“All through my life I have embraced and questioned the night, and loved its random light: the aurora borealis, the starry reaches of the cosmos, streetlight ricochet off car metal and darkened windowpanes…the light of friends and lovers.
We are on a great journey, through darkness and dawn, across time, though sometimes I fear that our journey is about to end. We must not succumb to fear or avarice; we must continue to embrace life, seek light, and gather in the charity of night. This is what God wants from us and for us. Mirrors of the past shine with the hue of unborn days, just as stars glitter in the dark night to light our way.”
I love metaphor. I appreciate the multitudinous ways it invites us to consider really big stuff. Night and day, dark and light, doorways and highways – all of it in pursuit of understanding that which can be never be fully understood.
Longing, as I’ve written many other places, is a condition most endemic of the hungry human spirit. If we are anything as humans, we are spiritually starving. Like the blessing of pain to a body out of joint is that of longing to the soul under duress, or even just at rest. We long not because we’re broken necessarily, but because we want either to be unbroken, or, in my case, to experience the proximity of God as God when last I WAS broken.
However, there’s a danger implicit in longing for its own sake. It can easily become an obsession, a drug without which we feel we can never really be whole. For too many years, in the name of contemplation, I lived in what could only be described as wallowing. It was often a cottage industry of self-pity in the guise of discerning depth; “look at me suffer and enjoying it” rather than the healthier pursuit of gratitude-in-darkness while praying for light. Persona incognito.
I’ve learned since then to notice the subtle differences which exist between genuine longing and a self-imposed spiritual subterraneanism posing as such. Nowadays, whenever longing arises within me, a few questions arise with it. First, where is this coming from? Why is it there and what is it telling me? Is this genuine heartsickness or just indigestion? Does my spirit need something or am I falling into addictive thinking once again?
As beautiful, daring, mystifying, and thirsty as the human soul can be, it is also fickle and will play tricks on us. What presents as darkness might just be ennui, the listlessness which is part of being human. What presents as sadness might better be described as an insufficient attention to the light of Christ always burning in our deepest places.
The Bible and, by extension, the great tradition of Christian spirituality have aligned the parallel barrels of mystery and metaphor as their formational crosshairs. The immense enterprise of God’s program of cosmic reclamation remains unsuited to the quaint and glib prognostications of “systematic theology”, or as I like to see it, the detached mechanics of straining eternity through an eye-dropper. Protestantism in general, evangelicalism in particular, are guilty of this diminution.
All of the above has been the experience of my hero, Bruce Cockburn. I recently finished his memoir. A favourite person. My favourite genre. The chance to devour, even absorb, the fascinating lives of fascinating people. My life grows from the experience, every time. What’s not to love? Ah, but this is not just any memoir.
It is impossible to understate the impact Cockburn has had on me. My music. My approach to the guitar. My songwriting. My ongoing love for literature and words. Especially, my spirituality, infused with longing as it has been. Even my personality exudes a certain whiff of Cockburnesque mystique, much of it intentional.
He doesn’t know it (yet), but I credit him in large measure for my career in music, songwriting, and for my journey of faith. While he was still pursuing something beyond the pale for himself, he speaks of “the speech of stones.” It was probingly pagan but sufficiently poetic to peak my interest. There was something out there worthy of seeking.
Bruce (may I call you that?), if it’s good enough for you, it’s good enough for me.
I love poetry. I love its exactitude, its wide-eyed innocence wed to unflinching honesty. The unforced rhythms of perfection, like Grandma’s gaze over well-worn glasses. It is the art of lovers, the science of thinkers, the wisdom of doers.
Poetry gives up her secrets cautiously, altruistically, slowly. Every word, like every note of a great symphony, is fully intended, placed unequivocally in its place with an eye, and ear, to building something remarkable out of simple things, something well beyond the sum of its parts.
In a thousand ways, we are the amalgam of our carefully written words; each one added to the emerging poem of our lives. In this process, there are no real mistakes. There is only the discernment asked of us in the changing turn of phrase that will ultimately become our voice in the world.
For me, Rosebud was one such word. Perhaps an entire stanza.
