Of Lent and Bagpipes: Lean Over Loud in the Spiritual Life

Lent is that time in the Church calendar historically set aside for an “under the hood” diagnostic of those things most needful for the optimization of our lives in Christ. It is a rich time, not for mere maintenance, but for the introspective dialogue with one’s own inner voice that, in concert with God’s voice, guides us to “practice resurrection” as Wendell Berry so eloquently advises.

Allow me to clarify with a story.

I’ll never forget the day I first told my bewildered parents that I wanted to learn how to play the bagpipes. I was seven. I had just watched a televised Edinburgh Military Tattoo replete with color-laden, swinging kilts, swashbuckling pipers, and swishing notes all clammering for attention under the bright lights of a night-lit Edinburgh Castle. From the first humming drone and pinched gracenote to the final cannon blast salute I was forever hooked. A seed was planted that has matured into a forty year career of performing, accompanying, competing, composing, judging and recording with this enigmatic instrument.

Under most circumstances, when one’s child shows even the slightest interest in music, it is generally accompanied by proud winks of acknowledgement, cackled whispers of “I always knew he had it in him” and blustery coffee room comments like “it was only a matter of time” or “our family has always been musical.”

At the risk of understatement, this was different.

Any parent hopes their groomed and dapper ten year old will be playing Chopin on the piano in the mall with the other bright and shining stars. With this announcement, those hopes were dashed. Instead, my parents (and poor, unsuspecting neighbors) would be forced to endure the long, loudly awkward learning curve the instrument promises all student comers. It most likely involved having to apologize to neighbors only pretending to be patient as some overly confident ten year old insists on playing, poorly, in the backyard.

On Sunday…night…late.

They did all this with patience and pride.

Similarly, a doting, jealous God waits like a holy panther ready to pounce on any sign of our awakening to God’s romances kissed in our direction. Patient and crouched, hopeful and proud, our Holy Parent, yearns for all that is best in our human lives. From first light of spiritual birth to the brighter light of eternity in us, God waits to discover, or uncover, our intentions toward God.

What does this mean? Will he stick with it only long enough to tire of it and move onto something else, despite the considerable expenditures of cash and time? Or will he seek to express a complex nature through an equally complex instrument designated for oatmeal-savage mystics whose love for center stage is well serviced here?

To parents, it simply does not matter.

For a bagpipe to function optimally it must have at least three things. It must be utterly airtight, with no chance whatsoever for the not-so-easily-blown instrument to lose any of its chief operating component, air. The only allowable air should be that in service to the four reeds dependent upon a steady stream of the same, and all at a highly regulated psi. Likewise, the best Lenten practices lend themselves to tightening up any holes in our spiritual lives, perceived or not. We must place ourselves willingly at the behest of a God who tugs at the cords holding our varied parts together in order to ensure the least “leakage” of the precious commodities of abundance and hope. In so doing, we relinquish our ownership over all we think to be primary for the singular goal of obtaining God alone. A heartily resonant helping of “lov[ing] the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” will do nicely here.

Secondly, it must possess the best reeds available (4 in all) in order for all energy expended to be done in service of a quality sound. It will only be as good as the weakest link in the complex chain of piping accoutrements. An unfortunate side effect of sin is our willingness to settle for counterfeit grace, for the short-term fix we think will provide quick, spiritual benefit but which, in the end, only multiplies our sorrows. All that we strive to do, at whatever level and for whatever reason in our pursuit of God will ultimately lead us astray unless we see it as pure grace; as gift. God’s purposes in us will always guide us to “whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable…any excellence and…anything worthy of praise” (Phil. 4:8).

Finally, all of its constituent parts of wood, bag and reeds are to be kept as impervious to excess moisture as possible – moisture that can foul the best reeds and, in worst-case scenarios, shut them down entirely. As with most mouth-blown instruments, outside influences of weather, barometric pressure, humidity and temperature have profound impact on whatever sounds are forthcoming. The via negativa of the spiritual life is to renounce anything that adversely affects one’s progress in the Way. John Calvin believed that self-denial lay at the heart of all spiritual transformation. To the degree we keep ourselves impervious, or at least well resourced, against the worst that life will most certainly throw at us, we will remain progressively more immune to outside influences that cause cracks to appear in our deepest parts where we need it to be well-contained and whole. The sage in Proverbs encourages us to “keep [our] heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.”

