A Journey, Two Years Hence – Why I Write

Oban screen shot.pngAnother Sunday opens her eyes, damp from night sweat, or the river of dreams. Sunrise, like incandescent eyelashes blinks away the previous day and lets dawn stretch her legs. The miniature Big Ben mantle clock I inherited from my Dad ticks stoically, chipping away the seconds that have become, inexplicably, piles of years; a woodpile of time-chopped memories too easily fuel for the fire. And ashes are but the monochrome of memory – something once hot, bright, robust.

I suppose writing is to throw another log on the fire. The words crackle and spit themselves out as the heat rises. Those are the welcome fires of tin-foil wrapped delicacies, roasted and rich, softer by the second.

Now, this day, here in my writing chair, I can serve up a few morsels, ready to taste. Two. Years. Two full years since an adventure got tucked away, folded inward to await the fires of remembrance. And, in that time, the process, not of decay, but of marination has occurred. Like a good chili, always better the next day. 

And I’m starving!

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Facebook memory pop-ups are a blessing and a curse. They can bring a happy smile of recognition; reminders of good times past with good people. A “curse” inasmuch as those reminders pinch the inner optic nerve with the liminal colour of what is no longer now, but then – sweet, savoury, overpowering.

Never is “a picture is worth a thousand words” truer than when reviewing pictures of magical moments, inaccessible by the senses; only through memory. The existential replaces the experiential and a tear is born.

Two years.

Just seeing those words side by side is unnerving. This time, two years ago, Rae and I had just returned from galavanting around the U.K., filling our boots with shenanigans of every sort. It was our fourth such journey. 1989. 1991. 2004.

Then, a 2016 whirlwind whack-a-mole through salad-bowl Welsh valleys, pulsating London streets, book-studded villages, swarthy Scottish Highlands, tidy bed ‘n breakfast cottages, seaside adventures, writing (always lots of writing); family and friends both old and new. I think my legs still hurt from trudging downtown London and rural Skye, lost much of the time (of course).

Time heals all wounds.clock.jpg

Only time will tell.

Just give it time.

It’s about time.


All in good time.

Running out of time.

We had a great time.

Time gets a lot of press, both good and bad. Likely because of its annoying persistence, an impatient ubiquity. It tick-tocks us into corners or shows up as an ally, all in the same day. We even honour it with a face and hands, and then entrust to it lists about which it cares little. And, just when we think we’ve earned its respect, it barfs in our lap the other side of the page we didn’t see coming. 

To attend to these memories respective to our journey to the UK is to approach the unapproachable. I don’t believe rose-coloured glasses are involved here. Nor do I think it a distance-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder kind of thing. It’s much more than that.

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I think the greatest impact of our time there wasn’t the allure of tourist traps or the necessary bling that accompanies them. It was, on one level, a homecoming. For Rae it was genuinely geographic. She was born there after all. Wales to be exact. For me? Existential.

As I’ve recently discovered, my very DNA hearkens from Scotland/Ireland. Ancestry and companies like it parade around biological allurements to family origin hungry types like me. I fell prey. In doing so, I discovered my patrimony, a host of living relatives, and the certainty of my own personal ancestry rooted deep in Celtic soil. 

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Given all that I’ve written, spoken, and warily discerned on the subject – a holy hunch, if you will – I was more surprised than I should have been. Apparently, it is one thing to guess at one’s place in the world. It is quite another to actually discover as much. Like the dog who catches the cat. So, what now?

More on that ride soon.

Reminiscing can take more than one form. Time is friend to one, foe to another. When we’re younger it’s common for us to remember everything in vivid detail and easily recount as much. Time is our friend.

But, as I grow older (along with everyone else), time grows restless. Not yet foe, but starting to act a little shifty – less trustworthy. And, like hair, teeth, balance and bladder control, memories disappear. They thin. Those garnishing details, enhancements, indispensable at the time, begin to drop away.

Screen Shot 2018-06-18 at 6.05.41 AM.pngOnce it begins, the connections between head and heart grow more tenuous. Colours fade to pastels, then to black and white, finally to retreat into a palette of grey ooze. Faces slip further back from the front of pictures until they disappear altogether and, soon, they become just another “somebody that I used to know” (thank you, Gotye).

