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.

Three Minute Theology 3.1: A Part of the System



Systems Theory is a field of study that crosses a range of disciplines, everything from ecology to economics. It looks for patterns common to all sorts of systems, whether they have to do with how families function, how the body regulates itself or what have you. Though these are all very different kinds of systems, still, there are things about how they function as systems that are the same.

For instance, many systems are self-correcting; that is, they respond to small changes in their parts, so as to maintain equilibrium in the system as a whole.

When you overheat, for example, sweat appears on your skin as your body tries to cool itself through evaporation. Systems theory would call this a form of negative feedback, something the system’s doing to limit change and maintain equilibrium.

Interestingly, sometimes negative feedback causes unintended consequences that intensify the changes, rather than mitigate them. If my temperature has risen because I’m embarrassed, the sweat stains under my arms may actually increase my embarrassment, causing my temperature not to fall but to rise.

This is sometimes called a revenge effect. When email was introduced into the workplace, it was expected to reduce paper consumption. It turns out, however, that now, since everyone in the office can print a copy of the memo, they all do. The revenge effect of email is that paper consumption has risen, not declined.

All this provides us a helpful way of thinking about something theologians call “the doctrine of original sin.”

Original sin refers to the Bible’s teaching that human beings are born sinful, not by choice but by nature, and because of this, we need God to do for us what we can’t do for ourselves, that is, to save us from sin.

This teaching comes from the book of Genesis, where it describes the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Christians have always interpreted this story as an explanation for why human beings, as Adam and Eve’s descendants, are sinful, and how they got to be that way.

While this seems straight forward enough, it raises all sorts of questions about who Adam and Eve actually were, historically, and why I should be held accountable for something that happened thousands of years ago.

This is where Systems thinking comes in handy. Spiritually speaking, you might say, sin is not something we do as much as it is a system we’re part of, which, try as we might to change it, continually adjusts to maintain equilibrium.

Suppose, for instance, I learn about child soldiers being used to fight a civil war in a foreign country, and in an effort to do good, I start a social media campaign to bring the practice to an end. What if the reason the war is being fought is because that country is a source of the rare minerals needed to create cell phones and other wireless devices. Then in a twisted way, my social media campaign is actually perpetuating the war I’m trying to end, by creating demand for all those cell phones.

Maybe I install solar panels hoping to curb climate change, only to discover that no one knows what to do with the toxic waste produced by making solar panels. Maybe I try to curb gluttony by eating well, only to become prideful of my physique...

In the language of systems theory, we might say, sin is a negative feedback loop in the human system that makes it impossible for us, really, to “do good,” because the revenge effects of our best efforts seem only to cause other problems.

However we frame the doctrine of original sin, the point is that there is something very serious gone wrong in human nature that we just can’t fix ourselves. And like one Christian writer put it, this is the one Christian doctrine for which we have ample proof.

The Bible says it like this, that “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

Of course, it also goes on to promise that “All, too, are justified by his grace through Jesus Christ.”

Polishing Up My Proverbs 16 Crown of Glory (Part III): A Ripe Old Age

I’m not a huge Lord of the Rings fan, but I read the books more than once when I was younger, and something that always sort of struck me was Tolkien’s tendency to wax poetical about the age of things.  The Forest of Fangorn, for instance, owes its great power and mystery to its extreme age.  The Old Forest in the Shire, too, is ominous especially because it is an old forest.  The enigmatic and much-loved character Tom Bombadil, for all his youthful mirth and frivolity, is of immeasurable age (his elven name is Iarwain Ben-adar, the Oldest and Fatherless).  Even the One Ring itself owes something of its power to its great age. 

In Middle Earth, ancient things are powerful, magical, ominous and revered, and powerful things, magical things, ominous things are, especially, old.

Okay, maybe I’m more a fan than I care to admit.

But the reason I’m pointing all this out is because, in its deep respect, even awe, for all things ancient, the world of Middle Earth is, I think, very much like the world of the Bible, and very unlike our own world; and seeing how this theme plays out in a work of mythic fiction may help us hear something important that the Bible is trying to say about the theology of aging. 

