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.

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

In Genesis 39 we find the story of Joseph being sold into Egypt. It's interesting to me how, as one of God’s chosen ones, Joseph’s very presence among the Egyptians (despite the fact that they were his oppressors) resulted in blessing for the Egyptians. In 39:5 it says the Lord blessed Potiphar *because* of Joseph; in verse 6 it says Potiphar lived with not a care in the world after he put Joseph in charge. You actually see this all over the Old Testament, once you start looking for it: the very presence of God’s Chosen People translates (or should translate) into blessing for the surrounding nations. Don’t believe me, read Genesis 12:3, or Jeremiah 29:7. It’s there in the New Testament, too (anyone want some salt to go with that earth?) Anyways, I think there’s supposed to be Josephesque (Josephish? Josephene?) pattern to Christian ministry. Because in both the real and the metaphorical sense, we, too, are people in exile, citizens of heaven sojourning in a land not our home. And the question is: does our exile here result, like Joseph’s did, in blessing for our neighbours (and to turn the crank one more twist, what if those neighbours were our oppressors, as Jospeh’s were his?).

(This Roller Coaster) Once



You only go round this roller coaster once
Might as well put your hands in the air
And when the ride stops there’ll be
Lots of time for second guesses
And when the ride stops it’ll start, eternity

Hold on to today
Tomorrow is a mystery
It’s a blind corner anyhow
I know it’s cliché
But yesterday is history
And all we have for sure is now

You only walk through the valley of the shadow once
Might as well walk with your head held high
And when the day comes there’ll be lots of time
For all your questions
And when the ride stops it’ll start, eternity

Hold on to today
Tomorrow is a mystery
It’s a blind corner anyhow
I know it’s cliché
But yesterday is history
And all we have for sure is now

I sound my
Barbaric yawp
Over the rooftops of the world

Hold on to today
Tomorrow is a mystery
It’s a blind corner anyhow
I know it’s cliché
But yesterday is history
And all we have for sure is now



About Time

The Thursday Review: David and Little John and the Language of Love

First posted October 11, 2012

A while ago a friend sent me a link to this article at Touchstone Magazine about the language of love and the death of male friendship in our culture.  I find some of the rhetoric a bit unpalatable, especially towards the end, but the overall thrust of his argument scored a touche for me:  our radically sexualized culture has undermined healthy, authentic, and necessary expressions of affection between men, and this has distorted the male experience of friendship.
You can give it a read if you like.  For my part, it reminded me of the final chapter of Howard Pyle's Robin Hood.  If you've never read it, the aged Robin Hood falls ill and visits his cousin, the Prioress of Kirklees, to undergo a blood letting.  Fearing the king's reprisal for having helped an outlaw, she opens an artery deep in Robin Hood's arm, and locks him in an upper room to bleed to death.  When Robin realizes death is upon him, he sounds his bugle horn to summon Little John.  The scene is moving as Little John bursts into the room and, seeing the pallor of death in Robin's face, cradles him tenderly in his arms as he slips away. 

You can give that a read, too, if you like (click here).  I remember weeping real tears over this scene as a boy-- it was the first book I'd ever cried over-- and re-reading it and re-reading it and crying every time.  There was just something so moving in Little John's artless expression of love for his friend on his deathbed.  I didn't know the words pathos or catharsis then, but I'd use them now.

But the point of the Touchstone article, and I think it's a valid one, is that expressions of love like this are old, natural and (above all) platonic; and one of the unfortunate consequences of the modern sexual revolution is that we are losing (or have lost) the non-sexual categories we once had for experiencing and describing them.  If he lived in our world, where love is assumed to include a sexual dimension unless the term is otherwise clarified, Little John would be hard pressed to cradle his dying friend in his loving arms, without raising some questioning eyebrows (or knowing smiles) about his sexual identity.  And a ten-year-old boy would likewise be hard-pressed to shed real tears over the scene.

In case it seems like I'm just blowing smoke here, let me let me point the discussion in a direction where I think there's more at stake than just a good cry over a childhood classic.  In 2 Samuel 1:26, David is mourning the death of his friend Jonathan, and he says "Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women." 

Some interpreters read this line as evidence that the friendship it so poignantly describes was sexual in nature, and that there were homoerotic undertones in Jonathan's covenant with David back in 1 Samuel 20.

