Sunday, November 29, 2015


Toronto Mass Choir has released their 10th full length worship CD with accompanying DVD. 

For 27 years choir director Karen Burke and her producer husband Oswald have gathered singers and musicians from the Greater Toronto Area into a worshipful, classy presentation. They are a Canadian fixture in gospel music having received both Juno and Covenant awards.

This is not a copy cat gospel act-- the Burkes have produced a sound and attitude of performance that is characteristically 'Toronto'. There is something decidedly Canadian, urban and Pentecostal in the sound with some high class players backing the choir.

I first met Karen Burke when I was a youth pastor in Markham in 1986. She was already active in Toronto's gospel music scene and the Mass Choir was in its emergence. The original vision and DNA is very much evident all these years later. 

My friend Dwight Ozard (rest in peace) brought TMC to Metropolitan United Church in London five years later and I had the privilege of performing as the opening act before the choir. It is one of my cherished musical experiences sharing the stage with so many beautiful brothers and sisters.

I had lost track of their ministry and was pleased to watch the DVD and be reminded of one of Canada's musical institutions with the touch of God's Spirit upon them.


Thursday, November 26, 2015


Once you have spent time in solitude, you return to life in community. It is a rhythm that we all must learn. 

A return to the noisy world can be troubling if we believe that our practice of prayer, solitude or fasting has somehow caused us to be suddenly more mature or better than those who did not show as much discipline.

Trusting in God may be a challenge for you if you’re more comfortable trusting in your own spiritual efforts. You may have decided that if you do the ‘right’ things, then God will be obligated to approve of you.
If you fulfill your religious obligations (i.e., go to church, help the needy, not curse, pray, read the Bible, give money, visit the sick, etc.), then God must keep his end of the bargain (i.e., all nothing bad to happen to you or those you love).
You may have reduced the gift of salvation to a mere contract with God. God has become your spiritual business partner.[1]

In solitude we must learn to rest in the mercy of God’s love for the broken, weak person that we really are. God loves us! We return to society with a sober mind and humility. The truth learned and the Presence experienced in solitude will equip us to come out of the prayer closet and love more patiently. Solitude does not need to be lost when you depart from it.

“A day filled with noise and voices can be a day of silence, if the noises become for us the echo of the presence of God, if the voices are, for us, messages and solicitations of God. When we speak of ourselves and are filled with ourselves, we leave silence behind. When we repeat the intimate words of God that he has left within us, our silence remains intact.” [2]

Think about your reality being transformed in such a way that you hear echoes of God in every noise and conversation. What if your words were transformed by what you heard from God in times of solitude?

Let me leave you with a prayer written by Thomas Merton in his book ‘Thoughts In Solitude’. Say this one aloud.

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end.

Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.

And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.

I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”[3]

[1] Dr. Gregory L. Jantz and Dr. Tim Clinton, “Don’t Call It Love”, Revell ©2015, p.168
[2] Catherine de Haeck Doherty, Poustinia: Christian Spirituality of the East for Western Man (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1974), p. 23
[3] Thomas Merton, Thoughts In Solitude, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999

Monday, November 23, 2015


Perhaps Bob Dylan's writing has resonated with so many because of his capacity to state common feelings in an imaginative way.

All of us have an inner voice that acts as curator in the museum of our memories and feelings. Some do not like the museum and avoid going there. What about those who are afraid of solitude? What if your mind is constantly dealing with doubt, the need to prove yourself or dread? 

What if chaos is the most comforting of your feelings and nothing gives you much relief?

For people who suffer with depression, dependency issues or a competitive need to always be doing something, the practice of solitude and fasting may be unbearable. Not everyone can spend prolonged periods of time in silence and alone. If you are afraid of solitude, you are not alone. You are not less of a Christian, because of your anxieties.

What changes in us when we practice solitude? What glimpse of God to we gain that changes our interior life? Should we spend more time alone or more time in community?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

“Let him who cannot be alone beware of community.... Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.... Each by itself has profound pitfalls and perils. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair.”[1]

So why bother? Is solitude too risky to the soul? Like all spiritual practices, we may need to start with small increments before attempting a silent weekend retreat at a cabin. Maybe five minutes of solitude is a good starting place for an overly troubled soul.

Nathan Foster describes a silent retreat in the mountains. While initially enamoured with the beauty of the natural landscape, he ended up in a panicked state and collapsing in tears after a mad dash up the trail.

