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

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

Three Hands Clapping

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

Ghost Notes

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


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


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


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


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


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

blogs I follow

Readings, 2020

Readings, 2020
Paradise Lost, John Milton

Adorning the Dark, Andrew Peterson

The Soul of Shame, Curt Thompson

Cure for the Common Life, Max Lucado

Halos and Avatars, Craig Detweiller, ed.

Fool's Talk, Os Guinness

Brendan, Frederick Buechner

The Screwtape Letters

Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis

The Pilgrim's Regress, C. S. Lewis

Becoming Whole, Brian Finkert and Kelly Kapic

Real Sex, Lauren Winner

Out of the Silent Planet, C. S. Lewis

Voyage to Venus, C. S. Lewis

That Hideous Strength, C. S. Lewis

Till We Have Faces, C. S. Lewis

random reads

And Fit Us for Heaven, a Christmas Homily

Hebrews 2:14-18  Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity, so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death, that is the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For this reason, he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.  Because he himself suffered when he was tempted he is able to help those who are being tempted.

I have one very vivid memory of when our first child was born that still comes back to me once in a while.  We were like, three or four months into our first gig as new parents, and I was rocking my new son in the rocking chair, at something like 3:32 in the morning and this very clear, very vivid thought ran through my mind.

I am never going to sleep again.

Really:  I’d like to say something all spiritual about being a new dad and all, but ... well ... those of you who are new parents, or have been new parents at some point or other, I’m sure you can back me up on this.  You reach this stage where it’s been so long since you had a full 8 hours that you almost forget that sleeping through the night is something that normal human beings do.

I can actually still remember the first time our son slept through the night.  Now, when I say, “slept through the night,” I mean, he slept from 12:17 am to 5:36 am (and the fact that we counted those 5 hours and 19 minutes of sleep as a full night just goes to show how desperate we were).  I had fallen asleep on the couch and our son was on my chest, and it was so out of the ordinary that I actually woke up with a start, thinking something was wrong.

I was thinking about those early days as a new Dad last week, in particular, as I heard some kids singing (for what must have been the thousandth time) I heard someone singing that old Christmas Carol, Away in a Manger.

You’ve probably never heard it before.  So let me catch you up to speed.  It goes, Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus lays down his sweet head. So far so good.  The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes.  But Little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.

And this is the point where the needle scratches on the record player with a resounding:  errrch. Little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.  Really?

I mean:  I don’t want to sound like I’m grinching all over your Christmas morning or anything—and I realize that I’m on sacred ground here, critiquing a Sunday School classic like Away in a Manger, but, well, why would we think that the little Lord Jesus—waking up in the middle of night because some lowing cattle disturbed his sleep—why would we assume that he wouldn’t, in that moment, make a bit of fuss about it?

I have told you about my early days as a new dad, haven’t I?  I mean, back in those days it took far less than some lowing cattle to get my baby boy to start crying in the middle of the night.  Any fully human baby—and again, those of you who are new parents, you can back me up on this—any fully human baby would.

Why would we expect less from the little Lord Jesus?

Unless—well—unless we didn’t really believe it the way the writer of the Book of Hebrews believed it, that “since we have flesh and blood, he too shared in our humanity, so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death, that is the devil...” and that “For this reason he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every way.”  He shared, he had to share, fully in our humanity, in order to be our saviour.

I don’t want to put coal in the stockings of the songwriters who first penned Away in a Manger, or anything, but I do think that if the writer of the Book of Hebrews were here, whatever else he’d do, he’d remind them that, listen:  Our redemption required a fully human Saviour.

The fact that the Little Lord Jesus cried in his crib, just like any human baby might have is, actually, it’s good news for us, this morning.  Because what it means—that little fully human baby cry coming from that manger—what it means is that in Christ, God has entered into our humanity, fully and completely and lovingly and redemptively.  I mean: everything and anything that’s true about being a human being, listen: in Jesus Christ, God has taken it onto himself.

