Ghost Notes

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

inversions

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

soundings

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

bridges

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

echoes

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

Accidentals

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

blogs I follow

random reads

Book Reviews

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

Exclusion and Embrace, Miroslav Volf

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

Leading with a Limp, Dan Allender

five smooth stones for pastoral work, Eugene Peterson

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

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


The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

The Thursday Review: 5 Ways Riding Your Bike is a Spiritual Act

first posted September 21, 2012


My older brother inspires me in a number of ways, but lately it's been to cycle more.  He recently completed a cycling tour of epic (by my definition of epic, anyways) proportions.  So inspired was I that a few weeks ago I lowered my bike from the rafters of my garage, replaced an inner tube or two (yes it's been that long), and made a personal commitment to start biking to work.  ("I'm a cyclist now!" is how I announced this decision to my wife, to which she lovingly replied:  "Why is it always all or nothing with you?"  I was sporting a bright red cycling jersey and an aerodynamic helmet at the time.)

Anyways, on the ride to work this morning I was mulling all this over and it occurred to me that, even though we don't normally group it with the regular spiritual disciplines, there are a number of ways in which cycling is actually spiritual act.  Consider the following:

1.  Spirit-Body Connectedness.  I know this sounds a bit new-age-y, but hear me out.  Most biblical scholars would agree that biblical anthropology tends to eschew dualism when it comes to the body/spirit relationship.  In other words, the way the Bible sees you, you don't have a body, you are a body; neither do you have a spirit, you are a spirit.  One of the curious things about the technological world we inhabit, I think, is that this unity has become obscured-- reality has become "virtual," communication disembodied, and travel (hint, hint) disconnected from the body we once used to get there.  But because we are embodied spirits and en-spirited bodies, this disconnect has significant, (though often unnoticed) implications for our spiritual health.  By requiring the body to do the actual work of getting around again, cycling helps to re-connect that disconnect, reminding the spirit that the body is far more than just the disposable cup it got poured into.

2.  Stewardship.  Stewardship is the theological word we use to underline the fact that all we have and all we are really belongs to God, and we will give an account to him in the end for what we did with it.  Usually it's used in reference to our money, not cycling, but again, hear me out.  A) cycling is good exercise and B) regular exercise keeps us healthy and C) as a rule you tend to be more productive with your time and energy when you're healthy.  Ergo, cycling is good stewardship.

3.  Social De-fragmentation.  We don't always notice it in the individualistic west, but the Bible places a premium value on healthy, well-connected community.  Car culture, by contrast, places a low value on healthy well-connected community.  Garages that gobble up front-porches and highways crammed with single-passenger vehicles all roaring along at break-neck speeds by themselves together make for fragmented communities.  But I noticed on the ride to work today:  the kids waiting for the school bus with mom waved at me, the other cyclist I passed gave me a nod, I was going slow enough to notice the senior out walking her dog, and in all this I felt like the disk-drive of my soul was being defragmented.  Community starts, it occurred to me, when we're going slow enough to notice each other.

4.  Green footprints.  I won't save the planet by cycling.  I know this.  But biblical scholar or not, you'd have to agree that a cyclist creates far less pollution than a motorist going the same distance.  If you've read terra incognita enough, you'll know I've said a lot about the way Christianity should translate into a healed and healing relationship with the earth, but lately I've felt deeply convicted that I'm not actually walking the talk.  Cycling is a small start, and if nothing else it renews my convictions.

5.  Simplicity.  Un-business, I'm beginning to believe, could become the radical new spiritual discipline of the 21st Century.  Everyone is so maxed out with calendar-debt that items1-4 seem next to impossible to achieve.  Who's got the time for healthy, connected, green community that stewards God's resources well?  Cycling, I'm learning, requires me to slow down, and in this, too, it is a spiritual discipline.

An Ancient Path for a Modern World (III): Breathing

If you look closely at the depiction of the saints as they appear in the ancient icons of the Orthodox Church, you will notice that they all have very long, thin, quite distinct noses. This is true of all the icons, but we see a great example of it in one of the more famous icons of Christ, the “Christ the Pantocrator.”

