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

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

Three Hands Clapping

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

Ghost Notes

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


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


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


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


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


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

blogs I follow

Readings, 2020

Readings, 2020
Paradise Lost, John Milton

Adorning the Dark, Andrew Peterson

The Soul of Shame, Curt Thompson

Cure for the Common Life, Max Lucado

Halos and Avatars, Craig Detweiller, ed.

Fool's Talk, Os Guinness

Brendan, Frederick Buechner

The Screwtape Letters

Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis

The Pilgrim's Regress, C. S. Lewis

Becoming Whole, Brian Finkert and Kelly Kapic

Real Sex, Lauren Winner

Out of the Silent Planet, C. S. Lewis

Voyage to Venus, C. S. Lewis

That Hideous Strength, C. S. Lewis

Till We Have Faces, C. S. Lewis

random reads

On Book-Smarts and Being with Jesus, a devotional thought

There’s an interesting line in Acts 4:13, where the Sanhedrin is interrogating Peter and John, who’ve recently caused a stir by healing a lame man in Jesus’ name.  We’re told: “when the Sanhedrin saw their confidence and understood that they were uneducated and untrained, they were amazed, and took note that they had been with Jesus.” It’s an interesting juxtaposition—doubly interesting for someone like me, who is starting to gear up for another semester working on my doctorate, which starts in two weeks. The Sanhedrin are flummoxed at the spiritual depth and insight of these two uneducated fishermen, who don’t have any letters behind their name or diplomas on their wall, and the only thing they can credit it to is the fact that they had been with Jesus.

Don’t get me wrong. I place a high value on life-long learning, and think that careful scholarship is of crucial importance to the mission of the church (I did just get back from a two-week stint studying for my doctorate...) but Acts 4:13 seems to suggest that there is a kind of learning, and knowing, that goes beyond the best that any 1st Century Rabbinical school (or its 21st Century equivalent) can offer: a deep, careful formation at the feet of Jesus. Without this, all the book-learning in the world is just so much chasing after the wind; and it’s only with this—with a life-lived in the presence of Jesus—that academic scholarship can be what it was meant to be: a precious gift to the church, to the glory of God.

The Theology of Bruce Springsteen (Part 4): In the Shoes of a Stranger

One of the hidden gems on Springsteen’s classic Born to Run album is “Meeting Across the River.” The song tells the story of an amateur street thug and his friend Eddie, who are scraping together the cash for a vague and ominous-sounding meeting with a man “across the river.” From the details, we gather that the narrator is down to his last chance in the criminal underworld, that he and Eddie are in way over their heads, and that all their hopes for redemption are riding on whatever deal it is they’re planning to make with the man on the other side of the river.

What makes “Meeting Across the River” especially compelling is the fact that this story is told in the first person, through the eyes, as it were, of this third-rate hood, desperate to make it big in a world far bigger and far more dangerous than he is. The first person narrative voice creates a deep pathos and a profound empathy for the listener. When the narrator urges Eddies to stuff something in his pocket so it will look like he’s “carrying a friend,” the depth of his naivete and the strong likelihood that this meeting across the river is going to end very badly for them, creeps over us like a vague, looming shadow.

The first time I heard “Meeting Across the River,” it took a second to register for me that the “I” voice in the song was not Springsteen himself, that he was actually playing a role, singing a part. Having been raised on the intensely personal songs of the 80s, be it Glam-Metal’s odes to personal sexual prowess or U2’s spiritual ruminations about finding “what I’m looking for,” I had come to assume that whenever a singer sang in the first person like this, he must be singing about himself, expressing personal hopes and dreams, individual desires, and private disappointments. Part of what makes “Meeting Across the River” so arresting on first listen is the fact that the narrator’s voice is so convincing, so fully conceived and personal, that it takes a while to realize that you’re not really hearing the true confessions of a failed, entry-level street thing; you’re only hearing Springsteen imaging the world as one.

As a song writing technique, this art of assuming the role of a particular character and singing in his or her voice permeates Bruce Springsteen’s songbook. In “Born in the USA” he is a returning veteran of the Vietnamese war. In “Racing in the Streets” he’s a career street racer looking over his life. In “The River,” he’s a teen aged dad watching his dreams go up in smoke in the face of unemployment, adult responsibility, and the Carter recession.

It was “The River,” actually, where he first began experimenting with this approach to writing songs in a serious way. In this brief excerpt from the documentary “The Ties that Bind,” Springsteen talks about the development of first-person storytelling in his music.

