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

random reads

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

Screwtape Proposes a Toast, C. S. Lewis

Of Games and God (Part VIII): The Gaming World and the Christian Community

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When I started this series on the theology of video games back in April, one of my colleagues who is both a great pastor and also an avid gamer, contacted me. The idea of exploring the theology of gaming intrigued him, he said, because video games have played such a significant role in his own life and spiritual formation.

He is involved in a church-planting work in Manitoba called “The Hearth," which seeks to be a “Holy Sanctuary for the Nerds, the Geeks, the Misfits and the Outcasts.” One of the initiatives of The Hearth is an event called “Geekdom House,” where participants gather to watch shows from the sci-fi, fantasy, and/or anime genres (anything with a strong, traditionally nerdy fandom will do) and then discuss its spiritual, religious, or theological significance. Another initiative is called “Limit Break,” which provides a safe and inclusive community “where nerd and geek hobbies and culture can thrive.” Limit Break seeks to provide mentorship for youth and adults who love video games and board games, in particular, and bills itself as “a community for people who feel otherwise isolated and are looking for a place not only to grow but to directly and intentionally help others grow, in their physical, emotional and spiritual lives.”

At the heart of a ministry like The Hearth is an awareness that human beings are hard-wired for intimate community, and that video games (among other “geekdoms”) feed our need for community in a unique way. It may be because video gaming is such a participatory activity, one that engages us so holistically as we are doing it, that we long to shared the experience with others. It may be because the worlds that video games create are so complete and fully realized, that they invite players to identify strongly with their particular game of choice. It might just be that the games themselves are so fun. Whatever the reason, many video games have strong followings—"fandoms," is the popular term—and these fandoms tend to generate strong communities of identification around their specific games.

This is true of the games I most enjoy playing. The various Minecraft communities I’ve encountered, for instance, or the various Youtubers who post their advice and theories around Skyrim, are good examples of this. I am a neophyte when it comes to online gaming communities, though. My brother has met people from around the world playing World of Warcraft online. My cousin has traveled across the country to met up in person with friends that he made through online gaming. This spring, when the Covid-19 lockdown made an in-person Easter gathering impossible, our family met up on my son’s Minecraft server and had a “virtual Easter dinner,” which we enjoyed together as our Minecraft avatars.

In each of these examples we see it, that gaming creates community.

There are lessons that the church could take from these gaming communities, as it considers its own life together. In a video game fandom, for instance, the game alone is the thing that holds the community together. The only thing you need to participate is the game itself. Similarly, gaming communities exist primarily online, where most of the usual markers that normally differentiate people, like age, gender, social status, and so on, are not as obvious or significant. In this regard, video game communities have the potential to create a kind of “leveled space,” where the only requirement for belonging is a shared love for the game itself.

This is, or at least it should be, what the church is like, with the all-important caveat that the thing that creates our “leveled space,” is not a game but a person, the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ; but like a gaming fandom, the church that really has him at the centre would say that the only requirement for belonging is a shared love of Him. Sadly, many churches add a whole slew of additional requirements for belonging. Some of these are intentional, like insisting that ours will be a teetotaler church, or ours will be a pre-trib-post-mil-dispensationalist church—and those who don’t agree don’t belong. Others are unintentional, like when we subtly communicate that if you want to be part of this group you have to belong to a certain tax-bracket, or you have to dress a particular way, or what have you. It may be human nature to do this. It certainly comes naturally to us. But whatever else it is, it is not the New Testament’s vision of the Church. In Galatians 3:28, the Apostle Paul said it like this, that in the Christian community, there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.

I don’t know enough about video gaming to say how well the communities that grow up around particular games reflect this kind of open inclusivity. I have spoken to some gamers who were so passionate about their game of choice that they looked down their noses with superiority towards other games, other gaming consoles, and other gaming communities. It is possible to identify so strongly with the thing that holds our community together that we instinctively begin to “out-group” those who don’t share our commitment.

In this too, however, gaming communities have something profound to teach us, by showing us how truly unique the Christian community really is. Even gaming communities, in the end, are human creations, formed around a shared passion for a human endeavor. The fact that they are so appealing shows us how deeply the human heart really is wired for authentic community. At the same time though, they remind us that, unlike any community that humans have ever formed, the church is not created or held together by human beings, by their interests, their enthusiasms, or their intentions.

The church is a divine community, created only by the power of the Holy Spirit, through the work of Christ alone, to the glory of God the Father. As such, membership in this community, belonging and inclusion and participation, does not depend on any of the gate-keeping markers that human beings use to decide who is in and who is out. It depends solely on the invitation of God himself, which he extends to all in the person of Jesus Christ, and which he guarantees to us in the seal of his Holy Spirit. Here there is no Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free; neither is there Minecrafters nor Fortniters, Xboxers nor Nintendo Switchers, gamers nor nongamers, for we are all one, no matter where we are coming from or who we are, we all belong together in Christ.

Video games can sharpen our appetite for this kind of inclusive community, I think, and teach us how deeply we long for it and how badly we need it; but not even gaming communities can provide what God offers us in Jesus, an invitation to take our place in the Body of Christ, where belonging depends solely on the fact that we’ve been called together by him, and every godly passion, commitment, joy and activity that brings him glory has a place.

A Christian Conversation about Steven Universe (Part IV): Encountering the Queer Aesthetic


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When I was a child, my list of favorite cartoons would have included some of the following titles: G-Force: Battle of the Planets, The Smurfs, Dungeons and Dragons, and, when I couldn’t get anything better, The Mighty Hercules. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen any of these shows, but as a kid they filled my head with epic tales of fantasy, adventure, and heroism.

What I never considered at the time, though see quite clearly in retrospect, is that they also reinforced a certain aesthetic in my imagination. The term “aesthetic” as I’m using it here refers to the principles we draw on, or the characteristics we look for, to make value judgement about what is and what is not beautiful. By “beautiful,” however, I mean something more than simply “lovely to look at.” The “beautiful” in this sense is that which awakens our longing, excites our imagination, gives us pleasure, and elicits our joy. Aesthetic values can vary quite widely from culture to culture, which is why the carefully-balanced proportions of the Athenian Parthenon, and the kaleidoscopic spectacle of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Russia are both beautiful in their own way, though each is so unlike the other.

When I hold the cartoons that I enjoyed as a child up together, what stands out to me is that they are all working with a similar aesthetic. They tend to be centred around the male experience, and the women in them tend to be peripheral characters, usually disproportionately represented, and often serving as objects of male interest and affection. The heroes, too, tend to have qualities that were traditionally associated with a narrowly-defined masculinity: physical strength, confident resourcefulness, a rugged independence held in tension with service to the community. At the same time, there is a subtle romantic intrigue underlying them all: was Princess the love interest of Mark or Jason in Battle of the Planets? Which of the ninety-nine male Smurfs would win the affections of the one (and only) Smurfette in the village? When would Hercules finally settle down with the lovely Helena and make a bunch of baby Hercs?

These are all children’s cartoons, of course, but I think it is easy to underestimate how formative the aesthetic experiences of our childhood can be on our grown-up sensibilities, subconsciously influencing the value judgement we make as grownups about what is lovely, compelling, and desirable.

I say this, because when I first started watching the show Steven Universe with my kids, I was struck by how foreign the aesthetic of the show seemed to me, and how few aesthetic categories I had that I could use to make sense of it. Rebecca Sugar, the maker of Steven Universe has said that she had set out to make a show that was “definitely not heteronormative.” This is clear in the show's broad themes and philosophical underpinnings, but it is also subtly woven through out the show’s aesthetic, from its character design to its artistic choices. It is, as my queer child once put it, the “gayest show ever,” and in this, the whole thing is working with an aesthetic unlike any cartoon I’ve ever come across.

All the show’s heroes and villains both are gems, which means that, aside from Steven himself, they are all exclusively female-coded characters. Steven is male-coded, of course, though the show explains that he is somehow an incarnation of his own mother, Rose Quartz, making his gender much more ambiguous as the show progresses. He is able to fuse with his best friend, a female named Connie, to form a non-binary character named Stevonnie.