The word that best captures what I’m trying to get at here is itself an old fashioned word (sorry): the word is, venerable.  According to Google, the word “venerable” means “accorded a great deal of respect, especially because of age, wisdom or character.”  Whatever else the Bible has to say about growing and/or being old, it recognizes, and asks us to recognize, that there is something venerable about great age.

Like I say, “venerable“ is not an adjective we use that much anymore.  At least, it’s not the first word that jumps to mind for me when I think of “old age.”  In the Scriptures, old age tends to give things (be they people, objects, teachings or ideas) a certain degree of credibility, authority and weight; old age tries, tests and proves things true.  In our world, by contrast, it’s not old age but youth, novelty, originality that has credibility and authority.  The long line-ups to get the latest iphone is not hard data, of course, nor is the dismissive tone we use when we call something “old-fashioned,” but they are, I think, subtle markers of this cultural difference.  Where the authors of the Bible tend to give special credence to old-ness, in particular, we tend to give it, especially, to new-ness.

This helps us to make sense of one of those parts of the Bible that often leaves people scratching their heads: the table of ages in Genesis 5.  If you’re unfamiliar with the passage, let me explain.  Genesis 5 contains a long, carefully structured genealogy of Adam’s descendants, from Seth to Noah, and what stands out as especially curious to modern readers is how old everyone on the list was.  Supernaturally old, you might almost say.  Methuselah, the oldest, lived to the ripe old age of 969; and Lamech, the youngest on the list, lived to a meager 777.

Without getting mired in circular debates about the historicity of these figures or the biological likelihood that anyone really lived 969 years (I’ll leave those posts to bloggers who know more than I), let me just point this out:  there are exactly 10 generations in the list, and the last one, Lamech, lived exactly 777 years (that is 7 (the number of completeness) times 111 (the sum of whose digits is 3)).  This suggests to me that there is something very symbolic going on in this genealogy. 

What we are seeing here, among other things, is a tribute to human venerability, the Creator’s original intention that human beings should live to a ripe old age, and that in their great age, they should grow wise and knowing and experienced and, for lack of a better word, venerable.  Of course, the “great age” that the author of Genesis has in mind was, in fact, eternally old—we were meant, originally, not to die at all (which is why He planted the Tree of Life in the Garden (Genesis 2:9), and it’s only after the Fall that humans are prevent from eating of it (3:22)).  This is a pretty standard reading of Genesis 1-3, but what’s seldom mentioned in discussions of eternal life, Edenic or otherwise, is that Biblically, in some sense or other, it would have meant, also, eternal aging.

The fact that eternal aging seems almost a monstrous fate to us is probably more evidence that we don’t really share the Bible’s perspective on old age in the first place.  We have come to see it, especially, as a kind of loss; the authors of the Bible tended to see it as a kind of gain: age expands our heart and layers our wisdom and enriches our character and, especially, deepens our experience of God; and if life was meant to be eternal, then there was not meant to be, originally, any end to the expansion of the human heart or the layering of human wisdom or the wealth of human character, or, especially the depth of our life in Him.

If I’m on to something here, then it’s worth noting that as we get further and further away from the “ground-zero” of the Creation Event in Genesis 1, we see human life-spans contracting rapidly.    Noah lives 950 years, his son Shem 500, and his great-great-great-grandson Abraham died at the still-ripe old age of  175.  As Eden shrinks into the distant past, it seems, our potential to reach a venerable old age diminishes, too.  Eventually it’ll settle on the infamous Three Score and Ten (Psalm 90:10).

But it’s also worth noting that among Christ’s many titles and attributes is this one:  he is, according to the prophet Daniel, “The Ancient of Days” (Dan 7:9), the Truly Venerable One who existed before time began, who is now and ever will be.  From a biblical point of view, this is, in fact, one of his claims to authority, that he is both Ageless and Ancient.

