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.

Christ Child Lullaby, a song


Little perfect newborn hands
so tiny and pure
Reaching for your mother’ s face,
clutching at her hair
One day they will clutch the cross
and bear it to the hill
Reach out to embrace the nails
Let them pierce that perfect palm
O little tiny newborn hands,
born to do the father’ s will

Little perfect newborn feet
so gentle and warm
Kicking on your mother’ s knee,
swaddled safe from harm
One day they will walk the waves
and make them calm and still
And stand in that forsaken place
And let them pierce that holy hand
O little tiny newborn feet, born to do the father’ s will

You were born to live, born to die
Three days later your would leap up on high
O little hands of God, born to beckon me
Rest now on your mother’ s knee, rest now on your mother’ s knee

Little wrinkled newborn brow crowned with a wisp of hair
Cradled in your mother’ s arms, quiet and fair
One day they will sweat forth blood and bear a crown of thorns
Twisted out of sin and shame
To break and mock your holy name
O little wrinkled newborn brow, born to bear our sin alone

Little crying newborn eyes so dark and so deep
Seeking for your mother’ s breast for comfort and sleep
One day they will see the grave and weep on that morn
Weep for our helplessness
Weep in your love for us
O little crying newborn eyes, born to bear our sin alone

You were born to live, born to die
Three days later you would leap up on high
O little eyes of God, born to seek for me
Sleep now on your mother’ s knee, Sleep now on your mother’ s knee

House of Bread, a Christmas Poem

O little humble House of Bread
how still we see thee
rise--
where once they buried
long ago his father's father's father's
father's one true love,
whose ancient tears his coming will
unwittingly awake--
(Rachel, weeping, because her innocents are no more)

O little simple house of bread:
in whose heart of mystery
is born today
the Christ child's hidden presence:
stolen away by dreams and night
and brought back to us the same--
(that out of Egypt Rachel's innocents might find their way back home)

O little broken house of bread,
soaked that day, and now today,
in wine-red blood
(that she, at last, might find God's solace for her tears)--
at your table we discover it again:
the hopes and fears of all the years
are truly met in thee
tonight.

All is Bright (a Christmas Story)

First posted December 21, 2010

“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—halos 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 centimeters 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-jewelry-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 jewelry 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 jewelry 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 centimeters 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 halos of coloured Christmas lights, that shimmered just barely through the thick white haze, he checked his watch: it was nearly midnight.

Holy Sisyphus, a song



Holy Sisyphus, you're almost at the top
Holy Sisyphus, now's no time to stop
I know it weighs a tonne,
But you're almost done
Holy Sisyphus

Holy Sysiphus, just try to keep your grip
Holy Sysiphus, don't let your fingers slip
Though they're worn to the bone
Just keep rolling that stone
Holy Sysiphus

Rock on, Holy Sysiphus
(keep rolling, keep rolling)
Rock on, Holy Sysiphus
(keep rolling, keep rolling)
Rock on, Holy Sysiphus
(Keep rolling along)

Holy Sysiphus, you roll back down to the start
Holy Sysiphus, don't let it crush your heart
Until you come to the end,
Just start up the hill again
Holy Sysiphus

Rock on, Holy Sysiphus
(keep rolling, keep rolling)
Rock on, Holy Sysiphus
(keep rolling, keep rolling)
Rock on, Holy Sysiphus
(Keep rolling along)

A Drink Offering for Jesus, a devotional thought

In 1 Chronicles 11 we find this strange story about King David and his mighty men that leaves me sort of scratching my head. Here’s the Coles notes: it’s during one of his battles against the Philistines, and the Philistines have set up a garrison at Bethlehem (his hometown). It says: “David longed for water and said, ‘Oh that someone would get me a drink from the well near the gate of Bethlehem.’”

It’s not clear if he was serious about this or not, but his Three top warriors hear it, and take up the mission. They break through the Philistine ranks, draw the water from the Bethlehem well, and bring it back to David.

And here’s the head scratcher: when they give him the cup, David refuses to drink it. “God forbid that I should do this!” he said. “Should I drink the blood of these men who went at the risk of their lives?” So instead, he pours it out on the ground. It’s a bit strange, because it seems like these Three men have just stared down death itself to get a glass of water for their King, and rather than being honoured by it, he pours it out. But when you realize that he’s pouring it out as a libation (a drink offering) to God (v. 11:18), it comes into better focus. Rather than receiving this costly cup of water for himself, David gives their risky, daring, valiant exploit to the Lord.

This story upgrades from curious to powerful as soon as you remember that, as King of Israel, David is a type of the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. Because the point here is that the true Messiah is worthy of every feat of daring, every risky venture, every life-on-the-line mission we take for him, and as we step out in faith on these (apparently) foolhardy missions, he takes all that courage and daring and devotion and bravery, like a tall cool drink of water and pours it out on our behalf before the Lord God himself. Who wouldn’t risk life and limb for a Messiah like He is?

Intersections (A Reflection on Heaven)

The Thursday Review: Triumphal Entries and the True Meaning of Christmas

first posted December 16, 2010

A while ago I shared some observations on the connections in Luke's Gospel between the nativity narrative and the triumphal entry. Namely: when Jesus is born, angels sing peace on earth and glory in the highest; and later when Jesus rides triumphant into Jerusalem, the disciples echo this back, shouting peace in heaven and glory in the highest.

Luke's not the only one to draw parallels between Christ's birth and his Triumphant Entry. In Matthew's narrative, three magi enter Jerusalem asking about the one born "King of the Jews," and all Jerusalem (Herod included) is "disturbed" at the query (2:3). No wonder they trembled, inasmuch as "King of the Jews" is the exact title Rome had given Herod himself back in 40 BC. This child's birth is as direct a challenge to the powers that be as Jerusalem could imagine.

But, curiously, when Jesus rides his revolutionary donkey into Jerusalem, in open defiance of those powers that be, Matthew notes how all of Jerusalem was "shaken" at the sight (21:10). Like Luke, Matthew seems intent on having the nativity narrative echo hauntingly in the background of this momentous occasion: when he was born, he stirred up the city's complacency; when he rode, thirty three years later, through the gates as its rightful and perfect king, he shook that complacency to its foundations.

I call this curious because I know that if I were to point to an event that fulfilled the "meaning" of Christ's birth, I'd point intuitively and directly to the cross; and yet these inspired narrators of Jesus' story point, instead, and specifically, to the Triumphal Entry. And I can't help but wonder why (admitting, at the same time, that the Triumphal Entry only has meaning because of the way the cross and resurrection turned the very notion of "triumph" on its head).

But maybe Matthew's point here is that the "true meaning" of this child's birth, in part, lies in the way God issues His Messianic challenge, through him, to the status quo-- to Sadducean elitism, to Herodian despotism, to Pharisaical legalism, to Roman hegemony. So when he rides a gentle donkey into the City of the Great King, as the ultimate revelation of God's challenge to the status quo, nothing could be more fitting than to remember how he once squirmed helpless on the knee of his shamed mother in the humble city of David, while foreigners and outsiders hailed him as Lord and "the status quo" worried to hear him named.

And I'm left wondering: what would it look like if we had a "Triumphal Entry" Christmas this year? What might it mean for us if we let Christmas shake our complacency to its foundations and let Mary's Boy Child Jesus Christ, in his coming, issue God's direct challenge to our status quo-- our spiritual elitisms, our unacknowledged despotisms, our self-righteous legalisms, our unseen hegemonies-- where ever they might be?

