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Tim Challies

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June 03, 2012

Today my parents and brothers and sisters and brothers-in-law and nieces and nephews are gathering in a little house in Chattanooga. Forty years ago today, the third of June of 1972, was a double celebration for my parents: my father marked his twenty-third birthday and he married my mother. Both had been born and raised in Quebec, one of the most unchurched areas in all of North America, yet against all odds both had recently encountered the gospel and been saved. Fresh out of university, they began life together. Andrew, my older brother, came into the world almost a year after they were married, and he was soon followed by me and then by three girls. By the time my parents celebrated their fifteenth anniversary, they had five children.

Today four of those children have settled in Atlanta or Chattanooga or somewhere between, while one, this one, remains in Canada. Four children are married and between us we have been blessed with children of our own—twelve grandchildren for my parents (with one of my sisters having recently announced that number thirteen is on the way). The Lord has been so kind to my family.

As I ponder forty years of marriage, more than thirty-six of which I witnessed either up-close or from some distance, I find myself wondering this: How do you measure success as parents? What is a fair and realistic measure? Is it subjective, based on thoughts and feelings and impressions? Is it objective, based on numbers and statistics and dollar figures? I don’t know. What I do know is that the Bible provides a simple and overarching command to every parent: raise your children in the discipline and the instruction of the Lord. According to that measure my parents experienced an abundance of the Lord’s grace and were successful. Today each one of the five children professes faith in Christ and each one is living as if that profession is genuine.

Yesterday I sat for some time and pondered their success. I looked to my own life and my own parenting to see what lessons I’ve drawn from my parents and applied to my own family. There are four that stood out.

October 25, 2010

I’ve now written two articles about how I got here (part one and part two). I sat down to write about the background to this site—the events that led to its beginning—and got a little distracted along the way. Today I’ll actually get to the heart of the story.

I ended the last article in September 2000, at the point where Aileen and I (and our baby son) moved to Oakville. As we did so, we left behind the Dutch Reformed tradition—the only tradition we had really known. We had a few weeks’ worth of experience in the Baptist world but no more. I had never read a Christian book, at least to my memory, but had a background of strong, Reformational theology.

For almost a year we bounced from church-to-church in the Oakville area. We attended a couple of them for an extended period of time (a few months) but in both cases found the churches hopelessly shallow and largely disinterested. We did not have the vocabulary to describe them beyond just being shallow. The sermons were short and topical, the services focused on things other than the Bible. We made no friendships and found no fellowship, even after attending one of these churches for four or five months (literally, we didn’t have anyone show even the least bit of interest in us).

It was just about a year later that we received a card in the mail announcing the start of a new church, a Baptist church, that would meet in a high school near our home. We liked the idea of being involved in something new and exciting and decided we would check it out. It was a Southern Baptist church and one that was meant to be the starting point of a whole church planting movement that would blanket the Toronto area and, eventually, all of Canada. We went to their very first service and were immediately intrigued. The theology seemed sound enough but what really drew us was the emphasis on mission, on being part of a movement that would be dedicated to spreading the gospel. We had never heard of anything like it. But as soon as we did, we were hooked. We were very eager to take an emphasis on mission over an emphasis on theology. In fact, we now believed that Reformed theology was inherently anti-evangelistic.

This was a church we could get behind and we soon settled in and became members. We joined a small group and found deep, meaningful, lasting friendships there. These were exciting times. The church grew quickly, soon passing the 100 mark and then reaching toward 150 (which is amazing growth in a Canadian context). The church soon planted several others, beginning this movement that would transform Canada.

It was around this time, late 2002, that I registered the domain challies.com. My parents had recently moved to the U.S. and I wanted to have a family site through which I could share photographs of the kids. And so I grabbed the family name and set up a site. Being a budding web designer, I used it as a test ground to try out some new designs and new methods. At one point I decided to write an article or two. In one of his sermons, our pastor mentioned Mother Teresa in a positive sense, using her as an example of true Christian virtue. I looked into her and wrote an article I titled The Myth of Mother Teresa. I enjoyed doing that writing and eventually wrote another article or two. The search engines worked their magic and soon people were reading these articles. About a year after the site started, I pulled down the photographs of the kids and decided to focus on writing. It was at the end of 2003 that I made the commitment to blog every day, a habit I’ve maintained to the present day.

