In honour of St. Patrick’s Day, I reblog the story of how I came into possession of my current bagpipes. It is a tale of whim and woe, laughter and tears, murder and mayhem. Well, perhaps rather less of all that. But, it remains a story for which I am forever grateful. May the tunes ever continue to ring out!
For forty plus years I have submitted myself to being assaulted by a screaming five-legged octopus wearing tartan underpants. To the lay person – I am a bagpiper. It is, under any circumstances, an instrument that, like a crying baby on an airline (or me), demands center stage. It is a sound that captured me even as a boy of seven years old.
Calgary, 1971 I grew up in a tiny bungalow in Calgary, Alberta the adopted son of a brewery worker and his 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 heartbreak. 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 – the place where I found music, booze, girls (keep that bit a secret…
What follows is an excerpt from a piece that was part of a Lenten blog series I hosted a few years ago on how to introduce the mysteries and beauty of Christian spirituality to everyone, even “the least of these?” How do we make these principles reachable for everyone?
Eyes in the Alley: God’s Beauty for Our Ashes She fumbled through her purse for her phone. Its unnecessarily loud ring matched the other bells and whistles blasting in her head. They were the kind that told her old lies, played old tapes.
Lipstick, business cards, flash cards for her Spanish class, gloves, make-up mirror…where the hell is that damn thing? she cursed. Out loud apparently. The pastor, full-robed, full-throated, and in full-sermon, rebuked her with a glare. She’d seen it before. Often. It would have been less humiliating to slap her.
She was flustered and wound up tight as a bedspring. And, she was frustrated at her own lack of discernment. Why the hell didn’t I turn this thing off? Who’d be calling now? It’s Sunday, they shouldn’t even be open today she thought, half angry, half relieved. After dropping almost everything, she fingered the noisy culprit. Sliding sideways past her pew neighbors, she answered just in time to catch the call she wished she hadn’t. “Your test results are in, ma’am. Can you meet with the doctor tomorrow?”
He fell backwards against the brick wall, his guts, freshly emptied of the remains of fish-dinner-a-la-dumpster. His head, swimming in too much cheap wine, conspired with his stomach against all lucidity and balance, let alone self-respect. He smelled of piss, puke and pain. These days, only shame kept him alive and the dull remembrance of a life once lived, once alive with the common promise of…well, promise.
Was it only yesterday that he’d felt the warm body of a wife sleeping next to him? She had stayed with him through the final merger, the one he’d promised would bring them financial freedom. She muscled through his two affairs and the drinking that bridged them both. Now, two years, a foreclosure, divorce, and bankruptcy later, he thought he smelled her hair, the fragrance of mint intermingled in aching reminiscence. But it was only the smell of loss mixed with dog shit on his one remaining shoe. He’d lost the other earlier that day foraging for what was left of his meal, now part of his concrete pillow. And, as it began to snow, he blacked out.
She was desperate. It had been too long between hits and her most regular but equally violent trick had just buzzed to be let in. She frantically ravaged through her regular places searching for her small bag of white, powdered courage. If she could get high enough quick enough, perhaps he would get enough soon enough and leave her just enough to start the whole process again.
He pounded on the buzzer. Now, he wasn’t just horny but pissed off and, most likely, more violent as a result. Her lust to forget competed with his to be remembered and a battle ensued as to whose needs would be met first. She gave up. This time, a paying customer in person overruled her quest to be absent. After safely shoeing her daughter away in a back room, yelling for her to lock the door, with quivering hand she buzzed him in.
He stormed and swore his way up the four flights of stairs. It was a distance not her friend when it came to her chances of getting through this unscathed. Her door flew open, along with his zipper and a stream of obscenities. Everything aligned in a perfect storm, conspiring against her and sealing her fate. She lucked out this time and suffered only one punch before he got down to business. Through a left eye, now starting to swell, she toughed it out through one more indignity.
Ash Wednesday. Ashes indicate something. They tell us something has been used up, finished. There is nothing left. Any fuel that had provided light or heat no longer exists. It is rendered useless. Ashes are basically meaningless and, at one level, can provide a bleak picture of what many of us feel about our lives. Sometimes, life offers little more than the used up fodder of someone else’s fire.
In the Gospel however ashes become something more than foul smelling carbon. Jesus reveals to us how the ashes of death are turned to the fertilizer of new life. In his name, we trade our ashes for God’s beauty. Death and dying for life and living.
