Ghost Notes

A collection of songs about joy, hope and what's on the horizon, which I wrote in the summer of 2016. These are all just demos, that I recorded so our band at church could learn the tunes for a concert. I hope one day soon to put down some fuller, better quality recordings of the songs, but until then, feel free to click image to download, and give them a listen.

Accidentals

This collection of mostly blues/rock/folk inspired songs was recorded in the spring and summer of 2015. I call it "accidentals" because all of the songs on this project were tunes I have had kicking around in my notebooks for many years but had never found a "home" for on previous albums. You can click the image to download the whole album.

inversions

Recorded in 2014, these songs are sort of a chronicle of my journey through a pastoral burn-out last winter. They deal with themes of mental-health, spiritual burn-out and depression, but also with the inexorable presence of God in the midst of darkness. Click the album art to download.

soundings

soundings
click image to download
"soundings" is a collection of songs I recorded in September/October of 2013. Dealing with themes of hope, ache, trust and spiritual loss, the songs on this album express various facets of my journey with God.

echoes

echoes
Prayers, poems and songs (2005-2009). Click to download
"echoes" is a collection of songs I wrote during my time studying at Briercrest Seminary (2004-2009). It's called "echoes" partly because these songs are "echoes" of times spent with God from my songwriting past, but also because there are musical "echoes" of hymns, songs or poems sprinkled throughout the album. Listen closely and you'll hear them.

bridges

bridges
Click to download.
"Bridges" is a collection of original songs I wrote in the summer of 2011, during a soul-searching trip I took out to Alberta; a sort of long twilight in the dark night of the soul. I share it here in hopes these musical reflections on my own spiritual journey might be an encouragement to others: the sun does rise, blood-red but beautiful.

blogs I follow

random reads

Book Reviews

Book Reviews
The Shallows, Nicholas Carr
In this very readable, very thought provoking analysis of electronic communciations technology and its impact on our brains and culture, Nicholas Carr brings together media theory (think Marshall McLuhan), history (think Gutenberg) and neuroscience (think discoveries in brain plasticity) to show how computer technology is shaping us in ways of which we are only dimly aware. He argues that such technologies reduce our capacity for deep, creative and sustained linear thought (or at least have the potential to do so) and predispose us to the fragmented, the cursive and the superficial. Worth the read.

Exclusion and Embrace, Miroslav Volf

Ecstasy and Intimacy: When the Holy Spirit Meets the Human Spirit, Edith Humphrey
A fascinating and engaging introduction to spiritual theology-- or the theology of spirituality, as the case may be. This book is a very scholarly, devotional, christo-centric, ecumenical and trinitarian overview of what it means for Christians to live in the Spirit and with the Spirit within. Bracing and enlightening.

Leading with a Limp, Dan Allender

five smooth stones for pastoral work, Eugene Peterson

From Darkness to Light: How One Became a Christian in the Early Church, Anne Fields

Life in the Ancient Near East, Daniel C. Snell
Snell's Life in the Ancient Near East offers a social history of the ANE, tracing the earliest settlement of Mesopotamia, the development of agriculture, first cities, ancient economy and the emergence of empire. Bringing together a rich variety of data gleaned both from the archaeological record and extant historical texts, he tells the history of this cradle of civilization with a special eye for the "human" element - focusing on the forces and factors that would have directly affected the daily life of the various strata of society. Worth a read generally, but all the more for someone with a particular interest in the biblical stories that find their setting and draw their characters and themes from the same provenience.


The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene

Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament, Richard Davidson
Davidson's Old Testament theology of human sexuality is stunning in its achievement, challenging in its content, and edifying in its conclusions. Davidson addresses every-- and I do mean every-- Old Testament text that deals (even obliquely) with human sexuality, and, through detailed exegesis, careful synthesis, and deep interaction with the scholarly research, develops a detailed picture of the Old Testament's vision for redeemed human sexuality. 700 pages of Biblical scholarship at its best.


Eaarth, Bill McKibben
Bill McKibben's Eaarth, is a call for us to wake up smell the ecological coffee...while we can still brew it. Unlike his previous work, or any writing on ecology I've yet read, however, Eaarth does not argue that catastrophe is pending. Instead, he argues that catastrophe has arrived, and that our all talk about "going green to avert disaster," "and "saving the planet" is woefully obsolete. In ecological terms, the planet as we once knew it is gone, he argues, and rather than trying to "avert" disaster, we need to start figuring out how to live in the disaster that's happened. Key themes he identifies as important for life on planet Eaarth resonnated with me as profoundly Christian ways of being (disaster or no). We must stop assuming that "bigger" is better; we must acknowledge limits on economic and technological growth; we must get reacquainted with the land; we need eschew self-sufficency and nurture community.

