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.

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?

 

A Longing Revisited

Rob and Rae, happiest where things are oldest.

As a faith-type guy, some would consider me a bit blurry, outside-the-lines. Generally speaking, I make theologians nervous. Well, the heaven ‘n hell type ones. The most fun happens at the periphery anyway, so we’ll call it good!

As a writer, some might think me a one trick pony, writing incessantly on matters of mayhem and mystics and the marauding spirits of days gone by. Auch, a little chaos never hurt anyone. Really. Right?

I’m fairly banal, all things considered. Eccentric, yes. But harmless. I’m a fairly decent bloke with a thing or two to say about matters spiritual, the crazy conundrums of Celtica, and a harangue or two when the mood takes me. And, amid the din of voices speaking into that life can be heard a single word, rising like Charlie Brown’s enigmatic pumpkin out of the misty soil of my life.

Longing.

One cannot be a contemplative, a mystic, and certainly no Celt, without referring to it ad nauseam. It’s the fodder of our trade. The raw materials of a life lived deeply and well. The whole gospel enterprise can be said to be birthed from the longing heart of God. “For God so longed for us all, that (s)he gave….”

We Enneagram 4s can prattle on about many things. But, anything at all that touches those regions of heart and passion and the long list of indefinable wonders housed in the deep places of our souls? Yeah, that’s our wheelhouse, baby. Let me at it. Leave the how-to manuals and protocols and methodologies to the corporate types. Once they’re finished showing us how to multitask (gag), and get the most out of our days (yawn), we’ll bring the paint job, prog-hipster-coffeehouse banter and acoustic song-craft to speak life back into the emptiness they leave behind.

With that rambling, far too self-aware set up, I get to the task at hand. I want to share a new story that is unfolding. It’s actually an old story with a brand new face. My wife and I are answering a decades-long call, a longing, to move to Britain. I’ve droned on about this longing on many occasions and in different ways. But, the bottom line is that, by summer of next year, we will be making a new home somewhere in Britain.

For greater context, I include below a letter we just mailed out to my congregation. It gives a bit more detail. Thankfully, it doesn’t ramble anywhere near as much as I. (But rambling is what I do.)

                                                                                     Thursday, September 5, 2019

Dear friends,

Serve Globally is the foreign missions arm of the ECC. It partners with local churches and organizations around the world. In Europe, they’re involved in church planting and growth, engaging the arts, spiritual formation, evangelism in a post-Christian context, leadership development, ministry to exploited and/or trafficked individuals, and engagement with refugees and immigrants.

Even before Rae and I met, we both felt called to the UK. Thirty years ago, just before our first anniversary, we worked together in an under-privileged area of Edinburgh, Scotland.  The church wanted us to stay. We desperately wanted to stay. For a year afterwards we prayed and obsessed about returning, but encountered several administrative issues. So, we had a baby instead!

Last July we both knew God was calling us away to something else. We knocked on the door with the denomination to consider church planting. At mid-Winter this year, on a whim, I asked everyone, everywhere if we had any Covenant connections in the UK. At that time, I made a brief contact with Letha Kerl, one of the European coordinators. On March 23, we were supposed to meet with the director of church planting for the PNW to proceed with an evaluation. Because it took three months to arrange that meeting, a desire not to waste his time produced a check in our spirits.

We weren’t free to revisit the call until the final phase of empty-nesting ended. With our boys relocated and established in Calgary, on March 23rd we had a Skype call with Letha and her husband, John. By the end of that call, we were urged to apply to Serve Globally and deepen the discernment process. The more we delved into the paperwork, the more obvious it became that God was leading us back to the UK, and to revisit a call that has never gone away.

Born in Wales, Rae is a British citizen and plans to find a job in her field. She recently attended a worldwide Geographic Information Tech conference where she tirelessly networked and made some wonderful UK connections. Upon discerning with the Kerls, we think it best to live where Rae finds a job. My own ministry will spring from there.

In establishing a Covenant presence in the UK, we don’t go as competition with existing churches. We are invited instead to bolster and support them. One avenue I’m pursuing is working in spiritual formation and the arts with Renovaré UK.  Renovaré is a Christian non-profit organization that is ecumenical in breadth. It encourages Christians to seek continual renewal through spiritual exercises, spiritual gifts, and acts of service. I’m well acquainted with the organization having served for many years at retreats with most of their key people. My master’s degree follows the Renovaré platform.

