Friday, January 31, 2014

Stones of Remembrance: the Song

Once -- there was a tune and everyone knew how it went
But as time went by, people began to forget
Until at last no one could remember.
(The Tune - Larry Norman)

Music has always been a magnet for my soul. And a source of influence, whether life-giving or death-dealing, because music is powerful. And as a life-long musician, it's obviously an outlet for creative expression and just a whole lotta fun.

But as a Stone of Remembrance -- those markers in our spiritual journeys which represent crucial turning points -- it's hard to point to certain bands or albums, because music continues to be an influence in both large and small ways.

But when the mail arrived yesterday, bringing me a copy of the very first Christian album I ever owned, it got me thinking about the significant impact of music on my life as a young Christian.

Love Song:
Feel the Love

Keith Green:
No Compromise

Resurrection Band:
Awaiting Your Reply

The album that arrived yesterday was Love Song's Feel the Love. It's a very mellow folk/rock album with a couple of songs that are glaringly and (almost) inexcusably country. It's actually somewhat amusing that I liked this album as a young Christian, when my taste at the time was more along the lines of Led Zeppelin and Rush.

But the lyrics... With few exceptions, their lyrics were profoundly crafted and ran the gamut from devotional to testimonial to worship. And because it's a live album, there were short messages sprinkled throughout which functioned as mini-discipleship moments whenever I listened to it. I didn't even really know what "worship" music was, but I remember being profoundly moved by Sometimes Alleluia.

Shortly afterwards, I discovered Keith Green's No Compromise. Now, believe it or not, I had no idea who Keith Green was at the time, or what kind of music he played; he might have been the leader of a barbershop quartet for all I knew. But the artwork was so perfectly suited to the title of the album, I thought 'this guy has something to say', and so I bought the album. Again, it was nothing like Zeppelin or Rush, but the power and passion of Keith's music and uncompromising message immediately won me over.

And then along came Resurrection Band's Awaiting Your Reply. Music that I loved to play on the stereo and on stage with some of my earliest Christian bands (for the curious: we did Waves and Awaiting Your Reply). And in addition to their hard-hitting lyrics and rockin' music, Resurrection Band also sang about justice issues. And put their money where their mouth was, living in the ghettos of Chicago with the people they were reaching out to on a daily basis.
Wendy and I actually went to Chicago (twice -- during Wendy's first pregnancy) and were seriously praying about joining their ministry. God surprised us (yet again) by leading us to pastoring on Vancouver Island instead. Mysterious ways, indeed.
But it's intriguing today, as I listened to these albums -- on iTunes instead of the original vinyl; it's the 21st century, after all -- to note how much influence these musicians had on my early Christian life. I played the original vinyls until they were scratchy and popping like breakfast cereal, and was discipled by a collection of songwriters that in most cases I've never met. I'm so greatly indebted to their influence in my life.

And I sincerely hope that today's young people are also finding artists who can encourage and disciple through their music. Everyone needs their own Stones (and Songs) of Remembrance.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Something Sifty Going On...

Sifting through things is almost always the right idea, the right thing to do. Separating the desirable from the undesirable is a good exercise for the soul.

Of course, there are a few items that shouldn't need to be tossed through a sifter. You don't need to be a rocket scientist to recognize that some things are just too obvious.
I think of the imagery of the sifter when I read verses like this:
As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:14-16)
There are things that, if we stop and look closer, need to be put into the sifter to weed out the chunks. Other things -- resembling, say, cinderblocks -- can be ruled out even without the aid of a sifter. But being "holy" just like God is?!?
The Greek word for "holy" is hagios, which can mean "an awe-ful thing" or "a saint", and we typically have two reactions to this verse:
  1. I could never be as holy as God, so I am perpetually doomed to failure, and
  2. Why does God expect us to be as holy as He is? Is that even possible? Is that fair?!?
But then I remember that another way of saying "holy" is "set apart".

Set apart from the ordinary. Set apart from the mundane. Set apart from the status quo. Set apart for a nobler use in the Master's hands.

And then I insert "set apart" into the passage:
But just as he who called you is [set apart], so be [set apart] in all you do; for it is written: “Be [set apart], because I am [set apart].
It's no less lofty a goal. It's still aligning ourselves with God's view, God's purposes, and making ourselves available for God's use.

But where "holiness" can conjure up mental an image of (usually legalistic) lists of do's and don't's, being "set apart" sounds more like an adventure with God that is positive and full of possibilities.

