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

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

random reads

The Halloween Files (Part VIII): On Trick-or-Treating

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As regular readers of this blog will know, the last few weeks at terra incognita have been devoted to theologically decoding the themes of Halloween.  Halloween came on faster than I could write, so there are a few "Halloween Files" that will have to wait until next year, but one of the big issues we didn't tackle in this series is the supposed pagan origins of the festival.  As it turns out, the "Is Halloween pagan?" question is more complicated than a 500-word blog post could adequately cover anyway.  For those who want some further reading to help them settle the issue, let me recommend the following.

Here's an article about Halloween's Christian (yes, Christian) connections.

And here's my old friend Richard Beck with a psychological defense of Halloween (again I need to credit Beck with having inspired this series here at terra incognita).

And here's Steve Bell on "keeping Christ in Halloween."

I'll keep the jury sequestered on this one and let you make up your own mind.  But since your door will be ringing with cries for treats and threats of tricks in only a few hours, let me try to decode one last Halloween tradition here:  the "trick-or-treater."

Because when you strip away the pillow-cases full of candy, the symbolic narrative of trick-or-treating is as potent as it is old:  a spirit-being (who may in fact be a neighbour in disguise, but there's no way of knowing for certain) comes to your door begging hospitality and threatening mischief if it's withheld.  That is, after all, what's echoing (albeit faintly) under that mask-muffled cry:  Show hospitality (treat), or suffer the consequences (trick).

As a symbolic narrative, this story is old enough to be archetypal: a spirit-being-in-disguise came calling for hospitality, and finding none, exacted reprisal.   Just read the prologue to Beauty and the Beast, or the myth of Baucis and Philemon (in Ovid's Metamorphosis), or the story of Abraham and the destruction of Sodom (in Genesis 18-19).

What these stories all point out is that, in the ancient world at least, there was a spiritual dimension to hospitality.  It's why Abraham was so quick to welcome his guests under the Oaks of Mamre (Genesis 18), and why Lot's house, alone, was spared when the Lord went looking for ten righteous men in Sodom (Genesis 19).  Because graciously and generously welcoming the stranger was once a moral act, and poor hospitality was once a deep spiritual failing.

Trick-or-treating may or may not have descended from old Celtic rituals designed to appease the spirit-beings on the night when the veil between "their world" and "ours" was at its thinnest.  The jury's still out.  But where ever it came from, it is a vestige from a time gone by when we recognized hospitality as a profoundly spiritual act.  As such, it serves as a playful reminder to our world, where we have (for all intents and purposes) closed our minds to the possibility of spirit-beings, and are increasingly closing our doors to strangers:  there is something spiritual going on when we practice genuine hospitality.

And if you're still with me, then let me point you in two equal and opposite directions for reflection this Halloween night.

On the one hand, notice that the "symbolic logic" of trick-or-treating is based on the threat of retribution and the hope of appeasement: appease the spirit world or suffer its vengeance.  In this, its "inner symbolism" is decidedly pagan, whether it came from ancient Ireland or not.  It's based on the idea that "the gods" (or in this case, their cleverly-costumed representatives) threaten terrible tricks unless they are dully treated.  And in pointing that out, I hope you'll understand what I mean when I say that through the Cross, Jesus has actually unmasked the "trick-or-treating god" for us.  In biblical language:  the divine wrath is satisfied, once for all in Jesus, who is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.

And if that seems like a bit of a theological leap (from trick-or-treating to the atonement), then let me give you the other hand.  Hospitality is still a spiritual act.  As a Christian and a pastor, I believe that the church is called to extend God's hospitality to the stranger and the outsider in our midst.  In material and spiritual ways, we're called to share with others the hospitality that we've experienced in Jesus Christ, when God invited us to his table, spiritually homeless sinners though we were. 

And  if you'll listen for it, you may hear that call echoing in the background tonight, when those masked gremlins and other assorted strangers stand outside your door, crying out for a treat.  If you'll listen for it, you may hear God say what he said in Hebrews 13:2, all over again:  "Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it."

Happy Halloween, everybody!

The Halloween Files (Part VII): A Theological Bestiary

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As part of my ongoing reflections on Halloween, I had intended to write a theological bestiary--that is, a study of the various monsters that turn up at Halloween--werewolves, vampires, phantoms and the like--with a detailed discussion of their theological significance as projections of our deepest fears and repulsions.  But Halloween's only two sleeps away and I've got to get working on my costume: who's got the time?

And besides, psychologist/theologian Richard Beck has already done a fascinating and thorough job of this over at his blog, Experimental Theology. It was actually discovering his work on the theology of monsters a year or so ago that inspired this Halloween series; so, as a tribute, and to avoid re-inventing the wheel I thought I'd post a link instead. 

Start here: Omens & Warnings.  And whatever else you do, don't miss this one:  Monsters and Heroes; but do it when you've got the time for some leisurely, reflective reading.  I shared some of Beck's ideas at the dinner table with the kids a few weeks ago.  My son's assessment: "Mind equals blown."

There is so much that is rich and thought provoking in this series, but what I would like to draw attention to here is Richard Beck's over-arching theory that monsters are a social defense mechanism--a form of "othering" by which we culturally "deal with" our own junk.  In Beck's words:

The theological richness of monsters comes from the fact that monsters allow us to reflect upon notions of otherness, alienness, strangeness, and alterity. More specifically, monsters ask us to confront and analyze our fears of the Other to determine if those fears are misdirected.