There is nothing about being a human being that he has not staked his claim on. Your health, your physical body, your relationships, your love life, your appetites, your distractibility when it comes to spiritual things, your short attention span when it comes prayer, your regrets about the past, your fears about the future, your temptations to live for self instead of living for God.  You name it. If it is something about “being human,” listen:  in the Little Lord Jesus, God has entered into it.  He knows it and understands it and is able to redeem it and transform it and save it.

Your redemption required, the writer of Hebrews says, it required a fully human saviour, and because that’s what it took to save us, that’s what God did for us in the person of Jesus Christ.

The ancient Christians, incidentally, they got this.  They realized that you couldn’t take away the Lord Jesus’ humanity and still have the Saviour we needed.  One theologian, a guy named Gregory of Nazianzus put it like this:  What has not been assumed—that is to say—any part of our humanity that God has not taken onto himself in Jesus Christ—what has not been assumed, has not been redeemed.

And the point was, because God assumed all of our humanity—took it all to himself in Jesus Christ—all of our humanity can and will be redeemed in Jesus Christ.  Your thought life, your emotional life, your flesh and blood, the way you age and grow old, the very fact of death itself.  Listen: All of it is redeemable in Jesus Christ.

Can I encourage you with that Good News this morning?  As we worship him and celebrate his birth today, can we take comfort and courage from the fact that there is no corner of our lives that he does not want to put his healing hand on it and transform it for the glory of God?

Well: I started with a Christmas Carol, maybe I could end with one, too.  Because there’s a little boy at the FreeWay, a little fellow about 6 or so.  And one day his mom said to me: you’ll never guess, Pastor Dale: we were driving the other day and that song Mary’s Boy Child Jesus Christ was on the radio, you know the one:  And man shall live forever more, because of Christmas Day!

And my little boy (said this mom), he piped up and said, mom that’s not true, it’s not because of Christmas Day that we live forever.  It’s because of Easter Day!

You see, we start training our theologians very young at the FreeWay.  And he was absolutely right—it’s because of Easter Day—the death and resurrection of Jesus—that’s why those who have trusted in Jesus Christ can and will live forever more.

But—and I don’t want to pit Bonney M against Away in a Manger this morning, but, but: if the writer of Hebrews were here, I think he would have told our 6-year-old theologian: yes, of course it’s cause of Easter.  But here’s the thing: it’s only because our human life and God’s divine live—our fully humanity and God’s full divinity—it’s only because they came together, perfectly together, in the person of Jesus—it’s only, that is to say, it’s only because of what happened on Christmas Day, that Easter Day could be the offer of salvation that it is.

“He too shared in their humanity,” is how he puts it, “so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death, that is the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.  For this reason he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every way.”

Followers of Jesus, your redemption required a fully human saviour.  And let’s celebrate it this morning that that’s exactly what God did for us, in the Lord Jesus Christ.

All is Bright (A Christmas Rerun)

“And the light shone in the darkness, but the darkness did not receive it.”

How it could possibly have come down to this was still beyond Nathan’s ability to explain. He swore every year that things would be different. Swore that he’d do it right next year, start sooner, plan better.

He swore. Literally, he swore, as an on-coming car jerked in front of him and lurched into the parking spot that he’d been aiming for. As he rolled past the holiday motorist who’d just stolen that prime piece of real estate out from under his nose, he muttered ominously under his breath about decking somebody’s halls.

Looking in vain for a new place to park that was still within trekking distance to the Wal Mart entrance, he came to rest at last at the furthest corner of the parking lot. Flinging his scarf over his shoulder with all the bravado of a WW I pilot, he stepped out into the blinding blizzard.

It would have been lovely, really—haloes of coloured Christmas lights shimmering just barely through the thick white haze—lovely, if it weren’t December 24th.

It would have been breathtakingly beautiful—pure drifting sheets of silent snow—beautiful, if it weren’t 10:33 pm.

It would have been picturesque, even—if he wasn’t a last-minute Christmas shopper on his way to Wal-Mart, of all places on Christmas Eve; Wal-Mart, because they were now open until midnight on this Most Wonderful Night of the Year.

So he squinted into the blinding white wind, and swore: things would be different next year.

