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.

Serendipity Smiles, a song



Serendipity goes down
To the river in the moonlight
And she slips her foot in laughing
And she says the water’s fine
And I don’t want to drown
While we’re swimming in the starlight
So I hold her body close to me
And tell her that she’s mine

And O, Serendipity, I glimpse eternity
Once in a while
And O, Waves of ecstasy, washing over me
Whenever Serendipity smiles

Serendipity lies down
In the grass under the willow
And she stretches out her body
And she says the shade is fine
And the sun is beating down
And I’ve got no place I need to go
So I stretch out there beside her
And I take her hand in mine

And O, Serendipity, I glimpse eternity
Once in a while;
And O, waves of ecstasy
Washing over me whenever Serendipity smiles

Serendipity sits down
In the silence on the mountain top
And she spreads her arms out to the world
And she says the view is fine
And the breeze is dancing round
And I don’t know when we’re gonna stop
So I lean my body into hers
And I let her take her time....

And O, Serendipity, I glimpse eternity
Once in a while;
And O, waves of ecstasy
Washing over me whenever Serendipity smiles

The Heart's Referee, a devotional thought

In Colossians 3:15, Paul says that, as we live out our new life in Christ, we are supposed to "let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts."  I'm familiar with this passage (I've even preached on it before) but something jumped out at me the other day that I'd never really noticed before.

I always sort of assumed it meant "rule" in the sense of "having top place," or "being in charge." Like a king rules a country, so the peace of Christ ought to rule our hearts. But it's actually more specific than that. The verb he uses for "rule" in verse 18 is not the verb used to describe a king's rule (basileuo), it's the word used to describe a judge or an umpire in an athletic competition, who makes a ruling about the winner (brabeuo; the noun form is used in Phil. 3:4).

In Paul's imagery here, the peace of Christ is not so much the king of the castle that is our hearts (Christ himself is that); it is the referee in the hockey game that is our whole inner life. I actually had that picture in my mind as I was praying through this verse this morning: my thought life, my emotions, my ambitions, my desires, my goals, my opinions, everything that goes on inside was like a big hockey game, with players moving around and crashing into each other while they all chased the puck of my attention. And then the peace of Christ blew the whistle (sometimes I get pretty imaginative in my prayers)-- anyways, the Peace of Christ blew the whistle: that ambition was off-side; that emotion was roughing; five-for-fighting on that opinion. Anything that doesn't contribute to, or promote, or express the Peace of Christ gets called out, and put in check and sometimes even thrown in the penalty box for a while.

May God grant us all the grace to make His Peace the referee of our lives.

The Thursday Review: Food For Thought

first posted September 17, 2010

Maybe you've seen this before. It was one of those shotgun emails with a subject line like "Interesting must see" or something, that came across my computer screen a while back. It's a photo essay that explores what people around the world eat in a week. After a bit of Google-work, I found out it came from this fascinating book on the same subject.

So, for instance, here's what the Revis family of North Carolina ate in one week:


By contrast, here's what the Ayme family of Tingo Peru ate in one week.

You can view the complete photo essay here, with pictures of families from, among other places, Japan (lots of fish), Italy (lots of bread), Germany (lots of cream), Chad (not much of anything). It's quite a thought-provoking piece that raises all sorts of questions about the food-stuffs we stuff into our maws.

Questions about what we eat. How much we eat. Where it comes from, and with whom we eat it (it stands out to me that in many of the non-western photos, it's not just a Mom and Dad and child, 3.2 people standing by their pile of food, but a whole household that spans maybe 3.2 generations). It also raises questions about imbalance of wealth and power in the world, or about the mechanized, modernized, synthesized food processing industry that we depend on in the West to laden our tables with so many plastic-wrapped edibles.

I've been thinking about these questions a lot lately. This is partly because I think there's something very spiritual about food that we've lost sight of in our world, where food no longer comes from the dirt and the rain and at the expense of living things, but from from a box in a store at the expense of our debit card. I don't think its coincidental, for instance that Levitical purity laws put such an emphasis on what you ate as part of your life with God, or that you sealed a covenant in the ancient world by eating a meal, or that Jesus ate with sinners.

