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.

Come Again? a devotional thought

In Mark 8:1-10 we have the story of the "Feeding of the Four Thousand."   This story has always made me wonder, because it's the second time Jesus has performed this specific sign in Mark's Gospel.  Back in 6:30-44 he miraculously fed 5000 people with 5 loaves and 2 fish; and then in 8:1-10, there's a hungry crowd of 4000; and the thing that gets me, is how the disciples are just as clueless this time as they were the first time.  I mean: he tells them he wants to feed the crowd, and they say almost the exact same thing they said back in Chapter 6: where will we get enough bread for everyone?  They were there in Chapter 6, when 5 loaves and 2 small fish fed 5000, and yet here, only a couple chapter's latter, they're still scratching their heads: "Gee, Jesus, how are you gonna get us out of this one?"

It's funny, right after this miracle, the Pharisees come to him, asking for a miraculous sign from heaven, and all Mark says is: "Jesus groaned deeply in his spirit" (the Greek word there is: "aarrrrghhhh!").  No wonder, though, the demand for a sign is so troubling to him: he's already done two, back to back, and no one got it, not even his disciples.  Would one more miraculous sign really make the difference?

As I reflect on all this, it strikes me that I'm as slow to learn, sometimes, as those disciples are.  I mean:  I've seen him do some pretty amazing things in my life, in the past, and still sometimes when it looks like only an amazing things is gonna get me out of whatever it is I'm facing today, still, I scratch my head and say: "Gee, Jesus, how are you going to get us out of this one?" May God remind you and I today, in a deep profound way, of the past wonders he's worked in our lives, and may that remembrance be a great source of strength for whatever you or I need to face today.

Polishing Up My Proverbs 16 Crown of Glory (Part VI): Johnny Cash and the Gifts of Old Age

I am not a huge Johnny Cash fan (though after reading this blog series on the theology of Johnny Cash, I gotta say: my esteem and curiosity both have been piqued).  There is a Johnny Cash song, however, that I think about a fair bit.  It was the last song he ever recorded, after some 50 years as a performer, and all the volatile victories and hard losses that “the Man in Black” lived through in that time.  It’s a cover of the Trent Reznor song, “Hurt.”

I am not a huge Trent Reznor fan, either, but I do know that he was the controversial front man for a hard-rock act named Nine Inch Nails, and the song “Hurt” was the last song on their 1994 album The Downward Spiral.  Whole album is a painful record of Reznor’s despairing life-reflections, shot through with themes of violence, nihilism and social deviance.  In Reznor’s own words, it’s about “somebody systematically throwing off every layer of what he’s surrounded with ... from personal relationships, to religion to questioning the whole situation.”

And like I say, this exploration of the end of all things good and bright culminates with a song called “Hurt,” a transparent lament that confesses all Reznor’s spiritual failings: deceit, drugs, destruction, self-injury.  It opens with the line, “I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel / I focus on the pain, the only thing that’s real.”  Later in the song he says: “And you could have it all / my empire of dirt / I will let you down / I will make you hurt.”

It’s all very dark stuff, but the very last line—the album’s final word after spiraling downward for a full 65 minutes and 2 seconds—is this haunting phrase: “If I could start again / a million miles away / I would keep myself / I would find a way.” Now: I admit it’s pretty faint, barely audible maybe, and I doubt Reznor himself would put this word to it, but in this final breath at the end of the album, he seems to be asking about “redemption.”

And this is where, interestingly, Johnny Cash comes in.  Because in 2003, at the age of 71, Johnny Cash covered “Hurt.”  And, while he did it in classic Johnny Cash style, still he stayed faithful to the original, with the exception of just one word. There’s a line in the song that uses a synonym for human excrement that rhymes with “spit.”  It goes: “I wear my crown of (rhymes with spit) upon my liar’s chair / full of broken thoughts / I cannot repair.”  Cash took that obscene, filthy “crown” and replaced it with this phrase:  “I wear my crown of thorns upon my liar’s chair.”  A crown of thorns for a crown of s**t.

Here’s Johnny Cash’s video for “Hurt.”  It’s interspersed with footage from his life and career: his own empire of dirt.  The video ends, poignantly, tellingly, soberly, with a scene of the crucifixion of Christ:  Cash offers that name as the answer to this hurting cry for redemption.