By the time he reached the doors, the blizzard had piled a good couple of centimetres on his shoulders—the dandruff of heaven, he might have mused, if his mission hadn’t cleared all whimsical sentiments from his heart and replaced them with one single clear purpose, burning like a Christmas candle in the window of his soul: must find the perfect gift. (At 10:42 pm, Christmas Eve).

He’d need some wrapping paper, too, he noted as he pushed his way through the bottle neck of beleaguered boyfriends, desperate Dads and harried husbands who, like himself, had left this one male shopping duty of the year to the last possible moment, and were now muttering ominously under their breath about showing them who’s naughty and who’s nice.

He stumbled past the happy-face badge on the chest of the sad-faced greeter at the door, and squinted at last in the florescent glare of the store. 10:51.

A robotic Santa Claus boomed a metallic “Ho. Ho. Ho.” at him, from a display of last minute Christmas decorations. The vaguely evil undertones of this animatronic belly laugh mingled with a vaguely threatening rendition of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” that poured from invisible speakers somewhere overhead. For just a moment the Christmas Candle in his soul flickered, and allowed him the briefest of whimsical thoughts: he remembered sitting in church with his buddy Eddie, during a Christmas Eve service they were ignoring as kids, and Eddie had showed him how you could rearrange the letters in the name Santa to spell the name “Satan”; he even wrote it out on the back of the bulletin while they both giggled under their breath.

Nathan squinted suspiciously at the Robotic Santa. “Ho. Ho. Ho.”

But then his mission was burning in him with full flame again, and he pushed past Santa on his way towards the perfume-trinkets-watches-jewelery-sunglasses-make-up-and-other-things-generally-feminine section of the store. Surely if the perfect gift existed, it lay-to-rest under those gleaming posters of radiant young women in jewellery or makeup, photos hung like so many summoning angels over the respective products they announced.

Nathan shuffled his way towards them.

Before he reached the place over which these posters shone, however, a frantic looking dad had knocked him sideways, on his eleventh-hour mission to get the last Liv Doll in the store. A man with a dull gleam in his eye jostled him to the right, pushing past him on his way to the pet supplies because, Nathan could only assume, because little Fido had asked for a box of liver Puppie-Yums for Christmas and they’d accidentally bought chicken.

But by this time, the jewellery section itself was but a faint legend from the distant past, like stories about frankincense and myrrh washing up on the shores of Christmases gone by, and he found himself standing instead in the electronics section, of all places, trying to convince himself that nothing said Merry Christmas like a spool of re-writable CDs made in China.

In the distance he could hear Robo-Santa laughing at him. The florescent light battered him mercilessly.

“You’d better watch out”

Maybe if he threw in a gift card for i-tunes?

“Ho. Ho. Ho.”

The two centimetres of snow had soaked through his coat now and had begun to trickle, like cold regret down his spine.

“You’d better not pout, I’m telling you why.”

The WW I flying-ace scarf slipped from his shoulders as they drooped. He turned to go.

And then: if Nathan’s life had a sound track, the sound of a record needle scratching abruptly on vinyl would have blurted out suddenly, strangling the Wal-Mart muzak to silence. The Ho. Ho. Ho. would have dullened to a slow, echoy, pulse, like an anxious heart. And choral music—the angelic humming of children, maybe, or silvery seraph song—would have begun softly, swelling into a single, throbbing: “Ahhh!” that drowned out everything else.

Because there it was: the perfect gift. She’d asked for it every day of the last 364—in one way or another—she’d been asking for it—maybe all her life. Not with words, of course—never in any audible speech—but with every gesture: that slight turn of her head when she said, “You know what I wish?” That faint droop at the corner of her mouth when she said: “You know what I hate?” That soft sigh that escaped her when she flumped in front of the TV after too-long and too-hard a day at work. That sort of mist in her eyes that she got when the sap was running a bit too thick on a re-run of Little House on the Prairie.

All of it—everything—all of it had really been about this. This gift... this perfect present... The Candle in his Soul burned with white hot light as he reached for it.

And then the lights went out.

