Ghost Notes

Ghost Notes
A collections of original songs I wrote in 2015, and recorded with the FreeWay Musical Collective. Click the album image to listen.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Three Minute Theology 4.8: The Whole Set

To the Rabble Rousers, a devotional thought

There’s this interesting line in Acts 9, just an offhand comment, but it gets me thinking. It’s in the middle of the story about Paul’s early ministry, just after he encountered the Lord Jesus and had the scales fall from his eyes, and two themes stand out sharply in these early days. 1) All the Christians are kind of afraid of him. Up till now, he’s developed quite a reputation as a persecutor of the church, so it’s maybe understandable that, now he’s converted, they’re all a little gun shy. And 2) all the non-Christians want to kill him. From the sounds of things he’s as zealous now for Jesus as he previously was against him. Everywhere he goes he’s getting in arguments and debates and trouble, “speaking out boldly in the name of Jesus.” He’s in Damascus until the Damascenes hatch a plan to kill him, so he moves to Jerusalem, until the Greeks try to kill him, so he moves on to Caesarea. Eventually, it says, the disciples “sent him away to Tarsus.”

And then comes the interesting line: then, it says, “the church throughout Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace.” I say it gets me thinking, because Paul’s clearly a rabble-rouser for Jesus, and once they finally ship him off to Tarsus, that’s when the church experiences peace. But, of course, Paul’s more than just a rabble-rouser, he’s also a world-shaker for Jesus, and though his ministry might ruffle feathers (even some of his fellow Christian feathers), God intends to rock the foundations of the Roman Empire through him.

 I’m pointing that out because sometimes in church life (or even our own individual discipleship), the people who disrupt our peace are the ones God most uses to move us, shake us and form us. We need the rabble rousers, is my point, even though it’s not always fun to have the rabble roused; and sometimes the worst thing we can do is to rest in a false, complacent kind of peace. And as difficult as it sometimes is, still I'm thankful to God for the rabble-rousers he’s used in my life and ministry, and even (tremulously) praying that he’ll send more my way.

Three Minute Theology 4.7: The BIRG Effect

The Theology of Bruce Springsteen (Part 5): A Sense of Place

Early on in this theological analysis of Bruce Springsteen’s music, I shared how I was never really much of a Springsteen fan growing up.  In that post, I explained how it was the song “Born in the USA,” in particular, that kept me from boarding the train bound for the Springsteen fandom. 

I was 10 years old when “Born in the USA” “went nuclear” (as Spirngsteen puts it in his autobiography), and it’s maybe to be expected that this angry heart-cry of a down-and-out Vietnam vet, shaking his fist at a nation that took from him everything and offered him nothing in return, would be lost on a 10-year-old boy.  Add to this the fact that I’m Canadian, and the best I could make of Springsteen’s passionately bellowed verses was a naïve ode to the good-ol’-U-S-of-A, a sentiment that I sort of prided myself on not being able to relate to.  Like Ronald Regan, who once used “Born in the USA” as a campaign song, I entirely missed the point of this politically charged bray of protest against the Vietnam Draft and its aftermath.  Springsteen himself called “Born in the USA” one of his greatest and most misunderstood pieces of music, and at ten years old, I was one of the misunderstanders.

As an adult I’ve come to appreciate the song.  Even though it’s still not anything I’ve ever sung in the shower (and truth be told, I find that synth hook annoyingly repetitive), I can relate to its passionate desire for roots and rootedness, for community and belonging, for a shalom-oriented re-weaving of the social fabric.  The singer in “Born” is more like an estranged son, clinging to a father who’s disowned him and refusing to scorn his birthright, than he is like some red-ball-cap-wearing jingoist, blindly chanting “Make America Great Again!” at some campaign rally or other. Inasmuch as this need for rootedness, this ache for community, this longing for a shalom-oriented rend in the status quo is a universal experience, and not just a sentiment made in the USA, it is something that can and should resonate with every human heart, regardless of where it was born.

In commenting on “Born in the USA,” Springsteen has said, “It was a GI blues, the verses an accounting, the choruses a declaration of the one sure thing that could not be denied … birthplace.  Birthplace, and the right to all of the blood, confusion, blessings and grace that comes with it.  Having paid body and soul, you have earned, many times over, the right to claim and shape your piece of home ground."