Like any true theology, a theology of aging must start here, with Him; and when we do, what we find is the thought that, in restoring to us the eternal life we lost with Eden, he restores to us, also, our potential to become truly venerable in our old age.

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Life with Jesus 101

A simple line in the Mark reading got me thinking the other day. Jesus has just finished telling his first parable (the sower and the soils, Mark 4:1-9), and while the disciples are all scratching their heads, he says, "Don't you understand this parable? Then how, also, will you know [the meaning of] all the parables?" (my rough translation). In other words, The Sower and the Soils is like "Learning from Jesus 101," and if you can't get this simple lesson, what will you do as the parables get increasingly layered and mysterious?

It's an especially interesting statement because the parable of the Sower itself is about those who "get" the Message of the Kingdom and those who don't. Jesus seems to be saying: "Only the 'good soils' will get my message, and the first sign that you're 'good soil' is if you get this parable about the good soil, to begin with." Sounds a bit like circular reasoning, but then, when did Jesus ever bow to the man-made-rules of logic or rhetoric? He wrote the rules, after all!

But it left me thinking about the fact that, when it comes to Jesus, how we do hear determines how we will hear; how we do press into the deep truths of life with him, when the pressing in is relatively easy, will determine how we will press in, when the pressing in is fraught with obstacles and spiritual resistance.

Tougher lessons than the Parable of the Sower are on their way, and only those who have cut their teeth--and their heart-- and their imagination-- on this one, will be ready for them when they do. "If you don't get this parable, how will you understand any parable?" Praying today that I will.

Three Minute Theology 2.8: Make No Mistake


In geometry, the circumference of any circle is always equal to its diameter multiplied by the mathematical constant pi, that is 3.14.

There’s a place in the Bible, however, where it describes a solid brass “sea”—a circular water basin—that King Solomon built sometime around 950 BC.  In 1 Kings 7, it says that it measured 30 cubits around and 10 cubits across.  A cubit is roughly 18 inches long, so this brass sea was 540 inches in circumference and 180 inches in diameter.

The problem here is that, according to the rules of geometry, if the diameter of the sea was 180 inches, its circumference should have been 565 inches, not 540.

Was the author of 1 Kings unable to do basic math?

Theologians sometimes use the word “inerrancy” to talk about the unique character of the Bible as the Word of God.  “Inerrancy” comes from the word “error” and it conveys the idea that, since the Bible is God’s Divinely Inspired Word, it is not, and cannot be, in error.

The concept of “inerrancy” is helpful for establishing the Bible as reliable guide for Christian life and belief, but if it’s used to imply that the Bible must always be scientifically accurate for it to be true, it can become like a house of cards, where all it takes is one card to slip and the whole thing comes tumbling down.

Of course, there are always ways of explaining away apparent errors in any given Bible passage.  In the account of Solomon’s sea, for instance, it also says that the sea was a handbreadth in thickness , that is, about 3 inches.

If the author of 1 Kings measured the diameter from the outside edges, but measured the circumference from the inside edge, then we’d have to subtract 6 inches from the diameter—three inches on either side to account for the thickness of the sea.

When we make this adjustment, we get an inside diameter of 174 inches and a circumference of 546 inches, bringing us within inches of the actual measurement.

Some may find this helpful, but the problem now is that, instead of hearing what this passage has to say about God and life with him, we’re caught up in convoluted speculations that depend more on our own cleverness than anything else.

It may be that the author rounded the numbers.  It may be that these measurements were estimations.  In none of those cases would the “inerrancy” of the Bible come into question, provided we have a clear and full understanding of what inerrancy actually means.

Rather than thinking about it like a math problem, where the goal is mathematical accuracy, perhaps a better way is to think about it like a compass, where the goal is finding our direction.

If I’m lost and I pull out my compass, I can trust it to tell me what direction north is with unerring precision.  Now, obviously, I don’t need to be standing precisely on the magnetic North Pole in order to use the compass.  And depending on the actual terrain and what obstacles are in my way, I may not actually head north in order go north.

But still, I can trust that the compass is pointing me in the direction I need to go.

