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

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

Three Hands Clapping

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

Ghost Notes

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


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


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


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


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


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

blogs I follow

Readings, 2020

Readings, 2020
Paradise Lost, John Milton

Adorning the Dark, Andrew Peterson

The Soul of Shame, Curt Thompson

Cure for the Common Life, Max Lucado

Halos and Avatars, Craig Detweiller, ed.

Fool's Talk, Os Guinness

Brendan, Frederick Buechner

The Screwtape Letters

Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis

The Pilgrim's Regress, C. S. Lewis

Becoming Whole, Brian Finkert and Kelly Kapic

Real Sex, Lauren Winner

Out of the Silent Planet, C. S. Lewis

Voyage to Venus, C. S. Lewis

That Hideous Strength, C. S. Lewis

Till We Have Faces, C. S. Lewis

random reads

Three Minute Theology 1.8: I Live God

When our daughter was in kindergarten, she brought home a painting she’d done one day and proudly showed it off.  A bright red flower garden with a single rose towering over all the rest, and next to that she’d printed:  “I Live God.”

“Look,” she said, “It says, ’I love God!’” 

It was only an accidental misspelling, but we’ve always felt there was something profound about that mistaken letter “i,” and to this day it hangs on our wall as a reminder that loving God is, in fact, the essence of life.

Our daughter wasn’t intentionally doing theology that day, of course, but her painting is a helpful “way-in” for thinking about the unique work of the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit.

One of the ancient creeds calls the Holy Spirit, “The Lord and giver of life”; but the very same creed says that Jesus is Lord, and that the Father is the Maker of Heaven and Earth, so in what way should we understand the Holy Spirit as both the Lord and the Giver of life?

Well: just like my daughter’s painting created an interesting (though unintentional) play on words, there is a fascinating play-on-words in the Bible that helps us get to the heart of what’s going on here.

Because in the original languages of the Bible, the word for “Spirit” is the same as the word for “wind,” and the word for “breath.”  In Hebrew the words are either ruach or neshawmaw', and they can mean spirit, or wind, or breath, depending on the context.

Like in the Creation story. It says that in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and then it says that, before anything came into existence, God’s Spirit—his ruach—was hovering over the water. And so the creation began.

Later on in the Noah’s Ark story, after water has swept away all life from the earth and God wants to re-create everything, fresh and new, it says, he sent a wind—his ruach—over the water.

The point is, whenever God Creates, he does it by sending his ruach—his Spirit.

But there are even deeper layers here.  Because in the same creation story, it explains how God created the first human, and it says that God breathed into him the breath of life—his neshawmaw’—and he became a living being. 

Humans, of course, need to breathe-- without neshawmaw’, we’d die—but it’s not just our breathing that keeps us alive.  It’s actually the very breath of God, his divine Spirit.

Like it says in the Book of Job:  as long as breath—my neshawmaw’—is in me, the Ruach of God—his Spirit—is in my nostrils.  And:  “The Spirit of God (his ruach) has made me, and the breath of the Almighty (his neshawmaw’) has given me life. 

And not just humans; in one place it’s talking about all the living things in creation, and it says, “When God takes away their breath—their ruach—they die; but when he sends his Spirit, they spring to life.”

It turns out our daughter was painting truer than she knew, because anything that’s alive and breathing, if it is alive and breathing, it’s only because the Spirit breathed life into it. 

In that one sense, we all sort of “live God,” with every breath we take. 

Of course, there’s breathing and then there’s being alive; and there’s more to being alive than simply taking breaths. 
So maybe that’s why Jesus, much later, explained that it wasn’t enough for us to be alive just in the “physical breath” sense of the word; we needed to be brought to life spiritually, too; we have to be born of the Spirit, is how he said it. 

And he was talking about the way the Holy Spirit brings us alive to the love of God, and opens our spirits to the Story of Jesus, and brings us into a life-giving relationship with him. 

Because when God breathes into us like that, that’s when we discover he’s the Lord and Giver of Life, in every sense of the word.

The Meaning of Marriage Part I: Shalom, Alone-ness and the Image of God

It's always struck me that Genesis 2:18 is the first time in the Bible when God says that something "isn't good." The verse stands out all the more starkly because throughout Chapter 1, God kept saying things  were  good-- the sea and dry land (1:10), the sun, moon and stars (1:18), the sea creatures and birds (1:21), and the beasts of the field (1:25). But here, for the first time, something's explicitly and specifically not good.

And what a thing it is: the 'adam is alone! God forms a human creature, places him in the garden on the mission of imaging God to the world, and in 2:18 we find out that the male 'adam all on his own is not good, not complete, not able to accomplish God's purposes for him.

 A couple of incidentals are worth mentioning here:

1) This explains why the story has God making the female 'adam out of the male 'adam's rib. It's not to suggest that the woman is in any sense inferior or subsequent to the man. It's so we could see the helpless (and according to 2:18 he is, quite literally, help-less) male all alone, and recognize with God how not-good that state of affairs is.

