On one level it matters little. I mean, with that many candles on a cake, it really puts the ‘numb’ back in numbers. On another level however, I’m glad to be officially closer to sixty now than fifty. I’m glad to be any number at all, really.
I recall turning fifty and the mind-f*** that was. It seemed to come like an unexpected twister on unsuspecting prairie. Boom! Half a century. Five decades. Just like that, using “mid-life” was no longer a usable phrase, at least with any honesty. That is unless I expect to outlive everyone else born in 1963. And, trust me, that’s not an attractive option in my case.
I’ve called the fifties the f**k it decade. By the time one gets here, one has at least a modicum of self-respect, something resembling a “life”, a sexy partner with whom to share said life and best of all, I still have bowel control even if I don’t have the same over my mouth. Hmm, the jokes are endless…
To turn over another birthday leaf on one’s tree of life should make for a decent enough quilt. And, given the potential for disaster in anyone’s life, getting the opportunity to turn over anything at all is a bonus, I figure. With this many leaves Adam and Eve could have knit themselves forest floor leisure suits, stylin’ it up at Chez Eden.
Numbers. We make a big deal of them, don’t we? We affix expectations, mostly unspoken, to each decade. When younger, every age comes with its presets. Its presentations and problems. First successful toilet ventures (this returns in later life I’m told). First pubes. First love. First kiss. First _____ (this disappears in later life I’m told). First heart-break. First job. First child. First mortgage (not as fun as it sounds). First promotion. First AARP mail (again, not as fun as it sounds).
We squint our eyes and raise our unibrow at the forty-year-old man still living in his mother’s basement. The forty year old woman still unmarried – or worse – without children (the nerve!). The twenty-year-old still grazing among the high school sheep, basking in their glory days glow.
We even make movies of such things. The Forty-Year-Old Virgin pokes fun at he who has yet to fun poke. Thankfully, the film had at least some range and didn’t descend into the reductio ad absurdum that a man’s worth is based on his first non-solo orgasm. (Says the the man now in his thirty-second year with the other half of the same).
North American society is no different than any other when it comes to the numbers game. Ours is just more cryptic about what we consider “normal human behaviour” at a given age. We’ve lost many tribal rites of passage like native vision quests, or African communal wedding night celebrations (thank God!). Instead of bar mitzvah, we prefer bar hopping. Instead of sweat lodges, we prefer frat houses. Instead of tribal dancing, we prefer table dancing.
But, it’s all good I suppose. The intention is there even if the best means are not.
So, I wonder what rites of passage are left for a guy solidly in late middle age? Is it my job now to prepare those for others? If so, wouldn’t that be another rite of passage for me as for another? Because rites of passage are tribal in nature, designed to bring youth ever deeper into a protective sheath of community, how would that even work for those like me?
This much I know. I couldn’t care less about the numbers, well, unless writing about it on the worldwide web counts for as much. Nevertheless, I awoke this morning to draw breath for another day. My twenty-thousand, four hundred and fortieth as luck and providence would have it. I awake to a beautiful Welsh girl every morning, have the joy of fathering two amazing young men, a satisfying career, a home, great friends, a growing faith into which I can settle and rummage for warmth, and the standard promises of my white, male priviledge (I’m a work in progress here).
Numbers. They’re fabrications really. And yet, they’re not. They offer some sense of significance in a world bent on removing it. Fifty-six may not be a fancy-pants age like forty, or eighteen, or one hundred. It’s a little faceless on the surface. But it’s not without charm and promise.
I’ve been granted another year. One. More. Year. I’m no Mother Teresa (I don’t have the balls she did). I’m no Martin Luther King, Jr. (too pale). I’m no Vasco de Gama (I get lost on my way to the bathroom).
I’m Robert Alan Rife. Human. Husband. Lover. Father. Friend. Disciple. Human…wait, I said that.
Best of all, I am happy. Numbers? Bring ’em. I’m ready.
As a faith-type guy, some would consider me a bit blurry, outside-the-lines. Generally speaking, I make theologians nervous. Well, the heaven ‘n hell type ones. The most fun happens at the periphery anyway, so we’ll call it good!
As a writer, some might think me a one trick pony, writing incessantly on matters of mayhem and mystics and the marauding spirits of days gone by. Auch, a little chaos never hurt anyone. Really. Right?
I’m fairly banal, all things considered. Eccentric, yes. But harmless. I’m a fairly decent bloke with a thing or two to say about matters spiritual, the crazy conundrums of Celtica, and a harangue or two when the mood takes me. And, amid the din of voices speaking into that life can be heard a single word, rising like Charlie Brown’s enigmatic pumpkin out of the misty soil of my life.
One cannot be a contemplative, a mystic, and certainly no Celt, without referring to it ad nauseam. It’s the fodder of our trade. The raw materials of a life lived deeply and well. The whole gospel enterprise can be said to be birthed from the longing heart of God. “For God so longed for us all, that (s)he gave….”
We Enneagram 4s can prattle on about many things. But, anything at all that touches those regions of heart and passion and the long list of indefinable wonders housed in the deep places of our souls? Yeah, that’s our wheelhouse, baby. Let me at it. Leave the how-to manuals and protocols and methodologies to the corporate types. Once they’re finished showing us how to multitask (gag), and get the most out of our days (yawn), we’ll bring the paint job, prog-hipster-coffeehouse banter and acoustic song-craft to speak life back into the emptiness they leave behind.
With that rambling, far too self-aware set up, I get to the task at hand. I want to share a new story that is unfolding. It’s actually an old story with a brand new face. My wife and I are answering a decades-long call, a longing, to move to Britain. I’ve droned on about this longing on many occasions and in different ways. But, the bottom line is that, by summer of next year, we will be making a new home somewhere in Britain.
For greater context, I include below a letter we just mailed out to my congregation. It gives a bit more detail. Thankfully, it doesn’t ramble anywhere near as much as I. (But rambling is what I do.)
