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

random reads

On Racial Equality and Glorification

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As a pastor I often hear people refer to the folks they can’t wait to see again in heaven. Sometimes this is simply a vague reference to a loved one who has passed away—looking forward to being greeted by a friendly face when they too pass over to the other side—other times it is a very clear idea that their loved ones are looking down on them from heaven, waiting eagerly for their arrival.

In what I’m about to say, I hope it’s clear that there’s nothing wrong with this. I am looking forward to seeing all kinds of friends and family on that day, too.

It’s just this: I can never remember a single time in all my years as a pastor when someone has said, I can’t wait until we get to heaven and I’ll get to sit down with people from all kinds of races and cultures that I’ve never known, and finally be reconciled with black people, and white people, and brown people, and Native American people, and Russian people,  and Chinese people, without any of the racial barriers that currently divide us.  Or even less theologically: I can’t wait till heaven, when there won’t be racism any more.

I’m speaking somewhat hyperbolically. Certainly, I’ve known missionaries who have faithfully traveled to the ends of the earth and back to tell people of every nation, tribe and tongue about Jesus, and that’s got to be an expression, in some way, of this desire for racial reconciliation. (Although it’s not this by default. Lots of terrible acts of racism have been perpetrated in the name of “missionary zeal,” too.)

But either way, my point still stands. We are, on the whole, far more interested in being reunited with our own “kind” of people in Heaven, than we are in being reconciled to “other kinds” of people.

And if I’m on to something here, let me say that this is, I think, a profound failure of the Christian imagination. Because the Scriptures say far, far more about the racial reconciliation that will happen in the New Heaven and the New Earth, than it ever does about our personal family reunions.

At least: I can’t remember a single saying of Jesus where he speaks about my Grandma or Grandpa waiting in heaven to hug me with open arms.  I can’t remember any parable he told where my dearly-departed best friend will welcome me in with a holy high five. Though again, I’m not saying this won’t happen, or that there’s anything wrong with wanting it. I’m just saying that that did not seem to be Jesus’s primary vision of what we should expect come that day.

Instead, I remember a him saying that “many will come from the east and the west to take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 8:11; and he said this to Jewish people, in response to the faith of a Gentile person). And I remember a parable about a great banquet where many who were called would not come, so the Holy Host brought them in from the roads and the country lanes to fill the house with others (Luke 14:15ff). And I remember St. John the Divine’s vision of heaven itself, where people from every nation, tribe and tongue were gathered together to worship the Lamb (Rev. 7:9-10).

In other words, if the Heaven of the Bible can be thought of in any way as a big family reunion, it is not my personal family that will be reunited, but the whole family of all humanity—a glorious reconciliation of the races, where all are brought together in Christ as “one new humanity” (Eph 2:14-15).

This unity, though, does not nullify the ethnic differences that make each one distinct, rather it celebrates and sanctifies them all as God’s gift to his people. After all: didn’t God declare all the creatures in the sheet to be clean, in Peter's vision (Acts 10:15)?  And didn’t he forbid Peter from calling any of them impure, whom God himself had sanctified? And didn’t he show Peter that this vision was really about racial reconciliation in the Gospel, by following it up with visitors asking about the Gospel, who were from a racial group that Peter’s people had been taught to despise?

The answer to all these questions is yes.  Because the heart of heaven beats passionately for racial reconciliation—the leaves of the Tree that grows in Heaven, remember, are for the healing of every ethnic group (Rev 22:2)—and the Holy Spirit wants us to labor with him towards that day.

I’m saying all of this because over the last few days, while protests for racial justice rage around the globe, I have been trying to think through racism from a soteriological perspective. Soteriology is the high-falutin’ word for “the Bible’s teaching about salvation, how we are saved and what it means for us.”  It started just with a realization that as a white Christian I have this deep-seeded desire to justify myself when it comes to racial inequalities, rather than seeking to be justified by faith in Christ. After writing about Justification by Faith, I realized you couldn’t stop there, and had to talk about Sanctification, too. After writing that piece, I figured I ought to go all the way with it, and reflect on Glorification as the final jewel in the crown.

Glorification is the theological term we use, sometimes, to talk about the hope of glory that God extends to us in the Gospel. We are not saved for this life only. If that were the case, Paul says, we are to be pitied above all people. Instead, our salvation is a promise of life to come in the New Heavens and New Earth, when Jesus himself comes in glory to judge the living and the dead.

When people talk about meeting their loved ones in Heaven, they are reflecting, whether they realize it or not, on the doctrine of glorification.

The truth is, however, that if we want to be biblical in our doctrine of glorification, we have to wrestle with the fact that one of the things that will make our glory so glorious is just that, on that day, we will finally and fully be reconciled with people from every nation, tribe, and tongue on the planet; and there won’t be a racist among us.

We have to be careful when using the doctrine of glorification to talk about racial justice, however. It can very easily slip into “pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die” kind of thinking. What does it matter (we might say) if you are oppressed now? When you get to heaven you’ll get your reward, so just suck it up and suffer through….

That abuse of the doctrine of glorification has been used, actually, to justify racism in the past, to keep the oppressed oppressed and the oppressors oppressing; and if it sounds like I’m saying that then I have failed in this post.

Because there is a different way of applying the doctrine of glorification.  In this different way, a Christian looks deeply into the Scriptures to see what Heaven is really like. What is God’s vision for the sinless relationship with him, in harmony with others, and at peace with the world, that he wants us to enjoy in eternity? What is he moving this crazy thing called the History of Planet Earth towards? What will life in the New Creation be like?

