Friday, January 31, 2014

My Life As A Movie

Today, I had the opportunity to speak to a group of students at Alberta Bible College about making choices in life. Prior to my presentation we had all seen a video of Donald Miller speaking on the theme of "my life as a movie;" so we all had certain concepts in our head. If your life were a movie, what would the main character want? What would be the conflicts? What would be the climactic scenes? Here is some of what I said to the students.
Many of you in the room are twenty-something, just a few years out of high-school, and you are looking ahead toward many years of life, family, and work. There is a tendency when you are in that position to think that you are now choosing what you will be doing for the rest of your life. There is a lot of pressure on you to make the right choice. That pressure can push us toward the safe options. Faced with going to Africa to drill wells, develop solar or wind technologies, or stay in Canada and get a job as a plumber, we choose the safe option. Now, there is nothing wrong with becoming a plumber, or a doctor, or a pastor, or a fireman if we are choosing it because we are called to it or want to do it. But, if we choose anything because it is safe, that is not a good reason to choose it. 
I think I was asked to speak here today because I am kind of the poster boy for having multiple careers. My life is proof that just because you choose one career at this point in your life, you are certainly not stuck in that career for the rest of your life. I also think, by God's grace, that I have been able to avoid choosing the safe option at several points in my life. Donald Miller, in that You-Tube video, suggests that we must "want something," we must "experience conflict," and we must "envision the climactic scenes" of our life.  
Let's start with the "wants." Here are how some of my "wants" have matured over the years. 
* At 6 years old I wanted to be tall. My grand-father was six foot one and I prayed that I might be taller than him. Today I am six foot three. Did God answer that very immature prayer? 
* At 17 years old I wanted to get away. I had just graduated high-school and I was rebelling against my parents. I left to go to a university engineering program. It was still an immature "want." I was just running away. 
* At 28 my wants matured a bit. I was married and had two kids and I was in University. I wanted a job that would feed my family. This was a more noble goal but not exactly a worthy "want." 
* At 35 I wanted to serve God as a leader in the church. 
* At 53 I find that I want to pour my life into turning over the leadership of the church to a new generation of leaders. 
I encourage you to get a head-start on setting some worthy goals. Desire great things for God now; at this point in your life. Decide now what that worthwhile life goal will be. 
Donald Miller also encourages us to embrace conflict. I absolutely agree with this concept. God does not protect us from difficulty, struggle, conflict, or pain. He uses such things to build our souls. He is much more interested in our souls than he is in our fleeting physical lives. Allow the conflict of your life to shape your soul and make you stronger. 
Miller encourages us to imagine the climactic scenes in our lives. Allow me to pin-point a few climactic scenes in my own life so that you might imagine how yours might look.  
1. At 18 I was headed for an Engineering degree. I could finish the program and be guaranteed a good job at the end of the program. The choice was Engineering school (safe) or finish a degree at Alberta Bible College (ABC) to be prepared for serving God (unsafe - throwing away my earning potential). I chose to finish a degree at ABC. 
2. After graduating from ABC, I spent a few years working in churches as a pastor. Eventually, I had a choice to make, keep working as a pastor (safe) or go back to school and seek to get into the medical field (unsafe, going back to school, going into debt). I chose to go back to school and work on a Bachelor of Science in Molecular Biology. 
3. After graduating from the University of Calgary I began work at the Alberta Children's Hospital working in the Molecular Diagnostic Lab. Years later, another choice came along. I could stay as a Lab scientist (safe, I had been there for 13 years; I could easily retire there with a pension) or become a church planter (unsafe - risky, no guarantees). I chose to leave the lab and start a new church congregation. 
4. Five years later, we had started a new church in Calgary and we had a stable church that could sustain me as their pastor. I could stay there as a Church pastor in Calgary (safe) or I could go and be a church planter again in Vancouver (unsafe). I chose to go to Vancouver and start again. This time, the planting did not go as well and we failed in Vancouver. Yet, in the midst of "failure," people's lives were changed and God was gracious to us. 
The conclusion of all of this is that, in my life, I have managed to slowly develop more and more mature "wants" in my life; and, at most of the climactic scenes in my life, I have chosen the unsafe choice. I encourage you to want big things in life: world peace, an end to hunger, an end to poverty in our world, that all people might hear the gospel of Jesus Christ, that many might become followers of Jesus. Dream big. I also encourage you to regularly choose the things to which God just might be calling you. When faced with safe and unsafe options, go for the unsafe options.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Justice In A Dangerous Time