Thursday, September 5, 2019
Serve Globally is the foreign missions arm of the ECC. It partners with local churches and organizations around the world. In Europe, they’re involved in church planting and growth, engaging the arts, spiritual formation, evangelism in a post-Christian context, leadership development, ministry to exploited and/or trafficked individuals, and engagement with refugees and immigrants.
Even before Rae and I met, we both felt called to the UK. Thirty years ago, just before our first anniversary, we worked together in an under-privileged area of Edinburgh, Scotland. The church wanted us to stay. We desperately wanted to stay. For a year afterwards we prayed and obsessed about returning, but encountered several administrative issues. So, we had a baby instead!
Last July we both knew God was calling us away to something else. We knocked on the door with the denomination to consider church planting. At mid-Winter this year, on a whim, I asked everyone, everywhere if we had any Covenant connections in the UK. At that time, I made a brief contact with Letha Kerl, one of the European coordinators. On March 23, we were supposed to meet with the director of church planting for the PNW to proceed with an evaluation. Because it took three months to arrange that meeting, a desire not to waste his time produced a check in our spirits.
We weren’t free to revisit the call until the final phase of empty-nesting ended. With our boys relocated and established in Calgary, on March 23rd we had a Skype call with Letha and her husband, John. By the end of that call, we were urged to apply to Serve Globally and deepen the discernment process. The more we delved into the paperwork, the more obvious it became that God was leading us back to the UK, and to revisit a call that has never gone away.
Born in Wales, Rae is a British citizen and plans to find a job in her field. She recently attended a worldwide Geographic Information Tech conference where she tirelessly networked and made some wonderful UK connections. Upon discerning with the Kerls, we think it best to live where Rae finds a job. My own ministry will spring from there.
In establishing a Covenant presence in the UK, we don’t go as competition with existing churches. We are invited instead to bolster and support them. One avenue I’m pursuing is working in spiritual formation and the arts with Renovaré UK. Renovaré is a Christian non-profit organization that is ecumenical in breadth. It encourages Christians to seek continual renewal through spiritual exercises, spiritual gifts, and acts of service. I’m well acquainted with the organization having served for many years at retreats with most of their key people. My master’s degree follows the Renovaré platform.
This will be at least a year in preparing. We don’t see ourselves departing until roughly this time next year as we raise the needed support for myself, dispose of most of our possessions, and get our house ready to put on the market. As well, we have a Missions Equipping Training Event next June at North Park Seminary.
We are planning a fact-finding reconnaissance trip to France and Britain at the end of October. In Paris, we will meet with another Serve Globally couple working with arts and spiritual formation. Then, we travel with them to a retreat in Sête, France, where we will meet the rest of the Europe team. I will be leading worship and Rae has been invited to work on an online mapping product for them. From there we have many meetings lined up in London, Aylesbury, Edinburgh, and possibly Glasgow. We hope that it will bear fruit for both Rae and I in focusing our respective call.
Thank you for your faithfulness to our family, your ongoing friendships, and for participating with us in this time of prayer, seeking, and discernment. We have deeply loved this church. I believe it has loved us. Since we’d be honoured for Yakima Covenant Church to be our official sending body, you’d not be losing an employee as much as gaining a missionary instead! We pray that as we embark on this adventure together, we will all find places of refreshing in the Spirit and renewal in our shared Christian journey.
This story map, made by my geographer wife is much more fun, interactive way of saying some of the same things.
Thanks to you, my readers, for hanging in there with me and letting me toss around my longings in your faces for these years. You’re brave souls, all.
Given the constant pestering from my legions of adoring fans, with characteristic humility, I submit to your desire for a year-end Rob exposé. Okay, so maybe it has a little more to do with keeping up appearances and SEO ratings. Okay, so maybe I’m too lazy even for that.
Consider it a need-driven march to help lay bare some personal truths gleaned from another calendar year of living large in a small town. In any case, here’s my look back at a year, now mere hours in our rearview mirrors.
A few hours ago, that big, magical clock from which we run, upon which we hang our goals, and against which we struggle, strain, and strive for personal betterment clunk itself over from 2018 to 2019. And, in that instant, all our accumulated belly fat, financial debts, interpersonal fireworks, and personal bugaboos disappeared in plumes of rainbow-coloured smoke.
Well, for those of us who lived through it sober, ’twas nothing more than the slight rightward movement of the minute hand on my late father’s mantle clock. That is, of course, if I were awake to see the magic happen (I wasn’t).
2018. Hmm, what to say about the year. Despite being a year primarily of seeking and discernment, a kind of quiet faithfulness to duty prevailed. So much so, that I struggle to write much of anything with any real drama, sizzle or wow. A certain plodding along prevailed. A daily attention to the simple joys of waking up, having a job to do, and family and friends for whom to do it.
2018 did see a number of significances worth mentioning, not the least of which was the end of a thirteen-year long chapter.We bid farewell to the Master of Arts program in Spiritual Formation and Leadership through Spring Arbor University, Michigan. I graduated from this program in 2011. It’s one of the few genuinely cool things I get to hang on my wall.
My relationship to this program is close and deeply held. As is my reverence for the stalwart souls who envisioned and implemented it so well. Through my role as musical liturgist, and resident buffoon (I never got paid extra for that),
I was given opportunity to work with spiritual luminaries the likes of Richard Foster, Tony Campolo, Shane Claiborne, Mindy Caliguire, Robert Mulholland, Reed Sheard, Valerie Dodge-Reyna, Eric Rasmussen, Elaine Heath, Michael Christensen, Robert Moore-Jumonville, Wil Hernandez, John Michael Talbot, Juanita Rasmus Dallas Willard, and numerous others. People whose books dot my shelves and whose spirits challenge my own.
