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.

Live (Until You Die), a song



Verse 1:
I asked a wise man for the secret to his laughter
He said nobody gets out of here alive
So keep on breathing and you’ll find the joy you’re after
Spread wings and take your glorious swan dive

I asked that wise man for the meaning of his tears and
He said pleasure is like chasing after wind
One day it’s with you and the next it disappears and
And you don’t know when it’ll come around again ...

Chorus:
So catch a wave and ride it to the shore
There’ll come a day when you can’t catch no more
So until it fades, just don’t ask why
You gotta live, just live until you die

Verse 2:
You had me thinking ‘bout that afternoon in Paris
When the world was young we were so naive
And every misadventure was a gift for us to cherish
And each memory was a wonder to receive

And all the ground we’ve covered and the moments so exquisite
Open roads and mountain lakes and city lights
And I don’t know what’s coming but I sure don’t want to miss it
Take my hand and hold me close with all your might (and we’ll)

Chorus:
So catch a wave and ride it to the shore
There’ll come a day when you can’t catch no more
So until it fades, just don’t ask why
You gotta live, just live until you die

Bridge
Birth and life and laughter death
And all the spaces in between
Earth and light and water breath
And all the faces that I've seen
Birth and life and laughter death
And still we have this moment now
Earth and light and water breath
But you can show me how to

Chorus:
So catch a wave and ride it to the shore
There’ll come a day when you can’t catch no more
So until it fades, just don’t ask why
You gotta live, just live until you die

Song of Shalom

Ghost Notes, a song



Verse 1
After the earth shakes and after the wind dies
After the fire has scorched the ground
Come stand on the mountain and listen for silence
A small still voice that whispers the sound

Chorus:
Of ghost notes in the song
They echo, can you hear them
Calling, in the heart of the
Long dark night of the soul

Verse 2
After the darkness and after the daylight
After the shadows have come and gone
In the sound of your breathing, your broken heart beating
The small still voice it leads you on

Chorus:
With ghost notes in the song
They echo, can you hear them
Calling, in the heart of the
Long dark night of the soul

Bridge
Angel song ringing and seraphim singing
A cherubim calls in the throne room above
Oh can’t you hear it too glorious to bear it
His song of redemption salvation and love

Chorus:
O ghost notes in the song
They echo, can you hear them
Calling, in the heart of the
Long dark night of the soul

The Thursday Review: The Most Excellent Way: A Theological Reading of the Princess Bride

first published January 27, 2015


One of my favorite movies is Rob Reiner’s cult classic, The Princess Bride.  I have long held that this campy, swashbuckling fairy tale, for all its silliness and slapstick, actually deals very sensitively with a distinctly biblical theme:  That love is the most excellent way (see 1 Corinthians 12:31).

If you’re unfamiliar with this 1987 masterpiece, stop what you’re doing right now and go watch it; we’ll wait.  If you’re like the members of my family, however, and you can quote long sections of the script by heart (No more rhyming now, I mean it...), allow me to connect some dots for you.

On the surface, of course, one of the main themes this film deals with is the power of True Love.   As Westley tells Princess Buttercup, “Death cannot stop True Love, all it can do is delay it for a while.”  Or, as she will tell Prince Humperdinck latter on, “Westley and I are joined by the bond of love, and you cannot track that, not with a thousand bloodhounds, and you cannot break it, not with a thousand swords.”

So far, so obvious; but there is an important motif running alongside Westley and Buttercup’s romance that brings the whole theme into sharp and profound focus, namely: the quest for excellence.  If you’re familiar with the characters, you may recall that each of them are striving for, or have achieved, superlative excellence in some field of human endeavor or other.  Buttercup’s the most beautiful girl in the land, of course, but that’s an easy one.  Prince Humperdinck is the greatest hunter ever to live (he can track a falcon on a cloudy day).   Fezzik is the strongest man alive (only Fezzik is strong enough to climb the Cliffs of Insanity).  Inigo studied all his life to become the world’s greatest swordsman (and his sword, of course is a peerless work of craftsmanship).  Vizzini is the world’s smartest man (Plato, Socrates and Aristotle are morons next to him).  Count Rugen is writing the “definitive work” on the subject of pain (and spent a lifetime perfecting the greatest torture device ever invented).  Ranged against the power of True Love, in other words, is a host of superlatives that True Love will have either to subdue (as in the case of Fezzik and  Inigo) or defeat (as in the case of Humperdinck and Rugen).  In a world suffuse with “excellence,” that is, True Love proves itself “the most excellent way.”
                   
