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.

A Christmas Sermon

John 1:14: "One of Us?"

Chrismas Eve Children's Homily

We're home now from a really uplifting Christmas Eve service at the FreeWay, where I had the honor of giving the children's sermon. Because terra incognita will probably be on pause until the new year, I thought I'd post my notes from the talk I gave, to give you something to read between now and then. We'd invited children to come dressed in their PJs, and had a bunch of big old pillows for them to sit on at the front during the service, so as you read, try to imagine me sitting on the floor with about fifteen or so children, all in their PJs and humming with all the excitement of Christmas eve.


Talk to you-- or blog to you (with you? at you?) in the New Year.

Luke 2:10: A Message from Heaven

Can I tell you about a time me and my family went to Disney World? While we were all standing in line to get some pizza, I happened to look up in the sky, and I saw this sort of thin looking cloud that looked like a long, white pencil stroke.

And as I watched it for a minute, I realized that in a way, it sort of was a big white pencil stroke. Because it was an airplane with a stream of cloud coming off behind it, and this airplane was flying all zig-zaggy so that the cloud would spell out letters in the sky. And while I watched, it formed a big “J” and then an “E” and then an “S” (it was a long line up to get pizza).

Anyone want to guess what the plane was spelling? [take responses] It was spelling: Jesus Loves You.

We were in Disney World, of course, so I don’t know who else noticed the writing in the sky that day, but that pilot sure wanted the world to know that Jesus loves us. But I’m wondering: if an angel from heaven were to write a message in the sky tonight, what do you think he (or she) would write? [Take responses.]

Those are all good ideas, but I think his message would be: “Don’t be afraid.” Do you know why? Because just about every angel that ever speaks in the Bible starts by saying: “Don’t be afraid.”

Like: there’s a story about a servant girl called Hagar, who was forced to have her master’s baby, but then, when the baby’s born, the master’s wife (who was the one who forced her to have the baby in the first place) she got so mad that she sent her out into the desert to die. And when she’s out there all alone, an angel comes to her. And the very first thing the angel says is: “Don’t be afraid, Hagar.”

And there’s another story about a prophet called Daniel, who’s been having nightmares about the future. Well, they’re so terrifying that he starts to pray really hard for God to help him, and after three weeks of this, an angel finally comes to him and the first thing the angel says is: “Don’t be afraid, Daniel.”

And of course, it’s Christmas Eve, right? And there’re lots of angels in the Christmas stories, aren’t there? But if you read closely you’ll see that every one of them, before they say anything else, they say, “Don’t be afraid.”

Like, there was this priest named Zechariah, and an angel met him in the temple to tell him that he was going to have a son called John the Baptist. But when Zechariah saw the angel he was so scared he could hardly speak, so the angel said: “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah.”

And then there was this humble maiden called Mary, and when an angel came to tell her that she was going to be the mother of Jesus, the very first thing he said was: “Don’t be afraid, Mary.”

And when Mary’s fiancé Joseph found out that she had a little baby growing inside her, but he wasn’t the Daddy, he thought: If I marry her now, I’ll bring shame on my whole family, but if I don’t marry her, I’ll bring shame on her... what should I do? But then an angel came to him in a dream and said: “Don’t be afraid, Joseph.”

And then, on the night when Jesus was born, the Bible says there were shepherds guarding their sheep out in the fields at night, and the angel of the Lord appeared to them, and it says: suddenly the brilliant light of God’s pure holiness and his perfect love was burning all around them—so bright that it stung their eyes, and they had to hide their faces from it—and they fell on their knees totally, and completely undone.

And anyone want to guess what the angel said?

“Don’t be afraid.”

The angel said, “I have a message straight from heaven tonight. You don’t have to be afraid. Because tonight a savior is born, and now, in him, God’s making peace with his world.”

So, I think that if an angel from heaven were going to write a message in the sky tonight, it would be: “Don’t be afraid."

But I wonder why? Why do you think angels keep telling us folk here on earth not to be afraid?

I think part of it has to do with the fact that... well there’s something about God—the real, true, living God?—there’s something about him that can be kind of scary to us. Like those shepherds, falling on their faces when the glory of the Lord shone round about them? I mean: when they saw how pure and holy God was, they were afraid, because they looked kinda shabby next to that—and when they felt how perfectly and completely God loved—they were afraid—because they looked kinda small and selfish next to that—and when they heard how beautiful heavenly worship sounded—they were afraid—because they thought, if we were to sing along, it would sound like nails on a chalkboard next to that.

But the very first thing God says to them, through his angel, is: “Don’t be afraid.”

And what he means is: “Don’t be afraid of me.

“Because I love you. And the thing is—anything between you and me that might have made it scary for you to be in my presence—well I love you way too much for that to stand between us. I don’t want you to feel like you’re being called to the principal’s office every time I speak your name. That’s not love. So I’ve come to you in Jesus to make peace—and in Jesus, I’m going change whatever might have made me scary to you—your shabbiness or your selfishness or your brokenness—I’m going to replace that with my holiness, and my goodness, and my love. So you don’t have to be afraid of me, anymore.

But there’s more to it than that. Because, well, life with God can feel kinda scary sometimes, but you know what’s even more scary: life without God. I mean, sometimes people feel like they’re all alone in the whole wide world and no one knows what it’s like to be them. And that can be a scary feeling. And sometimes people think about the future and they have no clue whatsoever if things are going to turn out okay. And that’s scary. And sometimes people feel like everyone’s turned their back on them and no one loves them.

And that’s really scary.

So that night, when God’s angels started writing God’s message in the sky, the first thing they said was: “Don’t be afraid. You’re not alone in the dark.

Because tonight, this very night, God himself has come into the world as a little human baby, to show you: God himself is with you in the whole wide world; God himself knows what it’s like to be you; God himself will turn things out okay in the end; God himself loves you.

So don’t be afraid. And that’s good news.

It may be tonight, on Christmas Eve and all, you’re not feeling too afraid. Or maybe you are. I don’t know. But I know that this is God’s message for to you tonight: “Don’t be afraid. Because in Jesus I am making peace between heaven and earth at last.” And like one of the writers in the Bible says it in a different place: “If God is for us, who can be against us.” Or, tonight, let’s it like this: “if the Most High God in Heaven has showed us tonight he loves us perfectly in Jesus Christ—well what is there left to be afraid of?”

Heart of God: A Song for Christmas Eve

I didn't have Christmas in mind specifically when I set this poem to music, but today the words seem particularly suited to a Christmas Eve vigil. The text comes almost directly from this Vachel Lindsay poem. Happy Christmas, everyone.


Heart of God

All is Bright: A Christmas Story

“And the light shone in the darkness, but the darkness did not receive it.”

How it could possibly have come down to this was still beyond Nathan’s ability to explain. He swore every year that things would be different. Swore that he’d do it right next year, start sooner, plan better.

He swore. Literally, he swore, as an on-coming car jerked in front of him and lurched into the parking spot that he’d been aiming for. As he rolled past the holiday motorist who’d just stolen that prime piece of real estate out from under his nose, he muttered ominously under his breath about decking somebody’s halls.

Looking in vain for a new place to park that was still within trekking distance to the Wal Mart entrance, he came to rest at last at the furthest corner of the parking lot. Flinging his scarf over his shoulder with all the bravado of a WW I pilot, he stepped out into the blinding blizzard.

It would have been lovely, really—haloes of coloured Christmas lights shimmering just barely through the thick white haze—lovely, if it weren’t December 24th.

