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

A (Belated) Christmas Homily

This is a Christmas reflection I shared at our Christmas Eve communion service the other night.  I hope it's edifying and helpful today, as you clean up the wrappings and box up the left-overs of the night before.  Christmas blessings, everyone.


It’s actually just a quirk of history that we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on December 25, of all the days of the year. I don’t want to sound like I’m spilling the beans about Santa Claus to a bunch of first graders or anything, but the fact is: no one knows for sure when Jesus was officially born. There are competing theories for the exact birthday, but most historians agree that December 25 is actually an unlikely candidate.

The quirk of history that made this day the big day was back in 336 AD, when a guy named Pope Julius I decreed that December 25th should be the official feast day for the birth of Christ. He wrote it with a big red sharpie marker on the church’s calendar, and it’s been there ever since. (At this point, most historians note that December 25th is close to the winter solstice (on December 21), and that back in 336 AD, the Romans already had a tradition of feasting and celebration around the winter solstice—a party in the dead of winter known as the “Saturnalia.” So it’s likely Mr. Julius I was just co-opting a pagan thing and sort of sanctifying it—redeeming it—for our Lord Jesus Christ.)

Most historians also note that they didn’t really have sharpie markers back in 336 AD.

But be that as it may, I don’t think it’s an accident that we celebrate the birth of Jesus in December, in the dead of winter, so close to the longest night—the darkest day—the coldest season—of the year. It’s a quirk of history, to be sure, but it’s no accident.

Because in some ways, “the winter” is actually a pretty good metaphor for thinking about what Jesus came into the world to save us from: winter—coldness—the cold. It’s a pretty good way of describing what the birth of Jesus was supposed to change for us. I mean: if I told you that Jesus came to warm what had grown spiritually cold in our world, you’d get it, wouldn’t you?

Because we use this language all the time. If I told you that things had “grown cold” between me and a good friend, you’d know what I meant. If someone told you that her lover—her husband—her son—was giving her the “cold shoulder,” you’d get the point. If someone told you that his family or his circle of friends had left him “out in the cold,” you’d know how isolated and betrayed he felt.

When Jesus warns us that in the last days the “increase of wickedness” will cause the love of many to “grow cold” you know he’s talking about something very serious and very dark, there. That’s “dead of winter” kind of talk.

Although, to be honest, the Bible doesn’t use “winter” language to describe this kind of thing too often—that line from Jesus I just mentioned is the only place I can think of. But that’s because just the Bible wasn’t written in Canada—where next to Hockey, waxing poetical about the cold is our national pastime.

If the Bible were written in Canada, and it wanted to talk, let’s say: about the way human sin makes a mess of relationships and alienates us from each other and makes authentic human interaction difficult and strained, it would probably point to that husband giving that wife the cold shoulder, or that kid whose family was keeping him out in the cold or that friendship that had grown cold. And it would say: sin sucks the warmth out of life like that. Worse than a winter wind on the prairies.

Or let’s say it wanted to explain how sin had made us God’s enemies and he was after reconciliation with us, it would probably say something like: our hearts had grown cold towards God.

And if it wanted to describe life without God, life turned away from God, life alienated from God. It would probably (if it were written in Canada, anyways), it would probably talk about it in terms of a spiritual winter—you know: the bitter cold on the longest night of the year, where it hurts to breathe it in and it hangs like a cloud in front of your eyes, and you just can’t feel anymore?

Or maybe it would simply remind us of how Jesus said it: in the last days, he said, the love of many to “grow cold.”

So I don’t think it’s an accident that we commemorate the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ here, in the cold of winter, like this. Because, whatever else this birth is about, it is about God entering (if I can put it this way) entering the spiritual winter of our lives. To save us. From the spiritual cold-shoulders (so to speak), from being left out in the cold (if you follow me), from the bitter cold of life without God.

There’s an old, old Christmas Prophecy written half a millennium before the First Noel, where one of God’s ancient prophets says it like this: But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves.

(Of course, I can’t resist pointing out that most of us do indeed frolic like "well-fed" calves on Christmas Day.) But more to the point: this Christmas Prophecy said that when the Messiah comes, it will be like the Sunrise of Spring, after a long, cold winter. The sun will rise for us, it said: with healing in its rays and warmth for what had grown cold and life for what had gone dead.

One of the old Chrismas Carols picks up on this image. You may have sung it before. It goes: “Hail the heaven born prince of peace. Hail the Sun of Righetousness. Light and life to all he brings, risen with healing in his wings.” Does that ring any holiday bells for you?

So this is Christmas.

And this week—as we celebrate the birth of the one who entered into the spiritual winter of our lives like this, I suppose it would be altogether fitting to dwell on this question for a moment: What has grown spiritually cold in your life lately?—this Christmas season?—this year?

In your life with God, what’s cooled off? In your life with God’s people, what’s grown cold? In your relationships, in your devotional life, in your heart, in your soul, what is at risk of frost bite?

What do you need the Sun of Righteousness to warm for you?

Because it’s no accident that we’re celebrating the birth of Jesus here, in heart of winter. Because God’s promise to us is this: if we will invite him in to those places of “spiritual winter” in our lives, we will experience the life-giving warmth of the love of God; for us a Spring Sun of Righteousness will rise with healing in its rays.

May God warm us like that, each one of us.

Merry Christmas from terra incognita

Merry Christmas everybody.  I hope everyone's Christmas Eve celebrations went swimmingly and I hope the expression "swimmingly" means "awesome!"

Every year at the FreeWay I try to do a special recording of music as a Christmas present to our church family.  Last year it was my record "bridges" (see sidebar);  this year I went back through  some old songs I'd written over the years and did some brand new arrangements and recordings of them. I call the CD "echoes." This is both a reference to the fact that the songs themselves are "echoes" of my songwriting past, but also to the fact that there are musical "echoes" of hymns, songs or poems sprinkled throughout the album. Listen closely and you'll hear them.

