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Personal Reflections

November 30, 2006

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)

November 24, 2006

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about words. This must sound fascinating, I know, so congratulations if you have even made it to the second sentence of this article! With this being an unofficial holiday in the United States (and National Sleep-in Day, or something like that) I don’t expect too many people to visit my blog anyways. Still, for the benefit of myself and anyone else who cares to read it, here is a glimpse into something I have been considering recently.

As I was saying, I have been thinking a lot about words. Now I love words. They have always fascinated me. Many years ago, while I was still in high school, I studied Latin not so I could learn the language, or not primarily anyways, but so I could learn more about the source of so many English words. The teacher, one of these types who was no doubt over-qualified to be teaching entry-level high school Latin, really brought the dead language to life. He succeeded in making us not only learn the language but also in making us enjoy learning it. How did he do that? He proved to us that Latin is not truly dead and gone, but in fact, is still in common use. One ongoing task throughout the year was for all his students to collect Latin words and phrases we found in books, newspapers and magazines. We were to collect all these examples and at the end of the year, part of our grade was based on how many of these we found. The more of the language we learned, the more Latin we found. As our eyes were opened to the language, suddenly we saw it all around us - in print, in law, in theology, in advertising, and just about everywhere else. And of course we also saw it in our own language and in other languages we studied. Latin brought English and French to life in a fresh way. The study of this dead language helped undergird my study of other languages and gave me a greater love and appreciation for my own language. It made me appreciate many of the words that I use every day. A few years later I studied Greek and in this case the teacher expended little effort in tracing the Greek language to the English language. For that very reason, I’m sure, I never loved Greek in the way I loved Latin.

As I’ve thought about words, I’ve thought about the power of words used in poetry (and song, for what is song but verse set to music?). While I love prose and spend some time out of every day engaged in creating it, there is something about poetry that grabs my soul. There is quality in poetry that allows so much to be said in so few words. So often I can hold onto a line of a word or a poem in a way that just is not possible with prose. A memorable piece of prose may be several sentences or paragraphs. A memorable piece of poetry may be only a few scant words. And yet often the poetry seems to say so much more. John Wain said “Poetry is to prose as dancing is to walking.” Something in poetry just stirs the soul in a way prose cannot, just as there is a beauty inherent in dancing that is missing in walking.

I am no musician. I have little skill in differentiating between music that is good and music that is poor. There are certain musical patterns that appeal to me, certain styles of music, but more often than not, I react to the words of a song more than the music. Of course by its very nature, poetry can sometimes be difficult to understand or unravel, and it seems that there is even some subjectivity in poetry that sometimes allows people to interpret it as they wish.

Just recently I’ve purchased a few new albums and was thinking about some of the lines that really stood out above the rest in those albums. In one of these the songwriter sings about heaven and hell, reflecting on what hell really is. “Even heaven is hell if somehow You were not there” is what he sings in the chorus. There is a great truth in those few words. Even if the song does not represent great poetry, it still uses just a few words to convey the important truth that heaven would not be heaven if God were not there. This reminded me immediately of something John Piper wrote in God is the Gospel: “The critical question for our generation—and for every generation—is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever say, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ was not there?”

Another album has twelve songs each with many words, and yet two lines have stood out above the others. In one song the songwriter says, quite simply, “I’m free cause you’re holding me down.” He sees that true freedom is found when God extends His grace and holds a person down. Freedom is not found in a lack of rules, but in following God’s rules. Another line in another song says “It’s a long way down for me to lay here at your feet / I’m a self-made man / Knock me down.” Again, the songwriter expresses dependence on God, realizing that he needs God’s restraining power in keeping him from being a self-made man, a self-obsessed man. So few words and yet they spoke to me so powerfully. I could say the same in the form of prose, but it would take so many more words. I expect that some who read this will also be impressed with those words while others will think nothing of them. Again, that seems to be the nature of poetry. Each of us can react differently to it. A particular verse can stir the hearts of some while leaving the hearts of others cold.

It was Robert Frost who said “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” Or again, “A poem…begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness…It finds the thought and the thought finds the words.” Poetry somehow conveys emotion so well. And yet because of the subjective nature of poetry, it may always mean more to the author than to the reader. Emotion can be conveyed, but not necessarily that lump in the throat, that sense of wrong.

