Having just completed Dr. Fraser’s marvellous book, “Mission in Contemporary Scotland,” I am pleased to share a short piece of particular interest to me. In general terms, because I have a master’s degree in spiritual formation, or Christian spirituality to be precise. More specifically, because “spirituality” is one of the means by which I hope to reach out in my new Scottish mission environment. Fraser has been most helpful in the many questions we all have related to the Church, her identity and mission. And, for me, that identity and mission here in Edinburgh.
Enjoy, and, if you like a well-balanced, thoughtful, lovingly orthodox view into imago Dei/missio Dei, procure his book. You’ll be glad you did!
Religion sometimes gets a bad rep these days. From Trump-supporting evangelicalism in the United States, to the Taliban, to Northern Ireland, to the stereotypes of Victorian moralism, an increasingly small number of people want to be labelled with the word ‘religious’ or even that of ‘Christian’.
Yet as the labels ‘religious’ and ‘Christian’ have declined in social prestige, so ‘spiritual’ has become more prominent. Prior to the 1960s and the Beatles trip to India (anyone old enough to remember that?) the words ‘spiritual’ and ‘spirituality’ were largely connected with certain elements of Roman Catholic devotion, and the Gospel songs of former American slaves. From the 1960s onward, however, the term morphed into something far wider and socially important. ‘Spiritual but not religious’ became one of the main forms of Western religiosity, the individualist counterpart to the moribund ‘institutional religion’ of yesteryear.
Despite it being such a widely used term, however…
The air feels sharp. Like a paper cut on dry skin. The same air that is moderated by the sea is also saturated with it so that the wind denies however many layers one can throw at its defence.
It’s a good thing this city is so photogenic. She blushes with feigned humility at every turn, dipping her shirt to reveal her grey-stone breasts just enough to draw you to her. But, as you draw near, her manner reminds you that you’re a mere stone’s throw from the North Sea.
In early Winter.
Anyone who follows us on social media, or has been within camera or earshot of us in the past few weeks, is already aware that my wife and I live now in Edinburgh, Scotland. We haven’t stopped talking about it. You ever hang around new parents and they never quit talking about their newborn? Yeah, it’s kinda like that.
Everything is new. We have new UK phone numbers almost impossible to memorize (memorise). We are learning to write dates day/month/year. We’ve traded a five-number zip code for a postal code with two caps, a number, another number, and two more caps. We’re learning what it’s like to shop for days of food at a time rather than weeks. We’re learning the complexities of laundry in the UK, a process not unlike rebuilding a laptop.
Thanks to the relative compactness of Edinburgh streets, we’ve taken like pros to something we would never have done in North America, ride a bus. We walk everywhere else. Living in the relatively central district of Stockbridge I call this the “one-mile zone.” We can walk almost anywhere we need to be, including downtown (uptown as the locals call it).
The glaring lack of any formal Thanksgiving tradition here is regrettable in one way, given the many memorable observances we’ve enjoyed over the years with family, friends, and one unlucky turkey. But, it is also a wonderful thing not having to engage in the inevitable, often heated, debates about Christmas decorating starting “too early.” Despite its lack of liturgical credibility, “too early” for me would be mid-October, not American Thanksgiving which just happens to fall less than a month from Christmas.
Edinburgh loves her Christmas decorating. She does it well, with a voracious thoroughness that causes Mrs. Claus to blanche at the sight. Is it thoroughly secular? Yeah, pretty much. Is it beautiful and welcoming? Absolutely. Which, as you will recall from my earlier post on the Enneagram 4, is my love language.
Beauty is next to godliness.
I’ve often questioned artists who claim their particular geography to have the “best light” when they live where there’s nothing but an abundance of it, washing out all colour and nuance. When light is involved, “most” does not equal “best.” My soul prefers its light at a premium; where it changes much, leaves me alone for long periods of time, and is therefore, precious.
For me, Edinburgh in winter is that place.
A runner for many years, I confess that the best pathways for moving contemplation are these damp corridors of green-framed stone and shadow. It is something about subtleties where colours can pop because they’re not constantly blanched by direct sunlight. There’s an existential complexity to it utterly lacking in sun-drenched regions.
I have the opposite of seasonal affective disorder (S.A.D.) I’m depressed in constant sun. Nothing changes. It’s like trying to drink from a fire hydrant…all the time. It’s too much, too often, for no reason.
The breadth of human experience requires more than the cheap seats at a bad movie. It needs emotional distance, space to laugh and hurt and question and doubt and start all over again. The heart needs lament; needs thoughtfulness, discernment, the tepid wondering for which it is engineered. I agree with Pàdraig Ó Tuama’s review of Dunez Smith’s amazing poem, “I’m going back to Minnesota where sadness makes sense.” where he states, “not everyone needs to live in perpetual summer.”
