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.

The Wisdom of Qohelet (I)

We started a series this week at the FreeWay on the Book of Ecclesiastes. So far it's turned out to be a far richer and more challenging study than I expected. I plan to post some more thoughts on this book in the next few weeks, but for now I hope this first installment of my preaching series brings you encouragement and edification today.

Ecclesiastes 1:1-11: What's New?

Dancing with the (Saskatchewan) Wind

I'll be orbiting the outer reaches of the blog-o-sphere for the next little while, with light posting ahead, as I'm leaving this afternoon for a trip to that most enviable of vacation hotspots-- Saskatchewan in January! My wife is taking a course at Briercrest Seminary (Pauline Epistles) and I get to tag along. Nothing says "Pastor's vacation" like a week at a biblical seminary in the middle of the prairies in the depths of winter, with nothing to do but hang out in the library, visit with bible-scholar types, maybe eaves-drop on a lecture about Paul or two, and generally spiritually de-compress. I wish I could bring you all along.


I'll be back in a week or so, but in the meantime, I thought I'd post this song, in honour of my trip. I wrote it a number of years ago for my daughters, when I was still living in Saskatchewan and wondering what God's future held for us. It's about growing up, and growing up, especially, on the prairies. Enjoy.

Dancing with the Wind

On the Temptation of Christ (V)

Okay: I know I said I was done with Matthew 4:1-11 last time, but I also remembered this excerpt from a paper I wrote a while ago that discusses Jesus' temptation in terms of his role as the one who fulfills Israel's covenant story. I post it here with full apologies for its technical density, in hopes that it might shed inspire further meditation on this multi-layered text.

Though each of the Evangelists deals in their own way with Jesus’ identity as the “true Israel” in whom God fulfills the covenant, a close reading of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism makes it especially clear. We note first the significant contribution Matthew makes to the baptism tradition by describing Jesus’ insistence that John must baptize him in order “to fulfill” (πληρῶσαι) all righteousness (Matt 3:15). Of course Matthew uses the theme of “fulfillment” elsewhere to indicate the fulfillment of Israel’s covenant history in Jesus’ own story: the flight to Egypt “fulfills” Hosea’s vision of the Exodus wherein Israel is the beloved and called out son of Yahweh (Matt 2:15 ἵνα πληρωθῇ; cf. Hos 11:1); the massacre of the innocents “fulfills” Jeremiah’s vision of Rachel, the archetypal mother of Israel, weeping over her exiled children and receiving the promise that they will return from the land of the enemy (Matt 2:17 τότε ἐπληρώθη, cf. Jer 31:15-16), and so on (cf. also 2:23, 4:14, 8:17, 21:4, etc.).

In the theophanic revelation of Jesus as the Son of God after his baptism (Matt 3:16-17) we see specifically how “all righteousness,” and with it Israel’s vocation as God’s covenant people, is indeed being fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. Though it is difficult to align Matthew 3:16-17 with a precise OT passage, it is likely that texts like Psalm 2:7 (cf. Act 13:33, Heb 1:5) and especially—given the Isaianic context of John’s ministry—Isaiah 42:1 form the OT context for God’s declaration that Jesus is his “beloved Son”. And when we turn to Isaiah 42:1 with Jesus’ baptism in mind, we see Yahweh choosing his servant, declaring his delight in him, and putting his Spirit upon him, in a passage that finds striking parallels to the theophany of Matt 3:16-17. Notably, Matthew will specifically apply Isaiah 42:1 to Jesus later as a sign of his Messianic identity (12:17-18, no par.), but will render בְּחִירִי (“my elect/chosen one”) as ὁ αγαπητός μου (“my beloved”). This translation is the more intriguing when we consider that the LXX translatesבְּחִירִי in 42:1 with ὁ ἐκλεκτός μου (“my elect”), which suggests that Matthew is working with an independent tradition, one that understands the “chosen one” of Isaiah 42:1 and the “beloved Son” revealed at Jesus’ baptism to be one and the same. Though a full discussion of the Christological issues at play here is beyond the scope of this study, we must also pause to consider how the “servant” who is introduced in Isaiah 42:1 is envisioned throughout Second Isaiah as a personification of the nation of Israel (cf. Isa 44:21, 45:4, 49:3, etc.). That Isaiah 42:1 was indeed understood in Jesus’ day as a picture of Israel personified is reinforced when we consider how the LXX translates this reference to עַבְדִּי (“my servant”) as Ιακωβ ὁ παῖς μου (“Jacob my servant/ child”) and Ισραηλ ὁ ἑκλεκτός μου (“Israel my chosen one”).

