Saying farewell to a friend

This morning, we said farewell to a friend.

Jonathan (Tadhg) Gardiner

At 10:00am this morning, with aching throats, wet cheeks, and swollen eyes, we watched the livestream of his memorial service, held at Woking Crematorium in London. Tadhg, or “tiger without the er” as he would introduce himself, was laid to rest.

And, in those brief moments, our hearts shattered in pieces.

There are a handful of people for whom I could ascribe the following, “if I could be half the person…” Tadhg was one of those. Genuine, gentle-spirited, fun-loving, unassuming, unpretentious, kind-hearted, generous, and hospitable. There are many who are good to know. He was the one you needed to know, if only for a season. I can say honestly, and without embarrassment, that, to meet Tadhg was to meet Jesus. His life exuded grace and the easy friendship one might expect from the Friend of outcasts and sinners.

His Facebook page states his passion for walking alongside others in holy fellowship:

I am an Anamcara [gaelic for ‘soul friend’]. I consider myself to be a sociable guy, a latter-day celt, a professional and spiritual guy, who would dearly like to hear from you…I am also an independent (non-judgemental, inclusive) priest…and a ceremonialist.

We shared many similar passions including Celtic spirituality, Christian mysticism, theological conversation, a love for probing and formative liturgy, connections between Western and Eastern thought, and making sense of a world in love with itself. We wrote for each other’s blogs and spoke often (usually FB Messenger or email) about things that mattered to us. His perspective was rich, original, and refreshing. He was remarkably free of judgement or hatred of any kind toward anyone. Ever.

In the months before the summer of 2016 I was suffering from a profound emotional deprivation and spiritual ennui. My wife and I decided to take a sabbatical of sorts to the UK. The church for which I worked as Music and Worship Director kindly agreed to a five-week extended “Trip to Bountiful” as I called it.

We had the time but our budget was tight. Tadhg offered, eagerly and warmly, a stay at his tiny but comfortable flat in Fulham. Moreover, he’d be there to pick us up from the airport, having never actually met either of us in person!

2016. Rae, myself, and our gracious host, Tadhg

Without expectation or guilt he allowed us to use “Hotel Tadhg” as our base of operations while we coddiwompled our way throughout Britain. He dealt with our embarrassingly North American-sized entitlements, returning them all with his beaming smile and dry humour. That journey so changed our lives that we now live in Edinburgh as global servants with our denomination’s mission wing.

God used Tadhg as a big piece of that cosmic puzzle.

When we returned to Britain in 2019 as part of our first encounter with the team of whom we are now a part, where did we stay in London? At Tadhg’s place, of course. For him, there was no question. He had stocked his fridge with all the various food and drink items he knew we liked from the last time we were there. Tadhg was the walking definition of holy hospitality.

2019

In recent years, as Tadhg’s condition worsened, then stabilized, then ultimately took him from us, I felt a growing sense of panic. There were too many things left unsaid to my dear friend, too many conversations unopened, too many laughs unshared, so much more to learn from each other. To hear of his passing was to have one’s soul summarily torn from the body. A world full of ungrateful, spiteful, and unkind people and this is the one to be taken. God, I mean, really?

But, alas, such is the inexplicable nature of our existence. Tadhg, of all people, would chastise those like me who feel tempted to wallow in our pain. He would be the first to lift up our heads, and encourage us to look up to the running clouds, whose playful whimsy is ample reminder of God’s care over all created things.

Dear friend, I shall miss you. The world shall miss you, even if they don’t realize it. Perhaps you can put in a good word that God can help me to be more like you.

If only just a little.

Until my song comes here

Our Europe Team for Serve Globally, the mission organization we serve through our denomination (Evangelical Covenant Church), recently met for our annual retreat (two and a half year COVID delay notwithstanding) at Le Lazaret in Sète, France. For my wife and I, it was only our second such experience. Our first was in October, 2019 and acted as a kind of “reconnaissance mission” as we explored God’s call.

This beloved team is a collective of singular passion, unwavering commitment to justice and reconciliation, enviable humour, rich fellowship, boundless creativity, and endless capacity for joy. We would take a bullet for any one of them.

Our speaker and guide for the retreat was none other than Al Tizon, former Executive Minister for Serve Globally, missiologist, teacher, writer, prophet, and friend. His upcoming book, Christ Among the Classes, shaped our discussions.

By way of understatement, these were not easy conversations! We engaged in matters best left alone unless one wants to face the convicting issues of wealth, the Gospel to and among the poor, our complicity, knowing or unknowing, in perpetuating systems of greed and disenfranchisement and how all of that intersects with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Dr. Al Tizon

It can be equally stirring and unnerving to discuss one’s place in a world given to championing the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor, while not demonizing the rich. What does that even look like? Is such socio-economic righteousness even an attainable goal? When does it cross the line from kingdom equality to political radicalism? Is there a difference? If so, what?