2) We have to read this in light of Gen 1:27, where it says that God made the 'adam in his own image, male and female, he created them. On his own the male 'adam can't image God; it takes male and female together to do that. Rather than being archaically patriarchal, this text actually underscores the man and woman's interdependence in radical ways.  (Which is what Paul seems to be saying in 1 Corinthians 11:11-12.  “Woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman”.)

These two thoughts lead us into the main thrust of this passage.  The solution to this "not-good" situation is for God to give the male a helping hand; and what a helping hand he has in mind!   The Hebrew phrase in 2:18 is etzer chenaged, and a lot of theological ink had been spilled on this one over the years. Literally it means something like "a help that is compatible/fitting/completing and/or equal to him." Often scholars point out that etzer (help) is the word the Bible uses when it wants to talk about how God is Israel's "help." In other words, the woman is not the man's "help" the way Robin is a "helper" to Batman; more in the way a search and rescue team is a "help" to the lost and stranded hiker.

This text speaks past marriage, actually, to the many godly ways in which men and women prove that they are, in fact, “help-less” without each other (though in a patriarchal context like the one into which God first spoke Genesis, underlining this for the male, in particular, was especially important).  But it also speaks, of course, to marriage in particular.  The story ends, after all, with the man leaving his natural ties to his mother and father, and cleaving instead to his wife.  In this we see the ultimate proof that the flip-side of Genesis 2:18 is equally true, it is good for the man to be not alone.

The meaning of marriage that this passage points us to is profoundly counter cultural.  We tend to think of marriage as an arrangement that serves, primarily, the felt-needs and personal interests of the married couple—fulfilment, satisfaction, sexual expression.  If we’re thinking very broadly, we may widen this to include the well-being of their children, but culturally, it usually stops there.  Without getting too political, let me suggest that our modern flexibility when it comes to marriage is evidence of this.

But biblically—at least the way I’m reading Genesis 1-2 here—the way marriage serves individuals is a secondary benefit to the real meaning of marriage.  As a divine institution, marriage serves the Creator’s shalom-oriented purposes for the Creation, by reminding the whole human community of the profound, necessary, mysterious and inescapable interdependence of the sexes—that men and women are indeed helpless without each other.  This serves the Creation, in particular, because according to Genesis 1:26 humans rightly “Imaging God” is necessary for the Creation to thrive and flourish the way God intends it to, and according to Genesis 1:27, man or woman alone cannot Image God.  We can only do this together.

Three Minute Theology 1.7: And Speaking of the Incarnation

When I was in High School I spent three months studying French in the province of Quebec.  About two months in, we went skiing for a weekend. 

The following Monday, my legs were sore from all that exercise, so I when I came down for breakfast, I complained to my host family: “Mes jambons font mal!”

The room promptly erupted into laughter.  In French, the word “jambon” means “ham,” and the word “jambe” means “leg.”  I had meant to say, “My legs hurt,” but I had accidentally said, “My hams hurt!”

It was a humbling moment for me, one that reminded me of my limitations as an English speaker trying to learn French.   But it also provides us with a helpful way of thinking about the incarnation, and how Jesus could have been both fully God and fully human, two natures in one person.

After all, the supernatural signs and wonders he did notwithstanding, when that first century Jewish Holy Man walked this earth, the people who saw him and interacted with him saw and interacted with a human being.  A man unlike any man they had ever known before, but still, for all that, a man.

In what way was this man also God incarnate?

Theologians sometimes use the word kenosis to describe this paradox.  “Kenosis” is a Greek word that means “emptying,” and it comes from Philippians 2:7, where Paul says, “Jesus was in his very nature, God, but he did not see his equality with God as something to be exploited, rather, he ‘emptied himself’ ... being made in human likeness.”

The idea here is that in some sense, the Son of God necessarily “emptied himself” in some way related to his being God, when he became a human being.

But how?  If he emptied himself of his divine nature, wouldn’t he have ceased to be truly God?  In what way could we then say that he revealed God to us?

And here is where my sore hams come in. 

When I chose to travel to Quebec, I knew that this would mean having certain limitations placed on me, as an English speaker among French speakers. 

To be sure, there would be some overlap—in both English and French I would use vocalized sounds to communicate meaning, for instance; and throughout my time there, I could draw on my “nature” as an English speaker, to various degrees in various ways, depending on my circumstances. 

Sometimes I might even speak in English, revealing myself to be an Anglophone (although when I did, it’s unlikely my francophone friends would grasp my meaning).  But so long as I was required to speak French, there would be certain, unavoidable limitations on my ability to express myself and communicate.

At the same time, however, no matter how clunky my French might have been, I never ceased to be an English speaker, with sophisticated thoughts that I could fluently express in English.  It’s just that, in accepting the limitations of a “French nature” I was also choosing to set aside the use of my “English nature,” even though I still retained it and could have used it if I had wished.

