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

Tim Challies

Challies on FacebookChallies on Twitter

Personal Reflections

December 02, 2006

Aileen gave herself the best birthday present ever. On her thirtieth birthday she gave birth to our daughter, Michaela Joy. It was a great day, even if we didn’t get around to having Aileen’s birthday dinner that day. Now that it is my thirtieth birthday I have proven unable to deliver such a great gift for myself. Thankfully, I’ve got family on my side.

This morning at around 10 AM my biggest little sister (Maryanne, for those of you who are trying to piece together a family tree) gave birth to a healthy baby girl. Emma Claire Helms makes for a pretty good birthday gift. From the hospital I received the following text message (presumably via my brother-in-law’s Blackberry: “Dear brother, Happy 3oth birthday!!! We bought you a niece for the big day, but we are keeping her until she becomes bad! I love you, old and wise one. Love, Maryanne.” So there we have it. Aileen shares her thirtieth with our daughter and I share my thirtieth with our niece.

Emma weighs in a 7 pounds 5 ounces and is a little sister to Anna and Josh. I now have two nieces and two nephews. This Challies clan continues to grow! And happy birthday to Emma. December 2 has proven a good day to me and I’m sure it will suit you fine too!

December 01, 2006

(This is part two of an article I began here). I ended the last article with the birth of our first child.

It did not take long after the birth of our son to encounter difficulties with our church. I knew nothing of Baptists, but had begun listening to Charles Stanley on my way to work each day and quickly began to respect his passion for the Word and his ability to teach it simply. The churches of my youth focused largely on a corporate faith but with Stanley I encountered a personal faith that challenged and intrigued me. When I realized that Baptists could be something other than hopelessly shallow, Baptist churches also began to intrigue me. And as I encountered Baptists who were clearly strong believers (something I would once never have considered possible) I began to question paedo-baptism. Aileen and I hesitated to have our baby baptized immediately and this created tension in the church. We begged for more time to investigate baptism, but were not allowed this time. We were told to have our child baptized immediately or to face church discipline. Feeling hard done by, we felt it would be best to leave the church, for we would be moving away soon enough anyways. As we did so, we walked away from the Reformed faith and began attending a local Baptist church. The parting words from a man whom we much respected were “You won’t like Baptists. They are shallow, boring people.” The Reformed faith was all I had known as a child, but I was ready to forsake it, confusing the narrow segment of Reformed churches I had known as being representative of the whole. It would be a long time before I would attend a Reformed church again. (I do want to mention here that I really do have great respect for the leadership at our old church. We were young and not very wise. Whether they were right or wrong, they felt they were doing what was good and necessary. We have no hard feelings and have since worshiped in the church.)

Around this same time, the fall of 2000, I found myself dreading my daily commute to Oakville, a drive that would routinely take the better part of an hour each way. We decided to investigate a move to Oakville. Oakville is one of the wealthiest towns in Canada and housing prices reflect that money so we did not hold out much hope. But just as we began to despair of ever finding affordable housing, a co-worker mentioned that he had purchased a townhouse in Oakville and was looking for tenants. While we could not afford the rent at that time, we realized that we could make ends meet if we took in a boarder from the local college. And so, in early September of 2000, we moved to Oakville and met Kristin, a student who was to live with us for five years. Through those years Kristin became a good friend, almost a big sister to our children, and best of all, a sister in Christ. We soon fell in love with Oakville and settled into the community.

Finding a church in this new town was not easy. This is, after all, Canada, a country where Bible-believing churches are few and far between. Reformed churches are almost unheard of and there are none in Oakville, even today. We visited several churches and attended one for several months. None of them felt like home. One day we found a flyer in our mailbox announcing the opening of a new Baptist church in our area. On our first visit we were impressed with the people and with their desire to reach out to the community. We began attending every week and soon became some of the first members. Before long I was leading weekly Bible studies and Aileen was heading up a growing children’s ministry. The church was structured around Purpose Driven principles, but this did not trouble me, for at the time I had never heard of Rick Warren or of his books. I just knew that this church was excited about reaching into the community for Christ and this thrilled me.

