Ghost Notes

Ghost Notes
A collections of original songs I wrote in 2015, and recorded with the FreeWay Musical Collective. Click the album image to listen.

inversions

Recorded in 2014, these songs are sort of a chronicle of my journey through a pastoral burn-out last winter. They deal with themes of mental-health, spiritual burn-out and depression, but also with the inexorable presence of God in the midst of darkness. Click the album art to download.

soundings

soundings
click image to download
"soundings" is a collection of songs I recorded in September/October of 2013. Dealing with themes of hope, ache, trust and spiritual loss, the songs on this album express various facets of my journey with God.

bridges

bridges
Click to download.
"Bridges" is a collection of original songs I wrote in the summer of 2011, during a soul-searching trip I took out to Alberta; a sort of long twilight in the dark night of the soul. I share it here in hopes these musical reflections on my own spiritual journey might be an encouragement to others: the sun does rise, blood-red but beautiful.

echoes

echoes
Prayers, poems and songs (2005-2009). Click to download
"echoes" is a collection of songs I wrote during my time studying at Briercrest Seminary (2004-2009). It's called "echoes" partly because these songs are "echoes" of times spent with God from my songwriting past, but also because there are musical "echoes" of hymns, songs or poems sprinkled throughout the album. Listen closely and you'll hear them.

Accidentals

This collection of mostly blues/rock/folk inspired songs was recorded in the spring and summer of 2015. I call it "accidentals" because all of the songs on this project were tunes I have had kicking around in my notebooks for many years but had never found a "home" for on previous albums. You can click the image to download the whole album.

blogs I follow

random reads

Book Reviews

Book Reviews
The Shallows, Nicholas Carr
In this very readable, very thought provoking analysis of electronic communciations technology and its impact on our brains and culture, Nicholas Carr brings together media theory (think Marshall McLuhan), history (think Gutenberg) and neuroscience (think discoveries in brain plasticity) to show how computer technology is shaping us in ways of which we are only dimly aware. He argues that such technologies reduce our capacity for deep, creative and sustained linear thought (or at least have the potential to do so) and predispose us to the fragmented, the cursive and the superficial. Worth the read.

Exclusion and Embrace, Miroslav Volf

Ecstasy and Intimacy: When the Holy Spirit Meets the Human Spirit, Edith Humphrey
A fascinating and engaging introduction to spiritual theology-- or the theology of spirituality, as the case may be. This book is a very scholarly, devotional, christo-centric, ecumenical and trinitarian overview of what it means for Christians to live in the Spirit and with the Spirit within. Bracing and enlightening.

Leading with a Limp, Dan Allender

five smooth stones for pastoral work, Eugene Peterson

From Darkness to Light: How One Became a Christian in the Early Church, Anne Fields

Life in the Ancient Near East, Daniel C. Snell
Snell's Life in the Ancient Near East offers a social history of the ANE, tracing the earliest settlement of Mesopotamia, the development of agriculture, first cities, ancient economy and the emergence of empire. Bringing together a rich variety of data gleaned both from the archaeological record and extant historical texts, he tells the history of this cradle of civilization with a special eye for the "human" element - focusing on the forces and factors that would have directly affected the daily life of the various strata of society. Worth a read generally, but all the more for someone with a particular interest in the biblical stories that find their setting and draw their characters and themes from the same provenience.


The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene

Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament, Richard Davidson
Davidson's Old Testament theology of human sexuality is stunning in its achievement, challenging in its content, and edifying in its conclusions. Davidson addresses every-- and I do mean every-- Old Testament text that deals (even obliquely) with human sexuality, and, through detailed exegesis, careful synthesis, and deep interaction with the scholarly research, develops a detailed picture of the Old Testament's vision for redeemed human sexuality. 700 pages of Biblical scholarship at its best.


Eaarth, Bill McKibben
Bill McKibben's Eaarth, is a call for us to wake up smell the ecological coffee...while we can still brew it. Unlike his previous work, or any writing on ecology I've yet read, however, Eaarth does not argue that catastrophe is pending. Instead, he argues that catastrophe has arrived, and that our all talk about "going green to avert disaster," "and "saving the planet" is woefully obsolete. In ecological terms, the planet as we once knew it is gone, he argues, and rather than trying to "avert" disaster, we need to start figuring out how to live in the disaster that's happened. Key themes he identifies as important for life on planet Eaarth resonnated with me as profoundly Christian ways of being (disaster or no). We must stop assuming that "bigger" is better; we must acknowledge limits on economic and technological growth; we must get reacquainted with the land; we need eschew self-sufficency and nurture community.

Love Wins, Rob Bell
So fast and furious has the furor over this book been, that any review will inevitably feel redundant or tardy. Given the crowd on the band wagon by now, I actually had no intention of hopping on myself, but my kids got it for me for Father's Day. About 15 pages in, I realized that I could probably finish it in on good push, so I got it over with. My thoughts: probably the most over-hyped book I ever read; I loved it and found it frustratingly under-developed at the same time; while he raises some important issues, his handling of them reads like a yoda-meets-Tom-Wright account of salvation; nothing C. S. Lewis hasn't already said more clearly and more cleverly; I'm glad he wrote it, and I'm glad the Evangelical world has errupted over it the way it has, and I hope a much more spirited and generous and optimistic understanding of soteriology and eschatology will infuse the evangelical church's mission as a result.

Rediscovering Paul, David Capes et. al.
Rediscovering Paul is a hepful overview of Paul's life, times and theology. While at times I felt it might have gone deeper, or expressed its ideas more clearly, it provides some interesting and inspiring insights into the man behind the letters. Among these is its discussion of the communal aspect of first century letter writing, and the influence of one's community on one's personal sense of identity, and how those issues might have played out in Paul's writings. Another challenging issue that it tackles is the whole process of letter writing in the Greco-Roman world, especially as regards the role a scribe often played in shaping the text, smoothing out the langugae or providing stock phrases, etc.


Lavondyss, Robert Holdstock
If you've read George MacDonald's Lilith, then think of Lavondyss as sort of a Lilith-for-Non-Christians. It's the convoluted labyrinth of a story about a young girl called Tallis and her adventures in a magical wood that brings the Jungian archetypes buried deep in our subconscious to life. Dense with questions about Jungian psychology, and the spiritually-thin-places of the world, and death and myth and magic and story, it's pretty tough slugging at times, but thought provoking and challenging. At times I felt like I was reading the Narnia book C. S. Lewis might have written if he had pursued the "stab of northerness" in directions other than the Christian Faith where he found it eternally satisfied.

Jesus and Money, Ben Witherington III
My friend John Vlainic once ranked Ben Witheringon as one of the strongest Biblical scholars in the Wesleyan tradtion working today. This thin but powerful volume is evidence to support such an accolade. I opened it expecting (judging by the cover) either a how-to book on Christian finances, or (judging by the other books I've read on Christ and Money) a hodge-podge of Bible verses taken out of context and mushed together as proof texts about the tithe. I got neither; instead, Ben Witherington walks slowly, thoughtful and exegetically through the breadth of Biblical teaching, with special sensitivity to the cultural context of the various texts, the tension between Old and New Testament teaching on the topic, and the differences between modern and ancient economies. If I were to recommend one book to develop a biblical theology of money, it would be this one.

The Gravedigger File, Os Guinness
My first taste of Os Guinness, and, if you don't mind a mangled metaphor, it went down like a bracing pint of... well... Guinness. Grave Digger file is sort of a "Screwtape Letters" project on a church-wide scale. In concept, the book is a series of "training files" for an undercover agent attempting to undermine and ultimately sabotage the Western Church, delivered from the pen of a seasoned saboteur to a young agent recently assigned to Los Angeles. In plot, the young agent ultimately defects, and delivers the "Gravedigger File" into the hands of a Christian, urging him to alert the Church to the operation. It is bursting with "things that make you go hmmm..." and deserves a second, careful read with pen in hand, ready to mine it for its scintillating and eminently quotable lines.

And Fit Us for Heaven, a Christmas Homily

Hebrews 2:14-18  Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity, so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death, that is the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For this reason, he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.  Because he himself suffered when he was tempted he is able to help those who are being tempted.

I have one very vivid memory of when our first child was born that still comes back to me once in a while.  We were like, three or four months into our first gig as new parents, and I was rocking my new son in the rocking chair, at something like 3:32 in the morning and this very clear, very vivid thought ran through my mind.

I am never going to sleep again.

Really:  I’d like to say something all spiritual about being a new dad and all, but ... well ... those of you who are new parents, or have been new parents at some point or other, I’m sure you can back me up on this.  You reach this stage where it’s been so long since you had a full 8 hours that you almost forget that sleeping through the night is something that normal human beings do.

I can actually still remember the first time our son slept through the night.  Now, when I say, “slept through the night,” I mean, he slept from 12:17 am to 5:36 am (and the fact that we counted those 5 hours and 19 minutes of sleep as a full night just goes to show how desperate we were).  I had fallen asleep on the couch and our son was on my chest, and it was so out of the ordinary that I actually woke up with a start, thinking something was wrong.

I was thinking about those early days as a new Dad last week, in particular, as I heard some kids singing (for what must have been the thousandth time) I heard someone singing that old Christmas Carol, Away in a Manger.

You’ve probably never heard it before.  So let me catch you up to speed.  It goes, Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus lays down his sweet head. So far so good.  The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes.  But Little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.

And this is the point where the needle scratches on the record player with a resounding:  errrch. Little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.  Really?

I mean:  I don’t want to sound like I’m grinching all over your Christmas morning or anything—and I realize that I’m on sacred ground here, critiquing a Sunday School classic like Away in a Manger, but, well, why would we think that the little Lord Jesus—waking up in the middle of night because some lowing cattle disturbed his sleep—why would we assume that he wouldn’t, in that moment, make a bit of fuss about it?

