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.

Bridges: an online CD release party

A few weeks ago I officially "released" my latest music project, a rock album called "Bridges."  The CD is a collection of original songs that I wrote mostly this summer during my trip out to Alberta (there're also a few tunes on the disc I've had kicking around for a while that I finally got around to finishing).  The whole disc was recorded by myself in my basement with a total of about $200 worth of recording equipment, and, other than the first few chapters of Home Recording for Dummies, I have no formal training in sound engineering or audio production, so think "diamond in the rough" as you listen-- heck, I'd settle for "cubic zirconia in the rough."  My only goal is to share a bit of my spiritual journey in song and hope it's an encouragement to others. 

You can download the CD here:  [CD Download]

You can also download the CD booklet here: [CD Booklet]

(PS: I tried to arrange the album as a bit of a journey from dark to light, so if you're going to give it a listen, I'd suggest beginning to end.)

The Book of Philippians (9)

Here's our next sermon on the Book of Philippians.

Philippians 4:1-9 "Practicing for Joy"


Prayers for Illumination

In my last post I mentioned prayers for illumination that I've prayed (after reading the scripture and before the sermon) that are based on, or "riffs on" specific Bible verses. The example I gave there was:

Your word, O Lord, is a lamp for our feet and a light for our path. Help us to see clearly by it today, we pray. Amen.


For the record, and in case you're a preacher and the idea of "praying the word" before "preaching the word" intrigues you, I thought I'd post a few more "prayers for illumination" I've prayed in the past at the FreeWay:

God, your word is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword; we pray that it would be so here today as we turn to it now.  Amen.

God, we know that all scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, correcting, rebuking and training in righteousness. We pray that it would be so for us this morning as we look to it now. Amen.

God, just like the rain comes down from heaven and doesn't return to heaven without watering the earth and making it fruitful, so is your word which comes out from your mouth:it doesn't return to you empty but accomplishes your purposes for it. May it water our hearts today and make them fruitful for you. Amen.

God, the Psalmist said:  how sweet is your word to my mouth, sweeter than honey from the comb.  Amen. May it be so here: give us an unquenchable taste for your word, here today.  A sweet-tooth for the things of God, we pray. 

God, we know that the man or woman without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them because they are spiritually discerned.  We ask, Lord, that this would not be true of us today.  Give us your Spirit, so that we may understand and accept your Word and what it would say to us here.  Amen.

Praying the Word

If ever you've spent time with someone who's new to this "Faith thing," one of the questions that will often come up is: "How do you pray?" The most common response to a question like this is something along the lines of: "Praying is just talking to God, and you can talk to God just like you're talking to me now. Just talk to him." I fully understand the motive behind this kind of response. It helps people understand that the Christian God is real, and personal, and that he takes us as we are, and that he is so active in our everyday life that we can speak to him in everyday language.

I get all that and I think it is important.

But to be honest, I've always found something a bit unsatisfying about this answer. Because, really, you can't talk to God, just like you talk to a flesh-and-blood human being, and in asking the question, the "newbie" is recognizing that there is something sacred, something sacramental, something other about prayer, and I don't know that it's especially helpful to disavow them of this belief. Prayer is a sacred act and, while it's true that Jesus is always perfecting our prayers in heaven, no matter how imperfect they may be on earth, growing Christians should be maturing in their prayer life, too.

So I've been thinking about all this lately, and one of the things I keep coming back to is how seldom you hear Christians- especially "lifers"-- using the words of the scriptures to form the content of their prayers. This is, I'm becoming more and more convinced, the "lost art" of Christian prayer. Speaking the words of Scripture back to God, and letting them form the content of our prayers.

Some concrete examples may help. Let's say, for instance, I'm praying for someone in crisis. In the past my prayer might have sounded something like: Lord, we just want to pray for so-and-so that you would just help so-and-so and just give them peace about such-and-such.

These days, as I try to let the words of the scripture form the content of my prayers, I pray something like: Lord, you tell us not to be anxious about anything but in everything, by prayer and petition, to present our request to you. And you promised that when we do, that your peace, which transcends understanding, will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. So that's what we're doing now: we pray for so-and-so, that the peace of Christ which transcends understanding would guard their hearts and minds...

Okay, that's maybe a wordy example, but let's say I'm praying for someone who is having trouble making some life decision. In the past I might have prayed something like: "Lord, we pray for so-and-so, that you would just help them know what they're to do about such-and-such."

These days, as I try to let the Scriptures form the content of my prayers, I find myself praying things like: Lord, you told us that if anyone lacked wisdom, they should ask you because you give generously to all without finding fault. And that's what we're doing for so-and-so, Lord: please give so-and-so wisdom about such-and-such generously, without finding fault, just like you promised to do....

A final example: when preaching, I always try to pray a short prayer for illumination between the reading of the scripture and the sermon itself. In the past these have been impromptu, wordy, drawn out and vague. These days, as I let the words of Scripture form the content of my prayers, I pray something like:  Your word, O Lord, is a lamp for our feet and a light for our path. Help us to see clearly by it today. Amen.

I could go on, because such is the breadth and depth of the Scripture's themes, that there really is no life experience we might go through that it doesn't address, and give us words to address God with in return. And that's what's happening, really, when we use the Scriptures as the content for our prayers: we're addressing God's own self with God's own words; we're entering the throne room of heaven with heaven's own "language" (so to speak) on our lips. And that's something sacred, I think.

(A final corollary of praying the scriptures I've noticed: to pray like this, I need to know what the scriptures say. To have memorized them, or, at the very least, to have internalized the gist of them so that they are on my lips, and ready to speak back to God in any given circumstance. I'm not a traditionalist, per se, and I've never decried the fact that "we don't emphasize scripture memorization anymore," like I've heard some old-timers do, but there's something to this. If I'm going to speak God's word back to him in my prayers, I need to have a heart saturated with it. And this won't happen without conscious discipline and intentional effort.)

The Book of Philippians (8)

We're still working through Philippians at the FreeWay. Here's the 8th installment in our series.

Philippians 3:12-21. Eyes on the Prize

Inspiration, Imagination, and the Image of God

There's a story from the cradle of humanity that describes God creating human beings by the power of his speech, and it says that he created them in his image, "male and female, in the image of God made he them." There's far more going on in these few simple words from Genesis 1:27 than could ever fit into a 500 word blog post (indeed, they've inspired theological words-in-response at a ratio of something like 1,000,000:1) but what I'm thinking about today is the fact that, in the ancient world, a king who had conquered a land would then set up his image (zelem) in that land, the idea being that the image would effect, extend and continue the King's reign even when the King himself was not physically present.   And in the ancient world's framework for cosmogony (stories to explain how the cosmos came to be), creation always happened through an act of conquering and subduing chaos.  So in Genesis 1:  God conquers the formless-and-void chaos of the world-in-the-beginning, and, once the wild and waste world is formed and filed with verdant life, he sets humanity as his kingly "image" in the newly-conquered-Creation.  The implication here (among other things) is that humanity is called to extend, effect and continue the creative work he has begun.  And the implication here is that one of the ways we "image God" is through the exercise of our own forms of creativity.

