I am the music and worship minister at Yakima Covenant Church in Yakima, Washington, a singer-songwriter, liturgist, poet, and writer. I love words. I love to read them. I love to write them. Most of all, I love the many intersections, like a sacramental tapestry, of life, liturgy, literature, the arts, and spiritual formation...oh, and I love haggis.
On her website she self-describes in the following way:
“Laura Jean is an Atlanta based writer, itinerant chaplain, and amateur mystic. She lives and writes in the in-between places of queerness, loving Jesus, and rediscovering the Bible after fundamentalism.”
She’s becoming a favourite blogger/human of mine. She’s smart, insightful, brave, witty, and honest. I hope you like her as much as I.
We never come to the same place twice. Either the place has changed, if only a little. Or, more likely, we have. The hiraeth of soul that has so often dogged my steps has reemerged of late. But the hound on my doorstep isn’t the one I kept around for many years while waiting for something else to show up.
I’ve received the gift of self in recent years. The much more confident, goof-ballish, boisterous extraverted-introvert I was as a boy has reasserted himself into a picture that had become a bit smudgy. I’d gone from an emerging oil painting of youth to a broody graphite sketch with too little detail to offer much picture to anyone. Especially myself.
I make no apology for the change in myself. In my writing. My demeanour. It is part and parcel of the journey with a God who refuses to let us stay too long in places we’re tempted to think are entirely who we are. Once we begin to feel a bit too comfortable, God steps in to f**k up the status quo and help us carry on the search.
We are found in the seeking. It is the looking itself that defines our spirituality. Once we think we’ve ‘found’ God, God will dive into a new game of hide-‘n-seek, if only to remind us that God is God and we are not.
The great hope is that, he or she to whom we are ever returning is one to whom we might actually want to return. So, with a few of these things in mind, what follows is a brief journal entry from last Sunday, July 7th:
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“Oh soul, my soul, where have you gone? Oh life’s pericope, trope of being, lattice of heaven. God’s bathroom mirror. I can see God shaving for work through the tiny crack in the door. It brings such comfort and reminds me that, more than anything else, God is a friend. Ruler of the normal and unexceptional. Lord of the forgotten and easily missed. Master of ‘meh.’ All the more remarkable for his/her unremarkability.
Son of man. That’s how Jesus loved to describe himself. Of all the venerable, honest, or descriptive titles he could have used, this was the one to which he was most drawn. He used it more than any other. That alone tells me all I need to know about this God I pursue. Who pursues me.
This is no pagan god more interested in f***ing my wife than helping me in any way. This is not the tribal god of some prehistoric people, full of fear and terror of the great, dark world more attributable to earth than heaven. The God I serve is the God I love. Who loves me.
Why should God and love be together in one entity? God has no responsibility toward love of any kind. By definition, God could be merely a passing, disinterested peripheral glance. He/She could be a fearsome, destructive, despair-inducing monster bent on nothing more than her/her own pleasure and aggrandizement. A despot. Self-centered and terrifying. Wait, that’s more us!
Instead, this God holds in his/her arms the leper, the cheater, the whore, and the little child. He/She rebukes the great and restores the sinner. God breaks those who declare themselves unbreakable and repairs those they have broken. Today, I grasp again this familiar hand of this familiar God. (S)he never let go of mine. I’ve merely rediscovered the playground. (S)he’s been watching me/us from the sidelines, encouraging me to run, take risks, try new things, learn the feel of the cosmos in my hands.
America loves its Independence Day. Any country born through the birth canal of revolution would say the same. But, instead of bemoaning the cognitive dissonances inherent in such a celebration, especially this year, I give this space to the far better thoughts of uncle Tom, Merton that is.
I’ve spent a lot of time seeking. Looking. Perusing. Questioning. And then smiling when I found what I was looking for (or thought I was looking for), whining when I didn’t. Either way, I loved the pursuit.
