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Tim Challies

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Personal Reflections

August 15, 2011

I’ve just returned home after spending a week in the United States. I travel to the U.S. quite often—easily 8 or 10 times a year, but more often than not I am there for just a day or two and I often see nothing but an airport, a convention center or church, and a hotel. This time was different. Over 8 days we drove 3400 kilometers, from Michigan, through Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee and down into Georgia. We stopped often, drove around the cities, did a bit of shopping and spent lots of time with people. When I got home, I opened a word processor and just began to write and ramble, trying to think through this journey.

I am very comfortable in the United States, having been there so often and in so many different cities and states. I love America and I love Americans. But still, it is not my country and there is always a sense in which I am an observer just as we all are when we are in a place that is not our own, like being in someone else’s home or being a first-time guest in a church. It has been a year since I spent any significant amount of time in the States, and especially time traveling through the States.

Media around the world has spilled millions of gallons of ink on describing the American economic woes. I returned home to find a copy of Maclean’s (Canada’s answer to TIME or Newsweek) with the cover story discussing the looming double-dip recession. The words “America is Doomed” are plastered at the top of the page. I knew that I was going to be looking for evidence of all of this; I wanted to see if this was just the media creating the news or if there is truth to it.

America has always been the land of extraordinary wealth; the malls and theaters are always packed, the stores always thriving, new neighborhoods always springing up. This is how we, the rest of the world, perceive America—as a nation that loves to own, that loves to spend, that has immense wealth. Yet according to the media, this is exactly what is being threatened today.

July 04, 2011

It has been several months now since The Next Story released and already I am fielding questions about my next book. I find that I am beginning to think about it as well and this got me thinking about the time after the release of The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment. i went looking for some of my reflections at that time and found that my thinking was heading in the same direction then as it is now.

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

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

There was just one small problem. I hated coffee. It curdled my tongue, made my eyes water, and left me gagging. I found it utterly revolting. It was only a few months ago that I finally succumbed to the inevitable and learned to like it.

June 15, 2011

September 25 will mark 9 years since this blog began. I guess it is more accurate to say that it will mark 9 years since the site began—the blog took a few months to come to life. It was 9 years ago that I decided to begin a web site that would display pictures of my children—that’s what challies.com was meant to be. My parents and siblings had recently moved to the United States and, as a proud father, I wanted to show off the kids. It was not too long after that I decided to write a couple of articles to share with my folks. The search engines worked their magic, other people began to read the articles, and I learned that I really enjoyed writing. And that is how the blog began.

That was a long time ago. As another summer is approaching I can’t help but feel that this site is at something of a defining moment. Life has changed a lot since 2002. Back then I had been married for 4 years, I had just 1 child and I was working an entry-level technical support job for a local billing company. Today I am coming up on my 13th anniversary, I am a father of 3, and I am a pastor. The site has grown from 1 or 2 articles to thousands and it has grown from having 1 daily visitor (me) to having tens of thousands. The design has changed 5 or 6 times and the software behind it just about as often. The ascendency of Twitter and Facebook and RSS have meant that as many people now digest the site’s content off-site as they do on-site; more, probably. This has all happened while I’ve been going about life. Yet the site really is part of my life; it has been a formative influence not just on my mind and character, but on my direction and vocation. I owe my career as an author to the blog; it was through the blog that I came into contact with Grace Fellowship Church where I now pastor; I could go on.

The content and format has changed quite a bit too. I used to blog once every few weeks or every few days. In November of 2003 I decided I would force myself to write every day for a year and if I failed, I’d give up blogging altogether. I’ve blogged every day since. I used to post just one time a day, but then I added A La Carte and told myself that I would not count it as that day’s blog post. More recently I’ve sought to emphasize some of the great resources available to us, which means I am often posting 3 times each weekday. Somehow I am not running out of things to say or resources to draw attention to.

May 25, 2011

Last Christmas coincided with the start of my new job as a pastor at Grace Fellowship Church. This meant that for the first time in many years I was working outside of the home. My Christmas gift from Aileen and the kids was a digital picture frame, something that would keep me thinking about them even while I was at the office. I loaded it up with pictures and keep a slideshow going most days I work at the church.

I love having the pictures there, of course. But here’s the thing: We aren’t much for photography around the Challies home, and tend to haul out the camera only at special occasions. It just so happens, then, that the majority of the photos I see every day have been taken at birthdays and Christmas. Many of the shots show a child opening something. You can see the look of excitement and anticipation on the child’s face. If the shot is a wide one you might be able to spot mom or dad there, eager to catch the look of joy as the child sees that gift—that one gift he or she wanted to badly.