I once read a very nuanced “reading” of this icon that interpreted every aspect of it in loving detail. The two eyes are actually looking in two different directions, for instance: one looking off to the eternal horizon of Heaven and the other starting directly at you, piercing the soul with its knowing gaze. The visual perspective on the Bible in his arms, as another example, is skewed and distorted. This suggests that the book (and, more importantly, the Gospel message it contains) is from another dimension and yet, at the same time, still inhabits this dimension, for all it’s having crossed the eternal divide to speak to us.

The imagery in icons is never representational, is my point. It is always deeply, subtly and mysteriously symbolic of the heavenly truths the icon is seeking to express. This is true of the position of the fingers in Christ’s hand (spelling out the initials of Jesus Christ, in Greek), the shape of the mouth, and, as I mentioned, the distinctly long, delicate nose.

The meaning behind the nose, I’ve been told, is that it suggests either the presence of the Holy Spirit, or the spirituality of the person, or both (that is, a Spirit-filled person is also a deeply spiritual person). You may wonder what the length of a saint’s nose has to do with his spirituality, but consider: in both the Greek and the Hebrew languages, the words for “breath” and “spirit” were the same. It was pneuma in Greek, and ruach in Hebrew, and, depending on the usage, it could mean either “spirit” or “breath”’; and in places where the biblical writers are feeling especially playful, it means both. With this in mind, it begins to make sense why the ancient iconographers, when they wanted to indicate that a person was deeply filled with the Holy Spirit and, as a consequence of this filling, was deeply spiritual, they would draw them with a long nose. All the better to breathe deeply with, my dear.

As we continue looking at the spiritual disciplines of the Christian Faith—and especially those disciplines, like fasting, silence, and so on, that don’t get much mention next to the basics of reading your Bible and praying every day—I think this ancient connection between the spirit and the breath is worth some careful reflection. It may be because of its suspect use in non-Christian spiritual practices (Zen meditation, Yoga, and so on), or its unfortunate association with New Agey mumbo-jumbo, but for whatever the reason I don’t hear Christians talking that much about the practice of breathing, and breath control, and the way intentional breathing can be a practical way of regulating our emotions, grounding us in the present, and focusing our thoughts and energy.

This is odd, inasmuch as almost every other form of human endeavor that involves the kind of mind-body-spirit connection that Christian holiness and discipleship also involves, uses breathing as part of its practice. I’ve already mentioned other, non-Christian practices that make use of breathing. We might add to that the way psychotherapists use breathing exercises to treat patients with anxiety disorders, PTSD and so on. In most of the traditional martial arts, too, and especially in the advanced forms of martial arts, breath control is essential to mastery. From what I understand, the training that Navy SEALS go through also makes use of it. Singers and athletes and effective public speakers all need to learn how to master their breath if they are to master their craft. Like I say, in any human endeavor that requires us to be “whole selves"—mind, body and soul together—to do it well, at some point or another, you have to learn how to breathe.

So it leaves me scratching my head a bit, that we don’t employ breathing practices more in Christian spiritual formation, teaching followers of Jesus to breathe well. You may say: it’s because nowhere in the Bible does it describe “breathing” as a spiritual discipline. To which I’d say, I’m not so sure. I’ve already mentioned the breath/spirit connection in the biblical languages. Think, for instance, of God breathing into his newly-formed human beings “the breath of life.” Or remember the Risen Jesus doing it again, in John’s Gospel, when he breathes on them so that they may receive the Holy Spirit.

If that’s not concrete enough for you, let me remind you about Jesus, sitting all night on the mountain top in communion with his Father, and let me just wonder out loud if that kind of sustained prayer could have lasted for hours if Jesus hadn’t been practicing the kind of calm, controlled, deep breathing that is physiologically necessary if we’re to focus our thoughts and attention for hours on end. What about Peter in Acts 10:10-11? It says he sat down on the roof to pray and he “fell into a trance,” during which he receives a life-altering vision from God. I don’t know for sure if his trance-inducing prayer involved controlled breathing or not, but it sure doesn’t sound like it was of the “now-I-lay-me-down-to-sleep” variety. We see a similar thing in Revelation. “On the Lord’s Day,” writes John the Seer, “I was ‘in the Spirit’ and I received”... well... a vision so heavenly and disturbing that 2000 years later we still tremble to read it.