And with this all in mind, I can't help but notice that the words we most often use to describe the human act of "singing/drawing/carving/writing/making original things that didn't exist before" link it to divine things.  There's "creativity" itself, but there's also "inspiration" (to be "breathed" into), and there's "imagination" and "visionary" and "musical" (connected, of course, to the Greek Muses).  All of these words seem to be feeling around the etymological edges of that spiritual "thing" that happens when human beings act creatively.

I mentioned before that I started doing some songwriting this summer after a three year dry spell.  What I didn't mention then is how the dry spell broke.  It was the morning I sat down on the edge of the bed in the basement of my father in law's house with my wife's mom's old nylon string guitar (which I always dig out of the storage room whenever I visit).  I was lamenting the fact that it had been so long since I'd even felt like really singing, that in three years I'd had neither the time nor heart nor inspiration to say something musically, and that whenever I tried, the words always escaped or the tune eluded me. 

I was just kind of strumming over this sadness, and I started muttering some stuff about inspiration having walked out on me.  I happened to remember that in Greek myth, Calliope is the muse of epic poetry, and suddenly this image sprang up in my mind of a melancholy lover waiting for his girlfriend (Calliope) to come back to him.  Slowly the ice began to thaw.

Here's the song that eventually came out of that morning.


Hey, Calliope

Previously on terra incognita...

I'd mentioned that I am working on a number of new writing projects that are taking up time otherwise dedicated to blogging.  Among these is a collaborative theology blog with a couple of other FMCiC pastors that I hope to have up and running in a few months-- stay tuned for that. 

Another writing project I've had on the go since August is a new album of music.  This summer, as I dragged myself across the finish line and out west for a three week furlough from the ministry, I found myself sitting in the middle of one of those dark nights of the soul that the spiritually wise sometimes talk about. This isn't the best forum to unpack everything that was going through my head and heart then, except to say that in the middle of it, as God graciously and patiently sat there in the darkness with me, he started to give me some new songs.  I haven't had a rendezvous with "sister inspiration" in almost three years, and while many of these songs were darker and raw-er than any I've written in the past, this unexpected return of an old friend was a restorative to my soul.

I've been arranging and recording and generaly polishing them up in the last few months, and hope to "release" my new album, called Bridges, very soon. In the meantime, and by way of a sneak-peak, I offer this one here, based (loosely) on the darkest Psalm in the book:

nadir


By the banks of Babylon, that's where we hung our song
Cursed if we forget the tune, cursed if we sing along
     They said: when you reach the nadir of the heart, will he be there?
      There at the apex of the hurt and the despair?

Trying to write the final page of this tale of emptied hells
Vacant masks and leering laughs, this lie I know so well
     And when I reach the nadir of the heart, will you be there?
     There at the apex of the hurt and the despair?

Nothing left to hold on to, nothing left to say
Staring down the barrel of night, praying for the day
     He said:  When you reach the nadir of the heart, I'll be there
      There at the apex of the hurt and the despair



Never thought I'd be that guy...

When I first launched myself into the blogosphere two years and a bit ago, one of the things I noticed was the high number of blogs making apologies for "infrequent blogging of late," vowing to do better in the future (often these were stale dated, ironically, by a few months), and/or explaining why they hadn't (usually these included variations on the expression: "busier than a rented mule"). I remember, in those optimistic early days of blogging, committing to never being that guy; and yet, to my chagrin, I notice that a month has gone by since my last meaningful post. Not that I lack for blogging ideas-- I am replete with life-observations that need a good blogging-- but I've also taken on a number of new writing projects in the last few months (some of which I hope to share here at terra incognita in the near future), while the ministry at the FreeWay has entered a whole new chapter that has required much more of my spiritual and creative energy than it has in the past. All of this is my way of acknowledging that this fall terra incognita has been pretty quiet, and my way of predicting that this trend will probably continue for a few more months. I'll still post my sermons from week to week, and I'm not shutting things down altogether-- God willing, a perfect combination of "something to say" and "the time to say it in" will still coalesce-- but I feel I need to ease off the pressure of regular posting for the next few months.

In the meantime, here's the fifth sermon in our series on the Book of Philippians:

Philippians 2:19-30 "Making it Work"

The Book of Philippians (4)

Here's our fourth sermon in our voyage through the book of Philippians:

Philippians 2:-1-11 "The Mark of the Cross"


The Book of Philippians (2)

Here's our second sermon in our walk through the Book of Philippians.

Philippians 1:12-19 "First Things First"

"The Baptism with which I am Baptized"

The other day I came across this stunning example of an ancient baptistry from the Negev (Early Byzantine). Amazing. I've preached four baptism sermons (I am, remember, a realatively green preacher), but this one photograph says a thousand words more than all of them combined, I think.

With what solemnity would we read Romans 6:4-6 ("Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.") if on the day of our baptism the baptistry looked like this?

It also helps me understand what Jesus must have meant in Mark 10:39, when he asked James and John if they could be baptised with the baptism with which he was to be baptised (meaning the pending agony of the cross). When they claimed they were up to the challenge, he replied: "You will be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with" (meaning, presumably, our union with Christ through baptism and the cross-shaped life we are called to live as his baptized followers).

The Book of Philippians (1)

Two Sundays ago at the FreeWay we began a verse-by-verse series on the Book of Philippians (We also moved into our new location at Kedron Public School, which I mention here to explain why, what with a lot of extra stuff on the go, I'm a bit behind in my blog-posts).  Anyways, here's the first installment in our series.  The second will be along shortly.

Philippians 1:1-11 "A Partnership Made in Heaven"

Paul in Philippi

Acts 16:25-34  Jailhouse Rock

A Priestly Inheritance, A City of Refuge

I've been thinking a lot these days about the levitcal cities of refuge described at the end of the Book of Numbers (chpt 35).

In case it's been a while since you waded through the Book of Numbers, let me refresh your memory. It's right at the end of the desert wanderings, and the new generation of Israel is about to enter the Promised Land, Israel's ancient inheritance. So the Lord gives Moses instructions about the boundaries of Canaan, and some general directives on divvying up the land to the 12 tribes. Namely: they are to assign the land by lot to the nine and a half tribes of Israel entering Canaan (keeping in mind that two and a half tribes have already received their inheritance on the east side of the Jordan).

But then Numbers 35 reminds us that the tribe of Levi isn't going to be getting an allotment in Canaan because, as 18:20 has already indicated, Aaron (and by extension, the whole tribe of Levi with him) will have no inheritance in the land. Instead, the Lord himself is going to be the priestly tribe's inheritance among the Israelites. Rather than receiving a portion of the land, Levi is to receive simply "towns to live in from the inheritance of the [other] Israelites." These towns are scattered evenly throughout the Promised Land, seeding (in effect) a priestly presence in-and-among the whole people of God.