Admittedly, this passage raises far more issues than we have space to wrestle with here, but let me at least suggest this: we may lose more than just some old-fashioned sexual mores, if a  biblical man can't tell another man he loves him without brigning his sexual identity into question.  A biblical imagination when it comes to the language of love--and with it the potential for men to express affection and closeness in ways that are affirming of gender and distinctly nonsexual--may actually be on the line here, if David and Jonathan's embrace must be sexual, simply because it was an embrace.

Postcards from Narnia (V): When Aslan Speaks

One of the beautiful aspects of the Narnia books is the ethereal, almost mystical quality that pervades the conversations Aslan has with the various children of the stories. To the extent that Aslan is Lewis’s literary vehicle for reflecting on the nature of God, these conversations are, I expect, very much like what Lewis’s own conversations with God must have been like, condensed and distilled to a child-like precision, and presented in the literary framework of the Narnian world. Even when I was a child coming to Narnia for the first time, it struck me that when the Golden Lion spoke, there was mystery and wonder, paradox and clarity, wisdom and delight in his voice, unlike anything I’d ever encountered before. It was at once somber and joyful, playful and impassive, stern and tender. As a grown reader, it strikes me that few works of literature I’ve come across have captured so vividly and so simply the experience of speaking to God in prayer and actually hearing him speak in return.

Aslan never condemns, though at the same time, he entertains no self-deception. He insists on the truth, and yet so gently that the truth is only healing and transformative. He insists on full obedience, yet with such tenderness that obedience is a delight. He knows us fully, more truly than we know ourselves, yet he uses that knowledge never to shame or bully, but only to nurture us and strengthen us for his glory.

Every now and then as a pastor I get asked: does God really speak to us, and what is it like when he does? I’ve done my best to answer that question—his voice is one we learn to hear only by listening to it—but if one wanted to practice listening, one could do worse, I think, than to listen to how Aslan speaks to the children in Narnia, and what he says to them when he does.

Among the many samples I could turn to, consider:

Aslan on self-deception:
"Son of Adam," said the Lion. "There is an evil Witch abroad in my new land of Narnia. Tell these good Beasts how she came here."

A dozen different things that he might say flashed through Digory's mind, but he had the sense to say nothing except the exact truth.

"I brought her, Aslan," he answered in a low voice.

"For what purpose?"

"I wanted to get her out of my own world back into her own. I thought I was taking her back to her own place."

"How came she to be in your world, Son of Adam?"

"By—by Magic."

The Lion said nothing and Digory knew that he had not told enough.

"It was my Uncle, Aslan," he said. "He sent us out of our own world by magic rings, at least I had to go because he sent Polly first, and then we met the Witch ina place called Charn and she just held on to us when—"
"You met the Witch?" said Asian in a low voice which had the threat of a growl in it.

"She woke up," said Digory wretchedly. And then, turning very white, "I mean, I woke her. Because I wanted to know what would happen if I struck a bell. Polly didn't want to. It wasn't her fault. I—I fought her. I know I shouldn't have. I think I was a bit enchanted by the writing under the bell."

"Do you?" asked Asian; still speaking very low and deep.

"No," said Digory. "I see now I wasn't. I was only pretending."
Aslan on grief:
"Son of Adam," said Aslan. "Are you ready to undo the wrong that you have done to my sweet country of Narnia on the very day of its birth?"

"Well, I don't see what I can do," said Digory. "You see, the Queen ran away and—"

"I asked, are you ready?" said the Lion.

"Yes," said Digory. He had had for a second some wild idea of saying "I'll try to help you if you'll promise to help my Mother," but he realized in time that the Lion was not at all the sort of person one could try to make bargains with. But when he had said "Yes," he thought of his Mother, and he thought of the great hopes he had had, and how they were all dying away, and a lump came in his throat and tears in his eyes, and he blurted out:

"But please, please—won't you—can't you give me something that will cure Mother?" Up till then he had been looking at the Lion's great feet and the huge claws on them; now, in his despair, he looked up at its face. What he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own and (wonder of wonders) great shining tears stood in the Lion's eyes. They were such big, bright tears compared with Digory's own that for a moment he felt as if the Lion must really be sorrier about his Mother than he was himself.