All of this suggests that when Jesus emerges from the Jordan river, still dripping with that baptism administered by the eschatological “second Elijah” as a sign of the reconstitution of Israel, and the Holy Spirit descends on him, revealing him as the true Son of God in whom the Father delights, his Sonship involves a calling as the “true Israel” who will take up into himself the story and fulfill the vocation of God’s covenant people. Thus, just as the nation of Israel—the son whom Yahweh called out of Egypt (Hos 11:1)—emerged from the waters of the Red Sea as a “new-created people” (cf. Ex 15:17 עַם־זוּ קָנִיתָ), only to be led by the Spirit of God through forty years of testing in the desert, so Jesus emerges from the waters of the Jordan, revealed as the true Son of God, only to be led by the Spirit to be tested in the desert for forty days (Matt 4:1). As suggested by the references to Deuteronomy which Jesus uses to resist the Devil, Jesus’ testing in the wilderness is intricately related to his role in fulfilling the story of Israel: though Israel grumbled for bread in the desert (Deut 8:2-3), Jesus will be satisfied with every word that comes of the mouth of God (Matt 4:4); though the people tested God’s faithfulness at the waters of Massah (Deut 6:16), Jesus will not put the Lord his God to the test (Matt 4:6); and though the people fell into idolatry (Deut 6:12-13), Jesus will bow and worship the Lord alone (Matt 4:10).

On the Temptation of Christ (IV)

I said that my last post on this passage would be just that, but I don't suppose a series of reflections on Matthew 4:1-11 would be complete without at least passing reference to N. T. Wright's historical/psychological reading of the Temptation of Christ. From his incisive and monumental book on the historical Jesus, Jesus and the Victory of God, I offer these tantalizing thoughts, with the hope that they will lure you into reading his whole treatment of this episode in the life of Jesus:

"The struggle is precisely about the nature of Jesus’ vocation and ministry. The pull of hunger, the lure of cheap and quick ‘success’, the desire to change the vocation to be the light of the world into the vocation to bring all nations under his powerful rule by other means—all of these would easily combine into the temptation to doubt the nature of the vocation of which he had been sure at the time of John’s baptism. If you are the Son of God...

"There are many different styles of career, ministry, and agenda that Jesus might have adopted. Messiahs came in many shapes and sizes. It was by no means clear from anything in the culture of the time exactly how someone who believed himself to be the eschatological prophet, let alone YHWH’s anointed, ought to behave, what his programme should be, or how he should set about implementing it. Finding the way forward was bound to be a battle, involving all the uncertainty and doubt inherent in going out to unknown territory assumed to be under enemy occupation.

"When, therefore, we ask how Jesus conceived of the battle which he claimed to have fought as an initially decisive one [here Wright is referring to Jesus’ cryptic saying about binding up the strong man], the evangelists offer us a suggestion which we cannot lightly dismiss. That the battle had been successful from Jesus’ point of view is witnessed by the fact that he had not adopted any of the “messianic” styles offered to him by his culture. We cannot doubt that Jesus was tempted to share, and act in accordance with, the mindset of most Jews of his day. He cannot have been indifferent to the plight of his fellow Jews, as they were systematically crushed, economically, politically and militarily by Rome. The temptation to be the sort of Messiah that many wanted must have been real and strong. But it was, from the point of view of his mindset, precisely a temptation. He had faced it, and defeated it in principle, and had thereby confirmed the direction for the mission he should undertake."
(Jesus and the Victory of God, 458)

On the Temptation of Christ (III)

A final thought on the Temptation of Christ that's still humming in my head: I can't help but notice that later, in Matthew 16:23, Jesus will say the very same thing to Peter that he says here, as he resists the Satan's temptation: "Depart from me Satan!" (the same Greek verb hupago is used in both places). Now, I'm not the only one to notice the uncanny parallels between 4:10 and 16:23. Though most manuscripts record Jesus' words in 4:10 as a simple "Depart from me, Satan," at least some ancient manuscripts (C, D and L especially, for all you textual criticism buffs out there), have him saying exactly word-for-word what he'll say to Peter later on: "Get thee behind me, Satan" (lit. hupage opiso mou Satana).