Inspired by this photo essay to explore some of these questions a bit further, I spent a week tracking all the food I ate. It turned out to be a humbling and enlightening exercise that challenged me to think a little more deeply about food and its role in our lives. So, in the spirit of "What the World Eats," here's a picture of what it takes to keep me fed for the week:

Creative Being (II): Creative Spirituality

Creativity is hard to define but impossible not to notice when it’s happening. It’s a musician who somehow takes a traditional form and produces something entirely original with it, all while respecting the bounds of the form; it’s an artist who puts brush to canvas and produces an image that captures the essence of something everyone else had looked at before but no one had ever really seen; it’s a novelist who tells a story that no one has ever heard but is for all that hauntingly familiar.

Creativity is one part discovery, one part remembering, one part observing and one part expressing.

Interestingly, many authors attribute a spiritual quality to creativity. According to Rollo May, creativity “brings to our awareness what was previously hidden and points to new life. The experience is one of heightened consciousness, of ecstasy.” Dieter Uchtdorf called the desire to create “one of the deepest yearning s of the human soul.” Brene Brown said, “Creativity is the way I share my soul with the world.”

What these and other authors seem to be touching on is the sense that when we are being creative, we are coming into contact with something deeply interior—something inside of us—and at the same time, something profoundly transcendent—something above, beyond or outside the everyday—and that whatever else spirituality is about, it, too, has to do with the coalescence of these two things: the interior and the transcendent.

Whether or not there is, in fact, something genuinely spiritual about creativity (my jury is still out on that one), there is, I think, something profoundly creative about spirituality. Put differently: it may or may not be the case that through creative activities we can “encounter and express the spiritual,” but it is most surely the case—at least, from a Christian perspective it is—that when we truly encounter the Spiritual, something very creative happens in us. I say this in part because of the themes of New Creation woven like a gilded thread through the tapestry of the New Testament witness: if anyone be in Christ, there is New Creation (2 Corinthians 5:17); our Lord is the one who (behold) makes all things new (Revelation 21:5); he admonishes us to forget the former things for (again, behold) he is doing a new thing (Isaiah 43:18). The Scriptures pulse with this promise: that something brand new, original, unprecedented and above all creative happens, and is happening, whenever men and women discover their true nature as Children of God through faith in Christ.

It may not involve composing a musical score or drafting an epic novel, but to the extent that creativity is about seeing things that never existed before and bringing them into being, to the further extent that creativity is about discovering worlds of possibility where before there were none, and to the ultimate extent that this is actually what happens to us, spiritually, when we come to Christ, as God reveals in us an identity that had not previously existed and opens up for us a world of hope that was not there before—to that extent, Christian spirituality is deeply and profoundly creative.

In his spiritual autobiography, C. S. Lewis talks about the role that poetry played in his coming to faith. He says that as he approached the point of conversion, he discovered a "ludicrous contradiction between [his atheist/secular] theory of life and [his] actual experiences as a reader." Namely: "those writers who did not suffer from religion and with whom in theory [his] sympathy ought to have been ... all seemed a little thin. ... The roughness and density of life did not appear in their books."  At the same time, the authors he felt he could feed on most deeply, and did—George MacDonald, G. K. Chesterton, John Donne, Spenser, Milton, Herbert—all "by a strange coincidence" shared the same unfortunate "kink": their Christian faith.

As he puts it: “Christians were all wrong—but the rest were all bores.”

At the time, he assumed these authors were good "in spite of" their faith. But as he reached the threshold of his own Aldersgate moment, he began to believe they were good "because of it."

To this we might say: of course they were; what else would you expect? The Christian experience is an opening of the eyes to things previously hidden. It is an expanding of the heart’s capacity to feel, a piquing of one’s thirst for truth, the ultimate (and most literal) of inspirations, the fulfillment of God’s own promise to give dreams and reveal visions to his people.

The real head-scratcher would be a Christian who had encountered Christ and afterwards did not see things afresh, or feel things deeply, or thirst for truth, a believer who was not daily inspired and dreaming big dreams by the Spirit.

This head-scratcher happens, of course—there is such a thing as a dull Christian, to be sure.  But my experience is that as people take steps forward in their faith, as they take risks following Jesus and let him lead them out of their comfort zones, he awakens this Spiritual Creativity in them. The business man who spent a life time making rich people richer starts looking at the world afresh and creatively redirects his business efforts into justice for the poor and the oppressed. The teacher who up till now only saw his career as a path for personal advancement comes to Christ and creatively starts speaking grace and truth and love into the lives of his students. The construction worker who simply punched the clock all these years discovers in Christ ways to use his skill creatively, building churches on the mission field.

