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

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Shepherds: Connecting the Human with the Divine

The story around the Nativity of Jesus is both common and other-worldly, brimming with mystery that unites elements that sound, at the same time, familiar and unique.

The narrative includes elements that are extraordinary, signifying that this birth has cosmic consequences, that it is heavenly and bears the mark of God’s design. The signs of God’s activity are everywhere: angels appearing to a virgin . . . a mysterious, “spiritual” conception . . . an angel chorus singing over shepherds and sheep . . . a supernatural star guiding foreign mystics, who notice a new alignment in the celestial realm . . . dreams and visions sent by God and mediated by angels.

The Christmas story is also common and ordinary: a couple is expecting a child . . . a baby is born . . . a small town is bustling with crowds at census time . . . people are going about their normal work as this birth takes place, including sheep-herders who are tending their flocks of sheep in the countryside. This is everyday life.

So the story is a co-mingling of divinity and humanity, an intertwining of the heavenly and the earthly. This is especially true of the encounter of angels and shepherds in the field.

It is no accident that the angels and shepherds show up in the same story, at the same time in the Nativity. We must hold them together . . . our weakness, poverty, lack, and need (shepherds), held together with our goodness, beauty, and sense of being created in God’s image (angels), even “a little higher than the angels,” as the psalmist says.

Joan Chittister (in The Rule of Benedict: Insight for the Ages) says the rabbis teach that we each live out of two pockets. In one pocket there is a message that says, “You are the dust of the earth.” In the other pocket is a message that says, “For you the stars were made.”

To live out of only one pocket or the other is to live out of balance. If we only live out of the “dust” pocket, we are overwhelmed with our humanity, our poverty, our incompleteness, our brokenness. We get stuck in guilt and shame. In the context of the Nativity, I would call this the “shepherd pocket.”

If we only live out of our “stars” pocket, we are easily inflated, self-interested, egocentric, and full of ourselves. In the context of this story, I would call this the “angel pocket.”

Humility is not a shuffling, self-effacing, putting down of self. Humility is actually having an honest assessment of who you are . . . holding both of these pockets in balance . . . seeing both your strengths/gifts/abundance/angel in truth, AND seeing your weakness/shadow/poverty/shepherd in truth. Humility means to hold both simultaneously, without getting lost in either pocket. In that sense, humility is truly the meeting of humanity and divinity within every person.

I’m glad angels are in the story. I’m also glad shepherds are in the story. I need to find both of them within me.

For Reflection:

Spend a few minutes today on Christmas Eve to ponder the utter ordinariness of the Christmas story and its unfathomable mystery. See if you can hold both together, with space within you for both angels and shepherds.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Shepherds: Seeing Truthfully

A healthy spirituality, one that leads a person to become who they were created to be, includes the key component of “seeing.” And more, it is about seeing truly, seeing what is real.

It seems like that should be self-evident, but it’s not. For so much of our life, we value what we are told to value – to be a good citizen, or a good family member, or a valuable employee, etc. – as determined by culture, by the social norms that surround us.

For example, the common message that saturates Western culture is that you can be complete or full . . . if you work hard enough . . . or if you achieve enough . . . or if you set your mind to it . . . or if you buy the right kind of laundry detergent. . . . In fact, the deceit of consumerism is that happiness comes from accumulating things and that it is possible to be so full of things that you don’t need anything or anyone else.

Most of us realize this is hogwash, but we fall into the trap all over again every December . . . more and more gifts for loved one . . . more and more gadgets and gizmos to keep us entertained and up-to-date.

It takes long years – and a certain difficult courage – to see that illusion for what it is, to resist the pull of the world around us.

In my first post about the shepherds in the Nativity, I said that they were characterized by poverty, need, lack, and incompleteness. Vocationally, shepherds were day-laborers, with few possessions of their own, hired to tend the sheep who were owned by someone else. They lived on the margins of propriety and the underside of society.

I suggested that you and I touch the shepherd within us, as well, because all of us are impoverished in some way. None of us, no matter how loudly the commercials scream, can manage our way to fullness or completeness. There are no magic products that will fill our deepest needs for love, mercy, compassion, and kinship. In fact, fullness and completeness – self-sufficiency – is not even a reasonable goal.

For this reason, I said in that essay that touching and embracing our poverty and incompleteness is an essential starting place for a transforming spiritual journey. Before my life can be shaped in healing, life-giving ways, I have to face my own impoverishment, I have to acknowledge my need and lack.

Most all of the world’s religious traditions teach the need to recognize our own emptiness. In fact, most of the world’s traditions also emphasize a variety of spiritual practices whose intent is to help us clear inner space for God’s interior work.

In fact, in the Christian contemplative tradition, poverty is not a problem. It is a gift, a blessing to know that you don’t know everything you need to know . . . that you don’t have everything you need to have . . . that you don’t yet possess that which makes life complete . . . that there is more of God’s depth and height and breadth yet to experience.

