A Journey, Two Years Hence – Why I Write

Oban screen shot.pngAnother 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!

Screen Shot 2018-06-17 at 3.07.49 PM.png

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.

Two years.

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.clock.jpg

Only time will tell.

Just give it time.

It’s about time.

Time-out.

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.

Screen Shot 2018-06-18 at 6.03.32 AM.png

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. 

Screen Shot 2018-06-18 at 6.16.24 AM.png

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.

Screen Shot 2018-06-18 at 6.05.41 AM.pngOnce 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).

llanthony-priory-2016.jpg
Llanthony Priory, Wales

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.

 

 

 

Defiance: Introducing Mark’s Jesus

What follows is a “bloggified” version of my sermon from last Sunday, June 3rd.

* * * * *

Today we begin our summer sermon series entitled “Defiance: Challenging the Norm.” We will focus on Jesus’ radical, counter-cultural life and the ways he defied social norms, religious traditions, and theological expectations. We’ll be using for this exploration the gospel of Mark.

Mark will reveal to us a Jesus offering hope for the abundant life, convincing people that he was the promised Messiah, spending time with disreputable people, challenging the social conventions of his day, healing, teaching, eating and drinking, praying, and teaching his disciples to do the same.

 So, when we hear the word “defiance,” what comes to mind?

The stubborn two-year-old who sits pouting, arms folded, at the kitchen table because he didn’t get his way?

The angry teenager who shouts, “I hate you!” just before slamming shut her bedroom door?

That guy who insists on his right to walk through the shopping mall, teaming with families, with an open carry pistol?

Or, conversely, the PC police, social justice warrior who shouts down a speaker at a university campus because she disagrees with the message?

All of the above? None of the above?

Maybe this is what we think?Defiance 1 (boot).jpgPeople rising up against their oppressors. Jesus did that, although in subtle, subversive ways. And, he starts from the inside out. His weapons of choice? Love and his own life.

Or perhaps this?Defiance 7 (truth behind the lies).jpgPealing back lies to reveal truth. Jesus did that. “You have heard it said, but I tell you…” “I Am the way, the truth, and the life…”

Or maybe this?Defiance 8 (truth to power).jpgAlone, or together, having the courage to speak truth to power? Jesus did that, too. “Woe to you blind guides…” “You brood of vipers…” You know, the kind of things you say to your grandparents at family dinner.

How about this?Defiance 5 (overturning tables).jpgHere we see Jesus turning over the tables of the money-changers. This is Jesus, in defiance of the business of faith: T-shirt, bumper-sticker religion.

The image we decided on for at least the first part of the series is this one.Defiance 2 (little girl).jpgA little girl stands courageously against a raging bull. We see here the weak against the strong. The vulnerable against the bull-y (no extra charge for that one).

The dictionary defines “defiance” as follows:Slide 1-Defiance (definition).jpgLet’s explore how this might apply to Jesus.

All four Gospels are unique. They are four unique authors speaking from unique perspectives saying unique things about the unique, but complex person of Jesus.

Matthew wrote primarily to the Jews. Matthew’s Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s covenant promise to Abraham and of all the Law and Prophets.

Luke, a doctor, presents us with Jesus, the son of Man, lover of the poor and downtrodden, the hated prodigals now welcomed into the presence of God through him.

John was the mystic. He was the closest friend of Jesus and had heard his very heartbeat. It has this scent of tender familiarity. John’s Jesus takes us deep into the loving heart of God.

And then there’s Mark.

In the space of fifteen verses we get:

  1. The proclamation of a wild man – John the Baptist.
  2. The baptism of Jesus in the Jordan.
  3. A voice from heaven (freaky at the best of times).
  4. The temptation of Jesus, who Mark says was “driven” into the wilderness.
  5. The arrest of John. You know, the guy mentioned a couple sentences earlier!
  6. And, the beginning of Jesus’ Galilean ministry!

Mark’s gospel reads like a Hollywood blockbuster that opens with a car chase. It’s the biblical equivalent of the Fast and Furious! He’s so excited to tell us about Jesus that he spares no time. He. Is. Focused. Let’s just git ‘r done!

My wife and I are both lit-geeks. But Rae is really more the story-teller. She says that, in any study of story, the question of pacing is incredibly important. Too fast and it can lack the heart, depth, and staying power of great storytelling.          T    o    o     s    l    o    w    and    y   o   u    r   i   s   k     l   o   s   i   n   g     y  o  u  r    audience.

