Uni-Versitas: Start with Wonder

Albert Einstein and Augustine of Hippo are different people. They are also the same. Having now exercised remarkable powers of observation and obfuscation, allow me to explain.

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Einstein. A genius, obviously.

Albert Einstein of Theory of General Relativity fame was a troubled failure of a student who became a theoretical physics superstar. He began as Steve Erkel but later became the Tom Brady of the 20th century science world, although rather wanting in groupies I should think. Albert stumbled his way through grade school having revealed a rather less than stellar academic prowess. But his was a great mind waiting to bust out of the starting gate and take a stab at the big world he observed. Better than most as it would turn out.

We’ll call him a good candidate for the Ellen Show.

Augustine of Hippo was a troubled saint-in-training, a self-proclaimed failure whose frat-boy lasciviousness (constantly horny for the lay person) and subsequent coming to Jesus moment is wonderfully outlined in his Confessions. It was the first of its kind. Memoir and theology wed together in a single book. It happens all the time now. Not so much then, however, when even average brains were pushed around in wheel-barrows.

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Augustine of Hippo. Kinda has frat-boy written all over him, doesn’t he?

Frankly, as much as I love the guy, he needed to chill a bit on the whole self-flagellation thing. He commits pages to the ravages of soul he encounters from stealing some of his neighbour’s pears. Really, dude? No “boys will be boys” pass on this one, huh? Like, I’m not trying to justify thievery here, but let’s get a grip, shall we? I sin more before morning coffee than this guy ever did, and he gets to be famous?

He’s more Jerry Springer.

What Gus and Al bring to the table however is exactly the same. A stretch you say? Perhaps. But, in a non-dualistic world, where everything is allowed to be interconnected, the starting point for science and for spirituality are one and the same.

Wonder.

My love for science is birthed from the same place as my longing for God. Frankly, I think they work the same turf, just with different conclusions for different reasons. But, in this uni-versitas, one truth, wonder reserved for black holes and quarks feels tellingly like that which the mystics experienced in the throes of contemplation.

For the sciency types, wonder is of the curious kind. The more rational, sensory kind where eye-balls matter more than Bibles. Observation, experimentation, hypothesis, theory, deduction. Repeat. One can hardly look to the heavens without asking how the hell all that stuff got way out there. It really is quite stunning. Go deep-sea diving and one has both dinner and questions. Or perhaps gaze out across the horizon and discern just how flat or round the earth might be (I leave the conspiracies, snickering and finger-pointing to you).

The greatest explorers, scientists, and theologians all began with the same premise. Wonder. But, it is in rather short supply in a world more concerned with body image or retirement savings than all this silliness.

What’s needed is a healthy dose of children. Not by way of breeding (although not entirely a bad thing), but learning from them. If you’re looking for answers to quantum mechanics, modifying your car, or the latest stock tips, don’t ask children. They’ll just show up with enlightened curiosity and wide-eyed wonder.

And, what good is that? Our lust for all things pragmatic chews away noisily at us, forcing misplaced expectations. We wouldn’t want to get our hopes up too high just in case today sucks. Besides, who has time anyway, right?

Rush, run, push, pull, grunt, wheeze, talk, squeeze – and that’s just zipping up our jeans. The real business happens once we get into our car for work. Then we practice a lifetime of adulting, or at least adultifying our child selves, silenced years ago in the frenetics of bills and babies, dishes and disappointments. Our playlist at the ready, we fire up the car (light on style, heavy on sensible) and join the rest of the one-per-vehicle parade floats. None of us dares to look at each other unless it’s to offer that you’re-really-gonna-change-lanes-here?! look of exasperation.

It’s almost cliché to write about the curse of busyness. Everyone’s doing it. Both the busyness and the writing about it. We’ve learned little in terms of how interconnected the universe really is, chaos theory notwithstanding. We’re fragmented, frightened and frazzled, all before coffee break.

These days, in pursuit of spiritual development, I tend to read Stephen Hawking and Bill Bryson as easily as I might St. John of the Cross or Meister Eckhart (Uncle Wiggy as I like to call him). Their aims are different. Their yearning for knowledge the same. Their process is different, although a case can be made for observation and seeing as central to both. Their outcomes just as mystifying. Just as satisfying.

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Meister Eckhart (Uncle Wiggy). Brilliant spirituality I like to call Christus Cannabis.

Ironically, I gain as much from reading those whose aim it is to prove God out of existence as those who presuppose that existence. Doctors of astronomy and asceticism, gravity and gratitude, dinosaurs and doxology. They are different, and they are the same. For me, they all begin in the same place. In wonder.

