There's a Trick of the Light I'm Learning to Do

This is a collection of songs I wrote and recorded in January - March, 2020 while on sabbatical from ministry. They each deal with a different aspect or expression of the Gospel. Click on the image above to listen.

Three Hands Clapping

This is my latest recording project (released May 27, 2019). It is a double album of 22 songs, which very roughly track the story of my life... a sort of musical autobiography, so to speak. Click the album image to listen.

Ghost Notes

Ghost Notes
A collections of original songs I wrote in 2015, and recorded with the FreeWay Musical Collective. Click the album image to listen.


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


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


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


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


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

blogs I follow

Readings, 2020

Readings, 2020
Paradise Lost, John Milton

Adorning the Dark, Andrew Peterson

The Soul of Shame, Curt Thompson

Cure for the Common Life, Max Lucado

Halos and Avatars, Craig Detweiller, ed.

Fool's Talk, Os Guinness

Brendan, Frederick Buechner

The Screwtape Letters

Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis

The Pilgrim's Regress, C. S. Lewis

Becoming Whole, Brian Finkert and Kelly Kapic

Real Sex, Lauren Winner

Out of the Silent Planet, C. S. Lewis

Voyage to Venus, C. S. Lewis

That Hideous Strength, C. S. Lewis

Till We Have Faces, C. S. Lewis

random reads

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

<<< previous post

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.

The Last Dance of the Night, a short story

No one could have predicted, the year of Bethel Academy’s first and only high school dance, that it would have ended so spectacularly as it did; but then again, given the number of people so set against it, few could have predicted that it would have happened at all. The administration only entertained the notion of a school dance because that year the president of the PTA, the one who had actually proposed the idea, was the wife of a member of town council. Even that would not have been enough, in any ordinary year, to sway the decision, but the school had petitioned the city to install a traffic light on its intersection, to keep the kiss-and-ride for the elementary grades moving more smoothly, and they needed all the help they could get. So they had agreed to let the PTA add the item to the agenda of their next meeting, trusting holier heads to prevail.

The PTA was split, however, into number of distinct camps. There was the old guard, of course, who wouldn’t dream of sullying Bethel Academy’s long legacy of providing quality Christian education in a pure Christian environment, with something so unseemly as a school dance. And even within that camp the tents were not all pointing in the same direction. Some simply dismissed dancing as a frivolous distraction from more godly pursuits; others wondered what Seductions of Jezebel the school would be proposing next. Would we be opening a tattoo parlor? Teaching classes in yoga? Mrs. White, who kept the meeting’s minutes, was in fact the leader of this camp, so there’s no guarantee that anyone in the meeting actually said the words “abomination that causes desolation,” but certainly the term is recorded, to this day, in her account of the heated debate that was held that night.

There were other camps, however. The most vocal of these was a group of parents who were mostly new to the Bethel Academy PTA, and tended to be relatively young. The PTA President, Mrs. Heather Smythe, had been wanting to see Bethel Academy move in a more “progressive”—this was her word, though again, the official minutes of the meeting read “worldly”—direction for many years. It would make the school more attractive to prospective students, she argued; it would build community and camaraderie among the student body; it would be plain-old fun. No one questioned her sincerity, though one or two of the moms did mention it between themselves, after the meeting, that recently the pastor at Heather’s church had censured her for enrolling her daughter in dance class—and jazz dance, of all things—and they wondered—just wondered, is all—if she wasn’t pushing this crazy dance idea to prove a point.

Whatever merit there may have been to this speculation, this year Mrs. Smythe had enough support to win the day. One mom who had enrolled her daughter Emily in Bethel after Emily had been expelled from public school stood and asked if someone could please explain to her where was the harm in boys and girls of a certain age dancing together? A few knowing glances flitted about the room when she added, innocently enough, that she had actually fallen in love with her first husband at a high school dance, though she laughed and added that she had met her second while chaperoning a dance when Emily’s older sister was in high school. These unfortunate admissions notwithstanding, Mrs Smythe felt that her point was well taken.

John Windsor was the only teacher on the PTA who actually supported the idea, but the support he offered was warm to the point of being effusive, and carried much weight with those who had not yet made up their minds. It was about time, he declaimed, that Bethel stepped into the new millennium; and the kids these days, he explained, can do worse in a half-hour alone in their rooms with their cell-phones than they could ever do at a high school dance; and anyways can anyone show him, he exclaimed, where it says in the Bible thou shalt not dance? Mrs. White did note down that Mr. Windsor taught English Literature (one of the more liberal disciplines) but still she recorded his comments in the minutes as faithfully as she could.

In the end the dance was approved, by a vote of seven to six.

For our part, the student body of Bethel Academy was not quite so factious as our parents, but there were still very definite, and, indeed, polarizing opinions about the coming event. Adam Clarke, the president of the Student Council, also happened to be the son of Heather Smythe’s pastor, so publicly he toed his father’s line, that dance was simply a gateway sin into much more sensual debaucheries. Emily, whose mom met her father at her older sister’s prom, kept dropping suggestive inuendoes about the kind of things that might happen behind the bleachers or in the far corner gym’s mezzanine once the lights went down.

These only represented the far ends of the spectrum, however, and most of us landed somewhere in between these two extremes. Alison Smythe was also on the Student Council, and because it was her mother who had hatched this plan, she was a natural pick to serve on the planning committee. As such, she scowled whenever Emily regaled us with stories about finding herself alone with some boy or other, at the last dance she went to at her last school.

Alison insisted that this was not going to be like that, that it would be a classy affair, and whatever else, wholesome. She festooned the hallways of Bethel Academy with all kinds of hand-made posters promoting the dance. The planning committee had chosen the theme “Bethel Beach Ball.” They went with this primarily because Mr Windsor was on the committee, and he couldn’t resist the alliterative pun, but also because the beach theme generated no end of ideas for décor. Alison was totally chagrined when, a few days later, someone had surreptitiously modified all her posters so that they read “Bethel Beach Bikini Ball!” Her chagrin grew to horror when, later that day, the principal issued a stern announcement over the intercom reminding everyone of Bethel’s long-standing dress code, and warning them that absolutely no swimwear would be permitted at the upcoming Bethel dance. The planning committee worked late into the afternoon to replace the vandalized signs.

The next morning the signs had been modified again, however. This time they read “Bethel Babylon Beach Ball?”

Around this time someone started up an Instagram group chat, where the student body discussed the coming dance in far less reserved terms, and, shall we say, less filtered, than they ever did with their parents and teachers. Here Emily was much more graphic in describing the things that she was looking forward to at the dance. In general, the students took far more interest in discussing this than they did when she brought it up in public. One or two of the boys, in fact, messaged her to find out more. Here, too, the student body discovered Adam’s real feelings about dancing. He was only saying all that stuff about a gateway sin, he explained, because he had to. If his dad found out otherwise there would be hell to pay, though he’d be damned if he was gonna miss out on the first high school dance ever to happen at Bethel. He even used the words hell and damn, though outside of Instagram he only ever spoke like that when he was discussing doctrine. Other students weighed in: some were nervously looking forward to it, others were going to boycott, others still were wondering what all the fuss was about.

The only two students who said nothing—and since it was a private school, the student body was small enough that their silence on the matter might have been noticed, although it was not—were Star and Autumn Cardinal. They were just starting their first year at Bethel, the Cardinal family having moved to the city that summer, from a place up north in the country. Mr. and Mrs. Cardinal had been prominent members of their church community back home, and just wanted their girls to get a good Christian education, so they enrolled them in Bethel, the only faith-based school in the neighbourhood.

