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.

The battle belongs to the Lord, a devotional thought

There's a place in 2 Kings 16, where King Ahaz is under attack by the Arameans.  These are the same Arameans that, a few chapters earlier, YHWH had miraculously and quite handily routed, delivering his people from their war-mongering ways.  Chapter 16, however, comes a few chapters later, and now, things are looking rather grim for King Ahaz.

Ahaz does what any worldly military leader would do in that situation.  He sends messages down the road to the King of Assyria, telling him, "If you get me out of this mess, I will be your servant and your vassal."  To seal the deal, he takes gold and silver from the temple of YHWH, and send it to Assyria as a tribute.

This should, I think, strike to the heart of any serious reader of the Book of Kings-- and certainly it would have for those it was originally written for:  Instead of turning to the Lord for deliverance from the enemy, Ahaz turns to the Assyrian war-machine for help, the very same Assyria that, in just a few chapters, is going to surround Jerusalem and utter blasphemous defiance against YHWH and his people.  As if that wasn't bad enough, he pays him with gold from YHWH's own house.  The gold that ought to be adorning the house of the Lord is used to hire a mercenary army to deliver Ahaz from an enemy that the Lord has shown himself time and time again quite capable and willing to defeat.

The irony here, I think, is meant to make us tremble.  But it's also meant to make us wonder: how and where do we rely on the systems of this world, and especially, the enemies of God--to get us out of our messes, instead of turning to the true and living Lord, who alone is able to deliver? And worse, do we pay them the tribute due to him, is only they'll pull us out of the mess?

May he show us what it really means, where it's written, "The battle belongs to the Lord."

A View of the World from Gravity Falls, Part V: And Nothing but the Truth

Early on in my ministry as a pastor, one of the things I really struggled with was the idea of spiritual warfare.  This is not because I doubted Peter, when he warns us that our enemy, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour; and it’s not because I didn’t take Paul seriously, either, when he insists that our battle is not against flesh and blood but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.  I’d read the Book of Revelation in all seriousness.  And I’d read The Screwtape Letters with all earnest. 

But I’d also read one too many books by Frank Peretti, and I’d heard one too many episodes of Bob Larson’s Talk Back, to embrace popular evangelical teaching about “Spiritual Warfare” unreflectively.   I’d seen how speculative, fanciful, and demonstrably unbiblical some of this stuff can become; and, indeed, how manipulative and exploitative and controlling.  So I was cautious in how I spoke about spiritual warfare, and hesitant to give it much emphasis in my ministry.

And, then, by God’s grace, I came across the writings of Dr. Neil Anderson, the author of books like The Bondage Breaker and Victory over Darkness.  I don’t embrace his teaching without careful reflection, either, but I believe he’s a got some very godly, very biblical, very wise things to say on the matter, and I know that he’s helped many believers experience deeper levels of spiritual freedom in Christ. 

In The Bondage Breaker in particular, I came across something that shed clear, bright light on what spiritual warfare is really all about, and has radically transformed the way I think about it, and understand it, and approach it in my ministry.  It has to do with the difference between “power” and “truth.”

In the popular imagination, he says, spiritual warfare is a power struggle between some “demonic stronghold” and some outside agent, external to the person in bondage.  But it’s not power that sets the captive free, it’s truth.  “Living in defeat,” he writes, “believers often falsely conclude that they need power, so they look for some religious experience that promise power.  ... But the power of the Christian lies in the truth.  ... In contrast, the power of Satan is in the lie, and once you expose the lie, you break his power” (emphasis mine).

This has been a very clarifying thought for me, and theologically it resonates deeply.  In one sense, Satan is already defeated (Heb 2:14).  Through the death and resurrection of Jesus God has triumphed over him (Col  2:15).  He’s still prowling around, of course, like a roaring lion, but the true Lion of Judah has powerfully crushed his head for us.  Resisting him now is not a power struggle as much as it is a truth struggle: a struggle to appropriate and live out of this truth.

