Don’t leave the day behind.
Instead, let its bones dry in the warmth of your daylight memories,
held tight to the breast of God.
I love when my wife brings the Prayers of the People in our liturgy. They are prayers that live in that uncomfortable space between pastoral nurture and prophetic nudging. This was her prayer from our service this morning, Sunday, December 29, 2019.
* * * *
The first time I stepped into a Covenant Church in December 2003, I was struck by how it felt both evangelical and liturgical, like a Baptist Oreo cookie with a Lutheran Center. Afterwards, a man explained that one of the denominational distinctives is the reality of freedom in Christ. Essentially, what that means is that, on many issues we can agree to disagree agreeably. Our new Brazilian friend, Fabio, on the Serve Globally Europe team, calls the Covenant, ‘the Dog with the least fleas.’
This morning, instead of the Lord’s prayer, we’ll close with lyrics written by U2. Bono, the lead singer grew up in Dublin in the Catholic south of Ireland the product of a scandalous marriage during the height of IRA terrorism. His father, Catholic. His mother Protestant.
From our side of the pond, we can see the fighting has little do with Christianity, and everything to do with religious tribalism. Because he’s seen the human cost of not seeking peace, his background uniquely shaped him to write songs about it.
“One” was written at a time when the band were fighting over their direction. The core lyric, ‘we’re one, but we’re not the same, we get to carry each other, carry each other.’ It makes Bono an ideal Covenanter!
Will you join me in prayer?
Carry each other – a prayer
Our beloved Father in heaven,
We’re closer than ever before in history to people all over the world, and yet there are growing divisions and the rise of tribalism where once there was peace. Help your church in the world to answer conflicts and divisions with love and justice. Send workers where needed to bring physical and spiritual healing, and help Christians who live in places with surplus to provide for those who go without. May the smallest pinprick of light we bring swallow much darkness (thanks to my hubby for that line!).
It seems each time it’s my turn to pray, our nation is more divided than the previous time. Across our nation, churches and communities, Lord, we thank you for those who serve graciously and honestly. We pray that where leaders fail to do their tasks well, or uphold the oaths they take, may they be replaced.
Whether we identify as conservative, moderate or liberal, let us each conserve the rule of law, be moderate in our judgement of others and wise of those who seek to use the church for their own political ends. Let us be liberal in our love toward each other, especially those who aren’t part of our tribe.
Lord, in this time of division, let us hold onto hope and not be hijacked by our fears. Let us be wary of those who tell us who is out to get us and who we should blame. Let us remember those who seek to froth up our grievances with a paycheque attached to promoting those views. Help us to remember that conflict sells.
Lord, let us remember our nation is built upon the separation of church and state and that history shows us again and again when the church gets too close to power it is weakened. Therefore, help us to be cautious of Christian leaders who have become intoxicated by the proximity to power.
And we pray for those in our own church across the nation who once attended but have lost their way. Many see the church being committed partisans, blaming others, instead of committed Christians. May we show them, Lord, that our allegiance lies to Christ above all else, and that despite our differences, in you we are one. We are not the same. We get to carry each other, carry each other.
Brits are known for many things. Damn the torpedoes orthodontics. A right saucy sense of humour. Screw-you driving habits. Heavy, beige food. Winsomeness. Fierce loyalty. They’re at their best however as purveyors of tasty wordplay. Oh, to have the presence of mind to adjure someone with the following Shakespearean finery: “thine face is not worth sunburning” from Henry V. Or, perhaps, “Methink’st thou art a general offence and every man should beat thee” from All’s Well That Ends Well.
Given God’s calling on our lives it seems the title word is particularly appropriate. To coddiwomple is to “travel purposefully toward an as-yet-unknown destination.” A coddiwomple is a cute, polite way of expressing the often anxiety-inducing path of faith outside of all peripheral comforts, a kind of Abraham out of Ur thing (read Genesis 12 which recounts Abram and Sarai’s exodus out of wealthy, middle East suburban life). It captures well our overall venture of pursuing life and ministry in the UK. Specifically however it offers a rather fun snapshot of our recent fact-finding mission.
This journey took us first to France for the Serve Globally Euro Retreat and then to Britain for countless meetings and conversations. We landed in Paris where we were met by Francisco, the quintessential French man (although Portuguese by birth). He and his Minnesota-born wife, Stephanie, would become our soul-friends in minutes and were our hosts, guides, and interpreters throughout our brief time in France.
Francisco would use these skills well a couple days after our arrival while trying to help me file a report for my missing computer bag (an embarrassing story for another time).