In any case, I’ve wondered over the past weeks if I should begin to dedicate some time to poetry as well as prose. Impressed by the power of poetry and the careful use of words it requires, I am compelled to try my hand at it. There was a time in my life when I felt more conflicted and when I wrote poetry (mostly really bad poetry). But it has been a long time. I wonder how it would change me and what the results would be. Because of the raw emotion of poetry I don’t know that I could ever share it with anyone, for it would no doubt be deeply personal. And yet I can’t help but wonder if it couldn’t be therapeutic, if it couldn’t be worship, if it couldn’t be powerful in my life. I may just have to give it a try.

November 13, 2006

Last night Adrian Warnock flew into Toronto on a short layover while travelling to a top secret meeting in an undisclosed American city. He will be spending a couple of days with Andrew Fountain, who pastors a church somewhere in Toronto. But last night Paul and I drove out to a restaurant near the airport to meet the guy. We had a nice meal together and enjoyed getting to know both Adrian and Andrew. For those who were wondering, according to Paul’s calculations, it took Adrian all of four minutes to bring up the cessationist versus continuationist debate.

Here is some photographic evidence of the meeting:

meeting_adrian.jpg

October 26, 2006

It’s no secret around here that I love the book of Proverbs and consider it my “home page” in the Bible. I work through it at least once every year and always benefit from doing so. And while I love Proverbs and envy the wisdom of Solomon, the man who wrote the bulk of the book, I find something almost terrifying about his life. Whenever I consider Solomon, I am faced with the question of how a man of such great wisdom and discernment could end his life so far from the Lord.

The Bible tells us that the Queen of Sheba once came to Solomon, having heard of his great wisdom, and “told him all that was on her mind.” There was nothing she asked that he could not answer, for “Solomon answered all her questions; there was nothing hidden from the king that he could not explain to her.” We know that “God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and breadth of mind like the sand on the seashore, so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east and all the wisdom of Egypt. For he was wiser than all other men…” In the history of mankind, there was no one like Solomon.

“Thus King Solomon excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom. And the whole earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind.” He was richly blessed, with wealth and power beyond measure. “He had 1,400 chariots and 12,000 horsemen, whom he stationed in the chariot cities and with the king in Jerusalem. And the king made silver as common in Jerusalem as stone, and he made cedar as plentiful as the sycamore of the Shephelah. And Solomon’s import of horses was from Egypt and Kue, and the king’s traders received them from Kue at a price. A chariot could be imported from Egypt for 600 shekels of silver and a horse for 150, and so through the king’s traders they were exported to all the kings of the Hittites and the kings of Syria.”

When the Queen of Sheba witnessed Solomon’s wisdom and gazed at all his wealth, the Bible tells us that there was no more breath in her. She was completely overwhelmed. I have often felt the same as I have read about his life and have read his proverbs. The man’s wisdom and discernment is clearly unsurpassed. And yet there is more to the story.

It is always a shock to turn to the tenth chapter of 1 Kings and to read about Solomon’s downfall. It is awful to hear how a man with such wisdom strayed so far from God. “Now King Solomon loved many foreign women, along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, from the nations concerning which the Lord had said to the people of Israel, ‘You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods.’ Solomon clung to these in love. He had 700 wives, princesses, and 300 concubines. And his wives turned away his heart.” I find the next verse instructive. “For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father.” His wives turned away his heart so that it was not wholly true to the Lord his God. Solomon’s heart was at first divided between women and God, but it soon turned away altogether.

This is terrifying, is it not? A man with the wisdom of Solomon, a man who had had the Lord appear to him twice and who had heard the Lord command him not to turn after other Gods, still turned away. Though a wise man, the Lord told him “you have not kept my covenant and my statutes that I have commanded you.” How could this happen?

It seems to me that the key to Solomon’s downfall is found in one of his own proverbs. In Proverbs 19:27 we read “Cease to hear instruction, my son, and you will stray from the words of knowledge.” There are some proverbs that are multilayered and which require great thought. This is not that type of proverb for the meaning is in plain view. Those who cease to listen to wise instruction, instruction based on the fear of the Lord, will quickly stray. While we cannot know for certain, I am increasingly convinced that this is what happened to Solomon. While he was young, he was visited by God and was endowed with great wisdom and discernment. When he was only a boy, but still a king, he called out to God in what seems to be a healthy apprehension of the difficulties he would face as king:

At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night, and God said, “Ask what I shall give you.” And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant David my father, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you. And you have kept for him this great and steadfast love and have given him a son to sit on his throne this day. And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of David my father, although I am but a little child. I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of your people whom you have chosen, a great people, too many to be numbered or counted for multitude. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?”