I first came across the International Justice Mission when Jamie McIntosh was establishing the Canadian arm of the mission in Canada. It was 2002 and Jamie was thoroughly convinced of the message he had been given for the people of Canada. The mission of IJM Canada is
"To protect the poor from violence by rescuing victims, bringing the criminals to justice, restoring survivors to safety and strength, and helping local law enforcement build a safe future that lasts."
He knew that it would not be easy; justice ministries are not 100 metre dashes; they are long distance, endurance runs. Quite frankly, his zeal scared me and I was not sure the message would be well-received in the church; but, I also admired his willingness to speak out and say things that others had said before him but needed to be said again. His words rang like those of an Old Testament Prophet:
“Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; You will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets and Dwellings.” Isaiah 58:12
He sounded like our Lord rebuking those who thought that they were above reproach:
"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices - mint, dill and cummin. But you neglected the more important matters of the law - justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former." Matthew 23:23
Bow Valley Christian Church will hear these words again as Mark Wollenburg represents the International Justice Mission of Canada at our World Outreach Weekend, 2014. Hear Mark speak at the Saturday (February 1) banquet and the Sunday (February 2) morning service. He will tell us of Project Lantern designed "to demonstrate the effectiveness of a law enforcement based strategy to reduce the prevalence of sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation of children in the Metro Cebu area" of the Philippines." We will all be challenged.
“Victims of injustice do not need our spasm of passion. They need our long obedience in the same direction. They need our legs and lungs of endurance.” IJM Founder Gary Haugen

Friday, January 24, 2014

Everybody Wants To Rule The World

Let me put it out there for all to read: I want to change the world! But then, everybody wants to change the world. In fact, in the words of "Tears For Fears," "everybody wants to rule the world." In my natural self, I want a world that works for me. In this perspective, world peace is good because it means that my family is, my friends are, my country is, and I am, safe. Yet, in my better self, in my redeemed self, I want to change the world, not rule it. I want the world to become the world that God wants it to become. This perspective is less about me; in fact, sometimes it means that changes to the world may affect me adversely. This naturally brings us to questions about mechanisms for changing the world and our motivations for changing the world. The astute reader will have already picked up on my stated motivation: "I want the world to become the world that God wants it to become." Of course, even as I state this, I am aware of the challenge to interpret this, and then live this. What if we started small? What if we started near?
When I was young, I set out to change the world. When I grew a little older, I perceived this was too ambitious, so I set out to change my state. This too I realized was too ambitious, so I set out to change my town. When I realized I could not even do this, I tried to change my family. Now as an old man I know that I should have started by changing myself. If I had started with myself, maybe then I would have succeeded in changing my family, the town, or even the state - and who knows maybe even the world. - Hassidic rabbi on his deathbed.1
I am neither particularly young, nor am I particularly old, and I am definitely not on my deathbed; but, the words of this rabbi resonate with my soul. Changing the world begins with changing me! If I want a world that looks like God's design, then my life must look like God's design. I am not talking about some legalistic, checking over my shoulder to see if I am on "God's good boy list." Becoming the person God wants me to be will be about enjoying and stewarding all that this world has to offer: my wife, my daughters, my grandchildren, the mountains, the seas . . . . Change can then radiate outwardly from me. Hmmm, what will this look like in my life? What will it look like in yours?
Everybody Wants To Rule The World 
(Words and music by Roland Orzabal, Ian Stanley, Chris Hughes) (Listen here
Welcome to your life
There's no turning back
Even while we sleep
We will find you 
Acting on your best behaviour
Turn your back on mother nature
Everybody wants to rule the world 
It's my own design
It's my own remorse
Help me to decide
Help me make the most 
Of freedom and of pleasure
Nothing ever lasts forever
Everybody wants to rule the world 
There's a room where the light won't find you
Holding hands while the walls come tumbling down
When they do I'll be right behind you 
So glad we've almost made it
So sad they had to fade it
Everybody wants to rule the world 
I can't stand this indecision
Paired with a lack of vision
Everybody wants to rule the world 
Say that you'll never never never never need it
One headline why believe it ?
Everybody wants to rule the world 
All for freedom and for pleasure
Nothing ever lasts forever
Everybody wants to rule the world 

1 (Scazzero, Daily Office: Remembering God's Presence Throughout The Day 2008, 56)

Works Cited:
Scazzero, Peter. Daily Office: Remembering God's Presence Throughout The Day. Barrington: Willow Creek Resources, 2008.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

People Turn to Religion

John Stackhouse says that "People turn to religion only if they have a good reason. The instrumental reasons are gone with the wind."1 That is, people no longer believe that they must go to church to increase their social standing or to impress their business constituents. He points out that in one particular panel discussion he and other participants
noted how low church attendance is in the one place in Canada most focused on the here and now, on sensual pleasure and self-fulfillment – Vancouver. No wonder church plants come and go here with dismaying rapidity.
Yet it’s also interesting that the churches that thrive here are full of people between 18 and 35. The older demographic (35–60) is much less in evidence. Those older ones are the people who have somehow been able to succeed in Vancouver’s punishing real estate market and construct a lifestyle they like. They don’t go to church. Why should they?
But the younger adults – those the economy is not welcoming, who carry debts they fear they can never pay off, and who are searching for a meaningful life in a world that seems indifferent to their aspirations – they’re in church. Are we church leaders properly addressing their needs? Or just anesthetizing these hungry searchers with an hour or so of lively music, group solidarity and undemanding sermonizing?2
Has he hit upon something novel here? Is there a significant economic unrest among 18 to 35 year olds? Do some long for a meaningful life? What are the needs that older leaders might address? Which ones have we missed? I am certainly interested in creating missional communities of Christ that will generate life-giving space for hungry searchers. Life-giving space must address the economic unrest of our time: the "haves" and the "have-nots" and the increasing gulf between the rich and the poor. It will also include space for serving the least, the lost, and the lonely of the predominant culture. It cannot simply address the self-interest of those who find it hard to pay off the debts they carry. The Gospel in every culture and every time is good news to the poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed, and all people.

