Adventia, day 23

Currently, I am reading through a favourite book of prayers, poetry, and contemplative practice entitled “Hearts on Fire: Praying with the Jesuits” (Loyola Press, Chicago / ed. by Michael Harter, SJ 1993/2004). It is a useful and rich resource as an accompaniment and guide to the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. It is also a perfect place to start for anyone interested in exploring the highly imaginative, participatory manner Ignatian spirituality teaches meditation by drawing one to inhabit biblical narratives.

For Adventia, day 23, I am sharing this gorgeous and inventive retelling of the Luke 2 story by Michael Moynahan, SJ simply titled, “In the Out House.”

It’s been a long,

dusty ride.

A steep and winding road

weaves serpentine

up the side of mountains.

They race the sun

with prospects of a new head to tax,

albeit a small one,

an impending certainty.

Sky and mother

are visual proof.

They reach the city

exhausted

but full of hope.

The husband,

mistaken on occasion

for her father,

fails to act his age

and dashes toward

a door about to close.

“Excuse me,

Could you give us a room for the night?

Some place to lay our heads?”

“Can’t you read, buster?

We’re all filled up.”

“I understand.

It’s my wife,

She’s about to have her first child.”

“That’s not my problem.”

“He’s not a problem.

He’s a fact

of life.”

“Open your ears, buddy,

because I’m only

gonna say this once.

We ain’t got no room.

So scram!”

“I understand”

is drowned

by the sound of a

slammed door.

Three times he will try

to find them lodging.

And with each failure

fell less capable

of caring for his wife

and that life within her

wanting out.

“It doesn’t look good.

All their rooms are taken.”

“Don’t worry.

God will provide.”

And all the time thinking:

“That’s what I’m afraid of.

They’re sorry

but they’re full.

It’s looking bleak.”

“God will give us

what we need.”

He shakes his head.

She believes this

and it comforts him little.

The third stop

looking like a

distant bleak relation

of the previous two.

Until the owner’s wife

spies the young girl wince

from movement she understands

all too well.

“You can have

the place out back.

It isn’t much

but it will be a roof

over your heads.

There’s fresh hay thrown.

The animals won’t bother you

and the child will be warm.

I’ll get some rags and water.

Go on now,

the mother

and baby

are waiting.”

Silently

the young girl’s face

proclaims:

“Magnificent!”

Adventia, days 19 & 20

The following prophetic poetry has always been such a seismic piece that it deserves a couple days. For Adventia, days 19 and 20, I am posting one of the most remarkable, strangely comforting, but deeply subversive prophetic passages in the entire Scripture.

These words, from the mouth of a young, pregnant Mary are as powerful now as they ever were. For those who think the Gospel nothing more than one’s personal ticket to heaven with little social impact, the poem that would become known as “The Magnificat” easily challenges such quaintly dismissive, erroneous assumptions.

In two translations, the New Revised Standard Version and The Message, I give you –

Luke 1:46-55 – “The Magnificat” 

(NRSV)

And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
47   and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
48 for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
   Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
   and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
   from generation to generation.

51 He has shown strength with his arm;
   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
   in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
   to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

(The Message)

46-55 And Mary said,

I’m bursting with God-news;
    I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.
God took one good look at me, and look what happened—
    I’m the most fortunate woman on earth!
What God has done for me will never be forgotten,
    the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others.
His mercy flows in wave after wave
    on those who are in awe before him.
He bared his arm and showed his strength,

    scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He knocked tyrants off their high horses,
    pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
    the callous rich were left out in the cold.
He embraced his chosen child, Israel;
    he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.
It’s exactly what he promised,
    beginning with Abraham and right up to now.

Um, wow.

Thanks, Bruce…

67474583_10158586894473709_2369543928333467648_n.jpg

“All through my life I have embraced and questioned the night, and loved its random light: the aurora borealis, the starry reaches of the cosmos, streetlight ricochet off car metal and darkened windowpanes…the light of friends and lovers.
 