God was pleased with Solomon’s request, replying “I give you a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you. I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor, so that no other king shall compare with you, all your days. And if you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your days.” Solomon knew his weakness and, in humility, cried out to God and asked for His strength. As a little child cries to his father for help, so Solomon cried out in dependence on God. God was pleased to hear, pleased to answer, and pleased to give to Solomon far more than he asked. Solomon asked for discernment, but was also given great wisdom, great wealth, and great power. God lavished gifts upon him.

But as Solomon grew older, I believe he began to depend less on God. I believe he began to depend on his own wisdom and to stray ever-further from God’s instruction. Where there was once humble dependence on God, there was now dependence on himself. In so doing, he strayed from words of knowledge, and strayed from God Himself. John Anderson once preached a sermon in which he said, “Erring from the words of knowledge is direct rebellion against the authority of God, whose law binds us to believe whatever he reveals. The language of obstinate error is, I prefer my own wisdom and my own will in such a particular to the wisdom and will of God himself.” Solomon preferred his wisdom to God’s wisdom, his ways to God’s ways. The whole earth once “sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind.” But I believe Solomon soon allowed his own earthly wisdom to overtake his mind. He ceased hearing instruction and strayed from words of knowledge. He strayed from wisdom. He strayed from God.

If Solomon could stray so far from the Lord, I know that I could too. This is a sobering thought. This is even a terrifying thought. Thankfully, the solution to avoiding the folly of Solomon is clear. I need to ensure that I never cease to hear instruction. I must live constantly focused on God’s Word, never believing that I have learned enough. I must know that from this day to the day I die, I need to maintain a humble dependence on God. I must trust that His words of instruction will continue to edify and strengthen me, protecting me from straying from the words of knowledge, those words that I trust to keep me on the straight and the narrow path.

October 10, 2006

When I find a topic I’d like to write about for this site, but am not quite ready to write about it now, I often jot down a brief outline of what an article might look like and save the file to my desktop. I tend to invest some time in thinking about the topic and, within a few days, write out a full article. Sometimes, though, I just can’t seem to make an article say what I want it to say and it remains on my desktop for weeks or months. Such is the case with a file called “Imitate Me.” It has been on my desktop for many months now. Through that time I have often opened it up to try to add to it, but nothing I’ve written down has quite done justice to the topic.

Last week I was interviewed on another web site and the final question I was asked was, “As a father, what is the lesson you want to pass on to your children, and how do you plan on accomplishing that?” I had to think about this question for a good long time before I felt that I could answer it adequately. And when I found an answer, I realized that it may just be the key to finishing the article I entitled “Imitate Me.”

Not too long ago I was convicted by the words of the Apostle Paul where he urges Christians to “imitate me” or, in the ESV, to “be imitators of me.” It strikes me as the very height of arrogance for a man to exhort others to be like him and to imitate him. And yet Paul wrote those words under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Here is what he says in 1 Corinthians 4:16: “I urge you, then, be imitators of me.” Seven chapters later, in 1 Corinthians 11:1 (a verse that clearly belongs to the preceding chapter and not to chapter 11) he writes again “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” Paul is so convinced that what he is doing is right and godly, that he urges others to imitate him. The reference in verse 11 makes it clear that he seeks to imitate Christ and urges others to imitate Christ by imitating him.

Matthew Henry explains these words in this way: “Follow me as far as I follow Christ. Come up as close as you can to my example in those instances wherein I endeavour to copy after his pattern. Be my disciples, as far as I manifest myself to be a faithful minister and disciple of Christ, and no further. I would not have you be my disciples, but his.”

It seems to me that any person who wishes to be in a position of teaching or leadership should be able to echo the words of Paul and say to others, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” A man who does not feel his pursuit of God is worthy of emulation or a man who knows that he is not imitating Christ is a man who does not meet the biblical requirements of leadership. I have never heard a person exhort others to imitate him. Yet I have met men who are worth imitating. My family recently began attending a new church and one thing that drew us to this new church was the pastor, a man who I soon realized was, in many ways, a man we felt we could imitate. We met the other church leaders and were drawn to their example of humility and godliness. This was a church with many people we felt we could imitate.

