Christmastide – Practicing Surprise

Much has been written about this period of the holy story the church has called Christmastide. We hear words like waiting, longing, anticipation, inbreaking, birthing, hoping, emmanuel, and sing of shepherds and sheep, angels, alleluias and announcements, mangers and mangy stables and , all in voices bright sing gloria in excelsis deo (glory to God in the highest).

Consumer culture rides its coattails toward a bloated bottom line. Corporate culture plays with its nuances to encourage warmth of feeling and brand vibes. Christian culture uses it to battle their annual “war on Christmas.” Cancel culture uses it to remedy the former. And, Hallmark culture uses it to sell Thomas Kinkade paintings (I have nothing against him, I promise!). Such a tangle of ideas and emotions, all running rampant…at Christmas.

Thomas Kinkade, “The Nativity”

Even in an arguably post-Christian culture, it is challenging to share anything particularly new about a story this well known. For those of us tasked with its telling it can be especially difficult to reverse the potential for a familiarity-bred contempt, both in the church, and in the culture at large. But tell it we do. Every year.

The stultifying caprice of our COVIDays, coupled with unparalleled political farcity seems to have diminished our ability to see any hopeful horizons and consequently, ravage our capacity to dream. One wonders if one can ever again, wonder. As the writer of Proverbs once observed, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life” (13:12).

But, dare we think ourselves alone to be the hope-starved? Those to whom the heavenly babe first came were far more so.

Read appropriately, in its original context, the birth narrative of Jesus would have sounded incredulous. A questionable yarn akin to UFO talkies or gu’rmint conspiracy theories in the local version of Bethlehem’s National Enquirer. ‘Twould have been anything but a family-friendly, consumer-ready tale fit for animated movie screens and glittering holiday bling.

Instead, the Hebrew nation fixated on their lot as Roman-branded religious fanatics and kicked against the goads of military occupation. And, theirs was an occupation not just politically by the Romans, but theologically and morally by religious leaders pretending to follow Torah but largely interested in political safety and the biggest voice at the table (sound familiar?).

Jan Gossaert (Jean Gossart) (Flemish, d. 1532), “The Adoration of the Kings,” 1510–15. Oil on oak, 179.8 × 163.2 cm. National Gallery, London. https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG2790

Long had they given up hope that anything would actually change. That their station might somehow improve. That, in great, great grandpa’s memory was something about messiah, the line of David, and covenant promises, among other fantastical things. They had done what almost every other conquered people has always done – settled into the long night of mediocrity and acceptance. Their survival mode button was stuck in the ‘on’ position.

Oh, there were outliers for sure. History is replete with them. There are always a remnant of stalwarts who refuse such resigned demeanour.

For example, Anna, whose long and lonely life had been given to prayerfulness and presence. Simeon, similarly, happy just to die having seen the fulfillment of a promise. Zechariah, whose priestly advocacy over Israel was well-known and whose doubts equalled his dedication. Elizabeth was giddy just to be pregnant in old age (God rather fancies such stunts), let alone with the New Testament’s resident off-the-grid hippy. And, of course, Mary. Aw, Mary – sweet but strong, young but wise, believing but thoughtful. Mary, perhaps more than anyone, understood the full importance and impact of what was told her by the angelic messenger. Apparently yes, she did know. ; )

“My mind is blown and my heart is full. Okay, so if I’m hearing you correctly, God’s finally doing something? Not just anything, but making the cosmic statement that the lesser is the more, the small leads the great, the poor rule over the rich. It’s all been upended, and you remembered everything that you’ve ever promised to me and my people? I’m in!”*

Danylo Movchan (Ukrainian, 1979–), “Nativity,” 2015. Tempera and gilding on board, 32 × 24 cm. Descending down into death. In icons, the cave of the nativity is meant to recall Christ’s tomb.

It is on the one hand a strength that such a story resides deep in our shared memory and finds revered place in our common consciousness. But, sometimes the familiarity of character, plot, and setting can sublimate the luminous mysteries at work under the surface. We kinda know the story but it doesn’t move us anymore. The aha! has been lost in the constant retelling that lacks reliving.

We can attribute much that is warm and good and beautiful to our affixation with the Christmas story. We still value the notion, however vague, that love lies at its heart, that forgiveness has at least something to do with all this, that family and community somehow matter, and that God doesn’t mind getting his hands (and diapered backside) dirty.

In our cynical moments, if nothing else, it keeps us looking for good deals at Walmart and happily arguing over Starbucks cups. And who doesn’t love that after fighting winter traffic for two hours?

But, upon reflection, guided by the Spirit who guided the star who guided the wise men who guides us still, we confess Christmastide to be a picture of heavenly surprise. To retell such a treasured tale should be of all things, an exercise in practicing surprise.

And everyone loves surprises.

A happy and surprising Christmastide to each and every one of you!

*Rob’s take on Luke 1:46-55, often called “The Magnificat” or simply “Mary’s Song of Praise.”

Sacred Spaces (vol. 1)

I have shared here on numerous occasions my intention to follow the Spirit’s voice across the pond where we will serve with Serve Globally somewhere in Britain. This call has percolated in my wife and I for many years and we are finally ready to pour whatever heady liquid is forthcoming into frothy mugs of Gospel peace for all who need it.

