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January 26, 2009

At Grace Fellowship Church we’ve been praying for something big and we’ve been praying it for quite some time. We want a meeting place of our own. It’s not that there is anything inherently wrong with the school we meet in now, but more that we can foresee how our own building would be beneficial to the church and to the community. Oh, and we want the building to be free. We’re quite a small church and the leadership (wisely, I think) is hesitant to rope the church into a long and expensive mortgage. Real estate prices being what they are in Toronto, it would realistically be a very long and undoubtedly very expensive mortgage. This would not be a good decision for our church. So we continue to pray for a building of our own, for free.

I am confident that we can pray for such a thing and am confident that God can answer our prayer in amazing and unexpected ways. And really, I’ve seen him answer such prayers in other churches and organizations. The Apostle had confidence that God was able to do things far beyond our ability to even imagine, closing his prayer for the Ephesians by praying in the name of “him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” What seems so big to us is so small to God. Is the Creator of all the universe bound by the limitations that seem so clear to us?

It’s strange to me, then, that I can pray in such confidence that God is able to do great things and yet still pray with such a diminished sense of my prayers actually mattering to God. I am coming to realize that this is one of my great struggles in prayer. I believe in God’s sovereignty; I believe what he says in the Word is true and that he is not only able, but willing to grant what I ask in prayer. “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” God wants to hear the prayer of his saints and as a father delights in giving good things to his son, God delights in giving good things to his children.

And yet so often I pray like it doesn’t really matter. I make it a habit to try to pray for every person in our church every week. Far too often I pray these prayers like I am praying to someone who is not eager to hear the prayers and is not eager to answer them. I pray like I am asking difficult things of a reluctant ruler. I pray like I need to beg God that he will bless these saints, like he is uninterested in hearing my requests that these people will apply to their lives the Word they heard on Sunday or that they will come to church eager to enjoy communion with him. I pray like prayer is a duty, not a delight.

But lately God has been showing me that prayer can be so much more than duty. When prayer is mere duty I see myself falling into the trap of the Gentiles that Jesus talked about in his Sermon: “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” My prayers can be so empty, so meaningless, little more than empty phrases heaped one upon the other. But God has been showing me that they are so much more. They are so much more to him.

So this has been my prayer in recent days—my prayer with which I begin to pray. “God, help me to have confidence that my prayers matter.” I’ve found that such a sense can transform a prayer. With such a prayer I am reminding myself of God’s truth—that He is eager to hear and answer my prayers—and I am asking him to give me a renewed and enlarged sense of this great truth. As I pray this I am reminding myself that God is no petty tyrant disinterested in what I may desire to ask him, but that he is a gracious Father who desires good things for all of his children. And I remind myself that prayer is a means, and often the means, by which he gives us those things that will bless us and bring glory to his name.

Prayer matters—my prayers matter. I fight to keep this in my mind and I fight to keep it in my heart.

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 12, 2009

I kind of feel like I should be screaming in joy and wonder right now. Like I should just scream out “I CAN’T BELIEVE I’M DOING THIS! THIS IS AMAZING! THIS IS AWESOME! CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS?!”Just a few short hours ago I was in my home town of Toronto, on the shores of Lake Ontario. And now I am 1,000 miles to the south, rapidly approaching the Gulf of Mexico. Just moments ago I was sitting on the ground, firmly planted on terra firma. And now I’m several miles in the air. Ten minutes ago we were sitting still; now the aircraft I am traveling in is moving so fast that if I were to stick my head out the window and scream (not something I plan to do) my voice would be traveling only slightly faster than the plane. It’s incredible. If I weren’t here experiencing it now, I might be tempted not to believe that it was possible.

And yet I’m rather blase about the whole thing. I’ve done it before so many times. Already this is my second flight of the day. For the first flight I boarded the plane, quickly noted that the person seated beside me had his iPod fixed firmly in his ears and seemed to be in no mood for conversation, so promptly opened a book on the Resolutions of Jonathan Edwards. That took me part of the way to Atlanta, perhaps until I was over Pennsylvania or Virginia; when that book was finished I packed it away and continued to read a biography of John Bunyan, picking up with his writing of Pilgrim’s Progress. By the time we landed I was reading about The Holy War and by the time we finally taxied to our gate and shuffled off, I had come to his death. All that time I had been hurtling through the sky at 550 miles per hour and 6 miles up. But I scarcely noticed; I barely thought about it. It just was. I do it all the time.

