There's a Trick of the Light I'm Learning to Do

This is a collection of songs I wrote and recorded in January - March, 2020 while on sabbatical from ministry. They each deal with a different aspect or expression of the Gospel. Click on the image above to listen.

Three Hands Clapping

This is my latest recording project (released May 27, 2019). It is a double album of 22 songs, which very roughly track the story of my life... a sort of musical autobiography, so to speak. Click the album image to listen.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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

Readings, 2020

Readings, 2020
Paradise Lost, John Milton

Adorning the Dark, Andrew Peterson

The Soul of Shame, Curt Thompson

Cure for the Common Life, Max Lucado

Halos and Avatars, Craig Detweiller, ed.

Fool's Talk, Os Guinness

Brendan, Frederick Buechner

The Screwtape Letters

Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis

The Pilgrim's Regress, C. S. Lewis

Becoming Whole, Brian Finkert and Kelly Kapic

Real Sex, Lauren Winner

Out of the Silent Planet, C. S. Lewis

Voyage to Venus, C. S. Lewis

That Hideous Strength, C. S. Lewis

Till We Have Faces, C. S. Lewis

Screwtape Proposes a Toast, C. S. Lewis

Saturday Morning Sermon (V)

Last week we finished a sermon series about spiritual gifts at the FreeWay.  In the interest of keeping the conversation going, I thought I'd post some excerpts from the series.  Here's the start of our first sermon, on spiritual gifts and worship.  The text was Romans 12:1-11.  Click here if you'd like to listen to the whole thing.

The other day my daughter's friend was visiting for supper.  We were talking about schools at the dinner table and she said she was going to All Saints in the fall.  She added:  “All Saints is a really big school.”

And before my filters could kick in I threw out one of my famous lame-Dad jokes.  I said:  “Well it would have to be big, if it’s gonna fit in all the saints.”  (She didn’t laugh either.  Elaine did a face palm.)
But it got me thinking for the rest of the week: if I were gonna write a list of  “All the Saints,” who would I put on it?  And I don’t just mean the guys who get cathedrals and schools named after them—I mean “saints” the way the Bible uses that word.   You know:  the cloud of believers throughout the ages and around the world who have asked Jesus to be their saviour, who have been sanctified through faith in him, and have become saints (in the biblical sense). 

And especially among those saints, I was thinking about the ones who have really left their mark on the world.  Who would you include if you were going to write a list of Christians who have left their mark on the world?  My list included:

Mother Theresa.  She was a nun from Albania who spent her life loving poor people in Calcutta, India.  Martin Luther King Jr.  He literally gave his life in the fight against racism in the 1960s.  Millard Fuller. He was the guy who gave up his career as a successful lawyer to found Habitat for Humanity and build houses for the homeless.  Henri Nowen.  He gave up his job as a writer and teacher to minister among developmentally challenged people in a place called L’Arche community of Montreal.  Jackie Pullinger.  She followed Jesus to Hong Kong and spent her life helping the drug addicts and derelicts that lived in a place called the Kowloon Walled City.  Charles Welsey.  He was a songwriter in the old days, and people have estimated that he wrote 6000 hymns over the course of his lifetime.  C. S. Lewis.  He was the writer who invented Narnia and wrote whole a whole slew of Christian books that have helped children and grownups over the years.

Well.  I’ll stop there.  And I’m not sure how many of these names you recognize.  But I want you to imagine something with me here.

Imagine for a second that Mother Theresa looked at Martin Luther King one say ands said, “Gee.  I’m not marching on Washington and giving powerful speeches about how ‘I have a dream,’ like him.  I must not be worshipping Jesus.”

Or if Jackie Pullinger looked at C. S. Lewis and said:  “Forget the drug addicts of Hong Kong.  Look s like what Jesus really wants us to do is write magical children’s stories.”  Or worseimagine that Millard Fullar told Charles Wesley:  “listen, Mr. Wesley, 6,000 hymns is enough.  If you really want to serve Jesus you’ve got to start building houses like me.” 

I mean:  imagine for a moment, what we’d miss out on if this diverse family, with all its different gifts and talents and passions and skills—writing and music and mercy and healing and speaking and building—if someone tried to take it and fit everyone into the exact same mould when it came to serving Jesus.
How would our life together suffer?  If we tried to say—the way I’m gifted to serve Jesus, that’s the only way to serve that matters—and if you want to serve him you’ve got to do it like me?  How impoverished would the Kingdom of God be?

Well:  I’m not sure if that sounds far fetched or not.  It can’t be too far fetched, because that’s the very thing that Paul warns us against in Romans 12, here, when he says all that stuff about how we shouldn’t think of ourselves more highly than we ought... about how we all have different gifts, according to the grace given to us ... about how “real life worship” means using the gifts you got with all you got for the glory of Jesus.

Apart from the Father?

I sort of killed a sparrow yesterday. Not singlehandedly, and certainly not intentionally, but I was walking my dog last night, and as we came down the side walk, I noticed a sparrow sitting in the grass at the edge of a lawn. My dog was on one of those spring-loaded retractable leashes, and she rushed ahead curiously. For a brief moment it occurred to me I should rein her in, but in just as brief a moment, I decided that the sparrow would fly away long before pup could do any damage.

The sparrow did fly away, first to the top of a picket fence edging the lawn—and I could tell from its erratic flight that it had been injured somewhere—and then, still startled by the dog, it fluttered wildly out across the street. With her injured wing and all, she could only attain an altitude roughly the equivalent a Toyota 4Runner's grill.

I know this because that’s what brought its panicked flight to a thudding stop. The vehicle was clipping along at about 40 clicks—not fast, mind you, but fast enough that the bird bumped up, arced over the hood and landed, lifeless, in the gutter.

The timing of the whole event was so precise as to seem inexorable.

I felt sad; I wished I’d reined in the dog; and this morning I’m thinking of Matthew 10:29.

Because according to our Lord’s teaching, what happened last night should have had the effect of emboldening me in my Christian life. Here’s how he says it: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. ... So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

But I’m thinking about that sparrow dropping to the asphalt last night—a victim not just of my own neglect but also of the rush and worry of the car-infatuated culture I inhabit—and to be honest, it’s left me with a lot more questions than answers.

