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.

It's Fun to Stay at the...

This summer my family signed up for a membership at the local Y. Nothing intentionally spiritual in this decision, we just wanted a bit of motivation to do some more active things together as a family. And that's primarily what it's been: the kids have signed up for karate, junior life-guarding club, swimming lessons; we've spent a few Saturdays together climbing on the climbing wall; we've made it down to the gym on a relatively frequent basis.

Like I say: there was nothing explicitly spiritual in this decision, we just wanted a bit of motivation.

But yesterday I was walking out of the gym after an early morning workout, aching arms and a vivid awareness that I was alive burning in my chest, and it struck me that the "C" in YMCA has always stood for "Christian." The roots are buried pretty deep now, but the YMCA was actually founded as a Christian movement, with the goal of improving the spiritual condition of young men in London England. Back in 1844, a London draper named George Williams was watching people flock to the cities looking for work, and seeing the effect of the Industrial Revolution on their spiritual well being. He was particularly concerned over the lack of healthy activities for young men, and their tendency to turn to unhealthy alternatives like gambling, brothels and taverns instead. So on June 6 he founded the first ever YMCA, with the Christian goal of helping young men develop a healthy "spirit, mind and body."

Again, those roots are buried deep now, but one hundred and sixty six years later, the YMCA still maintains its commitment to the three principles of healthy spirits/minds/bodies; and, while there is nothing explicitly Christian in its four core values, I doubt any Christian would take issue with a movement that encouraged caring, honesty, responsibility and respect.

I wonder, though, if there isn't something even more biblical to the three principles of healthy spirits, minds and bodies than meets the eye. Often the Christian understanding of the human being is coloured more by Greek philosophical categories than biblical ones, and so we tend to assume the physical body is somehow less important than the immaterial "soul," which, we hasten to add, constitutes the "true self."


This is a more complex theological issue than a 600 word blog post could ever unpack, but let me at least suggest here, in concert with a general consensus among contemporary biblical scholars and theologians, that such a dualism is foreign to the biblical understanding of the "self." If Genesis 2:7 can at all be our guide on these matters, then whatever else we are, we are nephesh-- living creatures made of matter-animated-with-the-divine-breath-of-God.

Put differently: I don't "have a body," biblically speaking, I "am a body." Or, as Marrianne Hicks puts it: "'I' come into being and live and grow ... in the inextricable interconnection of matter and spirit” Or as Stan Grenz puts it: "We must follow the lead of ... the Bible... and adopt a holistic view of the human person. ... The human person is by design one indivisible reality."

What does all this have to do with the Christian life? I'm not exactly sure, but if these readings of biblical anthropology are right, then I am, by design, a "psychosomatic unity," mind, body and soul. And walking out of the gym, or off the squash court, or away from the climbing wall with aching arms and vivid breath burning in my chest, at the very least these moments are small, helpful reminders of that indivisible reality.

The Jesus who is ... (6)

John 8:48-59. The Name

N. T. Wright on Terror, Joy and Easter

"In our fear of terror and joy we have forgotten the purpose of tears. We have become embarrassed by them-- and with good reason, since they are a God-given reminder of the truth which our culture, as much as any communist propaganda, has done its best to make us forget: that we are neither naked apes nor trainee angels, but humans, made in the image of God. Which God? The God who stood and wept at the tomb of his friend; the God who fell down and sobbed in the garden of Gethsemane. We have deemed tears to be childish when in fact they are childlike; and Jesus told us to be childlike. We have allowed or proper dislike of emotionalism to deceive us into trying to ignore our emotions. But if Good Friday and Easter don't stir our emotions, then the tyrant has indeed enslaved us. We have become like a garden paved over with stone slabs. Many people live like that; God help us, many of us choose it, rather than face the terror and the joy of our own hearts, let alone of Calvary and Easter."


N. T. Wright, Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994): 58.

Batter My Heart (Three Personed God)

John Donne has this quite brilliant sonnet known simply as Sonnet 74. Like most of John Donne's poetry, it rewards the deepest of reflection with hope and challenge. He really was a master at weaving Paradox, Reason, Mystery and Truth together into these beautiful word-knotts that capture the enigmas of the spiritual life with stunning clarity.

