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.

St. Patrick’s Day – Why the world needs the Celts

Today is Saint Patrick’s Day. A guy has to be a press-ready, crowd-pleasing commodity to get his own day. But, perhaps I’m just jealous. Besides maybe Saint Columba, he’s our best known Celt. And, in honour of his Celtic lineage, I share the following.

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?

Edinburgh Military Tattoo.jpg
Edinburgh Military Tattoo, Edinburgh Castle

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?

Picture found here

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 many bagpipers, including myself, play on the bagpipes: Piobaireachd. Let us review that spelling, shall we?

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 co-mingling of 2 Scots Gaelic words: piobaire, or piping with eachd, 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, ancestral pipers to the MacLeod clan on the Isle of Skye. 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 here 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.

How quintessentially Celtic.

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. Rogues to the core, what’s not to love?

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.

Skye 57.jpg
Quiraing Ridge, Skye. With this as inspiration, who wouldn’t see the sacred everywhere?

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.

Irish farm


Rural Celtic life. Picture found here.

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!

Tale of a Wanderer

What follows is the manuscript of a talk I delivered at Linfield College, McMinnville, Oregon at their Thanksgiving service in 2003.

Brendan set out with fourteen companions, travelling westward. The wind carried them to the port of Arran. Brendan said farewell to Enda and the other saints of Arran and left a blessing with them. Then they sailed due west across the ocean. It was summer, and they had a favourable brisk wind behind them, so they did not have to row. After they had spent ten days in this way, the wind lowered its loud voice and whistling. With its force spent, they were compelled to take up the oars. Brendan spoke to them, saying: “Do not be afraid, for we have our God as our guide and helper. Put up your oars, and do not toil anymore; God will guide this boat and company as God pleases.”

One day when Brendan and his company were traversing the sea, they finally happened upon the little country they had been seeking for seven years; that is, the Land of Promise. As it says in the proverb, “He who seeks, finds.” When they approached the land and were entering its harbour, they heard the voice of a certain elder speaking to them: “O holy pilgrims, tired men who have searched for this country for so long, remain where you are a little while and rest from your labours.” When they had done so, the elder said, “Dear brothers in Christ, do you not see that this is glorious and lovely land on which human blood has never been shed? Leave everything that you have in your boat, except the few clothes you are wearing, and come on shore.” When they had landed, each of them kissed the others, and the elder wept tears of great joy. “Search and see the borders and regions of Paradise where you will find health without sickness, pleasure without contention, union without quarrel, feasting without diminution, meadows filled with the sweet scent of fair flowers, and the attendance of angels all around. Happy indeed is he whom Brendan, son of Findlug, shall summon here to join him, to inhabit forever and ever the island on which we are now.”

When they saw Paradise in the midst of the ocean waves, they marvelled at the wonders of God and his power.

After this, Brendan and his monks proceeded to their boat and departed from Paradise…It was thus seven years in all that it took them on the two voyages to reach the Land of Promise….At the end of that time they…proceeded to Ireland, where they dropped anchor in the sea near Limerick.

So goes the tale of St. Brendan the Navigator, one of Irish Celtic Christianity’s best known saints. As a post-everything guy (modern, evangelical, liberal, etc.), the spiritual life for me is best captured in story and in the metaphor of journey and it’s more intentional counterpart, pilgrimage.

The “tale of this wanderer” began one snowy October afternoon in 1981. Hung over, exhausted and broke, I embraced Christ (or he embraced me, you figure it out!) driving home from a 2-week stint singing in a pub in Edmonton, Alberta. I was not a reluctant convert to Christianity like C.S. Lewis, who, upon his own conversion to Christianity, “admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England”. No, instead my lifelong fascination with Christ succumbed to the “peace that passes all understanding.” Says C.S. Lewis, “there burst upon me the idea that there might be real marvels all about us, that the visible world might be only a curtain to conceal huge realms uncharted by my very simple theology.”

