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. 
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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:

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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. 

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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.
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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.

 

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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?”

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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.

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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!).

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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. 

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The two best young men the world has ever seen.

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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?

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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!?

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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.

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“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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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. 

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The spiritual struggle toward home is ongoing…

2018 – Re-ligamenting

ligament [lig´ah-ment]
1. a band of fibrous tissue connecting bones or cartilages, serving to support and strengthen joints.

Already a few days in, we butt up against the tail-end of one year and make our way into another. A tail yet to wag. A tale yet to be written. This was a task best left until all the days of 2017 had been fully harvested and I could start bundling them into manageable piles.

For now, I am compelled to say that, in ways that matter most, I am grateful for 2017. On one level, I’m glad to escort its ass out the door, holding it open as it leaves (the door, that is!). However, it is gratitude that wins out over any other, lesser thing. And, as many have said so much better than I, to be grateful is to be always happy or, at least hopeful that happy will return soon enough.

This has been a year of returnings, of homecoming. I am drawn back to previous iterations of my self, albeit with the benefit of failure-bought wisdom. The overweening esotericism of the past few years is moving aside for a much more sensory guy. Less soul and more smell, feel, carry, see…hold.

I’m beginning to think our souls are much more rooted in our feet, hands, nostrils, eyes, and tastebuds than some airy-fairy nexus untouched and untouchable by we mortals. There is no division of labour. We don’t leave the world and our bodies behind in order to attend to our souls. Similarly, in a full-on, head-first dive into our world, waist-deep in shit and woe, we don’t have to leave our souls behind. They’ll get there first.

There is, simultaneously, a greater depth and immediacy to a life lived in one place at a time as a total and complete entity: body, soul, heart; sweat and spit. It buys back from the bleak, divided landscape of dualism, an holistic sense of peace and unity.

I reflected recently Jesus’ little visit to Sheol where he encouraged the prisoners, stuck in limbo, to look up for “their redemption draweth nigh.” A very physical Jesus went to the disembodied not to tell them that some ghostly, spiritual paradise awaited. The opposite actually. A great banquet with Jesus and friends in a great city was being prepared. Their souls would cough up new bodies, not the other way around.

Advent and its fruition at the Christ Mass says something utterly unique, a truth so utterly transfixing, that all the earliest characters in the drama found themselves winging it. Just a lot of gawking, and fear, and shivering with stuttered awe and wonder. In such circumstances, I dare say we would do the same.

The Christmas story says many things. But, at the front of the line is the simple idea that God is, more than anything else, profoundly physical, actual. Not just ideas to think. Right stuff to say or do. God is with us. God IS us. Conversely, it means we are like God.Foot.jpg

There are many out there who, like me, are constantly seeking to nurture something mystical and otherworldly within ourselves as though God were somehow uninterested in the messy little details of our tiny lives. This is not to suggest that we ignore “spiritual” matters in favour of “earthly” ones. It is the growing belief that those are not two sides of the same coin. They ARE the coin. God cares as much about my health, relationships, and the overall physicality of my existence as he does the height of my goosebumps when I pray.

In Jesus, God came not to save our souls. He came to save US. You and me. Body, soul, spirit. In Jesus, God came to realign our past, present, and future into one single unity. He religamented (re-ligion) the disembodied and as such disempowered parts of our humanity. Jesus came that we might become MORE human, not less. And, contrary to what contemporary evangelicalism might have us believe, he came not with some revivalist message of the sweet by ‘n by. 

He came to heal our bodies, our memories, our broken bits. To remind us of what we truly are: beloved but broken, loved but lost. Why?

Because we can’t feast at a table any other way.

Let Us Once Upon a Time

The most foundational lessons common to us all come by means of story.

reading-77167.jpgStory and poetry and song and art and humour.

It seems almost counter-intuitive really, given the magnitude of the stuff we’re supposed to understand, the high stakes of living together in some form of harmony. I mean, who thought it a good idea to convince wayward souls of the need to love their neighbours as ourselves with those tricky parables? Why tell children nursery rhymes? Why not wait until they can read and just give them the case notes? More efficient I would imagine. As is the expectation of our logic-bound culture, shouldn’t these things be done in a classroom somewhere with textbook-tomes the size of small cars? Surely the importance of such a message should require all of us to ace a mid-term somewhere?

Looking out over the immensity of human history, replete with bardic tales of joy and woe, love and war, pillage and propriety, the answer would seem to be a resounding, NO.

Instead, they painted pictures on cave walls. They built cathedrals of stone, marble, and gold. They painted canvases with colours too rich to mention. They wove seeking and curiosity into epic stories of sea journeys, fleeing oppressors, screwing other men’s wives, cutting strong men’s hair, or building floating shit-filled boats to avoid worldwide floods. They composed titanic symphonies with notes crashing like waves against each another, all of it tumbling together to cry out in singular voice – here we are!

Even the most agrarian of cultures, trapped as they were in the often bone-crushing cycles of poverty and loss, were inspired enough to tell their tales in ink, chalk, acrylic, wood and stone. Indeed, every culture that has ever existed has in some way spoken of its ebb and flow, triumphs and tragedies in these ways. From Ethiopia to Egypt, Peru to Palestine, Canaan to China, Ireland to Iceland. Gilgamesh, Homer, Chaucer, wilderness-wandering Israel – it’s always about journey framed in epic story.

