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.

In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts, a song

In the Buddhist tradition there's this teaching about something called "The Hungry Ghost" which is a certain way of being or spiritual state.  A hungry ghost is a spirit with a very narrow throat and a huge distended belly; it's always stuffing itself but never filled.  It's a picture of human emptiness and spiritual despair at its worst.

Last year I read a book by Dr. Gabor Maté about addiction, called In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. Maté works in Vancouver's downtown east side, among the most severely addicted population in the country.  In his book, he uses the image of the hungry ghost as a way of talking about addiction.  The addict, he argues, is like the hungry ghost: desperately striving, but unable, in the end, to fill the emptiness inside.

It's a haunting read.  Because Gabor goes on to suggest that in one sense or another, we are all hungry ghosts.  Our addictions are not always as powerful or destructive as those of his patients in Vancouver's downtown eastside, but in their psychology--in terms of what we're looking for in them and hoping to achieve by them--obsessive work habits, compulsive viewing of pornography, impulsive spending, over-indulgent eating and so on are not really that different from the hungry ghosts of the heroin addict.

Here's a Ted Talk he gave a while ago.  Very much worth a listen.




And here's a song I wrote, about my own "hungry ghosts," such as they are:



The ghosts in my head
Are hungry tonight
They haven’t been fed in such a long time

It’s been forty years
And they’re wandering still
With their own empty tears to quench the thirst

Swollen bellies filled with empty dreams
Narrow throats choked with silent screams
Always eating, always empty
I got these ghosts inside of me

The ghosts in my head
Are hurting tonight
Something that was dead came back to life again

They turn wine into water
And bread into rock
Till nothing else matters but feeding them

Swollen bellies filled with empty dreams
Narrow throats choked with silent screams
Always eating, always empty
I got these ghosts inside of me

And it’s so lonely in the realm of hungry ghosts
You can wander round for days
Don’t lose your way in the realm of hungry ghosts
Cause there’s no one there to point the way

Swollen bellies filled with empty dreams
Narrow throats choked with silent screams
Always eating, always empty
I got these ghosts inside of me

The Seed of Revival, A devotional thought

There's this very powerful story about the power of God's Word in 2 Kings 22 that has, I think, something very important to say to our world, some 2500 years or more after it was first written.

It's about a young king of Judah named Josiah, who is, the text takes pains to point out, the best king Judah's seen in years.  He's having the Temple of YHWH renovated, and as the workers are cleaning out one of the back rooms, they find a book of the Law--a forgotten book of the long neglected Torah.  No one knows what to do with it.  They give it to the priest, who gives it to the scribe, who brings it to the king, who reads it and realizes how far off track God's people have gone.  He will tear his robe when he hears it, and institute massive religious reforms among his people.

This is, in some ways, the ultimate picture of revival among God's people, and what I notice is that it all starts with re-discovering the neglected, near forgotten Word of God, and bringing it out into the light. I've seen stats and heard recent studies that suggest biblical literacy, Bible memory, habitual Bible-reading, even *basic* acceptance of the Bible as God's Word is at an all-time low among Canadian Christians.  Among Christians, mind you, not non-Christians. You can watch this video for more: http://vimeo.com/93482675.

The poignancy of this story, I think, should hit us deeply: the people found God's book, forgotten in God's house, and when they read it they tore their robes in dismay that they had let it lie neglected for so long.

May God help us all to re-discover his book in a similar way today, fresh and new and life changing; and may revival for us start there.

Notes from the Ashes, Part III: The 4 R's of Burnout


In a previous post on pastoral burnout, I suggested in passing that burnout is sort of an occupational hazard in ministry.  I don’t have empirical evidence that this is so, but anecdotally, I can say that the number of pastors I met during my own burnout time who quietly admitted, “I’ve been there, too” when I shared what I was going through, was kind of surprising to me.

As I say, I’m not sure if burnout is a special risk in pastoral-work, over and above other kinds of people-leading-people-helping sorts of jobs, but early on in my recovery I came across some teaching that helped me understand, if it is, why that might be the case.

It has to do with what this article calls "The 4 R’s of Burnout."  The whole article is worth a read, but here’s the idea in a nutshell.  Burnout is not simply a function of one’s work load.  That is to say, one can work under a high degree of responsibility, demands and stress, without approaching burnout, so long as the work is meeting certain other, necessary conditions; and conversely, if these conditions are not being met, then even relatively low demands can put someone at risk of burn-out.  We can think of these “necessary conditions” as the “4-R’s,” and the point is: most people can shoulder a relatively high work load without the risk of burnout, so long as the 4 R’s are in place; and by implication, simply adjusting the workload, without addressing the 4 R’s, won’t, in and of itself, mitigate the risk.

The 4 R's are:  Recognition, Rewards, Results and Relief.

According to the article I cited above, “If, no matter what you say or do, results, rewards, recognition and relief are not forthcoming ... the groundwork is being laid for apathy, callousness and despair.”

In practical terms, what this means is that someone can work long, hard hours without burning out if they know that there is an end in sight, if it’s possible to see the tangible results of their work, if they are receiving compensation commensurate to the demands of their work, and if they are duly recognized for what they are doing.  If, on the other hand, they are working in demanding conditions, but not seeing results, receiving recognition or being rewarded in ways commensurate to their work, and there’s no end in sight, that’s when the perfect-storm clouds start brewing.

Now: what I am about to say is simply an observation.  I have worked through these things in my own experience and do not make this observation out of a spirit of resentment or grudge at all.  I love the work that Jesus has called me to do and as best I can I do it “with all my heart, as working for the Lord and not for men” (Colossians 3:23).  I wouldn’t trade it for the world, even a world of recognition and rewards.  That said, still, it’s my observation that there are things about pastoral ministry that make "the 4 R’s" hard to come by.