Anyways, if I didn't get a chance to give you a copy of the CD in person,  I've posted a link below.  You can click on it to "unwrap" the present.  Happy listening. Happy Christmas.  Happy New Year.  And I'll blog with again soon.

When the Logic of Secular Liberalism Devours its Own Tail

This spring CBC Radio covered an emerging controversy related to the practice of gender-selective abortions among some communities in Canada.  Recent statistics have shown that some cultural groups in Canada have disproportionately high rates of male birth, and everyone's strong suspicion is that utrasounds are being used to determine the sex of an unborn fetus, and the girls are being aborted.

This report is indicative of the kind of coverage the story received:

The story has rumbled still, now; at least I haven’t heard anything for months, but here’s the cynical question I just can’t shake: if we live in a society that long ago accepted it as a fundamental tenet of women’s rights that no woman should be required to carry an unwanted baby to term, then on what reasonable grounds can we now protest gender-selective abortions, just because the baby's sex happens to be the reason it's unwanted? Put more rhetorically: why is “I don’t want a girl” suddenly an inappropriate reason to terminate a pregnancy when “I don’t want a disabled child” or “we’re just not ready to be parents” have been acceptable reasons for years?

In my view it is bitterly ironic and highly hypocritical that the CBC is worrying this particular bone so self-righteously, when in all other regards it has been such a biased advocate of legalized abortion that it can probably take some (though by no means all) of the credit for the ease with which gender-selective abortions are obtained, and for the moral apathy our culture has towards the entire issue. And it’s telling that in all CBC coverage of this story, not once did I hear anyone connect the dots between the issue of gender selection and the deep moral questions surrounding abortion generally (not once, for instance, did anyone suggest restricting or regulating abortion as a solution; the best they could do was a flimsy proposal to withhold ultrasound results).

But I also see a glimmer of hope at the bottom of this well of irony. Because if people still experience visceral indignation when they learn that some fetuses are being terminated simply because they’re unwanted (the reason notwithstanding) then it suggests that there are still some starting points left for Christians who believe in the sanctity of all life, to talk reasonably and calmly about why there is more at stake than personal choice when it comes to the question of abortion.

Ministry in the Depths

Lectio Divina is a spiritual discipline that I would recommend to any Christian who wants to develop a listening ear for God's voice in the world.  The term is Latin for "Sacred Reading" and it's a way of reading the Scriptures where you meditate closely on a single story, or image, or verse.  The idea is to choose a text and read it prayerfully, over and over and over again, allowing God to speak through it as it settles from your mind, through your heart and into your spirit. 

A quick example:  a few years ago I was working through some self-doubt and self-image issues in my Christian life, and as I wrestled with this junk, I realized that a lot of it boiled down to fear: fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of death (in the most abstract sense).  It was at that point that God reminded me of 1 John 4:18, "There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear."  So I spent a while in lectio divina on this passage, rolling it over and over in my mind.  Perfect love drives out fear-- how does God love me and how do I know it?  Perfect love-- what is it about my experience of love right now that is imperfect?  Perfect love drives out fear-- what is the nature of my fears and how could God's love drive it out?  And so on.  As these words started to sink in, with their various shades of meaning and levels of emphasis, I actually began to experience the love of God driving out those fears in me.

The reason I'm telling you all this today, though, is because a while ago I was working through some stuff related to my understanding of my purpose as a pastor.  I was praying about it one day, and God reminded me of the story in Luke 5, where Jesus calls his first disciples.  If you recall, he meets Peter, James and John  in a sailboat, washing their nets after a failed night of fishing.  Jesus gets into the boat with them and tells them to let down their nets into the deep water (5:4).  Peter is skeptical, but at Jesus' word he does so, and the subsequent catch they draw in is so miraculous it sinks Peter to his knees with an awed awareness of his own sin, even as the boat begins to sink with the weight of the fish.  (And of course, it's after this catch of literal fish that Jesus calls them to become spiritual fishermen, suggesting, it seems, that this miracle is only a taste of what he will accomplish through them as his disciples).

As I spent some time in lectio divina on this passage, it was that phrase in 5:4 that bobbed to the surface for me:  "put out into the deep water and let down your nets." 

It struck me that Peter and the rest only experience the miraculous presence of the Kingdom of God (as signified by the catch of fish) after they put their nets into the deep water.  And it struck me next that sometimes churches are content to do ministry in the shallows--not to go too deep in their encounter with the Word, or the emotional risk of their ministry, or their engagement with God's world.  It can be tempting, I think, to keep things spiritually superficial--on the surface--safe.

But as those two observations struck me, I heard there God's call to put down the nets "into the deep water" in my own work as a pastor.  With that call came his challenge that it's only there, in the deep water of ministry, that a church will ever answer it's call to become "fishers of men."  Because it's only there, it seems-- going deep with people, spiritually speaking--that the life-transforming miracles of the Kingdom can occur.

When the Devil went down to Ephesus

first appeared on the conneXion Aug 21, 2012

I’ve been spending a fair bit of time in Acts these days, and feeling like it's a book I’ve read a dozen times but never seen before. One of the episodes I find particularly fascinating is the account of Paul’s visit to Ephesus.

If you recall: the Holy Spirit arrives in Ephesus and in its wake we see stuff happening that would make the best of Frank Peretti look like Casper the Friendly Ghost. The Seven Sons of Sceva are beat black and blue by a demon-possessed man (19:14); dabblers in the occult perform public burnings of their paraphernalia (19:19); the silversmiths of a pagan goddess incite the mobs to riot (19:28). I mean: the Gospel’s beating the bushes and the demons are scattering like so many startled sparrows.

But Frank Peretti aside—and this is a point that I’ve never seen Frank Peretti address, or Screwtape, or Dr. Faustus for that matter—whatever else they're about, the Ephesian exorcisms are about issuing God's challenge to the oppressive economic structures that promote systemic evil.

