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.

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random reads

Book Reviews

Book Reviews
The Shallows, Nicholas Carr
In this very readable, very thought provoking analysis of electronic communciations technology and its impact on our brains and culture, Nicholas Carr brings together media theory (think Marshall McLuhan), history (think Gutenberg) and neuroscience (think discoveries in brain plasticity) to show how computer technology is shaping us in ways of which we are only dimly aware. He argues that such technologies reduce our capacity for deep, creative and sustained linear thought (or at least have the potential to do so) and predispose us to the fragmented, the cursive and the superficial. Worth the read.

Exclusion and Embrace, Miroslav Volf

Ecstasy and Intimacy: When the Holy Spirit Meets the Human Spirit, Edith Humphrey
A fascinating and engaging introduction to spiritual theology-- or the theology of spirituality, as the case may be. This book is a very scholarly, devotional, christo-centric, ecumenical and trinitarian overview of what it means for Christians to live in the Spirit and with the Spirit within. Bracing and enlightening.

Leading with a Limp, Dan Allender

five smooth stones for pastoral work, Eugene Peterson

From Darkness to Light: How One Became a Christian in the Early Church, Anne Fields

Life in the Ancient Near East, Daniel C. Snell
Snell's Life in the Ancient Near East offers a social history of the ANE, tracing the earliest settlement of Mesopotamia, the development of agriculture, first cities, ancient economy and the emergence of empire. Bringing together a rich variety of data gleaned both from the archaeological record and extant historical texts, he tells the history of this cradle of civilization with a special eye for the "human" element - focusing on the forces and factors that would have directly affected the daily life of the various strata of society. Worth a read generally, but all the more for someone with a particular interest in the biblical stories that find their setting and draw their characters and themes from the same provenience.

The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene

Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament, Richard Davidson
Davidson's Old Testament theology of human sexuality is stunning in its achievement, challenging in its content, and edifying in its conclusions. Davidson addresses every-- and I do mean every-- Old Testament text that deals (even obliquely) with human sexuality, and, through detailed exegesis, careful synthesis, and deep interaction with the scholarly research, develops a detailed picture of the Old Testament's vision for redeemed human sexuality. 700 pages of Biblical scholarship at its best.

Eaarth, Bill McKibben
Bill McKibben's Eaarth, is a call for us to wake up smell the ecological coffee...while we can still brew it. Unlike his previous work, or any writing on ecology I've yet read, however, Eaarth does not argue that catastrophe is pending. Instead, he argues that catastrophe has arrived, and that our all talk about "going green to avert disaster," "and "saving the planet" is woefully obsolete. In ecological terms, the planet as we once knew it is gone, he argues, and rather than trying to "avert" disaster, we need to start figuring out how to live in the disaster that's happened. Key themes he identifies as important for life on planet Eaarth resonnated with me as profoundly Christian ways of being (disaster or no). We must stop assuming that "bigger" is better; we must acknowledge limits on economic and technological growth; we must get reacquainted with the land; we need eschew self-sufficency and nurture community.

Love Wins, Rob Bell
So fast and furious has the furor over this book been, that any review will inevitably feel redundant or tardy. Given the crowd on the band wagon by now, I actually had no intention of hopping on myself, but my kids got it for me for Father's Day. About 15 pages in, I realized that I could probably finish it in on good push, so I got it over with. My thoughts: probably the most over-hyped book I ever read; I loved it and found it frustratingly under-developed at the same time; while he raises some important issues, his handling of them reads like a yoda-meets-Tom-Wright account of salvation; nothing C. S. Lewis hasn't already said more clearly and more cleverly; I'm glad he wrote it, and I'm glad the Evangelical world has errupted over it the way it has, and I hope a much more spirited and generous and optimistic understanding of soteriology and eschatology will infuse the evangelical church's mission as a result.

Rediscovering Paul, David Capes et. al.
Rediscovering Paul is a hepful overview of Paul's life, times and theology. While at times I felt it might have gone deeper, or expressed its ideas more clearly, it provides some interesting and inspiring insights into the man behind the letters. Among these is its discussion of the communal aspect of first century letter writing, and the influence of one's community on one's personal sense of identity, and how those issues might have played out in Paul's writings. Another challenging issue that it tackles is the whole process of letter writing in the Greco-Roman world, especially as regards the role a scribe often played in shaping the text, smoothing out the langugae or providing stock phrases, etc.

Lavondyss, Robert Holdstock
If you've read George MacDonald's Lilith, then think of Lavondyss as sort of a Lilith-for-Non-Christians. It's the convoluted labyrinth of a story about a young girl called Tallis and her adventures in a magical wood that brings the Jungian archetypes buried deep in our subconscious to life. Dense with questions about Jungian psychology, and the spiritually-thin-places of the world, and death and myth and magic and story, it's pretty tough slugging at times, but thought provoking and challenging. At times I felt like I was reading the Narnia book C. S. Lewis might have written if he had pursued the "stab of northerness" in directions other than the Christian Faith where he found it eternally satisfied.

Jesus and Money, Ben Witherington III
My friend John Vlainic once ranked Ben Witheringon as one of the strongest Biblical scholars in the Wesleyan tradtion working today. This thin but powerful volume is evidence to support such an accolade. I opened it expecting (judging by the cover) either a how-to book on Christian finances, or (judging by the other books I've read on Christ and Money) a hodge-podge of Bible verses taken out of context and mushed together as proof texts about the tithe. I got neither; instead, Ben Witherington walks slowly, thoughtful and exegetically through the breadth of Biblical teaching, with special sensitivity to the cultural context of the various texts, the tension between Old and New Testament teaching on the topic, and the differences between modern and ancient economies. If I were to recommend one book to develop a biblical theology of money, it would be this one.

The Gravedigger File, Os Guinness
My first taste of Os Guinness, and, if you don't mind a mangled metaphor, it went down like a bracing pint of... well... Guinness. Grave Digger file is sort of a "Screwtape Letters" project on a church-wide scale. In concept, the book is a series of "training files" for an undercover agent attempting to undermine and ultimately sabotage the Western Church, delivered from the pen of a seasoned saboteur to a young agent recently assigned to Los Angeles. In plot, the young agent ultimately defects, and delivers the "Gravedigger File" into the hands of a Christian, urging him to alert the Church to the operation. It is bursting with "things that make you go hmmm..." and deserves a second, careful read with pen in hand, ready to mine it for its scintillating and eminently quotable lines.

Suffer the Singles to Come to Me (On Singleness and Celibacy, Part IV)

There’s a very famous passage in the Gospel of Matthew where the crowds are bringing their toddlers to Jesus and the disciples try to prevent them from doing so. If you’ve read it before you’ll know that Jesus becomes quite indignant with his disciples and tells them to “Suffer the little children come to me” (Matthew 19:14, KJV), because “the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these.”

It’s famous, of course, because the Lord is clearly validating children here in a way that would have been, at the very least, counter cultural to his original listeners, but resonates deeply with our culture, where (unlike the ancients) we tend to put children on a pedestal and idealize childhood. For us, there are probably fewer images more lovely than the one of the Lord tenderly blessing a handful of playful children—our children—as a quintessential expression of his ministry. Of course, we assume, as we drive our kids hither and thither from soccer practice to piano lessons to playgrounds and back, making no end of sacrifices for their well-being—of course Jesus cares as much about children as we do—of course he was willing to put as much on the line for them as we are.

