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.

Happy St. Aidan's Day

Those who share my general interest in the lives of the saints, and/or my somewhat more specific interest in the Irish Saints, may know that today is the feast day of St. Aidan. Some time around 650 AD, St. Aidan founded a monastery on the Island of Lindisfarne, in England. He's sometimes known as the Apostle of Northumbria, inasmuch as he is credited with restoring the Faith to Northumbria.

A while ago I was doing some research on St. Aidan and I came across this simple prayer traditionally attributed to him.
Leave me alone with God as much as may be.
As the tide draws the waters close in upon the shore,
Make me an island, set apart,
alone with you, God, holy to you.

Then with the turning of the tide
prepare me to carry your presence
to the busy world beyond,
the world that rushes in on me
till the waters come again and fold me back to you.


There is something a bit more monastic in the sentiment than I am used to praying (I'm not sure an ache for holiness and a life spent alone with God as much as may be are reconcilable sentiments) , but I've found it very a peaceful and centering prayer lately; and, though I am certainly no 7th Century Irish monk, the imagery of the ebbing and flowing tide still captures something for me about spiritual life.

I've even adapted it to song, which I share here to wish you all a Happy St. Aidan's Day.

The Jesus who is ... (4)

John 10:11-21: The Shepherd

Casting Stones

I'm wondering about 1 Peter 2:4-10 today, having preached it this morning (you can listen to the sermon below). I'm thinking especially about all the rock imagery in there. Jesus is the Living Stone (v. 4), we're also living stones (v. 5), the scriptures promised a foundation stone (v. 6a) and cornerstone for Zion (v. 6b), which is Jesus, who is a precious stone (v. 7a), a rejected stone (v. 7b), and the capstone (v. 7c; interesting, he's the foundation and the capstone, the first and last); he's also a stumbling stone (v. 8a) and a rock of offense (v. 8b).

That's 9 rock references in all of 5 verses-- a veritable land-slide.

And I'm just wondering: is it any coincidence that this "rocky" passage was written by Simon Peter? After all, after his encounter with the Lord Jesus really did make him into a living rock. Maybe you remember: he was only "Simon" until his Master gave him the name Peter, which, of course means "The Rock." And he's been known as The Rock ever since. Not to psychoanalyze things too much, but it's probably not for nothing that The Rock should be homing in on all this stone imagery with such perseveration (although it's interesting, too, that the Greek word petra is only used once in all those 9 references; every other time it's lithos-- stone).

Anyway, here's the sermon:

1 Peter 2:4-10: The House that God Built

The Cobblestones of Heaven

In Revelation 21:21, when John the Seer is casting about for words to describe the vision of the New Creation he's just glimpsed, he tells us, among other things, that the street of the heavenly city was pure gold, like transparent glass.


Not that I've spent a lot of time ruminating on the infastructure of Heaven, but whenever I did, I always assumed this was intended to signify either the beauty of the city or the extravagance of its wealth. It reminds me a bit of 1 Kings 10:21, where it says that Israel was so wealthy under the reign of Solomon that nothing was ever made out of silver, because silver was considered of little value in Solomon's days.


It may still be, in the end, that when he describes "streets paved with gold" John wants to fill our heads with hopeful visions of the luxury that awaits us in that celestial city. Our pie in the sky when we die. I'm not sure. But the other day I was reading Talking the Walk, Marva Dawn's fascinating book about Christian doctrine, and she suggested something in passing I've never considered before.


She says that the "street paved with gold" is a vision, actually, of the great reversal that God will accomplish at the end of the age, when Christ's Coming turns everything on its head. "Here," she writes, "we think gold is of utmost importance, but there we will just walk on the stuff."

If she's right, she'd certainly be singing a tune in beautiful harmony with one of the major-- and most ignored-- themes in the New Testament, a theme that I sometimes call the "Upside down Kingdom" (with apologies to Don Kraybill). In God's Kingdom, things are continually turned upside down: the last come first; the greatest are the least; the Poor are called to rejoice and the Rich sent away in tears. Those who mourn are happy; the fools shame the wise; the Christ conquers through his public humiliation and brutal execution.

And the most precious ingots of all (perhaps?) become the cobblestones.

