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.

Seminary Flotsam (I): Creation, Covenant and the Book of Genesis

As some of my more regular readers may know, I have recently started doctorate studies in the D.Min program of Northeastern Seminary in Rochester, New York. I am still in the early stages of my work--my first on campus residency is happening two weeks from now--but between this work, and a recent visit to Briercrest Seminary, where I completed my Masters Degree, I have been reflecting fondly on the old days as a Seminary student, hungry for knowledge, hungry for truth, hungry for the Bible and especially, hungry for God.  I completed an M.Div in Pastoral Ministry at Briercrest Seminary, in Caronport Saskatchewan between the years of 2004-2009 and, as I say, I find my mind loitering on the corner of Memory Lane and Nostalgia Street a fair bit these days.

In particular, I've been going through old academic papers I wrote back then, as part of my training for ministry.  Almost a decade later, most of the stuff I've been uncovering has elicited one of two equal and opposite responses:"Wow, did I really write this!"  or "Oh, wow [face palm] did I really write that?"

As another standing feature here at terra incognita, I intend to post some of the best of the former papers here, partly to purge the nostalgia, partly for interest sake, and partly to encourage and model biblical scholarship and theological reflection more generally.  A mentor once told me, when I asked him back in seminary whether or not he thought I should abandon my plans for ministry and pursue Ph.D studies instead, that, no, I shouldn't, because the church needs pastors who value scholarship.  Ten years later, I've come to agree with him, though I would add, we need, too, parishioners who value it just as much.

That said, here's the first paper I'd like to share, a study of the creation and covenant themes in the Book of Genesis.  If you have space enough and time today for some heavier reading, then let me be the first to say: enjoy!

Paper:  "All the Families of the Earth:  Creation and Covenant Theology in Genesis"

Thesis:  The Book of Genesis uses the creation imagery and themes developed through the so-called Primeaval History of chapters 1-11 to interpret the subsequent Abrahamic covenant theologically as a creative act of God, a further forming and filling by the Lord God Most High, the creator of heaven and earth.




From the Beginning: A Devotional Commentary on Genesis (III)

There's a spot in Genesis 7:18 that I wonder about every once in a while. It's at the start of Noah's flood, and it says, "The water prevailed on the earth, and the ark went on the face of the water." If you grew up with the same Sunday-School flannel graphs as I did, you've probably heard this story any number of times: God sent a flood and the flood covered the surface of the earth.  But, of course, that's not exactly what it says.  Literally it says "the water prevailed on the earth," and that's what gets me wondering.

If you want really to get what's going on in this verse, you sort of have to understand how people in the ancient world thought about creation-- what it was and how it happened. In most cosmogenies (stories about the origins of the cosmos) in the ancient world, creation happens when the gods (or a single god) fights a battle against chaos. The god defeats chaos, and creation is the outcome of chaos' defeat. You see this in the Enuma Elish, the Atra Hasis, Psalm 89 and elsewhere.

Usually in these ancient creation stories, chaos is represented by either a) a sea monster, or b) the sea itself. For an ancient writer, the waters of the sea are the most potent picture imaginable for the chaos that was before the world was created. (This, incidentally, helps us get why, in Genesis 1, before God gives the earth form and content, all we have is water, darkness, and God's Spirit hovering over the surface of the deep. Flood water=chaos and creation=God's crushing defeat of said chaos.)

With this background in mind, I can't help but wonder if it wasn't a very intentional word choice there, when Genesis 7:18, says that the flood water "prevailed" over the earth. The Hebrew verb there for "prevailed" is actually a battle verb (gâbar); the idea is that God is allowing the chaotic flood waters to "win" the upper hand in the "battle" for creation. But even so, the text is quick to point out-- even though it looked like chaos was winning--still, God's people moved over the surface of the water, albeit terrified, probably, but safe in the ark.

I don't know what you think of when you think of "chaos"-- chaos so intense and destructive that the best image for it is the monstrous, overwhelming water of the sea-- but I have some things in mind for myself. And the good news of Genesis 7:18 is that, even when that chaos looks like it's prevailing-- winning the battle-- and creation itself is coming undone because of it-- God can and will carry his people over the surface of it all, with the promise of New Creation on the other side.

Theological Snap Thought: Breath


The Thursday Review: Paroxysms of Peace

first posted October 3, 2012

The English word “paroxysm” is an oldie but a goodie. Literally it describes a sudden and/or violent outburst of emotion. You could have a “paroxysm of laughter,” though the term generally has negative connotations. Paroxysms of rage are more common.