I have told you about my early days as a new dad, haven’t I?  I mean, back in those days it took far less than some lowing cattle to get my baby boy to start crying in the middle of the night.  Any fully human baby—and again, those of you who are new parents, you can back me up on this—any fully human baby would.

Why would we expect less from the little Lord Jesus?

Unless—well—unless we didn’t really believe it the way the writer of the Book of Hebrews believed it, that “since we have flesh and blood, he too shared in our humanity, so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death, that is the devil...” and that “For this reason he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every way.”  He shared, he had to share, fully in our humanity, in order to be our saviour.

I don’t want to put coal in the stockings of the songwriters who first penned Away in a Manger, or anything, but I do think that if the writer of the Book of Hebrews were here, whatever else he’d do, he’d remind them that, listen:  Our redemption required a fully human Saviour.

The fact that the Little Lord Jesus cried in his crib, just like any human baby might have is, actually, it’s good news for us, this morning.  Because what it means—that little fully human baby cry coming from that manger—what it means is that in Christ, God has entered into our humanity, fully and completely and lovingly and redemptively.  I mean: everything and anything that’s true about being a human being, listen: in Jesus Christ, God has taken it onto himself.

There is nothing about being a human being that he has not staked his claim on. Your health, your physical body, your relationships, your love life, your appetites, your distractibility when it comes to spiritual things, your short attention span when it comes prayer, your regrets about the past, your fears about the future, your temptations to live for self instead of living for God.  You name it. If it is something about “being human,” listen:  in the Little Lord Jesus, God has entered into it.  He knows it and understands it and is able to redeem it and transform it and save it.

Your redemption required, the writer of Hebrews says, it required a fully human saviour, and because that’s what it took to save us, that’s what God did for us in the person of Jesus Christ.

The ancient Christians, incidentally, they got this.  They realized that you couldn’t take away the Lord Jesus’ humanity and still have the Saviour we needed.  One theologian, a guy named Gregory of Nazianzus put it like this:  What has not been assumed—that is to say—any part of our humanity that God has not taken onto himself in Jesus Christ—what has not been assumed, has not been redeemed.

And the point was, because God assumed all of our humanity—took it all to himself in Jesus Christ—all of our humanity can and will be redeemed in Jesus Christ.  Your thought life, your emotional life, your flesh and blood, the way you age and grow old, the very fact of death itself.  Listen: All of it is redeemable in Jesus Christ.

Can I encourage you with that Good News this morning?  As we worship him and celebrate his birth today, can we take comfort and courage from the fact that there is no corner of our lives that he does not want to put his healing hand on it and transform it for the glory of God?

Well: I started with a Christmas Carol, maybe I could end with one, too.  Because there’s a little boy at the FreeWay, a little fellow about 6 or so.  And one day his mom said to me: you’ll never guess, Pastor Dale: we were driving the other day and that song Mary’s Boy Child Jesus Christ was on the radio, you know the one:  And man shall live forever more, because of Christmas Day!

And my little boy (said this mom), he piped up and said, mom that’s not true, it’s not because of Christmas Day that we live forever.  It’s because of Easter Day!

You see, we start training our theologians very young at the FreeWay.  And he was absolutely right—it’s because of Easter Day—the death and resurrection of Jesus—that’s why those who have trusted in Jesus Christ can and will live forever more.

But—and I don’t want to pit Bonney M against Away in a Manger this morning, but, but: if the writer of Hebrews were here, I think he would have told our 6-year-old theologian: yes, of course it’s cause of Easter.  But here’s the thing: it’s only because our human life and God’s divine live—our fully humanity and God’s full divinity—it’s only because they came together, perfectly together, in the person of Jesus—it’s only, that is to say, it’s only because of what happened on Christmas Day, that Easter Day could be the offer of salvation that it is.

“He too shared in their humanity,” is how he puts it, “so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death, that is the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.  For this reason he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every way.”

Followers of Jesus, your redemption required a fully human saviour.  And let’s celebrate it this morning that that’s exactly what God did for us, in the Lord Jesus Christ.

All is Bright (A Christmas Rerun)

“And the light shone in the darkness, but the darkness did not receive it.”

How it could possibly have come down to this was still beyond Nathan’s ability to explain. He swore every year that things would be different. Swore that he’d do it right next year, start sooner, plan better.

He swore. Literally, he swore, as an on-coming car jerked in front of him and lurched into the parking spot that he’d been aiming for. As he rolled past the holiday motorist who’d just stolen that prime piece of real estate out from under his nose, he muttered ominously under his breath about decking somebody’s halls.

Looking in vain for a new place to park that was still within trekking distance to the Wal Mart entrance, he came to rest at last at the furthest corner of the parking lot. Flinging his scarf over his shoulder with all the bravado of a WW I pilot, he stepped out into the blinding blizzard.

It would have been lovely, really—haloes of coloured Christmas lights shimmering just barely through the thick white haze—lovely, if it weren’t December 24th.

It would have been breathtakingly beautiful—pure drifting sheets of silent snow—beautiful, if it weren’t 10:33 pm.

It would have been picturesque, even—if he wasn’t a last-minute Christmas shopper on his way to Wal-Mart, of all places on Christmas Eve; Wal-Mart, because they were now open until midnight on this Most Wonderful Night of the Year.

So he squinted into the blinding white wind, and swore: things would be different next year.

By the time he reached the doors, the blizzard had piled a good couple of centimetres on his shoulders—the dandruff of heaven, he might have mused, if his mission hadn’t cleared all whimsical sentiments from his heart and replaced them with one single clear purpose, burning like a Christmas candle in the window of his soul: must find the perfect gift. (At 10:42 pm, Christmas Eve).

He’d need some wrapping paper, too, he noted as he pushed his way through the bottle neck of beleaguered boyfriends, desperate Dads and harried husbands who, like himself, had left this one male shopping duty of the year to the last possible moment, and were now muttering ominously under their breath about showing them who’s naughty and who’s nice.

He stumbled past the happy-face badge on the chest of the sad-faced greeter at the door, and squinted at last in the florescent glare of the store. 10:51.

A robotic Santa Claus boomed a metallic “Ho. Ho. Ho.” at him, from a display of last minute Christmas decorations. The vaguely evil undertones of this animatronic belly laugh mingled with a vaguely threatening rendition of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” that poured from invisible speakers somewhere overhead. For just a moment the Christmas Candle in his soul flickered, and allowed him the briefest of whimsical thoughts: he remembered sitting in church with his buddy Eddie, during a Christmas Eve service they were ignoring as kids, and Eddie had showed him how you could rearrange the letters in the name Santa to spell the name “Satan”; he even wrote it out on the back of the bulletin while they both giggled under their breath.

Nathan squinted suspiciously at the Robotic Santa. “Ho. Ho. Ho.”

But then his mission was burning in him with full flame again, and he pushed past Santa on his way towards the perfume-trinkets-watches-jewelery-sunglasses-make-up-and-other-things-generally-feminine section of the store. Surely if the perfect gift existed, it lay-to-rest under those gleaming posters of radiant young women in jewellery or makeup, photos hung like so many summoning angels over the respective products they announced.

Nathan shuffled his way towards them.

Before he reached the place over which these posters shone, however, a frantic looking dad had knocked him sideways, on his eleventh-hour mission to get the last Liv Doll in the store. A man with a dull gleam in his eye jostled him to the right, pushing past him on his way to the pet supplies because, Nathan could only assume, because little Fido had asked for a box of liver Puppie-Yums for Christmas and they’d accidentally bought chicken.

But by this time, the jewellery section itself was but a faint legend from the distant past, like stories about frankincense and myrrh washing up on the shores of Christmases gone by, and he found himself standing instead in the electronics section, of all places, trying to convince himself that nothing said Merry Christmas like a spool of re-writable CDs made in China.

In the distance he could hear Robo-Santa laughing at him. The florescent light battered him mercilessly.

“You’d better watch out”

Maybe if he threw in a gift card for i-tunes?

“Ho. Ho. Ho.”

The two centimetres of snow had soaked through his coat now and had begun to trickle, like cold regret down his spine.

“You’d better not pout, I’m telling you why.”

The WW I flying-ace scarf slipped from his shoulders as they drooped. He turned to go.

And then: if Nathan’s life had a sound track, the sound of a record needle scratching abruptly on vinyl would have blurted out suddenly, strangling the Wal-Mart muzak to silence. The Ho. Ho. Ho. would have dullened to a slow, echoy, pulse, like an anxious heart. And choral music—the angelic humming of children, maybe, or silvery seraph song—would have begun softly, swelling into a single, throbbing: “Ahhh!” that drowned out everything else.

Because there it was: the perfect gift. She’d asked for it every day of the last 364—in one way or another—she’d been asking for it—maybe all her life. Not with words, of course—never in any audible speech—but with every gesture: that slight turn of her head when she said, “You know what I wish?” That faint droop at the corner of her mouth when she said: “You know what I hate?” That soft sigh that escaped her when she flumped in front of the TV after too-long and too-hard a day at work. That sort of mist in her eyes that she got when the sap was running a bit too thick on a re-run of Little House on the Prairie.

All of it—everything—all of it had really been about this. This gift... this perfect present... The Candle in his Soul burned with white hot light as he reached for it.

And then the lights went out.

The store plunged into instant darkness. A miraculous darkness, he would find later, because the blizzard that had piling snow on the power lines all day, knocked out Wal-Mart’s backup generator, just at the exact moment the wind finally brought down the power poles, and, with a sudden flash at the fuse box that stank worse than a Radio Shack on fire, it plunged the whole world of Wal-Mart into pitch and utter night.