Llanthony Priory, Wales

That is why I write. It is especially why I memoir. When memory ceases to recall details, setting, faces, connections, passions, tears, laughter, even rationale, there will be on paper at least one thread of a life lived. That life had adventure and discovery, not just existence. Proof of significance, a justifiable place in the world. A reminder not just to me, but to everyone that I was here. I had something to say. I had people I loved, who loved me back.

A journey, two years hence. I remember. One day I may not. That is why I write – to remember not to forget that one day I won’t remember.




Friday Fragmentia Sacra

Friday, the day after Thursday, generally falling before Saturday, and a mere two days before Sunday. Having now solidified my grasp of the obvious…

Fragmentia Sacra. Holy fragments. Sanctified readings. Portions of goodness, set aside to be special. Sexy snippets. I think you get the idea. 

Sometimes I can get too laborious and stifling when writing about the large hadron collider of complexity that is my life. In the midst of constructing further installments of my journey-to-sobriety story, among other stuff, I give you these…yummy tidbits (okay, now I’m just trying too hard).Fragmentia Sacra I.jpg

Be blessed and live well, dear friends.

It’s not a party till the piper comes

This blog has been kind of a one-stop shop for all things spiritual; the stuff life throws my way and what, by God’s grace, I get to hurl back. Much of that is intimately tied to my Celtic DNA. A Canadian by birth, an American by address, a Scot by history, bloodline, and luck – I gain much from this tossed salad of personal ingredients. 

Perhaps none more so however than the joy and pride I take in being a Highland Bagpiper.

bagpiper.jpgNow, I recognize that many out there might consider it an oddity for such a thing to be a point of pride. Well, to those misdirected naysayers, I share the following excerpt from a delightful book I’ve been reading entitled A Celtic Miscellany. It is a varied, and utterly delightful collection of literary bits ‘n bobs, all masterfully translated from early Celtic literature by Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson.

From a section on humour and satire (something in which the Celts took great delight and did astonishingly well), I give you “Welsh Harper and English Bagpiper.” It describes the self-pity of a self-congratulatory Welsh harper at being upstaged by, you guessed it, a bagpiper.

Enjoy (he says, trying unsuccessfully to rub the silly grin off his face).

“Last Sunday I came – a man whom the Lord God made – to the town of Flint, with its great double walls and rounded bastions; may I see it all aflame! An obscure English wedding was there, with but little mead – an English feast! and I meant to earn a shining solid reward for my harper’s art. So I began, with ready speed, to sing an ode to the kinsmen; but all I got was mockery, spurning of my song, and grief. It was easy for hucksters of barley and corn to dismiss all my skill, and they laughed at my artistry, my well-prepared panegyric which they did not value; John of the Long Smock began to jabber of peas, and another about dung for his land. They all called for William the Piper to come to the table, a low fellow he must be. He came forward as though claiming his usual rights, though he did not look like a privileged man, with a groaning bag, a paunch of heavy guts, at the end of a stick between chest and arm. He rasped away, making startling grimaces, a horrid noise, from the swollen belly, bulging his eyes; he twisted his body here and there, and puffed his two cheeks out, playing with his fingers on a bell of hide – unsavoury conduct, fit for the unsavoury banqueters. He hunched his shoulders, amid the rout, under his cloak, like a worthless ballad-monger; he snorted away, and bowed his head until it was on his breast, the very image of a kite with skilful zeal preening its feathers. The pigmy puffed, making an outlandish cry, blowing out the bag with a loud howl; it sang like the buzzing of a hornet, that devilish bag with the stick in its head, like a nightmare howl, fit to kill a mangy goose, like a sad bitch’s hoarse howl in its hollow kennel; a harsh paunch with monotonous cry, throat-muscles squeezing out a song, with a neck like a crane’s where he plays, like a stabbed goose screeching aloud. There are voices in that hollow bag like the ravings of a thousand cats; a monotonous, wounded, ailing, pregnant goat – no pay for its hire. After it ended its wheezing note, that cold songstress whom love would shun, Will got his fee, namely bean-soup and pennies (if they paid) and sometimes small halfpennies, not the largesse of a princely hand; while I was sent away in high vexation from the silly feast all empty-handed. I solemnly vow, I do forswear wretched Flint and all its children, and its wide, hellish furnace, and its English people and its piper! That they should be slaughtered is all my prayer, my curse in their midst and on their children; sure, if I go there again, may I never return alive!

(Welsh; authorship uncertain; fifteenth century).

