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

random reads

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

Screwtape Proposes a Toast, C. S. Lewis

The Thursday Review: The Full Divine Panoply

first posted May 10, 2010

I can still remember when I first learned about that famous passage in Ephesians 6, the one where Paul talks about putting on the "whole armour of God." It was Bible Camp, grade 6. I vividly recall how the speaker walked us through each item in our spiritual panoply: the Belt of Truth, the Breastplate of Righteousness, the Shield of Faith, and so on.

I`d been working my way through Tolkien that summer, so I guess my 12-year-old imagination was pretty fertile ground for images of spiritual warriors armed with mystical armour with arcane names like "The Helmet of Salvation" and "The Belt of the Truth." When I got home, I drew an elaborate picture of some elfin warrior who bore a striking resemblance to Aragorn (as I pictured him in my imagination; this is, remember, well before Peter Jackson), bearing a flaming"Sword of the Spirit" and warding off demonic darts with his "Shield of Faith."

A talk on "The Whole Armour of God," I'd discover later, is standard fare for Bible Camp speakers. I`ve heard the most elaborate talks explaining obscure details about the typical armour of the Roman Infantry, and relating them to intricate details about the means and methods of spiritual warfare for individual Christians. I was even at one Bible Camp where the speaker was a Christian children`s entertainer named (I`m not making this up) Fester the Clown. Fester the Clown made an entire set of the Whole Armour of God out of balloons, Sandals of Evangelism and all. One lucky camper got to take it home with him in a giant plastic bag as a reminder of his call to arm himself for spiritual warfare.

Now, I hate to burst Fester`s balloon, but the thing that he never told me, nor did any of the other speakers I`ve ever heard expound on this passage, is that throughout Ephesians 6:10-20 Paul uses the 2nd person plural. He is not talking to or about individuals here, arming themselves for solo combat against their personal demons and temptations. He's talking to and about the group, the community of faith, the Church. Put differently: "you" are not called to put on the whole armour of God as much as "we" are called to do so together. This is a subtle point, perhaps, but a few examples will show that it's not so subtle as to be moot.

Take, for instance, the Bride of Christ imagery. While Jesus is most certainly the lover of individual souls, when the Bible says that "you" are the Bride of Christ, it means "you" plural, that is the church together, is the Bride of Christ. And we miss a vital theological point if we miss this distinction. A more obvious one, perhaps is the Body of Christ imagery, where we are each, clearly, only members of the whole Body and can't function without the others; a less obvious one is the Temple of the Holy Spirit, where the primary reference is to the community of Faith together being built up together into the Temple of God (Though it's common to hear talk about how you (sg) are the Temple of the Spirit, out of 7 references to the Temple of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament, only 1 refers to individuals and all the rest are about the community together).

What difference would it make if Paul's envisioning the Community of Faith in Ephesians 6, arming itself together for spiritual combat, and not individual spiritual gladiators? Maybe a good place to start thinking through the implications would be 6:18, where he talks about the "secret weapon of prayer" (as I heard one preacher call it picturesquely). If Paul's primarily imagining corporate prayer here as a "weapon" in our battle against the powers of this dark world, then it will mean, I think, remodelling the "prayer closet" a bit. In most of the discipleship material I've ever seen, the emphasis has been almost exclusively on individual prayer.

And if Paul is calling the church corporate to take up the "Sword of the Spirit," which is the Word of God, then sharpening my personal knowledge of the Bible in my personal "quiet time with God" will certainly not do it. Instead, the call will be answered as the community of Faith itself becomes a place where together we seek out, listen for, weigh together and respond in one spirit to the utterance of God (the word there is rhema, not logos) as it is breathed by the Spirit through the Scriptures into the gathered community. Puts a little different spin on the "sword drill," that other staple of Bible Camp spirituality.

We could do the same with the rest: what if lacing up the Sandals of Evangelism was less about me personally leading individuals to the Lord (though it may include that), and more about the community of faith becoming, and being, a place where the Gospel or Peace is proclaimed, and lived out, and given room to touch and transform lives? Of course, Fester the Clown would have to do a whole lot more balloon twisting if this reading is right, but as a spiritual exercise go through Ephesians 6:10-20 and read it asking yourself: would it make any difference if this was about "us" and not "me"?

The Girl Queen, the Captive Conqueror: A Devotional Commentary on the Book of Esther (6:11-14)

Esther 6:13 doesn't stand out as especially significant to modern readers like us, but it is, I think, or would have been, one of the key verses to the whole entire story, if you were one of the Jews in exile that this book was originally written for. Like a snowball at the top of a snow-laden peak, Haman has started to tumble, and his wisest friends tell him: “If this Mordecai before whom your downfall has started, is of Jewish descent (literally, of the “seed of the Jews”), you will not be able to stand against him—you will surely come to ruin.”