The store plunged into instant darkness. A miraculous darkness, he would find later, because the blizzard that had piling snow on the power lines all day, knocked out Wal-Mart’s backup generator, just at the exact moment the wind finally brought down the power poles, and, with a sudden flash at the fuse box that stank worse than a Radio Shack on fire, it plunged the whole world of Wal-Mart into pitch and utter night.

Nathan stood there, frozen in darkness, his hand still reaching for that now invisible, perfect gift.

And in the dark, whimsical thoughts rushed at last through his mind: he saw visions of Pompeii caught in the ash of Vesuvius, frozen forever in the everyday act of living, buying, selling, giving in marriage until the bitter end. In the black distance, Robo-Santa’s laugh ground down to silence, and he thought of air escaping a long-discarded accordion.

“Ho.... ho.... o...”

For a surprisingly long moment nothing happened. The dark was so thick. And more miracles: no one cried out, no one shouted, no one said anything at all, for just a moment. You could hear them all, that hot press of humanity, still and silent, but close, in the dark. And no one dared to move.

And then somehow, more whimsical thoughts rushed at Nathan in that dark pause: he remembered snippets of those stories that he and Eddie had giggled their way through—stories about a little child who broke into the brilliant chaos of this world with a light that no one could see—and about some who could see it, but could barely recognize it as light, because it hurt their eyes.

He remembered vaguely about an old man up at the front who’d said something about how this child had come to upset the status quo... to turn things on their heads... to name our darkness for what it is.

And give us real light.

And he remembered lighting a candle, quite vividly, this, while a chorus of bashful and rusty singing voices lunged for the top note in Silent Night.

Holy Night.

All is Calm.

All is bright.

And his hand fell with heavenly peace, in the darkness, to his side.

Of course, because it was Wal-Mart, of all places, on Christmas Eve, someone in a back room somewhere fired up the back up, back up generator. Florescent light blared out over the store once more and the cogs of the machine started to move again.

But Nathan was already on his way towards the door. As he stumbled outside, into the haloes of coloured Christmas lights, that shimmered just barely through the thick white haze, he checked his watch: it was nearly midnight.

General William Booth Enters into Heaven, a song

The lyrics for this song are adapted from a poem by an obscure but pretty fascinating American Poet named Vachel Lindsay.  It's the last track on my most recent album.  I wrote it more than 10 years ago, as kind of a musical experiment.  The experiment was only marginally successful, but Vachel Lindsay's original text has some vivid and arresting imagery in it.  Here it is in a new arrangement and recording that I did this fall.

Booth led boldly with his big bass drum
The saints smiled gravely and they said he’s come
Walking lepers followed, rank on rank
Lurching bravoes from the ditches dank
Drabs from the alleyways and drug fiends pale
Minds still passion ridden, soul powers frail
Vermin-eaten saints, with mouldy breath
Unwashed legions with the ways of Death
Are you wash in the Blood of the Lamb

Every slum had sent its half a score
The round world over, Booth had groaned for more
Every banner that the wide world flies
Bloomed in glory and transcendent dyes
Loons with trumpets blowed a blare, blare blare
On, on upward through that golden air
Big-voiced lasses made their banjos bang
Tranced, fanatical they shrieked and sang:
Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?

Are you washed in the Blood of the Lamb
Made clean, by the great I AM
Are you part of the promise made to Father Abraham
Are you washed in the Blood of the Lamb
When the saints go marching in that promised Land
Will you be a part of that Holy Band, Are you washed ....?

Jesus came out from the courthouse door
Stretched his hands above the passing poor
Booth saw not but led his queer ones there
Round and round the mighty courthouse square
Then in an instant all that blear review
Marched on spotless clad in raiment new
The lame were straitened, withered limbs uncurled
And blind eyes opened on a new, sweet world
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?

Are you washed in the Blood of the Lamb
Made clean, by the great I AM
Are you part of the promise made to Father Abraham
Are you washed in the Blood of the Lamb
When the saints go marching in that promised Land
Will you be a part of that Holy Band, Are you washed ....?

