There's a Trick of the Light I'm Learning to Do

This is a collection of songs I wrote and recorded in January - March, 2020 while on sabbatical from ministry. They each deal with a different aspect or expression of the Gospel. Click on the image above to listen.

Three Hands Clapping

This is my latest recording project (released May 27, 2019). It is a double album of 22 songs, which very roughly track the story of my life... a sort of musical autobiography, so to speak. Click the album image to listen.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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

Readings, 2020

Readings, 2020
Paradise Lost, John Milton

Adorning the Dark, Andrew Peterson

The Soul of Shame, Curt Thompson

Cure for the Common Life, Max Lucado

Halos and Avatars, Craig Detweiller, ed.

Fool's Talk, Os Guinness

Brendan, Frederick Buechner

The Screwtape Letters

Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis

The Pilgrim's Regress, C. S. Lewis

Becoming Whole, Brian Finkert and Kelly Kapic

Real Sex, Lauren Winner

Out of the Silent Planet, C. S. Lewis

Voyage to Venus, C. S. Lewis

That Hideous Strength, C. S. Lewis

Till We Have Faces, C. S. Lewis

random reads

Happy Birthday Mr. Van Gogh

Speaking of birthdays, today happens to be Vincent Van Gogh's 155th birthday. Though he died in heart-breaking obscurity and depression, the inner light and darkness that radiates from his best work suggests a deeply spiritual way of seeing the world. In honor of his birthday today, I offer these few interesting notes about Vincent Van Gogh:

1. Van Gogh was profoundly discontent and unsuccessful in his formal artistic training, and he butted with many heads as he struggled to escape the "flat, insipid" results of the Academy's formalized, systematic method. Here's an excerpt from a letter he wrote to his brother Theodore:

I must tell you that even though I continue to attend, the pedantry of those fellows at the [Arts] Academy is often quite unbearable and they seem hateful to me at times. But I try very hard to avoid arguments with them and go my own way. I feel like I am getting closer to what I am looking for [in my art] and perhaps I will find it sooner if I can do what I want to do when I draw those plaster reproductions. ... You can’t imagine how flat, insipid and lifeless the results of [their] system are; I must say that I am content to have seen the thing up close. ... I have wanted to say twenty five times, “Your outline is a trick.” But it doesn’t seem worth fighting about. And yet even when I keep silent, they irritate me and I irritate them.

2. I've heard some speculation that Vincent Van Gogh may have had a visual disorder that affected the way he perceived and processed light, making yellow light especially glaring to his eyes. This would account for the unusually vivid, sometimes ugly use of yellow in his work. (Some have speculated similarly that his vision was affected by the use of digitalis, a drug prescribed for epilepsy, though there is little evidence he ever took the drug.)

3. I often think about Vincent Van Gogh when I reflect on what it means to be a pastor-as-artist, or an artist-as-pastor. It's not well known, but before embarking on his career as a painter, Vincent Van Gogh studied for the ministry, and sought (unsuccessfully) to be a pastor. I guess this kind of biographical detail gets overshadowed when you cut off your ear. I've heard it said that he failed at his studies because he took Jesus' teaching too close to heart and "sold all he had to give to the poor." His instructors felt he was too "radical." But when I think about the deeply spiritual response his work has often evoked in people over the last century and a half, I wonder: maybe, by asking people to look through the surface of things for the light behind, maybe he ministered to more people than he would have as a Methodist preacher.

Don McLean put it well: "Starry, starry night, paint your palette blue and grey, / Look out on a summer's day, with eyes that know the darkness of my soul."

John Milton and the Happier Eve

To celebrate the 400th anniversary of John Milton's birth (December 6, 2008), I had planned reread Paradise Lost. I'm only just getting around to it, but I figure it's been 400 years already, so what's a few extra months?

This is actually my fourth time reading through this masterpiece of English poetry, so I'm surprised I hadn't really noticed it before. Maybe I did, but it never hit me the way it did this time: John Milton holds that Eve must have been happier in paradise than Adam. And why? Because (his Eve argues), she has the far superior Adam to enjoy, while Adam has no comparable "Adam" of his own.

In her opening speech to Adam, she says (Book IV, 444-447):

We to [God] indeed all praises owe,
And daily thanks, I chiefly, who enjoy
So far the happier lot, enjoying thee
Preeminent by so much odds, while thou [Adam]
Like consort to thyself canst nowhere find.


And, really, heart-wrenching.

Because he's done here what the Genesis story refuses to do. Milton's Adam can find no "like consort" for himself, even in Eve, though Genesis insists that the woman is precisely that: the man's "like consort" (which may be as good a translation of the Hebrew for "help meet" as any I've heard). Milton's "superior" Adam is ultimately alone, even in the company of Eve, though Genesis insists that the loneliness of superiority was the not good problem that the male-female relation had solved. Milton was a first rate poet, but, I think, a third rate theologian.

Of course, no one reads Milton anymore, but this idea-- that the primary role of the woman is to compliment the man-- is a tree with deep roots, and it still tempts the church now and then with its bitter fruit. I've talked to men, and women, who still have its juice on their lips.

But besides celebrating Milton's 400th birthday, I've been thinking a lot lately about gender identity and the Bible. Previously I suggested that the first point in any theology of gender must be the divine address and the human response that includes our selves as man or woman. After meeting Milton's lonely, superior Adam and his sad, happier Eve, I want to add a second. Theologically, I think, our gender is also defined by our open embrace of the otherness of corresponding gender.

