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

Book Reviews

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

Exclusion and Embrace, Miroslav Volf

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

Leading with a Limp, Dan Allender

five smooth stones for pastoral work, Eugene Peterson

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

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


The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

Lighting Rod, a song




When I was falling from the sky you were
My lightning rod, you
Guided my feet back to the ground

When I was learning how to die you were
My empty tomb, more
alive than anything I’ve found

Out of the blue, after the long night
Upwards I flew, wings melting in the sunlight
Out of the storm, trembling and awed
Into your arms I fell, like a lightning rod

When I was tumbling through the air you were
The rock that broke my fall
Holding me hard against your heart

When I was stumbling through my prayers you were
The tunnel and the light
Winding my way back to the start

Out of the blue, after the long night
Upwards I flew, wings melting in the sunlight
Out of the storm, trembling and awed
Into your arms I fell, like a lightning rod

A High Calling, a devotional thought

There’s a line in Acts 20:26-27 that’s pretty sobering for a minister of the Gospel, like me. Paul is delivering a farewell address to the church in Ephesus, where he had served previously for some three years, “serving the Lord with great humility and with tears” (v. 19). He reminds them of his ministry among them, and then he says: “I declare that I am innocent of anyone’s blood ... because I did not hesitate to proclaim to you the whole will of God.”

The implication here is worth all kinds of careful reflection. On the one hand, if Paul were to have held back in his teaching, on this or that matter, let’s say, because maybe he thought it wouldn’t be well-received, or might step on toes, or what have you, then, apparently, he would be responsible—guilty of their blood—for whatever problems they faced down the road because they did not know God’s will, of God’s way, when they should have. On the other hand, because he did preach the whole Gospel, even the difficult parts that wouldn’t have won him any popularity contests, Paul can leave his ministry at Ephesus with a clear conscience.

Teaching, preaching and serving as a pastor is a great privilege, to be sure, but it is also a huge responsibility.  And if Acts 20:26 is any indication, those who dare to take up this responsibility will give an account, in the end, of how faithfully we discharged our duty to proclaim the whole counsel of God.  May the Lord give much wisdom and even more grace.

Thick or Thin, a devotional thought

There's a phrase in Acts 11:23 that I find both inspiring and challenging. The background is that persecution against the church has scattered believers from Jerusalem all across the region, with the ironic result that the Gospel now is reaching out to all sorts of places it never had before. At the same time, Cornelius, a non-Jewish centurion, has recently converted to the Faith, demonstrating to the church in Jerusalem that the Gospel’s for non-Jewish people as well (up to this point the church has been exclusively Jewish). At this point in the story, the Gospel’s reached as far as Antioch (in northern Syria), and the church has been growing there with Greek believers in particular; so the Church in Jerusalem sends a delegation led by Barnabas, up to Antioch to investigate.

And here’s the striking line. Because when Barnabas sees “the evidence of the grace of God” among the Greeks in Antioch, he is glad and he “encourages them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.” That’s how my NIV phrases it, but in the original it’s a bit more vivid. Literally he tells them to “continue with the Lord” (the verb is prosmenō, to remain in, to continue with, to abide in), and to do it with “purpose of heart” (the noun is prosthesis, a purpose or intention).

In other words, Barnabas tells these brand new believers:“set an intention in your hearts to stick with the Lord.” It struck me because, on the one hand, Barnabas knows these Christians are likely to face persecution (it was persecution, after all, that brought the Gospel to them in the first place); and on the other hand, these believers are brand-spanking new in the faith, full of (presumably) untried, untested enthusiasm for Jesus.

What do new believers need especially to do, after they’ve come to the Lord and the sheen of conversion is starting to fade? Especially if and when following Jesus is going to mean sacrifices large and small? And what should pastors like Barnabas encourage them to do, well before buyer’s remorse sets in? Determine in your hearts—set it as a clear, conscious intention—that you’ll stick with Him, come what may, thick or thin. Such intentions won't make it any easier, maybe, when thick does get thin (or vice versa), but they certainly increase the likelihood that we'll get through the thin (or the thick) with our grip holding as firmly to the Lord as the hour we first believed.