The birth announcement to the poorest among us, the shepherds, is also an announcement to the poorest part of us, the aspect of our lives in which we are most lacking, most in need.

When I dare to acknowledge my poverty, and to name it, I am finally freed to hear the birth announcement about this little one who fills and shapes and reorders life, this Jesus who makes life whole again.

The shepherd within us recognizes, in humility, that we are humans with limitations and boundaries . . . that Jesus’ birth is for EVERY part of me . . . and that our poverty is simply the beginning point of a deep and intimate connection with God.

For Reflection:

Think about your expectations of Christmas . . . family and friends . . . gatherings and social events . . . schedules and timelines. Take a moment to consider what it would mean to be present to those people and in those settings with a deeper sense of your own poverty . . . where you didn’t have to know every answer . . . you didn’t have to give the perfect present . . . you didn’t have to get a certain gift that would complete your life.

Spend a moment considering what “spiritual poverty” would look like for you over the next few days as Christmas approaches.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Shepherds: Saying Yes to Our Poverty

Luke 2:8 – 20
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

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.

The birth of Jesus does not happen in a palace, in an estate, or in an ambassador’s enclave. Jesus is born to Mary and Joseph in a cave that is used as a stable, a poor couple giving birth to a child outside of propriety . . . a stable, a feed-trough.

And the birth of this child is announced not in a palace by royal herald, nor by fleet-footed messenger sent from one dignitary to another. The angelic messengers are sent to a hillside, to the poorest of the poor, to those who have nothing of their own . . . shepherds who are tending their work, trying to make a living wage . . . day-laborers, working for daily bread.

The angels proclaim that this birth is good new of great joy for ALL people, and enact that inclusiveness by making the pronouncement to those who had no social standing: shepherds.

This is the birth announcement of God’s very own Son, proclaimed first of all southeast of downtown Houston to the men gathered in the parking lot in front of Home Depot on Gulf Freeway, hoping to be hired by a construction foreman who stops at Home Depot to pick up supplies for the day.

This is the birth of Jesus proclaimed first to the men who wait in front of the apartment complex on Market Street in East Houston, waiting for someone to hire them to do yard work . . . hoping for a wave of the hand that will invite them into the back of a pickup truck . . . a day of manual labor in exchange for a few dollars cash.

This is the coming of Christ told to the women going door to door, stuffing doorposts with handwritten notes offering their housekeeping services, hoping and praying that someone, anyone will open the door and offer them a couple of hours of work.

This is the Good News of God announced to anyone who has worked for a daily wage, who has literally depended on daily bread, who knows what it means to turn over every stone in hopes of earning manna for the day.

This birth narrative is large enough to include – and prioritize? – the poverty of shepherds, but it is not only about the poverty of the shepherds who received this first announcement.

I believe that every single person you will ever meet – including yourself – is poor in some way. Somehow these shepherds are present within every one of us. We each have our own poverty, some way in which we are poor.

Most of us hear the word “poverty” or the word “poor” and we default to a particular image of someone who has little money, or someone who lives in a particular setting. When we hear the word “poverty” we default to a narrow image of what poverty looks like . . . what it means to be poor. But poverty is not primarily about money and possessions. Poverty is about our humanity, our limitation, our human lack. Every person reading this, no matter how much money you have, no matter the size of your home, no matter how many cars are in the garage . . . every one of us is poor in some way.

We may be poor in spirit . . . poverty of emotional expression . . . lack creativity . . . some disability of body or of energy . . . our poverty may be our health. We each, usually in multiple ways, lack something.

There is not one kind of poverty. We are each poor in some way.

And believe it or not, the beginning of the spiritual journey is to acknowledge our lack, to acknowledge our poverty. In humility, we are invited to recognize that there are parts of each of us that are empty, where we are not complete . . . so that rather than coming to God with our arms full of money or possessions or education or success or accomplishments or straight A’s, we come to God with open arms, aware of our poverty, aware of our dependence on God and others.

Augustine, centuries ago, said it this simply: “God is always waiting to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them.”

For Reflection:

How do you react to hearing that you are poor? that poverty is part of what you are? I remind you that this is not cause for shame. Our poverty, rather, is simply about our humanity, saying to us that we are not complete and full, that there is always room in us for Christ to be born.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Angels: Invitations to Explore Thin Places

Angels are messengers, beings who bear tidings from God to humans. Thus, they serve as gateways into a deeper experience of God, unpacking the divine and mysterious, and inviting humans into that mystery. “Don’t be afraid” and “Come and see” are invitations to skittish, wary humans who only feel comfortable stepping into their own footprints, stepping exactly where they have set foot before. The angel presence invites exploration beyond the known and comfortable, exploration of the mystery of God. Angels invite others to an experience that is truly other-worldly.