Cash’s one-word edit to “Hurt” becomes especially poignant, telling and sobering, if you know anything about the downward spiral that was part of his own journey (and even though I’m not a huge fan, still, I’ve heard the legends).   My friend John Coutts puts it like this: “In his version of ‘Hurt,’ Cash isn’t sugar-coating the gospel ... He simply offered his life on the public stage, called it an empire of dirt ... changed one word and pointed instead to the crown of thorns and to the Christ who gave himself to us, and for us.”

There is something really powerful going on here, I think, in Cash’s choice to make Reznor’s “Hurt” his final act.   At the MTV music video awards, “Hurt” received 6 nominations, including “video of the year.”  When Reznor himself saw it, he said: “the song isn't mine anymore. .. I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone.  [Somehow] that winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era...”

As I continue to develop a biblical theology of aging, I find Reznor’s words especially haunting and compelling.  Could this be, in the end, one of the great gifts of the old to the community of faith—offering up their stories in a way that helps the young reinterpret the music of their lives, by seeing it through the eyes of a radically different era?

Maybe.

It was certainly Johnny Cash’s gift to his community.

In an article about Cash’s musical legacy among the young, Touchstone Magazine said this about the “Hurt” video and its impact at the MTV Video Awards: “The face of Johnny Cash reminded this generation that he has tasted everything the youth cultures of multiple decades has to offer—and found there a way that leads to death. ... Nine Inch Nails delivered ‘Hurt’ as straight nihilism, but Cash gives it a twist—ending the video at the cross.  Because for him, the cross is the only answer to the inevitability of suffering and pain.”

Of course, only one who has tried the cross through a long life of faithful following, decade after uncertain decade—plumbed its depths to Hell and back over the course of many years—can say with the fullest of conviction both that pain is inevitable, and also that the cross is the only answer.  This lived-experience of the cross, too, is the blessing of the very old.

But it's not just that the cross can be trusted; Cash's "Hurt" also assures us that the cross is, in the end, needed. To put it bluntly: aging is the ultimate memento mori.

Touchstone Magazine puts it like this: “In a culture that idolizes the hormonal surges of youth, Cash reminds the young what pop culture doesn’t want them to know: ‘It is appointed to man once to die, and after this the judgement.’  His creviced face and blurring eyes remind them that there is not enough Botox in all of Hollywood to revive a corpse.”

In Psalm 90, the same one that explains how God has set the upper limits of the human life span somewhere around 80 years (90:10), it goes on to pray earnestly and humbly this prayer: "Teach us Lord to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom."  This prayer God answers, among other ways, by pointing us to those who have gone before us, the aged in the community of faith, and reminding us of where the passage of years inevitably brings us all.

So: whatever else was happening when Johnny Cash played the last note of "Hurt" and quietly closed the piano lid like a coffin for good, that was God, I think, teaching us again to number our days.  Like Johnny Cash, we will all, eventually, reach the end of the empire-building projects that are our lives.  May we, on that day, have the same kind of legacy to share with those who come next as he did: a long lifetime of putting the cross to the test.


For Dappled Things, a song

Here's another song from my album "accidentals."  It's inspired/adapted from a poem by my favorite Jesuit Priest-turned-poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins.  The original poem is called Pied Beauty, and it goes like this:


GLORY be to God for dappled things—
  For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
    For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
  Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;        5
    And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
  Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
    With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:        10
                  Praise him.

And here's my song:


On a break with Jesus, a devotional thought

There's a simple line in Mark 6:31 that reveals the spiritual camaraderie that Jesus wants for us, and with us as his friends and followers.  Earlier on in the chapter, Jesus sends out the disciples with the job of proclaiming the message of the Kingdom, and from the description of their mission, it sounds like it's going to be pretty hard rowing. Then here, a few pages later, they've returned and they're "telling him everything they did and taught in his name."

Already I find this picture so vivid and tender, Jesus gathering his friends back after a hard month or two of work, and sitting down with them as they pour out all the highs and lows of ministry. But then he says, "Come, let's go by ourselves to a desert place and rest a little." And he takes them off by themselves to a lonely place, an out of the way place, away from the press and demands of ministry, with the express purpose of resting a little.

They need it. He knows.

Of course, it won't turn out that way: the crowds track him down and follow him, but even so, it doesn't hurt to linger over his simple invitation: "It's been a lot of hard work telling people about me; come, let's find a quiet place alone and rest a bit."

Those of us in ministry--lay, vocational, bivocational, ordained or some combination of all 4--we need to hear that invitation on a regular basis, too.  "Come," he says, clapping us on the back a bit, maybe, throwing a brotherly arm around our shoulder, "Come, let's find a quiet place and rest a bit together."