Hence, even Mark’s very pacing teaches us. Something has happened that radically changes the way we look at and experience the world, and he can’t wait to tell us about it. There is no more waiting. It’s happening right here, right now, in real time. It is decisive, dramatic and begs a response.

But how does Mark’s Jesus illustrate defiance?

We can do that in a single verse. Mark 1:1 says,

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

How is this defiant, exactly? Well, this is a significant statement for many reasons.

What do we know of ancient Rome? It was a military occupation possessing a particular skill in “crowd control.” It was marked by its efficiency, technology, discipline, and finely-honed bureaucracy.

Rome was intimidating and ruled by means of the well-known adage – “the beatings shall continue until morale improves.” The Jews were all huddled up under the great shadow of Rome, longing for the promised Messiah to come and kick some Roman ass.

But what kind of Messiah did they get? Mark’s point is to convince them that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, just not in the sense they wanted him to be.

Let’s read that statement again:

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

You may recall that Herod considered Jesus such a threat that he slaughtered an entire generation of Hebrew children. What was he so afraid of?

A child, rumoured to be king of the Jews, would have posed no small threat to a bumbling narcissist like Herod (sound familiar?).

Many Roman Caesars believed themselves to be God incarnate, a notion they were only too happy to enforce. For anyone other than Caesar to make such a claim would have been foolhardy in the extreme. To the Romans, for Jesus to be described as “the Son of God” was not a theological matter. It was a political threat.

And, guess what form of death was designed specifically for political dissidents?

Crucifixion.

Mark’s opening statement therefore is already a dangerously defiant one!

This Messiah does not set out to conquer. He sets out to suffer that the notion of conquering might come to an end. He doesn’t conquer Rome. He conquers death at Rome’s hands, forgiving them the whole time.

A defiant bait ‘n switch if ever there was one! His non-violent love defied – said ‘no’ – to blind hate and aggression and, through death, led ultimately to the freedom of all.

Jesus defied hatred with love.

He defied exclusion with invitation.

He defied the misguided hope for military salvation (take note America) and brought instead, freedom from sin and death.

He defied the kingdom of Caesar with the kingdom of God.

He defied everyone’s expectations, trading pride for humility.

Jesus should have baptized others. Instead, he allowed John to baptize him.

Jesus, Lord of the wilderness is, himself, driven there to starve and face down the archetypal temptations we all face. Why? That he might truly be one of us, in every way.

Jesus could have ruled a heavenly army. Instead, he says “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Let’s ask Mark to take us on a journey, shall we? A journey into the heart of God, a God who does not look like what we’d expect.

He looks like Good News.

Amen.

Dear starry-eyed bride,

Dear starry-eyed bride,

unnamed-2

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?

edinburgh-1989.jpg
Edinburgh, 1989

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.

Indubitably.

Hawaii 2007.jpg
Waimea Canyon, Hawaii, 2007

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.

Writer geeks.jpg
Writer geeks together

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. 

Coldplay 2016.jpg
Coldplay at Wembley Stadium, 2016

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.

Go alone.

Go together.

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.

llanthony-priory-2016.jpg
Llanthony Priory, Wales, 2016

      

25 + 5 =

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.

May 14, 1988.jpg
Eyes, the gateway to the soul.
Rob and Rae wedding  copy.jpg
Rae and I posing in her father’s living room (you’ll just have to forgive the mullet)

30 years.

30.

Years.

It feels strange just reading those words. A guy at my level of A.D.D. seldom manages 30 minutes at anything.

Rae-Wedding Day88 copy.jpg
Rae, 30 years ago today (yummy)

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.

YOLO.

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.

Rob and Rae, couch copy.jpg
As fashionably 90s as one can be in a kilt.

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?

Rob and Rae cruise ship-cropped copy.jpg
On our Hawaiian Islands cruise, 2007

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.

Nah.

Back to our aging honeymooners instead. Among the most common answers to the question are as follows:

Communication (including sex).

Laughter.

A sense of shared purpose.

Frugality and discipline.

Hard work and sacrifice.

Children.

Not children.

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.

30 years!

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.”

Rae and I-Caerleon copy 2.jpg
2016, Caerleon, Wales, UK

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.

30 years.

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?

Tintern 4 copy 2.jpg
Tintern Abbey. No wonder it inspired Wordsworth so much.

Mutual lump-in-throat dry mouth, driving B roads in rural Britain?