Nathan stood there, frozen in darkness, his hand still reaching for that now invisible, perfect gift.

And in the dark, whimsical thoughts rushed at last through his mind: he saw visions of Pompeii caught in the ash of Vesuvius, frozen forever in the everyday act of living, buying, selling, giving in marriage until the bitter end. In the black distance, Robo-Santa’s laugh ground down to silence, and he thought of air escaping a long-discarded accordion.

“Ho.... ho.... o...”

For a surprisingly long moment nothing happened. The dark was so thick. And more miracles: no one cried out, no one shouted, no one said anything at all, for just a moment. You could hear them all, that hot press of humanity, still and silent, but close, in the dark. And no one dared to move.

And then somehow, more whimsical thoughts rushed at Nathan in that dark pause: he remembered snippets of those stories that he and Eddie had giggled their way through—stories about a little child who broke into the brilliant chaos of this world with a light that no one could see—and about some who could see it, but could barely recognize it as light, because it hurt their eyes.

He remembered vaguely about an old man up at the front who’d said something about how this child had come to upset the status quo... to turn things on their heads... to name our darkness for what it is.

And give us real light.

And he remembered lighting a candle, quite vividly, this, while a chorus of bashful and rusty singing voices lunged for the top note in Silent Night.

Holy Night.

All is Calm.

All is bright.

And his hand fell with heavenly peace, in the darkness, to his side.

Of course, because it was Wal-Mart, of all places, on Christmas Eve, someone in a back room somewhere fired up the back up, back up generator. Florescent light blared out over the store once more and the cogs of the machine started to move again.

But Nathan was already on his way towards the door. As he stumbled outside, into the haloes of coloured Christmas lights, that shimmered just barely through the thick white haze, he checked his watch: it was nearly midnight.

General William Booth Enters into Heaven, a song

The lyrics for this song are adapted from a poem by an obscure but pretty fascinating American Poet named Vachel Lindsay.  It's the last track on my most recent album.  I wrote it more than 10 years ago, as kind of a musical experiment.  The experiment was only marginally successful, but Vachel Lindsay's original text has some vivid and arresting imagery in it.  Here it is in a new arrangement and recording that I did this fall.




Booth led boldly with his big bass drum
The saints smiled gravely and they said he’s come
Walking lepers followed, rank on rank
Lurching bravoes from the ditches dank
Drabs from the alleyways and drug fiends pale
Minds still passion ridden, soul powers frail
Vermin-eaten saints, with mouldy breath
Unwashed legions with the ways of Death
Are you wash in the Blood of the Lamb

Every slum had sent its half a score
The round world over, Booth had groaned for more
Every banner that the wide world flies
Bloomed in glory and transcendent dyes
Loons with trumpets blowed a blare, blare blare
On, on upward through that golden air
Big-voiced lasses made their banjos bang
Tranced, fanatical they shrieked and sang:
Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?

Are you washed in the Blood of the Lamb
Made clean, by the great I AM
Are you part of the promise made to Father Abraham
Are you washed in the Blood of the Lamb
When the saints go marching in that promised Land
Will you be a part of that Holy Band, Are you washed ....?

Jesus came out from the courthouse door
Stretched his hands above the passing poor
Booth saw not but led his queer ones there
Round and round the mighty courthouse square
Then in an instant all that blear review
Marched on spotless clad in raiment new
The lame were straitened, withered limbs uncurled
And blind eyes opened on a new, sweet world
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?

Are you washed in the Blood of the Lamb
Made clean, by the great I AM
Are you part of the promise made to Father Abraham
Are you washed in the Blood of the Lamb
When the saints go marching in that promised Land
Will you be a part of that Holy Band, Are you washed ....?

And when Booth halted by the curb for prayer
He saw his master thru the flag filled air
Christ came gently with a robe and crown
For Booth the soldier while the throng knelt down
He saw King Jesus, they were face to face
And he knelt there weeping in that Holy Place

Drabs and vixens in a flash made whole
Gone was the weasel-head the snout the jowl
Sages and sibyls now, and athletes clean
Rulers of empires and forests green
The hosts were sandaled and their wings were fire
But their noise played havoc with the angel choir
O shout salvation it was good to see
Kings and rulers by the lamb made free
Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?

Are you washed in the Blood of the Lamb
Made clean, by the great I AM
Are you part of the promise made to Father Abraham
Are you washed in the Blood of the Lamb
When the saints go marching in that promised Land
Will you be a part of that Holy Band, Are you washed ....?

Joining the Triumph of the Skies, a devotional thought

What between re-reading The ScrewTape Letters this month, preaching Revelation 12:1-7 last week, and getting ready for our upcoming Christmas Eve celebrations in a few days, I find I have, of all things, angels on the brain these days.

'Tis the season, I guess.

I've been thinking, especially, about the opening chapters of Hebrews, which has more biblical data on the angels concentrated in one place, than pretty much any other passage in the Bible.  It's kind of ironic, in a way, because the real point it's trying to make is that, as the un-created, incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ is superior in every way to the angels. But in proving how much-more-awesomer Jesus is than any angel, the book of Hebrews happens also to say some fascinating things about angels themselves: that they exist primarily to worship God (just like us-- verse 1:6), that they are God's "ministers of fire" (1:7), that they are ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation (1:14), and that "for a little while" God made humans lower than the angels, though, presumably, we won't always be so (see 1 Corinthians 6:3 on this one).

Except for this most wonderful time of the year, when cutsie cherubim and dove-winged seraphim lurk amid the lyrics of the seasonal shopping mall muzak wafting over us as we rush about, we moderns don't really think about angels too much. The Scriptures, however, take them quite seriously and treat them quite respectfully (more often than not, a biblical encounter with an angelic being leaves you flat on your face in fear...). (Not just the Scriptures, either; last summer I read a book called "Lifted by Angels" (Joel Miller) which laid out the Early Church's very earnest, very sober conviction that angels do indeed walk among us.)

All this is to say that I'm praying this last week of Advent, that God would keep me mindful of the fact that there is more going on in heaven and earth than is dreamed of in my philosophy, and even as I keep my eyes fixed firmly on Jesus, who is, of course, far superior than any creature in heaven, on earth, or under the earth, angelic or otherwise (I was listening, author of Hebrews...) even as I keep my gaze on him, may he remind me that his chariots of fire are indeed encamped around every hill and valley I walk through.

Celebrate, a song

Another song from Accidentals. It's not specifically a Christmas song, but given we are in the middle of the "Joy Week" for advent, a song of celebration is perhaps fitting. My daughter tells me I plagiarized Beethoven in the bridge, but I insisted it's more properly called "an homage." Either way, enjoy!



I glory in your glory
I love you cause you loved me
And you alone are holy
And you alone reached down and lifted me

Let a thousand bells clap their tongues
Let a thousand trumpets lift their voice
Let a thousand cymbals crash
Let a thousand voices shout it
Let a thousand hearts be lifted up

I sing a song of celebration
I cry the chorus in the congregation
Announce anew among every generation
That you are the Lord

I sing a song of celebration
I cry the chorus in the congregation
Announce anew among every generation
That you are the Lord
That you are the Lord

I glory in your glory
I love you cause you loved me
And you alone are holy
And you alone reached down and lifted me

Let a thousand bells clap their tongues
Let a thousand trumpets lift their voice
Let a thousand cymbals crash
Let a thousand voices shout it
Let a thousand hearts be lifted up

I sing a song of celebration
I cry the chorus in the congregation
Announce anew among every generation
That you are the Lord

I sing a song of celebration
I cry the chorus in the congregation
Announce anew among every generation
That you are the Lord
That you are the Lord

Joyful, joyful we adore Thee,
God of glory Lord of Love
Hearts unfold like flowers before thee,
Opening to the sun above

Best. Birth. Ever. A devotional thought

In Hebrews 2 we find one of those mind-bogglingly rich passages that, though they may not make it into a Charlie Brown Christmas special, bring us face to face with the True Meaning of Christmas himself.  After establishing that: 1) Jesus is far superior to any angel, and 2) humans, for the time being, are lower than the angels, the author of Hebrews goes on to make this remarkable claim: that Jesus didn't take on any angelic nature, but he took on our human nature instead (2:16), and he did it especially so that, by his death, he might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil (2:14).

The fancy theological word for this, of course, is incarnation.  What hits you when you let it, is that for the writer of the Hebrews, Jesus' Incarnation was an essential part of our salvation.  The incarnation was not just a "means to the cross" where the "real" salvation happened. Jesus' incarnation was, in itself, part of God's great saving act.  Jesus became a "partaker" of our human nature (2.14), so that we might become "partakers" of his heavenly nature (3:1, and 3:14... the same word, "partaker" is used there to describe our union with Jesus).

Like one of the ancient theologians put it, "He became like us, so that we might become like him".

This is deep stuff, of course, but not so deep after all.  Because by the end of the discussion, the writer of Hebrews has gotten intensely practical.  Because Jesus was made like us in every way (2:17), even to the point of being tempted like us in every way (4:15), he is now able to help us when we are tempted (2:18).  One of the rubber-meets-the-road implications of the incarnation is that God knows what it is you're going through today... literally, he knows what it is you're going through ... because whatever it is, in the Incarnation of his son Jesus, he himself has gone through it.  If the writer of Hebrews can be trusted, there is no corner of your life before God that Jesus himself hasn't taken on himself and lived through perfectly, to the point where he is now able to reach back, or down, or out, or whatever spatial metaphor you want to use, to reach after you, and draw you through it to himself.

May God will give us all both strength and peace in that knowledge this Christmas.