I call this the key to the whole entire book, because this reference to the “seed of the Jews” ties Esther’s story right back to the story of Abraham, and the founding promise that God made to his people back in Genesis. In Genesis 12, God tells Abraham, the Father of the Jewish people, “I will make you into a great nation ... you will be a blessing ... and I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you ... and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” This is the Magna Carta, in a sense, for the people of God, and a bit later (Genesis 15:5, 17:7), God expands the promise to include the language of “Abraham’s seed” (i.e. his descendants) specifically. Haman’s friends are speaking truer than they know: if Mordecai is in fact of Abraham’s “seed,” he stands under God’s sure promise: “I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you.” The whole ironic drama of the Book of Esther, in fact--all the unexpected coincidences and miraculous near-misses that, looking back on it we can call almost comical--is actually just the logic of this ancient promise playing out. Inasmuch as Haman has “cursed” Abraham’s seed (see above on his genocidal plot), he stands self-condemned, and his destruction is sure and inescapable (and all without Mordecai even lifting a finger). For an ancient Jew in exile, torn from his homeland and surrounded by those who would gladly curse him, this assurance of God’s faithfulness would be a bright beacon of hope in an otherwise dark night.

We’re not ancient Jews in exile, of course, but through Christ, who is the true “Seed of Abraham,” we are included in the Abrahamic covenant, so let me suggest a way to take this all to heart, today, some 2500 years later. Because the promise was actually twofold—God will defend the cause of his people, on the one hand, and he will make his people a blessing to the nations, on the other. And as Christians, we are scattered among the nations in a way not entirely unlike the exiled Jews in Esther’s day. Like them, can we find solace and challenge in God’s promise to Abraham? Solace, to know that he will take up our cause against all the Hamanesque Powers ranged against us, but challenge, too, to know that God has scattered us among the nations for the express purpose of blessing all the peoples of earth through “Abraham’s Seed.” Can we let him take up our cause against Haman, even as we take up the cause of being a blessing to the nations?

An Ancient Path for a Modern World (I): Silence

I have been giving a lot of thought lately to the spiritual disciplines of the Christian faith, and especially, in particular, those disciplines that don’t normally get listed among the usual habits of a thriving Christian.  At least, they didn’t usually get mentioned in the church circles I grew up in; indeed, some of them would have been viewed with not a small amount of suspicion, smacking too much of mysticism, fanaticism, or works-righteousness.  I’m thinking here of things like: the practice of silence, fasting, meditation, listening prayer, and so on.  Practices like these are often hard to pin down; they don’t come with a money-back “guarantee of results”; and they tend to be less explicitly biblical than the more typical “read-your-Bible-pray-every-day” agenda of the thriving Christian. As such, they don’t often get top billing in the list of things that Christians ought to do, especially in the hyper-utilitarian, results-oriented, bigger-brighter-louder-better culture of North American Christianity.

And yet, many of these practices—silence, listening, fasting, prayer-vigils, meditation, simplicity, and so on—have a long, deep, rich and proven heritage in the broader Christian tradition, tracing back throughout the ages, with various examples among the early church and weighty biblical precedence among the prophets and the patriarchs.  Once you know what you’re looking for, you’ll even find them all over the place in Jesus’ daily, weekly, monthly practices, I think.

All of that is to say that for the next few months here at terra incognita, in a series I’m calling “Ancient Paths for a Modern World,” I’d like to spend some time exploring what you might call the less common but still vital disciplines of the Faith, ancient practices that don’t get much air-time in the modern North American church but are profoundly rich, rewarding disciplines for growing followers of Jesus to explore, experiment with, and develop into habits.

Take the practice of silence, as a first example.  My gut feeling is that, by-and-large, our world is dominated by what C. S. Lewis once called “the Kingdom of Noise.”  We cannot escape the constant blare of humming machines, roaring engines, blaring electronic music, incessant media interruptions, deafening Dolby-surround sound, lights, camera, action!  And my gut, further, tells me that the church has, by and large, acquiesced to the culture's insistence on making (with apologies for quoting Meatloaf and C. S. Lewis in the same paragraph) everything louder than everything else.

In this world, making space enough and time to sit, genuinely silent in the Lord’s presence, with no other agenda than simply to be still—fully still—and know that he is God, is not only rare, but it is, actually profoundly difficult.  The first time I ever tried practicing intentional silence, I found that my thoughts were bouncing around worse than a teeny-bouncer flung into a locker room (when I was in junior-high, this happened once in the boys locker room, and four guys almost lost an eye before the little rubber ball finally came to rest).  I set the timer for 15 minutes, knelt the coffee table and tried to quiet my thoughts to silence.  That teeny bouncer kept bouncing incessantly, till I gave up and looked at the clock.  Only 7 minutes had passed.

I’ve since learned some important, practical tips for developing the ability to practice silence, which I’d like to share, but before I do, let me offer a few reasons why this discipline—sitting silent, mind cleared and held still, for extended periods in the presence of the Lord—is worth the practice and effort it takes to develop it into habit.

For one, it answers the imperative of the Psalmist, to be still and know that He is God.  Coming to God in silence, with no prayer request on our lips, no prayer needs in our hearts, no agenda and no “advice” for how he ought to resolve this or that issue I’m facing, is profoundly humbling and also profoundly liberating.  Learning to be truly silent before God develops our awareness of his presence because it forces us to turn off all other distractions, including, especially, our own inner chatter.

