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

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

Three Hands Clapping

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

Ghost Notes

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


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


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


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


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


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

blogs I follow

Readings, 2020

Readings, 2020
Paradise Lost, John Milton

Adorning the Dark, Andrew Peterson

The Soul of Shame, Curt Thompson

Cure for the Common Life, Max Lucado

Halos and Avatars, Craig Detweiller, ed.

Fool's Talk, Os Guinness

Brendan, Frederick Buechner

The Screwtape Letters

Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis

The Pilgrim's Regress, C. S. Lewis

Becoming Whole, Brian Finkert and Kelly Kapic

Real Sex, Lauren Winner

Out of the Silent Planet, C. S. Lewis

Voyage to Venus, C. S. Lewis

That Hideous Strength, C. S. Lewis

Till We Have Faces, C. S. Lewis

random reads

The Girl-Queen, the Captive Conqueror: A Devotional Commentary on the Book of Esther (4:11-17)

Most interpreters read Esther 4:13-14 as the key to the whole entire book. In trying to convince her to act to save her people in the face of great personal risk, Mordecai makes two interlocking points: 1) that if Esther doesn't act, salvation will rise up from another place; and 2) it may be (who knows) but that Esther became Queen "for such a time as this." Although the Book of Esther seems to go out of its way to avoid mentioning God directly, Mordecai’s conviction here that there is an unseen hand moving events towards an unavoidable purpose, is about as close as it comes. There is great solace here, I think, in knowing that when God is most hidden in our lives—as hidden, even, as he is in the Book of Esther—that’s when he’s most active; and who knows but perhaps all of “those” events in my story happened “for such a time as this.”

There is, of course, a harder, darker layer to this that isn’t always recognized, but must be, if we really want to get to the pastoral heart of this compelling book. Because for Esther to have become Queen “for such a time as this,” it meant the heartbreak of exile, the terror of abduction, the trauma of sexual assault, and now the risk of execution. Perhaps it’s little wonder that God’s so hidden in this book. Jesus from the cross asked why God had forsaken him; Esther, it seems, can’t even bring itself to breathe the name.

 Mordecai’s word to Esther is true--just as it is true to any who have asked, “Where is God in all this?”--that God is able to bring a beautiful, saving purpose out all the heartache and pain, and that there will come a time when we’ll look back on it all and say, “all that happened for such a time as this.” But the challenge of the Book of Esther is to believe this without turning it into a pat answer, or using it to dismiss, minimize or trivialize the pain itself. This is a real risk, I think, and I’ve seen Christians do it in the past, using “God works all thing together for the good...” as a sort of trivial panacea, rather than the heart-cry of hope it was meant to be. God will work all Esther’s trauma and suffering together in his saving plan; but still, the trauma itself—the abuse and violence and exploitation she endured—was not his heart for her.

 May God give us the grace of Mordecai, whenever we encounter the pain of Esther, to resist the urge of jumping to name him before he’s ready to reveal himself.

Three Minute Theology 3.6: Start to Finish

Russian Composer Dimitri Shostakovich wrote his seventh Symphony in 1941, as an act of defiance during the Nazi invasion of Russia. On December 27, 1941, he formally dedicated it to the city of Leningrad, which was then under siege by the Germans.

The Leningrad Radio Orchestra performed the piece for the first time on August 9th, 1942, at the height of the siege. For 334 days, the city had refused to surrender, enduring fire-bombings, starvation and death.

So, when the Leningrad orchestra began rehearsing, they could barely find enough musicians left alive to fill the score. Their first rehearsal only lasted 15 minutes, because everyone was too exhausted from starvation to play longer.

But here’s how one historian describes the night of the concert: “When the last chord trailed off there was a momentary silence. Then the whole place exploded with thunderous applause. People went to their feet, tears rolling down their faces. The musicians were hugging each other like soldiers after a battle.”

In some mysterious way, this unlikely performance had a saving effect on the city.

At least, Germany never captured Leningrad. One German soldier, who picked up the broadcast of the concert that night, wrote this: “When I heard Shostakovich’s Seventh being broadcast from the famine-stricken city, I realized that we would never take it.”

To the extent that you might think about this defiant performance as the “fulfillment” of Shastakovich’s Symphony—and to the extent that this “fulfillment” was, in fact a “saving event” for the city—it provides us a helpful image for an important aspect of the Atonement that is sometimes overlooked: the way Jesus’ death on the cross saves us by fulfilling for us the Old Testament story of Israel.

To get this, we need first to consider the history of ancient Israel as an over-arcing narrative.

God promises Abraham that he will make his descendants into a great nation, and that through them, he’ll bless the whole Earth. But Israel falls into slavery in Egypt. Through Moses, God delivers them from Egypt, establishing them as his chosen people, and giving them the Law—an elaborate system of sacrificial worship that’s will mediate their life with him.

The people wander the desert 40 years before God finally brings them to the Promised Land.

But through the generations, the people continually fall into idol worship and immorality, only to be called back to God by his prophets. Eventually their sin reaches its lowest point, and the people go into exile. The Babylonian Empire invades the nation, razes their capital, and hauls them off into captivity.

The prophets at the time interpret this exile as an expression of God’s “wrath”—his righteous judgement, that is, on their idolatry and immorality. But they also promise that God will fulfill his promise to Abraham, bringing them home from exile, and back into relationship with himself.

This is a pretty condensed summary of the Old Testament, but when it’s laid out like that, we see how Jesus “fulfills” this story in his own story.

As an infant, he flees to Egypt, later he is tested for 40 days in the desert. He calls the people into right relationship with God, and when his message ruffles too many of the wrong feathers—at the lowest point of human history—we crucify him.

And here’s where the story of God’s dealings with his people come to its fulfillment: because if Jesus represents Israel, the cross is the ultimate exile, as he cut off and condemned for the sins of the people. Through the Cross, he brings all the failure and judgment of the “exile” to an end, by becoming the perfect lamb of God who fulfills all the sacrificial requirements of the Old Testament Law that Israel failed to keep.