Death Be Not Proud, a song

Another song from "Accidentals."  This one is based on a sonnet by one of my favorite poets, John Donne.  "Death be not proud, though some have called thee mighty" is how the poem goes.  There's also a reference to Dylan Thomas's poem "And Death Shall Have No Dominion" in there.  The melody was vaguely inspired by the song the blind railroad man is singing in the movie "O Brother Where Art Thou," and stylistically I was going for something in between a child's lullaby and B. B. King playing the blues. 

Well, if you can't imagine what a 16th Century Metaphysical Poet, a 20th Century Welshman, the Cohen Brothers and B. B. King might sound like if they collaborated on a song, give this one a listen:


 O, death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty, for I know thou are not so

Death, triumph not so loud, though thou might sting me
The seed when it’s sown must die for it to grow

And when I wander through your valley
I will not fear
For his rod and staff will comfort me
His presence is near

O Death, see the blood on my door post
My heart is purified, pass me by

So, death, thou shalt have, no dominion
When he comes for me, Death thou shalt die

For you were swallowed up in victory
When you pierced his heel
And he has conquered your indignity
No longer will you steal

O death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty, for I know thou are not so

Singing a Songful of the Holy Spirit, a devotional thought

As we continue our Advent journey through the opening chapters of Luke, we come to Zechariah's song in Luke 1:67-80, and with it the curious connection between our obedience, on the one hand, and God's filling us with his Holy Spirit, on the other.  In 1:67, it says that Zechariah was "filled with the Holy Spirit," and then he launches into one of the most joyful, thrilling and poetic expressions of praise in all of Luke's Gospel (rivaled only, perhaps, by Mary's Song, in verses 46-55).

What stands out when you read closely, however, is that this filling-with-the-Holy-Spirit happens only after he obeys the Lord, and, more importantly, it happens immediately after his obedience. In v. 61-62, they were trying to figure out what to name baby John the Baptist, and because Zechariah was mute (a result of his disbelief back in v.19), no one's quite sure what to call him. Zechariah, it says, "motioned for a writing tablet and wrote out, 'His name is John.'" Notice that this is in direct obedience to what God told him to do back in verse 13, even though no one in his family is named John, and it would have been a radical break from the cultural custom (see v.61).

The point is: Zechariah's being obedient here, and in verse 64, it says, "Immediately after this his mouth was opened and he started praising God." The way it's worded it sure sounds like the song in verses 67-79 is the "praising" he offered up immediately after his mouth was opened-- he was filled with the Spirit (v.67) and the first thing he said was, "Praise be to God!"

When you connect all these dots, you can't help but notice that: 1) for Zechariah, filling with the Holy Spirit depended on his obedience, and 2) his filling with the Spirit followed immediately and irresistibly after his obedience. Anyone who really wants a deeper and fuller filling with the Holy Spirit in their life would do well to give Zechariah's Advent Song a careful, reflective listen.  If Zechariah's example is any indication, we will only be filled with God's Spirit if, and when, and to the degree that, we are obedient to Him.

 May God give grace for us to be so.

Great Paradox, a song

I did not originally write this as a Christmas song, per se, but it occurs to me that the lyrics are about as fitting this time a year as anything I've written. I'm posting it today simply as the next track in my song-by-song tour of my latest recording project, "Accidentals," but seasonally, as a musical meditation for advent, it works too.  Happy listening.



O great paradox, how I marvel
How I wonder at the mystery of your love
Emptied of your glory
You brought your glory down to us
How marvel, how I wonder, how I marvel at your love

You are prophet and the word
Humble servant and the Lord
Holy God and his perfect sacrifice
Both the shepherd and the lamb
Son of God and son of man
Both the resurrection, and the life

O great paradox, how I marvel
How I wonder at the mystery of your love
Emptied of your glory
You brought your glory down to us
How marvel, how I wonder, how I marvel at your love

You are water turned to wine
Both the firstfruit and the vine
Living rock, become the living bread
You’re the greatest made the least
Both our offering and priest
And you gave your life as ransom for the dead

O great paradox, how I marvel
How I wonder at the mystery of your love
Emptied of your glory
You brought your glory down to us
How marvel, how I wonder, how I marvel at your love

And like a circle, whose centre is everywhere
Whose edge is infinity, whose radius is love
You sustain the universe, and yet you died for me
O beautiful contradiction, that made my sin your victory
How I marvel at your love.

O great paradox, how I marvel
How I wonder at the mystery of your love
Emptied of your glory
You brought your glory down to us
How marvel, how I wonder, how I marvel at your love

Tidings of Comfort and Joy, a devotional thought

You can't get very far into Luke's gospel without noticing how downright joyful everyone is, or becomes, as they prepare for the Messiah's arrival.  You've got thrilled Elizabeth, crying out in a loud voice (v. 41), Mary bursting out into spontaneous song (v. 46), and Zechariah, too (v. 67) overflowing with joy.  Even little fetal John the Baptist, as yet unborn, is leaps with delight in his mother's womb (v. 44).  Like a cheerful chime, the word "joy" it self rings out clearly and compellingly on nearly every page.

As someone who has had some very dark struggles in the past with joy's polar opposite, it occurs to me here that the arrival of Jesus on the scene--whatever the particular scene may be--is an occasion for, and a source of, deep down joy. Not frivolity, or flippancy, or humor even, but biblical joy: an overflowing contentment in him, that bubbles up in self-abandonment (v. 38), rich fellowship (v. 40), heart-songs (v. 46) and maybe even the odd dance or two (v. 41).

At the risk of sounding like Scrooge, let me point out the irony here, that so many of us experience the weeks leading up to Christmas as a series of frantic Black Fridays, one after the other.  Syrupy Christmas Muzak and Seasonal Sentimentality puts a ruthless finger on the raw nerve of what we don't have, who we're not with, our unfulfilled longings for the perfect Christmas that no one's ever had, and we find ourselves, if not joyless, certainly too exhausted to be joyful.

At the risk of sounding like a naive Tiny Tim, let me also offer a Christmas wish.  May this advent season be a Luke Chapter 1 kind of advent, where we experience a deeper filling with the Holy Spirit (there's a lot of that going on in Chapter 1, too-- v. 15, v. 35, v. 41, v. 67) and in Him, the contented Joy that is ever attendant on the coming of the Messiah.

Christ's Comet: an analogy for the local church

As a pastor, I have often found the image of a comet to be a helpful framework for thinking through and reflecting on the various levels of participation in church life that one sees among the people connected to any given local church, from Christmas-and-Easter Christians, on the one hand, to fully devoted day-in-and-day-out disciples on the other.

In case you've never seen one before, let me explain.  A comet is a beautiful moving object in the night sky with three basic parts: the nucleus, the coma and the tail. The "coma" is a glowing cloud around the nucleus, that the nucleus creates as it moves through space, and the "tail" is the luminescent stream of gases that the nucleus leaves behind it on its journey. What's important to note, for our purposes, is that it's the movement of the comet’s nucleus which creates the coma and the tail, and makes it shine so brightly.

Here’s a diagram:


Let me point out the parallels here, for starters.  The local church is like this in that ideally it, too, is moving—that is, it is on mission for Jesus and going from point A to point B, spiritually speaking, in the process.  A stationary or stagnant church, obviously, doesn’t ‘shine’ any more than a stationary comet would.   And, like a comet, it is made up of a solid core nucleus, namely, serious disciples who are genuinely committed to living out their faith in the context of day-in-and-day-out community. Without that nucleus, you've got no comet.

But here's where it gets interesting.  Because around that nucleus of disciples there's going to be a glowing “coma”—that is to say, a bunch of folks who are Christian and committed to Jesus (so they’re glowing) but they aren’t “all in” in terms of their commitment to this local congregation (i.e. they’re not part of the nucleus). They are attracted to the ministry and life of the community, they participate in it on a more superficial level. They are, more or less, moving with the congregation, but they haven’t yet made a deep commitment.

Then there are folks who are in “the tail”—that is, they are Christmas-and-Easter types, maybe, or perhaps they are they are the spouse of a member of the church.  It could be that they were once involved but in various ways have dropped off. They may not even be Christians, but they still have a residual “glow,” because they were or are in contact with the nucleus. However, they’re not really “moving with” the nucleus (or if they are, they’re moving much more slowly).  Every church community, whether they realize it or not, has a "tail" like this.


Like I say, as a pastor, I find this a helpful image for thinking about church life.  Ideally, my work as a pastor helps people in the tail move up into the coma, and people in the coma move up into the nucleus. When people in the nucleus break off into the coma, I do what I can to keep them from dropping into the tail.  I sometimes find it helpful, even, in pastoral work, to ask myself "where in the comet" is this person, and then shape my pastoral response accordingly.

So it's a useful visual, to be sure.

But, here’s the reason I find the comet analogy especially helpful: because for the comet to be a comet (and for it to shine brightly in the night sky) it actually needs the coma and the tail along with the nucleus.

Every local church needs all three.

Of course, you can’t have a tail and a coma without a nucleus, anymore than you can have a church without a core of serious, committed disciples who are moving in the direction of Jesus. However, that nucleus won’t “glow” unless it has a coma and a tail—just like the church won’t “glow” if it doesn’t have an aura of seekers, neighbours, Christians who are not quite “there” yet, etc.—people who are participating in the community at various levels of commitment, but they haven’t made a covenant or membership commitment to this local church.

Sometimes church leaders can be tempted to despair over the "commitment level" of people in their community (and to be sure, the ideal movement is always "up into the nucleus" through deeper commitment and fuller devotion to Jesus), but the thing to understand is that a church without any loosely-committed adherents is like a comet without a coma or a tail.  And just to beat the analogy to death: the movement of the nucleus actually creates a coma/tail; it's inevitable, even, dare I say, desirable.  In the same way, the mission of the church’s core will create a coma and a tail of people who are more-or-less moving with the church but not quite “all in.”

