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.

Make Me Laugh, Mr. Sub

The other day I was standing at the till in the local Staples store, and as the clerk rang through my purchase he kind of grinned and said: "Hey Mr. Harris. Got a joke for me today?"

I only vaguely recognized him from a class I subbed a couple of months ago. I told him I couldn't tell him any jokes, what with me being off duty, and out of uniform, and all. We laughed.

This has been happening to me a fair bit these days-- unidentified teenagers accosting me randomly for a joke. Once I was waiting in line for a movie and the guy behind me suddenly said: "Hey, it's that Sub! Hey, Mr. Sub, make me laugh." Another time at the grocery store the cashier said: "Didn't you sub out at Riverview High once?" After we established that I'd taught her English class some five months ago, she said: "Yeah, you told us a crazy story about a pig."

I also told them how to correct dangling participles, or some such thing, but she remembered the pig joke.

As a sub, joke-telling was like the bat-a-rang on my utility belt. Taking that old proverb, "Only great folly shouts for silence" to heart, I usually started my classes by telling some corny story to get everyone's attention, rather than contributing to the chaos by trying to shout them all down. And usually before I was half way through, the class was listening rapt.

In two years of subbing, I developed a whole repertoire of goofy stories and off the wall lines that could get me through just about any roll-call unscathed, and establish the kind of credibility with teens that you can only earn by making them laugh.

In the process I learned all over again how important laughter is in forming community. Something about the shared emotional experience of a healthy laugh together: it fosters trust, and disarms confrontation, and encourages intimacy. Of course, humour can also do a lot of perverse damage. It can shatter trust, and intensify confrontation, and betray intimacy. C. S. Lewis said that the greater capacity something has for good, the greater the harm it can do when it is perverted to the bad. He used sex as his prime example of this, but we could say similar things about humour. The fact that it does so much damage when it's misused is a sign of how much good it's capable of if used wisely.

Once in a while subbing, I got to witness the good of humour.

For example: I'd been teaching a grade 12 English class a couple of days in a row, and as I reached for the attendance roster on day four, one of the students interrupted: "Just a second Mr. H." Then he plunked a digital audio recorder on the desk right in front of me. It seems one of his classmates had left for an early spring break to Hawaii. He was fine to miss the rest of the week studying the history of Canadian Lit, but he didn't want to miss the joke of the day. They were going to email it to him that night.

Among the many things I'll miss about being a sub, I'll miss those unique chances to laugh. And for the record, here's the pig joke:

That a Man Should Rejoice in His Work

Last Wednesday was the official end of the 2008-2009 substitute teacher season. My last sub call was out to a grade nine math class getting ready for final exams. Humid classroom. Antsy kids. Urgent beckon of the grass growing outside. Not much math got done.

Now the kids are home from school, I've hung up the tie, my wife is finishing up her last days in the office, and we're looking ahead to new things: new home, new city, new province.

And new work.

August 1st I'll start my new role as a pastor of the Free Way Free Methodist church in Oshawa Ontario. This will mark the culmination of five years preparation at seminary, and something like eight or nine years since God first put it on my heart to pursue vocational pastoral ministry.

What with ending jobs and starting new ones-- and especially this particular job, one that my whole story, it seems, has been meandering towards for years-- I've been feeling pretty reflective these days about work. The Teacher of the ancient assembly says there's nothing better than that a man should find cheer in the work God has given him to do, "for that is his lot." And maybe he's right. At any rate, it's interesting to think how the different kinds of toil at which I've toiled under the sun have all contributed something to who I am, and who I'll be as a pastor.

Here are some of the more memorable ones (in loosely chronological order):

7. Hardwood Flooring Guy-- I have pretty early and awesome memories going out to the job site with my Dad as his "helper"; sitting next to him in that work truck at ten, or twelve, or whatever it was, I felt grown up at last. Eventually this would evolve into a great summer job doing hardwood floors through High School and some of University, and the ability to do something useful with my hands.

6. Convenience Store Clerk-- When I was in High School, a friend got me hired on at the convenience store he worked at: weekend night shifts dealing with drunk teenagers who had nothing better to do than loiter around the local Winks store and hassle the polyester-clad attendant; paying more in fuel to get to work than I actually made most weeks; spending the difference (if there was any) on "lunches" of gas station hot dogs and fountain pop.

5. Painter for Student Works Painting-- This was supposed to pay for my second year's university tuition. Three evenings a week or something, we would "cold call" neighbourhoods to find jobs. *ding-dong* "Hi I'm a painter for Student Works Painting. We're working in your neighbourhood and wondering if you have any odd painting jobs we could give you a free quote on?" I felt like a JW with a paintbrush. I made absolutely zilch at this job.

