Ghost Notes

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

inversions

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

soundings

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

bridges

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

echoes

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

Accidentals

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

blogs I follow

random reads

Book Reviews

Book Reviews
The Shallows, Nicholas Carr
In this very readable, very thought provoking analysis of electronic communciations technology and its impact on our brains and culture, Nicholas Carr brings together media theory (think Marshall McLuhan), history (think Gutenberg) and neuroscience (think discoveries in brain plasticity) to show how computer technology is shaping us in ways of which we are only dimly aware. He argues that such technologies reduce our capacity for deep, creative and sustained linear thought (or at least have the potential to do so) and predispose us to the fragmented, the cursive and the superficial. Worth the read.

Exclusion and Embrace, Miroslav Volf

Ecstasy and Intimacy: When the Holy Spirit Meets the Human Spirit, Edith Humphrey
A fascinating and engaging introduction to spiritual theology-- or the theology of spirituality, as the case may be. This book is a very scholarly, devotional, christo-centric, ecumenical and trinitarian overview of what it means for Christians to live in the Spirit and with the Spirit within. Bracing and enlightening.

Leading with a Limp, Dan Allender

five smooth stones for pastoral work, Eugene Peterson

From Darkness to Light: How One Became a Christian in the Early Church, Anne Fields

Life in the Ancient Near East, Daniel C. Snell
Snell's Life in the Ancient Near East offers a social history of the ANE, tracing the earliest settlement of Mesopotamia, the development of agriculture, first cities, ancient economy and the emergence of empire. Bringing together a rich variety of data gleaned both from the archaeological record and extant historical texts, he tells the history of this cradle of civilization with a special eye for the "human" element - focusing on the forces and factors that would have directly affected the daily life of the various strata of society. Worth a read generally, but all the more for someone with a particular interest in the biblical stories that find their setting and draw their characters and themes from the same provenience.


The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene

Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament, Richard Davidson
Davidson's Old Testament theology of human sexuality is stunning in its achievement, challenging in its content, and edifying in its conclusions. Davidson addresses every-- and I do mean every-- Old Testament text that deals (even obliquely) with human sexuality, and, through detailed exegesis, careful synthesis, and deep interaction with the scholarly research, develops a detailed picture of the Old Testament's vision for redeemed human sexuality. 700 pages of Biblical scholarship at its best.


Eaarth, Bill McKibben
Bill McKibben's Eaarth, is a call for us to wake up smell the ecological coffee...while we can still brew it. Unlike his previous work, or any writing on ecology I've yet read, however, Eaarth does not argue that catastrophe is pending. Instead, he argues that catastrophe has arrived, and that our all talk about "going green to avert disaster," "and "saving the planet" is woefully obsolete. In ecological terms, the planet as we once knew it is gone, he argues, and rather than trying to "avert" disaster, we need to start figuring out how to live in the disaster that's happened. Key themes he identifies as important for life on planet Eaarth resonnated with me as profoundly Christian ways of being (disaster or no). We must stop assuming that "bigger" is better; we must acknowledge limits on economic and technological growth; we must get reacquainted with the land; we need eschew self-sufficency and nurture community.

Love Wins, Rob Bell
So fast and furious has the furor over this book been, that any review will inevitably feel redundant or tardy. Given the crowd on the band wagon by now, I actually had no intention of hopping on myself, but my kids got it for me for Father's Day. About 15 pages in, I realized that I could probably finish it in on good push, so I got it over with. My thoughts: probably the most over-hyped book I ever read; I loved it and found it frustratingly under-developed at the same time; while he raises some important issues, his handling of them reads like a yoda-meets-Tom-Wright account of salvation; nothing C. S. Lewis hasn't already said more clearly and more cleverly; I'm glad he wrote it, and I'm glad the Evangelical world has errupted over it the way it has, and I hope a much more spirited and generous and optimistic understanding of soteriology and eschatology will infuse the evangelical church's mission as a result.

Rediscovering Paul, David Capes et. al.
Rediscovering Paul is a hepful overview of Paul's life, times and theology. While at times I felt it might have gone deeper, or expressed its ideas more clearly, it provides some interesting and inspiring insights into the man behind the letters. Among these is its discussion of the communal aspect of first century letter writing, and the influence of one's community on one's personal sense of identity, and how those issues might have played out in Paul's writings. Another challenging issue that it tackles is the whole process of letter writing in the Greco-Roman world, especially as regards the role a scribe often played in shaping the text, smoothing out the langugae or providing stock phrases, etc.


Lavondyss, Robert Holdstock
If you've read George MacDonald's Lilith, then think of Lavondyss as sort of a Lilith-for-Non-Christians. It's the convoluted labyrinth of a story about a young girl called Tallis and her adventures in a magical wood that brings the Jungian archetypes buried deep in our subconscious to life. Dense with questions about Jungian psychology, and the spiritually-thin-places of the world, and death and myth and magic and story, it's pretty tough slugging at times, but thought provoking and challenging. At times I felt like I was reading the Narnia book C. S. Lewis might have written if he had pursued the "stab of northerness" in directions other than the Christian Faith where he found it eternally satisfied.

