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. 

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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!

Poulsbo-ing, part 1

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What follows in this series of posts are in fact my notes from a retreat I recently co-led for a delightful bunch of kindred spirits.

I suppose I should have had a more to-the-point title. But, I would have had to produce something innocuous like “CFDM 2019 Retreat Notes.”

Mmm, sexy.

Failing that, I could have gone with my basic premise: Longing – Awakening – Union. 

Too academy.

Instead, I decided to aim at something less high school journal or quarterback mystics club. A collection of family cabins cuddling an inlet in Poulsbo, Washington was where we did our holy business together. We spent an enriching few days Poulsbo-ing, and loved it!

They are alumni of Christian Formation and Direction Ministries Northwest. A more fun and authentic bunch would be hard to find. They’re about as representative of the kaleidoscope of spiritual seekers as any group can be. All of them thirsty for waters of abundance, hungry for food both spiritual and otherwise, and ready to party.

Bible study “disciples” always take themselves far too seriously. Mystics are better at belly laughs any day. Anyhoo, here’s part one.

Introduction                                                                                                           

All of us are in the process of learning how to pursue the spiritual life; how to discover, nurture, sustain, and propagate a Christian spirituality that is life-giving for us and, hopefully, for others. We’re on the significant journey of learning about our own souls, how they relate to God and to one another, for the distinct purpose of guiding others into those same discoveries.

Of the many ways to articulate this, one might be: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” It is a high calling indeed! Let’s look a bit at this thing we call our “spirituality”.

The entire spiritual enterprise can be summed up in this way:

Longing (Desire)                 Awakening (Awareness)             Union (Formation)

Webster’s dictionary defines desire in the following way.

desire

verb

de·​sire | \ di-ˈzī(-ə)r  dē-\
desireddesiring

As a verb, it is to long or hope for something, to exhibit or feel such longing. For example, to desire an immediate answer. It conveys the potential for one to feel the loss of the same as in “she was sad that men no longer desired her.” As a noun, it reveals something longed for, hoped for; or a conscious impulse toward something that promises enjoyment or satisfaction in its attainment. Or, the opposite, ridding oneself of desire in pursuit of some other goal.

Everything we’re about in the process of personal/spiritual evolution and growth hinges on these three things. And, as followers of Father Richard Rohr, or indeed the entire Christian mystical tradition, one would see this formula at work absolutely everywhere in every corner of Christian spirituality. And, not just Christian spirituality, but in most major religions as well. Some iteration of this formula is always at work. We shall discuss this a little more in session two.

It is why mysticism, not theology, will ultimately unite us and bring healing to the world.

The theme of the retreat is formally, desire. However, as an overly melodramatic Enneagram 4, let’s go with the more evocative term, longing. 

I have numerous reasons why this is a happy venture for me to pursue. In a sense, I feel uniquely “qualified” to speak on this particular topic. Certainly not because I have any kind of book learnin’ thereto, although I’ve read dozens on the subject. More because of my particular construction as an individual.

I’m the oldest of three adopted siblings. I have known that powerful longing for one’s first and truest validation of a birth mother who gave me up. It has affected everything I am and do to this very moment. I have struggled to deal with what the psychologists call “the primal wound.” That is, in utero rejection (although she would never say this and I’m happy with how things turned out!), and the process of learning to find the embrace of one’s own mother, and “the breast” elsewhere.

Trust me, I have known longing.

I’m a Scots-Canadian living in the United States. As I’ve discovered over the years, my ancestors were almost entirely English and Scottish, with some deep roots in Canada as well. But, as an adopted child, I grew up never really understanding any of those profundities to which one normally ascribes a sense of belonging. The most elusive concept for me has always been that of “home.”

Trust me, I have known longing.

A thorough going pluviophile, I’ve always yearned for rain. I grew up in Calgary, where rain comes just a few times a year, usually in the form of hail. And, for thirteen years we’ve lived in semi-arrid Yakima.

Trust me, I have known longing.

I longed for the sea but grew up in the foothills of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains. Any time we have lived close to the sea, Vancouver, B.C. or McMinnville, Oregon, we’ve been happy as clams (since we’d be closer to their experience).

Trust me, I have known longing.