4. Bible Camp Counselor-- When he finally got it through my head that the painting job was a dead end, God sent me to work as a camp counselor at a Salvation Army camp in the interior of BC. I made zilch here, too, but living up in the woods of B.C., eating healthy camp food three times a day, hanging out with people who loved Jesus and doing ministry to children all summer sent me home a richer man.

3. Waiter--
I worked as a waiter in two different restaurants. One was a down-to-earth place that did things like Sunday morning brunch and cheap wings night; the other was a hoity-toity place where we opened bottles of wine at people's tables and the menu had some exotic Cajun dish with real alligator meat in it. The waiting profession was a world unto itself... and the bizarre mix of people you worked with. But it was fun, and good money.

2. English/Math Teacher--
Only a couple of days ago I jettisoned a big box of old teaching resources that I finally admitted to myself I'd never use again. Felt liberating and agonizing at the same time. Seven years teaching full time probably shaped me more than #6-#3 together, and to be honest, standing in a room full of young people and helping them feel passionate about things I'm passionate about always felt as life-giving to me as breath.

1. Substitute Teacher--
I've blogged before about the unique joys of being a sub. To the list I might add how working with young people can sharpen your wit, and remind you about the power of laughter and strip years off your soul, if you'll let it. I found a lot of cheer in this work; I'll miss it.

The Thunderous Whisper of God

Still thinking about the voice of the Lord, I thought I'd share this song I wrote a while back inspired by Psalm 29 (click play to listen).


When I was growing up, the "small still voice" from 1 Kings 19 got a lot of press. People would talk about listening for the small still voice of the Lord, with the implication that this was how God typically spoke. He doesn't speak in dramatic ways; you have to learn to listen for his small still voice.

Of course, 1 Kings 19:12 never says specifically that the "gentle whisper" was the voice of Yahweh; and the Hebrew's pretty difficult to translate here, anyways. Literally, after the wind and fire and earthquake, Elijah heard the "sound of crushed silence." Some interpreters suggest that what he heard was absolutely nothing-- the deafening roar of utter silence.

So does the voice of the Lord always come to us as a "small still voice"? Is this the point of 1 Kings 19:12?

I'm not sure. Psalm 29 says that the voice of the Lord flashes forth like lightning. And Job 35:7 says that God thunders wondrously with his voice. And Psalm 68:33 says that the one who rides in the ancient heavens sends out his mighty voice. (And look at Psalm 18:16, and Job 37:2, 37:4, 40:9, and Isaiah 30:30 and Jeremiah 10:13...).

That's "thunderous": 9; "small-still": 1.

Maybe the "small still voice" appeals to us especially because our ears have grown so dull from years of living in the modern kingdom of noise. The idea that God's voice is hard to hear resonates more with our experience. But the ancients seemed pretty convinced that, more often than not, when the Most High God spoke, you couldn't miss it.

Well. In thunder or in whisper, may God give his children open ears to hear him when he speaks; and may he give us courageous hearts to respond when we do hear. Speak, Lord, your servants are listening.

The Psalm They Never Told Me About in Sunday School

Last night there were severe storm warnings for the Moose Jaw region. Walking my dog, I could see menacing clouds piling up in heavy heaps in all directions. I kept humming that line from the old hymn-- "dark is his path on the wings of the storm"-- and watching the horizon-- and thinking about Psalm 29.

Psalm 29 doesn't get as much airtime as the more intimate ones like #23 or #42. This is too bad, maybe, because there's something really subversive going on here that's worth mulling over. On the surface it's this straight forward, albeit glorious hymn celebrating the Voice of the Lord with vivid "severe-storm-warning" imagery. Yahweh presides over the divine counsel (v.1 literally, "the sons of god"), and his mighty Voice rumbles out exactly seven times: it thunders over the waters; it is powerful; it is majestic; it breaks the mighty cedars; it flashes with lightning; it shakes the desert; it strips the forests bare. All creation convulses as Yahweh is enthroned as King forever, reigning supreme over the chaotic waters (v. 10 the "flood").

And in his temple, all cry "Glory!"

But here's the subversive thing: a divine warrior subduing the chaotic waters, sitting enthroned amid a counsel of divine beings, thundering his sevenfold voice from his divine palace-- these are all images straight out of the ancient Baal myths. In fact, in a text that Ugaritic scholars call KTU2 1.101.3b-4 (Ugariticia,V, 3.3b-4), we find a description of Baal sitting enthroned over the flood water, and then a vivid reference to his "seven lightnings," his "eight storehouses of thunder," his "shaft of lightning."

