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.

inversions

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

soundings

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

bridges

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

echoes

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

Accidentals

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

blogs I follow

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

The Patchwork Quilt, a short story


There came a night when Ashlyn’s insomnia had finally become unbearable. Mark was sleeping luxuriously on the pillow next to her, his rhythmic breathing almost infuriatingly slow and sublime. She had always known him to be a sound sleeper, but that night he seemed especially oblivious to her tosses and turns—or, indeed, to what had caused them—and when she could take it no longer she flung herself from the covers and found her way through the dark, into the cold living-room.

Her mother’s antique hope chest sat next to the couch, a simple cedar box that had been crafted, she was told, by her great-great-grandfather for her great-grandmother’s wedding day, and handed down from one generation of matrons to the next on the Kirk family side. She seldom looked in it anymore, but she knew there was an old patchwork quilt among the keepsakes it contained. It was folded neatly near the top, so she found it easily enough in the dark, saving herself the trouble of having to turn on a light and rummage for a blanket in the linen closet in the hall.

It was difficult to settle into the faux-leather cushions of the couch. She had never found this couch to be terribly comfortable, but Mark had insisted on it because it matched the modern décor he wanted for the living-room. Cold moonlight washed over her through the half-closed blinds, and it might have been this that made her shiver the way she did. She burrowed—almost cowered—under the quilt, pulling it to her chin and folding her body into a tight ball beneath it.

It took a long time for the spinning coin of her harried thoughts to rattle finally still, but in the end they did.

She woke poorly rested the next morning, however. Pale sunlight had replaced cold moonlight at the window, and outside in the yard, loud enough that it reached her even through the glass, a handful of starlings were bickering furiously with each other. She had in fact fallen into a very deep sleep, but even so she’d had a dream so unsettling that she felt as though she hadn’t slept at all.

In her dream, she was sitting in a crowded church, somehow aware that she was not properly dressed for the occasion, and greatly distressed that this might be noticed. There was a groom with his party at the front of the church, and though she never saw his face still he looked vaguely familiar to her. A priest rose, or perhaps it was a minister—she could never really tell the difference—and then an organ started up.

It was not the typical bridal march that played. It was both more compelling and more terrifying, some celestial orison, it seemed to her, coming from somewhere far away. Ashlyn did not see the bride process down the aisle, but when she looked, there she was, standing at the front with the groom. She wore a simple linen dress, the style very old-fashioned, and the fabric—this stood out to her especially—seemed particularly rough for a wedding dress, but brilliantly white. Her head was bowed with a reverence so intense as to be almost agonizing.

The priest lifted his arms and began to pray, and the words sounded as though they were coming from the organ itself; certainly they were not coming from him. “O Eternal God,” the voice said, “Creator and preserver of all mankind, send Your blessing upon this man and this woman whom we bless in Your name, that they, living faithfully together, may surely perform and keep the vow and covenant between them made this day…”

And in one gathered voice the whole church said, “amen” then fell still; though in her dream Ashlyn could not find the word in time. When her “amen” finally came, it was so late that it sounded out singly through a silent church, echoing so conspicuously that the bride at the front looked up at her suddenly, and Ashlyn was startled to see that her eyes were streaming with tears.

And then she woke.

It was not the content of the dream that troubled her, she thought, as she pulled herself to a sitting position on the couch and began folding the quilt to put it away. The weeping bride notwithstanding, it was not especially disturbing, and even somewhat commonplace in its details. It was simply far more vivid, more solid and more textured, than any normal dream should have been—so real as to be somehow oppressive. That, and the piercing sound of the music in the church, is what left her so unsettled.

She smoothed the folded quilt in her lap, ready to return it to the hope chest. It might have been the touch of the fabric, or perhaps the brilliant white, but something suddenly caught her breath. The patch of the quilt that happened to be facing up at her, now that it was folded, was a square of unusually rough linen. She was quite weary from her restless night, and perhaps not thinking clearly, but even so it seemed to her that the patch was made of the same cloth—the very same texture and color—as the fabric of the wedding dress in her dream.

