Reflections by Jerry Webber

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Singing a New Song

God put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.

(Ps. 40:3)

Sing to the Lord a new song,
sing to the Lord, all the whole earth.

(Ps. 96:1)

Sing to the Lord a new song,
for the Lord has done marvelous things.

(Ps. 98:1)

"A new song" . . . the phrase shows up frequently in the Hebrew Psalms. I've long been willing to pray and sing the words, but I haven't always known what I was saying.

Is it simply a unique way of putting together some chords and lyrics, cutting and pasting chord patterns and some rhyming words? Is that "singing a new song"?

When does a "new song" become an "old song." I mean, it's new the first time through, right?

Then it's almost new . . . then sorta new . . . then kinda new.

I'm fond of a version of Psalm 40 put to music by Bono, the Edge, and the rest of U2. It's a great song, and my friend Peter Johns does a wonderful version of it for our weekly Contemplative Worship. The song's chorus goes like this:

I will sing, sing a new song
I will sing, sing a new song
How long to sing this song?
How long to sing this song?
How long, how long, how long,
How long to sing this song?

By the time you sing that chorus three or four times in the course of the song, you get to the end and want to sing a "used-to-be-new song to the Lord."

If a "new song" is just a metaphor, a clever device aimed at getting us to think outside the ruts of our lives, outside the places where we are stuck, where we are stale and dragging through sameness, then it works with me for awhile. It gives some temporary hope that when the world seems small and closed-in, the narrow field of possibilities really is larger than I had thought. There are doors of possibility I haven't seen, or haven't acknowledged. These doors that I haven't seen or stepped into may be the "new song" of my life.

So as a metaphor, it may work in the short term for getting me to open up a bit to the God-shaped possibilities for life.

I want to suggest a meaning for "new song" more basic and fundamental. I think the new song I am to sing is my life, my unique life, one-off-a-kind, lived as only I can live it.

My new song is the unique way I am connected to God, and it is the unique way I am connected to you, to others, and to the world.

My one-of-a-kind life is the new song I have to sing . . . and your one-of-a-kind life is the new song you have to sing.

It is a new song because it has never been sung before. No one else has ever lived your life. No one else has ever faced the exact set of challenges you face, has celebrated the specific joys you celebrate, has been connected to God in just the way you are, or has lived among the specific set of people you have.

If nothing else, your family and friends and neighbors and co-workers -- the whole web of relationships you have -- make your life entirely unique.

You are not invited to live your life the way I live my life. . . or the way anyone else lives their life. You are invited to the fullness of your unique life, as I am invited to my unique life. I sing my song, you sing your song.

And the song I sing is always a "new song," always different and fresh, because each day my life is different. Each day I am presented with new possibilities and new challenges and new ways of being in the world for God. So on and on into the future, the song my life sings is ever-new.

You don't have to find the pre-ordained notes to the score God has written. As God lives within you, inhabits you, energizes you, you are the score. Your moment-by-moment life is the pattern of notes, the harmony to the song you are given to sing and to be.

I hope you can sense, then, that your new song is not something to figure out, to wrestle with and struggle over as you try to come to whatever your song is. Usually we think about the "will of God" as something difficult to find, something that takes great effort to discern. Rather, in this view, your new song is something to live, something to be. It is your everyday, ordinary life lived with God for the good of the world.

Your very life is a new song, non-repeatable, creative, expansive and uniquely your own.

Don't try to sing someone else's song. Sing your song. Live your life.

Several days ago, this is how I imaged my new song in the language of Psalm 96:1 - 2:

I sing to you a new song,
the only song I can sing,
the song of my life,
played out for you in my own tune,
the tune no one else can play.

I sing my song to you before the whole world;
I sing my life to you and it mirrors your Name;
my song, a testimony to your goodness and generosity
toward me every single moment of every single day.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Difficult Struggle of Noticing My-Self

I've had a couple of sleepless nights this week . . . and that's not a good thing on several levels. For one, it means that the next day is going to be long and exhausting. The upside is that the next night I'm almost assured of sleeping through the night.