Remember Baal? The enemy of Yahweh? The false god whose cult Elijah worked so zealously to purge from Israel? Well it looks like psalmist here has lifted the precise attributes of the mythic Baal, and then ascribed their glory directly to Yahweh.

In a way that makes playing rock music in church look pretty tame, Psalm 29 uses the specific language of an idolatrous culture to make a bold case for the One True God. Because to claim that Yahweh's voice thunders over the waters is to claim implicitly and subversively that Baal's does not. Ugaritic scholar Peter Craigie says it like this: "Language normally employed to worship Baal for the awesome might of the thunderstorm did not rightfully belong to him who was not true god. Such language belonged to the God of Israel alone."

Now, I think it would be easy to make too much out of the Baal-myth imagery in Psalm 29 (and I've read a few scholars who've done just that). At the same time, however, it would be easier to make too little out of it-- to ignore altogether the startling fact that this psalm makes Baalistic imagery bear witness to Yahweh.

I've posted a bit on culture and Faith lately (like here , here, or here ). And as I wonder out loud about the Christian's prophetic role in a non-Christian culture, I wonder if we shouldn't meditate a bit on Psalm 29. Because here God confounds the claims of an idolatrous impostor by revealing himself specifically and scandalously in the impostor's own terms. It's almost as if you can hear God say to all those ancient Baalists: "You had the right notion of divine glory-- you just ascribed it to the wrong god. There is a voice that subdues chaos and gives life-- only it's mine, and most assuredly not Baal's."

And I wonder what it would look like if Christians were as daring in their apologetic strategy as this Psalmist. What if we looked for broken witnesses to the One True God buried in the language and imagery of the culture around us? What if-- like Psalmist #29-- we pointed these out, saying to our neighbours: "You had the right notion of divine glory-- or divine love-- or divine Spirit-- you just ascribed it to the wrong god."

If we could, we just might hear the same voice of the Lord that the Psalmist heard, rumbling like looming thunder on the distant horizon of his culture.

In the Logic of the Heart

In math, a surd is an irrational number (the root of an integer), or an unresolved mathematical expression. In linguistics a surd is a voiceless consonant. I like this word, "surd"; it has a ring to it that's almost as obscure as the numerical and phonetic concepts it signifies. I didn't come across it first in a math or linguistics textbook, however, but a theological one. Theologian Donald Bloesch uses it when he describes the impulse in a certain kind of rationalistic theology that tries to overcome all ambiguities in our experience and knowledge of God, because we just can't tolerate a "surd in human existence."

Something like that.

And something about how the biblical theologian needs to learn to accept unresolvable paradox.

I wrote a song called "Surd" a couple of years ago when I was struggling with a lot of irrational, unresolvable and inexpressible questions of my own about God and faith and ministry. At the time it was a really important heart cry for me; helped me figure out what it meant to accept unresolvable paradox in my life with God. Thought I'd share it here. Speaking of paradox: the guitar part was inspired loosely by The Clash's "London Calling," so you can think of it as a bit of Donald Bloesch meets The Clash.



Surd, in the logic of my heart,
No rhyme or reason help me please I don't know where to start
It's absurd that I don't know who I am
I fear to face the mirror see the child in the man

And I would give you my everything,
if I knew what my everything was
I'm sitting here with my dreams on a string
My heart was not for sale but it got rented for a while
And now I have to use my smile to hide my broken wings

Surd, in the silence of the night
I'm lying in the darkness and I'm trying to get it right
It's that word that you whisper in my ear
I miss it when I listen could you teach me how to hear

And I would give you my everything,
if I knew what my everything was
I'm sitting here with my dreams on a string
My heart was not for sale but it got rented for a while
And now I have to use my smile to hide my broken wings

Picturing the Footstool of Christ

A couple of summers ago we visited the Montana State University Museum in Bozeman, Montana. They were hosting a touring exhibit of the treasures of Pharaoh Tutankhamen's tomb, with full-scale reproductions made by Egyptian craftsmen, accurate down to the finest detail.

And here 's where I stopped dead in my tracks: the footstool of King Tut's throne is decorated with stylized illustrations of his defeated enemies. Whenever King Tut sat in state, his court-- and indeed the whole world-- glimpsed this potent reminder that he had literally subdued the enemies of Egypt under his feet.



His sandals add imperialistic insult to political injury: the insoles are decorated with images of Semitic and North African prisoners of war. King Tut couldn't take a step without reminding himself and his empire that Egypt had truly tread down her enemies.

I stood there transfixed for a moment. Ringing in my mind's ear were the words of King David's messianic oracle: "The Lord (Yahweh) says to my Lord (Adonai), sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool."
In the ancient world, it seems, this was more than just a throw-away line of poetic imagery. In the ancient world, apparently, you really did make your enemies your footstool, literally and symbolically.