As I considered the interview question that had been posed to me, I soon realized that, as a father, I wish to model a life that my children can imitate. I wish to be able to say to them, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” I want them to see in me a life of godliness that they want to imitate. I want them to see and to know that I love God best and first and that I love Him more than anything or anyone else. I want them to know that nothing will come between myself and Him. I want them to see and to know that I love my wife second only to God—that she is and will always be my closest companion, my best friend, and that nothing and no one will come between myself and her. If forced to choose between my wife and any other person, I will always choose her. And I want them to know that I love them deeply and dearly, that I love Christ’s people the church, and that I love my neighbor as myself. I want them to imitate me.

And yet in many ways I do not want them to imitate me. As my children they see my sin more clearly than anyone. They see those areas in which I refuse to submit to God and they see the sins that constantly plague me. They may see me at my best, but they also see me at my worst. I know that if I am to be able to say to them “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ,” I will have to make many changes to my life. Were they to imitate me now, they would imitate far too many flaws, far too many sins.

And yet I do want them to be able to imitate me in the ways that I imitate Christ. I see no way of accomplishing this—of accomplishing my goal of being one they can imitate—but by being a student of the Word, by having my heart and my life shaped continually by the very Word of God. And maybe, if God is gracious to me, I will someday be able to say to them, when they wonder how they are to serve Christ in this world, “Be imitators of me.” And God will be glorified.

September 06, 2006

During the past few evenings I’ve been making my way through Suffering and the Sovereignty of God edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor. Based on last year’s Desiring God National Conference, the book is set to release around September 19 and I’ll have a full review of it before then. When I was at the conference last year, I can’t deny that the speech given by Joni Eareckson Tada was not my favorite. Maybe it was her style of delivery or maybe it was just that the speech came at the end of a long day but, while I listened and learned, I found that I enjoyed many of the other speeches more than hers. And yet as I read her chapter in the book, I was truly transfixed by it, and by one line in particular.

Joni’s contribution to the book is loosely autobiographical. She illustrates suffering by speaking of her own life and her experience as a quadriplegic. At one point she describes the first weeks after her accident and the days she spent lying in a Stryker frame—“a long, flat canvas sandwich where they put you faceup for three hours and then strap another piece of canvas on you and flip you facedown to life for another three hours.” Trapped in this device, she was filled with despair. Her thoughts were dark and hopeless. She was in a downward spiral. She imagined God standing with her, holding her sin before her and asking, “Joni, what are you going to do about this? What are you going to do about this attitude? It is wrong. This sin is wrong.” Joni’s response was proof of her despair:

But I, hurting and stubborn, preferred my sins. I preferred my peevish, snide, small-minded, mean-spirited comments, grunting at people when they walked in or out, and letting food drool out of my mouth. Those were sins that I had made my own. You know what it’s like when you make sin your own. You housebreak it. You domesticate it. You shield it from the Spirit’s scrutiny. I did not want to let go of the sick, strange comfort of my own misery.

Joni’s transparency about her own sin was deeply affecting. I was transfixed by the words, “the sick, strange comfort of my own misery.” And isn’t sinful misery comforting? True misery, misery brought about solely by tragedy, is horrendous. Suffering and the Sovereignty of God provides several examples of this type of misery, such as the misery of the unexpected death of a father or a child. There is little comfort in this kind of misery. There are tears and groanings and questions, but far too often there is little comfort. But when we allow sin to pollute or misery, our sin becomes so comforting. Like an alcoholic escaping into the bottle, we can escape into our own sin and let it bring us its cold comfort.

I have never suffered as Joni has. I’ve never suffered like many of the contributors to this book have. Steve Saint’s father was brutally slaughtered when Steve was only a small child. His daughter suddenly and unexpectedly died in the prime of her life. Mark Talbot suffers with his affliction every day of his life. Dustin Shramek was called to share the blessings of the gospel in a country that had nothing to offer his son when he was born prematurely. This is the kind of suffering I can only imagine, though I try not to imagine it. I only hope and pray that I never have to experience it. Yet I know that at some point in life tragedy is likely to strike. I wonder then how I will react. Will I find my comfort in God and in the promises of Scripture? Will I, like Shramek’s wife, stay up late into the night “scouring the Scriptures for hope and comfort?” Will I be strong?

Or will I, like so many before me, turn my back on God and blame him, shaking my fist at God for not preventing what He could have prevented? Will I be faithful or will I be faithless? Will I find comfort in Him or will I find comfort in the sick, strange comfort of my own sinful misery?