I admit that none of this is what you’d call “hard biblical data,” and I also acknowledge that, as with all spiritual disciplines, it’s by the fruit you’ll know it. I can easily imagine someone practicing breathing as a gimmick or a “technique” and not drawing any nearer to Jesus, maybe even drawing away. But at the same time: when I imagine St. John the Seer on the Island of Patmos, so deep in his prayers that he passes “into the Spirit,” I can’t imagine that happening without some careful attention to his breathing.

I say that partly because, as I have been learning about breathing and its effect on us as whole creatures, I have been tentatively trying to be more aware of my own breathing. In my prayers, for instance, I often start with a simple breathing exercise that quiets my mind and focuses my thoughts on Jesus. I have started practicing breath control to ground me in the moment when I am doing ministry. I have started experimenting with breathing exercises as a way of regulating my response to stressful situations. What I have found as I’ve become more aware of my breathing as a spiritual practice is that I am able to direct my thoughts to Jesus more easily in any given moment, I am more attentive and receptive to his voice in my prayer times, and I am better able to “take thoughts captive” in my day-in-day-out response to the world around me.

I don’t want to be dogmatic about this reading, but maybe this is what Job was getting at, in Job 27:3, when he says: As long as my breath is in me, the Spirit of God is in my nostrils.



The Girl Queen, the Captive Conqueror: A Devotional Commentary on the Book of Esther (9:1-20)

Three times in Esther 9 it points out that in defending themselves from their enemies, the Jews did not “lay their hands on the plunder” (9:10, 9:15, 9:15), even though back in 8:11, King Ahasuerus explicitly granted them the right to do so. This is one of those off-hand comments that doesn’t look like much, but actually has the weight of redemption behind it, when you scratch the surface. Because Haman, the one who hatched the original plot to destroy the Jews, was an Amalekite—a descendant, of King Agag, in fact—and three times in chapters 8-9, the story takes pains to remind us of his lineage (8:3, 8:10, 9:24).

The reason Haman’s family tree matters so much here, is because Mordecai is a direct descendant of King Saul, Israel’s first and failed King (2:5). And here’s the point: in 1 Samuel 15, the reason Saul failed—specifically—and the reason God rejected him as King over Israel, is because he fought a battle against King Agag of the Amalekites, and, instead of completely destroying everything, he “swooped on the plunder” for his own personal gain. In 1 Samuel 15:19, Samuel indicts Saul with this burning question: “Why did you pounce on the plunder and do evil in the eyes of the Lord?” And for the record, when Ahasuerus gives the Jews to plunder their enemies in Esther 8:11, it uses the same Hebrew word for “plunder” (shâlâl) as Samuel used in 1 Samuel 15:19.

This is more than just some curious piece of Bible Trivia. What’s happening here, I think, is the redemption of Saul’s story, in the faithfulness of his descendants, Mordecai and Esther. Where Saul failed, pouncing on the plunder and making messiahship about his own personal aggrandizement, they succeed, refusing to lay a hand on the plunder and making messiahship (inasmuch as Esther’s whole story is a type of the Messiah) about God’s deliverance and God’s glory alone.

 There are a lot of directions we could go with this, once we notice it, but here’s especially why it matters to me: if God could redeem Saul’s story—Saul, whose miserable reign ended with widows lamenting his failed house and carrion bird picking the remains (see 2 Samuel 21)—if God can bring deliverance out of that story, then there’s no story, no mis-step, no failure, I guess, that he can’t redeem, yours and mine included. Mordecai and Esther’s refusal to “pounce on the plunder” assures us of this: that God will have the last word on all our spiritual failures, and in the Messiah, he is able to make them into something beautiful.

The Thursday Review: The End of the Song at the End of the Age

first posted September 13, 2010

I once heard a lecture by theologian-of-the-arts Jeremy Begbie, where he talked about the connections between musical cadence and Christian eschatology.

In music, he said, cadence is essentially about the resolution of tension. The initial note creates a tension, disrupting silence with sound, and then, as we move away from that initial "home" into new and varied sounds-- a sub-dominant chord, a relative minor, a dominant-seventh and so on--we find ourselves in tension, our ear naturally listening for the melody to arrive back at its starting point in some way. Intuitively we want the tension created by the sound to resolve.