And he is; don’t get me wrong.

Children will always have a special place in his heart—though not because of their perceived innocence and child-like wonderment (as we might assume)—but more because of their vulnerability, weakness, and (at least in his culture) their low status on the social totem pole. Nevertheless, Jesus clearly loves children, and enjoins his followers to do the same.

A while back I was reading Matthew 19, though, and I noticed for the first time that this passage comes immediately after Jesus’s radical teaching on divorce and remarriage in Matthew 19:1-12, where he tells us that God’s intention was that marriage should be a permanent, exclusive union between a man and a woman (19:9).

I noticed this, and for the first time it occurred to me to wonder why the disciples don’t want the children to be brought to Jesus for a blessing in 19:13.

What if it’s because they learned the lesson of Matthew 19:1-12 too well? What if Matthew 19:13-15 is Jesus’s step to correct a pendulum that had swung too far the other way?

What I mean is this: in Matthew 19:10, when they hear Jesus’s firm stance on the permanency of marriage, the disciples say, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife it is better not to marry.”

The logic here is not completely clear to me, but it seems they’ve added it up and have decided that if marriage “can’t be escaped," we ought not to jump into it in the first place.

And what’s stunning to me, is that in Matthew 19:11, Jesus doesn’t tell them they’re wrong. He simply says, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those for whom it has been given; and the one who can accept it should.”

If you read it very closely, Jesus seems to be agreeing with the disciple’s conclusion (that it’s better not to marry), but also wisely acknowledging that most can’t walk that path. So he offers marriage as a concession to those for whom “becoming a eunuch for the sake of the Kingdom” is just too strenuous of a path. Paul is probably taking his cue from the Lord Jesus when he does a similar thing himself in 1 Corinthians 7:1-7.

There are probably other ways to take Matthew 19:11-12, but if this reading is correct, it would certainly explain the “let the little children come to me” fiasco in Matthew 19:13ff. Because if you were a disciple that day and you had heard Jesus say that marriage is a concession for those who can’t walk the path of celibacy, but if you can handle singleness you ought to … you could be excused, I think, if you figured that Jesus had actually, in that teaching, minimized the importance of family life altogether. And it would be at least understandable if, the next time you saw a bunch of families bringing their children to Jesus for a blessing, you tried to prevent it.

Surely the Jesus who said what he said about marriage in verse 11 and 12, would not want to be bothered with a bunch of children in verse 13, right?

Well: wrong (see verse 14-15), but I can understand why you’d think that.

Because the New Testament consistently and clearly discusses singleness with very high esteem—as an ideal way to serve the Lord—and it often talks about marriage as though it were a necessary concession for the “not yet” era of the Kingdom of God, a concession which will become obsolete once the “already” has come in all its fullness. There will be, after all, no marriage at the resurrection (Matthew 22:30), and those who can live into that reality already, on this side of the resurrection, Jesus seems to be saying, should do so.

(You might quote Ephesians 6, and say, doesn’t Ephesians 5:22-33 put as high a value on marriage as you possibly can, making it symbolic of the union between Christ and the church? But that verse actually proves too much, in a way. If marriage is a symbol of the union between Christ and his church, then at the eschaton, when that union is perfect and complete, marriage will have served its purpose and will no longer be needed.)

All this brings us back Matthew 19:13-15. Whatever else Jesus was doing by blessing those little children that day, he was certainly also preventing us from taking the above logic too far, too soon.

“Even though the institution of marriage has a shelf-life,” he seems to be saying, “and even though singleness is a good way to follow me, even so, till that day when the Kingdom has arrived in all its fullness, there is still a place, now, for married life, and families, and children. So let the little children come to me, and do not prevent them. For the Kingdom of God belongs to them (as much as it does to single people).”

On this reading Matthew 19:13-15 is not so much an unmitigated endorsement of all things children, and a summons to the church to focus on the family above all else. It is, instead, a boundary marker, preventing the church from swimming too far out, so to speak, into the sea of “singleness and celibacy.”

Put less metaphorically: Matthew 19:13-15 is there to bring marriage and family, up to, and on par with, singleness as a viable way of following Jesus. So that the church doesn’t fall into the trap of thinking that the singles are the red-ribbon-Christians and the marrieds are the “also-rans.”

If I’m on to anything here, I gotta say that this is not a problem than needs correcting in the modern North-American Church—the problem of elevating singleness and denigrating marriage, I mean. As I have argued in previous posts in this series, the modern North American church tends to elevate marriage as the ideal and barely even acknowledges that singleness is a thing (except as a problem to be “fixed” by marriage).

If Matthew 19:13-15 was there to correct the over-swing of the pendulum towards singleness, in Jesus's day, Matthew 19:11-12, is here to correct the over-swing of the pendulum to the other side, in our day.

But my point here is not to pit one of these two paths against the other, singleness or marriage; it’s just to illustrate that Jesus seems to think that both are necessary, and a church that really wanted to experience the life of the Kingdom would value, celebrate and encourage both.

Because God’s ultimate goal is not “married-Christians.” His ultimate goal is fully-devoted disciples. Marriage is one way to experience and live out one’s discipleship, of course; but so is singleness. And a church that really understood what it meant to bring their children—and their marriages—and their families—to Jesus, would make sure their single people were also there, receiving their blessing too, and discovering that the Kingdom of God belongs as much to them as it does anyone else who finds themselves at his side.

I Have Inscribed You, a song

I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands
I have etched you here on my side
And I wrote your name with the nails of the cross
On my hands and feet that they might never be lost
In the stripes of my back
With my arms stretched wide
I inscribed you, I inscribed you
I inscribed you on the palms of my hands

Look on the hands you have pierced
Fall at the feet whose heel you bruised
Touch the flesh that you tore in your sin and pride
See the blood that poured from his riven side
I was broken for you, it was poured out for you
It was offered to make all things new

I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands
I have etched you here on my side
And I wrote your name with the nails of the cross
On my hands and feet that they might never be lost
In the stripes of my back
With my arms stretched wide
I inscribed you, I inscribed you
I inscribed you on the palms of my hands

On Authority and the Spiritual Struggle (Luke 10:19)

Sacred Head Sore Wounded

O Sacred Head, sore wounded
Weighted down with grief
Crowned with thorns and bruised with
All our unbelief
But the cruel key that pierced you
And opened your side
Unlocked the mystery of heaven
And flung the doors of heaven wide

O Sacred Body broken
Lashed with all our sin
And those hands stretched open
Held salvation in
But the cruel key that locked them
And drove them to the cross
Unloosed the mystery of heaven
And offered back what we had lost

O Sacred Head sore wounded
Sacred body broken
Sacred blood and water, spilled for me

O Sacred Thirst unquenched
And parched with suffering
Mocked with vinegar
It thirsted there for me
But the cruel key that pierced you
And opened your side
Unlocked the mystery of heaven
And flung the doors of heaven wide

O Sacred Head sore wounded
Sacred body broken
Sacred blood and water, spilled for me
O Sacred Head sore wounded
Sacred body broken
Sacred blood and water, spilled for me

The Scruffy Little Puppy, a Parable for Children

Once upon a time there was a scruffy little puppy who lived in a pet store on the corner of a busy street in the city. Scruffy little puppy was not like any of the other puppies.