If God is Magnetic North—who he is, what he has done and is doing in the world, and especially how he’s revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ—if that’s True North, then, on this analogy, the Bible is an unerring compass.

Even though the details of any given passage may be more or less scientifically accurate, depending on the literary “terrain” of the specific text—that is to say, what it’s trying to accomplish and how it’s trying to communicate—still, we can trust that this book will lead us to true knowledge of God, and especially, a true relationship with him.

Some theologians chose not to use the term inerrancy for this reason, and use terms like “infallible” or simply “authoritative” instead.  Or, we could simply say what the Bible itself says: that it’s a God-breathed book, useful for teaching, correcting, rebuking and training in righteousness.

Polishing Up My Proverbs 16 Crown of Glory, Part II: (North) American Idol

There are, of course, a number of ways to define an “idol.” Anything that becomes the object of our religious adoration, some might say, is an idol. Anything that we “use” as a way of trying to coerce, manipulate, persuade or otherwise control the divine, others might say, is an idol. So is, possibly, that thing for which we are ultimately living (assuming, of course, that we’re not ultimately living for the True and Living God), be it wealth, leisure, nation, success or what have you.

These are all helpful definitions, and one could make a biblical case for each of them. But I heard a theologian on the radio a few months ago who suggested that an idol is any object we turn to and trust in as a source of power. While it isn’t the only thing an idol is, this definition, too, finds biblical precedence. Just read the Book of Revelation, which is, among other things, an exposé on the idolatrous nature of the power structures of the Roman Empire, and you'll get a glimpse of this dynamic at work.

People worship idols because they believe, falsely, that the things these idols represent will give them power. Or, put differently, people worship idols because the things they represent give them a certain kind of power. Either way, idolatry is about making the appropriate sacrifices and offering the appropriate worship to some thing, in order to secure power.

This aspect of idolatry is helpful to bear in mind as we try to sketch out, in broad strokes, a theology of aging. Because, if the cultural trends and spending habits of North American society are any indication, Youth is one of the great idols of our time.

In 2011, for instance, Americans spent somewhere around $80 billion (yes, billion with a “b”) dollars on anti-aging products and procedures. Something like $2.2 billion dollars was spent on anti-aging skin creams and lotions, and billions more on anti-aging drugs and hormone therapies. $330 million was spent on colouring grey hair, alone. The biggest bucks, however, went to age-masking cosmetic surgery procedures. One website I visited claimed that over $10 billion worth of cosmetic procedures were performed in 2011, including: five million Botox injections, over one million chemical facials and hundreds of thousands of face lifts.

Analysts project that this year, in 2015, Americans will spend over $114 billion dollars to hide, reverse or slow the effects of aging.

And don’t get me started on Hollywood. While everywhere else in our culture, the saying goes, “40 is the new 30,” in Hollywood it's “30 is the new 40.” According to this article, the average age of male Oscar winners has been steadily dropping, from 51 in the eighties, to 47 in the nineties, to 45 in the 2000s. At the same time, the average career-length of most actors has been steadily contracting. Few actors starting out these days expect to see much work past their 40s. It’s worst for women: according to one study, a Hollywood actress’ salary, on a per-movie basis, begins to decline rapidly after they reach the age of 34.

I could go on, and talk about the trend of marketing toys—not metaphorical toys, but real, actual children’s playthings—to adults who are still “kids at heart.”  Or I could talk about how that very expression “kid at heart,” conveys the image in our popular mythology of someone who has tapped into some deep spring of spiritual wisdom. I could go on, like I say, but I’m starting to sound like a curmudgeon.

It doesn’t take much work to connect all these dots and realize that we are a youth-obsessed culture. With only a bit more work, however, we might see how idolatrous this obsession actually is. One of the reasons we obsess with youth, I think, is because we associate it with a superficial kind of power. To be young (we believe) is to be energetic, virile, beautiful, innovative, creative, spontaneous, adventurous. And one of the reasons we deny, avoid or combat aging is because, whatever else it means, we believe (falsely, I'd argue) that aging means losing these things: our energy, our virility, our creativity, our beauty. Not to sound too melodramatic, but the god of “Youth” promises to help us retain all these things, so long, of course, as we make the appropriate sacrifices and offer him due worship.