It is a standard faux pas of pipers to assume that the biggest, fattest reeds will automatically proffer the biggest, fattest sound – an important and coveted feature of the instrument. At issue here is the fact that, the bigger the reed, the bigger the effort required in playing it.

The dilemma is one of physics. Sometimes trying harder with bigger than normal reeds simply forces a law of diminishing returns. In the young piper, less familiar with those physics and more inclined to early onset frustration with an already mystifying instrument, this can be daunting to say the least. As one grows in knowledge of bagpipe physics it becomes apparent that the best sound production isn’t merely one of effort. It is primarily one of the integrated and streamlined functioning of all the factors necessary to make the instrument the beautiful experience, and sound, it can be.

Similarly, the spiritual life, like the Highland Bagpipe, works optimally when we can see the big picture; how each element fits into the whole and, as a result, produces what we will ultimately become. God’s intentions in us include all elements of our existence, our choices, our conversations, relationships, experiences both good and bad, love gained and lost, anger welcomed and spurned, pain suffered and healed…everything.

The seasoned piper learns that a tightly-fitted, well-maintained, thoughtfully set up instrument makes for the best possible sound. Then, what at first can be a most, let’s say…unfortunate, sound ultimately becomes something of beauty that actually produces a bigger sound with greater resonance, nicer pitch and less energy. Good discernment and skill leads to something leaner that is, in turn, louder but also sweeter to the ear.

This is the magic of the Lenten gift of grace. We are better poised to usher a generally gangly, uncomfortable instrument into places of sweetness, strength and otherworldliness. That is how a bagpipe should sound. That is how I’ve heard it sound.

I think you know what I mean.

Of life, love and bagpipes – continued

At a Highland Games sometime last summer I was piping for the Highland Dancing portion and wrote some reflections. This is the continuation of that story…

I jump ahead forty years in order to share one of many piping stories accumulated over those years. Since the age of fourteen I have played bagpipes as accompaniment for highland dancing. Typically, a piper or pipers are hired to perform this task, doing so throughout the day trading off dances for breaks from the delightful tedium. Yesterday was one such day.

One walks onto a damp field, humming with the possibilities of the day, newly arrived but yet in infancy. The sun, undecided as to its welcome, insists on playing peek-a-boo through gently swaying trees overhead. The heady, morning air gradually yields to the all too familiar squawks of bagpipers keen to tame the beast before their competition debut two hours hence. Ahead of me is a small army of doting Moms preening little girls; perfecting hair, fluffing ruffles, smoothing wayward eyebrows, tightening dancing shoes, blowing young noses and assisting people like me with the whereabouts of the necessary coffee, fuel for a long, noisy day of piping for Highland Dancing – the reason for this morning scenario…

It’s almost imperceptible how one’s surroundings, interactions – experiences in general, help to build a reality around our lives that is immediately recognizable on reentry. Smell pot once and you’ve pretty much got it memorized. Conversely, smell, if only for a moment, the fragrance of a particular perfume, and one’s whole world of first love reopens complete with vivid pictures, achingly familiar emotions and the intoxicating remembrances of love won and lost.

For bagpipers this occurs whenever the tangled auditory mess that is a competition field of peacock pipers strutting their craft before one another, feigning non-chalance, makes itself known. And yet, there’s a certain calming effect the uproarious clitter clatter of competing non-harmonies has had upon me for more years than I can count. As a competitive piper for decades, to walk onto a fresh competition field ripe with the smell of dew mixed with wet leather shoes, cigarette smoke, and the smell of bad food was nothing short of transcendent. If I’d hit a winning streak, this strut was accompanied by a rush of a please-notice-my-statuesque-entrance-onto-the-battle-field-and-be-afraid posture. Ah yes, the overly confident swagger of youth.