For instance: it’s an assumption on my part, but not an outrageous one, that the Seven Sons of Sceva have set themselves up as Exorcists for Hire, and this is why their interview with the devil goes so painfully wrong (the fact that Sceva is styling himself as a ‘chief priest’ in Ephesus is highly suspect). Bob Larson leaps to mind, here.

And this isn’t an assumption but just a plain reading of the text: the economic value of the books burned in Acts 19:19 works out to about 136 years wages (say 6 million dollars?). A lot of Ephesians have sunk a lot of money into occult junk over the years.

And most telling of all: the reason Demetrius and his colleagues start a riot is because they’ve seen the economic writing on the wall:  if people abandon Artemis for Jesus, they’ll no longer need the silver images that are their stock and trade. I don’t suppose a good racket has ever died without a fight, and this must have been a lucrative racket:  Ephesus, you understand, was home to the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient World.

I’m pointing this all out because if you want to take the Book of Acts seriously, you can’t escape the conclusion that confronting the demonic is on the Church’s to-do list. But if I were to write a “theology of exorcisms” based on the Book of Acts, one of the first chapters, I think, would deal with oppressive economic structures, the “powers and principalities” that manipulate and dehumanize people in ways that seem so normal to us—even necessary—but are best understood as “demonic.” And then I would try to draw lines between what’s happening in Acts 19 and the Church’s call to both name and provide alternatives to these ways of doing business. Economic systems are by nature spiritual, I’d say, and economic structures are demonic when they make money ultimate and people a means to an end.

And then I’d brace myself.

But I’d also point out that in Acts 16 we see the same thing happening. Paul performs an exorcism (16:18), freeing a girl from demonic possession. But it’s not just a demon that's being excised here.  It's also the economic exploitation this girl's been suffering at the hands of her pimps. Because when the men who made their living off her “prophetic utterances” find out that their “hope of profit is gone," Acts says, that’s when the metaphorical excrement hits the proverbial air-circulation device.

By Acts’ reckoning, it seems: helping the vulnerable escape economic exploitation—girls the sex trade, say—or women the porn industry—or children the sweatshop—or workers the tyranny of the bottom line—or shop-a-holics the clutches of Mastercard—by Acts reckoning, at least, these are all ministries of exorcism with the potential to raise hell.

Preaching Jonah (Part II)

Here is another excerpt from the series on Jonah back in September.  This sermon was on Chapter 2, in which, among other things I coined the term "ichtyodeglutition" (the technical term for being swallowed by a fish-- it has a million uses).  Below's an excerpt and you can click here for the whole thing.

No former English Teacher can resist analysing a good poem, and I gotta say: for all its being written by a drowning man in the belly of a fish, this prayer in Chapter 2 ranks among the most carefully crafted poems in the whole Bible. In the poetry biz, we’d call Jonah Chapter 2 a “Hebrew Chiasm.”

A Chias-what? you say? Well, funny you should ask, because a chiasm is a form of poetry where all the ideas are sort of arranged in an “x” shape, where the second half of the poem is like a mirror-opposite of the first half (the word Chiasm itself just means “X”).

Let me demonstrate with this quote here: “Never let a kiss fool you, or a fool kiss you.” Now. That’s not from the Bible (but it is good advice). And it’s memorable because the ideas are arranged in sort of an “X” shape. Do you see it: You’ve got fool, then kiss, then kiss, then fool. Like an “X”.

Does that make sense?

Or how about this one: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Have you heard that one before? Did you ever notice it was sort of written in an “x” shape? Your country, you, then ask, then you, and your country.

Well if this is making sense to you than let me just say that these “x”-shaped thingies (that’s actually the technical word for them)—these x-shaped thingies are all over the place in the Bible. Especially the Hebrew Prophets, like Jonah, they used chiasms all the time. And usually when the prophets started talking in chiasms, they put the key idea right at the dead centre of the x.

Take Jonah’s prayer here, for example. In verse 17, it says a great fish swallowed Jonah, right? And then he starts to pray. In verse 2, he says, “in my distress I called to the Lord”—and note that he uses the special Hebrew name for God there. And then he says, “I called for help and you heard my cry” (though the actual word there is the Hebrew word for “voice”—you heard my voice is what Jonah says, literally.) Okay, but then in verse 4 he talks about how, even though he was expelled from God’s sight, he will look to the Lord’s Holy Temple. And in verse 5 he says that stuff about how the waters engulfed him—though literally he says something like “The waters surrounded my soul” “Soul” is the actual word there.

So we’ve got: the Lord, my voice, his Holy Temple, my soul. You with me?

Well: then we have verse 6: “I went down to the roots of the mountains—but you, O Lord, you brought my life up from the pit.” Put your finger on it: I sank down ... but you, O Lord, brought me up.

Now, keep your finger there, and watch this. In verse 7, Jonah says “When my life—and the word he uses, again, is soul—he says: when my soul was ebbing away, I remembered you O Lord. And my prayer rose (where?) to your Holy Temple. Do you see what’s happening? Maybe it would help if I pointed out that in verse 9, when he says “with a song of thanksgiving I will sacrifice to you,” the word he literally uses there is: “Voice.” “With the voice of thanksgiving,” is what it says in Hebrew. And notice that the very last words of his prayer use the special Hebrew name for God, just like he did in the very... first ... words.

“Salvation is of the Lord.” And after that: the great fish vomited Jonah up.

Do you see what I see? We have a perfect “x” shape here. I mean, look: the fish swallowed Jonah, then: the Lord, my voice, your Temple, my soul ... verse 6 ... and then my soul, your temple, my voice, the Lord. And then the fish vomited Jonah up.

Do you hear that? “I sank down to the roots of the Mountain. And you, O Lord brought my life up from the pit.” That’s the heart-beat of Jonah’s prayer. The dead centre of this chiasm.