If Youth is one of the idols of our time, or even if it’s just a cultural obsession but hasn’t quite hit the level of full on idolatry yet, either way, it’s important to note that the Bible does not share our culture’s unqualified enthusiasm for all things young. Let me be clear. I am not saying that the Bible doesn’t value youth or cherish children (Matthew 18:5-7, anyone?).  I am only saying that the Bible does not see young-ness as a source of power the way our culture seems to; or at least the Bible does not place a premium on the kinds of power that come, in particular, from being young.

A few verses here will sketch out the general picture. In Proverbs 16:31, for instance, it’s gray hair that is one’s crown of splendor (and by metonomy, an old life well lived). Leviticus 19:32 instructs the people to “stand in the presence of the elderly.” In 1 Kings 12:9, the worst indictment it has for King Rehoboam is that he ignored the counsel of his elders and followed, instead, the advice of the young men he grew up with. The Psalmists beseeches God not to remember, in particular, the sins of his youth. And in Isaiah 3:4, one of the worst consequences predicted for the apostate nation is that they will become a people governed by children.

This is a subtle but crucial difference between a Biblical worldview and our modern contemporary worldview, when it comes to aging. In terms of human character, modern North American culture places a premium on those things that come with youth, be it the playfulness or the energy or the novelty. In contrast, the Bible tends to place a premium on those things that come with age: the wisdom, the experience, the steadfastness.

To put it poetically, in a biblical world-view, the human heart is more like a bottle of fine wine than it is like the latest ipod gadget. It does not grow obsolete, rather invaluable, with age: more complex in personality and more refined in character.

At least it should become these things.  Biblically, we might say, aging was meant to be one of those processes whereby God refines the character, deepens our relationship with him, and enriches the community of his people.  But—and this is the point I really want to make to day—in order for it to be this kind of a process for us, it will mean dismantling the altars we've built to that fickle god called Youth.

In preparation for this series, I read a book called Healthy Aging, on the science and physiology of growing old, by a highly respected gerontologist named Dr. Andrew Weil.  Dr. Weil offers an extensive analysis of the modern anti-aging movement and its pseduo-scientific, or at least, semi-scientific quest for a fountain of youth.  He strongly advises us to guard our wallets from anyone who claims to have found one.

But then Dr. Weil offers this very wise medical advice when it comes to growing old.  The first step towards healthy aging, he says, is not to take a hormone supplement or apply a skin cream or undergo some medical procedure or other.  The first step, actually, towards enjoying physical, mental and emotional health well into our senior years, is to embrace—not just to accept but to embrace—aging as an altogether natural, even welcome part of human life.  (And if you're part of a community that sees aging the same way, that doesn't hurt none, either.)

Dr. Weil acknowledges how counter-cultural this position it, but he offers a good deal of evidence to back it up: generally speaking, people who embrace aging enjoy greater longevity and better health in their longevity, than those who don't.

Dr. Weil's a doctor, not a pastor, of course, so he doesn't also acknowledge how profoundly biblical this position is, but let me do so here.  Whatever theological implications there are to the Bible's perspective on old age, it turns out that when it tells us to open our eyes and see how beautiful and deep and wise and insightful people can become as they grow old, it's telling us for our own good.

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The Namer, a devotional thought

One of the things that's always intrigued me about Jesus is the habit he seems to have had of naming people. Take Mark 3:16-17, for example. It says that after he chose the 12, he gave Simon the name "Peter" (Peter is Greek for "the Rock") and he gave James and John the name "The Sons of Thunder."

