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

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

Three Hands Clapping

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

Ghost Notes

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


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


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


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


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


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

blogs I follow

Readings, 2020

Readings, 2020
Paradise Lost, John Milton

Adorning the Dark, Andrew Peterson

The Soul of Shame, Curt Thompson

Cure for the Common Life, Max Lucado

Halos and Avatars, Craig Detweiller, ed.

Fool's Talk, Os Guinness

Brendan, Frederick Buechner

The Screwtape Letters

Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis

The Pilgrim's Regress, C. S. Lewis

Becoming Whole, Brian Finkert and Kelly Kapic

Real Sex, Lauren Winner

Out of the Silent Planet, C. S. Lewis

Voyage to Venus, C. S. Lewis

That Hideous Strength, C. S. Lewis

Till We Have Faces, C. S. Lewis

random reads

Lightning Rod, a song

For the last few months I have been working on a new set of songs, an album I am tentatively calling "Ghost Notes."  The songs all deal with themes of fresh starts, new beginnings and seizing the day.  I only have some very rough demos laid down, but I thought for the next few weeks I might post some of these here on my blog.  Here's the first one, a song I call "Lightning Rod."

Lightning Rod

When I was falling from the sky you were
My lightning rod, you
Guided my feet back to the ground

When I was learning how to die you were
My empty tomb, more
(hah) alive than anything I’ve found

Out of the blue, after the long night
Upwards I flew, wings melting in the sunlight
Out of the storm, trembling and awed
Into your arms I fell, like a lightning rod

Verse 2:
When I was tumbling through the air you were
The rock that broke my fall
Holding me hard against your heart

When I was stumbling through my prayers you were
The tunnel and the light
Winding my way back to the start

Out of the blue, after the long night
Upwards I flew, wings melting in the sunlight
Out of the storm, trembling and awed
Into your arms I fell, like a lightning rod

The Thursday Review: Of Magic Rings and Open Doors

First posted August 06, 2010

I'm preaching on John 10 this coming Sunday, and can't help but think about my favourite Narnia book: The Magicians Nephew.

Remember this one? Andrew Ketterly, is a small-time dabbler in magic who's obsessed with the idea of finding a portal into another world. Digory and Polly stumble into his study just as he's discovered what he believes is the secret—a set of green and gold rings made out of some dust from Atlantis. He tricks Polly into using one, who is instantly whisked off to God-knows-where, and Digory has to use the rings himself to go after her.

Eventually Uncle Andrew’s magic rings bring Digory and Polly to Narnia, where they meet Aslan, who gives Digory this impossible quest: he has to journey to the western edge of the world, where there’s a tree, in a garden, on a green hill. And he has to pick a silver apple and bring it back to Aslan to protect the world from the witch he's inadvertently brought with him into Narnia.

Okay: this is where my sermon prep on John 10 comes in. Because when Digory finally gets to this garden on a hill at the end of the world, he stands in front of its beautiful golden door, and on the door are these words: Come in by the gold gates, or not at all / Take my fruit for others or forbear / For those who steal, or those who climb my wall / Shall find their heart’s desire and find despair.

And Digory wonders out loud: “Well, who’d want to climb a wall, if he could get in by a gate.”

I can still remember the day first I read those words. I was about ten years old, and had just enough Sunday School in me to know that those words—the whole “come in by the gold gates or not at all” part—was a reference to John 10:1. I just knew there was a connection.

But what?

I've probably read The Magician's Nephew some 20 times since I was 10, and every time I get to that part I have this nagging hunch that there's something really deep going on. But I never stopped long enough to wonder it out.

Until just this week. I was working through John 10 and thinking about Narnia and something finally clicked for me. If, like in all the Narnia books, this magical world is a symbol for our life-together-with-God, then Uncle Andrew’s obsession—to find a portal into Narnia?—it's really about the ubiquitous human journey to find a connection with the spiritual.

Uncle Andrew's obsession is really Everyman's quest for a way "in" to life with God.

When you think about it like that, what stands out suddenly starkly is that all the people in the book-- Andrew, Jadis, even Digory himself--really are trying to enter the Spiritual Life by some way other than the gate. With all their magic rings made out of the dust of Atlantis and what not, they're trying to “climb up some other way” into Narnia—trying to "steal in" to life with God--instead of entering by the door.

And so with perfect logic, the gate of the garden at the end of the quest tells Digory the same thing Jesus says in John 10:1: only a thief would try to come in by some way other than the door.

And suddenly I'm seeing John 10:7 and Digory's choice-- and even the magic wardrobe door that will come of his choice in a later/earlier book in the series--all in new light. And in that light I'm wondering about what "magic rings" I've been using these days to try to steal into that life with God of which Narnia was but the dimmest shadow (a certain kind of success in ministry? certain human "tests" of my spirituality? a certain perception of myself as a pastor, husband, father, Christian?) instead of coming through the door.

3 Minute Theology 4.3: Filled Full

It was the Greek philosopher Aristotle who first argued that “Nature abhors a Vacuum.” He observed how matter seems to fill up whatever space it’s given, and inferred from this that it is impossible for a vacuum to exist, that the surrounding material would always move in to fill any empty space.

Thousands of years later, scientists have developed much more sophisticated ways of studying vacuums, but even so they have discovered that no vacuum is ever perfectly free of matter.

So perhaps Aristotle was right after all.

