The Difference a Year Makes

This time last year, my wife and I were photo-whoring and shaking fairy dust out of our heads. We had just returned from a head-spinning trip to the UK, and readjusting to life squeezed uncomfortably into North American shoes. That, and relearning to drive. Five weeks in the UK had given us sore, flat feet from miles of trudging London’s pavement skeleton. It meant over-worked iPhones bulging with pictures, heads full of Skye and oddly named places like Tu-Hwnt-I’r Bont, Llanthony, and Beddgelert, many pages of writing, and the faces of loved ones.

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Red, double-decker buses. How totally London.
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In Trafalgar Square
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St. James Park
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Into the mystic…Skye
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The Cuillin Hills, Skye
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Outside Ty hwnt yr bont
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Llanthony Priory
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Beddgelert

Our hearts pulsated wildly, aglow in fresh memories. 

One is surely blessed to be found by adventures of this kind even once in a lifetime. This was our fourth trip, but arguably our best. Like the others, this hop across the pond had under it a built-in rationale to guide it. For Rae, it was largely book research – this bridge, that pub, this street corner, that tube station. For me, I was in search of something. I like to think it was maturity, but one can only expect so much in five weeks.

I had some vague notion that a trip of this kind was what I needed for my ongoing pursuit of an even more vague notion – home. No small feat for anyone, let alone one as prone as I to internal homelessness. My extensive writing on the subject had produced a better understanding, but few certainties. Frankly, it just whetted my appetite to learn more. Besides, it’s a high-sounding reason to spend thousands of dollars traipsing around Britain. Rather noble, don’t you think?

For now, at least, such interior matters can wait for another time. A much more ominous discovery needs some attention. With that primer, I’ll just put it out there.

After fourteen years of sobriety, Britain and I sat down for a drink, or ten.

Well before our trip, a wispy, but persistent voice, had begun planting a series of tempting ideas in my head:

“Rife, you’re not an alcoholic, you simply lack self-control.”

“It’s been fourteen years, that was then. This is now.”

“Dude, relax, you’re on holiday. Splurge a little.”

I’m generally a good guy (unless people tell me that just to get me off their lawn). But, annoyingly, a complex maze of dark veins courses through the ore of my otherwise rich life. I smile, knowing full well something isn’t quite right.

To be in Britain is to be awash in street-lit, woody pubs, full of friendly chatter, darts, and tumblers of frothy beer otherwise known as pints. Scotland boasts famous distilleries on every bank and brae, in which is made the amber dew that bears her name. It is woven into the very cultural DNA of the places I love most.

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So much community happens here

It proved too much of a temptation. And I dove back in, head first, into a world that knew me well and had, apparently, been watching and waiting for my return.

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Could you say no? I didn’t think so.

It was simple enough at first. A gift shop on Lindisfarne sold various types of mulled wine, or mead. They handed out samples of the stuff like cocktail weenies at Costco. I would not discover until later how sharp its teeth would be as it slunk like a sweaty pole-dancer down my lusty throat. “See how I love you?” it said. “See how you’ve missed this?” it said. “See how you’ve grown?” it goaded, like the serpent from the tree.

 

Lindisfarne Luscious
Lindisfarne Mead

For an alcoholic, to say yes to the booze gods, is to remove one’s clothing of pride, oil up the pole of self-respect, climb on, and plummet to the bottom of the pit known as despair. Most insidious of all is that we won’t see any of it this way.

“No, it’s all good”, we tell ourselves.

“I’ve got this,” we say.

“I’m not ‘one of those’ drinkers,” we boast.

“I just need to be discerning and exercise self-control,” we convince ourselves.

And, the whole time, our pants are at our ankles and a noose tightly around our necks. Even as we speak the words, we choke them out, while losing all remaining respectability.

The days following our return were met with rapidly deteriorating self-control. Almost like magic, beer left the fridge faster than I could replenish it. I bought bottles of wine in twos and threes for ‘us’ to enjoy. How thoughtful of me. I began drinking before, during, and after routine tasks convinced that it was merely heightening my pleasure, or calming my nerves, or congratulating me on a work day finished.

I began losing any sense of appropriateness, propriety, reason, even common sense. I had jumped into a vat of snakes and looked up, smiling, as they coiled around me.

* * *

Now, after much heartache, a shit load of counselling, a brief sojourn with friends, a lot of books, and a good support network, I am sober once more. And, in that sobriety, I gaze back into the past year and ache at the smouldering wreckage I’ve left behind. A wake of carnage, stupidity, and shame lays in heaps, along with my self-respect. And I begin again the arduous journey back to sanity; back to the reality of life without the crutches of inebriation and forgetfulness.

