2019 and Eight Years On

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.

Right?

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),

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Mindy Caliguire, Michigan, 2010

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.

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Shane Claiborne, Philadelphia, 2009
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Tony Campolo, Philadelphia, 2009

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.

A sermon or two found its way here.

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 at Yakima 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.

Dear starry-eyed bride,

Dear starry-eyed bride,

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There are days in my marriage when I have wanted to travel back in time to May 14, 1988 and tell the starry-eyed bride I was then, STOP! Don’t do this!

Would I be the ghost of marriage, year eight, and tell her about the secret bank. Not the monetary kind, but one where resentments build with compound interest and low percentage-rate forgiveness that would make the next decade and beyond a tough slog? 

Would I be the ghost of marriage, year seventeen, and tell her how her father’s death and career change and self-limiting beliefs would cause a two month separation?

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Edinburgh, 1989

Would I tell her there would be temptation from other women and men, struggling in their own lives, that hint at an alternative?

Would I tell her she’d gain a lot of weight with food addictions and become unattractive, while he had set out to conquer his alcohol addictions?

Would I tell her that financial challenges and personal disappointments would make us feel trapped?

Or that I might make enemies with his friends and he with mine?

Or that one of us might behave badly in public and make the other squirm?

Do I tell my younger bride about children, and sleepless nights and teen-agers and drugs and worry?

Do I tell my younger bride that, often, she will feel more like an unpaid maid and nanny, and that romance was just for books and movies?

I could also time-travel back to December 28, 1986 and remember the night I knew I was going to marry him, even though we didn’t start dating for another three months.

He said a girl he recently dated was too perfect. He wished she’d spill or trip. Anything. In retrospect, he got way more than he wished for. I’m not exactly spill-proof and trip over unseen objects.

I could relive the kismet as we discovered a massive list of shared interests. The conversation was easy and our senses of humour played off each other—something that has sustained us for over thirty years.

I could compare him to previous dates I found stuffy or boring, or relive that epic second kiss we’ve recreated so many times. 

I can still see the pipe band marching across his face when I told him I was born in Wales and loved Britain as much as he did.

Or I could tell her how five years before I met him, an English teacher read aloud the poetry of a former student. I was so impressed. I recall the political metaphor poem about the Beaver getting screwed by the Eagle (a Canada-USA relationship poem, obviously). I fell in love with his writing even before I fell in love with him.

By year twenty-four, this aging bride remembered the writing and coffee dates at University. The pair of them found expensive words they loved. They used them in papers, whether they fit or not.

She’s still easy prey for handsome men with big…vocabularies.

Indubitably.

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Waimea Canyon, Hawaii, 2007

Today, I’d tell my younger bride, start writing your book in year one. Don’t wait until year twenty-four.

My year-twenty-four bride definitely didn’t want or expect to rediscover all those kismet-ty things that brought them together. But she valued his editing help and fell in love with him all over again.

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Writer geeks together

I’d tell her to keep finding British shows to watch together. Make him playlists and new music, while also d.j.-ing road trips with all the classics. I’d tell her to travel to places you both love and go to concerts—like Coldplay at Wembley Stadium or U2 in Seattle. 

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Coldplay at Wembley Stadium, 2016

Today, she sits proudly on her bridal perch of thirty years. She’s thankful that this starry-eyed bride expected the tough times.

They wrote their vows from the book of Ruth, “may God deal with me be it ever so severely if anything but death separates you and I.”  Harsh words. But it would seem they meant them. They agreed before they married that they’d prioritize marriage counselling if necessary.

Wise foresight. It’s been necessary. Several times. And I would tell that bride today, and every bride and groom, go for counselling.

Go alone.

Go together.

Just go. And keep finding things you love to do together. Most of all, trust in the power of redemption.

Today, I’d tell that bride. Do it again. He’s worth it.

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Llanthony Priory, Wales, 2016

      

Learning to Walk in Sobrioteousness

To those dear souls for whom this level of honesty is awkward: grab your inhaler, a pillow or two, and Just. Look. Away. What follows are a few thoughts outlining my slow, daily march of sobriety.

And, never one to mince words, it’s been (insert happy superlative, or expletive, of choice) awesome. Like, so way much more awesomer than usual. I’m choosing to call it a time of sobrioteousness.

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It is an awkward and wonderful marriage of sobriety, riotous joy, and deeper righteousness. The result has been a clearer head. It has scuttled out some pretty confusing stuff and ushered in a season of newness and productive self-reflection.

