Love, Shackled by Unbelief

As a church music director I occasionally get opportunities to preach sermons. That should cause some of you to rejoice that the artsies have a pulpit voice, too. The rest of you will shudder at the idea that we’re allowed anywhere near one.

Ah well, what follows is my sermon from this morning, Sunday, August 5th. It’s been amended a bit to this audience who would tend not to react as negatively to more “spicy” language and approach.

I hope it lodges somewhere good, or at least, hungry.

Mark 6:1-13

6He left that place and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him. 2On 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! 3Is 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. 4Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ 5And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. 6And he was amazed at their unbelief. 

Then he went about among the villages teaching. 7He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 8He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; 9but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. 10He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 11If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.’ 12So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. 13They cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

Even a cursory jaunt through the Gospel of Mark gives us a picture of Jesus who doesn’t fit well into pre-existing categories. He is different than the conventional and, as such, is often viewed suspiciously, or as we shall see, even contemptuously.

This sermon takes place among a series entitled “Defiance – Challenging the Norm.” ‘Defiance’ here is intended as a general term meant to convey the prophetic, counter-cultural way in which Jesus lived, taught and related to others. He defied easy categorization.

He was then and shall ever be, a glorious enigma.

Jesus has begun a ministry of healing and teaching, confronting people with a new way of thinking, of being in the world. He’s been busy making waves, making sick people well, hopeless people hopeful, lost people found, demonized people free, the government nervous, and religious people pissed off.

So, with all that success and street cred in tow, Jesus comes now to his hometown. But he comes not on a social call. He arrives bringing with him the kingdom message and is prepared to fulfill the exact same purpose for which he has come. He returns to Nazareth to reveal this new way of looking at God.

And how does he go about doing such a thing? Exactly. He teaches in the synagogue to those who already “know God” (by the way, in the same way doctors make terrible patients, we religious folks can make the worst disciples!). He’s met quickly with disdain and rejection.

“Wait a minute. We know this guy. That’s a lotta book learnin’ coming from that weird kid who grew up down the street from Bob and Lydia’s place. Who the hell does he think he is?!”

In fact, this was what they said, “Where did this man get all this?” They can’t be bothered to use his name! “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary…?” They basically remind him of his status as an illegitimate bastard by referring to him as “the son of Mary.”

Jesus had likely dealt with whispers and sneers his whole life. The self-righteous do-goodery of small town gossips has ripened well. And old grudges die hard.

Their assumptions about Jesus and, by extension what a prophet is “supposed to be” have been challenged. “This is no prophet, this is that snot-nosed carpenter’s kid. And, certainly no Messiah, either.” They make themselves unreceptive to the saving power of grace.

How many of us, having gone out into the world and made something of ourselves have returned to our places of origin only to be met with suspicion, or even derision? This kind of thing happens all the time. There’s something about challenging the status quo that makes people uncomfortable.

Jesus, the small-town lad, returns home. But no longer is he Joseph’s boy who spent many an afternoon fashioning cedar china cabinets and coffee tables. He returns home to Nazareth, a Palestinian redneck town, flashing the equivalent of a Ph.D. and a big city car. And they don’t take kindly to him shoving all this in their faces.

There is an acceptable, well-established role for anyone calling themselves prophet. Do not move outside those lines. In their eyes, miracles of healing, however impressive, may well have been reduced to cheap parlour tricks from someone just showing off. And a salvation message, however profound, met with stony ears unprepared for it.

Love gets shackled by unbelief.  

To call him a prophet would have called into question all the ways they already saw the world and their place in it. It would have been to question their own hearts. And come on, that’s hard for most of us, isn’t it?

Poet John Donne once penned these words:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.

We all have a collective grid of preconceptions, shared expectations, and accepted protocols through which we see out to the world and through which the world comes to us. If you don’t believe me, just try changing the rules to a game played for decades at the local social club. I dare you.

Because we have constructs for everything, we will have difficulty seeing Jesus when he challenges our comfortable assumptions. Jesus looks too much like us. We’ve coopted him, repackaged him, made him comfortable, usable, for us. Then, we lose the ability to see him in our daily activities, hear him speaking to us.

Theologian John Dominic Crossan once said, “beware of finding a Jesus entirely congenial to you.” We don’t want a Saviour who is constantly poking around at our idolatries. Our bigotries. How annoying! And to reject the Jesus who welcomes others, is automatically to reject God.

