Reflections by Jerry Webber

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Slobbery, Transformation and Sunday School Picnics (Part 1)

During college days, I cut theological teeth on Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian pastor, teacher and writer. Buechner had a gift for saying deep and layered things in very poetic, straightforward ways. Those books I read in the 1970's, before going to seminary, shaped me. Some of the images he used then still show up in my consciousness when I think about life with God.

One of his images has been with me a lot the last couple of weeks as I've attended to events in the national life of the United States . . . political gridlock in government . . . economic panic . . . the polarization of endless blaming and scapegoating . . . fear and anger among those of us on "Main Street."

I've thought about one paragraph Buechner wrote as I've pondered once again how difficult life-change and transformation is. I want to live a life that orbits around God, yet I resist it with every excuse and ounce of strength I can muster. Most of us seem to resist in that manner. It's hard to see how firmly I am entrenched at the center of my world. It's difficult to let go of the illusions I've grown up with and the illusions to which I cling . . . and not only hard, it's painful as well. It's much more comfortable to rock along blissfully (and blissfully ignorant) rather than face ourselves (and God!) and adjust life somehow.

[Several months ago I was with an Orthodox Christian who said, "Everyone talks about 'transformation,' but no one wants to change."]

Yet, that kind of adjustment seems to be the invitation of Jesus, to adjust life according to what he called "the kingdom of God" (rather than "the kingdom of Jerry").

Buechner wrote an essay about the word "gospel" in which he explained that the word literally means, "Good News." In the short essay he described what God offers to human persons as both "good" and "new." Then, he wrote this last paragraph, the words I have called to mind again recently:

"Thus, the Gospel is not only Good and New but, if you take it seriously, a Holy Terror. Jesus never claimed that the process of being changed from a slob into a human being was going to be a Sunday School picnic. On the contrary. Childbirth may occasionally be painless, but rebirth never. Part of what it means to be a slob is to hang on for dear life to our slobbery."

[Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 33.]

You might feel inclined to argue his use of the word "slob," but I don't think you can argue his premise that new birth or new life (being changed or transformed) is going to be painful. In fact, Jesus said that this kind of life-adjustment was going to ask of us the death of what we know of ourselves.

We lose ourselves to find ourselves.

We take up our cross daily and die to self.

Jesus did not simply teach this posture with his words. He demonstrated in his life -- and in his own death -- this pattern of losing life in order to find life.

But as Buechner said, part of being a slob is hanging on for dear life to our slobbery.

Part of our humanity means being self-centered and self-referenced . . . and holding on for dear life to our self-centeredness.

Part of our humanity means living in the illusions and frameworks in which we have been raised . . . and holding onto those illusions and frameworks, no matter the cost.

Part of our humanity means thinking that the way we see the world and relate to the world is the only "right" or "true" way to relate to the world . . . so our humanity quickly and easily divides people into "us" and "them" . . . those who see the world the way I do (friends, allies, compatriots) and those who see the world through other lens (enemies, terrorists) . . . and holding onto those labels at any cost.

That's enough for now. In the next couple of days, I'm going to post some thoughts about the challenge of this kind of transformative stance in the corporate life of a tribe or nation. Because the very things that are true of my life and your life in terms of "hanging onto our slobbery" are also true of governments, nations and peoples.


Kathryn Kelley said...

"this kind of life-adjustment was going to ask of us the death of what we know ofourselves"

I find this so incredibly painful.

well and the tribal thing mentioned in your writing as well.

some times I wish I still held on to more illusions within my innate human slob ery

Anonymous said...

Hmm, kinda 'Merton-esque', n'est-ce pas?