Reflections by Jerry Webber

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

I don't think I know me . . .

A friend commended a folk rock group called Eddie from Ohio. I have a couple of their cd's, and am especially drawn to their song, "I don't think I know me."

The song rehearses a litany of ways the songwriter lives a "responsible" and upstanding life . . . faithfulness to dog and spouse . . . paying utilities (mostly on time) . . . mowing the lawn on Saturdays . . . believing in Jesus' words . . . saying prayers . . . attending the church on the hill . . . looking both ways at stop-signs . . . going on family picnics.

But then, with tongue planted in cheek, the writer records some very surprising things he has done . . . stealing a car for a joyride . . . taking a neighbor's Harley . . . driving the Harley through the potluck line at the family picnic . . . you get the drift.

The chorus, then, is the repetition of this refrain:

I don't think I know me
as well as I thought I did
I don't think I know me
like I thought I did

Couldn't any of us sing this refrain? Don't we all live under some kind of illusion about the kind of person we are?

You may live out of an interior script that says, "I'm terrible. I'm a failure. I'm a moral wreck. My life is a disaster. I'm a worm . . . a wretched sinner." And then you tell yourself -- and others -- stories that support this version of yourself. Sometimes, we even find that others want to confirm this view of us . . . family members, the Church, the educational system. All you know of yourself is that you are a mess.

Or you may live more out of an interior conversation that says, "I am responsible. I do the right thing. I am loyal and hard-working. I am successful. I follow the rules." So you, too, find stories about yourself that support this particular version of your selfhood. You work hard to appear successful, moral, and law-abiding, whether you truly are or not.

Most of us, then, hold either our shadow/darkness or our light. When we notice something about ourselves that is counter to our familiar script, we push it aside, or bury it somewhere deep within us. We get shocked. Surprised. We can even act hatefully (or violently) toward others in the world who have the qualities we ourselves have denied or repressed.

In that sense, wherever we are on the spectrum, we can say, "I don't think I know me as well as I thought I did." Some of our behavior will rise up to surprise us. We will scratch our heads and say, "Where did THAT thought come from?"

Blessed is the woman, blessed is the man, who can hold together both their light AND their darkness . . . who knows with a deep, inner knowing, that they are not fully either one ("either/or") but that they are both ("both/and").

I love the Eddie from Ohio song. It makes me smile. And reminds me that I never know myself as well as I think I do.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Psalm 24 . . . In Three Voices

Here are three ways of praying our lives with Psalm 24. The first is traditional, from the New Revised Standard Version.

The second is an honest rendering, offered by my friend Peter Johns. Peter has called it his "Ozymandias Version" of the psalm.

I wrote the third after spending several days this week praying Psalm 24.

Psalm 24 (NRSV)
The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it,
the world, and those who live in it;
for he has founded it on the seas,
and established it on the rivers.

Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,
who do not lift up their souls to what is false,
and do not swear deceitfully.
They will receive blessing from the LORD,
and vindication from the God of their salvation.
Such is the company of those who seek him,
who seek the face of the God of Jacob.

Lift up your heads, O gates!
and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
that the King of glory may come in.
Who is the King of glory?
The LORD, strong and mighty,
the LORD, mighty in battle.
Lift up your heads, O gates!
and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
that the King of glory may come in.
Who is this King of glory?
The LORD of hosts,
he is the King of glory.

Psalm 24 (Johns)

This is my world, I own all that is within it.
For I have forged my own space and made my own way.

Who may enter my world, who may stand in my universe?
Only the one whom I decide is worthy.
The one who meets my standards and does not pollute my life.
The one who agrees with me and holds true to my beliefs.

I will bless them and encourage them.
I will fight for their right to be just like me.

I will close up my gates and barricade my doors.
No one shall enter except me.
I am king of my world and I am glorious.
I will cocoon myself in the castle of my life.
I am king of my world and I am glorious.