More Prayers for the Offering

Jesus, that day when you were teaching the crowds
On the mountainside and night was coming and
They were all getting hungry,
Your disciples said:
“Where on earth could we get enough bread
that everyone could have a bite?”

Then one little boy came forward and offered you his lunch:
Five small loaves and two little fish.
That’s all he had; but you took it
And gave thanks and handed it around—
and everyone ate as much as they wanted, with
Twelve baskets-full left over.

Jesus, we know that that day you showed us that
There are no limits to what you might accomplish through us
For your glory, if we’ll simply offer what we have.

Give us the grace to do that here, and now, in this moment of offering.
Make it like that little boy’s lunch, we pray, for your sake alone.


We remember that time you pointed to the birds of the air and the lilies growing in the field, how they don’t labor or work or spin or toil, and yet the Father in Heaven provides for them from his wisdom and love.

And then you told us that we ought not chase after wealth and material possessions like those who don’t know God, but that we should seek his kingdom first, and trust in him to provide these things to us in the same way: according to his wisdom and love.

God, please give us the grace to trust in you like that; and may this act of offering today be a sign to us that we’re starting to get it, what Jesus meant when he said, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”



It seems pretty presumptuous, God,
that we would call what we’re about to do
“An offering,”
when everything we have and are and own
is really yours.

We remember that place where you said it in the Psalms:
“If I were hungry, would ask you for a hand out?
The whole world is mine and everything in it.”

So we realize that we’re not really “offering” you anything here, God.

But we love Jesus.
And we want to be involved in his work in the World.
And so we ask that in this moment of offering you would offer us that:
A heart for you; the guts to follow you where ever you lead;
And a passion for the things you’re passionate about.

And then use this offering—
both the money and the time we’re taking to give it—
For your purposes for us.

We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Preaching Jonah (Part I)

This fall we went through a verse-by-verse preaching series on the Book of Jonah.  I picked it mostly because I like to do one Old Testament and one New Testament book each year in my preaching ministry, and I figured this story itself was well enough known on the surface that it would be engaging for the church to go a bit deeper with it.  I didn't really see it coming how vividly it would come to life and how clearly it would speak.  I'll post some excerpts here over the next little while, in the hopes of extending the conversation.  Here's the opening thoughts from the first sermon.  You can download the whole sermon here.

Well: fish stories always inspire bigger fish stories, don’t they? So let me tell you about the time my brother and I were fishing on a lake in the Rockies.

My dad took us fishing every summer, and this particular summer Shane and I were out on the water in an aluminum rowboat, way over at the other end of the lake. And we were drifting around not paying much attention, watching our bobbers and not really watching the sky, so we didn’t notice the storm clouds piling up around the mountains.

Thunderstorms in the Rockies can sweep in pretty suddenly, so when Shane happened to look up and see black clouds scowling down all around us, he didn’t waste much time suggesting that we go in. We started rowing for the dock, but like I say, thunderstorms in the Rockies can sweep in pretty suddenly, and we were like, right in the dead centre of the lake when “the Lord sent a great storm upon the sea” (so to speak).

I’m sure I’ve been more scared in my life, but it’s hard to remember when; because the sky exploded like a Myth-Buster’s experiment gone wrong, and lightening flashed like the strobe light in a bad disco ... and the rain. It was pummelling the lake so hard it seemed like the water was boiling ... and we were drenched .... and Shane was shouting something in the bow that sounded like “Dale you gotta row! You gotta row!” or maybe it was “I don’t wanna go! I don’t wanna go!” it was hard to hear over the roar of the water.

Well. We made it back in one piece, and the minute we were standing on solid ground we started laughing our heads off; but I’ll tell you, to this day when I think of the last time I was “prepared to meet my maker,” that storm in the Rockies comes first to mind.

And I’m telling you this story not just because it’s a good fish story, but because I need you to think of the last time you were terrified, like that. I don’t mean creeped out, or startled, I mean, like: get-ready-to-meet-your-maker kind of fear.

At least, that’s what Jonah wants us to think about. It doesn’t quite come through in translation, but the Hebrew word for “fear,” actually, shows up six times in this opening segment. It’s there in verse 5, and again in verse 9, twice in verse 10 and twice again in verse 16.

I mean: Sunday School flannel graphs and singing Asparaguses have sort of tamed this one down for us, made it feel more like a nursery rhyme than a psychological thriller ... but when you peel back the layers, what you’re left with is one scary story.

When I was a kid I caught about 30 seconds of the movie “Jaws.” I was probably five or six, and I wandered into the room one night when it was on TV. Before any of the grownups realized I was there, I saw that scene where the girl’s swimming out in the deep water and something brushes her leg? Remember? She panics. She goes down once, splashes to the surface screaming, and then... she’s gone.

That was all I saw, but I’ll tell you, for years after there was this niggling fear in the back of my mind every time I went for a swim. That I’d turn around and there’d be some huge mouth coming up to swallow me.

Anyone know what I’m talking about?

If you do, then you’re closer to “getting” Jonah than Larry the cucumber could ever bring you. Because this is a fearful story. It’s about our fear. And it’s especially about how the turning point—in our spiritual lives, let’s say, our goals, our ambitions, our life direction—how the turning point begins with the fear of the Lord.

A further thought on Snake Handling... and a sermon

In case the previous post was a bit too abstract for you, I thought I'd add this as a concrete example of what "snake handling" in ministry might look like. 

A few weeks ago a sermon at our church dealt with the very sensitive theme of sexual abuse.  My wife (who is part of our preaching team) spoke, and her sermon was very biblical, christocentric, expository, and real.