It was like letting the poor kid from the blue collar neighbourhood hang out in the executive box (is that what it’s called?) at the Superbowl (that’s the football thingy, right?). I was the starry-eyed groupie meeting his super-heroes for the first time. Not only did I meet them, but we even worked together in the process of souls intermingling at heaven’s cocktail party. It means that, now, I can shamelessly name-drop like everyone else! I’ll have one of those “wait till you hear this” kind of stories for water-cooler and narthex, post-service chit chat.
But seriously, my heart is heavy with its demise. And, yes Ms. Dion, my heart will go on, but not without a dent or two from some serious front-end collisions with God’s good people, equally hungry for spiritual food.
A rather vexing concern of 2018 was the personally arid landscape for new words. Put another way, a decided lack of writer’s cramp. Subsequently, I’d become accustomed to dropping bits and bobs of literary refuse hither, thither, and yon.
Anyone who creates anything at all is constantly confronted by this particular demon. Hips are always a little out of joint thanks to creative-angel wrestling-tomfoolery. That said, it was not entirely without a gem here or there. Besides, like the end of an old toothpaste tube, here I am all the same, squeezing out whatever is left in the curl (because I squeeze out toothpaste properly!).
My journey in a renewed sobriety continued apace. The egg-faced embarrassment of a 2016 fall from grace is still freshly washed off and replaced by the smile of A.A. rediscovery.
I discovered the little joys of posting spiritual memes rather than multi-layered tomes.
All things U.K., longing and retrospective, coupled with growing understanding of my own lineage dotted this blog as well. I dare say, it will always be that way.
My 2017 retrospective shared much of what I continue to encounter in daily living. That is, an appreciation for the beauties of, well, daily living. What could be at the root of this humanizing of an otherwise heady mysticism? Could it be the relative lack of mid-fifties testosterone? A more ready shrug of the shoulder to that which might have destroyed a younger me? The unyielding march of days set in years, marching still faster, that offer greater calm in the storm? A good running regime? Dental hygiene?
Whatever the case, my life, despite its fair share of discouragements and mystifying conundrums, seems to have taken on a more settled timbre to its previous, grittier iterations. How can one be anything but grateful for such?
My wife of over thirty years continues apace wrestling her first novel into submission. I’m sure more on that tale will be forthcoming. My sons, Calum (27) and Graeme (22), are struggling and reaching and hoping as young men do to find their respective places in the proverbial panoply of similarly struggling humanity. Graeme graduated from Selkirk College in Contemporary Music and Technology. Calum writes and produces music and paints houses.
Of them, I could not be more in awe.
Despite an appalling lack of inspiration (sometimes even interest), I plod along in my daily responsibilities as music and worship director atYakima Covenant Church. For reasons best left a mystery, they continue to employ me. I think they even like me. Not everyone can say as much. And, that alone, gives me pause for reflective gratitude.
So then, like you, I stand at the threshold (such a tired, but useful metaphor) of a new calendar year. In one hand I hold my hopes and aspirations for what I’d like to see in my life and ministry. In the other, the memories and experience of all that helped fill the other hand.
And I sing songs of remembrance. Of hope. Of lives yet to touch. Of songs yet to sing in days yet to live.
Most of all, eight years on, you are so appreciated, my beloved innerwoven family. Your interest in my words, pontifications, occasional perturbations, and contemplations – my life – mean that you are as much a part of me as anyone else.
I am humbled by your presence here and your willingness to hang out at this cyber-fire with me. Let’s keep telling fireside stories together for our mutual edification, shall we?
Thanks for just being here with me and, Happy New Year.
A fire makes its heartening presence known, tucked under the hearth upon which hang individual stockings and an antique clock I inherited from my Dad. A delightfully chaotic looking tree, augmented with bobbles made by growing dexterity of little boys’ fingers, the accumulated little boy detritus of Christmas past. They are now men of humour, virtue, and creativity.
Snow falls without sound just past living room windows that shield from the oblique, grey winter, and all I can think is this: if Christmas – the incarnation, God with us – means anything at all, it must mean more than the homegrown Thomas Kinkade painting I’ve just described.
It must mean that God is longing to burst forth into our own souls, finding enough room to receive the gifts of our own inner Magi. It must have the rough and tumble character of a once upon a time, ramshackle stable. It was messy and scary and uncertain, but the perfect crucible in which to define all that is truly important: the broken, smelly manger of human hearts made ready to receive the only thing powerful enough to draw them out of pain and darkness, God himself. And, apparently, God loves children. Enough to become one. Not a soldier. Not a business man. Not a political revolutionary.
A child. So be it.
O come, o come, Emmanuel. Ah, but we did and we have yet to see. Lord, help us to open our eyes to what is in front of us.
Another Sunday opens her eyes, damp from night sweat, or the river of dreams. Sunrise, like incandescent eyelashes blinks away the previous day and lets dawn stretch her legs. The miniature Big Ben mantle clock I inherited from my Dad ticks stoically, chipping away the seconds that have become, inexplicably, piles of years; a woodpile of time-chopped memories too easily fuel for the fire. And ashes are but the monochrome of memory – something once hot, bright, robust.
I suppose writing is to throw another log on the fire. The words crackle and spit themselves out as the heat rises. Those are the welcome fires of tin-foil wrapped delicacies, roasted and rich, softer by the second.
Now, this day, here in my writing chair, I can serve up a few morsels, ready to taste. Two. Years. Two full years since an adventure got tucked away, folded inward to await the fires of remembrance. And, in that time, the process, not of decay, but of marination has occurred. Like a good chili, always better the next day.
And I’m starving!
Facebook memory pop-ups are a blessing and a curse. They can bring a happy smile of recognition; reminders of good times past with good people. A “curse” inasmuch as those reminders pinch the inner optic nerve with the liminal colour of what is no longer now, but then – sweet, savoury, overpowering.