Sparky was fully of vim and vinegar and all the children who visited the pet store loved to play with him. But Scruffy Little Puppy had one lame paw and couldn’t run very well.

Sophie had a beautiful curly coat and wore a bow behind her ears. All the grown ups who came to the pet store said how lovely she was. But Scruffy Little Puppy’s coat was all ragged and tatty.

No one ever took any notice of Scruffy Little Puppy. No one loved him. And no one wanted him.

One day a man came to the pet store and told the Keeper that he wanted a playful puppy for his little boy, and he was prepared to pay fifteen dollars for one. The keeper pointed out Sparky, bouncing around with his ball in the shop window.

“That Puppy,” said the keeper, “is worth fifteen dollars for sure.”

Another day, a young lady came in. When she saw Sophie’s curly coat, she said she just had to have her, and the keeper should name his price. The keeper said that Sophie was worth ten dollars at least.

But no body ever came in asking how much Scruffy Little Puppy was worth. No one told the Keeper that they just had to have him. No one loved him. And no one wanted him.

One day a nice-looking young man came into the pet store. Scruffy Little Puppy didn’t look up from his basket, but he listened closely.

“I saw that puppy with the lame paw in the window,” the man was saying to the keeper. “I think I might like to have a dog like that.”

The Keeper laughed. “You mean Scruffy Little Puppy?” he said. “Oh well. He can’t run very well. And his coat is pretty mangy. Let me show you some different puppies.”

“No,” insisted the gentle young man. “I want that puppy. How much is he worth?”

The Keeper scratched his head. Sophie had sold for ten dollars. Sparky for fifteen. But Scruffy Little Puppy wasn’t worth anything near as much as them.

“Well,” he said at last, “I could give you Scruffy for two dollars. That’s probably a fair price.”

The kind-looking young man rubbed his chin. Scruffy hung his head in shame.

“Two dollars is a lot of money,” he said. “But it’s not enough for my Scruffy Little Puppy. I’ll give you a hundred dollars for him!”

Scruffy couldn’t believe what he just heard. Nor could the Keeper. He said, “Sold!” and put the money in the cash register before the young man could change his mind. And that was the day Scruffy Little Puppy went home with his new master.

Sold for a hundred dollars!

Well. Months and months went by. But the Keeper of the Pet Store never forgot the strange young man who had bought the worst puppy in the store for a hundred whole dollars.

And one day, looking out the window of his shop, he saw that same young man walking past. He was holding a dog leash, and on the leash walking next to him was the finest-looking looking dog the Keeper had ever seen.

The dog had a glossy grey coat. He walked with his head held high, and each step he took was so strong, and graceful, that you never would have noticed that he had just the faintest little bit of a limp.

The Keeper rushed out of the store to greet the man. “My,” he said. “That is a fine-looking dog you have there. What ever happened to the scruffy-little mutt you bought from me?”

The young man looked at the keeper for just a moment, and then he laughed. “Sir!” he said, “This is my Scruffy Little Puppy. It’s the same dog!”

The Keeper was astonished. “But how?” He asked. He just couldn’t believe that this fine-looking dog was the same sad-looking puppy he had sold so long ago.

“Don’t you see?” said the wise young man. “We are as lovely as we’re told we are. If you only pay two dollars for a dog, you’ll get a dog worth two dollars. But a puppy that believes he’s worth a hundred dollars, will become a hundred-dollar dog.

I showed Scruffy he was worth a hundred dollars to me, and that’s what he’s become.”

The Keeper walked away scratching his head. He just didn’t understand.

But God wants us to understand.  Because in a way, what the nice young man did for Scruffy Little Puppy, by showing him just how much he was worth to him when he felt worthless an unloved, that’s like what God did for us.

We were like the Scruffy Little Puppy, and Jesus is like the kind-young man. Because like the man in the story, who paid a hundred dollars for a puppy that no one else would even pay two for, Jesus gave his very life for us on the cross, when we were broken by sin and marred by selfishness. Jesus paid his very life for us, so that we could be with him, and so that we would know how precious we are to God.

And that’s what God wants all of us to know. He loves us so much that he gave Jesus, his one and only Son, who died on the cross for you, so that you would no it for sure, that you are infinitely precious to him.

Ministry by Twos (Luke 10:1)

Corpus Christi Carol (a song)

lyrics based on a traditional poem

Lullay, lullay, lullay, lullay
Falcon has born my mate away

He bore her up, he bore her down
He bore her to an orchard brown

And in that orchard there was a hall
It was hanged with purple and pall

And in that hall was laid a bed
That was hanged with gold so red

And on that bed there lieth a knight
His wounds a-bleeding day and night

And by that bed there kneeleth a maid
And she weepeth night and day

And by that maid there rests a stone
Corpus Christi written thereon

Towards a Theology of Celibacy, Part III

(Note: this is adapted from a paper I prepared for the FMCiC in 2016. You can find the whole paper here: Pastoral Reflections on Singleness and Celibacy)

Any church that wants to treat the Bible's teaching on marriage seriously will have to grapple, at the same time, at some point or another, with its teaching about celibacy as well.  Few books I've read or sermons I've heard on the topic of marriage actually do this. Instead they tend to treat Christian marriage as though it were some how the ideal, and ignore the sometimes startling things the Bible says about the goodness of the single life. There are a number of Bible texts that laud singleness as a path for following Jesus, and often these texts present marriage, if anything, as a concession to those who are unable to walk the path of celibacy.  If we wish to have a theologically rich understanding of marriage and singleness alike, I think, we will have to let these texts speak with their full weight.

The first, and most obvious, is 1 Corinthians 7, where Paul addresses the Corinthian church on matters of marriage and celibacy. What stands out in this text is the way in which Paul seems to view marriage here as a good and proper concession to the frailties of our broken sexuality, rather than an arrangement that is somehow superior to singleness. “It is good for a man not to marry,” he writes (7:1), “but because of immoralities (porneia, sexual immorality), each man is to have his own wife and each woman is to have her own husband” (7:2). Later in the passage he will say that it is “good for the unmarried to remain single” (7:8), but if they are likely to “burn with passion,” they should marry. Here Paul lines up celibate singleness and marriage as equally legitimate expressions of Christian discipleship, though he is clear that he sees an advantage in singleness. The advantage, specifically, is that unmarried Christians are free to serve the Lord with an undivided heart, whereas married Christians have divided interests (7:33-34). Finally, it should be noted that in this passage Paul  refers to celibacy as a “gift.” Given the fact that the term Paul uses here for gift (charisma) is the same he will use later to describe the supernatural empowerings of the Holy Spirit—gifts of healing, tongues, prophecy and so on—it should be noted that Paul does not single out singleness as a unique “gift,” as distinct from marriage. Rather he notes that for some the “gift” is to live a married life, for others it is to live a single life (7:6), but both situations are gifts from God and, presumably, require the empowering of the Spirit to live faithfully and well.