It would have been breathtakingly beautiful—pure drifting sheets of silent snow—beautiful, if it weren’t 10:33 pm.

It would have been picturesque, even—if he wasn’t a last-minute Christmas shopper on his way to Wal-Mart, of all places on Christmas Eve; Wal-Mart, because they were now open until midnight on this Most Wonderful Night of the Year.

So he squinted into the blinding white wind, and swore: things would be different next year.

By the time he reached the doors, the blizzard had piled a good couple of centimetres on his shoulders—the dandruff of heaven, he might have mused, if his mission hadn’t cleared all whimsical sentiments from his heart and replaced them with one single clear purpose, burning like a Christmas candle in the window of his soul: must find the perfect gift. (At 10:42 pm, Christmas Eve).

He’d need some wrapping paper, too, he noted as he pushed his way through the bottle neck of beleaguered boyfriends, desperate Dads and harried husbands who, like himself, had left this one male shopping duty of the year to the last possible moment, and were now muttering ominously under their breath about showing them who’s naughty and who’s nice.

He stumbled past the happy-face badge on the chest of the sad-faced greeter at the door, and squinted at last in the florescent glare of the store. 10:51.

A robotic Santa Claus boomed a metallic “Ho. Ho. Ho.” at him, from a display of last minute Christmas decorations. The vaguely evil undertones of this animatronic belly laugh mingled with a vaguely threatening rendition of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” that poured from invisible speakers somewhere overhead. For just a moment the Christmas Candle in his soul flickered, and allowed him the briefest of whimsical thoughts: he remembered sitting in church with his buddy Eddie, during a Christmas Eve service they were ignoring as kids, and Eddie had showed him how you could rearrange the letters in the name Santa to spell the name “Satan”; he even wrote it out on the back of the bulletin while they both giggled under their breath.

Nathan squinted suspiciously at the Robotic Santa. “Ho. Ho. Ho.”

But then his mission was burning in him with full flame again, and he pushed past Santa on his way towards the perfume-trinkets-watches-jewelery-sunglasses-make-up-and-other-things-generally-feminine section of the store. Surely if the perfect gift existed, it lay-to-rest under those gleaming posters of radiant young women in jewellery or makeup, photos hung like so many summoning angels over the respective products they announced.

Nathan shuffled his way towards them.

Before he reached the place over which these posters shone, however, a frantic looking dad had knocked him sideways, on his eleventh-hour mission to get the last Liv Doll in the store. A man with a dull gleam in his eye jostled him to the right, pushing past him on his way to the pet supplies because, Nathan could only assume, because little Fido had asked for a box of liver Puppie-Yums for Christmas and they’d accidentally bought chicken.

But by this time, the jewellery section itself was but a faint legend from the distant past, like stories about frankincense and myrrh washing up on the shores of Christmases gone by, and he found himself standing instead in the electronics section, of all places, trying to convince himself that nothing said Merry Christmas like a spool of re-writable CDs made in China.

In the distance he could hear Robo-Santa laughing at him. The florescent light battered him mercilessly.

“You’d better watch out”

Maybe if he threw in a gift card for i-tunes?

“Ho. Ho. Ho.”

The two centimetres of snow had soaked through his coat now and had begun to trickle, like cold regret down his spine.

“You’d better not pout, I’m telling you why.”

The WW I flying-ace scarf slipped from his shoulders as they drooped. He turned to go.

And then: if Nathan’s life had a sound track, the sound of a record needle scratching abruptly on vinyl would have blurted out suddenly, strangling the Wal-Mart muzak to silence. The Ho. Ho. Ho. would have dullened to a slow, echoy, pulse, like an anxious heart. And choral music—the angelic humming of children, maybe, or silvery seraph song—would have begun softly, swelling into a single, throbbing: “Ahhh!” that drowned out everything else.

Because there it was: the perfect gift. She’d asked for it every day of the last 364—in one way or another—she’d been asking for it—maybe all her life. Not with words, of course—never in any audible speech—but with every gesture: that slight turn of her head when she said, “You know what I wish?” That faint droop at the corner of her mouth when she said: “You know what I hate?” That soft sigh that escaped her when she flumped in front of the TV after too-long and too-hard a day at work. That sort of mist in her eyes that she got when the sap was running a bit too thick on a re-run of Little House on the Prairie.

All of it—everything—all of it had really been about this. This gift... this perfect present... The Candle in his Soul burned with white hot light as he reached for it.

And then the lights went out.

The store plunged into instant darkness. A miraculous darkness, he would find later, because the blizzard that had piling snow on the power lines all day, knocked out Wal-Mart’s backup generator, just at the exact moment the wind finally brought down the power poles, and, with a sudden flash at the fuse box that stank worse than a Radio Shack on fire, it plunged the whole world of Wal-Mart into pitch and utter night.

Nathan stood there, frozen in darkness, his hand still reaching for that now invisible, perfect gift.

And in the dark, whimsical thoughts rushed at last through his mind: he saw visions of Pompeii caught in the ash of Vesuvius, frozen forever in the everyday act of living, buying, selling, giving in marriage until the bitter end. In the black distance, Robo-Santa’s laugh ground down to silence, and he thought of air escaping a long-discarded accordion.

“Ho.... ho.... o...”

For a surprisingly long moment nothing happened. The dark was so thick. And more miracles: no one cried out, no one shouted, no one said anything at all, for just a moment. You could hear them all, that hot press of humanity, still and silent, but close, in the dark. And no one dared to move.

And then somehow, more whimsical thoughts rushed at Nathan in that dark pause: he remembered snippets of those stories that he and Eddie had giggled their way through—stories about a little child who broke into the brilliant chaos of this world with a light that no one could see—and about some who could see it, but could barely recognize it as light, because it hurt their eyes.

He remembered vaguely about an old man up at the front who’d said something about how this child had come to upset the status quo... to turn things on their heads... to name our darkness for what it is.

And give us real light.

And he remembered lighting a candle, quite vividly, this, while a chorus of bashful and rusty singing voices lunged for the top note in Silent Night.

Holy Night.

All is Calm.

All is bright.

And his hand fell with heavenly peace, in the darkness, to his side.

Of course, because it was Wal-Mart, of all places, on Christmas Eve, someone in a back room somewhere fired up the back up, back up generator. Florescent light blared out over the store once more and the cogs of the machine started to move again.

But Nathan was already on his way towards the door. As he stumbled outside, into the haloes of coloured Christmas lights, that shimmered just barely through the thick white haze, he checked his watch: it was nearly midnight.

House of Bread: a Christmas poem

O little humble House of Bread
how still we see thee
rise--
where once they buried
long ago his father's father's father's
father's one true love,
whose ancient tears his coming will
unwittingly awake--
(Rachel, weeping, because her innocents are no more)


O little simple house of bread:
in whose heart of mystery
is born today
the Christ child's hidden presence:
stolen away by dreams and night
and brought back to us the same--
(that out of Egypt Rachel's innocents might find their way back home)


O little broken house of bread,
soaked that day, and now today,
in wine-red blood
(that she, at last, might find God's solace for her tears)--
at your table we discover it again:
the hopes and fears of all the years
are truly met in thee
tonight.

The Triumphal Entry and the "True Meaning" of Christmas.

A while ago I shared some observations on the connections in Luke's Gospel between the nativity narrative and the triumphal entry. Namely: when Jesus is born, angels sing peace on earth and glory in the highest; and later when Jesus rides triumphant into Jerusalem, the disciples echo this back, shouting peace in heaven and glory in the highest.

