Reflections on faith and art – Going Back to Move Forward: Da Capo al Fine

moraine lake

As a boy I loved to hike in the Rocky Mountains not far from where I grew up in Calgary, Alberta. Fourteen year old boys are known for many things. A steady, focused willingness to properly read a map is not one of them. On more than one occasion I got lost. Colossally lost. Front page news lost.

Now, getting lost in the hood is one kind of nervous. Getting lost on some back road is another. But, getting lost in the Rockies, well known as treacherous, moody, bear-infested and snow-smothered is something else altogether. Bears do their best grocery shopping among these unpredictable rocks, boulders and ancient back-scratched geography where over confident lads provide them ready access to fresh food.

A group of stolid and hardy lads in which I was involved, the Boy’s Brigade of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, enjoyed numerous such excursions into this high altitude, western paradise each year. I, in fact, was a group leader, having achieved the illustrious honor of Lance Corporal (it sounded cooler then than now). Part of my duties involved rallying chaotic, testosterone-laden infusions of pre-manhood into some semblance of order; a kind of teenage yellow rope.

Boys Brigade image

Our destination? Alberta’s unrivaled Moraine Lake hidden artfully among The Valley of the Ten Peaks.

It is a space of unparalleled breadth and relatively young, but stoic guardians of Banff National Park. By comparison, the tiny, peanut shaped lake, covering barely a fifth of a square mile, is sister to numerous other glacier lakes squatting majestically in the Rockies, including Lake Louise. It is of a color impossible to accurately describe. Suffice it to say that the wildly turquoise hue of the crystalline water announces itself with an overstated elegance well suited to its heroic surroundings.

That was our setting. This was our set up: about twenty over-confident, wildly exuberant man-boys oozed out of two vans, dutifully fart-infested, noise-experienced and travel weary (it is a two hour drive after all), at the main parking lot at the base of the valley. From there a host of hiking trails, well trod and well signed, could be promptly ignored by our troop of bawdy adventurers. We were perfectly capable of navigating the complexities of the labyrinthine Rocky Mountains armed with a compass or two, a twenty-minute basic survival training video and our three fearless leaders (I’d include myself, but I helped forge the debacle).

One would think that our conservative Presbyterian environment might have created a more…human tribe. But, alas, as is the predicate of our gender, our bombastic tales of woe and  fabled exploits with mystery women, always surprisingly willing to succumb to our passionate advances, filled the summer wind; a wind mixed well with our own teenage gaseous effluent. As father to two strapping lads of my own, I am often privy to the baffling rampage of boastful male oddities foisted on an unsuspecting, eye-rolling public. Yes, I was one of those. Lord, have mercy. But, more than our strutting demeanors might suggest, we were severely lacking in either outdoor prowess or the wisdom of experience, let alone the common sense generally considered an asset in the Canadian wilderness.

compassIn just over twenty-four hours we were fabulously lost. The question burning in one’s mind at this point might be, how does one get lost when one goes hiking in an area so distinctively obvious as an azure-blue lake punctuated by ten rather large, easy to count, mountain peaks? Good question. We asked the same one, numerous times, each time with greater panic. Every cut line, every scree, every grove of pine trees all looked annoyingly similar. And with each wrong turn, our confidence waned. And, as our confidence waned, so did our supplies. The unwanted guest? Panic.

When life hits the place of panic and confidence has escaped out the back door, we will often put our heads down, flip our collars to “the cold and damp” and soldier on. We think that faithfulness to our present course is best since we can throw so many juicy scriptures to support it. Besides, we just need faith and to “man up.” Right?

As it is when lost on a hiking trip, so it is in life. Sometimes it is just best to pause for a moment, take a breath and then retrace one’s steps to the last recognizable place before starting up again. However, to one who is lost, once recognizable things seem foreign. As a result, we are forced to trust the more tried and true accoutrements of trodden path, compass and map. Our ending place, though seeming as though unguaranteed, is more assured in light of an intentional return to what we know best.

Go back to the beginning until you find the end – da capo al fine – is a musical term used to circumscribe large pieces of music that would otherwise prove too unwieldy and long. It also offers listeners an opportunity to experience again the musical strains that first captivated, re-opening doors to the sublime. It is also designed to bring a satisfying musical journey to a final, glorious end. And, it describes well the course of action best suited to the dilemma of lost-ness.

