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

___________________________________________________________________________________________________

* 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!

Quaranthings 2: Pandemia, Paragraphs, Potential, Prayers & Plans

Alliterations are overly cute. Easy, usable, memorable, but let’s face it, they are the wheelhouse of preachers, presenters, and Presidents everywhere.

Damn, I did it again!

Acronyms (Any Collection Randomly Ordering Numerous Yammering Multiple Syllables) are their crazy uncle. I cannot promise they won’t show up any more. But this should give you an idea of what can happen when writers have too much time on their hands and are still convinced they have interesting things to say.

With that as prelude, I give you: Quaranthings 2.

Pandemia

Strange and wonderful things happen when we step away, willingly or otherwise, from the standard practices of our overheated lives. At the beginning of this pandemic (yes, it is still stubbornly hanging around) we had as much curiosity as we did anxiety about how this thing would play out. We did what normal adults do. We hoarded all the Pringles and toilet paper we could carry. Ironic, as it seems to me the two are related. Governments did what governments do: absolutely nothing, or too much of everything, and we citizens rose to the challenge of challenging everything we could at every turn.

To some, the ‘rona’ is just one big, global sniffle and all the dead folks just complained too much. To others, it was a sign of the apocalypse brought on by Reagan or Trump or corporate America. To everyone, it was the forced resignation that business as usual would not be business as usual, whatever that would ultimately mean.

Well, I do not pretend to pontificate us into any semblance of meaning here. Nor can I offer much by way of socio-cultural answers. All I can do is repeatedly express my sadness at what many have lost, my humble gratitude that we have somehow missed those losses personally, and my intention to assist others where I can to overcome their own pain and discouragement in this chaotic time.

What I can say with confidence is that this pandemic has forced two things from me: self-examination and a more outward focus by way of the same. To do such an examination carefully and honestly reveals a late-middle aged, well-educated, white, Protestant male. I have all the “right” qualifications to weather most storms because those cultural credentials are writ large everywhere I go. I’m “in” and likely do not face the same baffling set of crises faced by many of my contemporaries unfortunate enough to possess “different” credentials.

Part of the way in which I seek to stay grateful but focused on those outside myself comprises the remainder of this post.

Paragraphs

I’ve been processing pandemic paranoia produced by piling on peril through the product of public pontification (I told ya it might show up again). Every writer says, more or less, the same thing about writing – we write to squeeze outside what’s percolating inside. The invisible made visible. The process of creating product from thought.

The opposite can also be true. We write, an outside-in directive, in order to mine whatever might be hiding down there. It’s a behavioural tonic perfectly suited to help get us out of our heads and onto our pages. I’d say this is especially so for me as I can live quite comfortably in my head. If you don’t believe me, even a quick look inside would reveal some greasy, overweight dude in slippers and bathrobe eating Cheetos on the couch.

I’m a prime candidate for the discipline of writing. This quarantine is providing plenty opportunity to unlock some mental chains and grease up the wheels of emerging thoughts-to-words. And, I pray that some of them find safe quarantine in you where they can make themselves at home and snuggle into places of needed hope or encouragement.

Potential

There is no shortage of toxic positivity out there. Our culture is lost in a let’s-not-actually-change-anything-thoughts-and-prayers feedback loop. The Hallmark answer to real problems faced by real people in the real world is the engineered faux empathy of thoughts and prayers wed to Thomas Kinkade. It’s better than nothing (maybe) but no substitute for the tangibility of hope forged in the potential of change.

Because my wife and I have suffered relatively little compared to many during our pandemia, I try to avoid too many overly-sunny, Pollyanna-isms which do little more than show people that I’m a friendly old man, harmless, but useless.

There’s a tricky tightrope somewhere between the verbal encouragement we all need: “Anxiety weighs down the human heart, but a good word cheers it up” (Prov. 12:25), and the risk of genuine advocacy: “Speak out for those who cannot speak; for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Prov. 31:8-9). The former can offer momentary, short-term respite while the latter offers possibility: the potential for things to be different, better.

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer…

Prayers

I’ve written a lot about prayer. What I think prayer to be, or at least ways I’ve sought to engage the mystery of prayer. It is the high art of Renaissance Humanists when I read or say the prayers of the masters. It is the profoundly approachable speech of the street and kitchen when I hear it in most churches. It is both when I hear Jesus do it.