This brings us, at last, to Gravity Falls.  Because, as I’ve pointed out in previous posts, whatever else this show is about, it is very much about spiritual warfare.  It’s a secular version of it, of course, one in which all of the lines that Christians would want to draw between good and evil, light and dark, angel and demon, are pretty hazy, but still, the conflict of the show is quite literally a spiritual conflict.  From episode to episode, the Pines twins find themselves confronting no end of spectres and spirits, ghosts and ghouls, most often defeating them with secrets gleaned from that mysterious journal.

There are two characters, in particular, that exemplify this spiritual conflict.  One is a diabolically mischievous “dream demon” named Bill Cipher, and the other a phony child psychic named L’il Gideon.  We'll tackle Bill Cipher in another post; for today I’d like to talk about L’il Gideon, who is, in many ways, an easier first target in our theological analysis of the show.

We first meet L’il Gideon early on in Season 1, when his “Tent of Telepathy” rolls into town and everyone is taken in by his supernatural psychic powers.  Everyone, of course, except Dipper and Mabel Pines.  They will eventually expose him as a fraud, but not before he becomes one of Gravity Fall's central villains, Dipper’s arch-nemesis and Grunkle Stan’s greatest adversary.  As a character, his resemblance to the worst kind of televangelist, complete with flashy suit and perfectly coiffed hair, is a bit too close for comfort, and his show at the “Tent of Telepathy” is more like an old time gospel hour revival meeting than it is like anything else.  Add to this the one-eyed-inverted-star that is his insignia, and the pact he signs with Bill Cipher, and you’ve got the makings for one epic spiritual showdown.

But if there is something spiritual about Dipper and Mabel’s conflict with L’il Gideon, it’s notable to me that it’s not power that eventually defeats him.  They will try all sorts of power-plays to outwit him in the course of Season 1, but it’s not, like I say, power that wins this spiritual battle.  It’s truth.  The truth, namely, that L’il Gideon’s so-called psychic powers are really a sham, and he’s actually been spying on Gravity Falls via thousands of close-circuit tv cameras hidden around town, discovering secrets about people that he can then “discern,” “predict,” or “intuit” in his phoney-baloney psychic act.

The details aren’t especially important.  What is important is that, for all the spiritual mumbo-jumbo that L’il Gideon dabbles in, in the end it’s the truth, quite literally that wins the spiritual battle against him.

There are, like I said, many things about the spiritual conflict in Gravity Falls that Christians, biblicaly, would find difficult to swallow without a big old spoonful of sugar.   And unlike Gravity Falls, a fully biblical understanding of the Truth doesn’t, in the end, lead us to data, or evidence, or facts, or concepts, but to a Living Person, to the Christ, that is, who said he was himself the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  So there’s probably a lot Alex Hirsch and I would beg to differ on.  But in this one thing, I think, we would agree: that in the end it’s the Truth (not power) that sets us free.



<< back    -    next >>

The High Places, a devotional thought

You can't spend any serious amount of time in the Book of 2 Kings without eventually asking some difficult questions about "the high places" in your life.  2 Kings 15:31-38 is a good example.  It's talking about a King named Jotham of Judah.  It starts off by saying that "he did right in the eyes of the Lord"-- and for the record, this is pretty rare, in of itself.  Most of the Kings who get mention in 2 Kings are noted for their wickedness.  Of very, very few is it said that they actually did right in YHWH's sight.  So this should cause us to sit up and take notice.

But then comes the qualifying small print:  "Only," it adds, "the high places were not removed.  People continued to sacrifice and burn incense there" (v. 35).

The idea in 2 Kings is that, unlike the surrounding pagan nations, that would have had shrines and temples to their Ba'als and Ashteroths sprinkled all over the countryside, God's people were meant to have one single place of worship for the people, the Temple in Jerusalem.  This is a big deal in the Hebrew Scriptures.  There's only one place where YHWH can and should be worshipped, and maintaining that one place helps to ensure that his worship doesn't get watered down and mixed up with the worship of other things and other gods.  The "high places" in 2 Kings compete with and muddy-up the single-minded, single-hearted devotion to him that God wants for his people.