Angels, then, hold this space between the heavenly realm and the earthly realm. This is the space Celtic spirituality calls “thin places” . . . those places and settings where the divine and the ordinary are in such close connection that the veil between this world and heaven is especially thin and transparent. Heaven touches earth. Earth receives heaven.

Angels announce a message that the holy and “spiritual” are hidden within what looks ordinary and insignificant. A baby born to a man and woman in a stable, placed in a cattle trough . . . this very earthy event explodes with meaning and significance . . . and is an event that changes the trajectory of human history. Angels proclaim the holy history hidden within ordinary events.

Being in touch with my own angel-within means seeing ordinary events as holy history (nothing is common and ordinary) and then bearing or heralding that message in my life-world.

To be in touch with the angel within me, I have to find that place inside my being where I notice the deeper, more interior meaning of things. Then, I find ways to proclaim those things in my life-world. These large and small things that happen in the run of life are invitations to notice what God is doing in the world, to attend to the work of God in me, in others, and in the world, and then to somehow let that experience be borne in my own being . . . through proclaiming it with my lips and/or my life.

The significant moments – big and small – which shift my interior life-stance are most often not noticed in the moment, for they seem much too ordinary or mundane . . . a conversation with a friend . . . the closing of a door that I wanted badly to be opened . . . the move to another job or another city . . . the moving away from home of children or grandchildren. These things that happen, whether grand or tiny, are what we might label “God-moments” or “God-experiences” – and usually we only call them by those names in hindsight, because they seem so ordinary and mundane in the moment.

Angels herald these God-moments or God-experiences. They bear the good news that God has been and is still at work in the world. So to connect with the angel within me, I must cultivate the capacity to see God’s action in the world, and then to bear that message to my life-world.

The angel within me is calling others to the mystery, to the good tidings. This is the part of me that is most interested in helping others to see, helping others to experience. So the angel-presence within me is given on behalf of others . . . heralding, announcing, proclaiming, messaging.

For Reflection:

Consider one place or setting you have experienced that you would call a “thin place.” Recall the experience in as much detail as you can that experience . . . what led you to that place or setting? . . . what was your experience in the moment (the people, sights, sounds, etc. involved)? . . . how has your interpretation of that “thin place” experience shifted or evolved over time? Do you have an ongoing sense of invitation today from that experience in the past?

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Angels: Heavenly Messages Brought to Earth

The birth narratives are filled with angels . . .
• in the promise to the parents of John the Baptist, Elizabeth and Zechariah (Lk. 1:5 – 25) . . .
• in the announcement to Mary (Lk. 1:26 – 38) . . .
• in assuring Joseph that Mary’s pregnancy is legitimately of God (Mt. 1:18 – 25) . . .
• in announcing Jesus’ birth to the shepherds (Lk. 2:8 – 20) . . .
• in warning Joseph to flee with Jesus and Mary to Egypt, escaping Herod’s wrath (Mt. 2:13 – 15) . . .
• in telling Joseph to return with his family to Israel after Herod’s death (Mt. 2:19 – 21)

Angels are messengers who carry good news. They bear messages from God to humans. Most always, they embody the Good News . . . something significant is happening . . . something invites our attention . . . something is coming that will wake us up. They come proclaiming peace, joy, and glory (as in the scene in which they announce Christ’s birth to the shepherds).

In the scriptures, angels frequently show up saying, “Don’t be afraid” or “Do not fear,” even as they peel back the veil to uncover the mystery of God’s work in the world. The presence of the angel, even in its brilliance, may not be as fearful as God’s new order which the angel announces. Their announcement of a new future threatens the status quo and proclaims that God is doing a new thing. When angels announce a new future, a different way of being with God, they know that talk of newness and change stirs up anxiety and fearful clutching among humans, who prefer clinging to old and settled realities.

What part of me, then, resonates with these angelic appearances? The angels represent the part of me that is in sync with God, that knows God and bears Good News. This part of me knows and receives God’s truth, God’s goodness, God’s love at a deep, deep interior level, and then bears it to the world in word and action.

This is the part of me that is able to say to other people – and to the other more fearful, more anxious parts of my own being – “Do not be afraid . . . this is good news.” “Fear not . . . God is at work here.” This is the part of my personhood that is not fearful of the future, that steps into God’s preferred future with confidence and courage. This is the part of my being that does not run away from uncertainty.

For Reflection:

We rarely – if ever – see fully what God is doing in the world or in our lives. As we are ready to see, the veil is pulled back. Sometimes we require a “messenger” from God to help us see, to point out the mystery of God’s work. Consider a time when this has happened in your experience . . . that is, when a “messenger” announced to you something that helped you see more fully what was actually at work in a situation. Who or what was the messenger? What was the message? In what ways did that experience shape your life? your connection with God?