At the same time, very few of the protagonists have any qualities associated with traditional masculinity. Indeed, an episode in the first season, called “Coach Steven” subtly deconstructs the entire trope of traditional masculinity. In this episode, Steven sets out to get himself and his friends in physical shape, adopting a “toxically masculine” drill-sergeant persona and running them through a rigorous workout regime. Through the course of the episode, however, he learns that there is a “real way” to be strong that does not require ripped abs and swole pecs, and indeed, that “muscular strength” is not the kind of “strength” he really needs.


I have to admit that when I first started watching Steven Universe, the “queer aesthetic” of the show took a long time for me to get used to. I’m a 46-year-old straight male, and hardly the target audience, I admit; but even so, I watched it with a traditional aesthetic in mind, one shaped by years of consuming narratives that presented traditional hetero-romantic, male-centric themes. As a result, I found the whole thing somewhat (in the original sense of this word) queer. All the pastel colors and glittering lights (which I would have associated, as a kid, with a “girl’s show”) coupled with all those intergalactic space adventures (which could rival even the best of G-Force for sci-fi thrills), made it hard for me to find my bearings.

If you’ve never seen the show, all this may sound somewhat bizarre, but the reason I’m talking about it  at such length is because experiencing the queer aesthetic of Steven Universe helped me see my own aesthetic sensibilities in a new light. When I experience a “text,” be it a story, an image, a work of art, or a philosophical idea, I do with it what all human beings instinctively do: I try to fit it into a pre-conceived aesthetic framework that helps me to determine if it is good, true, lovely, or admirable. This aesthetic framework is largely subconscious, built from a whole network of formative experiences and aesthetic messages that I absorbed from the culture I was raised in. I was enculturated, for instance, to look for male strength as a sign that something heroic is happening, and I was enculturated, too, to pick up on intimations of heterosexual romance as a sign that the story is moving towards something desirable.

Encountering a show that deconstructed this aesthetic, like Steven Universe does, and presented an alternative in its place, helped me to see both how subjective my traditional aesthetic is, and (more importantly) how strongly I identify with it. I think it is hard to really grasp how subtly our deeply-held aesthetic values shape the way we interact with and respond to the world, determining what we think is worth striving for in life, and how we ought to go about striving for it. A music lover who has encountered the musical forms of an entirely different culture, one that does not use traditional Western intervals or rhythms, perhaps, might get what I am trying to describe here: the cognitive dissonance of encountering a form of beauty for which they have no clear aesthetic categories, but they can still clearly tell is something joyful, emotive, and good.

One of the reasons I’m exploring all this, is because my experience with the show Steven Universe has prompted me to wonder how much the church’s response to LGBTQ people in general, is less about our theology than it is about our aesthetic values. This idea is hard to put into words, but if we have been spiritually raised in a culture that consistently presents heterosexual romance as the highest ideal, and only showed one kind of masculinity as good and one kind of femininity as lovely, then coming to understand and make space for the queer people in our community may actually challenge our aesthetic convictions just as much, possibly even more so than it does, our theological convictions, such as they are.

Like a 46-year-old heterosexual male encountering Steven Universe and having to learn how to read a queer aesthetic on the fly, I think that the church will have to re-examine those things it’s always held up as ideals of beauty, if it is genuinely going to embrace LGBTQ people with the gospel. This does not mean relinquishing our responsibility to make biblical value judgement on what is a godly and what is not a godly expression of human sexuality, or accepting an entirely relative morality when it comes to sex.

At least it doesn’t have to mean that. It could simply mean acknowledging that many of the narratives we assume to be good, and true, and lovely, are really values we’ve inherited from our culture, not absolutes we’ve derived from the Bible. The presupposition, for instance, that God intends everyone to experience heterosexual romance in order to be spiritually fulfilled (when Jesus himself never married)—the assumption, perhaps, that a certain set of superficial characteristics define “biblical manhood and biblical womanhood” (when Jesus himself often crossed gender boundaries in his day, speaking to women and admitting them into his company in ways that scandalized his 1st Century culture)—these are examples of aesthetic values that the church has often taken to be theological givens.

There are probably others. As the church makes authentic space for the LGBTQ people among us, I expect we will discover more; and as we do, I expect we will find, too, that there are all kinds of beautiful things to be celebrated in our midst, things we never would have noticed as lovely, except that we let our aesthetic values be challenged in this way.

Eating, Praying Loving (Part VII): On Fasting

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Next to reading your Bible and praying every day, one of the earliest spiritual disciplines that Christians practiced was the discipline of fasting. This was probably a carry-over from first-century Jewish practices, which the first Christians took up into their own spiritual practice, reinterpreted through the lens of Christ. Christ himself taught his followers that when they fasted, they should not “be somber like the hypocrites,” who put on a mopey face while they’re doing it so that everyone would know that they were fasting (Matt 6:16). This is probably a reference to fasting as it was practiced among the Pharisees (cf. Mark 2:18; Luke 18:12), and the saying is fascinating on two counts. First, it suggests that fasting was a regular discipline among the Jews in Jesus’s day, since he is asking his followers to distinguish themselves in the way they practice this act of piety; but more importantly, Christ assumes that his followers will fast. He does not say “if” you fast, but when.

In Mark 2:18-19, the people ask Jesus why his followers don’t fast like the Pharisees and John’s disciples do, and again his reply is telling. He explains that so long as he is with them in person, his followers cannot fast, any more than a wedding guest could fast at the bridegroom’s wedding feast; but, he goes on to say, “A time will come when the groom will be taken away; then they will fast.” Again we note that Jesus does not say “they may fast,” but that they “will fast,” once more underlining his assumption that whatever else they do, his followers will practice the discipline of fasting. This particular saying is doubly fascinating though, because it suggests that for the First Century Christian, fasting had taken on a distinctly eschatological dimension; that is, the first Christians fasted as a way of expressing their longing for Christ’s return. They fasted because Christ had been “taken away from them” and they wanted him back.

We see this happening concretely in the book of Acts, where the early church is shown fasting especially when there is a difficult decision to make and they need the guidance of Jesus through his Holy Spirit. In Acts 13:1-3, for instance, the church is “worshiping the Lord and fasting,” and as they are doing so, they receive a revelation from the Holy Spirit that they are to send Paul and Barnabas off on a mission trip. Again they fast and pray over this decision (v.3) and finally they send them off. Later in Acts 14:23 when Paul and Barnabas are appointing elders to serve in churches they are planting, they commit each one to the Lord through “prayer and fasting.” What stands out to me in these two references is that they are both instances where the Lord himself is speaking to church leaders about specific decisions they must make—he is speaking to them in a way he might have done in person if he had not been “taken from them” through the cross—and the discipline that allows the church to hear from Jesus in this way is the discipline of prayerful fasting. In other words, they are fasting just like he said they would back in Mark 2:19: because they need to hear from the bridegroom but the bridegroom’s not there.

The reason I’m thinking about all of this today, though, is because for some seven or eight weeks now I have been working slowly through what I’m calling a “biblical spirituality of food,” looking at the way in which our food and our spirits are connected, from a biblical perspective. We’ve talked about thanksgiving, and communion, and pleasure, and stewardship, among many other things, but we haven’t said anything yet about fasting—the spiritual discipline of choosing not to eat for a specific length of time and for a specific reason—so that we can sharpen our appetites for the Lord himself.

I would be remiss, however, if I made it all the way through this series on food, and I didn’t at least acknowledge fasting as something Christians sometimes do to grow as followers of Christ. Because as I’ve suggested above, Jesus seems to have assumed that his people would fast, and it’s clear from the New testament that the early church did. In light of this, we might say that from a biblical perspective, one of the purposes for food is to provide us a concrete opportunity to discipline ourselves as followers of Jesus, to “beat our bodies into submission” so to speak (to borrow an unusual metaphor from another place in Paul’s writing).