But. You knew a but was going to come in sooner or later, right? The first couple of years were a honeymoon time. Two things combined to bring the honeymoon to an end.

October 21, 2010

Yesterday I began writing about How I Got Here in an article that somehow began to turn into a loose autobiography. I got as far as walking into my first day at a new high school and being confronted by a cute girl whose first words to me were “If you ever tell anyone, I’ll kill you. I’ll absolutely kill you.”

So there I was in Ancaster High, a new Christian and a terribly unmotivated student. For the first semester I enjoyed spending lots of time with that girl; we’d spend our first class together every day and found that we had a lot in common. I seem to recall asking her to go to a youth group function with me once or twice, but she wasn’t interested. She wasn’t a believer, she was seeing another guy, and seemed to just enjoy me as a friend. And that was great. Second semester came around and since we no longer had any classes together we pretty much lost touch.

I finished up at Ancaster High and earned grades that were good enough to get me into McMaster University, a school just down the hill in Hamilton. I could live at home which suited me fine as I didn’t have any real interest in going away. My only real memories of the first year of university are playing euchre (I played a ton of euchre that year) and of getting my first email account. I certainly did not do a lot of work. I didn’t party as so many people do in their first year (and, in fact, never went through those wild years so common to even Christian teens). I just rode the bus to school, played euchre, went to my classes and went back home. I continued attending those Dutch Reformed churches, though I was beginning to feel a certain distance from them as time went on.

In the summer between my first and second years of university a strange thing happened. The phone rang one day; my little sister Susanna answered, handed me the phone and said with a smirk, “It’s your girlfriend.” It wasn’t my girlfriend (I actually hadn’t ever had a girlfriend); instead, it was Aileen, that girl from high school. She was calling under the pretense of asking me about McMaster University. She told me that she had been looking at her options for university the next year, had remembered that I was heading to McMaster, and thought she’d ask me about the school. The strange thing is that her father had worked at McMaster for twenty years (as I’m sure I reminded her) and would be more than capable of answering any of her questions. It turns out that she actually wanted to ask me as her date to a murder mystery party; she was no longer seeing that other guy and needed someone to go with her. Now the phone call made a little bit more sense. When I told my parents about this call my mom said, “Wow. Isn’t that a little forward of her?”

October 20, 2010

Last night my wife and I were reminiscing about this web site, about my growing career as a writer (at least I hope it’s growing) and about the church contexts that produced me, that produced this blog. As we spoke I realized that I’ve never really discussed the genesis of this site and, by extension, the church I was part of when I began writing. I spent about 5 years in quite a poor church after tossing aside Reformed theology and this site really grew out of that experience. I thought it might be interesting to go back a few years and talk about those days. I sat down to write and soon found that this is going to have to be a multi-day kind of article. But it’s biographical, so I hope you can at least find some human interest in it. Let me start by telling you a little bit about me…

I grew up within the Reformed tradition and with a firm grounding in Reformation theology. My parents were both saved near the end of their time at college and both were saved after growing up in unbelieving homes. They heard the gospel through Pentecostal friends who faithfully prayed for them and led them to the Lord. Naturally they, too, became Pentecostal. However, shortly after becoming Christians and getting married, they headed to Europe for a honeymoon (and later to live for a while) and found themselves at Francis Schaeffer’s L’Abri. It was there that they came face-to-face with sound theology and this theology would forever shape them. I was baptized as a child in an Anglican church (they were getting closer to the Reformed tradition) and soon thereafter my folks became members at a PCC congregation (Presbyterian Church of Canada) in Toronto.

My parents were Presbyterian at heart and my earliest church memories are of the sweet fellowship of that Presbyterian church. Many of the members of that church remain dear family friends even now. Eventually we left that congregation to be part of a plant in the nearby suburb of Unionville—a church plant that soon disintegrated in ugly circumstances brought about by one of the members.