This explains, incidentally, why a balloon is never really empty: as air leaves the balloon, rather than leaving an empty vacuum behind, the air pressure pressing in on the balloon from outside forces it to collapse so that the remaining air inside the balloon fills it evenly again. Even when it is completely empty, still there is air inside it, evenly distributed throughout the space.

Whether or not nature truly does abhor a vacuum, the fact that a balloon is always full of air, regardless how much air it’s full of, is a useful image for one the central aspects of the Christian life: the idea that Christians can, and should be filled with the Holy Spirit.

To be filled with the Holy Spirit is to have the life of Jesus alive in us, by his Holy Spirit, in a real and concrete way, so that he is prompting and guiding and directing us from the inside out. And the Bible is quite clear that this is supposed to be a normal part of the every-day Christian experience.

What is not clear is how, exactly, this filling by the Spirit happens. Does it happen spontaneously, when we first believe in Jesus as our saviour? Does it happen when we are baptized? Does it happen in a special moment after we’ve believed? Or does it happen as a result of our own special effort and obedience to the teachings of Jesus?

Interestingly enough, there are bible verses that suggest that the answer is “yes” to each one of these things: In one place it says we received the Spirit through faith; in another place it says we should be baptized and receive the Holy Spirit; in another place it says God gives the Holy Spirit to those who obey him. In still other places it describes Christians being filled with the Spirit after they believed.

So which is it? Faith? Obedience? Baptism? A one-time-event, or an on-going experience?

And this is where the analogy of the balloon may be helpful. Because whether or not nature actually abhors a physical vacuum, the Holy Spirit, it seems, abhors a spiritual vacuum; he is always ready to fill up as much space as is available to him in our lives.

In this sense, Christians are like the balloon that is always full, regardless how much air is in it: When we first come to faith, even though we don’t yet have much experience with the Holy Spirit, still, inasmuch as no one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Spirit, we are filled with the Holy Spirit.

And when we are baptized, and our experience of God expands through our experience of baptism, the Holy Spirit fills that new space he’s opened in us; and we are, at baptism, filled with the Holy Spirit.

And later, as we have special moments where we experience God’s grace, or take steps of obedience with him, and our life with Jesus expands because of it, the Holy Spirit fills that new space, too.

Like the balloon that is full after one puff, but can still be filled after 20, we are filled with the Spirit when we first believe, and still need to be filled through God’s on-going work in our lives.

Of course a balloon isn’t much of a balloon until it’s filled full; and neither are Christians much in their faith until they’ve experienced deeper and greater fillings of the Holy Spirit. But even so, this filling starts to happen the moment we believe. Like the Bible says: we are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in us, whom we have received from God.

Postcards from Narnia (Part I)

To this day I can still remember opening The Magician’s Nephew, the first book in the Chronicles of Narnia, back when I was 10 years old. My Dad had purchased me a complete box-set of the Narnia books, through the Scholastic Book Order from school, which was a bit surprising. This was the only time I can ever remember him even noticing the Scholastic Book Order forms I brought home each month. But he did. “Oh,” he said when he saw the Narnia books, “I read those as a kid and I think you’d really like them. Can I order them for you?”

A month later, there they were, on the teacher’s desk with the rest of the Scholastic Book Order purchases. This was novel enough, because I seldom had any items in the Scholastic Book Order when it arrived, and as the teacher read through the names and the kids came forward to retrieve their Scholastic treasures from her desk, I was expecting, like always, to be left out. And then, to my surprise (I’d actually forgotten about my Dad’s purchase), she said my name.

“Dale Harris, 1 box set of the Chronicles of Narnia.”

And I went forward and she put into my hand this mysteriously decorated box, all covered over with evocative drawings of dwarves and unicorns and on one side, a picture of a faun (though I did not know at the time that this is what it was called) standing in a snowy wood next to a lamp-post.

The box set actually remained untouched on my book shelf for months. It was just so mysterious, and really, other than my Dad’s recommend, I had no clue what I would find if I opened it. And I sort of forgot about them.

But then came the long, slow days of summer, and one afternoon when my usual pastimes had lost their luster, I saw this almost-magical looking box on the shelf and finally wondered what was inside.

Book 1: The Magician’s Nephew. In my mind’s eye I can still see myself stretching out on the couch in the sunlight and reading that first paragraph:

This is a story about something that happened long ago when your grandfather was a child. It is a very important story because it shows how all the comings and goings between our own world and the land of Narnia first began. In those days Mr Sherlock Holmes was still living in Baker Street and the Bastables were looking for treasure in the Lewisham Road. In those days, if you were a boy you had to wear a stiff Eton collar every day, and schools were usually nastier than now. But meals were nicer; and as for sweets, I won't tell you how cheap and good they were, because it would only make your mouth water in vain. And in those days there lived in London a girl called Polly Plummer.

By the time Polly and Digory had found their way into the Wood Between the Worlds, I was dully enthralled; by the last page I was mesmerized.

I read the rest of the books voraciously; and I can remember as vividly reading the last page of the last book, The Last Battle. I was lying in my bed on a Saturday morning, and I closed the back cover on the last page, and I lay there, completely still, staring at it for what seemed like three whole minutes. I knew I had just read something far more profound, and beautiful and meaningful than I could put into words, so I just lay there, letting it soak over me, hesitant to move for fear of breaking the spell.

I have read and re-read the series dozens of times since those days and each time I do I find new layers of profoundity, new gleams of beauty, new meanings that I hadn’t noticed before, even as an adult. Over the years, I have tried at various times to express the layers of meaning to be found in these deceptively simple children’s books; I have allegorized and interpreted and exegeted these books many times in my heart. And yet none of these efforts to go deeper have marred the simple joy I find in reading them. There is such a mystical quality to the stories, and such a purity to the prose they’re told in, that even today, I am still that 10 year old child stretching out on the couch, about to embark on a spiritual journey he knows not of, every time I come to them again.