And therefore, sifting out anything that gets in the way of the adventure just makes good, old-fashioned common sense. And in view of the adventure, we won't even miss it.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Stones of Remembrance: Where Roses Grow

Stones of Remembrance -- those markers on our spiritual journey that highlight important turning points -- refer to events that are vividly stored deep within our memory.

Turning points that -- whether in a crisis moment or more of a process -- helped to shape who we are now as followers of Jesus. These are the times we look back on and recognize God's hand at work.

But truth be told: not all of Stones of Remembrance are positive experiences, at the time. Part of everyone's spiritual journey will include dark and difficult times.

Moments and seasons that test us, when our sense of God's presence is blunted, and we resonate with David's lament: "Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God." (Psalm 42:4)

There have been numerous times over the years that Wendy and I found ourselves living on Hard Times Blvd. Easily the most difficult and devastating time was the death of our first son, Dallas.

We were eight months into our first pastorate, and had just recently had a "break-through" youth retreat with our fledgling group, with many God-moments in the lives of youth and youth leaders alike. We were all flying high with excitement and gratitude for what God was doing in our midst.

And just two weeks later, we were standing in the pouring rain, numbly watching as a tiny white casket was lowered into the earth. The guy from the funeral home got out of his car and just tucked the casket under his arm as he brought it to the graveside. For some reason, that simple gesture hit me like a bolt of malevolent lightning -- Caskets should never be that small.
Remember that scene in LOTR: The Two Towers, where King Theoden says to Gandalf, "No parent should ever have to bury their child?" To this day, I've never been able to watch that scene without fighting back tears.
We had the support of a good church family during that season. The youth leadership team (the "Dead Prophet Society") were gifts from God to us; they supported us, prayed for/with us, and went above and beyond week after week in the youth ministry at our church. Neil, Heather, Daryl, Bonnie, Drew, Cathy, Janet, the "other" Daryl, Yvonne, Paul, Glenn, Tanya, and Marie: I wish everyone could experience community with people like you.

The ringleader of a disruptive group of guys in the youth group came to visit Wendy in the hospital; he sat quietly with her for awhile, and then prayed for her. He went home and said to his younger sister, "If I'm going to call myself a Christian, I guess I'd better start living like one." To this day, the change that began with that decision continues to bear fruit in his life.

Did you know that 45% of the Psalms (67 out of 150) are Psalms of Lament? Songs of pain, turmoil, fear, doubt -- and yet a faith in God that was the anchor/balm for the soul. Today, we'd called these songs "the blues". We can sing our struggles to God.
The truth is, we often grow more when we're the most desperate before God. Sometimes, we learn what it means to be "the Body of Christ" best when we are at the end of our rope. We learn to receive because we have nothing to give.

Yes, some Stones of Remembrance are painful to recall. We don't have all the answers this side of heaven. Sometimes all we have is faith, hope, and love. We learn to trust God even if we don't understand (yet). Knowing that when the Kingdom comes in its fullness, it will all be good.
We will run where roses grow, our feet unbound at last
Laugh as morning dawns, the night forever past
See the face of glory, feel the river flow
Hear the voice of God, and run where roses grow
('Where Roses Grow' by Resurrection Band)

Friday, January 10, 2014

Just Another Day in the Wilderness

A summer spent as a Re-Forestation Specialist -- or tree-planter in the common tongue -- yields many wonderful discoveries:
  • experiencing nature (black flies, deer flies, hungry bears, and coyotes)
  • group dynamics after living in the bush for four months (think: Lord of the Flies)
  • your own character (in adverse conditions, you might not be as nice a person as you assumed you were)
  • DEET, the breakfast of champions
  • the daily ritual of the morning fire-pit, with the cozy circle of steel-toed work-boots lined up around it (because cold steel boots are very painful on the feet)
  • breaking a hole in the ice-covered lake to wash your hair (rinse and repeat? Are you kidding?!?)
  • 14-15 hours per day shalt thou work, six days a week, come sun, rain, or snow
One fine morning -- sunny with blue skies and high temperatures -- I found myself staggering and dizzy in the midst of the planting area, shovel in one hand and a carrier with a hundred little baby trees in the other. The planting area had been devastated by a forest fire some years earlier, causing it to resemble the surface of, say, Mars.

Dizzy? Staggering? Whatever for, you ask?

Our crew's supervisor, the previous afternoon, had been driving our work van at speeds usually reserved for those fleeing in abject terror from the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Logging roads are notoriously unpredictable, and when we hit... something... the back of the van lurched sharply up and then powerfully down.
As the occupant of the very back seat, I was thrown against the roof (the rear seats had no seatbelts), and cracked my head on the exposed frame. As it turns out, the frame of the van was made of sterner stuff than, say, my skull.