May we all have the grace to take him up on his offer.

Polishing Up My Proverbs 16 Crown of Glory (Part V): Christian Community as the Fountain of Youth?

They say that Okinanwa, a small island off the southern coast of Japan, has the highest rate of centenarians in the world. Proportionally, that is to say, more people in Okinawa live beyond the age of 100 than anywhere else on the planet. Not only do people live longer in Okinawa, but they also enjoy relatively good health into their centenarian years, with the lowest rates of age-related disease—coronary heart disease, stroke, cancer and so on—of any people-group in the world.

So remarkable is the Okinawan life-expectancy, that the island has become something of a tourist attraction for the Japanese, who visit it not to lounge on the beaches or to see the sights, but specifically and expressly for a first-hand encounter with a genuine Okinawan Centenarian.  Imagine photo albums full of pictures of Japanese tourists doing the say-cheese-finger-V-thing, next to a bunch of Okinawan senior citizens, and you’ll get the idea.

Scientists have been scratching their heads over the phenomenon of Okinawan longevity for a while now. What, in particular, do the Okinawan people have going for them, that they are able to live so well for so long, well after the rest of the world, on average, has succumbed to the aches and pains of old age?

There are probably a number of active ingredients in the Okinawan elixir of youth. Caloric restriction and healthy diet seem to play a role (Okinawans simply eat less food than most Westerners, and what they do eat is mostly plants).  Genetics and lifestyle are also factors (Okinawans are much more active throughout their lives, well into their senior years).

But in a study of Okinawan longevity that I read recently, a crucial factor stood out to me for special consideration, especially as it relates to my interest in developing a theology of aging. Put simply: Okinawan culture places a high value on old age. Rather than seeing it as the beginning of the end, Okinawans see old age as a badge of honour and a cause for celebration. Rather than shuffling the aged off to out of the way “homes” where they are left to live out their final years with other seniors, Okinawans make all kinds of space for the elderly in their communities, their families, their society. Rather than being treated like an inconvenience, the aged are cherished, respected, and, above all, embedded in the broader community.

Okinawans who have passed their 100th birthday, in particular, are given a great degree of freedom, respect and license.  The centenarian years are viewed as a “second childhood”; and not in a condescending way, but in a permissive way, similar to how young children are humoured and admired and cherished as a vital part of the community.  As I understand it, it’s not uncommon for the younger generation actually to vie with one another for the honour of getting to care for their centenarians in their old age.

Could it really be that growing old happens best in cultures that wisely embrace aging, that view it with healthy respect, even appreciation, that warmly and ungrudgingly welcome the fact of getting old, and have learned to celebrate the simple achievement of living long and well?

The mystery of Okinawan longevity suggests it’s so.

And so, of course, does the Bible.  It’s not for nothing  that the Torah instructs us to stand in the presence of the elderly (Leviticus 19:32).  And it’s not for nothing that the New Testament instructs the young to cherish the old with special deference (See: 1 Timothy 5:1, 1 Peter 5:5) and further instructs the old to share the gifts of their age and experience generously with the young (see 1 John 2:13).

In the broadest strokes, the Bible paints a picture of a community where old age is seen as a profound spiritual resource, and where the bonds between young and old are strong and rich and reciprocal; and in that picture we see the spiritual flourishing of young and old alike, the thriving of community as a whole, a little glimpse of shalom.

A church with a robust, biblical theology of aging, I think, will adopt an attitude towards old age more like that of the Okinawan people—where the community makes much space and affords much dignity to the old—and less like that of the West—where the practice is, by and large, to remove the very old from community whenever the realities of old age become too great an inconvenience.  To “stand in the presence of the elderly,” today, as a Christian, is to resist this modern, Western impulse to segregate by generation, and to do all we can to maintain those strong, rich, reciprocal bonds between young and old that are so vital to a shalom-oriented community.

We may actually find, in doing so, that our own experience of growing old becomes one filled with health and wisdom and vitality and joy.


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Count it Loss (St Paul Blues), a song

Here's another song from my recent recording project "Accidentals." This one's about as straight-ahead a twelve bar blues tune as I've ever written.  I'd had the music floating around in my head for a long time, and one day I sort of got thinking of what the Apostle Paul might sing, if he were to sing the blues.  After riffing lyrically on a few lines from his letters, this is what I came up with. I call it "Count it Loss," or, with my tongue in my cheek, "St Paul Blues."  
 
