The Difference a Year Makes

This time last year, my wife and I were photo-whoring and shaking fairy dust out of our heads. We had just returned from a head-spinning trip to the UK, and readjusting to life squeezed uncomfortably into North American shoes. That, and relearning to drive. Five weeks in the UK had given us sore, flat feet from miles of trudging London’s pavement skeleton. It meant over-worked iPhones bulging with pictures, heads full of Skye and oddly named places like Tu-Hwnt-I’r Bont, Llanthony, and Beddgelert, many pages of writing, and the faces of loved ones.

Double decker copy.jpg
Red, double-decker buses. How totally London.
Trafalgar Square copy.jpg
In Trafalgar Square
St. James Park copy.jpg
St. James Park
Skye 57 copy.jpg
Into the mystic…Skye
Cuillin Hills 2 copy.jpg
The Cuillin Hills, Skye
Outside Tu hwnt y'r bont copy.jpg
Outside Ty hwnt yr bont
Llanthony Priory 3 copy.jpg
Llanthony Priory
Bedgellert 4 copy.jpg
Beddgelert

Our hearts pulsated wildly, aglow in fresh memories. 

One is surely blessed to be found by adventures of this kind even once in a lifetime. This was our fourth trip, but arguably our best. Like the others, this hop across the pond had under it a built-in rationale to guide it. For Rae, it was largely book research – this bridge, that pub, this street corner, that tube station. For me, I was in search of something. I like to think it was maturity, but one can only expect so much in five weeks.

I had some vague notion that a trip of this kind was what I needed for my ongoing pursuit of an even more vague notion – home. No small feat for anyone, let alone one as prone as I to internal homelessness. My extensive writing on the subject had produced a better understanding, but few certainties. Frankly, it just whetted my appetite to learn more. Besides, it’s a high-sounding reason to spend thousands of dollars traipsing around Britain. Rather noble, don’t you think?

For now, at least, such interior matters can wait for another time. A much more ominous discovery needs some attention. With that primer, I’ll just put it out there.

After fourteen years of sobriety, Britain and I sat down for a drink, or ten.

Well before our trip, a wispy, but persistent voice, had begun planting a series of tempting ideas in my head:

“Rife, you’re not an alcoholic, you simply lack self-control.”

“It’s been fourteen years, that was then. This is now.”

“Dude, relax, you’re on holiday. Splurge a little.”

I’m generally a good guy (unless people tell me that just to get me off their lawn). But, annoyingly, a complex maze of dark veins courses through the ore of my otherwise rich life. I smile, knowing full well something isn’t quite right.

To be in Britain is to be awash in street-lit, woody pubs, full of friendly chatter, darts, and tumblers of frothy beer otherwise known as pints. Scotland boasts famous distilleries on every bank and brae, in which is made the amber dew that bears her name. It is woven into the very cultural DNA of the places I love most.

Community copy.jpg
So much community happens here

It proved too much of a temptation. And I dove back in, head first, into a world that knew me well and had, apparently, been watching and waiting for my return.

Duke on the Green pub copy.jpg
Could you say no? I didn’t think so.

It was simple enough at first. A gift shop on Lindisfarne sold various types of mulled wine, or mead. They handed out samples of the stuff like cocktail weenies at Costco. I would not discover until later how sharp its teeth would be as it slunk like a sweaty pole-dancer down my lusty throat. “See how I love you?” it said. “See how you’ve missed this?” it said. “See how you’ve grown?” it goaded, like the serpent from the tree.

 

Lindisfarne Luscious
Lindisfarne Mead

For an alcoholic, to say yes to the booze gods, is to remove one’s clothing of pride, oil up the pole of self-respect, climb on, and plummet to the bottom of the pit known as despair. Most insidious of all is that we won’t see any of it this way.

“No, it’s all good”, we tell ourselves.

“I’ve got this,” we say.

“I’m not ‘one of those’ drinkers,” we boast.

“I just need to be discerning and exercise self-control,” we convince ourselves.

And, the whole time, our pants are at our ankles and a noose tightly around our necks. Even as we speak the words, we choke them out, while losing all remaining respectability.

The days following our return were met with rapidly deteriorating self-control. Almost like magic, beer left the fridge faster than I could replenish it. I bought bottles of wine in twos and threes for ‘us’ to enjoy. How thoughtful of me. I began drinking before, during, and after routine tasks convinced that it was merely heightening my pleasure, or calming my nerves, or congratulating me on a work day finished.

I began losing any sense of appropriateness, propriety, reason, even common sense. I had jumped into a vat of snakes and looked up, smiling, as they coiled around me.

* * *

Now, after much heartache, a shit load of counselling, a brief sojourn with friends, a lot of books, and a good support network, I am sober once more. And, in that sobriety, I gaze back into the past year and ache at the smouldering wreckage I’ve left behind. A wake of carnage, stupidity, and shame lays in heaps, along with my self-respect. And I begin again the arduous journey back to sanity; back to the reality of life without the crutches of inebriation and forgetfulness.

Despite my fallacious foray into the forest of dumb-fuckery, the shimmer of this journey has stayed with us, even if our feet feel a bit more planted on familiar, and yet somehow foreign, soil. Home is where the heart is say the poets. Home is where the mortgage is say the realists.