Ultimately, fasting teaches us that however good, necessary, and pleasurable food is—and as I’ve tried to show throughout this series, the Bible agrees wholeheartedly food is all these things—still it is not as good, not as necessary, and not as pleasurable as the Lord himself is. When we choose to forgo eating for a season so that we can focus more intently and more clearly on him, we create an opportunity not only to show that this is true, but to experience it.

This doesn’t happen magically, however, nor over night. They call fasting a “discipline” for a reason, because it takes focus, and effort, and intention to do it well, if at all. Especially when you are beginning at it, your body will tell you that you’re making all kinds of mistakes not feeding it on demand. If my experience is anything to go by, this is pretty normal. But if my experience is anything to go by, even a small fast for a very limited time—passing up a single meal, let’s say—can be a significant step in our discipleship. Because food is so immediate, such a primal and fundamental need, learning how to say no to this need for a moment so you can attend to more pressing spiritual matters, actually builds your resolve to say “no” to all kinds of other primal “needs”—the need to have your own way, the need to respond to conflict with aggression, the need to be the centre of your own attention. The discipline developed in fasting spills over, I’ve found, into other areas of my spiritual life where I find it “unnatural” to walk consistently in the way of Jesus.

From a biblical perspective, then, one of the reasons food is so spiritual, is because choosing not to eat it once in a while trains us in the art of saying “no” to ourselves—physically, concretely, and literally saying “no”—so that we can say “yes” to God. And saying “yes” to him, I think, is where all true spirituality begins.

Standing Here Today, a song

This is a song I wrote about growing up and growing old with the one you love. It's based roughly on the famous "Footprints" poem, with a bit of a twist, imagining a couple standing together with Jesus at the sunset of their lives, and seeing only ever three sets or just one set of footprints, because whenever Jesus was carrying the one, he was really carrying them both together.



Looking back I can see the waves
Breaking on the strand (of the beach)
Three sets of footprints there,
Pressed into the sand (I can see)
All those times we thought that we were
Walking hand in hand
He was there between us

There were days when the waves were high
And I thought I was carrying you
And those days when the storm was dark
And I thought you carried me too (I saw)
One set of footprints when I
Knew there should have been two
‘cause he carried us both

You and I we’re still standing here today
We didn’t have a map
And yet somehow we found out way
The days fly by yet the memories never fade
We didn’t have a script or know what parts to play
When we forgot our lines he reminded
He held us, He carried and guided
All that we needed his hand hath provided
And we’re standing, we’re still standing here today

Up ahead I can see the morning
Shining in your eyes
When every wave is stilled
And every tear is dried (and the)
The horizon’s bursting
With that glorious sunrise
We’ll be standing with him

And looking back we will see the footprints
Winding along the sea
Sometimes there’s one set
And other times there’s three (And we’ll say)
Whenever he was carrying you
He was also carrying me
Now we’re here together and...

You and I we’re still standing here today
We didn’t have a map
And yet somehow we found out way
The days fly by yet the memories never fade
We didn’t have a script or know what parts to play
When we forgot our lines he reminded
He held us, He carried and guided
All that we needed his hand hath provided
And we’re standing, we’re still standing here today

Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father;
There is no shadow of turning with Thee;
Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not;
As Thou hast been, Thou forever will be.

You and I we’re still standing here today
We didn’t have a map
And yet somehow we found out way
The days fly by yet the memories never fade
We didn’t have a script or know what parts to play
When we forgot our lines he reminded
He held us, He carried and guided
All that we needed his hand hath provided
And we’re standing, we’re still standing here today

Of Games of God (Part VII): Gaming for Good

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Here’s a statement that only Minecraft players will understand: whenever I build an automated chicken roaster farm in Minecraft, I always feel a little twinge of guilt over all the little pixelated birds I have to capture to do it. If you’re not a Minecraft player, all you need to know is that one of the animated animals in the game is the egg-laying chicken, and if you assemble the 3-D blocks in a specific way, you can trap a whole ton of chickens into a small little space, so that all their eggs are then captured in a little hopper. If you know exactly what you’re doing, you can then set up something called a “redstone dispenser” which will automatically hatch all those eggs for you; and if you’re really worth your salt, you can build it so that once they’re full-grown, those chickens get cooked by an oscillating bucket of lava, dropping their roasted carcasses into a little wood chest. In this way, over the course of a day or two doing something else, you can fill up a whole chest with roasted chicken, creating an instant, renewable supply of food for all your mining and crafting.

I realize this is hard to visualize if you don’t know the game, but here’s why I’m telling you about it: because in order for it to work, you have to trap a bunch of animated chickens—a dozen or so for best results—in a tiny enclosed space—a space so small that if they were real chickens, it would be profoundly inhumane to keep them there, laying egg after egg with no place to go.

They are not real chickens, of course, so there’s nothing necessarily inhumane about building an automated chicken roaster in Minecraft; but even so, I always feel a little bit of guilt squeezing all those chickens into the contraption and sealing them off to their egg-laying fate.

That might sound pathetic to some, especially since I play Skyrim and have few qualms running bandit after bandit through with my sword, and more importantly, because I’ll eat real chicken without batting an eye, but there it is: I feel bad for the chickens in my automated chicken roaster in Minecraft.

I can’t believe that as a 46-year-old man, I'm admitting this.

But the reason I am admitting it is because it raises a very significant point that any honest theology of video gaming needs to deal with eventually, that is, the moral quandaries that video games present to their players. I am not necessarily asking the questions that usually get asked around the morality of video gaming—is it appropriate for children to view the graphic content of modern-day video games?—do first-person shooter games encourage people to become killers?—and so on. Those questions need careful consideration for sure, but my question is a bit more subtle than that: in what ways do the moral decisions we make in the world of a video game reveal something true about our moral character in real life? Does it mean I am a “bad person” if I like doing “bad things” in a video game? If I choose to perform “good actions,” does that mean I am “a good person”?

This question has become more and more worth asking, I think, as games have been approaching greater and greater realism in their content. Time was, when all you could do was run a maze gobbling up blinking dots, the most you had to worry about was possibly promoting gluttony. These days, with their elaborate story-lines and life-like graphics, video games have all kinds of potential to put their players in all kinds of morally questionable situations.

The most controversial of these games, perhaps, is Rockstar Game’s infamous Grand Theft Auto franchise, which officially holds the Guinness World Record as the most controversial game series in history. In the years since the first Grand Theft Auto game was released, back in 1997, this action-adventure game has continually pushed the moral envelope in its story telling and content, allowing players to solicit the services of prostitutes, perform acts of extreme violence, torture their victims, not to mention commit the crime for which the game is named. In the most recent installment of the series, the player is actually required to perform horrific acts of torture in order to progress in the story.

Not every game is as vice-ridden as Grand Theft Auto, to be sure, but even in some of the more tame ones, the moral quandaries abound. In Witcher III you can visit a brothel if you want to. One of the quests in Skyrim leads you into the heart of a cannibalistic cult, which you can chose to join if you wish. And did I mention what you have to do to the poor chickens in Minecraft if you want an automatic chicken roaster?

The first game to capitalize on this moral dimension to gaming was a 1985 fantasy role playing game called Ultima IV (the first in the “age of enlightenment” trilogy for the Ultima game series). Ultima IV is famous for being the first RPG video game that didn’t have a specific, identifiable evil that the player needed to defeat. Instead, you progressed through the game by performing acts of moral virtue, based around the three principles of truth, courage and love. The goal of the game is to advance in the virtuous life, to master the eight virtues and become the spiritual “avatar” of the magical kingdom of Britannia. Choosing to give money to the beggars you encounter in the game advances you in the “compassion” virtue, for instance; choosing to respond with a “boastful” response during conversations with NPCs will move you away from the virtue of “humility,” and so on.


For its era, the in-game morality of Ultima IV was an ingenious device, because players were not given any instruction as to which actions would advance them in mastering the virtues, and which would set them back. You had to figure this out simply by completing quests and trying to practice the virtues as you went along.