Here we get intimations of the theological meaning of a song like “Born in the USA,” I think, and the many other songs in the Springsteen canon that convey the same attachment to one’s “home ground,” and one’s right to “claim and shape” a piece of it.  Songs like “My Hometown,” “American Skin,” “My City of Ruins,” “Death to my Hometown,” though none of them so bluntly as “Born in the USA,” all ring with the same root note: that the place one calls home is worth loving and celebrating and grieving with and agonizing over, simply because it is home.  As screwed up as it sometimes is—and to be clear no one’s hometown isn’t screwed up, when you really get to know it—but as screwed up as it is, that only makes it all the more worth the agony.

I’m suggesting this as the theological meaning of “Born in the USA”—that one’s home ground is worth all the heartache it takes to love it—because it is certainly the kind of sentiment that a Christian with a robust understanding of the incarnation of Jesus Christ would take to heart.  We know, of course, that the incarnation is about the Creator’s passionate commitment to this world; but often, I think, Christians read this in the abstract.  God may have loved “the world” as a general construct, but he didn’t necessarily love this or that specific neighbourhood in the world, did he?  My home town, your street corner, this or that stretch of grass?

Of course, you can’t ask that question without recalling that the covenant Jesus came to fulfill—the covenant to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—was actually a very real promise of “home ground”—a promise of land and birthright and home.  And while Jesus has transformed that covenant so that it is no longer about a tiny strip of land somewhere in the Levant, even so he hasn’t annulled the promise in doing so, rather he’s burst it wide open, so that the “home ground” he offers us now is the whole world, every strip of land, everywhere, redeemed and renewed and restored by the love of God (so Psalm 2:8, “You said, ask of me and I will give the nations as your inheritance, the ends of the earth as your possession.”)  

In Jesus, the Promised Land is now the promised hope of New Creation, healed and renewed and coming soon to a theatre near you.

Through the incarnation, then, God has demonstrated a passion for the welfare of “my hometown” far deeper and purer and more profound than any Springsteen song could ever convey.  And through the incarnation he calls us to share that passion: to love our various strips of “home ground”—my street, my neighbourhood, my corner of the globe—with the redemptive love of Jesus, and then get to work re-weaving the social fabric into a beautiful tapestry of Shalom. 

This is why, though it’s unlikely I’ll ever sing it in the shower, nevertheless I’ve come to appreciate Springsteen’s greatest and most misunderstood piece of music: because it reminds me of something that the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ has proved beyond a shadow of a doubt: that there’s no corner of the Creator’s world that isn’t worth all the agony and heartache, the blood, sweat and tears it costs to love it well.


The Face of a Martyr, a devotional thought

The other day I was reading the story of Stephen in the book of Acts, and I was struck by the description of Stephen at his trial before the Sanhedrin.  Stephen is famous among Bible Trivia buffs for being the first believer to be martyred for his faith, and in Act 6:15, he’s about to give the incendiary sermon that will lead to his summary execution.  But right before he speaks, it says, “All who were sitting [there] looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.”  Such a strange and yet powerful image: in giving his testimony for Jesus—the testimony that will cost him his life—Stephen was so filled with the glory of God that it shone in his face.  Shone so clearly, mind you, that it was like the face of an angel to his interrogators.  It got me thinking: does my witness for Jesus—my testimony to his love, his grace, his mercy, his truth—does it shine in my face with anywhere even near that kind of a heavenly radiance, when I’m sharing it? And how can I be so filled with His Spirit, like Stephen, that it might?

On Book-Smarts and Being with Jesus, a devotional thought

There’s an interesting line in Acts 4:13, where the Sanhedrin is interrogating Peter and John, who’ve recently caused a stir by healing a lame man in Jesus’ name.  We’re told: “when the Sanhedrin saw their confidence and understood that they were uneducated and untrained, they were amazed, and took note that they had been with Jesus.” It’s an interesting juxtaposition—doubly interesting for someone like me, who is starting to gear up for another semester working on my doctorate, which starts in two weeks. The Sanhedrin are flummoxed at the spiritual depth and insight of these two uneducated fishermen, who don’t have any letters behind their name or diplomas on their wall, and the only thing they can credit it to is the fact that they had been with Jesus.