This will be at least a year in preparing. We don’t see ourselves departing until roughly this time next year as we raise the needed support for myself, dispose of most of our possessions, and get our house ready to put on the market. As well, we have a Missions Equipping Training Event next June at North Park Seminary.

We are planning a fact-finding reconnaissance trip to France and Britain at the end of October. In Paris, we will meet with another Serve Globally couple working with arts and spiritual formation. Then, we travel with them to a retreat in Sête, France, where we will meet the rest of the Europe team. I will be leading worship and Rae has been invited to work on an online mapping product for them.  From there we have many meetings lined up in London, Aylesbury, Edinburgh, and possibly Glasgow. We hope that it will bear fruit for both Rae and I in focusing our respective call.

Thank you for your faithfulness to our family, your ongoing friendships, and for participating with us in this time of prayer, seeking, and discernment. We have deeply loved this church. I believe it has loved us. Since we’d be honoured for Yakima Covenant Church to be our official sending body, you’d not be losing an employee as much as gaining a missionary instead! We pray that as we embark on this adventure together, we will all find places of refreshing in the Spirit and renewal in our shared Christian journey.

This story map, made by my geographer wife is much more fun, interactive way of saying some of the same things.

Thanks to you, my readers, for hanging in there with me and letting me toss around my longings in your faces for these years. You’re brave souls, all.

Your friend in the mystery, R

In the Covenant: Curiosity Wed to Certainty

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Covenant Theology classmates – partners in curiosity and certainty

I’ve spent a lot of time seeking. Looking. Perusing. Questioning. And then smiling when I found what I was looking for (or thought I was looking for), whining when I didn’t. Either way, I loved the pursuit.

I am at root a ridiculously curious guy. A poster-boy seeker. The entire world is fascinating to me in some way. As a kid I collected everything from rocket and dinosaur models to rocks, books, musical instruments, record albums (remember those?), jade things, Scotland trinkets and memorabilia, maps, miniature totem poles, strange friends, and much more. I was fascinated by astronomy, theoretical physics, geology, ornithology, folklore and mythology, quantum mechanics, languages and cultures, world religions, time travel, metaphysics, and the funky ideas of weird people.

I never doubted the universe was a grand, spacious, and basically good place. It was a veritable playground of cool stuff to discover; full of mystery and mayhem and magic and material to gaze upon and wonder. I saw God everywhere. And I believed God saw me. We had a thing. Buddies. It was a sort of comfort between two schoolyard pals with utter trust for one another.

I knew no theology, at least in any book learnin’ way. I had no language with which to describe this experience, this thirst. My discoveries of the world gave me all the words I needed to understand what hidden hands might have molded it all into being. I was perfectly happy just being curious and finding out stuff on an as needed basis. With anything close to an answer, I was gifted with a hundred new and better questions that got me started all over again.

That curiosity grew into something rather epic by the time I made it to high school. A gangly, broody, class-clowny, artsy guy, I was clever enough to hang out with most kids. But, I was more interested in the periphery. It was one great social experiment. Like a chameleon, I changed to suit my environment and, like a sponge, soaked up all I could. 

I hung out everywhere. Belonged nowhere. It was fun. It was lonely. It was confusing. But, it all led somewhere. I was about to make a huge discovery, perhaps the biggest yet. Christianity. Not God necessarily. I knew God already. Well, someone I believed to be God. I suppose I met God, specified in Jesus; Jesus, housed in the church.

At first it was deliriously wonderful. I made the assumption, perhaps erroneously, that I was finally among kindred spirits with whom I might share the wonders I’d seen in the visible world. More so, perhaps this was where all my fellow curiousers were to be found. My peeps. This was to prove only partly true.

Those early days were full of acquiescing to the authority of church teaching and the closely protected parameters into which it was meant to be understood. I gobbled it up like I had everything else. My gigantic study bible became a holy junk-drawer for copious margin notes, underlining, highlighting, circling, questions to pursue, books and articles for further study. The Internet would have been handy back then!