And when Booth halted by the curb for prayer
He saw his master thru the flag filled air
Christ came gently with a robe and crown
For Booth the soldier while the throng knelt down
He saw King Jesus, they were face to face
And he knelt there weeping in that Holy Place

Drabs and vixens in a flash made whole
Gone was the weasel-head the snout the jowl
Sages and sibyls now, and athletes clean
Rulers of empires and forests green
The hosts were sandaled and their wings were fire
But their noise played havoc with the angel choir
O shout salvation it was good to see
Kings and rulers by the lamb made free
Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?

Are you washed in the Blood of the Lamb
Made clean, by the great I AM
Are you part of the promise made to Father Abraham
Are you washed in the Blood of the Lamb
When the saints go marching in that promised Land
Will you be a part of that Holy Band, Are you washed ....?

Joining the Triumph of the Skies, a devotional thought

What between re-reading The ScrewTape Letters this month, preaching Revelation 12:1-7 last week, and getting ready for our upcoming Christmas Eve celebrations in a few days, I find I have, of all things, angels on the brain these days.

'Tis the season, I guess.

I've been thinking, especially, about the opening chapters of Hebrews, which has more biblical data on the angels concentrated in one place, than pretty much any other passage in the Bible.  It's kind of ironic, in a way, because the real point it's trying to make is that, as the un-created, incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ is superior in every way to the angels. But in proving how much-more-awesomer Jesus is than any angel, the book of Hebrews happens also to say some fascinating things about angels themselves: that they exist primarily to worship God (just like us-- verse 1:6), that they are God's "ministers of fire" (1:7), that they are ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation (1:14), and that "for a little while" God made humans lower than the angels, though, presumably, we won't always be so (see 1 Corinthians 6:3 on this one).

Except for this most wonderful time of the year, when cutsie cherubim and dove-winged seraphim lurk amid the lyrics of the seasonal shopping mall muzak wafting over us as we rush about, we moderns don't really think about angels too much. The Scriptures, however, take them quite seriously and treat them quite respectfully (more often than not, a biblical encounter with an angelic being leaves you flat on your face in fear...). (Not just the Scriptures, either; last summer I read a book called "Lifted by Angels" (Joel Miller) which laid out the Early Church's very earnest, very sober conviction that angels do indeed walk among us.)

All this is to say that I'm praying this last week of Advent, that God would keep me mindful of the fact that there is more going on in heaven and earth than is dreamed of in my philosophy, and even as I keep my eyes fixed firmly on Jesus, who is, of course, far superior than any creature in heaven, on earth, or under the earth, angelic or otherwise (I was listening, author of Hebrews...) even as I keep my gaze on him, may he remind me that his chariots of fire are indeed encamped around every hill and valley I walk through.

Celebrate, a song

Another song from Accidentals. It's not specifically a Christmas song, but given we are in the middle of the "Joy Week" for advent, a song of celebration is perhaps fitting. My daughter tells me I plagiarized Beethoven in the bridge, but I insisted it's more properly called "an homage." Either way, enjoy!

I glory in your glory
I love you cause you loved me
And you alone are holy
And you alone reached down and lifted me

Let a thousand bells clap their tongues
Let a thousand trumpets lift their voice
Let a thousand cymbals crash
Let a thousand voices shout it
Let a thousand hearts be lifted up

I sing a song of celebration
I cry the chorus in the congregation
Announce anew among every generation
That you are the Lord

I sing a song of celebration
I cry the chorus in the congregation
Announce anew among every generation
That you are the Lord
That you are the Lord

I glory in your glory
I love you cause you loved me
And you alone are holy
And you alone reached down and lifted me

Let a thousand bells clap their tongues
Let a thousand trumpets lift their voice
Let a thousand cymbals crash
Let a thousand voices shout it
Let a thousand hearts be lifted up

I sing a song of celebration
I cry the chorus in the congregation
Announce anew among every generation
That you are the Lord

I sing a song of celebration
I cry the chorus in the congregation
Announce anew among every generation
That you are the Lord
That you are the Lord

Joyful, joyful we adore Thee,
God of glory Lord of Love
Hearts unfold like flowers before thee,
Opening to the sun above

Best. Birth. Ever. A devotional thought

In Hebrews 2 we find one of those mind-bogglingly rich passages that, though they may not make it into a Charlie Brown Christmas special, bring us face to face with the True Meaning of Christmas himself.  After establishing that: 1) Jesus is far superior to any angel, and 2) humans, for the time being, are lower than the angels, the author of Hebrews goes on to make this remarkable claim: that Jesus didn't take on any angelic nature, but he took on our human nature instead (2:16), and he did it especially so that, by his death, he might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil (2:14).