All of it is good. Necessary. In my pursuit of prayer I make use of all of the above and more besides. Early in the pandemic I wasted a lot of time puttering around my life while waiting with the rest of us to see how this thing was gonna play out. Forced retreat feels more like a prison than a spare time playground and, I confess, I frittered away months of glorious time, a gift for which we’re forever pursuing more.

It’s not difficult to imagine that the Bible greats, many of whom found themselves in the forced quarantine of chains, likely did similarly. After a few weeks of yelling at Pharoah and negotiating with the prison guards to no avail, Joseph likely got down to the business of acquiescence to his fate, praying for personal peace and strength. Then, after enough time elapses he begins to pray for the well-being of those he could no longer see. His own cultural kin, the Israelites, had no end of prayer opportunities. 400 years of slavery oughta do it. Then, because the deepest lessons always need the most reiteration, another forty-year forced march through the desert afforded them options for practice (generally by way of complaint).

We learn prayer best like we learn everything else: through the desperation of suffering and need coupled with the growing heart of gratitude. Help and thanks, all of which lead to the inexorable awe of the humble follower. Many have expanded on this idea far better than I ever could, Anne Lamott for one. I’ll say nothing further here other than to add: me too. ‘Help’ is my prayer most days. Help me God for this or that thing, regardless of hidden machinations, motivations or outcomes. Generally speaking, ‘thanks’ follows shortly thereafter followed by the peace of contemplation, which is the spiritual equivalent of undoing the top button after a huge meal. The soul’s sigh of relief in the presence of her God.

Plans

All of that to say this: we’ve been especially busy this past year or two as we begin the launch sequence for our call to ministry in the UK. Pandemic-be-damned, it has slowed things down, but has not stifled our desire, lessened our energy, or muffled God’s voice. It remains for us the one thing to which we are daily committed.

I love everything about this plan. Except for the fundraising part. It never feels authentic to me and possesses a certain desperation of its own. That said, it’s a necessary function for global personnel. I’ll quietly and calmly, but confidently, affix our donor link here, walk away, whispering one of those prayers I’d mentioned above and conclude with this blessing to you, my dear readers:

Beannacht

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets into you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green
and azure blue,
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

John O’Donohue, 2010

A Coddiwomple Continues

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It’s been awhile since we’ve been here together. For that I apologize. The biggest part of a blogger’s life is unassailable responsibility to the community gathered around him or her. It means staying in touch regardless of how chaotic, or not, one’s life becomes. Because, after all, into every life some chaos must come, right?

However, in a sense I do not apologize. Not in the strictest sense. Instead, I see the ellipsis between this entry and the last as indicative of time for preparation, for transformation, for contemplation; even, for rest. These have been days of conquest, rising to claim what God keeps tossing into my garden. These have been days of trust, quietly waiting upon God who promises that, doing so will bring rewards well beyond the waiting. Most of all, they have been days of joy. Holy joy borne of resting in cosmic realities of Presence and process.

Rae and I continue our journey toward life and ministry in the U.K. We wrap up our brief sojourn at a basement suite provided by good friends as we drive to Spokane on Sunday. To Canada on Monday where we quarantine for fourteen days (and hopefully still like each other afterwards!). We visit my family, many friends and say goodbyes. Then, Rae flies to London on June 30th where she begins the unwelcome task of finding a suitable job.

At 57 years old.

During a pandemic.

With no other income!

As for me, I continue pursuing ministry partnerships and financial supporters.

As an artist not a fundraiser.

During a pandemic.

With no other income!

We are not daunted however having come to believe this to be God’s call for us. We thank you, dear readers, for your interest in our journey. We thank those of you who have chosen to partner with us financially (link below). Most of all, we thank you for being our friends and simply walking alongside us.

Enjoy this song performed by a group of us a year ago. It’s a song I wrote meant as a formal charge to the congregation to “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” It is our theme song as we push into this, our coddiwomple of soul.

Peace, dear ones.

If you can, join our ministry family as a sustaining partner here.

Sacred Spaces (Volume 2)

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?”

Ashes.

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.

Ashes.

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.

Ashes.

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.

May it be so.

(R. A. Rife. Lent, 2014)

Rev’d ‘n Ready!

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!

We invite you sign up for our newsletter. Email me anytime at robert.rife@covchurch.org. For details on how to give, see our page on the ECC website.