To review, many of things feared in monsters are aspects of the self. As Richard Kearney writes in his book Strangers, Gods and Monsters: Ideas of Otherness monsters remind us that the "ego is never wholly sovereign...Each monster narrative recalls that the self is never secure in itself." Monsters are "tokens of fracture within the human psyche."

Feeling this fracture, we've noted how we project the transgressive aspects of the self onto the Other. Kearney writes that "we often project onto others those unconscious fears from which we recoil in ourselves." We handle our own evil by attempting "to repudiate it by projecting it exclusively onto outsiders." This creates "the polarization between Us and Them" resulting in the Monster/Hero duality we discussed in a prior post, a duality where I am Good and the Other is Bad. Kearney summarizes, "all too often, humans have [allowed] paranoid delusions to serve the purpose of making sense of our confused emotions by externalizing them into black-and-white scenarios."

I'll leave you with that little piece of Halloween toffee to chew on for today; but let me add this:  Richard Beck suggests that monster narratives are a way of dealing with the collective discomfort we feel about "the other" in our midst.   "They" disturb "us" because in their difference they point out our own brokenness-- the evil within, so to speak.  So we make "them" unclean, outcast, untouchable, and by this act of demonization we try to convince ourselves that we are, in fact, whole.

If he's right, then I guess it wouldn't hurt to remember that in his ministry among the poor, the outcast, the unclean, the demonized, Jesus stood with the monsters.

And if he's right, it would mean that this Halloween night, when the doorbell rings and the neighbour kid stands there in his rubber devil mask asking for a treat, that's actually opportunity knocking.  It's an opportunity to be reminded that "the monster," in fact, is us.

The Halloween Files (Part VI): Feasting (with egg on your face) in the Upside-Down Kingdom

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Admittedly, I was not thinking about the theology of the Halloween prank, that cold November first morning a few years back, when I stood shivering in my PJs, scouring egg yolk from the windshield of my car.  But I am thinking about it this morning, working my way through a theological analysis of the themes of Halloween and all; because anyone who’s ever cleaned smashed pumpkin guts from their porch the morning after can tell you that “the prank” is a significant, if inconvenient part of the festivities on Alls-Hallowed Eve.

In this it shares good company with a number of chaotic festivals from the Human Family’s Book of Memories.   The Saturnalia of ancient Rome, for instance, was marked by role-reversals (slaves and children become the lords and masters for a day), role-playing (which probably included disguises and costumes), and licentiousness on a scale that would make the most seasoned Halloween prankster blush through his mask.

A kissing-cousin of the Saturnalia is the old, nearly forgotten tradition from Medieval Christendom known as “The Feast of Fools.”  Here’s how theologian Harvey Cox describes this strange festival:

During the medieval era there flourished in parts of Europe a holiday known as the Feast of Fools.  On that colorful occasion, usually celebrated about January first, even ordinarily pious priests and serious townsfolk donned bawdy masks, sang outrageous ditties and generally kept the whole world awake with revelry and satire.  Minor clerics painted their faces, strutted about in the robes of their superiors, and mocked the stately rituals of church and court.  Sometimes a Lord of Misrule, a Mock King, or a Boy Bishop was elected to preside over the events. 

The Feast of fools was never popular with the higher-ups.  It was constantly condemned and criticized.  But despite the efforts of fidgety ecclesiastics and an outright condemnation by the Council of Basel in 1431, the Feast of Fools survived until the sixteenth century.  ... In the age of the Reformation it gradually died out ... [but] its faint shade still persists in the pranks and revelry of Halloween and New Years Eve (emphasis mine).
Festivals like the Feast of Fools, while inconvenient and somewhat unsettling, played an important role in the cultural psyche of times gone by.  As Harvey Cox suggests: “The Feast of Fools ... demonstrated that [we could] imagine, at least once in a while, a wholly different kind of world—one where the last was first, accepted values were inverted, fools became kings and choirboys were prelates.”

Did you connect the dots there, too?   The “shade” of our age-old desire to imagine “a wholly different kind of world,” where “accepted values are inverted” persists “in the pranks and revelry of Halloween."

And suddenly I’m thinking of the Kingdom of God.

To be clear:  I am not suggesting that hurling an egg at an unsuspecting domicile on Halloween Night is a legitimate expression of the Christian Faith.  I’m not saying that at all.  What I am saying is that perhaps all the chaos of Halloween—the treats and the tricks—perhaps that’s really an expression of our deep down desire to imagine a world where the power-structures-that-be get turned on their head. 

And I’m saying that this desire has a long pedigree in the Saturnalian Chaos of which the Halloween Prank is just a faint echo.

And I’m saying that the Kingdom of Heaven is actually God’s answer to this age-old desire for a radical inversion of the Status Quo.  After all, didn’t Jesus himself say it: in his Kingdom the first do come last; the greatest are the least; and the ones who weep are blessed as the Master becomes the Servant of All. 

In Donald Kraybill’s words, the Kingdom of God is an Upside-down Kingdom.  Though it’s often neglected in the wealthy, complacent, bourgeois Christianity of the West, this is one of the central themes in its proclamation:  God’s Kingdom turns the value systems and the power structures of the World upside-down. 

And if that really is a longing for the radical inversion of the status-quo that I see, lurking there the bottom of the traditional Halloween Prank, then I suppose we have the glorious fulfillment of every Halloween Prank ever played in this message:  “The time has been fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the good news.”