It’s all of a piece. And, if you let it, all of a peace.

_________________________________________________________________________

Picture of Al found here

Picture of Gus found here

Picture of Uncle Wiggy found here

Love, Shackled by Unbelief

As a church music director I occasionally get opportunities to preach sermons. That should cause some of you to rejoice that the artsies have a pulpit voice, too. The rest of you will shudder at the idea that we’re allowed anywhere near one.

Ah well, what follows is my sermon from this morning, Sunday, August 5th. It’s been amended a bit to this audience who would tend not to react as negatively to more “spicy” language and approach.

I hope it lodges somewhere good, or at least, hungry.

Mark 6:1-13

6He left that place and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him. 2On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! 3Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him. 4Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ 5And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. 6And he was amazed at their unbelief. 

Then he went about among the villages teaching. 7He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 8He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; 9but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. 10He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 11If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.’ 12So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. 13They cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

Even a cursory jaunt through the Gospel of Mark gives us a picture of Jesus who doesn’t fit well into pre-existing categories. He is different than the conventional and, as such, is often viewed suspiciously, or as we shall see, even contemptuously.

This sermon takes place among a series entitled “Defiance – Challenging the Norm.” ‘Defiance’ here is intended as a general term meant to convey the prophetic, counter-cultural way in which Jesus lived, taught and related to others. He defied easy categorization.

He was then and shall ever be, a glorious enigma.

Jesus has begun a ministry of healing and teaching, confronting people with a new way of thinking, of being in the world. He’s been busy making waves, making sick people well, hopeless people hopeful, lost people found, demonized people free, the government nervous, and religious people pissed off.

So, with all that success and street cred in tow, Jesus comes now to his hometown. But he comes not on a social call. He arrives bringing with him the kingdom message and is prepared to fulfill the exact same purpose for which he has come. He returns to Nazareth to reveal this new way of looking at God.

And how does he go about doing such a thing? Exactly. He teaches in the synagogue to those who already “know God” (by the way, in the same way doctors make terrible patients, we religious folks can make the worst disciples!). He’s met quickly with disdain and rejection.

“Wait a minute. We know this guy. That’s a lotta book learnin’ coming from that weird kid who grew up down the street from Bob and Lydia’s place. Who the hell does he think he is?!”

In fact, this was what they said, “Where did this man get all this?” They can’t be bothered to use his name! “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary…?” They basically remind him of his status as an illegitimate bastard by referring to him as “the son of Mary.”

Jesus had likely dealt with whispers and sneers his whole life. The self-righteous do-goodery of small town gossips has ripened well. And old grudges die hard.

Their assumptions about Jesus and, by extension what a prophet is “supposed to be” have been challenged. “This is no prophet, this is that snot-nosed carpenter’s kid. And, certainly no Messiah, either.” They make themselves unreceptive to the saving power of grace.

How many of us, having gone out into the world and made something of ourselves have returned to our places of origin only to be met with suspicion, or even derision? This kind of thing happens all the time. There’s something about challenging the status quo that makes people uncomfortable.

Jesus, the small-town lad, returns home. But no longer is he Joseph’s boy who spent many an afternoon fashioning cedar china cabinets and coffee tables. He returns home to Nazareth, a Palestinian redneck town, flashing the equivalent of a Ph.D. and a big city car. And they don’t take kindly to him shoving all this in their faces.

There is an acceptable, well-established role for anyone calling themselves prophet. Do not move outside those lines. In their eyes, miracles of healing, however impressive, may well have been reduced to cheap parlour tricks from someone just showing off. And a salvation message, however profound, met with stony ears unprepared for it.

Love gets shackled by unbelief.  

To call him a prophet would have called into question all the ways they already saw the world and their place in it. It would have been to question their own hearts. And come on, that’s hard for most of us, isn’t it?

Poet John Donne once penned these words:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.

We all have a collective grid of preconceptions, shared expectations, and accepted protocols through which we see out to the world and through which the world comes to us. If you don’t believe me, just try changing the rules to a game played for decades at the local social club. I dare you.

Because we have constructs for everything, we will have difficulty seeing Jesus when he challenges our comfortable assumptions. Jesus looks too much like us. We’ve coopted him, repackaged him, made him comfortable, usable, for us. Then, we lose the ability to see him in our daily activities, hear him speaking to us.

Theologian John Dominic Crossan once said, “beware of finding a Jesus entirely congenial to you.” We don’t want a Saviour who is constantly poking around at our idolatries. Our bigotries. How annoying! And to reject the Jesus who welcomes others, is automatically to reject God.