I ached for all things ancient. I grew up in a very wealthy oil town in a constant state of construction to build all things new; glass and steel monstrosities in place of wood and stone, which much better house our collective memory.

Trust me, I have known longing.

I’m a mystic at heart in a world where such silliness is hardly tolerated. Alberta cowboy culture has precious little appreciation for anything that doesn’t git ‘r done or earn a buck, quickly. “Just get to the frickin’ point, will ya!” I got tired of hearing it when I was more interested in the way to the point more than whatever point they thought needed making.

Trust me, I have known longing.

As a progressive, it’s been a challenge trying to live my Christian story in the good, but oftentimes, stultifying waters of evangelicalism. The mechanistic framework of it didn’t lend itself well to the contemplative endeavour. Nor did it ever have enough room to ask “unacceptable” questions for “unvetted” reasons. I consider myself a moderately progressive contemplative, post-evangelical of Celtic persuasion.

Trust me, I have known longing.

I’m a curious, armchair intellectual who loves rigorous conversation around difficult and challenging topics. I’m an expert in no topic whatsoever. But they all fascinate me. I grew up with family, friends and associates who felt alienated by it. It made for a lonely upbringing.

Trust me, I have known longing.

I’m a recovering alcoholic. That’s a story in itself as you can imagine. But, if there’s one thing alcoholics know well, it’s desire. Crooked, misplaced, askew, but desire, nonetheless. We learn how to coax it, feed it, protect it, and lie about it. And, if anyone knows anything about alcoholics: we’re the best liars in the business. We experience deep longing but understand it least. Why? Because we’ve effectively hid from it rather than turning to face its immensity.

Trust me, I have known longing.

I’m an ENFP and an Enneagram 4. Need I say more? The world likes to say they love the untamable spirit and unquenchable fire of E4s, but when it comes down to it, they prefer to keep us at arm’s length where we can entertain, be the cool, slightly aloof, friends at parties, or make things more interesting or beautiful. But, just don’t hang around too long, or you’ll bum us all out. By default or design, an E4 is the most complicated person in any room. We have a tendency to make a cottage industry of melancholy. We love to pedal brooding and morbidity. When a person of a different number shares their pain, we inwardly think it quaint or trite by comparison. We’re generally miles ahead of them in that department. Trust me, I have known longing.

As a young boy, I was a shy, escapist lad who lived amidst vast collections of all kinds of things but, primarily, his imagination. On a few occasions, I would have these existential “moments” that would only last a short time. In them, I would get a sense that all was right and good in the world. All childhood anxiety would leave, and I’d be left with a vision or picture of the world as God sees it. I’d be mesmerized…

I share a lot of poetry and writing in these things. It helps keep my thoughts moving in a single direction. I pray you’ll forgive these indulgences. Here may be found an example of one of these contemplative moments as a young boy.

As I’ve grown older and learned of my Celtic heritage, I came to see these moments as descriptive of “thin places” along the journey. How many of you have heard that term before? The Celts believed there were places, both physical and otherwise, where the divine was especially close to us and that we could move in and out of our present realities into something indefinable, effusive. I like to picture it as someone standing behind a thin, white sheet hanging on a clothesline. God’s hand and mine are touching through the thinnest of fabric separating us.

Discussion Questions:

Can you point to a moment or moments in your own life in which you simply knew God’s proximity and presence? When God was decidedly real for you?

What comes to mind for you when we say the words, “desire,” or “longing?”

What images does it conjure?

What feelings does it evoke, either good or bad?

What are the things for which you most long? That you desire most?

 

Numbers ‘n Such

I’m fifty-six today.

On one level it matters little. I mean, with that many candles on a cake, it really puts the ‘numb’ back in numbers. On another level however, I’m glad to be officially closer to sixty now than fifty. I’m glad to be any number at all, really.

I recall turning fifty and the mind-f*** that was. It seemed to come like an unexpected twister on unsuspecting prairie. Boom! Half a century. Five decades. Just like that, using “mid-life” was no longer a usable phrase, at least with any honesty. That is unless I expect to outlive everyone else born in 1963. And, trust me, that’s not an attractive option in my case. 