Creative Being (III): Poetry and the Christian Life

In The Contemplative Pastor, Eugene Peterson makes an off-hand observation about the intuitive connection between pastoral work and poetry. “Is it not significant,” he asks rhetorically, “that the biblical prophets and psalmists were all poets? It is a continuing curiosity that so many pastors, whose work integrates the prophetic and psalmic (preaching and praying), are indifferent to poets. In reading poets, I find congenial allies in the world of words. In writing poems, I find myself practicing my pastoral craft in a biblical way.”

Emphasis added; because I also write poetry, and have experienced something profoundly biblical, too, in this careful quest for just the right words and those loving efforts to arrange them just so.

Incidentally, I have also noticed the same indifference to poetry among many contemporary pastors. Most of the pastors who raised me, spiritually speaking, were no-nonsense farmers putting it plainly in the pulpit, or former intervarsity jocks reliving their glory days, adept at squeezing the 23rd Psalm into three preachable points perhaps, but uninterested in letting the weight of those words settle with any ambiguity: even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death ...

In Subversive Spirituality, Peterson returns to this thought, in an effort to explain why the Book of Revelation was written as a poem and not (contrary to the suppositions of the Left-Behinders) as an Apocalypse Survival Manual. It’s because “a poet uses words primarily not to explain something,” he argues, “but to make something. Poet (poetes) means ‘maker.’ Poetry is not the language of objective explanation but the language of imagination. It makes an image of reality in such a way as to invite our participation in it.

Emphasis added again; this time because I want to linger over the stuff that makes poetry unique as a form of human expression. It is not simply descriptive speech, but creative speech (Peterson’s right, by the way: the etymology of poem takes us back to the Greek, poiein, “to make or create”). Inasmuch as the language of poetry does this—invites our active, imaginative participation in the hitherto unseen quality of a thing, creating new worlds of possibility and potential—to the extent that Peterson is right and poetry is not “an examination of happens but an immersion in what happens”—to the degree that poetry was the preferred mode of expression of the psalmists and the prophets for a reason—there is, I think, something essentially and necessarily poetic about Christian Spirituality.

Now: before you head off to Starbucks with your moleskin notebook to scratch out your feelings in verse over a steaming Grande Pike, let me clarify. I am not saying that Christians must necessarily write poems, or read them. Nor am I saying that poets make better Christians. I do think Christians could do worse than to read a poem every now and then; I do think it could hardly hurt for every Christian to try their hand at verse once in a while; and I do think the church would be a better place if more Christians felt it in their soul what it means to say something like: “the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods with warm breast and with, ah! bright wings.” But that’s the former English teacher in me talking, not the pastor.

What the pastor in me is saying is that when we experience genuine Christian spirituality we are, in fact, experiencing that creative quality of the word that all authentic poetry is grasping after. As we earnestly, fully and wholeheartedly pursue what it means to be a man or a woman made in the image of God remade in the Image of Christ, the Word made flesh, we are doing something inherently poetic, even if we never find the perfect rhyme for silver.

I don’t mean this abstractly, either; I mean it very concretely. Because all Christian Spirituality begins, actually, with prayer. I realize, of course, that almost no statement about Christian Spirituality is uncontroversial.  Theologically I should have said it starts with Christ, revealed by the Spirit and attested to in the Scriptures, but the beginning of our active participation in these things is experienced through prayer. 

Prayer is the essential and necessary activity of Christian Spirituality. And whatever else prayer is—it’s more than this, to be sure, but it is hardly less than this—prayer is poetry.

Again: in saying this I do not mean that our prayers should rhyme, or alliterate, or employ iambic tetrameter. If so, "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep" would be a masterpiece of Christian prayer and Dr. Seuss the Most Spiritual Man of All. What I am trying to do here is just bring together the fact that poetry really does invite our active participation in the reality it bespeaks, and the fact that Christian prayer not only invites this, too, but actually answers the invitation.

In praying "Thy will be done, thy kingdom come," we are also participating in the will of the Father and tasting the coming of his Kingdom. On a more immediate level: when we pray for grace, truth, help, hope, sustenance, healing, restoration, the peace of Christ that transcends all understanding, we discover ourselves actively participating in these things as the Holy Spirit realizes them in our lives.

Theologians refer to this as the “efficacy of prayer,” that fact that prayer effects the things we pray for. But today I want to call it the “poetry of prayer,” the fact that the words we speak in prayer spiritually immerse us in what we are praying about.  And the faithful Christian in prayer, even if she doesn't know Gerard Manley Hopkins from Adam, still, in those whispered words that the heart alone understands, to a loving Father by a Spirit who intercedes on her behalf with groans that words alone could never express, she is breathing out poetry of the purest kind, and discovering, I think, the reason poetry was given us in the first place.

Learning to Fly, a song



When you reach the top
You’re only just starting to climb
So keep rising up
The jump is gonna be sublime

You’ll be soaring across the sky
You’re not falling you’re learning to fly
Just hold your head up and
just hold your wings out and
don’t let this moment pas by
You’ll be soaring across the sky

And you’re not alone
You’re walking where angels dare
So just don’t look down
You’ll be  flying  on a wing and a prayer

You’ll be soaring across the sky
You’re not falling you’re learning to fly
Just hold your head up and
just hold your wings out and
don’t let this moment pas by
You’ll be soaring across the sky

Just keep the ground below you
Just keep the sky above and
Just keep the wind against your face
The wings of the dawn will show you
How deep, how high his love and
You  will be lifted on his grace

You’ll be soaring across the sky
You’re not falling you’re learning to fly
Just hold your head up and
just hold your wings out and
don’t let this moment pas by
You’ll be soaring across the sky

Taking Sides, a devotional thought

The other night I was reading in the Book of Joshua,, where the angel of the Lord meets Joshua just before he goes into battle against Jericho. It's such an interesting exchange. Joshua sees "a man standing before him with a drawn sword," and he asks this Heavenly Warrior, "Are you for us or for our enemies?"

There's a good sermon or two waiting to be preached in the angel's reply. "Neither," he says, "But as the commander of the Lord's army, I have now come."

That simple "Neither" is sobering, humbling and inspiring all at once. It's so easy to assume, especially when you're sure (as Joshua must have been) that you're doing God's work, that he's unequivocally "on your side," endorsing your cause, under-writing your agenda and what have you. Yet here's Joshua about to engage the hosts of Jericho and right before he takes the field God tells him, essentially, "Don't assume that I'm on your side in this fight, as though I were some tribal god you can keep in your back pocket, to guarantee you achieve your goals" (That's the sobering part); and by implication, he tells him, "The question's not 'is God on my side in this conflict?' but: 'am I on God's side, ready and willing to conduct myself at his direction for his purposes alone?'" (that's the humbling part); and by further implication: "Listen, God's will is going to be accomplished, and to be standing with him when it is, that alone is the greatest victory and highest success of all" (that's the inspiring part).

To be clear: when I read the battle narratives in Joshua, I tend to follow the Apostle Paul's lead, who wrote that for Christians, our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the spiritual powers in the heavenly realms. That is to say: I understand the battles in Joshua as paradigmatic for the spiritual struggles we face, and the spiritual "battles" we fight in the spiritual life. And when I take that approach with Joshua 5:13-15, this is what it says to me: Look: God's on God's side; the ultimate question is, are you there, with him?