Did God in fact will this bird dead? Was this sparrow’s death-by-4Runner somehow preordained, and if so, to what end? Does Jesus really want me to draw solace from such a seemingly arbitrary and pointless death? And, in my most cynical moments: is the divine handling of this sparrow’s life really supposed to inspire my confidence in the Sovereign’s loving plan for me?

These are the questions they wouldn’t let you ask in Sunday School.

And I don’t have any easy answers, but I do have this: “Not one of them falls to the ground apart from the will of your Father” is how the NIV renders Jesus’ word here; and it’s certainly how many would take it (I had someone cite this verse to me, for instance, as biblical evidence for Predestination). But in fact, this is actually more than what the verse literally says. Not much more, but more.

Literally all Jesus says is: “Not one of them falls to the earth apart from your Father (aneu tou patros ‘umōn).”

All Jesus says is that that sparrow didn’t die apart from God. The “will of God” bit is the NIV’s attempt to make sense of the verse (and for the record, almost every other reputable translation takes Jesus at his word without the metaphysical speculation, and translates the phrase simply, “apart from your Father”).

Which is how I’d translate it, too. Because personally, I don’t think that Jesus’s point is that God willed that sparrow’s death, but that he was involved in it. And not involved like a curious puppy, sniffing after its own purposes regardless the consequences to injured birds... nor like a neglectful pedestrian who, for reasons inscrutable, chose not to rein-in the hound of fate ... and certainly not like the reckless motorist in the careening 4Runner of our destiny.

He’s involved in precisely the way Jesus says he’s involved: as loving Father.

I thought I was sad to hear that dull thump.

If I can take Jesus at his word, God was intimately involved in that sparrow’s entire existence, watching over it lovingly, from shell to sky to earth to gutter. And in the moment it met the crushing force of that 4Runner’s grill—if I can take Jesus at its word—it was intimately present to God, more present, perhaps, than I was, watching it fall to the ground. And if I can take Psalm 84:3 at it’s word, then even this sparrow has a sacred space reserved for it near the altar of God.

As insignificant as it may have seemed to me, or to the car I accidently chased it into—Jesus says that this sparrow’s death was not in vain, and more, that it did not die alone; it was not abandoned or neglected by the loving Creator that made it in the moment of its passing.

And then for hope’s-sake, he assures me: nor will I be, at the moment of my death when my turn comes. And in that knowledge I do find a beautiful seed of confidence.

Musical Mondays (IV)


Feel, did you feel the isolation?
feel through the fragments, feel through the glare
steal, did you steal a sensation?
‘cause nothing was there, nothing left to feel

wandering the shadows and wandering the alleys
and sweeping out the corners of my heart
looking for a question and looking for an answer
and looking for a place to start

feel, did you feel the isolation?
feel through the fragments, feel through the glare
steal, did you steal a sensation?
‘cause nothing was there, nothing left to feel

nothing left to long for and nothing left to wonder
and nothing left to teach us how to wait
but thirty shining seconds like thirty silver pieces
like thirty burning tears of fate

feel, can you feel / feel can you feel
what’s left for us, what’s left there
 if our hearts have grown cold
what’s left for us, what’s left there
if we can’t feel our souls

feel, did you feel the isolation?
feel through the fragments, feel through the glare
steal, did you steal a sensation?
‘cause nothing was there, nothing left to feel?

Saturday Morning Sermons (IV)

This another excerpt from our sermon series in Acts.  The passage was Acts19:11-20, looking at Paul's "deliverance ministry" in Ephesus. 

My earliest and most vivid experiences with "deliverance ministries" was listening with chagrin-tinged flabberghastment to Bob Larson broadcast "call-in exorcisms" (and then advertise a wide range of expensive Christian "resources" between calls) on the local Christian radio station back in the day, so I've always been pretty cautious with this stuff.  But one of the things about a Biblical preaching ministry is that the text chooses us, we don't choose the text, so I had to exorcise my own Bob-Larson-demons and work through this one honestly. 

You can listen to the full sermon here, but here's a key insight that was really significant for me while I was working on the sermon:

I mentioned already that I don’t have a lot of experience in this area, so I’ve been doing a fair bit of research this week, and one of the things I keep coming across is that spiritual deliverance is about truth. Not power.

This is vital for us, because we’ve grown up with images of Linda Blair twisting her head around in the Exorcist and we figure that casting out demons is about some sort of power struggle with the devil. I mean: That’s certainly what the Seven Sons of Sceva thought it was about, wasn’t it? But when Jesus starts to set the captives free in Ephesus, notice it doesn’t happen through power.

Freedom comes through truth.

At least, that’s what it looks like in verses 18 and 19. It says that “many of those who believed now came and openly confessed their evil deeds. A number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly.”

Confessing the lies of Satan. Publicly renouncing them. And then claiming the truth. That’s what deliverance looked like in Ephesus: people bringing the lies of Satan out into the open—rejecting them—and then discovering the truth about who they are and how they’re loved in Christ.

Neil Anderson puts it like this: “In a power encounter, the struggle is between some outside agent and the demonic stronghold. But it’s not power that sets the captive free, it’s truth. Living in defeat, believers often falsely conclude that they need power, so they look for some religious experience that promises power. ... [But] the power of the Christian lies in the truth. ... In contrast, the power of Satan is in the lie, and once you expose the lie, you break his power.”

Jesus himself said it like this: you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

5 Ways Riding Your Bike is a Spiritual Activity

My older brother inspires me in a number of ways, but lately it's been to cycle more.  He recently completed a cycling tour of epic (by my definition of epic, anyways) proportions.  So inspired was I that a few weeks ago I lowered my bike from the rafters of my garage, replaced an inner tube or two (yes it's been that long), and made a personal commitment to start biking to work.  ("I'm a cyclist now!" is how I announced this decision to my wife, to which she lovingly replied:  "Why is it always all or nothing with you?"  I was sporting a bright red cycling jersey and an aerodynamic helmet at the time.)