I remember sitting around a campfire with some friends a while ago, and one of them, out of the blue, asked if anyone knew any poems they could recite. Into the awkward hush that followed that too unusual request, another friend spoke these words of John Donne.


Sonnet 74Batter my heart, three person'd God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow mee,'and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt towne, to'another due,
Labour to'admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weake or untrue.
Yet dearely'I love you,'and would be loved faine,
But am betroth'd unto your enemie:
Divorce mee,'untie, or breake that knot againe;
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you'enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish mee.

One of the first songs I ever wrote was a musical response to this poem. Here's an old recording of it (2004), for the record.

Nine Poets for the Soul

Okay: not that I think most visitors to terra incognita are here because they've been dying to find out who my favorite poets of all time are, but the research I did before starting this blog told me that regular posting matters, and when at a loss, lists are always handy one-offs.

So, in keeping with terra incognita's interest in the connection between words and spirituality, I offer here the shortlist of my top nine favorite poets (I was going to make it the traditional ten: William Blake, Philip Larkin, Lawrence Ferlinghetti might all have contended for that tenth spot. But to be honest, none of them have hit me the way the following nine have, and if I were to have added one more to this list, it would only have been to make it reach a totally arbitrary quota. Who said you always have to have ten "top things" anyways?)

9. Leonard Cohen. for Annie, If it be Your will

8. W. B. Yeats Sailing to Byzantium, Falling of the Leaves, Hosting of the Sidhe.


7. Walt Whitman. Song of Joys

6. D. H. Lawrence. Glorie de Dijon, Shadows, They Say the Sea is Loveless

5. John Keats Hyperion, Lamia.

4. C. S. Lewis. Dying in Battle, Modern Poetry, After Prayers Lie Cold

3. Dylan Thomas, The Force that through the green fuse drives the flower, Light breaks where no sun shines

2. John Donne, La Corona, Resurrection imperfect, Divine Meditation 14

1. Gerard Manley Hopkins, I wake and feel the fell of dark, As kingfishers catch fire dragonflies draw flame, Gods Grandeur

In his spiritual autobiography, C. S. Lewis talks about the role that poetry played in his conversion. He says that as he approached the point of conversion, he discovered a "ludicrous contradiction between [his atheist/secular] theory of life and [his] actual experiences as a reader." Namely: "those writers who did not suffer from religion and with whom in theory [his] sympathy ought to have been ... all seemed a little thin. ... The roughness and density of life did not appear in their books"-- while the authors he felt he could feed on most deeply, and did-- George MacDonald, G. K. Chesterton, John Donne, Spenser, Milton, Herbert-- all "by a strange coincidence" shared the same unfortunate "kink": their Christian faith.

As he puts it: Christians were wrong-- but the rest were all bores.

At the time, he assumed these authors were good "in spite of" their faith; but as he reached the threshold of his own Aldersgate moment, he began to believe they were good "because of it." Only 3 of the poets on my list are explicitly Christian (Lewis himself, Donne and Hopkins), and many of the others are decidedly not (Thomas, Yeats, Cohen), but I think I get what he means about the best of Christian poetry expressing something of "the roughness and density of life" that secular verse can't get at. The operative word here, of course, is "best." There are times when perhaps Christian lit hasn't always been at its best, but then there have been times I've read a Divine Meditation of John Donne, and felt I had to hold myself perfectly still afterwards for fear the slightest movement might shatter the reverent word-spell he'd woven; and there are times I've read a G. M. Hopkins sonnet and felt like a tender fist had just crushed around my heart. And that too, I think, is a gift of God.

Food for Thought

Maybe you've seen this before. It was one of those shotgun emails with a subject line like "Interesting must see" or something, that came across my computer screen a while back. It's a photo essay that explores what people around the world eat in a week. After a bit of Google-work, I found out it came from this fascinating book on the same subject.

So, for instance, here's what the Revis family of North Carolina ate in one week:


By contrast, here's what the Ayme family of Tingo Peru ate in one week.

You can view the complete photo essay here, with pictures of families from, among other places, Japan (lots of fish), Italy (lots of bread), Germany (lots of cream), Chad (not much of anything). It's quite a thought-provoking piece that raises all sorts of questions about the food-stuffs we stuff into our maws.

