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Personal Reflections

November 07, 2007

Of all the questions that find their way into my inbox, I don’t know that any topic receives more attention than reading. I get a lot of questions from people asking if I’ve read or can recommend certain titles, but also a lot of questions just about reading—how to do it and how to do it more. A couple of days ago, a friend and long-time reader of this site (one of this site’s very first readers, in fact) asked me a few questions about my “excessive reading”—why and how I read and asked if I would address these questions in an article. Having nothing better to write about today, I thought I would do just that. His questions will be in italics and will be followed by my replies. I hope you are able to find this interesting and perhaps even helpful.

I don’t really know how much I read. I suppose it would probably amount to roughly two to three books per week when averaged over the course of a year. By the end of the calendar year I typically find myself burning out a little bit and may not pick up a book for even a few weeks at a time. I write reviews of the majority of the books I read, though there are some I choose not to review. Sometimes I simply do not understand a book enough to adequately review it or sometimes I can think of nothing particularly interesting to say about it. Some books I do not review because I doubt that anyone else would be interested in those titles. I do most of my reading in the morning and the evening. After I wake up and spend some time in personal devotions, I either hit the couch or my exercise bike and try to read for half an hour to an hour. In the evenings I tend to open up a book after I’ve put the children to bed and try to get in an hour or two of good reading.

Do you feel that your foundational convictions have been changed any or much by your reading? Do you think you have become more relaxed on certain doctrines than you once were or more dogmatic?

I do not think that my foundational convictions have changed much by reading, if by foundational convictions we mean the theology that lies closest to the gospel. I would certainly say that much of that theology has been clarified and strengthened in my mind as I’ve come to understand things better, but I have not had any huge epiphanies where I’ve laid aside any foundational theology. I am reasonably certain that my foundational theology is largely biblical. It is not nearly as deep or as solidly-formed as I might like, but I do believe it is biblical and is simply the doctrine that has been handed down to me as a person who grew up in sound churches.

To answer the second part of this question, there are some doctrines about which I’ve become more relaxed and others about which I’ve become more dogmatic. I’m not sure how much this owes to my reading and how much it owes to my times of Bible study, research and writing. But I’ve definitely come to see that there are some areas where I need to relax a little bit and to rejoice that people are following their biblically-informed consciences; there are some areas that I’ve found just do not merit a great deal of attention. People who have read this site for a long time will probably be able to see a difference between what I was writing in 2004 and what I’m writing now. The flavor has changed, the tone has changed, and I believe a lot of that is because of what I’ve learned through the books I’ve read. At the same time, I’ve learned more about the “hills to die on” and am more dogmatic than ever about the doctrines that lie at the heart of the faith.

My father-in-law once wrote a paper, when he was working on his MDiv., on the topic of “Wine in the Bible”. He came to the conclusion that every instance of the word “wine” in the Bible referred to non-fermented grape juice and insisted that total abstinence was the only Biblical position a Christian should take. I have a book by Kenneth Gentry entitled “The Christian and Alcoholic Beverages” that presents a different view. My father-in-law based his convictions on books that he had read and he refused to read anything that presented another position. I’m using this example to ask this: How much should we read of alternate points of view? Is it right to simply seek those books that present what we already believe in or should we read other works? Should we approach these books with an “Open Mind” or have our mind made up?

I believe there is great value in reading books that may not align with what a person already believes. Of course one rarely knows whether he will agree with a book until he has read it, but usually by looking at endorsements and researching the author we can have a pretty good idea of what an author will teach. I make a point of reading books I am quite certainly I will disagree with. I do this for several reasons. First, I think my convictions are strengthened when I read alternative points of view. In fact, sometimes reading alternative points of view really helps me understand what I believe in a way I did not before. There’s nothing like reading that penal substitutionary atonement is “cosmic child abuse” to make me sharpen my understanding of that doctrine. Second, I believe it is important to keep growing and to keep sharpening my beliefs. I am under no illusion that all I believe is entirely correct, so I am eager to read how other people interpret Scripture so I can test it and see if what I believe does adhere to the Word of God. And finally, I think it is important to know what other people believe.The books that I tend to agree with are books that represent the beliefs of only a small percentage of Christians and only the tiniest fraction of humanity. If I want to understand what others believe and to understand why they believe these things, I’m going to need to read the books they are reading.

I should note that, while all reading requires discernment, reading books that come from a theological perspective far different from my own requires an extra measure. I believe we should major on good books, but do not feel there is anything wrong with minoring on not-so-good books.

And, if you’re interested, I disagree with your father-in-law’s conclusion.