Never is “a picture is worth a thousand words” truer than when reviewing pictures of magical moments, inaccessible by the senses; only through memory. The existential replaces the experiential and a tear is born.
Just seeing those words side by side is unnerving. This time, two years ago, Rae and I had just returned from galavanting around the U.K., filling our boots with shenanigans of every sort. It was our fourth such journey. 1989. 1991. 2004.
Then, a 2016 whirlwind whack-a-mole through salad-bowl Welsh valleys, pulsating London streets, book-studded villages, swarthy Scottish Highlands, tidy bed ‘n breakfast cottages, seaside adventures, writing (always lots of writing); family and friends both old and new. I think my legs still hurt from trudging downtown London and rural Skye, lost much of the time (of course).
Time heals all wounds.
Only time will tell.
Just give it time.
It’s about time.
All in good time.
Running out of time.
We had a great time.
Time gets a lot of press, both good and bad. Likely because of its annoying persistence, an impatient ubiquity. It tick-tocks us into corners or shows up as an ally, all in the same day. We even honour it with a face and hands, and then entrust to it lists about which it cares little. And, just when we think we’ve earned its respect, it barfs in our lap the other side of the page we didn’t see coming.
To attend to these memories respective to our journey to the UK is to approach the unapproachable. I don’t believe rose-coloured glasses are involved here. Nor do I think it a distance-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder kind of thing. It’s much more than that.
I think the greatest impact of our time there wasn’t the allure of tourist traps or the necessary bling that accompanies them. It was, on one level, a homecoming. For Rae it was genuinely geographic. She was born there after all. Wales to be exact. For me? Existential.
As I’ve recently discovered, my very DNA hearkens from Scotland/Ireland. Ancestry and companies like it parade around biological allurements to family origin hungry types like me. I fell prey. In doing so, I discovered my patrimony, a host of living relatives, and the certainty of my own personal ancestry rooted deep in Celtic soil.
Given all that I’ve written, spoken, and warily discerned on the subject – a holy hunch, if you will – I was more surprised than I should have been. Apparently, it is one thing to guess at one’s place in the world. It is quite another to actually discover as much. Like the dog who catches the cat. So, what now?
More on that ride soon.
Reminiscing can take more than one form. Time is friend to one, foe to another. When we’re younger it’s common for us to remember everything in vivid detail and easily recount as much. Time is our friend.
But, as I grow older (along with everyone else), time grows restless. Not yet foe, but starting to act a little shifty – less trustworthy. And, like hair, teeth, balance and bladder control, memories disappear. They thin. Those garnishing details, enhancements, indispensable at the time, begin to drop away.
Once it begins, the connections between head and heart grow more tenuous. Colours fade to pastels, then to black and white, finally to retreat into a palette of grey ooze. Faces slip further back from the front of pictures until they disappear altogether and, soon, they become just another “somebody that I used to know” (thank you, Gotye).
That is why I write. It is especially why I memoir. When memory ceases to recall details, setting, faces, connections, passions, tears, laughter, even rationale, there will be on paper at least one thread of a life lived. That life had adventure and discovery, not just existence. Proof of significance, a justifiable place in the world. A reminder not just to me, but to everyone that I was here. I had something to say. I had people I loved, who loved me back.
A journey, two years hence. I remember. One day I may not. That is why I write – to remember not to forget that one day I won’t remember.
There are days in my marriage when I have wanted to travel back in time to May 14, 1988 and tell the starry-eyed bride I was then, STOP! Don’t do this!
Would I be the ghost of marriage, year eight, and tell her about the secret bank. Not the monetary kind, but one where resentments build with compound interest and low percentage-rate forgiveness that would make the next decade and beyond a tough slog?
Would I be the ghost of marriage, year seventeen, and tell her how her father’s death and career change and self-limiting beliefs would cause a two month separation?
Would I tell her there would be temptation from other women and men, struggling in their own lives, that hint at an alternative?
Would I tell her she’d gain a lot of weight with food addictions and become unattractive, while he had set out to conquer his alcohol addictions?
Would I tell her that financial challenges and personal disappointments would make us feel trapped?
Or that I might make enemies with his friends and he with mine?
Or that one of us might behave badly in public and make the other squirm?
Do I tell my younger bride about children, and sleepless nights and teen-agers and drugs and worry?
Do I tell my younger bride that, often, she will feel more like an unpaid maid and nanny, and that romance was just for books and movies?
I could also time-travel back to December 28, 1986 and remember the night I knew I was going to marry him, even though we didn’t start dating for another three months.
He said a girl he recently dated was too perfect. He wished she’d spill or trip. Anything. In retrospect, he got way more than he wished for. I’m not exactly spill-proof and trip over unseen objects.
I could relive the kismet as we discovered a massive list of shared interests. The conversation was easy and our senses of humour played off each other—something that has sustained us for over thirty years.
I could compare him to previous dates I found stuffy or boring, or relive that epic second kiss we’ve recreated so many times.
I can still see the pipe band marching across his face when I told him I was born in Wales and loved Britain as much as he did.
Or I could tell her how five years before I met him, an English teacher read aloud the poetry of a former student. I was so impressed. I recall the political metaphor poem about the Beaver getting screwed by the Eagle (a Canada-USA relationship poem, obviously). I fell in love with his writing even before I fell in love with him.
By year twenty-four, this aging bride remembered the writing and coffee dates at University. The pair of them found expensive words they loved. They used them in papers, whether they fit or not.
She’s still easy prey for handsome men with big…vocabularies.
Today, I’d tell my younger bride, start writing your book in year one. Don’t wait until year twenty-four.
My year-twenty-four bride definitely didn’t want or expect to rediscover all those kismet-ty things that brought them together. But she valued his editing help and fell in love with him all over again.