Despite my fallacious foray into the forest of dumb-fuckery, the shimmer of this journey has stayed with us, even if our feet feel a bit more planted on familiar, and yet somehow foreign, soil. Home is where the heart is say the poets. Home is where the mortgage is say the realists.

Home is your heart say the mystics. 

And that home for me must be a sober one. It is deceptively easy looking up at the sky for answers when the ground is quicksand. My attention has harpooned itself too quickly in less than helpful directions. What I think my heart wants is rarely what it needs. And, I guess, my heart has been my quest all along.

This receding shoreline of self-awareness can be wearisome at best, downright haunting at times. But, while we’re busy gawking at life through the viewfinder, the truly panoramic views are found in the small, easy to miss things. In the dull, routine things. The faces of friends. The laughter at one’s own shitty jokes. How watering roses in my garden can’t keep up with the raw heat of a Yakima summer. Or, just staying sober because you love all of it.

Now, I’m challenged to add my wilderness wandering to my expanding story and pray that it helps buttress my inner fortress. That it makes me wiser, a better man, a truer friend, a more attentive lover, a more insightful guide to others in similar peril. All this and more makes for the skeleton of a life. We get to place the meat on the bones with every smile given, every embrace, every mistake or triumph, every tear released to its rightful owners.

It’s all of a piece. And, some of the time, all of a peace.

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Rob, newly sober

Morning Pages, or something like that

I’m new to Julia Cameron’s idea of Morning Pages. Her best-selling book, The Artist’s Way, has changed many lives and continues to do so. Lately, it seems to be the case for me as well. Through so much of what I write or compose, I am seeking to link the deepest places of my soul to the creative spaces in my head. To put it another way, I am happiest whenever my deepest longings meet my best gifts (thank you Frederick Buechner!).

But Ms. Cameron does this so much better, so here we are. I love the idea that art can create wonder from boredom, peace from turmoil, full from empty. It’s supposed to be that way with our spiritual practice as well. Creating light from dark is what the gospel intends to do in all of us. 

But we so easily entangle ourselves in all that is quick, convenient, or potentially euphoric. We shelf the best stuff for the fast stuff. It robs us of what our creative and spiritual selves want to share, with us, and with the world.

My interest in Cameron’s book has been piqued for many years now, but only got taken off the book shelf recently. Procrastinator you ask? Um, hell yeah! Nevertheless, we’re there now and she is guiding me into my own well by means of writing as meditation. It remains my intention to write my book from this well. 

But, I gotta find it first, relearn how to lower the bucket, and not be afraid to see what comes up. So, here goes. These were my Morning Pages from today, Friday, June 30th. Hopefully they find you whole and happy.

* * * * *

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My typical morning spot. It totally works.

Morning has again crept with typical stealth onto the broad, brown land. This is a hopeful time of day for me. It’s as though I’ve been granted another twenty-four hour run at this thing. Life may have been a jolly cock-up yesterday, but morning comes again and says “Fuck it. Let’s give this another go, shall we?”

For someone like me, prone to shadow, turbulence, and chaos, this comes as welcome invitation indeed. The equally broad landscape of my life needs this daily reimagining. They are little reawakenings as it were to all the yummy goodness just below the surface of things.

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Typical of our regional semi-arid hills and dales

In this desert, although appearing brown and dusty dry on the outside, there holds within it all the possibilities of the world’s first day. If God can step back, clap His/Her hands, and with a smile proclaim, “it is good,” then surely I can do the same.

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That should be a regular meditation for each new morning to which I have the good fortune to see. Step outside, listen, take a deep breath of its newness, and, together with my Creator proclaim, “it is good.” Perhaps with such an outlook, every day can be experienced for the next-chance-to-grow it really is.

Besides, if God could create something new every day and say these words at every one, then it behooves me to do the same. Even if I can’t quite get to that level of optimism, sometimes it is enough to say “well, I fucked up a lot less this time. That’s good, right?” The icing is to rest at the end with feet up, heart full, proverbial Gin and tonic in hand (well, tonic water for this problem drinker!)

What could be better?

One can hardly be surprised then to know that St. Augustine’s favourite passage of Scripture was the creation narrative. He elucidates upon it in depth in his Confessions in a way only a genius philosopher can (beautifully unintelligible). He sees things in the creation not readily available to mere mortals like you or me. But, in my ongoing pursuit of contemplative creativity, there is here a wonderful challenge; a holy dare.

I have before me then a challenge to see, truly see, what lies right in front of me. Where I see a sparrow, God sees the perpetual renewal of all things. Where I see a rose, God sees something magnificent from humble beginnings. Where I hear a crow caw, God hears a virtuoso in training. I taste dirty water, God tastes the banquet, spread out with delights borne of its nourishing goodness.