The word itself comes from an old Greek word, paroxusmous, which, according to my Greek lexicon, means “stirring up, provoking”. It only appears twice in the New Testament.

The first appearance is in Acts 15:39. Here Paul and Barnabas have what the NIV calls a “sharp disagreement” and the KJV a “contention”. Literally, Luke says they had a paroxusmos so intense that they parted company. The fight, it turns out, was over John Mark (of the Gospel of Mark fame), who had deserted them on their first missionary trip over in Pamphylia. Paul felt he was unreliable and didn’t want to bring him on their next foray. Barnabas begged to differ—begged so sharply that a paroxysm of conflict flared up—begged so sharply that he and Paul parted ways, Barnabas to Cyprus with Mark in tow and Paul off to Cilicia.

It’s a sad story, to be sure, but then, those of us who have been doing ministry for a while now know that churches have split over smaller issues than the roster of the mission committee. And bigger.

But here’s the fascinating thing. Besides its use to describe the “sharp disagreement” in Act 15:39, the word paroxusmos only shows up another time in the New Testament. In Hebrews 10:24 the writer says, “Let us consider how we can spur one another on to love and good deeds.” This is how the NIV renders the verse. NASB says “to stimulate one another to love and good deeds.” Old KJV says, “Let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works.”

Literally what it says is something like: “Let us consider one another towards paroxusmon-- incitements, provocations—of love and good deeds.”

Now, former Bible teachers of mine read this blog from time to time, so I need to be careful here not to commit the exegetical fallacy of semantic anachronism, but I find it worth reflection, at least, that the Bible uses the word paroxusmos once to describe a sharp disagreement between two Christian ministers, and elsewhere to describe (in what most biblical scholars would agree is an startling image) our duty to “provoke” one another to Christian love. On the one hand, a paroxusmos led to a deep rift between two friends; on the other hand it leads to Christian charity and shalom.

And I’m reflecting on this especially, because like I say, conflict in ministry is inevitable. Paroxysms of all sort are bound to come. And because we tend to prefer smooth feathers and shiny faces on Sunday morning, I think received wisdom is that they ought to be avoided, or at the very least resolved discretely, even if, in their avoidance or resolution, we find ourselves settling for false peace. At least the tomb looks white, right?

But Hebrews 10:24 and Acts 15:39 fly like two sticks between the spokes of Received Wisdom’s bicycle, sending False Peace head over handlebars. Because when you line these two verses up, they suggest that conflict is not by nature bad; nor is it to be avoided at all cost; and there are fates worse than ruffled feathers.

These two verses suggest that conflict can actually become a catalyst towards charity and service, if it’s entered into for Christ’s sake; and what determines whether or not it will is whether or not the parties involved are really provoking one another for Christ’s sake. (Even Paul and Barnabas’s paroxysm led to love and service in the end. In the short term, it expanded the ministry of the gospel by sending Barnabas to Cyprus and Paul to Cilicia; and in the long term, we have hints that things get patched up between Paul, Mark and Barnabas (see Col 4:10)).

This is hard work.  Paroxysms of any sort (ancient or modern) hurt. But then the cross itself teaches us that the Way of Christ has never avoided the suffering that redemption costs. And conflicts that redeem will cost us: utter humility and risky openness, and above all real, raw honesty about our own goals and agendas in any given dispute. But if well seek those treasures of his Kingdom, first, then we may find that redemptive Paroxysms of Peace are being added to us, as well.

An Ancient Path for a Modern World (V): Spiritual Journaling


On April 25, 1725 John Wesley, the great leader of the 18th Century Methodist Movement, penned the first entry in his spiritual diary. He was 21 years old at the time, studying theology at Oxford, and the diary in question was an old red notebook in which he detailed the vicissitudes of his spiritual life as a student.

This habit of spiritual journaling, stayed with John Wesley his entire life—over the next 65 years he would fill the equivalent of a book-shelf’s worth of old red notebooks, in which he would record the trials, the victories, the struggles and the developments both mundane and profound in his work as a minister of the Gospel. On July 16, 1790, he penned his last journal entry. On March 2, 1791, he died.

The Published Journal of John Wesley, a carefully edited digest of his journal that he prepared for publication, covers the years from 1735 – 1790.  For the glimpse it offers into 18th Century English life, the portrayal gives of the challenges faced by the Methodist movement during its early years, and the spiritual portrait it paints of its author, it is fascinating reading.