Cadence is one of the building blocks of music, and waiting for the tension to resolve and the song to arrive "home" is part of what keeps us listening. For example, here we move from a D major (tonic), into an A7 (Dominant 7th) and back again; the dominant 7th creates tension, but it also assures the ear that resolution is coming. And when that final "D" does land, no one has to tell us we've come home. The ear just knows.


Cadence is often used for key modulations, too. In this example we modulate from the key of C to the key of F:


Of course, we're not there yet. And the tension created by that last note sort of just hangs in the air, almost begging for resolution. We want to come "home." I once heard a myth/urban legend/joke that if Mozart were to have heard an unresolved Dominant 7th chord like that, he wouldn't have been able to sleep at night unless he heard this:


In his lecture, Begbie talked about the spiritual tension that musical cadence can create for us, and then he drew these poignant lines between cadence, resolution and eschatology. Because essentially, cadence is about looking ahead. It's about knowing that "home" is just on the horizon; and knowing also that the tension's not yet settled, but hearing at the same time that resolution is pending-- it's hanging on the air-- only a measure away.

Cadence, he said, is about hope.

But then he went on to say that sometimes unresolved cadence can be the most hopeful of all. Because sometimes when that unresolved sub-dominant chord or dominant sus4 is left hanging in the air, with no tonic chord to bring it back to earth at last, sometimes the breathless anticipation created in that musical space can teach us to be, if not at home with unresolved tension, then at least hopeful in it.

And the faith, too, is about knowing that home is on the horizon, and that the final resolution of all godless tensions is only a measure away.

And hopeful in unresolved tension, I'm learning more and more, is a very Christian way to be.

I've never forgotten Jeremy Begbie's lecture; and I've never listened to those unresolved suspended 4ths in U2's best work the same way since. I hear them now as these beautiful clarion calls evoking the almost-but-not-quite-yet longings of the heart.

A number of years ago I played this guitar arrangement of "Holy, Holy, Holy" in church, which starts in D and ends on an unresolved Asus2. I asked one of the musicians I was playing with what he thought (with none of this preamble about Begbie, cadence and eschatology). He wasn't sure. "Something," he said, "something feels sort of unfinished."And I thought: "Exactly."

The Girl-Queen, the Captive Conqueror: A Devotional Commentary on the Book of Esther (8:11-17)

God’s deliverance of his people is breaking in to the story at last, with light, and joy and happiness and honor (8:16). Ahasuerus issues a new decree, one that empowers the Jews to defend themselves against their enemies, and, incidentally, perfectly reverses his decree back in 3:12-13, word for word, right down to the letter. But here’s the verse that I find fascinating. In 8:17 it says, “Many people of the land ‘became Jews’ because the fear of the Jews had fallen upon them.” What we’re seeing here is a relatively rare instance of Gentiles converting to Judaism, in the Old Testament. There are similar instances of Gentiles coming to recognize, acknowledge, even worship the God of Abraham, but this is the only place where it’s actually framed in terms of Gentiles becoming Jews—converting to and adopting the Jewish way of life. The Hebrew word that’s used there--yâhad—is a verbal form of the noun yehûd, “Jew”; that is, it’s a verb that means “to become Jewish,” and here’s the thing: this is the only place in the whole Old Testament where this verb, yâhad, is used. The ancient Greek translators of Esther picked up on this: in their translation of this verse it says, “they were circumcised and lived like Jews.”

Modern readers like us might gloss over this little piece of verbal trivia, but it’s actually a really big deal: in the Book of Esther, the outcome of God’s deliverance is that a) the Jewish community thrives (with joy, feasting, honor and light) and b) when the Gentiles see this thriving community, they are so awed by it that they become Jews themselves—adopted into Abraham’s Family, not by blood, but by faithfully following the Jewish Way of Life.

I can’t help but think of Acts 2:46-47, where Luke is talking about the very first Christian community, and he says almost the exact same thing: “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.”

 Am I the only one who thinks that sounds uncannily familiar? The outcome of God’s ultimate deliverance in Jesus is that a) the Christian community thrives, and b) when the non-Christians see this thriving community, they are so awed by it that they become Christian, too. As far as Acts is concerned, the outcome of Esther is quite literally fulfilled in the life of the Church.