God extended His grace to Joni Eareckson Tada. Her paralysis was not enough. One week into the three-week stint of lying in that horrible contraption, Joni came down with the flu. Suddenly “not being able to move was peanuts compared to not being able to breathe. I was claustrophobic. I was suffering. I was gasping for breath. I could not move. All was hopeless. All was gone. I was falling backward, head over heels, down for the count, decimated.” She broke. She cried out to God and in her anguish, in her brokenness, He gave her hope. She learned to rely on Him rather than herself. She was healed, not physically, but spiritually. She has since told her story countless times and helped countless others to find their refuge in Him.

God extended this same grace to Steve Saint. Saint has travelled the world, sharing the story of forgiveness and hope. God extended this same grace to Dustin Shramek. He writes:

Experiencing grief and pain is like falling off a cliff. Everything has been turned upside down, and we are no longer in control. As we fall we see one and only one tree that is growing out from the rock face. So we grab hold of it and cling to it with all our might. This tree is our holy God. He alone can keep us from falling headfirst to our doom. There simply aren’t any other trees to grab. So we cling to this tree (the Holy God) with all our might.

But what we didn’t realize is that when we fell and grabbed the tree our arm actually became entangled in the branches, so that in reality, the tree is holding us. We hold on to keep from falling, but what we don’t realize is that we can’t fall because the tree has us. We are safe. God, in his holiness, is keeping us and showing mercy to us. We may not be aware of it, but it is true. He is with us even in the deepest and darkest pit.

Joni came to learn that her suffering was not a random occurrence and was not a punishment, but was a trial and a responsibility given to her so she could reach out to others just like her. And while her wheelchair and all it represents is a sore trial, she came to see that the weaker she is, the harder she leans on Jesus. And the harder she leans on Jesus, the stronger she discovers Him to be. And for now she looks forward to the day when God will wipe away her tears. “I find it so poignant that finally at the point when I do have the use of my arms to wipe away my own tears, I won’t have to, because God will.”

Grief is a normal experience on this earth. Peter tells us that we should “not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” Just as God dispenses wealth and talent in differing measures, so He dispenses grief to some more than to others. Yet we will all grieve at times in our lives, for we live in a sick, battered, broken, sinful world. We should not be surprised when we suffer. But as God dispenses grief, so He dispenses grace in far greater measure. As the Psalmist tells us, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” Where there is sorrow there will be misery, but where there is misery there will also be grace. And this grace can sustain. The experiences of Joni Eareckson Tada, Steve Saint, Dustin Shramek and so many others gives me confidence that it will.

September 01, 2006

Several months ago I sat with my wife, discussing future goals and plans. I told her something she already knew: that I wanted someday to begin writing books. Writing runs in my blood and there are few things I enjoy more (though reading would have to come close). As evidenced by this blog, I have a great deal to say, even if I do not always say it particularly well. It made sense to me that I would target three or four years as a likely time to begin this type of formal writing. By then the children would be a little bit older and I would be, I trust, a little more disciplined and sanctified. I thought life would probably have settled down a bit.

Things change. A few months ago a couple of Christian friends, whose wisdom and godliness far exceed my own, suggested that I should think about writing now, for God had seen fit to give me an interest in a particular topic. As I began to research this topic, I found that there were no current books dealing with it. And yet there seems to be a good deal of interest in it. Sadly, many of those who seem to be accepted as experts in the field show great misunderstandings of the heart of the issue.

And so it was that I decided to submit a book proposal to a publishing company for whom I have a great deal of respect. I learned just a few days ago that my proposal has been accepted. The paperwork has been completed and all that now remains is for me to write the book. Tentatively titled The Discipline of Discernment, it will be published by Crossway, likely sometime in late 2007 or early 2008. It will be written for the “thoughtful general reader” (i.e. people like you and me) and will lead Christians with what I hope and trust will be helpful, biblical teaching about spiritual discernment.

You may recall that a few months ago I posted an article summarizing an interview I conducted with an expert in the field of counterfeit currency. In the hour or two we spent together, the point that struck me most was when she asked me if I am careful to always inspect the money I am given. I was surprised by this question and told her I did not realize that there was such an expectation. I simply did not know that the government expects that each of us will inspect money before accepting it. But as she patiently explained, once money has been accepted, it will not be replaced if it is found to be counterfeit. Once I accept it, I become responsible for it. In my mind, this stood as a metaphor for the church today. So few people are discerning because so few even realize it is a God-given expectation. It is my hope, my prayer, that I can encourage Christians to begin the discipline of discernment.