 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,
    that the blind will see,
that the oppressed will be set free,
and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.
Luke 4:18, 19, NLT.

1. Faith Today, January/February 2014, "Will Canada Be The Next Sweden?" John G. Stackhouse Jr.,
2. Ibid.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Soul Building

Difficulty, pain, and suffering are things that all of us would like to avoid. We would prefer that God would simply make our lives beautiful and perfect. We would like to have God give us a perfect job, a large salary, abundant health, the ideal spouse, and wonderful kids. Some preachers would have us believe that if we become born-again Christians, and live a certain way, God will make us financially prosperous and that all of our problems will go away. What we frequently see in life contradicts such dreams of perfection and the promises of health-and-wealth preachers. Sickness and disaster come upon both the righteous and the unrighteous. Even the healthiest among us age and find that our eyes do not work as well as they once did, hips and knees wear out, and all of us will one day die.

So why must we live with all of these problems? After all, we read things like this in the Bible:
* "'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'" (Jeremiah 29:11 NIV)
* "And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work." (2 Corinthians 9:8 NIV)
What we sometimes miss is that God is less concerned with our physical being than he is with our soul. God uses the challenges, the difficulties, the pain, and the sorrow of this life to help us develop our souls. His desire is that our souls might be rightly fitted for a life in heaven.

John Hick, one of the greatest proponents of "suffering as soul-building," says,
One who has attained to goodness by meeting and eventually mastering temptations, and thus by rightly making responsible choices in concrete situations, is good in a richer and more valuable sense than would be one created . . . [from the beginning in] a state either of innocence or of virtue. In the former case, which is that of the actual moral achievements of mankind, the individual’s goodness has within it the strength of temptations overcome, a stability based upon an accumulation of right choices, and a positive and responsible character that comes from the investment of costly personal effort. . . .Men are not to be thought of on the analogy of animal pets, whose life is to be made as agreeable as possible, but rather on the analogy of human children, who are to grow to adulthood in an environment whose primary and overriding purpose is not immediate pleasure but the realizing of the most valuable potentialities of human personality.1
St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) wrote of "the dark night of the soul" sent to us by God to purge our soul and make us the person God is calling us to be. He wrote,
[God] is purging the soul, annihilating it, emptying it or consuming in it (even as fire consumes the mouldiness and the rust of metal) all the affections and imperfect habits which it has contracted its whole life . . . . These are deeply rooted in the substance of the soul.2
By various means God is trying to get our attention so that we might seek him, love him, and live out our lives on this earth according to his purposes and plans. Our natural selves seek comfort and a pain-free life. But God allows the challenges of this world so that our souls might grow as we pay attention to him and accept guidance from him. We may not even recognize the things God brings into our lives to help build our souls. In fact, we may misinterpret some of the events which come our way. There is a Chinese fable that is told in many places that illustrates this fact.3
There once was a man who lived on the northern frontier of China whose horse ran away to the nomads across the border. Everyone tried to console him, but his father said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a blessing?”
Some months later, his horse returned/bringing a splendid nomad stallion. Everyone congratulated him, but his father said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a disaster?”
Their household was richer by a fine horse, which the son loved to ride. One day, he fell and broke his hip. Everyone tried to console him, but his father said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a blessing?”
A year later the nomads came in force across the border, and every able-bodied man took his bow and went into battle. The Chinese frontiersmen lost nine of every ten men. Only because the son was lame, did father and son survive to take care of each other.
Some people grow bitter and reject the learning that is available from struggle and pain; but, if we embrace what can be learned from every circumstance of life, our souls will grow. We can become a better person because of the struggles, become more ready for the next challenges of life, and become prepared to breathe the air of heaven.