It's inevitable.  Even desirable.  Because a church that doesn’t have this happening, is probably not moving that much on mission, and probably isn't, actually, shining too brightly for Jesus.

Walk on Water, a song

Another song from my new album, Accidentals, this tune, called "Walk on Water," is a song I wrote the summer my family and I sold everything and moved from Alberta to Saskatchewan so I could study to become a pastor.  It was a real "step out of the boat" moment for me, and the song was my attempt to express both the trepidation and the anticipation I had as we started this new chapter of our journey with Jesus.




I will walk on water,
if you ask me to
I will wander the white waves and
Wade through the storm to walk next to you

I know that you have sent me
Without a wallet or shoes
And though the waves crash around me
I will walk them with you

I will walk on water,
if you ask me to
I will wander the white waves and
Wade through the storm to walk next to you

I know that you have sent me
A lamb surrounded by wolves
I know that you will make
As shrewd as a snake but as pure as a dove

I will walk on water,
if you ask me to
I will wander the white waves and
Wade through the storm to walk next to you

So now, I leave my people
Turn from my home and my land
The road winds narrow and steep, o
But I’m led by your loving hand

Careful What You Ask For, a devotional thought

As we head into the Advent season, preparing for Christmas and all, I thought it might be worth spending some time looking at the opening chapters of Luke, and the stuff God was doing there and then, to get people ready for the birth of his Son.  So, for the next few weeks here at terra incognita, we'll be using the Luke's nativity material for our weekly devotional thoughts.

And it all starts with Luke 1:1-38, and a subtle warning to be careful what you ask for, when it comes to asking God for a sign.   In case you forget the story, or haven't heard it before: in the opening verses of Luke, an angel appears to Zechariah the priest, and tells him he's going to be father to John the Baptist.  Inasmuch as he and his wife are past the age of child-bearing, he finds this hard to believe and asks for a sign (literally, he asks, "how can I be sure of this?")  So Gabriel tells him that he won't be able to speak from that point on, until the child's born "because you did not believe."

Now: I always figured this was sort of a punishment, or a consequence of Zechariah's unbelief, but this morning it struck me that, at the same time, Zechariah's receiving the very thing he asked for: his supernatural muteness is in fact the sign he asked for, that the angel's words will indeed come true.

It got me thinking of times I've asked for a sign from God (recently, in fact, I've been praying this for some particular things in my life...) and it sort of occurred to me that, if and when God responds, if may not be at all what I'm expecting.  The sign may turn out to be something difficult to bear (as Zechariah's muteness must have been for him), and the way God carries me through the difficult thing (whatever it may be) may be the sign that he's up to something big, just round the corner, and his promises are right there on the cusp of being fulfilled.  This is, after all, what Zechariah's muteness was "signifying" for him, that salvation was about to break over horizon of the world.

May we all have the grace and the wisdom to receive the signs of God's good work in my life for what they are, even when they're not easy to bear.

Seven, a song

Here's another song from "Accidentals."  It started as a sort of musical experiment for me; I was trying to write a song in 7/4 time.  Then the significance of the number 7 in the scriptures sort of occurred to me, and I thought: what better topic for a song in 7/4 time, than the number 7 itself?  I posted an older recording of this song a long time ago, with some reflections on musical diversity in worship (you can read those thoughts here).  This is a brand new recording and a slightly more polished arrangement.  Enjoy.



Seven stars in your right hand
Seven lamps at your feet
Seven thunders in the heavens
Seven, the number of your majesty

Seven bowls of your judgment
Seven seals of your mystery
Seven trumpets of your justice
Seven, the number of your victory

Perfect in grace, prime in glory
Holy your name, pure your love

Seven colours in your covenant
Seven seventies your mystery
Seven feasts to remember you
Seven, the number of your love for me

Seven times in the Jordan
Seven times to deliver me
Seven the number of your purity
Seven hours on the cross for me

Perfect in grace, prime in glory
Holy your name, pure your love

Seven, the number of your purity
Seven seals to your mystery
Seven, the number of your victory
Seven hours on the cross for me

Perfect in grace, prime in glory
Holy your name, pure your love

Down to the Last Cent, a devotional thought

Warning, half-baked thoughts ahead.  

Because in my devotions this morning I read that very famous story in Mark about a widow who gives  two pennies into the Temple treasury, while all the rich are giving loonies (essentially), and Jesus says, "I tell you the truth, this poor widow gave more than all the others, because they gave out of their wealth, but she gave everything she has" (Mark 12:44).

I've read this story before, but today I noticed that it comes right after Jesus has finished denouncing the Teachers of the Law because they "devour widow's houses..." (v.40).  So there's two references to widows back to back.  But there's also two references to Teachers of the Law back to back, because right before Mark 12:40, another Teacher of the Law asks Jesus what's the greatest commandment, and he says, "To love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbour as yourself."

The generous widow here, I think, is not just being held up as an example to *random* rich people (though they are implicated...) She's being held up as an example to the Teachers of the Law, in particular, who who split hairs over which commandment is greatest, and then turn around and violate the first and foremost commandment by gobbling up the homes of the likes of her.... using their wealth and their legalistic righteousness to justify their economic exploitation of others.

Back in verse 29, Jesus told a Teacher of the Law that the most important commandment is to love God and love your neighbour, and here in verse 43, he points out the self-giving of a powerless widow, sitting lowest of all on the socio-economic totem pole, as the best example of what that actually looks like.  But here are some thoughts that bob to the surface when you connect all these dots: if the Teachers of the Law really got it what the greatest commandment *was* (v. 29-3), they wouldn't "devour the homes of the widows" (v.40), would they? And then that widow's two pennies wouldn't be "everything she had to live on."  Would it?  This story is as much a condemnation of spiritual-economic exploitation as it is an exhortation to give generously (probably more so).

Loving God with all your heart is not some abstract, immaterial, touchy-feely type-thing.  It actually looks like that impoverished widow in the Temple treasury that day, literally putting it all on the line with God and trusting him to provide.  But the thing is, if *we all* got that, and did it with her, then she wouldn't be down to her last two pennies, would she?

Miriam Triumphant, a song

Another song from my latest album, "Accidentals."  A song I wrote almost a decade ago about women in ministry and leadership in the life of the church.  I wanted to save it for the International Women's Day, but that's not till March, and I want to celebrate today.  I am grateful to God for the many godly women, past and present, that he has given his church as examples of what it means to be a courageous, Spirit-fulled, fully devoted follower of Jesus.





You are, you are Miriam Triumphant,
Dancing before the congregation
Leading God’s people in a song of victory
The horse and rider fell into the sea

You are, you are Deborah the valiant
Calling God’s people to the battle
Leading his captains in a march of victory
Judging from your sea beneath the tree

Let the daughters of our Father shout Hallelujah!
Let the children of our God say amen
Let the handmaids of the master usher in his kingdom
Let His spirit on our sons and daughters
Pour out in abundance
Let His vision fill the eyes of our women and our men
Let the children of our God say amen

You are, you are Mary in the morning
Seeking the tomb with your spices
Finding him shining in the light of victory
Proclaiming the news for all to see

You are, you are Phoebe the servant
Working with the gospel of salvation
A sister, commended with the light of victory
Sent by God to set the captives

Let the daughters of our Father shout Hallelujah!
Let the children of our God say amen
Let the handmaids of the master usher in his kingdom
Let His spirit on our sons and daughters
Pour out in abundance
Let His vision fill the eyes of our women and our men

Let the children of our God say amen

Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained, a devotional thought

Mark 10:29-30 is one of those verses I think about a lot: whatever sacrifices you've made for the sake of the Gospel, Jesus tells his followers, whether it be houses, property, family, friends, reputation or a secure future, God will pay you back 100 times in this life (with persecution) and with eternity in the life to come. 

The part that makes me think is how he says, they'll receive their sacrifices back one-hundred-fold in this life, not just in the life to come. I wonder what he means here. I get the idea that God will repay our sacrifices on the other side of eternity, but how in this life? Is it even right for us to expect repayment in this life? The best I can make of this verse is that, inasmuch as the sacrifices he's described have to do with one's place in community--family, friends, reputation, wealth, and so on--the 100-fold repayment he's talking about must be the alternate community that God offers us in the Gospel: the friends in Christ, the family in Christ, the reputation in Christ and the wealth in Christ that is our through our life in the Church, regardless the persecutions that come from the world.

This makes sense, but doesn't make it any easier. Because instead of wondering "how will God reward our sacrifices in this life?" it gets me wondering a deeper, even harder thing: is the community I'm part of really a 100-times-better swap for worldly friends, family, wealth and status? I mean: would people counting the cost of following Christ look at what's going on in my community of faith, and really say, "yeah, that's more than ample repayment for what I'd have to give up"?  And, hot on the heels of that wondering comes this: what's my role (by the Spirit) in making it so?

Little Country Church, a song

Almost 20 years ago now, my wife Dani and I woke up one Sunday morning in January, looked at each other and said, "Maybe we should try going to church today..."  It was the last day of Christmas holidays, and the next day I would be going back to my job as an English teacher at the local High School; I had been drifting, spiritually, for a lot of years, and feeling especially overwhelmed by work.  We were expecting our first child, and, like Dani put it, "When this little life starts asking serious questions, we need to have good answers."  