Of course, to vary that old saying about the banana a bit: sometimes lump of gold is just a lump of gold. And certainly when you look at how John uses gold imagery in the rest of his apocalypse, it still seems to signify the radiant beauty and transcendent value of heavenly things. But, right or not, I like Marva Dawn's reading here for its implications. Because if the gold we're toiling for today will become mere paving tiles in the Heavenly City, then it certainly begs the question: in that same God-illumined Jerusalem then, what will become of those things-- the humble, ignored, physically down-trodden and spiritually-degraded things-- that we tend to trample over now in our worldly ignorance?

Fields of Gold

About a year ago, when I was bidding Sasktchewan a fond farewell and all, I mentioned a few of my favorite Saskatchewan artists. In that post I might have added my wife to the list, but at the time she hadn't yet begun to paint the prairies. Last weekend however, mostly out of ache for big sky and yellow fields, she painted this landscape that now hangs in our living room. The photo doesn't really do it justice: it's 4' x 5' and the detail on the barn is perfect. I was going to add my 2 cents about the value of having things around us that we've made with our own two hands, things we've made that remind us of stuff we really love and so a bit about who we really are... but I think I'll let the painting speak for itself.

Occupied

The other day we were filling out some forms for some changes we're making to an insurance policy, when the helpful representative from the brokerage asked me this innocuous question: "Occupation?"

He'd already run through the questionaire with my wife, so I knew what was coming next. Because after I answered: "Pastor," he asked: "And the description of your work?"

He just wanted hard data. He just wanted to be able to assure the insurance company that I'm not at any special risk of death or dismemberment because of the nature of my occupation. But I have to admit, my mind sprinted a couple of laps before I answered.

Mostly because I've been asked this question before, usually out of genuine curiosity, always out real interest and only once out of vague suspicion towards the role in general: "So, what does a pastor do?" And I always hesitate.

When I was in seminary, one of the courses I took had us write a "vision statement" that would help us define our future roles in ministry. My own "vision statement for ministry" is: "To use my gifts as a teacher, preacher and leader to point others to the revelation of God's grace and faithfulness in Jesus Christ, and to fully participate by the power of the Holy Spirit in the redemptive work that Christ is accomplishing in my community and in the lives of those around me. " But I knew that if I told the polite, helpful insurance broker sitting across the table from me that in my line of work I use my gifts as a teacher, preacher and leader to point others to the revelation of God's grace and faithfulness in Jesus Christ and to fully participate by the power of the Holy Spirit in the redemptive work of Christ... it wouldn't have got me very far.

He just wanted hard data, after all.

Of course, thanks to the unlimited storage-and-retrieval powers of modern technology, hard data isn't that hard to come by. A few clicks on the computer this evening and I found out that in my first full year as a pastor I:

preached... 138,318 words

received ... 1,774 emails

sent ... 1,228 emails

read ... 781 pages for denominational ordination

played ... 348 songs

posted ... 108 blog posts

wrote ... 43 pages of papers for denominational ordination

baked... 22 loaves of communion bread

tabled ... 10 pastor reports to the board

taught .... 7 introductory sessions on the Christian Faith

submitted... 1 annual report

And participated in... innumerable meetings. (I once heard a pastor say that he "didn't do meetings" and I thought: How? That's like a high steel worker saying he didn't do rivets.)

But it turns out that all this hard data is actually rather soft. Because none of these numbers really express what it is I "do" as a pastor; and there is no number you could write down to quantify what it means to be invited to walk alongside God's people as Christ does his new-creation work in our life together. No number could express the honour it is to invite others to discover the grace of God in Jesus Christ, or the privilege it is to help others see the love and goodness of Jesus in the Book he inspired, or the joy it is to encourage God's people to use the gifts God's given them to be part of God's redemptive mission in the world.

None of this, I suppose, entails special risk of dismemberment, but there is a special risk of death in there; a death to self and a daily resurrection into a life of measuring all things-- work, meaning, worth, success, life itself-- by the measuring stick of the cross, and by the scandalous death of the crucified King.

And how do you quantify that beautiful risk?

The Jesus who is ... (3)

Here's the sermon from Sunday July 25, the first in our seven-part series on the "I am" passages in the gospel of John:

John 8:12-20: The Light

What the?

Once when I was teaching I happened to overhear a girl at the back of the room talking about her ex-boyfriend. This jilted lover was expressing her bitterness over the cause of the jilting, and then drew a somewhat crass parallel between her anger and sexual intercourse, using an expletive that started with the 6th letter of the alphabet.

