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.