Although my active period in Rosebud was limited to a few months in 1987, her existential tattoos continue to reveal themselves in enduring ways. A tiny, easily missed oasis in the Alberta prairie percolated in me an entire life thereafter committed to several things: the transformative realities birthed in the canyons of friendship, great things can come from wee places, the pursuit of art wed to faith, and the kind of community possible only through probing, and honest, creativity. Family, lived best in and through, story. Our stories now connect in ways both obvious and subtle.
On the About tab from my spiritual life blog reads the following statement of purpose: “my life is dedicated to those places where life, liturgy, theology, and the arts intersect to promote an authentic spirituality – who we are becoming.” These values existed in me long before I ever made it to this place. But they were stoked by shared inspiration, fireside laughter, broken stage lights and fumbled words, splinters and spoilers, relational fugue and fatigue, the prayers and tears of young lives navigating their way to maturity; to wholeness. To become both passionate and com-passionate, all writ large in the art of our story. The Story.
On the Rosebud Fellowship homepage can be found the following statement, one of the six “objects” that articulates its purpose: “To promote the fellowship of people whose lives have been affected by the Christian mission of Rosebud School of the Arts.”
Friends, I am one such person.
In the short time I spent here I found lasting friendships, a deep gratitude for the quality of connections that exist around creativity rooted in spirituality, and a way of living, boldly illustrative of the kind of “Christian mission” to which Rosebud has always been committed, both spoken and unspoken.
However, the vision of this place was never one for kitsch or the quaintly derivative “evangelism through art” which has damaged both evangelism and art in so doing. Sadly, what begins as evangelism can become nothing more than jingoistic cheerleading or public relations. What begins as “art” descends to something diminished and pale, akin to cultural babysitting, the low hanging fruit of the accessible and “relevant” to the demise of beauty, the archetypal perfections to which God, wide-eyed, once whispered, “it is good.” When beauty and story are the goal, both art and God win. For me, this is Rosebud’s greatest victory.
To witness the leadership, serene but definitive, directive but collegial, of LaVerne Erickson has always been a wonder to me. A man of endless stories (and not a few impressive name-drops), tireless energy, and towering vision inspires me as much now as it did in those pre-Cambrian days of 1987. I’m still shedding the pounds added from Arlene’s unforgivably good cooking. More than a few good words (and some less so!) were knit to my story through the relentless humour of Royal Sproule, the passionate guidance of Doug Levitt, the sanguine wisdom of Lyle Penner, the many towering women of faith and creativity who helped put Rosebud on the map. And, of course, the big-heartedness of Akokniskway herself, calling us all deeper into her welcoming bosom.
I am as Canadian as the day is long, complete with an undying love of trains. I grew up in a blue-collar home, the son of a brewery worker and homemaker. Our 900 square foot bungalow in the quaint but rough-around-the-edges southwest Calgary neighbourhood was poised right next to tracks, now LRT, but once host to regular trains through town. So, when I moved into my room in the Rosebud Hotel, the nightly train arriving just past midnight was like a well-worn pair of jeans. Her whistle neither haunted nor annoyed. It sang to me of prairie goodness, rich in the Canadian story so much my own. Our own.
The poetry of my life is ongoing. Rosebud has faded well into my rearview mirror. But she has never stopped whispering to me of what could be, those places where my past collides with my present to hint at a future.
Now, after decades of Christian ministry, a life dedicated to music, writing, poetry, spiritual formation, and the arts, two boys (both professional musicians), together with my wife Rae (Rosebud incubated our love!), we are planting new words in our emerging poem. This newest word takes us across the Atlantic to begin life and ministry in the UK. We invite as many as we can to join us on this journey. Our poetry improves with every letter added, every nuance of word, phrase, and metaphor.
All of you are all of that.
Rosebud, thank you for being a cradle, an incubator, a muse and sage, a friend. Your poetry is now, and will always be, my own. I take you with me, with us, into a new horizon. Our emerging poem.
Word for word, words for Word.
1987-Rae Kenny and I were married the following year.
When muscle, bone, and sinew can’t find heart
and listening and looking. Then, severed in time
from the wishing well of wonder, we wander
through rushes and slivers of our moments, bent
over mirrored water, haunted.