So too with the incarnation: in taking on our human nature, the Son of God did not empty himself of his divinity; rather he willingly accepted the limitations of our human nature, choosing not to draw on his divine nature, except in keeping with the Father’s will and the Spirit’s leading. 

These limitations were real—he got hungry and tired and rested and ate—he grew and matured as a child.   He bled.

But that doesn’t mean he ceased to be fully God, rather, just like English and French “natures” can exist without contradiction in the same person, his human and divine natures were one in himself. 

And sometimes, of course, we actually see him speaking “English” to his francophone friends, so to speak: revealing his divine nature among them.  Like the disciples said it when they saw him walk out over the water to their wave-tossed boat: Surely this man is the Son of God.

When the Tough get Going, a Devotional Thought

There's an especially sobering story in 2 Kings 6:30-33 that's meant I think, to send a spiritual chill down the spine.  The city of Samaria is under siege by the Syrians. There's a horrible famine, the people are starving, and in his despair, the King sends soldiers to have Elisha the Prophet beheaded.

This seems a bit capricious, until you remember that in the passage just before this story (the chariots of fire episode), a huge contingency of the Syrian army had fallen into the King's hands, and he stayed their slaughter at Elisha's command (6:21-22). Elisha told him to let them go, and faithfully he did, and now here they are, in greater numbers, attacking his city. The siege itself is one of the most gut-wrenching and horrifying episodes in the whole Bible, and when the king hears a story about a mother forced to eat her own child just to survive, he finally snaps: if he hadn't listened to Elisha and spared those Syrian warriors, maybe they wouldn't be at his doorstep now, terrorizing and dehumanizing his people. So, like I say, he sends his men to have him beheaded.

Verse 33, in particular is especially haunting: "All this evil is from the Lord," the King says, "Why should I wait on him any longer?" Back in 6:21, he was quite happy to obey the Word of God and spare the Syrian warriors (he even called Elisha "my father" back then), but now, in the face of what must have been unimaginable stress, pain, terror and despair, he's ready to turn his back on God altogether. After all: look where obedience got him.

It gets me wondering if, and how, I'm like that King. Like him, I'm usually willing to obey when the going's good; would I, like him, let go as easily in the midst of such pain (it's easy to sniff self-righteously at this poor king, sitting here in my brightly-lit living room, but it's pretty hard to imagine myself on the city wall in 6:29 and not feel my blood run cold with his)? So I'm praying ahead of time, that God will grant me deep faithfulness if and when I go through desperate times, and despite what struggles may come, he'll keep me holding on. It doesn't hurt to plan ahead.

Jesus and the Marriage Trap, a close reading of Matthew 19:1-9

Sometimes asking just the right question of a text can open it up for us in ways that we might not have otherwise seen coming, but that speak straight to the heart and soul of our life with Jesus, once we do.  Matthew 19:1-9 is such a text, where the Pharisees approach Jesus “to test him,” and they ask if it’s “lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason” (v.3).  The crucial question here is just: “In what way is this particular question about the lawfulness of divorce a test for Jesus?”

Most commenters on this passage point out that the Pharisees seem to be asking Jesus to clarify his own stance on divorce, vis-a-vis the prevailing schools of rabbinical thought at the time.  The question here seems to centre around the directions found in Deuteronomy 24 on when, and why, and how a man may issue his wife a certificate of divorce.  There were, basically, two prevailing approaches to this passage in Jesus’ time.  A rabbi named Shammai held that Deuteronomy 24 actually prohibits divorce except in the case of marital unfaithfulness, whereas Rabbi Hillel argued that Deuteronomy 24 permits divorce for any reason. Inasmuch as the followers of these two rabbis disagreed quite sharply over the correct reading of Torah when it came to divorce, the Pharisees seem to be asking Jesus if he is more of a Shammaite or a Hillelite in this regard: is divorce always okay, or only okay in the case of unfaithfulness?

Jesus lands more or less with Shammai on this one:  the spirit of Deuteronomy 24 was to place limits on the practice of divorce, not to open it wide.

So far so good, but this doesn’t answer the question of why this would have been a test for Jesus.  If both approaches had rabbinical precedence in Jesus’ time, it’s hard to see how asking him to come down on one side or the other in the debate would have been a test—a controversial position, maybe, but hardly a test.  The problem intensifies when you notice that this question sounds a lot like a question they’ll ask him later on about paying taxes to Caesar (Matthew 22:15-22); and there Matthew calls the question a “trap.”  In what way might this have actually been a trap for him?

These questions hang in the air until you notice that Matthew starts off this story by pointing out that the Pharisees ask him about his position on divorce after he “left Galilee and went into the region of Judea, to the other (i.e. the east) side of the Jordan.”  This is no random piece of Jesus’ travel itinerary.  Jesus left Judea and went into Galilee way back in 4:12, when he heard that John the Baptist had been put in prison.  John, of course, was imprisoned by Herod; he was beheaded in Matthew 14:1-11 and his death, it seems, was one of the events that precipitated Jesus’ return to the region around the Jordan. 