Like a beleaguered orchestra, you might say, saving a war-torn city by fulfilling a beautiful Symphony, Christ’s death on the cross saves us, by fulfilling the story of exile and redemption that is our collective history, and leading us into a “return from exile” with the Resurrection on the other side.

Jesus himself put it more even more simply, when he cried out from the cross with his final breath, “it is finished!”

The Thursday Review: Picturing the Footstool of Christ

First Posted June 19, 2009

A couple of summers ago we visited the Montana State University Museum in Bozeman, Montana. They were hosting a touring exhibit of the treasures of Pharaoh Tutankhamen's tomb, with full-scale reproductions made by Egyptian craftsmen, accurate down to the finest detail.

And here 's where I stopped dead in my tracks: the footstool of King Tut's throne is decorated with stylized illustrations of his defeated enemies. Whenever King Tut sat in state, his court-- and indeed the whole world-- glimpsed this potent reminder that he had literally subdued the enemies of Egypt under his feet.

His sandals add imperialistic insult to political injury: the insoles are decorated with images of Semitic and North African prisoners of war. King Tut couldn't take a step without reminding himself and his empire that Egypt had truly tread down her enemies.

I stood there transfixed for a moment. Ringing in my mind's ear were the words of King David's messianic oracle: "The Lord (Yahweh) says to my Lord (Adonai), sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool."
In the ancient world, it seems, this was more than just a throw-away line of poetic imagery. In the ancient world, apparently, you really did make your enemies your footstool, literally and symbolically.

I wondered about King David, and what they might have drawn on his sandals. Philistine mockers? Assyrian barbarians? Babylonian idolaters? The Lord (Adonai), this oracle says so confidently, will strike through kings and judge the nations. And the Lord himself (Yahweh) will draw the illustrations for the Messiah's footstool.

But then, still transfixed, I wondered about Jesus. What pictures would we see on his sandals? What illustrations adorn the footstool of his throne?

"Death. The fear of death. The Devil," says the author to the Hebrews, the teacher of the early Church whose midrash of this entire Psalm points us inexorably to Jesus. These have always been the enemies of God's people, he says. And this is why Jesus took on flesh and blood in the first place: "so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death-- that is, the devil." St. John agrees: we'd see a representation of sin-- the works of the devil. After all, this is why the Son of Man appeared: "to destroy the work of the devil."

St. Paul would agree, too. Only, he'd add, we'd also see a picture of those idolatrous systems of human power that so dehumanize us, making people into things. Because in the cross of his Christ, he says, God disarmed the powers and authorities of this world, leading them captive in his victory parade. With typically Christian irony, Paul might say that on the sandals of God's Christ, we'd actually see a picture of an emperor's sandal all decorated with pictures of the empire's defeated enemies. Imperialistic power itself is one of the enemies of God's Anointed Emperor.

The Devil. Sin. Empire. The fear of Death. Death itself.

With every step of his nail-scarred feet, Jesus reminds us again that he has really tread down these enemies. And he invites us to walk, free and transformed, in the path of those footsteps.

The Girl-Queen, the Captive Conqueror: A Devotional Commentary on the Book of Esther (4:1-10)

Esther is notorious for being the only book in the Bible (or one of only two books, depending on how you translate Song of Solomon 8:6) that doesn't ever explicitly mention God. Anywhere. Like Godot in Samuel Beckett's play, God is a hidden character in this drama (although, unlike Godot, there is no hint of absurdity in his hiddenness).

Which is why Esther 4:3 really strikes me.

When the Jewish people hear about King Ahasuerus' decree, it says, "there was great mourning among them, with fasting, and weeping and wailing, and many lay in sackcloth and ashes." What's notably absent in this long list is any explicit reference to prayer. I used to see this critically, and moralistically, a sort of indictment against the people: when things were at their worst, they forgot to pray.

I suggested that reading to a friend a while back, and he said: "Well, what's fasting except praying with our whole body?" And that sort of re-framed things for me (Thanks, Oliver). True: nowhere in Esther does it ever say that the people knelt at their bedside and said some perfunctory "Now I lay me down to sleep." Rather, they threw themselves on God so completely, mind and body, heart and soul, flesh and blood, that the mere word "prayer" wasn't worthy of the heart-wrenching communion they were having with their Maker.

Could it be that there is a kind of prayer that "out-prays" prayer (so to speak)? That some encounters with God can be so raw, so naked, so visceral, even, that you'd hardly even think to call it "prayer"? Not because you're not praying, but because prayer (in the now-I-lay-me-down-to-sleep sense) isn't necessary and couldn't express what's going on in you if it were.

I think so.

But I also think that North American Christians are barely Padawan Learners when it comes to this kind of sitting in God's presence: prayer that involves our whole being so completely that you wouldn't even think to call it prayer.

What if we took a cue from Esther's people, and exchanged a literal meal for the feast of spending an hour in God's presence, once in a while; or actually wore our prayers outwardly in the clothing we choose (or didn't choose), or simply poured out wordlessly to God the most tremulous things going on in our hearts?

We wouldn't be praying, then; because we wouldn’t need to.

Three Minute Theology 3.5: The Price of Love

There’s an old story from the Polynesian islands called “Johnny Lingo and his ten-cow wife” that goes like this. In those days, and in that part of the world, if a man wanted to marry a girl, it was necessary for him to pay the father of the bride a dowry.

Usually the expected dowry was a single cow, but depending on how badly the man wanted his bride, he might even go as high as three, maybe four cows.

Now: It just so happened that Johnny Lingo was in love with Mahana, a young girl on the next island over, a woman who—well—let’s just say that all the villagers agreed her father Moki would be lucky to get even one cow for her.

She was short, and sallow and sullen, and when Johnny arrived to bargain for her, shrewd old Moki asked for three cows, because he thought, at least that way Johnny Lingo will have to offer one cow in return.

Johnny squinted his eyes for a minute, and then he said: “Moki, three cows is a lot. But it’s not enough for my Mahana. I’ll give you ten cows for her hand in marriage!”