Life became about not just consistent, but constant, church attendance. It was bible studies, prayer meetings, small group discussions, college and career cookouts and church campouts, discipleship training, evangelism training, and learning all those Christian songs I had no idea even existed. Friendships that once mattered now were to be discarded in the interest of holier pursuits. My extensive collection of apparently demonic record albums, totem poles, t-shirts, and socio-cultural ideas were summarily hurled into the salvation garbage bin. My life was changed. I knew it. Everyone around me knew it.

A problem began to present itself, however. Once one had a good enough handle on the manual for this Christian thing there seemed little left over for my curiosity, which only continued to grow. It grew well beyond the subject matter of my recent conversion.

I was still fascinated by other religions. Jesus was the only way. Alrighty, toss that.

Spirituality and metaphysics. Hellish new age nonsense. Okay, ditch that.

The far-flung reaches of space and the cosmos. Five days in the making. One for us. One left over to catch his breath. A few thousand years old. Headed for destruction. Fair enough, moving on.

My numerous artsy, gay friends with whom I’d always shared life and laughter. Distracted and damned, respectively. Hmm. Now what?

As I’ve grown older in years and wisdom (c’mon, work with me here), I’ve come to see that much of what passed for faith in my experience was saddled up to a rather small donkey called Evangelicalism. To be fair, that little steed was more accurately called Fundamentalism. But, as I’ve walked this faith road now for some thirty-five years, the former is, sadly, well suited to bed itself with the latter.

Why? One word: certainty. Well, one more word: information. For the post-Reformation, contemporary Evangelical, theology is the equivalent to the right information in pursuit of certainty of salvation. My problem? I’m not really interested in certainty. And, for me, information alone doth not wonder bring. I’m less interested in being a dictionary than I am a children’s pop-up book, full of surprises and gurgles of joy.

This is my longstanding love-hate relationship with Evangelicalism, at least as I’ve come to experience it. To overstate my case, it is like the cosmos being shoved through an eye-dropper. The vastness of God stuffed into a propositional, mechanistic framework designed for pragmatic outcomes. Like writing a paper about sex without ever getting laid.

The intervening years have seen my spiritual journey take me on a wild ride through numerous faith iterations and denominational platforms. I discovered, to my chagrin, that, again, I hung out everywhere, belonged nowhere. It was no less baffling than any other pursuit. At least, in some of those settings, hearty questions – many without good “answers” – were encouraged.

Theology that doesn’t breed curiosity is merely ideology with God words affixed to it. It is platitudinous porridge that shows all its ingredients at once in a quaint, glass bowl. If my only aim is to say some creed from memory and attach that to my existential experience of the cosmos, then religion isn’t for me. I’d rather just be a euphoria-seeking hippy who prefers singing to studying, casual running to constant repenting. At least “God” is big enough to handle my doubts, questions, fears, heresies, and all the rest that comes with being human.

Then, I met the Covenant. Well, the Evangelical Covenant Church to be specific. A spunky little group of exceedingly friendly folks (they were originally called Mission Friends) who love the bible, Jesus, personal conversion narratives, culture and justice, a broadly-lived gospel, and the freedom to disagree. Then, as a bonus, I discovered their love for good beer, wine, laughter, connection, and passion for peace in the family. And, better still, the overweening requirement of picture-perfect theology generally expected in denominational religioso, gives way to the well-lived in shoes of narrative theology. Questions that belie quick quips are tossed about like hacky-sacks. But, they never wander far from the few simple items which unite them.

So, in my journey of questioning everything, accepting little as definitive except the asking itself, I can still be more curious than certain. Or, stated differently, I’m certain enough of the main things to be footloose and fancy-free in the cosmos-at-large. The whole bibliocentric Evangelicalism thing is old for me. I think it will always feel like an ill-fitting hat, holding TV personality hair at bay.

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But, if that is where I’m to live and move and have my being, then I can think of no better place to do so than the Covenant.

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North Park University, Chicago – ECC book learnin’ headquarters

An Easter Prayer (with a little help from Luke Skywalker and Gandalf)

A guest post today from my wife, Rae Kenny. Her pen name is Wren Kenny and you can expect to see her debut novel sometime next year.

_______________________

Easter Sunday 2019 marked my turn to be Liturgist. That’s the person who leads the Prayers of People. It is where we pray for the world, our nation, our community, and needs within our own congregation. Each time it’s my turn, I pray, write, and edit for weeks. Why? Because praying for the leaders of the world, and particularly our nation, is a daunting task in these divided times. Thankfully, my heart ends up in a different place than where I started weeks before.