Anyways, it was maybe a convalescence of a lot factors, not to mention the mysterious and inexorable Hand of Providence, leading us, unawares, by our young and uncertain hands, but for whatever the reason, we felt that morning that church just might make the difference we needed in our lives. Twenty years and counting, later, I can honestly say it did, it has; not just the church, of course, but the God we met there.  It was a little country church in a small town in north-eastern Alberta called "Two Hills Fellowship Chapel" (the two hills in questions was the name of the town) and even today when I hear the expression "salt of the earth," my mind goes inevitably to the folks we met there, who loved us and introduced us to Jesus and discipled us in his Ways.  

This is a song I wrote the summer we moved away from Two Hills, back in 2004, when we finally answered God's call on our lives to go into full time ministry.  The country and western style is a bit of a stylistic departure for me, but I felt it was apropos to the subject matter.  I'm sharing it today as the fifth song on my most recent recording project, "accidentals," but also, and more importantly, as a big, thankful shout-out to all the brothers and sisters in Christ at Two Hills Fellowship Chapel.  God used you all powerfully in my life and I am deeply grateful.





There’s a little church in a little town in a place where two hills meet
And though it’s been a while now, it’s in my memory
The wall were framed for fellowship, they rest upon the rock
The foundation of salvation found in God’s Holy Book
And every Sunday morning rings the bell they raised by hand
From the steeply built with care and love as a beacon in the land

I thank God for that little church, where the preacher preached the word
Where the people worked hand in hand , serving their Lord
Where the Old Time Religion still set the captives free
If it wasn’t for that little church, God knows where I’d be

And the preacher in that little church is resolved to know one thing
That’s Jesus Christ the crucified and resurrected King
And he studies to present himself, approved and unashamed
A workman with the word of truth, proclaiming Jesus’ name
For every Sunday morning when that Holy Book is read
Broken hearts were bound up and hungry hearts were fed

I thank God for that little church, where the preacher preached the word
Where the people worked hand in hand , serving their Lord
Where the Old Time Religion still set the captives free
If it wasn’t for that little church, God knows where I’d be

On a snowy day in January, I first walked through those doors
Not knowing one day I’d walk out, changed forever more
For the living stones that built that church were the world’s salt and light
And they showed me how to find my place in the body of Christ
For every Sunday morning my heart softened bit by bit
Until the living water came and saturated it

I thank God for that little church, where the preacher preached the word
Where the people worked hand in hand , serving their Lord
Where the Old Time Religion still set the captives free
If it wasn’t for that little church, God knows where I’d be

And like a lighthouse on a rock, it glimmers in the night
While the tide of darkness rises with the waning light
And like a haven for the broken, wearied from the fight
Where spirits trade their weakness for the power of Jesus’ might

I thank God for that little church, where the preacher preached the word
Where the people worked hand in hand , serving their Lord
Where the Old Time Religion still set the captives free
If it wasn’t for that little church, God knows where I’d be

Come Again? a devotional thought

In Mark 8:1-10 we have the story of the "Feeding of the Four Thousand."   This story has always made me wonder, because it's the second time Jesus has performed this specific sign in Mark's Gospel.  Back in 6:30-44 he miraculously fed 5000 people with 5 loaves and 2 fish; and then in 8:1-10, there's a hungry crowd of 4000; and the thing that gets me, is how the disciples are just as clueless this time as they were the first time.  I mean: he tells them he wants to feed the crowd, and they say almost the exact same thing they said back in Chapter 6: where will we get enough bread for everyone?  They were there in Chapter 6, when 5 loaves and 2 small fish fed 5000, and yet here, only a couple chapter's latter, they're still scratching their heads: "Gee, Jesus, how are you gonna get us out of this one?"

It's funny, right after this miracle, the Pharisees come to him, asking for a miraculous sign from heaven, and all Mark says is: "Jesus groaned deeply in his spirit" (the Greek word there is: "aarrrrghhhh!").  No wonder, though, the demand for a sign is so troubling to him: he's already done two, back to back, and no one got it, not even his disciples.  Would one more miraculous sign really make the difference?

As I reflect on all this, it strikes me that I'm as slow to learn, sometimes, as those disciples are.  I mean:  I've seen him do some pretty amazing things in my life, in the past, and still sometimes when it looks like only an amazing things is gonna get me out of whatever it is I'm facing today, still, I scratch my head and say: "Gee, Jesus, how are you going to get us out of this one?" May God remind you and I today, in a deep profound way, of the past wonders he's worked in our lives, and may that remembrance be a great source of strength for whatever you or I need to face today.

Polishing Up My Proverbs 16 Crown of Glory (Part VI): Johnny Cash and the Gifts of Old Age

I am not a huge Johnny Cash fan (though after reading this blog series on the theology of Johnny Cash, I gotta say: my esteem and curiosity both have been piqued).  There is a Johnny Cash song, however, that I think about a fair bit.  It was the last song he ever recorded, after some 50 years as a performer, and all the volatile victories and hard losses that “the Man in Black” lived through in that time.  It’s a cover of the Trent Reznor song, “Hurt.”

I am not a huge Trent Reznor fan, either, but I do know that he was the controversial front man for a hard-rock act named Nine Inch Nails, and the song “Hurt” was the last song on their 1994 album The Downward Spiral.  Whole album is a painful record of Reznor’s despairing life-reflections, shot through with themes of violence, nihilism and social deviance.  In Reznor’s own words, it’s about “somebody systematically throwing off every layer of what he’s surrounded with ... from personal relationships, to religion to questioning the whole situation.”

And like I say, this exploration of the end of all things good and bright culminates with a song called “Hurt,” a transparent lament that confesses all Reznor’s spiritual failings: deceit, drugs, destruction, self-injury.  It opens with the line, “I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel / I focus on the pain, the only thing that’s real.”  Later in the song he says: “And you could have it all / my empire of dirt / I will let you down / I will make you hurt.”

It’s all very dark stuff, but the very last line—the album’s final word after spiraling downward for a full 65 minutes and 2 seconds—is this haunting phrase: “If I could start again / a million miles away / I would keep myself / I would find a way.” Now: I admit it’s pretty faint, barely audible maybe, and I doubt Reznor himself would put this word to it, but in this final breath at the end of the album, he seems to be asking about “redemption.”

And this is where, interestingly, Johnny Cash comes in.  Because in 2003, at the age of 71, Johnny Cash covered “Hurt.”  And, while he did it in classic Johnny Cash style, still he stayed faithful to the original, with the exception of just one word. There’s a line in the song that uses a synonym for human excrement that rhymes with “spit.”  It goes: “I wear my crown of (rhymes with spit) upon my liar’s chair / full of broken thoughts / I cannot repair.”  Cash took that obscene, filthy “crown” and replaced it with this phrase:  “I wear my crown of thorns upon my liar’s chair.”  A crown of thorns for a crown of s**t.

Here’s Johnny Cash’s video for “Hurt.”  It’s interspersed with footage from his life and career: his own empire of dirt.  The video ends, poignantly, tellingly, soberly, with a scene of the crucifixion of Christ:  Cash offers that name as the answer to this hurting cry for redemption.


Cash’s one-word edit to “Hurt” becomes especially poignant, telling and sobering, if you know anything about the downward spiral that was part of his own journey (and even though I’m not a huge fan, still, I’ve heard the legends).   My friend John Coutts puts it like this: “In his version of ‘Hurt,’ Cash isn’t sugar-coating the gospel ... He simply offered his life on the public stage, called it an empire of dirt ... changed one word and pointed instead to the crown of thorns and to the Christ who gave himself to us, and for us.”

There is something really powerful going on here, I think, in Cash’s choice to make Reznor’s “Hurt” his final act.   At the MTV music video awards, “Hurt” received 6 nominations, including “video of the year.”  When Reznor himself saw it, he said: “the song isn't mine anymore. .. I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone.  [Somehow] that winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era...”

As I continue to develop a biblical theology of aging, I find Reznor’s words especially haunting and compelling.  Could this be, in the end, one of the great gifts of the old to the community of faith—offering up their stories in a way that helps the young reinterpret the music of their lives, by seeing it through the eyes of a radically different era?

Maybe.

It was certainly Johnny Cash’s gift to his community.

In an article about Cash’s musical legacy among the young, Touchstone Magazine said this about the “Hurt” video and its impact at the MTV Video Awards: “The face of Johnny Cash reminded this generation that he has tasted everything the youth cultures of multiple decades has to offer—and found there a way that leads to death. ... Nine Inch Nails delivered ‘Hurt’ as straight nihilism, but Cash gives it a twist—ending the video at the cross.  Because for him, the cross is the only answer to the inevitability of suffering and pain.”

Of course, only one who has tried the cross through a long life of faithful following, decade after uncertain decade—plumbed its depths to Hell and back over the course of many years—can say with the fullest of conviction both that pain is inevitable, and also that the cross is the only answer.  This lived-experience of the cross, too, is the blessing of the very old.

But it's not just that the cross can be trusted; Cash's "Hurt" also assures us that the cross is, in the end, needed. To put it bluntly: aging is the ultimate memento mori.

Touchstone Magazine puts it like this: “In a culture that idolizes the hormonal surges of youth, Cash reminds the young what pop culture doesn’t want them to know: ‘It is appointed to man once to die, and after this the judgement.’  His creviced face and blurring eyes remind them that there is not enough Botox in all of Hollywood to revive a corpse.”

In Psalm 90, the same one that explains how God has set the upper limits of the human life span somewhere around 80 years (90:10), it goes on to pray earnestly and humbly this prayer: "Teach us Lord to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom."  This prayer God answers, among other ways, by pointing us to those who have gone before us, the aged in the community of faith, and reminding us of where the passage of years inevitably brings us all.

So: whatever else was happening when Johnny Cash played the last note of "Hurt" and quietly closed the piano lid like a coffin for good, that was God, I think, teaching us again to number our days.  Like Johnny Cash, we will all, eventually, reach the end of the empire-building projects that are our lives.  May we, on that day, have the same kind of legacy to share with those who come next as he did: a long lifetime of putting the cross to the test.