I wondered about King David, and what they might have drawn on his sandals. Philistine mockers? Assyrian barbarians? Babylonian idolaters? The Lord (Adonai), this oracle says so confidently, will strike through kings and judge the nations. And the Lord himself (Yahweh) will draw the illustrations for the Messiah's footstool.

But then, still transfixed, I wondered about Jesus. What pictures would we see on his sandals? What illustrations adorn the footstool of his throne?

"Death. The fear of death. The Devil," says the author to the Hebrews, the teacher of the early Church whose midrash of this entire Psalm points us inexorably to Jesus. These have always been the enemies of God's people, he says. And this is why Jesus took on flesh and blood in the first place: "so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death-- that is, the devil." St. John agrees: we'd see a representation of sin-- the works of the devil. After all, this is why the Son of Man appeared: "to destroy the work of the devil."

St. Paul would agree, too. Only, he'd add, we'd also see a picture of those idolatrous systems of human power that so dehumanize us, making people into things. Because in the cross of his Christ, he says, God disarmed the powers and authorities of this world, leading them captive in his victory parade. With typically Christian irony, Paul might say that on the sandals of God's Christ, we'd actually see a picture of an emperor's sandal all decorated with pictures of the empire's defeated enemies. Imperialistic power itself is one of the enemies of God's Anointed Emperor.

The Devil. Sin. Empire. The fear of Death. Death itself.

With every step of his nail-scarred feet, Jesus reminds us again that he has really tread down these enemies. And he invites us to walk, free and transformed, in the path of those footsteps.

Jesus and the Long Now

An organization called the "Long Now Foundation" is planning to build a mechanical clock that will keep time for the next 10,000 years. They call it "The Clock of the Long Now." The goal of the project is to inspire long-term thinking in a world where our whole sense of time is organized around increasingly ephemeral time-spans. I have trouble imagining the next ten years (sometimes 10 minutes is a stretch): this clock ticks once a year, with a "century hand" that advances every hundred years and a cuckoo that comes out every millenium.

Prototypes of the clock are now running in museums in London and San Fransisco, but the actual clock will be housed in a cave on top of Mt. Washington, Nevada, a region that is home, incidentally, to some 5000-year-old bristlecone pines (nature's-own Long Now Clocks).

You can click here to listen to Steward Brand talk about the search for a home for the Clock of the Long Now.

The whole aim of the Long Now Foundation is to promote slower thinking-- thinking on a scale of 10,000 years-- thinking about the long-range impact of our actions -- in contrast to the faster/cheaper/disposable/expedient mentality that has wreaked so much havoc on our environment, our cultures, our planet.

Treebeard, I think, would love these guys.

But I have to confess, when I first heard about the Clock of the Long Now, my cynicism reflex twitched involuntarily for just a moment: Yeah, right... who's gonna be around 10,000 years from now to hear that final chime?

And then it hit me, a crashing wave of conviction with an undertow of repentance, dragging my heart out into a sea of deeper faith: as a Christian, I confess Jesus Christ, coming again to judge the living and the dead. I'm the subject of a once, now and future king. And if anyone has reason for long-range thinking, I should. Because whenever Christians confess his coming to judge the living and the dead, in that very act we confess also our expectation that there will be still be some "living" around when he arrives.

Ten thousand years from now, either Christ will have returned, or we'll still be here proclaiming his death until he comes. And because we'll still be marrying and giving in marriage until the end-- and because no one knows the hour or the day-- and because a day is like a thousand years to the Lord-- because of all this, the Christian life has a future orientation that should make long-range thinking second nature to us.

In fact, the paradox of the term "the long now" itself seems to capture something about the whole Christian posture towards time: in expecting his return instantly but being prepared to wait ten thousand years, Christians are indeed living in the "long now." And whether it's tomorrow or ten millennia from now, our hope that Christ will return at last to reclaim this labouring world should inspire us to think deeply about the long-range impact of our ethical, environmental or cultural decisions in and on behalf of his world, even as we wait for him to come quickly.

On Kafka Dreams

Along with George Orwell (who gave us "Orwellian") and Cervantes (who gave us "quixotic"), Franz Kafka is one of those few writers of world literature whose work has become its own adjective. According to my dictionary, to call something "Kafkaesque" is to claim that it is "impenetrably oppressive, nightmarish." Just like a good Kafka story.

If you've never read a good Kafka story, I'd suggest starting with Metamorphosis. A good follow-up would be In the Penal Colony. And for the less-faint-of-heart, The Trial. His stories all deal with these perplexed characters who are haunted by some vague, oppressive guilt that they can never get to the bottom of, and every attempt to expiate it only unravels into more bizarre experiences of guilt. A man wakes up inexplicably transformed into a giant insect; a man opens a closet door and finds himself stepping into a macabre courtroom where he is inexplicably on trial; a man commits suicide in a torture machine that etches his inexplicable crime into his back. And no one will ever say why.