I have been rereading them again this summer, and thought that it might make for an interesting blog series if I wrote up a few “postcards from Narnia”—that is , chose some of the especially magical or particularly pure parts and offered my best reading of them. If you’re a fan of the books, too, this may prompt your own journey of rediscovery. If you’re not a fan, it may inspire you to give them a try.

So over the next few months at terra incognita, I will be posting some “Postcards from Narnia,” as I travel once again to C. S. Lewis’s world within the wardrobe.

And as a teaser, let me offer this little tidbit, to whet your appetite. Scholars have often wondered if there was any inner logic to the scope and sequence of the work; that is to say: why seven books? And why do they unfold in such a seemingly haphazard way?

Recently, I came across the work of Dr. Michael Ward, author of “Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis.” He suggests that the seven books of the Narnia series were conceived as symbols of the seven planets in the Medieval European cosmology. While today we understand the solar system as having 8 planets (plus Pluto), in the geocentric system of the Medieval astronomers (which Lewis was an expert in), there were seven “planets”: The Sun, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.

Dr. Ward’s reading—and he makes a compelling case—is that each of the books, in their themes, symbols and content, were meant to stand as symbols for one of these planets. You can read the whole article here:

In this reading, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, with all its themes of kingship, is Jupiter, the king of the planets. Prince Caspian, with its themes of war and revival, is Mars, the war-god. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, with its journey into the east and the Rising Sun, is the Sun, and The Silver Chair, is the Moon. The Horse and His Boy is Mercury (Mercury governs Gemini, the twins, and The Horse and His Boy has both twin lions and twin boys in it...), The Magician’s Nephew is Venus (themes of creation, fertility abound, plus there is a “false Venus,” an “Ishtar” in the character of Queen Jadis), and The Last Battle, at the end of time, is Saturn (Saturn is named after the god of time; Father Time is his namesake).

No ten year old child, of course, could have known that when he opened that Scholastic Book box set, that they were about to take a spiritual journey through the seven heavens of the Medieval cosmology, but that is the wonder of these books, and the reason why, I hope, they deserve a few "postcards" like this.  Every reading yields fresh insight and yet no new insight detracts from the childlike wonder these books still produce in me.

Seminary Flotsam (VI): The Curious Works of Bezalel: The Role of the Artist in the Church

Paper: The Curious Works of Bezalel: Reconsidering the Role of the Artist in the Emergent Church

Thesis: A Christian theology of the arts should promote an integrated model wherein the arts become less the means of esoteric expression for the individual, and find their meaning instead in the symbolism, craft, ornament and even folk-traditions whereby the community expresses its experience of fellowship and worship.

Overview: This paper offers a Christian theology of the arts, arguing for an ecclesiocentric aesthetic--one that re-visions the role and function of the artist, and clearly embeds him within the Christian community. Ecclesiocentric art has a number of theologically poignant tasks which it can, and should, participate in, such as: edification—the building up and strengthening of God’s people; celebration—the remembrance and declaration of God’s goodness and beauty by his people; incarnation—the “enfleshing” of the faith for God’s people; prophesy—the declaration of challenge and exhortation to God’s people by his people; and kerygma—the proclamation of the God’s love and salvation to the world by God’s people.

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

In Genesis 16, we find one of the most mysterious and also one of the most encouraging stories in all of Genesis: the story of Abraham's handmaiden, Hagar. As an Egyptian among Hebrews, a woman among men, and a slave girl among the wealthy, Hagar is quite literally at the bottom of the social totem pole (if it doesn't raise a lump in your throat in verse 4, when Sarai and Abram force Hagar into surrogacy, so that Sarai can "build a family through her," you're not reading closely enough).

Anyways, Hagar flees into the wilderness and collapses near a spring of water, alone, abused and abandoned, and that's where YHWH meets her. He comforts her and sends her back to Abram, but not before telling her to name her forth-coming child Ishmael. "Ishmael" in Hebrew means "God has heard", as in, God has heard the cries of this broken-hearted outcast. But then Hagar turns around and actually names God. This is a big deal: not even Abram dared to give God a name; nor will Moses do it later on in the story (Exodus 3:13). It is, actually, the first time in the Bible that any human being makes so bold as to name him.

And what a human being! An abused, abandoned Egyptian slave girl. And what a name she gives him: "El Roi." In Hebrew the name means "The God who sees." YHWH tells Hagar, "I'm the God who hears," and then Hagar ups the ante, "Then you're also the God who sees."

"Now I've seen", she says,"the God who sees me... in my hurt and isolation... in my oppression and need ... in my despair .... You are the God who sees all that."


If you're in a place today at all like Hagar was that day, then know that there is one who not only hears, but sees. In that sense, we are all "Ishmael" to him-- "Heard by God"-- and he is our El Roi.

The Thursday Review: Snake, a Poem

first published June 17, 2014

A snake lives
beneath the hedge on the path
to my girl's bus stop.

Often I just catch him,
shining tail tucking up
beneath the leaves as we round the bend,

though once or twice I've seen him stretched out
green and black in all his glory
across the morning-warming concrete of the walk,
too languid and too cool
to coil for cover.

