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Personal Reflections

January 20, 2009

Barb claimed to be a psychiatrist, but my guess is that she was not a very good one. One day she had asked our friends, her next door neighbors, to help clean up her house a little bit. She was having trouble with her finances and wanted to sell off a few valuable possessions. But first she needed to tidy up some. I volunteered to pitch in. Our friends regarded Barb as more of a charity case than a friend. They did not truly enjoy her company but they did want to help her the best they could. They wanted to be good neighbors and, as recent professed converts to Christianity, good Christians. Barb looked perfectly normal. She took good care of herself, wore nice clothes and didn’t at all stand out in a crowd. Apparently a successful career woman earlier in life, she now holed up in her house, only rarely leaving the property. With no car, no bus routes and few friends, she had little reason or ability to leave. No one knew where her money came from, but the fact that she had been divorced at least twice probably offered the best clue. Before we set out, my friends mentioned that Barb had a clear addiction to catalog shopping and that her spending habits had gotten out of control. I was not prepared for what that meant.

After my friend’s wife drove Barb to the store to catch up on some grocery shopping, I walked through her front door and had to pause for a few moments to take in the scene. The house was a two bedroom bungalow, a typical post-war family home. Built on Lakeshore Drive in Oakville, it was on one of the most desirous properties in Canada’s wealthiest city. Already many of the houses in this neighborhood had been purchased and flattened to make way for newer, bigger, more exclusive homes. The houses themselves were nearly valueless, the properties nearly priceless. Barb had held on to her property, perhaps waiting, as had many of the neighbors, for just the right offer. Our good friends lived next door to Barb, in a rented home that was also on a short list to be flattened. It was a nice enough house but we all knew it wouldn’t last long simply because it was too old, too small and on a property that was too desirable.

Barb’s house was a disaster. While the properties in that area were uniformly well-groomed and gave ample evidence that the owners took pride in ownership, Barb’s place was different—much different. The house was just barely visible from the road, surrounded by uncut trees and untrimmed bushes. A strange odor emanated from the place and on a warm day when the wind blew north to south, the neighbors would complain that it made their yards smell too. A rickety fence ran along one side of the property where it joined with a brand new section and a locked gate. Cut into the gate was a hole and a little weather-beaten note telling delivery services to simply push their packages through the hole. They were not welcome on the property. An old, old dog patrolled the property. Perhaps he was supposed to look angry and vicious and perhaps he once had been, but now he was too old and friendly and absent-minded to chase anyone away. The outside of the house showed signs of serious neglect. Windows were unwashed, walls were unpainted, gutters were rusty and cracked. When I walked through the front door I noticed that the door did not swing properly on the hinges and that it did not open or close all the way.

As my eyes adjusted to the gloom I paused in amazement. The house was packed, from floor to ceiling, from wall to wall, with stuff—stuff of all shapes and sizes. I could see only small glimpses of the floor, here and there. Even the portions of the carpet and hardwood that were visible were covered in the excrement of countless thousands of rodents. Immediately inside the front door was a wardrobe stuffed full of clothes. As I pushed beyond that into what must have been the living room I saw that it was filled with an assortment of things—an unassembled bedframe, still wrapped in its original cardboard and plastic; stacks upon stacks of shoe boxes, each of which held a pair of shoes or boots, apparently unworn; clothing boxes, many of which contained clothes—brand names—but all of which were unworn. There were statues and pieces furniture, books and sealed boxes. Two narrow paths led from the front door and through the piles into the house. One pushed straight ahead towards the bedrooms while the other veered to the left into what was once the dining room. Barb slept in the dining room, on an old, beat-up, mouse-chewed leather couch surrounded on all sides by great piles of her things. The path led to the couch where she had to climb over the arm in order to get to it. Not a single piece of floor in that room was visible.