The Ramoses live mere blocks from the iconic Eiffel Tower, her long, bedazzled neck stiffly projecting into the French sky. This took a back seat to an even more pressing fun fact: they lived across the street from a chocolate bakery, “Chocolate Boulanger.” Our son’s insistence to the sonic similarity to chocolate lingerie makes the mind boggle. Let’s take a moment to catch our breath and move on______________.
There were two primary reasons for this trip. First, it was an exploration of possible ministry partners for me. Before I can begin the formal process of fundraising, I need to secure a partner who will effectively invite me to join them in ministry. This is crucial given the fact that our denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, (well, and most foreign countries), don’t simply welcome self-proclaimed evangelists helicoptered in to cultural environments, not unlike the U.S., already drenched in religious chicanery, charlatans, and cross-talk!
Secondly, Rae hopes to secure a job in her field of expertise, digital mapping. She’s good at what she does but, in weaker moments, squints her eyes at her chances given our place in the mid-fifties club. Thankfully, heaven cares less for these things than potential employers!
Although at times a bit scattershot, the journey was purposeful in every way. We believe it was highly successful in establishing much-needed relationships – just the right conversations with just the right people at just the right times. Some of the best of those conversations began at a 150 year-old retreat centre in Sète, at the bottom of France. As in, the Mediterranean.
I muscled through…somehow.
There is the lovely Serve Globally Europe team, all of them doing incredible work in a post-Christian Europe among artists, the poor, refugees, and/or victims of sex-slavery and violence; in spiritual formation, leadership training, and much more. They are as dedicated a group of servants as we’ve yet seen. The place these folks have in our hearts is now forever secure. It will be an honour to be counted among them.
There is Kayla, a vibrant young woman from Manitoba sporting a Julia Roberts smile. She serves in London with G.E.M. (Greater Europe Mission) establishing bakeries as a means of moving women out of the sex trade and into meaningful employment. The week before our visit, Meghan Markle, wife of Prince Harry, officially opened their most recent location.
There is the talented Elizabeth, an ordained Covenant pastor living in Edinburgh but working in Stirling where she teaches music to under-served children and youth. She brings discipline, hope, self-esteem, and structure to those with precious little of either and does so through music. While in Edinburgh we had lunch with retired pastor Andy Scarcliffe with whom we worked back in 1989. His wit, wisdom, presence, and insights helped immeasurably toward focussing our thoughts and efforts.
Among the more “serious” conversations were numerous others directed at family members and friends, all of whom shared their own fascination with the adventure. We coddiwomple on as we share these stories with friends, family, interested onlookers and, of course, all of you!
* * *
The best stories, like good wine or tea, steep over time. Bits get added or embellished. Other bits become the conquest of interlopers wanting in or rolling their eyes at the bad jokes; insiders peddling their forbidden commentary over too much Guinness and too little honesty. Most bits are known by heart and fiercely guarded for veracity and tone.
Predictably, stories are a shared phenomenon. They’re a personal and communal catalogue, timeless performance art, and living anthropology all rolled into one. They recount as they redeem, review as they reconcile, astound as they amuse. A well told tale is both invitation into the domain of another and initiation ritual into the shared experiences that challenge and change us all.
The power of narrative, especially when it is one’s own, is the constancy of its message and the insistence of its formative qualities. We tell our stories to be moved and changed by them. Ironically, we are often blind to that very change in the midst of our own journeys. We’re tempted to gaze into the rearview mirror of our lives a bit askance given our propensity for self-doubt, or worse.
Don’t believe me? Go back and read old journals. You’ll be struck immediately by how much and how little you’ve changed!
Friends and family, as dangerous as their proximity can be to our sense of autonomy and safety, are still best poised to see what we cannot about ourselves. The friends and family to whom I owe much of our recent and ongoing coddiwomple will understand what I mean!
Our story is changing. Evolving perhaps. But, a new page is turning, one thirty years in the making. It is in many ways the crest of a wave of long-held yearnings, discernings, considerations, conversations, tears, laughs, and a whole ton of writing.
If I’ve prattled on endlessly about anything (and prattling is how I roll) it has been about home and belonging, coupled with the spirituality of longing. The hiraeth of disaffection that keep those two separated from so many for so long has been where we have lived much of the past thirty years.
What happens when these actually begin to merge, however? There are key scenes in our unfolding drama wherein what we long for most meets the object of that longing and the possibility of ‘home’ emerges. Although this tale is one that will require more space to tell than I can allot here, it begins its forward life in this telling.