Anyways, on the ride to work this morning I was mulling all this over and it occurred to me that, even though we don't normally group it with the regular spiritual disciplines, there are a number of ways in which cycling is actually spiritual act.  Consider the following:

1.  Spirit-Body Connectedness.  I know this sounds a bit new-age-y, but hear me out.  Most biblical scholars would agree that biblical anthropology tends to eschew dualism when it comes to the body/spirit relationship.  In other words, the way the Bible sees you, you don't have a body, you are a body; neither do you have a spirit, you are a spirit.  One of the curious things about the technological world we inhabit, I think, is that this unity has become obscured-- reality has become "virtual," communication disembodied, and travel (hint, hint) disconnected from the body we once used to get there.  But because we are embodied spirits and en-spirited bodies, this disconnect has significant, (though often unnoticed) implications for our spiritual health.  By requiring the body to do the actual work of getting around again, cycling helps to re-connect that disconnect, reminding the spirit that the body is far more than just the disposable cup it got poured into.

2.  Stewardship.  Stewardship is the theological word we use to underline the fact that all we have and all we are really belongs to God, and we will give an account to him in the end for what we did with it.  Usually it's used in reference to our money, not cycling, but again, hear me out.  A) cycling is good exercise and B) regular exercise keeps us healthy and C) as a rule when you tend to be more productive with your time and energy when you're healthy.  Ergo, cycling is good stewardship.

3.  Social De-fragmentation.  We don't always notice it in the individualistic west, but the Bible places a premium value on healthy, well-connected community.  Car culture, by contrast, places a low value on healthy well-connected community.  Garages that gobble up front-porches and highways crammed with single-passenger vehicles all roaring along at break-neck speeds by themselves together make for fragmented communities.  But I noticed on the ride to work today:  the kids waiting for the school bus with mom waved at me, the other cyclist I passed gave me a nod, I was going slow enough to notice the senior out walking her dog, and in all this I felt like the disk-drive of my soul was being defragmented.  Community starts, it occurred to me, when we're going slow enough to notice each other.

4.  Green footprints.  I won't save the planet by cycling.  I know this.  But biblical scholar or not, you'd have to agree that a cyclist creates far less pollution than a motorist going the same distance.  If you've read terra incognita enough, you'll know I've said a lot about the way Christianity should translate into a healed and healing relationship with the earth, but lately I've felt deeply convicted that I'm not actually walking the talk.  Cycling is a small start, and if nothing else it renews my convictions.

5.  Simplicity.  Un-business, I'm beginning to believe, could become the radical new spiritual discipline of the 21st Century.  Everyone is so maxed out with calendar-debt that items1-4 seem next to impossible to achieve.  Who's got the time for healthy, connected, green community that stewards God's resources well?  Cycling, I'm learning, requires me to slow down, and in this, too, it is a spiritual discipline.

A Bottle of Pop for Eddy Bearnaise

I can still remember that day standing in front of the pop cooler at the local Mac’s store when I realized I’d been had. I was around 14, and reaching for a bottle of 7-Up, when right in mid-reach it suddenly dawned on me that I hated the taste of 7-Up. I’d only started drinking it a couple of months ago, but in those last few months I’d bought 7-Up regularly and exclusively and I couldn’t for the life of me say how it had become my soft-drink of choice.

It was mystery enough to freeze me for a moment in front of the cooler, trying to figure it out. And in that brief moment of soul-searching, the sudden knowledge that I’d been duped hit me on the noggin like the rear-end of a south bound bumble-bee meeting a north-bound wind-shield at 100 clicks.

That summer, 7-Up had started a new advertising campaign, which those of you who were teens in the 80s may remember as well as I do. There were 4 or 5 different spots, but the storyline was always essentially the same. A young, free-spirited, and gorgeous (I can only assume from the way girls threw themselves at him) dude driving around in a green convertible finds himself in a spot of trouble, which resolves itself through some ironic twist or other that leaves him with a pretty girl on his arm and a can of celebratory 7-Up in his hand.

In one spot, for instance, he pulls up to a crossroads next to a guy and his girlfriend riding “two up” on a racing bike. The biker gestures ominously that he wants to race, and our hero gives his engine an aggressive roar or two to accept the challenge. The girl, a pretty read-head, we learn when she gets off the bike and removes her helmet, pulls a bandana from her back pocket to serve as a starting flag. Engines roar, the flag drops, and when the dust clears we discover: the green car sitting unmoved at the crossroads and the biker nowhere to be seen. Our hero grins rakishly at the girl, who smiles knowingly in return and sidles into the passenger seat. As they share a 7 up in the closing frame, the tag line is heard over a rocked-up 80s theme song: “Are you up for it?”

In case this isn’t jarring any memories, I did track down one of the spots on YouTube, which I offer here for posterity’s sake (and for the sake of the cringing it’s likely to induce):

The semiotic associations here are so blunt they barely merit the term “subliminal”: irresistible chick-magnets who are too-cool-for-words drink 7-Up; ergo, to become one yourself, make 7-Up your soft-drink of choice. To a 38 year-old, the message is laughably transparent, but to a 14 year-old boy—a relatively new and terribly self-conscious immigrant to that strange land called Pubescence—a fourteen year-old boy for whom the idea (let alone the possibility) of being an irresistible chick-magnet had only just appeared on the horizon of consciousness, for a fourteen year-old boy, like I say, the implications were almost mythopoeic. What separates you from stunning sexual success is simply a matter of the soft-drink you consume.

So drink 7-Up.

And I did, for about 4 months, even though I hated it and didn’t know why, until that day I caught myself in the act and understood: I was trying to buy the sexual self-assuredness that those ads had promised me in 7-Up. I didn’t use those words at 14, of course, but I realized that I was trying (vainly) to become the man in those commercials by drinking the soft-drink he was hawking.

Now, it’s not just because of the undertones in the commercial’s tag line (“Are you up for it?”) that I’m thinking about 7-Up and Freud today. I watched a documentary called “Century of the Self” a while ago, which was about the work of Sigmund Freud’s nephew back in the 1920s. Though Edward Bearnaise’s name is not nearly as household a word as his uncle’s, he was the first person to take uncle Sigmund’s psychological theories about our subconscious impulses and apply them in an intentional way to manipulate the masses. In particular, he was the guy who showed corporations that they could get people to want things they didn’t need by linking products to their unconscious desires. Those 7-Up spots are the direct heirs of Eddy Bearnaise’s legacy.

