Building Our Poem

“…in thy voice I catch

The language of my former heart…”*

“The Bud,” 1987

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.

Rosebud Opera House, 1987
Rosebud Opera House, 2021

Our digs
The diminutive Akokiniskway

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.

My daily Rosebud prayer walk, Canadian style.

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.

Table minstrels

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.

My daily outdoor show

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.

Rife crazies – Rae, Graeme (25), Calum (30), Me

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.

Same people, almost 30 years later.
2016, Peterborough Cathedral, England

A poem

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

of songs still sung to handmade candles.

They shine to our hopes, ablaze with just

a hint of what could be.

There is a certain moment, beholden to itself,

in which ghosts and gazes meet to discuss

their future. Still, birthed

from the ashes of forgottenness

an ember yet lurks, small but waiting, patient –

alert to any movement or sounds of humming.

Catch it if it sings.

©R. A. Rife, 2016

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* Quoted from his famous work, Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798 by Wm. Wordsworth

I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes to the Hills…

Art by @kemiroart

A favourite Psalm of mine proclaims the following, “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.” The simple act of looking to the hills does not, of itself, bring promise. It is an act of desperation, the longing for salvation wrought of shared hopeful faith. In the end, our help doesn’t come from looking to the hills, but from the hand of God whose hills they are.

President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. and Vice President Kamala Harris will have their work cut out for them. We are in times of unprecedented division, delusion, decrepitude, and chaos. But, in all the good and hopeful things coming out of the Inauguration yesterday, none was so moving than this from young poet laureate, Amanda Gorman.

Normally I post poetry on my LitBits site. I felt it required a spiritual center stage. Enjoy, and enter in with all who seek a better future; all who look to the hills and cry for help.

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The Hill We Climb by Amanda Gorman

When day comes, we ask ourselves,

Where can we find light in this never-ending shade?

The loss we carry,

a sea we must wade

We braved the belly of the beast.

We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace

And the norms and notions

of what just is

Isn’t always just-ice.

And yet the dawn is ours

before we knew it

Somehow we do it

Somehow we weathered and witnessed

a nation that isn’t broken

but simply unfinished

We the successors of a country and a time

where a skinny black girl

descended from slaves and raised by a single mother

can dream of becoming President

only to find herself reciting for one.

And yes we are far from polished,

far from pristine

But that doesn’t mean that we are

striving to form a union that is perfect.

We are striving to forge our union with purpose

To compose a country committed to all cultures, colours, characters and

conditions of man.

And so we lift our gaze not to what stands between us

but what stands before us

We close the divide because we know to put our future first

We must first put our differences aside

We lay down our arms

So we can reach out our arms

to one another.

We seek harm to none and harmony for all.

Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:

That even as we grieved, we grew

That even as we hurt, we hoped

That even as we tired, we tried.

That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious.

Not because we will never again know defeat

But because we will never again sow division.

Scripture tells us to envision

That everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree

And no one shall make them afraid.

If we’re to live up to our own time

Then victory won’t lie in the blade

But in all the bridges we’ve made

That is the promise to glade

The hill we climb

If only we dare.

Because being American is more than a pride we inherit

It’s the past we step into

And how we repair it.

We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation

Rather than share it

Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.

And this effort very nearly succeeded.

But while democracy can be periodically delayed,

it can never be permanently defeated.

In this truth,

in this faith we trust

For while we have our eyes on the future,

history has its eyes on us.

This is the era of just redemption.

We feared at its inception

We did not feel prepared to be the heirs

of such a terrifying hour

but within it we found the power

to author a new chapter.

To offer hope and laughter to ourselves.

So while once we asked,

how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe?

Now we assert

how could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?

We will not march back to what was

but move to what shall be.

A country that is bruised but whole,

benevolent but bold,

fierce and free.

We will not be turned around

or interrupted by intimidation

because we know our inaction and inertia

will be the inheritance of the next generation.

Our blunders become their burdens.

But one thing is certain;

if we merge mercy with might,

and might with right,

then love becomes our legacy

and change our children’s birthright.

So let us leave behind a country

better than the one we were left with.

Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest,

we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.

We will rise from the gold-limbed hills of the west,

We will rise from the windswept northeast

where our forefathers first realized revolution.

We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the midwestern states,

we will rise from the sunbaked south.

We will rebuild, reconcile and recover

and every known nook of our nation and

every corner called our country,

our people diverse and beautiful will emerge

battered and beautiful.

When day comes we step out of the shade,

aflame and unafraid,

The new dawn blooms as we free it.

For there is always light,

if only we’re brave enough to see it.

If only we’re brave enough to be it.

A Prayer On the Edges of Things

Global pandemic. Tribalism. Brutality. Racism. Denial. Fear. If ever there were a better time to cry out a collective cry for help, it would be now. Here’s just a small beginning.

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A Prayer on the Edges of Things

O God of our breathing, Lord over our chaos,

here is the moment of our surrender.