Her text was 2 Samuel 13, Amnon's rape of Tamar.  Realizing the potential for such an emotionally sensitive topic to "rear up and bite us" (so to speak), the leadership of our church had a number of discussions in the week leading up to the service, about whether or not we were ready "to go there."  No one referrenced Mark 16:18 in so many words, but if Mark's epilogist were to have summed up our conversation, he might have said something like this: "these sign will accompany those who belive:  they will pick up (unharmed) snakes with their hands."

So we went there; and whether or not we were ready, Jesus was. God moved in remarkable ways that Sunday morning, with a real offer of healing and hope. 

But here's the curious thing.  As the scripture lesson was being read, I saw something in 2 Samuel 13 I'd never noticed before.  2 Samuel 13:3 points out quite explicitly that that Jonadab, Tamar's cousin and Amnon's counsellor-- the one who planned the terrible trap that allowed Amnon to sexually abuse Tamar-- Jonadab, it says, was "a very shrewd man."

When I heard it I thought immediately and intuitively of that other place where the Bible tells us about someone else who was "very shrewd."

"Now the Serpent,"  Genesis 3:1 points out, "was more shrewd than any of the creatures the Lord God had made."  Maybe we were handling snakes more literally than we thought that day.

Here's the sermon if you're interested in one of the ways we're living out the promise of Mark 16:18 at the FreeWay:  "2 Samuel 13:1-22.  For Tamar"

On Biblical Inerrancy and Mission (Or why every Good Creationist should handle a Snake now and then)

The Gospel of Mark ends with one of the more controversial passages of the New Testament. If you recall, the Risen Jesus summons the disciples to “preach the good news to all creation,” and assures them that, “These signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands and when they drink deadly poison it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”

I call this passage controversial because, as any good translation of the scriptures takes pains to point out, “The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witness do not have Mark 16:9-20.” The controversy here is whether this epilogue is original to Mark, appended by an inspired scribe later on, or just out of place altogether.

But that’s not the controversy I want to tackle in particular. I’m going to follow N. T. Wright’s lead and assume that Mark himself “wrote a fuller ending which is now lost, and for which 8 – 20 are replacements by later scribes not altogether out of tune with Mark’s intentions.” And then I want to drill down for a moment on Jesus’ promise that believers will “handle snakes unharmed.”

Because there are, of course, some extreme branches on the Christian family tree (fundamentalist sects or charismatic cults, depending on your theological perspective) where they take Jesus as seriously as possible here. Among the Holiness Churches of rural Appalachia, for instance, a Mark-16-inspired ritual of snake handling (copperheads and rattlers, mostly) is a traditional part of worship and accepted expression of faith. The 1967 documentary, Holy Ghost People is one of the first and perhaps most objective treatments of this phenomenon:

Now in sharing this documentary I am not in any way endorsing snake handling as a legitimate form of Christian worship. (Though, if you’re like me and you prefer to follow St. Francis of Assissi in seeking not so much to be understood as to understand, I would recommend you read Dr. Richard Beck’s insightful analysis of “Snake Handling as Religious Phenomenon”, over at Experimental Theology.)

The whole thing, however, has me thinking about the mission of the church and inerrancy of the Scriptures. I’ve heard some preachers, for instance, hold up a “literal 6-day creation” as a litmus test of one’s position on biblical inerrancy. In some contexts this was presented almost as a test of saving faith: do you really believe God literally created the world the way God said he did in Genesis 1 (and are you prepared to accept any number of extra-biblical speculations and elaborations that would make the story seem more scientifically tenable)?

But intellectual assent to a counter-cultural explanation of cosmic origins seems to me a pretty safe (even whimpy) way to prove one’s faith in a literal interpretation of scripture, next to picking up a lethally-envenomed serpent in an ecstatic moment of worship. It seems to me, further, that if you really wanna show you’re committed to biblical inerrancy, you probably can’t put your money much closer to your mouth than it gets when you grab a deadly copperhead by the tail. (It’s like that old joke about the bacon and the eggs when it comes to breakfast: the chicken is invested, but the pig is committed. Next to the “bacon” of snake-handling, the 6-Day Creationist looks like the chicken of Biblical Fundamentalism.)

For the record: I’m not at all endorsing the practice of snake handling.  I'm simply observing that there’s a religious consistency here that none of the 6-Day Creationists I ever met could match.  (And for the other record, this is not meant as a comment on my own position regarding the Doctrine of Creation.  I'm not an evolutionist, theistic or otherwise, and though I hold details like the means and moment and timeline of "the creation event" rather loosely, I believe quite firmly that we're only here because God said it should be so in the beginning, and it was so.)

But more to the point, I want to confess that in some ways, I take a profound missional challenge from the Snake Handlers of Appalachia.

Because I don’t believe that Mark 16:18 requires the truly faithful to handle serpents literally, but I do believe it's describing something literally true for followers of the Resurrected Lord. It’s assuring us that in Jesus, now, the Kingdom of Shalom has come that Isaiah foresaw, when he looked ahead to Christ and said: "[On that day] the child will put his hand into the viper’s nest and they will neither harm nor destroy on [God’s Holy Mountain]."  And it's a sign that Jesus himself was speaking true over in Luke 11:19, when he said, “I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you.” The snakes in these passages, of course, are prophetic ciphers for those very real things in the world that stand contrary to God's Shalom:  spiritual bondage, emotional oppression, physical exploitation, sin, death, the devil.  And that's what Mark 16:18 is about, too.  It's God’s promise that under the authority of Christ’s reign, we will find ourselves “handling deadly things”—spiritually speaking—and we will not be harmed.

And this is a trustworthy saying.

So rather than mocking the Appalachian Snake Handlers for their hermeneutical naiveté, I find myself asking myself some gut-check questions these days: am I as willing to put my money where my mouth is with my “spiritualized” reading of Mark 16:18 (and Luke 11:19 and Isaiah 11:8), as those Appalachian snake handlers do with their “literal interpretation”? That is to say, do I believe that the Bible really meant it when it says that God in Christ has crushed the head of the “old serpent, the Devil,” that followers of Christ are now living on the Resurrection side of evil, and that in following him they will discover at work among them the spiritual resources to handle “deadly things” safely?