"My son, my son," said Aslan. "I know. Grief is great. Only you and I in this land know that yet. Let us be good to one another.”
Aslan on Obedience:
A circle of grass, smooth as a lawn, met her eyes, with dark trees dancing all round it. And then—oh joy! For he was there: the huge Lion, shining white in the moonlight, with his huge black shadow underneath him. But for the movement of his tail he might have been a stone lion, but Lucy never thought of that. She never stopped to think whether he was a friendly lion or not. She rushed to him. She felt her heart would burst if she lost a moment. And the next thing she knew was that she was kissing him and putting her arms as far round his neck as she could and burying her face in the beautiful rich silkiness of his mane.

"Aslan, Aslan. Dear Aslan," sobbed Lucy. "At last."

The great beast rolled over on his side so that Lucy fell, half sitting and half lying between his front paws. He bent forward and just touched her nose with his tongue. His warm breath came all round her. She gazed up into the large wise face.

"Welcome, child," he said.

"Aslan," said Lucy, "you're bigger."

"That is because you are older, little one," answered he.

"Not because you are?"

"I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger."

For a time she was so happy that she did not want to speak. But Aslan spoke.

"Lucy," he said, "we must not lie here for long. You have work in hand, and much time has been lost to-day."

"Yes, wasn't it a shame?" said Lucy. "I saw you all right. They wouldn't believe me. They're all so——"

From somewhere deep inside Aslan's body there came the faintest suggestion of a growl.

"I'm sorry," said Lucy, who understood some of his moods. "I didn't mean to start slanging the others. But it wasn't my fault anyway, was it?"

The Lion looked straight into her eyes.

"Oh, Aslan," said Lucy. "You don't mean it was? How could I—I couldn't have left the others and come up to you alone, how could I? Don't look at me like that ... oh well, I suppose I could. Yes, and it wouldn't have been alone, I know, not if I was with you. But what would have been the good?"

Aslan said nothing.

"You mean," said Lucy rather faintly, "that it would have turned out all right—somehow? But how? Please, Aslan! Am I not to know?"

"To know what would have happened, child?" said Aslan. "No. Nobody is ever told that."

"Oh dear," said Lucy.

“But anyone can find out what will happen," said Aslan. "If you go back to the others now, and wake them up; and tell them you have seen me again; and that you must all get up at once and follow me—what will happen? There is only one way of finding out."

"Do you mean that is what you want me to do?" gasped Lucy.

“Yes, little one," said Aslan.

"Will the others see you too?" asked Lucy.

"Certainly not at first," said Aslan. "Later on, it depends."

"But they won't believe me!" said Lucy.

"It doesn't matter," said Aslan.
Aslan on self-pity:
"Who are you?" Shasta said, scarcely above a whisper.

"One who has waited long for you to speak," said the Thing. Its voice was not loud, but very large and deep.

"Are you—are you a giant?" asked Shasta.

"You might call me a giant," said the Large Voice. "But I am not like the creatures you call giants."

"I can't see you at all," said Shasta, after staring very hard. Then (for an even more terrible idea had come into his head) he said, almost in a scream, "You're not—not something dead, are you? Oh please—please do go away. What harm have I ever done you? Oh, I am the unluckiest person in the whole world?"

Once more he felt the warm breath of the Thing on his hand and face. "There," it said, "that is not the breath of a ghost. Tell me your sorrows."

Shasta was a little reassured by the breath: so he told how he had never known his real father or mother and had been brought up sternly by the fisherman. And then he told the story of his escape and how they were chased by lions and forced to swim for their lives; and of all their dangers in Tashbaan and about his night among the Tombs and how the beasts howled at him out of the desert. And he told about the heat and thirst of their desert journey and how they were almost at their goal when another lion chased them and wounded Aravis. And also, how very long it was since he had had anything to eat.

"I do not call you unfortunate," said the Large Voice.

"Don't you think it was bad luck to meet so many lions?" said Shasta.

"There was only one lion," said the Voice.

"What on earth do you mean? I've just told you there were at least two the first night, and——"

"There was only one: but he was swift of foot."

"How do you know?"