Let’s be honest, sometimes we’re either afraid or ashamed to be challenged because it’s just easier to rest in a Gospel re-envisioned to suit us. No outsiders allowed. Gather with those who look and think like us because it’s safer and more controllable.

This is something hard to see because those we think of as “other” are unique to every time and place. And, whenever we corral some particular group into the “unwanted” or “sinful” category, that’s precisely the place we will find Jesus.

We see this writ large in the ridiculous debacle of contemporary American politics. With ample posing, bluster, and incompetence enough for everyone with leftovers, we’ve decided it a great idea to crystalize our fears by bowing down to a self-proclaimed White House king. We say we want Jesus but really, we want Barabbas. And he means to neanderthalize what once was a cultural mecca for progressive (small ‘p’) values and diversity. Rather than seek to understand one another and enjoy the delightful surprises of acceptance, we vilify and demonize and divide. Indeed, our wrath spilleth over. 

Who here remembers Isaac Asimov? He was a professor of biochemistry at Boston University and a prolific author. He once said, “your assumptions are your window on the world. Scrub them off sometimes or the light won’t come in.”

Jesus is not in the business of satisfying what we already believe to be true. Jesus wants us to follow him who IS true.

You want to find Jesus? Don’t look for him on the courthouse lawn. Find him in the prisons.

Don’t look for him in the backyard suburbia. Find him in tent villages under bridges.

Don’t look for him in the Constitution. Find him in between the lines of graffiti or suicide notes.

Don’t look for him in the hallways of power and priviledge. Find him in the faces of caged children and in the mentally challenged.

See his face staring back through the black eyes and broken nose of the abused housewife.

Find him in the cyber-bullied student or pregnant teen.

See him looking back at you in the eyes of your Republican neighbour, your Democrat sister, your drug-addict brother, your senile grandma.

See him in your enemy.

It is as true now as it was then, Jesus is often the least welcome among those who claim to know him best. We can be slow to accept anything that challenges our deeply embedded assumptions. Over familiarity with what we’re convinced is true about Jesus can keep us on the outside of experiencing the love he offers.

And, at the very heart of the Gospel is love. It is God intruding into our lives, shattering our pre-existing ideas about everything. Not to be a bully. But to help us clean off our windows enough to let in some light.

Let us not be those whose cast iron opinions (of which, obviously, I’m equally guilty) disallow the in-breaking of God’s love into our lives. Let us instead be those who are always willing to be surprised by Jesus. Let us not allow our knowledge about Jesus stand in the way of our love for him.

Who knows, perhaps he’ll be welcome enough in our hearts to perform mighty deeds of power? Lord, in your mercy, may it be so. Amen.

 

Laura’s Tale

     In their better moments, I dare say many folks would likely extend a more welcoming hand to our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. But our mob mentality, especially prevalent in the institutional church, often disallows as much. The reasons for this are often touted as theological. However, I’d venture a guess that it is often much more likely to be a projection of misdirected self-loathing and fear at the easiest target du jour. Further, it is given credibility through bad, or at least popular, biblical hermeneutics (the paradigm and practices by which we understand something). Then, all is rubber-stamped by those who prescribe and hallow that same fear.

     Many of the most vocal critics of alternate sexualities claim to know a gay person. I’d like to suggest that, given their predisposition toward raised-brow shock or squinty-eyed judgement of the same, this is highly unlikely. Sadly, the high degree of verbal and/or physical violence against these folks by such critics, renders them not particularly forthcoming with personal details that merely paint targets on their chests.

     Therefore, the self-proclaimed prophets of righteousness toddle off into the fray, cherry-picked, ill-understood bible verses in hand, and “take a stand for Jesus.” All this while their gay “friends” are sidelined from the very same faith that calls them as does their accusers.

     I’ll stop there because, when in doubt, ask someone who’s truly been there to better explain. Fellow Jesus-follower and blogger, Laura Jean Truman, recently posted this to her blog. The title alone gave me pause to consider.

     Read, pray, love. Then, let’s talk… 

A Journey, Two Years Hence – Why I Write

Oban screen shot.pngAnother Sunday opens her eyes, damp from night sweat, or the river of dreams. Sunrise, like incandescent eyelashes blinks away the previous day and lets dawn stretch her legs. The miniature Big Ben mantle clock I inherited from my Dad ticks stoically, chipping away the seconds that have become, inexplicably, piles of years; a woodpile of time-chopped memories too easily fuel for the fire. And ashes are but the monochrome of memory – something once hot, bright, robust.

