Covenanting Forward

Finding the Covenant took a long time. In fact, landing anywhere with conviction or at least lasting interest has taken a lifetime. My circuitous journey of faith has seen me duck, dodge, weave, skip, and sometimes trudge my way through Canadian Presbyterianism, the United Church of Canada (where I was baptized as a child), four brands of Baptist, two of Anglican, the ELCA, the PCUSA, and finally, the ECC. Moreover, as distinctly post-modern and, what I like to describe as post-evangelical, my theology doesn’t sit sufficiently still to be any denomination’s well-behaved child. Finally, I am a reluctant Protestant, lay-Jesuit with a distinctly Celtic-Catholic spirituality that has a whiff of Pelagius, Julian of Norwich, and Scotch Whisky about it (in terms of character. I don’t drink).

I.e. I’m a hard person to please.

Voracious reader. Voluminously curious. Virulently skeptical by nature, specifically of the easy answers typically afoot among American evangelicalism. My ENFP, Enneagram 4-ishness denies me the simplicity of no-questions-asked membership in anything. It makes me a delight at dinner parties, full of jaunty esprit, self-effacing humour (ha!), and fun stories, but impossible to get along with, since I’m forever challenging some portion of something.

I’m a team player but not a company man. In other words, I’ll rarely act outside the parameters of the given protocols of any collective into which I have committed myself. However, I’m not a candidate for “my country, right or wrong.” Ideologies, protocols, approaches, and resources supplied by an organization, even one in which I am deeply invested, will generally be the starting place only for what I sense is invitation for my own fingerprint on the work of God both in, and through, me. I see myself making consistent use of the Covenant’s vast resources available in every corner of the kingdom landscape, albeit in uniquely Rife-ian ways.

I say all of that to say this. In large measure, the Covenant is also these things. In the short time I’ve been lurking around, loitering in Mission Friends’ hallways, I’ve discovered reams of others just like me. Dispossessed of (E)vangelicalism but not so dishonest or disingenuous as to deny it entirely. Weary of the religious empire ass-kissing “give us Barabbas” impetus that sent Jesus to the cross and, two thousand years later, booted him from American life. But, still socially invested enough as to seek fresh iterations of Christian citizenship that cares for the least and left behind.

In its desperation for relevance over depth, evangelicalism often attracts and nurtures a culturally-derived shininess to its approaches at times poisonous to the very spirituality it seeks to discover and facilitate. Therefore, it has the expected wow-factor with little depth to recommend it for the long-term indefinables of Christian spirituality. The Covenant however has proven a willingness to do both: enshrine a polished, corporate modus operandi, utilizing well its culture of leadership, while paying more than just lip-service to older and richer veins from which to feed.

Speaking playfully, we are newer denomination still linked to its distant Lutheran past that badly wants to be cool. It’s the playground kid from a simple family but with natural leadership skills, a twinkle in his eye, and enough savvy not to play shirts and skins with the adult football team. To this late middle-aged advocate for building bridges, Protestant and Catholic, liberal and conservative, old and young, this is of epic importance.

When I think of the Evangelical Covenant Church, I perceive three things:

A connectivity born of joyful living in the Gospel.

A generous orthodoxy giving birth to wholistic ministry.

And, a fresh-faced entrepreneurialism rooted in a Lutheran evangelicalism.

It is the very essence of a covenant: a mutual partnership of equals toward an agreed upon end. That end? God’s glory. Neighbor’s good. Indeed. The goodness of these things in total makes a happy enough family with whom to dine, a river deep and dangerous enough into which I commit my swim.

Joyful Connectivity

I’m Canadian by birth. There are numerous similarities between the hopelessly broad girth of Canadian geography, religion, and socio-politics with that of her southern neighbo(u)r. But one major difference colours/colors our respective histories. America was birthed in revolution, the upraised fists and passionate cries of those who believed themselves oppressed who sought something better elsewhere. Canada was born as bureaucrats politely signed documents over whisky, cigars, propriety, and well-wishing. “Here, here. What, what” versus “give me liberty or give me death.” The latter has brought a certain bluster, love for conflict, and over-confidence; but keen sense of collective identity. The former, a constant quest for identity by means of the via negativa, what we’re not.

Ecclesial groups are born in similar ways. Another renewal movement among many, the Covenant is a few generations removed from the overly self-conscious Martin Luther who felt theological debate following an act of defacing public property the best way of addressing issues. We Covenanters are much more genteel by comparison.