Luke's not the only one to draw parallels between Christ's birth and his Triumphant Entry. In Matthew's narrative, three magi enter Jerusalem asking about the one born "King of the Jews," and all Jerusalem (Herod included) is "disturbed" at the query (2:3). No wonder they trembled, inasmuch as "King of the Jews" is the exact title Rome had given Herod himself back in 40 BC. This child's birth is as direct a challenge to the powers that be as Jerusalem could imagine.

But, curiously, when Jesus rides his revolutionary donkey into Jerusalem, in open defiance of those powers that be, Matthew notes how all of Jerusalem was "shaken" at the sight (21:10). Like Luke, Matthew seems intent on having the nativity narrative echo hauntingly in the background of this momentous occasion: when he was born, he stirred up the city's complacency; when he rode, thirty three years later, through the gates as its rightful and perfect king, he shook that complacency to its foundations.

I call this curious because I know that if I were to point to an event that fulfilled the "meaning" of Christ's birth, I'd point intuitively and directly to the cross; and yet these inspired narrators of Jesus' story point, instead, and specifically, to the Triumphal Entry. And I can't help but wonder why (admitting, at the same time, that the Triumphal Entry only has meaning because of the way the cross and resurrection turned the very notion of "triumph" on its head).


But maybe Matthew's point here is that the "true meaning" of this child's birth, in part, lies in the way God issues His Messianic challenge, through him, to the status quo-- to Sadducean elitism, to Herodian despotism, to Pharisaical legalism, to Roman hegemony. So when he rides a gentle donkey into the City of the Great King, as the ultimate revelation of God's challenge to the status quo, nothing could be more fitting than to remember how he once squirmed helpless on the knee of his shamed mother in the humble city of David, while foreigners and outsiders hailed him as Lord and "the status quo" worried to hear him named.

And I'm left wondering: what would it look like if we had a "Triumphal Entry" Christmas this year? What might it mean for us if we let Christmas shake our complacency to its foundations and let Mary's Boy Child Jesus Christ, in his coming, issue God's direct challenge to our status quo-- our spiritual elitisms, our unacknowledged despotisms, our self-righteous legalisms, our unseen hegemonies-- where ever they might be?

Prayer for the (Advent) Offering

Over the Advent season I've found the offertory prayer more difficult to write than usual. This is partly because the consumeristic spirit of Christmas these days leaves me hesitant to associate Jesus with the gift-getting impulse of our annual, year-end Saturnalia. Full confession: there's a growing part of me that deeply struggles when I hear things like "Jesus is the Greatest Gift of All" at Christmastime, because it leaves me wondering if we aren't really saying, or at least leaving non-Christians with the impression that we're saying: "Not only does Jesus endorse the hedonistic, consumeristic, materialistic frenzy of December, he is, in fact, nothing more (or less) than its ultimate climax."


As I continue to wrestle with this, I thought I'd post a few of the gift-giving prayers we've prayed at the Freeway.


Father in Heaven,

As we pause in the middle of this busy time of year, it seems almost silly for us to say: Jesus is the Reason for the Season. The one who came to give us divine simplicity, pure generosity and holy rest; is he the reason for all of this hectic buying and getting and rushing around?

But God, he is the reason for what we do in this place this morning, because he is your gift of life and love and hope to us. And his presence has always inspired joyful gift-giving in the hearts of his followers.

So when three learned star-gazers followed the omens at his birth and found him lying in the lap of his virgin mother, they gave gold and frankincense and myrrh in humble awe.

And later when he came to eat in the house of a humiliatingly-short tax-collector who’d climbed a tree to get a glimpse of him, that tax-collector gave half of all he owned to the poor for pure joy.

And later still, when he sat in the house of his friends the week before he would be executed, a woman named Mary gave a pint of pure perfume, poured a year’s wages-worth over his feet and wiped it with her hair in deep gratitude.

God, can you inspire that kind of gift-giving in us again?

And as we worship him through our gifts and offerings today, we invite you to teach us once more the divine simplicity, and pure generosity, and holy rest that is your gift to us in Christ Jesus.

Amen.


***

God, as we give our tithes and offerings today,
We want to do it with the all trust and simplicity of a child.

After all, your Son Jesus told us
that we would enter the Kingdom of Heaven
only if we could receive it with the humility of a child.

And so on this second Sunday of Advent, we remember that
Old children’s carol, and make it our humble prayer today:

What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb.
If I were a wise man, I would do my part.
Yet what I can, I give him, give him my heart.

Amen.

How One Man Changed the World

One of the courses I took when I was in Seminary was called "Outreach Ministries of a Vital Church." It was primarily about how to engage our contemporary, post-Christendom culture with the message of Jesus. For our final project, we were supposed to develop an introduction to Christianity that presented the faith in ways that avoided the typical "Christian-ese cliches" and "theo-jargon" that often just comes across as so much opaque God-speak for someone with little-to-no Christian background. At the time, I think, I kind of missed the point, and for all my efforts to avoid it, the material I put together turned out to be denser with Christian jargon than I even knew.

That was a number of years ago now, and at the time it was an entirely academic exercise, but since becoming a pastor I've revisited this question: how do we share the message of Jesus with a culture that didn't grow up on Sunday School flannel-graphs, but instead on the one-dimensional caricatures of Evangelicalism that modern media hawks at us? As a second kick at that ponderous cat, I recently put together a seven-week introduction to the Christian Faith called "How One Man Changed the World." Throughout, I tried to present the story of Jesus in ways that avoided opaque Christian-ese.

Last night I finished teaching this course a second time; response has been positive. Some have asked if I could make this material available, and I thought the easiest way would be to post it here. You can click on the picture to the right to download it. I welcome feedback: it could still stand some jargon-trimming, probably, but I think I came closer to answering the question this time.

Tidings of Great Joy (or: why I'm not "incarnational")

I've been thinking quite a bit these days about the incarnation. And not just because 'tis the season; it's because I've been working on a course about "the missional church" for my denominational ordination, and one of the recurring themes in the material I'm reading is the idea that because "the Word became Flesh," in the remarkable way that he did, the church is called by implication to be "incarnational." This logical move, from "incarnation" to "incarnational," is so common among missional-church literature these days that it goes almost unexamined: because God became flesh in Jesus, we're supposed to "enflesh" our message.


For those of you who don't spend a lot of time perusing missional-church literature, let me explain a bit more: when they say "incarnational," what books like this mean is that we can't just "tell" people that God loves them, we need to give that message "flesh," by loving them ourselves (and it has to be in concrete ways, feeding those who are hungry, clothing those who are shivering, embracing those who are outcast). When they say "incarnational," they mean that it's not enough for us just to "believe" in inward-looking, isolated ways and places, but we have to give our faith "flesh" by "getting out there" with the message, going where the people are (and again it has to be in concrete ways, usually (at least in the books I've been reading) in conveniently cool ways like opening a cafe where people can talk about spirituality, or visiting the local pub to talk about Jesus, or hosting rock concerts and poetry readings for secular people).


Before I say what I'm about to say, let me say that I agree with books like these when they say that if what we believe about Jesus stays in the abstract and we don't live it out in concrete ways, then we aren't experiencing biblical Christianity. I hold as much to the authority of James 2:20 as to the authority of Romans 10:9. And so I'm all for feeding people who are hungry, rubbing spiritual shoulders with people who don't know Jesus, even poetry readings (see here and here). In this, at least, they have my ear.

