Reflections by Jerry Webber

Monday, September 15, 2014

Thoughts about Genie-Gods and Darkness

The story is too long to tell today. In brief, while in a restaurant recently, I heard a monologue at the table next to me in which a person was "instructing" others at his table in how to get good things ("blessings") from God. This fellow described God as "a blank check" who is just waiting for us to ask for "all the treasures in God's storehouse." We don't have more, he said, "because we don't claim what is already ours."

I won't describe the mix of emotions I felt as this scene unfolded within a few feet of me . . . those of you who know me well will be able to guess a few of my feelings pretty easily.

What I finally came to as I walked out of that scene was the desire to reach out to the 5 or 6 people around that table and say, "You know, if this doesn't work out for any of you in the days ahead, come see me. Here's my card."

Because I know a whole bunch of people -- many of the folks I hang out with day in and day out -- for whom religion and cultural expressions of Christianity have not worked out. From old-school Catholics to prosperity-Gospel evangelicals to hard-shell Baptists . . . and everything else along the spectrum . . . I spend a lot of time with folks whose personal experience has not lined up with the teaching of a particular expression of the Church. Many of these folks have dropped out of organized religious expression, yet they have not given up on some expression of their faith. They wait and they hope. They are people of soul who long for something authentic that will not shrink from the darkness of our world -- or the darkness of their own interior. They are people for whom religious expression and spirituality are not an escape from the real world, but a healing engagement with it. They are people who take seriously the inner life and its expression in the outer world, not because it gets us "the treasures of God" as some kind of self-interested blank check, but because it connects us to a Source that is generously endless and life-sustaining.

I wanted to say some of this to those sitting at that table . . . to offer them a place to go and a people to be with when their God-as-Santa-Claus systems stopped working. Alas, I didn't intrude on their party, so I let them be. (I likely would have been written off by them as an infidel, anyway.)

The entire scenario, as I've reflected on it for a couple of weeks, has also reminded me of how much more appealing is a life of goodies and treasures, a life of all sunlight where a huge Genie-God makes all the roads smooth, takes away all the disease, removes all the stumbling blocks at work, gives us what we want on command . . . as if we shouldn't have to deal with difficulty, crisis, tragedy, or death. (In the Genie-God scenario, Jesus dealt with death, tragedy, and darkness so that we would not have to. His death means that we get the goodies.)

Maybe it's just my personality, but I tend to be drawn to those who are honest about both the darkness and the light. It seems to me that those who are in touch with darkness -- the world's and their own -- offer a tremendous gift to the world. They don't gloss over the darkness, nor do they run from it. They are comfortable in it, not needing to change it into sugar-canes and sweetness. Sometimes the darkness does get transformed into light, but those who can abide in the darkness do not demand that it be so in order to be happy. They find their happiness and delight regardless the weather.

I've noticed in recent years, for example, that poets who are familiar with darkness catch my attention. I've thought of all this today because I re-read a poem by R. S. Thomas this morning. Thomas was a Welsh pastor whose poetry is tinged in darkness. No, more than tinged, his poetry is immersed in darkness. It would be too breezy to call him a pessimist. I simply think of him as a realist, fully engaged with God and with life so that he doesn't hide from the difficult questions. He sometimes is comforted by God's presence, for example, but more often he confronts God over God's perceived absence. His poetry has the feel of the Hebrew Psalms that confront God and question God and demand answers from God, knowing that they may or may not come. And whether they come or not ceases to be the issue. At the core Thomas, like the psalms, engages God.

This is the poem I have considered again today. The last few lines are the lines I'm living with today.


R. S. Thomas

There is an island there is no going
to but in a small boat the way
the saints went, travelling the gallery
of the frightened faces of
the long-drowned, munching the gravel
of its beaches. So I have gone
up the salt lane to the building
with the stone altar and the candles
gone out, and kneeled and lifted
my eyes to the furious gargoyle
of the owl that is like a god
gone small and resentful. There
is no body in the stained window
of the sky now. Am I too late?
Were they too late also, those
first pilgrims? He is such a fast
God, always before us and
leaving as we arrive.

There are those here
not given to prayer, whose office
is the blank sea that they say daily.
What they listen to is not
hymns but the slow chemistry of the soil
that turns saints’ bones to dust,
dust to an irritant of the nostril.