Jesus and Money, Ben Witherington III
My friend John Vlainic once ranked Ben Witheringon as one of the strongest Biblical scholars in the Wesleyan tradtion working today. This thin but powerful volume is evidence to support such an accolade. I opened it expecting (judging by the cover) either a how-to book on Christian finances, or (judging by the other books I've read on Christ and Money) a hodge-podge of Bible verses taken out of context and mushed together as proof texts about the tithe. I got neither; instead, Ben Witherington walks slowly, thoughtful and exegetically through the breadth of Biblical teaching, with special sensitivity to the cultural context of the various texts, the tension between Old and New Testament teaching on the topic, and the differences between modern and ancient economies. If I were to recommend one book to develop a biblical theology of money, it would be this one.

The Gravedigger File, Os Guinness
My first taste of Os Guinness, and, if you don't mind a mangled metaphor, it went down like a bracing pint of... well... Guinness. Grave Digger file is sort of a "Screwtape Letters" project on a church-wide scale. In concept, the book is a series of "training files" for an undercover agent attempting to undermine and ultimately sabotage the Western Church, delivered from the pen of a seasoned saboteur to a young agent recently assigned to Los Angeles. In plot, the young agent ultimately defects, and delivers the "Gravedigger File" into the hands of a Christian, urging him to alert the Church to the operation. It is bursting with "things that make you go hmmm..." and deserves a second, careful read with pen in hand, ready to mine it for its scintillating and eminently quotable lines.

The Thursday Review: Hospitality, the Future and the God of Abraham

First posted March 16, 2009

A number of years back I encouraged one of my students to read Homer's Odyssey for fun. Part way through I asked how she was enjoying it. "It's great" she said, "But why is it every time Odysseus comes to a new country they give him gifts?" I tried to explain what I understood about the code of hospitality in the ancient world: how generous hospitality was a reflection of the host's wealth and dignity in a shame/honour culture-- how inhospitality was not just bad manners, it was moral failure-- how hospitality has lost its place in the ethical code of modern western culture.

I recalled this little "teachable-moment" a few weeks ago as I was reading Hans Boersma's Violence, Hospitality and the Cross. Boersma uses the ancient concept of hospitality as an interpretive lens for understanding the meaning of election, the cross, the church and the Second Coming. Election is God's act of preferential hospitality for the poor, the alien and the outcast; the cross is God's act of hospitality toward estranged humanity; the church is God's chosen "community of hospitality" in the world; the Second Coming is God's promised future of "absolute (unconditional) hospitality." And so on.

Boersma is right that the Bible uses the very rich concept of "hospitality" to describe God's gracious dealings with humanity; but what's interesting is how it uses the same concept to describe humanity's right response to God. The writer to the Hebrews exhorts the church to be hospitable, because "some have entertained angels unawares"; in Revelation, Jesus stands at the door and knocks, urging the Laodicean church to open that he might come in and eat with them; in Luke Jesus criticizes the Pharisee for his stingy hospitality towards him; and in Matthew he promises to commend the righteous sheep on the last day, because they welcomed him when he was a stranger.

We are called to receive the hospitable God of the universe with unconditional hospitality.

Probably the most compelling example of this is Genesis 18: Abraham, sitting at the door of his tent, looks up into the glare and heat of the day to see three mysterious strangers standing before him. The Lord, the text insists with no further explanation, had appeared to him.

Abraham receives this divine visitation with gregarious, and, by the standards of the the ancient world, impeccable hospitality. "My Lords, do not pass by. ... Let a little water be brought and wash your feet. ... Rest here in the shade." He rushes to Sarah: "Quick! Three seahs of fine flour! Knead it. Make cakes." He runs to the herd, prepares a tender calf. They eat.

But what strikes me here is that by welcoming this "stranger-God" with gracious hospitality, Abraham is actually welcoming his own future in God. Because after these three strangers have refreshed themselves in Abraham's shade and eaten at Abraham's humble table, the Lord says: "I will return.. your wife Sarah will have a son." Abraham embraces the stranger with impeccable hospitality, only to discover in his arms no stranger, but a laughing baby boy whose future seed will bless all the nations of the earth.

As I struggle these days with my own questions about the future, I take challenge and comfort from Abraham's hospitality that hot day by the oaks of Mamre. God still comes to us, a stranger, mysterious, and bearing a strange but laughing future. And we don't need to "get it", or to "make it happen", or even necessarily to recognize it.

We need only to embrace it with impeccable hospitality.

Three Minute Theology 3.2: In Living Colour



While it may look white to the naked eye, technically, white light is a combination of all the different wavelengths of light—the different colours, that is, in the electromagnetic spectrum.

When white light passes through a prism, each colour in the beam of light refracts at a different angle, which in turn causes the white light to split up into a rainbow of colours, a phenomenon called “refractive dispersion.”

Besides being a great elementary school experiment refractive dispersion is also a helpful image for thinking about Jesus’ death on the cross, and why, or how, his death “saves” us when we believe in him.

In one sense, of course, the execution of this 1st Century Jewish Holy Man was a single historical event—in much the same way a beam of light is a single thing.

And, while the New Testament writers all agree that there was something “saving” about his death—that God did something there that meant salvation for human beings like us—they don’t always agree on what exactly it was, on how, exactly, Jesus’ death saves.

In some places, it talks about his death as though God were wining a victory over evil for us.  In other places, it talks about Jesus paying our ransom.  In another place it talks about Jesus satisfying the demands of the Old Testament Law, and so on.

Over the years, theologians have debated, sometimes at great length, which explanation for the Cross is best.  These various explanations are sometimes called “theories of the atonement”—theories, that is, for how the cross can and does “atone” for our sins.