Ultima IV illustrated that gaming has great potential to help us explore our own moral character, to ask hard questions about who we are and who we are becoming as moral beings. Not every game has capitalized on this potential, of course, and some are exploring it without necessarily meaning to. It’s not clear to me, for instance, if the makers of Witcher III included the brothels in their game because they wanted to present the players with a chance to explore their own moral fibre, or if it was simply for the sake of cheap titillation, but in either case, the potential is there, to ask ourselves what kind of people we really are while we play.

To be clear, I am not trying to repeat the straight-forward cause-and-effect argument here, that if I perform an immoral act in a game, I will be more likely to want to do that thing in real life. There is empirical evidence to support this belief, however, evidence that I think every Christian gamer needs to grapple with pretty honestly at some point. The American Psychological Association found such a strong cause-and-effect link between violent video games and anti-social behavior, that in 2015 the APA Council of Representatives adopted a resolution to engage in a public education campaign about the issue.

But that’s not exactly the argument I am trying to make here, however seriously I take this data. My argument is actually cutting the other way. When the Pharisees asked Jesus about eating unclean food, he replied to them that they had got their theology of cleanness backward. It’s not what goes into a person that makes them unclean, he retorted, rather, it’s what comes out of them (Mark 7:15). Jesus was speaking about the kosher food laws in Torah specifically there, but I think there is a principle at work in this saying that we could port over to Christian gaming pretty easily. It is not what goes into us when we game—i.e. it’s not the game that we play—that makes us unclean; rather, it’s what comes out of us while we're playing that makes us unclean.

Of course, if I choose to play a game like Grand Theft Auto V, where I know I will advance through the game only by practicing vice and celebrating "virtual evil," that choice itself is a “thing that’s coming out of me,” and it may need some Spirit-led introspection about what’s really going on inside. Speaking more generally, though, the morally ambiguous storylines of most modern-day video games can serve the Christian as a kind of virtual litmus test for their spiritual formation, a way to explore how deeply our moral character is rooted, by discovering what we will and will not do while we play.

A Christian Conversation about Steven Universe (Part III): We Are the Crystal Gems

<<< previous post

Back in 2011, when the movie X-Men First Class came out, I went to see it with a friend of mine who happens to be gay. As far as I knew, I was just taking in one more rollicking superhero romp, maybe not Academy Award worthy, but certainly worth the price of admission. My gay friend, however, had an entirely different take on the film.

“What did you think?” he asked as we were leaving the theatre.

I gave him my two-cent review: fun story, cool effects, though I’m more of an Avengers man, myself.

“Maybe,” he said. “But I thought it did a great job conveying what it feels like to be gay.”

If you’re scratching your head at that one, like I was when he said it, then maybe I should explain. One of the primary conflicts in X-Men First Class has to do with the search for a cure to the mutations that give the X-Men their powers. The feeling of being an aberrant “freak of nature” is a source of great torment for the super-powered mutants in the movie. Many of them hide, disguise, or suppress their mutations so that they can fit in with every-day society. One of the mutants, a blue-haired superhero named Beast believes he has found a way to medically “cure” their mutations and turn them into “normal” human beings; by contrast, the mutant named Magneto wants them to embrace their mutations and wage war against the human race.

The plot didn’t stand out to me on first viewing as an especially LGBTQ-themed story, but my friend helped me out. “Being gay,” he said, “in a world where everyone is straight and you don’t know if you belong, you can feel like that: like you’re a mutant with a mutation you have to hide, because if anyone knew you had it, they’d think you’re were a freak.”

It turns out that my friend was picking up on something the movie was intentionally laying down. At least, the screenwriters of X-Men First Class have since gone on the record confirming there was an intentional gay subtext to the story.

When I think back to that night watching X-Men First Class, though, two things stand out to me: one, how meaningful it was for my gay friend to see his own experience of queerness being metaphorically represented on screen like that; and two, how easily I had missed the metaphor, as a heterosexual man. That night at the theatre helped me to see my “straight world” through the eyes of someone who did not feel as though he fit into it, because the mainstream narratives of that world, where everyone found a romantic partner of the opposite sex, settled down with a family and set up a white picket-fence around it all, did not include his experience. It helped me see how painful the feeling of “being queer” can be for queer people, and how healing it can be when that pain is acknowledged.

This is one of the reasons I’ve been using the kid’s show Steven Universe as a starting point for this series on practicing hospitality for LGBTQ people in the church, because it too helps us to grasp what the “feeling of being queer” can be like for queer people. If you missed the background, let me explain that the central premise of Steven Universe is that a group of aliens called the Crystal Gems, beings that look and sound and more-or-less act just like you and I, have come to dwell among the “normal” citizens of planet earth. These aliens are really gems, whose only physical form are their gemstones, and whose anthropomorphic bodies are really projections of corporeal light that they emit.


As the show progresses, it becomes clear that the Crystal Gems are somehow meant to represent, if not the LGBTQ community, at the very least the queer experience. This is most obvious in an episode called “Rocknaldo,” (Season 4, Episode 18), where a character named Ronaldo is shown distributing pamphlets that warn the residents of Beach City about the “Rock People” living among them. The episode doesn’t dwell on this for long, and Steven quickly helps Ronaldo see the harm his pamphlets are causing, telling him that a term like “Rock People” is offensive, and that he is a Gem himself. With only a little bit of imagination, though, it’s easy to see this entire exchange as a way of exploring the problem of homophobia on a level that children would get. I may be reading too much into this, of course, but my experience with X-Men First Class suggests that even if this was not the main point of the episode, many queer people would resonate with it in this way.


If the Crystal Gems really are meant to help us to think about the queer experience, it strikes me as significant that whatever else they are, the Crystal Gems are alien. They do not fit the mainstream world of Beach City, and they frequently encounter situations that make them starkly aware of this reality. It is true that most often when this happens, and their alien natures are exposed to their human neighbors like this, the humans themselves tend to take it in stride, and life in Beach City sort of goes on more-or-less as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. This is one of the endearing quirks of the show, that the most bizarre of storylines—from intergalactic space travel to extra-terrestrial invasions—do not leave the least lasting scar on the tranquility of Beach City. It is almost as if the show is suggesting to queer kids that, yes, the feeling of “being the other” is real and painful, but however painful it may be, life on the other side of coming out will find a way of carrying on. It’s sort of like a sci-fi fantasy adventure version of the “It gets better” message.

I realize that in reading Steven Universe like this, as an allegory for the “othering” that so many queer people face, I may be guilty of “othering” myself. When I see an alien on screen and assume that the alien in question must be a metaphor for a gay person, it reveals something, perhaps, about what I really think about the gay people in my own community (do I really think they of them as “aliens”?) This is part of the brilliance of the show, however, that it holds up the mirror to all of us, queer and straight together, and asks us to re-examine what we see there.

If I am on to anything in this reading of Steven Universe, I think there is a lesson here for the Christian Church. I have written extensively on this topic before, but in a community like the Church, where the focus is almost exclusively on the family, where ministries tend to presuppose marriage as the normative way of following Jesus, and where gay people historically have not been welcome or affirmed, this feeling of “being an alien” can be intense. Like I had done with my gay friend at X-Men First Class, it is easy for Christians to under-estimate just how intense, and indeed how painful,it can be to be made to feel like “the other.”

This is why we need to hear more stories like the one Steven Universe is telling, not just imaginative ones, either, but the real stories of real gay people; and not just hear them, but authentically engage with them. Only as we are able to acknowledge and address the alienation that our “heteronormative narratives” may be causing, will we be able authentically to include gay people into the life of the church. This will take more than watching a few episodes of a kid’s cartoon, of course, but if nothing else a show like Steven Universe might help us to understand how important it is to do this well, and give us some idea of where to start.

My Mother's Eyes, a short story


I have my mother’s eyes. That’s what they’ve always told me, anyways.

I’ve never really understood why, because she’s been blind since childhood and I can see perfectly well, but that’s what they say. She was only four years old when the doctors diagnosed her with a rare case of infantile glaucoma, but by then the disease had already advanced so far that the optic nerve was irreparably damaged. In every memory I have of her, her eyes have that impassive gaze of the unseeing: wide, and dark, and still.

