Reflections by Jerry Webber

Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Rilke Poem: About Attending to the Patterns of Our Days

Orchard and Road

In the traffic of our days
may we attend to each thing
so that patterns are revealed
amidst the offerings of chance.

All things want to be heard,
so let us listen to what they say.
In the end we will hear what we are:
the orchard or the road leading past.

[Rainer Maria Rilke, "Orchard and Road" from the Collected French Poems, quoted in A Year with Rilke, trans. by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 131.]

Quakers say, "Let your life speak" or, "Listen to your life." It's more than just a saying that encourages us to live large.

I realize that when I'm faced with a decision or with some choice that feels significant, something inside me already knows what to do. I think that's true for all of us. It's the part of a human being I'd call "soul," or the "God-seed" within, that part of our being that already is connected and rooted in the soil of God's goodness. The soul is grounded in the reality of all that is. It knows what to do.

[Note: Mary Oliver begins her classic poem, "The Journey," with those very words:

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began
. . .]

So Quakers might say to us, "Listen to your life. Let it speak. It will tell you what to do." For many of us, that may seem easier said than done.

In the poem above, Rilke suggests much the same thing. "In the traffic of our days," he says, pay attention to each thing, to the movements and patterns and thoughts and reactions. Attend to what happens. Don't stumble blindly through the day, through the "traffic," as if the ordinary and mundane did not have some significance. Maybe in another day or from the wisdom of another tradition, he would say, "Live reflectively" or "Be mindful."

Because there are patterns at work within us, and perhaps there are predictable patterns at work in the world. The patterns of the world may have to do with image and conformity and popular notions of what it means to be successful; we are invited, though, to notice the more intimate patterns of our own DNA through the traffic of our days.

And to quote yet another poem that has come to mean a great deal to me, if we are not mindful of the exterior patterns or rhythms which press in upon us and to which we give ourselves and which we assume to be true in the world,

"a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong God home we may miss our star.
(William Stafford, "A Ritual to Read to Each Other")

We tend to assume the patterns others have made (the "wrong gods") and miss the patterns that live within us ("our star")! The patterns and assumptions that are woven into our essence are waiting to be heard. They are, in Stafford's image, the "star" we must follow.

In the second stanza of Rilke's poem, he repeats three times the image of "heard . . . listen . . . hear."

Then he says it: The attending and listening is so that we might "hear what we are."

It takes a radical leap of faith to trust God . . . maybe even more radical to trust ourselves and our own capacity to hear and live into "what we are."

This, however, is the ultimate vocation of every human being. This is what we are made for. This is who we are.

We begin to live into this vocation by attending to the patterns of our days.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Fruit That Feeds the Hungry

John 15:12 - 17

"My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because servants do not know their master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit — fruit that will last — and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other."

The Gospel reading for today begins and ends in "love." What stirred me, though, came in the middle of the paragraph . . . the initiative of Jesus in choosing me (because I generally think that what happens in my life comes as a result of my choices, my initiative, my influence) and then the “appointment” upon me to “bear fruit.”

“Fruit” comes at the end of the tree, literally the produce of the tree’s essence. The fruit that hangs at the end of the tree only reflects what is within the tree, what begins in the roots and is real through the trunk. The fruit that appears at the end of a branch is always consistent with what is happening in the roots and within the trunk of the tree.

Further, at the right time, the tree drops the fruit or it is picked. It does the tree no use to hold onto fruit. In fact, to do so would do great harm to the health of the tree. The tree, rather, lets go of the fruit, trusting that with a healthy root system, with bark in place, with a trunk sturdy to bear the tree’s weight, more fruit will come.

I tend to think of the fruit that grows at the outer limbs of my life as my creativity, my giftedness, and all the ways I spend myself in the world. That takes a number of forms for me, as yours does for you. Always, though, the fruit expresses what is within the root system and trunk. So the fruit is not the only thing going on. In fact, in order to be fruitful it’s more important to tend to the roots, to nourish the unseen parts of the tree than to obsess with what is seen.

It’s a metaphor that helps me understand who I am and how I am invited to express my being in the world. For the unseen, interior, more soulful, rooted aspect of my existence is my essence, my true “name.” In another analogy, it contains the song I’m to sing in the world. The fruit at the end of the branch, then, is the tangible expression of that essence in the world. In short, it is what I do or what I produce.

In the John 15 passage, I hear the invitation of Jesus to bear fruit in the world, that is, to feed the world with my unique fruitfulness. It’s not as easy as it sounds . . . for I recognize in myself a tendency to want my fruit to look like someone else’s fruit.

I see some tremendous good being done in the world and I want to be a part of that. I want to do it just that way! I want to join my life to that train, to that person, to that ministry, to that movement.