Another passage that deserves careful reflection is Jesus’ teaching about “singleness for the sake of the Kingdom of God,” in Matthew 19. After hearing Jesus’ firm position on divorce and remarriage, the disciples respond that, given this view of marriage, it is “better not to marry” (19:10). Given the church’s tendency to see marriage as the ideal expression of the Christian life, Jesus’ response is fascinating, because he does not deny their conclusion. He simply states, with a line of reasoning similar to that of Paul’s in 1 Corinthians 7, that “not all people can accept this statement” (19:11); in other words, because most people cannot successfully embrace the celibate single life, marriage is the best alternative. He goes on to say, however, that those who are able to “accept” the celibate life should in fact “receive” it, offering a clear and unambiguous affirmation of celibate singleness.

A final text we ought to consider is Jesus’ teaching about marriage at the resurrection. In an effort to point out apparent inconsistencies in his teaching about the resurrection, the Sadducees ask Jesus about a woman who was married seven times: who will she be married to at the resurrection? Again Jesus’ response is startling for Christians used to assuming that marriage is the highest ideal for the Christian life. “In the resurrection,” he says, “they neither marry nor are they given in marriage” (Matthew 22:29-30). In other words, marriage is an earthly institution that serves a good and useful purpose in this life, but will be unnecessary in the life to come. This is not to marginalize or trivialize marriage in this present age—the Scriptures are uniformly clear that marriage is a blessing and a gift from God—but it is to put marriage it its proper perspective. Marriage serves an end and is not an end in itself; and celibacy, too serves an end, though it is not an end in itself either. Both are, in their own way, signs of the coming Kingdom where the human arrangements of husband, wife, master, servant and so on, will all be overshadowed by the heavenly relationship of “brother and sister in Christ.”

A church that takes the scripture’s teaching on celibacy seriously will recognize it, celebrate it and affirm it as a distinct and meaningful path for discipleship, one that requires the support of the Christian community if it is to flourish, one that is highly valued and respected in the teachings of the apostles and in the explicit word of the Lord, and one that makes as valuable a contribution to the community as do marriage and family. Similarly, churches that wish to be shaped by the Scriptures when comes to singleness and celibacy will reject the popular notion that in order to be effective a pastor must be married, or that marriage is a qualification for ministry. This is directly contrary to the plain teaching of the Bible, which, if anything, gives the advantage to the single pastor, who is less encumbered by the demands of a family and a household in the discharge of his or her ministry. At the very least, churches that wish to be shaped by the Scriptures in this matter will take intentional steps to offer a counter-culture to the highly sexualized culture of contemporary Canadian Society, to be a community where singles are affirmed and supported, and celibacy is embraced as a meaningful path for Christ.

3 Minute Theology 5.4: Call and Response

Fire from Heaven: Luke 9:28-56

i thank you god (for most this amazing)

lyrics based on a poem by e. e. cummings

Singleness and the Church, Part II

A “plausibility structure” is the intricate network of symbols, social supports and embedded ways of communicating that a culture has in place to make a certain way of life seem “plausible” to its members.

Take marriage as an example.  Lifelong monogamy does not "come naturally” to the species, one might argue, but societies that enjoin their members to practice it have a whole slew of things in place to make this way of life seem “plausible.” We have sacred ceremonies to celebrate it. We make laws to govern it. We have an elaborate system of record keeping to keep track of who has entered into it. We tell stories which idealize it, and so on.

For centuries, in fact, we have maintained a rather sophisticated “plausibility structure" to make married monogamy seem “plausible,” to nip-in-the-bud any nay-saying voices that might hear the idea and say: “Really? One partner, exclusively, for life? Who could possibly?” (Indeed, the notable decline of interest in traditional marriage in modern day Canada is linked, I would argue, to a steady erosion of the “plausibility structures” that once encouraged Canadians to believe that marriage was a viable path to walk).

If marriage seems too loaded an example, try American gun-control.  No wonder meaningful gun-control laws feel so impossible in America, when 1 in 4 of its eligible citizens owns a gun, when the country itself own almost half of all the citizen-owned guns in the world, when there are 25 times more gun homicides than in any other comparable country, when the right to own a gun is ostensibly encoded in the founding documents of the nation, when a steady stream of entertainment media glorifies gun violence, and so on.  How do you convince citizens to accept restrictions on their freedom to own firearms in a nation where there are all kinds of “plausibility structures” in place to encourage guns, and next to no structures in place to make effective gun control sound “plausible”?

The concept of “plausibility structures” is crucial for any Christian community that wishes to take seriously the Bible’s perspective on sex, and authentically encourage its unmarried members to walk a path of abstinence and celibacy. Most of churches I’ve experienced have been this way. They taught their members that sex ought to be experienced only within the bonds of marriage, and taught by extrapolation that unmarried Christians ought to follow a path of abstinence. Yet such churches had no more “plausibility structures” in place to encourage celibacy, than America has for gun control.  That is to say: there was nothing there to make celibacy appear “do-able,” other than the guilt, shame, or idealization that swirled around sex-talk generally.

Instead, these churches focused on the family, and preached sermon series on how to have a godly marriage, and celebrated newly-weds, and provided little support for divorcees, and targeted “young families” as their preferred ministry demographic (either implicitly or explicitly).  None of these things communicates that “we actually think singleness is a very good thing, a good way to follow Jesus, a way of life that is rich, and important, and, especially, plausible.”

I first learned about "plausibility structures" from Christian Sociologist Jenell Paris-Williams.  She suggests that churches fail in their calling if they do not intentionally make celibacy a “plausible” option for Christian singles, and that if a church wishes to promote a traditional sexual ethic it has an especially poignant obligation to build "plausibility structures" around that ethical teaching.  She argues that the extent to which one’s community presents a life-style choice as “plausible” greatly influences the likelihood one will choose it, and be successful in pursuing it. Her wisdom on this matter merits an extended reference, I think:

Celibacy is surely a strenuous spiritual path, but today the cost of celibacy is unreasonably and unnecessarily high. When it comes to moral teachings about sex outside of marriage, we isolate sexual pleasure from all the other good things that are connected to sexual relationships. People are commanded to abstain from sexual intimacy, but no one addresses how abstention may also limit the person’s access to family, touch, children, financial stability and so on. It’s hard to be a celibate person in an unchaste church whose broader context is an unchaste society. In striving for moral virtue, the celibate also bears the church’s collective sin of failing, in a highly sexualized social context, to make a counterculture in which celibacy is plausible. (Jenell Paris Williams, The End of Sexuality (Downers Grove, Il:  InterVarsity, 2011), 136.)
Wesley Hill, a gay Christian who has chosen to live the path of celibacy, writes extensively on this theme.  In Washed and Waiting, he makes the poignant observation that the church was meant to be God’s sanctified remedy for human loneliness, God’s “compensation” to celibate Christians for their sacrifice of sexual intimacy (see Mark 10:29-30).  He challenges Christians to recognize that “the New Testament views the church—rather than marriage—as the primary place where human love is best expressed and experienced” (Wesley Hill, Washed and Waiting (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 2010), 111).