It is true that my eyes are dark, too, and brown like hers. But that’s the only similarity I could ever see.

Still, they always said it, that Iris has her mother’s eyes. Her father’s sense of humor and her mother’s eyes.

I have to take their word on it for my sense of humor, too, though. If my mother is blind in every childhood memory I have, my father does not figure at all. There’s some secret about him that no one would tell me, but since growing up, I’ve sort of pieced it together that his relationship with my mother was something of a whim for him. When the realities of being with someone who couldn’t see became real inconveniences, he moved on and left us to fend for ourselves. Whenever I thought of him leaving, I always imagined him writing it all out in a letter, how it wasn’t her it was him, and then realizing she could never read it anyways and crumpling it into a ball. He left shortly after I was born and I’ve never met him.

So I was raised by a blind, abandoned teenaged mom. We lived with her parents for the earliest years of my life, but as soon as I was old enough that I could help to make it manageable, we moved into an apartment of our own. I didn’t pick up on all the nuances in my mother’s relationship with her parents at that age, but even as a young girl I knew that they bickered a lot. I’ve since come to wonder if they blamed themselves for my mother’s blindness, or if not that, then perhaps she blamed them. Whatever the case, my earliest memories of knowing real happiness seem to coincide with my earliest memories of us beginning to live on our own, my blind mother and her nine-year-old girl, together against the world.

Mom never got a service dog, though she could have, and when I was old enough to know the difference it might make, I begged her repeatedly to do so.

“Alison,” I’d say—I don’t know why but I always called my mother by her given name—“Alison, I’m sick of having to rush home from school to take care of things around here. And I worry like crazy about you all the while I am at school. Why can’t we just look into getting a dog?”

“Very funny,” Alison said. “You can look. I can’t.” She was not at all shy about resorting to these kinds of tactics when strict reason failed her in an argument. “Why don’t you look, and tell me what you see?”

“That’s not what I meant. And you know it.”

“I’m just saying that I don’t need a seeing-eye-dog. I got you. You’re my seeing-eye-girl.”

“Very funny yourself,” I said. She’s used that line before, and I’ve always hated it. “I just think that we’d be happier—that you’d be happier—if you were more independent. I mean, I won’t be around forever.”

We were having the debate this time in the kitchen, preparing supper. I had the water for the spaghetti already boiling and a pan for the sauce on the stove and ready to go. My mother could use the can opener entirely by feel and had opened a can of pasta sauce for me. I was managing the stove top, of course, but she was wonderfully adept with a kitchen knife, and started to dice up an onion. She had this way of curling her fingertips in and holding the onion down with the top of her knuckles, so she could guide the blade by running the flat of the knife up and down along the front of her fingers, with no risk of cutting herself. I’ve never been in a professional kitchen before, but I like to think she was as good as any bona fide chef.

“You mean you don’t want to be around forever?” She said. Her blind eyes still watered like anyone’s would, from the sting of the onion.

“It’s not that,” I said quietly. “I just want you to be, you know, independent.”

“I’m plenty independent,” she said, and it almost seemed as if she was slicing the onion with a bit of extra vigor as she said this. “Didn’t I raise you on my own? Didn’t we move into this apartment as soon as we could? Haven’t I been working a real job all these years to pay for it?”

“Yes, yes, and yes,” I said. Her tone reminded me a lot of the one she used when she argued with my grandparents. They were regularly pressuring her to move back home. “I’m not saying you’re not independent. I just think that a lot of blind people find that seeing-eye-dogs help. That’s all.”

“Iris,” my mother said in that steady, soft voice she used when she needed the debate to be over. “Honey: I know you’re saying this because you love me. And I love you too. But I don’t need any help.” Her face was pointed stoically forwards as she spoke; though she knew exactly where I was standing she did not turn towards me. “Now,” she added. “Be a dear and help me put this onion in the sauce. I don’t want to burn my fingers.”

I stared at her blankly for a second. And then, because we had reached this dead-end often enough that I knew we’d come back to it again at some point, I dropped the matter and finished making the sauce.

That evening, when the dinner was done and the dishes cleaned, we were sitting together in the living room of our tiny apartment. I was on the couch, working on my calculus and she was plunking away at the piano. It was an old apartment-sized piano that I’d helped her to find on Kijiji a couple years ago. She worked at a call centre, one of the first blind operators they’d ever hired, and though the pay was steady, it was hardly princely, so it had taken her over a year to save up for the piano. It wasn’t no Steinway, not by a long shot, but she wasn’t no Ray Charles, neither. She had a pretty good ear, for sure, but her playing was still pretty halting and random. I had a really important test coming up, with college applications on the way and all, but there was nowhere else in the apartment to study, so I just put my head down and did my best, with Alison plinking away blindly in the background.

Suddenly she stopped playing and looked straight ahead.

“There’s one just stepped into the room,” she said softly. “He’s standing near to the couch, on your left.” I didn’t look up from my book, and didn’t say anything, but after a moment she said, “He is a glorious one, too; a real warrior of light.”

This is as good a time as any, I guess, to explain that my mother sees angels. I don’t know if “sees” is quite the right term to use or not, but she has, or at least she thinks she has, some sort of spiritual gift for detecting the presence of these heavenly beings. It’s been like this since I was a very little girl, mind you, so it’s never really spooked me out or anything. She’ll just be busy doing something, or sitting quietly thinking, or sitting on a bus maybe (these are usually the worst times for it to happen, in my opinion), and suddenly she’ll announce that there’s an angel present. There’s one standing at my elbow, she’ll say; there’s one sitting on the front stairs watching the street; there’s one sitting in an empty seat across from us on the bus.

She never talks to them, mind you. She’s actually quite strict about this, that we shouldn’t ever address them directly, and the only time her angel-detecting gift caused any real grief between us was once when I tried to speak to one. This was a few years back, when I was at the height of that bratty stage of being a teenager, and I only ever felt embarrassed about my mom and her “gift.” So one time when she told me there was an angel at the kitchen table watching us, I turned in that direction and asked if it would like to stay for supper. She scolded and told me that I ought never speak to an angel like that. “After all,” she said, when the wave of anger and alarm had passed, “they are only ministering servants like ourselves.”

Grandma and Grandpa are Pentecostal; or at least, I think they used to be when Alison was young, and maybe this is where she gets her superstitious side from. I know for sure that when Alison was first diagnosed, her mom and dad took her regularly to Pentecostal prayer meetings, healers and miracle workers and what not, praying that she’d have her eyesight restored. From all accounts they visited revival meetings from one end of the country to the other, hoping for a miracle that would make mom see.

For all I know, they actually found what they were looking for and never realized it, because, like I say, as long as I’ve known her, Alison has seen angels, and that’s something. Because it’s never spooky or creepy, when she welcomes one into our presence. Usually, in fact, I’m aware of a profound sense of calm and a deep assurance of goodness sinking into me, whenever she points one out.

This particular night, though, with that ominous calculus test looming over me, and the argument about the service dog still lingering at the back of my mind, I didn’t feel I had the patience for it. “Hmmm,” was all I said, still buried in the pages of my book. “Maybe I should slide over and make him some room on the couch?”

Alison sat perfectly motionless at the piano, though, and in the silence it really did feel like an illuminating presence had descended on us, or was revealing itself to us. At the very least, my nerves about the coming test were suddenly soothed, and even the tension between us over the dog seemed to have evaporated.

“Mom,” I said after a long moment of pretending I was still studying. “It’s just: I’m scared. I’m almost done with high school, and who knows what’s coming next, and it’s hard enough for any kid my age to figure all that out, without—” I trailed off.

“Without having to worry about whose gonna take care of their blind old mom?”

The calculus book in my lap had become blurry to me. There were some times when I was quite grateful that she couldn’t see. I wiped my eyes and hoped the tears wouldn’t sound in my voice. “Well,” I said. “I just want us to be prepared for the future.”

She sighed deeply. It wasn’t a sigh of resignation or of condemnation. If anything there was a note of contentment in it, though it was mingled with great sadness, like the color of autumn leaves. “I know sweetheart,” she said. And then after a moment: “Well, he’s gone now. They never stay long.”