I’m afraid traditional expressions of Christianity don’t do us many favors here. We’re accustomed to hearing or reading that there are certain things we should all do as Christians, the non-negotiables of Christian life that are for all of us. It’s a kind of one-size-fits-all contemporary Christianity. There are certain things that real Christians do, and of course, certain things that those who are not Christians ("unreal Christians"??) do!

Really, though, I think that’s part of the naiveté of the religious people of Jesus’ time, and partially why he pushed back so hard against them. They insisted on laws that everyone followed and a lock-step, mindless adherence to a system for the sake of adherence to the system. The end result was a monochromatic religion in which the personal creation of each human was distilled away.

How do I – and how do you – find my uniqueness and the particular way that I’m invited to live out my vocation and spend the fruit of my life in the world?

In one of his early books, Frederick Buechner wrote that vocation or calling is that place where your deepest love/passion meets the hunger of the world. That’s still a helpful way for me to think about calling.

So I consider what I love, what passions run wild in my soul. That’s the essence of my root system, the base of my “tree.”

Then I consider what the world around me is hungry for. What do the people around me need? What is the cry of my life-world? Do I have any fruit on my tree to offer this hunger?

There are some hungers around me that I can acknowledge, but if I try to feed them I will only do more harm than good. The fruit I have may not satisfy every hunger. I have to know my limitations, what I actually have so that I’m not trying to give fruit I do not actually have to give. I cannot give someone else's fruit. I cannot do all things. I cannot give what I do not have. I cannot be all things to all people.

But there are some cries that I hear regularly, and they are cries for which I have some fruit, borne of my unique tree. It is this fruit Jesus invites me to offer . . . the fruit I have, not the fruit I don’t have.

For me this is the intersection at which I’m invited to live out the one-of-a-kind life that God has appointed to me.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Judgment Day 2011, part 2

It's 10:07 p.m.

Where is everybody?

Judgment Day 2011

There is never a period of history in which someone, somewhere is not fired up about a pending Judgment Day. I'm old enough to remember that in the late 1970's, some folks somewhere predicted the date of the Second Coming of Christ and went to live on their rooftops for a few days. Apparently, they wanted to be that much closer to heaven so they could meet Jesus a few feet before everyone else.

I've lived through enough of these predicted dates to see a pattern in them. For those who pronounce them and those who propagate them, there is most always a "turn or burn" element to the prophecy. The forecast becomes an opportunity for division, separation and exclusion. Some perish, some live. Some make it, some don't.

I'm interested today in a couple of things . . . and neither of them really concerns whether today really is the day or not.

I'm interested, for one, in the people who have quit their jobs and have spent days, weeks and months getting the word out about this Judgment Day. Some have left homes, family, work, and other responsibilities to go on the road and spread the word. They seem to be sincere people. And to hear them talk, there is a hint of obligation in their voices. There is also an undercurrent of fear . . . the fear that if they don't get out there and tell what they "know", then they will have to pay the consequences, too.

In short, there seems to be a need within persons to work themselves to the "good side of the ledger," so to speak. So they announce, proclaim, and bull-horn their way across the land in hopes that they are doing enough good to be rewarded in the afterlife.

If you pin your hopes on a system of good works and merit, then you don't want to have a ledger that lacks effort, works, and lots of courageous, in-your-face deeds when the final score is tallied.

I'm not belittling them, because in a sense these are courageous people who have completely given themselves to this pronouncement. There is something to admire in their willingness to walk out to the end of the limb for what they believe.

But that brings me to the second thing that stands out to me today. There is a notion of God underlying all this frantic activity that is unmistakable. The God of this Judgment Day is a God who separates and divides, a God of punitive judgment and ferocious vengeance who is going to get even with persons who are on the wrong side of the moral ledger. This thinking traffics on an image of God who is a cosmic Scorekeeper, primarily invested in keeping scores and settling accounts.

Such a God has little interest in healing wounds or mending lives, but in a strict moral justice that declares some in and some out. This God has to be appeased by our good works and tireless efforts. This God is more willing to "cast out" or "cast away" than to "draw in" and "bring together."

Yet, in most every expression of Christian spirituality through the centuries, God is imaged as one who brings together rather than dividing. After all, Christian spirituality has affirmed -- since Jesus -- that the ultimate goal of life is "union" or "Divine union." This union is not accomplished through moral good works or by our human efforts. It is received as we open ourselves . . . received as a gift that can be bestowed only by God. We don't earn it, achieve it, deserve it. Union with God is an act of generosity, entirely consistent with the character of God.

So all these pronouncements about May 21 and Judgment Day have merely invited me to consider afresh, "Who is God to me?"

"What do I believe fundamentally about God?"

"How have I experienced God, not theoretically, but practically in the real life that I live?"

