Reflections by Jerry Webber

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

New Psalm Books

I've spent time this past week praying with a couple of new versions of the Psalms of the Hebrew Scriptures. For almost 20 years I've prayed psalms as a part of my regular practice.

For a long time I prayed them as they came in the traditional translations, especially as I moved through difficult periods of life when I felt beset by "enemies" and opposition. The Hebrew Psalms gave voice to my inner indignation, allowing me a shake a fist at some other people, and even occasionally at God. It was a part of the long process of making my prayer more honest . . . not prettied up, sterile and antiseptic. The raw emotion that the psalms gave me permission to express was healing. They allowed me to let go of the stiff way I viewed God -- and myself! -- and brought a depth of soul to my God-experience that I continue to treasure.

I found Psalms 31 and 35 to be regular material for my prayer . . . verbatim . . . calling down God's imagined javelin spears on "my (imagined?) enemies."

There came a time, though, when I realized that while I was praying about my so-called "enemies," they could be praying the same psalms about me! It was quite a revelation. I don't know that the writers of the original psalms ever came to that realization, but they could have. While the psalms offer prayer from one perspective, there is most always someone on the other side praying from a different perspective.

What gave me the right to claim God for myself, and to imagine that God was my exclusive domain? At least in my situation, was not God also present and enlivening the souls of those who I labeled as opposing me? It was a huge realization, and part of the reason I began to put the Hebrew Psalms in my own words, offering the prayers with a contemplative mind. I, too, was/am an enemy, and all the ego-aggression I saw out there in others lives in me, as well.

So these days I'm especially attuned to versions of the Hebrew Psalms that carry a little different tenor. I look for versions that are nuanced, not taking sides, not spewing hatred. I look for psalms that are honest about the human condition and the illusions I cling to so desperately. The Hebrew Psalms move in that direction, but don't quite get there. Some are too partisan, their world too divided between us and them.

In the past I've used Psalms for Praying by Nan Merrill quite a bit. Years ago I was helped a great deal by her version that did not see "enemies" out there in the external world, but in here within my interior. There's a depth of contemplative understanding in that approach.

While in the hospital in 2004, I discovered Psalms for a Pilgrim People by Jim Cotter, and they gave voice to my prayer during the days of health challenges.

More recently I've gravitated toward Norman Fischer's Opening to You. Fischer is a poet and a contemplative, and both are evident in his versions of the psalms. He turns a phrase beautifully.

Now, I have two new resources. I'll mention one here, then give you the other one in a couple of days. For today I commend A Book of Psalms by Stephen Mitchell. Like Fischer, he brings a poet's vision to the psalms. I love some of his imagery. For instance, the wise in Psalm 92 are described this way:

They are planted in the dark soil of God,
and their leaves keep turning to his light.

I think I get that. "Planted in the dark soil of God" is not a common image, but is so descriptive!

Here are the few verses I spent a lot of time with last weekend from Psalm 93:

God acts within every moment
and creates the world with each breath.
He speaks from the center of the universe,
in the silence beyond all thought.
Mightier than the crash of a thunderstorm,
mightier than the roar of the sea,
is God's voice silently speaking
in the depths of the listening heart.

[Stephen Mitchell, A Book of Psalms: Selected and Adapted from the Hebrew (New York: HarperPerennial, 1993), 42.]

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Life-Metaphors: Pilgrimage

Over the last few years, R. S. Thomas has become one of my favorite poets. He was an Anglican pastor who was rooted in the land and people of Wales. In his deep love for Wales, he served a number of rural parishes and preached regularly in the Welsh language.

Consistent with his love of Wales, Thomas' poetry is earthy and real. He was not orthodox or light-hearted, but wrote verse that could be dark. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, called Thomas a "great articulator of uneasy faith."

I find his verse to be honest. He had the courage to look at the interior of things without flinching, including his own interior. In fact, he was fiercely interior. He didn't pretend about life. And he found in common life-experiences the stuff of holiness.

So for several days I've spent time with a Thomas poem that uses the metaphor of pilgrimage to a holy site -- is it Iona? or an ancient Welsh site? -- for the interior journey deeper into God. I find a couple of the images especially striking . . . his depiction of God as a "fast God" first caught my attention . . . and then the last seven lines of the poem ring true to me.

Here is the poem, simply called, "Pilgrimages."