Psalm 24 (Webber)
Always and everywhere
You are
Every time is Yours
and every place
Earth, world, universe
People, every race and tribe
Four-footed beasts, winged’ fowl, fish
Mountains and marshes
oceans and plains
Always and everywhere
You are

So who is the one aware of Your presence?
Who acknowledges You in the world?
The one with open hands and a quiet heart
The one humbly rooted in the ground of their truth
The one who can hear You in utter silence
and see You in the darkest nights
The one who lays aside self-interest
and does not perpetuate the lie
that dollars rule
that bigger is better
that success is measurable
that others exist to serve me

Such a person lives in fullness of life
they bless others
and bless the world

Open wide, you door of my heart
Swing wide, you long-closed gates
Your Heart-lover
Your Soul-shaper
lays siege to you
silently awaiting an opening to enter

Who is this Heart-lover
Who is this Soul-shaper
who besieges me?
The Glorious One
my Beloved
my Friend

Open wide, you door of my heart
Swing wide, you long-closed gates
Your Heart-lover
Your Soul-shaper
lays siege to you
silently awaiting an opening to enter

Who is this Heart-lover
Who is this Soul-shaper
who besieges me?

Ahhh, my Beloved
my Friend
it’s You,
You at last.

Come in.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Holding On and Letting Go

John 12:24 - 26

"Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life."

I'm not often certain about how some words are translated from one language to another. For example, I only know enough Greek to be dangerous, so I can't vouch for the Greek word translated "hate" in this passage. I've heard all sorts of things about it from those who are determined to make good, common sense out of its difficulty -- and of course, doing so in a thoroughly American way.

So I don't know that where I went this morning is kosher or viable by academic standards. But for me, to "love my life" may mean to love the life I have so much that I hold onto it. I clutch it, grasp it, so "in love" with my life I am. And when that is my stance, I lose life. It means that I cannot step into another life, because I cannot let go of the one I have, the one I am in love with. To hold onto the life I have closes me down to any other possibility. It closes me down to anything else that may come at me. I have so set, so fixed my way on one thing in particular that I cannot respond to anything else that comes toward me or invites me. I cannot allow any other life into my imagination.

The mystics through the centuries have said to us that God is always waiting to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them. When I "love" my life as it is, I may actually lose the life God has dreamed for me.

To "love life" is to hold on and close down.

On the other hand, to "hate life" may imply the act of letting go and opening up. It is possible that I could be so enamored with the life I have so as to miss the life that is awaiting me. In that sense, I "hate" this life, preferring the life that is still unfolding in me. The life I now have does not satisfy me, so I stay open to what is yet to come. I am willing to step beyond where I have been.

Authentic growth and becoming implies that I have to stay open, that I have to be able to step onto paths I have not foreseen, that I have to recognize possibilities where I have seen none. When I hold onto life as it is, I short-circuit my own becoming. The tight clutching hides my becoming behind my current state. It deflects those things that would bring me to my truest self, the person God created me to be.

I wonder if this is the same "love/hate" language Jesus uses in Luke 14:26:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple."

Is Jesus saying that "loving" family (and even your own life) is holding on to them in an attached way that gives you no identity apart from them? . . . and that "hating" them means letter go or detaching from them, so that you come to some sense of who you are apart from them? Doesn't Jess recognize that we come to our most basic, core identity apart from what others say and think about us, even those closest to us? We live into our true self not because of the identity others give us, but out of our own lived-experience of who we are in God.

Relationships are important, and others can help us hear the notes of our particular song; however, no other person, no matter how close they are, can impart to us our most authentic self. In an ultimate sense, no one else can name you and validate you.

But this is the difficult work of letting go, the work of releasing the life to which we cling in order to receive the life of God. It entails the difficulty of trusting that the life for which I was created is still becoming within me. None of us are good at this, and we don't enjoy it.

This is our spiritual challenge that takes a lifetime . . . it is the challenge of "loving" and "hating," of holding on and letting go.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Two Images for Life and Prayer and Reality

This summer a large group of folks with whom I share life is reading Anthony De Mello’s The Way to Love. I’ve come across a couple of images in recent days that illumine the spiritual journey in some helpful ways. It occurs to me that they may be companion images that would help process De Mello’s ideas in The Way to Love.

First, we each respond and react to life and to life situations in ways we have learned over many years. Most of these responses live beneath the surface of our awareness. We react in certain ways and then assume, “This is just the way I am,” or “That is just the way life is.” In a sense, we have a whole storehouse of internal videos that play in our heads. These “videos,” which include our commentaries on people and events, also include attributing motives to others which may or may not be factual.

For instance, if we feel excluded, we may have a video that plays back other times we felt excluded, and the video may include a commentary that says things like, “That person has always excluded me,” and “I must be a bad person to be excluded like this,” and “She is a bad person because she has shunned me” . . . and on and on it goes.

