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.

On Preaching the Historical Jesus

Further OCE thoughts. I wrote this reflection on preaching and history for a pastoral theology class in 2007:

Last summer (2006) I faced the task of preaching at a Bible camp having just read N. T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God, a book that offers an interpretation of Jesus in relation to his historical context. Though Wright’s reading of the “historical Jesus” was illuminating, even edifying in its explanatory force, it left me floundering as I turned to preach a “historically grounded” gospel in a context where the timeless, faceless, “ask-Jesus-into-your-heart” fare was the order of the day. The throes of this experience still lingering in my memory, I was intrigued by Barth’s general skepticism towards “history” in preaching. In response to Barth’s advice that preachers must practice a restraint that respects the intellectual limits of historical criticism, I wonder if the “historical Jesus” has any place behind the pulpit. To what extent should our preaching attempt to situate the Word within a historically tenable narrative about the actual life, teaching and mission of Jesus of Nazareth? If for instance, historical inquiry suggests that Jesus’ parable about the “house built on sand” was actually a cryptic reference to the Temple and a prediction that Rome would bring it crashing down if Israel didn’t turn from the "wide gate” of revolutionary zeal, should this at all influence our preaching of Matthew 7:24-29? For the sake of the wounds I’m still nursing from this summer, I’d like to agree whole-heartedly with Barth, that Christianity must be a “present eschatological experience,” and that historical methods cannot uncover its claims because they “transcend history.” And indeed, if preachers of “the historical Jesus” must content themselves with painting drab portraits of a generic “holy man” behind the pulpit (a lá Marcus Borg’s “man of Spirit”), then let those with ears heed Barth’s claim: The Cross and Resurrection have irrevocably “shattered history,” dooming the quest for the “historical Jesus” to failure. Perhaps. But Jesus did come into Galilee proclaiming that “The Kingdom of God has drawn near”; and, unless we are prepared to settle for a docetic, less-than-fully-human Christ, that message surely meant something specific in its original context. Perhaps historical inquiry into this “something specific” can make our preaching less a matter of fitting a generic “god” into our own individualistic, self-centered stories, and more about being taken outside ourselves and fit into the story that God is telling through his act in and as Jesus of Nazareth.

Post-Mod-what-ity?

No review of my studies at Briercrest would be complete without uttering the "p-word" at least once. Questions about post-modernity came up a lot in my courses: What does it mean for the church? What does it mean for ministry and mission? What does it mean for faith and theology? What kind of response should Christians make to it?

And what ever happened to absolute truth?

I don't think of myself as especially post-modern; but this mostly because I don't find the term itself all that useful, and I tend to resist labeling myself (or others) on principle. (Some would take this as a sure sign that I'm more post-modern than I care to admit.)

Anyways, pre-, mid- or post-modern as they may be, here are some thoughts from a paper I wrote looking at ministry in a post-modern world.

Regardless of one’s opinion of the so-called “post-modern ethos,” any attempt to explore the challenges of evangelism and mission in the twenty-first century must eventually acknowledge and make some kind of response to it. Though the term “post-modern” itself is admittedly difficult to define, in his Primer on Postmodernism theologian Stanley Grenz offers a helpful framework for understanding its significance: “Whatever else it might be ... postmodernism signifies the quest to move beyond modernism”. It eschews the “myth of inevitable progress,” “refuses to limit truth to its rational dimension,” “dethrones the human intellect as the arbiter of truth,” and rejects the “Enlightenment belief that knowledge is objective.” Adding his voice to the call of other Christian analysts of post-modernity, Grenz urges his readers to “appraise any new ethos that shapes the culture in which God calls believers to live as his people,” and to ask how we can “express the gospel in categories of the new social context”
Grenz’s own answer to that question—that Christians must embody the gospel “in a manner that is post-individualistic, post-rationalisitc, post-dualistic and post-noeticentric”—points to the possibility of proclaiming a vital and vibrant Gospel to a new generation. Such suggestions find notable similarities in the portrait of post-modern evangelism that Robert Webber paints in Ancient Future Evangelism. In brush-strokes similar to Grenz’s “post-rationalism” and “post-noeticentrism,” Webber pictures post-modern evangelism as a “display” as opposed to an “argument”—an invitation into “a community that is shaped by a tradition of worship, discipleship, Christian formation, and vocation.” Similarly, Webber echoes Grenz’s “post-individualism” when he describes worship as a dialogue between God and the community of God’s people. Rejecting the ego-centric, experiential nature of much contemporary worship, Webber argues instead that the Church’s worship must have a specifically missional focus: “Worship is not about me and my experience; it is about God and God’s mission to save humanity and to rescue the world through Jesus Christ’s death, resurrection, and coming again.” With Grenz, Webber is also emphatically “post-dualistic” in his vision for evangelism. He diagnoses much contemporary Christianity with an “incipient Gnosticism” that functionally denies the goodness of creation, bodily salvation, and the biblical truth that the work of Christ extends to all creation, and reflects instead “our individualistic, rationalistic and nonembodied modern view of Christianity.” The lesson here for the church is that evangelism must start “with God’s act of creation, with God’s love of creation, and with God’s intent to rescue the created order.”

Meeting Mr. Wright

In the spring of 2006, I took a course on the Gospels that deeply impacted my heart and mind for ministry. It was in this class that I was first introduced to the work of N. T. Wright, slugging my way through Jesus and the Victory of God with wonder and determination. As I discovered new lenses there for understanding the life and mission and Kingdom-proclamation of Jesus, I've never read the Gospels, or the rest of the Bible for that matter, the same way since.

