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

1 Peter 5:1-11 The Stand

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 us
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 Final Chapter of the Rest of Your Life, a devotional thought

I used to think that Acts 28 verse 31 was a pretty anti-climactic ending for the book of Acts. Basically, it ends with Paul under house arrest in Rome, preaching the Gospel to anyone who comes to see him and waiting for his trial before Caesar. And that's it. But the more I study Acts, the more fitting, even perfect, this ending seems. Acts began with Jesus' promise that the Christians would become his witnesses to the ends of the earth. Of course, when he said that, the Faith was just a little off-shoot of Judaism from the back-woods of the Empire; hardly something to make the world sit up and take notice. But by the end of the story it's causing waves in the capital itself, about to be heard by the very emperor of Rome.

Even so, there is something nagging-ly incomplete about Acts 28:31. As if no one knows exactly how Paul's story is gonna end--or the story of the Gospel, for that matter. And I think that's part of the point. It's sort of like God's asking us, at the end of Acts: "And where will the Gospel of Jesus go next? What will the next chapter be? It's really up to you." And when you think about it like that, it leaves you wondering: how am I helping to write the "29th" chapter of Acts? Am I doing my part to "finish this story" about the love and lordship of Jesus and how it reached every corner of the world?

Bonjour Ma Petite, a song

Bonjour ma petite, je te chante la bienvenue
Nous t’avons attendu il y a longtemps
Et peut-etre que ce monde, il t’est inconnu
Mais ce bras t’aimeront pour tojour
Alors, ferme tes yeux et reve dans ton coeur
Et plus tard tu le decouvririas
Alors reste ici, tout pres de mon coeur
Et ces bras t’aimeront pour toujour

Hello, little one I sing your welcome
We have waited a long time for you
And maybe this world is a stranger to you
But these arms, they will always love you
So close your eyes and dream in your heart
Tomorrow you will seek you will find
But rest right here, right next to my heart
And these arms, they will always love you

1 Peter 4:1-11 A Grand Finale

Success Story, a devotional thought

The very last sentence in the book of Acts—after all the intrigue and danger, toil and tears, adventures and brushes with death—is that while under house arrest, Paul “proclaimed the Kingdom of God with all boldness and without hindrance!” Some commentators note that Acts seems to end somewhat abruptly, but for my money, this sentence: “He proclaimed the Kingdom of God with boldness and without hindrance” is about as fitting a conclusion to Acts as I could imagine. After all, isn’t this what Jesus promised would happen way, way back in Chapter 1: that his Spirit-filled disciples would become his witnesses “to the ends of the earth”? And isn’t Paul’s preaching in Rome, at the very epicenter of the known world, a direct, if somewhat unexpected, fulfillment of that promise?

I call it unexpected because from a strictly worldly perspective, everything has seemingly fallen apart for Paul: the Romans have him under house arrest, he’s been waiting two years for his case to be heard by Caesar, the Jewish leaders have rejected him, and God only knows what’s next to come. And yet, measured by God’s measuring stick, two years of free, uninhibited telling-others-about-Jesus (to heck with house-arrest and forthcoming trials) is a major score for the Gospel. It gets me thinking about earthly measures of success versus God’s measures of success. If I could reach the end of my journey and say, “I got to tell others about Jesus, boldly and without hindrance,” then regardless my circumstances or my worldly achievements, by God’s standards that’s a life shot through with success.

Hey Fireweed, a song

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Peter 3:8-18 The Right Stuff, a sermon

Going Public, a devotional thought

In Acts 26:26, Paul is on trial for creating a stir in Jerusalem, and is giving his defense to the Roman Governor (Festus) and the King of Judea (Herod Agrippa). He recounts his meeting with the Resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus, his conviction that Jesus is the Messiah promised in the Hebrew Scriptures, and his mission to proclaim this fact among the Gentiles.

And then in verse 26 he says something that makes you stop and think: “I am convinced that none of this (the events surrounding the life, death and resurrection of Jesus) has escaped notice, because it was not done in a corner.”

It’s that “not done in a corner” bit that gets me thinking, anyways, because it reminds me that there is something unavoidably public about the Gospel. God did not do what he did in Jesus quickly, quietly, and then sweep it under the rug; he did it openly, publicly, and announced it to the world, with public parades into the City of Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), a public execution of an innocent man (Good Friday) and an empty tomb on display for any and all to see (Resurrection Sunday).

What’s more, Paul’s own ministry demonstrates that what happened that first Holy Week so long ago is meant to be broadcast around the globe. It was not, that is to say, “done in a corner”; nor can it be tucked away into a corner. The very fact that this harried and homeless itinerant rabbi—Paul—is proclaiming the message of Jesus to the likes of Festus and Agrippa—the power brokers of his world—is proof of God's determination not to let the Good Thing he did in Jesus fade into a quiet corner of the global scene.

Christianity is, and always has been a matter of the public record, meant for public display and requiring public engagement. Of course, when you do stop to think about this, it leaves you with all sorts of challenging questions: Are we living our faith in corner? And what might it look like for us, to follow Paul’s example and bring the message of Jesus out into the open?

More Than She Knows, a song

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

How quickly once upon 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

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

How quickly once upon 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

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

How quickly once upon 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

1 Peter 3:1-7 Family Matters

Risky Business, a devotional thought

In Acts 25:11, while on trial before Festus, Paul appeals to Caesar, effectively forcing the governor to send him to Rome. Later King Agrippa will marvel about it, and comment that if Paul had not appealed to Caesar he would have been set free. As it is, he remains in chains and gets sent on the long, dangerous journey to Rome, so that his case can be heard by Caesar himself. If Paul's goal was the pursuit of life, liberty and personal happiness, this appeal to Caesar would have been a major strategic blunder--the last thing he should have done. But Paul has his eye on a bigger prize. He wants to get the message of Jesus to Rome, and from there to the ends of the earth; and in his mind, no sacrifice is to big to make for the sake of that goal. It leaves me wondering: what "appeals to Caesar" (that is to say, what risky sacrifices for the sake of the Gospel) am I unwilling to make because of the uncertain and uncomfortable journey I might find myself on if I did?