The next day on my way to school, Alex sat down next to me on the city bus. He didn’t always take the bus, but he didn’t have gas money enough to drive his car to school every day, so every fourth or fifth day he took public transit with the rest of us mortals.

Alex is a year older than me, though he’s doing what used to be called Grade 13 and now, I think, they call it a “victory lap.” He’s the kind of guy that seems to own whatever the room he walks into, and though there’s some rumor about the real reason he’s back at J. Milton Collegiate for another year, still the honest truth is that I’m always wondering, when I get on the bus, if he’ll be riding it today. And I’m always a little disappointed when he’s not, even though he hardly ever says anything to me.

Today was the exception. “Hey Iris,” he said, getting up from his seat and moving over to mine while we were lurching away from the bus stop. “I was wondering if you’re coming to Heather’s tomorrow night?”

Heather’s in Grade 12, like me. When we were younger we were actually really close friends, though as we grew up, I was so busy helping Alison live independently from her parents, that I didn’t have much time for her, and we’ve drifted apart. I had heard from friends of friends that her parents were away or something, and she was throwing a party, though she hadn’t invited me.

“Nah, I don’t think so.”

“Don’t think so?”

“I’m not really interested in all those typical teenager clichés, you know?” I wanted to sound cynical, but the truth is, Friday night was when Alison and I always did our grocery shopping for the coming week, because she worked all weekend, and there was no way I could leave her to do that by herself. “House wrecking parties when the parents are gone? What is this, a bad episode of Riverdale or something?”

“Maybe so. If it is, you’d make a pretty good Veronica.”

I rolled my eyes. I was trying to look utterly disgusted at this transparent—and honestly pretty pathetic—stab at flirting, but the truth is, I was hoping the look I gave him would hide the deep down sadness that was welling up in me.

“And you’d make a great Reggie Mantle. Isn’t he the jerky one?”

He laughed effortlessly. “Okay, okay,” he said. “I get it. You’re not a fan. Fine. It’s just—” and a very subtle change slipped into his tone as he said this part—“It’s just, I see you, you know? missing out on life and whatever? And I don’t want you to look back with regrets. I mean: you only get to go through your high school years once.”

“Unless you come back for a thirteenth year,” I said allusively, looking straight ahead and fighting back the faintest of smiles, dancing at the corner of my mouth.

There was a grey-haired lady with one of those old-fashioned scarves—I think they call them babushkas—on her head, sitting on the seat across from me. I hadn’t noticed her before, but she must have been there the whole while, because the bus hadn’t stopped since I got on. When our eyes met she grinned at me, her wrinkled face folding up around her eyes, until the many sharp creases looked like beams of light shining out from a dazzling sun. I grinned back.

“Shots fired!” Alex was saying next to me, with another one of his effortless laughs. “Well: suit yourself, but I’m not gonna give up on you.”

That night over dinner Alison noticed another angel. This time it was standing in the doorway of the kitchen. “He’s got his hands raised in prayer,” she said. “And there are tears in his eyes.”

I took her word for it. True: I did feel the peace sweep over me that so often accompanied my mom’s angelic visitations, but there was so much on my mind in that moment that I didn’t know what to say; and anyways, I was getting to that age where I really didn’t know what to make of it all anymore. I wasn’t about to mock, but I wasn’t sure I believed her, either, like I had when I was nine.

“Alison,” I started tentatively. “Do you think we could do our grocery trip Saturday when you get home from work? Or maybe I could go on my own Sunday afternoon?”

For all her being blind, Alison was uncannily perceptive. “You want to go out Friday?”

“Well, there’s this thing happening with some of my friends, and I thought—” I trailed off. There were so many thoughts I was thinking, that I couldn’t decide which to say first.

“You thought you’d like a night of freedom for a change?” It wasn’t said passive aggressively, I don’t think, and honestly, it was the truth, but I was still young enough that I jumped on the opportunity to be offended.

“How could you say that Alison?” I said, letting my fork clatter on my plate and pushing back from the table. “What do you mean freedom? I’m not your slave. And you’re no prison! I just want to go out with some friends on a Friday night, like any normal kid my age. Why do you have to make this into a thing?”

I wondered if the angel had taken a step into the room, or if he had buried his hands in his face, because Alison had turned her attention in the direction of the kitchen door and held it there.

“I don’t have to make this into a thing,” she said steadily. “I’m working late Saturday, so that won’t do. Sunday might, but we’re out of just about everything, so it might be hard to wait till then.”

“Fine,” I said with an exasperated exhale. “It’s fine. I’ll be home Friday night like a good girl and we can go and get your groceries.”

She was still looking with that piercing, blank gaze in the direction of the angel in the doorway, but with a very soft voice she said. “Just so you know, I made a call to the Guide Dog Association today. I’ve an appointment with them next month to see about finding a dog that’s a good match.”

She said this so softly, for all it being such a significant revelation, and my mind was swirling with so many other thoughts, that even though I nodded slightly the comment barely registered.

Alex was on the bus the next morning, waiting for me. This was the first time I’d ever seen him take the bus two days in a row. He was sitting on the bench-seat that’s normally reserved for seniors and pregnant moms, though the bus was pretty empty and no one needed the seats. It surprised me though, because he was sitting next to the old lady in the kerchief, the one that I’d noticed yesterday. Right next to her, in fact, sitting in that indolent way guys sometimes have, taking up far more room than he needed to, as if he didn’t even notice she was there.

“Hey Veronica!” he said with a bit of a laugh. “You comin’ to Archie’s party tonight?”

“Gee Reggie,” I said, and I hoped my tone seemed dismissive, not as though I were playing along. “I don’t know.”

The old lady didn’t seem at all shy to listen in on our conversation, though really, she hardly could have helped it, Alex was sitting so close to her. In any case, she grinned at me gently when I added. “Do you think Betty will be going too?”

Alex got up, steadying himself against the lurching of the bus, and made his way over to me. He didn’t sit down, but held on to one of the overhead handrails, standing right in front of me and swaying slightly as the bus rounded a corner.

“Seriously, Iris? Have you had second thoughts yet?”

I kept my gaze lowered, but a burning memory of the angel my mother had seen at the dinner table the night before—those crazy, infuriating, embarrassing angels—flared up in my mind. I squeezed my eyes shut against it.

“Sure,” I said. It was like I was listening to someone else speaking, through me. “Only, the busses don’t run after midnight. So how would I get home?”

“Hey, if that’s your worry, no problem. I can take you. You want? I could pick you up at nine.”

I inhaled deeply. “Could you make it six? My mom gets home at six thirty and I’d kinda wanna be gone before she gets home.”

“Your mom gets home? Isn’t she—”

“Yeah, she is. I usually meet her at the bus stop to walk her home. But, you know, she can manage with her cane, I’m sure.” I looked at his face for the first time. “At least, she has before. She won’t miss me.”

He didn’t seem to feel the gravity of what I was saying. “Yeah,” he said with a flippant laugh. “Yeah, sure. Six o’clock it is. I’m sure we can find something fun to do till the party starts.”

The rest of that day was a bit of a guilty blur for me. Whenever I let my mind wander I would see this image of Alison stepping off the bus and me not there; Allison standing on the curb and calling and me not there; Allison, when she finally accepted that I wasn’t coming, unfolding her cane and tapping her tentative way home down the street.

I did very poorly on the calculus exam that day.

That evening, however, I was dressed for the party and ready to go by five thirty. It was way too soon, I know, but I was full of nervous energy, terrified that Alison would come home early somehow and catch me. So I waited in the hall by the door, staring at the knob and breathing unevenly.

When the knock at the door finally came, I checked the clock and was surprised to see that it was only ten to six. Alex didn’t strike me at all as the kind of guy who arrived early. If anything I was worried he would arrive too late to sneak away.

I was even more surprised when I opened the door and instead of Alex standing there, it was the old lady from the bus, still wearing her babushka. The light in the hall was dim but I recognized her the instant that gentle smile dawned across her face.

