She fumbled through her purse for her phone. Its unnecessarily loud wring matched the other bells and whistles blasting in her head. They were the kind that told her old lies, played old tapes.
Lipstick, business cards, flash cards for her Spanish class, gloves, make-up mirror…where the hell is that damn thing? she cursed. Out loud apparently. The pastor, full-robed, full-throated, and in full-sermon, rebuked her with a glare, one she’d seen before. It would have been less humiliating to slap her.
She was flustered and wound up tight as a bedspring. And, she was frustrated at her own lack of discernment. Why the hell didn’t I turn this thing off? Who’d be calling now? It’s Sunday, they shouldn’t even be open today she thought, half angry, half relieved. After dropping almost everything, she fingered the noisy culprit. Sliding sideways past her pew neighbors, she answered just in…
As promised, this begins a new series of posts exploring major shifts in a man’s late middle-age. Hopefully you find yourself here somewhere.
This post has been a long time coming. Or, to say it differently, I would not have been able to write this until I was able to see clearly what has always been before me.
An unprepared reading of this post title might leave one with the impression that I’m making light of very difficult stuff. I am a person who has suffered the mental illness of anxiety and depression for most of my adult life. Anyone forced to suffer such an insulting fate understands all that is involved.
This has been further complicated by a certain predisposition of personality. An Enneagram 4–INFP–Libra/Virgo-artist-mystic, I possess abundant proclivity toward melancholy. It is, for me, a cottage industry. Those like myself for whom daily life is often a struggle, do so under menacing clouds of grey, besodden with delicious sadness. It is a perfect place to hide. From the world. From others. From further anxiety.
And that last thing is what I’m after. The immense internal struggles commensurate with complex personality produce a cocktail of impenetrability. Nothing gets in. But nothing gets out either. A bit like being always hungry and constipated at the same time. Different expectations at war with one another.
The result? Swirling clouds fall in on themselves further deepening woe and driving others away. I get to be, simultaneously, the life and death of the party! My winsome whimsy, gregarious grandiosity, and churlish charm act as a dare-to-draw-near and a you-asked-for-it at the same time! A bait and switch that leaves others bemused, sometimes hurt, and me, lonely.
One of the many gifts of late middle-age has been self-acceptance. Dare I say it? Self-love. Egad! To give up all that melancholy for the Hallmark brightness of joy would be tantamount to character mutiny. I’m trading Munch’s Screaming Man for anything Thomas Kinkade.
I am positioned for indictment as traitor to the very misery that has drawn so many others here with me!
I am their Captain. I love them. I write for them. I feel for them. I understand them. I am them.
But, what happens when one wakes up one morning to discover that much of the sadness has been, wait for it…chosen. I don’t mean the mental illness over which I’ve had little control and which rarely peeks out from under my medicinal assistance. I don’t mean the vicissitudes of a poetic soul given to flights of fancy and dreaming. Putting words and notes to the hours of a day, promised, unpolished, impolite, but real.
I speak of reaching for something outside the parameters of my own horizon. I speak of faith leaps off cliffs of soggy soil into unknown places. I speak of the Herculean choice to live each day like gift, regardless of emotional fuel to do so or outcomes. I speak of changing behaviours first in a blind hope that experience will follow. I speak here of letting action determine experience, not the endless task of untying mental knots until my world makes sense.
Yeah, like I’ve ever been successful in that.
Anyone who has struggled as I have to even open my eyes some days, let alone prance along to work and be productive, will know what’s involved. My fellow faith friends would likely call this a “return to Jesus.” I love those people. They love me. They help me. They always mean well. And they may well be right.
But it’s perhaps even more elemental than that. Since Jesus dwells within, the need to “return” seems moot. I think it part recognition that I will never untie all the complex chaos sprinting around my brain. It’s far too complex, even for a smart guy like me! I simply stop the endless thinking and ply the trade of behaviour – of doing something a less troubled soul would do under similar circumstances.
Of letting God, and my own soul, sort me out in due time. If this sounds hauntingly akin to “fake it ’til ya make it,” I dare say you are right to some degree.
What if that friend, seeing my confusion, asks me to go for a walk? Instead of politely refusing under the guise of “aw, how trite, you think a walk(!) will cure this?”, I take them up on it. My mind gets to catch a breath while I deepen a friendship.