But here’s the really fascinating part of this story, and the reason for my little stroll down memory lane to the local Mac’s store. Besides the obvious benefit of making money, one of Bearnaise’s motives in bringing depth psychology to bear on marketing the way he did was to control the masses. He believed (and many politicians of the time believed along with him) that the mass of society was fundamentally irrational and volatile; and in 1924, they had, of course, the evidence of the First World War to prove it. According to Bearnaise, the best way to manage the “irrational force of the masses was to stimulate people’s inner desires through advertising and then sate them with consumer products.” This would keep them happy, docile and, consequently, cooperative. He called it “the engineering of consent.”

In layman’s terms: if subconsciously I believe a can of 7-Up will satisfy my “natural impulse” to be a rebellious, self-asserting rakehell, then I am far less likely actually to be rebellious, self-asserting or rakish. And as long as we all sublimate our impulses like this, society holds together and we all get along.

Not to put it too bluntly, but Bearnaise was one of the first people to propose the idea that we could save ourselves by buying stuff. Quite literally, in the Bearnaisian ideology, consumerism is salvation, products are saviour, and advertising the divine vision that mediates it to us.

Here’s the whole movie, if you’re interested (or skeptical):

Well: I don’t drink 7 Up anymore—too sharp for that old trick—but the other day I was in a local Christian mega-store, and I caught myself in mid-reach for the latest DVD Curriculum produced by some miraculously-huge mega church in the States, offering a “spiritual experience” that would “revolutionize my church’s ministry.”

At 38, of course, I wasn’t taken in by the promises, but the thing is, I don’t really have to be. I live in a world that has believed (sometimes quite explicitly and earnestly) for almost a century now that salvation—the saving of our society, our sex-lives or our churches—is simply a matter of buying the right product. And whether I like it or not, I am so steeped in this worldview that it’s become subliminal, in the Freudian sense: the solution is as simple as a purchase.

Of course, buying the latest book on prayer, or the next big purpose-driven media campaign, or the new small-group “experience guide,” or attending the next big worship event, or whatever it is won’t save anyone’s church, anymore than 7-Up made me an irresistible super-stud. And when we reach for these things thinking they will, whether we articulate the belief or not we are reaching for an idol.

Sometimes when preachers get going on the old epic struggle between Baalism and Yahwehism as it’s recorded in the Old Testament, they say a lot about materialism: the condo in Florida, the unnecessary mid-life- cruise, and so on. But I’ve almost never heard anyone draw a line between Baal and, say, the Prayer of Jabez (TM), the Passion of the Christ (TM), Courageous: The Movie (TM) or the next big what-have-you out of Willow Creek. Of course, ministry resources are often just a matter of practicality, I realize that, but I also realized, that day in the bloated Christian marketplace, that the idols of our day are far more comfortable in our churches than we want to admit.

Lord have mercy.

Musical Mondays (III)

This is a song I wrote last year about my daughter; it was inspired by the Hey! Rosetta song "Welcome."  Kind of self explanatory, I hope, though the imagery comes (in part) from Psalm 127:3-5.   The "All I worhip" bridge, incidentally, is a song my daughter wrote when she was three, I came home from work and she was all excited to sing the song she'd written; thought it was fitting. 

Sunday's Child

Fly true, little arrow,
right through the city gates
Fly free, little arrow,
everywhere you go
He will speed you home

Sunday's child, bonny and blithe
The days are wild, but you're full of life
With mommy's eyes, you're daddy's risk-taker
Chasing down a dare
With spark and spunk you're daddy's peace-maker
Shining everywhere

Fly true, little arrow,
right through the city gates
Fly free, little arrow,
everywhere you go
He will speed you home

Sunday's child, fair of face
Far to go, and full of grace
With mommy's heart, you're daddy's dream-catcher
And you'll grow strong with wisdom and  stature
Precious in his sight

Fly true, little arrow,
right through the city gates
Fly free, little arrow,
everywhere you go
He will speed you home

"All I worship  is God on high / All I worship is God on high"

Fly true, little arrow,
right through the city gates
Fly free, little arrow,
everywhere you go
He will speed you home

Fly true, little arrow,
right through the city gates
Fly free, little arrow,
everywhere you go
He'll be there you know
Like an arrow
He will speed you home

Saturday Morning Sermon (III)

Here's another excerpt from our sermon series in Acts.  The text was Acts 14:8-23. Paul and Barnabas visit Lystra:

There’s this theologian named T. F. Torrance—he’s one of the deepest thinkers about God I’ve ever read—and he’s had a pretty major impact on my own understanding of God.

Well: T. F. Torrance served in North Africa during World War II. He was hoping to be a chaplain, but instead they made him head of “Huts and Canteens,” which meant he spent most of his time delivering supplies to troops in the field; which was okay, actually, because he loved ministering to the soldiers on the front line.

So: in October, 1944, he served as a stretcher-bearer during an assault on San Martino-Sogliano, in Italy. They were under heavy fire all night, and in the morning, Torrance had an experience that haunted him the rest of his life. He says, “When daylight filtered through, I came across a young soldier, a Private Philips, who was barely 20 years old, lying in the mud.” He was mortally wounded and didn’t have long to live, so Torrance knelt with him on the ground. As they sat there in that death-watch, at one point Private Philips said, ‘Padre, is God really like Jesus.’”

Is God really like Jesus? Torrance writes: “I assured him that he was—the only God there is, the God who had come to us in Jesus ... and poured out his love to us as our saviour. As I prayed and commended him to the Lord Jesus, he passed away.”

I don’t want this to sound at all flippant, and I guess I’ll only know for sure when my time comes, but I think that I would be able to die in peace, knowing that when I see God, he’ll be like Jesus.

But like I say, Private Philip’s question left a lasting impression on Torrance. Later he would write these words about the experience: “There is no hidden God lurking behind the back of Jesus... but only the one, Lord God, who became incarnate in him.” Jesus himself said it more simply still: “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.”

