Archive for March, 2011

Longing for Lent

I’ve been looking forward to Lent for a while now, as if it couldn’t get here quick enough.  Not because of its austere nature – a lot of people mistake the repentant spirit of Lent for general gloom and masochistic grovelling.  I have no wish to be a part of that.  My longing for Lent is filled with a deep hope in the power of the gospel, aware of the unhealth in my own heart and aching to better know the love of God revealed in the cross.

One of the things Christians commonly do during Lent is to give up something to identify, in some small way, with the Passion of Jesus.  The whole idea behind fasting is that we get attached to good things in this life, things which can easily and quickly become ultimate concerns, holding our hearts primary affections and loyalty.  A fast takes that good thing away, allowing your heart to reattach itself to its proper object of affection – God.

A few weeks ago I decided to give up blogging and social media for the season of Lent (not such a smart thing when your publisher decides to go with a Facebook campaign during this exact same time period – but they’ve been great about it).  So why?  It’s not because social media is such an evil; I’m not trying to wean myself off of this ill that we need to scrub out of our lives.

My dirty little secret is that my ego really, really likes the strokes these media give me.  When people comment on a post, when they “like” a comment or thought, when a blog post generates a lot of hits, something inside of me goes “ahhh.”  I’ve allowed this good thing of social media to function as an idol.  I’ve let it take a nasty twist, making “friends into audiences and us into performers.” (Jesse Rice, The Church of Facebook).  When you are thinking too long about a status update or begin to check out the site statistics on your blog one too many times in a day, you know something is off.  My need for attention (a good thing we’re made to know) is attached to something that will never deliver the freight for what my heart hopes.  Ergo, my social media fast.

I now get forty days to look to the cross, taking a long gaze at what it reveals to me, surveying it, taking measure of the height, width and depth of God’s love for me and you, andlearning to know that it is enough.  I’m finding that the gospel alone dispatches the hope, identity and love which satisfies what my ego and heart are screaming out for.  As I said, I can’t wait for Lent to be here.  By the time you read this, it will be Ash Wednesday, the beginning of these forty days, and I’ll be focused on this strange and wonderful centre of the Christian faith.

So I’ll see you in forty days or so.  You can touch base with my via email or give me a call to talk.  But let me leave you with a prayer of confession from the Book of Common Prayer:

Almighty and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us.  But You, O Lord, have mercy upon us … ”


Two books and a film – by friends

Two friends have published good books that I wanted to do a quick review, and then a film promo from another friend.  Both of the books train us in the way of mission, how we can get out of our safe church circles and enter the wonderful, wild world God has placed us, loving it for the sake of Jesus.

The Day Metallica Came to Church (TDMCTC) is written by John Van Sloten, all round good guy, sharp pastoral theologian and someone who loves Jesus.  I had a front row seat watching this book come to life, being part of original Lilly endowed research group and one of the contributors to a few sermon series our Western Canadian group of pastors worked on (which are part of the book – e.g. Lord of the Rings, World Cup). But John has taken this further and deeper than any one of the original group and it’s his tenacity and vision that is driving the good work this is.

The seminal truth that TDMCTC shines a spotlight on is common grace and general revelation – that God’s revelation is not bound by Scripture but is witnessed throughout creation, even in and through the works of non-Christians.  Nothing revolutionary here; these teachings are a well established part of a rich Christian theology.  But what John does well is track out the implications of these Christian teachings within the framework of popular culture, often in ways that makes not a few Christians squeemish. In a nice review here, blogger Paul Vander Klay aptly notes that John is “calling our bluff on this doctrine many of us subscribe to.”  Do we really believe that God can be found everywhere in this world he created?  Do we really think this world belongs to God?  It’s a lovely idea to dwell on and a life-changing teaching to let mess with your mind and your posture in this world.