“I’m sorry to bother you, dear,” she said. “But are you Iris Sullivan?”

“Yes? But … how did you—?” Although I had every reason to be unsettled, it occurred to me that my breathing had quieted down for the first time that whole anxious evening.

“It’s just, you dropped this on the bus this afternoon, and I found it.” She was holding out something in her hand that I didn’t recognize right away. “It had your address on it.”

It was my driver’s license. I'd gotten it last summer, when I turned sixteen. Alison didn’t have a car, of course, but in one of the only real bonding moments I’d ever had with my Grandpa, he’d let me learn on his car. He even drove me to the driver’s test. I haven’t driven anything anywhere since getting that license, but for some reason, at the time, it had seemed like the most triumphant achievement of my life.

I didn’t take the license from her right away, though. I just stood there, staring at it.

“Thanks,” I said at last. “I hope you didn’t go out of your way though. I don’t suppose I’d ever even have missed that thing. I don’t need it; at least: I never use it.”

“Oh,” she said quietly. “Maybe not. But you will. You will.” There was a strange note in her voice, unsettling, but only because it was so reassuring. Somehow, as she spoke, I had no doubt that what she said was true.

I took the card from her hand and looked at it hard, as though I were seeing it for the first time. The photo on it was hideous, even for a driver’s license. I’d hated it the moment I’d seen it, and I hated it all the more as I looked at it now. The look on my face in the picture was just so stunned, like a deer in the headlights. The flash on the camera must have caught me off guard, too, because the eyes were dark and wide and blank.

“Thank you,” I said, but the old lady had already turned and was moving down the hall. At the sound of my voice she stopped and turned back.

“It may not be my place to say,” she began. “But about that boy on the bus…”

“Alex?”

“Yes. Alex. I just want to say that I think you can do much better, dear.” And again the quiet assurance that what she said was true broke over me, and into me, driving away all doubt the way light drives away a shadow.

She turned again, but I didn’t see her go. I was staring with unseeing eyes once more at the driver’s license in my hand, knowing for certain that one day I would use it.

When Alex arrived some twenty minutes later, he found me sitting in the threshold of the open door of our apartment, crying bitterly.

“Hey Veronica,” he said, not noticing my tears. “You ready to party?”

He only paused when I lifted my streaked face and shook my head at him heavily.

“No.”

“No?”

“I can’t.” I said, trying to blink my eyes clear and grasping for resolve.

“Can’t? Why not?”

“It’s just—oh, you wouldn’t understand—it’s just like they’ve always said. I have my mother’s eyes.”

Lightning in a Jar, a song

This is a song I wrote about my wonderful middle child, Laine. I started writing it on the drive home after dropping them off for the start of their first year at university. It's about growing up with your kids, and holding them up to God with an open hand, trusting that He will realize his good plan in their lives. Hard to do, sometimes, as a parent, but a time comes when we have no choice.  It's also about, incidentally, Laine's amazing smile, which seems to light up the whole world each and every time it steals over their face. I hope you enjoy!



Like the leaves in early September
Still green but touched with a promise of gold
Or the red of a glowing ember
Just waiting for the breath of a flame to take hold
I can see her standing in the doorway
Between the days behind her and the days yet to come
Like the end of the prologue to the story
Or the start of a brand new one

But she … Oh then she stops and turns
She’s a cloud in its journey cross the sun
Cause I see my little girl in the shadow of
The woman she’s become

And then she smiles and just for an instant
All of the world is brimming with light
I see her shining there in the brilliance
Piercing the sky like a flash in the night
The past rushes by like the wind in her hair
Chasing the future with a song and a prayer
Spirit on fire and her heart like a lodestar
Waiting to break through the dark like lightning in a jar

How the leaves of late November
Rattle round on the street with the coming of the cold
When the summer is hard to remember
Like an epic story that’s waiting to be told
Oh I saw her standing in the distance
Like the dawn of a spring that’s ready to begin
And she rises with grace and persistence
To welcome it in!

But she … Oh then she stops and turns
She’s a cloud in its journey cross the sun
Cause I see my little girl in the shadow of
The woman she’s become

And then she smiles and just for an instant
All of the world is brimming with light
I see her shining there in the brilliance
Piercing the sky like a flash in the night
The past rushes by like the wind in her hair
Chasing the future with a song and a prayer
Spirit on fire and her heart like a lodestar
Waiting to break through the dark like lightning in a jar

We made it through the storm, rolling with the thunder
Dancing in the summer rain
Till the clouds broke with rays of wonder

The past rushes by like the wind in her hair
Chasing the future with a song and a prayer
Spirit on fire and her heart like a lodestar
Waiting to break through the dark like lightning in a jar
And then she smiles and just for an instant
All of the world is brimming with light
I see her shining there in the brilliance
Piercing the sky like a flash in the night
The past rushes by like the wind in her hair
Chasing the future with a song and a prayer
Spirit on fire and her heart like a lodestar
Waiting to break through the dark like lightning in a jar

Eating, Praying, Loving (Part VI): On Being What You Eat

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I don’t really think about myself as a “fad dieter.” Certainly when I was young, at that stage of life where many of our eating habits get ingrained in us, I ate pretty much what I wanted, when I wanted; and, having inherited my dad’s metabolism, I’ve never really had to worry much about the outcome. That said, as I was planning out this series on the biblical spirituality of food, it occurred to me that I have actually experimented with a wide range of unusual diets over the years. It surprised me, somewhat, to realize this.

When I was a poor University student I discovered 101 ways to prepare Ichiban noodles, and there’s a period in the middle of my second year where all I had in the cupboard was 2 weeks worth of this miracle food. But that of course, was by necessity, not by choice.

The first real “diet” I went on was in my mid-twenties, when my wife and I ate strictly vegan for approximately 2 years. Later this shifted to a vegetarian diet (so I could have cheese and milk). Some time later still, I read Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food and tried the Michael Pollan Diet for a while, which to this day I still think of as one of the healthiest diets going: eat food, not to much, mostly plants (especially greens). It’s simple and catchy, though it didn’t last. I went back to eating vegetarian for a while (it’s actually my preferred way of eating, though it’s hard to maintain), and then described myself as a ”flexitarian” and ate some meat on a periodic basis. I’ve told the story of how a visit to the naturopath last year had me eating a variation of the keto diet (high protein, low carbs) for about 6 months, and though I felt amazing on this diet, I found it really hard to do consistently.

So from vegan to vegetarian to keto to Ichiban, I’ve been all over the map when it comes to diets.

I should state it clearly, though, that these diets were never really fads for me, and certainly never to lose weight or salve a poor body image. Truth be told, every time I’ve ever experimented with a specialized diet I was motivated almost entirely by a concern for my physical health. I'd heard that veganism would improve energy levels and maintain good health; I was told that a little animal protein in the diet was good for you; my naturopath told me that carbing up in the morning was causing me to crash in the afternoon, and so on. Each of these diets have had a positive impact, I think, on my overall sense of well-being, though whether that’s because of their real nutritional value or mere placebo effect, I can’t say.

What I can say is that I've learned from experience that our health really is connected intricately to our diets, and a change in the one really can effect a change in the other. This point may seem so obvious that it goes without saying; hasn’t your mother been telling you all your life to eat your vegetables cause you are what you eat?

But from a biblical perspective, I think it needs saying, however obvious it may sound. One of the reasons to pay attention to our food, besides all the reasons I’ve offered already, is that simply put: eating well makes us emotionally and physically healthy; and the healthier we are the more good for the Kingdom of God we will be. This is why, I think, that in the midst of all kinds of lofty theological claims about the trustworthiness of the Gospel, and all kinds of detailed instructions on how to order the worship life of the community, Paul gives his young protégé Timothy this all-too practical advice in 1 Timothy 5:23. “Oh yeah,” he says: “Stop drinking only water and use a little wine because of your stomach and frequent illnesses.” There’s probably some back story behind this dietary directive that we’re missing, but whatever else it means, it suggests that a good servant of the Lord will take care to take care of himself, when it comes to his food choices.