Home is your heart say the mystics. 

And that home for me must be a sober one. It is deceptively easy looking up at the sky for answers when the ground is quicksand. My attention has harpooned itself too quickly in less than helpful directions. What I think my heart wants is rarely what it needs. And, I guess, my heart has been my quest all along.

This receding shoreline of self-awareness can be wearisome at best, downright haunting at times. But, while we’re busy gawking at life through the viewfinder, the truly panoramic views are found in the small, easy to miss things. In the dull, routine things. The faces of friends. The laughter at one’s own shitty jokes. How watering roses in my garden can’t keep up with the raw heat of a Yakima summer. Or, just staying sober because you love all of it.

Now, I’m challenged to add my wilderness wandering to my expanding story and pray that it helps buttress my inner fortress. That it makes me wiser, a better man, a truer friend, a more attentive lover, a more insightful guide to others in similar peril. All this and more makes for the skeleton of a life. We get to place the meat on the bones with every smile given, every embrace, every mistake or triumph, every tear released to its rightful owners.

It’s all of a piece. And, some of the time, all of a peace.

Rob, newly sober 2.jpg
Rob, newly sober

Falling in Love with the Sea

The Open Sea
The immensity…

French writer and poet, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, said: ““If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and assign them tasks…rather, teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” 

Anna is on her death bed. She has battled Alzheimer’s disease for almost 10 years. She hasn’t recognized her family for quite some time and this reality has left her terrified, confused. She is often angry. She believes a host of people are trying to trick her. Every unknown day arises again the next with all the same complexity and uncertainty. As her caregiver assists her in preparing for sleep, she hears Anna sing just outside her door: “then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee, how great thou art, how great thou art…”

She has forgotten every sermon she ever heard.

Every bible verse she ever memorized.

Every note she ever took in every bible study.

Every family member’s name.

But she remembers all the verses, word for word, of this great hymn. Why?

A young man in his late twenties battles with a choice. In his circle of friends, he has made the acquaintance of several lovely young women. He dates regularly. These women are delightful, intelligent, captivating. He looks forward to a time when home and family give him better reason to traipse to and from a busy downtown office day after day. A better life picture.

Erin is a Princeton post-doc student. Her dirty blond hair, cheerful demeanour, razor-sharp mind, and engaging repartée have been his regular experience of her. He’s reminded regularly by family and friends just how perfect she is for him. All the “pieces” fit together in a game too big to lose.

Brynne is girl-next-door pretty. Slightly chunky, but still shapely, and full of energy with a quick wit and uproarious sense of humour. Although not as book smart, she is equally intelligent. She is loud, often abrasive but never mean-spirited. She is funny, usually in embarrassingly public ways; opinionated, inadvertently pitting people against one another. She is clumsy and goofy and forgetful and messy and dangerous to his professional reputation.

And he can’t stop thinking about her.

What is happening here? All the facts line up in such a way as to present Erin as the obvious choice for a long-term relationship. Everything “fits.” She fills well the checklist on any relationship course he’s ever taken. Against his better judgment and flying in the face of the facts, Brynne rises to his mind continually. Something about her haunts him, chases him, wants him.

In our current church culture, we usually pose as the primary question of Christian discipleship “what do you believe?” And, pursuant to that question is the presupposition that you need all the facts before you can make an informed decision. I’d like to suggest however that an even more fundamental question is “what do you want?”

James K. A. Smith in his book “You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit” suggests that we are what we want. “Our wants and longings and desires are at the core of our identity, the wellspring from which our actions and behavior flow. Our wants reverberate from our heart, the epicenter of the human person…”

What we often generate in our churches is a fill-in-the-blanks doctrinal checklist that amounts to a legal transaction. It is more Descartian: “I think, therefore I am,” than biblical.

Our young man in question will of course do well to know his own heart to navigate whatever his future relationships hold. But in his inexplicable desire for Brynne over Erin, despite appearances to the contrary, we find a key to how God seeks to relate to us.

“Discipleship [then] is more a matter of hungering and thirsting than of knowing and believing.” Even the demons believe and shudder. Knowing facts is easy. Retooling the human heart and its longings is not. But, it is our truest path. That is my call: to work in the Spirit’s process of forming a kingdom people by means of the gathered community in worship.

St. Augustine is quoted as saying, “Love God and do whatever you please: for the soul trained in love to God will do nothing to offend the One who is Beloved.” Our discipleship is less about information than it is transformation.

We don’t instruct people deeper into kingdom life. We inspire them. The heart knows what it loves and that is what forms the foundation of our actions and our habits. Our journey is one of inspiring and shaping our heart’s deepest desires, bending them ever more toward Christ and his kingdom.

Our journey is to discover the beauty and holy peril, oddly comforting, of being adrift with God on the vastness of life’s open sea. 

 

Lord, Saint Augustine once said we’re created by God and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you. Sometimes the way to you can seem cloudy, or grown over with thistles and weeds. We thank you for our longings. We love because you first loved us. You’ve built it into our DNA. Help us not to be afraid of what most deeply moves us, even if that isn’t lofty or what we typically think of as holy. Instead, grab hold of our hearts and shape them, Lord. Form in us a new and undeniable passion for life with God and others. And that, Lord, will be our truest joy. Amen.