Stranger in a Strange Land, a song

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

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

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

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

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

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

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
It wasn't worthy of them

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

1 Peter 2:13-25, The Christian Citizen

Just in Time, a devotional thought

The other day I was reading Acts 24-25, and it occurred to me that God’s timeline for our lives unfolds in his own way and at his own pace, and it does not always make a lot of sense from a human perspective. Here we have Paul being held in custody by the Roman Governor in Caesarea, because the Jewish Leaders had him arrested in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Roman officials aren’t really sure what to do with him (he’s on trial for a matter of Jewish law, not Roman), so they defer his case until he can be properly tried.

 And then in Acts 24:27, in a rather off hand way, it says, “But after two years had passed, Governor Felix was succeeded by Governor Festus.” Wishing to earn political points with leadership in Jerusalem, Felix decided not to release Paul from prison before he left. Paul went to Jerusalem at the leading of the Holy Spirit, with a sure word from Jesus that he will, eventually, preach the Gospel in Rome itself, and yet for all appearances, his mission has been stalled out for two years in Caesarea. 

Two years is a long time in the life span of a ministry. A lot can change, a lot can come unravelled, a lot of opportunities can be missed. And I imagine it was pretty easy to wonder, at some point during that two-year waiting game, if God was really up to anything? Had God forgotten Paul in prison? Would he really get to Rome in the end?

Of course, as the story progresses it will become clear that God was doing all sorts of things behind the scenes in those two years, to make sure Paul got to Rome (Historical note: Governor Festus, who replaces Felix at the end of two years, is one of the more honest and trustworthy governors Judea had. Unlike Felix, who kept hoping for a bribe from Paul, Festus hears his appeal to Caesar and promptly sends him to Rome). If you are in the middle of something that feels stuck—and maybe you’ve been waiting years for God to unstick it—take heart from Paul’s example today. It may not be that God is working out a change of Roman Governorship for you, but even so, you can trust that he is never not at work, behind the scenes, to bring about his very good purpose for you.

1 Peter 1:13-2:3 Hunger Pains of Holiness

Valley of Dry Bones, a song

I’m going down to the Valley of Dry Bones
To light a candle in the shadow of death
To hear his voice come calling from the cyclone
And dust off those dry bones
And fill them with his breath

I don’t know what you want from me
But you’ve got me on my knees
I let go of my dignity
Just to hear you say...

I’m going down to the Valley of Dry Bones
To light a candle in the shadow of death
To hear his voice come calling from the cyclone
And dust off those dry bones
And fill them with his breath

And the days slipped away from me
Like a sailor lost at sea
But the waves washing over me
Won’t sweep my heart away...

And I heard a voice calling to the Son of Man
Can these dry bones live again?
Like empty dreams waking in the dead of night
Can lifeless eyes regain their sight?

I’m going down to the Valley of Dry Bones
To light a candle in the shadow of death
To hear his voice come calling from the cyclone
And dust off those dry bones
And fill them with his breath

En-Couragement, a devotional thought

There’s a scene in Acts 23:11 that I find especially poignant. Here’s the background in a nutshell: Paul’s gone to Jerusalem where he’s been arrested by the religious leaders as a blasphemer and a disturber of the peace. He offers a public defense of himself before a gathered mob of his countrymen (visualize pitchforks and torches if you like...) at the end of which his own countrymen start crying out that he’s not fit to walk the earth.

 The Roman centurion who’s arrested him decides to interrogate him by flogging, to get to the bottom of things. They bind him up and are just about to bring down the lash, when he mentions he’s a Roman citizen and it’s illegal to flog a Roman without trial. Having narrowly escaped a scourging, he’s forced to stand trial before the Sanhedrin, where his testimony illicit such a violent response, that the centurion is forced to “drag him away by force” lest the crowd “tear him limb from limb.”

Paul’s been having a very rough weekend in ministry; the kind of weekend that makes my toughest ministry challenges look like a Sunday afternoon in the park. So it’s poignant, like I say, and touching, when you get to verse 11.

After all this danger and disgrace—mobs nearly tearing him apart, public trials, and near-floggings—Paul’s locked for the night in the Centurion’s barracks, waiting to learn what will come of him. And in verse 11 we read: “That night the Lord stood near Paul and said, ‘Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.’”

I call it poignant because if ever a follower of Jesus needed encouragement from the Lord, surely it was Paul that night. And the way the verse is worded, it sounds like he received a personal visitation from Jesus himself (The Lord stood by him...), breathing courage into his harried spirit. Of course, part of Jesus’ message for Paul is that there was more to come (eventually he will preach the Gospel in Rome itself), trials in which courage will be especially hard to come by. But in this moment at least, with dangers behind him and dangers ahead, Jesus is simply standing by his friend and imparting to him the supernatural courage that only he can.

May we also know Jesus standing by us, today, in those ministry challenges we face where courage is most needed but hardest to come by.

Stranger in a Strange Land, a sermon on 1 Peter 1:1-12

This summer I had the wonderful opportunity to preach a 7-sermon series through the Epistle of 1 Peter, at Wesley Acres Retreat Centre, in Prince Edward County, Ontario.  A beautiful setting with some wonderful people, digging in to God's Word each morning.  It was a great joy, but also explains why posting here at terra incognita has been a bit on the light side.  While I let the dust settle from this summer and collect my thoughts for another season of blogging in the fall, I thought maybe I could post the videos of those sermons here, for posterity's sake.  Here's day 1:

(This Roller Coaster) Once, a song

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

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

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

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

I sound my
Barbaric yawp
Over the rooftops of the world

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

All for Jesus, a devotional thought

The other day I was reading in Acts 22, and it struck me how strategic Paul is in using every bit of his story for the sake of introducing people to Jesus. His Roman citizenship (22:25), his training as a Pharisee (23:6), his involvement in Stephen's execution (22:20), everything fair game if it'll advance the Gospel, even these parts of the story that would have, at one time, made him an enemy of the Gospel. It left me thinking that for Christians that there's nothing we've gone through or experienced or lived that God can't use for his great purposes-- he really is the God who wastes nothing. But it also left me wondering: am I as open and generous with my whole life story as Paul is with his?