There are of course, two differences, but these make all the difference. 1) In Esther, salvation comes about as the Jews slaughter the enemies that were set to slaughter them, whereas in Christ, salvation comes about as we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. And 2) in Esther, the Gentiles join the community by being circumcised and following the Jewish Way of Life, whereas in Christ, we are invited into the community through baptism (which is the fulfillment of circumcision; see Colossians 2:11) and by following Jesus, who is himself the Way and the Life.

The question that Jesus is asking us to ask ourselves through the Book of Esther, is this: is our Christian community thriving in the Esther 8:16/ Acts 2:46-47 sense of the word? And what might happen in our midst if it were?

The Thursday Review: Squash and the Spiritual Life

first published May 26, 2011

If you were like me growing up in church, analogies for the Christian life taken from the world of sport (and somehow these seemed ubiquitous in the pulpits of my youth) always came off as a little contrived.  The ones that didn't leave you flat felt forced.  I recognize, of course, that sporting analogies have a long and deep biblical tradition.  Paul himself likened the Christian disciple at various times to a boxer in training, a runner in a footrace, an Olympic athlete striving for the laurels.  But comparing an Ephesians 1:17 Christian to a basketball player putting up a hail Mary against the final buzzer in the championship game (true story, true sermon) leaves one feeling like the preacher cared more about his sport of choice than the text he was wrestling with that week.

My sport of choice is squash.  And the above paragraph is my disclaimer for the squash-court epiphany I'd like to share today.  I was playing with my regular partner the other day, and, though I started off strong, somewhere around the third game in the match, I noticed things starting to slip away from me.  I was running ragged, wearing down, chasing shots from pillar to post.  Between gasps for oxygen, I could smell skunk on the wind.

Now for those who haven't played, or maybe forget, there's a T roughly in the centre of the squash court (and a little to the back), where the two serving lines converge. It's the prime piece of real-estate in squash, because as long as you're hovering roughly over the T, you can see most of the court laid out in front of you.  From the T, you can anticipate drop-shots before they happen; from the T you can reach the back corners with ease; from the T you're in control of your game, and usually his as well.  But as my game slowly unraveled, I suddenly realized that I'd not been keeping on the T. Instead I'd been chasing balls all over the place-- into the front pocket, digging deep cross-court, down into the opposite corner, now kitty-corner to where I was before.  No wonder I was running down and running out of steam.

As I gasped for breath again between serves, I made a determined decision to stay on the T.  After my serve, hover on the T; after my return, get on the T; after that long lunge to recover a drop shot, back to the T.  And my game came back.  It was actually quite amazing how quickly peace descended on me, as long as I stayed on the T.

Now for the epiphany:  because in that moment, as I realized the difference staying on the T made to my game, I suddenly saw an analogy for the Christian life-- for my Christian life. When we "get off the T," and start chasing balls - our personal ambitions, fears, goals, agendas - into the corners and along the edges of life, the game unravels really quickly.  When won't hover on the T, we risk burning up our spiritual stamina and burning out our hearts.  When we fail to "get back on the T" after every shot, we wind up playing more and more desperately and out of control.

And the T is Christ. 

And almost like the sting of a squash ball between the shoulder blades, it walloped me:  "You've not been staying on the T." Blogs are probably not the best forums for true confessions, but let me at least say that right there on the court, in one of those rare flashes of clarity, I saw how sloppy I'd become in my discipleship of late, and next to that I saw how much burn-out and chaos I'd been feeling in my spiritual life as a result.  And I realized the two were intimately connected:  I'd not been staying on the T, and my heart knew it, and my soul had lost its wind because of it. The welt stung, of course, but it also woke me up:  as long as you're staying as close to Christ as you possibly can, and keep your eyes open for where he is in any given moment, and move there, you'll be playing (as Paul might have said) "in such a way as to win the prize."

I won't tell you the final score that day, but I will tell you that I left the court with new resolve and eagerness to play (if I haven't yet pushed the sporting analogy too far)-- to play with my heart hovering "on the T."