Questions about what we eat. How much we eat. Where it comes from, and with whom we eat it (it stands out to me that in many of the non-western photos, it's not just a Mom and Dad and child, 3.2 people standing by their pile of food, but a whole household that spans maybe 3.2 generations). It also raises questions about imbalance of wealth and power in the world, or about the mechanized, modernized, synthesized food processing industry that we depend on in the West to laden our tables with so many plastic-wrapped edibles.

I've been thinking about these questions a lot lately. This is partly because I think there's something very spiritual about food that we've lost sight of in our world, where food no longer comes from the dirt and the rain and at the expense of living things, but from from a box in a store at the expense of our debit card. I don't think its coincidental, for instance that Levitical purity laws put such an emphasis on what you ate as part of your life with God, or that you sealed a covenant in the ancient world by eating a meal, or that Jesus ate with sinners.

Inspired by this photo essay to explore some of these questions a bit further, I spent a week tracking all the food I ate. It turned out to be a humbling and enlightening exercise that challenged me to think a little more deeply about food and its role in our lives. So, in the spirit of "What the World Eats," here's a picture of what it takes to keep me fed for the week:

Snow in June

Relatively regular readers of terra incognita may have noticed that this month's "CD of the Month" is The Northern Pikes' classic 1990 album, Snow in June. I actually picked up this CD last year for 2 bucks at a church yard sale in Columbus Ontario; and the minute I saw it sitting there, scratched jewel case stacked along side some old AC/DC discards, some tattered Tom Clancey novels and a box of random stereo parts labelled 25₵, it was like bumping into an old High School friend, 20 years later.

And popping it into the CD player on the drive home was like sitting down with said old friend over coffee for one long catch-up session. The edge of Shotgun Morning wasn't quite as cutting as I recalled, but Love these Hands and Am I in Your Way still perfectly evoked that happy ache for good things gone.

For reasons that go far beyond musical tastes, this album is one of the few that I'd rank as an "Album of My Life." Taken objectively, it's a bit of a diamond in the rough. The song-writing is solid, and the musical ideas original, but the production is a kind of spare and often the energy of the music gets lost in the mix, so depending on the given day and the particular track, sometimes you get more diamond, sometimes you get more rough.

But taken subjectively, this album has been with me through it all; and that's why I was so ready to shell out two bucks at the yard sale for a happy reunion. My friend Tom and I first heard "She Ain't Pretty" on the radio back in the summer 1990, and we belted out lines like "her ego wrote cheques incredibly fast, but her personality didn't have the cash" with gusto. I actually purchased my original (cassette) Snow in June on my first date with the girl who would later become my high school sweetheart and later still my wife. It was one of the few cassettes I packed with me when I went to live in Quebec as an exchange student in my grade eleven year, and whenever I missed home (which was often) and especially my afore-mentioned high-school sweetheart (which was always), it would pick me up, with lines like "Did you ever know a place where nothing ever changed, a place you've maybe called your home?" Years after that, when I'd started my career as a teacher and was commuting an hour each day to a job that was draining the soul out of me, it was the only cassette in the car for months; and on that long drive home each day, as I wrestled with the worst identity crisis of my life, it would challenge me with lines like, "Oh just wait until you're dead, we'll see just how big you were (you weren't no Columbus, Rembrandt or a Mozart)." And later still, when I'd finally put that identity crisis down for the three-count, and had become a new Dad, I'd often rock my newborn son to sleep singing the words of "Love These Hands" over him.

Listening to Snow in June that drive home from Columbus Ontario, all these memories, and many more, rushed home to me with the opening riff of "Dream Away", and lingered, bitter-sweet, right to the fading outro of "Snow in June." And they've left me wondering if the best albums aren't always these: the ones that have sealed our memories onto our hearts, by singing just the right song at just the right time, asking just the right question in a moment of crisis or offering just the right answer in a moment of peace, in a way that only music can.

I'll leave you with a few of my favorite lines from Snow in June, but along with them this question: if you had to choose an album that's "been with you through it all," which would it be?

"My perfect life may deceive me tonight
forgive me, I haven't been myself lately
I may survive if I don't jeopardize
what you mean to me"

"Sharp is the razor that cuts the vein that feeds the hand
It isn't my hand so why should I feel the pain?
You've gotta know where your razor is and what it does--
Isn't it lovely?
Isn't it beautiful?"