Without doubt being born in Britain and raised in Canada has formed by views. Every time, God challenges my heart on whether my politics are influencing my Christianity or my Christianity is influencing my politics. Trust me that my spirit was prompted to remove a lot of words my sense of humour found utterly delicious, but were not edifying for congregational prayer! And even after I finished the final draft and my heart had an adjustment, I was sitting at my desk eating my lunch and laughing at political cartoons (from all sides). My co-worker pointed this out and I was embarrassed at how easy I fall into the trap of coping with humour and becoming a mocker.

Below is the redacted version without our congregational needs.

Risen Lord, we thank you for your covenant with all living things, and our obligation to be good stewards of the gifts you have provided. As we care for the Creation, may we make wise choices in the actions we take to care for our planet.  

The Bible tells us in 1 Timothy 2:1-2 that: “all…petitions, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men: for kings and all who are in high places; that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and reverence.” In this shifting world order, let us pray for the nations and peoples of the world, that the powers that oppress and destroy may decline, and that justice, peace, and prosperity be lifted up.

Let us pray for the people of Sri Lanka who were killed or injured in the bombings of churches and hotels. Let us also pray for the perpetrators because Jesus tells us to pray for our enemies, even those who bring us harm.

At Yakima Covenant Church, it is part of our theological ethos to allow for a diversity of opinions. And, we follow the Scriptures’ directive to pray for our leaders. We live in the red part of a blue state. The people standing next to you might identify as red, or blue, or purple, or not at all.

During the last administration some of you struggled to pray for the Black man from the Blue Party. If you searched into the dark and dusty corners of your heart, you found it much easier to tear him down. Now, in 2019, some of you eagerly pray for the Orange man from the Red party, while others of you haven’t been able to muster ‘thoughts and prayers.’  

I have been heartened lately by the words of J.R.R. Tolkien from the Fellowship of the Ring. Gollum is obsessed with the ring of power, and Bilbo struggles with wishing ill on Gollum. Gandalf tells Bilbo, “it is not right to be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play in it, for good or evil, before this is over.”  

So, let us pray now that God will steady his hand on history and lead our elected leaders in whatever role He will have them play. We pray for President Trump, Governor Jay Inslee, Congressman Dan Newhouse, and State Representative Curtis King. We pray for our county commissioners, our mayor, our city representatives, and members of our school boards. We pray as the Bible commands us in 1 Timothy 2 that they may lead in ways which promote a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and reverence. We pray they do not stir up division. We pray they choose truth instead of falsehoods. We pray especially that they govern as if they only have one term to serve and give it their all to leave a legacy of good that benefits all people. 

In the third installment of the Star Wars trilogy, Luke Skywalker is encouraged by the Evil Emperor to kill Darth Vader and give into the Dark side. He tells Luke to use his aggressive feelings and let the hate flow through him, because his hate has made him powerful.

Let us remember as we approach a never-ending, constant-spending election season that, on all sides of the political spectrum, cable and talk radio opinion shows and comedy shows designed to mock, exist for the sole purpose of making money and dividing souls. Let us remember they get paid to let the hate flow through them, and they grow more powerful when we allow them to incite our own aggression. Let us choose instead, to read and listen widely to all sides and be unifiers in our homes, our church, and community.

Let us think of the devastation of Notre Dame Cathedral in flames and picture ourselves as that vessel of God.

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Found here

Let us remember the picture of the fire destroying the cathedral is precisely what we do to our witness in the world when we scapegoat the other side and do not love the neighbour who doesn’t look like us, pray like us, love like us, or vote like us.  Let us stop tearing down the other side’s goat and choose instead to love our neighbour, as Jesus commanded.

Let us also remember as Easter people the picture of the cross shining among the wreckage, a beacon of hope, persistence, resurrection that Christ can and will rebuild us if we let him.

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Found here

There is devastation and there is hope. We are sinners and we are saints. We give you permission, Risen Lord, to resurrect the right attitudes and relationships in us.

May all blessing and honour and glory and power be to Him who sits upon the throne. Amen.

