Saturday, December 22, 2018

Dancing With the Beast

Dancing With The Beast
(Words and music by Gretchen Peters, Ben Glover)

He only comes around when he pleases
He only comes around when I’m alone
He don’t like my friends or my family
He don’t like me talkin’ on the phone

It isn’t that he doesn’t care about me
If anything it’s that he cares too much
It’s only that he wants the best for me
It’s only that I don’t try hard enough

But he takes me in his arms like a lover
He hears my confession like a priest
He whispers in my ear, in the darkness
I’m dancing with the beast

We circle round the room together
Seal this devil’s bargain with a kiss
One by one the lights go out inside me
And I’m falling into the abyss

He takes me in his arms like a lover
He hears my confession like a priest
He whispers in my ear, in the darkness
I’m dancing with the beast

I’m dancing with the beast

He takes me in his arms
Hears my confession
He whispers in my ear
I’m dancing with the beast

With the beast

© 2017 Circus Girl Music (ASCAP), administered by Carnival Music/Ben Glover (PRS), administered by Proper Music Publishing Ltd. Used By Permission. All Rights Reserved.

Gretchen Peters knows how to write songs that pull at the heart strings and articulate feelings we may not want to explore. On this song she teams up with Dove and Grammy Award winner Ben Glover to write a song about the “beast” - and this particular word is the key to understanding the song. Who or what is the beast? At one level it could be anything with which one wrestles. It is something dark, and engaging with it means that “one by one the lights go out inside” and the singer is pulled closer to “the abyss.”

One never knows when the beast will come around for “he only comes around when he pleases,” but only when she is alone. The beast has a critical voice and does not like her friends or her family and convinces her that she doesn’t “try hard enough.”

Despite all this, we sense that the singer is drawn to the beast. “He takes [her] in his arms like a lover” and “hears [her] confession like a priest.” But in hearing her confession, we get the impression that he is only offering cheap absolution for her sins and draws her back into them once again.

Is it simply the devil? Is it the ancient antagonist who has tempted every one of us including Adam and Eve, and the human and divine Jesus? Perhaps it would be enough to identify the beast this way. Yet, the following lyrics lead me to believe that the authors may also be speaking of something more.

It isn’t that he doesn’t care about me
If anything it’s that he cares too much
It’s only that he wants the best for me
It’s only that I don’t try hard enough

The beast acts like he “cares too much” and that “he wants the best for [us].” But, he also suggests that we “don’t try hard enough.” Those are the emotions of depression: causing us to focus too much on our abilities and what is best for us. Could it be “depression” which charges us with not trying hard enough; comes around when he pleases, doesn’t like our friends and our family, doesn’t like us reaching out to others on the phone?

Perhaps I am reading too much into this haunting song. Each of us must allow art to touch us in a way that interacts with our experience and our emotions. Readers of this blog will make their own interpretations and understand it in their own way.

For those who wrestle with a “beast” in their life that threatens to, one-by-one, turn out the lights, there is help. There is light, because there is one who has been tempted in all ways, just as we have been tempted. Hebrews 4:15 and 16 says that we have a priest who “understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most.” If you find yourself dancing with the beast, reach out to friends who will point you toward that kind of grace and love. They can help you break the cycle of dancing with the beast.

Monday, December 17, 2018

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a movie written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen (2018), may certainly be viewed at a number of levels. (Spoiler alert: Watch the movie before reading this blog.) On the one hand, it is a collection of entertaining stories woven together into one movie. At another level, it is entertainment that causes one to say after each segment, “And the moral of the story is …”. Perhaps we could leave it there and allow the viewer to approach it in one of those two ways. Yet, having seen many other Coen brothers’ movies, I have a sense that there is still more to the story. This movie is much like previous movies of the Coen brothers: it generates certain philosophical questions. Perhaps the theme of this movie is most like their 2009 movie, A Serious Man. In a previous blog, I suggested that the theme of that movie was the “absence of meaning in the universe and that the only answers lie in having a good hedonistic time with sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll.” The opening Jewish myth portrayed in A Serious Man would seem to emphasise the fact that random decisions are the difference between seeing something as chance or as supernatural. The most prominent theme in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is that our only defence against the randomness of life is to dress up in top-hat and tails, put on a brave face and march forward to whatever awaits. But here, allow me to substantiate my case.