My first impressions of organized Christianity were as follows: Gee, this music sounds hoaky! There’s such a thing as Christian music? Ooh, time for a haircut! My how these people love to sing! And finally, look how husbands put their arms around their wives.

Time spent in hotel taverns and smoky lounges did 2 things for my soul: it helped to engender a taste for something deeper than the rum and coke that washed down the “Achy Breaky Heart” songs we were expected to play ad nauseam. I remember saying to my music partner, “if I have to sing “Good-Hearted Woman” or “Margaritaville” one more time I will positively gag!” As well, it helped me to see what I didn’t want in terms of interpersonal relationships. As a result, my early foray into the safe and sanitized walls of the local church was strange but welcome.

My first introduction to the world of discipleship was in the socially cautious environs of the Evangelical Free Church. I learned quickly that everything was a “warm-up” to the sermon. True to evangelical form, 40, 50 and sometimes 60 minute sermons kept things moving so as to ensure that all the quota of words required would be wrung out of whatever the topic of the day was. I lapped it all up like a stray cat to a bowl of milk.

There was a certain warmth and charm to those early days. Sunday evening services were where I was able to encounter something I had never encountered before – a rather enigmatic creature called – the Christian girl. Truly remarkable beings these: beautiful, articulate, compassionate, intelligent, beautiful, strong, focused, beautiful…However, as these things go, anyone who has ever been “in the band” knows that it’s the girl who gets blamed for the break-up.

Vanessa was her name and she was an Anglican (that’s Episcopalianism, Canadian style). How could I not be drawn to St. Laurence Anglican Church to discover together with her all that it had to offer? Since Christianity was so new to me, it was bound to make an impression. And again, as a faith-rookie, I was struck by a few uninformed first impressions: this is also Christianity? Wow, sooooo many books to hold. So, where are we anyway? How perfectly unified this all is.

Everything had purpose, nothing was wasted, all was intentional and in order. It was blissfully wonderful. We were not to remain at St. Laurence for long as we were also introduced to a local Pentecostal pastor at a college group event. This introduction led to an investigation of Neighbourhood Church where I would ultimately be baptised. The journey took a sharp jog as this church, typical of many churches in Calgary, split over issues I didn’t even understand at the time. I took a part-time ministry at one half as Pastor of Music and Youth ministries.

Concurrent to this I had been touring with any number of Christian groups sharing music ministry on weekends at churches as different in scope as Hutterite colonies, charismatic Anglican churches, Baptist, Mennonite, and Catholic churches, to the many small conservative country churches which dot the countryside of the Canadian prairies. Amid their differences, the curious commonalities shared by all of them are, to this day, a wonder to me.

Deep friendships with Anglicans, Presbyterians, Catholics, Pentecostals and others of faith have helped me to appreciate the many “colours” of God. Although the foundational elements of my Christian faith have not changed, their expression is changing. Thomas Merton once remarked that “at night our vision is reversed from…day. During the day the things that are close to us are clear and visible. But at night, while we stumble about over things that are near us, the stars (invisible during the day) shine in the heavens with a clear and delicate clarity. Faith is like this.”

There is a tendency in much contemporary Christianity to remove the element of journey out of our walk with God. Says Brian MacLaren, “It’s as if we have taken what is for Jesus a starting line and turned it into a finish line. Sounds like another case of modern reductionism-going for the greatest efficiency, the most measurable results, the least common denominator…We need a post-modern consideration of what salvation means, something beyond an individualized and consumerist version.”

As a Christian I’ve always been drawn to the beauty and meaning of ancient ritual and liturgy. But, as an artist and creator, I’ve needed fresh expressions of ancient things. My own spiritual “identity crisis” is part of a larger cultural one. The shapelessness of modern life and the absence of authoritative paradigms is the cause of much thirst among many for the recovery of tradition, of cultural and historical location. This is the attraction of the historic traditions of the church, into whose established, time-proven, objective forms of devotion and worship one may enter and find oneself. And yet, in all this, my own roots remind me that, if evangelicals do anything well, it’s to exegete the Word of God to the culture with ever new methodology.

