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July 16, 2008

We are at a strange and unique stage of human history. The combination of the Internet, electronic storage media, the rapid rate of technological progress and the fast-pace of our society, has given us unparalleled access to unparalleled amounts of information. Never in history have people had access to so much information. Consider just a few examples:

Google currently indexes billions upon billions of web pages and adds hundreds of thousands more every day (I was not able to find an exact count, but as of 2005 the page count was already well in excess of 8 billion). Almost every one of those pages contains at least some information. Amazon and other internet retailers sell hundreds of thousands of different books, videos and other sources of information. Newspapers, especially weekend editions, are obscenely large, often totaling hundreds of pages and weighing several pounds. In Spiritual Disciplines For The Christian Life, Don Whitney says that the amount of information contained in just one weekday edition of the New York Times contains more information than a man like Jonathan Edwards would have encountered in his entire life (though I can’t imagine how that is really measurable).

A 2003 study showed that print, film, magnetic, and optical storage media produced about 5 exabytes of new information in 2002. Ninety-two percent of the new information was stored on magnetic media, mostly in hard disks, meaning that much of it was readily available to others. (5 exabytes = 5 billion gigabytes, or the equivalent of 125,000,000 average-sized hard drives. This was a dramatic increase from just two years before when the total amount of new information was a “mere” 1.5 exabytes. “How big is five exabytes? If digitized with full formatting, the seventeen million books in the Library of Congress contain about 136 terabytes of information; five exabytes of information is equivalent in size to the information contained in 37,000 new libraries the size of the Library of Congress book collections.” And that is the total for just one year.

Neil Postman, in a talk entitled “Informing Ourselves To Death” once spoke about the information facing Americans: “In America, there are 260,000 billboards; 11,520 newspapers; 11,556 periodicals; 27,000 video outlets for renting tapes; 362 million tv sets; and over 400 million radios. There are 40,000 new book titles published every year (300,000 world-wide) and every day in America 41 million photographs are taken, and just for the record, over 60 billion pieces of advertising junk mail come into our mail boxes every year. Everything from telegraphy and photography in the 19th century to the silicon chip in the twentieth has amplified the din of information, until matters have reached such proportions today that for the average person, information no longer has any relation to the solution of problems.” That was years ago and since then the amount of information has grown almost exponentially.

All of this points to the fact that we are facing much more information than humans did in days past. In fact, we are facing information overload. We cannot possibly keep up with the amount of information that is coming our way. Yet in many ways it is becoming increasingly important to our lives that we do just that.

Francis Heylighen, in a 1999 article entitled “Change and Information Overload: negative effects” writes about the problem of information overload as a condition that is becoming increasingly destructive in the workforce. He shows that the acceleration of change in our society has caused a dramatic increase in information, and thus an increase in the amount of information the average person needs to know.

The acceleration of change is accompanied by an increase in the information needed to keep up with all these developments. This too leads to psychological, physical and social problems. A world-wide survey (Reuters, 1996) found that two thirds of managers suffer from increased tension and one third from ill-health because of information overload. The psychologist David Lewis, who analysed the findings of this survey, proposed the term “Information Fatigue Syndrome” to describe the resulting symptoms. Other effects of too much information include anxiety, poor decision-making, difficulties in memorizing and remembering, and reduced attention span (Reuters, 1996; Shenk, 1997). These effects merely add to the stress caused by the need to constantly adapt to a changing situation.

Part of the problem is caused by the fact that technological advances have made the retrieval, production and distribution of information so much easier than in earlier periods. This has reduced the natural selection processes which would otherwise have kept all but the most important information from being published. The result is an explosion in often irrelevant, unclear and inaccurate data fragments, making it ever more difficult to see the forest through the trees. This overabundance of low quality information, which Shenk (1997) has called “data smog”, is comparable in its emergence and effects to the pollution of rivers and seas caused by an excess of fertilizers, or to the health problems caused by a diet too rich in calories. The underlying mechanism may be called “overshooting”: because progress has inertia, the movement in a given direction tends to continue even after the need has been satisfied. Whereas information used to be scarce, and having more of it was considered a good thing, it seems that we now have reached the point of saturation, and need to limit our use of it.

His conclusion is that the biggest problem facing our society is not that we are making too little progress, but that we are making too much! I think I know just what he means.