I would suggest that if we wish to understand this movie and the mindset of the writers, we will need to watch it multiple times with attention to various details with each viewing. I found that I needed three viewings, the latter two while taking notes, to begin to get a picture of what the Coen brothers are doing. 

Vignette 1: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The opening scene shows Buster Scruggs riding through the desert singing a classic song, Cool, Clear Water, made famous by the “Sons of the Pioneers” in 1941 (Bob Nolan, writer). The song speaks of the souls that long for more. The larger than life cartoon character of Buster Scruggs is considered a misanthrope (one who dislikes all other people) and speaks of the sad and immoral state of the human condition. He claims to have violated the statutes of man and God and is shown to be selfish and devious. He is presented as a protagonist and we find ourselves hoping he will survive his several encounters with people who want to kill him and are as depraved as he is. We buy into the classic white hat mentality in which there are good guys and bad guys. This movie continues a theme established in the 1992 film, Unforgiven (directed by Clint Eastwood), in which the cowboys are no longer divided into “good guys” and “bad guy,” all are broken and evil. There is a randomness expressed in the fact that there will always be a faster gun. Buster Scruggs even admires his killer as the two of them harmonize as he departs to his eternal reward.

Buster Scruggs does have the redeeming quality of being a great singer and entertainer and in one scene, he has the entire town joining in with his songs and antics. The cartoon-like violence is heightened in a scene where Buster first shoots the fingers off of a man before gunning him down in the street. I say cartoon-like violence because it is reminiscent of what happened in Yosemite Sam, Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, and Foghorn Leghorn cartoons of another era. Characters exploded, got smashed, got shot, and fell from heights only to survive another day. Perhaps the Coen brothers are making a statement about the entertainment violence with which they grew up and which continues to this day in many entertainment fields (cartoons and Quentin Tarantino movies come to mind). They seem to be asking questions about what this kind of violence says about our culture and the connections between entertainment and behaviours in western society.

Also similar to the cartoons of the past, when Buster Scruggs finally does die, his soul is shown rising out of his body and winging its way to heaven as he and his murderer sing a song about the hope they have of a better life in the hereafter. There is no reference to justice, only hope, and joy in a life beyond this broken world. Of course, the Coen brothers were raised in a Jewish tradition and would have heard many stories of ultimate destinations, justice, and forgiveness. In this and other movies, they often ask questions about the validity of such world-views as Judaism and Christianity.

Vignette 2: Near Algodones

Another selfish man attempts to rob a bank for his own gain. The bank appears to be easy to rob and is in the middle of nowhere with only one employee. But, in the randomness of life, the old man behind the counter turns out to be more than a match for the robber. The banker covers himself with protective pots and pans as a form of dangling armour and takes on the would-be robber.  The would-be robber is arrested, tried, and sentenced to hang. However, just before he is hung, a classic cowboy and Indian battle breaks out and, whether by luck or the grace of God, he manages to escape. But justice appears to catch up with him when he is mistakenly accused of cattle rustling and is hung for that crime. Random events of life and how they conspire for good-luck or bad-luck is a prominent theme in this vignette, particularly as we consider the chance of being saved by a “pan-shot.”

Vignette 3: Meal Ticket

Two men make their living as travelling entertainers. One, the caregiver and leader, the other, an invalid with neither arms nor legs. As they set up to entertain a small crowd it soon becomes apparent that the invalid is a gifted entertainer who has memorized a number of spell-binding monologues with which he charms his audience. The two men do not seem to have a deep friendship; theirs is a business arrangement. As the story goes on, their form of entertainment becomes less and less interesting to the audiences they meet. Other forms of entertainment come and go and take away from the two men’s livelihood. Sadly, it becomes apparent that the two will soon starve if they do not find a better way to entertain the people. 

By chance, the leader happens to see a man entertaining a crowd with a chicken who seems to be able to do math by pecking at numbers on a wall. The leader immediately buys the chicken from the entertainer, and invalid and leader set out down the road with the chicken in their wagon as well. But, before the men arrive at the next town, the leader suddenly pulls the invalid out of the wagon and throws him off a high bridge. We see the leader and the chicken heading off to the next town. 

Many questions remain. Has the caregiver been fooled into buying a useless chicken? After all, he has not yet tested the system. What was the nature of the relationship between invalid and caregiver? Why was the caregiver suddenly so cruel? The Coen brothers are once again showing the nature of the cruel and apparently random world in which we live.