 

Farewell, Cowboy. Farewell.

Sam-CD cover.jpg
Sam’s CD, released in 2015 – when he was 80

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Perhaps the most unwelcome passage through which all ships must pass is that of death. To be the impotent observer at the bedside of someone in the throes of death can seem the greatest of all insults. One must fight the battle between a desire to see wellness return with the growing awareness that such a return might not be either possible or in the person’s best interests. It is as poignant as it is horrifying.

“I’m afraid there’s nothing more we can do.” Lonelier words were never spoken. 

I too have faced this burden of human experience with grandparents and my own father who died from complications to his cancer treatment. Most recently, on Saturday morning, April 22nd at 3:00am, my step-father drifted into eternity. The lasso keeping him tethered to the dusty ground released him into much bigger pasture. One without fences.

Papa Sam was a cowboy, Métis (may-tee)* to be exact. Born Samuel Maurice Young in the austere, rambling flatlands around Birch Hills, Saskatchewan he was quick to adapt to the rough and tumble ways of the Canadian prairies. The youngest of three boys with a younger sister, they were the bluegrass version of the von Trapps. His brother Stan on fiddle, another brother, Gordon, on banjo, together with Sam on guitar would join their Dad or uncle, both fiddle players, to fill the house on prairie nights with the music of the farm. 

Birch Hills.jpg
Saskatchewan sunset
Birch Hills, Sask.jpg
Birch Hills – an aerial view
Birch Hills 2.jpg
Birch Hills grain elevator

A young farm hand, Sam, at the green age of 10, played his first dance with his Dad, promptly returning his earnings of a quarter to the Red Cross. A similar largesse would follow him for his next 72+ years. 

Birch Hills 3.jpg
Brancepeth United Church, where lie most of Sam’s family
Birch Hills sunset.jpg
Prairie Sunset

Sam was inseparable from the cowboy fare he loved. A cowboy action shooter for many years, he collected guns and formed an indissoluble connection to the frontier life of the wild West. Old-time country dance music, played the old-time way on old-time instruments characterized the spirit of this small, big-hearted man. Numerous dance bands, including his own, The Calgary Playboys (fitting, given his rep as a ladies’ man), made the rounds in the Calgary scene for over 30 years. It would provide the context in which he would first meet Doris, his beloved wife – my mother.

Her life had not exactly been characterized by rose petals and wine. She lost her husband, my father, in September of 1985 when he was merely 55 years old; her senior of 13 years.

Mom was a widow at 42.

She played the role of dutiful wife and mother well, shuttling us hither, thither, and yon with tireless dedication and far too little gratitude. She shouldered the biting loneliness of a stolid, unflinchingly reserved man in my dad while acting as umpire to our numerous family squabbles, many of which revolved around my own self-centered peccadillos.

Dad’s passing kicked her feet out from under her. Even for one as strong and independent as she, the shock of being alone in the world was overwhelming. Nights full of angry tears eventually settled into steely resolution to reintegrate and reenergize by doing what she loved best, serving.

Much of the time, that meant some part to play in the Royal Canadian Legion, an organization to which our entire family had been attached for many years.  One such role was in working as president of the senior’s dances at Ogden Legion in southeast Calgary. She helped plan the weekly dances and hired the bands for these events. Sam’s band was one of those.

It was 1997.

Sam with guitar.jpg
Sam Young – a cowboy to the core

A major surgery pulled Mom out of commission for a while. Sam was quick to notice her absence and asked about her regularly. He’d call her just to talk and to check on her well-being. Upon her return to the Legion, she was the lucky recipient of a big hug and rather public kiss. His charm, cowboy swagger, and crooning country voice ultimately proved too much to resist and Mom and Sam moved in together. 

For the next 3 years, they lived happily side by side in my childhood home in Calgary. But the draw to the country proved too urgent to ignore. In October 2000, they sold the house and moved into their idyllic new digs near the hamlet of Kelsey, Alberta. Golden Spur Ranchetta, as they named it, became their new home and, together, they made the dream of Canadian frontier life their reality.

Long days spent clearing land, pulling out wayward trees, retooling outbuildings, dealing with renters in an adjoining house, nurturing horses, cattle, cats, and dogs, was their daily lot. It fit them like a hand in a glove. I had never seen my mother so alive, so full of vigorous determination, so…happy.

Sam with guitar.jpg
Sam was seldom without a guitar in hand

In October 2005, they were returning from Calgary, along Highway 21. Sam turned to her, saying rather baldly, “I think we should. I think it’s time.” In as matter of fact and unpretentious a manner as one can expect from a Canadian prairie cowboy, he had just asked my mother to marry him. This they did in a small ceremony held in Forestburg, Alberta on New Year’s Eve, 2005. For the first time since she had become a Rife over 40 years earlier, my mother had a different name.

Sam with guitar2.jpgTogether, Mom and Sam weathered well the uncertainties of ranch life in an often-harsh central Alberta landscape. They made many new friends, most of them musicians of one kind or another. Like a loose belt, their lives spread out amid country music jams, reenactment wild West gun shootouts, mosquito-laden summers, and fireside nights under the vast Alberta stars. I watched my mom transform from an anxiety-laden, late-middle-age housewife into a buoyant, self-confident woman. It was delightfully disconcerting.