And here is where one plus one plus one equals “Ah-ha...”  Because we know that before his execution this is where John conducted the majority of his preaching and baptism ministry: in the Transjordan region of Judea, the very the spot where Jesus is now answering questions about his position on divorce.  And we know that John was beheaded specifically because he had spoken out against Herod’s marriage to Herodias, his brother Philip’s ex-wife.  Herod had convinced Herodias to leave Philip and marry him, and John spoke out against this divorce, saying it was not lawful for Herod to marry her.  It was John’s challenge to the powers that be, over the question of marriage and divorce specifically, that got him killed.

Suddenly the trap becomes altogether obvious, because we know, as well as those first century Pharisees knew, that John saw his ministry as a preparatory work, preparing people for Jesus.  In this sense, Jesus’ ministry stands in continuity with John’s, and (and this is a big and), it was John’s commitment to the sanctity of marriage that got him killed.

So, Jesus, what do you think?  Is it okay for a man to divorce his wife (like Philip did Herodias)?  And if so, is it okay for the wife to remarry (like Herodias did with Herod)?

We could unpack the very profound things Jesus says about how marriage permanence and exclusivity was in the Creator’s mind right from the beginning (19:4-5), and how, in this sense, permanent and exclusive marriages contribute in some mysterious way to Creation Shalom.  In this regard, divorce is sort of like open-heart surgery.  There may be times when it’s the only option left, but it should only be undertaken when there are no options left, and even then it’s a sign that something very serious has gone wrong, deep down in the heart of Creation.

We could reflect on all that; but what I’m mulling over, instead, is how in affirming the Creator’s design for permanent and exclusive marriages, Jesus is quite literally laying his life on the line.  He knows it, and the Pharisees know it, but, like a pastor friend of mine put it when we were talking about this passage, “Jesus cares so much about the Creator’s heart for marriage, that he’s prepared to die for it.”

This is where the text starts to speak to the heart and soul for us, because it's asking us, I think, if we share his commitment to the Creator's plan for marriage.  This question speaks differently to all of us, of course, depending on our circumstances--newly weds just starting out, singles praying for God's direction in their lives, long-time married couples for whom the flame's been flickering, those who have been through the open heart surgery of divorce and are trying now to pick up the pieces, couples dating and trying to set boundaries, couples engaged and waiting, those who have chosen celibacy, families, communities of faith--it speaks differently, but it does speak to us all.  Are we prepared to join Jesus in the self-sacrifice and personal risk and laying-down-of-life that it takes to make marriage a true witness to the Creator's plan for things?

Time Being, a song for Valentine's Day

Happy Valentine's Day everyone. I hope you gave that someone special in your life a big "I love you" this morning.  This song, from my most recent recording project is a love song I wrote for my special someone last year, when I was in a really foggy place and she was very much a beacon of light for me.  It's too cold and snowy this morning to sing it by moonlight outside her balcony window, but maybe posting it on social media is the 21st Century version of that age-old tradition.

In the words of R.E.M., this one goes out to the one I love.

Time Being

I know you, I didn’t think so
But your light came shining through my window
If believing comes only by seeing
I’m watching for the time being

What could I do? Sometimes you sink so
Low your sight plays tricks on you, the shadows
Make believe it’s true. I’m not disagreeing
Just asking for the time being

And for the time being my anchor and my wind
And for the time being you (and me together)
And for the time being I hope it never ends
Until then we can start again, I don’t mind déjà vu

I don’t know you. I used to think so
But tonight it’s all brand new. We don’t know
If we’re leaving soon. There’s no guaranteeing
So hold me for the time being.

Three Minute Theology 1.6: Physics and the Incarnation

In physics, a particle is an object with a specific mass and location in space—think cannonballs and baseballs, specks of dust or atoms.

A wave, on the other hand, is an oscillation of energy through matter or space: think of sunlight, or a radio wave, or your microwave oven.

In traditional physics, these two things are mutually exclusive; that is to say something is either one or the other: if it’s a particle, by its very nature it can’t be a wave, and vice versa.

But in the early 1930s, as scientists began experimenting with smaller and smaller particles, they made a mysterious discovery: at its most basic level, matter exhibits characteristics of both a wave and a particle, at the same time.  In experiments with electrons, for instance, sometimes these particles would exhibit the properties of a wave and other times the properties of a particle, depending on the method of observation. 

The term “wave-particle duality” describes this conundrum, that the most basic particles of matter have the nature of a wave and the nature of a particle at the same time, even though classically these two ideas are incompatible.  Albert Einstein put it like this:   “We have two contradictory pictures of reality; separately neither [the wave theory nor the particle theory] fully explains the phenomena, but together they do.”

The concept of “wave-particle duality” is a helpful analogy for talking about the Incarnation—what happened, that is, when God became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. 

