Seven deadly sins.

How’s that for a conversation starter? Equally robust topics for family night be Nazi surgical techniques or the best fecal matter for fertilizing roses. How perfect for those post-dinner gatherings on cold winter nights. “Hey kids, gather round. We’re gonna talk about the quickest way to eternal damnation. Oh, and bring me a beer.”

Good friend, colleague, and all-round good egg, Laurie Jackson, just published her first book, “Little White Lies and the Seven Deadly Sins.” It isn’t an ivory tower dive into the pool of hamartiology (look it up, I dare you.) It is something better.

40601913.jpgBy her own admission, she doesn’t cover any new territory here. Instead, it reads like a conversation with Erma Bombeck while eating overripe watermelon over the sink. It’s sweet, immediate, fun, and some good juice runs down your face while ingesting good stuff. It brings the rather heavy topic of sin into a more amicable place in ways both funny and insightful.

And, it’s got me rethinking the whole topic. Sin isn’t exactly my first choice of hospitable, or even accessible party chat. And, it sucks as a Scrabble word. But the Bible seems to have rather an obsession with the stuff. It pops up like the drunk uncle at a wedding, inserting itself into otherwise polite company with slurry, spitty banter and totally short circuits our drive to the buffet line. It is as ubiquitous as it is exasperating.

Frankly, these days, I’m stuck knowing how to deal with the ramifications of this word and what it represents. The conservative theological pundits have a hard-on for it and can’t stop bemoaning how genuinely rotten is everything and everyone. Sin rules the day they cry through horn-rimmed glasses, shame and potluck on their breath. We just need to “get back” to God’s word and repent, repent, repent, feeling like shit the whole time. The guiltier we feel the better. Their Gospel: I’m shit. God’s not. Jesus took a good beating from his Dad for me. If I’m okay with that, I’m not shit anymore.

The progressive idealogues are, by contrast, tacitly unconcerned with any notion whatsoever that shadows, scraped knees, or even bad smells could possibly exist in so sunny a universe. If we just skip together, prancing hand in hand, hearty choruses of “We Shall Overcome” on our lips, no boogey-man will assert itself. We do not sin. We are sinned against (although I could never figure out who was first to get the ball rolling). I need only speak positively, even about the most heinous cell-blocks, and all will magically heal, rendering us all Pollyanna-happy. Their Gospel: I’m good. God is in question. The conservatives created a mess. Together, we’ll get this shit cleaned up. God’ll get a passing nod by the religious among us.

And, for both camps, the currency of faithfulness is outrage. I’m either pissed off at the sinfulness of everything everywhere, or I’m pissed off at those who are pissed off at everything everywhere. I sin in my self-righteous indignation at sin, forcing others into my thinking on the subject, or I sin in my satisfaction of not believing I’m a sinner in the first place. How’s that for a rabbit-hole conundrum?

Both feel a little insipid frankly, and neither give a particularly satisfying understanding of either sin or, by extension, grace.

As Laurie and others have stated, sin  translates as missing the mark. It’s an archery term. People who shoot arrows are intentionally aiming at something. They’re scrutinizing outcomes. Their desires are set upon something good. But, in our efforts at bull’s eyes, we miss every time. 

Picture found here

Here’s why I love this word. It actually indicates something wonderful about God, and also about us. It tells us that God cares enough to help us in our aim. But it also reveals a universal longing in the heart of humanity, one that takes aim at what it most desires. Augustine once said “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God.” We naturally aim at what our hearts most desire: peace, fulfillment, happiness, union with the divine.

Unfortunately, something is askew. Something keeps tugging at our arms as we line up another shot into the great unknown. Sin is the annoying guy making all those rustling and taunting noises right before we take our swing down the fairway. We aim for something because we’re made for God and long to return to God. We miss that something because sin somehow gets in the way and we’re wide of the target every time. We could call sin “aiming for the right thing in all the wrong ways often enough that the wrong thing feels like the right thing.”

That is until God steps in. God intervenes and removes the shackles, weights, magnets, and distractions pulling our arrows asunder. In Christ, the arrow of our longing has finally reached its target.

The destination is Christ himself.

The 7 Deadly Sins are merely the church’s creative means of naming the primary stalls in that effort toward aiming at God’s heart. For those of you following along in Laurie’s book, here’s a quick review of those: Pride, Envy, Anger, Lust, Greed, Gluttony, Sloth.

So then, here goes an armchair theologian’s look at…7.

What sounds are these…?

Seems a good day to reblog this one.

Rob's Lit-Bits

in the garden of gethemane

What sounds are these I hear

of sobs and sighing, seering pain of doubt.

If leaves could talk what might they say

of a crying God, a hopeful hopelessness wrapped in trust?