What's going on here?


A re-cap may help. In Matthew 16:23, Jesus has just told his newly-named "Rock" that it is necessary for God's true Christ to suffer shame and die disgracefully; to which Peter has just expressed his worldly incredulity: "Lord have mercy! May it never be!" And it's in that moment, it seems, that Peter has become a stumbling block to him, a "scandalizer" who is thinking not after the way of God, but after the way of the world (16:23). And when I line up 16:23 with 4:10 (the way some ancient scribes, it seems, wanted to), it all becomes clear: in insisting that Jesus be a Messiah after the way of the world, and asking him to forsake the path to Golgatha, Peter is holding out to Jesus the very same temptation he faced on that extremely high mountain, when the satan offered him every messianic glory the world had to offer, if he would only bow to the devil's means and seize it. In insisting Jesus live up to his own worldly measure of "Messiah", Peter, however unwittingly, has become a temptation to Jesus all over again.


And here's where the questions rush at me. Do we tempt Christ, ourselves, like this, whenever we come to him demanding he fit whatever worldly measures of "the Christ" we've set up for ourselves? Do we put God to the test (in a way that Jesus himself refused to do, standing that day on the wing of the Temple), whenever we weigh his Christ against our personal criteria for what makes a Lord-and-Saviour a Lord-and-Saviour? Do we stop our own ears to his invitation to follow him in a life of self-denial and cross-bearing (16:24), because no Messiah in the world would ever suggest that a "life of self-denial" was the "life lived to the full." And in those moments, when we do, are we actually standing like Peter was, on the side of the tempter in Matthew 4:10?


In the wake these questions I'm left wondering if the greatest temptation in the Christian life might be our temptation to tempt Christ, by insisting that he be the kind of Messiah we think we want (a rocks-to-bread, never have to suffer, way-of-the world Messiah), rather than the Messiah God has revealed him to be: the Messiah of the cross.

On the Temptation of Christ (II)

Still mulling over Matthew 4:1-11. There is so much more to say about this inexhaustibly rich text than could ever fit into a 25 minute sermon. These thoughts didn't make it directly into my sermon on Sunday, but working on it last week, I had Henri Nouwen's reflections on our Lord's temptation echoing in my head and heart the whole time.


These come from a talk he gave on Christian leadership for the Center for Human Development back in 1989. He draws a link between Christ's temptation in the desert and our temptation, as Christian leaders, to be "relevant." The first time I read them they shone light on my own struggles in ministry with all poignancy, wisdom and grace. Still meditating on Christ's temptation today, I offer them here; may they minister to you today wherever you're at:


Jesus' first temptation was to be relevant: to turn stones into bread. Oh, how often have I wished I could do that! Walking through the "young towns" on the outskirts of Lima, Peru, where children die of malnutrition and contaminated water, I would not have been able to reject the magical gift of making the dusty stone-covered streets into places where people could pick up any of the thousands of rocks and discover that they were croissants, coffee cakes, or fresh-baked buns, and where they could fill their cupped hands with stale water from the cisterns and joyfully realize that what they were drinking was delicious milk. Aren't we priests and ministers called to help people, to feed the hungry, to save those who are starving? Are we not called to do something that makes people realize that what we do makes a difference in their lives? Aren't we called to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and alleviate the suffering poor? Jesus was faced with these same questions, but when he was asked to prove his power as the Son of God by the relevant behavior of changing stones into bread, he clung to his mission to proclaim the Word, and said, "One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God" (Matthew 4:4).

On the Temptation of Christ (I)

Matthew 4:1-11: The Test

Top Lyrics of 2010

The problem is that these kinds of lists are entirely subjective, and if I tried to explain why the following song lyrics hit me the way they did this year, I'd only betray them; so I offer them here with the simple explanation that each of the following lines hit me somehow or somewhere this year, on the heights or in the depths of ministry, and brought me out of the mire or back down to earth, as the case may be.