For another, the practice of silence is an important part of learning to “take every thought captive” as a Christian.  Practicing silence teaches us better control over our thoughts.  In order to get better at sitting silently before God, we must also, and first, get better at taking charge of our thoughts: holding them still, keeping some from developing, keeping others from running away with us.  Silence is, in fact, a discipline of mental toughness; and mental toughness,  I am learning, is necessary if we are going to be in control of our own thought patterns, taking captive those thoughts that do not honour Jesus or are unbecoming a follower of his, and nurturing those thoughts that do and are.  Silence is to “taking thought captive” what weight training it to Olympic wrestling: they’re not the same thing, but then again the one is sure a lot easier if you’ve done a lot of the other.

Finally, silence is, I believe a necessary condition for genuine hearing.  Even in normal conversation we know this is true.  I can’t really hear my spouse if I’m trying to speak over her; and what’s more, if I’m busy thinking of what I’m going to say next when she’s talking, I’ll miss what she has to say, too.  The same is true with God, I think. So much of my prayers are really me chattering over God’s voice, never stopping to hear what he has to say.  Because silence puts us in the posture of waiting patiently to speak until spoken to, it develops in us a deeper sensitivity to the small still voice of God, and a more profound recognition of it, when he does speak.

If that’s made a firm enough case for the practice of silence that you’re feeling challenged to try incorporating this practice into your own Christian disciplines, let me offer a few practical things that have helped me.

1. Posture matters.  Where and how you sit when you are practicing silence will make a big difference to how you experience it.  Sit in the same location each time, and sit in a relaxed, upright position, one you will not be tempted to shift about in, but one you won’t fall asleep in (don’t laugh, it happens...)

2.  Learn to breathe.  This is one of the key aspects to the practice of silence.  Learn to breathe slowly and regularly from your belly, through your nose, filling your lungs from the diaphragm.  Practice this a fair bit, and use the regular rhythm of this “belly breathing” to continually centre you.  Whenever you become aware that your inner noise has started up again, come back to your breathing and let it quiet you down once more.

3.  Visualize your silence.  It helps to use an image of some sort or other to help you stay silent.  Sometimes I imagine I am sitting in a wide, open meadow, for instance, with a gentle breeze blowing.  Whenever I become aware that I’ve started up my inner noise again, I imagine my thoughts as though they were dandelion fluff, and I let the “breeze” blow them away until I’m silent again. (Another one is to imagine yourself sitting at the bottom of a still, clear pond, and whenever thoughts emerge in your mind, visualize them as bubbles, floating up to the surface).

4. Remove distractions.  Not just in the moment, but as part of your lifestyle.  Get rid of your TV, for instance or at least put it in a place (the basement, a back room) where it takes an intentional decision to watch it, and it’s not easy to while away mindless hours prone before it.  Do the same with the internet, Facebook, video games, or whatever else is screaming “pay attention to me!” into your life.

5.  The Holy Spirit is the Best Teacher.  Start each time of silence with a prayerful invitation to the Holy Spirit to guard you, guide you, direct you and protect you as you quiet yourself before the Lord; and end each time with the same.

6. Practice make perfect.  Don’t be surprised or discouraged if, the first time you sit down to silence, you find your thoughts are like the afore-mentioned teeny-bouncer, too.  Silence actually takes practice.  But set a timed goal—5 minutes, 15 minutes, 20 minutes, or what have you—and work at increasing the length of time you practice silence by small increments.

Again, silence is not as prominent a spiritual discipline as the more pragmatic ones, but it is, I am learning as I try more and more to work it into my own disciplines, a precursor for being more fully aware of God’s presence in the more pragmatic ones.  But don’t take my word for it; take the prophet Elijah’s.  In the famous passage about Elijah hearing the small still voice of God on the mountain side, we’re told that God wasn’t in the whirlwind, the earthquake or the roar of the fire.  But after all that came “the sound of crushed silence” (that’s how my Hebrew prof translated the verse, anyways), and when Elijah hear that—the sound of crushed silence—that’s when he heard the voice of the Lord speaking to him.

For Maundy Thursday

When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example,that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them."

John 13:12-17

The Girl Queen, the Captive Conqueror: A Devotional Commentary on the Book of Esther (6:1-10)

Esther 6:1 lies right at the literary centre of this story, and the narrative unfolds on either side of this verse in a chiasmic structure. Chiasm (meaning ‘X’ in Greek) was a very common story-telling device in Hebrew literature, where the story follows an A-B-C-D-C-B-A kind of pattern (or an ‘X’ shape, if you can visualize it). Let me illustrate:

A1. The King’s great Feast (1:1-12)
..B1. Esther made Queen, with feasting (2:1-17)
....C1. The King’s decree to destroy the Jews (3:1-15)
......D1. The King offers Esther up to half his kingdom (5:3)
........E1. Esther’s 1st banquet (5:5-8)
..........F1. Haman plots to murder Mordecai (5:9-14)
............G. The King can’t sleep (6:12)
..........F2. Haman forced to honor Mordecai (6:4-14)
........E2. Esther’s 2nd banquet (7:1-2)
......D2. The King offers Esther up to half his kingdom (7:3)
....C2. The King’s decree to save the Jews (8:1-14)
..B2. Mordecai royally honored, with feasting (9:15-17)
A2. The Feast of Purim (9:18-32)