Love Wins, Rob Bell
So fast and furious has the furor over this book been, that any review will inevitably feel redundant or tardy. Given the crowd on the band wagon by now, I actually had no intention of hopping on myself, but my kids got it for me for Father's Day. About 15 pages in, I realized that I could probably finish it in on good push, so I got it over with. My thoughts: probably the most over-hyped book I ever read; I loved it and found it frustratingly under-developed at the same time; while he raises some important issues, his handling of them reads like a yoda-meets-Tom-Wright account of salvation; nothing C. S. Lewis hasn't already said more clearly and more cleverly; I'm glad he wrote it, and I'm glad the Evangelical world has errupted over it the way it has, and I hope a much more spirited and generous and optimistic understanding of soteriology and eschatology will infuse the evangelical church's mission as a result.

Rediscovering Paul, David Capes et. al.
Rediscovering Paul is a hepful overview of Paul's life, times and theology. While at times I felt it might have gone deeper, or expressed its ideas more clearly, it provides some interesting and inspiring insights into the man behind the letters. Among these is its discussion of the communal aspect of first century letter writing, and the influence of one's community on one's personal sense of identity, and how those issues might have played out in Paul's writings. Another challenging issue that it tackles is the whole process of letter writing in the Greco-Roman world, especially as regards the role a scribe often played in shaping the text, smoothing out the langugae or providing stock phrases, etc.


Lavondyss, Robert Holdstock
If you've read George MacDonald's Lilith, then think of Lavondyss as sort of a Lilith-for-Non-Christians. It's the convoluted labyrinth of a story about a young girl called Tallis and her adventures in a magical wood that brings the Jungian archetypes buried deep in our subconscious to life. Dense with questions about Jungian psychology, and the spiritually-thin-places of the world, and death and myth and magic and story, it's pretty tough slugging at times, but thought provoking and challenging. At times I felt like I was reading the Narnia book C. S. Lewis might have written if he had pursued the "stab of northerness" in directions other than the Christian Faith where he found it eternally satisfied.

Jesus and Money, Ben Witherington III
My friend John Vlainic once ranked Ben Witheringon as one of the strongest Biblical scholars in the Wesleyan tradtion working today. This thin but powerful volume is evidence to support such an accolade. I opened it expecting (judging by the cover) either a how-to book on Christian finances, or (judging by the other books I've read on Christ and Money) a hodge-podge of Bible verses taken out of context and mushed together as proof texts about the tithe. I got neither; instead, Ben Witherington walks slowly, thoughtful and exegetically through the breadth of Biblical teaching, with special sensitivity to the cultural context of the various texts, the tension between Old and New Testament teaching on the topic, and the differences between modern and ancient economies. If I were to recommend one book to develop a biblical theology of money, it would be this one.

The Gravedigger File, Os Guinness
My first taste of Os Guinness, and, if you don't mind a mangled metaphor, it went down like a bracing pint of... well... Guinness. Grave Digger file is sort of a "Screwtape Letters" project on a church-wide scale. In concept, the book is a series of "training files" for an undercover agent attempting to undermine and ultimately sabotage the Western Church, delivered from the pen of a seasoned saboteur to a young agent recently assigned to Los Angeles. In plot, the young agent ultimately defects, and delivers the "Gravedigger File" into the hands of a Christian, urging him to alert the Church to the operation. It is bursting with "things that make you go hmmm..." and deserves a second, careful read with pen in hand, ready to mine it for its scintillating and eminently quotable lines.

Weighing the Cost, a devotional thought

Mark 10:29-30 is one of those verses I think about a lot: whatever sacrifices you've made for the sake of the Gospel, Jesus tells his followers, whether it be houses, property, family, friends, reputation or a secure future, God will pay you back 100 times in this life (with persecution) and with eternity in the life to come. 

The part that makes me think is how he says, they'll receive their sacrifices back one-hundred-fold in this life, not just in the life to come. I wonder what he means here. I get the idea that God will repay our sacrifices on the other side of eternity, but how "in this life"? Is it even right for us to expect repayment in this life? The best I can make of this verse is that, inasmuch as the sacrifices he's described have to do with one's place in community-- family, friends, reputation, wealth, and so on-- the 100-fold repayment he's talking about must be the alternate community that God offers us in the Gospel: the friends in Christ, the family in Christ, the reputation in Christ and the wealth in Christ that is our through our life in the Church, regardless the persecutions that come from the world.