Everyone was stunned, but Moki agreed before Johnny could change his mind. So Johnny paid 10 cows for poor, sad looking Mahana, and with all the villagers snickering behind his back, he went home with his bride.

It was some time before anyone heard from them again. But it so happened that one of the villagers on a trading trip to Johnny’s island stopped by for a visit, years later.

When he arrived, this stunning young woman met him at the door. She stood tall and straight, her face glowing and he eyes shining. Stammering, the villager asked for Johnny Lingo.

After they exchanged pleasantries he asked Johnny, “Who was that beautiful woman?” To which Johnny replied. “That was my Mahana.”

He could tell the visitor was having difficulty lining up the beautiful woman he’d just met with the memory of the ugly girl who left the island so many years ago, so Johnny explained: “What girl could be truly beautiful if she believed she was only worth one or two cows to her man? No: we are as beautiful as we’re told we are. And a woman who is told she’s worth ten cows will become a ten cow wife.”

While the actual practice of paying a dowry for a bride may seem foreign, even distasteful to us, the core idea of this story—“That a woman who’s told she’s worth ten cows will become a ten cow wife”—is a useful analogy for one of the traditional atonement theories, explanations, that is to say, for how and why the death of Jesus is able to save human beings like us.

The theory is sometimes called the “moral Influence” theory.

The idea is that, there is something about the way in which God demonstrates his love for us on the cross—the lavish, reckless, unfathomable love he shows us by dying for us like that—that when we glimpse it—the very fact of his love has the power to save us from sins.

It may not be immediately clear how a mere demonstration of love has the power to save, but that’s where the story of Johnny Lingo and Mahina comes in.

Just like Johnny’s lavish demonstration of love transformed Mahina, saving her from the ugliness she believed was true about herself, so too with the cross: in showing us how much we are worth to him—even to the point of dying for us in Christ—God transforms us into the love-able creatures that the cross declares us to be.

On its own, the Moral Influence theory does not account for the full picture of what Christ accomplished on the cross, but it does add an important and necessary theme to our understanding: that whatever the cross is about, it is, first and foremost, a saving demonstration of God’s holy love.

Like the Bible says it in one place, “God demonstrates his own love towards us in this, that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

The Thursday Review: The Adventures of Elroy (or: What has Nintendo to do with Jerusalem?)

First posted January 5, 2010

A few posts ago, I shared a bit about my secret life as a computer game writer back in the Co Co 3 days. What I didn't say there was that, at 14, my game genre of choice by far was the fantasy adventure role playing game. Call me quixotic, but I loved programming magical quests set in magical kingdoms, games in the fullest D&D tradition I could accomplish, with only 128k at my disposal.

Now it wasn't the gaming itself that especially appealed to me, it was more the act of world-creation. Programming offered me the opportunity to create worlds where the diabolical machinations of necromancers could be defeated with weapons of light-- worlds where phrases like "you have discovered the Amulet of Imnodel (or some such)" were weighted with wonder-- worlds where words like "vorpal," and "arcane," and "adamantine" and "valiant" rang true, like steel from a scabbard.

And because they were games-- your games--you could not only create these worlds, you could inhabit them.

As I mentioned before, for old time's sake I've been working on a game using my son's game maker software, and, as those who knew me in those old times might expect, it's a fantasy adventure role-playing game set in a world where you can use expressions like "You have discovered the Vorpal Sword!" with perfect nonchalance. I call it "The Adventures of Elroy." Call me Tolkienesque, but it's the story of a lost elven prince, Elroy, who must journey through a magical kingdom overrun with goblins and jubjub birds, to discover the Treasure of Taran and regain his throne.

[I invite you to click here to download it. Enter the World of Elroy, if you dare! (Insert nerdy attempt at diabolical voice here.)]

But while you're waiting for it to download (or mustering up the courage...), let me add this: working on the "Adventures of Elroy," I've been wondering what it was about the fantasy game genre that so appealed to me as a kid. I didn't know at 14, but I think I might now.

It was the imagination's ache for a kind of other-worldly beauty-- the deep yearning and poignant desire for that elusive something that haunts the shadows of the best myths, and fairy-stories, and romances.

The Germans call it sehnsucht-- a joy-ward longing.

C. S. Lewis called it "the stab of northernness."

In Surprised by Joy he describes quite vividly "the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing" of an "unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other desire." It first touched his heart as a child of 5, when he was reading the story of Squirrel Nutkin in the Beatrix Potter books and was smitten by the very Idea of Autumn radiating behind its delicate watercolours. "It sounds fantastic to say that one can be enamoured of a season," he writes, "but that is something like what happened...the experience was one of intense desire."

Later, as a boy of ten, the "Stab of Northernness" would pierce his heart again when, flipping through a book of poems by Longfellow, he read these lines: "I heard a voice that cried, Balder the Beautiful is dead, is dead." The ache that those lines awoke in his heart- a desire for some undefined thing, beautiful but ephemeral, other-worldly but more real than real- would haunt his imagination on its long journey through atheism and eventually to God. It was a pang for a kind of spiritual joy or ethereal beauty that he would later come to associate with the "Idea of Northerness" that he found in the Norse myths and the operas of Wagner.

This deep yearning for something beautiful, unsatisfiable, Other, would eventually turn Lewis's imagination, and later his mind, and finally his heart to God. In Mere Christianity, he puts it like this: "If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world."

This is the restless imagination's longing for that other world. The Stab of Northernness. Lewis found it in Wagner. John Keats found it in King Lear. Tolkien found it in Middle Earth (I've heard some say that the opening chapter of The Hobbit is sharp with Northernness, with it's thirteen dwarves arriving unexpectedly on the doorstep of a simple hobbit, to whisk him off in search of long forgotten gold). As a boy, I found it, among other places, in the worlds of fantasy adventure video games, which invited me to explore realms where words like "valiant" rang somehow true.