Not to the polarizing shouts of tribe or camp,

but to the voice of he who bids us come and rest.

 

We refuse to succumb to the sharp, hacking cough of despair.

Instead, we acquiesce to the lifting breeze of faith.

 

We refuse the gnawing insistence of our own frailties.

Instead, we acknowledge that in our weakness we find our strength.

 

We refuse the crowing gasps of those unfit to lead, unwilling to listen.

Instead, we submit to your higher calling of courage and empathy.

 

We refuse the darkening hatreds now brewing in our hearts.

Instead, we cry out in darkness for the light, found in love.

 

We refuse the wedges introduced to drive apart life from truth.

Instead, we seek the nails, once in flesh, now in the coffin of our sins.

 

We refuse the temptation to teach through haughty insistence.

Instead, we reach out to embrace the unconvinced others.

 

We refuse the over-simplified reasons to dismiss the other.

Instead, we earn their trust through our death on their cross.

 

We refuse to diminish life, relationship, truth, and community to a meme.

Instead, we reach beyond such dismissals and, in so doing, find each other.

 

We refuse the notion of our own anticipated demise, “the new normal.”

Instead, we embrace a better today toward redefining a still better “normal.”

 

We invite your calming presence into the midst of our haze and craze.

And we cast aside any remaining doubts of your strength and our belovedness.

 

We welcome the respite of your soothing voice, your cooling wind.

And we sit, still and quiet, awaiting your words of comfort.

 

We harbour any and all who look to us for shelter and repose.

And, in so doing, recognize our complete inability to do so without your help.

 

We delight each day in the laugh of children, the smiles of our elders,

And, we’re moved thereby to respond to the silenced cries of the poor and oppressed.

 

We hasten to press into God’s kingdom vision of lions and lambs, songs and sighs.

And the eschaton, yet to come, compels us toward generosity and sacrificial love.

 

To thee, O God, we bring this prayer on the edges of things.

When the borders of our broad world seem stifling and small,

we reach our hands toward (S)he who lives well beyond those borders.

And, in these days of uncertainty, fear, chaos, and cosmic randomness,

we acquiesce to the vision of God whose crucified arms are strong enough

to embrace the whole world.

 

Teach us to do the same. Amen.

Let Us Once Upon a Time

The most foundational lessons common to us all come by means of story.

reading-77167.jpgStory and poetry and song and art and humour.

It seems almost counter-intuitive really, given the magnitude of the stuff we’re supposed to understand, the high stakes of living together in some form of harmony. I mean, who thought it a good idea to convince wayward souls of the need to love their neighbours as ourselves with those tricky parables? Why tell children nursery rhymes? Why not wait until they can read and just give them the case notes? More efficient I would imagine. As is the expectation of our logic-bound culture, shouldn’t these things be done in a classroom somewhere with textbook-tomes the size of small cars? Surely the importance of such a message should require all of us to ace a mid-term somewhere?

Looking out over the immensity of human history, replete with bardic tales of joy and woe, love and war, pillage and propriety, the answer would seem to be a resounding, NO.

Instead, they painted pictures on cave walls. They built cathedrals of stone, marble, and gold. They painted canvases with colours too rich to mention. They wove seeking and curiosity into epic stories of sea journeys, fleeing oppressors, screwing other men’s wives, cutting strong men’s hair, or building floating shit-filled boats to avoid worldwide floods. They composed titanic symphonies with notes crashing like waves against each another, all of it tumbling together to cry out in singular voice – here we are!

Even the most agrarian of cultures, trapped as they were in the often bone-crushing cycles of poverty and loss, were inspired enough to tell their tales in ink, chalk, acrylic, wood and stone. Indeed, every culture that has ever existed has in some way spoken of its ebb and flow, triumphs and tragedies in these ways. From Ethiopia to Egypt, Peru to Palestine, Canaan to China, Ireland to Iceland. Gilgamesh, Homer, Chaucer, wilderness-wandering Israel – it’s always about journey framed in epic story.

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Gua Tewet (Tree of Life), Borneo, Indonesia

Most of the Hebrew Scriptures, or the Christian Old Testament, is one great narrative. Stuff from no stuff (creation). Nation from nothing (Israel). A 40-year long desert hike (Israel’s wilderness wanderings). War, pillage, rape, judgement, restoration, repeat (the rest of it). Far and away the best-loved book of the Bible, is a collection of poetry and songs, both happy and sad (The Psalms).

Jesus is as well known for telling good stories as he is for his grudging  participation in the theological stew we’ve renamed ‘faith.’ We attribute to him not just a cross and a resurrection, but turning water to wine at some dude’s wedding reception. Creating feast from frantic in the loaves and fishes. A weird story about the wrong guy doing all the right stuff in the good Samaritan. Farmers sowing seeds in places both good and not so good, and fig-trees, and virgins, and tax collectors, and gardens, lilies, landowners, religious teachers, and the list goes on. 