These are all examples from my own circle of acquaintance. And again, none of them have to do with writing music or painting pictures for Jesus (though I could share those stories too), but they have to do with something far deeper: the way Christ, when he touches us, also touches something in us: a human longing to act creatively in the world. Christ wakens it in us, and by his Spirit, he awakens us to it.

Afraid of the Dark, a song



I’m not afraid of the dark
I’m more afraid of the light in me
That bright and beautiful spark of you
No I’m not afraid of the dark
Beautiful and dangerous
Burning bright and glorious
Sparkling victorious
Inside of me

Could it be that there’s more than we imagine
Going on inside the soul
Could it be that there’s truth inside the passion
And the yearning makes us whole

The breath is willing,but the blood is weak
The heart is spilling and the spirit can’t speak (cause I’m)

I’m not afraid of the dark
I’m more afraid of the light in me
That bright and beautiful spark of you
No I’m not afraid of the dark
Beautiful and dangerous
Burning bright and glorious
Sparkling victorious
Inside of me

Shine on morning starlight
Come illuminate me
Light up all my blindness
Help me see what you see

The breath is willing,but the blood is weak
The heart is spilling and the spirit can’t speak (cause I’m)

I’m not afraid of the dark
I’m more afraid of the light in me
That bright and beautiful spark of you
No I’m not afraid of the dark
Beautiful and dangerous
Burning bright and glorious
Sparkling victorious
Inside of me

Mercy and Doubt, a devotional thought

There’s a somewhat unusual command for us in Jude 1:22.  Jude is a pretty obscure book, as far as New Testament letters go, tucked way in the back and right before the book of Revelation and all, so it's understandable if this particular verse doesn't get equal air-time with John 3:16 or Romans 3:23.  Nonetheless, 1:22 is worth some careful reflection. It's talking about the way Christians are supposed to be in their interactions with different people in and outside the church, and in v. 22 it says, “Be merciful to those who doubt.”

This is especially interesting, because the Greek word for “doubt” here refers to a believer who is experiencing doubt or wavering in their belief, more than it does an unbeliever who has rejected the faith or plain never accepted it. It is, I think, a very tender thing for Jude to say.

Sometimes we go through times in our lives, experiences, life changes or unexpected circumstances that leave us in seasons of doubt, questioning our faith, maybe, wrestling with the really hard questions, hanging on by a thread. This is true for even the most stalwart of Christians. And sometimes, I’ve noticed, when Christians are in these times and places, it can leave other Christians feeling threatened, uncomfortable, judgmental, anxious to “fix,” looking for trite platitudes to sweep the doubter’s “doubt” under the “easy-believism” rug. Inasmuch as so much seems to ride on faith, for the Christian, genuine doubting can be very disconcerting.

And if you’ve ever seen what I’m trying to describe here, and how unhelpful the trite platitudes are, how harmful the judgement can be, how much damage the anxious efforts to fix can cause, then maybe you’ll feel how tender Jude is being here, too. “Show all kinds of gracious, gentle mercy,” he says, “for anyone who’s there, in that season of doubt.” Mercy, he says, is what’s needed; and when you read it in the broader context of the surrounding verses, it looks like mercy is also what will bring the doubter through, to firm footing again.

May God give his people grace to be as merciful with each other in our times of doubting as he is with us.

Some of Past Art Projects


A series on the "Seven Hands of Christ" that I did for a course on the theology of Christ in Seminary.


A series of "stained glass" window inserts I did for the Seminary Chapel space at Briercrest Seminary.

The Thursday Review: But I Know What I Like

first published September 27, 2009

In an attic storage room behind the choir loft of my old church, wedged in between some dusty Christmas decorations and a couple of boxes of tattered hymnals, rests an ostentatiously-framed print of Warner Sallman's Christ at Heart's Door. Though there is maybe something (more than a bit) kitschy about this depiction of Jesus knocking at what appears to be Snow White's heart's door, in its day it was like the Mona Lisa of Evangelical artistic expression.

