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November 21, 2009

A few days ago I wrote about late merging and, not unexpectedly, got a lot of feedback. This is, after all, a universal experience. What amused me was the anger many of the early mergers feel toward the late mergers. Many people make this into a moral issue or a spiritual issue, as if God has offered us a “thus saith the Lord” when it comes to the ethics of merging. As Tom Vanderbilt says in the book Traffic, there seems to be a whole worldview contained in early merge or late merge strategies. The conventional merge, the situation we all find ourselves in every time we drive in traffic, “tosses the late mergers and the early mergers together in an unholy tempest of conflicting beliefs, expectations, and actions. Perhaps not surprisingly, it performs the worst of all.”

Having done the legwork and having consulted with the experts, here is Vanderbilt’s conclusion on how to best handle merging. I thought I would post it today just to tie up the loose end of that conversation.

The next time you find yourself on a congested four-land road and you see that a forced merge is coming, don’t panic. Do not stop, do not swerve into the other lane. Simply stay in your lane—if there is a lot of traffic, the distribution between both lanes should be more or less equal—all the way to the merge point. Those in the lane that is remaining open should allow one person from the lane to be closed in ahead of them, and then proceed (those doing the merging must take a similar turn). By working together, by abandoning our individual preferences and our distrust of others’ preferences, in favor of a simple set of objective rules, we can make things better for everyone.

So there you have it. Traffic will flow best if there is an even distribution of late mergers to early mergers and if everyone does their best to alternate. Just stay in the lane you are in until it makes most sense to come together. You need the late mergers and the early mergers to work together if you want traffic to flow with the fewest interruptions.

November 18, 2009

Though I don’t feel quite right about it, I just had to give it a try. It is an experiment of sorts, I guess. I just had to know what it was like to be one of the few, one of the proud, one of the obnoxious—one of the late mergers. You know these people. Most of you, when you are crawling along the highway in heavy traffic and see a sign telling you that the lane will end in one mile (or one kilometer if you’re up here in Canada), quickly bump over into the lane that will not end, glad that you’ve immediately sorted out that problem. Now you can be assured that you won’t find yourself squeezed onto the shoulder or parked endlessly with your light blinking, trying to squeeze your way out of that dying lane while everyone else tries to block your progress. Yet, as you sit there, content that you’ve done the right thing, you can’t help but notice all those people speeding by to your right, driving their cars to the edge, to the brink, to the very last car-length of the lane that is about to end. You grouch, your grumble, you remark on their complete lack of care for the other people on the road. And yet you have to admit that they will get where they are going before you will. They seem unaffected by your plight, content to further their own goals even at your expense.

I’ve been there. And I just had to try life as a late merger. I now zip down that ending lane and merge at the very last second, finding a gap in traffic and squeezing my van into it. I get the dirty looks and angry stares. But I get where I’m going sooner than they do.

In his book Traffic Tom Vanderbilt discusses this same phenomenon. He, too, became a late merger, much to his wife’s chagrin, and he found that life is better this way. “It is a question you have no doubt asked yourself while crawling down some choked highway, watching with mounting frustration as the adjacent cars glide ahead. You drum the wheel with your fingers. You change the radio station. You fixate on one car as a benchmark of your own lack of progress. You try to figure out what that weird button next to the rear-window defroster actually does. I used to think this was just part of the natural randomness of the highway. Sometimes fate would steer me into the faster lane, sometimes it would relinquish me to the slow lane.” But he made a major lifestyle change when he became a late merger.

But the days after he first experimented with late merging were not easy. “In the days after, a creeping guilt and confusion took hold. Was I wrong to have done this? Or had I been doing it wrong all my life.” Seeking answers, he headed to an online community and posed the question to the waiting masses. He was rather surprised at the response, not just in the volume of responses but also in the passion and conviction with which people spoke. Some argued that he was a goon, refusing to do the sort of random acts of kindness that benefit all of society. By refusing to merge early, he was contributing to the overall slowness of the highway and making accidents more likely. Others argued that he was simply a good steward, using the highway to its maximum capacity. After all, what is the purpose of all that asphalt if we are not really allowed to drive on it? By maximizing the use of the highway surface he was actually making life better for everyone. Politeness or fairness (real or perceived) were actually detrimental to everyone.