With his questionable choice of teaching methods, it’s arguable whether he’d find a position as a substitute teacher in the rough part of town, let alone Saviour of the world. But, there it is. 

If the Bible tells us anything at all it is this – learn to love stories. Learn to love telling them, hearing them, remembering them, finding ourselves in them, retelling them. The sense of childlike wonder, the anticipation of what comes next, the page-turning expectation is so much better, so much more formative, than cracking open a textbook better used to sit on while hearing a story.

Something about arresting our senses in the beauty of which we’re capable points to Something/Someone beyond our under-the-sun existence. Only hushed awe and the reverence of a good story well told is sufficient to hold the sacredness of our lives.

We have one life. We have limited time.

Together then, let us once upon a time.

 

I Want to Run in God’s Country

A hotel bathroom mirror struggles to squeeze in both of us – primping, priming, prepping. The struggle ensues to strike the balance between post-modern cool and age appropriateness (whatever the hell that means). Final touches, a stupid-slow elevator, and an underground tram ride find us deep in the heart of Washington State’s coolest city. Her oceanside tongue beckons us deeper down her salty throat.

In a quirky irony, a street preacher screeches through a megaphone, “REPENT AND BE SAVED FROM THE COMING WRATH.” Frankly, he seems mad enough for all of us. He shouts himself hoarse, pointing us to some tiny, angry “god” – while we wait to hear from a different God – In the name of love.

We are perched high above a stage that renders everything on it no bigger than our thumbs. From this height, everything seems atomic. Only the stadium is large. There is a palpable expectancy in the aether. Other grey hairs like me mix with kids much younger than our own – a testament to artistic legacy.

The stage is dark except for a few peripheral lights. What seems like hours for an event we’ve waited a lifetime to experience dispels in smoke as a tiny figure makes an appearance. He walks slowly, deliberately and sits at his drum kit. The crowd numbering in the gazillions boils over the brim in collective excitement. A kick drum and snare shots with military precision thunder in the dark. It is one of the most recognizable riffs of a generation. Sunday, Bloody Sunday. I weep in gratitude…

This day is ours, it is our Sunday, blessed Sunday.

May 14, 2017.

The wife of my youth.

Twenty-nine years married.

Seattle.

U2. 

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With Rae Kenny, my fellow lover for 29 years and fellow U2 fan

It is a small handful of events or experiences that earn the well-used primer: “I remember where I was when…” I remember where I was when the Berlin Wall became a gate, the Soviet Union became just a bad dream, when the U.S. dumped “shock and awe” on Iraq. When twin towers of glass and steel crumpled like paper on 9/11.

And I remember the first time I heard the mythic cries of Bono. Raw and pleading. He preached heaven and justice to the world’s hell and woe.

I would never be the same.

Every person can point to at least one thing, one person, book, place, experience that has so deeply touched them they’d not be the same person were it not for that thing. To describe, we use words like impactful, influential, unforgettable, foundational, formative. We say, “I am the person I am today, because of….” Our hearts brim at every remembrance. Conversations always veer in that direction. We return to it again and again rebooting it in our emotional hard-drives.

As a musician and writer, my influences bleed, albeit imperceptibly, onto every page or song I write. Words get strained through my inspirations: Gerard Manley Hopkins, John O’Donohue, Mary Oliver, Thomas Merton, Kathleen Norris – even as I sing in the shadows of Bruce Cockburn, The Chieftains, Dan Fogelberg, Stan Rogers, Paul Simon, and – you guessed it – U2.

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Centurylink Field, Seattle – The Joshua Tree Tour, 2017

Their musical impact is undeniable. Masters of melody, nuance, and the prophetic power of poetic art done well, I am pried open, exposed. Their un-theology is more impassioned activism than easy-to-swallow hallmark messages wrapped in bumper-sticker Christianity. I am the hungry canvas, they my nourishing paint.

Precious few cultural icons are so readily accessible as U2. But they represent much more than memorable music. Their message is not for the faint of heart. It yearns for the alternate reality of what is possible in a red letter arena; the dangerous stage of self-sacrificial love. They are wick to a candle burning brightly in praise of peace and justice, one that cannot blow out. They are cornerstone of a movement that pictures a world better than the one into which we were born.

This is not just the message of a generation played on guitars. This is a message for all time; ever new, always fresh, never-ending – Good News as it was always intended. My throat, tightened from tears, hoarse from singing anthems to peace, will only find rest when I find what I’m looking for. With my life partner beside me, the girl whose heart-strings are also touched by these same forces, I am closer than ever before.

Until then, I want to run in the name of love, in God’s country, where the streets have no name.

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“One” meme courtesy of my wife.

Maidin Paidir – Domhnaigh

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Morning Prayer – Sunday

 

With tear-drenched voices,

lungs outstretched to sing,

our guts emboldened, well-fed

on flesh, broken –

and tongues to taste blood from a cup,

let our tiny reverie resound

in the vast echo of your heart,

beating like yours.