In these Advent days, just after Thanksgiving, I am reminded of how grateful we are to be included among such good and gratuitous souls. We’ve been loved and supported by many folks for many years. Our story continues to unfold. That story involves all of you. More of the story is still to be written. But, I promise to keep you informed along the way of God’s penmanship of it.
Come, fellow sojourners, let us coddiwomple together.
It might seem predictable, a little banal even, to prattle on about those things for which we’re most grateful on a Hallmark holiday. Be that as it may, the spiritual fruit of joy and humility find their taproot in the spiritual discipline of gratitude.
Therefore, along with so many others, I add my voice of thanks for all things bright and beautiful, great and small – the Lord God made them all (thank you, Cecil Alexander). The Lord God has indeed made them all and designed us favourably so as to create in kind and be grateful in so doing.
If there is a time given for gratitude, take it, no matter how manufactured or marketed. Perhaps in our giving thanks we can be open to hear about how we came to have what we have at others’ expense. Perhaps in our gratitude may be birthed genuine honesty, compassion, and sense of justice for those who live in squalour, darkness, fear, and despair who help create our Norman Rockwell illusions.
More than anything else, true thankfulness of necessity aims itself at true justice. They walk the same road. They must. If they do not, what we’re experiencing is not gratitude, but gloating; not thanksgiving, but a dull acquiescence to the prevailing culture of excess, entitlement, and acquisition. If our intake of good things doesn’t lead to intentionality to provide the same for others, we’re missing the point.
Let us strive to enter into sacred gratitude this year, a deeply rooted praise to God whose heart ever pounds most for those who have least. Only then does Thanksgiving become more than a national holiday, feast to St. More, ghost of Granny Gluttony – prelude to the biggest parade in honour of covetousness: Black Friday.
Instead, may it become something transformative, awakening us, through gratitude, to the plight of others more than happy to lick the leftover gravy from our china plates.
“Lord of all good things, in all things we give you thanks. But, in our gratitude, open our eyes and hearts to our neighbours, forced to live with less because we have demanded more. We offer ourselves as vessels of love and justice by means of the very gratitude we feel. Let our gratitude lead to giving. Amen.”
Dear friends, we find ourselves in the midst of a most effervescent time in our journey. It is a white-knuckle, white-water experience of unstoppable force to which we can only close our eyes and hang on. And it’s wonderful. It’s a tale I’ve been longing to tell.
Just not yet.
I’ve only just recently replaced a lost computer, the one upon which I presently type. Therefore, dear reader, I pray patience as I hoist the riggings on this puppy sufficient to the task of bringing you more of…A Coddiwomplers’ Tale.
Until then, peace and laughter, dear souls!
We’ve been addressing a particular trajectory to our lives.
Longing/Desire Awakening/Awareness Union/Formation
We’re going to backwards engineer the gospel. We’re going to do this in a couple ways. We’ll read a few key scriptures, lean into some key concepts and hopefully come out with a more suitable language for gospel enterprise than has typically been presented.
Something a little yummier.
Genesis 3:1-13: Original Sin Is Secondary Fixation
So, what is “original sin?”
Why do you think the serpent went first to the woman? I had a short-lived career in sales. My training was clear. Always aim for the decision-maker, the alpha in any group. The serpent needed to break the hard one first. Destroy the tougher of the two.
It well knew that Adam would cave like a frightened little boy (which, of course, he did). When approached, Eve perfectly parrots what God had just told them. She remembered word for word God’s explicit instructions.
Women listen. They remember. Best of all, they fight well when cornered. She puts up a good struggle against the serpent’s clever quips and subtleties. She dodges and weaves with a sense of duty and obligation. Responsibility.
But, alas, in the end she succumbs.
But she fought well first! Adam, dumb shit-head that he was, says not a word when she hands him the fruit. Drooling and hungry, he says not a word. He just eats. One can hear the serpent thinking to itself, “hmm, no challenge there.”
Sin entered the world when lesser longings became enshrined as fully satisfactory to the human experience. We would forever experience a distance between what we long for, struggle for, and our actual experience. It’s really more about idolatry than pride. When anything less than simple communion with God is the object of our affections, we will remain disaffected, distant, sick, unhappy.
There’s much unhelpful language floating about with regard to the process of our becoming. I want to address some of that.
In this process, there are some bible words that we need to reclaim from the smelly hallways of fundamentalism, in order to make them once again winsome and helpful. And, just before we do that, let me ask your thoughts on something. What is original sin? Choosing as the object of your affection and adoration anything less than God. It’s really more about idolatry.