There is no time on this island.
The swinging pendulum of the tide
has no clock; the events
are dateless. These people are not
late or soon; they are just
here with only the one question
to ask, which life answers
by being in them. It is I
who ask. Was the pilgrimage
I made to come to my own
self, to learn that in times
like these and for one like me
God will never be plain and
out there, but dark rather and
inexplicable, as though he were in here?

-- R.S. Thomas, Later Poems: 1972 – 1982 (London: Macmillan, 1983), 125 – 26.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Belief As a Lived Experience

Every person is a theologian. Everyone thinks about God. Even the thought that there is no divinity is way of considering ultimate things. The process of thinking God doesn’t exist, or thinking that God doesn’t matter, is one form of theology.

I know all that sounds like double-talk, but really it’s not. And there is more . . .

What we truly believe is not what we say we believe, or what we think we believe. No. Our actual belief is what shows up in our lives, in our daily experience, in the way our lives are ordered.

For example, numerous persons through the years have suggested that even many Christians – those who claim faith in God through Jesus Christ – are practical atheists. That is, while many of us claim allegiance to God through Jesus, we may also order our daily living as if God did not exist, or as if Christ did not matter, or as if God’s Spirit had abandoned the world. We would be offended to be called atheists, yet the day-by-day run of our lives is not touched by our faith in God.

What we believe about God also shows up in our practice of prayer.

For instance, entering into prayer with a posture of openness, in which we seek to stay open to the vast and mysterious work of God within us and in the world, invites a larger theology of God . . . a belief that God holds all things together. It invites me to trust that even though I cannot see the full picture from where I sit, God is directing the affairs of the world in a way that brings healing and redemption. It invites me to trust the hidden work of God’s Spirit, which most often takes place behind the “veil.” Contemplative prayer and meditation, therefore, are far from lazy or watered-down forms of prayer. Rather, they invite a fuller faith in God and less reliance on my own vision or abilities.

Other prayer forms also reveal our belief-systems. The Hebrew Psalms are packed with raw emotions and honest declarations about how the psalmist experiences life.

“Defend my cause, God,” they demand.

“Why have you abandoned me, Lord?” they inquire.

“Destroy my rivals,” they pray.

This is not the prettified, holy-sounding, “godly” language I was taught in the Church. In fact, I was instructed to pray prayers that were beautiful and lofty, that extolled God’s virtues – most often telling God what God surely already knew – with eloquence and an appropriate sense of wonder.

[Strangely enough, these were also the prayers that kept me far from prayer for decades. When I realized I could not pray those lofty, eloquent, holy-sounding prayers with any degree of honesty, I gave up on the whole business of praying.]

The Psalms of the Old Testament were literally a God-send for me. In them I found people praying real, raw prayers, not the cleaned up and sanitized version of prayer I had earlier been taught.

But it took me awhile to learn to pray honestly as depicted in psalms. My theology, what I believed about God, was that if I made one wrong move, said one “bad” word, made some flippant gesture God-ward, I would be punished. Had you asked me what I believed about God, I would have said that God loves me unconditionally. But my practice did not reflect that belief.

My actual experience was fear of God, afraid that I would somehow, in word or deed, wander beyond the limits of God’s love. I couldn’t be honest. I couldn’t say what I truly felt – unless, of course, what I felt was “pure” and “holy” and “upright,” and you can imagine that was a very small percentage of the time – because if I did, God would make me pay.

It actually took me years to learn to pray honestly. It happened bit by bit, baby steps forward, learning to actually trust that the cord with which God tethered me could not be severed, that there was nothing – absolutely no-thing – that could take me beyond God’s love and mercy. Only when secure in God, only when fully trusting that I was held without condition in God’s heart, could I pray honestly the reality of who I am and how I experience life.

What you and I truly believe always shows up in our actual lives . . . in our prayer, in our daily experience. What lives in our minds may be an expression of what we want to believe. Our practice of daily life demonstrates our actual belief.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

What Should I Tip for a Good Humiliation?

Saint Francis of Assisi prayed for one humiliation a day.

He was not a masochist. He did not seek out suffering. He was not an out-of-touch ascetic who thought pain in and of itself united one to God.

Francis knew that humiliation and embarrassment touched something within him to which he was attached . . . some image of himself that was important to his sense of self, yet was actually unrealistic or untrue. Humiliation would strike at the inner person, the areas where he was heavily invested and highly defended, and "bring him down a notch."

Francis also knew that his band of brothers tended to idealize his life, tended to make an idol of him as their leader. He knew that their deification of him was misplaced; thus, humiliation for him was a doorway into humility. (It's no accident that "humiliation" and "humility" both derive from the same root, humus, which means soil, dirt, or earth.)