The day I stumbled across it (looking for an advent wreath, I think), it got me thinking about the place of art in the experience of Faith, and especially the Evangelical "tradition" of producing art that does little more than reiterate sentimentalized stereotypes about Jesus and the experience of life with him. (Notice the heart-shaped aura of light formed by the arch of the door together with the curve of light behind this "Swedish Jesus's'" shoulder.)

I lingered that day in the attic, though, because only a few months earlier I'd read David Morgan's Visual Piety, which examines artistic representations of Christ and explores their function in the religious experience of 20th century North America. The premise of his study is that popular religious imagery like this has power and significance specifically because it "contributes to the social construction of reality."

In other words, for all its sentimentality, popular religious imagery like Sallman’s has played an important sociological role in both shaping and affirming people’s religious experience. Morgan develops an aesthetic of “visual piety”- an experience of religious devotion mediated through visual imagery that depends on a “psychology of recognition.” Here the aesthetic experience of the image becomes function not of its formal artistic qualities, but of its conformity to the viewer’s preconceived religious ideal. Thus in the experience of “visual piety,” the picture’s beauty “consists in the satisfying experience of perceiving a particular understanding of Jesus adequately visualized."

In American religious experience, “Sallman’s image of Jesus confirms the traditional formula or convention of Christ’s appearance, but tailors it to the modern evangelical notion of Christ as obedient son and intimate friend." So, according to Morgan, when I see Sallman’s Head of Christ, I see my own preconceived understandings of Christ visually projected; but at the same time I receive and accept cultural values associated with the American Evangelical experience of Jesus. In a related discussion, he describes the process of “composition,” whereby a picture like Sallman’s brings together the essential elements of a wide range of historical and cultural representations of Christ, projecting the “essence” of the Jesus that pervades them all. As a medium of visual piety, then, Sallman’s picture becomes a “picture about pictures,” a cultural apparatus by which people can conjure up in a single representation “the elusive presence [of Jesus] immanent in and authorizing countless pictures."

What does all this mean? (Morgan is a religious-art-history prof at Berkley, after all...)

On the one hand, I suppose it suggests that before we abandon that Sallman print to the "religious kitsch" table at the next church yard sale, we should at least acknowledge the role it's played in a larger cultural discourse about who Jesus is and how we see him. Perhaps more importantly, though, we should let Sallman illustrate for us how tempting it is to try and fashion this Jesus into our own image, and how much we might miss out on (aesthetically and spiritually) when we do.

Creative Being: Reflections on the Artistic Nature of the Christian Life (I)

Years ago I was talking with a pastor friend of mine about how we each came to faith, and the obstacles that God had to overcome for us before we did.  I started to explain that, having grown up in a relatively conservative Evangelical home, one of my difficulties in embracing the faith as a young man was the feeling that I would have to give up something that I cared about deeply, if I did.

My friend thought he saw where I was headed with this, and he said: “You felt you’d have to leave you brains at the door?”  He was thinking of the strong anti-intellectualism bent that is present in many conservative Evangelical traditions

But that wasn’t it for me.  “No,” I said.  “Not my brains.  I thought I’d have to leave my imagination at the door.”

I have always had, by nature and nurture both, an artistic temperament.  Creativity is one of my core values.  I was an English major and an art minor in University.  I write songs.  I write poetry.  I once wrote a musical.  I am working on a novel.  I’ve blogged before about my passion for the arts.

Because of this heart for all things creative, and because of the Evangelical tradition’s tendency to employ the arts simply as bait-and-switch advertisements for a truncated Gospel, I’ve always struggled to believe that there was in my tradition a real place for art as art, with all its polyvalent ambiguity and unresolved tensions, and especially its honest effort to brush up against the true nature of things.  The only art I ever encountered in the churches of my childhood were those kitschy Warner Sallman portraits of silken-robed and carefully coiffed Jesuses knocking warmly on the heart’s door, those superficial church plays that resolved their conflict neatly and without remainder by a straight-forward asking of Jesus into said heart, or those saccharine love-songs where every day with Jesus is sweeter than the day before ever since he came in.  Somewhere in the midst of all that I picked up the not-so-subliminal message that art was a useful thing, and only “useful” so long as it was clear and straight-forward and unambiguous, but there were quite clear (and narrow) boundaries within which it must operate.