Unlike Milton's adam then, a biblical man will embrace the otherness of the eve as full "flesh of his flesh," the like consort whose otherness truly solves the problem of his aloneness, without appealing to that otherness as a claim to lonely superiority. And unlike Milton's Eve, a biblical woman will likewise embrace the otherness of the adam, without appealing to that otherness as a claim to blissful inferiority.

Perhaps in such an embrace, men and women will discover the equality, mutuality and interdependence that Christ, the Living Word of God, holds out to his lonely, confused brothers and sisters in the Genesis story.

The Manliest Men of American Letters

I've been doing a lot of thinking these days about gender identity and the Bible. It seems to me that our culture has a pretty confused sense of what it means for men and women to be men and women, and my gut tells me that the Bible speaks to this in some way. At the same time, most of the efforts I've seen to use the Bible to define gender seem pretty content to wrench ideas out of their historical, literary and cultural context, and just use them arbitrarily to prop up unquestioned stereotypes about masculinity and femininity. Like the time I read in a magazine with a special family focus that the man must be the one to provide for his family, because of 1 Tim 5:8. Or the time I read in the literature of an Evangelical denomination that a woman's role is to provide hospitality in the home because of Heb 13:2.

Thinking about this, I got wondering: who would I include on a list of truly manly men? (And then, since the first two that jumped to mind were from American Lit, I decided to narrow the search down to that specific field.) Anyways, I present to you my list of the Top 5 Manly Men from American Literature.

1. Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird)-- for courageous commitment to justice. True courage, says Atticus, is knowing you're licked before you start, but you still start anyway. And, of course, he demonstrates this courage, and genuine manliness along with it, in the Tom Robinson case. I wept when Rev. Sykes wakes Scout so she can stand with all the rest of the gallery as Atticus leaves the courthouse after the guilty verdict.

2. Charles Ingalls (Little House on the Prairie)-- for indefatigable resourcefulness. I didn't discover the Little House series until I was a grown man reading to my children. But I'll tell you-- it seems like there was just nothing this man couldn't do. With his bare hands. No power tools. Even his determination must have had callouses on it.

3. Walt Whitman (Leaves of Grass)-- for the exuberant embracing of life. I got a battered copy of Leaves of Grass at a used book store in Massachusetts ages ago. Every now and then I sit down and read as much of it as I can handle, and I always go away with my heart beating a little bolder. "To be a sailor of the world, bound for all ports!"-- the heart cry of a genuine man who is intensely, sensually, madly in love with life.
4. Santiago (Old Man and the Sea)-- for self-sacrifice to a higher cause. My spirit kind of skipped a beat at the end when Santiago staggers up the hill with his mast across his shoulders (falling five times) and collapses in his shack after his long, lost struggle against the sea (arms straight out with the palms of his hands up). And of course, he wakes renewed, soon to face the sea again.

5. Slim (Of Mice and Men)-- for strength in serenity. There's still the moral ambiguity of his "sometimes a guy gotta" line after George killed Lennie, but anyone who can be described as having hands like a "dancing shiva" and still have such authority that not even Curly would tangle with him, counts as a man in my books.

Well, there's my list, for what it's worth.

But here's the thing: as a list describing what makes a man uniquely a man, I don't think it's worth all that much. Sure, any man who could live his life with a courageous commitment to justice, indefatigable resourcefulness, exuberant embracing of life, self-sacrifice to a higher cause and strength in serenity would be a man indeed-- but none of these characteristics are essential and exclusive to men (i.e. things that are only true of men, and without which a man would not be a man).

And "exclusive and essential" is the key when we come to the Bible asking it to define gender, too. There are lots of admirable men in there with admirable characters doing admirable things, but few if any of these traits are essential and exclusive to masculinity.

Where does this leave us? I'm not sure, but I think that rather than starting with culture-coded stereotypes, any theology of gender must take as its starting place the human response to the divine address. A biblical man, then, is a man who hears God address him in Christ, affirming him as a man--and who responds as a man-- "here I am." And a biblical woman, then, is a woman who hears God address her in Christ, affirming her as a woman -- and who responds as a woman-- "here I am."

Babbling French and Other Blessings

I learned to speak French as a high school exchange student in Quebec. A few years later, with the confidence of that "hands-on" learning experience under my belt, I walked into a drugstore in Paris and, in my best Quebec accent, asked if they sold razors. We'd been traveling for a month or so and I needed a new one.

The shopkeeper just gaped at me with a look somewhere between confusion and disdain. A chimpanzee might just as well have loped up to him and babbled something about wanting bananas. Though I don't know what I said wrong, I learned that day that there is more than just geography separating the French of Quebec and France.

I was reminded of this mis-fired linguistic exchange the other day when I heard a story on CBC Radio about Jean Charest's recent visit to Paris. The Parisian diplomat who was meeting him at the airport, earnest to be a good host, wanted to welcome him with a genuine gesture of linguistic goodwill. He did some research and discovered how to ask him if he was tired (after his long flight) using a unique Quebecois idiom. Unbeknownst to this well meaning Parisian, the particular idiom he used was a slightly crude expression not exactly suited to polite society: as Jean Charest disembarked the plane, he was greeted warmly and asked if he didn't have his "*slang term for female anatomy* dragging on the ground."

The story made me laugh a bit.

But mostly it made me think of the Tower of Babel.

From the illustrated Bible versions of the Babel story I was raised on, I always had the impression that God's original aim was to have one unified language, where we could all communicate
unambiguously; and that the linguistic confusion, like the kind heard on the Parisian tarmac that day, was really God's curse on humanity because of their overweening pride.

