Reflections by Jerry Webber

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Thoughts on Prayer for the Season Ahead

The Church as an institution largely has failed in her task to develop people of prayer and Spirit. We could each list our reasons for the failure, and perhaps offer our own testimony as to how or why we missed the spiritual connection even in the midst of the body charged with handling spiritual matters.

I have my own litany of reasons for the impotence of the Church in helping people connect with deeper meaning and the Source of all life, and many of them are tied to personal experience and observation.

It is especially significant, I believe, that the Church has failed to help people connect more deeply and consciously with God in prayer. It has been devastating to contemporary life that prayer has come to mean discourse with God in which the one praying gets what he or she wants from God.

I don't think that's an entirely faulty supposition . . . it's just not the full extent of prayer, nor even the primary reason for prayer. Prayer that presents a wish-list to God for God's approval and satisfaction turns God into a celestial vending machine to which we go in order to get what we would like to have . . . most of the time what we cannot get for ourselves without outside help (health, self-esteem, prosperity).

Again, that way of prayer may be fine and good, but it is not enough to sustain our lives, to hold up the weight of who we are.

Rather, prayer is a life-stance, a way of being in the world with and for God. Prayer is not something that we do from time to time, and prayers are not something that we say from time to time. Prayer is who we are, the life we live in intimate connection with God.

Prayer is the consciousness we carry with us moment by moment that all of life concerns God -- not just Sunday services of worship or an occasional small group at the church.

Prayer is the awareness that we are not alone, but rather that God is with us always (in time) and everywhere (in space).

Prayer is the realization that my very life in an embodiment of God in the world, that Jesus walks where I walk and that Jesus touches what I touch.

In other words, prayer is an all-encompassing, unifying force that draws all of life together.

Because prayer is a life-stance and because it does take in all we are and all we do, we are wise if we can cultivate ways to be more consciously open to God who is present always and everywhere. We are wise to find ways to remind ourselves that we are never apart from the Source of our lives. We are wise if we can discover practices that remind us of our soul's ongoing connection to God.

Reminders of that connection are especially important in seasons like Advent and Christmas. They are important, not because these are holy seasons -- they are holy seasons -- and not because our devotion during these seasons is more important than devotion at others times.

We need to be reminded of our connection to God in the days preceding Christmas precisely because there are so many other things screaming for our attention. There are people calling our names, and the inner voices of our own expectations, and the desire to be all things to all people that fills up our calendars during December.

Please hear this: When the other voices and noises and obligations get loud, we do not lose our connection to God. No, we are still connected, as we are always connected, to the Source of everything. But we do lose our awareness (consciousness) of that connection. We can easily get swept into the tide of the season, we stop living mindfully, we get caught up in other concerns and get pulled by other centers of gravity.

Some specific spiritual practices may be important for you this Advent season. They would be practices or disciplines that would ground you through the weeks until Christmas, and would serve to remind you that all of life is prayer.

Your practice could be spending more time in saying prayers . . . but it could just as easily be something else that served to remind you that ultimately, all of life is prayer.

If you could find a spiritual practice that helped you stay aware of your life-giving soul-connection to God through this season, that's the practice I'd commend to you. If you stay faithful to that practice and carry through Advent that God-awareness, I'll promise you are more prayerful and fulfilling Christmas.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Resisting a Microwave Life

It's just my preference, I suppose, but I've never thought food tasted particularly good when microwaved. That goes back to the earliest days of microwave ovens -- and I think I had one of the originals in the early 80's. . . the thing seemed as large as a billiard table! -- right up to present.

The idea of "instant food" appeals to the part of me that wants what I want right now. Beyond food, though, the idea of instant anything is a symptom of the culture and the times. Instant communication, instant gratification, instant response-times . . . we aren't very practiced at patience and waiting. (Black Friday shopping stories became horror stories for some . . . the rush to grab and possess NOW seems bred into our contemporary psyche.)

Spirituality is not immune from the microwave syndrome.

I say often to people that there is nothing quite as slow and sloppy as prayer and the spiritual life. There is just no way to take short-cuts, no way to get to a destination without putting in the time and work.

It's not that people -- including me -- haven't tried to speed up the process. In the days when I was first exposed to spiritual disciplines and to various forms of prayer, I was so excited by my discoveries that I wanted to be an immediate expert. Because I had found something that was life-altering, I wanted to share it with others. I wanted to be farther down the road. I wanted to teach things to others I barely knew myself. Looking back, the results were not so disastrous as they were comical . . . at least I hope they were comical and that I didn't do serious harm to the folks I was dealing with.

There are many things in life, though, that cannot be sped up. The created world is a wonderful teacher . . . crops cannot be rushed to fruitfulness . . . the human body cannot be sped to physical growth . . . the animal kingdom has its own rhythm and pace.

And so spiritual progress cannot be hastened along. It happens deliberately, in God's own time. I was very mindful of this slow, unforced process recently . . . a lesson from another part of life.

In August I made a commitment to begin training in order to run a 5k race with my son on Thanksgiving Day. I began running in August, augmenting the exercise regimen I already followed. My lung capacity and leg strength built up slowly . . . some days I felt all of my 53 years, and other days I felt spry and fit.

In late October, about a month before the target date, I got sick with some kind of infection that put me on the shelf for over two weeks. I stopped running and gave attention to getting my body healthy again. I realized, though, that I was losing time in my training program that I could not get back. When I finally was able to start training again, I had to go backwards and build up my times and distances again.

I realized in those days that there was no quick way to train. There was no shortcut. There was nothing that could make up for the time I had lost, at least in the short term. With the race less than two weeks away, I could not make up for lost time. One day, I literally thought, "I have no microwave oven to put my training into." It was a sobering thought.

For instance, to double up or triple up on the training would have knocked my body completely out. What my mind said was, "Do more. Training harder. Work at it more diligently. In the two weeks that remain, if you work hard enough you can make up for the two weeks you missed." But it doesn't work that way. Thankfully, I resisted my microwave impulse. But that I considered the thought said to me that I'm not immune to the desire for a microwave life.

I'm guessing that you won't have to look long or far to find your own tendency toward a microwave life. It will be different than mine, but I'm guessing that it is there somewhere.

By the way, last Thursday morning I ran the race, the 5k . . . I didn't burn up the course, but I didn't do bad for an old, slow guy.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Advent Dawns

I notice that my life follows definite rhythms, not always predictable, but always moving, changing, shaping in different ways.

I've come to think of them as the seasons of my life. Certain seasons in my work, for instance, have a rhythm in which I experience either more or less energy, depending on the season.

My health follows a particular rhythm. In times of poor health or chemotherapy treatments, I have less energy and I'm able to engage a bit less in the rigors of daily work.

I've learned that if I can identify the season in which I find myself, it will help me to enter into it and move through it in ways that are life-giving and freeing. I have learned this lesson the hard way. I spend many years resisting seasons in which I found myself. I was convinced that life should be always "upward and onward," getting better and better, ever fluorescent, flowering and prospering. That's not reality, but I was convinced that life should be lived that way.

When I began entering into the seasonality of life, I realized that each season has its own energy, its own pace, its own needs. For instance, if you think in terms of literal seasons, winter has a different energy than summer and fall. Spring has a different energy than fall or winter. There are things appropriate to one season that may not be appropriate to another.

So a huge part of knowing myself, or "noticing my own life," is to identify where I am at any given moment, and to allow myself to be in that place as honestly and faithfully as possible. It is freeing for me to let myself be where I am, rather than trying to force myself into another place or another pattern that is not appropriate to the moment.

Some of my personal seasons move around the Church calendar. In my background as an evangelical Baptist, I did not honor the movements of the Church year much. I've discovered through the years, though, that there is tremendous energy in my life's movement in unison with the rhythm of the wider Church.

So Sunday, November 27 begins the season of Advent. It is a season of color, of patience and waiting, and of preparation. Its disciplines are helpful for me, and always seem to fit the season of my soul.

I realized last week, as I was going through the routine of breaking in a new journal, that it would begin primarily with my Advent journey for 2011. There was something significant in that for me . . . looking at a book of 196 pages, all blank, with lines awaiting me. Who knows what will make it to those pages? But some of the first things to appear there will be prayer and reflection from this season of Advent.

At another website I'll offer brief thoughts on the daily Scripture readings for Advent. You can find those reflections at I invite you to join me there over the next five weeks as we explore the season of Advent together.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Anniversaries and Thanksgivings

I'm not as faithful as some when it comes to anniversaries . . . and neither am I as forgetful as others. I remember my share of them . . . and then there are some markers unique to my life-experience that help me mark my personal seasons.

One particular anniversary has become poignant for me each Thanksgiving.

In November of 2004 I attended a retreat for our church staff at a facility a little over an hour outside Houston. I had not felt well for several weeks prior to the retreat -- I had noticed myself short of breath when I did any stair-climbing or physical work. And my flesh-tone was pale in the mirror, almost scary white. A couple of other minor and nagging physical things were going on, just enough to cause me to think that something was wrong, but none of them debilitating enough to put me on the shelf.

When I arrived at the retreat, I had to climb two flights of stairs to carry my small bag to my assigned room. I was winded, completely knocked out by the stairway. Soon thereafter I was convinced to leave the retreat and drive back to Houston to see a heart doctor . . . I imagined the shortness of breath was heart-related. Late afternoon and early evening I went through a battery of tests, then drove home. Later that night, around 9:00, the heart doctor called and said, "You need to get back to the hospital immediately. Your counts are so low, you shouldn't even be standing."

I didn't go back that evening, but the next morning I checked into the hospital. A long line of doctors came through that day, each checking and prodding. Nurses and technicians came, too, for more testing of all kinds. I had no idea what they were looking for. From hindsight, the direction of the tests was clear. Finally, after a couple of days, a medical resident brought the diagnosis . . . a form of lymphoma not too common, and one that could not be cured, only managed. Chemotherapy started immediately. I was released to go home a few days before Thanksgiving, my first round of chemotherapy in a periodic cycle that continues.

I have friends who were on that retreat . . . they remember when I left early, when I drove away for the day of testing. I remember that moment, as well. And I remember how different Thanksgiving was that year.

It is a strange marker, I'll admit, but one that I have at the front of my consciousness each November -- and more specifically, right at Thanksgiving. This week has marked 7 years of living with this diagnosis.

[I made it through a personal crisis a little over two years ago when I found an online physician's website that said the average life-expectancy of someone who has been diagnosed with this disease is 5 years. I realized that I was approaching 5 years and got hit once again with the gravity of the situation.]

This is one of the ways I mark the seasons of my life. Periods of chemotherapy marks specific seasons, and seasons of strength and good health mark other seasons. But November is especially poignant for the meaning that it has for me.

Another year. I'm thankful.

The doctor who tends to my general health is my age and long ago beat the odds of his own health challenges. He has said to me recently, "I look forward to growing old together."

Me, too.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Waiting for Things to Finally Come Clear

Sometimes I hear from people who are exposed to some idea or teaching that stands a little outside their personal believe system. In fact, often I am the "messenger" who offers an alternative viewpoint or another way of seeing something. It never ceases to surprise me that people so quickly and easily characterize something as "untrue" simply because they don't understand it or because it is outside the realm of their own life-experience.

I know . . . after so many years I should stop being surprised, yet for some reason I am. I really want to believe that as a human family we are not so narrow as to define issue and matters by "my experience" or by "my stance" . . . but I do it, you do it, we all do it.

Maybe it's just a result of our humanity, our fundamental tendency to interpret all of life from our own point of view and from the place where we sit at the center of the universe. This self-referenced stance seems hard-wired within us. We humans have a persistent capacity to whittle truth down to bite-sized portions . . . as bite-sized as our personal experience, outlook and belief systems.

In fact, I find it rather remarkable when someone is big enough to admit to the huge field of truth that lies outside their current situation. It is a significant mark of maturity to be able to say, "Yes, this is my truth . . . but it is not the full extent of truth. There are things I have yet to experience and things I have yet to understand."

The Cloud of Unknowing is a spiritual classic, a fourteenth century anonymous writing about prayer and the contemplative life. It is a classic because its insights into the spiritual journey are timeless, and especially helpful for those who are open to contemplative prayer and practice.

I've read the book (it's fairly short) several times. The first time through many years ago, I had no idea what the author was saying. Each time through, I understand more layers of meaning.

The writer of The Cloud knows he is dealing with difficult material, writing about things for which there really is little point of reference. These are mystical things, spiritual realities that don't lend themselves easily to discussion and analysis. So at one point, midway through the book, the author writes this:

"If what I am saying is correct, but does not make any sense to you, then let my instruction rest until God opens your understanding." (The Cloud of Unknowing, modernized by Bernard Bangley, p. 44)

This counsel is so very important! You read along . . . read along . . . read along some more . . . and sense that what you are reading is significant, that it is important to get it . . . but you have no idea what it means.

That happens to me a lot. I read something. I sense that it is true and probably important enough that I need to internalize it. I need it in my life. But I have no idea what the it is. It's out of reach, over my head, and beyond my grasp.

I used to get frustrated and angry about it, impatient with myself. I would fight my lack of understanding.

Now I just set it aside and say, "When the time comes, I'll understand. I'll experience. God, help me to stay open so that when the time comes, I won't miss it."

Sometimes it's days later, or maybe weeks -- more often its years later -- I'll come across the same material again, and this time I see. I get it. It makes sense.

The counsel of The Cloud parallels the ancient Oriental wisdom that says, "When the student is ready, the teacher will come." In my experience, often the teacher has been there all along, but as the pupil I have not been ready to hear or learn from the teacher.

So back to the beginning paragraphs . . . if I can admit that I'm not ready to receive everything right now, that there is some truth or teaching or experience that I'm incapable of receiving, then I can also admit to the large body of truth and goodness that is outside my current experience.

For instance, what if I were able to say, "This may be truth . . . but it just doesn't connect with me right now." So rather than dismiss it by dualistically dividing things into "true" or "false" -- which is likely conditioned by where I stand at this particular moment -- what if I stay open to and admit to a wider field of truth than my current understanding and experience? Something may be true or helpful for me, but it may also come at a time when I'm not ready to receive it.

Just because I'm not ready to receive some idea or concept or framework for life does not make it untrue or invalid. It simply means I'm not ready for it yet.

So maybe the division is not "true" or "false."

Maybe it's more like:
truth I have experienced
truth I am experiencing
truth I have yet to experience

As always, the main stance for this attitude is openness. I want to stay open to whatever comes and whatever is revealed. I want to be receptive to however God may open my understanding to something that at one time was closed to me.

This seems like a pretty important life-stance to me. The author of The Cloud offered that one little throw-away line, but it speaks to a life-stance that really is larger and more all-encompassing for the spiritual life. It speaks to a posture for moving into life with graciousness, for taking in what we are able to take in, then staying open to whatever God brings in the days ahead.

Do these things resonate within you as truth? Or do they sound like a lot of hogwash?

"If what I am saying is correct, but does not make any sense to you, then let my instruction rest until God opens your understanding."

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Another Psalm for Prayer

I've found Opening to You by Norman Fischer helpful in my prayer the last couple of years. I find his rendering of Psalm 130 to be especially poignant. Here it is for your prayer and reflection.