Live Until You Die, a song

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 ...

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

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)

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

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
still we have this moment now
Earth and light and water, breath
But you can show me how to...

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

God told me to tell you ... a devotional thought

There's this fascinating exchange between Paul and his colleagues in Acts 21 that I reflect on every now and then in ministry, especially when I receive a "word from the Lord" delivered to me by a well-meaning brother or sister in Christ.

Now, I am not a cessationist, and I believe that the gifts of the Spirit are for today as much as they were in the Apostolic era, including the gift of prophecy.  Even so, I can't help but notice that in Acts 21, the disciples urge Paul not to go to Jerusalem, out of concern for his safety, and in 21:4 it specifically notes that these disciples were speaking "by the Spirit" in their efforts to dissuade him.

This is especially interesting because earlier, Paul  had said it quite plainly that it was the Holy Spirit who had told him to go to Jerusalem (20:22-23).  The tension increases in verse 21:11, when a prophet named Agabus does this prophetic object lesson, where he takes Paul's belt and binds his own hands and feet with it.  Speaking by the Holy Spirit, he says "this is what will happen to the owner of this belt when he gets to Jerusalem." When the disciples hear this they redouble their efforts to talk Paul out of his travel plans.

So what's going on here? Is the Spirit actually saying opposite things to different people? Are the disciples not hearing the Holy Spirit right on this one, or maybe Paul isn't? Or is the Holy Spirit simply firming up Paul's resolve to go, by telling him not to go through the mouths of other people?

It's hard to say, for sure, but whatever else they do, these verses should give us all serious pause the next time someone tells us, "God told me to tell you this..."  It may be true, but what we're to do with the message is another matter.

Lighting Rod, a song

When I was falling from the sky you were
My lightning rod, you
Guided my feet back to the ground

When I was learning how to die you were
My empty tomb, more
alive than anything I’ve found

Out of the blue, after the long night
Upwards I flew, wings melting in the sunlight
Out of the storm, trembling and awed
Into your arms I fell, like a lightning rod

When I was tumbling through the air you were
The rock that broke my fall
Holding me hard against your heart

When I was stumbling through my prayers you were
The tunnel and the light
Winding my way back to the start

Out of the blue, after the long night
Upwards I flew, wings melting in the sunlight
Out of the storm, trembling and awed
Into your arms I fell, like a lightning rod

A High Calling, a devotional thought

There’s a line in Acts 20:26-27 that’s pretty sobering for a minister of the Gospel, like me. Paul is delivering a farewell address to the church in Ephesus, where he had served previously for some three years, “serving the Lord with great humility and with tears” (v. 19). He reminds them of his ministry among them, and then he says: “I declare that I am innocent of anyone’s blood ... because I did not hesitate to proclaim to you the whole will of God.”

The implication here is worth all kinds of careful reflection. On the one hand, if Paul were to have held back in his teaching, on this or that matter, let’s say, because maybe he thought it wouldn’t be well-received, or might step on toes, or what have you, then, apparently, he would be responsible—guilty of their blood—for whatever problems they faced down the road because they did not know God’s will, of God’s way, when they should have. On the other hand, because he did preach the whole Gospel, even the difficult parts that wouldn’t have won him any popularity contests, Paul can leave his ministry at Ephesus with a clear conscience.

Teaching, preaching and serving as a pastor is a great privilege, to be sure, but it is also a huge responsibility.  And if Acts 20:26 is any indication, those who dare to take up this responsibility will give an account, in the end, of how faithfully we discharged our duty to proclaim the whole counsel of God.  May the Lord give much wisdom and even more grace.

Thick or Thin, a devotional thought

There's a phrase in Acts 11:23 that I find both inspiring and challenging. The background is that persecution against the church has scattered believers from Jerusalem all across the region, with the ironic result that the Gospel now is reaching out to all sorts of places it never had before. At the same time, Cornelius, a non-Jewish centurion, has recently converted to the Faith, demonstrating to the church in Jerusalem that the Gospel’s for non-Jewish people as well (up to this point the church has been exclusively Jewish). At this point in the story, the Gospel’s reached as far as Antioch (in northern Syria), and the church has been growing there with Greek believers in particular; so the Church in Jerusalem sends a delegation led by Barnabas, up to Antioch to investigate.

And here’s the striking line. Because when Barnabas sees “the evidence of the grace of God” among the Greeks in Antioch, he is glad and he “encourages them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.” That’s how my NIV phrases it, but in the original it’s a bit more vivid. Literally he tells them to “continue with the Lord” (the verb is prosmenō, to remain in, to continue with, to abide in), and to do it with “purpose of heart” (the noun is prosthesis, a purpose or intention).

In other words, Barnabas tells these brand new believers:“set an intention in your hearts to stick with the Lord.” It struck me because, on the one hand, Barnabas knows these Christians are likely to face persecution (it was persecution, after all, that brought the Gospel to them in the first place); and on the other hand, these believers are brand-spanking new in the faith, full of (presumably) untried, untested enthusiasm for Jesus.

What do new believers need especially to do, after they’ve come to the Lord and the sheen of conversion is starting to fade? Especially if and when following Jesus is going to mean sacrifices large and small? And what should pastors like Barnabas encourage them to do, well before buyer’s remorse sets in? Determine in your hearts—set it as a clear, conscious intention—that you’ll stick with Him, come what may, thick or thin. Such intentions won't make it any easier, maybe, when thick does get thin (or vice versa), but they certainly increase the likelihood that we'll get through the thin (or the thick) with our grip holding as firmly to the Lord as the hour we first believed.

