Advent and the Decemberists’ A Beginning Song

Yesterday was the first day of Advent, marking the beginning of the Christian calendar. Advent is an alternative way to mark time, a counter-cultural contrast to the high, holy festival of holiday consumerism. It’s a sober start, for sure, beginning by naming all that’s wrong in us and this world, connecting us to the deep hopes and unfulfilled longings we carry with us.

Advent is a season for broken hearts, for those disillusioned with the life that’s on offer in our day. “Advent begins with the recognition that human progress is a deception,” writes Fleming Rutledge (and do get her Advent book – it’s a double-espresso for your faith). In these Advent days we take stock of our beautiful and terrible world, recognizing all that is bent, bruised, broken, and unfulfilled – in and all around us. We wait and want for something bright to break all this shadow, grief, and decay. In stark contrast to the holly and jolly of the cultural calendar, the Christian year reminds us that a few toys or presents are crappy substitutes for the bigger ache in our lives.

As the season begins, I’d like to add The Decemberists A Beginning Song to your Advent playlist. No doubt Colin Meloy (lead singer and avowed atheist) didn’t it write it as such, but that’s the wonder of God’s common grace: we can find so many resonances and reflections of God in the work of non-Christians, all part of the bigger reality and story that God is working in this world. God has this lovely knack for employing an unexpected chorus of people to reflect his glory and get his work done.

But why use it for Advent? Give the song a listen (see video below) and let’s walk through some of the lyrics, listening for cadences of thedecemberistsabeginningsongv014Advent in the song.

But first, there’s the placement of the song on their album “What a terrible world, what a beautiful world” (a telling title in itself). A Beginning song is the last on this album. It comes right after 12/17/12, a mix of melancholy and anticipation for a child about to be born in the midst of a chaotic world (the date of the title is days after the Sandy Hook elementary school shootings). 12/17/12 captures the disturbing paradox of life and death, beauty and tragedy living side by side in this life: “Oh my God, what a world you have made here / what a terrible world, what a beautiful world / what a world you have made here.”

A Beginning Song comes as a response to the baffling incongruity of this world we inhabit. Against the backdrop of anticipating a baby in a dark and broken world, like the season of Advent, A Beginning Song gives us a way to enter and respond to this terrible, beautiful world.

“Let’s commence to coordinate our sights / get them square to rights.” – Advent is a beginning, the start of the Christian calendar, a time to reorient ourselves. As we remember the coming of Christ into our world, we realize so much is still so wrong. We’re left wanting for something more, waiting, hoping for Christ to come again. Advent is a season of longing and hoping for a world that works, a world set to rights, a time to calibrate and coordinate our vision for this world with God’s vision for the renewal of all things that is coming in Jesus Christ.

“Condescend to calm this riot in your mind / find yourself in time, find yourself in time” – in the Incarnation, God comes to address the chaos of sin that runs riot throughout our world. In Jesus, God condescends to our place, finding himself in space and time, coming among us, to renew all things. In worship, as we remember and rehearse God’s story in Jesus, we get oriented within God’s accounting of time and history rather than our culture’s rendition.

“I am waiting, should I be waiting / I am wanting, should I be wanting / when all around me” – this chorus repeats throughout the song. Advent is a season of waiting. We celebrate the first coming of Christ but we’re left wondering: “should we still be waiting, wanting when all around me is like Sandy Hook, like Syria and Yemen, a world of brokenness and terror?”

“Document the world inside your skin” – the foreground of  Advent is the first coming of Christ, who moved into our neighborhood. The incarnation (literally “in flesh”) is God taking on skin and shin and limbs, entering into the frail and fragile world of human flesh. It is the mystery of God not just becoming like us but actually one of us, fully human.

“the light, bright light / and the light, bright light / bright light / bright light / is all around me.”