The reason I post this information is not to ask for congratulations or pats on the back for managing to secure a book deal. Rather, I post it to request your prayers. This is a major undertaking for me and I am both thrilled and terrified as I look at the 10 or 15 pages I’ve written and the 150 blank ones that still need to be filled. I know that this project will depend on prayer, without which I will get nowhere and accomplish nothing. And so I ask if you would consider praying for me over the next several months as I study Scripture and attempt to draw out biblical principles related to discernment. I ask you, because without you reading this site, there would have been no book to begin with. Your support, through visiting this site, has allowed this book to happen. And so I humbly ask you to pray that God would give me clarity of thought and the ability to communicate effectively. Pray most of all that He will glorified in all I do and all I write. Without His blessing this undertaking means nothing.

I hope to dedicate Fridays predominantly to writing (beginning today!) and wonder if you would consider marking Friday as a day you pray specifically for this book. I truly believe that Christians need some good teaching on this topic. I have nothing to offer but what Scripture says. I want to saying nothing other than what God says. If you would help me in this by holding me up before the throne, I’d be forever grateful.

August 24, 2006

Through the past week or so my wife and I have been working our way through the Extended Editions of the three The Lord of the Rings movies. I had seen Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers many times in the past, but had not yet had opportunity to watch the Extended Edition of The Return of the King. Aileen had seen only the theatrical editions of the first two. Three movies, each clocking in at three and a half to four hours is quite a commitment, but we made our way through an hour or two at a time after the children had gone to bed. I think I enjoyed them more than Aileen did, but she still seemed to get caught up in the story. Few movies can compare to a good book and these ones are no different in that regard. Still, they are stunning for their accurate creation of the world of J.R.R. Tolkien and for their great acting. They are always a joy to watch.

My favorite scene in the entire series happens near the end of the final film. As you no doubt remember (it has, after all, been fifty years since the books were first published!), Frodo and Sam have finally carried the ring to Mount Doom. Despite the months they have travelled and the dangers they have faced, Frodo still finds himself unable to part with the ring. The ring has thoroughly gripped his heart and now owns him more than he owns it. Frodo declares that the ring is his and puts it onto his finger for the last time. As he does so, Gollum leaps upon him, also desiring the ring. They struggle for some time and Gollum eventually bites off Frodo’s finger, steals the ring and rejoices in reclaiming it. A fight ensues in which Gollum maintains possession of the ring, but loses his balance and falls from a cliff. And here is the scene that has so often gripped me. Gollum, captured in slow motion, falls into the molten lava of Mount Doom. But as he falls, there is no terror in his eyes. No scream escapes his lips. Instead, he falls into the flame gently petting the ring, cooing to it, and delighting in his “precious.” His last word is “precioussss!” The evil ring that had first caused him to commit an act of murder and that had so long enslaved him is the object of his affection as he falls to his death.

That scene contains such a profound statement about human nature. Every time I see Gollum fall to his death, enraptured by the evil that has enslaved him, I think of the power of sin. I think of the power of sin that exists even in my own life. I know there are areas in my life that are precious to me even while they enslave me. There are areas in my life that I cling to and fight for even though they are wrong, even though they are evil. When I see Gollum fall, I see myself and the sin that enslaves me. I have to ask myself if there is sin in my life that grips me so much that I would cradle it and coo to it, even as it pulled me to my death. Often I have to ask not “if” but “where” such sin exists. It is a sobering time of reflection.

August 21, 2006

I hate cars. While they are clearly a necessity, they are just as clearly evil. I guess that makes them necessary evils. I can’t think of too many other significant investments in life that we purchase knowing full well that each time we use it, it will decrease in value. Every day the car becomes less and less valuable whether it drives around or sits in a parking lot. There is no joy in buying a new one, and usually no joy in selling an old one. When buying a car, a scratch is just a little nick that is hardly worth mentioning. When selling a car, that scratch is worth hundreds of dollars. Thousands even. The whole task of buying or selling a car is a game, and an awfully frustrating one at that. I hate the game.

Still, we do need a car and really can’t get by without one. We deemed it time to get a new one and it is sitting outside right now. I started thinking about the cars I have owned and noticed that we could trace the eight-year history of my family through these vehicles.

The first vehicle I bought was a Chevy S-10 pickup truck.

