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.

Programming and Fatherhood

When I was a boy, the closest thing we had to the world wide inter-web was The Rainbow, a monthly computer magazine for our TRS-80 Color Computer 3 (a.k.a the Co Co 3). The Rainbow published the printed code for a variety programs and applications, which you "downloaded" into your machine by typing them out, line by painstaking line. Hours (sometimes days) later, you'd finally run the program, hoping beyond hope that you hadn't made an error in the transfer from print to screen...and inevitably you had, and inevitably you'd spend hours (sometimes days) going back through it again, line by painstaking line, looking for the proverbial "needle of error" in the proverbial "haystack of code."

But at 14, I loved my Co Co 3.

Pardon the maudlin moment of nostalgia here, but I logged untold hours on this little 128K wonder (yes, that's a "K," as in kilobyte. That was it: 128 of 'em. And you had to save your programs using cassette tape. Those were the days). Some of those untold hours were spent entering code from the pages of The Rainbow Magazine, but more of them were spent working on code of my own.

I programmed exclusively in the Co Co 3's Extended Basic language, and, though I did develop a clunky-but-working word processor that I used to type up homework assignments, my primary interests were in the far less practical field of Game Development. I tried my hand at writing just about anything playable I could think of: text-based adventure games, first-person maze exploration games, shoot-em-up arcade-style games, Tolkien-inspired role playing games, weird versions of chess, flight simulators and battleship-type strategy games. And I learned first-hand about things like algorithms and symbolic logic and applied algebra, and Cartesian geometry and matrices and multi-dimensional arrays and animation and visual story telling and literary narrative devices and graphic design and systematic problem solving and who knows what else as I did so.

I even submitted one of my programs to The Rainbow. It was a game called "Karate," where two stickmen squared off in a joy-stick-controlled melee to the bitter death. The game was actually accepted and printed (I think they paid me $25.00 for it), and almost a full year later I got a letter from some 14-year-old boy somewhere who had typed it in, line by painstaking line, and was now wondering if I could help him figure out where the needle of error was in his haystack of code...

I was reminiscing about my Co Co 3 the other day because my son's been working lately with some game development software called Game-Maker that he downloaded from the internet . As I've watched him become impressively proficient with Game Maker's drag-and-drop interface, programming his own versions of pong, and dodge ball and shoot 'em up arcade style platform games, I've been thinking a lot about apples falling close to trees and chips off old blocks and stuff like that.

After my son had taught me the basics, I thought for old time's sake I'd try my hand at programming a game, which brings me at last to the point of today's post. Because part way into the project, I hit this wall where I wanted the little man to follow a path and slash at the bad guy with a sword, but it just wouldn't do it. I tried everything I could think of, but the little man just wouldn't follow the path.

And in a moment of desperation I called out to my son, who was playing Wii in the basement: "Son! I need you."

"What is it Dad?"

"I can't make the little man follow the path..."

"Be right there." He thumped confidently up the stairs. Looked for about 30 seconds at my code. Found the needle. A few clicks as he explained in patient tones what I'd done wrong, and suddenly the man followed the path as faithfully as a prize winning terrier graduating from obedience school.

And as he went back to the basement and his Wii, having helped his Dad in his moment of need, I thought back to that day when the issue of The Rainbow hit the shelves with my karate game in it, and my Dad took me down to the local Radio Shack and bought every issue in the store. And I thought about how he told the clerk as he paid that his son had a program published in that issue. I'd looked away shyly, but deep down inside I stood up a bit taller, because here was this man that I most admired in the whole world telling a stranger: my son has what it takes.

I wonder if this isn't one of the richest gifts a father can give his son: to call on him in a moment of need, to turn to him for help, to buy out the local Radio Shack when his accomplishment is on display, boasting on him to the clerk as he does so. Because when we, as men most admired by these boys who look up to us, assure them that they really do have what it takes, in these modest but potent ways, we invite them, too, to become men.

Christ Child Lullaby


Little perfect newborn hands
so tiny and pure
Reaching for your mother’ s face,
clutching at her hair
One day they will clutch the cross
and bear it to the hill
Reach out to embrace the nails
Let them pierce that perfect palm
O little tiny newborn hands,
born to do the father’ s will


Little perfect newborn feet
so gentle and warm
Kicking on your mother’ s knee,
swaddled safe from harm
One day they will walk the waves
and make them calm and still
And stand in that forsaken place
And let them pierce that holy hand
O little tiny newborn feet, born to do the father’ s will

You were born to live, born to die
Three days later your would leap up on high
O little hands of God, born to beckon me
Rest now on your mother’ s knee, rest now on your mother’ s knee

Little wrinkled newborn brow crowned with a wisp of hair
Cradled in your mother’ s arms, quiet and fair
One day they will sweat forth blood and bear a crown of thorns
Twisted out of sin and shame
To break and mock your holy name
O little wrinkled newborn brow, born to bear our sin alone

Little crying newborn eyes so dark and so deep
Seeking for your mother’ s breast for comfort and sleep
One day they will see the grave and weep on that morn
Weep for our helplessness
Weep in your love for us
O little crying newborn eyes, born to bear our sin alone

You were born to live, born to die
Three days later you would leap up on high
O little eyes of God, born to seek for me
Sleep now on your mother’ s knee, Sleep now on your mother’ s knee

Unexpected Fruit (The Director's Cut)

After I was done preaching this Sunday, one of my friends said to me: "Okay: did you make a bet in Seminary that you could preach a sermon on one of the genealogies in the Bible or something?"

The answer was no; but I do believe there's something important about standing under the whole word of God, all of it, even the strange or obscure corners of it, and letting it all address us as the word of God. To do this means hearing from its genealogies (and temple inventories, and tables of nations, and bizarre oracles and terrifying apocalyptic visions) as much as from its nice, neat, orderly Pauline discourses. And as ancient documents, genealogies are actually pretty fascinating texts-- theologically rich and spiritually verdant and imaginatively fertile-- or at least they can become so when you start meditating on them deeply.

All this is to introduce this Sunday's Sermon:

Matthew 1:1-17
Unexpected Fruit on the Family Tree


And speaking of theologically rich, spiritually verdant texts, here's a fascinating thought about the Matthean Genealogy that was a bit too esoteric for my sermon, but I thought I'd post here (the following comes primarily from W. D. Davies and D. C. Alison's 1988 commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, as reiterated in John Noland's 2005 commentary).

Matthew lists 42 generations in all from Abraham to Jesus; then he takes careful pains to note that there were 14 generations from Abraham to David, 14 from David to the Exile, and 14 from the Exlie to Jesus. All of which is, in one sense, just plain wrong ... or put a different way, sure there were at least 42 generations from Abraham to Jesus, so technically Matthew's not wrong, but there were a lot more that don't get mentioned. Matthew's trimmed out a few generations here, and he's compressed a few others there, and sometimes seems to be using the term "begat" much more loosely to mean "was the ancestor of."

None of this, it seems, is all that unusual for ancient genealogies, but the thing is: Matthew's taken pretty intent care to fit Jesus' genealogy into exactly 3 groups of 14. Almost as if the 3 x 14 schema was more important to him than any mere biological/biographical accuracy.

As moderns, this might seem pretty fishy to us, until we remember that Matthew thought like an ancient, and probably an ancient Semite at that. And of course, for an anceint Semite, there is power in numbers (7,3,12,40 being among the more famous ones). Not only is there power in numbers, but names themselves also have numbers (it wasn't just the Beast whose name had a number after all). Every word had a "number" that mysteriously related to the word itself, a number that could be determined through various numerological systems known generally today as "gematria."

In Hebrew, the name David has three letters, dalit, waw, dalit, whose respective numerical values are: 4, 6, 4, making the number of David's name 14 (note that David's name comes 14th in Matthew's genealogy). According to at least one system of gematria, the mispar misafi, you also added the number of letters in the word to the "number" of the word, which would give us (loosely speaking), the numbers 3 & 14.
This may get us to the bottom of Matthew's 3 x 14 schema for presenting the geneaology. Has he shaped Jesus' geneaology so that, in a strange way, it all "adds up" to the name "David"? Almost as if he were saying: not only is this Little Lord Jesus the legal descendant of David, but his whole family tree is actually "Christ-shaped"?