For me, anyway, the impact of this internal video and commentary is spiraling. I spiral downward . . . downward . . . downward. The further I spiral, the more outrageous my commentary becomes. And all the while it seems very reasonable to me. If I don’t catch the “spiral” early and stop the internal video, I can be in a deep funk for hours and even for days. (“I needed to talk to him. . . . He didn’t answer my phone call. . . . He never answers my phone calls. . . . He must not like me. . . . I’ll never call him again. . . . Maybe I need to quit my job. . . . I should move to another city. . . . I’m such a failure. . . .”)

See? It makes no rational sense. If it weren’t so real, it would be humorous to see it written like this. But this is the internal noise with which each of us lives.

Every person has a whole host of these internal videos. In a sense, they have served to help us make sense of life. And for most of us, they have served as defense mechanisms, ways we have protected ourselves from the hurts and cruelties of life.

Most often, though, these videos are the cause of our upset, turmoil, fear, and defensiveness. We may say to another person, “You did this to me,” but the other person did not “cause” our specific reaction to their behavior. While their behavior may have been inappropriate, unhealthy, and even hurtful, our response to them is mostly a product of the internal video that plays within our minds in reaction to them.

The spiritual life invites our awareness of these internal videos that play within us, some of which are dear to us or seem hardwired within us. Awareness of the videos is the first movement toward detaching from them and from their compelling, addicting pull on us.

Here is another image.

Imagine you are in a valley, looking up at a mountain. You see the mountain and its shape, the trees and rocks that cover it, and the peak of the mountain. The mountain is really there. But take your gaze off the mountain for just a moment . . . then look at the mountain again. This time, you cannot see much of the mountain, because clouds have moved in to block your view. Your vision is obscured by the weather pattern.

If you didn’t know better, you could believe that the mountain no longer exists, or at least that the mountain’s pinnacle is no longer there. You could easily believe that the clouds are the main thing, that the weather is the only reality. After all, on this gaze, the weather is all you can see.

And in fact, the weather pattern is one part of the reality, but it also masks another more solid, more foundational reality . . . which is the mountain or the landscape behind and beneath the clouds.

If I am not careful, I can allow the clouds or the weather to determine my perception and shade how or what I see.

And the reality is that the weather will change. The clouds will move in and out, based on the weather.

You could liken the clouds and the changing weather to our human perception of reality, to the way we see life. To lean on the previous image, the clouds are something like an internal video. They are the immediate focus of our sight, what we most quickly perceive. If our gaze stops there, we will miss the more solid, foundational reality behind and beneath the clouds.

In a sense, the clouds, though beautiful, are a distraction. They obscure the mountain and its peak. The clouds come and go, but the mountain remains.

Spiritual vision, which is grown within us over time, is a function of prayer and meditation, the slow unmasking of the clouds and the gradual learning to trust what is behind the clouds. Quiet prayer, contemplative prayer, gives a foundation for connecting most deeply with God, grounding us in the Real, learning to recognize the distractions for what they are, and helping us to see beyond the scope of our physical vision.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

When Is "Love" Love?

The daily reading for today is from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. The passage, Matthew 5:43 – 48, says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

It may be the most challenging passage in the Christian Scriptures. Those outside a Christian framework notice when professed Christians act in ways that are hateful or resentful or counter to the words of Jesus.

I lived many years in a religious climate that often said things like, “I love you, but I do not like you” . . . or said, “I love you,” but quietly implied, “I’d love you more if you’d change your behavior” . . . or that communicated, “I know I’m supposed to love people – even enemies and rivals and those who threaten me – but I’m human and I cannot do that, so I won’t even try.”

So basically I learned lip-service to love, while resigning myself to live far beneath the invitation to live a loving life.

Love loves what is without trying to change it or manipulate it. Love is not invested in making the object “love-able” (as if that could happen anyway!). Love is not dependent on a love-able object or person. Rather, love arises from the inner core, from the depths of the lover.

To paraphrase the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, love trusts what is . . . love stays with what is . . . love is not continually manipulating and controlling, trying to get someone else to conform to who I am or to what I think should be the shape of reality . . . love bears with what is . . . love does not try to align everything “right” in the outside world, thinking that will put things right in the inner world.

Love bears long with what is . . . love believes long with what is . . . love hopes long with what is . . . love endures long with what is.