Over the last month or so at terra incognita, we have been exploring some of the more modest, or lesser known disciplines of the Christian life, things like silence, solitude, breathing, fasting. The goal has been to explore how these spiritual practices can actually deepen and strengthen our habits in the more essential means of grace, such as Scripture reading, prayer, care for the marginalized, and so on. If John Wesley is any example, one spiritual discipline that can be found profoundly helpful in our development as fully devoted followers of Christ, is the habit of journaling.

Though we don’t always think of it in this way, a spiritual journal can be a powerful tool for our growth in the way of Jesus.

My personal experience with journaling has been varied. Though my bookshelf has any number of abandoned journals on it with only the first three pages filled, still I can think of at least three seasons of my life when journaling played a crucial role.

When I was a young man nearing the end of my university studies, I kept a journal for about 8 months, in which I processed many of my struggles to discern next steps for my life after school.

Later when my first child was born, my parents gave me a “Father’s Prayer Journal” as a congratulatory gift. It included prayers and guided journaling exercises, which, as I did them, began to open up a number of my insecurities and immaturities as a new dad. God used this journaling experience to confront me with and heal me of some unhealthy habits of the heart that were keeping me from being the best dad I could be.

The third season of my life when journaling played a significant role was during a time of pastoral burn out, back in 2013-14. This journal contains a number of very raw entries, some of which I completed under the direction of a Christian counselor, where I uncovered and exposed some of the inner stuff that had led to my burn-out.

So there have been seasons when this spiritual discipline played a crucial role in my discipleship. And that is, actually, one of the points I’d like to make about journaling: it is best understood, I think, as a "for-a-season" discipline. When God is doing some fresh work, taking us to new heights or depths in our discipleship, or we’re going through a major life transition, these are times when it is an especially useful tool, for documenting and processing what God is up to.

As I look back over these seasons of my life, however, I am aware of two journaling alternatives that have also played a significant role for me. This blog, for instance, though it is hardly an old red notebook, still has been one of the most important repositories of my spiritual musings, reflections and insights I’ve ever kept. I began blogging back in 2009, and here, some 6 and a half years later, I can (and sometimes do) look back on old posts and discover all sorts of spiritual memories of things God was doing for me and in me and to me at certain points in my pastoral ministry. In many ways, this blog has become for me a digital journal (though not in every way: what I publish here is highly edited and polished, in ways that most spiritual journaling probably shouldn’t be).

The other “journaling alternative” in my life has been my habit of song-writing. I began writing songs back when I was 17 and my guitar teacher told me that if I really wanted to grow as a guitarist, I should start writing my own material. I took him at his word, and 25 years later I have a notebook filled with about 120 songs that I’ve written over the years. My guitar teacher was right.  It did help me grow as a guitarist, but what is interesting to me, as I look back, is how I’ve grown as a Christian, too, trying to put my responses to God’s grace into verse and set it to music.

I share this only to encourage creativity when it comes to journaling. It may not be an old red notebook for you. This is a new age and perhaps there are new wineskins for this old wine (although there is still something to be said for the slow, reflective pace of a pen scrolling over paper). But whatever it looks like, perhaps you are in a season in your walk with God, today, where this very old Christian practice may open up fresh avenues for meeting with and responding to the Lord Jesus.

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From the Beginning: A Devotional Commentary on Genesis (II)

I think the first three chapters of Genesis some of the most beautifully crafted passages in the whole Bible. Genesis 2:25 ends by saying that the man and the woman were naked (‛ârôm) but not ashamed. And then 3:1, the next verse says that the serpent was the most "shrewd" (‛ârûm) creature of all those God had made.

It's so curious: in the Hebrew, the word for "shrewd" that's used there derives from the same word as the word for "naked" (i.e. both come from the same root word). At the end of the passage, when he sees them in fig leaves, God will say, who told you you were "‛ârôm"? Who else but that "‛ârûm" serpent who deceived us? (In other words, there is a profound connection between the serpent's nature as "cunning" (ârûm) and the way he exposes us to shame in our "nakedness" (ârôm).)

There's another layer to this, though. In 3:8 it says that Adam heard the sound of the Lord walking in the "cool of the day." Whar's interesting to me, though is that in Hebrew, it uses the word "ruach" there to describe the "cool of the day." Literally, God was looking for Adam in the "day's ruach." That stood out to me, because the word "ruach" is one of those multi-layered words in the Bible. It can mean "spirit" (like it does in Genesis 1:2 or Job 27:3). It can mean "breath" (like it does in Psalm 104:29). Or it can mean "wind" (like it does in Genesis 8:1).