"I remember the day when you said you weren't afraid to die / I don't think you're brave for it / I just think you're more afraid of being alive" John Mark McMillan, The Medicine


"When I was all messed up and I heard opera in my head / your love was like a light bulb hanging over my bed" U2, Ultraviolet


"I'm so far from what I want to be / Oh I really am my own worst enemy / Please don't let me get the better of me / Take this earthly thing and make in finally / something heavenly" Downhere, Something Heavenly


"There's a man down here / somewhere in-between the Saturday cartoons and the dirty magazines / He's raising the dead in the graveyards / where we've laid down our dreams / and his name is hope" John Mark McMillan, Between the Cracks


"In an inter-stellar burst, I'm back to save the universe" Radiohead, Airbag

"The majestic voice of God I hear / saying this is the way. / Turn around and walk here / And walk here." Liana Klassen, The Way


"One day, I am gonna grow wings / a chemical reaction / hysterical and useless / hysterical and / let down and hanging around" Radiohead, Let Down

"You came to take us / all things go, all things go / to recreate us / all things grow, all things grow" Sufjan Stevens, Chicago (thank you to Jon Coutts for this one: it has become a bit of a family anthem for us).

The 2010 terra incognita Literary Awards

For the last two years at terra incognita, I've taken a moment in January to list the top ten reads of the previous year. As I worked on my list for 2010, I found my selections more eclectic than usual, so I thought I'd put a slightly different spin on things. Rather than a generic "Top Ten," I offer here the 2010 terra incognita literary awards (drum-roll, please):

1. Most annoying read: Shopping for God, James B. Twitchell.

A self-described "apatheist," James Twitchell offers a secular market analysis of American Christianity that examines it strictly as a phenomenon of Western capitalism. His thesis: in the saturated market of American Christendom, those denominations that best "market" their "product" will thrive, while those that have lost touch with the market will soon be going into receivership. I call it annoying because, even though he confused evangelism with advertising in a way that made me want to scream "you just don't get it!" at the same time he kept putting his finger on things wrong in the church with a clarity and wit that kept shutting me up.

2. Most traumatic read: Empire of Illusion, Chris Hedges.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges argues that North American culture is on the brink of moral, political and economic collapse, and that in the triumph of spectacle over literacy that we see in every venue of social discourse-- politics, business, entertainment, news media, higher education (nothing escapes his levelled critique)-- we are actually witnessing the final throes of a debauched culture, medicating itself with fantasy and illusion in the face of its own demise. He then offers an unflinching, if graphic description of the culture's worst debauches to prove his point. Please note: I do not recommend this book to the faint of spirit. I was quite literally shaken for a week after reading it.

3. Most bombastic read: Shake-Down, Ezra Levant.

Ezra Levant writes with the tenacity of a bulldog, the alacrity an injury lawyer and the tact of a town-crier. Shake-Down is the chronicle of his legal contest with the Canadian Human Rights Commission after a Calgary Imam charged him with hate-speech for re-printing the notorious Danish political cartoons about Mohamed back in 2005; it is also his scalding critique of the HRC and the poorly-checked legal clout that it wields; it is also his call for a drastic over-haul (if not complete disbanding) of the HRC as an unnecessary and unCanadian institution.

4. Most disappointing read: Hey Nostradamus, Douglas Coupland.

I started reading this multi-layered story about some survivors of a school shooting when I was a sub back in the Moose Jaw days, because the remedial English class I was teaching was studying it. The gig ended before we finished the novel, and I never got to hear how Jason's bizarre story finished. So when I saw it in the library this summer, I thought I'd give it a re-try. Those first fifty pages in Moose Jaw, it turns out, were the best of the book. Especially disappointing was his depiction of the religious nut, Reg. Not that I have a problem with caricatures of religious nuts in literature, but Coupland writes about religious fanaticism like someone who has no clue what religious fanaticism really looks or sounds like, and thinks he can just drop lame lines like "all I ever wanted for you was the kingdom" (fanatic Reg to his estranged son), wink knowingly at the audience, and we'll just let our anti-religion prejudice do the work of characterization for him.