Christians have always maintained that in Jesus, two distinct and different natures, our human nature and God’s divine nature, came together in one person.

Traditionally, theologians have used the term hypostatic union to describe this conundrum.  Hypostasis is an ancient Greek word that means “existence” or “substance”; and the “hypostatic union” refers to the idea that two natures—the human and the divine—were united together in one individual existence: the God-man (as he’s sometimes called), Jesus Christ.

But how should we understand this?  Was Jesus some sort of half-God-half-human-hybrid?  Was he only sometimes God and other times human?  Did the coming together of the human-and-divine natures create some new, third nature that had never existed before?

 None of these suggestions will “work”; but then: what will?

And this is where the analogy of “wave-particle duality” comes in handy, because just like in the smallest particles of physics, two incompatible natures—the wave and the particle—coexist inseparably and without contradiction in a single entity; so too with Jesus Christ.

In him the divine nature and the human nature were always fully present in the same person; every activity of the human Jesus was also, at the same time, an action of God, and anything God did in, through and as Jesus Christ, was something that the human being, Jesus of Nazareth, did. 

Sometimes his human nature and other times his divine nature was more evident, depending on the “method of observation,” but even so, at his most human moments he was still fully God, and he was always fully human, even at his most divine.  

To modify what Albert Einstein said about the wave-particle duality:  “neither his human nature nor his divine nature separately explains the phenomenon of Jesus Christ, but together they do.”

This is difficult to grasp, how Jesus could be both God and human at the same time, but the ancient theologians continually stressed it as something essential to our relationship with God.

One theologian said: “what has not been assumed has not been redeemed”; and what he meant was: humans could only be fully redeemed if God had taken our full human nature onto himself in Jesus Christ. 

Another theologian said:  “He became like us, so that we might become like him.”  And what he meant was that because Jesus was fully God and fully human, human beings can now share fully in his life with the Father.

In the Gospel of John, it says it like this: “In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God, and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

The God of the Hills is the God of the Plains, A Devotional Thought

In 1 Kings 20:21-30 there's a fascinating story about the sovereignty of God over all of life that sort of gives me pause.  Here's how it goes: a pagan king named Ben Hadad of Syria invades Israel and loses the battle miserably. While he's licking his wounds, his advisers tell him: it's because Israel's god is a god of the hills, not of the plains, so if we fight them on the plains, we'll win. A year later they put their theory to the test. They march out against Israel again, this time on the plains and again Israel sends them packing. But in verse 28, God says,"It's because they're saying I'm only a God of the hills, that's why I'm handing them over to you." In other words: Israel's victory will disprove the idea that God is somehow localized in his lordship or limited in his power. Unlike some pagan deity (a "God of Thunder," or a "God of the Sea," or what have you) YHWH is sovereign over every domain of life and in every region of the world.

The story leaves me wondering: do I, like the Syrians, live as though God is "just" a God of the hills, and not also of the plains? What I mean is: do I live in such a way that I only acknowledge God's lordship over certain areas of my life (my "religious life," my "church life," my "Sunday morning life") but fail also to acknowledge his lordship over other areas of my life (my finances, say, or my leisure and recreation, or my career, and so on). Is my God truly and fully Lord, or his he just a "god of the hills"? It's worth asking, because that way of living didn't work out too well for the Syrians.

Fifty Shades of Grey and One Very Good Song

Not that I think the internet has been waiting with bated breath, wondering what Pastor Dale thinks about the upcoming release of the (so-called) erotic film, Fifty Shades of Grey, but musings, concern and alarm about this “cultural event,” such as it is, keep turning up on my Facebook feed and the blogs I read, so I thought it wouldn’t hurt to spend some time thinking theologically about this one.

And let me start here.

In one of the more mysterious and difficult passages in the Hebrew Scriptures, Song of Songs 8:6 is talking about the power of sexual love, and it says, “love burns like a blazing fire, like a mighty flame.”  At least, that’s how the KJV and the NIV translate it; the NASB, which tends to go for a more a literal rendering of the original, reads, “[Love’s] flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the Lord.”

The original Hebrew uses a very obscure phrase there, šalhebetyâ’, which is the combination of a rare word for fire, šalhebeth, and the suffix yâ’. And here’s where the mystery and the difficulty come in.  “Yah,” you have to understand, is a shortened form of the Hebrew name for God; love, as far as the Song of Song is concerned, is “the flame of Yah.”  This could be read in a generic superlative sense, as in: love is the “greatest” or “mightiest” flame (so the NIV, KJV, etc.); but it can also be read just as the NASB has rendered it: “Love burns with flashes of fire, the very flame of the Lord.”

In his commentary on Song of Songs, OT Scholar Richard Davidson says this about verse 8:6, “If the blaze of love, ardent love, such as between a man and a woman is indeed the flame of Yahweh, then this human love is explicitly described as originating in God, a spark off the Holy Flame.  It is, therefore, a holy love.  Such a conclusion has profound implications for the whole reading of the Song of Songs—and for the quality and motivation of human sexual love.  ... The love between man and woman is not just animal passion, or evolved natural attraction, but a holy love ignited by Yahweh himself!” (Davidson, The Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament, 630).