Christians are by no means exempt from the impact of information overload. Consider, for example, a pastor who lived in America in the early nineteenth century. What information was he privy to on a daily basis? If he lived in a large town he may have had access to a newspaper and perhaps even a library. He may have owned a few books, but generally he had very little access to significant amounts of information. He usually rose and went to bed with the sun, he never watched CNN, never listened to the radio, and if he lived outside of the city, may have only rarely had anyone to talk to outside of his family members. But consider a pastor today. We can be sure he has access to hundreds of television channels, hundreds of radio stations, billions of web pages, millions of books, newspapers, magazines and so on. The phone rings constantly, the cell phone interrupts his meetings and the computer beeps that a new email has arrived.

In many ways the nineteenth century pastor had a difficult life compared to what we experience today, yet, in the words of Don Whitney, “On the other hand, he never had to answer a telephone once in his entire lifetime! Despite his inconveniences, his mind, like the psalmist’s, was not as distracted by instant world news, television and radio, portable and car telephones, personal stereos, rapid transportation, junk mail, and so on. Because of these things, it’s harder for us today to concentrate our thoughts, especially on God and Scripture, than it ever has been.”

How can a Christian find time to just sit and think, or sit and memorize or meditate upon Scripture? I know first-hand how difficult it is to remove myself from this information overload, even for a few days or a few hours. I consider it a hardship to be disconnected from email and the internet, and often my job depends on having near-instant access to these technologies. It is such a temptation to begin my day with checking my email and checking my favorite blogs and news sites rather than beginning quietly with God. I have a difficult time turning off the phone and the computer so I can sit and memorize God’s Word, even for just a few minutes at a time. I have succumbed to the information overload, and have loved being a part of it. I have seen the data smog envelop my life. But, as with many other Christians, I know it has affected my spiritual life. While the information we are privy to is in many ways a blessing, in other ways it is a temptation and a curse.

Some days I thank God for the vast amount of information at my disposal. Other days I just wish it would all go away. In my more rational moments I know that this is impossible - the information is going to increase, not decrease. Therefore I am responsible before God to live a spiritually disciplined life in spite of this information overload. I am responsible before Him to carve time out of this information influx so I can just be alone with Him; alone with no telephone, no email, no internet. It is critical to my spiritual well-being that I find ways of removing and properly managing these distractions that keep me from spending the time He and I need to build a thriving, growing relationship.

July 14, 2008

There was a period in my life where I spent a good bit of time playing computer games. I developed a fascination with certain games and gained a lot of pleasure from playing them. Truth be told, if I was able to find a way of extending my days from 24 to 48 hours I might take up the hobby again. Unfortunately, as it stands now, I just have too many other responsibilities in life to be able to dedicate any significant time to gaming (though occasionally, very occasionally, I can scrape together a couple of hours and play something with my boy, who loves the games as much as I used to).

Of the games I played, my favorites were always strategy games (anyone who has played classics like Civilization or Railroad Tycoon will know the kind of games I’m talking about). Many of these games offered two different modes of play: campaign or sandbox. In campaign mode, the player would typically play an ongoing series of scenarios; finishing one scenario would unlock the next and would increase the options available to him in future scenarios. The campaigns were often very linear, but it was a pleasure conquering one area of the game before moving on to the next. This way of playing would slowly unlock the game’s features, all the while offering measurable goals. Sandbox mode, on the other hand, gave the player free reign to play the game however he liked; there was no formal structure and often no overarching point to the game—the player would have all options available to him and would simply play however he saw fit. Sandbox mode never appealed to me. I needed to conquer rather than just play the game open-ended.

I guess I’ve always been a campaign more than a sandbox kind of person. The desire to overcome and to conquer is built right into me. I love to form and then to pursue a series of defined goals and find great satisfaction in doing so.

Some time ago I found myself growing frustrated with my times of personal devotion. I would take time every morning to read the Bible, to pray, and to (at least some of the time) meditate upon the Word of God. But somehow it all seemed frustrating and almost pointless. There was little way of measuring or even sensing whether I was really benefiting from these times. Was I growing from these times? Was I benefiting? Was I making the best use of these times? I noted that on the few occasions that I was asked to preach, I would find greater joy in studying the Scripture in preparing a sermon than in simply reading it on my own. The goal at the end made a difference. It was around this time that I began to notice the parallel between my devotions and computer gaming. I was doing sandbox devotions! I would simply choose a book of the Bible and read through it, sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly. They were open-ended with little in the way of defined goals and I began to see that this was somehow in opposition to my personality type. It was not enough for me to just “spend time with Jesus.” Instead, I needed to put my devotions within a larger context, a story line that would bring some kind of cohesion.