R. S. Thomas

There is an island there is no going
to but in a small boat the way
the saints went, travelling the gallery
of the frightened faces of
the long-drowned, munching the gravel
of its beaches. So I have gone
up the salt lane to the building
with the stone altar and the candles
gone out, and kneeled and lifted
my eyes to the furious gargoyle
of the owl that is like a god
gone small and resentful. There
is no body in the stained window
of the sky now. Am I too late?
Were they too late also, those
first pilgrims? He is such a fast
God, always before us and
leaving as we arrive.

There are those here
not given to prayer, whose office
is the blank sea that they say daily.
What they listen to is not
hymns but the slow chemistry of the soil
that turns saints’ bones to dust,
dust to an irritant of the nostril.

There is no time on this island.
The swinging pendulum of the tide
has no clock; the events
are dateless. These people are not
late or soon; they are just
here with only the one question
to ask, which life answers
by being in them. It is I
who ask. Was the pilgrimage
I made to come to my own
self, to learn that in times
like these and for one like me
God will never be plain and
out there, but dark rather and
inexplicable, as though he were in here?

[R.S. Thomas, Later Poems: 1972 – 1982 (London: Macmillan, 1983), 125 – 26.]

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Stories That May or May Not Be True

For quite awhile I've noticed the re-emergence of the language of "story" and "narrative" into mainstream conversation. People say, "I want to hear your story" or "the only way we can know each other is to share our stories."

Honestly, I'm not often drawn to that language and to social or group settings where there is a lot of personal story-telling. I've thought that it was probably the strong introvert in me that shied away from those kinds of settings.

I have considered my own "story" recently -- which I suppose, is one way of saying that I've considered my personal interpretation of my life. And it has occurred to me that the narrative I tell about my life -- either in relating "who I am" to someone else, or just the endless commentaries that loop through my brain -- are all quite incomplete.

Not only are they incomplete, they also are subject to a high degree of my own internal editing. Any time I say something to someone else about the stories, events or life-situations that have shaped me, by definition I am being selective in what I tell and what I do not tell. This self-editing leads to a highly interpretive "story" about who I am and what is important to me. So in a sense, another can never really know me by virtue of what I choose to share.

And I'm beginning to see another rub . . . that I may even miss seeing myself by telling certain life-stories and events . . . attributing to some life-experiences an influence that is beyond what other, equally telling, life-events might suggest.

For instance, if you asked me about my "story," I'd probably tell you stories about difficulties in the local church and my sense of not fitting in a congregation. Around that might be stories of spite and betrayal. I can tell that "story" in such a way that it sounds like all of my experience in the local church has been tainted and stained by some "mean people out there;" the reality, however, is that the great majority of my time in the local congregation has been spent with wonderful people who truly wanted to live in a way that brought change and healing to the world. I tell that part of the story so seldom, though, that even I forget about it myself. So I begin to live into the tainted story that I tell myself.

I do the same thing with betrayals in relationships . . . or the lymphoma that lives in my body . . . I selectively tell my "story" as if certain realities shape the extent of my existence. It's not completely accurate, but it's what happens when I tell my story.

You do it, too.

I'm in a season right now where I'm trying to let go of some of the commentaries I tell about myself . . . mostly the ones I tell to myself. I'm trying to let them go, to notice what those inner voices say about me and about who I am, then to let them go in order to be fully present to the "I am-ness" of the moment.

In fact, I'm beginning to see that one of the ways we are most like God, Who was revealed to Moses in the burning bush as I-am-who-I-am, is in our being. Or to say it in another way, as God is who God is, so I am who I am.

My selective referencing of past experiences does not enhance who I am . . . it does not give me cause for pity at what I have or have not experienced . . . it need not give me a "handle" so that either I or others can grasp hold of my "true identity."

I simply am who I am.

The stories I tell about my past are a part of me, but they are not everything. Whatever I would tell you about my "story," there is always more that I have not told you. Maybe it's best not to be narrowly defined by a few life-events, difficulties, or even joyful experiences. I can notice what has happened and even notice the impact they have had on me, but without holding them and defining myself by them. I sense -- at least for me -- that the invitation of God may be to let them go, to release them, so that I can live fully in this moment.