In one of the journals I kept during my University years, I put it like this:  “Because something (God, did you put it there?  Is it sin to listen?)  Inside me sings of the beauty and Truth of creation, and because something even deeper longs to capture, magnify, reflect and thus join the beauty and truth of creation, I am a poet. … I stare at that word on the page, and am flooded with questions impossible to answer:  Can I be a poet & serve God?”  It’s a bit maudlin, I realize, but it illustrates the point: somewhere along the journey of Faith, I picked up this idea that a “real” poet couldn’t serve God, and, more to the point, there was no real place in his Kingdom for a “real” poet (the witness of John Donne, John Milton, Gerard Manley Hopkins, C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot not withstanding).

I have long since resolved this dilemma, and as a Christian and a Pastor I’ve found my way into God’s service without leaving my imagination at the door, helped in great part by the writings of Francis Schaeffer, his son Franky, Madeline L’Engle, Jeremy Begbie and others.  I am thinking about it today, however, because I have been reflecting recently on the creative nature of the Christian life and the “artistic” (for lack of a better word) nature of the Christian disciplines.  Not only is there a place for the artist in the Christian faith, but to live the life of a growing Christian well actually requires us to use those very faculties that the artist hones and develops and employs as a matter of course in the production of their art: imagination, creative expression, story-telling, visioning and re-visioning the world. 

I do not mean, in saying this, that artists make better Christians, or that all Christians should be “artistic,” in the normal sense of that word.  I mean something simpler, and yet more profound:  that the Christian life is in its very essence artistic, and whether they realize it or not, whether they conceive of it in this way or not, whether they every write a poem or paint a picture in their lives or not, still,  serious, growing disciples of Jesus are—by the very nature of what it takes to follow Jesus—becoming artists.

This goes back, actually, to the very beginning.  In Genesis 1:27, we’re told that God created human beings by the power of his speech and that he created them in his image, "male and female, in the image of God made he them." There's far more going on in these few simple words from Genesis 1:27 than could ever fit into a 500 word blog post (indeed, they've inspired theological words-in-response at a ratio of something like 1,000,000:1) but what I want to focus on is the fact that, in the ancient world, a king who had conquered a land would then set up his image (zelem) in that land, the idea being that the image would effect, extend and continue the King's reign even when the King himself was not physically present.   And in the ancient world's framework for cosmogony (stories to explain how the cosmos came to be), creation always happened through an act of conquering and subduing chaos.  So in Genesis 1:  God conquers the formless-and-void chaos of the world-in-the-beginning, and, once the wild and waste world is formed and filed with verdant life, he sets humanity as his kingly "image" in the newly-conquered-Creation.  The implication here (among other things) is that humanity is called to extend, effect and continue the creative work he has begun.  Being made in the image of God is being made for a certain kind of “creativity”—a world-nurturing, creation-blessing, God-reflecting creative life in the world.

(With this all in mind, I can't help but notice that the words we most often use to describe the human act of "singing/drawing/carving/writing/making original things that didn't exist before" link it to divine things.  There's "creativity" itself, but there's also "inspiration" (to be "breathed" into), and there's "imagination" and "visionary" and "musical" (connected, of course, to the Greek Muses).  All of these words seem to be feeling around the etymological edges of that spiritual "thing" that happens when human beings act creatively.)

Of course, two thoughts follow this observation.  One is that the rest of the story describes how human beings failed in this calling to properly Image God in the creation.  Forbidden fruit was eaten; Humans were exiled; Paradise was lost.  The Image of God itself is not lost.  It is something intrinsic to being human, and the New Testament affirms that even this side of the Fall people are still in the Image of God.  But the image has been marred by sin and distorted in our exile. That’s the first thought: we see the Image now as if in a mirror darkly.  The second thought is good news, however: that in Jesus Christ, God has recapitulated the Image of God for us.  Jesus is the true Image of the Unseen God (Col 1:15), and by his Spirit Christians are being shaped into his Image and Likeness (Romans 8:29).  Through Christ the Image in us is being restored to its former glory and beauty.

And its former creativity.  Which is the point I want to make today:  if it’s true that the Image of God originally included a call to creative activity in the world on the Creator’s behalf, and if it’s true that in Christ the Image is being restored in us, then it follows that there is something intrinsically creative in the life of discipleship that He’s calling us into.

