Welcome to the online home of Tim Challies, blogger, author, and book reviewer.

Tim Challies

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August 31, 2008

In the past months the server that hosts this site has been dragging a little bit. It has gone down a few times and has begin consuming too many resources. And so I’ve decided to move to a new server with a host that is dedicated to supporting Movabletype, the software that runs behind the scenes here. While I was going through all the trouble of moving to the new server, I decided to rebuild the site’s templates from the ground-up (or nearly so) and to tinker just a little bit with the site’s features and design. I also upgraded to the latest version of the software.

And so by this morning most of you should be seeing the site on its new server. I, on the other hand, am still waiting for the changes to “take” and continue to see the old site.

There are a few new features on this site you may like to know about:

At long last I changed around the top banner. Gone is the lonely winter tree. As much as I love the image, I think a year was long enough for it to be there. In its place is a chair. Yup, a chair. This will, of course, be utterly irrelevant to those of you who read via RSS!

You can now create an account on the site. This will be useful to those of you who comment regularly. The account will mean you can sign in and not have to continually enter your username, email address, and so on. It also gives you the ability to track your old comments, to track other people’s comments, etc. The page where you do all of this is still be perfected, so you’ll have to give me some time in that regard.

The front page has been simplified a little bit (since it was getting a bit cluttered). I removed much of what was there and replaced it with a poll/survey and ActionStream (which tracks what I do in other places on the web—Digg, Twitter, and so on). I removed A La Carte from the sidebar and it is now in the same time line as the other posts.

There are quite a few other changes that are sufficiently insignificant that they are probably not worth mentioning.

Beyond these changes, I expect things to continue here pretty much as they have for the past six years.

August 04, 2008

It is a holiday in most parts of Canada today. It is known as the “Civic Holiday” throughout the nation and may have other names assigned locally (such as “Simcoe Day” in Toronto). It is one of those holidays that seems to have been created mostly just for the joy of having a summer day away from the office. We’re not complaining. We’ve decided to make this a quiet day and we have no plans to run to any of the area’s tourist attractions, the only kind of businesses that will be open today.

Last week we actually made a rare venture to one of these spots. Marineland is Canada’s answer to SeaWorld. It combines roller coasters and rides with dolphins and whales. After riding the coasters and ferris wheels you can feed the bears and watch the dolphin and whale shows. (You can buy Corn Pops to feed the bears—throwing it down on them from about 15 feet up. Poor bears) It’s a fair bit of fun as it needs to be when it costs a family of four $160 to get in. I had no intention of riding the roller coasters or going on any of the rides. But we had a young Aussie guy hanging out with us for a few days and he wanted to ride a coaster—the world’s largest steel roller coaster, apparently. I told him I’d walk with him to the start of the ride to gauge how long the wait was going to be. After I walked all the way up there I was feeling too prideful to walk the pathway back, with all the people no doubt laughing at me as if I’d been too scared. So I rode the ride after all and even enjoyed it a bit. But my favorite part of the day was watching those whales and dolphins performing. It is amazing to me that with nothing but a whistle and a hand signal, humans can make whales and dolphins and seals and walruses and just about any other animal do the craziest things.

Throughout the summer those of us who attend Grace Fellowship Church have been enjoying a summer series on the book of James. The pastor’s assistant Julian is preaching in the absence of our pastor who is on sabbatical. In the last couple of weeks we’ve been studying the well-known words of James 3. “For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” I couldn’t help but think of those words as I watched the whales jump and splash and kiss spectators. And I couldn’t help but think of those whales as we read the words in church yesterday morning. Human ingenuity has taught us to tame even whales so we can climb into a pool and swim with them and so with nothing more than a whistle we can make animals so much vastly bigger and stronger than we are do our bidding. And yet, as we saw those whales obey the command to splash the crowd, we heard swearing and cursing; we saw people lashing out in anger and frustration. Everywhere we looked we saw the evidence that James is exactly right.

Every beast and bird, every reptile and sea creature can be tamed. But that tongue remains a “restless evil, full of deadly poison.”

