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.

 

“Trip to Bountiful” – part 4

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Hay, Monmouthshire – the view I’ve been waiting for

I have, for the first time, truly experienced the devastating wonder that is Wales. It is as though God made Britain first and then, everything else from spare parts (not that I can speak from context, or experience, or knowledge of any kind really). From the broad-shouldered Brecon Beacons, to the literary orgasm that is Hay-on-Wye, the city of bookshops.

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A bookshop. A café. In Hay-on-Wye. What’s not to love?

From the Cistercian monastery ruins at Tintern Abbey to equally haunting and beautiful Llanthony Priory. From the seaside riches of Harlech and Llanbedr to the rough ‘n tumble Dolgellau.
From a fifteenth century teahouse in Ty Hwnt I’r Bont near Llanwrst to Snowdonia National Park in Beddgelert, Wales is a place of countless treasures. 

I’ve been here before, but not this close to the bone. I’ve learned what it means not just to drive a car but navigate it like a big ship through a tiny canal. I’ve heard horror stories of those possessing significantly superior driving skills to myself pissing themselves from stress on the very Welsh “highways” I’ve just driven. Now, to be fair, I changed before writing this and how would you know anyway?

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Beudy Bach, our perfect stay in Llanbedr, near Harlech

In addition, to drive a car in a place so utterly complex is to forego any certainty of directions, ETAs, the logical movement of traffic, expectation of driver largesse, and frequency of toilets. Throughout the UK, the puritan American spirit must learn to contend with the lack of excretory euphemisms.

 

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Llanthony Priory

 

A tiny thumbnail of a country it boasts as long a history as anywhere in Europe. Today, we said goodbye to Wales, and find ourselves in another enchanting part of Britain – Ambleside, in the Lake District. We stop here to catch our breath, drink a ton of coffee and write.

In the days that follow, our travels will take us east and north to Dunbar and Edinburgh. The deep connection I have to Scotland will require a host of other blog posts. Hence, for now, with Wales in our rearview mirror, I think poetry is the only song that will work. I hope you enjoy, and thanks for joining us on this ride.

Down in the throat of Wales

In the throat of Wales,

where light is sparse, then it is best.

This land of green trousers with grey hat,

hair coiffed in bluebells, tulips,

and yellow daffodils.

She is held in frames of arbour, where bristle-faced hills

are bred for poetry – Coleridge, Thomas, Wordsworth.

Down in the throat of Wales.

 

In the throat of Wales,

we pass the standing stones, God’s elder brothers,

and their eyes follow us.

Rain falls like sweat from the coal miner’s brow

while praying hands of hedgerow herald peace on every side.

A bleating sheep choir beckons eyes up to the watching hills.

Down in the throat of Wales.

 

In the throat of Wales,

down, down the Brecon Beacons beckon, swallowed down

where the green things live – down in the throat of Wales.

At the Blue Boar Pub, regulars and weekend

intellectuals hold out town secrets.

Practiced tongues wag in dark corners, breathing out suds

and gossip and recycled stories with fresh laughter.

Down in the throat of Wales.

 

In the throat of Wales,

at Hay-on-Wye – these streets are full of pages,

ten thousand dog-eared voices

tucked away on shelves and tables,

under arms and coat pockets.

American streetlights bow to clock towers, cheery pubs,

and weary stones. Long-drawn lines of primogeniture sing

the songs everyone still knows. And, the many-throated

happy-hour jubilee of a thousand years gone by

still steeps in the glow of candles,

wine-bright eyes, and cell phones.

Down in the throat of Wales.

 

In the throat of Wales,

the hills stand guard, where stone and memory bleed

the colours of the ancestors,

drawing their long and bloody shadows over Beddgelert.

The River Colwyn, host to muddy boots and hooves and paws –

I pause to imprint her banks of sleep.

Down in the throat of Wales.

 

In the throat of Wales,

Harlech’s stiff-shouldered castle juts out a jarring face

into Cardigan Bay, catching salt kisses

blown from the cold, grey sea.

Oh, where to wander in this wild and brooding land,

where friend is stranger – stranger, friend –

and all that ever wrung true hangs tightly

to the soft skeleton of a land made

from the stoutest stone, the strongest sheep, the swollen stories

of hearts that glow brighter than the smiles of children?

Down in the throat of Wales.

 

In the throat of Wales,

I place my ear next to her breast

to hear the consonantal tongue

make love to songs as old and wise as she –

where still, of all sad souls,

the blind man is poorest.

 

Down in the throat of Wales.

 

The changing face of prayer

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.

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Me, roughly a millenia ago

 

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. 

Rob-singing on Okanagan Lake
Taken on Okanagan Lake, Kelowna, B.C., 1999

 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.