How much of a book do think you retain? Are they like episodes of “Little House on the Prairie?” You remember seeing them and you remember being moved by them but you can’t remember a single one of them now!

The amount I retain varies a great deal from book-to-book. If I am reading a book out of desire, because it is a book whose subject matter greatly interests me, I will tend to enjoy reading it more and will tend to remember more. When the book is one I am reading more out of necessity, feeling that this is a title that needs to be reviewed for one reason or another, I am less likely to remember a lot about it. I find reading with pen and pencil in hand and writing a review are both great ways of reinforcing what the book teaches and helping me file it away in my mind. I can always return to the review to refresh my memory.

I should say that my goal in reading a book is not necessarily to remember everything. I’m quite aware that I’m no Al Mohler and work within the limitations of my mind and memory. My goals are more modest and probably more realistic for someone who can only just manage to remember my own first name most days without first having to read the label on my underwear. I often read books in order to know what that book contains so that if I need to focus on a particular area, I can return to it as a resource. While I may not often remember the complete structure and content of a book, I’ll often remember the more important points within the book and can often quickly flip to the part of the book I want to reference, even months later. For some reason my brain often works in such a way that I can remember the place on the page that I read something. Thus I can skim a book looking only at the bottom right corners or the odd pages, knowing that I saw something down there.

I’ll shamefully admit that there are a few books (a very few) that I’ve noticed in my list of reviews of which I have no memory whatsoever. I’ve apparently read and reviewed them, but remember absolutely nothing of them. But this is definitely the exception far more than the rule.

Is reading a Hobby, a Pacifier, both or neither?

I still read primarily for my own benefit. It sounds selfish, I’m sure, but I tend to read mostly because I know there is so much to learn and I’m eager to learn it. Just last night my wife said to me (and not in a bad way), “You’re one of those people who always feels you need to improve yourself. No matter what you learn, you think you need to learn more.” And I guess that’s about it. The more I learn, the more I see that I need to still learn. This is not a burden to me, but a challenge. Reading and learning is a joy. It is a hobby of sorts and perhaps even a bit of a calling. I enjoy it more than I enjoy most other things I could do with the time. I enjoy the process of reading and love to see in my life the benefits of reading good books.

As I’ve become a book reviewer I’ve also had to begin reading books simply because they need to be reviewed. This has stretched me and has introduced me to some great books I might otherwise have overlooked. But it has also led me to some books that were terribly boring and which I did not enjoy at all. There are always a few books on my shelf that are “need to read” books. Some of these have been pleasurable, but some have been a fight from cover-to-cover. For some reason I enjoyed reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion but utterly despised reading Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great. They are similar in their assumptions and similar in what they teach, but one was a chore while the other was a strange pleasure of sorts.

What is your ultimate aim in reading so much?

I suppose I’ve touched on this already. But my ultimate aim in reading is to bring glory to God. I do this first by delighting in reading—a gift from God. I do this also by reading good books and applying to my life what I’ve learned. And I try to do this as well by making other people aware of good books. This is an unexpected ministry God has given me and one I take seriously. I know that most people do not have the time to read as many books as I do, and neither do they have interest in doing so. So I make it a point to read a lot of books so I can recommend to other people a handful of books they may like to read. If a person is only going to read three or four books a year, I’d be delighted if he read my reviews and chose four good, solid, biblical books as the ones he is going to read that year. I am happy to do the screening work and to serve as a filter, separating the mountains of chaff from the few kernels of wheat.

I find that as I read a lot my praise becomes more sparse, but the praise I do give out becomes more meaningful. After all, when I had read just two books, I had only one way of seeing them—one was better than the other. As I’ve read more and more, the relationships have compounded and I become more and more difficult to impress. So now when I do come across a book that blows my socks off, I find that my recommendations mean more as they are made in the light of hundreds of other “competitors.” I believe that a positive review today means more than a positive review three or four years ago. And well it should. So if you read my reviews, keep an eye out for superlatives as they are becoming increasingly meaningful.

Read it and remains a pleasure. I hope and pray it remains that way to me.

November 05, 2007

I wanted to draw your attention to a couple of conferences that, though they do not take place until 2008, are coming up rather quickly now.

Nashville Conference on the Church & Theology (February 8-10)

The Nashville Conference on the Church & Theology is hosted by Community Bible Church. This is how they introduce this conference: “After fifty years of ‘church growth’ methodology, the Church’s landscape is littered with countless relics of the latest and greatest models for ministry. But above all our attempts at “relevance” stands the cross of Jesus Christ. The cross is our only message and our greatest relevance. We preach Christ crucified.