I count it loss, whatever was gain
I count it loss, whatever was gain
I count it loss, whatever was gain
I count it loss, whatever was gain
For the sake of knowing Christ, just to bear his name

He called me to take up my cross
He called me to take up my cross
He called me to take up my cross
He called me to take up my cross
And the treasures of this earth, just to count them loss

He promised me a glory crown
He promised me a glory crown
He promised me a glory crown
He promised me a glory crown
And He took my burdens up, just to lay them down

I count it loss, whatever was gain
I count it loss, whatever was gain
I count it loss, whatever was gain
I count it loss, whatever was gain
For the sake of knowing Christ, just to bear his name

I will not boast in anything
I will not boast in anything
I will not boast in anything
I will not boast in anything
Except the love of Christ, he’s my lord and King

I count it loss, whatever was gain
I count it loss, whatever was gain
I count it loss, whatever was gain
I count it loss, whatever was gain
For the sake of knowing Christ, just to bear his name

The One Needful Thing, a devotional thought

Before he sends them out to preach the Message of the Kingdom in Mark 6, Jesus gives his disciples these specific directions: "Take nothing for the journey except your staff, no bread, no bag, no money in your belts.  Wear sandals but not an extra tunic ..."  What stands out to me here is how these travel arrangements would have required his followers to, on the one hand, depend entirely on the provision of God in the moment; and on the other hand, to stay fully in the here and now.  The extra tunic would be handy after the first one wears out.  The bag of money would be useful if and when the next meal isn't quick to come along.  And so on.

The idea, of course, is that the Message of the Kingdom is so urgent, so pressing, that any preoccupation with "tomorrow's necessities" shouldn't and can't distract us from this work in the here and now.  (This actually puts Jesus teaching in Matthew 6 about not worrying for tomorrow into sharp relief: could the "worry about tomorrow" he’s talking about there be the stuff that distracts us from the urgency of doing Kingdom work today?

It’s tempting to dismiss Jesus's directions in Mark 6 with a "that was then, this is now" kind of of nonchalance, but actually, sending them out without money in the bag in that historical era, when 3 square meals were even harder to come by than they are now, would have sounded just as radical then as it does today.  It gets you thinking about the "provisions for tomorrow" that we so often trust in, and the way these things may in fact be distracting us from the good work Jesus has called us to do today.   At least, it should. But it should also leave us praying that God will keep our hearts focused on what is most needful in the here and now.

The Streets of Babylon, a song

Here's the next track from my most recent recording project, "Accidentals." I wrote this song almost 10 years ago now, one Sunday afternoon, after hearing Revelation 18:1-5 being read in church. I had Bob Dylan's "Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" echoing in my mind as I wrote, and was trying for that same sort of haunting, apocalyptic protest. I hardly think, of course, that I've even come close to Bob Dylan's prophetic vividness, let alone St. John the Divine's, but still, for what it's worth, I give you, "The Streets of Babylon":



I went walking, I went walking, through the streets of Babylon
Through her highways, through her alleys, in the streets of Babylon
I saw people, lost and broken on the streets of Babylon
I went walking, I went walking, though the streets of Babylon

And the people, and the people, on the streets of Babylon
They were dazzled, they were blinded by the lights of Babylon
And the pipers and the dancers seduced and led them on
They were wandering they were wand’ring on the streets of Babylon

And I heard a voice call to me, O Woe to Babylon
She is blind she is broken she is lost and forsaken
O woe to Babylon
Come out of her, O my children, flee to my arms
Be set apart, holy pure on the streets of Babylon

I saw merchants, I saw merchants, on the streets of Babylon
They were glutted in the luxury of the wealth of Babylon
And they bartered and they traded for the souls of Babylon
I saw merchants, I saw merchants on the streets of Babylon

And I heard a voice call to me, O Woe to Babylon
She is blind she is broken she is lost and forsaken
O woe to Babylon
Come out of her, O my children, flee to my arms
Be set apart, holy pure on the streets of Babylon

And the princes and the rulers they were drunk on Babylon
In her riches, in her power, on the wine of Babylon
Though the writing of her judgment was written on the wall
They paraded their corruption through the streets of Babylon

And I heard a voice call to me, O Woe to Babylon
She is blind she is broken she is lost and forsaken
O woe to Babylon
Come out of her, O my children, flee to my arms
Be set apart, holy pure on the streets of Babylon

Holiness Then and Now, a devotional thought

You can't study Jesus's life and ministry for long without noticing how often he confronts the prevailing notions of "holiness" in his day, which seemed to focus especially on ritual cleanliness and cultural purity. In 1st Century Judaism, that is to say, the "holy" were, in particular, the "clean" and the "separate," and whatever else Jesus was about, he seemed intent on pulling the rug out from underneath this superficial understanding of what made God's people holy.