This makes sense, but doesn't make it any easier.

 Because instead of wondering "how will God reward our sacrifices in this life?" it gets me wondering a deeper, even harder thing: is the community I'm part of really a 100-times-better swap for worldly friends, family, wealth and status? I mean: would people counting the cost of following Christ look at what's going on in my community of faith, and really say, "yeah, that's more than ample repayment for what I'd have to give up?" And, hot on the heels of that wondering comes this: what's my role (by the Spirit) in making it so?

The Theology of Bruce Springsteen (Part 2): Blinded by the (Everyday) Light

Spend much time with Bruce Springsteen’s music and you’ll become keenly aware of an intense yearning, throbbing in the heart of all those last-chance losers and hopeful romantics that haunt his lyrics.

It thrums like an urgent pulse in the unsettled soul of “Hungry Heart,” who’s got a wife and kids in Baltimore while he sits in a Kingstown bar, confessing the truth about the money he laid down and the parts he played, only to discover in the end that “everybody’s got a hungry heart...”

It pounds like an engine roar in the breakneck passion of the street-racers in “Night,” who forget the sweat and toil of the work-a-day world in the split-second glory of the drag race; who “work all day / to blow ‘em away in the night.”

And it echoes like a plaintive cry in the unrealized dreams of the teen aged dad in “The River,” who acts like he don’t remember his hopes for the future, and whose shotgun bride acts like she don’t care.  “Is a dream a lie if it don't come true,” he wonders, “Or is it something worse / That sends me down to the river / Though I know the river is dry / That sends me down to the river tonight?”

Though each of these characters—and the many more that lurk in the dark alleyways and wander endless highways of his songs—feel it in different ways and salve it with different balm, each are yearning, fundamentally, for the same thing: to escape the drudge and disappointment of the everyday world in some unfettered, extra-sensory, soul-illuminating experience of liberation.

If everyone does indeed have a hungry heart, what all the hearts in Springsteen’s songs are hungry for, it seems, is that mystical experience of "otherness" that theologians call the transcendent.

As a theme in his song writing, the yearning for the transcendent finds its most Springsteen-esque expression, of course, in the two broken heroes of “Born to Run,” the never-grown-up street racer, and his dreamy, visionary lover, Wendy.  From its unforgettable opening lines, the entire song gapes like an unhealable wound with an unfilled ache for transcendence:  “In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream / At night we ride through the mansions of glory in suicide machines.”  The whole highway is jammed with “broken heroes on a last chance power drive,” of course, but it’s Wendy and her desperate lover whose yearning for escape crystallize the need for transcendence in us all:  their town (our worlds) may indeed be a death trap, a suicide rap, but together, with a delirious street to die on and an everlasting kiss between them, Wendy and her Peter Pan might just leave it all behind, if only for this moment, for this night: “Together Wendy we can live with the sadness / I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul.”

In his autobiography Springsteen describes the thematic impetus for this rock and roll classic (ranked #21 on the Rolling Stone List of Greatest Rock Songs of All Time).  “I wanted to use the classic rock ‘n’ roll images,” he writes, “the road, the car, the girl . . . what else is there?  It was a language enshrined by Chuck Berry, the Beach Boys, Hank Williams and every lost highwayman going back to the invention of the wheel.  But to make these images matter, I would have to shape them into something fresh, something that transcended nostalgia, sentiment and familiarity.”

We find a similar desire for “something that transcends ... familiarity” in Mary of “Thunder Road,” whose streetwise saviour freely confesses that although he’s no hero (that’s understood), he has a kind of redemption on offer (beneath this dirty hood):  the redemption of a passionate embrace and an open road, of escape from loneliness and fading beauty in a roaring car on a winding highway, of “one last chance to make it real / to trade in these wings on some wheels.”

It’s the same kind of transcendence the street racer and his partner Sonny are chasing in “Racing in the Streets.”  Unlike those guys who “give up living and start dying piece by piece,” they come home from work and wash up, “and go racing in the streets.”

And it’s the same kind of transcendence that the young tough of “In the Streets” is hunting, who loads crates down on the dock five days a week, and then takes his money and meets his girl in the streets, where he can “walk the way [he wants] to walk,” and “talk the way [he wants] to talk,” and so escape the drab realities of his otherwise small, restless, harried world.