So I began to change the way I did devotions. I set them within a larger context. I determined I would conquer books of the Bible, one-by-one. Most recently this has taken the form of what I’ve been thinking of as “conquering Genesis.” In this campaign I will be spending at least 90 days studying Genesis, not only reading the book and meditating upon it, but also relying upon good commentaries, theologies and other resources. The plan is to “conquer” the book—to study it until I really and truly understand it, both on a macro and, to some degree, a micro level; to learn how it fits in the sweep of redemptive history; and to learn how it applies to my life here and now. Meanwhile, my prayers will continue to be based around a “concentric circle” model I developed some time ago where each day my prayers have a different focus. I begin the week focusing on myself and in subsequent days focus on immediate family, extended family, church family, neighborhood, nation and world.

What difference has it made? It is still too early to tell, I suppose, but in the weeks or months since I changed my focus from sandbox to campaign, I’ve found a renewed sense of determination and interest in the Bible. Within the context of a campaign rather than a sandbox I am finding that I have found greater enjoyment in reading and studying the Bible and that I am gaining more from it. Suddenly there seems to be a wider story, a greater purpose. I’m out to conquer and somehow that seems to make a difference.

July 13, 2008

This is just about my favorite time of day. The house is quiet and no one else awake. It allows me a few minutes to myself—time I use every day to read the Bible and pray. I know that in a few minutes the family will begin to stir. Nick and Abby will wake up and Michaela will not be far behind. It won’t be long before the quiet is punctuated by their childish squabbles over who gets to eat what or who gets to sit where. I can pretty well count on this.

A little bit after nine, we will head to church. Here we’ll enjoy a time of worship and fellowship with a group of our favorite people. Though we love them dearly, I’m quite sure we’ll see evidence of sin in their lives—we’ll hear people say things they shouldn’t say and see them do things they shouldn’t do. After church we’ll head to the home of some friends to spend the afternoon with them and, once again, I’m sure there will be plenty of evidence of sin in their lives and in ours. We’ll return to church in the late afternoon to once more hear a sinful brother preach what I’m sure will be an excellent but somehow-imperfect sermon. And after it all, we’ll head home. And as we do, you can be sure that there will be more sin, more fighting or complaining or temptation to say things that just have no business being said.

All day we will see the evidence of sin in others around us. It is inevitable, is it not? How are we to react to such sin? It is here that Jonathan Edwards offers a valuable resolution and one that I hope will be in my mind and on my heart as I see so much sin today. I trust that you will benefit from reading it and pondering it as well.

Resolved, To act, in all respects, both speaking and doing, as if nobody had been so vile as I, and as if I had committed the same sins, or had the same infirmities or failings, as others, and that I will let the knowledge of their failings promote nothing but shame in myself, and prove only an occasion of my confessing my own sins and misery to God.

July 10, 2008

Last summer we vacationed at a cottage on the shores of Lake Erie, a couple of hours away from home. It was a fun place to be, but by the end of our week there the water had turned bad with huge piles of seaweed and algae plugging the beach. This is apparently quite common along that stretch of shore and we decided we would not return in case we found the beach unusable for our whole vacation (as did our neighbors who spent time there a couple of weeks after we did). As we examined our options this year we thought it might be fun to stay at home and to focus on day trips. The advantage is that we will not be paying for accommodations, saving us some money and free up funds to do other fun things; the disadvantage is that we will not be paying for accommodations; instead we will be staying at home which is where “real life” happens. This may mean that the vacation is not as relaxing as we had hoped. Time will tell. I’m taking the first week of vacation this week and will take another one later this month.

I spent the first two days of vacation mostly staring at the walls. Or something. I’m not quite sure what happened, but the days just disappeared.

Yesterday we spent a great day on the first of our day trips. We began by heading for the Buffalo Zoo. While Toronto has a world-class zoo, it is too large to traverse with a two-year old and tends to be very busy. Buffalo is smaller (it takes about two hours to see all of the animals) and is not nearly so crowded. Though the Toronto Zoo is definitely far superior in terms of the quality of its exhibits and the diversity of the animals, we found the Buffalo experience quite enjoyable. It was an overcast day and there were occasional showers. These factors combined to keep a lot of people away and at times it seemed like we had the place almost to ourselves. It was great.

