique to my life-experience that help me mark my personal seasons.

One particular anniversary has become poignant for me each Thanksgiving.

In November of 2004 I attended a retreat for our church staff at a facility a little over an hour outside Houston. I had not felt well for several weeks prior to the retreat -- I had noticed myself short of breath when I did any stair-climbing or physical work. And my flesh-tone was pale in the mirror, almost scary white. A couple of other minor and nagging physical things were going on, just enough to cause me to think that something was wrong, but none of them debilitating enough to put me on the shelf.

When I arrived at the retreat, I had to climb two flights of stairs to carry my small bag to my assigned room. I was winded, completely knocked out by the stairway. Soon thereafter I was convinced to leave the retreat and drive back to Houston to see a heart doctor . . . I imagined the shortness of breath was heart-related. Late afternoon and early evening I went through a battery of tests, then drove home. Later that night, around 9:00, the heart doctor called and said, "You need to get back to the hospital immediately. Your counts are so low, you shouldn't even be standing."

I didn't go back that evening, but the next morning I checked into the hospital. A long line of doctors came through that day, each checking and prodding. Nurses and technicians came, too, for more testing of all kinds. I had no idea what they were looking for. From hindsight, the direction of the tests was clear. Finally, after a couple of days, a medical resident brought the diagnosis . . . a form of lymphoma not too common, and one that could not be cured, only managed. Chemotherapy started immediately. I was released to go home a few days before Thanksgiving, my first round of chemotherapy in a periodic cycle that continues.

I have friends who were on that retreat . . . they remember when I left early, when I drove away for the day of testing. I remember that moment, as well. And I remember how different Thanksgiving was that year.

It is a strange marker, I'll admit, but one that I have at the front of my consciousness each November -- and more specifically, right at Thanksgiving. This week has marked 7 years of living with this diagnosis.

[I made it through a personal crisis a little over two years ago when I found an online physician's website that said the average life-expectancy of someone who has been diagnosed with this disease is 5 years. I realized that I was approaching 5 years and got hit once again with the gravity of the situation.]

This is one of the ways I mark the seasons of my life. Periods of chemotherapy marks specific seasons, and seasons of strength and good health mark other seasons. But November is especially poignant for the meaning that it has for me.

Another year. I'm thankful.

The doctor who tends to my general health is my age and long ago beat the odds of his own health challenges. He has said to me recently, "I look forward to growing old together."

Me, too.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Waiting for Things to Finally Come Clear

Sometimes I hear from people who are exposed to some idea or teaching that stands a little outside their personal believe system. In fact, often I am the "messenger" who offers an alternative viewpoint or another way of seeing something. It never ceases to surprise me that people so quickly and easily characterize something as "untrue" simply because they don't understand it or because it is outside the realm of their own life-experience.

I know . . . after so many years I should stop being surprised, yet for some reason I am. I really want to believe that as a human family we are not so narrow as to define issue and matters by "my experience" or by "my stance" . . . but I do it, you do it, we all do it.

Maybe it's just a result of our humanity, our fundamental tendency to interpret all of life from our own point of view and from the place where we sit at the center of the universe. This self-referenced stance seems hard-wired within us. We humans have a persistent capacity to whittle truth down to bite-sized portions . . . as bite-sized as our personal experience, outlook and belief systems.

In fact, I find it rather remarkable when someone is big enough to admit to the huge field of truth that lies outside their current situation. It is a significant mark of maturity to be able to say, "Yes, this is my truth . . . but it is not the full extent of truth. There are things I have yet to experience and things I have yet to understand."

The Cloud of Unknowing is a spiritual classic, a fourteenth century anonymous writing about prayer and the contemplative life. It is a classic because its insights into the spiritual journey are timeless, and especially helpful for those who are open to contemplative prayer and practice.

I've read the book (it's fairly short) several times. The first time through many years ago, I had no idea what the author was saying. Each time through, I understand more layers of meaning.