Three Minute Theology 5.1: The Intercessor

Out of the Comfort Zone, a devotional thought

In Acts 9:43 we’re told that while Peter was on an itinerant ministry tour, he stayed for “many days” in Joppa with a tanner (i.e. someone who tanned hides and prepared them into leather), a tanner named Simon. This is just an offhand line, but it’s really interesting to me, because a tanner, of course, handled animal carcasses (which is where the hides came from), and according to Jewish Law at the time, anyone who handled a dead body was unclean; and so culturally, and traditionally, being a tanner was considered an unclean profession. We know from 10:14 that Peter is quite particular about Jewish cleanliness laws (nothing unclean has ever passed his lips, he says), and yet here we see him lodging at the home of an unclean tanner, of all people. God, of course, is about to explode his whole notion of cleanliness and uncleanness, by sending (gasp) some non-Jewish Gentiles to him, requesting an audience, but in a way, this has already begun when he came under Simon the Tanner’s roof. God, it turns out, does not share our concerns when it comes to keeping ourselves safely in our comfort zones, is my point. As uncomfortable as it may have made Peter to be surrounded by so much “ritual uncleanness” (according to Jewish tradition), this is precisely where serving God has brought him, his own hang ups about human defined comfort zones be damned. Where might we find ourselves serving God, if we shared the same indifference about our comfort zones, I wonder?

Three Minute Theology 4.8: The Whole Set

To the Rabble Rousers, a devotional thought

There’s this interesting line in Acts 9, just an offhand comment, but it gets me thinking. It’s in the middle of the story about Paul’s early ministry, just after he encountered the Lord Jesus and had the scales fall from his eyes, and two themes stand out sharply in these early days. 1) All the Christians are kind of afraid of him. Up till now, he’s developed quite a reputation as a persecutor of the church, so it’s maybe understandable that, now he’s converted, they’re all a little gun shy. And 2) all the non-Christians want to kill him. From the sounds of things he’s as zealous now for Jesus as he previously was against him. Everywhere he goes he’s getting in arguments and debates and trouble, “speaking out boldly in the name of Jesus.” He’s in Damascus until the Damascenes hatch a plan to kill him, so he moves to Jerusalem, until the Greeks try to kill him, so he moves on to Caesarea. Eventually, it says, the disciples “sent him away to Tarsus.”

And then comes the interesting line: then, it says, “the church throughout Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace.” I say it gets me thinking, because Paul’s clearly a rabble-rouser for Jesus, and once they finally ship him off to Tarsus, that’s when the church experiences peace. But, of course, Paul’s more than just a rabble-rouser, he’s also a world-shaker for Jesus, and though his ministry might ruffle feathers (even some of his fellow Christian feathers), God intends to rock the foundations of the Roman Empire through him.

 I’m pointing that out because sometimes in church life (or even our own individual discipleship), the people who disrupt our peace are the ones God most uses to move us, shake us and form us. We need the rabble rousers, is my point, even though it’s not always fun to have the rabble roused; and sometimes the worst thing we can do is to rest in a false, complacent kind of peace. And as difficult as it sometimes is, still I'm thankful to God for the rabble-rousers he’s used in my life and ministry, and even (tremulously) praying that he’ll send more my way.

Three Minute Theology 4.7: The BIRG Effect

The Theology of Bruce Springsteen (Part 5): A Sense of Place

Early on in this theological analysis of Bruce Springsteen’s music, I shared how I was never really much of a Springsteen fan growing up.  In that post, I explained how it was the song “Born in the USA,” in particular, that kept me from boarding the train bound for the Springsteen fandom. 

I was 10 years old when “Born in the USA” “went nuclear” (as Spirngsteen puts it in his autobiography), and it’s maybe to be expected that this angry heart-cry of a down-and-out Vietnam vet, shaking his fist at a nation that took from him everything and offered him nothing in return, would be lost on a 10-year-old boy.  Add to this the fact that I’m Canadian, and the best I could make of Springsteen’s passionately bellowed verses was a naïve ode to the good-ol’-U-S-of-A, a sentiment that I sort of prided myself on not being able to relate to.  Like Ronald Regan, who once used “Born in the USA” as a campaign song, I entirely missed the point of this politically charged bray of protest against the Vietnam Draft and its aftermath.  Springsteen himself called “Born in the USA” one of his greatest and most misunderstood pieces of music, and at ten years old, I was one of the misunderstanders.

As an adult I’ve come to appreciate the song.  Even though it’s still not anything I’ve ever sung in the shower (and truth be told, I find that synth hook annoyingly repetitive), I can relate to its passionate desire for roots and rootedness, for community and belonging, for a shalom-oriented re-weaving of the social fabric.  The singer in “Born” is more like an estranged son, clinging to a father who’s disowned him and refusing to scorn his birthright, than he is like some red-ball-cap-wearing jingoist, blindly chanting “Make America Great Again!” at some campaign rally or other. Inasmuch as this need for rootedness, this ache for community, this longing for a shalom-oriented rend in the status quo is a universal experience, and not just a sentiment made in the USA, it is something that can and should resonate with every human heart, regardless of where it was born.

In commenting on “Born in the USA,” Springsteen has said, “It was a GI blues, the verses an accounting, the choruses a declaration of the one sure thing that could not be denied … birthplace.  Birthplace, and the right to all of the blood, confusion, blessings and grace that comes with it.  Having paid body and soul, you have earned, many times over, the right to claim and shape your piece of home ground."

Here we get intimations of the theological meaning of a song like “Born in the USA,” I think, and the many other songs in the Springsteen canon that convey the same attachment to one’s “home ground,” and one’s right to “claim and shape” a piece of it.  Songs like “My Hometown,” “American Skin,” “My City of Ruins,” “Death to my Hometown,” though none of them so bluntly as “Born in the USA,” all ring with the same root note: that the place one calls home is worth loving and celebrating and grieving with and agonizing over, simply because it is home.  As screwed up as it sometimes is—and to be clear no one’s hometown isn’t screwed up, when you really get to know it—but as screwed up as it is, that only makes it all the more worth the agony.