This all ties up rather neatly, but there is a layer to this that isn’t immediately obvious, but is so important: it is not romantic love, exclusively, that is the most excellent thing.  The film, in fact, presents us with a whole range of human loves that together combine to contribute to the victory of True Love. Inigo’s filial love for his murdered father (“I loved my father, so naturally I challenged his murderer to a duel”); Fezzik’s fraternal love for his friend Inigo (“Fezzik took great care in nursing his inebriated friend to life”); and, of course, the Grandfather’s paternal love for his sick Grandson, which he demonstrates by reading the book to him in the first place.  We’re invited to connect all these loves together in the closing line of the film.  As the Grandpa's leaving, the boy asks him to come back and read the book again tomorrow, to which the the Grandpa replies, “As you wish.”  These are, of course, the same words Westley spoke to Buttercup when what he really meant was “I love you.”  "As you wish," it turns out, can apply to more than mere romantic love.

Because in The Princess Bride, the “True Love” that is the most excellent way is not simply the romantic passion that binds Westley and Buttercup together.  It is, in fact, that profound and complicated network of human affections and loyalties and commitments and longings that binds human hearts to human hearts, parent to child, friend to friend, man and wife (that most bwessed of awangments...).  Westley’s and Buttercup's romance is, of course, the centerpiece of the story, but the point is to see how their romantic love both compliments and draws life from these other, equally important kinds of love that together point out the “most excellent way.”

In his classic book The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis notes that the ancients identified at least four distinct types of human bonding that today we would call “love.”  Storge, refers to warm affection between companions and family members; Philia describes deep, spiritual love between friends; Eros describes romantic or sexual love; and Caritas (charity) describes the kind of unconditional brotherly/sisterly love that the early Christians referred to with the Greek word agape.  And it was not eros specifically that was “the most excellent way,” but agape, the Love of God which the Spirit has poured out in our hearts.

I think there is something to regain in this more wholistic vision of love; because we live in a culture where sexual love is increasingly disconnected from the other types of loving relationships it was meant to encourage and compliment and draw life from. But biblically, I think, sexual love is supposed to fit in to a larger picture of shalom-ordered living: nurtured families and wholesome friendships and vibrant communities that taken together give us a taste of True Love; and we do violence to True Love when we wrench it from that setting. Perhaps if we could put eros back in its place among the other loves, it would start pointing us again to that thing which, all by itself, it is not: the most excellent way.

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

In Genesis 47:13ff, there's this little, passing, almost throw-away line describing how the people of Egypt indenture themselves and their land to Pharaoh, under Joseph's direction because the famine is severe and otherwise they'd starve. Joseph says, basically, "become Pharaoh's indentured servants, and I'll give you food so you don't die." The whole thing gets me scratching my head because, on the one hand, Joseph is not himself Egyptian--he's a Hebrew--and on the other hand, under the terms of God's covenant with Abraham (Joseph's grandfather), Joseph should be a blessing to the people, treating them with compassion, not, essentially, brokering their slavery to Pharaoh. The head scratching gets worse because, of course, the next book of the Bible (Exodus) opens with the Hebrew people themselves in slavery to Pharaoh. It all makes you think: could their slavery actually be the result of the system of slavery that Joseph is instituting here? Or put differently: if Joseph had treated the Egyptians with compassion here, perhaps his own people would not have become Pharaoh's slaves, in the next chapter of the story. From all that head scratching comes this thought: could it be that when God's people fail to sow the seeds of compassion today, those fields we neglect will be overgrown with the weeds of bondage, that we ourselves have to struggle with, tomorrow?

How Long?

More Than She Knows, a Song



(a song for Rachael)

Verse 1:
She’s got sunlight in her hair
But she doesn’t know it’s there
Shining everywhere she goes
She’s got laughter in her hands
That she doesn’t understand
She knows more than she knows

Chorus:
How quickly once upn a time becomes forever after
Like petals falling from a rose
And when the journey’s dark
I want your daylight to surround her
So much more than she knows
I love her more than she knows
I love her more than she knows

Verse 2:
There is a star shines in her smile
You might glimpse once in a while
If it don’t fade before it shows
And there’s a wisdom in her words
Even when they sound absurd
She knows more than she knows

Chorus:
How quickly once upn a time becomes forever after
Like petals falling from a rose
And when the journey’s dark
I want your daylight to surround her
So much more than she knows
I love her more than she knows
I love her more than she knows

Bridge:
Be thou her beauty o Lord of my heart
Be graceful and radiant in every part
While the World tries to teach her to trade it for lies
May naught be so fair as your light in her eyes

Chorus:
How quickly once upn a time becomes forever after
Like petals falling from a rose
And when the journey’s dark
I want your daylight to surround her
So much more than she knows
I love her more than she knows
I love her more than she knows

The Thursday Review: A Priestly Inheritance, A City of Refuge

first posted August 23, 2011

I've been thinking a lot these days about the levitcal cities of refuge described at the end of the Book of Numbers (chpt 35).

