The Letter – Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

What follows is long to modern, twenty-first century soundbyte attention spans. However, in it, one gets a keen sense of what prophetic Christian faith at its best can look like. Dr. King remains a paragon of courage, conviction, and unwavering commitment to peace in the face of odds that make me wilt at the thought. He’s one of my faith heroes. I pray, if he isn’t already, that he may become one of yours too.

Treat yourself to the following as, together, we commemorate his life, death, ministry career, and legacy.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Letter from Birmingham Jail

April 16, 1963

MY DEAR FELLOW CLERGYMEN:

While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statements in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against “outsiders coming in.” I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We have some eighty-five affiliated organizations across the South, and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Frequently we share staff, educational and financial resources with our affiliates. Several months ago the affiliate here in Birmingham asked us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct-action program if such were deemed necessary. We readily consented, and when the hour came we lived up to our promise. So I, along with several members of my staff, am here because I was invited here.  I am here because I have organizational ties here.

But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I. I am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case. On the basis of these conditions, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good-faith negotiation.

Then, last September, came the opportunity to talk with leaders of Birmingham’s economic community. In the course of the negotiations, certain promises were made by the merchants–for example, to remove the stores’ humiliating racial signs. On the basis of these promises, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights agreed to a moratorium on all demonstrations. As the weeks and months went by, we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise. A few signs, briefly removed, returned; the others remained.

As in so many past experiences, our hopes bad been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us. We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self-purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” “Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?” We decided to schedule our direct-action program for the Easter season, realizing that except for Christmas, this is the main shopping period of the year. Knowing that a strong economic withdrawal program would be the by-product of direct action, we felt that this would be the best time to bring pressure to bear on the merchants for the needed change.

Then it occurred to us that Birmingham’s mayoralty election was coming up in March, and we speedily decided to postpone action until after election day. When we discovered that the Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor, had piled up enough votes to be in the run-off we decided again to postpone action until the day after the run-off so that the demonstrations could not be used to cloud the issues. Like many others, we waited to see Mr. Connor defeated, and to this end we endured postponement after postponement. Having aided in this community need, we felt that our direct-action program could be delayed no longer.

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent-resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.

One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have taken in Birmingham is untimely. Some have asked: “Why didn’t you give the new city administration time to act?” The only answer that I can give to this query is that the new Birmingham administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one, before it will act. We are sadly mistaken if we feel that the election of Albert Boutwell as mayor will bring the millennium to Birmingham. While Mr. Boutwell is a much more gentle person than Mr. Connor, they are both segregationists, dedicated to maintenance of the status quo. I have hope that Mr. Boutwell will be reasonable enough to see the futility of massive resistance to desegregation. But he will not see this without pressure from devotees of civil rights. My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain for civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: There are just and there are unjust laws. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I-it” relationship for an “I-thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and awful. Paul Tillich said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.

Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state’s segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?

Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.

I hope you can see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly (not hatefully as the white mothers did in New Orleans when they were seen on television screaming “nigger, nigger, nigger”), and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was seen sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, because a higher moral law was involved. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s antireligious laws.

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fan in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God-consciousness and never-ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber.

I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely rational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.

You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I began thinking about the fact that stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self-respect and a sense of “somebodiness” that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best-known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro’s frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible “devil.”

I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the “do-nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle.

If this philosophy had not emerged, by now many streets of the South would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood. And I am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss as “rabble-rousers” and “outside agitators” those of us who employ nonviolent direct action, and if they refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace and security in black-nationalist ideologies, a development that would inevitably lead to a frightening racial nightmare.

Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice. If one recognizes this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand why public demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has many pent-up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides–and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence. This is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: “Get rid of your discontent.” Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. Now this approach is being dismissed as extremist. I must admit that I was initially disappointed in being so categorized.