I notice today that love leaves for no exceptions and no escape-clauses. Thus, love leaves no room to say, “I will love if” or “I will love when.” Love loves what is.

This kind of love is not based on contingency or what changes in the outer world, but on an inner state.

And for the people or groups that I don’t want to love, the ones I want to change before I give myself to them in love, there is no escape-clause, no exception, no path out of love. Even for enemies, rivals, those with whom I disagree, and those who threaten my security, Jesus says, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who do harm to you.”

If I excuse myself from loving others because I am a weak human being – and it is the human condition to be self-serving and self-protecting – and if because of my human condition I want to hang onto my resentments and want to go on hating enemies and wishing harm on those who are different than I am, then at least let me make that statement of my human weakness as a confession of my sinfulness and my waywardness. Let me say that I am a weak human being in all humility . . . and not as a statement of pride, not as a prelude to enjoin war and hatred and venom on my enemies.

In other words, if I fall back on my fallen human condition, then I had best do so in humility and repentance, not in pride, anger, and venom toward those who are different from me. My inability to love should be a confession of my sinfulness, not an excuse to perpetuate hatred.

“Loving enemies . . . praying for those who persecute you” . . . this is a way counter to basic human learning, but this is the radical way of love, the radical way walked by Jesus, the Trailblazer. This is the new framework, the new construct – called the Kingdom of God – to which I (and you) am invited, in Jesus’ name.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Getting beneath the Resistance

I've spent a lot of time the last few days noticing my own interior reaction to a couple of situations "out there."

In one situation, I've been directly in the line of fire. I've been caught in the crossfire of someone else's issues.

The other situation doesn't directly impact me, yet, I have taken on its weight and felt personally attacked . . . even though the persons actually involved have no idea who I am. Strange, huh?

Both issues, and others of a more mundane, day-by-day nature, have invited me to pay attention to my own interior landscape. Specifically, I'm trying to ask hard questions of myself about my own resistance in these situations. What has stirred up within me? Why have I resisted so vigorously in these very different settings?

Frankly, this is interior work I don't like to do. And I don't always come to it quickly. Often, I'll swim around in angry thoughts for several days before I begin to track my own emotional and spiritual state back to my own inner framework.

That's not to say that what goes on in the outer world is "fair" or "right" . . . but then again, I'm not responsible for someone else's life, for the way they treat people, for the fences they build to exclude and alienate others. I am responsible for my own interior state.

In Matthew 5:20 - 26, Jesus invites persons to trace their behaviors and outer reactions back to the source within a person. In other words, what you are doing or feeling outwardly has some kind of interior component. An explosion of anger bursts out of some internal source. The feeling of resentment comes from some place within us. Our confrontation with the assertive co-worker or family member may arise from our own need to be right or to be perceived as knowledgeable.

Often in a class or workshop, I'll present a difficult idea or offer an image for the spiritual life that is unfamiliar or outside their normal "box" . . . something that challenges the life-framework of the class . . . then I'll invite the group to notice what they are resisting in this new idea.

Sometimes there are folks present who simply shut down. They say, in one way or another, "I'm not going to go there. I won't even consider that."

Some may stay with it, but start enumerating a "belief-system" on which they fall back, and which prevents them from seriously considering any new images or ideas.

There are others who get defensive, even combative. What I've said touches a little too closely to something within them, so they begin to discredit or demean what they have heard.

You'll find it to be a great gift in your own growth -- what I would call, your "becoming" -- to notice intentionally what you resist, what you object to. Try to get behind the accusations or blaming that you are tempted to throw at someone who seems to be causing your discomfort.

What is the "tender" spot within you that has been touched?

What is the "trigger" that this person or group has set off?

What is the "open wound" into which someone has just poured salt?

Track your resistance, if you can. Ask God to help you find its source.

I haven't finished with my interior work related to these issues in my own life. They are ongoing. But I want to notice, to see what is really there.

This "me," the "flawed, angry me" is the real me . . . and this is the "me" God loves.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Way to Serve . . . and to Love

Among some Christian mission organizations, I’m noticing a shift in strategy. Whereas at one time these groups would have been in-your-face aggressive, zealous, and very overt in their evangelism, many are shifting their ways.

I know of mission agencies that are now talking about doing concrete acts of service for those who are the focus of their evangelistic endeavors. Their statements use the language of “love,” and suggest that these acts of service are done in love for the cause of Christ.