Later in the book Vanderbilt gives empirical evidence as to what works best—whether early merging or late merging is better in the end. And he offers up his take on how we can best keep traffic flowing.

But for now, by way of light-hearted fare, do tell me, are you a late merger or an early merger? And how do you feel about the people who do the opposite of what you do?

November 01, 2009

It was November 1, 2003 when I decided I’d commit to blogging every day for a full year. I was getting lazy with blogging and had given it little effort in the weeks leading up to that day. I figured I should either commit to doing it on a very regular basis or give it up altogether. A year later I had managed to blog every day and thought it would be good to renew the commitment. I’ve done that every year and here we are, six years later. I suppose the 2193 days in the counter down at the bottom of the site must reflect those six years plus the couple of leap years that have gone by in the meantime.

Though this site dates back to September of 2002, I pretty much think of November 1, 2003 as the day it really began. It was the day that I really fell in love with writing and the day I realized that blogging would be the primary way I’d express myself in writing. I continue to blog daily simply because it is my way of carrying on the commitment. I have always thought that if I start taking the occasional day off, I’ll soon taking off far more than the occasional day. On those days when I’m feeling dry and tired and beat up, it is only my commitment to blog on a daily basis that motivates me to sit down and write. It has been an amazing discipline in this way. I’ve stuck with blogging much longer and with much greater commitment than any previous hobby. And I don’t intend to give it up anytime soon.

It seems appropriate today to thank you, the readers, who continue to visit the site. I am exceedingly grateful, humbled and surprised that you continue to do so. Some of you have been dropping by since before November 1, 2003 and I’m glad to count many of you as friends. I’ve been honored to meet so many of you at churches and conferences and all sorts of other places.

Today seemed like a good time to mention that, as of tomorrow, I will be launching a second blog. I expect that things here at Challies.com will remain pretty much the same. But as of tomorrow I will launch a new site in a new location based around a whole new idea. It will not be a daily site, like this one, but may turn out to be near-daily. Check in tomorrow and I’ll give you about 10 million reasons that you might want to check out that site as well.

Until then, enjoy the rest of your Lord’s Day!

October 21, 2009

Last night was one of those nights where the kids kept me up for pretty much the whole thing. This morning I tried to do some writing but my brain was still clearly lying in bed. Therefore I am going to post something I wrote a couple of years ago; it is a topic that has been in my mind a good bit lately and I hope you can benefit from it.

It’s no secret around here that I love the book of Proverbs and consider it my “home page” in the Bible. I read through Proverbs at least once a year and, whenever I’m not sure what else to read, I turn to it. And while I love Proverbs and envy the wisdom of Solomon I find something really sobering 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. How did such a wise man become so foolish? How did such a discerning man stray so far? If Solomon was the most discerning man who ever lived (besides Jesus, of course), and discernment is the application of wisdom, then how do we account for his spiritual digression? How can a truly discerning man be disobedient? How did Solomon, who was so wise and so discerning, end up so far from the Lord?

Solomon’s wisdom is unparalleled by any other human. 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. He was extraordinarily gifted by God.

“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 felt the same as I’ve read about his life and have read his proverbs. The man’s wisdom and discernment is clearly unsurpassed among men. 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. He allowed the lust of his heart to overcome and overwhelm his love for God.

This is sobering, 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 directly command him not to turn after other gods, turned away nonetheless. Though he was 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?

Ironically, I believe that we can find the key to Solomon’s downfall 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 multi-layered and which require great thought. This is not that kind. That meaning of this one is plain. 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 young man, 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 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, 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.

Wisdom and discernment, then, are character traits that, like the moon, can wax and wane. They are gifts of God, but gifts that we can throw away. They are gifts that need to be nurtured and maintained. We cannot take them for granted, taking refuge in the fact that we may be wise and discerning right now. We need to continue to strive after them and to seek them. We need to learn from Solomon that even the wisest man today may be the greatest fool tomorrow. We depend on grace, even to sustain our wisdom and discernment.