In case it's been a while since you waded through the Book of Numbers, let me refresh your memory. It's right at the end of the desert wanderings, and the new generation of Israel is about to enter the Promised Land, Israel's ancient inheritance. So the Lord gives Moses instructions about the boundaries of Canaan, and some general directives on divvying up the land to the 12 tribes. Namely: they are to assign the land by lot to the nine and a half tribes of Israel entering Canaan (keeping in mind that two and a half tribes have already received their inheritance on the east side of the Jordan).

But then Numbers 35 reminds us that the tribe of Levi isn't going to be getting an allotment in Canaan because, as 18:20 has already indicated, Aaron (and by extension, the whole tribe of Levi with him) will have no inheritance in the land. Instead, the Lord himself is going to be the priestly tribe's inheritance among the Israelites. Rather than receiving a portion of the land, Levi is to receive simply "towns to live in from the inheritance of the [other] Israelites." These towns are scattered evenly throughout the Promised Land, seeding (in effect) a priestly presence in-and-among the whole people of God.

You can read in Joshua 20:1-9 how this command is carried out, but what strikes me here is that the Lord specifically identifies six of the Levitical towns as "cities of refuge, to which a person who has killed someone may flee." The idea is quite simple: in the case of murder, tribal codes of the sort especially prevalent among a nomadic society like Moses' Israel would require a blood relative to maintain tribal honour by avenging a murdered family member (see Genesis 34 for dark evidence that such codes were well known among nomadic Israelite society).

But such tribal customs and the violent blood feuds they inevitably perpetuate are deeply at odds with a civil society like the one Israel will become, as she stands at the threshold of the Promised Land and looks ahead to her future. In civil society, justice must be carried out by an impartial assembly according to a standard code of law; retaliation and vigilantianism has no place in a society governed by God's Shalom.

So God sets aside six of the Levitical towns as cities of refuge-- cities of asylum to which an accused killer can flee until he has stood trial and his case has been heard; and cities of shalom, where the innocent can escape the tribal custom of honour killings.

Now, I don't want to read too much into this, but here's what I can't get off my mind today: the priestly tribe had no inheritance in the land other than a special place in the Lord's plan to mediate his Shalom to the people. And with this inheritance came the cities of refuge; and with them came a calling to be a people among whom the accused found shelter, where the guilty found asylum and the harried found refuge until God's Shalom had obtained in their lives (in this case in the form of a fair and imparital trial).

And you can't reflect on all this very long before you remember that 1 Peter 2:5-9 specifically identifies followers of Jesus Christ as the priesthood of believers that the tribe of Levi prefigured and foreshadowed in the Old Testament. And if it's true, what Peter says about Christians there, and it's true what Numbers says about the inheritance of the priestly tribe here, then it would mean that in Christ we have inherited a calling to be "cities of refuge."  Our communities are to be places where the accused, the guilty and the harried can find shelter so that the Shalom of God can obtain in their lives (in this case in the form of the unmerited, all-gracious justification of God through faith in Christ); what's more, this calling specifically and directly precludes any material inheritance "in the land" (i.e. the comfort, wealth, privilege and security that such an inheritance would have meant for an ancient Israelite).

And the obvious questions are staring me in the face:  am I part of a community of faith that has traded in the wealth and security of its "inheritance in the land" for the privilege of being a "city of refuge" like this?  And harder still:  Am I willing to belong to such a community of faith?  And hardest of all:  what's my role in helping my church be the city of refuge that God in Numbers 35 is calling it to be?

Three Minute Theology 4.6: Law and Grace



One of the secrets behind Mozart’s musical genius was his ability to improvise. They say he once gave a concert where he took a simple musical theme and improvised on it for over an hour with such creativity that it astonished everyone in the audience.

One of Mozart’s piano concertos, in fact, has long sections where the score is unfinished. Scholars believe this is because Mozart was writing for a deadline, and to save time, he planned to improvise these unfinished sections during the performance.

Christians aren’t legendary composers, but this kind of improvisation helps us get at the relationship between Law and Grace in the Christian life.