The Halloween Files (Part V): Zombie Apocalypses, Then and Now

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The video for Michael Jackson's Thriller came out when I was in Grade 4.  I know this with certainty because I can remember quite clearly my Grade 4 Halloween party at school.  As part of the festivities, our Grade 4 teacher thought it would be a fun idea to watch this new music video that was all the rage, by a rising star named Michael Jackson.

For those who forget (or never saw) the thrilling Zombie-dance, you can check it out here.  Thirty years later, Thriller still has that magical something-or-other about it, despite the light years of sophistication that now stand between film-making-special-effects then and now.  Michael Jackson's necromantic choreography may seem somewhat campy today, but I confess here that I came home from that Grade 4 Halloween party absolutely terrified. I lay awake that night, fully expecting an undead horde to burst through the floor of my bedroom as per the zombies that swarm Ola Ray at the 11 min. 11 sec. mark of the video.

I survived that night, of course, but in the continued spirit of confession, let me say that to this day, Michael Jackson's yellow werewolf eyes still send a thrill of terror through my chest. 

But here's the thought I'm mulling over today, as I practice thinking theologically about Halloween this month and all.  Released in 1983, Thriller opens with the following disclaimer from Michael Jackson himself (who was a practicing Jehovah's Witness at the time):  Due to my strong personal convictions, I wish to stress that this film in no way endorses a belief in the occult.  

Three decades later, I find this disclaimer very telling.

Because zombies are experiencing a bit of a renaissance these days, from what I understand.  Witness, for instance, the success of The Walking Dead TV show,  or the increasing popularity of "zombie walks," or the recent film Contagion, which some reviewers have called "the most believable zombie movie ever made."  But what's curious about this resurgence of interest in the living dead is that, back in 1983 our collective imagination associated zombies with the occult, whereas now-a-days we associate them more with the fallout of some technological catastrophe or global pandemic.  (This is, at least, how serious academic research on the prospects of a real Zombie apocalypse tackles the issue.)

The original zombie numbered among the "undead"; i.e. it was a re-animated corpse, raised up by some dark art or other: voodoo or necromancy or magic.  The modern zombie numbers among the "walking dead," that is, a still-animated corpse, contagious with death because of some biological disaster or other, be it nuclear, bacterial or genetic. 

And herein lies the terror of the modern zombie.  Unlike vampires and werewolves, they are still conceivable to us, even in our scientifically scoured and technologically dis-enchanted world.  In this regard, the shift in the zombie archetype-- from occult horror to biohazard-- reveals something theologically significant about the modern world.  To the extent that the monsters we imagine are really just a projection of our deepest cultural fears, it's certainly suggestive that today's zombie is no longer a demonic horror but a monster of our own making.  In a rationalistic world that has (for all intents and purposes) disavowed the reality of all things spiritual (good or evil), an occult terror like necromancy has lost its potency.  But the possibility that the technological wonders we depend on so deeply may actually erupt into an apocalyptic horror that reduces civilization as we know it to a staggering corpse--that's a thought to keep grown men awake at night.

So what does the mythos of the modern zombie teach us?  In short:  once we feared the devil; today we fear ourselves.

Musical Mondays (VIII)


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

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

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

The Halloween Files (Part IV): The Shiny-Red Candy Apple of Community

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In case my last reflection on Halloween and the "Fear of the Numinous" was a bit too exotic for your palate, let me try some food for thought that's a bit more down to earth. 


Or maybe a candy apple for thought, as the case may be.  Because all mysteria tremendi aside, the other thing Halloween is about is good, old fashioned community.  All the elements of a strong community are there:  parents taking playful walks with their kids, neighbours coming to call, opening your door to strangers, the people on the block coming out in the open and doing something together for a change.  Halloween's got it all. 

And when you stop to think about it, of all the red-letter days of the year, it's the only one that emphasizes the broader community like this.  Valentine's Day is about couples; Christmas is about the family (and increasingly, the nuclear family); Thanksgiving is about the extended family; Easter may or may not have the church thrown in.  But only Halloween focuses on the community generally like this (November 11th may be the exception that proves the rule, but then Remembrance Day is more a civic than a communal thing).

Rubber devil masks notwithstanding, Halloween is about neighbours playing together as a community.

Or it once was. 

Last week I saw my first ever "Get your Halloween shopping done early" ad.  Everything you need to enjoy Halloween, it assured us, is available at Walmart.  The latest Iron Man costume with real working lights, quality candy the kids will love that won't break your budget, kitchy plastic lawn-ghouls: Walmart's got it all.

Watching the ad, it struck me that nothing can be marketed without first wringing out its soul.

Not to wax nostalgic, but in my day, you made your own costume, or your parents did, and in making it you did something creative together; then you wandered the streets with other kids in hand-made costumes while parents visited on the curb; and there were still some homes that handed out real, home-made candy apples or popcorn balls (they were never as coveted as a chocolate bar, mind you, but those were so rare back then they tasted twice as good when you got one). 

In WalMart's world, everything that once oriented Halloween towards the community--creativity and home-made goodness and imagination and hand-craft-i-ness and play-- all the things that can't be marketed and are beyond value--have been replaced.  Instead, we have pressure to buy stuff; and beneath that, a deeper pressure to believe that personal identity is best expressed through a pointless purchase, and that expressing yourself in this way matters more than community, anyway.

A couple of years ago I read a fascinating book by Murray Jardine called The Making and Unmaking of Technological Society. Jardine traces the history of Western liberal capitalist democracy, and concludes that our current obsession with aesthetic self-expression through consumerism represents the great moral and existential crisis of our time. 