In short: she dropped the "f-bomb." And then she likened her ex to an unmentionable part of the human body.

Of course, a teacher's ears are finely tuned to this kind of "inappropriate verbiage," and I called her on it. But rather than eating her words, as most students would have done, she stood by her work: "What's the big deal, anyways?" she demanded. "It's just a word."

I didn't really have an answer for her, except to appeal to rules made by higher authorities that I knew she wouldn't have acknowledged anyways (the school board, society, a dusty old book with gilt lettering on its cover). So instead I tried to explain that using taboo words like these were actually an indication of ignorance-- a sign that the speaker is either too lazy or too stupid to find more accurate, more witty, more creative ways to express himself. And then I added (for good measure) that because I knew she was neither lazy nor stupid, it was unbecoming of her to leave others with the impression that she was.

That answer got me through to the bell. But I've thought about that question off and on ever since: What is the big deal about these shocking words?

Even appeals to the highest authority will only get you so far. To be sure, in Ephesians 5:4 the Good Book warns us not to let "obscenity" sully our lips. But then, back in Ezekiel 23, God's own prophet likens Israel's political aliance with Egypt to "adultery"-- and then describes her Egyptian "lovers" in terms that I might blush to repeat in a locker-room, let alone behind the pulpit.

So the question lingers: what is the big deal?

If my student were to ask me that same question today-- why does it matter if I swear?-- I think I'd take a different tack. "It's because you're created in the Image of God," I'd say.

And when she looked at me sideways, I'd explain: there's this ancient story from the cradle of humanity that says when the Creator made the world, he made it by speaking. He spoke things into existence. And then when he made humans, he said: "I'm going to make you in my 'Image,'" which basically means we're given a special role by the Creator to carry on (in small ways) the work that he began.

And then I'd point out that, if God creates the World by speaking, and we are made in his image; then it sort of follows that, to a lesser degree, humans "create worlds" by speaking, too. And it's true: human speech is always "world-creating" because our words create the realities we inhabit.

So when we take a word, for instance, that literally describes sexual intercourse, and use it in ways that are shocking, violent, degrading or empty; then, like it or not, in that spoken word we're actually creating a world where sex itself is shocking, violent, degrading, and empty for us. At the same time, we're destroying that world the Creator is after, where sexuality is affirming and tender and life-giving.

So the question is not: "did you utter any of the phonemes found on this arbitrary list of taboo words?" The question really is: are you using speech to create, or to destroy? Are you Imaging God in your talk?

That's a better answer, I think. And when we ask the question like that, interestingly, we find that there may actually be times when using words that are shocking, even taboo, can actually be a creative act, a step towards answering our calling as creatures made in the image of the creator.

Ezekiel, I think, got this.

So did the author of the Hebrews. In one place he's talking to people who are experiencing God's "discipline" and asking why, and he says (according to the NIV): "If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons." But the word translated "illegitimate children" there is actually a rather shocking term in the Greek, a word not necessarily suited to polite society (it's not for nothing the KJV renders it: "If ye be without chastisement ... then ye are bastards and not sons"). Because perhaps it's only in the shock of this scandalous speech that we actually feel the scandal of wanting to enjoy the Christian life without without the sometimes difficult but always loving discipline of God.

Even the author of Ephesians 5:4, I think, understood this power of speech. In Philippians 3:8, after listing all the religious accolades and spiritual accomplishments he's accrued in life, he says: but I consider all that "rubbish" compared to the goal of winning Christ. That's how the NIV renders the verse, but "rubbish," it turns out, is not near earthy enough. The word in Greek--skubala-- though not quite an "s-word" itself--certainly would have raised more eyebrows in the Philippian church than mere "rubbish" does today. The KJV renders it "dung," but for dynamic equivalence, I've heard that "crap" (or its scatological synonyms) might not be too far off.


And if we could hear that shocking skubala with the ears of the Philippian Christians Paul's writing to here, we might actually discover ourselves standing in a fresh-made world where there really is no crown in heaven or on earth that looks gold, compared to the all-surpassing riches of Christ.

And that's a big deal. It's never "just a word."