Don’t get me wrong. I place a high value on life-long learning, and think that careful scholarship is of crucial importance to the mission of the church (I did just get back from a two-week stint studying for my doctorate...) but Acts 4:13 seems to suggest that there is a kind of learning, and knowing, that goes beyond the best that any 1st Century Rabbinical school (or its 21st Century equivalent) can offer: a deep, careful formation at the feet of Jesus. Without this, all the book-learning in the world is just so much chasing after the wind; and it’s only with this—with a life-lived in the presence of Jesus—that academic scholarship can be what it was meant to be: a precious gift to the church, to the glory of God.

The Theology of Bruce Springsteen (Part 4): In the Shoes of a Stranger



One of the hidden gems on Springsteen’s classic Born to Run album is “Meeting Across the River.” The song tells the story of an amateur street thug and his friend Eddie, who are scraping together the cash for a vague and ominous-sounding meeting with a man “across the river.” From the details, we gather that the narrator is down to his last chance in the criminal underworld, that he and Eddie are in way over their heads, and that all their hopes for redemption are riding on whatever deal it is they’re planning to make with the man on the other side of the river.

What makes “Meeting Across the River” especially compelling is the fact that this story is told in the first person, through the eyes, as it were, of this third-rate hood, desperate to make it big in a world far bigger and far more dangerous than he is. The first person narrative voice creates a deep pathos and a profound empathy for the listener. When the narrator urges Eddies to stuff something in his pocket so it will look like he’s “carrying a friend,” the depth of his naivete and the strong likelihood that this meeting across the river is going to end very badly for them, creeps over us like a vague, looming shadow.

The first time I heard “Meeting Across the River,” it took a second to register for me that the “I” voice in the song was not Springsteen himself, that he was actually playing a role, singing a part. Having been raised on the intensely personal songs of the 80s, be it Glam-Metal’s odes to personal sexual prowess or U2’s spiritual ruminations about finding “what I’m looking for,” I had come to assume that whenever a singer sang in the first person like this, he must be singing about himself, expressing personal hopes and dreams, individual desires, and private disappointments. Part of what makes “Meeting Across the River” so arresting on first listen is the fact that the narrator’s voice is so convincing, so fully conceived and personal, that it takes a while to realize that you’re not really hearing the true confessions of a failed, entry-level street thing; you’re only hearing Springsteen imaging the world as one.

As a song writing technique, this art of assuming the role of a particular character and singing in his or her voice permeates Bruce Springsteen’s songbook. In “Born in the USA” he is a returning veteran of the Vietnamese war. In “Racing in the Streets” he’s a career street racer looking over his life. In “The River,” he’s a teen aged dad watching his dreams go up in smoke in the face of unemployment, adult responsibility, and the Carter recession.

It was “The River,” actually, where he first began experimenting with this approach to writing songs in a serious way. In this brief excerpt from the documentary “The Ties that Bind,” Springsteen talks about the development of first-person storytelling in his music.



“With a very specific narrative story,” he explains, “I would sing in that voice, you know, of the character. And it wasn’t necessarily me, though it was partly me, and partly other people. … ‘The River’ was my touchstone for all that writing that came later, where you simply step into a character’s shoes and try to get your listeners to walk in those shoes for a while.”

Towards the end of the above clip, he talks about the power of this kind of song writing. “You’re laying claim to [a] character’s experience, and you’re trying to do right by it as a song writer, and you’re taking the risk of singing in that voice.” Taking this risk, he says, “is the writer’s job. [It’s to] faithfully imagine the world, and other’s lives in a way that respects them … sort of honours them … and records them in your own way somewhat faithfully.”

What Springsteen is talking about here, I think, is more than just the writer’s job.  It’s the well-spring of grace and compassion in the human heart. At least: the ability to imagine the world through the eyes of another human being, and to do it in a way that respects and honours them faithfully, is essential if we are to know true compassion and extend genuine grace to others. To realize what it might mean to be a dying AIDS patient, for instance, longing for brotherhood as he waits out the sunset of his life (as Springsteen tries to do in “Philadelphia”) is to take a step towards true empathy for the lonely dying in our own lives. To realize what it might mean to be young, unemployed, and out of options (as Springsteen does in “Atlantic City”) is to plant seeds of grace in your heart for the hard decisions people in such circumstances need to make every day.