But when I lay in bed sleepless, I also have a tendency to pick apart some of the people and situations around me. I'm not talking about the kind of racing mind that comes when I'm on chemotherapy and steroids -- that's crazy and crazy-making! -- and my mind won't stop running at full speed in circles.

This week I've laid in bed for hours at a time to a running inner commentary recounting hurts and slights and personal injustices . . . giving interior angry speeches and making silent ultimatums. It's crazy-making in its own way.

I had enough snap to realize that some of the events and situations were not intended to hurt me, and in fact many were not hurtful . . . until I started on the inner commentary and began stacking up the injustices, replaying them one by one, inviting each one to live angrily within me.

It became apparent to me that for the most part, the events of my life are not what hurt me. Sure there are some hurtful things that happen to me and to all of us. I'm not going to diminish those. But I am far more susceptible to the hurt or pain caused by my reactions to those events. These responses, what I've called the "inner commentary," are what send me into a spiral and drive me toward anger and ultimatums.

In a sense, I realize this or that event did not hurt me nearly as much as my reaction/response to them did.

So how do I parse out the actual event from my reaction (and the inner, emotional commentary that follows) to it?

It's not easy. We consider ourselves to be "thinking" creatures and we get a lot of energy from being people who think about things. Culturally we buy into the notion that, "I think, therefore I am." That is, our very essence is tied to our ability to think about things, to reason and consider and reflect.

But most great religious traditions, including Christianity, find that kind of thinking and emotional commentary to be damaging and stunting. In fact, in the Christian contemplative tradition, there are prayer forms that specifically address this kind of spiraled thinking.

Christian meditation, whether on the Scriptures or with a prayer word, is intended to give us a different field in which to reflect. Rather than narrow us down to the tight and closed world of our imagined hurts, it opens us to a wider world in which we (and our emotional commentaries) are not at the center.

And Centering Prayer gives us a specific method for allowing these commentaries entrance into our awareness, but then letting them go. During the silent prayer we do not set up a mental road-block, trying to stop the thoughts from coming into our awareness. We allow them to come, but then let them go just as quickly as they came. We let them go by use of a prayer-word which is a way of returning to the "center" when we notice that we have wandered away into our emotional commentaries, thoughts and distractions. As often as we need to use the prayer word to let go of the commentaries, we use it. This process of acknowledging, then letting go of the thoughts and commentaries is not reserved only for the quiet of the prayer time. Over time it becomes the way we deal with the thought patterns that arise in daily life. We receive the thoughts and then let them go; receive and release; receive and release.

This week it was helpful for me to distinguish between the actual life events and my commentary around them. They really were distinct and separate, and as much as I tried to tie them together (and wanted my commentary to settle me into anger!), I could not escape that they were separate.

Life happens. And my reaction to life happens.

I often have no control over life as it happens.

I most always have some say, though, about my response to life as it happens. As I gain awareness of my sometimes-cancerous response to life, and as I open myself more honestly to releasing it, I'm also more open to the good work of mercy and generosity that God is shaping inside me.

It gives me hope . . . and hope for all of us.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Dialogue on Praying the Scriptures

Last week Wick Stuckey and I dialogued for a few minutes about the process of praying the Scriptures, what is known as lectio divina or "holy listening". We walked through the process of entering into this ancient manner of opening ourselves to God's speech.

So many of us have been frustrated that we are encouraged to hear God or listen for God's voice, yet we haven't been told how to do it. This video was shot with the intention of walking through the process of listening for God's voice. The practice has been transformative for Wick and me over a long period of time.

If you are interested in this way of praying and opening yourself more deeply to God's voice, you can find the video at, or you can go there by clicking the title of this blogpost.