Looking back, no one thinks that they had been intentionally excluded from the Instagram group chat. It’s just that they seldom said much of anything, so it was easy to over-look them. They kept to themselves and tended only to speak when spoken too; and even then they spoke softly and in clipped syllables. No one meant to avoid them, either; at least if asked, no one would have said so. It’s just that no one wanted to make anyone uncomfortable asking awkward questions about the new kids and where they were from. As a result, whatever Autumn and Star thought about all the furor of high school politicking and adolescent theologizing that was raging around the school’s preparation for the Big Bethel Beach Ball, no one could say.

Not that anyone much cared, really; there was enough politicking and theologizing going on to keep us all busy for days. Rumors started on Instagram that Emily had already snuck a bottle from her step-dad’s liquor cabinet and was planning to bring it to the dance. Alison started a disastrously ill-advised poll about what kind of music ought to be played. It might have been better if she had done this in person, but as it was, her poll exploded into a veritable minefield of controversy. Some insisted that only contemporary Christian music should be played. Others still said that the last thing Contemporary Christian Music should be used for was a high school dance. Many requested the latest tunes by Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran. One or two parents somehow got a hold of the suggested playlist and threatened not to let their kids attend if “trash like that” was going to be played. Someone even sent Mrs. White a YouTube link to the video for Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings.” Adam Clarke took the blame for this, but he denied it on Instagram in the saltiest language he knew, as a pastor’s son. At any rate, Mrs. White wrote a stern letter, as secretary of the PTA, to the principal of Bethel, and the outcome was that she was given executive veto power over the music selection.

The Instagram group chat was lit up for days over this development, and everyone wondered what kind of Gospel Jamboree their first dance was going to devolve into, now that Mrs. White was the head DJ.

There comes a moment in the unfolding of any epoch marking-moment, however, when the best-laid plans of everyone involved cease to matter much, because some inexorable force, greater than the sum of all these individual parts, seems to have come into being, driving events forward to an outcome no one individually would have chosen. Looking back, that’s what seemed to happen the night of the first ever Bethel Academy’s Big Beach Ball.

Despite the constant threats to boycott the party, the entire student body did attend in the end, and for the most part, all were dressed appropriately. The closest anyone came to wearing a bikini was Alison Smythe, who wore a strapless summer dress. It is true that Adam Clarke wore shorts, but he also wore a shirt and a tie. When the final playlist had been thoroughly vetted by Mrs. White, there was far more Gaither music in the rotation than anyone—even the chaperones—could bear, but as a concession she had permitted a handful of ABBA songs, though Dancing Queen was not among them.

The rumors about Emily turned out to be mostly true. She had snuck a bottle in with her, though when she revealed it to a group of us, up on the mezzanine of the gym and beyond where the chaperones could see us, it turned out only to be a bottle of her step-dad’s homemade wine. Despite our disappointment, though, still one or two did stay up on the mezzanine to drink it, and someone even produced from somewhere a contraband package of cigarettes, though no one had ever smoked before.

This was not the biggest surprise of the night, however.

To this day, everyone agrees that this honor goes to the moment when Autumn and Star arrived at the Bethel Beach Ball. No one knew for sure if they were even coming, though we’d all made our assumptions. What none of us expected was that when they did arrive they would come dressed so stunningly in the traditional dance regalia of their Cree heritage.

Few even knew that Star and Autumn were, in fact, Cree. No one had bothered to ask.

There was no need to ask, though, when they walked through the doors of the Bethel Academy Big Beach Ball, dressed in two shimmering jingle dresses, brilliantly colored and beautifully crafted, tasseled and beaded and plumed. The music of “Because He Lives” that just happened to be playing over the PA system when they arrived kept playing, of course, but other than that a kind of hush fell momentarily over us all. They stood there, these two unassuming girls whom we had been passing in the halls unnoticed for months now, but here looking so striking and noble and strong; it’s not that we didn’t want to welcome them. It’s just: no one knew what to say.

It was Mr. Windsor who finally broke the tension of that moment, though for all his being an English teacher he was unusually clumsy with his words. “Autumn! Star!” he said. “You two look—well—it’s fantastic—I’m so glad you—those gowns—are they?—dresses—they’re fabulous!”

“It’s our dance regalia,” Autumn explained. “For when we go to Pow Wows back home. We’re not supposed to wear them out like this. Not to something like this. But dance—” She looked hesitantly at her sister, but something larger than any of us was at work in that moment, so she pushed past whatever had given her pause—“Dance is very big deal for us—and we thought—maybe—”

“We hoped it would be ok?” said Star.

“Of course! Of course it’s okay!” said Mr. Windsor. “You two look wonderful.” He made a wide sweep with his arm, as if to welcome them onto the dance floor.

There was no need for anyone to make space for them, though. There were very few students doing any actual dancing that night. This is might have been because so little of the music that had passed Mrs. White’s exacting scrutiny was even danceable, but more likely it was due to the fact that so few of us actually had any idea how to really dance. Even Alison Smythe, despite all the hubbub it had caused in her church when she started taking jazz dance, was all toes when it came to doing anything graceful out there on a bona fide high school dance floor.

One or two of us made a timid attempt at pairing off when a slow dance came along, but it was more than awkward, trying to sway together in time to “Something About that Name,” of all tunes. A couple of Taylor Swift songs did make the final cut (mostly because Mrs. White had been made to see the wisdom of “shaking off” the world’s “hate”), but even when these came up in the rotation, no one really knew how, in fact, to shake anything. Whatever the quality of the Christian education we’d received at Bethel Academy, it had not taught us much at all about what to do with our bodies. The eternal destiny of our disembodied souls—we all knew how to guarantee that—but to move at peace with the limbs and lungs the good Lord had given us—not even Mr. Windsor’s poetry class could give us that.

For all our clumsiness with each other, however, Autumn and Star seemed to have no doubt what was needed that night. Regardless the tune warbling from the PA speakers in any given moment—Abba, Gaithers, Jesus Culture or Hillsong United (though only a few of their songs passed the Mrs. White smell test)—the Cardinal sisters danced their hearts out, at the centre of the gym, stomping and leaping and soaring and spinning as though they’d done it all their lives (for, in fact, they had), and all the while jingling with the glorious noise of a hundred scintillating bells.

If most of us gave up dancing and stood simply to watch, it was really only in awe. Not even Adam Clarke, who was the preacher’s son and had inherited his father’s theological acumen, could find anything to say. It was like a world was suddenly opening up before us, one that we had no right to enter but were hospitably welcomed into, where the body and the spirit both are celebrated as gifts of the creator, and together they can become instruments of healed healing. No one knew—except perhaps Mr. Windsor, but only theoretically—and I myself have only learned it since, through many hard trials and false starts—that this truth had been there in our faith all along, that the body and the spirit both are indeed gifts of the creator (otherwise why would he have taken on flesh?) and only together can either be instruments of healing. But none of us could have said so that night, at seventeen. The best we could do was to stand there silently and watch the dance, deeply aware that we were standing on the threshold of a great grace, and as clumsy in our awe as we would have been, had we tried to join the dance.

The moment was not to last though. We probably should have known it. Such moments seldom do. Because towards the end of the night, as the last dance approached, Autumn and Star became suddenly aware that they were at the centre of the room and intently being watched. There was a moment of silence as the final song of the night was being cued, and the silence was in fact palpable, because no one was saying anything, and only watching.