I remember the first time I flew, or the first time I flew as a person old enough to remember doing it. The very fact that I remember it so vividly displays how important it was to me. My whole family was taking a long flight from Toronto, Canada to London, England. Everything was new and exciting. I remember the miniature cans our soft drinks came in; the meal we ate mid-flight, the movie that played on the screens ahead of us and the feeling in the pit of my stomach as the plane rose and fell with the turbulence. I remember that as the British Airways Boeing 747 left the ground, a poem came to my mind—a poem my father had once shown me.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, —and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of —Wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air…
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

It was so new and fresh. It was so exciting. Like the poet, I was amazed at the wonder of it all.

That was then. This is now. Now I barely think about flying except to register how boring and routine it has become and to mutter a complaint when my flight is delayed. Never mind that I’ll soon by moving 550 miles per hour 6 miles above the earth. No, never mind that at all. What’s important is that my flight is going to be fifteen minutes late. Horrors!

Life has a way of becoming routine, a way of losing its wonder. A few days ago I went out with some friends and as we sat and talked my friend Nick told me how beautiful and how smart my little girl is. And he’s right—she’s both of those things and more. I’m not sure, though, when I had last stopped to think about it. After all, I see her every day. Several months ago, my small group paused one evening to encourage my wife with some of the evidences of God’s grace they see in her life. Though I love her dearly, I was surprised at how long it had been since I had considered many of these evidences of God’s work in her. I guess I’d somehow lost the wonder.

And then there’s my faith. I know the kind of man I am. I know the lusts and the pride in my heart, the anger, the sarcasm the ungodliness. I know who I am and I know what I deserve. But. But God. But God in his goodness set me apart and gave me a gift—a wondrous gift greater than any other. He gave me what he had; he gave me what I needed; he gave me his Son; he gave me Himself. And yet sometimes it’s just like rocketing through the air with my nose buried in a book. It’s mundane; it’s expected; it’s old; it’s just the way it has been for so long that I scarcely remember (or perhaps scarcely care to remember) what it was like before.

But oh, how I long for those moments when God gives me that glimpse of just where he has taken me and what he has given me. How I long to know and to believe, to experience afresh, to rejoice in my heart, to marvel, to appreciate, to love, to feel.

Please, don’t let me lose the wonder of who you are. Don’t let me lose the wonder of what you’ve done. Please, don’t let me lose the wonder.

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 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 30, 2008

Continued from yesterday…

Every now and again my son decides the time is right to build a paper airplane air force. He raids my printer to get the stacks of paper he’ll need and then opens up The Dangerous Book for Boys to try out some of the designs printed in that book. But after building a few of these he inevitably wants to try some new planes—some bombers or fighters, perhaps. So he and I head to Google and go searching for new and creative ways of building paper airplanes. There are all kinds of sites that show photographs of amazing designs and give instructions on how to build them. Some of the instructions are descriptive: “fold the paper in half lengthwise and then undo the folds. Now, fold the paper from the top corner to the crease and then halfway back again. Tear a small line between the corner and the centerline and fold that new section into three equal parts.” And so it goes. We have found these instructions nearly impossible to follow. For all their best efforts, these sites cannot adequately describe how to build the planes. Far more helpful are the sites that offer videos or even animated graphic files that show the steps. This allows us to follow along, step-by-step, as the expert builds his plane and leads us with him. If you’ve ever tried to build Origami or other similar crafts you’ll undoubtedly have encountered the same limitation—telling is rarely as useful as showing.

Yesterday I wrote about the potentially tragic consequences of using the wrong measure. You’ll remember the story of the Gimli Glider, the airliner that ran out of fuel 5 miles above the earth because a fueling technician had made a simple error. He had used the wrong measure, dispatching the plane with 22,300 pounds of fuel instead of 22,300 kilograms. Only the skill of an outstanding pilot and God’s kind providences kept the situation from turning tragic.

As we evaluate our lives and as we try to live in a way that pleases God, we are constantly measuring and weighing. We are holding ourselves up against a certain standard and seeing how we compare to it. There are times—too many times—that we or I, at any rate, don’t let me speak for you, hold myself to the wrong standard. I compare myself to other people. I look to my friends or family or pastors or even complete strangers and compare myself to them. Often I come out looking pretty good. They are, after all, sinners just as I am. Their sin gives me hope and gives me peace. I may be a sinner, but at least I’ve never done that! Well, not recently, anyways. Or perhaps their godliness stirs my heart with envy. How could they be so immune to that this sin or that one? Why can’t I be free from that sin? What does it say about me that I continue to struggle with it?