As a songwriter, Springsteen is hardly alone in his quest for transcendence, of course.  Jim Morrison was stalking it, in his surreal musings about riders on the storm and his psycadelic speculations about breaking through to the other side.  Bono was pining for it, in his ode to a place where the streets have no name and his prayer for a time when all the colours bleed into one.  Arguably even the party rockers like Van Halen were chasing it in their Dionysian anthems to wine, women and rock n’ roll.

What distinguishes Springsteen from the rest, however, is that instead of sending his characters on metaphysical walkabouts to mystical mountaintops, or losing them in hedonistic debauches with drugs and sex, his quest for transcendences drives them continually back to the earthy, the ordinary, the commonplace.  Passionate love, the togetherness of community, the mysterious bonds of friendship, the thrill of a fast car, the joy of release after a hard day of work: these are the sources of transcendence in Springsteen’s songs.  In his best lyrics we experience something reminiscent of what happened on the Mount of Transfiguration, where the ordinary stuff of earth is given an unexpected second look, and found suddenly scintillating with the stuff of heaven.

That last line is a bit hyperbolic, perhaps, comparing a Bruce Springsteen song to Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration; but it is an intentional hyperbole.  Because the quest for transcendence is not just a theme in rock and roll; it is also a theme of Christian theology.  Way back in the 5th Century AD, St Augustine said it like this:  “You (God), have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in Thee.”  Some 1400 years later, C. S. Lewis famously put it like this: “If I find in myself a desire which nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probably explanation is that I was made for another world.”  What each of these thinkers were trying to put their finger on is that there is, in fact, a yearning for transcendence throbbing in all of us, and that though we seek to fill it in all sorts of ways, metaphysical, hedonistic, ordinary or otherwise, that yearning will never be satisfied until we experience the ultimate transcendence: the beatific vision of and mystical union with God that is the goal of Salvation and the hope of the Christian Faith.

As Christians of course, we recognize that it is only Christ, the Living Water, who can quench the thirst for transcendence that Springsteen’s yearning heroes and searching lovers pique in us.  But like Springsteen, Christianity is also convinced that the stuff of heaven is indeed found most compellingly in the stuff of earth: a broken loaf of bread and a homely cup of wine that becomes inexplicably for us the Real Presence of the Lord Jesus, an old book that trumpets suddenly as the Word of God, the simple refrain of a familiar hymn that transforms suddenly into the habitation of the High King of Heaven, a ramshackle gathering of everyday sinners that becomes, mysteriously, the Body of the Christ.

Learning from the Past, a devotional thought

In Mark 8:1-10 we have the story of the "Feeding of the Four Thousand." It's always made me wonder, this story, because this is the second time Jesus has performed this specific sign in Mark's Gospel. Back in 6:30-44 he miraculously fed 5000 people with 5 loaves and 2 fish; and then in 8:1-10, there's a hungry crowd of 4000; and the thing that gets me, is how the disciples are just as clueless this time as they were the first time. I mean: he tells them he wants to feed the crowd, and they say almost the exact same thing they said back in Chapter 6: where will we get enough bread for everyone? They were there in Chapter 6, when 5 loaves and 2 small fish fed 5000, and yet here, only a couple chapter's latter, they're still scratching their heads: "Gee, Jesus, how are you gonna get us out of this one?"

It's funny, right after this miracle, the Pharisees come to him, asking for a miraculous sign from heaven, and all Mark says is: "Jesus groaned deeply in his spirit" (the Greek word there is: "aarrrrghhhh!"). No wonder, though, the demand for a sign is so troubling to him: he's already done two, back to back, and no one got it, not even his disciples. Would one more miraculous sign really make the difference?

 Of course, when I'm totally honest, I have to admit that I'm as slow to learn, sometimes, as those disciples are. After all, I've seen him do some pretty amazing things in my life, in the past, and still sometimes when it looks like only an amazing things is gonna get me out of whatever it is I'm facing today, still, I scratch my head and say: "Gee, Jesus, how are you going to get us out of this one?" May God remind you and I today, in a deep profound way, of the past wonders he's worked in our lives, and may that remembrance be a great source of strength for whatever you or I need to face today.

The Theology of Bruce Springsteen (Part 1): The Texture of Good Art

Church people who get to know me are often surprised to discover that I almost never listen to contemporary Christian music. By most measures, I am the perfect raw material for the making of a Christian music fan. I’ve been a believer most of my life; I grew up surrounded by the Christian sub-culture; I work as a pastor, and I’m heavily involved in the music ministry at our church. Besides all this, I love music: I write and record songs, I love to sing, I play multiple instruments, and I was raised on the music that inspired the contemporary Worship Music revolution, bands like The Beatles and U2. Mix all that together and plop in an olive, and you should have one dry martini of a Contemporary Christian Music fan, shaken not stirred.