It’s one of the basic teachings of the Bible that those who are in Christ are no longer under the Law, but under Grace. But what does this actually mean?

When the New Testament talks about being “under the Law” it’s referring in particular to the Way of Life that’s described in that part of the Bible we call “The Old Testament.”

And being “under the Law” means trying to maintain and experience a relationship with God by following the details of this way of life—its rituals, traditions, and regulations—as strictly as possible.

So for example, when the Book of Deuteronomy prohibits God’s people from eating pork; or when the Book of Leviticus tells people not to trim the sides of their beards, let’s say ... “Being Under the Law” means seeking to maintain and express a right relationship with God by practicing all these things.

The Law also talks about loving the Lord your God; being truthful and faithful and chaste; loving your neighbour as yourself. So “Being Under the Law” means holding yourself to the moral standards of the Law, too.

Part of the Christian Message is that through his death and resurrection, Jesus has fulfilled the requirements of the Law—he’s fulfilled the meaning of all its rituals and traditions, and he’s satisfied its moral code.

And because he’s fulfilled the Law for us, anyone who is in Christ is no longer under the law. They no longer express and maintain their relationship with God by keeping the rituals and traditions of the Old Testament Law. They’re under grace.

But does that mean that the Way of Life we see in the Old Testament doesn’t matter anymore? Does it not matter how Christians actually live? Is there no moral standard that God wants to follow?

May it never be!

And this is where Mozart comes in. Because in one sense, the Old Testament Law is like a majestic Symphony, a master-piece by a Master composer, where every part is carefully orchestrated to make a harmonious whole. And to perform this piece means playing your part perfectly, note for note.

Being “under the Law” is a bit like playing in that orchestra.

But imagine this Master Composer wrote a piece that only laid out the basic melody and the broad themes of the music. He’s chosen the key, and planned the movements, but has left individual parts unwritten because he wants the musicians to improvise their parts.

What will they need to perform this piece? Obviously, they can’t play just any old notes. The rules of musical theory, the song’s key, and so on, all mean that some notes will “fit” and others won’t. So the musicians will need to have mastered these things and respect them as they play.

More than that, they will have to know the work of the composer himself, inside and out—his musical mind and soul—if they want their improvisation to reflect his heart for the piece.

But once they have all this, there will be a million different combinations of notes that they could play that would equally fulfill the composer’s intent for the performance.

Being under grace is a bit like this; it requires us to know the Master’s Heart for the Song, to respect the Musical Rules he’s given, but within that, to discover a million ways to creatively interpret what Life with God looks like, given our place in the orchestra.

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

In Genesis 45:22, Joseph does something that strikes me as kind of odd. He's just been reunited with his brothers, he's sending them back to fetch Jacob, their dad, and it says: "He gave each of them changes of clothes, but to Benjamin (the youngest brother, his own mother's son) he gave five changes of clothes and 300 pieces of silver." I call this strange because this is, in one sense, exactly what started the whole Joseph-and-his-jealous-brothers saga. Dad gave Joseph, and Joseph alone, an amazing technicolor dream coat, and his brothers hated him for his favoured position. And here, at the end of the story, Joseph does (essentially) the same thing with Benjamin. It could be a test, actually: if Joseph wants to see if his brothers have indeed changed, what better way to do it than by re-setting the circumstances that led to their original fall? No wonder he tells them in verse 24, not to quarrel on the way.

 Of course, if it is a test, it's a test for us, too, I think. Because I'll have to admit, my first thought on reading this is: hey, that's not fair! Shouldn't they all get the same? But then it occurrs to me that, in thinking that, I'm sort of standing with Joseph's jealous brothers back in Chapter 37, plotting against him because he received something they didn't. From there, my mind moves on to this thought: could our inability to celebrate it when God blesses others with things we don't have--our inability to celebrate God's generosity, simply because we weren't the recipients of it (if indeed we are unable to do so)--could that be the real sin of covetousness that Commandment Number 10 is warning us against?

Put differently, could one of the signs that we truly are growing in the Lord be the ability simply, sincerely, and joyfully to celebrate it when the Lord pours blessing into the lives of others, even if we ourselves aren't the recipients?