You can read in Joshua 20:1-9 how this command is carried out, but what strikes me here is that the Lord specifically identifies six of the Levitical towns as "cities of refuge, to which a person who has killed someone may flee." The idea is quite simple: in the case of murder, tribal codes of the sort especially prevalent among a nomadic society like Moses' Israel would require a blood relative to maintain tribal honour by avenging a murdered family member (see Genesis 34 for dark evidence that such codes were well known among nomadic Israelite society).

But such tribal customs and the violent blood feuds they inevitably perpetuate are deeply at odds with a civil society like the one Israel will become, as she stands at the threshold of the Promised Land and looks ahead to her future. In civil society, justice must be carried out by an impartial assembly according to a standard code of law; retaliation and vigilantianism has no place in a society governed by God's Shalom.

So God sets aside six of the Levitical towns as cities of refuge-- cities of asylum to which an accused killer can flee until he has stood trial and his case has been heard; and cities of shalom, where the innocent can escape the tribal custom of honour killings.

Now, I don't want to read too much into this, but here's what I can't get off my mind today: the priestly tribe had no inheritance in the land other than a special place in the Lord's plan to mediate his Shalom to the people. And with this inheritance came the cities of refuge; and with them came a calling to be a people among whom the accused found shelter, where the guilty found asylum and the harried found refuge until God's Shalom had obtained in their lives (in this case in the form of a fair and imparital trial).

And you can't reflect on all this very long before you remember that 1 Peter 2:5-9 specifically identifies followers of Jesus Christ as the priesthood of believers that the tribe of Levi prefigured and foreshadowed in the Old Testament. And if it's true, what Peter says about Christians there, and it's true what Numbers says about the inheritance of the preistly tribe here, then it would mean that in Christ we have inherited a calling to be "cities of refuge."  Our communities are to be places where the accused, the guilty and the harried can find shelter so that the Shalom of God can obtain in their lives (in this case in the form of the unmerited, all-gracious justification of God through faith in Christ); what's more, this calling specifically and directly precludes any material inheritance "in the land" (i.e. the comfort, wealth, privlege and security that such an inheritance would have meant for an ancient Israelite).

And the obvious questions are staring me in the face:  am I part of a community of faith that has traded in the wealth and security of its "inheritance in the land" for the privlege of being a "city of refuge" like this?  And harder still:  Am I willing to belong to such a community of faith?  And hardest of all:  what's my role in helping my church be the city of refuge that God in Numbers 35 is calling it to be?

A Stumper of a Sign

Last night I was reading from Paul's letter to the Corinthians, and I finally stopped to try and figure out something that has stumped me for many years. In 14:22, after a long discourse on the role and meaning of "speaking in tongues," Paul goes on to say: "Tongues, then are a sign not for believers, but for unbelievers."

For the record, I am not a "charismatic" nor a "cessationist" per se, but the stump for me is just this: in what way is speaking in tongues a sign for unbelievers?  A sign of what?  And how, exactly does speaking in unintelligible languages function as said sign?  And the stump gets stumpier, because in verse 23-25, Paul goes on to describe a scenario (ostensibly as evidence that tongues are indeed a sign for unbelievers) where the "sign" of tongues actually draws the scorn of unbelievers, and it's the sign of prophesy (which according to v. 22 is meant as a sign for believers) that convicts unbelievers and elicits from them a response of faith.

I've been stumped over this for a long time:  Paul says tongues are a sign for unbelievers, and then (it seems) he goes on to say that tongues do not bring unbelievers to faith at all, rather prophesy does.

But yesterday, I noticed that the "therefore" clause of v. 22 actually connects Paul's argument to the prophesy from Isaiah he quotes in v. 21:  "Through men of strange tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me."  And when you look up Isaiah 28 in context, you see that it records God's indictment against Israel for its religious apostasy and corruption, and his announcement of pending judgement in the form of Assyrian invasion (the "men of strange tongues" in question are the Assyrians, and the "strange tongues" in question is a reference to the language of the Assyrian invaders).

In Isaiah, then, Assyrians speaking in "incomprehensible languages" as they invade is a sign to unbelieving Israel that they are indeed guilty of corruption and apostasy (as charged) and that God's verdict against them is just.  And, of course, Isaiah's Israel failed to feel the portent of this ominous sign, and, in verse 14 are accused of being blind scoffers who, in their unbelief, are unable to heed God's Word.

In this context the Assyrian invasion (and by metonymy, Assyria's "strange tongues") is an incomprehensible sign to unbelieving Israel of God's judgment on their disobedience.

Flash forward now some 750 years, after the death and resurrection of Jesus has recapitulated and fulfilled the story of judgment, exile and return for the people of God that Isaiah is telling here, after the gift of the Holy Spirit that Isaiah promised has been poured out lavishly on the reconstituted "Israel of God" (i.e. any and all who confess the crucified and resurrected Christ as Lord).  Now Paul's claim that "tongues" are a sign to unbelievers makes perfect sense.

Obviously the charismata of tongues is a sign to unbelievers that God has punished and forgiven Israel's sin once and for all in the cross of Christ, because the promised "sign of tongues" (prefigured by the Assyrian invasion) now obtains in the Community of Faith that confesses this crucified Christ as Lord; and, further, it's a sign to unbelievers that such communities of Faith actually now comprise the reconstituted people of God, because the "sign" of Assyrian invasion that Assyria's "strange tongues" once announced to apostate Israel is now being announced (through the charismata of tongues) in the Spirit-filled Christian community; and further still, just like the Assyrian invasion once showed the world that Israel's sin has indeed been judged, so too the gift of tongues is a sign (albeit an incomprehensible one) to us that our sins have been judged through the cross of Christ.

And for those who disbelieve this inexpressibly good news, the sign of tongues not only remains inpenetrable, but actually points them out as unbelievers by their inability to understand or accept the phenomenon of tongues for what it is.

So no wonder that unbelievers in 1 Corinthians 14:23 scoff at what is, to them, an incomprehensible sign.  The unbelievers in Isaiah 28:14 before them scoffed at the signs of judgment Isaiah promised, too.  And I can't help but think of Babel's architects before them all as Paul's point slowly sinks in on me:  the confusion of incomprehensible tongues is a sign to unbelievers that their unbelief stands judged by almighty God.

A Sermon for a Baptism

Acts 8:26-40.  Here's Water

On the Road with Paul

I am preparing for a series on the Book of Philippians in the fall, and thought that to set the stage for it, I'd spend a bit of time in the Book of Acts, looking at Paul's story, his ministry and mission (hence the last two sermons posted here at terra incognita).  This Sunday's sermon was a look at the famous Damascus Road Experience.