Some of these deeds involve offering medical, educational, agricultural, or economic services in foreign countries. Some involve more tangible, hands-on efforts closer to home . . . sitting with a homebound person, doing house repairs and painting, providing child-care, or offering attentiveness to young people in an after-school program.

Each of these expressions, and more, are tangible ways to offer oneself to Christ for the sake of others. Those who give their time in these ways offer a concrete ministry to persons who have specific needs. They generously offer their time and energy.

There is, however, an undercurrent I have seen and heard in this emerging strategy. It arises from the motivation for these “deeds of love.” Sometimes the motivation is spoken plainly, and other times whispered secretly. I have literally heard it spoken and read it written, stated something like this: “We are going to love people by serving them, in order to gain their trust so we can preach the Gospel to them.”

In other words, love people and build trust by doing deeds of service, then preach the Gospel. Use love and service to get in the front door, then tell them the really important stuff.

Perhaps this is an improvement on the old mission policy which was forceful and heavy-handed. It didn’t honor the “other,” but put the one sharing the Christian message in a position of power. There was also the not-so-subtle understanding . . . “I believe that I have the truth in my pocket and that my responsibility as a Christian is to share the truth I have with those who don’t have it. I’m right . . . you’re wrong . . . but let me tell you how you can be right like me.”

The older model of evangelism only asked that you be a salesperson, able to close the deal. Believe me, in my former life, I taught many of those workshops on how to “close the faith-deal”.

At least the new wave evangelism includes some service, some action on behalf of those in need. Yet, here is my issue: This action is done under the guise of “love.” This service is misnamed “love,” when it is actually a tool, an instrument for getting in the front door, for building trust, for gaining access. Service pretends to be love, but in truth is a tool for some other motivation.

Love will have none of that. Love seeks no reward. Love does not manipulate. Love does not act one way in hopes of gaining access for another purpose. To serve someone in order to gain trust and access may be something (like manipulation or control), but it is not love.

There are no conditions to love. Love does not say, “I will do this for you, but you, then, must let me have some time to tell you about Christ.”

Love does not use one pretense to attain some other advantage for itself. “I will love you if it helps me gain access, if it wins me the right to share something with you later.”

Love simply gives itself, regardless of the other, whether the other person receives the love or not . . . whether the other person opens his/her door or not . . . whether the other welcomes it or not.

Love gives itself without condition. It is generated not by outer circumstances, not by what it will gain me, not by what it will do for me or even for God. Love is generated from within. It is the nature of love to love, whether there is a return on that love or not. In fact, I would say that when “love” expects a return, it is not love at all . . . but only a cleverly disguised form of control or manipulation.

I have a litmus test I use with myself. “Can I love this person or thing or situation without needing to change it?” Or to put it another way, “If this person/thing/situation never changes, can I still embody Love in it?”

You see, love is not dependent on the change that may (or may not) take place in the other person, or situation, or thing.

In a committed relationship, can I love this other person, even if he/she never changes?

In my work, can I still embody love, even if the work environment never gets better?

Can my life be fulfilled and happy, even if I never move to that town where there are no problems and the weather is always pleasant?

In other words, can I love what is, without needing to change it?

Of course, you will find that when you love what is, without needing to change it, the other person or thing very often does change when faced with the generosity of a love that does not need to control or manipulate it.

Many of us at The Center for Christian Spirituality in Houston are reading through Anthony De Mello’s The Way to Love this summer. De Mello has a way of cutting through illusions (and delusions) about our capacity to love, about what love truly is. What we call love is most often not love at all, and De Mello has a straightforward way of calling us out on that.

Here are just a few of his statements, from different parts of the book:

• Love can only exist in freedom. The true lover seeks the good of his beloved which requires especially the liberation of the beloved from the lover. (p. 27)
• No thing or person outside of you has the power to make you happy or unhappy. (p. 40)
• The royal road to mysticism and to Reality does not pass through the world of people. It passes through the world of actions that are engaged in for themselves without an eye to success or to gain – or profit actions. (p. 66)
• Here is a second quality of love – its gratuitousness. Like the tree, the rose, the lamp, it gives and asks for nothing in return. (p. 78)
• Love so enjoys the loving that it is blissfully unaware of itself. (p. 79)
• The light, the fragrance and the shade are not produced at the approach of persons and turned off when there is no one there. These things, like love, exist independently of persons. Love simply is, it has no object. They simply are, regardless of whether someone will benefit from them or not. . . . Their left hand has no consciousness of what their right hand does. (p. 79 – 80)
• The moment coercion or control or conflict enters, love dies. (p. 80)

[Anthony De Mello, The Way to Love (New York: Doubleday, 1991).]