I’d tell her to keep finding British shows to watch together. Make him playlists and new music, while also d.j.-ing road trips with all the classics. I’d tell her to travel to places you both love and go to concerts—like Coldplay at Wembley Stadium or U2 in Seattle.
Today, she sits proudly on her bridal perch of thirty years. She’s thankful that this starry-eyed bride expected the tough times.
They wrote their vows from the book of Ruth, “may God deal with me be it ever so severely if anything but death separates you and I.” Harsh words. But it would seem they meant them. They agreed before they married that they’d prioritize marriage counselling if necessary.
Wise foresight. It’s been necessary. Several times. And I would tell that bride today, and every bride and groom, go for counselling.
Just go. And keep finding things you love to do together. Most of all, trust in the power of redemption.
Today, I’d tell that bride. Do it again. He’s worth it.
On a windy Calgary day on May 14, 1988, I got married. Rae Kenny-Rife to be exact. If my math is correct (in these matters it’s best to be accurate), that makes 30 years.
It feels strange just reading those words. A guy at my level of A.D.D. seldom manages 30 minutes at anything.
That’s 360 months. 131,400 days. 7, 884, 000 minutes – well, you get the idea.
Marriage has been compared to many things.
The slow, arduous climb up a mountain, increasingly steep, and constantly threatened by dodgy weather.
Cool. Lots to see up here.
Wild, adrenaline-pumping, white water rapids.
A crazy carpet ride down an icy hill. Partners in guts and glory. Fellow felons of fun and frolic, as it were, gathering speed, danger, and panicked screams along the way.
Go for it. Whether by fall, splash, crash or slide, it’ll wrap up all too soon – sometimes with an uncomfortable bump at the bottom.
Besides, you can cry or laugh alongside someone who also pissed themself on the way down.
We love to ask our elders, decades of partnership under their belts, “what’s your secret to success for a long and happy marriage?”
Of course, in the asking, we assume their marriage to be both “successful” and/or “happy,” whatever those ultimately mean.
Therefore, let me humbly suggest we begin with a satisfactory definition of terms. What do we mean by long, happy, and especially, successful? Is it successful only inasmuch as it is long and/or happy? Put another way, can short marriages also be defined as successful if they were happy most of the time? What about those decades-long marriages that, although long, were rarely happy? Are we to view those as successful as well? At the end of the day, is happiness or longevity the litmus test for a successful marriage?
I could wax philosophical and ask whether Shakespearean star-struck gooeyness makes for good lovers (if so, hide the kitchen knives!). After all, who doesn’t love a good love story? That impossible pairing of impossible opposites who, against impossible odds, stumble into bliss together.
Back to our aging honeymooners instead. Among the most common answers to the question are as follows:
Communication (including sex).
A sense of shared purpose.
Frugality and discipline.
Hard work and sacrifice.
Regular date nights.
Bourbon…the list goes on.
To those staring at 50, 60 years or more, 30 years seems like a drop in the bucket. So what? They felt the same way as I many years ago.
That’s a very long time and I’m proud of it. We’re proud of it. And, were someone to ask us our recipe for “success” I’d likely say, “I have absolutely no f**king idea!”
Communication. Let me land there for a minute or two. In any marriage, communication can mean many things. Lack of it might best be described as unseized potential for understanding. Maybe even happiness. Relationship carpe diem, missed.
At other times communication bubbles over like foam on warm beer.
Then, there are those times of steel-blue silence. Arms folded. Back against back. Eyes squinted and distrustful – what Canadian novelist Hugh MacLellan once called “the two solitudes.”
Communication. In 2012, following an extended period of marriage difficulties, in what could only be described as a blinding hurricane of sexual renaissance, we were reminded about the powerful communication that can happen in the sheets. You can speak in a thousand different ways, but the robust vulnerability of intense bodily contact places trust at a whole new level.
Oddly, it can also be the best form of deception. Merely sharing orgasm doth not a relationship make. (That said, what a great way to find out!)
No harm, no foul, right?
On its own however, it is insufficient. It pales to the much less glamorous task of authenticity and mutual openness. The gristle gained in the grind.
Sex can iron out wrinkles sufficiently to make relational garments fit better. It can oil the squeaky hinges on the door that opens outward to freedom, inward to contentment. It loosens up tongues, long silent, to reinitiate the project of bridge-building.
It can, in the words of Richard Rohr, take us to the temple gates, but only the vastly superior love of God can open those gates and escort us in. Something much greater than a post-coital daze is necessary to sustain a relationship through the long, rigorously demanding years of life.
And those years are often hurled at us like glass in a hurricane rather than gently lowered down in a tidy basket of fruit, smiles, and puppies.
Laugh I’d say. If you don’t know how, bloody well learn. Few things are as life-giving as gut-busting laughter. This we have done in spades. The girl is a walking party. She attracts mischief and gloriously infantile guffaws like scuffs on new shoes.
Laughter? Yeah, we’re pretty good at that bit.
I wrote this on our 25th. Rae wrote this on our 26th. Now, on our 30th I add another 5. And, if someone felt the urge to ask me how we’ve managed this long – “what’s held it together? What’s the secret? How did you do it?” – I’d be hard-pressed to give a decent answer.
Was it the many times I could have more readily throttled her than cuddled her?
Was it the time we told each other to f**k off while losing control of Scottish teens at a church seaside games night?
Or, the screaming match in a church parking lot when I threw the car keys into traffic?
Was it the years we rarely touched each other?
The first or second time we separated?
Was it the nights, sometimes many, I decided to sleep elsewhere – anywhere else?
Was it those times I was so angry I couldn’t see straight or imagine another minute with her?
When the best remedy I could find was booze?
Or, was the nights, huddled under winter blankets, watching BBC together?
Our shared passion for justice, and distaste for ecclesiastical hypocrisy, and political bullshit (in America, those are the same thing)?
The Nirvana of a Welsh rain pouring restlessly over Tintern Abbey stone?
