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Tim Challies

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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.

June 07, 2008

A couple of months ago my son got his first job—a paper route. Three times a week he loads a stack of Oakville Beaver’s in a wagon and drags it around the neighborhood. The Saturday and Wednesday papers are typically pretty small. Fridays, though, are when all the fliers are released upon the local population. There are typically six or seven of them—the regulars: Best Buy, local grocery stores and maybe Staples and a sports store. But the week before special occasions, the number of fliers can grow exponentially.

Yesterday, the lead-up to Father’s Day, was by far the most we’ve had to deal with. The papers were so thick with all of the fliers that we had to get the whole family stuffing, rolling and elasticing the papers to keep them from exploding all over the neighborhood. I couldn’t help but notice that almost every one of those fliers had something on it about Father’s Day. The electronics stores were out in force, trying to get mom to buy a TV or a Blu-ray player or a Playstation 3 for dad; the grocery stores were featuring steaks and ribs; the big box stores were selling barbecues and tools. Every store wanted a piece of the family’s financial pie for this Father’s Day.

Looking for evidence as to who benefits most from Father’s Day? Look no further than your local newspaper. Here are the fliers from ours:

Fathers Day

(And, ironically enough, look just below this post and you’ll see…you guessed it…an ad for Father’s Day stuff at Amazon).

May 30, 2008

I returned home last night from my final conference of the year (or of the spring season, at least). At this point I’ve got only one tentative date on my calendar through the rest of 2008. While I’ve thoroughly enjoyed going to this year’s conferences, I’m not sorry to have a rather barren travel schedule for a while. Looking back at my calendar I can see that this spring I was in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Florida and Tennessee.

I enjoyed the Banner of Truth experience. It’s certainly unique as the conferences go, with a very conservative constituency, yet a very vibrant faith obviously active in the hearts of those in attendance. It was good to revisit some old hymns and Psalms I haven’t sung for many years and to catch up with some old friends I haven’t seen for just as long. Yesterday my friend Steve Burlew, who heads up Banner in the U.S. drove me over to the Banner offices and warehouse and it was good just to poke around there for a few minutes. In case you are not aware, they have an extensive “damaged book” section there where you can get some really good deals on books that have been damaged. The damage may include nothing more than the tiniest tear on the jacket, yet it will get you a great discount. If you’re ever in the area, it’s worth dropping in just to look for a bargain.

May Giveaway Winners

This morning I sent out an email announcing the winners of the May giveaway. The following three people have won the Monergism Books gift certificates (and will need to send me an email to claim them!):

  1. Rick Aldrich
  2. Mike Driskill
  3. Christa Allan

The Seven Sayings

I apologize to those who are reading with me The Seven Sayings of the Saviour on the Cross. As I was traveling yesterday I did not manage to post my reflections on the chapter. I had good intentions but they just didn’t work out. I’ll pick up again next Thursday.

This Site

I’m hoping that by next week this site can return to normal, whatever normal means in this context. I apologize that the content around here has been just a bit “light” over the past week or two.