"I was the lion." And as Shasta gaped with open mouth and said nothing, the Voice continued. "I was the lion who forced you to join with Aravis. I was the cat who comforted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you while you slept. I was the lion who gave the Horses the new strength of fear for the last mile so that you should reach King Lune in time. And I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight, to receive you."

"Then it was you who wounded Aravis?"

"It was I."

"But what for?"

"Child," said the Voice, "I am telling you your story, not hers. I tell no-one any story but his own."

"Who are you?" asked Shasta.

"Myself," said the Voice, very deep and low so that the earth shook: and again "Myself," loud and clear and gay: and then the third time "Myself," whispered so softly you could hardly hear it, and yet it seemed to come from all round you as if the leaves rustled with it.
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From the Beginning: A Devotional Commentary on Genesis (XV)

In Genesis 33:20, it says that Jacob, after his wrestling match with God (chpt 32) and his meeting with Esau (chpt 33), travels down to Shechem in Canaan, and when he arrives he builds an altar to God and calls it: El Elohe Israel. In Hebrew, El Elohe Israel means "Mighty is the God of Israel" (or possibly: God, the God of Israel).

This strikes me as a big deal. Only a chapter earlier God had named Jacob "Israel," so this is a relatively new handle for him; and before he left Canaan, he promised that if God brought him back safely, then "the Lord shall be my God" (28:21). And if you read closely, you'll notice that up until now, he's never called God his God; it's always been "the Lord, the God of my father, Abraham and Isaac" (or some variation on that). But now, finally, as he arrives back home after years of running from and wrestling with God, Jacob-- now called Israel (the one who has striven with God)-- Jacob builds an altar to "the God of Israel." No longer is the Lord simply the God of Abraham and Isaac; now he is Jacob's God, too.

 It occurs to me that all of us, at some point or other, need to build an altar to El Elohe Israel, in a metaphorical sense; that is to say: we all need to come to this place in our lives where God stops being, simply the God of our "fathers"-- our parent's God, our family's God, our tradition's God-- and we "own" Him in a personal way, like Jacob, it seems, did that day.

Seminary Flotsam (VIII): Full of Bright and Fiery Sparks

Paper:  Full of Bright and Fiery Sparks:  Howell Harris, the Welsh Methodists and the Tradition of the Welsh Homiletic

Overview:  This paper traces the development of the distinctive Welsh preaching style back to the work of the early Welsh Methodists, and especially the seminal leader of Welsh Methodism, Howell Harris, and examines the shaping influence the Welsh preaching tradition had on  Welsh society, culture, national identity.

Thesis:  Howell Harris and the Welsh Methodists of the eighteenth century birthed a tradition of distinctly imaginative and dramatic preaching that would play a profoundly formative role in the development of Welsh national identity and character in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


Hey Fireweed, a song



Verse 1:
The firestorm may have left a scar
The flames have swept over me and
The ashes are burned black and charred
The valley is smouldering and
The embers are still glowing but
The beckoning stars are finally showing through the smoke
They’re finally showing through the smoke

Verse 2:
The hottest flame brings the brightest green
The ashes are rich with new life
The blaze has swept the forest clean
The phoenix will come alive and
The heart that’s been tried by fire will
Awaken and flourish with desire at the dawn
With new desire at the dawn

Prechorus:
So don’t you walk away right before your miracle arrives
Your resurrection’s waiting on the next sunrise

Chorus
Hey fireweed, it’s not over yet
Your beauty is breaking up through the ashes
It’s flowering, hopeful violet
It’s blooming from the embers of your passion
Hey Fireweed, your beauty is breaking up through the ashes

Verse 3:
The smoke will clear with the morning light
The flames that swept over you, it
Won’t always be so burning bright
One day you will start anew, when
Your heart has been tried by fire it
Will flower with beautiful desire at the dawn
Beautiful desire at the dawn

Prechorus:
So don’t you walk away right before your miracle arrives
Your resurrection’s waiting on the next sunrise

Chorus
Hey fireweed, it’s not over yet
Your beauty is breaking up through the ashes
It’s flowering, hopeful violet
It’s blooming from the embers of your passion

Chorus
Hey fireweed, it’s not over yet
Your beauty is breaking up through the ashes
It’s flowering, hopeful violet
It’s blooming from the embers of your passion
Hey Fireweed, your beauty is breaking up through the ashes

