Friday, April 7, 2023

NEW BOOK--An Untold Story: Heroism, Mysticism, and the Quest for the True Self

"There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you."

~ Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

About the Book

Is there more to life? Is there more to me? Is it all worth it? What does it mean to be one with God, and what does that have to do with the mess and challenges of everyday life? These are some of the issues addressed in An Untold Story as it follows the mystical-heroic quest to find our true selves.

In coming to a better understanding of what it is to be a hero and what it is to be a mystic, we come to a better understanding of what it is to be ourselves. The stories are connected. The classic hero’s journey of myth and legend is at the heart of the mystical journey to life with God. And together they show the way to our true selves and our true stories.


With the guidance of mystical theologian John of Ruusbroec and other teachers, and with help from many favorite heroic stories and characters, An Untold Story presents a path of spiritual formation that is at once epic and everyday, fantastical and practical, otherworldly and ordinary. This is a guide for any would-be mystic-hero longing for their own wondertale to no longer be an untold story. 


"...this book is very welcome. Written accessibly for a general readership, it takes us to the heart of John of Ruusbroec's thought and is often deeply insightful, at times surprising, and never dull."

~ John Arblaster, PhD, Ruusbroec Institute–University of Antwerp, co-editor of A Companion to John of Ruusbroec

"You will find this book a resource to return to again and again as you fan into flame your own desire to experience God and to live from your true self."

~ Kevin J. Navarro, PhD, Spiritual Director–Imago Christi Ministries, author of Trinitarian Doxology

"An Untold Story has immediately become my go-to guide into mystical theology. The book enjoyable and substantive exploration into this little-understood tradition of Christianity."

~ Daniel Ethan Harris, Spiritual Director, author of Grace that Grows

"Robert Pelfrey gives an account of spiritual formation that is fresh, compelling, and winsome... Beautifully written, this book deserves to be read slowly and contemplatively."

~ Gerard Booy, DD, Spiritual Director–CenterQuest, pastor Fairview Presbyterian Church

Buy the Book

Purchase An Untold Story from the publisher, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or wherever fine books are sold.

More titles from Robert C. Pelfrey can be found here.

Friday, August 27, 2021

My Friend Thomas

I met Thomas when we ditched school together. We were 16, and my friend Scott and I had planned to skip out after homeroom and take Scott’s 1978 Corvette out to Palo Duro Canyon for a day of sunshine and freedom. In homeroom, Scott said, “Thomas McKenzie is gonna come with us.” I shrugged and said okay like I knew who Thomas McKenzie was. I was really wondering how someone was going to cram themselves into the cubby behind the Corvette’s two seats. But Thomas did, and we had a grand time. Later, Scott and Thomas’s parents found out and ratted out their sons to the principal, to teach them a lesson. They had to serve three days of detention, but neither said a word about me. I had a new friend. With such a beginning, I shouldn’t have been surprised when Thomas and I blew up a gas station together a couple years later. 

