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

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* 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

Re-emergence – A Prayer

Found at iStock

Lord of all good things, through squinted eyes we peer into our great unknown and, with expectant hearts, step trustingly ahead.

One step, then two – three? How many?

We long for each other, for the smell of another’s presence, their touch on our sleeve. We timidly reach out to embrace those from whom we’ve distanced. Even strangers seem less intimidating somehow!

Oh, to feel the sacred solidity of body squeezing body, one heart next to another’s, in real time.

Are we safe yet, Lord?  

Regathering has seemed like a waking dream. Our computer screens show faces, beautiful and wrinkled, tawny and taut, smiling and praying, laughing and weeping.

But, for love of neighbour we’ve masked those faces…until now. We hid our faces for safety. We unhide now, in hope that we remain safe, but sharing what always lay beneath, stifled and waiting.

Like groundhogs reemerging into Spring from endless Winter, we do so a little wary, weary, eyes still heavy from pandemic sleep. Dare we to stretch? To yawn deeply and draw into our longing lungs the languid, lazy air?

Stories shared across tables are always better. Songs sung shoulder to shoulder always sound richer, more melodious. Prayers are always more real holding another’s hand, fingerprints and sweat intermingled with faith. Coffee tastes deeper when we smell it on another’s breath.

Lord, how long? Do we risk those very souls we love with our “return to normal”? What is appropriate? Best? Our loneliness battles our concerns, and we waffle. Then, in a burst of damn-the-torpedoes we gather, only to feel guilty a little. Afraid a little. Lord, how long?

Lord, we remember what each other feels like. Do you?

Take us, again, into the brightness of each other.

Quaranthings 2: Pandemia, Paragraphs, Potential, Prayers & Plans

Alliterations are overly cute. Easy, usable, memorable, but let’s face it, they are the wheelhouse of preachers, presenters, and Presidents everywhere.

Damn, I did it again!

Acronyms (Any Collection Randomly Ordering Numerous Yammering Multiple Syllables) are their crazy uncle. I cannot promise they won’t show up any more. But this should give you an idea of what can happen when writers have too much time on their hands and are still convinced they have interesting things to say.

With that as prelude, I give you: Quaranthings 2.

Pandemia

Strange and wonderful things happen when we step away, willingly or otherwise, from the standard practices of our overheated lives. At the beginning of this pandemic (yes, it is still stubbornly hanging around) we had as much curiosity as we did anxiety about how this thing would play out. We did what normal adults do. We hoarded all the Pringles and toilet paper we could carry. Ironic, as it seems to me the two are related. Governments did what governments do: absolutely nothing, or too much of everything, and we citizens rose to the challenge of challenging everything we could at every turn.

To some, the ‘rona’ is just one big, global sniffle and all the dead folks just complained too much. To others, it was a sign of the apocalypse brought on by Reagan or Trump or corporate America. To everyone, it was the forced resignation that business as usual would not be business as usual, whatever that would ultimately mean.

Well, I do not pretend to pontificate us into any semblance of meaning here. Nor can I offer much by way of socio-cultural answers. All I can do is repeatedly express my sadness at what many have lost, my humble gratitude that we have somehow missed those losses personally, and my intention to assist others where I can to overcome their own pain and discouragement in this chaotic time.

What I can say with confidence is that this pandemic has forced two things from me: self-examination and a more outward focus by way of the same. To do such an examination carefully and honestly reveals a late-middle aged, well-educated, white, Protestant male. I have all the “right” qualifications to weather most storms because those cultural credentials are writ large everywhere I go. I’m “in” and likely do not face the same baffling set of crises faced by many of my contemporaries unfortunate enough to possess “different” credentials.

Part of the way in which I seek to stay grateful but focused on those outside myself comprises the remainder of this post.

Paragraphs

I’ve been processing pandemic paranoia produced by piling on peril through the product of public pontification (I told ya it might show up again). Every writer says, more or less, the same thing about writing – we write to squeeze outside what’s percolating inside. The invisible made visible. The process of creating product from thought.

The opposite can also be true. We write, an outside-in directive, in order to mine whatever might be hiding down there. It’s a behavioural tonic perfectly suited to help get us out of our heads and onto our pages. I’d say this is especially so for me as I can live quite comfortably in my head. If you don’t believe me, even a quick look inside would reveal some greasy, overweight dude in slippers and bathrobe eating Cheetos on the couch.

I’m a prime candidate for the discipline of writing. This quarantine is providing plenty opportunity to unlock some mental chains and grease up the wheels of emerging thoughts-to-words. And, I pray that some of them find safe quarantine in you where they can make themselves at home and snuggle into places of needed hope or encouragement.

