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January 17, 2011

Back in 2005 I wrote an article called “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy.” Anyone who knows the work of Leonard Cohen will recognize that this is also the title of one of his songs. In this article I explained the signifiance of that song in my own life. Now, nearly 6 years later, I want to post this article again as a means to introduce you to Nancy (since the majority of today’s readers were not reading the blog back in ‘05). I am anticipating that in the next few weeks or months I will have some interesting updates to this post and the story behind it. But first, the article.

In 1969 Leonard Cohen released a record entitled Songs From A Room. The fifth track on that album is “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy.” The song has become one of Cohen’s more popular ones; it has found its way onto one of his live albums and has been covered by several other artists. It is a dark, haunting song that speaks of a young woman named Nancy. The poetic words are difficult to interpret, leading many fans of Cohen’s music to speculate on what they mean.

It seems so long ago,
Nancy was alone,
looking at the Late Late show
through a semi-precious stone.
In the House of Honesty
her father was on trial,
in the House of Mystery
there was no one at all,
there was no one at all.

It seems so long ago,
none of us were strong;
Nancy wore green stockings
and she slept with everyone.
She never said she’d wait for us
although she was alone,
I think she fell in love for us
in nineteen sixty one,
in nineteen sixty one.

It seems so long ago,
Nancy was alone,
a forty five beside her head,
an open telephone.
We told her she was beautiful,
we told her she was free
but none of us would meet her in
the House of Mystery,
the House of Mystery.

And now you look around you,
see her everywhere,
many use her body,
many comb her hair.
In the hollow of the night
when you are cold and numb
you hear her talking freely then,
she’s happy that you’ve come,
she’s happy that you’ve come.

Over the years Cohen has made several references to the song during concerts and in interviews. Fans once speculated that the song was written as a tribute to Marilyn Monroe, but Cohen replied “No, it was about a real Nancy.” In his introduction to Frankfurt72 Cohen said “This is a song for a girl named Nancy who was a real girl—who went into the bathroom of her father’s house, took her brother’s shotgun and blew her head off. Age of 21. Maybe this is an arrogant thing to say, but maybe she did it because there weren’t enough people saying what I’ve been saying.” “In the song book for the Songs of Love and Hate album, there is a description of a LC concert. LC is about to start singing ‘It Seems so Long Ago, Nancy,’ but he decides to talk about her first, to get in the mood. He says that she was not adjusted to life in this world. She had a baby and they took it away from her, and she shot herself.”

Over the years I have had a fascination with this song. It is an awful song, in many ways, leaving Nancy a legacy that few would want—a legacy of promiscuity and self-loathing. I have often felt such pity for Nancy as I can almost feel her sadness and pain through the song. I have wished that someone could reach through the sadness and bring her some measure of peace.

But the peace never came. Lost in her despair, Nancy took her own life.

How do I know this? Nancy was my aunt.

January 13, 2011

I don’t know that I’ve ever done something quite like this before, so let’s try something new. A year ago, two days after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, I took a stab at suggesting what the late Neil Postman, the author, media theorist and cultural critic, might have to say about it. I suggested that this earthquake was an example of the kind of news that surrounds us today—news that elicits emotion from us, but news we can really do nothing about. In the end, news like this is often barely distinguishable from entertainment to us.

Here we are one year later. I think it’s an interesting exercise to re-read the article and see if any of what I wrote there (again, trying to channel Postman) has proven true.


Yesterday, as an aspect of researching the book I’m working on, I read (re-read, actually) Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves To Death. The timing was interesting, coming as it did just one day after the horrifying earthquake in Haiti. Postman’s book deals with media in an age of entertainment and I found many of the lessons he teaches in the book immediately applicable to the situation in Haiti. Let me summarize some of them.

January 11, 2011

Continued from Part 1

Shortly after the birth of baby Helen, John and Betty Stam received their posting to the city of Tsingteh. And this brings us back to where we began in the beginning of the first part. After only a couple of weeks in their new home the Communists took over the city, took John and Betty captive, plundered their home and threw them in prison. And yet, as you remember, they rejoiced, trusting in God.

And now they were in prison, being held for ransom. The soldiers saw baby Helen and thought that this baby would prove to be a problem—she might slow down her parents as they followed the army. In front of John and Betty they talk about killing her. And then a strange thing happened. One of the men who had been tossed into prison by the Communist soldiers protested. He said, “The baby has done nothing worthy of death!” The soldiers told him, “It’s your life or hers.” The man said, “I am willing.” And just like that the soldiers struck him down and killed him, leaving the baby alone and unharmed. No one knows who the man was or why he would do such a brave thing.

Early the next morning the soldiers woke John and Betty and they all left the city, John walking and Betty riding on a horse. They started riding toward the town of Miaosheo. John had planned on going to the city that day anyway and waiting for him there was a friend, a man known as Evangelist Lo. As the soldiers marched into Miaosheo they took Lo captive. They asked him what he did for a living and he told them that he distributed tracts. They apparently didn’t know what that meant so they let him go. He hurried away, though he would return soon enough.