Put simply, the question is:  which theory of the atonement is the “correct” one?

And here’s where refractive dispersion comes in handy.  Because just like a single beam of white light is really a rainbow of colours, so too with the cross.  If we could “refractively disperse” the message of the cross, theologically speaking, we’d see a whole spectrum of things happening all at once, that together make up the saving nature of his death.

On the tone hand, his death summarized and fulfilled the ancient story of God’s People, for us and in our place.  On the other hand, his death was an unexpected victory over sin and death, for us and in our place.

His death satisfied the requirements of the Old Testament Law.  It was God’s demonstration of his holy, emphatic “No!” to human sin, and it was also God taking the effects of that “No!” onto himself.

It was God paying with his own life the ransom necessary to free us from evil.  And it was God making peace with us when we were dead set against him, by laying down his life for us, and in our place.

Now: none of these ideas—victory, ransom, satisfying God’s “No!” to sin, making peace, fulfilling the Law none of them on their own explains the cross, but together—just like all the colours of the electromagnetic spectrum together makes white light—together all these make up the content of the message:  Christ died for our salvation.

Of course, the real question remains: what is the prism in our analogy.  That is to say, what allows us to “break up” the message of the cross into its constituent colours?

When framed like that, the thing that stands out as common to all the different “explanations” of the cross is the fact that Jesus was dying for us and in our place.  This is sometimes called the “substitutiary atonement”—the teaching that in Jesus, God was actually standing in as our substitute,” doing for us and in our place what we couldn’t do for ourselves and on our own.

And when we pass the Event of the Cross through the “prism” of the substitutiary atonement, trusting that, whatever happened there on the cross, Jesus was dying for us and in our place—that’s when the death of this 1st Century Holy Man  becomes for us what the Bible says it is:  “The light of the knowledge of God, shining in the face of Christ.”

The Girl Queen, the Captive Conqueror: A devotional commentary on Esther (2:11-20)

When I read about all the "beauty treatments" the candidates for Queen Vashti's replacement were subjected to--a six month oil of myrrh treatment followed by a six month perfume and cosmetics treatment--I can't help but think about the way our own culture objectifies and consumes human beings (and in particular, women) like that. Subjecting a helpless girl to a year-long beautification ordeal on the off chance that she might please the tastes of a decadent (seemingly insatiable) Emperor, who is himself the embodiment of a decadent (seemingly insatiable) culture, doesn't seem that different from our own culture's obsession with female beauty and body-image. Think of the "use" of the female body in advertising media; think of the multi-billion-dollar-a-year cosmetics industry (or the thinness industry, or the plastic surgery industry); think of Hollywood's sexist cult of celebrity; think of the increasing pornographication of our culture and the implicit (often explicit) misogyny it expresses. The author of Esther, of course, didn't have any of these things in mind when he or she wrote this story down, but at the very least, not much has changed.

This is why verse 2:15 was particularly haunting for me. When it's Esther's turn to "go in" to King Ahesuerus, she "asked for nothing, except what Hegai the king's eunuch suggested." The idea here is that each contestant in this insidious "contest" was allowed to bring anything she wanted into the King's chamber with her, to increase her chances of gratifying his desire (v.13). And Esther chose to go in "unarmed" (so to speak, more or less). I've mentioned before how the Book of Esther quite clearly has the story of King Saul and King David playing in the background, so when I read that, my mind went immediately to the story of David and Goliath. When David is about to square off against Goliath, he tries on Saul's armour, then specifically chooses to go into battle with nothing other than his sling. He goes up against Goliath, that is, "unarmed" (so to speak, more or less).

Maybe, I'm reading too much into this, but Esther seems to be doing the same thing here, as David did when he faced Goliath. If it's true, it would mean that, for the author of Esther (and for God), King Ahasuerus’ “beauty contest" is as pernicious an evil as Goliath was, back in the day; and that ultimately, God intends to overthrow this evil as unexpectedly and as decisively as he did Goliath.

You can make up your own mind on that one, but for me, it speaks a prophetic word against all the “Ahasuerean” tendencies of our own culture to objectify and dehumanize and consume human beings (and again, women in particular; see above). It sort of hits you like a sling-stone to the forehead: when the powerful objectify the vulnerable, God in his Messiah stands on the side of the objectified, and decisively against the objectifiers.

The Thursday Review: Discipleship and the Zen of Cooking

first posted February 20, 2009

My wife and I have a little on-going domestic disagreement. She says "frying pan"; I say "fry-pan." Not marriage counseling material, for sure, but it eventually reached the point where we had to look it up in the dictionary. Apparently, though not as common, "fry-pan" is a legitimate option.

But when I stopped to think about it, I realized why I call it a "fry-pan." It's because James Barber said "fry-pan." He used to have this down-to-earth cooking show on CBC, where he showed people how to live richly (and cheaply) in the kitchen by cooking well and "making do with what you've got." I discovered The Urban Peasant back in 1997, when my schedule had me home just as the show came on. I'd watch him cook these fascinating meals with perfect nonchalance, then I'd head down to our small town grocery store, hunting for the supplies to make the dishes I'd just seen.

(If you want to see some classic James Barber-isms, and learn how to make a great salmon dish at the same time, click here.)

But watching him intently one afternoon after another, I received this great life-gift: I learned to cook. Without even realizing it, I started turning both halves of the cut onion face down on the cutting board, so you can slice it without tears. I started grinding the pepper into the heated fry-pan, so it roasts a bit first. I started crushing the garlic clove with the flat of the knife, so it peels easier and chops finer.