In theological terms, the concept we are touching on here is called “stewardship.” “Stewardship” refers to the truth that everything that is—the whole of creation in fact—belongs solely and exclusively to God. Our time, our treasure, our talent, our possessions, our property, it’s all really his, and if we can lay any claim to it at all, it’s only as a steward, holding it in trust for the real owner, to whom we will give our account in the end. The theological basis for a Christian view of stewardship comes primarily from the creation account of Genesis 1, where God makes the world and then entrusts it into our care, though it is a concept often present in the teaching of Jesus and the church’s understanding of the Second Coming.

We don’t usually think about our physical bodies as belonging to the Lord, one more thing he has entrusted to us to steward well, but biblically it is very clear that the New Testament writers saw it this way. “You are not your own,” Paul said, “therefore honor God with your body.” If this idea is taken to its logical end, we would have to conclude that even our physical health is a gift from God and we are stewards of it, just as much as we are stewards of God’s money, God’s resources, and God’s property.

From a biblical perspective, then, we could say that healthy eating is simply a matter of good stewardship. We eat properly to steward our health so that we are better able to serve the Lord well throughout our lives.

In saying this, I want to offer a disclaimer or two, though. I’m not saying here that you have to be healthy in order to serve God well. I have seen some amazing prayer warriors and faithful servants of the Lord serve him devoutly while going through very serious and very real health crises—but even there, I would suggest, that one of the ways they have done so is by stewarding their health as well as they could as they went through it.

The other disclaimer is just to acknowledge that it is possible to become so focused on the food we eat that we cease to be servants of God at all, because we’re giving our diets all the attention that should go to him. For this concern, see my previous post on the dangers of making a god out of our stomach.

But even given those two disclaimers, I think the point still stands, and probably deserves more consideration in the North American Christian Church than it gets.  I don't know if healthy eating needs to rate up there with reading your Bible, praying everyday, but certainly if we want to "grow, grow, grow" for the Kingdom's sake and for God's glory, we would do well to give some thought to how we're feeding the body, while the soul is busy doing all that growing.

Of Games and God (Part VI): Gaming in the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts

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There’s a poignant teaching from the Buddhist tradition about something called “The Hungry Ghost.” It’s a way of talking about a certain spiritual condition that people can sometimes find themselves in. A hungry ghost is a spirit with a very narrow throat and a huge distended belly, so that it’s always trying to stuff itself full, but can never get enough in. It’s an image of human emptiness and spiritual despair at it’s worst.

I’m a Christian pastor, of course, not a Buddhist monk, but still I’ve thought about the image of the hungry ghost a lot over the years, ever since I heard about it from a doctor named Gabor Maté. He worked for years among the heroin addicts and homeless people of Vancouver’s downtown east side, serving one of the most severely addicted populations in the country, and he uses the image of the "hungry ghost" to describe what it is like to be an addict—always eating, never full.

Maté’s book about his experiences working with drug addicts is called In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts, and it’s the kind of read that will linger with you for years after you close the final page. Because Gabor describes in pretty stark terms what it is like to live among the “hungry ghosts” of Vancouver’s downtown east side; but then he goes on to argue that in a sense, we are all of us hungry ghosts, in one way or another. Addiction, he argues, is a way of trying to compensate for the lack of love, belonging, and nurture that we did not receive in the most formative years of our lives, which our parents, or our peer group, or our communities were unable to give (because who, really, has been loved the way they most needed to be?).

In Maté’s view, an addiction is simply a strategy that the brain has latched on to, to salve the psychological pain of the deepest wounds it has experienced. The problem with heroin, as a strategy for self-medication, is that its physiological effect is so powerful, flooding the system with opioids, short-circuiting the brain’s natural ability to produce endorphins, and making the user physically dependent on the chemical just to feel normal, let alone “good.” Some addictions are more destructive than others, in other words; but Maté argues that everyone, really, has some “ghostly hunger” or other in their lives—obsessive work habits, compulsive viewing of pornography, impulsive spending, over-indulgent eating—that we use to avoid or cope with inner pain. He talks sincerely about his own addiction to classical music—which might crack a smile or two—until he explains how his compulsive buying and listening to classical music did for him on a psychological level, the very same thing heroin did for his patients. (Here's a Ted Talk he gave a while ago on this subject; very much worth a listen.)



Turns out we are all hungry ghosts.

I’m thinking about Gabor Maté and the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts this morning because for the last few months we’ve been exploring video games from a theological perspective, trying to develop a “theology of video games,” as I’ve been calling it. And we’ve looked at time and worship, freedom and providence, original sin and problem solving, each in turn. I stand by my work, of course, and do indeed think that each of these themes are ways to think theologically about what’s going on whenever we sit down to game.

There is, however, a shadow side to gaming, one that is quite serious, I think, and one that any serious theology of gaming would be remiss if it didn’t address at some point: simply that gaming can be, and certainly for many people it is, a “ghostly hunger,” something that does for the gamer on a psychological level what heroin does for the drug addict.

To be clear, I am not trying to say anything beyond my particular expertise, about the existence “video game addiction” as a genuine and diagnosable mental disorder, on par with alcoholism, say, or other kinds of substance abuse. There is some controversy around the idea that “video game addiction” should be recognized in this way. The World Health Organization did include “gaming disorder” in the 11th revision of the International Statistical Classification of Diseases, but the American Psychiatric Association did not include it in the 2013 edition of the DSM-5. The APA held that there was insufficient evidence for its inclusion, though they considered it “worthy of further study.” From a strictly clinical perspective, then, there are none of the standardized definitions or diagnostics that we would need if we were to talk about compulsive gaming as a mental disorder.

That said, it should also be noted that “problematic gaming” is on the rise in our society. A 2016 study of Ontario teens, conducted by Dr. Robert Mann found that 13 percent of participating teens “reported symptoms of a video gaming problem.” This was up by 9 percent from 2007, and included such problematic symptoms as preoccupation with gaming, loss of control, withdrawal, and disregard for consequences. On an anecdotal level this rings true as I consider my last eleven years as a pastor, and I think about the number of times I’ve seen compulsive gaming steal the happiness from young married couples, or spoken to parents who had concerns about their teenager’s obsession with video games.

So: whether or not video game addiction qualifies technically as a clinical condition—and I’m speaking as a gamer myself when I say this—it certainly qualifies as an addiction in the spiritual sense, as an activity people use to avoid, self-medicate, or numb the spiritual fears and pains all of us carry in the deepest part of our selves. Certainly when I am most honest about my own experience of gaming, I would have to say this is true, that often I turn to gaming as a superficial way to salve my emotional distress or soothe my emotional turmoil. An hour or five roaming the mythic land of Skyrim, for instance, where all my problems have straight-forward solutions and every success is rewarded, as I move forward in a compelling story where I am always the hero, can help me to forget, by transcending it, whatever emotional unrest I may have brought with me when I first sat down to play.

This does not mean that gaming is intrinsically bad—anymore than classical music is, even though Gabor Maté used it to feed his ghostly hunger. It simply means that we must handle video games with real care and self-awareness, recognizing that we are all of us hungrier ghosts than we think, and unless we’ve found a real way to fill our spiritual emptiness, we’re just as likely to try feeding it with video games, as we are with booze or drugs or classical music.

For the Christian especially, this understanding of gaming as "ghostly hunger" is especially helpful, I think, because a Christian would say that in Christ we have found the one thing that can truly feed the ghost within. Didn’t the Lord himself say it, that anyone who was thirsty could come to him and he would feed them with the only wine that really satisfies (Isaiah 55:1-3)? And didn’t Jesus say that he himself was the bread of life that would fill our spiritual hunger so full we would never be hungry again (John 6:35)?

The answer to these questions, of course, is yes. And if we have truly satisfied our spiritual hunger in him, Christ then sets us free to approach gaming from any of the theological perspectives we’ve explored so far, appreciating it for what it can do, without depending on it to do that one thing that only He can do: to feed the hungry ghost.