Potential

There is no shortage of toxic positivity out there. Our culture is lost in a let’s-not-actually-change-anything-thoughts-and-prayers feedback loop. The Hallmark answer to real problems faced by real people in the real world is the engineered faux empathy of thoughts and prayers wed to Thomas Kinkade. It’s better than nothing (maybe) but no substitute for the tangibility of hope forged in the potential of change.

Because my wife and I have suffered relatively little compared to many during our pandemia, I try to avoid too many overly-sunny, Pollyanna-isms which do little more than show people that I’m a friendly old man, harmless, but useless.

There’s a tricky tightrope somewhere between the verbal encouragement we all need: “Anxiety weighs down the human heart, but a good word cheers it up” (Prov. 12:25), and the risk of genuine advocacy: “Speak out for those who cannot speak; for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Prov. 31:8-9). The former can offer momentary, short-term respite while the latter offers possibility: the potential for things to be different, better.

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer…

Prayers

I’ve written a lot about prayer. What I think prayer to be, or at least ways I’ve sought to engage the mystery of prayer. It is the high art of Renaissance Humanists when I read or say the prayers of the masters. It is the profoundly approachable speech of the street and kitchen when I hear it in most churches. It is both when I hear Jesus do it.

All of it is good. Necessary. In my pursuit of prayer I make use of all of the above and more besides. Early in the pandemic I wasted a lot of time puttering around my life while waiting with the rest of us to see how this thing was gonna play out. Forced retreat feels more like a prison than a spare time playground and, I confess, I frittered away months of glorious time, a gift for which we’re forever pursuing more.

It’s not difficult to imagine that the Bible greats, many of whom found themselves in the forced quarantine of chains, likely did similarly. After a few weeks of yelling at Pharoah and negotiating with the prison guards to no avail, Joseph likely got down to the business of acquiescence to his fate, praying for personal peace and strength. Then, after enough time elapses he begins to pray for the well-being of those he could no longer see. His own cultural kin, the Israelites, had no end of prayer opportunities. 400 years of slavery oughta do it. Then, because the deepest lessons always need the most reiteration, another forty-year forced march through the desert afforded them options for practice (generally by way of complaint).

We learn prayer best like we learn everything else: through the desperation of suffering and need coupled with the growing heart of gratitude. Help and thanks, all of which lead to the inexorable awe of the humble follower. Many have expanded on this idea far better than I ever could, Anne Lamott for one. I’ll say nothing further here other than to add: me too. ‘Help’ is my prayer most days. Help me God for this or that thing, regardless of hidden machinations, motivations or outcomes. Generally speaking, ‘thanks’ follows shortly thereafter followed by the peace of contemplation, which is the spiritual equivalent of undoing the top button after a huge meal. The soul’s sigh of relief in the presence of her God.

Plans

All of that to say this: we’ve been especially busy this past year or two as we begin the launch sequence for our call to ministry in the UK. Pandemic-be-damned, it has slowed things down, but has not stifled our desire, lessened our energy, or muffled God’s voice. It remains for us the one thing to which we are daily committed.

I love everything about this plan. Except for the fundraising part. It never feels authentic to me and possesses a certain desperation of its own. That said, it’s a necessary function for global personnel. I’ll quietly and calmly, but confidently, affix our donor link here, walk away, whispering one of those prayers I’d mentioned above and conclude with this blessing to you, my dear readers:

Beannacht

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets into you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green
and azure blue,
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

John O’Donohue, 2010

Rev’d ‘n Ready!

The nature of this blog has been primarily to share matters of spirituality, the shared concerns of our common journey in and toward the Divine. I make no apology for this emphasis. It impacts us all. Equally.

Everyone of us is on a journey of one kind or another. Some feel stuck in unhealthy feedback loops, the shrill noise of everything threatening their peace daily. Others may be in a fog of doubt or uncertainty or cynicism. Still others feel like a young puppies, wagging happy tails, ears perched to hear all the new joys a day will bring forth.

In recent years, my journey has brought me out of a long, dark hallway of faith deconstruction, a general cynicism about most things, and a cottage industry in unrequited longing into more broad and spacious lands. This is how it goes with most lives. Light is only light when understood against darkness. And shadows, for all their nuanced grey, make things interesting. We learn best this way.

Or, so it would seem.

Again, no apologies. Just an honest assessment of my lay of the land, spiritually speaking. “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”

I suppose I mention this here because, contrary to what I might normally post here for you dear folks, what follows will feel more…conventional. A step into the great pastoral P.R. as it were!

