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

Here Comes the Groom

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

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

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

Psalm 45: Here Comes the Groom

The Art of Waiting

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

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

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

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

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

The Unsung Songs in Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is lament, not love-song.

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

Fishing for Leviathan

Sunday's sermon.

Job 41:1-11: Fishing for Leviathan

The Audiology of the Heart

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

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

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

Have you noticed that?

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

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

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

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

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

And that's a spiritual way to be.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seven, Seven, Seven, Seven

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

Dead Poets, Live Ritual

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Paradessence of the Gospel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Already People of the Not Yet

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

"The Already People of the Not Yet"

Me 2?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Kingdom (Part 4)

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

The King of the Upsidedown Kingdom