1 John Hick, Evil and the God of Love (New York: Harper and Row, 1978), 255-258.
2 As quoted in Scazzero, Peter. Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006; p. 124.
3 One place the story is told is in Scazzero, Peter. Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006; p. 129, 130.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

My Authentic Self

I…love to clothe this false self…and I wind experiences around myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself visible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface. But there is no substance under the things with which I am clothed. I am hollow…And when they are gone there will be nothing left of me but my own nakedness and emptiness and hollowness…
Thomas Merton in Seeds of Contemplation and quoted in Daily Office: Remembering God's Presence Throughout The Day by Peter Scazzero.
Who am I when all of the masks, bandages, and false clothing are stripped away? The path to becoming my authentic self lies in understanding myself. I must pay attention to my emotions in various settings. When I feel inferior to others and I am tempted to make myself out to be better than I am in that situation, what is it that is at the root of this? I must listen to my emotions but then turn those emotions over to God and ask him to instruct me in the appropriate ways to deal with those emotions.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Gene Therapy

Molecular biologists have been searching for years to find efficient and effective ways of accomplishing gene therapy. None of the attempts thus far have worked. One of the most promising in recent years is explained in an article published in the journal Science in February of 2013. The researchers suggest that using an RNA guiding system might be the way to achieve the desired repair. (RNA is a nucleic acid which binds to DNA and is the normal molecule that makes copies of our DNA so that proteins can be made from the RNA.)

This post will attempt to explain the procedure in simplified terms and point to the potential for valuable medicine in this method. First of all, gene therapy, if it is ever achieved, would be the ability to repair DNA mutations that lead to disease. For the purposes of this discussion we will use one of the most common mutations which causes Cystic Fibrosis (CF). CF is a disease which affects the lungs, pancreas, liver, and intestines because of excessively thick secretions in each of these organs. The most common genetic mutation is the delta-F508 mutation. If a person inherits one copy of this mutation from each of their parents, every cell in their body will carry two copies of this mutation and the person will be affected with the disorder. The disease is serious and results in a shortened life expectancy.

What this means at the DNA level is that where most of us have a stretch of DNA, at a spot marked as 507/508, that looks like this: TAGAAA. The person carrying the mutation has only TAA; the sequence GAA is missing. A slightly longer sequence in this region looks like this in the normal gene: TTATAGTAGAAACCA; and in the mutated form: TTATAGTAACCA.

In order for gene therapy to work in repairing this mutation, what is needed is an enzyme that disperses to every cell in our body (approximately 10 trillion cells), finds the appropriate TTATAGTAACCA (mutant, disease causing) string, cuts it out, and replaces it with TTATAGTAGAAACCA (the appropriate healthy string of DNA). That is quite the surgical procedure. The researchers who wrote in Science believe they may have come up with a way to do just this. They have created enzymes with short pieces of RNA attached. With appropriate RNA sequences, the enzymes will bind to specific DNA sequences so that the enzymes can do their repair work. It is a very interesting development. I will be watching this work to see how well it pans out. Many previous attempts at gene therapy have failed to live up to their original hype. This one, so far, shows great promise.

Works Cited:
"Top Scientific Discoveries of 2013;" Wired Science; December 18, 2013;

Science 15 February 2013: Vol. 339, no. 6121, pp. 768-770, "New Tool for Genome Surgery," John van der Oost;

Saturday, January 11, 2014

What Is It That Makes Music Good?

My friend, Malcolm McMillan, who is also a worship pastor at our church, sent me this message on Facebook.
Hey everyone, I am giving a guest lecture to a Bible College class in February about art and the nature of beauty, and I could use your help. My talk is supposed to focus on music specifically and the standards by which we judge and enjoy it. Since I have fewer answers on this than I thought I did several years ago (ha ha), I thought I'd go through my Facebook friends list and ask anyone I thought might be remotely interested in this topic! If you are so inclined to honor me with your time, I would love to hear your somewhat succinct viewpoint on this question: What is it that makes music "good" or "bad"? (not in the moral sense as much as the quality sense). In other words, when you say, "That's a good song!", what are you saying beyond, "That song appeals to my taste."?
As soon as I read the question I knew I was in for a few hours of intense thinking, significant conversations, study, and discontent. I knew I could never be content with my own answers to this question and probably would not be satisfied with anyone's answer. I also knew that I had to respond. So, if you are a regular reader of this blog you will find this article to be about six times longer than my usual posts and I recommend that you make sure you have enough time to read it all before embarking on this journey with me. Go put on the kettle and make a pot of tea before you settle in for a winter read.