To heedlessly plow ahead regardless of consequences on some vague notion of finding one’s way by sheer determination will, more often than not, lead to disappointment…or worse. dc al fineTo stop, breathe in deeply the air that still surrounds us, and then prayerfully return to a foundational place, is always the wiser choice. Of course, this doesn’t guarantee we’ll find our place of origin on the journey quickly or easily. What we may find, however, is the still, small voice spoken just behind our ear encouraging us to follow the voice, not just our gut. That said, how fun to hear an orchestra take a stab at a symphony birthed out of the same bravado and self-assured swagger long vanished from our sorry troop and replaced with the unsteady panic of facing a vast forest with no clear sense of direction!

We did find our way home…well, with the help of RCMP helicopters and small army of distraught parent volunteers. D.C. al fine – back to go forward – forward back home. Our place of beginning, the spot where adventure and beauty became tears for fears (no, the real one) began, looked all the more beautiful for having taken the long way home.

BB picture: www.blogs.nottingham.ac.uk  (Check out more on the Boys Brigade movement here)

dc al fine: www.mikesmusicpages.com

compass: www.seanoakely.com

Art As A Work Of Life: A Guest Post by Janet C. Hanson

It’s not that I’m a snob, although some might disagree. Nor is it that I’m lazy, although others might disagree. I simply haven’t had guest posts as often as I should. With this offering by blogger, Janet C. Hanson, I’d like to change that. When she posted this and it found its way into the internet aether, it was pounced upon quickly like hungry birds to a free meal, tossed around, shared and shared again. She’s insightful and warm and wise and witty. You know, kinda like me (as I am in my bios).

Originally posted on April 30, 2013 by Janet Hanson

A l’oevre on reconnâit l’artisan. You can tell an artist by his handiwork. ~French proverb

painting-of-woman-writing

“You can make art or make a product. The two are very different.”

My art teacher, Randy Blasquez, shared the quote on her blog. The context was art and love. “Why doesn’t love come across when you look at a painting? Because it wasn’t put into the painting! The artist was pleasing the gallery or trying to sell.”

How much of your life is spent trying to please the gallery?

The books on writing, the books on art, the books on living life to the full, all agree: Skill matters, but love is essential in any work of art.

I think you would like my writer’s group. Around the word-slinging circle you’ll find a Whitman’s Sampler of styles. We take turns being the discouraged, remind me why I am doing this member, or, less often, the poster child for astounded success. I’ve learned by watching these women wrestle with their art. Things like,

  • A good writer is generous. They bleed their fears, doubts and delights all over the page, with nothing held back for later.
  • A good writer refreshes. They peer into the fog and refuse to blink until they notice a reason for hope.
  • A good writer lights the way. With words gripped by ink-stained fingers they draw us from the dark.

Bad writing may sell books, but readers are left in shadow. A bad life may look successful, but the world is left just as dim.

Art As A Work Of Life

For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. Ephesians 2:10

Together, we are God’s handiwork.

Does your story prove that it’s true?

Generous, refreshing, bearer of light, are we changed by the reading of you?

Every day, we’re given a choice–to be just another product, shaped by the world, or let God shape his image in us.

Where have you noticed God’s artistry at work in your life?

Find out more about Janet and her wonderful material here.

Reflections on faith and art – Earworms of Grace: Leitmotiv

Like everyone else, I love Fridays. tgifIt was Friday. Friday is my day off. It also happens to be my Sabbath. I’m rather possessive of Fridays since they have become so reconstructive to my psyche, such as it is. Yet, ironically, if there is ever a day I feel more stressed about “wasting” free time, it’s Friday.

I have a fixation with fixations: an idea, a besetting issue, relational matters, missing car keys or, God forbid, a misplaced book bag. Whenever an idea, either good or bad, finds a perpetual return, I can get stuck in what the French call an idée fixe, a fixed idea. It’s something that, good or bad, refuses to go away; a kind of paralysis.

stressed

My brain and my soul spar over time served, with neither winning. I should be working harder at not doing something significantly insignificant. It’s a bit like standing in front of a wet paint sign and sensing an overpowering need to touch something, just to be sure. “Don’t think about sex,” the deacon tells the unsuspecting youth group and, for the next half hour, boys have a dreamy look in their eyes with one eyelid partially closed and crossing their legs. Ha! As if they’re fooling anyone.