And often I feel the lightning
thrill of ancient enmity when I do,
the sprouting Seed of Eve
surging suddenly in my heart:
were it not for the awful thought
of his lithe body writhing,
twisting terrified about
my heel in his death throes,
I would crush his head.

Rarely but sometimes I catch myself.

And the memory of another bruised heel,
dusty and ancient and bleeding long ago
quiets the urge in me:
this too is nephesh, it seems to say,
dust-born at the Word of the Creator.
And anyways: look at those
bright black eyes,
shrewd and burning and beautiful
with all the secret wisdom of the earth.

Seminary Flotsam (V): If We Shadows Have Offended: Towards a Theology of Drama

Paper:  If We Shadows Have Offended:  Towards a Worship-Theology of Drama in the Church

Overview:  This paper develops a theological framework for incorporating dramatic performances into the public worship of the church.  It presents an historical and biblical overview of the use of drama in worship, and offers practical ideas for using this particular art-form in ways that are theologically consistent and that reflect a Christian understanding of sign, sacrament and worship.

Thesis:  Because it is rooted in the ancient modes of Hebrew and early Christian worship, where symbolic, dramatized enactment formed the context for the experience of the divine, and because it engages persons and communities holistically—the physical, emotive, imaginative and social self together—there is a necessary dramatic element to Christian worship, one in which the festive and the theatrical play an important role in our response to God and our life together as his people.

[click here to access paper]

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

In Genesis 15:1, God addresses Abram and gives himself a name that the wandering nomad of the Faith can know him by. He says, "Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield, your very great reward." It's a fascinating line, actually, because just previously, Abram named God (when speaking to the King of Salem), by calling him "El Elyon (God Most High) the creator of heaven and earth." In just one chapter after this, Hagar will call Him El Roi, the God who sees. In Chapter 17, He will introduce himself as El Shaddai (God Almighty). And on it goes, until Moses finally says, "What's your name, God?" and God gives him the covenant name that we get YHWH from: I AM WHO I AM.

My point is just that the naming of God is a really big deal in Genesis, and here, in Genesis 15:1, is the very first time God names himself: I am "You Protector, Your Very Great Reward," he says. Well, it's not quite a name exactly, but it's close enough for our purposes, because in the Hebrew Bible, God's names and God's character are intricately intertwined. At the very least, one of the first things Abram finds out about God, as he comes to know him is that a) God is the Great Protector, his shield and that b) in this protection Abram will find his Very Great Reward.

And it leaves me thinking: Do I trust the protection of God over my life so intimately that I could name Him the way He names himself, as The Very Great Reward? That is to say: Do I trust him enough that his presence is really all the reward I need, or hope to get out of life?

3 Minute Theology: It's in the Genes

Do you sneeze when you look at the sun? Are your earlobes attached or detached at the side of your head? When you clasp your hands together do you put your left or your right thumb on top?

Scientists have discovered that each one of these traits—earlobe attachment, hand-clasping preference, the photo-sneeze reflex—all of them are genetic traits that you inherited from your parents’ DNA.

DNA is a special nucleic acid found in each one of your body’s cells. It’s made up of two strands of molecules called “nucleotides,” that spiral around each other in a shape called a “double helix.” DNA contains all the genetic information you inherited from your parents, determining how you will form and grow and function. It’s the genetic blueprint that makes you you.

The individual sections of DNA that determine individual traits are called genes. Scientists have discovered how to extract individual genes from the DNA of one organism, and insert it into the DNA of a new organism, so that the new organism will express the genetic trait of the donor as it grows and matures.

This process is called genetic engineering, and it has produced all sorts of fascinating genetic hybrids, like drought resistant plants, or pigs that are more environmentally friendly.

While it is a very controversial field of study, genetic engineering can serve as a useful analogy for a central, but somewhat controversial theological concept that describes the role the Holy Spirit plays in bringing us to salvation.

The concept is: regeneration. Literally, regeneration means “being born again,” and it refers to the idea that, if and when we come to faith in Jesus, something fundamental must change in us from how we were before we came to faith. Almost as if we need to be reborn, a second time, as a brand new person.

This is, in fact, how Jesus himself describes it: “No one can see the Kingdom of God,” he said, “unless they are born again.” In another place, the Apostle Paul is talking about our salvation, and he says , “he saved us ... through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” The Apostle Peter agrees, “he has caused us to be born again to a living hope.”

All the writers of the New Testament agree, actually, that coming to faith involves becoming a brand new person, a change so fundamental that it can only be described as “rebirth.” The controversy is about when, and how this change happens. Does it happen when we believe, or after we believe? Does it have to happen before we believe, in order that we might believe?

And what exactly does this “new birth” look like? Do we instantly become a brand new person, and if so, what kind of change is it? And what about areas of my life that don’t change?

And this is where the analogy of genetic engineering may be useful.

Like the geneticist who initiates the process of genetic transformation, the Holy Spirit initiates our coming to faith through his prevenient grace; and just like no organism can initiate its own genetic transformation—it can only receive genes from the host—neither can we initiate our own rebirth.

However, if and as we receive God’s grace and don’t reject it, the Holy Spirit does a work of regeneration in us. Like a geneticist who takes the genes of a donor organism and inserts it into a host organism, so that the traits and characteristics of the donor show up in the host as it matures, so too with the Holy Spirit.

He takes the character, spirit and qualities of the Resurrected Jesus and spiritually “inserts them” into our heart, so to speak, so that as we mature in the Christian faith, our lives will exhibit his characteristics more and more.

In this sense, we are born again, with the DNA of Christ.