On Logophilia and Faith

As the header of my blog suggests, offering reflections on "words" (along with God, life, faith, love, and spirituality) is a raison d'etre for terra incognita. And the "words" part wasn't included just so the header would scan; as a Christian I'm quite convinced that the words we speak are of profound spiritual weight and deep theological significance. Don't believe me? Just read Colossians 4:6, or Ephesians 4:29, or Proverbs 16:24, or Proverbs 10:11, or the grand-daddy of them all, Matthew 12:36.


As Jaques Ellul says, "Since the beginning of time, human beings have felt a pressing need to frame for themselves something different from the verifiable universe, and we have formed it through language. This universe is what we call truth” and "Truth assails me and circumvents me with mystery. Everything seems to depend on evidence; reality is evident; sight, naturally, gives me evidence. But the truth is never evident” and "the word is the creator, founder and producer of truth” and “nothing besides language can reach or establish the order of truth.” (from The Humiliation of the Word).

So I'm reflecting on words today. Just words. I've written before about the brilliant website Word Spy a website that tracks the emergence of new words in our culture. I'd recommend it to any logophiles like myself who take the Good Book to heart, when it says that "Pleasant words are honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones"; or to any Colossians 4:6 Christians out there looking for a little salt for the shaker.


Here are a few examples from Word Spy's top 100 entries, especially chosen and included here because they challenge me to think a bit more deeply about intersections between faith and culture. Like, for example, how does Christianity speak a word to the problem of "nature-deficit disorder" or challenge us to re-evaluate our "joy-to-stuff ratio" ruthlessly? Or: how does our faith offer a real solution to the longing to declare "reputation bankruptcy" or the malaise of "apocalypse fatigue"? Or (if we could replace "skills" with something more specific to the Christian life-- grace, hope, love, perhaps?) is the Spirit's goal in the Christian community to create disciples that are spiritually "T-shaped"?

Just wondering out loud, or, as they say in guitar playing, just "noodling."

nature-deficit disorder: n. A yearning for nature, or an ignorance of the natural world, caused by a lack of time spent outdoors, particularly in rural settings. Also: nature deficit disorder.

reputation bankruptcy: n. A theoretical system that would give a person a fresh start on the web by deleting all of that person's online text, photos, and other data.

apocalypse fatigue: n. Reduced interest in current or potential environmental problems due to frequent dire warnings about those problems.

joy-to-stuff ratio: (joy-too-STUFF ray.shee.oh) n. The time a person has to enjoy life versus the time a person spends accumulating material goods.

T-shaped: (TEE-shaypt) adj. Having skills and knowledge that are both deep and broad.

Blogging in the Echo Chamber

A while ago I began a little online social experiment: I started clicking that "next blog>>" link which Blogger so conveniently supplies in the navigation bar of my blog (see above), just to see what would come up. After all, I reasoned, if terra incognita is indeed all about exploring uncharted territory, it wouldn't hurt to meet some of my undiscovered nextdoor neighbours in that neighbourhood called "the blogosphere."

But as I did so, I started to notice that every time I asked Blogger for a "next blog>>", I was taken to a blog that contained some Christian's random musings about being Christian, with a "life verse," the name of some church somewhere, or phrases like "Journey with Jesus" in the header.

(For example, these are the blogs I discovered after five consecutive clicks just now:

1. Learning the Faith: "This blog will serve as an outlet for all of the many wonderful things that I am learning regarding Faith and Religion." (Author's life verse: 1 Peter 3:15-16)

2. Sons of the Most Holy Redeemer in Christchurch. (Blogger Father Clement is a Catholic Priest living in New Zealand)

3. The Jesus Narrative. A place where "Christians talk about Jesus."

4. Grafted by Grace. From Blogger Kim Morgan's profile: "I have been grafted by grace into the good olive tree. (Rom. 11:17) I have lived a life that was less than glorifying to God, (James 1:21), but His Word set me free to become the woman he created me to be."

5. Outside the Boxes. A blog that "contains reflections from a fellow journeyer as he reflects on some of the places his faith informs his daily experiences to help you find those places in your life where that happens as well.")

After a month or so of clicking, it slowly dawned on me that this can't be entirely coincidental, that I should always discover a blog something sort of like mine whenever I asked for a "next blog." I started to suspect that there were forces larger than me at work here. And after a bit of investigation, I discovered them. From what I understand, the "Next Blog" feature is programmed to link you to blogs that are, some way or another, like yours. Apparently it matches words or tags or something, and finds statistically similar bloggers.