In the brooding darkness that so often smothers me, a good long look at a morning like this one acts as reminder that it is truer than me. It is the darkness that is askew. The brilliance, colour, and cacophony of sound is the real. And it is before me now, insistently mocking all sadness and doubt.

If God is so capable of seeing perfection in the imperfections and incoherence of each new day, then that is what I am called to see. What we are all welcomed into.

So then, step outside with me, stretch, yawn, blink, breathe in deeply, and stare into the day. Then, together, with He/She who built it, say…it is good.

Peace, dear souls

 

 

Falling in Love with the Sea

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The immensity…

French writer and poet, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, said: ““If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and assign them tasks…rather, teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” 

Anna is on her death bed. She has battled Alzheimer’s disease for almost 10 years. She hasn’t recognized her family for quite some time and this reality has left her terrified, confused. She is often angry. She believes a host of people are trying to trick her. Every unknown day arises again the next with all the same complexity and uncertainty. As her caregiver assists her in preparing for sleep, she hears Anna sing just outside her door: “then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee, how great thou art, how great thou art…”

She has forgotten every sermon she ever heard.

Every bible verse she ever memorized.

Every note she ever took in every bible study.

Every family member’s name.

But she remembers all the verses, word for word, of this great hymn. Why?

A young man in his late twenties battles with a choice. In his circle of friends, he has made the acquaintance of several lovely young women. He dates regularly. These women are delightful, intelligent, captivating. He looks forward to a time when home and family give him better reason to traipse to and from a busy downtown office day after day. A better life picture.

Erin is a Princeton post-doc student. Her dirty blond hair, cheerful demeanour, razor-sharp mind, and engaging repartée have been his regular experience of her. He’s reminded regularly by family and friends just how perfect she is for him. All the “pieces” fit together in a game too big to lose.

Brynne is girl-next-door pretty. Slightly chunky, but still shapely, and full of energy with a quick wit and uproarious sense of humour. Although not as book smart, she is equally intelligent. She is loud, often abrasive but never mean-spirited. She is funny, usually in embarrassingly public ways; opinionated, inadvertently pitting people against one another. She is clumsy and goofy and forgetful and messy and dangerous to his professional reputation.

And he can’t stop thinking about her.

What is happening here? All the facts line up in such a way as to present Erin as the obvious choice for a long-term relationship. Everything “fits.” She fills well the checklist on any relationship course he’s ever taken. Against his better judgment and flying in the face of the facts, Brynne rises to his mind continually. Something about her haunts him, chases him, wants him.

In our current church culture, we usually pose as the primary question of Christian discipleship “what do you believe?” And, pursuant to that question is the presupposition that you need all the facts before you can make an informed decision. I’d like to suggest however that an even more fundamental question is “what do you want?”

James K. A. Smith in his book “You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit” suggests that we are what we want. “Our wants and longings and desires are at the core of our identity, the wellspring from which our actions and behavior flow. Our wants reverberate from our heart, the epicenter of the human person…”

What we often generate in our churches is a fill-in-the-blanks doctrinal checklist that amounts to a legal transaction. It is more Descartian: “I think, therefore I am,” than biblical.

Our young man in question will of course do well to know his own heart to navigate whatever his future relationships hold. But in his inexplicable desire for Brynne over Erin, despite appearances to the contrary, we find a key to how God seeks to relate to us.

“Discipleship [then] is more a matter of hungering and thirsting than of knowing and believing.” Even the demons believe and shudder. Knowing facts is easy. Retooling the human heart and its longings is not. But, it is our truest path. That is my call: to work in the Spirit’s process of forming a kingdom people by means of the gathered community in worship.

St. Augustine is quoted as saying, “Love God and do whatever you please: for the soul trained in love to God will do nothing to offend the One who is Beloved.” Our discipleship is less about information than it is transformation.

We don’t instruct people deeper into kingdom life. We inspire them. The heart knows what it loves and that is what forms the foundation of our actions and our habits. Our journey is one of inspiring and shaping our heart’s deepest desires, bending them ever more toward Christ and his kingdom.

Our journey is to discover the beauty and holy peril, oddly comforting, of being adrift with God on the vastness of life’s open sea. 

 

Lord, Saint Augustine once said we’re created by God and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you. Sometimes the way to you can seem cloudy, or grown over with thistles and weeds. We thank you for our longings. We love because you first loved us. You’ve built it into our DNA. Help us not to be afraid of what most deeply moves us, even if that isn’t lofty or what we typically think of as holy. Instead, grab hold of our hearts and shape them, Lord. Form in us a new and undeniable passion for life with God and others. And that, Lord, will be our truest joy. Amen.