Mutual lump-in-throat dry mouth, driving B roads in rural Britain?
Our love for all things ancient and wonderfully impractical?
Those liturgical dates at a Taizé prayer service, an Anglican or Catholic Mass?
Well-honed inside jokes?
Favourite Spotify playlists containing everything from ABBA to Gregorian chant?
Writing dates at oceanview cafés?
The embarrassing hilarity of late middle-age sex?
The shared writing of a symphony, Opus 1 (Calum) and Opus 2 (Graeme)?
Yes. All of it and more. It’s been bliss at times, shit at others.
But, it’s our shit. The shit we know. The shit we’ve weathered together.
30 years and I’m still horrified at the sheer level of commitment required. I still blanche at the profundities of this whole deal – the distance there can be between contentment and chaos. How contentment, however spotty, gives perspective to said chaos.
Mostly, how God has managed to help us smell like roses in a sea of self-inflicted shit.
If a “successful” marriage, whether long or short, happy or not, is one characterized by awareness of its failures, but possessing a desire to deal with them, we likely fit the bill.
If “happy” simply means more sunlight than shadow, more gratitude than regret, more genuine than shallow, more honest than projected, more lived than protected, we likely fit the bill.
25 + 5 = 30.
For me, it equals quiet satisfaction.
Happy Anniversary, babe. Let’s keep adding numbers until we forget we were adding numbers.
He was already two weeks late for his curtain call. Even the most jaded artist makes some form of appearance well before that. Whoever this would be was making a statement from the very beginning that time would not be their master. He arrived over two weeks late and has been so ever since!
It was 1989. Granton Baptist Church auditorium, Edinburgh, Scotland. A ceilidh was in full swing with kilts and music to match. It was a dual celebration – Pastor Andy Scarcliffe’s return from a pulpit swap that took him to California and our return to Canada from a whirlwind few months of serving as “missionaries” to his congregation. Much revelry, carousing (safely vetted for Baptist consumption), and music was the order of the evening.
Squarely a product of 1960s rock culture and 1970s Jesus Movement, Andy’s rock band played a song or two for the occasion which, by necessity, included “Why Does the Devil Get All the Good Music?” (thank you, Larry Norman).
My bagpipes made an appearance or two as well.
Calum (Stewart James Rife) was named after a wee toddler of the same name whose unrelenting parade march behind me as I piped that night was all the inspiration required. This wee laddie would be the conception behind the conception. Music moved him, drawing him from place to place as I marched about the room. We were as equally mesmerized by him as he was by the music.
Our Calum would be no different.
He was his own master from day one, exploring places best left to the professionals and adding himself to any situation requiring a curious toddler. When he was three, and donning his finest Superman costume, my wife took him out for the annual Halloween-candy-grab-go-‘n-gobble. Typical of his bold, shamelessly gregarious manner (and, not fully understanding the occasion), he waltzed into the very first home they came to, promptly removed his shoes (as is customarily Canadian) and his coat, and plopped himself down, cross-legged, on the couch. The amused, but slightly confused, homeowner replied simply, “so, ya wanna beer?”
On another occasion, Calum’s FIRST DAY of preschool, he had to be rescued by the fire department having climbed over thirty feet up a tree. Not so much the gymnast as the explorer, he would be ever gravitating to whatever experience best peaked the blood pressure of his parents.
Or, perhaps testing their humility. Once, while waiting in line with Mom at the bank, he estimated it to be the best time for asking a loudly-phrased question, burning in his young mind. “Mommy, does Daddy have a uterus like you?” But, why stop there? While he was at it, he threw in another sideliner, “do the Berenstain Bears have a uterus?” Legitimate questions. It’s all in the timing.
Calum’s monumental musical abilities were honed, to some degree at least, playing drums, bass and/or guitar for any number of my bands. While living in Oregon, I dragged him along with me to gig after gig. It was always immensely gratifying that my fourteen-year-old could pull off a perfect rendition of Jimi Hendrix’ Little Wing. If nothing else, it provided his father with much desired street cred. Nowadays, it is I who am googly-eyed as I watch this young man, having mastered any number of instruments, play circles around the best of anything I’ve ever done.
Then again, why not? What could possibly be better than a parent seeing their gifts perfected in their children? This song is part of a project we’ve been working on for a while. I wrote the song a few years ago. He recorded it and, along with playing a host of instruments, is also producing it.
This is a lad who, more than anyone else I know, has learned how to survive. Taking after the inventive nature of his grandfather (God knows it didn’t come from me), he can turn a soup can into an R.V. given a weekend and the right materials. He has been pressing ahead with abandon for many years to build his perfect residence: a trailer. His need for a sense of belonging, of home, has sent him on many a quest to many a place. Every place he has gone now has the footprint of a deeply intelligent, profoundly funny, spiritually intense individual who, whether they like it or not, were faced with…Calum (mwahahahahahaaaaaaaa!).
Although he might not be inclined to say as much, Calum is one of the most empathic, and beautiful human beings I’ve ever known. Struggling at times. At other times, confused and searching. But never without unrivaled compassion. He who suffers much knows how to enter the same in others (but, at least a warning phone call ahead of time might be nice!).
More than few others he has learned to make the most unimaginable circumstances bearable by means of ingenuity and sheer will power.
Today, this man is twenty-seven. There have been many times I’ve been much less than the man he needed as a father. But, for what it’s worth, I consider him not just my equal, but my better. He is Calum, “dove” in Gaelic. A dove is a messenger of peace.
March 15th, a day made brighter still in 1996 when, bursting into it, came a fresh, young star, Graeme Robert Rife. He was the result of a hope, hard fought and won, for another child to add to our growing quiver.
