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.
The king of Vegas rockabilly, Elvis Presley, once sang this refrain, “we’ll have a blue, blue, blue, blue Christmas.” He was one of a number of artists to sing it. I mention it because it is a song of unrequited love, specifically at Christmas time.
If ever there were an emotionally heavy-handed time of year it is Christmas. As early as September we begin to see the familiar commodified images of sleek, effeminate reindeer, suspiciously rosy-cheeked Santas, Hallmark this ‘n that, and the tsunami of stuff we’re meant to buy to help us feel how we’re meant to feel.
It’s a construct and we know it. Well, at least the shiny baubles, taut packages ‘n bows part. But, lest I find myself on the receiving end of Scrooge-comments, let me say that I’ve loved this time of year my entire life, in spite of working outrageous hours as a church music director. I love the ambience. Sometimes I don’t even mind its rom-com, syrupy-saccarine motif falsely imaged and poured over us like a jolly-happy goo.
The whole thing smacks of an out of control Norman Rockwell painting, replete with the expectations that we all play along with the happy themes. We’re supposed to be joyful, full of gratitude and happy family times, with family-dog-stealing-roast-beef-off-the-counter type fun. Why wouldn’t we, right?
Quite often, it’s not that simple. For those who have lost a loved one, a parent, a friend, a pet, heaven forbid, a child – this can be an especially difficult time indeed. The ache of loss still fresh in their mind pinches their guts and narrows their emotional field of vision. It can almost feel like an insult. All these happy faces everywhere and not a hint of respite from their pain on the horizon.
Tonight, our congregation chose to remember these people, to bring a light into dark places this Advent-Christmas. More metaphor than Elvis, we called it, quite simply, Blue Christmas.
Rather than barrel through the weekly lighting of Advent candles, special readings and prayers and favourite songs we thought it best to stop. Stop, to remember those faces no longer in our crowds. The missing pictures on our mantelpieces. Our family gathering a little less Rockwell and a little more Orwell. We spent silent time memorializing them, lighting a candle in their honour. Maybe crying just a little.
Wherever you are in your journey, maybe spend a few moments this season just quietly remembering those no longer there to taste your grandma’s apple pie or mom’s Yorkshire Pudding.
Such a sad irony given the need to remember when I recall so little so much of the time But, I remember as much as I need to for right here. Right now.
I remember all that I’ve been given – and I smile.
I remember that I get to sleep with someone who loves to be with me, who chooses to share my life, even the dark places – and I smile.
I remember, through that same love, two babies, now young men, came into the world if for no other reason than to taunt my lesser joy with a still greater one – and I smile.
I remember the man I call brother, the woman I call sister, the man now dead we call father, the woman upon whose shoulders and within whose heart we all dwell, we call mother – and I smile.
I remember that I’ve been entrusted with notes, lines, hands, and voice, and then charged and blessed to engage in it, both as a living and as hobby – and I smile.
I remember the sight of candles burning, a dark and peaceful sanctuary full of singing voices, and the strains of “Silent Night” – and I smile.
I remember that I am given poetry and words to share with the weary world, much of it published, and fulfilling whatever destiny for which it has been prescribed – and I smile.
I remember the incredible home we call our own, poised handsome and stoic on a proud hillside where it stands year after year, waiting for the valley to breathe in and out each new season – and I smile.
I remember that, as a man of fifty-four, I am healthy enough to run miles in double digits – and I smile.
I remember the touch of cold hands in mine as she congratulates my choice of hymns, the hearty back slap as he celebrates “this young man” – and I smile.
I remember the ache of loss for faces of those once bright and full, now gone and buried, the sound of tears, the taste of mourning, the honour of sharing it – and I smile.
I remember the seraphic sound of my choir as they collude together in happy voice to mirror the world’s unreasonable beauty – and I smile.
I remember the one God of One in Three; eternal, but who once had an address, now forever bearing the scars of his coming, who is my friend – and I smile.
And, though I never knew their names, I remember their sacrifice, caught in whirlwinds not of their choosing. Sometimes they were sent by selfish kings to do the bidding of empire. They went anyway. Sometimes, they were thrust out to defend the lack lustre and apathetic against the threat of unknown horrors. They went anyway. Mostly, they went because they believed it to be their best legacy. This I remember – and I smile.
This is a little story about the value of time. Or, perhaps the timing of value. Either way, here goes.
The numerous eccentricities that sequin this life of mine would not, to the uneducated stranger, seem to include punctuality. Spend just a few minutes with me and you’ll wonder how I manage to dress myself every morning, let alone have a driver’s license, or be allowed to procreate. But, in contradistinction to everything else one might know of me, I’m a stickler for being on time. To everything. Always. It is a point of pride. More so, it’s an exercise in lessening anxiety.