Embarrassment works the same way. A person has an image that is projected outward, the way we want others to see us. Then something happens in our life-world that suggests we are not who we thought we were, or not who we have wanted others to believe we are. Embarrassment. Red-faced, we limp toward reality.

So here's my story:

Over a week ago, I went to the lady who has been cutting my hair for about 6 years now. An immigrant from Vietnam, she and her family have made a life for themselves in the United States. Her elementary-aged daughter is often in the shop, reading books or working on coloring books. I have come to know her and her family, even through the challenges of language and cultural mores.

I'm an easy hair-cut. #3 clippers on the top, #2 on the sides. Years ago I gave up on styling my hair . . . just cut it down short, and I'll never have to see a comb or hairbrush for the rest of my days. The whole process, from getting into the barber's chair to shaking off the hair and moving on, takes about 7 minutes on a good day.

On this day, I slid into the chair and she began to pump the foot pedal to lower the chair -- this happens every time -- as low as it would go in order to #3 me evenly across the top. Only this time, when she got the chair as low as it would go, she said, "I need you to be lower in the chair."

In 6 years, I'd never needed to be lower before. But I accommodated her, scrunching down in the chair as much as possible. (You gotta get that #3 even on top, dontcha know?) Making conversation, I said -- good-naturedly, I might add -- "What happened? Did I grow taller?"

She said, "No, just fatter."

I was a little shocked. Didn't expect THAT! I mumbled something like, "Yeah, I've gained some weight," hoping we could move on to something else, like what was coming up after the commercial on "General Hospital."

She charged on. "Do you like being fat?"

"Not really."

"Does it make you uncomfortable, like when you try to sleep at night? How does it feel?"

"Uh, not very good, I guess." By this time, I'm tiny in the chair, a seven-year old could not have been hunkered down lower. "I know that I need to lose some weight," I whispered.

"You should try eating less."

The last 6 minutes, 30 seconds of the haircut went on in silence.

Then the moment of decision: Because the haircut is fairly inexpensive, I usually give her a substantial tip. So what should I do this day? A sizable tip, and a "Thanks for the humiliation"? Or -- as per usual -- puff up, say nothing, pay only for the haircut (and NOT the humiliation), and sulk home?

My friend -- and she IS my friend! -- gave me something to carry along for several days. Why did her comments feel so offensive? humiliating? embarrassing? The truth is, I've put on over 20 pounds in a relatively short period of time. I know it's a problem, and certainly the people around me know that it's a problem, but she is the first and only person to say something about it. And I know I should eat less, but I don't.

My first response to this humiliation -- it really is a MINOR humiliation on the grander scale of things -- was to eat a huge basket of onion rings that night. I showed her!

Over the next several days, though, I remembered Francis and his words about humiliation and embarrassment, about how humiliation often comes from very public assaults on our pride and ego, about how embarrassments often take our heads out of the clouds and ground us in our fundamental humanity.

The ego-self (self-interested, self-referenced, self-centered) is a ruthless dictator. Easily offended, it wants to defend its ground, to stake its selfish claims. But St. Francis knew that a small, undefended ego is very difficult to embarrass and almost impossible to humiliate. The large ego projects an image of ourselves (how we see ourselves or how we want to be seen), and when that image is shattered, we feel humiliated. But with the small ego, there is no image to protect or defend. Security and esteem do not come from outside ourselves.

So sitting in the barber's chair that Friday, I was humiliated to hear the truth. My clothing tells me that she is right. The mirror tells me that she is spot-on. I'm just not accustomed to someone coming right out with the obvious. She touched a place where I feel a little prickly (and vulnerable, and even helpless on some days). It's not that what she said was untrue or offensive, only that it struck at my large ego, my inflated sense of self, the self I want to believe in and the image I want to project to others.

How do you tip for that kind of humiliation?