In a way, I guess, this is entirely intuitive. After all, if I'm after some interesting blogs, it's only natural that I'd want to read about people interested in the things I'm interested in: people who muse randomly about Christianity, just like me, people who read the same reads I read, people who like U2 like me, too.

And that's the problem, I think. It's all too natural, too intuitive.

I heard a social commentator on the radio talk about this intuition, our natural tendency to stick to only the most familiar strands of the world-wide-web. She said something about how social networking media are actually shrinking our social networks, because they use like-mindedness as the primary currency of relating. Then she said something about irony.


And then she named it all. She called it: "The echo chamber." An "echo chamber" is a social context where we exclude difference so that all we have to hear are our own ideas and opinions echoed back to us by faceless others who are statistically most likely to be like-minded.

So, as I do the lab-report for my little social experiment, I'm wondering about some obvious questions. Like, for instance: Is this maybe what we're all looking for in life, in a way? A convenient button we can click to rest assured we'll only discover people who are pretty likely, in the end, to be just like us?

And more poignantly: How do we try to make the church into an echo chamber like this? Do we "network" (so sad a term for human relating) only with those believers who are just like us? They don't necessarily have to, but do things like youth-groups and 50+ groups, or contemporary worship movements and traditional services at 9:00, or even those standard evangelical "statements of faith" that we use to identify what "kind" of Christian we are-- do these things function to make our experience of the Faith an echo chamber? And if we had a "next pew" button like my "next blog" button, that could ensure we're only sitting next to the spiritually like-minded, would we use it?

And if we did, what kind of a cheap substitute for that diverse, dynamic, multi-layered, mission-minded, multi-cultural, multi-tongued community of faith that Jesus wants to make us into, would we be settling for? If you're like me, and you got here by clicking for a "next blog," I welcome your thoughts on this one. If you're not like me, I welcome them all the more.

The Jesus who is... (2)

Here's the third sermon in our series on the I am statements of Jesus.

John 10:1-10. The Door

Of Magic Rings and Open Doors

I'm preaching on John 10 this coming Sunday, and can't help but think about my favourite Narnia book: The Magicians Nephew.

Remember this one? Andrew Ketterly, is a small-time dabbler in magic who's obsessed with the idea of finding a portal into another world. Digory and Polly stumble into his study just as he's discovered what he believes is the secret—a set of green and gold rings made out of some dust from Atlantis. He tricks Polly into using one, who is instantly whisked off to God-knows-where, and Digory has to use the rings himself to go after her.

Eventually Uncle Andrew’s magic rings bring Digory and Polly to Narnia, where they meet Aslan, who gives Digory this impossible quest: he has to journey to the western edge of the world, where there’s a tree, in a garden, on a green hill. And he has to pick a silver apple and bring it back to Aslan to protect the world from the witch he's inadvertently brought with him into Narnia.

Okay: this is where my sermon prep on John 10 comes in. Because when Digory finally gets to this garden on a hill at the end of the world, he stands in front of its beautiful golden door, and on the door are these words: Come in by the gold gates, or not at all / Take my fruit for others or forbear / For those who steal, or those who climb my wall / Shall find their heart’s desire and find despair.

And Digory wonders out loud: “Well, who’d want to climb a wall, if he could get in by a gate.”

I can still remember the day first I read those words. I was about ten years old, and had just enough Sunday School in me to know that those words—the whole “come in by the gold gates or not at all” part—was a reference to John 10:1. I just knew there was a connection.

But what?

I've probably read The Magician's Nephew some 20 times since I was 10, and every time I get to that part I have this nagging hunch that there's something really deep going on. But I never stopped long enough to wonder it out.

Until just this week. I was working through John 10 and thinking about Narnia and something finally clicked for me. If, like in all the Narnia books, this magical world is a symbol for our life-together-with-God, then Uncle Andrew’s obsession—to find a portal into Narnia?—it's really about the ubiquitous human journey to find a connection with the spiritual.

Uncle Andrew's obsession is really Everyman's quest for a way "in" to life with God.

When you think about it like that, what stands out suddenly starkly is that all the people in the book-- Andrew, Jadis, even Digory himself--really are trying to enter the Spiritual Life by some way other than the gate. With all their magic rings made out of the dust of Atlantis and what not, they're trying to “climb up some other way” into Narnia—trying to "steal in" to life with God--instead of entering by the door.