Friday, June 7, 2013

Preparing to Meet God . . . Always and Everywhere

Sometimes, I see a message from God written out in big letters across the sky, and other times it comes as a gentle nudge. This time, it came in large print on a billboard along the highway. “Prepare to meet God,” the sign said.

It sounded ominous, threatening, and not a bit invitational. I cringed a bit as I drove past, and wanted to duck. Part of it was embarrassment, I suppose, and the fleeting thankfulness that I didn’t have any “God-stickers” on the bumper of my car that would link me to the billboard.

But there was another part of me that realized the person or group behind these words actually thought they were doing the community a service, and that by their act of buying this space on the billboard – on God’s behalf, no doubt – they, too, were preparing themselves to meet God.

For several miles, I thought about my internal reaction to the billboard. The words play on the theme of God as “Judge.” But in this sense, God is little more than a Scorekeeper or an Eternal Accountant who tallies a ledger. I acknowledged to myself a different understanding of God. I tend to experience God as endlessly generous, and in this generosity God broadcasts mercy, peace, and love into the world . . . whether I acknowledge and receive that generosity or not.

Also, as I drove on, I realized that “prepare to meet God” implies some future meeting, some moment – after death? – when we stand in front of God and “give an account.” But it totally misses the day-by-day, moment-by-moment meeting with God that is possible in every nano-second of our lives.

Every moment is a moment of meeting God. Every place is a place of meeting God.

But our language betrays us sometimes. We say, “God was really present there,” or “God showed up in this,” or “God is still working (or not working) in this situation.” I understand the sentiment, but actually God is always there, always present, always at work. God does not merely show up at the end of life for accounting time, nor does God make periodic appearances in our world in those rare moments when our spine tingles. God is . . . always (in time) and everywhere (in place).

So to the person – or the billboard – that says to me, “Prepare to meet God,” I would say, “I have met God . . . and you have, too, whether you know it or not. In every moment and in every place, God is there, endlessly generous toward you, me, and everything God has made. Don’t miss out on life because you are waiting for death to have that meeting!”

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Prayer: Holding the Pain

The frequency of tragedy and human pain in recent weeks has felt overwhelming to me. I find that I’m still praying for one thing – and the persons impacted – when the next thing happens . . . bombings in Boston . . . explosions in West, Texas . . . floods in the Midwest . . . tornadoes in Oklahoma . . . devastating fires in my hometown of Houston, Texas.

And these crises are merely the tip of the devastation . . . they cannot completely account for the daily violence and massive upset that modern life brings all over the world.

I’ve said before, and I’ll say again, I often don’t know how to pray. I pray for comfort, of course, and healing and strength. But I also don’t always have words to pray.

This past Sunday morning in our Contemplative Worship, Rev. Melissa Maher gave voice both to our desire to pray for those in need, and to the difficulty we have in knowing what to pray. Sometimes, like Sunday as Melissa led us, I simply picture a person’s face or a situation, and whisper, “Mercy.” Other times, I’ll pray silently. I may cup my hands and try to hold those who are hurting out to God.

A couple of weeks ago, in the middle of these tragedies, I came upon another prayer. I borrowed it from Psalm 13. I prayed it, both personally and publicly, in the days after the first tornado swept through Moore, Oklahoma. It occurred to me that for people who feel devastated and in the pits of pain, their grief and difficulty seems all-consuming. It feels like lugging around a huge sack of pain . . . and often, the sheer energy needed to carry around the sack of hurt keeps persons from making decisions, or taking the next step toward life.

So it seemed right for me to tell God that for a few seconds, I would carry the pain of folks who were suffering, in that case, from the tornado’s devastation. I would try to hold their pain. That was my intention. Then, I borrowed the words of Psalm 13 to help me carry that pain. That psalm, in The Book of Psalms (Stephen Mitchell) goes like this:

How long will this pain go on, Lord, this grief I can hardly bear?
How long will anguish grip me and agony wring my mind?
Light up my eyes with your presence; let me feel your love in my bones.
Keep me from losing myself in ignorance and despair.
Teach me to be patient, Lord; teach me to be endlessly patient.
Let me trust that your love enfolds me when my heart feels desolate and dry.
I will sing to the Lord at all times, even from the depths of pain.

