Reflections by Jerry Webber

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Advent Anticipation

Advent is the season that anticipates the birth of Christ, the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. For centuries, the Church has paused during Advent to consider the meaning of this birth, to anticipate the birth of the Savior not only at Christmas, but in every moment of life. This year, Advent begins Sunday, November 27. Songs of longing and anticipation characterize the season, as well as the sprinkling of Christmas songs that begin to engage our hearts in the resounding joy of new life and the birth in Christ to which we are all invited.

This Advent, I'm interested in some of the characters in the traditional nativity narrative. Typically, the characters get analyzed and summarized in stereotypical ways, so that we find a handful of life-lessons in their presence at the Nativity. This year, I want to take a little different track. What if we approached the story of Jesus' birth and the characters surrounding his birth as if they were each alive somewhere within us? The approach reflects my growing understanding that we as humans are much more alike than we are different . . . that all of the foibles and glories of the worst and best among us also live within me. So what would it mean, for example, if I believed that something of the shepherds from the Christmas story lives on in me? What if the spirit of the Magi were also within me? What if there is a part of me that is like the angels, who proclaimed and sang at Jesus' birth? What if I found a corner of my life that was inhabited by the ruler Herod?

The method is akin to what one might experience in a form of Ignatian meditation and prayer. It is a way, I believe, in which we can each personalize the Birth story . . . that is, not hold it at arms length to analyze it, but to allow it close in order to personalize it. Not only, then, do I enter the story, but the story and its characters enter me!

So for the next four weeks, I'll use poetry and scripture to write about some of these characters, in hopes that we will be able to locate them within our own interior . . . and in hopes that we will recognize the Christmas story as our story. I'll post thoughts several times a week on my Daily Advent blog (

Tomorrow we begin. We'll consider the Magi, and using poetry and story we'll try to locate and be in touch with the Magi living within each of us. In the following weeks, we'll give attention to the shepherds, the angels, Herod and the innkeeper.

I invite you to make the journey with me.

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Soul's Sadness and Love-Dogs

Within my soul I've felt a deep sadness in recent days. Something tender and unhealed within me has been touched by the world around me. My sadness has mingled with anger, and I've swung between the two in regular rhythms.

I'm also feeling desperate on behalf of others who are hurting in ways that are much more tangible (and real) than my own superficial difficulty, by those who regularly find themselves marginalized because of skin color, national origin, orientation, gender. A few of these persons I know by name, and vast millions have names and identities I do not know . . . but with them I nonetheless share a common life in this world. We are more the same than different, and of that I am confident.

This poem goads me on, presses me on down the path, pushes me to not give up or give in, says to me that even the sadness and anger of loss are full of union. Rumi's wisdom tills the field for connection.

Love Dogs
by Rumi

One night a man was crying,
Allah! Allah!
His lips grew sweet with the praising,
until a cynic said,
“So! I have heard you
calling out, but have you ever
gotten any response?”

The man had no answer to that.
He quit praying and fell into a confused sleep.

He dreamed he saw Khidr, the guide of souls,
in a thick, green foliage.
“Why did you stop praising?”
“Because I’ve never heard anything back.”
“This longing
you express is the return message.”

The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.

Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup.

Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.

There are love-dogs
no one knows the names of.

Give your life
to be one of them.

[trans. by Coleman Barks, in Robert Bly, The Soul Is Here for Its Own Joy: Sacred Poems from Many Cultures, p. 155 – 156.]

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Learning: A Poem by William Stafford

I have lots of reasons to love William Stafford's poetry. This poem is one of them . . . simple, straight, spare.

Stafford was a pacifist and a conscientious objector. It's worthwhile to spend some time keeping company with this poem.

by William Stafford

A piccolo played then a drum.
Feet began to come – a part
of the music. Here came a horse,
clippety clop, away.

My mother said, "Don't run –
the army is after someone
other than us. If you stay
you'll learn our enemy."

Then he came, the speaker. He stood
in the square. He told us who
to hate. I watched my mother's face,
its quiet. "That's him," she said.

[Stafford, The Way It Is, p. 9]

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Post-Election: A Pastoral Letter

I am the pastor of a Contemplative Community in Houston, Texas. It is a diverse community of seekers, who are intentionally engaging a life-stance rooted in the Christian mystical/contemplative tradition. For months, the Presidential campaign had sent ripples through the community, making conversations awkward and straining relationships. The election itself only served to bring those tensions closer to the surface. As a clay-footed pastor of this beautiful and imperfect community, I wanted to speak into our life together in a healing way. I wrote this pastoral letter to my "flock" about 24 hours after the election results were in. I include the letter here as I sent it to my congregation.

I have struggled over the last 24 hours to know what to say to you as your pastor. Some, I realize celebrate Tuesday’s election as a victory. For others, it is simply relief to finally be done with it. Others have found themselves numb. Many have expressed grief and anger (“sad” and “mad” are both primary emotions, but very different, though sometimes hard to distinguish). The uncertainty felt by some has morphed into fear in others.