It seems like here it's meant as "wind"-- God came to Adam in the "breezy" part of the day (?). But it's a strange phrase, and it's the only place I'm aware of where "ruach" is used to mean "the cool of the day" like this (my Hebrew-Scholar friends are sincerely invited to chime in here). What it makes me wonder is this: healing for Adam and Eve's shame over their nakedness is found (or at least a covering for it, until the ultimate healing is made available) by encountering God in the "day's ruach"-- the cool of the day, if we're thinking about it in terms of the story line; the "spiritual time of the day," if we're thinking about it in terms of its implications for us.

Do we have a time of the day, each day, that we would describe like that-- the "ruach of the day"? What I mean by that is: a time of the day that is set aside as sacred, where our spirits encounter his Spirit, and it's so centering and rejuvenating and peaceful, that it's sort of like walking with a good friend in the evening's cool after a long hot day of toil?

May God encounter each of us like that, on a daily basis, and may those encounters heal in us any lingering shame or fear or hiding that's still happening for us because of that first, ancient brush with the serpent's "ârûm-ness."

The Thursday Review: The Eyes and Ears of Saskatchewan

first published July 8, 2009

I only discovered him a couple of months ago, but Ken Dalgarno has become one of my favorite contemporary artists. Think Van Gogh meets Group of Seven meets Saskatchewan. His paintings have an almost startling vividness. And then the texture of them: you can almost feel the prairie wind against your ears.






There's also Yvette Moore. Sometimes her work is a little too linear for me, but at her best she has a patient, loving eye for detail and a careful hand. I read somewhere that before someone can learn to paint, they must first learn to see-- and this can take a life time. Yvette Moore is an artist who has, indeed, seen the prairies.

These two are my favorite Yvette Moores, both historic details from Moose Jaw. They're both unlike much of her work, but I find them strangely compelling. Subtle and evocative.



And while I'm noting Saskatchewan artists, I should mention one of my favorite Saskatchewan bands, The Northern Pikes. Their 1990 album Snow in June still echoes in my head once in a while, especially "Am I in Your Way." I used to sing the chorus of "Love These Hands" (hit play below) to my kids while I rocked them to sleep:

From the Beginning: A Devotional Commentary on Genesis (I)

It's always struck me that Genesis 2:18 is the first time in all the Bible when God says that something "isn't good." The verse stands out all the more starkly because throughout Chapter 1, God kept saying things were good-- the sea and dry land (1:10), the sun, moon and stars (1:18), the sea creatures and birds (1:21), and the beasts of the field (1:25).

But here, for the first time, something's explicitly and specifically not good. And what a thing it is: the 'adam is alone! God forms a human creature, places him in the garden on the mission of imaging God to the world, and in 2:18 we find out that the male 'adam all on his own is not good, not complete, not able to accomplish God's purposes for him.

A couple of incidentals: 1) this explains why the story has God making the female 'adam out of the male 'adam's rib. It's not to suggest that the woman is in any sense inferior or subsequent to the man. It's so we could see the helpless (and according to 2:18 he is, quite literally help-less) male all alone, and recognize with God how not-good that state of affairs is. 2) We have to read this in light of Gen 1:27, where it says that God made the 'adam in his own image, male and female, he created them. On his own the male 'adam can't Image God; it takes male and female together to do that. Rather than being archaically patriarchal, this text actually underscores the man and woman's interdependence in radical ways.

But all that is incidental to my main thought here.  Because the solution to this "not-good" situation is for God to give the male a helping hand. And what a helping hand he had in mind! The Hebrew phrase in 2:18 is "etzer chenaged," and a lot of theological ink had been spilled over this one. Literally it means something like "a help that is compatible/fitting/completing and/or equal to him."

Often scholars point out that etzer (help) is the word the Bible uses when it wants to talk about how God is Israel's "help." In other words, the woman is not the man's "help" the way Robin is a "helper" to Batman; more in the way a search and rescue team is a "help" to the lost and stranded hiker. And this morning I find myself deeply grateful for the "etzer chenaged"-- the "fitting help" that God has given me in the many godly women he has placed in my life, who together have kept me from trying to "image God" alone in my "help-less" maleness. But in particular, of course, I'm thanking him for that one woman he caused my heart to cleave to, my wife. Through her help, I've come to appreciate how true the flip side of Genesis 2:18 is, that it is good for the man to be not alone.

Three Minute Theology 3.8: Clean Slate



In the 2012 movie, Batman Returns, one of Cat Woman’s driving motivations was her desire for a clean slate.