If Solomon could stray so far from the Lord, I know that I can too. This is a sobering thought. This is a terrifying thought, even. But the solution to avoiding the folly of Solomon is clear. I need to take care that I never cease to hear instruction. I must live with an intense focus on God’s Word, never believing that I have learned enough, never believing that I’ve arrived. 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. I will never outgrow my need for His sustaining grace.

October 11, 2009

I found myself reminiscing this afternoon about old Mr. Tweedle—a man I hadn’t thought about in ages. Years ago, when we were members at a Reformed church in Hamilton, Mr. Tweedle had shown up at the church. He was an elderly man already, probably well into his seventies. He was a refugee from Canada’s United Church, a denomination that had slid from liberal to liberaler to liberalerst. When he found out from a neighbor that most people in our church believed in the validity of capital punishment (not that it matters in Canada, really, since we have no capital punishment) he decided to come to the church. I don’t think he was a believer—at least, I don’t think he had ever placed his faith in Christ. Yes, he believed in the existence of God and yes he felt it was important to attend church. But I don’t know that I ever understood him to truly believe.

When Mr. Tweedle was a young man, he had loved riding motorcycles. He was even a motorcycle courier for the Canadian army during the Second World War, first spending time in England and then, after the invasion, zipping around the continent. When the war was over, he returned to Hamilton and married. But his wife told him she did not want him to ride motorcycles anymore—they were too dangerous. So he put the bike away and lived life without.

When we knew him he was recently widowed. Just about the first thing he did after his wife died was go out and buy a new motorbike along with a $700 leather jacket. The church had pretty much adopted him by then and behind the scenes the deacons ensured that every week he was invited into someone’s home. Being a traditionalist when it comes to the etiquette of hospitality, he knew he would have to bring something with him as a little “thank you” gift. He was able to cook a mean pecan pie, so went ahead and built a specially-designed little box for the back of his motorbike, just the right size to hold a single pie. Every Sunday, at least when the weather was good, he would drive his motorcycle to church with a pecan pie tucked safely into that box. After the service he would head to the home of someone in the church. He would eat lunch with the family and then find a quiet place to lie down. He would sleep until mid-afternoon when the second service was set to begin. Then he would wake up, head for church, and sleep through the afternoon service. When I picture him in my mind, I mostly picture him with his head nodding almost to his chest during those long, afternoon services.

One day Mr. Tweedle decided that he would like to go and visit some of the sights he had seen in Europe decades before. He wanted to take his motorcycle with him, so drove it all the way from Hamilton, Ontario to Savannah, Georgia from where he caught a ship that carried him across the Atlantic. For weeks he traveled around Europe, by himself, on his bike all the while. Then he came home the way he returned. The only detail I remember from his description of his trip was that at one point he had come across a bike gang—a chapter of Hell’s Angels, I believe. They got a kick out of this old guy, alone in the world with his bike, so rode with him for some time. It’s a picture that still makes me laugh—old Mr. Tweedle, frail and tiny, riding his little old motorcycle while around him cruise huge biker dudes on their massive Harleys. I bet Mr. Tweedle loved every minute of it.

I don’t know what became of Mr. Tweedle. I don’t know if he ever truly loved the Lord or if he was just attached to the idea of God. I sure hope he turned to the Lord, even in his old age. Today he makes me think how people come and go in life, how God brings people in who for a year or two are there, week after week, and who are then gone, never to be seen again. With so many others like him, Mr. Tweedle has become just a distant memory to me.

October 10, 2009

It is Thanksgiving Weekend here in Canada—about as early a Thanksgiving as we ever have, I think. It comes a long time before the American equivalent, at any rate. The Canadian Thanksgiving is a fair bit like its American counterpart, though without the storied history. Where Americans have great stories about Pilgrims and the Indians who saved their lives, Canadians just know that we get the day off and that it’s a good day to spend with family. It is, I think, my favorite holiday of the year. The weather is usually beautiful, cool and crisp just like autumn should be. The leaves are changing color and beginning to fall.