By the middle of 2001 it became clear that the company I was working for was not going to survive for long. In 1999 it been purchased by a massive American company that had seen fit to use our technology as a cheap Y2K solution. When Y2K passed uneventfully it became inevitable that the company would be shut down. In July of 2001 the entire staff, save me, was laid off. After spending one very boring month alone in an office building keeping an eye on a couple of computers I was laid off as well. Through a business contact I immediately began my next job, also in Oakville. I soon found this job a trial as I had to pass my days in a room filled with noisy file servers. I began to develop headaches and could hear the incessant whine of computer fans in my sleep. I started to dream of beginning my own company. But by this time Aileen was pregnant with our second child and I did not feel I could quit my job in order to pursue the dream of owning my own company. I could not trade certainty for uncertainty.

There was one thing about this job that changed my life. Because I did not enjoy the office environment, I began to escape every day to the local library, which was only a short walk away. Placed between my office and the library was a terrible little Christian bookstore, but one that carried the occasional good book. It was here that I first began to buy and to read good Christian books. Until this time I do not ever recall reading a Christian book other than the occasional Frank Peretti novel. But sitting in the Oakville Public Library I read books that changed my life. The most notable were Whatever Happened to The Gospel of Grace? by James Boice and Ashamed of the Gospel by John MacArthur. I knew nothing of these two men, but fell in love with their writing and with Christian books in general. I began to raid the shelves of my pastors’ libraries, reading whatever I could find. I also began carrying a journal with me, jotting down thoughts as they occurred and taking copious notes on the books I read. Through the ministries of these men I slowly began to recover my Reformed roots. Slowly I found myself struggling to reconcile Purpose Driven principles and Arminian theology with Scripture and with the Reformed faith.

By April of 2002 the pull towards beginning my own company was growing stronger. In my spare time I had begun to teach myself the basics of web design and was also capable of being a standard “computer guy.” And yet my wife’s belly was growing ever-larger, showing that my family was about to grow as well. I desperately wanted to do something that I liked and something that would keep my mind active. I looked forward to the prospect of working from home and being able to be my own boss. It was about these issues that I prayed one warm April day while I walked by the shores of Lake Ontario. I asked God to give me clarity. I remember praying “God, please just make it crystal clear what you want me to do.”

Still uncertain of my future I returned to the office ready to finish out the day. No sooner had I walked in the door than I was told to see my manager immediately. I entered his office and found him sitting there with his boss who had unexpectedly arrived from the company’s headquarters in the States. To my great shock I learned that I was being laid off once again. I experienced a sense of deja vu as my boss explained that my department was being terminated and the jobs would be handled from south of the border. They smiled politely, wished me the best and had someone accompany me to my desk to pick up my things.

As I was cleaning up my desk I dreaded having to call my wife to tell her the news. She drove me to work each day and had the car, so I would have to share the news over the phone rather than telling her face-to-face where I knew I could break the news to her gently and offer her comfort. As I silently fretted the phone rang. Answering it I discovered it was my close friend and pastor calling. He had never called me at work before, but said that he was at the traffic light outside my building and had just remembered something he had to ask me. I told him to pull into the parking lot and I would be right there. I grabbed my things, walked upstairs into the fresh, spring air and left the corporate world behind. Mere minutes after returning home and sharing the news with Aileen the phone rang once more and this time it was a friend calling to say that their company needed a new web site and someone who could contract with them to manage their network. And just like that Websonix was born with no loans, no business plan and very few prospects. I continued teaching myself web design and did whatever work I could find.

Business was slow, but severance payments had been reasonable and we somehow managed to keep paying our bills, though money was constantly tight. These were lean and often terrifying days. I had no office (I later moved to the basement), so worked in the living room while my young son ran around and Aileen tried to ignore my ever-present music. We dreaded the beginning of the month when bills came due, and yet somehow never had to miss a payment or beg and borrow money.

On September 25, 2002 with the time approaching to have our second child, I decided to register a website where I could post pictures of my children for the benefit of my family in the United States. I eventually settled upon challies.com. I began to post pictures but, having done a bit of writing recently, decided to post the occasional article there as well in case my family was interested in reading them. On October 7 I posted an article outlining the differences between Calvinism and Arminianism and on the 23rd a short article challenging the way evangelicals remember Mother Teresa. Little did I know where these articles would lead!

October 30, 2002 marked the birth of my daughter, Abigail. We were now a family of four. My responsibilities were quickly increasing.

By mid-2003 Challies Dot Com was beginning to resemble a blog, at least to some extent. I was still not using any kind of blogging software, but was posting book reviews (my first book review was Battle For The Beginning by John MacArthur) and was updating with at least some frequency. It surprised me to see that strangers began to visit the site, having found links to my articles and reviews from the search engines. It surprised me even more to find that they enjoyed reading these articles. I began to write more often and found that, in my opinion at least, the more I wrote, the better my writing got. I also found that the more I wrote the more I found that I wanted to say.