The first thing I concluded was that the best I could hope to say was, "For me, this is a great song and here is why." Yet, this in itself is very unsatisfying. I would like to think that there is some kind of ideal someplace that represents "good" music. I would like to think that there is a gold standard that backs up all of the imperfect echoes of music heard on earth.  Chris Rice wants to write "the best song ever" and seems to share my hope that there could be some sort of Platonic Forms of music (non-material but substantial abstracts of all things on earth).
The Best Song Ever 
(Written by Chris Rice and performed on the album Amusing
Take a good look at yourself
You’re probably singing along
Lying alone in your room
Or cruisin’ down an empty road
Or maybe you’re on your feet
In a crowd of strangers and friends
The spotlight’s on someone else
But you feel like you’re part of the show
What’s the magic in the music?
And why does it bring us together like this?
We all have a longing inside
And it keeps us singing song after song after song... 
We’re all waiting for the best song ever
It’s somewhere out there, and everyone can feel it
We keep waiting for the best song ever
And when it arrives the whole world’s gonna hear it
Yeah, the best song ever
One day we’ll all be singing it together 
Where will the song come from?
Who’s gonna find the right words?
Come up with a melody
That rings in every human soul
Well dig out your instruments
Make sure they’re all in tune
‘Cause nobody knows how long
But we still got some singing to do
‘Cause there’s magic in the music
Just look how it brings us together like this
We all have a longing inside
And it keeps us singin’ song after song after song 
We’re all waiting for the best song ever
It’s somewhere out there, and everyone can feel it
We keep waiting for the best song ever
And when it arrives the whole world is gonna hear it
Yeah, the best song ever
One day we’ll all be singing it together
The best song ever!
Of course, in a world that no longer thinks in terms of absolutes, Plato's Forms get little respect. The best that Chris Rice or you or I might hope for is to write "the most popular song" ever. Is that what we mean when we say that a song is really good? Certainly, we would expect good music to grab the attention of many people but I am sure we can all point to songs that are popular that do not seem very good. We might have to look at what contributed to their popularity.

One of the things that contributes to popularity is what Malcolm McMillan calls "context." He asserts that the context in which a song comes to us determines our reaction to that song and our sense of whether or not we like it and how beautiful it sounds to us. He is saying that our emotional state as we listen to a song affects our perception of that song. The best example of this is when one is emotionally caught up in the story of a movie or stage-play and we hear a song at that moment that has been chosen to fit the mood. It may be the first time we have heard that song or the hundredth time; but after hearing the song in that context it will likely pull us toward the emotions of the drama the next time we hear it. The song does not have to have a prominent place in the drama to have this effect. For me, the song, "I Will Not Go Quietly" by Steven Curtis Chapman, has a powerful emotional sway even though it is only heard in the movie, The Apostle, for about two seconds. Yet, because it is caught up in the milieu of an emotionally charged movie, and is included on the sound track album for the movie, it affects me more than it otherwise might.

Malcolm also attributes "context" when he says that a piece of art created by his child will move him more than it might otherwise because of the relationship he has with his child. Certainly, relationship with the artist and relationship to the art is a contributing factor.

Beyond all I have already said on this topic are several other factors I am going to try to list. I will seek to present them in a descending order of their effect (once again – I must specify that this is how it works for me).

1. It most often starts with lyrics for me. I love clever rhymes and partial rhymes that convey the message as well as, or better than, straight prose. "Faith Enough" by Jars of Clay has many clever turns of phrase that catch me off-guard. I was not expecting them to say, "the ice is thin enough for walking" and relate it to a faith that is enough to rely upon. The fact that they wrap it all up in a clever rhyme scheme adds to the power of this song. It encourages me to think that this might hold some sway for many other people as well.

2. Another important factor for me is, "Can I sing the song?" If the song is well-suited to my voice, and particularly if it is a song that is challenging to sing, I am more apt to like the song. If it is a song that few in the world would tackle and yet I can sing it, that is almost a guarantee that it will be in my favourites list.

3. Along with the "can I sing it" factor is the "have I ever sung it in public?" factor. I have been blessed to sing songs in many different venues over the span of my life (some originals and many covers). When I hear one of those songs it takes me back to the thrill of performing and the joy of seeing others enjoy a song as it is performed live.

4. Then there is the voice of the singer. Compare these two versions of a classic song, the Wichita Lineman. Jimmie Webb wrote the song and performs it here. Glen Campbell made it a huge hit and sings it here. Even if we ignore the differences in the band and the arrangements, the voices have significantly different qualities.

5. Arrangements and stylistic differences affect our perception of songs. Darrel Scott wrote a song called "Never Leave Harlan Alive." He, Kathy Mattea, and Brad Paisley have all recorded it and sold the recordings. All three are great performers and singers but when I poll my friends about which version is best I find that different people choose different recordings for a variety of reasons. (By the way, if you find a recording of Keith Shields singing it a cappella in a Vancouver coffee-house, that is definitely not the best recording of the song.)

6. The melody of the song is important. Everyone continues to look for beautiful melodies that no one else has found. But the match of lyrics to melody is also important. Paul McCartney has spoken of the writing of "Yesterday" in multiple places (see the various biographies or this interview).
I woke up one morning with the song in my head. So, I went round for weeks - first of all to John, and then to George, Ringo, George Martin, various people - and said, ‘What’s this tune, man? I can’t get it out of my head, what is it?’ And no one could figure it out, so for a couple of weeks I thought, ‘Well, I must have written it then’, cos all those people had pretty good knowledge of what songs were either around or had been. So, I had the tune, and then I blocked it out with, [sings verse melody] “Scrambled eggs / Oh my baby, how I love your legs”, which was the first lyric, and I just used to goof with that for a while.
I think we are all happy that Sir Paul eventually went to a different place with the lyrics.