Welsh countryside 4 copy 2.jpg
Back roads, by way of example.

Our love for all things ancient and wonderfully impractical?

Those liturgical dates at a Taizé prayer service, an Anglican or Catholic Mass?

Antiquarian bookstores?

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.

Rae and I, Edinburgh copy.jpg
1989. The Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh. Rae, looking like a 1940s starlet!

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.

30 years.

25 + 5 = 30.

For me, it equals quiet satisfaction.

Happy Anniversary, babe. Let’s keep adding numbers until we forget we were adding numbers.

 

 

Ankle Deep in Gratitude

bryn englewood backyard copy.jpg
My back garden…as it was 10 years ago

As many of you know, I’m a distance runner. Amateur at best, but dedicated. I had intentions of a long one today. Perhaps twelve miles or so.

I’d only managed to get about four miles when I looked behind me to see whether the dog following me was hungry for man-flesh. In the split second that took, I went over on my right ankle. Having done this before, I knew instantly what had happened. It was a bad sprain.

But, being the OCD runner I am, I ran for another mile or so desperately trying to get back home. Finally, my better judgement and a rather insurmountable amount of pain, told me to stop. I called my son to come and pick me up.

I sat on the roadside and admitted, I was licked.

What a colossal interruption this is. Holes need digging where broken sprinkler pipe cries out to be fixed. Paint requiring touchups mocks me. My water softener isn’t softening anything. And, the room where I typically write and read is so messy right now that outside just feels tidier.

Instead, in these moments, I am practicing gratitude.

As it would seem, I’m now forced into the relative calm and predictability of convalescence. Foot elevated, ice-pack on, I write from the quiet of my own garden. It has become the pause I’ve needed to stop awhile and just be grateful.

Too often, we yearn for stillness and quiet but are too busy running. We see it in our rearview mirrors while busily flitting about doing our earth-shattering stuff. Sometimes quiet must be forced upon us. Then we can be reintroduced to the beauty and numerous healing qualities to be found in the mundane – the cascading days full of the low-hanging fruit of the habitual and simple.

For this contemplative inactivity I am grateful. 

Revealed to me again and again is the undeniable fact that life lived from the inside out in the numbing predictability of daily routine is what offers the best possible backdrop for growth and maturity. With that, I can hear all who know me well whispering a collective, “finally, he’s catching on!”

For the love of sarcastic friends, I am grateful.

In the past, this quiet banality has provided a solid, unmoving garden in which to cultivate new life, the vines of plenitude. A crucible of context in which life’s inevitable crush, those pestles of pain, the rosy-cheeked cherubs of challenge, either great or small, can do their work unimpeded.

I suppose I could treat this as a gestation for artistic endeavour?

For opportunities and the ability to create, I give thanks.

The nurture of the womb is such a great metaphor for both spiritual and biological growth. Depending upon our inner posture, it can seem either an endless tomb of waiting in darkness, or training for light yet to come. Surely the dark, suffocating uterine walls will someday open up to push us out into the light?

Right?

Into a newer, broader world – cold, unpredictable, unrecognizable, but dependent on others more than the safety of amniotic isolation. It’s about new birth into bright, new possibilities more than escape from the safety of a womb-prison.

For waiting periods afforded by pain, I am grateful.

Oh well, we cannot be emissaries of grace to the world until we become friends with our own. Until we hear our own voices, the songs of our own hearts, and make peace with circumstances, we can never sing a convincing song of freedom for anyone else.

For acquiescing once more to the steady silence of my own heart, I am grateful.

Therefore, in the process of ankle rejuvenation, I shall take to soul reconstruction as well. And, in the interest of improving upon my general grasp of things, in this time of relative calm, I stretch myself out like the newborn fresh from his damp waiting room. I take a few deep breaths, get my bearings, and squint against the brighter light of this present moment.

I get a new ice pack.

Then, I smile, and give thanks.

 

Learning to Live Dis-Labeled

Today, I proudly welcome my wonderful writer wife, Rae (her nom de plum: Wren Kenny) as guest blogger. What follows is a prayer she spent many hours composing to pray during the “Prayers of the People” segment of our liturgy. 
Labels.jpg

These are always tricky, especially in our present environment of toxicity and constantly germinating hatred. But, she wrote it. Prayed it. And the people – well, at least the many who showered their praise – loved it.