But the other day it occurred to me that, when we call all this "being incarnational," or when we use the doctrine of the "incarnation" as a foundation for this, we're probably not experiencing biblical Christianity, either. My friend David has some thoughts on this subject that are worth reflection (he actually uses the "b" word). But since some of us will sing the words "Pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus our Immanuel" more than once this month, let me offer a few more reasons why, theologically speaking, I'm not "incarnational," at least not the way the books I've been reading tell me I should be.


First: When we talk about "being incarnational" we reduce to death-dealing Law one of the most profound declarations of life-giving Gospel ever announced to the world ("Unto you is born this day in the City of David a Saviour, which is Christ, the Lord") Put differently: the Incarnation is about what God has done for the world in Emmanuel, not what we must do for the world as followers of Emmanuel; and when we move from the doctrine of the Incarnation over into "Incarnational mission," we just throw people back on themselves, telling them to do for themselves what only God can do, instead of offering them the unquenchable grace of God, who comes to us in the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. Put differently again: the Historic Faith has always understood the incarnation as a fundamental piece in the puzzle of soteriology (so Gregory of Nyssa on the incarnation: "What God has not assumed, God has not saved"); and maybe only in the utilitarian, semi-Pelagian, materialistic paradigm of late Evangelicalism, where salvation is strictly limited to a transaction made (so quickly) at the cross, could anyone talk with any seriousness about the Incarnation as work we're called to do (so Hybels: "the local church is the hope of the world.") Put differently one last time: Incarnation is about God's act to save us; Incarnationality is about our act, in essence, to save ourselves (and if that sounds over-blown, note how most missional church talk ties our need to be "incarnational" with the fact that the church is in serious decline in the west-- i.e.: if we don't "get out there," our thing won't survive).


Okay, that's First. Now Second: The Bible already has a pretty clear and direct way of talking about how we are supposed to live in response to the Gospel, and it's not "incarnational," it's "cruciform." We're explicitly called to take up our cross (Matthew 16:24), to share in the sufferings of Christ (Romans 7:18), or as Paul so audaciously puts it, to fill up the sufferings of Christ (Colossians 1:24). Biblically speaking, the mould for the Christian life is shaped like a cross, not a manger; and only if we let the Incarnation be the good news that it really is (instead of turning it into cheap Law) could we ever talk about answering the call to the cruciform life with any seriousness (i.e. only if we are fully assured that God really is with us in the muck and mire of our deepest suffering can we have any hope in taking up our cross and following the suffering Christ). And this distinction matters, because I can be "incarnational" by doing what I already enjoy doing (say: going to the pub or the rock concert), I just need to tag Jesus onto it to make it somehow "missional"; but I can't be "cruciform" without a radical and fundamental realignment of how I see the world and what I care about in the world. And as I say this, I wonder: could this relatively new reading of the Incarnation be Modern Evangelicalism's subconscious effort to salve it's throbbing conscience over the fact that, by and large, it's returned a vacillating "I cannot come" to Christ's invitation to the cruciform life?

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 11:1-10

The Perfect Christmas, and other holiday hopes

Confessions of a Fencing Dad

Last night my son had his season-end tournament at the fencing club he's part of. Here's some footage of one of his bouts (that's him on the near/right side).


How did he do in the tourament? Well, I don't want to sound like a "fencing dad" or anything, but fans of The Princess Bride will understand me when I say: if ever I'm stabbed by a six-fingered man, I know who I want avenging my death.

On the First Snowfall of Winter

Snow fell today, silent,
all day,
wrapping the weary world, grey,
that I walked through on my way to work
with a white, wet grave shroud,
the linen of winter.

All day.

And I missed it,
all day,
locked in my study, silent,
scratching out my still-born ideas
and half-baked circumlocutions
alone
for a talk I must give again
about the unexpected God who upsets this world
and renews our every watching for him,
breaking into the wilderness
of our darkest winter
with pure white light.

Music for the Start of Advent (2)

And further to yesterday's musical reflections on the start of Advent, I thought I'd re-post this song I wrote a while ago about waiting for the Second Coming. It's called "Wish You Were Here."

It wasn't originally written with Advent in mind, but it is perhaps fitting for this time of year, inasmuch as the Advent season is really about preparing for his Second Coming, even as we prepare to celebrate his First Coming ("O Come O Come Emmanuel," for instance, is not really about remembering "the first Noel" as much as it is about our longing for the consummation of the "true meaning of Noel," when Emmanuel comes again, to establish his kingdom in all its fullness, God himself with us forever, in answer to the deepest longing of every hopeful heart (just read Revelation 21:3 and compare it to Matthew 1:23, if you`re not convinced).)
Anyways, while I let those theological musings simmer like so much Christmas cider, here`s the song:

Wish You Were Here

Helprin on Preparedness and Guidance

It might just be the fact that I was reading it at 1:30 in the morning yesterday, but this exchange from Mark Helprin's very excellent novel, A Soldier of the Great War hit me deeply. To set the scene: Alessandro (who studied aesthetics prior to the outbreak of World War I) is a soldier of the Italian army condemned to be executed for deserting his post (his commander had been murdered and he knew he would be framed and condemned for this crime anyways); Ludovico is his Marxist cellmate.


Ludovico ... was informed that he would be tried on Thursday with fourteen others of his brigade. The judicial apparatus was now working without pause: thousands of new prisoners were headed for Stella Maris, and the cells had to be cleared.


Ludovico now began what appeared to be a series of desperate calculations. It was as if he felt that in a clarified understanding of the workings of economics he could make himself comfortable with the notion of eternity-but due to the minimal relation of economics and eternity, he was forced to calculate faster and faster, and to no avail.


"Marxism won't carry you into the next world," Alessandro said. And then he asked, "How can you reserve your most sacred beliefs for a descriptive system, and one that is imperfect at that? I can't imagine myself believing in trigonometry or accounting, and yet you guide your soul according to a theory of economics."


"It won't fail me as surely as your system will fail you."


"I don't have a system."


"Theology is a system."


"Not my theology."


"Then what is it?"


"What is it? It is the overwhelming combination of all that I've seen, felt, and cannot explain, that has stayed with me and refuses to depart, that drives me again and again to a faith of which I am not sure, that is alluring because it will not stoop to be defined by so inadequate creature as a man. Unlike Marxism, it is ineffable, and it cannot be explained in words."


I've not finished the novel, but I can say that Alessandro slept soundly that night, and walked unflinchingly to face the firing squad the next morning.

Music for the Start of the Advent Season

Yesterday marked the start of the Advent season.

I won't wax vehement here about the way Evangelicalism tends to run rough-shod over the Advent Season, jumping the Christmas Cheer gun and celebrating the Baby Jesus with carols and "Reason for the Season" banners and what not, all in the lead up to December 25, and then ceremoniously dropping the whole thing December 27th, after the presents are all open. Except to say that, traditionally, Advent is supposed to be about the delayed gratification of waiting-- waiting for Christmas, waiting for His Coming, waiting for the light; and the "Christmas Season" for which the Baby Jesus is "the Reason" are the twelve days between Christmas day and the Feast of Epiphany on January 6, (the twelve days of "Partridge in a Pear Tree" fame). But since we don't do delayed gratification (or sacred calendars for that matter) all that well any more, the theological significance of the Advent season gets discretely glossed over and we let the department stores tell us when to start celebrating Christmas.

But I said I wouldn't wax vehement.