Acts 9:1-19.  Called


Another Sermon from the Book of Acts

Acts 27:27-44.  Found at Sea

Happy Trails

Things will be quiet here at terra incognita for the next number of weeks.  The family's hitting the road for a summer road trip, and I'll be offline until sometime mid-August.  I hope to be back at the blogging wheel again before summer's out, but in the meantime, happy trails and happy summer.

40 (more) Foci for Preaching

Around this time last year I was reflecting on my preaching ministry at the FreeWay and posted this list of the focus statements of my first forty sermons at the FreeWay.  The "homiletical focus," as I said back then, is a concise statement that distills the point of the text and anchors the theme of the sermon in a single compelling, (hopefully) vivid sentence.  I'm at-or-around sermon #80 now, and feeling a little retrospetive, so I compiled this list of the focus statements of my last forty sermons at the FreeWay.

1. Romans 8:22-27: God’s Spirit labours in our weakest prayers

2. 1 Peter 2:4-10: God’s building a living cathedral made out of transformed people.

3. John 8:12-20: As God is my witness, I light the way.

4. John 6:34-51: I’m the food that will feed you forever.

5. John 10:1-10: I’m your doorway to God; and I’m God’s doorway to you.

6. John 10:11-21: I’m the God who gives his own life to give life to his own.

7. John 11:17-27: I’m the next life, happening now.

8. John 15:1-11: I’m the tree, you’re the branches, God’s the gardener, love’s the fruit.

9. John 8:49-59: Jesus is the I AM God.

10. Romans 1:14-17: The Gospel is the power of God at work.

11. Colossians 4:2-6: Pray and prepare for God to open a word door.

12. Acts 16:11-15: The Gospel stands at the crossroads with God.

13. Acts 17:22-32. I know the name of your unknown God.

14. Hebrews 10:15-18. Our God has remembered to forget.

15. Isaiah 11:1-10: The perfect son of Jesse brings us perfect knowledge of God.

16. Isaiah 9:1-7: God meets our greatest expectations through the great humility of a child.

17. Isaiah 2:1-5: The peace of God will reign in the end.

18. Luke 2:10-14: Don’t be afraid.

19. John 1:14: The glorious word of God has taken on our fragile flesh.

20. Matthew 2:1-12: Who has seen the child who upsets the status quo?

21. Matthew 4:1-11: So Jesus: what kind of Messiah are you, anyways?

22. Ecclesiastes 1:1-10: Nothing’s worth the effort in a world where nothing’s ever new.

23. Ecclesiastes 2:1-11: Filling up on pleasure only leaves you empty in the end.

24. Luke 8:26-39: The cure is sitting at Jesus’ feet.

25. Ecclesiastes 2:17-26: God can redeem the rat race.

26. Ecclesiastes 3:1-14: Everlasting God gives a season for everything and everything for a season.

27. Romans 6:1-11: Baptism shows the world I’m dead to sin and alive to God.

28. Ecclesiastes 4:1-3: I’d rather not live, in a world with no one to comfort the exploited.

29. Ecclesiastes 4:7-12: Togetherness is God’s best for us.

30. Matthew 21:12-17: The vulnerable see in Jesus what the self-sufficient never can.

31. 1 John 4:1-4: Love is a sacred choice.

32. John 19:31-37: Tonight your perfect Passover lamb is slain; his blood is on the doorpost of the world.

33. John 20:11-18: Let go of what was crucified; step into new creation.

34. John 20:19-23: Receive the Holy Spirit and let God unlock the door.

35. Proverbs 31:10-31: The King’s ideal Bride is the picture of perfect wisdom.

36. Philippians 4:9-11: Practice all the time for God’s peace (in your marriage).

37. Nehemiah 1:1-11: When the walls are broken down, that’s our call to fast and pray.

38. Matthew 28:16-20: I’m heaven’s authority on earth now—now go be my disciple-making disciples.

39. Acts 2:42-47: The Spirit-filled community overflows with life for the world.

40. Acts 20:7-12: Hey Eutychus: Wake up! Get up! And come to the table.

A Dominion Day Reflection

Yesterday I bought my first ever package of fireworks. We’re going to a Canada Day barbecue today, and the last thing you want to do is show up empty handed at a Canada Day barbecue. So there I was, standing in line at Walmart with my variety pack of Roman Candles under my arm, and thinking about how it wasn’t always called “Canada Day.”

I’m just old enough to remember this, but the name of our national 1st-of-July celebration actually used to be Dominion Day.  And that's because for more than a hundred years, from the first ever July 1st bash back in 1879, up until it was officially changed to “Canada Day” in 1983, the name of our nation-wide-birthday party was “Dominion Day”

Because up until about 1951, Canada’s official name used to be “the Dominion of Canada.” Because "dominion" means a place where a king rules, and Canada, of course, was established as a constitutional monarchy under the crown of Britain.

In fact, being a constitutional monarchy, the founders of Canada actually toyed with the idea of calling us “the Kingdom of Canada,” but they felt the phrase would be too provocative to our anti-monarchical neighbours to the south, so they settled for “Dominion of Canada" instead. No need ruffling Eagle feathers when you don’t have to. Hence "Dominion Day."

But there's more to it than that.  The story goes that the name “Dominion of Canada” was suggested by a certain Sir Lenorad Tilley, who took the idea from Psalm 72:8.

In the KJV translation, Psalm 72 says: “Give the king thy judgements, O God... He shall judge thy people with righteousness and the poor with judgment. He shall judge the poor of the people. He shall save the children of the needy, and shall break in pieces the oppressor. In his days shall the righteous flourish; and abundance of peace shall endure so long as the moon endureth. He shall have dominion from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth.”

Sir Leonard Tilley, we're told, saw that bit there about God’s king having dominion from sea to sea, and he was inspired with this glorious vision of a God-fearing nation having dominion from sea to sea to sea... from Cape Spear, Newfoundland to Tofino British Columbia... and history was born.  To this day, the Latin motto of Canada is  "A Mari Usque Ad Mar." From Sea to Sea.

So I was thinking about all of this, after I got my package of Roman Candles safely home and all. I was thinking about how a lot has changed in Canada since the days of Sir Leonard Tilley, back when the vision of a Christian nation would have seemed pretty plausible; and I was thinking about Psalm 72, and its glorious vision of a God-fearing people whose God-fearing king has dominion from sea to sea and how it’s hard, sometimes, it’s hard to even imagine what that would look like now a days.

I mean, sure, back in 800 BC when this Psalm was written, back when “theocracy” was the only system of government the social studies text books ever mentioned, back then you could maybe imagine it, but 2800 years later, in 2011?

What are we supposed to do with this vision of a “Dominion of God” in Canada today?

Because this is actually, the big question for us as Christians in public life: how are we realizing Psalm 72’s vision of a “Dominion of God” in Canada today? Not just because today is Canada Day (formerly known as Dominion Day), but because the truth is: God demonstrates his dominion through the loving work of his people.

In the loving work of his people. That’s where you glimpse the Dominion of God today. And suddenly Psalm 72 is echoing like a trumpet call across 3 millennia, summoning us to loving action in our world.

