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 Wounded Healer, a song

Another song from inversions.  It was inspired by a pastor I heard about who was "tweeting" his way through the whole Bible-- providing short, 140 character summaries of each book as he finished them.  His "tweet" summarizing the book of Psalms?

When my heart broke in two, I taught both halves to sing.



They say the bones always heal
Stronger at the break
It’s what they say, what they say

Some joys come stealing in
Through the backdoor of the ache
Then they steal away, they steal away

But somewhere at the bottom of a deep dark well
I thought I saw your face
And somehow when the silence got the best of me
That’s when I found you

When my heart broke in two, you taught both halves to sing
When I couldn’t mouth the words,
and I could hold the tune together in these clumsy hands
But you showed me the beauty that shines in broken things
In the rhythm of the hurt and laughter, I heard the cadence
When my heart broke in two, you taught both halves to sing

After the tree’s been pruned
You get the sweetest yield
You have to cut it away, cut it away

Only the deepest wound
Can teach us how to heal
There’s no other way, no other way

But somewhere in the middle of an emptied hell
I was tidying up the place
And I hoped you wouldn’t notice all the messiness
But that’s when you found me

When my heart broke in two, you taught both halves to sing
When I couldn’t mouth the words,
and I could hold the tune together in these clumsy hands
But you showed me the beauty that shines in broken things
In the rhythm of the hurt and laughter, I heard the cadence
When my heart broke in two, you taught both halves to sing

On Chasing and Waiting and Which is Which, a Devotional Thought

There's this subtle but fascinating linguistic parallel between Hosea 6:3, in the Old Testament, and James 5:7 in the New. In Hosea, the prophet exhorts his people to "acknowledge the Lord and press on to know him, because he will come to us like the winter rains and the spring rains." This line finds a haunting echo in the James passage, where James says, "Be patient and wait for the Lord's coming; Just like a farmer plants his crops and then waits for the autumn rain and the spring rain, so too we should wait, for the Lord is coming."

This verbal parallel gets even more interesting when you look up the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. In the LXX version of Hosea 6:3, the Greek words for "winter and spring rains" are the exact same words as James uses in 5:7 (proimos kai opsimos). What's fascinating about this, though, is that James is talking about patiently waiting for the Lord, and Hosea's talking about earnestly, actively pursuing him. Yet in both cases the outcome is exactly the same: he comes to us like the spring rain and the winter rain.

This is more than just a curious piece of Bible Trivia. It actually speaks to one of the deep paradoxes of the spiritual life: sometimes the best way to wait for the Lord is to chase hard after him with all we've got, and sometimes the best way to chase after the Lord is to wait patiently for him to come to us.

The obvious question all this raises is: "Which is which, today?" In other words: does my "waiting for the Lord" need to look more like Hosea's earnest pursuit of him? Or does my "pursuit of God" need to look more like James' patient farmer watching the clouds pile up in the sky and waiting for them to arrive? Knowing which we are called to be in this given moment-- a Jamesesque Hosea or a Hosean James--takes careful discernment and deep wisdom; but both James and Hosea would agree, I think, that He comes most surely to those who have learned to wait with perfect restfulness as they pursue him with earnest longing.

But the Crying, a song


Another song from inversions:





It’s one AM and wide awake
The night is wearing thin
Like the tattered sleeve of a homeless coat

You can play the game of give and take
But you can’t bluff anymore
When your hope is barely keeping you afloat

It’s all over but the crying isn’t over
It’s all over but the crying isn’t done
It’s all over but the crying isn’t over
It’s all over but there’s crying left to come

Now it’s four AM and the world’s asleep
You’re the only one awake
And your heart is pacing in its cage

But if love’s as wide as it is deep
Then you’d better pace yourself
Cause tonight might last forever and an age

It’s all over but the crying isn’t over
It’s all over but the crying isn’t done
It’s all over but the crying isn’t over
It’s all over but there’s crying left to come
And I will cry holy
Shout my broken hallelujahs
I will cry holy
Giving my heart cry to ya

It’s six AM and dawn is near
You’re vigil’s almost done
And the light is standing in the wings

The red-eye flight’s still in the air
But the plane is landing soon
You can hear the day as it begins to sing