There is a great danger in this habit. As I look to others and as I measure my godliness, my growth in grace by the standard of other people, I may learn to despise their godliness and to rejoice in their sin. After all, if they are my standard, their growth in grace calls into question my own. At the same time, their fall into sin will gladden me as I rejoice in not having fallen so far or so hard. I’ve looked to the wrong standard and have reached the wrong goals.

God does not call me to hold myself to the standard set by other Christians. My task is not to look to them and measure myself by that standard. No, I am always to compare myself to the measure he gave. Our measure is God himself. Our measure is perfection.

Jesus came to this earth and lived a life worthy of emulation. He lived a life that perfectly modeled God’s standard. He gave me the measure. So as I seek to evaluate my life and as I seek to understand whether I am growing in godly character, I am to compare myself to Christ. God did not merely tell me how to live in a way that pleases him, but went so far as to show me. He gave me far more than a guide book filled with instructions and more than a list of do’s and don’ts. He gave me an example to perfectly model to us the way he wants me to live.

What character trait could I want that was not already perfectly modeled by Christ? As he laid aside his glory and took on human flesh, he modeled sympathy, becoming what we are. As he washed the feet of his disciples, Christ modeled humility. As he prayed for his accusers, he modeled forgiveness. As he taught his followers he modeled patient, kind, servant leadership. As he died for those who had turned their backs on him, he modeled love. In all these ways he showed us how we are to live.

And so my life is to be a life lived by looking constantly to Christ. Am I seeking to grow in humility? I need to look to Christ! Am I wondering if I’ve been growing in my love for my brothers and sisters in Christ? I must look to Christ! Do I seek to grow in my ability to lead my family? I must follow the example of Christ!

He is the measure. He is the standard. He has modeled for me all that I need to be and do. He has not just told me, but has shown me. He has not merely given the standard, but has lived it and been it. And this frees me to live a life that looks to the right standard and the best standard—a life free from the bitter jealously and agonizing defeat that would come by comparing myself as a sinner to sinners. I look to his perfect measure, knowing that I cannot perfectly attain it, but trusting that the same power that enabled him to be perfect is the power in me that is helping me fight sin and that will some day free me from it altogether. It is the power that helps me look forward to that great day when sin will be no more.

December 29, 2008

On July 23, 1983, Flight 143, an Air Canada Boeing 767, lifted off from Montreal’s Montreal-Dorval International Airport on its way to Edmonton, Alberta. On board were 69 passengers and crew. Sometime around the flight’s halfway mark, while over the tiny community of Red Lake, Ontario, near the border of Manitoba, an alarm sounded in the cockpit, indicating that there was a problem with the fuel pressure on one side of the aircraft. The pilots, assuming that a fuel pump had failed, took corrective action and determined that the flight could continue. But just moments later, they received a similar warning from the other side of the aircraft. Immediately one of the engines failed and the pilots prepared to make an immediate landing at Winnipeg’s airport, the closest airport with a runway of sufficient length for a wide body jet. At this point there was no great emergency, for modern aircraft are designed to fly on just one engine. However, as the pilots spoke to the air traffic controllers in Winnipeg, they heard a new alarm, one neither man could remember hearing before. It was an alarm indicating that both engines were failing. Within seconds, many of the cockpit’s instruments went blank and an eerie silence settled over the plane as the second engine ground to a halt. Flight 143 had run out of fuel 28,000 feet above the ground.

Captain Bob Pearson and First Officer Maurice Quintal were faced with a nearly impossible task. They had to land a modern airliner, a 300,000 pound glider, without engines, without power, without most of their instruments. This event was nearly unprecedented in aviation history and neither their training nor their flight manuals had prepared them for such an event. Quick calculations showed that they would not be able to glide all the way to Manitoba. Captain Pearson suggested they try to land at his old air force base at Gimli, Manitoba. He was unaware that the air strip at Gimli had since been decommissioned and had become a drag strip. The runway had been divided into two lanes with a guard rail running along the middle. That very day was “Family Day” at the races and the area surrounding the runway was covered in cars and campers while racing fans enjoyed the day’s events. The pilots turned their plane toward Gimli, unaware of all of this.