The Thursday Review: Hark the (Other) Herald

first published June 9, 2010

Each of the four gospel writers put something different on the lips of the crowds as Jesus rode his triumphant donkey into Jerusalem the week before Passover. For Matthew, it was a reference to his Davidic pedigree. With a hosanna. For Mark, it was a reference more broadly to the coming "Kingdom of our father David." With a hosanna. For John it was a reference to Jesus as simply "the king of Israel." With a hosanna. (And yet not so simply, inasmuch as for John, Yahweh himself is the only true King of Israel).

But for Luke there was no "hosanna." Instead, the crowd shouted: "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord." And then they added: "Peace in heaven and glory in the highest."

Now if I were a stout harmonizer, I'd want to throw in one of Matthew's Davidic references or one of Mark's Hosannas here for good measure. But because I'm not anymore, something jumped out at me when I read Luke 19:38 the other day that I can't get out of my mind.

"Peace in heaven and glory in the highest" cheered the crowds; and I wonder: did they know they were echoing the very words of the angelic host that heralded Christ's birth so many chapters (and some 33 years) earlier, when he was wrapped in swaddling clothes and a celestial choir declared "Glory to God in the highest / and on the earth peace ... "? Whether they heard the echoes or not, Luke doesn't seem to want us to miss them: in the original Greek, the parallels are quite striking. 2:19 reads "Glory in the highest to God, and on earth peace..." while 19:38 echoes back: "in heaven peace and glory in the highest" (almost as though they were open and close brackets respectively to the gospel narrative that has brought us to this point.)

But this is more than just a clever literary device. With its subtle echo of those of herald angels who sang glory to the newborn king back in 2:19, Luke's account of the Triumphal Entry here actually teaches us what it means to sing "God and sinners reconciled" in the fullest sense. Because as the God-Man, Jesus Christ always acts both as God before man, on God's side, and as man before God, on our side. Or as Paul put it, there is only one mediator between God and man; the man Christ Jesus.

So, when God-come-in-the-flesh was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, God made peace with humans-- in Jesus, the fully divine Messiah. Thus heavenly heralds filled the skies declaring peace on earth. But as the mediator between God and humanity, Jesus not only reconciles God to sinners, he also reconciles sinners to God. So when the true King of God's people rode humbly into the city of God's people to be enthroned as God's Prince of Peace, man made peace with God-- in Jesus, the fully human Messiah. Thus earthly heralds declared peace in heaven.

Jesus has reconciled heaven to earth; and he has reconciled earth to heaven. And in Jesus, and through faith in Jesus, we are invited to become ambassadors of that reconciliation in the fullest sense: declaring with radiant angels and dusty disciples alike that Jesus Christ has made perfect peace between Creator and creation.

Bonjour, Ma Petite



Bonjour ma petite, je te chante la bienvenue
Nous t’avons attend tant
Et peut-etre que ce monde, il t’est inconnu
Mais ce bras t’aimeront toujours tant
Alors, ferme tes yeux et reve dans ton coeur
Et plus tard tu le decouvririas
Alors reste ici, tout pres de mon coeur
 Et ces bras t’aimeront toujours tant

Hello, little one I sing your welcome
We have waited a long time for you
And maybe this world is a stranger to you
But these arms, they will always love you
So close your eyes and dream in your heart
Tomorrow you will seek you will find
But rest right here, right next to my heart
And these arms, they will always love you


Parental Sacrifices, a devotional thought

I was reading Leviticus the other night and this half-baked thought occurred to me.  If you're not used to Leviticus, you need to understand that in the ancient world, animal sacrifice was just a regular part of worship and wouldn't have even raised an eyebrow for anyone; and as Christians we believe that all of the requirements for sacrifice are fulfilled and satisfied in Christ. So don't let the fact of animal sacrifice trouble you too much.  You just have to draw out its meaning for us, today, as followers of Jesus.

And here's where the half-baked thoughts started to rise in the oven: because in Leviticus 12, it's explaining what a woman's supposed to do when she gives birth, and it says, she's to offer a lamb for a burnt offering (burnt offerings are sort of "celebration / thanksgiving" offerings, so that makes sense: "Thanks, God for bringing this new life into the world").  But then it says that she's to offer a pigeon or a dove for a sin offering. And that's the one that's always troubled me, because, really, why would a woman have to offer a sin offering after giving birth? Surely it's not because there's something sinful about parenthood. And surely it's not because there's something sinful about the fact of giving birth. The OT through and through consistently sees children as only a gift and blessing from God. So I never really knew what to do with this one.

But then, like I say, it occurred to me: new mothers (and elsewhere, fathers, though for different reasons and at different times) needed to make a sin offering, not because they've sinned by becoming new parents, but because children need godly parents. Inasmuch as the sin offering was the Old Testament's mechanism whereby a right relationship with God was established and maintained and deepened and strengthened, the "maternal sin offering," I think, is more for the sake of the new child than it is for the new mother.

When I think of myself, for instance, and how self-centred and spiritually immature and unworthy to be a dad I was when my children were bornand how Christ graciously met me in that and helped me to growwhen I put it in that context, the idea of needing a "sin offering" upon becoming a new parent starts to make a lot of sense. After all: what could be better for kids, really, than if every parent took seriously their need to deal with their own sin through Christ, in order to be the kind of parent their kids most need?

Breathe

The Thursday Review: On Winning the War on Christmas

first published January 7, 2011

I've been thinking a lot this year about the War on Christmas. Apparently a secular campaign has been raging for almost a decade now against religious traditions that Christians hold dear (like greeting one another with a decisive "Merry Christ-mas" (while wassailing, of course, with figgy puddings and jingling sleigh bells among the leaves so green)). As a way of describing the increasing secularization of the winter holiday season, conservative American media personalities like Bill O'Riley and Peter Brimelow first popularized the the term "War on Christmas" around the turn of the new millennium. I'm always the last to know. Until recently, I had been living like a Yule-tide Switzerland, blissfully neutral to the whole conflict, but the war on Christmas became a specially poignant issue to me this year, in part because it kept coming up on the blogs I was reading through Christmas (see especially here).

Tactics in the War on Christmas include: infiltration of our traditional password protocol by replacing "Merry Christmas" with the insidiously innocuous "Happy Holidays," trade embargoes on traditional carols in schools, and guerrilla attacks on creches in public places.

But these things aren't especially why "The War on Christmas" was on my mind this Holiday (read: Christmas) Season. It's a parallel issue that I've been wrestling with-- and this one seriously wrestling with-- the gross commercialization of Christmas.

I'm not sure if it was because a) I watched the (very flawed) film What Would Jesus Buy at the start of Advent this year, or if it's because b) I'm still working through some issues about what it means to be a pastor at Christmas time, or if it's because c) the commercialization of Christmas really has gotten grosser than ever... but it sure seemed like answer "c" to me this year. My wrestling has to do with this question: Do we really honour Christ's name best by associating it so closely with this frenzied celebration of stuff? Like I prayed in a prayer at church one Sunday morning: it seems almost silly for us to say: Jesus is the Reason for the Season. The one who came to give us divine simplicity, pure generosity and holy rest; is he the reason for all of this hectic buying and getting and rushing around?

I don't have easy answers to these questions, except to confess that they were heavier on my heart this year than ever before. At its heaviest, the question hit me like this: Do we crucify Christ every Christmas, when we throw ourselves a hedonistic winter bacchanalia, and then justify it by glossing it with his name?

And the moment that question hit me, I thought of the War on Christmas.