And it's interesting: however good any of the kings in 2 Kings might have been, it's (almost) always qualified with this disclaimer:  only they didn't tear down the high places.  And we're meant to find something, I think, humbling and challenging in this.  Because like Jotham, we, too, have things that compete with, or muddy up, single-minded devotion to God.

I won't go into detail on the high places in my own life, except to say that Jotham's example leaves me praying, that God would gently but surely point them out to me, and help me put an end to any sacrifice or worship that may be going at their altars.  May his mercy give us all grace to tear down the high places.

A View of the World from Gravity Falls, Part IV: Jesus and the Participatory Fandom

Last week, Alex Hirsch, the creative mind behind the Gravity Falls series, did an AMA on Reddit in the persona of Bill Cipher.

I wouldn’t have even known what sentence meant a year ago, let alone the significance of the event, except that I have three kids at home I can consult to keep from being a total internet ignoramus. 

Reddit is a social media site that allows users to post content to categories of interest (known as “subreddits”), and vote other users’ submissions “up” or “down,” determining their position in the feed (in any given subreddit, more popular posts appear higher and less popular posts appear lower).  An AMA (Ask Me Anything) is a subreddit—a special interest page—where users can invite and answer questions from other reddit users about, well, anything.  Astronaut Chris Haddfield has done an Ask Me Anything on Reddit, as have Madonna, Woody Harelson, David Copperfield, Al Gore, Bill Gates, and, like I say, Alex Hirsh, the creator of Gravity Falls.

Piqued curiosity can be settled in one fell swoop by visiting the sureddit in question, here.  

Alex Hirsch has done AMAs on Reddit before, but in this particular AMA he answered the “anythings” he was asked in the persona of Bill Cipher, the arch-villain of the Gravity Falls series, whose true nature, identity, background and motives have generated no end of speculation on the internet.   The uninitiated can find out more about Bill over at the Gravity Falls Wiki (see here), along with a virtual Encyclopedia Britannica’s worth of info on the Gravity Falls universe.  For those in the know, an AMA with Bill Cipher was a pretty big deal, inasmuch as he ostensibly gave away all sorts of clues about what’s to come on future episodes, and generally added gasoline to the bonfire of theories blazing about Gravity Falls.  You can see one enthusiastic reviewer’s analysis of the event here, on one of the many Youtube channels devoted (in both senses of that word) to the show:



And if this hasn’t yet satisfied your curiosity about all things Gravity Falls, you can also visit the show’s official YouTube channel, “The Mystery of Gravity Falls.”  Or you could browse the veritable library’s worth of fan fiction—amateur short fiction written by fans, cast with characters and set in the universe of the show—over at https://www.fanfiction.net/cartoon/Gravity-Falls/.  Of course, if you’re really old school, you can check out the Gravity Falls Facebook wall, or simply visit one of the thousands of fan blogs about the show (of which, I suppose, this blog is one).

But don’t do any of that until I make my point here.  Because I’m not just trying to be an internet tour guide for all things Gravity Falls today, I’m trying to draw attention to a fascinating, and, I think, important cultural shift that occurred sometime between my childhood and the childhood of my kids.

When I was a kid, being a fan of something was, primarily, an act of reception.  That is to say, you received, passively, if enthusiastically whatever it was, the object of your fanaticism: the show, the movie, the book, the comic or what have you.  To be sure, there were ways to engage actively as a fan back then—you could play at being Spider-man, for instance, or purchase books about the Star Wars movies, let’s say; you could buy Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle toys or argue with your friends over who’d win in a fight between Vader and Spock—but all this active engagement happened externally to the creative sphere of the thing in question.  It was engagement, but it wasn't creative participation

This is the crucial difference, and the reason I’m blogging about it today.  Because whatever else the glut of internet access points to the universe of Gravity Falls signifies, I think it points out how being a fan of something in the internet age is much more a participatory act than it has ever been before.  A fan-hosted YouTube channel attempting to decipher all the mysteries of Gravity Falls, fan-produced fiction expanding the world of the show, fan-edited wikis, an AMA on Reddit—these things are more than simply active engagement.  Inasmuch as they exist in and contribute to the same sphere of influence that the show itself inhabits (namely, the World Wide Inter-Web), they are, in fact, a kind of creative participation in the Gravity Falls Story.