Well then. I’ll just leave this here, shall I?funny_bagpipes_cards-r3e45aedba9bb4a898a576c4c32274e9e_xvuak_8byvr_512


A Celt in a kilt and the beautiful mundane

This was originally posted as a guest post on a favorite website of mine, Abbey of the Arts (thank you Christine Valters-Paintner!). What a delight to be given opportunity to share one’s life among kindred spirits in the grand dance that is our eternal redemption.

Please, please, please, if you haven’t already done so, be sure to visit Christine and the rest of us Monk-Artists at the Abbey. Come visit/like the Facebook page as well. You’ll be so glad you did. I promise.


A Celt in a Kilt and the Beautiful Mundane

I-You-Holy Ground
By Robert Alan Rife

I am the dusty ground, low and dry
thirsty for the imprint of holy feet.
Despoil with radiant prints, this virgin ground.

You are the rain, falling deftly
upon my brown soil. Now is left
your footprint on this ground.

I am the ashen leaves, curling and broken
awaiting but a whisper. For only then
can I fall on solid ground.

You are the soundless wind, howling, still.
You creep up behind me and
exhale me to the ground.

I am the snow, disembodied worlds of cold
and chance encounters with hand, or tongue,
eye-lash or palm needing ground.

You are the frozen air in which I am held
aloft, drawn slowly down
to meet with others on the frozen ground.

I am the waning autumn death
soon to give way to the long silence-when one Voice
becomes the loudest ground.

You are the Voice that speaks
heard best in dying, power given for
rising from this shivering ground.

I am the distant hours, the midnight passing-
the refusing minutes, trapped in hours,
running from the years of ancient ground.

You are the many, and the one, and all time
and nothing and everything from nothing
where time has no ground.

I am the weeping, the squalid groaning,
the unrequited miseries of misery’s company
laying crippled and diffused in the ground.

You are the end of tears and years, the question
and the answer, the sutured nerve of joy, not suggested
but present, here, on this Holy Ground.


For me, the term ‘monk’ used to mean ‘one safely cloistered away from the cares of normal life in dimly lit, echoing stone hallways where hooded men sing hauntingly beautiful music and basically float just a bit off the ground. A single, piercing glance from their crystalline eyes means healing, they have superpowers, can read your thoughts, never need to eat, and speak once a year whether they need to or not.

Since leaving behind my roots in evangelicalism for headier waters elsewhere I’ve since discovered that monks often have the sauciest senses of humor, the bawdiest stories and, not surprisingly, the deepest delight in the world around them. My kinda fellas. They’re as non-dualistic as they come; a life to which I aspire. Apophatic meditation one moment. Bodily noises the next. Welcome to my world.

I am a dreamer; a philosopher-poet capable of romanticizing even the most mundane banalities. To a guy like me, cutting the grass has the potential to be a portal into the nether regions of the universe, awash in liminality, where mythic faeries ride unicorns on their way to Celtic slumber parties. But, I’ve been known to overstate a little.

Clearly, I’m a favorite among type-A corporate headhunters (tongue super-glued to cheek). Rather, stereotypical songwriters, tree-huggers, poets, unfocused A.D.D. artsy-fartsies, and contemplatives love to love me. They’re my peeps. My homies. They know my psychic address.

These overly romanticized sensibilities haven’t always promised smooth sailing for me. In fact, more often than not they’ve brought more than their fair share of woe and disillusionment. The world has precious little patience for those like me, preferring instead the multi-tasking, power-doers with ambitions larger than the moon upon which they hang their coats (but generally not their egos). It’s a challenge in our super-charged, winner-take-all culture to prove real value in lighting candles and pursuing silence when time is money and money is god and god keeps shrinking or running away.

My earliest recollections of spiritual awareness contained the following simple elements: surprised by joy moments, generally unasked for and seldom expected; a sudden awareness that the world was not really as it seemed – that from God’s perspective all was well. Specifically, I was drawn to all things ancient, mystical and Celtic. As a bagpiper/Irish whistle player who has toured extensively it makes sense that, for me, the world is seen through green colored glasses, smells just a little peaty, telephone poles were meant for tossing, and “ladies” is misspelled on the restroom door (insert look of shock and consternation here).

Although a mystic from a very early age, despite a decided lack of language to articulate such things, my fate was forever sealed when, for the first time I heard the Great Highland Bagpipe. I was seven years old. I was gobsmacked. Mere weeks later, in the basement of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, I started learning to play the pipes. I have played ever since.