Instead, in the interest of rekindling appreciation for this season of "holding our breath," I thought I'd post some Advent Carols I recorded a couple of years ago. Enjoy; and happy waiting.
This is a piano arrangement of O Come O Come Emmanuel that I worked on last year:



And this is my "version" of the Advent carol "Come Thou Long Expected Jesus" (set to the tune of "As the Deer," set to an alternate guitar arrangement I've been experimenting with for a while).

Seasons Greetings from the Prophet Isaiah

A bit of "pilot error" in the pulpit this morning meant that the sermon this week didn't get recorded (translation: I forgot to turn on my lapel mike ... oops). Anyways,since I can't post the audio, I thought maybe I'd post a short excerpt from the manscript of my sermon, instead. My text was Isaiah 9:1-7 ("For to us a child is born"), and the sermon included these reflections on the incarnation:


"And incarnation is good news for us, today. Because incarnation means that God has entered fully into our gloom, whatever it is; God has entered lovingly into our darkness, wherever it is; God has entered completely under the shadow of death, for us, wherever that shadow might fall.

And incarnation means that there is now no part of your life that he hasn’t taken onto himself—no corner of “being human” that he hasn’t swept out for you—no stone of your flesh-and-blood reality that he hasn’t turned over with his love.

And incarnation means that the word “God-forsaken” no longer now has any meaning for us.

Because when God became flesh like that—in all the weakness of a newborn baby—when he came to us like that—he proved to us that there is now no place in heaven, or on earth, or under the earth that could ever cut you off from the love and light of God. I mean, if God himself came as a homeless baby born to an unwed mother in the straw and muck of sheep pen—well—is there any place left that might now separate you from him?

For to us a child is born—and whatever your deepest expectations are—delivery from despair—victory over hurt—the end of injustice—the healing of wrongs—the restoration of what’s broken—the renewal of what’s wasted—whatever your greatest expectations are, Isaiah says: God meets those expectations in the most unlikely way imaginable: through great humility of a newborn child. "

Prayer for the Offering (6)

God, we think of the wise King you inspired so long ago,
How he spoke this proverb:
“Better a little with the fear of the Lord / Than great wealth with turmoil.
There’s an edge to that wise saying, Lord,
that hasn’t grown dull in 3000 years:
those words still cut to the heart of the matter today.

“Better a little with the fear of the Lord / Than great wealth with turmoil.”
We confess Lord, that this world is in deep turmoil
because of our endless striving for great wealth.
And we confess Lord, how the idea that we might be content
with what we have, so long as it’s coupled with the fear of the Lord--
the notion that deep reverence and awed respect for you
might be the true and only source of our life and sustenance and happiness-
That suggestion cuts against the grain, Lord.

So as we participate in this offering today,
We’re going to need the wisdom of Solomon, here.
Grant us the Wisdom to put you before all things and over all things
and the wisdom to let go of our tumultuous accumulation.
God, teach us to say these words
with perfect honesty and clear sincerity today:
“Better a little with the fear of the Lord
Than great wealth with turmoil?”
Because it’s in Jesus’ name and for his sake we pray.
Amen.

***

God, we think about your word, where the ancient writer you inspired challenges us with these words: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And so we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.”

And then he told us specifically what that laying down of our lives would look like. He said: “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him.”

God those are sobering words.

But we want to know the love of God in us. And we want to love each other, not with fine sounding words or empty speech, but like that same writer said: with actions, and with truth.

So God, can you continue to shape us as that kind of a people today: people who show in word and deed together that the love of God really is in us. People who—when they see their brothers or sisters in need—they overflow with your compassion, your mercy, your love?

And as we set aside some of our material possessions today, to help in those concrete moments when we see a brother or sister in need, God, we pray in advance for the people you want to bless with these gifts—because you already know the needs that this money will meet— may it find its place in your good plan to show the world what the love of Jesus looks like, because it's in his name and for his sake we pray.

Amen.

****

Father in Heaven,
As we prepare our hearts to worship through our tithes and offerings, we remember the story your Son Jesus told us, about a farmer who sowed seed: how some of the seed fell on rocky soil and wouldn’t grow, and some was snatched away by birds, and some was choked out by weeds.

Later Jesus explained that the seed was the message about your love, and the weeds that choked it out were the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth, and the desire for other things.

God we’re remembering this story today because we’re about to make an offering of money, and we don’t want the desire for stuff or the deceitfulness of wealth to choke out the message of love that Jesus is speaking over us now. So God, can you do some weeding in us? Uproot anything in us that might try to choke out his message for us today, weed out every false desire and every empty ambition in us, so that his word might bear fruit in us.

We ask this in Jesus’ name and for his sake.

Amen.

"Lift Up Your Head" (or: Me and My Gidjak)

A few years ago my parents visited my aunt and uncle, when they were working in the middle eastern country of Tajikistan. Knowing I have a curious spirit when it comes to musical instruments from far away places, they brought me home a gidjak. A gidjak is an instrument that resembles a violin, but you play it upright, resting it on your knee. Its sound is a bit of a curiosity: something like a violin, but less pitchy and more humming. You can find out more about the gidjak (and hear one being played by someone who knows what he's doing) here.

Anyways, after watching a few youtube videos to get an idea of how it's played, I thought I'd try my hand at writing a song for my gidjak. After much trial and error, here's what I came up with. And as you listen, please rest assured: I have no pending plans to quit my day job.



Lift Up Your Head

Brown land, like a cracked and calloused hand
Dry land, flesh of stone and bone of sand
Lift up your head

Long night, like the ash of phoenix flight
Dark night, red the dawn the longing light
Lift up your head

Lift up your head and see, the lamb was slain to set you free
The phoenix flame will rise again and perch upon the holy tree
Lift up your head behold, the child you welcomed once of old
With myrrh and frankincense and gold
Is now the resurrected Lord
He comes to heal your land
Lift up your head

Ancient place, like a lined and noble face
Antique place, mist of myrrh and tear of grace
Lift up your head

Night skies like the gleam of veiled eyes
Eastern skies, see afar his star arise
Lift up your head

Lift up your head and see, the lamb was slain to set you free
The phoenix flame will rise again and perch upon the holy tree
Lift up your head behold, the child you welcomed once of old
With myrrh and frankincense and gold
Is now the resurrected Lord
He comes to heal your land
Lift up your head

10 Lessons Learned Blogging

The other day I was talking to a friend who was thinking about starting a blog but didn't know if, or where to start. After the chat I was still mulling over some of the lessons I've learned in the last year and a bit of blogging (real practical lessons, mind you, not philosophical epiphanies or lead-in-to-a-joke kind of lessons).


In what follows I defer completely to those who have been doing this longer, but here are some practical rules of thumb I've found helpful.

1. Decide why you're doing it before you do. In my experience, blogging can be a sort of love-hate experience (especially if you're committed to items 2-5 below). The blog, in one sense, is never satisfied. Unlike a paper, or a sermon, or a story, it's never "done," and next week the post you just spent hours crafting will feel kinda stale and you'll have to start all over again. Knowing why I started doing this, after all, helps on those days when it feels it would be easier to just pull the plug.


2. Keep them short. This was a real tough one for me, starting a blog straight out of seminary and all, but the discipline of keeping my blog posts to around 500 words has (I think) improved my writing generally. It's curious, but I find writing a 500 word post harder than a rambling 1100-er. Go figure.

3. Keep it coming. This is a tough one too, but I've found that consistent posting is a really helpful discipline (he says after eight days of silence....); it develps the habit of regular writing, and once you find the groove, it makes the general experience of blogging more pleasant.

4. Plan ahead. Keeping a running list of possible post ideas as they come to you really helps with #3, especially when that computer screen is staring you down, a week since your last post, and you still don't know where to start.