In most of those photos the wrapping paper has been removed enough that you can see the present beneath. It began with trucks (our son was born first), then went to Playmobil and then dolls and Lego and tea sets and easels and all kinds of other things. We do not go overboard on these occasions, but we do like to get each of the kids at least one thing they really want. So there are 10 Christmases represented there, and 24 birthdays, and all sorts of gifts.

But here’s the thing. I look at those pictures, the pictures of the presents, and realize that they are almost all long gone. They’ve all been forgotten and thrown away. Most of them, anyway. The Playmobil fell apart, the kids grew tired of it, and eventually we freecycled it. My son got bored of the trucks and we gave them to a friend. Or maybe they’re in a box somewhere in the basement. The dollhouse was just a cheap one and it didn’t last. All those things that were so exciting in the moment ended up lost and forgotten, tossed to the curb.

May 19, 2011

I am often asked how I organize my time—how I get things done. Over the past few years I’ve invested quite a bit of time in trying to find a system that works for me and along the way have had plenty of stops and starts. But I thought today I’d share the system I’ve put into place since it seems to be working quite well. I am not by nature an organized person so I’ve had to rely on a system like this one to keep me going. So here it is, my rather eclectic way of getting things done.


I am a Mac user, so my hardware is Apple-based. Before I tell you about it, let me explain why there is so much of it. For many years I was running quite a high-volume web design business and this required a lot of equipment. I’m no longer doing web design, but still have much of the equipment (such as the iPad and MacBook). So while I use quite a few different pieces of hardware, I could just as easily make do with just two: a MacBook and an iPhone.

A key to my system is having a way of either doing work or capturing to-do items in the major contexts I find myself in. So at home and at the church office I’ve got an iMac and in my pocket I’ve got an iPhone (an older one, but I’m going to wait out my contract). If I need to go mobile, such as when I speak at a conference or head to a coffee shop, I take the MacBook (which Aileen uses most of the time). At this time the iPad does not play a major role in my productivity.

Of course the hardware is merely a means to access software.


One of the great benefits of using a Mac is the abundance of top-notch software, and especially task management software based on the GTD (Getting Things Done) model. Having tried many of them, and having a rather light commitment to the key components of the GTD model, I’ve settled on OmniFocus. This is the software I use to record what I need to get done and to organize the many tasks and projects I’ve got on the go. I have folders for each area of my life (Family, Church, Blog, Writing, Speaking, etc) and within those folders there are projects and task lists.

OmniFocus offers several features that I depend upon:

  • Mobile. There are versions of OmniFocus for the desktop, iPhone and iPad. I plan to buy the iPad version when or if it fits the budget, but for now just use the iPhone version on both the iPhone and iPad. The iPhone app allows me to add new tasks by recording a voice memo, something that is hugely helpful when I am driving (and it’s amazing how many things I remember when I’m behind the wheel).
  • Cloud. It’s not perfect (it will only sync when you open the program on your mobile device) but it’s far better than Things or the other close competitors. This allows me to access my to-do list when I am at home or when I am out and about.
  • Contexts. Because I work from a home office and a church office, one of the features I depend upon is contexts. OmniFocus encourages you to create different contexts for your tasks. Contexts are largely geographical, but they can also be situational or, well, contextual. Some of my contexts are Home, Home Office, Church, Church Office, Errands, and so on. I’ve also got contexts for Elder Meetings (which is a situation, not a place) and even for certain people. When I am about to head out in the car, I just check the Errands context and I am immediately reminded of other things I need to while I’m out and about. When I get to church I check the Church Office context and see a list of the tasks I need to do there.

OmniFocus has a bit of a steep learning curve but once you understand the concepts and find a workflow that works for you, it is very, very useful and extremely powerful. It aptly fulfills that great principle from GTD that you need to get tasks out of your mind and into a system.

December 29, 2010

I’m on vacation this week—not the kind of vacation where we all jump in the car and drive to warmer parts of the continent, but the kind of vacation that allows me to just stay around the house and do what I love to do—hang out with the family and read good books. I guess they now call this a staycation. I’m on a serious history kick these days, reading biographies and histories of World War 2. Great stuff. As much as I enjoy reading all the Christian books, I still love to read history most of all. Michael Korda’s Hero was a fantastic biography of an eccentric British war hero while Berlin at War is essentially the biography of the city during the Second World War. I’m also slowly working my way through John Keegan’s The Second World War, the first general history I’ve read in quite a few years.