And yet, truth be told, I am lukewarm when it comes to most contemporary Christian music. There’s one John Mark McMillian album I like (The Medicine). I love Downhere’s Ending is Beginning. There’s an album by an indie Christian hard rock band called tripmeter that I quite like, in large part because I knew some of the band members when I was studying in Saskatchewan. Aside from that, though, there’s not much I listen to: I have all sorts of “Best of Worship” mix CDs that I picked up along the way that haven’t had airtime in my house since ... well ... since ipods replaced CDs as cutting edge music technology.

A while ago, however, I was feeling like I’d fallen into a bit of a musical rut. If my Spotify playlist was vinyl, I’d have long since worn out the grooves on most of my music, and it felt like it was time to discover something new. In my search I stumbled over Bruce Springsteen, an artist who’d been lurking on the edges of my musical horizons throughout my life but had never really found a place in my heart.

I came of age musically in 1987, only two years after Born in the USA had taken the world by storm, but my musical tastes were a strange hybrid of my father’s psychedelic rock predilections—Cream, The Doors, experimental Beatles—mingled with the tousle-maned, falsetto-voiced, guitar-melting aesthetic of the glam rock era that reached its apex just as I was reaching puberty. My first real rock and roll album was Def Leppard’s Hysteria, my favorite band was Van Halen, and to this day, the opening riff of White Lion’s Pride throws me back to the yearning of my early-teen years with such poignancy as to give me emotional whiplash. Because my musical palette had been so refined on virtuoso guitar licks and unabashed innuendo wailed up in the tenor range, the raw energy of Springsteen’s baritone bellowing about brokenness and birthplace and blue collar disappointments always sort of lost me. What’s more, the only song I really associated him with was “Born in the USA,” which, as a Canadian, I’d always mistaken for a naive jingoistic ode to a nation that wasn’t mine.

So I never connected with Springsteen.

But a while back, like I say, I was in a rut, and a book I read about song writing suggested that aspiring songwriters need to listen to the music of master songwriters if they want to hone their craft, and it pointed me to Springsteen as one of the best. I started with Born to Run (an easy first choice), followed by Darkness on the Edge of Town, and Nebraska. By the time I’d given Nebraska a third listen, I understood why my songwriting book sent me to The Boss for some schooling.

I proceeded through vast swaths of the Springsteen catalogue, including: Born in the USA, Wrecking Ball, Lucky Town, High Hopes, Human Touch, Greetings from Asbury Park, The Wild the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, and parts of Tunnel of Love. I even read his autobiography over Christmas. After months with his music, I was still not a fan in the fullest sense, but had become a very warm admirer. I doubt I’ll ever sign up unreservedly for the Springsteen fan club, but I’ve come to love his unrestrained rock and roll spirit, the deceptive simplicity of his arrangements, the unbridled energy of that Spector-ish “wall of sound,” and the characters—the busted, broken, born-to-run-with-nowhere-to-go characters—that haunt his best songs.

I’d choose Born to Run over the latest Chris Tomlin effort any day.

Which brings me to the point I was trying to make at the start of this piece. Because my foray into the music of Bruce Springsteen has forced me to come to terms with why I don’t listen to much contemporary Christian music. The music at the FreeWay where I pastor is certainly done in the contemporary style, and we sing our fair share of Tomlin and Redman. Interestingly, too, in that setting I embrace the music enthusiastically, even though none of it makes it to my headphones after church. So my problem is not some pious hang-up about which musical styles belong in church and which don’t. It is deeper than that, I think, and somehow simpler.

It has to do with what I call “the texture” of the songs.

The best of what I heard in Springsteen’s song writing, and certainly the stuff I found most compelling there, had texture to it. The situations he sang about were layered with emotion and complicated by a stark lack of easy answers; the voices he sang in were fraught and pulled and uncertain and clawing their way back up after one more beating down; the places he sang about had a seediness to even their most intense beauty; the Truths he sang of were never easily earned. Inasmuch as life itself is always layered and complicated, mingled with seediness and beauty together, fraught and pulled and uncertain, these songs were rough with the texture of life. And this is true of the music as much as it is of the lyrical content. Though the members of the E Street Band are all masters of their craft, still there is a rawness to their playing that makes their sound greater than the sum of its parts. And Springsteen’s voice—what he has described as a “journeyman’s instrument”—is unpolished and unrefined, giving his vocal performance a texture to match his lyrics.