* * *

Raked across an endless heart,

the bursting bastions of familial love

come couched in terms of unsteady prayers, yearning, yet wavering.

One, two, three faltering steps toward full submission to…what?

* * *

“Must it be this way? Must this broken sentence require my full stop?

Let it be but a misstep, a simple error in divine judgment, and a world

hurled into disarray is called back again.

Must you kiss away their pain with my blood on your lips?”

* * *

sleeping disciples

Daylight friends become nighttime strangers.

Eyelids, heavy with grief, fear and confusion

flutter and fail. Closed and unseeing they become

when sharp and sure is needed most.

* * *

Jesus arrested

Gruff and groping…

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3 Core Values of a Future Christian Faith

In this excellent post, Mr. Dooley addresses some foundational thoughts I’ve been wrestling with for years now, many of those here on this blog. However, I do it with more ostentation, presumption and perhaps a touch of self-deception! He does so succinctly and with simplicity. I share his thoughts here.

2014 in review

I got one of these per blog. Thought I’d post ’em just for fun.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 6,700 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 6 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

In defense of perfectionism

imagesIn these busy-ness hangover days post-Advent/Christmas, I can finally undo my symbolic top button and let the layers of fatigue – built up over weeks of ridiculous work schedules – begin to flake away. It’s surprising just how exhausted one can become doing things one loves to do. It is equally alarming how many hours it is possible to clock in pursuit of what one believes to be satisfaction of job demands when the truth is far more complicated than that.

In my present fog of lassitude I at least have the presence of mind to bring a few considerations to the page since, in so doing, I am led to consider more deeply my calling to this anomalous gig.

December. With nervous sighs and low-decibel groans I prepare for it every year. Advent candle-lighters, extra scripture readers, extra rehearsals for extra ensembles on extra days, Christmas concert with the accompanying P.R., advertising and follow-up, children’s and youth Christmas presentations, pre-school Christmas parties requiring musical and technical support, sick soloists, regular Sunday worship planning mindful of exhausted musicians, Christmas Eve candlelight and carols (2 Traditional, 1 Celtic) that required dozens of arrangements, sketching out post-Christmas services easily executable enough for a skeleton crew of volunteers not still on vacation where I will be once all of the above is neatly tied up. Oh, and a few scattered, but nervous moments spent nodding your head in the direction of those with whom you live and for whom you do all of the above.

For that rare reader not already painfully aware of the fact, I am a local church music director. It is a career I’ve pursued, faithfully for the most part, for much of my adult life. And, were it not for this job I do, I struggle to see any another scenario in which a complicated, non-risk-taking, overly worried, perfectionist, artsy-fartsy like me might even make a living, let alone a relatively stable one. The uneasy combination of squishy self-confidence issues with rabid artistic needs make for poor bedfellows. Translation: I’m not good at much else.

Christmas Eve 2014
Christmas Eve Celtic candlelight service, 2014

Frustratingly, after all these years, I’ve never even come close to mastering the slippery skills generally considered normal, advisable even, for those in my craft: prioritization, time management, delegation, and especially unseen pitfalls prediction – viz a viz, troubleshooting. Make no mistake, when a local church comes looking for jaw-dropping artistic talent (that’s how we market ourselves) to bless the flock and fill the pews, they’re often after a glorified music secretary who happens to sing or play instruments. Make the music trains run on time and make sure my kids are getting free music lessons. One can be the best musician ever heard. But, forget too many clerical details too often and it becomes quickly apparent how “stable” the job really is. It’s the comfort of a well-oiled machine with better than average music that maintains a level of constituent satisfaction, and puts food on our table.

But alas, I wax cynical. It is the tiredness talking. I’ve asked frequently and loudly of God and those close to me, why is someone like me even called to work in a local church? I’ve almost always felt more comfortable anywhere but there. I’m rough around the edges at the best of times and can guarantee inopportunely-timed, off-color humor, and promise at least one offended person within half an hour of meeting me. My job is “Christian music” (whatever THAT is) and you couldn’t pay me enough to listen to it on the radio. I doubt I could name the top five Christian artists right now and haven’t darkened the door of *gasp* a “Christian bookstore” (again, unsure as to the meaning of that) for more years than I can count.

And yet, here I am. Any whining I do surrounding my detail heavy job is generally self-induced. Why? you ask.

An attempted explanation: Probably for good reason perfectionism gets a bad rap these days. Under church roofs it has led to lonely, broken, discouraged souls. People like me, in our rabid pursuit of the perfect performance of the carefully chosen song at the pristine moment in a stellar setting, have often left, burned out and bitter because of it. Those we sometimes ride like donkeys to help us provide the aforementioned often leave for similar reasons, blaming us on the way out (justifiable in most cases).