It’s all over but the crying isn’t over
It’s all over but the crying isn’t done
It’s all over but the crying isn’t over
It’s all over but there’s crying left to come
And I will cry holy
Shout my broken hallelujahs
I will cry holy
Giving my heart cry to ya  


Ba'al No Longer, a devotional thought

There's this haunting line in Hosea 2:6 that richly rewards deep meditation and honest reflection.  The Lord's talking about how he intends to restore and renew Israel to relationship with himself, and he says, "In that day, you will call me 'my husband' and you will no longer call me 'my master.'"  I call it haunting, in particular, because the Hebrew word for "master" that's used there is "ba'al," which simply means "lord," or "master," but has gone down in infamy because it's also the name for "Ba'al," the pagan deity who has competed for the hearts of YHWH's people, since the somewhere around the Book of Judges onward.  It gets even more haunting when you notice that the very the next verse uses the word "ba'al" to refer specifically to that foreign god: "I will remove the names of the Ba'als from your lips and their names will no longer be invoked."  

Here's what I think it all means: there is a way of relating to God that is, for lack of a better phrase, "ba'alistic": seeing him as a distant, detached, impersonal "Force to be Reckoned with," who has to be cajoled and manipulated and bargained with if you want to get anything out of him, but who, if he is suitably cajoled and manipulated and bargained with, is beholden to "pony up" and give you what you're asking for.  If and when we relate to God like this--like a sycophantic slave to an imperious Master--we are calling him, in effect, "our Ba'al."  And as far as Hosea is concerned, this is not at all how God is, or how he wants to relate to us, and to come to him as though he were just another "Ba'al," is the most heartbreaking kind of idolatry.  

It's heartbreaking, especially, because relationship he wants with us is one where he loves us and cares for us and communes with us, in the way a spouse loves and cares for and communes with his beloved.  But this kind of relationship just can't thrive if we have a "ba'alistic" view of God, anymore than a marriage can thrive if one partner is always trying to appease the other, or manipulate them into giving them what they want.  

It's important to note that it was Israel herself--the People of God--who had this distorted picture of their relationship with him; they were the ones calling him "ba'ali."  Could it be that it's actually those who have been doing life together with the God longest who are at greatest risk of slipping into this kind of "ba'alism"?  I'm not sure, but at the very least Hosea 2:6 challenges me to take careful stock of my own relationship with God: in the way I relate to him, do I call him "ba'ali" (my master), out of duty and drudgery?  Or do I call him "Ishi" (my betrothed) in delighted abandon? Because it's the later that God desires for us, and its in the later that we really find him.

Notes from the Ashes, Part VI: A Gift Wrapped in Barbed Wire

It was a dreary morning in December, only a few days after my doctor had put me on "reduced duties" because of symptoms related to work-place stress, and I was walking my then ten-year-old daughter to her bus stop.  I was miserable, with this weight of discouragement and defeat and despair hanging around my heart like a leaden albatross.  To paraphrase Augustine only a little bit: my soul was curved hopelessly in on itself.

As we walked, my daughter was saying something I was barely hearing about the song-writer's club at school. As I gradually came to and it sort of dawned on me that she was talking to me, I heard her say something about how she was looking forward to the day because the song-writer's club was happening at lunch. I asked a few questions and found out that her school had this group of kids that got together each week and, with the help of the teacher sponsors, learned how to write songs.

I write songs-- or I used to--but at that point, in the gloomy days right before Christmas 2013, it had been at least two years, maybe more, since I'd put pen to paper.  I never felt like I had the time. Or the energy.  Or the inspiration.  And anyways, what's the point?

One of the first things depression steals from you, I've since learned, is your ability to find joy in things that were, once-upon-a-time, joyful.  I've come to take this as a bit of a heart-barometer for me: when things that should be giving me joy feel like drudgery, it's time to take stock and/or a breather. But this is now, and that was then, and like I say, my daughter mentioned the songwriters club at school and I thought, "Man, it feels like ages since I've even wanted to write a song, let alone had something to write about."

And so I told my daughter that I'd be interested in volunteering at the club, if the teachers would let me.  She said she'd ask at school that day.

Things progressed for me pretty quickly from there, as far as my burnout was concerned.  My "reduced work duties" turned into a full-on stress leave. A lot of things came crashing down that I'd been clinging to, to keep me standing; some of my favorite masks to wear came off; and some of the emotional immaturity that I'd been trying hard to hide for a long time finally came out into the light.