If the church is going to live into its identity as “the primary place where human love is … expressed and experienced,” it will have to take far more seriously the extent to which it supports, encourages, and values the single people in its midst.  It will have to ask hard questions about how authentically and how practically it serves as God’s “compensation” to celibate Christians for the sacrifices they have made to pursue this particular path of discipleship.  If it did, I think, it would find itself building structures in its life together that makes the path of celibacy not simply “plausible” for those who walk it, but rich, and rewarding, and life-giving.

On Taking Up Your Cross (Luke 9:10-27)

Zoe (a song)

Zoe is dancing again in the daylight
She comes to me lovely and full of delight
Skipping and spinning with all of her might
And she sets my heart free

Richer than milk, sweeter than honey
Stronger than wine, more precious than money
A blue sky divine all brilliant and sunny
She dances lovely

Life! Springing up from the ground
Like nothing that I've ever found
On this sweet earth
Joy! Filling my heart like wine
Now that I know that you're mine
I'm filled with mirth

Zoe is shinning again in the twilight
She's burning like starts in the darkness of night
She's casting off blindness and putting on new sight
To make my heart see

Flowing like water, burning like fire
Sent from the Father to lift me higher
Anointed with laughter, delight and desire
By Christ my master

Love! Bubbling up in my soul
Your mercy has made me whole
And gave me new birth
Zoe! flowing out like a spring
You teach my spirit to sing
TO sing your worth!

Zoe is running again in the rain
She is leaping and falling and rising again
She is there in the joy and there in the pain
The life Christ gave me

Richer than milk, sweeter than honey
Stronger than wine, more precious than money
A blue sky divine all brilliant and sunny
She dances lovely
Dances lovely
Dances lovely

Life! Springing up from the ground
Like nothing that I've ever found
On this sweet earth
Joy! Filling my heart like wine
Now that I know that you're mine
I'm filled with mirth

Love! Bubbling up in my soul
Your mercy has made me whole
And gave me new birth
Zoe! flowing out like a spring
You teach my spirit to sing
To sing your worth!

Singleness and the Church, Part I

Here’s a quick mental exercise for you.  If you are a church-goer, ask yourself: when was the last time I heard a sermon or Christian teaching on the topic of marriage, family, children, or sex? 

Now ask yourself: when was the last time I heard a sermon or Christian teaching on the topic of singleness? 

This purely speculation on my part, but I’m willing to bet that the former (teaching on marriage and family) was both more recent and more frequent than the later (teaching on singleness).  Christians have an unnoticed tendency, I think, to idealize, romanticize, and over-emphasize marriage, and ignore, under-emphasize or subtly denigrate singleness as a legitimate way to follow Jesus.   I don’t have a lot of hard data on this, but my gut and my experience tells me it’s so (hence the quick mental exercise at the start of this post).

I wonder a lot about what impact this idealization of marriage has on single people in the church.  I wonder this in part because it is, in fact, quite unbiblical. The Bible actually puts singleness on even par with marriage as a very good way to follow Jesus, and, if anything, portrays marriage as a concession for those who can’t walk the walk when it comes to singleness. (But that’s gonna have to be a post for another day.) More importantly, I wonder about the impact of our emphasis on marriage, because on a spiritual level it seems like a bit of a double standard, to tell unmarried people that they ought to walk a path of celibacy, on the one hand, but offer them none of the spiritual support and recognition in the church that married people get.

Whether or not I’m on to anything here, all the signs in Canadian society suggest that this issue—how does the church relate to, make space for, and spiritual care for the singles in its community—is going to become increasingly relevant in the coming years. In a 2005 study of Canadian social trends, Susan Crompton suggests that Canadian singles, what she calls the “won’t marry’s,” represent a “small but distinct” segment of Canadian society who face a whole slew of unique social pressures related directly to their single status.  Statistically, wont-marrys have fewer socio-economic opportunities, have a higher likelihood of not entering the work-force, and tend to have a median income 16% lower than that of “will-marrys” (Crompton, “Always the Bridesmaid: People Who Don’t Expect to Marry,” Canadian Social Trends, 77, Summer 2005). 

These pressures are likely to sharpen and intensify as more and more Canadians opt to remain single. A 2011 Stats Canada study, for instance, found that the percentage of single Canadians has increased from 39$ in 1981 to 54% in 2011.  Most notably, this study found that for the first time ever there were more people living alone in Canada than there were couples with children.

The Canadian dream of a spouse and a house and white-picket fence enclosing a yard where 2.5 kids gleefully play the day away seems to be evaporating.  And as it does, I wonder if the Church realizes that in the gospel, which clearly affirms singleness as a good way to follow the Lord, we have all kinds of spiritual resources to minister well to this growing segment of the population.

My gut tells me it does not realize this.  Partly because of the results I get when I conduct the aforementioned mental exercise (and I'm the preacher in my church!), but more because when I look around the Church in general, I see all the highlighter ink getting used up emphasizing the ministries we do for kids, families, and marriages, and very little of it getting spent on highlighting the special issues and unique opportunities that single Christians face as disciples of the Lord.

I offer this mostly as a word of encouragement today to any of the single Christians who stop in at terra incognita from time to time to peruse some of my thoughts on God, life, faith, love, words, and spirituality.

But I also offer it by way of a preamble to the series I’m starting this month here at my blog.  For the next few weeks, I’m planning to use this space to explore some biblical, theological, pastoral and practical issues related to being a single Christian in Canada. I’ll be travelling this road as a foreign pilgrim, of course.  I married young (20 years old) and have been happily married for going on 25 years now, so I speak humbly and from inexperience on this matter.  But still, I am a pastor, and I care very much that all God’s children should find their place in the life of the church, whether they are married or not.  It is a place of joy, freedom, service, and worship for all, and if the church has been subtly (or not-so-subtly) communicating that you can only find it well if you’re married, than I believe it’s something we ought to repent of, and learn to do better at.

On Miracles and Obedience (Luke 9:10-17)

The Windhover (a song, for Gerard Manley Hopkins)

I caught this morning's morning minmion
Kingdom of daylight's dawn-drawn falcon
Riding on the whippling of the wind

High there how he rung the wind reign
My heart in hiding stirred with wond'ring
The ecstasy, the mastery of the thing

I want to soar, to soar, to soar with you!
To soar, to soar, to soar with you!

Brute beauty, valor, act here buckle
Oh, air and pride and plume a thousand
Times more dangerous, my chevalier

But the fire that breaks from thee, a billion
Times more pure flash gold vermillion
O Christ, my Lord in wonder I will say:

I want to soar, to soar, to soar with you!
To soar, to soar, to soar with you!

I caught this morning's morning minmion
Kingdom of daylight's dawn-drawn falcon
Riding on the whippling of the wind

But the beauty that breaks from thee, a billion
Times more pure flash gold vermillion
O Christ, my Lord in wonder I will say:

I want to soar, to soar, to soar with you!
To soar, to soar, to soar with you!

Ash Wednesday (a poem)

And is this what all my best efforts
My highest aspirations
And meager achievements,
The joys and sorrows and stops and starts,
The world-building and storytelling
And dreaming of dreams
And befriending of friends
The words, words, words
(flying out like endless rain into a paper cup)
Amount to in the end:
A smudge of dust and ash
Smeared across the brow,
Teaching everyone who looks at me
To number well my days?