Thomas and Robert, partners in crime c. 1991 

My friendship with Thomas was forged in our peculiarities. Teenage boys in small-town Texas who loved literature and film and the arts, were politically progressive, came from educated high-culture families, had a passion for the Christian faith and talking theology, and didn’t play football was a rare mix. I had actually torn up my knee playing football, but Thomas had no athletic ability whatsoever, and didn’t really care. When he was the editor of the school newspaper, he wrote a scathing editorial attacking the student body’s forced attendance at pep rallies, that we all were called out of class each Friday and made to march to the gym to offer our tribute to the football team. Needless to say, this did not go over well, and Thomas was threatened with more than a few ass-kickings. Ironically, Thomas would become an avid and knowledgeable football fan. But such contradictions were part of the mixture that made our friendship inevitable—some cosmic alignment that gave each of us exactly the gravity we needed for growing up.
In the following years we were inseparable. We were in classes together, played in the band together, sang in the choir together, acted in theater productions together. Every great film released during the late 80s and early 90s, we saw together. Most Friday or Saturday nights—and weeknights during the summers—my band held late-night jam sessions in a church. They were social affairs, with friends hanging out while we chugged through our Christian rock songs. Thomas was always there, laughing and running around with the others and often acting as “director” of goofy videos. Afterwards, several of us would pile into someone’s car or truck and go out to one of our favorite spots to look up at the starry Texas sky and have deep talks about God and life and rock n’ roll. Sometime close to sunrise we would end up crashing at one of our houses, usually mine—four or five teenaged boys asleep on the living room floor. 
If the next morning was Sunday, Thomas was always up and gone in time to get to church, even if he’d only had a couple hours’ sleep. Though I was a Christian songwriter with a deep Methodist pedigree, I wasn’t much of a churchgoer. But Thomas was on a clear path. During homecoming week’s dress-up days, one theme was “Career Day,” in which we were to dress for the career we hoped to have. I would typically be a rock star, with a flashier earring and jeans more ripped than usual—maybe even some spandex unfortunately thrown in (it was the 80s, after all). Thomas was always a priest. Perhaps that’s one of the truest things I can say about my friend: Thomas was always a priest. His faith really caught fire later, but his calling always seemed clear.
I could tell many stories, recall many conversations, and recount many adventures. Inside jokes and movie quotes and our often irreverent but always sincere faith. The fierce love of our band of brothers—Roger, Kiley, Mike, and Thomas and me. Late nights playing the blues at the crossroads out in the country. Thomas had learned harmonica (sort of), but he also had a knack for improvising hilarious (and very un-bluesy) lyrics. One July 4thwe were out there setting off fireworks and the battery in Roger’s van died. We had to hike miles and hours on rocky dirt roads back into town. Thomas was wearing huarache sandals. We laughed the whole way. 
We always laughed the whole way, wherever we were going. Road trips to my dad’s in Virginia and to the mountains in New Mexico, or just driving through the vast expanse and red brick streets of home. I got my first speeding ticket when Thomas and I were on the road back from Austin after I’d gone to fetch him home from college for the summer. And, yes, the legend is true: Thomas and I blew up the gas station on the corner of 4thand 23rdin Canyon, Texas. Well, Thomas did—I was innocent, I swear. He’d forgotten to take the gas hose out of his car when we drove off and ended up pulling the entire pump out of the ground, sending flames shooting all around. I ended up in the store, berating the clerk for not knowing where his fire extinguisher was. The Fire and Police Departments arrived. It was a scene, man. Point is, we were together. We were partners in crime (there were, of course, more school days skipped and other events of which I will never speak… *wink*).
Years passed, as years are wont to do, and our lives meandered, apart and occasionally back together, though long phone calls were a fixture. Thomas called to announce his engagement to Laura, who got on the phone and told me Thomas had cut off his long hair. I confessed that I had too. We were growing up. Soon I was best man in their wedding. Thomas and Laura's relationship was stunning in its depth and beauty. They worked at it diligently, drilled down and built their shared life on bedrock. Akin to Thomas's priestly calling was his calling as a husband, and later a father--committed, passionate, and fiercely loving. They were traits he also carried into his friendships.

Later I married my own dream girl. As newlyweds, Jamie and I went to visit Thomas and Laura in Tennessee. Ella (Charlie) was a baby, and Sophie would arrive months later. They had only recently moved to Nashville, and I was seeking God’s leading for the next chapter of my vocational life—relocating to Nashville as a songwriter, or perhaps becoming a pastor. Thomas and Laura were so gracious, insisting on taking us to Williams-Sonoma for wedding gifts. Ella was adorable. I joked that she would grow up to be a blues singer because of the raspy timbre of her voice. It was precious and holy time together. Talking with Thomas and seeing the way he inhabited his calling sealed the deal for me, as it did for so many. Soon I would be in seminary, even beginning with Thomas’s beloved Anglicanism before returning to my own Methodist roots. But my own pastoral vocation—indeed, the very essence of my Christian faith—was always informed by Thomas’s. I suppose it always will be.
More years and miles and lots of living later, Thomas and I were becoming middle-aged men. I last saw him a few years ago. He was going to be driving through the Panhandle and, since I lived only a few hours away at the time, we decided to connect. We fell right into our old pattern, like we always did. We were once again those 16-year-old boys skipping school. We drove to all our old spots and laughed about old times. Some old hometown wounds also opened up, and we allowed our older selves to be a little more vulnerable with each other than we used to, even shedding a few tears together. After a good steak dinner and a beer or two, we crashed at my mother’s house like we'd done so many times before. Our shared orbit had come full circle.
Thomas and I had begun a new go-round. Recently, when I had a mid-life implosion, he was one of a very few people I reached out to. He immediately rang me up and we talked for a couple of hours. Thomas was his usual funny, sarcastic, brutally honest, fiercely loving self, confessing his own recent times of teetering on the edge of the mid-life chasm and asking what he could do for me going forward. We both knew the answer lay in just continuing our crazy, beautiful friendship. 