So that’s pretty tidy, but there’s more going on here, I think, than just fitting the story into a nice neat pattern. Usually in a Hebrew Chiasm, the key idea of the story is found at the centre of the chiasm, in this case at point “G”: the King can't sleep. This is the turning point for Esther and her people. Chapter 5 ended with the ominous sounds of Haman building his gallows; Chapter 6 opens with this insomniac king. A chance sleepless night, but it leads to him asking for the records to be read (a little bedtime reading, I guess) and, coincidentally, he comes across the record of Mordecai’s hitherto unrewarded good deed, back in chapter 2. Haman (again coincidentally) enters at just that moment and, thinking the King’s talking about himself, tells him to lavish riches and royalty on the “man the King delights to honor.” Little does he know the King was talking about Mordecai. So begins the slow, somewhat comic, totally unexpected ascent out of the utter despair of 5:14. And the story, as I’ve said, will reverse the fortunes of God’s people, step for step all the way back up.

And here’s where I’m going with all this: it seemed like a random sleepless night for King Ahasuerus, and yet, when you step back, and see how his insomnia fits in to this bigger, orderly scheme, you realize that it was no coincidence at all; nor was Haman’s random entrance at the moment the record books were being read; nor was Mordecai’s “chance” uncovering of a plot to kill Ahasuerus back in chapter 2. All these events, it turns out, happened “for such a time as this” (4:14). There is an order to God’s activity in this story that is invisible until you step back to see it all laid out, but when you do it’s beautiful and compelling, even at times comical.

It leaves me wondering about the 1001 apparently random coincidences that happen to me day in and day out, and how seldom, really, I notice God’s overarching “chiasm” to the events—that is to say, I seldom stop to wonder if this chance occurrence isn’t God doing or saying something really important right now. I usually just slog on, going about my business unawares. I posted earlier about how careful we need to be not to name God before he’s ready to reveal himself. I think the author of Esther would also say, “Yeah, but when he does reveal himself, you’ll see: there are no accidents with God.

The Thursday Review: A Few Random Notes on St. Patrick

I used to have a fascination- bordering- on-obsession with St. Patrick. I've posted about my general fascination with the lives of the saints elsewhere, but this Apostle to the Irish has always been particularly interesting to me. I even wrote a musical about him some 7 years ago (it is, I freely admit, mostly embarrassingly bad, but if you're curious, you can read/hear it here). In honour of his feast day today, I offer the following random notes about St. Patrick.

1. There had been previous, failed attempts to evangelize the Irish before Patrick. Most historians attribute his unprecedented success to his ability to capitalize on points of contact between the Faith and the pagan culture of the Irish.

2. Historians also attribute his success to the fact that, unlike the previous missionaries to the Irish, Patrick actually spoke Irish-- a language he learned when he lived as a slave in Ireland in his early life.

3. In Simply Christian, N. T. Wright argues that most of the current, emerging interest in Celtic Christianity is really driven by a superficial interest in "mysticism," "back-to-nature-ism" and "things ancient," but it's not all that connected with what history tells us about the the actual Christian experience of the Celts. He notes, for instance, how few of those interested in "Celtic Spirituality" are taking on the ascetic practices that were relatively common among the Celtic monks, like kneeling in the frigid waters of the ocean to pray for hours on end. Touche.

4. In How the Irish Saved Civilization, a pretty controversial book of uncertain historical accuracy, Thomas Cahill argues that after the fall of Rome, while the spiritual winter of the dark ages fell over most of Europe, the ember of the Faith was kept glowing in the isolated monasteries of Ireland. He suggests that Irish monks were then instrumental in re-spreading the learning and literature of Christianity. It would mean kudos to St. Patrick if it were true.

5. The "Lorica of St Patrick" is a Latin poem traditionally attributed to St. Patrick. A "lorica" is/was a kind of incantatory prayer that the devotee would recite to invoke the presence, power and protection of God. St. Patrick's Lorica is really quite beautiful. I memorized it a while back, and find myself reciting it to myself in moments of confusion or darkness. Here it is in English translation:

I bind unto myself today the strong name of the trinity,
By invocation of the same, the Three in One, the One in Three.

I bind this day to me forever by power of faith Christ's incarnation,
His baptism in the Jordan river, his death on the cross for my salvation;
His bursting from the spiced tomb, his riding up the heavenly way,
His coming at the day of doom I bind unto myself today.

I bind unto myself today the power of God to hold and lead,
His eye to watch, his might to stay, his ear to harken to my need,
The wisdom of my God to teach, his hand to guide, his shield to ward,
The Word of God to give me speech, his heavenly host to be my guard.

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me;
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ to comfort and restore me;
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger

I bind unto myself the name, the strong name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same, the Three in One, and One in Three,
Of whom all nature hath creation, eternal Father, Spirit, Word;
Praise to the God of my salvation, salvation is of Christ the Lord!

Where is Thy Sting?