But also: I started volunteering at the songwriter's club, where I found the energy, the time, and especially the inspiration to start writing songs again.  Not to sound too melodramatic, but in the midst of my defeat and despair--often because of my defeat and despair--I found something to sing about, and more importantly, the words to sing about it.

I didn't see it coming, but those three months, January to March, 2014, would turn out to be one of the most creative seasons of my life.  It was not a bright cheery kind of creativity, mind you.  It was often a raw, unpolished, haunted kind of creativity, but because of that, a more honest creativity than I'd ever really experienced before.  The songs didn't necessarily gush out of me--I was still very tired a lot of the time--but even so, I wrote at least twelve complete songs in three months, along with a number of arrangements that I worked on for the kids at my daughter's songwriter's club. Besides that, I also wrote a handful of poems, trying to process what I was going through, and, in the second half of my leave, as I felt my energy and optimism returning, four chapters of a novel that I'd been wanting to get to for years.

I'm sharing all this to illustrate one of the paradoxical truths I discovered about burnout.  I haven't done an quantitative study of it, of course, so I can't say if this is true for everyone who goes through it, but it was certainly true for me (and for the record, most of the books on pastoral burnout that I've read more or less bear out this simple observation):  burnout doesn't only steal; it also gives.

At least, if you take it seriously and get the help you need, it can. Burnout can be a profound gift-- a gift wrapped in barbed-wire, you might say, but a gift nonetheless.

I say this as someone who's been through it, and not at all to make light of the struggle, the darkness, the very real risk to your well-being that is burnout; but as someone who has been through it, I don't want to make light of the gift that's there, either.

What, in particular, did burnout give me?  I mentioned the renewed and deepened wells of creativity.  I'd add to that: greater authenticity and transparency in my ministry; better insight as a pastor into the spiritual and emotional struggles of others; greater wisdom in how to love and help and respond to people as they go through them; more real friendships; a deeper relationship with my wife; empirical evidence that God will be there still, on the other side of the dark night of the soul.

It may be that burnout is just a conceptual thing for you today, something you've only read about but never experienced.  It may be that you've come through burnout yourself, and what I'm saying is resonating with you here.  And, of course, it may be that you're right in the middle of something overwhelming today, like I was back in December 2013, and you're wondering if it could possibly get better.

If you're in that third place, let me say that it can.  It will mean taking it very seriously and getting the help you need, it will take honesty and discipline and, especially, God stepping in, but it can become, not just better, but, when you least expected it to be so, an unlikely and beautiful gift.



A Requiem for Septimus Warren Smith, a song

Another song from my inversions project.  I won't say much about it, except to explain that Septimus Warren Smith is a character from Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway.  He is  a veteran of World War I suffering from PTSD before anyone really knew what PTSD was.  I wrote it a couple of January's ago, when a number of very heartbreaking stories about Canadian soldiers suffering with PTSD were prominent headlines.



When Septimus Warren Smith fell down
I thought I heard the clatter
Of his body on the ground,
When he fell down

When Septimus Warren Smith fell down
I thought I saw them scatter
All the sparrows all around,
When he fell down

Don’t cry, Lucreiza
Don’t cry for me
Don’t cry, Lucreiza
Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry for me

If Septimus Warren Smith be mad
Then all sane men are fools
And crazy’s not so bad,
If he be mad

And when Septimus Warren Smith wept tears
They gathered into pools
Of truth and hope and fears,
When he wept tears

Don’t cry, Lucreiza
Don’t cry for me
Don’t cry, Lucreiza
Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry for me

When Septimus Warren Smith fell down
I thought I heard the clatter
Of his body on the ground
When he fell down

Commentaries on Song of Solomon, a review

Over the last few weeks at the FreeWay we’ve been doing a verse-by-verse study through, of all books, the Song of Solomon.  I say, “of all books” like that, because, if you know this one, you’ll know that it’s not the most accessible book in the Canon.  And if you don’t know it, well, you may want to give it a read.  Because of its provocative and sensual content, apparently, the ancient Rabbis said that you had to be at least 30 years old to read it.  Although they also said it was the Holy of Holies of the Hebrew Bible.  This series was more demanding for me as a preacher than I expected.  It took  a lot of research, a good deal of planning and a whole bunch of prayer.

