Reflections by Jerry Webber

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.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Lent Begins Ash Wednesday

The season of Lent is the 40-day journey that leads to Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter. It invites us to an intentional journey with Jesus, who early in his ministry spent 40 days in the wilderness fasting, praying and communing with God before his public ministry. During his time in the wilderness, Jesus was tempted by Satan, the Adversary, and his identity as the Son of God was confirmed within him.

During Lent we walk with Jesus through this wilderness. We travel lighter. We may choose to fast regularly, or to adopt different prayer practices for the duration of these days. Those who step into Lent generally will begin with some intention, some spiritual practice that will help tend them through the season.

Lent begins tomorrow on Ash Wednesday. In Ash Wednesday services around the world, persons will be marked on their foreheads with a cross of ashes as a symbol of our humanity and our intention for the Lenten season.

I have another blog on which I will provide a daily scripture reading for that day in Lent. To the scripture passage I will add a very brief meditation thought that might be used in your prayer, meditation or reflection time. I've offered these reflections for three years now, and I call them, "A Daily Lent." Those postings will begin tomorrow at this web address:

You might also be interested in another daily Lenten resource compiled by The Center for Christian Spirituality and Chapelwood United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas, USA. This online resource will provide you with a poem-a-day throughout Lent, along with a suggestion for prayer and reflection. A different poem will be posted each day of Lent and Holy Week.

You can find this online poetry resource, called, "A Lenten Mosaic," at this web address:

Finally, you might find it helpful to adopt a spiritual practice for the season. What discipline or prayer practice might sustain you through the season? Or even better, what might help you be more attentive to the voice of God as you journey through Lent? Be prayerful as you discern what practice you might adopt. Allow God's Spirit to direct you to what will be appropriate for you this season.

Don't try to copy anyone else. Don't mimic someone else's practice. Do what fits you. And then see it through for the 40+ days.

So step into the day tomorrow. Pack lightly. Take one or two tools with you, tools that will sustain you through your desert journey. Most of all, spend the days attentive to God's Spirit, light on your feet, responsive to the continual presence of God. That, after all, is what Lent is about.

I look forward to making the journey with you.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Stumbling through the Psalms, Setting Aside Conditionality

I love the Hebrew Psalms. I've cut my praying teeth on them. They were my early teachers in prayer, and I still sit with them daily.

These days, though, I frequently have the experience of praying the psalms and then finding myself listening more deeply to the words I'm praying . . . listening to the assumptions about God and the world that are implicit in the psalms . . .and noticing the assumptions about who and where I am that are suggested in the prayers.

While I love the psalms and continue to learn language for raw and honest prayer from them, I also concede that they present stereotypes for prayer that can be very misleading.

Today I spent a lot of time with Psalm 86. In the Book of Common Prayer, it's the lead psalm for the 17th day of the month. So I prayed things like this:

"Save the servant who puts trust in you." (86:2)

"Be merciful to me, O God, for you are my God." (86:3)

"Gladden the soul of your servant,
for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul." (86:4)

"Great is your love toward all who call upon you." (86:5)

"In the time of my trouble I will call upon you,
for you will answer me." (86:7)

I prayed those few verses, then mentally stepped back to notice what I had prayed. I saw that God was depicted as the One who responds conditionally to those who trust, to those who make God their God, to those who lift up their soul to God, to those who call out to God. In this pray-er's mind, God's response toward humans is conditioned upon these kinds of things. God only responds to those who are faithful. God only intervenes in the lives of those who call upon God. (Notice the use of the word "for" in the verses above.)

Not only that, but the pray-er -- bless his or her little heart! -- only prays because he/she believes that God will answer (v. 7). We are left to assume that if the person praying were not convinced God would respond to the prayer, he/she would never offer the prayer.

So not only is God depicted as a God of conditional care and response, but the devotion of the psalmist is conditioned on believing that God would respond to whatever he/she asked for. God responds to a certain kind of person, this prayer believes, or to a certain form of prayer.

In all, the entire God-human relationship is one of conditionality, from pray-er to God . . . and from God to pray-er. Following this method for prayer, if we are the "right" kind of person or pray the right kind of prayer, we can count on God to give us good things, to rescue us from difficulties, and to love us. All this if only we call on God the right way.

This is not, however, my experience of God . . . or of prayer. I don't have a magic formula that can make God do whatever I want God to do.

There are times when I cry out, but then experience God's silence.

There are times God does not respond to my prayers.

There are times when God leaves me in my tears.

There are times God leaves my in my pain.

There are times God leaves me standing in all the shattered pieces of my life.

God does not always come to me bringing relief or freedom. God does not always rescue me from difficulty or hardship. God does not always respond to my darkness with light. God does not always deliver me as I would like. I don't get simple and quick answers to complex life-questions. I've had no success manipulating God with my prayers, nor have I had success manipulating God with my life-situation -- by being either good enough or bad enough to get God to respond as I'd like.

I'm grateful that the psalms express the human heart honestly. The person who prayed Psalm 86 had an understanding of prayer very consistent with a contemporary understanding of God and prayer. Simply stated, it believes that God is here for our comfort and well-being, and that we can access that comfort and well-being from God by living certain kinds of lives and praying certain kinds of prayers.