And, as one who has spent inordinate amounts of time in the swirling eddies of his own head, this would otherwise be dangerous, even inadvisable.

But times they are a’changin’ as someone once said. Thank you, Mr. Dylan.

I am presently experiencing that which those like me most avoid but for which we most long:

wait for it…

a normal life. 

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I know!

Just a few years ago such a prognosis would have struck terror in me. I mean, the very thought that I was anything less than stage-ready remarkable would have been an unthinkable travesty. Like Madonna with no marketing plan. Kanye West, the guy, not the god. Taylor Swift without the whining. Or the Kardashians, at all.

Much of our lives are lived in pursuit of that which we possess already – acceptance and love. It has certainly been the case for me.

Upon honest reflection, my life has often aimed itself at two primary goals: self-knowledge, and the safety found in praise and adulation. It can be hard to know the difference. It has prompted many, including myself, to ask the question, will the real Rob please stand up?

Of course, I don’t think it either right or prudent to simply write off all pursuits as efforts toward attaining acceptance and the praise of others. There will always be those things to which we naturally aspire. 

For example, it would be hard to disattach from me all things Celtic. The skirl of bagpipes, the wild scuttle of Celtic music and the dark, mystical history that weaves it all together. This is the cut of my jib. 

And, words. Long have they held sway over me, sometimes in euphoric, hypnotic ways. To read words placed well, taste them under the tongue, swallowing them raw and whole is genuinely nourishing. Those occasions when I feel I’ve written well leave me breathless. I’m seldom out of breath, but trying all the same.

I’ve always loved laughter and the humour that takes me there. I love whatever is funny and however I can be funny. From distant memory I recall possessing the ability to make people laugh.

That makes me happy.

I love to run. To some degree it has become every bit the addiction alcohol was, although with more respectable results. It too has defined how I see myself. How others see me. How I want to be seen.

All of this and more lines up to take its place in the panoply of influences, pursuits, passions, and proclivities that have come to represent, Rob

Ironically, the older I get, and the deeper I move into the blessing of sobriety, the less interested I am in being unique and remarkable.

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I do not spend as much time and energy looking for the wow factor, and that relieves the constant pressure to be unforgettable, memorable. Not dull or without significance or ability in my own right. Just part of something bigger; something beyond myself in which I can play a small part.

My part.

Instead of rejoicing in all the ways I am unique, I now find considerable comfort in all the ways I am just like everyone else. And, to my surprise, I’m no longer lonely.

Go figure.

I’m calling this phase of life, sobrioteous. I’m clean and sober, happily, riotously normal. And all of that may, in some small way, contribute to righteousness or the Bible’s description of “the good life.”

Thanks for listening…

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It’s about breathing

Having just finished Richard Rohr’s Breathing Under Water – Spirituality and the Twelve Steps for the second time, I am suitably inspired. It is an insightful commentary on the wisdom of the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and their potential for a probing, expansive, and transformative spirituality.

The steps dovetail wonderfully with the best spirituality. They are a template suitable for the best diving – a way of life not just for addicts, but for everybody.

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Thanksgiving – the Surprise of Gratitude

Thanksgiving Day, 2017.

Thank God I am breathing so much easier these days. Thank God there is not the same anvil of dysfunction and dystopia crushing down upon my chest. Thank God that, with each passing day, it grows clearer how the addictive consciousness has robbed me of confidence and joy. And, thank God, in the clearer light of day, has come an emerging contentment, fragile but inextinguishable. It appears to be smiling at me.

As the days roll into weeks of years, the tick-tocking of time becomes more precious and, simultaneously, of vital importance. If fifty-four years can sneak past this easily, I had better stay awake to and aware of God’s presence and activity! I don’t want to miss a single thing.

One cannot help but attest to the wisdom in the pursuit of stability, constancy, simplicity, rootedness and, most of all, gratitude. The more rooted, awake and contented we are, the more supple, compliant, effective, and portable we become. We are learning to carry such attributes brought about in us through these values out into a world utterly gagging for them.

Ironically, the happier we are where we are the readier we become to uproot and transplant our grateful presence elsewhere. It is at once paradoxical and antithetical to how I have lived so much of life.

Unhappy? I look for it out there. Somewhere else.

Dissatisfied? I blame it on circumstances. Coworkers. Geography. The weather. Indigestion.

Unfulfilled? I blame my employer. My shitty decision-making skills, spiritual blindness. My job, so obviously unfit and small for one as grandiose and important as I!