If he's right (and I think he is) then it seems to me that hordes of bedsheet-shrouded phantoms wandering the streets at night aren't the scariest thing about Halloween.  Scarier still are the polyester Spiderman (TM) costumes (Made in China) that have replaced them.

Amos on Apple, and other thoughts

I try to read the Old Testament in Hebrew, as best I can, a little bit each day. I find that reading Scripture in the original language draws me into the text in ways I’ve never seen it before. This is partly because I’m just going so darn slow that I have lots of time to mull over what I’m reading, but it’s also because sometimes you come across little gems of expression that modern translations gloss over, but really sparkle when you take the time to dig them out of the original.

Amos 1:9 was such a gem the other day. Amos is pronouncing God’s judgment on the nations, and in 1:9 he says, “For the three sins of Tyre, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath. Because she sold whole communities of captives to Edom, disregarding a treaty of brotherhood” (NIV).

What caught me in particular the other day was that last phrase: “disregarding a treaty of brotherhood.” In Hebrew it literally says something like: “they did not remember the covenant of brothers.”

Now, in OT theology, “covenant” is a vital aspect of both creation and salvation; God’s saving acts in history revolve around his making of and committing to covenant relationships, and covenant itself is the divine means by which God binds himself to his creation. And what’s more, in the Hebrew Scriptures, “remembrance” is a semi-technical term for keeping a covenant. So the language here is packed theologically tighter than the phrase “disregarding a treaty of brotherhood” suggests.

In selling their neighbors into captivity, Tyre has actually broken covenant and now faces divine wrath because of it.

And when I read it yesterday, my first thought was: I don’t remember there being a “brotherly covenant.” That is to say: most lists of the Old Testament covenants include the Noahic covenant, the Abrahamic covenant, the Mosaic, the Aaronic, the Davidic covenant and so on—but—what is this “brotherly covenant” of which you speak?

I don’t remember it.

And I think, maybe, that’s the point. My hunch is that the “brotherly covenant” here is a prophetic reference to the kinship of all humanity—the “sibling obligation” we all have as men and women made alike in God’s image, to be one another’s keeper. Amos is talking about the “brotherhood of man” (to use a borrowed and slightly dated term) that God established between us all when he made covenant with his whole creation in the beginning.

And remembering this covenant—remembering it in the technical sense of “keeping it,” but also in the general sense of “remembering that it does indeed exist”—is vital to our life with God. If Tyre had remembered (i.e. “recalled”) the brotherly covenant, they would have “remembered it” (i.e. lived by its terms). That is: if they had acknowledged that there exists between all human beings a sacred kinship that transcends nation, tribe or tongue, they never would have done something so repugnant to God as selling their “brothers” into slavery.

And as that gem sits there, scintillating prophetically on the page before me, I’m thinking of my own infidelities to the “covenant of brothers.” Because it’s easy to forget the covenant without even knowing you’ve broken it.

As one example (and I only offer this here as grist for the mill): the other day my son mentioned in passing he heard that if Apple didn’t use sweat-labor to make them, ipads would cost, like, $23,000 a piece. I’m not sure where he got that number itself, but this article suggests that he’s probably not too far off.

And this interview suggests that it’s not just the people of Tyre who forgot that we’re all in covenant together before YHWH.

The Halloween Files, Part III: Horror Movie Marathons and other Numinous Reflections

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I remember a Halloween night in my early teens, when my friends and I were too old to Trick-or-Treat anymore, but too young, yet, to give up on the festivities altogether, so we rented a movie-marathon's worth of B-grade horror flicks instead.  I've never done scary movies that well, but that night was especially terrifying.  After all my friends had gone home, I lay awake in bed, lights on and saucer-plates for eyes, while visions of zombie limbs danced through my head.

Which was kind of the point in the first place, of course. Fear is one of the central themes of Halloween; and whatever else is happening when hordes of ghoul-begarbed kids tramp around the block demanding treats at the threat of tricks-- whatever else that's all about-- it is an expression of our complicated relationship with that oldest of all human emotions:  fear.

Freud might argue that this harmless-seeming tradition is really a sublimation of our deepest cultural fears.  We are haunted by the suspicion that unseen "somethings" lurk beneath the surface--that something dreadful would happen to us if ever they did surface--that there really is more going on in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in our philosophy. This suspicion is very old and very dark, and still very real, even in our clean, well lit, modernized world.  In fact, the cleanliness and good-lighting of the modern world actually exacerbates our fear, because we no longer have the old channels--myth and ritual and unexplored regions on the map--that we once used to hang it on.  And because powerful emotions, bottled up, will find expression somehow, we still observe one day a year where these fears can be put on display.  It's all in playful good fun, of course; but then, what is play, if not a distorting, funhouse mirror, held up to those things we take most seriously?

Might all this play at being scared on Halloween Night actually be a venue--one of the few venues left to us, in fact--for acting out the spiritual Fear that still haunts us?

My hunch is that it is; and this is why, as a Christian, Halloween fascinates me. 

Because I think the hauntedness of the human condition is actually an important theme of the Christian Faith, too.  As a Christian, I believe that what people are most afraid of, whether they know it or not, is God.  He is the "unseen something"-- mysterious and terrifying--lurking beneath the surface with the threat of dreadful things if ever he were to come into full view. 

The fancy word for this is "The Numinous," which is a theological way of talking about the fear evoked by the divine presence:  the dread of the holy--the awful thought of the infinite--the crushing weight of glory. As Aldus Huxley puts it, "The literature of religious experience abounds in references to the pains and terrors overwhelming those who have come, too suddenly, face to face with some manifestation of the mysterium tremendum. In theological language, this fear is due to the in-compatibility between man's egotism and the divine purity, between man's self-aggravated separateness and the infinity of God."