The writer of The Cloud knows he is dealing with difficult material, writing about things for which there really is little point of reference. These are mystical things, spiritual realities that don't lend themselves easily to discussion and analysis. So at one point, midway through the book, the author writes this:

"If what I am saying is correct, but does not make any sense to you, then let my instruction rest until God opens your understanding." (The Cloud of Unknowing, modernized by Bernard Bangley, p. 44)

This counsel is so very important! You read along . . . read along . . . read along some more . . . and sense that what you are reading is significant, that it is important to get it . . . but you have no idea what it means.

That happens to me a lot. I read something. I sense that it is true and probably important enough that I need to internalize it. I need it in my life. But I have no idea what the it is. It's out of reach, over my head, and beyond my grasp.

I used to get frustrated and angry about it, impatient with myself. I would fight my lack of understanding.

Now I just set it aside and say, "When the time comes, I'll understand. I'll experience. God, help me to stay open so that when the time comes, I won't miss it."

Sometimes it's days later, or maybe weeks -- more often its years later -- I'll come across the same material again, and this time I see. I get it. It makes sense.

The counsel of The Cloud parallels the ancient Oriental wisdom that says, "When the student is ready, the teacher will come." In my experience, often the teacher has been there all along, but as the pupil I have not been ready to hear or learn from the teacher.

So back to the beginning paragraphs . . . if I can admit that I'm not ready to receive everything right now, that there is some truth or teaching or experience that I'm incapable of receiving, then I can also admit to the large body of truth and goodness that is outside my current experience.

For instance, what if I were able to say, "This may be truth . . . but it just doesn't connect with me right now." So rather than dismiss it by dualistically dividing things into "true" or "false" -- which is likely conditioned by where I stand at this particular moment -- what if I stay open to and admit to a wider field of truth than my current understanding and experience? Something may be true or helpful for me, but it may also come at a time when I'm not ready to receive it.

Just because I'm not ready to receive some idea or concept or framework for life does not make it untrue or invalid. It simply means I'm not ready for it yet.

So maybe the division is not "true" or "false."

Maybe it's more like:
truth I have experienced
truth I am experiencing
truth I have yet to experience

As always, the main stance for this attitude is openness. I want to stay open to whatever comes and whatever is revealed. I want to be receptive to however God may open my understanding to something that at one time was closed to me.

This seems like a pretty important life-stance to me. The author of The Cloud offered that one little throw-away line, but it speaks to a life-stance that really is larger and more all-encompassing for the spiritual life. It speaks to a posture for moving into life with graciousness, for taking in what we are able to take in, then staying open to whatever God brings in the days ahead.

Do these things resonate within you as truth? Or do they sound like a lot of hogwash?

"If what I am saying is correct, but does not make any sense to you, then let my instruction rest until God opens your understanding."

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Another Psalm for Prayer

I've found Opening to You by Norman Fischer helpful in my prayer the last couple of years. I find his rendering of Psalm 130 to be especially poignant. Here it is for your prayer and reflection.

Psalm 130

Out of the depths I call to you
Listen to my voice
Be attentive to my supplicating voice

If you tallied errors
Who would survive the count?
But you forgive, you forbear everything
And this is the wonder and the dread

You are my heart’s hope, my daily hope
And my ears long to hear your words
My heart waits quiet in hope for you
More than they who watch for sunrise
Hope for a new morning

Let those who question and struggle
Wait quiet like this for you
For with you there is durable kindness
And wholeness in abundance
And you will loose all our bindings

[Norman Fischer, Opening to You, 159.]

Thursday, November 3, 2011

More Psalms for Prayer

Praying psalms from the Hebrew Scriptures has been an important part of my prayer practice for years. I know that many folks have difficulty with psalms because some of them express rage, partisanship and violent urges.

To be sure, the Old Testament Psalms are not meant to be sources of doctrine. To draw theological truth from them is like fishing for salmon in a South Texas lake. You're not likely to catch any.

Rather, the psalms come to us as the prayers of people in the midst of real-life angst. While the situations certainly were different for the persons praying the psalms, they no less were entangled in life-as-it-is, not life-as-it-should-be. The psalms help ground us in life-as-it-is, the real life you and I live. Further, the psalms say to us that it's ok to pray life-as-it-is, as opposed to the lofty and exalted prayer of life-as-it-should-be.