I am at root a ridiculously curious guy. A poster-boy seeker. The entire world is fascinating to me in some way. As a kid I collected everything from rocket and dinosaur models to rocks, books, musical instruments, record albums (remember those?), jade things, Scotland trinkets and memorabilia, maps, miniature totem poles, strange friends, and much more. I was fascinated by astronomy, theoretical physics, geology, ornithology, folklore and mythology, quantum mechanics, languages and cultures, world religions, time travel, metaphysics, and the funky ideas of weird people.
I never doubted the universe was a grand, spacious, and basically good place. It was a veritable playground of cool stuff to discover; full of mystery and mayhem and magic and material to gaze upon and wonder. I saw God everywhere. And I believed God saw me. We had a thing. Buddies. It was a sort of comfort between two schoolyard pals with utter trust for one another.
I knew no theology, at least in any book learnin’ way. I had no language with which to describe this experience, this thirst. My discoveries of the world gave me all the words I needed to understand what hidden hands might have molded it all into being. I was perfectly happy just being curious and finding out stuff on an as needed basis. With anything close to an answer, I was gifted with a hundred new and better questions that got me started all over again.
That curiosity grew into something rather epic by the time I made it to high school. A gangly, broody, class-clowny, artsy guy, I was clever enough to hang out with most kids. But, I was more interested in the periphery. It was one great social experiment. Like a chameleon, I changed to suit my environment and, like a sponge, soaked up all I could.
I hung out everywhere. Belonged nowhere. It was fun. It was lonely. It was confusing. But, it all led somewhere. I was about to make a huge discovery, perhaps the biggest yet. Christianity. Not God necessarily. I knew God already. Well, someone I believed to be God. I suppose I met God, specified in Jesus; Jesus, housed in the church.
At first it was deliriously wonderful. I made the assumption, perhaps erroneously, that I was finally among kindred spirits with whom I might share the wonders I’d seen in the visible world. More so, perhaps this was where all my fellow curiousers were to be found. My peeps. This was to prove only partly true.
Those early days were full of acquiescing to the authority of church teaching and the closely protected parameters into which it was meant to be understood. I gobbled it up like I had everything else. My gigantic study bible became a holy junk-drawer for copious margin notes, underlining, highlighting, circling, questions to pursue, books and articles for further study. The Internet would have been handy back then!
Life became about not just consistent, but constant, church attendance. It was bible studies, prayer meetings, small group discussions, college and career cookouts and church campouts, discipleship training, evangelism training, and learning all those Christian songs I had no idea even existed. Friendships that once mattered now were to be discarded in the interest of holier pursuits. My extensive collection of apparently demonic record albums, totem poles, t-shirts, and socio-cultural ideas were summarily hurled into the salvation garbage bin. My life was changed. I knew it. Everyone around me knew it.
A problem began to present itself, however. Once one had a good enough handle on the manual for this Christian thing there seemed little left over for my curiosity, which only continued to grow. It grew well beyond the subject matter of my recent conversion.
I was still fascinated by other religions. Jesus was the only way. Alrighty, toss that.
Spirituality and metaphysics. Hellish new age nonsense. Okay, ditch that.
The far-flung reaches of space and the cosmos. Five days in the making. One for us. One left over to catch his breath. A few thousand years old. Headed for destruction. Fair enough, moving on.
My numerous artsy, gay friends with whom I’d always shared life and laughter. Distracted and damned, respectively. Hmm. Now what?
As I’ve grown older in years and wisdom (c’mon, work with me here), I’ve come to see that much of what passed for faith in my experience was saddled up to a rather small donkey called Evangelicalism. To be fair, that little steed was more accurately called Fundamentalism. But, as I’ve walked this faith road now for some thirty-five years, the former is, sadly, well suited to bed itself with the latter.
Why? One word: certainty. Well, one more word: information. For the post-Reformation, contemporary Evangelical, theology is the equivalent to the right information in pursuit of certainty of salvation. My problem? I’m not really interested in certainty. And, for me, information alone doth not wonder bring. I’m less interested in being a dictionary than I am a children’s pop-up book, full of surprises and gurgles of joy.
