Reflections by Jerry Webber

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A Wendell Berry Poem about Liberty

We Who Prayed and Wept

We who prayed and wept
for liberty from kings
and the yoke of liberty
accept the tyranny of things
we do not need.
In plenitude too free,
we have become adept
beneath the yoke of greed.

Those who will not learn
in plenty to keep their place
must learn it by their need
when they have had their way
and the fields spurn their seed.
We have failed Thy grace.
Lord, I flinch and pray,
sent Thy necessity.

[Wendell Berry, The Gift of Gravity: Selected Poems 1968 - 2000 (Ipswich: Golgonooza Press, 1968, 1970, 1973, 1980, 1982, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002),41.]

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A Poem about Change and the Spiritual Life

The storms lumbered
across the landscape
shifted your shape
as they beat
upon your house

Those who followed
who knew you
and embraced you
looked for you
in the usual places

They could not find you

you were not where
they last
set you down

you were not where
they last
saw you

you were not where
they last
loved you

Where the storm
blew you
they had never gone

They could only look
in all the usual places

This life is brutal
and expensive
when you are invisible
to those
who love you

The cost of this life
is appallingly high
and the road is littered
with those
who don’t make it
to the end

[Jerry Webber, June 16, 2012]

Monday, July 2, 2012

The High Cost of Spiritual Health

I grew up in the day of $.29/gallon gasoline. "Gas wars" in my small, Oklahoma town would drive the price down to 19 cents, or even 18 cents. It was not uncommon to sit in the backseat of my mom's huge 4-door Chevy as she pulled into the local Kerr-McGee filling station and hear the attendant ask, "Fill-er' up, ma'am?"

She would either say, "Yes, please," or, "No, just $2 worth today."

So later, in the 1970's, when I attended conferences with my Baptist student group, the sermon that I still remember, the one that made a deep, deep dent on my heart, was the white Southern Baptist preacher who began a sermon by saying, "I'll take $5 worth of God, please. Not enough to love my black neighbor, and not enough to change my heart. I'd like to buy $5 worth of God. Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine. I don't want enough of God to make me love the outcasts or pick beets with a migrant. I want ecstasy not transformation. I want the warmth of the womb, not a new birth. I want a pound of the eternal in a paper sack. I would like to buy $5 worth of God, please."

I've reflected lately on the high cost of life with God . . . the enormous cost of growing up . . . the astronomical cost of the spiritual life.

You can track it in the Gospels . . . disciples are asked to sacrifice jobs to follow him . . . the loyalty of Jesus-followers shifts from family and social circles to the emerging inner framework of the kingdom of God . . . Jesus invited men and women to lay down what they have and what they think they know, in order to take on a different way of seeing the world and being in the world.

The price tag is high, and not everyone is willing to go there. In the Gospels, some turn away sad, because they have lots of stuff, and they are not willing to let it go.

This is dicey stuff. On an intentional spiritual path, we change. The way we see and think and feel changes. Much that has been unconscious, underneath the surface of our lives, comes to consciousness. We begin to see our own interior landscape, the motivations and drives that have governed us. We see how we have manipulated people for our own ends, and we notice how self-interested our actions in the world have been.

We notice that for much of life we have been sleep-walking, just going through the motions, blindly accepting what society and popular culture has said was important.

We see the hidden emotional weapons we've kept stored away inside, the weapons we have used on others. Loyalties and allegiances we've never before questioned are seen in a new light over time. That which has been invisible -- and thus, unnoticed -- slowly becomes visible to us.

These growing awarenesses obviously have a huge impact on us. They also have a huge impact on the people around us. In their eyes, we are changing, becoming different people. They can no longer count on us to be in the same place we were when they last saw us. Since we are slowly discovering new landscapes within ourselves, these people don't always know where to find us. We are not where we were when they last put us down. We don't seem stable -- and maybe we're not at this point -- and it feels like we've left or departed. "I don't feel like I know you any more," is one way some express it.

It's a huge shift of equilibrium. The old rules and roles that we had been locked into don't hold us any more. And if persons around us are not exploring for themselves -- if they need us to be like we've always been -- the tension can be almost unbearable.

I don't think I'm overstating this. Do you see how high the cost can be? It threatens division and separation, the division Jesus spoke of that is sword-separating family members and friends (Matt. 10:34 - 39). It is not that anyone goes out looking for separation, but that growth -- any kind of growth -- puts you at odds with others.

I've been on both ends of this . . . resisting the changes within persons around me . . . and having others resist my own change. These are powerful resistances, and they signal the astronomical cost of growing up.

I have no easy suggestions for getting around the cost or the difficulties. In fact, I don't think we're to get around this cost by gathering coupons or looking for sale items. We must each live into these realities in different ways, in ways that are true to God and our most authentic self.

For instance, I know how deeply I hurt and offended persons close to me during some of my own spiritual evolution. My stance toward others during some seasons of my life was not salted well with charity and generosity, but rather hardness and stubbornness. I hurt a lot of people. I didn't necessarily navigate those days well . . . but perhaps I did the best I could with the tools I had available to me then. I have different tools now, so maybe I would do it differently . . . but I can't relive those days based on the place I stand now in life.

Jesus knew the cost was high. He knew it philosophically, and he knew it experientially. That's why he said, "Consider the cost . . ."

And for those of you who have dared to ask for more than $5.00 worth of God . . . you, too, know that the cost is high.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

More Seeing the Interior: What Makes Us Human?

Matthew 8:5 - 13

When Jesus was going into the town of Capernaum, an army officer came up to him and said, “Lord, my servant is at home in such terrible pain that he can’t even move.”

“I will go and heal him,” Jesus replied.

But the officer said, “Lord, I’m not good enough for you to come into my house. Just give the order, and my servant will get well. I have officers who give orders to me, and I have soldiers who take orders from me. I can say to one of them, ‘Go!’ and he goes. I can say to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes. I can say to my servant, ‘Do this!’ and he will do it.”

When Jesus heard this, he was so surprised that he turned and said to the crowd following him, “I tell you that in all of Israel I’ve never found anyone with this much faith! Many people will come from everywhere to enjoy the feast in the kingdom of heaven with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But the ones who should have been in the kingdom will be thrown out into the dark. They will cry and grit their teeth in pain.”

Then Jesus said to the officer, “You may go home now. Your faith has made it happen.”

Right then his servant was healed.

Like all of us, this man had countless identities, several of which are named in this narrative.

He was a Roman, that is, he represented the Empire. And the Roman Empire was the occupying entity. It represented, for many Jews and Christians, the empire that existed counter to what they thought was "God's Empire." In some ways, the very designation "Roman" suggested "pagan" or "godless."

He was a centurion, a soldier, an officer in the military. As the story unfolds, he is a person of power, both under the authority of others, and with his own authority. By his identification with the military, perhaps the story infers that he is also a person of violence.

He was a Gentile, that is, a non-Jew. He lived and existed outside the Jewish Law and, in popular thought anyway, outside the covenant God had cut with the chosen people. In that sense, he was a foreigner, an outsider.

He was a slave owner. He had servants underneath him. He owned and controlled other people, more than his military command.

These are some of the outer labels by which this man could be identified. By these labels, he would have been embraced by some and shunned by others.

But Jesus did not deal with him at the level of these roles and exterior identities. Sacred Space, the Irish Jesuit prayer guide, says about Jesus' relationship to this man, "Jesus' life and prayer showed him that the narrow definitions of race, gender, and holiness were false."

Those narrow definitions never say everything about us that could be said. They make small. They limit. They stereotype. They box us in on the basis of one or two labels. They invite human judgments based on a very narrow field of evidence.

For example, in casual conversations -- on airplanes, in waiting rooms, etc. -- if possible I usually resist saying to another person that I am a minister. Because as soon as I say that word, the tenor of the conversation changes. It becomes more superficial. Among some there is embarrassment. Among others, a desire to hide or to apologize for their lives. And in many situations, the word "minister" has completely shut down the conversation.

And I, for my part, find myself spending too much time trying to break out of the stereotype, trying to defend my role, to be a "different" kind of minister, or white male, or whatever my role is.

In truth, none of us can be reduced to a job title, or a political party, or a sexual orientation . . . none of those categories are large enough, expansive enough to hold the weight of our being.

What is most true about you and me cannot be bounded by these descriptions. What is most true about us transcends. It resists simple labeling. These small identities I carry around do not make me more human. They likely make me less so. They reduce me to function. They make me small, manageable and predictable. They are not reflective of my truest self.

Jesus didn't see this man as a Roman, or as a soldier, or as a Gentile, or as a master. Well, of course he knew these things about the man, and acknowledged them. How could he miss them? But he did not relate to the man out of those categories. He looked inside. He saw the the man's interior, peering into what made this hurting, grieving man most human. And there, Jesus met him.

I believe that's how Jesus sees all of us. He sees to the core. He sees the interior. He sees what makes us human.

Thomas Merton said in New Seeds of Contemplation that these identities we carry around and invest value in are like wrapping ourselves in one long bandage. We begin to believe the wrapping is who we are . . . and Merton said that all too often, because we have invested so much in the bandage, we are hollow people inside.

