Advent – God’s gift of longing

Undue significance a starving man attaches

To food

Far off; he sighs, and therefore hopeless,

And therefore good.

 

Partaken, it relieves indeed, but proves us

That spices fly

In the receipt. It was the distance

Was savory.

These words of Emily Dickinson remind us that the longing for someone or something is often an experience even richer than the person or object of that longing. The college-age love affair forced to endure the insufferable distance of educational geography. The retired man or woman lost in a fog of non-identity yearn for earlier times when it was more clear who they were and why they were here. 

My mom used to tell me that as kids we were “full of piss and vinegar” around Christmas time. Although the exact nature of this chemical mixture is unknown to me, I think I get her point. Those of us fortunate enough to have access to Christmas morning consumer delights may recall the unbearable pangs of waiting for it when that certain item we’ve been harping about might just be waiting to greet us.  We go through the motions of “being good boys and girls” so as to maximize our chances for a successful haul under the tree. And, frankly, many of us, well into adulthood, remain as babes – our littlest ones, whose needs, immediate and pressing, are always loudly trumpeted if unmet.

Advent is the liturgical equivalent of communal yearning. It is a time when, together, we enter into the much deeper waiting experienced by our forebears in faith for the fulfillment of a promise; a promise made to those long dead and far removed from our present reality.

There really is no better time than Advent to talk about the mystery of waiting. If we are willing, our connection with the Divine throbs most insistently at such times. Waiting can be nothing more than a feat of drudgery, accompanying oneself on the frustrating journey of unsatisfied desire. Or, it can be the mist-heavy pond upon which float, blindly but lightly, our lilies of longing. One leads to fear, hatred, anger, destruction. The other to patience, quiet devotion to duty and persons, to the delicate wonders of the unremarkable that grace our days.

lily-padsAdvent acts as a centuries long foreplay to the main event through which sweet relief is found. In that long foreplay we learn to live, move and have our being while often blind-folded or lost altogether. In it we learn to trust our silent dance partner whose subtleties on the dance floor leave us breathless but a little baffled at times. Advent forces a kind of slowness to things. As it becomes clear that immediate satisfaction is nowhere on the horizon, we learn the joys of nuanced living; of faith in a person rather than facts and plans and possible outcomes. We learn journey more than destination.

With the advent of Jesus we learn that God remains annoyingly carefree in his use of timelines. They belong to God alone. However, in that same advent we learn just how good it can be to wait with the intentionality of longing – spiritual foreplay – than pacing the floors of our constantly incomplete lives. For, to miss even the tiniest detail of all the manger meant is to miss everything else as well.

The bricks in our walls, chapter 3

brickwall1

I had never played this game before. I was just fourteen at the time and was apparently comfortable with the fact that I was doing so not just with new friends but also with my older, female cousin. Boys will be boys as they say. To add further daring-do we were playing this dangerous game in their kitchen, mere feet from aunt and uncle’s bedroom. Perhaps it was the adrenal rush of knowing that, to be caught out here in rural Nowheresville, British Columbia, meant no one would hear the screaming.

Strip poker is fun.

Jim played blues and ragtime guitar. I’d never before heard Maple Leaf Rag, The Entertainer or The Heliotrope Bouquet played on a six-string. It was a lunchtime folk club at my high school hosted by a friend, Barry, who also happened to be my guidance counselor. Jim was our guest performer that day. It was an hour of seventeen-year-old musical bliss as we enjoyed the most effortless guitar acrobatics I’d yet encountered. With my natural expertise at charming flattery and acerbic wit, lightly salted with otherworldly humility (translation: bullshit), I sat in his living room as his guitar student less than two weeks later. Only after apprenticing under this demure genius could I say with some level of honesty…

I play guitar.

It tore me apart. It was a toss-up what was worse – the insult of my best friend holding hands with this girl, or the salt-in-the-wound – only days before, she’d been my girlfriend. The sense of injustice was overwhelming. For matters of suitability I’ll refrain from the Old Testament metaphor of freshly plowed fields for another’s enjoyment. But, I digress. My heart couldn’t decide which was worse, the jealousy of seeing him next to her, or the pang of longing self-pity. Is anything more insufferable than such a friend asking relationship advice with the previous participant in that same relationship? Eventually, the melodrama subsided and was replaced with a delicious vindication when, mere weeks later, she was engaged to yet another man with whom she’d been “friendly” right under everyone’s noses.