I want to get at this by means of a picture. I call it the concentric circles of longing:
Sin. There are numerous terms in the scriptures that speak of those thoughts, intentions, or actions which separate us from God and our truest selves. Can we name a few of them? (Hint: there are 33!).
Sin. Trespass. Offence. Iniquity. Transgression. Wrong-doing.
I want to address the most common one: sin. In Greek, it is: Αμαρτία (Hamartia).
It occurs 174 times in the New Testament! It is an archery term. It means essentially to “miss the mark.” This is actually a positive term in many ways. It is less dismissive of our humanity than we’ve made it to be. In fact, it suggests that in our longing for union, we often shoot awry. The arrows of our longing are misspent on wrong or insufficient targets.
But at least we’re aiming at something! God comes to improve our aim by shooting the arrows for us!
Temptation. The Greek for temptation is, πειρασμός (peirasmós). It means “to prove” or “test,” or “try.” It has both negative and positive usage throughout the scriptures. To be tempted is to be presented with options that fulfill desire. Choosing those options determines the course and quality of life thereafter.
Salvation. The word salvation comes from the Latin salvare, “to save.” The Greek equivalent is “soteria.” Salvation doesn’t always have to do with theology. Salvation is the act of saving from sin or evil, or even just from an unpleasant or harmful situation. It is a much broader term in Greek than we often think of in English. Inherent in soteria are a restoration to a state of safety, soundness, health and well-being as well as preservation from danger or destruction. It carries with it the ideas of deliverance, rescue, redemption.
We’ve made a term aimed at our wholeness into a transactional matter between an angry, tribal god and the sinners he can’t wait to destroy. Sadly, the gospel has become as simple as, “You’re horrible. Jesus isn’t. Believe that and get to go somewhere nice forever. Don’t, and you’re doomed. Forever.” That’s how much we’ve diminished the term. It’s latin root, salve, aims more at healing than anything. It pictures the broader healing ministry of Jesus whose touch brings healing, physically and otherwise.
Holiness. In Hebrew, qedesh. A word that biblically speaking is a concept of beauty has become anathema because of being coopted by those who, one, are anything but and two, have wed the term to certain unbiblical litmus tests: social conservatism or progressivism, nationalism, talking point politics, and political position and power, good manners, etc. It’s the exact issue Jesus faced in the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes. It has once again become a stultifying term with little to recommend it.
I admit that, for many of these reasons, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the word for many years. It so reeks of theological condescension and smugness that there’s little life left in it.
I had the opportunity to work alongside Dallas Willard a few years ago. He was fond of saying that holiness is the idea that we’ve become so Christlike in our thoughts and behaviours that God can trust us to be good. In fact, he said that true biblical holiness, wherein our total person was being brought under the loving captivity of Christ, made us responsible / response-able to act in ways that shine the light of Christ into the lives of others.
Now THAT’S an idea I can live with! Augustine said that the sum total of our lives is to love God and do whatever we want. Holiness, where our longings are being recaptured, redirected, and reoriented toward God. Holiness equals freedom.
Heaven. Does anyone know the Greek word for ‘heaven?’ It’s παράδεισος (paradeisos), or paradise. We’ve taken this term meant to convey the abode of God; the incorporeal, incommunicable, ineffable nature of God into one of mere geography. We live now on earth. We’re gonna live then either in heaven or hell. It’s an extremely limited, linear way of seeing God. It places God on a simple timeline and in a certain place.
Do you wanna know what “paradise” actually means? It’s originally a Persian word used for an orchard or park, and it means with/alongside God, or the gods!
Heaven is less a “place” than it is a “mode of being.” It is not a “where” as much as it is a “how.” We become eternal inasmuch as we hang out with one who is eternal: God. That God lives both in and outside of the time/space continuum. God is not tethered as we are to our geography and our clocks.
Taken together, these four terms form a rather alluring invitation to look into our deepest longing and let the Spirit address it in meaningful, life-changing ways! Sin becomes the failure of even our best efforts to find union outside of God’s intervention on our behalf. As we learn to humbly acquiesce to God in that endeavour, we find rescue: salvation. In turn, that leads us gradually forward to a place in which we more readily aim at what is best, and find it in God’s name, to the end that we live increasingly as God does: eternally. We live as God does, in paradise. In union with God and everyone else.
16 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
17 ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
This is a hinge of scripture. It is the fulcrum in the balance of eternity. Much of western Christianity, which is squarely built on shame/guilt motif, spends all its time trying to escape our sinfulness into our sainthood. The resurrection has become the central doctrine and everything serves it. Increasingly, I believe the Incarnation to be the lynch pin.