I've always sort of read this in a sombre way, that Jesus is putting his finger on something truer-than-true about these men. There's probably something to that, but it occurs to me, also, that giving nicknames is actually a profoundly playful thing to do. In the Robin Hood legend, one of the running gags is how Robin Hood renames all the outlaws who join him (Little John, for instance, was John Little before he met Robin). Or remember how Mike Myers kept adding "-meister" and other such playful suffixes to peoples names in Wayne's World? We just watched Big Hero 6, and in that movie, it's Fred, the not-a-care-in-the-world-party-guy who "gives everyone their nicknames." Oh yeah, and in the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series, it's Michelangelo (the party dude) who assumes the responsibility of giving all the bad-guys their super-villain handles.

To be clear: No, Jesus is not like Mike Myers or Michelangelo or Robin Hood; except, perhaps, in this: when his followers come to him they find themselves creatively, even playfully, renamed.

In my mind's eye I could almost see the twinkle in the eye as Jesus looks at Peter and says, "from now on we'll call you The Rock." And I can only speculate what earned James and John the handle "Sons of Thunder!" (but it's pretty rewarding speculation). Two intermingled thoughts emerge from this imaginative musing: 1) in coming to Jesus something deep and true and essential about who we really are gets drawn out of us, and this is reflected in the renaming of people we see him doing in the Gospels; but 2) there is something profoundly good-natured and joyful and even playful in the way Jesus goes about drawing this out of us.

May we all discover both these things: the Holy playfulness of Christ and in that play, our truest selves.

Three Minute Theology 2.7: It Takes All Kinds



I grew up in the Canadian province of Alberta. Now: if someone were to ask me, “What is Alberta like?” there are, obviously, many ways I could answer that question.

I could refer them to one of the many history books written about Alberta. Or, I could give them an AMA Travel Guide to the province. I could give them Thomas King’s classic novel Green Grass Running Water, which is about the Native American experience of colonialism and is set in Alberta. Or I could sing them Ian Tyson’s famous song called “Four Strong Winds.”

In literary terms, we call the different forms of these various texts—a history book, a novel, a poem and so on—we call them genres. And we intuitively recognize that in order to make proper use of a text, we need to take its genre into consideration.

For instance, Green Grass Running Water wouldn’t be all that useful if I simply wanted to find my way from Calgary to Edmonton. But then, if I wanted to reminisce about my childhood in Alberta, it’s not likely I’d turn to the AMA Tour Book. “Four Strong Winds” might help with that, but then, just because the song has a line in there about how “the weather’s good there in the fall,” doesn’t mean I should use it to help me plan my next vacation to Alberta.

Perhaps this all goes without saying, but the genre of a piece of writing naturally determines how you interpret it. And at the same time, if you want a complete picture of something, it’s helpful to have a variety of genres to draw from. You’ll get a fuller picture of Alberta if you include “Four Strong Winds” and Green Grass Running Water, than if you simply read “The History of Alberta.”

All that may seem obvious, but, for some reason, it’s often overlooked when it comes to the Bible.

Because, while it’s often recognized that the Bible is a collection of different books, written over the course of thousands of years by many different authors, it’s less often recognized that the Bible is also a collection of different kinds of books: books of prophecy, books of history, books of poetry, stories and genealogies and personal letters and so on.

And just like a whole bunch of different kinds of writing help us better answer the question, What is Alberta like? The Bible’s range of genres—from prayers to temple inventories—are all included to help us better answer the question, What is God like?

Hermeneutics is the fancy word theologians sometimes use to describe “the art of interpreting the Bible.” And the point is: recognizing and understanding the particular genre of any given Bible passage is an essential part of good hermeneutics.

For example, in debates about whether evolution is true or whether God created the world in six literal days, neither side usually mentions the fact that the creation account in Genesis is a very specific genre of writing—an Ancient Middle Eastern Cosmology, that is—which was written to answer specific questions for a specific reason, and we ought to keep the specific conventions of this genre in mind as we interpret it.

As another example, there are popular interpretations of the Book of Revelation—the last book of the Bible—that try to line up modern day political events with its strange dreams and visions. Many of these interpretations get extremely elaborate and detailed, but they seldom acknowledge that the Book of Revelation is a very particular kind of writing—what we call an Apocalypse—with specific literary conventions that should guide how we interpret it.