For Dappled Things, a song

Here's another song from my album "accidentals."  It's inspired/adapted from a poem by my favorite Jesuit Priest-turned-poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins.  The original poem is called Pied Beauty, and it goes like this:


GLORY be to God for dappled things—
  For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
    For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
  Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;        5
    And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
  Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
    With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:        10
                  Praise him.

And here's my song:


On a break with Jesus, a devotional thought

There's a simple line in Mark 6:31 that reveals the spiritual camaraderie that Jesus wants for us, and with us as his friends and followers.  Earlier on in the chapter, Jesus sends out the disciples with the job of proclaiming the message of the Kingdom, and from the description of their mission, it sounds like it's going to be pretty hard rowing. Then here, a few pages later, they've returned and they're "telling him everything they did and taught in his name."

Already I find this picture so vivid and tender, Jesus gathering his friends back after a hard month or two of work, and sitting down with them as they pour out all the highs and lows of ministry. But then he says, "Come, let's go by ourselves to a desert place and rest a little." And he takes them off by themselves to a lonely place, an out of the way place, away from the press and demands of ministry, with the express purpose of resting a little.

They need it. He knows.

Of course, it won't turn out that way: the crowds track him down and follow him, but even so, it doesn't hurt to linger over his simple invitation: "It's been a lot of hard work telling people about me; come, let's find a quiet place alone and rest a bit."

Those of us in ministry--lay, vocational, bivocational, ordained or some combination of all 4--we need to hear that invitation on a regular basis, too.  "Come," he says, clapping us on the back a bit, maybe, throwing a brotherly arm around our shoulder, "Come, let's find a quiet place and rest a bit together."

May we all have the grace to take him up on his offer.

Polishing Up My Proverbs 16 Crown of Glory (Part V): Christian Community as the Fountain of Youth?

They say that Okinanwa, a small island off the southern coast of Japan, has the highest rate of centenarians in the world. Proportionally, that is to say, more people in Okinawa live beyond the age of 100 than anywhere else on the planet. Not only do people live longer in Okinawa, but they also enjoy relatively good health into their centenarian years, with the lowest rates of age-related disease—coronary heart disease, stroke, cancer and so on—of any people-group in the world.

So remarkable is the Okinawan life-expectancy, that the island has become something of a tourist attraction for the Japanese, who visit it not to lounge on the beaches or to see the sights, but specifically and expressly for a first-hand encounter with a genuine Okinawan Centenarian.  Imagine photo albums full of pictures of Japanese tourists doing the say-cheese-finger-V-thing, next to a bunch of Okinawan senior citizens, and you’ll get the idea.

Scientists have been scratching their heads over the phenomenon of Okinawan longevity for a while now. What, in particular, do the Okinawan people have going for them, that they are able to live so well for so long, well after the rest of the world, on average, has succumbed to the aches and pains of old age?

There are probably a number of active ingredients in the Okinawan elixir of youth. Caloric restriction and healthy diet seem to play a role (Okinawans simply eat less food than most Westerners, and what they do eat is mostly plants).  Genetics and lifestyle are also factors (Okinawans are much more active throughout their lives, well into their senior years).

But in a study of Okinawan longevity that I read recently, a crucial factor stood out to me for special consideration, especially as it relates to my interest in developing a theology of aging. Put simply: Okinawan culture places a high value on old age. Rather than seeing it as the beginning of the end, Okinawans see old age as a badge of honour and a cause for celebration. Rather than shuffling the aged off to out of the way “homes” where they are left to live out their final years with other seniors, Okinawans make all kinds of space for the elderly in their communities, their families, their society. Rather than being treated like an inconvenience, the aged are cherished, respected, and, above all, embedded in the broader community.

Okinawans who have passed their 100th birthday, in particular, are given a great degree of freedom, respect and license.  The centenarian years are viewed as a “second childhood”; and not in a condescending way, but in a permissive way, similar to how young children are humoured and admired and cherished as a vital part of the community.  As I understand it, it’s not uncommon for the younger generation actually to vie with one another for the honour of getting to care for their centenarians in their old age.

Could it really be that growing old happens best in cultures that wisely embrace aging, that view it with healthy respect, even appreciation, that warmly and ungrudgingly welcome the fact of getting old, and have learned to celebrate the simple achievement of living long and well?

The mystery of Okinawan longevity suggests it’s so.

And so, of course, does the Bible.  It’s not for nothing  that the Torah instructs us to stand in the presence of the elderly (Leviticus 19:32).  And it’s not for nothing that the New Testament instructs the young to cherish the old with special deference (See: 1 Timothy 5:1, 1 Peter 5:5) and further instructs the old to share the gifts of their age and experience generously with the young (see 1 John 2:13).

In the broadest strokes, the Bible paints a picture of a community where old age is seen as a profound spiritual resource, and where the bonds between young and old are strong and rich and reciprocal; and in that picture we see the spiritual flourishing of young and old alike, the thriving of community as a whole, a little glimpse of shalom.

A church with a robust, biblical theology of aging, I think, will adopt an attitude towards old age more like that of the Okinawan people—where the community makes much space and affords much dignity to the old—and less like that of the West—where the practice is, by and large, to remove the very old from community whenever the realities of old age become too great an inconvenience.  To “stand in the presence of the elderly,” today, as a Christian, is to resist this modern, Western impulse to segregate by generation, and to do all we can to maintain those strong, rich, reciprocal bonds between young and old that are so vital to a shalom-oriented community.

We may actually find, in doing so, that our own experience of growing old becomes one filled with health and wisdom and vitality and joy.


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Count it Loss (St Paul Blues), a song

Here's another song from my recent recording project "Accidentals." This one's about as straight-ahead a twelve bar blues tune as I've ever written.  I'd had the music floating around in my head for a long time, and one day I sort of got thinking of what the Apostle Paul might sing, if he were to sing the blues.  After riffing lyrically on a few lines from his letters, this is what I came up with. I call it "Count it Loss," or, with my tongue in my cheek, "St Paul Blues."  
 
I count it loss, whatever was gain
I count it loss, whatever was gain
I count it loss, whatever was gain
I count it loss, whatever was gain
For the sake of knowing Christ, just to bear his name

He called me to take up my cross
He called me to take up my cross
He called me to take up my cross
He called me to take up my cross
And the treasures of this earth, just to count them loss

He promised me a glory crown
He promised me a glory crown
He promised me a glory crown
He promised me a glory crown
And He took my burdens up, just to lay them down

I count it loss, whatever was gain
I count it loss, whatever was gain
I count it loss, whatever was gain
I count it loss, whatever was gain
For the sake of knowing Christ, just to bear his name

I will not boast in anything
I will not boast in anything
I will not boast in anything
I will not boast in anything
Except the love of Christ, he’s my lord and King

I count it loss, whatever was gain
I count it loss, whatever was gain
I count it loss, whatever was gain
I count it loss, whatever was gain
For the sake of knowing Christ, just to bear his name

The One Needful Thing, a devotional thought

Before he sends them out to preach the Message of the Kingdom in Mark 6, Jesus gives his disciples these specific directions: "Take nothing for the journey except your staff, no bread, no bag, no money in your belts.  Wear sandals but not an extra tunic ..."  What stands out to me here is how these travel arrangements would have required his followers to, on the one hand, depend entirely on the provision of God in the moment; and on the other hand, to stay fully in the here and now.  The extra tunic would be handy after the first one wears out.  The bag of money would be useful if and when the next meal isn't quick to come along.  And so on.

The idea, of course, is that the Message of the Kingdom is so urgent, so pressing, that any preoccupation with "tomorrow's necessities" shouldn't and can't distract us from this work in the here and now.  (This actually puts Jesus teaching in Matthew 6 about not worrying for tomorrow into sharp relief: could the "worry about tomorrow" he’s talking about there be the stuff that distracts us from the urgency of doing Kingdom work today?

It’s tempting to dismiss Jesus's directions in Mark 6 with a "that was then, this is now" kind of of nonchalance, but actually, sending them out without money in the bag in that historical era, when 3 square meals were even harder to come by than they are now, would have sounded just as radical then as it does today.  It gets you thinking about the "provisions for tomorrow" that we so often trust in, and the way these things may in fact be distracting us from the good work Jesus has called us to do today.   At least, it should. But it should also leave us praying that God will keep our hearts focused on what is most needful in the here and now.

The Streets of Babylon, a song

Here's the next track from my most recent recording project, "Accidentals." I wrote this song almost 10 years ago now, one Sunday afternoon, after hearing Revelation 18:1-5 being read in church. I had Bob Dylan's "Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" echoing in my mind as I wrote, and was trying for that same sort of haunting, apocalyptic protest. I hardly think, of course, that I've even come close to Bob Dylan's prophetic vividness, let alone St. John the Divine's, but still, for what it's worth, I give you, "The Streets of Babylon":



I went walking, I went walking, through the streets of Babylon
Through her highways, through her alleys, in the streets of Babylon
I saw people, lost and broken on the streets of Babylon
I went walking, I went walking, though the streets of Babylon

And the people, and the people, on the streets of Babylon
They were dazzled, they were blinded by the lights of Babylon
And the pipers and the dancers seduced and led them on
They were wandering they were wand’ring on the streets of Babylon

And I heard a voice call to me, O Woe to Babylon
She is blind she is broken she is lost and forsaken
O woe to Babylon
Come out of her, O my children, flee to my arms
Be set apart, holy pure on the streets of Babylon

I saw merchants, I saw merchants, on the streets of Babylon
They were glutted in the luxury of the wealth of Babylon
And they bartered and they traded for the souls of Babylon
I saw merchants, I saw merchants on the streets of Babylon

And I heard a voice call to me, O Woe to Babylon
She is blind she is broken she is lost and forsaken
O woe to Babylon
Come out of her, O my children, flee to my arms
Be set apart, holy pure on the streets of Babylon

And the princes and the rulers they were drunk on Babylon
In her riches, in her power, on the wine of Babylon
Though the writing of her judgment was written on the wall
They paraded their corruption through the streets of Babylon

And I heard a voice call to me, O Woe to Babylon
She is blind she is broken she is lost and forsaken
O woe to Babylon
Come out of her, O my children, flee to my arms
Be set apart, holy pure on the streets of Babylon

Holiness Then and Now, a devotional thought

You can't study Jesus's life and ministry for long without noticing how often he confronts the prevailing notions of "holiness" in his day, which seemed to focus especially on ritual cleanliness and cultural purity. In 1st Century Judaism, that is to say, the "holy" were, in particular, the "clean" and the "separate," and whatever else Jesus was about, he seemed intent on pulling the rug out from underneath this superficial understanding of what made God's people holy.