If you’re a regular reader of terra incongita, you’ll know that over the last few months on this blog, we’ve been spending some time exploring the nature of the church. The theological way of describing what we’ve been up to is to say “we’ve been doing some ecclesiology,” and man have we covered some wide-ranging ground. This is a popular-level pastor’s blog, of course, not a theology textbook, so I’ve taken some liberty to think well outside the box as we’ve explored the theological nature of this strange organism called “the church.” We’ve imagined the church as a comet, the church as a game of Calvinball, the church as an angel, and the church as a comedy sketch. Before we close the book on this series, however, there is one more angle I’d like to come at it from, because there is an important function that church once had in culture that we are increasingly neglecting, to the point, I worry, of being in dereliction of duty.

The church is also, or at least, was meant to be, a memento mori. Memento Mori is Latin for “reminder of death,” and in medieval times, the memento mori was an object, maybe a skull or an urn, or more likely a painting of a skull or an urn, kept in a prominent place, that reminded the owner, whenever he saw it, that he was in fact, mortal and that he would, in fact, die.

The idea behind the memento mori, is that there can be something profoundly cathartic in remembering one’s mortality and, more importantly, it can inspire us to live our lives well, today, knowing that we may not have the chance to do so tomorrow.

I sound morbid. I know.

But that’s part of the problem I’m trying to put my finger on. Our culture generally is a death-denying culture. We want our meat not to bear too close a resemblance to the dead animal it is. We want our cemeteries to look like city parks, and be euphemistically stylized as “memorial gardens.” We want funerals called “celebrations of life,” lest anyone be forced to dwell too literally on the plain fact of death. And, by and large, the church has capitulated to the death-denying pressures of the world around us. We’ve cleaned up our hymns, we’ve moved the cemeteries off our grounds, we’ve out-sourced the funerals to “funeral homes” and we’ve found all sorts of spiritual-sounding ways of talking around the subject.

It wasn’t always this way, of course. Time was you walked past the graves of the dearly departed on your way into church. Time was confessing “the communion of saints” with the creed included a very solid belief that one day we would join them. Time was hymns were replete with references, sometimes quite taunting references, to death. Time was the church was quite clear on its duty to help folks experience a “glorious death” (and we understood that for death to be, in fact, glorious, it must first be remembered, and confronted as a plain fact of life.)

I sound like an old fuddy duddy. I know.

But it’s only because I think there is something neurotic, or at least potentially neurotic, in our culture’s squeamishness about death, and I wonder if the spiritual ennui, the consumeristic vacuity, the manic hunt for the next thrill that seems so wide-spread in our culture isn’t somehow connected to our inability to come to terms with our own mortality.

If I’m on to something here, perhaps, as we continue thinking outside the box about the church, perhaps one of the ways to address the spiritual ennui, the consumeristic vacuity of contemporary North American culture is by regaining the church’s role as a memento mori.

I’m thinking John Keating here, not Eeyore, but I’m also thinking about the fact that only the man who is ready to die can truly live, and that the gospel, rightly understood, doesn’t deny the fact of death but wrestles with it, wrestles it to the ground, and brings it into submissive service to the Lord who conquered it in the cross.

Put differently, it is impossible to taunt death with the ringing victory cry of the Christian—death where is thy sting?—without also, at the same time, looking it dead in the eye and acknowledging that it's there.

The Girl-Queen, the Captive Conqueror: A Devotional Commentary on Esther (5:9-14)

In Esther 5:14, after Mordecai once again snubs him, Haman sets about building the 50-foot gallows on which he intends to exact his revenge. There is a layer to this conflict between Mordecai and Haman that isn’t immediately apparent, but once you notice it, some very subtle themes in the Book of Esther start to stand out sharply. Mordecai is from the tribe of Benjamin, a descendant, in fact, of Kish, who was the father of King Saul (2:5). Haman is an Amalekite, a descendant of King Agag (3:1).

This is more than just some random family history. Back in 1 Samuel 15, some 500 years or so before Esther, Saul had led Israel in battle against the Amalekites, and, though God told him to completely destroy Agag’s line, he instead took him hostage (presumably for the ransom or tribute he could exact from him), making the war about his own self-advancement as King, instead of serving the Lord. His “taking matters into his own hands” like this is one of the reasons the Lord rejected him as king; and now, some 500 years later, the whole of God’s people are teetering on the knife-edge of destruction because of a plot hatched by one of Agag’s descendants. On the one hand, the Book of Esther re-frames 1 Samuel 15 for us a little bit, putting Saul’s divine directive to destroy King Agag into fresh perspective. Had Saul followed through on his orders then, Haman would not be scheming now to slaughter God’s people (although, I admit, it only re-frames things a little bit; the violence of 1 Samuel 15 is still hard for Christians to get, and should be). But now, 500 years after the fact, a descendant of Saul must grapple with a descendant of Agag, faithfully succeeding where Saul himself had faithlessly failed.

Christians, of course, interpret the battles of the Old Testament spiritually (our struggle is not against flesh and blood but against spiritual forces in the heavenly realms, Eph. 6:12), and when we view this Saul-Mordecai/Haman-Agag conflict from that perspective, a poignant question comes into focus: Who’s to say what beautiful consequence my obedience today may result in centuries from now, in the saving plan of God?