 

 

Alleluia, and Good Morning

Resurrection.jpgToday is, for many, a day without irony. It is a day one can see not just daylight through cracks in tomb doors, but can look back into what was their tomb from the satisfying light of a new dawn.

These patterns of light and dark, day and night, life and death happen so regularly that they’re almost not worth mentioning. Except, they are.

The ancients call it Paschal Mystery. A repeating pattern of living and dying and renewing that, through the eternal Christ, is everywhere present, everywhere accessible.

Faith is merely the God-given sight necessary to awaken to it. And Easter is the primal, archetypal key that opens that door.

Today is Easter. Resurrection. All that was dark, dead, hopeless, and not, is brought back into glorious harmony with God and the cosmos. Through Christ, today, we feel its warmth. Today, we know its hope.

Today is for all todays until all tomorrows are todays.

Alleluia and good morning.

_______________________

Picture found here

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.

 

2019 and Eight Years On

Given the constant pestering from my legions of adoring fans, with characteristic humility, I submit to your desire for a year-end Rob exposé. Okay, so maybe it has a little more to do with keeping up appearances and SEO ratings. Okay, so maybe I’m too lazy even for that.

Consider it a need-driven march to help lay bare some personal truths gleaned from another calendar year of living large in a small town. In any case, here’s my look back at a year, now mere hours in our rearview mirrors.

A few hours ago, that big, magical clock from which we run, upon which we hang our goals, and against which we struggle, strain, and strive for personal betterment clunk itself over from 2018 to 2019. And, in that instant, all our accumulated belly fat, financial debts, interpersonal fireworks, and personal bugaboos disappeared in plumes of rainbow-coloured smoke.

Right?

Well, for those of us who lived through it sober, ’twas nothing more than the slight rightward movement of the minute hand on my late father’s mantle clock. That is, of course, if I were awake to see the magic happen (I wasn’t).

2018. Hmm, what to say about the year. Despite being a year primarily of seeking and discernment, a kind of quiet faithfulness to duty prevailed. So much so, that I struggle to write much of anything with any real drama, sizzle or wow. A certain plodding along prevailed. A daily attention to the simple joys of waking up, having a job to do, and family and friends for whom to do it. 

2018 did see a number of significances worth mentioning, not the least of which was the end of a thirteen-year long chapter. We bid farewell to the Master of Arts program in Spiritual Formation and Leadership through Spring Arbor University, Michigan. I graduated from this program in 2011. It’s one of the few genuinely cool things I get to hang on my wall.

My relationship to this program is close and deeply held. As is my reverence for the stalwart souls who envisioned and implemented it so well. Through my role as musical liturgist, and resident buffoon (I never got paid extra for that),

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Mindy Caliguire, Michigan, 2010

I was given opportunity to work with spiritual luminaries the likes of Richard Foster, Tony Campolo, Shane Claiborne, Mindy Caliguire, Robert Mulholland, Reed Sheard, Valerie Dodge-Reyna, Eric Rasmussen, Elaine Heath, Michael Christensen, Robert Moore-Jumonville, Wil Hernandez, John Michael Talbot, Juanita Rasmus Dallas Willard, and numerous others. People whose books dot my shelves and whose spirits challenge my own.

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Shane Claiborne, Philadelphia, 2009
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Tony Campolo, Philadelphia, 2009

It was like letting the poor kid from the blue collar neighbourhood hang out in the executive box (is that what it’s called?) at the Superbowl (that’s the football thingy, right?). I was the starry-eyed groupie meeting his super-heroes for the first time. Not only did I meet them, but we even worked together in the process of souls intermingling at heaven’s cocktail party. It means that, now, I can shamelessly name-drop like everyone else! I’ll have one of those “wait till you hear this” kind of stories for water-cooler and narthex, post-service chit chat.

But seriously, my heart is heavy with its demise. And, yes Ms. Dion, my heart will go on, but not without a dent or two from some serious front-end collisions with God’s good people, equally hungry for spiritual food.

A rather vexing concern of 2018 was the personally arid landscape for new words. Put another way, a decided lack of writer’s cramp. Subsequently, I’d become accustomed to dropping bits and bobs of literary refuse hither, thither, and yon. 