The thing is, he didn't teach me how to follow recipes, he taught me how to cook: how to improvise boldly, making a recipe up as you went along; how to evoke far away places just by adding a few spices to the pot; how to "cook with your nose," smelling what's going on in the pan while you're doing other things, so you can catch it before it burns. He made the kitchen a place where proverbs-- like "The nice thing about cooking is that everyone knows how to do it," or "You make do with what you've got"-- these proverbs came to life and had the texture of truth.

And he got me saying "fry-pan."

I've been thinking about James Barber lately. Partly because we've started teaching our kids how to cook, and I'm sincerely trying to pass on what I learned form him, but mostly because I'm thinking about discipleship.

I wonder if, in a small way, this is what our discipleship with Jesus should be like. We come to him intently day after day until, without even realizing it, we're doing things the way he did: sitting at the table with people the world rejects, loving those who hate us, praying for the will of the Father to be done in us. Our lives become places where his proverbs come to life and have the texture of truth-- "With the measure you measure it will be measured back to you," "If salt loses its saltiness, what good is it anymore?" We're not just following recipes for morality, we're improvising boldly, living life after him.

And before we know it, we're calling the "greatest" the "least," calling the "first" the "last," calling those who mourn "blessed" -- we're saying "fry-pan" when everyone else says "frying pan." Because that's how our Rabbi did it.

My Christian 2015 in Review

Usually at some point every January I try to take a minute to look back on the year that was, and reflect on some of the major news events that impacted, influences or otherwise illuminated the world of Canadian Evangelicalism.  This year I am a bit behind the eight-ball, as usual, and 2015 is already feeling a bit cobwebby and archaic, but even so, I hope you’ll join me for one last glance over the shoulder at the flotsam and jetsam of 2015’s headlines.  When it comes to the “evangelically-significant” events of 2015, this list is hardly exhaustive, I admit, but it’s a good place to start.  Who here remembers when ...

January 7:  Two gun men attack the offices of the French satirical weekly newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, killing 11 people.
As it relates to Canadian Christianity, this story was particularly of note for the way it brought into stark relief a number of global issues all at once: the West’s distorted view of the Muslim world, the recurring narrative of armed gunmen randomly killing victims, the conflicting themes of tolerance and free-speech.

January 22:  Historical Jesus writer and member of the Jesus Seminar, Marcus Borg, dies at age 72.
Given the plethora of more notable and weighty headlines, the passing of Marcus Borg went almost unnoticed, but I’ve included it here inasmuch as: a) his rigorous debates with his friend (and evangelical scholar) N. T. Wright was part of the grist for the historical-Jesus mill that eventually produced Wright’s seminal book Jesus and the Victory of God; and b) it seems to me that the era of liberal  “Jesus-Seminar” style speculation on the “historical Jesus” has in many ways run its course.

February 6:  The Supreme Court rules that the Canadian ban on Physician-Assisted Suicide is unconstitutional, giving Parliament 12 months to enact new legislation.
Along with the question of Muslim relations, and how we will respond to acts of terrorism and violence, 2015 seemed also to be the year when God was asking Canadian Christians how they will respond to the ongoing erosion of traditional Christian values in the broader culture. The EFC has done much good work, speaking out on this issue, which I would encourage those who are concerned about where this one will land, to check out.

February 13:  The film Fifty Shades of Grey released amid much controversy.
On a strictly aesthetic level, this film was, by all accounts, a piece of cinematic drivel.  The only reason it holds a place on my list is because of the attention it drew for its supposedly “risqué” and “raw” handling of sexual themes.  It suggested to me, at least, that Christians have, in fact, a unique word to speak on the meaning of sex, in a world that has almost entirely unmoored it from the things that once gave it meaning and beauty and life.

June 18:  A gunman opens fire on a church prayer meeting in Charleston, South Carolina, killing 9.
2015 was also a year where God confronted his people with their calling to be reconcilers and peacemakers in a world where race relations are as conflicted and fraught as ever.  This racially/religiously motivated act of violence was only one of many headlines that challenged us this year to take our calling as Christians seriously when it comes to the issue of racial reconciliation.

June 26:  The US Supreme Court requires all states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and to recognize same-sex marriages validly performed in other jurisdictions.
Celebrated by some as a major victory for human rights, and lamented by others as the final crack that broke the dam, this decision effectively legalized gay marriage in the US.  It seemed to bring out the worst in everyone.  In its wake I saw a lot of defensive vitriol from Christians who felt backed into an ethical corner, and also a lot of vindictive smugness from “liberals” who couldn’t understand why traditionalists weren’t yet with the program.  I heard stories of Christian business being bullied for holding positions of conscience on the issue; and I also heard stories of Christians retaliating with their own share of bullying.  At the very least, it suggests to me that any church that wants effectively to proclaim the Kingdom of God in the 21st Century will have to have thought through this very pressing issue.

September 2: A moving photograph of drowned child sparks international concern over the plight of Syrian refugees
Another story with a whole bunch of themes braided into one: Muslim/Christian relations, xenophobia and hospitality, the plight of the world’s displaced, questions about American foreign policy, the proper Christian response to the refugee crisis all got discussed in turn.