Despite my setting, within fifteen minutes restlessness began to creep in. I spent the next half hour vacillating between pacing and leafing through my book. Then with unexpected force I was struck with suffocating emptiness. My heart raced. My palms perspired. It was the same darkness I had found while fasting. I quickly looked for a remedy. I had no phone, computer, TV, music or person I could run to. I felt naked and alone.
“Shh, be still, child,” echoed a voice in my head. With the voice came a new courage. It was time to embrace whatever this madness was. It was time to face the beast, jump off the high dive, and run toward my fears.[2]

For certain, solitude will reveal your inner state of being. That is a good thing when you are ready for it. Times of solitude can be emotional and stir up all kinds of thoughts in you. Do you live with a nagging doubt that God is not with you?

Henry Nouwen had this to say about the emptiness we may experience in solitude:

“Is God present or is he absent? Maybe we can say now that in the center of our sadness for his absence we can find the first signs of his presence. And, that in the middle of our longings we discover the footprints of the one who has created them.
It is in the faithful waiting for the loved one that we know how much he has filled our lives already. Just as the love of a mother for her son can grow while she is waiting for his return, and just as lovers can rediscover each other during long periods of absence, so also our intimate relationship with God can become deeper and more mature while we wait patiently in expectation for his return.” [3]

Suffering is common to humanity. If you are in a state of suffering, you know the power of pain to reduce you. Henry Nouwen is suggesting that spiritual loneliness may in fact be the first sign of God’s presence. You may not see the light, but that can also be attributed to blindness and not because of disobedience or unworthiness. God is just as present to the blind as to those who can see clearly.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper & Row, 1952), pp. 77, 78.
[2] Nathan Foster, “The Making Of An Ordinary Saint”, Baker Books ©2014, p.71
[3] Henry Nouwen, Out Of Solitude: Three Meditations On The Christian Life

Thursday, November 19, 2015


There is a Celtic saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places that distance is even smaller. A thin place is where the veil that separates heaven and earth is lifted and one is able to receive a glimpse of the glory of God.[1] 

When we practice solitude, we may encounter a ‘thin place’ where God’s Spirit can interact with us in a more personal way than we usually allow for.

Jesus worshipped and prayed in public gatherings and small groups, but much attention in the gospels is given to his times of solitude away from the crowd. Alone in the wilderness, on a mountain, in a garden... coming alone to the Father with his concerns, temptations and dread...

And to the thin place, we are beckoned…

Matthew 6:
But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Every day I talk with people who struggle with anxious minds. There is often a state of mental babbling that silence alone cannot remedy. In fact, for many people the chatty parrot in the cranium cage will not let them sleep. Jesus says to seek solitude and say a few things, but also stop talking after awhile. There is a place of trust in the silence. You need to find your way to God in that place.

Bonhoeffer says right words come out of right silence, and right silence comes out of right words—an interplay between silence and word. Scriptures also tell us that in a multitude of words, there is much transgression. What's the solution to that? To shut our mouths every so often, so that we can hear a word from the Lord... One of the reasons we don't hear a word from the Lord and yet long for one is that we never stop the flow of our own words. How in the world are we going to hear something from God if we're always talking?[2]

Monday, November 16, 2015


The English poet John Dryden wrote:

An horrid stillness first invades the ear,
and in that silence we the tempest fear.

Does that not speak to the heart of loneliness? Stillness and silence can be frightening and leave us alone to encounter our worst fears. Have you sometimes found that you cannot fall asleep if it’s too quiet? For some the drone of white noise, music or television is a necessary tool to dull the mind into a sleep-ready state.

On the other hand, there are people who much prefer to have quietness and be alone. Other more extroverted people may think something is wrong with the one who wants to be alone, but the satisfied introvert functions with greater ease in a world that has less social interaction. These are the people who buy noise-cancelling headphones and can work long shifts in isolation.

In the spiritual practice of Solitude we find a secret world of therapeutic presence with the God whose preferred tone is a quiet, small voice.  We need times of solitude with God because our heads are filled to capacity with all of our occupations, pre-occupations, fears and false pretences.

Richard Foster said,
“There is an intimate connection between solitude and silence. Silence, you see, creates in us an open, empty space where we are enabled to become attentive to God.”[2]

Think about it… a way to create an empty place inside you where God alone is welcomed…

Solitude then can be seen as a form of mental and spiritual housekeeping. There is too much clutter in the living space for which we were created to commune with God. This is a different place than the communal prayer and worship we experience as a church. Solitude becomes much more personal and allows you to be yourself before God.

[1] John Dryden, The Poetical Works of John Dryden, F.C. and J. Rivington, 1811, ‘Astraea Redux’ poem, p.26
[2] Richard Foster, “The Making Of An Ordinary Saint”, Baker Books ©2014, p.68

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