As I often do after a series, I’m posting here some reviews of the main commentaries and preaching resources I used in my sermon prep for this one, in case you want to go deeper.

Duane Garrett, Song of Songs/Lamentations, Word Biblical Commentary Series.    Duane Garrett’s commentary was hands down the most insightful, useful and thorough resource I’ve come across for studying this difficult but beautiful book.  He unpacks the imagery with great clarity and sensitivity, and lays out the overarching structure of the book with great skill.  It is a bit on the technical side—not an entry-level book, to be sure—and a bit of a working knowledge of Hebrew is necessary to get all you can out of this resource, but even without it, I think, there’s lots here that would be accessible to the lay reader.  If I only had one book on Song of Solomon on my shelf, it would be this one.

Richard S. Hess, Song of Songs, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms Series .  Hess’s commentary made a fine compliment to Garrett’s.  While on the one hand, it is less technical than the Word Commentary, and because of that, more accessible, it is also less thorough and satisfying as a resource for deeper research.  There were times where I felt like his readings of particular scenes or passages were only scratching the surface.  Where he was especially weak was in his efforts (or lack thereof) to describe the over-arching structure of the book.

Richard Davidson, Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament.   Although the entire third part of this massive, 800 page tome is devoted solely to the Song, Davidson’s book is not, actually, a commentary on Song of Solomon.  It is, in fact, a survey of the Old Testament’s “theology of sex,” and as such discusses every (and I do mean every) text in the OT that deals with human sexuality.   His scholarship and analysis of the data, both biblical, historical and cultural, is extensive and insightful.  It was this one, in fact, which inspired me to do a series on Song of Solomon in the first place.

There were other resources I dipped into, but those were the main three.  I’ve listed them roughly in order of usefulness, but I actually found the interaction between the three of them was the place where God really started to open up this beautiful, sensual, baffling book to me.

Oh yeah, I should also include this resource, as an honourable mention:



Three Minute Theology 2.6: Bible Q & A



In Douglas Adam’s novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, he tells the story of an imaginary society that builds a super computer called “Deep Thought” that is supposed to tell them the meaning of life, the universe and everything.

 Deep Thought tells them it will take a while and asks them to come back in 7 ½ million years.

They do, and after millions of years of calculations, Deep Thought finally gives them the answer—to life, the universe and everything.

The answer is: 42.

When the people ask, “What kind of answer is 42, anyways?”  Deep Thought tells them, “It would have been simpler to know what the actual question was.  Only when you know the question will you know what the answer means.”

This is a helpful way to think about that part of the Bible we call the Old Testament.  Christians can sometimes get bogged down in the Old Testament because it’s full of things like ancient genealogies, and strange archaic laws, and so on that seem to have little to do with life in the modern world.

One way to make sense of all this stuff is to remember Deep Thought’s words of wisdom: “Only when you know the question will you know what the answer means.”

Sometimes, for instance, you see bumper-stickers or billboards that say things like “Jesus is the answer” in vague ways, without ever saying what the question was.  If Jesus is the answer ... we’ll only understand him as the answer when we know what the question was.

The writers of the Old Testament, of course, did a lot more than simply ask questions.  They told stories and recorded history and prayed prayers and made prophecies.   But in another sense there were deep questions about God—who he was, and how you did life-together with him—lying at the bottom of all these stories and prayers and prophecies.

How did we get here?  Of all the things people worship as “god,” which is the True and Living God? What is God going to do to fix the brokenness of this world?  What is God’s plan for the creation?

Once you frame it in this way, it’s pretty easy to see how Jesus is the answer to all these questions.  Which God is the True God?  The God revealed in Jesus.  What is this God like?  He’s like Jesus.  What is he going to do about the brokenness of the world?  What he did in Jesus.

This is why Christians have always insisted that The Old Testament Scriptures belong in the Bible, because you can’t truly understand the answer, if you don’t know the question.

Another way to think about it, is like the difference between an engagement ring and a wedding ring.

Before I married my wife, I gave her an engagement ring as a sign of my proposal.  And before we were married, she wore it to show that I’d ”asked her a question”—will you marry me?