It was around this time that I was introduced the phenomenon of blogging and decided that it was something I should attempt. I have never been very good at hobbies and fully expected this one to fall by the wayside as so many others before it. By October I had installed new software and had begun to blog irregularly, but the site was languishing from lack of attention. I would post every week or two as I found or made time. This changed on October 31. I decided rather spontaneously that, beginning the next day, I would either post every day for a year or give up on blogging altogether. And so it was that on November 1, 2003 I posted an article and began a string of daily blogging that has not yet ceased, though it has been over three years. This discipline of daily blogging has been the most demanding but most rewarding task I’ve ever undertaken.

2004 and 2005 passed fairly quietly with fewer milestones than the preceding years. We were settling into life. Websonix continued to grow and slowly became a viable company, capable of supporting my family. The blog also continued to grow in popularity, first bringing in ten or twenty visitors every day, and then hundreds, and then thousands. Through this time the site went through something of a silent transformation. In the site’s infancy I feel it focused too often on what was negative and what was controversial. I began to realize that I was quickly becoming one of the infamous “watchbloggers.” Over time, though, and through the grace of God, I’m sure, I realized that I had little interest in pursuing watchblogging and decided to focus more attention on what was edifying and what was, quite simply, of interest to me. The site became more personal and less negative.

In October of 2005, at the invitation of Desiring God, I received my first invitation to liveblog a conference. This was quite a thrill and I still consider it a great honor. It opened the doors to many more opportunities, all of which have proven to be tremendous blessings.

And this brings us to 2006. Early in the year we decided that the time had come for us to find a new church. While we had many good friends and good memories in our old church, theological differences dictated that it would be best for us to move on. Looking back I can see that this break was inevitable from the moment I began to read good books. The church was not Reformed, which troubled us to some degree, of course, but not enough to disassociate ourselves from it. It was now a recovering Purpose Driven church and was missional, I suppose (though I never heard the term used in the church), which appealed to us in many ways. But it was also largely fad-driven (to borrow Phil Johnson’s phrase) and increasingly seeking a kind of relevance and “coolness” that we could not reconcile with our beliefs. As my opportunities to minister grew I also sought a kind of accountability that this church was not able or willing to provide. We began to yearn for more from the preaching and for worship that was focused on the grace and sovereignty of God. Through my site I had encountered Paul Martin, who pastors Grace Fellowship Church, a Reformed Baptist congregation in an area of Toronto a few minutes east of Oakville. I had met with Paul in December of 2005 and was immediately struck by his godliness and humility (or, if you prefer, as my wife said “You’ve got a big ol’ man-crush on him!”). Early in the new year I brought my family to Grace and we have been worshiping with that body of believers since. We feel at home among them. Paul has already become a dear and trusted friend.

In March of 2006 Aileen and I were thrilled to be able to buy our first house. We did not move far from the home we rented for five years as we chose to remain in the same neighborhood. Only two months later, on May 3 of this year, the same day Aileen celebrated her 30th birthday, she gave birth to little Michaela, our second daughter and third child. And not long after that I signed a contract for my first book, The Discipline of Discernment, which will be published (Lord willing) in early 2008.

And this brings us to today. And today brings us to tomorrow when I will turn thirty. It seems difficult to conceive of a decade that could bring more milestones and more blessings than the one that has just passed. I have changed from an unemployed, unmarried student to a married, self-employed father of three. I have learned that so much of the wisdom that was passed to me as a young man is true: I do love my wife now more than I did even on our wedding day. She is more beautiful and more precious to me than ever before. The best days of my life were not the days when I was single, but the days I spent with my wife and children just enjoying their presence. I have little doubt that the best days still lie ahead. I have learned more than I can possibly quantify and have grown immeasurably. I have been blessed so far beyond what I deserve.

It has been a decade of unbelievable blessings. It has been a decade of a few pains, but countless thousands of joys. God has been so good, so faithful even when I have been faithless. I have felt His presence and have known His presence from day to day, from year to year. When I look back I am amazed by His grace. When I look forward I anticipate this grace continuing to sustain me as long as He chooses to allow me to sojourn here. I can hardly wait to see where He will lead me next.

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:


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.