The soldiers pillaged the town just like they had pillaged the last one, taking anything that was valuable. John and Betty were hauled into a home that would serve as a jail and a guard watched them through the night. Betty was allowed to be free within that room, but John was tied in a standing position so he could not rest or sleep.

It was the next day, a Saturday morning, that the soldiers came into John and Betty’s room and told them to take off their clothes, to walk out of the house in just their long underwear. They tightly tied their hands behind their backs and led them out. John walked barefoot, having given his socks to his wife to protect her feet. They left the baby behind; Betty had tucked her into her little sleeping bag and then nestled her into a big pile of bedding. The soldiers forgot all about little Helen.

January 10, 2011

John and Betty StamIt was a dreary December day in the city of Tsingteh when John and Betty heard a rumor that Communist soldiers were drawing near to the city. The Communists were battling for control of the country and, of course, hated Christians or anyone else who would bring Western influence to their country. At the time the missionaries were not concerned; since they had moved to the city, just two weeks ago, rumors had been circulating but nothing had happened. They had been assured that government forces had come into their province to fight against the Communists. An hour later a man came running down the street shouting that the Communists were only a couple of miles away and would be upon the city in no time. Now the danger was clear. John and Betty grabbed a few supplies but they couldn’t find a way out of the city. Before they were able to flee, the soldiers surrounded the city, climbed the walls and opened the gates. There was no way to escape.

Very close to the city gate was the missionary home and it did not take long before the soldiers came upon it. The soldiers barged in and demanded to know the names of the people there; they demanded to know where they were from. Obviously two Americans would stand out in a small Chinese city. They took all the medicine they could find, all the money, all the valuables. John and Betty responded by brewing up some tea and serving each of the soldiers cake. But soon they were hauled off and put in the small local prison. They were told that they would be released only for a ransom of twenty thousand dollars. Read this letter that John wrote from prison—he wrote it to China Inland Mission, the missions organization that had posted them to China.

Dear Brethren,

My wife, baby, and myself are today in the hands of the Communists, in the city of Tsingteh. Their demand is twenty thousand dollars for our release.

All our possessions and stores are in their hands, but we praise God for peace in our hearts and a meal tonight. God grant you wisdom in what you do, and us fortitude, courage, and peace of heart. He is able and a wonderful Friend in such a time.

Things happened so quickly this a.m. They were in the city just a few hours after the ever-present rumors really became alarming, so that we could not prepare to leave in time. We were just too late.

The Lord bless and guide you, and as for us, may God be glorified whether by life or by death.

Here is a man captured by ruthless bandits, in prison with his wife and baby daughter. And his concern is not for life or for death, but only for the glory of God.

We’ll return to this most important day. But first let’s go back to the beginning.

December 22, 2010

Back in November I encouraged you to Enjoy Messiah This Christmas and I know that quite a lot of you did—you took in a performance of Handel’s Messiah. I’d love to hear about your experience. Where did you go and what was it like? Give me a brief report!

Let me tell you about the performance I saw last night with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir.

First off, it was great to bump into several friends there. And it was interesting that for the second year in a row I bumped into a reader of this site in the bathroom at Roy Thompson Hall; that’s two times he and I have crossed paths, and in both cases it’s been in the bathrooms of Roy Thompson. Small world, I guess (and sorry—I didn’t catch your name!).

Messiah is an annual tradition for me, so I’ve seen quite a few performances of it. This year’s was entirely unique and utterly amazing. The conductor ws Andrew Davis—that’s Maestro Sir Andrew Davis to you. But he not only conducted Messiah; he also re-orchestrated it. This was a major 10-month project for him. His aim was “to keep Handel’s notes, harmonies, and style intact, but to make use of all the colours available from the modern symphony orchestra to underline the mood and meaning of the individual movements.”

This led to quite a few unexpected instruments being used: marimba, darabuka, bells and even tambourine (yes, tambourine). While the piece’s words and flow were unchanged, there were significant changes to the orchestration throughout. The performance kicked off with the Overture, as it always does, but it was led not by strings but by the woodwinds. So from the first notes I knew this was going to be very, very different. And, indeed, it was. But Davis made it work. Many of his changes to the orchestration were meant to illuminate the meaning of the different movements and in this he succeeded very well, whether it was in adding to the irony of the lighthearted feel of “All we like sheep have gone astray” (by which Handel meant to show how flippant we can be about our sin) or in coming up with a kind of echo effect for “The trumpet shall sound” which was meant to show that the trumpet is sounding far and wide. I found that I understood Messiah much more this year than I ever have in the past.

His explanatory notes in the program were very, very helpful. Here’s an example from immediately before the “Unto us a Child is born” chorus:

The orchestration for the chorus ‘For unto us a Child is born’ is robust, but when, towards the end, the militaristic tenor drum threatens to take over, the rest of the orchestra, embarrassed, fades away, leaving us with the thought that perhaps the most important of the Messiah’s names is ‘Prince of Peace.’