On Playing Calvinball in Church

Richard Beck is a Christian Psychologist who teaches at Abilene Christian University in Texas. His blog, Experimental Theology is one of my favorite stars in the blogosphere, and I seldom come away from it without having a few thoughts, or more, provoked. Some of his ideas—like the one about the connections between Christian Hospitality and the Circle of Kindness, for instance—or the one on the theological meaning of monsters—have even found their way into a sermon or two of my own (always, of course, with due reference).

One of his posts, in particular, has stuck with me for years now, and I’ve gone back to it more than once as I’ve thought through various aspects of church life and ministry. Back in 2008, he did a theological analysis of The Complete Works of Calvin and Hobbes (yes, Calvin and Hobbes. This is the sort of off the wall musings that has so endeared me to his work). The whole series is worth reading (click here), but the one that especially resonated with me was the post in which he draws some theological connections between the Church and Calvinball.

It may be that you’re not a Calvin and Hobbes aficionado, so this may take a bit of back story. “Calvinball” is a game Calvin invents after one too many little-league humiliations.

As a self-avowed artist growing up with two brothers who were far more athletic than me, I have always identified with Calvin’s experience of alienation, discomfort and outright rejection whenever he tries to enter the world of organized sports. Which is why, perhaps, Calvinball has always struck a funny bone of mine.

Calvinball is Calvin’s alternative to organized sports, because, as Hobbes likes to point out, no game is less organized than Calvinball. It has only two rules. Rule #1: It may never be played the same way twice; and Rule #2: You make up all the other rules as you go.

Here’s some footage of a game underway:

The connection between Calvinball and Church life may not be immediately clear, but Richard Beck suggests that, as an alternative to the world of organized sports, Calvinball is perhaps as good a metaphor as any for the Church, as an alternative community to the communities of the World.

“You start to see some really profound things when you compare the world of Calvinball to the world of organized sports,” He argues. “Organized Sport is...a competitive world where rules govern the engagement; a world that creates winners at the expense of losers, and encourages scapegoating (since someone has to be to blame). By contrast, Calvinball is... a relational world... where trust structures the engagement; ... it’s a win-win, joy-filled game ... that enhances community.”

In Beck’s analysis, “Calvinball is based on trust and friendship. Enemies can’t play Calvinball; you’d just have too much control over the other person. With winners and losers and adversarial dynamics in play it comes as no surprise that people are scapegoated in organized games. But the world of Calvinball fosters community. There are no losers, and thus no scapegoats, among friends.”

Well, anyone who’s a Leafs fan probably wishes that were true in organized sport, too. But this is the point where I’m stopped dead in my theological tracks, because Beck goes on to say: “I think we see in Calvinball an analogy for what was observed in the early Christian Church... The Greek term that I’m thinking of is the word koinonia...”

Koinonia may be as unfamiliar to you as Calvinball, so I should explain. It means “fellowship” literally, but the way it gets used in the New Testament, it means far more than simply “hanging out with good friends”. The standard “go-to” definition is found in Acts 2:42, where it’s describing the community of the very first church and it says,
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
The sharing and celebration and mutual support and positive regard that you see at work there, that’s koinonia. It’s a kind of trust-based, joy-filled togetherness that’s maybe better illustrated by a good game of Calvinball, than it is by anything else. At least, if Richard Beck’s on to something, it is. “It might be a stretch to connect Calvinball with Acts 2:42,” he says, “but let’s go with it... Calvinball and the church represent a kind of ‘coming out’ of a world of competition and adversarialness. Both represent a place where a new kind of game is played... a game built on koinonia rather than competition... a game centred on trust and community and joy.”

I have seen a lot of churches over the years, and a lot of different approaches to doing church. Some churches I’ve seen have been more like a business venture, others more like an ingrown (and sadly dysfunctional) family. Some have been like a circle of wagons, defended from the outside world, and others like a dispenser of religious goods and services.

But I’ll be honest, the kinds of church experiences that I remember most vividly and most positively, the ones where I look back and say, yeah, the Holy Spirit was certainly doing some very remarkable things there, are the ones that had the kind of trust and joy and creativity and grace that tickles the funny bone and sparkles compellingly whenever Calvin and Hobbes get going on a rollicking round of Calvinball.

It may be that this--the degree to which we bring a Calvinballesque spirit to the game--or, if that sounds too trivial, than let me speak more concretely about the degree to which our life together exhibits the characteristics of genuine koinonia--it may be that this measure of success, more than butts in pews or bucks in offering plates or whatever other measure we may be tempted to use--this is the truest indication of what God is really doing in our midst.

At least, as far as Acts 2:42-47 is concerned, if we have koinonia, by God's grace, everything else will follow.

The Girl-Queen, the Captive Conqueror: A Devotional Commentary on the Book of Esther (3:11-15)

From what I understand, in the Jewish tradition whenever the Book of Esther is read (once a year at the Feast of Purim), it's customary to boo, hiss and/or heckle whenever Haman's name get's mentioned.  There's something very visceral in this that seems appropriate.  The genocidal plan, as it’s described in verses 3:14-15, is about as absolute as it can get: an order sent to “every province in every language of every people-group” to “destroy, kill and annihilate them all, young and old, women and children, in a single day” (did we miss anything, Haman?)  And then in verse 15, just to send a cold chill down the spine, like a chaser of whiskey after a long, deep swig of utter doom, it says that after the couriers left, “The King and Haman sat down to drink.”   Having sealed the fate of God’s People, they sit down to clink their glasses together over some fine Merlot.

Reading in slow bites like this keeps you from jumping to the end of the story too soon.  I want to say something about how the point of Esther is that even when things seem their darkest for God’s people, He hasn’t abandoned them.  He’ll see them through when it seems most hopeless.

But Esther isn’t making that point yet.