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

In Genesis 27 we have the story of how Jacob tricked his father Isaac into giving him his brother's blessing.  Over the course of the many thousands of years that this story's been told and re-told, the profound drama that’s going on here has maybe worn a bit smooth for us. Jacob has just perpetrated the most appalling fraud imaginable (really: imagine tricking your blind father, on his death bed, into signing a forged will that gives you the whole inheritance and cuts your brother out of the deal...) an appalling fraud, like I say, instigated by his own mother, who loved him more than his brother (again, try to imagine it...), and immediately after this, while Isaac his father is sitting there blindly assuming that he’s just blessed Esau, it says, “Jacob had hardly gone out from the presence of his father when Esau came in from his hunting...”

When you slow down to visualize this scene, the tension is almost palpable: the liar leaves just as the hot-head arrives. What stands out to me in all of this is just how messed up Jacob’s family is. A mom who hates one son and loves the other, two brothers who despise each other, one a bully, the other a cheat, a weakened dad caught in the middle: it’s the quintessential dysfunctional family.

But maybe there’s good news, here, too, because this is the family that will give birth to God’s Redemptive History. It will start, in fact, with them, and it won’t stop until their great-great-great-great-fifty-times-great Grand Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, sprouts beautiful from their family tree. Of course, Isaac’s family is hardly the only dysfunctional family in history (not by a long-shot), but if God could bring Jesus out their messed up family, what can’t he do with ours, if we will give them to him?

The Thursday Review: On Dog Whispering and the Image of God

First published March 20, 2009 (Back when Trixie was only a year old)

Okay, bear with me on this one.

We got our family dog, Trixie, about a year ago. Though there was always a dog in our household growing up, I had forgotten I was a "dog person" until Trixie came along. In choosing the dog's name, I insisted it had to be something I could wander about our neighbourhood calling plaintively without feeling like a total idiot. This is my main childhood memory of "Bear," the family dog who bolted every time the front door opened even a fraction of an inch.

But Trixie has helped me re-discover my inner dog-person.

Besides the basics (sit, down, stay, come), the complete list of the 14-some-word vocabulary she's acquired under our care includes: "Drop" (spit out whatever you happen to be chewing and await further instructions), "go pee" (I'm in a hurry, so take a leak quick and get back in the house), "kennel" (we're going out and you're not coming, so lie down in your kennel and wait for us), "toy" (go find one of the many chew toys you have hidden around the house and we'll play catch).

What amazes me is how happily she responds to these commands-- almost like they were just waiting there inside her little dog heart for us to come along and breathe them into life.



But that's not all. Trixie is uncannily in tune with our habits. Mornings she watches to see if I put on my coat, and as soon as I do she goes and lies down in her kennel, knowing I'm off to work. Evenings she listens closely for me to sit on the couch and open a book, her cue to come lie down next to me.

Now here's the thing: in a relatively obscure passage tucked away in The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis makes some interesting, passing comments on the spirituality of our relationship to the animals. He argues that some animals (especially the naturally clever ones like horses or dogs) have a latent personality that is called out and enlarged as they come into contact with humans who relate to them lovingly and wisely. In such contact with animals, we discover part of our human calling, whispering to life an aspect of their creatureliness that would otherwise have lain dormant. He goes on to suggest that in drawing a creature (like Trixie) up into our life as humans, and so drawing out its full creatureliness, we get a limited picture of what Christ has done for us, drawing us up into the life of God, and so drawing out our full humanity.

Well, I'll defer completely to those who are more experienced with pets or theology on this one, but I wonder if there isn't something to this.

The creation account in Genesis shows the Creator speaking creative order out of chaos. Then he calls the adam, the human creature filled with his breath and made in his image, to carry on this chaos-subduing creative work. And one of the first tasks for the adam is to name the other creatures-- naming, of course, being an act of deep spiritual significance in the Old Testament.

So maybe Lewis was right. Maybe there is something deeply spiritual about our relationship with the other creatures of God's good earth.

I wonder what he would have said about cats.