I’m telling you this today, for the same reason Paul said it to those Lystrians that day, who were trying to sacrifice a bull to him because they were under the wrong impression about God.

Listen: if you’ve been struggling under the wrong impression about God—that God doesn’t care and can’t be trusted, that he’s out to get you, or doesn’t want anything to do with you—that “the Father up above will squish you like a bug”—if you’ve been living with these impressions of God—or worse—then this is your invitation today: look into the face of Jesus Christ, and let God make a lasting impression on your life.

Because the Gospel heals our wrong impressions of God.

The Seven Works of Mercy and Christian Discipleship

I've been thinking a fair bit about the Seven Works of Mercy lately.   This is a traditional list of seven acts of service that the church used to encourage all Christians to participate in.  For the most part they come from Matthew 25:31-44, where the Son of Man assigns the sheep a place on his right hand because they fed him when he was hungry, and visited him when he was sick, and so on.  If you recall the parable, they express surprise. "When did we ever do this for you?" they ask, and he replies: "I tell you the truth whatever you did for the least of these my brothers you did for me."

For the record, the "seven works of mercy" are: 

1) feeding the hungry
2) giving water to the thirsty
3) sheltering the stranger
4) clothing the naked
5) visiting the prisoner
6) caring for the sick
7) burying the dead

What stands out to me as I look at this list (and in this I am following Richard Beck over at Experimental Theology), is how the works of mercy have lost some of their immediate urgency in our modern, institutionalized world.  Giving a cup of water to someone who's thirsty in our world probably has less significance than it would have had in the arid land Jesus travelled.  Unlike inmates in modern correctional facilities, a prisoner in Jesus' day was often responsible for his own food, medical attention and general upkeep, even behind bars, a fact which made a visit a potentially life-saving act.  So it's hard to do a one-to-one comparison.

But then again, all it takes is a little creative imagination to overcome the generation-gap here.  A cup of cold water might not do much today, but a Jesus Well or a BioSand Water Filter would (and does).  Visiting prisoners in modern day Canada can be a complicated, red-tape affair, but it can be done, and writing a letter to a prisoner is something anyone could do (See here, here or here).  They don't let just anybody bury the dead anymore, but anybody can show practical love, help and support to the grieved and bereaved.  And it doesn't take too much imagination to think of ways that welcoming the stranger might happen in our modern world, from mentoring new-comers to Canada to getting involved in a local shelter.

So it can be done.  Like I say, all it takes is a bit of imagination, and a desire to encounter Jesus.  Because in Matthew 25 Jesus said, or at least strongly implied, that if you really want to encounter him in a life-giving way, you'll have to look for him among the grieved, the starving, the homeless and the persecuted.  That's where he is, and when you're serving them, you're serving him.

What about you?  Where or how have you encountered Jesus by praticipating in one of the Seven Works of Mercy?

Sometimes we sing a song in church about how we want to see Jesus "high and lifted up / shining in the light of [his] glory," and I never thought about how risky a thing it was to ask God to open the eyes of our heart in this way.  Because if anything Jesus said in Matthew 25 can be trusted, when he grants that request we'll probably find ourselves standing among the hurting, the vulnerable, the outcast and the helpless.  And if we want to make sure we don't miss him when we're there, it probably couldn't hurt to make ourselves familiar with the Works of Mercy.

Bible Camp: The Good, the Bad, the Beautiful

One of the highlights of my summer was the week we spent serving at Bible Camp. Our youngest daughter was a camper for the first time. Since she was nervous about a week away from home, we volunteered to serve at the camp for the week so that at least we’d be “on site” and have enough contact to help ease the home-sickness.

So my wife and I cleaned bathrooms, taught Bible lessons for 9-year-olds, and ran a tight ship in the dish-pit for a week. I don’t like to brag (until I know if it’ll still be standing by the end of the season) but there’s also a re-built flight of steps on Cabin 3 with my name on it.

Anyways, I love Bible Camp—it’s where I cut my teeth in ministry, long before God told me I was going to be a pastor—and to be honest, a week at Bible camp for me is as relaxing as any old cruise.

It was this year, anyways. But home now and reflecting, I’m looking over the whole Evangelical Bible Camp phenomenon with my theological glasses on, and here’s what I’m seeing.

The Good:

Service: Christian service is not optional for the life of a Christ follower and Bible Camp is the kind of place where every gift and talent has a place, from cooking to speaking, to building to playing.

Hard Work: Working hard alongside brothers and sisters in Christ for the sake of Jesus builds a kind of spiritual camaraderie that is deeply formative and irreplaceable.

The Outdoors: One day I’m going to write a theology of the outdoors; until then I’ll simply mention the radiance that people get when they are spending swaths of time outside and together.

Role-models: There is something profoundly moving seeing young men and women build into the lives of children by modelling Christian love and life for them over a week together.

Fun: I forget the theologian anymore, but I remember reading a book that developed a theology of “play” around the “cosmic reversal” themes in the gospel and the idea that humans discover their identity as made in the image of the creative God especially when they find the grace to be homo-ludens; “man at play.” I’ll have to dig that out again, but in the meantime I’ll just recall the joy of seeing kids playing in the presence of Jesus.

The Bad:

Gospel-Lite: By its nature, Bible Camp is not the place to develop an understanding of salvation that goes much further beyond an ask-Jesus-into-you-heart kind of proclamation, so this is maybe to be expected, but it still merits scrutiny. There’s just no permanent community that can consistently disciple these kids long term, and even the best efforts at follow-up are hit and miss.

Easy-Believe-ism: In the olden days (say 4th century and onward) if you wanted to become a Christian you underwent a 40-day Lenten Journey with daily catechism, fasting and exorcisms that culminated in a public baptism (and then there were follow-up classes, too). Of course, this was fraught with its own theological problems and open to its own spiritual abuses, but I mention it here only to point out the stark contrast between the historic Church’s “10-course meal” approach to discipleship, and Bible Camp’s “TV-dinner approach”—just pop them into the microwave oven of the sinner’s prayer and they pop out Christians.