The song ends by answering that lingering question in the repeated refrain “I am waiting, should I be waiting / I am wanting, should I be wanting / I am hopeful, should I be hopeful / when all around me …”  Is there something around me in this world that might call from me more than despair? At this point, there’s a hush that enters in, slowing down the pace of the song to allow for wonder, but then building up to it’s conclusion, singing out the stubborn and fierce Advent answer of hope – “when all around me … “the light, bright light / and the light, bright light / bright light / bright light / is all around me / it’s all around me / all around me.” Every time I hear this, I join in, wanting to yell it out, this longing, this echo of “Maranatha – come, Lord Jesus.”

Advent, coming at the darkest time of the year, reminds that in this world of shadow and decay, there is light and hope – the bright light of the coming Savior, Jesus Christ. And the Decemberists give us a good song with which to wait and watch.

(This is an edited version, first posted in 2015)



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A cannabis catechism

Today across Canada cannabis has been legalized. No longer restricted to medicinal marijuana, purchasing, possessing and consuming cannabis for recreational use is now legal. A wide conversation has been underway in Canada, with medical, social, policy and practical concerns being raised. Not unexpectedly, in a secular society like Canada, theological matters are notably jpg

They are, however, not unimportant. This cultural moment requires a practical, Proverbs-like theological wisdom and discernment, one that acknowledges the complexity of the matter and confesses the reality of God’s Kingdom. We need, then, to avoid easy oversimplifications, like colouring cannabis in starkly black-and-white moral categories or framing it around license. This legal shift provides an opportunity for Christians to consider the matter theologically, thinking Christianly about their relationship to cannabis and their witness within our post-Christian society. 

What follows below is a short cannabis catechism (you may recall that a catechism is a pedagogical tool, a format of exploration and education through questions and responses) – consider it a blunt confession of sorts (sorry, I’ll avoid further pot puns). In putting this together, I wanted to think through the matter with my own context in downtown Toronto, church community, and family (two teen children) in mind. Yet I also wanted to confess the Christian faith and what it brings to the table on this matter, helping form a distinctive, and hopefully wise, Christian witness.

It’s not intended to answer all questions, just those that came to me. Please add your own questions, further thoughts, and wisdom in the comments section.


Q What is a follower of Jesus to make of the matter of legalized cannabis in Canada?

The legal status of marijuana provides Christians a fine opportunity to consider their relationship to psychoactive substances like cannabis. However, it’s legal status does not mean its a social good or imply a holy permission. Gambling is legal, so is pornography, along with a host of other things a Christian rightly avoids. While a Christian honours the governments and laws of a given country, she also doesn’t take those laws as the high-water mark of holy living or social righteousness. As citizens of God’s Kingdom, a Christian is called to another ethic.

This makes a Christian alert to a larger vista, aware that what is happening is more than mere jurisprudence. Legalization is one face of a bigger cultural sweep that is, in effect, the legitimization of marijuana. It would be naive to ignore other realities at play in this moment, say, the powerful economic forces behind the commercialization of cannabis (and the anticipated tax windfall for governments) or the profit and market dynamics that will seek to increase cannabis usage by current users and also increase the market of new users.

Q So what is a Christian’s relationship to all things cannabis?

Complex, nuanced, aiming to be congruent with reality, and hopefully wise.

Like the wider cultural conversation, a Christian seeks out medical, sociological, judicial, economic, and scientific lines of sight into the matter of legal pot. For example, a Christian cares about matters of justice and might urge pardons for those with criminal records for previous marijuana possessions. They value science and take note when the Canadian Medical Association urges a greater caution due to the significant physical and mental health risks, addictions and dependencies, and adverse effects associated with the use of cannabis. They seek protection for the young and vulnerable, and are troubled by data from places like Colorado where use among 12-17 year olds has increased during legalization.

Q So would that mean a Christian stands opposed to all things cannabis?

No. A Christian’s relationship to cannabis will be multi-dimensional, and in some cases could discern a response to affirm and bless. For example, a Christian is moved by compassion for the plight and needs of hurting people. Part of a Christian’s relationship to marijuana is to understand that some individuals suffering from terminal illness or chronic disease may find relief with cannabis, and so encourage medically regulated access to medicinal cannabis.

