I Want to Run in God’s Country

A hotel bathroom mirror struggles to squeeze in both of us – primping, priming, prepping. The struggle ensues to strike the balance between post-modern cool and age appropriateness (whatever the hell that means). Final touches, a stupid-slow elevator, and an underground tram ride find us deep in the heart of Washington State’s coolest city. Her oceanside tongue beckons us deeper down her salty throat.

In a quirky irony, a street preacher screeches through a megaphone, “REPENT AND BE SAVED FROM THE COMING WRATH.” Frankly, he seems mad enough for all of us. He shouts himself hoarse, pointing us to some tiny, angry “god” – while we wait to hear from a different God – In the name of love.

We are perched high above a stage that renders everything on it no bigger than our thumbs. From this height, everything seems atomic. Only the stadium is large. There is a palpable expectancy in the aether. Other grey hairs like me mix with kids much younger than our own – a testament to artistic legacy.

The stage is dark except for a few peripheral lights. What seems like hours for an event we’ve waited a lifetime to experience dispels in smoke as a tiny figure makes an appearance. He walks slowly, deliberately and sits at his drum kit. The crowd numbering in the gazillions boils over the brim in collective excitement. A kick drum and snare shots with military precision thunder in the dark. It is one of the most recognizable riffs of a generation. Sunday, Bloody Sunday. I weep in gratitude…

This day is ours, it is our Sunday, blessed Sunday.

May 14, 2017.

The wife of my youth.

Twenty-nine years married.

Seattle.

U2. 

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With Rae Kenny, my fellow lover for 29 years and fellow U2 fan

It is a small handful of events or experiences that earn the well-used primer: “I remember where I was when…” I remember where I was when the Berlin Wall became a gate, the Soviet Union became just a bad dream, when the U.S. dumped “shock and awe” on Iraq. When twin towers of glass and steel crumpled like paper on 9/11.

And I remember the first time I heard the mythic cries of Bono. Raw and pleading. He preached heaven and justice to the world’s hell and woe.

I would never be the same.

Every person can point to at least one thing, one person, book, place, experience that has so deeply touched them they’d not be the same person were it not for that thing. To describe, we use words like impactful, influential, unforgettable, foundational, formative. We say, “I am the person I am today, because of….” Our hearts brim at every remembrance. Conversations always veer in that direction. We return to it again and again rebooting it in our emotional hard-drives.

As a musician and writer, my influences bleed, albeit imperceptibly, onto every page or song I write. Words get strained through my inspirations: Gerard Manley Hopkins, John O’Donohue, Mary Oliver, Thomas Merton, Kathleen Norris – even as I sing in the shadows of Bruce Cockburn, The Chieftains, Dan Fogelberg, Stan Rogers, Paul Simon, and – you guessed it – U2.

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Centurylink Field, Seattle – The Joshua Tree Tour, 2017

Their musical impact is undeniable. Masters of melody, nuance, and the prophetic power of poetic art done well, I am pried open, exposed. Their un-theology is more impassioned activism than easy-to-swallow hallmark messages wrapped in bumper-sticker Christianity. I am the hungry canvas, they my nourishing paint.

Precious few cultural icons are so readily accessible as U2. But they represent much more than memorable music. Their message is not for the faint of heart. It yearns for the alternate reality of what is possible in a red letter arena; the dangerous stage of self-sacrificial love. They are wick to a candle burning brightly in praise of peace and justice, one that cannot blow out. They are cornerstone of a movement that pictures a world better than the one into which we were born.

This is not just the message of a generation played on guitars. This is a message for all time; ever new, always fresh, never-ending – Good News as it was always intended. My throat, tightened from tears, hoarse from singing anthems to peace, will only find rest when I find what I’m looking for. With my life partner beside me, the girl whose heart-strings are also touched by these same forces, I am closer than ever before.

Until then, I want to run in the name of love, in God’s country, where the streets have no name.

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“One” meme courtesy of my wife.

Farewell, Cowboy. Farewell.

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Sam’s CD, released in 2015 – when he was 80

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Perhaps the most unwelcome passage through which all ships must pass is that of death. To be the impotent observer at the bedside of someone in the throes of death can seem the greatest of all insults. One must fight the battle between a desire to see wellness return with the growing awareness that such a return might not be either possible or in the person’s best interests. It is as poignant as it is horrifying.

“I’m afraid there’s nothing more we can do.” Lonelier words were never spoken. 

I too have faced this perahia of human experience with grandparents and my own father who died from complications to his cancer treatment. Most recently, on Saturday morning, April 22nd at 3:00am, my step-father drifted into eternity. The lasso keeping him tethered to the dusty ground released him into much bigger pasture. One without fences.

Papa Sam was a cowboy, Métis (may-tee)* to be exact. Born Samuel Maurice Young in the austere, rambling flatlands around Birch Hills, Saskatchewan he was quick to adapt to the rough and tumble ways of the Canadian prairies. The youngest of three boys with a younger sister, they were the bluegrass version of the von Trapps. His brother Stan on fiddle, another brother, Gordon, on banjo, together with Sam on guitar would join their Dad or uncle, both fiddle players, to fill the house on prairie nights with the music of the farm. 