I’m suggesting this as the theological meaning of “Born in the USA”—that one’s home ground is worth all the heartache it takes to love it—because it is certainly the kind of sentiment that a Christian with a robust understanding of the incarnation of Jesus Christ would take to heart.  We know, of course, that the incarnation is about the Creator’s passionate commitment to this world; but often, I think, Christians read this in the abstract.  God may have loved “the world” as a general construct, but he didn’t necessarily love this or that specific neighbourhood in the world, did he?  My home town, your street corner, this or that stretch of grass?

Of course, you can’t ask that question without recalling that the covenant Jesus came to fulfill—the covenant to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—was actually a very real promise of “home ground”—a promise of land and birthright and home.  And while Jesus has transformed that covenant so that it is no longer about a tiny strip of land somewhere in the Levant, even so he hasn’t annulled the promise in doing so, rather he’s burst it wide open, so that the “home ground” he offers us now is the whole world, every strip of land, everywhere, redeemed and renewed and restored by the love of God (so Psalm 2:8, “You said, ask of me and I will give the nations as your inheritance, the ends of the earth as your possession.”)  

In Jesus, the Promised Land is now the promised hope of New Creation, healed and renewed and coming soon to a theatre near you.

Through the incarnation, then, God has demonstrated a passion for the welfare of “my hometown” far deeper and purer and more profound than any Springsteen song could ever convey.  And through the incarnation he calls us to share that passion: to love our various strips of “home ground”—my street, my neighbourhood, my corner of the globe—with the redemptive love of Jesus, and then get to work re-weaving the social fabric into a beautiful tapestry of Shalom. 

This is why, though it’s unlikely I’ll ever sing it in the shower, nevertheless I’ve come to appreciate Springsteen’s greatest and most misunderstood piece of music: because it reminds me of something that the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ has proved beyond a shadow of a doubt: that there’s no corner of the Creator’s world that isn’t worth all the agony and heartache, the blood, sweat and tears it costs to love it well.

The Face of a Martyr, a devotional thought

The other day I was reading the story of Stephen in the book of Acts, and I was struck by the description of Stephen at his trial before the Sanhedrin.  Stephen is famous among Bible Trivia buffs for being the first believer to be martyred for his faith, and in Act 6:15, he’s about to give the incendiary sermon that will lead to his summary execution.  But right before he speaks, it says, “All who were sitting [there] looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.”  Such a strange and yet powerful image: in giving his testimony for Jesus—the testimony that will cost him his life—Stephen was so filled with the glory of God that it shone in his face.  Shone so clearly, mind you, that it was like the face of an angel to his interrogators.  It got me thinking: does my witness for Jesus—my testimony to his love, his grace, his mercy, his truth—does it shine in my face with anywhere even near that kind of a heavenly radiance, when I’m sharing it? And how can I be so filled with His Spirit, like Stephen, that it might?

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?

Weighing the Cost, a devotional thought

Mark 10:29-30 is one of those verses I think about a lot: whatever sacrifices you've made for the sake of the Gospel, Jesus tells his followers, whether it be houses, property, family, friends, reputation or a secure future, God will pay you back 100 times in this life (with persecution) and with eternity in the life to come. 

The part that makes me think is how he says, they'll receive their sacrifices back one-hundred-fold in this life, not just in the life to come. I wonder what he means here. I get the idea that God will repay our sacrifices on the other side of eternity, but how "in this life"? Is it even right for us to expect repayment in this life? The best I can make of this verse is that, inasmuch as the sacrifices he's described have to do with one's place in community-- family, friends, reputation, wealth, and so on-- the 100-fold repayment he's talking about must be the alternate community that God offers us in the Gospel: the friends in Christ, the family in Christ, the reputation in Christ and the wealth in Christ that is our through our life in the Church, regardless the persecutions that come from the world.

This makes sense, but doesn't make it any easier.

 Because instead of wondering "how will God reward our sacrifices in this life?" it gets me wondering a deeper, even harder thing: is the community I'm part of really a 100-times-better swap for worldly friends, family, wealth and status? I mean: would people counting the cost of following Christ look at what's going on in my community of faith, and really say, "yeah, that's more than ample repayment for what I'd have to give up?" And, hot on the heels of that wondering comes this: what's my role (by the Spirit) in making it so?

The Theology of Bruce Springsteen (Part 2): Blinded by the (Everyday) Light

Spend much time with Bruce Springsteen’s music and you’ll become keenly aware of an intense yearning, throbbing in the heart of all those last-chance losers and hopeful romantics that haunt his lyrics.

It thrums like an urgent pulse in the unsettled soul of “Hungry Heart,” who’s got a wife and kids in Baltimore while he sits in a Kingstown bar, confessing the truth about the money he laid down and the parts he played, only to discover in the end that “everybody’s got a hungry heart...”

It pounds like an engine roar in the breakneck passion of the street-racers in “Night,” who forget the sweat and toil of the work-a-day world in the split-second glory of the drag race; who “work all day / to blow ‘em away in the night.”

And it echoes like a plaintive cry in the unrealized dreams of the teen aged dad in “The River,” who acts like he don’t remember his hopes for the future, and whose shotgun bride acts like she don’t care.  “Is a dream a lie if it don't come true,” he wonders, “Or is it something worse / That sends me down to the river / Though I know the river is dry / That sends me down to the river tonight?”

Though each of these characters—and the many more that lurk in the dark alleyways and wander endless highways of his songs—feel it in different ways and salve it with different balm, each are yearning, fundamentally, for the same thing: to escape the drudge and disappointment of the everyday world in some unfettered, extra-sensory, soul-illuminating experience of liberation.

If everyone does indeed have a hungry heart, what all the hearts in Springsteen’s songs are hungry for, it seems, is that mystical experience of "otherness" that theologians call the transcendent.

As a theme in his song writing, the yearning for the transcendent finds its most Springsteen-esque expression, of course, in the two broken heroes of “Born to Run,” the never-grown-up street racer, and his dreamy, visionary lover, Wendy.  From its unforgettable opening lines, the entire song gapes like an unhealable wound with an unfilled ache for transcendence:  “In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream / At night we ride through the mansions of glory in suicide machines.”  The whole highway is jammed with “broken heroes on a last chance power drive,” of course, but it’s Wendy and her desperate lover whose yearning for escape crystallize the need for transcendence in us all:  their town (our worlds) may indeed be a death trap, a suicide rap, but together, with a delirious street to die on and an everlasting kiss between them, Wendy and her Peter Pan might just leave it all behind, if only for this moment, for this night: “Together Wendy we can live with the sadness / I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul.”