 

I Want to Run in God’s Country

A hotel bathroom mirror struggles to squeeze in both of us – primping, priming, prepping. The struggle ensues to strike the balance between post-modern cool and age appropriateness (whatever the hell that means). Final touches, a stupid-slow elevator, and an underground tram ride find us deep in the heart of Washington State’s coolest city. Her oceanside tongue beckons us deeper down her salty throat.

In a quirky irony, a street preacher screeches through a megaphone, “REPENT AND BE SAVED FROM THE COMING WRATH.” Frankly, he seems mad enough for all of us. He shouts himself hoarse, pointing us to some tiny, angry “god” – while we wait to hear from a different God – In the name of love.

We are perched high above a stage that renders everything on it no bigger than our thumbs. From this height, everything seems atomic. Only the stadium is large. There is a palpable expectancy in the aether. Other grey hairs like me mix with kids much younger than our own – a testament to artistic legacy.

The stage is dark except for a few peripheral lights. What seems like hours for an event we’ve waited a lifetime to experience dispels in smoke as a tiny figure makes an appearance. He walks slowly, deliberately and sits at his drum kit. The crowd numbering in the gazillions boils over the brim in collective excitement. A kick drum and snare shots with military precision thunder in the dark. It is one of the most recognizable riffs of a generation. Sunday, Bloody Sunday. I weep in gratitude…

This day is ours, it is our Sunday, blessed Sunday.

May 14, 2017.

The wife of my youth.

Twenty-nine years married.

Seattle.

U2. 

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With Rae Kenny, my fellow lover for 29 years and fellow U2 fan

It is a small handful of events or experiences that earn the well-used primer: “I remember where I was when…” I remember where I was when the Berlin Wall became a gate, the Soviet Union became just a bad dream, when the U.S. dumped “shock and awe” on Iraq. When twin towers of glass and steel crumpled like paper on 9/11.

And I remember the first time I heard the mythic cries of Bono. Raw and pleading. He preached heaven and justice to the world’s hell and woe.

I would never be the same.

Every person can point to at least one thing, one person, book, place, experience that has so deeply touched them they’d not be the same person were it not for that thing. To describe, we use words like impactful, influential, unforgettable, foundational, formative. We say, “I am the person I am today, because of….” Our hearts brim at every remembrance. Conversations always veer in that direction. We return to it again and again rebooting it in our emotional hard-drives.

As a musician and writer, my influences bleed, albeit imperceptibly, onto every page or song I write. Words get strained through my inspirations: Gerard Manley Hopkins, John O’Donohue, Mary Oliver, Thomas Merton, Kathleen Norris – even as I sing in the shadows of Bruce Cockburn, The Chieftains, Dan Fogelberg, Stan Rogers, Paul Simon, and – you guessed it – U2.

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Centurylink Field, Seattle – The Joshua Tree Tour, 2017

Their musical impact is undeniable. Masters of melody, nuance, and the prophetic power of poetic art done well, I am pried open, exposed. Their un-theology is more impassioned activism than easy-to-swallow hallmark messages wrapped in bumper-sticker Christianity. I am the hungry canvas, they my nourishing paint.

Precious few cultural icons are so readily accessible as U2. But they represent much more than memorable music. Their message is not for the faint of heart. It yearns for the alternate reality of what is possible in a red letter arena; the dangerous stage of self-sacrificial love. They are wick to a candle burning brightly in praise of peace and justice, one that cannot blow out. They are cornerstone of a movement that pictures a world better than the one into which we were born.

This is not just the message of a generation played on guitars. This is a message for all time; ever new, always fresh, never-ending – Good News as it was always intended. My throat, tightened from tears, hoarse from singing anthems to peace, will only find rest when I find what I’m looking for. With my life partner beside me, the girl whose heart-strings are also touched by these same forces, I am closer than ever before.

Until then, I want to run in the name of love, in God’s country, where the streets have no name.

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“One” meme courtesy of my wife.

Converting the Converted

The more I read the Gospels, the more I am convinced that we would be the first to condemn Jesus and pin him to a cross all over again. That, in spite of two thousand years of knowledge, and canon, and religious conversations, and catacombs, and persecutions, and the dawn of “Christ-ianity.”

To read the Gospels honestly is to place oneself in dangerous places indeed. It is the readiness to identify as a sheep or a goat; as a disciple or a Pharisee or a religious teacher or a widow or wheat or weeds. We have so objectified the good news into our neat, neo-Platonic categories that we’ve rendered ourselves incapable of being seekers; the very posture required by Jesus to see – God, others, even oneself.