Today I'm not so sure.
Though we often talk about the "curse of Babel," it's important to note that the story never uses the word "curse." J. Richard Middleton points out that in Genesis 10, right before the Babel story tells us there was only one language, we're given this elaborate table of the descendants of Noah, listed "according to their peoples and languages." Middleton then points out that one of the imperialistic policies of Babylon-- a policy, no doubt, that the author of Genesis was well aware of-- was to enforce its own language on the people it conquered. We see this policy at work in the opening verses of Daniel (and, incidentally, throughout history-- from Stalin to residential schools to William the Conqueror, it seems an "effective" way to keep an oppressed people oppressed has always been to silence their language). Middleton argues that the story's vision of a "one-language state" is actually intended as a picture of the distopian structures of the Babylonian Empire whereby it enforced linguistic unity on its subjects.

If Middleton is right, then by confusing the speech of the tower-builders, God is judging the oppressive, imperialistic power structures of Babylon (and every Babylon-like empire since). By affirming and insisting on a rich diversity of human languages, God is actually unmasking and disarming those oppressive, dehumanizing systems that need us to all talk (and think) alike in order to maintain their power.

This would mean that the day I walked into a Parisian pharmacie and left without my razor, as frustrating as it was, maybe I was actually tasting one of God's blessings to humanity. And maybe the day Charest looked askance at a French politician who had just asked him innocently enough if he was "dragging his ass," maybe God was saying yet again: "I don't want human-life-together to ever be so unambiguous that it becomes tyrannical."


Popping the Bubble Wrap

Is it just me or have playgrounds gotten pretty lame these days? It was a no school day Friday, and the first day of spring and all, so I took our kids down to the park for the first romp of the season. And while I watched them play a time-travelers variation of Star-Wars, I kept thinking how tame the playground apparatus was.

Oh, sure, it looks bright and friendly and modern when you're driving through the neighbourhood on your way to little league soccer or Suzuki piano lessons, admiring it from a distance (and judging from the amount of kids I actually see playing on these playgrounds, neighbourhood ornamentation may be their primary purpose). But up close, the mirage of play possibilities dissipates into a flatland of insipid safety. The highest platform was only about 4 feet high. The longest slide was less than 6 feet long. Nothing much to swing on, dangle from, leap off. No teetering, no tottering. No merry-going-round.

It was really just a collection of low staircases and landings, with a shallow-grade "slide" at one end.

There's this family-therapist, Micahel Ungar, who talks about the phenomenon of the "bubble-wrapped child"-- the over-protected modern kid whose every move is monitored, micro-managed and manipulated so as to minimize risk and maximize "success." He argues that when we deny kids the opportunity to experience risk, we deny them the chance to take responsibility. And this is a bad thing. I heard a child psychologist on CBC Radio last month make similar claims: our children are not experiencing the unstructured, independent, risky play that is vital to their social development. She went on to claim that the over-protection of our children is really a sublimation of our own deep anxiety about the uncertain future.

These therapists claim that we've bubble-wrapped our kids, removing all risks from their lives. And that in trying to keep them safe, we're actually harming them deeply. As I watched my kids walk up and down the flights of steps at the ultra-safe "stay-ground" yesterday, I started to suspect they might be right.

But this is what I'm thinking about after Friday's trip to the park: do we bubble wrap our kids theologically, too? Do we try to keep them spiritually "safe" by avoiding questions about God, and life with God, that are awkward, confusing, unanswerable? Do we encourage them to keep things safely superficial because of the spiritual risk involved in playing higher, deeper, further in?

Some examples from my own parenting: "Dad, prayer doesn't work"; "Dad, I was reading the Bible and it said something about doing... you know... 'it' with animals..."; "Dad, I noticed that in the Bible it always says 'brothers' when it talks about people in the church. Why doesn't it ever say 'sisters'?"

Now, things like the efficacy of prayer and gender-exclusive language in the Bible are risky topics. Lots of potential for spiritual skinned-knees and bruised elbows there. Sometimes it's tempting to bubble wrap their young hearts with the cushy answers of a glossed-over easy-believism.

But the potentially faith-breaking questions are also the faith-making questions. And if we're willing to let our kids ask some hard ones, face some uncertainty-- take some risks-- we just might see them mature into the spiritually intrepid men and women God made them to be.

On Dog Whispering and the Image of God

Okay, bear with me on this one.

We got our family dog, Trixie, about a year ago. Though there was always a dog in our household growing up, I had forgotten I was a "dog person" until Trixie came along. In choosing the dog's name, I insisted it had to be something I could wander about our neighbourhood calling plaintively without feeling like a total idiot. This is my main childhood memory of "Bear," the family dog who bolted every time the front door opened even a fraction of an inch.

But Trixie has helped me re-discover my inner dog-person.

Besides the basics (sit, down, stay, come), the complete list of the 14-some-word vocabulary she's acquired under our care includes: "Drop" (spit out whatever you happen to be chewing and await further instructions), "go pee" (I'm in a hurry, so take a leak quick and get back in the house), "kennel" (we're going out and you're not coming, so lie down in your kennel and wait for us), "toy" (go find one of the many chew toys you have hidden around the house and we'll play catch).

What amazes me is how happily she responds to these commands-- almost like they were just waiting there inside her little dog heart for us to come along and breathe them into life.

But that's not all. Trixie is uncannily in tune with our habits. Mornings she watches to see if I put on my coat, and as soon as I do she goes and lies down in her kennel, knowing I'm off to work. Evenings she listens closely for me to sit on the couch and open a book, her cue to come lie down next to me.