Today is not a competition day however. This is a day devoted to the craft of Highland Dance accompaniment. To the uninitiated it is the realm of piping masters whose melodies, lilting one minute, scorching the next, endear themselves to those intent on seeing kilts bounce up and down for six to eight hours in 90 degree heat. To those of us in the biz it is the bottom of the bagpipe food chain so to speak. To stand in one spot under a lovely shaded canopy while waited on hand and foot with coffee, water and sandwiches is a far cry from the blistering heat on black tarmac upon which competing pipe bands fight to maintain a most unwieldy instrument against the ravages of the waterless landscape. While I play simple, crowd pleasing melodies over and over again to constantly appreciative audiences, each pipe band must battle under much more extreme conditions not just for the crowds but for the stoic and feared judges lurking just beyond the competition circle.

No, my job today is considerably simpler. And, I’m OK with that.

I’m now closer to 50 than 15 and the sheer number of times I’ve had this experience of Highland Games participation complete with youthful swagger and passively boastful demeanor have been replaced by the gently glowing embers of gratitude. It is thankfulness for having even been introduced to this oddly mystifying instrument and its associated sociological accoutrements.  Now, I can’t help but think as I stroll past these young pipers intent upon nervous preparation for the perfect performance just how glad I am that they, now, have their chance and, second, that I no longer need it to enjoy all that it offers. I’m gonna watch them sweat for awhile.

Again, I’m OK with that.

St. Patrick’s Day – Why the world needs the Celts

Today is Saint Patrick’s Day. A guy has to be a press-ready, crowd-pleasing commodity to get his own day. But, perhaps I’m just jealous. Besides maybe Saint Columba, he’s our best known Celt. And, in honour of his Celtic lineage, I share the following.

When one thinks of the term Celt or Celtic what images spring to mind? Is it the Pictish war-paint donned by William Wallace in Braveheart as he prepares to take Scottish troops into yet another conflagration with England? Is it the Military Tattoo at Edinburgh Castle where hundreds of overly plumed peacock pipers and drummers march to and fro in a celebration of Scotland’s warring past?

Edinburgh Military Tattoo.jpg
Edinburgh Military Tattoo, Edinburgh Castle

Is it the drunken party at the local pub as it becomes abundantly apparent that you’ve walked into some secret society, all of whom are experts on their instruments, can drink more than any human should be capable of but with whom you feel completely welcome? Is it the great standing crosses of Ireland? Is it Larry Bird?

Picture found here

Whatever one may think of the Celts, one thing is sure: they were a people absolutely unique in history and centuries ahead of their time. They were an aural culture, a bardic people of story, song, poetry and mythology. As such there exists a great deal of misunderstanding regarding their exact history. In fact, they seem quite simply to have passed out of existence like a fisherman’s boat sailing into the morning mist.

One example of this relates to something many bagpipers, including myself, play on the bagpipes: Piobaireachd. Let us review that spelling, shall we?

P I O B A I R E A C H D.

It was never their intention to leave any letters for anyone else. Piobaireachd is the co-mingling of 2 Scots Gaelic words: piobaire, or piping with eachd, music. Hence, piped or piping music. Piobaireachd is the classical music of the highland bagpipe and is loosely based on the musical idea of a theme and variations. It was most likely developed by a highland clan dynasty of the MacCrimmons, ancestral pipers to the MacLeod clan on the Isle of Skye. But since there remains so little written evidence of the clan and their history, many believe them, and their development of piobaireachd, to be the fanciful fabrications of folklore.

There is plenty that we do know that can benefit us, however. The Christianity that emerged in Ireland, Cornwall, Brittany, Gaul, Isle of Man, Scotland and Wales possessed some valuable gifts. I list here but a few.

The Celtic Christianity that thrived, undivided, from roughly the fifth through the twelfth centuries, is as deeply influenced by the culture in which it was birthed as the culture that was transformed by it. It is the child of the pagan culture that preceded it. We rationalists squirm a little at this idea.

We need the Celts because of their love for the poetic imagination and artistic creativity, building on a rich tradition of bards who sang the shared stories and exploits of her kin.

We need the Celts because of their similar love for kinship, relations and the warmth of a hearth. Their love of hearth and kinship translated in spiritual terms to what they called “anam cara” or “soul friends”, those with whom they shared their deepest joys, fears, sins, hopes, dreams.