But it will have to wait. Thomas and his dear Charlie are now in the unyielding embrace of Love itself, that Holy One whom Thomas and I as kids wondered about and longed for and spoke of like explorers on the edge of our greatest adventure. For now, I only have these random musings, patched-together scraps of a long friendship. There are many more Thomas stories and a jillion little Thomas details that pop up or drift through my mind these days. If they were to be written down, I suppose the whole world could not contain the books…or at least they’d fill one pretty entertaining volume. It’s all just a way of beginning to say that I will miss my friend Thomas.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Advent: Coming and Going

With the excitement of driving out of town to move to a new phase of life, there often comes a pang of sadness in watching the hometown get smaller in the rearview mirror. Now imagine driving into a treacherous dark night with the warm lights of home in that rearview. We think of Christ’s advent as a coming—as the coming—and rightly so. But there is in this coming very much a going. For the Son of God to come, he had to, though being in very nature God, not consider equality with God something to be clung to or used to his own advantage. Rather, he made himself nothing by taking the nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And as a human being, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross (see Phil. 2:6-8).

Christ’s advent and incarnation are about a profound leaving, a leaving behind of surety and trappings and status and comfort and the warm light of power to come to the cold, dark night of anonymity and abandonment, of pain and humiliation and death. The light of the world had to leave the “unapproachable light” of glory in order to come to the “people who walk in darkness.” This is the Christ child, heralded by the heavenly host while he helplessly wails into the blackness and bleakness of our collective night.

And so, in many ways, it is for us. Each coming requires a leaving. Each step on our journey requires another step left behind. Otherwise, we are standing still, which is sometimes appropriate, but other times is a clinging to some secure season of life, using to our advantage some place or person or experience that should be left behind for a new coming. This is especially the case in our own advent, our coming into our true selves, which requires leaving behind the false self piece by piece, step by step.
St. Catherine of Siena, by Giovanni Tiepolo

Dorothy Day famously summarized an important aspect of the teaching of Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) with the words, “All the way to heaven is heaven, because Jesus said, ‘I am the Way.’”[1] Jesus came to deliver us from the broken, pitted road of sin and lies. But he also came to be the road to heaven—and not merely heaven when we die, but heaven all the way to heaven. So, just as the Way, Truth, and Life of heaven left to come and bring heaven to us, so we must leave more and more of our old selves to come to him, to grow up into his likeness. For the same mind must be in us that was in him who left…in him who came.

Catherine offers comfort and guidance for the journey into the cold, dark winter: “In the light of faith I gain wisdom in the wisdom of the Word your Son; in the light of faith I am strong, constant, persevering; in the light of faith I have hope: It does not let me faint along the way. This light teaches me the way, and without this light I would be walking in the dark.”[2] So, in faith, we leave behind the fires of the familiar in order to follow the light that came into the darkness—the light that proclaims, indwells, and empowers even us to be light in the world. As we light the candles of the season we should remember not only Christ’s coming, but also the leaving that was required for his coming. And we should follow him. There is enough heavenly light for the next step.

[1] Dorothy Day, All the Way to Heaven: The Selected Letters of Dorothy Day (New York: Image, 2010), epigraph.
[2] Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue, trans. Susan Noffke (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), 365.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Dis-Orientation: The Weak are Strong

Jesus’ culture (and ours) would expect the beatitudes to be, “Blessed are the rich, the powerful, the shrewd and influential—it's clear that God favors them.” But Jesus comes along with his Disorientation, turning the whole thing on its head, basically saying, “Blessed are those who have come to the end of their own strength—that's where they find God.”

“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in” 
(Leonard Cohen, Anthem)

Youre blessed when youre content with just who you are—no more, no less. Thats the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that cant be bought(Matt 5:5, The Message).

At times, it seems excruciatingly difficult to be content with just who we are. In addition to living in a culture that encourages the worst parts of human nature, and that thrives on getting us to want more and more for ourselves (often by getting us to think less of ourselves), we also are not always clear on who we are exactly. And is Jesus saying we should just stay the way we are, even in our sin?

