The art of words, eleven years on

On January 31st, 2011, I posted my very first piece on this blog. After much consideration I chose the name innerwoven because it seemed to capture what I believe to be true about all of us – we are beloved creatures kneaded into the dough of earth and eternity by God. An often-nasty business requiring much punching and bending and mucking about that constantly shapes our raw material into something warm and nourishing to be served up to a world starving for its goodness. And, although true spirituality is a two-way street – impulses and experiences, ideas and trouble, ecstasy and environments – moving in and out of us, the work of God is largely an inner one. God, at the very center of us, pushing His/Her way out like radiating circles of magma to the mouth of our volcano, ready to burst out upon the world.

This blog then was originally designed to be a catch-all spiritual notepad upon which I could scribble a few ideas about the nature of the soul, the shape of my emerging life, and in so doing, build a little community. Writing about all that required poetry which is what happens when words make love. They impregnate the page with something remarkably sweet and real. Robslitbits became the creative writing arm of the blog which I later portioned into a separate entity. At first, however, it was all right here.

To celebrate eleven years, I repost one of my earliest blog entries. This one was originally early February, 2011, but it still says the kind of thing I’d typically say. Thanks to all of you for taking this journey of spirituality and literature with me. You make life fun, interesting, and just…better!

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Gerard Manley Hopkins. John Donne. Wm. Shakespeare. Christina Rosetti. Emily Dickinson. Paul Simon. Bono. Since I was a very young lad growing up in Calgary, Canada, I’ve had a love affair with language; specifically the art of words. Words spoken. Words written. Words read and re-read, like ingesting food for the eyes that gets digested in the heart.

In the holistic sense of the term, words are sensual. They are meant for more than simply corralling ideas or channelling information. They can and should be beautiful for their own sake. Carefully chosen and meted out in gradual succession like adding the correct ingredients in proper order to the perfect meal, words are part of the whole and greater than the sum of their parts. They massage meaning into our spiritual skin, perking up our inner ears to hear what our unseen lover whispers in our unguarded moments.

The Christian life is more poetry than prose; more a wild garden than suburban lawn. To that end I share this brief poem:

Photo by R. A. Rife, Edinburgh, Scotland

Spirituality: Untapped Mission Field or Giant Red Herring?

Having just completed Dr. Fraser’s marvellous book, “Mission in Contemporary Scotland,” I am pleased to share a short piece of particular interest to me. In general terms, because I have a master’s degree in spiritual formation, or Christian spirituality to be precise. More specifically, because “spirituality” is one of the means by which I hope to reach out in my new Scottish mission environment. Fraser has been most helpful in the many questions we all have related to the Church, her identity and mission. And, for me, that identity and mission here in Edinburgh.

Enjoy, and, if you like a well-balanced, thoughtful, lovingly orthodox view into imago Dei/missio Dei, procure his book. You’ll be glad you did!

Mission in Contemporary Scotland

Religion sometimes gets a bad rep these days. From Trump-supporting evangelicalism in the United States, to the Taliban, to Northern Ireland, to the stereotypes of Victorian moralism, an increasingly small number of people want to be labelled with the word ‘religious’ or even that of ‘Christian’.

Yet as the labels ‘religious’ and ‘Christian’ have declined in social prestige, so ‘spiritual’ has become more prominent. Prior to the 1960s and the Beatles trip to India (anyone old enough to remember that?) the words ‘spiritual’ and ‘spirituality’ were largely connected with certain elements of Roman Catholic devotion, and the Gospel songs of former American slaves. From the 1960s onward, however, the term morphed into something far wider and socially important. ‘Spiritual but not religious’ became one of the main forms of Western religiosity, the individualist counterpart to the moribund ‘institutional religion’ of yesteryear.

Despite it being such a widely used term, however…

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Christmas in Edinburgh

Looking out from the Christmas Festival on Prince’s Street

The air feels sharp. Like a paper cut on dry skin. The same air that is moderated by the sea is also saturated with it so that the wind denies however many layers one can throw at its defence.

