My ongoing prayer experiment

A while back I began to write about my big prayer experiment. In that piece, I shared the three greatest gifts to my prayer life:

1. Contemplative prayer, I.e. prayer without agenda/lovingly gazing at God.

2. Total honesty in the presence of a God who already knows all my shit.

3. The gift of Intercession.

Nothing has changed with this experiment. I do want to add something, however; something that has utterly revolutionized my prayer life, turning it into something to which I cannot wait to return.

I pray the Rosary.

Big deal, right? Millions do. Well, here’s the thing – I’m a Protestant. We’re supposed to look with suspicion, pity or even hatred at such wayward, Medieval practices believing them to be the rote, meaningless prayers pooh-poohed by Jesus in the Gospels. How could such a ridiculous thing, something held in regard by little, old ladies and superstitious saintly wannabes possibly lead one to the expected spontaneity and relationship we’re led to accept through our more enlightened “salvation prayer” at the end of the 4 Spiritual Laws booklet? Or so we Protestants are taught to think. You remember…the “Accept you’re a sinner/Believe in the Good News/Confess your sins” prayer that, like magic, whisks us from the apparent hell of our present existence into the Thomas Kinkade wonderland of Jesusy goodness? It’s actually a very good prayer. A necessary one.

It’s just so…incomplete.

Actually, I prayed that prayer once, too. Not necessarily that exact prayer, but one just like it. I credit that prayer for bringing a keener sense of articulation and focus to my otherwise meandering picture of me and God. I suppose I could even credit that “salvation prayer” as my come-to-Jesus moment, with the beginning (continuation?) of a journey even deeper into the heart of prayer.

The Rosary has been an important step in solidifying my need to regulate my prayer practice in chronological, tactile and organized ways. It also invites me to see prayer as more than just talking at God. Here, I can sit with another, Someone whose indelible presence ought to leave me breathless and speechless anyway. Although I’ve owned one before, it wasn’t until my dear Catholic friend, Val Dodge Head, gifted me with one I could actually wear around my neck that I began developing a daily practice. Here is the historic Rosary Prayer:

Rosary Prayer

The purpose of the Rosary is to help keep in memory certain principal events or mysteries in the history of our salvation, and to thank and praise God for them. This is the mountain rapids version of the Rosary Prayer. It begins with the Sign of the Cross and the Apostles’ Creed. This is followed, successively, by The Lord’s Prayer (the Our Father or Pater Noster), 3 Hail Marys, the 1st Mystery of Our Father and Hail Holy Queen. There are twenty mysteries reflected upon in the Rosary, all of which are divided into the five JOYFUL MYSTERIES, the five LUMINOUS MYSTERIES, the five SORROWFUL MYSTERIES, and the five GLORIOUS MYSTERIES. The Hail Mary is recited ten times (called a decade) between meditating on the mysteries in question. After each decade is said the following prayer requested by the Blessed Virgin Mary at Fatima: “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, lead all souls to Heaven, especially those who have most need of your mercy.” The whole undertaking is a most imaginative blending of redemptive and mystical theology.

Here is my own adaptation.

I begin and end with the Sign of the Cross. The crucifix acts as The Lord’s Prayer both in and out of my Rosary. For morning prayer, the first bead is always Psalm 63 (King James Version), which I memorized many years ago. If in the afternoon, I’ll choose some other Psalm or a Prayer of St. Columba: “Kindle in our hearts, O God, the flame of that love which never ceases, that it may burn in us, giving light to others. May we shine forever in your holy temple, set on fire with your eternal light, even your Son Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Redeemer.” The Hail Mary beads are replaced by 3 Kyries (Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy). In turn, these are followed, respectively, by the well known Ignatian Prayer, the Anima Christi and the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi. The decade beads are breath prayers. With these, I practice more contemplative or centering prayer. Phrases such as “peace, be still” or “in the Lord, I’ll be ever thankful” or “holy is your name, O Lord” or, most often, The Jesus Prayer punctuate this time. It is unhurried and allows my mind to cleanse and my soul to pulsate to the sound of God’s own heart. The Mystery beads form a wonderful place for me to pray the daily Lectionary Psalms, various scriptures I have memorized or, on more creative retreat days, I’ll write or read poetry I’ve written. I exit the Rosary the same way I entered, although in reverse order.

The Rosary has been great respite to me since I am living nowhere near the Monasteries I used to frequent in Oregon. God has shown me just how holy even the most unholy places can be. In those places least ideal for luminosity, God has been busily proving me wrong about my previous misconceptions. The mysterious geography of prayer must begin in the cracks and fissures of the human spirit before it gets the added benefit of the babbling brook heard just outside the Monastery gates.