Because, what does Psalm 72 say things will look like when God’s King has dominion?

The poor receive justice.

The children of the needy are helped.

The oppressor is disarmed, and political, social, and economic systems of oppression are dismantled.

Peace reigns... in abundance.. as long as the moon endures.

I mean: what is this other than the work of God’s people? This is stuff followers of Jesus are supposed to be about in the world. It’s salt-of-the-earth kind of stuff. Light-of-the-world kind of stuff. City-set-on-a-hill kind of stuff.

And whenever Christians are involved in this kind of work in public life— in our nations or in our neighbourhoods—as we strive to bring justice to the exploited, and a voice to the vulnerable, and freedom to the oppressed, and peace to the troubled—as we answer the call of Psalm 72 on our lives, we’ll discover, I think, that it’s true: God demonstrates his Dominion, through the loving work of his people.

Did you hear the one about Lucky Eutychus?

Inasmuch as we're between sermon series at the FreeWay just now, I thought it would be the perfect Sunday to preach a text from my running list of most-obscure-Bible-passages-I've-always-wanted-to-preach-for-the-sheer-zaniness-of-the-text.  It was between the resuscitation of Eutychus (Acts 20:7-12) and the strange case of the Gethsemane streaker (Mark 14:51-52). Eutychus won out in the end, but what to do with Mark 14:51-52 is still simmering on the back burner.

Here's the sermon (with apologies in advance for the sound quality; our audio levels on the recording equipment were a bit off... I wasn't really bellowing the whole way through).

Acts 20:7-12  The Fortunate Fall


Monday Morning Media Round-up

Happy Monday, everybody. In the intrepid spirit of terra incognita I've been exploring some new media these days, and finding no shortage of gems. Like a cyber-Marco-Polo, I offer below some of the very best of my travels for your discriminating consideration:

From the Airwaves:

Seeds, Hey Rosetta!

I heard a track from Hey Rosetta!'s new album on CBC Radio Q, and 15 seconds in I was mesmerized. The whole album has lived up to the promise of that first 15 seconds. While I've wanted to compare it at times to Mumford & Sons, Radiohead, and Arcade Fire, there's something going on here that defies comparison. Every song is an organic, constantly evolving mini-world that becomes something new every 30 seconds. The songwriting reminds me of that line from Heraclitus: "You can't step into the same river twice." Neither can you step into the same Hey Rosetta! song twice, it seems. Oh yeah: and the production is near-flawless.

Unconvinced? Check out one of my favorite tracks from the ablum and tell me I'm wrong:



From the Blogosphere:

Experimental Theology

I stumbled across this blog on the blog roll over at this side of sunday. Richard Beck is a theologian/experimental psychologist at Abeline Christian University, and his work at Experimental Theology combines these two disciplines in fascinating and enlightening ways. I only wish I had the time to explore all the topics tagged in the sidebar (among which are series with tantalizing titles like "Alone, Suburban and Sorted," "The Theology of Humour," "The Theology of Ugly," and "Game Theory and the Kingdom of God").

Strech your mind and heart and check this blog out; and for a starter that's as light as it is heavy, I'd suggest you begin with his playful and masterful analysis of the theology of Calvin and Hobbes.

From the Tube:

The Century of the Self (part 1)

This four-part BBC documentary by award winning film-maker Adam Curtis traces the fascinating and often chilling story of Freud's influence on the shape of American culture. My friend Jon Coutts had posted a link to another Adam Curtis doc. called All Watched over by Machines of Loving Grace and after watching it I was hungry for more. A few Wikipedia searches and youtube clicks later, I was watching this one. I'm only 1/2 through it, but already my mind is surging. Give it a watch.

A Sermon for Pentecost Sunday

Acts 2:42-47.  The Church that Plays together...



Commencement

Matthew 28:16-20.  Commencement


37 Good Things

Last week was my 37th birthday.  This time last year I composed a list of "36 reasons I'm glad to be alive" and I thought a similar post for the big 3-7 might be apropos.  Reminders of reasons to love life, after all, might be first on the list.

1.  Sunshine in June
2.  The smell of a Russian Olive tree off in the distance
3.  Camping
4.  Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway
5.  People watching at the Y
6.  U2's Achtung Baby
7.  Q on CBC Radio 1
8.  Dead Poets Society
9.  Officiating at Weddings
10.  That dusty old book-page smell that hangs about
        your face when you're reading an old book
11.  Settlers of Catan
12. Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 "Emperor"
13.  Playing djembe on the worship team
14.  Building "Thomas the Train" tracks with a child
15.  Reading out loud to each other as a family
16.  Memories of backpacking through Europe
17.  Maps
18.  Cumin
19. Watching my son become a man
20.  Canola fields and blue sky
21.  Cool, humid mornings that promise to become
        a scorcher of day
22.  C. S. Lewis books 
23.  Playing Lost Heir with mom and dad
24.  Stumbling across a forgotten piece of one's own juvenilia.
25.  Family movie nights
26.  Rainy afternoons
27.  Walks in the forest park around the corner from our house
28.  Teaching
29.  Eating with chopsticks
30.  The Breastplate of St. Patrick (the prayer and the Irish hymn)
31.  Strong coffeee
32.  Watching home videos on New Years Eve
33.  Dancing with my kids
34.  Fresh garden potatoes with dill
35.  Stationary
36.  Words whose form and meaning are as close
         together as possible-- like sesquipadalian and tintinnabular
37.  Moments of inspiration

On Nehemiah's Wall

The Book of Nehemiah spoke into the life of our church in a very specific way this Sunday.  Here's the sermon:

Nehemiah 1:1-11. 
The City, the Wall, the King and his Cupbearer



Sqaush and the Spiritual Life

If you were like me growing up in church, analogies for the Christian life taken from the world of sport (and somehow these seemed ubiquitous in the pulpits of my youth) always came off as a little contrived.  The ones that didn't leave you flat felt forced.  I recognize, of course, that sporting analogies have a long and deep biblical tradition.  Paul himself likened the Christian disciple at various times to a boxer in training, a runner in a footrace, an Olympic athlete striving for the laurels.  But comparing an Ephesians 1:17 Christian to a basketball player putting up a hail Mary against the final buzzer in the championship game (true story, true sermon) leaves one feeling like the preacher cared more about his sport of choice than the text he was wrestling with that week.

My sport of choice is squash.  And the above paragraph is my disclaimer for the squash-court epiphany I'd like to share today.  I was playing with my regular partner the other day, and, though I started off strong, somewhere around the third game in the match, I noticed things starting to slip away from me.  I was running ragged, wearing down, chasing shots from pillar to post.  Between gasps for oxygen, I could smell skunk on the wind.