Relationships are so easy and uncomplicated.

Terry was the extravert in our musical partnership. His effervescent personality, literally brimming with electricity, always overshadowed my quieter, albeit charming, demeanor. We made a great team, both as performing duo, and as life-of-the-party tornadoes. Through Terry I was introduced to what is actually possible as a player of strings. His deft mastery of guitar, mandolin, banjo, and ukulele made my own growing skills seem elementary at best. Hence, I was the singer. More important however was the easy, hospitable faith of a man six years my senior, lived out among the strange, ne’er-do-well ruffians who were our nightly audience. It taught me that those rough-‘n-tumble souls were under our care.

Terry is still my best friend.

 

Picture found here

the art of wasting perfume

There are smart people out there with books and articles and quotes intimating that the wick of the worship wars flame has burned to a stump. Now, only sticky wax remains out of which we may safely pull something shapely and useful. Whether that is true or not I can’t really say. But, we’ve been sailing post-modern seas long enough to have emerged in a somewhat better place regarding shared worship practices. What interests me most however lies much deeper than mere ritual.

So much of our corporate experience of ecclesiastica these days is about efficiency, effectiveness and euphoria (no extra charge for the cute alliteration). Even big box churches like Saddleback and Willow Creek are recognizing that it’s much easier to draw crowds than deepen congregations. Spend enough money in the right places, position the right people in your dream team staff and learn the angles (this, apparently, means relevance or some such thing) and success is all but guaranteed.

A scourge, not just of contemporary faith and practice, but of early New Testament times as well, is that of pragmatism; visible, quantifiable, “helpful” theology. If some practice of faith doesn’t yield measurable results it is considered suspect, superfluous; even useless. Dead-weight. Dross. The average church building boasts classrooms for every grade, meeting rooms for everything from Ladies’ Teas to A.A. to Family Ministries. Closet space is dedicated to coats, robes, wedding paraphernalia, soup bowls and Christmas decorations. Signs in the Narthex (lobby, foyer) proudly point to these rooms, giving visitors the impression that this is a church on the move. Look at us, we’re not idle. We’re doin’ stuff. Good stuff. Lotsa stuff. It’s exhausting just to consider the dizzying possibilities, let alone dive in.

In our culture, if an idea or practice isn’t immediately and continually beneficial for coffers, volunteers, or givers, it is suspect at best, anathema at worst.

I committed my life to Jesus while driving home to Calgary from a pub gig in Edmonton. A creeping loneliness blending with a troubled psyche was replaced by a lightness of mind and heart I can only describe as…good. Really, really good. I was barely eighteen and living at home. That very evening, my own gratitude and joy spilled over to my Mom, who became the surprised recipient of a fifty-dollar bill for doing my laundry. There is nothing quite like the joy of lavish waste in the name of thanksgiving. Well, and the look of delightful surprise with concerned consternation on someone’s face on the receiving end of such magnanimity.

As I’ve been discovering ever since, such acts are nothing new. Happy hearts become ready harbors for such ships of gratitude, over-laden with desire to be offloaded onto the object of their affection. The Gospel is all about waste and abundance in the name of love; the praise of those who get what it means to be seen. To be known. If you don’t believe me, ask your wife if the time spent making love might not be better spent painting the guest room. I dare say it might be a venture that just prepped your new sleeping quarters. The scriptures are replete with examples of extravagance in the name of love.

I am rather fond of a seedy picture of a woman, obviously swooning in gratitude for the courteous and loving attention of a well-known Rabbi casually saunters over and basically pours her beer on Jesus. Well, actually super expensive perfume. Like, way expensive. A rather sexual act by any standard, it alone deserves volumes for it speaks of much more than simple extravagance. Jesus affixes theological significance to the act. And, of course, the pragmatists in the crowd, thinking themselves in-sensed out of high ideals jump all over it.