We are conditioned by our faith, for instance, not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought, to humble ourselves under God’s hand, to become, as Jesus was, the servant of all.  And, while this is certainly a biblical spirit for pastors to adopt, it makes the idea that we may need or want recognition for our work difficult to accept, let alone admit, or ask for.

Or take results.  I am convinced that of all the kinds of work people do, the work of proclaiming the Word of God is one of the few that will genuinely have eternal significance.  At the same time, however, pastors can put in 20 hours or more on a sermon (and many of the best preachers I know do), and yet they have to sit down in the study Monday morning, and start all over again as if last Sunday’s sermon hadn’t even happened.  The Bible teaches us, in fact, that we’ll have to wait until the other side of Heaven to see the real results of our work (1 Corinthians 3:11-15); and, while I believe that the results on that day will make every drop of blood, sweat or tears worth all the effort, still it makes it hard sometimes to see the more immediate results that keep burnout at bay in other kinds of work.

We’d see similar things if we thought about the rewards—the actual compensation for pastoral work—or the potential for relief—time off and time away from the demands of the work.  The unique nature of ministry as work—the steady pace of it, the spiritual nature of it, the ambiguity of so much of it—all these things make it difficult for pastors consistently to find the relief, results, rewards and recognition they need for what they do.  If burnout is a special occupational hazard of being a pastor, this is probably why.

Again, I share these things as an observation, not a complaint.  But if you are a pastor and this observation is resonating with you today, let me suggest a few lessons I've learned to help deal with the missing R's of pastoral work.

First:  do not under-estimate, low-ball or lose sight of the eternal significance of what you do.  This is not pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die kind of thinking, it's simply a matter of reminding yourself daily that the faithful, disciplined, ongoing proclamation of the Word of God in a well-led community of faith is of eternal importance, and we have Jesus' own word that he will reward it well (see Mark 10:29-30; 1 Corinthians 3:14; 2 Timothy 4:1-8).  The results may not always be evident but, unlike any other work, they are guaranteed.

Second: overcome the ingrained hesitancy to advocate for yourself. We are not being "super-spiritual" or "servant-hearted" when we pretend that we do not actually have the very natural needs that other human beings have.  Often that hesitancy to say "I need..." is not spiritual at all, but simply pride or fear or both; and to be blunt, if we kill ourselves because we're not willing to advocate for ourselves, we haven't served anybody in the end.  This does not mean we approach our work with a demanding self-interest, but it does mean we practice humble self-care; and part of self care is being honest about our own needs.

Third: develop rhythms of rest and retreat.  I'm still learning on this one, but the more consistently you can work sabbath, retreat and rest into your daily, weekly and yearly routines, the more likely you'll be getting at least one of those 4 R's—relief—on a regular basis.

These weren't the only lessons I learned about pastoral burnout, or even the most important, but I've found the 4 R's very useful as a practical framework for understanding why it happens.  And, while I don't think this was exactly what Paul had in mind when he said he'd "fought the good fight and finished the course" in his ministry (2 Timothy 4:7); still, we're more likely to be able to say the same when we reach the end of our ministries, if we're mindful of the 4 R's.


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Three Minute Theology 2.5: Knowing the Bible Inside Out


They say that C. S. Lewis’ inspiration for his novel The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe came to him with the simple image of a lonely lamppost in a snowy wood, with a satyr standing under it.  In one sense, the whole world of Narnia was written “from the inside out,” around that central image.

While people sometimes approach the Bible as though it was written from cover to cover, beginning to end, in many ways it’s more like the world of Narnia than it is like a typical book.  It, too, is a book that “grew up” so to speak, around a central image or idea

This central image, of course is the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish Holy Man who lived and ministered in ancient Israel, between the years of 5 BC and 30 AD.  He was crucified by the Roman State as a political revolutionary, and his followers believe that the third day after his execution, he rose from the dead, alive and glorified, declared in power to be the Son of God.

A number of the earliest Christian writings, in fact, were written simply to tell and interpret his story—they are early biographies, so to speak, of Jesus Christ. 

These books are sometimes called the Gospels, and the Gospel writers were intent on setting down the historical events of his life, from what they personally witnessed, or what was handed down to them through oral tradition.

Of course, at the same time as these books were being written, communities of Jesus’ followers—the early Christians—were springing up all over the ancient world.  These were groups of men and women who worshipped and followed Jesus as the Saviour, but needed guidance and instruction to worship him and follow him correctly.

So the Apostles—church leaders who had been specially commissioned by Jesus for this job—wrote letters  to these churches for specific purposes: to settle church disputes, maybe, to clarify teaching, perhaps, to encourage Christians who were going through persecution, and so on.  These letters were circulated and re-circulated around the various churches as occasion arose and opportunity allowed.

After a number of generations, a bunch of these epistles were in circulation, along with a number of documents telling the story of Jesus, so Church leaders decided it would be a good idea to identify which writings were historical and reliable and authentic writings about Jesus, which books, that is, belonged in the Canon.

The earliest official “list” of books that belonged in the Bible wasn’t approved until 393 AD, but the list itself goes back to the earliest generations of the church.

Of course the Gospels and the Epistles only account for 1/3 of the actual content of the Bible. 

To understand where the other 2/3rs came from you need to remember that Christianity originated out of first-century Judaism.  Jesus himself was a Jew, and the Jews in his day had their own set of sacred writings that described the history of God’s life with Israel.  Christians sometimes call these Hebrew Scriptures the Old Testament, and the essentially, this was the Bible as it existed in Jesus’s day.

Jesus’ message, in fact, was that, as the Messiah, he was the fulfillment of whole entire message of the Hebrew Scriptures—the fulfillment of all its prophecies, the meaning of its law, the answer to all its questions and the completion of its story.    

So: Because it’s impossible to know who he is without knowing the story that he claimed to fulfill, Christians have always insisted that the Old Testament—the Hebrew Scriptures—are an integral part of God’s Word, and that it’s not complete without them.
  