Whenever I see this “faithful imagining of the world through another man’s eyes” happen well in a Springsteen song, it occurs to me that Christians could do worse than take a cue from him on this one.  At least, it is certainly what our Lord did for us, on a cosmic scale, when he literally stepped into our shoes—the Son of God become the Son of Man—and walked in them all the way to the cross.  "We do not have saviour who is unable to empathize with us in our weakness," says the writer of Hebrews, "but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are, and yet he was without sin."  Herein lies the source and power of Christ's grace and compassion for us, that in him, God literally looked through the world through human eyes.  "For this reason," the writer of Hebrews says in a different place, "he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every way, in order that he might become a faithful and merciful high priest in service to God."

And to the extent that his compassion and grace are in fact the currency of the Christian life, this ability to “step into a character’s shoes and walk in them for a while” should come as naturally to us as breathing. If it did, I expect that the “weightier matters of Law”—justice and mercy and faithfulness—would come more naturally, too. To quote a song writer that predated Springsteen by a good 750 years, the Way of Jesus is to seek “not so much to be understood, as to understand … not so much to be loved, as to love with all [our] souls.”

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The Widow's Mite, a devotional thought

In Mark Chapter 12 we come across a well-known story about a widow who gives two pennies into the Temple treasury, while all the rich are dropping cool-crisp 20 dollar bills in the plate (or the 1st Century equivalent...).  Jesus watches the scene unfold and then he says, "I tell you the truth, this poor widow gave more than all the others, because they gave out of their wealth, but she gave everything she has" (Mark 12:44).

When you read this story in the broader context of Mark's narrative, you can't help but notice that it comes right after Jesus has finished denouncing the Teachers of the Law because they "devour widow's houses..." (v.40). So there's two references to widows back to back in Mark 12. But there's also two references to Teachers of the Law, because right before Mark 12:40, another Teacher of the Law asks Jesus what's the greatest commandment, and he says, "To love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbour as yourself."

The reason this broader context matters is because it suggests that this generous widow is not just being held up as an example to generic rich people (though they are implicated...). She's being held up as an example to the Teachers of the Law, in particular, who who split hairs over which commandment is greatest, and then turn around and violate the first and foremost commandment by gobbling up the homes of the likes of her, using their wealth and their legalistic righteousness to justify their economic exploitation of others. Back in verse 29, Jesus told a Teacher of the Law that the most important commandment is to love God and love your neighbour, and here in verse 43, he points out the self-giving of a powerless widow, sitting lowest of all on the socio-economic totem pole, as the best example of what that actually looks like.

Some very sobering thoughts bob to the surface when you connect all these dots: if the Teachers of the Law really got it, what the greatest commandment was (v. 29-3), they wouldn't "devour the homes of the widows" (v.40), would they? And then that widow's two pennies wouldn't be "everything she had to live on." Would it? This story is as much a condemnation of spiritual-economic exploitation as it is an exhortation to give generously (probably more so). Loving God with all your heart is not some abstract, immaterial, touchy-feely type-thing. It actually looks like that impoverished widow in the Temple treasury that day, literally putting it all on the line with God and trusting him to provide. But the thing is, if we all got that, and did it with her, then she wouldn't be down to her last two pennies in the first place.

The Theology of Bruce Springsteen (Part 3): Life through the Eyes of the Losers

One of my favorite Bruce Springsteen albums is 1982’s Nebraska. The story goes that the album is really just a collection of demos that Springsteen recorded in his bedroom, on a four-track Tascam cassette recorder. In his autobiography he describes the process: “I’d sing, play, and with the two tracks left, I could add a backing vocal, an extra guitar, or a tambourine. On four tracks that’s all you could do. I mixed it through a guitar Echoplex unit onto a beat box like the kind you’d take to the beach; total cost for the project: about a grand.”