Jesus sees beneath the exterior to what makes us human. He sees beneath the superficiality to our pain and brokenness and true giftedness. The way he dealt with this man in the Gospel is a type of how he continues to relate to you and me.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Honor the Interior . . . Do Not Judge

Sometimes I scratch my head at the behavior of people. I just don’t get it. Why do folks act like they do? Of course, the other part of my head-scratching is the thought, “Why can’t people act sane and reasonable . . . like me!” And then, there is the realization that I, too, do stupid things day after day after day.

I may fool myself into thinking that I have insight into someone else’s motivations, or that I can read another’s life, or that crazy behavior ought to be dismissed out of hand. But for all the information available to me, I am not privy to the interior landscape of another person’s life . . . to all the life experiences that have shaped her . . . to the numerous wounds and betrayals that lead him to act as he does . . . to the intricate, interior web of motivations that move her to act the way she does. I may see what appears on the surface of his life, but I cannot see the inner workings that are behind the behavior.

That is why Jesus said this:

"Do not judge others. Then you will not be judged. You will be judged in the same way you judge others. You will be measured in the same way you measure others.

"You look at the bit of sawdust in your friend's eye. But you pay no attention to the piece of wood in your own eye. How can you say to your friend, 'Let me take the bit of sawdust out of your eye'? How can you say this while there is a piece of wood in your own eye?

"You pretender! First take the piece of wood out of your own eye. Then you will be able to see clearly to take the bit of sawdust out of your friend's eye.
” (Matt. 7:1 – 5)

Within each of us are hidden patterns not visible from the outside. The human interior is infinitely intricate, woven mysteriously of our life experiences, our personalities and giftedness, as well as our brokenness and wounds. Thus, what we observe in others (and in ourselves) at the surface of life is a very small part of our stories.

I cannot see or know the motivations of another person, the interior landscape that leads them to certain behaviors and ways of being in the world. And those other persons don’t fully know their own interior motivations, either. It is all a part of our labyrinthine interior, the tangled rootage which becomes the source of our lived experience, the source of our attitudes, ideas, beliefs and behaviors.

This interior is the part of me most in need of transformation and reorientation. It is this more interior place within me that needs “conversion” and “salvation” – if we use traditional language.

Christian “salvation” is not some temporary behavior adjustment or behavior modification technique. Behavior adjustment is generally surface change which may evaporate when will-power subsides. Inner change that lasts must happen within me at the level of the roots of my behaviors, at the source of my motivations.

As we grow in Christ, we recognize that the actions of others arise from interior places we cannot see, and they are not subject to easy projections about motive and cause/effect. Each human is too complex for that kind of simple judgment. So Jesus said, “Do not judge others. . . .”

And growth comes in seeing my own interior landscape more and more clearly . . . not deceiving myself, but facing who I am and the truth of my life.

So I refrain from judging others, because I cannot fully see the wounds and brokenness from which their behaviors arise.

And I refrain from judging myself, because my behaviors come from my own intricate history.

The response of Christ to this, both in others and within myself, is compassion and mercy, not judgment. . . . And an ongoing invitation to see more truthfully, both my own life and the lives of others.

For Prayer: I ask God to soak me in love and compassion. Then I ask the same for others.

I think of a particular person in my life-world, and consider the complexity of who that person is, a complexity that I cannot fully see. I pray for her/him with compassion, both for their actions and for their motivations.

Then I pray for others who are judged hastily or harshly.

Finally, I pray with compassion for all – including myself – who judge others hastily or harshly, based on what we see at life’s surface.

Praying with Psalm 137: Reflections in a Foreign Land

A few weeks ago, I found myself in touch with the dark and angry spirit of Psalm 137. I was surprised at what came out of me . . . and grateful for the honesty with which I could offer my real life in prayer.

Psalm 137 Psalm-Prayer
praying from a foreign land

I sat in a foreign land and wept
among those of strange tongue
among those who hated me
among those who wanted me gone
I remembered You
remembered the thought of You

My songs and instruments
hung in a closet
stored away
no longer needed or useful
I was
who they said
I was

No longer was there dialogue
now there was one way
their way
the tone of taunt in every exchange
“Why can’t you sing your song?
We’ll play the music . . .
you just sing along.”

The song You’ve given buried deep
I don’t want to sing their song
I’ll do anything to keep from singing
a pseudo-song

God, don’t ever let me be too far away
to forget Your song
burn it upon my heart
weave it into my soul

And for them, these pretenders
who take their delight in my despair
who have won the struggle
to steer the ship
who said,
“Damn you! Damn you!”

Oh, the warrior in me wants to fight to the death,
to take them down
and stand over their plot
And the diplomat in me wants to run far
to get out of their sight
and reach
and make a new life somewhere else
And the poet in me – at this moment –
just wants to sing my song
to spill out the verse from within
no vengeance or vindication
just song

so that the cycle stops
and all the little ones

Monday, June 4, 2012

Digging for Treasure in the Field of My Life

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field." (Matt. 13:44)

My life is full of treasure . . . the relationships, experiences and encounters that have shaped me and continue to shape me.

Jesus told a short story in which he likened a person’s life to a field, and to the search for treasure in that field.

I don’t know that I’ll ever get to the end of exploring, searching, digging around in the fields of my life. I know some folks find a treasure, claim it for themselves, then go on with life in possession of that treasure. It hasn’t worked that way for me. It’s not that I haven’t found any treasure, or that I have no treasure to show for my life. But just about the time I dig up something that seems to be THE treasure, the priceless trinket to end all trinkets, I keep on searching and digging, to find something else of even more value.

They are all treasures, but the notion that soon I’ll discover THE treasure, or the end-all treasure just doesn’t seem true to my experience with God. I imagine that God knows I’d stop seeking, stop knocking, stop finding if I ever found the treasure that was final.

Again, though, so many things I’ve found in life are treasures. So many things have been precious to me, of great and lasting value to me. So it is not a stretch for me to think that there are many treasures open and available to me, and that these treasures taken together, play a significant role in shaping and ordering my living.

That’s pretty strange thinking, I know. From my experience, though, I recognize that so many things have felt like the big discovery, the ultimate treasure. In fact, part of being human is to believe that where we are at THIS MOMENT is the place where we’ll be settled forever. Every discovery feels like the ultimate discovery. Every movement that reveals new depths of truth to us feels like the final movement out of darkness and into the light.

If you’ll check your life, though, you may find a number of these movements into so-called “finality.” And if you’re honest, you may also recognize that what felt “final” and “complete” in the moment was actually a doorway or threshold into something else. New discoveries led to more exploring and other discoveries. The pattern continues.

In fact, there may be a time when the things we once considered to be treasures are treasures no more. In Phil. 3:7 - 8, the Apostle Paul wrote about things he once valued that he later considered rubbish or garbage.

So for me, my stance always has to be open hands, holding open who I am and what I have discovered, always open to other treasures and deeper, more meaningful treasures.

One corollary for me, then, is that someone else's treasure cannot be my treasure. I can learn from others. I can use maps others have left of the field in which I seek. But in truth, a map that leads to your treasure won’t necessarily lead me to mine. It might be helpful to me if it gave some tips on how to search, how to dig, how to explore. It won’t, however, be helpful if it tries to make your treasure mine.

I think of it like this: Someone else – friend, mentor, pastor, counselor, author – can help me in the exploration, but they can never do all my discovery for me. I may use some of the maps they’ve left and some of the tools they found helpful in exploring, but my life is different from theirs.

For instance, using someone else’s map to find your own spiritual treasure may be something like trying to find my most authentic and true self within the biography of Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, or Mother Teresa. They had maps for their own lives and for what it meant to be who God created them to be . . . and for me to try and live into their maps will mean that I miss my own life, my own truest self.

One more thing . . . In thinking about my own treasure, my own most authentic self, a part of my social responsibility in life is to live in relationship with others in such a way that I discover my own treasure and that I help others discover theirs.

That means I am not charged with leading others to discover my treasure, as if there were only one treasure for all people, and as if I were the one who had the secret key to that treasure.

No, my place is to be in relationship with others in a way that encourages their exploration with God, helps them to discover their own treasure, and then encourages them to live into it.

This may happen through acts of service, of feeding and care-giving. It may happen through empowering others to explore and make those discoveries. It may happen through giving others a voice where they are voiceless.

The question for me is: “How am I to be with others in a way that frees them to do their own necessary digging in the field? How do I help others explore and search and dig so they can find their own unique treasure?”

This is my very basic purpose in engaging the world, engaging others, and encouraging their growth and fullness in God.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

When I Die: A Poem

When I die
read nothing that rhymes
and tastes like sugar

read some Rilke
something fierce
and raw

something that
shapes the awe
and cloud

that compels us
toward the mystery
of what has not yet

Monday, May 28, 2012

Psalm 40 . . . In the Early Drafts

Psalm 40:1 - 6

I waited patiently upon the LORD;
he stooped to me and heard my cry.

He lifted me out of the desolate pit, out of the mire and clay;
he set my feet upon a high cliff and made my footing sure.

He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God;
many shall see, and stand in awe,
and put their trust in the LORD.

Happy are they who trust in the LORD!
they do not resort to evil spirits or turn to false gods.

Great things are they that you have done, O LORD my God!
how great your wonders and your plans for us!
there is none who can be compared with you.

Oh, that I could make them known and tell them!
but they are more than I can count.