Ten years later, in December 2015, I was blessed to offer a renewal of vows service at Yakima Covenant Church. I had never done such a thing before and was proud that this event, of all things, was my first.

Mom and Sam.JPG
Mom and Sam at their renewal of vows ceremony, Yakima Covenant Church, December 2015

In May of last year, a combination of doctor’s visits, followed by unwelcome phone calls sharing even less welcome news became their lot. The ‘C’ word had taken root as infidel in Sam’s lungs. It would ultimately have the last word.

But the final notes were always his to sing. He lives on in memory and song. His CD, Back to the Mountain, released when he was 80, reminds us that music never grows old. It pulls us along our dusty trails on wooden wheels of hope. It is a small part of a big legacy, served up fresh, and ever new. 

Now, Papa Sam sings harmony with his ancestors, leaning up against heaven’s gate – rough-sawn, split pine, and barbed wire in his case – playing his favourite guitar. The Great Spirit (Jesus to me) sits nearby in plaid shirt, jeans and a ball cap, playing spoons and a washboard. A gentle country waltz fills the perfect air, and bristles with the high-stepping joy of heaven’s jamboree.

Farewell, cowboy. Farewell.

Sam and Lisa.jpg

___________________

*Métis originally referred to Francophone and Cree-speaking descendants of the French-Catholic Red River Métis in Manitoba. They are one of three recognized aboriginal peoples of Canada, descendants of marriages of Cree, Ojibwa, Saulteaux, and Menominee aboriginal people with French-Canadians, Scots, and English settlers. 

This is a recording of Sam’s title track, Back to the Mountaina song I was blessed to co-author.

 

Converting the Converted

The more I read the Gospels, the more I am convinced that we would be the first to condemn Jesus and pin him to a cross all over again. That, in spite of two thousand years of knowledge, and canon, and religious conversations, and catacombs, and persecutions, and the dawn of “Christ-ianity.”

To read the Gospels honestly is to place oneself in dangerous places indeed. It is the readiness to identify as a sheep or a goat; as a disciple or a Pharisee or a religious teacher or a widow or wheat or weeds. We have so objectified the good news into our neat, neo-Platonic categories that we’ve rendered ourselves incapable of being seekers; the very posture required by Jesus to see – God, others, even oneself.

If the Gospels tell us anything they tell us how easy it is to build an impenetrable club of pretense and walls of preconception around our faith. The Pharisees did it and Jesus was forever pissed off with them. The biggest challenge to conversion is the belief that one is already converted and without any further need. It becomes poisonous to the very humility that would otherwise find us deeper in grace and living more abundantly.

It is the great proclamation of the convinced. 

Richard Rohr calls this what it is: idolatry. It is the worship and protection of the means to an end rather than the journey toward the beginning. He tells us, “religions should be understood as only the fingers that point to the moon, not the moon itself” (Everything Belongs, p. 51). He believes, and has built a career upon, the notion that all true spirituality is about seeing and letting go in order to see still more.

I have found that it is often to my benefit that I am both A.D.D. and a mystic. That way, when I begin to ramble (a common occurrence!) and someone tells me to “just get to the bottom line,” I can retort with the same refusal Jesus used in such instances. He cared little for such things and besides, it is the misguided idol of a success-driven culture built on information and accumulation rather than instruction and awareness.

I’m aware how much this frustrates my type A friends. For naysayers however, more often than not, they don’t ask again!

Says Rohr, “preoccupation with exchange value and market value tends to blind us almost totally to inherent value…Everything becomes priceless if it is sacred. And everything is sacred if the world is a temple” (Ibid, p. 56). To expect life to produce some kind of “bottom line” is the demand for Jesus to offer a sign. Like the Pharisees, we insist, “just get to the point” and do so in a way that impresses me, asks nothing of me, gives me answers rather than better questions, perpetuates my misguided presuppositions, assures me I’m in and you’re not, and never invites me to step out and journey. Moreover, it promises more darkness and blindness and no actual change. I will still see what and how I want complete with all my preexisting opinions and skepticism.

The Pharisees Question Jesus.jpg
The Pharisees Question Jesus – James Tissot (1836-1902)

To see is the one great gift of all true spirituality. Jesus spent a lot of time healing blind people and a lot of time blinding self-proclaimed seers. When all we crave are answers, solutions, and the pragmatics of control, then it is we who stand in need of a raised voice from Jesus. We become the gatekeepers. We become those who, alone, claim to know the Way, the Truth, the Life. We are those possessing the Words of life but in restrictive, mechanical ways upheld in our own Sanhedrins.

christ-healing-the-blind-man-1560.jpg!Large.jpg
Christ healing the blind man – El Greco, 1560

And that is what makes us the most ready to feel we need nothing more. We, the converted, stand most in need of conversion. Jesus spent a lot of time in an already protracted ministry window healing blindness. This I believe was no accident. He was particularly drawn to this because of it’s wonderfully metaphorical teaching platform. And I’m sure that someone healed of their blindness would be most deeply grateful; most readily loving.