In short, I’ve seen no “typical” or generic response to the election. We each feel what we feel. Our emotions are not right or wrong . . . we don’t need someone to fix us or to quote a Bible verse to make us feel better . . . we don’t need to gloat that we were right and others were wrong . . . we don’t need to feel vindicated if identified with the majority nor defeated if identified with the minority.

The aftermath of the election was sure to be this way, regardless of who became the President-elect. Either way, his/her supporters were going to be at odds with her/his supporters. The strain felt among families and friendships, in workplaces and congregations for months leading up to Nov. 8 has now become an awkward tension as we collectively ask, “What’s next?”

Institutions and structures change, shift, fall, are rebuilt . . . that includes nations, political structures, companies, and even the Church. It is one – of many – reasons Jesus said not to place faith in the institutions, in leaders, in political parties, or even in the Church. He foresaw, for example, the fall of the Temple as a religious and national institution within Israel. His words were heard as blasphemy, especially when he said that he would build another Temple, this time in the human heart. But Jesus was forever taking these outer events and symbols, and pressing them inward toward the heart. He asked interior questions about outer events and happenings in the world.

Therefore, wherever you are with the events of the last few days, I invite you to tend the garden that has been given to you. Trying to solve the world will lead to frustration, despair, and ultimately more anger. You can’t fix the world singlehandedly – as even President-elect Trump will learn in the coming days. But you can tend the garden that is yours. That garden, first and foremost, includes your own soul. That garden also includes your relationships, those within your sphere of influence. Tending your garden is not about fixing someone else’s garden, not about locating all the problems “out there” in others, or in the system, but rather about turning the soil of your own life. It’s about working your side of the street.

How am I trying to do that in this season? First, I begin with myself, my own stance, my own feelings. I do soul-work in a deeply honest way. It shifts from finger-pointing at others to a personal glance.

So I take inventory of how it is with me.
• “What does it feel like to be Jerry today?”
• “And what has been touched in Jerry that has produced these feelings? What values have been threatened? What core values have been touched, so that I either celebrate or lament?”
• “What does it feel like to be Jerry feeling this feeling?”

I ask this of myself, not to become more inward focused, not for the sake of introspection, and not in order to judge myself as a failure, but in order to be familiar with myself and my own landscape. I want to be aware – or conscious – of my own interior, in order to see what is at work within me. This is a part of the illumining work of God’s Spirit.

I want to let this work take its time in me, because I realize that most often, my first reaction (the first glance or first gaze) is self-protecting, self-serving, and not grounded in love. Usually the first glance is defensive, judgmental, and categorizing. When I press myself to stay with the interior work, I can often get to that second glance or gaze, which most always includes threads of mercy and the capacity to see self and others more generously.

Second, I want to become aware of my mind’s chatter . . . whether it is the chatter of election elation, or the chatter of election analysis, or the chatter of fear and despair.

[The internet and social media can be a great gift, but they can also feed the worst impulses within us. Consider a fast from news feeds and social media for 24 hours or so. In my experience, these sources only feed and perpetuate my mind’s chatter, increasing the number of “monkeys” jumping around from swing to swing within my head. It’s almost impossible for me to cease my mind’s chatter when I’m constantly feeding the monkeys more food.]

Some form of contemplative prayer – Centering Prayer or Christian meditation – that invites you to disengage from thoughts and feelings may be especially helpful, so that at least for a few minutes, you can let go of the chatter and the cycling of your analytic mind.

Third, consider carrying a breath prayer along for this season of your life . . . a phrase that you can breathe or whisper as you move through your day, especially when you find yourself overwhelmed by the situation. Whisper the prayer as you work, as you walk, as you drive, as you eat, as you wait on hold. Let the simple prayer itself hold you.

“Be still and know that I am God.” (Ps. 46:10)
“The earth is yours, and all that is in it.” (Ps. 24:1)
“You are the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (Ps. 27:1)
“In your light I see light.” (Ps. 36:9)

Finally, I affirm that we are a diverse spiritual community made up of persons from across the political, racial, socio-economic, educational, sexual orientation spectrum. We do not represent a single political vantage point. A glance across the Chapel on any given Sunday morning, and I see a multitude of life-situations and perspectives, each with meaning for that particular person. Our task together is love and mercy. It is the growing edge for all of us, especially in our life together and in our witness to the world. We each find different ways to embody the life of Christ to the world. None of us do that in the same ways. We are united by the common quest to deepen our lives into the heart of God for the transformation of the world . . . not by common perspectives or beliefs or ideologies.

We may not always sense it at a surface level, but we are one in the One who has called and named us.

I am glad – and sometimes overwhelmed – to be your pastor in a time such as this.

In love and peace,