Welcome to the online home of Tim Challies, blogger, author, and book reviewer.

Tim Challies

Challies on FacebookChallies on Twitter

The Twenties: A Retrospective

ThirtyThis Saturday will mark my thirtieth birthday. I am not typically one who takes much notice of occasions such as birthdays or who makes a big deal of them, but as I considered passing a decade barrier, it seemed appropriate that I should spend some time thinking about the last ten years. I was convicted that it would be beneficial to ponder all that has happened in my life since 1996, the last time I passed a milestone birthday. This truly has been a decade of remarkable and almost unbelievable blessing and I would be remiss not to think about it and to praise God for it.

As I pondered the last decade of my life I began to write for I tend to think best with a pen in my hand. Before long I found that I had sketched out a thumbnail of this decade of my life. And once this was written I thought it might be interesting to post it here. I do so with some hesitation and there are two reasons for this. First, I find it difficult to imagine that anyone beyond family members and close friends will be interested in this. Thus it is primarily for the benefit of friends and family that I post it, though anyone is certainly welcome to read it. Second, it seems almost exhibitionist or self-indulgent to make public the details of the my life. Still, I hope you’ll indulge me this once. By reading this site you have become, after all, a part of my life. So perhaps this document will serve to help you make better sense of where I come from.

I turned 20 on December 2, 1996 but have no recollection of that day. I likely spent the day at college and the evening with my family. I’m sure my mother made whatever I requested for dinner and followed that with a chocolate cake. At that time I was young and unmarried, in the third year of my studies at McMaster University, and only months away from graduating with a bachelor’s degree in history.

But before we look forward from that day, I’ll have to provide some context by looking back for just a moment. In December of 1996 I lived with my parents and four siblings in Ancaster, Ontario. Born into a Christian home, I had been raised in rather insular Reformed churches in the Dutch tradition, had attended Christian schools and had memorized the bulk of both the Shorter and the Heidelberg Catechisms. I had listened to countless sermons, attended years of catechism classes and had studied the Bible front to back in both school and church. I had done devotions on a near-daily basis since I was old enough to read the Bible and had sat through two decades of family devotions. My parents had invested in all of us children, teaching and training us in the Christian faith. Though I made a confession of faith when I was a young child, I did not truly make the faith of my parents my own until I was fifteen or sixteen. Strangely, though I was a voracious reader, I do not recall reading more than the smallest handful of Christian books through these years. I was a Christian but was isolated from most of the wider Christian world. While the churches we attended had many great and wonderful traits, they were largely focused inward and did not encourage interaction with believers (or unbelievers) outside of that tradition. I had never heard of the rapture, had never witnessed an adult baptism, did not consider myself an evangelical, and knew almost nothing of even the most popular Christian teachers and preachers. I knew only a narrow Christianity.

By the time I turned 20 I had been a Christian for at least a few years and for the past 18 months or so had been dating a pretty young girl named Aileen Duncan. We had met a few years earlier. Being the restless type, I had decided to fast-track, eliminating a year of high school by taking a heavier course load. I could only do this through a public school and so transferred from the Christian school to Ancaster Public High School. On my first day at the new school I met Aileen in history class and recognized her as a neighbor of one of my best friends, though one I had never spoken to before. I’d be lying if I said it was love at first sight, but I’d also be lying if I said she didn’t catch my eye. We spent a great deal of time together during those history classes and were often scolded by the teacher for chatting and whispering together rather than paying attention to the lectures. Yet we were only friends and when the second semester rolled around, we no longer shared any classes and soon fell out of touch. Through the remainder of the school year we did little more than exchange quick greetings as we passed each other in the school hallways. She already had a boyfriend and I was not particularly interested in a girlfriend. In the spring I began my studies at McMaster University while Aileen returned for the final year of high school I had managed to skip. By the time the school year ended I stopped thinking about her altogether.

But then, almost a year later and quite out of nowhere, Aileen called me. My little sister answered the phone and, as she handed it to me (and with no idea of who was on the line) said jokingly, and perhaps prophetically, “Hey Tim! It’s your girlfriend.” Newly single, Aileen had purportedly called to ask my opinion of McMaster University (even though her father had worked there for the past twenty years). She soon got down to business, though, and asked if I’d like to accompany to a murder mystery party with some friends. I declined the offer. A while later she again asked if I’d like to go out with her and a group of her friends. I declined again. Thankfully Aileen has a stubborn personality and eventually prevailed. She soon cajoled me into taking her out for some ice cream. I still remember what she wore that day. I had never dated, nor had I seriously wanted to date, anyone else.

There was just one problem. The first time we went out I told her that I was a Christian and that, since she was not, I would not be able to pursue a romantic relationship with her, though obviously I really did like her as a friend. And so it was that our first date was really not a date at all. My convictions surprised her and she had a good deal of thinking to do. We spoke quite frequently in the following days and weeks and I could tell she was receptive to the gospel. I’m still ashamed to say that we really did start dating even though she was not a believer. My convictions couldn’t stand up to those pretty green eyes. I was hoping and praying that our relationship would prove to be of the “flirt and convert” variety. God was good and after a few months Aileen accepted my mom’s invitation to go out with her for dinner. While they were out, my mother led her to the Lord. While we knew that only time would tell whether her commitment would stand the test of time, we now proceeded somewhat cautiously into a relationship. In 1996 Aileen began attending McMaster university and we had many opportunities to spend time together. By the time I celebrated my twentieth birthday I was head over heels in love with her and knew that she was the girl I wanted to marry.