I love to practice silence and contemplative prayer on these days and deal with distractions about the same as anyone else – poorly. But of all the distractions with which I’d prefer not to do battle during contemplative prayer, some trite, facile, mind-numbingly repetitive song would top the list. It just keeps showing up no matter how hard I try to redirect or quell the noise. You know that thing where, at sixteen, you finally get a chance to lean in for the long awaited kiss but start laughing instead because of the impressive fart joke your jackass buddy told you earlier that day? It just keeps showing up at the worst moments. Or, when you’re trying to find the Zen of vacuuming the stairs but the only thing that incessantly hammers away at your brain is that ditty from the ghastly used car commercial that sounds like it was written by angry zombies on a bad acid high.

I’ve heard this phenomenon described as an earworm. earwormI have no idea who first coined the phrase but it is very appropriate to my point. Sometimes my mental needle gets stuck and can’t move on (for those younger than I, that is a reference to ancient, black discs that magically play music when rotated clockwise and scratched by a needle on a stick). Such earworm annoyances can make a sorry mess of what might otherwise have been a nice day.

But maybe that recurring ditty from the horrible TV ad, vis a vis, idea-fly constantly buzzing around inside my head isn’t half bad. Even if it is a universal experience, I have to wonder whether it can somehow be redeemed, retooled from a shitty tune to some richer fare, something even…redemptive. Perhaps it’s possible to redirect such things and, in so doing, make for better internal music.

The Germans, not to be outdone, have a term, delightfully fun to say, referring to a short, constantly recurring musical phrase: the leitmotiv. It means literally, “leading motif” and is conceived as a guiding idea around which larger pieces of music revolve. This idea may be a short melodic phrase, harmonic statement or rhythmic figure that hides and flits about within a larger work. It morphs and changes according to musical or plot needs. Sometimes new ones are added, granting even more interest and mystery to the piece. Leitmotifs can help to bind a work together into a coherent whole, and also enable the composer to relate a story without the use of words, or to add an extra level to an already present story.

Think old movies. The piano accompaniment was used to enhance action, delineate one character from another, create atmosphere or just build a fun backdrop against which the characters could capably caper. Still closer to home, the Star Wars Theme continually reappears throughout an entire series of movies that, in its subtly changing demeanor, evokes equally subtle changes in characters, moods, settings, relationships.

Back to Fridays. I am coming, albeit slowly, to accept and even embrace these Sabbath earworms, these recurring dramas that play out in my overactive brain. Jesus said such cool stuff like “people were not made for the Sabbath but the Sabbath for people” (Rife Armchair Translation). This tells me a lot. It tells me a lot about Jesus and the kind of person he was and is. This is a statement primarily about grace. It is an indication of the kind of gift-giving God I seek to serve. The gift of Sabbath suggests that no amount of bad earworm ditties need steal what is always pure gift. To relax into guilt free nothingness is the best non-thing ever on a non-day to non-do.

sleep in hammockThese days, I love to try and fool these earworm triggers by writing long to-do lists, placing them on my lap during prayer and then crumpling them up while I go off to take a nap. Let ‘em come I say, these leitmotivs, since in God’s playground, they are diminished into earworms of grace. In a Spirit-borne rest, even distractions become holy. I might even find myself singing the nasty little buggers ‘cause, you know, if you can’t beat ‘em…

 

 

 

 

TGIF picture: www.runningcirclesaroundtheturtles.com

Earworm picture: www.blogs.davenportlibrary.com

Man in hammock: www.psypost.org

Reflections on faith and art – Stop in the Name of Love: Fermata’s Gift of Pause

It was a strange time in his life. He had been many things, experienced many things, perceived many things in as many ways, fought and lost many battles, won still others. But, never in all that time would he ever have used the term, stable. Young, handsome, energetic? Maybe, once. Bright, eager? Still, albeit tempered. Passionate? Sure, but with a more nuanced meaning. Confident? Perhaps, maybe…not sure. Focused? Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Stable is an odd word, one best used to describe a table or toilet seat sufficient to the task of supporting their respective burdens with certainty and ease. Give them your worst and what comes out bruised is ego, not the thing itself. They’re…trustworthy.