I suppose writing is to throw another log on the fire. The words crackle and spit themselves out as the heat rises. Those are the welcome fires of tin-foil wrapped delicacies, roasted and rich, softer by the second.

Now, this day, here in my writing chair, I can serve up a few morsels, ready to taste. Two. Years. Two full years since an adventure got tucked away, folded inward to await the fires of remembrance. And, in that time, the process, not of decay, but of marination has occurred. Like a good chili, always better the next day. 

And I’m starving!

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Facebook memory pop-ups are a blessing and a curse. They can bring a happy smile of recognition; reminders of good times past with good people. A “curse” inasmuch as those reminders pinch the inner optic nerve with the liminal colour of what is no longer now, but then – sweet, savoury, overpowering.

Never is “a picture is worth a thousand words” truer than when reviewing pictures of magical moments, inaccessible by the senses; only through memory. The existential replaces the experiential and a tear is born.

Two years.

Just seeing those words side by side is unnerving. This time, two years ago, Rae and I had just returned from galavanting around the U.K., filling our boots with shenanigans of every sort. It was our fourth such journey. 1989. 1991. 2004.

Then, a 2016 whirlwind whack-a-mole through salad-bowl Welsh valleys, pulsating London streets, book-studded villages, swarthy Scottish Highlands, tidy bed ‘n breakfast cottages, seaside adventures, writing (always lots of writing); family and friends both old and new. I think my legs still hurt from trudging downtown London and rural Skye, lost much of the time (of course).

Time heals all wounds.clock.jpg

Only time will tell.

Just give it time.

It’s about time.

Time-out.

All in good time.

Running out of time.

We had a great time.

Time gets a lot of press, both good and bad. Likely because of its annoying persistence, an impatient ubiquity. It tick-tocks us into corners or shows up as an ally, all in the same day. We even honour it with a face and hands, and then entrust to it lists about which it cares little. And, just when we think we’ve earned its respect, it barfs in our lap the other side of the page we didn’t see coming. 

To attend to these memories respective to our journey to the UK is to approach the unapproachable. I don’t believe rose-coloured glasses are involved here. Nor do I think it a distance-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder kind of thing. It’s much more than that.

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I think the greatest impact of our time there wasn’t the allure of tourist traps or the necessary bling that accompanies them. It was, on one level, a homecoming. For Rae it was genuinely geographic. She was born there after all. Wales to be exact. For me? Existential.

As I’ve recently discovered, my very DNA hearkens from Scotland/Ireland. Ancestry and companies like it parade around biological allurements to family origin hungry types like me. I fell prey. In doing so, I discovered my patrimony, a host of living relatives, and the certainty of my own personal ancestry rooted deep in Celtic soil. 

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Given all that I’ve written, spoken, and warily discerned on the subject – a holy hunch, if you will – I was more surprised than I should have been. Apparently, it is one thing to guess at one’s place in the world. It is quite another to actually discover as much. Like the dog who catches the cat. So, what now?

More on that ride soon.

Reminiscing can take more than one form. Time is friend to one, foe to another. When we’re younger it’s common for us to remember everything in vivid detail and easily recount as much. Time is our friend.

But, as I grow older (along with everyone else), time grows restless. Not yet foe, but starting to act a little shifty – less trustworthy. And, like hair, teeth, balance and bladder control, memories disappear. They thin. Those garnishing details, enhancements, indispensable at the time, begin to drop away.

Screen Shot 2018-06-18 at 6.05.41 AM.pngOnce it begins, the connections between head and heart grow more tenuous. Colours fade to pastels, then to black and white, finally to retreat into a palette of grey ooze. Faces slip further back from the front of pictures until they disappear altogether and, soon, they become just another “somebody that I used to know” (thank you, Gotye).

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Llanthony Priory, Wales

That is why I write. It is especially why I memoir. When memory ceases to recall details, setting, faces, connections, passions, tears, laughter, even rationale, there will be on paper at least one thread of a life lived. That life had adventure and discovery, not just existence. Proof of significance, a justifiable place in the world. A reminder not just to me, but to everyone that I was here. I had something to say. I had people I loved, who loved me back.

A journey, two years hence. I remember. One day I may not. That is why I write – to remember not to forget that one day I won’t remember.

 

 

 

Defiance: Introducing Mark’s Jesus

What follows is a “bloggified” version of my sermon from last Sunday, June 3rd.

