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.

With Words Like Crystal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I Know what I Like

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Centurion

for Matthew 8:5-13

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

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

But so, so unlike him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lord.

And there you teach me my story.

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

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

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

Rolling Rivers of Real Worship

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

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


Amos 5:18-27
Rolling Rivers of Real Worship

Top Ten Classes Revisited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building for the Blessing of Babylon

Here's last Sunday's sermon.

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

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

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

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

Ah, Youth

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


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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After Forty Days

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

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

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

The Seventh First Time

About 6 years ago I watched a big yellow monster swallow my 5-year-old son, duotang-stuffed backpack and all, and lumber off with him down the highway for the first time.

My 3-year-old daughter wailed in my arms as we tried to get her to wave good-bye (to this day we've never been able to figure out if she was crying because he was leaving, or because she wasn't).

My eyes misted with pride and loss and brine as I drove to work that morning.

He didn't even look back as he climbed the steps of the bus.

I was thinking about all this yesterday as my children shared their first-day-of-school stories at the dinner table. Stories of another first day, when yet again we let the big yellow monsters of this world swallow our children, in the hopes that they'll spit them back on the curb at the end of the day, older and wiser and refined for Christian life in a secular world.

These are among the hardest moments of parenting.

But the Psalmist claims that children are like arrows in the hand of a warrior-- and that when our quiver is full of them we can stand before the enemy in the gate with perfect confidence. And it makes me think: as hard as they are, perhaps these moments when we watch our children step out again for the first time-- first day of school-- first day on the job-- first day as a newly-wed-- first time holding a child of their own-- in all these firsts, perhaps we're actually watching them be sharpened for that day when we stand up for truth and justice in the gate.

As arrows in our quiver, may God make our childrens' hearts keen-edged; may he make them fly true; and may he speed them home.

A Tale of Two Towers (September 6)

I've had a few people ask about having my sermons available online. At some point we expect to provide this through our church website, but that's still a little ways away. Until then, I thought a simple approach would be just to post them here. Simple, and if it happens to prompt comments and/or further dialogue over the Good Book, all the better.

Here's last Sunday's sermon (click play below):


Genesis 11:1-9 A Tale of Two Towers

Updates update

No deep thoughts today. I was feeling that my blog was starting to look a little ho-hum, so last night I spent my blogging time tinkering with the clock-works, sweeping out the corners, polishing the furniture and generally spiffing the place up.

Here's a little techie update:

  • New widgets. As you can tell from the sidebar, I got a little widget happy last night. Now instead of just reading about what I'm reading, hearing, watching in the wide world of media these days, you can enjoy a widget-guided tour. Gotta love that LibraryThing.
  • New posting parameters. I discovered that for a long time I had my comments settings set so that only blogger account-holders could post a comment. My bad. If you've tried to post something on terra incognita in the past and got turned down, let me now profusely apologize. I've corrected this and would like to take this opportunity to invite any and all readers to post a comment as they feel so led.
  • New blogs on the blog roll. I've updated my blog roll. Most of these are blogs of friends and instructors of mine from Briercrest. I'd encourage you to check them out.
  • Soon-to-be-new media hosting. Since leaving Saskatchewan, I haven't yet found a new web-host for my media files. Until I do, some of the music files in back-issues of terra incognita will be offline. Please bear with this inconvenience as we grow to serve you better.