October 1:  An armed assailant opens fire at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, killing 10.
Reports are unconfirmed and still under debate, but some suggest that this assailant targeted Christians in his rampage.  This story would be just as heartbreaking and appalling, either way, but what strikes me in looking back is how rote our response to such incidents has become.  I include it on this list because of my hunch that it was one of the events that motivated Jerry Falwell's tirade on December 2 (see below).

October 19:  Newly elected liberal government pledges to receive 25,000 Syrian Refugees by years’ end.
Another story that shone a spotlight on issues of xenophobia and the Christian call to welcome the stranger in Jesus’ name.

December 2:  Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty Christian University in Lynchburg, Va. encourages students to carry concealed weapons.
This headline almost seemed like it was pulled from The Onion, when I first saw it, but when I read further and realized it was serious I was dumbfounded.  That the president of one of the largest Christian colleges in North America would be received with cheers from his student body when he publically encourages them to start carrying concealed weapons to defend against Muslim terrorists should any decide to show their face on campus... and that they should do this, expressly, in the name of Jesus ... well ... I don’t know what to say.  Except to lament how distorted the Way of Jesus is becoming in an increasingly polarized and dangerous world.

December 15:  Wheaton College, Illinois, suspends professor of Political Science Larycia Hawkins, for public comments claiming that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.
Here high-falutin’ theology and down-to-earth current events come together, as voices from all corners of the internet chimed in on the questions: do Muslims and Christians indeed “worship the same God?”  Is that the best way to put it?  And, inasmuch as this was one of the questions related to Ms. Hawkins’ suspension (now dismissal): what are the theological implications of saying they do?  Given the way this list is sprinkled so liberally with headlines relating to the Muslim faith, it seems that these are no longer lofty ivory tower ruminations, but issues that Christians from all walks of life should be thinking through.


The Girl-Queen, the Captive-Conqueror: A Devotional Commentary on the Book of Esther (2:1-10)

The Sunday School readings of the Book of Esther that I grew up with tend to sanitize Esther's story, talking about the search for Queen Vashti's replacement in terms of a "beauty contest" (so, for instance, in the Veggie Tales telling of this story, all Esther has to do is to compete in a talent show). But when you read it in short, 10-verse chunks like this, the very dark, very traumatic thing that's really happening here has time to hit you in the gut. "Let the king appoint commissioners to bring all the young virgins from every province of his realm into the harem in Susa" suggest his advisers, "And let the girl who 'pleases' the king best become the next queen."

 You don't have to read between the lines too much to get what's really going on here, and it ain't no fairy tale.

For just a second, I tried to imagine some ruthless government "commissioner" coming to my door, and hauling off a daughter of mine like so much property, to see if she might 'please' the king. It was too disturbing an image to handle for more than just a second, especially because, when you do dwell on it for just that second, you realize that there are places in the world-- in our own neighbourhoods, even-- where this kind of sexual exploitation is not just a vague story from the distant past, but an all-too-present reality.

This doesn't make for a nice, neat Sunday School flannel graph, of course, but that, I think, is part of the problem. There's a tendency in Christian circles to treat the whole issue of sexual exploitation the same way we tend to treat the sexual exploitation going on in the story of Esther: to sanitize it, or moralize about it, or just pretend it isn't there. In a previous post, I suggested that Esther is a type of the Messiah, a fore-shadow of the coming Christ; today God was saying to me: "If that's true, then in Christ, I stand with the sexually exploited, the powerless, and the abused. I take the plight of all the Esthers of this world very seriously, and in Christ I call my people to do the same.”

The Thursday Review: Rimbaud and the Resurrection (February 1, 2009)

I started this blog back in 2009, as I was finishing off my Master of Divinity studies at Briercrest Seminary and before I knew what my next steps were going to be for me in ministry.  I was mostly looking for a way to keep me creative and thinking through sort of a lull in my life-trajectory.  Seven years and 593 posts later, I have covered all sorts of ground in my efforts to reflect on God, life, faith, love, words and spirituality: from the theology of Halloween, to advice on pastoral burn-out, from the theology of video games to the meaning Gravity Falls.  

As I look ahead to another year of blogging, I'm also realizing that there is a lot of rich material in the terra incognita archive that could bear revisiting, stuff I'd forgotten about, material that new visitors to my blog may never have seen before, ideas that, for all their being 7 years old, are still worth mulling over.  With that in mind I've decided that this year, Thursdays at terra incognita will be dedicated to reviewing and re-posting old posts.  

So whether you're a long-time reader of brand new to my blog, let me welcome you here today with an oldie but a goodie, the very first thing (after my obligatory introductory post) that I ever posted on the blog.  


Rimbaud and the Resurrection (first posted February 1, 2009)

I’ve been trying to brush up on my French these days, and, as my daughter’s Caillou books were starting to leave me flat, I slugged my way through Arthur Rimbaud’s Une Saison en Enfer (this is partly so I can drop pretentious sounding references to Rimbaud at my next cocktail party; but mostly because my niece and nephew have been blessed with a bilingual home, and as they grow older, I’m seeing that my facile conversations with them about colours and numbers won’t cut it much longer. Maybe by the time they’re old enough to discuss Rimbaud, my French will be sharp enough give it a try…). Anyways, I didn’t take a lot from it, but the last phrase of his extended poetical rant has been haunting me for a while now: il me sera loisible de posseder la verite dans une ame et un corps. “It will now be permitted to me to possess truth in one soul and one body.”