The Rosary has helped. 

Lord, fashion the slow calligraphy of your name

in a once stone heart, broken now as sand.

Spit out the bones of my old, gristled soul revivified on your tongue,

reattached to the sinews of your own holy arm. 

Sear the brand of white hot remembrance into the skin of my brazen back

so that only those I lead can see it.

In the wordless chatter of our silent conversations,

bring up the topics closest to your heart that breaks so much easier than mine.

Let the voices of a hundred thousand saints

crowd out the stifling arrogance of my solitary blethering.

And into that holy community of singing silence,

sing, Holy One, sing.

 

PIcture of Rosary can be found here. Rosary Prayer instructions can be found here.

________ One – a prayer

Ineffable One,

there is a haze of wanton disregard fogging the window to my soul;

a fog of discontent that swirls around my deepest knowing;

an arrogant knowing where, in it’s place, I need unknowing.

Holy One,

relieve me of foolish trust in my ability to live in perfection.

Let loose the hounds of irreducible chaos if by their baying

I learn to shut out the noise of my voice for the Voice.

Glorious One,

teach me that, to look directly into the sun, is death.

But, to gaze into your face through grace filtered and raw,

is to see you as you truly are – horrifying in beauty.

Little One,

it once was said that the One who flung stars into space

fits securely in the tiny confines of the human heart.

Similarly, make me tiny, so that your reach through me is great.

Unseen One,

I have convinced myself that you make yourself invisible.

Remind me that I see you every time someone cries in pain

or, at the risk of their own wellness, becomes pain for another.

Elusive One,

forgive me for when I boast of my growing knowledge of God,

only to discover that it’s all been a ruse, a play on words,

your playful, cryptic way of introducing me to myself.

Unending One,

shake me loose from the need to place parameters, provisos,

gates on that which only ever bursts them asunder.

Help me to stop trying to find your endings and look for beginnings.

Loving One,

I am at a loss to understand, let alone experience,

such self-forgetful yearning for the good of another

that you would watch yourself disappear into the abyss,

only to return as the One.

For prayers of thanks, we give thanks

Gracious God, giver of all good things,

for arising this day to draw breath, we give thanks.

For enough mental acuity to express gratitude, we give thanks.

For the sunrise’s early resplendent shout of morning, we give thanks.

For the passage of time, from then to now to then, we give thanks.

For a body capable of that which we consider essential, we give thanks.

For the car heater slowly blasting frost from the windshield, we give thanks.

For the car, a heater and a windshield, we give thanks.

For the long, protective arms of God, the windshield of our lives, we give thanks.

For the choice to wear clothing not made by little Filipino girls chained to a desk, we give thanks.

For the sight required to read what we write, we give thanks.

For the ability to read what we see, we give thanks.

For an education that teaches us both, we give thanks.

For access to readable materials from a host of perspectives, we give thanks.

For the eccentric, aging gentleman seated across from me, we give thanks.

For his freedom to wear a skirt and knee-high boots without fear of imprisonment, torture or death, we give thanks.

For the olfactory senses that bless our nostrils with the smell of our coffee, we give thanks.

For the ready availability of coffee and other non-essential niceties, we give thanks.

For those who work more hours than we can imagine to procure said niceties, we give thanks.

For those who wage spiritual warfare against the forces of hate and injustice, we give thanks.

For the choice to do the same, we give thanks.

For your sovereignty over both, we give thanks.

For your inexplicable love for those who wage war and injustice, we give thanks.

For your expectation of our similar love, we give thanks.

For your willingness to get us there, we give thanks.

For the attitude necessary to give thanks, we give thanks.

Evening Prayer

Loving Lord, our God and friend,

we dwell securely, enfolded deep within the fabric of your love,

and in the community of lovers who share your name and know your voice.

Though we fail so often, we yet seek to be that community of love,

hinted at whenever we come by faith into your holy presence.

We come not in haughty or vain spirits but in humility

for we acknowledge that every good and perfect gift is from above,

coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights,

who does not change like shifting shadows.

You chose to give us birth through the word of truth

that we might be a kind of first fruits of all you’ve created.

And so, dear Lord, we bring nothing to you other than our smallness

into the enveloping presence of your powerful grace which changes our lives, making us new;

refreshing us with light and love, forgiveness and wholeness.

We are children, safe in the arms of the God who is to us both Father and Mother,

friend, confidante, grace-giver, sustainer and Saviour.

Walk with us this evening, oh God, as we seek to find you here among us.

Help us to hear your voice speaking, reminding us that, in you, there is a place to call home.

Through Christ Jesus, lover of our soul.

Amen.