In his autobiography Springsteen describes the thematic impetus for this rock and roll classic (ranked #21 on the Rolling Stone List of Greatest Rock Songs of All Time).  “I wanted to use the classic rock ‘n’ roll images,” he writes, “the road, the car, the girl . . . what else is there?  It was a language enshrined by Chuck Berry, the Beach Boys, Hank Williams and every lost highwayman going back to the invention of the wheel.  But to make these images matter, I would have to shape them into something fresh, something that transcended nostalgia, sentiment and familiarity.”

We find a similar desire for “something that transcends ... familiarity” in Mary of “Thunder Road,” whose streetwise saviour freely confesses that although he’s no hero (that’s understood), he has a kind of redemption on offer (beneath this dirty hood):  the redemption of a passionate embrace and an open road, of escape from loneliness and fading beauty in a roaring car on a winding highway, of “one last chance to make it real / to trade in these wings on some wheels.”

It’s the same kind of transcendence the street racer and his partner Sonny are chasing in “Racing in the Streets.”  Unlike those guys who “give up living and start dying piece by piece,” they come home from work and wash up, “and go racing in the streets.”

And it’s the same kind of transcendence that the young tough of “In the Streets” is hunting, who loads crates down on the dock five days a week, and then takes his money and meets his girl in the streets, where he can “walk the way [he wants] to walk,” and “talk the way [he wants] to talk,” and so escape the drab realities of his otherwise small, restless, harried world.

As a songwriter, Springsteen is hardly alone in his quest for transcendence, of course.  Jim Morrison was stalking it, in his surreal musings about riders on the storm and his psycadelic speculations about breaking through to the other side.  Bono was pining for it, in his ode to a place where the streets have no name and his prayer for a time when all the colours bleed into one.  Arguably even the party rockers like Van Halen were chasing it in their Dionysian anthems to wine, women and rock n’ roll.

What distinguishes Springsteen from the rest, however, is that instead of sending his characters on metaphysical walkabouts to mystical mountaintops, or losing them in hedonistic debauches with drugs and sex, his quest for transcendences drives them continually back to the earthy, the ordinary, the commonplace.  Passionate love, the togetherness of community, the mysterious bonds of friendship, the thrill of a fast car, the joy of release after a hard day of work: these are the sources of transcendence in Springsteen’s songs.  In his best lyrics we experience something reminiscent of what happened on the Mount of Transfiguration, where the ordinary stuff of earth is given an unexpected second look, and found suddenly scintillating with the stuff of heaven.

That last line is a bit hyperbolic, perhaps, comparing a Bruce Springsteen song to Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration; but it is an intentional hyperbole.  Because the quest for transcendence is not just a theme in rock and roll; it is also a theme of Christian theology.  Way back in the 5th Century AD, St Augustine said it like this:  “You (God), have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in Thee.”  Some 1400 years later, C. S. Lewis famously put it like this: “If I find in myself a desire which nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probably explanation is that I was made for another world.”  What each of these thinkers were trying to put their finger on is that there is, in fact, a yearning for transcendence throbbing in all of us, and that though we seek to fill it in all sorts of ways, metaphysical, hedonistic, ordinary or otherwise, that yearning will never be satisfied until we experience the ultimate transcendence: the beatific vision of and mystical union with God that is the goal of Salvation and the hope of the Christian Faith.

As Christians of course, we recognize that it is only Christ, the Living Water, who can quench the thirst for transcendence that Springsteen’s yearning heroes and searching lovers pique in us.  But like Springsteen, Christianity is also convinced that the stuff of heaven is indeed found most compellingly in the stuff of earth: a broken loaf of bread and a homely cup of wine that becomes inexplicably for us the Real Presence of the Lord Jesus, an old book that trumpets suddenly as the Word of God, the simple refrain of a familiar hymn that transforms suddenly into the habitation of the High King of Heaven, a ramshackle gathering of everyday sinners that becomes, mysteriously, the Body of the Christ.

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Learning from the Past, a devotional thought

In Mark 8:1-10 we have the story of the "Feeding of the Four Thousand." It's always made me wonder, this story, because this is the second time Jesus has performed this specific sign in Mark's Gospel. Back in 6:30-44 he miraculously fed 5000 people with 5 loaves and 2 fish; and then in 8:1-10, there's a hungry crowd of 4000; and the thing that gets me, is how the disciples are just as clueless this time as they were the first time. I mean: he tells them he wants to feed the crowd, and they say almost the exact same thing they said back in Chapter 6: where will we get enough bread for everyone? They were there in Chapter 6, when 5 loaves and 2 small fish fed 5000, and yet here, only a couple chapter's latter, they're still scratching their heads: "Gee, Jesus, how are you gonna get us out of this one?"

It's funny, right after this miracle, the Pharisees come to him, asking for a miraculous sign from heaven, and all Mark says is: "Jesus groaned deeply in his spirit" (the Greek word there is: "aarrrrghhhh!"). No wonder, though, the demand for a sign is so troubling to him: he's already done two, back to back, and no one got it, not even his disciples. Would one more miraculous sign really make the difference?

 Of course, when I'm totally honest, I have to admit that I'm as slow to learn, sometimes, as those disciples are. After all, I've seen him do some pretty amazing things in my life, in the past, and still sometimes when it looks like only an amazing things is gonna get me out of whatever it is I'm facing today, still, I scratch my head and say: "Gee, Jesus, how are you going to get us out of this one?" May God remind you and I today, in a deep profound way, of the past wonders he's worked in our lives, and may that remembrance be a great source of strength for whatever you or I need to face today.