Autumn was a bit short of breath, but Star found the words. “This dance,” she said, “is Healing Dance. We used to dance it at Pow Wow.”

It wasn’t clear at that moment if she had given some cue to the person at the sound system or if it was simply a coincidence, but whatever the case, suddenly the final song of the night started. And if Mrs. White had personally chosen the tune, it couldn’t have been better suited, because at that moment the Hallelujah Chorus of Handel’s Messiah blared out over the gymnasium. And the last dance began.

Autumn and Star started soaring once more, inaccessible to all of us and awe inspiring to most, and then the very next moment, completely forgotten by everyone.

Because right at the spot in the song where the choir was belting it out, how the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth, at that very moment two teens who had made themselves ill on Emily’s step-dad’s homemade wine slipped coming down the stairs of the mezzanine and got sick again trying to right themselves, sending up a squeal of disgust from those closest to the mess. At the same time, a garbage can up on the mezzanine that had been smouldering unnoticed for hours suddenly burst into flames--we found out later that Emily and her compatriots had stuffed their cigarettes into it in a panic when one of the chaperones happened by and almost caught them smoking—and the brilliant orange flame leaped up suddenly like the wings of a hundred burning seraphim.

That’s how it seemed in the ensuing chaos, at least, because the fire set off the alarm. It was an old-fashioned hammer and bell fire alarm and started blaring deafeningly over the gym. No one thinks the DJ at the PA system intentionally turned up the music to be heard over all that blare. More likely he was at the controls when the alarm sounded, and as he leaped into action he probably just bumped the volume slider up as loud as it would go, accidentally. Regardless the reason, though, suddenly the sound of a thousand human voices declaring the truth that He Shall Reign Forever and Ever! shouted out thunderously over the alarm.

And at that very moment came the flood. Because the alarm activated the school’s archaic sprinkler system, which sprang to life, raining down a shower of water over the whole assembly. Now: the inquiry that the board of directors conducted in the follow up to the dance concluded that the administration had been negligently lax in keeping up with regular inspections of the fire-sprinkler-system, but for all of us there that night, this sort of went without saying. Because right at the crescendo of the song, as the music was swelling to that final glorious Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hall-e-lu-jah!, and the whole student body was scurrying about in glee and terror and utter pandemonium, suddenly, six or seven of the sprinkler heads burst off their fittings, beneath the pressure of the water, and the shower became downpour.

In a matter of seconds the gym floor was pooling everywhere with water, and every student in the place was looking for all the world as though they ought to have worn swimwear to the dance, they were so sopping wet and bedraggled. Except for, miraculously—and I was there, so I can confirm this was the case, though the commotion that night, in that moment, was so great that no one can be quite sure of anything, but regardless, to my dying day I will swear this was true—there was a spot in the center of the gym, where the sprinklers inexplicably had not started up; and even when the other sprinkler heads had burst, this one spot in the centre of the gym stayed mysteriously, miraculously dry,

And there, in that spot, in the centre of the room, perfectly dry and oblivious, it seemed, to the chaos around them, Autumn and Star Cardinal finished their healing dance, entirely removed from this world of rain and fire and thunder and flood—or perhaps more a part of it than anyone there could ever know.

A Theological Conversation about Steven Universe (Part II): All the Fuss about Fusion

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One of the most intense debates I ever had my kids when I first started watching Steven Universe with them, was whether or not fusion was a metaphor for sexual intercourse.

I suppose a statement like that needs some careful unpacking, so let me open the suitcase. As I mentioned in my last post in this series, Steven Universe is a cartoon that aired from 2013 – 2019 on the Cartoon Network, and one of my kids’ favorite shows. It follows the adventures of a half-gem/half-human teenager named Steven Universe, as he defends planet Earth from invasion by the Gems of Homeworld. The Gems are an alien species of sentient gemstones, hellbent on colonizing the galaxy. These aliens themselves have no human form, but are able to project physical, anthropomorphic bodies from their gems (their gemstones then become “fixtures” on their projected bodies, allowing the gem itself to move about with the body it is projecting). Steven is aided in his mission by a band of rebel Crystal Gems, who themselves have revolted against the Gems of Homeworld to become the self-appointed guardians of planet Earth.

So far this simply seems like the stuff of a good, old-fashioned Sci-Fi adventure. Original, to be sure, but nothing especially controversial.

Enter the concept of fusion.

Because at some point in Season 1 of Steven Universe, the show revealed that most gems have the ability to “fuse” with another gem, so as to create a more powerful new gem, one that is a combination of the character, qualities, and powers of them both. In order to initiate fusion, two consenting gems (that is to say, the “physical forms” of two consenting gems), engage in an elaborate and, truth be told, somewhat sensuous dance, at the end of which their two bodies come together and merge, forming a new body in a blinding flash of light.

The first time I saw a scene in Steven Universe depicting the fusion of two gems, it seemed so obviously a cipher for intercourse that I almost blushed. I was, admittedly, watching it with my two middle-school-aged daughters at the time, and, well, I’ll let you be the judge:

I have not delved very far into the Steven Universe universe online, but my understanding is that there is a bit of disagreement in the fandom over whether or not fusion really is meant to be a metaphor for sex. Certainly my family had our own debate after the show. To be honest, my kids were somewhat chagrined and more than a little offended to hear my wife and I suggest that fusion could be anything other than the innocent merger of two superheroes’ super powers for the sake of creating an even greater super hero.

Here are the arguments they advanced against our reading that fusion was an intentional, if subtle metaphor for intercourse. A) The gems are asexual aliens. Yes, their physical forms are always female, but that’s part of the aesthetic; these bodies are merely projections of each gem’s gemstone, and the gems themselves are gender neutral. B) The gems are able to fuse with each other in all sorts of combinations (even three gems at a time), on and off pretty much at will. If fusion were really a metaphor for sex, the gems would be grossly promiscuous. C) Dad, this is a kids show!

Over the course of five seasons, however, the evidence seems to mount, that the show is using fusion as a narrative device for exploring and discussing sexual relationships. A) Steven fuses with his best friend Connie (creating a hybrid human named “Stevonnie”), proving that under certain conditions, humans are able to fuse, too. B) It’s revealed that Garnet, one of the main characters in the story, is really a fusion of two gems, Ruby and Sapphire, who fell in love with each other back on Homeworld and were sent into exile for engaging in fusion with gems of a different variety (normally, rubies can only fuse with other rubies, and so on). C) Later on in the series, Ruby and Sapphire get married, fusing into Garnet at the end of the ceremony. D) When Pearl is threatened by Greg (Steven’s human father), because Rose Quartz is falling in love with him, she fuses with Rose to form “Rainbow Quartz,” as a way of making him jealous. E) And then, of course, there’s the sensual nature of the fusion scenes themselves.

In the eyes of a heterosexual middle-aged male, it’s hard to see how fusion couldn’t be about sex, whatever else it is about.

But this brings me, at last, to the real point of this post. As I mentioned previously, one of the reasons I’m spending time exploring an obscure kid’s show like this—besides the fact that my own kids were such fans—is that I think it allows us to look at LGBTQ issues with a fresh set of eyes, from a perspective that is one step removed from the issues themselves, and so, hopefully, more objective.