Here’s the thing (I think): Most of us could probably get how we might possess “truth” "in the soul.” Most of us are Platonic dualists at heart—what’s truly true is not the touchable matter out there (in the body)—to find the “truly true” you have to journey inward (in the soul). I used to teach this with great enthusiasm when my English classes studied Heart of Darkness. I read the same thing in Wal-Mart yesterday when I happened to thumb through a popular-level book on eastern meditation in the discount bargain bin. But I think that way lies madness (of sorts)—and I think Rimbaud knew it. And so he denounces all such dualisms, and ends with a vision of truth “in one soul and one body” together.

And I’m left wondering, in what way can truth be possessed in the body. Can this actual flesh… these hands, these senses, this coursing blood… can it somehow be said to be somehow true? For Rimbaud, the journey away from spirit/matter dualism led him through a hell of futile debauches and empty sensuality.

But there is a different path.

It’s an inevitable path that leads down from a skull-shaped hill to a burst-open tomb, gaping wide and empty one Sunday morning. And the resurrected body that steps out of that tomb—the one who claimed before they murdered him that he was the truth incarnate—he reaches out his resurrected hand to us and says: “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” With a sweep of that nail-pierced hand, Jesus brushes aside Plato and Rimbaud together. And he points us outside of ourselves, to the Creator’s world broken and labouring, but now claimed by its maker and promised redemption.

And as we touch his glorified body—our hope and our promise—we can really say, in a way that Rimbaud never could: il me sera loisible de posseder la verite dans une ame et un corps.

The Girl Queen, the Captive Conqueror: A Devotional Commentary on Esther (1:11-20)

King Ahasuerus orders the beautiful Queen Vashti into his presence, with the express purpose of showing her off to the nobles, as though she was just one more "thing" in the long list of treasures we read about in verses 1-10. Vashti refuses, presumably on her dignity as a human being, and the King gets furious. And here's where it gets especially interesting, because when he asks his counselors what to do about it, they start waving red flags all over the place: if Vashti gets away with this, they warn, all the women in the empire will think its okay to buck the system and stand up for themselves, too. So they advise Ahasuerus to take Vashti's "royal position" away and give it to another, more worthy than her (read: more docile).

And this is the point where the text grabbed me, because in the Hebrew it says, "give her 'rule' to a 'neighbour' better than her"; and the wording here is almost exactly the same as what Samuel said to Saul in 1 Samuel 15:28, when the Lord took the kingdom from Saul and gave it to David: "YHWH has taken the kingdom from you and given it to a neighbour who is better than you." Considering that Saul lost the kingdom because he didn't follow through on YHWH's directive to destroy King Agag of the Amalekites, and Haman, the villain of Esther is a descendant of King Agag (see 3:1), this parallel can't be coincidence. Just like Saul lost his royal place and it went to his neighbour, King David, Vashti lost her royal place and it went to her neighbour, Queen Esther. And just like David is a saviour of God's People who foreshadows God's true Messiah, Jesus Christ, so, too, is Esther.

Once all those wires connect, a light bulb goes off and scintillating light starts to shine on something important going on in the Esther story. The reason Ahasuerus gives Vashti's Queenship to Esther is because he wants to underscore the status quo, reinforcing everything his culture says about power, and wealth, and gender relations (after all, what will the other women do or say if Vashti gets away with this?); and the irony here is that this is exactly what Esther doesn't do.

By the end of the story, roles will be reversed, powers will be upheaved and the status quo will be hanging from the 75-foot gallows it built for the necks of the vulnerable. And if Esther is a pattern for the coming Christ, then some difficult but important conclusions seem unavoidable here: just like Esther didn't underwrite the cultural staus quo, Christ didn't, and won't.

Well, that's a pretty round-about way to say just this: I've been thinking a fair bit this morning about how I might be sitting a bit too comfortably with the cultural status quo when it comes to things like wealth and power and gender relations, and worse, if maybe deep down I'm hoping the Messiah will simply underwrite it for me-- the status quo--instead of doing what he does do, and turn it on its head.

On Pirate Tatoos and Christian Maturity, a baptism homily

Hebrews 6: 1-3: Therefore let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, 2 instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.3 And God permitting, we will do so.

Of course one of the things that always happens, or a least, it should happen when we witness a baptism, is that it reminds us of our own baptism. Myself, I was 12 years old when I was baptised. And, it’s interesting, even though that was 29 years ago now, I still have a number of very vivid memories that stand out in my mind from that day.

I remember, for instance, that that a kindly old guy in our church wanted to give me a gift—it was a little Bible and some candy—to say congratulations after the service. And that would have been nice, but he accidentally gave it to my brother instead of me.

There were three Harris boys, and we all sort of looked the same to him. He came right up to us, while we were all standing together, and he gave Shane the gift, and said some really kind things about how proud he was of him for taking this step of obedience and so on, and gave him a big hand shake. And neither Shane nor myself had the guts to tell him, that, actually, it was me, who got baptized.

As I recall, Shane split the gift with me later on. I got the Bible and he got the candy. Well—I’m not sure if that’s how that part went, for sure.

But I am sure of this memory: because my most distinct memory of the day was that, earlier on, at school that day, someone had drawn a skull-and-cross-bones pirate tattoo on my shoulder. In permanent ink. We were just goofing off at school and he thought it would be a funny gag. And I didn’t think about it afterwards—when I was trying vainly to scrub said pirate tattoo off—that I would have to stand up in front of the whole church in a tee-shirt. And everyone would see my pirate tattoo. And like—what if they think I’m actually a pirate or something. Or what if the pastor decides to call the whole thing off because—well—I never—this kid thinks he can be baptized with that drawn on his arm?