We stand with the crowd on the hillside, listening to Jesus' sermon. 
We call out, And who am I, Jesus?
Mine!he answers. You are mine. 
Banksy, Girl with Balloon

Nothing else matters. This is the source of our strength. When we let go of identifying ourselves with things that can be bought, of our need to control others (including what they think about us), of our need to have everything figured out or to appear to have everything figured out—basically, when we let go of our attempts to be strong for ourselves and by ourselves—then we are free to find contentment with who we are in Christ—no more, no less. When we are poor in spirit, when we mourn, when we long for justice, when we are mistreated for standing up for what's right—that, says Jesus, is when were strong.

We're strong because we are turning, empty-handed, to God’s embrace. Belonging, being welcomed, being loved, being connected to something life-giving and meaningful—aren’t these the things we all want? And grasping desperately for these things outside of Christ drives so much of our feeling less about ourselves and wanting more for ourselves. These are what everyone wants, and it's what Christ offers to us—and it's what he offers through us. We need to break from the world’s misguided and even evil notions of strength. And we need to be God’s embrace for everyone who has come to the end of themselves. We need to show the disorienting message: The weak are strong.

"Love is found in the things we've given up
more than in the things that we have kept"
(Rich Mullins, What Susan Said)

Practice gratitude. Give something away. Give yourself away. Some things we give up willingly, but some we've had to let go of very unwillingly. Some have been taken from us. And there are wounds and cracks left in their place. But, in Christ, that's where the light gets in. If we have any doubt, just remember the cross.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Dis-Orientation: The Invisible is Real

The audio of this sermon can be heard HERE.

“Ask… search… knock…” Such encouraging words! It will be given to you, you will find, the door will be opened to you. These are simple yet astounding promises from Jesus. In some ways it summarizes the Incarnation and Jesusministry: Turn to God he'll be there. Come to God—no matter who you are—and God will take you in. Extraordinary! And disorienting! Seek the invisible God and you'll find? How can anyone seek the invisible?

The invisible God works from God's invisible heavenly realm to bring his rule and power to bear in our visible lives in the visible world. In the beginning, our whole universe was in a hot, dense state—all the matter and energy in the known universe contained in a volume a trillionth the size of a period on a typed page. One million trillion trillion trillionths of a second after that appearance the universe began to expand unimaginably quickly. One million trillion trillion trillionths of a second before that beginning, God was therewilling it to be. As the writer of Hebrews wrote, what is seen was made from what is unseen(11:3). Or as Jesus put it, your Father in heaven.The Father of all is simultaneously within and outside all things, offering all we need for a good life.

I must confess that I dont always trust Gods goodness, and I'm probably not alone. Jesus seems to know this mistrust when he explains, If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!(Matt 7:11). Again, Jesus is asking us: “Do you really believe God is goodreally? If you do, then you will ask, search, and knock. You will leave behind the worlds empty promises and give your whole life to seek the good things of God. And God will always deliver! 
“It would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”  -CS Lewis
We are deceived by the visible world, spending our lives chasing after material wealth, physical pleasures and ease, power and the approval of people. Why? What is the better source of innovation and advancement and rallying people to work together for good: seeking material wealth and physical payoffs, or invisible things like hope, compassion, creativity, love, and faith? These are good things God promises us. You’ll have the material things you need. The question is, will they have you? Be honest: Do you think more people get to the end of life and regret the visible things they don’t have? Or do you think they regret the invisible things they missed out on—more love, more friendship, more compassion, more joy and happiness? And if someone says, “I wish I’d had a nicer car and a bigger house,” do you think they’re worth listening to anyway? 

But there's more...

Julian of Norwich (1342 - c.1416)
Living in England in the 14th century, Julian of Norwich experienced the terrible losses and suffering of the Black Plague, possibly even losing her own husband and children. When she was thirty, Julian herself fell ill and lay in a coma. During this time she had a ten-hour encounter with Jesus. Julian asked Jesus about all the suffering she and her loved ones and world were experiencing. Jesus repeatedly told Julian of his love for her and for the world, showing her very detailed images. The first image was Jesus suffering for the world on the cross. Another image was Jesus holding a hazelnut in his hand, saying that his life and love surround each of us like his hand surrounds the nut.

At one point, Jesus tells Julian a story: 

There was an assistant who worked for a remarkable boss. The assistant loved and admired his boss, following him everywhere and excitedly doing what he asked. One day, the assistant was walking along and fell in a deep, dark hole. Lying curled up in the hole, the assistant began to berate himself: “You foolish person,” he told himself. “That’s just like you to fall in a hole. Now you’ll probably die here, all alone in the dark. You’re so stupid!” While the assistant lay there in hopelessness and negativity, he was completely unaware that his loving boss was kneeling on the edge of the hole reaching down to help him out.
There is good invisible and there is bad invisible. In addition to the visible temptations and troubles of the world, we can get so distracted by the negative and harmful invisible thoughts and attitudes we hold, that we become completely unaware of our loving Lord reaching out to us to lead us into his light and life and love.