There's a scene in Calvin and Hobbes where Calvin insists that his mom give Hobbes a good night kiss, after which Hobbes claims: "If you don't get a good night kiss, you get Kafka dreams."



I get Kafka dreams once in a while. Even with my good night kiss.

A friend at seminary was doing his thesis on G. K. Chesterton's The Man who was Thursday, and his research led him to Kafka at one point. We had a few good conversations about the existential guilt in Kafka's work. Later I was thinking about this comic strip, and my friend's thesis, and guilt and shame and other Kafkaesque things. Eventually my thoughts stumbled into a piano tune I was working on and I wrote this song, "Kafka Dreams."



I wonder if Christians-- and especially those who grew up comfortably in the Faith-- shouldn't read a bit of Kafka once in a while. That acrid taste of guilt just might sharpen our thirst for the promise of atonement and reconcilliation that God offers us in the person of Jesus Christ.

A Case in Point...

With the words of my last post still ringing in my ears, my son and I sat down to enjoy an episode of the Debaters this afternoon. My bowdlerization-trigger-finger twitched for just a moment with the impulse to turn it off when I heard the topic: "Monotheism vs. Polytheism. If one god is good... are many gods better?"

My son looked at me. "Should we listen to this one, Dad?"

But we've talked a bit lately about Christian attitudes towards humor, and I wanted to model the kind of cultural mapping I was describing a post ago, so I said, "Well, let's listen to the kind of jokes they make, and talk about them after."

And here's specifically what we talked about after: listen to the argument that comedian Ron Sparks makes here in favor of monotheism. What struck me is that-- tongue-in-cheekisms and comedic bathos aside-- this is almost exactly the same argument that St. Augustine made against Roman paganism some 1600 years ago in his monumental work City of God: If the pagan deities are such supreme beings, why does there have to be so many of them to keep the universe running?

It's not quite as funny (or succinct), but here's how Augustine put it (Book IV, Chapter 8):

But how is it possible to recount in one part of this book all the names of gods or goddesses, which they could scarcely comprise in great volumes, distributing among these divinities their peculiar offices about single things? They have not even thought that the charge of their lands should be committed to any one god: but they have entrusted their farms to Rusina; the ridges of the mountains to Jugatinus; over the downs they have set the goddess Collatina; over the valleys, Vallonia. Nor could they even find one Segetia so competent, that they could commend to her care all their grain crops at once; but so long as their seed-grain was still under the ground, they would have the goddess Seia set over it; then, whenever it was above ground and formed straw, they set over it the goddess Segetia; and when the grain was collected and stored, they set over it the goddess Tutilina, that it might be kept safe. Who would not have thought that goddess Segetia sufficient to take care of the standing grain until it had passed from the first green blades to the dry ears? Yet she was not enough for men, who loved a multitude of gods, that the miserable soul, despising the chaste embrace of the one true God, should be prostituted to a crowd of demons. Therefore they set Proserpina over the germinating seeds; over the joints and knots of the stems, the god Nodotus; over the sheaths enfolding the ears, the goddess Voluntina; when the sheaths opened that the spike might shoot forth, it was ascribed to the goddess Patelana; when the stems stood all equal with new ears, because the ancients described this equalizing by the term hostire, it was ascribed to the goddess Hostilina; when the grain was in flower, it was dedicated to the goddess Flora; when full of milk, to the god Lacturnus; when maturing, to the goddess Matuta; when the crop was runcated,— that is, removed from the soil—to the goddess Runcina. Nor do I yet recount them all, for I am sick of all this, though it gives them no shame. Only, I have said these very few things, in order that it may be understood they dare by no means say that the Roman empire has been established, increased, and preserved by their deities, who had all their own functions assigned to them in such a way, that no general oversight was entrusted to any one of them.
A comedian making jokes about monotheism on national, secular radio stumbles onto an argument that one of the greatest theologians of Church history marshaled in defense of the one true God against the pagans. The audience laughs. Ron wins the debate. And I'm trying to trace one more route to a spiritual point of contact on my map of Canadian culture.

Top Ten Reasons I Listen to CBC Radio

Looking back over the last few months of blogging, I've noticed that a fair number of my posts have been inspired by something heard on CBC radio. I'm not religious about it or anything, but I do try to catch a bit of CBC each day (usually on the drive to-and-from work), and often a thought provoking interview or insightful documentary will inspire me to reflect on God, life, faith, love, words or spirituality.