It’s a good thing this city is so photogenic. She blushes with feigned humility at every turn, dipping her shirt to reveal her grey-stone breasts just enough to draw you to her. But, as you draw near, her manner reminds you that you’re a mere stone’s throw from the North Sea.

In early Winter.

As seen from our window, snow comes wistfully to Comely Bank.

Anyone who follows us on social media, or has been within camera or earshot of us in the past few weeks, is already aware that my wife and I live now in Edinburgh, Scotland. We haven’t stopped talking about it. You ever hang around new parents and they never quit talking about their newborn? Yeah, it’s kinda like that.

Everything is new. We have new UK phone numbers almost impossible to memorize (memorise). We are learning to write dates day/month/year. We’ve traded a five-number zip code for a postal code with two caps, a number, another number, and two more caps. We’re learning what it’s like to shop for days of food at a time rather than weeks. We’re learning the complexities of laundry in the UK, a process not unlike rebuilding a laptop.

Thanks to the relative compactness of Edinburgh streets, we’ve taken like pros to something we would never have done in North America, ride a bus. We walk everywhere else. Living in the relatively central district of Stockbridge I call this the “one-mile zone.” We can walk almost anywhere we need to be, including downtown (uptown as the locals call it).

The glaring lack of any formal Thanksgiving tradition here is regrettable in one way, given the many memorable observances we’ve enjoyed over the years with family, friends, and one unlucky turkey. But, it is also a wonderful thing not having to engage in the inevitable, often heated, debates about Christmas decorating starting “too early.” Despite its lack of liturgical credibility, “too early” for me would be mid-October, not American Thanksgiving which just happens to fall less than a month from Christmas.

Edinburgh loves her Christmas decorating. She does it well, with a voracious thoroughness that causes Mrs. Claus to blanche at the sight. Is it thoroughly secular? Yeah, pretty much. Is it beautiful and welcoming? Absolutely. Which, as you will recall from my earlier post on the Enneagram 4, is my love language.

Beauty is next to godliness.

Blue Christmas
The Walter Scott Memorial
Merry-go-Round
Big wheel keep on turnin’
Edinburgh has lighting down to an art.
More Edinburgh lights
The door’s the thing.

I’ve often questioned artists who claim their particular geography to have the “best light” when they live where there’s nothing but an abundance of it, washing out all colour and nuance. When light is involved, “most” does not equal “best.” My soul prefers its light at a premium; where it changes much, leaves me alone for long periods of time, and is therefore, precious.

Granton Harbour in morning light, shrewdly shrouded

For me, Edinburgh in winter is that place.

Pathways beckon
St. Bernard’s Well, Leith Parkway

A runner for many years, I confess that the best pathways for moving contemplation are these damp corridors of green-framed stone and shadow. It is something about subtleties where colours can pop because they’re not constantly blanched by direct sunlight. There’s an existential complexity to it utterly lacking in sun-drenched regions.

I have the opposite of seasonal affective disorder (S.A.D.) I’m depressed in constant sun. Nothing changes. It’s like trying to drink from a fire hydrant…all the time. It’s too much, too often, for no reason.

The breadth of human experience requires more than the cheap seats at a bad movie. It needs emotional distance, space to laugh and hurt and question and doubt and start all over again. The heart needs lament; needs thoughtfulness, discernment, the tepid wondering for which it is engineered. I agree with Pàdraig Ó Tuama’s review of Dunez Smith’s amazing poem, “I’m going back to Minnesota where sadness makes sense.” where he states, “not everyone needs to live in perpetual summer.”

Yes. That.

Gravestones at St. Cuthbert’s Kirk
St. Cuthbert’s

2021. This will be our first Christmas away from our boys. Either one or the other, or both, were always with us for the holidays. However, given the weight of God’s call upon us to love and serve Edinburgh, it seems not so high a price to pay, given the great returns we’ve already enjoyed from this incredible place. Besides, our laddies are squarely in God’s hands every bit as much as we, or anyone else.