The change may not be immediate—sometimes genetic traits take a while to appear—but the New Testament insists that it has happened when we are saved. Like it says in one place: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.”

The Thursday Review: The Seven Works of Mercy and Christian Discipleship

First posted September 13, 2012

I've been thinking a fair bit about the Seven Works of Mercy lately.   This is a traditional list of seven acts of service that the church used to encourage all Christians to participate in.  For the most part they come from Matthew 25:31-44, where the Son of Man assigns the sheep a place on his right hand because they fed him when he was hungry, and visited him when he was sick, and so on.  If you recall the parable, they express surprise. "When did we ever do this for you?" they ask, and he replies: "I tell you the truth whatever you did for the least of these my brothers you did for me."

For the record, the "seven works of mercy" are: 

1) feeding the hungry
2) giving water to the thirsty
3) sheltering the stranger
4) clothing the naked
5) visiting the prisoner
6) caring for the sick
7) burying the dead

What stands out to me as I look at this list (and in this I am following Richard Beck over at Experimental Theology), is how the works of mercy have lost some of their immediate urgency in our modern, institutionalized world.  Giving a cup of water to someone who's thirsty in our world probably has less significance than it would have had in the arid land Jesus travelled.  Unlike inmates in modern correctional facilities, a prisoner in Jesus' day was often responsible for his own food, medical attention and general upkeep, even behind bars, a fact which made a visit a potentially life-saving act.  So it's hard to do a one-to-one comparison.

But then again, all it takes is a little creative imagination to overcome the generation-gap here.  A cup of cold water might not do much today, but a Jesus Well or a BioSand Water Filter would (and does).  Visiting prisoners in modern day Canada can be a complicated, red-tape affair, but it can be done, and writing a letter to a prisoner is something anyone could do (See here, here or here).  They don't let just anybody bury the dead anymore, but anybody can show practical love, help and support to the grieved and bereaved.  And it doesn't take too much imagination to think of ways that welcoming the stranger might happen in our modern world, from mentoring new-comers to Canada to getting involved in a local shelter.

So it can be done.  Like I say, all it takes is a bit of imagination, and a desire to encounter Jesus.  Because in Matthew 25 Jesus said, or at least strongly implied, that if you really want to encounter him in a life-giving way, you'll have to look for him among the grieved, the starving, the homeless and the persecuted.  That's where he is, and when you're serving them, you're serving him.

What about you?  Where or how have you encountered Jesus by praticipating in one of the Seven Works of Mercy?

Sometimes we sing a song in church about how we want to see Jesus "high and lifted up / shining in the light of [his] glory," and I never thought about how risky a thing it was to ask God to open the eyes of our heart in this way.  Because if anything Jesus said in Matthew 25 can be trusted, when he grants that request we'll probably find ourselves standing among the hurting, the vulnerable, the outcast and the helpless.  And if we want to make sure we don't miss him when we're there, it probably couldn't hurt to make ourselves familiar with the Works of Mercy.

An Ancient Path for a Modern World (VII): Simplicity

One of my favorite folk songs is the old Shaker hymn, “Simple Gifts.” If you’ve never heard it or don’t remember it, it starts with this arresting line: “It’s a gift to be simple it’s a gift to be free, it’s a gift to come down where you ought to be.” It goes on to talk about meeting together in the Valley of Love and Delights. I don’t know where, exactly, that Valley is, but this 18th Century Christian sect, the Shakers, were pretty sure that the road to that valley was a path of simplicity.

If you want to breathe a little air from the Valley today, might I suggest you listen to this beatific rendition of “Simple Gifts” by Yo-Yo Ma and Alison Kraus?

And while you’re listening, let me suggest that, although the Shakers were surely on to something—that simplicity of life is indeed the way to the Valley of Love and Delights—even so, you don’t hear many sermons extolling the virtues of “simplicity” in the fast-paced, highly-complex world of 21st Century North American Christianity.

It wasn’t always that way. Were you to flip through the family-album of the Christian Faith, you’d come across all sorts of examples of Christians who got this, who understood the importance of simplifying our lives so as to pursue God with an undivided, undistracted heart.

Take the Quakers, for instance, that radical Christian movement from the 17th Centtury. One of the Quaker traditions is something called “The Testimony of Simplicity.” This is a commitment Quakers made to practice simplicity of life, so that they’d be able (as Wikipedia puts it) “to focus on what is most important.” They did things like, say, dressing in plain clothing (that is, not worrying about what to wear), and living a modest lifestyle (that is, not own stuff you don’t need), speaking forthrightly to one another (practicing plain speech), holding unprogrammed worship services where you just sit quietly and listen for the Holy Spirit.

Simplicity goes back further than the 17th Century, though. I could tell you about an Italian Christian from the 13th Century—St Francis of Assisi, as he’s known today—who made simplicity one of the hallmarks of his spiritual practice. Or I could tell you about the monks from the 3rd Century, who went to live in the desserts of Egypt so they could be free from the distractions of life to focus simply on God.

Or I could just tell you about Jesus.

In the Sermon on the Mount, for instance, Jesus describes what the lifestyle of citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven is supposed to look like. He explains that the Way of God’s Kingdom is a way of non-violence and reconciliation. He describes how things like fasting and prayer should happen for his followers. He talks about what their attitudes should be towards things like money, and sex, and power.

And then right at the centre of all this teaching, he says, “Oh yeah: and don’t worry about your life, what you’ll eat or drink or wear, because life is more important than food and clothes.”