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Saskatchewan sunset
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Birch Hills – an aerial view
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Birch Hills grain elevator

A young farm hand, Sam, at the green age of 10, played his first dance with his Dad, promptly returning his earnings of a quarter to the Red Cross. A similar largesse would follow him for his next 72+ years. 

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Brancepeth United Church, where lie most of Sam’s family
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Prairie Sunset

Sam was inseparable from the cowboy fare he loved. A cowboy action shooter for many years, he collected guns and formed an indissoluble connection to the frontier life of the wild West. Old-time country dance music, played the old-time way on old-time instruments characterized the spirit of this small, big-hearted man. Numerous dance bands, including his own, The Calgary Playboys (fitting, given his rep as a ladies’ man), made the rounds in the Calgary scene for over 30 years. It would provide the context in which he would first meet Doris, his beloved wife – my mother.

Her life had not exactly been characterized by rose petals and wine. She lost her husband, my father, in September of 1985 when he was merely 55 years old; her senior of 13 years.

Mom was a widow at 42.

She played the role of dutiful wife and mother well, shuttling us hither, thither, and yon with tireless dedication and far too little gratitude. She shouldered the biting loneliness of a stolid, unflinchingly reserved man in my dad while acting as umpire to our numerous family squabbles, many of which revolved around my own self-centered peccadillos.

Dad’s passing kicked her feet out from under her. Even for one as strong and independent as she, the shock of being alone in the world was overwhelming. Nights full of angry tears eventually settled into steely resolution to reintegrate and reenergize by doing what she loved best, serving.

Much of the time, that meant some part to play in the Royal Canadian Legion, an organization to which our entire family had been attached for many years.  One such role was in working as president of the senior’s dances at Ogden Legion in southeast Calgary. She helped plan the weekly dances and hired the bands for these events. Sam’s band was one of those.

It was 1997.

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Sam Young – a cowboy to the core

A major surgery pulled Mom out of commission for a while. Sam was quick to notice her absence and asked about her regularly. He’d call her just to talk and to check on her well-being. Upon her return to the Legion, she was the lucky recipient of a big hug and rather public kiss. His charm, cowboy swagger, and crooning country voice ultimately proved too much to resist and Mom and Sam moved in together. 

For the next 3 years, they lived happily side by side in my childhood home in Calgary. But the draw to the country proved too urgent to ignore. In October 2000, they sold the house and moved into their idyllic new digs near the hamlet of Kelsey, Alberta. Golden Spur Ranchetta, as they named it, became their new home and, together, they made the dream of Canadian frontier life their reality.

Long days spent clearing land, pulling out wayward trees, retooling outbuildings, dealing with renters in an adjoining house, nurturing horses, cattle, cats, and dogs, was their daily lot. It fit them like a hand in a glove. I had never seen my mother so alive, so full of vigorous determination, so…happy.

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Sam was seldom without a guitar in hand

In October 2005, they were returning from Calgary, along Highway 21. Sam turned to her, saying rather baldly, “I think we should. I think it’s time.” In as matter of fact and unpretentious a manner as one can expect from a Canadian prairie cowboy, he had just asked my mother to marry him. This they did in a small ceremony held in Forestburg, Alberta on New Year’s Eve, 2005. For the first time since she had become a Rife over 40 years earlier, my mother had a different name.

Sam with guitar2.jpgTogether, Mom and Sam weathered well the uncertainties of ranch life in an often-harsh central Alberta landscape. They made many new friends, most of them musicians of one kind or another. Like a loose belt, their lives spread out amid country music jams, reenactment wild West gun shootouts, mosquito-laden summers, and fireside nights under the vast Alberta stars. I watched my mom transform from an anxiety-laden, late-middle-age housewife into a buoyant, self-confident woman. It was delightfully disconcerting.

Ten years later, in December 2015, I was blessed to offer a renewal of vows service at Yakima Covenant Church. I had never done such a thing before and was proud that this event, of all things, was my first.

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Mom and Sam at their renewal of vows ceremony, Yakima Covenant Church, December 2015

In May of last year, a combination of doctor’s visits, followed by unwelcome phone calls sharing even less welcome news became their lot. The ‘C’ word had taken root as infidel in Sam’s lungs. It would ultimately have the last word.

But the final notes were always his to sing. He lives on in memory and song. His CD, Back to the Mountain, released when he was 80, reminds us that music never grows old. It pulls us along our dusty trails on wooden wheels of hope. It is a small part of a big legacy, served up fresh, and ever new. 

Now, Papa Sam sings harmony with his ancestors, leaning up against heaven’s gate – rough-sawn, split pine, and barbed wire in his case – playing his favourite guitar. The Great Spirit (Jesus to me) sits nearby in plaid shirt, jeans and a ball cap, playing spoons and a washboard. A gentle country waltz fills the perfect air, and bristles with the high-stepping joy of heaven’s jamboree.

Farewell, cowboy. Farewell.

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___________________

*Métis originally referred to Francophone and Cree-speaking descendants of the French-Catholic Red River Métis in Manitoba. They are one of three recognized aboriginal peoples of Canada, descendants of marriages of Cree, Ojibwa, Saulteaux, and Menominee aboriginal people with French-Canadians, Scots, and English settlers. 