Saul, of course, had no way of knowing that *disobedience* in the Agag affair would blossom into Haman’s genocidal plot some five centuries later, anymore than he could have known that obedience might have averted Haman’s evil. In the same way, we don’t know how God intends to use our victories over the spiritual “Agags” that we’re asked to face, and resist and overcome (again, our battle is not against flesh and blood), years from now, centuries, even, in the mysterious plan of his saving grace. But one of the messages of Esther, I think, is that with Him, no act of obedience is wasted.

Three Minute Theology 3.7: Justice for All

In 2007, after years of irresponsible lending practices and unethical mortgage trading had inflated it to unsustainable levels, the U.S. housing market finally collapsed. Global stock markets fell and millions of people lost their jobs, in an economic disaster that cost the world trillions of dollars.

The causes of the 2007 economic crisis are complex, but many attribute it, at least in part, to fraud and corruption among the financial institutions that rated and sold mortgage bonds. Because of the unethical practices of a few large, rich banks, in other words, a lot of ordinary people lost their homes and their livelihoods.

Something that has enraged many people since, however, is the fact that none of the CEOs of the financial institutions seemingly responsible for this situation were ever brought to justice for their part in the mess. Instead, when the crisis threatened to bankrupt many of these banks, the US Government provided a financial bailout, essentially giving them billions of tax-payer dollars to keep them afloat.

To the extent that it is the exact opposite of what happened on the cross, the way these banks were “forgiven their debt to society” without any recourse to justice, it provides us a helpful way for thinking about an aspect of the atonement that is sometimes difficult for us to wrap our heads around.

It’s something called “Penal Substitution.” Penal Substitution refers to the idea that Christ satisfied the demands of God’s justice, by taking onto himself the punishment for our sins, in our place, on the cross.

If it’s misunderstood, Penal Substitution can leave the impression that the Christian God is some petty, vengeful deity who can’t be satisfied until someone suffers to appease his wrath, which is in flat contradiction of the Bible’s own description of God, that he is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

Penal Substitution starts to make perfect sense, however, if we think about it in relation to the 2007 financial crisis.

The US government’s decision to bailout the banks—to forgive them their debt—was based on the assumption that the banks themselves were too big to fail, and, if they went under, the whole economy would collapse. In their view, forgiveness was necessary.

But what leaves us with a justifiably sour taste in our mouths is the travesty of justice here—that no one was held to account, and justice was not served.

To grasp how this relates to the cross, we must first consider that, when he created the world, God was after a world where things like fairness, and right relationships, and harmony, and holiness, where all the things we think of when we think about justice, obtain.

Human beings, of course, have not lived up to the Creator’s intention for us; the global economic crisis of 2007 is only one of a million examples of this. We sin.

And herein lies the dilemma.

For us to be included in his plan for the creation (and because he loves us passionately, he passionately wants this for us), God must forgive us our sins. But if he were to forgive us without somehow satisfying the demands of justice, it would sort of be like a government that forgives the debt of a bunch of corrupt banks without just regard to the plight of the ordinary people hurt by them.

From God’s perspective, both undeserved forgiveness and genuine justice are necessary if his plan for the creation is to be accomplished.

And this is the dilemma that he resolves for us through the cross.

Penal Substitution is not about Jesus pacifying the rage of an angry Heavenly Father. It is about a loving God who, in the person of Jesus Christ, suffers the full consequences of our sin, for us, and in our place, so that God can forgive us with just regard for the severity of sin, and so that he can deal with sin in all its severity, without excluding us from his plan for the creation.

Like it says in one place: he made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that we could become the righteousness of God.

The Thursday Review: Praying through the Prayerbook of Christ

first posted February 24, 2010

I've been spending a lot of time in the Psalms these days. I'm preaching through some of them as part of the Lent season at the FreeWay, and I'm discovering both how beautiful they are, and how easily mis-read. This is partly because of our ego-centric tendency to ignore that small Hebrew word that starts almost every Psalm, and jump almost immediately to make these prayers, praises, petitions and pleas our own. Of course, this "works" when the prayer is "Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever." But it's a little awkward when the plea is "strike my enemies on the jaw, break the teeth of the wicked." And it is downright risky when the petition is, "examine my heart and my mind ... for I continually walk in your truth."

To be honest, I could never pray that last one and be honest. And were I to try-- to ask God to examine my heart because I've continually walked in his truth-- He would only see the depths of my self-deception there.

And that's why that one little word makes all the difference. The word is "of David." In Hebrew it's just four letters. But they're the four letters that transform this Psalm, because they remind us that these prayers, praises, petitions and pleas, they're not ours. They're David's. The Anointed's. The Christ's.

And of, course, not even David could pray them perfectly, but the Shining Christ of whom he was but the Shadow, the perfect Christ who alone walked continually in Yaweh's truth, he could. These prayers for vindication, petitions for deliverance from death, appeals to complete innocence, they belong to Jesus, who alone can pray them perfectly and purely. Only in Jesus can these prayers become ours, as the petitions of God's people (and still they're not mine before they are ours).