When I look at fusion from this perspective, one of the things it helps me to understand—and this is so crucial for understanding same-sex relationships in the church—is that sex isn’t just about sex.

What I mean is that our sexuality is this integrated part of ourselves that touches on, and is touched by, all other aspects of our lives. Our emotional well-being, our financial stability, our status in community, our prospects for the future, our physical health, our spiritual maturation, and more, all impact, and are impacted by our sexuality. If I am married, for instance, I have more financial stability and career options than I do if I am not. If I have a consistent, faithful, sexual partner in my life, I am more likely to be physically and emotionally healthy. Shoot: even my life expectancy increases if I’m in a committed, monogamous sexual relationship. The benefits are more pronounced if I am married and part of a church, where I have all kinds of ministries devoted to me—from marriage enrichment seminars and well-run nurseries—and all kinds of preaching series tailored to me—from how to have a happy marriage to how to enjoy God’s plan for sex.

If fusion really is about sex, then the truth is that it’s not only, or even especially about sex; because sex itself is not only about sex. Sex is a thread woven into the big woolen sweater of human life, and you can’t start pulling on it without all the others bunching up and coming with.

To be clear, I’m not saying that sexual activity is itself necessary for a person to be healthy, happy, well-adjusted, and so on. Far from it (you can read my series on celibacy, if you want, to get a sense just how far I am from saying that). Chastity and celibacy, properly understood, can both be vibrant expressions of human sexuality, in their own right.

So I’m not saying “you have to have sex to be happy.”

What I am saying is that often discussions of LGBTQ issues in traditional Christian circles focus almost exclusively on the physical “sex acts” in question, as though a gay relationship is only about sex; only a means to a strictly sexual end. Statements like “It’s okay to be gay, just don’t act on it,” tend to communicate this. So do statements like “love the sinner hate the sin.”

To do better, we must recognize that people are integrated wholes, and as such our sexual experience is connected to all the other things that make us who we are. We can’t talk about the one without touching on the others, and if we want to talk about the one well, we will have to address the others also. To have the theological conversation about same-sex sexuality honestly, we will have to acknowledge first that same-sex relationships are about far more than just sex, just like gay people are far more than just a “sexual orientation.” More than merely acknowledge it, we will have to compassionately and humbly admit the ways in which our posture towards same-sex sexuality, whatever that posture may be, may be impacting, influencing, or causing harm to these other areas of the LGBTQ person’s life.

Strange as it may sound, as someone who has been working at a doctoral level on this stuff for more than five years, it was the concept of fusion, in the kid’s show Steven Universe, that made me wrestle with this fact most profoundly. Seeing Garnet and Amethyst fuse on Steven Universe actually helped me notice the prejudices, the presuppositions, and the assumptions that I had when it came to same-sex sexuality. In an ironic twist of logic, I looked at fusion, and because it was clearly about relationships, togetherness, mutual love, care, support, friendship, and even sensuality, it must therefore be about sex; and then I turned around and assumed that, if it’s about sex, than it can’t be about any of those other things. It’s only because it was a kid’s show that I realized how unfair I was being.

But thank God I came to see.

It may not be a kid’s show that does it for you, but what ever it is, I hope you, too, have opportunities to come to understand how much more same-sex relationships are about, than simply some particular sexual acts. And may you find the conversations you are having with the LGBTQ people in your life becoming deeper, richer, and more compassionate, as a consequence.

Eating, praying, Loving (Part V): The Sixth Deadly Sin

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When my daughters were children we enrolled them in an art course run by a retired art teacher in our community. He taught from his home, and it was a bit of a drive to get there, so usually I would take them both for the class and then wait in the make-shift waiting room he had set up in the rec room, adjacent to his studio, and read.

Well: sometimes I’d read. Other times I’d just sit and mindlessly watch the television set he had there. This was always on, and it was always tuned to the same channel: The Food Network.

Our family has never really had TV in the house, so I never knew till then, that there was such a thing as a television network devoted entirely, non-stop, 24/7, to food. It was always Diners, Drive-ins and Dives playing when I got there, and I’d get part way through Chopped before it was time to go. This was pretty much the only time I watched TV all week back in those days, so I got to say, far more Food Networking than reading got done while I was waiting for art class to end.

I’m thinking about The Food Network today, however, because we’ve been working our way through a “Biblical spirituality of food,” for the last month or so at terra incognita, and last week I posted some effusive thoughts about the pleasure of food, and what it tells us about God, the fact that he made the world so chock full of good things to eat. The shadow side of that coin, however, is that too much of a good thing—especially when it comes to food—can be sin. At least, the Christian Church has always thought so, and has traditionally listed the sin of gluttony, that is, an over-indulgence in food, as one of the seven deadlies. In the modern world, a world where you could, if you wanted to, spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week, watching television programs devoted (and I mean that in the theological sense) devoted exclusively to eating, the concept of gluttony seems somewhat antiquated. Even the term—gluttony—sounds quaint; the idea that giving full reign to one’s appetite might actually immoral sounds outright puritanical.

In fairness, though, I should make it clear that the Bible itself says very little about gluttony, per se. The closest Hebrew approximation we have for the English word gluttony is zâlal which has the sense of  eating that is “wasteful” and “rowdy.” The word shows up especially in the Book of Proverbs, where it warns that the glutton will come to poverty in the end (Prov 23:20, 21, 28:7). In the New Testament there’s even less to go on. The Greek word phagos (an over-eater) is about the same as the English word “glutton,” but the only time it appears is when the Pharisees use it to insult Jesus, calling him a “drunkard” and a “glutton.” So that’s hardly firm data against gluttony. Certainly there’s no direct commandment that says, “thou shalt not be a glutton,” like we have in the case of murder, theft, and adultery.

I haven’t studied this out, mind you, but my hunch is that the Christian teaching that gluttony is a sin comes less from concrete biblical interpretation, and more from Aristotelian ethics. Aristotle was the Greek Philosopher (ca. 300 BC) who taught that any action, character trait, or personal quality could be called a virtue only if it occupied the golden mean between the two extremes of having too much of it, or too little. Courage, for example, was a virtue because it expressed the golden mean between foolhardiness (too much courage), and cowardice (not enough courage). Generosity was the golden mean between stinginess and profligacy. In Aristotelian ethics, then, we might say that gluttony expresses an extreme at the opposite end of neurotic abstinence, for which the golden mean is temperance.

Certainly Aristotle has had a strong influence on the development of Christian ethics over the years (Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1274 AD) was a Catholic Theologian whose whole theological programme was an attempt to integrate Christian Theology and Aristotelian Philosophy), but there is probably a better place to turn to find a basis for our understanding of gluttony as sin.

In Philippians 3:19, Paul refers to some false teachers in the early church who were “living as enemies of the cross,” and he makes an interesting claim about them. “Their god,” he says, “is their stomach; their glory is in their shame. Their minds are set on earthly things.” Earlier in the chapter Paul was discussing a group of Jewish Christians who were insisting that the Gentile believers needed to be circumcised to be saved. Given this, it’s quite possible that here, when Paul mentions some people who have made “their stomachs” into “their god,” he’s referring to the same group of Judaizers, who would also have insisted that the Gentiles needed to follow the kosher food laws of the Jewish Torah. As such, they were making their “stomachs” their “god” by insisting that what you ate could save you.