Big thanks to Josh Warren, who set up and shot the video, and to Wick for suggesting the idea.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Backdoor Prophets

Prophets have a hard lot, at least authentic prophets, anyway.

There are plenty of folks -- especially loud, religious folks -- who run around spouting this thing and spewing that thing, blasting this person and that cause with a pious veneer, anxious to tear down and strip away without any notion of building up or making solid. I'm not talking about those self-appointed, so-called "prophets."

Authentic prophets, if the Hebrew scriptures are any indication, usually moved into that vocation kicking and screaming. They didn't want to proclaim the difficult message God had given them. They knew how people would react. They knew how messengers get ostracized for their message. Yet they stepped into the task, anyway.

Prophets are not afraid of speaking to power. They have a heightened sensitivity to the plight of those on the underside of life. They speak forthrightly to social issues and structures that keep people bound up unjustly. They deal often in the realms of politics, economics and social systems. Their words rub those who have the wrong way, even as they are celebrated by those who have not.

So I read with interest when Richard Rohr used the word "prophet" to describe a Benedictine of the past generation. From what I can tell, the man he called "prophet" was not involved in social issues. Among his many books, he didn't speak to larger, global concerns. He taught prayer and meditation. In fact, his entire life and ministry was given to a life of prayer and to leading others into prayer.

And perhaps that is where he was most prophetic. I think he knew that the deeper prayer of meditation and contemplation is transformative. Over time those practices re-make the interior of a person. They change the way we see and interact with God, the way we view ourselves and other people, and the stance we have toward the created world. I've witnessed it over and over . . . the journey into prayer is a transformative journey.

And transformed people transform the world.

Prayer alters our politics. It changes how we feel about economic systems. It adjusts our loyalty systems. It re-shapes our allegiances. It changes how we relate to the ones called by the world "the little and the least." It shifts our social agendas.

Sometimes people flippantly say, "Prayer changes things!"

YES, prayer changes ME! Prayer changes US!

I'm guessing that this man was a "prophet" in a backdoor kind of way . . . not your usual, in-your-face prophet, but a prophet who knew that if you taught people to pray deeply, to meditate, and to offer themselves in contemplative openness to God, they would be so shaped inwardly that they would carry healing and peace, mercy and love into the world.

He was a prophet by indirection, a prophet who addressed the hurt of the world indirectly, inwardly, through the back door, equipping a vast legion of persons who would have the inner drive and resources to bring God's light to the world.

It's the kind of backdoor, indirect work that Emily Dickinson called "telling all the truth, but telling it slant."

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—

(Emily Dickinson)

Friday, July 8, 2011

Thoughts on an Integrated Life

I'm trying to make sense of some things for the sermon I'm to preach this weekend. I've moved -- gladly, I'll say – away from preaching three times a week, and more during certain periods of the calendar, to preaching maybe once a year. I don’t mind that at all.

I don’t need to do it any more, but I don’t mind doing it, either.

[At one point of life I think I would have said, “I need to preach” but would not have admitted what a big piece of my ego was tied to that act and the accompanying affirmation. Today I probably need not to preach more than I need to preach!]

So it’s not the preaching that I’m trying to make sense of today. I’ve been wrestling for weeks, though, with this idea of “missional living,” which is the topic that five of us will be dealing with in a month of sermons. The terminology is fairly new, as best I can tell. When I ask those who use the phrase what it means, I either get blank stares, textbook-quoted answers, or statements that don’t seem very new and original.

In fact, “missional living” seems very much like what we called “discipleship” when I was a teen-aged Christian. We talked about following Jesus and did some things that in hindsight seem just about as radical as what some of the “emergent” and “missional” folks are talking about today. That was 35 years ago.

In more recent days I would have talked about living an “integrated life” or a “congruent life,” that is, a life that is seamless, non-compartmentalized and unified. One of the terms used today would be "non-dual" (as opposed to dualistic, either/or, compartmentalized).