I was thinking about this the other day, CBC Radio sowing the seeds of blog posts in my brain and all, and I thought I'd put together my list of the top ten reasons I listen to the CBC.

10. Quirks and Quarks (Saturdays 12:06 pm). Bob McDonald takes the most esoteric of science and makes it feel like an old buddy from elementary school. Often makes me think about how deep a role science plays in the modern act of myth-making.

9. Tapestry (Sunday 2:05 pm). This weekly "exploration of spirituality, religion and the search for meaning" assures me that Canadians are "seeking" a lot more than they let on. They're just not seeking the way the mega-church-shopping seekers that Willow Creek has sensitized us to are seeking. This program challenges me to think carefully about how Canadians in particular are seeking, and how the church might meet them in that search with the life-changing story of Jesus.

8. Talking Books. Sadly this program is no longer on the air, but I loved listening to Ian Brown's book talks. Sometimes the guests he had sounded a bit pompous, but I think that was part of the charm: they always seemed exactly like I'd expect a book club to sound. You could almost feel the itch of the cardigan or smell the orange pekoe cooling in the cup as they ranted or raved.

7. The "9.30 in Newfoundland" thing. I love this constant reminder that Canadians are citizens of a huge country. Huge. Bigger than Vancouver. Bigger than Calgary. Bigger than Toronto. So big it needs an extra half a time zone. There're people scattered all over this land mass, and there's something kinda Canadian in not wanting to offend anyone by leaving any of them out.

6. Ideas (Wednesdays at 9:05 pm). Billed as the program that "explores social issues, culture and the arts, geopolitics, history, biography, science and technology and the humanities," any time I've listened it's actually delivered pretty well on this long list of disciplines. If there are still Renaissance men (or women) alive in Canada, I know what they're doing Wednesday nights at 9.

5. The Debaters (Saturdays 11:30 am). There is something quintessentially Canadian in this show: take some legitimate political, social or cultural issue and have comedians debate it with an irreverent combination of "fact and funny." Not only does it showcase what's best about Canadian humor, but it often unmasks pretty deep issues so that we can look at their foibles in new light. And it's really funny.

4. The Vinyl Cafe (Sundays 12:05 pm). Love Stuart Mclean's stories. So does my son. Often we catch them just as we're coming home from church, and he'll sit in the car in our driveway listening intently if we get home before the story's done. This program gives me hope that Canadians will still listen patiently, delightedly and enthralled to the spoken word-- even the orally-read written word-- if those words are arranged with care, love, wisdom and wit.

3. The Age of Persuasion (Thursdays 3:30pm). Anyone who lives in a world bombarded by advertising media should catch this program once in a while to get a brief, engaging glimpse at the inner clockworks of that world. There're cogs in there you never knew existed. And Terry O'Reilly is pretty good at explaining them as he explores "the countless ways marketers permeate your life, from media, art and language, to politics, religion and fashion."

2. Jian Ghomeshi (on Q). I think Jian Ghomeshi is one of the most gracious hosts on the air today. And I make this claim especially because I have no way of quantifying it. But anyone who could handle this interview with as much poise as he did is at least in the running for the Most Gracious Host Award. Listening to him makes me think all over again about the importance of insightful, well-timed questions and thoughtful, active listening.

1. Lessons in Loving the Culture Christ Died For. In his book, The Twenty-First Century Pastor, David Fisher says that learning to love our culture with the redemptive love of a Christ-follower is vital to genuine Christian ministry. He writes, "Cultural adaptation and respect has far more to do with effective pastoral ministry than many people want to admit. We need to become experts at reading and understanding [our] cultural maps." The questions I hear being asked on CBC Radio, and the answers I hear being offered, help me draw the kind of "cultural map" Fisher's talking about here. And Christians really need this kind of a map. We need sources for doing the cartography. Because, as Fisher says in a more convicting passage later on: "Christ's church and its pastoral leaders need to follow Jesus down that hill [from which he wept over Jerusalem] towards our address. A culture-bashing Christianity does not serve well the Christ who went to a cross to die for his enemies, even the enemies of our church." As mixed up and confused as some of the stuff I hear on CBC is, it always reminds me that this is the culture that Christ died to redeem, and this is the culture that he has called me to do ministry in.

It's for the Birds


Just a little follow-up from my last post. Here's the traditional icon for the baptism of Jesus. Notice how the little fish are swimming up just to touch His feet, just to play in the presence of the One who is their Saviour, too.


And here's a fantastic stained glass detail of St. Francis preaching the gospel to the birds. I love how rapt and intent they all look.