Maybe not pulpit material yet, but it sure makes you think.

Bonhoeffer, Mediation, Incarnation and Christmas

A few posts back I quoted Deitrich Bonhoeffer's Life Together. In dredging up that quote, I went back to an old paper from Seminary that I wrote on the Chirstology of Bonhoeffer. Re-perusing what I'd written, I was struck by how Bonhoeffer's emphasis on the Mediation of Christ challenges us to reflect on the true true meaning of Christmas"--in a way that no Charlie Brown's Christmas special ever could.

Looking ahead to the celebration of God's Being With Us in the Person of Jesus, I offer a few quotes from that paper here as a little "Christmas fruit cake" for thought. (Fruit cake, that is, because of its density. What can I say: I was in my 2nd year of Seminary when I wrote it.)

In Ethics, Bonhoeffer argues that because of Jesus it is no longer possible for us to “think in terms of two spheres,” the divine and the worldly, the holy and the profane, the Christian and the un-Christian, but only the single reality of the world-reconciled-to-God-in-Christ. “Whoever professes to believe in the reality of Jesus Christ, as the revelation of God,” he writes, “must in the same breath profess his faith in both the reality of God and the reality of the world; for in Christ he finds God and the world reconciled.” Elsewhere he makes these two realities inseparable, claiming that: "In Christ we are offered the possibility of partaking in the reality of God and in the reality of the world, but not in the one without the other. The reality of God discloses itself only by setting me entirely in the reality of the world, and when I encounter the reality of the world it is always already sustained, accepted and reconciled in the reality of God.”

So it is that in his reconciliation of the whole world to God, Christ makes a claim over the whole of life: “It is as whole men, who think and act, that we are loved by God and reconciled with God in Christ. And it is as whole men, who think and act, that we love God and our brothers.” Christ’s claim over the whole of life precludes the possibility of withdrawing from the world, rather it sends us out into the single reality of the-world-reconciled-to-God-in-Christ, proclaiming this reality to the world: “The world is to be called to this, its reality in Christ ... It must be claimed for Him who has won it by His incarnation, His death and His resurrection.”

... Bonhoeffer’s claim that Christ is the one who brings the reality of the world and the reality of God together can only be understood in light of his conception of Christ as the centre, the mediator between God and humanity and between humans and the world. The centrality of Christ is a continuous theme throughout his work. For Bonhoeffer, Christ the reconciler is the mediator and centre of all reality: “The figure of the Reconciler, of the God-man Jesus Christ, comes between God and the world and fills the centre of all history. In this figure the secret of the world is laid bare, and in this figure there is revealed the secret of God.”

Reflections on Incarnation

Isaiah 7:13-14: The Baby, the Prophet, the Party and the Mess

The Weight of Choice

I heard Erwin McManus say once that the most spiritual thing we can do is to choose. I've been thinking about this these days: could choice be the most spiritual thing?

Maybe.

Or at least, it shouldn't surprise us if it were. Anyways, our culture seems to think there's something deeply important about choice. From the moment we're old enough to watch a commercial, we're told that when we have choice, we have power. Choice is freedom. Choice is the potential to define our selves.

And you can tell a lot about a person from the things they choose.

The Bible knows about the spirituality of choice, I think; and I think that's why it points out over and over again that God is a choosing God.

Because you can tell a lot about him from the things he chooses.

So4000 years ago or so, two twin babies were born to a guy named Isaac. And God chose the younger over the older, even though he was the youngest; even though he was second place, second choice. And when God’s people where in slavery in Egypt, and God wanted to bring them into freedom, he chose an exiled shepherd to call them out, even though Moses admitted he was a man of faltering lips. And when God’s people asked for a King, God chose David, even though David was the eighth son of his father, younger, weaker, less significant than all his brothers.

And when he brought Salvation to the world, he choose the things that we would have long since passed over: the lowly, the humble, the outcast.

He chose a humble Hebrew virgin who had nothing to offer but simple acceptance of her place in God’s plan, and an incredible story about a Divine Conception. And he chose a poor Hebrew carpenter who had nothing to offer but a handful of nightmares telling him to get up and do inexplicable things like marry an unwed mother and flee to Egypt for no apparent reason.

And he chose a baby—a shivering baby born into the darkness and stink of a lonely sheep pen— He chose a 1st Century homeless rabbi with a rag-tag band of followers: reformed prostitutes and delivered demoniacs and redirected zealots and failed fishermen— He chose a crucified Jew executed by the state as political revolutionary—

He chose this as his way of making peace between himself and his sin-blinded world.

If it's true that you can tell a lot about a person based on the things they choose, then what does it tell us about God that in Jesus Christ, he chose the things that the world rejects, that the powerful look down on, and the wise despise?

Because in Jesus Christ, he chose us, too. Ordinary, outsider, outcast, lowly, least, poor, insignificant, broken, failed, reformed, rag-tag though we were, he said: in Jesus Christ, I choose you.

And in Jesus Christ, he frees us to choose back.

He invites us to respond with the likes of Mary, who heard the Spirit choose her and answered: "I am the Lord’s servant—I am the servant of a God who chooses the humble—let it be to me according to your word.” And as we choose back like this, in response to his First Choice--we find ourselves following this Little Lord Jesus into a world where—like Gabriel promised Mary—nothing is impossible with God.

On Baptism and Philadelphia

Among the candidates to be baptized last Sunday were my two oldest children. It was a great privilege to be part of this with them, but there's something I've been thinking about ever since. While I was putting together my notes to introduce the baptism candidates, I wrote out this sentence: "It's a real honour for me to stand with my daughter and baptize her as my sister in the Lord."

And I stopped dead at the keyboard, staring (through an accumulating mist) at those words on the screen: I'm baptizing my daughter and son, as my brother and sister in Jesus.

Often when we use the brother/sister terminology in Church it becomes whimsical, farcical, satirical or just plain empty. So I get why it's fallen out of common usage. But, remembering their baptism today, I'm thinking of Bonhoeffer. He stretched the concept of the Mediation of Christ to its inevitable conclusion, holding that: "within the Christian community there is never, in any way whatsoever, an 'immediate' relationship to one another ... but ... Christ [always] stands between me and another."

And I wonder: Could it really be? Could it be that since Jesus, the God-Man, mediates all human relationships, then before they are my children, my son and daughter are first and foremost my siblings in Christ? And could it be that any claim I might make on them is always secondary to and limited by and transcended by and mediated by the claims of Christ on us, who always stands between us?

And asking, I know the answer. An answer that has the potential to break open and heal and transform all my relationships.

Before she is my mother, she is my sister in Christ.

Before he is my father, he is my brother in Christ.

Before she is my wife, she is my sister in Christ.

There is no relationship I have that Christ hasn't first laid claim to, in a way that both rebukes and purifies any talk about me actually "having" a relationship with another human being who I might call "mine." And to look at them-- mother, father, son, daughter, brother, student, friend, neighbour, wife-- I must always look through the Christ who stands between us. To speak to them--mother, father, son, daughter, brother, student, friend, neighbour, wife--I must always speak through Christ.

To really see them, I must first see the Mediating Christ who names them brother and sister.

And what would community look like if we could do that?

Preparing the Way for the Lord

This Sunday was the second week of Advent; an exciting Sunday in our church, because we had a baptism service to go with it. Especially exciting for me, inasmuch as it was my first baptism service. I've led my share of worship jingles over the years, but I've never felt so like a worship leader as I did Sunday, when I stood in the water with Christ-followers as they received the sign of God's grace and salvation that is water baptism.

Because it was the Second week of Advent, I preached Luke 1:67-81: Zechariah's song at the birth of John. John the Baptist doesn't get a lot of air time in church; I'm not sure why, but the negligence is maybe a shame. By his own admission, John the Baptist's entire reason for being was to point the world inexorably to the Coming Christ. Everything about him was a one-way arrow directing us down the made-straight path to Jesus. (In the best illustrations of John, what stands out most is his long, extended finger pointing the World adamantly to the Lamb of God who takes away Its sin.)