The core issue that the five of us will wrestle with this month in sermon form is this: “How do I live into a life-giving rhythm that includes both an intimate coming-to-Jesus and an ongoing offering of myself in the world for God, for good and for the sake of others?”

The first part of the rhythm is an inner movement. The movement toward God means stepping toward the Center.

The, the movement into the world flows outward. Most earnest Christians live well in one or the other, but have difficulty finding a rhythm that includes both the inward and the outward.

I don’t have bunches of answers, only lots of hits and misses.

In re-reading Henri Nouwen’s The Selfless Way of Christ a couple of months ago, I did see again how crucial the question is. Nouwen, a Dutch Roman Catholic priest, wrote honestly about his own struggle to live an integrated life. He, too, had questions about this rhythm of encounter/experience with Jesus (inward movement) which became the basis for mission/witness (outward movement).

Here are some of Nouwen’s thoughts:

“Yet this witness, which takes the form of preaching and teaching, of celebrating and counseling, of organizing and struggling to alleviate the suffering of our fellow human beings, is a true witness only when it emerges from a genuine personal encounter, a true experience of love. We can only call ourselves witnesses of Jesus when we have heard him with our own ears, seen him with our own eyes, and touched him with our own hands.

“The basis of the mission of the twelve apostles was not their knowledge, training, or character, but their having lived with Jesus. Paul, who was not with Jesus while he was traveling with his disciples, encountered him on the road to Damascus. This experience was the foundation on which all his apostolic work was built.

“There has never been a Christian witness whose influence has not been directly related to a personal and intimate experience of the Lord. This deep and personal encounter can take as many forms and shapes as there are people, cultures, and ages. Ignatius of Antioch, Anthony of the Desert, Gregory the Great, Benedict, Bernard, and Francis, Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Martin Luther, John Wesley, George Fox, and John Bunyan, Charles de Foucauld, Dag Hammarskjold, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Merton, Jean Vanier, Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day – all these witnesses have seen the Lord, and their actions and words emerge from that vision.

“Thus, ministry and the spiritual life belong together. Living a spiritual life is living in an intimate communion with the Lord. It is seeing, hearing, and touching. Living a life of ministry is witnessing to him in the midst of this world. It is opening the eyes of our brothers and sisters in the human family to his presence among us, so that they too may enter into this relationship of love.

“When our ministry does not emerge from a personal encounter, it quickly becomes a tiring routine and a boring job. On the other hand, when our spiritual life no longer leads to an active ministry, it quickly degenerates into introspection and self-scrutiny, and thus loses its dynamism.”

[Henri Nouwen, The Selfless Way of Christ: Downward Mobility and the Spiritual Life (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2007), 14 - 16]

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Just to Remind Ourselves

One of the great joys of being father to my two great young adult children is they share with me books and music they've found that they know I'll like. Very often they find books by the circle of authors I read, books I have somehow missed.

I spent several days with both of them last week -- full of laughter and joy -- and one of the gifts of our time together was a book of poetry by William Stafford that I had missed. My son, a writer and poet himself, checked it out from his local library and brought it to show me.

We both have our favorite William Stafford poems, and some of them overlap. This particular book, compiled by Stafford's daughter after his death, has various writings from throughout his life.

The book's material is organized and presented around the theme of Stafford's pacifism. He reflected in journals, interviews and poetry on being a conscientious objector during World War 2. His objection to the war was religious, moral and practical. War doesn't work as well as reconciliation, Stafford believed. So he refused to fight, and was taken with other conscientious objectors to a labor camp in California where they lived in meager quarters and spent long hours in manual labor.

Stafford had a long history of thinking counter and looking at things from the other side. Rather than demonize "the enemy," Stafford wondered what it was like to be in his or her shoes. In the language of WW2, what would it change in me if I imagined the families of the German or Japanese soldiers, if I envisioned the fear in those soldiers -- surely the same fear that lived within American soldiers? In more contemporary language, if I identified with a member of the Taliban playing with his children or eating a meal with his family, how would that change how I thought about "the enemy"? Those are the kinds of questions Stafford pondered and wrote about.