We found our way to the bedrooms and noticed that one was so completely filled with stuff that we could not even walk through the door. Boxes and clothes and other trash stretched from the doorframe all the way to the window beyond. A new mattress and box spring was piled hopefully in a corner; an umbrella hung from the ceiling. The other bedroom held a giant bird cage, the kind suitable for a parrot, and while there was no sign of the bird, the floor was littered with birdseed and bird droppings. It stank. A closet in that room was stuffed full of hats and winter clothing, most of which looked unworn. Many of the clothes had been chewed on by mice and rats and were utterly destroyed. Though I did not step into the bathroom, I could clearly see a hole through the wall and could glimpse the yard beyond. We moved on to the kitchen and saw that Barb did not have a fridge and that she had obviously not used her stove in a very long time. A cooler on the counter contained rotting food that must have once been chicken. The only food in the house appeared to be diet food, primarily milkshakes, though we did also spot the remnants of fast food containers. Through the kitchen was a small landing where there were several bird cages filled with noisy, screaming birds. Bags of garbage spilled down the stairs and we had to walk outside and around to the back door to make our way into the basement. There was standing water on the floor down there and the whole basement, at least as far as I could see, was filled with clothes, empty bird cages, cardboard boxes and mannequins. It was damp, dank and disgusting. Barb had no working laundry facilities. She chose instead to wear her clothes until they were soiled, before stuffing them into garbage bags and replacing them with new ones.

My friend and I, having made our way around and having formed a plan of attack, began our work with gusto. With masks over our faces and a giant box of garbage bags, we began to separate the junk from the items that had even a little bit of value. We filled bag after bag and hauled them out to a trailer that would soon go to the dump. What was good and had some value—any value—we organized carefully, placing the items in boxes, bins or bags. We worked for several hours, toiling in the hot, dusty, dirty, vermin-infested house, the sweat pouring from us, leaving little trails through the dirt that covered our faces.

Then Barb came home and she was not happy.

(To Be Continued Tomorrow)

January 04, 2009

Continued from yesterday and the day before.

And so it was that I found myself an entrepreneur—the owner of my own company. The story of this little company cannot be separated from the story of this blog. I’ve told the story of this blog’s early days, but will tell it again here.

In September of 2002 I decided, rather on the spur of the moment as I recall, to begin my own web site. I really knew very little about web sites but thought maintaining one might prove to be a fun distraction for me and one that would allow me to hone my design skills. My parents and four siblings had recently moved down to the Atlanta area and, with a one-year old son and with my wife pregnant again, I thought I would use the site as a photo gallery to post pictures of this growing family. Since this was going to be a site by family and for family I spent thirty five dollars to reserve the family name, choosing the domain challies.com. Using some borrowed web space, I pieced together a really bad little site. I uploaded a few photos and over the next few months updated the site every now and again, adding a new set of pictures or writing the occasional personal comment.

As the months passed I continued to update the site, but did so only every few weeks. It was really a sad little site in desperate need of attention. But I found that I did enjoy posting little updates on my family when I got around to doing so. In late 2003 I heard a new word in the media. This word, blog, sounded intriguing. I inadvertently stumbled across one of these blogs, one day, while doing some research and realized that it was really not much different from my site and from what I was already doing. The only real difference was that blogs offered the ability for people reading the site to interact with the content by posting their own comments. That seemed like a great idea, so I installed some blogging software and began calling my site a blog. When I posted an article my mother or my wife would post a little “Good job!” comment for me. But I still didn’t update it much.

October 31, 2003 was a pivotal day. I decided that day that I should get serious about this blogging thing and committed to either blogging every day for a year or giving up and getting rid of the site altogether. So I wrote an article on November 1, November 2, November 3…and before I knew it, it was a year later and I was still going. I recommitted in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008. That was over five years ago and I’m still blogging every day and look forward to doing so almost every day.

It was only because I was self-employed that I was able to dedicate the time to writing. Had I been working a nine to five kind of job, there is no way that I would have been able to make time for a job, a life and a blog. But being self-employed afforded me the opportunity to carve a little bit of time out of my day for writing. Had I not been laid off in 2002, this blog would never have taken off.