For many Canadians the day includes parades and festive meals, often including turkey with all the “fixins.” We eat pumpkin and apple pies and squash and whatever other vegetables are available that go well with turkey. Many Canadians regard the American celebration of Thanksgiving to be almost vulgar for its excesses. We tend not to make it a day for huge quantities of food and loud football games. We certainly do not gear up for a “Black Friday” shopping experience the next day where financial excess follows closely behind caloric excess. Thanksgiving is usually a quiet day of hiking, enjoying nature, and enjoying fellowship with family and friends. It is not nearly as significant day as Thanksgiving is in America. Yet there is still something magical about it.

This year my parents are visiting, so my dad and I have been hard at work. My dad relaxes by working, so he and I have torn up and replaced our front walkway and I think this afternoon or Monday we’ll do a bit of plumbing work. And then we’ll sit back and relax and enjoy the time together as family. It sounds like the makings of a pretty good weekend. Speaking of which, I’m going to get back to it. Enjoy the rest of your Saturday!

October 02, 2009

I went for a walk this morning, and pretty much had the town to myself, it seemed. Few people were out and about at 5:30 in the cold, dark, pre-dawn. This was the first time this year I’ve had to wear a coat while walking and the first time I’ve been able to see my breath misting the air around me. Winter is fast approaching.

I was thinking, as I walked, about Proverbs 11:1. It is one of my favorite Proverbs, for reasons I’ll explain at another time. It says simply, “A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but a just weight is his delight.” As I thought about it I began to wonder what else Proverbs has to say about “delight.” Delight is something I think about often. I find myself increasingly wanting to delight in what delights God. I find myself increasingly want to move from being a dutiful Christian to being a delighting Christian. Yet delight often comes slowly; it often comes only with great difficulty. Duty is simple enough; delight is a battle.

When I got home I searched through Proverbs and found all that it has to say about delight. I haven’t quite decided what to do with all of this, so for today I simply list it for you. Here is what God tells us in Proverbs about delight:

Foolish people delight in their folly. “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?”

Foolish people delight in evil. “…who rejoice in doing evil and delight in the perverseness of evil…”

God disciplines us because he delights in us. “…for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.”

The adulteress seduces with false delight. “Come, let us take our fill of love till morning; let us delight ourselves with love.”

A man is to delight in the wife of his youth and, further, to delight in her beauty and in his desire for her. “…a lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love.”

God delights in wisdom: “then I was beside him, like a master workman, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the children of man.”

God delights in those who conduct business morally. “A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but a just weight is his delight.”

God delights in those who live upright lives. “Those of crooked heart are an abomination to the Lord, but those of blameless ways are his delight.”

God delights in those who are truthful in word and deed. “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who act faithfully are his delight.”

God delights in those who are pure and true. “Righteous lips are the delight of a king, and he loves him who speaks what is right.”

God delights in truth and uprightness. “…but those who rebuke the wicked will have delight, and a good blessing will come upon them.”

Discipline makes for delight. “Discipline your son, and he will give you rest; he will give delight to your heart.”

September 16, 2009

Last week I met Rick Warren. I was in Los Angeles to speak at the Christian Web Conference (where my topic was “Tweeting Truth With Love: Grace in an Age of Instant Communication”) and at the conference I bumped into David Chrzan, Warren’s Chief of Staff. He and I spoke for quite some time—an hour at least—and chatted about some of the critiques I’ve made in the past regarding Warren and his books. With ministries as expansive and important as Saddleback and Purpose Driven, these people are accustomed to dealing with detractors and over the years some of my critiques have reached their ears.