You grasp hold of that vision.  And then you set to work—in your limited capacity and with the Holy Spirit working through you the whole way—you set to work—by prayer and petition with praise and thanksgiving—you set to work trying to “live into” that glory now. You live into it, (so to speak) so that when it finally dawns in All its Glory, you’ll be ready for it, because you’ll have been practicing for it all along.

When we apply the doctrine of glorification in this way, we discover not only the motive, but also the means by which to resist racism. Because you will not be a racist in Heaven. No evil thing is allowed into the Heavenly Jerusalem (Rev 21:27), so any racist sin that’s still lurking in my heart come that day will have to be laid aside—covered by the blood of the cross for good—before I ever pass through those gates.

How much better if we allowed the glory of the Lord to get to work on us here, and now, instead? How much better if we asked him to heal that sin now, instead, so that when we do at last make it to Glory, we will be good and ready to take our place in that heavenly choir which is (according to St. John the Divine, it is) made up of singers from every nation, tribe, tongue and culture, people, ethnicity, and race under heaven.

On Racial Equality and Sanctification

<<< previous post

I am part of a holiness movement. Both denominations that I serve, the Church of the Nazarene and the Free Methodist Church in Canada are descended from the Wesleyan Holiness tradition. I am saying this in part as a follow up on the post I made yesterday about justification by faith. In that post I was trying to say that the right response for us, when we become aware of the ways in which we are complicit with racial injustice, is not to try to justify ourselves, but to throw ourselves instead on the mercy of God in repentance, and seek in Christ’s death for our sins our only justification.

This is theologically true. One of the challenges, however, is that so often Justification gets separated from Sanctification in our understanding of the Gospel, so that the “right standing with God” that Jesus offers us does not ever result in a concrete change in how we love our neighbours as ourselves. 

This was, I think, one of the reasons the Holiness Movement began the way it did, to challenge the idea that a disembodied “faith” could save us, without ever needing to see it “play out” in concrete action in the world. This, too, has been one of the failings of the modern evangelical movement, I think, which has communicated that the Gospel is about getting people into heaven by having them “ask Jesus into our hearts,” without ever asking Jesus to change the way their hearts are beating. 

Essentially the Holiness Movement said no to this idea that the Gospel was simply “eternal fire insurance” for heaven, preaching instead that the necessary evidence of our faith in the Gospel was the way in which “Gospel fruit” showed up in our lives.

I’m bringing this up, in part, because many of the stories I have been hearing over the last few days have reminded me of how culpable the white evangelical church really is when it comes to racial injustice, either by actively acting racist, or at the very least by not actively resisting racism.

How could this be? When the Gospel so clearly indicates (at least on my reading it’s crystal clear) that racial equality is God’s vision for his Kingdom?

I would argue that one of the explanations is that white Christians have been content to be “Justified by Faith” without wanting to be “Sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” If we were truly, entirely sanctified we would loathe racial prejudice as the affront to the Creator that it is, and we would long for racial justice the way the Creator himself must long for it. And until we are entirely sanctified, I do not think we can expect to see real, lasting change when it comes to this issue.

So I’m saying this partly to bring Justification and Sanctification back together in this discussion: we can never talk about how we are justified by the grace of God, without wanting to be sanctified by the Spirit of God.

But I’m also saying it to address another impulse that I am noticing in myself, as a white middle-aged male, besides the impulse to self-justification. That is the impulse to “virtue-signal.” It’s one of the reasons I did not respond immediately on social media when news about the protests against racial injustice started to hit my Facebook feed last week. It seemed to me that to jump in with a “like” and a “share” that really cost me nothing would only come across as an empty signal of a phoney virtue I didn’t think I deserved. Of course, the irony is that not saying anything could also be a kind of virtue-signalling, too. If it’s concerned primarily with how my silence will “look to others” it simply becomes a way of saying, “Look at how sensitive I am… I get the issue well enough to hold my tongue….”

Lord have mercy.

Because what I am discovering as I process all this is that just like there is a desire to self-justify when it comes to the evil or racism, there is also a desire to self-sanctify, that is to find a solution to the problem of racism that does not require the supernatural transformation that only the Holy Spirit can effect.

Please don’t get me wrong. I believe that social action, speaking out, taking risks, political protest, personal sacrifice, engaging in dialogue, resisting evil, that all these things have a place. They are essential if we are ever to see justice roll down like a mighty stream. Racism is real, a deeply rooted sin that needs to be addressed as such. But the problem of racism is not that we are racist, per se, it’s that we are unsanctified, and if we were entirely sanctified we would find within us the spiritual resources necessary to address and resist the problem of racism.

I believe that the call which is sounding across the country right now, as cities burn and people protest, is not just a call for us to confront the evil of racism. I believe it is that, but that there is another call, echoing within it, the way deep calls out to deep. It is the call of Jesus to all his followers, and especially his white followers in positions of privilege, to be sanctified today by the Holy Spirit. This is what he always offers us when we repent of any sin: not just a divine forgiveness, but a divine change that empowers us to be different.

Without that divine change in my heart,  I honestly fear that my best efforts to fight racism on my own may amount to little more than an empty signal of a phoney virtue I’m not sure I really have.

On Racial Equality and Justification by Faith

The other day I received some constructive criticism about my ministry, pointing out a blind spot I had when it came to promoting (or in this case, failing to promote) racial diversity in our community. It was a relatively minor critique, all things considered, but given the racial tensions in the political atmosphere these days, it stuck with me.