5. Write ahead. This helps a lot with #3, too. I took a couple of weeks a while back and hammered out ten or twelve short back-up posts which I keep on file for those weeks when the well's dry or I don't have much time to put down the bucket.

6. Take breaks. Rather than just letting things peter out, I've tried to take intentional hiatuses (hiatai ?) from blogging when I find my creativity or energy is flagging, setting a specific stop-and-re-start date for myself. The few times I've done this I find I come back blogging with renewed enthusiasm.

7. Use Dropbox. Dropbox is an easy-to-use online file sharing service and about the quickest way I've found to include additional content (files, word documents, pdfs, video games, etc) in your posts. Just put it in your dropbox and then include a link on the blog. Done.

8. Use videos for podcasts. When I started I wanted to embed audio files in some of my posts. Doing some research I discovered this is a lot more tricky than it sounds. I found lots of ways to embed audio using html code, but the problem was it didn't always work, depending on the browser you were using. Often it "forced" the music which is really annoying. And you always needed off-site hosting. The simplest solution I've come up with is to convert my audio to a video file, setting it as the sound track to a blank black screen. You can then upload it simply and cleanly straight to the blog using the "add video" feature, and Blogger's video driver takes care of the rest (because I prefer the way it looks, I go in after and adjust the dimensions of the driver in the html code, just to make it more resemble an audio file).

9. Have regular "features." Another one for the sake of #3. Keeping a few "regular features" (e.g. a "movie of the month," book reviews, etc.) helps you with built in post ideas for when the idea-pickings are scarce.

10. Keep lists. Lists are among the most fun, illuminating and interesting posts to write, especially when it's been eight days or so, and you're still staring blankly at the sceen . (Take my post on the 10 lessons I learned blogging, for instance.)

With definitions like these, who needs obfuscation?

Is it just me, or is the following "working definition" of "missional church" frustratingly tautological?

So a working definition of missional church is a community of God's people that defines itself, and organizes its life around, its real purpose of being an agent of God's mission to the world. In other words, the church's true and authentic organizing principle is mission. When the church is in mission, it is the true church. The church is not only a product of that mission but is obligated and destined to extend it by whatever means possible. The mission of God flows directly through every believer and every community of faith that adheres to Jesus.
Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, p. 82
Don't get me wrong, the rest of the book is edifying and thought provoking; and even in the above quote, I take his point that the church needs to define itself in terms of the Missio Dei. But to say, in essence, that a "missional church" is nothing more or less than a "church that is missional" just brings us full circle, with no clearer understanding than when we started of who we are and what we're called to do and be as Jesus' people. It leaves me wondering if, twenty years from now, books on emergent ecclessiology won't seem like the lava lamps of the ministry book shelf, dated novelties casting their dim but colourful light through shifting blobs of ideas like "missional" and "incarnational community" that swirl around like so much luminous goop.

A Remembrance Day Prayer

This is the prophet Micah’s vision of what God’s reign will look like when it comes in all its fullness:

In the last days the mountain of the LORD's temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and peoples will stream to it.

Many nations will come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths." The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.

Father in Heaven.
Your word so vividly and so compellingly reminds us
that war is not your plan for things, and that one day—
when all the nations of the earth stream into your loving presence
to learn your way and to follow your plan for things—
one day we’ll stop training for war.
We’ll trade our guns in for gardening tools, and our bombs for bread baskets.

O God, as we long for that day with all that is in us,
we remember that it hasn’t come yet in all its fullness.
Brother still rises up against brother.
Nation still takes up sword against nation.
And training for war is still a reality in this hurting world.

So God in this time set aside for remembrance,
We pray for all those who have been touched by the trauma of war,
Those who have suffered in the past,
Those who suffer today,
And those who will suffer because of war in the days to come,
regardless what side of the battle-line they’re standing on,
we pray for them.

God, we pray for veterans of war,
bless them according to your wisdom
for the sacrifices they’ve made in the name of love, freedom, peace,
and human dignity.

We pray for soldiers who are involved in armed conflicts today;
protect those who are in danger,
give wisdom to those who lead,
heal those who are wounded body or spirit,
and bring them home safely.

We pray for the families of soldiers, too;
be with those who are lonely,
comfort those who are grieving,
and reassure those who are scared
for the safety of their loved ones.

We pray for all those who put themselves in harm’s way
for the safety and peace of others—
we pray for the men and women of the Canadian Armed Forces,
for our police officers in the Durham Regional police,
we pray for emergency response workers, firefighters, EMTs—
protect them all in your wisdom as they give of themselves to protect us.

And God, like your son taught us to, we pray for our enemies near and far—
or for those we’ve been taught, maybe, to think of as our enemies—
O God who knows the hearts of all people,
be gracious towards them according to your wisdom,
let justice and mercy prevail in every conflict,
bring a swift and peaceful resolution to all enmity,
and let the Shalom of God reign.

We pray these things in the name of the Prince of Peace today;
Your all-wise, all-loving Son who taught us
that it’s the Peacemakers who are the blessed ones,
because they will be called sons God.

Let us be called sons of God like that we pray,

in his name and for his sake. Amen.

The Documentarathon

And speaking of cultural exegesis, last week a visit to the local Rogers Video for some family movie-night fodder saw me leaving the store with a handful of documentaries (along with the afore-mentioned movie-night flicks). Over the last few days I've been working my way through them, and looking at the world with slightly different eyes as a result. These are some thoughts on what I watched last week:


Food Inc. This unflinching look at the industrial food industry leaves you with a creeping feeling in the pit of your gut and a lot of difficult questions about where our food comes from and how it arrives on our plate. Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food and Bill McKibben's Deep Economy had already briefed me on the argument that the modern food industry has created some pretty serious moral, environmental and health crises for us, but the film's aerial shots of huge feed lots and its footage of mass-production "chicken factories" were no less disturbing for all their being expected. What Food Inc. added to the discussion was its look at how the interests of big money pretty consistently trump the interests of human well-being in policy- and law- making when it comes to the American food supply.

In Debt We Trust. One of two films I watched about the credit crisis in the United States, In Debt We Trust puts a human face on the realities of predatory lending and deregulation in the American credit card industry. Produced in 2006, mere months before the "bubble" actually burst, it makes some ominous predictions about a coming economic collapse that have turned out to be hauntingly accurate. For all the gargantuan numbers it tosses around, at times In Debt We Trust seems to over simplify the issues, painting a black-and-white picture of a Darth-Vader-esque credit card industry swallowing its innocent victims whole, who, through no fault of their own, find themselves swimming in a sea of inexplicable and inescapable debt. I don't doubt that the credit card industry is just as brutal, greedy and callous as the film makes it out to be, nor do I deny that this represents a serious moral crisis with global implications. I wonder, however, if the existence of a 926 billion dollar credit card debt in America is actually just the symptom of a deeper cultural malaise--the rampant materialism, the spiritual vacuity, the creeping shadow of ennui, the ego-centric sense of entitlement, the impulse to bury our heads in the illusory sand of the entertainment culture-- stuff like that-- stuff that we're all culpable for and capable of, not just the evil credit card industry that's willing to loan us the money (at 30% interest, of course) so that we can pay for it. To its detriment as a documentary, In Debt We Trust never asks any serious questions about this cultural malaise, preferring instead to point a single self-righteous finger at the corrupt politicians and bloated bankers.