Still studying for my OCE, I came across this review of one section of Jesus and the Victory of God that I wrote for that class:

Wright examines what a Messianic identity would have meant for Jesus and his contemporaries given his historical context, stressing that the title “Messiah” did not connote a “divine or quasi-divine figure” in first-century Judaism. Historically the Messianic mantle was a relatively elastic one that could be tailored to fit the figure of the claimant who donned it. Wright points to three themes common among the disparate Messianic movements of Jesus’ day: Israel’s return from exile, the centrality of the Temple, and the victorious battle against Israel’s enemies. Jesus’ self-understanding as the Messiah is evident, then, in the ways the praxis, stories and symbols of his mission both relate to and radically redefine these themes. In regarding himself as Messiah, Jesus saw himself as the one who “summed up Israel’s vocation and destiny,” the one “in and through whom the real return from exile would come about.” Wright understands the Temple action, for example, as Jesus’ symbolic enactment of his Messianic role as the Temple’s reformer and rebuilder. Similarly, he reads the discourses following the Temple action as “messianic riddles” that function cryptically as Jesus’ explanation of this action and implicitly as a Messianic claim. Wright’s uses this portrait of Jesus’ Messianic identity to explain the details of Jesus’ trial: the importance of the temple accusations, Caiaphas’s question about Jesus’ Messiahship, and especially Jesus’ reference to the Son of Man as a prediction of his own vindication.
Some questions we might ask about Wright’s portrait of the historical Jesus include:
1. Wright’s explanations of the so-called “messianic riddles” are often built around polyvalent readings of allusions to a variety of different texts. At what point do such intricate explanations stretch interpretation beyond plausibility by depending on layers of literary meaning that may or may not have been immediately accessible in the oral context in which these “riddles” were uttered?
2. How can Wright’s portrait of Jesus’ “non-transcendent” Messianic identity be historically continuous with the more “incarnational” Christology that seems to have developed relatively quickly in the early Church (such as we see in Colossians, Hebrews and the Gospel of John)?

On the Welsh Preaching Tradition

Another notable note from my OCE preparations. In the summer of 2005 I wrote a history paper on the father of Welsh Methodism, Howell Harris. He's remembered for having started a tradition of powerful, poetic, open-air preaching that would develop into a distinctive national characteristic in Wales. At the time I wrote it, I was praying that God would clarify my own call as a preacher. Discovering Howell Harris' story inspired me to start asking God for my own distinctive preaching style.

From my paper, here's a glimpse of his legacy in Wales:

[By the 19th Century], the preacher began “to take on the character of a folk hero, and the prospect of a visit from a celebrated preacher invariably promoted intense excitement.” The reverence afforded the preacher in Welsh society was such that “children even played at being preachers, thereby becoming… socialized into religion and into fulfilling the duty of piety and evangelism.” [This was the era] when Edward Matthews could write (1863) that “our Lord saw fit to bless Wales with preaching second to that of no other nation under the sun.” Preachers like Christmas Evans (1766-1838), William Williams of Wern (1781-1840) and John Elias (1774-1830) are among the earliest of the nineteenth century “‘giants’ of the Welsh pulpit” whose reputations inspired a kind of national hagiography. Christmas Evans, of whom Owen Jones wrote, his “face is language, his intonation music, and his action passion” is remembered for his “strong reasoning powers and his force of logic, coupled with the unction of the Holy Spirit and great imaginative expression.” Likewise, of John Elias we read that he “held vast throngs spell-bound and silent under the solemn thunders of his sermons. … He possessed the marvellous power of putting dramatic force into his sermons, and in words could vividly portray scenes that aroused admiration or struck terror into the hearts of the people.”
There are a number of characteristics of the preaching from this era that are remembered as being distinctly Welsh; and, while many of these are probably less indicative of a specific ethnic trait than they are simply of good oration in general, the important point is that they were believed by the people of the time to be unique to their nation. In descriptions of the Welsh style, we see again the marks of a rich poetic tradition. Hood writes: “their sermons became a sort of song, full of imagination—imagination very often, and usually, deriving its imagery from no far-off and recondite allusions, never losing itself in a flowery wilderness of expressions, but homely illustration.” In a similar vein, it is remembered for containing an “element of the histrionic, or rather passionate, of modulating the tone of voice and reaching natural climaxes of feeling,” and for the “technique of porthi’r gynulleidfa (nurturing the congregation), of repeating or reiterating key words or phrases.” Yet the preaching of this era is especially remembered for a fervent, incantatory style used in moments of impassioned zeal, known as the hwyl. It was “the musical, semi-chanted, emotional climax of the sermon—which at its most effective could reduce a whole congregation to tears.” Of the hwyl Ackerman records, “In preaching or extempore prayer, sometimes even in descriptive speech, the speaker, under stress of emotion or deep conviction, instinctively and unconsciously lapses into this form of fervent declaration which makes an instant appeal to the hearts of Welshmen.” Perhaps the closest we can come today to experiencing the emotive and dramatic effect such oratory is by listening for relics of the style in a recording of Dylan Thomas reading his “And Death Shall Have No Dominion”—lingering behind its thunderous modulations and chanted refrain is the heir of the yr hen bregethwyr, the great Welsh sermonizers of the past.

A Stroll Down Amnesia Lane

One week from now I'll have my Oral Comprehensive Exam (a.k.a. OCE, a.k.a. Exit Interview) at Briercrest. As the name implies, the OCE is an oral exam where I have the chance to give a comprehensive "synthesis of the materials I have studied, and demonstrate my ability to integrate this into my on going ministry." This is the last step of a hundred mile journey for me.

To prepare for this exam, I've been reviewing old assignments, papers and projects that I've done over the last five years. There's some stuff I cringe to read, some stuff I'm surprised to read, and some stuff, try as I might, I have a hard time convincing myself I ever wrote. In the interest of having some company on this little stroll down amnesia lane (to quote Dead Poets Society), over the next few days, I'll be posting short excerpts and quotes that stand out to me as significant from this five-year scrapbook of reading and writing about ministry.