This is a recording of Sam’s title track, Back to the Mountaina song I was blessed to co-author.

 

Converting the Converted

The more I read the Gospels, the more I am convinced that we would be the first to condemn Jesus and pin him to a cross all over again. That, in spite of two thousand years of knowledge, and canon, and religious conversations, and catacombs, and persecutions, and the dawn of “Christ-ianity.”

To read the Gospels honestly is to place oneself in dangerous places indeed. It is the readiness to identify as a sheep or a goat; as a disciple or a Pharisee or a religious teacher or a widow or wheat or weeds. We have so objectified the good news into our neat, neo-Platonic categories that we’ve rendered ourselves incapable of being seekers; the very posture required by Jesus to see – God, others, even oneself.

If the Gospels tell us anything they tell us how easy it is to build an impenetrable club of pretense and walls of preconception around our faith. The Pharisees did it and Jesus was forever pissed off with them. The biggest challenge to conversion is the belief that one is already converted and without any further need. It becomes poisonous to the very humility that would otherwise find us deeper in grace and living more abundantly.

It is the great proclamation of the convinced. 

Richard Rohr calls this what it is: idolatry. It is the worship and protection of the means to an end rather than the journey toward the beginning. He tells us, “religions should be understood as only the fingers that point to the moon, not the moon itself” (Everything Belongs, p. 51). He believes, and has built a career upon, the notion that all true spirituality is about seeing and letting go in order to see still more.

I have found that it is often to my benefit that I am both A.D.D. and a mystic. That way, when I begin to ramble (a common occurrence!) and someone tells me to “just get to the bottom line,” I can retort with the same refusal Jesus used in such instances. He cared little for such things and besides, it is the misguided idol of a success-driven culture built on information and accumulation rather than instruction and awareness.

I’m aware how much this frustrates my type A friends. For naysayers however, more often than not, they don’t ask again!

Says Rohr, “preoccupation with exchange value and market value tends to blind us almost totally to inherent value…Everything becomes priceless if it is sacred. And everything is sacred if the world is a temple” (Ibid, p. 56). To expect life to produce some kind of “bottom line” is the demand for Jesus to offer a sign. Like the Pharisees, we insist, “just get to the point” and do so in a way that impresses me, asks nothing of me, gives me answers rather than better questions, perpetuates my misguided presuppositions, assures me I’m in and you’re not, and never invites me to step out and journey. Moreover, it promises more darkness and blindness and no actual change. I will still see what and how I want complete with all my preexisting opinions and skepticism.

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The Pharisees Question Jesus – James Tissot (1836-1902)

To see is the one great gift of all true spirituality. Jesus spent a lot of time healing blind people and a lot of time blinding self-proclaimed seers. When all we crave are answers, solutions, and the pragmatics of control, then it is we who stand in need of a raised voice from Jesus. We become the gatekeepers. We become those who, alone, claim to know the Way, the Truth, the Life. We are those possessing the Words of life but in restrictive, mechanical ways upheld in our own Sanhedrins.

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Christ healing the blind man – El Greco, 1560

And that is what makes us the most ready to feel we need nothing more. We, the converted, stand most in need of conversion. Jesus spent a lot of time in an already protracted ministry window healing blindness. This I believe was no accident. He was particularly drawn to this because of it’s wonderfully metaphorical teaching platform. And I’m sure that someone healed of their blindness would be most deeply grateful; most readily loving.

To see therefore, is to love. And to love is the heart of the Gospel message. Until we love as Jesus loved, we may yet stand in need of conversion. To say otherwise reveals a spiritual smugness, a theological self-satisfaction bent more on winning arguments than whispering prayers.

These days, I rest secure in the knowledge that the same grace offered to the pimps, whores, and swindlers is offered to the converted and the righteous. Jesus spent more time arguing with one and partying with the other.

I hope I am always the latter.

Back to the Bible We Don’t Know, conclusion

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As I’ve shared elsewhere, I have a “star-crossed lovers” relationship with the written word. A young Capulet and Montague stare with longing at one another from across the room, and wonder what the next step is. We’ve always managed to work things out, but not without long and moody periods of dust and dearth. It’s always advisable, and spiritually healthy, to change up our routines from time to time if only to shake off the cobwebs of inactivity or apathy. But, my relationship with holy writ often stands in contradistinction to their typical handling.

Throughout all ages, the most common topic which has occupied singers, philosophers, poets, and people in general has been…love, of course. The sheer ubiquity of love songs, poetry, painting, sculpture, and pining readily attests to its centrality in our human experience. If you can easily describe your first kiss, the appearance of your first child, the terror of a dead spouse, or pride at the accomplishments of your spawn, you have yet to truly experience love.

Similarly, if you can easily and with absolute confidence ascribe hermeneutical perfection and interpretational clarity to a collection of writings such as the Bible, you are either deluded, or you’ve been reading something else. It is a library with which to contend because, in it, are found treasures worth the battle. The Covenant Community Bible Experience has, for me at least, drawn me to the scriptures in some new and alluring ways; ways that have helped reinvigorate my intention to let them find me and turn me up once more like clotted soil.