This is my longstanding love-hate relationship with Evangelicalism, at least as I’ve come to experience it. To overstate my case, it is like the cosmos being shoved through an eye-dropper. The vastness of God stuffed into a propositional, mechanistic framework designed for pragmatic outcomes. Like writing a paper about sex without ever getting laid.
The intervening years have seen my spiritual journey take me on a wild ride through numerous faith iterations and denominational platforms. I discovered, to my chagrin, that, again, I hung out everywhere, belonged nowhere. It was no less baffling than any other pursuit. At least, in some of those settings, hearty questions – many without good “answers” – were encouraged.
Theology that doesn’t breed curiosity is merely ideology with God words affixed to it. It is platitudinous porridge that shows all its ingredients at once in a quaint, glass bowl. If my only aim is to say some creed from memory and attach that to my existential experience of the cosmos, then religion isn’t for me. I’d rather just be a euphoria-seeking hippy who prefers singing to studying, casual running to constant repenting. At least “God” is big enough to handle my doubts, questions, fears, heresies, and all the rest that comes with being human.
Then, I met the Covenant. Well, the Evangelical Covenant Church to be specific. A spunky little group of exceedingly friendly folks (they were originally called Mission Friends) who love the bible, Jesus, personal conversion narratives, culture and justice, a broadly-lived gospel, and the freedom to disagree. Then, as a bonus, I discovered their love for good beer, wine, laughter, connection, and passion for peace in the family. And, better still, the overweening requirement of picture-perfect theology generally expected in denominational religioso, gives way to the well-lived in shoes of narrative theology. Questions that belie quick quips are tossed about like hacky-sacks. But, they never wander far from the few simple items which unite them.
So, in my journey of questioning everything, accepting little as definitive except the asking itself, I can still be more curious than certain. Or, stated differently, I’m certain enough of the main things to be footloose and fancy-free in the cosmos-at-large. The whole bibliocentric Evangelicalism thing is old for me. I think it will always feel like an ill-fitting hat, holding TV personality hair at bay.
But, if that is where I’m to live and move and have my being, then I can think of no better place to do so than the Covenant.
Last summer I was privileged to prepare and lead a class on the Psalms. A big part of the experience was, upon completion of our more “formal” study, we’d write our own Psalm. The class produced some powerfully moving, deeply personal works. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, mine came out as a Lament.
I share here that Psalm and encourage you to share some of your own work in the comments!
O Lord, God of faces, where now is your face?
And why have you hidden from us your gaze?
Where once we walked together,
now we thrash and reel and hack.
Darkness has become our only ally;
and hopelessness our truest friend.
For those of insolence and hatred rule over us;
the ruthless and ragged become our destroyer.
Therefore, falsehood and lies bind us;
and the absence of truth shackles us.
We have become party with wolves and savages,
those without conscience or care for the poor.
They lash out from behind empty eyes
to oppress the widow and orphan,
the immigrant and the voiceless.
All that is good, pleasing, and right is set aside;
truth and love are traded for lies and hate,
victim to the victimizers.
And through their shame have we become a byword,
a cause for mockery among the nations.
We hear them cry out in the streets,
and moan among the people of injustice against them.
But it is they who are unjust,
with lies have they clothed themselves.
How long, O Lord? How long
must we watch our children caged,
our future torn apart?
How much more treachery must we endure at their hands?
Save us, O God, from their filth;
release us from their grotesque machinations.
Turn your eyes toward us for we are weary and broken;
tearful and confused.
Find a place again among us where all that was good
can again be good; where the darkness again is dark.
Rise up, once more, gracious Lord, and be our protector;
I think I’ll call this latest phase of my personal development, “observational spirituality.” It’s not particularly original. Kitschy, I suppose. Cutesy? Melodramatic? Perhaps all of that and more. But, at the risk of sounding dismissive of the apophatic theology or the sometimes borderline morose asceticism of some mysticism, I’m squarely in the “see ‘n say” life program. At least right now.