Three Minute Theology 5.1: The Intercessor

Out of the Comfort Zone, a devotional thought

In Acts 9:43 we’re told that while Peter was on an itinerant ministry tour, he stayed for “many days” in Joppa with a tanner (i.e. someone who tanned hides and prepared them into leather), a tanner named Simon. This is just an offhand line, but it’s really interesting to me, because a tanner, of course, handled animal carcasses (which is where the hides came from), and according to Jewish Law at the time, anyone who handled a dead body was unclean; and so culturally, and traditionally, being a tanner was considered an unclean profession. We know from 10:14 that Peter is quite particular about Jewish cleanliness laws (nothing unclean has ever passed his lips, he says), and yet here we see him lodging at the home of an unclean tanner, of all people. God, of course, is about to explode his whole notion of cleanliness and uncleanness, by sending (gasp) some non-Jewish Gentiles to him, requesting an audience, but in a way, this has already begun when he came under Simon the Tanner’s roof. God, it turns out, does not share our concerns when it comes to keeping ourselves safely in our comfort zones, is my point. As uncomfortable as it may have made Peter to be surrounded by so much “ritual uncleanness” (according to Jewish tradition), this is precisely where serving God has brought him, his own hang ups about human defined comfort zones be damned. Where might we find ourselves serving God, if we shared the same indifference about our comfort zones, I wonder?

Three Minute Theology 4.8: The Whole Set

To the Rabble Rousers, a devotional thought

There’s this interesting line in Acts 9, just an offhand comment, but it gets me thinking. It’s in the middle of the story about Paul’s early ministry, just after he encountered the Lord Jesus and had the scales fall from his eyes, and two themes stand out sharply in these early days. 1) All the Christians are kind of afraid of him. Up till now, he’s developed quite a reputation as a persecutor of the church, so it’s maybe understandable that, now he’s converted, they’re all a little gun shy. And 2) all the non-Christians want to kill him. From the sounds of things he’s as zealous now for Jesus as he previously was against him. Everywhere he goes he’s getting in arguments and debates and trouble, “speaking out boldly in the name of Jesus.” He’s in Damascus until the Damascenes hatch a plan to kill him, so he moves to Jerusalem, until the Greeks try to kill him, so he moves on to Caesarea. Eventually, it says, the disciples “sent him away to Tarsus.”

And then comes the interesting line: then, it says, “the church throughout Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace.” I say it gets me thinking, because Paul’s clearly a rabble-rouser for Jesus, and once they finally ship him off to Tarsus, that’s when the church experiences peace. But, of course, Paul’s more than just a rabble-rouser, he’s also a world-shaker for Jesus, and though his ministry might ruffle feathers (even some of his fellow Christian feathers), God intends to rock the foundations of the Roman Empire through him.

 I’m pointing that out because sometimes in church life (or even our own individual discipleship), the people who disrupt our peace are the ones God most uses to move us, shake us and form us. We need the rabble rousers, is my point, even though it’s not always fun to have the rabble roused; and sometimes the worst thing we can do is to rest in a false, complacent kind of peace. And as difficult as it sometimes is, still I'm thankful to God for the rabble-rousers he’s used in my life and ministry, and even (tremulously) praying that he’ll send more my way.

Three Minute Theology 4.7: The BIRG Effect

The Theology of Bruce Springsteen (Part 5): A Sense of Place

Early on in this theological analysis of Bruce Springsteen’s music, I shared how I was never really much of a Springsteen fan growing up.  In that post, I explained how it was the song “Born in the USA,” in particular, that kept me from boarding the train bound for the Springsteen fandom. 

I was 10 years old when “Born in the USA” “went nuclear” (as Spirngsteen puts it in his autobiography), and it’s maybe to be expected that this angry heart-cry of a down-and-out Vietnam vet, shaking his fist at a nation that took from him everything and offered him nothing in return, would be lost on a 10-year-old boy.  Add to this the fact that I’m Canadian, and the best I could make of Springsteen’s passionately bellowed verses was a naïve ode to the good-ol’-U-S-of-A, a sentiment that I sort of prided myself on not being able to relate to.  Like Ronald Regan, who once used “Born in the USA” as a campaign song, I entirely missed the point of this politically charged bray of protest against the Vietnam Draft and its aftermath.  Springsteen himself called “Born in the USA” one of his greatest and most misunderstood pieces of music, and at ten years old, I was one of the misunderstanders.