7. Harmonies likely should be higher on this list. I love great two-part (Everly Brothers) or four-part (Eagles) harmony. The meshing of two or more notes to create a chord is certainly one of the great mysteries of creation that points to an orderly God.

8. Another form of "context" is when we can relate to a song or we know someone else who can relate to that song. A young man recently called in to a radio station in Calgary and told the DJs that his heart had been broken by a woman that he had loved for ten years. He wanted to request "Tonight I Wanna Cry" by Keith Urban. The words of the song fit the way he felt and hearing it was cathartic in his grieving process. One can readily see how the song becomes a "good" song or even a great song to this man. He may not even care if it is high quality music because it speaks to his emotions.

9. That leads me to another important factor for me: "Does the song affect my emotions?" A well-arranged string section can cause my heart to ache; a single note from Alison Krauss' voice in "Ghost In This House" can bring tears to my eyes (some of you know the note I am talking about), or a well-timed guitar solo in "Wichita Lineman" can bring great joy and goose-bumps to me. This is the mystery of music. It is hard to pin-point such effects and even harder to measure them; yet, I cannot deny that they are there. This is the existential and experiential element in this discussion. There is a song by the Eagles on the Long Road Out of Eden project that I have often called a masterpiece; but when people ask me why I believe "Waiting In the Weeds" to be a masterpiece, I am hard pressed to come up with a complete answer.

10. The skill of the musicians is part of what goes into this. The tunings they choose, the accuracy of tuning, and the dynamic sound levels are further factors. All of this and more is what we would refer to as the arrangement and we have already seen that this makes a huge difference.

11. A factor that is easily ignored is the degree to which we listen to a certain style of music. If we live in a culture that plays eastern music as opposed to western music we will be accustomed to different scales, rhythms, and sounds than those who listen exclusively to western music. Musical styles affect our "ear for music." If I steep myself in rock rather than folk music I will likely develop a greater love for rock than folk. For a season, I was a singer in a Southern Gospel quartet and I listened to many other Southern Gospel groups and learned to recognize "good" Southern Gospel; I did musical theatre for a brief time and gained an appreciation for songs that fit the moment in a drama; then I was lead singer in a country band and we covered the "popular" country songs of a five to ten year period of country music; next, I sang with a six piece folk-rock band, which later became a folk duo (you can attribute the attrition to creative differences). At each stage, my musical tastes were influenced by the quantity of music I was listening to in each of those genres.

12. In 1975 I was fifteen years old and I was experiencing all of the teenage angst of love and sexual feelings. The songs that I listened to on AM top forty radio in that year are still some of the songs that I remember most and are ones which move me strongly. In fact, most of us have been greatly affected by the songs of our youth (approximately 11 years old until the time we get married or until we are about 25). There is something about the emotions of this time that almost hard-wire some favourite songs into our psyche.

13. Songs I have written hold a special place in my heart. When I write songs, I feel like a kid trying to create a crayon version of a Rembrandt painting and I know that they will never be like the masterpieces of professional musicians; but these hobby songs still have an attraction for me. I perk up when I hear them played on my iPod. When I have performed them, in Open Mic situations, coffee-houses, and pubs in Vancouver, I have watched for responses from the audience. A subtle nod that says, "Ah yes, I get that lyric" or "I can relate to that lyric" is more powerful than the whole audience clapping and singing along to an original song.

14. Lastly, popularity does affect my appreciation of a song. If you want to be a successful cover band you must pay attention to songs that hit top ten in popular radio charts;  but the key is also finding that song that was very popular that people have forgotten. When you play that one, in a skillful manner, you pull up all the emotions they felt when they first heard it even though they may have forgotten it long ago. Tricia Yearwood said this in a much more poetic way when she sang the song "The Song Remembers When."
I was standing at the counter
I was waiting for the change
When I heard that old familiar music start
It was like a lighted match
Had been tossed into my soul
It was like a dam had broken in my heart
After taking every detour
Getting lost and losing track
So that even if I wanted
I could not find my way back
After driving out the memory
Of the way things might have been
After I'd forgotten all about us
The song remembers when
Is this an example of popularity, context, or emotional angst? I suspect it stands in for all of those and more.
Gordon Lightfoot, that icon of Canadian folk music, has this to say to those who would like to write "good" music.
Sometimes you just have to let the imagination do the work. You draw from an old scene, or something you experienced that has some kind of poetic drift to it, and put it into lyric. . . . It's good when people can read their own story into the song you've written. I always hope my songs have a positive effect. You don't want to negatively affect people's emotional states."1
On the other hand, Elton John and Bernie Taupin say, "sad songs they say so much." Happy listening and please help Malcolm and me better understand "good" music by commenting here.