Thus, these prayers are raw and edgy, and a bit outside the mainstream. They are not interested in pretense, and they don't pretend to be polite. They engage God in the honest stuff of life. They don't coat over life with bows and fluffy bunnies. They remind me that God can handle my anger and that discourse with God is an appropriate expression for the full spectrum of my inner emotional world.

From the Hebrew Psalms, I first learned the value of honesty before God. I came to sense that God could handle my honesty about life and that even though my perspective on life was skewed, it was still the way I experienced life. And even that skewed perspective was appropriate for prayer.

I mentioned in the last post a psalm book that I recently found to be helpful in my prayer. I referenced a psalm from that book.

Today I'll post a psalm from another book I've come upon lately. This one appeals to me as a rendition of the Hebrew Psalter from the hands of a Jewish woman with a poetic background. I have found her images for God to be fresh and insightful, and her perspective as a woman to be another helpful doorway through which to enter the Psalms. Her name is Pamela Greenberg and her translation is The Complete Psalms: The Book of Prayer Songs in a New Translation.

This is how she renders Psalm 62:

For the Conductor of the Eternal Symphony,
To the Beloved, a Psalm of David

In the face of the Creator alone, my soul is silenced;
my salvation comes from the Source of Life.

Only God is my Rock and salvation,
my high place of refuge;
with my Upholder I will not stumble much.

How long will you fall upon a man?
You will slay yourselves, all of you.

You are like a leaning wall,
a fence crumbling under its own weight.

For loftiness alone
they conspire to bring me down.

They delight in deception;
with their mouths they bless
but inwardly they curse -- Selah!

Only God is my Rock and salvation --
my high place of refuge;
with the Holy One I will not stumble.

God is my salvation and my glory,
Rock of my strength, one I turn to for help.

Trust the Source of Life at all times, O people,
pour out the contents of your heart.

God is our shelter -- Selah.

In truth, humanity is nothing but vapor;
an illusion they are, all the children of women and men.

Weighed on the scales, all of them together,
they are lighter than breath.

Do not trust those who wield emblems of power;
do not empty yourselves in plunder.

Though wealth bears fruit,
don't give to it the entirety of your heart.

One thing God has spoken;
these two I have heard:

true strength comes from the Creator,
and you, my Upholder, provide kindness.

For you bring all people contentment
according to the wealth of their deeds.

[Pamela Greenberg, The Complete Psalms: The Book of Prayer Songs in a New Translation (New York: Bloomsbury, 2010), 128 - 129.]

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

New Psalm Books

I've spent time this past week praying with a couple of new versions of the Psalms of the Hebrew Scriptures. For almost 20 years I've prayed psalms as a part of my regular practice.

For a long time I prayed them as they came in the traditional translations, especially as I moved through difficult periods of life when I felt beset by "enemies" and opposition. The Hebrew Psalms gave voice to my inner indignation, allowing me a shake a fist at some other people, and even occasionally at God. It was a part of the long process of making my prayer more honest . . . not prettied up, sterile and antiseptic. The raw emotion that the psalms gave me permission to express was healing. They allowed me to let go of the stiff way I viewed God -- and myself! -- and brought a depth of soul to my God-experience that I continue to treasure.

I found Psalms 31 and 35 to be regular material for my prayer . . . verbatim . . . calling down God's imagined javelin spears on "my (imagined?) enemies."

There came a time, though, when I realized that while I was praying about my so-called "enemies," they could be praying the same psalms about me! It was quite a revelation. I don't know that the writers of the original psalms ever came to that realization, but they could have. While the psalms offer prayer from one perspective, there is most always someone on the other side praying from a different perspective.

What gave me the right to claim God for myself, and to imagine that God was my exclusive domain? At least in my situation, was not God also present and enlivening the souls of those who I labeled as opposing me? It was a huge realization, and part of the reason I began to put the Hebrew Psalms in my own words, offering the prayers with a contemplative mind. I, too, was/am an enemy, and all the ego-aggression I saw out there in others lives in me, as well.