The Nashville Conference on the Church and Theology is an opportunity to rediscover the power of the Cross. NCCT 08 is a call to reformation. It is for preacher, leader and layman alike all wrestling with the same questions. Can the church reach out without selling out? Can it address the culture without abandoning its core message?”

The speakers will be Steven Lawson, D.A. Carson, and me. I will be speaking once, Dr. Lawson twice and Dr. Carson three times (with Dr. Carson also preaching at the church Sunday morning). The topic I’ll be speaking on is “Loving God with Your Mind: The Place of Discernment and Critical Thinking in Worship.” Other topics include “From Foolishness to Irrelevance: The Diminishing Message of the Cross,” “The Gospel and Postmodern Minds: How Do We Reach Out to a Changing Culture Without Selling Out?,” and “Bring the Book: Why Preaching the Truth is the Greatest Need in Every Age.”

Though I tried to work my way out of it, the conference organizers determined I should be part of this one, and so I’ll attempt to keep people amused between talks from the real speakers. If you are in the Nashville area, you might like to make some room on your schedule for this one. You can find more information about it here: Nashville Conference on the Church & Theology.

2008 Band of Bloggers : The Gospel Trust (April 15)

Only a few weeks before the inaugural Together for the Gospel conference Timmy Brister had the idea of inviting bloggers to gather together immediately before the beginning of the main conference. Over seventy of us did so in what was probably the largest gathering of evangelical bloggers to that point. With the 2008 Together for the Gospel Conference fast approaching, Timmy has once again set about organizing the Band of Bloggers. The theme this year is “The Gospel Trust” and the conference will feature a panel comprised of Justin Taylor, Thabiti Anyabwile, Mark Lauterbach and me. This event will take place at noon the day that Together for the Gospel kicks off and will happen in or near the same venue.

If you are a blogger or even someone who just enjoys reading blogs, why not get to Louisville just a half a day earlier and take in this event? You can find more information here: Band of Bloggers.

November 04, 2007

I wanted to begin today by sharing a few words of wisdom from my daughter who just turned five: “In heaven you can’t die, so you can eat popcorn and hot dogs at the same time and not have to worry about choking.” I just thought you’d all like to have one more thing to look forward to in eternity. Of course one could well ask, “If there are hot dogs in heaven, could it really be heaven?”

But I digress.

In church this morning the pastor preached on John 3 and covered the portion of the gospel where Jesus confronts Nicodemus. Just prior to what are undoubtedly the most-quoted verses of the Bible, Jesus tells the Pharisee, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Jesus refers, of course, to Numbers 21:4-9 where Jesus punished the ungrateful Israelites by sending “fiery serpents” among them. In one of the Old Testament’s clearest shadows of the cross of Christ, God commanded Moses to create a bronze serpent that whoever looked at that serpent would be saved. It would only have been a fool who would feel the onset of sickness and death caused by that snakebite, but still refuse to look to the serpent.

I thought then of the joy and privilege it is to look to the cross of Christ, even in church this morning. I thought of my neighborhood where each Sunday morning our car is, as far as we know, the only one that drives a family to church. We are the only ones who raise our eyes to the cross each Sunday so that we might look to the cross and be saved. I was filled with gratitude to God for His saving gift and was filled with gratitude to experience the privilege of attending a church where the pastor and elders are committed to ensuring that each service our eyes are drawn to the cross. The cross is all they’ve got to offer us—it’s all they want to offer us. It’s a blessing to see new faces in that church as more people experience the joy of gazing at the cross.

From there my thoughts were drawn to places in the world where so many more people head to church each Sunday. I thought of Houston’s infamous Lakewood church, just one example of a place where each weekend tens of thousands of men and women gather, but where those thousands upon thousands are not led to truly gaze upon the cross. Rather, their gaze is drawn to a human—a mere sinful mortal. It can be no other way. After all, if we do not draw men’s gaze to the cross, we draw it only to ourselves. What a tragedy that so many miss the true thing. They may go to church for a lifetime and never truly be encouraged to see the cross as the main thing—as the only thing of real and lasting value. Their eyes may never be lifted up beyond themselves—beyond other human beings.

I thank God for faithful Christians and faithful churches that exist to lift up the cross so sinful men and women may look at it and live.

October 29, 2007

Next year is an Olympic year and in the summer of 2008, athletes will converge on Beijing to complete in 302 events across 28 different sports. Already we are beginning to hear about qualifying events and national Olympic committees choosing the teams they will send to China to represent their countries. There isn’t an athlete who isn’t already dreaming of earning a spot on the Olympic team and earning a gold medal for his country.