"I love these hands so soft and strong
I love these hands they can do no wrong
I love these hands, they belong to you
and I will love these hands my whole life through."

The end of the song and the end of the age

I once heard a lecture by theologian-of-the-arts Jeremy Begbie, where he talked about the connections between musical cadence and Christian eschatology.

In music, he said, cadence is essentially about the resolution of tension. The initial note creates a tension, disrupting silence with sound, and then, as we move away from that initial "home" into new and varied sounds-- a sub-dominant chord, a relative minor, a dominant-seventh and so on--we find ourselves in tension, our ear naturally listening for the melody to arrive back at its starting point in some way. Intuitively we want the tension created by the sound to resolve.

Cadence is one of the building blocks of music, and waiting for the tension to resolve and the song to arrive "home" is part of what keeps us listening. For example, here we move from a D major (tonic), into an A7 (Dominant 7th) and back again; the dominant 7th creates tension, but it also assures the ear that resolution is coming. And when that final "D" does land, no one has to tell us we've come home. The ear just knows.


Cadence is often used for key modulations, too. In this example we modulate from the key of C to the key of F:


Of course, we're not there yet. And the tension created by that last note sort of just hangs in the air, almost begging for resolution. We want to come "home." I once heard a myth/urban legend/joke that if Mozart were to have heard an unresolved Dominant 7th chord like that, he wouldn't have been able to sleep at night unless he heard this:


In his lecture, Begbie talked about the spiritual tension that musical cadence can create for us, and then he drew these poignant lines between cadence, resolution and eschatology. Because essentially, cadence is about looking ahead. It's about knowing that "home" is just on the horizon; and knowing also that the tension's not yet settled, but hearing at the same time that resolution is pending-- it's hanging on the air-- only a measure away.

Cadence, he said, is about hope.

But then he went on to say that sometimes unresolved cadence can be the most hopeful of all. Because sometimes when that unresolved sub-dominant chord or dominant sus4 is left hanging in the air, with no tonic chord to bring it back to earth at last, sometimes the breathless anticipation created in that musical space can teach us to be, if not at home with unresolved tension, then at least hopeful in it.

And the faith, too, is about knowing that home is on the horizon, and that the final resolution of all godless tensions is only a measure away.

And hopeful in unresolved tension, I'm learning more and more, is a very Christian way to be.

I've never forgotten Jeremy Begbie's lecture; and I've never listened to those unresolved suspended 4ths in U2's best work the same way since. I hear them now as these beautiful clarion calls evoking the almost-but-not-quite-yet longings of the heart.

A number of years ago I played this guitar arrangement of "Holy, Holy, Holy" in church, which starts in D and ends on an unresolved Asus2. I asked one of the musicians I was playing with what he thought (with none of this preamble about Begbie, cadence and eschatology). He wasn't sure. "Something," he said, "something feels sort of unfinished."And I thought: "Exactly."

Prayer for the Offering (4)

These posts of liturgical "prayers for the offering" receive more traffic-- both in online hits and in off-line comments from other pastors-- than I would have ever expected. I never would have expected, either, that I'd find it so challenging and inspiring to write them, when once a week every week I'm forced again to think through the theological significance of those little chips of metal and slips of paper (and blips of light on the bank machine screen) that carry so much power in this world.


For the record here are a few more offeratory prayers we've done at the FreeWay:

Perfectly-Wise God,

We remember how the Book you inspired tells us so bluntly:

“Keep yourselves free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God himself has said ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’”

You asked us there, God, to long for your faithful presence in our lives more than any material thing this world has to offer. And you asked us to let your faithful presence in our lives teach us to be content with the stuff we already have.

God, that goes so against the grain of this world we live in, where “discontent” seems to be the only measure of things and “more” the only thing worth desiring.

So we invite your Spirit to set us free from the love of money today, and ask you to give us deep contentedness. Make us fully satisfied in the promise of your unfailing love.

Cut against the grain in us we pray, so that we might give this offering today out of that contentedness; the peace of Christ which passes all understanding.

It’s in his name and for his sake we pray. Amen.


***


God, We think about the all-wise Law that you gave your ancient people long ago.

You told us: When we’re harvesting the land and we’ve missed some of the grain in the field, just leave it there. That way the homeless, the orphan and the widow will have something to gather too...