As an adult I’ve come to appreciate the song.  Even though it’s still not anything I’ve ever sung in the shower (and truth be told, I find that synth hook annoyingly repetitive), I can relate to its passionate desire for roots and rootedness, for community and belonging, for a shalom-oriented re-weaving of the social fabric.  The singer in “Born” is more like an estranged son, clinging to a father who’s disowned him and refusing to scorn his birthright, than he is like some red-ball-cap-wearing jingoist, blindly chanting “Make America Great Again!” at some campaign rally or other. Inasmuch as this need for rootedness, this ache for community, this longing for a shalom-oriented rend in the status quo is a universal experience, and not just a sentiment made in the USA, it is something that can and should resonate with every human heart, regardless of where it was born.

In commenting on “Born in the USA,” Springsteen has said, “It was a GI blues, the verses an accounting, the choruses a declaration of the one sure thing that could not be denied … birthplace.  Birthplace, and the right to all of the blood, confusion, blessings and grace that comes with it.  Having paid body and soul, you have earned, many times over, the right to claim and shape your piece of home ground."

Here we get intimations of the theological meaning of a song like “Born in the USA,” I think, and the many other songs in the Springsteen canon that convey the same attachment to one’s “home ground,” and one’s right to “claim and shape” a piece of it.  Songs like “My Hometown,” “American Skin,” “My City of Ruins,” “Death to my Hometown,” though none of them so bluntly as “Born in the USA,” all ring with the same root note: that the place one calls home is worth loving and celebrating and grieving with and agonizing over, simply because it is home.  As screwed up as it sometimes is—and to be clear no one’s hometown isn’t screwed up, when you really get to know it—but as screwed up as it is, that only makes it all the more worth the agony.

I’m suggesting this as the theological meaning of “Born in the USA”—that one’s home ground is worth all the heartache it takes to love it—because it is certainly the kind of sentiment that a Christian with a robust understanding of the incarnation of Jesus Christ would take to heart.  We know, of course, that the incarnation is about the Creator’s passionate commitment to this world; but often, I think, Christians read this in the abstract.  God may have loved “the world” as a general construct, but he didn’t necessarily love this or that specific neighbourhood in the world, did he?  My home town, your street corner, this or that stretch of grass?

Of course, you can’t ask that question without recalling that the covenant Jesus came to fulfill—the covenant to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—was actually a very real promise of “home ground”—a promise of land and birthright and home.  And while Jesus has transformed that covenant so that it is no longer about a tiny strip of land somewhere in the Levant, even so he hasn’t annulled the promise in doing so, rather he’s burst it wide open, so that the “home ground” he offers us now is the whole world, every strip of land, everywhere, redeemed and renewed and restored by the love of God (so Psalm 2:8, “You said, ask of me and I will give the nations as your inheritance, the ends of the earth as your possession.”)  

In Jesus, the Promised Land is now the promised hope of New Creation, healed and renewed and coming soon to a theatre near you.

Through the incarnation, then, God has demonstrated a passion for the welfare of “my hometown” far deeper and purer and more profound than any Springsteen song could ever convey.  And through the incarnation he calls us to share that passion: to love our various strips of “home ground”—my street, my neighbourhood, my corner of the globe—with the redemptive love of Jesus, and then get to work re-weaving the social fabric into a beautiful tapestry of Shalom. 

This is why, though it’s unlikely I’ll ever sing it in the shower, nevertheless I’ve come to appreciate Springsteen’s greatest and most misunderstood piece of music: because it reminds me of something that the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ has proved beyond a shadow of a doubt: that there’s no corner of the Creator’s world that isn’t worth all the agony and heartache, the blood, sweat and tears it costs to love it well.


The Face of a Martyr, a devotional thought

The other day I was reading the story of Stephen in the book of Acts, and I was struck by the description of Stephen at his trial before the Sanhedrin.  Stephen is famous among Bible Trivia buffs for being the first believer to be martyred for his faith, and in Act 6:15, he’s about to give the incendiary sermon that will lead to his summary execution.  But right before he speaks, it says, “All who were sitting [there] looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.”  Such a strange and yet powerful image: in giving his testimony for Jesus—the testimony that will cost him his life—Stephen was so filled with the glory of God that it shone in his face.  Shone so clearly, mind you, that it was like the face of an angel to his interrogators.  It got me thinking: does my witness for Jesus—my testimony to his love, his grace, his mercy, his truth—does it shine in my face with anywhere even near that kind of a heavenly radiance, when I’m sharing it? And how can I be so filled with His Spirit, like Stephen, that it might?