1. Jennings, Nicholas. "Gordon Lightfoot On Songwriting." W + M: Words and Music, Winter 2013: 24-26.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014


I discovered a great new album last night: Inland by Jars of Clay. Released in August of 2013, this collection of songs sounds as good as previous albums like Who We Are Instead (2003) or Much Afraid (1997). The lyrics are mysterious, poetic, and haunting. They speak to the condition of every human soul. They speak of angst, pain, loneliness, depression, joy, and love. Here is a sample of the album; the song is called "Loneliness & Alcohol."
"Loneliness & Alcohol"
Written by Dan Haseltine, Charlie Lowell, Steve Mason, and Matt Odmark
(listen to it here
The sound of television creeping through the halls
Left in the wild like a tree pulled from the dirt
You fill the sky with burning arrows from your heart
Throw your bottles out to sea and watch them float away 
Tell me of the world you’re leaving
While you’re swinging like a wrecking ball
You bury all your love in secrets
And loneliness in alcohol 
Hide your diamonds in the dirt in careful rows
Let your doubt unravel all their, all their pretty bows
‘Cause your heart is broken by the things you love
And your light, it carries but it’s not enough to change the weather 
Tell me of the world you’re leaving
While you’re swinging like a wrecking ball
Bury all your love in secrets
And loneliness in alcohol 
You get buried under all these lines, all this light, all these lies
You get buried under all these lines, all this light, all the time 
Tell me of the world you’re leaving
While you’re swinging like a wrecking ball
Bury all your love in secrets
And loneliness in alcohol 
Tell me of the world you’re leaving
While you’re swinging like a wrecking ball
Bury all your love in secrets
And loneliness in alcohol
Other songs on the album are equally strong and I find it hard to choose favourites but certainly "After the Fight" and "Human Race" are in the running; but how could I leave out "Reckless Forgiver." You will have to choose favourites for yourself. Check out the whole album at their website:

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Being and Doing

Luke 10 is a very important chapter of the Bible for me. I was reminded of this again as I read "Day 4 Morning/Midday Prayer" of Peter Scazzero's Daily Office: Remembering God's Presence Throughout The Day. The entry for this day focuses on Luke 10:38-42 and reminds me that "Our goal is to love God with our whole being, to be consistently conscious of God through our daily life - whether we are stopped like Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus, or active like Martha, taking care of the tasks of life."1

The Mary/Martha story of verses 38-42, should be read hand-in-hand with Luke 10:1-20. I include a few select verses below.
The Lord now chose seventy-two other disciples and sent them ahead in pairs to all the towns and places he planned to visit. 2 These were his instructions to them: “The harvest is great, but the workers are few. So pray to the Lord who is in charge of the harvest; ask him to send more workers into his fields. 3 Now go, and remember that I am sending you out as lambs among wolves. . . . 9 Heal the sick, and tell them, ‘The Kingdom of God is near you now.’ . . . 16 Then he said to the disciples, “Anyone who accepts your message is also accepting me. And anyone who rejects you is rejecting me. And anyone who rejects me is rejecting God, who sent me.”
17 When the seventy-two disciples returned, they joyfully reported to him, “Lord, even the demons obey us when we use your name!” (NLT)
In this passage, Jesus is telling his followers to go and do things for him. He has been teaching them; but now, rather than more sitting at his feet to learn from him, he sends them out to do his work. They are to be the hands, feet, and voice of Jesus to the places to which Jesus will soon travel.

You and I need both. We need to sit at Jesus' feet and be in his presence. We need to go and take his presence to the world. The key is listening and being sure that we are indeed going and doing the work that he has given us to do. We do not want to be doing busy work or someone else's work. To be sure of this we must first stay in the presence of Jesus to hear his voice and receive his direction. Then, we must go and take his presence with us.

1 (Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality 2006, 48-51)

Works cited:
Scazzero, Peter. Daily Office: Remembering God's Presence Throughout The Day. Barrington: Willow Creek Resources, 2008.
—. Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Emotionally Healthy Spirituality

I often use my blog as a place to keep track of things I am learning from books or articles I am reading. Right now I am reading a book called Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero. It is the basis for a new sermon series at our church that started yesterday. He is getting at the heart of some things often neglected in the development of a follower of Jesus. Of course, by emphasising healthy spiritual development the author is necessarily encouraging us to look at ourselves; but one gets the sense that he wants to help us know ourselves so that we may know God (he is explicit about this); so that we may know others (less explicit, but still there); and so that we may serve others (largely an implicit message of the book). So, after I read this book I should probably pick up some Ron Sider or Shane Claiborne to remind me of other essential elements of my spiritual development. For now, I will learn what I can from Emotionally Healthy Spirituality.