The Celts were forever at odds with Mother Rome. To my mind, this equates to a paradox or at least to a willing suspension of seeming opposites. On one hand they were as profoundly Catholic as any other sect of Medieval Christendom. They yearned to be part of the larger Christian family. That is the Celtic way. On the other, they ever marched to the beat of their own drum – a Catholicism swimming in the quasi-pagan, swarthier style of the brooding Celts. They were both in and out.

How quintessentially Celtic.

We need the Celts because they insisted on the equality of all people in the eyes of God. They celebrated an egalitarianism in everything even allowing women to perform the Mass, a heresy of the first order even in contemporary, post Vatican II Catholicism! While worshippers throughout Europe frequented any number of great cathedrals, the Celts preferred smaller, homemade altars around which they would celebrate a deeply intimate Eucharist. Especially irksome to Rome was their liturgical calendar taken more from Druidic astrology than the accepted Church calendar. Rogues to the core, what’s not to love?

We need the Celts because of the monastic communities that flowered in Britain and elsewhere that became centers of classical education and learning, even possessive of literature outlawed by the Holy Roman Empire. As such, it can be said without exaggeration that the Celts kept knowledge alive and growing throughout the Middle Ages.

We need the Celts for their great love for the natural world and for preaching a God who loved it, too. They attached particular significance to particular animals, numbers, places and natural objects. Their spirituality was mystical in character, bathed in silence and solitude but rooted squarely in the everyday. It was a rich blend of the immanence and transcendence of God.

Skye 57.jpg
Quiraing Ridge, Skye. With this as inspiration, who wouldn’t see the sacred everywhere?

We need the Celts because of their unquenchably adventurous spirits, well known as explorers and/or missionaries to many places. Some have suggested that they may have been some of the earliest explorers to South America where Peruvian artwork mimics Celtic knot work.

We need the Celts to broaden our sense of time. They had an understanding of time that was less chronological than kairotic. In other words, they were not especially linear in their approach to life, love, faith and relationships. They valued the cyclical dimension of time, believing that by immersing themselves in the seasons of the year and uniting their lives with the liturgical seasons of the church, they could more effectively celebrate their journey through the sacredness of time.

We need the Celts for a further distinctive, related to their concept of time; their appreciation of ordinary life. Theirs was a spirituality characterized by gratitude, and in their stories we find them worshipping God in their daily work and very ordinary chores. We, as they, can see our daily lives as a revelation of God’s love.

Irish farm


Rural Celtic life. Picture found here.

We need the Celts since their spirituality has great ecumenical value, transcending the differences, which have divided Christians in the East and the West since before the Reformation.

We need the Celts because, unlike we who are often more interested in what to believe than Who to follow, their Christianity was a way of life, a spirituality lived gratefully each day, one day at a time.

Finally, we need the Celts because they give us reason and opportunity to party in the presence of the God who loves us.

I’m in!

Glimpses – awakening to the indescribable

Early in a new year, and a leap year at that, I want to take a stab at describing what cannot adequately be described. As a contemplative and a musician, I have met, from time to time, with mystical experiences that beggar explanation, categorization or temporal understanding. In order to do so, a short preface.

At the foundation of Christian spirituality is the very basic principle of awakening or awareness. It comes in many different packages, under numerous ideologies, representative of a host of approaches each with practices that lend themselves to one’s emerging spiritual life.

To become aware is to wake from some form of slumber, sleep or sloth. One of the mysteries of spiritual awareness is that one does not awaken naturally. We are prodded awake by the loving work of God upon the sleeping soul. It requires this nudge of God upon our shoulder before any meaningful process of receptivity and relationship can occur. In order for us to ‘awake to our awakening’ we must receive the whisper of God speaking grace into the spiritual ear of our understanding.

I do not speak so much of the prophetic proclamation to “arise, shine; for your light has come.” No, before we can be so attuned to the prophet’s voice calling us to faithfulness and righteousness, we must first hear the voice of the Lover calling us to succumb to this wooing upon which our only response can be, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.”