But as I prepared the material for Sunday, at one point it hit me: as with John the Baptist, so too with the sign of Christian Baptism. It should point us inexorably to Jesus. Sometimes I wonder if the language we normally use to describe baptism-- personal testimony, step of obedience, personal declaration of personal faith-- doesn't point us more to the candidate than to the Christ they are declaring. I get the words we use, and believe there really is something beautifully personal about being baptized that should be celebrated; but I also believe that baptism itself should always serve as a long, extended finger pointing the World adamantly to its Savior.

The sermon recording was more than a bit fuzzy this Sunday (technical difficulties), but I thought I'd post it here for anyone interested.

Luke 1:67-81 "The Right Song for the Wrong Baby"

Here Comes the Groom

Speaking of the start of Advent, here's my sermon from Sunday.

Psalm 45 is a pretty obscure Psalm, but not so obscure that it doesn't get picked up by the New Testament writers. I feel that preaching from the Old Testament, and especially Christ-centred, Gospel-proclaiming preaching from the Old Testament that still respects the text on it own terms (instead of using it just as a ski-jump to the cross) is a really important part of a balanced homiletical diet.

Important, but hard to do; here's one effort.

Psalm 45: Here Comes the Groom

The Art of Waiting


This Sunday marks the start of Advent. Despite the fact that we generally jump the gun and make the month leading up to Christmas the season of Cramming-in-as-Many-Christmas-Parties-and-as-Much-Cheer-as-Possible, traditionally Advent is actually meant to emphasize the waiting, not the celebrations. At one time Advent was a season of penance parallel to Lent, hence the purple/dark blue colours; they added one week of "joy"-- the pink "Gaudette Candle"--because they thought that two full seasons of penance was overkill. At any rate, the Christmas celebrations were meant to happen after Christmas Eve-- after His arrival on the scene--and the time leading up to Christmas morning was all about the delayed gratification of waiting for it.
But we don't do delayed gratification that well any more, so the Advent Season has sort of morphed into the pre-Christmas Christmas Season.

And maybe there's something lost there; because there's something powerful in the delayed gratification, the spiritual preparation, the waiting of Advent. It's a time to remember how God's people once sat in darkness, waiting for the light. It's a time to recall their ache, as they longed for the deliverance that God had promised them through their ancient prophets. And it's a time to remember their hope, when they finally heard John the Baptist, that last great prophet of God's Coming One, crying out in the wilderness: "Prepare the Way for the Lord."

But more than mere remembrance, Advent is a time for us to ask ourselves: if he had come to us that first Christmas so long ago, would we have been prepared? Are our hearts so tuned to the things of God that we would have recognized Salvation for the World as it stirred silently and scandalously in the womb of an unwed mother? Are we so spiritually awake to God's passion for the poor, his heart for the humble, his embrace of the outcast, that we would have named that child "Emmanuel"-- God with us-- as he squirmed newborn in the humble arms of the homeless virgin who'd just delivered him into the world?

As we ask ourselves these questions during the Advent Season, we have the chance to prepare again. We can invite God to name, weigh and gently purge the things of this world that keep us unprepared for his coming. We can ask God to teach us again what it means to long for deliverance from the darkness of our petty sins, and selfishness, and pride. We can allow God to renew our own heart for the poor, the humble, the outcasts of this world.

Because in the advent season, we remember not only that he came, but also that he is coming.
As he came once, so he will come again-- quickly-- like a theif in the night-- when the hearts of many have grown cold or sleepy with waiting-- when many of the servants have given up the work and most of the lamps have run out of oil-- he'll return and claim his own. And as we prepare for the celebration of his first coming, so we prepare our hearts and renew our expectation for his Second Coming, asking and hoping that we'll found ready and waiting.

The Unsung Songs in Church

Besides my list of songs written in 7/4 time, I've also been working on a list of the saddest songs I know. So far my list (in no particular order) includes:

1. "Mothers of the Disappeared," U2.
A haunting lament giving voice to the heartbreak of the Argentinian Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, whose sons and daughters opposed the Videla and Galtieri coup d'etat in 1976, and were kidnapped, never to be seen again.
In the trees our sons stand naked
Through the walls our daughters cry
See their tears in the rainfall

2. "Bonny Portmore," Traditional (Lorena McKennitt).
A traditional Celtic lament mourning the loss of the ancient oak forests of Ireland, which were clear-cut to provide lumber for English ship-building projects.
All the birds in the forest, they bitterly weep
Sighing, "Where shall we shelter, where shall we sleep?"
For the Oak and the Ash tree are all cutten down,
And the walls of bonny Portmore are all down to the ground.

3. "Strange Fruit," Billie Holiday.A vivid and arresting song decrying the lynching of two black men in in the southern US in the 1930s.
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves, blood on the root

4. "Hallelujah," Leonard Cohen.
A song about love and failure and the gapping space that yawns between human hearts.
I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

5. "Siúil a Rúin," Traditional.
The lament of an Irish girl whose darling has left to fight in the continental wars.
I'll sell my rod, I'll sell my reel
I'll sell my only spinning wheel
For to by my love a sword of steel
And safe forever may my darling be

And as I make this list, I'm thinking about church music, worship music, the whole praise-chorus shebang, and wondering about how little lament it allows. We don't often hear songs in church with the pathos of a "Mothers of the Disappeared," the honesty of a "Hallelujah," the ache for Shalom of a "Strange Fruit," or the sensitivity of a "Bonny Portmore." (Though after writing these sentences, I remember that we sang "All I Can Say" last Sunday at our church, which certainly gets a vote for real pathos and honesty and ache for Shalom.)

But maybe we're missing something when we don't. We are, after all, called to weep with those who weep; and music that gives voice to the ache, I think, is also one of the good and perfect gifts of the Creator.
The Psalmists knew this.

You wouldn't necessarily guess it from the way their heart-cries have trickled down into the peppy hymnody of the church, but there is some pretty raw stuff in there. I remember the day I read Psalm 43, of "As the Deer" fame, and suddenly realized that this is not the melodic, somewhat soporific song we sing in church. Whatever else this"Maskil for the Sons of Korah" is for, it's not for crooning devotion. It's for crying desperation.

Desperation for justice, for deliverance, for vindication, for restoration, for any food other than the tears that have been his sole nourishment day and night without count.

This is lament, not love-song.

A while ago, I was preparing to lead worship in my church, and asking about the missing laments in contemporary church music, and wondering what to do about it. I sat down and tried to work out an arrangement for "As the Deer" that might give a bit more room for the original ache of the Psalm to speak. Still thinking about the unsung laments of the people of God, I offer it here.

Fishing for Leviathan

Sunday's sermon.

Job 41:1-11: Fishing for Leviathan

The Audiology of the Heart

I've been wondering a bit lately about my hearing, wondering if years of running a floor sander in my former life as a hardwood flooring guy, and years more listening to Van Halen really loud in my former life as a headbanger might have left some dents on my ear drum.

So I took a free online hearing test this week, just to find out how I'm doing these days. And basically what it told me is this: I don't need to see any of the expensive audiologists that the free online hearing test people were advertising. I figured that was a good sign, considering that, as far as I could tell, the whole point of the free online hearing test was to get people to visit one of their expensive audiologists.

But I'm still thinking about hearing. Because I notice that whenever Jesus talks about hearing, he always talks about it as though it was a deeply spiritual act.

Have you noticed that?

To the scoffers, he says: "Some people have ears, but they just won't listen for the things of God with them."

To the seekers, he says: "Pay attention to how you hear, because the same measure you use to listen. that's the measure it'll be measured back to you."

To the skeptics, he says: "Let my words sink into your ears: I have to be crucified at the hands of the wicked, and I will rise again the third day."

And to the students of God-- his disciples, his followers, his friends-- he says: "Your ears are blessed because they hear."