What I have witnessed is a group of happy, post-Lutheran hipsters driven by their mutual love for Gospel and community, but without Luther’s moody self-importance or need for withering banter. We’re just happy being together. My limited experience has shown that, if corporate websites ever needed stock photography of happy, diverse, smiling, beautiful people with whom to populate their online branding, the Covenant is where to come for prospects.

Generous Orthodoxy

If stuck in evangelicalism I must be, then the Covenant represents for me a biblically-derived iteration capable of growth, imagination, and maturity. Her historic battles over the role of the church and war, baptism, Gospel multi-ethnicity, matters of social justice, and women in ministry, give her an enviable track record among Protestants, whose primary legacy is division at almost cellular level. It bespeaks a generous orthodoxy[1], a Word-centered faith powered by the creative energy of the Holy Spirit more than the soul-stifling literalism of populist religion or the polemical erudition of the academy. She has stumbled of late regarding the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons. But, if history holds true, this is a hiccup more than a rule (I pray).

Ecclesial Entrepreneurialism

The five-fold mission of the Covenant reveals two things not necessarily in opposition: a breezy, simple pragmatism easily relatable to anyone anywhere. For me, spiritual formation requires a language a bit more inspiring than “Make and Deepen Disciples”, which falls far short of the soulish electricity at work in A Cloud of Unknowing, Pensées, or The Dark Night of the Soul.

But nor are we afraid to enlist the older and better voices in the process either. Yes, we’re likely to hear from Max Lucado, Brené Brown, or Rachel Held-Evans. But, in any given Sunday School or pulpit we’d also be confronted with Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Teresa of Avila. Despite its Lutheran roots, for the Covenant, the Church is still born at Pentecost, not the Reformation.

A few years ago, the Presbyterian church I was serving as Music Minister voted 98% in favour of adopting into the ECC. The PCUSA was, at the time, in meltdown over matters of governance related to human sexuality. Presbyterians worship process as much as anything and, at the level of General Assembly, had become boorish and unsophisticated, bullying many of its congregations into making choices (either for or against) they were not prepared to make by means of decree. It was classic hierarchicalism at work.

We have a number of gay and lesbian folks associated with our congregation. For us, sexuality and inclusion were never the issue. We wanted to throw in the towel, not because we felt the need to adopt some different ideology regarding LGBTQ, but because the stifling network of top-down ecclesiasticism at work was the last straw for a church who needed to have the freedom to stretch its leadership legs in directions current administration couldn’t, indeed wouldn’t, allow. 

We voted to leave a tradition that had fallen prey to its own self-importance for one, by comparison, still in its youthful infancy. We joined the ECC for uniquely entrepreneurial, congregational-leadership reasons. It has served us well ever since. At fifty-six I was one of the younger full-time music personnel in the PCUSA. In the Covenant? I’m ancient. As it should be!

In coming months, my wife and I are planning a ministry move to Great Britain. We do so as a tentmaker couple. This video gives a sense, in general terms, of our hopes and intentions. It marks the fruition of a vision planted in us over thirty years ago when we first lived as missionaries in Edinburgh, Scotland. Then, it was as two fresh-faced, inexperienced, fearful newlyweds under the auspices of the Southern Baptist Convention. Now, together with my geographer wife, it will be as a fully licensed minister in a denomination we’ve come to love.

We go not merely to preach the gospel. We go to be a Covenant voice in that gospel. It is a voice Britain can really use right now. Indeed, it is one all need to hear. I’m still hard to please, but at least I’ll be so in a place I can call home. Ironically, they seem okay with me.

I can ask no more than that. Thanks be to God.

[1] McLaren, Brian A Generous Orthodoxy ©2004 Zondervan Publishers

Britain or Bust: An Update

I haven’t written here much over the past while. It’s certainly not for lack of interest or desire. I’ve missed all of you, more now than ever during our shared COVIDays.

A few months back, I hinted of our upcoming Coddiwomple – an adventure into something only vaguely known and little understood. In the past year, based on what we firmly believe to be the call of God, we’ve taken action steps in that direction. 

My thirteen-and-a-half year tenure as Music and Worship Director at Yakima Covenant Church has come to a close. Now, we are enlisted to serve as “missionaries” (old language, thankfully on its way out) to Britain. 