* * * * *

Today we begin our summer sermon series entitled “Defiance: Challenging the Norm.” We will focus on Jesus’ radical, counter-cultural life and the ways he defied social norms, religious traditions, and theological expectations. We’ll be using for this exploration the gospel of Mark.

Mark will reveal to us a Jesus offering hope for the abundant life, convincing people that he was the promised Messiah, spending time with disreputable people, challenging the social conventions of his day, healing, teaching, eating and drinking, praying, and teaching his disciples to do the same.

 So, when we hear the word “defiance,” what comes to mind?

The stubborn two-year-old who sits pouting, arms folded, at the kitchen table because he didn’t get his way?

The angry teenager who shouts, “I hate you!” just before slamming shut her bedroom door?

That guy who insists on his right to walk through the shopping mall, teaming with families, with an open carry pistol?

Or, conversely, the PC police, social justice warrior who shouts down a speaker at a university campus because she disagrees with the message?

All of the above? None of the above?

Maybe this is what we think?Defiance 1 (boot).jpgPeople rising up against their oppressors. Jesus did that, although in subtle, subversive ways. And, he starts from the inside out. His weapons of choice? Love and his own life.

Or perhaps this?Defiance 7 (truth behind the lies).jpgPealing back lies to reveal truth. Jesus did that. “You have heard it said, but I tell you…” “I Am the way, the truth, and the life…”

Or maybe this?Defiance 8 (truth to power).jpgAlone, or together, having the courage to speak truth to power? Jesus did that, too. “Woe to you blind guides…” “You brood of vipers…” You know, the kind of things you say to your grandparents at family dinner.

How about this?Defiance 5 (overturning tables).jpgHere we see Jesus turning over the tables of the money-changers. This is Jesus, in defiance of the business of faith: T-shirt, bumper-sticker religion.

The image we decided on for at least the first part of the series is this one.Defiance 2 (little girl).jpgA little girl stands courageously against a raging bull. We see here the weak against the strong. The vulnerable against the bull-y (no extra charge for that one).

The dictionary defines “defiance” as follows:Slide 1-Defiance (definition).jpgLet’s explore how this might apply to Jesus.

All four Gospels are unique. They are four unique authors speaking from unique perspectives saying unique things about the unique, but complex person of Jesus.

Matthew wrote primarily to the Jews. Matthew’s Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s covenant promise to Abraham and of all the Law and Prophets.

Luke, a doctor, presents us with Jesus, the son of Man, lover of the poor and downtrodden, the hated prodigals now welcomed into the presence of God through him.

John was the mystic. He was the closest friend of Jesus and had heard his very heartbeat. It has this scent of tender familiarity. John’s Jesus takes us deep into the loving heart of God.

And then there’s Mark.

In the space of fifteen verses we get:

  1. The proclamation of a wild man – John the Baptist.
  2. The baptism of Jesus in the Jordan.
  3. A voice from heaven (freaky at the best of times).
  4. The temptation of Jesus, who Mark says was “driven” into the wilderness.
  5. The arrest of John. You know, the guy mentioned a couple sentences earlier!
  6. And, the beginning of Jesus’ Galilean ministry!

Mark’s gospel reads like a Hollywood blockbuster that opens with a car chase. It’s the biblical equivalent of the Fast and Furious! He’s so excited to tell us about Jesus that he spares no time. He. Is. Focused. Let’s just git ‘r done!

My wife and I are both lit-geeks. But Rae is really more the story-teller. She says that, in any study of story, the question of pacing is incredibly important. Too fast and it can lack the heart, depth, and staying power of great storytelling.          T    o    o     s    l    o    w    and    y   o   u    r   i   s   k     l   o   s   i   n   g     y  o  u  r    audience.

Hence, even Mark’s very pacing teaches us. Something has happened that radically changes the way we look at and experience the world, and he can’t wait to tell us about it. There is no more waiting. It’s happening right here, right now, in real time. It is decisive, dramatic and begs a response.

But how does Mark’s Jesus illustrate defiance?

We can do that in a single verse. Mark 1:1 says,

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

How is this defiant, exactly? Well, this is a significant statement for many reasons.

What do we know of ancient Rome? It was a military occupation possessing a particular skill in “crowd control.” It was marked by its efficiency, technology, discipline, and finely-honed bureaucracy.

Rome was intimidating and ruled by means of the well-known adage – “the beatings shall continue until morale improves.” The Jews were all huddled up under the great shadow of Rome, longing for the promised Messiah to come and kick some Roman ass.

But what kind of Messiah did they get? Mark’s point is to convince them that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, just not in the sense they wanted him to be.