Now for those who haven't played, or maybe forget, there's a T roughly in the centre of the squash court (and a little to the back), where the two serving lines converge. It's the prime piece of real-estate in squash, because as long as you're hovering roughly over the T, you can see most of the court laid out in front of you.  From the T, you can anticipate drop-shots before they happen; from the T you can reach the back corners with ease; from the T you're in control of your game, and usually his as well.  But as my game slowly unraveled, I suddenly realized that I'd not been keeping on the T. Instead I'd been chasing balls all over the place-- into the front pocket, digging deep cross-court, down into the opposite corner, now kitty-corner to where I was before.  No wonder I was running down and running out of steam.

As I gasped for breath again between serves, I made a determined decision to stay on the T.  After my serve, hover on the T; after my return, get on the T; after that long lunge to recover a drop shot, back to the T.  And my game came back.  It was actually quite amazing how quickly peace descended on me, as long as I stayed on the T.

Now for the epiphany:  because in that moment, as I realized the difference staying on the T made to my game, I suddenly saw an analogy for the Christian life-- for my Christian life. When we "get off the T," and start chasing balls - our personal ambitions, fears, goals, agendas - into the corners and along the edges of life, the game unravels really quickly.  When won't hover on the T, we risk burning up our spiritual stamina and burning out our hearts.  When we fail to "get back on the T" after every shot, we wind up playing more and more desperately and out of control.

And the T is Christ. 

And almost like the sting of a squash ball between the shoulder blades, it walloped me:  "You've not been staying on the T." Blogs are probably not the best forums for true confessions, but let me at least say that right there on the court, in one of those rare flashes of clarity, I saw how sloppy I'd become in my discipleship of late, and next to that I saw how much burn-out and chaos I'd been feeling in my spiritual life as a result.  And I realized the two were intimately connected:  I'd not been staying on the T, and my heart knew it, and my soul had lost its wind because of it. The welt stung, of course, but it also woke me up:  as long as you're staying as close to Christ as you possibly can, and keep your eyes open for where he is in any given moment, and move there, you'll be playing (as Paul might have said) "in such a way as to win the prize."

I won't tell you the final score that day, but I will tell you that I left the court with new resolve and eagerness to play (if I haven't yet pushed the sporting analogy too far)-- to play with my heart hovering "on the T."

Creation and Covenant

Recently I've been looking through some papers and lit-reviews I wrote during my time at Briercrest.  Two years doesn't seem like a long time, but more than a few times I had one of those, "Did I really write this?" moments. I thought that over the next few months it might be interesting once in a while to share some highlights from what I've been finding on my stroll down amnesia lane (to quote Dead Poet Society alumnus John Keating).

The first comes from a paper I wrote on the book of Genesis. I noticed the other day that the church down the street is hosting a Creation vs. Evolution seminar in the coming days.  Seeing the advert reminded me of this excerpt from a paper where I argue that Covenant is best understood theologically as a Creative act of God.  This particular section talks about ways to read Genesis 1-2 in light of, and over against other Creation accounts from contemporary cultures of the Ancient Near East.  If it at all piques your interest, you can read the whole paper here.

Because of our temptation to limit creation to questions of cosmogony—pitting it against big bangs and primordial soups as the only adequate account of origins, and thinking about it primarily in Aristotelian or Augustinian categories of Primum Mobile, creatio ex nihilo and the like—the suggestion that Israel understood covenant theologically as a creative act of God may strike us at first as counter-intuitive. Before examining the way creation theology informs the Noahic and Abrahamic covenants, then, it is important to examine how Genesis actually develops and defines “creation” as a theological statement about what God does as the maker of heaven and earth. Terence Fretheim gives us a helpful pointer in this regard, when he suggests that “‘creation’ is not simply a matter of origination or a divine activity chronologically set only ‘in the beginning’”; indeed, “the verb bārā’, ‘create,’ so central to speaking of creation in Genesis 1, is used more often elsewhere in the Old Testament … for God’s creative activity in and through the historical process.” He further argues that to limit “creation” to absolute beginnings is “virtually to deny the possibility of speaking of creation with respect to the Bible,” in which acts of creation include acts of originating, continuing and completing—not just the order of the physical universe—but social, cultural and national order along with it.

Likewise, Richard J. Clifford warns us that failure “to be clear about ancient and modern differences [in defining creation] has often obscured the role of ancient cosmogonies in the Bible.” He proposes four distinct differences—the process, product, manner of reporting and criterion of truth— that should inform our reading of Genesis. Ancient cosmogonies imagined the divine process of creation in more anthropomorphic terms of gods moulding the world like clay, or speaking something into existence; they understood organized human society as a natural product of the creative process; they tended to conceptualize, and thus report creation as a drama or story “on the analogy of human activity”; and they held a more dramatic, functional criterion for truth which sought “plausibility or suitability” over “complete and coherent explanation.” With this in mind, it is helpful to consider Genesis creation theology in relation to those narrative patterns and archetypal motifs it shares with the ancient Near Eastern context into which it originally spoke, however radically and subversively it has reinterpreted them. In particular, important parallels among related Mesopotamian cosmogonies include the primordial chaos as symbolized by primeval waters, (cf. the waters of Apsû in the Atra-Hasīs), and the archetypal struggle to order this chaos as dramatized by a god’s battle against a sea-monster (cf. Marduk’s battle against Tiamat in the Enûma Elish). Further to this, the idea of a “creation rest” for the creating god “is commonly found in many of the creation texts of the ancient world.” It is also important to note that ancient cosmogony conceived of creation, not as an historical, linear, one-time event to be recalled, but as a timeless, cyclical and ongoing event to be re-enacted yearly through myth and ritual, whereby the life-giving fertility of the created order was sustained and perpetuated.

To be sure, the extent to which these myths have directly influenced the shape of Genesis 1-2 is subtle; Gunkel’s claim bears repeating that “the difference between the Babylonian myth and Genesis 1 is so pronounced, in terms of both religious attitude and aesthetic quality, that at first glance the two seem to have nothing in common.” But in the broader brush-strokes of Genesis’ creation narrative, we can see shades of that archetypal chaoskampf which colours texts like the Enûma Elish. We see its silhouette, for example, in Genesis 1:2’s description of a primordial world, shrouded by the chaotic waters of the deep, and brooded over by the hovering spirit of God. Likewise, the themes of forming and filling that give shape and content to the six day creation account become, in this context, a central concept for Genesis’ creation theology: to create is to bring and sustain fertile form out of chaotic shapelessness, to fill chaotic emptiness with life-giving order. This theology underlies the various creative acts in Genesis 1, as God, by speaking (1:3), separating (1:4), naming (1:5), gathering (1:9) and blessing (1:22), creates order and fertility—form and fullness—out of empty chaos. Indeed, the language of fertility and order permeate this text: the earth sprouts with vegetation, while lights govern its days and nights (1:11, 15); waters and firmament teem with fertile life, according to ordered “kinds” (1:20-22); blessed beasts increase and multiply, while humans are enjoined to govern and steward them well (1:26). Present, too, is that ancient intuition which understood “creation” as the divine story whereby the created order is continually sustained and cyclically renewed.  We see this intuition at work in the “signs” given to mark the seasons (1:14-15), in the divine mandate for humans to “image” God by further governing the created order (1: 26-27), and especially in the institution of the Sabbath as a ritual of work and rest synchronizing the rhythms of weekly life with those of the creation story. Thus creation extends far beyond merely “originating the natural universe.” By blessing family (1:28), planting and giving fruitful land (2:8-9), mandating work (2:15), sanctifying marriage (2:22-24) and so on, God continues creation by sustaining fertility and order, not only in a non-human “nature,” but also among human life and civilization as a created part of “nature.”