We lost as much at the Reformation as we gained. The bible as story is one of those. Against Luther’s best intentions, we ended up with a bible widely available (eventually) but indistinguishable from any other field of inquiry. Bible in the brain, rather than Christ in the soul. The forces set in motion even before the Reformation poured ideological gasoline over centuries of Christian reflection and practice.

To many in contemporary evangelicalism today the church started not at Pentecost, but at the Reformation. Hence, we are given the unfortunate impression that God was somehow completely lost and confused for fifteen hundred years. Suffice it to say, the corrections that needed to be made in the existing church occurred, but in ways impossible to foresee or worse, control. The scriptures came to be seen in ways even they would shudder to contemplate. As the freight train of reforms reached fever pace, it outstripped the ability of people to embed the scriptures into their own lives. Right belief trumped right behaviour. Theology and spirituality parted company.

The Reformed Tradition and, more recently, Evangelicalism, claim that sola scriptura saved the church from the ecclesiastical clutches of a vast hierarchical juggernaut which had all but replaced the bible with magisterium. This has some merit, but they further claim that, with the bible safely in the hands of all, knowledge derived from those same scriptures is readily available and plentiful.

I beg to differ.

The saints of the Medieval Ages and Renaissance knew more, not less, scripture than those who followed. Why? Because their entire lives, their holy-days, their ecclesiastical feasts, their communities, their families, and their places of gathering swam in the stories, prophecies, and songs of the Bible. It was not the absence of the Scriptures in the hands of the common folk that saw them suffer in the almost guaranteed poverty of subjugated peoples. It was that much of the poverty they experienced was because of a church in league with the halls of power.

Merely having the Scriptures in our possession does not guarantee their power in our day to day lives. At times, it may well be the opposite. There is a sense in which familiarity has bred contempt. Or at least apathy. We chose control over wonder, intellectual mastery over mystical formation, trading a holistic library of inspired writing for a flat, rational document for our ownership and dissection. As the church has become increasingly fractured, the possibility of common worship experiences built upon shared and regular experiences of listening and participation in those same Scriptures it so ardently defends has become challenging indeed.

Our buddy Jesus, complete with graphic t-shirt, sleeve tats, skinny jeans, and sideways ball cap points to a similarly cavalier handling of the book in which is enshrined his coming, character, teaching, and sacrifice. We need to recomplexify the Scriptures, not in order to obfuscate, but for the purpose of elevating them to the mystical, existential, literary heights in which it was conceived. 

All that to say, I have warmed to the written word once again, largely because of this most recent biblical encounter undertaken by our congregation and denomination. And now that a reintroduction has taken place, we can stop peeking at one another across the Junior High school dance floor, shuffling and coughing. We can take steps across the room toward each other.

We may even dance.

Back to the Bible We Don’t Know, part 2

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Last month we began a conversation; a tête à tête if you will about our relationship to the Bible – something we may not know as well as we think we do. And, because so much is riding on our relationship to this library of writings, it behooves us to dig as deeply as we can.

With the help of Glenn Paauw’s masterful book, Saving the Bible from Ourselves: Learning to Read & Live the Bible Well, I have sought to make the case that, in seeking to make the Bible “approachable” we have instead neutered it, making it less transformational. The Scriptures call us to faith, not certainty. Modernity has sought to erase the unpredictability of faith with scientific verifiability. “The bare text is difficult to control. The modernist turn in culture led the keepers of the Bible to transform it into something precise, punctual, calculable, standard, bureaucratic, rigid, invariant, finely coordinated, and routine…This is a Bible that needs to be saved” (p. 37).
 
We have all heard the adage that “less is more.” It holds true in many areas of life. For example, my wife tells me that much of her editing process involves carving away the literary dross from her manuscript in order to leave the best kernels of story that will keep the reader engaged. She wrote her book in under a year, but has spent over three more in the arduous task of proofing, hacking, chopping, and honing. Michelangelo stated that his masterpiece sculpture of David was “discovered” by simply chipping away all that was not David. It has been scientifically proven that the clutter of too many road signs and instructions cause drivers to disengage, the very thing such signs are designed to avoid.
 
Less is more. With the many additions and “improvements” to the Bible, aimed at helping us pay attention, we have ostensibly removed its beautiful “surface simplicity that [could] open up for us the inherent and immensely interesting good complexity that lies deep within…The Elegant Bible will reflect the wisdom that form and content always belong together in God’s good creation. Form is part of the content of things” (p. 39).
 
We must always begin with the questions, what is the Bible and how can we honor what that is? Paauw suggests that we are badly in need of an “extreme Bible makeover” wherein we can undo its fractured format that only leads to fractured reading and commensurately fractured lives. Part of that process will be to learn how to adopt the practice of referencing passages by context and content rather than by isolated chapters and verses.
 
As is apparent in the rather unique Covenant Community Bible Experience in which our fellowship is presently engaging, Paauw advocates for a Bible less encumbered by the artificiality that has been foist upon it by means of chapter and verse numbers that pull us out of a narrative and broad reading of its contents; section headings that are ultimately interpretive by nature; page layouts which hide from us the diversity of literary forms employed in our original manuscripts; and, particularly, study Bibles that can actually mitigate against the deep, transformative, non-agenda-driven reading that can best draw us into the dangerous place of spiritual formation rather than mere information.
 