What John does so well, before anything else, is to see the God-goodness in people, cultural works, etc.  We’re so quick to name what’s wrong or distorted in the world but through the lens of common grace John is on the hunt for God’s glory wherever it shines throughout the world.  More than anything, its a beautiful book that restores a sense of wonder to our Christian and theological imagination.  TDMCTC reminds me of the story in Exodus 3 where Moses comes across the burning bush.  At first blush, all he sees is desert brush on fire – no big deal.  But Moses pays attention;  he needed to simply watch the fire for a few minutes to then figure out that the bush was, indeed, not being consumed.  TDMCTC teaches us to patiently, lovingly pay attention to everything in our world because any ordinary thing can flame out with the holiness of God

Some say that John isn’t critical enough, too embracing of culture.  There is a time and place for a prophetic critique of what’s bent and broken in our world, but that’s not what John seeks to do.  As Christians we already do this all too well; what we often lack is a gracious capacity to spot the presence of God already at work in wonderfully common ways.  Read TDMCTC to help you learn how to better see God’s good hand at work in the most unexpected places.

The second book has one of the best titles: Don’t invite them to Church by Karen Wilk – pastor, great missional leader and fine teacher (she loves Jesus too, just in case the title led you to another conclusion).  Karen’s book is such a helpful resource for anyone looking for practical ways to begin to live out their faith in their neighbourhood.  And she’s an authority to speak to this – Karen has been faithfully living out what she speaks of in the book.

It’s more a hands on manual for living out your faith in Jesus than an in-depth ecclesiology; but you will be challenged in your understanding of church. And so it’s a book that you shouldn’t read quickly, and probably not alone – read it with a group of friends or a circle of Christians that live in your community.  Karen will help you rethink your ideas of church and you’ll need time to let go of assumptions and ideas of how church should be, giving yourself the space and time to begin to conceive of how church might be.  In our age, we’re fairly locked into what is termed the “attractional” model of church: we’re oriented around inviting people to a place or an event (“come and see.”)  Karen wants to move the church towards a missional mode of existence where we “go and be the church,” living out the Kingdom in our neighbourhoods and workplaces.

Don’t invite them to Church is divided up into eight weekly chapters that includes stories from people living out a “go and be” church, daily devotions for these eight weeks, and really helpful practices and postures, street ready ways to incarnate the life of Jesus in our daily living right away.  You can’t read and work through her book without getting involved – if you do manage to read through the book and your life hasn’t changed, you’ve not really read the book.  Pick it up and put it into practice – you’ll be quickly following the way of Jesus right into the world he loves.

And then there’s a movie, Reparando – you can view a trailer for the film here.  My friend and Calgary photographer Stephanie Jager-Corbel was involved in the creation of the film (she is a fabulous photographer; check her work out here).  The documentary film follows Shorty, a pastor and former gang member, and Tita, who started a school in Guatemala’s most notorious slum, as they join forces to invoke positive change and repair the country and its people.

It’s being screened in Calgary at a one night engagement on April 14 at 7:00 p.m. at the Uptown Theater (612 8 Avenue SW, Calgary, AB).  If you’re anywhere near Calgary on the fourteenth, get yourself to the Uptown.

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A “pretty” dangerous place

The mall is not my friend as a dad to two children, not hospitable to raising healthy human beings.  Sure, it provides clean and supervised play areas as well as interesting food courts with carousels but the rest of the place is a damn hazard.  And not because it is the temple of all things consumer – in fact, you don’t have to buy a thing there to pick up something far worse.  A simple stroll through the mall sends enough devastating messages to distort our character and wreck our moral imagination.  I can sift, sort and discern my way through this as an adult, but my kids simply absorb it all.

Maybe I’ve been been able to filter this out before, could be I’m becoming an old fart, or likely it’s because I’m dad to a daughter, but a recent walk through a local mall left me unsettled by the siren images in so many of the store-fronts.  Call me a prudish, Victorian, censorious, stuffy prig but I was shocked by the brazen sexuality on display in that mall (and I feel like I’m not easily shocked).  So many of the female models wear little clothing and the most prominent thing they do sport is a receptive open mouth, a come-hither gaze, or a coquettish pose.  If there is a male-female couple in the image, the female is usually draped over the male, pretzeled into a seductive embrace.  And this is not only the strategy of secretive Victoria but includes shoe vendors – even a children’s clothing store wickedly (I use that word with precision) hawks their goods with images of kids vogueing with faux seductive looks and poses.