A Second Look at a Mother's Day Classic

This Sunday, of course, was Mother's Day.  They say that, next to Easter, Mother's Day is the most attended Sunday of the year for churches, statistically speaking.  While I appreciate the natural impulse to honour the maternal women in our lives, and the desire to return thanks to God for them, I have to admit that as a pastor, there is always a part of me that holds his breath through Mother's Day.  Not because I don't deeply value the mothers in my own life, but because, as a pastor, my heart is always going out to those who would be mothers but can't, or who have chosen not ot be mothers and feel singled out, or who lost their children through tragic circumstances, or whose mothers were lost to them, or who are struggling with issues of forgiveness or abandonment or failure when it comes to motherhood.  And as a pastor I can't help but wonder how this anthropocentric emphasis on things maternal must exaserbate those feelings.

All this is to explain why in my sermon this Sunday, though I did tackle a "classic" Mother's Day text, I tried to broaden and deepen the classic reading of it, and invite the FreeWay to go a bit deeper with it.

Proverbs 31:10-31  The Princess (?) Bride


More on Word Clouds

After my last post about preaching and word clouds, I was still wondering: what the word cloud for my whole preaching ministry over the last two years at the FreeWay look like?  Not a few cuts-and-pastings later, I had assembled all of my sermons to date into a single document and run it through Wordle's word cloud generator.  Here's what I came up with.  If you could visualize the cloud of talk hovering over the FreeWay these days, it might look something like this:


I find that curious and kind of fun; but it 's even more curious and more than a bit humbling when you compare it to this:  a (pretty stunning) glimpse at the word clouds of all sixty six books of the Bible: 


And because I couldn't resist, I also did this one: it's the word cloud generated by all the papers I wrote during my time at Seminary.    It's interesting to me to see how different the cloud is as it moves from the "Ivory Tower" down into the local church; but perhaps even more interesting are the similarities.

A Cloud of Witness(es)

The other day I stumbled across Wordle, a website that generates "word clouds" from any text that you paste into its word-cloud engine.  Essentially, it analyses the text, identifies statistically significant words and groups them together into a visually appealing clump; the more often the word appears in the text, the bigger the word in the cloud.  You can then play around with the font, color scheme, layout, and so on.

Word clouds give you a sense of a particular text's major themes, concerns and motifs at an aesthetically pleasing glance.  Someone used Wordle, for instance, to make word clouds of the 66 different books of the Bible.  Check them out here-- they are absolutely fascinating.

Of course, it didn't take me long to wonder the inevitable:  Inasmuch as the better part of my work lies in the world of words, what would the word cloud of my preaching look like?  Because I preach pretty much directly from manuscripts, this is a relatively easy question to answer.  Here, for instance, is a glimpse of the word-cloud hovering over the FreeWay during our recent 7-part series on the Book of Ecclesiastes.



And the next inevitable question, the question that may be, perhaps, the litmus test of a biblical preacher, wasn't long to follow:  how closely does the word cloud for my preaching match the word cloud of the Scripture I'm preaching from?  A humbling question, to be sure, but in some ways an arbitrary one. I could get the exact same word cloud by just reading the text and leaving it at that, and I wouldn't be preaching.  Nevertheless, it's a revealing exercise:  is the cloud of speech I'm raising each Sunday morning at all like the cloud breathing out from the Scriptures themselves?  Are my concerns its concerns, my hobby-horses its hobby-horses, my themes its themes?

For instance this fall I did a series on the "I AM" statements in the Gospel of John.  Here's the word-cloud that series generated:



And just to compare, here is the word cloud of the Gospel of John itself, produced by the good folks over at Sixty Six Clouds.  I will refrain from commentary and leave you to draw your own conclusions.

Flag Waving in the Kingdom of Heaven

In chapter 13 of Matthew's Gospel, Jesus tells a series of seven parables to help his followers imagine the Kingdom of Heaven.  Among these seven inter-connected and enigmatic word-pictures are some of Jesus' most well-known and well-loved parables, including the Sower and the Soils, the Pearl of Great Price, the Mustard Seed. 

A few years ago when I was studying at Briercrest Seminary, our Seminary Chapel was planning a special "Global Missions" service.  Normally we would use the flags of various nations to help capture and convey the international scope and global range of Christ's work in the world, but as I reflected on the symbolism of flags, it struck me how politicized, and polarizing, and even (at times) idolatrous these cloth symbols (and the concepts of Kingdom for which they stand) can become.  And I started thinking about the counter-Empire and anti-Empire posture the New Testament writers continually assumed.  And I started thinking about the way in which God's kingdom calls us in Christ to a radical realignment of our alligances to and our notions of kingdom.  And I was left wondering if national flags actually belonged in a service dedicated to celebrating the Kingdom of God after all.

And then I remembered Matthew 13, and I wondered:  rather than national flags, what would flags for the kingdom of God look like?  This idea started to germinate in my imagination and eventually I came up with this series of 7 "Kingdom of God" flags, symbolic representations of the seven parables in Matthew 13.

I am posting them here today, hoping you'll find them interesting; but also because I was up until 1:00 AM last night, watching the Canadian election unfold.  And as I listened to the various pundits and analysts earn their keep dissecting the unexpected results this morning, I kept glancing at these seven flags where they now hang on the wall in my office.  They were a helpful reminder that, for all the passion with which I participate in the privilege of Canadian democracy, I am, at the same time, the subject of a Divine King who bestows on me a Heavenly Citizenship which puts even the best-intentioned striving of our earthly nation-builders into eternal perspective.


Matthew 13:3-9.  The Sower and the Soils

Matthew 13:24-29:  The Wheat and the Weeds

Matthew 13:31-32:  The Mustard Seed

Matthew 13:33:  The Dough and the Yeast

Matthew 13:44:  The Hidden Treasure

Matthew 13:45: The Pearl of Great Price

Matthew 13:47-50:  The Net and the Fishes

A Second Sermon for the Easter Season

John 20:19-23. Sent



All Things New

John 20:10-18:  New



Blood on the Lintel of the World

Happy Holy Saturday everyone. 

Here are a few details from our evening Good Friday service at the FreeWay last night.