First, I told God that as best I could, I wanted to hold the pain of those impacted by the tornado. Then, as best I could, I intentionally held their pain for a few moments. And I used this psalm to help me do it. I prayed its words on behalf of people I didn’t know. I prayed it with them and for them.

It has occurred to me that carrying another person's pain puts us in unique relation with them that other forms of prayer cannot. It puts us with them, in a very unique kind of communion with them. In a very intense way, we are in union with them for a few moments.

Of course, this is the kind of thing God does on our behalf all the time.

So I commend this prayer to you. There will be more tragedy, more bad news to be sure. Even for those of us who are miles away from the difficulty, prayer puts us on the front lines.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A Psalm for the Cycle of Death (Good Friday) and Transformed Life (Resurrection Sunday)

Last week on Good Friday, the day of Jesus' Crucifixion, I found Psalm 137 appointed for prayer in one of my prayer books. It is a difficult psalm to pray under ordinary circumstances. It is bold and violent, audacious in its fist-waving at the "enemies" . . . and even a bit toward God.

I tried to stay with it for as long as I could, and found myself praying the psalm in light of the Death - Resurrection rhythm that seems to be inscribed upon all things. We live . . . something within us dies . . . some form of new life emerges where we thought there was only death. And the patterns continues. It seems to never end. Every day is full of small deaths, ways great and small of letting go of that which has died. It seems to me that we live much of our lives in a kind of "Holy Saturday" time, between the deaths of "Good Friday" and the transformed life of "Resurrection Sunday."

So using Psalm 137, this is what I ended up praying about that in-between time. Perhaps as you read these words, you would also open Psalm 137 from the Hebrew Psalter . . . so that you are praying not about the Babylonians, but about the death of your own dreams, ideas, or postures toward life.

Psalm 137 Psalm-Prayer
for Good Friday 2013

The dream has died
a long death
and I sit empty, angry, despairing
grieving the loss
alone, looking for a next step
remembering the way I thought it would be
remembering the plan that never came to pass

I’ve laid aside the instruments
with which I planned the party
the celebration when You did
(what I wanted You to do)
what never came to be

The death of the dream taunted me
mocked my sadness
shamed my inability to sing “happy songs.”

What can I sing when the dream has died?
All I have are laments
the song of a place
I do not want to be

Yet, this is my truth
This is who I am
where I am

The dream has died a Friday death
and now I wait
a long Saturday
for life
the liminal space
that is my own transformation

And for this in-between time
(I pray)
to be here,
and now,
not forgetting You
as I wait
stay open
for the next thing

I’m tempted, here,
to curse those
through whom the dream was dashed
to strike out at those
through whom this death came
in my anger and disgust

Yet Your Project is beyond
and somehow includes this death
though I cannot see it now

Somehow this death of my dream
is woven into Your life for the world

I cannot see it now
and I cannot yet rejoice
But I will stand in faithfulness
I will wait
with all the openness I can muster

And I pray for the eyes to see
when this death
becomes life.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Experience of Resurrection

Easter, the Day, came and went a couple of days ago.

Easter, the Resurrection Experience, goes on.

As Sunday approached and I thought about the different worship expressions that would happen around Christendom on Easter, I was struck that in many ways, the Church has made the act of Resurrection something to believe in or something to be happy about.

I became aware that for me, the Resurrection is not something to believe in as a doctrine or as something that would form the basis of a creedal statement. Resurrection invites my awareness of the new life that God is birthing in all times and in every place, including within me . . . and it invites my participation in this new life of God’s birthing.

Awareness and participation are different kinds of belief. They are lived experiences, lived beliefs. They are beliefs that get worked into the fabric of our living. They are not agreements to doctrinal positions or proud assertions of what is and is not true. Awareness and participation invite us into life-as-it-is.

And life-as-it-is includes death and resurrection. This is the order of the world God created. Death (Good Friday) is the threshold to new life (Resurrection Sunday). All my daily dyings, great and small, lead to life. I am not invited to believe that . . . in the same way that I’m not invited to believe that gravity is holding me in my chair at this moment. I am invited, though, to live into it, or to live with it. I am to live into this reality of Resurrection.

Notice the Resurrection in Jesus, . . . but also notice Resurrection in the world around you . . . and then, notice it in yourself. Become aware of it.

