by Jerry Webber
The Center for Christian Spirituality
Houston, Texas, USA

Friday, December 18, 2015

For Those Weary of Planning for and Talking about Christmas

"I'm tired of planning for and talking about Christmas. I just want some space to sit with it, apart from the many self-imposed distractions and tugs that scatter my attention."

I said these words last week to some friends as we talked about our experience of Advent and Christmas. I've been planning Advent and Christmas services since early November. I've been talking about Christmas, both in writing and in speech for almost that long. I'm tired of it. I'm tired of talking about the concept and planning for the experience. It feels blasphemous that I should want something to be ended before it has even arrived -- especially something so "holy" as Christmas. Yet, that is the honest truth about my interior state.

And I feel this way not only about the planning that is part of my daily work. My personal planning for Christmas is nearly shot, also. Day after day I'm haunted by inner voices that whisper, "But what are you going to buy so-and-so? . . . and what about a gift for what's-her-name? . . ." Shadowy voices rumble around within me, voices of compulsion and drivenness. Some years my gift-giving is divinely inspired -- the year I gave my golfing friends Titleist golf balls inscribed with, "MEDITATE THIS, THOMAS MERTON!" -- but not so this year. It's been a grinding chore. I'm about to give in, now one week before Christmas, go to, and hit the "BUY!" button: "Squatty Potties for everyone!!" I'd have them in hand for distribution by December 22.

One of my friends, to whom I vented about my weariness over Christmas talk and planning, asked a helpful clarifying question: "If you were able just to sit with the season, what would you find?"

I don't know what I'd find. I believe there would be much less compulsion and drivenness crowding the soul-space. Maybe there would be simple openness, even emptiness. As it is, I sit each morning in my mauve rocker with the worn armrests, reading Advent and Christmas texts, waiting for something to come at me . . . waiting to hear . . . waiting to catch a glimpse. Little seems to move toward me. It's mostly just sitting in a space in which precious little seems to be going on . . . except the compulsiveness, the self-guilt over my sad gift-giving, and the weariness that accompanies those voices.

In fact, I feels something like a kind of "virgin" through the season, as the Virgin Mary entered her own experience in emptiness and simple openness. (I have more thoughts on the "virginity" to which the season invites us . . . I may share them in this space in a few days.)

To be sure, I look at my calendar and see services, events, gatherings, where I am compelled to have something to say about Christmas . . . and I will gladly step into those places . . . after all, I'd hate to waste all this great planning and strategizing of the last two months.

But mostly, I'm longing for no thinking, no words, no strategizing, no talking about. Instead, simply a sitting-in. A being-with.

And IF you find a Squatty Potty under your Christmas tree . . .

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

What Rest?

"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest." (Matt. 11:28)

I was particularly sensitive to Jesus' words in Matthew 11:28 when I read them a couple of days ago. They caught my attention on the long end of a stretch in which I've dealt with health issues that brought several weeks of lean sleep.

Ahhh, but to be able to sleep again. Rest, sweet rest.

In my naivete', I've supposed that this was the rest Jesus promises. Rest. Sleep. A pause from the demands of work. Respite from the constant houndings of daily life. A moment free from "forced" creativity. Eight hours of non-interrupted REM sleep.

But when I read the passage this time, I asked some other questions of this rest.

What is the rest Jesus gives? Is is rest from physical exhaustion? Is it emotional rest? Is it rest from carrying the burdens others place upon me? Is it rest from health concerns?

And I began to consider other kinds of rest . . . rest from trying to control everyone else around me . . . rest from being attached to outcomes . . . rest from worry about things I cannot control . . . and rest from the control I try to exert over the way things turn out, that they should look the way I want them to look. . . .

Is it rest from my compulsions?
Is it rest from my attachment to security?
Is it rest from my attachment to good health?
Is it rest from my attachment to comfort?

I realize that so much anxiety and worry comes when any of these things are thwarted, when my attachment to them is threatened. Truly, the anxiety and worry represent "no rest", no sense of well-being. They are wearisome, draining, exhausting, pulling out my interior resources, spending energy on that over which I usually have little control.

For this season of my life, I sense that rest is not getting plenty of sleep. As always, I reserve the right to change my mind about these things . . . but for today, rest looks more like letting go of compulsions and releasing attachments.

My experience has been that only in the context of a vertical, Divine-human, I-Thou relationship, do I recognize these compulsions and attachments. The contemplative journey gives me the space to see myself more and more clearly, to see what is more true about myself, and to name the compulsions and attachments which are illusory.

Further, it gives me some language -- even if limited -- to speak to these compulsions and attachments. And it gives me some practices that are well-suited for breaking up the hardened soil of the attachments in order that I might live more freely for good and healing in the world.