So maybe hearing is a spiritual act. I mean: to hear well, we have to be quiet, don't we? We have to trust that the Other will speak, and that what the Other has to say really matters. We need hearts that are completely open, and receptive and available to the Other.

And that's a spiritual way to be.

I'm trying to do a little spiritual audiology these days, asking how well I hear. Psalmist #85 sings: "I will listen to what God, YHWH, will say; for he will speak peace to his people, his saints." That's a daring thing to say: "I will listen." More daring than I know yet. Because to listen with obedience, we need first to really hear. We need quiet. We need ears made completely open and available to him.

We may even need our Heavenly Audiologist to put his fingers to our spiritual ears-- like he did with that deaf man in Mark 7-- to sigh deeply for us, and look up to his Father in Heaven, and say from the depths of his Spirit: "Ephphatha." Which, as Mark takes pains to point out, means: "Be opened."

May he give us ears that are truly blessed, because they truly hear.

7/4

I've been working on a list these days of contemporary songs written in 7/4 time. Maybe you've never heard a song in 7/4 before-- or maybe you know one of the following gems but never bothered before to count along and discover it was only getting seven beats to the measure:

"Money," Pink Floyd
(parts of ) "All You Need is Love," The Beatles
(parts of) "Paranoid Android," Radiohead
(parts of) "2 + 2 = 5," Radiohead
"St Augustine in Hell," Sting

(Well, that's my list so far. Anyone got some more suggestions? Apparently there're a number of Rush tunes written in 7/4 time, but I've never really been much of a Rush fan, so I couldn't say.)

But as far as time signatures go, I find something really haunting in this strange, 7-beat rhythmic rarity. It doesn't jump out right away, but it niggles at your heart while you listen. You know something's not quite right- not all there-- or maybe too much there- didn't that last phrase start too soon? or the next one too late? But the song just seems so at peace with itself, so assertive and calm, making no apologies and offering no explanations, that you just figure it must be you.

And the shortness of my list makes me wonder a bit about how dull and repetitive contemporary music-- and perhaps especially contemporary Christian music--has become. This is not a typical tirade against the vacuity or insipidity of today's Christian Music. I've read those tirades before and often they just come across sounding mean-spirited (as do the defensive comments they generally illicit). It's really just this: there is such a rich trove of musical possibilities waiting to be mined and cut and polished and offered to our Lord in worship-- 7/4 times and 5/4 times and microtonal scales and whole tone scales and who knows what else-- that sometimes it seems a shame we so readily settle for the same 3 chords and the truth in cut time.

I was thinking about all of this a few years ago, and working on a song about Bible's use of the the number 7, and I got wondering: what would it be like to actually write it in 7/4 time?

I wouldn't want a congregation to ever sing it, but here's my own 7/4 contribution to the list (I also sampled some Gregorian chant and played the solo on a Peruvian Zambona to help me make my point about musical diversity).



Seven
Seven stars in your right hand
Seven lamps at your feet
Seven thunders in the heavens
Seven, the number of your majesty

Seven bowls of your judgment
Seven seals of your mystery
Seven trumpets of your justice
Seven, the number of your victory

Perfect in grace, prime in glory
Holy your name, pure your love

Seven colours in your covenant
Seven seventies your mystery
Seven feasts to remember you
Seven, the number of your love for me

Seven times in the Jordan
Seven times to deliver me
Seven the number of your purity
Seven hours on the cross for me

Perfect in grace, prime in glory
Holy your name, pure your love

Seven, the number of your purity
Seven seals to your mystery
Seven, the number of your victory
Seven hours on the cross for me

Perfect in grace, prime in glory
Holy your name, pure your love

Seven, Seven, Seven, Seven

PS-- I realize that technically, Jesus was on the cross for longer than seven hours. But what got me is that, taken together, the gospel accounts suggest that he was alive on the cross for six hours, after which (i.e. at the start of the seventh hour), he gave up his spirit.

Dead Poets, Live Ritual

Last week I watched Dead Poets Society again. With autumn lingering on the edge of winter around here, and with a vague ache for rootedness creeping at the edge of my heart, I figured it was time. A spare two hours to myself is hard to come by these days, but I carved it out and popped in the tape (I still only have it on VHS), and settled down to watch. Somehow, well before Mr. Keating had wandered his classroom whistling the 1812 Overture, before Mr. Nolan's opening speech about the four pillars had echoed still, before even the candle flame of "the light of knowledge" had leaped fully to life in the opening frame, I found myself rooted, grounded, anchored once again.

This actually started sometime about twelve years ago or so, at the start of one of my first semesters teaching English. I'd been teaching a unit called "Carpe Diem," a relatively new teacher, full of my own Keating-esque optimism for the power of the poetic word to awaken the dreams and inspire the imaginations of my students. After a good month of cajoling them to grapple with poems like Whitman's "O Me, O Life," Frost's "The Road Not Taken," Herrick's "To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time," our study culminated with a viewing of Dead Poet's Society.

They mostly hated it, actually. One student sat reverently for a while after the movie was over; "Mr. Harris, that was deep," was all he could manage. But the rest just stared blankly, disdain mingled with detachment.

But this was the start of a sort of routine for me. Every fall for the next few years I started my English course with a "Carpe Diem" unit that culminated with a viewing of Dead Poets Society. About five falls in a row, sometime around October or November, I would sit with a room full of sixteen-year-olds and watch this classic film about life, literature and daring to make one's life extraordinary. And every fall I found myself anchored again, grounded, rooted in a story that was me, but somehow bigger than me.

And later, when I was on sabbatical, watching Dead Poets Society in the fall kept me connected to that story I was no longer living first hand: a story about introducing young lives to the evocative and emotive power of the spoken word; a story about that mystical something in the act of teaching that actually has the power to awaken dreams, challenge worlds, confront the inevitable sting of death.

And later still, when I had left teaching altogether, and had become a student once again, the routine became ritual. Every fall, when autumn started to linger on the edge of winter and that vague ache for rootedness started to linger on the edge of my heart, I'd watch Dead Poets Society and enter once again into that story that was me, but somehow bigger.

I could make this post all about what I love about this film: the subtle layers of meaning, the way it so effortlessly evokes place and time, the poignant cinematography of fall landscapes and neo-gothic architecture, the interplay of its themes and motifs and literary allusions, the way it inspires me to do more, be more. I could share how I started listening to classical music, and read Walden and Leaves of Grass, and learned saxophone, and recited "O Captain, My Captain" to my newborn son as I rocked him to sleep, all because of this film.

But I don't really want to talk about Dead Poets Society.

I want to talk about ritual. Our modern world, I think, has little place left for real ritual. As an adjective, "ritualistic" usually connotes "meaningless," dehumanizing," "inauthentic" ways of doing things. And as a noun, we usually attach adjectives like " dead," "empty," or "mere" to the word "ritual" to get the same semantic job done. In a world ruled by the tyranny of the new, the now, the novel, it's hard to make a case for things that are deeply rooted in age-old ways of doing things that haven't changed. And even many of the rituals we once had-- Christmas celebrations, weddings, funerals-- have become so customized and personally monogrammed now a-days that their actual potency as ritual is all but lost.

This is especially true, I think, in contemporary evangelicalism. I grew up with the notion that ritual rhymed with "unspiritual" for a reason: people who don't know God personally settle for empty ritual instead. It's why we didn't recite the Lord's Prayer together, because prayer should be personal (read: spontaneous) and not "ritualistic." It's why we didn't make a big deal out of communion, and when we did, we used words like "ordinance," and "symbolic" in deliberate ways that kept ritual at bay. (No one ever explained to me how our supposedly ritual-detesting God could have so adamantly insisted that the children of Israel observe the Passover Feast the same way for generations... )

Now my annual viewing of Dead Poets Society is not a genuine ritual, really. Because it's mine: it is not embedded in a larger community, or history, or corporate experience that gives it meaning beyond my own personal experience. But what watching the same movie every fall has taught me is that ritual doesn't have to be "empty," "dehumanizing," "mere." It can also be "grounding," "enlarging," "humanizing."