Bonhoeffer helped me get this. He insists that we must read the Psalms first and foremost as the “Prayerbook of Christ.” He says: “The same words that David spoke ... the future Messiah spoke. … It is none other than Christ who prayed them in Christ’s own forerunner, David.” And of course, this is how the New Testament writers read the Psalms. They continually and consistently put David’s songs of praise in Jesus’ mouth. For instance, in Romans 15:8-9, Paul applies Psalm 117:1 directly to Jesus: “I will praise you [God] among the Gentiles; / I will sing hymns to your [God’s] name.” Specifically here Christ’s “hymn of praise” is “sung” to the tune of his servant-hood among the Jews, whereby the Gentiles “glorify God for his mercy” (15:9b). In a similar way, the author of Hebrews puts a psalm of praise on Christ’s lips: “I will declare your name to my brothers / in the presence of the congregation I will sing your praises” (Psa 22:22). Here Christ’s “praise” takes the form of his willingness to identify as “brother” with those whom God has brought to glory through his own suffering, those who could never merit glory on their own.

This goes beyond merely reading individual psalms as messianic prophecy. The Book of Psalms as a whole gathers together in itself all the lamentations and celebrations and heart-cries, “every need, every joy, every thanksgiving, and every hope” (as Bonhoeffer would say) of God’s people; and Jesus, the Messianic “Son of David,” gathers them together in himself and offers them in his own perfect self-offering on the cross, on behalf of his brothers and sisters. This is why Hebrews 13:15 insists that our “sacrifice of praise” can only be offered “through him,” and must always be an acknowledgement of his name, for as with all our responses to God, our praise must participate in the perfect praise of Christ, our mediator.

Okay. Maybe that's all just so much Ivory Tower Theology.

But watch what happens when we read the Psalms as the prayer book of Christ. Psalm One insists that the way of the wicked perishes and the way of the righteous prospers. And if I read this as my own personal prayer, then I wonder: my "way" has been prospering of late, does that "prove" my "righteousness"? Or maybe: my way has not been prospering of late, does that "prove" my "wickedness?" And suddenly I'm spiraling in this snare of works-righteous, health-and-wealth theology that's so disconnected from the gospel of Jesus it would be laughable if it weren't so tragic and so real for so many people.

But if I read Psalm One as Christ's own prayer, then I discover the beauty of its promise: the "way" of the righteous Christ will prosper; he will become a tree planted by water, bearing beautiful, life-giving fruit in season. And Christ's way is to take broken, weak, guilty sinners like me an make them forgiven, heart-strong and whole in him. And as Psalm one assures me: he will prosper in this way. Because he alone has not walked, stood or sat in the Way of sinners, He can't fail in this.

I'm not the righteous Tree. I'm just the fruit of Its righteousness.

And that's really good news.

The Girl-Queen, the Captive Conqueror: A Devotional Commentary on the Book of Esther (5:1-8)

The picture of Esther in 5:1, dressing herself in her royal robes and stepping terrified into the presence of the Persian Emperor is profoundly striking when you let it sink in. From 4:11 we know that she’s standing there under the threat of death. Add to this the fact that she belongs to a condemned people. Add to this what happened to Vashti when she displeased the King, and the tension here should be palpable. The next verse will break the spell, of course: Ahasuerus extends the royal sceptre to Esther, sparing her life and letting us exhale, but hopefully not before we’ve felt it, how awful a thing it would have been to stand there, a humble Jewish girl confronting the Powers and Principalities of this world with nothing but her beauty and a royal robe to defend her.

It gets me thinking about how God’s saving plan works through our smallness, not our power. He toppled Goliath with a sling-stone flung by the youngest son; he will topple Haman through the courage of a faithful Jewish maid. And of course, if Esther is a type of the Messiah, then we have to note it down, that in the Cross of Christ, God saves the world through the suffering smallness of his Son.

There is something very compelling for us as God’s people, in this picture of an unlikely Jewish Queen, trembling in her royal robes and stepping into the Emperor’s presence. You and I are not big enough, really, to confront the evil of this age, either, anymore than Esther was big enough to confront Ahasuerus. In the presence of the worst corruptions of this age, we’re about as powerful as a scared, displaced Jewish girl swept up in events way beyond her control and hiding her heart in some royal robes not her own. But the message of Esther is this: that which we can do, we must do, as small as it might be. We face opportunities all the time to put on our royal robes (so to speak) and step into the King’s presence—small opportunities to be faithful in the face (or the wake) of profound despair.

Ours is not to dethrone Ahasuerus; the heart of the King is in the Lord’s hand. Ours is simply and courageously to be true to Him in the midst of our smallness. May God give us the grace to be so.

Angels Among Us

In the opening chapters of the Book of Revelation, the Risen Jesus dictates a series of prophetic letters to St. John the Divine, addressed to the Seven Churches of Asia Minor: the Church at Ephesus, the Church at Smyrna, the Church at Pergamum, at Thyatira, at Sardis, at Philadelphia and Laodicea. For those even vaguely familiar with the Book of Revelation, this will probably ring some bells. These seven churches are in various stages of success and failure, hopefulness and helplessness, victory and defeat, and Jesus sends them each a letter, warmly commending them for their spiritual victories, tenderly comforting them in their trials, and sternly warning them when it’s needed.