The irony of my talk with David is that I had come all the way to California to speak about the importance of communicating truth with love and there I was, being challenged on doing just that. It was not David challenging me as much as my own conscience. I wondered, had I always been fair to Warren? As David and I spoke it suddenly dawned on me that Rick Warren is a real person. He isn’t a robot or a really clever computer who spits out books and sermons, but a real guy. And as a real guy, he is aware of some of the controversy that surrounds him—including reviews and articles written by the likes of me. And as I’ve often had to do in the past, I had to pause to consider whether I would say to Warren face-to-face what I’ve said about him in my reviews and articles. This is not to say that I’ve ever accused Warren of heresy or torturing kittens. But I have commented on the nature, the completeness of the gospel he preaches—surely a topic that is close to his heart.

Later that day I received a “tweet” (it’s a Twitter thing) from Warren inviting me to come and check out Saddleback. Every time I am in California I think of doing so, but it has never quite worked out. This time, though, it fit my schedule perfectly. So I set out for Saddleback with a couple of friends.

Before I got to Saddleback, I went back and read through some of what I’ve written about Warren over the years, focusing on what have undoubtedly been the three most-read articles: my reviews of The Purpose Driven Church, The Purpose Driven Life and The Purpose of Christmas. As I read them, I was actually pleased to see that I was, at least in my opinion, quite level-headed in these reviews. I think they were generally kind and rational, even while disagreeing with some of what Warren communicated. What I have not done is critique Warren to the extent that others have done. I’ve never considered him a pawn of the United Nations who is attempting to bring about one-world government and the downfall of all society. I don’t think I’ve ever accused him of deliberately trying to push a pro-New Age agenda on his readers. I have sought to focus on the message and method he advocates in his books.

My main critiques of Warren and his ministry have been:

His use of Scripture. Most notably, this involves using many translations based, at least from an outside perspective, more on what the translations say than on their faithfulness to the original text.

The completeness of the gospel. In The Purpose Driven Life he says, “Real life begins by committing yourself completely to Jesus Christ” but really goes no further than that in explaining the gospel. And this in one of the best-selling books of all-time. I have often found that the gospel he preaches stops just a little bit short. It is just a little too easy.

His view of conversion. In The Purpose Driven Life he encourages readers to pray this prayer: “Jesus, I believe in you and I receive you” and then welcomes them into the family of God. His view of conversion and his haste to baptize people and welcome them into church membership (you can do all of these in a single day at Saddleback) have often caused alarm.

The role of pragmatism. In The Purpose Driven Church he makes a blanket statement that is really startling when you pause to consider it: “never criticize what God is blessing.” This kind of pragmatism in which faithfulness is judged by our perceived results is a hallmark of the Purpose Driven model of church.

So these critiques were in the back of my mind as I headed to Saddleback, as David kindly gave us a thorough tour of the facilities and as I attended the Saturday evening worship service. And I suppose they were just in the back of my mind as I spent perhaps a half hour with Warren after the service.

A few people have since asked me to describe my meeting with Warren. I don’t really know how or why I would do that. How or why would I evaluate and analyze a half-hour of mostly-random conversation? We sat down with no agenda and mostly just chatted. But what I will say is this: having met Warren and having spent a few hours at Saddleback I was at once impressed with his giftedness and confirmed in some of my concerns about his ministry. As an example of the former, he reads hundreds of books per year and just this year has already completed 18 of 26 volumes of the complete works of Jonathan Edwards (whom he regards as his hero). As an example of the latter, his sermon on Sunday used at least 6 Bible translations, some of which seemed to be chosen at the expense of the true meaning. So I guess I was confirmed in seeing that Warren is a pretty normal guy in most ways and an above average guy in other ways. I can see his passion for what he does—his passion for sharing Christ with the world. At the same time, I walked away realizing that many of my concerns are fair ones.