Something else happened however. It christened a liminal journey of my inner mystic and forever sealed my fate as a lover of all things Celtic, monastic and artistic. It also began an almost unassuagable thirst for the monastic realities of thin-place living. Puddles become holy water. All time, whether singing, snoring or snacking, can be wrapped up in a ball of quivering holiness. It is the essence of Celtic spirituality. It is my essence (especially if we had haggis the night before).

Now, a gazillion years and as many prayers later, to be an artist, a mystic and a monastic-wannabe is for me to see myself less as a dreamer and more as a waking dream. Life is to find the holy in the banal; the glorious mundane. The perfect, daily moments of nothing-special that, simply by virtue of noticing them, become possibilities of inherent wonder. The greatest gift I’ve received in the past few years, something particularly attributable to the Celts, is that of awakening to these shimmering possibilities in the blasé and dull. How brightly they shine under the light of the God of order and magnificent delights.

St. Patrick’s Day – Why the world needs the Celts

Today is Saint Patrick’s Day. A guy has to be a press-ready, crowd-pleasing commodity to get his own day. But, perhaps I’m just jealous. Besides maybe Saint Columba, he’s our best known Celt. And, in honour of his Celtic lineage, I share the following.

When one thinks of the term Celt or Celtic what images spring to mind? Is it the Pictish war-paint donned by William Wallace in Braveheart as he prepares to take Scottish troops into yet another conflagration with England? Is it the Military Tattoo at Edinburgh Castle where hundreds of overly plumed peacock pipers and drummers march to and fro in a celebration of Scotland’s warring past?

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Edinburgh Military Tattoo, Edinburgh Castle

Is it the drunken party at the local pub as it becomes abundantly apparent that you’ve walked into some secret society, all of whom are experts on their instruments, can drink more than any human should be capable of but with whom you feel completely welcome? Is it the great standing crosses of Ireland? Is it Larry Bird?

Picture found here

Whatever one may think of the Celts, one thing is sure: they were a people absolutely unique in history and centuries ahead of their time. They were an aural culture, a bardic people of story, song, poetry and mythology. As such there exists a great deal of misunderstanding regarding their exact history. In fact, they seem quite simply to have passed out of existence like a fisherman’s boat sailing into the morning mist.

One example of this relates to something many bagpipers, including myself, play on the bagpipes: Piobaireachd. Let us review that spelling, shall we?

P I O B A I R E A C H D.

It was never their intention to leave any letters for anyone else. Piobaireachd is the co-mingling of 2 Scots Gaelic words: piobaire, or piping with eachd, music. Hence, piped or piping music. Piobaireachd is the classical music of the highland bagpipe and is loosely based on the musical idea of a theme and variations. It was most likely developed by a highland clan dynasty of the MacCrimmons, ancestral pipers to the MacLeod clan on the Isle of Skye. But since there remains so little written evidence of the clan and their history, many believe them, and their development of piobaireachd, to be the fanciful fabrications of folklore.

There is plenty that we do know that can benefit us, however. The Christianity that emerged in Ireland, Cornwall, Brittany, Gaul, Isle of Man, Scotland and Wales possessed some valuable gifts. I list here but a few.

The Celtic Christianity that thrived, undivided, from roughly the fifth through the twelfth centuries, is as deeply influenced by the culture in which it was birthed as the culture that was transformed by it. It is the child of the pagan culture that preceded it. We rationalists squirm a little at this idea.

We need the Celts because of their love for the poetic imagination and artistic creativity, building on a rich tradition of bards who sang the shared stories and exploits of her kin.

We need the Celts because of their similar love for kinship, relations and the warmth of a hearth. Their love of hearth and kinship translated in spiritual terms to what they called “anam cara” or “soul friends”, those with whom they shared their deepest joys, fears, sins, hopes, dreams.

The Celts were forever at odds with Mother Rome. To my mind, this equates to a paradox or at least to a willing suspension of seeming opposites. On one hand they were as profoundly Catholic as any other sect of Medieval Christendom. They yearned to be part of the larger Christian family. That is the Celtic way. On the other, they ever marched to the beat of their own drum – a Catholicism swimming in the quasi-pagan, swarthier style of the brooding Celts. They were both in and out.

How quintessentially Celtic.