2021. This will be our first Christmas away from our boys. Either one or the other, or both, were always with us for the holidays. However, given the weight of God’s call upon us to love and serve Edinburgh, it seems not so high a price to pay, given the great returns we’ve already enjoyed from this incredible place. Besides, our laddies are squarely in God’s hands every bit as much as we, or anyone else.
“All through my life I have embraced and questioned the night, and loved its random light: the aurora borealis, the starry reaches of the cosmos, streetlight ricochet off car metal and darkened windowpanes…the light of friends and lovers.
We are on a great journey, through darkness and dawn, across time, though sometimes I fear that our journey is about to end. We must not succumb to fear or avarice; we must continue to embrace life, seek light, and gather in the charity of night. This is what God wants from us and for us. Mirrors of the past shine with the hue of unborn days, just as stars glitter in the dark night to light our way.”
I love metaphor. I appreciate the multitudinous ways it invites us to consider really big stuff. Night and day, dark and light, doorways and highways – all of it in pursuit of understanding that which can be never be fully understood.
Longing, as I’ve written many other places, is a condition most endemic of the hungry human spirit. If we are anything as humans, we are spiritually starving. Like the blessing of pain to a body out of joint is that of longing to the soul under duress, or even just at rest. We long not because we’re broken necessarily, but because we want either to be unbroken, or, in my case, to experience the proximity of God as God when last I WAS broken.
However, there’s a danger implicit in longing for its own sake. It can easily become an obsession, a drug without which we feel we can never really be whole. For too many years, in the name of contemplation, I lived in what could only be described as wallowing. It was often a cottage industry of self-pity in the guise of discerning depth; “look at me suffer and enjoying it” rather than the healthier pursuit of gratitude-in-darkness while praying for light. Persona incognito.
I’ve learned since then to notice the subtle differences which exist between genuine longing and a self-imposed spiritual subterraneanism posing as such. Nowadays, whenever longing arises within me, a few questions arise with it. First, where is this coming from? Why is it there and what is it telling me? Is this genuine heartsickness or just indigestion? Does my spirit need something or am I falling into addictive thinking once again?
As beautiful, daring, mystifying, and thirsty as the human soul can be, it is also fickle and will play tricks on us. What presents as darkness might just be ennui, the listlessness which is part of being human. What presents as sadness might better be described as an insufficient attention to the light of Christ always burning in our deepest places.
The Bible and, by extension, the great tradition of Christian spirituality have aligned the parallel barrels of mystery and metaphor as their formational crosshairs. The immense enterprise of God’s program of cosmic reclamation remains unsuited to the quaint and glib prognostications of “systematic theology”, or as I like to see it, the detached mechanics of straining eternity through an eye-dropper. Protestantism in general, evangelicalism in particular, are guilty of this diminution.
All of the above has been the experience of my hero, Bruce Cockburn. I recently finished his memoir. A favourite person. My favourite genre. The chance to devour, even absorb, the fascinating lives of fascinating people. My life grows from the experience, every time. What’s not to love? Ah, but this is not just any memoir.
It is impossible to understate the impact Cockburn has had on me. My music. My approach to the guitar. My songwriting. My ongoing love for literature and words. Especially, my spirituality, infused with longing as it has been. Even my personality exudes a certain whiff of Cockburnesque mystique, much of it intentional.
He doesn’t know it (yet), but I credit him in large measure for my career in music, songwriting, and for my journey of faith. While he was still pursuing something beyond the pale for himself, he speaks of “the speech of stones.” It was probingly pagan but sufficiently poetic to peak my interest. There was something out there worthy of seeking.
Bruce (may I call you that?), if it’s good enough for you, it’s good enough for me.
I love this prayer by Church of Scotland minister, Sang Cha. Read it. Pray it. Read and pray it again – alone, or with others, this Advent season.
Lord, thank You for the darkness. Thank You for letting us sit in the darkness. For in the darkness, in the silence, we know that You are God. For You have taught us through Your servants in ages past that a god who always answers is an idol.
In every darkness, You have brought the light of Your one Word. Just a simple Word. Your Word feels like sitting under the Sun. Through this Word, You remind us that our incomplete light shines brightest when we are lit from behind by the light of God. That our light shines brightest when nothing but You can sustain it.
In these winter months, with the absence of light, remind us again that absence creates a presence. So, we thank You as poets thank the coming of spring. Everything begins anew with You. Always and again. Amen.
The world is too ugly and needs the beauty we bring.