Reading Revelation as though it were a modern political commentary is sort of like trying to find your way to Edmonton using only “Four Strong Winds” as your guide.

While this may seem overly complicated to some, and just plain common sense to others, understanding and considering the specific genre of any given part of the Bible is crucial if we want to be what the Bible itself encourages us to be: “Approved workers, who correctly handle the Word of Truth.”

Polishing up my Proverbs 16 Crown of Glory (Part I): Outnumbered 4 to 1?

One of the tasks I had to complete when I was finishing my training to be a pastor was something we affectionately called the MRRP (pronounced “merp”), that is: a Ministry Related Research Project.  The idea was to choose an issue that was of concrete relevance to the local church, research it thoroughly, and develop a practical project to address it.  When I wrote my MRRP, I had almost no real experience as a pastor, so I chose a topic that was of concrete relevance to me, in particular, and I just took it for granted that it would be of relevance to the church local, too.

I am still convinced that the topic I chose back in 2008, Christian Faith and Care of the Environment, is of vital importance to the church, and I’ve actually had a number of opportunities to follow up on my research in practical ways since becoming a pastor.  So I’m not saying I regret my decision, by any means.  But in the years since my Seminary days, every once in a while this thought strikes me:  “If you were to do a Ministry Related Research Project today, with 6+ years of real ministry experience behind you, and, hopefully, a much more accurate picture of what issues really are of vital importance to the church, which would you choose?”

Lately when I ask myself that question—what pressing issue especially needs theological clarity and fresh creativity and careful attention to biblical detail, today?—the topic that comes first to mind is this one:   How can and ought the church do seniors ministry in ways that are theologically faithful, biblically informed and pastorally responsive to the unique spiritual issues that accompany aging?

Sorry, that was how you wrote MRRP research questions back then.  Let me try again.  Seniors Ministry: how do we do it faithfully, biblically and well?

Please don’t click “Next Blog” just yet!

I know that ministry to, with and among seniors—the elderly, retirees, the aged and aging—this whole vaguely-defined demographic—is not nearly so “exotic” as almost every other ministry focus: ministry to the marginalized, global missions, consumerism and social justice, sexual identity questions, you name it.  But it is, I am increasingly convinced, something that churches neglect to their determent, their loss and, (dare I say) their failure.

And generally speaking, we do neglect it.  I realize that a few entries in the Amazon search bar hardly counts as hard data (and let me assure you, I was much more vigorous in researching my actual MRRP!) but for curiosity’s sake this afternoon, I went to Amazon.ca and queried: “Youth Ministry.”

12,274 results.

Then I queried “Seniors Ministry.”

2,797 results.

Even if you add the results I got for “Ministry to the Elderly” (325) and “Ministry to the Aged” (178), bringing the total to 3,300 results, still, it sort of makes you go hmmm... to think that Amazon has almost 4 Youth Ministry items in their catalogue, for every 1 item they have on Seniors Ministry.  And just to add more specious data to the mix, when I searched Google for a “Youth Pastor Job” I turned up about 1,280,000 hits; searching for “Pastor to Senior Adults jobs,” got me 325,000 hits.  Again the ratio between the two, roughly speaking, is 4:1.

Does the church really have 4 times more interest in youth ministry than it does in ministering to, with and among the elderly?

I don’t know.  There are all sorts of ways to interpret these results so that they say nothing at all about the church’s interest in, commitment to or readiness for ministry among the aged (e.g. Seniors ministry is not so easily distinguished from ministry generally, like Youth ministry is; Seniors ministry is often not a formalized ministry, the way Youth Ministry is, etc.).  But still, 4:1 feels right on a gut level.  For every pastor I’ve known who felt called specifically to minister to seniors, I’m sure I’ve known 4 who felt called to Youth Ministry.

But again, I have no clue if the 4:1 ratio is even remotely accurate. Even if it’s not, however, the real point I’m trying to make today still stands.  A church that inordinately emphasizes youth without also thinking through the unique discipleship opportunities that come along with aging, the unique challenges to spiritual formation that the elderly face, the unique blessing to the community of Faith that seniors are, and the unique role, biblically, that elders were meant to play in the spiritual formation of youth—that church is missing something vital.