Right now, I think, it’s making this other point: don’t forget the plight of God’s people as they face the Haman’s of this world.  Because the truth is, Haman is not just some vaudeville villain from the vague and distant past.  Haman-esque atrocities are real; history is bloated with them.   I was going to say something about the “spirit of Haman” that swept the world during World War II, but I don’t, actually, have to go back that far for examples.  A while ago, a friend of mine who was doing missions work in Niger, sent an update about the Haman-esque stuff that was going on in that part of the world right now: churches burned, Christian homes looted, believers displaced.  A friend of mine recently returned from a visit to Zanzibar, with reports of churches bombed and Christians persecuted.  I support the work of Gospel for Asia, and often get news updates about the violence against Christians in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India.  I realize there are many layers to each of these stories, but as I reflect on Esther 3:11-20, it feels like God's saying to me:  Dale, if your heart doesn’t break for them, and your knees don’t wear out praying for them, then the picture of Haman and Ahasuerus, drinking a toast to the end of the People of God hasn’t sufficiently chilled your spine yet.

Of course, the challenge for Christians, here, is to feel these things without demonizing the Hamans themselves; Christ would have us pray, not hiss, every time we hear Haman’s name read in Esther: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” is how he said it.  May God give us deep compassion and great courage whenever we encounter the Spirit of Haman, however it manifests itself in this world.

Three Minute Theology 3.4: Won by Love

On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated on the balcony of his motel room in Memphis Tennessee.

King was one of the key leaders of the American Civil Rights movement, and was working tirelessly to bring about racial equality in America.

While this was a tragic moment in American History, some historians of the Civil Rights Movement have noted that, rather than silencing Martin Luther King, his murder had the opposite effect.

At the time of his death—the very week he was shot, in fact—the American House of Representatives was debating the Civil Rights Act. The waves of protest that swept the country immediately after King’s assassination forced lawmakers finally to act.

Charles Mathais, a politician at the time, put it like this: “Members of Congress knew they had to act to redress these imbalances in American life to fulfill the dream that King had so eloquently preached.”

President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into Law on April 11, exactly one week after King’s death.

The way in which Martin Luther King’s apparent defeat actually led to a profound and deeper kind of victory over the evil of racism, is a helpful image for us as we think about theories atonement—our theological answers to the question: “How does Jesus’ death on the cross save us?”

One of the answers the New Testament gives for this question is that in some mysterious way, God actually won a profound, and very real victory over evil, through the Cross.

In one place, it says it like this: “by his death he [has] destroyed him who holds the power of death, and has freed those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” In another place it says, “God disarmed the powers of evil and triumphed over them in the cross.”

This atonement theory is sometimes called the “Christus Victor” theme—Christus Victor being Latin for “Christ the Victor.” And the idea is that human beings are in some kind of spiritual bondange to evil—sin, death and the devil, is how the Bible talks about it. We are slaves to our evil nature and held captive by death.

And because we are unable to free ourselves, God won a decisive victory for us, to break evil’s power over us and set us free from our bondage to death.

Just exactly how the death of a 1st Century Jewish Holy Man could actually be God’s Victory over evil is difficult to explain.

The earliest theologians talked about it in terms of God fighting a spiritual battle with Satan, on the Cross. They sometimes used the metaphor of a fish going for bait on a fish hook. Satan, in this analogy, is the fish, and Christ on the cross was God’s “bait.” Satan believed he had devoured Christ, only to discover the “hook,” that is to say, three days later Christ rose again from the grave.

Modern theologians have developed other ways of talking about Christ’s Victory on the Cross. Some suggest, for instance, that by dying as a perfectly innocent victim at the hands of the World Powers, God in Christ exposed how cruel and idolatrous human power-structures really are. In this way, they say, he broke their power over us.

Other theologians trace human sin back to our fear of death—we exploit others, hoard things, and so on, all because we are afraid to die and we believe that these things will give our lives meaning in the face of death. Through his death and resurrection, Christ replaced our fear of death with the hope of resurrection glory, and so broke sin’s power over us.

Probably none of these explanations gets to the very heart of the mystery, how Christ’s death on the cross could actually mean, for his followers, victory over sin and death, but the writers of the New Testament were pretty convinced that this is one of the things that was happening when Jesus died for us on the cross.

Like the apostle Paul put it: Thanks be to God, who gives us victory through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Thursday Review: Learning Wisdom in the Writing

First Posted May 12, 2009

When I was learning to play guitar, my teacher gave me this advice: as soon as you have three chords under your belt, start writing songs. One of the best ways to grow as a guitarist, he said, is just start writing. Experiment with what works. Discover what doesn't. Get comfortable making mistakes, and fudging it, and making music something creative.

It was really wise advice.

And I'm thinking about it these days because I've been thinking a lot about proverbs (the book and the genre).

I don't think modern western Christians really know what to do with Proverbs (the book), because proverbs (as a general genre) don't live in our culture the way they might have at one time. In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman describes an oral culture from Western Africa where the adjudication of civil disputes was a matter of finding in the common stock of oral wisdom the proverb that best applied to the particular case. Imagine going to court because your business partner had cheated you out of $150,000, and the judge passes sentence by referring you to the saying: "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." Now imagine all the parties involved (including you) left the courtroom sincerely believing that justice had been served.

Proverbs are not just catchy sayings to decorate our fridge magnets. They are ambiguous vessels of wisdom that somehow gather together and distill insightful observations about the world as it should be-- that somehow, in their utterance, actually invoke that world-- and that somehow give context and meaning for the otherwise confusing events of living. The wise application of the right proverb at the right time is a profound creative act that somehow participates in God's shalom.

And it's hard for linear, rationalistic thinking to make that kind of sense out of a proverb.

But I remember my OT prof saying once that he'd tried his hand at writing some proverbs, and I'm thinking about my guitar teacher's advice, and it occurrs to me that maybe one of the best ways to learn about proverbs is by trying to write some of my own. So over the last few days I've been trying my hand at gathering together and distilling some insightful observations about the world as it should be. And let me tell you: it's really hard. A proverb needs to ring true without cliche, needs to be pithy without being flippant, needs to be precise enough to enlighten but ambiguous enough to apply in any number of situations.

It has to sound like something you've known all along, but only just heard yesterday.