Let’s read that statement again:

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

You may recall that Herod considered Jesus such a threat that he slaughtered an entire generation of Hebrew children. What was he so afraid of?

A child, rumoured to be king of the Jews, would have posed no small threat to a bumbling narcissist like Herod (sound familiar?).

Many Roman Caesars believed themselves to be God incarnate, a notion they were only too happy to enforce. For anyone other than Caesar to make such a claim would have been foolhardy in the extreme. To the Romans, for Jesus to be described as “the Son of God” was not a theological matter. It was a political threat.

And, guess what form of death was designed specifically for political dissidents?

Crucifixion.

Mark’s opening statement therefore is already a dangerously defiant one!

This Messiah does not set out to conquer. He sets out to suffer that the notion of conquering might come to an end. He doesn’t conquer Rome. He conquers death at Rome’s hands, forgiving them the whole time.

A defiant bait ‘n switch if ever there was one! His non-violent love defied – said ‘no’ – to blind hate and aggression and, through death, led ultimately to the freedom of all.

Jesus defied hatred with love.

He defied exclusion with invitation.

He defied the misguided hope for military salvation (take note America) and brought instead, freedom from sin and death.

He defied the kingdom of Caesar with the kingdom of God.

He defied everyone’s expectations, trading pride for humility.

Jesus should have baptized others. Instead, he allowed John to baptize him.

Jesus, Lord of the wilderness is, himself, driven there to starve and face down the archetypal temptations we all face. Why? That he might truly be one of us, in every way.

Jesus could have ruled a heavenly army. Instead, he says “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Let’s ask Mark to take us on a journey, shall we? A journey into the heart of God, a God who does not look like what we’d expect.

He looks like Good News.

Amen.

25 + 5 =

On a windy Calgary day on May 14, 1988, I got married. Rae Kenny-Rife to be exact.  If my math is correct (in these matters it’s best to be accurate), that makes 30 years.

May 14, 1988.jpg
Eyes, the gateway to the soul.
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Rae and I posing in her father’s living room (you’ll just have to forgive the mullet)

30 years.

30.

Years.

It feels strange just reading those words. A guy at my level of A.D.D. seldom manages 30 minutes at anything.

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Rae, 30 years ago today (yummy)

That’s 360 months. 131,400 days. 7, 884, 000 minutes – well, you get the idea.

Marriage has been compared to many things.

The slow, arduous climb up a mountain, increasingly steep, and constantly threatened by dodgy weather.

Cool. Lots to see up here.

Wild, adrenaline-pumping, white water rapids.

YOLO.

A crazy carpet ride down an icy hill. Partners in guts and glory. Fellow felons of fun and frolic, as it were, gathering speed, danger, and panicked screams along the way.

Go for it. Whether by fall, splash, crash or slide, it’ll wrap up all too soon –  sometimes with an uncomfortable bump at the bottom.

Besides, you can cry or laugh alongside someone who also pissed themself on the way down.

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As fashionably 90s as one can be in a kilt.

We love to ask our elders, decades of partnership under their belts, “what’s your secret to success for a long and happy marriage?”

Of course, in the asking, we assume their marriage to be both “successful” and/or “happy,” whatever those ultimately mean.

Therefore, let me humbly suggest we begin with a satisfactory definition of terms. What do we mean by long, happy, and especially, successful? Is it successful only inasmuch as it is long and/or happy? Put another way, can short marriages also be defined as successful if they were happy most of the time? What about those decades-long marriages that, although long, were rarely happy? Are we to view those as successful as well? At the end of the day, is happiness or longevity the litmus test for a successful marriage?

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On our Hawaiian Islands cruise, 2007

I could wax philosophical and ask whether Shakespearean star-struck gooeyness makes for good lovers (if so, hide the kitchen knives!). After all, who doesn’t love a good love story? That impossible pairing of impossible opposites who, against impossible odds, stumble into bliss together.

Nah.

Back to our aging honeymooners instead. Among the most common answers to the question are as follows:

Communication (including sex).

Laughter.

A sense of shared purpose.

Frugality and discipline.

Hard work and sacrifice.

Children.

Not children.

Regular date nights.

Bourbon…the list goes on.

To those staring at 50, 60 years or more, 30 years seems like a drop in the bucket. So what? They felt the same way as I many years ago.

30 years!

That’s a very long time and I’m proud of it. We’re proud of it. And, were someone to ask us our recipe for “success” I’d likely say, “I have absolutely no f**king idea!”

Communication. Let me land there for a minute or two. In any marriage, communication can mean many things. Lack of it might best be described as unseized potential for understanding. Maybe even happiness. Relationship carpe diem, missed.