So, with that, I give you:

* * * *

The first time I visited a Covenant Church, I adored the blend of liturgy and evangelicalism. A man I spoke with after the service told me, “the Covenant allows for differences of opinion over non-essential theological issues.” He gave the example of baptizing both infants and adults.

This really appealed to my moderate personality, which bristles at extremes in either direction. I fact-checked with Pastor Dean. This denominational principle is called The Reality Of Freedom In Christwhere we focus on what unites us as followers of Jesus instead of what separates us.

It’s with this spirit I bring the prayers of the people this morning. 

_______________

Dear Lord, as we pray for the world, a popular culture phrase resounding through our nation right now is Lordy. And Lordy, what a time we live in!

We might be sitting in the pew next to a leftist, a rightist or an orchardist. The news, the Internet and social media have splintered us into tribes where we seek affirmation to support our own world-views rather than for information or friendships.

Everywhere we turn, there is division and labelling. Our Presidents have been white, black and orange. Our States are red, blue, or purple. Our parties are elephants or donkeys. The elephants have Liberals, and Blue Dogs and Progressive Dogs and people concerned we’re culturally-appropriating-cats-for dogs. The donkeys are divided over conservatism. If you’re not conservative enough you’re a RINO and excluded from a Tea Party. Then there’s the Alt Right suspicious of the Deep State and the newly formed Republicans for the Rule of Law. Amidst all of this we have a growing number of Independents and third parties and people of the just-make-it-all-to-go-away-so-we-can-party party.

Lord, how do we pray for the leadership of our nation, fraught with such divisions? Borrowing words of U2‘s Irish prophet, Bono, we pray: Lord, “Heaven on Earth. We need it now. Jesus can you spare a dime and throw a drowning world a line. Peace on Earth.

Conflicts escalate around the world. Most recently we think of chemical weapons attacks on the people of Syria—and we know that “no one cries like a mother cries when her children are living in the ground.” We turn on the television and the pundits fall everywhere, from ramping up military action, to peaceniks worried about a war because of a tweet sent from a toilet. For the leaders in governments around the world, we pray,

Jesus can you take the time and throw a drowning world a line. Peace on Earth.”

In our National leadership, we have those energized to seek election for the first time and others gearing up or fearing for their re-election campaigns. We have an unprecedented rate of retirements, resignations, firings, and indictments. The news comes at us fast and furious, and it’s spun to fit every ideology.

And it’s exhausting.

The days ahead only guarantee they’ll be filled with more division. For the principalities and powers that govern us we pray,

“Jesus can you spare the time and throw a drowning world a line. Peace on Earth.”

Lord, your word in Galatians 3 tells us: “There is no such thing as Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, for we are all one person in Christ Jesus.” But in our nation, we’re fighting over whether black lives, blue lives, or all lives matter. We fight over the rights of the unborn, and the born. We fight over the rights of school children and guns. And then we have gay lives and straight lives and Muslim lives and Christian lives and alternative lives.

“Jesus can you take the time to throw a drowning world a line. Peace on Earth.”

Our sports are divided over standing or kneeling. Our bakeries may or may not serve you a cake. We avoid our friends and relatives if their views don’t align with our brand. Your word tells us to encourage one another and build one another up, to be kind, tender hearted, and to forgive one another in Christ. If we’re honest. We’ve failed.

Bigly. For those estranged from others we pray:

“Jesus can you take the time and throw a drowning world a line. Peace on Earth.”

And we pray for those who once dwelled among us but are struggling in their faith. The divisions around us have affected the church. But today, let each person present think of those people who are no longer seated beside them. They might have been elders, deacons, singers, scripture readers.

Many find their faith shipwrecked by the challenges in our nation. From conversations, we’ve gleaned these words which will sting – the word Evangelical in the public perception has become: evangelical – all those associated with Twitter rants, adult entertainment, and attacking teenagers whose friends are laying in the ground.

The church across the nation is hemorrhaging members. “Evangelical” is not a word with which they want to be branded. Instead, life gets in the way and they give themselves an I-have-better-things-to-do-on-a-Sunday mulligan. 

Help us, Lord, to find ways to address the palpable anxiety, put aside our petty differences and reach out to those we no longer see. Help us embrace the freedom in Christ to be comfortable with differences of opinion.

Please, dear Jesus, throw your drowning church a line and let us remember that the gospel is not fake news. It’s the good news, because your word teaches us that “there is nothing in death or life, in the realm of spirits or superhuman powers in the world as it is, or the world as it shall be, in the forces of the universe, in heights or depths—nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Peace on Earth.
rae.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rae is presently putting the finished touches on her debut novel, Miss Adventured, published likely this year. Stay tuned!