“With a very specific narrative story,” he explains, “I would sing in that voice, you know, of the character. And it wasn’t necessarily me, though it was partly me, and partly other people. … ‘The River’ was my touchstone for all that writing that came later, where you simply step into a character’s shoes and try to get your listeners to walk in those shoes for a while.”

Towards the end of the above clip, he talks about the power of this kind of song writing. “You’re laying claim to [a] character’s experience, and you’re trying to do right by it as a song writer, and you’re taking the risk of singing in that voice.” Taking this risk, he says, “is the writer’s job. [It’s to] faithfully imagine the world, and other’s lives in a way that respects them … sort of honours them … and records them in your own way somewhat faithfully.”

What Springsteen is talking about here, I think, is more than just the writer’s job.  It’s the well-spring of grace and compassion in the human heart. At least: the ability to imagine the world through the eyes of another human being, and to do it in a way that respects and honours them faithfully, is essential if we are to know true compassion and extend genuine grace to others. To realize what it might mean to be a dying AIDS patient, for instance, longing for brotherhood as he waits out the sunset of his life (as Springsteen tries to do in “Philadelphia”) is to take a step towards true empathy for the lonely dying in our own lives. To realize what it might mean to be young, unemployed, and out of options (as Springsteen does in “Atlantic City”) is to plant seeds of grace in your heart for the hard decisions people in such circumstances need to make every day.

Whenever I see this “faithful imagining of the world through another man’s eyes” happen well in a Springsteen song, it occurs to me that Christians could do worse than take a cue from him on this one.  At least, it is certainly what our Lord did for us, on a cosmic scale, when he literally stepped into our shoes—the Son of God become the Son of Man—and walked in them all the way to the cross.  "We do not have saviour who is unable to empathize with us in our weakness," says the writer of Hebrews, "but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are, and yet he was without sin."  Herein lies the source and power of Christ's grace and compassion for us, that in him, God literally looked through the world through human eyes.  "For this reason," the writer of Hebrews says in a different place, "he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every way, in order that he might become a faithful and merciful high priest in service to God."

And to the extent that his compassion and grace are in fact the currency of the Christian life, this ability to “step into a character’s shoes and walk in them for a while” should come as naturally to us as breathing. If it did, I expect that the “weightier matters of Law”—justice and mercy and faithfulness—would come more naturally, too. To quote a song writer that predated Springsteen by a good 750 years, the Way of Jesus is to seek “not so much to be understood, as to understand … not so much to be loved, as to love with all [our] souls.”

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The Widow's Mite, a devotional thought

In Mark Chapter 12 we come across a well-known story about a widow who gives two pennies into the Temple treasury, while all the rich are dropping cool-crisp 20 dollar bills in the plate (or the 1st Century equivalent...).  Jesus watches the scene unfold and then he says, "I tell you the truth, this poor widow gave more than all the others, because they gave out of their wealth, but she gave everything she has" (Mark 12:44).

When you read this story in the broader context of Mark's narrative, you can't help but notice that it comes right after Jesus has finished denouncing the Teachers of the Law because they "devour widow's houses..." (v.40). So there's two references to widows back to back in Mark 12. But there's also two references to Teachers of the Law, because right before Mark 12:40, another Teacher of the Law asks Jesus what's the greatest commandment, and he says, "To love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbour as yourself."

The reason this broader context matters is because it suggests that this generous widow is not just being held up as an example to generic rich people (though they are implicated...). She's being held up as an example to the Teachers of the Law, in particular, who who split hairs over which commandment is greatest, and then turn around and violate the first and foremost commandment by gobbling up the homes of the likes of her, using their wealth and their legalistic righteousness to justify their economic exploitation of others. Back in verse 29, Jesus told a Teacher of the Law that the most important commandment is to love God and love your neighbour, and here in verse 43, he points out the self-giving of a powerless widow, sitting lowest of all on the socio-economic totem pole, as the best example of what that actually looks like.

Some very sobering thoughts bob to the surface when you connect all these dots: if the Teachers of the Law really got it, what the greatest commandment was (v. 29-3), they wouldn't "devour the homes of the widows" (v.40), would they? And then that widow's two pennies wouldn't be "everything she had to live on." Would it? This story is as much a condemnation of spiritual-economic exploitation as it is an exhortation to give generously (probably more so). Loving God with all your heart is not some abstract, immaterial, touchy-feely type-thing. It actually looks like that impoverished widow in the Temple treasury that day, literally putting it all on the line with God and trusting him to provide. But the thing is, if we all got that, and did it with her, then she wouldn't be down to her last two pennies in the first place.