Parts of Psalm 40 sound cliched, like a too-good-to-be-true formula for getting what we want from God, or for getting what we think we need in life.

1. I wait patiently for the Lord.

2. God leans toward me and hears my request.

3. God rescues, or heals, or comes to my aid, or gives me a really sweet job, or "blesses" me with a BMW.

4. Others will see it, and want in on that sweet God-action!

5. Repeat above formula as needed.

As I've prayed with this psalm in recent days, creating a formula or a pattern with which to manipulate God (what some might call a "Bible promise") did not seem like such a good idea. It didn't seem too honest. I recognize the legitimacy of the perspective with which this person in Psalm 40 prayed these words, but I also recognize the danger in making his or her testimony into a proposition or a formula that, if followed, yields the same results.

Then I wondered if there might be other "drafts" or editions of this psalm that I could consult. Would they express such a positive outlook? Would they come to the same neat and tidy ending? As it happened, I found several earlier drafts of the psalm in the Archive of Lost Biblical Psalms.

There was one draft, for instance, that went like this: "I had no time to wait for the Lord. Patience, schmatience! God works way too slow for me. God can't keep up with my busy schedule. So I took matters into my own hands . . . I explored every option . . . I investigated every course of action. God gave me a brain, after all, and expects me to use it! Besides, waiting is wasted time. God wants us to be active, to take the initiative, to be people of action."

Another draft went like this: "I waited patiently for the Lord . . . for about 24 hours. Then I waited impatiently for the Lord. Why can't You speed this up, God? I can't wait forever, you know. So God, I'm waiting, waiting, waiting. Would you please hurry up? I'm waiting, impatiently, for the Lord. . . ."

There was the draft of Psalm 40 in the Archives that said: "I waited patiently for the Lord, and I waited, and I waited . . . and I have spent a lifetime waiting. I wait for some sign, for some movement, any indication that there will be rescue or healing. This is a long, long time to wait, Lord . . . days that stretch into weeks and months, and then the weeks and months become years. In fact, I may be waiting a lifetime. Finally, I didn't get rescued from the pit . . . rather, I waited so long that I ended up making my home in the pit . . . and I decorated my house with the miry clay. The pit became my home, not comfortable, but familiar, so that even if someone had come along to rescue me, I would have refused."

Then there was this draft of the psalm that went something like: "I waited for you, Lord, in patience and openness. I prayed and tried to stay vigilant. And you leaned in, you heard my cry. You were attentive to me. But you did not give me what I asked for. You did not give me what I wanted. You did not remove the trouble. You did not lift me out of the pit. I wanted rescue and deliverance, to be taken out of this cancer . . . this difficult work situation . . . this troubled relationship . . . You didn't give me that. You gave me something else. You gave me something unexpected. You surprised me."

In the Christian tradition, yesterday was Pentecost Sunday, the day on which the Church remembers the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). For all of the biblical symbols for God's Spirit (fire, breath, wind, water), most often I've found God's Spirit manifested in surprise. If I receive what I've expected, there may not be much of God's Spirit blowing in it. On the other hand, when I'm open to surprise and the unexpected, God's Spirit is most often the driving wind behind it.

For example, in Acts 1 and 2, Jesus had instructed his disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the coming Spirit. They thought they were waiting for the coming of the Kingdom. What they received, instead, were tongues of fire and a radical empowerment for the days ahead of them.

"God, You are in the surprise at the end of my waiting, the unexpected outcome, the thing I have not looked for, nor sought. Your Spirit is most manifested, not in the formula carried out, but in the posture that is open to surprise. So I want to be open and receptive, attentive to see and experience your Spirit in the surprise of the next moment."

This is where God's Spirit, to me anyway, seems to be most alive.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Stones and Serpents, Bread and Fish

Matthew 7:7 - 11

Ask, and you will receive. Search, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened for you. Everyone who asks will receive. Everyone who searches will find. And the door will be opened for everyone who knocks. Would any of you give your hungry child a stone, if the child asked for some bread? Would you give your child a snake if the child asked for a fish? As bad as you are, you still know how to give good gifts to your children. But your heavenly Father is even more ready to give good things to people who ask.

Prayer is mostly envisioned as asking for things from God. That's the view of prayer most of us have grown up with and accepted.

Jesus affirmed that asking is a part of prayer. He included searching and knocking as well. In each image, a person must acknowledge his or her lack, and then be open to receiving whatever comes.

The analogy Jesus used for this asking/searching/knocking is a strange one. I typically read it and hear it as a description of how God responds to the person who asks/searches/knocks. And I think that level of understanding is appropriate. If a child asks for something nourishing, a responsible parent is not going to give the child something dangerous or unhealthy. God is likened to the responsible parent, giving spiritual bread and fish to spiritual children, helping them grow up into fully developed adults.

So the passage is about how God gives. Left unsaid, I believe, is that many of us -- "spiritual children" -- spend much of our prayer asking for stones and serpents. Maybe I should just speak for myself here. Prayer, as generally practiced, is a kind of holy asking for whatever would bring me benefit . . . for my health, my comfort, my general well-being. Prayer is the remedy that smooths out the rough spots in my life. In many cases, it is my asking for the things I think would make life "better" or "easier" or "more pleasant" . . . for me or for others.

It becomes hard to see -- because all those things seem like good things to me -- that I'm probably asking for stones and serpents much of the time. In fact, when I get into an asking-mode in my prayer, the majority of my prayer becomes stones-and-serpents-asking.

So step back for a wider view for a second. What are the larger questions in which we live and pray . . . the larger contexts for our lives, specifically for our life with God? Spiritually speaking, is the goal of life to be as comfortable as possible? to be without problems? to be well-heeled?

No, the aim of life is to become fully human, as completely connected to God as possible. This kind of spiritual union does not come from acquiring all we can get from life, but usually happens in relinquishing and letting go of the things that can only give a kind of pseudo-life.

We do not become fully human, fully ourselves apart from God. Thus, in this project of growing up to maturity, becoming fully ourselves, and most deeply connected to God, we don't see what we need. We may see what we'd like to have, but our seeing is always finite, boundaried, limited. God, on the other hand, sees beyond our sight to what actually can get us to the goal for which we were created.

[There is a sub-issue here related to what our goals for life are . . . ours goals for ourselves are almost always quite different from God's intention or design for us. We can feel like we're making grand progress in the spiritual realm when we lean on God or the Church to help us achieve the aims we have for life. In fact, it is quite common in the contemporary religious scene for persons to use God or Church as a way of getting where they want to be. It may feel "spiritual" or "religious" to us, and still be self-serving all the same. God and Church, then, become ways to get ahead or to get where we want to be. We ask for stones. We ask for serpents.]

The nourishment God wants to give you and me is the food that will help us grow up into spiritual maturity, into a developmental-adulthood. This is true bread and fish, not stones and serpents. But it is bread and fish we don't often ask for, because it is sometimes difficult for us to swallow. And it can be bread and fish we don't want in our lives because it is not consistent with where we want to be.

As persons growing in God, we are invited to an evolving life of prayer, where our asking is refined. That is, we cross a threshold where our asking is not so much stones and serpents, but bread and fish.

And sometimes in this evolving life of prayer, we cross another threshold where prayer is not so much asking for anything at all, as it is a posture of openness and a stance of receptivity . . . sitting quiet and still with heart and hand open to receive from God whatever God wants to give, trusting that God knows what we need to become fully human, fully ourselves, fully connected to the One who creates and sustains us.

In a sense, our open heart and hands become our asking, our willingness to receive.

This, to me, is the posture of ultimate trust . . . that we would not have to ask, but rather live so connected to God's heart that, as we live in a stance of openness toward God, we trust that God will not give us stones and serpents.

Rather, God will give us what we most need . . . bread and fish.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A Rilke Poem about Your Beauty

by Rainer Maria Rilke

Let your beauty manifest itself
without talking and calculation.
You are silent. It says for you: I am.
And comes in meaning thousandfold,
comes at long last over everyone.

Rainer Maria Rilke, The Book of Images, a bilingual edition trans. by Edward Snow (New York: North Point Press, 1991) 107.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Waiting Is a Moment, Too

Spiritually speaking, waiting may be the most difficult practice for the maturing Christian . . . at least for persons in Western culture. Culturally, we are more practiced at impatience and immediate gratification than we are with sitting still and waiting.

Passivity is frowned upon.

There are few more condemning, more damaging things to say about a person than, "He's lazy!" or "She's lazy!"

As a people, we have subscribed to the guilt-inducing admonition that says, "Don't just stand there. DO SOMETHING!!" The implication is that action is better than inaction, and even wrong-headed or misguided action is better than doing nothing.

The prayers and scriptural words that invite us to "wait on the Lord," seem like a foreign language. We don't know how to do that. We want to take action, to cause something to happen, to rush toward the job completed.

Waiting Is a Moment, Too

Waiting, if we take it seriously, often refers to the time in-between, or the season just before the big thing happens. Much of our human experience of waiting is like this. We think of waiting moments as wasted time or in-between time before the really important thing happens.

So when I wait in a doctor's office (in the "waiting room"), I'm biding time until the important meeting with the doctor.

Or when I wait in an airport terminal, I'm passing time until I board the plane, which is what I really came to the terminal for in the first place.