Monday, December 12, 2016

Angels: Messengers to All the World

Luke 2:8 – 14

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.

Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

Each week during Advent, it has been helpful for me to begin with words that describe the character(s) who serve as our focus for the week. This week, we are interested in finding the angels within us. These are words I’ve started with:

• heralds – (Hark, the herald angels sings)
• announcers
• messengers
• bearers
angelos (angellion, eu-angellion) = messenger, good news bearer (Greek)
• go-betweens
• mediators (“pontifex” = bridges)
• interpreters
• message-bearers
• mystery-explainers
• inviters
• separate beings
• crossing the veil (of the heavenly/spiritual realm and the earthly/ordinary realm)
• singing/music (their first language?) – “sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation”
• comforters (“do not be afraid”)
• connecting (earth and heaven)
• proclaiming/exclaiming (a great mystery)

In the New Testament, the word for “angel” comes from the Greek word eu-angellion. The word is usually translated in modern translations as “Gospel”, or “good news.”

[It is also the word from which we get “evangelism,” which is literally “good news,” but which for many of us has been communicated as anything but good news. The kind of evangelism I grew up with began, not with good news, but with bad news . . . the bad news that I was a failed, incomplete, “sinful” person. Many of us are still stuck on notions of evangelism that did not communicate a message of “good news of great joy for all people,” but began with condemnation, and sometimes the fires of hell itself. But I digress . . .]

Literally, the word eu-angellion could be translated “good message” or “good angel.” You can see in it angellion, angel or message/messenger. So angels are good news bearers, message-bearers. This is what they do in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.

So the beginning place for us is to discover the part of ourselves that is angel-like. It is that aspect of our being that is connected to good news, that bears God’s message, that heralds the goodness of God.

It has been important to me during Advent that in Luke 2 the angels pronounce in the good news for “all people.” What God does in the world is not for one person or group, not for one nation or race. God’s project for the world includes everyone, and the angels proclaim it to be so. All people are included. Everyone is inside. There are no outsiders.

I think the angel within us would be that part of each of us which is open to the other . . . so open that every person everywhere is included.

For Reflection:

Look over the words above and see which words or phrases resonate with you. To which words are you drawn? And can you discover times recently when that word describes something you did or said?

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Simple Stances for the "Herod within Me"

Noticing that Herod lives within us is not a pleasant experience. It reminds us that we are capable of doing great harm in the world, and it disturbs our illusion that we are better, more enlightened, or more “advanced” than we truly are. In short, to see the Herod within ourselves is a reminder of our humanity, our feet of clay.

Most people want to banish the Herod within, or at least to fix the interior Herod. I don’t believe we can ever completely banish Herod from within us. We can, however, become more and more aware of Herod’s presence, and of the damage Herod inflicts on us and on the world. I offer these simple movements for dealing with the Herod within me.

What can I do about the Herod within me?

1. First, I simply acknowledge that Herod exists within me. I recognize there is a self-interested part of me that highly invested in my own good, rather than the good of others, the good of the world, or the good of God. This is not a condemnation, but an honest assessment of who I am.

2. Second, I bring the recognition that Herod exists with me into my daily living with more and more intention. For example, this afternoon when I notice that I am trying to control the behavior of my friend or family member, I simply notice what I’m doing. I name my behavior. I bring my own behavior and my inner motive to my awareness. Sometimes I’ll even whisper to myself, “This is what Jerry looks like when he is trying to control someone else,” or “This is what Jerry looks like when he feels threatened,” or “This is what Jerry looks like when he is fearful.”

3. Third, when I become aware of my Herod-behavior, I notice without judging it. I don’t tell myself how bad I am, what a failure I am, or what a poor Christian I am. I simply notice this part of me without judging. Judging doesn’t do anything constructive. Rather, judging myself brings along the baggage of guilt (I did something wrong) and shame (I am a bad person or a failure). Notice Herod without judging Herod.

4. Fourth, as best you can in the moment, let go of your desire to control the situation, to manipulate the other person, or to do violence to the situation. Let go. The feelings of power or control or threat may come back 3 seconds later. That’s fine. Let go again. Never stop letting go. Every time you feel threatened, every time you feel yourself resisting – even God – let go . . . let go . . . let go.

5. Finally, find a prayer or gesture that symbolizes “letting go” or helps you move through the moment without lashing out at yourself or others. For example, I’ll sometimes clench my fists tightly, then let them drop open as a sign of letting go. And I’ll repeat that movement several times. Or I’ll pray what is called the Freedom Prayer. “God, free me from the need to control this person.” Or, “God, free me from the insecurity I feel from this threat.” Or, “God, free me from the grip of this fear.” Repeat the Freedom Prayer as often as necessary.