Jesus, it would seem to me, is much more invested in this kind of liberating rest that heals me and heals the world than in my prospects for getting a good, eight hour sleep.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Advent's Slow Crawl

This past Sunday was the First Sunday of Advent.

The season of Advent is intended for preparation, waiting, and expectancy, beginning four Sundays before Christmas. Advent themes of hope, love, peace, and joy are intended to prepare our hearts for the birth of Jesus. In Advent truly conceived, that birth is not a faraway event represented by a calendar date, but rather a birth that takes place continually within human hearts as we make room for the coming of Christ within us.

For me, though, the season of Advent begins as more of a slow crawl. I don't get a running start, or even a rolling start into Advent. In the United States, the first days of Advent fall on the heels of Thanksgiving, travel, Black Friday, and gatherings with family and friends.

Advent crawls out of the blocks. I have to make myself speak the words and sing the songs. I'm grateful for the season, the colors, the candles, the readings, just not quite ready for it.

But Advent doesn't inquire about my readiness, nor does it particularly care whether or not I'm prepared for the season. It doesn't mind that I'm road-weary from travel or overloaded with tryptophan or that Black Friday and Cyber Monday have stuffed my inbox with two email ads for every one I can delete.

Advent comes, ready or not. It comes . . . to announce a coming.

Christ has come . . . Christ is coming . . . Christ will come.

Christ comes always, continuously, in every time. Christ comes everywhere, relentlessly, in every place, welcoming or not.

This is my slow crawl into Advent. I don't feel bad about it -- though years ago I did -- but rather just accept it for what it is. I'll come around. I'll get there eventually.

Give me a bit . . . I'll catch up to you.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The End of Advent, The Beginning of Christmas

The days of Advent quickly move into the days of Christmas. The Church calendar does not pause long for nativity before moving into the real-world situation into which Christ was born.

December 26 was the day of remembrance for St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. The reading for Monday was Matthew 10:17 - 22.

December 27 called to mind St. John the Evangelist, with the reading for the day from the Resurrection of Christ (John 20:1 - 8).

Today, December 28, remembers The Holy Innocents (Matthew 2:16 - 18), the two-year-old children who were slaughtered by Herod in his fear and paranoia over the report of the Magi about a new "king" being born.

In short, the readings for the week are sobering reminders that the birth of this King has serious consequences, and that not everyone was willing to sing "Glory!" at the birth. Life moves on. We're not frozen at a manger, but carrying the real presence into the life we live everyday. Christ inhabits all the moments of our lives.

For now, this blog will be dormant until next Advent, when we will make the journey once again.

But in a couple of months we will begin the season of Lent, and make a different kind of journey together. For that pilgrimage, I'll offer daily postings at A Daily Lent (

My year-round, ongoing blog is Only a Sojourner (

I look forward to continuing the journey with you!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord -- December 25, 2011

Luke 2:15 - 20

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

You know as well as I do that simply showing up in a place does not guarantee an experience of what is happening in that place. It is possible to be there, but not really be there.

For example, I've sung hundreds of Christmas carols in my lifetime. Most of the time I get to the end of a carol without any thought whatsoever of what I've just sung. The words pop out automatically, without thought or consideration. I've sung them so often that I have to force myself to drop into them if I want to hear their message.

Or, to take another example, I've said the Lord's Prayer thousands of times. It's possible to get to the end of the prayer and not have any consciousness of a single thing I've just prayed.

I do believe there are things we should do simply because we should do them. And most of us don't have the wherewithal to give intense mental scrutiny to every parcel of life, to every word or sight or sound. We would be exhausted from such intensity.

But many of us live at the opposite extreme. We give little or no attention to things that happen in the present moment. We're living in what has already happened in the past . . . or we are planning for some anticipated moment in the future.

Here's my problem: God-orchestrated sounds are all around me, but I don't hear them. God-shaped sights appear to me constantly, but I don't see them.

The text for today comes at the end of the traditional texts about the Nativity of Jesus. It hinges, not on the proper nouns that name the people involved in the scene (angels, shepherds, Mary, Joseph, baby), but on the verbs that describe the action post-birth.

The verbs that catch my attention (and thus, draw the action) are the simple action words, "see," "hear," and "tell." You'll find several occurances of them in the text.

You can show up in a place, but not see the miracle or the revelation.

You can show up in a place, but not hear the message or the angel chorus.

And if you don't see or hear, you have nothing to tell.

"The shepherds praised and glorified God for all they had seen and heard."

So I'm taking a moment today, this Christmas Day, to ponder what I have seen and heard in recent days. I've heard lots of honking on streets and in parking lots. I've seen bright multi-colored lights on houses and lots of red-taillights on streets and highways. I've heard lots of frustrated people in stores. I've heard tired children and seen frustrated parents.