But as I continued to think about the matter, I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremist for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action. I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still too few in quantity, but they are big in quality. Some–such as Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry Golden, James McBride Dabbs, Ann Braden and Sarah Patton Boyle–have written about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms. Others have marched with us down nameless streets of the South. They have languished in filthy, roach-infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality of policemen who view them as “dirty nigger lovers.” Unlike so many of their moderate brothers and sisters, they have recognized the urgency of the moment and sensed the need for powerful “action” antidotes to combat the disease of segregation.

Let me take note of my other major disappointment. I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership. Of course, there are some notable exceptions. I am not unmindful of the fact that each of you has taken some significant stands on this issue. I commend you, Reverend Stallings, for your Christian stand on this past Sunday, in welcoming Negroes to your worship service on a non-segregated basis. I commend the Catholic leaders of this state for integrating Spring Hill College several years ago.

But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.

When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.

In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which made a strange distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

So here we are moving toward the exit of the twentieth century with a religious community largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a tail-light behind other community agencies rather than a headlight leading men to higher levels of justice.

I have travelled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when tired, bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?”

Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? l am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great-grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

There was a time when the church was very powerful. It was during that period when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide. and gladiatorial contests.

Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ecclesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment.

I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham, and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny. Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here. For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation–and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.

I must close now.  But before closing I feel impelled to mention one other point in your statement that has troubled me profoundly. You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping “order” and “preventing violence.” I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if .you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I’m sorry that I can’t join you in your praise of the Birmingham police department.

It is true that the police have exercised a degree of discipline in handling the demonstrators. In this sense they have conducted themselves rather “nonviolently” in public. But for what purpose? To preserve the evil system of segregation. Over the past few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends. Perhaps Mr. Connor and his policemen have been rather nonviolent in public, as was Chief Pritchett in Albany, Georgia but they have used the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the immoral end of racial injustice. As T. S. Eliot has said: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

I wish you had commended the Negro sit-inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering, and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy-two-year-old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: “My feet is tired, but my soul is rested.” They will be the young high school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders, courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience’s sake. One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo-Christian heritage, and thusly carrying our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

Never before have I written so long a letter (or should I say a book?). I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone for days in the dull monotony of a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think strange thoughts and pray long prayers?

If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and is indicative of an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.

I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood,

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Adventia, day 1

No, the above is not meant as some cheap attempt at a New Joizy accent with the word adventure. Let’s just call it the purposeful amalgamation of Advent and Fragmentia. Let it be a place where the illumination of God’s in-breaking into our world found in the Advent narratives unites with the fragments of literature and faith and life seeking to bring us to deeper understanding of it all.

Advent is upon us once more. With it comes a barrage of books and practices all aimed at helping us get the most from the experience. Last year I chose to post a daily poetic reflection on my poetry website. This year I’d like to do something similar here on innerwoven. It gives me opportunity to dive deep into some of the best words about the best time of the year; the beginning of the church’s calendar at Advent. These poems are both old and new and are found in various places.

For Advent, day 1 we begin with a gorgeous piece by Sally Thomas, which I saw first on a favourite Instagram channel, #realpoetsdaily 

Here is “First Sunday” by Sally Thomas ( @sallytnnc )

Until my song comes here

Our Europe Team for Serve Globally, the mission organization we serve through our denomination (Evangelical Covenant Church), recently met for our annual retreat (two and a half year COVID delay notwithstanding) at Le Lazaret in Sète, France. For my wife and I, it was only our second such experience. Our first was in October, 2019 and acted as a kind of “reconnaissance mission” as we explored God’s call.

This beloved team is a collective of singular passion, unwavering commitment to justice and reconciliation, enviable humour, rich fellowship, boundless creativity, and endless capacity for joy. We would take a bullet for any one of them.

Our speaker and guide for the retreat was none other than Al Tizon, former Executive Minister for Serve Globally, missiologist, teacher, writer, prophet, and friend. His upcoming book, Christ Among the Classes, shaped our discussions.