We see a prime example of this in Mark Chapter 5, where Jesus performs three powerful healing miracles back to back. First, he exorcises a legion of demons from a man living out in the Gerasene cemetery; then (unbeknownst to him) he heals a woman who has been suffering 12 years from constant hemorrhaging; and finally, he resuscitates a dead girl, the daughter of a local synagogue leader. The thematic thread that ties all of these stories together is the compelling glimpse we get of Jesus, standing without apology or squeamishness, among the "unclean."

Think about it: the Gerasene demoniac is a) a non-Jew, living b) in the cemetery, and c) among the swine-herds, all of which would have made him repulsively "unclean" according to the Jewish customs of the time. Likewise, the bleeding woman have been considered ritually unclean by any 1 Century Jew who knew the Book of Leviticus well. So too the dead girlfor a Jew, contact with a dead body also led to ritual uncleanness.  In one short chapter we come across pigs and pagans, disease and demons, blood and bodies. It's hard to imagine a less-clean travel itinerary, and yet Jesusthe holy, pure, Son of Godmoves calmly, assuredly and altogether unperturbedly amid it all.

Again, what strikes me here is the way Jesus's Kingdom of God ministry so directly challenged the notions of holiness and unholiness, cleanness and uncleanness, purity and impurity that were woven deep down into the religious fabric of his world. And it leaves me wondering: what deep-seeded notions of "cleanness" and "uncleanness" are at work in my own heart, determining who I have contact with and who I don't, who I will embrace and who I won't?

When I start to ask those questions, I feel a nagging suspicion that his Kingdom challenge is as much for me now as it was for "them" back then.

Sow the Wind, a song

Every fall I try to do a recording project of original songs, as a way of challenging myself to continually grow in my musicianship and songwriting skills.  This year's album is a collection of blues, country and rock inspired songs, most of which I've had in my notebooks for years but never really found a good home for.  I'm calling it "Accidentals."  You can check out the whole album over at bandcamp, if you're interested, but in the meantime, I'm planning to blog my way through the songs over the next few months here at terra incognita.

This first song goes back almost 10 years; I wrote it mostly as a satirical protest against the noise, pace and flash of contemporary culture, and partly as a comment on the church's acquiescence to it all.  For what it's worth, I give you:

Sow the Wind 



Let the lights shine bright enough
I won’t have to use my eyes, and
Let them sparkle, let them burn
I won’t have to see

Let the song scream loud enough
I won’t have to use my ears and
Let it thunder let it roar
I won’t have to hear

Sow the wind, abandon the light
Reap the whirlwind inherit the night
Sow the wind, abandon the light
Reap the whirlwind inherit the night

Let my heart race fast enough
I won’t have to stop and think and
Let it shudder, let it thrill
I won’t have to feel

Let the gold gleam glittering
I won’t have to look away and
Let it fill me to the brim,
I won’t have to die

Sow the wind, abandon the light
Reap the whirlwind inherit the night
Sow the wind, abandon the light
Reap the whirlwind inherit the night

Our cisterns are all broken, the reservoir is rust
The water’s black and muddied now, and the well is filled with dust

Sow the wind, abandon the light
Reap the whirlwind inherit the night
Sow the wind, abandon the light
Reap the whirlwind inherit the night

Polishing Up My Proverbs 16 Crown of Glory (Part IV): A Biblical Theory of Aging

It turns out that no one really knows why we age, exactly. To be clear: growing old is simply a matter of the chronological passage of time. That much is understood. But why we age—why, that is, our bodies should change, and especially, deteriorate as we grow old, why skin should lose its elasticity and eyesight its precision, why muscles should lose their tone and bones their density and mental processes their alacrity—medical science does not have an especially penetrating explanation for this.

In the words of that old Iron Maiden song (yes, Iron Maiden; kids, back in my day, the rockers were also the philosophers...): “There’s a time to live, but isn’t it strange that as soon as we’re born we’re dying.”

But why?

Why shouldn’t our cells be able to reproduce indefinitely? Why shouldn’t bones continually maintain their density, or muscles their tone? Why shouldn’t accumulated experience just keep sharpening our mental processes without end or limit?

Science can’t say, exactly.

At least, according to Doctor Andrew Weil, one of America’s leading gerontologists, science can’t. To be sure, there are theories. In his book, Healthy Aging, Dr. Weil surveys some of the best.

There’s the “Genetic Loss” theory of aging, for instance. Apparently, every time your cells reproduce, they lose tiny bits of genetic material from their DNA (humans lose approximately 0.6% of their heart muscle DNA each year, for instance). Over time, this gradual loss of DNA shows up in our bodies as, well, saggy skin, noodly muscles, brittle bones, and so on. On this theory, as best as I can tell, aging is kind of like a prolonged genetic mutation.

Then there’s the “Telomere Theory”. Telomoeres are the end bits of our chromosomes, and their job is to keep said chromosomes from genetically “fraying” (they’ve been compared to the plastic cap on the end of your shoelace). Telomeres have a tendency to shorten over time; and when they grow too short, they activate a mechanism that prevents further cell multiplication. Well: nothing says “old pair of shoes” worse than when the shoe-laces are all frayed.

The theory I found most interesting, however, is the “Reproductive-Cell Cycle” theory. The idea here is that, early on in life, our bodies naturally produce reproductive hormones designed to promote cell growth and ensure, especially, that we reach the age of sexual reproduction; but later in life, in a futile attempt to maintain sexual reproduction past our prime, these same hormones become disregulated and start to drive senescence instead (senescence is the fancy word for the way your body falls apart as you get old). In short: it’s our sex drive, actually, that’s killing us.

Well; I’m light-years from being an expert on any of this, but that was my lay-man’s understanding of Dr. Weil’s book.

And I’m not sharing any of this to be morbid. Or flippant. It’s just, in a previous post I spoke about the reverence the Bible has for old age, and how it tries to encourage the same in us; and it’s just possible my post may have elicited some knowing smiles or downright scoffs from readers who, like me, have passed a 40-something-eth birthday and are noticing for the first time that their bodies just won’t do what they used to do, and have begun to do all sorts of things they never did before, instead.

Reverence for old-age indeed!

So, any thorough theology of aging will eventually have to come to terms with the hard truth that, just because Proverbs 16 calls my quickly-graying hair a crown of glory, that doesn’t change the fact that the hair’s still grey. And thinning. And the fellow it’s crowning feels somewhat less glorious than he did back when he was 20-something and full of vim and vinegar.

When we do come to terms with this truth—the fact that old age involves loss and deterioration as much as it does growth and gain—we discover the flip-side of the Bible’s teaching on the matter. Regardless how medical science may try to explain the phenomenon, biblically speaking, aging is not only a gift from God, it is also a divine limit placed on us by God.

The definitive text on this one is Genesis 6:3, where God, in response to the seemingly endless proliferation of human sin, says this: “My Spirit will not contend with human beings forever, for they are mortal. Their days shall be a hundred and twenty years.” Here, I think, we have the first solid theological word on the aging process. Cells lose their genetic material over time, telomeres shorten and chromosomes fray, reproductive hormones eventually begin to wear down the very organisms they once helped to sexually reproduce, because God, in his wisdom, knew that we needed to have limits placed on us. And he saw what we might become without them.

In another definitive text, Psalm 90:10 underscores this basic idea. The context is again a reflection on God’s right response to human sin, and it says, “Our days may come to seventy years, or perhaps eighty if strength endures, but the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass and we fly away.”

The Bible seems quite convinced on this one. God in his wisdom has placed an upper limit on the length of the human life-span. And spiritually speaking, healthy aging is about learning to live well, fully and wisely and contentedly, within those limits. For lack of a better image, aging is about the joy of colouring inside the lines of the human life-span.

It is interesting, of course, to speculate on the meaning of the Resurrection within this theological framework. Because all genuinely Christian theology must end, eventually, with Christ; and the promise of the empty tomb is in fact a resurrected body where, presumably, cells reduplicate without genetic loss and God binds up the fraying telomeres of the broken-hearted. But that is far more speculative than I wish to get today, except, perhaps, to say this: if the promise of the Gospel is indeed eternal life in Jesus Christ, then for Christians, it would seem, Christ himself actually replaces aging as God's divine limitation on human life.

Food for thought.

But while that simmers on the back-burner, let me just make my main point one more time. Biblically speaking, graceful aging—Proverbs-16-glory-crowned aging, that is—begins when we accept the reality of aging not simply as a divine gift to us, but also as a divine limitation placed on us.

Of course, for the wise, those two things aren’t really all that different, in the end.


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