And I thought: how like the God of the Crucified Jesus would it be, if he won the War on Christmas by losing it absolutely and altogether? Because if we really did reach a time when Christ's name was no longer associated with the market economy's year end projections-- if there really did come a day when the last vestiges of its Christian trappings were stripped away from the fundamentally pagan celebration of consumption that happens every December-- if the Holiday Season really did banish the Christ from the party we once held in his honour, for good--

Well: what freedom to really celebrate the "Reason for the Season" might we discover then, stepping glorious out of the empty tomb of all our "Merry Christmases"?

Serendipity Smiles, a song



Serendipity goes down
To the river in the moonlight
And she slips her foot in laughing
And she says the water’s fine
And I don’t want to drown
While we’re swimming in the starlight
So I hold her body close to me
And tell her that she’s mine

And O, Serendipity, I glimpse eternity
Once in a while
And O, Waves of ecstasy, washing over me
Whenever Serendipity smiles

Serendipity lies down
In the grass under the willow
And she stretches out her body
And she says the shade is fine
And the sun is beating down
And I’ve got no place I need to go
So I stretch out there beside her
And I take her hand in mine

And O, Serendipity, I glimpse eternity
Once in a while;
And O, waves of ecstasy
Washing over me whenever Serendipity smiles

Serendipity sits down
In the silence on the mountain top
And she spreads her arms out to the world
And she says the view is fine
And the breeze is dancing round
And I don’t know when we’re gonna stop
So I lean my body into hers
And I let her take her time....

And O, Serendipity, I glimpse eternity
Once in a while;
And O, waves of ecstasy
Washing over me whenever Serendipity smiles

The Heart's Referee, a devotional thought

In Colossians 3:15, Paul says that, as we live out our new life in Christ, we are supposed to "let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts."  I'm familiar with this passage (I've even preached on it before) but something jumped out at me the other day that I'd never really noticed before.

I always sort of assumed it meant "rule" in the sense of "having top place," or "being in charge." Like a king rules a country, so the peace of Christ ought to rule our hearts. But it's actually more specific than that. The verb he uses for "rule" in verse 18 is not the verb used to describe a king's rule (basileuo), it's the word used to describe a judge or an umpire in an athletic competition, who makes a ruling about the winner (brabeuo; the noun form is used in Phil. 3:4).

In Paul's imagery here, the peace of Christ is not so much the king of the castle that is our hearts (Christ himself is that); it is the referee in the hockey game that is our whole inner life. I actually had that picture in my mind as I was praying through this verse this morning: my thought life, my emotions, my ambitions, my desires, my goals, my opinions, everything that goes on inside was like a big hockey game, with players moving around and crashing into each other while they all chased the puck of my attention. And then the peace of Christ blew the whistle (sometimes I get pretty imaginative in my prayers)-- anyways, the Peace of Christ blew the whistle: that ambition was off-side; that emotion was roughing; five-for-fighting on that opinion. Anything that doesn't contribute to, or promote, or express the Peace of Christ gets called out, and put in check and sometimes even thrown in the penalty box for a while.

May God grant us all the grace to make His Peace the referee of our lives.

The Thursday Review: Food For Thought

first posted September 17, 2010

Maybe you've seen this before. It was one of those shotgun emails with a subject line like "Interesting must see" or something, that came across my computer screen a while back. It's a photo essay that explores what people around the world eat in a week. After a bit of Google-work, I found out it came from this fascinating book on the same subject.

So, for instance, here's what the Revis family of North Carolina ate in one week:


By contrast, here's what the Ayme family of Tingo Peru ate in one week.

You can view the complete photo essay here, with pictures of families from, among other places, Japan (lots of fish), Italy (lots of bread), Germany (lots of cream), Chad (not much of anything). It's quite a thought-provoking piece that raises all sorts of questions about the food-stuffs we stuff into our maws.

Questions about what we eat. How much we eat. Where it comes from, and with whom we eat it (it stands out to me that in many of the non-western photos, it's not just a Mom and Dad and child, 3.2 people standing by their pile of food, but a whole household that spans maybe 3.2 generations). It also raises questions about imbalance of wealth and power in the world, or about the mechanized, modernized, synthesized food processing industry that we depend on in the West to laden our tables with so many plastic-wrapped edibles.

I've been thinking about these questions a lot lately. This is partly because I think there's something very spiritual about food that we've lost sight of in our world, where food no longer comes from the dirt and the rain and at the expense of living things, but from from a box in a store at the expense of our debit card. I don't think its coincidental, for instance that Levitical purity laws put such an emphasis on what you ate as part of your life with God, or that you sealed a covenant in the ancient world by eating a meal, or that Jesus ate with sinners.

Inspired by this photo essay to explore some of these questions a bit further, I spent a week tracking all the food I ate. It turned out to be a humbling and enlightening exercise that challenged me to think a little more deeply about food and its role in our lives. So, in the spirit of "What the World Eats," here's a picture of what it takes to keep me fed for the week:

Creative Being (II): Creative Spirituality

Creativity is hard to define but impossible not to notice when it’s happening. It’s a musician who somehow takes a traditional form and produces something entirely original with it, all while respecting the bounds of the form; it’s an artist who puts brush to canvas and produces an image that captures the essence of something everyone else had looked at before but no one had ever really seen; it’s a novelist who tells a story that no one has ever heard but is for all that hauntingly familiar.

Creativity is one part discovery, one part remembering, one part observing and one part expressing.

Interestingly, many authors attribute a spiritual quality to creativity. According to Rollo May, creativity “brings to our awareness what was previously hidden and points to new life. The experience is one of heightened consciousness, of ecstasy.” Dieter Uchtdorf called the desire to create “one of the deepest yearning s of the human soul.” Brene Brown said, “Creativity is the way I share my soul with the world.”

What these and other authors seem to be touching on is the sense that when we are being creative, we are coming into contact with something deeply interior—something inside of us—and at the same time, something profoundly transcendent—something above, beyond or outside the everyday—and that whatever else spirituality is about, it, too, has to do with the coalescence of these two things: the interior and the transcendent.

Whether or not there is, in fact, something genuinely spiritual about creativity (my jury is still out on that one), there is, I think, something profoundly creative about spirituality. Put differently: it may or may not be the case that through creative activities we can “encounter and express the spiritual,” but it is most surely the case—at least, from a Christian perspective it is—that when we truly encounter the Spiritual, something very creative happens in us. I say this in part because of the themes of New Creation woven like a gilded thread through the tapestry of the New Testament witness: if anyone be in Christ, there is New Creation (2 Corinthians 5:17); our Lord is the one who (behold) makes all things new (Revelation 21:5); he admonishes us to forget the former things for (again, behold) he is doing a new thing (Isaiah 43:18). The Scriptures pulse with this promise: that something brand new, original, unprecedented and above all creative happens, and is happening, whenever men and women discover their true nature as Children of God through faith in Christ.

It may not involve composing a musical score or drafting an epic novel, but to the extent that creativity is about seeing things that never existed before and bringing them into being, to the further extent that creativity is about discovering worlds of possibility where before there were none, and to the ultimate extent that this is actually what happens to us, spiritually, when we come to Christ, as God reveals in us an identity that had not previously existed and opens up for us a world of hope that was not there before—to that extent, Christian spirituality is deeply and profoundly creative.