For what it's worth (and I don't think that's much) here's my list after a week or so of work. (The ones marked with a + are sayings that I've used often as a classroom teacher; the ones marked with a * are based on ideas from other sources.)

Happy is he whose heart is too big to fit on his sleeve.

He who seeks to dance alone can only dance to silence.

It is only the starving man who talks incessantly of food.+

"All I have is three chords and the truth"-- this is the fool's boast and the wise man's apology.

There is no provenience for the archaeology of the self.

The truth is in the telling when the teller is in the truth.

Wisdom crosses the desert with a stone beneath her tongue, slaking her thirst with her own saliva.*

To listen well is to find the child mature at last and the old man young again.

A good thing need not always be a pleasant thing.+

Only a hack cannot celebrate the masterpiece of another.*

When to end-- this is the second lesson of wisdom.

The true maestro is he who knows when not to play.

The question of modern art is not whether or not you could have painted it, but whether or not you did.

Only he who can manage his own website can choose to be a Luddite.

A mask may be inevitable, but not which one you'll wear.

Food for the mind and books for the body, as exercise is for the soul.

There are only four feelings-- mad, sad, glad and scared-- but O in what infinite combinations they come.

Narcissus and the writer: both alike stare into inky pools, searching for an echo of their experience.

Loving is knowing and knowing is leaving and leaving is coming back again.

The equality of unequals is inequality.+*

The only stupid question is the question left unasked.+

Sarcasm is the protest of the weak.+

Beware of both the connoisseur and the spendthrift in the marketplace of ideas. The former will buy only his brand, the later will buy anything.

Love and fear alike are a bird in a fist: to hold it hides it; to look must let it go.*

The secret to never having to stand in line is in only wanting things when no one else does.

He who fishes for truth alone will surely come home skunked.

It is impossible to say in a single picture that a picture is worth a thousand words.

Hope is a knife-edge sharpened by despair.*

Every statistic is but a mathematically narrated myth.

Only great folly shouts for silence.

Sanctimony is often the child of guilt.

The Girl Queen, the Captive Conqueror: A Devotional Commentary on the Book of Esther (3:1-10)

The plot is beginning to thicken for Esther and her kin, as Mordecai refuses to bow to Haman in the gate, and Haman, in turn, hatches a genocidal plot to destroy the Jewish people.  On the one hand, this sounds a whole lot like Daniel, another book dealing with the challenges of being faithful to God in the midst of exile (remember Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, thrown into the furnace because they wouldn't bow to the king's image?).  On the other hand, it's really telling, the justification Haman gives King Ahasuerus for destroying them: their customs and way of life are different from all the other people (3:8).

This, ultimately, is the challenge for God's people: to remain "different" from the way the World does business, in the face of immense pressure to conform.  They asked Mordecai why he wouldn't just bow to Haman and be done with it (3:3), and no answer is given; but I think 3:8 is the answer: he's determined to stay true to the Jewish way of life, come what may.  It gets me thinking about ways that I might be "bowing to Haman"-- that is, giving in to the cultural pressures to conform to the "world's way of doing things," and so compromising my distinct identity as a follower of Jesus. Would the Hamans of this age be able to say to the Ahasueruses of this age, that my way of life is distinct from all the other peoples?

This is not easy: bowing to Haman would have seemed like such a small thing, and the reprisal it met with was huge (really Haman? Total genocide?).  But part of the message of Esther, I think, is that God will be faithful in the big things, if we will be faithful in the small.  May God bring us up off our knees and stand us on our feet, today, if it should just so happen that we’ve been bowing to Haman lately.

Three Minute Theology 3.3: From Head to Toe

There’s this Arts and Culture program on Canadian public radio  called Q, that I used to be a big fan of.  It was all about music and film and other cultural trends, and it usually featured fascinating interviews with fascinating celebrities.

In the fall of 2015, this program went through a dramatic upheaval, however. The host, a pretty well-known name in Canadian media and much loved by fans, was involved in a salacious scandal involving some pretty unsavory allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment.

Even though these were simply allegations, the host was seen as the public face of Q, and the damage had been done.  Fans were disillusioned.  Fans felt betrayed.  Fans dropped off.  Many even felt a sort of guilt-by-association: I think I did, at the time.

The producers of the show tried to recover from the scandal; they made public apologies; they brought in guest hosts on a rotating basis.  But everything they did seemed touched with the taint of the whole sordid affair.

The only way to escape it, it seemed, was to completely rebrand.  They relaunched the program with a new logo, new theme music and especially a brand new host.  The program kept its name—Q—but everything else was rebranded under the head of a new host.

Q is a successful program again—though I’m no longer a fan—but the story of Q helps us get at one of the major ideas in the story of the Cross, and the reason why the death and resurrection of Jesus brings salvation to human beings.

The idea here is a theological concept called recapitulation.  It’s a Latin word that means something like “summed up under a new head,” and the idea is that in Jesus Christ, and especially through his death and resurrection, God “recapitulated” our humanity, summing it up under a new head.

The idea goes something like this: originally, God created human beings to live in holy relationship with him, and in loving relationship with the rest of creation.  But because of human sin, people did not, and have not, lived up to that original intention.

Adam and Eve, in other words, sinned.  Scandalously.  And no matter how hard we try, we can’t escape the taint of that scandal.  We are guilty by association.

So God came to us in the person of Jesus Christ, as the Second Adam, or the New Adam, is how the New Testament writers put it, to sum up our humanity under a brand new head.

Through the Cross, God puts-to-death our old human nature, and its guilt-by-association with Adam; he crucifies it in himself, and then through the resurrection he offers us a brand new way of being human.  The resurrected Jesus puts his Spirit in us so that we can fulfill God’s original intention for humanity: a right relationship with him and a loving relationship with the rest of creation.

In this theory of the atonement, the cross is the place where our old “tainted” human nature dies and our new human nature is “summed up” or “recapitulated” in Jesus.

The ancient theologians felt that this was one of the most crucial things that happened on the cross.  One compared it to a painted portrait.  “If a portrait becomes distorted and stained,” he said, “the artist doesn’t throw the canvas away, but the subject of the portrait has to sit for it again, and then the likeness is re-drawn on the same material.”