As you might imagine, she has a pretty sordid history as an international cat-burglar, and, like all of us in the age of social media, every detail of her past is on record somewhere on the world-wide-web, making it impossible for her to escape the past.

But word on the streets of Gotham is that someone has developed a powerful computer program called “The Clean Slate” which will erase your entire internet record from every database on the planet, all with the simple click of a single button. And for reasons that are perhaps obvious, Cat Woman would do anything to get her hands on it.

In this respect, Cat Woman is more than just a comic-book super-villain, she is also a metaphor for us all. At least, the way data about us accumulates on the internet until it starts to define and control us, is one of the growing social issues of our day.

Harvard Professor Jonathan Zittrain uses the term “reputational bankruptcy” to talk about all this. The web never forgets, he reminds us, and as more and more of our lives are lived online, it becomes increasingly difficult to escape the impact of our digital footprints.

“What we need,” Zittrian argues, “is some way to declare ‘reputation bankruptcy and start over. Like: If the internet allowed you a one-time pulling of a lever that would delete your digital identity and you could just start fresh.”

The concept of “reputational bankruptcy” is a helpful image for something the Bible calls “Justification by Faith.”

The idea is that we are justified—saved from the sins of the past and saved for a relationship with God—not by works—keeping the Old Testament Law or adhering to some human-defined moral code or what have you—but through Faith in Jesus Christ.

Strictly speaking, the term “justification” is a legal term that describes a judge rendering a not-guilty verdict in a court of law. To be justified, in this sense, is to be declared not-guilty.

But what, exactly, does this mean? How does God declare us “not guilty” on the basis of our faith in Christ, and what does this justification actually look like for us in real life?

This is where the Clean Slate comes in handy. Because in the same way that all the digital data that’s accumulated about us on the internet has all sorts of implications for our present—impacting our ability to get a job, to secure a bank-loan, to get a date, and so on—so much so that our digital identity can come to define us in all sorts of unhealthy ways—so too with sin.

Biblically, sin is not just about the moral failings of the past that need forgiveness, it is about how these moral failings define us and have all sorts of implications for our present: our ability to serve God, our ability to commune with him, our ability to take our place as one of his people. We don’t just need them forgiven, we need a brand new spiritual identity.

Justification by Faith is for our spiritual identities, what the Clean Slate is to our digital identities.

On the cross, Christ stands in our place as our fully-human representative—the Second Adam is what the Bible calls him—and through his own death on the cross, he puts to death the entire sin-record of our lives—he cancelled the accusation that stood against us, is how the Bible puts it, nailing it to the cross.

Through his death on the cross, he wipes the slate clean, and then, through his resurrection on the other side, he offers us a brand new identity to live, untied with his resurrected life.

In a very real way, putting our faith in Christ is like declaring “reputational bankruptcy” and so allowing God to “justify us”—to wipe the record clean so that Christ’s identity can now define us.

And, like it says in one place: “Having been justified like this through faith, we now have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

An Ancient Path for a Modern World (IV): Solitude

The stylite tradition is one of the little known but most fascinating stories from the ancient Orthodox Church. According to Wikipedia, a “stylite” (from the Greek, stylites, meaning “pillar-dweller”) was a type of Christian ascetic who lived out their Christian witness on top of a pillar, preaching, fasting and praying, sometimes for decades on end.

As odd as it may sound to us in 21 Century Canada, these “pillar-saints” were relatively common in the Byzantine Empire in the 5th and 6th Century. They believed that the extreme discipline and self-mortification it took to while away your days isolated from society alone, on the top of a pole, had a purifying effect on the soul.

According to tradition, the first stylite to get the idea was a fellow known as Simeon Stylites the Elder, who first took his perch atop a tall pillar back in AD 423, and stayed there until his death in AD 470 (yes, that’s a grand total of 37 years sitting in one spot on top of a pillar). It wasn’t long before his example had spawned a number of imitators: a guy named Daniel the Stylite, Simeon the Younger, St Alypius (who, according to legend, lasted 53 years atop his pillar, until they finally coaxed him down).

From what I understand, the sites of famous stylites became pilgrimage destinations in the ancient world, and folks would come from far and wide to witness these ascetic hermits sitting there on their poles. Daniel the Stylite was so famous that even Emperor Leo came once for a visit.