This is where C. S. Lewis starts, incidentally, in his classic case for the existence of God in The Problem of Pain:  not with reasoned philosophical syllogisms or scientific evidence that demands a verdict, but with the Numinous--the haunting fear that humans have always had, that there is something terrifyingly other, present and holy and at work in our day-to-day.

It's where God starts, too, incidentally.

Re-read how God makes his covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15 if you want to get a biblical glimpse of the Numinous.  If you recall, Abraham butchers a heifer, a ram, a goat and two birds. He arranges them into two piles opposite each other, and keeps this surreal vigil, scattering the vultures whenever they get to close to the carcases.  Then, the Bible says, "As the sun was setting a thick and dreadful darkness overcame him."  And there, on the edge of dream at the threshold of reality, a numinous vision engulfs him: a smoking "something-or-other" passes between the bloody pieces of the sacrifice, and from the depths of that thick darkness, the dreadful voice of God himself speaks, binding himself on oath to Abraham, swearing to be his God forever.

Not for nothing did Jacob call God "The Fear of Isaac" (Gen 31:42).  It's enough to keep a young man awake at night with lights on and saucers for eyes.

But this brings me back to Halloween and my hunch that it's a modern-day sublimation of our age-old fear of the Numinous.  Because the conclusion of Abraham's story is Christ; and in Christ we find that our fear of the Numinous has been both affirmed and transformed.  After all: when the Fear of the Lord turns us to the Cross of Christ, we discover there that atonement and purity and eternity now defines our life with God--that perfect love has indeed driven out fear--that anyone who fears the Lord in this way, has nothing, now, to fear.

That's good news.

And it may be that on Halloween, when the neighbourhood is collectively sublimating its Fear of the Numinous with candy apples and monster-masks--it may be the most wondrful time of the year to remind ourselves of this good news.

Musical Mondays (VII)

Ninety Nine Rhymes

Ninety nine rhymes, and I'm still speechless
Ninety nine rhymes and your glory's unsung
Ninety nine rhymes and I still haven't sounded
The clouds and thick darkness
That's wrapped all around you
Concealing your mystery
Like ninety nine rhymes

David and Little John and the Language of Love

A while ago a friend sent me a link to this article at Touchstone Magazine about the language of love and the death of male friendship in our culture.  I find some of the rhetoric a bit unpalatable, especially towards the end, but the overall thrust of his argument scored a touche for me:  our radically sexualized culture has undermined healthy, authentic, and necessary expressions of affection between men, and this has distorted the male experience of friendship.

You can give it a read if you like.  For my part, it reminded me of the final chapter of Howard Pyle's Robin Hood.  If you've never read it, the aged Robin Hood falls ill and visits his cousin, the Prioress of Kirklees, to undergo a blood letting.  Fearing the king's reprisal for having helped an outlaw, she opens an artery deep in Robin Hood's arm, and locks him in an upper room to bleed to death.  When Robin realizes death is upon him, he sounds his bugle horn to summon Little John.  The scene is moving as Little John bursts into the room and, seeing the pallor of death in Robin's face, cradles him tenderly in his arms as he slips away. 

You can give that a read, too, if you like (click here).  I remember weeping real tears over this scene as a boy-- it was the first book I'd ever cried over-- and re-reading it and re-reading it and crying every time.  There was just something so moving in Little John's artless expression of love for his friend on his deathbed.  I didn't know the words pathos or catharsis then, but I'd use them now.

But the point of the Touchstone article, and I think it's a valid one, is that expressions of love like this are old, natural and (above all) platonic; and one of the unfortunate consequences of the modern sexual revolution is that we are losing (or have lost) the non-sexual categories we once had for experiencing and describing them.  If he lived in our world, where love is assumed to include a sexual dimension unless the term is otherwise clarified, Little John would be hard pressed to cradle his dying friend in his loving arms, without raising some questioning eyebrows (or knowing smiles) about his sexual identity.  And a ten-year-old boy would likewise be hard-pressed to shed real tears over the scene.

In case it seems like I'm just blowing smoke here, let me let me point the discussion in a direction where I think there's more at stake than just a good cry over a childhood classic.  In 2 Samuel 1:26, David is mourning the death of his friend Jonathan, and he says "Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women." 

Some interpreters read this line as evidence that the friendship it so poignantly describes was sexual in nature, and that there were homoerotic undertones in Jonathan's covenant with David back in 1 Samuel 20.
Admittedly, this passage raises far more issues than we have space to wrestle with here (Wikipedia summarizes the debate), but let me at least suggest this: we may lose more than just some old-fashioned sexual mores, if a  biblical man can't tell another man he loves him without brigning his sexual identity into question.  A biblical imagination when it comes to the language of love--and with it the potential for men to express affection and closeness in ways that are affirming of gender and distinctly nonsexual--may actually be on the line here, if David and Jonathan's embrace must be sexual, simply because it was an embrace.

The Halloween Files (Part II): The Modern Living Room and the Age-Old Denial of Death

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Time was the modern-day "living room" was called the "parlour."  The word derives from the French word parler (to speak) and pointed to the fact that once upon a time this room was reserved for entertaining on only the most formal of occasions.  Here we kept the most valuable of our furnishings and the most ornate of our domestic status symbols, in a kind of sacred space within the home that was set aside for momentous events and special visitations.