There is a wrinkle in the hour’d fabric of
our days when tender grows the minstrel’s
song. It rings across golden fields of
shimmering wheat – milled hopes, rolled and real.
Bardic but breathless it sounds, reveling in tremors
It’s been awhile since we’ve been here together. For that I apologize. The biggest part of a blogger’s life is unassailable responsibility to the community gathered around him or her. It means staying in touch regardless of how chaotic, or not, one’s life becomes. Because, after all, into every life some chaos must come, right?
However, in a sense I do not apologize. Not in the strictest sense. Instead, I see the ellipsis between this entry and the last as indicative of time for preparation, for transformation, for contemplation; even, for rest. These have been days of conquest, rising to claim what God keeps tossing into my garden. These have been days of trust, quietly waiting upon God who promises that, doing so will bring rewards well beyond the waiting. Most of all, they have been days of joy. Holy joy borne of resting in cosmic realities of Presence and process.
Rae and I continue our journey toward life and ministry in the U.K. We wrap up our brief sojourn at a basement suite provided by good friends as we drive to Spokane on Sunday. To Canada on Monday where we quarantine for fourteen days (and hopefully still like each other afterwards!). We visit my family, many friends and say goodbyes. Then, Rae flies to London on June 30th where she begins the unwelcome task of finding a suitable job.
At 57 years old.
During a pandemic.
With no other income!
As for me, I continue pursuing ministry partnerships and financial supporters.
As an artist not a fundraiser.
During a pandemic.
With no other income!
We are not daunted however having come to believe this to be God’s call for us. We thank you, dear readers, for your interest in our journey. We thank those of you who have chosen to partner with us financially (link below). Most of all, we thank you for being our friends and simply walking alongside us.
Enjoy this song performed by a group of us a year ago. It’s a song I wrote meant as a formal charge to the congregation to “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” It is our theme song as we push into this, our coddiwomple of soul.
Peace, dear ones.
If you can, join our ministry family as a sustaining partner here.
This blog has been kind of a one-stop shop for all things spiritual; the stuff life throws my way and what, by God’s grace, I get to hurl back. Much of that is intimately tied to my Celtic DNA. A Canadian by birth, an American by address, a Scot by history, bloodline, and luck – I gain much from this tossed salad of personal ingredients.
Perhaps none more so however than the joy and pride I take in being a Highland Bagpiper.
Now, I recognize that many out there might consider it an oddity for such a thing to be a point of pride. Well, to those misdirected naysayers, I share the following excerpt from a delightful book I’ve been reading entitled A Celtic Miscellany. It is a varied, and utterly delightful collection of literary bits ‘n bobs, all masterfully translated from early Celtic literature by Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson.
From a section on humour and satire (something in which the Celts took great delight and did astonishingly well), I give you “Welsh Harper and English Bagpiper.” It describes the self-pity of a self-congratulatory Welsh harper at being upstaged by, you guessed it, a bagpiper.
Enjoy (he says, trying unsuccessfully to rub the silly grin off his face).
“Last Sunday I came – a man whom the Lord God made – to the town of Flint, with its great double walls and rounded bastions; may I see it all aflame! An obscure English wedding was there, with but little mead – an English feast! and I meant to earn a shining solid reward for my harper’s art. So I began, with ready speed, to sing an ode to the kinsmen; but all I got was mockery, spurning of my song, and grief. It was easy for hucksters of barley and corn to dismiss all my skill, and they laughed at my artistry, my well-prepared panegyric which they did not value; John of the Long Smock began to jabber of peas, and another about dung for his land. They all called for William the Piper to come to the table, a low fellow he must be. He came forward as though claiming his usual rights, though he did not look like a privileged man, with a groaning bag, a paunch of heavy guts, at the end of a stick between chest and arm. He rasped away, making startling grimaces, a horrid noise, from the swollen belly, bulging his eyes; he twisted his body here and there, and puffed his two cheeks out, playing with his fingers on a bell of hide – unsavoury conduct, fit for the unsavoury banqueters. He hunched his shoulders, amid the rout, under his cloak, like a worthless ballad-monger; he snorted away, and bowed his head until it was on his breast, the very image of a kite with skilful zeal preening its feathers. The pigmy puffed, making an outlandish cry, blowing out the bag with a loud howl; it sang like the buzzing of a hornet, that devilish bag with the stick in its head, like a nightmare howl, fit to kill a mangy goose, like a sad bitch’s hoarse howl in its hollow kennel; a harsh paunch with monotonous cry, throat-muscles squeezing out a song, with a neck like a crane’s where he plays, like a stabbed goose screeching aloud. There are voices in that hollow bag like the ravings of a thousand cats; a monotonous, wounded, ailing, pregnant goat – no pay for its hire. After it ended its wheezing note, that cold songstress whom love would shun, Will got his fee, namely bean-soup and pennies (if they paid) and sometimes small halfpennies, not the largesse of a princely hand; while I was sent away in high vexation from the silly feast all empty-handed. I solemnly vow, I do forswear wretched Flint and all its children, and its wide, hellish furnace, and its English people and its piper! That they should be slaughtered is all my prayer, my curse in their midst and on their children; sure, if I go there again, may I never return alive!