5. Most rewarding re-read: A Wizard of Earthsea,Ursual Le Guin

The beauty of A Wizard of Earthsea wasn't entirely lost on me when I read it back in Grade 7, but re-reading this gem 24 years later, I was caught off guard with its depth, lyricism and wisdom. Earthsea is as compelling a world as Middle-Earth and more vivid than Narnia, but its Ged's journey to name his shadow that works away at you long after the book is closed. I wonder how it will be reading it again when I'm 70?

6. Most enraptured read: A Soldier of the Great War, Mark Helprin

I've had Mark Helprin's A Soldier of the Great War sitting unread on my bookshelf for almost 15 years; I bought it at a used book store because I'd read his Winter's Tale and loved it. This fall I finally decided it was time to justify lugging this 700+ pager with me on 5 consecutive moves, so I made the time to read it. I'm glad I did: one of the purest works of fiction I've read in a long time.

7. Most edifying read: Theology for the Community of God, Stan Grenz.

Stan Grenz has renewed my appreciation for systematic theology and has convinced me that more than any practical church-growth books or ministry manuals, what pastors most need to read is theology. He is irenic, erudite, lucid and reverent in this book, and there were times when reading his work led me into a profound experience of worship-- and he never even picked up a guitar. My wife and I are contemplating reading it together as a devotional book this year.

8. Most willing required read: The New Creation, Theodore Runyon
Required reading for a Wesleyan Theology course I took this spring as part of my ordination in the FMCiC, Runyon's study of "The Image of God" in Wesley's soteriology was inspring and challenging. (The "Most Willing" in the award title is also my indication that there were some required reads this year that I read somewhat begrudgingly).

9. Most unexpectedly interesting read: How Soccer Explains the World,Franklin Foer
Unexpectedly interesting because I am not a soccer fan-- I'm so not a soccer fan that I didn't even know I'd started reading it the same time the FIFA World Cup was about to begin in South Africa. Foer's thesis is that soccer offers us a vivid microcosm of the global economy, and he travels the world to show how beautifully soccer illustrates the ironic effect of globalism, which entrenches us in ever tightening tribes even as it homogenizes us as global consumers. By the time I was done the book, I had become fascinated enough with "the beautiful game" to watch the World Cup final with enthusiasm and appreciation.

10.Best all-round read: The Year of Living Biblically, A. J. Jacobs
I've written about this book here and here, so I won't repeat myself now, except to say that of all the good books I read about the Good Book this year, I'm glad this was one of them.

On Christmas and the Crucifixion, a reflection for Epiphany

Those of you who follow the Christian calendar with even mild interest may know that yesterday was the feast day of Epiphany (and those of you who, like me, have spent a bit of your life around people of Ukrainian heritage, will know that this morning marks the start of Ukrainian Christmas).


I'll refer you to Sunday's sermon for some more extended thoughts on the spiritual significance of the Day of Epiphany, but now that the Birth and Appearance of Our Lord has been celebrated in every room of that venerable house called Christendom, I thought I'd offer this epiphany of my own for reflection, which I had a few weeks ago in the depths (and on the heights) of Christmas business.

***

I've been thinking a lot this year about the War on Christmas. Apparently a secular campaign has been raging for almost a decade now against religious traditions that Christians hold dear (like greeting one another with a decisive "Merry Christ-mas" (while wassailing, of course, with figgy puddings and jingling sleigh bells among the leaves so green)). As a way of describing the increasing secularization of the winter holiday season, conservative American media personalities like Bill O'Riley and Peter Brimelow first popularized the the term "War on Christmas" around the turn of the new millennium. I'm always the last to know. Until recently, I had been living like a Yule-tide Switzerland, blissfully neutral to the whole conflict, but the war on Christmas became a specially poignant issue to me this year, in part because it kept coming up on the blogs I was reading through Christmas (see especially here).

Tactics in the War on Christmas include: infiltration of our traditional password protocol by replacing "Merry Christmas" with the insidiously innocuous "Happy Holidays," trade embargoes on traditional carols in schools, and guerrilla attacks on creches in public places.

But these things aren't especially why "The War on Christmas" was on my mind this Holiday (read: Christmas) Season. It's a parallel issue that I've been wrestling with-- and this one seriously wrestling with-- the gross commercialization of Christmas.