If there was anything about the performance that disappointed me even a little it would have been the “Hallelujah Chorus” where some of his changes seemed just a little bit heavy-handed (mostly related to bells ringing at otherwise quiet moments). Of course I feel ridiculous even taking issue with something done by Sir Andrew Davis whose knowledge of music is infinitely greater than mine, but I suppose I’m still entitled to my opinion. I also felt that the alto soloist was just a little bit weak compared to the other soloists, though the fact that she was on the far side of the stage from me must have contributed to that. And finally, the seats we had didn’t give us the vantage point I would have liked; we were very close to the stage and couldn’t see back to the percussion, brass or woodwinds. But that’s just because we didn’t want to spend the money to get better seats.

Nevertheless, it was an amazing performance and easily my favorite of all-time. I am hoping that at some point we will be able to enjoy a recording of Davis’ reorchestration of Messiah. It’s that good!

November 22, 2010

Seven hundred billion minutes. That’s how much time Facebook’s 500 million active users spend on the site every month. 700,000,000,000 minutes. Let that one sink in for a moment. Every month we spend the equivalent of 1.3 million years on Facebook; the equivalent of nearly 18,000 lifetimes. More than half of us login every single day; we average 130 friends. And we spend vast amounts of time on there.

Facebook now offers 900 million different objects or pages for us to interact with—groups, events, community pages, and so on. We upload over 3 billion photographs every month (which means we’re uploading millions every hour).

Do you know what really blows my mind about all of this? Facebook is only 7 years old. Most of us have joined in only the past 2 or 3 years. The growth charts are out of this world:

Facebook Growth

November 17, 2010

TSAWith the year’s biggest travel day fast approaching and with new airport security regulations in place, the media is buzzing about measures the TSA is imposing upon travelers in order to keep the skies safe. Popular news aggregators like Drudge Report are giving this extra attention, perhaps making it seem a bigger story than it actually is. Yet in recent days all of the major outlets have also been picking up on it. Everyone’s talking about what we have to go through in order to fly. Since the TSA was created in the wake of 9/11, it has gradually been clamping down, demanding more and more restrictions on how we travel, what we travel with, and how we will be screened before we do so. And sooner or later people are going to say, “Enough is enough.” It seems like the latest measures may have pushed people toward that tipping point.

It’s an interesting conundrum we find ourselves in. Most of us travel by air on a regular or at least semi-regular basis. And all of us want to enjoy peace of mind while we are cruising along at 550 miles per hour. And so we welcome some level of screening—the kind of screening that allows the 99.99% of us who have no evil intentions to pass through quickly, easily and conveniently, but at the same time ensures that all the bad guys will get caught. We know that there are millions and millions of innocent people processed through those lines in order to weed out the very few terrorists.

It’s the humiliation that most people object to, I think. Before 9/11 airport security was a slight annoyance, but by no means a major bother. But then the rules changed. They had to, I suppose. But soon we were taking off our shoes, then having to ensure we had only travel-size cosmetics, and then actually take those cosmetics out so the TSA could see them. And then came the infamous full body scanners, the machines that digitally remove your clothes so the agents can peer underneath to see what you might be carrying on or in your body. Of course it also gives them a pretty good view of the particulars of your body. The alternative, should you choose to opt out of the scanner, is a thorough pat-down, one that is quite invasive and involves hands rubbing over the inner thigh, the genitals and the breasts. I went through one of these last time I flew and it involved all of that, including hands inside the waistline. It was conducted professionally and by a member of the same sex, but it was still more than a little unnerving.

So what is the TSA to do? They are between a rock and a hard place, between their mandate to protect the skies and passengers who are ready to say, “Enough!”

October 06, 2010

Last week I had the opportunity to speak at a local event called Eighth Letter. I’ve been asked to describe the theological perspective of the event and I haven’t been able to do better than “emerging church.” I know this title brings all kinds of baggage with it and that not too many people want to be associated with it anymore. Nevertheless, it’s probably the simplest theological shorthand I can use. Which is to say that I was definitely not representative of the speakers who were there (a list that included Shane Claiborne, Leonard Sweet, Peter Rollins, and many others).

The format of the event was rather interesting. Each of the speakers was to bring a letter, no longer than 15-minutes in length, and read it aloud. The letter was to communicate our most urgent message to the church of North America. It was that simple. I spoke on the Friday night and immediately after my talk participated in a very brief panel discussion hosted by Andy Crouch (an editor at Christianity Today and the author of Culture Making).

My letter focused in on getting the gospel right. And if you are interested, I’ve been given permission to post the message here, though only for a limited time. So give it a listen and let me know what you think. What would your most urgent message be?

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The reaction to my message was a little bit on the cold side. I was probably something of a stranger to the audience at this conference and brought a letter that was quite a bit different from the rest. So while I was not booed off the platform and did not have anything thrown at me, my impression was that the message was not particularly popular.

If interested, you can buy my talk or any of the others at the Epiphaneia web site. You can also download (for free) the brief panel discussion.

Eighth Letter