More than simply missing something.  If recent findings by Stats Canada are any indication, a church without a robust “theology of aging” that in turn inspires practical ministry initiatives among the elderly, may find itself missing some crucial Gospel-opportunities in Canada’s New Millennium.  Stats Canada predicts that by 2030, seniors (65 and older) will make up 24% of the Canadian population (up from 15% in 2013).  In the next 50 years, they say, the number of octogenarians (80 years and older) will have tripled, going from 1.4 million today, to around 5 million by 2063.

These numbers are intriguing.  They become pressing when paired with Stats Canada’s prediction that the number of people between 15-64 (i.e. those of working age) will decline, from 69% today, to somewhere around 60% by 2030.  (See http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/canada-s-seniors-population-to-jump-workforce-decline-by-2063-1.2770359 for details.). 

In short: over the next few decades, Canada’s population will see a significant increase in the number of seniors, and, at the same time, a decrease in the number of young adults.  Most analysts wonder about the strain this shift will put on the work-force, the healthcare system, the Canada pension plan, the nuclear family.  Churches, I think, should be wondering about this:  how do we do seniors ministry faithfully, biblically and well? 

I am not planning on rewriting my MRRP anytime soon, but I am planning, over the next few weeks here at terra incognita, to ask this very question in a variety of ways.  My plan is to draw out some key biblical themes that should inform a Christian’s perspective on aging (which is, it turns out, often directly at odds with the secular culture’s perspective on aging), and my goal is to sketch out a theological framework for thinking about and talking about, and especially, ministering to the aged.

It may be that these issues seem especially pressing to me because I turned 41 last spring (my reticence to include that detail in this post is probably a sign that the culture I was socialized in is in more desperate need of a “theology of aging” than I realize).  But whatever the reason, I find that it’s on my mind more than ever these days, the theological meaning of growing old.

If you, like me until recently, have always given 4 times (or more) thought to everything else other than aging, and never really suspected that the Christian Faith actually has some wonderfully counter-cultural things to say about this mysterious activity that all of us, whether we realize it or not, are doing every minute of every day, let me invite you to join me here in asking it:  What does the Bible have to say about what it means to grow old?



Faith that Saves, a devotional thought

In Mark 2:1-22 we find a well-known story about some guys who lowered their paralytic friend through the roof of the house where Jesus was at, because they couldn't get through the crowds.

What stands out in this story, of course, is how ready these guys were to do whatever it takes to get their friend to Jesus. It talks about them digging through the roof (so, roofing in 1 Century Israel was, admittedly, a bit easier to dig through than the shingles on my house, but still, it weren't no easy job), and then lowering the guy down on his mat (they must have had to haul him, mat and all, up to the roof in the first place, another labor of love).

The simple question that this story seems to be asking us is: "What stops us from 'getting the guy to Jesus?' Because it didn't seem like the friends of this paralytic were about to let anything stop them."

But as I'm mulling that question over a beautiful, but also a kind of difficult thing stands out to me. It says: "When he saw their faith, Jesus told the man: 'Your sins are forgiven.'"

This is remarkable, in particular, because of what it doesn't say. A salvation-by-faith-alone Evangelical like me, if I were writing it down, I'd have said, "When Jesus saw his faith" (i.e. the faith of the man needing healing). But it doesn't say that. It says their faith. This may include the faith of the paralytic, of course, but it also includes the faith of the guys helping him get to Jesus.

Is Mark really saying that Jesus saved this man from his desperate condition, because the community around him (as represented by the four friends) was so convinced that he would, that they'd do anything to get him to Jesus? If that is what Mark's saying, it sort of raises a challenging, but thrilling thought: What might Jesus start doing in our communities, if we were filled with similar faith: a faith that says, "Nothing matters more than 'getting the guy to Jesus,' and anything might happen, if we do."?