Instead of isolating myself for days at a time away from the prying eyes of others, I wade into others and let them pry for awhile. Once the lid’s off, good stuff gets poured in. Most days at least.
Instead of succumbing to yet another day of doing nothing, I do one thing on my to-do list. Just. One. Thing. Finish one and two becomes four and a day of forgetting to brain wrestle becomes the greater gift of satisfaction.
Not fool-proof, but dammit, it works! It’s like a slow out-smarting of something too smart to sort out. People who know us, know us because they want to. And, if they want to, it means they’re invested.
I let ’em speak.
Sometimes they’ll come off a bit sanctimonious like Job’s friends. Take the good with the bad I guess. Sometimes their well-meaning suggestions will feel cute next to the towering internal issues confronting me. A bit like offering an aspirin to a guy on fire.
Nowadays, I try to peal what truth I can from those little bananas.
I don’t know how much of this makes sense. All I know is the smell of change. A slow-burn of transformation that is bringing renewed hope. By means of daily choices, behaviours, most of which feel under-nourished with the accompanying desire to do them, I’m seeing a whole new world open up.
As campy as this sounds, I’m sacking the sorry sad-sack sad and slowly replacing it with actions that bespeak contentment.
I’m sure you’ve noticed that my frequency of writing, along with its content, have changed a bit over the past year or two. No, I haven’t switched to decaf. God forbid such heresy! Yes, I am sleeping well and my diet is fine.
In actuality, it is indicative of some fairly significant shifts in my overall demeanour. In a sense, my outlook is changing. I don’t see it as some kind of Hollywood denouement where the old guy shares his tale from his death bed to curious onlookers. Nor do I understand it to be a return to some fictitious earlier time less fraught with daily perils and troubling anxiety. I don’t believe in “good ole days.” Nor will I ever.
But, indeed, certain movements are afoot. Those changes, some of which I understand, most not, have all contributed to something altered/ing in me. They are only partly alterations in ideology. I am still the slightly warped Celtic-mystic-progressive living with unassuageable thirst, contemplative longing, and a bit moody around the edges. I still possess an undying spiritual curiosity. The mysteries of science and the cosmos remain to me as enthralling as ever. I am in love with the same girl who first captured my attentions over three decades ago. My two boys are more amazing now than ever. I am, in a word, still me.
But something is different. Or perhaps, new. Newly different? Or…something.
What is it you ask? Hang tight for a series of posts, soon to come, exploring these things. And, by the way, thanks for asking.
One of the things most human is our shared love of story. The swashbuckling reveries of grandiose characters in drama or comedy, romance or tragedy, that bespeak our common existence. We are, for a few moments at least, transported beyond the banalities of daily existence into another world. A world of imagination. A world where anything is possible. A world where rights are wronged, where grown men cry and grown women conquer. A world that brings hope and the promise of a new tomorrow.
Let’s admit shall we that, whether or not you are a person of faith who believes in the literal, historic events of Jesus, an ardent atheist, or even someone of different faith, one can hardly deny that his person and work make for an amazing story. Try as he might to keep things tight and under wraps, he was consistently headline worthy. Even in his day he was deeply polarizing.
He certainly said some weird stuff. In one encounter with a Syrophoenician woman he stated, rather insultingly, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Dude, really? To the casual observer, he could be whiny, “how long must I endure this faithless generation?” Like, wow. One word: take a breath (hyphens not included).
He is as enigmatic as he is tragic. Hard to pin down and easy to argue about, Jesus never submitted well to easy stereotypes or casual name-brand philosophies.
The blessed among us grew up reading or listening to stories. Those without this experience are truly the poorer for it and to be pitied above all else. To tell a story is to welcome mystery, fantasy, possibility, into our lives. Everyone needs that.
The Bible is literally a collection of stories, both literal and otherwise. It’s arc is that of a journey. It is one great exodus from a place of slavery, woe, and darkness into the Promised Land of freedom, joy, and light. What was seen as macro in the Old Testament through a nation – her monarchs, mayhem, and movements was pictured later in the living allegory of love itself, Jesus the Christ.