We love you all. We are ever grateful for your friendship, support, and laughs. Come and join us to be part of what God is doing in post-Christian Britain.

Rob and Rae

A Time to Keep Silent, and a Time to Speak

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.

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“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Martin Luther King Jr.

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?

Well, perhaps.

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:

Try reading that aloud a few times and feel your heart slow.

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 story of 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 anything that 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 verbsL is for Love.

* * * * *

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!

Sacred Spaces (vol. 1)

I have shared here on numerous occasions my intention to follow the Spirit’s voice across the pond where we will serve with Serve Globally somewhere 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.

Rae and I, Llanthony Priory, 2016

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 our finance 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-monthly newsletter, 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, this coddiwomple, with us.

I love you all. Come, let us journey together…

Thanks be

Thanksgiving, 2020.

Me and my wife

Rarely has anything been so easy for me as giving thanks this year. Rae and I continue to see plans unfold to pursue life and ministry in Britain. We are now both citizens of the US, complete with passports and the added blessing of participation in the democratic process. And, not a moment too soon!

New citizens of a viral America!

With the help of our son, Calum, a host of other blessed volunteers and contractors, and moneys from very magnanimous congregants, we spent half a year refinishing floors, painting every available surface both inside and out, adding new carpet, a new HVAC unit, hot water tank, oven, and rebuilding an underground sprinkler system.

We sat, biting our fingernails, for four very tense months. But, with mere moments to spare, we finally sold the house we’ve called home for fourteen years to an utterly delightful young family. We got the exact figure we’d known all along we’d receive. And, best of all, we sold to genuine people less interested in bricks and mortar as emotionless investment than they are in growing a family in a house uniquely designed for such a thing.

I write this not from typical chair but from a lazy-boy recliner not my own in a basement suite kindly offered us by good friends as we prepare ourselves for UK living. 3400 square feet to about 800. We love it! We’ve become rabbits, rather comfortable in a small burrow – safe, well-lit, warm, and wonderfully cozy. We say we’re “practicing Europe” right now.

Despite being officially unemployed for ten months, my wife’s job continues uninterrupted. I’ve never been more thankful to have a desperately over-qualified life partner to help make the trains run on time as I putz around town pressing flesh (more virtual these days), writing, studying, reading, or doing important stuff that often doesn’t look important. She has single-handedly kept us afloat since January. Thanks, babe!

We’ve stood back in wonder, COVID-19 obstacles notwithstanding, as our sons have become young men of character, maturity, courage, and integrity. Their lives aren’t perfect, which places them in good stead with the rest of humanity. But, they’re content – and intent – on building their own futures, eyes cast on their own horizons. They may be our sons. But, they’ve become our friends.

A slightly crazed family Rife with Graeme, left and Calum, right.

I continue apace toward my late-in-life milestone of ordination. It never really interested me before because I hadn’t found a collective sufficiently aligned with sufficiently enough of me with whom to marry. That marriage will happen, virtual of course, by the will of God and if the creek don’ rise, sometime next year.

The multiple contingencies required of viral lockdowns have forced a certain quietude upon my otherwise taut persona. Long coffeeshop days spent poring over my journal, whatever book currently captivates me, and various meetings with friends and colleagues has deeply simplified. Now, it is hours spent sitting in my chair cyber-reaching out to potential global ministry partners and investors. Telling our calling story. Sharing our vision, our hope for the future.

Let’s be honest, it’s always a much simpler affair to offer thanks when one sits in a place of relative comfort, devoid of excess chaos, and brimming with possibility. I write as one healthy enough to do so, without the pressing concerns many are forced to endure.

In this unprecedented (a word very much overused, but still helpful) time, many have lost loved ones to something unseen, insistent, insidious. Others, through measures taken to curb this invisible enemy, have lost livelihoods, family businesses, self-respect, and more.

The socio-political timbre of our age has turned watercooler conversations into sparring matches with those we once thought odd, but still our neighbours. Friendships once held together by something much deeper have been rent asunder through clouds of suspicion, name-calling, or suspected ideological “abnormalities”.

“As for me and my house,” said Joshua so long ago, “we will serve the Lord.” Sounds straightforward enough. But, if the past few years have taught us anything at all, it’s that how this looks in real time can be quite different for each of us.