Through all the blaming and escapism (the answer to which was drinking myself into oblivion), I never learned the deep contentment of gratitude, the satisfaction of awareness; the fulfillment of presence, all of which, ultimately, promise peace.

A book that has always been among my top fifty, the kind of book that needs to be reread every few years, is Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis. Here, Lewis was not just the Oxford don, the professor, the intellectual, or famous author. He was instead, a fellow sojourner. An atheist become Jesus follower. A doubter become dreamer.

It is his most personal book. A spiritual memoir. A biographical retrospective. A conversion narrative. A soul mirror. In it he describes the imaginative, albeit escapist, means by which he endures the difficult challenges of family life as a young boy. 

Lewis constructed a vast imaginary playground he called “Boxen.” There, he could hide from the soul-crushing realities beyond his ken. There, he found a measure of joy and a respite from all that troubled him. His pursuit of an elsewhere, a better place in which to abide, resonated with me in profound ways. But, in later years, while confronting his cognitive dissonance with the Christian faith enterprise, he found it wasn’t intellectual satisfaction that coming to faith brought.

It was a personal joy that most surprised him. 

For me, as for C.S. Lewis, acquiescing to the wooing voice of God, has brought with it the simple voice of love, tucked in a story of grace. And, in spite of devils still shadow-boxing in the back rooms of my life, I am in a place of great contentment these days.

Sober. Settled. Satisfied.

All of it reeking of the transformative power of a God who loves to show off His/Her penchant for inundating lives in delirious grace.

Thanksgiving? I should think so.

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Rob – sober, content, grateful

Not Drinking vs. Sobriety

In October, 2002, I quit drinking. But I’m only getting sober now. Let me explain.

Through a series of cataclysmic circumstances, I first came to sobriety while living and working in McMinnville, Oregon. It was a time characterized as much by chaos as it was possibility. I was in a personal Shangri-La on one level, experiencing life among kindred spirits, and hobnobbing with the Linfield College intelligentsia. I was making my mark in a town with an artistic spirit, positively electric to guys like me.

But, like many alcoholics before me, I stopped telling my story. Do that for any length of time and one grows smug. Over-confident. Or worse, blind. That most devious of all beliefs slithers into our thinking: “You know, I think I’m good, a drink or two would be just fine.”

Denial.

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The appropriate response should an alcoholic ever say he can drink.

To stop telling one’s story in the company of others, equally knowledgeable of your plight, is to let your story tell you. Stories are both descriptive and prescriptive. They narrate one’s past but shape one’s present, both of which promise a better future.

Dry drunks trade one addiction for another. Whatever “gets the job done.” Euphoria is still euphoria after all. It matters not from where it comes. Euphoric escape from reality into any available alternative is what we’re after. Booze isn’t the end. It’s the means to the end; for some, quite literally.

One of the most humbling undertakings of the recovering alcoholic is the more clear-headed journey back from foggy open seas to the shoreline, awash in all the stuff I threw overboard along the way. Regrets litter the beach of our lives. It is saying sorry to those I soaked in piss along the way. 

Yesterday’s kegger. Today’s shame. Tomorrow’s tattoo.

The return to more stable footing reveals just how many lives were impacted by my jaunty revelry. And, life is friendships. Friendships are the wheat of life, bread in the making. To damage them, even under less fretful circumstances, should be immensely concerning. Returning to those who have supported and trusted you, believed in you, walked alongside you when you least deserved it, is the best and worst thing imaginable.

Steps 8 and 9, respectively, of the A.A. program:

8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

Shame and guilt are bed buddies. They intertwine limbs and sinew in an indivisible mess of carnage, stealing everything, giving nothing. They are also highly deceptive, rendering up the law of diminishing returns. The more shame one feels, the worse one’s behaviour becomes, leading to deeper shame, leading to a life in checkmate.

It is paralyzing.

It is also ubiquitous – the gift that keeps on giving. Guilt hides in every corner, shame slips in among the shadows where we can’t see things clearly. It guides our thinking, further clouding a brain still seeking a reboot.

But, to the recovering alcoholic, dismissing shame in favour of courage is our lot. It is, by far, the hardest work. Refusing to hit rewind and play all the old tapes for the pleasure of being our own whipping boy will always be in our job description. Those we’ve hurt, willingly or not, are seldom interested in adding any more pain, guilt, or betrayal to that which they generally feel already.

Some will applaud the new life of sobriety, the face a little less shiny and red, eyes more clear. Others may simply feel duped and deceived and happily dump us on the curb. The same fearlessness, directness, and gentleness will be received in any number of ways. Kick a hornet’s nest and there are always consequences, most of them unpredictable, all of them deserved.