You see: we haven't always pretended that the Gospel was only about the rescue of our own individual, non-corporeal souls from the flames. In some corners of Christendom, on some branches of our family tree, we've tried to take Paul seriously when he said it was a message of hope preached to all the creation under heaven (Col 1:23).

Clean Hands, Dirty Jordan

Apparently by the time the Jordan River reaches the Dead Sea these days--what with the nation of Israel diverting 60% of her flow, and the nation of Jordan allowing septic tanks to seep crap into her water basin, and the nation of Syria maintaining some 40 dams on her major tributary--by then there's little left but a putrid trickle of raw sewage.

Miles up stream, spiritual tourists still come to be baptized gloriously on the same banks where Jesus himself once fulfilled all righteousness; down stream, here, today, you couldn't enter the water without serious health risks.

Not that anyone would want to.

The stench, they say, is nauseating.

I get that this crisis is shrouded with all sorts of political and social issues that defy a quick fix. Like a serious water shortage in the nation of Jordan. Like decades of political strife that have prevented these nations from cooperating on a solution. Like climate change, and economics, and a rapidly collapsing water table across the Middle East.

I get all that. And this morning, to be honest, I had a warmer, longer, more luxurious shower than I needed to. So who am I to blog?

But still, seeing the Jordan river pillaged and polluted like this should pierce us to the heart. Because some two millennia ago, the people of Judea came out to this river when they heard John's voice crying in the wilderness: "The promises of Isaiah 40 are now being fulfilled!" This is where they were drenched with the same water that Israel miraculously crossed when the nation first entered the land under Joshua. Here they enacted the burning cry of their hearts: "We want to be made new as the people of God."

And this is the river where we caught our first glimpse of the one in whom and through whom God would fulfill all the Messianic promises of Isaiah 40. Here we first saw the Beloved Son on whom the Spirit rests, who would provide comfort for the harried exiles, renewal of the covenant people, straight paths for the Creator's reign over his creation.

But if we read Isaiah to the end, we see that when the Messiah reigns in righteousness over his people, it will mean restoration and healing for the hurting creation. The desert will burst into fecund, verdant, joyous life. Isaiah 41-- the same Isaiah 41 that Jesus' baptism was somehow meant to fulfill--Isaiah 41 says it like this: "I will make the rivers flow on barren heights... I will turn the desert into pools of water."

Somewhere, I think, Christians forgot that when we saw Jesus emerge dripping from the Jordan, we were witnessing good news not just for us, but for the whole of the broken creation.

And we need to remember. Because the tragedy of this dying river is being played out all over the planet right now, as our greed, waste, materialism and idolatries continue to pillage the rivers and lakes and wetlands of our world. (After it's quenched Las Vegas' decadent water fountains and California's thirsty vegetable gardens, the Colorado River doesn't even make it to the Gulf of California anymore.)

May the stench of the dirty Jordan teach us to long once again for that promised day when God will restore all things under the reign of his Christ; but may it also convict us that our life together as the baptized people of the Creator can and should translate into healing shalom for his creation today, even as we hope for his future Coming.

Asked the Anti-Theist...

Listening to the radio last night I heard an interview with this guy who had written a book explaining why he despised religion and felt he needed to confront religious people with the dangerous error of their ways. He described himself not as an "a-theist" (one who simply can't find any compelling reasons to believe in God), but as an "anti-theist" (one who believes that the more people disillusioned of their faith in God, the better).

His anti-god polemic is part of a new movement of "loud atheism" which is quite vitriolic in its attacks against faith. The book's sandwiched somewhere between Richard Dawkin's The God Delusion and anti-God ad campaigns on city buses.

When the interview started, I really expected to find my spiritual hackles raised and my intellectual defenses battered. By the end, however, I felt like I just wanted to play an Apologetic Buzz Lightyear to his Atheist Sheriff Woody in that scene under the car in the original Toy Story.

Remember that line? "You are a sad, strange little man. You have my pity. Farewell."

Apparently this guy is one of the greatest philosophical minds of our time or some such accolade; but really, the whole thing just seemed so confused and pompous and spiteful that it was hard to take it seriously. Towards the end, the interviewer asked him what in his own view, lacking religious faith and all, it meant to live a good life. I don't doubt his tongue was buried in his cheek as he answered, but even then, the vision he offered was so sterile that you could almost hear the wind whistling through its desert hoo-doos as he spoke: irony, laughing at the misfortunes of others, literature, winning arguments with stupid people and forcing them to concede you're right, and passing on your genes through procreation.

Seriously. Those were his five pillars of wisdom.