The Theology of Bruce Springsteen (Part 3): Life through the Eyes of the Losers

One of my favorite Bruce Springsteen albums is 1982’s Nebraska. The story goes that the album is really just a collection of demos that Springsteen recorded in his bedroom, on a four-track Tascam cassette recorder. In his autobiography he describes the process: “I’d sing, play, and with the two tracks left, I could add a backing vocal, an extra guitar, or a tambourine. On four tracks that’s all you could do. I mixed it through a guitar Echoplex unit onto a beat box like the kind you’d take to the beach; total cost for the project: about a grand.”

Springsteen took these demos into the studio to record them with The E Street Band, but after re-recording them and remixing them, he realized that the unpolished sound of those bedroom tape-recordings were actually truer to the spirit of the songs he'd written: “On listening [to the studio versions] I realized I’d succeeded in doing nothing but damaging what I’d created. We got it to sound cleaner, more hi-fi, but not nearly as atmospheric, as authentic.” In the end, he released those original demos as the finished album, and 35 years later, you can still hear the dim background noise, the ever-so-subtle low-fi grit, the rough edges and the spare four-track arrangements that give Nebraska its haunting quality.

This haunting quality is perfectly suited to tell the stories of the haunted characters that lurk the lyrics and people the worlds of the songs on Nebraska. If the characters in “Thunder Road” were fleeing from “a town full of losers” and pulling out to win, the songs on Nebraska are stark, compelling portraits of all the losers that got left behind.  “The tension running through the music’s core,” Springsteen writes, “was the thin line between stability and that moment when the things that connect you to world, your job, your family, your friends, the love and grace in your heart, fail you. I wanted the music to feel like a waking dream, and to move like poetry. I wanted the blood in these songs to feel destined and fateful.”

 If the blood in these songs is indeed destined and fateful, it is destined, in particular, to fail, and fated, especially, to lose.

There is, for example, the desperate hero of “Atlantic City,” who is down on his luck and caught up in a world of organized crime far bigger than he is. His “luck may have died” and his “love may be cold,” but he still has one last chance to break his losing streak (however shady that chance may be):
Now I been lookin' for a job but it's hard to find
Down here it's just winners and losers
and don't get caught on the wrong side of that line
Well I'm tired of comin' out on the losin' end
So honey last night I met this guy
and I'm gonna do a little favor for him

Well I guess everything dies baby that's a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back
Put your makeup on fix your hair up pretty
and meet me tonight in Atlantic City
Another great example is the little boy in “Used Car,” who wrestles with the shame and stigma of his family’s blue collar poverty, crystalized for him in the experience of driving home in their new used car, the best and only thing their family can afford.
Now the neighbors come from near and far
As we pull up in our brand new used car
I wish he'd just hit the gas and let out a cry
And tell them all they can kiss our asses goodbye

My dad he sweats the same job from morning to morn
Me I walk home on the same dirty streets where I was born
Up the block I can hear
my little sister in the front seat blowing that horn
The sounds echoing all down Michigan Avenue

Now mister the day my number comes in
I ain't ever gonna ride in no used car again
As a final example, there’s poor Ralph, the out-of-work-auto-plant worker in "Johnny 99," whose turn to petty crime after losing his job on the assembly line leads him down a dark path ending with a murdered night-clerk and a life-sentence. His final statement to the court before the bailiff comes to forever take him away encapsulates the weary-of-losing and out-of-luck desperation that permeates this album:
Now judge, judge I had debts no honest man could pay
The bank was holdin' my mortgage
and they were gonna take my house away
Now I ain't sayin' that make me an innocent man
But it was more 'n all this that put that gun in my hand

Well your honor I do believe I'd be better off dead
So if you can take a man's life
for the thoughts that's in his head
Then won't you sit back in that chair
and think it over judge one more time
And let 'em shave off my hair
and put me on that execution line
I could also mention the torn loyalties of the police officer in “Highway Patrol Man,” caught between his duty to the law and his love for his derelict brother, or the speeding desperado in “State Trooper,” roaring along a wet highway in a New Jersey Night, with unspoken sin on his hands and an anxious prayer on his lips: “Mr State Trooper, please don’t stop me …”

Though it gets its finest treatment on Nebraska, this heart for the losers and the luckless of this world permeates Springsteen’s song writing. There’s the speaker in “The River,” who takes all his hopes and dreams for the future, and exchanges them for the unwanted responsibility of being a teen aged dad.  There's the third-rate thug in “Meeting Across the River,” who's trying to scrounge up the cash to make a sketchy deal with some shady character on the other side of the river.  There's the forlorn, if willfully naïve lover in “Candy’s Room,” who can’t bring himself to ask the truth about the "strangers from the city" who call his girlfriend’s number and "bring her toys" (all he knows is that there’s "a sadness hidden in her pretty face / a sadness all her own / from which no man can keep Candy safe.")