A Christian also affirms the goodness of all created things. The marijuana plant is part of this created world that is declared good by God. As stewards of creation we remain open to discerning and cultivating the benefits of cannabis. This is always a difficult matter of discernment because a created good can easily be distorted and misdirected in its use, as can happen, for instance, with alcohol.

Q Glad that you raised the matter of alcohol because many Christians are quite fine with alcohol. Isn’t marijuana in a similar category? Would a Christian approach to legal pot be similar to alcohol then?

There are both similarities and dissimilarities with alcohol. The bible has a “yes-and-no” perspective on alcohol, recognizing its capacity to “gladden the heart,” seeing in it a sign of God’s Kingdom joy and gladness. In fact, Jesus himself turned water into wine, making more alcohol available to extend a wedding celebration.

Yet while affirming alcohol, Scripture stands decidedly against drunkenness, acknowledging the harmful effects and disastrous decisions that flow from intoxication. Humans are made as image-bearers of God, created to wisely steward and soberly reign over all creation. Impairment through substances compromises our agency as image-bearers of God, inhibiting our responsibility and capacity to contribute to the wider common good.

One of the benefits this current cannabis cultural moment provides the imbibing Christian is the opportunity to reconsider their relationship to alcohol. Have we reacted to a prior legalistic prohibitions towards alcohol by rushing off to happy hour and uncritically lifting up one too many glasses?

It is important to consider the biblical distinction between an affirmation of alcohol as a created good and its misuse in drunkenness as a moral wrong – here is where a dissimilarity takes shape. While a person can enjoy a glass of wine or a cocktail and not get drunk, marijuana’s general efficacy is impairment. While those effects do vary, the primary and intended outcome of cannabis consumption is a psychotropic “high” of altered mental state and perception. At minimum, it’s significant to note that the culture surrounding marijuana in the West is one dedicated to attaining a high.

Q What does culture have to do with this?

Quite a bit. Take the biblical injunctions against drunkenness, which emerge in the context of a bacchanalian Roman culture. The practices and behaviours involving alcohol in that culture shaped a lifestyle out of sync with what it means to be an image-bearer of God. The gospel witness was to human flourishing through the practice of self-control.

Part of the needed wisdom today is to consider our context and current cultural moment. How is pot understood and celebrated in our Western culture? Legalization is a culturally legitimating act, so what is being legitimized under the statutes of legalization? Cannabis, as celebrated and practiced in the West, is seen as an escape, a disengaged tuning out of the difficulties of life. And it is often marked by an immature shiftlessness or idleness (I don’t need to list the stoner movies, do I?). The gospel certainly directs a Christian away from the life and practices of such a culture.

We do well to ask why our culture is so vigorously embracing recreational marijuana? What is the enthusiasm behind gummy edibles or THC drinks that make the high of cannabis even more readily accessible and acceptable to wider audiences? What is it that our culture is drawn to? What existential void or spiritual vacuum is our culture seeking to fill with the altered-state experiences of cannabis?

Q But don’t Christians have great freedom in these matters?

Yes – the one set free by the Son is free indeed. Christians are free to consume cannabis where it is legal. In fact, the gospel tells us that the need for food laws or prohibitions about what is right to eat or drink indicate a weakness of faith. The gospel’s scandalous sweep of freedom declares that all things are permitted; yet the gospel’s accompanying wisdom asks insistently about the direction and use of that freedom, declaring that not all things are beneficial. Christian freedom is is not unfettered liberty but always in service of God and neighbour.

Reflecting on such freedom, any question about a Christian’s relationship to cannabis consumption must be: “How does this benefit my neighbour, physically and spiritually?”

Q But isn’t marijuana consumption a harmless activity that doesn’t affect anyone else?