I think about these seven letters to the churches in Revelation a fair bit in my work as a pastor; they come to mind, actually, on a pretty regular basis. It’s not, however, because of the specific content of any individual letter. To be sure, they are among some of the most poetic and compelling passages in the whole New Testament, and I fully trust that the same Jesus who promised the Pergamonian Church a taste of the hidden manna should they overcome, promises to reward the FreeWay’s overcoming in like manner.

But that’s not what draws me to these letters.

It’s this curious observation that I made a few years back and I can’t “unnotice” now that I’ve noticed it: Jesus addresses each letter, not to the “pastor” of the church, or the “over-seer,” or the “elders board” or even the individual congregation. Instead, in each letter he address “the angel of the church.” “To the angel of the church at Ephesus” he says, “write ....”

“To the angel of the church at Smyrna... to the angel of the church in Pergamum ...” and so on.

This is supposed to be a blog post about church ministry, specifically, not angelology, so I won’t delve too deeply here, but it strikes me as all kinds of interesting that, when addressing the trials and triumphs, the struggles and successes, the warp-and-woof of each church’s spiritual life together, Jesus does not address individuals, specific leaders, or even corporate congregations. He addresses the angel of the church.

If you’ve read the work of Walter Wink before, or William Stringfellow, or Hendrikus Berkof, who each write eloquently and insightfully about the “inner” or “invisible” realities that exist in all human efforts to order our life together—from political power structures, to economic system to, even, church institutions—you may see where I’m going with this. There is—the Bible is quite convinced of it—a spiritual life or a spiritual entity (words are difficult here) that becomes evident whenever we structure human life-together.  It emerges from the power structures we erect, and at the same time transcends them. The Bible calls these things Powers and Principalities, Thrones and Dominions, Authorities and Rule. In Colossians we’re told that Christ defeated the Powers and Principalities through the cross (2:15); and in Ephesians were told that Christ is enthroned above them all (1:20); and later in Ephesians we're told that our battle as Christians, is not against flesh and blood but against them (6:15).

The Bible regularly depicts these “Powers and Principalities” in personified ways, as angels and/or demons, variously at work in the world. In saying that, I don’t mean to imply that I take the Bible’s talk of angels and demons as “mere” metaphor, as though there was nothing “real” behind Daniel’s demonic “Prince of Persia” (Dan 10:13) than “simply” the power structures of the Persian Empire. What I am saying is that, as far as the Bible is concerned, the two are intimately connected. The demonic “Prince of Persia,” and the concrete realities of the Persian Empire—the spiritual beings in the heavenly realms and the human power structures that exist on earth—are opposite sides of the same coin. The later are concrete expressions of the former; and the former draw their meaning directly from the later.

I promised I wouldn’t delve too deeply, so let me resurface with this. Put simply: nation states—as human efforts to order our life together—nation states all have an “angel” that exists invisibly, but powerfully, and exerts an invisible but powerful influence over the people who “belong” to that nation state. So do multi-national corporations. And economic systems. And institutions of higher learning. And, as far as the Book of Revelation is concerned, it would seem, so do churches.

There was, in a very real sense, an “angel of the church at Ephesus”—a spiritual entity, a spiritual reality—a spirit—that exists because the church at Ephesus exists, and though it transcends the Ephesian church and exists separately from it, its life is intricately bound up with their life. And so, when Jesus wishes to address the life of that church, even though he has very real, flesh and blood human beings in mind while he’s doing it, he doesn’t address individual leaders or church members. He addresses “the angel of the church at Ephesus.”

There’s an angel of the church at Laodicea, too; and at Sardis, and, if I am reading the Bible right on this one, an angel of the church called FreeWay, at Oshawa.

Every church has its angel.

Anyone who’s ever walked into a church and just sort of knew without being able to put a finger on it, that the “spirit” of this church was dead, or bitter, or vibrant, or reverent—anyone who’s ever been in a church that just couldn’t seem to break through a spirit of failure, or pride, or what have you, no matter how many times they changed the pastor, no matter who moved on or who moved in—anyone who’s ever been in a church where the spirit of the place was full of life and love and joy and before they knew it they were radiating life and love and joy, too—will get what I’m trying to say here.  There is a spirit to every church—every church has, for lack of an even more biblical way of putting it—its angel.

This is why I think about the letters to the churches in Revelation regularly in my work at the FreeWay, because in my more imaginative moments, I wonder: what is the FreeWay’s angel like? Don't worry.  I’m not going new age here, or theologically flaky or dropping off the deep end. I don’t waste much energy on this; but every once in a while, in good Book of Revelation fashion, I wonder.

What does the Angel of the Church called FreeWay look like? (I imagine him as shorter and spunkier alongside the more staid, noble and somber angels of the Heavenly host. His armour of light is held together with duct tape, his wings affixed with chewing gum, and where all the rest of the assembled angels have swords, he has a slingshot protruding from his back pocket...)

More important than what he looks like, though—and this is a question I do spend a fair bit of pastoral energy on—what would Jesus say to the angel of my church, were he to address it the way he addresses the angels of the churches of Asia Minor?