So then, this year…it is Christmas in Edinburgh.

Thanks, Bruce…

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“All through my life I have embraced and questioned the night, and loved its random light: the aurora borealis, the starry reaches of the cosmos, streetlight ricochet off car metal and darkened windowpanes…the light of friends and lovers.
 
We are on a great journey, through darkness and dawn, across time, though sometimes I fear that our journey is about to end. We must not succumb to fear or avarice; we must continue to embrace life, seek light, and gather in the charity of night. This is what God wants from us and for us. Mirrors of the past shine with the hue of unborn days, just as stars glitter in the dark night to light our way.”
 

I love metaphor. I appreciate the multitudinous ways it invites us to consider really big stuff. Night and day, dark and light, doorways and highways – all of it in pursuit of understanding that which can be never be fully understood. 

Longing, as I’ve written many other places, is a condition most endemic of the hungry human spirit. If we are anything as humans, we are spiritually starving. Like the blessing of pain to a body out of joint is that of longing to the soul under duress, or even just at rest. We long not because we’re broken necessarily, but because we want either to be unbroken, or, in my case, to experience the proximity of God as God when last I WAS broken.

However, there’s a danger implicit in longing for its own sake. It can easily become an obsession, a drug without which we feel we can never really be whole. For too many years, in the name of contemplation, I lived in what could only be described as wallowing. It was often a cottage industry of self-pity in the guise of discerning depth; “look at me suffer and enjoying it” rather than the healthier pursuit of gratitude-in-darkness while praying for light. Persona incognito.

I’ve learned since then to notice the subtle differences which exist between genuine longing and a self-imposed spiritual subterraneanism posing as such. Nowadays, whenever longing arises within me, a few questions arise with it. First, where is this coming from? Why is it there and what is it telling me? Is this genuine heartsickness or just indigestion?  Does my spirit need something or am I falling into addictive thinking once again? 

As beautiful, daring, mystifying, and thirsty as the human soul can be, it is also fickle and will play tricks on us. What presents as darkness might just be ennui, the listlessness which is part of being human. What presents as sadness might better be described as an insufficient attention to the light of Christ always burning in our deepest places.

The Bible and, by extension, the great tradition of Christian spirituality have aligned the parallel barrels of mystery and metaphor as their formational crosshairs. The immense enterprise of God’s program of cosmic reclamation remains unsuited to the quaint and glib prognostications of “systematic theology”, or as I like to see it, the detached mechanics of straining eternity through an eye-dropper. Protestantism in general, evangelicalism in particular, are guilty of this diminution.

All of the above has been the experience of my hero, Bruce Cockburn. I recently finished his memoir. A favourite person. My favourite genre. The chance to devour, even absorb, the fascinating lives of fascinating people. My life grows from the experience, every time. What’s not to love? Ah, but this is not just any memoir. 

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It is impossible to understate the impact Cockburn has had on me. My music. My approach to the guitar. My songwriting. My ongoing love for literature and words. Especially, my spirituality, infused with longing as it has been. Even my personality exudes a certain whiff of Cockburnesque mystique, much of it intentional.

He doesn’t know it (yet), but I credit him in large measure for my career in music, songwriting, and for my journey of faith. While he was still pursuing something beyond the pale for himself, he speaks of “the speech of stones.” It was probingly pagan but sufficiently poetic to peak my interest. There was something out there worthy of seeking.

Bruce (may I call you that?), if it’s good enough for you, it’s good enough for me.

It still is.

Light from Darkness – a prayer

I love this prayer by Church of Scotland minister, Sang Cha. Read it. Pray it. Read and pray it again – alone, or with others, this Advent season.

Rev Sang Cha, the minister at St Mungo’s Parish Church in Alloa, Scotland

Lord,
thank You for the darkness.
Thank You for letting us sit in the darkness.
For in the darkness, in the silence, we know that You are God.
For You have taught us through Your servants in ages past that a god who always answers is an idol.