Athletes know that to earn a spot on the team and to have any hope of bringing home a medal, they need to commit to a serious training regimen. Though the Olympics are still almost 300 days away from the opening ceremonies, all around the world men and women are preparing themselves, pushing their bodies to the limits, enduring grueling competitions, so they can be at their absolute best when the games kick off on August 8, 2008. Only with constant practice, constant attention to their sport, will these athletes be ready to perform at the highest standards. Only those who are absolutely dedicated to their sport will win the prize.

This weekend I read Craig Brown’s The Five Dilemmas of Calvinism, a small book that has just been published by Ligonier Ministries. It is a book that seeks to address five of the most common charges against Calvinistic theology, showing how Calvinism ultimately addresses these issues in a way that is faithful to Scripture. In a brief Foreword to this book, R.C. Sproul says something that resonated in my mind throughout the weekend. He first quotes Hebrews 5:12-14 which reads. “[E]veryone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” Sproul than says, “In other words, there is much to the Scriptures and the Christian faith beyond what immediately meets the eye, and it is not easy to get at it—‘constant practice’ is necessary to move from the ‘unskilled’ state to that of ‘mature’ and ‘trained.’ Even Peter acknowledged the difficulty of doctrine when he said of the letters of his colleague Paul, the apostle who, more than any other, laid down the doctrinal basics of the Christian faith: ‘There are some things in them that are hard to understand’ (2 Peter 3:16b). He was right. For this reason, I would be suspicious of any doctrinal system I could thoroughly grasp with ease.”

As I was writing The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment I spent quite a bit of time studying and pondering those verses from Hebrews 5. I found them challenging verses and ones that had important things to tell us about discernment and its deep connection to spiritual maturity. I’ve written about that here in the past in a three-part Call to Discernment.

But the verses are also a challenge to us in that they exhort us to constant practice. All around the world Olympic athletes are practicing as they gear up for the Olympics, hoping that they can bring a medal home with them. And yet many Christians seemed lulled into complacency about the spiritual matters that are of far greater importance than any athletic competition. The Bible is clear, not only in Hebrews but in other passages, that God expects and demands maturity. He expects that we will move beyond the unskilled state to the state of one who is mature and trained—the state of one who is ready to be challenged.

As I read these words from Hebrews and as I pondered their significance I was led to ask myself, “What have I done today to prepare myself?” I am certain that this is a question athletes must ask themselves every day as well. And I asked again this morning, “What will I do to practice today?” To be a man who is mature in my faith and to be a person who is ready to have my faith challenged, I must practice and I must dedicate myself to maturity. Have I done those things God requires of me in order to mature in my faith? Have I given time to learning from Him in the Bible? Have I spent time communing with Him in prayer? Have I dedicated myself to a local church and to sharing my life with other Christian men and women? If I wish to be mature, I must train. And if I am to be mature, I must train in the way God tells me to.

My challenge to you and my challenge to myself at the beginning of another week is simply this: What have you done to practice?

October 17, 2007

I graduated from college in 1995 (Or so. To be honest, I don’t even remember exactly what year it was), having earned a degree in history. That degree did not open up the world of possibilities I had obviously thought it might when I first chose history as my major three years before. With few options available to me, and suffering from a lack of motivation, I decided I had better find some kind of employment, even if it did not incorporate my training. I learned that a new Starbucks was opening nearby and quickly made my way through the interview process. The day the store opened I was there, and I stayed at that job, putting in my forty hours a week, for what must have been a year—possibly more.

I’m not sure if this is still the case, but back then every store was required to select one “Coffee Expert,” the one person on staff who would receive a bit of extra training in the world of coffee and who was required to know more about the various flavors of coffee than anyone else. This person had to be able to identify the differences between the types and to teach others how to do the same. He was responsible for brewing different kinds of coffees in order to educate both the employees and the customers. Through some strange twist of fate I was appointed to this position by the manager.

There was just one small problem. I hated coffee. I still do. I am convinced that it is a vile, evil concoction and one that has cruelly enslaved much of the human race. I despise the stuff, even in what I am assured is its finest form. I can barely stand even the smallest taste of it. It curdles my tongue, makes my eyes water, and leaves me gagging. I find it utterly revolting.