Trustworthy! Eeeww, how unsexy. He had hoped for a word more like solid or chill. Probably, the word that best illustrated his present life was rest. The overwhelming feelings of inadequate job performance, deadline anxiety, friendship uncertainties, identity questions, and fears of many kinds, including those of “right” doctrine or “biblical” theology (whatever that means) were all beginning to fade into the background.

The experimental days of project du jour held less fascination for him than previously. Instead, the growing appeal of quieter, simpler ventures held sway over the quickly passing days. He yet harbored dreams and aspirations, the hopes of any person with a heartbeat. However, they were rather less…insistent, less bothersome somehow, full of timeline-laden expectation and anxiety.

bluemassgroup.comHis trajectory fifteen years earlier had been one of skyrocketing up the ecclesiastical ladder of success (you better believe there’s such a thing). He had begun this upward career-clamoring by means of big, glittery, evangelical worship leadership. His growing bevy of names to drop, gloat-able experiences, and boast-able accomplishments all kept astride his equally rising ego…and the accompanying stress.

But there was a problem. His thirsty soul was getting in the way. When it appeared there was nowhere to go but up, his soul shouted Stop! in the name of love; let’s go down instead. It was barking louder every day, refusing to be ignored. A spiritual thirst had taken hold coupled with a theological crisis of epic proportions, denying the upward mobility to which his career seemed to be pointing.

In a few short years, he had gone from the music staff of a large, well-healed, hard to ignore big-box church in a wealthy, resort town to a much smaller, über-educated, College town church to a still smaller but diverse one stuck in a semi-arid, fruit growing valley in the middle of, quite literally, nowhere. Here there were no names to drop because people with “names” tended not to live there. Gone were the multiple monthly, high profile gigs that promised regional notoriety and decent pocket cash. Gone was the euphoric environment proffered by the diversity, youthful panache, ideological smorgasbord, and creative playground of a College town. Gone were the long, rainy days so conducive to his creative process and emotional make-up.

Taking its place was residence in a small city known more for its slow drivers, monster truck rallies, poverty, gang violence, county fair, and conservative politics. Where would such a man as he find kindred spirits in such a place? God’s faithfulness however, even in an environment seemingly hostile to his personal mode de vie seemed to emerge serendipitously as a fine dust collecting on the windshield of his spiritual bus.

In his ever-mutating thoughts on the matter one thing occurred to him as a central feature of his life over the past few years. He had learned to stop. If ever there was a singular gift to a healthy spiritual life it is Shabbat, Sabbath, holy pause.

The idea is beautifully mirrored in the fermata. rogerbourland.comLooking a bit like a beady-eyed Cyclops with bad hair it is the musical symbol that, like the crossing guard, tells all ongoing traffic to pause indefinitely while other, more important matters, may be addressed. It holds things back, avoiding danger and confusion.

To pause suggests a willingness to stop indefinitely and count one’s steps. The days of our lives (no relation) hurtle through time and space at a frightful tempo. We are often blind to this fact (as was he) largely because we become hypnotized by how much momentum and power we pick up along the way. But, despite their apparent beauty and order, without sufficient space for pause, they begin to sound more like an unwieldy stampede of bucking, snorting notes headed for unseen cliffs of cacophony (think Lucille Ball after too much Scotch singing Schubert).

The fermata is the Sabbath of music. It shows up not as regularly but performs a similar function. In music, as in life, are surprise, delight, order, disorder and angst…beauty. As any composer will tell you however, music is made even more magnificent against the backdrop of its own silences. Rests are the music of silence. The fermata is the rest of exhalation. It holds things in place, defusing the potentially damaging effects of kinetic energy. Rather than something wonderful ending up a steam train careening over a cliff, the musical Sabbath of fermata puts the brakes on. theoildrum.comSabbath secures us to the manuscript where the Composer’s grace and skill can adjust potential weak spots and lovingly dote on us. Our music can cool down, let off some steam, and regroup before beginning its forward movement again. Music is made more beautiful through its silences, its pauses. God makes us more beautiful in exactly the same way. As we pause long enough to take care of overused musical sentences, our emerging symphony is writ large across our life manuscript where all may experience its beauty.