The first comes from a paper I wrote early in my program, in which I examined the role of the arts in the community of faith. It was a really significant study for my own heart and sense of calling as a Christian artist:

A common feeling among many evangelical artists [is that] to be acceptable within their faith tradition, their artistic calling will have to be rejected, subdued, or at best reduced to a kind of stale utilitarianism. However, to attribute these feelings to a lack of a “good theology of art making” [in the church] is to ignore or deny the significant work done by artists and theologians to develop just that. The estrangement experienced by Christians seeking also to be artists is perhaps more related to a general misunderstanding of the artistic vocation itself than it is to a lack of a useful theological aesthetic. … A way forward might be found in a practical re-visioning of the role and function of the artist, one that clearly embeds him within the Christian community and informs both his artistic endeavors and the community’s response to it.

This means addressing the fact that the modern conception of “the arts”—that they exist primarily as modes of self-expression for the artist, or that they exist for the sake of their own, self-referential aesthetic contemplation—is neither biblical nor theologically grounded. Instead, a theological conception of art must be primarily ecclesiocentric, understanding it as deriving its aesthetic meaning in direct relation to the communal experience of fellowship, worship and sacrament, legitimating the artist’s vocation in the context of the community of God's people. This is to recognize that the idea of the artist as distinct from artisan—our modern stereotype of the artist as an isolated voice in culture who uses his medium philosophically to "say something"—is really a conception of art spawned in the Renaissance, nursed through the Counter-Reformation and come of age with Romanticism, but often estranged from an historically Christian or biblical view of the arts. On such a foundation we have erected an institutional edifice some centuries old, in which art is dissociated from the practical life of people in community, cloistered instead in the shrines of galleries where it is exhibited for the sake of its own contemplation, expected primarily to evoke a subjective visceral or conceptual response, and vaguely disdained if it too closely resembles craft, or ornament, or folk-art. The effort to articulate an ecclesiocentric aesthetic is in fact an effort to return to a more integrated model whereby the arts become less the means of esoteric expression for the individual, and find their meaning instead in the symbolism, craft, ornament and even folk-traditions whereby the community expresses its experience of fellowship and worship.
Well, it sounded good at the time.

I wake and feel the fell of dark

Like espresso, maybe, or better, Guinness, the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins is certainly an acquired taste. I discovered his work while teaching high school English a number of years ago. I don't suppose my students ever really delved the depths of God's Grandeur or Windhover; but then, I'm not sure I have yet, either.

So one day I was looking for a few Hopkins poems to include on an English exam, of all things-- some lyrical fodder for a few half-hearted, adolescent poetry analysis essays-- when I stumbled innocently enough across this sonnet that stopped me dead in my utilitarian tracks.


Sonnet 45

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hoürs we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light's delay.
With witness I speak this. But where I say
Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! away.

I am gall, I am heartburn. God's most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.
Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.



I remember so clearly standing alone in my classroom, reading these lines over and over. And it felt like a fist had closed around my heart-- and crushed out beauty and ache and sadness and hope all mingled together. I couldn't escape the words. They, quite literally, brought me to my knees. A few days later I sat down and tried to write a poem in response to this brush with beauty.

Still thinking about the creative power of human speech to heal and transform, I offer it here:


Logos

O! to be pierced in the soul with words, their nails burning.
Pierced hands and feet, pinned body driven down against the thought,
the bright stab of the shining logos touching to the very heart
and letting flow the mingled blood and water of my yearning.
Encompassing my brow within the twisted knot of thorny verse
to beat, break, bruise but balm my crown, let stream the wish,
your ringing, swinging phrase at once can flay and salve my flesh,
and lift against my lips a vinegar to slake and hone my thirst.

See! There! Look! Led by the heart, you've held me by the ear
brought to the root of the triumphant tree on gleaming wings.
Ah! There! In the bubble of my passion, in you passion, springs
as flotsam in the flowing fountain of His passion, pure
haloes, light, and streaming blood, doves, bells, stars and other holy things:
To praise the Word that that was the first, my broken word now sings.

Home Improvement

My arms are sore. We're renovating our house and I've spent the last week tearing out, scraping up, pulling off and painting over the various floor and wall coverings in our basement. I have no delusions of competency when I start projects like these, but I do love the excuse it gives me to walk around the house in work gloves and grubby pants, swinging hammers at things.

I don't get a lot of chances to swing hammers in my line of work. Alhough somewhere in Alberta there's a house with a red tin roof I put on 10 years ago that hasn't blown off yet, and there's another house with a hardwood floor I installed that people are still walking on, my experience with build-it jobs is not vast.

But I love the sweat and ache of physical work.

Bonhoeffer pointed out that work is one of the four mandates God gave humans in the Garden of Eden. The sweat and ache may not have been original, but the Bible affirms that work-- doing constructive things with our hands and minds--is a good that God planned for us in the beginning.

In his book Work in the Spirit, Miroslav Volf asks why. What is it about work that makes it good? He maintains that modern theories of work, capitalist or Marxist, make it a means to strictly material ends: it accomplishes our immediate goals. He argues that such instrumental perspectives offer no boundaries to prevent work from becoming dehumanizing, degrading, even demonic. And he points to things like sweat shops, monotonous assembly lines and workaholic burnouts to prove his point.

Volf holds that the key to finding meaning in our work lies, of all places, in Christian eschatology-- what we believe about Christ's return and the end of the age. He argues that the hope of New Creation allows Christians to value their work now as a participation in the future renewal of all things under the shalom Christ. God's Spirit is at work in and on behalf of the creation, labouring towards its final consummation. And the Spirit calls us to join him, working towards that day when the healed nations will bring their glory and honor into the heavenly Jerusalem.