I write this, of course, as a middle-aged white male living in one of the most prosperous countries in history, placing me among one of the most privileged demographics on the planet. Acknowledging that, I say what I’m about to say very cautiously, and offer it with an open hand. Through all last week, as news about the protests in the States began popping up on my social media feed, and it became clear to me that a real political groundswell was emerging, I chose not to comment on it in any of the social media channels available to me. This was not because I was trying to bury my head in the sand and ignore an issue that is as close to the Lord’s heart as racial equality is, but simply because, as a middle-aged white male, I believed I was the last one who had any right to speak. Rather than pipe up with my own ignorant point of view—what do I know about systemic racism, who has never had any doors closed to me because of the colour of my skin?—I did my best to listen to the points of view of others. In this I was trying to follow the advice of one of my spiritual heroes, Francis of Assisi, who sought more to understand than to be understood.

But here’s what I found, by seeking to understand: I have within me an impulse towards self-justification that is grievous to the Holy Spirit.

I say this because when I received the constructive criticism I mentioned a minute ago, I noticed that my instinct was to think of all the reasons why the critique could not be true—to “justify myself” in my own eyes. I wouldn’t say my response was defensive, necessarily, but the first thing that came to mind was everything I had done to promote racial equality in my sphere of influence. I won’t list them here, because the sum total of them is pitifully small, truth be told. The point is just that, my gut reaction was to pull out my “spiritual ledger” and start reviewing all the times and all the ways I had proved myself to be “a swell guy” when it comes to this issue. I’m not sure I would have named this impulse as “self-justification” before this week, but as I mulled it all over, I came to see that this is exactly what it was.

I believe this grieves the Holy Spirit for two reasons. First, and foremost, because if I am a Christian, then the gospel I have believed tells me that I cannot justify myself; and it’s because I can’t that God has already justified me in Christ. Regardless my just deserts, he has declared me righteous in the death of his Son. Bear with me, if you see the problems that appear when we try to apply the doctrine of Justification to the issue of racism, because I see them too, and I will get to them in a minute. But theologically, I think that the only way forward for someone in my position—someone, I mean, who has lived his whole life benefiting from systemic inequality (whether he realized it or not)—is to admit that there is no human justification for it, and to turn, a repentant sinner needing grace, to the justification that God offers us in the death of his son, our Lord Jesus Christ.

We aren’t used to thinking about the doctrine of Justification as something that can, and should, impact human relationships. We have been conditioned to think about it solely as a theological abstraction, a truth that puts us in right relationship with God and paves our way to heaven, yes, but a truth that shapes the very structure of our interactions with others? That’s a different ball of wax, isn’t it?

And yet, as I process the impulse towards self-justification I mentioned above—the way my heart grasps so quickly for all the reasons that I couldn’t be as bad as it looks—I am coming to see how important it is for Christians to allow the justification of Christ to transform the way we experience and respond to the issue of racism in North America.

In The Cost of Discipleship, German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer argues that Jesus is not only the mediator between us and God, but he is also, for that very reason, “the mediator between us and all other [human beings].” The same idea emerges in Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, where he suggests that “within the spiritual community there is never, in any way, whatsoever, an ‘immediate’ relationship to one another”; and “Because Christ stands between me and another, I must not long for unmediated community with that person.” One of the ways we “long for unmediated relationship” with others, I think, is by thinking up all the reasons we are “justified” to be in relationship with them, instead of acknowledging ourselves as culpable sinners in need of the grace God offers. (Surely a divinely reconciled relationship with others is not least among his graces towards us?)

I believe with all my heart this is true. The problem, of course, is that if it’s applied in the wrong way, it can amount to saying simply, “Yes, maybe I benefited from racial inequality as a white person, but Jesus says I’m okay, so it doesn’t matter to God, and certainly shouldn’t matter to you.” If it sounds like I’m saying that then I’m not communicating well here at all.

Because there is a different way of applying the Doctrine of Justification to every-day human relationships. It involves honestly facing the ways I’ve knowingly or unknowingly participated in sinful power structures and saying simply: I can’t justify that. There is no human justification. And then, because the Gospel proclaims that even that sin is nailed to the cross, I discover in God the grace genuinely to repent. This is not cheap grace (to quote Bonhoeffer one last time), but neither is it an empty, virtue-signalling repentance. Because if I am justified in Christ, then I must surrender my own self-determination to Christ, and allow him to mediate my every interaction with others. Only there will I learn truly what it means to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with Him.

This brings me in the end to the second reason self-justification grieves the Holy Spirit. It is because so long as we are determined to justify ourselves, we will stay blind to our blind spots. After all, if I saw what was really happening in all the places I’m not looking, it might leave me feeling uncomfortably culpable. Better not to look there, right? Worse than keeping us blind, though, self-justification is all kinds of likely to make us defensive, arrogant, even cruel, ignoring the honest protest of others, and so missing opportunities to grow in Christ-likeness. Because to hear those protests the way Christ would, we would have to acknowledge all the ways we have been unjust, and are therefore unjustified. Rather than do that, it’s easier to bluster, minimize, equivocate, evade and dismiss.

May the Lord have mercy.

And thanks be to God that he has had mercy, and offers it to us all today in Jesus Christ. May we find in him the humility and the strength to work together, as we labor towards that day—the day the Holy Spirit himself is labouring towards—when all of God’s people, gathered from every nation, tribe and tongue stand together before the Lord, justified freely, together, by his grace.


The Words of Zumisura, Priest of Ea (a short story)

British soldiers discovered this strange text in 2005, while on routine minesweeping exercises in south-eastern Iraq, west of the Tigris-Euphrates Delta. It was found on a strip of vellum, rolled tightly into an earthenware jar. Though the stratum of sandstone it was discovered in dates roughly to the late Miocene era, the script itself appears to be an extremely primitive from of Akkadian cuneiform, suggesting a date of ca. 2500 BCE, at the latest. It has been tentatively translated by the late Dr. Alan Kircher Ph.D., of Cambridge University.