Vignette 4: All Gold Canyon

Next, the Coen brothers tell the tale of a hard-working old prospector who has been working all of his life for that legendary large strike of gold. The film-makers spend much time giving us the impression of how hard he works and that he is a good, salt-of-the-earth kind of man. As he works, he sings an old Irish song:

Oh I love the dear silver that shines in your hair
and the brow that's all furrowed and wrinkled with care
I kiss the dear fingers so toil worn for me
Oh God bless you and keep you Mother Machree

Finally, he strikes it rich and harvests a large amount of gold. But as he works in his hole in the ground with back-breaking labour, an evil man creeps up behind him and shoots him in the back for his gold. We are convinced that the miner is dead, and the story has come to a sad ending. But, miraculously, the old man survives and kills his would-be assassin and is last seen taking his gold away to be sold. We can expect that the old man will live out the rest of his days wealthy beyond what he could have imagined. Again, the story raises questions of the cruelty of man, God’s justice, and the seemingly random nature of this world.

Vignette 5: The Gal Who Got Rattled

A poor man, who has not done well in business, and his sister set out on a wagon-train to Oregon. The brother has suggested that his business partner would be predisposed to marry the sister. So, they set off, but the brother dies from lung disease and the woman is left alone with no prospect of a suitor in Oregon and no money to pay her hired-hand. One of the leaders of the wagon-train takes to the woman and eventually asks her to marry him. He is ready to settle down rather than continue to lead wagon-trains. But, by a strange turn of events (chasing after a lost dog), the woman finds herself separated from the rest of the people and from the wagon-train. The other wagon-train leader (the one to whom she is not engaged), comes to her rescue, but they are set upon by an Indian war party. The wagon-train leader leaves her with a gun to kill herself if he should happen to be killed in the fight.

At a certain point in the battle, the leader plays dead before killing the last of the war tribe. The woman thinks he is dead and so she puts a bullet into her forehead. The wagon-train leader must go back to the man to whom she was engaged to tell him what has happened. It is one more tragic story in the list of Coen brother sagas. Over and over again they are telling the audience that the world is tragic, random, and senseless.

Vignette 6: The Mortal Remains

The final story has to do with five people riding in a stage-coach. Two of the men have made the trip many times before as they use the coach to ferry people dead or alive from one place to the next. We soon discover that there is something odd about the trip and realize that it is a metaphysical journey from the land of the living to the land of the dead. However, the three passengers have not yet clued-in to the fact that they themselves are dead. The two men are “harvesters of souls.” They “help people who have been adjudged to be ripe.” The passengers slowly begin to realize that they are already dead to the world and they themselves are being ferried to the next world.

There are five people in the cab of the coach and each one has one or more opinions on the “two types of people in the world.” They range from the simple to the sublime: “dead and alive,” “all alike,” “lucky and unlucky,” “hale and frail,” and “upright and sinning.” 

Other moral and spiritual controversies are apparent among the travellers; especially the concepts of “spiritual betterment,” “spiritual and moral hygiene,” and the authority of the Bible. One man asserts that “we must each play our own hand,” and “we cannot know each other completely.” We may call another "friend," but “we cannot know their soul.” Although it is not explored, we can tell that each person has a certainty in their heart as to what love is and yet, none of them would agree as to what that certainty is. One passenger asserts that “one can only coax love through subservience,” while another believes that love is domestic and eternal. We are left contemplating the appropriate spiritual destiny of each one on the coach and all three of the unaware passengers have the same look of doom as they approach the door of their next resting place.

The final scene shows one of the travellers walking with abandon into whatever fate awaits him. There is a mood of judgement but no clear sense of justice or mercy. The man simply does not know what awaits him and we get the sense that this rather simple man, who has been a product of his culture, is woefully unaware of right and wrong, love and peace, and ultimate destinies. He simply trudges on, taking what is sent his way and adapting to it as he goes. Perhaps, in the world of the Coen brothers, he represents us all.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Beacon Publishing Group

Pre-ordering a book can be an excellent way to get a great book at an amazing price. The Great Beyond, formerly published by Amazon’s Create Space (now out of print there) is about to be published by the Beacon Publishing Group. It is available in e-Book, paperback, and audio book. You can save up to 50% by pre-ordering the book at,,, or

The book is set for release on January 11, 2019 when the regular prices will be established. Buy it for yourself or buy it for a friend who would enjoy a thoughtful and entertaining story.