It came as a great shock to me that, when I began to write, people began to read the site—people I didn’t know and people from all around the world. Before I knew it I had twenty people reading my site every day. Then it was fifty and a hundred and a thousand and two thousand and five thousand and ten thousand…and then it occurred one day that my site had become one of the most widely-visited Christian blogs. I realized that I had been plunked into the center of something that was getting really big really quickly. I was a strange and almost terrifying thought to me.

When I began my web site I had no plan for it but to post pictures of my children. When I began writing I had no plan but to give my family and immediate friends the occasional article to read. Yet it has grown into something so much more. A quick search of the Net will turn up all kinds of articles telling you how you can quickly create a blog that is widely-read and influential. Apparently there are certain shortcuts a blogger can take. The thing is, I didn’t know about any of this when I began and have done very little to deliberately promote the site. I just kept writing. That’s all I’ve done and all I’ve wanted to do. And I guess that’s what I’m going to keep doing until it becomes clear that the time has come to do something else.

January 03, 2009

Continued from yesterday

It was almost seven years ago that I was laid off and started my own company. I began without money and without loans. Since that time we have never lacked for anything important. There have been times where we have had to be frugal to get by, but God has always provided.

It is rare, I think, to receive such a dramatic and instantaneous answer to prayer. God had clearly orchestrated that day’s events, down to the finest details of my prayer to Him, the company’s decision to cut my department, and even my friend’s schedule so that he just happened to be outside my building at the right moment. It was truly an amazing day.

In many ways I give this background information with an overwhelming sense of shame.

It was not long after all of this that I began I began to worry. Not the kind of worry where I might think the occasional thought about a dwindling bank account, but the kind of worry where I would wake up at night bathed in sweat, wondering how I could possibly make ends meet. I would suffer ravaging headaches as I worried about how I would come up with another $400 by the end of the month. Every few days I would draw up a list of all the money we had in our accounts and all the bills we had owing and feel a flutter in my heart as I saw the obvious discrepancy. I would attempt to forecast our finances over a week, month or year and would always see how we would inevitably fall short.

God gave me many reasons to trust his providence. There was never a time when we were a day or two away from needing rent money and did not have it. Never once did we have a check bounce and never once did we have to miss paying a bill (though, through lack of faith, I would sometimes allow bills to collect on my desk for a month or two before paying them). I cannot remember even having a really close call. We never borrowed money; we never had to rely on other people’s gifts.

And still I worried. It is only in more recent days that I came to see that I truly felt my worrying was somehow effectual. Effectual worrying: let me explain that term. Effectual means “Successful in bringing about a desired effect.” It means “Producing or capable of producing an intended result or having a striking effect.” I honestly believed that my worrying was somehow making the difference - that my worrying was bringing about the result of having enough money. If I were to stop worrying, I felt, the money would dry up. If I stopped making my little lists of assets and expenses, I would one day wake up to find out that our rent check had bounced. If I stopped worrying, God would surely stop providing. I truly believed that my worrying was effectual, bringing about what I desired. I had to worry, didn’t I?

Every now and then I would think back to the beginnings of my company and see how clearly God had answered prayer, and what was no doubt a faulty and selfish prayer at that, and I would feel guilty. And well I should have, for God had left me a pillar, a milestone that I could refer to that would show me just how obvious it was that He was in this with me. When I felt myself worrying I should have been able to look back to His answer to the first prayer and have confidence that He would provide.

But I didn’t. I continued to worry.

I am grateful to say that in the years that followed, God helped me grow up. Through reading good books, through studying his Word, through getting to know him better, I was able to surrender all of these worries to God. This is not to say that I now lead a life completely free from worry, but that I really no longer stress about finances. We do not have a lot of extra money, yet when friends or family are in need, we have often felt blessed to be able to help them. Our prayer has been “just enough.” We ask God that He would give us “just enough” and allow Him to define “enough” as He sees fit. He continues to surprise and delight.