But, beside its potential for damage, it has also led to some of the world’s most stellar, awe-inspiring art. Those artists credited, directly or indirectly, with everyone else’s inspiration weren’t necessarily those who got the trophy just for showing up or sat in kumbaya drum circles (neither of which are problematic on their own!). Their music is great because it had to be. The inner compulsion, dare I say divine imperative, to produce the highest achievable work to present to the High and Lofty One, asks for nothing less. I can hardly imagine Bach having a lot of B-list instrumentalists in his sacred ensembles. His relentless pursuit of the perfect music for the perfect occasion probably made him many enemies.

But it also made him great.

I am now convinced that the very day I succumb to mastery in the lesser skills of prioritization, time management, leadership team coagulation, etc., will be the same day my muse will flee. My perfectionism has forced me down some dark hallways. It has left me bedraggled, barely able to stand at times. It has forced me to be tweaking song arrangements at 1:00 am…while on vacation. It has taken many hostages. It has kicked my ass, and others’ as well, in pursuit of some crazy ideal, held aloft in my own prideful head. But, in pursuit of the most beautiful art possible wrapped in the most transforming theology possible, that same pride disallows overly simplistic, soul-less, derivative, mass-producible pablum. Then, I’ll be only too happy to say, along with so many other dear souls, “with or without frappe?”

So then, I am tired primarily because I’ve been chasing whatever ideal my own perfectionism has placed before me. This aging treadmill donkey hasn’t quite nabbed his carrot, adangle before his hungry mouth and crossed eyes. If I ever do actually reach said carrot, it will be the day I am discovered, dead, in a pool of my own anxiety. And, after all is said and done, my choir still loves me.

And that alone is worth it.

One picture found here, the other is credited to Piper Renee-Richmond, who sings in my band and was in fact doing so at the time!

Silence; a Sonnet for Remembrance Day

As Remembrance, or Armistice Day, approaches, I felt a few thoughts to be in order. Malcolm Guite’s, not mine. Please, enjoy, and…reflect.

Malcolm Guite

As we approach Remembrance Day I am reposting this sonnet about the two minutes silence, which is now published in my book Sounding the Seasons.  I’m posting it a few days early so that any one who wishes to can use it in services or events either on remembrance Sunday or on Remembrance day itself. As you will see from the little introduction below, I wrote it in response to the silence on Radio 4, and last year it was featured on Radio 4’s Remembrance Sunday Worship.

So her is how it came to be written. On Remembrance Day I was at home listening to the radio and when the time came for the Two Minutes Silence. suddenly the radio itself went quiet. I had not moved to turn the dial or adjust the volume. There was something extraordinarily powerful about that deep silence from a ‘live’ radio, a…

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Finding light in dark faith

Sometimes writers are confronted with unique opportunities to write; that is of course if one dwells, as I do, among lit-nerds and poetry-geeks. One of the best places of which I’m presently aware, exploring the intersection of faith and the arts, is Transpositions UK. It is based at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland. For those like me, who seek a deeper understanding of this crossroads, it simply does intriguing work.

P01519-200x300My first published book review for this organization may be found here. In it I spend time interacting with the wrestling of others who do so with Flannery O’Connor’s enigmatic and richly metaphoric novel, “The Violent Bear It Away.”  If you’ve never had the dark pleasure of reading O’Connor’s novel, do it as soon as possible. Then, pursue “Dark Faith: New Essays on Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away” as a resource for a broader, more tactile understanding of it’s dark depths. And you thought you wouldn’t have homework. Ha!

At such moments of personal celebration I might otherwise have been enjoying a Scotch and a good cigar. But, alas, as a teetotaler now for over twelve years, I shall head to the kitchen for my third cup of coffee and some Cheerios instead.

Cheers, R


A little piece from a trip to Nanaimo, B.C.

Rob's Lit-Bits

Nanaimo at night Nanaimo at night. Photo: Rae Kenny-Rife

Layers of green-backed mountains muscle their way through bruised-blue ocean. Hovering always beside us, they serve as our constant reminder to look this way, west, when lost (an hourly occurrence with me at the wheel). The air is grey, merging as one with the sky that frames it. Those, like us, whose weather experience is unyielding, unnecessarily hot, desert sun, often boast of the abundance of light. But, unlike the pushy, insistent sunlight of eastern Washington, the light here is complex, nuanced, shy and non-committal, like a teenage girl not quite ready for a boyfriend’s advances. Colors and textures are more discernible; faces, buildings, and backgrounds more sophisticated, not blanched and obvious from the brash directness of a boastful sun. This light is earned and, as such, even more deeply appreciated for its whimsical scarcity.

Rain here is currency, making this a rich place…

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