This verse is probably not about gluttony specifically, then, or at least, it’s not only about gluttony. But in its application for Christians today, Philippians 3:19 forces us to wrestle with the possibility that we may have let food take the place that God rightly ought to occupy in our lives, turning to it for the sense of identity, the sense of belonging, the assurance that things are going to work out okay, and/or the spiritual comfort that really only God can give.

Does anyone really do this? (you may be tempted to ask). Well: what is a “foodie” except someone who has allowed their appreciation for “gastronomical esoteria” to define themselves? What are we doing when we binge-eat after a break-up? What is happening when we stress-eat to get through a hard season at work? What’s really behind that latest health-food fad that’s guaranteed to give you the looks, the libido, or the longevity you always dreamed of? What is the food network really celebrating, when it broadcasts food-focused programming for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week?

It turns out it’s far easier than we might have guessed to make a god of our bellies, counting on food to do for us what God alone can do. As such, it’s also far easier to fall into the sin of gluttony than we might have thought, too. Because the sin of gluttony has less to do with what you’re eating, or how much; it has everything to do with why you’re eating it. To be sure, usually one of the signs that food has replaced God for you, is if you are uncontrollably overindulgent when it comes to eating. But I’m trying to flesh out this definition of gluttony more broadly, because it’s also true that you can have your eating obsessively controlled and also be sinning the sin of gluttony. The health-food guru who tracks every calorie with hawk-like precision, so that they can remain in complete control of their well-being, may be just as gluttonous (on this definition) as the one who eats himself into a food-coma at every meal.

The alternative to gluttony, then, is not obsessively under-eating. This is just making a god of our stomachs in the other direction. The alternative is simply (more simply said than done sometimes) to let God be God in your life. If we will give him his rightful place, he will put our stomachs, our appetites, and our eating into its proper place, too. This will not mean a wholesale rejection of the delight the food can give us (see my previous posts on that), nor a denial of the importance of careful, healthy eating (see upcoming posts on this). But it will mean tasting and seeing how good the Lord himself is, and in that knowledge discovering that food is nothing more and nothing less than what it was always supposed to be: a healthy, wholesome, pleasant gift from him.

Of Games and God (Part V): Gaming with the End in Mind

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Back in the year 2000, my brother loaned me his unused Nintendo 64 game console, and a copy of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. I was twenty-six at the time, and this was the first video game I had played since the old days of the original Super Mario Bros. He assured me, when he passed it on, that video games had come a long way since I had seen them last, and that I would absolutely love the Ocarina of Time.

My brother knew me well, and his prediction proved prescient. To this day Ocarina of Time still stands in my mind as one of the greatest fantasy adventures of all time (though, admittedly, I have not yet played Breath of the Wild, which, by all reports, blows even Ocarina out of the water for sheer epic awesomeness).

I logged untold hours exploring the richly detailed, beautifully 3-D world of Hyrule, enjoying every nook and cranny. Enjoying it all, that is, until I found the nook and/or cranny that housed the infamous Water Temple of Hyrule. If you’ve never heard of the Water Temple before, you can bone up on the details at the “Water Temple (Ocarina of Time)” Wikipedia page. The fact that this one level in the game has it's own dedicated Wikipedia page perhaps says it all. The Water Temple is considered, by various gaming critics, to be the all-time best, or the all-time hardest (or sometimes both at once) level in the greatest video game ever.

I’ll let the aficionados duke it out over that grandiose claim. In the meantime, I want to focus down just on the factor that has made completing the Water Temple such a fabled rite of passage in gaming lore. I’m talking here about its difficulty level. Anyone who has attempted the Water Temple unaided would agree, I hope, that even if you can’t rate it the best level of all, you'd concede that it is one of the hardest puzzles ever to grace the screen of a Nintendo adventure.

Certainly when I came at it for the first time, it had me stumped for the better part of a month. Granted I had recently become a young father and a new high school teacher at the same time in those days, so I wasn’t playing Zelda non-stop over the course of that month; but even so, I repeatedly flung down the control in despair of ever figuring it out. Keep in mind that this was in the days before the solution to every video game known to man could be found online, with a nice, neat tutorial video on Youtube to walk you through it. Back in my day you slogged your way through, trail-and-error, mis-step by mis-step, with nothing but your wits and a bit of luck to guide you. Kids these days have no clue how easy they have it.

But I digress. The point of all of this is that, however tough the going got with the Water Temple, I never “got going.” That is to say, I stuck it out. I kept coming back at it. Even when my frustration with the puzzle was visceral and my reaction to yet one more failed attempt was physical, still I kept on, hoping against hope to crack the nut at last. As one of the best levels in one of the best video games ever, the Water Temple awoke in me what all the best video games awake in their players, a deep down desire to solve an intractable problem.

In his book Homo Problematis Solvendis – Problem-Solving Man: A History of Human Creativity, David Cropley traces the history of modern human innovation through a close examination of the solutions to basic human problems that our species have developed over time. He argues that a defining characteristic of modern human beings is our fundamental ability to solve problems. Besides opposable thumbs, what sets us apart from the rest of the creatures on God’s green earth is this innate desire we seem to have to solve a problem. Other creatures problem-solve too, I’m sure. I’ve seen our family dog do it trying to get a pound of cooked bacon left lying out to cool on the counter. But unlike any other animal, the human creature seems to go looking for the problem, and seems to delight in solving it for its own sake.

Video games tap in to this desire, I think. It’s part of their appeal. But they also reveal something underlying that desire. Because back in my Ocarina of Time days, you could have laid a big exercise book full of random math problems in front of me, and I would not have tackled them with anywhere near the same verve and dedication as I did the Water Temple. There was something unique about that puzzle in particular that drove me relentlessly to tackle it.

I want to suggest that the “something unique” that makes video games so irresistible is the teleological nature of the problem solving they present us with. Unlike the math exercises in the illustration above, which are all random, self-contained puzzles that don’t seem to have any real purpose, the puzzles we encounter in the best video games are problems with an end in mind. That is to say, the puzzles themselves serve the purpose of advancing the story, solving the quest, defeating the villain, saving the world.

In fancy theological terms, we would say that when something is moving towards a very clear, and especially a very meaningful “end”—when things happen for a purpose and that purpose moves things towards an ultimate resolution—we would say that it’s “teleological.” In Greek, telos means end or purpose; and something is teleological when it begins with an end in mind.

In Christian creation theology, for instance, the real question is not “did the world evolve or was it created in 144 hours.” The real question is: is the universe teleological, or not? Was it created for a purpose, or was it a meaningless accident?

In Christian theodicy (the theological explanation for suffering), the problem of evil is not resolved by mere logical arguments, but by teleological arguments. Roughly speaking, a Christian theodicy would say that there is a higher purpose in our suffering that allows us to transcend it as we go through it.

And in Christian Video Game Theology (a new field I’m developing), the importance of video games is that they reveal—not just that we like solving problems—but that we want the problems we solve to be teleological. That is to say: we have this deep-down desire to tackle problems especially that move us towards an ultimate end as we solve them.

I’m drawing this connection because all Water Temples aside, the world is brimming these days with problems to be solved. Thirty seconds on my Facebook feed would probably be enough to convince you of that: the planet’s getting warmer, time-honored political structures are devolving into junior high shenanigans, gross injustices against people of color are being brought to light, pandemics are raging, locusts are swarming, and people are hurting. It’s easy, and perhaps tempting, to approach all these problems like so many math sums in an exercise book, a bunch of disconnected and especially non-telelogical difficulties that don’t have any meaning beyond simply the discomfort and consternation they cause us.