Anyone who creates anything at all is constantly confronted by this particular demon. Hips are always a little out of joint thanks to creative-angel wrestling-tomfoolery. That said, it was not entirely without a gem here or there. Besides, like the end of an old toothpaste tube, here I am all the same, squeezing out whatever is left in the curl (because I squeeze out toothpaste properly!).

My journey in a renewed sobriety continued apace. The egg-faced embarrassment of a 2016 fall from grace is still freshly washed off and replaced by the smile of A.A. rediscovery.

I discovered the little joys of posting spiritual memes rather than multi-layered tomes.

A sermon or two found its way here.

All things U.K., longing and retrospective, coupled with growing understanding of my own lineage dotted this blog as well. I dare say, it will always be that way.

My 2017 retrospective shared much of what I continue to encounter in daily living. That is, an appreciation for the beauties of, well, daily living. What could be at the root of this humanizing of an otherwise heady mysticism? Could it be the relative lack of mid-fifties testosterone? A more ready shrug of the shoulder to that which might have destroyed a younger me? The unyielding march of days set in years, marching still faster, that offer greater calm in the storm? A good running regime? Dental hygiene? 

Whatever the case, my life, despite its fair share of discouragements and mystifying conundrums, seems to have taken on a more settled timbre to its previous, grittier iterations. How can one be anything but grateful for such?

My wife of over thirty years continues apace wrestling her first novel into submission. I’m sure more on that tale will be forthcoming. My sons, Calum (27) and Graeme (22), are struggling and reaching and hoping as young men do to find their respective places in the proverbial panoply of similarly struggling humanity. Graeme graduated from Selkirk College in Contemporary Music and Technology. Calum writes and produces music and paints houses.

Of them, I could not be more in awe.

Despite an appalling lack of inspiration (sometimes even interest), I plod along in my daily responsibilities as music and worship director at Yakima Covenant Church. For reasons best left a mystery, they continue to employ me. I think they even like me. Not everyone can say as much. And, that alone, gives me pause for reflective gratitude.

So then, like you, I stand at the threshold (such a tired, but useful metaphor) of a new calendar year. In one hand I hold my hopes and aspirations for what I’d like to see in my life and ministry. In the other, the memories and experience of all that helped fill the other hand.

And I sing songs of remembrance. Of hope. Of lives yet to touch. Of songs yet to sing in days yet to live.

Most of all, eight years on, you are so appreciated, my beloved innerwoven family. Your interest in my words, pontifications, occasional perturbations, and contemplations – my life – mean that you are as much a part of me as anyone else.

I am humbled by your presence here and your willingness to hang out at this cyber-fire with me. Let’s keep telling fireside stories together for our mutual edification, shall we? 

Thanks for just being here with me and, Happy New Year.

From Faith W – i – d – e to Faith DeeP

Renovation of the Church: What Happens When a Seeker Church Discovers Spiritual Formation by Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken – A Review

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Drive down any neighborhood street in America and one is struck by the sheer number of church buildings dotting the suburban landscape. They are all roughly the same size, striving toward the same full palette of programming options, and feigning ecumenism while struggling for the same group of spiritual consumers intent on gaining the biggest bang for their religious buck. All this while balancing a staff-for-growth strategy with the mortgage on a newly renovated building designed to make those same folks comfortable, happy and faith satisfied.

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One of many churches lining Main Street, America

The Christian church in North America wrestles with an image crisis. More specifically, it wrestles with a crisis over image; image over anything else. Ever since the church growth movements of the seventies and eighties that saw the emergence of the mega-church and seeker movements, we have trained ourselves well as church leadership offering a goods and services model of Christian life. The colorful costuming, extensive advertising and lavish user-friendly layouts all hint at some high-interest Promised Land investment, but in the end make us guilty of false advertising. By only catering to the felt needs of the spiritual-goods and services clientele we misrepresent the gospel’s insistence upon self-sacrifice and identifying our deepest needs.

As someone who, for four years, was on the music and arts staff at a large Willow Creek Association church in British Columbia, I was instantly drawn to encounter the newly published, Renovation of the Church: What Happens When a Seeker Church Discovers Spiritual Formation by co-pastors, Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken, and offer a few thoughts.