We see a prime example of this in Mark Chapter 5, where Jesus performs three powerful healing miracles back to back. First, he exorcises a legion of demons from a man living out in the Gerasene cemetery; then (unbeknownst to him) he heals a woman who has been suffering 12 years from constant hemorrhaging; and finally, he resuscitates a dead girl, the daughter of a local synagogue leader. The thematic thread that ties all of these stories together is the compelling glimpse we get of Jesus, standing without apology or squeamishness, among the "unclean."

Think about it: the Gerasene demoniac is a) a non-Jew, living b) in the cemetery, and c) among the swine-herds, all of which would have made him repulsively "unclean" according to the Jewish customs of the time. Likewise, the bleeding woman have been considered ritually unclean by any 1 Century Jew who knew the Book of Leviticus well. So too the dead girlfor a Jew, contact with a dead body also led to ritual uncleanness.  In one short chapter we come across pigs and pagans, disease and demons, blood and bodies. It's hard to imagine a less-clean travel itinerary, and yet Jesusthe holy, pure, Son of Godmoves calmly, assuredly and altogether unperturbedly amid it all.

Again, what strikes me here is the way Jesus's Kingdom of God ministry so directly challenged the notions of holiness and unholiness, cleanness and uncleanness, purity and impurity that were woven deep down into the religious fabric of his world. And it leaves me wondering: what deep-seeded notions of "cleanness" and "uncleanness" are at work in my own heart, determining who I have contact with and who I don't, who I will embrace and who I won't?

When I start to ask those questions, I feel a nagging suspicion that his Kingdom challenge is as much for me now as it was for "them" back then.

Sow the Wind, a song

Every fall I try to do a recording project of original songs, as a way of challenging myself to continually grow in my musicianship and songwriting skills.  This year's album is a collection of blues, country and rock inspired songs, most of which I've had in my notebooks for years but never really found a good home for.  I'm calling it "Accidentals."  You can check out the whole album over at bandcamp, if you're interested, but in the meantime, I'm planning to blog my way through the songs over the next few months here at terra incognita.

This first song goes back almost 10 years; I wrote it mostly as a satirical protest against the noise, pace and flash of contemporary culture, and partly as a comment on the church's acquiescence to it all.  For what it's worth, I give you:

Sow the Wind 



Let the lights shine bright enough
I won’t have to use my eyes, and
Let them sparkle, let them burn
I won’t have to see

Let the song scream loud enough
I won’t have to use my ears and
Let it thunder let it roar
I won’t have to hear

Sow the wind, abandon the light
Reap the whirlwind inherit the night
Sow the wind, abandon the light
Reap the whirlwind inherit the night

Let my heart race fast enough
I won’t have to stop and think and
Let it shudder, let it thrill
I won’t have to feel

Let the gold gleam glittering
I won’t have to look away and
Let it fill me to the brim,
I won’t have to die

Sow the wind, abandon the light
Reap the whirlwind inherit the night
Sow the wind, abandon the light
Reap the whirlwind inherit the night

Our cisterns are all broken, the reservoir is rust
The water’s black and muddied now, and the well is filled with dust

Sow the wind, abandon the light
Reap the whirlwind inherit the night
Sow the wind, abandon the light
Reap the whirlwind inherit the night

Polishing Up My Proverbs 16 Crown of Glory (Part IV): A Biblical Theory of Aging

It turns out that no one really knows why we age, exactly. To be clear: growing old is simply a matter of the chronological passage of time. That much is understood. But why we age—why, that is, our bodies should change, and especially, deteriorate as we grow old, why skin should lose its elasticity and eyesight its precision, why muscles should lose their tone and bones their density and mental processes their alacrity—medical science does not have an especially penetrating explanation for this.

In the words of that old Iron Maiden song (yes, Iron Maiden; kids, back in my day, the rockers were also the philosophers...): “There’s a time to live, but isn’t it strange that as soon as we’re born we’re dying.”

But why?

Why shouldn’t our cells be able to reproduce indefinitely? Why shouldn’t bones continually maintain their density, or muscles their tone? Why shouldn’t accumulated experience just keep sharpening our mental processes without end or limit?

Science can’t say, exactly.

