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.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is picture1.jpg
“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!

______________________________________________________________________________

*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