Far from "dead," ritual invites us to step, if only for a moment, into non-linear time, to embed our personal stories in a meaningful story that is larger than ourselves. Like a kind of spiritual metronome, it can help us keep honest time, insisting that, however freely we improvise around the beat, we'll still land on "one" at the start of each new measure.

The Paradessence of the Gospel

Word Spy is a fascinating website that tracks the coinage of neologisms (the making-up of new words) in the English language. It traces the emergence of such useful new expressions as "friendsourcing" (gathering information from a group of online peers), "furkid" (a pet treated as if it were a child), and "peep culture" (look it up). It's the kind of nanopublishing enterprise that appeals especially to a nooksurfer and occasional godcaster like me, whose logophila continually pushes him to expand his wordrobe, and who blogs convinced that words and spirituality are deeply connected. (I refer you to Word Spy's index of religious terms for a little spiritual-licorice-for-thought.)

So the most recent entry on Word Spy is "Paradessence."

Paradessence. n. In a product, an intrinsic property that promises to simultaneously satisfy two opposing consumer desires. [blend of paradoxical and essence.]

Earliest Citation: "'The paradessence of coffee is stimulation and relaxation. Every successful ad campaign for coffee will promise both of those mutually exclusive states.' Chas snaps his fingers in front of her face. 'That's what consumer motivation is about, Ursula. Every product has this paradoxical essence. Two opposing desires that it can promise to satisfy simultaneously. The job of the marketer is to cultivate this schismatic core, this broken soul, at the centre of every product.'" (Alex Shakar, The Savage Girl, Harper Colins, September 18, 2001.)

Now: the gospel is not a product, nor is its proclamation advertizing. At all.

But I've been musing a bit these days about this word paradessence, and how it might point us to the deeply compelling mystery of the Good News. Because our Lord invites us to come to him for perfect rest in our weariness, and there he calls us to take up the burden of our cross and stagger after him to Golgatha. He came inviting us to lose our lives in him, so that we might find life and life more abundantly. In his grace he meets us just as we are, and then calls us to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect.

This is the paradessence of the gospel. It's a proclamation that simultaneously offers us perfect freedom and an all-consuming cause; it offers both grace and cross. And any genuine announcement of the good news, I think, will seek to cultivate a deep appreciation for the paradessence of our faith. It's all the free, unmerited grace of God; and in that gracious embrace we discover one who calls us resolutely to give all we have, with him and through him, for the glory of the Father and the sake of his aching world.

And as I muse about this made up word, "paradessence," I wonder: what height and depth and breadth of life with Jesus could we know, if we let the paradessence of the gospel satisfy our "schismatic core," and mark us as his people?

The Already People of the Not Yet

Here's the fifth sermon in the series on the Kingdom of God we've been going through at the FreeWay. Our Text was Acts 1:3-11.

"The Already People of the Not Yet"

Me 2?

Contrary to appearances, I haven't dropped off the face of the earth, though some exotic bronchial infection has been having a house party in my chest this last week, kicking my life into survival mode and leaving me with little left to give when it came time to blog. Meanwhile, the page has turned on October and it's time to pick a new "Disc of the Month." (See the sidebar.)

Lately U2's No Line on the Horizon's been getting a lot of airtime on the drive to and from work. Now, it hasn't been nearly as earth-shattering an aural experience as Achtung Baby (the best rock album of the 90s?), but I've really enjoyed this latest U2 effort. Lots of memorable moments: the weird cello on "Breathe," Bono's falsetto lunge on "Crazy Tonight," the rumbling rhythms of "Being Born." Even "Get on Your Boots," though it kinda confused me when I heard it as a single, somehow, in context with the rest of the album, makes perfect sense.

Anyways, still convalescing a bit, I don't have much to say, except to share some of my favorite lines from this Month's CD of the Month:

1. I gotta stand up for faith, hope, love/ but while I'm getting over certainty / stop helping God across the road like a little old lady

2. I found grace inside the sound, / I found grace, it's all I've found

3. I was speeding on a subway/ Through the stations of the cross

4. Every day I die again and again and reborn / Every day I need to find the courage / to walk out into the streets

5. It's not a hill it's a mountain / as you start out the climb

6. The roar that lies on the other side of silence / The forest fire that is fear so deny it

7. Listen for me, I'll be shouting / Shouting to the darkness / squeeze out sparks of light

The Kingdom (Part 4)

Here's part 4 in our series on the Kingdom of God. Our text was Mark 10:35-45.

The King of the Upsidedown Kingdom

God-Sightings and Goings-out

Here's last Sunday's sermon, part three in our series on the Kingdom of God. Our text was Luke 9:28-36.

Newborn

This is the next sermon in the series on the Kingdom of God we've been working through at the FreeWay. Our text was John 3:1-15.



Dear Saskatchewan

Dear Saskatchewan,

Drove the 401 the other day and thought of you. The living line of metal crawling east and west as far as I could see probably had more cars in it than all of Caronport, and I had to pinch myself to convince myself I was there. Remember the good old days on Highway 1? When a broom-handle in the steering wheel and a brick on the gas pedal was almost enough to get us to Regina?

There was a report on the radio while I drove, Saskatchewan, about the people flocking to you from here for work and industry. The lady in the interview spoke in apologetic tones as she packed her bags. "If I told my friends I was going to Vancouver, or Edmonton, or Calgary," she said, "They'd understand. But when I say Regina... they say: 'Why would you want to move there?'" Go easy on her when she gets there, Saskatchewan: pour the prairie in slowly, like you did for me.

Don't get me wrong, I like it here. And there is something pretty poignant about being "from the West." The Elves of Middle Earth were from the West, you remember, and their hearts always ached for it. I can hum lines like "There's a feeling I get when I look to the West, and my spirit is crying for leaving," with real meaning now; and I can mumble lines like "though the last lights off the black West went, the morning at the brown brink eastward springs" with real knowing.

But when I got to the barbers and he learned I was Moose-Javian, he said: "I've never been out west. Is it really as flat as they say?" I laughed and said: "Yeah, and the telephone pole is the provincial tree..." Not to betray you, Saskatchewan, but I felt I would have only betrayed you more if I tried to explain. How could I explain what it's like, to stand at the edge of town and see the whole world, green and gold and hay-scented, stretching out around you, spread out like some great, shallow earthen-ware dish, filled to the very edge of its delicate, distended meniscus with unfiltered light?

Well, I'll try to keep in touch, Saskatchewan-- I'll try to think of you whenever I catch real glimpses of open sky-- and I'll try to keep the crawling lines of metal from wringing the prairie out of me completely.

But while we wait and see, take care.

Yours truly, Dale.

Listen Local, Save the Planet?

Those of you who stop in at terra incognita on a somewhat regular basis may have noticed that September's CD of the month was this one: Wide World Crashing by tripmeter.

Never heard of tripmeter? CDBaby describes their sound as "up-tempo melodic rock with soaring vocals, rich guitars and creative rhythms. In short: well-conceived songs in captivating and clever arrangements."

Recommended, they say, if you like: Foo Fighters, Mute Math, Nine Inch Nails.

Well, I don't really know Foo Fighters, Mute Math, Nine Inch Nails (in the words of Grandpa Simpson: "I used to be with it, but now what's 'it' seems strange and scary to me... it'll happen to you...").

But I've really grown to love the energy and edginess of this album. From the tintinabular peals of "My Addiction's" opening riff, to the pedal-to-the-metal drag race of "Drive to the Sun," to the ominous-but-hopeful vision of "Somewhere" (Somewhere, you can find the heart to beat this... no one gets left behind without good reason...), there's a lot to feast on, aurally speaking.

But it's not just that.

The thing is: I know these guys. They were all students at Briercrest college during my days there. Took Greek exegesis with the drummer (the guy parsed irregular Greek verb forms with as much flare as he syncopates the down-beat). Was in a small group for a while with the lead guitarist. Even the guy on the cover-art was my next door neighbour (helped him when the waterlines of his trailer froze one 30 below morning on the prairie).