To see therefore, is to love. And to love is the heart of the Gospel message. Until we love as Jesus loved, we may yet stand in need of conversion. To say otherwise reveals a spiritual smugness, a theological self-satisfaction bent more on winning arguments than whispering prayers.

These days, I rest secure in the knowledge that the same grace offered to the pimps, whores, and swindlers is offered to the converted and the righteous. Jesus spent more time arguing with one and partying with the other.

I hope I am always the latter.

Back to the Bible We Don’t Know, conclusion

Bible pic.jpg

As I’ve shared elsewhere, I have a “star-crossed lovers” relationship with the written word. A young Capulet and Montague stare with longing at one another from across the room, and wonder what the next step is. We’ve always managed to work things out, but not without long and moody periods of dust and dearth. It’s always advisable, and spiritually healthy, to change up our routines from time to time if only to shake off the cobwebs of inactivity or apathy. But, my relationship with holy writ often stands in contradistinction to their typical handling.

Throughout all ages, the most common topic which has occupied singers, philosophers, poets, and people in general has been…love, of course. The sheer ubiquity of love songs, poetry, painting, sculpture, and pining readily attests to its centrality in our human experience. If you can easily describe your first kiss, the appearance of your first child, the terror of a dead spouse, or pride at the accomplishments of your spawn, you have yet to truly experience love.

Similarly, if you can easily and with absolute confidence ascribe hermeneutical perfection and interpretational clarity to a collection of writings such as the Bible, you are either deluded, or you’ve been reading something else. It is a library with which to contend because, in it, are found treasures worth the battle. The Covenant Community Bible Experience has, for me at least, drawn me to the scriptures in some new and alluring ways; ways that have helped reinvigorate my intention to let them find me and turn me up once more like clotted soil.

We lost as much at the Reformation as we gained. The bible as story is one of those. Against Luther’s best intentions, we ended up with a bible widely available (eventually) but indistinguishable from any other field of inquiry. Bible in the brain, rather than Christ in the soul. The forces set in motion even before the Reformation poured ideological gasoline over centuries of Christian reflection and practice.

To many in contemporary evangelicalism today the church started not at Pentecost, but at the Reformation. Hence, we are given the unfortunate impression that God was somehow completely lost and confused for fifteen hundred years. Suffice it to say, the corrections that needed to be made in the existing church occurred, but in ways impossible to foresee or worse, control. The scriptures came to be seen in ways even they would shudder to contemplate. As the freight train of reforms reached fever pace, it outstripped the ability of people to embed the scriptures into their own lives. Right belief trumped right behaviour. Theology and spirituality parted company.

The Reformed Tradition and, more recently, Evangelicalism, claim that sola scriptura saved the church from the ecclesiastical clutches of a vast hierarchical juggernaut which had all but replaced the bible with magisterium. This has some merit, but they further claim that, with the bible safely in the hands of all, knowledge derived from those same scriptures is readily available and plentiful.

I beg to differ.

The saints of the Medieval Ages and Renaissance knew more, not less, scripture than those who followed. Why? Because their entire lives, their holy-days, their ecclesiastical feasts, their communities, their families, and their places of gathering swam in the stories, prophecies, and songs of the Bible. It was not the absence of the Scriptures in the hands of the common folk that saw them suffer in the almost guaranteed poverty of subjugated peoples. It was that much of the poverty they experienced was because of a church in league with the halls of power.

Merely having the Scriptures in our possession does not guarantee their power in our day to day lives. At times, it may well be the opposite. There is a sense in which familiarity has bred contempt. Or at least apathy. We chose control over wonder, intellectual mastery over mystical formation, trading a holistic library of inspired writing for a flat, rational document for our ownership and dissection. As the church has become increasingly fractured, the possibility of common worship experiences built upon shared and regular experiences of listening and participation in those same Scriptures it so ardently defends has become challenging indeed.

Our buddy Jesus, complete with graphic t-shirt, sleeve tats, skinny jeans, and sideways ball cap points to a similarly cavalier handling of the book in which is enshrined his coming, character, teaching, and sacrifice. We need to recomplexify the Scriptures, not in order to obfuscate, but for the purpose of elevating them to the mystical, existential, literary heights in which it was conceived. 

All that to say, I have warmed to the written word once again, largely because of this most recent biblical encounter undertaken by our congregation and denomination. And now that a reintroduction has taken place, we can stop peeking at one another across the Junior High school dance floor, shuffling and coughing. We can take steps across the room toward each other.

We may even dance.

Back to the Bible We Don’t Know, part 2

KJAV.JPG

Last month we began a conversation; a tête à tête if you will about our relationship to the Bible – something we may not know as well as we think we do. And, because so much is riding on our relationship to this library of writings, it behooves us to dig as deeply as we can.

With the help of Glenn Paauw’s masterful book, Saving the Bible from Ourselves: Learning to Read & Live the Bible Well, I have sought to make the case that, in seeking to make the Bible “approachable” we have instead neutered it, making it less transformational. The Scriptures call us to faith, not certainty. Modernity has sought to erase the unpredictability of faith with scientific verifiability. “The bare text is difficult to control. The modernist turn in culture led the keepers of the Bible to transform it into something precise, punctual, calculable, standard, bureaucratic, rigid, invariant, finely coordinated, and routine…This is a Bible that needs to be saved” (p. 37).
 