This then, is how we got the Christian Bible.  It’s a book that literally grew up around the person of Jesus Christ—the writings that promised him before-hand, the writings that interpreted his life story, and the writings that teach us how to follow him, now.

Or, like Jesus himself said it in one place, "These were written to testify about me."

The Storm Before the Calm

In a previous post about my burn-out, I shared some thoughts on the difference between self-care and self-medication, and I alluded to the irony, that often when we neglect self-care, we turn to self-harm as a way self-medicating.  This is another song I wrote early on in the dark time, which sort of deals with all that.  Sometimes it's easier to say in verse what we can't say in prose.



The Storm Before the Calm

Here comes the adrenaline rush burning to my cheeks
Here comes relief from things that I haven’t felt for weeks
And it breaks across the sky
And it breaks against the skin
Like the lightning when it crashes to the ground
And the thunder rolls off ominously but it doesn’t make a sound

Here comes the whipping wind like a slap across the face
Here comes the fire storm that doesn’t leave a trace
And I’d stop it if I could
But it feels pretty good
And it feels even better when it stops
You wanna ride that fire storm all the way to the top
(of the bottom)

It’s the storm before the calm (don’t worry)
Just the storm before the calm
I know the hurt inside is a lousy way to feel alive
Ride that storm out till it’s gone

Here comes an answer to a question I didn’t ask
Here comes an answer tracing cracks across my mask
Cause the clay is wearing thin
And the heart behind the skin
Is fraying on the edges of my sleeve
There used to be a signal there but I don’t think
I can receive it any longer

It’s the storm before the calm (don’t worry)
Just the storm before the calm
I know the hurt inside is a lousy way to feel alive
Ride that storm out till it’s gone

On God-Anger, a devotional thought.

In 2 Kings 19, there's this interesting line about "raging against the Lord," that bears careful reflection. It's in 2 Kings 19:27 specifically, and God's speaking against Sennacherib, the King of Assyria, through the mouth of his prophet Isaiah. He says, "I know where you stay and when you come and go and how you rage against me."

The word he uses there to describe King Sennacherib's "rage" (ragaz) actually refers to physical agitation-- to quiver, tremble or quake with intense emotion. On the one hand, of course, it's a bit of a stretch to take what was happening in ancient Israel, when Assyria "raged" against God by attacking God's people in an imperialistic campaign for world domination, and apply that to the anger towards God that this or that individual might express in our modern-day society. But on the other hand, on a spiritual level, it's not that big of a leap at all. "Rage" towards God is not only an ancient Assyrian phenomenon, and expressing that anger through hostility towards God's people is not something that only happened way back then, when emperors ruled the world.

Put simply: I've heard people express quite real, quite serious anger towards God, and even once in a while seen it come out in actual physical agitation.

Sometimes, even, I've let the fear of encountering someone's hostility towards God prevent me from being transparent and open about my faith. And perhaps that's where, in particular, 23 Kings 19:27 speaks to us, especially, today. After all, God's not really speaking to the King of Assyria there, but to his people who are taking the brunt of Assyria's hostility towards Him. And he's asking his people simply to trust him to handle it, in his own time, in his own way, and not to let anyone's god-anger cause them to dismay.

May God give us the grace to do the same.

Notes from the Ashes, Part II: Take Care

Sometime last year I started doing yoga down at our local YMCA.  I realize a statement like that may raise a conservative Christian eyebrow or two; and for others it may seem about as “radical” as if I simply said, “I’ve been trying to exercise more.” So, recognizing that in some of the courtrooms of Christian opinion, the jury’s still out on the whole yoga question, let me qualify my statement by explaining that, when the instructor tells us set an “intention” for our practice, I always make it my intention “to glorify God”; and when she tells us to thank our selves for participating, I always specifically thank Jesus for giving me a body and keeping me healthy; and when she says “Namaste” at the end, I always say “God bless you,” instead.   

I’m sort of a rebel that way.

And if that doesn’t help any of you wondering what a Christian Pastor (a pretty conservative one, at that) is doing doing yoga of all things, let me also explain that it has to do with something I learned the hard way about the “ethical imperative of self-care.”  I know very little about yoga, actually, but I do know that heavy muscle work releases endorphins into the body’s system; and I know that focusing on just breathing slowly and intentionally for a while has a calming effect on me; and I know that I feel really good after a good hour of quietly stretching and balancing myself.

In short: yoga is something I’ve found I can do to take care of myself.  And like I say, I learned the hard way—the “crash-and-burn-out” hard way—that taking care of one’s self in ministry is, in fact, an ethical imperative.  “Imperative,” as in, it’s something that you should do, and “ethical” as in it’s wrong not to do it.  As a pastor I have an ethical responsibility to take care of, not just my spiritual health, but also my mental, and emotional, and physical health as well.
                                                                                   
I say I learned this the hard way because for a long time in ministry I placed very little importance on self-care.  I was lax when it came to guarding my Sabbath times; I did not take things like rest, sleep, recreation, or nutrition seriously; I had terrible ergonomics at my desk at work; I never said “no.”  I didn’t necessarily think I was doing anything “unethical” in neglecting these things, it’s just that—work was too demanding to stop for lunch—there was always more to do than could fit into just 6 days a week—and, hey, I could usually get by just fine on 5 hours of sleep a night, and then catch up on the weekend.

But then, as I shared in last week’s post, I reached a point in ministry where the emotional drain and the physical demands and the spiritual pressures of this very unique kind of work finally caught up to me.  It was like my mental health was a credit card and for five years I’d been racking up the bill and just making the minimum payments.  Then one day I was standing at the “till” of my life and the “credit card” was finally maxed out.  No matter how hard I swiped it, there was just no room left on the account.