No – we are social beings with lives that are profoundly inter-connected. But especially not for a Christian. We are not our own but belong, body and soul, to our faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has set us free from sin, restoring our humanity as image-bearers of God, and set us free to wholeheartedly live for him.

That means in all things a Christian regularly wonders: “how will this help me live as an image-bearer of God, as a disciple of Jesus Christ?” How might the fruit of the Spirit be cultivated and used for my neighbours good? To put it another way, does cannabis help me to better love and serve God and my neighbour? How might cannabis use influence my teen-aged neighbour who struggles with a lousy self-image, anxiety, and the burden of peer-pressure? How might my free use of cannabis harm those prone or vulnerable to substance dependencies, or those who feel stripped of dignity and already inclined to seek any form of solace to numb their pain? Wouldn’t they be better served by working hard to improve the poverty, unemployment, anxiety, dysfunction and loneliness that afflicts instead of offering a cheap substitute solace?

The big question for a Christian is, does cannabis use promote engaged, responsible and compassionate neighbour love? In that light, the answer to not use cannabis comes clear.

Q So what might a Christian witness look like in a cannabis age?

A Christian witness in this cultural moment – where Christians are pushed further to the margins of post-Christian culture – will look very much like it has in previous eras and cultures: peculiar. It will be to live as a counter-cultural community of disciplined freedom, patient neighbour love for a broken world, and hopeful obedience to God. It will offer to all the substitute cannabis consolations a compelling reality of human flourishing in a disciplined and joyful alternative community under the Lord of all things – including cannabis – Jesus Christ.


Personalize World Refugee Day

I’m reposting today – World Refugee Day – something I wrote almost three years ago – mostly I needed the reminder.

I’m a follower of one who began his life as an asylum seeker. I’m a member of a family of faith whose history stretches back to Abraham, and is summarized in refugee terms: “my father was a wandering Aramean.” The God who has called me has this penchant of binding up his life with 3500those who are on the margins, with the vulnerable and the weak. To take on the name of Christ, then, is to tie up your life with the plight of those very same people.

So it is no surprise that Jesus calls people to a care and compassion for others, regardless of the differences and circumstances. Every person who takes on the name of Jesus isn’t afforded the option of turning away from outsiders. In fact, our very reputation and the name of Jesus is wrapped up in that sort of generous care. “Listen also to the immigrant who isn’t from your people Israel but who comes from a distant country because of your reputation … do everything that the immigrant asks.” (I Kings 8:41ff)

The plight of refugees has never been more stark, obvious and in your face. And, no doubt, the complexity of the situation is vexing: the instability of Eastern European and Middle-Eastern political climates, the risks and dangers of radicalized jihadists, the sheer scale of the need.

So what do we do? Listen to the refugee-Jesus, where we find the simplest, clearest of wisdom. “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12)

But that sounds too basic for this crisis, too simplistic for global geo-political problems, right?

I’m convinced that the Jewish carpenter is actually the wisest, smartest being to live, and so I’m persuaded that his deceptively simple words are actually the wisdom of the ages, something that is meant to play out in personal relationships and between global neighbors.

It’s often called the Golden Rule, and thought to be another version of something repeated within different religious streams. And while a semblance of it is seen in other religious contexts, what Jesus says is unique and transformative. We see forms of this Golden Rule in eastern Confucianism (Confucius urges, “do not do to others what you would not wish done to yourself.”); among Greek philosophers (the Stoic Epictetus said “What you avoid suffering for yourself, seek not to inflict on others.” and Socrates wrote “What stirs your anger when done to you by others, that do not do to others.”); and in rabbinic Judaism (Rabbi Hillel said “What is hateful to you, do not do to anyone else.”). These versions are both negative and passive. Avoiding or refraining from something I would not want done to me is a different standard of action than actively pursuing the thing I wish for myself for the sake of the other, which is the life Jesus invites into.