 

A Dove, A Uterus & Other Tales

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-1st birthday.jpg
Calum, one, and his smokin’ hot Mom

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?”

Calum-3yrs.jpg
Calum, three years old.

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-08.jpg
Calum with that high danger, High School “come hither” look.

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!).

Calum-2014.jpg
Working on his carefully crafted hippy chic

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.

If Calum is anything, it is that. 

29572597_10155037777941895_6205640513014172455_n.jpg
The two best young men the world has ever seen.

22

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.”

Graeme as Conrad Birdie

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.

Graeme stars in the Eisenhower High School production of “Annie, Get Your Gun.” He sang his first note and we looked at each other and said, “this kid’s gonna be famous.”

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.

Graeme, left, with his older brother, Calum at a gig in 2014.

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.

 

Rediscovering Wonder

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.giphy.gif

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.

Right?

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?

giphy.gif
Romy and Michelle break it down for us

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!?

giphy-1.gif

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.”

giphy.gifAt 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.

10389430_10152658454597448_5329237185201042898_n.jpg
“The Craftsmen” – one iteration of my touring career. I think I was 17 here.

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.

jesus-at-the-door-39617-gallery.jpg
Painting by Del Parsons

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.

Amen.

M.y S.lowly F.orming L.ife

abbey10.jpeg
Ruins or work in progress?

Thursday, January 11, 2018

‘A day late and a dollar short’ as they say and we pull up to the front door of Michindoh Conference Center. The air is brisk, although not as might be expected on a winter day in mid-January Michigan. The quiet here jumps out of the bushes and sings from the frozen trees. The lake, too, is frozen; seemingly dead, unmoving. It shivers under its own weight of wet and white. 

There are hints of voices, of faces and laughter and prayers afoot; the gift of extended family burnt into the very carpet and walls. Memory serves well here and I am struck by its power. For this place represents something far beyond itself, a kind of knowing – the embrace of God through the embrace of friends. And I still feel that embrace like a long look down a hallway full of portraited eyes, the well-known smiles of those who truly know me, who long to be known.

For me, Spring Arbor University’s MSFL (Master of Spiritual Formation and Leadership) program was the end of a long search and the beginning of the best journey. And its demise demands a few words said in remembrance; both lament and praise.

In a sad twist of irony, this final Residency finished early. The annual sojourn to varied points around the country over more than a decade formed the unifying core of people, process, and prayer. With still another day to go that included a mini-concert to which I was looking forward (my modesty remains unchanged, despite God’s efforts), we had an early lunch and, with hardly a word, stepped into a travel van and barreled down Michigan back roads toward Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

The short but transformative ride of the Spring Arbor University Master of Spiritual Formation and Leadership comes to an ignominious , gently uncelebratory end. Twelve (or was it thirteen?) years were bundled up tight, held together by the prayers and pain, tears and triumphs of those who benefited from all it gave.

I remember its early years as clearly as mirrored sunlight. Filling the air was the visceral scent of a journey about to unfold. It hummed under our feet like standing on a factory floor. Seismic shiftings of spiritual earth began to crack open our darkness, but wide enough to drink deep the new wine of God’s quaking Spirit. Tangible expectation akin to those deliciously hopeful moments before physical touch sat enthroned in hungry hearts. It was erotic in the holiest sense.

With MSFL, it felt like I’d finally stumbled onto something worth surrendering to fully. Through all my academic career, wed to a curious soul, the answer waited agonizing years before its fruition in this MSFL program.

I had already attended seminary at the Canadian Southern Baptist Seminary (a veritable cascade of uncomfortable ironies in the title alone). I enrolled at Regent College, twice, and then at George Fox Seminary, twice. Nothing seemed to fit just right. Like settling for one thing because the thing hadn’t shown up yet.

MSFL was a clarion call to suckle the teet of God. That, indeed, I did, along with dozens of others over as many years. To hang out online with people who are not freaked out at your language, one’s love for weird stuff like darkness, light, candle-fed shadow, the deafening silence of the God who sings – a language that includes words like lectio divina, hesychasm, apophatic theology, theosis, and dark night of the soul is better than anything I can name.

Friday, January 12

Travel day. I sip my radically sub-par coffee made from suspicious-looking water. The sounds of the hotel are awake, humming with the activities of a morning, also awake. The gym calls but so does my bed, comfortable as hotel beds go.