Worrying is a dead end. There is no benefit to worrying. Worrying does bring about all sorts of effects, but never the desired ones. Worrying brings physical and emotional stress, it damages interpersonal relationships and, for more seriously, separates us from the Lord. It brings about no benefit. I am thankful that God has helped me to see the wisdom of Job - the wisdom that opposes worry. “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” I learned to surrendered to God’s control, to God’s providence, and have found that when God is in control there is really nothing to worry about.

To be continued (and completed) tomorrow…

January 02, 2009

In April of 2002 I was bored. Not just a little bored either, but mind-numbingly, depressingly, discouragingly bored. Having recently been laid off from a job I had held for several years, I was now working at a new job where I was system administrator at a small company in downtown Oakville. Though the pay was good and the office’s location was great, the job itself was terribly drab. It was repetitive and boring—there was little to stimulate an active mind. The quality of my work began to suffer as boredom prevailed. I found myself in the unenviable position of knowing that I was expendable to the company. I did not have enough to do, but knew that if I went to my boss and told him this, I would effectively be writing my own pink slip. I tried to keep busy but with little success. So I sat in my windowless basement office, dealing with terrible headaches from the noise of the forty computers I shared an office with, and waited for the day to end. And always I felt just a little bit guilty for not putting in, and not being able to put in, an honest day’s work.

Around this time I began to wonder if I should begin my own business. I began to pray for clarity and wisdom as I considered the joys and trials of being a small business owner. I am an enterprising sort and knew that being my own boss would fit my personality very well. One day, during my lunch break, I went out walking along the shores of Lake Ontario as I often did during my lunch breaks. I had taught myself the basics of web design and had been doing a small amount of this type of work on the side. I enjoyed the creativity it required and the challenge it presented. I was involved with a couple of companies for which I was doing part-time work with their computers and networks. As the work increased I began to think about the prospects of starting my own company. 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 that day, asking God to give me clarity. I remember praying “God, please just make it crystal clear what you want me to do.” I had a different view—a incomplete and perhaps irrational view—of God’s guidance at that time and I suspect that I was asking God to tie a note around a brick and to heave that brick through my kitchen window. “Start your own business!” the note would thunder to me. Still, I did what I knew how to do, submitted myself to God’s will, and returned to the office feeling encouraged.

Still uncertain of my future I walked into the office ready to finish out the day. No sooner had I walked in the door (five minutes early, as always) that I was told to see my manager immediately. I entered his office and found him sitting there with his boss who had apparently decided to fly up from headquarters in the States. I sat with a strange smirk on my face as I heard them say that my whole department was being closed down and that my manager was going to be the next to leave. As I heard their words I thought back to my prayer and I laughed. I even told them exactly what I was laughing about and how I had prayed about my future just moments before. 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 Aileen 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 comfort her. She was pregnant (and therefore maybe just a little bit more emotional than usual) and I did not want to have to share with her that I was out of work and then make her drive to get me.

As I fretted about this the phone rang. I discovered it was a close friend 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 my company was born.

To be continued tomorrow…

January 01, 2009

Some years I make new years resolutions; some years I don’t bother. This year I haven’t sat down and narrowed in on one or two things I’d consider resolutions. Instead I am going to continue on a trajectory I began several months ago—a trajectory leading toward control and simplicity. In a wired, digital world, I’ve too often felt like technology owns me and drives me instead of the other way around. I’ve started to try to regain that sense of control, sometimes scaling back, sometimes changing the way I do things. I hope to continue that through 2009 and beyond.

Here are some things you may wish to do in the new year. I do believe I’ll be doing some of them myself.