The brilliance of Jesus’ wisdom for how to respond pretty much to any situation is this: make it personal. The gold standard for moral action is to remove it from abstraction, from the pointed-finger deflection of “what others should do,” and from the resigned shrug of “it’s too complex so let’s leave it to the experts.” Instead, Jesus makes us the authority on how to respond to our friends, neighbours and global, geo-political issues: do to others what you would have them do to you.

Forget the professors, pundits and policy wonks; check your own heart.

For a moment, as best as you’re able, enter into the story of a refugee. If it was your home that was riddled with bullets and bomb fragments, your neighborhood a rubble, with neighbors and extended family killed; if you had no money because the local economy was devastated due to the instability; if your children went to bed hungry; and if you made the sane but crazy decision to get out of dodge and walk to escher_stairswherever was safe, how would you want to be treated? If you were stuck for years in the purgatory of a refugee camp, watching your children sink into the despair of a hopeless future, facing some Escher-like bureaucratic government approval process, how would you want to be treated? If you lacked all access to a flourishing life, far from any semblance of home, dependent upon the goodwill of others, how would you want to be treated? Think of the hopes a refugee has for their lives, for their family. Imagine the fears that dominate their lives? Then think, “if I was in that person’s shoes, what would I want?” What would you hope for from foreign countries and governments when yours was corrupt or impotent to do anything to help you?

See what Jesus is doing? He taps into our own natural, God-given instinct to care for ourselves but then pulls the most liberating, redemptive move. He takes that inward-looking instinct but pivots us outward, redirecting all those good instincts for care and protection towards the other. Whatever we hoped and wanted others would do for us, he now commands us to go and do that for others.

And did you notice the first words: “in everything.” That’s pretty comprehensive scope. Don’t try to limit this wisdom for small-scale issues. “In everything.” This is not a kindergarten lesson in niceness. It is the wisdom of the ages, saving us from inward-focused fear and self-absorption, aligning ourselves with the grain of the universe, which is God’s self-giving love, his fondness for the least, the last and the lost.

A refugee is not a problem but God in disguise. They are a gift for anyone who carries the name of Jesus, helping us to know the meaning of that name and calling.


For a world without


O Emmanuel   (Malcolm Guite)

O come, O come, and be our God-with-us
O long-sought With-ness for a world without,
O secret seed, O hidden spring of light.
Come to us Wisdom, come unspoken Name
Come Root, and Key, and King, and holy Flame,
O quickened little wick so tightly curled,
Be folded with us into time and place,
Unfold for us the mystery of grace
And make a womb of all this wounded world.
O heart of heaven beating in the earth,
O tiny hope within our hopelessness
Come to be born, to bear us to our birth,
To touch a dying world with new-made hands
And make these rags of time our swaddling bands.



Artwork – Virgin Mary Consoles Eve, Grace Remington

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More blessed in you than I know

How could anyone know what it means to promise life-long monogamous fidelity? … the question is not whether you know what you are promising; rather, the question is whether you are the kind of person who can be held to a promise you made when you did not know what you were promising.” Stanley Hauerwas


Truly, we were just kids, taking our lives in our hands and offering it to the other. So utterly unaware of what lay ahead, of who we would become and fail to become, so oblivious to what it was we were promising (and thank God for such blissful ignorance!). But for 29 years – today – my beloved wife has been the kind of person who can be held to a promise.




To celebrate the goodness of this graced and lovely woman and this anniversary, these photos of the ravishing glass work of Dale Chihuly (which we took in today), a poem from Wendell Berry, and a very fine and silly song from Peter Gabriel.













Our bond is no little economy based on the exchange
of my love and work for yours, so much for so much
of an expendable fund. We don’t know what its limits are–
that puts us in the dark. We are more together
than we know, how else could we keep on discovering
we are more together than we thought?
You are the known way leading always to the unknown,
and you are the known place to which the unknown is always
leading me back. More blessed in you than I know,
I possess nothing worthy to give you, nothing
not belittled by my saying that I possess it.
Even an hour of love is a moral predicament, a blessing
a man may be hard up to be worthy of. He can only
accept it, as a plant accepts from all the bounty of the light
enough to live, and then accepts the dark,
passing unencumbered back to the earth, as I
have fallen time and again from the great strength
of my desire, helpless, into your arms.