I'm not sure if it was because a) I watched the (very flawed) film What Would Jesus Buy at the start of Advent this year, or if it's because b) I'm still working through some issues about what it means to be a pastor at Christmas time, or if it's because c) the commercialization of Christmas really has gotten grosser than ever... but it sure seemed like answer "c" to me this year. My wrestling has to do with this question: Do we really honour Christ's name best by associating it so closely with this frenzied celebration of stuff? Like I prayed in a prayer at church one Sunday morning: 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?

I don't have easy answers to these questions, except to confess that they were heavier on my heart this year than ever before. At its heaviest, the question hit me like this: Do we crucify Christ every Christmas, when we throw ourselves a hedonistic winter bacchanalia, and then justify it by glossing it with his name?
And the moment that question hit me, I thought of the War on Christmas.

And I thought: how like the God of the Crucified Jesus would it be, if he won the War on Christmas by losing it absolutely and altogether? Because if we really did reach a time when Christ's name was no longer associated with the market economy's year end projections-- if there really did come a day when the last vestiges of its Christian trappings were stripped away from the fundamentally pagan celebration of consumption that happens every December-- if the Holiday Season really did banish the Christ from the party we once held in his honour, for good--

Well: what freedom to really celebrate the "Reason for the Season" might we discover then, stepping glorious out of the empty tomb of all our "Merry Christmases"?

Top Headlines of (my) Evangelical 2010

The parenthetical "my" in the above title is my acknowledgement that I am neither knowledgeable nor impartial enough to offer a list like this with any objectivity. That said, I've put together this survey of news items from 2010 that stood out to me as notable landmarks on the evangelical landscape. I post it here IMHO, and welcome any nominations for additions to the list:

January 12:, 2010 Pat Robertson waxes inflammatory on Haitian disaster.

Not that I think his (at best) poorly timed comments and (at worst) cruel drivel about Haiti's alleged "pact with the devil" was even worthy of the attention it got, but it made me sad on a number of fronts: sad that for some, Pat Robertson's comments will just reinforce the tainted view of Christianity they already have; sad that a camera and the celebrity it creates has made a man like this some sort of spokesperson for a certain kind of Christianity (and that this "kind of Christianity" is so often held up as normative by the secular media); and sad, too, that mere "outrage" has somehow become a legitimate and sufficient moral response to ideas we dislike.

April 27, 2010: N. T. Wright announces his retirement as Bishop of Durham and his appointment as Research Professor at St. Andrews University.

This barely made a ripple in the headlines, I admit, but the fact that one of my favorite biblical scholars has taken a teaching post at St. Andrews was news to me, inasmuch as it gave me hope that the eagerly anticipated fourth volume of his Christian Origins and the Question of God series may be along sooner rather than later.

June 30, 2010: Anti-theist Christopher Hitchens diagnosed with cancer.

One of the world's best-known and more vitriolic opponents of religion announced this summer that he's been diagnosed with cancer. While some people (people of Pat Robertson's stripe, perhaps) have taken this opportunity to use vindictive phrases like "what he had coming," and "cosmic justice," others have taken the opportunity to practice pious prayer for the enemy, which, depending on the motive and content of the prayers, may be just as opportunistic.

July 13, 2010: The Canadian Government scraps the mandatory long-form census.

While this made more than a ripple in the secular media, I only noticed it because it hit the fan the week my family was away in Alberta and I was home alone, so I was listening to the CBC more than usual. At the time I didn't give it much thought. The portent of the decision didn't sink in until months later, when I was sitting in a room full of pastors, and a representative from the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada explained to us how we might use statistical data to help us in ministry, and I finally realized how useful a tool we'd lost.

July 31: Author Ann Rice "quits Christianity."

When Ann Rice first became a Christian, it turned heads especially because she was the famous writer of novels that could morph into multi-million dollar Hollywood productions staring the likes of Tom Cruise. Now that she's "left" the church (in her words: "In the name of Christ, I quit being a Christian") this is "news" only for the same reason; the story mattered to me primarily because it seems to illustrate James' wisdom in warning us against giving preferential treatment to the rich and famous (James 2:1-5).