Like births, and wedding receptions, and funerals.

Yes, funerals.   The word "parlour," and the memory that once we hosted funerals in the living-room, actually lives on in our modern euphemism for the local mortuary.  These days funerals happen in "funeral parlors," but time was the funeral--at least the open casket and the viewing and the reception parts of the funeral--time was this happened in our own parlors. 

The “funeral home” used to be our own home.

Because once upon a time dealing with death was an integral part of life, and by necessity we made space for it in our day-to-day.  Like Psychologist Richard Beck puts it, "We used to live with the dead.  We were born in our homes and we died in our homes.  The wake was in the home, and our dead bodies were viewed in the parlor of the home."

Of course, we don't call the parlour a parlour anymore, anymore than we use it for wakes and funerals.  Today professionals deal with death for us, in professionalized space out of sight and out of mind, and, what with all that valuable real-estate taking up space in the home, we've reclaimed the room that once served this purpose.  Today it's called "the living room" (perhaps aptly), and the memory that it was once used for dying, too, is all but gone.

This isn't the only way we deny death in our world.

We used to worship alongside the dead, for instance.  The churchyard was a cemetery, and once a week you had to walk by that sombre memento mori on your way to meet with the Lord of Life.  Time was. 

Richard Beck points out how now a-days, cemeteries are kept on the metropolitan outskirts, not at the centre of public life, and since no one wants to drive past a field full of morbid-looking tombstones, we've replaced all those solemn monuments with ground-level grave-markers so the fact that it is a cemetery can be kept strictly on a need-to-know basis.  A modern cemetery looks more like a serene city park than real graveyard.

I think there is something almost pathological in our modern world’s efforts to push death to the edges of our awareness and to professionalize and de-sacralise our encounters with it.  In general, I would argue that making peace with the reality of death is a vital step towards spiritual maturity, and that the denial of death leads to spiritual emptiness.  This is part of what Thoreau was getting at, I think, when he said that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”  Quiet desperation hums almost audibly in the heart that refuses even to look at death.

But there’s more: because as a follower of the Risen Jesus, I believe both that death has been drained of its despair, but also that the inevitable fact of death can, and should, and does point us to our Maker and the offer of life he makes us in Jesus Christ (so death, defeated, is made to pay tribute to its Conqueror, Jesus Christ).  But in a world that refuses even to look at death, the news of its defeat will fall on deaf ears.

Which brings me at last to the point of today’s post.  Because in 22 days our culture will celebrate a community-wide ceremony that asks us all to take a good hard look at death, if only for one night of the year.  Or at least it used to ask us to.  It came knocking on your door asking for a treat, of all things.  And even today, the vestiges of that ceremony—plastic tombstones and rubber skeletons and all—are still hung up on display, a Made in China memento mori, but a memento mori nonetheless.

And it seems to me, thinking about Halloween theologically this month, and all, that there’s something going on here that the Gospel can, and should lay hold of.   Because the truth is, in Jesus Christ we need neither deny death nor to despair in it.  And as the quiet desperation of a death-denying culture is given voice, (mask-muffled voice, to be sure, but voice nonetheless) on this one "All’s Hallowed" night of the year—whatever else is going on October 31—we're being given the opportunity to remember and proclaim the sure saying that we live by:  “Death has been swallowed up in Victory.”

Thanks be to God, who gives us victory through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Musical Mondays (VI)

A musical reflection on Ephesians 5:25ff, about the brokenness of the Church (Universal) and Christ's self-giving love for Her despite (and because of) the brokenness.

Saturday Morning Sermon (VI)

Here's another excerpt from our series last month on Spiritual Gifts.  Our text was 1 Corinthians 12:1-11.  You can listen to the whole sermon here.

Maybe it’s because one of my passions happens to be music that I always think of concert band when I read this stuff in 1 Corinthians 12.

When I was a teacher I played saxophone with our High School band for a semester (we’re keeping with the back to school theme here). And one of the things I liked about concert band is: when you got your part for a new song, you had no idea what the song was gonna sound like. Tenor Sax seldom got the melody, you see, so when you played it, it just sounded like random notes all over the place. Incidentally, that may be why when Dani was in concert band, her sister made her practice out in the garage. Because by itself, the clarinet part was just a bunch of squeaky high notes that barely sounded like music.

See: it was only when you played your part with the flute and the tuba and the trumpet and percussion and trombone—you know, all the different instruments together?—only then did it sound like a real song.

And the sax part, of course, sounded nothing at all like the flute part. But then again, the song would be pretty dull if all 70 parts were the same flute part. And the instruments are all pitched differently, too, so the different parts were all written in different keys. Which meant that the parts for a Bb trumpet and the Eb Alto Sax and an F French Horn looked nothing at all like each other. You couldn’t play the flute part even if you wanted to; but when you all played together, it turned out you were playing the exact same song.

And... do you see where I’m going with this? Paul says there’s different gifts, but one Spirit who gives them.

And he’s trying to set us free to play our part with all we got, even if it’s not the flute or the tuba—even if we’re not playing a melody part, or it looks like we’re in a different key, or we can’t quite hear how it fits into the whole song—to play it with all our heart and soul and mind and strength because—because that’s the part the divine composer gave us to play—and we can trust that it fits with all the other parts to make a single, harmonious song of worship for him.