The fancy theological word for this, of course, is incarnation.  What hits you when you let it, is that for the writer of the Hebrews, Jesus' Incarnation was an essential part of our salvation.  The incarnation was not just a "means to the cross" where the "real" salvation happened. Jesus' incarnation was, in itself, part of God's great saving act.  Jesus became a "partaker" of our human nature (2.14), so that we might become "partakers" of his heavenly nature (3:1, and 3:14... the same word, "partaker" is used there to describe our union with Jesus).

Like one of the ancient theologians put it, "He became like us, so that we might become like him".

This is deep stuff, of course, but not so deep after all.  Because by the end of the discussion, the writer of Hebrews has gotten intensely practical.  Because Jesus was made like us in every way (2:17), even to the point of being tempted like us in every way (4:15), he is now able to help us when we are tempted (2:18).  One of the rubber-meets-the-road implications of the incarnation is that God knows what it is you're going through today... literally, he knows what it is you're going through ... because whatever it is, in the Incarnation of his son Jesus, he himself has gone through it.  If the writer of Hebrews can be trusted, there is no corner of your life before God that Jesus himself hasn't taken on himself and lived through perfectly, to the point where he is now able to reach back, or down, or out, or whatever spatial metaphor you want to use, to reach after you, and draw you through it to himself.

May God will give us all both strength and peace in that knowledge this Christmas.

Death Be Not Proud, a song

Another song from "Accidentals."  This one is based on a sonnet by one of my favorite poets, John Donne.  "Death be not proud, though some have called thee mighty" is how the poem goes.  There's also a reference to Dylan Thomas's poem "And Death Shall Have No Dominion" in there.  The melody was vaguely inspired by the song the blind railroad man is singing in the movie "O Brother Where Art Thou," and stylistically I was going for something in between a child's lullaby and B. B. King playing the blues. 

Well, if you can't imagine what a 16th Century Metaphysical Poet, a 20th Century Welshman, the Cohen Brothers and B. B. King might sound like if they collaborated on a song, give this one a listen:

 O, death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty, for I know thou are not so

Death, triumph not so loud, though thou might sting me
The seed when it’s sown must die for it to grow

And when I wander through your valley
I will not fear
For his rod and staff will comfort me
His presence is near

O Death, see the blood on my door post
My heart is purified, pass me by

So, death, thou shalt have, no dominion
When he comes for me, Death thou shalt die

For you were swallowed up in victory
When you pierced his heel
And he has conquered your indignity
No longer will you steal

O death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty, for I know thou are not so

Singing a Songful of the Holy Spirit, a devotional thought

As we continue our Advent journey through the opening chapters of Luke, we come to Zechariah's song in Luke 1:67-80, and with it the curious connection between our obedience, on the one hand, and God's filling us with his Holy Spirit, on the other.  In 1:67, it says that Zechariah was "filled with the Holy Spirit," and then he launches into one of the most joyful, thrilling and poetic expressions of praise in all of Luke's Gospel (rivaled only, perhaps, by Mary's Song, in verses 46-55).

What stands out when you read closely, however, is that this filling-with-the-Holy-Spirit happens only after he obeys the Lord, and, more importantly, it happens immediately after his obedience. In v. 61-62, they were trying to figure out what to name baby John the Baptist, and because Zechariah was mute (a result of his disbelief back in v.19), no one's quite sure what to call him. Zechariah, it says, "motioned for a writing tablet and wrote out, 'His name is John.'" Notice that this is in direct obedience to what God told him to do back in verse 13, even though no one in his family is named John, and it would have been a radical break from the cultural custom (see v.61).