Churchless Christianity: Ecclesiology is the fancy word we use to describe one’s “theology of the church.” In as much as it reflects the ethos of Evangelicalism at large, Bible Camp ministry has profoundly weak ecclesiology. The Church (holy, apostolic and universal), if it gets mentioned at all, is simply a means to an end: a place where individuals can follow Jesus on their own, together. Alan Hirsch once made the controversial claim that Ecclesiology follows Mission; at Bible Camp, I think, we see the sad corollary of this idea: mission that has eschewed ecclesiology altogether.

The Beautiful:

Seeing Jesus introduce himself to young people through the loving witness of his followers. Having given the theological fuddy-duddy above his time on the soap-box, I have to say that seeing Jesus work in kids lives the way he does at Bible Camp is beautiful and humbling. Kids who didn’t even know that God existed a week ago find out that not only does he exist, he actually loves them dearly. If it doesn’t move you to be part (even a small part) of this work, you may want to avail yourself of the advice posted at this link here.

Musical Mondays (II)

As the Tree

As the rain in the springtime
As the summer sun
As the winds in the autumn bring change
As the mists in the winter turn to spring again
Let this land feel your mercy, let this land feel your mercy
Let this land feel your  mercy once again

As the tree in the springtime puts forth her green
As the tree bears in summer her fruit
As the tree in the autumn bears crimson gold
Let this land bear salvation, let this land bear salvation
Let this land bear salvation once again

Let salvation spring up from the ground
Let the new grain of your love abound
Let the valleys and the hills resound
With echoes of rejoicing
Let the autumn rains of righteousness
Come and soothe us like a summer mist
Send the morning dew of holiness
To bring this land to life.

As the tree in the springtime puts forth her green
As the tree bears in summer her fruit
As the tree in the autumn bears crimson gold
Let this land bear salvation, let this land bear salvation
Let this land bear salvation once again

Saturday Morning Sermon (II)

Another excerpt from our work in Acts this summer (August 5).  The text was Acts 9:32-43, the post resurrection miracles of Peter.

You may not have heard of John Wimber before, but if you’ve attended a contemporary worship service sometime in the last 20 years, you’ve encountered his influence.

He was actually the keyboardist for a band called the Paramours, back in the day. The Paramours would go on to form a group called The Righteous Brothers, but not with John Wimber; John met Jesus back in 1962 and his path had a major course correction.

After becoming a Christian, he read his Bible voraciously. The story goes that he would read about the life-transforming miracles in the Bible, and then attend church services where the only miracle, it seemed, was that everyone was still awake at the end. So one Sunday he approached one of the pastors.

He said: “Pastor, when do we the stuff?” “What stuff,” asked the pastor.

“You know: the stuff. In the Bible. Like healing the sick and raising the dead—the stuff Jesus did.”

“Well,” said the pastor, “We don’t do that anymore.” John looked confused: “So what do you do?” “What we did this morning.” And John said: “Pastor: you gotta understand, I gave up drugs for this.”

Wimber would go on to become an influential leader in the charismatic movement of the 80s and 90s, a revival that challenged the church to start taking the Holy Spirit more seriously—and—as Wimber would maybe put it—to start “doin’ the stuff.”

He wrote books with titles like “Power Healing.” He taught courses called “Signs, Wonders and Church Growth.” He was also the leader of the Association of Vineyard Churches, from 1977-1994.

But I’m telling you about him today, because Acts 9 here is kind of asking us the same sort of question John Wimber asked his pastor back in 1963. When are we going to do the stuff?

And just to be clear, the stuff I’m talking about are the signs and wonders that the Holy Spirit does through us and among us, to show the world that Jesus really is alive, and to give the world a glimpse of what his kingdom actually looks like when it draws near. Just to be clear. We’re talking about the ministry of the Resurrection.

And I think I’d side with Wimber on this one, in principle anyways: a church that isn’t doing the “stuff of the Resurrection,” probably has some explaining to do. So I guess we should listen closely to what this passage has to say here about “the ministry of the Resurrection”; and let me start by pointing out that—according to Acts 9, at least—every good resurrection ministry needs an Aeneas, a Tabitha and a tanner.
You can hear the whole sermon here:  Acts 9:32-43 "Doin' the Stuff"

The Feast of Purim and the Redemption of Saul

A few months ago I posted these thoughts on King Saul's infamous battle against the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15.  I argued then that, in seizing on the prophetic word and capitalizing on the Amalekite plunder, Saul shows us the ignoble failure of all our efforts at self-Messiahship; but also that YHWH's rejection of Saul (and us in Saul) as Messiah is really a redemptive act, inasmuch as it paves the way for the true Messiah--our reyah--to take up the mantle on our behalf. 

In light of these thoughts (and also of these much earlier thoughts on the tragic end of Saul's dynasty) I thought I might share these insights into Saul's story I recently got from the Book of Esther.

Yes, Esther.  The connection between these two stories are not immediately obvious, but profoundly significant.

Five times the Book of Esther points out that Haman is an Agagite (3:1, 3:10, 8:3: 8:10, 9:24), that is, a descendant of King Agag,the very Amalekite whose house Saul failed to destroy as per his prophetic mission back in 1 Samuel 15.  His failure to destroy Agag's line was why YHWH rejected Saul in the first place, and now we see the ominous result of his disobedience:  centuries after Saul, the People of God face utter annihilation at the hands of Agag's descendant. 

This might seem like a minor detail, that the "enemy of the Jews" in Esther is a descendant of Agag the Amalakite.  But then in Esther 2:5, we discover that Mordecai (Haman's arch nemesis) is a Benjaminite from the line of Kish. 

Anyone remember whose son King Saul was?

Kish, the Benjamite. It turns out that an ancestor of  Saul, the failed Messiah, has risen up to oppose the ancestor of Agag, the source of Saul's failure.