We are on a great journey, through darkness and dawn, across time, though sometimes I fear that our journey is about to end. We must not succumb to fear or avarice; we must continue to embrace life, seek light, and gather in the charity of night. This is what God wants from us and for us. Mirrors of the past shine with the hue of unborn days, just as stars glitter in the dark night to light our way.”
 

I love metaphor. I appreciate the multitudinous ways it invites us to consider really big stuff. Night and day, dark and light, doorways and highways – all of it in pursuit of understanding that which can be never be fully understood. 

Longing, as I’ve written many other places, is a condition most endemic of the hungry human spirit. If we are anything as humans, we are spiritually starving. Like the blessing of pain to a body out of joint is that of longing to the soul under duress, or even just at rest. We long not because we’re broken necessarily, but because we want either to be unbroken, or, in my case, to experience the proximity of God as God when last I WAS broken.

However, there’s a danger implicit in longing for its own sake. It can easily become an obsession, a drug without which we feel we can never really be whole. For too many years, in the name of contemplation, I lived in what could only be described as wallowing. It was often a cottage industry of self-pity in the guise of discerning depth; “look at me suffer and enjoying it” rather than the healthier pursuit of gratitude-in-darkness while praying for light. Persona incognito.

I’ve learned since then to notice the subtle differences which exist between genuine longing and a self-imposed spiritual subterraneanism posing as such. Nowadays, whenever longing arises within me, a few questions arise with it. First, where is this coming from? Why is it there and what is it telling me? Is this genuine heartsickness or just indigestion?  Does my spirit need something or am I falling into addictive thinking once again? 

As beautiful, daring, mystifying, and thirsty as the human soul can be, it is also fickle and will play tricks on us. What presents as darkness might just be ennui, the listlessness which is part of being human. What presents as sadness might better be described as an insufficient attention to the light of Christ always burning in our deepest places.

The Bible and, by extension, the great tradition of Christian spirituality have aligned the parallel barrels of mystery and metaphor as their formational crosshairs. The immense enterprise of God’s program of cosmic reclamation remains unsuited to the quaint and glib prognostications of “systematic theology”, or as I like to see it, the detached mechanics of straining eternity through an eye-dropper. Protestantism in general, evangelicalism in particular, are guilty of this diminution.

All of the above has been the experience of my hero, Bruce Cockburn. I recently finished his memoir. A favourite person. My favourite genre. The chance to devour, even absorb, the fascinating lives of fascinating people. My life grows from the experience, every time. What’s not to love? Ah, but this is not just any memoir. 

18498533

It is impossible to understate the impact Cockburn has had on me. My music. My approach to the guitar. My songwriting. My ongoing love for literature and words. Especially, my spirituality, infused with longing as it has been. Even my personality exudes a certain whiff of Cockburnesque mystique, much of it intentional.

He doesn’t know it (yet), but I credit him in large measure for my career in music, songwriting, and for my journey of faith. While he was still pursuing something beyond the pale for himself, he speaks of “the speech of stones.” It was probingly pagan but sufficiently poetic to peak my interest. There was something out there worthy of seeking.

Bruce (may I call you that?), if it’s good enough for you, it’s good enough for me.

It still is.

Enneagram 4 – Perfecting Ennui

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

Enneagram 4s.

The world is too beautiful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wait, please don’t go…!

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

Building Our Poem

“…in thy voice I catch

The language of my former heart…”*

“The Bud,” 1987

I love poetry. I love its exactitude, its wide-eyed innocence wed to unflinching honesty. The unforced rhythms of perfection, like Grandma’s gaze over well-worn glasses. It is the art of lovers, the science of thinkers, the wisdom of doers.

Poetry gives up her secrets cautiously, altruistically, slowly. Every word, like every note of a great symphony, is fully intended, placed unequivocally in its place with an eye, and ear, to building something remarkable out of simple things, something well beyond the sum of its parts.