And when we’re picking the fruit off our trees or grapes off our vine, don’t go over the branches a second time. That way there’ll be something there for the homeless, the orphan, and the widow.

And God, in that all-wise Law, you taught your people to remember: The outcast. The powerless. The downtrodden. And to remember that we were once where they are now. Or we might have been. Or we might one day be.

And you reminded us that wringing every last drop out of life—just for ourselves—squeezing every last bit out of the land—just for ourselves—grabbing and hoarding and consuming– just for ourselves. That’s just not your way.

So God, as we make this offering of money today—in this world where so few of us actually gather grain or grapes anymore—God, can you make this offering of money today a reminder of those very same things?

And then, God, can you give us the wisdom we’ll need to use this money in your mission in the world: to include the outcast, to lift up the powerless, to defend the downtrodden. And to show the world that wringing out every last drop for ourselves alone... that not the way of Jesus.

It’s in his name, and for Your glory we pray. Amen.

***


God, In this act of offering today, can you show us where our hearts are at?

Because we remember how your Son Jesus told his followers: don’t store up treasure on earth, where things rot and fail and get stolen. Instead, he said, instead store up treasure in Heaven—imperishable, unfailing, unsteal-able treasure in Heaven— “Because where your treasure is, that’s where your heart will be, too.”

That’s what he said.

So God, can you show us where our hearts are, today, by showing us what our treasure really is? Let this moment here be about more than just putting some money in the plate as it passes by; let it be about discovering where our treasure really is—what we really trust in, and what we really hope for.

And God, if we’ve stored up earthly treasure, as a substitute for heavenly treasure, O God, as hard as it might be to see, can you show us that, too? Because we want hearts fixed on heavenly treasure today: the imperishable hope, the unfailing faithfulness, the unsteal-able love that you’ve offered us in Jesus Christ. It’s in his name, and for Your glory we pray, Amen.


***


God: you taught us that it is more blessed to give than to receive.

So we pray now that you would increase our blessings: give us many opportunities to give, deepen the wisdom we show as we give, and multiply the joy we discover when we give.

Teach us to distinguish between uses of money that enrich life, and uses of money that actually kill the life in us. And save us from making these gifts today a substitute fo the gift of ourselves. Instead, may they be outward signs of our inward commitment: an act of total self giving, for Jesus' sake, in whose name we pray, Amen.*

*based loosely on a prayer found in W. B. J. Martin. Acts of Worship. Nashville: Abingdon, 1960. p. 186.

Soaring with the Eagles/Running with the Bulls

There's an old Christian tradition that connects the Four Gospels of the New Testament to the four "living creatures" that John of Patmos saw in the Throne Room of Heaven (Revelation 4:7). If you remember, a man, a lion, an ox and an eagle all cried praise to the Lord, in a vision that seems to draw pretty heavily on Ezekiel's earlier glimpse of the four heavenly creatures surrounding the chariot of Yahweh, each with the face of a man, a lion, an ox and an eagle.


The symbolic connections here, I suppose, would have been irresistible to the imagination of an early Christian: four cherubim with four faces draw God's chariot in Ezekiel's vision of heaven; later four creatures cry an incessant trisagion around the throne of God in Revelation; and then four canonical Gospels proclaim the Good News about God's love for his creation as expressed in Jesus Christ-- and so there's this old Christian tradition that associates the Gospels with the four "living creatures" of Revelation 4:7. Matthew is the Man, Mark the Lion, Luke the ox, and John the eagle.

And I mention it here because I've noticed that, while the Gospel of John has always been my favorite gospel to read (and I would have rated Luke third or fourth), practically speaking I've preached far more Lukan texts this past year than Johannine (2 to 1); in fact I'd go so far as to say that Luke is my favorite gospel to preach while I often find preaching John a challenge. I humbly confess this here, hoping that all this talk about having a "favorite gospel", or ranking the Word of God like some short list for the Booker Prize doesn't come off as a total act of hubris on my part: it seems I'd read John before Luke, but I'd preach Luke before John.