If the Gospels tell us anything they tell us how easy it is to build an impenetrable club of pretense and walls of preconception around our faith. The Pharisees did it and Jesus was forever pissed off with them. The biggest challenge to conversion is the belief that one is already converted and without any further need. It becomes poisonous to the very humility that would otherwise find us deeper in grace and living more abundantly.

It is the great proclamation of the convinced. 

Richard Rohr calls this what it is: idolatry. It is the worship and protection of the means to an end rather than the journey toward the beginning. He tells us, “religions should be understood as only the fingers that point to the moon, not the moon itself” (Everything Belongs, p. 51). He believes, and has built a career upon, the notion that all true spirituality is about seeing and letting go in order to see still more.

I have found that it is often to my benefit that I am both A.D.D. and a mystic. That way, when I begin to ramble (a common occurrence!) and someone tells me to “just get to the bottom line,” I can retort with the same refusal Jesus used in such instances. He cared little for such things and besides, it is the misguided idol of a success-driven culture built on information and accumulation rather than instruction and awareness.

I’m aware how much this frustrates my type A friends. For naysayers however, more often than not, they don’t ask again!

Says Rohr, “preoccupation with exchange value and market value tends to blind us almost totally to inherent value…Everything becomes priceless if it is sacred. And everything is sacred if the world is a temple” (Ibid, p. 56). To expect life to produce some kind of “bottom line” is the demand for Jesus to offer a sign. Like the Pharisees, we insist, “just get to the point” and do so in a way that impresses me, asks nothing of me, gives me answers rather than better questions, perpetuates my misguided presuppositions, assures me I’m in and you’re not, and never invites me to step out and journey. Moreover, it promises more darkness and blindness and no actual change. I will still see what and how I want complete with all my preexisting opinions and skepticism.

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The Pharisees Question Jesus – James Tissot (1836-1902)

To see is the one great gift of all true spirituality. Jesus spent a lot of time healing blind people and a lot of time blinding self-proclaimed seers. When all we crave are answers, solutions, and the pragmatics of control, then it is we who stand in need of a raised voice from Jesus. We become the gatekeepers. We become those who, alone, claim to know the Way, the Truth, the Life. We are those possessing the Words of life but in restrictive, mechanical ways upheld in our own Sanhedrins.

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Christ healing the blind man – El Greco, 1560

And that is what makes us the most ready to feel we need nothing more. We, the converted, stand most in need of conversion. Jesus spent a lot of time in an already protracted ministry window healing blindness. This I believe was no accident. He was particularly drawn to this because of it’s wonderfully metaphorical teaching platform. And I’m sure that someone healed of their blindness would be most deeply grateful; most readily loving.

To see therefore, is to love. And to love is the heart of the Gospel message. Until we love as Jesus loved, we may yet stand in need of conversion. To say otherwise reveals a spiritual smugness, a theological self-satisfaction bent more on winning arguments than whispering prayers.

These days, I rest secure in the knowledge that the same grace offered to the pimps, whores, and swindlers is offered to the converted and the righteous. Jesus spent more time arguing with one and partying with the other.

I hope I am always the latter.

Back to the Bible We Don’t Know, conclusion

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As I’ve shared elsewhere, I have a “star-crossed lovers” relationship with the written word. A young Capulet and Montague stare with longing at one another from across the room, and wonder what the next step is. We’ve always managed to work things out, but not without long and moody periods of dust and dearth. It’s always advisable, and spiritually healthy, to change up our routines from time to time if only to shake off the cobwebs of inactivity or apathy. But, my relationship with holy writ often stands in contradistinction to their typical handling.

Throughout all ages, the most common topic which has occupied singers, philosophers, poets, and people in general has been…love, of course. The sheer ubiquity of love songs, poetry, painting, sculpture, and pining readily attests to its centrality in our human experience. If you can easily describe your first kiss, the appearance of your first child, the terror of a dead spouse, or pride at the accomplishments of your spawn, you have yet to truly experience love.

Similarly, if you can easily and with absolute confidence ascribe hermeneutical perfection and interpretational clarity to a collection of writings such as the Bible, you are either deluded, or you’ve been reading something else. It is a library with which to contend because, in it, are found treasures worth the battle. The Covenant Community Bible Experience has, for me at least, drawn me to the scriptures in some new and alluring ways; ways that have helped reinvigorate my intention to let them find me and turn me up once more like clotted soil.

We lost as much at the Reformation as we gained. The bible as story is one of those. Against Luther’s best intentions, we ended up with a bible widely available (eventually) but indistinguishable from any other field of inquiry. Bible in the brain, rather than Christ in the soul. The forces set in motion even before the Reformation poured ideological gasoline over centuries of Christian reflection and practice.