Volf's not alone in ascribing eschatological significance to our work. Paul wrote some strong words to the Thessalonian church about some Christians who were using the hope of Christ's return as an excuse to stop working. "Keep away from these lazy busybodies," he says. "That's not the tradition you recieved from us." Christian communities with a genuine Second-Coming hope will be places where work is valued, not as an end in itself, not even as a means to an end, but as a participation now in God's good and coming future.

This has transformed how I view my work. Whether teaching, or writing, or scraping floors, my work really matters to God. Not because of the bread it will put on the table, not because of the identity I will derive from it,but because Spirit himself is at work in and on behalf of my little corner of the world. He's toiling for its future transformation in Christ. And if I have eyes to see him, I can join him in this with my faithful, earnest, sometimes sweaty, work.

Discipleship and the Zen of Cooking

My wife and I have a little on-going domestic disagreement. She says "frying pan"; I say "fry-pan." Not marriage counseling material, for sure, but it eventually reached the point where we had to look it up in the dictionary. Apparently, though not as common, "fry-pan" is a legitimate option.

But when I stopped to think about it, I realized why I call it a "fry-pan." It's because James Barber said "fry-pan." He used to have this down-to-earth cooking show on CBC, where he showed people how to live richly (and cheaply) in the kitchen by cooking well and "making do with what you've got." I discovered The Urban Peasant back in 1997, when my schedule had me home just as the show came on. I'd watch him cook these fascinating meals with perfect nonchalance, then I'd head down to our small town grocery store, hunting for the supplies to make the dishes I'd just seen.

(If you want to see some classic James Barber-isms, and learn how to make a great risotto at the same time, click play below, or here.)

But watching him intently one afternoon after another, I received this great life-gift: I learned to cook. Without even realizing it, I started turning both halves of the cut onion face down on the cutting board, so you can slice it without tears. I started grinding the pepper into the heated fry-pan, so it roasts a bit first. I started crushing the garlic clove with the flat of the knife, so it peels easier and chops finer.

The thing is, he didn't teach me how to follow recipes, he taught me how to cook: how to improvise boldly, making a recipe up as you went along; how to evoke far away places just by adding a few spices to the pot; how to "cook with your nose," smelling what's going on in the pan while you're doing other things, so you can catch it before it burns. He made the kitchen a place where proverbs-- like "The nice thing about cooking is that everyone knows how to do it," or "You make do with what you've got"-- these proverbs came to life and had the texture of truth.

And he got me saying "fry-pan."

I've been thinking about James Barber lately. Partly because we've started teaching our kids how to cook, and I'm sincerely trying to pass on what I learned form him, but mostly because I'm thinking about discipleship.

I wonder if, in a small way, this is what our discipleship with Jesus should be like. We come to him intently day after day until, without even realizing it, we're doing things the way he did: sitting at the table with people the world rejects, loving those who hate us, praying for the will of the Father to be done in us. Our lives become places where his proverbs come to life and have the texture of truth-- "With the measure you measure it will be measured back to you," "If salt loses its saltiness, what good is it anymore?" We're not just following recipes for morality, we're improvising boldly, living life after him.

And before we know it, we're calling the "greatest" the "least," calling the "first" the "last," calling those who mourn "blessed" -- we're saying "fry-pan" when everyone else says "frying pan." Because that's how our Rabbi did it.

On Jesus and Paul-ianity

I was talking with a friend a while ago who told me that he was trying to come to a more mature understanding of the Christian faith. He held that that Christianity as we know it today has more to do with Paul than Christ, and he wanted to get back to the historical Jesus. I've heard this claim before. Just the other day I heard a man on CBC Radio opine that instead of Christianity, the faith should be called "Paul-ianity."

I didn't have time to get into it with my friend, but this is what I would have said if I did.

The question we have to ask of the "more Paul than Jesus" argument is just this: how do we know anything at all about the historical Jesus? The answer, of course (especially if you've already ruled out the living presence of the risen Jesus in the community of faith) is that we're dependent on the historical record-- the things the earliest Christians wrote down about what they believed Jesus said, and did, and was.

But once we admit we're dependent on the historical record, we have to grapple with three pretty significant issues. First, even if we read the gospels as strictly history, they're still an historical interpretation of Jesus, as much an interpretation as Paul's. Second, though the gospels are certainly historical, they are not "strictly" history in the modern sense. Their genre is actually much more fluid than that. Finally (and this is big), as historical documents, Paul's letters are actually among the earliest writings we have in the historical record (compare AD 48-51 for the earliest letter to say AD 60 for the earliest gospel).

The question then becomes: why privilege the gospels over Paul's letters as historical documents about Jesus?

Think about it like this: When I was in High School, I was an exchange student in Quebec. During those months away, I wrote a shoe-box-full of love letters home to my girlfriend. She's now my wife, and has the shoe-box somewhere in our basement. Suppose that now, about 15 years later, an observer of our long-distance relationship—my brother maybe—writes a biographical novel about my time in Quebec. We’d have essentially two historical records: a box of letters written during the events in question, and an historical novel written later, based on what an observer remembers.

The question then becomes: which of the two would offer a more useful picture about our relationship during the Quebec-separation years? The analogy is admittedly very limited and simplified, but this is somewhat the same situation we have when we look at the historical record of Jesus.

Paul had no doubt that his message was consistent with the apostolic tradition about Jesus; he also insisted that he had received it from the living Lord Himself, not from any man. Maybe better than privileging the red letters over the black in our modern editions of the good book, we should ask: what are we missing in our readings of both Paul and the gospels that would help us hear the harmony in the apparent discord of their interpretations of Jesus?