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And now that the rains have ended the waters churn with the great beasts of the deep, unlike any we have seen before. They leap and they fall with terrible noise and much foam. Ugurik has said they will bring down our wicker boat with the pound of their mighty tails, but I say that we have placed our souls already into the hands of the gods, and if this is how they wish us to end, there is nothing to be done.

Who can resist their will?

I cannot say how long the rain has fallen. Surely it has been more than a moon, but it has been so many days since we have seen a moon that none can tell. Elinumelek, who is high priest of Enlil and knows the meaning of sacred numbers says it has been forty days, because forty is a number of heaven. Ugurik, who is recorder for King Gilgudur and can do sums, says that it must be more, because our stores are nearly gone, and we had food enough to last a hundred days when we began. Elinumelek struck him about the ears when he said this, and when the blood no longer flowed, Ugurik could not hear on the side of his strong right hand.

Ugurik has done the count and says there is food now for three men to eat seven days, and then it will be gone. All the waters of high heaven and all the waters of the great deep have come together as one, I believe, and if we sailed for seven moons together we would not find rest nor land. If we are the last three men, as Elinumelek has said, then when we are gone there may be none to speak the praises of the gods, and so I write these final words now in memory of Ea.

When I was a scribe in the house of Gilgudur I wrote on the eternal tablets of stone used by the priests of Ea, but there is no stone to inscribe here. I use this, my leather cloak, as my stone, and soot from the lamp mixed with wine for my words. Ugurik fought me when I took the last of the wine to write these the final praises to Ea. He is afraid to starve, he says, but I say that we have placed our souls already into the hands of the gods, and if this is how they wish us to end, there is nothing to be done. When the blood no longer flowed, I could not see from my eye on the side of my lesser left hand.

Ea, if you have brought this catastrophe upon us, as Elinumelek says, because the noise of the men you had made had kept you from sleep and ate up your peace, who can question your wisdom? But who will offer you then the sacrifices of smoke and fire that feed the gods and give them joy, when we are gone?

Can this be wise?

Elinumelek struck me when I asked you this, but even now that the blood no longer flows, the question burns within me. Will the gods not die with us, if we are swept away?

Utnapishtim, the builder of the great boat, said not. How many hearings with king Gilgudur he had before the rains came, I cannot say, but as scribe in the house of Gilgudur I heard them all.

He served the great Shaddai, he said, whom he named king over all the gods, but Gilgudur subjected him to many lashings when he said it. Even when the blood no longer flowed still Utnapishtim spoke the same. It is because of the hurt that lurks in the hearts of men, he said, the lust for hurting that springs from being hurt. Shaddai will wash away the hurting with water, he said, until all the earth is clean.

Utnapishtim’s boat was many years in making, and often Gilgudur heard him. Utnapishtim urged the king to stop the hurting that hurts Shaddai himself, and join him in building his boat. Elinumelek mocked. Shaddai’s great builder of sand-sailing boats, he named him. Hurting does not hurt the gods, he said; hurt is of the gods. We hurt because they made us to.

Utnapishtim said not, but Elinumelek struck him and Utnapishtim returned to the building of his boat. Gilgudur said he would not join him.

The last day before the rain, Gilgudur gave a great feast for all his priests and scribes. He gave his daughter Niqutu to the King of Uruluk in marriage that day, and married Uruluk’s daughter Hasis, at the same feast. There was much eating and much drinking, and many gifts of smoke for the gods.

And then the flood came out, roaring like a bull, screaming like a wild ass. Wind howled. Darkness thickened. There was no sun.

In the days when the first rains fell, before the water covered everything, Elinumelek said that if we offered sacrifices of smoke and fire the gods might relent. We slaughtered every beast of all the herds of Gilgudur, and still the gods did not relent. Elinumelek said that if we offered up the blood of men the gods might relent and so we did. When the blood no longer flowed, still the gods did not relent. Elinumelek said that if Gilgudur gave his new wife Hasis and Uruluk gave Niqutu, the gods might relent.

After this, Ugurik, who could do sums, said that the deep would soon cover even the palace of King Gilgudur itself. He had formed a boat of the wicker baskets from the storehouses of the king and provisioned it with earthen jars of bread and wine. The water had covered most of the land by then, but Elinumelek joined him, as did I.

The great waves swept away all the rest.

O Ea, mighty and inscrutable, did Utnapishtim speak true? Is there a god higher than the gods themselves, who sent this rain not to hurt, but to wash the hurt away?

Elinumelek will not allow me to speak such questions, but if he is right, Ea the unquestionable, and you have done this, then why did you form these, the men you made, when first you did? Does Elinumelek speak true when he says that the gods are but as the greatest of all the great men, and no thought of their hearts is better than the darkest thought of ours?

The deep now covers the whole face of the land. It floats with the debris of the house of King Gilgudur, and with the debris of all the great kings of the earth. But O Ea the inexorable, if every house of every king writhed with the same pain that writhed in the house of Gilgudur before the rains came, then I say the flood had wisdom in it. And if you too will pass away, because when the water is gone there will be none to feed you with blood and fire, that is wisdom too.

Ugurik bleeds again from the ear that Elinumelek struck. He sleeps now more than he wakes and when he speaks his words are dark with dreams and fear. I myself grow weak and see only through a great darkness. The end, I say, comes near.

I have told Elinumelek that when I am gone, and the stores are spent, he is to keep himself and Ugurik alive with my body.

Eat it, I say, as bread.

If Utnapishtim spoke true, and the flood has covered all the earth, this gift will not save Elinumelek and Ugurik from following me into the darkness, in the end. But if Utnapishtim spoke true, then in giving myself like this, instead of hurting, I may find the hurt washing from me, at last, even as the flood has washed it all from off the face of the earth.