Post Cards from Narnia (IV): Virtue, Vice and the Voyage of the Dawn Treader


 I have a bit of a running theory about The voyage of the Dawn Treader, the fifth book in the Narnia series (it is the third book Lewis wrote, but fifth in the chronological order of the stories).  The Voyage has always been my favorite of the seven books, the one I’ve spent the most time thinking about, so it’s maybe to be expected that I’d have a theory about it (I should also give credit where credit's due: this reading came to me one afternoon when I was watching the award winning BBC film adaptation of Voyage, produced by Wonderworks, which is well worth a watch... far better than the hatchet-job that Walden Media made of the story, which I could barely stomach, let alone watch in its entirety).

If you’ve never read The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, stop everything right now, and go read it.  I’ll wait.  If you really can’t spare the time, here’s the book in a nutshell:  Lucy and Edmund, long-time veterans of Narnia, are summoned back to the Magical Country through a mysterious picture frame, this time bringing with them their stinker of a cousin, Eustace Clarence Scrubb (a boy so rotten he almost deserves the name...)  They join Prince Caspian and an assorted crew of Narnians on a mystical quest to sail to the eastern edge of the World, searching for the seven lost lords of Narnia that sailed away many years ago and never returned.  Along the way they discover a number of strange islands, encounter all sorts of wonderful characters, de-stinkify their cousin Eustace and ultimately find their way to the Aslan’s Country, beyond the end of the world.

To get my theory, you have to understand first that, as the third book that Lewis wrote for the series, Voyage is a sequel to Prince Caspian, a book that was, for all intents and purposes, about the revival, or re-conversion of Narnia back to the ways of Aslan (so: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe tells the Easter story, with Aslan's allegorical Death and Resurrection; Prince Caspian is set hundreds of years later, after Narnia has forgotten the story and has fallen away from “the old ways”; Prince Caspian is the only human in Narnia who believes in Aslan and he’s able to “convert” the people back to the old ways.)  Then comes Voyage: Caspian, having led the revival in Narnia, is now on an east-ward journey to the end of the world, to make it, at last to Aslan’s Country.

If Lion is the story of the Cross (Redemption), and Caspian is the story of conversion (Salvation), then Voyage is the story of Discipleship (Sanctification).  It's the story, that is, about the spiritual journey (as symbolized by the sea-quest) through the triumphs and trials of life (as symbolized by the islands they encounter along the way), to reach, eventually, our heavenly home (as symbolized by Aslan’s Country).

This reading takes on weight and substance when you look closely at each of the stops they make along the way.  Lewis has written extensively and eloquently elsewhere (both in The Screwtape Letters and also in Mere Christianity) about the classical virtues and vices of the Christian tradition, and when you read it with that in mind, if becomes clear that at each one of the island stops on the journey to Aslan’s Country deal with either one of the seven deadly sins, or one of the seven cardinal virtues.  In this way, as they confront the seven deadly sins and grow in the seven cardinal virtues, the children advance further in their quest for Aslan’s Country.  This is not just vague symbolism, either.  Consider the following itinerary of the Dawn Treader in its eastward journey. (For your reference, remember that the seven deadly sins are: anger, greed, sloth, envy, gluttony, lust and pride; and the seven cardinal virtues are: courage, wisdom, temperance, justice, faith, hope and charity).

1. Their first stop is on the Lone Islands, where they need to put an end to the slave trade conducted there.  In so doing they explicitly demonstrate the virtue of justice, and encounter the first of the lost lords, Lord Bern.

2.  Their next stop is on “Dragon Island,” where Eustace sneaks away while the work's being done, specifically because he's too lazy to help, demonstrating the sin of sloth.  He takes a nap in a dragon’s cave, only to waken the next day as a dragon himself.  He is eventually restored by Aslan, and they discover the remains of the second lost Lord, who himself turned into a dragon previously.

3. En route to the next stop, they have two narrow escapes:  they are attacked by a sea serpent, where Eustace demonstrates the virtue of courage fighting it off (the text specifically points out his bravery); and then they land on an island where the water turns everything it touches to gold, and they must overcome the enchantment of greed (they also discover the remains of the third lost lord, who unwittingly  swam in the pool and got turned into a gold statue).