We long for union with God, but not before God longed for the same. Ours is predicated on God’s. We wouldn’t know desire unless it wasn’t first birthed in the heart of the God whose desire for us risked the destruction of God’s only son.
We must see our desire for love, for community, for wholeness against the backdrop of the God whose longing heart makes such longings possible and gives them context.
Our deepest longings are met in God’s longing for us. It’s that simple.
There’s one more word that makes me cringe a little. It’s a word we love in our culture: obedience. In our own spiritual development, many of us get stuck right here. In fact, much of American Christianity is solidly stuck in the very elementary language of ownership, authority, rulership, and the expectations of obedience.
Friends, obedience, as important and biblical as it is, is almost the lowest form of relationship we can have with anybody, let alone God! When two people have formed an indissoluble bond of love and trust, when would it ever be appropriate to use the language of obedience? Instead, we would use the language of sacrificial self-giving, of loving acquiescence, of complete surrender, of mutuality and reciprocity. There is no quid pro quo. There is no ledger of benefits or liabilities of disobedience. There is only love and respect and the longing to protect that longing in the other.
Obedience is easy next to longing. One can grit one’s teeth and obey. But, to face one’s deepest fears and desires, uncertain of how God will come to us, is costly. It is risky and requires energy and vulnerability, faith, hope.
Longing – Awakening – Union. It is the basis for all true spirituality, whatever its religious underpinnings. In each of these three posts from our CFDM retreat, I’ve included a typically glorious poem by John O’Donohue, Irish mystic. One of the lines says this: “May the one you long for long for you.”
In our Christian journey, this is a statement for which there need never be uncertainty. For God so longed for the world, that he gave…
May we learn to do the same.
My first installment involving Poulsbo-ing introduced the trajectory seen and experienced in all true spirituality: Longing – Awakening – Union and back again. There, I remarked on what I believe to be my existential preparedness to speak on the topic of longing. Not because I’m the most learned guy on the subject. I can’t readily quote all the heavy weights. Largely because I can speak from my own experience of how longing and its fulfillment (or not) has helped me find some good tools for navigating its heavy currents.
Having read many books on this particular topic, I have to say that my personal favourite is the pivotal work by Catholic theologian, Ronald Rolheiser, entitled The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality. At the beginning of chapter one he implants the following poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:
“The Holy Longing”
Tell a wise person, or else keep silent,
Because the massman will mock it right away.
I praise what is truly alive,
what longs to be burned to death.
In the calm water of the love-nights,
where you were begotten, where you have begotten,
a strange feeling comes over you
when you see the silent candle burning.
Now you are no longer caught
in the obsession with darkness,
and a desire for higher love-making
sweeps you upward.
Distance does not make you falter,
now, arriving in magic, flying,
and finally, insane for the light,
you are the butterfly and you are gone.
And so long as you haven’t experienced
this: to die and so to grow,
you are only a troubled guest
on the dark earth.
Rolheiser makes the astounding claim that everyone has a spirituality of some kind. It is either constructive or destructive. But, we have one all the same. And, long before we do anything explicitly religious at all, we have to do something about the fire that burns within us.
What we do with that fire, how we channel it, is our spirituality.
What shapes, motivates, and inspires our actions is our spirituality. And what shapes our actions is basically what shapes our desire. Spirituality concerns what we do with desire, how we channel our eros, our animus; our innermost being. Anytime we begin to wake up to the fire that burns in us, we come in contact with that which holds the key to our (dis)content. We begin to awaken to something in us beyond our understanding and control.
What we do with that discontent is our spirituality.
Rolheiser calls desire our fundamental dis-ease. Danish philosopher, Soren Kirkegaard once defined a saint as someone who can “will the one thing.” Have you heard that before? Such a beautiful, succinct definition. Rolheiser goes on to compare the spiritualities of Mother Teresa and Janis Joplin. One managed to capture and focus her eros into a place of integration: the one thing. The other never did. She fell apart, dissipated, and her eros ended up killing her at age 27.
Most of us fall somewhere in between: Princess Diana. Both erotic and spiritual mixed together in a constant battle between the two.
All things speak to our desire. Some more than others. I’ve often wondered why I’m more readily drawn to movies, books, or stand-up comedy than I am to a bible study or lecture? I wonder if it has anything to do with our topic?