O Ea, the terrible, I do not hope to speak your praise again, but if the Shaddai whom Utnapishtim serves has eyes to see, perhaps he will see this gift and be honored by it.

The wine is gone.

I will seal these words away in one of the jars that held our bread. We have no other need of it now. I will offer the jar to the waters of the deep. None live now, I think, to find them, but if any do, know that these are the words of Zimisura, who served once as the priest of Ea.

Eating, Praying, Loving (Part III): Thank You Brother Fish

<<< previous post

Many years ago my dad and I took our kids on a fishing trip to a local fish farm near London. They were just old enough at the time to find fishing fascinating, but still young enough that the delicate work of worming the hook and unhooking the catch fell to me.

My son actually landed the big one that day, a nice, plump rainbow trout just waiting to be caught. When he brought it in, it was so feisty that I had some difficulty keeping it still to unhook it, and accidentally left some ugly bruises on its otherwise beautiful rainbow flanks. Later, when we brought in our catch, the staff at the fish farm cleaned it for us, for our cookout that afternoon.

I have clear memories of watching my Dad clean the fish on fishing trips in the Rockies when I was a kid, so I watched nostalgically as the skilled workman turned our beautiful rainbow trout into a feast fit for a fish fry.

If you’ve never seen a fish cleaned before, I should say that it’s not an especially pretty job, but it’s not all that gruesome, either. I’ve certainly never been squeamish about it. But while we watched, I thought about the bruises I’d left on the side of the trout while bringing it in, and I thought about its sleek body flexing and fighting in my hands as I did, just moments earlier. It might have been because I was standing there with my young son, and was feeling especially, paternally, philosophical, but whatever the case, it struck me in that moment unlike it had ever done before, that this thing that we would be eating later in the day was a living creature, just the same as I was. And from there it was only a hop, skip, and a jump to this reminder—something we all know but forget so easily—that food not only gives life, it also takes it.

I think this truth—that the food we eat comes from living creatures—is one we need especially to remember in this modern era of industrialized food production, where the foods we consume are produced somewhere out of sight and out of mind, and seldom bear any resemblance to the animals they once were. Time was you raised the goose before you cooked it—it actually lived with you—and you personally participated in the act of slaughter that brought it to your table. Chicken nuggets, of course, look like no part of any chicken I’ve ever seen; and it’s easy to eat a dozen of them without ever thinking about the fact that what you're eating once scratched the dirt with a forked foot, fussing and clucking with the very breath of life.

Any biblical spirituality of food, however, can’t go very far without facing this truth squarely, that food is death and life together, and that what we eat, we eat at the cost of another living creature. You see this idea all over the place in Torah. First, we notice that the original Adam and Eve were actually created to be vegetarian, that eating meat, though it is clearly sanctioned by the Creator, was not the Creator’s original idea. Humans only became carnivores, according to the biblical record, as a result of the Fall, and after they had emerged from the ark on the other side of the flood (Gen 9:3). Similarly, we see the repeated prohibition against eating blood, because as far as the Bible is concerned, the life of the creature is in the blood (Lev 17:14). To eat blood would do violence to the sanctity of life itself. The same logic seems to underscore many of the food laws we find in Torah—the prohibition against cooking a goat in its mother’s milk for instance (Ex 23:19), or the restriction against eating a mother bird and its own eggs together (Deut 22:6). There are probably other reasons for these commandments, too, but one of their cumulative effects is that they require us to respect the “aliveness” of the things we eat.

However important it is for us to feed ourselves, the Bible seems to be saying, don’t do it without acknowledging how sacred the life is that you are taking to do so; after all, that life too is a gift of the Creator, and he has compassion on all things he has made.

Christian theology usually emphasizes the human being’s distinctness among all the creatures in the creation, and for good reason. We alone are made in the Image of God, and in this, God set us apart from all the other works of his hands. It is possible, however, to emphasize this truth in a way that overshadows a second, equally important truth: that we share a sacred kinship with the rest of his creatures.

This is not a philosophical statement; it’s an exegetical one. Genesis 2:7 describes the creation of the Adam in this way: that God “breathed the breath of life into his nostrils,” and so the man became a “living creature.” That’s my translation. Older Bibles translate that last part as “living soul,” but that’s misleading. The term in Hebrew is nep̄eš ḥay-yāh—“living being”—and it is the exact same term that Genesis 1:24 uses to describe all the “living creatures” that God created on sixth day of creation. In the same way, the term for God’s “breath of life” that brings the human being to life in Gen 2:7 (niš-maṯ ḥay-yîm) is the same term that Genesis 7:22 uses to describe all the living creatures that are destroyed in the flood. Inasmuch as the breath that animates us is the same breath of the same Creator that animates them, we have a kinship – what theologian Charles Sherlock calls a “sixth day solidarity”—with all God’s creatures great and small.

If our eating is to be fully biblical, then, it must acknowledge this kinship in some way. This does not necessarily mean we should start eating vegetarian—though I have eaten vegetarian at various seasons in my life, and found it to be an extremely satisfying diet. It does not mean, either, that we should all go back to organic farming—though recently I went to visit a friend who raises chickens and came home with a dozen farm-fresh eggs that were not only more tasty, but also more meaningful to me, since I had actually met the chicken they came from. These things actually may be part of someone’s response to the Biblical witness.

But even without an over-haul of our entire diets and the food system that supports them, there are ways we can be more biblical when it comes to this aspect of life. Here’s a simple idea for starters. The 12th Century mendicant monk, Francis of Assissi, is famous for his deeply spiritual love for literally “all creatures of our God and King.” That hymn, in fact, is based on his second most famous prayer, The Canticle of the Creatures, in which he praises the Lord by singing the praises of the sun—“Sir Brother Sun,” he calls it—his sister the water—his brother the fire. In short, he praises the Lord, by celebrating his kinship with the rest of the Lord's creation.