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Like so many other churches of its era and philosophy, Oak Hills enjoyed a meteoric rise from a few dozen people in a strip mall to many hundreds in just over a decade. The high production values endemic of the seeker-targeted church mentality assisted in creating a monster that “demanded to be fed.” When one stands back and looks at sheer statistics and rapidity of growth it is a hard ideology to criticize. That is especially true in our own cultural setting where we are now suffering the effects of an economic beast created through consumerist greed, unbridled capitalism and blind adherence to the free market. It has now turned to face its creator and is quite happily dining on us. The church has mimicked the prevailing culture perfectly and is paying the price. Oak Hills was paying that price. Renovation of the Church is a book that tells the story of how they recognized the high price they were paying and, instead, sought to redefine itself in an entirely new way; a sustainable way. The Jesus way.

These concerns have faced all of us to some degree. In this regard Oak Hills is no different than any other local collective of believers. What is telling for our purposes however is the ways through which they were brought into a new arena of self-reflection, asking hard questions like how to present the radical message of Christ in a church that has catered to the religious demands of the nominally committed, or how the cross and self-denial can possibly become the central facts in a prosperous, consumer culture. Or, how can discipleship to Jesus be the modus operandi in a thriving North American congregation? Carlson and Lueken openly share the ways Oak Hills turned to face the monster, stare it down and either tame or kill it. They chose neither. Instead, they were reintroduced to the Way of Jesus with its inherently subversive undertones.

A staff retreat to Donner Lake, California, playfully called the Donner Party, became their epiphany. “Gradually, we began to get some clarity on a troubling truth: attracting people to church based on their consumer demands is in direct and irredeemable conflict with inviting people, in Jesus’ words, to lose their lives in order to find them. It slowly began to dawn on us that our method of attracting people was forming them in ways contrary to the way of Christ” (p. 35). Eugene Peterson would heartily agree, offering a similar viewpoint in his book The Jesus Way. How we journey is every bit as important as with whom.

The transition from their Donner Retreat illuminations to an Oak Hills steeped in seeker-church mentality to a new entity built upon spiritual formation and kingdom life forms the basis for most of the book. By their own admission, that has been a richly rewarding but deeply painful process. Faced with a crushing clash of values, they had to admit that when they turned to face what it was that was lacking, they “found themselves hungering for a life with God that had more substance, more depth, more reality” (pg. 31). Their palette of boast-worthy ministries didn’t include well-fed souls. The lives of congregants too closely mirrored those in the surrounding culture. The human spirit has an annoying way of insisting upon its needs.

The scope of the book did not allow it, but I believe that much of our contemporary philosophy of ministry grows out of an insufficient theology so tied to the culture in its efforts at relevance that it becomes incongruous with the deeper call of the transforming gospel. Oak Hills seems to have avoided some of these pitfalls due in part to their complete reexamination of the gospel they were preaching and the philosophical crucible out of which it was spawned.

As effective as the Willow Creek model has been (the authors graciously offer praise rather than subtly boasting a ‘look at us now’ motif) it unearths this cut and dried notion of who’s in and who’s out, lost and found, saved and unsaved. This is great for building pie graphs for the boardroom. It is not so helpful in determining the state of the human soul before the God who calls us to union with Godself. Too often we give the impression of having the answer to every question.Says Lueken, however, this “illusion of understanding pinches the mystery of faith” (p. 99). The seeker model is utterly dependent on this epistemological approach. Essentially, Oak Hills began to morph from a propositional gospel into an incarnational one.

It takes great courage to begin the immense and bloody task of moving a large ship like Oak Hills that has inertia, a history of success, and much to lose. The systemic change for which they had opted required and found a unified leadership. This is one of the great strengths I believe in the Oak Hills transition from faith-wide to faith-deep. If a church or organization can weather the gargantuan groundswell of change required of them, it will do so by means of careful listening to the continued guidance of the Spirit in concert with solidly committed, interdependent leadership.

What Oak Hills came up against is the inevitable result of the runaway train of self-satisfying materialism, birthed in a political crucible lacking checks and balances and designed for its flourishing, all supported by a weak and insipid theology that, in the interest of getting more customers, is often complicit in its advance, baptizing it in Christian jargon. The gospel of Jesus Christ is promoted as the best among a pantheon of available choices. As a result, the buying public views it as such; one loaf among many.