The questions arising from such discussions are as dizzyingly complex as are the issues from which they derive. But, it is our calling as followers of Jesus, himself a friend of the poor, and sinners, and children. We, by association, are to befriend the outcast, emancipate the leper du jours; even love our enemies. This includes those we are most quick to either dismiss or demonize.

Al (he’s not one for the fineries of title!) painted a picture of the transformation of heart toward equanimity by way of downward mobility, an increasing identification with the poor. This starts first with an awakening to our own relative privilege and wealth. To be “born again” is to see anew, or perhaps for the very first time, our place in the broader world; our individual and collective sin and how it has affected us and those around us.

We journeyed through a series of steps along the way toward the ultimate goal of befriending and advocating for the poor. The rich are not of the devil. Nor are they to be eschewed, pooh-pooh’d, or railroaded out of access to grace. But, Jesus makes clear that they will have a much more difficult time when it comes to the attitude of mind and heart necessary to befriend those who, by definition, require something from them, whether that is as benign as their time or as challenging as their resources.

I like to keep things simple. I take my cue from Wendell Berry who recognized the need for every song we compose to be fully accessible to all. If not, we still have work to do…

Doors

“A picture is worth a thousand words,” once proclaimed advertising executive, Fred R. Barnard.

Like so many of you, I love picture. Metaphor. Symbol. Illustrations as it were of the lives we lead that, themselves, mirror the confluence of flesh and fire, body and spirit, life and eternity. Occasionally, I post something that is a tip of the hat to such metaphors.

Door is a favourite such metaphor. They are something we must open ourselves but which, at times, are opened for us. Often, I open doors just for me, but most doors are communal, allowing others to go through with me, before me, instead of me, or even in spite of me. Once open, we’re faced with a decision: stand and gaze, or walk through and take an existential risk of faith mixed with trust. Once through, we gain the elation of having taken that risk and our view opens to be exponentially more expansive than it was before.

Speaking about prayer, Jesus made a remarkable promise to his disciples, “Knock, and the door will be opened for you.” He also said, “I am the door. If anyone enters through me, he will be saved, and will come in and go out, and find pasture.”

Such a profound, but mysterious, invitation!

Whatever the circumstance, in Christ, all such doors lead inward to friendship with God and outward to the riches of a universe being restored, renewed in God’s image. All of it an act of grace.

Come, let’s dare to walk through together.

The art of words, eleven years on

On January 31st, 2011, I posted my very first piece on this blog. After much consideration I chose the name innerwoven because it seemed to capture what I believe to be true about all of us – we are beloved creatures kneaded into the dough of earth and eternity by God. An often-nasty business requiring much punching and bending and mucking about that constantly shapes our raw material into something warm and nourishing to be served up to a world starving for its goodness. And, although true spirituality is a two-way street – impulses and experiences, ideas and trouble, ecstasy and environments – moving in and out of us, the work of God is largely an inner one. God, at the very center of us, pushing His/Her way out like radiating circles of magma to the mouth of our volcano, ready to burst out upon the world.

This blog then was originally designed to be a catch-all spiritual notepad upon which I could scribble a few ideas about the nature of the soul, the shape of my emerging life, and in so doing, build a little community. Writing about all that required poetry which is what happens when words make love. They impregnate the page with something remarkably sweet and real. Robslitbits became the creative writing arm of the blog which I later portioned into a separate entity. At first, however, it was all right here.

To celebrate eleven years, I repost one of my earliest blog entries. This one was originally early February, 2011, but it still says the kind of thing I’d typically say. Thanks to all of you for taking this journey of spirituality and literature with me. You make life fun, interesting, and just…better!

* * * * * * 

Gerard Manley Hopkins. John Donne. Wm. Shakespeare. Christina Rosetti. Emily Dickinson. Paul Simon. Bono. Since I was a very young lad growing up in Calgary, Canada, I’ve had a love affair with language; specifically the art of words. Words spoken. Words written. Words read and re-read, like ingesting food for the eyes that gets digested in the heart.

In the holistic sense of the term, words are sensual. They are meant for more than simply corralling ideas or channelling information. They can and should be beautiful for their own sake. Carefully chosen and meted out in gradual succession like adding the correct ingredients in proper order to the perfect meal, words are part of the whole and greater than the sum of their parts. They massage meaning into our spiritual skin, perking up our inner ears to hear what our unseen lover whispers in our unguarded moments.

The Christian life is more poetry than prose; more a wild garden than suburban lawn. To that end I share this brief poem:

Photo by R. A. Rife, Edinburgh, Scotland

Christmas in Edinburgh

Looking out from the Christmas Festival on Prince’s Street

The air feels sharp. Like a paper cut on dry skin. The same air that is moderated by the sea is also saturated with it so that the wind denies however many layers one can throw at its defence.