So these days I'm especially attuned to versions of the Hebrew Psalms that carry a little different tenor. I look for versions that are nuanced, not taking sides, not spewing hatred. I look for psalms that are honest about the human condition and the illusions I cling to so desperately. The Hebrew Psalms move in that direction, but don't quite get there. Some are too partisan, their world too divided between us and them.

In the past I've used Psalms for Praying by Nan Merrill quite a bit. Years ago I was helped a great deal by her version that did not see "enemies" out there in the external world, but in here within my interior. There's a depth of contemplative understanding in that approach.

While in the hospital in 2004, I discovered Psalms for a Pilgrim People by Jim Cotter, and they gave voice to my prayer during the days of health challenges.

More recently I've gravitated toward Norman Fischer's Opening to You. Fischer is a poet and a contemplative, and both are evident in his versions of the psalms. He turns a phrase beautifully.

Now, I have two new resources. I'll mention one here, then give you the other one in a couple of days. For today I commend A Book of Psalms by Stephen Mitchell. Like Fischer, he brings a poet's vision to the psalms. I love some of his imagery. For instance, the wise in Psalm 92 are described this way:

They are planted in the dark soil of God,
and their leaves keep turning to his light.

I think I get that. "Planted in the dark soil of God" is not a common image, but is so descriptive!

Here are the few verses I spent a lot of time with last weekend from Psalm 93:

God acts within every moment
and creates the world with each breath.
He speaks from the center of the universe,
in the silence beyond all thought.
Mightier than the crash of a thunderstorm,
mightier than the roar of the sea,
is God's voice silently speaking
in the depths of the listening heart.

[Stephen Mitchell, A Book of Psalms: Selected and Adapted from the Hebrew (New York: HarperPerennial, 1993), 42.]

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Life-Metaphors: Pilgrimage

Over the last few years, R. S. Thomas has become one of my favorite poets. He was an Anglican pastor who was rooted in the land and people of Wales. In his deep love for Wales, he served a number of rural parishes and preached regularly in the Welsh language.

Consistent with his love of Wales, Thomas' poetry is earthy and real. He was not orthodox or light-hearted, but wrote verse that could be dark. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, called Thomas a "great articulator of uneasy faith."

I find his verse to be honest. He had the courage to look at the interior of things without flinching, including his own interior. In fact, he was fiercely interior. He didn't pretend about life. And he found in common life-experiences the stuff of holiness.

So for several days I've spent time with a Thomas poem that uses the metaphor of pilgrimage to a holy site -- is it Iona? or an ancient Welsh site? -- for the interior journey deeper into God. I find a couple of the images especially striking . . . his depiction of God as a "fast God" first caught my attention . . . and then the last seven lines of the poem ring true to me.

Here is the poem, simply called, "Pilgrimages."

R. S. Thomas

There is an island there is no going
to but in a small boat the way
the saints went, travelling the gallery
of the frightened faces of
the long-drowned, munching the gravel
of its beaches. So I have gone
up the salt lane to the building
with the stone altar and the candles
gone out, and kneeled and lifted
my eyes to the furious gargoyle
of the owl that is like a god
gone small and resentful. There
is no body in the stained window
of the sky now. Am I too late?
Were they too late also, those
first pilgrims? He is such a fast
God, always before us and
leaving as we arrive.

There are those here
not given to prayer, whose office
is the blank sea that they say daily.
What they listen to is not
hymns but the slow chemistry of the soil
that turns saints’ bones to dust,
dust to an irritant of the nostril.

There is no time on this island.
The swinging pendulum of the tide
has no clock; the events
are dateless. These people are not
late or soon; they are just
here with only the one question
to ask, which life answers
by being in them. It is I
who ask. Was the pilgrimage
I made to come to my own
self, to learn that in times
like these and for one like me
God will never be plain and
out there, but dark rather and
inexplicable, as though he were in here?

[R.S. Thomas, Later Poems: 1972 – 1982 (London: Macmillan, 1983), 125 – 26.]

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Stories That May or May Not Be True

For quite awhile I've noticed the re-emergence of the language of "story" and "narrative" into mainstream conversation. People say, "I want to hear your story" or "the only way we can know each other is to share our stories."