We are the world’s mystics, the existentialists. Poets, philosophers, artists, dreaming wayfarers, ever searching for some far and distant land that lies just beyond our grasp. And, if it’s beyond our grasp, it won’t even be on your radar, I promise.
Our worlds are those most real as ones which dwell in our overwrought imaginations; Paradise projected, longed-for, through-a-glass-darkly. These realms are as equally insistent as they are evasive. They foist themselves upon us when we’re not looking, and hide themselves when we are. They promise an almost constant angst-ridden ennui, what the ancients called “acedia.” We’re the noonday demons of the emotional world; skulking about in the shadows lest we burn out our retinas in a direct gaze upon that which only avails itself as peripheral.
That is why we’re always a little sad, distracted, disabused of whatever is directly in front of us. Obvious is so gauche. When bliss is just beyond the scope of our sensory perception, in shadows of liminality, why waste our precious energy on the muted confines of what everyone else merely sees, hears, feels, touches, smells?
It means that those of us living in this cosmic Purgatory are expert romantics, idealists, mystics, contemplatives, tortured artists; a slow, gothic parade of the perpetually misunderstood and underappreciated. We dish up depths of feeling, life, and experience in our spare time, that which is well beyond the quaintly over-considered crumbs the rest of the world ogles over. That world, chest puffed out in pride, gives us Beyoncé. “Top that, we dare you,” it taunts.
“Ah, how sweet,” we respond, and give them Hildegard von Bingen.
The world hacks up a Danielle Steele or a Nicholas Sparks, confident in their ability to impress with such stellar heavyweights.
We merely yawn and hand them our copies of Tolkien, Thomas Merton, and Flannery O’Connor.
There is rarely much overt satisfaction for the Enneagram 4 whose psycho-social psyches emit requirements which far outstrip the window-steam generally on offer, quickly faded and lost. After all, when one feeds upon manna served up on plates of raw energy, listening to the winds of heaven, carrying celestial songs of joy, through our golden, cherubic locks amid the host of heaven, everything else is just raw sewage by comparison.
We are monastics forced to abide a NASCAR life. We must forever shuffle about in a fog of self-satisfied smug. Our long noses are ski-jumps down which we gaze in thinly veiled cynicism and self-righteousness. We’re perfectionists swimming in a fetid stew of cosmic mediocrity. Everything we do is quite simply, better. We shouldn’t have to tell you this.
But, we will. Oh, we will. Often, and in as many ways as it takes you to finally understand our obvious supremacy. You may think you’ve finished with us and have moved on to some other shimmering bouncy bauble thingy which occupies your days.
Alas, no. Nobody says when they’re finished. That gift has been given by the gods to us. Us alone. We, in well-practiced passive-aggression, will give our royal nod when it is appropriate, and safe, for your dismissal. Then, and only then, may you slink away to your My Little Pony world.
As for me, you shall find me when I’m ready (and longing) to be found. Then, as I ugly-cry my way back into your good grace, you can hold me close, assuring me that we can start all over again tomorrow. Thanks for listening (yeah, like I care).
I love poetry. I love its exactitude, its wide-eyed innocence wed to unflinching honesty. The unforced rhythms of perfection, like Grandma’s gaze over well-worn glasses. It is the art of lovers, the science of thinkers, the wisdom of doers.
Poetry gives up her secrets cautiously, altruistically, slowly. Every word, like every note of a great symphony, is fully intended, placed unequivocally in its place with an eye, and ear, to building something remarkable out of simple things, something well beyond the sum of its parts.
In a thousand ways, we are the amalgam of our carefully written words; each one added to the emerging poem of our lives. In this process, there are no real mistakes. There is only the discernment asked of us in the changing turn of phrase that will ultimately become our voice in the world.
For me, Rosebud was one such word. Perhaps an entire stanza.
Although my active period in Rosebud was limited to a few months in 1987, her existential tattoos continue to reveal themselves in enduring ways. A tiny, easily missed oasis in the Alberta prairie percolated in me an entire life thereafter committed to several things: the transformative realities birthed in the canyons of friendship, great things can come from wee places, the pursuit of art wed to faith, and the kind of community possible only through probing, and honest, creativity. Family, lived best in and through, story. Our stories now connect in ways both obvious and subtle.
On the About tab from my spiritual life blog reads the following statement of purpose: “my life is dedicated to those places where life, liturgy, theology, and the arts intersect to promote an authentic spirituality – who we are becoming.” These values existed in me long before I ever made it to this place. But they were stoked by shared inspiration, fireside laughter, broken stage lights and fumbled words, splinters and spoilers, relational fugue and fatigue, the prayers and tears of young lives navigating their way to maturity; to wholeness. To become both passionate and com-passionate, all writ large in the art of our story. The Story.