The Girl Queen, the Captive Conqueror: A Devotional Commentary on Esther (8:1-10)

In 8:6, Esther asks a rhetorical question that sort of stops us in our tracks; or at least I think it's meant to. She’s beseeching the Emperor to reverse his edict to destroy the Jews, and she says, “How can I bear to see disaster fall on my people? How can I bear to see the destruction of my family?” It is, like I say, a rhetorical question, and the point is, she can’t bear it. So heart-wrenching would that loss be, that she’s willing to risk everything--status and wealth, peace and comfort, life and death itself--in an effort to save them.  I say it should stop us in our tracks, because if we listen closely hear, I think we will hear the Word of God asking us, as Christians, "Do you share Esther’s heart for the harried and threatened People of God?"

There are some theological dots we need to connect here, before this question comes into focus, but once you do connect them, it should give us all pause. This story is about the attempted annihilation of the Jewish People, of course (and lest we forget, the history books can confirm that this isn't the first or the only time insidious “Hamanesque” powers have attempted to wipe Abraham’s family from the face of the earth); but the Christian conviction is that, through the self-offering of Jesus Christ, a 1st Century Jew from Nazareth, we Gentiles are now grafted into the Jewish story, the Family of Abraham, the People of God (see Romans 11:11-24 for more in this one). Esther’s Story can only become our story through faith in Jesus, who invites us into it; but in Jesus, this story does indeed become ours. It becomes, in fact, the story of the whole “Israel of God” (Gal 6:16), Jew and Gentile, wherever and however they are threatened with annihilation.

And here’s where Esther stopped me in my tracks. Because there are parts of the world today where God’s People are still facing very real—all too real—persecution. Not in comfortable, tolerant Canada, perhaps, but in those parts of the world where belonging to Abraham's Family (by birth or by faith) invites all sorts of abuse, danger and persecution. And I confess that I don’t take the plight of my brothers and sisters in Christ as seriously as Esther took the plight of her people. Esther asked Ahasuerus, “How can I bear to see my people destroyed?”; and with that question, God turns to his people today and asks: “How can you?”

The Girl Queen, the Captive Conqueror: A Devotional Commentary on the Book of Esther (7:1-10)

Haman at last meets his ironic doom, and the story takes great pains to show how completely his fortunes have reversed. Haman was prompted to annihilate the Jews because Mordecai refused to bow in reverence to him; in 7:7-8 he’s grovelling at the feet of Queen Esther, begging for his life. Haman built a 75-foot impaling pole for Mordecai; in 7:9 this plot to murder someone “who spoke up to help the King” becomes the decisive evidence, sealing his own fate.

So far, so good. But there are some strange things going on in chapter 7 that I never noticed before. For instance, in 7:9, it’s a eunuch named Harbona who presents the evidence against Haman. This is interesting, because back in 1:10, Harbona was one of the eunuchs involved in the Queen Vashti scandal that led to Esther becoming Queen. Similarly, it says that after Haman was impaled, “then the king’s fury subsided.” This also harkens us back to the Vashti affair, because right after they’ve removed Vashti from the throne, it says almost the exact same thing: “the anger of King Ahsuerus subsided.”

Why this sudden glance back to the start of the book, and Queen Vashti’s deposal in particular?

I’m not sure, but I think that Esther is inviting us to connect some dots here, and see how God’s invisible hand was at work back then, using those seemingly random events to bring about salvation for his people now. Like some beautiful Mouse Trap board, Vashti’s defiance, the King’s anger, the machinations of Haman, each event precipitated events that would eventually ensnare Haman and deliver God’s people.

This is the threshold of mystery, of course, because it’s so seldom possible for us to see, in the moment, which spring or domino or rolling marble this event right now is, in the grand Rube Goldberg machine of God’s saving plan. As I’ve said before, ours is simply to play our part faithfully and trust the outcome to God. But at the very least, the Esther confirms for us what Paul says, over in Romans 8, that God works all things together for the good of those who love him.

The Thursday Review: Ministry in the Depths

first posted December 12, 2012

Lectio Divina is a spiritual discipline that I would recommend to any Christian who wants to develop a listening ear for God's voice in the world.  The term is Latin for "Sacred Reading" and it's a way of reading the Scriptures where you meditate closely on a single story, or image, or verse.  The idea is to choose a text and read it prayerfully, over and over and over again, allowing God to speak through it as it settles from your mind, through your heart and into your spirit. 