The point is: Zechariah's being obedient here, and in verse 64, it says, "Immediately after this his mouth was opened and he started praising God." The way it's worded it sure sounds like the song in verses 67-79 is the "praising" he offered up immediately after his mouth was opened-- he was filled with the Spirit (v.67) and the first thing he said was, "Praise be to God!"

When you connect all these dots, you can't help but notice that: 1) for Zechariah, filling with the Holy Spirit depended on his obedience, and 2) his filling with the Spirit followed immediately and irresistibly after his obedience. Anyone who really wants a deeper and fuller filling with the Holy Spirit in their life would do well to give Zechariah's Advent Song a careful, reflective listen.  If Zechariah's example is any indication, we will only be filled with God's Spirit if, and when, and to the degree that, we are obedient to Him.

 May God give grace for us to be so.

Great Paradox, a song

I did not originally write this as a Christmas song, per se, but it occurs to me that the lyrics are about as fitting this time a year as anything I've written. I'm posting it today simply as the next track in my song-by-song tour of my latest recording project, "Accidentals," but seasonally, as a musical meditation for advent, it works too.  Happy listening.

O great paradox, how I marvel
How I wonder at the mystery of your love
Emptied of your glory
You brought your glory down to us
How marvel, how I wonder, how I marvel at your love

You are prophet and the word
Humble servant and the Lord
Holy God and his perfect sacrifice
Both the shepherd and the lamb
Son of God and son of man
Both the resurrection, and the life

O great paradox, how I marvel
How I wonder at the mystery of your love
Emptied of your glory
You brought your glory down to us
How marvel, how I wonder, how I marvel at your love

You are water turned to wine
Both the firstfruit and the vine
Living rock, become the living bread
You’re the greatest made the least
Both our offering and priest
And you gave your life as ransom for the dead

O great paradox, how I marvel
How I wonder at the mystery of your love
Emptied of your glory
You brought your glory down to us
How marvel, how I wonder, how I marvel at your love

And like a circle, whose centre is everywhere
Whose edge is infinity, whose radius is love
You sustain the universe, and yet you died for me
O beautiful contradiction, that made my sin your victory
How I marvel at your love.

O great paradox, how I marvel
How I wonder at the mystery of your love
Emptied of your glory
You brought your glory down to us
How marvel, how I wonder, how I marvel at your love

Tidings of Comfort and Joy, a devotional thought

You can't get very far into Luke's gospel without noticing how downright joyful everyone is, or becomes, as they prepare for the Messiah's arrival.  You've got thrilled Elizabeth, crying out in a loud voice (v. 41), Mary bursting out into spontaneous song (v. 46), and Zechariah, too (v. 67) overflowing with joy.  Even little fetal John the Baptist, as yet unborn, is leaps with delight in his mother's womb (v. 44).  Like a cheerful chime, the word "joy" it self rings out clearly and compellingly on nearly every page.

As someone who has had some very dark struggles in the past with joy's polar opposite, it occurs to me here that the arrival of Jesus on the scene--whatever the particular scene may be--is an occasion for, and a source of, deep down joy. Not frivolity, or flippancy, or humor even, but biblical joy: an overflowing contentment in him, that bubbles up in self-abandonment (v. 38), rich fellowship (v. 40), heart-songs (v. 46) and maybe even the odd dance or two (v. 41).

At the risk of sounding like Scrooge, let me point out the irony here, that so many of us experience the weeks leading up to Christmas as a series of frantic Black Fridays, one after the other.  Syrupy Christmas Muzak and Seasonal Sentimentality puts a ruthless finger on the raw nerve of what we don't have, who we're not with, our unfulfilled longings for the perfect Christmas that no one's ever had, and we find ourselves, if not joyless, certainly too exhausted to be joyful.