Springsteen took these demos into the studio to record them with The E Street Band, but after re-recording them and remixing them, he realized that the unpolished sound of those bedroom tape-recordings were actually truer to the spirit of the songs he'd written: “On listening [to the studio versions] I realized I’d succeeded in doing nothing but damaging what I’d created. We got it to sound cleaner, more hi-fi, but not nearly as atmospheric, as authentic.” In the end, he released those original demos as the finished album, and 35 years later, you can still hear the dim background noise, the ever-so-subtle low-fi grit, the rough edges and the spare four-track arrangements that give Nebraska its haunting quality.

This haunting quality is perfectly suited to tell the stories of the haunted characters that lurk the lyrics and people the worlds of the songs on Nebraska. If the characters in “Thunder Road” were fleeing from “a town full of losers” and pulling out to win, the songs on Nebraska are stark, compelling portraits of all the losers that got left behind.  “The tension running through the music’s core,” Springsteen writes, “was the thin line between stability and that moment when the things that connect you to world, your job, your family, your friends, the love and grace in your heart, fail you. I wanted the music to feel like a waking dream, and to move like poetry. I wanted the blood in these songs to feel destined and fateful.”

 If the blood in these songs is indeed destined and fateful, it is destined, in particular, to fail, and fated, especially, to lose.

There is, for example, the desperate hero of “Atlantic City,” who is down on his luck and caught up in a world of organized crime far bigger than he is. His “luck may have died” and his “love may be cold,” but he still has one last chance to break his losing streak (however shady that chance may be):
Now I been lookin' for a job but it's hard to find
Down here it's just winners and losers
and don't get caught on the wrong side of that line
Well I'm tired of comin' out on the losin' end
So honey last night I met this guy
and I'm gonna do a little favor for him

Well I guess everything dies baby that's a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back
Put your makeup on fix your hair up pretty
and meet me tonight in Atlantic City
Another great example is the little boy in “Used Car,” who wrestles with the shame and stigma of his family’s blue collar poverty, crystalized for him in the experience of driving home in their new used car, the best and only thing their family can afford.
Now the neighbors come from near and far
As we pull up in our brand new used car
I wish he'd just hit the gas and let out a cry
And tell them all they can kiss our asses goodbye

My dad he sweats the same job from morning to morn
Me I walk home on the same dirty streets where I was born
Up the block I can hear
my little sister in the front seat blowing that horn
The sounds echoing all down Michigan Avenue

Now mister the day my number comes in
I ain't ever gonna ride in no used car again
As a final example, there’s poor Ralph, the out-of-work-auto-plant worker in "Johnny 99," whose turn to petty crime after losing his job on the assembly line leads him down a dark path ending with a murdered night-clerk and a life-sentence. His final statement to the court before the bailiff comes to forever take him away encapsulates the weary-of-losing and out-of-luck desperation that permeates this album:
Now judge, judge I had debts no honest man could pay
The bank was holdin' my mortgage
and they were gonna take my house away
Now I ain't sayin' that make me an innocent man
But it was more 'n all this that put that gun in my hand

Well your honor I do believe I'd be better off dead
So if you can take a man's life
for the thoughts that's in his head
Then won't you sit back in that chair
and think it over judge one more time
And let 'em shave off my hair
and put me on that execution line
I could also mention the torn loyalties of the police officer in “Highway Patrol Man,” caught between his duty to the law and his love for his derelict brother, or the speeding desperado in “State Trooper,” roaring along a wet highway in a New Jersey Night, with unspoken sin on his hands and an anxious prayer on his lips: “Mr State Trooper, please don’t stop me …”

Though it gets its finest treatment on Nebraska, this heart for the losers and the luckless of this world permeates Springsteen’s song writing. There’s the speaker in “The River,” who takes all his hopes and dreams for the future, and exchanges them for the unwanted responsibility of being a teen aged dad.  There's the third-rate thug in “Meeting Across the River,” who's trying to scrounge up the cash to make a sketchy deal with some shady character on the other side of the river.  There's the forlorn, if willfully naïve lover in “Candy’s Room,” who can’t bring himself to ask the truth about the "strangers from the city" who call his girlfriend’s number and "bring her toys" (all he knows is that there’s "a sadness hidden in her pretty face / a sadness all her own / from which no man can keep Candy safe.")