Seriously: that was my big anxiety of the day. What if someone sees my phoney pirate tattoo and thinks maybe I’m not baptizable, because of it.

Now: I’ve told this story before, I realize. It’s actually one of my best baptism stories, to be honest. And I’m telling it again today, because, well, because I think it actually illustrates one of the points that the author of the Book of Hebrews is trying to make here today—the point is: listen: we all of us, always, have to mature into our baptism.

That’s the point I want to make today, anyway: we all of us, always have to mature into our baptism.

You see: as a twelve year old kid, someone might have looked at my twelve year old concerns that day—my worries over a childish skull and cross bones tattoo, and sort of rolled their eyes, you know, given the profound, spiritual thing that was happening that day, as I stood in the water and followed Jesus in his own baptism—united with him, is how the Bible says it—buried with him in baptism and raised to the new life of a Christian. I mean, really: given the weight, and the depth and the significance of that event, I was worried about a little ink on my arm, of all things?

But here’s the thing: I mean: sure, at 12 I didn’t get the full significance of what was happening in that moment, but really at 41, now, I’m not sure I get it yet, either, the full significance of what a baptism is. I am still learning what it means to be united with Christ by faith, and how baptism not only symbolizes my union with him, but also, in some mysterious way, it also participates in it. And I’m still discovering aspects to what exactly it was that God was doing in me and through me and to me that day when his Spirit prompted something in my spirit and said, do this thing. Receive this sign. Repent and be baptized.

Do you follow? I mean: I have matured a lot since my 12-year-old pirate days, but even so, I am still maturing into the meaning of my baptism. We all of us, always, need to.

I’m saying that partly because, whether or not it was true for me, it was certainly true for the followers of Jesus that the writer of the Book of Hebrews is writing to here. How does he say it: “Let us leave aside the basic, elementary teachings about Christ, and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance ... and of faith in God ... and instructions about baptisms and the laying on of hands.”

Now: this is a complicated passage, and this is a baptism devotional, not a full on sermon, so I’m not going to have time to unpack the whole thing here, but for our purposes today, let me just say this.

Hebrews was written to a bunch of Jewish Christians in the early church who were being persecuted for their faith. The non-Christian Jews in their day, in particular, were coming after them because they had abandoned their Jewish traditions and were claiming Jesus as their Messiah.

And things were hard for these Christians, back then. Really hard. And many of them were thinking of abandoning Christianity and going back to their old religion. Some of them actually had abandoned Christianity.

And the author of this Book is just trying to say: listen, if you want to stand firm, and hang on to your faith when the going gets tough ... if you want to make it through this or that trial... well ... the way to do that is to mature into the meaning of the life you embraced when you were baptised.

Leave aside the basic elementary teachings about Christ, not laying again the foundation ... that’s his way of saying, look: don’t stay there, stuck with the Sunday-School pat answers and the Veggie Tales music videos or what have you—move on from those elementary teachings and into maturity. Mature into the meaning of (what does he say?) the meaning of your repentance, mature into the meaning of your faith in God.

Mature into the meaning of your baptism.

And let’s remember: He’s not talking to 12 year-old pirates about to be baptised there. He’s talking to grown up Christians who have been baptised. Maybe years and years ago. And he’s telling them: listen: you need to move on from the basics of the faith and mature into the meaning of your baptism.

If it feels like I’m flogging this horse to death today, it’s only because, well: it’s partly because sometimes I get asked, especially by parents, whether or not someone—especially a child, let’s say—whether or not they are “ready” for baptism. And usually when I’m asked this the idea is: does the candidate fully grasp the meaning of what’s happening? Do they “get it”? Are they “ready” in that sense?

And I guess, if I’m reading Hebrews right here today, I guess the answer to that question is: well: none of us ever fully grasp the meaning of baptism, no matter how much we might think we know when it happens to us. You weren’t ready, really for your baptism when it happened, and all of us, actually, have to mature into the meaning of this symbol.

But the other reason I’m flogging the horse, if it feels like I’m flogging a horse, is because, well, not to put too fine a point on it, but: I think it’s very easy for Christians not to mature into the meaning of their baptism.

I think sometimes we see baptism as a point of arrival rather than a point of departure, if you follow me ... the end point of a journey rather than the starting point of a journey. There is this tendency among Christians that I’ve noticed, where we sort of look at baptism as this thing that’s either separate from our growing in Jesus, or else it’s something that finishes off our growing in Jesus. Like, you know, after I’ve been baptized, as a Christian, then I’ve arrived.

And I guess, the thing is: that’s not how the writers of the New Testament saw it. They saw it as the start of journey, not the completion of the journey. It was something you matured into, spiritually speaking, not something that showed how spiritually mature you were.

You with me? Well, if not, or maybe as a way of illustrating this, let me put it like this: how many of you were baptised as part of your journey with Jesus. If you were ever baptised, maybe stand up for a moment.

And stay standing, and let me—well—first let me say that it was sort of a trick question—because none of you were baptised. At least, that’s not the best way to say it: because to say I was baptised is to put the emphasis on a past event, isn’t it? Something that happened in the past but doesn’t, necessarily impact the present in any meaningful way.

You say: what do you mean Pastor Dale?