Of course, when we hear Jesus say “don’t worry,” we’re likely to hear him say something sort of trite and trivial like “Don’t worry be happy now.” (And maybe we’d hear Bobby MacFarlane humming falsetto in the background. Or Pumba from The Lion King singing “Hakuna Matata”?)

But Matthew 6:34 is more than just a 2000 year old way of saying “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” The word that Jesus uses for “worry” there actually shows up again a little later in Matthew’s Gospel. In Matthew 13, Jesus will tell his followers a story to help them understand what God’s Kingdom is like, and he’ll say: “It’s like a farmer who sows seed in a field, where some of the seed gets choked out by weeds, and some of the seed finds good soil and produces an abundant crop.”

When he says this, all the disciples sort of scratch their heads, so Jesus explains: The seed is the message about God’s Kingdom. The seed that produces an abundant crop is like people who hear the message and start living by it. But the seed that gets choked out by weeds is like “the person who hears the word of God, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it out.”

And like I say, the word he uses for the “worries of this life” in 13:22 is the same as he uses in 6:34 when he tells us not to worry. Because the kind of worry Jesus is talking about is not just some vague feeling of anxiety about the future. The way Jesus is using the word here, “worry” is being caught up in all the spiritual distractions of life, the clutter and the desires and the complications of life that compete in our hearts for pure, simple, single-minded devotion to God.

The way Jesus is using the word here, “worry” is the antithesis of simplicity, and “simplicity” is the antidote to worry.

St. Augustine put it like this: “God is always trying to give us good things, but our hands are too full to receive them.”

There are, I think, four pressures in particular that make simplicity especially elusive in the modern world—four things that the hands of modern Christians are especially “full of” today that weren’t part of Jesus’ world. I am thinking here of: noise—the constant blare, hum, whirr and buzz of machines running all the time all around us; busyness—the bloated calendars we all struggle under but secretly take pride in, with no margin left for anything more; hurry—the fast-paced, time-starved, rush of life that keeps us from simply savoring anything; and clutter—the “stuffification” of or world, where the solution to every problem is to purchase yet one more thing we don’t need.

If I’m on to something here, that these are indeed the four big pressures in our world, then finding the path of simplicity will mean addressing the noise, busyness, hurry and clutter, in particular.

I like to think about it in terms of sculpting.

I was an art minor in my university days, so this is maybe to be expected, but bear with me. In most art forms, the art is a matter of knowing what to add. Creating a beautiful painting is a matter of knowing when and where to add the paint; making beautiful music is a matter of knowing when and where to add a note.

Most art forms are about “adding” something, but sculpting—carving—is about knowing what to take away.

Michelangelo used to say that the statue—every statue—was always there in the block of stone. It’s the artist’s job, simply, to carve away the excess until he sets it free. “In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it were standing before me,” he said. “I only have to hew away the stone that imprisons that lovely form, so that others can see it the way my eyes see it. I carve until I set it free.”

If the art of carving is the art of knowing what, exactly, to take away, then simplicity is the art of “spiritually sculpting” our lives. It’s a matter of knowing when, and where, and how to remove the four pressures—noise, busy hurry, clutter—by unplugging, doing less, owning less and slowing down.

I realize that seems like a tall order—unplugging, doing less, owning less and slowing down—but just imagine it with me: what if, every once in a while, we just “unplugged the noise”—the TV, the cellphones, the world-wide-inter-web. Not always, and not forever, but for a moment, a season, a Sabbath?  And what if we did less? If we just said no to little league this year so that the kids could just be kids for a change, or we made some of the nights of the week untouchable, and unschedulable, so that everyone could be home together for a change?  What if we simplified the clutter in our lives by giving away the stuff don’t need, and only buying what we did? Imagine choosing to own less, so that our hearts could have more capacity for God.  We’d probably just naturally find ourselves slowing down, wouldn’t we? And worshipping more, perhaps?

I admit this is a counter-cultural way of living that I’m describing here, but imagine what beautiful shape our lives would start take if we practiced this kind of spiritual sculpting: unplugging, doing less, owning less, and slowing down.

I expect we’d find simplicity to be as much a gift as the Shaker hymn promises it will be; and we’d probably find ourselves standing together in the Valley of Love and Delights, as we did.

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

There's this story in Genesis 14, where Abram rescues his nephew Lot from the hands of a king named Amraphel, and three other kings allied to him, who had taken Lot captive in battle (it's a long story). In the process of rescuing Lot, however, Abram ends up helping out the King of Sodom, who was Amraphel's sworn enemy. To thank him, the King of Sodom graciously offers to let Abram take all the spoils from the battle he's just won. Surprisingly, Abram won't take a cent. Why? Because he doesn't ever want it to be said that Sodom (or any other earthly king) made him rich. Instead, he wants those bragging rights ("I made Abram prosperous") to go to God and God alone.

It gets me thinking: am I living my life, conducting my business, doing my ministry, and so on, in such a way that it's clear, or would be, to anyone who took the time to "look at the books" (so to speak), that all I am and all I have I owe to God and no one else. There is a way to live, do business, do ministry, even, that relies on "the way of the world" for its prosperity, and there's a way that waits patiently and depends entirely on the Lord. Abram took the later. May we all have the grace to follow his example.

Three Minute Theology 4.1: The Power of Choice

In the 1970s, a neuroscientist named Benjamin Libet conducted a fascinating experiment that shed new light on the age-old question of whether or not we really do have Free Will.