We need the Celts because they insisted on the equality of all people in the eyes of God. They celebrated an egalitarianism in everything even allowing women to perform the Mass, a heresy of the first order even in contemporary, post Vatican II Catholicism! While worshippers throughout Europe frequented any number of great cathedrals, the Celts preferred smaller, homemade altars around which they would celebrate a deeply intimate Eucharist. Especially irksome to Rome was their liturgical calendar taken more from Druidic astrology than the accepted Church calendar. Rogues to the core, what’s not to love?

We need the Celts because of the monastic communities that flowered in Britain and elsewhere that became centers of classical education and learning, even possessive of literature outlawed by the Holy Roman Empire. As such, it can be said without exaggeration that the Celts kept knowledge alive and growing throughout the Middle Ages.

We need the Celts for their great love for the natural world and for preaching a God who loved it, too. They attached particular significance to particular animals, numbers, places and natural objects. Their spirituality was mystical in character, bathed in silence and solitude but rooted squarely in the everyday. It was a rich blend of the immanence and transcendence of God.

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Quiraing Ridge, Skye. With this as inspiration, who wouldn’t see the sacred everywhere?

We need the Celts because of their unquenchably adventurous spirits, well known as explorers and/or missionaries to many places. Some have suggested that they may have been some of the earliest explorers to South America where Peruvian artwork mimics Celtic knot work.

We need the Celts to broaden our sense of time. They had an understanding of time that was less chronological than kairotic. In other words, they were not especially linear in their approach to life, love, faith and relationships. They valued the cyclical dimension of time, believing that by immersing themselves in the seasons of the year and uniting their lives with the liturgical seasons of the church, they could more effectively celebrate their journey through the sacredness of time.

We need the Celts for a further distinctive, related to their concept of time; their appreciation of ordinary life. Theirs was a spirituality characterized by gratitude, and in their stories we find them worshipping God in their daily work and very ordinary chores. We, as they, can see our daily lives as a revelation of God’s love.

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Rural Celtic life. Picture found here.

We need the Celts since their spirituality has great ecumenical value, transcending the differences, which have divided Christians in the East and the West since before the Reformation.

We need the Celts because, unlike we who are often more interested in what to believe than Who to follow, their Christianity was a way of life, a spirituality lived gratefully each day, one day at a time.

Finally, we need the Celts because they give us reason and opportunity to party in the presence of the God who loves us.

I’m in!

tin whistle

I play Irish whistle. Or, better, I play at Irish whistle. Even better still, it plays at me. Celtic music has changed my life forever. If there is a music that can have me utterly spellbound in seconds and quickly fumbling for the radio volume control, it’s that ancient, mystical but oh so immediate music of the Celts. The following short poem was inspired by a very simple little Irish whistle tune. But first a message from your sponsor…

I’m the first to admit that much of my poetry is so stream of consciousness as to seem like utter gibberish and an exercise in right brain futility. Poetry is, to me, like flushing out the radiator in my truck. Sometimes the result is at first messy, even unseemly, but hopefully the result is a better functioning. Things run better. Smoother. Life seems cleaner, cooler somehow. This is all I can hope for in my poetic endeavors, such as they are. I can only pray that, somewhere in the cascade of apparent lexical misfits, you find something that can flush your soul and give space for newness…and perhaps a little wonder.

come to me, little strains of pipe, sullen and sad, soft and sallow

fill up my ears with the wetted, be-dewed hillsides of morning’s music.

sift me like wheat till there remains nothing but myself,

chuckling in time to tunes both ancient and strange, friend

to brother and breast, bordered ‘round with chimes and chant

thumping drum and hymning hums awhirl and awake

to find my North from earlier ventures.


stop but once,

stop but once, but twice and find me once more

awake and alive to your dervishing tease,

your dancing, light and unfettered.

full round now, take my arm and turn

now to swing, now to step, to step and dance

till we are spent,

and fall down, complete.

Tale of a Wanderer

What follows is the manuscript of a talk I delivered at Linfield College, McMinnville, Oregon at their Thanksgiving service in 2003.

Brendan set out with fourteen companions, travelling westward. The wind carried them to the port of Arran. Brendan said farewell to Enda and the other saints of Arran and left a blessing with them. Then they sailed due west across the ocean. It was summer, and they had a favourable brisk wind behind them, so they did not have to row. After they had spent ten days in this way, the wind lowered its loud voice and whistling. With its force spent, they were compelled to take up the oars. Brendan spoke to them, saying: “Do not be afraid, for we have our God as our guide and helper. Put up your oars, and do not toil anymore; God will guide this boat and company as God pleases.”