Barnes and Noble - Kindle - paperback -
Beacon Publishing Group -

Friday, November 23, 2018

Five Minutes

Gretchen Peters writes songs that tell stories and offer insight into the human condition. “Five Minutes” is an example of a song that tells the story of a broken and flawed woman.

Five Minutes
(words and music by Gretchen Peters)
(From the album Hello Cruel World)

I've got five minutes to sneak a cigarette
Five minutes to myself
Back behind the screen door of Andy's luncheonette
And I ain't got time to worry 'bout my health

My boss Andy says I smoke myself to death
Andy he reminds me some of you
Back when you were Romeo and I was Juliet
West Texas Capulet and Montague

Now I don't think too much about you anymore
We weren't much more than kids
It was nearly twenty years ago I shut and locked that door
Now I've got five minutes
Not much time to reminisce

Most nights I come home from work and I pour a glass of wine
Sometimes it's three or four before I stop
And Jessie makes a sandwich if I sleep through suppertime
And she leaves me on the couch to sleep it off

Now Jessie just turned 17 and she's wild as she can be
And there ain't nothin' I can do
Last weekend she ran off to meet a boy in Tennessee
Just like I used to run to you

I gave her hell when she came home this afternoon
Mascara runnin' down her face
Seems like history repeats itself, and it ain't up to you
And in five minutes
Your whole life can change

Andy he's good to me, and I can see it in his eyes
He'd love to take your place
But somethin' deep inside me just withers up and dies
To make love to him and only see your face

Somehow I've let myself go gently down the stream
A fine example I have set
Between the working and the livin' and the ghosts that haunt my dreams
I've got five minutes and I'm gonna smoke this cigarette

There is so much I like about this song, but perhaps my favourite is the ambiguity in the line that says, “Most nights I come home from work and I pour a glass of wine, sometimes it's three or four before I stop.” We get the impression that there is a problem here. Through the rest of the song, we see history repeating itself in her daughter and we see both women drawn to men who are not good for them. They are lost and need to find a clear direction in their life.

From my Christian worldview I can’t help but think of flawed women in the Bible and how Jesus sees them and shows love toward them. Perhaps the woman in “Five Minutes” is a bit like the Samaritan woman in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John. Both women seem to be searching for something more and looking in all the wrong places. The human condition is difficult. We are prone to wander from the better paths and stray so easily into destructive paths. There seems to be so little time in life to ask the important questions and find the true path and so we muddle on in the way we have always lived. Perhaps even the author of “Five Minutes” is searching for something more.

“…those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.” - Jesus (John 4:14).

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Dry Bones and the Spirit

In Ezekiel 37:1-14 recounts one of the most important prophetic visions of the Bible. The vision takes Ezekiel to a “plain near a settlement of exiles at Tel Abib.” Ezekiel was prophesying at a time when the people of Israel were in exile. The Babylonian people had overcome the nation of Israel and scattered the people among their empire.

This message here, is a message for exiles. They were literally exiles who had been removed from their homeland and placed in the lands of the occupying nation. We too are exiles of another kind. We are citizens of the Kingdom of God living as exiles in a land that is opposed to the values of our Kingdom/nation. So, this message is a message for the people of Israel and a message for us as well.

The original Hebrew of the passage makes it clear that these are dry, scattered bones, not skeletons.  It suggests that these bones are truly scattered and dis-jointed and it has been a long time since they have been alive. And so, when God asks Ezekiel if they could possibly live again, the human answer would be “No!” This is a hopeless situation from a human perspective. But Ezekiel responds appropriately with something like, “you know, because you are the creator.” Ezekiel, much like Job, at the end of the book of Job, knows how to respond to God: “God, you alone know the answer to that question.”

This puts Ezekiel in a position to be used by God. God tells Ezekiel what to say and he tells the bones to get ready because God is going to make them come to life. Flesh, and muscle, skin, and breath will come into these bones and they will rise up again.

First the bones must rattle and rise up and find their rightful place. The Hebrew language gives us a picture of all of the bones having to move great distances to find their rightful place. Can you imagine what this must have sounded like?

Then sinews form, then muscle or flesh, and finally skin. I wonder if this too had a sound-track? I wonder if it sounded squishy, gooey, and slappy.

After all of this flesh, muscle, and skin formation, they are still just bodies lying on the plain as if they had been slain in a great battle. Think of this, all of the internal organs must be there, all of the biochemical processes that must go on in a living body are ready to go. But the hearts are not beating and there is still no life in these bones and bodies until God gives them life. They are still dead bodies.