He yearned to say that advancing age had brought the wisdom he craved. He’d had his moments. But ironically, some of his most egregious errors, lapses in judgment and felony mishaps had occurred smack dab in his late middle age. Chronos is never a guarantee of kairos. boards.cruisecritic.comSubsequent time and reflective pauses however had brought a sense of perspective that fanned out behind him like an ever-growing wake, revealing his course, in a sea more than half traveled. The music was slowly beginning to make sense.

These considerations allowed him pause (pun intended) to reflect on some of the reasons for his place in life. Although not without pain and challenge, the idea of stability no longer seemed so…tedious. No, it was a gift, a grace lovingly massaged into the music of his life.

Maybe it wasn’t such a strange time after all.

 

Photos courtesy of www.bluemassgroup.com, www.rogerbourland.com,

www.theoildrum.com, and www.cruisecritic.com, respectively.

 

Reflections on faith and art – Addicted to Melancholy: Life as a Major Seventh Chord

The impossibly orange morning sky mocks my melancholy and seeks to repeal my commitment to a sober day. The feathered fingers of precocious light embroider a morning otherwise condemned to generous helpings of over-thinking and under-living. Like passive-aggression to a psyche better suited to hiding than fighting, I brace myself for the full welcome of morning and, coffee in hand, steep in my self-righteous adherence to less than full inclusion in the happy chatter. If another somber, artsy day of writing and pain-mining was truly what I was after, then why the open laptop at the center table of my local Starbucks? Dear God, am I becoming “that guy”- the artsy, Mac-toting, liberal coffee snob?

at the coffee shop

Those like me are typically well-versed in the finer points of self-pity and overwrought, dilapidated prisons of Freudian fear wed to Jungian collective consciousness, albeit devoid of the intended mutuality to which it points (or much consciousness for that matter, either). The artistic temperament, housed in most musicians, writers, painters and the like, excels at emotional dumpster diving for those occasional jewels found at the bottom of a whole lot of shit. For some strange reason, it contributes to the creative process, for me at least. The smelly job of wading through my fly infested felch gives a certain twisted pleasure if the reward is a gleaming bit of writing or lyric or melody.

Even as I write these words I can’t help thinking to myself, is it any wonder type-As generally hate guys like me?! Growing up, I was that kinerdsd who was either so preoccupied with his own swirling world of imagination that I could just as easily walk into walls as find my desk or whose swashbuckling stories of whim and woe – many of them stolen – regaled whatever girl was most likely to buy into it. In fact, a gift with words (my parents and friends called it bullshit) from an early age made finding friends an easy task, especially girls. This was not because I was particularly good-looking but more so because I was a skilled navigator of whatever self-projections were the most captivating. One might say I was a bit like a buzzard who scavenged tidbits of social detritus suitable to any given moment but who prettied them up with the fineries of clever, droll turns of phrase.

There’s a problem with this however. It has meant that a pleasant, even-tempered melancholy, peppered liberally with witty banter instead of good, old-fashioned hard work and embracing failures, have propped up my life artificially. I’m smart enough to have talked my way out of being wise. And now, at nearly 50, I realize just how little I really know; how little I’ve truly lived. It would have been better to shut-up until I actually had something worthwhile to say!

Now, lest I begin wallowing in self-pity and regret, let me assure you that this demeanor, although prevalent, is not an entirely accurate picture of my modus operandi. I suppose the most apt metaphor I can find for my life is that of the Major Seventh chord.

The Major Seventh chord is non-definitive, unlike the Dominant Seventh chord that pushes its way around until it gets what it wants: resolution. The Dominant Seventh chord is the spoiled child that has never had a need go unmet. Ever. And we get to hear about it regularly and insistently. It needs ground zero to be happy and is pissed off when it must hang around for any length of time without that resolution. It’s like the guy standing at the urinal but forgetting to put stuff away before walking out of the restroom. It’s unsightly, largely unnecessary (unless you’re from Australia) and, well, kinda stupid.

In musical terms, the Major Seventh chord has a raised seventh degree of the scale. She has moved past the standard seventh to a higher plane of consciousness less impacted by the need to settle everything but still yearning after something else. It is still built on a good foundation of a root, followed by a strong and happy major third, and another minor third on top of that. All the building blocks are in place to produce something of strength and beauty. To add the seventh is to add something uncertain, even unstable. The number of notes begins to feel crowded like too many people on a bus after taco night at the pub. Something has to give.