Maxed-Out. Maxed-Out repeats the same gargantuan numbers, interviews many of the same economic analysts, and even includes some of the same footage as In Debt We Trust. Its interview of two collection agency guys is down-right creepy (like when the one compares his work of harrasing helpless debtors to a competitive athlete who's found a way to make a game he loves to play pay the bills), and some of the stories are really heart-wrenching, stories of people with the tread-marks of an unregulated credit card industry on their necks and spirits. The palette with which Maxed Out paints the picture, however, is bit less black-and-white than In Debt; and to its credit, it doesn't attempt any of the failed lunges at tongue-in-cheek satire that make In Debt feel sort of silly at times.

In the cool-down time of my little week-long documentarathon, I've been thinking a lot about St. Paul's declaration in the book of Colossians that God has triumphed over the powers and authorities in the cross. Walter Wink argues that when the Bible talks about "the powers" like this, it's referring to the invisible structures of human society, the spiritual dimmensions of the political, economic and cultural institutions that we put in place to help us control and define our life together, and that inevitably turn around and start to control and define us instead. Wink suggests (very compellingly) that when Paul says this kind of thing about God "disarming" the powers, he means that through the Cross and the Spirit of Christ, humans can be set free from these "invisible structures" in a way that allows us to see them for what they really are, and redeem them with the wisdom and love of God. If Wink is right, then the cultural malaise, the political corruption and the corporate greed illustrated in movies like Maxed Out and Food Inc are concrete examples of "the spiritual powers" in our world; and if St. Paul is right, then the Word and Spirit of Christ offers us the best, and only real solution to the deep social crises that these films are attempting to disarm.

The God who remembered to forget

Hebrews 10:15-18. The God who remembered to forget

Living like the Evidence (4)

Acts 17:22-32. Naming the Unknown

DNTO and Cultural Exegesis

A while back I shared some thoughts on the Top 10 Reasons I Listen to CBC Radio. A reason I might add to the list if I were to update it today is the Saturday afternoon program called Definitely Not the Opera (so called, I found out recently, because it airs opposite the CBC Radio 2 program, Saturday Afternoon at the Opera).


If you've never heard it before, let me explain. In concept, the show takes a broad theme related to contemporary culture-- last week's theme was "small gestures"-- and then puts together a meandering itinerary of stories, songs and interviews all related to said theme. Over the course of two hours, it covers a lot of ground, from the inane, to the academic, to the curious, to the profound. The host, Sook-Yin Lee, has a warm way with interviews and an unpretentious knack for storytelling.


As a pastor, I find DNTO so compelling because it challenges me to think about the spiritual dimensions of everyday things ("the power of story" for instance, or "the place of small talk") and it gives me a chance to hear how people in our culture are experiencing things that the Christian Faith actually speaks to in a meaningful way ("the motivating power of guilt" perhaps, or "gain through personal sacrifice"). It's a 2 hour exercise in what they sometimes called "cultural exegesis" when I was in Seminary: listening to the deepest questions of culture and reflecting on what Word the Christian Faith might add to the conversation.


You can check the show out here, and you can download podcasts here. But in the meantime, here are some direct links to a few of my favorite episodes. If you're a Christian in a reflective mode today, and curious about doing a bit of "cultural exegesis," perhaps one of the following might give you some food for thought:


The episode on "forgiving and forgetting."


The "getting kicked out" episode.


The "listening" episode.

Living like the Evidence (3)

Acts 16:11-15. Standing at the Crossroads

The Medicine (or: where have you been all my life Mr. McMillan?)

About a month ago a friend of mine suggested I check out John Mark McMillan's latest CD called The Medicine. I've been pretty disillusioned with the "Worship Music" genre generally these days (my glowing review of Downhere last August not withstanding), so I have to say I put it in my stereo with not a little skepticism.

But somewhere around the middle of track 2, I knew I'd found a keeper. Lines that stopped me dead in my tracks tumbled out of the speakers with a pathos and humility and honesty that spoke to the the heart and the gut and the head all at once. Lines like: "We want your blood to flow inside our bodies / We want your wind inside our lungs."

Or: "When you walk into the room you know we can't resist / Every bottle of perfume always ends up on the floor in a mess"

Or:

"Cause I'm a dead man now
With a ghost who lives
Within the confines of
These carbon ribs
And one day when I'm free
I will sit
The cripple at your table
The cripple by your side"

They once asked the poet Philip Larkin why he wrote poetry, and he said something like: "Because no one's writing the kind of poems I most want to read." I always felt that answer explained why I tried to write songs-- no one was writing the kind of songs I most wanted to hear. I guess I'll have to find a different answer, maybe, now, because there's something happening on this disc I've been looking for, musically and lyrically speaking, for a while now.

And if your curiosity's not yet piqued, I'll leave you with this small sample:

Top Ten Books I Never Finished

Usually when I post book lists, I have formative or compelling reads in mind. But yesterday I was thinking wistfully about books I started with high hopes and good literary intentions but, through the vicissitudes of time or machinations of fate, somehow never finished. As an avid reader, it was a humbling exercise.

So here's my list of the top ten literary ghosts of my past, rattling their unfinished chains at me from the dusty corners of my bookshelf. What about you? Any books back there that you started with the best of intentions only to get bogged down and abandon somewhere between "Once upon a time" and "happily ever after"?


10. The Imitation of Christ,Thomas a Kempis.
I've tried twice to wade through this medieval masterpiece of Catholic piety, and something about it always escapes me.




9. Don Quixote, Cervantes.
I made it to the end of Book 1 and at page 450 or so, I was still only half way through. I sat for a moment in a staring contest with Book 2, until Book 2 won. (Later I sat through all 3.27 hours of the Man of La Mancha, so maybe in that I'm redeemed).

8. Middlemarch, George Eliot.
They told me this was a masterpiece of an English Novel but I could only get down the first 90 of its 800 or so pages before it lost me. Later I read Silas Marner and loved it, so maybe Middlemarch is worth a second attempt.



7. Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche.
Maybe if I were a nineteenth century German existentialist, this book might have seemed far less pompous, angry, and ridiculous; as it was I'd lost all ability to take him seriously after the first 50 or so pages.



6. Hard Times, Charles Dickens. For the record, Tale of Two Cities ranks high on my list of favorite novels, so it's not Dickens himself, but somehow the times in Hard Times were a bit too hard for my patience. I think I reshelved it after chapter 1.



5. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens.
See the disclaimer about Dickens on #6 above, but to be honest, while I could recognize the genius of this novel, I never quite made it to the end.





4. Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy.
Tess (of the d'Urbervilles) is one of my all time favorite heroines of English fiction, so I tackled Jude with quite high hopes. I'm not sure where or how, but at some point the whole plot seemed to unravel for me and I couldn`t muster up the sympathy to read Jude's sad tale to its (by all accounts) pathetic end.



3. The Pilgrim's Regress, C. S. Lewis.
Funny enough, I really love this early Lewis book, and I've read it all the way to the last few chapters something like three times; but somehow it derails for me in its final throes, and I can't track the allegory through to the end of its last 20 pages.



2. The Pilgrim's Progress, Bunyan.
And speaking of allegorical pilgrims, to my great chagrin I confess here that I never finished The Pilgrim's Progress. Moment of silence. I read Book I dutifully (and it was dutifully) but somehow I couldn't find the energy to do it all over again with Book II.



1. The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Because people I respect deeply deeply respect this novel I did my best, but somewhere in the Russian Monk's life history, I trailed off and have never (yet) found my way back.

Prayer for the Offering (5)

God, as we prepare to worship through this act of offering today, we invite your Holy Spirit to remind us that really, we all come to you empty handed.

