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.

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