Honestly, I'm not often drawn to that language and to social or group settings where there is a lot of personal story-telling. I've thought that it was probably the strong introvert in me that shied away from those kinds of settings.

I have considered my own "story" recently -- which I suppose, is one way of saying that I've considered my personal interpretation of my life. And it has occurred to me that the narrative I tell about my life -- either in relating "who I am" to someone else, or just the endless commentaries that loop through my brain -- are all quite incomplete.

Not only are they incomplete, they also are subject to a high degree of my own internal editing. Any time I say something to someone else about the stories, events or life-situations that have shaped me, by definition I am being selective in what I tell and what I do not tell. This self-editing leads to a highly interpretive "story" about who I am and what is important to me. So in a sense, another can never really know me by virtue of what I choose to share.

And I'm beginning to see another rub . . . that I may even miss seeing myself by telling certain life-stories and events . . . attributing to some life-experiences an influence that is beyond what other, equally telling, life-events might suggest.

For instance, if you asked me about my "story," I'd probably tell you stories about difficulties in the local church and my sense of not fitting in a congregation. Around that might be stories of spite and betrayal. I can tell that "story" in such a way that it sounds like all of my experience in the local church has been tainted and stained by some "mean people out there;" the reality, however, is that the great majority of my time in the local congregation has been spent with wonderful people who truly wanted to live in a way that brought change and healing to the world. I tell that part of the story so seldom, though, that even I forget about it myself. So I begin to live into the tainted story that I tell myself.

I do the same thing with betrayals in relationships . . . or the lymphoma that lives in my body . . . I selectively tell my "story" as if certain realities shape the extent of my existence. It's not completely accurate, but it's what happens when I tell my story.

You do it, too.

I'm in a season right now where I'm trying to let go of some of the commentaries I tell about myself . . . mostly the ones I tell to myself. I'm trying to let them go, to notice what those inner voices say about me and about who I am, then to let them go in order to be fully present to the "I am-ness" of the moment.

In fact, I'm beginning to see that one of the ways we are most like God, Who was revealed to Moses in the burning bush as I-am-who-I-am, is in our being. Or to say it in another way, as God is who God is, so I am who I am.

My selective referencing of past experiences does not enhance who I am . . . it does not give me cause for pity at what I have or have not experienced . . . it need not give me a "handle" so that either I or others can grasp hold of my "true identity."

I simply am who I am.

The stories I tell about my past are a part of me, but they are not everything. Whatever I would tell you about my "story," there is always more that I have not told you. Maybe it's best not to be narrowly defined by a few life-events, difficulties, or even joyful experiences. I can notice what has happened and even notice the impact they have had on me, but without holding them and defining myself by them. I sense -- at least for me -- that the invitation of God may be to let them go, to release them, so that I can live fully in this moment.

I may change my mind about all this . . . but it's where I am for this season of life. That's my story . . . and for this moment, I'm sticking to it!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

A Rilke Poem: For Being Rooted and Rising Up

I'm thinking today about the movements of growth, which both descend and ascend. In Western society, growth is conceptualized mainly as an upwardly ascending movement in which we rise to more and more lofty heights. Most of us, I believe, intuit the lie in that imagery, yet the cultural pressure to buy into this mentality of ascent is almost overwhelming.

Yet the created world knows better . . . she knows that the journey downward sinks roots deep that are necessary before the journey of ascent begins. Descent -- or a movement to the center -- is a movement of growth, too. Sinking long, sturdy roots into the soil is essential in order to grow tall.

This work of descent mostly happens underground, beneath the realm of physical sight. In unseen ways seeds germinate, roots spread and the context for growth is laid. You cannot immediately rush to the heights without this prior, more interior work.

Rainer Maria Rilke saw this as well as anyone I've ever read. In this poem there are a number of images, mostly from the natural world, that speak to this God-created reality of movement and growth. I offer it to you for consideration and reflection on growth and becoming.

How surely gravity's law,
strong as an ocean current,
takes hold of even the smallest thing
and pulls it toward the heart of the world.

Each thing --
each stone, blossom, child --
is held in place.
Only we, in our arrogance,
push out beyond what we each belong to
for some empty freedom.