Rae and I, Llanthony Priory, 2016

A big part of that process is…gulp…fundraising. An unsexy word if ever there was one. But, alas, despite whatever stigma is attached thereto, I muscle through it to enjoin all within earshot to join us in this venture. Follow along as an interested witness to what God is doing. Follow us by way of joining our prayer community. Or, follow us by joining our finance community.

What I post here is a new offering, not just for our Serve Globally family, but for this blog as well. Along with our regular semi-monthly newsletter, I have added “Sacred Spaces,” (I apologize for the exterior link! It keeps things tidier) a page uniquely dedicated to encouraging hope and nourishing the spiritual imagination.

My regular readers will recognize much of the material. It comes from here! But it is placed into a readable Mailchimp design for easy email distribution.

You are my precious blog family, equally dedicated to the mysteries of the spiritual journey. And, of all people, I want to invite you deeper into this adventure, this coddiwomple, with us.

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

Thanks be

Thanksgiving, 2020.

Me and my wife

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

New citizens of a viral America!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will you join us?

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

______________________________________________________________________________

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

*To become a financial partner, go here.

Corona Daze: Sanctuary

In times of darkness and light, chaos and calm, we look to our artists to be our comforters, our prophets; those who bring light into dark places. They remind us of our shared humanity. They point us inward where we find the Christ within. They point our heads upward away from our pain. They point us outward away from our self-absorption and into the great, wide world whose pain is greater still. 

Carrie Newcomer is one such artist. As we look at each other both askance and with a curious mixture of suspicion and longing, may this song and the spirit which inspires it, become the growing embers of hope. More than anything else, may we be to each other, a refuge. In this storm, and any other.

Corona-daze, chapter two

What everyone doesn’t need right now:

More bad news.

More anxiety.

More uncertainty.

More xenophobic virus responses.

More conspiracy-theorist nut jobs.

More division (only now pictured by quarantine).

What everyone could use right now:

Belly laughs.

Real community.

A feeling of health and safety.

Mutual kindness.

A C19 vaccine.

Hope.

Invitation.jpgThank you, Dina Gregory, for posting this to our Facebook chat room. It’s perfect for all of us right now.

Thank you, Yakima Herald!

I’m especially grateful to Tammy Ayer at the Yakima Herald who thought our story interesting enough to include the following piece about our final Celtic Christmas Eve. 

80867692_10156312679816895_1439314918951092224_o.jpg

Details for how you may choose to support our venture are found in the article. The link goes live tomorrow. Blessing and peace to you all as the Yule is once again upon us and the smell of food fills the air to meet with laughter, fellowship, hopefulness and gratitude!

From Grateful to Giving

It might seem predictable, a little banal even, to prattle on about those things for which we’re most grateful on a Hallmark holiday. Be that as it may, the spiritual fruit of joy and humility find their taproot in the spiritual discipline of gratitude.

Therefore, along with so many others, I add my voice of thanks for all things bright and beautiful, great and small – the Lord God made them all (thank you, Cecil Alexander). The Lord God has indeed made them all and designed us favourably so as to create in kind and be grateful in so doing.

If there is a time given for gratitude, take it, no matter how manufactured or marketed. Perhaps in our giving thanks we can be open to hear about how we came to have what we have at others’ expense. Perhaps in our gratitude may be birthed genuine honesty, compassion, and sense of justice for those who live in squalour, darkness, fear, and despair who help create our Norman Rockwell illusions.

More than anything else, true thankfulness of necessity aims itself at true justice. They walk the same road. They must. If they do not, what we’re experiencing is not gratitude, but gloating; not thanksgiving, but a dull acquiescence to the prevailing culture of excess, entitlement, and acquisition. If our intake of good things doesn’t lead to intentionality to provide the same for others, we’re missing the point.

Let us strive to enter into sacred gratitude this year, a deeply rooted praise to God whose heart ever pounds most for those who have least. Only then does Thanksgiving become more than a national holiday, feast to St. More, ghost of Granny Gluttony – prelude to the biggest parade in honour of covetousness: Black Friday.

Instead, may it become something transformative, awakening us, through gratitude, to the plight of others more than happy to lick the leftover gravy from our china plates.

“Lord of all good things, in all things we give you thanks. But, in our gratitude, open our eyes and hearts to our neighbours, forced to live with less because we have demanded more. We offer ourselves as vessels of love and justice by means of the very gratitude we feel. Let our gratitude lead to giving. Amen.”

Coming soon…A Coddiwomplers’ Tale

Dear friends, we find ourselves in the midst of a most effervescent time in our journey. It is a white-knuckle, white-water experience of unstoppable force to which we can only close our eyes and hang on. And it’s wonderful. It’s a tale I’ve been longing to tell.

Just not yet.

I’ve only just recently replaced a lost computer, the one upon which I presently type. Therefore, dear reader, I pray patience as I hoist the riggings on this puppy sufficient to the task of bringing you more of…A Coddiwomplers’ Tale.

Until then, peace and laughter, dear souls!

Numbers ‘n Such

I’m fifty-six today.

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.

Rob-9-23-19.jpg
Taken when I wasn’t ready…by me.

 

A Longing Revisited

Rob and Rae, happiest where things are oldest.

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.

Longing.

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

Dear friends,

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.

Your friend in the mystery, R