Now: I am not suggesting anyone build a column in their back yard anytime soon; and to be sure there are all sorts of theological issues with the idea of earning one’s salvation through forms of extreme asceticism like pole-sitting. Let me be clear. But I was thinking about the stylites of the ancient Orthodox Church the other day because, whatever theological problems we might have with their methods, still, there is something commendable in their goal—what they were looking for, there atop those poles—that we would do well to reflect on as we continue our journey through the forgotten practices of Christian spirituality.

I’m talking here about solitude. The necessary removal of distractions, I mean, of competing interests, and yes, even of companionship for a time, or a season, or a moment in the day, so as to fix the heart unflinchingly on the awe-inspiring wonder of the presence of God.

Jesus, of course, practiced solitude as part of the regular rhythm of his life with God. In Matthew 14:13, as just one of many examples, we read that Jesus “sent his disciples away and went up on a mountain by himself to pray; and when evening came he was there alone.”

Solitude is to our social lives what fasting is to our appetites; a saying “no” to something, for a while, so that we can say “yes” to God more earnestly, sincerely, openly or expectantly. Solitude is the art of getting one’s self totally alone so that we can discover that we are never, actually, ever alone, and that often, God is often most talkative, most at work, most present to us, in the quiet and the stillness of our loneliness. Solitude is a discipline, too, that allows us to be more fully present to and thankful for others in our lives, in the same way that fasting actually sharpens our gratitude for food, once the fast ends.

Solitude is all these things and it is, also, very hard to come by these days. Surrounded as we are by incessantly ringing gadgets, blipping email alerts, whizzing cars, jostling crowds, screens and phones and the busyness of life, it is often profoundly difficult to find an hour alone with God on a metaphorical pillar, let alone 53 years on a real one.

There is, of course, a bitter irony in this. Many analyses of social media technologies have noted that, for all our text messages and face-time chats, our face-book posts and innumerable ways of communicating, people report higher levels of loneliness, disconnectedness, angst and social anxiety than we have ever experienced before. As MIT scholar Sherry Turkle put it, “Technology has become the architect of our intimacies. Online we fall prey to the illusion of companionship, gathering thousands of Twitter and Facebook friends and confusing tweets and wall posts with authentic communication.” We are, as she so vividly puts it, “alone together.”

But this may be precisely the reason that the practice of genuine solitude is needed now more than ever, because choosing to be alone—to shut off the gadgets and unplug the wires and close down the screens for an intentional season, so that we can attune ourselves all over again to the God who is always present to us—may be the path towards regaining control over those gadgets and wires and screens and wires in the first place.

Whether or not that’s the case, I do know that those times I’ve made the effort to carve out intentional spaces in my day, my week, my year for real solitude, away from all other social distractions so that I can focus simply and intently on God, are times where God has done and said and worked remarkable things in my spirit, opening me to deeper and better and more sincere communion with him and with others.

It doesn’t take 53 years on top of a pole in the Byzantine Empire to get this, either. It just takes an awareness of the need, and a commitment to satisfy it in God, alone.


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The Thursday Review: The Prairie Noah

First posted July 11, 2009

About ten minutes outside Moose Jaw there's this obscure little museum called the Sukanen Ship Museum. It tells one of the most interesting pioneer stories I've heard in Saskatchewan.

Tom Sukanen was a Finnish sailor/ship-builder who immigrated to Minnesota in 1898. In 1911, he came to Saskatchewan to homestead a land claim, leaving his family behind in Minnesota and making the 600 mile trek by foot with all his belongings on his back. He filed a homestead near the town of Birsay.

Over six feet tall and weighing some 280 pounds, Tom was a man of almost legendary strength (he once clean-and-jerked the axle and wheels of a car at a town fair), infinite resourcefulness (he once knitted a suit out of bailer twine) and amazing inventiveness (he once designed and built his own threshing machine).

After the farm was well established, Tom walked back to Minnesota to retrieve his family and bring them out to Saskatchewan. When he arrived, however, he discovered that his wife had died in a flu epidemic and the state had adopted out his children to foster families. Twice the authorities apprehended him trying to bring his son into Canada, and when they finally threatened him with jail-time, Tom was forced to return to Saskatchewan alone.

And here's where the story gets almost surreal.

Dejected and isolated on his farm, Tom became obsessed with the idea of building a boat and returning to Finland. His plan was to follow local waterways to the Saskatchewan River, follow it to Hudson Bay (he'd already made this trip once by rowboat) and from there sail home to Finland. As large shipments of steel and sheet metal were delivered out to his farm, and as he completely abandoned his farming to work on his land-locked ship-building project, Tom became something of a curiosity among the gossips and scoffers of Birsay. Days they could hear his hammer pounding tirelessly, nights they could see the glow of his forge, as he built the steel hull and shaped the boiler for his ship.