Words, Words, Words

Stranger in a Strange Land, a song



Verse 1:
Johnny used to talk like an encyclopedia salesman
Peddling his wares in an age of Wikipedia
He used to smile like a Polaroid camera
Running out of film in an age of social media

Chorus:
Stranger in a strange land
Stranger than fiction, stranger than truth
I’m in the quicksand
I can’t get no traction, I don’t need no proof
I’m in a strange land

Verse 2:
Marty took his stand like a deer in the headlights
Staring down the traffic while the cars whizzed by
He didn’t understand he’d brought a book to a gun fight
Flipping through the pages when the lead started to fly

Verse 3:
Billy brought the house down with his swan song about freedom
He drew a line in the sand of the beach
while the tide was on the rise
He may have lost some battles but he wouldn’t let them beat him
He stood there on the mountain top for a glimpse of paradise

Bridge:
Misfits and oddballs
And square pegs in round holes
Like sore thumbs sticking out there on a limb
Lovers, fanatics
And hopeful romantics
Ah the world wasn’t worthy, wasn't worthy of them

Chorus:
Stranger in a strange land
Stranger than fiction, stranger than truth
I’m in the quicksand
I can’t get no traction, I don’t need no proof
I’m in a strange land

Postcards from Narnia (VI): New Creation and the Last Battle

In 1956 The Last Battle, the final book in the Narnia series, won the Carnige Medal, an award that celebrates outstanding new literature for children. It is, in my mind, a well deserved recognition. The Last Battle not only serves as a near-perfect conclusion for the seven-book series, but stands on its own as one of the most masterful combinations of high fantasy, Christian eschatology, metaphysical philosophy, classic fable and modern fairy tale that I’ve ever read, all of it distilled and clarified as a children’s story, but one that, as Mr. Tumnus said of Aslan’s country itself, is like an onion where every circle is bigger than the last as you continue to go in.

That said, I do admit that it was never my favorite of the books. Though it expanded my imaginative horizons every time I read it, and was, to be sure, the first book I ever read that got me to think seriously about what heaven was and would be like, still, the sense of closure it evoked was so complete that I hated to read the last page. As hopeful as it was to know that the Great Story went on, and goes on, forever, and that in it every chapter is better than the one before, still, that last page of The Last Battle always left me with an ache in my heart for this story to continue, regardless how wonderful the next one would be.

If you’ve never read it, here’s how it goes:

Soon they found themselves all walking together—and a great, bright procession it was—up towards mountains higher than you could see in this world even if they were there to be seen. But there was no snow on those mountains: there were forests and green slopes and sweet orchards and flashing waterfalls, one above the other, going up for ever. And the land they were walking on grew narrower all the time, with a deep valley on each side: and across that valley the land which was the real England grew nearer and nearer.

The light ahead was growing stronger. Lucy saw that a great series of many-coloured cliffs led up in front of them like a giant's staircase. And then she forgot everything else, because Aslan himself was coming, leaping down from cliff to cliff like a living cataract of power and beauty. ...

Then Aslan turned to them and said: "You do not yet look so happy as I mean you to be."

Lucy said, "We're so afraid of being sent away, Aslan. And you have sent us back into our own world so often."

"No fear of that," said Aslan. "Have you not guessed?"

Their hearts leaped and a wild hope rose within them.

"There was a real railway accident," said Aslan softly. "Your father and mother and all of you are—as you used to call it in the Shadow-Lands—dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning."

And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.

I have a very vivid memory of reading that last chapter for the first time, and closing the book and just knowing, even as a 10-year-old child, that I had come into contact with something profoundly deep and beautiful. In other writings, Lewis talks about the “stab of northerness,” the pangs of “unsatisfied desire that are themselves more desirable than any other desire” that works of great literature awakened in him as a child. His own Last Battle, was I think, one of the first “stabs of northerness” to pierce my heart.

And yet it did hurt. However wonderful it was, it still stabbed. And this brings me to the point of this particular postcard from Narnia. Because the eschatological finality of The Last Battle—Father Time arises and crushes the sun to darkness; the stars literally fall to the earth; Peter, in the end is called upon to close the door on Narina for good—it all hurt to see the final end. No matter that on the other side of that closed door they would discover that the “true” Narina was there all along, and “true England,” too for that matter; still, the discontinuity between the lost old Narnia and the new-discovered Real Narnia, left an ache in the heart.

There are, actually deep philosophical roots here that a ten year old child could have known nothing about. In Plato, especially, and in the Neo-Platonic philosophers who followed him, the “real,” “solid,” “material” world of flesh and blood is actually not the “True” world. The “True World” is the world of “Ideas,” the world that exists, ostensibly, in the Mind of God and the world of which this concrete, light-and-matter-and-flesh-and-blood reality of ours is only a shadow. Platonically speaking, the chair you are sitting in is only a shadow of True Chair, the Real Idea of Chair, which exists in the Mind of God. You can read Plato’s fullest treatment of this in The Republic, and especially, most popularly, his “Allegory of the Cave.” In “Allegory of the Cave,” reality as we know it is only flickering shadows dancing on a cave wall, cast by “Real” objects that we cannot see.