My prayers are open-eyes, open-hands, double-takes, pen ‘n paper, q & a, and laced-up shoes. Prayer, even contemplative prayer, is on the move, seeking God from a moving center of gravity.
Those who know me well but not normally affixed to the world of spirituality see this is as a return to normal, whatever that might be. God bless them. I think, on one level, they’re likely correct. My guess is what they mean is that Rob has become less esoteric and more fun to be around. Less spiritually obtuse, opaque, and more…reachable.
Nothing could be truer. However, it might not be in the way they think. I haven’t given up on the ocean of mysticism and my belief that the truest theology isn’t what we think but what we perceive and experience and live. But I am on hiatus from a contemplative spirituality that, at times, merely perpetuated my need to run from the sharper edges of a life I couldn’t understand, let alone master.
This has profoundly impacted my poetry and writing. Much less moan ‘n groan, much more cry ‘n sigh. Less sad, more glad. Less whine, more wine (metaphorically, of course). Even my demeanour is changing. I’ve fully re-embraced the extravert who had lain dormant for many years while God messed around in my business.
So, a little exercise. What follows is a short journal entry from last weekend in Portland, Oregon. My wife and I were writing, as we often do. Mine became a simple celebration of what was right before me. It helps amplify in me a favourite word these days: notice.
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Blocks of mismatched, oddly coloured flats, like leftover Legos, greet me upon opening hotel curtains, themselves an unfortunate retro-seventies error in judgment. I open the window and partake of the wet air. This stuff is made for lungs that appreciate breathing like fine dining more than the dry, git ‘r done Yakima dust.
The cool, soppiness of a Portland sky is a cliff dive for me into a densely soft Yorkshire Pudding of nature carbs. Richly satisfying. Even if I had to pay for it later, it wouldn’t matter. I’m full and the landing is even softer than the jump itself.
The almost preternatural way I’ve always taken to the damp, concrete-smell of mossy earth and sky tells an old story. It is one I’m only beginning to understand. There’s something oddly familiar about wiping this outdoor bathroom mirror sky to catch a glimpse of someone I recognize in no other way.
Not unlike many others, I live for these moments, moments of simple observation. Recognition of what is. Meditations upon the obvious. One discovers that, in discovering whatever lies just beyond our fingers, noses, tongues, and eyelashes provides ample fertilizer for the soul, which remains unseen.
So, in the interest of a better look, I pull down the blue-grey, clouded hat-sky upon my waiting head and tuck into the day.
Here it is, where everything meets, greets, and seats me. I do not need to look any deeper. It is already seeing me as I am. The rest, as they say, is gravy.
A guest post today from my wife, Rae Kenny. Her pen name is Wren Kenny and you can expect to see her debut novel sometime next year.
Easter Sunday 2019 marked my turn to be Liturgist. That’s the person who leads the Prayers of People. It is where we pray for the world, our nation, our community, and needs within our own congregation. Each time it’s my turn, I pray, write, and edit for weeks. Why? Because praying for the leaders of the world, and particularly our nation, is a daunting task in these divided times. Thankfully, my heart ends up in a different place than where I started weeks before.
Without doubt being born in Britain and raised in Canada has formed by views. Every time, God challenges my heart on whether my politics are influencing my Christianity or my Christianity is influencing my politics. Trust me that my spirit was prompted to remove a lot of words my sense of humour found utterly delicious, but were not edifying for congregational prayer! And even after I finished the final draft and my heart had an adjustment, I was sitting at my desk eating my lunch and laughing at political cartoons (from all sides). My co-worker pointed this out and I was embarrassed at how easy I fall into the trap of coping with humour and becoming a mocker.
Below is the redacted version without our congregational needs.
Risen Lord, we thank you for your covenant with all living things, and our obligation to be good stewards of the gifts you have provided. As we care for the Creation, may we make wise choices in the actions we take to care for our planet.