Now here's the thing: in a relatively obscure passage tucked away in The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis makes some interesting, passing comments on the spirituality of our relationship to the animals. He argues that some animals (especially the naturally clever ones like horses or dogs) have a latent personality that is called out and enlarged as they come into contact with humans who relate to them lovingly and wisely. In such contact with animals, we discover part of our human calling, whispering to life an aspect of their creatureliness that would otherwise have lain dormant. He goes on to suggest that in drawing a creature (like Trixie) up into our life as humans, and so drawing out its full creatureliness, we get a limited picture of what Christ has done for us, drawing us up into the life of God, and so drawing out our full humanity.

Well, I'll defer completely to those who are more experienced with pets or theology on this one, but I wonder if there isn't something to this.

The creation account in Genesis shows the Creator speaking creative order out of chaos. Then he calls the adam, the human creature filled with his breath and made in his image, to carry on this chaos-subduing creative work. And one of the first tasks for the adam is to name the other creatures-- naming, of course, being an act of deep spiritual significance in the Old Testament.

So maybe Lewis was right. Maybe there is something deeply spiritual about our relationship with the other creatures of God's good earth.

I wonder what he would have said about cats.

Seven Things I Like Best About Being A Sub

I love substitute teaching.

No. Really. I do.

And as I sit around in ministry limbo these days, waiting for God to show me the next step after seminary, I've been biding my time by taking a lot of sub calls. Since I've been mulling over the unique joys and challenges of this specific occupation a lot lately, I thought I'd share the seven things I love best about my job.

7. Daily lessons in mental yoga. In what other job can you go from teaching grade one phys-ed (love those parachute games) to grade twelve algebra in the course of a week? Sometimes I feel like my brain is gonna get stuck in permanent lotus-position.

6. Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Nietzsche never subbed for grade nine sex-ed or grade eleven shop. If he had, he would probably agree that, according to his dictum, junior high subs should rank among the emotional Joe Weilders of our day.

5. Because John Coltrane is easily as cool as Mozart. I like to think of subbing as the experimental jazz of the teaching profession (mostly because no one else will). I never knew what improvisation was until I had to stand in front of a room full of mid-pubescent strangers-- who can smell fear like sharks can blood-- and convince them that they really care to know how to solve a quadratic equation by completing the square. (You have five minutes to prepare. Go.)

4. Broad scope for the imagination. One of my favorite little games is to imagine a creative story about why the regular teacher is away. My list of theories includes things like "called on assignment for the British Secret Service," and "Space/time vortex in the refrigerator."

3. Ties. Now, I realize many would put this on the list of things they hate about their job, but I love wearing ties. There is something truly liberating in being able to match the mood of the day with the appropriate tie. Feeling mysterious? the blue silk tie with the obscure Mandarin symbols all over it that my father in-law got me from China. Feeling playful? the tasteful-but-edgy Snoopy tie. Feeling like you need to regain a little control in your life: the burgundy print on the burgundy shirt. Feeling a little gutsy: the navy paisley.

2. (What I like to think of as) the mythic status of my occupation. Who doesn't have a glory-days story about the time their class made the sub cry? Or some semi-repressed memory of a sub-Nazi who could wither houseplants with a mere glance? Or a no-holds-barred game of "tell the sub the wrong name at role call and then mix up the seating plan" lurking in their middle-school past? Now I'm living those mythic memories on a daily basis.

1. Constant reminders of the Image of God. Each sub-call I get is a chance to walk into a room full of perfect, innocent strangers (who can smell insincerity like bears can campfire bacon) and be deeply reminded that these young lives--full of exuberance and hopes and hurts and questions-- these young lives are each made in the image of God. Each day is a chance to show young people, through careful acts of grace and love, that they are made in the image of the God I serve and love with all my life.

A few random notes on St. Patrick

I used to have a fascination- bordering- on-obsession with St. Patrick. I've posted about my general fascination with the lives of the saints elsewhere, but this Apostle to the Irish has always been particularly interesting to me. I even wrote a musical about him some 7 years ago (it is, I freely admit, mostly embarrassingly bad, but if you're curious, you can read/hear it here). In honour of his feast day today, I offer the following random notes about St. Patrick.

1. There had been previous, failed attempts to evangelize the Irish before Patrick. Most historians attribute his unprecedented success to his ability to capitalize on points of contact between the Faith and the pagan culture of the Irish.

2. Historians also attribute his success to the fact that, unlike the previous missionaries to the Irish, Patrick actually spoke Irish-- a language he learned when he lived as a slave in Ireland in his early life.

3. In Simply Christian, N. T. Wright argues that most of the current, emerging interest in Celtic Christianity is really driven by a superficial interest in "mysticism," "back-to-nature-ism" and "things ancient," but it's not all that connected with what history tells us about the the actual Christian experience of the Celts. He notes, for instance, how few of those interested in "Celtic Spirituality" are taking on the ascetic practices that were relatively common among the Celtic monks, like kneeling in the frigid waters of the ocean to pray for hours on end. Touche.
4. In How the Irish Saved Civilization, a pretty controversial book of uncertain historical accuracy, Thomas Cahill argues that after the fall of Rome, while the spiritual winter of the dark ages fell over most of Europe, the ember of the Faith was kept glowing in the isolated monasteries of Ireland. He suggests that Irish monks were then instrumental in re-spreading the learning and literature of Christianity. It would mean kudos to St. Patrick if it were true.

5. The "Lorica of St Patrick" is a Latin poem traditionally attributed to St. Patrick. A "lorica" is/was a kind of incantatory prayer that the devotee would recite to invoke the presence, power and protection of God. St. Patrick's Lorica is really quite beautiful. I memorized it a while back, and find myself reciting it to myself in moments of confusion or darkness. Here it is in English translation:

I bind unto myself today the strong name of the trinity,
By invocation of the same, the Three in One, the One in Three.