To many in contemporary evangelicalism today the church started not at Pentecost, but at the Reformation. Hence, we are given the unfortunate impression that God was somehow completely lost and confused for fifteen hundred years. Suffice it to say, the corrections that needed to be made in the existing church occurred, but in ways impossible to foresee or worse, control. The scriptures came to be seen in ways even they would shudder to contemplate. As the freight train of reforms reached fever pace, it outstripped the ability of people to embed the scriptures into their own lives. Right belief trumped right behaviour. Theology and spirituality parted company.

The Reformed Tradition and, more recently, Evangelicalism, claim that sola scriptura saved the church from the ecclesiastical clutches of a vast hierarchical juggernaut which had all but replaced the bible with magisterium. This has some merit, but they further claim that, with the bible safely in the hands of all, knowledge derived from those same scriptures is readily available and plentiful.

I beg to differ.

The saints of the Medieval Ages and Renaissance knew more, not less, scripture than those who followed. Why? Because their entire lives, their holy-days, their ecclesiastical feasts, their communities, their families, and their places of gathering swam in the stories, prophecies, and songs of the Bible. It was not the absence of the Scriptures in the hands of the common folk that saw them suffer in the almost guaranteed poverty of subjugated peoples. It was that much of the poverty they experienced was because of a church in league with the halls of power.

Merely having the Scriptures in our possession does not guarantee their power in our day to day lives. At times, it may well be the opposite. There is a sense in which familiarity has bred contempt. Or at least apathy. We chose control over wonder, intellectual mastery over mystical formation, trading a holistic library of inspired writing for a flat, rational document for our ownership and dissection. As the church has become increasingly fractured, the possibility of common worship experiences built upon shared and regular experiences of listening and participation in those same Scriptures it so ardently defends has become challenging indeed.

Our buddy Jesus, complete with graphic t-shirt, sleeve tats, skinny jeans, and sideways ball cap points to a similarly cavalier handling of the book in which is enshrined his coming, character, teaching, and sacrifice. We need to recomplexify the Scriptures, not in order to obfuscate, but for the purpose of elevating them to the mystical, existential, literary heights in which it was conceived. 

All that to say, I have warmed to the written word once again, largely because of this most recent biblical encounter undertaken by our congregation and denomination. And now that a reintroduction has taken place, we can stop peeking at one another across the Junior High school dance floor, shuffling and coughing. We can take steps across the room toward each other.

We may even dance.

Back to the Bible We Don’t Know, part 2

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Last month we began a conversation; a tête à tête if you will about our relationship to the Bible – something we may not know as well as we think we do. And, because so much is riding on our relationship to this library of writings, it behooves us to dig as deeply as we can.

With the help of Glenn Paauw’s masterful book, Saving the Bible from Ourselves: Learning to Read & Live the Bible Well, I have sought to make the case that, in seeking to make the Bible “approachable” we have instead neutered it, making it less transformational. The Scriptures call us to faith, not certainty. Modernity has sought to erase the unpredictability of faith with scientific verifiability. “The bare text is difficult to control. The modernist turn in culture led the keepers of the Bible to transform it into something precise, punctual, calculable, standard, bureaucratic, rigid, invariant, finely coordinated, and routine…This is a Bible that needs to be saved” (p. 37).
 
We have all heard the adage that “less is more.” It holds true in many areas of life. For example, my wife tells me that much of her editing process involves carving away the literary dross from her manuscript in order to leave the best kernels of story that will keep the reader engaged. She wrote her book in under a year, but has spent over three more in the arduous task of proofing, hacking, chopping, and honing. Michelangelo stated that his masterpiece sculpture of David was “discovered” by simply chipping away all that was not David. It has been scientifically proven that the clutter of too many road signs and instructions cause drivers to disengage, the very thing such signs are designed to avoid.
 
Less is more. With the many additions and “improvements” to the Bible, aimed at helping us pay attention, we have ostensibly removed its beautiful “surface simplicity that [could] open up for us the inherent and immensely interesting good complexity that lies deep within…The Elegant Bible will reflect the wisdom that form and content always belong together in God’s good creation. Form is part of the content of things” (p. 39).
 
We must always begin with the questions, what is the Bible and how can we honor what that is? Paauw suggests that we are badly in need of an “extreme Bible makeover” wherein we can undo its fractured format that only leads to fractured reading and commensurately fractured lives. Part of that process will be to learn how to adopt the practice of referencing passages by context and content rather than by isolated chapters and verses.
 