In every darkness, You have brought the light of Your one Word.
Just a simple Word.
Your Word feels like sitting under the Sun.
Through this Word,
You remind us that our incomplete light shines brightest when we are lit from behind by the light of God.
That our light shines brightest when nothing but You can sustain it.

In these winter months, with the absence of light,
remind us again that absence creates a presence.
So, we thank You as poets thank the coming of spring.
Everything begins anew with You.
Always and again.
Amen.

Building Our Poem

“…in thy voice I catch

The language of my former heart…”*

“The Bud,” 1987

I love poetry. I love its exactitude, its wide-eyed innocence wed to unflinching honesty. The unforced rhythms of perfection, like Grandma’s gaze over well-worn glasses. It is the art of lovers, the science of thinkers, the wisdom of doers.

Poetry gives up her secrets cautiously, altruistically, slowly. Every word, like every note of a great symphony, is fully intended, placed unequivocally in its place with an eye, and ear, to building something remarkable out of simple things, something well beyond the sum of its parts.

In a thousand ways, we are the amalgam of our carefully written words; each one added to the emerging poem of our lives. In this process, there are no real mistakes. There is only the discernment asked of us in the changing turn of phrase that will ultimately become our voice in the world.

For me, Rosebud was one such word. Perhaps an entire stanza.

Although my active period in Rosebud was limited to a few months in 1987, her existential tattoos continue to reveal themselves in enduring ways. A tiny, easily missed oasis in the Alberta prairie percolated in me an entire life thereafter committed to several things: the transformative realities birthed in the canyons of friendship, great things can come from wee places, the pursuit of art wed to faith, and the kind of community possible only through probing, and honest, creativity. Family, lived best in and through, story. Our stories now connect in ways both obvious and subtle.

Rosebud Opera House, 1987
Rosebud Opera House, 2021

Our digs
The diminutive Akokiniskway

On the About tab from my spiritual life blog reads the following statement of purpose: “my life is dedicated to those places where life, liturgy, theology, and the arts intersect to promote an authentic spirituality – who we are becoming.” These values existed in me long before I ever made it to this place. But they were stoked by shared inspiration, fireside laughter, broken stage lights and fumbled words, splinters and spoilers, relational fugue and fatigue, the prayers and tears of young lives navigating their way to maturity; to wholeness. To become both passionate and com-passionate, all writ large in the art of our story. The Story.

On the Rosebud Fellowship homepage can be found the following statement, one of the six “objects” that articulates its purpose: “To promote the fellowship of people whose lives have been affected by the Christian mission of Rosebud School of the Arts.”

Friends, I am one such person.

My daily Rosebud prayer walk, Canadian style.

In the short time I spent here I found lasting friendships, a deep gratitude for the quality of connections that exist around creativity rooted in spirituality, and a way of living, boldly illustrative of the kind of “Christian mission” to which Rosebud has always been committed, both spoken and unspoken.

However, the vision of this place was never one for kitsch or the quaintly derivative “evangelism through art” which has damaged both evangelism and art in so doing. Sadly, what begins as evangelism can become nothing more than jingoistic cheerleading or public relations. What begins as “art” descends to something diminished and pale, akin to cultural babysitting, the low hanging fruit of the accessible and “relevant” to the demise of beauty, the archetypal perfections to which God, wide-eyed, once whispered, “it is good.” When beauty and story are the goal, both art and God win. For me, this is Rosebud’s greatest victory.

Table minstrels

To witness the leadership, serene but definitive, directive but collegial, of LaVerne Erickson has always been a wonder to me. A man of endless stories (and not a few impressive name-drops), tireless energy, and towering vision inspires me as much now as it did in those pre-Cambrian days of 1987. I’m still shedding the pounds added from Arlene’s unforgivably good cooking. More than a few good words (and some less so!) were knit to my story through the relentless humour of Royal Sproule, the passionate guidance of Doug Levitt, the sanguine wisdom of Lyle Penner, the many towering women of faith and creativity who helped put Rosebud on the map. And, of course, the big-heartedness of Akokniskway herself, calling us all deeper into her welcoming bosom.