It’s a good thing this city is so photogenic. She blushes with feigned humility at every turn, dipping her shirt to reveal her grey-stone breasts just enough to draw you to her. But, as you draw near, her manner reminds you that you’re a mere stone’s throw from the North Sea.

In early Winter.

As seen from our window, snow comes wistfully to Comely Bank.

Anyone who follows us on social media, or has been within camera or earshot of us in the past few weeks, is already aware that my wife and I live now in Edinburgh, Scotland. We haven’t stopped talking about it. You ever hang around new parents and they never quit talking about their newborn? Yeah, it’s kinda like that.

Everything is new. We have new UK phone numbers almost impossible to memorize (memorise). We are learning to write dates day/month/year. We’ve traded a five-number zip code for a postal code with two caps, a number, another number, and two more caps. We’re learning what it’s like to shop for days of food at a time rather than weeks. We’re learning the complexities of laundry in the UK, a process not unlike rebuilding a laptop.

Thanks to the relative compactness of Edinburgh streets, we’ve taken like pros to something we would never have done in North America, ride a bus. We walk everywhere else. Living in the relatively central district of Stockbridge I call this the “one-mile zone.” We can walk almost anywhere we need to be, including downtown (uptown as the locals call it).

The glaring lack of any formal Thanksgiving tradition here is regrettable in one way, given the many memorable observances we’ve enjoyed over the years with family, friends, and one unlucky turkey. But, it is also a wonderful thing not having to engage in the inevitable, often heated, debates about Christmas decorating starting “too early.” Despite its lack of liturgical credibility, “too early” for me would be mid-October, not American Thanksgiving which just happens to fall less than a month from Christmas.

Edinburgh loves her Christmas decorating. She does it well, with a voracious thoroughness that causes Mrs. Claus to blanche at the sight. Is it thoroughly secular? Yeah, pretty much. Is it beautiful and welcoming? Absolutely. Which, as you will recall from my earlier post on the Enneagram 4, is my love language.

Beauty is next to godliness.

Blue Christmas
The Walter Scott Memorial
Merry-go-Round
Big wheel keep on turnin’
Edinburgh has lighting down to an art.
More Edinburgh lights
The door’s the thing.

I’ve often questioned artists who claim their particular geography to have the “best light” when they live where there’s nothing but an abundance of it, washing out all colour and nuance. When light is involved, “most” does not equal “best.” My soul prefers its light at a premium; where it changes much, leaves me alone for long periods of time, and is therefore, precious.

Granton Harbour in morning light, shrewdly shrouded

For me, Edinburgh in winter is that place.

Pathways beckon
St. Bernard’s Well, Leith Parkway

A runner for many years, I confess that the best pathways for moving contemplation are these damp corridors of green-framed stone and shadow. It is something about subtleties where colours can pop because they’re not constantly blanched by direct sunlight. There’s an existential complexity to it utterly lacking in sun-drenched regions.

I have the opposite of seasonal affective disorder (S.A.D.) I’m depressed in constant sun. Nothing changes. It’s like trying to drink from a fire hydrant…all the time. It’s too much, too often, for no reason.

The breadth of human experience requires more than the cheap seats at a bad movie. It needs emotional distance, space to laugh and hurt and question and doubt and start all over again. The heart needs lament; needs thoughtfulness, discernment, the tepid wondering for which it is engineered. I agree with Pàdraig Ó Tuama’s review of Dunez Smith’s amazing poem, “I’m going back to Minnesota where sadness makes sense.” where he states, “not everyone needs to live in perpetual summer.”

Yes. That.

Gravestones at St. Cuthbert’s Kirk
St. Cuthbert’s

2021. This will be our first Christmas away from our boys. Either one or the other, or both, were always with us for the holidays. However, given the weight of God’s call upon us to love and serve Edinburgh, it seems not so high a price to pay, given the great returns we’ve already enjoyed from this incredible place. Besides, our laddies are squarely in God’s hands every bit as much as we, or anyone else.

So then, this year…it is Christmas in Edinburgh.

Light from Darkness – a prayer

I love this prayer by Church of Scotland minister, Sang Cha. Read it. Pray it. Read and pray it again – alone, or with others, this Advent season.

Rev Sang Cha, the minister at St Mungo’s Parish Church in Alloa, Scotland

Lord,
thank You for the darkness.
Thank You for letting us sit in the darkness.
For in the darkness, in the silence, we know that You are God.
For You have taught us through Your servants in ages past that a god who always answers is an idol.

In every darkness, You have brought the light of Your one Word.
Just a simple Word.
Your Word feels like sitting under the Sun.
Through this Word,
You remind us that our incomplete light shines brightest when we are lit from behind by the light of God.
That our light shines brightest when nothing but You can sustain it.