I’m speaking metaphorically, of course, but it was not metaphorical, what happened.  As things got more and more difficult for me emotionally, I began doing what, as I’ve learned, most people do when they are in this place.  I began to self-medicate.  This is one of the most important lessons I learned through my burn-out, and the hardest: that when we are under stress, if we aren’t practicing self-care, we will start to self-medicate to deal with it.  This is why self-care is an ethical imperative, because unlike self-care, which is constructive, self-medication tends to be destructive.

I don’t want to sensationalize anything, so I won’t go into details, but let me just say this.  For some people, self-medication happens through things like substance-abuse, risk-taking behaviours, binge-spending, viewing pornography, stuff like that.  By God’s grace my form of “self-medication” didn’t lead me down any of those dark roads.  It was more about me looking for cathartic ways to vent the turmoil I was in and usually ended with my having physically hurt myself and feeling finally some vague sense of relief.  It was much less “serious” than the kinds of self-medication that some people have hit upon as ways of dealing with the stress of their circumstances, but it was serious enough that, having come through the other side, I can say it from experience that a wise, balanced self-care plan is far, far better than a desperate form of self-medication.  And if you don’t have the former, your brain will probably start looking for the latter, without telling you it’s doing so.

Which brings me back to yoga.  Yoga is hardly the only thing I do to take care of myself, but it is, for the reasons I mentioned above, one of the things I do.   And whether or not saying “God bless you” instead of “Namaste” makes any difference, I do know that I feel far closer to Jesus—and better equipped to serve him—when I’m taking my responsibility of self-care seriously.

If any of this is ringing true for you today, let me add a few other practical things I do by way of self-care, just so you don’t think it’s all downward dogs and exalted warrior poses for me.  Here’s my list in no particular order:

1. Guarding my Sabbath—as best I can, and making it Holy to the Lord.

2. Having an Accountability Partner—we meet on roughly a monthly basis to talk about this stuff, and more.

3. Playing squash weekly with a good friend—recreation has a way of “re-creating” things in you.

4. Getting Good Nutrition—I’m still working on this one, because I have a really bad habit of skipping meals, but as I’m learning, the body needs fuel, and coffee on its own is not really fuel.

5. Getting Enough Sleep—another work in process, but I no longer regard operating on 5-hours a night as an act of heroism.

6. Practicing proper ergonomics at work—no more hours on end hunched over a tiny laptop screen.

7. Exercising regularly at the Y—heavy muscle-work really does release endorphins; I try to get to the gym at least three times a week.

8. Connecting more regularly and intentionally with friends and family—I have a tendency to be socially withdrawn, but studies have shown that positive social interactions actually release a hormone called telemorase that slows aging and heals us from the effects of stress.

9. Volunteering in the Community—I volunteer at a song-writers club at a local elementary school, another great source of telemorase for me.

10. Being Creative—writing poetry, composing songs, making music, doing art, whatever it is, I’ve found that if I don’t have something creative going on in my life, my mental health suffers.

11. Walking to work—I sit a lot at my job, obviously, so this vigorous 30 minute walk, much of it through quiet green parks and peaceful neighbourhood streets is daily balm for me.

This list may seem kind of silly to some.  It may just seem like common sense to others.  But inasmuch as I’ve learned how important self-care really is for longevity and effectiveness in ministry, it’s important for me see it in writing like that. 

If you are a pastor, like me, let me suggest to you that your temperament, your training, and your work alike all condition you to being others-oriented and hesitant to think seriously about your own needs.  This is an occupational hazard.  But so is burn-out. So to avoid the latter, let me encourage you to spend some time on the former, if you haven’t ever done so, and give some serious thought to how you are responding to the ethical imperative of self-care.  It may not be yoga for you, but by God's grace may we all find ways to take care of ourselves, so that we are fully able to lose them in him.

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The Uncanny Valley

And while I blog through thoughts, observations and lessons learned regarding pastoral burnout (see last week's post), I thought I'd also take some time to blog through my most recent musical project, inversions.  This is a collection of songs I wrote during the dark time, many of them efforts to process what I was going through, others expressing hope for healing on the other side.  You can check out the whole recording on Bandcamp [click here].  

In the field of aesthetics, "the uncanny valley" describes the vague repulsion that people experience when something "unreal" is extremely close to life-like, but not quite alive.  The idea is, if you could graph people's comfort level on the y-axis, with an object's life-likeness on the x, the line would ascend until it reached the just-about-but-not-quite-life-like point, at which point it would drop off sharply into the "uncanny valley."


To me, the concept of the "uncanny valley"--being in an emotional valley because what you're experiencing is only life-like enough to cause distress--was a pretty vivid image for my burn-out experience.  It's like wandering this realm where things seem real, but the vitality and vividness is missing from it all, so it's only real enough to be vaguely disturbing.  I wrote "The Uncanny Valley" early on in my burn-out time, trying to get some handles on it all.

The Uncanny Valley



You’ve been wandering around the uncanny valley
Looking for a place to crash
Like a stolen purse in a blind back alley
Your story is out of cash
And it’s a long way up
Climbing straight to the top

There’s flooding down here in the uncanny valley
And the levee’s about to break
Like a cardboard sign in an occupy rally
The truth is hard to fake
And it’s a long way down
Better try not to drown

And if I had the choice I’d build on higher ground
Where you can see blue sky for days (and days and days)
And if I knew the way I’d bring you with me too
We’d stand there blinking blind beneath her sunny rays
But it’s a long way up
Climbing straight to the top

La la, la la la la la la, la la la la la la la la
Soon we’ll be standing in the the sun, singing
La la, la la la la la la, la la la la la la la la
Just one more ridge and we’ll be done

You’ve been hovering around the uncanny valley
Looking for a place to land
Like a Don Giovanni in his grand finale
You’re standing on sinking sand
And it’s a long way home
Fingers worn to the bone