Top Ten Reads of 2008

I had a friend in university who prided himself on his Portuguese heritage. He used to quote this Portuguese proverb to me: "A donkey loaded with books is not a philosopher." It's stuck with me, and chastened me, over the years. A donkey loaded with books is no pastor, either; but then a pastor's library is one of his or her richest resources-- for ministry and spiritual formation. So I try to read as much, as broadly and as deeply as I can. In the interest of unloading the donkey, I offer my top ten reads of 2008:

10. Portofino. Frank Schaeffer.
A coming-of-age story about a boy growing up in an evangelical missionary family in Europe. No Catcher in the Rye, but it did have its humorous and touching moments. Frank Schaeffer, son of envangelical icon Francis Schaeffer, has some pretty negative issues with the evangelical tradition that he's put in more explicit terms in other books.

9. Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics. Oliver O'Donovan.
A really tough read, but worth it for the way it forces you to wrestle with the implications of the resurrection for the Christian life. O'Donovan is convinced that to be truly evangelical,we must make the resurrection the ground of all ethical action.


8. Fear and Trembling. Soren Kierkegaard.
A theological and philosophical meditation on God's command for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Lots of existential stuff in there about the absurd "leap of faith" typified in Abraham's "teleological suspension of the ethical" when he offered his son.



7. The Koran.
There was lots I didn't follow, but two things I took away from the Koran: 1) I have a new appreciation for Christian convictions about the imminence of Christ through the Spirit; 2) I will probably not talk about Christian revelation as propositional the same way any more, after getting a glimpse of what "propositional" really looks like.

6. The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis. J. Richard Middleton.
An OT biblical scholar's look at what the idea that God created men and women in his image might have meant in its historical context. He argues that the idea is a radical democratization of the ancient Mesopotamian ideology of kingship, where the king alone was the "image of the god" on earth. Lots of healthy food for thought in there.

5. The Everlasting Man. G. K. Chesterton
I have a good friend who is a Chesterton aficionado; this is only my third sip from the deep cup of Chesterton's profound work (after Orthodoxy and Man who was Thursday). In substance, content and theme, it reminded me a lot of Augustine's City of God, looking at all of history in light of the person of Christ.

4. Unmasking the Powers. Walter Wink.
Building on his linguisitic/exegetical work in Naming the Powers, Wink shows how the "invisible structures" that humans create and participate in to control our reality, actually in turn exert control over us. A kind of theological version of Golding's Lord of the Flies.

3. For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care. Steven Bouma-Prediger.
I read a lot of books on ecology and faith this fall working on my research project for my M.Div. Steven Bouma-Prediger's book was by far the most thoughtful, creative and well-written.


2. Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. Bill McKibben.
Transformed my thinking about economics, food, consumerism and ecology. You can see some of these transformed thoughts here.



1. The Climax of the Covenant. N. T. Wright.
N. T. Wright has had a huge influence on how I think, talk and preach about Jesus. Climax of the Covenant is a pretty technical analysis of Paul's Christology, and shows his considerable gifts for offering exegetically and historically incisive readings of familiar texts.

The Geometry of Heaven?

One more reflection on math, and I think the frustrated math teacher in me will finally be sated.

Augustine said that the nature of God is like a circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumfrence is nowhere. Whatever else that might mean, it does show how mathematical concepts can sometimes open up new ways to reflect on the spiritual life.

Take fractal geometry, for instance.

Fractal geometry is the study of infinitesimal space. A "fractal" is a geometric image that gets infinitely more complex as it gets infinitely smaller. Mathematical fractals are based on an equation that goes through iterations, reproducing designs at smaller and smaller scales. Every enlargement of a fractal reveals a shape of increasingly fine detail and complexity.

One of the more immediate ways to "get" fractal geometry is through the deceptively simple concept of the Koch Snowflake.

Here's how you do it: start with an equilateral triangle with a side x. The perimeter of this triangle (3x) can be increased by a factor of 4/3rds by adding an equilateral triangle with sides 1/3x to each of its three sides. Add an equilateral triangle with sides 1/3rd as big again (1/9x) to each of these 12 sides, and you increase the perimeter by another 4/3rds. Add triangles to each of these 48 sides and increase it another 4/3rds. And so on. Because every side formed by adding a new triangle can always be divided by three, the process can be repeated infinitely. Each time we increase the perimeter by a factor of 4/3rds, but the perimeter never touches itself.

If we could zoom in to even the tiniest side of snowflake, we'd see an edge that looks like this:
The length of the perimeter of the snowflake at the nth iteration is
x*3*(4/3)^n. We take the limit of the sequence thus:
(i.e. because n has no limit, the Koch Snowflake has an infinite perimeter. )

But here's the thing that makes you go hmmm. We can draw a circle around the Koch Snowflake that clearly encloses a finite area (A=π r^2). And the infinite perimeter of the Koch Snowflake will never go beyond the finite area of the circle. Actually, the area of the snowflake can be calculated specifically as:


We say, then, that the Koch Snowflake has a finite area bounded by a perimeter of infinite length.


Infinity in the finite; the finite in the infinite.

The ancient rabbi says God has put eternity into our finite hearts-- and still we cannot comprehend what he has done from beginning to end.

Now, just in case my theology prof is reading this, let me stress, I don't believe this is somehow mathematical proof for the eternity of heaven. But there's this. In The Last Battle, the children are pressing deeper and deeper into Aslan's country, finding each depth more ponderous than the one before. And Mr. Tumnus says: "It's like an onion, except that as you continue to go in, each circle is larger than the last."

Winsome words for the ways of heaven.

Sort of reminds me of the Koch Snowflake. And it strikes me that sometimes a mathematical analogy can be just as evocative as a poetic one.