If we surrendered
to earth's intelligence
we could rise up rooted, like trees.

Instead we entangle ourselves
in knots of our own making
and struggle, lonely and confused.

So, like children, we begin again
to learn from the things,
because they are in God's heart;
they have never left him.

This is what the things can teach us:
to fall,
patiently to trust our heaviness.
Even a bird has to do that
before he can fly.

[Rainer Maria Rilke, Rilke's Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996), 116 - 117]

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Mystery of Subterranean Growth

Many years ago while on an extended retreat, the Catholic Sister who was helping me attend to prayer suggested I consider a Jesus-story in my prayer. The retreat came at a time when I was especially earnest about prayer and my own spiritual progress. I was working it hard, pushing to move toward the spiritual goals I had set for myself. This is the parable she handed me:

“This is what the kingdom of God is like. A farmer scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether the farmer sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though the farmer does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain – first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, the farmer puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.” (Mark 4:26 – 29)

For 24 hours I read it, pondered it, asked God what it meant for me, and listened to what God might say to me in it . . . basically for 24 hours I lived with these four verses. Honestly, even after years of preaching and teaching, I don’t remember encountering that text before. But almost immediately, I began to hear God’s voice in it. I heard clearly that spiritual growth and “progress” were not primarily my work, as if I could control it, manipulate it and manage it to fruition. In the short parable, I heard the voice of the Holy Spirit saying that spiritual growth is God’s business, that it happens at God’s initiative and that it is brought to fruition in God’s time and in God’s ways. It was a hard lesson for me to hear, yet something within me intuited its truth.

These many years later, I’m grateful for that parable and for the Sister who invited me into it. Almost daily I see the reality of that Jesus-story lived out in the lives of people who are striving and struggling to make spiritual progress, yet who discover in mysterious ways that God is at work far beneath the surface of their lives in hidden ways they have not considered.

That quiet, beneath-the-surface growth is hard to see. It is not showy and flashy. The prize doesn’t go to the one who manages to look or sound most holy. Spiritual development isn’t sexy and in-your-face eye-grabbing. It happens slowly and gently in the subterranean regions of the soul, down where seeds germinate in the fertile bed of God’s heart.

Here’s the deal: Spiritual growth is happening this way in you! You can’t manage it and you can’t control it. God is doing a work of shaping and reordering within you that you have no idea about. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be intentional about your prayer or that you should neglect spiritual practice; but it does mean that ultimately you can’t force the growth to happen any more than the farmer can hurry along the seed toward harvest. This is interior work, and God is in charge of it.

Then there is a corollary, radical in its simplicity and potential to change relationships: Spiritual growth is also happening in everyone else you see day to day! No one is left out! That includes the person in whom you see absolutely no sign of Spirit, the dishonest co-worker, the arrogant classmate, and the stressed-out family member. This Spirit-work is subterranean in them, also; thus, just as you cannot mark your own interior progress with God, so you will not be able to gauge where others are. You don’t need to.

So be generous with yourself. Extend yourself some grace . . . and do the same with others. There is more going on beneath the surface than you know!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Thomas Keating on True Self

People get confused and a little scattered when the words "true self / false self" are used. They are not easy concepts to grasp, yet they speak to some very core realities in the Christian spiritual life.

This morning I read a line in Thomas Keating's Manifesting God that offered a simple and helpful description, I think.

The true self is God's idea of who we are.

[Manifesting God, p. 56]

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Growing into an Adult Faith

When we were children, we did life the way children do life, in ways that were appropriate to childhood. But as we grew older, the way we did life had to mature as well. Childish ways are appropriate to childhood, but not to adulthood. (1 Cor. 13:11)

There are lots of ways to image the work of God in our lives and in the world. I find a number of images helpful as I consider who God is and what God is about in the world.

I often return to the image of growing up as a helpful way of thinking about the spiritual life. That is, spirituality is about the invitation God extends to each of us to grow up and to have a grown-up relationship with God.

It's not as easy as it sounds. You would think that by virtue of chronological age, we would each grow up appropriately. In relationship with God, though, many of us continue to live long years with the faith-framework of our childhood. We've never questioned the faith of our fathers/mothers or early pastors/teachers. They said it, I believe it, and that settles it!!