The latter typically (and rather sadly I should add) appeals to our heads, our duty. The former tends to speak more quickly and directly to our passions, our desire; to our life. I believe Eldredge, in his book, The Journey of Desire: Searching for the Life We’ve Always Dreamed of reminds us that “Hollywood has mastered the art of speaking to the human predicament.”
In fact, I think movies and art in general speak gospel much more forcefully and accurately to us than those self-proclaimed prophets of the good news, many of whom are basically just peddling one more idea in a saturated marketplace of ideas. Just more information, rather than inspiration leading to transformation.
Longing is costly. It is risky and requires energy and vulnerability, faith, hope. Sometimes we can fool ourselves and others that we live in contentment. More often, it is the mute resignation in the face of muted desire. Our hopes have been dashed so often, that we’ve given up hope but called it contentment.
Either way, our invitation is to awaken to the fire that burns within us. It is a fire burning in hope of union with God and all others. It is the root of all genuine spirituality.
An exercise in awakening: A Visio Divina of The Return of the Prodigal Son.
Longing – Awakening – Union: the story of the Prodigal Son is a gorgeous microcosm of this process. A young man, impetuous, head-strong, very like many of us were when we were younger (or not!), seeks to satisfy his desires in less than helpful ways. In short order he begins to struggle and finds himself in dire straits. What is it that convinces him to return? Not repentance! That happens later.
Few stories are as emblematic of misappropriation of the heart’s desires as this one. It is found in the fifteenth chapter of Luke’s gospel. A veritable cavalcade of longings, the immediate, abused, misunderstood, and immature desires of a younger son; the unrequited, unspoken, hidden, forgotten, ignored desires of an older son; and the aching, bewildered, vulnerable, yearning desires of a doting father. This story has it all.
It is a tale of awakening. Awakening to the many levels of longing to which the heart is privy. The entanglements of those levels, and the deepest longing of all, aroused in different ways in different people – for union with God and others.
As many have before, gaze deeply, slowly, prayerfully into it.
What do the characters tell us about themselves?
How does spiritual longing reveal itself in each one?
Where are you in relation to the father?
Do you feel yourself moving in a particular direction? Toward or away from a particular character in the drama?
What stands in the way of your becoming the father?
“Holy One, our Abba, in all our comings and goings, be alone, our deepest longing.”
What follows in this series of posts are in fact my notes from a retreat I recently co-led for a delightful bunch of kindred spirits.
I suppose I should have had a more to-the-point title. But, I would have had to produce something innocuous like “CFDM 2019 Retreat Notes.”
Failing that, I could have gone with my basic premise: Longing – Awakening – Union.
Instead, I decided to aim at something less high school journal or quarterback mystics club. A collection of family cabins cuddling an inlet in Poulsbo, Washington was where we did our holy business together. We spent an enriching few days Poulsbo-ing, and loved it!
They are alumni of Christian Formation and Direction Ministries Northwest. A more fun and authentic bunch would be hard to find. They’re about as representative of the kaleidoscope of spiritual seekers as any group can be. All of them thirsty for waters of abundance, hungry for food both spiritual and otherwise, and ready to party.
Bible study “disciples” always take themselves far too seriously. Mystics are better at belly laughs any day. Anyhoo, here’s part one.
All of us are in the process of learning how to pursue the spiritual life; how to discover, nurture, sustain, and propagate a Christian spirituality that is life-giving for us and, hopefully, for others. We’re on the significant journey of learning about our own souls, how they relate to God and to one another, for the distinct purpose of guiding others into those same discoveries.
Of the many ways to articulate this, one might be: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” It is a high calling indeed! Let’s look a bit at this thing we call our “spirituality”.
The entire spiritual enterprise can be summed up in this way:
Longing (Desire) Awakening (Awareness) Union (Formation)
Webster’s dictionary defines desire in the following way.
As a verb, it is to long or hope for something, to exhibit or feel such longing. For example, to desire an immediate answer. It conveys the potential for one to feel the loss of the same as in “she was sad that men no longer desired her.” As a noun, it reveals something longed for, hoped for; or a conscious impulse toward something that promises enjoyment or satisfaction in its attainment. Or, the opposite, ridding oneself of desire in pursuit of some other goal.
Everything we’re about in the process of personal/spiritual evolution and growth hinges on these three things. And, as followers of Father Richard Rohr, or indeed the entire Christian mystical tradition, one would see this formula at work absolutely everywhere in every corner of Christian spirituality. And, not just Christian spirituality, but in most major religions as well. Some iteration of this formula is always at work. We shall discuss this a little more in session two.
It is why mysticism, not theology, will ultimately unite us and bring healing to the world.