A Lesson from St Valentine

I went through a phase where I was really intrigued with the lives of the saints. I'm not big-C Catholic, of course, but the strange mix of legend and biography, adventure and romance, faith and fiction that is the church's hagiography fascinated me. St. Patrick lighting the paschal fire on Slane hill, St. Brendan saying the mass to the fish in his little skiff on the Atlantic, St. Francis preaching the gospel to his "brother birds": there's some really mysterious and magnificent stuff in there.

I'm saying this because today is the Feast of St. Valentine; or, as we would say in our iconoclastic tradition of Hallmarkangelicalism: Valentine's Day.

There are actually a few saints by the name of Valentinus, but there's general agreement that the Valentinus of Valentine's Day fame was martyred under Emperor Claudius II. A number of stories surrounding Valentine might explain how his name became synonymous with waxy chocolate hearts and timid 3rd Grade card-exchanges. While in prison he sent notes of encouragement and love to his parishioners. He also restored sight to the blind daughter of his jailer, who would later fall in love with him. As legend has it, his last note to her before his execution was signed: "From your Valentine."

But there's one story in this strange mix of legend and history that has always stuck with me. They say that Valentine was martyred because Emperor Claudius had made it illegal for soldiers in his Imperial army to marry. Apparently Claudius was having a tough time recruiting males. Believing it was because married men were reluctant to leave their wives and families, he annulled all marriages and engagements in Rome. Valentine continued to perform Christian marriages in secret, convinced that there was a Lord of marriage whose authority transcended the Emperor's. He was caught, and brought before the Emperor. When he refused to renounce his Faith in the true Lord of marriage, Valentine was condemned to be executed by clubbing, stoning and beheading.

Now here's a little Valentine's Day chocolate food for thought: Valentine died convinced that marriage is not just an end in itself. He was not martyred for marriage, he was martyred for Christ. He stood before Claudius convinced that Christian marriage served a living Lord whose redemptive reign could not be renounced. Marriage is but one of the many human goods that God has given us to bear witness to His loving lordship in Christ.

I'm not big-C Catholic. But in the Evangelical tradition I call home, I think we might learn a small lesson from St. Valentine. Because here the family is an institution of special focus; and I sometimes wonder if, in all our focus on marriage, we inadvertently make it an end in itself. Do we stand convinced that our marriages have meaning-- not because they satisfy our romantic desires-- not because they fulfill our domestic needs-- not because they make us happy-- but because they bear witness to the loving lordship of Christ? Some of the stronger Evangelical rhetoric I've heard defending marriage has seemed more about what's politically or socially expedient than about the good news of Jesus.

The word martyr itself means "a witness." As I reflect on the martyrdom Valentine, I wonder: what would my marriage look like if it were transformed by a spirit of martyrdom-- if I could see my life together with my wife as bearing loving witness to the redemptive reign of Jesus?

Words, Words, Words

I feel like I have a bit of a “word hang-over” this morning. Monday evening I had a long, rich visit with a friend where we sat and talked theology over coffee for about four hours. Tuesday, after talking as an English teacher all day, I meet with some friends and we talked deeply about God, life and ministry for about two hours. Wednesday night I had a long phone conversation with a candidating committee; Thursday I gave an hour-long, 1000 wpm lecture at Briercrest. And before I fell asleep last night (a little hair of the dog that bit me), my wife shared in Technicolor-detail the plot of a 400 page novel she just finished reading. Words, words, words. If words were wine, I’d feel like I really tied one on this week.

And I don’t use the wine metaphor flippantly; I think I’ve got pretty good biblical precedence. Paul tells the Ephesian church: “don’t get wasted on wine—instead, get ‘drunk’ by being filled with the Holy Spirit.” Then he goes on to say: “Speak to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.” The NIV translates this “speaking” as a second command, but Paul himself actually connects it much more closely to “being filled with the Holy Spirit.” This spiritual (even musical) speech is the natural result of our being filled with the Holy Spirit, not just another imperative. Our “intoxication” with the Spirit in our midst, Paul says, will manifest itself in rich, edifying, gracious words. (With this in mind, go back and read his instructions leading up to this verse, and you’ll count no less than 8 different descriptions of how we must speak: speak truthfully, use words to build each other up, get rid of all unwholesome talk, slander, coarse joking, obscenity, foolish talk, empty words.)

So I think it’s only natural that I’m feeling a little hung over on words today.

Because here’s the thing: our sacred writings insist that the Divine Word became flesh and “pitched his tent among us”, that faith comes “out of hearing,” that with our mouths we “confess into salvation,” that our talk should be “seasoned with salt.” Rich Christian communities-- Spirit-filled Christian communities-- must be places where talk is anything but cheap.

I read a fascinating book by Murray Jardine a while back called The Making and Unmaking of Technological Society. Jardine traces the history of Western liberal capitalist democracy, and concludes that our current obsession with aesthetic self-expression through consumerism represents the great moral and existential crisis of our time. Looking for answers to this crisis, he points out that in the Christian faith, God creates the world by speaking, and then creates humans in his image to join him in this creative work. "Just as God creates a world by speaking," he writes, "humans can, in a very real sense, create worlds by speaking."

Jardine argues that in its affirmation of the creative power of human speech, the Faith offers real answers to the modern crisis of aesthetic consumerism. He holds that the word-oriented communities envisioned in the Scriptures-- communities where humans discover the power of our words to heal, transform and enrich our hearts-- is the vital alternative we need to the fragmentation and isolation of our time.

Of course, Solomon said it before him: "the mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life."

Still nursing my happy hang-over today, I think he's right.