The Bible tells us in 1 Timothy 2:1-2 that: “all…petitions, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men: 2 for kings and all who are in high places; that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and reverence.” In this shifting world order, let us pray for the nations and peoples of the world, that the powers that oppress and destroy may decline, and that justice, peace, and prosperity be lifted up.
Let us pray for the people of Sri Lanka who were killed or injured in the bombings of churches and hotels. Let us also pray for the perpetrators because Jesus tells us to pray for our enemies, even those who bring us harm.
At Yakima Covenant Church, it is part of our theological ethos to allow for a diversity of opinions. And, we follow the Scriptures’ directive to pray for our leaders. We live in the red part of a blue state. The people standing next to you might identify as red, or blue, or purple, or not at all.
During the last administration some of you struggled to pray for the Black man from the Blue Party. If you searched into the dark and dusty corners of your heart, you found it much easier to tear him down. Now, in 2019, some of you eagerly pray for the Orange man from the Red party, while others of you haven’t been able to muster ‘thoughts and prayers.’
I have been heartened lately by the words of J.R.R. Tolkien from the Fellowship of the Ring. Gollum is obsessed with the ring of power, and Bilbo struggles with wishing ill on Gollum. Gandalf tells Bilbo, “it is not right to be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play in it, for good or evil, before this is over.”
So, let us pray now that God will steady his hand on history and lead our elected leaders in whatever role He will have them play. We pray for President Trump, Governor Jay Inslee, Congressman Dan Newhouse, and State Representative Curtis King. We pray for our county commissioners, our mayor, our city representatives, and members of our school boards. We pray as the Bible commands us in 1 Timothy 2 that they may lead in ways which promote a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and reverence. We pray they do not stir up division. We pray they choose truth instead of falsehoods. We pray especially that they govern as if they only have one term to serve and give it their all to leave a legacy of good that benefits all people.
In the third installment of the Star Wars trilogy, Luke Skywalker is encouraged by the Evil Emperor to kill Darth Vader and give into the Dark side. He tells Luke to use his aggressive feelings and let the hate flow through him, because his hate has made him powerful.
Let us remember as we approach a never-ending, constant-spending election season that, on all sides of the political spectrum, cable and talk radio opinion shows and comedy shows designed to mock, exist for the sole purpose of making money and dividing souls. Let us remember they get paid to let the hate flow through them, and they grow more powerful when we allow them to incite our own aggression. Let us choose instead, to read and listen widely to all sides and be unifiers in our homes, our church, and community.
Let us think of the devastation of Notre Dame Cathedral in flames and picture ourselves as that vessel of God.
Let us remember the picture of the fire destroying the cathedral is precisely what we do to our witness in the world when we scapegoat the other side and do not love the neighbour who doesn’t look like us, pray like us, love like us, or vote like us. Let us stop tearing down the other side’s goat and choose instead to love our neighbour, as Jesus commanded.
Let us also remember as Easter people the picture of the cross shining among the wreckage, a beacon of hope, persistence, resurrection that Christ can and will rebuild us if we let him.
There is devastation and there is hope. We are sinners and we are saints. We give you permission, Risen Lord, to resurrect the right attitudes and relationships in us.
May all blessing and honour and glory and power be to Him who sits upon the throne. Amen.
Today is, for many, a day without irony. It is a day one can see not just daylight through cracks in tomb doors, but can look back into what was their tomb from the satisfying light of a new dawn.
These patterns of light and dark, day and night, life and death happen so regularly that they’re almost not worth mentioning. Except, they are.
The ancients call it Paschal Mystery. A repeating pattern of living and dying and renewing that, through the eternal Christ, is everywhere present, everywhere accessible.
Faith is merely the God-given sight necessary to awaken to it. And Easter is the primal, archetypal key that opens that door.
Today is Easter. Resurrection. All that was dark, dead, hopeless, and not, is brought back into glorious harmony with God and the cosmos. Through Christ, today, we feel its warmth. Today, we know its hope.
Today is for all todays until all tomorrows are todays.