Of course, this question was not really answered until the day of the wedding, when we actually sealed our wedding vows.  And on that day, I gave my wife a wedding ring, a gold band to show that the promise was now fulfilled and we had become husband and wife.

But here’s the thing:  my wife did not stop wearing the engagement ring, simply because she now had the wedding ring.  She actually continued to wear them both.  The one ring symbolized the “will you marry me?”, the other symbolized the “I will.”

The Old Testament is to the New Testament what the engagement ring is to the wedding ring.  Even though the engagement ring no longer means what it used to mean, in light of the wedding ring, still, you don’t throw it away for that reason, rather, it reminds us of the question that the wedding band is the answer to.

In a similar way the Old Testament continually confronts us with the questions that God has answered for us, once and for all, in Jesus Christ.

Not by Might, a devotional thought

In Hosea 1:7, we come across one of the central themes of the Old Testament Scriptures, but also one of the most difficult to hang on to. God’s talking about an Assyrian invasion which is just around the corner for his people. He's just finished saying that, although the Northern Kingdom of Israel will not escape destruction, he will have mercy on Judah (the Southern Kingdom). Then in verse 1:7 comes the stop-you-dead-in-your-tracks qualifier: Judah's deliverance will not come about "by the bow, nor by the sword, nor by battle, nor by horses, nor by horsemen" (i.e. not by any of the worldly ways you'd expect deliverance to come); rather it will come from the Lord their God, and him alone.

I call it a stop you dead in your tracks verse, because it sort of forces me to think about what I'm trusting in for "deliverance," however I happen to define deliverance in the given moment. Am I looking to the very same things everyone around me is looking to? (scientific know-how, maybe? performance excellence, perhaps? financial security? the latest ministry product guaranteed to revolutionize your church? You name it.) Or am I trusting in, and waiting on, especially, and before anything else, the Lord my God?

I think this question needs regular revisiting, because the tendency to start looking for a better bow, a sharper sword, a faster horse, or what have you, is very real; it's like a gravitational pull in the Christian life. Hosea 1:7 is God's urgent call to defy gravity, to resist the allure of better-bow-building, and to depend wholly on him. Like it says in another place, "Not by might, not by power, but by the Spirit of God."

Notes from the Ashes, Part V: Busy-ness, Pride and Responsibility

One of the hard truths that I learned about pastoral burnout—and this is one of those truths, I think, that only those who have been through it can really say—is that, while my burnout was not my fault, it was my responsibility.  What I mean by that is, on the one hand, burn out is a consequence of an over-loaded or unhealthy system, not a weak or a failed pastor; and inasmuch as the pastor is not solely responsible for the system, burnout is not his or her fault.  The whole system, not just the pastor, needs to change.

On the other hand, however, as a leader in community, as a follower of Jesus, as a freely choosing agent in the system, I was hardly a mere victim of circumstances beyond my control.  I chose how I would be in the system, what I would say yes to, what I would say no to, what disciplines of self-care I would or would not practice; and, while I couldn’t necessarily choose how certain events or people might impact me emotionally, I could choose how I would process those emotions, what space I would give them in my life.   In this regard, I was responsible for my burnout.

This distinction between fault and responsibility is crucial for understanding and recovering from burnout.  Fault is debilitating.  It has at its root the idea of failure, and as such it’s a judgement of incompetence.  Responsibility, by contrast, is empowering.  It has at its root the idea of “ability,” and as such presupposes one’s competence.  It was only as I came to see my own agency in the system—my “response-ability”—that I was able to see how I could, in fact, be differently in the system, and heal.

Let me flesh this out in relation to one of the key factors at play in any burnout: business.  I’ve shared in a previous post that business, in and of itself, is not the reason people burnout.  People can have a lot to do without burning out, so long as other crucial work-place conditions are in place (the 4 Rs, anyone?).  So it’s not simply a matter of burning out because one’s too busy.

At the same time, however, it is true that I was extremely “busy”—busier than I’d ever been before—in the months leading up to my final crash.   And when I was finally able to look at things with the kind of clarity you can only get after a three month leave and some honest sessions with a trained counselor, I came to see that being un-busy was actually my responsibility.  I was choosing to be busy and I could, with much self-discipline and emotional-maturity, choose not to be busy.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying that I was choosing to have a lot to do at work.  The demands of the job were not necessarily my fault.  And I’m not saying that I could have neglected those demands with any integrity.   The system needed to change.