As is apparent in the rather unique Covenant Community Bible Experience in which our fellowship is presently engaging, Paauw advocates for a Bible less encumbered by the artificiality that has been foist upon it by means of chapter and verse numbers that pull us out of a narrative and broad reading of its contents; section headings that are ultimately interpretive by nature; page layouts which hide from us the diversity of literary forms employed in our original manuscripts; and, particularly, study Bibles that can actually mitigate against the deep, transformative, non-agenda-driven reading that can best draw us into the dangerous place of spiritual formation rather than mere information.
 
We need to view the Bible more as poetry, which demands exactitude of form as much as content. What a poem “looks like” is intended to speak as loudly as the words themselves. Form and content alike form our understanding of a thing. We have inherited more of a cultural creation than the Bible that was originally intended.
 
Says Paauw, “to save the Bible from ourselves, we must begin to trust once again its ancient ways of saying things…The path to restoring our Bible begins with chipping away at everything that doesn’t belong there” (p. 50). Our love for God demands no less than an equal love of the Scriptures as they were first delivered.
 
Those with ears to hear, let them hear…

Back to the Bible We Don’t Know

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With this new series of posts, I am entering a conversation. I do this for several reasons. It is partly in celebration of a journey recently embarked upon by our fellowship (Yakima Covenant Church) into the Covenant Community Bible Experience. It is an initiative of our denomination (Evangelical Covenant Church) to help rattle our scripture cages a bit by placing in front of us a New Testament compiled chronologically and without any of the customary headings, chapter and verses. I trust some of the reasons for this shall become clear over time.

Secondly, it touches on a topic of fascination to me personally: my love for the written word. That, combined with a growing love for the God who could never be contained by it, compel me to share these things.

Finally, it is in answer to various queries following a sermon I preached on this topic a few weeks ago. In these conversations, I’ll be utilizing ideas, and materials spanning decades. Specifically, I’ll be referring often to one particular book from which I’ve gleaned much of late, Saving the Bible from Ourselves: Learning to Read & Live the Bible Well by Glenn R. Paauw. The topic? The Bible of course. More specifically, the terminology, ideas, misunderstandings, projections, additions, expectations – both false and otherwise – that have arisen around it and from which it presently suffers.

The week of my “conversion” I quickly became fascinated by the strange and enigmatic words on the wispy pages of a Bible given to me by my grandmother. For years, it sat, neglected and increasingly dusty, on a shelf in my bedroom. My senior year it began to grow in my mind as something much more significant than that which I had hitherto attributed to it.

The first verse I ever memorized? “The grass withers, the flowers fade; but the word of our God will stand forever.” (Isaiah 40:8 NRSV)

If we are to give to the Bible the love and respect it deserves we should experience no small discomfort with the words “back to the Bible.” It belies a naïve, even whimsical view of it that has the potential to diminish its depth and complexity and, as such, its impact.

As we shall see from looking at Paauw’s book, we commonly approach this ancient library of texts with a truck load of preconceived notions, pet ideas, personal preferences, cultural parameters, and less than informed expectations. Paauw believes that we have “over-complicated its form while over-simplifying its content” (p. 16).

He makes the case that, over the course of many centuries, Bible scholars and publishers have increasingly added to it what is thought to be helpful – chapter divisions, verses, subheadings, notes, etc. – all in an effort the “make it easier to understand.” The result has been the opposite however and, in the process, we’ve been led to sample rather than feast deeply on the Scriptures. It has led to a narrow, individualistic and escapist view of salvation. And, rather “than being a culture-shaping force, the Bible has become a database of quick and easy answers to life’s troubling questions.”

So then, let us enter a conversation together. Let’s talk about the Bible. What it is. What it is not. The purpose? To develop a truly broad, deep, informed, and appreciative view of this enigmatic collection of ancient writings. Because much of what we understand about God and one another comes from it, I think it wise to do so. Don’t you?

Let’s go!

 

 

Toward a Rule – The Beginning

So, with subtle indirection, the toolbox of yearning

wed to oratory, wed to a cloud of unknowing,

expecting nothing more than a tale well told,

comes the bard and we are given –

a road for our story.

Historically, patterns of prayer and devotion that would later evolve into a “Rule of Life” grew out of the monastic tradition dating back to the Desert Abbas and Ammas of the 4th century CE. There, in the blistering heat of wasteland, they faced down demons, drank deep from hidden wells, prayed unceasingly, listened for the deafening whispers of God, and taught others to do the same. They owned little, but possessed the universe. Over time, their lives, lived small and yielded, but writ large upon the heavens, were lassoed into usable fragments of a living reality.

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St. Antony of Egypt

I suspect most are like me, living pugnaciously crammed lives begging for the breath and space.. But, unless one’s name is Antony, or one of his eremetic contemporaries, one has experienced little in the way of solitude.