A moment passed and she became aware she had been holding her breath, staring at the quilt.

“But really,” she said dismissively at last. “It could have been from anything; and what would you expect a wedding dress to look like?” She heard Mark stirring in the bedroom down the hall, and rose quickly, putting the quilt away with a furtive gesture.

They spoke very little over breakfast. Mark indicated that he would be home late from work that night and Ashlyn said something allusively about not much being new. He attempted a tentative peck on the cheek on his way out, but she shied away, and in the end he left without so much as a warm goodbye.

The difficulty with insomnia, of course, is that after four or five nights of it in a row, you begin to worry throughout the day that the coming night is going to be no better than the ones before; and this worry puts your nerves in such a knot that you couldn’t get to sleep even if you weren’t suffering from insomnia.

At least, that’s how it seemed to Ashlyn, as she lay there late that evening, staring up into the dark with wide, unseeing eyes. Mark had indeed been home late, so late that he simply assumed she was asleep when he came in the room and settled in beside her without a word. She wondered if he would have said anything even if he had known she was awake, and this train of thought made her all the more restless.

At last she rose again and made her way to the couch. She found the quilt and curled up beneath it, hoping against hope that it might work the same magic that it had the night before, and coax her into sleep.

When she finally did drift off, she began dreaming immediately. What surprised her was that she knew very clearly it was a dream this time, but that knowledge was not at all reassuring. Instead, it only intensified her feelings of helplessness as she watched the events unfold.

A slim man was standing alone in a barren field, beneath a scowling slate-grey sky. He was wearing a plaid shirt, criss-crossed with bright red and stark black. He wore old-fashioned suspenders and held a brown felt hat in his hands, which he wrung nervously between his fingers. Looking closely, she saw that the field was not just barren but that it had been ruined. The crop that was once growing there had been pummelled flat, and the hailstones that had done it—some of them as large as a man’s fist—had not yet melted all away.

The man said nothing, but his shoulders were stooped, and they stooped even lower as he surveyed the damage. Ashlyn felt compelled to say something, but, as sometimes happens in dreams, she could find no voice. The stooped shoulders began to tremble slightly, and then the man collapsed to his knees.

What happened next is what caused Ashlyn to wake, though, because instead of burying his face in his hands as she expected him to do, the man lifted them, raising his palms in a gesture that she could only describe as abject submission. It broke Ashlyn’s heart to see it; his posture was so beautiful but also so awful that she looked away, almost willing herself awake as she did.

It was not quite morning when she opened her eyes, and the light was dim and grey in the living-room. She sat up and pulled the quilt into a heap on her lap. She was certain she had seen the fabric of the man’s shirt before—the colours were so vivid—and she rooted among the patches of the quilt, terrified to discover that she had.

She found it in one of the four corners. It was only a single square of plaid, and because it was criss-crossed with such dark black, she could tell even in that grey light that the red was an intensely bright hue. She stared at it for a long moment, and then, because the weight of her dream was still upon her, she buried her face in the quilt and began to weep.

She was still thinking about it at dinner. She and Mark were eating together these days only by force of habit, though they prepared their own meals now. Weeks ago they had given up on even the most superficial efforts at conversation. Looking back she wondered if she said what she did only because she was trying to avoid the terrible thoughts that her dream had raised in her. At any rate, she looked at him across the table and finally asked, “Do I know her?”

It was all she needed to have said. Mark had just taken a bite, and he lowered his fork slowly. His eyes were fixed on hers, but she could not read them well; and anyways, in that moment she felt for the first time in a long time that she did not much care what his looks meant anymore.

He didn’t reply, so eventually she said, “Well?”

The pause that followed was excruciating, but at last he spoke. “Stephanie,” he said, and then, after another agonizing pause. “It was Stephanie from work.” He looked down into his plate.

Ashlyn stared at him for a piercing moment, and then quietly pushed her chair from the table and left the room.