At least, according to Doctor Andrew Weil, one of America’s leading gerontologists, science can’t. To be sure, there are theories. In his book, Healthy Aging, Dr. Weil surveys some of the best.

There’s the “Genetic Loss” theory of aging, for instance. Apparently, every time your cells reproduce, they lose tiny bits of genetic material from their DNA (humans lose approximately 0.6% of their heart muscle DNA each year, for instance). Over time, this gradual loss of DNA shows up in our bodies as, well, saggy skin, noodly muscles, brittle bones, and so on. On this theory, as best as I can tell, aging is kind of like a prolonged genetic mutation.

Then there’s the “Telomere Theory”. Telomoeres are the end bits of our chromosomes, and their job is to keep said chromosomes from genetically “fraying” (they’ve been compared to the plastic cap on the end of your shoelace). Telomeres have a tendency to shorten over time; and when they grow too short, they activate a mechanism that prevents further cell multiplication. Well: nothing says “old pair of shoes” worse than when the shoe-laces are all frayed.

The theory I found most interesting, however, is the “Reproductive-Cell Cycle” theory. The idea here is that, early on in life, our bodies naturally produce reproductive hormones designed to promote cell growth and ensure, especially, that we reach the age of sexual reproduction; but later in life, in a futile attempt to maintain sexual reproduction past our prime, these same hormones become disregulated and start to drive senescence instead (senescence is the fancy word for the way your body falls apart as you get old). In short: it’s our sex drive, actually, that’s killing us.

Well; I’m light-years from being an expert on any of this, but that was my lay-man’s understanding of Dr. Weil’s book.

And I’m not sharing any of this to be morbid. Or flippant. It’s just, in a previous post I spoke about the reverence the Bible has for old age, and how it tries to encourage the same in us; and it’s just possible my post may have elicited some knowing smiles or downright scoffs from readers who, like me, have passed a 40-something-eth birthday and are noticing for the first time that their bodies just won’t do what they used to do, and have begun to do all sorts of things they never did before, instead.

Reverence for old-age indeed!

So, any thorough theology of aging will eventually have to come to terms with the hard truth that, just because Proverbs 16 calls my quickly-graying hair a crown of glory, that doesn’t change the fact that the hair’s still grey. And thinning. And the fellow it’s crowning feels somewhat less glorious than he did back when he was 20-something and full of vim and vinegar.

When we do come to terms with this truth—the fact that old age involves loss and deterioration as much as it does growth and gain—we discover the flip-side of the Bible’s teaching on the matter. Regardless how medical science may try to explain the phenomenon, biblically speaking, aging is not only a gift from God, it is also a divine limit placed on us by God.

The definitive text on this one is Genesis 6:3, where God, in response to the seemingly endless proliferation of human sin, says this: “My Spirit will not contend with human beings forever, for they are mortal. Their days shall be a hundred and twenty years.” Here, I think, we have the first solid theological word on the aging process. Cells lose their genetic material over time, telomeres shorten and chromosomes fray, reproductive hormones eventually begin to wear down the very organisms they once helped to sexually reproduce, because God, in his wisdom, knew that we needed to have limits placed on us. And he saw what we might become without them.

In another definitive text, Psalm 90:10 underscores this basic idea. The context is again a reflection on God’s right response to human sin, and it says, “Our days may come to seventy years, or perhaps eighty if strength endures, but the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass and we fly away.”

The Bible seems quite convinced on this one. God in his wisdom has placed an upper limit on the length of the human life-span. And spiritually speaking, healthy aging is about learning to live well, fully and wisely and contentedly, within those limits. For lack of a better image, aging is about the joy of colouring inside the lines of the human life-span.

It is interesting, of course, to speculate on the meaning of the Resurrection within this theological framework. Because all genuinely Christian theology must end, eventually, with Christ; and the promise of the empty tomb is in fact a resurrected body where, presumably, cells reduplicate without genetic loss and God binds up the fraying telomeres of the broken-hearted. But that is far more speculative than I wish to get today, except, perhaps, to say this: if the promise of the Gospel is indeed eternal life in Jesus Christ, then for Christians, it would seem, Christ himself actually replaces aging as God's divine limitation on human life.

Food for thought.

But while that simmers on the back-burner, let me just make my main point one more time. Biblically speaking, graceful aging—Proverbs-16-glory-crowned aging, that is—begins when we accept the reality of aging not simply as a divine gift to us, but also as a divine limitation placed on us.

Of course, for the wise, those two things aren’t really all that different, in the end.


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