This Thanksgiving I am choosing to revise Joshua’s statement of intent, weaving it with an even better statement of Jesus. For the manifold blessings of this year and the still greater currency of God’s ongoing presence, I submit, “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord by loving God completely, and our neighbour as ourselves.”

Will you join us?

On this Thanksgiving Day, 2020, I wish much love and light to you, my dear reader community!

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*If you’d like more detailed information on our pending ministry ventures in Britain and/or would like to join our prayer/financial team, message me on Facebook, or email me at robert.rife@covchurch.org.

*To become a financial partner, go here.

Covenanting Forward

Finding the Covenant took a long time. In fact, landing anywhere with conviction or at least lasting interest has taken a lifetime. My circuitous journey of faith has seen me duck, dodge, weave, skip, and sometimes trudge my way through Canadian Presbyterianism, the United Church of Canada (where I was baptized as a child), four brands of Baptist, two of Anglican, the ELCA, the PCUSA, and finally, the ECC. Moreover, as distinctly post-modern and, what I like to describe as post-evangelical, my theology doesn’t sit sufficiently still to be any denomination’s well-behaved child. Finally, I am a reluctant Protestant, lay-Jesuit with a distinctly Celtic-Catholic spirituality that has a whiff of Pelagius, Julian of Norwich, and Scotch Whisky about it (in terms of character. I don’t drink).

I.e. I’m a hard person to please.

Voracious reader. Voluminously curious. Virulently skeptical by nature, specifically of the easy answers typically afoot among American evangelicalism. My ENFP, Enneagram 4-ishness denies me the simplicity of no-questions-asked membership in anything. It makes me a delight at dinner parties, full of jaunty esprit, self-effacing humour (ha!), and fun stories, but impossible to get along with, since I’m forever challenging some portion of something.

I’m a team player but not a company man. In other words, I’ll rarely act outside the parameters of the given protocols of any collective into which I have committed myself. However, I’m not a candidate for “my country, right or wrong.” Ideologies, protocols, approaches, and resources supplied by an organization, even one in which I am deeply invested, will generally be the starting place only for what I sense is invitation for my own fingerprint on the work of God both in, and through, me. I see myself making consistent use of the Covenant’s vast resources available in every corner of the kingdom landscape, albeit in uniquely Rife-ian ways.

I say all of that to say this. In large measure, the Covenant is also these things. In the short time I’ve been lurking around, loitering in Mission Friends’ hallways, I’ve discovered reams of others just like me. Dispossessed of (E)vangelicalism but not so dishonest or disingenuous as to deny it entirely. Weary of the religious empire ass-kissing “give us Barabbas” impetus that sent Jesus to the cross and, two thousand years later, booted him from American life. But, still socially invested enough as to seek fresh iterations of Christian citizenship that cares for the least and left behind.

In its desperation for relevance over depth, evangelicalism often attracts and nurtures a culturally-derived shininess to its approaches at times poisonous to the very spirituality it seeks to discover and facilitate. Therefore, it has the expected wow-factor with little depth to recommend it for the long-term indefinables of Christian spirituality. The Covenant however has proven a willingness to do both: enshrine a polished, corporate modus operandi, utilizing well its culture of leadership, while paying more than just lip-service to older and richer veins from which to feed.

Speaking playfully, we are newer denomination still linked to its distant Lutheran past that badly wants to be cool. It’s the playground kid from a simple family but with natural leadership skills, a twinkle in his eye, and enough savvy not to play shirts and skins with the adult football team. To this late middle-aged advocate for building bridges, Protestant and Catholic, liberal and conservative, old and young, this is of epic importance.

When I think of the Evangelical Covenant Church, I perceive three things:

A connectivity born of joyful living in the Gospel.

A generous orthodoxy giving birth to wholistic ministry.

And, a fresh-faced entrepreneurialism rooted in a Lutheran evangelicalism.

It is the very essence of a covenant: a mutual partnership of equals toward an agreed upon end. That end? God’s glory. Neighbor’s good. Indeed. The goodness of these things in total makes a happy enough family with whom to dine, a river deep and dangerous enough into which I commit my swim.