That night she abandoned even the pretense of sleeping in their bed, but took the quilt and spread it on the couch. Mark passed on his way into the bedroom. She was sunk deeply into the cushions, the quilt pulled tightly to her chin, refusing to look at him.

“I—” He faltered. “I am so sorry, Ash—”When no reply came, he shuffled grimly off to bed.

Sleep still took a long time to come, though less than it had on previous nights. Her dream this time was just as vivid as the others, but somehow she had been expecting it, and even in the midst of the dream she knew she had been expecting it, so it was less unsettling to her.

She saw two small boys standing near a table in a kitchen, while a woman worked away on what seemed to her an antique-looking sewing machine. The boys were close enough in size and appearance that she took them to be twins. They were making a herculean effort to stand still, while the woman fitted them for the clothes she was sewing. Because they were twins, the outfits matched, two identical sets of over-alls. They were made of a bright-blue material speckled with white dots, though when she looked closer Ashlyn saw that these dots were really tiny anchors printed into the fabric.

What surprised her this time was that she recognized the sewing-machine so easily. It was the very sewing-machine her grandmother used to use with her, when Ashlyn would visit as a little girl and they would work on projects together.

Time is often hard to piece together in dreams, but it seemed that even as this dawned on her, one of the two boys looked directly at her. And she gasped, because she suddenly realized that it was her uncle standing there, her mother’s younger brother. She knew it was him only in the way one knows things in dreams; she could not have recognized him otherwise because she had only met him a few times as a grown up, and in most of these memories he was drunk. There was some dark story or other attached to him that her mother would never share.

It occurred to her—and this was the thought that lingered with her inescapably the next morning—that she had never known he had a twin. But she didn’t have time to absorb that strange detail in the dream, because the two had given up holding still, and had begun to tussle. She couldn’t tell if it was playful or in earnest, but it struck her as very violent regardless, and the two tumbled out of the kitchen, locked in each other’s arms.

The woman said something to call them back, but the struggle carried on, and then Ashlyn watched as she sighed and buried her face in her hands. Ashlyn supposed it was in exasperation, but at just that moment the sound of the boy’s quarrel died away and the room became perfectly still. She could hear the woman whispering into the silence. Ashlyn thought at first that she was speaking to herself, but as the voice whispered on she realized she must be speaking to someone, though they were definitely alone in the room.

She was not surprised when she woke that morning to find a patch in the quilt, towards the centre, made of bright blue fabric printed with white anchors.

Ashlyn started to look forward to nights on the couch with the quilt, after that. She still often struggled with insomnia, sometimes terribly, but she always eventually drifted off; and when she did, she always had the most vivid dreams.

In one, she stood in a shadowy bedroom in a house she thought she had been in before. An old man in stripped blue pajamas lay on the bed with the bedclothes pulled back because he was warm with fever. A girl knelt at the bedside, squeezing his hand and praying earnestly. When she looked up, Ashlyn recognized the face of her great-grandmother, looking much the same as she looked in the only photo Ashlyn had ever seen of her as a little girl.

In another dream she saw a girl that she knew almost instantly to be her grandmother, standing in a throng of people on a street in Toronto, one hand holding tightly to her father, the other waving a triangular-shaped pennant. The crowd cheered uproariously while a parade of men in sailor’s uniforms marched past, and Ashlyn knew that this was the day of Toronto’s V.E. celebrations after the war. She watched as one of the men in the parade came close. He stooped and picked up the little girl in an embrace so tight that Ashlynn knew they must be related, and when she looked at the girl’s father, there were the kind of tears on his cheeks that a man can only weep when his prayers have been answered.

Each morning Ashlyn would wake from dreams like these and scour the quilt. It was not always easy, but invariably she would find the patch she was looking for. Here was a bit of blue-stripped cloth that she knew must have been a man’s pajama-top at one time. There was a bright patch the same color as the pennant she had seen in the parade. Every dream, it seemed, had a patch in the quilt to correspond with it; or perhaps it was that the dreams were coming from the patches themselves. The thought almost embarrassed her to put it that way around.