May it be so.
And if so, may that ash be
Fragrant with great delight
And shadowed with the darkest of loves
Smouldering with profound hope
And set just so, on the skin, above the eyes
To accentuate the twinkle of the iris.

May it be so,
And may I wear it well until I hear Him
Call my name at last.

Women in the Ministry of Jesus (Luke 8:1-3)

First Song (a poem)

Speak to me softly with voices ancestral,
     Whisper tongues ancient and dripping in mead:
The smoke-pop, and sap-hiss of hall hearth your hymnal--
     Shield clash and lute wind and snorting of steed.

Unlayer the dank earth of archetypal digging:
     Marsh mist and peat moss and thyme-mottled wolds
Chant drumlins of darkness, shift dolems in singing
     And wend with the oak-root through Earth's clinging folds.

Or flutter a whisper by ancestral moon-light
     With air-tremor, wing-shudder, heron ascends
The soul-mousing owl and thrush-knock and rook-flight,
     From distant horizons the merlin descends.

And older than all, the seeping of water:
     The scarring deep fissures through granite of time.
The wave pound, the rain-tap, a well spring of wonder
     The hoar weight in winter, a burden of rime.

So come: with the rhythms of three-in-one dancing
     To earth-songs, and star-hymns, laments of the sea.
With trees clapping hands and hearts rising on eagle-wing,
     Carry me there to the hall of the First King,
Who chants me the lay of the hill, cup and tree--
     A very First Song for our very first mem’ry:
To hear it and know it and join it and sing.

3 Minute Theology 5.3: Prayer and the Mediation of Christ

The Little Lighthouse, a Parable

(My retelling of a traditional story I heard many years ago.)

Once upon a time there was a lonely little lighthouse, set on the edge of a rock at the lip of the sea.

This was a dangerous part of the sea, with many storms and huge waves, and it was very common for ships to get blown off course and crash against the rocks.

The lighthouse was small. It was really just a hut with a tiny light on top. It only had one little life boat and a small crew of just a few men and women. But that didn’t matter, because this small lighthouse crew kept constant watch over the sea. With no thought for themselves, they went out day and night, tirelessly searching for people who’d been lost in shipwrecks on the coast.

They were so good at saving lives, in fact, that soon the lighthouse became famous. Some of the people that the lighthouse had saved were so thankful that they joined the lighthouse crew themselves. Others heard about the good work it was doing, and started to support it with their time and money.

One rich man who had a passion for sailing bought some brand-new life boats for the crew, to replace the little dinghy it had been using. Another man, who knew all about sailing, started offering yatching lessons, so that people would know how to use their fancy new boats.

Slowly the little lighthouse grew.

Some of the members were unhappy with the crude little lighthouse hut. They felt that people who were rescued should have a more comfortable place to rest in while they were recovering from the shipwreck.

So they enlarged the building, and added nicer furniture.

Some members felt like there should be something to do when they weren’t out rescuing people, so they decided to add a tennis court. Others felt achy and chilly when they came in from rescue missions, so they decided to add a hot tub. Still others wanted their children to enjoy being there, too, so they added a playground.

Soon people from the town started coming out for visits to the lighthouse, on holidays and days-off. It was, after all, a very beautiful spot, with its yatching club and tennis courts, all overlooking the sea like that.

The lighthouse crew was so busy tending to these visitors, that they didn’t have time for many rescue missions anymore, so they hired some full time rescue crews. Someone even paid for them to get fancy “Little Lighthouse Rescue Team” uniforms.

One day a very large ship was wrecked, not far from the little lighthouse. The hired hands went out and brought in boatloads of cold, wet, and half-drowned people.

They were very ragged looking.

Some of them were sick.

The beautiful little lighthouse was considerably messed up, and the regularly scheduled activities were all disrupted as everyone tried to find room for the newcomers.

At the next meeting of the Little Lighthouse Management Board, there was a long discussion. “What should we do about all these shipwrecked castaways?“ they wondered.

“They put muddy footprints in the lobby!” said the Head of Lighthouse Décor.

“They’ve thrown the tennis schedule all out of whack!” said the Program Director.

“They’re crowding out the playground!” said the Facilities Manager.

“I think we should get out of the rescuing business altogether,” called out someone from the back.

As the discussion got heated, one small voice in the corner tried to speak up. “I though we were a lighthouse,” she said. “Isn’t rescuing people from shipwrecks what we’re here for?”

But she was completely voted down. “Saving people is important,” agreed the President of the Little Lighthouse Yatching Club, after the vote. “But if that’s what you want to do, maybe you should start your own lighthouse further down the coast. We’ll even donate some money to help you get it started.”

After the meeting, a small group did try to set up another lighthouse, but before long, the very same thing happened there as what happened at the Little Lighthouse.

In fact, if you visit the seacoast today, you will find a good number of exclusive Little Lighthouse Clubs along the shore. Shipwrecks are still very frequent in those waters, but now, most of the people simply drown.

On Resisting the Will of God (Luke 7:30)

Wish You Were Here, a song

Wish you were here, it's been such a long time
Since you were here, I almost forgot
To leave the light on

I'm running out of wick
And the night is coming on
Nails bitten to the quick
I wish you were here

Wish I was there, it's been such a long time
Since I was there, I almost forgot
To find my way home

I'm running out of wick
And the night is coming on
Nails bitten to the quick
I wish you were here

On Receiving the Accolades of the World (Luke 6:24-26)

For My Daughter on Her Birthday (a poem)

I told you once I’d carry you
Around a mountain lake.
And as you know, I did it too
Long after my arms began to ache.

You clung to me and I to you
Where ever the trail led
Despite the fact that we both knew
That you could have walked instead.

Well that was many years ago.
I'm getting grey and you are grown
And though the lakes still come and go
I’ve had to set you down.

But come what may, may you know it’s true:
If the trail gets steep or there’s no way through,
When the lake is wide, or especially blue,
I'll still always do my best to carry you.

You Said (Seeking You), a song

You said if we would seek you we would find you
If we sought you with all of our heart
You said if we would call you you would answer
If we called you with all that we are

You said if we would ask you, you would grant
If we asked you according to your will
You said if we would seek you we would find you
If we knocked you would open the door

We are seeking you with all of our heart Lord
We are seeking you with all of our mind
We are seeking you with all of our strength Lord
Leaving the treasures of this world far behind

You said if we would seek you we would find you
If we sought you with all of our heart
You said if we would call you you would answer
If we called you with all that we are

We are seeking you with all of our heart Lord
We are seeking you with all of our mind
We are seeking you with all of our strength Lord
Leaving the treasures of this world far behind

Hallelujah, hallelujah!
Hallelujah, hallelujah!

We are seeking you with all of our heart Lord
We are seeking you with all of our mind
We are seeking you with all of our strength Lord
Leaving the treasures of this world far behind

On Going Deep with Jesus (Luke 5:1-11)

For Cephas (a poem)

Jesus came to church today
Hands bruised by the frost
On a bitter Wednesday afternoon.
He had no where to lay his head
And the acrid smell of street-sleep
Hung like a halo about his hair.

And no one quite knew what to say—
The meaning of his words were often lost.
But someone put the kettle on
And someone warmed some soup and bread.
We gave him gloves he could not keep
And everyone was honored he was there.