The Colors of Martyrdom

There's an old sermon from 7th Century Ireland called the Cambrai Homily.  It lays out an elaborate theology of Christian Martyrdom using Matthew 16:24 as a starting point ("Then Jesus said to his disciples, 'Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me').  The Cambrai Homily famously categorizes martyrdom according to three colours:  red, white and green (though the actual hue of the third color is disputed; in Irish it's glas). 

"Red martyrs" are perhaps the most obvious.  They faced violent persecution, torture or death for the sake of Christ.  Red martyrs bled for Jesus. 

Such martyrdoms, of course, were both common and precious in the earliest days of the church (witness the horrors described so vividly in the Book of Revelation), but as Christianity became increasingly mainstream in the Roman Empire, bona fide martyrdoms got less and less easy to obtain.  On at least one occasion, a group of Christians actually turned themselves in to the Roman authorities, asking to be executed for Christ's sake (and creating no small amount of bewilderment for the Roman governor, who, if not sympathetic towards Christians, was at least indifferent, and certainly not hostile). 

So the church needed new ways for the faithful to express their death-defying commitment to Christ.  This they found in the concept of a "white martyrdom."  A white martyr did not shed literal blood for Jesus, but expressed his or her witness through some life-long vow of asceticism or other--a bloodless "death to the world" that might include things like: vows of chastity, monastic oaths, mendicancy, or becoming a hermit.  These are "white deaths" in lieu of the red.

Now this was old news by the 7th Century, but what the Cambrai Homily adds is the third color: a "green" (glas) martyrdom.  Green Martyrdom was about self-mortification and denying desire.  Fasting was a predominant form of "green martyrdom."  So were penitential acts like praying in the frigid Atlantic or spending the night immersed in water (this seems to be a common one).  A Green Martyr died to the immediate needs of the flesh, in order to turn the heart to God instead.

I've been thinking about the Cambrai's color scheme for martyrdom ever since I preached this sermon on the Martyrdom of Stephen, back in August.   You see:  I live in a world where desire is often seen as the driving mechanism of life: consumer desire drives our economy, emotional desire drives our entertainment industry, and, according one author at least, sexual desire drives the Internet (see Patchen Barss's book, The Erotic Engine). 

The point is: in a world where life is so closely associated with fulfilled desire, self-denial really does have the odor of death about it.  So I'm wondering today how radical a witness for Jesus we might have if we updated the tradition of the Green Martyr. 

What if we consciously saw denying those desires that no one in our culture thinks you can live without, as a stand-in for the honor of dying for Christ?

Paroxysms of Peace

The English word “paroxysm” is an oldie but a goodie. Literally it describes a sudden and/or violent outburst of emotion. You could have a “paroxysm of laughter,” though the term generally has negative connotations. Paroxysms of rage are more common.

The word itself comes from an old Greek word, paroxusmous, which, according to my Greek lexicon, means “stirring up, provoking”. It only appears twice in the New Testament.

The first appearance is in Acts 15:39. Here Paul and Barnabas have what the NIV calls a “sharp disagreement” and the KJV a “contention”. Literally, Luke says they had a paroxusmos so intense that they parted company. The fight, it turns out, was over John Mark (of the Gospel of Mark fame), who had deserted them on their first missionary trip over in Pamphylia. Paul felt he was unreliable and didn’t want to bring him on their next foray. Barnabas begged to differ—begged so sharply that a paroxysm of conflict flared up—begged so sharply that he and Paul parted ways, Barnabas to Cyprus with Mark in tow and Paul off to Cilicia.

It’s a sad story, to be sure, but then, those of us who have been doing ministry for a while now know that churches have split over smaller issues than the roster of the mission committee. And bigger.

But here’s the fascinating thing. Besides its use to describe the “sharp disagreement” in Act 15:39, the word paroxusmos only shows up another time in the New Testament. In Hebrews 10:24 the writer says, “Let us consider how we can spur one another on to love and good deeds.” This is how the NIV renders the verse. NASB says “to stimulate one another to love and good deeds.” Old KJV says, “Let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works.”

Literally what it says is something like: “Let us consider one another towards paroxusmon-- incitements, provocations—of love and good deeds.”

Now, former Bible teachers of mine read this blog from time to time, so I need to be careful here not to commit the exegetical fallacy of semantic anachronism, but I find it worth reflection, at least, that the Bible uses the word paroxusmos once to describe a sharp disagreement between two Christian ministers, and elsewhere to describe (in what most biblical scholars would agree is an startling image) our duty to “provoke” one another to Christian love. On the one hand, a paroxusmos led to a deep rift between two friends; on the other hand it leads to Christian charity and shalom.

And I’m reflecting on this especially, because like I say, conflict in ministry is inevitable. Paroxysms of all sort are bound to come. And because we tend to prefer smooth feathers and shiny faces on Sunday morning, I think received wisdom is that they ought to be avoided, or at the very least resolved discretely, even if, in their avoidance or resolution, we find ourselves settling for false peace. At least the tomb looks white, right?

But Hebrews 10:24 and Acts 15:39 fly like two sticks between the spokes of Received Wisdom’s bicycle, sending False Peace head over handlebars. Because when you line these two verses up, they suggest that conflict is not by nature bad; nor is it to be avoided at all cost; and there are fates worse than ruffled feathers.

These two verses suggest that conflict can actually become a catalyst towards charity and service, if it’s entered into for Christ’s sake; and what determines whether or not it will is whether or not the parties involved are really provoking one another for Christ’s sake. (Even Paul and Barnabas’s paroxysm led to love and service in the end. In the short term, it expanded the ministry of the gospel by sending Barnabas to Cyprus and Paul to Cilicia; and in the long term, we have hints that things get patched up between Paul, Mark and Barnabas (see Col 4:10)).