From each “stop” along the way I’ve gained a little deeper understanding of my Christian faith. And, in my mind, what all of this equates to is a montage of pictures of Christ and the church. I believe that there are many others like myself out there, those who often defy definition but are generally categorized as “post moderns.” Their journeys are circuitous like my own.

I have, for over 22 years now, been on a journey – a journey with Jesus. I’ve often said that my life was just great before encountering Christ. Jesus ruined everything! More darkness than light, more sadness than joy, more questions than answers – this has often characterized my Christian experience. Nevertheless, Jesus continues to captivate me regardless of the skin my Christianity might have. And so, like Saint Brendan, I’m a relentless traveller.

In conclusion, then, our journey, like the stylised adventures of this enigmatic Irish saint, setting out into uncharted waters seeking the riches of God will ensure that the prow of our boat will be ever wet with the spray of the open sea. The nation of Israel, whose relentless wandering through a relatively small territory should have taken a matter of weeks. It extended to 40 mind-numbing years and reminds us that either faith or fear will determine our feet. Like the disciples on the Emmaeus road, whose once expectant eyes were now downcast wrestling through dashed hopes placed in a Messiah they believed would kick Rome’s proverbial butt, we realize that our expectations can often be misplaced and our journey never gets appreciably easier. Indeed the spiritual “life on the road” pictured by Brendan, the nation of Israel and the disciples of Jesus, invites rigour, chaos, uncertainties and indecision. But also reward for, as C.S. Lewis says in the Chronicles of Narnia, “all will find what they truly seek.”

Brendan the Navigator typifies for me this curious, adventurous life bent entirely upon finding all that God has for one’s life regardless of risk or sacrifice or consequence. At worst, it reminds me that my walk with God, although curious, has more often than not been characterized by a confusing trek through “flavour of the month” Christianity.

One could ask at this juncture, what on earth does any of this have to do with Thanksgiving? Well, if a Thanksgiving sermon is what you came for, you indeed came to the right place for above all else, thankful is what I am:

I’m thankful that the banks of the meandering river of Christianity wending its way through my soul have never been out of my sight. I’m thankful that the Body of Christ is more beautiful and complex and mysterious than Western, modernist, consumerism would have us believe. I’m thankful that I’m given, along with all of us, the great invitation to journey with God in Christ. I’m thankful that wherever the journey goes, there exists at each crossroad the “everlasting way” sometimes just beyond our peripheral vision but underpinning all that we are. I’m thankful that, like the disciples on the road to Emmaeus, though our journey be fraught with darkness and fear, the oft hidden Christ walks alongside to illumine the path of the lonely. And, I’m thankful that, in this pilgrimage to newness and life there is always a place to call home. And where does this journey end? When our pilgriming souls come to their eternal goal – love and eternity. May it be so.

Help and thanks

Gracious God, in our crazy, fast-paced world, we lift up our eyes to you whose throne is in the heavens but whose feet have walked among us here on earth.  And, Lord, our simple, stuttered prayers can be condensed into two words:  “help” and “thanks”.

Thanks that when we awoke this morning, You were there waiting for us.

Thanks for showing us what love was intended to be.

Thanks for taking the first step in bringing a broken world and our own sin-filled hearts back to you.

Thanks for the fact that the same grace that brought us to you in the first place is the very grace in which we learn to live.

Thanks for the promise that those who sow in tears will reap in joy.

Thanks for our loved ones-that we arise to see their faces each day.

Thanks for the beautiful surroundings in which we find ourselves.

Thanks for food on our tables, a roof over our heads and clothes on our backs.

Thanks that no experience either good or bad is ever wasted in your economy-we are assured of your work in us in spite of circumstances.