John 19:31-37:  Blood on the Lintel of the World

Books on the Book of Ecclesiastes

Two Sundays ago I preached my last sermon in our seven part series on Ecclesiastes. I found it interesting as I was working through this challenging book to note the number of other churches that were exploring Ecclesiastes at the same time as me. My parents' church in London had finished a series on Ecclesiastes just before I began mine; my brother's church in Michigan started a series on Ecclesiastes while I was still in the middle of mine; and a friend's church in Coburg was also working on Ecclesiastes at the same time as me. I've mentioned before how poignant and relevant I've found this book; it would seem it's been speaking in similar ways to a number of other churches.

For posterity's sake, I thought I'd share a few quick notes on the commentaries and resources I used in preparing this series.

Ecclesiastes:  Why Everything Matters, Philip Graham Ryken

This book was a bit of a disappointment to me.  Misunderstanding the series title ("Preaching the Word"), I purchased it assuming I was getting a pulpit commentary that would help me do just that (i.e. preach the Word).  Instead, Philip Ryken's book read like an extended series of sermons on the book of Ecclesiastes, which is precisely, I think, what it was meant to be.  It wasn't an entire waste, of course, inasmuch as seeing how other preachers have tackled specific texts is informative, illuminating and inspiring; and there were some insights here that helped me in my own sermon prep.  Overall, however, it had neither the depth nor breadth I was hoping for when I added it to the list of sermon resources.

A Time to Tear Down and A Time to Build Up,  Michael v. Fox.

What Everything Matters lacked in depth, A Time to Tear Down more than compensated for.  This fresh, erudite, creative and scholarly study of Ecclesiastes is, in my opinion, must-read material for anyone wanting to go deep with this book.  Fox's discussion of hebel-- and the sophistication with which he compares it to Albert Camus' existentialist absurdity-- takes you to the heart of Ecclesiastes like no other book I encountered. And his work with the other major themes leave you feeling like you've really met the Teacher.  His commentary section, too, is thorough and thoughtful.  I drank especially deep draughts of this commentary for Sermon 1 and Sermon 3 in my series.

Preaching Christ from Ecclesiastes, Sidney Greidanus.

I've read a couple of other books by Sidney Greidanus, and his approach to Christ-centred, expository preaching has deeply impacted me.  Especially his Preaching Christ from the Old Testament left a lasting mark on my own approach to preaching Old Testament texts, and from him I learned to appreciate the homiletical dictum:  "Preachers turn Grace into Law whenever we present anthropocentric imperatives without the divine indicative."  This book reads like an extended application of his previous work, and I found it very helpful.  In the introduction he tells a story about preaching a painstakingly researched sermon on Ecclesiastes early in his preaching ministry.  A seasoned pastor who was in the congregation approached him after and said:  "Good sermon, pastor, but I'm wondering, could a Rabbi in a Synagogue have preached it just as easily?"  This set him on a quest to uncover what it is about Christian preaching of the Old Testament that makes it especially Christian.  Besides the treasure trove of exegetical insights it provided me, I found this commentary helpful as a point of reference in my own effort to keep my handling of this profound book Christ-centred.

Is this all there is to Life?  Answers from Ecclesiastes, Ray Steadman.

This devotional book was actually just sitting there on the shelf in our very limited church library, so I grabbed it early on in my research to get a popular-level view of Ecclesiastes.  Compared to Greidanus and Fox (and even Ryken), of course, the bones on this one seemed a little lean.  For the most part, it read like the loosely compiled sermon notes of a pastor's verse-by-verser on Ecclesiastes, which he simply bound and published after the fact.  But again, it was helpful to see where other preachers had gone with The Preacher, and part way through I realized I was reading Steadman more for moral support than exegetical insight.

Some Palm Sunday Re-runs

What with it being Holy Week and all, I thought it would be fitting to re-post the following two posts I did las year about the fascinating connections between Christmas and Palm Sunday.  Enjoy (or re-enjoy, as the case may be).

Hark the Other Hearld

Each of the four gospel writers put something different on the lips of the crowds as Jesus rode his triumphant donkey into Jerusalem the week before Passover. For Matthew, it was a reference to his Davidic pedigree. With a hosanna. For Mark, it was a reference more broadly to the coming "Kingdom of our father David." With a hosanna. For John it was a reference to Jesus as simply "the king of Israel." With a hosanna. (And yet not so simply, inasmuch as for John, Yahweh himself is the only true King of Israel).

But for Luke there was no "hosanna." Instead, the crowd shouted: "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord." And then they added: "Peace in heaven and glory in the highest."

Now if I were a stout harmonizer, I'd want to throw in one of Matthew's Davidic references or one of Mark's Hosannas here for good measure. But because I'm not anymore, something jumped out at me when I read Luke 19:38 the other day that I can't get out of my mind.

"Peace in heaven and glory in the highest" cheered the crowds; and I wonder: did they know they were echoing the very words of the angelic host that heralded Christ's birth so many chapters (and some 33 years) earlier, when he was wrapped in swaddling clothes and a celestial choir declared "Glory to God in the highest / and on the earth peace ... "? Whether they heard the echoes or not, Luke doesn't seem to want us to miss them: in the original Greek, the parallels are quite striking. 2:19 reads "Glory in the highest to God, and on earth peace..." while 19:38 echoes back: "in heaven peace and glory in the highest" (almost as though they were open and close brackets respectively to the gospel narrative that has brought us to this point.)

But this is more than just a clever literary device. With its subtle echo of those of herald angels who sang glory to the newborn king back in 2:19, Luke's account of the Triumphal Entry here actually teaches us what it means to sing "God and sinners reconciled" in the fullest sense. Because as the God-Man, Jesus Christ always acts both as God before man, on God's side, and as man before God, on our side. Or as Paul put it, there is only one mediator between God and man; the man Christ Jesus.

So, when God-come-in-the-flesh was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, God made peace with humans-- in Jesus, the fully divine Messiah. Thus heavenly heralds filled the skies declaring peace on earth. But as the mediator between God and humanity, Jesus not only reconciles God to sinners, he also reconciles sinners to God. So when the true King of God's people rode humbly into the city of God's people to be enthroned as God's Prince of Peace, man made peace with God-- in Jesus, the fully human Messiah. Thus earthly heralds declared peace in heaven.

Jesus has reconciled heaven to earth; and he has reconciled earth to heaven. And in Jesus, and through faith in Jesus, we are invited to become ambassadors of that reconciliation in the fullest sense: declaring with radiant angels and dusty disciples alike that Jesus Christ has made perfect peace between Creator and creation.



Trimupal Entries 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?

The King and the Temple: A Sermon for Palm Sunday

Here's our Palm Sunday Sermon this week at the FreeWay.  Usually one of the Triumphal Entry texts gets tackled at the start of Holy Week, but for this Palm Sunday, I thought I'd go just a few verses further and take a look at the Jesus' demonstration in the Temple.  Our text was Matthew 21:12-17.

Matthew 21:12-17.  From the Mouths of Babes


And here's the Soreg Inscription: