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Personal Reflections

April 23, 2007

The Pacific Campaign of the Second World War is a fascinating slice of military history. In many ways, it seemed like a nonsensical series of battles between the United States and Japan—battles that ranks as some of the most horrifyingly brutal in the long and terrible history of warfare. 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 coral, 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 pieces of land. 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.

In this campaign the little things were necessary prerequisites to bigger things. The little pieces of land led to the Japanese mainland. Little things led to big things.

Yesterday I had the privilege of hearing our pastor challenge us on erecting idols of the heart. He challenged us to seek out the sin in our lives and to determine where we have built idols that supplant the preeminence that rightly belongs to God. I thought about this yesterday and have, in truth, been thinking about sin a whole lot lately. I’ve been amazed to see lately how God has been dealing with some of my bigger, more glaring sins, completely eradicating their prominence in my life. Some of these sins remain, to be sure, but with only a fraction of the power and hold they had in the past. And for this I am exceedingly grateful. I’ve been asking myself why God would be so gracious in doing this. What does it mean? What does it point to? Why, after so many years of struggle, would God one day suddenly just take them away? Will they come back in such power and strength in the future or are they really and truly diminished for good?

Yet, though God has been so gracious and kind, I know that so much sin remains. So much. When I look at my life and at my heart, at this point at least, I do not see the huge and glaring sins that I may have pointed to even a year ago. Rather, I see many smaller sins, these sins that I know are mere stepping stones to bigger ones. And so, though I have written on this topic in the past (and last summer, to be exact) I felt that today, for the good of my own soul, I needed to revisit it since it may just be that the sin that is most prevalent in my life right now is in allowing these small sins and giving them only scant notice. My big sin is the multitude of small 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.” An apt metaphor. 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 and disgusting. He became enslaved to his sin so that before long he was seeking after and finding loads of 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 girl walking by. Without planning and without having seriously considered that he might do this or even that he was capable of it, he snatched her from the street. A couple of days later the police found her battered, abused and now lifeless 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.” I think of the classic tale of the Dutch boy with his finger in the dike. If he removes his finger and the water flows, what was once a mere dribble of water will soon become a raging torrent that will flood farmland and drown innocent people. Sin is like the ocean, with a power that, even when restrained, remains potent. It is always pushing against the walls of the dike.

Stories like that of the man who brutalized the little girl terrify me. It’s not that I enjoy pornography or have even ever considered seeking out child pornography. Rather, it terrifies me because it shows the truth of 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? The Japanese Army knew this and it led them to fight tooth and nail for each and every little piece of coral in the Pacific Ocean.

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 last year’s Israeli-Lebanon crisis, we saw 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.

As I reflected on the sin in my life, 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. It could well be that the greatest sin I face today is in allowing small sins to pass by scarcely noticed, all the while rejoicing that I do not succumb to the greater sins. Yet if I allow the small sins to pass through my heart and I allow them to take root, it is only a matter of time before small things lead to big things.

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. Through His power even the smallest island can be ably and securely defended.

I append to this article a brief note for my brothers and sisters in Christ. It is good to look to the heart and to assess where Satan has made gains in your life. I plead with you to look long and deep at those little matters, those small sins, those stepping stones to the big and glaring sins. If there is great sin in your life, bring it before God and plead for His grace. But look also to the stepping stones that carried Satan one step at a time. If you struggle with pornography, look to your eyes or look to your attitude towards women and sex; if you struggle with having a foul mouth, look to the movies you watch or the music you listen to; if you struggle with gratitude, look to your understanding of the meaning and power of the cross. At this very moment my wife is outside tending to our garden. Show knows that if she wants to have a lush and beautiful garden, she must deal with the weeds that seek to smother out her plants. Were she to simply snip the top of the weed she would find that they will grow back in just a few days. Instead, she needs to dig down, wrestling with that weed until she extracts it by the roots, tearing it from the soil. Do this with your sin, digging ever deeper and determining where you have given Satan permission to put roots of sin into your life. Tear out those roots, cast them away, and live in freedom.

April 02, 2007

The first Monday in April has long been one of my favorite days of the year. It is the day that the Boys of Summer take to the field and begin the long, difficult journey through the baseball season.

Since I was just a child I have loved baseball. I grew up listening to the sounds of the game and spending every moment I could on the field. My earliest baseball memories go back to the days I lived in Unionville, Ontario, which at the time was a small town just outside of Toronto (it has now been assimilated by the growing urban sprawl known as the Greater Toronto Area). We lived in a beautiful house on a property with almost an acre of grass in the backyard. Though this afforded me many opportunities to practice batting and throwing, I most often spent my time just down the street at the side of a strip-mall near my house. Years before someone had painted a strike-zone on the outside wall of the upholstery store, and for hours and hours every day I stood facing that wall, throwing a tennis ball at the strike zone. I would practice my repertoire of pitches, though in reality there is not much variety when throwing a tennis ball. As the ball bounced back to me I would practice my fielding and practice relaying the ball to an imaginary first baseman. Day after day, all summer long, I would throw a tennis ball against that wall, sharpening my skills and imagining that I was playing for real.

When evening came my favorite pastime was to ride my bike to the local park where every evening there would be some kind of ball game. Usually it was overweight, middle-aged men playing slo-pitch. I would head to the concession area, buy some licorice or Gobstoppers and then sit back and watch the men play. It was not awfully good baseball, of course, but I really didn’t care, for it was still baseball. Sometimes I would be brave and head for one of the dugouts to ask if the team needed a bat boy. More often than not they would gladly let me play that role, so when the plays were over I would sprint over to the fallen bat and retrieve it. That, along with ensuring the bats were all nicely lined up against the fence in the dugout, were my only responsibilities, yet I felt ten feet tall, knowing I was playing my part in the game. I would inevitably lose track of the time and as night was falling I would see my brother walking through the field, coming to tell me that mom and dad said I had to get home right now! As soon as my days of being grounded were over, I would be right back at the park, watching and hoping to be the bat boy once again.

When I was 7 or 8 years old my grandmother bought me a clock radio. As a matter of fact, that same radio still sits beside my bed and still wakes me most mornings, though lately my children often beat the alarm. As a child that radio was my gateway into the world of professional baseball. When I was growing up we had no television (for which I am very thankful) so the radio became my indispensable friend. Every night I would tune in to AM 1430 which was the home of the Toronto Blue Jays in Toronto and would listen to Tom Cheek and Jerry Howarth do the play-by-play. My parents would tuck me into bed, and as soon as they had left my room I would turn the radio on and I would be at the ballgame. On the weekends I would stop what I was doing at 1 o’clock in the afternoon and head to my room to take in the game. If I was feeling ambitious I would even pull out a scorecard and score the game myself. The commentators would often help out, saying “that’s a 4-2 putout, for those of you scoring at home.”

My obsession for baseball led me to try my hand at the game and for several years I played in various softball leagues. Though I was never a star player, I had a much better head for the game than the rest of the kids, for I knew the rules inside and out. I was occasionally even able to talk my way past the umpires. Once I remember talking myself out of an infield fly, even though I knew full-well that I should have been out. I began my playing days at third base, but soon found that first base was where I really loved playing. I was good enough that I never got stuck out in right field, but not good enough to get placed at shortstop. But that was fine, for as long as I was on the field I was happy.

Some of the fondest memories of my childhood are the times my father would take me to see my heroes in action. Once a year we would sit down in front of a schedule and choose a game we were going to go to. As we drove downtown, first to Exhibition Stadium and later to Skydome, the excitement would rise. We would climb to our seats and for the next 3 hours my eyes would be fixated on the field. For the same 3 hours my father’s eyes would be fixated on the crowd as he watched bizarre human behavior. While I was an avid baseball fan, my father was not — he derived his pleasure from watching the drunk guy who held the bell that would ring whenever George Bell came come to the plate or from any of the other strange shows of behavior one sees where tens of thousands of people gather. I was a student of baseball while he was a student of human behavior. After the game we would always go to the same little pizza parlour for some slices of pepperoni pizza and a can of Coke. It was the perfect end to the perfect night.

When I was in eighth grade my family moved to Ancaster, a small town outside of Hamilton. It was here that I got my first taste of playing hardball. I loved knowing I was playing the same game as the men in the major leagues. At our first practice I remember the coach watching me play and saying “you’ve got a rocket!” That, of course, meant that I could throw the ball hard and he decided he would try me at pitcher. What an honor it was to get to stand there on the rubber, knowing that the game was in my hands. I honestly do not recall how many games I pitched and how I did. I do remember my first strikeout and with shame remember my first balk. Unfortunately, though, my pitching repertoire consisted of only a few pitches (slow, fast and faster) and it was not enough to set me apart from the ace on our team (whose pitches were fast, faster and fastest). My greatest memory of that season, my final season playing baseball, was the final game of the playoffs. We had advanced that far and were playing a team which had some very strong hitters. It came to the final inning and the score was tied. My coach put me in left field knowing that I would be able to track down any fly balls that came that way. Sure enough, there came a pivotal moment where the opposing team had a runner on second with two out. The batter knocked a solid hit into left — a good single. Naturally the runner from second was going to try to make it home with the go-ahead run. I fielded the ball on a hop and without breaking stride, launched it at my catcher. It bounced perfectly halfway between third and home and hopped right into his mitt. All he had to do was wait for the runner to hit his glove. He did, and just like that the inning was over and the threat had ended. In our next at-bat we scored the winning run to win the championship. My memory is not of winning, but of people celebrating the catcher’s perfect play at the plate when I had been the one who made the perfect throw. I think there is a lesson in there somewhere!

Two of the happiest moments of my life came in 1992 and 1993, for those were the years that the Blue Jays were at their best. They won the World Series in 1992, beating out the Atlanta Braves in a spectacular 6-game showdown. 1993, though, was special, for that game ended in a way that has happened only twice in baseball’s long history. In the bottom of the ninth inning in game six of the World Series, Joe Carter hit a home run to win the game. I can still remember the commentator’s voices rising and breaking as they called that long homer to left. I remember the celebration as in houses all around the city cheering broke out. Cars drove down the street honking their horns. I jumped and bounced and celebrated a great victory. My long years of following the Jays’ every move had finally paid off — twice!

I do not follow baseball as closely as I used to. As I have gotten older I have found other hobbies and interests that take my attention from the superstars on the baseball diamonds. I have found people whom I respect far more than the boys of summer. Yet when the white of winter begins to melt into the green of spring, my mind always returns to the simple pleasures of my youth — the pleasures of the crack of a bat and the sharp sting of a ball hitting a mitt. My heart always beats a little faster on the first Monday of April as it is the day the Blue Jays return to the field and announce that baseball season has, once again, begun.

Today the Toronto Blue Jays will take to the field and will pick up their first win of the season against the Detroit Tigers. In a few days my son and I will sit down, pull out the schedule, and plan a trip or two into Toronto to watch the game. We’ll go and watch the game together and then buy some slices of pizza on the way home. Meanwhile, he’ll undoubtedly be spending his time outside in the yard throwing and catching a baseball, honing his skills and falling in love with the game.

March 29, 2007

I’ve been thinking for a while now that it would be interesting and beneficial to have bloggers post their testimonies to their blogs. Some have already done this, but many (myself included) have not. And yet I love testimonies and find them so beautiful and so moving. It is amazing to read about the many ways God saves His people. He uses an infinite variety of means to draw an infinite variety of His people to Himself. Testimonies stand as evidence of God’s grace, showing God’s ability and desire to save people of all types and from all walks of life. They inspire Christians to appreciate the goodness and grace of the Lord. They are also valuable for witnessing to others. So I thought I would put a challenge out for Christian bloggers to post their testimonies to their blogs next Tuesday (we can call it Testimony Tuesday). When you have done so, send me a link through email and I’ll collect them all on my site. And we can rejoice in God’s goodness together.

If you are a blog reader but not a blog owner, why not find a friend and post your testimony to his blog or in his comment section.

Just to kick things off, here is my testimony as I wrote it out when applying for membership at our church.

I can never remember a time that I did not consider myself a Christian. That is a strange way to begin a testimony, I admit, but it is the truth. And still I think my story is a testimony not to anything I’ve been or done, but to the grace of God.

I was raised in a Christian home. My parents were both first generation Christians who were converted only shortly before marrying. When I was born they were Anglican and were on the path to embracing those great doctrines of God’s grace and sovereignty. When I was only an infant they spent the better part of a year at L’Abri in England, learning about Christian doctrine and living through the children and proteges of Francis and Edith Schaeffer. Upon their return we joined a Presbyterian church and, when I was in grade school, migrated to Reformed churches in the Dutch tradition. At some point when I was only five or six years old I seemed to make a commitment to Christ. While I do not remember this, my parents do and feel that it was a genuine expression of faith. Through my childhood we went to church just about any time the doors were upon, read the Bible as a family and memorized catechisms. I also attended Christian schools where I was taught about the world through a Christian perspective and was made to learn Christian history and theology. Sadly, this theological tradition tends to assume the salvation of any born into it. It also tends to overplay the importance of corporate identity in Christ at the expense of a living, vibrant and personal faith. While my parents did much to overcome this deficiency, I always assumed I was a Christian but rarely stopped to ponder if I really was. I considered myself a believer but, in retrospect, showed very little evidence of this.

When I was fifteen or sixteen I came in contact, through a friend, with the Christian rock band Petra. He had fallen in love with their music and played one of their tapes for me. I reacted as I had been implicitly taught through the churches and schools I had been attending most of my life. I laughed and scoffed. And yet I copied a few of the songs and took them home with me. I listened to them time and again and soon bought as many of their albums as I could afford. This music did something in me that I had not expected. The music was full of “I” and “me” and personal challenges and made me consider whether I could, in good conscience, sing along with the band. The song “Underground” stands out in particular.

I won’t go underground I won’t turn and flee I won’t bow the knee I won’t go underground I won’t run and hide from the rising tide I won’t go underground I won’t compromise what the world denies I won’t go underground And I’m not ashamed of the cross I’ve claimed

Did I really have the kind of faith that would not run and hide? Was I willing to compromise? Had I really claimed the cross? Was this Christian faith really mine, or was it something I was just acting out as I imitated my parents? It seems silly, I know, that such simple songs could challenge me this deeply. And yet they did. They just simmered in my mind and in my heart.

That winter my parents decided, against my wishes, to send my brother and me to a winter retreat at a church near our cottage. This was a Reformed Presbyterian Church and the retreat drew teens from Ottawa all the way to upstate New York. That weekend I saw something that surprised me; something that was foreign to me. I saw teenagers willing to live out their faith and unashamed of doing it. I saw teenagers who did not just claim to be Christians but, to my great surprise, actually acted like Christians. This shocked me and made me uncomfortable and yet somehow it also intrigued me. I wanted whatever these kids had.

I returned to high school markedly different. I soon began to feel a distance from my friends. I began to live like a Christian more than ever before and my friends were unimpressed. They mocked me, telling me I was becoming a holy roller. Their criticism, the newfound emphasis on personally embracing the gospel and the knowledge that teens actually could live like Christians circulated in my mind. One evening, only weeks after returning from the retreat, I remember sitting in my room listening to music and reading, of all things, Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness. The book ended just as the album did. The final song on the album ended in a chorus that repeated “Let the trumpet sound throughout the universe / We proclaim the glory of the Lord / Jesus Christ has gained for us the victory / He’s already won the holy war.” Sometime inside me changed. I collapsed on my bed and told God to do with my life whatever He wanted. I had an awareness of my sin and an awareness of God’s grace that was far more prevalent than at any other time I remember before then. I don’t know if this moment marked my conversion or if it just marked the moment that I truly stepped out and made the faith of my parents my own. Either way, it was a defining moment for me and one that remains dear. I increasingly began to desire to follow hard after God. I began to see the world through the lens of Scripture and began to value what God values. My life was transformed.

I soon left both the church and school. I had to. I couldn’t be in places that dragged up bad memories and places where so many people my age acted in ways that were completely inconsistent with their profession. I had been given a new start and needed to start over in other areas as well. God so ordained it that on my very first day at my new school I met the woman who was to become my wife. We married five years later.

As I look over my life I see a testimony to God’s grace and faithfulness. By grace He saved my parents and then showed His faithfulness in answering their prayers by bringing myself and my four siblings to Himself. By grace He caused me as a young boy to cry out to Him and later to see the reality of my parent’s faith and the truth of His Word and then to turn to Him in faith and obedience. By grace He allowed my life to intersect with Aileen’s so that our two stories, our two testimonies, have now blended into one. By grace He has already begun to conform me to the image of His Son and in faith I trust that His grace will sustain me to the end. This truly is a testimony, not to anything I’ve been or done, but to the love and grace of God.

March 28, 2007

I was skimming headlines a few days ago and noticed a story about some activists on a college campus who were planning to cover all of the school’s mirrors for a day. I did not read long enough to see why they wanted to do this, but I assume it was somehow meant to draw attention to a problem the school or government was covering up. You know how these college-aged activists are, always thinking they are so clever and profound. But in this case they got me to thinking about life without mirrors.

Now I’m not one of those metrosexual guys who spends half of my life primping and preening in front of a mirror. My bathroom isn’t stocked with hundreds of different kinds of moisturizers, hair products and body sprays. But I still wouldn’t want to start my day without a quick peek into the mirror. I still like to make sure that my weird and wiry hair isn’t doing anything too obnoxious and that the afflictions of age (primarily those thick black hairs that seem to grow suddenly out of strange places) are not protruding from places they shouldn’t be.

There is something comforting about peering into a mirror every now and then. Certainly there is usually no reason to gaze at myself when I go into a bathroom but, like you, I always make a cursory check to ensure that nothing too weird is going on. If I eat a poppy seed bagel (my favorite!) I have to check that there isn’t a seed stuck between those two teeth that are just a tiny bit crooked and always (always!) manage to trap a seed. Few things are worse than trooping around all day and only realizing at the end of it that I’ve had a piece of parsley or spinach stuck to one of my teeth or that I’ve had a ridiculous cowlick. You know the feeling.

My personal Bible study this morning took me to the closing verses of the first chapter of James. You no doubt know these words well:

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.

As I read these verses and began to meditate upon them I was reminded immediately of those activists on the college campus. I realized that I would never intentionally head out to a meeting or an appointment without first checking a mirror to make sure that everything looked just about right (or as right as it can, anyways, based on what I’m working with here). Covering all the mirrors in our house would bother me! And then I was struck by the way James portrays the Bible as a mirror for the heart. I thought of how loathe I am to begin my day without peering into a mirror but how little it troubles me when I begin the day without peering into the mirror of the Word.

I know there have been times when I’ve forgotten to check a mirror before heading out. Most of the time it hasn’t mattered, but there have been a couple of occasions when I realized only when it was too late that I had forgotten to shave or that I was still showing clear evidence on my face of having eaten a chocolate cookie earlier in the day. I could have saved myself embarrassment by just checking the mirror. I know there have been times when I’ve forgotten or neglected to look into the mirror of the Word, the perfect law of liberty, to assess my heart. Most of the time it hasn’t shown, but I know there have been occasions when I gave clear evidence of this to the people I encountered. There have been other times that I’ve read the Bible, but have not allowed it to penetrate or to take hold. I’ve been just the person James warns about who “looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.” I have looked quickly, glanced briefly, but have not looked long enough to allow the Scripture to reflect back to me my sin and God’s standard of holiness. I have gone merrily on my way having already forgotten to be both a hearer and a doer.

God’s Word has the unique ability to give great clarity to what God demands and expects of us. It also unmasks our sin and our rebellion. I would be a fool not to gaze into this mirror every day. I would be a fool to go about life without regularly looking into this amazing mirror.

March 24, 2007

Roy Halladay is Toronto Blue Jays’ ace pitcher and is one of the top players in baseball. Halladay has a well-established routine that begins as soon as a game is complete and continues until the next game has begun five or six days later. He has another routine which takes him from the end of one season to the beginning of the next. And, like many players, has a routine which takes him from pitch-to-pitch. His off-season regimen, which prepares him for a long and grueling season of baseball, is legendary and readies more than his arm. To prepare his mind he reads The Mental ABC’s of Pitching seven or eight times every season. To hone his concentration he carries with him a series of laminate grids filled with 100 randomly numbered squares that he crosses off in order, from 00 to 99, with an erasable marker. “Every day that I’m not pitching, I’m doing something that’s going to help me when I’m out there, not just vegging on the bench or in the hotel room,” he says. To prepare his body he works out constantly and so vigorously that he rarely breaks into a sweat during a game. He has the reputation of being the team’s hardest worker. Not surprisingly, he is also the team’s best player. His team members flock to him, eager to learn from his routine so they, in turn, can become better players. While Halladay is clearly a talented athlete, what sets him apart is his preparation. He prepares to pitch by rigorously preparing himself both physically and mentally. He tends to more than his arm, but looks to his entire body and mind. He knows that to be a great player requires skill and preparation in a wide variety of disciplines.

I have been thinking about what is necessary to be a man or woman of discernment (and you’ll have to forgive me for the constant discernment talk these days. For obvious reasons it is much on my mind). It is clear that discernment is not a discipline that can be pursued on its own. A person who wishes to be discerning cannot simply read and study the passages of the Bible dealing with discernment. He cannot concentrate only on making the black-and-white decisions necessitated by discernment. Rather, he must look further and prepare himself in a variety of disciplines. He must be a person who prays, who studies the Bible, who is committed to a local church, and so on. He must maintain a particular posture. This makes me think of a sprinter. Just as a person who wishes to win a sprint will have to begin the race in a certain posture, crouched low with legs ready to spring forward, a person who wishes to be discerning must maintain a particular spiritual posture.

While this idea of spiritual posture arose from my musings on discernment, I have come to see that it has wide application. In any discipline of the Christian life, we need to have a certain kind of posture. There is nothing a Christian does or practices that is isolated from everything else. Too often I get hung up on one thing. I emphasize prayer and let Bible-reading slip. I emphasize reading my Bible and let prayer slip. But these disciplines are necessarily inter-related and together form the posture that allows me to run the race in a way that brings glory to God.

February 21, 2007

I am quite a fan of sports, or certain sports at any rate. One thing that has always attracted me to sports, and baseball in particular, is the numbers. I can take a brief look at a list of players and immediately have a sense as to how they are doing. The sports pages always have these great lists of statistics, showing batting averages, on base percentages, numbers of hits, home runs, singles, doubles and runs batted in. Sorting those lists quickly allows the best players to rise to the top. Statistics has become such an art, such a science, that every aspect of the game can be boiled down to a number or a rating. Even the inevitable intangibles have been boiled down to numbers and percentages. The fact is that success in sports is easily measured, easily tabulated, and easily understood in simple numbers.

But sports is one of the few areas where this actually works. Back when I used to work in the corporate world I would have to undergo the annual process known as a “performance review.” I would be given a form which would guide me in rating myself in various areas. I had to determine if I was poor, below average, average, above average or excellent in my leadership skills, in performing the responsibilities of my job, in participating in teamwork, and on and on. I would then submit this form to my manager and he would walk me through the form he had filled out on my behalf. We would compare notes to see where his impressions of me were different from my impressions of myself. It was sometimes a helpful process, but there was something just a bit humiliating about it. There was something dehumanizing about boiling down a year’s worth of work into a number between one and five. There was little room for the unmeasurable skills, for the contributions that are not mentioned on the form or that are not easily measured. I hated performance reviews and am thankful that, because I am self-employed, I no longer have to endure them.

The success of a Christian life is difficult to measure. Occasionally I receive some kind of a test or assessment that seeks to lead me through my skills, gifting, abilities and so on. This assessment will apparently help me understand how I am doing as a Christian and what areas I need to work on. But, as with a corporate performance review, boiling down the Christian life to a list of numbers and ratings just doesn’t work. I can’t rate myself between one and five in areas like evangelism, personal devotions and church attendance. It just doesn’t work.

And yet there is one time in the year when I receive a numeric rating that helps me gauge my “performance” in at least one area. And at the same time of the year I receive a numeric rating that helps me see just how much God has blessed me. That time of the year is right now—it is tax time.

I dislike tax time almost as much as I dislike performance reviews. As a self-employed guy I know that I will never again experience the wonder of the tax refund. I owe money, and lots of money, to the government every April. Every spring I have to dig deep and come up with a year’s worth of income tax so I can pay the government what I owe. With Canadian taxes being what they are (this “free” health care we enjoy isn’t really anywhere near free as so many Canadians are reminded this time of year) this is never a small amount.

So while the very bottom line on a tax return (the “this is what you owe us” line) is often painful to me, the one immediately above that, the one that shows my income, is always a blessing. I typically cringe to see it because I know that the very bottom number is necessarily influenced by the one right above it. And yet I am always amazed at just how God has blessed us financially in the year that has just passed. Since Aileen and I have been married we have seen that number go up and down. But always it has been enough. Usually it has been more than enough. For just one brief moment I can see God’s providence through another year written plainly in black ink on that little line.

There is another line that is of equal importance. Further up in the form is the spot where I have to list the amount of money I have donated to eligible charitable organizations throughout the year. Through the first two months of the year, these organizations are responsible for sending tax receipts to anyone who has donated money and, as often as not, I am surprised when I receive these forms. I expect one from my church, but often forget other individuals and organizations I have supported through the year. I compile these little numbers and arrive at a bigger number. And then I compare this number to the number mentioned earlier, the one on the second line from the bottom. This may be a moment of humility and a moment of shame, especially if the one number is just the tiniest fraction of the other. Hopefully, however, it will again cause me to marvel at God’s goodness in providing for my family. Hopefully it will be a moment of holy humility as I see the hand of God’s provision. It may be a moment of joy as I see that God has continued to impress upon me the importance of being obedient to Him so that I understand the importance of giving regularly to His work. Not many unbelievers would be willing to give away ten percent of their income; not many would be able to. And yet, as Christians, we know that all we have is God’s and that He rewards faithfulness, consistently providing for those who return to Him the first fruits of their labor.

Of course numbers are not a thorough measure of our giving. They may tell how much we have given, but they cannot tell us about the spirit in which they have been given. God knows and judges our hearts, and He cannot be fooled by mere numbers. He expects that we give joyfully. Numbers look much the same whether they are grudging or joyful. But not to God. He knows.

Tax time is an awful time. It is mostly a thankless time. And yet we would be remiss if we did not use it as an opportunity to examine our hearts, to measure at least the quantity our gifts and offerings to God, and to see at least some measure of His faithfulness to us through another year. It more than offsets the pain of having to empty bank accounts to give to the government what they demand and deserve.

February 13, 2007

Thank you. Just over a week ago I asked that you would pray for me. I asked that God would allow me opportunity both to work (and thus make money to support my family) and to find time to finish up my book in what is going to be a very busy six to eight weeks. Someone must have taken the time to pray for me because God answered in an amazing way. Late last week I got a call from a person whose client needed a site completed on an emergency basis. When he told me how much these people were willing to pay, my eyes bugged out a little bit. I dropped everything and worked on the site for two days, Friday and Saturday. During this time I made what is pretty well a month’s worth of money. So thank you for praying. God is good. This is yet another God moment, another story, proving to me that God is behind me in writing this book. It means the world to me.

For the last few weeks I’ve felt as if I’m somehow living under some kind of special blessing. The realities of God’s care and provision seem so real to me—probably more real than at any other time in my life. I can’t really explain it. Perhaps I should turn to the Puritans, those men and women who had such a gift for understanding and explaining the realities of God’s involvement in our lives. Perhaps they would be able to help me understand. I’ve had lots of moments in my life where I’ve felt so close to God, so aware of His presence. Sometimes they last for minutes and sometimes for days. I think every Christian experiences these and every Christian begs God to never let them go away. And yet they always do. What I feel now is different. It’s not a feeling as much as a sense and understanding of the reality that God is providing in ways that somehow seem beyond the course of the ordinary. That’s the best I can do.

And even while God is providing for me in such amazing ways, I am shocked and amazed by my own prayerlessness. As with many Christians, spending time with God in Scripture and prayer has been a lifelong struggle with me. Neither of these disciplines comes naturally to me and I fight constantly to spend time with God and to even want to spend time with God. It is one that breeds guilt and shame. It breeds exasperation. Even at my most insightful moments I can’t, for the life of me, figure out what it is that convinces me that I should do anything but spend a good part of my day studying God’s Word and pouring out my heart to Him. Even at those times when I feel like I am making strides forward, I still know how much better I could do. I’m amazed at my own failures. It’s not that I don’t pray at all, but more that I just don’t pray enough. I don’t pray often enough and I don’t pray earnestly enough.

Recently I’ve been reading Prayer and the Voice of God by Phillip Jensen and Tony Payne (of Matthias Media fame). I’ve found this book helpful in understanding why we, and why I, don’t pray. It is too easy to say “I’m lazy” or “I can’t find the time” or “I can’t be bothered.” These reasons are too much on the surface and must be mere symptoms of a deeper, greater problem. Jensen and Payne point to three broad reasons. These are not the surface reasons, but the deeper heart issues that feed the surface reasons.

First, we don’t pray because we have false views of God. In our hearts we doubt that God is able to respond to our prayers. We may think that He is limited by natural laws he put in place to govern the world or that He is limited by his fixed, sovereign will. Alternatively, we may doubt that God is willing to respond to our prayers and act in a way that benefits us. We may question whether God is willing to act because of the problem of evil or because we consider our requests too small or insignificant to merit His attention. Of course these are all false assumptions. And, while they may manifest themselves in excuses like “I just don’t have time today,” they are based on a view of God that is opposed to how He reveals Himself to us in Scripture. We sin when we think of God in such human ways.

The second reason is that we have false views of our relationship with God. We may not trust God as we should and persist in this disobedience. We may think that our prayers have only been heard if and when we receive exactly what we asked for or we may think that our feelings are accurate indicators of our prayers and whether or not God has heard them. These are also false assumptions. The reality is that God may answer prayer in an infinite number of ways and we may never understand just how God has answered. He may also answer with a “no.” And while our feelings are important, they cannot stand as the measure of the quality of our prayers or the extent to which God has heard them. Prayer is to be an objective fact of our relationship with God, not a subjective impression of our feelings. And, as the authors point out, “the important thing about trust is not how strong the trust is or how it feels, but whether the thing you’re trusting in is trustworthy.”

The final reason is simply sin and Satan. The ultimate basis of our difficulty is not intellectual but moral and spiritual. Our sin keeps us from acknowledging our dependence on God and our lack of independence. Because we are sinful we do not want to rely on God or respond to His call to trust and prayer. And, of course, Satan, our old adversary, will do all he can to keep us from praying. He will interfere in whatever way he can.

These are three reasons, each of which contributes to the “I don’t have time” and “I can’t be bothered” excuses that we offer all too often. I am spending time searching my heart to see how these false assumptions have somehow fueled my prayerlessness. I know in my head that I need to pray, that I need to pray earnestly, and that I need to pray a lot. And somehow I so often seem not to. There must be something in my heart, something lurking there, that is keeping me from acting on what I know. There must be something that is keeping me from living in obedience and from effectively denying the sovereignty of God on such a consistent basis. There must be.

The authors say, rightly I believe, that the hardest part of prayer is starting. And this is where we so often fail. It is where I so often fail. I do not commit to prayer as a discipline that is absolutely critical to my relationship with God. And then it becomes just so easy to let it slip by or to give it only a token effort. And yet somehow God still sees fit to bless me so richly. He is good.

February 09, 2007

This time next week, if all goes well, I will be sitting on a plane, on my way to Los Angeles. I will be heading to the Terrace Theatre: Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center (that’s a mouth full!) to bring liveblogging of the Resolved Conference. This kicks off my 2007 liveblogging schedule—a schedule that is ridiculously full.

I never anticipated that I’d be traveling across the United States blogging conferences. It is really something that just kind of happened to me (much like just about everything else about this web site). Liveblogging is really a new phenomenon and one I am mostly making up as I go. There is really no model to follow and no objectively right way of doing it. I do enjoy liveblogging a great deal and am looking forward to all of the opportunities that are fast approaching. As I weighed various opportunities, I was struck by the diversity of ministries that are either distinctly Reformed or that appeal to a Reformed audience. This diversity quickly became my theme as I decided which invitations to accept and which to regretfully decline. I find it thrilling that I’ll have the opportunity to criss-cross the continent this year and see so many ministries in action. I find it unlikely that I will be offered or be able to accept such a variety in the future. Time will tell. But for this year I just couldn’t decline so many incredible opportunities.

There are conferences “seasons,” with most conferences being held in the spring or fall. My schedule reflects this. Here are the conferences I hope to attend this year.

I will be kicking off my Spring conference itinerary with the Resolved Conference, a conference inspired by the resolutions of Jonathan Edwards and geared towards a younger audience (I anticipate being one of the oldest people in the audience!). It is a ministry of Grace Community Church. I’ve invited one of the young guys (he’s single, ladies!) from our church to go along with me and am looking forward to spending the weekend with him. Speakers at this conference will be Rick Holland, John MacArthur, Steve Lawson, C.J. Mahaney and John Piper. Can you think of a group of men better qualified to address this young crowd?

Two weeks after Resolved, I’ll be heading back to L.A. (this time with my pastor) for the Shepherd’s Conference which runs from the 6th until the 10th of March. This is also a ministry of Grace Church and is geared towards pastors. I was at this conference last year and enjoyed it a great deal. This year the conference is adding a “Scholar’s Desk,” a stand-up desk outside the main auditorium. At the desk there will be assigned scholars and topics with two or three scholars on duty during all of the time slots. Anyone who cares to drop by will be able to ask any question about the given topic. Topics will include student ministries, expository preaching, counseling, and so on. Another of the topics will be blogging, and they’ve asked me to serve at the desk during this time. It is not often that “scholar” and “blogger” are used together, so I will definitely take advantage of this opportunity. It ought to be fun. Speakers at this year’s conference are largely the same as last year: John MacArthur, Al Mohler, Steve Lawson, Ligon Duncan and John Piper. While the conference officially extends until the Sunday, I will head home on the Saturday.

The next conference is just a few days later! The Ligonier Conference begins on the 15th and runs until the 17th. The speakers at this conference are R.C. Sproul, John MacArthur, John Piper, Al Mohler and Ravi Zacharias. I will make my way down to Orlando and take in this conference with my brother-in-law.

Amazingly enough, all three of these conferences have filled up and have closed registration. I believe Ligonier will be the biggest with about 5,000 in attendance. The fact that all of these conferences are filled attests to the growing interest in conferences. I suspect the Internet has done wonders in making it easier to publicize these conferences and draw people to them. And, of course, all three of them have a great lineup of speakers. By this time I’m assuming that John Piper will consider taking out a restraining order against the weird Canadian guy that seems to be following him from conference to conference.

After Ligonier I’ll have a few weeks off and will then head for Mississippi for the Twin Lakes Fellowship. This conference is a ministry of Ligon Duncan’s First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi and is unique in that it is small and relatively unknown. Still, it promises to be very interesting. Speakers will include Ligon Duncan, Derek Thomas and Thabiti Anyabwile. I do believe this will be the first conference I’ll go to by myself!

Next up is The Basics: A Pastor’s Conference, which is held in Cleveland, Ohio from May 7-9. It is associated with Alistair Begg’s Parkside Church. Keith and Kristyn Getty will be leading worship. Speaking will be Alistair Begg, Derek Thomas, Edward Lobb and Voddie Baucham. I know very little about Alistair Begg, Truth for Life and Parkside Church and am really looking forward to learning more about them.

The final conference of the spring is New Attitude which runs from May 26-29 and is held in Louisville, Kentucky. This conference targets much the same crowd as Resolved and is sponsored by Sovereign Grace Ministries. The topic, spiritual discernment, is near and dear to my heart. I have often questioned the wisdom of submitting my book and then, just weeks later, going to hear John Piper, Josh Harris, Al Mohler, Eric Simmons, Mark Dever and C.J. Mahaney discuss the very same topic! It could prove very humbling. Aileen will be coming to this conference with me (her first conference!) so it will be great to spend the weekend with her.

Where my spring is going to be very busy, the fall looks lighter. The only conference I’ve committed to is the Alpha & Omega conference. It begins in Seattle and then heads to a cruise ship for a tour up the coast of the Pacific Northwest. It looks like I am unlikely to be at this year’s Desiring God conference, one I have been at for the past two years. There are another couples of opportunities I am weighing, but it seems likely that it will be a quiet fall for me.

So there you have it. I am eager to make these liveblogging opportunities as useful and edifying as they can possibly be. I want to be able to serve both the conference organizers and the people who read this site and am eager for any insight into how I can do that. So please, if there are aspects of my previous attempts at liveblogging that you have hated or there are some things you would like me to improve, feel free to leave a comment or send me an email.