And so Ezekial prophesies again and calls upon the four winds to blow the breath of life into these still dead bodies. God’s breath comes into these bodies and they stand up and become a mighty army of God. The word wind here is an obvious reference to the Spirit of God, what we would call the Holy Spirit.

God is communicating some very important things here.
·       First of all, it conveys the creative power of God. The same power that was at work at the creation of the universe is at work here.
·       Secondly, when we die, it does not matter if we are put in the ground in a coffin, burned to ashes, or scattered to the wind, God can put us all back together again. We can be disintegrated into molecules and God can put us back together at the final resurrection of the dead. He knows where all of our bones and molecules go.
·       Thirdly, the bodies can be all put back together and have all of their rightful chemistry restored, but they are still not animate. They are still not alive until God makes them alive. God is the author of life and there is something elusive about the nature of life. Scientists have studied life and understand something of how living things work. But life is something other and requires God’s creative animation and his breath.

God tells Ezekiel that this is a vision about the people of Israel. They thought they as a people were lost and dead, like dry bones. They thought that all hope was gone for them as a people. But God has other plans for the people of Israel.

Isn’t this just a bit like us today? We look at the Christian landscape across Canada and we lament. We are tempted to lose hope in our God. But God has other plans for his church. The bride of Christ will be brought to life again.

Just as our bodies must be enlivened by this mysterious quality we call life. Our institutions, churches, and programs are lifeless bodies, maybe even dry bones, until the Spirit of God enlivens them. God has given us the Holy Spirit to make us alive and make the church alive.

You see, “there is a message of hope for those who have lost all grounds for hope…. It speaks to us of a God who can achieve the impossible.”
(Buttrick, George Arthur, ed. 1956, 267)

One commentator puts it this way,
“The Spirit lies beyond all that can be seen and measured. Its most apt symbol is the wind which is astir all about us but which is all the while invisible. … The Spirit is not ours to command, but is given when we are faithful. Like the wind, the Spirit blows where it will. … There are no limits on what God may do; at any moment he may break in and transform our present situation; therefore let us serve him according to our knowledge, leaving it to him whether he will continue the discipline of failure or transform our frustration into his marvelous success.”
(Buttrick, George Arthur, ed. 1956, 267-270)

Acts 2 talks about God’s Holy Spirit enlivening people and giving them new life.
Acts 2:16-18, 21
… what you see was predicted long ago by the prophet Joel:
 ‘In the last days,’ God says,
    ‘I will pour out my Spirit upon all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
    Your young men will see visions,
    and your old men will dream dreams.
In those days I will pour out my Spirit
    even on my servants—men and women alike—
    and they will prophesy….
everyone who calls on the name of the Lord
    will be saved.’

Is that our experience? Are we today, sensing God’s Spirit poured out in us, his people?
Acts 2:32, 33
“God raised Jesus from the dead, and we are all witnesses of this. Now he is exalted to the place of highest honor in heaven, at God’s right hand. And the Father, as he had promised, gave him the Holy Spirit to pour out upon us, just as you see and hear today.

Acts 2:38-40
“Each of you must repent of your sins and turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This promise is to you, to your children, and to those far away—all who have been called by the Lord our God.” Then Peter continued preaching for a long time, strongly urging all his listeners, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation!”


Acts 2 reminds us of our constant need to repent and assess what we are doing with our lives. Nowhere does the Bible say to repent of the past once and for all. This is a continuous process.

Ezekiel tells us that the things we build must be enlivened by his Spirit. So, it is in our own lives, in our own churches, in our own ministries, we must ensure that we ask for and leave room for the Holy Spirit to enliven things. Do we actually expect the Spirit to show up or do we simply build more structures or pour on more human effort? If we build programs and structures and don’t ask God to make them live, then we have truly created a “zombie church.” It would be a church that walks around and does things but is not truly alive. What a horrible, ugly result that would be.

This truly requires us to rely upon the Holy Spirit in all that we do. Lauren Daigle, a contemporary gospel singer has a song in which she speaks of Jesus who is still rolling stones. Take a listen to the words and read them on the screen.