The Dominant Seventh says, in essence, fuck you, this is my show and you bloody well better serve up my demands for a trip back to home plate. The Major Seventh chord has a higher sensibility about it. She never demands anything. She suggests something, something angst ridden and indefinable. Her top note signifies searching, longing. The seventh note of an eight-note diatonic scale is what musicians call a leading tone because it’s leading us back “home” wherever “home” happens to be. However, in her case, there is a kind of contentment with the in-between liminality of a bossy Dominant and a restful Tonic. A quaint story of dubious origin tells of Mozart’s father, Leopold who, in his final attempt to get Wolfie out of bed, went to the piano and played the first seven notes of a diatonic scale, leaving it unresolved. Within seconds, feet were heard flying down the stairs to play the final note. To a musician, it’s a sin akin to lighting the curtains on fire and then walking away.major 7 chord

Major Seventh chords practically defined the 1970s’ Adult Contemporary music scene. Artists such as Bread, America, Gordon Lightfoot and Don MacLean built entire careers on them. They’re perfect for songs about lover’s triangles with the loser singing. They reek of the melancholy I’m so in love with.

And that is my point. Those of us condemned to live in the spongy greyness of our own articisms can ill afford too fine a definition of who we are. We don’t want to be too pinned down, boxed up or, God forbid, understood. And yet, deep within, there remains a fervent longing for just that: to be known, heard, experienced. If I am to find my best self, I’ll have to settle for the delicate balance of sadness and hope enshrined in the Major Seventh chord. It is life in the rain, an honest addiction to melancholy.

Frankly, it has served me well.

Glimpses VII: the blessing of obscurity

I’m a musician. A fairly good one I suppose, if I believe my own press. I’ve had at least nominal success at performing, writing, recording, arranging…the gamut really. It feels good whenever someone notices my ability. Really good. I have learned how to revel in a good compliment without either sidestepping it to the embarrassment of the one offering it or, by contrast, basking in it to the chagrin of those who then have to live with me.

I am (or so I’m led to believe) an Enneagram FOUR. The Individualist. Fours, when describing ourselves, are compelled to do so with more articulation, wit, sophistication and joie de vivre than the last FOUR who just described herself. We have to make a splash, an entrance of swishing haberdashery, groove, and devil may care cool that at once attracts attention but with just a hint of nonchalance to avoid inauthenticity or scorn. That way, we get both the notice of the entrance and the respect in spite of it. I call it the spirituality of swagger. It is the spiritual equivalent of the hip, there-to-be-seen, Starbucks cultural attaché. And it is temptingly indispensable for we artsy types.

Professional music ministry has figured into my journey for a number of years now. And, despite frequent boatloads of stress, they have been a gift beyond all telling. They have not, however, been the shiny, mist-around-the-edges trip to bountiful I’d hoped they might be. Probably for the best since, to know the truth ahead of time would pretty much empty the ministry of other foolish mortals such as I.

Since I’m waxing personal here, I am forced to admit that, rooted deep in much of my early ministry, was ambition pure and simple; a lust for high profile face time (places everyone, jazz hands, show me some sizzle). Of course, I would choose other language to describe it (I’m humbled to use my gifts in praise to God, and yes, I’ll sign that CD). The paid ministry gig would often pose as a front for whatever ambitious projects I was hungrily involved in that might otherwise guarantee even greater notice. In retrospect, ministry, at times, laundered my budding recording-performing career. That’s not to say that I was some kind of narcissistic monster. I performed the tasks of my call to the best of my ability and with as much love to which I was then privy.

While I was busily involving myself in as many satisfying ‘yeses’ as I could, God was pulling back the covers from my spirit, hitherto hidden and insufficiently tended. I was exploring my talent for music, creating, writing and leading alongside of God, insistently laying bare the deep wounds of my soul, a process yet ongoing.

The last few years have been (not entirely unwanted) a descent into obscurity, deconstruction, geographical isolation, and, to quote Henri Nouwen, “downward mobility”…and a boat-load of healing.