Or when I wait for guests to arrive at my house, I'm idle until the important time with the guests begins.

Or when I'm waiting for test results from the lab, I'm twiddling my thumbs until I receive those important results.

In each scenario, we approach the waiting time as a prelude to something else. And that "something else" is usually what we deem to be the important stuff.

But waiting is a moment, too. It is not just the lull before the next thing happens. Something is happening in the moment of waiting that is valuable for its own sake, and not just for the sake of what comes next.

[In a religious or a faith context, our language betrays us at this point. People say things like, "God showed up," or "God will meet me there." The language suggests that God is not present in every time and in every place. In fact, God is present in all times and in every space. That means God is just as present in the waiting, in the threshold moments, as in the next big thing we are waiting upon.]

Waiting is a moment, too, a moment in which God is real and present and stirring and inviting. It is not the preparation for something else, but the now in which God is to be experienced in all God's fullness.

Waiting for the Unexpected

I find that people feel they can wait if they have two pieces of information:

First, how long will I have to wait? If I know how long the "waiting" will last, it seems to make the waiting bearable.

Second, for what am I waiting? If I know the shape of the thing to come (the "payoff"??), I'm more likely to wait in order to experience the thing I have anticipated.

Waiting that is consistent with the biblical tradition, however, is most often waiting upon something that is unknown. Most biblical waiting does not come with an attached time-frame, nor does it come with an expected outcome. Persons in the scriptures often waited decades for a promised fulfillment . . . and entire peoples waited centuries for promises to be fulfilled. God didn't guarantee results over a particular span of time. And neither did God always give just what the people expected.

In fact, one of the signs of the presence of the Holy Spirit was the surprise with which God's Spirit acted. At Pentecost (Acts 1 - 2), the disciples were looking for the coming Kingdom of God. When the Spirit came upon them, they got instead tongues of fire and empowerment for the task ahead of them.

The difficult practice of authentic waiting does not promise time-frames, nor does it guarantee specific outcomes. What comes to us at the end of our waiting is borne of the Spirit of Surprise, and it comes in the larger timing of God.

I think it is this kind of waiting that most rubs up against our notions of being in control of our lives and how we plot our life-arches and trajectories. God's Spirit is not subject to our conjectures and our plotting. So our waiting is to be different.

Henri Nouwen called this "open-ended waiting." He meant that what comes at the end of the waiting is not determined by us. It is determined by God, and if we are going to perceive it and participate in it, we must wait with openness. Our hands must be open, and our hearts. Otherwise, we will miss whatever it is that happens on the far end of our waiting. I am invited to wait and to stay open, not to set my sight on a fixed or a determined outcome. This is the way we participate in the work of the Holy Spirit in our world.

Waiting Is Not a Formula for Success

I need to say one more thing about waiting. I want to encourage you not to make a formula out of this waiting process, so that whenever you need something or want something, you pull it out of your pocket and use it to your benefit. "Waiting upon the Lord" is not a formula for your success, or a strategy to be used for your own benefit, or a tool with which you can manipulate God to give you what you want.

Waiting is a life-stance, a posture with which we are invited to live life with God. This stance recognizes that waiting is a moment, too, a moment in which God is present and active, and not just a prelude to the next big thing.

This stance recognizes that there is not a time-frame given for our waiting . . . it is, after all, a life-stance.

And it recognizes that God's Spirit of Surprise often graces us with the unexpected, so the stance includes open hands and open hearts to receive whatever God brings our way.

This is the posture for the person growing into a deeper, more rooted connection with God.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

One Foot in the Dark and One Foot in the Light: A Rilke Poem

I'm aware of my tendency to label things as "good" or "bad" depending on how they impact me. It may be that way with most all of us. Our vantage point is always self-referenced, so that we evaluate the events in our lives and in our world by the measure of how they impact us. Those things that are "good" bring me happiness and well-being. Those things are "bad" that cause me pain and discomfort. These are the standard value-judgments with which most of us live.

I'm convinced that a growing life with God relies less and less on such value judgments. Over time we recognize that there are some things that are "good" for me that don't necessarily feel good in the moment. Pain and struggle are valuable parts of the human experience, as well as laughter and gladness. As we grow up spiritually, we acknowledge that we can't fully see through every situation to the bigger picture. Our sight is limited, so that we don't often see the larger work God is accomplishing in our lives and in our world, even in the struggle and uncomfortable seasons of life.

[I read an excerpt from Richard Rohr a couple of weeks ago in which he mentioned discernment as the spiritual gift of being able to see that what may be "good" for me may also be "bad" for someone else in the world . . . for someone close to me or for someone somewhere else on the planet. It takes a maturing person, a person who is becoming a spiritual grown-up, to recognize that not everything that feels good or appears beneficial to me is also good for others and for the created world.]

It is difficult to hold this tension, to live in this liminal space where things are not as we wish them to be. We tend to want one or the other. We want the bad turned into good, the water turned into wine, the darkness turned into light, the earthy turned into the celestial.

Most often in life we are invited to stand between the two, to wait at the threshold, to live with one foot in the light and another foot in the darkness. It is a marvelous grace to be able to do this, and one that runs counter to what most of us want from life.

Last week a poem from Rainer Maria Rilke's Book of Images found me. The poem, in German, is entitled "Abend." In English, that would be "Evening" or "Sunset." It speaks, at least to me, of this way of holding the tensions, of living the "both/and" rather than the "either/or."

by Rainer Maria Rilke

The sky puts on the darkening blue coat
held for it by a row of ancient trees;
you watch: and the lands grow distant in your sight,
one journeying to heaven, one that falls;

and leave you, not at home in either one,
not quite so still and dark as the darkened houses,
not calling to eternity with the passion
of what becomes a star each night, and rises;

and leave you (inexpressibly to unravel)
your life, with its immensity and fear,
so that, now bounded, now immeasurable,
it is alternately stone in you and star.

[Rainer Maria Rilke, The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. by Stephen Mitchell (New York: Vintage International, 1980, 1981, 1982), 13.]

Some contemporary critics of Rilke's poetry call this poem "ludicrous" and "bombastic." I'm not up on my poetry criticism, so I don't know about that. I do know that the poem stirred me with its images.

First, there is the image of evening or sunset, that twilight (literally, "twin lights" or "two lights") when the daylight lingers but also the darkness of night is closing in. I recognize that much of life is lived in this evening time, holding onto the light of day and resisting the darkness of night. In this twilight, a person belongs to both the light and the darkness, while at the same time belonging to neither one.

As the poem unfolds, Rilke shifts the image from the light/dark of evening to the two movements represented by stars ("journeying to heaven") and earth ("one that falls"). Again, Rilke says that we live in both realms. Both are true of us.

The old rabbis taught that each human has two pockets. In one pocket is the message, "You are the dust of the earth." In the other pocket, the message says, "For you the universe was made." I think of the "dust pocket" as my humanity. I'm not to deny it or to change it. I am invited to live a fully human life. I am the dust of the earth. From dust I have come and to dust I will return.

I am also, however, created in and for connection with God. There is a grand, bigger-than-life design woven into my DNA by God. I, like you, have a destiny that is larger and more expansive than I can possible imagine. So there is a part of me that lives fallen to the earth ("stone in you," Rilke says) and a part of me that "journeys to heaven" (the "star" in me).

So here's the challenge: I am invited to recognize each within me, simultaneously, and to live into the fullness of both. In Rilke's poetic language, he says it leaves you, "inexpressibly to unravel your life (or "untangle your life") with its immensity and fear" . . . both "bounded" and "immeasurable."

"Immensity" speaks to the feet which stand with light and with the heavenlies . . . and "fear" speaks to the part of us that is familiar with darkness and with the earth/dust.

In fact, in the original poem, "immensity" and "fear" are only two of the three words Rilke used in that line. The third word is rendered in other translations of the poem as "growing" or "ripening."

These are the challenges of every human life . . . to untangle our lives in their immensity and fear and ripening. I sense the invitation to live into my God-designed life in all its hugeness and fearfulness and growing edges. I can have feet planted in all those places. I don't have to choose one or the other.

It is in this way, I believe, that I'm invited to live fully with and for God in every season.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Getting Past the Paralysis

A few days ago I wrote about living our lives fully in the world. I mentioned that God gods perfectly, and that the invitation God extends to me is to jerry my world fully, to live fully alive and fully engaged with the world. After all, I am the only one who can jerry my world, as you are the only one who can live your life fully in your world. That uniqueness with which we each live is a part of the original purpose for which God created each of us.

Receiving this God-invitation can be tremendously freeing. To know that I am not expected to live someone else's life or to live up to some artificial standard for my life-design can be extremely liberating. Taking this stance means that we live our truth, and Jesus said that when we recognize this truth and live into it, the truth would set us free.

But this kind of invitation to jerry or caroline or richard the world can also lead to a very particular fear, an almost complete spiritual paralysis.

I feel it sometimes in my own experience, when something within me senses the magnitude of my life in connection with God, and the hefty weightiness of jerrying my world. I can feel myself shut down. In my prayer I notice myself saying things like, "This is too big for me," or "I don't know what it means to jerry my world," or "I can't do this," or "I need to get out of here and find an easier way."