In his spiritual autobiography, C. S. Lewis talks about the role that poetry played in his coming to faith. He says that as he approached the point of conversion, he discovered a "ludicrous contradiction between [his atheist/secular] theory of life and [his] actual experiences as a reader." Namely: "those writers who did not suffer from religion and with whom in theory [his] sympathy ought to have been ... all seemed a little thin. ... The roughness and density of life did not appear in their books."  At the same time, the authors he felt he could feed on most deeply, and did—George MacDonald, G. K. Chesterton, John Donne, Spenser, Milton, Herbert—all "by a strange coincidence" shared the same unfortunate "kink": their Christian faith.

As he puts it: “Christians were all wrong—but the rest were all bores.”

At the time, he assumed these authors were good "in spite of" their faith. But as he reached the threshold of his own Aldersgate moment, he began to believe they were good "because of it."

To this we might say: of course they were; what else would you expect? The Christian experience is an opening of the eyes to things previously hidden. It is an expanding of the heart’s capacity to feel, a piquing of one’s thirst for truth, the ultimate (and most literal) of inspirations, the fulfillment of God’s own promise to give dreams and reveal visions to his people.

The real head-scratcher would be a Christian who had encountered Christ and afterwards did not see things afresh, or feel things deeply, or thirst for truth, a believer who was not daily inspired and dreaming big dreams by the Spirit.

This head-scratcher happens, of course—there is such a thing as a dull Christian, to be sure.  But my experience is that as people take steps forward in their faith, as they take risks following Jesus and let him lead them out of their comfort zones, he awakens this Spiritual Creativity in them. The business man who spent a life time making rich people richer starts looking at the world afresh and creatively redirects his business efforts into justice for the poor and the oppressed. The teacher who up till now only saw his career as a path for personal advancement comes to Christ and creatively starts speaking grace and truth and love into the lives of his students. The construction worker who simply punched the clock all these years discovers in Christ ways to use his skill creatively, building churches on the mission field.

These are all examples from my own circle of acquaintance. And again, none of them have to do with writing music or painting pictures for Jesus (though I could share those stories too), but they have to do with something far deeper: the way Christ, when he touches us, also touches something in us: a human longing to act creatively in the world. Christ wakens it in us, and by his Spirit, he awakens us to it.

Afraid of the Dark, a song



I’m not afraid of the dark
I’m more afraid of the light in me
That bright and beautiful spark of you
No I’m not afraid of the dark
Beautiful and dangerous
Burning bright and glorious
Sparkling victorious
Inside of me

Could it be that there’s more than we imagine
Going on inside the soul
Could it be that there’s truth inside the passion
And the yearning makes us whole

The breath is willing,but the blood is weak
The heart is spilling and the spirit can’t speak (cause I’m)

I’m not afraid of the dark
I’m more afraid of the light in me
That bright and beautiful spark of you
No I’m not afraid of the dark
Beautiful and dangerous
Burning bright and glorious
Sparkling victorious
Inside of me

Shine on morning starlight
Come illuminate me
Light up all my blindness
Help me see what you see

The breath is willing,but the blood is weak
The heart is spilling and the spirit can’t speak (cause I’m)

I’m not afraid of the dark
I’m more afraid of the light in me
That bright and beautiful spark of you
No I’m not afraid of the dark
Beautiful and dangerous
Burning bright and glorious
Sparkling victorious
Inside of me

Mercy and Doubt, a devotional thought

There’s a somewhat unusual command for us in Jude 1:22.  Jude is a pretty obscure book, as far as New Testament letters go, tucked way in the back and right before the book of Revelation and all, so it's understandable if this particular verse doesn't get equal air-time with John 3:16 or Romans 3:23.  Nonetheless, 1:22 is worth some careful reflection. It's talking about the way Christians are supposed to be in their interactions with different people in and outside the church, and in v. 22 it says, “Be merciful to those who doubt.”

This is especially interesting, because the Greek word for “doubt” here refers to a believer who is experiencing doubt or wavering in their belief, more than it does an unbeliever who has rejected the faith or plain never accepted it. It is, I think, a very tender thing for Jude to say.

Sometimes we go through times in our lives, experiences, life changes or unexpected circumstances that leave us in seasons of doubt, questioning our faith, maybe, wrestling with the really hard questions, hanging on by a thread. This is true for even the most stalwart of Christians. And sometimes, I’ve noticed, when Christians are in these times and places, it can leave other Christians feeling threatened, uncomfortable, judgmental, anxious to “fix,” looking for trite platitudes to sweep the doubter’s “doubt” under the “easy-believism” rug. Inasmuch as so much seems to ride on faith, for the Christian, genuine doubting can be very disconcerting.

And if you’ve ever seen what I’m trying to describe here, and how unhelpful the trite platitudes are, how harmful the judgement can be, how much damage the anxious efforts to fix can cause, then maybe you’ll feel how tender Jude is being here, too. “Show all kinds of gracious, gentle mercy,” he says, “for anyone who’s there, in that season of doubt.” Mercy, he says, is what’s needed; and when you read it in the broader context of the surrounding verses, it looks like mercy is also what will bring the doubter through, to firm footing again.

May God give his people grace to be as merciful with each other in our times of doubting as he is with us.

Some of Past Art Projects


A series on the "Seven Hands of Christ" that I did for a course on the theology of Christ in Seminary.


A series of "stained glass" window inserts I did for the Seminary Chapel space at Briercrest Seminary.

The Thursday Review: But I Know What I Like

first published September 27, 2009

In an attic storage room behind the choir loft of my old church, wedged in between some dusty Christmas decorations and a couple of boxes of tattered hymnals, rests an ostentatiously-framed print of Warner Sallman's Christ at Heart's Door. Though there is maybe something (more than a bit) kitschy about this depiction of Jesus knocking at what appears to be Snow White's heart's door, in its day it was like the Mona Lisa of Evangelical artistic expression.

The day I stumbled across it (looking for an advent wreath, I think), it got me thinking about the place of art in the experience of Faith, and especially the Evangelical "tradition" of producing art that does little more than reiterate sentimentalized stereotypes about Jesus and the experience of life with him. (Notice the heart-shaped aura of light formed by the arch of the door together with the curve of light behind this "Swedish Jesus's'" shoulder.)

I lingered that day in the attic, though, because only a few months earlier I'd read David Morgan's Visual Piety, which examines artistic representations of Christ and explores their function in the religious experience of 20th century North America. The premise of his study is that popular religious imagery like this has power and significance specifically because it "contributes to the social construction of reality."

In other words, for all its sentimentality, popular religious imagery like Sallman’s has played an important sociological role in both shaping and affirming people’s religious experience. Morgan develops an aesthetic of “visual piety”- an experience of religious devotion mediated through visual imagery that depends on a “psychology of recognition.” Here the aesthetic experience of the image becomes function not of its formal artistic qualities, but of its conformity to the viewer’s preconceived religious ideal. Thus in the experience of “visual piety,” the picture’s beauty “consists in the satisfying experience of perceiving a particular understanding of Jesus adequately visualized."

In American religious experience, “Sallman’s image of Jesus confirms the traditional formula or convention of Christ’s appearance, but tailors it to the modern evangelical notion of Christ as obedient son and intimate friend." So, according to Morgan, when I see Sallman’s Head of Christ, I see my own preconceived understandings of Christ visually projected; but at the same time I receive and accept cultural values associated with the American Evangelical experience of Jesus. In a related discussion, he describes the process of “composition,” whereby a picture like Sallman’s brings together the essential elements of a wide range of historical and cultural representations of Christ, projecting the “essence” of the Jesus that pervades them all. As a medium of visual piety, then, Sallman’s picture becomes a “picture about pictures,” a cultural apparatus by which people can conjure up in a single representation “the elusive presence [of Jesus] immanent in and authorizing countless pictures."