But at one point he said that the lynch pin of his argument-- the question that no one has been able to answer in any of his debates-- the question that deep-sixes faith every time, is this: what's one moral thing that faith "makes" people do that they would never do without faith? (He said that there were none, but there's all sorts of bad stuff religious people do that non-religious people would never do. And when the interviewer tried to name some good things religious people have done, he dismissed them all: Mother Theresa didn't do that because she was religious, she did it because she was Mother Theresa. It seemed to me like he wasn't playing fair: when a religious person does something bad, you say it's because they're religious, but when they do something good, you won't let them attribute it at all to their religion...)

And I'm still trying to figure out why this question is such a big deal for the anti-theist argument, anyways. At best all it can prove is that religious faith is morally unnecessary; it doesn't prove it's untrue. But it's not the first time I've heard it. A friend of mine just moderated a long blog conversation along the same lines (you can read it here if you're interested). There the specific question was: "What is Jesus doing within the church that isn't happening elsewhere in society?"

And when I hear these kind of questions, the answer is so obvious that it stands out like a "Preach it Brother!" in a Presbyterian Church. The one moral thing that a person of faith does that a person would/could never do without faith is: worship God.

What Jesus is doing in the church that isn't happening anywhere else in society is: receiving our worship in Spirit and Truth and offering it on our behalf to the Father.

Of course, I don't expect an anti-theist to acknowledge worship as a moral act anyways, so here we may have to part ways. But it is a moral act. For the Christian, I think, worship--worship defined biblically mind you, not "Vineyard-ically" -- genuine worship is the most profound of moral acts. It's that act of the will and the heart and the body in which we find ourselves rightly aligned with the Creator and genuine participators in his creative shalom in the world.

It's the moral act that only Jesus makes possible; and it's the moral act that no anti-theist could ever commit.

The Leveling of St Paul

In 1835, the French political thinker Alex de Tocqueville published Democracy in America, his famous study of the United States. One of the intriguing observations he made about American democracy was that the same cultural values that promoted equality also ensured a kind of "middling mediocrity"-- a gravitational pull culturally towards the lowest common denominator that made it impossible for great people to be great. At its worst, he argued, democracy can devolve into a "tyranny of the majority," where society actively limits the talents of any who challenge it with greatness, trading true freedom for a kind of leveled out mediocrity because it cannot abide anything that threatens its equality.

Okay: I don't know that Alex de Tocqueville was right. And even if he was, I'm pretty sure that, this side of the Second Coming, I'd choose democratic equality over any of the alternatives that we've seen in human history.

But I was thinking about de Tocqueville the other day because I was working on a sermon, and I went to say something about "Saint Paul." Then I checked myself and changed it to plain old "Paul"-- reflected again-- made it the "Apostle Paul"-- then finally settled again on "Saint Paul."

But not without a bit of uncertainty.

You see, when I was growing up in church, you never said "Saint Paul." Or St. Luke, or St. Mark, or St. Mary. There was nothing tyrannical in this, you just never did it. And somehow, you knew you never did it. I have a few theories about why this was, but my main one is this: One of the central tenets of our theology is its conviction that we are all equal before God-- all equally have sinned and fallen short of his glory. And since calling some people "Saint" and others not might confuse this equality, we didn't do it. Paul was a sinner in as much need of God's grace as any of us, so let's not risk forgetting that by calling him Saint Paul.

But when I stared at that uncertain "Saint Paul" on my sermon page, I started wondering if we didn't risk a kind of "middling mediocrity" in our spiritual vision when we refused to call a saint a Saint. Because really, equal sinners though they were, God called and commissioned Paul in a way he didn't call or commission any of us-- and he spoke through Luke or Mark or John in a way he hasn't spoken through any of us-- and He chose Mary to be something that no other human being in the history of the planet has ever been: the mother of God Incarnate. In being so used by him for his great purposes, each of these really did discover themselves "set apart" in the very way that word "saint" signifies.

And if we acknowledge this, we have a real opportunity to rejoice in the free, unfettered grace of God, grace that can raise up the common, the lowly, the chief of sinners according to his will, and lavish an unmerited glory on them by using them uniquely in his great plan to show the world how good he is.

Thomas Howard puts it like this:

The more glorious the king, the more glorious are the titles and honours he bestows. The plumes, cockades, coronets, diadems, mantles and rosettes that deck his retinue testify to one thing alone, his own majesty and munificence. He is a very great king to have figures of such immense dignity in his train, or even better, to have raised them to such dignity. These great lords and ladies, mantled and crowned with ... honour and rank are, precisely, his vassals. This glittering array is his court!

Now I'm not suggesting here that we return to the Catholic system of canonization. Just this: if we can find the spiritual generosity to celebrate the many-layered splendor of this court of Saints, without keeping an eye on how high or low or equal our own place in it might be, then we will find ourselves truly free to worship the glorious King whose splendor it reflects.