These are must-ask questions for anyone serious about following Jesus: because if we’re really walking after the One who defeated the powers and principalities of this world with his own life’s blood, we’re likely to find ourselves in situations with all the potential in the world to “rear up and bite us.” I’m talking here about ministry at the margins, ministry among the scandalous or the scandalized, ministry to those who have been deeply wounded by real evil. Because these are places, I think, where the church will find itself handling spiritual “snakes,” so to speak—the scorn of the “centre” and the disdain of the “powerful”, the risk of naming evil, the shame of identifying with the scandalized—things that might make us wish Jesus had simply asked us pick up a cobra.

I don’t handle real rattlesnakes as an expression of my faith in Christ’s authority over sin and death. But then again, I’ve been in churches where, however much their statements of faith insisted they believed in “biblical inerrancy,” there wasn’t much spiritual snake-handling going on, either. Things were kept emotionally superficial and spiritually tidy and above all, safe.

But when the church shows itself willing to put its hand into the viper's nest—handling emotionally difficult or spiritually messy or socially risky stuff for Christ’s sake—I think that’s where we'll show how willing we really are to take the Bible at its word.

Musical Mondays (XI)

Happy musical monday everyone. This is a song I wrote a while back, about creativity and inspiration and looking for the muse. Enjoy (and again, click here to download if the audio player doesn't show up below). You can click here if you like hearing the story behind the song.

Hey, Calliope

A Powerful Song and the Power of Story

The other day this inspiring video showed up a number of times on my Facebook feed. If you don’t have the time to give it a watch, let me give you the Coles Notes here. A painfully, almost paralyzingly nervous singer auditions for X-Factor. So timorous is he in the pre-performance interview that the judges have all but written him off before he sings a note. It’s taken him five years , he explains, to overcome all the nay-sayers in his life who discouraged him from auditioning, five years to quell his self-doubt and steel up his courage to take the stage. The song he’ll be performing is one he sang at his Grand-dad’s funeral; his Nan is standing in the wings for moral support (cut to backstage shot of “Nan” looking on anxiously, squeezing the hand of the show’s tastefully attired MC). Even on the low-res medium of a laptop screen, the anxiety in the auditorium is palpable as the opening notes of Bette Midler’s “The Rose” peal out and he raises the trembling microphone to his mouth.

As might be expected, perhaps, the performance that follows is so startlingly beautiful, the voice so sonorous and the execution so passionate that the judges are compelled to sit up with new notice and the audience erupts with roars of delight. The camera pans across more than one face wiping away cathartic tears of satisfaction as this written-off “rough” suddenly sparkles with “diamond” brilliance.

If you’ve got the time, here it is for posterity’s sake:

The scene is moving, I’ll admit, and the last thing I want to do is be cynical for cynicism’s sake, but I’m not convinced. The “all-that’s-gold-does-not-glitter” theme has become too popular on these Talentj Shows—too guaranteed to go viral—for this nervous-wall-flower-turned-phenom story to be 100% All Beef, if you know what I mean.

I’ve sung nervous. And one of the unfair things I’ve noticed about singing nervous is that anxiety attacks the diaphragm, making it extremely difficult to practice the deep, regulated breathing necessary for singing. No matter how hard you’ve steeled yourself psychologically, physiologically your body betrays you. If Mr. Maloney was really as nervous as he looks at the 21 second mark, it’s highly unlikely he’d have had the breath to belt it out as passionately as he does at the 2:59 mark.

And then there’s the performance itself—from his comfortable handling of the microphone, to the careful annunciation of the consonants, to his singer’s posture, to the articulation of his mouth on the vowels, everything here looks to me like this diamond in the rough has been carefully cut by a professional voice coach. I mean, I’m not a trained singer myself, so my humble opinion is really just that, but my strong suspicion is that Mr. Maloney is neither nervous nor amateur, and that someone’s being taken in here—certainly the audience is, and possibly the judges as well (depending on how cynical you are about the staged nature of these types of shows).

But that’s not really my point today. What I’m thinking about is how compelling Mr. Maloney’s story has made his performance. He is, no doubt, a powerful singer; but powerful singers sing for audiences all the time, as well or better than Mr. Maloney, without moving crowds to tears. And if you’d watched this performance from the ### mark, without the story to set it up, you might say: “Hmmm... nice voice,” but then you’d move on. It’s not likely you’d share it on Facebook. Or cry.

It’s the story that evokes the tears; and it’s the story that gives the song context and power.

And bear with me, but I’m thinking about that as it relates to faith and theology. A lot of times, when we talk about the deep truths of Christianity they are disconnected from the story that makes them compelling. Take theological doctrines for instance. Often people have a hard time swallowing the doctrine of the Trinity because it’s presented like an abstract “blueprint” for some faceless Three-in-One God “out there” somewhere. But when it gets connected the Story of the early Christians, and their attempt to explain why, on the one hand, they worshipped a first Century Jewish Holy Man named Jesus, but on the other hand, they kept insisting that they were right in line with the Jewish Monotheism that Jesus himself taught and adhered to... that story makes the Trinitarian “song” compelling.

The Message of the Cross is like this. An a-historical doctrine about an a-historical “Christ” who died for my sins (in the abstract) can evoke assent, but is unlikely to evoke tears and more likely to evoke a lot of questions—how, exactly does a dying Jewish Rabbi atone for sins? But when it is connected to The Story—the story of a creator God who refused to turn his back on his creation even when they rejected him—who chose Israel to be a people who would draw the creation back to its maker by showing the world what life with him was supposed to look like—who agonized over this people as they failed in their calling, even to the point of their exile at the hands of a pagan Empire—who promised them return and restoration and renewal (and that their restoration would translate into restoration for the whole creation)—and who raised up from them a Messiah, his Son, our Lord, who lived out both the story of the creator’s rejection and the exile of the creator’s people through his death on the cross (and then inaugurated the promised restoration through his glorious resurrection)—when it’s connected to this story, that’s when the doctrine of Atonement really starts to sing.