Of course, if I’m on to anything in my analysis of Zelda’s Ocarina of Time, approaching the really big problems of this world atelelogically won’t give us the resolve or the resources we need really to solve them well, not when the going gets really tough we won’t.

A Christian, by contrast, should tackle the big problems of our world something like how a dedicated gamer would tackle the Water Temple: by trusting that each problem we face feeds into a bigger, single challenge—the problem of sin in the world—and that there is an underlying purpose for us in tackling this this problem faithfully, a real reason to do it well.

I say this because, from a Christian point of view, we are all moving to an ultimate end. According to the Apostle Paul’s Gospel, we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ on the last day, to receive our due “for the things done in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10). And on that day, he says elsewhere, we will all give our account (Romans 14:12). Surely what we did or didn’t do to be a healing presence in the creation, how we did or didn’t offer a cold drink of water to the parched and starving, how we strove to be peacemakers in a warring world, how we lived as ambassadors of Christ's reconciliation—surely these “good or bad things” will be included in that reckoning on that day.

What if I tackled the problem of evil in the world with the same tenacity and determination I poured into trying to figure out how to get the water levels in the Water Temple raised and lowered just so, so that I could advance to the Room of Illusion and defeat Dark Link, my alter ego in the game? There would probably be a lot less hurt in the world if I did, and more likely than not, when the ultimate quest of life was finally complete, I would have the reward of hearing the Divine Designer of the Game say to me, as he will say to all of us who tackle sin with the end in mind: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

The 81 Percent, a song

I wrote this song back in 2017, upon learning that 81% of white, male evangelical voters in America voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. I'm Canadian, and the Canadian church has all kinds of its own problems, to be sure, but inasmuch as this statistic is the truth about a tribe that I still identify with in some way (i.e. the global evangelical church), it broke my heart to hear it. Think of this song as a cry of anguish over the current state of evangelicalism in North America. 

I'm thinking about it in new light these days, as I find myself reeling to see the chaos that has unfolded in America during the last four yeas of the Trump administration, and especially after the spectacle he staged at  Washington DC's St John's Episcopal Church during the Black Lives Matter rallies. I offer it here knowing that, as an outsider looking in, my voice is one of the least important in the conversation right now, but such as it is, it's still mine to offer.

The dealer played the trump card
When the stakes were getting high
And the Joker upped the ante
With a twinkle in his eye
And all the players folded
Cause they knew just what it meant
That the chance of drawing aces was 81%
The chance of drawing aces
The chance of drawing aces (yeah)
The chance of drawing aces was 81%

And I don’t wanna talk
About politics and faith
And I don’t wanna walk the line
Between the church and the state
Cause I can’t really say
Who’s hell bent or heaven sent
But I don’t wanna be a part of the 81%

The temperature was rising
And the cistern was bone dry
And the clouds were piling up
In an apocalyptic sky
With lightning on the wind
With a cold metallic scent
Cause the chance of thunderstorms was 81%
The chance of thunder storms
The chance of thunder storms (yeah)
The chance of thunder storms was 81%

And I don’t wanna talk
About politics and faith
And I don’t wanna walk the line
Between the church and the state
Cause I can’t really say
Who’s hell bent or heaven sent
But I don’t wanna be a part of the 81%

And if we sold our souls
At least it was on the level
That’s the art of a deal
With the 81%

And all the merchants gathered
Together for the feast
And someone raised a glass
To the dragon and the beast
And Lazarus was calling
But no one would repent
Cause the profits all were up by 81%
The profits all were up
The profits all were up (yeah)
The profits all were up by 81%

And I don’t wanna talk
About politics and faith
And I don’t wanna walk the line
Between the church and the state
Cause I can’t really say
Who’s hell bent or heaven sent
But I don’t wanna be a part of the 81%

Christopher, a short story

Looking back, I think that at some point one of us should have said to the other that we were too old for that kind of thing anymore. Traipsing through the forest with wooden swords and home-made cloaks was fine when we were kids, but we were going to be in the eighth grade that fall, and most guys our age had long since stopped hunting imaginary dragons for more grown-up pursuits, girls and sports and dreaming about their first car.

But old habits die hard, I guess.

Certainly, Christopher and I had made a habit of adventuring in the river valley on the edge of town for so long that we knew every grove and gulley of it by heart. We had even mapped them out. All our favorite fantasy novels included elaborate maps of the imaginary kingdoms their adventures were set in, and we took our cue from them in this. I had stolen a roll of newsprint from the closet where my mom stored the stationary and spread out a good six-foot length of it on my bedroom floor. Christopher and I then set to work with a couple of black Sharpie markers, tracing out the whole river valley as best we could from memory. Every site of every adventure we’d ever had in all the five years we’d been exploring found its place on the map: the Cave of Bludgeon the Troll, the Golden Meadow of the Star Elves, the Shrine of Alonwyn the Unicorn, and of course, at the furthest end of the map, the castle of Logrim the Wizard, who ruled the whole federation of the eastern kingdoms with wisdom and war. We did our best to achieve the look of the calligraphy on the maps in the Lord of the Rings books, but we were still just kids and neither of us really had the patience for it. The ink soaked through the paper, of course, and stained the carpet in my room terribly.

In preparation before setting out on this our greatest and final adventure (as we would come to understand only in retrospect), I had opened the map to a spot in the upper left corner, a region we had tentatively labelled as the “Western Wastelands.” There I drew in the shape of a single smoldering mountain.

“This is the lair of Diabolus the Dragon,” I explained in a hushed voice when Christopher finally arrived and we were pouring over the map. “According to the Lore Master of Elandor, Diabolus guards the Demon Bane, a magical staff that has the power to banish evil once and for all from the seven lands.”

“The Demon Bane?” Christopher repeated. We had done this often enough that he knew how to play his part without any prompting.

“Yes,” I said. “It’s an ancient staff carved from a branch of the Mystic Willow, the sacred tree of the Star Elves.”

“And polished,” Christopher suggested (though he said it in the tone of one well-schooled in this ancient lore, regardless the fact that I was actually inventing it there on the spot), “and polished with the tears of a dying Phoenix.”

“Yes,” I agreed, as if I had studied the same ancient lore as he had. “Yes, and the blood of a silver wyvern.”

“How will we get there?” he asked.

I pointed to a line on the map marked, “The Wall of Emperor Jantis.” We both knew well enough that this was the old railroad track west of town, and if we followed it to where it bent away to the south, we would find a trail that led through an over-grown cow pasture and down into the most densely-forested stretch of the river valley, a place we had labelled “Forest of Shadows” on the map.

“We follow the Wall of Jantis,” I said, as though we hadn’t wandered up and down that railroad track a hundred times already that summer. “Till we find the ancient Elf road of Taris; it will take us down into the Forest of Shadows.”

“Will we have to cross at the Ford of Brynnwyn?” Christopher reach to point at a spot on the map as he said this, and even though the spell of our role playing was almost complete, still I noticed the four ugly, brownish bruises, just above his wrist as he did.

“It happened again?” I said, a thirteen-year-old boy once more, so quickly that the shock almost startled me.

Christopher wouldn’t look at me but kept his eye fixed on the map. “It’s nothing,” he said softly. But I didn’t speak for a long time, so finally he said, “Look. He came home drunk last night and he and mom were having it out. I don’t really want to talk about it. I got caught between them is all. It’s nothing.”