What if, in our eating, we took a page from St. Francis’s prayer-book? What if the next time we sat down at table and said grace, we actually thanked the Lord for our brother the cow, our sister the chicken, our cousin the rainbow trout, and indeed, thanked them, our creaturely kin, for giving their lives to feed ours? If we did, we might take one step closer to understanding the true meaning of Psalm 104:28-30, when it reminds us that the same ruach of God that throbs in our lungs throbs in theirs also, and like us, when God takes it from them, they too die and return to dust, just as surely as we will do.

Salome Danced, a song

Every once in a while a songwriter hears a song in his head and is able to bring it to life exactly as he heard it. Other times he has no idea what he was trying to say, even after the song is fully realized. Those two things aren't mutually exclusive, necessarily, and this song, "Salome Danced" was a bit of both. It's sort of a musical midrash on the story of Salome in the gospels. I'd had the piano riff floating around for a while, and thought it sounded vaguely Persian. When I started the lyrics, I wanted to write something that captured both the sensuality of the story but also the terrible pathos. What I got is certainly what I heard, but even so, I'm not entirely sure what it means. 




Salome’s eyes danced glittering like the stars at midnight
Salome’s eyes danced ebony behind the veil
Brimming like a chalice of gold full wine dark red
Salome danced (she danced) and St. John lost his head

Salome’s hands danced fragrant and dripping with myrrh
Salome’s hands danced fluttering behind the veil
Soaring like a bird of paradise with wings outspread
Salome danced (she danced) and St John lost his head

For a fleeting glimpse behind the seven veils
St John lost his head
For a lingering touch of those gilded nails
St John lost his head
Just to lift her to his lips like the holy grail
Yeah St John lost his head

Salome’s feet danced jangling with bells of silver
Salome’s feet danced luminous on barefoot souls
Gliding like a vapor of incense with a graceful tread
Salome danced (she danced) and St John lost his head

For a fleeting glimpse behind the seven veils
St John lost his head
For a lingering touch of those gilded nails
St John lost his head
Just to lift her to his lips like the holy grail
Yeah St John lost his head

And O I see her hiding in the shadows
Somewhere in the darkness a little girl cries
While mamma was waiting
And the party guests were watching
And Herod was laughing
Ah something inside her died

For a fleeting glimpse behind the seven veils
St John lost his head
For a lingering touch of those gilded nails
St John lost his head
Just to lift her to his lips like the holy grail
Yeah St John lost his head
Like the tragic ending of a sordid tale
Yeah St. John lost his head

Conspiracies Exposed (Part III): The Secret about Conspiracy Theories

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I know a man who is an avid consumer of conspiracy theories. He keeps abreast of them all, from the most rabid rants of Alex Jones to the most erudite speculations about the proliferation of G5 technology. He is especially consumed with conspiracy theories of the biblical variety, and emails me periodically wondering where we are on the “timeline of biblical prophecy,” if I think some recent event or other in global politics might actually be the work of the Anti-Christ, or if this or that political leader may in fact be the Beast of Revelation. Often his emails are accompanied by videos from websites with titles like “bannedvideo.com,” which connect the dots between the Bible and world events more freely than a toddler with a crayon in an activity book.

If it sounds like I’m making fun, I am really not. I’ve shared in previous posts how harmful I think conspiracy theorizing (as distinguished from “conspiracy hypothesizing”) can be, how complex the issues are, and how high the stakes. As a pastor, I care about this man a great deal and have often wished we could have real dialogue about some of these ideas. The challenge, of course, is that conspiracy theories tend to be all-or-nothing ways of thinking, making real dialogue about them fraught with tension. If the evil-doers really have infiltrated the highest levels of the government and the furthest reaches of the news media, then anyone who offers any evidence to the contrary is either their dupe, their flunkey, or their instrument. The framework has animosity built into it.

Early on in my relationship with this man, I was really struggling to figure out how to respond to all this pastorally, so I reached out to one of my theological mentors for advice. We talked it all over, and before I knew it, we were theologically theorizing about conspiracy theories themselves. At one point, my mentor said something that completely recast what a conspiracy theory is, for me, and why we find them so compelling.

“A conspiracy theory,” he said, “has the same spiritual allure as the occult, and may actually be the opposite side of that coin.”

I asked him to explain. The person with a conspiracy theory believes they have acquired “hidden knowledge” about spiritual realities that are invisible to the average person, he said, that they have seen through reality, so to speak, and have accessed a deeper, darker reality on the other side. This is the same kind of thing that “occult knowledge” offers, the ability to “see through” the everyday and access an invisible reality lurking on the other side. And for both, the allure is the same: we want to access “hidden knowledge” because we believe it will give us power. In the case of occult knowledge, the offer of power is clear. Dr. Faustus summoned Mephistopheles because the devil offered to give him what he wanted. In the case of a conspiracy theory the offer of power is less obvious, but just as alluring. It promises us that if we just “trust the theory” we’ll have power over our enemies (because they won’t be able to take us in), the power to escape their manipulations.

I’m still trying to decide if this theory about conspiracy theories has something to it or not. The unconvinced would point out that, even if they share “hidden knowledge” in common, conspiracy theories and occult practices have opposite impulses. The one wants to align with evil, while the other wants to resist it.

Fair enough; but if there’s any connection at all, it would explain why so many conspiracy theories seem to offer such detailed, elaborate, even intimate knowledge about “what the devil’s up to.” It would also explain, possibly, why so many of the conversations I’ve had with bona fide conspiracy theorists, have had such an undercurrent of fear, anger, xenophobia, and often even glimmers of hatred to them. If you can know a tree by its fruit, the fruit of a full-on conspiracy theory does not seem to be peace, hope, joy or love; at least not in my experience it doesn’t.