We have all heard the adage that “less is more.” It holds true in many areas of life. For example, my wife tells me that much of her editing process involves carving away the literary dross from her manuscript in order to leave the best kernels of story that will keep the reader engaged. She wrote her book in under a year, but has spent over three more in the arduous task of proofing, hacking, chopping, and honing. Michelangelo stated that his masterpiece sculpture of David was “discovered” by simply chipping away all that was not David. It has been scientifically proven that the clutter of too many road signs and instructions cause drivers to disengage, the very thing such signs are designed to avoid.
 
Less is more. With the many additions and “improvements” to the Bible, aimed at helping us pay attention, we have ostensibly removed its beautiful “surface simplicity that [could] open up for us the inherent and immensely interesting good complexity that lies deep within…The Elegant Bible will reflect the wisdom that form and content always belong together in God’s good creation. Form is part of the content of things” (p. 39).
 
We must always begin with the questions, what is the Bible and how can we honor what that is? Paauw suggests that we are badly in need of an “extreme Bible makeover” wherein we can undo its fractured format that only leads to fractured reading and commensurately fractured lives. Part of that process will be to learn how to adopt the practice of referencing passages by context and content rather than by isolated chapters and verses.
 
As is apparent in the rather unique Covenant Community Bible Experience in which our fellowship is presently engaging, Paauw advocates for a Bible less encumbered by the artificiality that has been foist upon it by means of chapter and verse numbers that pull us out of a narrative and broad reading of its contents; section headings that are ultimately interpretive by nature; page layouts which hide from us the diversity of literary forms employed in our original manuscripts; and, particularly, study Bibles that can actually mitigate against the deep, transformative, non-agenda-driven reading that can best draw us into the dangerous place of spiritual formation rather than mere information.
 
We need to view the Bible more as poetry, which demands exactitude of form as much as content. What a poem “looks like” is intended to speak as loudly as the words themselves. Form and content alike form our understanding of a thing. We have inherited more of a cultural creation than the Bible that was originally intended.
 
Says Paauw, “to save the Bible from ourselves, we must begin to trust once again its ancient ways of saying things…The path to restoring our Bible begins with chipping away at everything that doesn’t belong there” (p. 50). Our love for God demands no less than an equal love of the Scriptures as they were first delivered.
 
Those with ears to hear, let them hear…

Toward a Rule – The Beginning

So, with subtle indirection, the toolbox of yearning

wed to oratory, wed to a cloud of unknowing,

expecting nothing more than a tale well told,

comes the bard and we are given –

a road for our story.

Historically, patterns of prayer and devotion that would later evolve into a “Rule of Life” grew out of the monastic tradition dating back to the Desert Abbas and Ammas of the 4th century CE. There, in the blistering heat of wasteland, they faced down demons, drank deep from hidden wells, prayed unceasingly, listened for the deafening whispers of God, and taught others to do the same. They owned little, but possessed the universe. Over time, their lives, lived small and yielded, but writ large upon the heavens, were lassoed into usable fragments of a living reality.

StAnthony.jpg
St. Antony of Egypt

I suspect most are like me, living pugnaciously crammed lives begging for the breath and space.. But, unless one’s name is Antony, or one of his eremetic contemporaries, one has experienced little in the way of solitude.

Such an exercise, as useful and meaningful as it is, necessarily leans upon an accompanying acquiescence on the part of the pilgrim – namely, me – to its regularity, rigour, and influence. Frankly, I’m more concerned about that than the Rule itself. Over the years, I’ve developed a deeply satisfying practice of contemplative prayer, gradually learning the benefits of housing shalom in the confines of a thirsty but unpredictable soul. I’ve spent days alone at any number of monasteries, growing and learning with monks and nuns of various ecumenical stripes. I write extensively on the spiritual life, a blog of my own (www.innerwoven.me), and for numerous others as well. In 2011, I graduated with a Master of Arts in Spiritual Formation and Leadership from Spring Arbor University, Michigan. Since then, I’ve undertaken the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and was anointed with oil as a lay Jesuit. I’m writing a spiritual memoir. I have studied the life and spirituality of St. Francis (because I’m a hippy at heart) and the Rule of St. Benedict (because hippies lack structure).

Trappist Abbey-Lafayette, OR.jpg
Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey, Lafayette, Oregon. I’ve spent countless hours at this place.

Why do I boast in such Pauline fashion? Because, after years of ardent pursuit of the Christian spiritual enterprise, and already possessing a not inconsiderable Rule of Life with more than a few years of practice, I am less skilled in it now than I’ve ever been. Without hesitation, I enjoin myself to Paul whose boast is always in weakness about weakness, and leads to his exasperated proclamation, “I am the chief of sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15).

Whatever Rule is forthcoming will be more about my openness to what that Rule represents. It must be more a means to an end than the end itself. Like the rudiments I’ve practiced for decades in pursuit of musical prowess, I construct and practice a Rule of Life to forget it. Musicians play scales without thinking about playing scales. They play music, in which rudiments have formed and buttressed, shaped and evolved that music.