The theme of the retreat is formally, desire. However, as an overly melodramatic Enneagram 4, let’s go with the more evocative term, longing.
I have numerous reasons why this is a happy venture for me to pursue. In a sense, I feel uniquely “qualified” to speak on this particular topic. Certainly not because I have any kind of book learnin’ thereto, although I’ve read dozens on the subject. More because of my particular construction as an individual.
I’m the oldest of three adopted siblings. I have known that powerful longing for one’s first and truest validation of a birth mother who gave me up. It has affected everything I am and do to this very moment. I have struggled to deal with what the psychologists call “the primal wound.” That is, in utero rejection (although she would never say this and I’m happy with how things turned out!), and the process of learning to find the embrace of one’s own mother, and “the breast” elsewhere.
Trust me, I have known longing.
I’m a Scots-Canadian living in the United States. As I’ve discovered over the years, my ancestors were almost entirely English and Scottish, with some deep roots in Canada as well. But, as an adopted child, I grew up never really understanding any of those profundities to which one normally ascribes a sense of belonging. The most elusive concept for me has always been that of “home.”
Trust me, I have known longing.
A thorough going pluviophile, I’ve always yearned for rain. I grew up in Calgary, where rain comes just a few times a year, usually in the form of hail. And, for thirteen years we’ve lived in semi-arrid Yakima.
Trust me, I have known longing.
I longed for the sea but grew up in the foothills of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains. Any time we have lived close to the sea, Vancouver, B.C. or McMinnville, Oregon, we’ve been happy as clams (since we’d be closer to their experience).
Trust me, I have known longing.
I ached for all things ancient. I grew up in a very wealthy oil town in a constant state of construction to build all things new; glass and steel monstrosities in place of wood and stone, which much better house our collective memory.
Trust me, I have known longing.
I’m a mystic at heart in a world where such silliness is hardly tolerated. Alberta cowboy culture has precious little appreciation for anything that doesn’t git ‘r done or earn a buck, quickly. “Just get to the frickin’ point, will ya!” I got tired of hearing it when I was more interested in the way to the point more than whatever point they thought needed making.
Trust me, I have known longing.
As a progressive, it’s been a challenge trying to live my Christian story in the good, but oftentimes, stultifying waters of evangelicalism. The mechanistic framework of it didn’t lend itself well to the contemplative endeavour. Nor did it ever have enough room to ask “unacceptable” questions for “unvetted” reasons. I consider myself a moderately progressive contemplative, post-evangelical of Celtic persuasion.
Trust me, I have known longing.
I’m a curious, armchair intellectual who loves rigorous conversation around difficult and challenging topics. I’m an expert in no topic whatsoever. But they all fascinate me. I grew up with family, friends and associates who felt alienated by it. It made for a lonely upbringing.
Trust me, I have known longing.
I’m a recovering alcoholic. That’s a story in itself as you can imagine. But, if there’s one thing alcoholics know well, it’s desire. Crooked, misplaced, askew, but desire, nonetheless. We learn how to coax it, feed it, protect it, and lie about it. And, if anyone knows anything about alcoholics: we’re the best liars in the business. We experience deep longing but understand it least. Why? Because we’ve effectively hid from it rather than turning to face its immensity.
Trust me, I have known longing.
I’m an ENFP and an Enneagram 4. Need I say more? The world likes to say they love the untamable spirit and unquenchable fire of E4s, but when it comes down to it, they prefer to keep us at arm’s length where we can entertain, be the cool, slightly aloof, friends at parties, or make things more interesting or beautiful. But, just don’t hang around too long, or you’ll bum us all out. By default or design, an E4 is the most complicated person in any room. We have a tendency to make a cottage industry of melancholy. We love to pedal brooding and morbidity. When a person of a different number shares their pain, we inwardly think it quaint or trite by comparison. We’re generally miles ahead of them in that department. Trust me, I have known longing.
As a young boy, I was a shy, escapist lad who lived amidst vast collections of all kinds of things but, primarily, his imagination. On a few occasions, I would have these existential “moments” that would only last a short time. In them, I would get a sense that all was right and good in the world. All childhood anxiety would leave, and I’d be left with a vision or picture of the world as God sees it. I’d be mesmerized…
I share a lot of poetry and writing in these things. It helps keep my thoughts moving in a single direction. I pray you’ll forgive these indulgences. Here may be found an example of one of these contemplative moments as a young boy.