I want to affirm here, though, that I am allowed by Scripture to disagree with him. None of my critiques or concerns indicate that I think he is unsaved or deliberately doing things contrary to Scripture. Rather, I believe it is primarily that he and I read Scripture differently at certain points. We read the same words and come to different conclusions. If I did not believe my conclusions were the proper ones and if I did not believe they were important, I would have no reason to raise my concerns. Honestly, I feel that Warren is, in a sense, better than his theology—that with his intellect and knowledge of Scripture and expansive knowledge of what others have written, he ought to see a kind of disconnect between some of what he must believe and how this theology works itself out through his church. I wonder if he has paused to ask what Jonathan Edwards would have to say about his church, his books, his methods. So having spent time with the man and his ministry, and while granting that I saw just a brief glimpse of each, I want to affirm that there is much that seems sound but much else that bears a kind of iron-sharpening-iron kind of critique. Warren has thrust himself onto an international stage and therefore he cannot be surprised when he receives critique. If he were a small-town pastor in middle America, no one would be noticing and critiquing him. But as a pastor who prays at Presidential inaugurations and who has the ear of many world leaders, he has to expect that people will dissect his words. After all, as a Christian leader there are times when he represents all of us and there are times when hundreds of thousands of people are listening to his every word.

Somehow just meeting Warren reinforced in my mind the challenge we face as we reconcile ourselves to a fast-paced, digital world in which a person can quickly dash off a missive that can severely impact another person on the other side of the continent. It seems that ethics and morality have been a bit slow to catch up to ability in this new digital world. As I read those three reviews I realized that in each case there would be things I might say just a little differently. I am too often prone to forget that the authors whose books I review are real people and I am too quick to ignore my conscience when I consider whether the things I write and post online for all the world to read are things I would also say face-to-face. I hope this will help me in the future as I seek to be fair and godly in all that I write.

In November Zondervan will release The Hope You Need, the long-awaited follow-up to The Purpose Driven Life and one that is based on the Lord’s Prayer (which, in turn, was the subject of an eight-part sermon series). I intend to review this book as I’ve reviewed each of his other titles. But I think, having met Warren and having met the people who work with him, I can honestly say that this review will be a little bit different. It will come from a new perspective and, I hope, be as fair as I know how to Warren, to Saddleback and to Scripture.

August 19, 2009

A couple of years ago I decided that I’d try to read through the works of historian David McCullough (a project that continues). I eventually came to Brave Companions, a book that offers “Portraits in History”—brief glimpses of people and incidents that helped make America what she is today. One of the chapters deals with “The American Adventure of Louis Agassiz.” Agassiz was a French zoologist and geologist who settled in the United States in the mid nineteenth century. He began a distinguished career as a professor at Harvard. He revolutionized the way this field was taught, focusing far more on observation than rote learning. Agassiz utterly rejected Darwinism, believing to his dying day that to study nature was to study the works of God. He worked tirelessly to see a zoological museum built at Harvard and when it was finally opened in 1860, Harvard’s President declared it was appropriate that the museum stood face-to-face with the theological school, “God’s word and God’s works mutually illustrating each other.” Now I posted this about a year ago, I believe, but was reflecting on it again recently and felt it would be worth sharing again. It is, I think, a very powerful illustration.

Here is how McCullough describes the Agassiz teaching style.


Most unorthodox of all, and crucial as time would tell, was his manner of teaching. He intended, he said, to teach students to see—to observe and compare—and he intended to put the burden of study on them. Probably he never said what he is best known for, “Study nature, not books,” or not in those exact words. But such certainly was the essence of his creed, and for his students the idea was firmly planted by what they would afterward refer to as “the incident of the fish.”

His initial interview at an end, Agassiz would ask the student when he would like to begin. If the answer was now, the student was immediately presented with a dead fish—usually a very long dead, pickled, evil-smelling specimen—personally selected by “the master” from one of the wide-mouthed jars that lined his shelves. The fish was placed before the student in a tin pan. He was to look at the fish, the student was told, whereupon Agassiz would leave, not to return until later in the day, if at all.

Samuel Scudder, one of the many from the school who would go on to do important work of their own (his in entomology), described the experience as one of life’s turning points.

In ten minutes I had seen all that could be seen in that fish. … Half an hour passed—an hour—another hour; the fish began to look loathsome. I turned it over and around; looked it in the face—ghastly; from behind, beneath, above, sideways, at three-quarters view—just as ghastly. I was in despair.

I might not use a magnifying glass; instruments of all kinds were interdicted. My two hands, my two eyes, and the fish: it seemed a most limited field. I pushed my finger down its throat to feel how sharp the teeth were. I began to count the scales in the different rows, until I was convinced that that was nonsense. At last a happy thought struck me—I would draw the fish, and now with surprise I began to discover new features in the creature.