And I’d say: well: what if, instead of saying I was baptised. You said: I am baptised? My baptism is not something that happened at some point in past and has no impact on my day to day present—but it is, actually, a present reality?

What would change for you, if you said that instead? I am baptised?

And when spiritual trials come along that threaten to derail your faith—because spiritual trials will come along, and they will threaten to derail your faith—what if you said: I am baptised—united Christ in his death on the cross?

And when old habits were hard to break and old ways of thinking were hard to unlearn—because some habits will be hard to break and some thought patterns will be hard to learn—what if you said: I am baptised—raised with him to live a new life?

And when God calls you to try new things for him and they’re risky and they’re uncertain and they take sacrifice—because some of the things he asks you to do will be risky and the will take sacrifice—what if you said: I am baptised—dead to the old and alive to the new, clothed with Christ and a child of God through faith in him.

Well: I don't know if those trials or challenges or sacrifices or risks will be easier, necessarily, but I do know this: if you allowed the meaning of your baptism to impact your present reality, today-- whatever else happened as you did, I think you'd be doing what the author of Hebrews is asking us to do: you'd be maturing into the meaning of this beautiful, mysterious symbol.

And God permitting, let's all do just that.  Amen.

The Girl Queen, The Captive Conqueror: A Devotional Commentary on The Book of Esther (1:1-10)

Sometime around March or April last year, as part of my daily Hebrew reading, I worked my way through the Book of Esther.  I often post thoughts, reflections or prayers on Facebook, based on my daily devotions, so I ended up Facebooking my entire way through this wonderful ancient story of political intrigue and spiritual adventure.  This was one the best-received devotional series I did last year, and I actually found my own devotional and discipleship life deeply impacted by the slow thoughtful reading it required, to offer a daily reflection on what I was reading, 10 verses at a time.  As the New Year starts and I'm looking for fresh blogging material, I thought it might be helpful to slightly re-work this material and post it here as a devotional commentary on Esther.  My hope is to provide one post a week until we're done.   


Esther 1:1-10. 

I love the opening verses of Esther, with its description of the lavish, luxurious and opulent spectacle that was the court of the Persian Emperor Ahasuerus. In ten short verses we read about an 180 day-long festival, which culminated in a 7-day long feast, where each official of the palace (from the least to the greatest) ate and drank according to his desire (v.8). Verses 6-7 paint about as vivid a picture of decadence as you can read anywhere in the Old Testament. With its "tapestries of white and purple and silver, marble columns, couches of gold, a pavement of porphyry, marble and precious stones," the courtyard of King Ahaseurus is as elegant and extravagant a setting as the ancient world could imagine. 

Reading the Bible in short little bites like this forces us to slow down and ponder. Esther and her Jewish kin haven't shown up on the scene yet, so all we know at this point is this: whatever else this book is about, it's going to deal with the challenge of being faithful People of God when we are living near the Lap of the World's Luxury. And already, ten verses in, it doesn't sound like it's gonna be easy, staying true to God when you're surrounded by all the worst distractions of the world's pomp and extravagance and wealth. 

I think about this a lot, because we live in a world, surrounded by a kind of luxury that, though it's of a different nature than anything in ancient Persia, makes Ahasuerus's decadence seem somewhat quaint. And one of the challenges of being God's People in this day and age is the same challenge Esther and Mordecai and the rest are going to deal with: how to keep our eyes fixed on God, when so many golden baubles are dangling before our faces?

Readings, 2015

One of our New Year traditions here at terra incognita is to look back in January on the reading done in the year gone by.  Usually I try to find a creative way of framing the list-- top tens, book award categories, last year I hiaku'ed my way through the list.  This year I thought I'd try to "click-bait" my way through the list-- that is, come up with one of those silly and embarrassingly effective "click-bait" leaders you sometimes see on internet ads, as a way of introducing each one. So, for everyone out there wondering what Pastor Dale read in 2015, here goes:

1.  Into the Valley:  Spiritual Reflections on Depression, Logan Runnals.
I wanted to write a click-bait teaser for this, but when I tried, it's raw honesty, gentle transparency and unlooked-for wisdom left me humbled and silent...

2.  Space Time and Resurrection, T. F. Torrence.
This theologian tries to show how the theory of relativity illuminates the doctrine of the Resurrection and vice-versa, and by the time he got to the meaning of the ascension, I was left in awe ...

3.  The Complete English Poems of John Donne,  John Donne.
His "The Anagram" left me blushing, his "Sappho to Philaenis" left me speechless, and his "Corona" left me in a holy hush ...


4.  The Cross of Christ, John Stott.
This classic defense of the substitutiary atonement was what I needed when I most needed it; he had me by chapter 2 ...

5.  The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
This one was tough slugging, but when it got to Book VIII, I just couldn't put it down ...

6.  15 Characteristics of Effective Pastors.
I couldn't believe Characteristic Number 8!

7.  Waking the Dead:  The Glory of a Heart Fully Alive,  John Eldridge.
Mostly pretty fluffly stuff, but his talk about being afraid of the light at least inspired a song for me.

8.  The Bostonians,  Henry James.
Most. Painful. Read. Ever.

9.  Building a Discipleship Culture,  Mike Breen.
Offers the different "shapes" of discipleship.  When it got to shape 6, I was all like: whaaaat?

10.  The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis.
Letter number 18 was thought-provoking, but letter number 31 was awesome!