As the aircraft approached Gimli, the skill of the pilots was tested to the extreme. Captain Pearson was an avid glider pilot and knew many of the tricks of the trade. He used one of these, executing an incredible forward slip maneuver to slow the plane and reduce altitude just before landing. Amazingly, he managed to put the plane down on the runway and to bring it to a halt without careening into the crowds. There had been insufficient power to drop the nose wheel and it collapsed as the plane touched down. This was the only major damage sustained by the aircraft. All 69 passengers and crew escaped unharmed. The 767 was quickly repaired and remained in service for almost 25 years more before being retired on January 1 of 2008. Both pilots were awarded the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale Diploma for Outstanding Airmanship.

A subsequent investigation quickly discovered what had gone wrong with the plane now referred to as the Gimli Glider. At that time Canada was in the process of converting from the imperial to the metric system of measurements. The pilot had correctly calculated the amount of fuel that would be needed to fly from Montreal to Edmonton. However, the technician responsible for fueling had incorrectly factored the conversion from metric to imperial. Flight 143 left Montreal not with 22,300 kilograms of fuel as it needed, but with 22,300 pounds, just over half of the amount necessary for that long flight. It was a simple case of looking to the wrong standard, the wrong measure, and it nearly led to tragic consequences.

I thought of this story yesterday as I pondered my tendency to adhere to wrong standards. I thought about that part of my heart, that awful depraved part, that loves to hear about the faults, the sins, the depravity of others. It is this part of my heart that holds me up to an easy standard and a wrong standard—the standard of other people. I love to measure my heart, my faith by comparing myself to others. And inevitably I often look good in comparison. We are, after all, a sinful bunch who constantly find new and creative ways of sinning against God.

There is a better measure.

To be continued tomorrow…

Gimli Glider

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 22, 2008

On Saturday night, Aileen and I joined some friends to take in a performance of Handel’s Messiah. And what a performance it was. It featured the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. It was, in a word, sublime. Conductor Noel Edison clearly understood the piece (I guess I should say “the oratorio”) and wonderfully separated gravitas from joy. As the piece moved from prophecy, to the life of Christ, to his death and to his impending return, the music rose and fell, swelled and crept back in all the right places. If the world has ever seen a more powerful piece of music than Messiah, I don’t know what it would be.

As much as I love the “Hallelujah” chorus, it is merely the beginning of Messiah’s most beautiful part. It is in the third part that the soprano declares “I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth.” It is here that the chorus and the soloists combine to share the gospel message. “Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” It is here that we hear the promise of new life to those who are found in Christ. “Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.” And it is here that Handel puts to music the words of the elders and the living creatures and the angels as they sing “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” It is here that we, those who have been redeemed by Jesus, look to the future with hope, waiting anxiously for the day when Christ returns.

The year 2008 is drawing to a close. Last week the Boston Globe’s feature “The Big Picture” told the story of the year 2008 in photos (Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. Warning: some of the more violent photos are quite graphic). With three galleries each containing 40 photos, they pointed back to the year’s most important moments. And what a year it was. As with every year since Adam and Eve disobeyed God, it was a year of both triumph and terror. Looking at the Globe’s photos, it seems that terror has prevailed. In one photo a boy and girl, a brother and sister hug one another at the funeral of their father, a police officer who was gunned down in the line of duty; in another, the foot of a suicide bomber lies close to the camera, with carnage in the background; in another still, a young Kenyan boy screams as a baton-wielding police officer approaches his ramshackle home, seeking his father. While some photos share moments of joy, far more share moments of pain and death.

It was not always this way. It will not always be this way. On Saturday night we partook in the strange cultural experience of hearing the gospel proclaimed far outside the walls of the church. We heard the message that assures us, even as we see such evidence of sin, that better times are coming. Indeed, better times must come. Death has been defeated. It will not be long now before the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. And, oh, don’t we look forward to that day.

December 17, 2008

You’ll have to excuse me for re-posting today. It was a tough night dealing with a sick kid and then this morning I had to take the kids to school and then shovel out after a pretty good snowfall. As I was shoveling this morning I thought of a post from last winter and thought I’d post it again. I hope you don’t mind.