Still Rolling Stones
(Songwriters: Jason Ingram / Lauren Ashley Daigle / Paul Duncan / Paul Mabury
Still Rolling Stones lyrics © Capitol Christian Music Group, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC)
(Listen here)

Out of the shadows
Bound for the gallows
A dead man walking
Till love came calling
Rise up (rise up)
Rise up (rise up)

Six feet under
I thought it was over
An answer to prayer
The voice of a Savior
Rise up (rise up)
Rise up (rise up)

All at once I came alive
This beating heart, these open eyes
The grave let go
The darkness should have known
(You're still rolling rolling, you're still rolling rolling oh)
You're still rolling stones
(You're still rolling rolling oh)
You're still rolling stones

Now that You saved me
I sing 'cause You gave me
A song of revival
I put it on vinyl
Rise up (rise up)
Rise up (rise up)

I once was blinded
But now I see it
I heard about the power
And now I believe it
Rise up (rise up)
Rise up (rise up)

All at once I came alive
This beating heart, these open eyes
The grave let go
The darkness should have known
(You're still rolling rolling, you're still rolling rolling oh)
You're still rolling stones
(You're still rolling rolling oh)
You're still rolling stones

I thought that I was too far gone
For everything I've done wrong
Yeah, I'm the one who dug this grave
But You called my name
You called my name
I thought that I was too far gone
For everything I've done wrong
Yeah, I'm the one who dug this grave
But You called my name
You called my name

All at once I came alive
This beating heart, these open eyes
The grave let go
The darkness should have known

(You're still rolling rolling, you're still rolling rolling oh)
You're still rolling stones
(You're still rolling rolling oh)
You're still rolling stones
(You're still rolling rolling oh, you're still rolling rolling oh)
You're still rolling stones
(You're still rolling rolling oh)
You're still rolling stones (you're still rolling, rolling)
(You're still rolling rolling oh, you're still rolling rolling oh)
You're still rolling stones

Today, I pray that God who rolled away the stone from the grave of Jesus, might roll away the stone that keeps us from being open to his Spirit in our lives.

Works Cited

Buttrick, George Arthur, ed. 1956. The Interpreter's Bible: Volume VI. Nashville: Abingdon Press.
D'Costa, Krystal. 2011. "The American Fascination with Zombies." Scientific American, October 26.
Duguid, Iain M. 1999. Ezekiel: The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
Greenberg, Moshe. 1997. Ezekial: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Toronto: Doubleday.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The Land that Inspired Narnia

I am in the land that inspired Narnia: Rostrevor, Northern Ireland, UK. It is a picturesque place with vines growing over every surface of some of the houses, a quiet stream with a stone bridge running through the middle, and I can almost imagine a Faun with an umbrella coming up to ask me in to tea. But, alas, we are in The Church Bistro having tea and scones. It is a 1920s Methodist church building which was converted to a bistro and bar about three years ago. (This Bistro used to be a cute Cathedral – to parody a Steve Taylor song.) Although, it is not as interesting as a Faun’s cave, it is a beautiful bistro with delicious scones, clotted cream, and wonderful tea. The Irish (like the English and Scots) certainly know how to brew a pot of tea.

Yesterday, we stayed in Kilkeel, a beautiful fishing village which is just inside the border of Northern Ireland, a 20-minute ferry ride from Carlingford. Kilkeel is the place where my paternal grandfather, Thomas (Tommy) Shields lived until he was 14 and set out to live in Canada. I went for a run along the beach as the sun came up over the sea and I felt like I was reliving the opening scene of Chariots of Fire. What a glorious morning it was.

C.S. Lewis was inspired by the Mourne Mountains around Kilkeel and Rostrevor. I find myself imagining what he would have written if he had ever seen the Rocky Mountains near Calgary, Alberta. It is here, near the coast of Ireland, a little south of Belfast that he dreamed up the idea of Narnia, a land where it was always winter and never Christmas, until Aslan is on the move. It must have been a particularly cold winter when he came through this region. We are here in mid-October on a 17-degree Celsius afternoon and the humidity and sunshine feel wonderful. I am working on a book as we vacation, and the Literary Society of Rostrevor has many inspiring poetic quotes posted around the town and so I am feeling suitably inspired to write and think and dream. Ireland has always inspired poets and writers and sent them off to inspire the rest of the world. Who knows what will get written in this wonderful country? 

Sunday, September 30, 2018

With God's Help

Psalm 108 says in part,

Have you rejected us, O God?
    Will you no longer march with our armies?
Oh, please help us against our enemies,
    for all human help is useless.
With God’s help we will do mighty things,
    for he will trample down our foes.