I bind this day to me forever by power of faith Christ's incarnation,
His baptism in the Jordan river, his death on the cross for my salvation;
His bursting from the spiced tomb, his riding up the heavenly way,
His coming at the day of doom I bind unto myself today.

I bind unto myself today the power of God to hold and lead,
His eye to watch, his might to stay, his ear to harken to my need,
The wisdom of my God to teach, his hand to guide, his shield to ward,
The Word of God to give me speech, his heavenly host to be my guard.

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me;
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ to comfort and restore me;
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger

I bind unto myself the name, the strong name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same, the Three in One, and One in Three,
Of whom all nature hath creation, eternal Father, Spirit, Word;
Praise to the God of my salvation, salvation is of Christ the Lord!

Hospitality, the Future, and the God of Abraham

A number of years back I encouraged one of my students to read Homer's Odyssey for fun. Part way through I asked how she was enjoying it. "It's great" she said, "But why is it every time Odysseus comes to a new country they give him gifts?" I tried to explain what I understood about the code of hospitality in the ancient world: how generous hospitality was a reflection of the host's wealth and dignity in a shame/honour culture-- how inhospitality was not just bad manners, it was moral failure-- how hospitality has lost its place in the ethical code of modern western culture.

I recalled this little "teachable-moment" a few weeks ago as I was reading Hans Boersma's Violence, Hospitality and the Cross. Boersma uses the ancient concept of hospitality as an interpretive lens for understanding the meaning of election, the cross, the church and the Second Coming. Election is God's act of preferential hospitality for the poor, the alien and the outcast; the cross is God's act of hospitality toward estranged humanity; the church is God's chosen "community of hospitality" in the world; the Second Coming is God's promised future of "absolute (unconditional) hospitality." And so on.

Boersma is right that the Bible uses the very rich concept of "hospitality" to describe God's gracious dealings with humanity; but what's interesting is how it uses the same concept to describe humanity's right response to God. The writer to the Hebrews exhorts the church to be hospitable, because "some have entertained angels unawares"; in Revelation, Jesus stands at the door and knocks, urging the Laodicean church to open that he might come in and eat with them; in Luke Jesus criticizes the Pharisee for his stingy hospitality towards him; and in Matthew he promises to commend the righteous sheep on the last day, because they welcomed him when he was a stranger.

We are called to receive the hospitable God of the universe with unconditional hospitality.

Probably the most compelling example of this is Genesis 18: Abraham, sitting at the door of his tent, looks up into the glare and heat of the day to see three mysterious strangers standing before him. The Lord, the text insists with no further explanation, had appeared to him.

Abraham receives this divine visitation with gregarious, and, by the standards of the the ancient world, impeccable hospitality. "My Lords, do not pass by. ... Let a little water be brought and wash your feet. ... Rest here in the shade." He rushes to Sarah: "Quick! Three seahs of fine flour! Knead it. Make cakes." He runs to the herd, prepares a tender calf. They eat.

But what strikes me here is that by welcoming this "stranger-God" with gracious hospitality, Abraham is actually welcoming his own future in God. Because after these three strangers have refreshed themselves in Abraham's shade and eaten at Abraham's humble table, the Lord says: "I will return.. your wife Sarah will have a son." Abraham embraces the stranger with impeccable hospitality, only to discover in his arms no stranger, but a laughing baby boy whose future seed will bless all the nations of the earth.

As I struggle these days with my own questions about the future, I take challenge and comfort from Abraham's hospitality that hot day by the oaks of Mamre. God still comes to us, a stranger, mysterious, and bearing a strange but laughing future. And we don't need to "get it", or to "make it happen", or even necessarily to recognize it.

We need only to embrace it with impeccable hospitality.

The Penultimate Word on Preaching?

I'm not a huge Leonard Cohen fan, but every once in a while I read/hear something by him that pierces my heart for its simplicity, or my imagination for its beauty. I found this Leonard Cohen song posted at the blog of a friend of a friend, and it pierced both. As I've been exposing a lot of my deepest thoughts about preaching lately (here, here, and here), I thought I'd share this profound prayer with you. Maybe none of us will ever truly preach until we've prayed sincerely a prayer like this one (especially the first verse). Beautiful.

If It Be Your Will
If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
If it be your will

If it be your will
That a voice be true
From this broken hill
I will sing to you
From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing

If it be your will
If there is a choice
Let the rivers fill
Let the hills rejoice
Let your mercy spill
On all these burning hearts in hell
If it be your will
To make us well

And draw us near
And bind us tight
All your children here
In their rags of light
In our rags of light
All dressed to kill
And end this night
If it be your will

If it be your will.

Amen, amen, and amen.

Teach Us to Pray

I was reading my youngest daughter her bedtime Bible story the other night, when we came to the episode where Jesus taught his disciples the Lord's Prayer. The story opened with these words: "Jesus was praying. When he was done, one of his disciples said, 'Lord, please teach us to pray.'" My daughter stopped me and asked innocently, but insightfully enough, "Dad, Jesus is God. Why would he be praying?"

The kind of question every pastor-dad waits, bedtime story after uneventful bedtime story, to be finally asked.

I explained that as Christians, we believe God is three-in-one: God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I told her that Jesus is God the Son, and he was praying to God the Father. That's why his prayer begins with the words "Our Father in Heaven..."