My daily outdoor show

I am as Canadian as the day is long, complete with an undying love of trains. I grew up in a blue-collar home, the son of a brewery worker and homemaker. Our 900 square foot bungalow in the quaint but rough-around-the-edges southwest Calgary neighbourhood was poised right next to tracks, now LRT, but once host to regular trains through town. So, when I moved into my room in the Rosebud Hotel, the nightly train arriving just past midnight was like a well-worn pair of jeans. Her whistle neither haunted nor annoyed. It sang to me of prairie goodness, rich in the Canadian story so much my own. Our own.

The poetry of my life is ongoing. Rosebud has faded well into my rearview mirror. But she has never stopped whispering to me of what could be, those places where my past collides with my present to hint at a future.

Rife crazies – Rae, Graeme (25), Calum (30), Me

Now, after decades of Christian ministry, a life dedicated to music, writing, poetry, spiritual formation, and the arts, two boys (both professional musicians), together with my wife Rae (Rosebud incubated our love!), we are planting new words in our emerging poem. This newest word takes us across the Atlantic to begin life and ministry in the UK. We invite as many as we can to join us on this journey. Our poetry improves with every letter added, every nuance of word, phrase, and metaphor.

All of you are all of that.

Rosebud, thank you for being a cradle, an incubator, a muse and sage, a friend. Your poetry is now, and will always be, my own. I take you with me, with us, into a new horizon. Our emerging poem.

Word for word, words for Word.

1987-Rae Kenny and I were married the following year.

Same people, almost 30 years later.
2016, Peterborough Cathedral, England

A poem

When muscle, bone, and sinew can’t find heart

and listening and looking. Then, severed in time

from the wishing well of wonder, we wander

through rushes and slivers of our moments, bent

over mirrored water, haunted.

There is a wrinkle in the hour’d fabric of

our days when tender grows the minstrel’s

song. It rings across golden fields of

shimmering wheat – milled hopes, rolled and real.

Bardic but breathless it sounds, reveling in tremors

of songs still sung to handmade candles.

They shine to our hopes, ablaze with just

a hint of what could be.

There is a certain moment, beholden to itself,

in which ghosts and gazes meet to discuss

their future. Still, birthed

from the ashes of forgottenness

an ember yet lurks, small but waiting, patient –

alert to any movement or sounds of humming.

Catch it if it sings.

©R. A. Rife, 2016

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* Quoted from his famous work, Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798 by Wm. Wordsworth

Reemergence and the Risk of Community

I stand corrected.

With my first foray into central Saskatchewan I witnessed a part of the Province at once unexpected and lush. I now retract all those youthfully snide comments I made as a boy every time I came to Saskatchewan and proclaimed it the flattest, most featureless place I’d ever seen.

Prince Albert in particular, where I had gone to preach at a sister church, was surprising. Understated and pastoral, she offered herself to me in all her “boreal transition forest” splendour. A landscape not terribly unlike the north of England quietly strut her stuff and I was impressed.

Saskatchewan, I apologize. I was a kid; ignorant, wrong. You are gorgeous. As were the good folks of Gateway Covenant Church with whom I shared and among whom I lived for a couple days. What follows is the edited version of my sermon with some music from our service on Sunday, August 8th, 2021.

Don’t make the mistake I made when I was growing up and decide something is the sum total of one’s limited experience. Wait. It just might surprise you!

I continue to be amazed at the generosity of friends and total strangers alike as they sign on as partners for our upcoming ministry to the UK with Serve Globally of the Evangelical Covenant Church. See below how you can do so, too.

For our American friends.

For our Canadian friends.

Grace and peace to you all!