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…

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.