A quick example:  a few years ago I was working through some self-doubt and self-image issues in my Christian life, and as I wrestled with this junk, I realized that a lot of it boiled down to fear: fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of death (in the most abstract sense).  It was at that point that God reminded me of 1 John 4:18, "There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear."  So I spent a while in lectio divina on this passage, rolling it over and over in my mind.  Perfect love drives out fear-- how does God love me and how do I know it?  Perfect love-- what is it about my experience of love right now that is imperfect?  Perfect love drives out fear-- what is the nature of my fears and how could God's love drive it out?  And so on.  As these words started to sink in, with their various shades of meaning and levels of emphasis, I actually began to experience the love of God driving out those fears in me.

The reason I'm telling you all this today, though, is because a while ago I was working through some stuff related to my understanding of my purpose as a pastor.  I was praying about it one day, and God reminded me of the story in Luke 5, where Jesus calls his first disciples.  If you recall, he meets Peter, James and John  in a sailboat, washing their nets after a failed night of fishing.  Jesus gets into the boat with them and tells them to let down their nets into the deep water (5:4).  Peter is skeptical, but at Jesus' word he does so, and the subsequent catch they draw in is so miraculous it sinks Peter to his knees with an awed awareness of his own sin, even as the boat begins to sink with the weight of the fish.  (And of course, it's after this catch of literal fish that Jesus calls them to become spiritual fishermen, suggesting, it seems, that this miracle is only a taste of what he will accomplish through them as his disciples).

As I spent some time in lectio divina on this passage, it was that phrase in 5:4 that bobbed to the surface for me:  "put out into the deep water and let down your nets." 

It struck me that Peter and the rest only experience the miraculous presence of the Kingdom of God (as signified by the catch of fish) after they put their nets into the deep water.  And it struck me next that sometimes churches are content to do ministry in the shallows--not to go too deep in their encounter with the Word, or the emotional risk of their ministry, or their engagement with God's world.  It can be tempting, I think, to keep things spiritually superficial--on the surface--safe.

But as those two observations struck me, I heard there God's call to put down the nets "into the deep water" in my own work as a pastor.  With that call came his challenge that it's only there, in the deep water of ministry, that a church will ever answer it's call to become "fishers of men."  Because it's only there, it seems-- going deep with people, spiritually speaking--that the life-transforming miracles of the Kingdom can occur.

An Ancient Path for a Modern World (II): Fasting

Sometime in the second century AD, the Roman Governor of Asia, a guy named Arrius Antonius, encountered one of the strangest cases of his political career.

A group of Christians asked him to execute them.

Now, at this point in history, early in the second century AD, Christianity was still an illegal religion. The Christians refused to worship Caesar, so officially being a Christian was a capital offense, punishable by death.  But many of the Roman governors didn’t enforce this law too strictly.  Don’t get me wrong, they found Christianity to be a strange, distasteful movement that they didn’t know much about and didn’t think much of, but still, they didn’t want to shed innocent blood for no good reason.

Antonius was one such governor.  He was pretty lax, it seems, when it came to enforcing the anti-Christian laws.  He must have been, because one of the things history remembers him for is that time, like I say, when a bunch of Christians came to him asking him to execute them.

But, you gotta understand:  the early church considered martyrdom—the honor of actually dying for the Lord Jesus Christ—to be the highest privilege of the Christian life.  They called it “the crown of martyrdom,” and as far as they were concerned, there was no crown more glorious.  So you can imagine if, let’s say, if a governor like Antonius was denying Christians this highest honour, it’s no surprise, maybe, that a handful of Christians came to him and demanded that he do his civic duty and have them executed.

Antonius, the history books tell us, was flummoxed.  He actually did have a few of them executed—I think he was hoping this would maybe cool their jets a bit—but it didn’t so he turned to the rest and said the one line that even Wikipedia remembers him for, 2000 years later:  “You wretches,” he said, “If you want to die, don’t you have cliffs or ropes you can use?”

This would actually become a growing problem for the early church—Christians who were so on fire for Jesus that they went around actively seeking martyrdom.  Eventually the church would make a pretty sharp distinction between Christians who died as a result of genuine persecution, and those who went out looking for death.  Only the first kind counted, they said.

But the problem (if you want to call it a problem) was that, as Christianity became more and more mainstream—I mean, by 313 AD it had become the offical religion of Rome—as it became mainstream, real genuine martyrdoms were harder and harder to come by.