At other times communication bubbles over like foam on warm beer.

Then, there are those times of steel-blue silence. Arms folded. Back against back. Eyes squinted and distrustful – what Canadian novelist Hugh MacLellan once called “the two solitudes.”

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2016, Caerleon, Wales, UK

Communication. In 2012, following an extended period of marriage difficulties, in what could only be described as a blinding hurricane of sexual renaissance, we were reminded about the powerful communication that can happen in the sheets. You can speak in a thousand different ways, but the robust vulnerability of intense bodily contact places trust at a whole new level.

Oddly, it can also be the best form of deception. Merely sharing orgasm doth not a relationship make. (That said, what a great way to find out!)

No harm, no foul, right?

On its own however, it is insufficient. It pales to the much less glamorous task of authenticity and mutual openness. The gristle gained in the grind.

Sex can iron out wrinkles sufficiently to make relational garments fit better. It can oil the squeaky hinges on the door that opens outward to freedom, inward to contentment. It loosens up tongues, long silent, to reinitiate the project of bridge-building.

It can, in the words of Richard Rohr, take us to the temple gates, but only the vastly superior love of God can open those gates and escort us in. Something much greater than a post-coital daze is necessary to sustain a relationship through the long, rigorously demanding years of life.

And those years are often hurled at us like glass in a hurricane rather than gently lowered down in a tidy basket of fruit, smiles, and puppies.

Laugh I’d say. If you don’t know how, bloody well learn. Few things are as life-giving as gut-busting laughter. This we have done in spades. The girl is a walking party. She attracts mischief and  gloriously infantile guffaws like scuffs on new shoes.

Laughter? Yeah, we’re pretty good at that bit.

30 years.

I wrote this on our 25th. Rae wrote this on our 26th. Now, on our 30th I add another 5. And, if someone felt the urge to ask me how we’ve managed this long – “what’s held it together? What’s the secret? How did you do it?” – I’d be hard-pressed to give a decent answer.

Was it the many times I could have more readily throttled her than cuddled her?

Was it the time we told each other to f**k off while losing control of Scottish teens at a church seaside games night?

Or, the screaming match in a church parking lot when I threw the car keys into traffic?

Was it the years we rarely touched each other?

The first or second time we separated?

Was it the nights, sometimes many, I decided to sleep elsewhere – anywhere else?

Was it those times I was so angry I couldn’t see straight or imagine another minute with her?

When the best remedy I could find was booze?

Or, was the nights, huddled under winter blankets, watching BBC together?

Our shared passion for justice, and distaste for ecclesiastical hypocrisy, and political bullshit (in America, those are the same thing)?

The Nirvana of a Welsh rain pouring restlessly over Tintern Abbey stone?

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Tintern Abbey. No wonder it inspired Wordsworth so much.

Mutual lump-in-throat dry mouth, driving B roads in rural Britain?

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Back roads, by way of example.

Our love for all things ancient and wonderfully impractical?

Those liturgical dates at a Taizé prayer service, an Anglican or Catholic Mass?

Antiquarian bookstores?

Well-honed inside jokes?

Favourite Spotify playlists containing everything from ABBA to Gregorian chant?

Writing dates at oceanview cafés?

The embarrassing hilarity of late middle-age sex?

The shared writing of a symphony, Opus 1 (Calum) and Opus 2 (Graeme)?

Yes. All of it and more. It’s been bliss at times, shit at others.

But, it’s our shit. The shit we know. The shit we’ve weathered together.

30 years and I’m still horrified at the sheer level of commitment required. I still blanche at the profundities of this whole deal – the distance there can be between contentment and chaos. How contentment, however spotty, gives perspective to said chaos.

Mostly, how God has managed to help us smell like roses in a sea of self-inflicted shit.

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1989. The Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh. Rae, looking like a 1940s starlet!

If a “successful” marriage, whether long or short, happy or not, is one characterized by awareness of its failures, but possessing a desire to deal with them, we likely fit the bill.

If “happy” simply means more sunlight than shadow, more gratitude than regret, more genuine than shallow, more honest than projected, more lived than protected, we likely fit the bill.

30 years.

25 + 5 = 30.

For me, it equals quiet satisfaction.

Happy Anniversary, babe. Let’s keep adding numbers until we forget we were adding numbers.

 

 

To See or Not to See…

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We’ve all heard the old adage, “one only sees what they want to see.” We easily and quickly make judgements on our perceptions of things, not always on the truth of things. It’s always been that way. I’m guessing it will always be so to some degree.