The feeling occasionally manifests as confusion . . . feeling totally lost as to who I am, what I was created for, and how I am to jerry my world.

Like the man Jesus encountered at Solomon's Porch -- who had waited decades for healing, but could never get into the water in time for the healing -- I'm not sure I want healing or freedom. Like others, I can easily feel that it is easier to live unaware of God's design, unaware of the fullness of what it means to jerry my world. The temptation to paralysis is real, like living in a prison cell where at least I know I have a bed and a meal. Walking through the open door into the freedom of our personal truth or our unique identity can be frightening and paralyzing.

What moves us through the paralysis? My impression is that the paralysis generally comes from the human desire to be somewhere else on the spiritual journey . . . somewhere other than where we are at that moment. We want to do our lives with a maturity we do not yet have. We expect instant spiritual maturity of ourselves. And then, when we sense that we aren't yet able to do what we truly desire to do, we feel defeated, as if we faced an impossible task. Paralysis comes when we simply give up, throw in the towel, freeze up in the face of life's challenges.

Hear this: It is a great grace in the Christian spiritual life to be where you are . . . to allow yourself to be fully human in the reality of your life at any given moment. Wherever you are on the journey today, it is where you are. You cannot be somewhere else. Do you see it?

Let me say it this way: I am not invited to jerry my world according to where I should be . . . or where I will be next year or in five years. I'm invited to jerry my world as best I can in this moment and in this place. It's all I can do.

The paralysis tends to come when we expect ourselves to be somewhere else . . . and then we begin to feel inadequate. But if I allow myself the grace to be human, full of boundaries and limitations, I'm not burdened with the need to be perfect now. I don't have to beat myself up over some standard that I cannot attain at this moment. I do life as best I can at this moment, as authentically as possible with the tools I have now, with whatever maturity I have at this point in my journey.

I live in the present moment. Will I be in this place tomorrow? No. But it is where I am today.

It seems to me that the antidote for spiritual paralysis is the grace of allowing ourselves to be fully human in this moment, living in the now, and not trying to live some imagined, spiritual fantasy.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Quest for Perfection: Jerrying My World

Jesus' statement in Matthew 5:48 scares a lot of folks, and gives the impression that life-with-God is virtually impossible . . . or at least, impossible to live well.

"Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."

Mostly, the verse has been read as an injunction to moral perfection . . . that there is no sin in God; therefore, there should be no sin in the human. At least that was my interpretation of the verse for a long, long time.

I remember sitting in spiritual direction many years ago with my Roman Catholic spiritual director, a Sister wise in the ways of the Spirit. I was struggling with my humanity, with my sinfulness and my propensity to stumble and fall in the same ways time after time after time. I felt like I was in a rut that I couldn't get out of. And frankly, I felt like a spiritual -- and moral -- failure, all because I could not get through these things. After all, I was supposed to be perfect as a God-follower, because God is perfect.

That Sister did not chastise me. She simply reminded me in a couple of different ways that the position of "God" was filled already, and that my vocation was to be human, not God.

That afternoon almost 20 years ago really was a turning point for me, almost a new beginning. It signaled for me a movement into discovering how to live my own life fully, the one life God has given me and for which God has created me. To be sure, the journey since then has been filled with bumps and false starts, but I have sought through these years to discern the shape of Jerry's life, and what it means to live into the fullness for which God creates and sustains me.

Truly, the word translated "perfect" in the New Testament literally means "whole," or "complete." So the passage is not about moral perfection; rather, it is about living our lives fully or wholly. God is perfectly or completely God. God is the fullness of God, not lacking anything of what it means to be God. Just so, the invitation to each human is to be fully himself or herself as fully as God is God. We are each invited to live our unique, personal fullness on behalf of God and the world.

The early Church, in the centuries just after Jesus, believed, "The glory of God is the human person fully alive." In other words, when a person lives his or her life fully (or "perfectly"), God is glorified.

Maybe I could say it this way: God gods perfectly. God gods completely. God is wholly God.

In the same way, I am invited -- encouraged! -- to jerry my world, to jerry as fully as possible the world in which I live. Can Jerry jerry completely? That is the question for me.

And you? You are invited to brenda your world . . . to richard your world . . . to debra your world . . . to gregg your world . . . to annie your world. Whoever you are, wherever you live, this is the invitation God extends to you . . . not to live as someone else lives, or to measure up to some other external measure for life, but to live fully the one life that God has given you. We are invited, in the Spirit of God, to live a whole life in relationship to self, others and the created world.

God gods perfectly. May you "jerry" -- or whatever your name -- in the same way.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Standing Apart or Engaging the Mess?

When I read Psalm 26 this week for prayer, I immediately labeled it as a psalm of separation. In my mind, that was the first thing that came to me.

It was prayed by someone who felt they lived in connection to God. They felt themselves to have integrity, living a life that trusted God, and "not faltering." In their self-description, they have "walked faithfully" with God.

Yet, most of the psalm is filled with the language of separation and division. Read it for yourself.

Vindicate me, LORD,
for I have led a blameless life;
I have trusted in the LORD
and have not faltered.
Test me, LORD, and try me,
examine my heart and my mind;
for I have always been mindful of your unfailing love
and have lived in reliance on your faithfulness.

I do not sit with the deceitful,
nor do I associate with hypocrites.
I abhor the assembly of evildoers
and refuse to sit with the wicked.
I wash my hands in innocence,
and go about your altar, LORD,
proclaiming aloud your praise
and telling of all your wonderful deeds.

LORD, I love the house where you live,
the place where your glory dwells.
Do not take away my soul along with sinners,
my life with those who are bloodthirsty,
in whose hands are wicked schemes,
whose right hands are full of bribes.
I lead a blameless life;
redeem me and be merciful to me.

My feet stand on level ground;
in the great congregation I will praise the LORD.

I know where the impulse for separation comes from. The Hebrew word for holiness is kadosh, and the root meanings of kadosh imply to be set apart or to be different. In my Old Testament seminary class, I researched and wrote a lengthy term paper on the Hebrew notion of holiness (kadosh). I found this idea of separation all through the Hebrew Scriptures . . . Holiness Codes and admonitions/instructions for how to live a holy life. Most all of them had to do with keeping separate from others who were deemed "unclean" or "evil." Many of them were about separation from "foreigners" or those who worshiped other gods. The message was, "Stay away from anyone except those who worship Yahweh."

Psalm 26 comes to us out of that tradition.

"I do not sit with the deceitful, nor do I associate with hypocrites."

"I abhor the assembly of evildoers and refuse to sit with the wicked."

What God wants, according to this view of holiness, is that we separate ourselves from "the deceitful and the hypocrites" . . . from the "evildoers and the wicked" . . . from the "sinners and the bloodthirsty."

[It's amazing to me that in the many references to this kind of separation in the Old Testament, there is never a hint that the pray-er considers that he/she might also have deceitfulness or hypocrisy, sinfulness or scheming within his/her heart. Apparently it never occurs to them that it could be "in here;" rather, the evil and wickedness is always "out there."]

For many years I carried around this idea of holiness. I thought this is what God wanted from people, that we be separated from the world, that we "stand apart" from the "real world," that a holy life was a life that was pure and clean and completely unassociated with anything impure.

To be sure, there was a significant period of my life when I needed to have this view of life. There was a season when, for my own spiritual, mental and emotional health, I had to stop going into certain situations and I had to stop spending time with the people I had been spending time with. I was not strong enough to say my, "No!" to self-destruction and to the ways I would then destroy others. And that season lasted quite a long time for me.

So I cannot say that this view of holiness is completely misguided. There are times when we must be separate or set apart, or else we'll get eaten alive by all the destructive forces that live within us and in the world. Psalm 26 has its place.

BUT . . . but this is not the final stopping place of spirituality and life with God. Ultimately, holiness is not determined by how clean and morally pure and separate you remain from the world. The goal of the spiritual life is not separation from the world (as I once believed), but engaging the world from a new Center, with a heart that is being shaped by God's Spirit.

It may be one part of the path to stand apart from that which keeps us blind, that which keeps us mired in self-deceit. The movement of the spiritual life, though, does not necessarily lead us to cloister ourselves away from the world. It leads us to be in the world, living from a God-center, pouring into the world the healing, mercy and redeeming work with which God is shaping us.

In an introductory class on spiritual formation, I've offered this basic definition of spirituality: a deepening connection with God that makes a difference in our relationships with God, self, others, and the world. We make a difference by engagement, not separation.

After all, the goal of life with God is union, the coming together of the human person and the entire human family with God . . . and in the process, the coming together of all people and all of creation.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

What It Takes To Be Happy

As the season of Lent came this year, I didn't have any strong impressions about a Lenten discipline to follow. Many years ago I would engage in some kind of fast through the season, by not eating certain foods or by a total fast for certain days of each week.

In more recent years, I've taken to fasting emotional reactions and personal quirks . . . one year I tried to fast anger, another year I fasted judging others. While I found that those emotional responses arose so quickly and unimpeded within me that I couldn't completely govern them, I came to see that God's invitation to me through those "fasts" was to notice the anger or the judgment when it rose up within me. So the fasting became an exercise in awareness, paying attention more closely to my interior landscape. Those were humbling fasts. I saw that I couldn't go without anger or judgment, for example, but could pray for the grace to notice them when they arose.