He had his test subjects flex their fingers at a moment they personally chose to, and he carefully measured three different things: the moment the subject consciously “chose” to flex, the moment an electrical charge occurred in the brain, indicating that the brain was initiating the action, and the moment the charge registered in the muscles, indicating that the voluntary flex was occurring.

Most people would expect these three events to occur in that order: The person “decides” to flex, the brain tells the fingers, and the fingers move.

But what Dr. Libet discovered was that the brain actually initiated the flex about 350 miliseconds before the person had consciously decided to do it. IN other words: Your brain has actually started an action before you are consciously aware of having chosen it.

While this may look like a decisive argument against free will, Libet took his experiment one step further. This time he had his subjects resist the urge to flex the fingers when they first became aware of it, and he found that there was a window of about 150 miliseconds in which they could abort the motor plan that the brain had sent to the hand, if they chose to do so.

Libet’s conclusion: “We may better think of volitional action ... not as “freewill” but as “free won’t,” in that we can consciously stop an action initiated by our brain nonconsciously.

The idea of “Free Won’t” is a helpful way to think about a concept that theologians sometimes use to explain the role the Holy Spirit plays in bringing us to faith, a concept called “Prevenient Grace.”

The word “Prevenient” comes from a Latin word that means “going before” or “going ahead of” and the idea is that when we come to faith—even before we choose to accept Jesus as our Saviour—God’s grace has already gone before, opening our hearts to receive him.

As a theological concept, Prevenient Grace is a way of holding together two apparently contradictory truths.

On the one hand, the Bible teaches that we are all naturally turned away from God, and it is impossible for us to choose to love and follow God on our own. We are saved by God’s grace alone and not because of our own choice or merit.

But on the other hand, the Bible also teaches that God freely offers the gift of salvation to anyone who will receive it, that who ever believes in him will be saved

Put bluntly, if we could genuinely choose to believe in God, then our salvation would not be a matter of God’s grace, but our will; and yet, if it’s God’s grace that saves us, and not our choice, then what about those who aren’t saved: did God withhold his grace from them, and if so, why? And what kind of God would save only some and not others?

Prevenient Grace resolves this dilemma by pointing out that for everyone, God’s grace has already gone before any conscious decision we may have made to receive him; that for those who have received him, it’s only because his grace first enabled them to do so; and for those who have rejected him, it’s only because they have freely chose to do so.

Think about it, maybe, like Libet’s concept of Free Won’t, where the decision to flex your fingers is like the decision to receive God’s grace, and the brains non-conscious initiation o the action, is like the Holy Spirit’s Prevenient Grace.

Just like the brain initiates the decision to flex before we are consciously aware of it, so that our freedom is really a matter of vetoing the decision, so too with God: he initiates our decision to receive his offer of salvation even before we are aware of it, so that our Freedom is really just the freedom to resist or reject his grace.

In this way, our salvation is entirely dependent on God’s grace, but still a matter of our free choice. The Bible, of course , puts it more simply: We love him, it says, only because he first loved us.

The Thursday Review: When the North Star of Prayer is Cast Into the Sea

One morning on his way to the Temple, Jesus curses a fig-tree because it didn't have out-of-season figs when he was hungry.  After this he enters Jerusalem, enacts a prophetic announcement of God's judgement on Herod's Temple, overturning the money-changer's tables and saying, in effect: "God is about to overturn this whole Temple and the worship-charade it houses, because 'my house was supposed to be a house of prayer for the nations' and you've made it into a monument to your own nationalistic agendas and revolutionary zeal."  Then, on the way back to Bethany in the evening, the disciples discover that the cursed fig-tree has withered, just like Jesus said it would.

Ok:  this would all be confusing enough, but then, when they ask him about the tree, he declares:  "Have faith in God:  truly I say to you that if one has faith, he should say to this mountain, 'Be lifted up and cast into the sea' and if he does not doubt in his heart but he believes that what he says will be so, it will be so for him."  Or something like that. Then he adds:  "Because I tell you this: everything you pray and request, believe that you have received, and it will be so for you."

I've been thinking about this passage a lot over the last little while.  Because it seems to imply that the operative factor in determining whether or not we receive what we pray for is the degree of faith with which we ask-- i.e. the one who believes firmly that they will receive what they've prayed for will receive it; by implication the one who doubts won't; and by further implication, the more strongly you believe the more likely you are to receive. This is, at least, how I've often understood it.  And there are huge pastoral implications for this reading:  do we tell people, explicitly or implicitly, that when they don't receive what they're praying for, it's because they don't have enough faith?  Especially when there's a lot on the line (for a child, perhaps, praying for the healing of a loved one), this can insidiously turn the life of faith, which was meant to be liberating, into a life of bondage and guilt.

So here's what I got: when you read the whole passage (Mark 11:20-25) in context, notice that:  1) Jesus doesn't actually tell us to believe that we will receive, but that we already have received  what we're looking for (the verb tense in v. 24 is aorist, not future); 2) Jesus doesn`t say "ìf you have faith in God" in verse 22, but "have faith in God" (some early manuscripts say "if you have faith" but the most reliable say, simply, "have faith in God") The point:  this is not a "conditional statement" (i.e. you'll be answered if (and only if) you have faith); it's an imperative: "Have faith when you pray.  Believe that you have 'received' and it will be so for you."