Or if you've never read "Allegory of the Cave," just read the closing chapters of The Last Battle.  There is little doubt that Lewis had Plato, if not in mind, at least in his peripheries, when he wrote this:
"The Eagle is right," said the Lord Digory. "Listen, Peter. When Aslan said you could never go back to Narnia, he meant the Narnia you were thinking of. But that was not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or a copy of the real Narnia, which has always been here and always will be here: just as our own world, England and all, is only a shadow or copy of something in Aslan's real world. You need not mourn over Narnia, Lucy. All of the old Narnia that mattered, all the dear creatures, have been drawn into the real Narnia through the Door. And of course it is different; as different as a real thing is from a shadow or as waking life is from a dream." His voice stirred everyone like a trumpet as he spoke these words: but when he added under his breath "It's all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!" the older ones laughed. It was so exactly like the sort of thing they had heard him say long ago in that other world where his beard was grey instead of golden. He knew why they were laughing and joined in the laugh himself. But very quickly they all became grave again: for, as you know, there is a kind of happiness and wonder that makes you serious. It is too good to waste on jokes.

It is as hard to explain how this sunlit land was different from the old Narnia, as it would be to tell you how the fruits of that country taste. Perhaps you will get some idea of it, if you think like this. You may have been in a room in which there was a window that looked out on a lovely bay of the sea or a green valley that wound away among mountains. And in the wall of that room opposite to the window there may have been a looking glass. And as you turned away from the window you suddenly caught sight of that sea or that valley, all over again, in the looking glass. And the sea in the mirror, or the valley in the mirror, were in one sense just the same as the real ones: yet at the same time they were somehow different—deeper, more wonderful, more like places in a story: in a story you have never heard but very much want to know. The difference between the old Narnia and the new Narnia was like that. The new one was a deeper country: every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more. I can't describe it any better than that: if you ever get there, you will know what I mean.

It was the Unicorn who summed up what everyone was feeling. He stamped his right fore-hoof on the ground and neighed and then cried:

"I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this. Bree-hee-hee! Come further up, come further in!"
There are some points of contact between Plato and Christian theology, to be sure. In the Book of Hebrews, for instance, and certain parts of John, perhaps a passage in Colossians, or two, it sure sounds like the writers are working with Platonic paradigms—or, at least, paradigms informed by Platonic ideas. But in more broad strokes, there is a thread in Platonic philosophy that runs right against the grain of biblical theology. It's the idea that this world—this concrete world of flesh and blood and sunrises and child-births and rainfall and rush-hour traffic—is not real; or at least it is not as real as the spiritual, the world of ideas and angels and immaterial concepts that exists somewhere unseen. The logical corollary of this Platonic starting point is that the spiritual is thus somehow more important than the material, that it matters more and is of greater consequence to God.

Anyone fully steeped in a robust biblical theology of creation will see quickly how contrary to the narrative of the Christian Scriptures Platonic philosophy is in this regard. The fact that the Creator saw that the creation was good, and behold, it was very good, is axiomatic to the entire story arc of the Bible. That the word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, too, is axiomatic to Christian theology. The New Heavens and New Earth that John the Divine saw in his own Last Battle is, for all its being new, still continuous with the old (the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations, not their blotting out). Most biblical scholars these days would suggest that New Creation there means “re-newed Creation,” more than it means “Brand New.”

The last thing I would ever want to do is step up to bat with a pitcher like C. S. Lewis on the mound when game is philosophy, but I do humbly suggest that, to the extent it is influenced by Platonic categories, the eschatology of The Last Battle is not the best picture of what God has in store for his hurting world when the final battle is, at last, fought and won. A fuller picture, I think, would include an compelling affirmation that this creation—made and loved by the One whom Aslan symbolizes—is good and real and true, and that he intends, in the end not to discard it but to restore and redeem it.