Friday, November 3rd. The Highland Dancing competition that provides the opportunity for this little sojourn takes place in Portland, Oregon, a mere three and a half hours south of us. It offers one of the most stunning drives one could ask for. And today is that day.
A leisurely drive over Satus Pass, stopping at my favourite monastery (like I have so many) for their legendary coffee and spanakopita. The Orthodox nuns who run the joint do so with friendly smiles and winsome personalities. And, they run a pretty tight ship. They’re a credit to their tradition.
Once over the pass, I descend the golden hillsides of Eastern Washington and cross the Columbia River Bridge. Then, it’s through the green, rain-soaked, monolithic tunnel o’ rock otherwise known as the Columbia Gorge. It snakes along Interstate 84, hugging one of the world’s biggest rivers. To my right, the Columbia, deep and slow and deceptively dangerous. To my left, the tufted ancient rock formations thrust up over millions of years that now frame this idyllic little meander.
A pain-free, largely traffic-free, Google-guided route to one of those perfectly perfect Portland neighbourhoods, more trees than people. Just as it should be. I park without difficulty right outside the B ‘n B where I’m to be staying. Then, in an effort toward appropriate courtesy, I stand for some time outside the door, searching my email history for the owner’s phone number. To call first means avoiding that uncomfortable walk onto someone else’s deck or anywhere a family might not want such interruption.
It was an unnecessary concern since another occupant opened the door just as I reached for the buzzer. Australian guy I think. The home owner – let’s call him Roger – greets me at the kitchen door with a look of confused amusement on his face. Confusement? Amusion? He is already scrolling through his Air BnB phone records looking to secure what, to him, is apparently a surprise.
“Um, it seems there is a bit of a mix-up here,” he says, face super-glued to his cell phone screen. His thumb scrolls over face after face. It suggests a tidy little business he’s got here. But, none of them appear to be mine. He gives one more healthy swipe of the thumb and up pops my profile Gravatar, making its embarrassing appearance.
Now, as I’ve mentioned, punctuality is a point of pride for me. But this was precedent setting, even by my exacting standards. Roger is a cheerful enough chap, professional and gregarious. He probes a little further.
“Well, this is a rather unique situation,” he offers. “It appears you’re booked for next Friday evening.”
My dumb numbness, framed by my gawking, is matched only by his look of pity. He can afford it. He has a place to sleep tonight! I squint my eyes in disbelief at the reality staring at me from his phone. Sure enough. I’m booked for the following week.
I could have feigned a look of personal incredulity. But, alas, this is not exactly precedent setting for me and I’d be anything but convincing. The best I can manage, “well, shit.” This however acts also as my admission of guilt in this matter. It effectively relieves him of any wrongdoing.
He thus forges ahead. “No matter. Obviously, you need a bed for the night, and finding anything on a Friday night at 5:00pm won’t be fun.” Pause. “I’ll need to check with my wife. You know, whether she’d feel comfortable with this…”
Great setup I thought, for the kind but awkward punchline that followed.
“We actually have another room upstairs we don’t normally rent since it’s right next to our bedroom.”
My gut clenches a little as I consider all the uncomfortable scenarios that might make this not such a great idea. Two adult males, mentally circle, both grasping for enough manhood not to appear either retarded or lacking control of the situation. Mercifully, he steps outside to begin the negotiations with his wife.
No use trying to “man-up” with this mix-up. Instead (and instinctively I might add) I do what I normally do and call my wife. She knows these calls. Really well. She’s had lots of them and is well practiced in the art of the de-pickle, quite like the one in which I presently find myself.
I agree with her immediate assessment. “You need to let me make your reservations from now on.” Normally, such statements would seem an affront to my masculinity (a bit shaky right now), hinting at an inability to tie my own shoes. Given the circumstances, and how good she is at these correctives, I hand it over to her capable contrivance.
Within seconds I had cancelled my hastily-made reservation and she’d booked me a hotel room nearby. This was a huge sigh of relief since Roger was still nervously pacing back and forth outside in obvious negotiations with his wife. I smile. I know those conversations. I bid farewell and made a hasty exit, allowing him respite from whatever deliberations were underway. Roger, you’re welcome.
The moral of this little tale?
Who cares. Life isn’t merely a collection of “teachable moments.” But, since we’re on the subject.
More often than not life is, quite simply, about life. We live it, trip over it, and usually love it. It comes to us as is, unadorned, but real, unpredictable. And, all the better for it.
Failure is a promise (to some more than others). Embrace it. I’m getting pretty good at it. Well, really good if you must know.
Independence is not a biblical principle. Dependence is (God). Interdependence is (each other).
God is good. Theology lesson over.
I’m well rested (albeit at a financial loss).
Roger is once again snuggled safely in his world none the worse for wear.
My wife, as much an expert in unexpected chaos as I, once more proves her worth as booking agent, social convener, and non-judgmental partner.