And if I had the choice I’d build on level ground
Where there is room to spare for miles (and miles and miles)
And if I had a plan I’d build a room for you
Where you could hang your hat and rest there for a while
But it’s a long way home
Fingers worn to the bone

La la, la la la la la la, la la la la la la la la
Soon we’ll be standing in the the sun, singing
La la, la la la la la la, la la la la la la la la
Just one more ridge and we’ll be done

A Tale of Two Covenants, a devotional thought

In 2 Kings 18:31-37, the city of Jerusalem is under siege by the Assyrians, and the people come out to parlay with the Assyrian general. He says some utterly shocking and blasphemous things about what they intend to do to the inhabitants of the city once they've conquered it (it really is R-rated), and how YHWH can't stop them, any more than any of the other gods of the other nations could. And then in 2 Kings 18:31, he says, "So this is what the king of Assyria says: make a covenant with me, and every man can 'eat from his own vine and drink from his own cistern.'"

Considering what they'll be eating and drinking if they don't (see v.27), this seems like a fair deal.

Only: the word he uses there, "covenant," is a really loaded one. Because the people, right from the beginning of the story, have been in covenant with YHWH. That is the story: God covenants with his people, promises to guard them and guide them, and invites them to love him and serve him. So, in suggesting that the Jerusalemites make a covenant with him, the king of Assyria is also telling them to abandon their covenant with YHWH.

Of course, I'm not standing on a city wall listening to a horde of ruthless barbarians threaten to slaughter me and mine if I don't surrender, so I can't imagine the very real terror that must have swept the city that day, and how tempting it would have been for Hezekiah to cut covenant with Assyria and be done with it. But at the same time, this passage leaves me wondering: where, and how, and when have I made a covenant with the systems of this world, because they promised to bring me peace or spare me difficulty, even though in cozying up like that, it meant abandoning, or at the very least neglecting the covenant God's made with me?

May God help us all see the "worldly covenants" in our lives for what they are; may he keep us faithful in covenant with him, even as he himself is faithful.

Notes from the Ashes (Part I): Some Reflections on Pastoral Burn-out


It was just over a year ago now that I went through one of the darkest periods of my ministry, if not my life.  It was a season that started after a long run of emotionally demanding ministry challenges, a few hard disappointments in a row, some big uncertainties looming up on the horizon, and my worst self getting the better of me one too many times.  Before long I was exhibiting all the classic signs of burn-out—severe depression, physical exhaustion, difficulty making even simple decisions, unexpected and uncontrollable bouts of anxiety, and what those in the biz call “escape thoughts.”

After a few months of being like this, it all came to a head one very dark Sunday evening, when an unexpected email from a well-meaning friend expressing some concerns about my ministry, launched me into a startlingly intense and disproportionate explosion of frustration, fear and despair.  I say “startling” because when the storm passed, the uncontrollable eruption of emotion was so alarming to me that I finally admitted to myself, and my wife, that I needed help.

About a month later I was off on stress leave for emotional and physical exhaustion.  About three months after that, after a good deal of self-work, some pretty serious work on my life with God, and some much-less serious but vitally needed rest, I was back at my ministry post, with fresh clarity on who I was as a pastor, renewed heart for the ministry, and new depths in my life with God.  I was, in the words of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “an older and wiser man.”

The medical term for what happened to me, I think, is “clinical depression.”  The corporate world calls it “burn-out” and the church sometimes calls it “compassion fatigue.”  I just call it “my dark time.”  It was very real, very raw, at times very scary, and, while I wouldn't wish it on anyone, God used it to help me become the pastor he has called me to be.

For the next few weeks here at terra incognita, I intend to share some practical and/or spiritual lessons I learned from my experience, some of the things God was doing in me through that time, and some of the things I wish people had told me about burn-out while I was going through it.  My purpose here is three-fold.  First, inasmuch as all this happened a year ago now, I think it would be personally helpful to review what I went through, to remind myself exactly how I got to a place I never want to be in again.  Second: one of the things that God said to me early on in my recovery time was that none of this would be wasted, that a deeper, more authentic ministry would grow out of the pain I was in; so perhaps sharing some of these spiritual insights is a way of humbly holding him to that promise, to redeem my burn-out by offering it as help and hope for others.  But most importantly, third: if you, or someone you know is now where I was then, or close, or on the way there, my hope is that these travel notes from someone who’s been down the path before may be of help to you.

To start it all off, let me offer four simple things I learned about burn-out that were very important first-steps—not to my recovery itself, necessarily, but to my getting to a place where I could begin to recover.  In a way similar to how acceptance is the first step to recovery of other kinds, these are four things I needed to hear someone I trusted say to me, before I could begin to heal.

1.  Burn-out is not a sign of failure but of strength

I know that sounds like the nonsense motivational speakers say when they want you to believe that "obstacles" are really "opportunities in disguise," but the thing is, when someone burns out, it’s because they've been doing too-well for too-long what other people would have given up on long ago.  Or think about it like the fuse in a car.  When the fuse blows, it’s not because the fuse failed, but because it worked: there was an overload on the system and by “blowing” the fuse did its job and protected the system from frying.  The burned-out pastor is like that fuse, inasmuch as he or she “blew” to keep the emotional load from frying the whole system (the local church or ministry context).  Refusing to “blow” and letting the emotional load fry the system would have been the real failure.

2.   You are not alone

Eugene Peterson, Henri Nouwen, Peter Scazzero, Bill Hybels, Rob Bell and, as far as I can gather, the Apostle Paul himself, have all been through what you’re going through.  One of the lies I believed early on in my experience, a lie that was keeping me from seeking the help I needed, went like this: “if you do ‘burn-out,’ your credibility as a pastor (such as it was) will be shot.”  So imagine my surprise, as I began reading about burn out, and I discovered that almost every contemporary church leader I’ve ever admired, respected, taken cures from or tried to model my ministry after, have themselves been through this thing called burn-out.  Knowing they’d come out the other side older and wiser helped me to believe I could, too.