On the Rosebud Fellowship homepage can be found the following statement, one of the six “objects” that articulates its purpose: “To promote the fellowship of people whose lives have been affected by the Christian mission of Rosebud School of the Arts.”
Friends, I am one such person.
In the short time I spent here I found lasting friendships, a deep gratitude for the quality of connections that exist around creativity rooted in spirituality, and a way of living, boldly illustrative of the kind of “Christian mission” to which Rosebud has always been committed, both spoken and unspoken.
However, the vision of this place was never one for kitsch or the quaintly derivative “evangelism through art” which has damaged both evangelism and art in so doing. Sadly, what begins as evangelism can become nothing more than jingoistic cheerleading or public relations. What begins as “art” descends to something diminished and pale, akin to cultural babysitting, the low hanging fruit of the accessible and “relevant” to the demise of beauty, the archetypal perfections to which God, wide-eyed, once whispered, “it is good.” When beauty and story are the goal, both art and God win. For me, this is Rosebud’s greatest victory.
To witness the leadership, serene but definitive, directive but collegial, of LaVerne Erickson has always been a wonder to me. A man of endless stories (and not a few impressive name-drops), tireless energy, and towering vision inspires me as much now as it did in those pre-Cambrian days of 1987. I’m still shedding the pounds added from Arlene’s unforgivably good cooking. More than a few good words (and some less so!) were knit to my story through the relentless humour of Royal Sproule, the passionate guidance of Doug Levitt, the sanguine wisdom of Lyle Penner, the many towering women of faith and creativity who helped put Rosebud on the map. And, of course, the big-heartedness of Akokniskway herself, calling us all deeper into her welcoming bosom.
I am as Canadian as the day is long, complete with an undying love of trains. I grew up in a blue-collar home, the son of a brewery worker and homemaker. Our 900 square foot bungalow in the quaint but rough-around-the-edges southwest Calgary neighbourhood was poised right next to tracks, now LRT, but once host to regular trains through town. So, when I moved into my room in the Rosebud Hotel, the nightly train arriving just past midnight was like a well-worn pair of jeans. Her whistle neither haunted nor annoyed. It sang to me of prairie goodness, rich in the Canadian story so much my own. Our own.
The poetry of my life is ongoing. Rosebud has faded well into my rearview mirror. But she has never stopped whispering to me of what could be, those places where my past collides with my present to hint at a future.
Now, after decades of Christian ministry, a life dedicated to music, writing, poetry, spiritual formation, and the arts, two boys (both professional musicians), together with my wife Rae (Rosebud incubated our love!), we are planting new words in our emerging poem. This newest word takes us across the Atlantic to begin life and ministry in the UK. We invite as many as we can to join us on this journey. Our poetry improves with every letter added, every nuance of word, phrase, and metaphor.
All of you are all of that.
Rosebud, thank you for being a cradle, an incubator, a muse and sage, a friend. Your poetry is now, and will always be, my own. I take you with me, with us, into a new horizon. Our emerging poem.
Word for word, words for Word.
1987-Rae Kenny and I were married the following year.
When muscle, bone, and sinew can’t find heart
and listening and looking. Then, severed in time
from the wishing well of wonder, we wander
through rushes and slivers of our moments, bent
over mirrored water, haunted.
There is a wrinkle in the hour’d fabric of
our days when tender grows the minstrel’s
song. It rings across golden fields of
shimmering wheat – milled hopes, rolled and real.
Bardic but breathless it sounds, reveling in tremors
With my first foray into central Saskatchewan I witnessed a part of the Province at once unexpected and lush. I now retract all those youthfully snide comments I made as a boy every time I came to Saskatchewan and proclaimed it the flattest, most featureless place I’d ever seen.
Prince Albert in particular, where I had gone to preach at a sister church, was surprising. Understated and pastoral, she offered herself to me in all her “boreal transition forest” splendour. A landscape not terribly unlike the north of England quietly strut her stuff and I was impressed.
Saskatchewan, I apologize. I was a kid; ignorant, wrong. You are gorgeous. As were the good folks of Gateway Covenant Church with whom I shared and among whom I lived for a couple days. What follows is the edited version of my sermon with some music from our service on Sunday, August 8th, 2021.
Don’t make the mistake I made when I was growing up and decide something is the sum total of one’s limited experience. Wait. It just might surprise you!
I continue to be amazed at the generosity of friends and total strangers alike as they sign on as partners for our upcoming ministry to the UK with Serve Globally of the Evangelical Covenant Church. See below how you can do so, too.