We don’t sit for hand-painted portraits that much anymore, so perhaps a more contemporary analogy is the radio program Q.  When it became tainted by scandal, the only way to save it was to completely rebrand it.

The producers didn’t cancel the show, but they “summed it up” so to speak, under a brand new host.

Metaphors are limited, but in a way, this is what God has done for human nature in the person of Jesus Christ.  He recapitulated it with a brand new host.  Like it says in one place, “His purpose was to sum all things up in Christ.”

The Thursday Review: The Top Five Oddest Movies I'm Glad I Can't Forget

First Posted May 7, 2009

A couple of years back, after an extended stint of picking some doozies, I was banned for a while from choosing the movie when we rented videos for a movie night (I think Anaconda was the pick that finally got my video-choosing license suspended for a while). It's not so much that I have bad taste, but I'm usually a sucker for an intriguing idea, however poorly executed, or an exotic setting, however dull the action taking place there. With this disclaimer up front, I've put together a list of the top five oddest movies I'm glad I can't forget. By "oddest" here I mean both that the movie concept itself was oddly unique, and that it's odd the movie should have etched itself into my imagination the way it has.

(On a side note, in his book Through a Screen Darkly, Jeffry Overstreet talks eloquently about the spirituality of films, and the unique way in which this particular art medium can act as a window onto the divine. While only one of the movies here makes it to his 200+ list of spiritually thought-provoking films, I think each of them in its own way raises spiritual themes that the Christian Faith might speak to.)

5. Meetings with Remarkable Men. Directed by Peter Brook (1979). Hands down one of the strangest movies I've ever seen. Based on a semi-autobiographical book by an obscure Greek-Armenian mystic named G. I. Gurdjieff, the film is a fragmented series of episodes and dialogues that traces Gurdjieff's journey through Central Asia looking for spiritual enlightenment and esoteric knowledge. It culminates with his initiation into a mysterious brotherhood of mystics. I had a friend in university who was a self-styled Gurdjieffian searching for esoteric knowledge himself, and who roped me into watching it with him. I wish I had known then what I know now: that in Christ, God's hidden wisdom and knowledge have been made public in the open scandal of the cross (Col 2:1-3). What talks we might have had then.

4. Walkabout. Directed by Nicholas Roeg (1971). The story of two British schoolchildren, abandoned in the outback of Australia and befriended by a silent aboriginal boy on walkabout who helps them survive. With a lot of surreal, dream-like footage of the Australian landscape, and a lot of drawn-out, wordless interactions between the three children, it asks a lot of the audience, and the ending is anyone's guess. It struck me at the time as a kind of "return to Eden/back to innocence" story wrapped up (ironically) in a poignant and painful coming of age story. Maybe it's the kind of back-to-Eden story we should hear more often.

3. Joe vs. The Volcano.
Directed by John Patrick Shanely (1990). Though this is probably the one movie Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan would like to call a mulligan on, I found something strangely appealing about this campy story of a man's journey to find his inner hero. A satire of western capitalism, an allegory about the modern search for meaning, a quest story about finding inner wholeness by confronting our fear of death, it asks the kind of questions about the spiritual life that Christians should be engaging, I think, with the answers of Christ. (You can click here for a hypertext film-study I designed for teaching this movie in my grade eleven English classes.)

2. Far Away, So Close. Directed by Wim Wenders (1993). A film about fallenness and grace and incarnation, it tells the story of an angel who becomes human in an instant (to save a boy falling off a balcony), and who then finds himself on a quest for experience and redemption in his new life in the flesh. Apparently angels can only see in black and white, and can hear everyone's thoughts at once, which makes for some pretty evocative scenes moving in and out of colour with all sorts of mumbled lines in different languages coming at you all at once. It's the kind of film you could wear your beret to if you want.

1. Babette's Feast.Directed by Gabriel Axel (1987). Critically acclaimed and demonstrably brilliant, this is the only movie on this list that I would endorse as a must see. It tells the story of Babette, an extraordinarily gifted chef de cuisine and Parisian restaurateur who has been living incognito as a simple cook to two elderly sisters in a small, rustic fishing village in Denmark. When Babette wins 10,000 francs in a lottery, rather than return to Paris, she choses to spend the money on a lavish banquet for the villagers. Though they are woefully ignorant of the luxury they are being treated to, a spirit of genuine fellowship settles over them through the course of the meal, exposing and healing some deep-rooted hurts and bitterness in the community. Funny, moving, and evocative, this film asks powerful questions about the spirituality of food, and table-fellowship, and hospitality and art (and for the Christian, it also suggests poignant questions about the meaning of the Eucharistic meal, where Christ invites his community to find reconciliation and healing at a table laid with the extravagant feast of his own poured-out life).

Ecclesia Ludens, the Church at Play

There’s an obscure, somewhat bizarre episode in the Book of Acts that crosses my mind every once in a while when I’m deep in the thick of ministry at the FreeWay. It’s the story of Paul and the Seven Sons of Sceva.

In case this one wasn’t included in your Sunday School flannel graphs, let me give you the background. During the course of his missionary journeys, Paul arrives in Ephesus, where there is a septet of Jewish brothers going around performing exorcisms for hire. These seven “sons of Sceva” get a load of the miracles Paul’s performing in Jesus’ name, so they decide to give it a try. “In the name of Jesus whom Paul preaches,” they intone over their next demonized client, “I abjure you to come out!” And the result looks something like a cross between WWF and Monty Python:
The evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and I know about Paul, but who are you?” Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and ... gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding.  Acts 19:16
Now: when I say that this episode crosses my mind sometimes during ministry, I should clarify. It has nothing to do with the beating these guys get for trying to capitalize on Jesus’ name; and it’s not because anyone has ever run out of any of my services bleeding. It’s not even because it involves a failed attempt at casting out an evil spirit.