3.  This is not "just in your head." 

Burn-out is as much a physical thing as it is an intellectual or emotional.  This was huge for me to realize because it forced me to accept that I could not "keep pushing" by sheer mental exertion alone, anymore than a guy with a broken femur can just "walk it off."  

(I’ll share more about this later, but here’s how it was explained to me:  your brain is built to run naturally on "feel-good-hormones" like endorphins, oxytocin and what not.  These chemicals are produced naturally by things like rest, sleep, physical exercise, good nutrition, making love to your spouse, enjoying the company of good friends, and so on.  If you deplete your system of these hormones because you’re running it too hard without doing the things that replenish them, your body will start producing adrenaline—a stress hormone—to keep it running instead.  This is like if you run out of gas for the car, so you use some high octane rocket fuel because it’s all you’ve got; it’ll run for a while, but eventually it will destroy your engine.  If you’ve been running for months on adrenaline, eventually the system will shut down, and no matter how hard you turn the key, it ain't gonna start anymore.  The only way to heal is to do those things—rest, exercise, recreation, friendship, nutrition—that replenishes the tank.)

4.  Depression is real

I would have "said" this before my dark time, of course, but after the dark time, I actually "get it." People who have experienced depression have different terms for it—the noon-day demon, the black dog, and so on—that try to put their finger on what it’s like to be depressed.  I often describe it like this: “It’s like, the sun’s shining.  You can feel the light on your face, feel the warmth on your skin, see the blue sky, and yet your brain tells you with all seriousness, ‘nope.  It’s another cloudy day.’”  I never thought I stigmatized people with depression before, until I faced my visceral resistance to seeking help for my own depression, and suddenly I realized all the prejudices and stereotypes and judgement I subconsciously harbored about “cloudy Dee,” that I never realized or admitted before.  It could be that exorcising those things—judgment, prejudice and stereotypes about depression—was one of  the things God was doing through my burn out.


If any of this is resonating with you today, let me encourage you to take it seriously.  One of the other things I learned about burn-out is that there's sort of a lag-time with it—that is, often we are burned out months before the "running on adrenaline" catches up to us and we finally have to admit that the tank is empty, so the sooner we're honest with ourselves, the better.

Burn-out is not the end of the world, but it is the end of some things—a false kind of self-sufficiency, an unrealistic perception of yourself and your limits, in-authenticity and dishonesty about where you're really at with God. But as someone who's been through it, let me humbly suggest that for us to grow in the ways of Jesus, the sooner those things come to an end, the better.

You gotta cleave to someone, A Devotional Thought

In 2 Kings 18, you come across a simple single verse that, if you'd been reading 2 Kings right from the start, would, and should turn your head.  It's at the start of King Hezekiah's reign and it simply says, "he did right in the eyes of the Lord."  After years, and years, and years of kings who piled sins upon sins upon sins, along comes a king who "did right in the sight of the Lord, just like his father David." 

This is extremely rare. A few other kings get this accolade (Asa, Jehoshaphat, Josiah), but Hezekiah is in a category all his own. He even removed the high places, and he's the only king in 2 Kings to do so. 2 Kings 18:4 is a sit up and take notice kind of verse, about a sit up and take notice kind of king.

And here's what I notice when I sit up: the secret to Hezekiah's spiritual success is that he "clung" to the Lord (dabaq, 18:6). The word there that describes Hezekiah's commitment to YHWH is actually the same word that Genesis 1 uses when it talks about Adam and Eve and the first ever marriage, and it says, "for this reason, a man will leave his mother and father and cleave (dabaq) to his wife." Hezekiah's faithful commitment to YHWH was of marriage-vow quality: he clave to the Lord. There're a few other times this word gets used in 2 Kings, and all the rest are bad: Solomon "clung" (dabaq) to his foreign wives and they led him astray, King Jehoram clung (dabaq) to the sins of his father and led Israel astray. 

To modify Bob Dylan only slightly, "You gotta cleave to someone..."  We are designed, that is, to be betrothed to something, to someone.  We have clingy hearts. Unlike the Kings before him, who set their clingy hearts on anything but the Lord, Hezekiah clung to God, and millenia later he's still remembered for it. And the challenge of his story is that we would do the same, and fix our clingy hearts on Him.

A View of the World from Gravity Falls, Part VI: Bill Cipher among the Powers

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In a previous post, I shared some observations about the true nature of spiritual warfare—namely that it has to do with truth, not power—and then I suggested some ways in which Lil’ Gideon, one of the central villains in the Gravity Falls series, exemplifies this particular struggle.  In that post, I suggested that this was only half the story, however, and that the other half—the other main villain in Gravity Falls, and also the other main aspect of spiritual warfare—would half to wait until another post. 

As our final installment in this series, today’s post will have to serve as that other post; but before we get into it—what a bizarre “dream demon” named Bill Cipher, Dipper and Mabel’s arch-nemesis and Gravity Falls resident evil, has to do with spiritual warfare as the Bible understands it—before tackling him, that is, it might help to spend some time talking about something the Bible refers to as “the powers and the principalities.”

Almost like the triangle-framed eyes that dot the landscape of Gravity Falls, once you become aware of them, you’ll start to notice the “powers and principalities” all over the place in the New Testament.  They are especially prominent in Paul’s writings.  In Romans 8:38, for instance, Paul expresses his deep-down conviction that “neither angels nor demons ... nor any powers” could separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.  In Ephesians 1:20, Paul envisions Christ enthroned “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.”  In Ephesians 3:10, Paul says that God’s plan was to display his wisdom, through Christ, to the powers and principalities.  In Colossians 2:15, he says that through the cross of Christ, God has disarmed and triumphed over the powers and principalities.