My journal won the mental coin toss. My thoughts turn once more to the MSFL era, now winding down like a beautiful car that apparently just ran out of gas on the long and winding road of enlightenment. Stranded now, it awaits the buzzards of time and urgency to bear it away into the great garage in the sky. It is full of the rusty, dusty and musty ideas of days gone by. Ones that never got on the road but, like MSFL, simply ran into the ditch somewhere. Others never had the right parts, so they never got going in the first place. Still others raced out the door, speeding like bullets down the road to success but, ill-prepared for the dangers of that road, flung itself wildly into tailspin, crash and burn.

Besides the study itself, much of my time was spent in writing and facilitating liturgy for our annual January Residencies. It was a job in which I happily splashed about like a precocious little piggy. Moreover, I enjoyed having done so from the very beginning of the program when dozens of us sardined into a large classroom on the campus of Spring Arbor University to dream, pray and wonder at what the future might hold.

Rob leading worship at Michindoh copy.jpg
Leading communal songs at Michindoh while trying desperately to remain current.

MSFL was a good idea. It still is, despite its demise. The irresistible gravitas of this program combined with the unassailable depth and quality of what it was designed to offer make this a profound loss indeed. What beautiful audacity to dream of a program uniquely constructed for the soul; for the benefit of shaping better lives and, together, a better world. As Tony Campolo says, quoting I know not who, “we seek to build a world where it is easier to be good.”

This was the aim and continual hope of MSFL. It was aimed directly at our humanity in all its complexities. It sought to embrace the heart in the arms of Jesus in order that we learn to do likewise. The very idea was captivating; not only for me but for numerous others as well.

Moreover, it held great appeal to others like me for whom the ideas, culture and practices of contemporary evangelism no longer tantalized. It titillated one’s spiritual hunger and curiosity, daring to use the pre-Reformation language of soul, sacrament, and sanctus of God. It presumed to challenge a rational, punitive, positional, scientific Christianity with a relational, transformative, restorative, mystical one. It sought to assert with insistence and intentionality that, to aim at the soul is, by extension, to aim at the world in which it finds context, meaning, and mission. It trumpeted life in proximity to the Divine dance that is Father, Son, and Spirit, spurning (or at least questioning) a hobby faith.

michelangelo-creation-adam- copy.jpg
MSFL energized our reaching for union with God

These claims were adopted and adored by the courageous (foolhardy?) folks tasked with leading us. Their commitment to formation, not just education, put it at odds with the academic establishment. Those for whom education consists primarily in growing heads, overstuffed and heavy, atop weary bodies and thirstier hearts, could still find something here. The program was often as intellectually rigorous as it was personally challenging. As such, it stood squarely against the prevailing dualism housed generally in the west, most specifically in evangelicalism.

Me and Richard Foster copy.jpg
With Richard Foster, upon whose paradigm for Christian spirituality the program is based

Learning to think deeply is hard. Learning to live deeply is horrifying. The discipleship moniker is not “come and learn.” It is “come, and die.” No wonder it was a marketing impossibility. Shiny brochures, sleek websites and leading figures were one thing. Faithfully portraying the inherent dangers of communal vulnerability – and charging for it – was nigh impossible! Like a dead guy receiving his doctor’s bill.

MSFL was also an experiment in hybrid-learning experience. A primarily online degree, it asked the fair question, “can spiritual community, predicated upon spiritual development, be accomplished online?” Could a program erected on the belief that the spiritual formation enterprise is, at root, a relational-narrative one be successful in an isolated chat room?

The answer? Abso-freakin’-lutely! The cohort with whom I was blessed to journey, we lovingly dubbed “Conspirators”, ratified in seconds what we’d already experienced. The depth of our online life spilled over naturally in our face to face reconnaissance. Our first meeting wasn’t even love at first sight. That had already occurred previously in weeks of close-knit cyber-chat.

It was a consummation.

conspirators-4 copy.jpg
“Conspirators”

Now, with the double-edged sword of sadness and gratitude, I turn my head away from Master of Spiritual Formation and Leadership to the ongoing sojourn of My Slowly Forming Life. The former gave me inspired tools for the latter. The former gave me memories with which to build the former. With words certain to reveal my age, “we have the technology; we can rebuild him.” That was MSFL.

Adieu, dear souls. 

Spawning salmon-3.jpg
The spiritual struggle toward home is ongoing…