In a thousand ways, we are the amalgam of our carefully written words; each one added to the emerging poem of our lives. In this process, there are no real mistakes. There is only the discernment asked of us in the changing turn of phrase that will ultimately become our voice in the world.

For me, Rosebud was one such word. Perhaps an entire stanza.

Although my active period in Rosebud was limited to a few months in 1987, her existential tattoos continue to reveal themselves in enduring ways. A tiny, easily missed oasis in the Alberta prairie percolated in me an entire life thereafter committed to several things: the transformative realities birthed in the canyons of friendship, great things can come from wee places, the pursuit of art wed to faith, and the kind of community possible only through probing, and honest, creativity. Family, lived best in and through, story. Our stories now connect in ways both obvious and subtle.

Rosebud Opera House, 1987
Rosebud Opera House, 2021

Our digs
The diminutive Akokiniskway

On the About tab from my spiritual life blog reads the following statement of purpose: “my life is dedicated to those places where life, liturgy, theology, and the arts intersect to promote an authentic spirituality – who we are becoming.” These values existed in me long before I ever made it to this place. But they were stoked by shared inspiration, fireside laughter, broken stage lights and fumbled words, splinters and spoilers, relational fugue and fatigue, the prayers and tears of young lives navigating their way to maturity; to wholeness. To become both passionate and com-passionate, all writ large in the art of our story. The Story.

On the Rosebud Fellowship homepage can be found the following statement, one of the six “objects” that articulates its purpose: “To promote the fellowship of people whose lives have been affected by the Christian mission of Rosebud School of the Arts.”

Friends, I am one such person.

My daily Rosebud prayer walk, Canadian style.

In the short time I spent here I found lasting friendships, a deep gratitude for the quality of connections that exist around creativity rooted in spirituality, and a way of living, boldly illustrative of the kind of “Christian mission” to which Rosebud has always been committed, both spoken and unspoken.

However, the vision of this place was never one for kitsch or the quaintly derivative “evangelism through art” which has damaged both evangelism and art in so doing. Sadly, what begins as evangelism can become nothing more than jingoistic cheerleading or public relations. What begins as “art” descends to something diminished and pale, akin to cultural babysitting, the low hanging fruit of the accessible and “relevant” to the demise of beauty, the archetypal perfections to which God, wide-eyed, once whispered, “it is good.” When beauty and story are the goal, both art and God win. For me, this is Rosebud’s greatest victory.

Table minstrels

To witness the leadership, serene but definitive, directive but collegial, of LaVerne Erickson has always been a wonder to me. A man of endless stories (and not a few impressive name-drops), tireless energy, and towering vision inspires me as much now as it did in those pre-Cambrian days of 1987. I’m still shedding the pounds added from Arlene’s unforgivably good cooking. More than a few good words (and some less so!) were knit to my story through the relentless humour of Royal Sproule, the passionate guidance of Doug Levitt, the sanguine wisdom of Lyle Penner, the many towering women of faith and creativity who helped put Rosebud on the map. And, of course, the big-heartedness of Akokniskway herself, calling us all deeper into her welcoming bosom.

My daily outdoor show

I am as Canadian as the day is long, complete with an undying love of trains. I grew up in a blue-collar home, the son of a brewery worker and homemaker. Our 900 square foot bungalow in the quaint but rough-around-the-edges southwest Calgary neighbourhood was poised right next to tracks, now LRT, but once host to regular trains through town. So, when I moved into my room in the Rosebud Hotel, the nightly train arriving just past midnight was like a well-worn pair of jeans. Her whistle neither haunted nor annoyed. It sang to me of prairie goodness, rich in the Canadian story so much my own. Our own.

The poetry of my life is ongoing. Rosebud has faded well into my rearview mirror. But she has never stopped whispering to me of what could be, those places where my past collides with my present to hint at a future.

Rife crazies – Rae, Graeme (25), Calum (30), Me

Now, after decades of Christian ministry, a life dedicated to music, writing, poetry, spiritual formation, and the arts, two boys (both professional musicians), together with my wife Rae (Rosebud incubated our love!), we are planting new words in our emerging poem. This newest word takes us across the Atlantic to begin life and ministry in the UK. We invite as many as we can to join us on this journey. Our poetry improves with every letter added, every nuance of word, phrase, and metaphor.

