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

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.

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.


Jon Coutts said...

"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."


I was just commenting on someone else's blog that it was the shining lights of tradition that kept me in the church and which God uses to give me life to stay in it, even to love it. There is life in those creeds and prayers. Even in these films and poems! (A refracted light, but light nonetheless. Barth called them "other lights").

Anyway, glad you got around to the ritual again this year. I was pleased to have been part of it a couple years ago, and have actually made it my own since as well.

You need to do this stuff, especially as a pastor. Some "you" time or the tank runs dry.

Jon Coutts said...

sorry, barth called them "little lights" (and "other words"). small point but i thought i should correct myself. (its an amazing passage actually, in CD IV.3.1)