Some will see only a page full of black dots. Others see the number hidden in the middle (they kinda piss me off!) Some see the brown barrenness of parched desert. Others see the miracle of life which is possible even in austerity. What is to one a beautiful optical illusion is to another a confusing mess of nothing at all. One sees thirst and death. Another sees possibility and survival.

It is a remarkable feature of human nature that, on the basis of perceptions and in the interest of either self-preservation or the pursuit of fulfillment, we succumb to the process of other-worldly fabrications. Given our predisposition to see only selectively, we sometimes live our lives labouring under misapprehensions.

For my part, I have often built an enormous mental-emotional web of shadows and half-truths and desires and make-believe. A construct on whatever I think is true. It is mental, because so much of who I am and how I behave is conceived and constructed in my mind. Emotional, because, just like yours, my head and my heart are inextricably linked.

To think something is true is, correspondingly, to feel something as well. If I think a loved one is still alive after some long absence, it creates hope, expectation. To believe that same person to be dead is to create despair and hopelessness. If we believe the person to whom we’ve been communicating is still on the other end of the phone, we’ll happily blether on until the bleak reality dawns!

Conversely, to experience an inexplicable hope, is to believe all to be well in our little world. In the world at large. If we feel weighted down, we either have a need for companionship, a change of scenery, or mood-altering substances (my preferred M.O.!) Moreover, we will believe it to be so because, in such moments, the universe may appear to us at the time, a toxic and malignant place, unfit for habitation.

Our brains are a complex lump indeed! From the minutiae in our head comes the fodder for our palaces or prisons. All is either benign, malevolent or benevolent on the basis of what we believe to be true or false.

Perhaps the entire goal of grace, and with it, the contemplative enterprise, is constructed to help us monitor, manage, even master the cognitive dissonance we experience – the chasm between what we observe, what we know (or think we know), with what we experience?

It seems that God’s intention in the Gospel is to gift us with a mental-emotional equilibrium in a universe that, to our physical eyes at least, makes little sense. God seems to be trying to get our attention focused away from what we see and onto what we have yet to see. Or, better, what God sees.

For example, if I see endless amounts of unpromising, fruitless work – God sees a garden. If I see endless hours of frustration, ignorant bumbling and non-Sunday school language – God sees the end product of my labour – a new staircase, or a table. If I see fatigue, poverty, and unpredictability – God sees relationships, children, and the warmth of family.

To say then, “I see,” is no longer just a physical act – observations in time and space of what is immediately before me. In the infinitely broader perspective of God, contextualized in the Gospel, “to see” is simultaneously to hope, to rejoice, to weep with joy.

For, to see as God sees, is to inhabit all things at all times at one time. Things are not only as they appear to me now. They are shown to be what they will be then.

It is there, in that place of seeing through God’s kaleidoscopic eyes, that a universe –  sometimes tasteless, flat and hopeless – becomes a sumptuous feast of possibility. Only then do I experience something counter-intuitive to what I “should” under my limited experience. My heart and head agree because God has introduced them to the broad spacious land – the realm of God. My earth and God’s heaven, kiss.

And I am reborn.

Seeing is believing, say the scientists. Believing is seeing, say the theologians. Being is both seeing and believing, say the mystics. Some cannot believe unless they see. Others claim to see and not believe. Still others claim to see what they don’t believe. Others will not believe whether they see or not. Confused yet? Yeah, me too.

God’s deepest reality? All of us belong in some way along the continuum of belief, sight and experience. God journeys with us wherever and whenever that is.

All that to say this: one’s emancipation comes most readily not from a change in circumstances, but in the readiness, and ability, to see. To awaken. I have often said that, behind and beneath and around everything we see with our physical eyes, is a pervasive spirit of glory.

The light and beauty and truth of God subsumes all things into itself. And, from time to time, there come moments of lucidity, of universal benevolence, when one becomes aware of the overwhelming perfection of it all. A built-in beauty not always immediately apparent.

But such moments are frightfully rare. They are gifts, shards of translucence and splendour, reserved for the unasked-for moments of clarity; when the paleness of our present reality, gives way to something else entirely. When it does, simply observe.

Rub your spiritual eyes and let yourself be roused from slumber. Wachet auf (wake up) as Bach might intone! Awaken to God’s tap on your shoulder. Throw off the covers. Stretch. Say nothing. Speak not a word. Just drink. Drink deeply of this stream. Let it do its work. For, once it’s gone, there is no telling if or when it may come again. But its nourishment is ours to keep.

Forever.

____

Amazing image found here