The Theology of Bruce Springsteen (Part 1): The Texture of Good Art

Church people who get to know me are often surprised to discover that I almost never listen to contemporary Christian music. By most measures, I am the perfect raw material for the making of a Christian music fan. I’ve been a believer most of my life; I grew up surrounded by the Christian sub-culture; I work as a pastor, and I’m heavily involved in the music ministry at our church. Besides all this, I love music: I write and record songs, I love to sing, I play multiple instruments, and I was raised on the music that inspired the contemporary Worship Music revolution, bands like The Beatles and U2. Mix all that together and plop in an olive, and you should have one dry martini of a Contemporary Christian Music fan, shaken not stirred.

And yet, truth be told, I am lukewarm when it comes to most contemporary Christian music. There’s one John Mark McMillian album I like (The Medicine). I love Downhere’s Ending is Beginning. There’s an album by an indie Christian hard rock band called tripmeter that I quite like, in large part because I knew some of the band members when I was studying in Saskatchewan. Aside from that, though, there’s not much I listen to: I have all sorts of “Best of Worship” mix CDs that I picked up along the way that haven’t had airtime in my house since ... well ... since ipods replaced CDs as cutting edge music technology.

A while ago, however, I was feeling like I’d fallen into a bit of a musical rut. If my Spotify playlist was vinyl, I’d have long since worn out the grooves on most of my music, and it felt like it was time to discover something new. In my search I stumbled over Bruce Springsteen, an artist who’d been lurking on the edges of my musical horizons throughout my life but had never really found a place in my heart.

I came of age musically in 1987, only two years after Born in the USA had taken the world by storm, but my musical tastes were a strange hybrid of my father’s psychedelic rock predilections—Cream, The Doors, experimental Beatles—mingled with the tousle-maned, falsetto-voiced, guitar-melting aesthetic of the glam rock era that reached its apex just as I was reaching puberty. My first real rock and roll album was Def Leppard’s Hysteria, my favorite band was Van Halen, and to this day, the opening riff of White Lion’s Pride throws me back to the yearning of my early-teen years with such poignancy as to give me emotional whiplash. Because my musical palette had been so refined on virtuoso guitar licks and unabashed innuendo wailed up in the tenor range, the raw energy of Springsteen’s baritone bellowing about brokenness and birthplace and blue collar disappointments always sort of lost me. What’s more, the only song I really associated him with was “Born in the USA,” which, as a Canadian, I’d always mistaken for a naive jingoistic ode to a nation that wasn’t mine.

So I never connected with Springsteen.

But a while back, like I say, I was in a rut, and a book I read about song writing suggested that aspiring songwriters need to listen to the music of master songwriters if they want to hone their craft, and it pointed me to Springsteen as one of the best. I started with Born to Run (an easy first choice), followed by Darkness on the Edge of Town, and Nebraska. By the time I’d given Nebraska a third listen, I understood why my songwriting book sent me to The Boss for some schooling.

I proceeded through vast swaths of the Springsteen catalogue, including: Born in the USA, Wrecking Ball, Lucky Town, High Hopes, Human Touch, Greetings from Asbury Park, The Wild the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, and parts of Tunnel of Love. I even read his autobiography over Christmas. After months with his music, I was still not a fan in the fullest sense, but had become a very warm admirer. I doubt I’ll ever sign up unreservedly for the Springsteen fan club, but I’ve come to love his unrestrained rock and roll spirit, the deceptive simplicity of his arrangements, the unbridled energy of that Spector-ish “wall of sound,” and the characters—the busted, broken, born-to-run-with-nowhere-to-go characters—that haunt his best songs.

I’d choose Born to Run over the latest Chris Tomlin effort any day.

Which brings me to the point I was trying to make at the start of this piece. Because my foray into the music of Bruce Springsteen has forced me to come to terms with why I don’t listen to much contemporary Christian music. The music at the FreeWay where I pastor is certainly done in the contemporary style, and we sing our fair share of Tomlin and Redman. Interestingly, too, in that setting I embrace the music enthusiastically, even though none of it makes it to my headphones after church. So my problem is not some pious hang-up about which musical styles belong in church and which don’t. It is deeper than that, I think, and somehow simpler.

It has to do with what I call “the texture” of the songs.

The best of what I heard in Springsteen’s song writing, and certainly the stuff I found most compelling there, had texture to it. The situations he sang about were layered with emotion and complicated by a stark lack of easy answers; the voices he sang in were fraught and pulled and uncertain and clawing their way back up after one more beating down; the places he sang about had a seediness to even their most intense beauty; the Truths he sang of were never easily earned. Inasmuch as life itself is always layered and complicated, mingled with seediness and beauty together, fraught and pulled and uncertain, these songs were rough with the texture of life. And this is true of the music as much as it is of the lyrical content. Though the members of the E Street Band are all masters of their craft, still there is a rawness to their playing that makes their sound greater than the sum of its parts. And Springsteen’s voice—what he has described as a “journeyman’s instrument”—is unpolished and unrefined, giving his vocal performance a texture to match his lyrics.

To hear a good Springsteen song is to sit in the company of a man who has looked intently at life in all its glory and disgrace, and has learned the hard way that the one seldom comes without the other.

This is something that’s missing, I think, in much of today’s contemporary Christian music. In most Christian songs I know, the texture is smoothed out, the rawness glossed over, and the hurt healed before it even has a chance to sting.

This is a cheap shot, I realize, and an old example, but take Matt Redman’s "Blessed Be Your Name," a song we’ve song any number of times in church. The bridge—“You give and take away, my heart will choose to say, Lord blessed be your name”—comes almost directly from the Book of Job: “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither. The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord!” This verse is the white-knuckled fist of a man clinging for dear life to a Lord whose face, just now, is obscured by shadow and grief. It is so rough with the grit of life that you can’t run your hand over it without abrasion. Yet in the context of the Redman song, so much of that texture has been rubbed smooth, its desperation polished up and its pain glossed over. I say that knowing that Redman wrote this song in part as a response to the September 11 terrorist attacks, as an effort to offer a song that “grappled with grief,” but even so the song resolves far more smoothly than Job ever dares to. The raw texture of Job’s decision to worship the Lord, “though he slay me,” has been replaced with a relatively easy heart-choice to praise.

