Sunday, September 5, 2021. Rosebud Church, Rosebud, Alberta.
There are no borders in the heart of God.
There is only horizon.
It is the only place where we both see and inhabit our horizon at the same time. Present meets past meets future, all in one glorious ocean of joy-filled grace.
So, swim, dear friends. Swim.
Christmas Day. My eyes are like twin harvest moons of bloodshot fatigue. There’s a roller derby taking place in my head. My church music ministry gig ramps up something fierce this time of year leaving me satisfied and happy, but a shivering hump of quasi-humanity. The solution? I sent my wife, Rae, out to find anything resembling coffee, if only for a most yummy and effective remedy for my pounding head. God bless her!
A rather poorly decorated poor excuse for a Christmas tree tries unsuccessfully to stand guard over the precious few gifts tucked under her skirt. A single strand of multicolor lights graces her awkward presence in our living room. Perhaps fewer than a dozen ornaments hang suspended, lifelessly, from these poor, little green arms – flimsy and weak.
I speak of symbols, those tried and true geiger counters of the meaning and truth they represent. Many, many thoughtful souls have sought to unravel the ontological mysteries so delightfully pictured by this meager scene before me. As such, of that at least, I must forego.
For me, Christmas this year is a bittersweet remembrance. Every dangling bauble, twinkly light, fireplace pop and suspended sock boasting itself on our mantelpiece seems to me nothing more than sad reminiscences of loved ones gone before us; of friendship, once robust and real, now ruined; of bad things said and good things left unsaid.
Anyone who knows me knows all too well my utter loathing of all things Thomas Kincaid (sorry for the random, awkward segue). Oh, make no mistake, his practical gift at the canvas is indisputable. It’s of the vision, or lack thereof, to which I take issue. This “art” represents the shallowest of wishful thinking, whimsical, Pollyanna non-reality. It is resurrection without a crucifixion. It sets out to illustrate a fantasy world where evil has never existed; a place we all long for but which must be arrived at through God’s channel of self-forgetful love that dies an ignoble death to prove that love.
Back in my living room, my wife and I are writing in different parts of the house. I squeeze out these wandering thoughts while she continues editing her novel. Our eldest son spent the night at the home of dear friends one state away while our other son snores peacefully in his room. We don’t expect his angelic, trumpeted emergence anytime soon.
Every year that passes heaven claims more of those we love. Both of my wife’s parents are gone. My father died in 1985. Those whom we have called friend are strewn about the globe in a flower arrangement of well-memoried laughter and familiar faces. It aches.
This Christmas, all of the regular trappings have escaped me. Instead, it stands as glowing reminder of three things. Life is not as Thomas Kincaid or Barney would have us believe. If this little evergreen means anything it illustrates that our hope springs eternal and that life stubbornly wins out over death. Second, the imperfections which pervade our not-so-Christmasy living room are our own. In the heavenlies, whatever that means, all manner of thing shall be well. Sorrow and sighing trade places with gladness and rejoicing.
Finally, in the words of songwriter Ron Sexsmith, “maybe this Christmas will mean something more; maybe this year, love will appear deeper than ever before. And maybe forgiveness will ask us to call someone we love, someone we’ve lost for reasons we can’t quite recall. Maybe this Christmas.”
Indeed…maybe this Christmas.
From time to time God bowls me over with a renewed sense of God’s faithfulness, goodness and, frankly, sense of humor. Many of my best life experiences can find their way back to times spent with quality people discussing quality things for quality reasons. These are the times that refresh me when too much rust builds up on the underbelly of my life. Good friend, fellow blogger and writer, Chadwick Walenga, is celebrating new pathways of grace in his life together with a wonderful woman, Amy. (Follow them on Twitter).
Chadwick and I have history. A short history but a good one. We both studied Spiritual Formation and Leadership online through Spring Arbor University, Michigan. In that place was forged a meaningful bond that will last to our dying day and beyond. He is deeply sensitive, spiritually aware, devilishly handsome (sorry, I promised), extremely funny and just…a good man. He has pastored churches for many years and is father to four of the coolest kids, like, ever.
He and Amy have recently begun a new website with a rather unimaginative but to the point title (dude, really?). I want to endorse not just their website but them, the road they’re on together; the shared invitation to explore life, both theirs and ours. It’s what lives lived openly and honestly can look like.
What I’m particularly jazzed about however is a writing contest they’re hosting through their site. I’m always down for these kinds of things. Anything to keep me writing. Besides, I love this guy and simply want to support he and his new life, his own writing and to say, “dude, you’re awesome!”
Check it out, friends, and throw your hat in the writing ring. I’m gonna. They’re not exactly promising a new car, but if you saw what he typically drives, you’d be grateful.
Let’s have some fun, shall we?
Your partner in shameless shenanigans among the jokes, words and cries for help…Rob
why do we start as something,
give others the impression that that something
is our true something-ness when in truth
we are something much different indeed?
what is the starting place of our deepest self?