4.  Next they land on an island peopled by a group of foolish, one-legged dwarfs named the Dufflepuds.  The Dufflepuds have made themselves invisible because they believe an evil wizard put an “ugly spell” on them, and they couldn’t bear to look at one another; now they wish to be visible again, so they force Lucy to sneak into the Wizard’s study and read a spell from his book.  Along the way Lucy is tempted to read a spell that will make her beautiful, and it is revealed she has always felt envy towards her sister, who was always considered the prettier one.  (The Dufflepuds are the embodiment of folly, the total opposite of the virtue of wisdom, and their foolishness is played up for comic relief.)

5.  Next they come to an island where “all your wildest dreams come true,” which seems promising at first, until they learn that the dreams in question are really the deepest, darkest corners of the id, the stuff that spins your nightmares in the dead of night.  This one’s a bit Freudian, but it’s my contention that this island is Lewis’ way of handling the theme of lust on a level a child would be able to process and understand.  (Notably, they meet the fourth Narnian Lord here, who ostensibly arrived at the island do to his lack of temperance.)

6.  Finally they arrive at the last island in the book, and are forced to decide if they will carry on to Aslan’s country or not.  Here they discover the last of the three Narnian Lords.  It’s worth pointing out here that in Christian ethics (and Lewis cites this concept in Mere Christianity, so we know he was familiar with it), the first four of the cardinal virtues—justice, courage, wisdom and temperance—were said to be virtues even the pagans could attain to, without Christ.  But the last three virtues—faith, hope and love—were said to be virtues that it took the special grace of the Holy Spirit to attain.  So it’s no accident that the last three Narnian Lords are all found together on the last island before Aslan’s Country.  Interestingly, the three lords have fallen into an enchanted sleep because they could not agree whether they should carry on to Aslan’s Country or not, and the only way to awaken them is for the crew to journey on themselves and leave someone in Aslan’s Country. (Also notable: the reason they are asleep is because they had been quarreling about whether or not to go on to Aslan's country, and one of them grabbed hold of a sacred knife in an outburst of anger, causing the enchantment to fall on them.)

7.  When they finally arrive at Aslan’s Country, Prince Caspian himself wishes to stay behind, even though he must return to be king of Narnia.  The rest of the crew tries to convince him of this, but in his pride, he insists on staying, until Aslan encounters him and helps him to repent. 

This is, of course, a rough overview, and if you’ve never read the book, it may not make much sense to you.  But if you have perhaps it will ring true:  the Voyage of the Dawn Treader is really about the Christian voyage, the journey of growth in Christian virtue, and at each adventure along the way, the children must prove themselves in one of the seven cardinal virtues or resist one of the seven deadly sins (or both), and so draw closer to their heavenly destination, the land beyond the rising sun, Aslan’s Country.  Inasmuch as this is a journey that, in the end, all Christians must take, you might say that Voyage is, actually, a fictional, allegorical, children’s-lit discipleship manual,  an imaginative reflection on the spiritual life.


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

It's interesting how God sometimes uses tiny, seemingly random details in the text to put his finger on things for you, spiritually speaking.  In Genesis 24:11-20, Abraham's servant is looking for a wife for Isaac (at Abraham's behest), and as he's standing beside a well near the city of Nahor, he prays for a sign.  "When the girls come out to draw water, if I ask for a drink, the girl who offers not only to give me a drink, but also to water my camels, may it be that she's the one you've chosen for Isaac."

It was just an offhand thought, but it got me wondering, how big a deal would it be for a girl to water all this guys' camels; so I did some basic math.  Genesis 24:10 says that he had a caravan of 10 camels specifically, and according Google, a thirsty camel can drink up to 40 gallons of water (they had just made a 400 mile trek from Canaan to Haran, so they were probably pretty thirsty).  But even if they were only half thirsty, we're talking about 200 gallons of water to water all 10 camels.  We know that when Rebekah arrives, she's carrying her water pitcher on her shoulder, so it probably wasn't more than 5 gallons, which would have weight about 40 pounds.  What this means is that, for Rebekah to water all 10 camels, it would have taken somewhere between 40-60 trips to the well.  Even at a rate of one trip every 5 minutes, we're talking 3-4 hours.