She seemed satisfied enough with this answer and was ready to move on with the story; but I wasn't. This wasn't just some interesting tid-bit about the anatomy of some abstract god that we were discussing. Her simple question had driven us straight to the heart of how we know, and experience, and worship the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

I explained that Jesus is fully God, who receives our prayers; but he is also fully human, who offers them perfectly to the Father on our behalf. Because Jesus is fully God and fully human, he always prays in us, and through us, and with us whenever we pray; and because we are praying in, through and with Jesus the Son, God the Father always hears us. And even when we don't know how to pray the way we should (like those disciples), the Spirit of Jesus is at work in us, transforming our broken prayers into his perfect prayer to the Father. Then I told her that when she prayed, "Lord, please make ___ well, because I love her," Jesus was praying that very prayer with her, and in her and through her, making it into his perfect prayer: "Yes Lord, yes; that's our prayer. Let your will be done."

I was trying to explain the mediation of Christ to her, without using that term. And I was thinking of John 15-17, and Romans 8:12-27, and the whole book of Hebrews while I did so.

But after I had closed the picture Bible and kissed her goodnight, her question kept echoing in my spirit. It reminded me of a book a read a while ago that changed everything for me, James Torrance's Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace. In this deceptively slender study of the mediation of Christ, Torrance shows how every act of Christian worship must happen in, through and with Jesus. We never praise, or pray, or worship, or serve alone, or directly. Jesus, our fully-God-and-fully-human-mediator, always worships in us, with us and on or behalf.

Of prayer,Torrance writes: "The Son of God became our brother that he might lift us up into [the] life of wonderful communion [with the Father], and so he sends his Spirit into our hearts and puts his prayer on our lips whereby we too can pray, 'Abba Father.' ... In the communion of the Spirit in the communion of saints, our prayers on earth are the echo of his prayers in heaven."

This is the fuller answer to my daughter's innocent question. Jesus prays so that our feeble prayers might become an echo of his perfect prayer in heaven. And I sometimes wonder if Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace shouldn't be mandatory reading for all Christian worshipers and especially all worship leaders. If it were, our prayer and praise life as a church might be transformed by this truth: we need no longer depend on our own spiritual resources to generate an acceptable response to God, because our worship actually participates in that perfect response to the Father that the Son offers for us, through us, and with us.

... Where No Light Shines

Indulge me with one more nod in Dylan Thomas' direction. I wrote this song last spring based on one of my favorite Dylan Thomas poems. I was trying to write a song around the imagery in Ephesians 5:14-15, where Paul says: "It is the light that makes everything visible. This is why it is said: Wake up, O sleeper rise up from the dead, and Christ will shine on you." The same time I was thinking of these verses, I was thinking of "Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines," Dylan Thomas' (very secular) poem about the mysterious light that sometimes breaks in the darkest places of the human heart. And as I thought of Paul, and Ephesians 5:15, and Dylan Thomas, it struck me how this in-breaking light, which transcends all human logic and reason, shines so much more radiantly in Christ than anywhere Dylan Thomas himself looked for it.

Anyways, you can click play below to hear a rough recording of the song that emerged out of these meditations, or you can read the original poem here if you're interested.

Light breaks where no light shines

Light breaks this heart of mine

Where no seas run, burst out the heart's tide

And broken ghosts look out through my eyes, there

Light breaks where no light shines

Dawn breaks in blackened skies

Dawn breaks through all my lies

Where coursing blood slides to the sea

Through coursing veins to the heart of me

There light breaks where no light shines

Wake, O sleeper, rise up from the grave

And Christ will shine his glory on your face

Wake, O sleeper, rise up from the grave

And Christ will shine his glory on your face

And light breaks where no light shines

Sun breaks on sleeping earth

Sun breaks to bring new birth

When logics die and answers fade

And foaming seas sweep my heart away

There sun breaks where no light shines

[click here to listen]

And Shall Death Indeed Have No Dominion?

Dylan Thomas has always haunted my imagination as the quintessential poet. His wonder at the weight of words, his prophetic pronouncements and paradoxes, his mystical bardic vision, his sonorous voice-- each are subtle shades of light shifting in the aura that surrounds this legendary Welsh poet. Even the sad trajectory of his later life lends a kind of glimmer and shadow to his verse. He once said of himself, "I hold a beast, an angel, and a madman in me, and my inquiry is as to their working, and my problem is their subjugation and victory, down throw and upheaval, and my effort is their self-expression." The quintessential poet.

If you've never yet encountered the poetry of Dylan Thomas, I'd invite you to listen for the "bardic vision" in a poem like "And Death Shall Have No Dominion."

So I've been thinking about Dylan Thomas quite a bit lately; mostly because I'm tempted these days to mourn the death of the word in the Evangelical pulpit. Please understand: this is not some typical modernist, "We've stopped preaching the Word," kind of rant-- I'm not simply lamenting the death of "Biblical Absolutes"-- And I'm not waxing nostalgic for the good-ol'- "Thus Sayeth the Lord"-days. What I'm talking about here is the absence of poetically poignant words in our preaching. The laden images and compelling music and evocative ambiguities of the poetic word seem to have no place next to the clinical, linear, utilitarian three-pointer that is the modern sermon. Somewhere we seem to have lost the conviction that the spoken word-- the poetic word-- not only communicates Truth but actually particpiates in it in a powerful way. As someone once put it: "the content is all there, but we might as well be giving the weather report."

And my heart often aches over what we might call a dominion of dead words in the pulpit.

And when it does, I think of Dylan Thomas. He once said that a primary influence in his poetry was "the great biblical rhythms that had rolled over him from the Welsh pulpits of his youth." I've referred to the Welsh tradition of powerful "pulpit oratory" elsewhere, but here's the thing: by his own admission, the "headlong rhetoric," the "powerful imaginative strength," and the "mystical, religious vision," that he heard sounding from the Welsh pulpit as a child taught Dylan Thomas the bardic rhythms and word-wonder of the poet.