To hear a good Springsteen song is to sit in the company of a man who has looked intently at life in all its glory and disgrace, and has learned the hard way that the one seldom comes without the other.

This is something that’s missing, I think, in much of today’s contemporary Christian music. In most Christian songs I know, the texture is smoothed out, the rawness glossed over, and the hurt healed before it even has a chance to sting.

This is a cheap shot, I realize, and an old example, but take Matt Redman’s "Blessed Be Your Name," a song we’ve song any number of times in church. The bridge—“You give and take away, my heart will choose to say, Lord blessed be your name”—comes almost directly from the Book of Job: “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither. The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord!” This verse is the white-knuckled fist of a man clinging for dear life to a Lord whose face, just now, is obscured by shadow and grief. It is so rough with the grit of life that you can’t run your hand over it without abrasion. Yet in the context of the Redman song, so much of that texture has been rubbed smooth, its desperation polished up and its pain glossed over. I say that knowing that Redman wrote this song in part as a response to the September 11 terrorist attacks, as an effort to offer a song that “grappled with grief,” but even so the song resolves far more smoothly than Job ever dares to. The raw texture of Job’s decision to worship the Lord, “though he slay me,” has been replaced with a relatively easy heart-choice to praise.

You might say: but that’s a lot to ask of a song, to brush up against the texture of life, the good, the bad, and the ugly like that, and still be accessible and uplifting. Yet this is what I’ve come to admire about Springsteen’s best work. In the most fraught moments of his music, you’re still hearing something very good you always knew was there, you just never noticed it before.

Of course, “Thunder Road” would make a lousy worship song; and Redman’s “Blessed Be Your Name” has ministered to the Church all around the world, myself included. I’m not trying to bash it. I’m just trying to explain why, outside of worship settings, most contemporary worship music does not really speak to me.

At the same time, however, I’m also trying to suggest that the best Christian art has texture. Christians, of course, should have one of the most robust Creation Theologies going; and at the heart of any robust theology of Creation is the conviction that, as the Creator’s work, this world is intrinsically good, cherished and loved by him, its seediness and its beauty alike. He doesn’t wish to leave the seedy parts seedy, of course, he is in the redemption business, but neither will he refuse to look at it, or turn his back on it, because of its seediness. Artists motivated by a deep-down Christian understanding of the Creation, would look as intently at the real world as any Springsteen song ever did, and would be just as determined to convey the texture of what they saw there, in whatever their medium.

 A full-fledged theology of Creation would balk at any effort to gloss over the “meanness in this world” with a too-simplistic “Yes Lord! Yes Lord!” It would be determined to tell the truth about the world as it is, even if only to sharpen our thirst for the promise of what will be.

Over the next few months here at terra incognita, I intend to spend some time offering a theological analysis of the music of Bruce Springsteen, suggesting intersections between his work and the truths of the Christian Faith. Springsteen is, by his own description, an x-Catholic, and, though his songs do draw on religious imagery, themes, and musical styles, there is nothing intentionally Christian about his music. However, as with most great artists, there are truths that any believer would recognize as Christian, throbbing at the heart of his work. As we will see, the conviction that the world is worth looking at in all its roughness, and worth singing about honestly, is just one of them.

Resting with Him, a devotional thought

There's a simple line in Mark 6:31 that was really speaking to me this afternoon. Back in Mark 6:7-12, Jesus had sent out the disciples with the job of proclaiming the message of the Kingdom, and from the description of their mission there, it sounds like the going was going to be pretty tough. And here, a few pages later, they've returned to Jesus and they're "telling him everything they did and taught in his name."

I find this picture so vivid and tender, Jesus gathering his friends back after a hard month or two of work, and sitting down with him as they pour out all the highs and lows of ministry. And then he says, "Come, let's go by ourselves to a desert place and rest a little." And he takes them off by themselves to a lonely place, and out of the way place, away from the press and demands of ministry, with the express purpose of resting a little. They need it. He knows.

Of course, it won't turn out that way, the crowds track him down and follow him, but today I lingered over that simple invitation of Jesus: "It's been a lot of hard work telling people about me; come, let's find a quiet place alone and rest a bit." If you're in ministry today--lay, vocational, bivocational, ordained or some combination of all 4--and feeling worn out, I hope you'll hear Jesus's invitation too: "Come, let's find a quiet place and rest a bit together." May we all have the grace to take him up on his offer.

