Reflections by Jerry Webber

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.