And it's this human difference that makes me love this CD. It's the same difference that makes me love home-made soup over Campbell's Chicken-by-Product Noodle: the difference between what's bagged and canned and mass-produced for anybody and nobody, and what comes to us as a gift from hands we know, have shook, have helped to jump-start their frozen car (another 30 below prairie morning with my neighbour).

It's why I love independent music. And I'm not talking about the kind of "independent" music that's really just a niche-market genre gimmick out of Nashville or L.A. or where ever it is that "indie rock" comes from. I'm talking about music that grows out of the lives and hearts and heads of the people next door, down the street, in our communities, in our neighbourhoods, in our lives.

In his book Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, Bill McKibben develops a pretty cogent argument in favor of making economic choices that promote small, community-oriented, human-scale thinking over the more/massive/mass-market world that we've grown to expect and accept. He argues (again cogently) that the more/massive/mass-market world is pretty de-humanizing after all, and unsustainable anyways, and if we're really serious about building a durable future, we're going to have to start thinking locally.

You know: buy locally-grown food and locally-produced goods from the hands of real people that you can actually shake. McKibben doesn't stop there, though. He goes on to argue (still cogently) that part of building a durable future will include community-oriented, human-scale choices about our entertainment. If we can build community and a sense of place by supporting local entertainment (like our music, theatre, sports, and so on) we might discover a world where words like "more," "massive," and "mass-market" are no longer synonyms for "better."

And this world, he argues, is the kind of world we'll need if we want to build durable and sustainable economies in the coming years.

Well. I don't know if I'll really save the planet by listening to tripmeter, but it's nice to muse. And there's still this: whenever I hear Wide World Crashing, suddenly I'm strolling again along that back alley behind the Sparrow Gardens arena where so many Briercrest bands have had rehearsal space, savouring the muffled sound of rock-dreams thumping through the walls- and whenever I listen to my friend Dale Dirksen's These are the Days, I'm sitting with him again in his office, musing about music and minsitry and life together- and whenever I listen to that rough-around-the-edges worship CD we produced at my old church, I'm there again trading chords and words and laughs with people I love.

I'm grounded. I'm anchored. I'm home.

And the Musik Biz doesn't produce a can of alt-rock-indie-fusion-pop that you could open for this kind of aural experience.

Caedmon, Sing Me Something

Some time in the mid-seventh century, an Anglo-Saxon herdsman living in the monastery of Streonæshalch (on the north-east coast of England) had a dream. The monks of the monastery were at feast that night, singing and harping, but because he knew no poetry, Cædmon had wandered off early to sleep in the cattle stall with the animals he tended. In his dream, "someone" approached him, calling him by name and beckoning: "Cædmon, sing me something."

Knowing no songs, Cædmon refused, but the "someone" insisted: "All the same, you have to sing for me."

"And what must I sing?"

"Sing principium creaturarum"-- The beginning of Created Things.

Immediately Cædmon's mouth was opened and he began to sing praises to the Creator. Verses he had never heard before sprang out of him, verses for the Christian God, but sung in the (till then mostly pagan) poetic tradition of his country-men.

Translated into modern English, this is what he sang:

Now must we praise heaven-kingdom's Keeper,
the Measurer's might and his mind-plans,
the work of the Glory-Father, when he of wonders every one
eternal Lord, the Beginning established.
He first created, for men's sons,
heaven as a roof, holy Creator,
then the middle-earth, mankind's Keeper,
eternal Lord, afterwards he made--
for men, earth, the Master Almighty.

Cædmon woke with this song ringing in his head, and shared it with his foreman. The foreman took him to the abbess of the monastery, who in turn affirmed it as a gift from God. Cædmon took monastic vows and began to receive instruction in Christian doctrine, learning the "whole sequence of sacred history" which he would convert into sweetest song, song "so delightful that he made his teachers, in their turn, his listeners."

He died a revered poet-saint.

And the song he received that night in the cattle-stall of a seventh-Century Christian monastery on the north-east coast of England is thought by many to be the earliest example of Anglo-Saxon poetry we have on record. You can click here to listen to a reading of Cædmon's Hymn in the original Old English. (If you've never heard Anglo-Saxon poetry before, it's worth a listen. I got my English students to listen to a bit once when we were studying poetry-- they said it sounded like Elvish from the Lord of the Rings movies.)

But there's something haunting here in this ancient story of a simple herdsman, meeting with the Christian God and finding his mouth filled with distinctly Anglo-Saxon praise. "Cædmon, sing me something" called the Spirit of Christ in the stable that night; like an altar-hot coal he touched Cædmon's lips, inspiring him to translate that touch into the rich poetic tradition of his own culture.


And there, in the alliterated syllables and Old English kennings of Cædmon's hymn- now must we praise heaven-kingdom's Keeper- the Measurer's might and his mind-plans- we can hear the Spirit calling out once more to all the nations, tribes and tongues of the Earth. "Come," it cries: "Bring to me the richest and finest and most lovely your culture has to offer- its verse, its song, its art, its craft. Bring it now through the gates of the New Jerusalem. Lay it here at the feet of the Christ of God and find it divinely-claimed, blood-bought, purified and perfected there."

"Come Cædmon, sing me something."

Ten Words that Changed the World

Started a new sermon series at the FreeWay this Sunday on the Kingdom of God. Here's sermon one of six.

Gutenberg's Revenge and Other Thoughts

I suppose after my last post, the next logical step would be to muse a little about the revenge effects of the various technologies we've introduced to church ministry itself. When the Gutenberg Press took the Bible out of the hands of the priesthood and put it firmly into the hands of every believer-- with the laudable intention of building biblically literate, thus better, Christian communities-- I don't suppose anyone could have guessed that it might also be putting deep cracks in the foundations of Christian community, by pushing the individual's "interpretation" of the Good Book to the centre of Christian experience and pushing the community to the edge. Did Gutenberg get its revenge (mused the blogger) by filling the pews with a hundred personal popes piously practicing their private versions of the Faith, ready and able to leave when the interpretive going got tough? Is the embarrassing fragmentation of the church today part of the Gutenberg legacy?

Not that I would want to go back to the gloom of the pre-Gutenberg era, mind you... any more than I would want to go back to my pre-HTC Dream life... but perhaps if we can name the unintended effects of our technology, we can make more informed choices about when, why and how to use it.

So, off the top of my head, here are a few possible "revenge effects" of technology in the Church.

In an effort to make our preaching more effective, we've introduced a variety of presentation technologies behind the pulpit. Has this had the unintended effect of shackling our sermons to ideas that fit neatly on to PowerPoint slides and shackling our preachers to what's written on the screen?

In an effort to make our music more engaging, we've replaced hymnals with screens. Has this had the unintended effect of alienating people from the songs they're singing because they no longer have the music in front of them?

In an effort to make worship more dynamic, we've amplified everything. Has this had the unintended effect of deafening us to the voice of God and the voices of each other in our gathered times?

In an effort to make our faith more "relevant" we've introduced a wide variety of media to our worship, from video montage, to film clips, to Christianesque imagery moving behind the song lyrics on the PowerPoint slide. Has this had the unintended effect of making us less able to recognize the deeply relevant but counter-cultural aspects of life with God (things like stillness, Sabbath, quiet, simplicity)?

These are real questions, not just rhetorical points. And even if the answer is "yes" to any of them, that doesn't mean the technology itself must go (*just wait, I'm getting a call on my phone*). But if we can see the "revenge effects" of our own cleverness like this, we will also begin to see, I think, the limitations of our cleverness. And to see our own limitations is to take a humble step towards deeper dependence on God.

Can We Talk?

One of the things I've found indispensably useful since starting my new life as a pastor is my new HTC Android Dream Smart Phone. I say this with not a little sheepishness, because for a long time I held out against cell phones on principle. And now, here I am, with no mere cell phone, but a touch-sensitive cellular communications device with instant access to email, gmail, text messages and chatting, roaming internet, youtube viewing and GPS capabilities. It's like going from a pedal bike to a Porsche over night.