I tend to favor this second reading.  Partly because I’m a die-hard romantic, and partly because it just resonates with me theologically.  There is, I think, a spiritual dimension to our sexuality that we have lost or forgotten or ignored, but the ancients knew well.  It’s not for nothing that the New Testament so often uses wedding imagery, when it wants to describe the coming together of God and humanity in Jesus Christ.  And it’s not for nothing, either, that the earliest Christians tended to read the Song of Songs as an allegory for the Church’s union with Christ.  But, as Eugene Peterson says, this was not because they had such a low view of sex that they were embarrassed to face its erotic imagery frankly.  It was because they had such a high view of sex that they saw in that imagery a spark of the Divine Flame.

If sexual love is indeed the “flame of Yahweh,” then suddenly this ancient song has a powerful word to speak to our modern world, as it prepares itself for the film adaptation of an erotic novel that set the UK record for the fastest-selling paperback of all time (according to Wikipedia).  Fire, of course, has the potential both to warm and heal, or to burn and consume, and whether its effects are destructive or life- giving depends on where and when and how it is ignited.  This is why the Song continually insists that it ought not be aroused until it desires (2:7, 3:5, 8:4).

It’s also why the Song of Song offers us such a wholistic view of sexual love.  In his Nooma video Flame, Rob Bell points out that the Song of Song uses three different but interlocking words for loving intimacy that together we would translate with that simple word “love.”  The word rayah, for instance, describes a mutual affection between close companions.  We might translate it “friendship” as easily as “love,” and it’s used of both the Lover and the Beloved at different times (1:9, 2:10, 5:2, 5:16, etc.). The word dôd describes physical intimacy specifically, and it’s the word used in verses like 1:1, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for your love (dôd) is better than wine.”  The word ‘ahăbâh describes the deep spiritual union between human beings that we sometimes talk about in terms of “becoming someone’s soul-mate.” And it’s ‘ahăbâh specifically that verse 8:6 is talking about, when it says that love burns with the very flame of the Lord.

Here’s the point:  ‘ahăbâh can’t burn without the light of rayah (friendship) and the heat of dôd (physical intimacy), but it’s not mere companionship, or physical pleasure alone that burns with divine fire. Rayah and dôd may burn hot—destructively hot, even—but only ‘ahăbâh, fueled and fed by the other two, burns divine.

Which brings me, at last, to Fifty Shades of Grey.  Because whatever else it’s about, Fifty Shades reflects our culture’s increasing tendency to disconnect mere physical gratification from the other aspects of sexual intimacy—emotional, spiritual, relational, and so on—that together make sexual love the Flame of Yah.  If Christians are concerned about the release of a mainstream film that glorifies “kinky sex,” it’s not, or shouldn’t be, because the film makes too much out of sex; it’s because it’s making too little of it, reducing it to a mere parody of dôd.

In this sense, it is bitterly ironic that Fifty Shades’ release is slated to coincide with St. Valentine’s Day.  Traditionally, of course, St. Valentine was martyred because of his commitment to Christian marriage—to ‘ahăbâh, we might say—but if a quick perusal of the Valentine’s Day bookshelf at Chapters can be trusted as empirical evidence, ‘ahăbâh doesn’t sell nearly as well as a stripped down version of dôd (no pun intended).

This is not just the prudish hand wringing of a Christian fuddy-duddy.  Many commentators have pointed out that the problem with Fifty Shades is its sexualisation of violence and abuse.  This is very bad, to be sure, but the problem runs even deeper than that.  In his book Empire of Illusion, Chris Hedges offers a disturbing but unflinching analysis of the American pornography industry, and points out a “normalization dynamic” that drives it. As things that were once taboo—the purvey of the outer edges, so to speak—become more and more mainstream, the porn industry must push the outer edges further out to remain taboo. As a result, Hedges argues, pornography has become increasingly and alarmingly misogynistic, sadistic, violent and dehumanizing. And Hedges wrote this in 2009, six years before E. L. James brought terms like BDSM into the mainstream.  One shudders to wonder where the “outer edges” will need to be re-drawn now.

If the author of Song of Songs were here (and he is) I think that whatever else he said, he’d say this: doing violence to dôd like this is quite literally playing with fire; things will get burned.

But I also think he’d say this: there is a different path, a sacred path, one that leads to healing and wholeness and shalom, where physical intimacy finds its rightful place among heart-to-heart companionship and spiritual mutuality and honoring and nurturing and covenant that taken together, and only together make sexual love sweeter than wine and stronger than death, the very flame of Yah.

Three Minute Theology 1.5: Good Neighbours

They say that good fences make good neighbours.  What this means, I think, is that having clear boundaries is a vital part of healthy relationships.