Again, let me stress that I don’t mean Jesus wants us to paint paintings, necessarily, or write short stories, per se, or take up interpretive dance even.  He loves it when we do these things for his glory, I think, but that’s not my point.  My point is that if the Christian life really is about having the Image of God restored in us, then the Christian life is itself a creative way of being.  It is about looking at the world with a sanctified imagination, and responding to it creatively, and putting our hands to it with skill and care and craft, and leaving behind something original and expressive and true.  To the extent that this is also what the artist tries to do whenever she picks up a paint brush or puts down a word or what have you, to that extent there is something fundamentally artistic about the Christian life.  The growing Christian is, you might say, an artist in the truest sense of that word.

Over the next few weeks at terra incognita we’re going to spend some time exploring this idea: the connections between Christianity and creativity.  If you’re an artist yourself and you’ve ever wondered if the Faith has any genuine room for your particular artistic passion, I hope you’ll come along for the ride.  If you’re not an artist, and have never really felt any draw to the arts, I hope you’ll join us all the more.  Either way, I hope we’ll discover that not only do we not have to leave our imaginations at the door, we actually need them—and our poetic expression, and our carefully-crafted stories, and our artistic visions and our full creativity—if we’re to love him well.



Dead Man Walking, a song



Verse 1:
I got miles to go before I sleep
I got miles to go before I sleep
If I should die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to keep

Chorus:
I’m a dead man walking, taking his first step
Like a blind man gawking, or a baby’s first breath
I’m a dead man walking, for crying out loud
Like a mute man talking, or a torn grave shroud
I’m a dead man walking

Verse 2:
And the winter snow, it covers my tracks
And the winter snow, it covers my tracks
If I don’t find my way to you
I’m sure I won’t find my way back

Chorus
I’m a dead man walking, taking his first step
Like a blind man gawking, or a baby’s first breath
I’m a dead man walking, for crying out loud
Like a mute man talking, or a torn grave shroud
I’m a dead man walking

Bridge
And the lights ahead, they beckon to me
When the wounds of the past are all I can see
And just one more step and I will be free

Chorus:
I’m a dead man walking, taking his first step
Like a blind man gawking, or a baby’s first breath
I’m a dead man walking, for crying out loud
Like a mute man talking, or a torn grave shroud
I’m a dead man walking

I got miles to go before I sleep
I got miles to go before I sleep

Labors of Love, a devotional thought

There's a line in Thessalonians that's worth mulling over a bit. Paul's talking about the ministry of the Thessalonian church and he says, "We continually remember before God (in prayer) your work, produced by faith, your labor prompted by love and your endurance, inspired by hope." Here we see two triads brought together in a fascinating way. One the one hand there is the three Christian virtues, of 1 Corinthians 13 fame: faith, hope and love. No surprise to see them showing up together; they always go together. But look what they're matched with: work, labor and endurance. It creates a fascinating progression: our faith in Jesus sets us to working for him; because we love Jesus (and his world) we work hard for him (work becomes labor); and when we're tempted to quit, our hope-that we will one day give our account and receive our reward in him-inspires endurance. It makes more sense when you lay it out vertically:

Faith ---> Work
                     \/
Love ---> Labor
                     \/
Hope --> Endurance

Where ever you're at on the journey today-- maybe you've been laboring because you love him and you need some hope to help you endure... or maybe you've just started out in faith, and he's calling you to make your work into a labor of love-- where ever you are, though, may his grace give you the faith, love and hope you need to endure in what you're doing for him.

The Thursday Review: Flag Waving in the Kingdom of Heaven

First posted May 3, 2011 after the Canadian Federal Election of that year; called to mind today as the world still reels from the outcome of the American Presidential election.  

In chapter 13 of Matthew's Gospel, Jesus tells a series of seven parables to help his followers imagine the Kingdom of Heaven.  Among these seven inter-connected and enigmatic word-pictures are some of Jesus' most well-known and well-loved parables, including the Sower and the Soils, the Pearl of Great Price, the Mustard Seed. 

A few years ago when I was studying at Briercrest Seminary, our Seminary Chapel was planning a special "Global Missions" service.  Normally we would use the flags of various nations to help capture and convey the international scope and global range of Christ's work in the world, but as I reflected on the symbolism of flags, it struck me how politicized, and polarizing, and even (at times) idolatrous these cloth symbols (and the concepts of Kingdom for which they stand) can become.  And I started thinking about the counter-Empire and anti-Empire posture the New Testament writers continually assumed.  And I started thinking about the way in which God's kingdom calls us in Christ to a radical realignment of our alligances to and our notions of kingdom.  And I was left wondering if national flags actually belonged in a service dedicated to celebrating the Kingdom of God after all.