But when I looked at it objectively, I came to see that my business was more a function of my inner life than it was a function of my to-do list.  Wanting to be certain things for others so that I could feel good about myself, I emotionally “owned” every crisis, every conflict, every project, every problem, basking in people’s approval like a cold-blooded snake stretched out on the asphalt of the Inter-State.  Having attached my emotional well-being to the circumstances of my ministry, and having neglected the spiritual disciplines that by their very nature teach us to attach our emotional well-being to God, I was as vulnerable to business,  as that snake is to the on-coming tires of a careening SUV.

Early on in my recovery time I read the chapter on “business” in Eugene Peterson’s The Contempletive Pastor, and it went down for me like a spoonful of Buckley’s: it tasted terrible, but it worked.  Peterson points out how much of our busy-ness is really a function of our emotional insecurities and immaturities.  Because we fear the rejection and feed off the praise of others, we won’t say “no,” or “not now,” or “not me,” when we should, choosing, in effect, to be busy.  And here comes the tough medicine: we are busy, he says, either because A) we are too lazy to set our own schedule and it's easier to have others set it for us, or because B) we are too proud, and believe that our business makes us look important; our complaints about being busy are really, deep down at the core, boasts. 

Peterson goes so far as to suggest that the busy pastor is in dereliction of duty, because the pastor’s primary job is to pastor— to listen, pray, reflect on the scriptures, and to guide others in doing the same—and these activities absolutely require that we be un-busy to do them well.

Like I say, there was no spoonful of sugar to help his medicine go down, but it helped me to see what was really going on for me.  The pastor who is busy because he is too proud to say things like “I can’t,” who believes, even if subconsciously, that business is a sign of importance, who gets an emotional fix every time he hears someone say, “that pastor so-and-so, he sacrifices so much for his flock,” and so on, that pastor is a prime candidate for burnout.  And responsible for it.

So how do we take back our response-ability in overloaded, maxed-out or demanding work conditions?

Two things come immediately to mind.  It’s possible they may sound like so much more Buckley’s to swallow, but they are things that have made, and are making the difference for me, so let me offer them here.

The first is to take responsibility for your inner life.  If we’re saying “I can” when we should be saying “I can’t” because somehow or other it meets an emotional need for us, if we’re letting our insecurities dictate what gets added to or left off the to-do list, if we’re emotionally owning the well-being of the system, these are all signs of emotional immaturity and spiritual unhealth that we need to take responsibility for.  Honest introspection, wise spiritual direction, trust-worthy accountability, disciplined prayer, ruthless self-awareness, and some difficult but necessary conversations, all of these things can help us mature in our spiritual lives.  They are things that only we can do, and things the we must do, if we want to pursue a spiritually-mature, emotionally-centred, un-busy way of being a pastor.

The second is—and I realize I risk sounding like a Sunday School kid here—but the second is: Jesus.  In another place in Contemplative Pastor, Peterson points out that many (maybe most) pastors are not especially good at getting people to take their problems, questions, queries and requests to Jesus, because of their tendency to try to solve the problem, answer the question, field the query and mee the request themselves instead.  Peterson’s still doling out the Buckley’s here, so he goes so far as to suggest that many (maybe most) pastors suffer from an identity crisis, and we actually think it’s our job to solve the problems or answer the questions ourselves, instead of getting people to take them to Jesus Could it be, he wonders, with a grimace as bitter as any 10-year-old swallowing cough syrup, could it be that we, as pastors, do this, because really, deep down inside, we’d rather people came to us with their problems, than go to God themselves?

I don’t know about that, but I do know that it was a major shift for me, to acknowledge that I am really only an under-shepherd, that Jesus himself is the Chief Shepherd, and that I haven’t really done my job until my people have actually gone to Him with their pastoral needs.  It’s helped me find a different way of being a pastor, a way of choosing to have a lot to do, without being, necessarily, busy.

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The Clock of the Long Now, a song

Here's another song from my recent album, inversions.  The "clock of the long now" is a project some scientists and engineers are working on in Nevada somewhere.  It's a clock that's designed to keep time for the next 10,000 years. The goal of the project is to inspire long-term thinking in a world where our whole sense of time is organized around increasingly ephemeral time-spans. I have trouble imagining the next ten years (sometimes 10 minutes is a stretch): this clock ticks once a year, with a "century hand" that advances every hundred years and a cuckoo that comes out every millenium.