The pulpit once taught the poet about the weight of the spoken word.

And I wonder sometimes if the pulpit must now ask the poet to return the favor.

Top Ten Opening Song Lyrics

This was supposed to be a ten item list, but I had trouble finding two last songs worthy of nomination. The trick here is that I'm not actually thinking of the top ten best songs, or my top ten favorite, or even just the top ten best song lyrics. I'm only thinking of great opening lines. The rest of the song may bomb (though in the case of the eight on my list so far, they all stand pretty strong as songs in their own right), but the opening lines have a strange evocative power, resonating deeply in the imagination for years. Sometimes I find myself muttering these lines to myself in moments of sadness or joy, and somehow the haze of my heart starts to dissipate.

Anyways, here's my list so far. Any suggestions for the two missing songs?

1. “I want to run, I want to hide/I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside” Where the Streets Have No Name, U2

2. “In the days of my youth I was told what it means to be a man/Now I’ve reached that age I try to do all those things the best I can” Good Times/Bad Times, Led Zeppelin

3. “I read the news today, O boy/About a lucky man who made the grade/And though the news was rather sad/Well I just had to laugh/I saw the photograph” A Day in the Life, The Beatles

4. “Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord /That David played and it pleased the Lord/But you don’t really care for music, do ya?” Hallelujah¸ Leonard Cohen

5. “There must be some way out of here, said the joker to the thief / There’s too much confusion here, I cant get no relief” All Along the Watchtower, Bob Dylan

6. “You thought the leaden winter would bring you down forever / But you rode upon a steamer to the violence of the sun” Tales of Brave Ulysses, Cream

7. “You get to feel so guilty / You got so much for so little /Then you find that feeling just won't go away” Gone, U2

8. “Pour un instant, j'ai oublié mon nom / Ça m'a permis enfin d'écrire cette chanson" Pour un instant, Harmonium

9. ??

10. ??

Darth Maul Meets Indiana Jones

One of the biggest faith issues in the church of my childhood was not the predestination-vs-freewill debate, nor pre- mid- post-trib. rapture speculations, nor even the "can a Christian lose his salvation?" question.

It was whether or not Christians could watch Star Wars.

There were two pretty distinct castes in my Sunday school: those with parents who banned the movies from the minds of their children because they suspected that Satan's face lurked behind the mysterious mask of Darth Vader; and those with parents (like mine) who saw it all as harmless imaginative fun and allowed their children to personally witness Luke channel the Force against the powers of darkness. These fortunate few were viewed with mingled awe and admiration by the uninitiated.

I'm only mildly exaggerating. I can still remember a very calm, reasoned sermon in our church one Sunday morning where the preacher laid it all out for us: Yoda is really the Buddha, the Force is based on Eastern mysticism/pantheism, and the "Dark side" is just the yin-yang principle in disguise. And this was light-years before Episode One would reveal that Anakin Skywalker was born of a virgin...

Of course, that's not all. I remember bringing a copy of The Two Towers with me to Bible camp and being asked not to read it there because it "dabbles in the occult and paganism. " As a teacher, I once had some Christian parents request that their child be excused from reading Lord of the Flies because of the way it posed hard questions about the source of human depravity. And I'm sure you could make your own list of ways you've seen Christians try to stay true to their convictions by holding culture at arms length.

For my part, I've tried to follow the example of my parents, and encourage in our children the attitudes and discernment necessary to engage culture with Christ-like courage and wisdom, not fear and suspicion. This is not an easier path: it means being deeply involved in my kids' lives, having engaged and honest conversations about difficult topics, and being willing to take some risks.

But I'm thinking about this today because, as I mentioned elsewhere, my 10-year-old son's list of current hobbies includes stop-motion animation with his Lego sets. And, as you might have guessed, one of his favorite themes (when his dad's not talking him into Shakespeare) is Star Wars. When I watch his imagination run free and wild with this visual storytelling medium, I often wonder: what would the well-meaning, culture-banning Christians of my youth say if they could see us now?

Mostly for your viewing pleasure, but also to stimulate dialogue on what it might mean for Christians to view the culture around them with the discerning eyes of Christ, I offer this sample of his work:

Top Ten Classes

So today I take my final, oral comprehensive exam at Briercrest. In preparing for this exam, I've spent the last week or so reviewing old papers and projects I've done over the course of my studies, some of the "greatest hits" of which can be seen in my last five or six posts. As my preparations draw to a close, I've been trying to step back and get the big picture of how God has been shaping my heart through my time at school. To that end, I've put together this list of the top ten courses I've taken at Seminary that have had the biggest impact on my spiritual formation for ministry.

10. Foundations of Marriage and Family Counseling (2007): I heard once that theologically, the act of listening-- to God and to each other-- is one of the most profoundly spiritual acts we can do. In Marriage and Family Counseling, I discovered how and why this is true.

9. Hebrew II (2007): Near the end of my time studying Hebrew, after hours and hours of monotonously writing out paradigms and reviewing flashcards, something sort of clicked. Opening the Old Testament these days is like opening up a wardrobe and discovering a whole, mysterious, panoramic world where once there had only been musty old fur coats.

8. Greek Exegesis II (2006): Probably the most intellectually and spiritually demanding class I took at Briercrest. Walking word by word through the first nine chapters of Matthew, with a master teacher and passionate Christian as my guide, left me truly covered in the dust of the Rabbi.

7. Sign, Symbol and Sacred Act (2006): God was really at work in my heart when I took this class, shaping and sharpening my vision for a worship ministry that found room for more participation, more aesthetics, more symbol, and more Christ-centredness than I had experienced in the past.