One day when Brendan and his company were traversing the sea, they finally happened upon the little country they had been seeking for seven years; that is, the Land of Promise. As it says in the proverb, “He who seeks, finds.” When they approached the land and were entering its harbour, they heard the voice of a certain elder speaking to them: “O holy pilgrims, tired men who have searched for this country for so long, remain where you are a little while and rest from your labours.” When they had done so, the elder said, “Dear brothers in Christ, do you not see that this is glorious and lovely land on which human blood has never been shed? Leave everything that you have in your boat, except the few clothes you are wearing, and come on shore.” When they had landed, each of them kissed the others, and the elder wept tears of great joy. “Search and see the borders and regions of Paradise where you will find health without sickness, pleasure without contention, union without quarrel, feasting without diminution, meadows filled with the sweet scent of fair flowers, and the attendance of angels all around. Happy indeed is he whom Brendan, son of Findlug, shall summon here to join him, to inhabit forever and ever the island on which we are now.”

When they saw Paradise in the midst of the ocean waves, they marvelled at the wonders of God and his power.

After this, Brendan and his monks proceeded to their boat and departed from Paradise…It was thus seven years in all that it took them on the two voyages to reach the Land of Promise….At the end of that time they…proceeded to Ireland, where they dropped anchor in the sea near Limerick.

So goes the tale of St. Brendan the Navigator, one of Irish Celtic Christianity’s best known saints. As a post-everything guy (modern, evangelical, liberal, etc.), the spiritual life for me is best captured in story and in the metaphor of journey and it’s more intentional counterpart, pilgrimage.

The “tale of this wanderer” began one snowy October afternoon in 1981. Hung over, exhausted and broke, I embraced Christ (or he embraced me, you figure it out!) driving home from a 2-week stint singing in a pub in Edmonton, Alberta. I was not a reluctant convert to Christianity like C.S. Lewis, who, upon his own conversion to Christianity, “admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England”. No, instead my lifelong fascination with Christ succumbed to the “peace that passes all understanding.” Says C.S. Lewis, “there burst upon me the idea that there might be real marvels all about us, that the visible world might be only a curtain to conceal huge realms uncharted by my very simple theology.”

My first impressions of organized Christianity were as follows: Gee, this music sounds hoaky! There’s such a thing as Christian music? Ooh, time for a haircut! My how these people love to sing! And finally, look how husbands put their arms around their wives.

Time spent in hotel taverns and smoky lounges did 2 things for my soul: it helped to engender a taste for something deeper than the rum and coke that washed down the “Achy Breaky Heart” songs we were expected to play ad nauseam. I remember saying to my music partner, “if I have to sing “Good-Hearted Woman” or “Margaritaville” one more time I will positively gag!” As well, it helped me to see what I didn’t want in terms of interpersonal relationships. As a result, my early foray into the safe and sanitized walls of the local church was strange but welcome.

My first introduction to the world of discipleship was in the socially cautious environs of the Evangelical Free Church. I learned quickly that everything was a “warm-up” to the sermon. True to evangelical form, 40, 50 and sometimes 60 minute sermons kept things moving so as to ensure that all the quota of words required would be wrung out of whatever the topic of the day was. I lapped it all up like a stray cat to a bowl of milk.

There was a certain warmth and charm to those early days. Sunday evening services were where I was able to encounter something I had never encountered before – a rather enigmatic creature called – the Christian girl. Truly remarkable beings these: beautiful, articulate, compassionate, intelligent, beautiful, strong, focused, beautiful…However, as these things go, anyone who has ever been “in the band” knows that it’s the girl who gets blamed for the break-up.

Vanessa was her name and she was an Anglican (that’s Episcopalianism, Canadian style). How could I not be drawn to St. Laurence Anglican Church to discover together with her all that it had to offer? Since Christianity was so new to me, it was bound to make an impression. And again, as a faith-rookie, I was struck by a few uninformed first impressions: this is also Christianity? Wow, sooooo many books to hold. So, where are we anyway? How perfectly unified this all is.

Everything had purpose, nothing was wasted, all was intentional and in order. It was blissfully wonderful. We were not to remain at St. Laurence for long as we were also introduced to a local Pentecostal pastor at a college group event. This introduction led to an investigation of Neighbourhood Church where I would ultimately be baptised. The journey took a sharp jog as this church, typical of many churches in Calgary, split over issues I didn’t even understand at the time. I took a part-time ministry at one half as Pastor of Music and Youth ministries.