Friday, June 3. I wave goodbye to my wife as she makes her way by train south to a writer’s retreat near Bath. I make a leisurely retreat back to the Edinburgh car park where awaits my trusty chariot for the journey to come. As I shut the car door it occurs to me, shit, I have to drive through the Highlands without her as my human GPS (SatNav) where Internet is as rare as the Loch Ness monster.Lord, have mercy!
Before executing the daunting task of driving the Highlands alone I spend a few days reacquainting myself with the chic, sleepy provincialism cum arts mecca cum tourist quicksand that is Edinburgh. Long walks down the Portobello promenade watching very white-skinned Scots sunning themselves on windy beaches. It adds credibility to my insistence that Scots change color quickly given ten minutes of sun. Peppering the shoreline are numerous ice cream stands, overpriced coffee-shops above health clubs, and as many accents as are people to sport them. And best of all, to grace these precious days, friends.
One particularly memorable evening I prepare myself for a most enchanting experience: a literary pub tour in downtown Edinburgh. Two actors, one playing an actor (does he get paid the same?), the other an intellectual, regale us with tales, poetry, and saucy anecdotes of the lives of Robbie Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson – all of whom would have made great rock stars, awash as they were in wine, women, song, and…wine.
For lit-geeks like myself, it was orgasmic.
Sights, sounds, experiences – these are only given meaning when they can be shared with those closest to us. Edinburgh is a place of such connections. We lived here in 1989 making fools of ourselves among a motley group of trendy Baptists intent on serving one of the poorest areas in western Europe.
Pastor Andy Scarcliffe and his wife Moira are two of our bedrock Scots friends. It is their home that provided our, and now, my residence these few days.
Hours of slow and windy driving through the Highlands bring me at last to Kyle of Lochalsh. It is a tidy little Scottish village at the convergence of Loch Alsh and what is called The Minch. The unimaginatively titled Skye Bridge leads me to Kyleakin on Skye’s eastern shore. Both towns are replete with customary Scottishisms – quaint pubs, fish ‘n chip shops, numerous cafés complete with dodgy wi-fi, and store owners speaking less Scottishy for us tourists to decipher.
One would think it obvious that places like Skye would have their fair share of tourists. Dozens of us cram onto the tiny ribbon-like roads, hastily taking leisurely pictures at every available layby. We follow each other like newborn puppies in search of Mom.
But, apparently I still live too much in overly-romanticized pictures of it and I become bitchy about just how many of ‘them’ are here. This, despite the fact on numerous occasions I do so while taking view-enhanced selfies or while asking someone to take my picture as I pipe my way across the island – you know, the way actual residents do. *I do not possess enough appendages required to do the same.
By the time I stopped three or four times for still more precise directions I fill my cellphone to overflowing with photos even more touristy taken by at whom I whinge. I can live with that. Besides, once it became clear that I was merely part of the parade, like pinballs bouncing from one site to another, I relaxed a bit more and settled into this reality. A combination of Siri (when available) and my trusty old school map guided my way.