A long-winded way of saying to any and all unfortunate enough to be in my addictive pathway…forgive me?tumblr_o2egg8N4BE1r83d7lo6_540.gifAnd, to my Higher Power, whom I call God…thanks for grace and the knowledge that you love prodigals. 

 

St Placid – Silent Notes from a Noisy Journal, part 4

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St Placid Priory – Lacey, WA

Six miles of damp, spongy pavement pounded out this morning. Running – the healing constancy of deep, rhythmic breathing. So good in this environment. It’s little wonder that Portland, Oregon is America’s running capital. Every back road, trail, and alley is afoot with runners. It houses Nike corporation and its disciples, of which I am, apparently, one of the faithful. I’m a committed convert to the marriage of time, distance, and pain. 

Baffling to non-runners, it is, in its own way, contemplative space. And, these days in particular, as I struggle once more on the longest road, the one leading toward daily sobriety, it becomes apt metaphor in the slow process of change. 

Hanging like a shadow over it all are those who would pooh-pooh this whole sober-running enterprise, suggesting in my case that it is classic avoidance – the via negativa of the dry drunk. In this scenario, one merely transfers addiction from one thing to another, trading booze for the self-emasculation of hardcore running.  

“Well, he may be running,” say they, “but it doesn’t mean he’s dealing with anything related to addiction.” To such self-righteous do-gooders who feign any real interest in me preferring, instead, bookish platitudes I offer the following retort(s):

  1. Um, f*** off.
  2. Okay, that was overkill. Thank you for your concern, but…
  3. Do you think I am unaware of this?
  4. Despite the built-in danger of avoidance, is this not much better than alcohol-induced madness?
  5. Give me half a chance to work through this on my own terms, please.
  6. I’m back in A.A., working the steps. I’ve got this. Well, my Higher Power’s got me. So, relax. 

Phew, now that that’s off my chest, some brighter notes.

I’m awash in the effervescence of expectancy. The more I consider who God has made me to be, the passions that drive me, the skills that help me, the more I prayerfully consider my options. What doors and windows are availing themselves through which to move into bigger sky? What new field of dreams might await my conveyance? 

More every year, I believe that so much of this is more our decision than the theologians lead us to believe. Jesus tells us that we gain our lives by giving them away. But to give something away is first to own it. We cannot give what we do not own. Otherwise, it’s just passing something down the pipeline that found its way into our hands. Once we own ourselves, there is real sacrifice, but greater reward, in relinquishing ourselves to love and serve our neighbour.

God has given all of us a vocation. It is for us to discover it. Then, it is largely up to us how to fulfill it. For me, that may be changing. Imperceptibly at first, baby steps toward cave openings through which new shards of light are reaching out, tempting me in. Sitting here in this place, dedicated as it is to the rigour and welcome of the spiritual life, its delightful chaos, there grows in me a light. It is yet dim and inconsistent. But it grows moment by moment.

I want to do all I can to fan it into flame.

 

St Placid – Silent Notes from a Noisy Journal, part 3

In a time and place such as this one is gifted with a bird’s eye-view of the bigger narratives at work in one’s life. That has certainly been the case since getting re-sober and, specifically, at a nunnery where my overworked mouth must be silent.

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St Placid Priory, Lacey, WA

I am further gifted with precious reading time. Double up the task of discerning the peaks and valleys of a life with a reading list and I find myself reading something I’ve not touched in years. Perhaps it is a page turner only to those like me, but I’d forgotten that fact about “the big book” as it is affectionately deemed by A.A. Equal parts childlike, level-headed zeal, and complete lack of pretension put it alongside other great spiritual works. 

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Next to the Bible…this

And that is exactly what Dr. Bill and Uncle Bob’s magnum opus is. In the simplest terms of the novice, it is akin to Augustine’s Confessions or C.S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy or Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain. As honest and probing as any other memoir-retrospective-guidebook, they have no other agenda than telling their life-changing story in a way that draws others like moth to flame into a message of freedom and sobriety. And, they roll it out like excited grade-schoolers at a show ‘n tell. 

But what a show ‘n tell!

I am so grateful to be, once again, sober. Well, on the arduous road of daily sobriety and the mindset required to fight the good fight of staying that way. I am equally grateful for the timeless stories of lives changed under the care of Someone higher and greater than we, Someone I call God.

And, to that God, on this day, I give thanks.