Saints live a Rule that is at all times thinking about union with God, which is the end and the beginning of it all.

…in my dream, I looked out over the rocky embankments

still holding my thoughts and, over the tomb where

recently someone left not long after arriving, a placard read:

“Beware, those still trapped in a life safe, and un-ruined.

You won’t get to enjoy the looks of incredulity from those

who’d prefer you stay here.”

____________________________________________ 

All poetry ©Robert Alan Rife, www.robslitbits.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Toward a Rule – Eschewing Truancy

In early November, I was a participant in a class toward my ordination entitled “Vocational Excellence.” This is part 4 of the paper I submitted, aimed at constructing and presenting a Rule of Life.

Calgary sunrise.JPG
Calgary sunrise…apt metaphor

Eschewing Truancy

In every life, there are (mis)guiding voices. Inner recordings, as it were, play loudly and insistently, often dictating how one goes about the tricky task of living.  Put another way, all of us live from somewhere – fear, suspicion, self-aggrandizement, false hope, willing blindness, ass kissy-ness. They cast long shadows upon our spiritual landscapes and pull us away from the perfect centre of our circle.

Every time I drift from my centre, I cease trusting in the glacial process of transformation at work within me. My trust gets misplaced, landing on anything quicker and easier to a perceived end of satisfaction. The shortest distance between two points can become the broad road to ruin the quickest means of personal misanthropy. 

Something inimical of the human heart is its apparent willingness to be anywhere other than where it should. The place most required of us is where we least show up. And with so many competing allurements to our deepest allegiance and passions this is a bit like crossing the freeway naked and blindfolded. It seldom ends well.

Better might be the comparison of grade school students. Some, like myself, adored school and never missed a day (I skipped twice and was caught both times…another blog perhaps?). Others reveled in the delicious naughtiness one experiences in going to the mall, or simply hanging out behind it smoking untoward substances (again, what could I possibly know of such shenanigans?).

A rule of thumb for fellow Christ-followers, prone to wobbly wheels but who yearn to embody their Rabbi is to pay heed to Stan Smith’s words from American Dad. When pressured as to why he keeps rubbernecking women other than his wife, he responds: “my eyes may wander, but my heart comes home.” 

Instead, I am being directed to return to the quiet, contemplative life, planted in the Benedictine moniker: ora et labora – prayer and work; contemplation and action, inner and outer life wed as one. To care for the centre is to care for everything else at once.

Although not a word one might use in everyday life, truancy pictures a life on the edges of things. It is uncommitted – wayward, as in a constant insistence upon finding any path other than the one presently under foot. In gospel terms, to show up is to find oneself amid the delight of Holy Spirit constancy and the hope of a future that will never be cut off.

To eschew truancy in the spiritual life – to abide in the vine, as it were – is to embrace the promise of a rather adept gardener of my soul.

* * *

“God cannot be found by weighing the present against the future or past, but only by sinking into the heart of the present as it is.”
-Thomas Merton

Toward a Rule – A Spiritual Self-Diagnosis

FCJ Centre-Calgary.JPG
Faithful Companions of Jesus (FCJ) Conference and Retreat Centre, Calgary

What one sees is not always what one seeks.

And what one seeks is not always what one says.

And what one says is not always what one starts.

It’s okay, there’s no difference between what

I didn’t see yesterday and what landed itself full upright

in today’s path, muse-appointed.

There are the moments when, at a

full stride, forehead high and strong,

come words and stories, notes and beams,

high-stepping toes, pointed at heaven;

brushstrokes for love or anger, life or less –

those are the boldest strokes, the highest notes,

the brightest steps…

The sound of music is good wherever notes 

find you. Let it be your symphony.

The initial reticence I felt as I warmed a car seat for twelve hours – with all the attendant over-thinking to which I’m already prone – promptly unravelled upon arrival. My penchant for wow-factor uniqueness finds a backseat in favour of the welcome mat of other faith-commoners; like-minded, thirsty-souled, vocationally-curious individuals more like me than I care to admit. It would prove to be one of the most significant weeks of my personal and professional life.

Since God loves the twist-in-the-tale, this mystic-philosopher-poet-dreamer-romantic-idealist-non-pragmatist is ripe to meet the vacuum at the shallow end of his soul. In company with fellow travellers of the Way, I come up wanting every time, albeit with a blossoming knowledge that “all manner of thing shall be well” (Julian of Norwich, Showings).

Via Negativa

Staying true to my “via negativa” modus operandi, the most significant gleanings from the week are found in what I don’t want to be about; who I don’t want to be. I’ve been in professional ministry long enough to enjoy a few tricks of the trade sufficient to dazzle and woo – successfully limping through that ministry for many years. It isn’t the material so much as the context for it. Many words are spoken, good ones. But, it is parsing those same words with other colleagues that distills the broadest reality. It makes for a week of living object lessons of what’s missing most in my experience: the mutuality of friendship, the deeper blessing of stability and sobriety, and a renewed commitment to monastic spirituality: ora et labora – prayer and work.

The intentionality of connection and outward motion is a challenge for a poster-boy Enneagram 4 (The Individualist), INFP (Meyers-Briggs), who loves passive-aggressive self-pity. If seeking a life more patterned after historic saints is what I seek, these ones prove just as good; perhaps better given their physical presence in the room. Proximity makes immediate the holy danger of accountability in the Jesus Way.