I’ve called the fifties the f**k it decade. By the time one gets here, one has at least a modicum of self-respect, something resembling a “life”, a sexy partner with whom to share said life and best of all, I still have bowel control even if I don’t have the same over my mouth. Hmm, the jokes are endless…

To turn over another birthday leaf on one’s tree of life should make for a decent enough quilt. And, given the potential for disaster in anyone’s life, getting the opportunity to turn over anything at all is a bonus, I figure. With this many leaves Adam and Eve could have knit themselves forest floor leisure suits, stylin’ it up at Chez Eden.

Numbers. We make a big deal of them, don’t we? We affix expectations, mostly unspoken, to each decade. When younger, every age comes with its presets. Its presentations and problems. First successful toilet ventures (this returns in later life I’m told). First pubes. First love. First kiss. First _____ (this disappears in later life I’m told). First heart-break. First job. First child. First mortgage (not as fun as it sounds). First promotion. First AARP mail (again, not as fun as it sounds).

We squint our eyes and raise our unibrow at the forty-year-old man still living in his mother’s basement. The forty year old woman still unmarried – or worse – without children (the nerve!). The twenty-year-old still grazing among the high school sheep, basking in their glory days glow. 

We even make movies of such things. The Forty-Year-Old Virgin pokes fun at he who has yet to fun poke. Thankfully, the film had at least some range and didn’t descend into the reductio ad absurdum that a man’s worth is based on his first non-solo orgasm. (Says the the man now in his thirty-second year with the other half of the same).

North American society is no different than any other when it comes to the numbers game. Ours is just more cryptic about what we consider “normal human behaviour” at a given age. We’ve lost many tribal rites of passage like native vision quests, or African communal wedding night celebrations (thank God!). Instead of bar mitzvah, we prefer bar hopping. Instead of sweat lodges, we prefer frat houses. Instead of tribal dancing, we prefer table dancing.

But, it’s all good I suppose. The intention is there even if the best means are not. 

So, I wonder what rites of passage are left for a guy solidly in late middle age? Is it my job now to prepare those for others? If so, wouldn’t that be another rite of passage for me as for another? Because rites of passage are tribal in nature, designed to bring youth ever deeper into a protective sheath of community, how would that even work for those like me?

This much I know. I couldn’t care less about the numbers, well, unless writing about it on the worldwide web counts for as much. Nevertheless, I awoke this morning to draw breath for another day. My twenty-thousand, four hundred and fortieth as luck and providence would have it. I awake to a beautiful Welsh girl every morning, have the joy of fathering two amazing young men, a satisfying career, a home, great friends, a growing faith into which I can settle and rummage for warmth, and the standard promises of my white, male priviledge (I’m a work in progress here).

Numbers. They’re fabrications really. And yet, they’re not. They offer some sense of significance in a world bent on removing it. Fifty-six may not be a fancy-pants age like forty, or eighteen, or one hundred. It’s a little faceless on the surface. But it’s not without charm and promise.

I’ve been granted another year. One. More. Year. I’m no Mother Teresa (I don’t have the balls she did). I’m no Martin Luther King, Jr. (too pale). I’m no Vasco de Gama (I get lost on my way to the bathroom). 

I’m Robert Alan Rife. Human. Husband. Lover. Father. Friend. Disciple. Human…wait, I said that. 

Best of all, I am happy. Numbers? Bring ’em. I’m ready.

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Taken when I wasn’t ready…by me.

 

A Picture Is Worth

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One of the things most human is our shared love of story. The swashbuckling reveries of grandiose characters in drama or comedy, romance or tragedy, that bespeak our common existence. We are, for a few moments at least, transported beyond the banalities of daily existence into another world. A world of imagination. A world where anything is possible. A world where rights are wronged, where grown men cry and grown women conquer. A world that brings hope and the promise of a new tomorrow.

Let’s admit shall we that, whether or not you are a person of faith who believes in the literal, historic events of Jesus, an ardent atheist, or even someone of different faith, one can hardly deny that his person and work make for an amazing story. Try as he might to keep things tight and under wraps, he was consistently headline worthy. Even in his day he was deeply polarizing.