I recently came upon this remarkably inventive little meme. It is wonderfully succinct and simple. It is a one-stop shop for the incarnational story of redemption. A creative at heart, I have always marveled at the unending possibilities the sacred calendar offers for creativity. Drenched in changing colours, themselves a metaphor of deeper spiritual-theological realities to which they point, possessing interesting descriptors like “Ordinary Time” or “Epiphany.” It is a playground of possibility.
But what I love most about the church calendar is how it celebrates our common love of story in one great story, retold every year. It is the ongoing reminder that every moment of every day of our lives is something holy. We live the mundane in the well-lit streets of God’s neighbourhood. And nothing gets wasted. The times of our lives are mimicked in the smaller patterns of the Paschal Mystery, itself mirrored in the sacred calendar.
Anticipation of Advent.
Our longings are always met by God, but in unexpected ways; in little things, unseen or forgotten things; out of the way things. In pregnant teenage moms and confused dads. In the injustices of supply and demand, leading to scandalous birthing conditions.
Incarnation at Christmas.
In shivering babes without homes. A child far beyond their parents’ ability to understand or control grows to be a man of profound ability and dubious abilities. A man with an unending capability for love of the least and worst.
Revelation in Epiphany.
These longings are experienced by everyone, not just the acceptable, country-club religious. Even pagan philosophers, totally outside the proper parameters of faith and, as such, acceptability, find their way to Jesus. And they came not just out of curiosity. They came to worship. Try that one on for size, o ye doctrine police!
Repentance through Lent.
The richest things are found not in laughter and smiles but through the forgiveness of wrongdoing, the weighing of life in the balance and grace received to make up that which lacks. There is good stuff to be found in the dark soil of penitence. Here we meet God at His/Her most vulnerable. The self-giving God who pursues death that we might have life.
Resurrection at Easter.
The sacred story, although confusing, rough and often dark, is one that only gets better in the telling. Death means little to a God always busting at the seams to live. The grave was a blip on the screen to Jesus whose eternal realities were too intimidating for death. Up from the grave He arose – and we with Him.
New life at Pentecost
The Gospel was never intended as a window-dressing tale to be told to well-dressed children from gold-gilded pages. It is a story as fresh and wild and untamable as the God who is its author. That story becomes powerfully ours at Pentecost.
The rest of the story in Ordinary Time
We then must learn to inhabit these truths. Let them inhabit us. Learn them. Trust them. Doubt them. Love them. Hate them. Deny them. Reintegrate them. Love them. Let them love us, until we start all over again.
Why not learn to live in such a way that the immensity of grace finds place in us at every point of our calendar? I pray that, for you as for me, this story becomes ever more our own to cherish, to tell.
Despite the fact that Valentine’s Day has become as equally benign and banal as the culture who profits from something with much deeper roots, I post this in honour of she whose life, and bed, I share.
Robert Burns, given his widespread fame (and infamy) to Scottish and English literary crowds in the eighteenth century, one would think him even better known than he is. He is heralded by an annual recognition of his life and work on this very day, January 25th. The great irony of Burns was the praise lavished upon him by both Edinburgh and London poshies despite his very tongue-in-cheek poetic invective against the same. He was after all a product of his era. A fiercely nationalistic Scottish socialist who wrote comical and approachable poetry for everyone.
In honour of dear Mr. Burns, I post here one of his most famous works, “Address to a Haggis.” It is, in essence, a socio-political statement meant to solicit a laugh or two at the expense of those uppity French, and others, whose social delicacies were no match for the beefy Scots.
Enjoy, and happy Robbie Burns Day!
Address to a Haggis
Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great Chieftain o’ the Puddin-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy of a grace
As lang ‘s my arm.
(Good luck to you and your honest, plump face, Great chieftain of the sausage race! Above them all you take your place, Stomach, tripe, or intestines: Well are you worthy of a grace As long as my arm.)
The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
In time o’ need,
While thro’ your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.
(The groaning trencher there you fill, Your buttocks like a distant hill, Your pin would help to mend a mill In time of need, While through your pores the dews distill Like amber bead.)
His knife see Rustic-labour dight,
An’ cut ye up wi’ ready slight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like onie ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
(His knife see rustic Labour wipe, And cut you up with ready slight, Trenching your gushing entrails bright, Like any ditch; And then, O what a glorious sight, Warm steaming, rich!)