Obviously, unlike my last vacation, this is not a digital vacation like I took last summer where I headed to the middle of nowhere, far away from cell towers and Internet and other trappings of a digital world. But I am trying to be on the computer less, to check email less, and so on. Because that allows me to be more fully present with my family.

Yesterday I took the family to see the movie Tangled in 3D. It was a good one—lots of fun and without all the subtle (or not-so-subtle) adult humor that’s become a part of too many kids’ movies. The 3D was well-done; far better than it was in Up which is, I believe, the last one we saw in 3D. They charged us $10 to see the movie and that price included the glasses. At the end they encouraged us to recycle the glasses so we could do our bit for the environment. I decided to keep mine just out of spite for the prices they charge us. Whenever I go to a movie I find it hard to believe that they can actually convince me to part with $23 in exchange for 2 bags of popcorn and 2 cups of Coke, which all together can’t cost them more than $0.50. It’s depressing.

As for the rest of the week, we really do not have a lot of plans. We’ll mostly just hang around the house, I think, taking it easy. And that sounds awfully good to me.

December 25, 2010

We were up at 7 this morning to get our Christmas started with stockings and gifts and a special breakfast and other family traditions. And a few hours later I’m sitting here at my computer, running back through Christmas posts from years past to see what I was doing on Christmas in 2009, 2008, 2007—I can go all the way back to 2003. Some years we’ve been at home while other years we’ve been celebrating an Atlanta or Chattanooga Christmas. No two years have quite been the same.

This year we are at home, though a little bit later on we’ll be driving to my in-laws place and doing a Christmas dinner there (roast lamb, if I heard it right). And that will be that—a fun, quiet, traditional family Christmas. I love it.

I find myself thinking this morning about the miracle of Emmanuel, the miracle of God being with us. It’s a shame that we could ever get used to such a thing—to something as amazing as God being with us, God coming to earth in human form. It’s an idea I don’t ever want to get so used to that it begins to lose its wonder.

And as I sit here I am listening to Sojurn sing this song, “God Is With Us.”

The glory of God has come to the earth,
The glory of God in our Savior’s birth,
Join with the angels to sing and proclaim
Glory to His name

Emmanuel, Emmanuel, God is with us
Emmanuel, Emmanuel, God is with us now.

Eternity’s likeness has come into time,
A light in the darkness, now hope is alive,
Down from the heavens on this holy night,
Our God in a manger, our God as a child.

Emmanuel, Emmanuel, God is with us
Emmanuel, Emmanuel, God is with us now.

Oh, let us bring Him more than our silver and gold…

December 06, 2010

It must have been back in 10th or 11th grade, maybe even a little bit earlier, that my parents sensed a bit of purposelessness in my life. Where some kids hit their teens year and have an idea of what they’d like to do with their lives, I really had no idea at all. I wasn’t exactly a motivated student, which in turn meant that I was not too concerned with my grades. And that had my parents a mite concerned. So what they did was send me off to some kind of a vocational counselor. This guy asked me a whole lot of questions, had me fill out all kinds of questionnaires and quizzes, talked to me for a while, and had me do a long and intense I.Q. test. At the end of it all he said he’d send along a report in which he’d talk about my intelligence (or lack thereof) along with some direction as to where my gifts and talents might lead me.

A few weeks later a package showed up in the mail addressed to my parents. There were the results of my I.Q. test (I think I got a 7-and-a-half or something) and some suggestions as to the kinds of jobs I might want to shoot for. There were two jobs that were listed right at the top—computers and pastoral ministry. I thought that was kind of funny. I enjoyed computers on a recreational level but was terrible at math, so foresaw absolutely no future there. And while I was a church-goer, I was absolutely paranoid about any kind of public speaking, the kind of kid who would never raise his hand in class or do anything to attract notice, so knew that I could never be a pastor. I promptly forgot all about the counselor’s suggestions.

A few years later, after I got myself a history degree in college, I found myself holding a job as a Network Administrator within a division of a rather large company. Somehow, despite my ridiculously underdeveloped math skills, I had earned a whole lot of computer certifications and was responsible for maintaining an entire network of PCs and servers. Maybe that counselor hadn’t been quite so far off. Over the years I’ve remained in the computer field. While I was eventually laid off from that company, I soon became a freelancer, got into web design, and have made my living primarily in web work ever since. And looking back, I can see God’s providence in this as the web work allowed me the freedom to write—to write this blog and to write 3 books (so far).

Fast forward to 2010.