A two-inch gash was my reward, and I'm reasonably sure I actually saw stars. Somebody's t-shirt was sacrificed to stem the bleeding, and Tylenol helped me sleep that night in spite of the pack of coyotes doing laps around our nylon tents.

But the Morning After ... Have I mentioned deer flies? They have radar ability to scent blood like Ring Wraiths chasing Frodo through Mordor. So here I was, staggering and dizzy in the field, trying to ward off strafing runs from blood-crazed insectoid alien life forms. After four months in the bush, I thought I was going to lose my mind.
And, just for fun, try to picture what it must have looked like: a dirty, sweaty 21-year-old in ripped and filthy clothing, standing in the middle of a burned-out lunar landscape, swinging a shovel over his head at tiny but murderous insect assailants. To even the most casual observer, it probably looked like I had already lost my mind.
And then it hit me, a revelation of almost biblical proportions: I wasn't a prisoner here. I could quit! Escape with my life and most of my sanity intact! Get my head examined! (too little, too late?) And so, still swatting deer flies away with my shovel, I began to calculate my escape plan.
  • I'd have to hike a couple of miles back to our base camp for my personal gear.
  • It was a further 15 miles (24km) from base camp to the nearest town. With all my gear.
  • My winter gear was still stored in yet another town, 60 miles north. I'd have to get that, too.
  • An "A-ha" moment:  I remembered the additional van back at our base camp, which wasn't in use because it needed repairs.

I informed my supervisor that I was quitting, and then hiked back to the base camp. My supervisor had expressed a certain lack of confidence (to put it politely) in my ability to repair the van, but she under-estimated just how desperate I was to escape hell return to civilization, now that I'd made my decision.

As I had suspected, it was a carburetor problem, easily and quickly fixed. Shortly thereafter, I pulled into the nearest town, bought a bus ticket -- it came only once a day, so the pressure was on -- asked the gas station attendant to "watch my gear", and drove north to get my winter gear.

A couple of hours later, I was back at the bus station/gas station/post office/general store, and added my winter gear (and guitar) to the pile that the gas jockey was responsible to safeguard.

Before heading back into the bush, I filled the van with gas (seemed like the right thing to do), and drove back up the logging roads, and left it at the base camp.

And started walking.

Despite (a) my ambitious escape plan, (b) successful repair of the van (yep, it was the carburetor), (c) purchased bus ticket in my wallet, and (d) gathered gear waiting for me in town, Reality began to rear its ugly head.

The bus only came once per day -- about 45 minutes from now.

I was on foot, with at least fifteen miles (24km) to go.

Although it was still mid-afternoon, I would probably have to spend the night sleeping somewhere in the bush (the memory of the coyote pack from the previous night popped uninvited into my mind).

Prayer seemed like a good idea. I had no intention of walking back to the base camp (nor was I certain if my supervisor -- repaired van with a full tank of gas notwithstanding -- would even allow it), but I had to face the truth: there was no way I was going to make it back into town in time.

I had barely said "amen" when I heard a loud engine approaching from behind. Turning around to look, sure enough, a pickup truck came bounding over the hill, raising a huge dust cloud as it careened down the logging road. As I soon learned, a work crew from a nearby hydro-electric dam was knocking off early and heading into town for beers.

I stuck my thumb out in the time-honored tradition of Escaping Re-Forestation Specialists everywhere. They only had space for me in the back of the truck bed, but it looked like Elijah's Chariot of Fire as far as I was concerned.

And the next thing I knew, I was dragging my gear to the side of the road just as the daily bus appeared down the highway.

I was reminded of two very important lessons as I stretched out my dusty and aching body as best I could in the bus seat, swallowing a few additional Tylenol for my omnipresent headache:

And I'm grateful for both.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

#@$%*! Authentic

"The road to hell is paved with Adverbs." ~ Stephen King

"Substitute [expletive deleted] every time you're inclined to write 'very'; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be." ~ Mark Twain

Writers are obsessed with words. Finding just the right one, or the right combination. Words that paint a picture but resist the tendency to paint with neon colours when more subtle tones would be preferable.

Some words, however, have been mercilessly beaten with pointed sticks in recent years. Their once-rich meanings have been diluted, co-opted, and/or caricatured into completely new connotations.
Authentic/authenticity would be among them.
To be "authentic" used to mean that you were trustworthy; that you weren't two-faced; you were not the kind of person prone to -- as the Mennonites observe with both pith and eloquence -- "Saying me 'yes' but doing me 'no'". In other words, you could be counted on.