Robert Rife, 2002

…and he said to him, “follow me”: a Litany

This litany grew out of a class I took as part of my master’s program….

 

How good it is whenever we leave all false agendas, desires, plans, schemes, thoughts – selves behind and obediently follow the Master without hesitation.

…and he said to him, “Follow me.”

How good to imagine a world where those without hope are given hope because the community of Jesus follow the leading of their Master and Teacher and bring this hope in all they say and do.

…and he said to him, “Follow me.”

How good, to host the Presence keeping company with sinners, tax collectors, lepers and the outcasts of society.

…and he said to him, “Follow me.”

How good to ever have ears to hear the voice of Jesus calling to us, urging us to follow him wherever he goes participating with him in bringing the new wine of God’s kingdom to light around us.

…and he said to him, “Follow me.”

How good to live before God every moment with godly sorrow for our sin, fully embracing our many and varied brokenness in honesty and authenticity.

…and he said to him, “Follow me.”

How good to celebrate with all whose repentance brings new life and an accompanying deep life change even when such celebration causes raised eyebrows.

…and he said to him, “Follow me.”

How good never to allow ourselves to succumb to religious peer pressure that traps one in the smothering flames of imposed, ungodly parameters of faith life and thereby lessen the gospel message in compliance with it.

…and he said to him, “Follow me.”

How good never to succumb to the same judgmental spirit which produces and perpetuates religious peer pressure. “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

…and he said to him, “Follow me.”

How good to taste the old, complexly rich and fragrant wine of our forebears while working in the vineyard alongside our Master Winemaker.

…and he said to him, “Follow me.”

How good, to “stand in the place where you work” looking left and right to find those of ill repute and the despised with whom to drink new wine.

…and he said to him, “Follow me.”

How good to stand in the place where others are, be the voice of Jesus calling to them, saying “follow me” and teach them how to catch others in the net of grace.

…and he said to him, “Follow me.”

How good to be those who hold the redemptive instruments of grace at the bedsides of the broken together with our great Physician.

…and he said to him, “Follow me.”

How good to bring encouragement to all whose “bridegroom” has been taken from them either by sickness, death or malfeasance.

…and he said to him, “Follow me.”

How good…

How good, indeed.

Praise be to the Lord of all lepers, losers, limpers and lovers!

…and he says to us, “Follow me.”

God is there – a litany

As a contemporary liturgist for some years now it has been my job to help congregations experience their God and express their spiritual journey in corporate worship. Sometimes that has meant developing new ways of saying old things. The following is a short litany I’ve used on many occasions, sometimes as an aid to prayer, sometimes as a call to worship, other times simply for common reflection on the nearness of God. I pray that it is inspiring, or, at least…useful in some way.


When day moves into night and the seasons each stake their four quarter claim,

God is there.

When sadness, death and pain becoming the defining characteristics of our path,

God is there.

When God puts a new song in our mouth, a song of praise to our God,

God is there.

When words no longer come and shutters are drawn on lonely minds,

God is there.

When youthfulness reigns in life and limb and lingers in our days,

God is there.

When communities succumb to individualism and self-talk,

God is there.

When the common grace given us all finds voice among us and I  becomes we,

God is there.

Through all our days, our joys, our pain, our defeats, our triumphs, our lives,

God is there. 

 

God is here.

An Easter people in a Good Friday world…

This past Sunday, with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we “officially” mark the end of the Lenten-Easter journey. Unofficially however it is only the beginning. With hearts freshly cleansed, minds renewed, paths made straight, souls united to God and eyes made clear, we are now given charge to be the bridge upon which people may walk to find peace…to find God. We become Easter people in a Good Friday world. The following is our manifesto:

An Easter people in a Good Friday world:

 

Live life when death seems to be winning,

Seek hope when despair seems bigger,

Laugh out loud when to be sullen seems better,

Cry for justice when the weight of wrong smothers,

Call out for peace, when the shrapnel of war still smolders,

Find good where goodness should not be found,

Stand still when chaos and panic seem to rule,

Take the long road of grace instead of the short road of law,

Pursue righteousness, even when unrighteousness is easier,

Sing the praises of God even as darkness appears most ominous,

See Christ in the face of friend, enemy, immigrant and stranger,

Proclaim an empty tomb when the heart of darkness yet gloats…

 

“He is not here…just as he said.”

Commissioning prayer

I moved with my family from Kelowna, British Columbia to McMinnville, Oregon a month before the infamous events of 9/11. I’m not generally known for great timing! The move was for the purpose of assuming my role as Minister of Worship and Music at First Baptist Church. My short, 3 year tenure there was challenging and exciting and growing for me. A congregant, Densley Palmer, was a wonderful hymn text writer and poet. The following is a commissioning prayer he composed for the occasion of my coming to FBC.