And so with perfect logic, the gate of the garden at the end of the quest tells Digory the same thing Jesus says in John 10:1: only a thief would try to come in by some way other than the door.
And suddenly I'm seeing John 10:7 and Digory's choice-- and even the magic wardrobe door that will come of his choice in a later/earlier book in the series--all in new light. And in that light I'm wondering about what "magic rings" I've been using these days to try to steal into that life with God of which Narnia was but the dimmest shadow (a certain kind of success in ministry? certain human "tests" of my spirituality? a certain perception of myself as a pastor, husband, father, Christian?) instead of coming through the door.

When I Grow Up

Maybe it's the two week holiday I took at the start of July, or maybe it's just the fact that this is the first time in eleven years I haven't had the whole summer vacation off, but I'm thinking a lot about work and meaning these days. As my recent vacation back "home" (i.e. out west) has reminded me, in many ways I'm still learning what it means to be a "Pastor" for a living.

It's perhaps inevitable, and not necessarily unbilical that we should draw so much self-identity from our work. In his book Ethics, Bonhoeffer points out that work (along with family, worship, and governance) is one of the four original mandates for the Adam in Paradise. The writer of the book of Ecclesiastes would probably agree; after all, he reminds us, to be happy in one's work, this too is a gift from God. And having work that humanizes us-- that puts us into honest and reciprocal relation with the people around us, that connects us to the earth that feeds us, and helps us understand ourselves in terms of a meaningful contribution to the common weal of society-- this, too, surely, is from the hand of God.

Don't believe me? Well ask a child what she wants to be when she grows up. Better than a Rorschach test, that. It is, in many ways, one of a child's first acts of self-definition, one of their first efforts to consider their own contribution to the social fabric and to understand who they are, or might be, in relation to the world outside.

For interest sake, here's how I answered it at various stages in my life (and for the record, you can click here if you want to see how life really panned out):

1. Writer (age ?5). I'm not sure how clearly defined this ambition was, but I still remember my first two works of fiction: Fuzzy the Bear (a gripping adventure story about an astronaut bear named Fuzzy and his rocket journey to the moon), and Mr. Who (a suspenseful thriller about a hooded murder named Mr. Who that I dictated to my Dad).

2. Scuba diving instructor (age ?9). My Dad did scuba diving when I was a kid, and this is back before it became a relatively straight forward recreation activity. Once in a while we'd get him to bring his scuba gear to school for show-and-tell, and maybe it was watching my class sit mesmerised as he explained things like the regulator and the weight belt that I first decided this would be an ideal career.

3. Professional wrestler (age ?11). Seriously (no: seriously). My wrestler's name was going to be something like "The Mongoose" and my finishing move involved a back flip off the top rope. Luckily as I aged, my body-mass grew considerably less than my ambition.

4. Archaeologist (age 13). The Indiana Jones movies had made "archeology" synonymous in my mind with exotic treasure hunts and adventurous quests for lost civilizations, and the Egyptology books in our school library added mysticism and esoterica to the mix, making "archaeologist" a tantalizing career choice for an imaginative 13-year-old. They told me, when I asked about it, that a real archaeologist uses a sieve and brush more than a bull-whip, but I just didn't believe them.

5. Comic book Artist (age 14). The margins of almost every notebook I had in Junior High were crammed with doodles of ninjas, knights and random superheros. I even went to a comic book fair, with a portfolio stuffed with drawings of my own superhero designs. I asked one of the famous artists there how I might go about becoming a comic book artist. His answer was blunt, a bit deflating, and, looking back, rather obvious: "First you have to learn how to draw."

6. Teacher (age 14). Wouldn't you know it: career day in grade 9, and neither comic book artist nor archaeologist was on the list of careers for us to chose from for our career-day research project, so I picked what seemed at the time the next best thing.

7. Novelist (age 22). I actually stuck with teacher, more-or-less, right through the rest of high school and into university. For a short stint between the end of my time at university before starting my first job as an English teacher, I toyed with the dream of becoming a novelist. I even tried my hand at it, and got all the way to the twenty-some-rejection-slips in the mail-box-stage before shelving it. Oh well, there's always teaching.

The Jesus who is ... (1)

We've been going through a series on the seven "I Am" statements of Jesus in the Gospel of John. Here's the sermon from yesterday, "I am the bread of life."


John 6: 34-51: The Bread