[I preached a sermon about 14 years ago in which I said that we each need to have a faith that was our own. I was responding to an old hymn that people loved, which said something about how the faith of the previous generations is "good enough for me." Some folks got very upset. I was told by one person in particular that if a certain belief system was "good enough for my grandpa, it's good enough for me!"]

On the other hand, some of us have discovered by life-experience that the faith-framework of our childhood was inadequate for the real life we were living, so we jettisoned faith altogether . . . we left the Church or decided God was a bunch of hooey or in some other way thumbed our nose at God. Rather than wrestle with other faith-structures or God-images, we walked away and gave up.

In fact, wrestling to come into a faith-framework that is my own, informed by Scripture and my own unique experience of God in the world, is one of the most difficult tasks imaginable. The process is a massive undertaking, really too large for any of us to manage or supervise on our own.

[For that reason, God works inwardly, quietly, and in ways that are beyond our understanding. Read Mark 4:26 - 29 about how God does this work in underground, almost subversive ways . . . bringing us, over time if we're open to it, to be the people we were created by God to be.]

I'm around people sometimes who are highly invested in defending God. Really, they're not defending God . . . they are defending their ideas about God, but they have so merged their own ideas with the nature of God that they cannot tell the difference. They are defending some idea of God that they've held to be sacred. But it's not really God. Their ideas have become God for them, and most of the time, you'd best not encroach on the sacred space of their ideas.

Mostly we don't look at these things easily or enter this territory willingly. We feel much too threatened when someone suggests we hold loosely our ideas about God. Thus, often it takes some kind of life-crisis to reconsider who God is and how we relate to the God who is, not the God of my childhood or the God of my wishful imagination.

And a couple of movements in the process of growing up in our faith can really scare us.

One movement is the process of dismantling or uprooting the old faith-framework, perhaps the one we've clung to from childhood. This is not to judge what our grandparents believed or what we learned from our parents or what we heard Pastor Jack preach when we were teens . . . but too many of us live in faith-houses built by grandparents, parents, pastors, teachers, friends, etc. The only faith we have is the faith they gave us.

It's as if we live in their house. And that house isn't bad, but it's their house, not our own!

So becoming a spiritual adult means that at some point, we take apart the house brick by brick, we look at it and we ask, "Is this my brick? Or is it mom's brick . . . dad's brick . . . Pastor Jack's brick that I've been living with?"

That means dismantling and uprooting ideas about God and life and spirituality and prayer and connection with God that are not your own, but belong to someone else. That they belong to someone else does not make them bad . . . it simply means they are not yours.

A couple of things tend to happen when folks engage in this work of dismantling (or when God does it secretly in our interior, as John of the Cross, Merton, and many of our spiritual writers suggest). First, we feel like we are rejecting father and mother and grandma and Pastor Jack, and who among us wants that load? But really, we're not rejecting them. We're simply saying that in terms of faith, my connection with God has to be my own. I cannot depend on their relationship with God to convey to me relationship with God. Those beloved persons from our past can inspire us and encourage us, but they cannot do the heavy-lifting of faith in God for us.

Second, as we take out the bricks of the spiritual home we have lived in, and as we consider letting them go, it can feel like we're also losing God. Of course we're not losing God. We're only losing our previous ideas about God. But this sense of dismantling the house can be very unsettling, because it feels like we may not ever have anything to replace what we are letting go. We're letting go of dependencies and attachments and ideas about God that were too small for God, anyway, but it can all feel very threatening.

The second movement is the process of rebuilding the house, rebuilding a house that is our dwelling place with God. As the childhood house of faith comes down, God mysteriously and interiorly builds our new house, our house of adult faith.

I can't give you much guidance here, because this work truly is initiated and carried out by God. I can't give you an agenda for it, or map out a strategy for it, or suggest a life-plan for carrying it out. I know that makes some folks angry . . . those of us who want to have some say-so about what this house looks like . . . the ones among us who want to be the project managers of life. Sorry . . . God does this work.