I’m a fool to take my kids to the mall for an afternoon.  Strolling through this marketing gauntlet, my daughter is trained in what it means to be a woman in our culture: “Let your appearance be flawless; live up to an impossible standard of physical beauty; don’t bother with your character, intellect, or heart – your greatest asset is your body and it is a sexual tool – flaunt it.  Discretion limits you – the way to find worth is through seduction.  Buy that perfect blouse, the right dress and you will be acceptable.”  And my son, already able to pick up most every nuance of any message, is discipled into what our society considers manhood by these images alone: “Women are for your pleasure – viewing pleasure, sexual pleasure.  Don’t engage them as real persons; they are beautiful bodies.  Keep them abstracted in your imagination as creatures of desire.  Dominate them, wear them like clothes that can be discarded when they are tired or out of style.”

Don’t misunderstand my ranting.  The human body is a glorious thing of beauty; sex is a spectacularly great gift of God; we are sexual beings.  But the whole of human is so much more!

I track this out ten years from now: what do I tell my daughter after all these messages have sunk deep into her anxiety-riddled psyche and she tells me how much she hates how she looks?  How do I help my son, bombarded with titillation and innuendo, to see women as far more than how hot she is?

Maybe you think is just me, a guy struggling with his own repressed sexuality, importing all my “stuff” into innocuous images in a store window; if so, give Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia a read.  Or check out this brilliant, moving video of slam poet Katie Makkai called “Pretty” (and again, if you find the f-bomb offensive, this video has one use of it.  Sorry, two of those in one day).

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My soundtrack for Lent

Lent begins this Wednesday and I’ve landed on this year’s soundtrack for this season of repentance – Mumford & Sons Sigh no more.  I know I’ve blogged on them earlier here, but this album continues to capture me and much of the honest, plaintive confession of Lent.

The title song Sigh no more confesses: “My heart was never pure / You know me” and then hopes for a “love that will not betray you / dismay or enslave you, it will set you free.”  The Cave cries out the hope of Lenten penitence – “I need freedom now / and I need to know how / to live my life as its meant to be.”  Lent is a long study in giving up all the ways we try to find life, finding life as its meant to be lived in Jesus and his passion.

And it keeps coming.  In Roll Away Your Stone, they name the empty, endless chase to fill our hearts with things which always end up as ashes, and yet the hope found by every prodigal returning home to God: “You told me that I would find a hole / within the fragile substance of my soul / And I have filled this void with things unreal / And all the while my character it steals / But darkness is a harsh term don’t you think? / And yet it dominates the things I seek / it seems that all my bridges has been burned / you say that’s exactly how this grace thing works / it’s not the long walk home that will change this heart / but the welcome I receive with a restart.

Awake My Soul is an honest probe of a lumpy heart:  “How fickle my heart and how woozy my eyes / I struggle to find any truth in your lies / And now my heart stumbles on things I don’t know / This weakness I feel I must finally show.”  Isn’t this what Lent is – an invitation to the painful journey of revealing our weaknesses, our broken hearts and disjointed lives, praying that God would awaken us to resurrection life?

And then there’s Little Lion Man, my choice for this year’s Lent heart song.  Likely written about a love lost, it’s a powerful, pounding, holding-nothing-back lament of regret and heartbreak, equally applicable to my unfaithful heart for God:

Weep for yourself, my man / you’ll never be what is in your heart / Weep little lion man / you’re not as brave as you were at the start / Rate yourself and rake yourself / take all the courage you have left / wasted on fixing all the problems that you made in your own head / But it was not your fault but mine / …  Tremble for yourself, my man / you know that you have seen this all before / tremble little lion man / you’ll never settle any of your score / your grace is wasted in your face /” And don’t miss the spot in the song (2:45) where the band begins a sung cry, a gut-level, lyric-less lament – listen to it (see below) as the voice of Lent.

The album title comes from Shakespeare’s “Much Ado about nothing” (Act 2, scene 3: “Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more, Men were deceivers ever, One foot in sea, and one on shore, To one thing constant never”) – this band is wonderfully literate.  In this scene from Shakespeare, Balthasar urges the other women to sigh no more, to let go of the disappointment and expectation for men to change and, instead, accept and love them as they are. Throughout Lent I’m faced with my own shadows, left sighing with disappointment again, wishing for change in my fickle heart.  But the gospel of Jesus Christ is the stunning call to sigh no more, telling me I’m accepted in spite of myself.  That is the work of Lent and the starting point of any real change, of a resurrection.