As comforting and romantic as that sounds, however, upon awakening to the first primal strains of the song of God, there comes a dissonance amidst the lilting notes. We awake to beauty and begin to see that which we have always yearned after but of which we were unaware, blind. This, however, can often be a fearful and groggy experience. Cobwebs yet invade our minds unaccustomed to such sharpness of color. Ears that have been plugged up suddenly pop as our inner altitude changes. It is as disorienting as it is invigorating…

I remember places, glimpses into…something; an awareness that hints at a proximity to the indescribable, numinous presence of God. These are never easy things to describe, but there is a delight in the attempt for, in so doing, I am taken back to some of those places. Not always, but for me it is often some dusty, old church or monastery; most often at night, alone. Yet, not alone. As I have since come to believe, they were, as the Celts called them, thin places where a barely perceptible sheath surrounds the holy otherness of God and where comes a mystical awareness of God so immanent that one feels he can literally smell God’s breath, touch God’s skin. These experiences have often made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

Ironically, they used to happen often when I was a boy, long before I had any faith lexicon or tidy systematic theology with which to scrub them up and describe them away. I recall one particular time as I lay on our living room floor. I was probably eight or nine years old and, as I did every year, was watching the first snowfall of winter as flakes danced past the streetlight that stood outside our house. In that moment, I became curiously aware of a haunting peace that arrested my sensibilities and held me spellbound in what I can only describe as ‘rightness.’ In that moment, the cosmos and I were one. God, as I now understand God, was laying beside me on the living room floor that night, whispering wordless words to me, convincing me of my place in it all, be it ever so miniscule.

Another such thin place for me was an Anglican Church sanctuary in Nelson, British Columbia where for a number of years I taught at a Highland Bagpiping School (a place where other strange souls like myself learn to tame a five-legged creature destined to arouse suspicions and rouse neighbors). Connections in the community opened the door, figuratively and, in this case, literally, to spend as much time as I wanted in the church sanctuary after everyone else had gone home. I was given a key and carte blanche run of the place.

Most evenings after a long day of bagpipe students, some whiny, some lazy, all of them noisy, I would retire to this sanctuary with my pipes. For an hour or so I would simply play, enjoying the epic reverberance of the sound bouncing off the hard stone walls and floor. It was, for me, the closest I had yet been to what I might have then described as heaven. At times it was 2:00 am before finally getting back to my room.

A third such place was the hospital chapel in the same city. I was falling apart after a recent break-up with a girl to whom I had been engaged. My shattered interior was gradually reintegrated in that little chapel where I would weep and pray for hours, listening to John Michael Talbot, or the Monks of the Weston Priory sing beautifully doleful refrains. It was for me, through gallons of heart-crushing tears, the perfect requiem to my dying peace of mind. It would become the Introit to a new place of healing and restoration, albeit gradually. This is a story best left unfinished…

tin whistle

I play Irish whistle. Or, better, I play at Irish whistle. Even better still, it plays at me. Celtic music has changed my life forever. If there is a music that can have me utterly spellbound in seconds and quickly fumbling for the radio volume control, it’s that ancient, mystical but oh so immediate music of the Celts. The following short poem was inspired by a very simple little Irish whistle tune. But first a message from your sponsor…

I’m the first to admit that much of my poetry is so stream of consciousness as to seem like utter gibberish and an exercise in right brain futility. Poetry is, to me, like flushing out the radiator in my truck. Sometimes the result is at first messy, even unseemly, but hopefully the result is a better functioning. Things run better. Smoother. Life seems cleaner, cooler somehow. This is all I can hope for in my poetic endeavors, such as they are. I can only pray that, somewhere in the cascade of apparent lexical misfits, you find something that can flush your soul and give space for newness…and perhaps a little wonder.

come to me, little strains of pipe, sullen and sad, soft and sallow

fill up my ears with the wetted, be-dewed hillsides of morning’s music.

sift me like wheat till there remains nothing but myself,

chuckling in time to tunes both ancient and strange, friend

to brother and breast, bordered ‘round with chimes and chant

thumping drum and hymning hums awhirl and awake

to find my North from earlier ventures.


stop but once,

stop but once, but twice and find me once more

awake and alive to your dervishing tease,

your dancing, light and unfettered.

full round now, take my arm and turn

now to swing, now to step, to step and dance

till we are spent,

and fall down, complete.