The mournful cry of people asking if God has rejected them sometimes resonates for us in places like Canada, America, and Britain. We long to see the miracles of ages past and see the church grow at a rate where thousands are added to the faith daily. Having recently spent time with rapidly growing house-churches in Cuba and hearing the stories of miraculous breakthroughs in people’s lives, I am hungry to see church multiplication and stories of new spiritual birth here in my own country. 

The churches I worked with in Cuba are barely tolerated by the Communist Party. Occasionally, the authorities have stepped in and shut down a house-church and, in at least one case, tore down the structure in which the church met. Since the Revolution in Cuba, church that happens in pre-existing church buildings is allowed to persist but is highly regulated. If a program begins to have success in the community around the church and appears to be gaining evangelistic traction, a party member may report the program to a higher authority and the rules surrounding such events may be enforced making it more difficult to continue. House-churches have a particularly difficult time in this culture. They are even more subject to the enforcement of regulations about public assembly and are viewed with suspicion. See the following website for a greater explanation of the predicament of churches in Cuba.

In this context, we learned of God’s love for and strengthening of the people of God. I was able to preach in a church that had been closed down just a few months before (and their temporary shed torn down). The people had bravely reopened a service in a nearby apartment and sang praises out into the streets. These people were hungry for God’s word and discussed the sermon with joy in the midst of the service.

In another church, one woman spoke of her spiritual journey from “wild child” to follower of Jesus. She told us she previously drank excessively, went with several men, and was in a self-destructive mode. She had learned English and was hired by a pastor to do some translation work. One night, while she was drunk, she had a vision of herself dying and having to pass through the cross of Jesus to get to “the other side.” The vision scared her, she investigated the claims of Christ, and became a Christian. The week I was there, she was translating for one of the pastors from our team as he preached in a house-church.

Most of the people are extremely poor, yet happy as they serve the Lord Jesus. In one house-church they bring a box each week into which they place things like toilet-paper or food that they have in excess. At an appropriate time, they have a “lottery” to see who gets to keep the contents of the box believing that Jesus is guiding the process. Sometimes the recipient redistributes again to others in the community.

Psalm 108 also says,
My heart is confident in you, O God;
    no wonder I can sing your praises with all my heart!
Wake up, lyre and harp!
    I will wake the dawn with my song.
I will thank you, Lord, among all the people.
    I will sing your praises among the nations.
For your unfailing love is higher than the heavens.
    Your faithfulness reaches to the clouds.
Be exalted, O God, above the highest heavens.
    May your glory shine over all the earth.

Where is my confidence? My confidence is in “you, O God” and in your only Son, Jesus, who has shown us how to live. By God’s grace and “with God’s help, we will do mighty things.” My joy and confidence are growing as I think of how Jesus will work here in Canada. I will continue to trust in God’s help even as I pray for these dear followers of Jesus in Cuba.

Friday, September 14, 2018


Some songs are so good it is almost irreverent to interpret the lyrics. Steve Taylor says that he worked twenty years on one of the songs on his Goliath album. There was not a week went by when he was not rolling this one around in his mind and coming up with better ways to say things. The result is astonishing. Not only are the lyrics an impeccable piece of poetry but the melody and the building of arrangement and presentation are highly emotive. I find that “Comedian” hits me at a number of levels and speaks to the challenges of being human and the mistakes we make as we take seriously the call to give honour and power and gratitude to the ultimate King and Lord of our lives.

Many have asked questions about what the song is about and Taylor has allowed the song to speak for itself without giving much interpretation. As with all art, the artist gives one side of the communication, and the one who appreciates the art allows it to speak to her or him and completes the other half of the conversation. With any form of art, what it impresses upon the recipient is a valid part of the exchange. Even when an artist did not explicitly intend for a piece to speak in a certain way, it may do just that in the life of the receiver.

I encourage you to listen to the song as you read these lyrics. Ask yourself, what does it do to your soul? After you have listened to the song and read the lyrics, I offer some of my emotions, understandings, and interpretations. They are certainly not the final word on this impressive work of art.

(Music and lyrics by Steve Taylor)

The saints came marching in this morning
And they marched back out the door
Wholly offended
No pun intended

They gave up God for Lent and liked it
Declared Civilian War
No one's relented
No pun intended

I'll be doing stand-up
Here all week
I've learned to sign
So the deaf can watch me speak

The saints came marching back this evening
And they fell right through the floor
That number's ended
No pun intended

The Amen Corner's marching orders
Got nailed to my front door
They're all amended
No pun intended

The King of the One Liners
Had us thrilled
Then came the punchline
Now we want him killed

And when he's gone
Who gets the mic
If it's on?