All of you are all of that.

Rosebud, thank you for being a cradle, an incubator, a muse and sage, a friend. Your poetry is now, and will always be, my own. I take you with me, with us, into a new horizon. Our emerging poem.

Word for word, words for Word.

1987-Rae Kenny and I were married the following year.

Same people, almost 30 years later.
2016, Peterborough Cathedral, England

A poem

When muscle, bone, and sinew can’t find heart

and listening and looking. Then, severed in time

from the wishing well of wonder, we wander

through rushes and slivers of our moments, bent

over mirrored water, haunted.

There is a wrinkle in the hour’d fabric of

our days when tender grows the minstrel’s

song. It rings across golden fields of

shimmering wheat – milled hopes, rolled and real.

Bardic but breathless it sounds, reveling in tremors

of songs still sung to handmade candles.

They shine to our hopes, ablaze with just

a hint of what could be.

There is a certain moment, beholden to itself,

in which ghosts and gazes meet to discuss

their future. Still, birthed

from the ashes of forgottenness

an ember yet lurks, small but waiting, patient –

alert to any movement or sounds of humming.

Catch it if it sings.

©R. A. Rife, 2016

___________________________________________________________________________________________________

* Quoted from his famous work, Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798 by Wm. Wordsworth

Quaranthings: Birds, Books, Bathtubs, Blogs

My wife and I are quarantined. One man’s prison is another’s paradise as they say. The forthcoming ramblings emerge because, at present, I cannot. So, when faced with much time and little to do, one needs places to squeeze the cheese and blurt out some thoughts: quaranthings.

Birds

We are in southern Alberta in late Spring (or, in the indigenous language of territorial Calgarians, fourth winter). In our two-week quarantine digs it is achingly quiet. And yes, it is snowing. For the third day in a row. In late May. Welcome to southern Alberta in late Spring, or almost any time of year really.

Remove all the insistently effusive city noise and birdsong rises to the aural surface like moonlight bouncing on evening water. Except, it is morning, and their songs jostle the air around in delightful patterns of grey-green notes which tickle ears and strengthen resolve.

Not to belabour the point but, these are songs I never stop long enough to hear. Listening to them, even deciphering or pretending to interpret them, seems so much easier when, in utter silence they so prominently emerge to present themselves.

Sometimes we like to imagine heaven as a great candlelit cathedral drowning in the broad sounds of thrumming choirs. Yet, something tells me we might be surprised to discover how often Jesus – who loves sparrows, lilies, mustard seeds, lepers, and counting hairs – shushes everything so he can hear the birds in the morning, the crickets at night (apparently, heaven is in Nebraska).

Books

I’m not alone in bibliophilia. In fact, buying, hoarding, studying, defacing, loving, and buying more, books has been my sport of choice for many years. My expertise has landed me in good company with others similarly afflicted. Book nerds: we find each other. That knowing look of glassy-eyed wonder and swollen noses from walking into posts is recognizable to anyone.

This is only Day 5 of 14 and I’m almost finished book 2. To the readers in the crowd that would normally be good news, congratulations and queries abounding. However, it is book 2 of the 3 books in total I managed to squeeze into my bag before leaving to come here. Ah yes, now the anxiety level rises in the pit of every bibliophile’s stomach. All that time left and nothing to read? Indeed. Pray for me. Maybe the third book will somehow last for over a week.

Of course, my overly-clever wife looks sideways at me, flashing her Kindle. Something about the Internet and endless downloadables. Okay, as an old school kinda guy I admit my issue is self-inflicted.

Frankly, it’s a gift to have unapologetic time for reading. Not just any reading, too. Guilty pleasure reading. Books with no apparent benefit to either career or self-betterment. Books perfectly designed to help lure me away from the temptation of perpetual improvement – the curse of the self-obsessed.