This has meant many things; concessions of a sort to the broader context of God’s work on my interior life. For example, I love overcast skies, rain, damp, shiny streets on dark mornings when, jogging, I can see my breath and smell the biosphere.

We live in the desert.

I love to gig and have done so for decades. Yakima has a tiny, struggling Indie music scene barely within anyone’s peripheral vision. I love all things eclectica; the strange, the eccentric, the anything wannabes and the rigorous interplay of opposing cosmo-political entities. We dwell in a town with few international restaurants of note and a rather simple demographic of whites and Hispanics.

I love the jaunty tête-à-tête so readily available in more left-bank Bohemian locales. I live and move among honest, hard-working, conservative, salt-of-the-earth types who could care less about my recent forays into metaphysical ontology, apophatic theology or Dostoevsky (apparently, I’m a socialist, a moniker I only half-heartedly deny). They have served me and my family tirelessly, supporting me in spite of my innumerable eccentricities. That is better than all the fame one can own.

(A few precious friends)>

That which has postured as my life – panting, and out of breath – is slowly giving way to the more subtle, softly glowing embers of God’s gentle fire. I cannot in good conscience suggest that I no longer strive after validation or acclaim. Any shreds of real confidence, lasting relationships and consistency in my life have been attained through profound pain, multiple failures, (I add for emphasis: multiple) and forgottenness. These have been God’s preferred tools in adding leaven to the dough of my expanding soul.

Ambition and notoriety are deadly to the spiritual life. Exaltation is never to be our goal. Jesus promised it only through the more difficult way of humility, a path better defined by wood and nails than monitors and stage make-up. The restfulness and routine of life in obscurity I have embraced these days, gratefully. Nowadays, I’m plenty happy reading, writing or composing in my living room chair than I am anywhere more grandiose. For from here, I can hear…sacred whispers, most of which make no sense to me, but which shadow me everywhere and, rather strangely, guide me. I can honestly say that, this blessing of smallness has revealed the face of God and it is horrifying in its beauty.

Now, I must excuse myself. I need to check my blog stats…; –  ]

Glimpses, part II – the spirituality of place.

Where a person is can be as important to one’s spiritual development as what they believe. Long have spiritual masters proclaimed the benefits of sacred places. The Hebrew scriptures are replete with God’s directions to Israel to mark out territories prescribed by God that would both demonstrate God’s faithfulness and Israel’s special role in God’s redemptive economy. From the irrigated, verdant hills dotting the landscape around his hometown of Galilee, Jesus would spend countless hours with his Father. From such wilderness haunts he would find nurture, tenacity, strength, succor, and, frankly…answers.

So much of who we are and what we are becoming is directly attributable to the places that have graced us (rhyme subliminal but entirely intentional). In the comparative spiritual laissez faire of Constantine’s newly Christianized Rome, Abba Antony of Egypt started a mass exodus into the deserts of Egypt, those who would become known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers. The barrenness and desperation of the desert mimicked a similar cry deep within the hearts of these enigmatic souls. What is the obvious lesson? When there isn’t anything to titillate the senses, one might as well deal with the soul!

As a result of their foray into geographical nothingness, they became everything. They became the fullness that lies beneath the surface of what one misses when only seeing the desert sand.

The Celts, well known for their keen kinship with their environment, made much of this desire. Not unlike the Native populations of the US and Canada, not a feather of wing-ed bird, nor bark of tree, nor single trickle of rainwater escaped their notice. All carried within it some morsel of meaning for them.  Because everything received notice, nothing got wasted and this outer kinship found expression through inner resolve and great spiritual creativity.

My own holy places, the cairns of my wanderings, are generally old, rather solid, often drafty and poorly insulated, but full of the memory of stones that have long cried out to their Maker. Long have I had an historical and spiritual affinity for those stuffy, rarely air-conditioned chapels that never cease to draw me elsewhere…to the great Other. Let me share just a few.

St. Saviour’s Anglican Church sanctuary in Nelson, British Columbia where for a number of years I taught at a Highland Bagpiping School (a place where other strange souls like myself learn to tame a five-legged creature designed to rouse neighbors and destined to arouse suspicions). Connections in the community opened the door figuratively and, in this case, literally, to spend as much time as I wanted in the church sanctuary after everyone else had gone home. I was given a key and carte blanche run of the place.