This is gleaned from our most recent Mailchimp newsletter. We send it about once a month and it outlines where we’re at in our pursuit of ministry in the UK. I hope you don’t mind. Better still, I pray you find here something of benefit to your souls, despite this bald advertisement of new things on our horizon.

Come, walk with us, will you?

*We’re participating in the upcoming Serve Globally Europe team retreat, Washington State edition, in mid-April.

*Rae honed her resumé and has begun sending them out. At our age, that’s always a faith venture! I will develop my ministry from wherever Rae finds work – most likely somewhere near London or Edinburgh.

*Given the state of affairs globally with the pandemic, we’ve decided to stay put until after we’re vaccinated. Then, we’ll head to Canada for a few weeks to visit family and friends and continue raising prayer/financial support.

Rae and I share a heart for the disenfranchised, especially millennials, and we’re passionate about sharing Jesus in non-conventional, contextual ways. My goal is to weave together contemporary liturgies, the arts, and spiritual formation in developing creative ways to reach agnostics, “exvangelicals,” the de-churched, and the un-churched.

Our current donor initiative is “Project 21 – Coffee Money Gospel.” We invite you to become a sustaining member of our community by contributing only $21 (or more) per month. Three dollars, seven times a month (or the opposite if you’re given to more uptown drinks) – coffee money!

For all of those who have joined our community as partners in ministry, thank you! But, we still have a long way to go before we can get to the mission field. With enough of you joining us, we’ll be there in no time. Then, we’ll share a coffee in your honour!

We invite you sign up for our newsletter. Email me anytime at robert.rife@covchurch.org. For details on how to give, see our page on the ECC website.

We love you all. We are ever grateful for your friendship, support, and laughs. Come and join us to be part of what God is doing in post-Christian Britain.

Rob and Rae

Thanks be

Thanksgiving, 2020.

Me and my wife

Rarely has anything been so easy for me as giving thanks this year. Rae and I continue to see plans unfold to pursue life and ministry in Britain. We are now both citizens of the US, complete with passports and the added blessing of participation in the democratic process. And, not a moment too soon!

New citizens of a viral America!

With the help of our son, Calum, a host of other blessed volunteers and contractors, and moneys from very magnanimous congregants, we spent half a year refinishing floors, painting every available surface both inside and out, adding new carpet, a new HVAC unit, hot water tank, oven, and rebuilding an underground sprinkler system.

We sat, biting our fingernails, for four very tense months. But, with mere moments to spare, we finally sold the house we’ve called home for fourteen years to an utterly delightful young family. We got the exact figure we’d known all along we’d receive. And, best of all, we sold to genuine people less interested in bricks and mortar as emotionless investment than they are in growing a family in a house uniquely designed for such a thing.

I write this not from typical chair but from a lazy-boy recliner not my own in a basement suite kindly offered us by good friends as we prepare ourselves for UK living. 3400 square feet to about 800. We love it! We’ve become rabbits, rather comfortable in a small burrow – safe, well-lit, warm, and wonderfully cozy. We say we’re “practicing Europe” right now.

Despite being officially unemployed for ten months, my wife’s job continues uninterrupted. I’ve never been more thankful to have a desperately over-qualified life partner to help make the trains run on time as I putz around town pressing flesh (more virtual these days), writing, studying, reading, or doing important stuff that often doesn’t look important. She has single-handedly kept us afloat since January. Thanks, babe!

We’ve stood back in wonder, COVID-19 obstacles notwithstanding, as our sons have become young men of character, maturity, courage, and integrity. Their lives aren’t perfect, which places them in good stead with the rest of humanity. But, they’re content – and intent – on building their own futures, eyes cast on their own horizons. They may be our sons. But, they’ve become our friends.

A slightly crazed family Rife with Graeme, left and Calum, right.

I continue apace toward my late-in-life milestone of ordination. It never really interested me before because I hadn’t found a collective sufficiently aligned with sufficiently enough of me with whom to marry. That marriage will happen, virtual of course, by the will of God and if the creek don’ rise, sometime next year.

The multiple contingencies required of viral lockdowns have forced a certain quietude upon my otherwise taut persona. Long coffeeshop days spent poring over my journal, whatever book currently captivates me, and various meetings with friends and colleagues has deeply simplified. Now, it is hours spent sitting in my chair cyber-reaching out to potential global ministry partners and investors. Telling our calling story. Sharing our vision, our hope for the future.

Let’s be honest, it’s always a much simpler affair to offer thanks when one sits in a place of relative comfort, devoid of excess chaos, and brimming with possibility. I write as one healthy enough to do so, without the pressing concerns many are forced to endure.