When Agassiz returned later and listened to Scudder recount what he had observed, his only comment was that the young man must look again.

I was piqued; I was mortified. Still more of that wretched fish! But now I set myself to my task with a will, and discovered one new thing after another. … The afternoon passed quickly; and when, towards its close, the professor inquired: “Do you see it yet?”

No,” I replied, “I am certain I do not, but I see how little I saw before.”

The day following, having thought of the fish through most of the night, Scudder had a brainstorm. The fish, he announced to Agassiz, had symmetrical sides with paired organs.

Of course, of course!” Agassiz said, obviously pleased. Scudder asked what he might do next, and Agassiz replied, “Oh, look at your fish!”

In Scudder’s case the lesson lasted a full three days. “Look, look, look” was the repeated injunction and the best lesson he ever had, Scudder recalled, “a legacy the professor has left to me, as he has left it to many others, of inestimable value, which we could not buy, with which we cannot part.”

The incident of the fish marked the end of the student’s novitiate. At once Agassiz became more communicative, his manner that of a friend or colleague, now that the real work could begin.

The way to all learning, “the backbone of education,” was to know something well. “A smattering of everything is worth little,” he would insist in the heavy French accent that he was never to lose. “Facts are stupid things, until brought into conjunction with some general law.” It was a great and common fallacy to suppose that an encyclopedic mind is desirable. The mind was made strong not through much learning but by “the thorough possession of something.” In other words, “Look at your fish.”


There were so many lessons I drew from this as I thought of my own attempts to understand God through His Word. The parallels are uncanny (but for the injunction to “study nature, not books.”) Lately, in my times of personal devotion, I’ve been studying the Minor Prophets. Admittedly I am going more for an overview than for an in-depth study, but even as I’ve been doing this, I’ve been craving some deeper study. The primary lesson for me in the Agassiz teaching style is this: like Scudder I tend to consider myself ready to move on too quickly. I move quickly from the Bible to resources that help explain them to me. I skim the Bible and then turn to commentaries and sermons to do the hard work for me. I skim the Bible and then study the supplementary material. But all the while I know I would be better off if I would just heed Agassiz and “look at your fish.”

July 22, 2009

A couple of summers ago my parents paid us a rare summer visit. Usually they come to visit in fall or winter, but this year they came in summer. Because my dad is only truly resting when he is hard at work, I asked him to help me with several projects around the house. These were either projects that I had not had time to attend to, or projects for which I would have to rely upon his expertise. As always, dad was glad to pitch in and to do what needed to be done. So while my mother spent as much time as she could with Aileen and the kids, dad and I got to work. On Saturday we installed a new air conditioner, something that turned out to be far easier said than done and that quickly consumed much of the day. The end result, though, was just what we had hoped for and was just in time to carry us through a couple of days of uncomfortable heat and humidity. Having taken care of this, we decided to attack the lawns and gardens. We laid sod in the backyard and planted perennials in the flower beds. We transformed the outside of our home.

Dad is a career landscaper and has a great love for rocks, trees, plants and flowers. I have spent countless hours with my father, and used to work with him quite often when I was younger. He must have given up on me eventually because I would do a half-baked job of nearly everything he asked of me. When plants needed a soaking, I’d give them only a quick shower before finding something more interesting to do. When plants needed to be buried deep in the ground, I would leave their roots exposed to the elements. I am sure it was on a scalding hot Ontario summer day, when I was covered in dirt and dust and manure, that I resolved that I would work a desk job when I was older.

Though I had worked with dad so often, it was only recently that I realized something fundamental to his choice of vocation. We were driving along Highway 5, a highway that represents the northern border of the town of Oakville. On the south side of the highway is a bustling suburban environment. Houses reach almost to the side of the road and there are newly-built gas stations on almost every corner. There are enough restaurants, Wal-Marts and big box stores to support a thriving community. In true Canadian style, the neighborhoods are predominantly flat and boring. The trees have been torn down, the valleys have been filled in, and the houses are often so close that a person could easily leap from roof-to-roof. Sometimes a single majestic, lonely tree stands at the entrance to a neighborhood with a sign underneath reading “Oak Trails.”