Let’s be honest, sometimes we’re either afraid or ashamed to be challenged because it’s just easier to rest in a Gospel re-envisioned to suit us. No outsiders allowed. Gather with those who look and think like us because it’s safer and more controllable.

This is something hard to see because those we think of as “other” are unique to every time and place. And, whenever we corral some particular group into the “unwanted” or “sinful” category, that’s precisely the place we will find Jesus.

We see this writ large in the ridiculous debacle of contemporary American politics. With ample posing, bluster, and incompetence enough for everyone with leftovers, we’ve decided it a great idea to crystalize our fears by bowing down to a self-proclaimed White House king. We say we want Jesus but really, we want Barabbas. And he means to neanderthalize what once was a cultural mecca for progressive (small ‘p’) values and diversity. Rather than seek to understand one another and enjoy the delightful surprises of acceptance, we vilify and demonize and divide. Indeed, our wrath spilleth over. 

Who here remembers Isaac Asimov? He was a professor of biochemistry at Boston University and a prolific author. He once said, “your assumptions are your window on the world. Scrub them off sometimes or the light won’t come in.”

Jesus is not in the business of satisfying what we already believe to be true. Jesus wants us to follow him who IS true.

You want to find Jesus? Don’t look for him on the courthouse lawn. Find him in the prisons.

Don’t look for him in the backyard suburbia. Find him in tent villages under bridges.

Don’t look for him in the Constitution. Find him in between the lines of graffiti or suicide notes.

Don’t look for him in the hallways of power and priviledge. Find him in the faces of caged children and in the mentally challenged.

See his face staring back through the black eyes and broken nose of the abused housewife.

Find him in the cyber-bullied student or pregnant teen.

See him looking back at you in the eyes of your Republican neighbour, your Democrat sister, your drug-addict brother, your senile grandma.

See him in your enemy.

It is as true now as it was then, Jesus is often the least welcome among those who claim to know him best. We can be slow to accept anything that challenges our deeply embedded assumptions. Over familiarity with what we’re convinced is true about Jesus can keep us on the outside of experiencing the love he offers.

And, at the very heart of the Gospel is love. It is God intruding into our lives, shattering our pre-existing ideas about everything. Not to be a bully. But to help us clean off our windows enough to let in some light.

Let us not be those whose cast iron opinions (of which, obviously, I’m equally guilty) disallow the in-breaking of God’s love into our lives. Let us instead be those who are always willing to be surprised by Jesus. Let us not allow our knowledge about Jesus stand in the way of our love for him.

Who knows, perhaps he’ll be welcome enough in our hearts to perform mighty deeds of power? Lord, in your mercy, may it be so. Amen.

 

Laura’s Tale

     In their better moments, I dare say many folks would likely extend a more welcoming hand to our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. But our mob mentality, especially prevalent in the institutional church, often disallows as much. The reasons for this are often touted as theological. However, I’d venture a guess that it is often much more likely to be a projection of misdirected self-loathing and fear at the easiest target du jour. Further, it is given credibility through bad, or at least popular, biblical hermeneutics (the paradigm and practices by which we understand something). Then, all is rubber-stamped by those who prescribe and hallow that same fear.

     Many of the most vocal critics of alternate sexualities claim to know a gay person. I’d like to suggest that, given their predisposition toward raised-brow shock or squinty-eyed judgement of the same, this is highly unlikely. Sadly, the high degree of verbal and/or physical violence against these folks by such critics, renders them not particularly forthcoming with personal details that merely paint targets on their chests.

     Therefore, the self-proclaimed prophets of righteousness toddle off into the fray, cherry-picked, ill-understood bible verses in hand, and “take a stand for Jesus.” All this while their gay “friends” are sidelined from the very same faith that calls them as does their accusers.

     I’ll stop there because, when in doubt, ask someone who’s truly been there to better explain. Fellow Jesus-follower and blogger, Laura Jean Truman, recently posted this to her blog. The title alone gave me pause to consider.

     Read, pray, love. Then, let’s talk… 

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!

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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.

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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. 

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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).

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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,

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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Eyes, the gateway to the soul.
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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.”

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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?

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Tintern Abbey. No wonder it inspired Wordsworth so much.

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

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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.

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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

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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. 
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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:

* * * *

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.