In this unprecedented (a word very much overused, but still helpful) time, many have lost loved ones to something unseen, insistent, insidious. Others, through measures taken to curb this invisible enemy, have lost livelihoods, family businesses, self-respect, and more.

The socio-political timbre of our age has turned watercooler conversations into sparring matches with those we once thought odd, but still our neighbours. Friendships once held together by something much deeper have been rent asunder through clouds of suspicion, name-calling, or suspected ideological “abnormalities”.

“As for me and my house,” said Joshua so long ago, “we will serve the Lord.” Sounds straightforward enough. But, if the past few years have taught us anything at all, it’s that how this looks in real time can be quite different for each of us.

This Thanksgiving I am choosing to revise Joshua’s statement of intent, weaving it with an even better statement of Jesus. For the manifold blessings of this year and the still greater currency of God’s ongoing presence, I submit, “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord by loving God completely, and our neighbour as ourselves.”

Will you join us?

On this Thanksgiving Day, 2020, I wish much love and light to you, my dear reader community!

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*If you’d like more detailed information on our pending ministry ventures in Britain and/or would like to join our prayer/financial team, message me on Facebook, or email me at robert.rife@covchurch.org.

*To become a financial partner, go here.

Covenanting Forward

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

I.e. I’m a hard person to please.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A connectivity born of joyful living in the Gospel.

A generous orthodoxy giving birth to wholistic ministry.

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

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

Joyful Connectivity

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

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

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

Generous Orthodoxy

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

Ecclesial Entrepreneurialism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Britain or Bust: An Update

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

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

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

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

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

Peace to you all!

 

Carry Each Other – A Prayer

I love when my wife brings the Prayers of the People in our liturgy. They are prayers that live in that uncomfortable space between pastoral nurture and prophetic nudging. This was her prayer from our service this morning, Sunday, December 29, 2019.

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Preamble

The first time I stepped into a Covenant Church in December 2003, I was struck by how it felt both evangelical and liturgical, like a Baptist Oreo cookie with a Lutheran Center. Afterwards, a man explained that one of the denominational distinctives is the reality of freedom in Christ. Essentially, what that means is that, on many issues we can agree to disagree agreeably. Our new Brazilian friend, Fabio, on the Serve Globally Europe team, calls the Covenant, ‘the Dog with the least fleas.’

This morning, instead of the Lord’s prayer, we’ll close with lyrics written by U2. Bono, the lead singer grew up in Dublin in the Catholic south of Ireland the product of a scandalous marriage during the height of IRA terrorism. His father, Catholic. His mother Protestant.

From our side of the pond, we can see the fighting has little do with Christianity, and everything to do with religious tribalism. Because he’s seen the human cost of not seeking peace, his background uniquely shaped him to write songs about it.

“One” was written at a time when the band were fighting over their direction. The core lyric, ‘we’re one, but we’re not the same, we get to carry each other, carry each other.’  It makes Bono an ideal Covenanter!

Will you join me in prayer?

Carry each other – a prayer

Our beloved Father in heaven,

We’re closer than ever before in history to people all over the world, and yet there are growing divisions and the rise of tribalism where once there was peace. Help your church in the world to answer conflicts and divisions with love and justice. Send workers where needed to bring physical and spiritual healing, and help Christians who live in places with surplus to provide for those who go without. May the smallest pinprick of light we bring swallow much darkness (thanks to my hubby for that line!).

It seems each time it’s my turn to pray, our nation is more divided than the previous time. Across our nation, churches and communities, Lord, we thank you for those who serve graciously and honestly. We pray that where leaders fail to do their tasks well, or uphold the oaths they take, may they be replaced.

Whether we identify as conservative, moderate or liberal, let us each conserve the rule of law, be moderate in our judgement of others and wise of those who seek to use the church for their own political ends. Let us be liberal in our love toward each other, especially those who aren’t part of our tribe.

Lord, in this time of division, let us hold onto hope and not be hijacked by our fears. Let us be wary of those who tell us who is out to get us and who we should blame. Let us remember those who seek to froth up our grievances with a paycheque attached to promoting those views. Help us to remember that conflict sells.

Lord, let us remember our nation is built upon the separation of church and state and that history shows us again and again when the church gets too close to power it is weakened. Therefore, help us to be cautious of Christian leaders who have become intoxicated by the proximity to power.

And we pray for those in our own church across the nation who once attended but have lost their way. Many see the church being committed partisans, blaming others, instead of committed Christians. May we show them, Lord, that our allegiance lies to Christ above all else, and that despite our differences, in you we are one. We are not the same. We get to carry each other, carry each other.

Amen.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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