What does all this mean? (Morgan is a religious-art-history prof at Berkley, after all...)

On the one hand, I suppose it suggests that before we abandon that Sallman print to the "religious kitsch" table at the next church yard sale, we should at least acknowledge the role it's played in a larger cultural discourse about who Jesus is and how we see him. Perhaps more importantly, though, we should let Sallman illustrate for us how tempting it is to try and fashion this Jesus into our own image, and how much we might miss out on (aesthetically and spiritually) when we do.

Creative Being: Reflections on the Artistic Nature of the Christian Life (I)

Years ago I was talking with a pastor friend of mine about how we each came to faith, and the obstacles that God had to overcome for us before we did.  I started to explain that, having grown up in a relatively conservative Evangelical home, one of my difficulties in embracing the faith as a young man was the feeling that I would have to give up something that I cared about deeply, if I did.

My friend thought he saw where I was headed with this, and he said: “You felt you’d have to leave you brains at the door?”  He was thinking of the strong anti-intellectualism bent that is present in many conservative Evangelical traditions

But that wasn’t it for me.  “No,” I said.  “Not my brains.  I thought I’d have to leave my imagination at the door.”

I have always had, by nature and nurture both, an artistic temperament.  Creativity is one of my core values.  I was an English major and an art minor in University.  I write songs.  I write poetry.  I once wrote a musical.  I am working on a novel.  I’ve blogged before about my passion for the arts.

Because of this heart for all things creative, and because of the Evangelical tradition’s tendency to employ the arts simply as bait-and-switch advertisements for a truncated Gospel, I’ve always struggled to believe that there was in my tradition a real place for art as art, with all its polyvalent ambiguity and unresolved tensions, and especially its honest effort to brush up against the true nature of things.  The only art I ever encountered in the churches of my childhood were those kitschy Warner Sallman portraits of silken-robed and carefully coiffed Jesuses knocking warmly on the heart’s door, those superficial church plays that resolved their conflict neatly and without remainder by a straight-forward asking of Jesus into said heart, or those saccharine love-songs where every day with Jesus is sweeter than the day before ever since he came in.  Somewhere in the midst of all that I picked up the not-so-subliminal message that art was a useful thing, and only “useful” so long as it was clear and straight-forward and unambiguous, but there were quite clear (and narrow) boundaries within which it must operate.

In one of the journals I kept during my University years, I put it like this:  “Because something (God, did you put it there?  Is it sin to listen?)  Inside me sings of the beauty and Truth of creation, and because something even deeper longs to capture, magnify, reflect and thus join the beauty and truth of creation, I am a poet. … I stare at that word on the page, and am flooded with questions impossible to answer:  Can I be a poet & serve God?”  It’s a bit maudlin, I realize, but it illustrates the point: somewhere along the journey of Faith, I picked up this idea that a “real” poet couldn’t serve God, and, more to the point, there was no real place in his Kingdom for a “real” poet (the witness of John Donne, John Milton, Gerard Manley Hopkins, C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot not withstanding).

I have long since resolved this dilemma, and as a Christian and a Pastor I’ve found my way into God’s service without leaving my imagination at the door, helped in great part by the writings of Francis Schaeffer, his son Franky, Madeline L’Engle, Jeremy Begbie and others.  I am thinking about it today, however, because I have been reflecting recently on the creative nature of the Christian life and the “artistic” (for lack of a better word) nature of the Christian disciplines.  Not only is there a place for the artist in the Christian faith, but to live the life of a growing Christian well actually requires us to use those very faculties that the artist hones and develops and employs as a matter of course in the production of their art: imagination, creative expression, story-telling, visioning and re-visioning the world. 

I do not mean, in saying this, that artists make better Christians, or that all Christians should be “artistic,” in the normal sense of that word.  I mean something simpler, and yet more profound:  that the Christian life is in its very essence artistic, and whether they realize it or not, whether they conceive of it in this way or not, whether they every write a poem or paint a picture in their lives or not, still,  serious, growing disciples of Jesus are—by the very nature of what it takes to follow Jesus—becoming artists.

This goes back, actually, to the very beginning.  In Genesis 1:27, we’re told that God created human beings by the power of his speech and that he created them in his image, "male and female, in the image of God made he them." There's far more going on in these few simple words from Genesis 1:27 than could ever fit into a 500 word blog post (indeed, they've inspired theological words-in-response at a ratio of something like 1,000,000:1) but what I want to focus on is the fact that, in the ancient world, a king who had conquered a land would then set up his image (zelem) in that land, the idea being that the image would effect, extend and continue the King's reign even when the King himself was not physically present.   And in the ancient world's framework for cosmogony (stories to explain how the cosmos came to be), creation always happened through an act of conquering and subduing chaos.  So in Genesis 1:  God conquers the formless-and-void chaos of the world-in-the-beginning, and, once the wild and waste world is formed and filed with verdant life, he sets humanity as his kingly "image" in the newly-conquered-Creation.  The implication here (among other things) is that humanity is called to extend, effect and continue the creative work he has begun.  Being made in the image of God is being made for a certain kind of “creativity”—a world-nurturing, creation-blessing, God-reflecting creative life in the world.

(With this all in mind, I can't help but notice that the words we most often use to describe the human act of "singing/drawing/carving/writing/making original things that didn't exist before" link it to divine things.  There's "creativity" itself, but there's also "inspiration" (to be "breathed" into), and there's "imagination" and "visionary" and "musical" (connected, of course, to the Greek Muses).  All of these words seem to be feeling around the etymological edges of that spiritual "thing" that happens when human beings act creatively.)

Of course, two thoughts follow this observation.  One is that the rest of the story describes how human beings failed in this calling to properly Image God in the creation.  Forbidden fruit was eaten; Humans were exiled; Paradise was lost.  The Image of God itself is not lost.  It is something intrinsic to being human, and the New Testament affirms that even this side of the Fall people are still in the Image of God.  But the image has been marred by sin and distorted in our exile. That’s the first thought: we see the Image now as if in a mirror darkly.  The second thought is good news, however: that in Jesus Christ, God has recapitulated the Image of God for us.  Jesus is the true Image of the Unseen God (Col 1:15), and by his Spirit Christians are being shaped into his Image and Likeness (Romans 8:29).  Through Christ the Image in us is being restored to its former glory and beauty.

And its former creativity.  Which is the point I want to make today:  if it’s true that the Image of God originally included a call to creative activity in the world on the Creator’s behalf, and if it’s true that in Christ the Image is being restored in us, then it follows that there is something intrinsically creative in the life of discipleship that He’s calling us into.

Again, let me stress that I don’t mean Jesus wants us to paint paintings, necessarily, or write short stories, per se, or take up interpretive dance even.  He loves it when we do these things for his glory, I think, but that’s not my point.  My point is that if the Christian life really is about having the Image of God restored in us, then the Christian life is itself a creative way of being.  It is about looking at the world with a sanctified imagination, and responding to it creatively, and putting our hands to it with skill and care and craft, and leaving behind something original and expressive and true.  To the extent that this is also what the artist tries to do whenever she picks up a paint brush or puts down a word or what have you, to that extent there is something fundamentally artistic about the Christian life.  The growing Christian is, you might say, an artist in the truest sense of that word.