Then Jesus Christ fell fast asleep
In the corner while we turned to prayer.
He woke up when we read his Word
And grinned to hear His story told—
And as he left we understood:
Tonight the Christ-child’s homeless hands
Are bleeding with the cold

Speak Lord (a song)

The voice of the Lord is rolling on the waters
The voice of the Lord it thunders from the deep
The voice of the Lord it flashes forth like lighting
For who can hear his mighty voice
Its power and its majesty
It’s calling to his people, the voice of the Lord

Speak Lord your servants are listening
Touch us an open our ears
Whisper your light in our darkness
Teach our hearts how to hear

The voice of the Lord it breaks the mighty cedars
The voice of the Lord it strips the forest bare
The voice of the Lord is might and majestic
For who can hear his awesome voice
Its scattering His enemies
It makes the nations tremble, the voice of the Lord

Speak Lord your servants are listening
Touch us an open our ears
Whisper your light in our darkness
Teach our hearts how to hear

The voice of the Lord it whispers in the darkness
The voice of the Lord it echoes in the night
The voice of the Lord is summoning his servants
For who can hear his small still voice
It beckons in the silences
It’s searching for an answer, the voice of the Lord

Speak Lord your servants are listening
Touch us an open our ears
Whisper your light in our darkness
Teach our hearts how to hear

In his temple all cry glory!
In his temple all cry glory!
In his temple all cry glory!
In his temple all cry glory!

Speak Lord your servants are listening
Touch us an open our ears
Whisper your light in our darkness
Teach our hearts how to hear

Jesus and the Spiritual Battle (Luke 4:31-37)

Sweet Contentment (a poem)

Were you standing there the whole time?
That late night on the fair grounds
Watching fireworks burst and sparkle
While my youngest child pressed herself
Against my chest for warmth and strength
And together we watched the scintillating
Floral starbursts punctuate a day well played?

And was that you peering over my shoulder?
That afternoon my first-born son and I
Canoed across a quiet lake
After a long and weary week of summer camp;
He waiting days for this one lone outing with his dad
And I sinking slowly into a stillness in my heart
While the breeze pushed us back to shore
And he asked me if God had ever spoke to me?

The day my middle one led the praise
While we all sat round a glowing yellow fire
With the rocky mountain sunset long since faded
And the campground neighbours stopping by
To hear her sing and join the song
While every strum was a rhythm we both knew
That I had taught her—
Was that you?

Through soft nights pressed up warm and safe
Against the shape of my beloved?
Holding out the cup and bread
To any who would dare to feast on grace--
Thoughtful walks through autumn leaves--
The warmth of summer sunshine on my face--
A hint of Russian olive on the breeze--
A lingering joy that never leaves a trace?

Were you waiting for me all the while,
To turn to you without yearning or resentment?
You’ll have to forgive me my neglect:
If somehow I missed the overwhelming smile
Of your sweet contentment.

3 Minute Theology 5.2 What is the Mediation of Christ?

On Aging with the Lord (Luke 2:21-40)

On Seeing a Daytime Moon (a poem)

When I see the moon
All pale and low but unmistakably there
In a bright blue afternoon sky,
Like a winking eye hung faint and grey
In a time and place it has no right to be,

I remember all those times and places
I myself have stood all incongruous and out of sync
Like a celestial anomaly exposed
By the unlikely coalescence of the lunar cycle
Of my heart and the diurnal rhythms of my destiny.

Did He who taught the pale moon
To peek out now and then on a sunlit afternoon
Put me here, or there, or there again, as well,
To see that thing that no one thought belonged
And name the thing that no one else could see?

Raindance (a song)

And when the rain comes falling
Falling from heaven above
Don’t let it dampen your spirits
Let it water your love

Nothing green can grow
Except the rain comes along
In the downpour
Just sing this song

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

And when the rain comes tumbling
Soaking the thirsty land
Don’t let it slip through the fingers
Of your trembling hands

And when the levee breaks
You won’t get washed away
And when the flood comes
You’ll laugh and say

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

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

And when the rain comes softly
Sparkling like morning dew
It’s gonna soak your soul down
And make everything new

'cause nothing green can grow
Except the rain comes along
In the downpour
Just sing this song

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

3 Minute Theology 5.1: What is the Ascension?

Epiphany (a poem)

As pastor I am the forgotten crayon
Shoved into the front pocket
Of the congregational pair of blue jeans,
Chucked haphazardly into
The laundry machine of Church Life.

If I am pink the whites will all turn rose.
If I am green, they'll come out a sickly hue.
If I am yellow, then yellow will become the clothes;
If grey, eventually they’ll turn a faded blue.

On the Joy of the Lord (Luke 1:1-80)

The Preacher, the Pastor and the Poet

I have been thinking a lot recently about the role of poetry in the work of a pastor. If this combination—poetry and pastoral work—strikes you as odd, that is partly why I’ve been thinking about it so much.

It ought not to be odd.

After all, whatever else it involves, the work of the pastor involves handling the written Word of God well, so that it might lead people to, and mould them after the likeness of, the Living Word (our Lord Jesus Christ). I believe very strongly that a pastor who wants to do this work well ought to be at least as comfortable with poetry as he or she is comfortable with church leadership paradigms (let’s say), models for discipleship ministries, pastoral counseling practices, or theological reflection.

I’m not alone in this conviction.

In The Contemplative Pastor, Eugene Peterson makes an off-hand observation about the intuitive connection between pastoral work and poetry. “Is it not significant,” he asks rhetorically, “that the biblical prophets and psalmists were all poets? It is a continuing curiosity that so many pastors, whose work integrates the prophetic and psalmic (preaching and praying), are indifferent to poetry. In reading poets, I find congenial allies in the world of words. In writing poems, I find myself practicing my pastoral craft in a biblical way.”

I have also noticed this “indifference to poetry” among many contemporary pastors, too. One time at a work dinner with a number of my fellow pastors, I asked out of the blue (and out of genuine interest) what everyone’s favorite Shakespeare play was (mine is King Lear, followed closely by Midsummer Night’s Dream). The blank stares that met me gave me a hunch that Peterson is on to something here.

In Subversive Spirituality, Peterson returns to this thought. He points out that St. John of Patmos, who was the first Christian ever to bear the title theologian—was also, and by default, a poet. Contrary to the suppositions of the Left-Behinders, the Book of Revelation is not an Apocalypse Survival Manual. It is a poem. The “one great poem which the first Christian age produced”; and, Peterson warns us, “The inability (or refusal) to deal with St. John the poet is responsible for most of the misreading, misinterpretation, and misuse of the book.”

Why is was the last book of the Bible written to us in the form of an extended poem? Peterson suggests that it’s because “a poet uses words primarily not to explain something but to make something. Poet (poetes) means ‘maker.’ Poetry is not the language of objective explanation but the language of imagination. It makes an image of reality in such a way as to invite our participation in it.” This is true not just of the Book of Revelation, but also of the 23rd Psalm, the glorious visions of New Creation in Isaiah, the exultant Magnificat of Mary, and the hundreds of other poetic texts we find in the pages of the Good Book.

To handle the Bible well, then, I believe, pastors need to know poetry.