Which brings us to note three:  this promise of having received when we pray is embedded right in the middle of Jesus' prophetic announcement that the Temple in Jerusalem will be destroyed.  He acted out its destruction through the whole money-changers demonstration, and then  he symbolically predicted it with the whole fig-tree curse. Just like the fig-tree didn't have fruit when God's Messiah came looking for it, and was destroyed because of it, so too the Temple: it didn't have the "fruit" of righteousness when God's Messiah came to it, so it will be destroyed.  And in as much as the fig-tree did shrivel at a word from Jesus, so too the Temple:  its predicted destruction is assured.

Which brings me to note four.  Jesus tells us that the primary content of our prayer should be that "this" mountain be lifted up and cast into the sea.  I always used to think he was speaking generally and metaphorically; i.e. you could ask for something so impossible as a mountain to be thrown into the sea, and if you've got enough faith, it will happen.  But. Jesus has just pronounced and enacted God's judgment on the Temple-- which is situated on the Temple Mount.  He's actually standing (presumably) in the shadow of the Temple Mount when he utters verse 23. The "this" of "this mountain," it turns out, is a very literal and very specific "this."  He means the Temple Mount.  He's saying, in light of his ominous announcement that the Temple is slated for demolition:  if you have faith, you could say to this Temple (and the Mountain on which it stands) be cast into the sea, and it will be so (v.23):  and once it's so, whatever you pray for will still ascend lovingly and confidently to the gracious ears of God, by faith (v.24).

Why does this context matter?  For a first Century Jew, Herod's Temple is the Spiritual North Star of your whole religious life.  You prayed toward the Temple, as a First Century Jew, because this was where God's Name dwelt.  Your prayers were heard and answered, as a First Century Jew, because God's Name and Glory still "dwelt" in the Temple of Jerusalem.  And Jesus is speaking to First Century Jews when he tells them:  because of its corruption, the Temple is about to be destroyed.

It would be like telling a devout Muslim that Mecca will soon be no more.

Can you hear the anguished reply:  But then how will we pray now?  How will our prayers be heard (let alone answered) now?  By what will we navigate, spiritually speaking, if the lode-star of our spiritual lives is cast into the sea? 

The question throbbing in this passage isn't "what does it take to get my prayers answered?" The question is:  how could we even imagine praying at all, if the Temple is destroyed (which the lesson of the fig tree, well learned, assures us it will be)? Because to pray that this particular mountain be thrown into the sea is actually to pray for a whole new way of coming to God in prayer, period.

And God says:  believe in your heart, and do not doubt, and you will receive exactly that.

Because Jesus says:  "Have Faith in God.  He's doing a new thing in me and through me.  And for those who have faith in me, and through me, the Temple can be cast into the sea, and prayer will not cease; in fact it will have just begun to thrive, because it will no longer be centred around a building made by hands, but will be empowered and filled and transformed by my resurrected and life-giving spirit.  If you believe this, then even before you pray, you will have received the hearing from God that up till now you've assumed is only possible in and through this Temple."

And in answering the question like that, Jesus has made faith, once again, the life of freedom and communion with God that it was meant to be.

Seminary Flotsam (IV): Brought Safely Through Water

Paper:  Brought Safely Through Water:  Baptism and the Covenant Story of Israel

Overview:  This paper develops a theology of baptism, arguing that the New Testament consistently ties baptism back to our union with Christ and our participation in the covenant story of forgiveness and restoration and blessing that he has fulfilled. It suggests that our teaching about and practice of baptism should emphasize the theological narrative of union with Christ and participation in the reconstituted people of God that is symbolized by this sacred act.

Thesis:  Theologically, baptism functions for the church as a fundamental sign of her participation in the covenant story of Israel as it is taken up by and ultimately fulfilled by God’s act in, through and as Jesus the Messiah.

From the Beginning: A Devotional Commentary on the Book of Genesis (VI)

The other day I was reading Genesis 12:1, where God calls Abram out of Haran.  I've read it many times before, but this time I was using the most recent NIV translation, and noticed something I hadn't before:  verse 12:1 reads, "The Lord had said to Abram, leave your country and go to the land I will show you."  It caught me a bit, because the translation I remember reading (an older NIV version) was always, "The Lord said to Abram..." but between the last edition of the NIV and this one, the translators must have felt that the Hebrew verb there, 'amar (it's in the Hebrew imperfect tense) is better translated with an English perfect, not an English past.

The Lord had said.  (I checked other translations and the KJV also goes with "had said" whereas the NASB, ESV, and others go with "the Lord said.")

I don't want to make an interpretive mountain out of a verb-tense-mole-hill here, but the reason it struck me is simply this:  if the verse is better translated as "had said," it implies that Abram's obeying the Lord and leaving Haran may not have followed immediately and directly upon the Lord calling him out.  To get a feel for this consider the difference: "I told my kids to do the dishes and they did them" or "I had told my kids to do the dishes and they did them."  The difference is subtle but not negligible.  In the second case, it's not as clear that the dishes were being done after the request, only that a) a request was made, and b) at some point the request was followed.

So what?  Well: it just got me thinking that sometimes, the fulfillment of God's call on our lives doesn't follow nicely and immediately and smoothly and seamlessly after he makes the call.  The Lord had called Abram to leave Ur (v.1) and (at some point, presumably...) Abram left (v.4).

This is encouraging especially for any of us who feel or have felt at times, that God's call on their life has stalled out, maybe, or that it's not coming to fruition in as timely a way as they had hoped.  Be patient.  Who knows, actually, who much time passed between Abram's call and his leaving Haran?  But also be challenged:  before the Lord's call could see its fulfillment, Abram had to get off his backside and start packing for parts unknown...