Maybe “occult” is going too far though. There was a heresy that the early church rejected, way back in the early days of the faith, called Gnosticism. The term comes from the Greek word for knowledge, because the Gnostics believed that what would save you, in the end, was knowledge, especially hidden knowledge about spiritual things, knowledge the initiate had and the uninitiated didn’t. Gnosticism probably had a finger or two in the “occult pie” itself, but it was not an occult system per se; at least, it didn’t have to be. The Gnostics weren’t looking for magical power necessarily, they were after hidden knowledge, because they believed that salvation lay in knowing "the secret."

In their case, the "secret" involved ascending through an elaborate system of spiritual planes inhabited by all sorts of spiritual beings, but the key is that the world as it was—the world you could see and touch and love with the creator’s love—was to be rejected in favor of a “higher,” “better,” “more-real” world that was invisible, and immaterial, and attained only through secret knowledge.

I wonder if the worst of modern day conspiracy theories are really a form of Gnosticism, an offer of salvation—literal salvation from the machinations of the mysterious Beast of Revelation—not by trusting solely in the saving work of Jesus Christ, but by trusting in our own ability to figure out what lies “behind the veil.” Even if they’re not exactly a gnostic in nature, I’m wary of conspiracy theories for the same reason the early church was wary of Gnosticism: because they don’t teach us how to love the creation with the Creator’s love. Instead they teach us to suspect it, to distrust it, to reject it, in favor of something “more real” we think we can see going on behind the scenes.

The unconvinced would push back here, probably.

What could be more loving than to help people see “the truth?”

Possibly so; as a preacher, I’ve certainly committed my life to that end. But in the case of a conspiracy theory, I would suggest that because it’s always after some “hidden cause” for evil that must be lurking somewhere where no one can see it, it can distract us from addressing the very real, very obvious evil that we face in the “real world” every day: the pain of the exploited, the suffering of the oppressed, the need of the poor, the turmoil of the lost. These are things the Gospel wants to address literally, and it’s possible to become so consumed trying to work out the Number of the Beast, that we miss the million opportunities we face every day to come alongside the victims of the Beast with the grace, the love, and the healing power of the God.

After all, as Christians we possess the greatest secret of all—the Mystery of Divine Love as revealed in the Gospel—and this is, as the Apostle Paul reminds us in Colossains 1:26, an open secret, one that God has made fully public in the death and resurrection of his Son. According to Revelation 12:11, only this public declaration of the love of God in Christ has the power to overcome the Beast, and however much he may conspire, it alone will triumph, in the end.

Of Games and God (Part III): The Quest for Transcendent Immersion

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One of my favorite video games as a kid was that 1980s cult classic, Dragon’s Lair. If you somehow missed the 80s, all you need to know is that Dragon’s Lair was a fantasy adventure game, where the player guided a valiant knight named Dirk the Daring on a quest to rescue the fair Princess Daphne from the clutches of an evil dragon named Singe. This was in the days when home consoles were still in their infancy, so Dragon’s Lair was one of those quarter-munching arcade attractions of a by-gone era. It played largely like an elaborate choose-your-own-adventure game, where every level presented you with a series of puzzles or booby-traps, and you had to decide if you would, for instance, turn left or drink the potion, draw your sword or dodge right. There was some careful timing and some sharp reflexes required, for sure, but most of it was trial and error.

What set Dragon’s Lair apart from its contemporaries, however, were the graphics. In the days when most other games were still mucking about with pixelated space invaders or monochrome pac-men, Dragon’s Lair had found a way to harness cutting-edge laserdisc technology to present action scenes on-par with those of an animated Disney feature, the likes of which had never been seen in a video-game format before. As a result, Dragon’s Lair allowed the player to immerse himself in the adventure more fully and more magically than any other game in the arcade. While you didn’t exactly become Dirk the Daring (the advent of the true action adventure RPG was still a few years away), still, Dragon’s Lair invited you into a compellingly-realized, intricately-textured world, where your actions progressed a living, breathing story, and your imagination—because it had to work less-hard to fill in the visual gaps—was free to soar.

Held up against the standard of today’s most popular video game adventures, of course, Dragon’s Lair looks somewhat naif. It’s almost a bit too-cute-for-words, next to the sprawling kingdom of Hyrule in Breath of the Wild, say, or the cinematic (and rather grown-up) cut-scenes of The Witcher 3. A purist would probably argue that it doesn’t even qualify as a true RPG. At the time, however, Dragon’s Lair sparkled as an alluring hint of what a video game could be: not just a fun digital pass-time, but an immersive journey into an alternate world.


“Immersion” is, in fact, the technical the term gamers use to describe all this. The degree to which a video game recreates an experience so vividly that you can allow yourself to believe it’s really happening to you, is its level of “immersion.” Gamers sometimes evaluate games based on how “immersive” it is, and often the more elaborate role playing games will allow independent programmers to develop modifications to the original code (called “Mods”) that increase a game’s “immersion” even more. The immersive nature of video-gaming, I think, is one of the aspects that sets it apart from other human activities. In reading, for instance, you are invited to immerse yourself in a story, but the world of the story—its sights, sounds, movements and sensations—must be supplied entirely by the imagination. Cinema is much more sensory, of course, but the worlds created through film are no-where near so interactive. Only video games bring the human imagination to life so fully, in a genuine, interactive, multi-sensory experience.

