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

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

Three Hands Clapping

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

Ghost Notes

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


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


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


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


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


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

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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.

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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Jon Coutts said...

Thanks for this Dale.