Let me be clear that I am not speaking of exegesis here, per se—dissecting and analysing the poetry of the Bible. Like Dr. J. Evans Prichard, PhD—the fictional author of that terrible essay called “Understanding Poetry” from the movie Dead Poets Society—we can be fully fluent in the rhyme, metre and figures of speech that poetry employs without ever coming to know it in a way that allows it to do what Peterson is describing above, to “make” to invite our participation in a new reality.

For this we need to spend leisurely time with poetry. Soaking in it. Savoring it. Trying it out in public when opportunity arises. Even, dare I say, trying our hand at it.

The more I think about it, in fact, the more convinced I am that every pastor whose work involves the Word of God (i.e. every pastor) could do far worse than to write a poem or two every now and then. They need not be good poems. They need never be published. But to understand how a carefully-honed turn of phrase can distill an experience down to its essence and then release it like evocative incense into the imagination of others—that is a lesson best learned by trying.

I am writing from a strong bias here, I will admit. I write poems every once in a while. If you count song lyrics, I would say I write poetry a lot; but even if you only include the unsung variety, I’d have to admit that I’ve been known to write a poem upon occasion. Of course, all of my verse is largely unsung—I’ll never be the next Gerard Manley Hopkins—but even so, I have always found great delight in writing poetry. I hope, too, that it has made me deeper, wiser, and more sensitive as a “workman who studies to present himself approved, rightly dividing the Word of Truth.”

This is all by way of explanation. For the next few weeks at this blog, I’m planning to post some of my best attempts at waxing poetical. My goal is to write a poem a week till the start of Lent. Well see how it goes. But as we do, my hope is that it might inspire you, whether you are a pastor or not, to reflect a bit on the role that poetry has, or might have, in your own life as a follower of Jesus, the One who was himself the Word made flesh.

Learning to Fly (a song)

When you reach the top
You’re only just starting to climb
So keep rising up
The jump is gonna be sublime

You’ll be soaring across the sky
You’re not falling you’re learning to fly
Just hold your head up and just hold your wings out and
Don’t let this moment pas by
You’ll be soaring across the sky

And you’re not alone
You’re walking where angels dare
So just don’t look down
You’ll be flying on a wing and a prayer

You’ll be soaring across the sky
You’re not falling you’re learning to fly
Just hold your head up and just hold your wings out and
Don’t let this moment pas by
You’ll be soaring across the sky

Just keep the ground below you
Just keep the sky above and
Just keep the wind against your face
The wings of the dawn will show you
How deep, how high his love and
You will be lifted on his grace

You’ll be soaring across the sky
You’re not falling you’re learning to fly
Just hold your head up and just hold your wings out and
Don’t let this moment pas by
You’ll be soaring across the sky

On Being Filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:57-67)

One Hand Clapping (a poem)

There is a quiet that's always just there
On the teetering edge
Of all our doing and being
Our wanting and watching
Our running back and forth in desperate needing,
Like the perfect peace of nestling in
Against the bosom of one’s beloved,
Or the soft second before the next exhale,
Held gently against the heart
Like the folded fist of a newborn baby napping.

Only when you’ve ceased your straining for it
Will you ever start to hear it, a quiet that comes
With the distant flutter of something like dove wings
While a song of deliverance over you sings
And the trembling silence inaudibly rings
With the ephemeral echoes of one hand clapping.

On Asking God for a Sign (Luke 1:5-25)

Ghost Notes (a song)

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

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

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

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

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

Ghost notes in the song
They echo, can you hear them
Calling, in the heart of the
Long dark night of the soul

10 Years of Blogging

It was a grey January morning in Saskatchewan, almost 10 years ago today, that I took my first tentative step in to the blogosphere. This blog was officially born on January 27, 2009, but I had been experimenting with the idea of a blog for about two weeks before launching.

Although 2018 was my least productive blogging year ever--with a mere 3 posts in 12 months--I have kept blogging pretty consistently over the last 10 years. 2016 was my best year, both in terms of output (155 posts) and content (personally I feel some of my best writing happened in 2016), but on average I've produced about 80 posts a year for ten years.  When I started this blog back then, it was mostly because a) I needed an outlet for my urge to write, b) I wanted to continue reflecting on life theologically, having just finished my Masters Degree in Pastoral Ministry, and c) I had a vague notion that keeping a blog was something a pastor of the new millennium ought to do.

A lot has happened in the last ten years. I became a pastor; I beat the odds and served 10 consecutive years at the same pastoral post (thank you FreeWay!); together with my lovely wife I raised three children into young adulthood; I experienced the heartache of a pastoral burn out (2014); I nearly completed a D.Min degree (I'm on the final leg of my dissertation); I've read approximately 180 books (yes, I keep track); I recorded 7 albums-worth of original music (# 7 will be released in the coming months); and I posted almost 800 posts on topics as far-ranging as the theological meaning of Gravity Falls, an exegetical notebook on the Book of Esther, an analysis of the Narnia books, the spirituality of bicycling, the ecological imperative of faith, the theology of Bruce Springsteen, poetry, songwriting, the ascension, the incarnation, parenthood, the historical Jesus, gender, sexuality, and just about anything else I could think of in between.

Over the last ten years (the dry spell of 2018 excepted), this blog has been a great companion.  It has given me space to say things I just couldn't find a better place to say.  It has kept a record of the spiritual vicissitudes of my life. It has challenged me to be a better writer.  It has pushed me to be a deeper thinker.  It's been fun.

It has also been a bit of a pain. The problem with a blog is that it's never finished.  Tomorrow's post isn't written yet, and there will always be another to write after that.  And except for the odd comment or two--that pop up like oases in the desert--you never really know for certain that anybody's reading.

I know this is starting to sound like a typical, "thanks for the memories but I'm shutting down the blog" farewell post, but it's actually the opposite.  After much prayer, reflection and introspection, I've decided to give terra incognita at least one more year of attention.  Last year, between leading through a church merger, producing an original musical based on the life of St Patrick, preparing for the first defense of my dissertation, and launching my second child into university, I had almost no time to breathe, let alone to blog (of all things).  The aforementioned 3-post drought of 2018 is evidence that last year did not have a lot of margin for the blog.  I am hopeful that things will be different this year, and I've laid out a plan for regular posting in 2019.  Among the topics we'll cover this year, I'm planning to explore: the spirituality of the Legend of Zelda, the role of food in discipleship, lessons learned from a church merger, the pastor as poet, and much more.

If this is your first time visiting terra incognita, let me invite you to join me for the ride. If you've been here before, but the last year of silence sort of put you off, let me apologize sincerely.  If you'll give terra incognita one more chance, I'll do my best to keep you thinking, wondering, amused, challenged and stumped as we reflect together on God, life, faith, love, words, and spirituality.

Unregrettable (A Poem for a New Year)

When my time comes
To drop dead as stone
Of heartache after kissing
My last goodnight--
Or however I'll go--
When my time comes
May it come with
Notebooks full of poems
And songs well sung and sermons well preached
And dances danced and plays played
And children, my children
Filled with love,
Like crystal pitchers brimming
With summer lemonade
Squeezed from the lemons
Of life
And my heart, when it bursts (or however I'll go)
Like a sponge sopping wet
With all the Nows it soaked up
Dripping with joy and tears
When my time comes.