As I’ve grown older and learned of my Celtic heritage, I came to see these moments as descriptive of “thin places” along the journey. How many of you have heard that term before? The Celts believed there were places, both physical and otherwise, where the divine was especially close to us and that we could move in and out of our present realities into something indefinable, effusive. I like to picture it as someone standing behind a thin, white sheet hanging on a clothesline. God’s hand and mine are touching through the thinnest of fabric separating us.
Can you point to a moment or moments in your own life in which you simply knew God’s proximity and presence? When God was decidedly real for you?
What comes to mind for you when we say the words, “desire,” or “longing?”
What images does it conjure?
What feelings does it evoke, either good or bad?
What are the things for which you most long? That you desire most?
I’m fifty-six today.
On one level it matters little. I mean, with that many candles on a cake, it really puts the ‘numb’ back in numbers. On another level however, I’m glad to be officially closer to sixty now than fifty. I’m glad to be any number at all, really.
I recall turning fifty and the mind-f*** that was. It seemed to come like an unexpected twister on unsuspecting prairie. Boom! Half a century. Five decades. Just like that, using “mid-life” was no longer a usable phrase, at least with any honesty. That is unless I expect to outlive everyone else born in 1963. And, trust me, that’s not an attractive option in my case.
I’ve called the fifties the f**k it decade. By the time one gets here, one has at least a modicum of self-respect, something resembling a “life”, a sexy partner with whom to share said life and best of all, I still have bowel control even if I don’t have the same over my mouth. Hmm, the jokes are endless…
To turn over another birthday leaf on one’s tree of life should make for a decent enough quilt. And, given the potential for disaster in anyone’s life, getting the opportunity to turn over anything at all is a bonus, I figure. With this many leaves Adam and Eve could have knit themselves forest floor leisure suits, stylin’ it up at Chez Eden.
Numbers. We make a big deal of them, don’t we? We affix expectations, mostly unspoken, to each decade. When younger, every age comes with its presets. Its presentations and problems. First successful toilet ventures (this returns in later life I’m told). First pubes. First love. First kiss. First _____ (this disappears in later life I’m told). First heart-break. First job. First child. First mortgage (not as fun as it sounds). First promotion. First AARP mail (again, not as fun as it sounds).
We squint our eyes and raise our unibrow at the forty-year-old man still living in his mother’s basement. The forty year old woman still unmarried – or worse – without children (the nerve!). The twenty-year-old still grazing among the high school sheep, basking in their glory days glow.
We even make movies of such things. The Forty-Year-Old Virgin pokes fun at he who has yet to fun poke. Thankfully, the film had at least some range and didn’t descend into the reductio ad absurdum that a man’s worth is based on his first non-solo orgasm. (Says the the man now in his thirty-second year with the other half of the same).
North American society is no different than any other when it comes to the numbers game. Ours is just more cryptic about what we consider “normal human behaviour” at a given age. We’ve lost many tribal rites of passage like native vision quests, or African communal wedding night celebrations (thank God!). Instead of bar mitzvah, we prefer bar hopping. Instead of sweat lodges, we prefer frat houses. Instead of tribal dancing, we prefer table dancing.
But, it’s all good I suppose. The intention is there even if the best means are not.
So, I wonder what rites of passage are left for a guy solidly in late middle age? Is it my job now to prepare those for others? If so, wouldn’t that be another rite of passage for me as for another? Because rites of passage are tribal in nature, designed to bring youth ever deeper into a protective sheath of community, how would that even work for those like me?
This much I know. I couldn’t care less about the numbers, well, unless writing about it on the worldwide web counts for as much. Nevertheless, I awoke this morning to draw breath for another day. My twenty-thousand, four hundred and fortieth as luck and providence would have it. I awake to a beautiful Welsh girl every morning, have the joy of fathering two amazing young men, a satisfying career, a home, great friends, a growing faith into which I can settle and rummage for warmth, and the standard promises of my white, male priviledge (I’m a work in progress here).
Numbers. They’re fabrications really. And yet, they’re not. They offer some sense of significance in a world bent on removing it. Fifty-six may not be a fancy-pants age like forty, or eighteen, or one hundred. It’s a little faceless on the surface. But it’s not without charm and promise.
I’ve been granted another year. One. More. Year. I’m no Mother Teresa (I don’t have the balls she did). I’m no Martin Luther King, Jr. (too pale). I’m no Vasco de Gama (I get lost on my way to the bathroom).
I’m Robert Alan Rife. Human. Husband. Lover. Father. Friend. Disciple. Human…wait, I said that.
Best of all, I am happy. Numbers? Bring ’em. I’m ready.