Given those questions, May 21, 2011 looks much different for me than for many other folks. If life as we know it ends today, I'm okay. I'm not worried about my ledger. I can't accumulate enough to even the score.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Kissing the Moment's Joy

William Blake imaged the human tendency to grasp and hold onto joy and happiness in his poem, "Eternity."

The one who binds to self a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But the one who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise.

Blake drew a word-picture of a butterfly lightly skipping through the air. For him the butterfly represented delight, the fleeting here-now-gone-in-a-moment experience of finding deep joy in a moment and wanting to hold onto that joy.

Using the image of the butterfly, my translation of "binding to self a joy" is simply the desire to catch and hold the "joy" as it flies past. If you've ever chased a butterfly -- or watched a cat's futile tries to catch a butterfly -- you know how difficult the task is.

Blake described well the human condition: We want to bottle and save those moments that seem most right, most joy-filled. I'm convinced we want to save them so we can pull them out later, relive them, or even to make them happen again. There is something quite controlling in our response to joy. We want the secret formula so we can recreate the moment at our whim.

[Sidebar: I think that's why we often take so many pictures of significant life-moments or life-experiences. Yes, it's good to have the memories and I take the pictures, too. But the pictures capture a moment that can never be recreated. Wendell Berry's poem, "The Vacation" captures marvelously the traveler in a boat who is so busy taking pictures on his vacation that by the end, he had lots of pictures of his vacation, but he had not actually experienced his vacation. It's a chillingly good poem.

For instance, have you ever taken a trip that was grand and significant for you . . . for whatever reason? And then, some time later, you began to consider taking a trip back to the same place, or with the same people. At some level, we hope for the same significant experience we had before.]

According to Blake's poem, though, when we "bind to ourselves the joy," when we catch and hold onto the delight, we squeeze it and possibly destroy it. What's true of butterflies also may be true of delight.

In "Eternity," Blake counseled instead that we "kiss the joy" as it flies past. We kiss it, acknowledge it, bow before it, recognize that as it flies past we are on holy ground. But we do not grasp it, squeeze the life out of it, and bottle it for later.

The joy is not ours to control. It comes as gift.

Further, holding the joy occupies out hands, closes us to what might be next. Grasping what has just happened means that we may miss the next thing that happens.

Kissing the joy, on the other hand, frees us to receive the next moment, which holds its own promise, which is full of its own delight.

Granted, this is a difficult discipline that runs counter to our instincts . . . perhaps counter to our tendency to "hoard" experiences. But it moves us into so many parts of life in a healthy, open way.

We receive and let go . . . receive and let go . . . receive and let go. We can never get to the end of the pattern.

God is waiting always for our empty hands . . . because God always has more to give us.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Imaging the God Who Is Like Me

These words, the voice of God in Psalm 50, caught my eye:

These things you have done and I kept still,
and you thought that I am like you. (Ps. 50:21)

Because I spend quite a bit of time in the Hebrew Psalms, I notice the tendency of pray-ers to identify with God. It happens often in the Psalms. And it happens often in me and others.

My enemies must be God's enemies.

The things that anger me must anger God.

When I am slighted or treated unfairly, God has been slighted.

I seem always to take myself and my outlook as the point of reference around which God orbits.

This seems to be a fundamental human predisposition, to reduce God to my emotions, my limitations, and my potentialities. Though created in God's image, we live as if God were shaped to our image. There is something in the human condition that makes me want to take the limits of my vision for the limits of the world, or the limits of reality.

In short, this thinking reflects the human tendency to see myself at the center, while everything and everyone else -- including God -- floats at the periphery.

"You thought that I am like you," God said. Rather than live into the largeness of God, we shrink God to our size.

Really, it's a ludicrous notion . . . the God of the cosmos, reduced to fit into my pocket.

The spiritual life, as I have come to understand it, is basically a continual invitation into the largeness of God. The expansiveness of God stretches across all that is real and true, and encompasses every aspect of life without exception. Certainly, a small God feels safer, more manageable and controlled. But even when God became one of us -- in Jesus -- he gave up safety and manageability for a radical life of love and generosity.

Jesus lived large . . . expansive. He pressed the borders and explored the great landscape of God.

As Jesus entered into this largeness and proclaimed that expansiveness to others, he called it the kingdom of God.

As for me, I find it much easier to bend God to my liking than to engage the difficult work of entering into God's expansiveness. It's easier to live small, not as demanding. I basically don't have to change a thing.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Giving Away

The Gospel passage given for prayer and reflection today is John 6:52 - 57.

This is Jesus, giving himself away as food and drink, spiritual sustenance for others. This "giving away" is consistent with the life of God in him. It is the nature of love to give itself away.

This, too, is the life to which we are invited.