I'm not sure why this is, exactly, except that Luke seems pretty determined to give us just what he promised Theophilus at the outset: a "carefully investigated" and "orderly account" of the Good News (see Luke 1:1-4). So he's always leaving helpful signposts to his "point" in any given passage, dropping key words and other semantic cues like bread-crumbs to help the preacher on his way. John, by contrast, lays out these convoluted labyrinths of words-- about a word, for instance, that was in the beginning, and was with God, and was God, and was with God in the beginning, and was the source of a life that was a light that shone in an uncomprehending darkness and came in grace-filled flesh with the truth to his own who did not receive him... I mean, these are exhilarating to wander, but hard to know when you've reached the end. As N. T. Wright once put it, John just leads us to the top of the mountain and then says: look, on a clear day you can see forever.

Or, as ancient Christian tradition once put it, Luke's the ox; John's the eagle. And I find it's true: preaching John is kinda like trying to point out an eagle circling way off in the blue while we all squint into the sun together ("No over there... no just to the left there... look... see that cloud shaped like an angel?... well that black speck just to the right of it...); whereas with Luke, I'm learning, it's kinda like running with the bulls: just keep every one's feet moving together because he's coming through, and after he passes we'll all feel the thrill having brushed just a bit too close for comfort with very stuff of life.

The Jesus who is ... (5)

John 11:17-27: The Here, After

The G-3 Summit

Terra Incognita went a bit more literal than usual last week in its quest for unknonwn lands, when my father took me and my son on a week-long canoe trip into the back-woods of Algonquin park. We called it, at one point, the G-3 summit (G for "Generations").

Now, tourism Ontario isn't paying me to say this or anything, but for the record let me just put it out there that there's some absolutely amazing country up that way. Once or twice I almost felt guilty camping there, it was so peaceful and lonely and beautiful. I kept expecting someone to come along and say: "Hey, you can't sleep here-- this is a private resort." But no one did; and we enjoyed some really great camping, back-packing, canoeing, swiming, rock-climbing, cliff-jumping, fishing, portaging, and just general bonding.

One of my friends talks about the "3 T's" that sons need from their fathers (touch, talk, and time). There's something to that, I think. At least there was that one night, after too much camp-fire coffee on my part, and too much frog-hunting on his, that neither my son nor I could sleep, so we took our mats and sleeping bags out under the stars and just lay there in the light of the full moon for about three hours, talking about life, and relationships and corny movies until we drifted off. And then there was that day when our camp sites were three portages apart and when we finally got there we still needed firewood, so my Dad and I spent the next couple of hours bucking up an old dead tree he dragged out of the woods until I could barely lift my arms anymore. And I'm left wondering if, instead of the G-3 summit, we might have called it the T-3 summit.

Anyways, still mulling this all over, I thought I'd post a few pictures from the trip here:
learning how to get back in again

learning how to evacuate a canoe


one of the other loons on the lake
the start of the long walk
fishing

How Do You See?

When you think of your bowels, do you think, primarily, about feelings of mercy and compassion?

I don't. But then, I'm not a 1st Century Palestinian. For them, the "bowels" (in Greek splangnon) were the seat of your tenderest affections, where things like pity, and empathy, and compassion came from. Usually we associate these things-- tender affection and warm feelings- with the heart, like when we say: "my heart really goes out to you." But in Jesus's day it wasn't your "heart," it was your "bowels." (Look, for instance, at 2 Cor 7:15, Phil 2:1, Col 3:12, Phm 1:7, 12, 20, or 1 John 3:17 in an old KJV, but don't try writing "My bowels go out to you" on your next Get Well Soon card (especially if it's for someone who's just had a coloscopy).)

But I'm not trying to be gross. I'm saying this to illustrate how easily we can miss the point if we don't remind ourselves that moderns and ancients often used different "psychosomatic categories" for talking about the body.

Sometimes, for instance, we hear people quote Jesus when he said: "These people honour me with their lips but their hearts are far from me." And because we use the "heart" to describe our emotions, we conclude that Jesus is saying he wants people to worship "with emotion." Now, it may be (and I believe it is) that Jesus wants people's emotions engaged when they worship. But in the Bible, the “heart” actually refers to the whole "inner self," and not exclusively, or even primarily, the "feelings." The "heart" is the seat of knowledge and reason (Mk 11:23, Ac 7:23; cf. Ex 35:10, Deut 8:5, 1 Kin 10:2, 1 Chron 29:9), will and resolve (1 Cor 7:37, Eph 6:22; cf. Ex 23:2, 1 Sam 9:20, 1 Chron 24:4), affections (Ac 2:26, Jn 16:22; cf. Deut 11:16, 1 Sam 1:8), and is better understood as a parallel to the “soul” than to “emotions.” Jesus’ criticism is not that the Pharisees lack emotion, but that their adherence to empty tradition at the expense of real holiness betrays hypocrisy, and is a sign that their “inner selves” are not aligned with God.