When we ran out of things to see at the zoo we drove around Buffalo until we found a place to eat (McDonalds, as it happened—the kids chose) and then we headed to nearby Niagara Falls. We crossed the bridge to the Canadian side of the Falls (if you’ve ever been you’ll know that the Canadian side offers far superior views) and found a place to park for a “mere” $20. That’s right—$20 to park to see the Falls. Most of Niagara Falls is a tourist trap, where the prices are grossly inflated ($6.75 for a small ice cream?!). The place is always crawling with tourists and it was interesting to note that just about every tribe and tongue and nation must be represented at any given moment. We chose not to pay for any of the over-priced and over-crowded rides, movies and other attractions and just enjoyed staring at the raw power of the Falls themselves. And, of course, the kids enjoyed getting wet in the ever-present mist stirred up by the churning water hundreds of feet below. We returned home tired but thankful for a good day.

That was our first day trip and we expect to have quite a few others. We are going to spend at least one day at Marineland (a theme park that also has whales and dolphins, etc) and no doubt a day or two at a beach. Beyond that we are not quite sure where else we will go and what else the summer will hold.

I do know that today I’ll be spending a lot of time up to my elbows in an aquarium. I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned this on the site, but I have a 60-gallon show tank that Aileen graciously allows me to keep in the living room. A couple of years ago I happened upon a local store that sells aquariums and tropical fish and decided I wanted to give the hobby a shot. When I found the tank on sale, I snatched it up and decided to go freshwater rather than saltwater, primarily because I was really taken with the look of a planted aquarium.

In the last year I’ve found that I truly do enjoy working with the aquarium and have been trying my hand at keeping different fish and growing different plants. At this point I’m ready to convert my rather haphazard efforts into something with more continuity and more order. So over the next couple of days I am going to replace the substrate (bound to be a rather awful job) and will replant each of the plants. It’s going to be long and messy but will hopefully reap dividends (and I’m not sure yet how I’ll dispose of almost 100 pounds of gravel that I no longer have a use for). I am planning on trying to do something in the Iwagumi or Nature Aquarium styles that will no doubt evolve as time goes on.

Once the substrate is replaced, I will be adding a CO2 injection system (assuming it shows up in the mail soon as it is supposed to) which should work wonders with the plants. And then it becomes a process of sitting back and waiting for the plants to grow. I can’t wait!

I’ve also promised Nick that I’ll play a game of Risk with him today, so I’d better get going. I’ve got lots to do…

July 06, 2008

Today I continue posting memoirs (see here for more), little tidbits of my life experience.


Since the first grade I’ve been a student at Willowdale Christian School and I’ve come to enjoy the place as much as a boy can ever enjoy his school. But here, just a few weeks into seventh grade, I am saying goodbye to my classmates. My father has decided to spend a few years studying in the Free Church of Scotland seminary in Edinburgh and, of course, the rest of the family will be going along for the adventure. Already mom and dad have taken the long flight to Scotland and have found us an apartment to live in until we can find a house of our own. My classmates present me with a big coffee table book about my city, the city of Toronto. They all write their names in the front cover, along with inscriptions that must seem awfully witty to adolescents. I don’t cry as I walk out of that school for the last time.

The next day we are off, boarding a British Airways 747 that will take us to Heathrow Airport; there we will need to catch a 757 for the short hop to Edinburgh. Many hours and many time zones later, we touch down in our new city and load all of our bags into a cab. Our furniture and other possessions will follow in a shipping container. The cab takes us almost to the downtown core and drops us outside a nice little apartment block that we will call home for several weeks. I crawl into bed and do not awaken until mid-afternoon the next day. Very quickly I discover a nearby bakery that serves the most delicious cream buns. We explore the city, slowly finding what there is to see and do. We particularly enjoy the Edinburgh Zoo with its daily penguin parade where the ridiculous creatures march in a line along the pathways outside their enclosure. We explore Edinburgh Castle and visit many sites of great importance to church history. In the evenings we sit and watch as the crowds from the nearby football stadium march through the streets, drunk and obnoxious as they make their ways home to sleep off the gallons of beer they’ve consumed.