Then participate in it. Participate in Resurrection as if it were written into the DNA of the universe, as if all things were moving not toward death, but toward Resurrection life.

Easter, the Day, came and went a couple of days ago.

Easter, the Resurrection Experience, goes on.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Studying Scripture, Missing the Point

Many well-meaning Christians miss Jesus because they only look where they expect him to be.

That is pretty much how it was during Jesus' lifetime, when the most religious people around completely missed him. They knew the Scriptures, as least from a particular vantage point, but they could not see Jesus as the One to whom the Scriptures pointed.

It is possible, after all, to live underneath a framework of holiness and piety - completely unaware that you are doing so - that blinds you to the presence of Jesus in your midst.

This is one story from John 5:

“You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

“I do not accept glory from human beings, but I know you. I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not accept me; but if someone else comes in his own name, you will accept him. How can you believe since you accept glory from one another but do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?

“But do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?” (Jn. 5:39 - 47)

Jesus: “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”

I rarely find a Christian who has seriously studied the Scriptures, and who also knows and discerns the Scriptures. In contemporary Christianity, most of what we think of as “studying the Scriptures” is applying a certain mindset or predisposition to the Scriptures, one which most always brings us to the conclusions we have looked for.

Such Scripture “study” is not open to inquiry. Neither is it truly open to whatever the text might say, in all its complexity (or simplicity). It reads with a particular aim, to find certain “truths” affirmed.

This kind of reading does not submit itself to Scripture; rather, the Scriptures always submit to the preconceptions of the reader/studier.

I believe this is the kind of “study” Jesus refers to in this passage . . . the kind of reading that could study, study, study a passage, so that all persons call you, “Bible Scholar!” but still leave you missing the point.

It occurs to me that the forms of Bible reading common in contemplative spirituality do not emphasize correct doctrine. They do not hinge on a person coming out of their Bible reading with a certain orthodox understanding. They do emphasize, however, surrendering to the Word, opening to it and living into it as fully as possible.

Lectio divina – praying with Scripture – listens reverently to the text without preconceived notions of what you will find there. It simply listens openly to whatever the word of God for you might be.

Praying with Scripture in the Ignatian tradition, where one puts himself or herself in the biblical scene, interacting with Jesus via the imagination, is also approached in a spirit of openness and receptivity. You go where the Spirit of God leads you in your imagination. You find yourself in the text and interact within the biblical drama as a participant, even utilizing your senses to participate in the life of Jesus.

Neither method utilizes a filter . . . “this is wrong!” . . . or, “you shouldn’t be thinking that!”

I hear people resist both of these methods because, “I’m not sure I’ll get something that’s not heresy.” Or, “I want to know that I’m not going to be led astray.” So in our concern to get something “orthodox” (which again is usually judged according to our preconceived theological systems), we miss the word God speaks to us.

In the same way that the most religious persons of Jesus’ day missed him, so it is possible for us to think of ourselves as Jesus-literate, when we, too, have utterly missed him.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

For the Lenten Fence-sitters

We've been into Lent less than a week, and I haven't yet made a conscious "I'm-giving-up-blank-for Lent" decision. I thought about giving up Fleetwood Mac for these weeks, but backed off that . . . or Hopkins' poetry, but that didn't work for me, either.

I am, though, finding meaning in some reading . . . some material that is providing material for meditation and reflection.

I'll list below a few of the things available that I've found helpful through the years.

**Journey to the Center, by Thomas Keating.

**Show Me the Way, by Henri Nouwen.

**Wondrous Encounters: Scriptures for Lent, by Richard Rohr.

**Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter. Authors of the short articles include folks like Merton, Bonhoeffer, Kierkegaard, C. S. Lewis, Amy Carmichael, Kathleen Norris, Wendell Berry and many more.

**This year I'm following some postings at It draws on the thought and work of ikon (Peter Rollins) in Belfast. The postings at the site actually come from ikonNYC. If you follow ikon and Rollins, you'll appreciate the site. If you don't follow ikon and Rollins, check it out.

**I've written some meditations around the daily scripture texts, trying to approach the texts as spiritual story and wisdom. I've called it Scattered Seeds, and it is available online at

**I'm also writing a short piece each day, posted at

That should be enough to keep you engaged. Don't do everything. Choose something to follow, find your own rhythm, and then follow it through.