In these winter months, with the absence of light,
remind us again that absence creates a presence.
So, we thank You as poets thank the coming of spring.
Everything begins anew with You.
Always and again.
Amen.

Enneagram 4 – Perfecting Ennui

E4s: undisputed masters of stormy mystique (photo credit: Илья Пахомов)

Enneagram 4s.

The world is too beautiful.

The world is too ugly and needs the beauty we bring.

We are the world’s mystics, the existentialists. Poets, philosophers, artists, dreaming wayfarers, ever searching for some far and distant land that lies just beyond our grasp. And, if it’s beyond our grasp, it won’t even be on your radar, I promise.

Our worlds are those most real as ones which dwell in our overwrought imaginations; Paradise projected, longed-for, through-a-glass-darkly. These realms are as equally insistent as they are evasive. They foist themselves upon us when we’re not looking, and hide themselves when we are. They promise an almost constant angst-ridden ennui, what the ancients called “acedia.” We’re the noonday demons of the emotional world; skulking about in the shadows lest we burn out our retinas in a direct gaze upon that which only avails itself as peripheral.

That is why we’re always a little sad, distracted, disabused of whatever is directly in front of us. Obvious is so gauche. When bliss is just beyond the scope of our sensory perception, in shadows of liminality, why waste our precious energy on the muted confines of what everyone else merely sees, hears, feels, touches, smells?

It means that those of us living in this cosmic Purgatory are expert romantics, idealists, mystics, contemplatives, tortured artists; a slow, gothic parade of the perpetually misunderstood and underappreciated. We dish up depths of feeling, life, and experience in our spare time, that which is well beyond the quaintly over-considered crumbs the rest of the world ogles over. That world, chest puffed out in pride, gives us Beyoncé. “Top that, we dare you,” it taunts.

“Ah, how sweet,” we respond, and give them Hildegard von Bingen.

The world hacks up a Danielle Steele or a Nicholas Sparks, confident in their ability to impress with such stellar heavyweights.

We merely yawn and hand them our copies of Tolkien, Thomas Merton, and Flannery O’Connor.

There is rarely much overt satisfaction for the Enneagram 4 whose psycho-social psyches emit requirements which far outstrip the window-steam generally on offer, quickly faded and lost. After all, when one feeds upon manna served up on plates of raw energy, listening to the winds of heaven, carrying celestial songs of joy, through our golden, cherubic locks amid the host of heaven, everything else is just raw sewage by comparison.

4s – the hippy star-children of the Enneagram (photo credit: Anna Shvets)

We are monastics forced to abide a NASCAR life. We must forever shuffle about in a fog of self-satisfied smug. Our long noses are ski-jumps down which we gaze in thinly veiled cynicism and self-righteousness. We’re perfectionists swimming in a fetid stew of cosmic mediocrity. Everything we do is quite simply, better. We shouldn’t have to tell you this.

But, we will. Oh, we will. Often, and in as many ways as it takes you to finally understand our obvious supremacy. You may think you’ve finished with us and have moved on to some other shimmering bouncy bauble thingy which occupies your days.

Alas, no. Nobody says when they’re finished. That gift has been given by the gods to us. Us alone. We, in well-practiced passive-aggression, will give our royal nod when it is appropriate, and safe, for your dismissal. Then, and only then, may you slink away to your My Little Pony world.

As for me, you shall find me when I’m ready (and longing) to be found. Then, as I ugly-cry my way back into your good grace, you can hold me close, assuring me that we can start all over again tomorrow. Thanks for listening (yeah, like I care).

Wait, please don’t go…!

Pursuing beauty, ever-elusive, always-reflected (photo credit: Anna Rye)

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

___________________________________________________________________________________________________

* 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

Reemergence and the Risk of Community

I stand corrected.

With my first foray into central Saskatchewan I witnessed a part of the Province at once unexpected and lush. I now retract all those youthfully snide comments I made as a boy every time I came to Saskatchewan and proclaimed it the flattest, most featureless place I’d ever seen.

Prince Albert in particular, where I had gone to preach at a sister church, was surprising. Understated and pastoral, she offered herself to me in all her “boreal transition forest” splendour. A landscape not terribly unlike the north of England quietly strut her stuff and I was impressed.

Saskatchewan, I apologize. I was a kid; ignorant, wrong. You are gorgeous. As were the good folks of Gateway Covenant Church with whom I shared and among whom I lived for a couple days. What follows is the edited version of my sermon with some music from our service on Sunday, August 8th, 2021.

Don’t make the mistake I made when I was growing up and decide something is the sum total of one’s limited experience. Wait. It just might surprise you!

I continue to be amazed at the generosity of friends and total strangers alike as they sign on as partners for our upcoming ministry to the UK with Serve Globally of the Evangelical Covenant Church. See below how you can do so, too.

For our American friends.

For our Canadian friends.

Grace and peace to you all!