I could go on, but the point is, Paul, and the rest of the New Testament writers with him, seems pretty convinced that a) there is something spiritual about the systems of power and authority that we see in the world, a spiritual dimension to them that isn't immediately obvious to us but is very influential; and b) that through Christ, God has exposed, unmasked, disarmed, defeated and in all other ways overcome the Powers.

A number of contemporary theologians have spent a fair bit of time trying to understand what the New Testament is really talking about when it talks about “the powers and principalities” like this.  I’d suggest you read guys like Hendrik Berkhof, Walter Wink, William Stringfellow or Richard Beck if you’re curious.  For today, let me just say that, whatever else it means, this talk about "the Powers" is a way of describing the “invisible structures” or the “inner reality” of human life together.  As a theological category, “the powers” refer to the spiritual dimension that is inherent in any human effort to order society, from political and economic institutions, to cultural or religious ones to technological ones.   All such “organizations” of human society are, of course, useful and necessary; but they are also inevitably “spiritual,” and, owing to the fallenness of human nature itself, inevitably fallen.  In their fallenness, the powers exert unintended, often unrecognized spiritual influence over us, behaving, in Henrdik Berkhof’s words, “as though they were the ultimate ground of being and demanding from [people] an appropriate worship."  

We might point to the cult of Roman Emperor worship for an ancient example of “the Powers.”   We might point to the psychological impact of advertising media for a modern example; we might point the influence of the internet on our social interactions for a technological one; and we might point to the inexorable power of the global economy for a economic one.  In each of these examples, it is easy to see how very mundane, necessary, everyday things can indeed take on a life of their own, and begin to exert an influence over human beings that transcends any one individual person (anything that’s “too big to fail” is surely a “power” in the biblical sense).

If this isn’t making any sense to you, maybe think about that novel Lord of the Flies from your High School days, and reflect for a few minutes on how quickly the efforts of those castaway boys to order and maintain their society start to “possess them” in ways that none of the boys would have chosen on their own.  That’s about as good a picture of “the powers” at work as anything I’ve come across. 

But if it is making sense, let me turn your attention towards Gravity Fall’s central villain, Bill Cipher.

Bill is, as I mentioned before, a “dream demon.”  That is, he inhabits a spiritual dimension parallel to, but also inaccessible to ours, and is only able to affect our reality when someone conjures him and/or opens themselves to him, as Gideon does in Episode 1.19, or as Dipper does in Episode 2.4. 

Of course, Bill’s nature as a spirit-being is not in dispute.  What is disputed—hotly disputed in some corners of the world-wide-web—is who he actually is.  I've heard a number of theories, the most “out-there” of which is that he’s actually the spirit of Dipper himself, come from the future to haunt the past.

I don’t buy that one, but I do have a theory of my own.  It rests on the following facts: a) that Bill bears an uncanny likeness to the “all-seeing-eye” that can be found, among other places, on the back of the American Dollar Bill; b) that his name is actually a none-too-subtle reference to this very symbol—he is, in fact, the “bill cipher”; c) that in one episode he offers some off-hand advice to “buy gold,” and has been known to make other allusions to stuff straight out of the worst conspiracy theories; and d) that his triangle-framed eye symbol can be seen all over the place in Gravity Falls, when you start looking for it.

Who is Bill Cipher?

What if he was a quirky Disney Show’s stab at the very same thing the Bible is talking about when it talks about “the powers and principalities”: the “inner reality” or “spiritual dimension” that is a very real and inevitable part of human social institutions?  As the “bill cipher,” Bill is evocative of, if not directly symbolic of, the spiritual dimension that is inherent in our economic systems—the way the “Almighty Dollar” exerts an influence over us so pervasive that we could almost call it spiritual.  (And just in case this seems too far out there, let me point out that one of the show’s regular themes is the corrupt lengths Stan’s prepared to go to, and the whoppers he’s prepared to tell, in service of the Almighty Dollar.)

To be clear, I am not saying that Alex Hirsch had any of Paul’s writings about “The Powers” in mind when he sketched a pyramid with a single eye in it and made that the arch-villain of Gravity Falls.  I’m only suggesting that whatever Bill represents in this show, it’s the same stuff that the Bible would use the term “Powers and Principalities” to describe.

And if it’s true, then let me suggest that the Bible takes our struggle with the Powers and Principalities as seriously as Dipper and Mabel take their struggle with Bill Cipher.  More seriously, in fact.  

Our battle is not against flesh and blood, Paul said, but against the powers and principalities in the heavenly realms (cf. Eph 6:12).  Whether or not Bill is really one of “the Powers” in the biblical sense, “The Powers” themselves are very real, and for Christians the struggle to live free from them—the struggle, that is, not to put the Powers and Principalities at the centre of life, the struggle not to offer them free sway over our ambitions, motives and decisions, the struggle to submit them to the Lordship of Christ—is very real, too.

And who knows, but maybe the story of a couple of kids fighting a fiend like Bill Cipher, armed simply with their love for each other and a good book, maybe that's as good an analogy for our struggle against the Powers as any you'll find in an animated kids show.

A View of the World from Gravity Falls, Part VI: Bill Cipher among the Powers

In a previous post, I shared some observations about the true nature of spiritual warfare—namely that it has to do with truth, not power—and then I suggested some ways in which Lil’ Gideon, one of the central villains in the Gravity Falls series, exemplifies this particular struggle.  In that post, I suggested that this was only half the story, however, and that the other half—the other main villain in Gravity Falls, and also the other main aspect of spiritual warfare—would half to wait until another post. 

As our final installment in this series, today’s post will have to serve as that other post; but before we get into it—what a bizarre “dream demon” named Bill Cipher, Dipper and Mabel’s arch-nemesis and Gravity Falls resident evil, has to do with spiritual warfare as the Bible understands it—before tackling him, that is, it might help to spend some time talking about something the Bible refers to as “the powers and the principalities.”