This is hard work.  Paroxysms of any sort (ancient or modern) hurt. But then the cross itself teaches us that the Way of Christ has never avoided the suffering that redemption costs. And conflicts that redeem will cost us: utter humility and risky openness, and above all real, raw honesty about our own goals and agendas in any given dispute. But if well seek those treasures of his Kingdom, first, then we may find that redemptive Paroxysms of Peace are being added to us, as well.

The Halloween Files (Part I)

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Yesterday I saw the first Halloween decorations on display in our neighborhood. The door of a house around the corner was sporting a ghostly rubber skeleton in a tattered white robe, the lawn of another house down the street was cluttered with a variety of kitschy plastic tombstones, and from the porch across the way, a ghastly deaths-head glowered down on passers by with flickering red eyes .

‘Tis the season.

Personally, I’m ambivalent about Halloween. On the one hand, I see problems with its historical ties to paganism and the occult, its celebration of violence and its glorification of gore. On the other hand, there are things in the Halloween tradition that inspire me to think about my faith more deeply: the questions it asks about “Hallowed-ness” (the sacred and the nebulous), its tenuous connection to All-Saint’s Day, the way it taunts a death-denying culture, for just one night, with the knowledge that we are, after all, mortal.

My wife is less ambivalent. Because of all the problems listed on the one hand, she’s always held Halloween at arm’s length. We had some friends who had immigrated to Canada from South Africa and they were absolutely mortified the first time they encountered a real Canadian Halloween.  This community wide celebration of witchcraft and death was baffling and disturbing to them.  My wife has tended to share their opinion.

For my part, like I say, I’m not sure; but one of the things I am sure of, is that there’s always more going on in the most commonplace trappings of our culture than meets the eye; and it seems to me that if there ever was a cultural trapping that could challenge us to think about the intersections between secular culture and Christian spirituality, it’s the strange stuff that takes place on the night of All’s-Hallowed-Eve.

All this is my way of introducing a series I’m working on for October here at terra incongita. Through the month of October we’re going to be spending some time exorcising my Halloween demons (so to speak) and analysing the theological significance of this most-secular-seeming tradition of Canadian culture.

I hope you’ll join us for the trip. And as we’re packing our bags, let me suggest a few more reasons why Halloween is worth some careful Christian scrutiny.

1) It provides a good primer on the Christian Worldview.  Buzz-Light-Year costumes and pillowcases full of candy not withstanding, Halloween actually asks some pretty significant questions about the veil between the material and the spiritual, and whether or not its as solid as we usually like to think.  Historical Christianity has always held that the veil between the material and the spiritual is made more of gossamer than pall, and that things like angels and demons and miracles and the "supernatural" are closer and real-er to us than we know (and not something you'd ever want to triffle with).  Reflecting on Halloween, then, helps us ask some important questions about how Christian our Worldview really is.

2) Halloween is one of the last community traditions we have.  When else does your neighborhood throw a huge block party and hand out goodies to all the kids? In this it can’t be avoided. It’s like voting: even opting out is significant form of participation, and the way Christians participate inevitably says something about our posture towards the community in general.

3) Theological reflection on Halloween is good practice for theological reflection on culture in general. The Christian faith actually takes the themes of Halloween more seriously than the even monster-garbed kids counting their candy afterward do, so no matter how we participate in it, we need to do things like: read culture through theological lenses, and weigh cultural practices against our Christian convictions, and make faith-shaped decisions about our role (as salt and light) in culture as a whole. This is stuff, actually, that Christians ought to be doing on a regular basis about more regular things than Halloween night (retirement investing, drinking coffee, driving cars, recycling, sexual ethics, the list is endless). Halloween, it turns out, is a good, low-stakes training ground, to develop these skills.

Musical Mondays (V)

I heard an old proverb once that says, "Uninitiated boys will burn down the village to feel the heat."  This is a song about what it means to become and to be a Christian man.

Burning Down the Village

Hey Bro I can see you way back there when we were kids
before we knew we’d be men
And though I needed to tell you I needed you
My words escaped me again
like lost dogs or broken castles
Stolen songs I don’t need any more
If I had known that iron was so fragile
I would have told you before:

You’re a king, you’re a lover you’re magic you’re a warrior
The heart can only grow wise when it breaks
You’re a child you’re a brother
in his shadow you’ll discover
When you least expect you’ve got what it takes

And Bro I can see you you’re right there in front of me
While we make up our names
I know I’ll never be the man I want you to see
But I got lost in the game
Like unsung songs or unspoken secrets
Hollow masks I don’t need any more
If I had known that iron was so fragile
I would have told you before

You’re a king, you’re a lover you’re magic you’re a warrior
The heart can only grow wise when it breaks
You’re a child you’re a brother
in his shadow you’ll discover
When you least expect you’ve got what it takes

And son, I can see you way up there ahead of me,
not many years from now
'Cause once you start on the road to the high country
I know you’ll find it somehow
like innocence, you find it by losing it
Prairie skies like distant shores
If I had known that iron was so fragile
I would have told you before

You’re a king, you’re a lover you’re magic you’re a warrior
The heart can only grow wise when it breaks
You’re a child you’re a brother
in his shadow you’ll discover
When you least expect you’ve got what it takes
You’re a priest you’re a poet a prophet and you know it
the cure is throbbing there beneath the ache
You’re a child you’re a brother
in his shadow you’ll discover
When you least expect you’ve got what it takes