Cnoc Aluin, my island digs for the week would be one of the numerous well-fitted bed and breakfasts that pepper the island. But, not before getting lost on any number of identical tiny interconnecting ribbon roads, high-centering the rental car in the neighbor’s yard, and getting stuck in the driveway. I am, if nothing else, walking proof that the evolutionary process is, well, a process. Once I found the place, I knew it would be the perfect home for the days I would be here.
Irene, more big sister than business woman, reveals well the identifying marks of many city-born proprietors now happy to live simpler lives here. Born in Edinburgh, lived in London, she and her husband are all too happy now to help those like me find some of the magic here. During my stay, their expertly retro-fitted place also houses a Japanese family and two young grad students with whom to swap exploits. Tangentially, I bumped into the two students on almost half a dozen separate occasions at spots miles apart!
Skye has two ring roads that, more or less, circumnavigate the island. A northern and a southern route. Many smaller tributaries to other sites web themselves to these primary ones allowing access to more beauty than is humanly comprehensible. It is surprisingly small by North American standards. But, for its size it boasts a long, proud, convoluted history.
I waited my entire life to see this place. The greatest gifts require commensurate patience on our part. They are revealed to us only as we are prepared for the gifts, and accompanying responsibilities, they bring. Are we prepared for all that may be asked of us? Do we even know how to see what we most need to see? When we see, will we have the courage to invoke its transforming influence in our lives? Will we submit to lessons we hadn’t anticipated?
As I sit behind the wheel of the rental car about to embark on my first sight-seeing trip of this remarkable place, do I have what it takes to humble myself before its treasures and, metaphorically, God’s?
I pull out of the driveway in the expectant hope that I do.
August, 1989. My wife and I were the grateful recipients of Scottish largesse and enjoying a robust, five-course meal at Edinburgh’s George Hotel. The meal was spectacular. The entertainment? Lounge cheese. Nevertheless, down went venison, roast vegetables, fresh salads of varying kinds, nips ‘n tatties, roast beef and, of course, haggis. We were by far the youngest at our table, mere months after celebrating our first anniversary on Culloden Moor. It was pure magic.
I suppose this added a bit to our sense of naïveté and childlike wonder. We had just completed our time at Granton Baptist Church, Edinburgh as youth ministry “missionaries” and were spending some ramble time in the Highlands and England. We were, as a result, the wrong people to hear the travesty of screw-the-world chest-puffing comments that followed.
Seated across the table from us were two of the most arrogant ass holes the world ever produced. God was in the toilet when these two popped up whole out of the ground somewhere. The husband made the ass-tute observation, “aaah, ya see one cathedral, ya’ve seen ‘em all.” Delightful. She went on to add, “good Lord, what a California developer could do in the Highlands. Glencoe absolutely needs condos.”
As I suspected, your reaction was the same as mine.
I breathed in deeply trying not to portray my disgust, wondering to myself why it’s necessary for some people to reproduce when this is the best we can get. I consoled myself with the fact that they’d die before their time. Okay, so maybe I only thought it. I repented (kinda) and moved on.
In the lifelong pursuit of all that I’d call ‘home’, deep in the stone guts of a thousand-year-old cathedral or castle somewhere in Britain is as close as it gets. Even as a young boy my predilection toward all things old and musty presented itself regularly. This was constantly disappointed growing up in Canada. As deeply Canadian as I am, it was still never old enough to satisfy my longing for anything older still.
As I write I do so in a corner window overlooking the high street in Ambleside, one of many perfect Lake District towns. It is made to order for writers. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine why that has been the case for so many writers (real ones, that is): Beatrix Potter, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It has inspired countless others since then, Shelley, Keats, and Robert Burns, to name but a few.
My point is, to find the deepest reserves of one’s creative and spiritual taproot, one must be willing to explore and discern what that actually means. The whole point of the spiritual enterprise is to be ‘home’ everywhere. It is to be completely comfortable in all places at all times under all circumstances. Says St. Paul, “I have learned to be content in all circumstances.”
My wife and I have come to Britain for a host of reasons. Hers are similar but different to my own. I am here to reconnect with my spiritual DNA. My helix is uniquely interwoven with that of the ancient, storied hills of Scotland. The latter part of our journey allows me some alone time, with the rental car, in the Highlands and then to Skye. I shall suffer this unbearable burden with God’s abiding strength (stupid emoticon here). I shall also offer more pontifications then.