Concurrent to this I had been touring with any number of Christian groups sharing music ministry on weekends at churches as different in scope as Hutterite colonies, charismatic Anglican churches, Baptist, Mennonite, and Catholic churches, to the many small conservative country churches which dot the countryside of the Canadian prairies. Amid their differences, the curious commonalities shared by all of them are, to this day, a wonder to me.

Deep friendships with Anglicans, Presbyterians, Catholics, Pentecostals and others of faith have helped me to appreciate the many “colours” of God. Although the foundational elements of my Christian faith have not changed, their expression is changing. Thomas Merton once remarked that “at night our vision is reversed from…day. During the day the things that are close to us are clear and visible. But at night, while we stumble about over things that are near us, the stars (invisible during the day) shine in the heavens with a clear and delicate clarity. Faith is like this.”

There is a tendency in much contemporary Christianity to remove the element of journey out of our walk with God. Says Brian MacLaren, “It’s as if we have taken what is for Jesus a starting line and turned it into a finish line. Sounds like another case of modern reductionism-going for the greatest efficiency, the most measurable results, the least common denominator…We need a post-modern consideration of what salvation means, something beyond an individualized and consumerist version.”

As a Christian I’ve always been drawn to the beauty and meaning of ancient ritual and liturgy. But, as an artist and creator, I’ve needed fresh expressions of ancient things. My own spiritual “identity crisis” is part of a larger cultural one. The shapelessness of modern life and the absence of authoritative paradigms is the cause of much thirst among many for the recovery of tradition, of cultural and historical location. This is the attraction of the historic traditions of the church, into whose established, time-proven, objective forms of devotion and worship one may enter and find oneself. And yet, in all this, my own roots remind me that, if evangelicals do anything well, it’s to exegete the Word of God to the culture with ever new methodology.

From each “stop” along the way I’ve gained a little deeper understanding of my Christian faith. And, in my mind, what all of this equates to is a montage of pictures of Christ and the church. I believe that there are many others like myself out there, those who often defy definition but are generally categorized as “post moderns.” Their journeys are circuitous like my own.

I have, for over 22 years now, been on a journey – a journey with Jesus. I’ve often said that my life was just great before encountering Christ. Jesus ruined everything! More darkness than light, more sadness than joy, more questions than answers – this has often characterized my Christian experience. Nevertheless, Jesus continues to captivate me regardless of the skin my Christianity might have. And so, like Saint Brendan, I’m a relentless traveller.

In conclusion, then, our journey, like the stylised adventures of this enigmatic Irish saint, setting out into uncharted waters seeking the riches of God will ensure that the prow of our boat will be ever wet with the spray of the open sea. The nation of Israel, whose relentless wandering through a relatively small territory should have taken a matter of weeks. It extended to 40 mind-numbing years and reminds us that either faith or fear will determine our feet. Like the disciples on the Emmaeus road, whose once expectant eyes were now downcast wrestling through dashed hopes placed in a Messiah they believed would kick Rome’s proverbial butt, we realize that our expectations can often be misplaced and our journey never gets appreciably easier. Indeed the spiritual “life on the road” pictured by Brendan, the nation of Israel and the disciples of Jesus, invites rigour, chaos, uncertainties and indecision. But also reward for, as C.S. Lewis says in the Chronicles of Narnia, “all will find what they truly seek.”

Brendan the Navigator typifies for me this curious, adventurous life bent entirely upon finding all that God has for one’s life regardless of risk or sacrifice or consequence. At worst, it reminds me that my walk with God, although curious, has more often than not been characterized by a confusing trek through “flavour of the month” Christianity.

One could ask at this juncture, what on earth does any of this have to do with Thanksgiving? Well, if a Thanksgiving sermon is what you came for, you indeed came to the right place for above all else, thankful is what I am:

I’m thankful that the banks of the meandering river of Christianity wending its way through my soul have never been out of my sight. I’m thankful that the Body of Christ is more beautiful and complex and mysterious than Western, modernist, consumerism would have us believe. I’m thankful that I’m given, along with all of us, the great invitation to journey with God in Christ. I’m thankful that wherever the journey goes, there exists at each crossroad the “everlasting way” sometimes just beyond our peripheral vision but underpinning all that we are. I’m thankful that, like the disciples on the road to Emmaeus, though our journey be fraught with darkness and fear, the oft hidden Christ walks alongside to illumine the path of the lonely. And, I’m thankful that, in this pilgrimage to newness and life there is always a place to call home. And where does this journey end? When our pilgriming souls come to their eternal goal – love and eternity. May it be so.