Then, horn for horn, they stretch an’ strive:
Deil tak the hindmost, on they drive,
Till a’ their weel-swall’d kytes belyve
Are bent like drums;
Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
(Then spoon for spoon, the stretch and strive: Devil take the hindmost, on they drive, Till all their well swollen bellies by-and-by Are bent like drums; Then old head of the table, most like to burst, ‘The grace!’ hums.)
Is there that owre his French ragout,
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad mak her spew
Wi’ perfect sconner,
Looks down wi’ sneering, scornfu’ view
On sic a dinner?
(Is there that over his French ragout, Or olio that would sicken a sow, Or fricassee would make her vomit With perfect disgust, Looks down with sneering, scornful view On such a dinner?)
Poor devil! see him owre his trash,
As feckless as a wither’d rash,
His spindle shank a guid whip-lash,
His nieve a nit;
Thro’ bluidy flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!
(Poor devil! see him over his trash, As feeble as a withered rush, His thin legs a good whip-lash, His fist a nut; Through bloody flood or field to dash, O how unfit.)
But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread,
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He’ll make it whissle;
An’ legs, an’ arms, an’ heads will sned,
Like taps o’ thrissle.
(But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed, The trembling earth resounds his tread, Clap in his ample fist a blade, He’ll make it whistle; And legs, and arms, and heads will cut off Like the heads of thistles.)
Ye Pow’rs wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o’ fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies;
But, if ye wish her gratefu’ prayer,
Gie her a Haggis!
(You powers, who make mankind your care, And dish them out their bill of fare, Old Scotland wants no watery stuff, That splashes in small wooden dishes; But if you wish her grateful prayer, Give her [Scotland] a Haggis!)
Given the constant pestering from my legions of adoring fans, with characteristic humility, I submit to your desire for a year-end Rob exposé. Okay, so maybe it has a little more to do with keeping up appearances and SEO ratings. Okay, so maybe I’m too lazy even for that.
Consider it a need-driven march to help lay bare some personal truths gleaned from another calendar year of living large in a small town. In any case, here’s my look back at a year, now mere hours in our rearview mirrors.
A few hours ago, that big, magical clock from which we run, upon which we hang our goals, and against which we struggle, strain, and strive for personal betterment clunk itself over from 2018 to 2019. And, in that instant, all our accumulated belly fat, financial debts, interpersonal fireworks, and personal bugaboos disappeared in plumes of rainbow-coloured smoke.
Well, for those of us who lived through it sober, ’twas nothing more than the slight rightward movement of the minute hand on my late father’s mantle clock. That is, of course, if I were awake to see the magic happen (I wasn’t).
2018. Hmm, what to say about the year. Despite being a year primarily of seeking and discernment, a kind of quiet faithfulness to duty prevailed. So much so, that I struggle to write much of anything with any real drama, sizzle or wow. A certain plodding along prevailed. A daily attention to the simple joys of waking up, having a job to do, and family and friends for whom to do it.
2018 did see a number of significances worth mentioning, not the least of which was the end of a thirteen-year long chapter.We bid farewell to the Master of Arts program in Spiritual Formation and Leadership through Spring Arbor University, Michigan. I graduated from this program in 2011. It’s one of the few genuinely cool things I get to hang on my wall.
My relationship to this program is close and deeply held. As is my reverence for the stalwart souls who envisioned and implemented it so well. Through my role as musical liturgist, and resident buffoon (I never got paid extra for that),
I was given opportunity to work with spiritual luminaries the likes of Richard Foster, Tony Campolo, Shane Claiborne, Mindy Caliguire, Robert Mulholland, Reed Sheard, Valerie Dodge-Reyna, Eric Rasmussen, Elaine Heath, Michael Christensen, Robert Moore-Jumonville, Wil Hernandez, John Michael Talbot, Juanita Rasmus Dallas Willard, and numerous others. People whose books dot my shelves and whose spirits challenge my own.
It was like letting the poor kid from the blue collar neighbourhood hang out in the executive box (is that what it’s called?) at the Superbowl (that’s the football thingy, right?). I was the starry-eyed groupie meeting his super-heroes for the first time. Not only did I meet them, but we even worked together in the process of souls intermingling at heaven’s cocktail party. It means that, now, I can shamelessly name-drop like everyone else! I’ll have one of those “wait till you hear this” kind of stories for water-cooler and narthex, post-service chit chat.