When living day to day, how do we know
we’re giving to others that which
comes from living places and not from dead places
merely adorned with glitter and trinkets to make them appealing?
where are the lines drawn between obligation and self-respect?
When does serving another embezzle their need
to capably discover their own inner strength?
When does such a question even matter –
if at all?
how can the coal dust accumulating on my layered soul
be removed to reveal the sheen of love,
framed in hope, birthed of grace that you see?
That I see in my better moments?
I speak no more.
Instead, speak, for your servant is listening.
A while back I began to write about my big prayer experiment. In that piece, I shared the three greatest gifts to my prayer life:
1. Contemplative prayer, I.e. prayer without agenda/lovingly gazing at God.
2. Total honesty in the presence of a God who already knows all my shit.
3. The gift of Intercession.
Nothing has changed with this experiment. I do want to add something, however; something that has utterly revolutionized my prayer life, turning it into something to which I cannot wait to return.
I pray the Rosary.
Big deal, right? Millions do. Well, here’s the thing – I’m a Protestant. We’re supposed to look with suspicion, pity or even hatred at such wayward, Medieval practices believing them to be the rote, meaningless prayers pooh-poohed by Jesus in the Gospels. How could such a ridiculous thing, something held in regard by little, old ladies and superstitious saintly wannabes possibly lead one to the expected spontaneity and relationship we’re led to accept through our more enlightened “salvation prayer” at the end of the 4 Spiritual Laws booklet? Or so we Protestants are taught to think. You remember…the “Accept you’re a sinner/Believe in the Good News/Confess your sins” prayer that, like magic, whisks us from the apparent hell of our present existence into the Thomas Kinkade wonderland of Jesusy goodness? It’s actually a very good prayer. A necessary one.
It’s just so…incomplete.
Actually, I prayed that prayer once, too. Not necessarily that exact prayer, but one just like it. I credit that prayer for bringing a keener sense of articulation and focus to my otherwise meandering picture of me and God. I suppose I could even credit that “salvation prayer” as my come-to-Jesus moment, with the beginning (continuation?) of a journey even deeper into the heart of prayer.
The Rosary has been an important step in solidifying my need to regulate my prayer practice in chronological, tactile and organized ways. It also invites me to see prayer as more than just talking at God. Here, I can sit with another, Someone whose indelible presence ought to leave me breathless and speechless anyway. Although I’ve owned one before, it wasn’t until my dear Catholic friend, Val Dodge Head, gifted me with one I could actually wear around my neck that I began developing a daily practice. Here is the historic Rosary Prayer:
The purpose of the Rosary is to help keep in memory certain principal events or mysteries in the history of our salvation, and to thank and praise God for them. This is the mountain rapids version of the Rosary Prayer. It begins with the Sign of the Cross and the Apostles’ Creed. This is followed, successively, by The Lord’s Prayer (the Our Father or Pater Noster), 3 Hail Marys, the 1st Mystery of Our Father and Hail Holy Queen. There are twenty mysteries reflected upon in the Rosary, all of which are divided into the five JOYFUL MYSTERIES, the five LUMINOUS MYSTERIES, the five SORROWFUL MYSTERIES, and the five GLORIOUS MYSTERIES. The Hail Mary is recited ten times (called a decade) between meditating on the mysteries in question. After each decade is said the following prayer requested by the Blessed Virgin Mary at Fatima: “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, lead all souls to Heaven, especially those who have most need of your mercy.” The whole undertaking is a most imaginative blending of redemptive and mystical theology.
Here is my own adaptation.
I begin and end with the Sign of the Cross. The crucifix acts as The Lord’s Prayer both in and out of my Rosary. For morning prayer, the first bead is always Psalm 63 (King James Version), which I memorized many years ago. If in the afternoon, I’ll choose some other Psalm or a Prayer of St. Columba: “Kindle in our hearts, O God, the flame of that love which never ceases, that it may burn in us, giving light to others. May we shine forever in your holy temple, set on fire with your eternal light, even your Son Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Redeemer.” The Hail Mary beads are replaced by 3 Kyries (Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy). In turn, these are followed, respectively, by the well known Ignatian Prayer, the Anima Christi and the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi. The decade beads are breath prayers. With these, I practice more contemplative or centering prayer. Phrases such as “peace, be still” or “in the Lord, I’ll be ever thankful” or “holy is your name, O Lord” or, most often, The Jesus Prayer punctuate this time. It is unhurried and allows my mind to cleanse and my soul to pulsate to the sound of God’s own heart. The Mystery beads form a wonderful place for me to pray the daily Lectionary Psalms, various scriptures I have memorized or, on more creative retreat days, I’ll write or read poetry I’ve written. I exit the Rosary the same way I entered, although in reverse order.
The Rosary has been great respite to me since I am living nowhere near the Monasteries I used to frequent in Oregon. God has shown me just how holy even the most unholy places can be. In those places least ideal for luminosity, God has been busily proving me wrong about my previous misconceptions. The mysterious geography of prayer must begin in the cracks and fissures of the human spirit before it gets the added benefit of the babbling brook heard just outside the Monastery gates.
