Reflections by Jerry Webber

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.