An anxiety-ridden woman receives the call; a washed-up businessman is now one with the streets; a hooker walks a tightrope of addiction and fear to survive the only lifestyle she knows.
All of us are only a hair’s breadth away from ruin or reward, disaster or dream, life or lies. We’re in this together. And wherever our lives may be in ruins, God can bring about beauty from our ashes.
The nature of this blog has been primarily to share matters of spirituality, the shared concerns of our common journey in and toward the Divine. I make no apology for this emphasis. It impacts us all. Equally.
Everyone of us is on a journey of one kind or another. Some feel stuck in unhealthy feedback loops, the shrill noise of everything threatening their peace daily. Others may be in a fog of doubt or uncertainty or cynicism. Still others feel like a young puppies, wagging happy tails, ears perched to hear all the new joys a day will bring forth.
In recent years, my journey has brought me out of a long, dark hallway of faith deconstruction, a general cynicism about most things, and a cottage industry in unrequited longing into more broad and spacious lands. This is how it goes with most lives. Light is only light when understood against darkness. And shadows, for all their nuanced grey, make things interesting. We learn best this way.
Or, so it would seem.
Again, no apologies. Just an honest assessment of my lay of the land, spiritually speaking. “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”
I suppose I mention this here because, contrary to what I might normally post here for you dear folks, what follows will feel more…conventional. A step into the great pastoral P.R. as it were!
This is gleaned from our most recent Mailchimp newsletter. We send it about once a month and it outlines where we’re at in our pursuit of ministry in the UK. I hope you don’t mind. Better still, I pray you find here something of benefit to your souls, despite this bald advertisement of new things on our horizon.
Come, walk with us, will you?
*We’re participating in the upcoming Serve Globally Europe team retreat, Washington State edition, in mid-April.
*Rae honed her resumé and has begun sending them out. At our age, that’s always a faith venture! I will develop my ministry from wherever Rae finds work – most likely somewhere near London or Edinburgh.
*Given the state of affairs globally with the pandemic, we’ve decided to stay put until after we’re vaccinated. Then, we’ll head to Canada for a few weeks to visit family and friends and continue raising prayer/financial support.
Rae and I share a heart for the disenfranchised, especially millennials, and we’re passionate about sharing Jesus in non-conventional, contextual ways. My goal is to weave together contemporary liturgies, the arts, and spiritual formation in developing creative ways to reach agnostics, “exvangelicals,” the de-churched, and the un-churched.
Our current donor initiative is “Project 21 – Coffee Money Gospel.” We invite you to become a sustaining member of our community by contributing only $21 (or more) per month. Three dollars, seven times a month (or the opposite if you’re given to more uptown drinks) – coffee money!
For all of those who have joined our community as partners in ministry, thank you! But, we still have a long way to go before we can get to the mission field. With enough of you joining us, we’ll be there in no time. Then, we’ll share a coffee in your honour!
At this point, to suggest we’re living in stressful, chaotic times would be insulting, even obscene. One can hear the collective groan, “Duh. Just get on with it, writer dude.” Therefore, rather than grasping at the low-hanging fruit of current tensions, already glaringly obvious, I draw our attentions instead to possible solutions.
Others are better at that than I. To help us find a way forward is friend and colleague Janet C. Hanson. Besides the clarity of writing wed to ample humility, she brings a depth, wisdom, grace, and unified consciousness to the fore. In her own generous way, she pulls us back from the heat of flames that would otherwise consume us toward the cooler, gentler twilight of shared consideration.
Better still, she takes us for a walk through the biblical narrative – a template for life well suited to the jostle and grind of anxious disagreements and the division they so easily bring.
Join me as I share her words of comfort and conviction, kindness and kairos, welcome and whimsy.
Benjamin Franklin warned, “As we must account for every idle word, so we must account for every idle silence.” If this is true, how do we avoid erring on either side?
Lately, I feel a bit like William Faulkner, weighed down by the utter futility of it all. “Talk, talk, talk; the utter and heartbreaking stupidity of words,” he lamented. Has there ever been a time when truth was so silenced and outrage indulged for the most petty of reasons?
Collectively haunted by a year no one wanted, shouldn’t we pause for a moment? Shouldn’t we admit our fondness for slander, and self-righteous pander to the cruel and coarse–is there room for remorse? And just one day to pray and then say “I’m sorry?”