Of course, as we can always expect under such lavish displays of unadorned praise offered inappropriately to the wrong person at the wrong time in the wrong way, self-proclaimed keepers of the moral gates then, as now, cry foul. They either spit out their tea or drop their knitting needles. By the way, have you ever wondered where those sneaky bastards always come from? They’re positively creepy in their ubiquity as though finding crevices behind rocks, under the dining room table, or behind the rhododendrons.

The scriptures are replete with such acts of selfless wastefulness. Joseph of Arimathea, one of Jesus’ wealthier followers, became his post-mortem patron in the form a top tier burial plot. Not the magnanimity one would generally prefer, but there it is; another example of a heart needing to express itself in wealthy waste. King David craves water be brought him while facing the brutal Philistines but decides instead to pour out the most valuable currency in the desert back to the desert. He too knew the art of worshipful waste.

Although an overused example, it serves to illustrate my point here; if this woman by her act has openly laid bare her heart, swollen in the ache of gratitude, then she shows us what worship truly is. What it means to adore someone. And her risky act of risqué devotion mirrors God’s own character. Jesus is God’s wasted perfume. Jesus understands her because he understands his own journey into the dark abyss of broken humanity. It is a pilgrimage of pain, not the pain of the cross primarily, but the pain of loss and loneliness.

She mirrors the heart of God who knows only too well the art of wasting perfume.

Silence; a Sonnet for Remembrance Day

robertrife:

As Remembrance, or Armistice Day, approaches, I felt a few thoughts to be in order. Malcolm Guite’s, not mine. Please, enjoy, and…reflect.

Originally posted on Malcolm Guite:

As we approach Remembrance Day I am reposting this sonnet about the two minutes silence, which is now published in my book Sounding the Seasons.  I’m posting it a few days early so that any one who wishes to can use it in services or events either on remembrance Sunday or on Remembrance day itself. As you will see from the little introduction below, I wrote it in response to the silence on Radio 4, and last year it was featured on Radio 4’s Remembrance Sunday Worship.

So her is how it came to be written. On Remembrance Day I was at home listening to the radio and when the time came for the Two Minutes Silence. suddenly the radio itself went quiet. I had not moved to turn the dial or adjust the volume. There was something extraordinarily powerful about that deep silence from a ‘live’ radio, a…

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Finding light in dark faith

Sometimes writers are confronted with unique opportunities to write; that is of course if one dwells, as I do, among lit-nerds and poetry-geeks. One of the best places of which I’m presently aware, exploring the intersection of faith and the arts, is Transpositions UK. It is based at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland. For those like me, who seek a deeper understanding of this crossroads, it simply does intriguing work.

P01519-200x300My first published book review for this organization may be found here. In it I spend time interacting with the wrestling of others who do so with Flannery O’Connor’s enigmatic and richly metaphoric novel, “The Violent Bear It Away.”  If you’ve never had the dark pleasure of reading O’Connor’s novel, do it as soon as possible. Then, pursue “Dark Faith: New Essays on Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away” as a resource for a broader, more tactile understanding of it’s dark depths. And you thought you wouldn’t have homework. Ha!

At such moments of personal celebration I might otherwise have been enjoying a Scotch and a good cigar. But, alas, as a teetotaler now for over twelve years, I shall head to the kitchen for my third cup of coffee and some Cheerios instead.

Cheers, R

ALTARWORK dot calm

These are those delightful, though humbling serendipities that add such a glow of grace to life. Please check out this wonderful initiative of which I am honored to be a part…

ALTARWORK is delighted to present a sample of Rob’s poetry – eight poems in all. Rob has a unique voice and style – eclectic, uniquely profound – and is unafraid to stray beyond convention with regards to his subject matter, point of view, and wordplay. Rob is a highly enjoyable read.”

— Jason Ramsey, ALTARWORK Founder/Editor

A Celt in a kilt and the beautiful mundane

This was originally posted as a guest post on a favorite website of mine, Abbey of the Arts (thank you Christine Valters-Paintner!). What a delight to be given opportunity to share one’s life among kindred spirits in the grand dance that is our eternal redemption.