Over the next few weeks at terra incognita we’re going to spend some time exploring this idea: the connections between Christianity and creativity.  If you’re an artist yourself and you’ve ever wondered if the Faith has any genuine room for your particular artistic passion, I hope you’ll come along for the ride.  If you’re not an artist, and have never really felt any draw to the arts, I hope you’ll join us all the more.  Either way, I hope we’ll discover that not only do we not have to leave our imaginations at the door, we actually need them—and our poetic expression, and our carefully-crafted stories, and our artistic visions and our full creativity—if we’re to love him well.



Dead Man Walking, a song



Verse 1:
I got miles to go before I sleep
I got miles to go before I sleep
If I should die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to keep

Chorus:
I’m a dead man walking, taking his first step
Like a blind man gawking, or a baby’s first breath
I’m a dead man walking, for crying out loud
Like a mute man talking, or a torn grave shroud
I’m a dead man walking

Verse 2:
And the winter snow, it covers my tracks
And the winter snow, it covers my tracks
If I don’t find my way to you
I’m sure I won’t find my way back

Chorus
I’m a dead man walking, taking his first step
Like a blind man gawking, or a baby’s first breath
I’m a dead man walking, for crying out loud
Like a mute man talking, or a torn grave shroud
I’m a dead man walking

Bridge
And the lights ahead, they beckon to me
When the wounds of the past are all I can see
And just one more step and I will be free

Chorus:
I’m a dead man walking, taking his first step
Like a blind man gawking, or a baby’s first breath
I’m a dead man walking, for crying out loud
Like a mute man talking, or a torn grave shroud
I’m a dead man walking

I got miles to go before I sleep
I got miles to go before I sleep

Labors of Love, a devotional thought

There's a line in Thessalonians that's worth mulling over a bit. Paul's talking about the ministry of the Thessalonian church and he says, "We continually remember before God (in prayer) your work, produced by faith, your labor prompted by love and your endurance, inspired by hope." Here we see two triads brought together in a fascinating way. One the one hand there is the three Christian virtues, of 1 Corinthians 13 fame: faith, hope and love. No surprise to see them showing up together; they always go together. But look what they're matched with: work, labor and endurance. It creates a fascinating progression: our faith in Jesus sets us to working for him; because we love Jesus (and his world) we work hard for him (work becomes labor); and when we're tempted to quit, our hope-that we will one day give our account and receive our reward in him-inspires endurance. It makes more sense when you lay it out vertically:

Faith ---> Work
                     \/
Love ---> Labor
                     \/
Hope --> Endurance

Where ever you're at on the journey today-- maybe you've been laboring because you love him and you need some hope to help you endure... or maybe you've just started out in faith, and he's calling you to make your work into a labor of love-- where ever you are, though, may his grace give you the faith, love and hope you need to endure in what you're doing for him.

The Thursday Review: Flag Waving in the Kingdom of Heaven

First posted May 3, 2011 after the Canadian Federal Election of that year; called to mind today as the world still reels from the outcome of the American Presidential election.  

In chapter 13 of Matthew's Gospel, Jesus tells a series of seven parables to help his followers imagine the Kingdom of Heaven.  Among these seven inter-connected and enigmatic word-pictures are some of Jesus' most well-known and well-loved parables, including the Sower and the Soils, the Pearl of Great Price, the Mustard Seed. 

A few years ago when I was studying at Briercrest Seminary, our Seminary Chapel was planning a special "Global Missions" service.  Normally we would use the flags of various nations to help capture and convey the international scope and global range of Christ's work in the world, but as I reflected on the symbolism of flags, it struck me how politicized, and polarizing, and even (at times) idolatrous these cloth symbols (and the concepts of Kingdom for which they stand) can become.  And I started thinking about the counter-Empire and anti-Empire posture the New Testament writers continually assumed.  And I started thinking about the way in which God's kingdom calls us in Christ to a radical realignment of our alligances to and our notions of kingdom.  And I was left wondering if national flags actually belonged in a service dedicated to celebrating the Kingdom of God after all.

And then I remembered Matthew 13, and I wondered:  rather than national flags, what would flags for the kingdom of God look like?  This idea started to germinate in my imagination and eventually I came up with this series of 7 "Kingdom of God" flags, symbolic representations of the seven parables in Matthew 13.

I am posting them here today, hoping you'll find them interesting; but also because I was up until 1:00 AM last night, watching the Canadian election unfold.  And as I listened to the various pundits and analysts earn their keep dissecting the unexpected results this morning, I kept glancing at these seven flags where they now hang on the wall in my office.  They were a helpful reminder that, for all the passion with which I participate in the privilege of Canadian democracy, I am, at the same time, the subject of a Divine King who bestows on me a Heavenly Citizenship which puts even the best-intentioned striving of our earthly nation-builders into eternal perspective.


Matthew 13:3-9.  The Sower and the Soils

Matthew 13:24-29:  The Wheat and the Weeds

Matthew 13:31-32:  The Mustard Seed

Matthew 13:33:  The Dough and the Yeast

Matthew 13:44:  The Hidden Treasure

Matthew 13:45: The Pearl of Great Price

Matthew 13:47-50:  The Net and the Fishes

Raindance, a song



Verse 1
And when the rain comes falling
Falling from heaven above
Don’t let it dampen your spirits
Let it water your love
Nothing green can grow
Except the rain comes along
In the downpour
Just sing this song

Chorus:
The Raindance!
When you’re caught in a storm that you just can’t explain
You raindance!
Keep moving your feet till the sun shines again
Nobody’s a prisoner of circumstance
You can find your way out if you just take the chance
On a rain dance!

Verse 2
And when the rain comes tumbling
Soaking the thirsty land
Don’t let it slip through the fingers
Of your trembling hands
And when the levee breaks
You won’t get washed away
And when the flood comes
You’ll laugh and say

Chorus:
The Raindance!
 When you’re caught in a storm that you just can’t explain
You raindance!
Keep moving your feet till the sun shines again
Nobody’s a prisoner of circumstance
You can find your way out if you just take the chance
On a rain dance!

Bridge
Spinning, spilling, splashing washing over your heart
Like a whirling dervish dancing his way to the start of
Spinning, spilling, splashing washing over your heart
Like a whirling dervish dancing his way to the start

Verse 3:
And when the rain comes softly
Sparkling like morning dew
It’s gonna soak your soul down
And make everything new
Nothing green can grow
Except the rain comes along
In the downpour
Just sing this song

Chorus:
The Raindance!
When you’re caught in a storm that you just can’t explain
You raindance!
Keep moving your feet till the sun shines again
Nobody’s a prisoner of circumstance
You can find your way out if you just take the chance
On a rain dance!

Taking the Scenic Route with God, a devotional thought

I was reading in Exodus for my devotions the other day and something in 13:17-18 had me thinking. It's just after the people have left Egypt and they're on their way to the promised land, but instead of taking them the most direct route (through the Philistine country), God leads them on a very circuitous route, through the desert toward the Red Sea. God's reasoning for leading his people on the long way around: "If they face war (in the Philistine territory) they might change their minds and go back to Egypt."

Now: you have to be careful, I realize, not to over-spiritualize the Old Testament stories, and not to hyper-individualize them, either, so I won't push this too far, but the obvious question arose for me when I read that: could it be that sometimes God does this with us, too? Maybe Exodus 3:17-18 speaks to those times in our lives when it feels like nothing's happening, spiritually speaking, that we're going around in circles, or at least taking the long way to get to where God wants us.