But seriously, my heart is heavy with its demise. And, yes Ms. Dion, my heart will go on, but not without a dent or two from some serious front-end collisions with God’s good people, equally hungry for spiritual food.
A rather vexing concern of 2018 was the personally arid landscape for new words. Put another way, a decided lack of writer’s cramp. Subsequently, I’d become accustomed to dropping bits and bobs of literary refuse hither, thither, and yon.
Anyone who creates anything at all is constantly confronted by this particular demon. Hips are always a little out of joint thanks to creative-angel wrestling-tomfoolery. That said, it was not entirely without a gem here or there. Besides, like the end of an old toothpaste tube, here I am all the same, squeezing out whatever is left in the curl (because I squeeze out toothpaste properly!).
My journey in a renewed sobriety continued apace. The egg-faced embarrassment of a 2016 fall from grace is still freshly washed off and replaced by the smile of A.A. rediscovery.
I discovered the little joys of posting spiritual memes rather than multi-layered tomes.
All things U.K., longing and retrospective, coupled with growing understanding of my own lineage dotted this blog as well. I dare say, it will always be that way.
My 2017 retrospective shared much of what I continue to encounter in daily living. That is, an appreciation for the beauties of, well, daily living. What could be at the root of this humanizing of an otherwise heady mysticism? Could it be the relative lack of mid-fifties testosterone? A more ready shrug of the shoulder to that which might have destroyed a younger me? The unyielding march of days set in years, marching still faster, that offer greater calm in the storm? A good running regime? Dental hygiene?
Whatever the case, my life, despite its fair share of discouragements and mystifying conundrums, seems to have taken on a more settled timbre to its previous, grittier iterations. How can one be anything but grateful for such?
My wife of over thirty years continues apace wrestling her first novel into submission. I’m sure more on that tale will be forthcoming. My sons, Calum (27) and Graeme (22), are struggling and reaching and hoping as young men do to find their respective places in the proverbial panoply of similarly struggling humanity. Graeme graduated from Selkirk College in Contemporary Music and Technology. Calum writes and produces music and paints houses.
Of them, I could not be more in awe.
Despite an appalling lack of inspiration (sometimes even interest), I plod along in my daily responsibilities as music and worship director atYakima Covenant Church. For reasons best left a mystery, they continue to employ me. I think they even like me. Not everyone can say as much. And, that alone, gives me pause for reflective gratitude.
So then, like you, I stand at the threshold (such a tired, but useful metaphor) of a new calendar year. In one hand I hold my hopes and aspirations for what I’d like to see in my life and ministry. In the other, the memories and experience of all that helped fill the other hand.
And I sing songs of remembrance. Of hope. Of lives yet to touch. Of songs yet to sing in days yet to live.
Most of all, eight years on, you are so appreciated, my beloved innerwoven family. Your interest in my words, pontifications, occasional perturbations, and contemplations – my life – mean that you are as much a part of me as anyone else.
I am humbled by your presence here and your willingness to hang out at this cyber-fire with me. Let’s keep telling fireside stories together for our mutual edification, shall we?
Thanks for just being here with me and, Happy New Year.
A fire makes its heartening presence known, tucked under the hearth upon which hang individual stockings and an antique clock I inherited from my Dad. A delightfully chaotic looking tree, augmented with bobbles made by growing dexterity of little boys’ fingers, the accumulated little boy detritus of Christmas past. They are now men of humour, virtue, and creativity.
Snow falls without sound just past living room windows that shield from the oblique, grey winter, and all I can think is this: if Christmas – the incarnation, God with us – means anything at all, it must mean more than the homegrown Thomas Kinkade painting I’ve just described.
It must mean that God is longing to burst forth into our own souls, finding enough room to receive the gifts of our own inner Magi. It must have the rough and tumble character of a once upon a time, ramshackle stable. It was messy and scary and uncertain, but the perfect crucible in which to define all that is truly important: the broken, smelly manger of human hearts made ready to receive the only thing powerful enough to draw them out of pain and darkness, God himself. And, apparently, God loves children. Enough to become one. Not a soldier. Not a business man. Not a political revolutionary.
A child. So be it.
O come, o come, Emmanuel. Ah, but we did and we have yet to see. Lord, help us to open our eyes to what is in front of us.