Eventually my parents find us a house in the suburb of Davidson’s Mains. Though the bakery is too far away now, I do find a wonderful fish and chips shop and a world-class candy shop that sells what must be the world’s best wine gums (still and always about the best candy a person can buy). I find that I am to begin school at the local public school. After visiting a clothing shop, where I get outfitted with dress pants, blazers, vests, crests, ties and shoes, I face my first day at the new school. Though shy and reserved, I eventually make a couple of friends and sometimes invite them to my home to play Subbuteo.

But the school is now what I am accustomed to. I fear violence in the school and often witness fights. I am told that carrying a backpack with the wrong team logo on it is sufficient to bring about a beating. Anti-Americanism is rife in the school and many people aren’t able or willing to distinguish between Canada and the U.S.. Ironically, even while anti-Americanism is a strong force in the school and in the country, American television and movies are widely admired and the boys in school even trade NFL trading cards. My parents learn of The American School of Edinburgh, a school for Americans working abroad, and enroll me there for my second term. As it is a much smaller school, I feel far more comfortable there. It helps that immediately across from the school is a restaurant that serves amazing baked potatoes with the topping of your choice.

It is at this school that I meet Bryan, an American boy from Alaska who is just about my age and whose father is an executive with an oil company. They are in Scotland for a few years and the company pays each of them—even the kids—a handsome allowance. Bryan and I become good friends and his constant wealth provides well for both of us. He and I often venture into the nearby areas, exploring as boys do. We venture off to Cramond Island, an island separated from the mainland by a causeway that is exposed only during low tide. Those who remain too long on the island will find themselves trapped there until evening. We spend one enjoyable day there though we make the mistake of shedding our jackets and leaving them in what we are convinced is a safe place. When we return to gather them, after exploring the Second World War-era gun emplacements left on the island, they are gone. We search far and wide and cannot find them. Eventually we are forced to hurry home through the rising tide lest we find ourselves stuck on the island.

We have difficulty finding a solid church here in the land of Presbyterianism. After some searching we do find one all the way across the city—a Free Church of Scotland. Because we do not have a car, we catch a series of buses early on Sunday morning and worship far from home. The church is very traditional and when visiting with members of the congregation we are required to treat the Sabbath entirely different from every other day. We may not talk about “secular” enjoyments on that day; we may go walking but we must not play; we spend much of the day talking about Scripture and studying the Catechism. Some mornings, when weather or other factors keep us from traveling across the city, we attend a nearby Church of Scotland. However, when we attend a Christmas service and are forced to sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus, I decide never to return and face such humiliation.

As the school year draws to a close, my father realizes that there is a seminary in Canada that might better suit his needs. He and the rest of the family will spend most of the summer in Scotland before heading home just on time to begin the new school year in Canada. Thoroughly fed up with my Scottish experience, I ask my parents if they will send me home early. And so I find myself flying home alone to spend the summer with my good friend Paul. Though I miss my family, from whom I’ve never been separated for so long, Paul and I pass a long and joyous summer as brothers, or nearly brothers, doing what boys do.

June 30, 2008

A.W. Tozer has been in the news lately (or in the blogosphere at any rate) following the release of A Passion for God, a biography of the man written by Lyle Dorsett. Dorsett dealt honestly with some shortcomings in Tozer’s character and I, like many readers, was surprised (and perhaps even shocked) by some of what I learned. Yet even as I’ve thought about these things, I’ve found that my high respect for Tozer remains. Much of what he taught continues to resound in my mind. Here is just one example of this.

Tozer premises The Knowledge of the Holy, probably his best-loved book, on the now-famous statement that “what comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” While he does not provide a Scripture reference to back this claim (I don’t recall a verse that states, “God spake thus: what thou believest about me is the most important thing about thee…”) I believe he is correct in this assertion. After all, “the history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, and man’s spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God.” If no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God, the same is true of individuals. We can never rise above our idea of God.

Why is this important? As Tozer says, “We tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God…Always the most revealing thing about the Church is her idea of God, just as her most significant message is what she says about Him or leaves unsaid, for her silence is often more eloquent than her speech. She can never escape the self-disclosure of her witness concerning God.” And he is right, for once we have decided who God is, we chase after that image of God. It is, then, critically important that we learn about who God is through the Scripture, for this is His self-disclosure. Otherwise, we move towards a fabricated and false image of God. We put aside the real thing and chase after a mere shadow.