Below is the video for Little Lion Man (just a word of caution – if you’re offended by the use of the f-bomb, then do avoid this song).

<p><a href=”″>Mumford & Sons – “Little Lion Man”</a> from <a href=””>Mikey Levelle</a> on <a href=””>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>


Dust to dust

Get ready to see a peculiar sight this coming Wednesday.  You’ll likely note a smudge of dirt on the guy serving up your coffee or the woman working in the next door office.  They didn’t forget to shower; it’s not ink from their newspaper.  It’s Ash Wednesday which begins the season of Lent, and for many Christians they enter this season receiving the mark of the cross, smudged on their forehead with an ash-oil mixture.  Lent is the 40 day season of penitence, prayer, passion and preparation (that’s some crazy alliteration) to walk with Christ towards the cross and welcome the resurrection.

Below is the introduction to Lent from my daily prayer book Seeking God’s Face.

Lent carries almost too much religious baggage with it for some people, popularly understood as a season of joyless custom and duty.  How then do we keep the gospel front and centre in this season of shadows?  The cross keeps our gospel focus clear.  Lent is a season to journey with Jesus in his passion, to survey the cross, taking the measure of Christ’s love in his suffering and death.

Beginning on Ash Wednesday, Lent is the forty-day season leading up to Easter. (If you count all the days, there are more than forty, but the Sundays are not counted as part of Lent, as they are resurrection celebrations held throughout the season.)  It begins with the stark reminder that “from dust you have come and to dust you will return” and leads toward Jesus’ final week, marked by Palm Sunday and stopping short of the resurrection celebration of Easter morning.  Ashes are a good emblem of Lent, a picture of our own mortality and spiritual condition, a sign of Lent’s penitent spirit, and yet a hint of the hope of renewal.

Celebration isn’t the word to use for our participation in Lent.  It is a somber journey of spiritual preparation and renewal, marked especially by repentance and prayer.  In our pain-averse culture, Lent stands apart by not shrinking away from suffering but cultivating in us the wisdom that growth often (some might say only) comes through suffering.  In a time and place of religious freedom, where we mostly don’t suffer for following Christ, Lent invites us to willingly identify with Christ’s suffering through fasting or other forms of self-denial.

The spare and sober nature of Lent is healthy for the heart and true to the gospel, scrubbing away frothy spirituality by calling us to say ‘no’ to ourselves in order to experience a greater ‘yes’ in Jesus.  It helps to imprint the form of the cross in our lives, recognizing that the news of the risen Lord Jesus is not good without the way of the cross.  Lent prepares us to experience the reality of resurrection joy only by first recognizing the depth of our sin that pinned Christ to the cross.

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Friday photos – no such thing as bad weather

I’m going contrarian here and confess my love for winter.  Sure, in the moment I’ll gripe and mewl about life inside the deep freeze.  And we’ve had lots to grouse about – it’s March and all week we’ve been in double digit sub-zero weather here in Calgary.  I’ve postponed more ski outings than I cared to because of the inevitable loss of too many brain cells and various digits to hypothermia. We’ve had 110 consecutive days of snow on the ground so far; February has had 30% more snow than average.  And guess what – March is Calgary’s snowiest month!

For a skier, that puts a smile on your face.  Come on, winter is beautiful and invigorating.  It’s for the hardy, adding interesting challenges to basic daily living.  And I love how it slows life down – you don’t get anywhere quickly (other than down a hill).

It’s not going to last.  So along with a few photo’s to enjoy old man winter and his dying, frost-bitten grasp on Calgary, let me offer the best wisdom on the matter: there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.

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What other sort of church is there?

The best quote I heard last week: “It’s difficult to love people who hurt and disappoint us … but what other sort of person is there?”  Those are words wholly applicable to the church.  We come to church mostly expecting pure and distilled divinity; what we mostly get is raw and uncooked humanity.  What other sort of church is there?

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