Elizabeth is a public nuisance. Her status is not official yet, but it will be soon. The local police have encouraged the families in this neighborhood to fill out the paperwork that will fulfill the legal requirements. It’s probably the best thing to do. When that paperwork is complete the police will no longer be forced to respond to her every call. And she calls a lot. When a car parks a little too far into the road, she calls the police. When she believes someone has trespassed on her property, she calls the police. When the children are playing outdoors and a ball rolls into her yard, she calls the police. She has the reputation of a person who must sit by the window with phone in hand. Nine and one are already pushed and she’s just waiting for a reason to hit the one again. She was one of the first people we were told about when we moved to this neighborhood. “You’re going to have to watch out for Elizabeth…”

Everyone in the neighborhood knows who she is. Her yard is easy to spot as it’s the one that is completely overgrown. In most cases people who do not care for their yards have it cut by city hall and receive a bill in the mail. In her case she’s managed to convince them that this chaos is a gardening style. Her house is over an aquifier she says, one of the few in the area, and that is why the trees grow so well and why they remain so dense. She’s the one who hands out apples or oranges on Halloween. She’s the one who has lived in the neighborhood since before many of the rest of us were even born and long before the other houses were built.

One morning last winter Aileen came into the house and told me that Elizabeth was out shoveling her own driveway. She is definitely too old to be doing this. So I put my coat on, grabbed my shovel, and walked up the street to her home. She had propped herself up with a crutch under her one arm and was holding a broom in the other, trying to sweep the snow away. We had seen a good ten centimeters fall and it was wet, heavy snow. A broom wasn’t going to cut it, and particularly so along the edge of the driveway where the plows had pushed it into hard piles at least a couple of feet high. I asked if I could help her and she hesitatingly agreed. She gave me a few pointers on how to best shovel and told me she’d be pleased if I’d just deal with the big piles close to the road. She asked if I would like to be paid and I said, “Absolutely not.”

I got to work while she headed indoors. I cleaned up the piles and then got to work on the rest of the drive. A few minutes later she emerged from the house to chat. She told me that the driveway had been widened many years before and they were able to fit at least eight cars in it. That explained why I was winded. She told me about her broken leg and then about her sons, both of whom live in the area, I believe, and both of whom seem quite well-to-do. She seemed perfectly pleasant, even for a public nuisance. She was grateful that she was going to be able to get out of her driveway that day, because she had a schedule with a physical therapist. When the job was done I told her to get in touch with me anytime and headed home.

Since that day we had several snowstorms and learned that we were in the midst of the snowiest winter in years. At that point we had seen 142 centimeters and that was three storms ago. We were in the midst of another one that day. The schools were canceled and it was as good a day as any to just stay off the roads.

Whenever the snow begins to accumulate, I cross the ditch and shovel her out. There was one time that I somehow forgot but she called a neighbor (she didn’t have my phone number) and asked him to come and knock on the door. He passed along the message and I hurried right over. By my count there are at least twelve or fifteen neighbors who are closer to her home than I am. They drive by while I’m shoveling or they use snow blowers to get the snow off their drives at the same time. But none of them help her. I don’t know if she has burned all of those bridges or if this is just a symptom of the times we live in. Even the neighbor who came to knock on my door didn’t offer to help.

March 5th of 2008 was my son’s eighth birthday. Eight years ago we had brought him home from the hospital and we were wearing shorts and t-shirts. But this day it was well below 0, we had already seen 15 centimeters of snow, and it continued to fall. “In like a lion, out like a lamb” is what they say about March. I was hoping that old adage proved true that month. The last thing I wanted to do was shovel out a long driveway covered in 15 centimeters of heavy snow. I grumbled to Aileen, saying “I picked quite the year to start helping Elizabeth, didn’t I?” She lovingly scolded me and I went on my way. Though it was his birthday, I told Nick to come along and to help me out. He did so quite willingly, despite having some new toys and games to play with and Super Mario Galaxy for the Wii demanding his attention. And off I went, perhaps a bit resigned to my fate.

We got to work, chipping away at the driveway. After a few minutes of hard work Nick piped up. “Daddy, this is what the Bible says, isn’t it? That anyone who has a need is our neighbor?” And he was right—that’s exactly what the Bible says. But Scripture also makes it clear that any good things I do are utterly worthless when I do them with a grumbling spirit. In that moment I saw that I had been going about this all wrong. My little boy (who really isn’t so little anymore) ministered to me that morning as we cleared the driveway of our neighborhood’s public nuisance. My boy is a blessing to me in more ways than he knows.

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