Through my college years I ran a painting business in the summers to help cover my tuition costs. I purchased the S-10 as my company vehicle. It was a great little truck and I still miss the flexibility of a pickup. I have some great memories of driving that truck with Aileen in the passenger seat and our puppy perched between us. The windshield leaked, there was no air conditioning, the interior was spattered with paint and the stereo needed a severe beating most days to convince it to work. Worst of all, the vents would never close properly which made winter driving perilously cold for the feet! But we loved it. We were young, newly married and almost carefree. We had no money and could afford nothing more elegant, for I was in school studying computers and Aileen was working only part time. Unfortunately that little truck came to an untimely end on an icy highway overpass near our first home in Brantford, Ontario. Even then Aileen was pregnant with our first child and we knew that the truck would soon need to be replaced, for there was no room for a third person, no matter how tiny he was.

State Farm was kind to us at the demise of the S-10. Still, it was not worth much and we had, quite literally, no money. It seemed that our best option, and quite possibly our only option, was to get into the leasing game. Relying on a long-time family friend who was and still is a high and mighty in a leasing company, we used the proceeds from insurance to put the down payment on a lease of a slightly-used Toyota Corolla. For some reason we got a purple one that, but for the color, looked a great deal like this:

That little purple Toyota was a barebones model with little in the way of features. I can’t imagine that Corollas come any more scaled-down than this one! It rattled and banged and bounced a lot, but did well for us. We placed my son’s car seat in the back and Aileen would often ride beside him, cuddling and comforting him while we made long drives to the cottage or to visit my family in Atlanta. We had that car for three years before the lease expired.

Based on our positive experience with the previous car, we went with another Corolla. I was now working a good and steady job and we felt that we could afford a little bit more this time around. The new car was several model years later and was at least a package or two more advanced. It had two car seats in the back as my daughter was born soon after we acquired it. Aileen would sometimes squeeze between them to read to the children or to play with them. But the car began to get a little too small. We had a boarder living with us for several years and it was a tight squeeze to get all of us into the car on the way to church. We knew that it was time to move to something bigger.

The next logical step was to get a minivan. We went with a Ford Windstar because of its affordability. I had been laid off twice and had begun my own business which was still fairly new. It was crucial that we keep our costs down. We once again went with a basic model with few exciting features (I wouldn’t have believed a model existed that had power mirrors but only a tape deck instead of a CD player). Because we work from home, we kept the mileage low and never ran into any expensive repairs. In fact, I don’t think we have ever done anything beyond basic maintenance on any of our cars so far.

Another lease has expired and now we’ve got a new car to go along with our new baby. This time we went with a Dodge Grand Caravan. As usual, we have leased a car that has already been on the road for a year as this tend to keep the costs reasonable. This van is hardly a luxury vehicle, but is at least slightly more advanced than the Windstar and I sure will appreciate cruise control for those sixteen hour drives to Georgia! We went with this one because it is big and we are constantly running out of room when we embark on family vacations. I think the next logical stop is a full out cargo van. And I don’t ever expect to get one of those! This at least gives us two more seats to fill.

And so, as I looked at the already rather long list of vehicles we have owned, I can see how God has provided for us. I can trace the growth of my family and the growth of financial stability as God has blessed my business. It is a fun and not entirely pointless retrospective.

July 31, 2006

The Pacific Campaign of the Second World War has always fascinated me. In many ways, it seemed like a nonsensical series of battles between the United States and Japan. As the Americans sought revenge for the devastation of Pearl Harbor, and as they sought to curtail Japanese aggression in the East, they fought their way across the Pacific Ocean, moving slowly and deliberately from island to island. Tiny, seemingly insignificant pieces of rock, jutting from the midst of a boundless ocean, hundreds of miles, thousands even, from the nearest mainland, became fierce battlegrounds. Tens of thousands of lives were lost in conquering little islands. And yet these islands were far more important than their size may have indicated, for they were able to serve as air bases from which strikes could be launched against other islands, and eventually against Japan itself. The insignificant islands were crucial stepping stones across the vast Pacific Ocean.

There are many lessons we can learn from the Pacific Campaign. Some apply to warfare, but others apply far beyond. One of the most important is this: little things lead to big things. This is as true in warfare as it is in the hearts of men and women.

The Spirit has been challenging me lately to deal with little sins. As with so many other believers, I often tend to feel that I’m a pretty good guy. I have never committed any of the really “bad” sins. I’ve never killed anyone, I’ve never committed adultery and I’ve never stolen anything big enough for anyone to notice that it’s missing. I pay my taxes, stick near the speed limit, and try not to hate people. But while I have not committed those big sins, I’ve come to realize just how open I have become to the little sins. To use our military metaphor, while the mainland has not yet been conquered, I can see how I’ve gleefully allowed island after island to fall to Satan. Surely concentrated attacks on the mainland cannot be far behind. Surely big sins will follow these little ones.