He certainly said some weird stuff. In one encounter with a Syrophoenician woman he stated, rather insultingly, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Dude, really? To the casual observer, he could be whiny, “how long must I endure this faithless generation?” Like, wow. One word: take a breath (hyphens not included).

He is as enigmatic as he is tragic. Hard to pin down and easy to argue about, Jesus never submitted well to easy stereotypes or casual name-brand philosophies.  

The blessed among us grew up reading or listening to stories. Those without this experience are truly the poorer for it and to be pitied above all else. To tell a story is to welcome mystery, fantasy, possibility, into our lives. Everyone needs that. 

The Bible is literally a collection of stories, both literal and otherwise. It’s arc is that of a journey. It is one great exodus from a place of slavery, woe, and darkness into the Promised Land of freedom, joy, and light. What was seen as macro in the Old Testament through a nation – her monarchs, mayhem, and movements was pictured later in the living allegory of love itself, Jesus the Christ.

I recently came upon this remarkably inventive little meme. It is wonderfully succinct and simple. It is a one-stop shop for the incarnational story of redemption. A creative at heart, I have always marveled at the unending possibilities the sacred calendar offers for creativity. Drenched in changing colours, themselves a metaphor of deeper spiritual-theological realities to which they point, possessing interesting descriptors like “Ordinary Time” or “Epiphany.” It is a playground of possibility.

But what I love most about the church calendar is how it celebrates our common love of story in one great story, retold every year. It is the ongoing reminder that every moment of every day of our lives is something holy. We live the mundane in the well-lit streets of God’s neighbourhood. And nothing gets wasted. The times of our lives are mimicked in the smaller patterns of the Paschal Mystery, itself mirrored in the sacred calendar.

Anticipation of Advent.

Our longings are always met by God, but in unexpected ways; in little things, unseen or forgotten things; out of the way things. In pregnant teenage moms and confused dads. In the injustices of supply and demand, leading to scandalous birthing conditions.

Incarnation at Christmas.

In shivering babes without homes. A child far beyond their parents’ ability to understand or control grows to be a man of profound ability and dubious abilities. A man with an unending capability for love of the least and worst.

Revelation in Epiphany.

These longings are experienced by everyone, not just the acceptable, country-club religious. Even pagan philosophers, totally outside the proper parameters of faith and, as such, acceptability, find their way to Jesus. And they came not just out of curiosity. They came to worship. Try that one on for size, o ye doctrine police!

Repentance through Lent.

The richest things are found not in laughter and smiles but through the forgiveness of wrongdoing, the weighing of life in the balance and grace received to make up that which lacks. There is good stuff to be found in the dark soil of penitence. Here we meet God at His/Her most vulnerable. The self-giving God who pursues death that we might have life.

Resurrection at Easter.

The sacred story, although confusing, rough and often dark, is one that only gets better in the telling. Death means little to a God always busting at the seams to live. The grave was a blip on the screen to Jesus whose eternal realities were too intimidating for death. Up from the grave He arose – and we with Him.

New life at Pentecost

The Gospel was never intended as a window-dressing tale to be told to well-dressed children from gold-gilded pages. It is a story as fresh and wild and untamable as the God who is its author. That story becomes powerfully ours at Pentecost.

The rest of the story in Ordinary Time

We then must learn to inhabit these truths. Let them inhabit us. Learn them. Trust them. Doubt them. Love them. Hate them. Deny them. Reintegrate them. Love them. Let them love us, until we start all over again.

Why not learn to live in such a way that the immensity of grace finds place in us at every point of our calendar? I pray that, for you as for me, this story becomes ever more our own to cherish, to tell.

To live.

 

Soon, but not yet.

As you have seen, I am a fish on the shore right now, flipping and gasping for words to write. About anything. I’ve learned at these times to read until my eyes fall out. Others are not in this place. They’re producing page-turning material worthy of our consumption and consideration. 

One such soul is fellow blogger and faith-er, Laura Jean Truman. In a writer cop-out for which I seek neither escape nor make excuse, I share her better words here. Go, read in pride as I did, how Advent is a time uniquely prepared for both the prophet and the artist. For the artist-as-prophet.

They speak the same language. Maybe that’s why so much of the bible is poetry? Yup. I think that’s probably it.

Laura Jean, thank you. My readers will too, I believe.