This is certainly true in psychology. Many therapists will talk about how important it is for emotional well-being, to be clear on what is me, and what is not me; and how unhealthy relationships can become when we don’t respect each other’s boundaries.

Whether or not good fences make good neighbours, they do make for good theology; at least, it’s important to have “theological boundary markers” when we try speak about the deep truths of the Christian Faith. 

Take, for instance, the Incarnation—that is, what Christians believe happened when God came to us in the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. 

Traditionally Christians have held to three key beliefs about Jesus: that he was fully God; that he was fully human; and that these two natures—human and divine—were united together in one single person.

This can be hard to explain.  What do we actually mean when we say that that Jesus was both God and human, two natures in one person?

In a way, it’s easier to say what we don’t mean by it, than to say what we do.  And this is where good fences come in handy, because over the last 2000 years, a variety of heresies have cropped up regarding the nature of the Incarnation.

The word “heresy,” of course, tends to conjure up unsettling images from the Spanish Inquisition or something, but a heresy is really just a teaching about Jesus that the Church has carefully examined and decided it doesn’t express their experience or their beliefs truly.

Think of a heresy as a boundary marker for the Faith, a “fence” that helps us mark off what we don’t mean when we talk about the Mysteries of God.

There was a group of teachers, for instance, called the Ebionites.  They taught that Jesus was not God at all; rather he was a great man who had attained special status with God.  Essentially the Church looked at “Ebionism” and said: “No, that’s not what we experienced in Jesus.  To say he was not God goes past one of the boundaries.”

In a similar way, some claimed that Jesus was not human—that he was God and only appeared to be human.  This heresy is sometimes called Docetism, after a Greek word that means “to seem, or to appear.”  And the church looked at Docetism and said, “No, that’s not it either.  To say that Jesus was only God goes past another boundary.”

Later, a teacher named Arius would suggest that Jesus was not fully God—that he was divine, but a lesser, secondary god; and again, the Church said, “No: that’s not it either.” And so another boundary marker was placed: Jesus is fully God.

A teacher named Apollinarius taught that Jesus was not fully human; that he had the body of a human but the mind of God; and again the church said: “No, Jesus is fully human.”

Some taught that Jesus was not one person but two—the divine Jesus and the human Jesus.   Some taught that Jesus’ nature was neither human nor divine, but some brand new sort of nature that had never existed before.   Or that he started out as a man and became divine.

 And Christians looked at each of these teachings in turn and said, “No, that’s not it.” 

At the risk of oversimplifying a complex history, we might say that in this way, they set out the “boundary markers,” for what they didn’t mean when they said that in Jesus, God had come in human flesh.  Jesus was not part-god-part-human, or a human that only seemed like god, or a god who only appeared human: he was fully human and fully God, two natures together in one person.

And while this may seem like so much theological hair-splitting to some, maintaining these boundaries is vital to a full and growing experience of the Lord Jesus; after all, just like good fences helps neighbours to thrive, good theological fences help our relationship with God to thrive.

Chariots of Fire and Other Things Unseen: A Devotional Thought

In 2 Kings 6:11-20, we get one of those stories that is profoundly mysterious, and profoundly moving because of the mystery.

The Prophet Elisha and his servant are surrounded by a terrifying army come to haul him off to the king of Syria. Things look hopeless; the situation desperate; the odds overwhelming. And Elisha's servant tells him so, failing into despair. But Elisha, entirely unperturbed, says: don't worry, because "those who are with us are more than those who are with them." Then he asks the Lord to open the young man's eyes to see just who, exactly, is fighting on their side. And this despairing servant looks again and sees the hills thronged with a host of heavenly warriors in flaming chariots, the Lord's angelic army hemming them in and guarding them.

There's actually a beautiful irony here that I can't resist pointing out: after the servants eyes are opened to see them, the angels blind the Syrians, and Elisha leads them captive to Israel, where he asks the Lord to open *their eyes* in turn, to see their predicament.  God blinds the eyes of the faithless-seeing and opens the eyes of the faithful-blind.

Anyways, it's a beautiful story and artfully told, and it always leaves me thinking about the heavenly host that surrounds God's people, unseen, often unnoticed, but still (I believe) very real. Sometimes I feel like Elisha's servant, cowed by what seem overwhelming odds and tempted to despair, and this morning it felt like Elisha was praying for me, too, as much as for him: Lord, open his eyes that he might see the heavenly reality he moves in, the angelic host that surrounds him, the odds as they really stand. There are things unseen at work in the world around us (our battle is not against flesh and blood....) and in those moments of spiritual despondency, this reminder that His angels stand guard on our behalf is moving and strengthening.