Commissioning

Densley and Joyce Palmer ©October, 2001

For the commissioning of Robert Rife as Minister of Worship and Music

First Baptist Church, McMinnville, Oregon, October 14, 2001

 

Let all earth dance and sing in the presence of the eternal God.

Let us blend distinct voice and individual song in praise and thanksgiving

to God who makes all things one.

Let us worship God with our voices,

on the organ, and on the pipe and drum.

Be still, and await God’s voice in the pregnant moments of silence.

Calm the erratic cadence of daily life and move to the rhythm of the eternal.

Through worship, glimpse God’s infinite breadth, eternal length,

and encounter the intimate presence of the holy.

Wherever we worship God, let it be with a sense of awe and expectation,

a spirit of joy, and an awareness that,

through worship, we encounter the sacred

and stand barefoot on holy ground.

 

Let all earth dance and sing in the presence of the living God.

 

Different Voices, Many Songs, One God

The great medieval feminist and Christian mystic, Hildegard von Bingen, composed a famous choral work, entitled “Ordo Virtutum.” It is really more of a musical narrative in which she weaves sublime choral and instrumental music punctiliously around ominous interjections of a sinister speaking voice, that of the devil, who utters hateful words towards the Almighty. As such she makes the metaphoric statement that all of God’s creatures were created to sing God’s praise.  However, only the enemy of God is denied the gift of song.  As God’s beloved creation, we are all a part of God’s redemption song in Jesus Christ.  Melody bespeaks our common humanity.  It defines our existence.  It narrates our story.  It proclaims God’s story.  It enshrines community and it is the food of glory.

Certainly, for many years choral music has played a central role in the worship life of the church.  It has been so in my own spiritual journey.  I credit Bach’s “Wedding Cantata”, his Brandenburg Concerto #2 and Anton Bruckner’s “Ave Maria” for creating the emotional backdrop for my own conversion.  As a young boy I enjoyed singing with the Children’s Choir of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church (the place I also learned to play the bagpipes – forgive them, they knew not what they were doing!).  I submit that a majority of folks on the faith journey would share similar sentiments regarding their own connection with music especially as it relates to worship.

I’m delighted to serve a rather odd Presbyterian church as music director; odd because we have determined not to divide ourselves up along preferential music lines based on consumerist ideology. Instead, for good or ill, we have journeyed together down the long and winding road of a single “convergence” worship service (I first heard this term used by Dr. Tom Long in his book, Beyond the Worship Wars). I actually prefer “eclectic” worship since “convergence” can feel a bit like someone hit the puree button on the music blender that spills out some indefinable ooze of congregational sludge.

We’ve sung everything from Bach to contemporary praise song arrangements to “Down to the River to Pray” from the movie, “Brother, Where Art Thou?”  We have sought to re-envision ourselves.  We have had many tough conversations together.  We have laughed and cried and prayed together in our quest to dwell under one roof, at one time, on one day, for one purpose: to bring honor to God by our common voice –  different voices, many songs, one God.

What this means is that we will never really be able to commit to the full on praise band since, to do so would immediately alienate those for whom such worship language would be far too big a challenge. It also means that our organist will always be under-utilized and over-anxious because she never gets to play as often as she would like and in ways that are most conducive to her own musical proclivities. Everyone sacrifices something to be together as a single family, albeit with a slightly higher baseline of discontent!

The joy and camaraderie of voices raised in harmonious praise is something that must be experienced for oneself. The shared sacrifice required to offer one another room for divergent but unique voices to be heard and appreciated is the true stuff of heaven. It is singularly Kingdom driven and really difficult to pull off. But it’s the best struggle I’ve been a part of thus far.

So, dear Hildegard, I’m inspired by your musical picture of God’s Kingdom. It is a Kingdom where everyone can sing together but where the enemies of God and God’s community are forced to bellow, grunt, wheeze and whine instead of joining that single, great choir called from every corner of the globe to worship this God. I leave you with these words from Hildegard: “Your Creator loves you exceedingly, for you are His creature, and He gives you the best of treasures.”

Music is just one of those.

Why the world needs the Celts

When one thinks of the term Celt or Celtic what images spring to mind? Is it the Pictish war-paint donned by William Wallace in Braveheart as he prepares to take Scottish troops into yet another conflagration with England? Is it the Military Tattoo at Edinburgh Castle where hundreds of overly plumed peacock pipers and drummers march to and fro in a celebration of Scotland’s warring past? Is it the drunken party at the local pub as it becomes abundantly apparent that you’ve walked into some secret society, all of whom are experts on their instruments, can drink more than any human should be capable of but with whom you feel completely welcome? Is it the great standing crosses of Ireland? Is it Larry Bird?