I may change my mind about all this . . . but it's where I am for this season of life. That's my story . . . and for this moment, I'm sticking to it!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

A Rilke Poem: For Being Rooted and Rising Up

I'm thinking today about the movements of growth, which both descend and ascend. In Western society, growth is conceptualized mainly as an upwardly ascending movement in which we rise to more and more lofty heights. Most of us, I believe, intuit the lie in that imagery, yet the cultural pressure to buy into this mentality of ascent is almost overwhelming.

Yet the created world knows better . . . she knows that the journey downward sinks roots deep that are necessary before the journey of ascent begins. Descent -- or a movement to the center -- is a movement of growth, too. Sinking long, sturdy roots into the soil is essential in order to grow tall.

This work of descent mostly happens underground, beneath the realm of physical sight. In unseen ways seeds germinate, roots spread and the context for growth is laid. You cannot immediately rush to the heights without this prior, more interior work.

Rainer Maria Rilke saw this as well as anyone I've ever read. In this poem there are a number of images, mostly from the natural world, that speak to this God-created reality of movement and growth. I offer it to you for consideration and reflection on growth and becoming.

How surely gravity's law,
strong as an ocean current,
takes hold of even the smallest thing
and pulls it toward the heart of the world.

Each thing --
each stone, blossom, child --
is held in place.
Only we, in our arrogance,
push out beyond what we each belong to
for some empty freedom.

If we surrendered
to earth's intelligence
we could rise up rooted, like trees.

Instead we entangle ourselves
in knots of our own making
and struggle, lonely and confused.

So, like children, we begin again
to learn from the things,
because they are in God's heart;
they have never left him.

This is what the things can teach us:
to fall,
patiently to trust our heaviness.
Even a bird has to do that
before he can fly.

[Rainer Maria Rilke, Rilke's Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996), 116 - 117]

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Mystery of Subterranean Growth

Many years ago while on an extended retreat, the Catholic Sister who was helping me attend to prayer suggested I consider a Jesus-story in my prayer. The retreat came at a time when I was especially earnest about prayer and my own spiritual progress. I was working it hard, pushing to move toward the spiritual goals I had set for myself. This is the parable she handed me:

“This is what the kingdom of God is like. A farmer scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether the farmer sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though the farmer does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain – first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, the farmer puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.” (Mark 4:26 – 29)

For 24 hours I read it, pondered it, asked God what it meant for me, and listened to what God might say to me in it . . . basically for 24 hours I lived with these four verses. Honestly, even after years of preaching and teaching, I don’t remember encountering that text before. But almost immediately, I began to hear God’s voice in it. I heard clearly that spiritual growth and “progress” were not primarily my work, as if I could control it, manipulate it and manage it to fruition. In the short parable, I heard the voice of the Holy Spirit saying that spiritual growth is God’s business, that it happens at God’s initiative and that it is brought to fruition in God’s time and in God’s ways. It was a hard lesson for me to hear, yet something within me intuited its truth.

These many years later, I’m grateful for that parable and for the Sister who invited me into it. Almost daily I see the reality of that Jesus-story lived out in the lives of people who are striving and struggling to make spiritual progress, yet who discover in mysterious ways that God is at work far beneath the surface of their lives in hidden ways they have not considered.

That quiet, beneath-the-surface growth is hard to see. It is not showy and flashy. The prize doesn’t go to the one who manages to look or sound most holy. Spiritual development isn’t sexy and in-your-face eye-grabbing. It happens slowly and gently in the subterranean regions of the soul, down where seeds germinate in the fertile bed of God’s heart.

Here’s the deal: Spiritual growth is happening this way in you! You can’t manage it and you can’t control it. God is doing a work of shaping and reordering within you that you have no idea about. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be intentional about your prayer or that you should neglect spiritual practice; but it does mean that ultimately you can’t force the growth to happen any more than the farmer can hurry along the seed toward harvest. This is interior work, and God is in charge of it.

Then there is a corollary, radical in its simplicity and potential to change relationships: Spiritual growth is also happening in everyone else you see day to day! No one is left out! That includes the person in whom you see absolutely no sign of Spirit, the dishonest co-worker, the arrogant classmate, and the stressed-out family member. This Spirit-work is subterranean in them, also; thus, just as you cannot mark your own interior progress with God, so you will not be able to gauge where others are. You don’t need to.

So be generous with yourself. Extend yourself some grace . . . and do the same with others. There is more going on beneath the surface than you know!