July 27, 2008

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

Chaffeys Locks is one of the most beautiful spots in all of Ontario. Perched between two small lakes that are part of the Rideau Lakes system, it is a historic town founded by William Chaffey in 1816. He established a milling business there, at the swift-flowing rapids that separated Indian Lake from Opinicon Lake. Sadly, in 1827 he died of malaria, leaving behind a thriving business. His wife sold the land and businesses to Colonel John By, the man tasked with building the Rideau Canal that would connect Kingston, on the edge of Lake Ontario, with Ottawa, far inland, and beyond that to Montreal. This would avoid the perilous St. Lawrence River route that was constantly patrolled by American ships. In 1831 work was completed on a lock that raises boast almost 11 feet as they pass from one lake to the next.

By the turn of the century, with the canal no longer integral to Canada’s national defense, the lakes became attractive to tourists from local cities. Around mid-century, a man with the last name Challies purchased the better part of an acre of land along the shores of Indian Lake. A short ways away from the existing house he built a log cabin. Family lore has long insisted that the logs for this cabin were pillaged from Ontario’s stocks of telephone poles. Because of the long, beautiful vista looking west over the lake, he called it Sunset Lodge.

I spend my first summer at our cottage at Chaffeys Locks the summer before I am born. Because mom has lost two babies between my older brother and me, she lies on the sofa every afternoon and will not budge until she feels her baby move. The 1976 summer Olympics are on. Someone has brought a television to the cottage and somehow it picks up the CBC broadcast. She lies and watches the broadcast until I oblige and race around her stomach, doing twists and backflips and somersaults. Mom never has long to wait.

I spend every summer of my young life at the cottage. Sometimes we are there for only a week or two and other times we are there for weeks at a stretch. While my family moves with fair frequency and we live in house after house, the cottage remains a constant. Nothing ever changes there. The furniture inside is the furniture that has been there since the day I was born. The neighbors are the neighbors that have lived there for generations. It is always the same.

There is only one summer that I do not want to be there. I have fallen in love with a pretty brown-haired girl. We may not yet have formalized our relationship as boyfriend and girlfriend, but already I can’t imagine being away from her for two weeks. My parents, wanting to have Aileen and I keep a little bit of distance and knowing that we will not have too many more vacations together as a family, demand that I come with them. After two days at the cottage I take matters into my own hands. It is a move of desperation, I suppose. I go looking for things I’m allergic to—dust, pollen and whatever else I can find. I inhale whatever I can and rub it in my eyes. Soon I’m gasping for breath with tears pouring down my cheeks. I explain to my parents that my allergies are just too bad. They agree that I should catch a Greyhound bus back home and I do just that.

In 2005, with the cottage’s three owners (my father, his brother and his sister) scattering to the four winds and no longer able to visit often enough to justify the expenses of maintenance, they decide to sell it. I spend my last summer in Chaffeys Lock, enjoying the beautiful location with my wife and my children, the fifth generation of Challies’ to vacation there. And then I bid a fond farewell to that spot on earth I have come to love more than any other. I leave the property whispering a quiet prayer that when the new earth comes, maybe, just maybe, God would be so gracious as to grant me that same little strip of lakefront property on the shores of Indian Lake.

July 19, 2008

It’s funny how Saturdays, a day of fun and relaxation when I was young, have turned into days of busyness. Early in the day I had to put on my coach’s hat to lead my son’s team through a baseball practice. No sooner had we returned home from that than Aileen had to run my daughter to a birthday party. This afternoon will be spent, least in part, preparing lunch for a crowd we’re having back to the house tomorrow. Saturdays are a good day, to be sure, but they sure aren’t quite as empty as I remember them being as a kid.

Here’s a quote I dug up recently. It is a good one and perhaps particularly so on such a busy day. It comes from a letter missionary Robert Moffat wrote to his wife.

It was only yesterday, after laying down the Bible, that I wondered what kind of mind I would have had if I had not the Book of God, the Book containing the astounding idea of ‘from everlasting to everlasting,’ the development of all that is worth knowing … One would think, that as I have critically and, I think, devoutly read and examined every verse, every word in the Bible, some a score of times over, I should not require to open the pages of that unspeakable blessed Book. Alas, for the human memory! I read the Bible today with the same feeling I ever did, like the hungry when seeking food, the thirsty when seeking drink, the bewildered when seeking counsel and the mourner when seeking comfort. Don’t you believe all this? For alas, I read it sometimes as a formal thing, though my heart condemns me afterwards … I am yet astonished at my own ignorance of the Bible!

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…