In the early 21st century, however, we've done something truly bizarre to a once-meaningful word.

Today, to be truly "authentic" as a Christian, your speech needs to be well-peppered with profanity. You ain't real if you ain't cussin'.

Perhaps you've noticed how people's eyes light up, and they say things like, "You dropped the f-bomb! NOW I can take you seriously as a follower of Jesus!"

What's wrong with this picture?

Actually, this isn't a rant about Christians justifying the use of profanity (well, not entirely, anyway). But I would like to go out on a limb a little bit here, and make an wee observation:
If we think authenticity = cussin', perhaps we need a better definition of "authenticity".
au·then·tic·i·ty [aw-then-tis-i-tee]; noun
1. the quality of being authentic; genuineness
  • au·then·tic [aw-then-tik]; adjective
    1. not false; genuine; real
Jesus seemed to view authenticity much more like the dictionary definition:
When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, "Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit." (John 1:47)
When I think of people who exemplify authenticity, it has everything to do with their character, their trust-worthiness, their consistency in how they treat others. They are "what you see is what you get" kind of people.

I'm not on a crusade regarding Christians cussin' up a storm -- although I do wonder how Ephesians 5:4 fits -- but I would like to see us have a deeper expectation and understanding of what makes a person truly "authentic".

Saturday, January 4, 2014


I'm worried about some of my friends. They're really good people, and I deeply value our relationships.

But I'm growing concerned that some of them may have been sucked into a mind-bending cult. They seem, well... brainwashed.
They don't appear capable of thinking independently any more. Any attempt to engage with them on an intellectual level is met with a glassy-eyed stare and the chanting of their favourite new mantra.

And if you try to question or reason with them about this mindless mantra, you get a reaction similar to Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
And it seems to be spreading. Insidiously and relentlessly. For example:

Try telling a Christian guy that he shouldn't be living with his girlfriend, or that they shouldn't be having sex if they're not married yet.

Try suggesting that drinking alcohol in moderation is okay, but drinking to get drunk is wrong. Or that developing various addictions might not be a good idea.

Cue the mantra.

Usually delivered with a self-righteous & dismissive haughtiness because now you are guilty of that most heinous and contemptible of all sins: you "judged" them.

They love to quote: "if anyone is without sin, let him cast the first stone", but conveniently ignore that Jesus also said (in the same passage), "leave your life of sin" (John 8:2-11).

(What?!? Did Jesus just judge that poor woman, by insinuating that her adultery was "sin"?!?)

They are also quick to quote Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: "Do not judge", in addition to mentioning specks of sawdust versus wooden planks in our eyes (Matthew 7:1-5). But they seem immunized against the intellectual honesty of carefully considering what Jesus actually meant.

And the mind-numbing nature of their mantra makes it virtually impossible to point out -- logically, intellectually, or theologically -- that there is a big difference between exercising common-sense judgment and being judgmental.

If we were to say, for example, "human trafficking is evil", we are judging. And by implying that those who engage in and profit from human trafficking are therefore also evil, we are judging.

Name any "justice issue", and you are judging. You have to decide what is acceptable, and what is unacceptable. What is justice, or injustice. What is right, or wrong.

You have to judge.

Which is completely different from being judgmental.

John Stott comments eloquently on the "don't judge" section of the Sermon on the Mount in Christian Counter-Culture:
"In all of our attitudes and behavior towards others we are to play neither the judge (becoming harsh, censorious and condemning) nor the hypocrite (blaming others while excusing ourselves), but the brother, caring for others so much that we first blame and correct ourselves and then seek to be constructive in the help we give them."
In the Christian faith, and for those who self-identify as followers of Jesus, it's kosher to judge between acceptable and unacceptable, between right and wrong, between good and evil.

Between righteousness (as defined by the Bible) and sinfulness (as defined by the Bible).

It's the attitude of being judgmental that is the problem: the snidely self-righteous, holier-than-thou, look-down-your-nose-at attitude best evidenced by Jesus' most notorious nemeses: the Pharisees. The attitude that takes delighted glee in pointing out the failures of others (which excusing or ignoring their own).

Does anyone have any experience with what type of intervention would be adequate to begin de-programing those who have been brain-washed by the "judge not" cult? (I would assume that pointing out that they are being judgmental when they accuse others of being judgmental is probably a waste of time.) Because this goose-stepping, brain-sucking mantra is a diabolically nasty one.

Coffee with Jesus (Radio Free Babylon)