If this cultural shift in what it means to be “a fan” of something—from active engagement with to creative participation in—is making sense to you, then let me wonder out loud if the up-and-coming generation, my kids’ generation, that is, aren't being conditioned to evaluate things—stories, ideas, concepts,  Truth—based not simply on rational criteria, or even on intuitive “gut-level” reactions, but on the degree to which they allow creative participation in the story telling, the idea generating, the conceptualizing, and so on.  While staunch modernists may balk at such a slippery statement, let me put it like this:  I wonder if, for “kids these days,” those things are “truest” which offer us something we can collaboratively participate in, rather than simply accept, receive, assent to or consume.

That was genuine wondering.  I’m not sure if this is how the up-and-coming generation will, in fact, make epistemological evaluations.  I have my hunches, but they’re just that: hunches. 

But even on the basis of a hunch, let me offer two inter-locking points as we continue our theological analysis of Gravity Falls.  First: in the modern era, much hay was made out of the deeply rational co-inherence of the Christian Faith—it is, in fact, a very satisfying way of looking at the world, logically speaking.  And in the post-modern era, much was made of its aesthetic qualities—it is a lovely story to live by.  But in the era of the social network—the era that gave us Gravity Falls, and the kids who enjoy it—in this era, what will shine especially is Christianity’s participatory nature.

The Christian Faith is not just a Truth we are invited to accept or assent to, or consume.  It is a Living Story we are invited collaboratively to participate in: to find our lives by losing them in this beautiful, compelling, logical, but especially collaborative life with the Creator.

And even on the chance that I might be on to something here, let me offer the second point.  Ministries that seek genuinely to introduce young people to Jesus—the kids of the kids of the boomers—kids like my son and daughters, that is—kids of the as-yet unnamed post-postmodern era—will do well to find ways to show them and remind them, and convince them, that Christianity is not just a truth to be believed, it is a Story to be lived.

<< back   -   next >>

On Doing it Wrong but Getting it Right, a devotional thought

A few days ago, I shared some thoughts about King Jeroboam in 2 Kings 14, and how God used him to deliver Israel in spite of his sin.   In 2 Kings 15:1-10, you see a similar thing happening with a king named Azariah, in a way that is both encouraging, but also deeply challenging.

It says that while Jeroboam was reigning in Israel, a king named Azariah came to the throne of Judah. Azariah, it says, did right in the eyes of the Lord, just as his father Amaziah had done. It's far less frequent for 2 Kings to say a king did right in God's eyes, so this stands out. 

But then, just as you're ready to pat Azariah on the back, verse 5 says that the Lord "afflicted Azariah with leprosy." Another book of the Bible, 2 Chronicles, will explain why (apparently Azariah tried to offer incense in the Temple when only the priest was supposed to...a big no-no) but in 2 Kings it just sits there unexplained and rather starkly. 

Azariah did right in YHWH's eyes, and yet he was afflicted with leprosy. 

This story sort of directs our thoughts in two equal and opposite direction. On the one hand, it humbles us, to realize that "doing right in God's eyes" does not necessarily mean we will be spared difficulty, hardship or struggles; Azariah "did right in God's eyes" but still faced affliction.   At the same time, however, it encourages us, or should, to know that our afflictions (even those afflictions we bring on ourselves, as Azariah did his) do not exclude us or preclude us from "doing right in God's eyes," and accomplishing beautiful things for him.