We need to view the Bible more as poetry, which demands exactitude of form as much as content. What a poem “looks like” is intended to speak as loudly as the words themselves. Form and content alike form our understanding of a thing. We have inherited more of a cultural creation than the Bible that was originally intended.
 
Says Paauw, “to save the Bible from ourselves, we must begin to trust once again its ancient ways of saying things…The path to restoring our Bible begins with chipping away at everything that doesn’t belong there” (p. 50). Our love for God demands no less than an equal love of the Scriptures as they were first delivered.
 
Those with ears to hear, let them hear…

Back to the Bible We Don’t Know

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With this new series of posts, I am entering a conversation. I do this for several reasons. It is partly in celebration of a journey recently embarked upon by our fellowship (Yakima Covenant Church) into the Covenant Community Bible Experience. It is an initiative of our denomination (Evangelical Covenant Church) to help rattle our scripture cages a bit by placing in front of us a New Testament compiled chronologically and without any of the customary headings, chapter and verses. I trust some of the reasons for this shall become clear over time.

Secondly, it touches on a topic of fascination to me personally: my love for the written word. That, combined with a growing love for the God who could never be contained by it, compel me to share these things.

Finally, it is in answer to various queries following a sermon I preached on this topic a few weeks ago. In these conversations, I’ll be utilizing ideas, and materials spanning decades. Specifically, I’ll be referring often to one particular book from which I’ve gleaned much of late, Saving the Bible from Ourselves: Learning to Read & Live the Bible Well by Glenn R. Paauw. The topic? The Bible of course. More specifically, the terminology, ideas, misunderstandings, projections, additions, expectations – both false and otherwise – that have arisen around it and from which it presently suffers.

The week of my “conversion” I quickly became fascinated by the strange and enigmatic words on the wispy pages of a Bible given to me by my grandmother. For years, it sat, neglected and increasingly dusty, on a shelf in my bedroom. My senior year it began to grow in my mind as something much more significant than that which I had hitherto attributed to it.

The first verse I ever memorized? “The grass withers, the flowers fade; but the word of our God will stand forever.” (Isaiah 40:8 NRSV)

If we are to give to the Bible the love and respect it deserves we should experience no small discomfort with the words “back to the Bible.” It belies a naïve, even whimsical view of it that has the potential to diminish its depth and complexity and, as such, its impact.

As we shall see from looking at Paauw’s book, we commonly approach this ancient library of texts with a truck load of preconceived notions, pet ideas, personal preferences, cultural parameters, and less than informed expectations. Paauw believes that we have “over-complicated its form while over-simplifying its content” (p. 16).

He makes the case that, over the course of many centuries, Bible scholars and publishers have increasingly added to it what is thought to be helpful – chapter divisions, verses, subheadings, notes, etc. – all in an effort the “make it easier to understand.” The result has been the opposite however and, in the process, we’ve been led to sample rather than feast deeply on the Scriptures. It has led to a narrow, individualistic and escapist view of salvation. And, rather “than being a culture-shaping force, the Bible has become a database of quick and easy answers to life’s troubling questions.”

So then, let us enter a conversation together. Let’s talk about the Bible. What it is. What it is not. The purpose? To develop a truly broad, deep, informed, and appreciative view of this enigmatic collection of ancient writings. Because much of what we understand about God and one another comes from it, I think it wise to do so. Don’t you?

Let’s go!

 

 

Toward a Rule – The Beginning

So, with subtle indirection, the toolbox of yearning

wed to oratory, wed to a cloud of unknowing,

expecting nothing more than a tale well told,

comes the bard and we are given –

a road for our story.

Historically, patterns of prayer and devotion that would later evolve into a “Rule of Life” grew out of the monastic tradition dating back to the Desert Abbas and Ammas of the 4th century CE. There, in the blistering heat of wasteland, they faced down demons, drank deep from hidden wells, prayed unceasingly, listened for the deafening whispers of God, and taught others to do the same. They owned little, but possessed the universe. Over time, their lives, lived small and yielded, but writ large upon the heavens, were lassoed into usable fragments of a living reality.

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St. Antony of Egypt

I suspect most are like me, living pugnaciously crammed lives begging for the breath and space.. But, unless one’s name is Antony, or one of his eremetic contemporaries, one has experienced little in the way of solitude.

Such an exercise, as useful and meaningful as it is, necessarily leans upon an accompanying acquiescence on the part of the pilgrim – namely, me – to its regularity, rigour, and influence. Frankly, I’m more concerned about that than the Rule itself. Over the years, I’ve developed a deeply satisfying practice of contemplative prayer, gradually learning the benefits of housing shalom in the confines of a thirsty but unpredictable soul. I’ve spent days alone at any number of monasteries, growing and learning with monks and nuns of various ecumenical stripes. I write extensively on the spiritual life, a blog of my own (www.innerwoven.me), and for numerous others as well. In 2011, I graduated with a Master of Arts in Spiritual Formation and Leadership from Spring Arbor University, Michigan. Since then, I’ve undertaken the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and was anointed with oil as a lay Jesuit. I’m writing a spiritual memoir. I have studied the life and spirituality of St. Francis (because I’m a hippy at heart) and the Rule of St. Benedict (because hippies lack structure).

