Reflections by Jerry Webber

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Window into My World

Last week someone shared a short book review with me about a new book of poetry by Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry journal. I read the review and added the book -- Every Riven Thing -- to my wishlist.

Tuesday, my poet/English teacher/soul-friend son in Arkansas sent me a magazine article from Poets & Writers magazine about Christian Wiman. Turns out he has the same form of “incurable cancer of the blood” that I have . . . Waldenstrom’s macroglobulinemia. I placed the order for his book of poetry that day.

Yesterday I read an online essay Wiman wrote about 4 years ago in which he wrote eloquently and passionately about his faith, life and the disease that lives in his blood. This is the link:

In the article he writes about love, disease and a faith reclaimed with words like these:

I was brought up with the poisonous notion that you had to renounce love of the earth in order to receive the love of God. My experience has been just the opposite: a love of the earth and existence so overflowing that it implied, or included, or even absolutely demanded, God. Love did not deliver me from the earth, but into it. And by some miracle I do not find that this experience is crushed or even lessened by the knowledge that, in all likelihood, I will be leaving the earth sooner than I had thought. Quite the contrary, I find life thriving in me, and not in an aestheticizing Death-is-the-mother-of-beauty sort of way either, for what extreme grief has given me is the very thing it seemed at first to obliterate: a sense of life beyond the moment, a sense of hope. This is not simply hope for my own life, though I do have that. It is not a hope for heaven or any sort of explainable afterlife, unless by those things one means simply the ghost of wholeness that our inborn sense of brokenness creates and sustains, some ultimate love that our truest temporal ones goad us toward. This I do believe in, and by this I live, in what the apostle Paul called “hope toward God.”

Today his poetry book came. I opened it randomly and read the first two poems I came to. They were intense, containing familiar images I recognized from our common disease, real with pain and real with hope. I had to put the book down after those two poems -- painful to read -- yet I cannot wait to pick up the book again.

Most often I don't know what to say about the disease I live with. People who love me want to know how I'm doing. But generally, most folks really don't want to hear that much about the disease. In my silences and alone-moments, it can be depressing enough for me. Surely it must be so for others as well.

Often, people will ask in kindness how I'm doing, but I'm never sure how much to say, how much they really want to know.

Two lines in one of Wiman's poems:

"How are you?" Pity soaks the moment like wet bread.
Do I spit it out, or must I gum this unguent down?

It's difficult to put my inner landscape into words. Sometimes when I try to find language for the shape of my inner world, it just feels cheap.

I shared these Wiman articles with colleagues this afternoon. I'm writing this out tonight in this space because the two articles and the book of poetry provides as much of a window into “my life and world” as anything I’ve read. I suppose I would say, "Here. Read this article. Read this poem and that poem. This is how I feel. This is what it feels like to be me. These are my doubts and these are my hopes. Here are my dreams and there is my dream-impotence. This is something of the shape of my inner world."

Certainly his experience is different from my experience, but many of the questions and struggles are similar. His vocabulary is familiar. He says eloquently what I struggle to put into words in my own existence about my life and the cancer within me. It feels like I'm getting a glimpse into my own soul from a fresh angle.

So I share it with you.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Loaf That's in the Boat: Trusting What's within You

Mark 8:14 - 17

The disciples had forgotten to bring bread. They had only one loaf with them in the boat.

"Be careful," Jesus warned them. "Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees. And watch out for the yeast of Herod."

They talked about this with each other. They said, "He must be saying this because we don't have any bread."

Jesus knew what they were saying. So he asked them, "Why are you talking about having no bread? Why can't you see or understand? Are you stubborn?"

This passage is a head-scratcher. Read straight through with a literal mind, it raises questions.

The disciples of Jesus forgot to bring bread . . . but there was a loaf of bread in the boat with them.

The disciples said, "We don't have any bread," . . . but there was a loaf in the boat with them.

Jesus said, "Why are you talking about having no bread? Why can't you see or understand?" . . . because there was a loaf in the boat with them.

At one level, this takes the dullness of these disciples of Jesus to a new level. Are they really such slackers that they can't even see the one loaf they have in the boat? Are they truly that unobservant?

I think the story may have other levels of meaning for us. The Gospels, after all, are always working on us at multiple levels. Certainly, there is a way of looking at the obvious meaning of the text, at what it says right there at surface level. But there are also levels of meaning which must be uncovered. Part of the work of prayer is to listen more deeply, to hear some of the subterranean rumblings in a given passage with the ear of the heart.

Early Christians understood many of the "boat" stories in the four Gospels as stories that described both their personal lives and their life together as the people of God. For instance, in the story of the disciples on the stormy sea, the Church saw herself as that boat drifting amidst a stormy society which was trying to eliminate the followers of Christ. Their experience with the Roman Empire colored their understanding of the text. They became the boat, lonely and against the odds of wind and wave. But in that story, Jesus walked out to the boat, he came to them in the dark of night.

Further, "bread" is an image for sustenance and nourishment. A single loaf of bread may hearken back to the experience of the Israelites in the wilderness who were fed manna each day. There was only enough for that day, then the next day they had to go out and collect it again. On top of that, Jesus taught us to pray for "daily bread," no more and no less. This daily bread is enough and it is provided. God gives what is sufficient for the day.

