Reflections by Jerry Webber

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.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Rhythms for Receiving and Spending

"Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
(Lk. 6:38)

A huge crowd took a meal that began with five loaves of bread and two fish. After everyone had eaten there were twelve baskets of food leftover. (Matt. 14:13 – 21)

What do you do with the leftovers? How do you handle the excess? I have to go off-script a bit, because the text doesn’t say what happened in this instance. I think there are realities, though, offered by Jesus in other places, that give me some indication of what might have been next.

As you think about the leftovers, the excess, here is something you might want to consider:

There is no such thing as excess or having too much . . . if your life is a conduit through which what you have is shared with others.

Just to be clear, that’s the Gospel according to Jerry, not Jesus. But I still think it holds true. Maybe you can help me test it out.

However much you have in your hands, whatever it is, whether plenty or poverty . . . when your life is a vessel that conduits what you have to others, there is no such thing as excess or having too much.

For me, the symbol of open hands (and open heart) is a key. Open hands suggest that we are ready to receive, that we have let go of enough of what we think and how we are in order to receive what God is ready to give us.

The Christian mystic from centuries back (I think it was Meister Eckhart, but it may have been John of the Cross) said, “God is always waiting to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them.”

With open hands we release what we hold onto in order to receive what God wants to give. So with open hands we receive.

Too often, though, as soon as we receive, we close our hands. “Okay, now that I have this, it is mine!” We tend to be a clutching, grasping, hoarding, collecting people, and a part of the human condition is that we hold on for dear life to what we think is ours. We acquire and accumulate. We gather to ourselves and hold. It is a significant piece of our human dysfunction.

However, the open hands image does not apply only to the receiving. It also speaks to the other end of the conduit. The same open hands that receive from God then turn outward to give or share with others. Open hands are also the image for giving away what we have, spending it on the world for God’s sake. Whether the excess that we have is money or time or energy or wisdom, the invitation is to receive, then to let go.

In that context, then, there is no such thing as “excess” or having too much, because whatever we have received we then spend on the world.

This is the basic movement of Centering Prayer as a contemplative prayer form. It is a prayer in which we practice this movement of receiving, then letting go.

Thoughts come . . . I receive them, then let them go.
Ideas come . . . I receive them, then let them go.
Noises come . . . I receive them, then let them go.

We welcome whatever comes, then release it. I may have a little . . . still, I receive and then let go. I may have a lot . . . I receive, then let go.

This, then, is the cycle, the movement, the process of life, so that we are always taking into ourselves and then spending it on the world. The wonderful truth is that we may never be more God-like than when we fall into this life-flow, for this is exactly what God is doing endlessly and in extravagance. God generously and with abundance throws God’s Self out into the world, and in doing so is never depleted, never exhausted. In all this Self-giving, God never comes to the end of who God Is.

I think in the same way, when humans spend themselves for God’s sake, there is an endless supply. God continually replenishes what we have to give. But as soon as I close my hands, as soon as I keep what I’ve received as if it were only for myself, I shut down the cycle.

Which leads me back to Matthew’s story of the leftovers . . . and here I have to listen to my imagination. What happened to those leftovers? Did some people take a loaf for themselves out of one of the baskets? Did others take a loaf to share with someone else who was hungry? Were there some who took home several loaves in hopes of having “daily bread” for the next week?

Here’s the other maxim that came to me a few days ago. Try this one out:

"Today’s leftovers become the seed for the next miracle.

Do you see? I wonder if one or five or seven of these loaves became the seed for a miracle the next day – not reported in the Gospels – in which Jesus took these leftovers and created another huge meal to feed a massive crowd. But for today’s leftovers to become tomorrow’s miracle, someone not only has to receive the leftovers today, but share them tomorrow.