And here are words that gripped me and have long given me food for thought: “Were we able to extract from any man a complete answer to the question, ‘What comes into your mind when you think about God?’ we might predict with certainty the spiritual future of that man. Were we able to know exactly what our most influential religious leaders think of God today, we might be able with some precision to foretell where the church will stand tomorrow.” This is a sobering though, for when we survey the leaders of the church today we will find a vast variety of views on God, many of which are clearly unbiblical. We have “Christian” leaders who deny the Trinity and others who deny the atonement. We have leaders who, it seems, must never have stopped to seriously consider just what they think of God. There are many followers who have likewise never stopped to consider who God is, what He has done, and what He demands of us. And as we can see where the church will be led in the future, we can look at the leaders of families, men like myself, and understand where we will take our families. When I survey my heart and ask what comes to mind when I think about God, I will know where my family will stand tomorrow.

It is my opinion,” writes Tozer, “that the Christian conception of God current in these middle years of the twentieth century is so decadent as to be utterly beneath the dignity of the Most High God and actually to constitute for professed believers something amounting to a moral calamity.” If this was true of the middle of the last century, how much more true is it in the early years of the current century? And yet, “All the problems of heaven and earth, though they were to confront us together and at once, would be nothing compared with the overwhelming problem of God: That He is; what He is like; and what we as moral beings must do about Him.” But still many Christians do not think deeply about God, about what He is like, or about what we must do about Him. “I believe there is scarcely an error in doctrine or a failure in applying Christian ethics that cannot be traced finally to imperfect and ignoble thoughts about God.”

This is a serious matter. “Before the Christian church goes into eclipse anywhere there must first be a corrupting of her simple basic theology. She simply gets a wrong answer to the question, ‘What is God like?’ and goes on from there. Though she may continue to cling to a sound nominal creed, her practical working creed has become false. The masses of her adherents come to believe that God is different from what He actually is; and that is heresy of the most insidious and deadly kind.”

And here is Tozer’s charge: “The heaviest obligation lying upon the Christian Church today is to purify and elevate her concept of God until it is once more worth of Him—and of her. In all her prayers and labors this should have first place. We do the greatest service to the next generation of Christians by passing on to them undimmed and undiminished that noble concept of God which we received from our Hebrew and Christian fathers of generations past. This will prove of greater value to them than anything that art or science can devise.”

Having read these words and having pondered them, I see, more clearly than ever, the importance of placing myself and my family under the leadership of spiritual leaders who have a high and biblical view of God. If nothing is more telling and more important than what comes into my mind when I think about God, it must also be critically important that I learn from men who think deeply about God and who humble themselves under His word. And I see the importance of being the kind of spiritual leader who has a conception of God that is worthy of God. This task of learning who God is through his self-revelation in Scripture, and honoring Him as He really is, is the greatest service I can do to my family and to its future generations.

June 29, 2008

Several times a day a train rumbles along the tracks that cross our street—Eureka Street—just a few houses up from our home at number thirty-eight. It is a passenger train, one made up of a long string of double-decker cars. In the morning it shuttles commuters from Markham and Unionville into downtown Toronto and in the evening it brings them home again. In the morning it drives with the engine at the front; in the evening the engine is at the back, pushing from behind. Occasionally a freight train comes through at night. Though visitors to our home insist it wakes them up and sounds as if a locomotive is driving right through the yard, I have long since grown accustomed to it and barely notice it anymore.

Beside the track is an old freight yard or something—I never really learn what it is. Giant oil tanks stand behind a beat-up old chain link fence. My friends and I have little trouble passing through the fence and there we find huge puddles, ponds almost, filled with frogs and tadpoles. We collect as many as we can and bring them home in pails, watching them sprout legs and eventually hop away. One day the old man next door, the grandfather to one of my friends, tells us that the puddles are filled with lime and that if we ever step in them we’ll need to have our legs cut off. We never go back there again and eventually the old tanks are torn down and carted away.

I find a way of making a little bit of money from the train. I get it in my head one day to put a quarter on the track and to let the train run over it. Sure enough the train’s wheels pass over that coin and leave it smashed flat. I take it to school and the kids are jealous. I tell them that I can do the same for them, but it will cost them. The next day I am back with a whole row of coins, but I’ve charged each of those kids for the privilege of having their coins pounded beneath the train. I’m seven years old and a budding entrepreneur. I use my windfall to buy gum, baseball cards and little styrofoam airplanes. I feel rich.