Bathtubs

What’s not to love about lavishing to the point of languishing in a hot, soapy bath? Showers are quaintly utilitarian by comparison. It’s the I’m-too-busy-just-git-r-done way to wash. To the bathtub guild, speed and even clean aren’t the issue. It’s the spirituality of it all – hot water on clammy skin, add time, epsom salts, and of course, a book, and we are transformed into wrinkled, wobbly Jello-saints with whom decent conversation might actually be possible.

I’m aware of the hoggy water usage and the ever-so-slightly poshness of time spent in the tub. However, if you’ve ever sat with me after a long run in unnecessarily absorbent clothing and you’d certainly insist that a simple shower might not do the trick. Actually, once your eyes stopped watering you’d pour it yourself on my behalf. Trust me, I get it and I’m grateful for your involvement in my self-care.

My love affair with the bathtub started young. Even as a boy I could happily wile away hours at a time in hot-become-tepid water. They were so important to me that I would fight for first dibs on our limited hot water. That way, I could apologize to whomever followed rather than whine like a banshee over the misfortune of insufficient hot water for my tubbish mysticism.

Thank you, Bobby Darin, for the precision of your own watery observations. “Splish splash, I was takin’ a bath, long about a Saturday night…”

Blogs

You are reading this on a platform cleverly called a “blog.” It is a “web log,” or better, a long and chaotic rambling of insufficiently edited TMI from someone you’ve never met nor intend to ever meet who takes too long to say nothing of any real consequence. Therefore, dear friend, if you’ve made it this far, you’re my hero.

I’ve been putting far-too-personal journal entries on the World Wide Web now for about twelve years. I am one of about six hundred million others all vying for your Internet attention. And well over half a million new websites are added every single day. Talk about your rush hour traffic. L.A. or Mexico City at 5:00pm have nothing on that!

Still, here we are. I write because it’s so much cheaper than therapy and generally more effective than the mood-altering substances which ruled my life for too many years to recall. And, I have the gift of time, a certain level of presence of mind, and you dear souls with which to share a few words of mental reconnaissance. We can see ourselves in each other and be the better for having shared our stories together.

That’s about it for now. I congratulate you for meandering with me over the space of a few words, cast aimlessly about with no other purpose but to perambulate in quarantine.

“These are a few of my new quaranthings…”

Christmastide – Practicing Surprise

Much has been written about this period of the holy story the church has called Christmastide. We hear words like waiting, longing, anticipation, inbreaking, birthing, hoping, emmanuel, and sing of shepherds and sheep, angels, alleluias and announcements, mangers and mangy stables and , all in voices bright sing gloria in excelsis deo (glory to God in the highest).

Consumer culture rides its coattails toward a bloated bottom line. Corporate culture plays with its nuances to encourage warmth of feeling and brand vibes. Christian culture uses it to battle their annual “war on Christmas.” Cancel culture uses it to remedy the former. And, Hallmark culture uses it to sell Thomas Kinkade paintings (I have nothing against him, I promise!). Such a tangle of ideas and emotions, all running rampant…at Christmas.

Thomas Kinkade, “The Nativity”

Even in an arguably post-Christian culture, it is challenging to share anything particularly new about a story this well known. For those of us tasked with its telling it can be especially difficult to reverse the potential for a familiarity-bred contempt, both in the church, and in the culture at large. But tell it we do. Every year.

The stultifying caprice of our COVIDays, coupled with unparalleled political farcity seems to have diminished our ability to see any hopeful horizons and consequently, ravage our capacity to dream. One wonders if one can ever again, wonder. As the writer of Proverbs once observed, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life” (13:12).

But, dare we think ourselves alone to be the hope-starved? Those to whom the heavenly babe first came were far more so.

Read appropriately, in its original context, the birth narrative of Jesus would have sounded incredulous. A questionable yarn akin to UFO talkies or gu’rmint conspiracy theories in the local version of Bethlehem’s National Enquirer. ‘Twould have been anything but a family-friendly, consumer-ready tale fit for animated movie screens and glittering holiday bling.