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This is the courage of Oak Hills. Says Lueken, “we began to realize the gospel is bigger and grander than a private transaction between a sinner and God” (pg. 56). Evangelicalism, of which the seeker model is the ultimate representation, is fed by the culture in an effort to preach a message about God. A spiritual formation model allows Jesus to change us, taking the culture along for the ride. It is about the God of the message.

They make the poignant observation that, if followers of Christ “are barely distinguishable from the non-churched people around us, the kingdom of God is not advancing” (pg. 87). We should not succumb to the temptation of thinking that God’s kingdom is expanding simply because our organizations are growing bigger. In fact, it is more common that the expansion of the local body, at least in the short term, is inversely proportionate to its growth deeper rather than wider. Says St. Francis of Assisi, “few be the lovers of the cross.”

Oak Hills began the process of change by first addressing their own leadership ambitions, seeing them for what they were. This needed honest recognition and open-heart surgery. Most notably, the oft incendiary nature of ecclesiastical culture wars, in this case church-wide versus church-deep, was at least partially quelled in the humble waters of their kind-hearted approach. The story is peppered with a heady, refreshing honesty all but missing in most works of this kind.

For me, the chapter on worship, alone, was worth reading the book.  As the authors are careful to clarify, the seeker movement has reintroduced the arts back into the local church. But, again, only inasmuch as it points at belief in a doctrine about God rather than an expression of God; God’s beauty and our place in the vast and mysterious cosmos. “Worship, at its best, exposes…oppressive self-absorption and invites us to root the smaller story of our lives into the larger story of God’s ongoing redemption of humanity and this universe” (p. 149). The worship of the church acts as the faith jello-mold, shaping the wobbly framework of our lives and offering spiritual coagulation.

In evangelical circles, people who do what I do are often paid handsomely because of our role in putting a pretty face on an attractional church. If we play the worship game right, we’ll be assured our market share of the paying public. In this way, Christianity basically becomes a hobby. The authors suggest however that, the deeper one’s worship theology, the less it will look like the prevailing culture. Churches will shrink accordingly. They will deepen however, something much more commensurate with the demands of Kingdom life; a life willing to forego relevance and style in favor of depth and significance. It is a radically transformed life, emerging out of corporate worship that does not “neglect issues of justice and the needs of our neighbor….Biblical worship that finds God will also find our neighbor” (p. 155, 156). In other words, the quality of our worship will begin to be reflective of the quality of our lives.

If the book can be faulted for anything (other than the occasional awkward eighth grade writing level) it would be that its short, narrative style denies an even deeper reflection of the issues involved and how they are impacting so many other churches. I would like to have heard their take on church for the de-churched; those in our midst whose relationship with the larger church has been almost irrevocably damaged. Not unlike other faith communities who are aglow in their newfound Kingdom life epiphanies, their language, although much more expansive and perspicacious than earlier in their history, is in danger of creating yet another sub-culture – a spiritual formation one – with its own language, insider jargon and products. Still, their own journey reveals a willingness to embrace the unknown and shows much promise in their ever-evolving theology and ministry.

Ultimately, this book is not just an exposé of Oak Hills Church and its ministry. Nor is it primarily arguing the benefits of the church as crucible for spiritual formation. This is a book about leadership. It is a book about the possibilities available to faith communities who are willing to listen collectively to what the Spirit is saying to the church and then act vociferously on what they hear.

A church intent on growing a faith-wide organization seeks leadership. One interested in nurturing the faith-deep spiritual life of the Body seeks training in spiritual disciplines. A church intent on growing a faith-wide machine relies on unanimity of vision and approach. One set on the faith-deep pilgrimage to the Celestial City is antithetical to the leadership sub-culture since “the church is not a sect….a collection of people who see things the same way and have bought in at the same level” (p. 109).

Beyond the benefits of its testimonial merits, the authors give us a peak into the elusive leadership in faith communities looking to become Kingdom centered. It is a great primer for congregational spiritual formation.

As a graduate of Spring Arbor University’s Master of Arts in Spiritual Formation and Leadership (class of 2011), I heartily endorse this book for anyone interested in hearing a word of hope regarding the spiritual poverty of the American church and how one congregation is finding its way.

Finally, please, PLEASE toss in the bin all leadership books that utilize corporate America as their model, the very stew of consumerism out of which Oak Hills is struggling to climb.

Use this one instead.