That is the south side of Highway 5. The opposite side, the north side, is everything that the south is not. Fields of corn and wheat border the highway. Many fields that have long laid fallow, stretch as far as the eye can see, passing into the distance. There are rolling hills and small forests. The occasional valley, with a stream running through it, cuts across the landscape. Cows graze and horses run.

On one side of Highway 5 is progress. A city thrives there, a city filled with men and women who commute into Toronto, the nerve center of Canada. These people choose to live in Oakville, the wealthiest city in Canada. They run the banks and own the businesses that drive our economy. Their demand for more houses, bigger houses, push the borders of Oakville ever further north. They push the borders toward the other side of Highway 5, the side that is nothing. Or that is what most of us see. Where we see nothing, dad sees beauty.

As we were driving along the highway, making our way to an eclectic, disorganized but well-stocked garden center that you would not notice unless you where it was, I heard dad cry, “Oh, look at that beautiful chestnut! Wow! Look at it!” I turned my head and saw a tree, standing tall and proud, rising above a field of grass. I’d like to describe it in more detail, but that is all I saw. A tree. But where I saw only a tree, I knew that dad saw something so much more. A few minutes later he pointed towards the urban sprawl and said, “Right down that road there used to be the biggest poplar in all of Ontario. It was six feet across at its base. I bet it’s long gone by now.”

For dad this is a tragedy. For many of us, a huge poplar tree is an annoyance. Its roots lift our sidewalks, disturb our gardens and tear into our foundations. Its massive trunk and swaying branches block our review or shade too much of our backyard. And so we cut it down and tear it apart. After all, it’s only a tree. But to dad it is more. It is an object of tremendous beauty.

I wish that I could see beauty the way dad does. I wish that I could delight in the simple, natural beauty of a chestnut tree. But all I see, even when I look closely, is a tree. I can describe it using adjectives—big, thick, leafy, round—but not in any adjectives that really capture the essence of its beauty. And that’s because I see only a tree.

I think that when dad sees a tree, he must see the tree’s Creator. He must see something more than the color and the shape. Maybe he sees God’s providence in a tree that has stood for fifty years. A hundred years. A tree that has offered shelter to generation after generation. Or maybe that tree is simply a beautiful work of art. Maybe that tree is a manifestation of the Artist who sculpted it in such a way to tell us something about Himself. That tree stands as a reminder of the great Creator. I don’t really know what dad sees in those trees. I never thought to ask him. But I wish I could see whatever he sees.

Highway 5 seems almost a parable to me. On one side is progress and on the other is nature. On one side is ugliness and on the other is beauty. I tend towards what is ugly but progressive. I tend to see urban sprawl as a sign of Canada’s progress as our population grows and our economy strengthens. But dad prefers natural beauty, even at the expense of progress. He sees the tragedy of a great tree falling and the tragedy of beauty being torn away only to be replaced by ugliness.

There is a reason that many of the fields north of Highway 5 lie fallow. Many of those fields, perhaps even all of them, have been purchased by developers. Oakville will soon have reached the limits of its growth. With Lake Ontario removing the possibility of southward growth, and with other cities to the east and the west, there is only one way for the city to move. Already the city is beginning to leap across the highway and this “progress” will continue for the foreseeable future. Trees will be cut down and trucked away to nearby mills. Hills will be flattened and the soil will be poured into the valleys. Sewers will cut into the fields and roads will be laid. Houses, schools and stores will spring up.

That chestnut tree is going to be a casualty of progress. Perhaps it will be left standing at the entrance to a neighborhood of million dollar houses where it will languish in the hard clay. Eventually it will die. I won’t even notice. Dad will lament the loss of such beauty. I’ll wish that I could too.


I’m on vacation so you’re getting a repeat today. I first posted this back in ‘06, I believe.

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