Joyful Connectivity

I’m Canadian by birth. There are numerous similarities between the hopelessly broad girth of Canadian geography, religion, and socio-politics with that of her southern neighbo(u)r. But one major difference colours/colors our respective histories. America was birthed in revolution, the upraised fists and passionate cries of those who believed themselves oppressed who sought something better elsewhere. Canada was born as bureaucrats politely signed documents over whisky, cigars, propriety, and well-wishing. “Here, here. What, what” versus “give me liberty or give me death.” The latter has brought a certain bluster, love for conflict, and over-confidence; but keen sense of collective identity. The former, a constant quest for identity by means of the via negativa, what we’re not.

Ecclesial groups are born in similar ways. Another renewal movement among many, the Covenant is a few generations removed from the overly self-conscious Martin Luther who felt theological debate following an act of defacing public property the best way of addressing issues. We Covenanters are much more genteel by comparison.

What I have witnessed is a group of happy, post-Lutheran hipsters driven by their mutual love for Gospel and community, but without Luther’s moody self-importance or need for withering banter. We’re just happy being together. My limited experience has shown that, if corporate websites ever needed stock photography of happy, diverse, smiling, beautiful people with whom to populate their online branding, the Covenant is where to come for prospects.

Generous Orthodoxy

If stuck in evangelicalism I must be, then the Covenant represents for me a biblically-derived iteration capable of growth, imagination, and maturity. Her historic battles over the role of the church and war, baptism, Gospel multi-ethnicity, matters of social justice, and women in ministry, give her an enviable track record among Protestants, whose primary legacy is division at almost cellular level. It bespeaks a generous orthodoxy[1], a Word-centered faith powered by the creative energy of the Holy Spirit more than the soul-stifling literalism of populist religion or the polemical erudition of the academy. She has stumbled of late regarding the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons. But, if history holds true, this is a hiccup more than a rule (I pray).

Ecclesial Entrepreneurialism

The five-fold mission of the Covenant reveals two things not necessarily in opposition: a breezy, simple pragmatism easily relatable to anyone anywhere. For me, spiritual formation requires a language a bit more inspiring than “Make and Deepen Disciples”, which falls far short of the soulish electricity at work in A Cloud of Unknowing, Pensées, or The Dark Night of the Soul.

But nor are we afraid to enlist the older and better voices in the process either. Yes, we’re likely to hear from Max Lucado, Brené Brown, or Rachel Held-Evans. But, in any given Sunday School or pulpit we’d also be confronted with Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Teresa of Avila. Despite its Lutheran roots, for the Covenant, the Church is still born at Pentecost, not the Reformation.

A few years ago, the Presbyterian church I was serving as Music Minister voted 98% in favour of adopting into the ECC. The PCUSA was, at the time, in meltdown over matters of governance related to human sexuality. Presbyterians worship process as much as anything and, at the level of General Assembly, had become boorish and unsophisticated, bullying many of its congregations into making choices (either for or against) they were not prepared to make by means of decree. It was classic hierarchicalism at work.

We have a number of gay and lesbian folks associated with our congregation. For us, sexuality and inclusion were never the issue. We wanted to throw in the towel, not because we felt the need to adopt some different ideology regarding LGBTQ, but because the stifling network of top-down ecclesiasticism at work was the last straw for a church who needed to have the freedom to stretch its leadership legs in directions current administration couldn’t, indeed wouldn’t, allow. 

We voted to leave a tradition that had fallen prey to its own self-importance for one, by comparison, still in its youthful infancy. We joined the ECC for uniquely entrepreneurial, congregational-leadership reasons. It has served us well ever since. At fifty-six I was one of the younger full-time music personnel in the PCUSA. In the Covenant? I’m ancient. As it should be!

In coming months, my wife and I are planning a ministry move to Great Britain. We do so as a tentmaker couple. This video gives a sense, in general terms, of our hopes and intentions. It marks the fruition of a vision planted in us over thirty years ago when we first lived as missionaries in Edinburgh, Scotland. Then, it was as two fresh-faced, inexperienced, fearful newlyweds under the auspices of the Southern Baptist Convention. Now, together with my geographer wife, it will be as a fully licensed minister in a denomination we’ve come to love.

We go not merely to preach the gospel. We go to be a Covenant voice in that gospel. It is a voice Britain can really use right now. Indeed, it is one all need to hear. I’m still hard to please, but at least I’ll be so in a place I can call home. Ironically, they seem okay with me.

I can ask no more than that. Thanks be to God.

[1] McLaren, Brian A Generous Orthodoxy ©2004 Zondervan Publishers