And this brings us back to where we started. In May of 1997 I graduated from university. I did not bother to attend the ceremonies since, as you may know, I hardly like to be the center of attention, even if only for a few moments. Plus, having graduated in three years, I did not know any of the people I would have had to graduate with, for they were all fourth-year students. I went to the university and picked up my diploma a few weeks later. As I did so I remembered that I hadn’t bothered going to my high school graduation either. As if to prove how little emphasis I place on these pieces of paper I went looking for my diplomas recently but wasn’t able to track them down. I assume they are in the bottom of a box somewhere in the basement.

That summer, like the summer before, I managed a painting business, hiring eight or ten people to work for me. The business was reasonably successful, though I soon realized that I had no desire to paint for a living. July 4 of 1997 was a particularly memorable day in that summer. Aileen and I went out for dinner at a fancy restaurant and afterwards went for a walk in a nearby conservation area. While standing on a bridge overlooking a little river I asked her to marry me and, to my great joy, she agreed (though only after confirming that I had first secured her father’s permission). We tentatively set a date two or three years in the future by which time she would have finished college and a short post-grad program. While I agreed to this timeline I had other plans. By the time fall rolled around we had decided to marry the next summer, shortly after Aileen’s graduation. I was elated and looked forward to beginning life with her.

When the summer of 1997 came to an end I closed down my seasonal painting company once and for all and went looking for a real job. I soon noticed that a Starbucks cafe was about to open nearby. Having no job at the time, and being intrigued by the company which had only recently ventured into Canada, I applied for a job and soon found myself working there full-time. I was put on the track to management and actually enjoyed the mindlessness of the job. After many years of school and two summers of managing a group of people, I was ready go take it easy. I suppose I was also somewhat lacking in ambition. Then again maybe I had lots of ambition, for in October 1997 I promoted a major concert in Toronto. Over 1000 people showed up to see Petra in one of their anniversary tours. While I was intrigued by the possibility of promoting more concerts, I soon learned that the Canadian market cannot adequately support Christian music. Though I promoted the occasional concert after that, I did so as a hobby, not as a potential business.

On August 8, 1998, in the presence of our friends and families, my best friend became my wife in a simple ceremony in Saint John’s Anglican Church in Ancaster, Ontario. I was 21 and Aileen was 22 (she is seven months older than I am). Looking at the pictures today I cannot believe how young we look; how young we were. It was a hot day, probably the hottest of the summer, with temperatures soaring over 100 degrees. Though we sweltered in the heat, we had a grand and memorable day. But, of course, we were happy to escape the city and we made our way to a friend’s cottage for a week-long honeymoon in a wonderfully isolated spot in just about the middle of nowhere. When real life resumed, I continued to work at Starbucks. Aileen and I rented a small house in Brantford, a city about 20 kilometers west of Ancaster. It was a small house, but ideally suited to a couple just starting out. The rent was a mere $400 per month. We had no friends in the immediate area, but entertained quite often and always kept busy. We even bought a puppy to keep Aileen company during those times that I was working until late. We remember the early days of our marriage with great fondness. They were fun days, and largely carefree.

Life was about to change. One day my father came to me and told me that there was no future for me in Starbucks and that he had a better plan. He dragged me downtown to a college that offered a variety of computer courses. While I had spent a good deal of time using computers in the past, I had never considered a career in the field. I was, after all, an arts major. But with the dot com boom in full swing it seemed like an ideal time to attempt to enter the field. I enrolled in a one year program for LAN (Local Area Network) Administration and found that I was quite good at this computer stuff and, what’s more, that I really enjoyed it. Eight months later I emerged with a diploma and a big pile of certifications that are now completely meaningless. Once again I skipped my graduation ceremony. Before I had even completed the program I found a job and began work at a small software development company in Oakville, a town about 40 kilometers from home. I was offered the rather lowly sum of $28,500 per year but accepted it gladly and began a new career. In the meantime Aileen had decided that she had no interest in pursuing a post-graduate degree and spent several days a week working at a friend’s fish and chips store.

It was around this time that Aileen and I found out that we were going to be parents (imagine, if you will, experiencing severe morning sickness while working at a fish and chips restaurant!). We were, of course, absolutely thrilled. Our parents were shocked. My parents may have been most shocked, for they had recently decided to move south of the border. My father had always wanted to live in the United States and, because his mother was American, he was able to do so. In August of 1999 my parents and four siblings moved to Atlanta, Georgia. Meanwhile, Aileen and I decided to head back towards Ancaster to be closer to my new job. We moved to Dundas, a small and quiet town mere minutes from Ancaster. We settled into what soon proved to be an awful, century-old house infested with mice. And yet we enjoyed the house as only a young couple can. On March 5, 2000 we became the parents of a little boy whom we named Nicholas Paul after two of my closest friends.

(click here for part two)