Could it be, when God's taking us on the long way around, that maybe it's because he knows something we don't know, and if he were to take the most direct route (in our ministries, let's say, or our discipleship, maybe, or what have you), if he were to take us there immediately the difficulties we'd encounter would be so great that we'd be tempted to give up altogether?

Be patient, and keep walking, even if the path you're on with him today is not "the shortest distance from point A to point B." God sees our whole journey at once, not just this particular leg, and who knows but that this rabbit trail, or this pit stop, such as it is, is also part of his beautiful, perfect wisdom.

Live (Until You Die), a song



Verse 1:
I asked a wise man for the secret to his laughter
He said nobody gets out of here alive
So keep on breathing and you’ll find the joy you’re after
Spread wings and take your glorious swan dive

I asked that wise man for the meaning of his tears and
He said pleasure is like chasing after wind
One day it’s with you and the next it disappears and
And you don’t know when it’ll come around again ...

Chorus:
So catch a wave and ride it to the shore
There’ll come a day when you can’t catch no more
So until it fades, just don’t ask why
You gotta live, just live until you die

Verse 2:
You had me thinking ‘bout that afternoon in Paris
When the world was young we were so naive
And every misadventure was a gift for us to cherish
And each memory was a wonder to receive

And all the ground we’ve covered and the moments so exquisite
Open roads and mountain lakes and city lights
And I don’t know what’s coming but I sure don’t want to miss it
Take my hand and hold me close with all your might (and we’ll)

Chorus:
So catch a wave and ride it to the shore
There’ll come a day when you can’t catch no more
So until it fades, just don’t ask why
You gotta live, just live until you die

Bridge
Birth and life and laughter death
And all the spaces in between
Earth and light and water breath
And all the faces that I've seen
Birth and life and laughter death
And still we have this moment now
Earth and light and water breath
But you can show me how to

Chorus:
So catch a wave and ride it to the shore
There’ll come a day when you can’t catch no more
So until it fades, just don’t ask why
You gotta live, just live until you die

Song of Shalom

Ghost Notes, a song



Verse 1
After the earth shakes and after the wind dies
After the fire has scorched the ground
Come stand on the mountain and listen for silence
A small still voice that whispers the sound

Chorus:
Of ghost notes in the song
They echo, can you hear them
Calling, in the heart of the
Long dark night of the soul

Verse 2
After the darkness and after the daylight
After the shadows have come and gone
In the sound of your breathing, your broken heart beating
The small still voice it leads you on

Chorus:
With ghost notes in the song
They echo, can you hear them
Calling, in the heart of the
Long dark night of the soul

Bridge
Angel song ringing and seraphim singing
A cherubim calls in the throne room above
Oh can’t you hear it too glorious to bear it
His song of redemption salvation and love

Chorus:
O ghost notes in the song
They echo, can you hear them
Calling, in the heart of the
Long dark night of the soul

The Thursday Review: The Most Excellent Way: A Theological Reading of the Princess Bride

first published January 27, 2015


One of my favorite movies is Rob Reiner’s cult classic, The Princess Bride.  I have long held that this campy, swashbuckling fairy tale, for all its silliness and slapstick, actually deals very sensitively with a distinctly biblical theme:  That love is the most excellent way (see 1 Corinthians 12:31).

If you’re unfamiliar with this 1987 masterpiece, stop what you’re doing right now and go watch it; we’ll wait.  If you’re like the members of my family, however, and you can quote long sections of the script by heart (No more rhyming now, I mean it...), allow me to connect some dots for you.

On the surface, of course, one of the main themes this film deals with is the power of True Love.   As Westley tells Princess Buttercup, “Death cannot stop True Love, all it can do is delay it for a while.”  Or, as she will tell Prince Humperdinck latter on, “Westley and I are joined by the bond of love, and you cannot track that, not with a thousand bloodhounds, and you cannot break it, not with a thousand swords.”

So far, so obvious; but there is an important motif running alongside Westley and Buttercup’s romance that brings the whole theme into sharp and profound focus, namely: the quest for excellence.  If you’re familiar with the characters, you may recall that each of them are striving for, or have achieved, superlative excellence in some field of human endeavor or other.  Buttercup’s the most beautiful girl in the land, of course, but that’s an easy one.  Prince Humperdinck is the greatest hunter ever to live (he can track a falcon on a cloudy day).   Fezzik is the strongest man alive (only Fezzik is strong enough to climb the Cliffs of Insanity).  Inigo studied all his life to become the world’s greatest swordsman (and his sword, of course is a peerless work of craftsmanship).  Vizzini is the world’s smartest man (Plato, Socrates and Aristotle are morons next to him).  Count Rugen is writing the “definitive work” on the subject of pain (and spent a lifetime perfecting the greatest torture device ever invented).  Ranged against the power of True Love, in other words, is a host of superlatives that True Love will have either to subdue (as in the case of Fezzik and  Inigo) or defeat (as in the case of Humperdinck and Rugen).  In a world suffuse with “excellence,” that is, True Love proves itself “the most excellent way.”
                   
This all ties up rather neatly, but there is a layer to this that isn’t immediately obvious, but is so important: it is not romantic love, exclusively, that is the most excellent thing.  The film, in fact, presents us with a whole range of human loves that together combine to contribute to the victory of True Love. Inigo’s filial love for his murdered father (“I loved my father, so naturally I challenged his murderer to a duel”); Fezzik’s fraternal love for his friend Inigo (“Fezzik took great care in nursing his inebriated friend to life”); and, of course, the Grandfather’s paternal love for his sick Grandson, which he demonstrates by reading the book to him in the first place.  We’re invited to connect all these loves together in the closing line of the film.  As the Grandpa's leaving, the boy asks him to come back and read the book again tomorrow, to which the the Grandpa replies, “As you wish.”  These are, of course, the same words Westley spoke to Buttercup when what he really meant was “I love you.”  "As you wish," it turns out, can apply to more than mere romantic love.

Because in The Princess Bride, the “True Love” that is the most excellent way is not simply the romantic passion that binds Westley and Buttercup together.  It is, in fact, that profound and complicated network of human affections and loyalties and commitments and longings that binds human hearts to human hearts, parent to child, friend to friend, man and wife (that most bwessed of awangments...).  Westley’s and Buttercup's romance is, of course, the centerpiece of the story, but the point is to see how their romantic love both compliments and draws life from these other, equally important kinds of love that together point out the “most excellent way.”

In his classic book The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis notes that the ancients identified at least four distinct types of human bonding that today we would call “love.”  Storge, refers to warm affection between companions and family members; Philia describes deep, spiritual love between friends; Eros describes romantic or sexual love; and Caritas (charity) describes the kind of unconditional brotherly/sisterly love that the early Christians referred to with the Greek word agape.  And it was not eros specifically that was “the most excellent way,” but agape, the Love of God which the Spirit has poured out in our hearts.

I think there is something to regain in this more wholistic vision of love; because we live in a culture where sexual love is increasingly disconnected from the other types of loving relationships it was meant to encourage and compliment and draw life from. But biblically, I think, sexual love is supposed to fit in to a larger picture of shalom-ordered living: nurtured families and wholesome friendships and vibrant communities that taken together give us a taste of True Love; and we do violence to True Love when we wrench it from that setting. Perhaps if we could put eros back in its place among the other loves, it would start pointing us again to that thing which, all by itself, it is not: the most excellent way.