And then I remembered Matthew 13, and I wondered:  rather than national flags, what would flags for the kingdom of God look like?  This idea started to germinate in my imagination and eventually I came up with this series of 7 "Kingdom of God" flags, symbolic representations of the seven parables in Matthew 13.

I am posting them here today, hoping you'll find them interesting; but also because I was up until 1:00 AM last night, watching the Canadian election unfold.  And as I listened to the various pundits and analysts earn their keep dissecting the unexpected results this morning, I kept glancing at these seven flags where they now hang on the wall in my office.  They were a helpful reminder that, for all the passion with which I participate in the privilege of Canadian democracy, I am, at the same time, the subject of a Divine King who bestows on me a Heavenly Citizenship which puts even the best-intentioned striving of our earthly nation-builders into eternal perspective.


Matthew 13:3-9.  The Sower and the Soils

Matthew 13:24-29:  The Wheat and the Weeds

Matthew 13:31-32:  The Mustard Seed

Matthew 13:33:  The Dough and the Yeast

Matthew 13:44:  The Hidden Treasure

Matthew 13:45: The Pearl of Great Price

Matthew 13:47-50:  The Net and the Fishes

Raindance, a song



Verse 1
And when the rain comes falling
Falling from heaven above
Don’t let it dampen your spirits
Let it water your love
Nothing green can grow
Except the rain comes along
In the downpour
Just sing this song

Chorus:
The Raindance!
When you’re caught in a storm that you just can’t explain
You raindance!
Keep moving your feet till the sun shines again
Nobody’s a prisoner of circumstance
You can find your way out if you just take the chance
On a rain dance!

Verse 2
And when the rain comes tumbling
Soaking the thirsty land
Don’t let it slip through the fingers
Of your trembling hands
And when the levee breaks
You won’t get washed away
And when the flood comes
You’ll laugh and say

Chorus:
The Raindance!
 When you’re caught in a storm that you just can’t explain
You raindance!
Keep moving your feet till the sun shines again
Nobody’s a prisoner of circumstance
You can find your way out if you just take the chance
On a rain dance!

Bridge
Spinning, spilling, splashing washing over your heart
Like a whirling dervish dancing his way to the start of
Spinning, spilling, splashing washing over your heart
Like a whirling dervish dancing his way to the start

Verse 3:
And when the rain comes softly
Sparkling like morning dew
It’s gonna soak your soul down
And make everything new
Nothing green can grow
Except the rain comes along
In the downpour
Just sing this song

Chorus:
The Raindance!
When you’re caught in a storm that you just can’t explain
You raindance!
Keep moving your feet till the sun shines again
Nobody’s a prisoner of circumstance
You can find your way out if you just take the chance
On a rain dance!

Taking the Scenic Route with God, a devotional thought

I was reading in Exodus for my devotions the other day and something in 13:17-18 had me thinking. It's just after the people have left Egypt and they're on their way to the promised land, but instead of taking them the most direct route (through the Philistine country), God leads them on a very circuitous route, through the desert toward the Red Sea. God's reasoning for leading his people on the long way around: "If they face war (in the Philistine territory) they might change their minds and go back to Egypt."

Now: you have to be careful, I realize, not to over-spiritualize the Old Testament stories, and not to hyper-individualize them, either, so I won't push this too far, but the obvious question arose for me when I read that: could it be that sometimes God does this with us, too? Maybe Exodus 3:17-18 speaks to those times in our lives when it feels like nothing's happening, spiritually speaking, that we're going around in circles, or at least taking the long way to get to where God wants us.

Could it be, when God's taking us on the long way around, that maybe it's because he knows something we don't know, and if he were to take the most direct route (in our ministries, let's say, or our discipleship, maybe, or what have you), if he were to take us there immediately the difficulties we'd encounter would be so great that we'd be tempted to give up altogether?

Be patient, and keep walking, even if the path you're on with him today is not "the shortest distance from point A to point B." God sees our whole journey at once, not just this particular leg, and who knows but that this rabbit trail, or this pit stop, such as it is, is also part of his beautiful, perfect wisdom.