And yet I was the coffee expert. When customers wanted to know about the different kinds of coffee we offered, it was my job to lead them through the various options available to them and to help them select the coffee that was suited to their tastes. A customer would choose a package from the counter and I would say, “Oh, now that’s a great choice. It’s a delicious, full-bodied roast that you can taste all over your tongue. Look for the flavors of oak and a subtle hint of the spring flowers that grow in the mountains of Peru.” I had the routine down pat and helped sell a lot of coffee—more than anyone else in the store, I’m sure. The facts were all true; it’s not like I was some kind of used car dealer covering up a vehicle’s flaws and hoping to make a sell to some poor sap who would be stuck with a useless hulk. I simply relayed information I knew was true. But I hated the product. Had I been entirely forthcoming I would have said this: “It mostly tastes like burning. When I drink it I detect mostly the flavor of charcoal mixed with dirt—and not the nice dirt I used to eat as a kid, either. It tastes like burned, charred, nasty, ugly hot dirt. It’s loaded with caffeine and I’m sure it’s going to shorten your life. If you enjoy the smell or taste of manure, I’m sure you’ll love it. Would you like me to grind it for you?” It always struck me as just a little bit odd that I would champion something I disliked so much.

Now that I’ve finished my first book and am eagerly awaiting its release, I have had quite a few people ask me what’s in store for the future. Do I intend to write another book? And, indeed, I do hope to write another book. But I’ve become convinced that I can’t write a book until I first live a book. When it comes to writing it is always a temptation to relay information I know is true, even if I have not incorporated it into my life. I’ve had to confess that I’ve done this in the past right here on this blog. I can sometimes content myself with knowing that something I am writing is true and biblical, even if it has little resonance in my life. But when it comes to writing a book, I know that I need to live it in order to write it.

When I worked at Starbucks I had absolutely no passion for coffee. Though I could talk a good line, I always felt a bit like I was lying. Customers would ask, “What’s your favorite?” and I would just blurt out a flavor based on my favorite packaging. I had no favorite coffee anymore than I had a favorite flavor of cough syrup or a favorite kind of kick in the teeth. I don’t want my life to be like this. I want what I say and what I write to be a reflection of who I really am—or who I really want to be through the power of the Spirit.

I want to be a Christian who doesn’t just do a smooth job of selling the Christian life. I could probably sit down and write a book that would say all the right things and make me feel very happy when I had typed out the last word. But it wouldn’t satisfy because it wouldn’t be genuine.

So when will I write another book? I’ll write another book when I’ve lived another book.

October 11, 2007

I have an older brother named Andrew who lives in the fine city of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Andrew needs help with something and I’m hoping that someone here—perhaps someone who lives in Chattanooga or who knows people who do, may be able to offer assistance.

Now I would not generally create a post such as this one, but the fact is that my brother has some special needs. He was diagnosed just a few years ago with Asperger’s Syndrome. Asperger’s is one of several autism spectrum disorders and is characterized primarily by difficulties in social interaction (though motor clumsiness seems also to be a defining characteristic). It is distinguished from the other similar autism spectrum disorders in that it is not often marked by delays in language or cognitive development. People with Asperger’s are not much like the more seriously autistic people you may have seen might rock back and forth and who are often entirely unable to communicate. Most of the time they act and appear perfectly normal.

When Asperger’s is diagnosed early in life there are many programs available. We’ve seen evidence of this in the lives of the three boys who live next to us, all of whom have this syndrome. Since my brother was diagnosed later in life (in his early thirties) these programs are not available to him. Thus he’s looking for a job but has had to do so largely on his own, without the benefit of the counseling and support that would otherwise be available to him. Needless to say, it has been a tough proposition for him.

Because of the difficulties in social interaction he is really unable to present himself confidently in a job interview situation. To this point he has gained several interviews but, for various reasons unrelated to his skills, has been unable to secure employment. He is looking for something in the field of data entry or clerical work and should be well suited to this. I could see him doing well with filing or data entry and working in a church or office situation. He is not necessarily looking for full-time work and may well qualify for some kind of special needs program for his employer (assuming such a thing exists in Chattanooga). Andrew is a hard worker, a good friend for those with the patience and interest in getting to know him and he is a man who loves the Lord. He is just now learning to live on his own and he desperately wants and needs a job. I’m hoping and praying that someone who is part of this mysterious family we call “the church” may be able to assist a brother.

If you are aware of a potential position that might be available to him in the Chattanooga area or you know of someone who might, I’d sure be grateful if you would contact me.