Such an exercise, as useful and meaningful as it is, necessarily leans upon an accompanying acquiescence on the part of the pilgrim – namely, me – to its regularity, rigour, and influence. Frankly, I’m more concerned about that than the Rule itself. Over the years, I’ve developed a deeply satisfying practice of contemplative prayer, gradually learning the benefits of housing shalom in the confines of a thirsty but unpredictable soul. I’ve spent days alone at any number of monasteries, growing and learning with monks and nuns of various ecumenical stripes. I write extensively on the spiritual life, a blog of my own (www.innerwoven.me), and for numerous others as well. In 2011, I graduated with a Master of Arts in Spiritual Formation and Leadership from Spring Arbor University, Michigan. Since then, I’ve undertaken the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and was anointed with oil as a lay Jesuit. I’m writing a spiritual memoir. I have studied the life and spirituality of St. Francis (because I’m a hippy at heart) and the Rule of St. Benedict (because hippies lack structure).

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Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey, Lafayette, Oregon. I’ve spent countless hours at this place.

Why do I boast in such Pauline fashion? Because, after years of ardent pursuit of the Christian spiritual enterprise, and already possessing a not inconsiderable Rule of Life with more than a few years of practice, I am less skilled in it now than I’ve ever been. Without hesitation, I enjoin myself to Paul whose boast is always in weakness about weakness, and leads to his exasperated proclamation, “I am the chief of sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15).

Whatever Rule is forthcoming will be more about my openness to what that Rule represents. It must be more a means to an end than the end itself. Like the rudiments I’ve practiced for decades in pursuit of musical prowess, I construct and practice a Rule of Life to forget it. Musicians play scales without thinking about playing scales. They play music, in which rudiments have formed and buttressed, shaped and evolved that music.

Saints live a Rule that is at all times thinking about union with God, which is the end and the beginning of it all.

…in my dream, I looked out over the rocky embankments

still holding my thoughts and, over the tomb where

recently someone left not long after arriving, a placard read:

“Beware, those still trapped in a life safe, and un-ruined.

You won’t get to enjoy the looks of incredulity from those

who’d prefer you stay here.”

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All poetry ©Robert Alan Rife, www.robslitbits.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Toward a Rule – Eschewing Truancy

In early November, I was a participant in a class toward my ordination entitled “Vocational Excellence.” This is part 4 of the paper I submitted, aimed at constructing and presenting a Rule of Life.

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Calgary sunrise…apt metaphor

Eschewing Truancy

In every life, there are (mis)guiding voices. Inner recordings, as it were, play loudly and insistently, often dictating how one goes about the tricky task of living.  Put another way, all of us live from somewhere – fear, suspicion, self-aggrandizement, false hope, willing blindness, ass kissy-ness. They cast long shadows upon our spiritual landscapes and pull us away from the perfect centre of our circle.

Every time I drift from my centre, I cease trusting in the glacial process of transformation at work within me. My trust gets misplaced, landing on anything quicker and easier to a perceived end of satisfaction. The shortest distance between two points can become the broad road to ruin the quickest means of personal misanthropy. 

Something inimical of the human heart is its apparent willingness to be anywhere other than where it should. The place most required of us is where we least show up. And with so many competing allurements to our deepest allegiance and passions this is a bit like crossing the freeway naked and blindfolded. It seldom ends well.

Better might be the comparison of grade school students. Some, like myself, adored school and never missed a day (I skipped twice and was caught both times…another blog perhaps?). Others reveled in the delicious naughtiness one experiences in going to the mall, or simply hanging out behind it smoking untoward substances (again, what could I possibly know of such shenanigans?).

A rule of thumb for fellow Christ-followers, prone to wobbly wheels but who yearn to embody their Rabbi is to pay heed to Stan Smith’s words from American Dad. When pressured as to why he keeps rubbernecking women other than his wife, he responds: “my eyes may wander, but my heart comes home.” 

Instead, I am being directed to return to the quiet, contemplative life, planted in the Benedictine moniker: ora et labora – prayer and work; contemplation and action, inner and outer life wed as one. To care for the centre is to care for everything else at once.

Although not a word one might use in everyday life, truancy pictures a life on the edges of things. It is uncommitted – wayward, as in a constant insistence upon finding any path other than the one presently under foot. In gospel terms, to show up is to find oneself amid the delight of Holy Spirit constancy and the hope of a future that will never be cut off.

To eschew truancy in the spiritual life – to abide in the vine, as it were – is to embrace the promise of a rather adept gardener of my soul.

* * *

“God cannot be found by weighing the present against the future or past, but only by sinking into the heart of the present as it is.”
-Thomas Merton