A Good Day to Hope


My kids asked me to tell them the story of Lord of the Rings during one of those classic family road trips a few summers back. I told them I would, but that they needed to know ahead of time that things in the story would get really dark-- as dark as they could look-- before they started getting better-- and that the "better" would be so much more better, because the darkness got all that dark. I wanted to prepare their young hearts for the knife-edge of hope that the story teeters on.

I've been thinking a lot about hope these days. And it strikes me that today is a good day for hope. The darkness has a different name than "Mordor", but there's a lot of it: "economic downturns," "failed peace talks," "global climate change"- things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. It's hard to imagine the darkness thickening more from here. And darkness hits home, too--my heart has a lot of "why?"s and "why not?"'s and "what if?"'s these days for lots of people I love deeply.

Yeah, it's a good day to hope.

I'm also presenting my final research project for my M.Div program today. After 5 years, 96 credits, approx. 1200 pages of writing, I'm giving my final elaborate book-report on "What have I learned about being a pastor?"

It was a good day to hope the day we arrived in Caronport Saskatchewan, 5 years ago, too. I remember that summer as very hot, very stressful, and very full of eager anticipation. Stare intently as I dared into the horizon and all I could see was a haze of fascinating books to read, deep questions to ask, theological quandries to hammer out. And God and God's people to meet, and re-meet, and re-meet again.

I was reading the collected works of e.e. cummings that summer, and I read this poem that put my heart into words for me. A kind of flesh-made-word experience that helped me speak my hope. It stuck with me so deeply that I set it to music a few months later (you can click on the icon below to hear my musical interpretation of the poem).

The Apostle Paul says: Hope that is seen is no hope at all. And he's right. Sometimes things have to get as dark as they can look before they get better. But thanks be to God that once in a while, in the communion of his people, in the touch of his Spirit, in the spontaneous thankfulness for life that His grace grants us-- once in a while-- we can taste hope.

i thank You God for most this amazing

e.e. cummings

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky, and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today
and this is the sun's birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginably You?

(now the ears of my ears are awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

Clean Hands, Dirty Oil

Tomorrow I'll present my recently completed research project on ecology and faith to a group of theology students at Briercrest Seminary. In many ways, this presentation marks the culmination of a half year of reading, thinking and writing about what a distinctly Christian position on the environment might look like. The specific question my project asked was: "To what extent should the local church's witness to the gospel include a biblically grounded response to contemporary ecological issues?"

After six months of studiously asking this question, my hopeful answer is: Certainly more than it currently does.

No doubt it’s tomorrow’s presentation that has me thinking so much these days about Bishop Luc Bouchard. He's the Catholic Bishop of St. Paul, Alberta, who made news last month for speaking out on the environmental issues surrounding the oilsands development in northeastern Alberta.

Alberta
’s oilsand industry produces more than a million barrels of oil a day. It also produces a motley crew of environmental controversies: the pools of toxic sludge that no one knows what to do with, the depletion and contamination of water tables, and the destruction of sensitive boreal forest ecosystems. As a Christian leader, Bishop Bouchard stands convinced that the "integrity of creation in the Athabasca oilsands is clearly being sacrificed for economic gain."

In an online pastoral letter, he calls on the 55,000-some Catholics in his diocese to act on their faith in response to these environmental concerns. "The present pace and scale of development in the Athabasca oilsands cannot be morally justified," he writes. "Active steps to alleviate this environmental damage must be undertaken."

The specific environmental and economic issues surrounding the oilsands are complex, but Bishop Bouchard's actions challenge me more generally. As I prepare to share my modest conviction with a group of Protestant/Evangelical theology students that the Faith actually includes some kind of ecological responsibility after all, here's a Catholic leader wading into controversy with his insistence that Christians simply cannot ignore the moral implications of the human exploitation of God's creation.

My own study of the Bible convinces me that as we say "Here I am" more and more deeply to the call of the gospel, we will naturally and inevitably become aligned to the environment in a way that promotes its good. In one of my most loquacious moments, I put it something like this: "We must see the Gospel of Jesus with renewed eyes-- the truly good news about the Creator's immanent reign through him over a redeemed humanity, the good news about the reconciliation between God and the world accomplished in his atoning death and victorious resurrection, the good news about the new-creation shalom and healing made possible through his poured-out Spirit-- for in the rays of light refracted by the multi-faceted gem of this gospel proclamation, we find the motive, the impetus and the spiritual resources for a healed and healing relationship with the rest of God's creation."

Wordy, but true.

May God renew our eyes.

And may he enable us to see the real answers to environmental crises that our faith in Jesus inevitably contains.

The Number of Beauty

Still thinking about the spirituality of math.

Consider the golden ratio, for instance. Two quantities are said to be in the golden ratio ( φ ) if the ratio between the larger and the smaller quantities is equal to the ratio between the sum of the quantities and the larger one. Put differently: the following two line segments (a and b) are in the golden ratio because the ratio between a and b is the same as the ratio between (a + b) and a.

We can represent this mathematically as:


If we rewrite the right side of the equation as a=bφ, we can substitute bφ for a, giving us:

Canceling b give us:

Multiplying both sides by φ and rearranging the terms gives us a quadratic equation:




Now we can solve for φ by completing the square:

















The golden ratio, then, is 1: 1.6180339887...

The line segments of a star shape are in the golden ratio (the green to the red, the purple to the blue); a spiral that gets wider by a factor of φ for every quarter turn it makes is called a golden spiral.



Now for the profound so what: Human beings tend to find designs that follow the golden ratio aesthetically pleasing. Their proportions strike us intuitively as balanced, harmonious, elegant. It's a beautiful number. Leonardo Da Vinci knew this. So did the ancient architects who designed the Parthenon.