Almost like the triangle-framed eyes that dot the landscape of Gravity Falls, once you become aware of them, you’ll start to notice the “powers and principalities” all over the place in the New Testament.  They are especially prominent in Paul’s writings.  In Romans 8:38, for instance, Paul expresses his deep-down conviction that “neither angels nor demons ... nor any powers” could separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.  In Ephesians 1:20, Paul envisions Christ enthroned “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.”  In Ephesians 3:10, Paul says that God’s plan was to display his wisdom, through Christ, to the powers and principalities.  In Colossians 2:15, he says that through the cross of Christ, God has disarmed and triumphed over the powers and principalities.

I could go on, but the point is, Paul, and the rest of the New Testament writers with him, seems pretty convinced that a) there is something spiritual about the systems of power and authority that we see in the world, a spiritual dimension to them that isn't immediately obvious to us but is very influential; and b) that through Christ, God has exposed, unmasked, disarmed, defeated and in all other ways overcome the Powers.

A number of contemporary theologians have spent a fair bit of time trying to understand what the New Testament is really talking about when it talks about “the powers and principalities” like this.  I’d suggest you read guys like Hendrik Berkhof, Walter Wink, William Stringfellow or Richard Beck if you’re curious.  For today, let me just say that, whatever else it means, this talk about "the Powers" is a way of describing the “invisible structures” or the “inner reality” of human life together.  As a theological category, “the powers” refer to the spiritual dimension that is inherent in any human effort to order society, from political and economic institutions, to cultural or religious ones to technological ones.   All such “organizations” of human society are, of course, useful and necessary; but they are also inevitably “spiritual,” and, owing to the fallenness of human nature itself, inevitably fallen.  In their fallenness, the powers exert unintended, often unrecognized spiritual influence over us, behaving, in Henrdik Berkhof’s words, “as though they were the ultimate ground of being and demanding from [people] an appropriate worship."  

We might point to the cult of Roman Emperor worship for an ancient example of “the Powers.”   We might point to the psychological impact of advertising media for a modern example; we might point the influence of the internet on our social interactions for a technological one; and we might point to the inexorable power of the global economy for a economic one.  In each of these examples, it is easy to see how very mundane, necessary, everyday things can indeed take on a life of their own, and begin to exert an influence over human beings that transcends any one individual person (anything that’s “too big to fail” is surely a “power” in the biblical sense).

If this isn’t making any sense to you, maybe think about that novel Lord of the Flies from your High School days, and reflect for a few minutes on how quickly the efforts of those castaway boys to order and maintain their society start to “possess them” in ways that none of the boys would have chosen on their own.  That’s about as good a picture of “the powers” at work as anything I’ve come across. 

But if it is making sense, let me turn your attention towards Gravity Fall’s central villain, Bill Cipher.

Bill is, as I mentioned before, a “dream demon.”  That is, he inhabits a spiritual dimension parallel to, but also inaccessible to ours, and is only able to affect our reality when someone conjures him and/or opens themselves to him, as Gideon does in Episode 1.19, or as Dipper does in Episode 2.4. 

Of course, Bill’s nature as a spirit-being is not in dispute.  What is disputed—hotly disputed in some corners of the world-wide-web—is who he actually is.  I've heard a number of theories, the most “out-there” of which is that he’s actually the spirit of Dipper himself, come from the future to haunt the past.

I don’t buy that one, but I do have a theory of my own.  It rests on the following facts: a) that Bill bears an uncanny likeness to the “all-seeing-eye” that can be found, among other places, on the back of the American Dollar Bill; b) that his name is actually a none-too-subtle reference to this very symbol—he is, in fact, the “bill cipher”; c) that in one episode he offers some off-hand advice to “buy gold,” and has been known to make other allusions to stuff straight out of the worst conspiracy theories; and d) that his triangle-framed eye symbol can be seen all over the place in Gravity Falls, when you start looking for it.

Who is Bill Cipher?

What if he was a quirky Disney Show’s stab at the very same thing the Bible is talking about when it talks about “the powers and principalities”: the “inner reality” or “spiritual dimension” that is a very real and inevitable part of human social institutions?  As the “bill cipher,” Bill is evocative of, if not directly symbolic of, the spiritual dimension that is inherent in our economic systems—the way the “Almighty Dollar” exerts an influence over us so pervasive that we could almost call it spiritual.  (And just in case this seems too far out there, let me point out that one of the show’s regular themes is the corrupt lengths Stan’s prepared to go to, and the whoppers he’s prepared to tell, in service of the Almighty Dollar.)

To be clear, I am not saying that Alex Hirsch had any of Paul’s writings about “The Powers” in mind when he sketched a pyramid with a single eye in it and made that the arch-villain of Gravity Falls.  I’m only suggesting that whatever Bill represents in this show, it’s the same stuff that the Bible would use the term “Powers and Principalities” to describe.

And if it’s true, then let me suggest that the Bible takes our struggle with the Powers and Principalities as seriously as Dipper and Mabel take their struggle with Bill Cipher.  More seriously, in fact.  

Our battle is not against flesh and blood, Paul said, but against the powers and principalities in the heavenly realms (cf. Eph 6:12).  Whether or not Bill is really one of “the Powers” in the biblical sense, “The Powers” themselves are very real, and for Christians the struggle to live free from them—the struggle, that is, not to put the Powers and Principalities at the centre of life, the struggle not to offer them free sway over our ambitions, motives and decisions, the struggle to submit them to the Lordship of Christ—is very real, too.

And who knows, but maybe the story of a couple of kids fighting a fiend like Bill Cipher, armed simply with their love for each other and a good book, maybe that's as good an analogy for our struggle against the Powers as any you'll find in an animated kids show.