Of life, love and bagpipes

I am a Highland Bagpipe player or piper in street talk. It is an instrument with which I have had a love-hate relationship for almost forty years now. For the longest time I wondered what might have gone through my parents’ minds when, at eight years of age, I loudly proclaimed my overweening desire to begin lessons immediately. That is, until I mused lately on the fact that both of my sons are rock drummers. I’m sure that bears at least some resemblance.

Perhaps not.

The Great Highland Bagpipe (GHB) as it is called by the musicology muck-a-mucks is an instrument uniquely designed to be heard. A perfect wake-the-dead alarm, they have been used for centuries to alert clans of forthcoming gatherings, oncoming battles and soon coming dignitaries. A piper on a hill is not just a cliché or quaint tourist post card. It does in fact typify much of bagpipe history. Moreover, as either clever tactic or cruel joke (depending upon whether one is a piper or not), the bagpipes were always the first line of defense in any conflagration. Apparently, troop commanders figured they could simultaneously amuse, entertain and confuse their enemy with a burly, red-haired, stumpy man in a dress, himself attacking the weapon of choice and tossing note after screaming note at them as a monkey flinging musical feces.

Like an octopus missing some legs the GHB consists of three drones – a bass and two tenors; a blowpipe through which ample air must pass into the bag acting as reservoir for this purpose, and a chanter that accommodates fingers eager to surprise the world with music both raunchy and wild, pristine and sweet. Heard under a best-case scenario in which all of the varied factors of its engineering converge successfully and wielded by someone with a modicum of experience lassoing them into submission, it is undoubtedly the most mystically beautiful thing I’ve yet heard. However, the usual encounter of the average passerby is a rather less than desirable auditory experience not unlike a grumpy orangutan humping an unsuspecting cat on the rush-hour freeway after a losing football game. That said, I confess such a description as that which I have yet to see.

Yet, it is what many might actually prefer when they hear this baffling instrument. It is, under any circumstances, an instrument that, like a crying baby on an airline, demands center stage. It is a sound that captured me even as a boy of seven years old. I well recall my first visceral experience with the bagpipe.

I grew up in a tiny bungalow in Calgary, Alberta the adopted son of a brewery worker and his house-wife, my mother. As I, along with my younger brother and sister, continued to grow, it became abundantly apparent that our consistent brushing of shoulders would only lead to inner-family disaster. My father set about building me a bedroom in our not-quite-finished basement. For some fifteen years to follow it would be my sanctuary – my monastery and the place where I found music, booze, girls (don’t mention that to my parents, they only know about the previous two) and ultimately salvation.

The spring before my eighth birthday I moved in. Kismet. I was also sick as a dog. My parents in true devoted fashion brought me hot soup, books (I’m a total nerd) and best of all, a TV to help wile away the hours spent in sniffly, coughing boredom. Changing channels one afternoon I happened upon a presentation of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, an annual display of pomp, circumstance, bright lights, booming cannons and bagpipes – lots of bagpipes. It is filmed live at Edinburgh Castle. From the very first sound I was hooked. I cried through the entire thing, later asking my parents if I could learn to do what I had just seen but thought I had dreamed.

A love affair had begun.

Over Scotland

I love poetry. I used to write much more poetry than I presently do. I feel bad about that. Consider this part one in rectifying this. This poem was written gazing out from an airplane window while flying over Scotland in 1989. It was finished in 1991, the next time I was in Scotland.

High flying, window glass reveals tattered floor-

Pristine heaven greets eyes open to curving planet yonder

Stretching, reaching, sky-borne, we soar.

Place of kings bringing wonder to hearts that wonder.

Stipple green, ground richly steeped in lush, purple hue-

Woven pattern of road-cut scenes moves closer,

Sky meets peripheral sky, horizon’s hazy blue.

Shadows run as daylight comes.

Well-fermented scenes from ancient dreams-

Walls of stone, hearts of flesh, eyes of steel,

Pageantry in motion, all is as it seems.