I still didn’t speak, so he looked at me angrily. “Forget it, Peter,” he said. “It’s nothing.”

A final quiet moment passed and I gave in at last. “No,” I said quietly. “No, we’ll need to go further on past the Fords, till we get to The Goblin Bridge.” The Goblin Bridge was an old abandoned beaver’s dam that we used to cross from ours to the far side of the river. It was perilous crossing at the best of times, but especially when the water was high, and we seldom used it without soaking one or two of our sneakers.

I was rolling up the map and getting ready to go, when Christopher reached for an old duffel bag he had brought with him. “I made these,” he said, “for the journey.” He pulled out a longish shape, bundled in an old blanket, unwrapped it, and set between us two of the most beautifully-crafted weapons I had ever seen.

“I carved them,” he said, admiring them with me, “out of some wood I found in my dad’s shop.”

“But Christopher—” I’d heard the story of the time his dad caught Christopher’s older brother taking lumber from the shop without permission and getting a tanned hide in return, so I knew profoundly the risk he had taken.

But that wasn’t my only cause for awe. The two swords were exquisitely wrought. That’s how they would have said it in one of our favorite fantasy novels, anyways; and certainly, for all their being the craftmanship of a thirteen-year-old boy, they were. He had carved the blades with his pocket-knife till they were flat and smooth and rounded. He must have found a can of metallic spray-paint in his father’s garage—another great risk—because they gleamed as though they were made of some magical steel, and he had even glued chips of colored glass (broken beer bottles, perhaps) and translucent plastic to the hilt, to serve as gemstones.

The grips of each were wound with strips of real leather. “Where did you get—” I asked.

“I cut up one of my Dad’s old coats,” he said with a grin. My incredulity must have been writ large on my face because he added. “Well, he’ll never miss it. I found it in an old trunk in the basement.”

He had made loops out of two pieces of rope, to fasten them to our belts. “I’ve named mine,” he said, tying it in place. “It’s called Star-Edge.”

I looked hard at mine, still hesitating to take it. It wasn’t that I didn’t want it, but I thought of the bruises on Christopher’s forearm, and the broken beer bottles that he had turned into gems for the hilt. I imagined his mother or father, finding an old leather coat all cut up in his bedroom, and suddenly that homemade wooden sword seemed almost a sacred talisman to me, forged in dragon fire and quenched in the blood of a thousand foes.

“What should I name mine?” I asked at last. I took it tentatively in hand and swung it once or twice. It whooped sharply as it swiped through the air. Christopher was watching me closely, and I could tell from the light in his face how pleased he was for me to take the sword, how worth the risk it had been.

“Dawn-Blade?” He suggested. “Shadow-Cleaver?” He read far more than I did and was quite good at naming things. Most of the names on our map, in fact, had been his invention. “Light-Wielder?”

This last one rang especially true for me. “Yeah,” I said, gripping it tightly, testing its weight the way I imagined a knight ought to do. “Light-Wielder’s good.”

I strapped Light-Wielder to my side. I had lifted two over-sized beach towels from my mom’s linen closet to serve as traveler’s cloaks and when they were tied in place we set out.

The journey to the Wall of Emperor Jantis was uneventful. My house was close to a field at the edge of town. On the far side of the field, past the old ball diamonds and a run-down cluster of playground apparatus, across a ditch overgrown with tall grass and at the end of a indistinct trail, there grew a long stretch of pine trees, a bit of wind-break planted there time-out-of-mind. These were so closely grown that it usually took some work to push through them, but that was part of the appeal, for on the other side of those pines, closed off so completely from the rest of our sleepy little town like that, it really felt as if we were entering an alternate world.

The Wall of Emperor Jantis ran along this length of pine trees for a good three miles. We scrambled up the gravel embankment and picked our way from railroad tie to railroad tie. With Light-Wielder strapped to my side and my adventurer’s cloak fluttering around my shoulders in the breeze, it took next to no work at all to make believe we were in fact walking the battlements of an ancient imperial wall, built some time (according to Christopher’s Lore) in the fourth age, to keep out goblin marauders.

“What will we do when we reach Diabolus?” Christopher asked. He drew Star-Edge from its scabbard and cut the air with it in a wide sweeping arc. “Do you know what his weakness is? Every dragon has one.”

“The Lore Master of Elandor tells of an ancient prophesy: that only the light of two stars combined can pierce the dragon’s side.” I was making it up as we went, but given the names with which we had christened our swords, it came to me almost effortlessly.

“Good,” he said, nodding in approval. We talked over possible interpretations, though we each knew what “stars” the prophesy must surely be referring to.

Suddenly Christopher stopped and pointed with his sword. “Look!” He said ominously. “The Elf-road of Taris!”

“Yes. And look, a whole band of ogres guarding the way down to the Forest of Shadow!”

The ogres looked suspiciously like a handful of cows, standing stupidly out to pasture and entirely indifferent to our arrival, but Christopher and I both knew without saying so that the Ogres of the Forest of Shadow were notorious shape-shifters, so we were not to be deceived.

“There are too many of them,” Christopher was saying, “to take in open combat. Best we go by stealth.”

We crouched and crept along the fence, through the tall grass and cautiously toward the forest. We must have had a true rogue’s skill in stealth, because the ogres took no notice of us whatsoever. We were almost to the forest, when suddenly Christopher leapt into the open.

“We’ve been spotted!” He bellowed. The ogre nearest us was perhaps a bit startled, at least it skittered away from us a few yards, while Christopher hollered at it, swinging his sword in the air as though laying his hero’s mettle on the anvil, to be tried and tempered. I drew Light-Wielder and swung it too, though I was not nearly so bold around farm animals as he was, and couldn’t bring myself actually to holler.

When the ogres had been dully chased off and the Elf-road of Taris well cleared, we proceeded towards the Forest of Shadows, now travelling again in the open. The air was heavy and resin-scented when we entered, and in the dim light it was a simple thing to imagine a goblin lurking behind every trunk and fallen log. Christopher signaled me to move cautiously.

In the pines overhead, two crows began screaming viciously at us, one of them leaping into the air with a flurry of black feathers.

“Spies of Diabolous,” I whispered, as though every adventurer knew without being told that the crows in these parts, however ordinary they may look, really served the demon Dragon of the Western Wastelands. “He’ll know we’re coming now.”

The journey to the bottom of the river valley proceeded slowly. Every now and then some gnome or sprite of some sort would skitter by and one of us would classify it according to our mythical bestiary. Usually these creatures bore a strange resemblance to ordinary squirrels and chipmunks, but Christopher and I both knew that the Forest of Shadows was crawling with fairies, and were not to be deceived.

We came at last to the Goblin Bridge, and our first real adventure. It had stormed the day before, so the water was high for mid-summer, and the going perilous. We had traversed it often enough to be confident though, and were able to cross this time without even wetting our shoes. This was good luck, I thought, because once Christopher had actually lost a shoe in the mud, and bore the mark of the beating he’d received for that loss across his shoulders for many days. We always crossed as carefully as we could, after that.

There was a dense thicket of trees growing along the bank on the far side of the Goblin Bridge, and the only way forward was along the water’s edge. Christopher went first, so it was probably he who stepped in it, but it was all so quick that neither of us really knew what was happening until it was upon us. All I know is that suddenly, my lower calf, near the ankle, was burning with fire.

I heard Christopher scream out even as my own pain registered, and when I looked, something fat and bright had come to rest on my upper thigh, and then the fire shot up through my leg. I screamed, too, and as I did I realized that the air was swarming with those fat, bright shapes.