We have nothing to offer the Creator of the Universe that isn’t yours already. We have nothing to give a perfectly pure God that isn’t somehow muddied up with our human ambition and agendas. Nothing to do for the Lord of the whole Earth that you couldn’t do for yourself.

We’re empty handed.

And yet by your beautiful and mysterious grace, God, you invite us—empty handed though we are—you invite us to be part of your plan to heal and renew and bless this world through the unconquerable love of your Son Jesus Christ.

Thank you for that invitation, God. And as we give back to you now a portion of what is yours to begin with, Lord will you transform this offering into just one of the many ways we say “yes” to your gracious call on our lives?

Purify our motives, transform our agendas, and bring our ambitions into perfect alignment with Jesus, because it’s in his name and for your Glory that we pray. Amen.

***


Loving God, in Jesus we’ve discovered that you are generous beyond our ability to imagine.

So as we prepare to give back to you a portion of the money that you’ve entrusted into our care, we remember what he taught us.

He said: whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much… and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much… And he said: If we’ve not been faithful in handling worldly wealth, how can we expect God to trust us with true riches?

God, we invite your Spirit now to show us the true riches that you want to entrust into our care: riches like the grace, hope and love that is ours in Jesus Christ; riches like the good news about his immeasurable love for this aching world that is ours to share so generously; riches like the real life-purpose, the meaningful mission in the world, the beautiful destiny as His people that is ours to spend so freely.

O God, help us to see those riches today.

And then God, can you make us faithful in handling this worldly wealth here, today, so that we might learn in a small way what it means to be faithful in handling of the invaluable things of God?

Can you teach us, in this act of offering today, what it means to be trustworthy with the small things like money… so that we will grow more and more trustworthy with the big things… the good news of Jesus and the generous gifts of his Spirit. Make us trustworthy with those things, we pray, in his name, and for his sake. Amen.

****


God, in your book you tell us not to put our hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put our hope in you, because you richly provide all things for our enjoyment.

And you tell us, too, to do good, to be rich in good deeds, to be generous, and willing to share. You said that in this way, we might take hold of the life that is life indeed.

So we ask, Lord, that you would show us where we’ve been putting our hope in uncertain wealth instead of in you. Show us where we’ve been spiritually poor, despite our material wealth. Teach us how to become truly rich in generosity and good deeds.

O God, make us want, more than anything, to take hold of the life that is life indeed. And then Lord, take this offering today, and transform it into a sign of that desire in us, the passion for heavenly things that you are kindling in us.

We pray in Christ’s name and for his sake. Amen.



***




Father in heaven,

Thousands of years ago, one of the wise teachers you inspired looked at the way people are with money and he called the whole project “a chasing after the wind.”

He said things like, “whoever loves money never has money enough and whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income.” He said things like, “The sleep of a poor labourer is sweet, but the abundance of a rich man permits him no sleep.” He said things like, “I have seen a grievous evil under the sun: wealth is hoarded, to the harm of its owner, or lost through some misfortune.”

“This, too, is vanity.”

God, thousands of years later we still stand under those all-wise words. And if we’ve been losing sleep over our money, or hoarding money to our own harm, or never satisfied with our income, Lord, I invite your gracious, loving Spirit to convict us of that vanity today.

Set us free from chasing after the wind, and set us, instead, to chasing after the Way of Jesus. With all our heart, soul, mind and strength may we live as his servant-followers and sibling-friends.
It’s in his name and for his sake we pray, amen.

(It's not what you think)


Cover Me

Cover me, when the darkness has no answer
Cover me when the daylight can't be asked
Cover me when my words are full of chaos
Cover me, when I'm haunted by the past
In your eyes I find the child I left behind
So cover me

Cover me like the wind over the prairies
Cover me like the moon in an eclipse
Cover me like the sky over a pilgrim
Cover me like the sunlight on my steps
In your hands I find the heart I left behind
So cover me

When my thoughts were like an open wound
And my heart was like a smoky room
I found sanctuary like and empty tomb
When you came, you came
And covered me

Cover me in the haven of your heartbeat
Cover me in the shelter of your palms
Cover me in the refuge of your eyes
Cover me in the island of your arms
In your voice I find the song I left behind
So cover me

When my thoughts were like an open wound
And my heart was like a smoky room
I found sanctuary like and empty tomb
When you came, you came
And covered me

When my thoughts were like an open wound
And my heart was like a smoky room
I found sanctuary like and empty tomb
When you came, you came
And covered me

Narcissus (and other poems)

Narcissus

I gazed, once and now
again,
a Narcissus
into the soul-mirror
of a pool of ink
(once, and now a lake of level light):
Seeking an Echo
of my experience.


The asking

When asked on bended knees--
face to the floor and
heart
(I imagine) held in cupped hands heavy --
when asked, as I was saying,
to ask for anything,
Silly Solomon
(as yet unwise) asked for
open ears to sprout
on that heavy heart
of his.

We say today,
wisdom
of the request that day
because hearing hearts are so few and far
between that few would know
what to do with one
if we stumbled across it
on the street
let alone the pages of an ancient
book.


Fine wine (and the third day sign)

And while we lolled about,
crooning our raucous requiems
to lost innocence and
leaping gazelles,
toasting a tipsy epithalamion
and humming our homesick
hymeneal
till no eye in the place, nor throat was dry
but every cup
as dust, was empty,
He asked for water.

Then raised a glass
to life
breaking beautiful, full-bodied
against the palette
with a lingering bouquet of
earth, and smoke, and fresh new spice
in the nose and
at the veins and
to the coursing heart--
he set it down (the toast)
brimming with bright red wine.

We marveled, all, of course
and three days later marveled all the more
when like a cork sliding sharp
from a gaping bottle's mouth
the stone rolled back and first-born feet
stepped out
(with the faintest pop, perhaps?):
the grave like a sea of water splashing open
that the wine-red blood within
at last might breathe.

Living Like the Evidence (2)

Colossians 4:2-6. The Word-Door

Some Commentaries on John

This fall I preached an eight-part series on the "I am" statements of Jesus in the Gospel of John. I posted before some general thoughts on the unique challenges and blessings of preaching John. Now that I'm through the series I thought I'd share a few words on the some of the commentaries I used-- binoculars, so to speak, in my quest to spot the eagle.

Craig Keener's two volume commentary (Hendrickson, 2004) was an extremely useful resource for preaching John, and perhaps one of the most thorough commentaries on this Gospel that I've seen. In the past, I've really appreciated Keener's balanced and historical approach to New Testament exegesis, and this tome is no exception. Here he offers a breadth and depth of research that fleshed out the most obscure of images, and always drew me deeper into the text. There were times, perhaps, when it felt like his historical references were a bit erudite, at least for the purposes of pulpit ministry; and there were other times when I was looking for a more theological reading of the text than he was prepared to give, but overall it is a veritable treasure-trove of research, and a welcome addition to my spare but slowly growing commentary library.

I used John Brown's Anchor Bible Commentary on the Gospel of John quite extensively in seminary and found it often illuminating and always stimulating. The price was a bit too prohibitive for me to purchase my own copy, so I went instead with his "concise commentary," a sort of Cole's Notes for Brown's take on the Gospel. Though it was usually thought provoking, most often I found it a bit too concise for the kind of exegesis I felt necessary to preach these complex texts in a meaningful way. That said, there were a few times when he forced me to step back and get a big picture of the text, where someone like Keener had me lost in the particulars, and in that it was helpful.