And speaking of "inner selves" and ancient psychosomatic categories, have you ever thought about Jesus' saying in Luke 11:34 about how the eye is the lamp of the body, and when the eye is good, the whole body is full of light? Modern science always told me that light goes into the body through the eye, so I always figured that Jesus' point here was that the eye is like a lamp letting light into the body, lighting up the soul, and if the eye is working properly, then the whole inner self will be full of light.

But then, I'm not a 1st Century Palestinian. Apparently many, if not most ancients, when they thought about it at all, believed that the eye "saw" by emitting light out from the body. This ancient theory of vision is called "extramission." And if you believed in extramssion, then the eye would be the lamp of the body in a way similar to how the headlights are the lamp of a car.

If Jesus is taking to a 1st Century Ancient Palestinian, then it's quite likely he means: "If your eye is good, it's because your whole body is full of light." The light that's "inside" will determine how the eye's seeing, because what's happening on the inside (light or dark) is what shines out, and will determine how you look at the world.

The question is not "is your eye working"; it's "is your heart full of light?" Because, as Jesus says elsewhere, "If the light that's in you is darkness, how great is that darkness."

When I do this psychosomatic shift in my imagination, the whole saying makes perfect, profound sense to me. And I discover it's quite true after all: as the light of Christ illuminates ever deeper and darker corners of my heart, I find I'm looking at the world more and more differently. And when I let the light of His Spirit shine out through the lamp of my body, I discover I really am seeing the world in ways I've never seen it before. The worldly treasure and ambitions and distractions that once looked so tantalizing now seem rather shabby; and humble things, simple things, pure things that I might never have given a second glance before, start to gleam with transcendent beauty.

St Brendan's Prayer

And while I'm sharing musical adaptations of the prayers of Irish saints, I'll post this one, too.

St. Brendan the Voyager (484-577 AD) is one of the more fascinating of the early Irish saints. He's most famous for his voyage westward into the Atlantic Ocean, in search of the Island of the Blessed (which, if it happened at all, probably dates some time around 520 AD). The Voyage of St. Brendan the Navigator, the ancient Irish immram (a traditional navigational story) that recounts this voyage for us, describes such legendary adventures as his saying the mass to swarms of fish on Easter morning, landing on an island that turns out to be a giant whale (or in some versions of the story a sea monster named Jascon), and discovering mysterious lands in the western Atlantic, covered with vegetation. Some historians who have taken the time to sift through this fabulous hodge-podge of legend, hagiography, myth and history have suggested that the "western lands" in the St. Brendan legend represent, at the very least, pre-Colombian knowledge of the Americas among the early Irish seafarers.

There's a prayer traditionally ascribed to St. Brendan , and imaginatively set on western shores of Ireland, just before Brendan embarks on his dusk-treading sea voyage. Not that many of us will ever brave the wild white waves in any literal sense, but the imagery of the sea-voyage has always been archetypal for the spiritual journey (just ask Homer, or Melville, or C. S. Lewis, or John Patrick Shanley), and in that sense the prayer expresses something about the adventure and abandon of following Christ that still resonates; in that spirit I offer it here:



Here's the original text of the prayer that I was working from:

Shall I abandon, O King of mysteries, the soft comforts of home? Shall I turn my back on my native land, and turn my face towards the sea?

Shall I put myself wholly at your mercy, without silver, without a horse, without fame, without honour? Shall I throw myself wholly upon You, without sword and shield, without food and drink, without a bed to lie on? Shall I say farewell to my beautiful land, placing myself under Your yoke?

Shall I pour out my heart to You, confessing my manifold sins and begging forgiveness, tears streaming down my cheeks? Shall I leave the prints of my knees on the sandy beach, a record of my final prayer in my native land?

Shall I then suffer every kind of wound that the sea can inflict? Shall I take my tiny boat across the wide sparkling ocean? O King of the Glorious Heaven, shall I go of my own choice upon the sea?

O Christ, will You help me on the wild waves?