October 03, 2007

Last week I had the joy and privilege of watching my cousin get married to the love of her life. The wedding was held in Ottawa, about 5 hours from where we live. Because it was an early morning wedding, we knew we would need to leave at least a day in advance in order to get there on time. So we booked ourselves in at the home of my aunt and uncle (unrelated to the cousin getting married, as it happens) and asked if we could stay there for a couple of nights. My aunt and uncle live in Lanark County, less than an hour from Ottawa. It is easily one of the most beautiful places in all of Ontario.

My uncle is an artist—a painter—and in my estimation (not that it’s really worth anything with my knowledge of art) an exceptional one. I am unable to go to his house or visit his web site without seeing at least a painting or two that I just need to have. He lives in Lanark at least in part because of its beauty—the sheer magnificence of the area gives him nearly endless opportunities to find scenes and landscapes that he can capture with his brush. And while Lanark is always beautiful, I’m convinced it could be no more beautiful than it is right now, resplendent in autumn colors. This time of year, with summer fading into fall and a Canadian winter fast approaching, the trees are in full glory, every one of them a work of art testifying to the loving hand of the Creator. As the trees begin to lose their leaves, the rest of the landscape begins to show just a little more—rocks that were hidden behind summer foliage peer out beneath the trees. Rivers, streams and waterways appear from behind increasingly bare branches. It’s glorious.

Southern Ontario, the portion that is sprawled out along the American border is largely developed but Lanark has retained a kind of purity. It still has huge portions that are wild. There are bears, wolves, coyotes, deer, fishers, and all other kinds of wildlife. Rumor even has it that cougars have made their way back into the area. I was overwhelmed by the beauty all around.

I’m a city guy, or a suburb guy more correctly. I’ve lived in suburbs of Toronto for nearly all my life. Rarely have I desired to be in the midst of a downtown and rarely have I desired to be in the middle of nowhere. But stepping outside of my aunt and uncle’s house, early on a Saturday morning, with no sounds of traffic and no neighbors to be seen anywhere, my heart nearly melted. I went and sat down near the river that flows through their property and just sat and enjoyed the silence, broken only by the trickle of a nearby waterfall, reduced to just a small flow after a dry summer. Before long the silence was broken as my daughter toddled up to me and attempted to scamper right into the river. But in that moment, for the first time I remember, I wanted to live in the country—I would have marched right home, sold my house, and come back to Lanark. Just around the corner from my aunt and uncle is a beautiful property with a huge house and plenty of land. Property prices being what they are in that area, we could probably sell our townhouse with its tiny plot of land and buy the massive property with the proceeds. I was tempted.

My senses soon returned. They had to, really. We’ve planted ourselves in the city where we have friends and a church and where we look for opportunities to share the gospel. We would miss being within a few minutes of a massive grocery store, would soon long for more companionship and would not be able to exist for long without high speed internet and cell phone access. We’re suburb folk. So we piled back into the van and headed home—back to Toronto. We returned to the city and all the amenities it offers. But I think I left my heart in Lanark.

August 27, 2007

It strikes me often how life is cyclical; how things I wrestle with and ponder and pray about will come to the forefront of my life and faith a month or a year or two years later. One of the biggest blessings of having a journal (which is often how this site functions for me) is that I can go back and see how I dealt with these things in the past. It is good to see how situations repeat themselves but how my responses may vary with time and Christian experience.

In the past couple of years I’ve often given a lot of thought to the nature and strength of my faith: the things of God in which I have great faith, and those in which I have little faith or even no faith at all. These times of reflection has been both a delight and a sorrow; a joy and an embarrassment.

I have seen that my faith can be pictured as something like a line graph. Certain points along the x-axis are very high along the y-axis and, I trust, almost unshakable. I believe, for example, that God exists. This is a faith that God has placed in my heart and I do not believe that it can be shaken, or at least surely not destroyed. I never struggle with whether or not God exists. Beside that there are other high points in my faith: the Bible is God’s Word to us and is inerrant; God has saved me and adopted me into His family; God loves me; there is a heaven; Jesus Christ died to take the penalty of my sin. These are all areas in which I have a good deal of faith and I praise God for this.

As we travel down the x-axis, down towards the long tail (that portion of the graph which skirts the 0 on the x-axis, but doesn’t quite reach it), we come to areas where my faith is not quite so strong. Here we will find my belief that God truly does desire to bring me the best through adversity. Here we will find my belief that God does hear and answer prayer. These are things I believe, but without the strength of conviction of those I listed earlier. They are areas where I tend to see emotion come into conflict with knowledge—with what I know to be true but often don’t accept as truth.