We have before us a clear sense of call, the dis-ease but faith to begin fundraising, and a desire to build a community of likeminded individuals with whom to sojourn. Many more details are forthcoming.

For now, here’s our latest YouTube update. I invite you to watch. Consider. Pray. Consider some more. Then, join us on our adventure. My email is in the update if you’d like to be added to our mailing list. Most of all, thank you for taking these moments to poke your head into our world!

Peace to you all!

 

Thank you, Yakima Herald!

I’m especially grateful to Tammy Ayer at the Yakima Herald who thought our story interesting enough to include the following piece about our final Celtic Christmas Eve. 

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Details for how you may choose to support our venture are found in the article. The link goes live tomorrow. Blessing and peace to you all as the Yule is once again upon us and the smell of food fills the air to meet with laughter, fellowship, hopefulness and gratitude!

A Coddiwomple for Two, Please

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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.

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Francisco and Stephanie Ramos

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).

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Ain’t she perdy?

 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______________.

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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!

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Rae’s dream job is with ESRI UK, the “Microsoft of digital mapping” as she calls it

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.

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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.

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Serve Globally’s Euro Team

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.

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Kayla, wise and brave beyond her years

 

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Meghan Markle officially opens The Luminary Bakery

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.

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Old school 60s rocker and devoted holy man, Andy Scarcliffe. Edinburgh.

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!

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Cousin Jill and her daughter, Sally. Newcastle

*  *  *

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.

Coming soon…A Coddiwomplers’ Tale

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!

A Coddiwomple for Two, Please

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On the eve of a departure, likely the most significant one we’ve yet taken, we stick out our necks and push our faces into the unknown. Eyes are open but unsure what they’re meant to see. In that “light” I give you the perfect word for our upcoming explorations in France and the UK: “coddiwomple.” 

The first time I ever prayed a labyrinth was many years ago now. It was with good friends of ours in a concert hall on the Linfield College campus. He had made it himself from fabric not unlike a painter’s drop sheet. He laid it out carefully on the stage, being careful to smooth out any unsightly wrinkles (a rather good picture of what we seek to do, often with little success, in our own lives!)

Candles dotted our prayer landscape like a fisherman had caught the Milky Way in his net and simply repurposed his catch of stars for our purposes. Quiet, contemplative music of Taizé aurally framed our time. Then, with only the briefest introduction, we slowly set upon our inner pilgrimage.

I had my journal with me that I might capture my impressions, however fleeting, and return to them as needed or desired. An amateur, I simply followed my more experienced friends around the simple concentricity, ever pushing toward the center, meant to represent union with Christ. 

Unlike a maze, which is designed to confuse as it amuses, labyrinths have a single entrance. One way in. One way out. It is impossible to get lost in the labyrinth. It is designed for prayer, contemplation; all picturing a pilgrim’s journey into the magnetic center, the heart of Jesus.

One is safe there. Found. Home. The way there and the way back are equally special.

I walked away from that experience deeply satisfied. But, I cannot say in honesty that I heard any holy whisperings. No lightning. No still, small voice. No goosebumps. No angelic shoulder-taps. Not even an email address! It was just…nice. As we drove home, we did so knowing something holy had transpired, though not burning-bush or eastern-star holy.

Then, inexplicably, after a couple weeks, I began to notice things. Little things. Things so inane and banal that they hardly warranted a second thought. But, it was as if my “spidey senses” were on full alert. My antennae were set on high. When a person would speak, I would instantly hear something of God in their words.

Aha! So THIS was the gift of our labyrinth experience. Hearing. My spiritual ears had hearing aids and God’s voice suddenly showed up everywhere. Loudly. Insistently.

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As Rae and I make our way to France for the Serve Globally EuroRetreat, it is our labyrinth pilgrimage. It is a journey into a vast, cosmic mystery of “what the hell are we doing?!”

However, if what we glean from it is less immediate than we’d like, I return to the profound difference I experienced in that first labyrinth prayer journey, even if it was weeks later. We’ll take whatever direction comes our way. Or not. As long as we can hear even a little more clearly what God is saying.

Therefore, in this clumsy coddiwomple into the future, we proceed not cautiously as much as expectantly. Our ears are full-cocked to hear whatever voices may be forthcoming; voices that comprise, ultimately, The Voice.

Lord, in your mercy, as we listen for your voice, hear our prayer.