You might say: but that’s a lot to ask of a song, to brush up against the texture of life, the good, the bad, and the ugly like that, and still be accessible and uplifting. Yet this is what I’ve come to admire about Springsteen’s best work. In the most fraught moments of his music, you’re still hearing something very good you always knew was there, you just never noticed it before.

Of course, “Thunder Road” would make a lousy worship song; and Redman’s “Blessed Be Your Name” has ministered to the Church all around the world, myself included. I’m not trying to bash it. I’m just trying to explain why, outside of worship settings, most contemporary worship music does not really speak to me.

At the same time, however, I’m also trying to suggest that the best Christian art has texture. Christians, of course, should have one of the most robust Creation Theologies going; and at the heart of any robust theology of Creation is the conviction that, as the Creator’s work, this world is intrinsically good, cherished and loved by him, its seediness and its beauty alike. He doesn’t wish to leave the seedy parts seedy, of course, he is in the redemption business, but neither will he refuse to look at it, or turn his back on it, because of its seediness. Artists motivated by a deep-down Christian understanding of the Creation, would look as intently at the real world as any Springsteen song ever did, and would be just as determined to convey the texture of what they saw there, in whatever their medium.

 A full-fledged theology of Creation would balk at any effort to gloss over the “meanness in this world” with a too-simplistic “Yes Lord! Yes Lord!” It would be determined to tell the truth about the world as it is, even if only to sharpen our thirst for the promise of what will be.

Over the next few months here at terra incognita, I intend to spend some time offering a theological analysis of the music of Bruce Springsteen, suggesting intersections between his work and the truths of the Christian Faith. Springsteen is, by his own description, an x-Catholic, and, though his songs do draw on religious imagery, themes, and musical styles, there is nothing intentionally Christian about his music. However, as with most great artists, there are truths that any believer would recognize as Christian, throbbing at the heart of his work. As we will see, the conviction that the world is worth looking at in all its roughness, and worth singing about honestly, is just one of them.

Resting with Him, a devotional thought

There's a simple line in Mark 6:31 that was really speaking to me this afternoon. Back in Mark 6:7-12, Jesus had sent out the disciples with the job of proclaiming the message of the Kingdom, and from the description of their mission there, it sounds like the going was going to be pretty tough. And here, a few pages later, they've returned to Jesus and they're "telling him everything they did and taught in his name."

I find this picture so vivid and tender, Jesus gathering his friends back after a hard month or two of work, and sitting down with him as they pour out all the highs and lows of ministry. And then he says, "Come, let's go by ourselves to a desert place and rest a little." And he takes them off by themselves to a lonely place, and out of the way place, away from the press and demands of ministry, with the express purpose of resting a little. They need it. He knows.

Of course, it won't turn out that way, the crowds track him down and follow him, but today I lingered over that simple invitation of Jesus: "It's been a lot of hard work telling people about me; come, let's find a quiet place alone and rest a bit." If you're in ministry today--lay, vocational, bivocational, ordained or some combination of all 4--and feeling worn out, I hope you'll hear Jesus's invitation too: "Come, let's find a quiet place and rest a bit together." May we all have the grace to take him up on his offer.

Here and Now, a devotional thought

In Mark 6:1-29, Jesus sends his disciples out to preach the Message of the Kingdom, and he gives them these directions as their marching orders: "Take nothing for the journey except your staff, no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra tunic ..." I can't help but notice how these travel arrangements would have required his followers to, on the one hand, depend entirely on the provision of God in the moment; and on the other hand, to stay fully in the here and now.

The extra tunic would be handy after the first one wears out. The bag of money would be useful if and when the next meal isn't quick to come along. And so on.

 The idea here is, the Message of the Kingdom is so urgent, so pressing, that any preoccupation with "tomorrow's necessities" shouldn't and can't distract them from this work in the here and now. (This actually puts Jesus teaching in Matthew 6 about not worrying for tomorrow into sharp relief: could the "worry about tomorrow" be the stuff that distracts us from the urgency of doing Kingdom work today?)

It's tempting, maybe, to dismiss Jesus's directions in Mark 6 with a "that was then, this is now" kind of of nonchalance, but it occurs to me that sending them out without money in the bag in that historical era, when 3 square meals were even harder to come by than they are now, would have sounded just as radical then as it does today. It gets me thinking about the "provisions for tomorrow" that I so often trust in, and the way these things may in fact be distracting me from the good work Jesus has called me to do today. And it gets me praying that God will keep my heart focused on what is most needful in the here and now, as I do my part to proclaim the message of the Kingdom.

Miracle of Miracles, a devotional thought

Mark gives us three powerful healing miracles back to back in Mark Chapter 5. Jesus exorcises a legion of demons from the man living out in the Gerasene cemetery; then (unbeknownst to him) he heals a woman who has been suffering 12 years from constant hemorrhaging, and then he resuscitates a dead girl, the daughter of the head of the local synagogue.

It's interesting what stands out when you stop to consider what each of these stories share in common. Because the Gerasene demoniac is a) a non-Jew, living b) in the cemetery, and c) among the swine-herds, all of which would have made him "unclean" according to the Jewish customs of the time. Likewise, the bleeding woman would have been considered ritually unclean by any 1sty Century Jew who knew the Book of Leviticus well. So too the dead girl-- for a Jew, contact with a dead body also led to ritual uncleanness. In one short Chapter we come across pigs and pagans, disease and demons, blood and bodies. It's hard to imagine a less-clean travel itinerary, and yet Jesus--the holy, pure, Son of God--moves calmly, assuredly and altogether unperturbedly amid it all.

It strikes me that his Kingdom of God ministry issues a deep challenge to the notions of holiness and unholiness, cleanness and uncleanness, purity and impurity that were woven deep down into the religious fabric of his world. And it gets me wondering-- what deep-seeded notions of "cleanness" and "uncleanness" are at work in my own heart, determining who I have contact with and who I don't, who I will embrace and who I won't, and is his Kingdom challenge as much for me as it was for "them" back then?