Instead, the Hebrew nation fixated on their lot as Roman-branded religious fanatics and kicked against the goads of military occupation. And, theirs was an occupation not just politically by the Romans, but theologically and morally by religious leaders pretending to follow Torah but largely interested in political safety and the biggest voice at the table (sound familiar?).

Jan Gossaert (Jean Gossart) (Flemish, d. 1532), “The Adoration of the Kings,” 1510–15. Oil on oak, 179.8 × 163.2 cm. National Gallery, London. https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG2790

Long had they given up hope that anything would actually change. That their station might somehow improve. That, in great, great grandpa’s memory was something about messiah, the line of David, and covenant promises, among other fantastical things. They had done what almost every other conquered people has always done – settled into the long night of mediocrity and acceptance. Their survival mode button was stuck in the ‘on’ position.

Oh, there were outliers for sure. History is replete with them. There are always a remnant of stalwarts who refuse such resigned demeanour.

For example, Anna, whose long and lonely life had been given to prayerfulness and presence. Simeon, similarly, happy just to die having seen the fulfillment of a promise. Zechariah, whose priestly advocacy over Israel was well-known and whose doubts equalled his dedication. Elizabeth was giddy just to be pregnant in old age (God rather fancies such stunts), let alone with the New Testament’s resident off-the-grid hippy. And, of course, Mary. Aw, Mary – sweet but strong, young but wise, believing but thoughtful. Mary, perhaps more than anyone, understood the full importance and impact of what was told her by the angelic messenger. Apparently yes, she did know. ; )

“My mind is blown and my heart is full. Okay, so if I’m hearing you correctly, God’s finally doing something? Not just anything, but making the cosmic statement that the lesser is the more, the small leads the great, the poor rule over the rich. It’s all been upended, and you remembered everything that you’ve ever promised to me and my people? I’m in!”*

Danylo Movchan (Ukrainian, 1979–), “Nativity,” 2015. Tempera and gilding on board, 32 × 24 cm. Descending down into death. In icons, the cave of the nativity is meant to recall Christ’s tomb.

It is on the one hand a strength that such a story resides deep in our shared memory and finds revered place in our common consciousness. But, sometimes the familiarity of character, plot, and setting can sublimate the luminous mysteries at work under the surface. We kinda know the story but it doesn’t move us anymore. The aha! has been lost in the constant retelling that lacks reliving.

We can attribute much that is warm and good and beautiful to our affixation with the Christmas story. We still value the notion, however vague, that love lies at its heart, that forgiveness has at least something to do with all this, that family and community somehow matter, and that God doesn’t mind getting his hands (and diapered backside) dirty.

In our cynical moments, if nothing else, it keeps us looking for good deals at Walmart and happily arguing over Starbucks cups. And who doesn’t love that after fighting winter traffic for two hours?

But, upon reflection, guided by the Spirit who guided the star who guided the wise men who guides us still, we confess Christmastide to be a picture of heavenly surprise. To retell such a treasured tale should be of all things, an exercise in practicing surprise.

And everyone loves surprises.

A happy and surprising Christmastide to each and every one of you!

*Rob’s take on Luke 1:46-55, often called “The Magnificat” or simply “Mary’s Song of Praise.”

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. 

80867692_10156312679816895_1439314918951092224_o.jpg

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

73069025_2304223813033072_5195250281566175232_n.jpg

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.

Ramoses.jpg
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).

Tour d'Eiffel.JPG
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______________.

Chocolate Boulangier.jpg

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!

ESRI UK.jpg
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.

Club Med.JPG

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.

Euro Team.JPG
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.

Kayla.JPG
Kayla, wise and brave beyond her years

 

Meghan Markle at Luminary.jpg
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.

75610773_10156204647831895_698901993510404096_o.jpg
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!

74521056_10156204661176895_183778257571676160_o.jpg
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!