Please, please, please, if you haven’t already done so, be sure to visit Christine and the rest of us Monk-Artists at the Abbey. Come visit/like the Facebook page as well. You’ll be so glad you did. I promise.

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A Celt in a Kilt and the Beautiful Mundane

I-You-Holy Ground
By Robert Alan Rife

I am the dusty ground, low and dry
thirsty for the imprint of holy feet.
Despoil with radiant prints, this virgin ground.

You are the rain, falling deftly
upon my brown soil. Now is left
your footprint on this ground.

I am the ashen leaves, curling and broken
awaiting but a whisper. For only then
can I fall on solid ground.

You are the soundless wind, howling, still.
You creep up behind me and
exhale me to the ground.

I am the snow, disembodied worlds of cold
and chance encounters with hand, or tongue,
eye-lash or palm needing ground.

You are the frozen air in which I am held
aloft, drawn slowly down
to meet with others on the frozen ground.

I am the waning autumn death
soon to give way to the long silence-when one Voice
becomes the loudest ground.

You are the Voice that speaks
heard best in dying, power given for
rising from this shivering ground.

I am the distant hours, the midnight passing-
the refusing minutes, trapped in hours,
running from the years of ancient ground.

You are the many, and the one, and all time
and nothing and everything from nothing
where time has no ground.

I am the weeping, the squalid groaning,
the unrequited miseries of misery’s company
laying crippled and diffused in the ground.

You are the end of tears and years, the question
and the answer, the sutured nerve of joy, not suggested
but present, here, on this Holy Ground.

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For me, the term ‘monk’ used to mean ‘one safely cloistered away from the cares of normal life in dimly lit, echoing stone hallways where hooded men sing hauntingly beautiful music and basically float just a bit off the ground. A single, piercing glance from their crystalline eyes means healing, they have superpowers, can read your thoughts, never need to eat, and speak once a year whether they need to or not.

Since leaving behind my roots in evangelicalism for headier waters elsewhere I’ve since discovered that monks often have the sauciest senses of humor, the bawdiest stories and, not surprisingly, the deepest delight in the world around them. My kinda fellas. They’re as non-dualistic as they come; a life to which I aspire. Apophatic meditation one moment. Bodily noises the next. Welcome to my world.

I am a dreamer; a philosopher-poet capable of romanticizing even the most mundane banalities. To a guy like me, cutting the grass has the potential to be a portal into the nether regions of the universe, awash in liminality, where mythic faeries ride unicorns on their way to Celtic slumber parties. But, I’ve been known to overstate a little.

Clearly, I’m a favorite among type-A corporate headhunters (tongue super-glued to cheek). Rather, stereotypical songwriters, tree-huggers, poets, unfocused A.D.D. artsy-fartsies, and contemplatives love to love me. They’re my peeps. My homies. They know my psychic address.

These overly romanticized sensibilities haven’t always promised smooth sailing for me. In fact, more often than not they’ve brought more than their fair share of woe and disillusionment. The world has precious little patience for those like me, preferring instead the multi-tasking, power-doers with ambitions larger than the moon upon which they hang their coats (but generally not their egos). It’s a challenge in our super-charged, winner-take-all culture to prove real value in lighting candles and pursuing silence when time is money and money is god and god keeps shrinking or running away.

My earliest recollections of spiritual awareness contained the following simple elements: surprised by joy moments, generally unasked for and seldom expected; a sudden awareness that the world was not really as it seemed – that from God’s perspective all was well. Specifically, I was drawn to all things ancient, mystical and Celtic. As a bagpiper/Irish whistle player who has toured extensively it makes sense that, for me, the world is seen through green colored glasses, smells just a little peaty, telephone poles were meant for tossing, and “ladies” is misspelled on the restroom door (insert look of shock and consternation here).

Although a mystic from a very early age, despite a decided lack of language to articulate such things, my fate was forever sealed when, for the first time I heard the Great Highland Bagpipe. I was seven years old. I was gobsmacked. Mere weeks later, in the basement of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, I started learning to play the pipes. I have played ever since.