In the process of rebuilding a house that is our dwelling place with God, the most helpful postures are openness and receptivity. Be open to whatever God might suggest to you, to whatever your "adult house" might look like . . . as soon as you say, "I don't want this or don't want it to look like that," you are back in control of the process. Receive whatever God does. Cultivate a willingness to let God be expansive, not limited or bounded by your previous ideas about God. Consider things you had not allowed yourself to think before. Notice the inward tug of the Spirit within you.

I know this is difficult work, and it can be scary. It really is work! But it's the work of a lifetime, the movement toward becoming fully your truest self . . . toward growing into the purpose for which God created you and placed you in the world.

It's the work of becoming fully human, fully alive.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Few Notes on Prayer

Through the years I’ve had hundreds of conversations with persons who were interested in learning to pray. I think we each have an innate longing for God, intimacy and deeper meaning in life. Quite often folks connect that inner desire with prayer. We run into times when life feels overwhelming or when we come to the end of what makes sense to us, and something within us nudges us toward prayer. I’ve experienced it myself and seen it time after time in others.

Those moments in my own experience were pivotal. Most often they came in the midst of life that had gotten to be too much for me . . . they came when I faced crises of disease, or betrayal, or vocational crossroads.

I’ve learned through experience that prayer is not a quick-fix, short-term panacea. Prayer is hard work, and those who commit themselves to learn the rhythms of prayer make a long-term commitment.

I know that’s a hard word to hear. It’s liable to scare folks off at the very outset of prayer, but it’s the honest truth. Often I think people ask about prayer or read a book about prayer, looking for special keys or insights or motivations to pray. There have been thousands of books written about prayer.

Really though, there is no secret formula. There are helps for prayer, ways to enter into prayer that can guide us, but no one has a hidden key for prayer. There is no secret knowledge that some have and others don’t.

There are a number of obstacles to prayer, though. I’ll mention a couple of them.

First, if you want to learn to pray, you have to take time for it. And that’s an obstacle, because most of us live with our time already maxed out. Yet, I don’t know any way to soft-sell this. Certainly, there does come a point in prayer where you realize that everything you do is prayer, that your very breathing is prayer. But at least in the beginning, as we are learning prayer, we intentionally need to carve out some time for this spiritual practice.

Another common obstacle to prayer is misunderstanding who God is and what prayer is. For example, the way most of us have been exposed to prayer, it is little more than a wish-list that we present to God. God, then, becomes a Celestial Genie-in-a-Bottle who responds to our wish-list . . . if we use the right words and ask in the right way. For prayer to take root in our lives, I think this view of God and prayer has to shift.

In his landmark work, I and Thou, Martin Buber advocated personal, I-you relationships among persons and between humans and God, rather than I-it relationships that treat the other (or Other) as an object.

In healthy relationships (or friendships) there is a spirit of mutuality in which one party is not in the relationship for what he or she gets out of the other. That is true of friendships between people, and it’s true of relationship with God. In a mature, grown-up relationship with God, we are not in the relationship in order to see what goodies we can get from God. We are not faithful to God because of all the “blessings” we will get from God. We do not pray simply because it’s a quick and painless way to access the "storehouse" of the Creator of the universe.

Rather, prayer is about relationship, intimacy and communion. In a growing life of prayer, we are drawn ever-deeper into God.

Thus, some of our misconceptions about God and the world are dismantled and re-shaped. But you have to be willing to begin, and you have to be willing to stay at it.

Which brings me to the two key qualities necessary to learn how to pray. First, you have to begin. That’s right, begin . . . right where you are. Just start. If you wait until this happens or that falls into place, you’ll never get started. There will always be excuses not to pray. Begin where you are. Just jump in.

And the second quality necessary to learn prayer – like unto the first – is this: Keep at it! That’s right. Stay with it. Try out different prayer methods. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Try praying the psalms . . . praying for others . . . silent prayer . . . praying the scriptures . . . praying with a prayer book/guide . . . meditative prayer . . . prayers written by others . . . body prayer. As you keep at it, you’ll find a rhythm that fits you . . . your own unique way of being with God. That’s really the reason we pray . . . to connect with God and to be conscious of our ongoing connection with God in a way that is unique to us.