This year I came to Ash Wednesday not feeling strongly invited into any particular practice. About a week into Lent, I heard the word, "patience."

"Oh no," was my first thought. Well, truthfully, my reaction was quite a bit stronger than that, but I won't put it out there in this blogpost.

I know from experience that prayers for patience most always are accompanied by life-circumstances designed to stretch and test patience. A wise elder said to me one time, "Don't ever pray for patience unless you are really sure you want it, and you're willing to go through what is necessary to have it." I've never forgotten her counsel. After 80-plus years, she knew from experience the difficult road to patience.

For me last month, though, "patience" was just the first invitation I heard. Within a couple of days, what started as "patience" had become "perseverance" and "endurance." Yep, I know . . . even worse than patience!

But I had the clear impression that for Lent I was to live with perseverance and endurance. The words literally suggest bearing up underneath a heavy weight, or remaining under a weight without trying to run away or escape.

These were challenging words for me. I like to keep options open. I like to know there are escape hatches if things get too heavy or too difficult. If things aren't going well in one place, I like having the freedom to move to something else. Perhaps I'm not alone there.

For this season, though, I felt invited to bear up under the difficulties and tensions, to hold them and bear their weight, rather than run away from them. These were not words I was thrilled to hear, but it was what I felt was offered to me through Lent.

In the weeks since that invitation first unfolded for me, the words have continued to evolve. For example, it has become apparent that often I have made my well-being dependent on fixing the difficult or trying things in my outer world . . . or else, escaping them.

The corollary is that if things aren't fixed or healed or righted as I would like, I convince myself that life cannot be good. It's really faulty thinking, and it makes me want all the brokenness fixed and the dysfunction healed . . . or else I will run away and escape it somehow.

Perseverance and endurance are my invitations to live underneath difficult circumstances, and to engage life so that my well-being is not dependent on the difficulty going away or being fixed.

For instance, my well-being is not dependent on my health clearing up and the lymphoma going away. That healing may happen, but it also may not happen.

So the questions for me are not, "How can I fix this?" or "How can I make this right or better?" or "Where will I escape to if this doesn't turn around?"

Rather, the questions are, "How can I stay faithfully engaged with God and life while in this place?" and "In what ways am I invited to live my God-designed life even in these difficulties?"

It is now the fifth week of Lent . . . and these things are still unfolding for me. I don't sense that they will be completely resolved by Easter . . . this feels like ongoing work.

So for now I try to hold the questions, and to do so with endurance and perseverance.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Survival in a Spiritual Wilderness

I was asked to give a talk last weekend on surviving in a spiritual wilderness. While I was able to lean into a couple of biblical stories related to wilderness, much of what I had to say came out of my own experience of God in the wilderness.

It may be appropriate to lean into the post-Exodus wandering of Moses and the children of Israel through the wilderness . . . a wandering that included God's provision of manna and quail, water from a rock, and the Ten Words (Decalogue or Ten Commandments) . . . but a wandering that also included complaining and grumbling (literally, "murmuring") to God about their situation in the desert. This wilderness period of the children of Israel lasted 40 years before they entered the Promised Land.

Also, it may be appropriate to lean into Jesus' 40 days in the wilderness immediately after his baptism, those days of fasting and prayer and going through the refining of wilderness. Note that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness (find it in Luke 4:1 - 13), so this was not some evil machination that was contrary to God's design for him. Wilderness is a time to engage God and to find resources for life, and it was in the wilderness that Jesus experienced the depths of his identity in God as the beloved of God, the delight of God's heart.

Spiritual wilderness is a fact of life for those who undertake the spiritual journey. In fact, journey can be a helpful metaphor for the spiritual life, as it suggests movement and change. And that movement will lead us -- most often unwillingly -- into wilderness. There are some things that happen to us in the wilderness that we keep at arms length the rest of the time.

The idea of wilderness may seem foreign to you, but if we used some other words for it, you might more easily find your connection . . . dry, arid, lost, lack of resources, scarcity, sparse . . . you see what I mean. Who among us has not described their spiritual state as "dry" or "arid"? If you have never used those words, at some point you will.

We need, then, to demystify the wilderness and to consider how we might survive -- and thrive -- in it. Last weekend I offered five touchpoints for discovering the wisdom offered in spiritual wilderness.

1. The goal in a spiritual wilderness is not to escape the wilderness, but to be faithful in it.

"Escape" is the first thing that comes to most of us. We experience dryness or the feeling of being disoriented. The spiritual practices that at one time brought good feelings and consolations no longer produce those same feelings. We sense that we are in a desert, and we want to be fruitful again. We want out of the wilderness.

But God did not let Moses and the children of Israel out of the wilderness until they were ready for the Promised Land.

Jesus in the wilderness did not try to escape from his 40-day experience. In fact, that he was led into this experience by the Spirit suggests that there was a larger, divine plan in it.

In the wilderness, the songs that used to move you no longer move you.

You worship and feel nothing.

Sermons are stale and dry.

Your prayer is monotonous.

The things you've done in the past are no longer "working".

Your "felt experience of God" has shriveled up.

The first impulse is to escape, to return things to the way they used to be. Instead, the wilderness invites us to engage God where we are, to stay connected to God in a way that helps us stay open to whatever God is doing within us in the wilderness.

2. Our honest speech about the wilderness is the groundwork of prayer.

The beginning place of prayer is dialogue with God about how life really is with us, not how it should be or how we think it is with someone else. We tell God how we really feel.

"This is where I am, God," and, "This is how I feel about it."

Prayer begins in honesty. "God, I'm dry right now." "God, I don't feel a thing." "God, I don't know where I am right now." "God, I don't want to be here."

Remember, the goal is not to change the situation, but to stay engaged with God in the midst of the situation. To be sure, the way we feel is not necessarily reality, but the beginning of prayer is honesty about what we feel.

3. To survive in the wilderness, you have to be willing to let go of extra baggage you are carrying.

In a literal desert, you can't pack heavy and survive. You cannot carry enough in your backpack to cover every contingency. If you do pack heavy, you'll have to jettison some things to survive.

If that is truth in the literal wilderness, it is also true in the spiritual wilderness. It's why Jesus' time in the wilderness was a time for fasting. Fasting is literally a time for letting go of some things we've carried into the wilderness.

In fact, one of the gifts of spiritual wilderness is that you see there are some things that do you no good there. You learn to hold onto what is necessary, to what is essential, and to let go of the rest.

For example, in a literal wilderness your checkbook does you no good. It doesn't matter how many accolades you've received, or how much education you have . . . how much stock you have or what your retirement account looks like . . . how much you've achieved or what other people think about you. None of that will help you survive the stark conditions of wilderness.

In my own experience of spiritual wilderness, I've found that some of the things I've believed about myself don't really work. Some of the things I've believed about God don't help me survive. Some of my assumptions about life and what it takes to be happy really aren't relevant.

The wilderness is a time to see what is essential and let go of what is not.

4. There is no such thing as "lost" in the wilderness.

You may not know where you are, and you may not be comfortable not knowing where you are, and you may not be able to find yourself on a map, but wherever you are is a place, too. Wilderness does not give in to your "need-to-know."

My poetry from times of personal wilderness reflects this. During one time of wilderness dryness and lostness a few years ago, I wrote these lines:

lost is a place, too
the place from which
you take the next risky steps
into your life

From that same period of my life, I wrote this in another poem:

sometimes you have to get off the map
to find your way
through cloud and darkness

We may not be where we planned to be, or where we would like to be, but what feels like "lost" to us is actually working something much larger and significant in us. It may feel terrible, but we are learning that we are somewhere, and that where we are right now is the only place in which we can encounter God.

5. Most of what you need to survive in the wilderness is already inside you.

This, I believe, is the essence of what happened with Jesus when he went into the wilderness directly from his baptism. In baptism his identity was confirmed by God, the heavens opened and he experienced the coming together of his vocation with everything around him. The world and his calling all merged in his identity. Then he went directly into the wilderness, where the fasting and temptations were the contexts in which he began to live out of and into his own deepest truth and reality. This is who he was in God, who God had created him to be.

Wherever you are, at a soul-level you are already connected deeply to God. No matter what life feels like around you, you are tethered to God. At crucial times in the wilderness, the wisdom is: “You already know what to do.” You simply have to learn to uncover and listen to the wisdom that God’s Spirit speaks within you.

We might call this the work of God's Spirit within us. Quaker spirituality calls it the Inner Voice, Inner Light, Inner Wisdom, or Inner Truth . . . all ways Quakers speak of the Holy Spirit mingling with our souls. In the Quaker's language, then, our challenge in the wilderness is learning to “listen to our life” or to “let our life speak.”

As we learn to listen for this wisdom and to trust it, we will allow God to use the spiritual wilderness to shape us.

The wilderness is essential to experience the fullness of who God created us to be.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Feast of St. Patrick . . . A Day Later

March 17 is the traditional feast day for St. Patrick, the 5th-century priest known for shamrocks and evangelizing the Irish. Many folks find his feast day, coming in the middle of Lent, a welcome break from the rigors of the penitential season. For example, traditionally the Church has discouraged consumption of alcohol during the observance of Lent; yet, those restrictions are typically lifted for the Feast of St. Patrick. His day is cause for celebration far beyond Ireland, where he has come to be recognized as the patron saint.