Thanks for the fact that we can quiet our hearts before you and bring every joy and pain before a God who hears and empathizes with our weakness.

Thanks most of all for the Holy Spirit, your great gift to us who brings the risen Christ to abide in our hearts and fellowship with us.

Help us, forgive us Lord, that when we awoke this morning and you called out to us we ignored you for what seemed like more pressing needs.

Help us, Lord, when we crowd you out of our lives with the meaninglessness of sin.

Help us, forgive us Lord, when we turn our eyes away from that which is eternal to dust and metal and wood.

Help us, Lord, when, in weariness we turn to stop-gap measures to shore up our strength when we could turn to the all-powerful God who lives within.

Help us, Lord, to remember you when opportunities arise to defend your name and your cause.

Help us, Lord, to love you above all things so that we can hide you in our hearts and find in you all the treasures of heaven and earth.

Through Jesus Christ our Lord who lives and reigns with you in the power of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever.


The Gift of the Ordinary

Since graduating from Spring Arbor University two months ago my soul has been afflicted with a deep and annoying restlessness. I suppose one could chock it up to a famine of soul following a three-year feast – like standing alone in a banquet hall, glasses and plates strewn about hinting at that which had gone before but now lacking the music and the guests. Perhaps it hints at the profound relief from the constant and insistent requirements of completing assignments. Might it even be a spiritual acedia (the monastics called this the “noon-day demon;” a spiritual laissez faire) finally having its way with me after being held at bay for so long? Is it biological? Chemical? Indigestion?

Whatever it is I wish it would make a speedy exit from my interior life. It seems to me that happiness (however we define the term) and comfort, the very things I am so often grasping after are actually enemies to the spiritual fervor I crave. Apparently, I do best under adverse circumstances. Crap.

It is an interesting coincidence that the liturgical calendar places us in ‘ordinary time.’ What I both love and hate about that is the external imposition of a chronos in which to learn kairos. It is an outward reality giving us the framework in which to sow the seeds of grace toward our growth in salvation. To add further complexity, this has converged with our unnecessarily long summer schedule when routines are challenged and stretched beyond recognition.

I tend to fall apart in these periods. Faithfulness is sometimes most difficult when all is well and such faithfulness goes unnoticed one way or the other. When we have nothing to gain from faithfulness is the precise moment when it is most crucial. For me, now is that time.

There is mystery in the idea of ordinary time. While everything around us may show little or no daily change there emerges within us the slow, almost imperceptible greenery of spiritual life. There is nothing ordinary in the growth of living things. It is as miraculous as it is beautiful. It is also slow enough as to render moment-by-moment changes impossible yet mysterious enough that to look away for a single day is to miss the biological sweatshop that has invisibly produced a most magnificent result.

Something comes to mind as I reflect upon this. We gain little by staring at ourselves, craning our necks and squinting our eyes to see our own growth. Such endeavors inevitably result in discouragement or even cynicism. Keeping our eyes fixed on the long-term process of growth and marveling at it is that which yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness and with it, our most abiding joy. Someone once said that we’re always frustrated by how little we accomplish in a day and how much we accomplish in ten years. That is the gift of ordinary time. It forces our eyes up to the sky instead of buried in the soil. Sun in the eyes is always a better option than dirt up the nose.

Together on the journey, Rob

Reflections of January Residency, 2009 – Part 3

Dr. Tony Campolo has been the large open door I’ve needed to call myself both a liberal and theologically orthodox; to somehow unite an Apostle’s Creed faith with progressive sociopolitical ideals. For me, this means an ever-deepening love for the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures as Holy Writ, inspired by God and the means by which God’s Spirit brings salvation, reconciliation and enlightenment.

Only a few years ago I had all but given up on contemporary evangelicalism. It no longer provided sufficient nourishment for my soul, framework to my changing ideals or challenge to my prevailing modus operandi. I was desperately thirsty for what I could neither name nor describe. Moreover, a certain underlying fear of “falling from grace” or “straying into error” pervaded my thinking. It made the decision to leave the Willow Creek Association church I was serving and take up a ministry in a liberal American Baptist church easy on one level and horrifying on another.