Through many words rich with advice and good counsel, it is the relentless voice of God that most unsettles me. God impresses only a few simple things, repeatedly. Repeatedly. Re….It is those things that spin around my head and to which I now turn.

* * * * *

I am twice adopted. In biological terms, this means effectively that I am riddled with fear – of risk, of invalidation, of abandonment, of failure – of success. Pursuant to this is a terrible sense of boundaries, which to one such as I, are not an end, but a means to it.

I suffer from GAD, (Generalized Anxiety Disorder), ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), mild OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), and CGEODD (Can’t Get Enough of Disorders Disorder). I live in a veritable sea of worry, and panic, and the over-thinking commensurate thereof.

I’m a recovering alcoholic. Given the first two points, this should come as little surprise.

I have mountains of unresolved pain, grief, and guilt. I grieve poorly.

I am a mystic-contemplative in a culture, drunk on self-important pragmatism, that eats such ones for lunch.

Via Positiva

I’m a gifted musician, writer, poet, and liturgist. With these gifts, I’ve been blessed to draw others with me into the shimmering thin places that life can truly be.

I have a deeply intuitive, imaginative spirituality; an abundantly creative orthopraxis, so to speak.

I’m gifted in interpersonal conflict resolution – ironic, given my depth of hatred for the same.

I’m a gifted teacher and group facilitator.

I’m a culture and bridge-builder, finding ways for diverse segments of the church to envision a better way to walk the Way.

I’m compassionate and like to hear travel tales of other sojourners.

I’m very funny. No, really.

I’m a handsome, irresistibly debonair, man-about-town simply fun to be around.

Best of all, with much hard work and prayer, I’ve finally been gifted with self-forgetful humility (superglue tongue to cheek here).

A Rule of Life will, for me, bridge these two lists.

close bw.jpg
Always looking for something…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Toward a Rule

Great Guardian of hearth and horizon, soul and sail,

I have lifted my feet in obedience to an insistent wind.

I have lifted my head up above this tiny-rimmed being.

I have sought again what once was too costly.

I have set out once more upon a wildly restless sea –

and found what was looking for me.

 

I The End

I leave with too much chaos in the rearview mirror and too much uncertainty through the windshield to find confidence for the journey ahead. The idea of professional development in the city of my birth sounded good at the time. But now, the twelve hours between there and me promises only dead airtime – lots of it – in which to muse the unmuseable; the distance between an overactive head and underachieving heart. An emotional breakdown mere months earlier hangs like a bad smell in the car. The loneliest places are those most familiar, which no longer bring comfort. I think this will be my Gethsemane before the Paschal journey yet to come.

Calgary.JPG
Calgary in November

Hours become years in the unsettled mind. But the chronos of crisis never lasts. The familiarity of road spreads before me, rhyming itself with an inexplicable sense of watchfulness. (And, for me, a good playlist always helps). I become aware of something growing in newer soil; something that echoes out of better shadows – hope. It frightens and exhilarates me as day wanes and night fills the windshield with stars. Could this be God, rearranging God’s schedule for the days to come?

Calgary sunrise.JPG
The morning sky – my running companion

When it comes to the spiritual endeavour, I’ve always delighted in the iconic metaphor of wandering – passaging as I like to call it. My best guess is that it most capably represents my propensity for being lost in places even blind people navigate with ease – a hallway to the bathroom, the distance from upright to nosedive, or retracing my steps from mall to parking lot. 

One life tributary has led to another, each in turn yielding to something else on its way to waterfall or harbour, estuary or eddy. At times, I get stuck, unmoving; or so it seems. Frankly, to be stuck can be a decision not to decide something. Perhaps it’s a slow, deep spot before being sucked back out in the rapids where I easily lose my sense of direction and the not unreasonable expectation that I’ll fly ass-over-tea-kettle into the frothy spray. At other points, my boat slows to a crawl and I drift lazily along in the enchantment of a Pirates of the Caribbean-style rendezvous with delight.

For good or ill, it is my goal to passage well. In the ever-expanding journal of my circuitous journey, the increased clarity of a breadcrumb path always brings some satisfaction of adequate closure before moving on to another part of the story. It expresses a sense of poise and, ultimately, denouement to this life that those whose eyes are watching for signs of the Divine are longing to see.

At a Jesuit retreat and conference centre, the kinetics of kinship, sublimation of self, and a society of sojourners as inquisitive as I – equally reticent? – are set to begin the holy spin cycle that is Vocational Excellence. The point of this exercise is to wrangle into some sense of tidy usefulness the varied and complex detritus that is our personal-professional journey – a Rule of Life.

FCJ Centre-Calgary.JPG
FCJ (Faith Companions of Jesus) Conference and Retreat Centre

I love life. Rules? Not so much.

And so, a trembling lad peers through the shop window otherwise known as ordination, or at least the process thereof, and sees a combination of delights and dares; an invitation laden with perspiration. Inspiration that taunts inadequacies. I come to the end of the beginning, a new hallway of discovery, awaiting what doors may open and which are closing.

I’m happy either way.