Now I say I held out because for a long time I had this sense that cell phone technology stunted the growth of genuine community by making us so independent and self-sufficient that we no longer need to have any real connection with the actual flesh-and-blood human beings around us. For example: time was when my car broke down on the side of the highway I would have to knock on the neighbour's door and ask for help; and more often that not, they would. Now I can call nameless, faceless roadside assistance from the comfort of my car (and view a variety of inane Youtube clips while I'm waiting for them to come).

I was talking about this with a friend a while back and she told me that she found her cell phone helpful because when she had to walk home from her university classes at night and felt unsafe, she could call her dad to come meet her. Then she said: "Of course, if I didn't have the cell phone, I'd have to get to know the other students in the class well enough that I could walk home with one of them..." And I think that was my point in the hold-out days: I felt that roaming communications technologies like cell phones allowed us to seal up our spheres of influence so tightly that the strangers around us never had to be anything more than strangers.

And maybe there's a kernel of truth there.

But here I am with my HTC Smart Phone and finding it, as I said earlier, indispensably useful.

But I'm also wondering about the revenge effects of such technology.

Author and social scientist Edward Tenner argues that all technologies have a natural tendency to "bite back" with "revenge effects" on the societies into which they are introduced. His theory is that societies are really just systems that constantly seek the "status quo." He suggests that as new technologies significantly upset this status quo, the system itself will naturally adjust in unexpected, unintended, even unconscious ways to counteract their effect, and so maintain the status quo.

Example 1: As we introduce a plethora of ingenious time-saving appliances to the kitchen, the system adjusts to maintain a status quo of business: once it's been freed from meal prep-and-clean-up hours, it's possible to overload our evening schedule with other things, and so we find ourselves busier than ever.

Example 2 (and perhaps more to the point): As communications devices make communication increasingly clear and easy, we find our actual communicating and decision-making processes more (not less) cloudy and confused because now everything has to be answered and decided and acted on under the tyranny of the now.

I'm not sure if Turner's on to anything or not (though they say that the advent of email has significantly increased-- not decreased-- paper consumption in the office workplace). But I do know this: the other day a friend called me at home and when I picked up the phone he said: "Finally found you." He'd tried my gmail, left a message on my voice mail, called my office phone, and when he couldn't get me at any of these he tried me at home. All the ways to connect with me, it seems, had actually made me harder to find.

Vengeance is mine, sayeth the HTC Dream.

With Words Like Crystal

My first sermon series at the FreeWay was a four part-er on the parables of Jesus. One of the things I discovered back when I was putting this material together is that parables are really tough to preach.

When they asked Jesus, "Why do you speak in parables, anyway? Why can't you just tell it like it is?" He told them: it's because people see, but they don't see; they hear, but they don't hear. Whatever else he meant when he said this, I think he meant this: If you want to know the things of God, you'll have to listen with more than just your ears-- you have to listen with the ears of your heart.

And a parable's a pretty good way to tell who's willing to listen with the heart and who's not.

So the tough part about preaching parables is to open up the text in a way that allows people to "get it," without letting us off the hook of needing to "listen with our hearts." To let the text do what the text is doing. It's something akin to the difficulty in explaining a joke: nothing wrings the humour out of a joke faster than needing to explain why it's funny.

So too, to a certain extent, with Jesus' parables. As speech-acts, they're like crystal: they refract the light beautifully, but our best efforts to polish them so they shine can easily shatter them.

Here's one of the sermons I preached as part of that series. I hope my words didn't shatter His Word.

Luke 16:1-9
The Shady Business of the Millionaire's Forgiveness

But I Know what I Like

In an attic storage room behind the choir loft of my old church, wedged in between some dusty Christmas decorations and a couple of boxes of tattered hymnals, rests an ostentatiously-framed print of Warner Sallman's Christ at Heart's Door. Though there is maybe something (more than a bit) kitschy about this depiction of Jesus knocking at what appears to be Snow White's heart's door, in its day it was like the Mona Lisa of Evangelical artistic expression.

The day I stumbled across it (looking for an advent wreath, I think), it got me thinking about the place of art in the experience of Faith, and especially the Evangelical "tradition" of producing art that does little more than reiterate sentimentalized stereotypes about Jesus and the experience of life with him. (Notice the heart-shaped aura of light formed by the arch of the door together with the curve of light behind this "Swedish Jesus's'" shoulder.)

I lingered that day in the attic, though, because only a few months earlier I'd read David Morgan's Visual Piety, which examines artistic representations of Christ and explores their function in the religious experience of 20th century North America. The premise of his study is that popular religious imagery like this has power and significance specifically because it "contributes to the social construction of reality."

In other words, for all its sentimentality, popular religious imagery like Sallman’s has played an important sociological role in both shaping and affirming people’s religious experience. Morgan develops an aesthetic of “visual piety”- an experience of religious devotion mediated through visual imagery that depends on a “psychology of recognition.” Here the aesthetic experience of the image becomes function not of its formal artistic qualities, but of its conformity to the viewer’s preconceived religious ideal. Thus in the experience of “visual piety,” the picture’s beauty “consists in the satisfying experience of perceiving a particular understanding of Jesus adequately visualized."

In American religious experience, “Sallman’s image of Jesus confirms the traditional formula or convention of Christ’s appearance, but tailors it to the modern evangelical notion of Christ as obedient son and intimate friend." So, according to Morgan, when I see Sallman’s Head of Christ, I see my own preconceived understandings of Christ visually projected; but at the same time I receive and accept cultural values associated with the American Evangelical experience of Jesus. In a related discussion, he describes the process of “composition,” whereby a picture like Sallman’s brings together the essential elements of a wide range of historical and cultural representations of Christ, projecting the “essence” of the Jesus that pervades them all. As a medium of visual piety, then, Sallman’s picture becomes a “picture about pictures,” a cultural apparatus by which people can conjure up in a single representation “the elusive presence [of Jesus] immanent in and authorizing countless pictures."

What does all this mean? (Morgan is a religious-art-history prof at Berkley, after all...)

On the one hand, I suppose it suggests that before we abandon that Sallman print to the "religious kitsch" table at the next church yard sale, we should at least acknowledge the role it's played in a larger cultural discourse about who Jesus is and how we see him. Perhaps more importantly, though, we should let Sallman illustrate for us how tempting it is to try and fashion this Jesus into our own image, and how much we might miss out on (aesthetically and spiritually) when we do.

Centurion

for Matthew 8:5-13

Centurion.
you man of war,
hekatonarkos, noun, singular masculine: Centurion. Lord of a hundred.

Man of control. man in control. like one with authority. under authority.
man of control.
you arm of Caesar, you
fist of Herod, you.
who says go and come, and it comes and goes. who says do.
it gets done.
like one with authority.

But so, so unlike him.

pagan. No Son of Abraham, you.
oppressor. Not yours, the Kingdom.
heir of darkness. heir of idols. child of wrath.

The Kingdom?
you are uncovantanted Heathen,
chief of those who stand against the Kingdom.
you are un-kingdom: Babylon and Rome.
you yourself are anti-Kingdom.
Centurion.

Calling on him, from east or west, with this single war
your word could not command:
“my lad lies languishing, lord.”

So you come,
nothing to offer but
a legacy of enmity: “Shall I myself come and heal him?”
an inheritance of exclusion:
“Not so, my lord, for I am not worthy that you should come under my roof.”
Shall he come to sit at your defiled table? Under your unclean roof?

Profane Pagan.
who calls on this Jewish healer
from a place among those excluded, the unworthy
the least among the polluted: scaly-skinned lepers
and those outside: fever-addled women
and the demonized having badly.
Yet you are centurion.

“Please speak the word and he will be healed.”

Healed. You cannot ask for cleansing.
for you cannot see your filth.
This law that called for cleansing was not inscribed for you.
The covenant of purity, the ritual of washing are neither your inheritance.
Only pagan sickness.
Simple. Impure.

Only heal him. My lad lies languishing, lord.
Only heal. lies languishing, lord.
Only. Languishing,

Lord.