It seems hopeless. As sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, someone will do something apparently WRONG, and others will make certain I know it.
And should I respond? Are only cowards quiet? Am I complicit with madness if I don’t speak against it?
But I’ve good reason to be wary. Too often, my righteous rancor and your irked indignation point in opposite directions. Which leaves us both trapped in the crossfire.
Not Silent Enough
The current fascination with IMO (“in my opinion”) should alarm us. For, when stuck in “constant comment” mode, we’re deaf to the cries of more timid voices, to hidden need, to God’s concern for the unnoticed and unloved.
The wisdom found in Ecclesiastes 3 reminds us there is a time to resign from being the squeaky wheel and just listen. In the 11th verb of our Alphabet of Life series, we address the question, “At this moment, with this audience, do I speak or do I keep silent?”
Keep Silent, Until
Even when flooded with well-earned affront, our most helpful thoughts are never found “off the top of our heads.” Where anger is concerned, it’s not the cream that rises to the top, but the grease, the oily residue of visceral emotion, rather than the profound.
So, there’s a time to be patient and wait, if only to reconnect with deeper, more reasonable thought. Perhaps we should all tape this reminder to our bathroom mirror:
Wisdom doesn’t demand a vow of silence, nor benign banality, but to “keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking [or repeating] lies,” (Psalm 34:13). For, if we don’t resist the addictive impulse to “bite and devour one another” (Galatians 5:15), we will all end up feeling like chewed-up remains.
“Let no unwholesome words come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29). We deceive ourselves if we think our times are so remarkable we are exempt from the command to speak benediction, not condemnation over others.
So, before I speak up, I must ask,
Do my words shed some light, or simply give free publicity to darkness?
Do my words reflect God’s love for all people, or merely people I approve of?
Will my words be worth quoting in my obituary?
The Last Word
Orchestral conductor Benjamin Zander tells the storyof a friend who, on a train bound for Auschwitz with her 8 year old brother, scolded him quite harshly for losing his shoes. Those were the last words she ever spoke to him. Her brother died, but she, miraculously, survived, emerging from that evil place with new, compelling vow:
“I will never say anythingthat couldn’t stand as the last thing I will ever say.”
Words matter. Your thoughts (whether mute, or muttered, or typed in a comment) can discourage and destroy. But when patiently crafted and delivered in love, your words just might heal the world.
Thank you for joining us here! You can subscribe to this series by scrolling to the very bottom of her site (see below). Next time, in An Alphabet of Life: Wisdom learned in the verbs: L is for Love.
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Janet is a graduate of Fuller Seminary, and she and her family are fellow Covenanters living in California. Here’s a snapshot from her website to introduce you.
“Welcome to my blog, where I tinker with the nuts and bolts (and apparently useless pieces too) of faith, culture, art, and ordinary life, and hold them up to the light of Christ.
I typically publish my thoughts (questions, doubts, opinions, observations, self-therapy, flawed but sincere conclusions) every other week, or when life allows. I LOVE it when you share yours back.”
Don’t be shy. Pop onto her blog, say hello and share a comment or two to keep this conversation going!
Much has been written about this period of the holy story the church has called Christmastide. We hear words like waiting, longing, anticipation, inbreaking, birthing, hoping, emmanuel, and sing of shepherds and sheep, angels, alleluias and announcements, mangers and mangy stables and , all in voices bright sing gloria in excelsis deo (glory to God in the highest).
Consumer culture rides its coattails toward a bloated bottom line. Corporate culture plays with its nuances to encourage warmth of feeling and brand vibes. Christian culture uses it to battle their annual “war on Christmas.” Cancel culture uses it to remedy the former. And, Hallmark culture uses it to sell Thomas Kinkade paintings (I have nothing against him, I promise!). Such a tangle of ideas and emotions, all running rampant…at Christmas.
Even in an arguably post-Christian culture, it is challenging to share anything particularly new about a story this well known. For those of us tasked with its telling it can be especially difficult to reverse the potential for a familiarity-bred contempt, both in the church, and in the culture at large. But tell it we do. Every year.
The stultifying caprice of our COVIDays, coupled with unparalleled political farcity seems to have diminished our ability to see any hopeful horizons and consequently, ravage our capacity to dream. One wonders if one can ever again, wonder. As the writer of Proverbs once observed, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life” (13:12).