This gentle slope continues almost until the line almost touches against the x-axis, the place where my faith seems to just run out. It just stops. Just like that we come to the edge of my faith and are left with those areas where my faith is vague and distant and shows little conviction. I know certain things are true in my head, but my heart rebels. And what is lurking down here? The one thing I’ve found through all my heart-searching is the faith that God will take care of my family if I cannot; that He can do far better at taking care of them than I can. You see, I desire heaven. I truly do want to be in heaven and to see an end to this life which is so filled with pain and discomfort and all manner of things that will be absent in heaven. I do desire to be with the Lord and know that this desire is healthy. Yet I must desire it just a little less than I desire to stay right here. And the principle reason for this, I’m convinced, is that I don’t trust God with my family.

I know that if I were to go to heaven I would leave my family here without me. Aileen would be left without a husband and my children would be left without their daddy. And who would take care of them? Who would support the family financially, bringing in the money to buy food and clothing? Who would put a roof over their heads? Who would continue my work in teaching my son to play baseball and who would tell my daughter she looks beautiful when she puts on her favorite pink dress and spins across the room? Who would cuddle and tickle the baby every morning? Who would make sure the doors are locked and quietly assure the children that “daddy is here, everything will be alright?”

I have given my family to God. I have said to God that He is free to do what He wills with them and I will accept His decision. And I’ve meant it, as much as I can. Of course I know that God is not dependent on me in this way, but it was a faith-building exercise for me. Likewise I have given Him my life, begging Him to live in and through me and to use me however He sees fit, even if that means bringing me home to Himself. But despite my pleas and despite my apparent faith in His goodness, I am still not ready to leave my family. Maybe in my head I am, but certainly not in my heart.

I guess what it comes down to is the harsh truth that I trust God with my life, but not with theirs. I trust that He will provide for them, but only through me. The hypocrisy in my heart is terrible, I know. Somehow I believe that God needs me to take care of my family. Somehow I believe that He will provide for them, but yet I don’t believe He can or will do it apart from me. Somehow I must believe that I am the one taking care of them.

But there must be a second factor at work here. I must also have too low a view of heaven. If all that God has revealed about heaven is true, and I believe it is, I ought to desire it more than anything. I should feel the same anticipation as the apostles who spoke continually about their hope being not in this life, but in the life to come. It is clear to me that I am basking in temporary, fleeting pleasures that are merely a shadow of what is to come, and enjoying these so much I am not looking forward to the real thing. I am licking my lips in anticipation of the crumbs that will fall under the table rather than anticipating the great feast that is to come.

And I guess the third factor is that I do not, in my heart of hearts, trust the church to fulfill its role in caring for the orphan and the widow. Sure they would be there initially and for a few weeks the freezer would be stuffed full of macaroni casseroles, but my faith does not extend to six or eight months down the road when I have long since been forgotten and the deepest loneliness sets in to the family.

So this is my confession based on much reflection. It is almost embarrassing to write about this. It is humiliating to come to the edge of my faith. Yet I trust that with His help He and I will be able to push the edge of my faith further up that slope. And God is good to reassure me, even through the very people I am so hesitant to leave. Just yesterday afternoon my daughter turned to me, completely out of the blue, and said, “Daddy, I don’t have to be scared if I wake up at night because God is holding my hand. It says in the Bible that God holds us in the palm of His hand. God will always take care of me.” What joy it brought to my heart to hear that simple expression of my daughter’s fledgling faith that there is a God and that He cares. And somewhere, somehow, despite the rebellion of my heart, I know that He will protect them no matter what, with or without my help.

August 21, 2007

Reflecting on the sin of envy.

It is healthy, I think, to reflect at times upon the evil of my heart. This seems like a terribly negative thing to do, but I believe it is an important discipline of my spiritual life that I seek to discover where evil lurks within my heart. There are some areas in my heart where, through God’s grace, sin has been routed, pushed back. There are certain temptations that are no longer temptations and certain sins that no longer stir my soul. But there are others, always others, that like a volcano are sometimes dormant, sometimes active. It is in times of reflection and meditation upon God’s Word that I am able to see and understand those places that I have allowed sin to make its awful presence known.

I often see the evil of my heart most clearly when I become aware that I have begrudged another person a blessing. Perhaps another man has been given a salary increase or a generous bonus and now has money that I do not. Perhaps another man has been given a position of responsibility at work or at church. This man has been given a blessing and I resent it. I see that he has been blessed and I react with envy and resentment. If pride is the most common, insidious sin (and one that has justly received a lot of attention in the church of late), surely envy follows soon after. I went looking for resources on envy recently and, to my surprise, found an article I had written a few years ago that dealt with the very topic. It was inspired by some words I had read from the pen of Os Guinness.