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Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey, Lafayette, Oregon. I’ve spent countless hours at this place.

Why do I boast in such Pauline fashion? Because, after years of ardent pursuit of the Christian spiritual enterprise, and already possessing a not inconsiderable Rule of Life with more than a few years of practice, I am less skilled in it now than I’ve ever been. Without hesitation, I enjoin myself to Paul whose boast is always in weakness about weakness, and leads to his exasperated proclamation, “I am the chief of sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15).

Whatever Rule is forthcoming will be more about my openness to what that Rule represents. It must be more a means to an end than the end itself. Like the rudiments I’ve practiced for decades in pursuit of musical prowess, I construct and practice a Rule of Life to forget it. Musicians play scales without thinking about playing scales. They play music, in which rudiments have formed and buttressed, shaped and evolved that music.

Saints live a Rule that is at all times thinking about union with God, which is the end and the beginning of it all.

…in my dream, I looked out over the rocky embankments

still holding my thoughts and, over the tomb where

recently someone left not long after arriving, a placard read:

“Beware, those still trapped in a life safe, and un-ruined.

You won’t get to enjoy the looks of incredulity from those

who’d prefer you stay here.”

____________________________________________ 

All poetry ©Robert Alan Rife, www.robslitbits.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Toward a Rule – Eschewing Truancy

In early November, I was a participant in a class toward my ordination entitled “Vocational Excellence.” This is part 4 of the paper I submitted, aimed at constructing and presenting a Rule of Life.

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Calgary sunrise…apt metaphor

Eschewing Truancy

In every life, there are (mis)guiding voices. Inner recordings, as it were, play loudly and insistently, often dictating how one goes about the tricky task of living.  Put another way, all of us live from somewhere – fear, suspicion, self-aggrandizement, false hope, willing blindness, ass kissy-ness. They cast long shadows upon our spiritual landscapes and pull us away from the perfect centre of our circle.

Every time I drift from my centre, I cease trusting in the glacial process of transformation at work within me. My trust gets misplaced, landing on anything quicker and easier to a perceived end of satisfaction. The shortest distance between two points can become the broad road to ruin the quickest means of personal misanthropy. 

Something inimical of the human heart is its apparent willingness to be anywhere other than where it should. The place most required of us is where we least show up. And with so many competing allurements to our deepest allegiance and passions this is a bit like crossing the freeway naked and blindfolded. It seldom ends well.

Better might be the comparison of grade school students. Some, like myself, adored school and never missed a day (I skipped twice and was caught both times…another blog perhaps?). Others reveled in the delicious naughtiness one experiences in going to the mall, or simply hanging out behind it smoking untoward substances (again, what could I possibly know of such shenanigans?).

A rule of thumb for fellow Christ-followers, prone to wobbly wheels but who yearn to embody their Rabbi is to pay heed to Stan Smith’s words from American Dad. When pressured as to why he keeps rubbernecking women other than his wife, he responds: “my eyes may wander, but my heart comes home.” 

Instead, I am being directed to return to the quiet, contemplative life, planted in the Benedictine moniker: ora et labora – prayer and work; contemplation and action, inner and outer life wed as one. To care for the centre is to care for everything else at once.

Although not a word one might use in everyday life, truancy pictures a life on the edges of things. It is uncommitted – wayward, as in a constant insistence upon finding any path other than the one presently under foot. In gospel terms, to show up is to find oneself amid the delight of Holy Spirit constancy and the hope of a future that will never be cut off.

To eschew truancy in the spiritual life – to abide in the vine, as it were – is to embrace the promise of a rather adept gardener of my soul.

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“God cannot be found by weighing the present against the future or past, but only by sinking into the heart of the present as it is.”
-Thomas Merton

Toward a Rule – Aiming for Centre

If not for this, then all would be that,

and when forsakes why,

and time gasps for breath.

Stand still with nowhere left to go.

Sing these notes now,

these words for this, not that,

waiting for the longer wait;

the unplanned non-plan;

all counting, forsaken, in the business of nothing –

and watch what yet will come.

Ora et Labora: A New Gestalt

“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” – St. Paul, 2 Corinthians 3:17-18

The Celtic mystic in me, enamoured as it is with a blurring of edges that allow all to fade into a singularity of life and love and lessons learned, squirms at the notion of life in quadrants, or pieces. With that proviso, I submit and share some insights that can help shape a new Rule of Life.

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The history of Christian spirituality would dictate a unity of personhood; a whole individual, undivided into constituent parts. It would argue for a centering motif through which a follower of Jesus is made complete by means of consistent focus on the interior life. Buttress the centre of the wheel and the spokes become stronger by default. This has consistently been my experience.

As mentioned previously, a poster-boy 4 on the Enneagram and an INFP on the Meyers-Briggs scale, I’ve made a cottage industry of melancholy. I capably personify inwardness; an artistically-brooding poor-me-ism. The result? A paralyzing self-referentialism that prefers the role of armchair philosopher-poet than street corner pastor or jungle Bible translator. But, as Dr. Robert Mulholland urges in his book, Invitation to a Journey, it is the holistic life to which the Gospel calls us. He suggests that, as a result, where we feel least useful or competent is often where we are most required to be.