Like God in man, surreal kisses real.

Robert Rife © 1991

Ruminations of a Post-Modern

If someone had told this Canadian boy 10 years ago that one day I would leave behind everything I had ever known including the very ideological context in which I had first come into Christianity I would have scoffed at the notion.  As one often trapped between the competing needs of comfort through familiarity versus a constant dissatisfaction with the status quo, my journey has provided healthy doses of both!

In my ruminations on these matters, allow me to recall a few of my own experiences to help frame some thoughts.  Since early childhood, I’ve been drawn to all things artistic, historic, and mystical.  As a musician I have been impacted and transformed by a plethora of very eclectic musical influences ranging from the haunting sounds of Paddy Maloney’s uillean pipes in the Chieftains to Bruce Cockburn singing of “the speech of stones”; from the beauty of Brahms’ Piano Intermezzo in A, or Anton Bruckner’s, Ave Maria, to the skilful ramblings of Nickel Creek; from the Ordo Virtutum of Hildegard von Bingen to the songs of Supertramp, Steely Dan, Rush, or U2. We all have a picture of what can be called “sacred.”

As a Christian I’ve always been drawn to the beauty and meaning of ancient ritual and liturgy, my circuitous journey of faith ultimately leading me to the door of Westminster Presbyterian Church.  Each stop along the way has afforded me a little deeper understanding of my Christian faith.  From my early sojourn in the Evangelical Free church I developed an appreciation for a systematic theology centred in the Word of God.  From the Anglican (Episcopal) Church I fell in love with the Book of Common Prayer.  From the Pentecostal Church I entered deeper into the mysteries of the Holy Spirit.  From the Southern Baptists I learned…umm…well, I’m sure I learned something ; ^ ] From my Catholic friends and favourite writers I gained a profound appreciation for silence, contemplation and the idea of spiritual formation or gradual conversion.  From the North American Baptists I discovered the wonder of potlucks and learned some German.  From more liberal friends and writers I’ve learned of the kinship of the human family, a tip of the hat to common experiences of life and faith, our call to be the Body of Christ to the poor and disenfranchised, and the need for more female expressions of God.  If I’ve learned anything along this meandering road of faith, I’ve learned that within the circle of friends who call Jesus their friend and Lord, there is a place even for anomalies like myself.

In my mind, what all of this equates to is a montage of pictures of Christ and the Church.  I believe that there are many others like me out there – those who often defy definition but who are generally categorized as “post moderns.”  Their journeys are circuitous like my own – those who, by virtue of a profound disenchantment with modernism’s drive to explain everything to death, exhibit a need for creativity over continuity, high touch over high tech (ironically, however, we are the most high tech generation in history), community over individualism, form over function, beauty over brawn, people over program, mystical over management.  In faith terms, for me, this translates into a deep love for all things ancient – that which has stood the test of time and provides a shroud of mystery but is married to the futuristic cyber-intense world of the Matrix or X-Men.

Many in our “post-Christian” culture have NEVER said the Lord’s Prayer, owned a Bible, sung a hymn (let alone a praise song), read music notes, have heard of a narthex, lectern, chalice, or chancel, much less the redemptive power of the gospel.  Tellingly, however, there is a real thirst for just such things.  They must, however, be wrapped in a language and skin which is accessible to them: Ancient-future.

Jesus, in calling his disciples, does so for three primary reasons: “that they might be with him” (relational), “to be sent out to proclaim the message” (proclamational), and “to have authority to cast out demons” (missional); in that order (see Mark 3:13ff).  And, what a fine horde of diverse individuals they were, too!  From Matthew (Levi), a corporate yes-man, utilizing the system to bilk people all the way to Simon the Zealot, an anti-establishment, leftist revolutionary.  Christ first, last, and forever?  Indeed.

My life mission is as follows: “to draw people to God through my life and work which seek to meaningfully communicate God’s beauty and truth.” As a Worship & Music Minister, my hope is to “put a fresh face” on the wonder of our ancient faith.  In so doing, perhaps other strange anomalies like me can find Christ and a place to call home. There, but for the grace of God go I….