But if I filter my hearing and seeing through a God-lens, what sounds and sights am I aware of then? What people have I seen that have become gift to me? And what people have I seen who have received my gift?

What have I heard that brought me joy and life? What sounds filled me with peace?

What I have seen and heard gives me something to tell: "Jesus Christ lives within us and around us! The mystery of God is real and lives among us! Thanks and praise be to God!"

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eve -- December 24, 2011

Luke 1:67 - 79

His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied:
“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us—
to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

The Song of Zechariah, also known as the Benedictus, is prayed daily each morning in the Liturgy of the Hours. I have prayed it from prayer books and in monastic settings for years. Its words are ingrained in my consciousness. They have been life to me.

The Benedictus is also a wonderfully appropriate Advent prayer. The images fit perfectly with this season of watching for light and waiting in hope.

So for the last three years I've used this prayer as a centerpiece for the weekly Contemplative Worship experience of which I am a part. I personally find it to be a beautiful expression of Advent hope for myself and the world. Others have responded well to it, as well, and found life in its words.

Last weekend, a worshiper in that service noticed that we were still using the Benedictus in worship, especially the last two verses, once or twice in each service. This person noted that had used the same prayer last year in worship, also. She was simply making the observation about the Canticle's prominence in worship.

I responded to her comment by saying, "Yes, we've used it for three years now . . . and we're going to keep saying it until we get it right!"

We all laughed. Of course, I didn't mean, "Until we all say it the right way," or "Until we get the cadence right," or "Until the intonation suits me."

I meant, "We're going to say it until we really open ourselves to its truth."

That is, until we live in the truth that one has come to us to save us from enemies, both enemies in the outer world, but mostly enemies in our internal world . . .

. . . until we open ourselves to worship God without fear and intimation, but in mercy and loving-kindness . . .

. . . until we really get the mercy and compassion of God as it is extended toward us without condition, and then live in it more than talk about it . . .

. . . until we live in the light of God, no matter how dark our situations or our "shadows of death" seem.

. . . until our feet our guided onto the path of peace, so that we not only speak of peace, but actively live into the peace of God for all people.

The Church has been praying the Benedictus daily for centuries. We're still trying to "get it right." And we'll be praying it for a long time yet to come.

A Meditation

On this eve of the birth of Christ, try this for a meditation:

Read through the Canticle of Zechariah once more.

Pick out the line or phrase that seems to have your name written on it.

Pull that line out of the prayer, and then stay with it for a few moments.

Take several tries at putting it into your own words. Paraphrase it.

How is that line being lived out in your life?

Whisper the line quietly several times, until you sense the phrase sinking from your head down into your heart.

Then carry that line with you as a breath prayer through this Christmas Eve.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Fourth Friday of Advent -- December 23, 2011

Luke 1:57 - 66

When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy.

On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, but his mother spoke up and said, “No! He is to be called John.”

They said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who has that name.”

Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, “His name is John.” Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue was loosed, and he began to speak, praising God. The neighbors were all filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, “What then is this child going to be?” For the Lord’s hand was with him.

I find Christmas joy rivaled by Christmas angst. The difficulties and challenges of relationships the other 364 days of the year are intensified under the spotlight of an expectation of "joy, peace and celebration."

It's hard to be in relationships in a healthy way. Each of us brings old patterns and assumptions into our interactions with others. Sometimes we lock others into old expectations and leave little room for the new or the fresh or the surprising to emerge.

Zechariah and Elizabeth birthed a son. The old pattern, adopted by friends, family members, and towns-people was that the parents would give the baby a family name, so that the family line would be passed on in that naming ritual.

God's invitation to Zechariah and Elizabeth, however, was toward another name, a name representing the new thing God would do with this boy . . . and ultimately with the one this boy would precede.

It takes courage to step out of old patterns, to walk against prevailing opinion, to swim upstream when all expectations run against you like a strong river-current. It is easier to adapt and go along, not breaking with tradition. But tradition alone is rarely the wineskin that contains the fullness and expansiveness of the Gospel.

This is one of the reasons friendships and family life are such challenges. Those closest to us are also those most likely to lock us into old patterns, old ways of naming and being named, old ways of relating. When God stirs a heart and a person begins to change inwardly, living into fresh patterns or new ways of being, all these old patterns are challenged. Other people get uncomfortable . . . threatened . . . confused . . . offended.

This story of Zechariah and Elizabeth naming John helps me to step into my own experience of Christmas with a bit more courage. More than being locked into the old patterns, it invites me to live into the fresh thing God is doing in me, in others, and in the world.