Christopher was swinging violently with his sword and screaming indistinctly. I had forgotten mine and was batting the air with both hands. Fire came to light on my arm and on my chest, and at some point abject terror must have set in because I bolted, and splashed out into the river to get away, flinging my arms madly about my head, wet sneakers be damned.

I splashed out four or five frantic yards into the current, until the river was eddying around my upper thighs and the towel around my shoulders was heavy with water. The spots on my legs and chest still burned angrily, but I was no longer being swarmed. Looking back I saw Christopher splashing his way into the river, too, still swinging his sword gallantly and throwing out a great heroic wake of water as he came.

I was crying, breathlessly. His voice still had the pitch of a scream in it, too. I could see a horrible red welt swelling on his arm. Neither of us dared to make-believe we’d stumbled on anything other than what it was.

“Wasps,” he said, when he could speak with his normal timbre again. “Must have been a nest.”

“Are you—” I said between gasps. “Are you okay?”

“They got me on the legs a couple of times. And here.” He lifted his arm to inspect the welt.

We fell silent. The water curled around our legs and between us disinterestedly. I dared a backward glance and could see the furious wasps still swarming frenetically about the river bank , but they seemed to have lost interest in us.

Another long moment passed, and then, unexpectedly, Christopher started laughing.

“That was amazing!” he said.

“But Christopher—” I was still pretty shaken and took more time see the humor in it all, standing there in my mother’s beach towel and my wooden sword in my hand, chased away in terror by an angry swarm of mere wasps. “Your shoes…”

“Who cares about shoes?” he said. Whatever the joke he saw in the situation, his laughter was catching. I tried to grin weakly. “Who cares? That was amazing!”

I took a step forward. My ankle was beginning to hurt alarmingly now, though the cool river water was soothing. The sting on my chest ached intensely. “Well, we did come for adventure,” I said feebly. But I was still pretty shaken, and I couldn’t help it: I started crying softly.

“Hey,” Christopher said, seeing my tears. And I couldn’t tell if he was still role-playing or not, but it was the most genuine “hey” I’d ever heard, as if he had comforted someone before who had been violently hurt by some inexplicable and inexorable fury and knew exactly how to do it.

He stepped towards me and said it again. “Hey, Peter. It’s alright. We’re alright.” And then, for the only time he had ever done so in all our long friendship, he put his arms around me and pulled me in to that “hey,” firmly against his chest. He had younger brothers, of course, and I guess he had learned from them how to hold a man close in his distress.

“Is it okay,” I asked, when the tears were gone but I hadn’t quite started to feel embarrassed yet. “Is it okay if we turn back now?”

Christopher laughed. “Yeah,” he said. “If Diabolus is anywhere near as bad as those wasps, we may want to come back and fight him another day.” He splashed towards the far bank, and I followed. When we were at last on dry ground again, we both still had our shoes, though they were sopping wet and caked with river mud.

“Do you still wanna—you know—adventure on the way back?” he asked, wringing out the edge of his beach-towel cloak. Mine was too heavy with water to wear well anymore, so I took it off and draped it over my arm.

But I nodded. We were far enough from the wasps now that my sense of the heroic was returning. “Let’s call that the Hive of the Fire Wraiths,” I suggested.

Christopher drew his sword. “Come,” he said, the note of a warrior ringing again in his voice. “Let’s return to Logrim to warn him that the Fire Wraiths are advancing on the western edge of his kingdom.”

So we set out once more, back through the Forest of Shadows and up along the Elf-road of Taris. Coming into the open again, the ogres were still there, standing dumbly in their bovine forms. But we’d already had enough adventure that day, and had no interest in chasing them this time. Instead we scrambled back up the gravel embankment of the Wall of Jantis and started making our way home.

It was when we had pushed our way back through the stand of pine trees and had started crossing the field that we encountered our greatest trial, my greatest ordeal, and to this day, my heaviest shame. Because as we were passing the ball diamonds, I noticed up ahead a cluster of kids from school. I didn’t say anything, but instinctively I untied the wooden sword at my belt, with a single silent motion, and dropped it, along with the soaking beach towel, into the tall grass along the ditch. It was full of stormwater from the rain the day before, and the sword and cloak both were irretrievably lost in it.

But I said nothing, and Christopher had yet to notice them. He was still swinging his own sword playfully in the air at nothing in particular.

“Peter!” I knew the voice that called me. It was Julian. He was one of the more popular kids in my class, had been expelled once for drinking a stolen bottle of his dad’s vodka behind the school gym. He was leaning indolently against the chain link fence of the backstop, with two or three other kids our age. One of them held a smoldering cigarette, though none of them, to my knowledge, really smoked. There was a girl with them whom I had admired from my desk in the far corner of our classroom all that spring, though I hadn’t seen her since school had let out for the summer.

“Well look who it is!” Julian said again, and there was an almost threatening edge to his voice. “Peter and Christopher,” said one of the boys with him. “What you guys up to?” It was more a challenge than a question.

Christopher was further ahead of me and pulled up in mid-swing with his sword. I hung back.

Julian stood up from leaning against fence. “Nice fairy cape, Chris,” he said. “And what’s with the sword?”

The other boy laughed. “Probably for beating back the other fairies.” Everyone was laughing but Chris now. He looked back at me, and I couldn’t meet his eyes.

“Leave him be,” said the girl, and I couldn’t tell if the note of mercy I heard in her voice was sincere or make-believe. But Julian stepped forward. “Is that what it’s for?” he asked. “Let’s have a look.”

He reached, and Christopher gave no resistance when he pulled the sword from his hand. “Julian, please—” was all he said.

Julian was holding it by its wooden blade, like an inverted baseball bat. A diabolical grin crept over his face then, and even though I had slunk back a few paces more from them, I could see his knuckles whiten around the wood. “Nah,” he said over his shoulder. “I don’t think this would make a good fairy beater. It’s not strong enough.”

And then he turned slightly and swung it suddenly with great force against the steel post of the backstop. The crack of it resounded across the field, and I winced. The sword shattered in two, and the hilt-end went spinning off. Julian dropped the blade end gingerly at Christopher’s feet, splintered and broken. The whole while Christopher was staring with unseeing eyes, retreated into himself and unwilling to look Julian in the face.

“Come on Julian,” said the girl, and this time her tone was clear. “Leave him be.”

Julian turned. The boy with the cigarette flicked the smoldering butt towards Christopher and turned too. I had hoped they’d forgotten me, but just before they wandered off, Julian looked over his shoulder. “See y’round, Peter.”

I nodded faintly.

Something somewhere startled an ogre in a field on the far side of the trees, and I could hear it mooing, distantly. Whatever it was must have startled the other farm animals, too, because following the moo came the bark of a dog, and then, unmistakably, the single crow of a lonely rooster.

When they were gone, Christopher turned to me with trembling eyes, but I couldn’t lift mine to meet his. He said nothing but stooped to pick up his broken sword. He looked at me again and I could see that he saw how mine was missing.

“Just—” I said, softly, pushing past him and starting across the field. “Just forget it, Chris. Julian's a jerk.”

I didn’t look back, but in a moment I could hear the shuffle of slow footsteps in the grass beside me. We walked home in total silence. My welts from the Fire Wraiths no longer hurt me, but with every step, still, I could feel a searing pain, burning in my chest.