Something else happened however. It christened a liminal journey of my inner mystic and forever sealed my fate as a lover of all things Celtic, monastic and artistic. It also began an almost unassuagable thirst for the monastic realities of thin-place living. Puddles become holy water. All time, whether singing, snoring or snacking, can be wrapped up in a ball of quivering holiness. It is the essence of Celtic spirituality. It is my essence (especially if we had haggis the night before).

Now, a gazillion years and as many prayers later, to be an artist, a mystic and a monastic-wannabe is for me to see myself less as a dreamer and more as a waking dream. Life is to find the holy in the banal; the glorious mundane. The perfect, daily moments of nothing-special that, simply by virtue of noticing them, become possibilities of inherent wonder. The greatest gift I’ve received in the past few years, something particularly attributable to the Celts, is that of awakening to these shimmering possibilities in the blasé and dull. How brightly they shine under the light of the God of order and magnificent delights.

Nanaimo

robertrife:

A little piece from a trip to Nanaimo, B.C.

Originally posted on Rob's Lit-Bits:

Nanaimo at night
Nanaimo at night. Photo: Rae Kenny-Rife

Layers of green-backed mountains muscle their way through bruised-blue ocean. Hovering always beside us, they serve as our constant reminder to look this way, west, when lost (an hourly occurrence with me at the wheel). The air is grey, merging as one with the sky that frames it. Those, like us, whose weather experience is unyielding, unnecessarily hot, desert sun, often boast of the abundance of light. But, unlike the pushy, insistent sunlight of eastern Washington, the light here is complex, nuanced, shy and non-committal, like a teenage girl not quite ready for a boyfriend’s advances. Colors and textures are more discernible; faces, buildings, and backgrounds more sophisticated, not blanched and obvious from the brash directness of a boastful sun. This light is earned and, as such, even more deeply appreciated for its whimsical scarcity.

Rain here is currency, making this a rich place…

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Grief, Observed

Today, August 16, 2014, marks the twenty-eighth anniversary of the death of a woman I never met, my mother-in-law, Nina Barkus. That event, combined with the death of my father almost one year earlier, sparked the meeting, the love affair, and subsequent twenty-six years of marriage (so far) between my wife and I.

This is for her and her mother (mam), Nina Barkus.

 

Rae and her mom, Nina
Rae and her mom, Nina

Grief changes a person. Grief, along with it’s drinking buddies: pain, shame, anger, betrayal – they have a way of reducing a person to his most elemental place, her lowest common denominator. A human being stripped to that bare minimum of barely surviving/survivable raw material. It can push us to become someone we don’t even recognize.

Like a persistent toothache on steroids comes grief; some unimaginable carnivore of light, a predator of hope. It is no respecter of persons. It makes its entrance like a bull in a china shop, impolitely and destructively unexpected. All one can do is stand by, hide somewhere they think to be safe from the onslaught, and observe the damage unfolding before them.

Grief is shameless. It cares not how it comes, undressed and brazenly free of restraint. Like being forced to watch one’s own daughter perform a pole dance, grief strips itself and its participants to places well beyond their own humanity, well below self-defined limits of propriety. It can haunt our conscience as much as our consciousness.

Grief is the chameleon of human experience. It lays in the center of our lives, taking the shape of its container, the color of its environment, so that it becomes maddeningly insouciant, invisible to either scrutiny or even identification. Once identified it shape-shifts again, leaving us now both to grieve and shrink from the exhausting process it is in the first place. It is the never-ending injury to its own insult.

Unlike hope, which, like water, undergirds our elusive oil refusing to mix with the more delicate undergrowth, grief kneads itself into the dough of our lives, leaving us to bloat and swell but with no vision of what might arise in its place. It is a ruthless bully, intent on bruising the softest places where lasting scars are most likely.