“Immersion” is an important concept, not just in gaming, but in thinking about gaming theologically, too. If it’s true that one of the appeals of gaming is the way it allows you to escape the world-as-it-is and immerse yourself in an alternate world, so completely and so compellingly that it imaginatively transfigures the real world as you do, then in this gaming intersects with one of the main themes (and appeals) of theology, too. Like video games, theology also acknowledges and affirms the human desire to experience a world unlike the world as it is, to be taken out, above, or beyond every-day human experience, and immerse ourselves in something transcendent. C. S. Lewis famously put it like this: “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” Interestingly, as a way of illustrating that truth, Lewis invented the magical world of Narnia, a place that imaginatively satisfied a child’s desire for transcendent immersion, by poetically offering them an alternate world to explore. In doing so, of course, he also provided us with one of the 20th Centuries great symbols for the Christian life: becoming a King or Queen of Narnia in the everyday world of modern England.

Great care is needed here. The transcendence that theology offers is not some computer-engineered projection of human desires, sustained by our own ingenuity, any more than it is an imaginary kingdom for children, dreamed up by a creative storyteller. The transcendence that theology offers is, in fact, the world-as-it-is, transfigured by the holy and heavenly presence of the very Spirit of God Himself; and remarkably, as we immerse ourselves in that presence, we find ourselves not taken out of the world but sent into it, to love it and embrace it and supernaturally redeem it with his grace and truth. The immersion that theology offers, you might say, immerses us more fully than we could ever imagine in the ordinary stuff of earth, by immersing us completely in the extra-ordinary stuff of heaven.

So in this theology and video-games are plying different trades. But as an analogy for how theology does its work—and, perhaps, as evidence that this work speaks more intimately to the human heart than we might otherwise have expected—we can look to the immersive worlds of today’s best video games. In them we discover that the human spirit is in fact longing for an experience of the transcendent, that we are wired for something that nothing in this world can satisfy. And by them we are reminded that to satisfy this longing is not just our deepest need, but also a source of sheer delight.

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.

Eating, Praying, Loving (Part II): Saying Grace

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One of the most memorable moments in my early days of being a pastor was the time I was meeting with a young couple, relatively new to the country and completely new to the church, who had recently decided to follow Jesus. Their experience in our church was their first introduction to Christianity, and I was discipling them in their newfound Faith.

This was one of our first meetings, and part way into it, the wife asked me, "How do you say grace before a meal?" It occurred to me that this simple act of thanksgiving was entirely foreign to them, but that they had seen folks in our church doing it, and wanted to know more.

So I explained the basics. Before you eat, someone says a simple prayer, thanking God for the food he has provided and asking his blessing as you eat it. It could be as simple as speaking to a good friend who has invited you over to dinner, thanking the host for his hospitality, so to speak.

And in one of the tenderest moments I’ve ever experienced in my pastoral work, the wife turned to the husband. “Ok, then,” she said. “You’ve been doing it right.” I call it tender because in that moment I was suddenly teleported to their dining room in my mind’s eye, and watched as this husband fumbled his honest way through this most basic of Christian tasks. Something I have been doing since childhood and taken for granted all my life, was to him a profound privilege and a beautiful mystery, something he knew Christians ought to do but was not sure if he was worthy of the task.

I’m sharing this story as the second stop on our journey through this “biblical spirituality of food,” because that moment with that couple gave me a brand new appreciation—even a new thankfulness—for the act of giving thanks before a meal. If you’ve been saying it since childhood, that God is great and God is good and so we thank him for our food, it may begin to feel somewhat rote, but if you can see it with the fresh eyes of a new disciple, you will discover how fundamental this simple prayer really is for Christian spiritual formation.

Because food, of course, is life. Literally. If we couldn’t eat we would die, and if we don’t we will. It is really that simple. And by pausing briefly to thank the Creator before we dig in, we acknowledge that we don’t just depend on him for our food, but for the very life it sustains. In doing this we adopt that singular posture which is the proper, natural, and necessary posture of the Christian: one of utter thankfulness.

Scripture actually enjoins God’s people to be thankful more than it does almost any other command. “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, his love endures forever,” says the Psalmist. “Give thanks in all circumstances for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus,” says the Apostle. And in another place, speaking about food specifically he says, “Everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.” It’s not for nothing that the central act of Christian worship, the Lord’s sacred meal, is often called the Eucharist—Greek for “thanksgiving.” After all, the only thing we could ever really “give” to the Almighty Creator of everything is simply our “thanks,” and then open our hands to receive as an unmerited gift everything that comes from him.

What better way to practice this most fundamental attitude of Christianity, than to do it literally, three times a day, whenever we sit down to devour the concrete physical gifts he has provided to keep our concrete physical bodies alive? After all, like all the rest of his creatures, we too look to him to give us our food in due season (Ps 104:27).

This is where any spirituality of food must start, I think: with a deeper appreciation for and greater sincerity in the act of saying thanks. This has always been so, but it is more important than ever, in our modern age where human ingenuity has increased our ability to produce food beyond the wildest dreams of generations past, and it’s easy, maybe, to pretend that we’re our own providers, that we could feed ourselves without God’s help, thank you very much. Because of this, it’s perhaps all the more urgent for us to pause continually and renew our thankfulness, not just for the food we receive, but for the very privilege of getting to say thanks for it.

Another term for the prayer before the meal, of course, is “saying grace.” This is because when we thank the Creator for our food, we are saying the truest truth of all: that it’s all grace. The food that keeps us alive, yes, but also the table it’s set on, the good friends we have to share it with, the love of God, the mercy of salvation. It really is all grace. And the discipline of saying it’s so, three times a day before we eat, teaches us not just to be thankful for the food, but for every good and perfect gift that comes down from above—from the saving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, to the simplest gifts of air to breathe and food to eat.