Here and Now, a devotional thought

In Mark 6:1-29, Jesus sends his disciples out to preach the Message of the Kingdom, and he gives them these directions as their marching orders: "Take nothing for the journey except your staff, no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra tunic ..." I can't help but notice how these travel arrangements would have required his followers to, on the one hand, depend entirely on the provision of God in the moment; and on the other hand, to stay fully in the here and now.

The extra tunic would be handy after the first one wears out. The bag of money would be useful if and when the next meal isn't quick to come along. And so on.

 The idea here is, the Message of the Kingdom is so urgent, so pressing, that any preoccupation with "tomorrow's necessities" shouldn't and can't distract them from this work in the here and now. (This actually puts Jesus teaching in Matthew 6 about not worrying for tomorrow into sharp relief: could the "worry about tomorrow" be the stuff that distracts us from the urgency of doing Kingdom work today?)

It's tempting, maybe, to dismiss Jesus's directions in Mark 6 with a "that was then, this is now" kind of of nonchalance, but it occurs to me that sending them out without money in the bag in that historical era, when 3 square meals were even harder to come by than they are now, would have sounded just as radical then as it does today. It gets me thinking about the "provisions for tomorrow" that I so often trust in, and the way these things may in fact be distracting me from the good work Jesus has called me to do today. And it gets me praying that God will keep my heart focused on what is most needful in the here and now, as I do my part to proclaim the message of the Kingdom.

Miracle of Miracles, a devotional thought

Mark gives us three powerful healing miracles back to back in Mark Chapter 5. Jesus exorcises a legion of demons from the man living out in the Gerasene cemetery; then (unbeknownst to him) he heals a woman who has been suffering 12 years from constant hemorrhaging, and then he resuscitates a dead girl, the daughter of the head of the local synagogue.

It's interesting what stands out when you stop to consider what each of these stories share in common. Because the Gerasene demoniac is a) a non-Jew, living b) in the cemetery, and c) among the swine-herds, all of which would have made him "unclean" according to the Jewish customs of the time. Likewise, the bleeding woman would have been considered ritually unclean by any 1sty Century Jew who knew the Book of Leviticus well. So too the dead girl-- for a Jew, contact with a dead body also led to ritual uncleanness. In one short Chapter we come across pigs and pagans, disease and demons, blood and bodies. It's hard to imagine a less-clean travel itinerary, and yet Jesus--the holy, pure, Son of God--moves calmly, assuredly and altogether unperturbedly amid it all.

It strikes me that his Kingdom of God ministry issues a deep challenge to the notions of holiness and unholiness, cleanness and uncleanness, purity and impurity that were woven deep down into the religious fabric of his world. And it gets me wondering-- what deep-seeded notions of "cleanness" and "uncleanness" are at work in my own heart, determining who I have contact with and who I don't, who I will embrace and who I won't, and is his Kingdom challenge as much for me as it was for "them" back then?

Learning the Basics with Jesus,a devotional thought

 A simple line in Mark 4 got me thinking the other day. Jesus has just finished telling his first parable (the sower and the soils, Mark 4:1-9), and while the disciples are all scratching their heads, he says, "Don't you understand this parable? Then how, also, will you know [the meaning of] all the parables?" (my rough translation).

In other words, The Sower and the Soils is like "Learning from Jesus 101," and if you can't get this simple lesson, what will you do as the parables get increasingly layered and mysterious? It's an interesting statement, especially because the parable of the Sower itself is about those who "get" the Message of the Kingdom and those who don't. Jesus seems to be saying: "Only the 'good soils' will get my message, and the first sign that you're 'good soil' is if you get this parable about the good soil, to begin with." Sounds a bit like circular reasoning, but then, when did Jesus ever bow to the man-made-rules of logic or rhetoric? He wrote the rules, after all!

But it got me thinking about the fact that, when it comes to Jesus, how we do hear determines how we will hear; how we do press into the deep truths of life with him, when the pressing in is relatively easy, will determine how we will press in, when the pressing in is fraught with obstacles and spiritual resistance. Tougher lessons than the Parable of the Sower are on their way, and only those who have cut their teeth--and their hearts--and their imaginations--on this one, will be ready for them when they do.

"If you don't get this parable, how will you understand any parable?" May Jesus make us all quick studies.

Standing in the Gap: a Reflection on Worship

A while ago, a friend of mine was reading through the Bible, cover to cover for the first time.  She did pretty well with Genesis and Exodus, but when she got to Leviticus, things started to get rocky.