The buzzards are attacking
Our prayer kites
We lost the air war
Now we're losing squatter's rights

And when they're gone
We'll need a new

Man makes plans, God laughs
Man makes plans, God laughs
Man makes plans, God laughs
Man makes plans, God laughs

The King and I began a feud
That time will not erase
Until he wipes that
Omniscient smile
Off his face

The King and I are in a feud
That time will not erase
Until you wipe that
Omniscient smile
Off your face

And when it's gone
It's open mic
Is this on?

And didn't I thank you from the dais?
And didn't I do you good?
And didn't I take up all your crosses
That were made of balsa wood?

I've kept my demons pent up so long
The devil himself lost track
I've since repented
No pun intended

We stormed the stage
And occupied your place
To wipe that all-forgiving smile
Off your face

It's been there so
Please welcome back
The first, the last

Man makes plans, God laughs
Man makes plans, God laughs
Man makes plans, God laughs
Man makes plans, God laughs
Man makes plans, God laughs
Man makes plans

(white-noise of a mic left on – the sound of a blade pulled from a scabbard – silence)

How this song affects me:

The puns throughout the song are subtle and sometimes hard to catch. They also cause me to pause and seek understanding. They have the effect of a “Selah” at the end of the line in a Psalm. “The saints came marching in this morning and they marched back out the door, wholly offended,” or were they “holy offended?” Thus, begin the questions in my mind. Steve Taylor has always been a controversial figure in church circles and in the recording industry. He is very much aware that he has wholly offended many of the holy, and not so holy, people in his life.

“They gave up lent … no one’s re-lented.”
“… kept my demons pent up … I’ve since re-pented.”

Court Jesters, a common person in the courts of Kings and Queens of the past, often over-reached and insulted the court in which they received their employment. Kings were known for allowing a jester to go so far and then throw them out (or worse). Taylor has a certain court-jester style about him in this song, and in his life. Sometimes he is going after the people of the court, sometimes himself, and sometimes his barbs are aimed at the very one who gives him life. There is mockery, confession, confusion, repentance, and shame in these lyrics.

I had to look up the concept of the “amen corner” to be sure I knew what it meant. One writer said that the “Amen Corner” is “the place where the most difficult and devout congregate.” Their “marching orders” get an official and collective “amen” even as they reserve the right to amend - so clever!

"I've learned to sign so the deaf can watch me speak." Is that a reference to film-making? Man shrugs and walks away.

Who is “the King of the One Liners?” Well, one might expect it is the song-writer and to some degree he does identify with this person, but more importantly, the “King of the One Liners” represents Jesus - in my opinion. The people of his time saw him as a great teacher and they loved his pithy stories and statements. But his punchline was that he would not be controlled by the preconceived ideas of the Scribes, Pharisees, or people. Jesus chose to lay down his life for the people rather than overthrow their Roman oppressors and no one knew what to do with this. Near the end, they cried out for his death. Taylor seems to be able to relate to the adulation, the “not being controlled,” and the cries for his death (or at least the death of his music).

Throughout the song, Taylor asks questions about who will ask the questions. Who will be the next comedian? He will not always be around to challenge the status quo and act the fool. Who will pick up the mic? “If it’s on!” “Is this on?” Can you hear me now?

“Man makes plans, God laughs,” is one of those statements that almost sounds biblical but is more accurately rabbinical. Its essential meaning is similar to what James 4:13-15 says. 

“Look here, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.” How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. What you ought to say is, “If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that.””

If we fail to take God’s will into our plans, our's are foolish plans. All the plans I have for my future must be considered within the will of God and must be encompassed in his plans for my life. Otherwise we become foolish comedians and God laughs at our naivety.

As God laughs and our self-centred plans are frustrated, we might even become angry with God; but the feud with God cannot have a pleasant outcome for us, as he smiles at us with omniscience and forgiveness. Still we take up the feud and storm the stage where he and/or his followers have been given the mic.

After the anger comes the self-righteousness. Didn't I do this and that for you? Didn't I carry your cross? Or at least the light piece? Why haven't you given me all I want?

The white noise at the end of the song begs us to answer the question: “is it on?” The mic is clearly on. Who will pick it up and be the next court jester asking the important questions and poking fun at the “amen corner.” The mic will not be on forever. One day the King will draw a sword from his scabbard and cut the cord, or perhaps - cut the chord.