One day I am biking down the road and have to stop at the crossing as a train goes by. Another boy who looks about my age stops his bike beside me. I vaguely recognize his face, but cannot place him. He looks at me; I look at him. “Got a staring problem?” I jeer at him. He insists he doesn’t and we begin to talk. I soon recognize him from a local camp I went to. His name is Paul. He gives me his address and telephone number and I run home and write them down. A few days later I go to his house, which is only a short distance away, and a friendship is born. Though we do not go to the same school or the same church, Paul and I become the best of friends. At my wedding some fourteen years later, he serves as my best man. There is never any question.

Paul and I have the kind of friendship every boy should experience. Though we are very different in many ways, we have so many of the same interests. He and I both love anything that involves soldiers and guns and destruction. We pretend endlessly that we are soldiers, creeping through my big backyard with guns at the ready, taking fake potshots with fake guns at the real planes that fly over on their way to the nearby airport; we play baseball in the court outside his house, using tennis equipment to make the ball go further and tearing up his lawn as we slide hard into home plate; we build whole worlds out of Lego. We play mostly at his house because where I have three noisy younger sisters, he has only one quiet older brother. It’s an easy decision and we try as often as we can to get away from the little girls. I learn to love his family and they come to love me, referring to me affectionately as their “third son.”

Paul is a good friend, and a best friend, though eventually life begins to take us in different directions. I marry and become preoccupied with my family; Paul moves far away to Thunder Bay and begins life anew in the north. Though we see each other only rarely today, when we do meet up we never lack for things to talk about. There are just so many memories to recall and to relive together. I pray that my son is so blessed as to someday have a friend like Paul.

June 27, 2008

Over the past few weeks I’ve been writing down some memories. It has been a fun process of just thinking about the past and recording some significant events and moments. While I’ll probably post them mostly on weekends, I thought it would be fun to post this one today. I see this as a testament to God’s grace in my life that so much as changed.


It is the worst day of my life. Today I will have to stand before my classmates and deliver a speech. I am shy—almost unbearably shy. I never, ever raise my hand in class to answer questions. When the teacher’s eyes roam the room looking for a person who can answer a question, I cringe and hide behind the person ahead of me, doing anything, anything, to avoid eye contact. When I know my turn is coming, I almost panic, sweat beading on my forehead and my face blushing crimson. And today I will be called upon to stand in front of my classmates and a panel of parents to give a speech. It’s almost more than I can bear.

I know my speech is good. I’ve chosen to discuss and to refute evolution, rather a safe topic in a Christian school. My mother pitched in to help me gather and organize my material and I am confident that the content is as good as anyone’s in the class. We’ve even consulted Nancy and Rick Pearcey, our good friends who are well-versed on the subject. I’ve got funny illustrations about millions of monkeys banging away at millions of typewriters; I’ve got fascinating facts about the absurdities of evolution and the truths of Scripture. I have memorized the speech so I will not be dependent upon my notes. If I can just deliver the content well, I am convinced that I am likely to win the competition (a mixed blessing, to be sure, since this would then earn me the dubious privilege of competing against the best of the other local Christian schools).

I watch as a couple of classmates deliver their speeches with mixed results. Some are disorganized while others have clearly neglected preparation. A couple stumble for words and repeat their speeches in voices that are only barely audible. My hearts beats faster as I realize that we are closer and closer to my time. Finally my name is called and I slip to the front of the class, my eyes firmly fixed on the carpet. I reach the front and look out at the rows of desks, and behind them, the panel of judges. My heart rate increases. I don’t know if I can do this.

Teachers, judges and classmates…” With my heart in my throat I begin my speech, stumbling a little at first but soon speaking a little more smoothly. I may have expected that it would get easier as I go, that I would stop noticing all of those eyes staring back at me. But it does not get any easier. Finally, finally, after what seems like hours, I make it to the end of my speech. I glance at the clock. Uh oh. When I timed my speech at home it had come in at around fifteen minutes; yet only five minutes have passed since I began. And already I am finished. Lots of people are smiling; a few are laughing. The Principal makes a crack that I do not hear and everyone laughs. I sit down, mortified, as one of my classmates says something about the “Micro Machine Man.”

My speech, my wonderful speech, is an absolute ruin. Because the content was sound, I still manage to pull of an acceptable mark. But the judges later tell me that if only I had slowed down and given the speech in an intelligible voice, I would have been a finalist. I would have had a good chance of winning.