It became such a problem, that sometime around 400 AD, a guy named Saint Jerome suggested that there could be two kinds of martyrdom—a “red martyrdom” where you actually literally died for Christ—but in place of that a Christian could have a “white martyrdom.”  In a White Martyrdom, you didn’t literally die, but you took on some special vow that amounted to a spiritual “death-to-self.” White martyrdoms might include things like joining a monastery, becoming a hermit, stuff like that.

This idea caught on.  One of the earliest recorded sermons we have from Medieval Ireland comes from around the 7th Century.  It’s called the Cambrai Sermon, and it adds a third color to the colors of martyrdom: you could have a red martyrdom, where you actually, literally bled for Christ; you could have a white martyrdom, where you took on some life-long vow of piety.  But, for everyday folk like you and me, who still want to die for Christ but don’t have these options available, you could have a Green Martyrdom.

A Green martyrdom was a particular act of self-denial, where you died, spiritually, in the moment, you died to the desires of the self, so that you could live more fully and freely for Christ.

And this brings me, at last, to the point of this post, because one of the main forms of Green Martyrdom (there were others, to be sure, but this was one of the main ones), was fasting. Intentionally going without food—or in some cases, certain kinds of food—intentionally going without for a limited, specified period of time, so that the body’s hunger teaches us to hunger for Jesus.

This may seem strange to some—that the early Christians would have associated fasting with the highest honor of the Christian life—the honor of dying for Jesus.  It doesn’t to me.  There is, after all, something profoundly spiritual about food.  Practically, it’s the stuff of life.  You can’t live without it; and the body—physically—our bodies are wired naturally to respond to it, to long for it, to need it.  (I mean, all I’d have to do is spray some “fresh-baked-bread” room odorizer into the air, and your body would tell you, wouldn’t it?)  We need it; our mouths water for it; we can’t do without it.

And what if our spirits watered for Christ, like that?

Really: what depths, what heights what lengths of life with God would be discovered if we learned to hunger for him the way our bodies hunger for food?  I mean: that’s what fasting was about for the early Christians—learning to hunger for Christ by dying to self.  And biblically, I think that’s what fasting’s about, too: the life with God we will discover as we learn to die to self.

That has been my experience, anyways.  This month at terra incognita, we've been looking at some of the spiritual disciplines of the Christian Life that don't often get a lot of attention in the practical, results oriented culture of the modern (and somewhat cushy) North American Church.  Last week we talked about silence; today we're considering Fasting.  There are lots of places to look for practical tips on fasting, so I won't share any here (for concrete tips, I'll refer you to this very succinct and helpful guide prepared by my friend, Pastor Derek Spink).  What I'd like to do instead is challenge you to, quite literally, to put your money where your mouth is, when it comes to your witness to Jesus, and consider exploring, if you've never done so before, the practice of fasting as part of your martyrdom for him.

To get you thinking more creatively about how this spiritual discipline might be part of your Christian practice, let me also share a few reasons why I fast (I shared these with my daughter the other night when she asked me about fasting).

1.  To sharpen my spiritual hunger for God. (When I'm fasting for this reason, I let the hunger I feel through the fast point me to God, and, whenever I do feel it, I ask myself if I'm as hungry for him as I am, in this moment, for food).

2.  To strengthen my solidarity with the suffering or the hurting.  (There are times when I've fasted for people, or for specific issues, and during those fasts, whenever I feel hungry, I use it as a prompter to pray, in the moment, for the person or issue I'm fasting for).

3.  To deepen my dependence on God.  (During this kind of fast, whenever I feel weak, hungry or tired during the fast, I use that as a reminder that I am as dependent on God for sustenance as I feel in this moment, for food; like it does on bread and water, my life literally depends on him.)

4. To ignite my passion for evangelism.  (During this kind of fast, whenever I feel hungry for food, I sort of think-- God is as hungry for people to come into relationship with him through Jesus Christ, as I am for a snack right now-- and that thought deepens my own heart for evangelism).

There are other reasons, too, but those have been the most meaningful in my practice of fasting.  I'd encourage you to consider areas of your own spiritual formation that the intentional practice of fasting may sharpen, strengthen, deepen or ignite.