Until then, I pray you never suffer the indignity of meeting the toilet-water-buffoons with whom we shared a table in Edinburgh.
For forty plus years I have submitted myself to being assaulted by a screaming five-legged octopus wearing tartan underpants. To the lay person – I am a bagpiper. It is, under any circumstances, an instrument that, like a crying baby on an airline (or me), demands center stage. It is a sound that captured me even as a boy of seven years old.
Calgary, 1971 I grew up in a tiny bungalow in Calgary, Alberta the adopted son of a brewery worker and his wife, my mother. As I, along with my younger brother and sister, continued to grow, it became abundantly apparent that our consistent brushing of shoulders would only lead to heartbreak. My father set about building me a bedroom in our not-quite-finished basement. For some fifteen years to follow it would be my sanctuary – my monastery – the place where I found music, booze, girls (keep that bit a secret, they only know about the first one), and years later, Jesus.
The spring before my eighth birthday I moved in. Kismet. Changing channels one afternoon I happened upon a presentation of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, filmed live at Edinburgh Castle. It is an annual display of pomp, circumstance, bright lights, booming cannons and bagpipes – lots of bagpipes. I was hooked. I begged my parents to let me learn to do what I had just seen, but thought I had dreamed.
A love affair had begun.
Christmas, 1974 All other parcels had been destroyed and gutted of their contents by panting, over-wrought children. My Mom turned to my Dad and asked, “is that everything then?” (Oddly, in recent years, we’ve found ourselves performing such non-Shakespearean works with our own children…sigh). They went into a bedroom and reached under the bed, pulling out one final, unopened, present. As kids do, I skinned it in seconds only to discover contents that set me reeling (no extra charge for the bad pun) for an hour afterwards. I owned my first set of bagpipes.
Okotoks, Alberta, 1992 Those bagpipes became a close friend. Extensive traveling, piping for dignitaries and royalty, numerous television and radio appearances, and two piping albums later, and our lives found us church planting in the urban-cowboy sleeper-community of Okotoks, Alberta, south of Calgary. It was idyllic. Rae worked for a local travel agency. I worked as an industrial painter for my father-in-law’s painting company.
As the call to ministry grew too loud to ignore we found ourselves scrambling to get our affairs in order for a move to Vancouver, B.C. where I was enrolled at Regent College. Bills were paid, scores settled, ‘t’s crossed and ‘i’s dotted as we made preparations. In a move I thought noble at the time but which now seems utterly foolhardy I sold those pipes to help pave the way toward ministry and the next chapter of our lives.
I have regretted it ever since…and I never did attend Regent College.
A Serendipity I have taught for many years at Bagpiping Seminars, Celtic Performing Arts Schools and the like. A dear colleague and one of my best friends is a man named René Cusson. Not only is he one of the world’s great pipers but he is a collector of instruments. Knowing me to be bagpipeless, he selflessly loaned me a set he’d picked up from a garage sale for $75. A keen eye, some research, and a sacred serendipity revealed them to be a rather famous set of MacDougall of Aberfeldy bagpipes probably made in the late 1890s, ultimately finding themselves to a legendary bagpiper killed in WWII.
For 25 years, from 1992 until September of this year, I played those bagpipes.
A Request René’s daughter, Ceitinn is a champion Highland Dancer. But, as is the case with many purveyors of Highland arts, one skill is never enough. She wanted to begin bagpipe lessons and follow in her father’s footsteps. This of course meant a message to me that, although not unexpected, stopped me in my tracks. He would need those pipes back for his daughter to have something upon which to learn.
The process began of disassembling and packaging them for transport to their home on Vancouver Island. In September 2015, at the Greyhound Bus Station in Nelson, B.C., I said farewell to a comfortable friend and began a life of bagpipelessness once again.
Thankfully, as a piping instructor, I’ve been blessed to borrow student’s bagpipes as required.