So you might say that these disciples had in their boat "daily bread," enough for that moment.

So imagine for a moment that in the Mark 8:14-17 text, the boat stands for the Church or for the lives of those who follow Christ. There is a loaf of bread in the boat that represents what they have within themselves. You would think they could notice what was already present to them, but they do not.

Instead, the disciples lament that they did not bring more bread. This is consistent with how they are portrayed often in the Scriptures. For example, they want to feed hungry crowds by "going to buy" bread in the outside world. When Jesus says, "YOU give them something to eat," they have no idea what to give the hungry people. While they want to find resources in the outside world to give people ("go and buy bread"), Jesus wants them to give of the resources they already have within themselves ("you give them something to eat").

I think this little story in Mark 8 is about the inner resources that the followers of Christ have. The story seems to say, "There is a loaf within the boat, but you have to recognize it and acknowledge that it is present."

Most all of us are like the disciples, not recognizing the resources that God has placed within us already. We are continually looking in the outside world for something that will make us complete, that will help us achieve our goals, that will make us "more" of what we think God wants us to be. We read books and attend classes and go to conferences and try to be faithful to our congregation, trying desperately to get what we think we need.

I wonder if God might be saying to me or to any of us: "What is within you already is enough. You just need to uncover it and trust it. Enough has been given. Look within. Let the connection you have with Me grow, deepen, strengthen. You have a loaf in your boat. You don't need someone else's loaf. Your boat doesn't need to look like someone else's boat. Trust what you have. Trust what I've given you."

That may be the biggest part . . . trusting what I already have. In spiritual conversations with folks, I find that many people don't find it nearly as hard to trust God as to trust themselves, to trust that they hear God, that they are connected to God in unbreakable ways, that they can be loved, that they have a vocation and a life to offer in the world. We don't trust what God is doing within us. We don't trust those things about ourselves. We may see it in others, but we often don't trust it in ourselves.

So here's a word about trusting what's within you, trusting your inner resources. I doubt that you'll ever find anything in the external world that will make you complete, if you can't first of all embrace what is within you, what has been given already.

You have a loaf in your boat.

The Beauty of You: A Rilke Poem

The Beauty of You
by Rainer Maria Rilke

In deep nights I dig for you like treasure.
For all I have seen
that clutters the surface of my world
is poor and paltry substitute
for the beauty of you
that has not happened yet . . .

[In A Year with Rilke, trans. and ed. by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 25. Originally in Rilke’s The Book of Hours II, 34.]

Friday, February 11, 2011

Reaching out for the Things I Can't Reach

Where Does the Temple End, Where Does It Begin?
by Mary Oliver

There are things you can’t reach. But
you can reach out to them, and all day long.

The wind, the bird flying away. The idea of God.

And it can keep you as busy as anything else, and happier.

The snake slides away; the fish jumps, like a little lily,
out of the water and back in; the goldfinches sing
from the unreachable top of the tree.

I look; morning to night I am never done with looking.

Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing around
as though with your arms open.

And thinking; maybe something will come, some
shining coil of wind,
or a few leaves from any old tree –
they are all in this too.

And now I will tell you the truth.
Everything in the world

At least, closer.

And, cordially.

Like the nibbling, tinsel-eyed fish; the unlooping snake.
Like goldfinches, little dolls of gold
fluttering around the corner of the sky

of God, the blue air.

[Mary Oliver, Why I Wake Early (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004), 8 – 9.]

This Mary Oliver poem found me last week as I spent a day on retreat. I've stayed with it in the days since and it keeps speaking into my life. There are images that strike me in the poem, but I really haven't moved beyond the first two lines yet.

There are things you can’t reach. But
you can reach out to them, and all day long.

The poem came to me in a season in which I have some uncertainty about what the future holds. I have a sense of interior unsettledness about the days ahead, and it has threatened to shut me down. I'm tending to feel myself withdrawing, pulling into myself, to keep from getting too far outside of myself. In my honest, self-reflective moments, I realize that my vision has gotten small and narrow. My capacity to dream is constricting.

I was drawn to these words in the poem, though, and for days brought them into my prayer. I considered the things in my life I was invited to reach out for, even if I would never reach them. I felt invited to continue extending myself outward, reaching out, not contingent on whether I would reach the end or not.

My reflections were fruitful. I wrote some poetry around the ideas that arose in me. I worked with the image artistically.

A few days into the poem, someone asked me about my health. I recited the most recent medical report. Then this person asked, "What are your dreams? What are you stretching toward?" Even though I had been working with this poem, I gave some lame, health-based answer about not being able to look very far ahead, not feeling like I was in a place to dream any longer. This wise friend said, "So what? Do you think you should let that stop you from dreaming?" I realized she was right.

Over a decade ago, one of the poems that drew me into poetry, and specifically to the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, was a poem in his Book of Hours in which he said, "I live my life in expanding orbits . . . I don't know that I shall reach the last, but that is my aim." Rilke and Mary Oliver are talking about the same thing.

To live life in expanding orbits . . . whether I ever come to the last or not. . . .

There are things I cannot reach . . . but I will reach out to them.