And when that story is connected to my own story: of seeking and failure and longing for shalom, and of discovering through Jesus redemption from the ashes of sin—that, I think, is when the song has the power to evoke real tears of catharsis and delight.

On Creation and Covenant

In case I was pitching over heads in my last post about the theological connections between Creation and Covenant as related acts of God, I thought I'd post an extended treatment of the topic that I wrote a few years ago.

Here's the paper in a nutshell: "The Book of Genesis uses the creation imagery and themes developed through the so-called Primeaval History of chapters 1-11 to interpret the subsequent Abrahamic covenant theologically as a creative act of God, a further forming and filling by the Lord God Most High, the creator of heaven and earth."

Here's the paper in a much larger shell (from a much larger nut...):  All the Families of the Earth:  Creation and Covenant in Geneis

Musical Mondays (X)

Still continuing with our musical Mondays.  This song (Kafka Dreams) has probably generated more hits for this blog than anything else I've written. Mostly because Hobbes uses the line in a Calvin and Hobbes strips, and it's obscure, and this partcular post  turns up pretty often when you Google "what is a Kafka Dream?"
Anyway, you can read the post if you want the story behind the song. Or you can simply listen below and enjoy. (If the audio player doesn't show up, click here to download the song).
Kafka Dreams

Covenant, Creation and Ecology in Hosea

And while I’m thinking about creation, brotherhood and covenant, there’s a text in the book of Hosea that has been on my mind for a long time that I’d like to share.

In Hosea 4:1-3, we read these heart–breaking lines: “There is no faithfulness or kindness or knowledge of God in the land ... therefore the land mourns and everyone who lives in it languishes, along with the beasts of the field and the birds of the sky, and also the fish of the sea.” With words that wouldn’t stand out too starkly at the next UNEP summit, Hosea describes the land itself withering as a direct result of human faithlessness.

This would be ominous enough to give us pause, but later in the book, Hosea details the sins of the people by saying: “Like Adam they have transgressed the covenant; there they have dealt treacherously with me” (6:7).

Like it did in Amos 1:9, the question of covenant arises again, this time in a way that connects environmental degradation with human sin. Among the other consequences of our covenant infidelity, we find, curiously, that the land itself is languishing. And more curious still, in violating the covenant like this, we are, Hosea declares, “like Adam.”

My Zondervan Study Bible is stumped. “The allusion is uncertain,” it explains, “since Scripture records no covenant with Adam.” This particular reference to a covenant with Adam, I suppose, doesn’t count as record of a covenant with Adam... but even if Hosea 6 here didn’t count, the creation story in Genesis is so packed with covenant imagery that, short of a post-it label on every verse saying “I’m making a covenant here!” God makes it pretty clear that when he created everything in the beginning, he was also covenanting to uphold it all by his life-giving spirit (see also Psalm 104:24-30). It’s not for nothing that in Genesis 9:9, when God “establishes” his covenant with Noah, he uses a word (qûm) which suggests a pre-existing covenant that God is simply now extending to Noah (i.e. if God had meant, “I’m creating a new covenant with you, Noah,” he would have used the verb kârat or natan). The Noahic covenant (that God will keep the creation going, summer and winter, springtime and harvest) is actually an extension of the covenant with all creation that God made in the beginning.

And with this in mind, the weight of Hosea 4-6 comes crashing down with ominous force: the Adamic covenant has to do with God’s commitment to sustain his creation, and it gave Adam a special responsibility to guard the creation (shamar) and tend it (‘abad), as the “image of God” in creation. No wonder, then, that our breaking of the Adamic covenant brings desolation on the land. It did in Genesis 3, it does in Leviticus 26, and it will in Micah 7:3. This is a theme woven like a green thread throughout the Old Testament: when the people reject the covenant, the land withers.

But I’m mulling it over today because I believe very strongly that the Christian faith has meaningful and relevant answers to the current global environmental crisis, and because I seldom hear Christians talking about it in meaningful ways, and because I think that, even more than the traditional “stewardship” paradigm (which tends toward deism and moralism), a Good-News answer to environmental issues will start with a robust understanding of God’s covenant commitment to his creation and the invitation into renewed covenant with him that he extends to us in Jesus Christ.

When Solomon's Temple meets Minecraft

 My kids are pretty huge Minecraft fans.  For those of you who have never played Minecraft, think of it as a big game of  "virtual Lego."  Those of you who have played Minecraft will know that it's as much like virtual Lego as Mario Karts is like "virtual Hot Wheels" (that is to say, only a bit). 

Here's Wikipedia's description:  "Minecraft is focused on creativity and building, allowing players to build constructions out of textured cubes in a 3D world. Game play in its commercial release has two principal modes: survival, which requires players to acquire resources and maintain their health and hunger; and creative, where the player has an unlimited supply of resources, the ability to fly, and no health or hunger."

Like I say, Minecraft is a popular pass time at our house. So watching the kids work on a project the other day I floated this idea past them:  "Hey guys, you wanna build a scale model of Solomon's Temple, from the Bible?"

They were up for the challenge, and construction continued off and on over the next couple of weeks.  We used the plans for the Temple and its furnishings as they're detailed in 1 Kings chapters 5, 6 and 7, and tried to follow them as strictly as possible (in Minecraft, each cube is supposed to be 1 metre by 1 metre, but for simplicity's sake we made each minecraft cube equal to one cubic cubit  (a cubit is approximately 0.5 metres, so our scale here is 2:1.)). 