This is maybe more than is fair to expect of a children's book, and who knows but that when it's all said and done if the redemption of this world won't look something like Father Time reaching up and squeezing the sun to darkness, or a page being closed on a beautiful but no longer necessary story.  After all, you usually have to pull down a lot of walls and tear up a lot of flooring when you're renovating.  Even so: because of our tendency to spiritualize our faith in unhealthy ways (popular evangelical views of heaven tend to be dripping with the worst kind of Platonism), and because of the escapism, apathy and disengagement from the world this so often results in, I would love it if we found a lost chapter of The Last Battle, one where, before the door was closed on Narnia for ever, Aslan healed the wounds of Calormen's tyranny and exposed the fraud of Shift the Ape, liberated the captives at Cair Paravel and renewed the stripped forests of Narnia, giving us a glimpse of what he had in mind when he created the world in the first place.


The Thursday Review: How Do You See?

First Published September 4, 2010

When you think of your bowels, do you think, primarily, about feelings of mercy and compassion?

I don't. But then, I'm not a 1st Century Palestinian. For them, the "bowels" (in Greek splangnon) were the seat of your tenderest affections, where things like pity, and empathy, and compassion came from. Usually we associate these things-- tender affection and warm feelings- with the heart, like when we say: "my heart really goes out to you." But in Jesus's day it wasn't your "heart," it was your "bowels." (Look, for instance, at 2 Cor 7:15, Phil 2:1, Col 3:12, Phm 1:7, 12, 20, or 1 John 3:17 in an old KJV, but don't try writing "My bowels go out to you" on your next Get Well Soon card (especially if it's for someone who's just had a coloscopy).)

But I'm not trying to be gross. I'm saying this to illustrate how easily we can miss the point if we don't remind ourselves that moderns and ancients often used different "psychosomatic categories" for talking about the body.

Sometimes, for instance, we hear people quote Jesus when he said: "These people honour me with their lips but their hearts are far from me." And because we use the "heart" to describe our emotions, we conclude that Jesus is saying he wants people to worship "with emotion." Now, it may be (and I believe it is) that Jesus wants people's emotions engaged when they worship. But in the Bible, the “heart” actually refers to the whole "inner self," and not exclusively, or even primarily, the "feelings." The "heart" is the seat of knowledge and reason (Mk 11:23, Ac 7:23; cf. Ex 35:10, Deut 8:5, 1 Kin 10:2, 1 Chron 29:9), will and resolve (1 Cor 7:37, Eph 6:22; cf. Ex 23:2, 1 Sam 9:20, 1 Chron 24:4), affections (Ac 2:26, Jn 16:22; cf. Deut 11:16, 1 Sam 1:8), and is better understood as a parallel to the “soul” than to “emotions.” Jesus’ criticism is not that the Pharisees lack emotion, but that their adherence to empty tradition at the expense of real holiness betrays hypocrisy, and is a sign that their “inner selves” are not aligned with God.

And speaking of "inner selves" and ancient psychosomatic categories, have you ever thought about Jesus' saying in Luke 11:34 about how the eye is the lamp of the body, and when the eye is good, the whole body is full of light? Modern science always told me that light goes into the body through the eye, so I always figured that Jesus' point here was that the eye is like a lamp letting light into the body, lighting up the soul, and if the eye is working properly, then the whole inner self will be full of light.

But then, I'm not a 1st Century Palestinian. Apparently many, if not most ancients, when they thought about it at all, believed that the eye "saw" by emitting light out from the body. This ancient theory of vision is called "extramission." And if you believed in extramssion, then the eye would be the lamp of the body in a way similar to how the headlights are the lamp of a car.

If Jesus is taking to a 1st Century Ancient Palestinian, then it's quite likely he means: "If your eye is good, it's because your whole body is full of light." The light that's "inside" will determine how the eye's seeing, because what's happening on the inside (light or dark) is what shines out, and will determine how you look at the world.

The question is not "is your eye working"; it's "is your heart full of light?" Because, as Jesus says elsewhere, "If the light that's in you is darkness, how great is that darkness."

When I do this psychosomatic shift in my imagination, the whole saying makes perfect, profound sense to me. And I discover it's quite true after all: as the light of Christ illuminates ever deeper and darker corners of my heart, I find I'm looking at the world more and more differently. And when I let the light of His Spirit shine out through the lamp of my body, I discover I really am seeing the world in ways I've never seen it before. The worldly treasure and ambitions and distractions that once looked so tantalizing now seem rather shabby; and humble things, simple things, pure things that I might never have given a second glance before, start to gleam with transcendent beauty.

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

The other day I was thinking about an interesting line in Genesis 46:3-4. It's right before Jacob goes down to Egypt to be reunited with Joseph, and on the way he goes to Beer-Sheba to worship "the God of his father Isaac." God meets him in a vision and says, "Don't be afraid to go down to Egypt for I will make you a great nation there; I will go down with you and I will bring you up again." It's a very encouraging verse, or at least it should be, for two interlocking reasons.