Calum, our eldest – soon to be twenty-seven, came easily. Likely a quickie. Graeme, who today turns twenty-two, came about through more than three years of “trying.” What a strange metaphor that is. Stranger still for parents to suggest that sex could become such an arduous undertaking. In this circumstance however, much of the fun and passion of it was removed in favour of “best conceiving positions,” proper diet, stress management, slow mantras howled at midnight moons and the rather unromantic, “hurry, I’m ovulating.”
All of it is quickly forgotten in the light of three words: “congratulations, you’re pregnant.” For her, the joy and potential of another child. For me, the validation that my hardware is still worthwhile, my RAM sufficient, and my bandwidth up to the task of successful data transfer. For us, the sweet but scary serendipity of another shared venture, made possible by “the big O” and the hope that “maybe this one will take.”
Twenty-two years later and a handsome, winsome, talented, and adventurous young soul celebrates what we celebrate even more, his very existence. Like most men, I looked forward to the arrival of a child much like waiting for surgery. The lingering pain of longing is only addressed under the knife of uncertainty.
But arrival itself is the momentous awakening from this uncertainty into the much broader waiting room of wonder. Pride, satisfaction, elation all line up to take their place alongside exhaustion, unpredictability, and just a little fear.
I was already besotted with Calum who, at that time, was almost five. We had a well-established relationship. We had our “thing” and no one, not even our second child, would take that from us. I was as horrified of change and the unknown as the next person.
Little was I to know just how misguided and naive that was. The human heart seems to have an unending capacity to love and, on March 15th, 1996, another baby boy stuck his head out into the world. Damp, squirmy and squawling he came, trumpeting his arrival. “I’m here, I’m fabulous, and I will not be ignored!” All I remember is thinking to myself, now I get it. That’s how parents can love equally all their children.
Not that there’s any way to know this for sure, but one can easily imagine an accompanying cry of relief in escaping his cramped womb-room out where a guy can finally stretch his dancing legs. There are really only two kinds of people in the world, those who love the womb and spend their lives trying to get back, and those for whom it was an unnecessarily long waiting room from which to finally escape. I’ve been largely the former. Graeme? Undoubtedly the latter. That place was never going to be adequate real estate for long.
His world will never be quite expansive enough to contain his momentum, his monumental abilities; his magnanimity. He is the consummate adventurer. Although, ironically, he relishes a need for the peace, order, and predictability of home. If his smaller, secure place of respite is in his periphery or his rearview mirror, he becomes emboldened for adventure. New peaks to climb. New dragons to slay. New dangers to taunt. New people to seduce easily and utterly to he and his cause du jour.
Graeme is synonymous with gravitas. He has his own irresistible orbit. Once trapped there, spinning ’round him with other adoring sojourners, it’s easy to understand why. He is casually hilarious, literally tripping over his laissez faire repartée. He all but glows in the dark, the one whose presence centers both room and crowd, holding sway; commanding their attention.
But he does this not in the immature pretentions of a Donald Trump, but in the gracious manner more attributable to Princess Diana. He never foists himself onto a scene. He strategically plants himself where people gather and simply becomes the scene.
He is as capable as he is a procrastinator. He will wait to the last minute, let it sail past into an alternate universe, happily oblivious of potential consequences. Then, long after the moment was ripe, he will emerge from shit smelling of roses in summer sunshine (well, with a little help from mom and dad I suppose). Good thing he is utterly charming and endlessly delightful or I’d throttle the little bastard!
Graeme Robert Rife, today you are twenty-two years old. Alongside your older brother, they’ve been the best twenty-two years our little universe has known. Thank you for showing up when you did, as you did.
The world is a better place with you laying in a good backbeat.
What follows is my sermon from Sunday, March 4th. And, of course, it reads more like a sermon than a blog post. But, you’re a forgiving crowd.
Mark 6:1-6 (NRSV)
He left that place and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.
Where the other gospels begin backstage as a whisper and slowly crescendo, Mark’s gospel enters like a Quentin Tarantino movie: graphic, fast-paced with both barrels blazing. There’s a certain breathlessness to Mark’s gospel that heightens urgency. The pace holds our attention. It entertains as it teaches and is all about bold pronouncements, big miracles, immediate actions, and expected responses.
So, here are a few highlights, the prequel as it were, to Mark 6:
Jesus heals and forgives a guy let down from torn out ceiling tile.
Increasingly, teachers and scribes question Jesus’ character and ministry decisions, creating added tension.
He chooses the motley crew, otherwise known as the disciples.
He speaks of a house divided against itself followed by his own family trying to “shush” him by calling him away (he was likely becoming a little embarrassing).
He teaches about sowers and seeds and lamps and bushel baskets; grain and sickles, and mustard seeds.
He stills a storm with a couple words tossed out over the waves.
He sets free a crazed, demon-possessed man at the expense of some poor bugger’s herd of pigs who hurl themselves into the sea. You know, as pigs do.
He raises a synagogue leader’s daughter from the dead, all while indirectly healing a desperate woman’s lifelong hemorrhage.
And that’s only the first 5 chapters. The guy’s just getting warmed up.
But then he shows up in his home town. One would think that a particular type of reception would be forthcoming. What he receives instead is a collective, “who the hell does he think he is?!” And a bone-crushing flurry of amazing feats of heavenly daring-do come to a screeching halt on his own front door.
I’m sure we can all think of times when social gatherings didn’t work out in desirable ways. For example, high school reunions. They’re always fun.
After many years, we reassemble, all of us wondering whether we’ll be able to pick up where we left off. We all know the ropes. And, we have a shared language, a certain unspoken understanding of things.
Will Bobby still be a science geek?
Will Audra still be the quiet, awkward girl stigmatized for her weight?
Will Matt still be the annoyingly self-referential football star the girls loved and boys loved to hate?
Will Alistair still be the class clown?
Will Skye still be the hippy girl who was good at writing and photography?
Most importantly, how will I be perceived?