My son, who is a wizard when it comes to all things techie helped us produce this virtual tour of our completed Minecraft Temple, which I offer here for your amusement and illumination:

I've read 1 Kings 5-7 a bunch of times over the years, but nothing brought it to life for me like this project with the kids, trying to figure out how and why they built this magnificent building the way they did. But what was especially fun about the job was the many opportunities it provided for us to talk about the things of God. Here's only a small sample of the questions we chewed over as we "built" our Temple, brick by Minecraft brick.

What's an altar? Why did they need one? What was in the Holy of Holies? Why couldn't you go in there?  What's a cherub?  What's an incense altar?  What did they keep in the Temple storerooms? What's a "bronze sea?"  What was it for?  What were the tables for the show-bread all about?  Why did they keep bread out like that? 

Fielding these questions (and much deeper ones-- Why was it only the priest who could go into the Holy of Holies?  What was sacrifice all about, anyway? And what happened to the Temple?) it occurred to me that meeting your kids where they play is perhaps the best way to mentor them in the things of God. 

Louis Mercier once said, "What we learn with pleasure we never forget"; and if that was ever true, it should be true of our formation in the Faith.

Musical Mondays (IX)

Here's another installment for our "Musical Mondays" series at terra incognita.  It's a song I wrote for my wife a while ago.  Incidentally, I've found out that some browsers haven't been properly loading the audio for these posts, and some vistors have had to leave Musical Mondays unseranaded.  My apologies.  If the audio player doesn't appear below, and the lyrics have sufficiently piqued your interest that you still want to hear the song, you can download it here:  Old with you.

Old With You

Let me grow old with you
I could tell you all the things I know
I didn't have to
You may already know them
That only goes to show that
I got here just in time
To grow old with you

Let me stay young with you
We could laugh at all the things we know
We're not supposed to
Or stop and smell the flowers
Or talk in bed for hours
While we wait around
To stay young with you

Let me grow old with you
I could tell you all the things I know
I didn't have to
You may already know them
That only goes to show that
I got here just in time
To grow old with you

On Awe

The other day I came across this fascinating talk about the “biological advantage of being awestruck.”

The Biological Advantage of Being Awestruck - by @Jason_Silva from Jason Silva on Vimeo.

It left me, if not awestruck itself, quite eager to be awestruck. And it confirmed a hunch I’ve had for a long time: that there is something about worship that enlarges us, emotionally and psychologically, and that being fully alive and fully human requires regular experiences of worship-inducing awe. And it suggests that the marginalization of worship in secular culture actually has ethical implications.

But since it also shores up Ecclesiastes 5:7 with empirical data, I’ll let my words here be few, and stand, instead, in awe of God, at the good Teacher’s advice.

The Halloween Files (Part IX): An All Saints Day Quiz for the Morning After

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You maybe thought it was over.  The candy's been counted and sorted, the costumes hung in the back closet with care, and your pumpkin survived the night unscathed.  Another Halloween's come and gone.

So why another Halloween reflection, this November 1st morning (as if a post connecting trick-or-treating to the atonement hadn't gone far enough)? 

Well: because the Christian connection in Halloween-- if there is a genuine Christian connection-- has to do with the Feast of All Saints, which is celebrated on November 1st.  As far as the Christian calendar is concerned, all is hallowed on Hallowe'en only because it's the night before All Saint's Day, that day of the year the Church sets aside to remember the Saints who have gone before (and to celebrate the things the Holy Spirit has accomplished through the faithful men and women of the past.)

Discussions of "whether or not Christians should participate in Halloween" almost never mention All Saints Day; and even among the most enthusiastic Christian supporters of Halloween festivities, I've never heard anyone follow up the question "What are you being for Halloween?" with "What are you doing for All Saints Day?"

Which is a shame.  Because celebrating Hallowe'en without celebrating All Saints Day is a bit like celebrating Christmas Eve without celebrating Christmas Morning.  Kind of anti-climactic.  But it's also a shame, because telling the Church's story through the lives of her saints is a powerful way to share the gospel (just try explaining why a Free Methodist is called a Free Methodist to someone who doesn't know Jesus; you'll see).  And it seems to me that, inasmuch as secular society still enjoys a good All's Hallowed Eve romp, the Christian Feast Day that it's leading up to is a great time to talk about Jesus.

So, in the interest of shining some light on this most over-shadowed feast day of the year, I offer you here a little "All Saint's Day Quiz." 

How many of the following saints can you name (leave your answers in the "comments" below-- first 5 respondents get an advance copy of my upcoming new CD!)

1.  This theologian's "coming clean" about a stolen pear left an indelible mark on the church's understanding of original sin.

2.  The hero of Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers asked for this Mohawk believer to be sainted years before the Catholic Church got around to doing it.

3.  The fanciful tales of this Irish monk's journey into the Atlantic have led scholars to speculate that Irish sailors knew about the New World long before Columbus got there.

4.  This medieval theologian was nicknamed "the ox".  In trying to mesh the Bible with Aristotle's philosophy, he ended up setting a course for theology that wouldn't be challenged until the Reformation.

5.  This father of the Early Church was nicknamed Adamantius-- the Man of Steel-- because of his firm commitment to the Faith; some scholars suggest that this name comes especially from the fact that he took Matthew 19:12 as literally as possible.

6.  Legend has it that this Roman priest was martyred for performing illegal marriages for Christian soldiers.

7.  This Christian writer has been called "The Evangelical Patron Saint of the Imagination"; the hero of his most popular novel is named after the Turkish word for lion.

8.  Speaking of lions, this early biographer of Jesus is thought to have been a disciple of St. Peter; his symbol is a winged lion.

9.  According to legend, this monk from Asia Minor was killed in the Roman Coliseum trying to stop a gladiator fight; his martyrdom prompted the Emperor to discontinue the Games altogether.

10.  This Christian was never sainted by the Catholic Church, but when he nailed some paper to a church door on Halloween Night, 1517, he changed the course of history.

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.