By way of understatement, these were not easy conversations! We engaged in matters best left alone unless one wants to face the convicting issues of wealth, the Gospel to and among the poor, our complicity, knowing or unknowing, in perpetuating systems of greed and disenfranchisement and how all of that intersects with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Dr. Al Tizon

It can be equally stirring and unnerving to discuss one’s place in a world given to championing the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor, while not demonizing the rich. What does that even look like? Is such socio-economic righteousness even an attainable goal? When does it cross the line from kingdom equality to political radicalism? Is there a difference? If so, what?

The questions arising from such discussions are as dizzyingly complex as are the issues from which they derive. But, it is our calling as followers of Jesus, himself a friend of the poor, and sinners, and children. We, by association, are to befriend the outcast, emancipate the leper du jours; even love our enemies. This includes those we are most quick to either dismiss or demonize.

Al (he’s not one for the fineries of title!) painted a picture of the transformation of heart toward equanimity by way of downward mobility, an increasing identification with the poor. This starts first with an awakening to our own relative privilege and wealth. To be “born again” is to see anew, or perhaps for the very first time, our place in the broader world; our individual and collective sin and how it has affected us and those around us.

We journeyed through a series of steps along the way toward the ultimate goal of befriending and advocating for the poor. The rich are not of the devil. Nor are they to be eschewed, pooh-pooh’d, or railroaded out of access to grace. But, Jesus makes clear that they will have a much more difficult time when it comes to the attitude of mind and heart necessary to befriend those who, by definition, require something from them, whether that is as benign as their time or as challenging as their resources.

I like to keep things simple. I take my cue from Wendell Berry who recognized the need for every song we compose to be fully accessible to all. If not, we still have work to do…

Light from Darkness – a prayer

I love this prayer by Church of Scotland minister, Sang Cha. Read it. Pray it. Read and pray it again – alone, or with others, this Advent season.

Rev Sang Cha, the minister at St Mungo’s Parish Church in Alloa, Scotland

Lord,
thank You for the darkness.
Thank You for letting us sit in the darkness.
For in the darkness, in the silence, we know that You are God.
For You have taught us through Your servants in ages past that a god who always answers is an idol.

In every darkness, You have brought the light of Your one Word.
Just a simple Word.
Your Word feels like sitting under the Sun.
Through this Word,
You remind us that our incomplete light shines brightest when we are lit from behind by the light of God.
That our light shines brightest when nothing but You can sustain it.

In these winter months, with the absence of light,
remind us again that absence creates a presence.
So, we thank You as poets thank the coming of spring.
Everything begins anew with You.
Always and again.
Amen.

Building Our Poem

“…in thy voice I catch

The language of my former heart…”*

“The Bud,” 1987

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

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

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

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

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

Rosebud Opera House, 1987
Rosebud Opera House, 2021

Our digs
The diminutive Akokiniskway

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

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

Friends, I am one such person.

My daily Rosebud prayer walk, Canadian style.

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

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

Table minstrels

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

My daily outdoor show

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

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

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

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

All of you are all of that.

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

Word for word, words for Word.

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

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

A poem

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

and listening and looking. Then, severed in time

from the wishing well of wonder, we wander

through rushes and slivers of our moments, bent

over mirrored water, haunted.

There is a wrinkle in the hour’d fabric of

our days when tender grows the minstrel’s

song. It rings across golden fields of

shimmering wheat – milled hopes, rolled and real.

Bardic but breathless it sounds, reveling in tremors

of songs still sung to handmade candles.

They shine to our hopes, ablaze with just

a hint of what could be.

There is a certain moment, beholden to itself,

in which ghosts and gazes meet to discuss

their future. Still, birthed

from the ashes of forgottenness

an ember yet lurks, small but waiting, patient –

alert to any movement or sounds of humming.

Catch it if it sings.

©R. A. Rife, 2016

___________________________________________________________________________________________________

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

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