From the Museum's description of the boat:

Tom's plan was to build the ship in three sections. The keel and hull would be water tight and could be floated on some very shallow water. The cabins could be loaded onto a large raft, along with other odds and ends. This raft would be powered with a motor and rudder, and by towing the keel and hull, he could catch the high water of the Saskatchewan River.... He planned to reach the deep water mouth of the Nelson River and then on to the Hudson Bay. There he would quickly have the various parts assembled and the steam engine and boiler installed.

Tom worked through the Great Depression on this unlikely project, forging and shaping the metal boiler, smokestack, pulleys and gears, all by hand. His status among the locals was upgraded from curiosity to eccentric and eventually to "That Crazy Finn," as he poured all his energy and resources into his strange obsession. When asked, "Why are you building a ship on the prairie?" he would reply with a stone-set face, "There's a great flood coming and I want to be ready to sail out of it home to Finland."

By 1940, Tom had finished his ship, but after a local farmer refused to tow the finished sections to the water, and after vandals looted and stripped the boat one night, and after townspeople began petitioning the RCMP to remove him from the area because his "junk" was a hazard, he had to abandon his dream a broken man. In the end, Tom was institutionalized in a North Battleford hospital, where he eventually died (April 3, 1943). His last words to a friend were: "Don't ever let that ship go. Don't let them tear it down."

But the ship lay derelict and nearly forgotten for almost thirty years. Much of it was wrecked by vandals and pillaged by scavengers, but the bulk of the remains were hidden on a farm in Whitebear, SK. In 1972, a Pioneer Village Museum outside Moose Jaw purchased and restored the ship, raising it as a monument to the indefatigable spirit that pioneers like Tom Sukanen brought with them to the often merciless Saskatchewan prairie.

This story has held a special place in my imagination ever since I first heard it. Something about Tom's dream to build an ocean going vessel in the heart of the prairies has always seemed distinctly Saskatchewanesque to me. It's that spirit of outlandish vision and bold resourcefulness and even a certain kind of creative restlessness that I've grown to love and am sure to miss about this place.

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

And so we come to the end of the Book of Esther. In these last three verses we see the final, complete reversal of the fortunes of God's People. Mordecai, who used to sit by the gate of the king's palace, is now second in command over the whole Empire, promoting the well-being of his people and speaking shalom to "all his seed" (10:3). On the one hand, it reminds me of the story of Joseph in Genesis, another displaced son of Abraham who went from imprisoned slave to second-only-to-Pharaoh over all Egypt, who looked back on his story and said to those who had harmed him: "You intended it for evil, but God intended it for good, to accomplish salvation for many lives."

Interestingly, the wording of Esther 10:2 echoes the epigraph form that the Book of Kings always used to sum up the reign of each of Israel's monarchs: all the deeds of Mordecai, "are they not written in the book of the chronicles of the Kings...?" Essentially, Mordecai--King Saul's heir, remember--has ascended as close to the place of a king over Israel, as a displaced Jew in a foreign empire could possibly get. After all the terror and distress, the trauma and pain, the near-misses and ominous uncertainty of Esther's story, we see, at last, God's purpose in it all: the mini-resurrection (of sorts) of Saul's line, and through that "resurrection," shalom for all God's people.

And maybe you see where I'm going with this?

Because in Christ we have the true Resurrection of which Mordecai's mini-resurrection is just a dim shadow, and in Him, we see how our own stories, as difficult or painful as they might be, fit into God's plan to speak shalom to the world. Be encouraged today: however hidden him they might sometimes be, God does have a Resurrection purpose that he can, and will, bring out of whatever it is you may be facing today. And a day will come when we, with Mordecai and Esther, will be able to look back on it all and say: all that happened for this, that we, too, might be part of God's Word of Shalom to the world.

Theological Snap Thoughts (I): Vapor




The Thursday Review: Musing Art and Faith


First Posted, April 24, 2009

The other day I was driving along, half-listening to the radio when this girl with a fragile voice started singing a melancholy tune about her confusing love affair with some guy named Art. And I thought: "Sweet melody, but the girl-chases-boy thing's been done before."

But by the time the second chorus came around, I was listening a bit closer, and it slowly dawned on me: She's not singing to Art-short-for-Arthur; she's singing to art itself. This is music for the muse:

Art, O Art I want you
Art, you make it pretty hard not to
And my heart is trying hard here to follow you
But I can't always tell if I ought to
And as I listened, the words fell around me like familiar rain. I'd sung this song before. Not the tune, of course, or even the lyrics, but the question. I want to do art, but I how can I tell if I ought to? This is a question my heart used to sing a lot.

