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.