It’s only because it’s—well—if you can get past some of the cultural baggage here—evil spirits, random acts of cudgelling, seven dudes fleeing a house “naked and bleeding,” and what not—if you can let those things simply exist as they might have in their original, first century context—it is a funny story.

At least it was meant to be so, I think. Seven bumbling exorcists who don’t know Jesus from Adam get a royal whooping from the evil spirit they’re trying to exorcise because they misused the name of Jesus, with the ironic effect that the evil spirit, who surely has no vested interest in upholding Jesus' name, ends up pointing out just how precious and sacred and powerful it truly is. Okay: it’s not Corner Gas material, maybe; no sides got split in my telling of the tale, I’m sure, but still, the more I think about it, the more I think Luke, the author of Acts, wants this little episode to crack a pious but genuine smile on the faces of his readers.

Not that I’d recommend the majority of his work, but the guy who runs the Brick Testament website maybe got this one right, presenting it in the medium of a Lego diorama. It sort of does sound like what you’d get if a 10-year-old boy were to come up with a Bible story. Lots of action, a few good fisticuffs, and a eyebrow-arching guffaw at the end: “And he gave them such a licking they fled the house naked and bleeding!”

And this why I think about it every once and a while at the FreeWay, because it suggests to me that, for all its seriousness and eternal import—and make no mistake, ministry is serious and of eternal import—but even in the midst of all that, there is something to ministry that was meant very much to be, for lack of a better word, fun.

This isn’t an exegetical hill I’m ready to die on yet, but I wonder if a passage like Acts 19:13-16, the one about the seven beaten sons of Sceva, was written especially for church leaders who've let church life wring out of them the ability let themselves go with a good-natured, whole-hearted laugh. Or for church communities so burdened with the weight of glory that life together is no longer life-giving. Or for Christians who don’t really think, actually, that the Christian life has space in it for a healthy sense of humour.

It’s not just in Acts 19:13-16, either, that we see Luke throw a sideways glance at his audience with a wry grin that sort of says, “There is, in fact, some very holy fun, going on here, for anyone who wants to get in on the action.” In Acts 12, for instance, you get the one about Peter, escaped from prison, who goes to the house where they’re praying earnestly for his release, and the servant girl is so flummoxed to see him there that she forgets to let him in and no one will believe her that he’s at the door. In Acts 20 you get the one about poor old Eutychus, who fell asleep in the window because Paul’s sermon was so long-winded (the original long-sermon joke...) Acts is peppered, actually, with funny scenes once you start to look for them.

I should clarify. In calling these things “fun” or “funny,” I don’t mean to trivialize the things of God, or to suggest we should handle them flippantly or foolishly. C. S. Lewis has a great letter in The Screwtape Letters where he unpacks humour theologically, and suggests that there is a very important place for “the Joke Proper,” as a channel and expression of Christian Joy, that there is such a thing as a godly joke, and that laughter is not only spiritual healthy, but has all kinds of potential to be redemptive and worshipful if we’ll let it be so.

That’s the kind of funny I’m trying to get at here. And that’s the kind of fun, I think, that church ministry should include: the “funny” that is willing to watch the greatest made the least and the last made the first, and bubble up with laughter because it’s happening—the “funny” that is humble enough to laugh even at itself— the “funny” that views all things, our trials and our accomplishments, in the clarifying light of eternity, where most of the things you take so seriously will turn out not to be nearly so serious as you take them to be.

We laugh a fair bit at the FreeWay. Jokes get told at board meetings all the time. No small amount of play happens during the Sunday morning set up. Our worship team banters with one another between every other song during Thursday evening practice. And when I hear it, or see it, or join in it—the fun, that is—sometimes I think: I bet Luke would get the joke here; and other times I think: I bet Jesus is laughing with us, on this one.

That’s me with my guard down. The straight-laced theologian in me wants to put it like this: in addition to our understanding of the church as Ecclesia Apostlica (the Apostolic Church), and Ecclesia Semper Reformanda (the church always reforming), we must come to understand her, too, as Ecclesia Ludens.  The church at play.

The Girl-Queen, the Captive-Conqueror: A Devotional Commentary on the Book of Esther (2:21-23)

After a somewhat heavy reflection in my last post on Esther, today I’m thinking about random acts of kindness. In an almost throw-away line, The Book of Esther mentions how Mordecai found out about a conspiracy to kill King Ahasuerus and warned him through Queen Esther, an event which gets recorded in King's Record Book. It only gets this passing, three verse nod, but if we've read Esther before, we already know that this small, seemingly insignificant act of righteousness is going to yield a harvest of salvation down the road.

Like a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon, it will create a typhoon of upset for the enemies of God's people, before the story's done. It's doubly remarkable, too, because Ahasuerus just finished abducting Mordecai's cousin and adopted daughter, forcing her into his harem. If anyone had reason to wish the King dead, it was Mordecai, and yet he acts to save him.

It got me thinking about the random times I've "done the right thing" in small ways that maybe even went against the grain of my human nature. It got me wondering, too, how God might use those small, insignificant gestures in his big plan to show the world his salvation. Those two strangers I helped to get home that freezing winter night some ten years back, when they showed up on my doorstep, stranded, at 2 am ... will they turn around and topple a Haman when no one expects it? That troubled student I taught so many years ago, the one I told I was going to be praying for him, and I'm still doing my best, some ten years later, to keep my promise... will he reverse a genocidal plot one day? God knows. But the Book of Esther seems to think that God works powerfully (if hiddenly) in these small, daily, apparently insignificant acts of “doing right by your neighbour,” even if we never know how they fit into his big plan.

This might seem a bit of let down, what with all my talk last time about overthrowing the dehumanizing powers and the insidious principalities like so many beheaded Goliaths; but maybe that’s the point. When God is in it, the smallest act of kindness can overthrow the worst of evils. Goliath was, after all, brought down by a sling-shot.

At the very least, it’s got me re-thinking that place where Jesus said, “Whoever is unfaithful in the small things will be unfaithful in the big things.” Maybe it’s because being faithful in the small things is being faithful in the big.