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.

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

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

random reads

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.


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