At the risk of sounding like a naive Tiny Tim, let me also offer a Christmas wish.  May this advent season be a Luke Chapter 1 kind of advent, where we experience a deeper filling with the Holy Spirit (there's a lot of that going on in Chapter 1, too-- v. 15, v. 35, v. 41, v. 67) and in Him, the contented Joy that is ever attendant on the coming of the Messiah.

Christ's Comet: an analogy for the local church

As a pastor, I have often found the image of a comet to be a helpful framework for thinking through and reflecting on the various levels of participation in church life that one sees among the people connected to any given local church, from Christmas-and-Easter Christians, on the one hand, to fully devoted day-in-and-day-out disciples on the other.

In case you've never seen one before, let me explain.  A comet is a beautiful moving object in the night sky with three basic parts: the nucleus, the coma and the tail. The "coma" is a glowing cloud around the nucleus, that the nucleus creates as it moves through space, and the "tail" is the luminescent stream of gases that the nucleus leaves behind it on its journey. What's important to note, for our purposes, is that it's the movement of the comet’s nucleus which creates the coma and the tail, and makes it shine so brightly.

Here’s a diagram:

Let me point out the parallels here, for starters.  The local church is like this in that ideally it, too, is moving—that is, it is on mission for Jesus and going from point A to point B, spiritually speaking, in the process.  A stationary or stagnant church, obviously, doesn’t ‘shine’ any more than a stationary comet would.   And, like a comet, it is made up of a solid core nucleus, namely, serious disciples who are genuinely committed to living out their faith in the context of day-in-and-day-out community. Without that nucleus, you've got no comet.

But here's where it gets interesting.  Because around that nucleus of disciples there's going to be a glowing “coma”—that is to say, a bunch of folks who are Christian and committed to Jesus (so they’re glowing) but they aren’t “all in” in terms of their commitment to this local congregation (i.e. they’re not part of the nucleus). They are attracted to the ministry and life of the community, they participate in it on a more superficial level. They are, more or less, moving with the congregation, but they haven’t yet made a deep commitment.

Then there are folks who are in “the tail”—that is, they are Christmas-and-Easter types, maybe, or perhaps they are they are the spouse of a member of the church.  It could be that they were once involved but in various ways have dropped off. They may not even be Christians, but they still have a residual “glow,” because they were or are in contact with the nucleus. However, they’re not really “moving with” the nucleus (or if they are, they’re moving much more slowly).  Every church community, whether they realize it or not, has a "tail" like this.

Like I say, as a pastor, I find this a helpful image for thinking about church life.  Ideally, my work as a pastor helps people in the tail move up into the coma, and people in the coma move up into the nucleus. When people in the nucleus break off into the coma, I do what I can to keep them from dropping into the tail.  I sometimes find it helpful, even, in pastoral work, to ask myself "where in the comet" is this person, and then shape my pastoral response accordingly.

So it's a useful visual, to be sure.

But, here’s the reason I find the comet analogy especially helpful: because for the comet to be a comet (and for it to shine brightly in the night sky) it actually needs the coma and the tail along with the nucleus.

Every local church needs all three.

Of course, you can’t have a tail and a coma without a nucleus, anymore than you can have a church without a core of serious, committed disciples who are moving in the direction of Jesus. However, that nucleus won’t “glow” unless it has a coma and a tail—just like the church won’t “glow” if it doesn’t have an aura of seekers, neighbours, Christians who are not quite “there” yet, etc.—people who are participating in the community at various levels of commitment, but they haven’t made a covenant or membership commitment to this local church.

Sometimes church leaders can be tempted to despair over the "commitment level" of people in their community (and to be sure, the ideal movement is always "up into the nucleus" through deeper commitment and fuller devotion to Jesus), but the thing to understand is that a church without any loosely-committed adherents is like a comet without a coma or a tail.  And just to beat the analogy to death: the movement of the nucleus actually creates a coma/tail; it's inevitable, even, dare I say, desirable.  In the same way, the mission of the church’s core will create a coma and a tail of people who are more-or-less moving with the church but not quite “all in.”

It's inevitable.  Even desirable.  Because a church that doesn’t have this happening, is probably not moving that much on mission, and probably isn't, actually, shining too brightly for Jesus.