The Prince of Preachers, Charles Spurgeon, likens Satan’s attacks to bridging a gulf. “If it be desired to bridge a gulf, it is often the custom to shoot an arrow, and cross it with a line almost as thin as film. That line passes over and a string is drawn after it, and after that some small rope, and after that a cable, and after that the swinging suspension bridge, that makes a way for thousands.” Not too long ago, the Toronto press reported on a local man who had committed a horrifying murder. A bit of a loner, this man began to use his home computer to look at pornography. Soon light pornography was not enough to satisfy him and he began to look at things that were increasingly perverse. Before long he was seeking after child pornography. And one day, as he was looking at these horrible acts played out on his computer screen, he looked out his window and saw a young child walking by. Without planning, without having seriously considered that he might do this, he snatched her from the street. A couple of days later, the police found her body. The man turned himself in and confessed to the crime, insisting that he had not meant to do something so horrifying, so evil. It is likely true that this was not an act that had been planned for a long time. Satan had conquered island after island in this man’s heart until he finally reached the mainland. A series of small beginnings led to a horrible end. Spurgeon warns against allowing these little sins. “Oh! take heed of those small beginnings of sin. Beginnings of sin are like the letting out of water: first, there is an ooze; then a drip; then a slender stream; then a vein of water; and then, at last, a flood: and a rampart is swept before it, a continent is drowned. Take heed of small beginnings, for they lead to worse.”

Stories like that of the man who murdered the little girl terrify me. It’s not that I enjoy pornography or have ever considered seeking out child pornography. Rather, it is the lesson behind the story—the lesson that little things lead to big things. Thomas Brooks, the Puritan, wrote, “Greater sins do sooner startle the soul, and awaken and rouse up the soul to repentance, than lesser sins do. Little sins often slide into the soul, and breed, and work secretly and undiscernibly in the soul, till they come to be so strong as to trample upon the soul, and to cut the throat of the soul.” If this is true in the life of an average guy who murdered a little child, could it not be true in my life?

in God’s Way of Holiness, Horatius Bonar wrote, “The avoidance of little evils, little sins, little inconsistencies, little weaknesses, little follies, little indiscretions and imprudences, little foibles, little indulgences of self and of the flesh, little acts of indolence or indecision or slovenliness or cowardice, little equivocations or aberrations from high integrity, little touches of shabbiness and meanness, little indifferences to the feelings or wishes of others, little outbreaks of temper, or crossness, or selfishness, or vanity—the avoidance of such little things as these goes far to make up at least the negative beauty of a holy life.” Jerry Bridges is astute in pointing out that “it is in the minutiae of life where most of us live day after day.” Few of us are regularly faced with the outright decision of whether or not to commit adultery, but each of us is faced each day with the temptation of stealing a single lustful look or allowing a single lustful fantasy to play out in our minds.

We may think we avoid evil by fleeing the sins we perceive to be greater. But Jesus dealt harshly with such thoughts. “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” Jesus gave no quarter to sin. He knew that sin begins in the heart and it begins not with a great act of sin, but with many small acts. Surely Cain first grumbled against Abel, and then plotted against him before finally murdering him. Surely David allowed himself to think lustful thoughts and surely he went to the roof of his palace knowing what he might see. Those little sins led to breathtakingly horrifying, ungodly acts of lust and anger.

The truth is, that every sin, whether large or small, is a declaration of war against God. In the current Israeli-Lebanon crisis, we see this principle played out. The Hezbollah sent a few troops across the border into Israel. They did not send an entire army, but only a small squad of soldiers. Still, this was as much a declaration of war as if they had sent every solider under their command. Israel perceived this for the statement it was and reacted accordingly. In the same way even a small sin is a declaration of war against God. After all, Adam and Eve did not commit adultery and did not murder—they merely ate a piece of fruit that God had told them not to eat. This may seem only a small sin, but it is a sin that has made all the difference.

I have been challenged in my life to guard against the small sins—those sins that seem so small, so insignificant. I have come to see through Scripture and through human experience how those sins soon lead to others. They are but the beginnings of much greater sins. Each and every one, no matter how insignificant it may seem, is a declaration of war and an act of war against the Creator. And if I do not guard against these sins, soon island after island will be conquered and only the mainland will remain, weak and unprotected. Thanks be to God that He provides the strength and the power to reconquer and reclaim islands that have already fallen to the enemy. He has won battles, but by the grace of God he will be pushed back, further and further from the mainland, and will not win the war.

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