In other words: the sign this servant of Abraham asked for was: God, let the girl you've chosen for Isaac be someone willing to spend 3-4 hours of grueling manual labour, watering the camels of a perfect stranger, and let her offer to do this freely without being asked.  And this is the very sign God provides: Rebekah waters the camels just exactly the way Abraham's servant prayed it.  And here's where God put his finger on something for me: because this is, when you stop to think about it, a remarkable request for an incredible sign, and yet it's what the servant asked for and it's what the Lord provided.

I gets me wondering if sometimes we low-ball our expectations of God, if we don't ask his Spirit often enough to confirm the path we're meant to take, and if, even when we do seek God's direction on this or that step, we too often limit the possibilities based on our ho-hum common sense of what is or isn't likely to happen. I mean: Good gracious, no one's gonna drop everything and spend the next 4 hours sweating over camels of a perfect stranger, are they?  May God give his people the un-common sense to look for his hand and follow his lead into the least likely possibilities of life with him.

The Thursday Review: The Ineffable Line

first published May 7, 2010

I've been working on a song for about seven years now. The idea came to me one Sunday morning when I happened to open the Bible randomly to Isaiah 49:16, and read these lines: "Can a mother have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you. Look: I have engraved you on the palms of my hands." The imagery stuck in my imagination, and with it, this line rang in my head: "I wrote your name with the nails of the cross / on my hands and feet that it might never be lost." When I got home I sat down at the piano and plunked away until I had the seed of a song planted.

This is the song that the seed's grown up into, seven years later:

I have inscribed you


Now the song hasn't really changed that much in seven years; I only say I've been working on it ever since because of those difficult lines at 2:54: "It was broken for you / It was offered for you / It was poured out to..."

For seven years now I've been trying to find the best way to end that line. It [i.e. Christ's life] was poured out to...well... to what? How do you summarize the meaning of Christ's death in 5 syllables? (That is, 5 syllables so that the line will scan; ideally it will rhyme with "you" too)?

In theological terms, my song writing dilemma has to do with the Doctrine of the Atonement-- that is, how do you explain, primarily, why Christ's death was able to save sinners like us. There are a number of traditional answers to this question in Christian theology, various "Models of the Atonement" that we might draw on to fill in those 5 missing syllables. Let me illustrate with some examples from some contemporary worship songs:

Penal Substitution
Christ took the punishment for sin in our place: You are my King; "I'm forgiven because you were forsaken / I'm accepted, you were condemned"

Christus Victor
Christ won the victory over sin, death and the devil through his sinless death: Hope of the Nations; "In history you lived and died / you broke the chains / you rose to life" also, In Christ Alone; "Then bursting forth in glorious day / up from the grave he rose again / and as he stands in victory..."

Satisfaction
Christ's death satisfied God's wrath and/or impinged honour: In Christ Alone; "Till on the cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied"

Moral Influence
Christ's death is the ultimate demonstration of God's love towards us, which turns us from sin when we discover it: Once Again; "Once again I look upon the cross where you died / I'm humbled by your mercy and I'm broken inside"

Reflecting on and learning to articulate my own understanding of the Atonement has been an important part of my journey with Christ and my formation for ministry. The various "versions" of my song reflect milestones on that journey.

I'm embarrassed to say, for instance, that the first version reflected the typical, Evangelical, "Personal(ized) Jesus" model of the Atonement that I'd unconsciously absorbed from songs like "You took the fall / and thought of me above all": "It was broken for you / it was poured out for you / It was offered only for you" (ugh)

Later I learned about the Christus Victor model of the Atonement from guys like Gustav Aulen, and I worked with versions of the line like these: "It was broken for you / it was poured out for you / It was paid as a ransom for you" or: "It was broken for you / it was poured out for you / To break death's power over you"

For a while I tried to avoid the Atonement altogether and focused on the sanctifying work of Christ instead: "It was offered to sanctify you"

But a while ago I read Han Boursma's treatment of the Atonement in his book Violence, Hospitality and the Cross, which helped me arrive at a much more robust understanding of Christ's death, and, indeed, the nature of the sin that he atoned for. With his work in mind, this is what I finally came up with:

"It was broken for you / It was offered for you / It was poured out to make all things new"

There are probably better rhymes out there still, but I'll leave it there; or maybe, as a devotional and theological exercise, it would be better to leave the line unfinished, and let the silence symbolize itself the ineffable mystery of the cross.