Scazzero reminds us of three things that early Christians and the Desert Fathers focussed upon when he says,
Emotional health and contemplative spirituality offer three primary gifts. Each enables us to participate in the enormous transformative power of Jesus Christ today. They are:
* the gift of slowing down
* the gift of anchoring in God's love; and
* the gift of breaking free from illusions.1
This first point is particularly appropriate for the world in which we find ourselves. I suspect that many of us would do well to slow down the pace of life. Scazzero reflects upon his own life and offers this testimony.
The pace of my life slowed down considerably eleven years ago when I began my journey into emotional health. It takes time – lots of it – to feel, to grieve, to listen, to reflect, to be mindful of what is going on around us and in us, to live and not simply exist, and to love well. . . . This opened up for me a new world of surrendering and trusting God in the midst of obstacles and challenges. In a culture as frenetic and inattentive as ours, a "slowed down" Christian who is a contemplative presence to God and others is an extraordinary gift.2
Slowing down can be a powerful tool. I have found it productive in my spiritual life as long as I slow down for the right reasons. I dare not slow down and fill my life with more entertainment or more luxury for myself. This does not serve God's purposes in my life. Instead, slowing down must mean that I create space for feeling, grieving, listening, reflecting, meditating, praying, and waiting for God. This is what Scazzero is getting at. I will read on and likely come back to this blog with a few more insights as I allow the Holy Spirit to work in my life.

1 Scazzero, Peter. Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006; p. 47.
2 Scazzero, Peter. Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006; p. 51, 53.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

7 Habits and 12 Things

I like succinct lists of behaviours that will help keep one on the right track. I have sometimes placed such lists on the wall in my office where they remind me to keep focussed. One of the most minimal of these is one I have seen as a screen-saver on a laptop: "Get-up, dress-up, show-up." Steven Covey has his seven habits (first published in 1989) and adds an eighth habit in his book published in 2005. I recently read a list of "12 Things Successful Women Do Differently" and thought how it could just as easily have been named "12 Things Successful People Do Differently." I appreciate that women need to hear from other women. I also did not find anything in the list that was only applicable to women and believe that men can learn from women in leadership. The fact is, many of them have had more obstacles to their success than their male counterparts and can teach us all how to get past the hurdles of life.

Of course lists are not enough. Motivational posters can motivate or demotivate for the moment; but they will not be enough to carry us through an entire life. Every book, list, and slogan has its strengths and weaknesses. I must be discerning as I apply someone else's list to my life; particularly because my first allegiance is given to the Lord of the Kingdom of God. I must watch out for lists which make me important at the expense of others. I must look for lists that emphasise service to others rather than finding ways to get others to believe in and serve my goals for the world.

Intentionality is key. Drifting with the winds of the world has never been a solid strategy for finding our way. Looking down the road and targeting a specific end point will serve better. Yet, one does not look for a road-map so much as a sea-chart. The wind and sea will pound our ship as we work toward a destination but the chart will help us keep that destination in focus. Certainly, we will want to be sure that the destination is a good one. It will not do to find that at the end of the race I have gone in the wrong direction. I do not want to find that all of the things I thought would be there at the finish line are either, not there, or not as valuable as I thought they would be. So, checking the chart and conferring with others about the best destination must certainly be part of my strategy. Being a life-long learner will serve me well in this regard. I have not yet reached the full depth of knowledge in any discipline and I may have to adjust some of the things I think I have already learned to fit in the new data that comes along. I must be willing to make course corrections. One way or another, 2014 will move me closer to an end. My prayer is that we might all find it leads us closer to the truth.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Working Out My Own Salvation

In Philippians 2:5-11, the Apostle Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, writes one of the clearest theological expressions in the New Testament when he says,
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.
Immediately after writing this he states,
Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose." (Philippians 2: 12, 13)
What does this follower of Jesus mean when he says "continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling"? Further reflection will show us two clues within this chapter. First, he states that it is "God who works in you [and us] to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose." We will work out our own salvation as we submit our will to God's will. My will leads to my good pleasure; but if I allow God to work in me to seek his will, I will accomplish his good purpose.

The second clue to the meaning of "working out our own salvation . . ." is found in verses two through four of this chapter: "make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others." The Apostle tells us what poets, philosophers, screen-writers, and theologians have reiterated for centuries since Paul's words were written: have love. That is, let love be your motivation. He reminds us that love is not selfish or vain but rather humble, values others above ourselves (a tall order, I know), and genuinely cares about the interests and concerns of others.

Suddenly, working out my own salvation is not about digging deeper into theological books to find the latest explanations on salvation (remember, you will need to look under soteriology in the larger of those books); nor is it about doing what I think makes the most sense and how I would like to be saved. "Working out my own salvation with fear and trembling" starts with awe and respect for the Lord of the universe who "made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness" and continues with asking this same God to be at work in making my will, his will; and further continues with love, that verb which speaks of putting the needs of others ahead of the wants (and yes, needs) of my life.

Today, I have a whole new year ahead of myself to "work out my own salvation with fear and trembling." I think I will get at it by going to the kitchen and doing the dishes.