In his more mature song writing, the same theme shows up poignantly in songs like “Philadelphia” (about a man dying of AIDS) or “Jack of All Trades” (about the impact of the 2008 Recession on working class Americans). Even his most famous song, “Born in the USA”—though it’s so often mistaken as an oath blind of allegiance to America the Beautiful—is really about the returning vets of the Vietnamese war, chewed up and spit out by forces beyond their control, and come home to a nation that despised them all as losers.

As a Christian, I can’t help but resonate with the profound empathy that Springsteen’s music expresses for all these inept sinners and failed saints—the luckless, the desperate, the disappointments, the jobless, the outsiders, the mavericks, and the derelicts of this world. Because as a Christian, I recognize something of the Gospel in Springsteen’s commitment to see the world through their eyes. The Jesus I follow, the one who promised that the least would be great in his Kingdom, the last first and the greatest least, showed us that God is, in fact, closest to those who know they really have nothing to offer but their one last chance, their failed-best-efforts, the shards of their shattered hopes.

Surely the Jesus who scandalized all the party guests when he let the town prostitute anoint his feet with oil, could have kept Candy safe from the sadness hidden in her pretty face. Surely the Jesus who hung dying between two of the worst-of-the-worst criminals on Golgotha, would understand the despair and hopelessness of poor Johnny 99. Surely the Jesus who walked away the third day from the empty tomb, answers the hope for something on the other side of death that keeps the singer in “Atlantic City” singing (despite so many times coming up on the wrong side of the line that separates the winners from the losers).

At the risk of putting it the wrong way around: Jesus’ teaching that the meek will inherit the earth, that the poor are truly the blessed ones, and that those who mourn will get the last laugh in the end, could have come straight off a page of Springsteen’s songbook. Put the right way around: there is something arrestingly (if unintentionally) Christ-like in Springsteen’s willingness to look at the world through the eyes of the meek, the poor, and the mourning. This is certainly something I’ve come to admire about Springsteen’s song writing, anyways, because whenever a Springsteen song reminds me that the world looks very different, actually, from the bottom of the totem pole, I remember the Way of our Lord, who seemed to feel more at ease among the tax collecting thugs, the ostracized prostitutes, and the rejected “sinners” of his world, than he ever did among the priests, the religious elite, and the spiritual gurus of his day.

There’s a line in one of Springsteen’s later songs where he rattles off the roll call of everyone who's aboard the metaphorical train bound for the “Land of Hope and Dreams.” It’s never really explained in the song what the train is, exactly. Given the title of the song, it would make sense to read it as an image for the American Dream.  Given the passengers we find on the train, however, it might actually be a metaphor for Springsteen’s life's work as a songwriter (certainly each one mentioned on the roster would feel perfectly at home in a Springsteen song). This is the reading I prefer, but with one important caveat: that whether Springsteen meant it this way or not, the “all aboard” invitation that this song ends with is really the invitation of the Gospel:
This train carries saints and sinners
This train carries losers and winners
This train carries whores and gamblers
This train carries lost souls
I said, this train carries broken-hearted
This train thieves and sweet souls departed
This train carries fools and kings
This train, all aboard

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Fruit on the Tree, a devotional thought

With Palm Sunday just around the next bend, I was thinking this morning about the account of Jesus "Temple Action" as its recorded in the book of Mark. It's the day after his triumphant donkey ride into Jerusalem, and on his way into Jerusalem, Jesus comes to a fig tree. Finding no fruit on the tree, Jesus speaks a judgment over it the tree: "May no one ever eat fruit from you again!" Then he goes into the Temple of God's people, looking for spiritual fruit (prayer happening for all the nations) and finding none, enacts a dramatized judgement over it (tipping over the money-changer's tables).

On the way home they see the fig tree shriveled, and start to put one and one together. Then, to put the exclamation point on it all, Jesus tells a parable about a Landlord who sent his Son to the tenants of his estate, to get the fruit of his vineyard, and they decided to kill him instead...

Mark wants the question here, I think, to be obvious: what would Jesus find in us if he were to ride triumphantly but unexpectedly into the "fig-tree" that is our lives (our church, let's say, or our relationships, or our individual lives). Would he find the "spiritual fruit" that he was looking for in the Temple that Palm Sunday morning so long ago? Or will he find what, in fact, he found there: people chasing after their own self-aggrandizing agendas?