Most evenings after a long day of bagpipe students, some whiny, some lazy, all of them noisy, I would retire to the sanctuary with my pipes. For an hour or so I would simply play, enjoying the epic reverberance of the sound bouncing off the hard stone walls, and finding no sonic respite from the hardwood floor. It was, for me, the closest I had yet been to what I might have then described as heaven. At times it was 2:00 am before finally getting back to my room.

The hospital chapel in the same city was another such place. I was falling apart after a recent break-up with a girl to whom I had been engaged. My shattered interior was gradually reintegrated in that little chapel where I would weep and pray for hours, listening to John Michael Talbot, or the Monks of the Weston Priory sing beautifully doleful refrains. It was for me, through gallons of heart-crushing tears, the perfect requiem to my stubbornly elusive peace of mind. It would become the Introit to a new place of healing and restoration, albeit gradually.

Tintern Abbey in Wales, the place I believe could be boasted by angels as heaven’s waiting room, the lobby to eternity. My first experience of this roofless wreck of holiness was following a six month sojourn as a missionary to youth in Edinburgh’s rough Pilton district with my new wife of a year. We were tired and needed time to traipse about the land of our ancestors (and her relatives) before returning to Canada, unsure of what awaited us there. The warm, lazy day infused with the angular light of Fall caressed the ancient stone walls easily visible from almost anywhere. The pointed gables of apse and nave bespoke a darker but simpler time. All we could do was sit and pray.

Less than two years later a picture of Tintern Abbey would help pull her through a terrible first pregnancy with our son, Calum. The same photo performed this function five years later as our second son, Graeme, reluctantly succumbed to womb-ed pressure and left his humble abode to make his premier. However, it is difficult to compete with William Wordsworth whose words best complete this picture:

While with an eye made quiet by the power

Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,

We see into the life of things…

And somewhat of a sad perplexity,

The picture of the mind revives again:

While here I stand, not only with the sense

Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts

That in this moment there is life and food

For future years. And so I dare to hope…(Wordsworth on Tintern, 1798)

Everyone can point to at least one place where something important, even seminal occurred and they sense something is different. There it is that our life has been forever changed, perhaps only incrementally, but transformed just the same.

I believe it is God’s way of playing spatial peek-a-boo.

Think deeply of a place or two that have been places of rest and reconstruction. Picture that place in your mind. Now let that picture juggle your heart.

As you do so, re-member the pieces of you that may have been broken or lost in that place. Quietly give thanks to the God who loves to find us where we’re least looking or at least looking the other way.

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.

 

Newcastle

Seven years ago today, I said goodbye to a good man. His name was James (Jim) Kenny. He was (is) my father-in-law. This song was a tribute I wrote and sang for him before he died. Why? Because I didn’t want to happen what happened with my own father where, even on his death bed, we really had nothing to say to each other. My loss. Not twice.

Newcastle

Words & Music by Robert A. Rife ©March 1/03

 

Somewhere, calling out into a dark, October sky

I think I can hear a grey gull cry – Newcastle.

 

Out there is a man who, if given half a chance,

Would no longer dance this dance – Newcastle.

 

Cold now, water dripping down upon the floor,

Can this be all there is in store? – Newcastle.

 

Some day in the matter of the twinkling of an eye

A dreamer will reach to kiss the sky – Newcastle.


And I kind of wonder what brighter vision holds for one

Whose spirit stretches far beyond these walls – Newcastle.

 

Newport and the year was 1964,

a 7 pound wonder at your door – Newcastle.

 

3 souls setting out for a far and distant land,

never look back with heart in hand – Newcastle.

 

Never, ever had it in your heart to say goodbye,

The faces at home, they wonder why – Newcastle.

 

And I kind of wonder what brighter vision holds for one

Whose spirit stretches far beyond these walls – Newcastle.

 

Sometimes ya gotta wonder why you’re giving up your best,

Smudge and toil for the rest – Newcastle.

 

Some men never imagine what it’s like to have it all,

To live and to die, to risk it all – Newcastle.

 

And I kind of wonder what brighter vision holds for one

Whose spirit stretches far beyond these walls,

And I kind of wonder what brighter vision holds for one

Whose spirit stretches far beyond these walls – Newcastle.

 

Newcastle…

 

 

 

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.