But God is not the God of our comfort, not the God of our wishes and desires. God's primary aim is not to make you and me successful, happy, or at-ease. God's goal is not to shield you from the difficulties of life. God's goal is not your comfort and success in life.

As best I can understand and articulate it, God seems to be most highly given to wholeness, union, and the coming-together of persons, communities, the entire human family, and the whole created world. God spends God's Self on healing the world, that is, making the world whole and holy.

So in my prayer today, there were two questions that came to me by the end of my time. The first was a question for me: "Can I still come to You, trust in You, give myself wholly to You, even if I get none of the things I want from You? In other words, can I be faithful to You even if I get nothing in return?"

The second question was for God: "Can You still claim me as Your son, give Yourself for me, spend what it means to be 'You' on me, even if I have no faith, no trust, no goodness to commend myself to You? In other words, will You be faithful to me even if I give You nothing in return?"

So much hinges on those two questions.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Letting Yourself into the River

Sometimes I'll read a poem by William Stafford and be taken by its simplicity. Further readings of the poem will peel back layer after layer of meaning, and I'll find more and more points of connection. That's what a good poem does with me . . . it allows me many places through which to enter into it, to find myself in it. Stafford's poetry gives me plenty of doorways and windows through which to enter.

As I read various poets, I find that many, many contemporary poets were influenced by William Stafford. Many feel indebted to him.

I don't know whether Robert Bly would say that about Stafford, but he might. Bly has something of Stafford's spirit about him. His poetry is often tied to images from the natural world, like Stafford's. Bly has devoted many years to helping men give attention to matters of soul and spirit. Though he has done so outside the Church, he is familiar with the human soul, and his poetry reflects his sensitivity to matters of life-meaning and soul.

I read both Stafford and Bly quite a bit. Awhile back my eye was drawn to Bly's poem, "When William Stafford Died." I've read it and pondered it quite often recently. I've given quite a bit of time to exploring the poem's points of entry, the places where I find resonance with it.

Here's the poem.

When William Stafford Died
Robert Bly

Well, water goes down the Montana gullies.
“I’ll just go around this rock and think
About it later.” That’s what you said.
When death came, you said, “I’ll go there.”

There’s no sign you’ll come back. Sometimes
My father sat up in the coffin and was alive again.
But I think you were born before my father,
And the feet they made in your time were lighter.

One dusk you were gone. Sometimes a fallen tree
Holds onto a rock, if the current is strong.
I won’t say my father did that, but I won’t
Say he didn’t either. I was watching you both.

If all a man does is to watch from the shore,
Then he doesn’t have to worry about the current.
But if affection has put us into the stream,
Then we have to agree to where the water goes.

[Robert Bly, Meditations on the Insatiable Soul (New York: HarperCollins, 1994), 16 – 17.]

I can't say anything about what Bly intended through his poem. But I can say something about what I discover in it for myself.

The striking image for me is the water flowing downhill . . . gullies, streams, rivers . . . all with their current flowing downstream, flowing to wherever the gullies take you. Once in the current, you have little say about where you go. You have to accept the limitations of the banks. You have to accept what the terrain looks like and feels like as you flow down to sea-level. And you have to accept what is at the end of the journey.

The option is to stand on the bank, to never let yourself into the river. If you leave yourself on the bank, you can watch the current, you can notice the nuances of the stream and study its science, but you cannot really engage it. And you will never end up where the current goes. Bly says, "If all a man does is to watch from the shore, // Then he doesn't have to worry about the current."

It seems to me that this is a crucial image for life . . . that if something (Bly says, "affection") puts us into the stream, "then we have to agree to where the water goes." There are things in life that I don't get to choose. There are things in life I wouldn't choose if given a choice. But once in the current, I open myself to whatever comes, to wherever it takes me. And then my life becomes about how I navigate those waters, how I stay in the flow, how meaning comes from even the rocks and ravines of the journey.

Bly says, "If affection has put us into the stream . . ." I've wondered the last couple of weeks what that word would be for me. Is it affection? Or something else? freedom? passion? hunger? love? What puts me into the stream?

Then, last week . . . four days at the Benedictine Monastery in Pecos, New Mexico . . . the Pecos River valley and mountains on every side . . . walking on a trail that heads north from the monastery, along the Pecos River . . . this is what I saw.

Immediately my mind went to the poem. I had been with it enough to remember the lines, so when I saw this tree just off the trail, my mind immediately went to, "Sometimes a fallen tree // Holds onto a rock, if the current is strong."

This fallen tree, stubbornly holding onto the bank, refusing to drop into the current, resisting the life of the river became a kind of symbol for me. If this fallen tree would not let itself go, what about me?

The end of the river may be death -- the poem, after all, is called, "When William Stafford Died" -- but the tree that never drops into the current is dead already.

So the convergence of poetry with real-life images from the created world -- river and tree -- stays with me. The poem is not finished doing its work with me. And though my time in Pecos is over and I'm back in my daily life-work, the image of the fallen tree lives on within me.