August 15, 2010: Theologian Clark Pinnock dies at age 73.

I've read very little of this somewhat controversial theologian, but parts of his Flame of Love and parts of his Wideness in God's Mercy were helpful to me. I'll refer you to David Guretzki's tribute to him over at Theommentary, and commend him here to the mystery of the divine grace he worked his lifetime to describe.

August 24, 2010: Donald Bloesch dies at age 82.

It struck me as notable that two theological servants of the church-- in many ways so different in their theological bent-- should both pass away within 10 days of each other. I read swaths of Bloesch's work in Seminary, and found him to be thorough and challenging. When I heard about his death, I thought of a line in Barth (a theologian for whom he had a special affinity). I remember it imperfectly, but he wondered out loud once if God didn't laugh to see him pushing around his wheelbarrow full of books. I commend Bloesch, and his own wheelbarrow full of books, to the mystery of God's grace.


September 7, 2010: Florida's Terry Jones threatens to burn thousands of copies of the Koran on September 11.


Not that I believe a guy like this deserves anywhere near the amount of the attention he got, but it illustrated a number of things for me: a) the media's tendency to pour gasoline on a fire so they can write with incredulity about the religious flames; b) again how we've come to value "outrage" as some sort of "moral" response to things we think are wrong; and c) how tribal the notion of god has become in a world of tolerance and wars on terror.

October 1, 2010: Rick Warren speaks at John Piper's national "Desiring God Conference."

Purpose-driven Pragmatism meets Hedonistic Calvinism? This one raised my eyebrow. After all, when one of the most vociferous doctrinal watchdogs of American Evangelicalism invites one of the most effective pragmatists of American Evangliscalism to the party, eyebrows are going to raise. And they did: 40,000 blog-posts worth of indignant eyebrows, apparently; some even invoked 2 Timothy 4:3 and warnings about latter-days apostasy. For my part, I was left musing about how, in the absence of a clear ecclesiology, Evangelicalism in this part of the world looks and feels like a doctrinal clique.

December 13, 2010: Barna survey finds North American church to be theologically illiterate.

For the record, I saw methodological problems with Barna's survey so huge that it was hard to take their conclusions seriously, but at the very least this headline shored up my resolve to preach on the Incarnation the first Sunday after Christmas.

A Blogging Year in Review

Happy 2011 everyone. I trust you rang in the New Year with verve and gusto. Me: a rollicking game of Settlers of Catan followed by our family's New Years tradition: watching home movies. Nothing like welcoming a new year by laughing and reflecting together on the last 12 as a family.

And speaking of traditions: this time last year I posted a random list of stats and figures on my first year blogging. Not long after that post, I discovered Google Analytics, a free service provided by Google that tracks a wide variety of stats on your web-site's usage. With the help of Google Analytics I've compiled this list of statistical curiosities from another year blogging at terra incognita. For those of you who contributed to any of the following numbers, thanks for joining me for another trip around the blog-o-sphere sun. For what they're worth, here're some random weights and measures of 2010 .

1. Top five cities from which visitors arrived: Oshawa, Ontario (327); Toronto, Ontario (204) Grand Rapids, Michigan (194),Caronport, Saskatchewan (177); London, Ontario (125)

2. Most distant visitor: Someone from Chennai, India, (13,646 km away)

3. Most common landing keyword (i.e. what people typed into Google to find their way to me): “prayer for the offering”

4. Top five most commonly visited posts: A Prayer for the Offering (916); On Kafka Dreams (113); Tidings of Great Joy (96); Pangs of Northerness(92); The Geometry of Heaven? (66);

5. Overall average time spent on site: 49 seconds

6. Most common (non-search engine) referring site: This Side of Sunday (314)

7. Total hits in 2010: 6,646

8. Most Commented-on Post: Blogging in the Echo Chamber (5)

9. Worst Post: Upon hearing that Austin Texas is renaming 2nd Street (this one sounded funnier in my head than it did on the screen; at least it was short).

10. Most Fun Post to Write: The Adventures of Elroy (or what has Nintendo to do with Jerusalem?)

A sermon for Epiphany

Matthew 2:1-12: The Birth that Turned the World Upside-Down