His story, in over-simplified form, is extraordinary. As a British youth, he was kidnapped by Irish raiders and held captive in Ireland. After escaping to a boat bound for Britain, he returned home and studied for the priesthood. Later as a bishop, he heard God ask him to return to Ireland as a missionary to bring Christ to the Irish people. So in a remarkable turn-around, he took Christ to the very people who had enslaved him.

Philip Newell has written often and well of Celtic spirituality. He is the former warden of Iona Abbey on the Isle of Iona in Scotland.

[Iona is the place where, a few years after Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland, St. Columba is said to have landed in his small coracle, bringing Christianity from Ireland to Scotland.]

In his book, Christ of the Celts, Newell tells an intriguing story about Patrick that comes from Irish tradition.

This is how Newell writes the story:

There is the wonderful story of Saint Patrick on the Day of Judgment that comes down to us in the oral tradition of ancient Irish legend. Patrick is summoned to the One, in whose presence the sound of all living things can be heard and whose voice is like the flowing waters of every river. When the message is conveyed to Patrick, he responds by saying, "I will not come unless all my people may come with me." Again Patrick is summoned, and again he responds, "I will not come unless all my people may come with me." A third time Patrick is summoned, and a third time he declines. So finally the One seated on the throne at the heart of the universe says, "Tell Patrick to come, and he may come with all his people, but there is one thing Patrick must do." And there the story ends. We are not told what Patrick must do, but we know that whatever it is, he will do it so that all his people may come with him.

[J. Philip Newell, Christ of the Celts: The Healing of Creation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008), 26 - 27.]

I am drawn to the story. I don't know why yet. I've read it a number of times over the last few weeks. I've imagined it in different ways.

Most difficult of all, I've tried to imagine myself in Patrick's place. What would I have said and done? I don't yet know.

But as the Patrick offered himself to the Irish in forgiveness and love, and as the Irish have shared the life and legend of Patrick with the world, and as Philip Newell has shared this extraordinary story with his readers, now I share it with you.

I hope you'll receive it as the gift of St. Patrick.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Fixed Points

Everyone believes something. And we all have belief systems in things that are vast and beyond us. Even those who claim not to believe in God have some kind of belief-system in something that functions for them as god. Everyone gives the authority of a god to something or someone. In that sense, there really are no a-theists, that is, those who are without a god.

Whatever our ideas about God (or gods), and how the world is ordered, and what life is really all about, these things we believe tend to get firmly fixed within us. Especially the really big matters in life tend to get settled in our minds. After all, we couldn't stand to live day-to-day with a whole lot of life shifting like sand.

You can often notice what these fixed points are by paying attention to what a person resists. Even more, if you'll notice what makes a person angry, you can get even closer to what someone holds close in their belief.

[It's pretty interesting that most of us can see this in others much more clearly than we can see it in ourselves. We can notice the resistance of a friend or family member to a certain idea, but never see that same resistance within ourselves. Or we can notice their anger when a certain topic is mentioned, but never connect the dots in our own lives. I'm just sayin' . . .]

Very often our anger flares up when something or someone challenges these fixed points within us. It must be one of our human methods for defending our inner territory, the sacred ground of our fixed points.

In Luke 4:24 - 30, when Jesus reminded the people of the synagogue of two accounts in the Hebrew Scriptures in which God extended mercy, generosity and healing to foreigners (non-Israelites), the crowd flew up in a rage. They became so furious at how closely his words touched them, that they wanted to kill him.

Luke 4:24 - 30

“Truly I tell you,” he continued, “prophets are not accepted in their hometowns. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”

All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.

One of their fixed points (a national value, it seems) was that, "God loves us and takes care of us, but isn't on the side of the foreigner (Gentile)." By using the examples of the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian, Jesus challenged their fixed beliefs. In anger, they sought to kill him.

I am concerned that too much of contemporary religious expression is about having more and more fixed points. That is, we tend to think of spiritual maturity as having more and more of life -- and God -- nailed down to where a person knows the answers and eliminates any mystery or ambiguity from life. We settle all the issues. We don't allow for any questions to be unanswered. We want to be sure to speak about certainties. And we imagine that this is "spiritual growth."

Actually, it's a very juvenile spirituality.

A growing spirituality does not settle more and more of the issues -- a "settler" is someone who stops moving, stops exploring, stops walking the path in favor of "settling down" in one place, fixating who he or she is in that single space -- but rather is able to live with open hands. A growing spirituality does not need to have all the questions and issues resolved. The person who is growing in faith can live with mystery and not-knowing. After all, if it is "knowing with certainty" we're about, then we have very little faith. Faith is not "what we know;" rather, it is what we trust, even as we live in a cloud or in the darkness of not-knowing.

And besides, the consistent testimony of the Bible is that God's ways and God's mind are far beyond ours.

This sort of open-handed spiritual presence recognizes that my ideas about life and God and Reality are simply that . . . my ideas. They may be my final answer, but they are not THE FINAL ANSWER. As I experience God at ever-deeper levels of my being, then I can shift how I perceive God, how I enter more fully into life. I don't need to cling to some fixed point and get angry when someone challenges it. I can be open to new revelations of God, new understandings of God that stretch me and grow me. Clinging to my fixed points in anger simply keeps me in the small space where I currently live.

I think of it this way: God may not be evolving . . . but my understanding, comprehension, and experience of God is always evolving.

For me, the corollary involves the institutional Church, or organized religious expression. The job of the Institution is not to tell you what is true and then be sure you adhere to it. The role of the Church is not to provide you with a list of fixed points to believe conceptually -- though that's what the Church has most often done all throughout her history.

The role of the body of Christ is to provide a safe setting in which you can explore and grow and come into your God-designed wholeness, so that your life can be about the wholeness of the world. You have to explore for yourself and discover for yourself Who God is . . . and What is at the Heart of the world. You should not simply believe me, or anyone else. You have to make this your own journey, your own exploration.

Sadly, in her history the Church has rarely provided this kind of setting. More often, she has given us a list of fixed points, then said to us, "Here you go. Now, go and believe these." That may be the single largest reason the Church has had so little healing impact on the world.

Thankfully -- and gladly -- some dissenting, mystical voices have arisen through the centuries, to give us another message, encouraging us on in our exploration, admonishing us to not "settle" too soon, giving us another vision of life and God that may yet transform the world.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Yesterday's Leftovers

I'm posting a daily thought for Lent at another blogsite that I call A Daily Lent:

I read and pray with the scripture passage for the day, notice which verse or two draws my attention, then write a brief reflection about it. On some days, it means drawing out a single verse from the eight verses or so of the primary text.

The reading for yesterday was Luke 6:36 - 38. I posted a meditation based on verse 36 at A Daily Lent. I was also drawn to verse 38, so I offer those thoughts to you here as "Yesterday's Leftovers":

Luke 6:38

The measure you give will be the measure you get back.

Jesus did not advocate a tit-for-tat, quid pro quo relationship with God, in which we give from the motivation that we'll get more back in return. That may fit the technical definition of giving, but it is really a disguised self-interest. It feels like manipulation or "working the system."

In the city where I grew up, a noted television evangelist came up with a plan to both raise money for his ministry, and to bless people who gave the money. He called it "Seed Faith Giving," and the premise was that if you gave to his ministry (and thus to God), God would multiply that amount back to you. In short, for people young and old who followed the evangelist, it became a method for getting rich. If you gave sacrificially of your wealth, God would return to you many times over the amount you gave.

The plan appealed to folks who wanted to get ahead. It included elements of faith and belief and sacrifice . . . but mostly, the plan appealed to the desire of people for wealth, health and prosperity. It was a religious-sounding strategy for increasing wealth.

I don't think Jesus was interested in the way we twist the scriptures to make them about our pleasure or success. It is certainly not the spirit of this passage. Jesus was simply stating a spiritual truth, a fact-of-life in the realm of Spirit.

This fact-of-life is that God's nature is to spend God's Self on the world, to give and give and give . . . and in all that giving, to never be depleted. In the economy of God, giving does not diminish; rather, it replenishes.

To change the image, it's as if God spend and spends and spends out of a vast reservoir of goodness, yet the "water-level" of that reservoir never goes down. The reservoir is always full. That's how it is with God.

So when one gives or spends what one has, there is always more to spend or give. Those who are connected to God, who draw their life from God, are also connected to this endless Source. It has nothing to do with money, wealth and prosperity. It has everything to do with spending God-seed on the world . . . love, mercy, graciousness, forgiveness. When we spend, we always have more to spend.

This is how God is. This is what God's people are like.

At the moment we keep or hoard what we have, the cycle is broken, and that person ceases to be a conduit into which goodness can be given. But if you spend, you'll have even more to spend.

This is a spiritual principle. It's not economics. It's Spirit.

Friday, March 2, 2012

I, the Pursued: From Psalm 7

Psalm 7:1 - 10

LORD my God, I take refuge in you;
save and deliver me from all who pursue me,
or they will tear me apart like a lion
and rip me to pieces with no one to rescue me.

LORD my God, if I have done this
and there is guilt on my hands—
if I have repaid my ally with evil
or without cause have robbed my foe—
then let my enemy pursue and overtake me;
let him trample my life to the ground
and make me sleep in the dust.

Arise, LORD, in your anger;
rise up against the rage of my enemies.
Awake, my God; decree justice.
Let the assembled peoples gather around you,
while you sit enthroned over them on high.
Let the LORD judge the peoples.
Vindicate me, LORD, according to my righteousness,
according to my integrity, O Most High.
Bring to an end the violence of the wicked
and make the righteous secure—
you, the righteous God
who probes minds and hearts.

My shield is God Most High,
who saves the upright in heart.

As in many of the Hebrew Psalms, Psalm 7 has a clear-cut idea about good and bad, about who is righteous and who is evil. It is attributed to David, who apparently is praying about one of his adversaries. As such, it is what I would call a "warrior prayer," that is, a prayer that God would "take up the cause of right" and "slay those who are enemies."

I wonder if Cush, the Benjamite who apparently was the object of David's prayer here, was praying this same kind of prayer about David? You see, don't you, how round and round it can go.

When I prayed through the psalm today, my first questions were, "And what battles am I engaged in? What pursues me, threatening to overtake me? What waits to tear me into pieces, to dismember my soul and separate me from my self?"

My prayer was aimed a little differently than David's. I'm not in the kind of physical battle that seeks to "slay the wicked" -- or whoever opposes me. The battle that I wage is spiritual, much more interior.

So I began to pray about those things within me that "pursue" me, the interior "enemies" that chase me and want to have all of me. As I prayed, I wrote in my journal about them . . .

**the starving ego that manifests as an inner voice that will not stand being deprived of attention;

**a relentless perfectionism that makes even small projects and tasks massive undertakings;

**the ongoing guilt of having others give good gifts to me, and then the compulsion to try to "repay" in some form -- usually by over-extending myself;

**flimsy boundaries and an unrealistic appraisal of my own limitations;

**the false names and deceiving images that I live into without question; the many roles and identities that I take to be my life apart from the real essence that lives at my core.

Later in the psalm, David asks God to slay his enemies, to take a whet sword to them, to bend a bow toward them, to shoot flaming arrows at them.

I wondered if that is really what I want . . . for God to obliterate them, to wipe them out from within me.

I decided that complete annihilation is not what I want. Certainly, I don't want these pursuing enemies to have free reign over me, but I also acknowledge that they are a part of my humanity, a part of my "dust pocket," a part of what it means for me to be "not-God". I didn't ask God to judge them or kill them or do any of the things David wanted done to Cush.

I did ask God to love them, and to love me in them. I asked God to love my starving ego and my relentless perfectionism and my ongoing guilt and my limitations and my false names. I want God to love them into wholeness. I don't need violence done to these parts of me. These parts of Jerry need to be saturated in God's love. They need to experience the intimacy of mercy. They need to know the self-giving of generosity.

And further, I need to be able to stand on the dust, with all these flaws and enemies pursuing me, and know that even as they live within me, I'm still loved through and through by a Source and a Generosity and a Mercy more expansive than I can possibly comprehend.

The psalm was a good one today. I'm glad to have found myself in it.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Praying with Psalm 121

Psalm 121 Psalm-Prayer

Stuck in a valley
on shadowed trails –
is this my forever-address? –
I look upward
above me
anxious for light,

Only You help me,
only You who made these mountains
this valley

You do not remove me from the valley
You do not always make the way bright
You do not always remove the heavy
sack from my back

But You also do not sleep on me;
You keep watch
You know where I am
so that, lost as I feel,
I am never lost to You.

You are the Tree under which I rest
the Ground on which I sit
the River from which I drink
the Path on which I walk

By night or by day
my soul is safe
The dangers of the outer world
cannot touch the “me” that lives.

You keep track of my wandering here
and there
and always

So is my life in You.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Ash Wednesday Dust and Constellations

A short rabbinic saying claims that every human being lives out of two pockets. In one pocket there is a message that says, "You are dust and ashes." In the other pocket, the message says, "For you the universe was made."

I love the pairing of the two pockets, the willingness to put together two things that seem to be at odds . . . then the chutzpah to invite us to live into the tension of both pockets at the same time.

One pocket acknowledges that I am created in God and for God. It recognizes that I live in continual connection with God, whether I am aware of that connection or not. I am not stamped, "Condemned!" as a human failure, but rather am created by God in blessing for blessing.

Even more, within every human person there is the image of God. It may feel to some as if that image is hidden within, but every person has something of the likeness of God within them.

And this interior connection with God cannot be severed or broken. It is resilient, and it gives to your life purpose and destiny shaped by your Creator.

Further, out of this deep interior God-connection, every human being has gifts to share with the world, things that are unique. And these gifts are meant to be spent on the world. In fact, if we don't spend our unique gifts on the world, the world will never see them. Either we share them, or we hoard them (and eventually lose them).

I refer to this as the CONSTELLATION POCKET. You are so valuable, the rabbis said, "For you the universe was made!" God created constellations for you!

We also have another pocket with another message. I was formed from the dust of the earth. My beginnings were dust and at my ending I will return to the dust.

I have limits and weaknesses. I am broken and flawed. I have what people today call, "issues." I am not complete, and in my lifetime will never be complete or whole. There will always be something unhealed within me, some life-project to which I must attend.

My dust is my humanity. I am a human being, not God. And life comes, not in denying that humanity, but in living fully into it.

This is the DUST POCKET, the pocket of humanness, brokenness and limitation. It is not bad. It is not a pocket to be ashamed of. It is the pocket of our humanity.

To live only out of the constellation pocket is to become ego-centric and inflated, to view the world only as it revolves around me and concerns me.

To live only out of the dust pocket is to live in shame and perversity. You can never be good enough, never accomplish enough, never be perfect enough. You live as a sinner, as someone fatally flawed who needs to be fixed. This is the starting place for a lot of what passes for religion -- and it's been the starting place within institutional religion for centuries. Honestly, the message that many of us have received from the Church for centuries has been that we are bad, flawed, doomed and unlovable. [As a youth, I cut my teeth in the Church on the old hymn, "At the Cross," which reminded me that I am a "worm" and a "criminal.") This is the end-result of a dust-only pocket.

But we are not invited to an either-or choice, as if we could choose only dust or only constellations; rather, we are invited to live the tension of both-and. That is, we acknowledge that we have a foot in both worlds, in both our God-connected giftedness and our human limitations. We are not one or the other, but both. The invitation is to live fully in both realms. The glory of God, after all, is the human person fully alive (St. Irenaeus, 2nd century).

So I said some of these things today at an Ash Wednesday service in Houston, Texas. I used the rabbinic saying, then talked about DUST POCKETS and CONSTELLATION POCKETS. I invited persons to live the tension of both pockets through the season of Lent. But none of that would have been particularly memorable without what happened next.

The traditional Ash Wednesday service ends with those present having a cross marked on their foreheads in ash. In my tradition, we come forward to receive Holy Communion, then receive the ashes on our heads with these words: "From dust you have come and to dust you will return." For centuries, I suppose, these words have been offered as the ashes have been imposed on foreheads. The words along with the ashes are reminders of our humanity, our frailty, and the shortness of our days. Here at the outset of Lent, they are a further symbol of the earnestness of this 40-day journey with Jesus. That's our tradition, hundreds of years old.

In planning for today, I wondered about doing something nontraditional along with the traditional. So after my talk, I encouraged people to come for Communion and the ashes, and reminded them that the person imposing the ashes would mark their foreheads and say to them, "You are dust and ashes."

Then I changed the script. "Today, though, after you have been marked with ashes and someone has reminded you that you are dust and ashes, look at them and say back, 'And for me the constellations were made!'" It's not exactly a part of the Ash Wednesday liturgy, but it's another pocket that needs to be spoken. Even with my invitation, I really didn't know if anyone would actually say the words.

I stood in front of the altar rail beside two friends who were offering the Bread and the Cup. One by one I offered ashes to those who came through the line. To each one, I said, "You are dust and ashes," as I marked their foreheads with a cross.

And with only a couple of exceptions, these brave souls looked at me and said, "And for ME the constellations were made!"

Some spoke the words boldly, and some offered them timidly.

Some said them as if they still were not convinced that constellations had been made for them, but they took the risk to speak the words, anyway.

Others seemed surprised to hear themselves say out loud something they had never considered before.

Several broke into tears as they said the words.

It was the most poignant, humbling 7 minutes I've experienced in a long, long time.

I reflected on the experience in the hours after. To be honest, I felt something like a villain, like the person chosen to play the role of Judas Iscariot in the once-a-decade presentation of the Passion Play. I found myself increasingly uncomfortable with the "role" I played in this symbolic "drama" . . . it's almost as if I were speaking for the Church, for centuries of the Church reminding people of their dust and ashes, reminding people of their limitation and frailty, marking people as sinful and flawed . . . all without speaking of the other pocket.

"You are dust and ashes," the Church has said to us for so many years, and it has seldom opened to us the other pocket.

"You are dust and ashes," we have heard, and it has been all we've known to believe.

So today I stood in for the Church. I said the Church's words and I played the role that may be all too commonplace for the Church: "You are dust and ashes."

Thankfully, there were some courageous souls who decided, for at least one moment in time, to live out of their other pocket as well. "And for me the constellations were made!"

You could almost hear chains dropping.