In his more mature song writing, the same theme shows up poignantly in songs like “Philadelphia” (about a man dying of AIDS) or “Jack of All Trades” (about the impact of the 2008 Recession on working class Americans). Even his most famous song, “Born in the USA”—though it’s so often mistaken as an oath blind of allegiance to America the Beautiful—is really about the returning vets of the Vietnamese war, chewed up and spit out by forces beyond their control, and come home to a nation that despised them all as losers.

As a Christian, I can’t help but resonate with the profound empathy that Springsteen’s music expresses for all these inept sinners and failed saints—the luckless, the desperate, the disappointments, the jobless, the outsiders, the mavericks, and the derelicts of this world. Because as a Christian, I recognize something of the Gospel in Springsteen’s commitment to see the world through their eyes. The Jesus I follow, the one who promised that the least would be great in his Kingdom, the last first and the greatest least, showed us that God is, in fact, closest to those who know they really have nothing to offer but their one last chance, their failed-best-efforts, the shards of their shattered hopes.

Surely the Jesus who scandalized all the party guests when he let the town prostitute anoint his feet with oil, could have kept Candy safe from the sadness hidden in her pretty face. Surely the Jesus who hung dying between two of the worst-of-the-worst criminals on Golgotha, would understand the despair and hopelessness of poor Johnny 99. Surely the Jesus who walked away the third day from the empty tomb, answers the hope for something on the other side of death that keeps the singer in “Atlantic City” singing (despite so many times coming up on the wrong side of the line that separates the winners from the losers).

At the risk of putting it the wrong way around: Jesus’ teaching that the meek will inherit the earth, that the poor are truly the blessed ones, and that those who mourn will get the last laugh in the end, could have come straight off a page of Springsteen’s songbook. Put the right way around: there is something arrestingly (if unintentionally) Christ-like in Springsteen’s willingness to look at the world through the eyes of the meek, the poor, and the mourning. This is certainly something I’ve come to admire about Springsteen’s song writing, anyways, because whenever a Springsteen song reminds me that the world looks very different, actually, from the bottom of the totem pole, I remember the Way of our Lord, who seemed to feel more at ease among the tax collecting thugs, the ostracized prostitutes, and the rejected “sinners” of his world, than he ever did among the priests, the religious elite, and the spiritual gurus of his day.

There’s a line in one of Springsteen’s later songs where he rattles off the roll call of everyone who's aboard the metaphorical train bound for the “Land of Hope and Dreams.” It’s never really explained in the song what the train is, exactly. Given the title of the song, it would make sense to read it as an image for the American Dream.  Given the passengers we find on the train, however, it might actually be a metaphor for Springsteen’s life's work as a songwriter (certainly each one mentioned on the roster would feel perfectly at home in a Springsteen song). This is the reading I prefer, but with one important caveat: that whether Springsteen meant it this way or not, the “all aboard” invitation that this song ends with is really the invitation of the Gospel:
This train carries saints and sinners
This train carries losers and winners
This train carries whores and gamblers
This train carries lost souls
I said, this train carries broken-hearted
This train thieves and sweet souls departed
This train carries fools and kings
This train, all aboard

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Fruit on the Tree, a devotional thought

With Palm Sunday just around the next bend, I was thinking this morning about the account of Jesus "Temple Action" as its recorded in the book of Mark. It's the day after his triumphant donkey ride into Jerusalem, and on his way into Jerusalem, Jesus comes to a fig tree. Finding no fruit on the tree, Jesus speaks a judgment over it the tree: "May no one ever eat fruit from you again!" Then he goes into the Temple of God's people, looking for spiritual fruit (prayer happening for all the nations) and finding none, enacts a dramatized judgement over it (tipping over the money-changer's tables).

On the way home they see the fig tree shriveled, and start to put one and one together. Then, to put the exclamation point on it all, Jesus tells a parable about a Landlord who sent his Son to the tenants of his estate, to get the fruit of his vineyard, and they decided to kill him instead...

Mark wants the question here, I think, to be obvious: what would Jesus find in us if he were to ride triumphantly but unexpectedly into the "fig-tree" that is our lives (our church, let's say, or our relationships, or our individual lives). Would he find the "spiritual fruit" that he was looking for in the Temple that Palm Sunday morning so long ago? Or will he find what, in fact, he found there: people chasing after their own self-aggrandizing agendas?