In his book The Call he says this:

Traditionally envy was regarded as the second worst and second most prevalent of the seven deadly sins. Like pride, it is a sin of the spirit, not of the flesh, and thus a “cold” and highly “respectable” sin, in contrast to the “warm” and openly “disreputable” sins of the flesh, such as gluttony. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that it is the one vice that its perpetrators never enjoy and rarely confess.

Without pride and without envy, many other sins would not exist. Would there be adultery without pride or envy? Would there be gluttony? It is for good reason that the Ten Commandments conclude with a prohibition against coveting, for it is the desire of our hearts that leads us into sin. Envy is a deeply private but destructive form of covetousness. It was Aquinas who provided a famous definition of envy when he suggested it is “sorrow at another’s good.” Guinness says:

Envy enters when, seeing someone else’s happiness or success, we feel ourselves called into question. Then, out of the hurt of our wounded self-esteem, we seek to bring the other person down to our level by word or deed. They belittle us by their success, we feel; we should bring them down to their deserved level, envy helps us feel. Full-blown envy, in short, is dejection plus disparagement plus destruction.

Dorothy Sayers said, “Envy begins by asking plausibly: ‘Why should I not enjoy what others enjoy?’ and it ends by demanding: ‘Why should others enjoy what I may not?’” Guinness provides a clear example of the truth of this statement, using the words of Sir John Gielgud, “When Sir Laurence Olivier played Hamlet in 1948, and the critics raved, I wept.” These are startling words but ones with which I can identify. While others have raved I have often wept or have often wanted to weep. While I should have been offering congratulations or encouragement, too often I have been muttering and grinding my teeth, begrudging another man a blessing. What an indictment this is of my sinful heart.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis addresses the fact that pride is essentially competitive. “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others.”

And this envy, so dark and so evil, so competitive and so selfish, lives in my heart. It lives in yours. One of the most horrifying aspects of envy is that we are most likely to feel envious of those who are similarly called, equipped and gifted. Those people with whom we share the most, from whom we stand to learn most, are those we most resent. Guinness reminds his readers of Thomas Mann who showed that “we are always most vulnerable to envying those closest to our own gifts and callings. Musicians generally envy musicians, not politicians; politicians other politicians; sportspeople other sportspeople; professors other professors; ministers other ministers.” Those whom we should help and support are those against whom we set ourselves, driven mad by their success.

Thankfully, there is a cure for envy. The cure comes in a contentment found in comparing ourselves not to mere men, but to Christ. It comes in setting our minds on heavenly matters. The task of each believer is to do all he can with what God has given him. He is not to resent what has been given to another and is not to feel he needs to accomplish the task of another. He is to be a faithful steward of the gifts, blessings and resources that have been provided to him. We are not all called to the same task and we will not all experience the same blessings on earth. And when it is time to receive our reward, each of us will be rewarded not on the basis of the quantity of the blessings we received, but on the quality of our response to these blessings, no matter how abundant.

I will close with the words of Charles Spurgeon.

The cure for envy lies in living under a constant sense of the divine presence, worshiping God and communing with Him all the day long, however long the day may seem. True religion lifts the soul into a higher region, where the judgment becomes more clear and the desires are more elevated. The more of heaven there is in our lives, the less of earth we shall covet. The fear of God casts out envy of men.
August 11, 2007

Chaos reigns. I’m down here just a little ways out of Chattanooga where, in just a few hours, my little sister Grace is going to get married. It is hot. Deathly hot. Even the Atlantans seem to be reeling from it. People have gathered from far and wide. Members of our family have travelled in from Ottawa, Toronto and even as far afield as Vancouver. Many of us have rented a series of cabins in Cloudland Canyon National Park—a stunningly beautiful area of north-western Georgia just a few minutes from the Tennessee border. So this is a family reunion of sorts and it is just wonderful to see family members I haven’t seen for a year or two. Grace will be married in a church about a half hour from here and the reception will be held at Covenant College where she and my other sisters went to school.

Aileen was put in charge of making up the bridesmaids bouquets along with the bouquets for the flower girls. With two flower girls and ten bridesmaids it was no small task. She finished that just a few minutes ago and, for the first time today, we have just a few moments of downtime. In ten minutes we’ll have to call the kids in and get them dressed up. My son is the ringbearer and my daughter is one of the bridesmaids, so they have to dressed and ready to go on time for photos which will take place before the ceremony.

And now duty is calling and I have to get going. In just a couple of hours my third (and final!) sister will be married.

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