Christmas Eve, a Good Time for Miracles Selling bagpipes my parents bought for me is only one of many regrets. But it’s a big one. In spite of having had a set to play all these years, that memory is not easily erased. And I may yet be a novice in this whole Christian enterprise but I know this much, God delights in reversing the irreversible; in repairing the seemingly irreparable damages of our past. In Gospel terms, regret is a wasted emotion.
To my surprise, shock, and delight I was gifted with a brand new set of McCallum bagpipes at our Celtic Christmas Eve service this year. Completely unknown to me, pastor Duncan and ??? colluded in a series of conversations and scheming, phone calls and plotting, sideways glances and squishy secrets to research, obtain, prepare, and gift me – publicly no less – with this amazing thing.
Best of all, my Mom and her husband, Sam were visiting us from Alberta, and were present to see it. If anyone knew just how inconceivable it is to play a bagpipe “fresh out of the box” (bagpipes are frustratingly moody and don’t follow directions well), you would understand just how gratifying it was to pipe folks out of the sanctuary with this new instrument!
I’ve played them for hours since then in a mixture of awe, tears, and bewildering joy. To say I am grateful is a woeful understatement. To say thank you just feels so utterly lame.
It was 1970. I was under-ripe, but hoping for the best at 7 years old. My Dad was developing the basement in our tiny 1000 square foot bungalow in Calgary, Alberta. Part of that process was building my own bedroom (let applause dwindle before carrying on). I was elated. During part of the process I was sick and recall sleeping on a movable cot in an unfinished room into which my parents had brought a TV that I could watch while convalescing. Poor me, I don’t know how I managed under such rigorous conditions.
My life forever changed one evening upon watching a live presentation of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo from Edinburgh Castle. I was smitten.
I had encountered something so pristine and wild that I told my parents the next morning I wanted to learn to play the bagpipes. Instead of the response generally expected, perhaps even advisable, for any parents, mine were intrigued and supportive. In less than a year I’d become part of a local Boy’s Brigade company hosted at the nearby St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church where I would also begin my first lessons.
Perhaps the biggest discovery however was that I was becoming aware of my beginnings. My parents made it clear to me (as clear as such things can be to an eight year old) that, as the oldest of three adopted children, I came from Scottish DNA. Spooky to some. Intriguing to others. My response to this growing revelation of my biological roots was an insistence that I was finding my spiritual ‘home.’
Alongside many others through the centuries, I am one who uniquely identifies with what we believe to be true about the Celtic way of life.
I’m happiest when I’m a little sad.
Life is always better in the rain.
Green will always be the best color.
Everything is a metaphor for something else.
When I wander, I long for home. When I’m home, I long to wander (translation: whiny and impossible to live with).
Stories, music, poetry, and art are still the best way to teach anything.
Men look best wearing colorful dresses, tossing around telephone poles, and making themselves dizzy blowing ridiculously loud instruments.
Women are best when allowed equal voice in the community.
The forest may still be the best place to worship together.
Dark skies are a sign of hope more than weather.
The best life is when one day we sing together, the next we die together.
And, learning means more about living than just knowing.
What I’ve loved most about my place on the Celtic role call is that life for the Celts wasn’t neatly compartmentalized, as it is in our western, rationalist world. The idea of one’s “spiritual life,” or “physical life,” or “social life,” or “sex life” would have been quite foreign to them.
It was, quite simply, life. Everything mattered equally. Everything counted. Nothing was completely meaningless but contributed to their daily and eternal existence.
They lived very outward lives from very inward places. They spoke of “thin places;” the nexus where one could feel the outline of God’s hand touching theirs from behind the thin sheath of reality. The thin place, where transcendence meets the here and now, was where the Celts felt most comfortable.
It contributed in forging a Christianity deep enough to pray ceaselessly, strong enough to endure a pushy Roman empire and countless robust threats, and bold enough to sail into the unknown and share what they had experienced.
I like to call them “practical mystics.” They rehearsed the soul well enough to sing its song in the byways and the unforgiving wilderness. Their memory of mystical encounters with God propelled them outward to meet innumerable dangers to preach and live the Gospel.
They possessed a unique zeitgeist I like to call “shared home.” Hearth and home, food and fire, pain and process, bird and beast, wine and women, song and celebration, faith and family, God and neighbor, self and sacrifice, love, laughter and loss – all of a piece, one undivided garment of singular living. What they shared with the world they had already experienced in their daily lives.