I realize that day that I am not cut out for public speaking. It reaffirms that I will not answer questions in class and that I’ll continue to be the back-row guy that no one notices. I do not stand before a crowd or give another speech for fifteen years.

June 15, 2008

Several years ago I wrote a little Father’s Day article for my dad and called it “Working Man Hands.” This year I took the opportunity to lengthen and improve the article and then submitted it to Boundless Magazine. They were pleased to print it at their site. I thought you might enjoy it. It goes like this:

Like most little boys, I idolized my father as a child. You would have had a difficult time convincing me that there was anyone smarter, faster or stronger than my dad. I really did believe it when I told my friends “my dad can beat up your dad!”

And it may well have been true.

Dad was a landscaper, after all, and for eight months of every year he spent just about every waking hour hauling loads of soil from his truck to the gardens and heaving enormous rocks to make sure they looked just right. Though this took an obvious physical toll on Dad, it left him stronger than an ox.

I loved to wrestle with my dad. With my sisters I used to yell, “Can we beat you up tonight, Dad?” But when we used to stage our little battles, we could make no headway against him. Though I would run at him and hit him with all that I had, even with a full head of steam I could not knock him off-balance. With my three sisters swarming around him, hanging onto his legs and wrapped around his neck, we were still no match. He would grab us with his rough, leathery hands, give us a whisker rub with his day’s growth of beard, and toss us aside like we were barely even there.

I’ll never forget his hands — those rock hard hands. They were working man hands…

Continue Reading at Boundless.

June 11, 2008

The term “planned neglect” is one I first encountered around the time that Hurricane Katrina swept over the Gulf Coast. It came to the fore for a time in the media when locals, dismayed at the way the disaster was handled, charged various levels of government with planned neglect, insisting that the city had not been merely killed but had been murdered. Neglect, planned by the government, had led to the death of the city. But there is more to planned neglect than mere politics. I think “planned neglect” (or the similar “deliberate neglect”) is a principle that Christians would do well to consider. It is a discipline that can benefit anyone.

The principle is illustrated in a story I’ve often been told of a famous concert violinist who played in New York’s Carnegie Hall. When asked how she had become so skillful, she replied that it was through planned neglect. “I decide every day that I will neglect things and even people, that would take me away from the priority of practicing.” She was focused on a particular end and was willing to neglect whatever did not lead to that end.

Jesus sometimes displayed small cases of planned neglect in his ministry. When told that his friend Lazarus was dying, Jesus did not immediately rush to his side, but tarried where he was for several days. When he finally did arrive, Lazarus was already dead and buried. Mary and Martha both cried to Jesus “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Yet Jesus had planned this neglect. Jesus wept by the tomb of his friend. For three days He had deliberately neglected his own feelings; surely He desired to rush to Bethany to protect his friend and his friend’s sisters from the pain of illness, death and separation. Still, this was not His Father’s will. Jesus knew that “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” And so the Son would be glorified, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, calling him out of the tomb. His planned neglect furthered the Father’s plan by bringing glory to Him.

What is true of this concert violinist and of Jesus is true of many of history’s greatest Christians. Biographies of great Christian men and women are filled with examples of what they have deliberately neglected in order to pursue their callings from God. Missionaries have neglected the comforts and safeties of their homelands in order to take the gospel to the far corners of the world. Pastors have neglected careers that would have been far easier and would have come with far more generous financial rewards. Countless Christians have neglected hobbies or passions that would have taken time better spent dedicated to serving the Lord or learning about Him.

I have often been challenged by the concept of planned neglect, and especially so when I read biographies. I tend to live a pretty comfortable life and tend to follow the desires of my heart. I am often not strong enough to neglect things that draw me away from responsibilities that are less pressing but far more important. And yet sometimes God works in me to realize that there are certain things I can live without. My passion for football is fading in direct proportion to the growth of my family, so that Sunday afternoons can be more of a time to spend with family and less of a time to spend lying on the couch. My desire to watch television in the evenings has also decreased so I can spend that time more profitably. While God has helped in this, I have had to deliberately choose to neglect things that I love. I’m grateful that God has worked in me to allow me to do this.

There remains much for me to do. I continue to find new and creative ways to waste time. I continue to spend far too much time doing what is useless and what profits nothing. I continue to plan what I must neglect next. I trust that God will continue to show me what I must neglect and that He will empower me to do so.

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