From the first time I heard about it, I've always thought there was a song in there, somewhere, waiting to be sung.  And last year, when my heart sort of entered this surreal place where life itself seemed like an interminable now, it was very cathartic to finally find the time to sit down and write it.

Here's what I came up with:





World’s turning in a time lapse freeze frame
Capturing the moment on the face of the clock of the
Long now, ticking in the dark of the
Long night of the soul and

It’s of the essence it’s on our hands it
Heals all wounds it waits for no man
Somehow you got stuck in the middle of a
Long now (how time flies)

We had forever burning in our hearts
Warming our hands in the flickering light

There’s time to scatter stones
And to gather them again
Time to tear and time to mend
You know I’d turn back the hands if I knew how
To wind the clock of the long now

Yesterday, today tomorrow
Time slips by it’s running to a stand still
Life in beautiful motion
Pictures (thaw the freeze frame)
A day with you is like a thousand
Years are flying by like restless
Days ago I thought I saw
Eternity in your eyes

We had forever burning in our hearts
Warming our souls in the flickering light

There’s time to scatter stones
And to gather them again
Time to tear and time to mend
You know I’d turn back the hands if I knew how
To wind the clock of the long now
Ticking in the dark it’s ticking in the dark it’s
ticking in the dark of the night of the long now (x4)

I thought I heard a thief knocking on my door
I thought I saw the sky turn red last night
Powers shaking the stars were falling
An angel calling in my dreams last night

There’s time to scatter stones
And to gather them again
Time to tear and time to mend
You know I’d turn back the hands if I knew how
To wind the clock of the long now

The Worship Blinders, a devotional thought


There's this interesting place in 2 Kings 23, where King Josiah, in an effort to purge and reform the spiritual life of his nation, orders all the "articles made for Baal and Asherah" to be removed from the house of the Lord. The way the story's told, the impression it gives is that he brought all the people of Judah together (v.2), read the Book of the Covenant to them all (v. 3) and then, in plain sight of everyone, started bringing out all the idolatrous nick-knacks that had accumulated in the Temple.

What strikes me here is that, as far as the people were concerned up to that point, there was nothing especially wrong with the baalistic syncretism that had crept into their worship. It must have been quite shocking to stand there in that crowd and see all these articles brought out of the temple and find out that they didn't, after all, have any place in the House of Israel's God.

It sort of makes me wonder: "What would Josiah have to pull out of the North American Church in the sight of everyone, if he were to 'spiritually clean house' today'?"  It's probably not what we'd expect, any more than the people of Judah expected to see the altars to Baal and the Asherah poles thrown on the 'discard pile' of their worship practices.

It all leaves me praying that God would remove my spiritual blinders, and help me identify any idolatrous "clutter" that I've maybe let accumulate in my life with him; that he would do some spiritual 'house cleaning' in my worship of Jesus, and give me single-hearted devotion to him.

Notes from the Ashes, Part IV: Been There, Done That


When I was studying biblical Greek in Seminary, I made a commitment at one point to read through the entire Greek New Testament in a year.  I figured out the number of pages I’d have to cover each day to get through the whole book in 365, and just started slugging.

Matthew was agonizingly slow.  Mark a bit better.  Luke a bit worse.   After Luke, John was a breeze.  Acts was more agony, but by the time I was done it, I felt like I could tackle anything.  Romans: check.  1 Corinthians: check.

And then I hit 2 Corinthians. 

I was light-years away from being an expert, of course, but even so, here was Greek unlike anything I’d come across in the New Testament to date.  Mark was raw but concrete.  John was simple but stunning.  Acts was convoluted but sophisticated.  2 Corinthians was all of those first things—raw and simple and convoluted—and none of the other—concrete and stunning and sophisticated.  I would read sentences over and over and try as I might, I just couldn’t make sense of them.  The grammar was so clipped, the constructions so terse, the language so allusive that for the life of me I couldn’t figure it out.  I’d consult English translations and sometimes they’d help, but sometimes, too, it looked like they were having as much difficulty as I was.