“Why the sudden obsession with cleanliness and animal sacrifice?” she wondered.

While all those elaborate rituals and detailed sacrifices in Leviticus may seem strange to modern readers like us, they’re actually crucial for understanding the person and the ministry of Jesus Christ.

Because the theological vision underlying the Leviticus is that, whatever else God is, he’s transcendent.  The word transcendent means that God is completely other, absolutely unlike anything in Creation.  Like it says in one place:  “As high as the heavens are above the earth, so are my ways above your ways.”

Now, we tend to think in spatial terms, so we tend to picture it in this way—that God is “above us” or “far away.”  But in Leviticus, God is not “far away.”  He is the Creator of everything, after all, so he’s always present to the creation; and what’s more, the story of Leviticus is that God has actually come to live right in the midst of his people, in the Tabernacle that Moses made.

God’s Transcendence has to do with his nature, not his location.  God is completely holy, whereas humans sin.  God is completely eternal, whereas humans are tainted by death.  God is pure light in which there is no shadow at all, and humans are ...well, you get the picture.

This is the theological dilemma driving the Book of Leviticus: God is always right there with us, and at the same time, he’s wholly transcendent.  How do you live with a God like that?

In Leviticus the answer is through the ministry of a priest.  A priest must “go between” for the people, in the way that God prescribes, according to rituals he describes, rituals which not only “represent” God’s transcendence to us, but also “bridge it” so that we can in fact, live with him.

So ritual washing, for instance, reminds us that God’s pure and we’re unclean, but it also deals with the problem, by making us clean.  And the rituals of animal sacrifice address the fact that it would mean death for flesh-and-blood creatures like us to stand in the presence of a Holy God, but it also deals with this problem.

The whole Bible agrees with Leviticus on this one:  God is completely transcendent and yet, at the same time, always there.  And because of this, there is no way for Humans to do life-together-with-God—to worship, or pray, or celebrate him—without the work of a Mediator like this.

Someone needs to enter God’s presence on our behalf, bringing “the things of humanity to God,” and bringing the “things of God to us.”

And this is where Jesus comes in.  Because Christians, of course, while they may share the vision of God that Leviticus describes, they don’t actually observe any of the rituals it prescribes.

And this is because the writers of the New Testament kept insisting that Jesus is the fulfillment of the vision for life with God that we find in the Torah.  He is the Great High Priest, but he is also the sacrificial Lamb.  He is the Tabernacle where God’s Glory dwells, but he’s also the Perfect Mediator who enters the Tabernacle for us.

This is why the teaching that Jesus is both fully God and fully human matters so much, because only a fully-human-fully-divine saviour could bridge God’s transcendence for us, brining the things of God to us, and at the same time, bringing human being like us into the divine presence.

For the Christian every aspect of our life with God is really just a participation in the Priestly Ministry of Jesus, who stands as our human representative before God.  Through faith and by the Holy Spirit, our worship, our prayer, our ministry, our very lives are untied with the worship, prayer and ministry that Jesus offers the Father on our behalf.

And because it’s offered in him, it is accepted as holy: pure, perfect and pleasing to God.


By the Lakeshore with Jesus, a devotional thought

Compared to the three other Gospels, Mark comes across as brief, unpolished, even cursive at times. Yet for all this, many of his stories capture details that the other Gospels might minimize or edit out, but they leave you certain you're brushing up against the raw texture of a story remembered by those who were there.

Mark 4:1 is an example of this. I've always loved the description of Jesus sitting in a boat and teaching from the water because the crowds were so packed along the lake-shore that there was no room for him there. This is, I think, the sort of out-of-the-ordinary detail that would have lingered long in the telling and retelling of the event: "And then Jesusget thishe was almost pushed into the water by the crowds pressing in to hear him, so he hopped in a boat and shoved off into the lake, and taught them all from there!"

When I tried to visualize this, it sort of strikes me that today the crowds aren't "practically pushing Jesus into the lake" in their enthusiasm to encounter him. Even among Christians, you don't often see this sort of falling-over-yourself eagerness not to miss a thing he has to say; sadly, Jesus has plenty of room to move about freely in most Canadian churches.

It makes you wonder.  What had those crowds at the lakeshore that day *experienced* in Jesus, that we have yet to experience, that nothing in the world was so compelling to them as standing under his teaching as he taught? But it also makes you wonder this: what if the 21st Century Canadian Church was like that lake shore: crammed so full of people there to hear Jesus that it almost felt like there was barely room left for him? I think we'd find he was filling up the place to overflowing, if it were.