Psalm 130

Out of the depths I call to you
Listen to my voice
Be attentive to my supplicating voice

If you tallied errors
Who would survive the count?
But you forgive, you forbear everything
And this is the wonder and the dread

You are my heart’s hope, my daily hope
And my ears long to hear your words
My heart waits quiet in hope for you
More than they who watch for sunrise
Hope for a new morning

Let those who question and struggle
Wait quiet like this for you
For with you there is durable kindness
And wholeness in abundance
And you will loose all our bindings

[Norman Fischer, Opening to You, 159.]

Thursday, November 3, 2011

More Psalms for Prayer

Praying psalms from the Hebrew Scriptures has been an important part of my prayer practice for years. I know that many folks have difficulty with psalms because some of them express rage, partisanship and violent urges.

To be sure, the Old Testament Psalms are not meant to be sources of doctrine. To draw theological truth from them is like fishing for salmon in a South Texas lake. You're not likely to catch any.

Rather, the psalms come to us as the prayers of people in the midst of real-life angst. While the situations certainly were different for the persons praying the psalms, they no less were entangled in life-as-it-is, not life-as-it-should-be. The psalms help ground us in life-as-it-is, the real life you and I live. Further, the psalms say to us that it's ok to pray life-as-it-is, as opposed to the lofty and exalted prayer of life-as-it-should-be.

Thus, these prayers are raw and edgy, and a bit outside the mainstream. They are not interested in pretense, and they don't pretend to be polite. They engage God in the honest stuff of life. They don't coat over life with bows and fluffy bunnies. They remind me that God can handle my anger and that discourse with God is an appropriate expression for the full spectrum of my inner emotional world.

From the Hebrew Psalms, I first learned the value of honesty before God. I came to sense that God could handle my honesty about life and that even though my perspective on life was skewed, it was still the way I experienced life. And even that skewed perspective was appropriate for prayer.

I mentioned in the last post a psalm book that I recently found to be helpful in my prayer. I referenced a psalm from that book.

Today I'll post a psalm from another book I've come upon lately. This one appeals to me as a rendition of the Hebrew Psalter from the hands of a Jewish woman with a poetic background. I have found her images for God to be fresh and insightful, and her perspective as a woman to be another helpful doorway through which to enter the Psalms. Her name is Pamela Greenberg and her translation is The Complete Psalms: The Book of Prayer Songs in a New Translation.

This is how she renders Psalm 62:

For the Conductor of the Eternal Symphony,
To the Beloved, a Psalm of David

In the face of the Creator alone, my soul is silenced;
my salvation comes from the Source of Life.

Only God is my Rock and salvation,
my high place of refuge;
with my Upholder I will not stumble much.

How long will you fall upon a man?
You will slay yourselves, all of you.

You are like a leaning wall,
a fence crumbling under its own weight.

For loftiness alone
they conspire to bring me down.

They delight in deception;
with their mouths they bless
but inwardly they curse -- Selah!

Only God is my Rock and salvation --
my high place of refuge;
with the Holy One I will not stumble.

God is my salvation and my glory,
Rock of my strength, one I turn to for help.

Trust the Source of Life at all times, O people,
pour out the contents of your heart.

God is our shelter -- Selah.

In truth, humanity is nothing but vapor;
an illusion they are, all the children of women and men.

Weighed on the scales, all of them together,
they are lighter than breath.

Do not trust those who wield emblems of power;
do not empty yourselves in plunder.

Though wealth bears fruit,
don't give to it the entirety of your heart.

One thing God has spoken;
these two I have heard:

true strength comes from the Creator,
and you, my Upholder, provide kindness.

For you bring all people contentment
according to the wealth of their deeds.

[Pamela Greenberg, The Complete Psalms: The Book of Prayer Songs in a New Translation (New York: Bloomsbury, 2010), 128 - 129.]