Whatever one may think of the Celts, one thing is sure: they were a people absolutely unique in history and centuries ahead of their time. They were an aural culture, a bardic people of story, song, poetry and mythology. As such there exists a great deal of misunderstanding regarding their exact history. In fact, they seem quite simply to have passed out of existence like a fisherman’s boat sailing into the morning mist.

One example of this relates to something I play on the bagpipes: Piobaireachd. Let me tell you how that is spelled: P I O B A I R E A C H D. It was never their intention to leave any letters for anyone else. Piobaireachd is the comingling of 2 Scots Gaelic words: piobaire, or piping with eachd meaning music. Hence, piped or piping music. Piobaireachd is the classical music of the highland bagpipe and is loosely based on the musical idea of a theme and variations. It was most likely developed by a highland clan dynasty of the MacCrimmons. But since there remains so little written evidence of the clan and their history, many believe them and their development of piobaireachd to be the fanciful fabrications of folklore.

There is plenty that we do know that can benefit us, however. The Christianity that emerged in Ireland, Cornwall, Brittany, Gaul, Isle of Man, Scotland and Wales possessed some valuable gifts. I list but a few.

The Celtic Christianity that thrived, undivided, from roughly the fifth through the twelfth centuries, is as deeply influenced by the culture in which it was birthed as the culture that was transformed by it. It is the child of the pagan culture that preceded it. We rationalists squirm a little at this idea.

We need the Celts because of their love for the poetic imagination and artistic creativity, building on a rich tradition of bards who sang the shared stories and exploits of her kin.

We need the Celts because of their similar love for kinship, relations and the warmth of a hearth. Their love of hearth and kinship translated in spiritual terms to what they called “anam cara” or “soul friends”, those with whom they shared their deepest joys, fears, sins, hopes, dreams.

The Celts were forever at odds with Mother Rome. To my mind, this equates to a paradox or at least to a willing suspension of seeming opposites. On one hand they were as profoundly Catholic as any other sect of Medieval Christendom. They yearned to be part of the larger Christian family. That is the Celtic way. On the other, they ever marched to the beat of their own drum – a Catholicism swimming in the quasi-pagan, swarthier style of the brooding Celts. They were both in and out.

We need the Celts because they insisted on the equality of all people in the eyes of God. They celebrated an egalitarianism in everything even allowing women to perform the Mass, a heresy of the first order even in contemporary, post Vatican II Catholicism! While worshippers throughout Europe frequented any number of great cathedrals, the Celts preferred smaller, homemade altars around which they would celebrate a deeply intimate Eucharist. Especially irksome to Rome was their liturgical calendar taken more from Druidic astrology than the accepted Church calendar. They were rogue in every imaginable way!

We need the Celts because of the monastic communities that flowered in Britain and elsewhere that became centers of classical education and learning, even possessive of literature outlawed by the Holy Roman Empire. As such, it can be said without exaggeration that the Celts kept knowledge alive and growing throughout the Middle Ages.

We need the Celts for their great love for the natural world and for preaching a God who loved it, too. They attached particular significance to particular animals, numbers, places and natural objects. Their spirituality was mystical in character, bathed in silence and solitude but rooted squarely in the everyday. It was a rich blend of the immanence and transcendence of God.

We need the Celts because of their unquenchably adventurous spirits, well known as explorers and/or missionaries to many places. Some have suggested that they may have been some of the earliest explorers to South America where Peruvian artwork mimics Celtic knot work.

We need the Celts to broaden our sense of time. They had an understanding of time that was less chronological than kairotic. In other words, they were not especially linear in their approach to life, love, faith and relationships. They valued the cyclical dimension of time, believing that by immersing themselves in the seasons of the year and uniting their lives with the liturgical seasons of the church, they could more effectively celebrate their journey through the sacredness of time.

We need the Celts for a further distinctive, related to their concept of time; their appreciation of ordinary life. Theirs was a spirituality characterized by gratitude, and in their stories we find them worshipping God in their daily work and very ordinary chores. We, as they, can see our daily lives as a revelation of God’s love.

We need the Celts since their spirituality has great ecumenical value, transcending the differences, which have divided Christians in the East and the West since before the Reformation.

We need the Celts because, unlike we who are often more interested in what to believe than Who to follow, their Christianity was a way of life, a spirituality lived gratefully each day, one day at a time.

Finally, we need the Celts because they give us reason and opportunity to party in the presence of the God who loves us. I’m in.