But here's the really mysterious thing: these artists didn't invent this as an aesthetic principle. It's more like they discovered it. For some reason, the golden ratio actually occurs all over God's world: from the spiral arms of galaxies to the star-shaped seed pod of an apple. Many flowers have a petal-to-pod ratio of 1.618... spiral sea shells expand in the golden ratio ... so do the spiral formations of sunflower seeds... and pine cones. 1.6180339887... , it seems, is one of the beautiful numbers that the all-wise artist of the universe used in designing his beautiful creation.



Balanced. Harmonious. Elegant. Not that the Psalmist had this in mind when he sang, but the beautiful math of the creation surely charges his exulting cry with new wonder: ""How many are your works, O Lord; in wisdom you made them all!"

What has Pythagoras to do with Jerusalem?

Last month, I toyed with the idea of taking a temporary job as a high school math teacher. Apparently I toyed too long, because they gave the job to someone else. But the process got me remembering everything I used to love about teaching math. I don't actually have much of a head for numbers themselves, but I love the concepts... solving triangles, simplifying radical expressions, imagining imaginary numbers...concepts so elegant and compelling as to be almost poetical. With the ancient Greeks, I'm pretty sure there's something spiritual about math.

So, with all apologies to those who would sooner solve a root canal problem than solve a quadratic equation, indulge me in few reflections on math and the Christian faith.

Let's start with wisest man to ever live. 1 Kings 7:23 records that Solomon built a solid brass "sea" for the Temple that measured 30 cubits (approx. 540") in circumference, and 10 cubits (approx. 180") in diameter.

Now any student of basic geometry can tell you that the circumference of a circle is equal to its diameter times pi (C=πd). This puts the diameter of the basin at about 565", not 540". Somewhere we lost 1.4 cubits. Put differently, the measurements for Solomon's basin yields a value of 3.0 for π, not the constant 3.14.

The wisest man to ever live couldn't do simple geometry?

Not so fast, says the staunch supporter of inerrancy. You're forgetting that 1 Kings 7:26 says the sea was a handbreadth (approx. 3") in thickness. Now (he goes on to say), let's suppose the the diameter was measured from the outside edges, but the circumference (540") was measured on the inside edge.

If we subtract 6" (3" on each side), we get a diameter of 174" for the inside of the sea. This gives us a value of 3.103 for π (540/174). Now we're only off by a mere 0.04 (say 5-6", depending on the breadth of your hand).

QED.

But what have we proved, really?

Not much. And that's my point. Maybe we've seen this kind of thing before-- attempts to force the Bible into the square hole of our presuppositions about what makes it inerrant. Like those Sunday school discussions growing up, about whether there might be enough air in the belly of a sperm whale to have kept Jonah alive for 3 days. Do they make the sacred text any more sacred? Have we heard the Word speak more clearly because of some speculative proof that the Bible got pi right after all? Have we come any closer to understanding the truth of 1 Kings 7:23 (which, in my view, is how the worship of Yahweh reached a pinnacle of splendour and extravagance under Solomon that it would never see again- until Jesus radically inverted the whole project and said, "That splendour is now found in my humiliated, crucified body.")?

Well no.

But with any hope, after (or before) we've exhausted ourselves in such efforts to weigh the Bible against our scientific measures of what makes it true- after all such vain "proofs" have left us unaccountably empty-with any hope, the Truth himself will meet with us, and gently teach us what it really means to think his thoughts after him.

Saul, Empire, and the Reign of God

The other night my wife read me 2 Samuel 21:1-14. Then she looked at me with a furrowed brow and said: "What was that all about?" Three years of famine diverted by the execution of seven male descendants of Saul. Rizpah sitting in sackcloth next to their exposed bodies, scattering the carrion birds until the rains came. David gathering up their bones with the bones of Saul and Jonathan, burying them at last in the tomb of Saul's father Kish. And it's only after all this dark business that God again answers prayer in behalf of the land.

My brow furrowed, too.

We talked through it a bit, and this is the only help I could offer: God withholds the rain specifically because Saul tried to annihilate the Gibeonites. Saul had broken an ancient oath that Israel swore with them under Joshua. Though God had forbidden all such treaties when Israel entered the land, he still holds them to their ill-sworn word, hundreds of years later. And the all-too-human events inevitably play themselves out: Gibeon asks for blood.

And so we witness the final ignoble end of Saul's dynasty. You can almost hear the stone grind shut against the tomb door. Israel had asked for a king "such as all the other nations have," and God gave them exactly what they asked for: a reign of bitter tribalism, broken oaths and violent self-assertion, like all the other nations have. And this is where that trajectory of human empire-building finally clatters still: in the heart-wrenching cries of a bereaved mother, chasing the ravens off the rotting corpse of her son. The utter anti-shalom of an anti-Messiah.

But the Word is whispering at the back of her ominous cries. Because we have tasted the true shalom of the true Messiah, and its trajectory is the exact inverse of Saul's: loving self-giving, perfectly fulfilled oaths, and people of every tribe and tongue sitting down together at the table of fellowship. And his is the only reign the people of God can confess.

I recently read a blogger comment that during the Bush administration, Christians published a remarkable number of books critiquing the evangelical church's acquiescence to American imperialistic ideology. His point was not that these critiques were wrong, but that they had such an easy target in President Bush. He wondered- and I wonder with him- if the same critics will be so vigilant against imperialism under a new presidential leadership, especially when the new seems such better candidate for hope than the old (or were they just disguising crass distaste for Bush in the high-sounding rhetoric of anti-imperialism all along?)

May the Word in 2 Samuel 21:1-14 remind us deeply of what human empire building looks like; and what the reign of God's Messiah most emphatically does not look like.

May he convict us of our own petty tribalisms, oath-breakings, and violent self-assertions.

And may he in turn teach us to name these in any human empire that tempts us to seek a king such as all the other nations have.