They were perhaps one of the most genuinely whole peoples the world has ever known. I would even go so far as to suggest that they exemplified a very biblical faith. They marched to the skirl of their own bagpipes!
As a result, Rome absolutely LOVED them and offered their undying support (pry tongue from cheek here____________).
What the Celts understood is that there would be no outward “success” without honest, inward labor. The great, wide sea that would lead them to countless would be Kingdom-citizens awaiting their hopeful voice could wait long enough for them to be well acquainted with the reason for their journey. Boats easily sink when left untended for too long.
They went out boldly to see God at work in the world, but did so through the in door of communal spiritual practice. They had more than ideas to share. They took their photo albums and welcome mat with them.
The insatiable longing to belong so pervasive in the Celtic spirit changed their way of living. They willingly and consistently explored what it meant to be “home,” all the while sailing to the ends of the earth in pursuit of what they sought. In so doing, they brought the hopeful message of Jesus’ new Kingdom to those people everyone else called “barbarians.”
The Celts called them neighbors.
The Celts loved silence and the life of the soul. But they loved it too much to keep it a secret. They went out through the In door. And, with this inner treasure in tow, they sailed the great deep to change the known world.
We are their legacy.
Great Guardian of hearth and horizon, soul and sail,
I have lifted my feet in obedience to an insistent wind. I have lifted my head up above this tiny-rimmed being. I have sought again what once was too costly. I have set out once more upon a wildly restless sea.
As I deepen, glacially but surely, in the Way of Jesus I am finding freedom in the manner, frequency, and creativity of spiritual intercourse. There are a number of factors in these discoveries. I am getting older – a fact, apparently, applicable to all. The passing chronos lends a certain gravitas to the focus of kairos. And, the slow-cook crockpot of my formation adds fewer ingredients every year to an already complicated soup. Sometimes it’s not more, or even better, ingredients that are required for the quintessential meal. Sometimes it’s the right ones at the right time that leave the palette happy and wanting more.
As I’ve written numerous places, the past few years have been richly experimental in regions of contemplative prayer. Learning to love silence. Seeking out solitude. Making friends with simplicity. Studying the nuanced coup d’etat of lectio divina. Prayer walking. Being enriched through congregational liturgy. Journalling the works.
All these and more continue to contribute to whatever Rob, slightly enhanced, may be forthcoming off the stove.
But something is changing. With the increasing 20/20 available through the grace of kairos and the experience of chronos, I’m latching more and more onto the fluidity and ubiquity of unceasing prayer, specifically as it has come to be associated with who I am more than an action to which I commit. If in fact it is true that God is omnipresent, theologically, and an unceasingly constant spiritually, then it should come as no surprise that prayer can and perhaps should be, everything.
There is a state of being available to all persons everywhere that is readily found in that which most thrills the soul. For some, the ticking clock, counting the passing hours immersed in good literature. For others, it is the choir of smells united in one explosive song on a nature walk. For still others, it may be culling from the raw ingredients of the earth, something rich and flavorful with which to delight the tastebuds of friends and family.
For me, it was music and writing.
As a teen, and a budding musician, I would often sit for hours on the front step of our house simply playing my guitar. The notes, some of them good, others lined up for the shower, collided together to produce more than just music. They created space; a kind of generous openness to whatever the universe was at the time. A particular kind of peaceful “zen” or as Thomas Merton might call it, “contemplative awareness” resulted, leaving me just where I needed to be. This was true even as I spent countless agonizing hours learning impossibly difficult melodies (I certainly thought so at the time!).
In recent months, as more conventional understandings of contemplative prayer have waned a bit, I’ve had a certain yearning to resurrect this practice. And resurrection has been the result. To plant myself on a lawn chair a few feet from my rose bushes (such as they are) and play music inspired by the same, in tune with the wind, has once again ushered in a holy Presence. It has centered me like nothing else lately.
It has also brought a much cherished simplicity and deepening unification of all I am into pulsating notes, maybe not always in tune, but always tuning. Music, once again, has become for me the changing face of prayer, changing me.