To some degree, how could anyone compete with the likes of Jesus? He’s one of their own, a meagre carpenter no less, claiming equality with God and performing the coolest party tricks ever to substantiate it.
I love stand-up comedy (I know, big surprise). Comedian, Brian Regan, highlights this socio-pathology. In short, party-talk one-upmanship. At every party, there’s at least one loud mouth, self-identified socialite sophisticate whose story is always so much better than anyone else’s.
How many of you have experienced this? Maybe it was you!?
This is mine, not Mr. Regan’s (the lesser quality should be a giveaway).
You: “I climbed Mt. Adams last year.”
Mr. Better-Than-You: “Aw, how sweet. That’s when I was in Africa, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.”
You: “Well, I finally did it. I finished my bachelor’s degree.”
Mr. Better-Than-You: “Hey, that’s great. I’m getting a publishing deal for my post-doctoral work.”
You: “After four years of frustration and fertility drugs, we’re finally pregnant!”
Mrs. Better-Than-You: “Congratulations! We decided not to have a fourth and are going to Cambodia to adopt. We may stay for a year or two and work among the poor.”
Regan continues setting up his punch line. While Mr. Big Man in the room is doubling down on his own greatness:
“Last quarter, I managed to bring our company out of its slump and produce the highest quarterly earnings in its history. My wife’s been such a trooper, taking on all the extra responsibility while I taught in Prague. So, I took her and kids to Thailand for a month. Then, on the return trip we rented a Bucatti and drove the Autoban. It. Was. Fabulous.”
At the other end of the table sitting quietly and without pretense, is an unknown guest, whose response is simple, unadorned and genuine: “I walked on the moon,” says the guest, Neil Armstrong.
All the air leaves the room. No one will ever have a better story.
We resent feeling upstaged. We resent whenever we’re not the most interesting person in a room. But, it’s so much more than just that.
I believe Mark 6 tells us many things. It speaks to the irritation of being confronted by the unexpected, especially if something is demanded of us.
Jesus was a home-boy done good and, had he returned in his nicest Sunday School clothes with Bible under one arm, flag under the other, kissing seniors and babies, and preaching white bread ‘n gramma’s apple pie, he’d have been welcomed with open arms.
“Just look how wonderful Joseph and Mary’s boy has become. You know he made Helen’s china cabinet, right. Yes! He’s making Bob and Edna’s patio furniture. That boy is going places.”
But Jesus returns to his hometown as a prophet. He’s been saying big things that don’t stay within the party line. He’s messing with convention. And, friends, let’s be honest, nothing spoils a party faster than someone who sees our failings, our deepest sins, and our most persistent needs…and can quote them publicly.
I had a radical conversion experience in 1981 while touring as a musician. I’d experienced miracles while on the road, made lots of new and strange friends, started carrying around a big Bible, hung out downtown at the Mustard Seed Street Church, gave away half my clothes, most of my record albums, and gave my Mom $50 just for doing my laundry.
And my family loved me.
Well, in theory. My reentry into my family of origin was anything but easy. What I saw as beautiful, persuasively formative changes in my life often came across as threats and condemnation to them. I recall my sister, in casually caustic manner, telling me to just go away and sell flowers at the airport (that’s actually quite funny). My brother threw a pair of scissors at me and my poor mother just thought I was abandoning her and everything they had taught me as parents.
Frankly, I was new in faith and just being an immature dink. So, perhaps this is not the best analogy. But, it was still deeply disconcerting.
We resent perceived changes to our status quo.
We resent that with which we have easy familiarity. It can in fact breed contempt.
We resent whatever pulls us out of a stream of consciousness flowing comfortably in one direction.
We resent reminders that we are not called to be power-brokers, but prophets.
We resent being told that we’re somehow on the wrong side of history if we think ourselves winning some culture war.
We resent being reminded that the last shall be first and the first, last.
Jesus was too well known in his home town for anyone to actually listen and be moved to repentance and change. They had traded their wonder for revulsion. What many non-Jewish, non-conformist, non-“correct” outsiders were experiencing – forgiveness, healing, emancipation – his own townies found offensive.
I’ve been drawn back to the prophets of late. I once hated reading them. Grumpy buggers, the lot of ’em. With the sorry state of our national life these days, primarily the church, they are offering much encouragement. A number of things become apparent when one honestly reads the OT prophets.
First, those most in need of God are God’s people. Judgement always starts where one would assume kingdom truth to be self-evident. Friends, if there’s anyone who needs to hear the gospel all over again, it’s us, the church; those most familiar with him.
Jesus stands at the door and knocks, trying to get back into his own church; a church too in love with political agenda, and worshiping a fabricated Jesus, rather than following the red-letter Jesus of the New Testament.
Second, God’s people can be surprisingly smug and dismissive about kingdom life as we become overly familiar with it. When it ceases to be a radical way of life and becomes instead our politics and our sub-culture; a “worldview” rather than the missio dei, it has lost its allure.
Third, God is most unwelcome among those who do not want to be reminded of their failings. And, if the scriptures tell us anything, that happens often with insiders. Us.
However, God NEVER gives up. God is a jealous lover who will pound at our door again and again and again until we reawaken to see what has never left us.
Friends, when we become too “familiar” with what we think the gospel to be, we can become offended at that which once amazed us. Resentment poisons humility, denies teachability and robs us of childlike wonder.
When truth begins to hit too close to home, we retreat back to the safety of our shared prejudice rather than face the withering scrutiny of God’s transforming word.
You see, to rediscover Jesus is to rediscover wonder. Gospel as way of life, not just some political platform, the trumpet section for our culture parade. Jesus, the lover of our souls, not the name on our bumper stickers, the picture on our t-shirts, or our regrettable church-sign slogans.
Church, I hear Jesus knocking at our door. Let us allow him back in. Let’s rediscover Jesus, the real Jesus…and let our wonder be rekindled.