During this time, something of a thaw—perhaps even a spring—in her interactions with Mark had begun as well. She still refused to sleep in their bedroom, and would not look him in the eye, but one night after another tense and perfunctory dinner she asked him if it really was over between him and this Stephanie. Mark assured her earnestly that it was, and for the first time since everything had come to light, she found she believed him.

Another time, late in the afternoon, he came home early from work and asked if he might take her out. She agreed only very reluctantly, but they went to a spot they used to frequent when they were dating, long before the betrayal. There, over two untouched cups of coffee he offered her a sincere, if faltering apology, more heart-felt than anything she had ever heard him say before; and when she came home she felt, if not exactly close to him, at least not so far as she once had been.

And then one night, deep in sleep on the couch and buried almost completely under the quilt, she dreamed the hardest dream of all.

She was standing in the dimly-lit parlour of someone’s house. A sombre-sounding clock was ticking insistently in the corner, and solemn men and women were drifting infrequently in and out of the room. In the centre stood a coffin, far too small to have been there for anything but the saddest of tragedies. It was open, and the flowers arranged around it seemed to beckon Ashlyn forward, but she could not have moved, even if she had wanted to.

A man and a woman dressed in black came in, stepping up to the tiny casket. They looked pathetically into it, the woman pressing a black handkerchief against her mouth to stifle her sobs, and the man looking almost defiantly resolute.

“So lovely,” the woman whispered. “Doesn’t she look just too lovely?” There was a long silence filled only with the sonorous tick of the clock. “And they say,” the woman began again, “that she sewed the dress for her herself … so lovely …” She trailed off into tears and the two wandered away.

Ashlyn pushed through the fear that paralysed her, and forced herself to the centre of the room to see. The sight of the little one lying there brought her heart up into her throat and held it there. The child was clothed in a beautiful dress made of some satiny pink material. Ashlyn had no time to weep though, because at just that moment another woman came into the parlour, and she recognized her, through the black lace veil that shrouded her face, as her own great-grandmother.

She was young, of course, as she had been in previous dreams, but old enough now to be a brand-new mother; and from the way she trembled to look into the casket, Ashlyn knew at a glance whose child it must have been in that tragic pink dress. The mourning woman sobbed openly, and then to Ashlyn’s surprise—though it was less surprising now, since she had seen it happen so often in her dreams—the woman knelt, still weeping freely.

“Please,” she whispered. “Please. May this not be for nothing. May something good still come of this.”

It was such a strange thing to have said in that moment, but it seemed to Ashlyn that the words were not really coming from her at all; rather that a voice more simple and more beautiful than any she had ever heard was speaking, a celestial orison sounding from somewhere very far away, but closer to her than the beat of her own heart.

“Please may this not be for nothing.”

And then she woke. She could hardly bear looking for it, but it did not take her long to find among the patches of the quilt one made of the softest, pinkest satin she could imagine. When she saw it, she pressed her face against it and repeated to herself the words of the prayer she had dreamed, over and over again in a breaking voice.

She moved beneath the shadow of that dream all morning, but before the day was through the shadow had begun to feel more like a shade than a gloom. That evening at dinner Ashlyn let her eyes meet Mark’s in a way she had not done for many weeks. She held his gaze so long that he even dared a tentative smile, a testing of the waters.

“I’ve been thinking,” she said at last. “I would like it very much if we could—” the words were difficult for her to find—“I mean, if you would be willing to—if we could see someone. To talk, you know? About what has happened between us—and her—and it—and to see if we might move forward?”

He was still very tentative. “Together?” he asked.

She nodded faintly. “Yes,” she said. “Together.”

He was nodding too. “I would like that very much.”

For the first time in over a month, Ashlyn slept in her own bed that night, a deep, dreamless sleep such as she had not in a very long time.

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