But, dare we think ourselves alone to be the hope-starved? Those to whom the heavenly babe first came were far more so.
Read appropriately, in its original context, the birth narrative of Jesus would have sounded incredulous. A questionable yarn akin to UFO talkies or gu’rmint conspiracy theories in the local version of Bethlehem’s National Enquirer. ‘Twould have been anything but a family-friendly, consumer-ready tale fit for animated movie screens and glittering holiday bling.
Instead, the Hebrew nation fixated on their lot as Roman-branded religious fanatics and kicked against the goads of military occupation. And, theirs was an occupation not just politically by the Romans, but theologically and morally by religious leaders pretending to follow Torah but largely interested in political safety and the biggest voice at the table (sound familiar?).
Long had they given up hope that anything would actually change. That their station might somehow improve. That, in great, great grandpa’s memory was something about messiah, the line of David, and covenant promises, among other fantastical things. They had done what almost every other conquered people has always done – settled into the long night of mediocrity and acceptance. Their survival mode button was stuck in the ‘on’ position.
Oh, there were outliers for sure. History is replete with them. There are always a remnant of stalwarts who refuse such resigned demeanour.
For example, Anna, whose long and lonely life had been given to prayerfulness and presence. Simeon, similarly, happy just to die having seen the fulfillment of a promise. Zechariah, whose priestly advocacy over Israel was well-known and whose doubts equalled his dedication. Elizabeth was giddy just to be pregnant in old age (God rather fancies such stunts), let alone with the New Testament’s resident off-the-grid hippy. And, of course, Mary. Aw, Mary – sweet but strong, young but wise, believing but thoughtful. Mary, perhaps more than anyone, understood the full importance and impact of what was told her by the angelic messenger. Apparently yes, she did know. ; )
“My mind is blown and my heart is full. Okay, so if I’m hearing you correctly, God’s finally doing something? Not just anything, but making the cosmic statement that the lesser is the more, the small leads the great, the poor rule over the rich. It’s all been upended, and you remembered everything that you’ve ever promised to me and my people? I’m in!”*
It is on the one hand a strength that such a story resides deep in our shared memory and finds revered place in our common consciousness. But, sometimes the familiarity of character, plot, and setting can sublimate the luminous mysteries at work under the surface. We kinda know the story but it doesn’t move us anymore. The aha! has been lost in the constant retelling that lacks reliving.
We can attribute much that is warm and good and beautiful to our affixation with the Christmas story. We still value the notion, however vague, that love lies at its heart, that forgiveness has at least something to do with all this, that family and community somehow matter, and that God doesn’t mind getting his hands (and diapered backside) dirty.
In our cynical moments, if nothing else, it keeps us looking for good deals at Walmart and happily arguing over Starbucks cups. And who doesn’t love that after fighting winter traffic for two hours?
But, upon reflection, guided by the Spirit who guided the star who guided the wise men who guides us still, we confess Christmastide to be a picture of heavenly surprise. To retell such a treasured tale should be of all things, an exercise in practicing surprise.
And everyone loves surprises.
A happy and surprising Christmastide to each and every one of you!
*Rob’s take on Luke 1:46-55, often called “The Magnificat” or simply “Mary’s Song of Praise.”
I have shared here on numerous occasions my intention to follow the Spirit’s voice across the pond where we will serve withServe Globallysomewhere in Britain. This call has percolated in my wife and I for many years and we are finally ready to pour whatever heady liquid is forthcoming into frothy mugs of Gospel peace for all who need it.
A big part of that process is…gulp…fundraising. An unsexy word if ever there was one. But, alas, despite whatever stigma is attached thereto, I muscle through it to enjoin all within earshot to join us in this venture. Follow along as an interested witness to what God is doing. Follow us by way of joining our prayer community. Or, follow us by joining ourfinance community.
What I post here is a new offering, not just for our Serve Globally family, but for this blog as well. Along with our regular semi-monthlynewsletter, I have added “Sacred Spaces,”(I apologize for the exterior link! It keeps things tidier) a page uniquely dedicated to encouraging hope and nourishing the spiritual imagination.
My regular readers will recognize much of the material. It comes from here! But it is placed into a readable Mailchimp design for easy email distribution.
You are my precious blog family, equally dedicated to the mysteries of the spiritual journey. And, of all people, I want to invite you deeper into this adventure, thiscoddiwomple, with us.