And there you teach me my story.

For the same physician who marveled over your broken, heathen faith.
the like of which was not in all of Israel—
that same healer who raised up to you your lad—no Son of Abraham, you—
cleansed me. And raised us up—both—as out of stone—
children to Abraham where there were none.

He invited me, with you,
to the feast
in from the unclean outside
in from the pagan darkness
to sit with Abraham and his sons
Isaac and Jacob and all over whom the god of Abraham reigns
a seat at the table of fellowship in
god’s people
god’s promises
god’s pleasure

A child of Abraham as from stone.
A child of the covenant where there was none.

Rolling Rivers of Real Worship

Here's last Sunday's sermon. Still talking these days about the vision and values of the FreeWay. This week we were looking at the "W" in "NEWS": "Worshipping Together."

[Sorry about the last 4 minutes of the sermon-- not sure what went wrong there, but some technical glitch made them a little fuzzy.]


Amos 5:18-27
Rolling Rivers of Real Worship

Top Ten Classes Revisited

About five months ago, as I was preparing for my OCE (Oral Comprehensive Exam) at Briercrest Seminary, I posted an annotated list of the the top ten classes I took in seminary. At the time this represented the list of classes that I felt had most shaped my heart for doing ministry.

So here's an interesting exercise: now 2 months into my new life as a pastor, I've been reflecting on the various roles, tasks and experiences I've had since I got here, and I've been taking quiet note of which classes have come to mind the most. That is: which classes have I actually been drawing on to do and be the things that God is calling me to do and be in this new role?

Here's the list of the ten classes I've recalled most in the last two months. It's interesting because it suggests that in my time at Briercrest, God was not only shaping my heart for ministry, but also my hands--I was getting practical tools as well as spiritual formation. It's interesting, too, because the top five of this list were in the top ten of my previous list-- the ivory tower had its foundations on earth after all. (Though, alas, as deeply as they shaped me at the time, none of my 7 biblical languages courses make this new list. (Yet.))

10. Pastoral Theology and Practice: This was a kind of a "pastoring 101" course; not as theologically lofty in content as some of the entries on my first list, but it did give me a helpful framework for understanding my role as a pastor.

9. Sign, Symbol and Sacred Act: Among other things, this class helped me develop a more theologically-rounded view of communion. I've led communion at the FreeWay twice now, and I have to admit that this act of extending Christ's invitation to his followers to come freely to his table and share a holy meal where he is both host and feast-- this is when I've felt most like I'm doing Christian ministry.

8. Contemporary Worship Leadership: I've thought over some of the very practical, rubber-meets-the-road discussions we had in this class about leading through change more than once over the last few months.

7. Organizational Function and Design: I had no idea when I was taking it how important the leadership concepts this class was giving me would be in ministry: I've reread the papers I wrote in this course about three times recently, and each time it's like buckling on Batman's utility belt.

6. Philosophy and Foundation for Ministry: I've looked back to the "personal philosophy of ministry" I developed in this class a lot lately, especially when I'm trying to gauge if I'm really ministering the way I feel God has called me to.

5. Pentateuch: Not exactly sure why this course still ranks as high as it does, except that I've been preaching a number of OT texts lately, and this was the class that taught me how to really "see Christ in the Old Testament." That, and the compelling vision of creation shalom that I picked up somewhere along the way has been an important theme in my heart these days.

4. Theology of Worship: The mediation of Christ. This is the concept that will forever change the reality of the believer it takes hold of. This is the class where it first took hold of me. You can read the paper that changed my world forever here.

3. Homiletics: Still trying to find a rhythm for weekly sermon prep that really works, I find myself going back continually to the homiletical method I learned in this class: Hear the text. Let the text say and do what the text is saying and doing. And if you haven't hit oil in 30 minutes, stop boring.

2. Marriage and Family Counselling: This class taught me the one ministry lesson I've thought about more than any other in the last two months: Listen. Before you give answers, give ear. Just listen. I had no idea how vital this lesson would be, but this was the class where I first learned to see listening as a spiritual act.

1. Shepherd the Flock: Pastoral Theology of Church, Sacraments, Preahcing and Missions: My #5 class from last time is now in the #1 slot, because it was here I learned the lesson about minsitry that has the potential to save: Ministry is our participation by the power of the Holy Spirit in Christ's mninstry to the Father for the sake of the world. It's not us. It's Christ. He's doing it. We just have to see it and join him in it, and the Spirit will make that possible if we'll let him.

Building for the Blessing of Babylon

Here's last Sunday's sermon.

We've been going through a series on the vision and values of the FreeWay family (i.e. "what we care about and what we want to see God make us into").

The leadership at our church have identified four specific values that define us as a church. And for those that appreciate mneumonic devices, they form the acronym N.E.W.S. At the FreeWay, we care about "Nurturing Community," "Embracing Durham and beyond," "Worshiping Together," and "Serving Others."

Last Sunday we were exploring what the Bible has to say about what it might mean for us to "Embrace our communities."

Jeremiah 29:4-14
Building for the Blessing of Babylon

Ah, Youth

A couple of months ago I borrowed Wal-Town from our public library. It's a National Film Board documentary about six activists from Montreal who embark on a cross-Canada campaign against that Walmart box-store juggernaut that you may have seen parked on the edge of a home-town near you.


This ten minute trailer pretty much sums up the whole movie.




Now, I wasn't ready to sign up for the cause by the end of the film, but I thought it raised some important issues about Walmart's response to organized labour, and about the impact of the box-store phenomenon on the common-weal of society. I've shared some tentative thoughts elsewhere about ways our Faith might inform where and why and how we shop for stuff. Wal-town seems to be asking some similar kinds of questions about whether or not the "bottom line" should be our only bottom line when it comes to making decisions about where we spend our money.

But these weren't the issues in particular that stuck with me.

What stuck with me is the poignant and compelling portrait of youth the film evokes. Here are six college-aged young people honestly trying to make a difference: taking on a larger-than-life multi-national corporation with nothing but a sling of optimism and five smooth pamphlets, because they can imagine a world where things are different.

And there's something beautiful there. And there's something beautiful in lines like: "I don't know how to react when people refuse to take information." ""We're gonna stay unless the police ask us to leave..and..uh..thank you." [Customer returning pamphlet to activist]: "You can hand this crap to someone else." [Activist]: "Okay."

I was part of a Youth Parliament when I was in university, where we got together and passed resolutions on issues like fair labour, free education, child exploitation-- where we tried to speak into existence the world we could imagine where things are different. This film helped me see that youthful, world-changing imagination as something beautiful.

It reminded me of the imaginative vision and determination that a real cause can ignite in youth.

And it reminded me of something I heard Tony Campolo say about the church. He was talking about how this generation of youth, more than perhaps any in recent memory, are hungry for a cause... longing for something they can commit to, that will put all their creativity and energy and optimism to the ultimate test. Then he said: if the church looses this generation, it won't be because they made Christianity too hard. It will be because they made it too easy.

As I mulled over the closing credits of Wal-town (six activists, 36 towns, 1 corporation), I started to think he might be right.

After Forty Days

Today marks the end of my first forty days as the new pastor at the FreeWay. Not one to let a biblical milestone slip by unremarked, I`m thinking today about all the biblical 40-day spans that marked major turning points in the history of God's relationship with his people: Noah huddled in the shelter of the ark while the deluge battered the earth for forty days; Moses communed with the Lord for forty days on Mount Sinai, while impenetrable cloud overshadowed the peak; later he interceded for the apostate people of Israel forty days after the golden calf debacle; the heathen giant taunted the children of Israel forty days before David finally silenced him with one smooth stone; Jesus waited in the wilderness forty days before he was tested by Satan; and again his resurrected feet walked among his people for forty days after Easter, before he ascended into heaven.

To mark this biblically-significant milestone, I thought I'd post the first sermon I preached, forty days ago, as the new pastor at the FreeWay. It's a sermon, incidentally, about another time when the history of God's dealings with his people reached a crisis after forty days.

1 Kings 19: 8-18
Back to the Beginning with God?