What I was to discover however was that it wasn’t liberalism I was searching for. My three years as Music and Worship Minister at this church revealed the following things to me. First of all, I had never experienced Christian spirituality practiced to that degree in a local church setting. The relative freedom afforded to me in asking archetypal questions of faith opened some delicious ontological windows into which flowed the warm sunlight of God’s face. But I needed tools to build on my ever-increasing thirst for a more mystical Christianity – a spiritual scaffolding as it were upon which to build my “interior castle.” Secondly, the inadequate Christology and, by default, atonement theology left a gaping hole in my need for a stoutly trinitarian soteriology. Christianity and specifically Christian spirituality made little sense to me otherwise. Finally, it was clear that I needed unifying principles around which to develop a totally new paradigm.

In the years that followed my short tenure at First Baptist Church, I have fully embraced the dual necessities in me of a peace and justice ethic coupled with an historically orthodox Christian faith. I have further devoted myself entirely to the spiritual life through my commitment to Renovaré, spiritual disciplines and expression of these in my home, my church of employ, my community and my hamlet of Yakima, Washington.

The latest and arguably most meaningful piece of the puzzle has come by means of this program. Specifically, the January Residency to which I owe this reflection, left me breathless on the numerous occasions when tears of joy refused composure or the best laughter in recent memory denied sleep. Best of all, seeing the bright and yearning faces to whom only names and letters have been previously affixed, sealed forever in my heart some of the finest individuals I have yet known. Tony’s eloquent and well presented thinking on matters related both to the Scriptures from which springboard his ethics coupled with Shane Claiborne’s radical, albeit non-judgmental, Christian journey, and Mary Darling’s straight forward and well laid out connecting points between mysticism and social justice gave me pause to exhale. I was many steps closer to home!

The events of one single evening bear greater reflection here. Dr. Ken Brewer’s explanations and evident love for the intersection of the Charismatic tradition with social justice was excellent. I must say however that, for one such as I who has swum in these waters before, with not a few bad experiences, his talk was much easier than the prayer and worship time to follow! I was immediately thrust into the uncomfortable reality that, if I was to be fully authentic and represent in my character every facet of God’s work in my life, I needed to exercise a willing suspension of disbelief. Songs were sung. Hands were raised in praise. Bodies swayed rhythmically to the voices of the saints praying together to our one God. My mind was haunted by an old cynicism. I have “worked a room” for many years and know just how to find the most vulnerable people to whom I sing just a little louder. The liturgies of Pentecostalism sneered at me from every corner of the room with voices I didn’t want to hear, let alone entertain. Then, a hand. Val Head, one I profoundly love and respect, had taken it upon herself to pray for me, uninvited (by me at least). It was a beautiful moment. She said nothing but allowed God’s Spirit to guide her silent prayer. In my struggle against cynicism, that action opened a door to God’s inner voice in me, which stated simply, “since when is it about you anyway?”

Dumbfounded that God would speak such simple but delightfully convicting words to me I proceeded to follow Val’s example and prayed individually for each of my cohort members in turn. The more I prayed, the more joy-filled I became. It was then that I “got” it. Even if the entire exercise is a manufactured one (to quote my cynicism), why not participate fully in the dance of the Spirit going on at some level whereby I become a servant and not merely a passive consumer? The release within was magnificent. I cannot say where God will take me regarding my theology in these matters. This much I can say, I do not need to be cynical anymore when faced with such events. I do not need to “hear from God” in the restrictive ways I had imposed upon God. In still one more way I am slowly becoming the man of integrity I so long to be.