6. Pentateuch (2006): This, my first Old Testament course, was like getting a set of glasses after years of not knowing you needed them. Themes like covenant, shalom, and creation blessing suddenly jumped into sharp focus for me where before I had never realized how blurry they were. Here I got a set of lenses for reading, not just the Pentateuch, but the entire Old Testament.

5. Shepherd the Flock (2006):
Here I discovered a genuine theology of ministry that transformed my heart: Ministry is our participation by the Holy Spirit in Jesus's ministry to the Father for the sake of the world. One of the central points of the class was that we need to move away from thinking about ministry as simply imitating in our own flesh what Jesus did, and we need to discover that ministry is really about participating in what Jesus is doing now in our communities and in the lives of those around us.

4. Homiletics (2005): My first glimpse of the kind of preaching ministry God was calling me to, this was the class where he started to answer the prayer I mentioned here. The idea that the sermon should not only convey the message of the text, but should also reflect its literary form, emotive feel and pastoral function was a really important discovery for me. And hearing Barbara Brown-Taylor preach had a lasting impact.

3. Theology of Worship (2006): At the risk of overstatement, studying for the major paper of this course changed my life. Here I discovered what the good news of the mediation of Christ really means for the Christian life: our worship, our prayer, our faith, our praise, our ministry all happen in, through and with Jesus. If you're interested, you can read the paper here.

2. Truth and Method (2004): Not so much the truth, but the method of this course challenged and changed my thinking about the faith in a way no other course has. Spiritually and emotionally difficult-- at the time I described it as "pulling old an old scab off a wound; it hurts, but in the end there's finally relief from the itch and sting"-- the course exposed some idolatrous assumptions I had about the power of human reason to attain knowledge of God, the "givenness" of my apologetic arguments for the faith, and my trust in abstract "absolutes" rather than trust in person of Jesus Christ.

1. Gospels (2006): This course introduced me to Jesus -- as a person, as Messiah, as Rabbi and as Son of God all at once-- in a way I'd never really met him before. And he left his fingerprints all over my heart, and mind, and soul and strength. This, I think, is what the best of Christian education should be. The paper I wrote for this class was also really significant for me at the time. If you're interested, you can check it out here.

On Scripture and the Storied Self

I discovered the power of narrative therapy as an approach to biblical counseling early on in my studies. SOme of my fellow students were pretty suspicious of the whole enterprise. They read narrative therapists say things like, "people aren't the problem, the problem is the problem," or "there are no un-storied truths," and so on, and they got their absolute-truth guard up. Personally, I found some pretty intuitive intersections between the biblical narrative of salvation and atonement, and the narrative therapy idea that the story we tell about ourselves, embedded in community, defines our "selves" in a very real way.

Thinking about this today, I found this little nick-nack in my OCE shoe-box of memories, a reflection I wrote on narrative therapy and the Bible:

“Selves are socially constructed through language and maintained in narrative” says Freeman and Combs. It’s a very post-modern kind of statement, and of course there are all kinds of assumptions and ideas underneath it, some of them amicable to Christianity, some decidedly not, but it got me musing. Could identity, and self-knowledge actually be a social construct developed through language and maintained in narrative?
Because here a vista opens up. In the beginning was the Word, says John. The word—the logos—the spoken word of God—was with God and was God in the beginning. And God created humans in his own image, says the author of Genesis. In the image of God created he him; male and female, created he them. But the word became flesh and dwelt among us. And he—the word made flesh—language become touchable, we might say —is the image of the invisible God. As the writer to the Hebrews says, it used to be God’s words came through the prophets, now he has spoken in his Son. And like he goes on to say, this word from God is the likeness of God—“the exact imprint of his nature.” And here’s where it kinda clicked for me: if Jesus is the image of God, and if humans are made in the image of God, then it is in Jesus that our humanity, corporate and individual, our selves, are made, defined, socially constructed. And if our selves are made, defined, socially constructed in Jesus, the Word made flesh, then they truly are “constructed through language” in the most deep and profound way. So maybe the post-modern notion of “self” as a socio-linguistic construct is actually just grasping around the edges of what is actually a much deeper and profound biblical reality.

What does that all mean? I’m not sure yet, but at the very least I know it means that for me to know myself—to know what it means to be human and who I am as I relate to God and to those around me—I need to know Jesus. For me to find a language and narrative whereby I can truly and fully construct a “self,” I need to look daily and earnestly in faith and hope and love to the Word of God made flesh: Jesus. For only he speaks Gods grace and faithfulness and truth to me, and only he reveals to me my story, taking it up and fulfilling it in himself as the true image of God.
If you're curious about how I would see these ideas intersecting with preaching and evangelism, you can click here to listen to a sermon I preached recently at a Remembrance Day service at our church.

Still Rockin' (in the Free World)

I'll be the first to admit that, what with my OCE coming up and all, things have been pretty heady these days at terra incognita. Between ecclesiocentric theories of aesthetics, historical readings of the messianic calling of Christ and post-modern paradigms for ministry,terra incognita has maybe wandered up into some terra arcana.

Well: the view from the ivory tower may be panoramic, but the height is sometimes dizzying. So indulge me as I try to find my feet back on the ground again with little cathartic rocking out.

I wrote and recorded a song a bunch of months ago called "Feel" which was a kind of lament over the volume, speed, glare and spiritual disconnectedness of our world (written, ironically, in the genre of a loud, fast, glaring, fragmented rock tune...). It's no "guitar-gently-weeps," to be sure, but in a small way it helped me bring a heart-cry out through my fingertips. In the interest of a little change of pace from the academia, I offer it here.

(You should be able to hear "Feel" by clicking on the play button below; if not, you can hear it here).