I'm trying to imagine what St. Francis would do.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

All Mercy, All the Time

In his merciful way, our good Lord always leads us as long as we inhabit this impermanent life. I saw no anger other than humanity’s, and God forgives us that. . . . The ground of mercy is love, and the ministry of mercy is to preserve us in love. For mercy works in love, with generosity, compassion, and sweetness. And mercy labors within us, preserving us, and converting everything to the good. Through love, mercy allows us to fail, at least in part, and to the extent that we fail, we fall. To the extent that we fall, we die. For we die without fail when we no longer see and feel God, who is life. Our failure is frightful, our falling inglorious, our dying wretched. Yet never does love’s compassionate eye turn from us, nor does the operation of mercy cease.
(Julian of Norwich, All Will Be Well: 30 Days with a Great Spiritual Teacher, Ave Maria Press)

Last Thursday, May 8, was the Feast Day of Julian of Norwich. I’ve long been drawn to Julian for several reasons, not the least of which is my close friend, Peter of Norwich, who grew up in Julian’s English city. She is most famous – besides residing in the city of Peter of Norwich – as the recipient and conveyor of 14 visions, given to her by God, and called “shewings” (showings or revelations).

The showings are known as “revelations of Divine love.” And so they are. This year, I have been struck most by Julian’s capacity to see deep into the heart of God, and to find there all love, all the time. She writes about God’s mercy and compassion, God’s tenderness and kinship with us. In fact, she says at one point that if there is any anger or malice present, they come from humans. God is all mercy.

It is important to note that she did this in an era of plague and death, war among nations, and sharp divisions within the Church. In other words, during a season in which most people were drawing lines, labeling some as comrades and others as enemies, and attributing the devastation of the days to God’s wrathful vengeance, Julian saw that God was only mercy, tenderness, and sweetness.

Further, Julian reports these things in a way that few male mystics can, or do. Historically, male writers made magisterial pronouncements about God, drew lines to delineate the outsiders from the insiders, speaking of holiness, godliness, and righteousness as something earned, a status symbol of the moral life.

[Francis of Assisi is the notable male exception to this bias. He is more closely associated with the female mystics in his heart of tender compassion. It is evidenced, not only in his relationships with people, but also in his connection to the created world. He tenderly accepted what seemed outrageous, even vile, in the created world (the wolf at Gubbio, for example, and the leper on the road).]

Julian didn’t witness to a God who made decrees or a God who was busily angry with humans for their failings.

This is the great act intended by our Lord God from eternity, treasured and hidden in his heart, known only to himself. By this act he will make all things well. For just as the blessed Trinity made everything from nothing,
just so will the same Trinity make everything wrong to be well. And I was overcome with wonder at this: our faith is grounded in God’s word, and whoever believes in that word will be preserved completely. Now holy doctrine tells us that many creatures will be damned. And if this is true, it seemed impossible to me that everything should be well, as our Lord had shown me by revelation. And in regard to this I had no other answer but this: “What is impossible for you is not impossible for me. I shall honor my word in everything, and I shall make everything well.” So I was instructed by God’s grace to hold steadfastly to the faith, and, at the same time, to believe firmly that everything will turn out for the best. For this is the great action that our Lord will accomplish, and in this action he will keep his word entirely. And what is not well shall be made well.

(Julian of Norwich, All Will Be Well: 30 Days with a Great Spiritual Teacher, Ave Maria Press)

Remarkable! This one woman, much given to sickness, who lived in a small room at the base of the church in Norwich, stood against the official doctrine of the entire Church, speaking for a way of love, mercy, and tenderness, rather than judgment, self-vindication, and works righteousness.

In modern times, I hear echoes of Julian in someone like Greg Boyle, the Jesuit priest who has invested his life in inner city Los Angeles among street gangs. Boyle doesn’t carry a message of judgment to the homies who are gangbanging in the barrios of LA. He simply lives among them in tenderness and kinship, mercifully offering second, ninth, and twenty-seventh chances to those who feel like failures.

This is the kind of mercy and tenderness to which I aspire. It’s both what I want to convey from my life, and it’s what I want to experience within myself. But as my Mercy Street friend Gregg says often, “If this is what I so desperately want, why do I continually choose to live in some other reality, governed by fear and anger, judgment and worthiness?”

We are blessed through mercy and grace. . . . So Jesus is our mother. We owe him our very being for this motherhood and all the delightful protection that follows after. For as surely as God is father, so surely is God also mother. He shows this in all, but particularly in these sweet words: “I am the strength and goodness of the father, I am the wisdom of the mother, I am light, grace, and lovely love, I am Trinity and unity; I am the innate goodness of every creature, I draw you toward love, I endow you with longing; I am the endless completion of all desiring.” So Jesus is our true mother by nature because he has created us. He is also our mother by grace, for he took our created nature upon himself. All the lovely deeds and tender services of motherhood may be seen in him.
(Julian of Norwich, All Will Be Well: 30 Days with a Great Spiritual Teacher, Ave Maria Press)