The Rosary has helped.
Lord, fashion the slow calligraphy of your name
in a once stone heart, broken now as sand.
Spit out the bones of my old, gristled soul revivified on your tongue,
reattached to the sinews of your own holy arm.
Sear the brand of white hot remembrance into the skin of my brazen back
so that only those I lead can see it.
In the wordless chatter of our silent conversations,
bring up the topics closest to your heart that breaks so much easier than mine.
Let the voices of a hundred thousand saints
crowd out the stifling arrogance of my solitary blethering.
And into that holy community of singing silence,
sing, Holy One, sing.
Lord, like you, I am sweeping leaves,
as the trees eschew their fingers,
and turn their heads on part of themselves.
I looked and saw too many leaves
from too many long winters
heaped up on top of each other,
becoming the worm-infested mulch
of a wayward heart.
But, Lord, you also created worms.
They loosen what would otherwise
pack itself down into a deadening tightness,
choking out what life is yet to come.
You seem to prefer it this way, Lord.
New stuff grows from old,
good from bad,
fresh from foul.
So be it.
So it is to be, latent but translucent
that weavings and partings both,
secured in their places best suited
to their emergence or demise,
are laid out on God’s table of cards.
The goodbyes of days that turn to nights
that turn to days that turn to timeless
wonders, the crevices where only God’s
fingers fit. They’re too small for me
because I’m too big in me to see
my own smallness in him.
Wreck all chances for shoddy self-repair
and lay the table for a banquet instead,
where bread on my tongue and
the clinking glasses serve to remind me
of a better meal yet to come.
Lord, tie up my expectations like a pretzel
and replace them with a welcome mat
upon which are written only 4 words:
“Thy will be done.”
Lord, press into the soft, unmarrowed places
of make believe love and headstrong hypocrisy
your thumbprint still dirty from
pinching me alive.
Lord, impale me upon the stake of truth,
not the truth of deception in perfect answers
but the Truth that leaves open wounds
on a heart that only looks for niceties.
Lord, sit me down at the base of this wood
pounded together with the same nails
that tore through flesh softer than love,
tougher than hate.
Lord, with meddling tongue tied behind my back
let my hands, now free
show my mouth that it’s silence
has gifted those I now serve.
Lord, interrupt the long stream of my proclamations
of ideas diminished by my words;
words lesser still than those who listen
for something better than words.
Lord, fill my life with the awesome silence
of a boisterous heaven, singing in praise;
for only then will what I say and do
remind others of who you say I am.
Painting by James Seward
Perfectly groomed bushes line the windows looking out onto a courtyard greener, damper and more alive than I’ve seen since moving to Yakima seven years ago. A giant kiln-shaped fireplace centered in the garden sits quiet and still awaiting the passing of the rain and the arrival of others to warm themselves in its heat. I chuckle at the closed table umbrellas standing tall and upright like stoic ladies in green, puffy skirts. Their task here is to keep one dry from the reliable Portland rain. The Yakima umbrella, although rare, acts as a glorified sunhat and is seldom used anyway. There they curse rain. Here, they wait for sun (if indeed they know what that is).
How I have missed the instant plunge into the deeper regions of my psyche, specifically the creative mystic part such an environment always brings. Like these condensation droplets adorning the windows through which I am looking, words almost instantly form in my mind. I need only mop them up and squeeze them onto the thirsty page.
There are many gifts that come to us from favorite places – both geographic location and the more unnameable geography of soul – suitable to our most natural selves. What has been lacking for me in the dusty, brown, overly hot setting of Yakima has been met in a stable plateau upon which to take a good, long and slow look in every direction. With my feet sunk in a little more deeply into the dusty soil of the Yakima Valley, I’ve known a certain freedom from which to venture into other, hitherto unexplored regions in my own soul. Places in the humility of obscurity, the predictability of nothingness, the garden of faithfulness and the simple, daily routines of life.
From these places, previously visited only briefly with my face pressed up against the glass, I have seen many things. God has pulled me up from the luscious, subterranean waters of my deepest yearnings to the street where the people are. They are those who populate my days and need the nourishment I myself have been given. I am reintroducing myself to the world, seeing familiar and beloved faces again as if for the first time. Ironically, in them, I am finding myself and, even more significantly, I am seeing Jesus. God is equally present above the bald, treeless ground as below it in the dark, thin places where nutrients abound but is largely unpopulated.
Here and now converge more readily as I release the tightly held things I believed indispensable to my wholeness. Slowly, God is revealing to my spirit just how present God is in such places – places formerly reprehensible and ugly. God is nesting more intricately in me. I see God more now and that is setting me free from expectations and demands and leading me to the joys of union, home, and peace…anywhere.
It is the greatest gift I could receive on this, the day of my fiftieth birthday.