The Winter is Over: A Reading of Song of Solomon

There are certain places in the Hebrew Scriptures where it sort of feels like you’re brushing up against something that none of us has ever seen, and yet it’s deeply familiar, almost archetypal nonetheless: a glimpse of the world not as it is, but as it could, or should, or might someday be.  Isaiah 2:4 is such a place, with its oracle about the nations streaming to the mountain of the Lord, learning his ways and beating their swords into plowshares; Isaiah 11:6 is another such place, with its description of the lion laying down with the fattened calf and the little child leading them; so too is Psalm 46 and its vision of a river “whose streams make glad the city of God.”

The Hebrew word for this “glimpse of the world not as it is but as it should be” is shalom.  The word shalom simply means “peace,” but when it’s used in this particular, lion-lie-down-with-the-lamb sense of the term, it means more than just the laying down of arms or the end of conflict.  Shalom is a deeply-rooted, broadly-spreading vision of perfect Peace, where everything in the Creation is in its right place in relation to the Creator, and everything is in life-giving harmony with everything else, because it’s in the place, and functioning in the way, that the Creator intended. 

Theologian Conrelius Plantigna describes it in this way:  “In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness and delight – a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes in the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.”

Besides stirring the imagination generally, this theologically rich concept of Shalom also provides us a helpful way into one of the more difficult books of the Bible, that collection of vivid Hebrew love poems known as the Song of Solomon, with its entwined lovers whispering sensual odes to one another’s beauty and grace and charm.

Because if we’re listening for them, we won’t get very far into this song of songs before we start to hear echoes of shalom—pictures, that is to say, of the creation flourishing with wholeness and delight.  This is actually part of the artistry of the Song: the sensual joy which the lovers find in one another’s arms is matched by descriptions of the creation itself, joyfully and sensually flowering all around them.  The winter is past and blossoms burst open across the earth (2:11-12); the air is trembling with dove-song and dripping with flower-fragrance (2:13).  And this will carry on to the end: the vines have blossomed early (8:12) and the mandrakes lace the air with their heady perfume (8:13).  

There are even deeper layers to this, of course; because as they describe each other with enraptured similes and impassioned metaphors, the lovers begin to embody in themselves the flourishing of the creation that is happening all around them.  The Lover is, by turns, a fragrant cluster of henna blossoms (1:14), a fruit-laden apple-tree (2:3), a graceful stag on the high places (2:17), the dawn, the moon, and sun in stately procession (6:10).  The Beloved, for her part, is a dove in the cleft of the rocks (2:14), a spring of clear water (4:12), a verdant garden bursting with the choicest fruit and the rarest spice (4:13-14).  If we can resist the modern temptation to titter at such imagery (or to Freudianize it) we’ll hear the Song of Songs saying this: listen! shalom is obtaining, here, in the joyful, wholesome, unabashed union of this man and this woman, as they come together according to the Creator’s design.

The Shalom theology pulsing at the heart of this ancient love song is actually implicit in the names of the lovers themselves.  The Lover, on the one hand, is an idealized portrait of King Solomon, the most-wise king from whom the Song of Solomon takes its name (1:1, 3:7).  In Hebrew literature, of course, names are never accidental, and this is especially the case here: the name Solomon (in Hebrew shelômôh) is a derivative of the word shalom itself. Solomon is quite literally the King of Shalom.  The Beloved, on the other hand, is simply called “the Shulamite” (6:13); but this is especially curious to me, because the name “Shulamite” (in Hebrew, shûlammı̂yth) is a feminine derivation of “Solomon.”  The Shulamite is “Solomon’s girl,” that is to say, Princess Shalom.  In other words, what we are seeing in the rapturous union of these two lovers is the marriage of Mr. and Ms. Shalom.  Little wonder, then, that as they consummate their love we see creation bursting with shalom-ordered vibrancy all around them: their coming together not only fits into the puzzle-picture of God’s Shalom, but, like a final missing piece, it actually completes it. 

And here is where the ancient text begins to speak into the modern world.  Because the point of Song of Songs is that sexuality, when it is experienced and enjoyed according the Creator’s design, actually promotes and contributes to shalom in the world.  There is an “ought to/ought not to” when it comes to sex, and its underlying goal is the flourishing of the Creation itself.    

This is hard to wrap our heads around practically, how the Creator’s intention for sex is to promote creation shalom; but it gets easier when we come at it from the other direction, and consider how quickly sex can vandalize shalom, when it happens outside of the Creator’s intention.  The strong sexually exploiting the weak is not shalom.  The trauma of sexual abuse is not shalom.  The loss and betray of a marital affair, the tears that a sexual scandal rips in the social fabric, the relational pain and confusion caused by pornography, the psychological scars that the 'hook-up' culture leaves on the heart—none of these things are shalom.

I don’t mention any of these things flippantly, or naively, or judgmentally; and reading Song of Songs as a Christian I want to say that in Jesus—our true Prince of Peace—there is real healing and restoration and redemption available for even the deepest sexual wounds we may have suffered.  But that, I think, is part of the point.  Because in Christ, the Song of Songs is inviting us to consider how our sexuality—even our sexuality—can, and could, and does fit into the Creator’s plan to make a world where things are the way they ought to be.