With this in mind, I doubt it's a coincidence that, even though King Xerxes clearly gave the Jews permission to pounce on the plunder of their enemies (8:11), the story stresses three times that under Mordecai's leadership they did not (9:10, 9:15, 9:16).  Mordecai and Esther have succeeded where Saul failed, and what we're witnessing in their success is actually the redemption of Saul's story through their faithfulness

This is more than an interesting intertextual connection, it is a profound word of hope to any whose story--in ministry or life or Christian discipleship--has brought them seemingly to the point Saul's story was at in 2 Samuel 21:1-14, with lament echoing in the air and carrion birds picking at the remains. 

There is no failure so final that God cannot redeem.

Jesus said that we'd discover eternal life in the Scriptures if and when we look for him there, so as the Jews of Susa celebrate the Feast of Purim at the end of the Book of Esther, I've got my eyes peeled.  And I can't help but notice that when God finally does redeem our failed efforts at self-Messiahship, this is what it looks like:  a faithful community of God's people, delivered from death and celebrating life together around a sacred meal.

Salvation belongs to our God.

A Pastor's Soundtrack

My friend Jon Coutts and I studied at Briercrest Seminary together. He graduated a year before me, and before he left to pursue God’s next thing in his life, he gave me a special Mix-CD that he called “The Seminary Soundtrack.” It was a collection of songs that had been meaningful to him during his time at school. Many of them were songs we had enjoyed together in some way or another; a number were written by friends of friends; and even a few of our own compositions made the cut. I found it in my CD compartment in the car the other day and gave it a fresh listen: what is it about music that unlocks the floodgates of memory the way it does?

Mix-CDs are a dying art, I think. Time was the care and patience that went into making a Mix-Tape (only later a Mix-CD) made it necessarily a labor of love. Achieving the right progression from hard-to-soft or vice versa, the perfect blend of eclecticism in genres, a tasteful degree of self-expression in the song list, what Davis from Corner Gas calls “the aural journey of the Mix CD”—it doesn’t happen just for wanting it.

I’ve been thinking about this all today because this August marked the start as my fourth official year as pastor of the FreeWay. If we had space enough and time, I might hash out the many lessons and diverse challenges these last three years have given me; but in lieu of a more detailed memoir, I was thinking about what the “Mix CD” of my first three years might look like. These are the songs that got me through: some coming like god-sends at just the right moment of spiritual exasperation; others drowning out the chaos in my head when the inner-talk got too frenetic; others still articulating the ache in my gut for hope when words alone couldn’t do it.

If I were to make a soundtrack of my first three years pastoring, these are the songs that would make the list. It says more, perhaps, than a detailed memoir ever could.

1. “Chicago,” Sufjan Stevens
I made a lot of mistakes in my life

2. “I’ll Go Crazy if I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight ,” U2
It’s not a hill, it’s a mountain when you start out the climb

3. “Let Down,” Radiohead
One day I am going to grow wings / A chemical reaction/
Hysterical and useless / Hysterical and let down

4. “Bigot Sunrise,” Tonic
I’m not alone, but I’m far from home

5. “The Medicine,” John Mark McMillan
... with a hole inside your chest the size of a city block...

6. “Exit,” Radiohead
Breathe, keep breathing, don’t lose your nerve

7. “Nadir” (Me)
When you reach the nadir of the heart I’ll be there

8. “Between the Cracks,” John Mark McMillan
He’s raising the dead in the graveyard, we’re we’ve laid down our dreams and his name is hope

9. “Welcome,” Hey! Rosetta
Sorry, this is it: it’s cold and hard and badly lit

10. “Winter Winds,” Mumford & Sons
And my head told my heart let love grow, but my heart told my head, this time no

11. “Breathe,” U2
Every day I die again and again and reborn /
every day I need to find the courage to walk out into the streets

12. “Chester Munday,” Brock Tyler
Just like Chester Munday I’m a prairie boy forever

Teachers who touched my life: a list

Today was the first day of school.  I am now officially the father of a son in high school--and a Grade 7er and a Grade 4er.  There was some sleeplessness last night and a fair bit of pacing this morning, but everyone got to the bus on time, with freshly-packed backpacks and renewed excitement.

After the dust settled this morning I got to thinking about my own school experience over the years (both as a student and a teacher), and it struck me how spiritually-formative the impact of a good teacher can be.  From this point of reflection it was only a hop skip and a jump to remembering some of the teachers who have left a spiritually profound mark on my life.  They are listed below, in no particular order. 

How about you?  Who are some of the teachers who touched your life over the years?

Here's my list:

1.  Ms. Peretti  (Grade 6)  Part way through my Grade 6 year our beloved homeroom teacher took a mat-leave and Ms. Peretti replaced her.  I had no idea, the day she introduced herself to the class and explained that we would be doing a lot of writing with her, that this would be the start of a life-long passion for writing.  Thank you Ms. Peretti for teaching me to care deeply about the written word.

2.  Ms. Olson  (Grade 5)  Grade 5 was sort of a turning point for me in my scholastic career, where I finally felt like I fit; and this is thanks in no small part to Ms. Olson.  We were her first ever class, and she was enthusiastic and perceptive as a new teacher.  I don't suppose my opinion of a teacher had ever been higher: I thought the world of her.  Thank you Ms. Olson for teaching me to love scholasticism before I even knew what the word met.

3.  Ms. Babik (High School English)  Ms. Babik's class was the place (on the very first day of High School) where I met the girl who would become my wife.  But that's not the only reason I remember her class so fondly.  She was the archetypal English teacher: wise, insightful, creative and quirky.  The lessons she gave us (formally and informally) in interpretation, literary analysis and clear communication still come into play for me every week when I sit down with a biblical text on Monday and tell others what I found there on Sunday.  Thank you Ms. Babik for being so inspiring and illuminating.

4.  Grandpa Lloyd (Bible)  Grandpa Lloyd loved the Bible and couldn't help but talk about it.  I have vivid memories of sitting on his knee and hearing him reflect, expound, narrate and explain the truths of the Word with a conviction and passion that was, even at six or seven, spiritually contagious.  Thank you Grandpa Lloyd for pushing a boy who was probably too young for it to think deeper about God.

5.  Prof. David Miall (Engl 351-- Romantic Poetry and Prose)  David Miall taught Romantic Poetry and Prose at the University of Alberta, and it's unlikely that he remembers me, but his course, and the creative approach he came at it with, left an indelible mark on my mind and heart.  Thank you David Miall for bringing the works of so many dead poets to life for me.