Spiritual Directors have played a significant role in my journey for many years. That said, the pain I’ve harboured well and nurtured often, of Sister Alice’s retirement from her ministry with the Sisters of Providence here in Yakima, has left me gasping for breath. Sister Alice played that role in my life for almost 5 years. Every time I stepped into her quaint living room, the presence of God was thick in the place, literally dripping from the walls and windows and oozing out of the carpet.

She was fond of saying that the ways by which God reveals Him/Herself becomes who I am and paves the way for whatever ‘me’ is still emerging. If she is any indication of the ramifications of that notion, then I need to reimagine this journey once again. It is a trip exponentially greater than the sum of the miles involved – it is a foray into the heart of God.

Combined with a compelling need to share my story once more I heed the counsel of my Vocational Excellence peeps and I’m prayerfully scouting out a new Spiritual Director. As in the past, I am submitted to the quietly insistent guidance of God in this.

Lord, have mercy.

Eschewing Truancy

Every time I drift from my centre, I cease trusting in the glacial process of transformation at work within me. My trust gets misplaced, landing on anything quicker and easier to a perceived end of inner satisfaction. The shortest distance between two points becomes the quickest means of my personal misanthropy. Instead, I am being directed to quiet, consistent return to the contemplative life, planted in the Benedictine moniker: ora et labora – prayer and work, contemplation and action, inner and outer life wed as one. To care for the centre is to care for everything else at once.

Getting Out from Under God’s Feet

I hear some very clear injunctions all week. They crystallize gradually into the plans I am now putting to page. It taps into my love for Celtic spirituality, which teaches a three-fold martyrdom as askesis for the soul. Red martyrdom is death for one’s faith. Green martyrdom is a life of deep self-denial in pursuit of union with God. White martyrdom typifies many Celtic saints, specifically St. Patrick, who chose willingly to leave his native Wales and return to Ireland as a missionary. It is to this idea God calls me, metaphorically speaking. I am often vexed by fear, passivity, and loneliness. Together with the invitation to the silent cave of the heart, I hear God shoeing me out the door to “go play outside.”

You live too alone, so you live in your head. Get outside of your head and home. Make relationships. Show up so I too may do the same. Learn by doing. Let your prayers be out of needs generated by the work of your hands rather than hiding from your life and escape my redemptive gaze…”

Therefore, my instructions and my plan are to go out and make things happen, trusting in God for whatever results might be forthcoming. A mystic to the core, God has placed a yearning for a chance to hop into the nearest boat to anywhere that might lead me outside my own head. My path of deepest transformation is to move in through the out door: to find God’s presence in the other.

The Blessing of Good Soil

Congruently, my itch to run is met with clear instruction to stay where I am. Far too many uprootings in my wake fueled by a well-honed fight or flight mechanism make me grateful for the stability we enjoy here in Yakima. It’s surprising how God’s vitals become more pronounced when one isn’t always out of breath, heart pounding in the ears. It makes inner silence and listening so much easier. My friendships may barely exceed a decade. But God has planted me in a distant soil to bring me and mine closer to the fattest harvest, that of the heart.

For reasons much deeper than career satisfaction, I choose to stay and use what skills and passions I’ve been given to make Yakima the kind of place in which I’d choose to retire. In Jesus, the exiled alien, I find identification and strength to stay.

Trust Your Own Press

A victim of my own mental gallows, I am hearing quite clearly the necessity of “trusting my own press.” Self-love is strongest not in the proud, but in the humble. “You’ve earned the ear and respect of a congregation. Don’t be afraid to leverage that in pursuit of your desires.” Good advice under my present circumstances.

In sum, my spirituality will strive to be more illustrative of a commitment to move back in by moving out but staying put. It must involve pursuing and engaging with a Spiritual Director who in turn can assist in the accountability and faith required to do so.

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An ecumenical school of Spiritual Direction for whom I was a blogger – aiming at the centre.

The Spokes: Running to Jesus

I have a long and complicated history with a mistress. An insidious lover is she, alcohol once steered me nearly to ruin. Since getting sober in 2002, and again this year, my choice of addiction has changed. It is running. Lots of it. It has translated to a minimum of thirty miles a week and a loss of twenty-six pounds. I’ve run marathons before but a serious accident in 2010 robbed me of rigorous, injury-free movement until recently. Running provides thin place (pun shamelessly intended), incarnational moments of contemplative awareness for me and requires little in the way of accountability. It simply happens. Pounding feet on pavement mesh with pounding heart seeking rhythm with God’s. Here, God saves me.

The Spokes: Rediscovering Me for Others

As outlined earlier, I battle with a certain degree of mental-emotional illness. Historically, it has been both medicated and exacerbated by alcohol. The sturm und drang of the disease pushes and pulls one into places one would never otherwise go. It, together with all its ramifications, has me in regular therapy. Dr. L. has been seeing me now for a little over a year. God has made it clear that, until recently, she would act as my Spiritual Director; one of a different sort. She has helped me to wander down the confusing corridors of my psyche in search of the minefields that destroy and maim. I look for another Spiritual Director. But, this must continue apace as parallel healing. Hence, any kind of Rule will include constancy under the scrutinizing light of her scalpel.