A final thought: I have always believed that the more spiritually formed a person is, the greater their freedom from the conventional niceties of a tea ‘n sympathy religion. With the nearly two dozen people who comprise my cohort kindred, I prayed deeper and laughed harder than I ever have in my entire life. And, in God’s economy, since laughter sits next door to tears, I walked away a man utterly filled and transformed.

The integrity I once prayed for is taking shape in painfully slow but tangible ways. The discussions, worship, community, prayers and tears of a week with a few Spring Arbor University saints have painted wholly new and fresh blessings upon the canvas of my life. I am a man most grateful.

I still play the bagpipes.

Life as a canvas

I, like so many others, am one on a journey.  As a man who, at best, is in a state of constant spiritual curiosity, ever thirsty for knowledge and, at worst, indecisive and flippant, I am always on the look out for organizing principles.  However, as a poster child for the post-modern milieu, I have at times had an aversion to the codifying of faith and life into a non-integrated, linear set of theological propositions designed to classify my place in the big picture of Christian dogma.  Statements of faith, as needful and helpful as they are merely portray details of the tapestry; those main threads that bind the tapestry together and create a pattern. The beauty in the context of the body of Christ is that these statements, non-integrated though they may be, can provide the basic threads of the faith – the common threads – that unite all Christians.

Taken as a whole and seen from God’s perspective, this tapestry is a portrayal on fabric of one’s essential “picture” to the world.  Threads of differing colours and weights for different purposes are woven at ninety degree angles to one another, providing multiple cross-roads at each meeting place.  Lacking meaning by themselves and lacking the creator’s perspective, these threads can quickly lose hope, finding themselves at crossed purposes and conflictually related.  At micro level each thread travels a continuous forward road sometimes above its perpendicular counterparts perhaps with an accompanying sense of pride, accomplishment and clear vision.  At other times, life is submerged and “under the surface” as the creator allows other colours to predominate.

Life is a canvas.  Broad brush strokes upon newly prepared canvas provide the ethos and essential feel of the finished work.  The predetermined size of the work allows the canvas to be stretched and prepped for that which is to emerge.  Location, location, location – as in real estate, so in art, the placement of the canvas ensures adequate light pragmatically to the artist as well as proper light artistically for the ensuing endeavour.  The artist works quickly at first seeking to get on canvas the basic structure of the vision which prompted the painting in the first place.  As the vision unfolds, smaller, more painfully intricate strokes occur leaving vast portions of canvas untouched for long periods.  No brush stroke is less important than the other.  Each one a promise fulfilled toward the unfolding masterpiece.

Contemporary Christianity with its love for the corporate America constructs of vision statements, leadership gurus, definitions and strategies has sometimes fallen prey to “we are our vision statement” reductionism.  In other environments lacking the redemptive pressures of the gospel to the contrary, these become designs for “getting everyone on the same page” – a bottom line for the bottom line so to speak.  The unfortunate ramifications of a purely rationalist paradigm in such matters (clearly the love of post-Enlightenment humankind) is a lusting for unanimity rather than a move toward diversity in unity.  After all, homogeneity is easier to control and quantify.

With all of that as precursor I must say that writing a personal mission statement has been one of the most meaningful undertakings of my entire adult life.  Although not a complete picture of the tapestry unfolding, it has acted nonetheless as an important organizing principle for my life in general terms. It has also acted as a helpful guide in my own spiritual formulation.

I’ve often questioned whether spiritual formation can ever be “offered” as such, believing that it can only be “encountered.”  However, I am pleased by the resurrection of the terminology in post-modern thinking to describe this goal of the redeemed life.  It is a classical Christian perspective on one’s continual conversion, incarnationally, into the person of Jesus Christ.  Unfortunately, “discipleship”, has become its modernist, Descartian counterpart, by contrast more suggestive of a mental assent to universally agreed upon systems of thought and doctrine birthed in rationalism.  It, for me, has often been the clearing house for “believe this and all shall be well” data-driven Christianity.