  • Read the Bible Using a Plan. Justin Taylor offers various ways of going through the Bible in a year.
  • Commit to Fasting. John Piper gives advice on how to fast and offers six good reasons to commit to doing it in 2009.
  • Pray. Piper dives into the Desiring God archives and offers up good suggestions on how to pray for other people (this year or any year).
  • Look Back and Look Forward. Ray Ortlund models this in a reflective blog post.
  • Make Resolutions. The Point blog quotes David Jeremiah and gives seven great resolutions you could make for 2009.
  • Keep Your Resolutions. Matt Perman gives advice on actually keeping your resolutions.

And through it all, keep your attention focused squarely on Christ. Lydia says this well. “If our 2008 retrospective is focused on ourselves, we are missing the point of discipleship. Cross bearing is about death, not self-improvement. The less we think about ourselves at all, the closer we get to true discipleship. … As we consider our goals and hopes for 2009, how about putting this one at the top: ‘For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain’ (Phil 1:21).”

December 25, 2008

Here is a brief introduction to a Challies family Christmas. It’s really the only kind of Christmas I’ve ever known and it’s one I’ve come to love.

I grew up as part of a tradition that celebrated Christmas but did not generally emphasize it as a day to remember the birth of Jesus. It was not quite a secular holiday, but neither was it a sacred one. Aileen’s family was quite similar. So our Christmas traditions include little by the way of reading nativity stories or lighting candles. It’s also worth mentioning that our Christmas traditions are evolving as time goes on. Now that my family has moved to the U.S., we spend every second Christmas in the south. My parents and all of my siblings gather (from Toronto, New York City, Atlanta and Chattanooga) and we celebrate Christmas together. This is an off-year for us, meaning that we are at home in Canada.

We had a quiet Christmas Eve and mostly focused on getting the children to bed at a good hour. Last night I convinced Aileen to let me open one of my gifts which I knew was the complete Faulty Towers. That kept us occupied between the kids’ bedtime and our own. Just before bed we laid out the stockings and made sure the gifts were where they needed to be. We don’t do the Santa thing.

Christmas morning we began with stockings for the children and then ate our traditional breakfast of home made croissants and bacon and egg rings (which my mom made when I was a kid and I make now). Those bacon and egg rings are made in muffin tins and are really quite delicious—much better than standard bacon and eggs. That’s a tradition that goes back as far as I can remember. After breakfast we got to work and began opening gifts, moving from youngest to oldest and going until they were done (and since we’re not huge gift-givers, this doesn’t take too long). And now we’re just taking it easy and looking toward the afternoon when we’ll be going to Aileen’s folk’s place. And, of course, we’re helping the kids build Lego sets, charge up batteries, figure out instructions, and so on. We’ll be spending the day fairly quietly, just enjoying family and lots of good food.

And that’s about all. We try to keep Christmas fairly simple and low-key. It’s usually just about the best day of the year.

From me and from my family to you and to yours…Merry Christmas!

December 07, 2008

In recent months my family has been discovering (for the kids) or rediscovering (for Aileen and me) a love of board games. We’ve had great fun playing games like Ticket to Ride (an amazing game for the whole family), Lost Cities (a fast and fun strategy game for two adults or older children), and a few of the classics. In the next day or two Aileen and I are going to tackle Carcassonne, by all accounts a classic in its own right. Nick loves to play complicated war games like Axis & Allies and Risk, though he plays by his own rules.

With Christmas fast approaching, we’re looking at getting a few more games to tide us through these long, cold, winter months. I’m guessing there are some people out there who can suggest a few surefire winners for us. We’d prefer either games that the whole family can play (or, at least, age eight or nine and up) or games that Aileen and I can play on our own. We’re not too interesting, at least for now, in games that require four or more people. I’ve been looking at games like Blokus, Power Grid, and Puerto Rico. Can anyone suggest other games that might be worthwhile additions to our collection?

November 09, 2008

It must have been a couple of months ago now that Aileen and I got rid of cable TV. We didn’t get rid of the television altogether—we kept it so we could watch DVDs and enjoy the Wii. But we got rid of cable and now have access to precisely 0 channels. Today I paused to reflect on all of the things I miss about having cable television.

Here they are in no particular order:


The end.