John 3:16 is a cornerstone passage for many Christians. For some it is the first verse of scripture they ever memorized. You may be able to quote it easily:

"For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."

I've most often heard this verse quoted with reference to the death of Jesus, that God gave Jesus to die as a substitute for us ("substitutionary atonement" is the 2-bit word for the doctrine that arose in the Western Church). John 3:16 has been used so frequently for the death of Jesus that we might have difficulty pulling it out of that understanding and setting it into another context.

Rather than reading "death" into this statement, hear it simply as an expression of the nature of God. Hear these Jesus-words as a statement, a proclamation of the generosity and love of God. This is God's nature, Jesus seemed to say, to be loving and to express that love in generosity. God is a Self-spender, so to speak, generously giving Self away.

And Jesus participated in that God-spending. As God gave away God's Self to the world, so Jesus gave himself away.

So my question may be: "What self do I have to give away?"

My first thought is that the self I most often give away is my false self, my ego-self, my illusory self that is constructed of all the images and appearances that I want to project to the world. I give away my self which originates in the musts and oughts and shoulds that govern my life.

If this is the only self I have to give away -- or at least the only self I know about -- then I am giving something to the world that is toxic, unhealthy and illusion.

The gift of Jesus, the great gift he shared with all people, was that he freely gave away not what was false and illusory, but his own fullness, truth and authenticity. He gave away what it meant to be God. He was fully himself, fully human, fully who God created him to be, yet he did not cling to that and milk it for all it was worth. (Read Paul's words in Phil 2:1 - 11 for a commentary on the self-giving of Jesus.)

Typically this isn't my way of doing life. If I find something good or if I come into something that enhances my well-being, I want to hold onto it and keep it close. I want to hoard it for myself.

There is something about the human person becoming whole and complete, though, that demands to be given away, to be shared with others in generosity. It is not the generosity that has to be prompted or provoked or persuaded. It is the generosity that flows from our most authentic selves. It is loving and giving for the sake of generosity and mercy.

Because there is something within us -- I'll call it soul -- which intuits that the more we spend and give away, the more we will be replenished. The giving away of true self means that we always have more true self to give away.

To live this way simply witnesses to the life of Christ within us.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Living Large in the Land

"Dwell in the land and feed on its riches."
(Psalm 37:3b)

Over the years I've found the image of landscape and terrain to be helpful in framing the spiritual life and prayer. I think of how we each enter this vast god-landscape in different ways, and how we tend to congregate in a particular part of the terrain.

We "camp out" there, so to speak, or build villages in particular parts of the land, along with others who want to make that part of the land their home, also. We can get very comfortable and settled in an acre or two of a vast land that stretches far beyond the limits of our imagination or journeys.

For some persons, there comes a point at which they feel drawn out of the safety of the camp and into the largeness of the land, exploring different ways of prayer and opening themselves to experiences of God's Spirit that deepen their knowing of the land. While we can do this exploration in the company of others, mostly it is a solitary journey, for no one else can do the work of exploration for you.

There are guides, however, who have walked just a little ahead and have seen a bit more of the terrain than we have. These guides are valuable partners on the journey deeper into the interior of the landscape, for they are able to encourage us and to help us beware of the pitfalls to which travelers often succumb. Some of these guides are wise elders who lived long ago, and some of them are contemporaries, offering their wisdom face-to-face, so to speak.

This weekend I've wrestled around with images from Psalm 37, trying to hear the psalm in fresh ways. The psalm is about trust and delight and the vast "land" of God.

"Dwell in the land and feed on its riches," (Ps. 37:3b) I read. I played around with that phrase, holding up to the light and turning it slightly this way and that way in order to catch the variety of its facets. I found myself writing these words to express poetically what this verse strikes within me:

Live large in the terrain God has laid out for you;
explore its vastness,
live in it fully,
take your nourishment from its abundance.
If you live large in the land,
the land will sustain you.

I was somewhat taken aback that I wrote those last two lines. For as much as I've thought of life with God as a vast landscape, I don't remember thinking that by living large in the land, the land would sustain me.

Yet, I was drawn to those words. There is something about this land that provides sustenance and nourishment to those who walk it, to those who explore it. In fact, the provisions we bring with us and stuff into our backpacks only weigh us down on this journey. This journey invites us to "live off the land," to travel light, to find in the journey itself all we need to sustain us.

The words I wrote came, as best I can tell, from deep within me, from that soulful place where I am most intimately connected to God.

Do I believe these words? Certainly, I have some hesitation . . . but most importantly, there is a part of me that believes them completely. And that's the part of me that I hope grows to guide my steps.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


I heard this last week . . . it seems to be true, at least for me.

Everybody wants to be transformed, but nobody wants to change.