6.  John Robinson (High School English)  When I took my first teaching appointment at St. Paul Regional High, Mr. Robinson was a close colleague and collaborator.  As a mentor to a new teacher he was generous and encouraging, and watching him interact with his students taught me things no teacher college could have.  The many conversations we shared about life, literature and philosophy after classes still ring in my head once in a while.  Thank you John for your mentorship and humour.

7.  David Guretzky (Theology)  David Guretzky's challenge to think theologically, and his care and wisdom in teaching me what exactly that meant, hit me out of the blue in Seminary.  The process of deconstruction was at times painful, but the rebuilding was profoundly formative.  Thank you David for showing me I wasn't nearly as Christocentric as I thought, and then showing me how to be more so.

8.  Dad (life)  Everything I know about tools I learned from my Dad (and for the record, this isn't much, and far less than he knows).  He taught me more than this, of course: how to respect women and how to listen to music and how to read for life and how to fish and canoe and start a campfire.  Thanks Dad for helping a young impressionable boy become a man.

9.  Dale Dirksen (Worship Ministry)  Dale Dirksen was a really important mentor during my time at Briercrest.  He taught me to define worship and to process difficult ministry questions and to fit things like art and symbol and sacred act into my work as a pastor.  Thank you Dale for your commitment to helping a guy who liked to sing and play guitar become a worship leader.

10.  Mr. Theisen (High School Physics/Science)  Mr. Theisen's left-brain clarity and systematic approach to teaching science made his classes like a long, slow drink of water: not especially zesty, but profoundly refreshing for all that.  He was a study in the art of being unperturbable and his careful method for solving equations still comes in handy. Thanks Mr. Theisen for your care and precision as a science teacher.

11.  David Miller (Biblical Greek).  David taught me to read the Bible in Greek.  I don't just mean to use exegetical techniques, but to approach the Greek New Testament as a living book written in a living language.  At the end of our Greek Exegesis I course, he closed the class with a little parable that seared itself into my imagination and inspired me to develop a habit of reading the Greek New Testament.  "Imagine a fish," he said, "Swimming up stream for months.  It finally gets to the top of the stream, figures, 'Finally I can rest!' so it flops out of the water onto the bank, and promptly dies.  This (he explained) is what it'll be like for you if you don't find some way to keep up with your reading." 

Musical Monday (I)

A song I wrote a while ago as a musical reflection along the same lines of this post.

Dirty Jordan

Dirty Jordan, lying in the sun
with her grave shroud on
Crooked curves on broken banks,
what have we done?

Can you wash clean this dirty water
Can you drench down these thirsty lands
Can you wade through this holy river
Till you heal the hands of dirty Jordan?

Old man river crawling through the land
with his soul sucked dry
It's a long way home through stone and sand,
can you afford to cry?

Can you wash clean this dirty water
Can you drench down these thirsty lands
Can you wade through this holy river
Till you heal the hands of dirty Jordan?

Dirty Jordan, waiting for the Son
who wqas baptized by you
A drop of blood from his flowing veins
And he will baptize you

Can you wash clean this dirty water
Can you drench down these thirsty lands
Can you wade through this holy river
Till you heal the hands of dirty Jordan?

Saturday Morning Sermons (I)

Through the summer our church worked its way through some of the missionary stories in the Book of Acts.  I've been finding this book more and more compelling every time I come to it, and truth be told, it's taken me into some real terra incognita in my own preaching ministry this summer. 

Recordings of all our sermons are posted on our website, so rather than simply reduplicating the effort, I thought I'd post some short excerpts from individual sermons over the next few Saturdays-- a little spiritual food for thought to start your weekend off (and if it's only whetted your appetite, a link to the entire sermon is included below).

For starters, here's a snippet from a sermon on Acts 7:54-8:3, the Martyrdom of Stephen (July 29, 2012):
When you read closely, you’ll notice that the author has recorded Stephen's story very carefully, to show that his life is following the pattern of Christ’s life—I mean: Stephen’s story is shaped to look like Jesus’s story; and almost every detail here has been carefully worded so that it sounds hauntingly like the life and death of Jesus.

Let me explain.

I already pointed out how verse 55 says that Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit and saw heaven standing open, right? Well: over in Luke 3:21-22, it says that when Jesus was baptized at the start of his ministry, as he was coming up out of the water he saw heaven standing open and the Spirit of God coming down on him in the form of a dove.

Coincidence? Maybe, but then, in verse 58, it says that they dragged Stephen out of the city to kill him. So: in Luke 4, after Jesus’ first ever sermon, it says that the people were so furious that the dragged him out of the city to kill him (they didn’t kill him that day, of course, but both Acts 7:58 and Luke 4 use the exact same phrase to describe the scene).

And that, too, might be a coincidence, but then in verse 59, just before he dies, Stephen looks into heaven and says, “Lord Jesus, receive my Spirit.” Anyone remember what Jesus’ final word from the cross was? Wasn’t it: “Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit.” (?)

And if you’re still not convinced, look at Stephen’s last words in verse 60. “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

Sound familiar? I think it’s supposed to. In Luke 23:34, while they’re nailing Jesus to the cross, he prays this prayer: “Forgive them Father, for they do not know what they are doing.”

So: can you add one and one together with me: Jesus was the Father’s Spirit-filled servant who committed his life, body and soul to God, and prayed for the forgiveness of his murderers right to the cross... and Stephen, his faithful martyr, has followed that pattern to the letter.

The fancy-schmancy word for this is cruciform—which just means living a life that’s conformed to the pattern of the cross. And if Stephen’s story has anything to say about being a Christian martyr, it’s that Christ’s witnesses must live lives that look like his: they must be Spirit-filled servants who trust themselves body and soul to the will of God, and commit themselves, life and death, to the ministry of reconciliation. Like Jesus.

That’s the kind of life this story is calling us to pursue—a life conformed to the pattern of the cross— the cruciform life—a martyr’s life.
You can hear the whole sermon here:  Acts 7:54-8:3  "Witness:  Exhibit A"