First, if you know your Old Testament history, you'll know that, in a way, Jacob's journey to Egypt has trouble written all over it. After a generation or two, they're gonna become slaves in Egypt, and they'll need God to bring them out with signs and wonders (a.k.a. the Book of Exodus). Jacob has no idea this is in store, necessarily, and whatever else this meeting with God is about, here, before he goes to Egypt, it suggests to me this important truth: just because things get hardBook-of-Exodus-slavery-in-Egypt hard, evenjust because the situation looks bleak, it doesn't mean you're not in step with God. The people of Israel might have looked at their circumstances in Egypt and thought, somewhere along the way we must have got off track with God's plan for us, 'cause look how hard it is right now. But Genesis 46:3-4 cuts that thought off at the pass: even before Jacob went down to Egypt God met him and said, "Go, and I'll go with you..."

Which brings us to the second point. In Exodus, when the people cry out to God in their distress, you sort of get the impression that God wasn't there up till then, that he'd gone AWOL and was only showing up at that moment. But Genesis 46:3-4 cuts that one off too: as bleak as it seemed in Egypt, God gave his word that he was going with them; and however much it may have looked like he was on hiatus in Exodus 2:24-25, the fact is, he hadn't gone anywhere. Nor has he abandoned you or I, even in our darkest moments.

Three Minute Theology 4.5: Magnifying Glass



When rays of light pass through a magnifying glass, they refract, or bend in towards each other. The spot on where these rays of light converge is called the “focal point,” and the intensity of the light at the focal point is determined by the ratio between the area of the lens and the area of the focal point.

If, for instance, you had a lens with a diameter of 10 cm and it focused the sunlight to a point 1 mm wide, the ratio of the lens to the focal point would be 78.5 to 0.0314, or 2,500 to 1. In other words, the power of the sunlight at the focal point would be 2,500 times more intense than it is when it comes through the lens.

If you’ve ever lit a piece of paper on fire using a magnifying glass before, you’ve experimented with this property of a convex lens, the way it concentrates the energy of the sun to a burning point.

So: one of the basic truths of the Gospel is that, for Christians, our entire life with God depends on God’s grace, not our works. It is by grace we have been saved, the Bible says in one place, and this not of yourselves, it is the gift of God. And, of course, if there was anything we could do to merit, earn or generate God’s grace on our own, it wouldn’t be grace.

The obvious challenge here is just that: if it really is all grace, does that mean that there’s nothing Christians need to do? Is there no expectation that our lives will change as a result of our relationship with God? Is there no actual requirement for holy living?

The Bible is quite clear in a number of places that there is. There are some very concrete things that Christians can and must do if they want to grow and mature in their salvation, even though salvation is entirely a free, unmerited gift.

One theologian, a guy named John Wesley, called these things “Means of Grace.” The word “means” here is meant in the old fashioned sense, like a “means to an end.” And the means of grace are things Christians do as a “means” towards the “end” of experiencing God’s grace.

Wesley divided the means of grace into two broad categories. There were what he called “Works of Piety”—things Christians do to grow in their love for God—and there were “Works of Mercy”—things that express God’s love to others. Works of Piety include things like: baptism, receiving communion, studying scripture, prayer, fasting, and so on. Works of Mercy include things like: visiting the sick or the prisoner, feeding and clothing those in need, or sheltering the stranger.

It is important to realize that, though they are necessary for the Christian, these works of mercy and piety are not ways we earn or merit or deserve salvation; they are simply the “means” whereby we experience it more brightly and clearly and intensely.

You might say that the Means of Grace are to God’s salvation like the magnifying glass is to the sun. The sunlight is always shining over us, warming us and lighting our way, but it won’t light any paper on fire until it’s been focused to a point by a magnifying glass. The glass doesn’t light the fire, of course. The sun does. But still the glass is necessary if the fire’s going to start.

In the same way, God’s grace is continually shining over us, but if it’s to light any fires in our lives—spiritually speaking, that is—it must be concentrated to a point by the Means of Grace. And so when we pray or we help the vulnerable, when we study the scriptures or we feed the hungry, and so on—these things don’t save us—they don’t light the fire—but they do bring God’s grace to a focal point in our lives, so that the fire of salvation can burn, deepening our love for God and broadening our love for others.

Perhaps, this is what the Bible means when it says: We are God’s workmanship created in Christ to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.