God’s personhood and redemptive action (and by extension, my own) work both in and through the worshipping ecclesia. As God’s physical voice in the world, we are, clearly and hopefully, to state God’s loving intentions without the typical “mighty speak” rhetoric which can have the effect of bull’s eye Christianity loudly declaring who’s in and who’s out.   A progressive orthodoxy, diversity in unity, and holistic sensibilities are what encourage me. If that is what the church is about, count me in.


Welcome to innerwoven, a place to discuss matters related to the Christian spiritual journey. Specifically, my interests lie in the many places of intersecting dialogue among worship, the arts, liturgy, and spiritual formation. As both a church music director (Yakima Covenant Church, Yakima, WA) and a graduate in spiritual formation and leadership (Spring Arbor University, MI) these are for me, increasingly, matters of genuine excitement. More selfishly, it is a place to share my circuitous journey of faith and the ways I’m seeing God in my world. In the world.

This is a safe place to be where all discussion is good discussion inasmuch as it strives unto mutual respect, love and understanding. Denominational baggage…please leave it at the door upon entering. But when you do, do so with my warm invitation to share this journey with me.

Pax Christi, Rob

A longing fulfilled

On August 28th, 2008, I began a journey 20 years in the making – I started my Master’s degree. What am I studying? I’m glad you asked. I am taking a Master of Arts in Spiritual Formation and Leadership. It is an online degree through Spring Arbor University in Michigan. Responses I’ve received have ranged from mild curiosity to deep fascination to turned up noses! So, why that and why now? Again, thanks for asking.

A favorite Rife family rock band, U2, wrote a chart topping song in the 80’s called, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”. Since Bono, their lead singer, was widely known to be a Christian, they received much bad press from the church for not speaking in more definitive terms about their experience of faith. However, it was something deeper that he was singing about. Like Bono of U2, ever since I can remember I’ve had a similar unfulfilled longing. You know that gnawing ache inside when you are standing in front of the refrigerator eyeing all the possible ways to deal with it? You can’t sit still. You’re bored but don’t know why. Nothing you do makes any difference. Augustine called it a restlessness. Ah, I knew you were going to ask that…yes, I do know and love Jesus Christ and his loving presence is everything to me. Then, why this “unfulfilled longing”? Let me briefly try to explain and in so doing describe why I’m studying this stuff.

I love the Church. But it makes me sad as well. I believe that we have abdicated our role as “God’s skin in the world” (see “The Holy Longing” by Ronald Rolheiser). Our mad dash toward relevance has squeezed out significance. Our insistence on just the right doctrine has left us with all the wrong lives. We’ve traded in righteousness for “rightness”. We have exchanged transformed lives for informed heads. Often, what passes for faith is a “notebook Christianity” where, with pen and paper, we learn God rather than love and live God. We study and memorize Scripture trying to control and tame God rather than being read by Scripture, thus being brought under its control. We have taken our risen, ever-living Savior and boiled him down to an idea or a worldview. We have a theology divorced from spirituality.

Says Dallas Willard, “we live from our heart.” Jonathan Edwards, the great 18th century Congregationalist pastor and theologian spoke much of “religious affections” which provide us with a “spring of action.” Willard calls the lack of real spiritual formation in the Western church “the Great Omission..  THAT is what I am studying.

I love Jesus Christ. I love the church. I love the rich and varied tapestry of Christian history and I love classic Christian spirituality. I have a longing to help all of us who are victimized by a materialistic, consumer society but who hunger after deeper realities to find wholeness and the re-integration of our fragmented lives. My own life mission is “to draw others to God through my life and work which strive to meaningfully communicate God’s beauty and truth.” Through worship, spiritual disciplines, liturgy and the arts my goal is to become the very Jesus we sing about and help others do the same.

Writer and theologian M. Robert Mulholland defines spiritual formation as “the process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others.. May God lead us to discover all the riches of Christ in order that we are conformed to God’s image for the sake of others. THAT is what I long for.