That way of stepping into the world arose within him at a young age. In 1920 the young Stafford came home from school and described to his mother how the kids at school had surrounded two new students on the playground and taunted the two because they were black. His mother asked, "What did you do, Billy?"

Stafford replied, "I went and stood by them."

So with thanksgiving for William Stafford -- and for my son, who brought him to me yet again -- I offer Stafford's poem for thinking counter about the world.

For the Unknown Enemy
William Stafford

This monument is for the unknown
good in our enemies. Like a picture
their life began to appear: they
gathered at home in the evening
and sang. Above their fields they saw
a new sky. A holiday came
and they carried the baby to the park
for a party. Sunlight surrounded them.

Here we glimpse what our minds long turned
away from. The great mutual
blindness darkened that sunlight in the park,
and the sky that was new, and the holidays.
This monument says that one afternoon
we stood here letting a part of our minds
escape. They came back, but different.
Enemy: one day we glimpsed your life.

This monument is for you.

[William Stafford, "For the Unknown Enemy," Every War Has Two Losers: William Stafford on Peace and War, ed. and intro. by Kim Stafford, p. 96.]

William Stafford Poetry for the Weekend

At the Un-National Monument along the Canadian Border
William Stafford

This is the field where the battle did not happen,
where the unknown soldier did not die.
This is the field where grass joined hands,
where no monument stands,
and the only heroic thing is the sky.

Birds fly here without any sound,
unfolding their wings across the open.
No people killed -- or were killed -- on this ground
hallowed by neglect and an air so tame
that people celebrate it by forgetting its name.

[William Stafford, Every War Has Two Losers: William Stafford on Peace and War, p. 87.]

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Via Negativa: The Way of Unknowing

At an obscure used bookshop last week I picked up a used volume of poetry by R. S. Thomas, a Welsh poet and pastor. The bookstore owner, Clive, sold it to me for $2.50.

[I would have thought that any bookstore owner named "Clive" would have valued Welsh poetry at more than $2.50! But then, who am I to tell Clive how to price his Welsh poets?]

Thomas has a poem in the book in which he writes about the via negativa. In the Christian contemplative tradition, via negativa carries several nuanced meanings. It represents "the way of letting go" or "the way of negation," that is, it suggests that the way we move on in the spiritual life is not by accumulating more and more knowledge or spiritual goodies, but rather by letting go, surrendering and releasing. It speaks to a spirituality of subtraction, not addition. We slowly drop what is false and illusory, revealing the truth of God that is at our soul's core.

The via negativa also suggests that the way onward in the spiritual life is the way of not knowing. It affirms silences and movement without knowing the destination. The Cloud of Unknowing and The Dark Night of the Soul are two classics texts on the via negativa.

Thomas wrote:

"Why no! I never thought other than
That God is . . . the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find."

[R. S. Thomas, Later Poems, p. 23]

His words had me considering my own experience of letting go, abandonment, and the Great Silences of life. My own experience of God has been more significantly shaped by the periods of emptiness and unknowing than by the things I'm sure of and willing to fight others over. My own faith is not so much about getting everything right and having all the correct answers, as about living faithfully in the mystery of the unknown, allowing myself to be shaped by the emptiness, and staying faithful to the path even when I have no idea where I am being led.

So last week I wrote this poem . . . my poem . . . inspired by the vulnerability and eloquence of R. S. Thomas (with thanks to Clive!):

Via Negativa
after R. S. Thomas

In the sorrow
and maybe, too,
in the pain
There is the Great Absence
You are --
not in --
the Void
that arrests my cry

I have not always
thought so
and cannot pretend
to such heights -- or
depths -- of

So seldom now, though,
can I boldly
pronounce my
know the Presence
fully realize
the Promise

In the emptiness
I know
mostly when the
lights go out
in darkness
I know.