We must ask, seek, and knock for these good things, these God things. Seek and you'll find something truly amazing: Jesus leaning in, offering you the best of all invisible things—life, love, and God himself. And then you get the shocking, scandalous privilege of making those invisible things visible in the world.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

My New Book: Still Moving

My new book, Still Moving: The Journey of Love's Perfection, is now available at Amazon (Kindle only $9.99!) and from Wipf and Stock (at a discount!).

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Super Power

Jesus at Herod's Court by Duccio, c. 1310
Even our own feeble hands
ache to seize the crown you wear…
--from “New Hymn” by James Taylor and Reynolds Price

Whatever is going on with Herod and the plot to kill the infant Jesus, it’s true that there is always a stark collision of powers between the divine and worldly. Jesus really is a threat, for not only is he the world’s true King, but his way is the way of yieldedness to the Father. And when people begin following that way, it becomes more than worldly powers can bear.

It’s paradoxical that, as long as people follow worldly powers, the worldly powers can give us something to follow. Even if one is following a competing power, at least another power can manage and manipulate the competition with marketing, propaganda, a certain brand of patriotism, and so on. But those who follow Jesus in yieldedness to the will of the Father can’t really be managed or propagandized. And that’s scary.

Sadly, though, the numbers of Christians who follow the Father over worldly powers are few. It’s hard. Herod’s palace is right up there on the hill (where I want to be). Caesar’s troops are everywhere on the streets. They all seem to be calling the shots. Even when they feign allegiance to God, we know Jesus’ way is no way to govern a super-power. The masses know and fall in line. Let us eat cake! Protect us at all costs. Poison our holy scriptures as part of your propaganda and we’ll lap it up time and again like a dog returning to its own vomit.

Jesus started life as a refugee. God told his family to run for their lives. Jesus wasn’t a Herod or a Caesar or even a magi. Jesus was a political exile who had to flee his homeland so he wouldn’t be slaughtered. That was the choice his family made. It began his whole story of one at odds with worldly powers. It eventually did cost him his life. But it all was the result of being truly free. It was the result of being a true super-power.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Believing in Magic

The magic is gone. I feel like there isn’t magic in the world anymore. Like I know all the tricks, so now I see the wires and what’s up the magician’s sleeve. It’s like in the movie Boyhood, when young Mason realizes there aren’t really elves and fairies in the world. His dad’s attempt to soften the blow by talking about how magical a blue whale is doesn’t really comfort the disillusioned boy. So it is that the “magic” of reality doesn’t often impress me either. It’s worse than just losing the magic, which I suppose happened a long time ago. I’ve lost my wonder too.

At some point I put my head down and never looked up again. I notice the beauty of things, of nature. I’m moved by people’s stories and lives. But the magic, the sense of wonder, the mystery of hidden things and the invisible power of heaven breaking into earth, the limitless possibilities of the unknown—these have drifted off like a dream that seemed so vivid yet can’t be recalled upon waking. I need a miracle.

I worked so hard to grow up, to mature in my faith. I told myself (and preached to others) that a mature disciple doesn’t need signs and wonders, that that’s what faith entails—carrying on in the absence of such things. And I’m sure there’s important truth in that. But somewhere along the way I became some form of Deist, a naturalist and materialist whose God is very near but is content to work through nature taking its course. Maybe this is all correct and I just have to accept growing up.

Or maybe to hell with that. Maybe I need to grow young. Maybe, as Chesterton said, “we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.” Maybe I need to chase the magic and regain the wonder. Maybe it isn’t God who stopped being interesting—maybe it’s me (not maybe). Maybe it’s better to spend a life believing in magic that might not be real, wondering at mystery that possibly isn’t so mysterious, than to settle into the boredom of a small, figured-out existence. And maybe the magic is more real and the mystery more wonderful than I’d ever imagined. That’s the chance I’m going to take.

"All things are full of wonder. But we never think to wonder at them because we have, by habit, become dull to the consideration of them."  
-Gregory the Great, 6th c.

NEW BOOK--An Untold Story: Heroism, Mysticism, and the Quest for the True Self

"There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you." ~ Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings About the Boo...