Grief most often accompanies a death: of a loved one, a lover, friendships, self-confidence – the list is long. It offers little other than the ominous sense that someone is watching from the shadows, leaving us unnerved as we fumble for the car keys. Just when it seems we’re safely inside, a hand grabs us from behind, refusing us the safety of ‘elsewhere.’ We do not run from it. It runs to us. We do not hide from grief because we end up hiding right behind it. Grief hears our labored breathing every time and quickly finds us out.

Grief is the Goliath of our inner experience. It stands, boasting and blethering on impudently as we soil ourselves before its not inconsiderable size and bully demeanor. “It has killed others greater than I”, we say, as we look way up to find the faceless monster bearing down in full strength upon our pitiable frame.

One could speak as well of the pitiful awakening to one’s own flawed behaviors; ways of seeing things that hurt others and oneself. Poured on top of this kind of grief is the scalding gravy of shame. It is perhaps the worst grief of all since it is often accompanied by a raking internal self-awareness of the negative kind that is seldom polite and never constructive. In fact, it generally becomes the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Nothing shapes our grief quite like the knowledge that we may have been the cause of it in another. It has a baldness about it, a merciless fait accompli that, if not well discerned and graciously attended to, becomes our very demise. It flattens the soul, kicking the air out of our spiritual gut in ways we never thought possible.

Having lost my father and both in-laws to cancer (among any number of friends and colleagues) I can confidently attest to the groaning maw of emptiness that accompanies such an ignominious demise. ‘Tis true faith indeed to smile into the great oblivion, unfairly bestowed, and sing.

Well, that was dark, one might fairly say. And they’d be correct. Is there any corrective?

Indeed there is. Having one’s heaviest grief tossed into the lap of another, whose measure of personal pain could never be fully known, but whose faith, unflinching; whose love, unwavering, produces the only known antidote: hope. Grief, be gone, for (s)he who has hope, has everything.

And that hope has a name…

The bricks in our walls – chapter 2

brickwall1

Her name was Susan. She was my first “official” girl friend. I was 13. She was tall and shapely and smart with the sexiest braces I’d ever seen. Her reddish brown hair careened off her shoulders like a gentle waterfall. She, like me, was caught in that strange vortex of too-smart-to-be-cool-but-too-cool-to-be-a-nerd. It made her good company. Besides, she was as awkward as I at this whole “going steady” thing. Our conversations were peppered by silences and repeated questions, more silence, then making out. I mean, what better to fill a gaping Junior High School silence? Our romance lasted an epic five weeks.

His name was Rob. That’s where the commonalities ended. He and his family had moved from somewhere in South Dakota to Calgary, into a house a couple blocks from us. He was a rough and tumble kinda guy. I hated how he could always get me to do stuff I wouldn’t normally do. Egg houses. Give wedgies. Terrorize neighborhood pets. Pull out plants and bushes. All manner of man-boy evil. He holds the record for most days missed from any school year at our Junior High. In twelve years of public education, I skipped school, on purpose, twice. I was caught both times. Both times were with Rob. I kind of miss the silly bastard.

It was my first practice with the Beaumont Pipe Band in Calgary. I saw her from across the gymnasium among a crowd of her peers. Her blue-green eyes could have split atoms and her gentle curves, spiky blond hair, and pointy, Joe Jackson shoes (it was 1982) settled that this was a girl to know. I guess I had been staring a little too long and she looked up and saw me. A gleaming smile framed in blood red lipstick against her pale, white skin sealed the deal. I was smitten. We knew then we’d be close. Close enough that, four years later, we were engaged and poised to send out our wedding invitations.

We didn’t. Her name was Vanessa. She died of bone cancer in 1992.

I always thought he had the coolest name. Lazarus Cornelius was East Indian. He was a dapper ladies man and an amazing guitarist. We were friends at College where we sought to study both of the former along with regular classes we stuffed in the cracks of our busy social calendars. He came from numerous generations of pastors from Mussoorie in the northern Indian province of Uttarakhand. Even though he was thoroughly Canadianized (meaning primarily he was a hockey fan, knew the lingo, cared little for politics and bitched about Americans) I thought it cool to have an Indian friend. It made me feel…cosmopolitan and a little chic.

And when you lived in a cow town like Calgary, that was saying something.

 

 

Picture found here