Pax Christi,  Rob

Reflections of January Residency, 2009 – Part 1

By now it has become rather apparent that my M.A. program January Residencies have been deeply formative experiences. At the risk of boring the reader into a coma, I continue to share these experiences with part 1 of my 2009 reflections…

Who am I? In total recognition that I am among the countless throng throughout history who have asked this deepest of questions, my query is not of the kind asked by the philosopher who plumbs archetypes, epistemologies and the like. My question is less enigmatic and more practical in nature. More personal. My reflections on the January Residency are within the broader framework of my spiritual journey over the past few years.

I play the bagpipes among other Celtic instruments. It’s not that this information is particularly unique or interesting in and of itself. However, an early childhood fascination with all things Celtic and the means by which I began to learn the instrument make for good dinner conversation. Watching a television program featuring the Edinburgh Military Tattoo from Edinburgh Castle as a boy forever sealed my fate as a lover of the instrument. It also ended any hopes my parents may have had that I might play Chopin Etudes or Beethoven Sonatas in the shopping mall with the other little social climbers!

No, it was the fact that my mother revealed certain information to me after that night which forever changed the trajectory of my life. I am adopted. Moreover, I am adopted from a family with profound Scottish roots. The connection was complete. I was a mystic long before I ever knew what that meant. Who I am has been the primary question I’ve asked ever since.

In October of 1983 while praying in a dark gymnasium at Foothills Christian College, Calgary, Alberta I prayed a prayer: God, I want to be a man of integrity. At the time, steeped as I was in conservative evangelicalism, this meant a certain thing to me. I believed I was asking for a solidity, immovability, authenticity and trustworthiness – in essence, to say what I believe and believe what I say. My inability to stay very long with anything, to make decisions or share convictions rather than opinions revealed the fissures in the fractured windshield of my projected life. My prayer, in retrospect, was a prayer for something I didn’t fully understand. It was a prayer that I become a man of God, or at least to be known as a man of God.

The years that followed have, for me, completely unraveled a commonly held assumption among western evangelicalism – that a post conversion life was to be reflective of victory, an unwavering trust in God, and a consistency in discipleship and faithfulness to the primary tenets of Bible study, prayer and witnessing. Although these things will always be central for me, the circuitous journey I have undertaken has shown me many things I could never have foreseen.

My life prior to my conversion at age 18 could best be described as narcissistic, blissfully entitled and blessed. The world held great wonder for me. Everything around me – relationships, the created order, experiences, my place in the world – was cause for wonder, celebration and poetry. However, the oldest of three adopted children, I enjoyed a great deal of freedom and lived a pampered life with respect to the fulfillment of desires. Our home was small by most standards, five people in a 900 square foot bungalow (with one bathroom!) in a decidedly blue-collar area of town. But I was denied nothing. I could easily celebrate my existence since I was rich, globally speaking, and was the center of my family’s time and attention.

As my life continued to point me ever so gradually toward heavenly things I succumbed to the romancing of God while driving home from a singing gig in Edmonton, Alberta. I was 60 pounds overweight and profoundly hung over. My conversion was for me, earth shattering. At least in the short term I was an excellent candidate for the evangelical demand of a good testimony. I can in fact point to the existential realities of a deep sorrow for my sins accompanied by the delicious joy reserved for those who serendipitously embrace a way of life birthed in hope. Changes in my demeanor, direction, sensibilities and relationships were immediate and obvious. I was, in C. S. Lewis’s words, surprised by joy…


Welcome to innerwoven, a place to discuss matters related to the Christian spiritual journey. Specifically, my interests lie in the many places of intersecting dialogue among worship, the arts, liturgy, and spiritual formation. As both a church music director (Yakima Covenant Church, Yakima, WA) and a graduate in spiritual formation and leadership (Spring Arbor University, MI) these are for me, increasingly, matters of genuine excitement. More selfishly, it is a place to share my circuitous journey of faith and the ways I’m seeing God in my world. In the world.

This is a safe place to be where all discussion is good discussion inasmuch as it strives unto mutual respect, love and understanding. Denominational baggage…please leave it at the door upon entering. But when you do, do so with my warm invitation to share this journey with me.

Pax Christi, Rob