Of life, love and bagpipes

I am a Highland Bagpipe player or piper in street talk. It is an instrument with which I have had a love-hate relationship for almost forty years now. For the longest time I wondered what might have gone through my parents’ minds when, at eight years of age, I loudly proclaimed my overweening desire to begin lessons immediately. That is, until I mused lately on the fact that both of my sons are rock drummers. I’m sure that bears at least some resemblance.

Perhaps not.

The Great Highland Bagpipe (GHB) as it is called by the musicology muck-a-mucks is an instrument uniquely designed to be heard. A perfect wake-the-dead alarm, they have been used for centuries to alert clans of forthcoming gatherings, oncoming battles and soon coming dignitaries. A piper on a hill is not just a cliché or quaint tourist post card. It does in fact typify much of bagpipe history. Moreover, as either clever tactic or cruel joke (depending upon whether one is a piper or not), the bagpipes were always the first line of defense in any conflagration. Apparently, troop commanders figured they could simultaneously amuse, entertain and confuse their enemy with a burly, red-haired, stumpy man in a dress, himself attacking the weapon of choice and tossing note after screaming note at them as a monkey flinging musical feces.

Like an octopus missing some legs the GHB consists of three drones – a bass and two tenors; a blowpipe through which ample air must pass into the bag acting as reservoir for this purpose, and a chanter that accommodates fingers eager to surprise the world with music both raunchy and wild, pristine and sweet. Heard under a best-case scenario in which all of the varied factors of its engineering converge successfully and wielded by someone with a modicum of experience lassoing them into submission, it is undoubtedly the most mystically beautiful thing I’ve yet heard. However, the usual encounter of the average passerby is a rather less than desirable auditory experience not unlike a grumpy orangutan humping an unsuspecting cat on the rush-hour freeway after a losing football game. That said, I confess such a description as that which I have yet to see.

Yet, it is what many might actually prefer when they hear this baffling instrument. It is, under any circumstances, an instrument that, like a crying baby on an airline, demands center stage. It is a sound that captured me even as a boy of seven years old. I well recall my first visceral experience with the bagpipe.

I grew up in a tiny bungalow in Calgary, Alberta the adopted son of a brewery worker and his house-wife, my mother. As I, along with my younger brother and sister, continued to grow, it became abundantly apparent that our consistent brushing of shoulders would only lead to inner-family disaster. My father set about building me a bedroom in our not-quite-finished basement. For some fifteen years to follow it would be my sanctuary – my monastery and the place where I found music, booze, girls (don’t mention that to my parents, they only know about the previous two) and ultimately salvation.

The spring before my eighth birthday I moved in. Kismet. I was also sick as a dog. My parents in true devoted fashion brought me hot soup, books (I’m a total nerd) and best of all, a TV to help wile away the hours spent in sniffly, coughing boredom. Changing channels one afternoon I happened upon a presentation of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, an annual display of pomp, circumstance, bright lights, booming cannons and bagpipes – lots of bagpipes. It is filmed live at Edinburgh Castle. From the very first sound I was hooked. I cried through the entire thing, later asking my parents if I could learn to do what I had just seen but thought I had dreamed.

A love affair had begun.

Over Scotland

I love poetry. I used to write much more poetry than I presently do. I feel bad about that. Consider this part one in rectifying this. This poem was written gazing out from an airplane window while flying over Scotland in 1989. It was finished in 1991, the next time I was in Scotland.

High flying, window glass reveals tattered floor-

Pristine heaven greets eyes open to curving planet yonder

Stretching, reaching, sky-borne, we soar.

Place of kings bringing wonder to hearts that wonder.

Stipple green, ground richly steeped in lush, purple hue-

Woven pattern of road-cut scenes moves closer,

Sky meets peripheral sky, horizon’s hazy blue.

Shadows run as daylight comes.

Well-fermented scenes from ancient dreams-

Walls of stone, hearts of flesh, eyes of steel,

Pageantry in motion, all is as it seems.

Like God in man, surreal kisses real.

Robert Rife © 1991