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Gua Tewet (Tree of Life), Borneo, Indonesia

Most of the Hebrew Scriptures, or the Christian Old Testament, is one great narrative. Stuff from no stuff (creation). Nation from nothing (Israel). A 40-year long desert hike (Israel’s wilderness wanderings). War, pillage, rape, judgement, restoration, repeat (the rest of it). Far and away the best-loved book of the Bible, is a collection of poetry and songs, both happy and sad (The Psalms).

Jesus is as well known for telling good stories as he is for his grudging  participation in the theological stew we’ve renamed ‘faith.’ We attribute to him not just a cross and a resurrection, but turning water to wine at some dude’s wedding reception. Creating feast from frantic in the loaves and fishes. A weird story about the wrong guy doing all the right stuff in the good Samaritan. Farmers sowing seeds in places both good and not so good, and fig-trees, and virgins, and tax collectors, and gardens, lilies, landowners, religious teachers, and the list goes on. 

With his questionable choice of teaching methods, it’s arguable whether he’d find a position as a substitute teacher in the rough part of town, let alone Saviour of the world. But, there it is. 

If the Bible tells us anything at all it is this – learn to love stories. Learn to love telling them, hearing them, remembering them, finding ourselves in them, retelling them. The sense of childlike wonder, the anticipation of what comes next, the page-turning expectation is so much better, so much more formative, than cracking open a textbook better used to sit on while hearing a story.

Something about arresting our senses in the beauty of which we’re capable points to Something/Someone beyond our under-the-sun existence. Only hushed awe and the reverence of a good story well told is sufficient to hold the sacredness of our lives.

We have one life. We have limited time.

Together then, let us once upon a time.

 

A little more of less, please

Writing is a good life metaphor.

typewriter.jpgThese are interesting days. I approach my life much as I do the page, with contentment but with trepidation. The clumsy plasticine oozing from my pen leaves me a bit numb. A little bored, to be honest. A stultifying sameness guards the words from taking on a life of their own, of actually taking anyone on any kind of journey.

This is especially true of poetry. Ironically, I find my greatest enemy to be the stronger, more captivating work of previous years. It is the equivalent of creative shadow-boxing, a grasping after one’s own ghosts. It is to hide from the potential of my own gifts. The glory days, whether in life or art, can straight-jacket us right out of good days now.

Life is often this way. In creative-artistic terms, this is so commonplace as to be ridiculously cliché. This haunting of the present by an elusively successful past can choke the life out of bold, new ventures. Even the very desire to try is rendered impotent. A sterility can only be achieved by writing. Shit, but still writing. When acedia takes hold it keeps me from even getting that far. Writing poorly is still better than writing nothing at all. Bad sex is still better than no sex at all!

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Does this call into question my dedication to word-craft? Do I need to turn in my lit-card? Have I become less a writer and more of a word-ler (word burglar)? I suppose the creative struggle can be compared to dieting. One can lose weight through amelioration of already good habits-in-stasis while destroying bad ones. But, for it to “take,” a completely different way of living is required. Sure, lose thirty pounds, buy new clothes, take a thousand selfies on a new, air-brushed social media persona. Eat McDonald’s and chocolate cake for a week or two afterward and one’s previous successes merely mock present realities.

“Look how well I was doing,” we crow. “The effort really paid off,” we chirp. “It’s about bloody time,” screams our waistband. We gaze with fondness and well-earned satisfaction at our accomplishment only to groan with the recognition that that was then and this is now. Shit.

It can be genuinely depressing to read poetry or other bits and bobs of writing from even a few years ago when I had over-weening confidence in an under-developed, largely self-indulgent output. Now, possessing some measure of success, a proven track record in this whole letters enterprise, I find confidence a bit shaky to say the least.

Perhaps this is a case of art imitating life. Never have I been so content with so little. Not that I have little. I have in fact considerably more of everything than I could ever use. But my requirements are far fewer than ever. My writing is undergoing massive change right now, too. It’s not as clever-turn-of-phrase-y as it was, relying instead on that which, though simpler, might actually say something. I guess I’m losing my desire and, frankly, the need, to write for the academy – words for lovers of words. Insider talk.

Now, I write because it acts like a shower. My soul gets buffed up a bit more. My heart gets a jolly good brushing and I feel refreshed. And, I want to tell people about it. I want people to know who I am so they can meet me here. A welcome mat more than a Hadron Collider of complexity. There is a loneliness in creating something only a handful of erudites with too much industry-speak in their tool-belts can enjoy. And by “enjoy” I mean quietly compare to their own far superior material. Ha! Rightly so.

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I guess to live better, we must learn to live on purpose. Correspondingly, to create better means to engage the process with trembling tenacity, even in the face of overwhelming self-doubt in one’s own ability.

I want to be the best writer, poet, musician – person, I can be. But it appears that what that means is a whole lot less words and a lot more conversation. Less erudition, more simplicity. Less academy, more living room. Less library, more kitchen table. Less bookstore, more backyard barbecue. Less thinking, more doing. Less of someone else, more of me.

Well, how about that. I just wrote myself out of my own funk. I rest my case.

We will remember them

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.

We will remember them.

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A Tree of Gratitude

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