The benefits of this professional relationship have been staggering in my relationships, both personal and professional. Once the misplanted weeds are plucked from my mental garden and lie open for consideration, my family, friends, and colleagues have been more than happy to help me replant. The healing has been demonstrable and satisfying.

I write. A lot. I don’t see that changing anytime soon. For me, writing is prayer; contemplative space – catharsis wed to self-care on a bed of creative spiritual process. I am being urged toward an even greater regularity of this artistic-spiritual process as it relates to spiritual praxis.  It brings a peace that translates to all my relationships.

It is apparent that I am under-fed socially. Although an introvert, I have become far too withdrawn and isolated from the warmth and challenge of ministry colleagues. This must change immediately. In the interest of a better self-understanding, I commit to a better developed collegiality and accountability among mutual professional friends.

 

The Spokes: Serving

“My life mission is to draw people to God through my life and work, which strive to meaningfully communicate God’s beauty and truth.”

 

Toward a Rule – A Spiritual Self-Diagnosis

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Faithful Companions of Jesus (FCJ) Conference and Retreat Centre, Calgary

What one sees is not always what one seeks.

And what one seeks is not always what one says.

And what one says is not always what one starts.

It’s okay, there’s no difference between what

I didn’t see yesterday and what landed itself full upright

in today’s path, muse-appointed.

There are the moments when, at a

full stride, forehead high and strong,

come words and stories, notes and beams,

high-stepping toes, pointed at heaven;

brushstrokes for love or anger, life or less –

those are the boldest strokes, the highest notes,

the brightest steps…

The sound of music is good wherever notes 

find you. Let it be your symphony.

The initial reticence I felt as I warmed a car seat for twelve hours – with all the attendant over-thinking to which I’m already prone – promptly unravelled upon arrival. My penchant for wow-factor uniqueness finds a backseat in favour of the welcome mat of other faith-commoners; like-minded, thirsty-souled, vocationally-curious individuals more like me than I care to admit. It would prove to be one of the most significant weeks of my personal and professional life.

Since God loves the twist-in-the-tale, this mystic-philosopher-poet-dreamer-romantic-idealist-non-pragmatist is ripe to meet the vacuum at the shallow end of his soul. In company with fellow travellers of the Way, I come up wanting every time, albeit with a blossoming knowledge that “all manner of thing shall be well” (Julian of Norwich, Showings).

Via Negativa

Staying true to my “via negativa” modus operandi, the most significant gleanings from the week are found in what I don’t want to be about; who I don’t want to be. I’ve been in professional ministry long enough to enjoy a few tricks of the trade sufficient to dazzle and woo – successfully limping through that ministry for many years. It isn’t the material so much as the context for it. Many words are spoken, good ones. But, it is parsing those same words with other colleagues that distills the broadest reality. It makes for a week of living object lessons of what’s missing most in my experience: the mutuality of friendship, the deeper blessing of stability and sobriety, and a renewed commitment to monastic spirituality: ora et labora – prayer and work.

The intentionality of connection and outward motion is a challenge for a poster-boy Enneagram 4 (The Individualist), INFP (Meyers-Briggs), who loves passive-aggressive self-pity. If seeking a life more patterned after historic saints is what I seek, these ones prove just as good; perhaps better given their physical presence in the room. Proximity makes immediate the holy danger of accountability in the Jesus Way.

Through many words rich with advice and good counsel, it is the relentless voice of God that most unsettles me. God impresses only a few simple things, repeatedly. Repeatedly. Re….It is those things that spin around my head and to which I now turn.

* * * * *

I am twice adopted. In biological terms, this means effectively that I am riddled with fear – of risk, of invalidation, of abandonment, of failure – of success. Pursuant to this is a terrible sense of boundaries, which to one such as I, are not an end, but a means to it.

I suffer from GAD, (Generalized Anxiety Disorder), ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), mild OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), and CGEODD (Can’t Get Enough of Disorders Disorder). I live in a veritable sea of worry, and panic, and the over-thinking commensurate thereof.

I’m a recovering alcoholic. Given the first two points, this should come as little surprise.

I have mountains of unresolved pain, grief, and guilt. I grieve poorly.

I am a mystic-contemplative in a culture, drunk on self-important pragmatism, that eats such ones for lunch.

Via Positiva

I’m a gifted musician, writer, poet, and liturgist. With these gifts, I’ve been blessed to draw others with me into the shimmering thin places that life can truly be.

I have a deeply intuitive, imaginative spirituality; an abundantly creative orthopraxis, so to speak.

I’m gifted in interpersonal conflict resolution – ironic, given my depth of hatred for the same.

I’m a gifted teacher and group facilitator.

I’m a culture and bridge-builder, finding ways for diverse segments of the church to envision a better way to walk the Way.

I’m compassionate and like to hear travel tales of other sojourners.

I’m very funny. No, really.

I’m a handsome, irresistibly debonair, man-about-town simply fun to be around.

Best of all, with much hard work and prayer, I’ve finally been gifted with self-forgetful humility (superglue tongue to cheek here).

A Rule of Life will, for me, bridge these two lists.

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Always looking for something…