Wendell Berry, The Country of Marriage

And Peter Gabriel’s The Book of Love. Grab someone you love and share a dance with us tonight.


Donuts and prayers as police tools

There aren’t adequate modifiers to describe the horror of the trigger-happy violence – by police and against police – in the U.S. In every way, on every side, this has been a day so despicably devoid of light.

And while we rightly feel both outrage and despair, remember, there is another way. Things can be different.79151

Let me highly recommend you take 40 minutes and watch the video below of Kevin Vickers. He was a career police officer and the Canadian parliamentary Sergeant-at-Arms who fatally shot the Parliament Hill killer. This speech will give you the needed hope to face the news of today.

I attended the Faith at 150 event where Vickers spoke and was mesmerized by his simple, homey ways that masked an approach to policing so at odds with what we’ve been witnessing – something so ordinary yet filled with extraordinary and uncommon grace.

Here is a quick sampling of highlights (with video times if you need to skip through):

On interrogating suspects: “Every time I would enter an interrogation room, I would say to myself: “Regardless of how repulsive the crime, I will always respect the dignity of the person.” (13:18)

On hospitality as a policing tool: during a native stand-off in the Burnt Church crisis, Vickers extends a simple act of hospitality, having two of his officers bring jugs of coffee and donuts to those across the line. (16:40)

On the last tool of policing: “there are many tools in the toolbox for a police officer. But the last tool you ever want to use is the tool of enforcement. There are many tools – facilitation, respect, education, communication, dialogue … the tool of enforcement is the tool of last resort.” (18:30)

On prayer and policing: with a violent confrontation brewing, Vickers meets with the warriors and calls them to prayer in his police car. (19:50)

On forgiveness: about the incident for which he is now a public figure, the shooting of the Parliament Hill killer, Vickers says: “I’m not proud of my actions on Oct. 22 … but I’ll tell something that I am proud of … it is probably one of the proudest moments of my life that I said a prayer and asked for forgiveness for the man I shot.” (34:00)

Please don’t take this as a smug Canadian preening the virtuous example of a superior policing culture. Not so, because Vickers himself also names ugly realities among his own colleagues (14:58 and 24:05). The same dynamics at play south of the border cross the border of every heart.

Instead, receive this as the hope of the gospel at work, often unseen amidst the explosions of alienation and violence, the hope that things can be different, the hope that the tools of policing can be donuts and prayers – a lovely contemporary riff on the prophetic dream of Isaiah 2:4.


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Listen to her

It’s International Women’s Day.  I’m going to keep quiet. She has a voice.

Listen to her.02_WhatWeDo_LeadershipAndPoliticalParticipation_675x350

Listen to her speak about biblical feminism: Sarah Bessey and Rachel Held Evans

Listen to her preach – Brenda Salter McNeill

Listen to her speak counter-cultural truth on suffering – Joni Eareckson Tada

Listen to her explore and explain science and faith – Deborah Haarsma

Listen to her slam – Amena Brown

Listen to her lead out on climate change – Katharine Hayhoe

Listen to her reflect on being a mom – Amy Julia Becker

Listen to her calling us to live justly – Nikki Toyama-Szeto

Listen to her talk the arts – Luci Shaw

Listen to her teach – Ruth Padilla Deborst

Listen to her address sexuality – Sarah Williams

Listen to her follow Jesus and challenge the reigning culture – Anne Zaki

Listen to her riff on God’s mission – Karen Wilk

Listen to her point to what few want to talk about – Frederica Matthews Green

Listen to her speak about faith and work  – Katherine Leary Alsdorf

Just listen to her.


Photo credit: UNMIT/Martine Perret


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