For me, the uncertainty came from some vague notion I picked in the ditches of my faith-journey, that you couldn't be a Christian and an artist; it was an either-or. Somehow, growing up evangelical left me with the pretty strong impression that art was only acceptable in the church if it asked you blandly to ask Jesus into your heart when it was through with you. No ambiguous questions about ugliness or beauty, please, just solve the problem with a simple sinner's prayer. (Franky Schaeffer refers colorfully to this kind of evangelical "art" as "theological sloganeering".) In one of my more maudlin moments some ten years ago, I put it like this in an old journal: "Because something (God did you put it there? Is it sin to listen?) inside me sings of the beauty and truth of creation, and because something even deeper longs to capture, reflect and join the beauty and truth of creation, I am a poet .... I stare at the word on the page, and am flooded with questions impossible to answer: can I be a poet & serve God?"

By God's grace I happened to read a number of books that helped me answer that question with an honest and hopeful "yes." Among these were Madeline L'Engle's (insightful) Walking on Water, which suggests that all true art is Christian art, since Jesus himself is "the Truth"; and Franky Schaeffer's (sometimes bitter) Addicted to Mediocrity, which calls evangelicals to rediscover the church's rich tradition of art-making.

By God's further grace, I also meet a wise mentor who encouraged me to see my artistic passions as a calling and gift from God. He helped me believe that there really was an important role for the artist in the Christian community. He also allowed me do art in a way that served the Christian community (like the artwork I designed for the chapel space pictured above).

But I'm convinced there are other men and women besides me asking the same confusing question that the girl on the radio was singing to her lover Art: is there any place anywhere for this artistic passion of mine? And as she sang that afternoon, I started to imagine all over again: what would it be like if the community of Jesus' people sought out these wondering artists to tell them, "That place is here among us." What would it be like if Jesus' people embraced the artists in their midst without asking them merely to do some theological sloganeering for them?

What would it be like if Christians affirmed the truest work of the artists among them with the heart of Jesus, who affirms all things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely and admirable?


The Girl Queen, the Captive Conqueror: A Devotional Commentary on the Book of Esther (9:21-32)

About 5 weeks ago (March 24), the Jewish community around the world celebrated the Feast of Purim, the very feast that the Book of Esther culminates with, and whose origins it commemorates to this day.  Some 2500 years later, they still set aside a holy day to do what Esther 9:22 says they did that first Purim so long ago: observe a day of feasting and joy, giving presents to each other and gifts to the poor.  They will also, from what I understand, read the Book of Esther in its entirety, shaking rattles whenever Haman’s name is mentioned (and in some traditions, they’ll dress in colorful costumes, as a remembrance of the ‘disguised’ activity of God in this story).  In this way the community actually relives today in the saga of God’s deliverance back then, remembering in a way that invites active participation in the on-going story.

And I’m thinking about Holy Communion.  Because just like the Book of Esther is the story of God’s unforeseen deliverance when all hope was lost, a story which transforms despair and fasting into festival joy and culminates with a Sacred Feast that commemorates God’s salvation in a way that binds the community together through that act of commemoration, so too the Christian Faith.  Ours is a story of God’s unexpected deliverance, which transforms crucifixion grief into resurrection joy, and is celebrated through a Sacred Feast of bread and cup that binds us together as his people. “Take and eat, this is my body; this is my blood of the covenant, poured out for the forgiveness of sins,” is how He said it.  Inasmuch as it is about a feast that celebrates God’s deliverance, the Book of Esther is re-enacted for Christians, every time we come to the communion table and remember the Ultimate Deliverance of God’s people in Jesus Christ.

But the Book of Esther has something to teach us here about communion, I think.  Because the kind of “remembering” that happens through the Purim Festival is more than just a vague, “Oh, yeah, remember when ...”  It is actually a dramatic entering into and re-living the story, the kind remembering that brings the past to life in this present moment, and allows us to take our place in the events.  Purim celebrants are not passive recipients; they are active participants.  And what if we came to the Communion Table in this kind of spirit, awake and alive and receptive to the possibility that what happened then is still, in a unique and mysterious way, playing out here, now, in this simple feast of bread and cup?  If we did, I think, we’d be much more likely to recognize the Communion Feast for what it really is whether we realize it or not: a real encounter with the living Jesus.