My Greek prof knew about my read-it-though-in-a-year project and he’d check in on me periodically.  One morning when I was right in the middle of 2 Corinthians he asked how it was going.  When I explained how different, and difficult, the Greek in 2 Corinthians seemed, he kind of smiled knowingly.

And he said: “You’re not the first to notice that.  Many scholars think it’s because Paul’s just so worked up—so exasperated with the situation in Corinth—that he can barely get his thoughts out coherently.”  (Remember, of course, that this is the second letter he’s written to this imploding congregation, and from what we can tell things have been going from bad to worse and somewhere before the writing of 2 Corinthians, it had gotten personal).

I’ve since come back to 2 Corinthians a number of times.  With a bunch of years experience in reading Greek behind me now, it doesn’t seem as bad as it did that first time through, but still, there are exposed nerves all over the place in this letter, and it really does bleed through in the Greek.  It reads more like a hurting, hurried, harried Dear John letter than it does a theological treatise (although, interestingly, it happens to include some of the most theologically verdant texts in the whole entire New Testament.  2 Corinthians 5, anyone?). 

I’m not saying that the Paul who wrote 2 Corinthians was necessarily burned-out when he penned this letter; but I am saying this: as far as I can tell, it sounds in places a whole lot like the kind of letter a burned-out pastor might write, if he were writing to his church in Koine Greek.

Biblical scholar N. T. Wright puts it like this: “[Paul’s] tone, even his writing style, indicates ... that something has happened [at Corinth] which has changed him, and that he and the Corinthians have been through something that has changed their relationship.  ... [He] does not say what, precisely has happened, but he tells the Corinthians the effect it had on him: he was so utterly overwhelmed, beyond any capacity to cope, that he despaired of life itself.”

And then in his analysis, N. T. Wright adds this: “Paul's talk about internalizing a death sentence sounds close to what we might call a nervous breakdown, and certainly indicates severe depression.”  (Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 297-9).

Ok, maybe I am saying that the Paul who wrote 2 Corinthians was burned-out.  Sort of.   And perhaps my hesitancy to put it that starkly indicates some of the lingering stigma that I still carry about burn-out itself.  Could it really be that the author of one of the books of the Bible actually burned out in ministry?  And that he made one of his major contributions to the Canon in that emotional state?

I’ll let you read it and decide for yourself.

For my part, I have come to see 2 Corinthians as one of God’s great gifts to pastors, and especially to burned-out pastors.  Because it’s the letter where God not only told me, but showed me, that He gets it.  He really gets it and in his book he acknowledges it: the despair, the distress, the discouragement, the darkness that can sometimes be part of this high and glorious calling.  He neither condemns it, nor sweeps it under the rug, but tenderly embraces it.

Having been through burn-out and come through better on the other side, I take a lot of encouragement from the fact that God included 2 Corinthians in his book.  But I also take a few practical lessons from it.  And if anything I’m saying is resonating with you today, let me offer them in closing.

First:  There is great power in the words “Been there.”  Part of what Paul is saying to burned out pastors in 2 Corinthians, is simply, “I’ve been there.”  And there is healing and hope and help in those three simple words, in knowing that you are not alone. 

The second lesson is related:  If you have been there, then be there for someone who is there.  One of the reasons I’ve been doing this series, in fact, is because I’m trying to learn the very same lesson that Paul’s burn-out (if that’s really what it was) taught him: “That God comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble, with the same comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Cor 1:4).  If you’ve come through a burn-out, understand that it wasn’t for your sake that you came through; it was for God’s glory and the sake of others.

Third—and this, I think, is the most important lesson of all—burn-out does not, and will not disqualify you from ministry.  One of the lies that makes it so hard, I think, for pastors to get help or make changes, is this one: “If people knew how much you’re struggling right now, you’d lose all credibility as a pastor.”  We could stretch this out if we wanted to include all Christians: “If people knew how much you’re struggling, you’d lose all credibility as a Christian.”

Whatever else 2 Corinthians is, it’s evidence that this lie is just that: a lie.  Paul’s transparency did not disqualify him as a pastor.  Second Corinthians’ emotional rawness did not disqualify it from the Good Book.  Neither will honesty and humility about how heavy the burden is right now disqualify a hurting pastor from God’s calling on his or her life.

The sooner we call out the lie that says it will, the better.