Around that time my parents become friends with the pastor of a nearby church that was in the Dutch Reformed tradition and before long we started attending that body (it was a Canadian Reformed Church for those who just have to know). We remained in those churches for many years, except for a year-long trip to Edinburgh, Scotland, during which my father studied at the Free Church of Scotland seminary. But from the time I was in grade school to just about the time I graduated from high school, I was part of the Dutch Reformed tradition, despite having no Dutch blood. We moved around a little bit in these years, eventually settling in Ancaster, Ontario, but what was always true was that we were the only non-Dutch family in the churches and schools we attended.

May 16, 2010

Today at my church home of Grace Fellowship Church I was ordained as an elder/pastor (we make no distinction real between the two). I share this with you because, well, because I’ve shared so much of my life with you and this is quite a significant event. Our pastor preached from Titus 2:15: “Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you.” (If you’d like to hear the sermon, you can do so here)

Here are the notes my son took:

Dad = Titus

Dad Needs To:

  • Speak the gospel to God’s people
  • Make people remember God
  • Preach the gospel to the pastors
  • Preach the gospel to mom
  • Preach the gospel to me and my sisters
  • Be a model in his life
  • Rebuke people if they do wrong
  • Have patience and love

March 29, 2010

My memory isn’t what it used to be. Or maybe I’m kidding myself and my memory has always been awful. Out of necessity I allow Aileen to be my memory and she’s always saying things like, “Do you remember when we had to rush Abby to the hospital for that operation and I ended up staying there with her all night?” And I search my memory banks and find absolutely no recollection of such an event. It’s pathetic, really. It won’t be long, I’m sure, before she’s pinning my name to my shirt to help me remember who I am.

But of course there are some memories that are forever clear and that, I trust, will always remain that way. I will never forget standing at the front of St. John’s Anglican Church in Ancaster on an already-hot morning in August of 1998, as I waited for my bride-to-be to walk down the aisle. From the moment I saw her, I was completely undone, unable and unwilling to hold back the emotion. There she was, walking toward me, about to become my wife. It was a moment I had been anticipating for so long and here it was at last. It was almost surreal, like a dream—a dream come true. I cried like a baby.

Yesterday at church we wrapped up a beautiful day of worship by singing “The Sands of Time Are Sinking.” This is one of my favorite hymns. It was written by Anne Cousin back in the mid 1800’s and before it was a hymn it was a poem inspired by the letters and the last words of Samuel Rutherford. Only later was it set to music. The best verse of all is this one:

The bride eyes not her garment,
But her dear Bridegroom’s face;
I will not gaze at glory
But on my King of grace.
Not at the crown He giveth
But on His pierced hand;
The Lamb is all the glory
Of Emmanuel’s land.

March 11, 2010

I woke up this morning feeling just a bit discouraged. I guess there’s a fair bit of uncertainty in certain parts of life right now, the kind of uncertainty that tends to be on my mind late at night or early in the morning (or, worst of all, smack dab between the two). I’m facing a day in which I need to be sharp and creative; a day in which I’ve got to make some good progress on my book. That deadline is creeping closer and closer and I can’t afford to be complacent. And yet few things are more difficult than a day of concentration and creativity when faced by that discouragement. For some reason the thought of even trying to settle down to write today it is both terrifying and paralyzing.

When I got out of bed I found myself doing what I often do when discouraged—tidying the house. I don’t know why, but for some odd reason I find this therapeutic. So I prayed while I went, putting away the dishes in the rack, tidying up the kids’ toys in the basement, putting away the winter boots piled near the front door that, hopefully, we will not need again this year. I got breakfast ready for the kids, woke them up, got ready for the day and ushered them out the door to the school bus. I came up to my office and wrote a pretty good blog post which, with one errant touch on the wrong button, promptly disappeared, just like that. It’s been a long time since I made such a rookie mistake. This was probably not the best day for it.

Along the way, somewhere between tidying the house and making breakfast, I turned to the Bible, asking to find in it words of life.

February 22, 2010

This morning I want to provide a few updates on life, books and web sites.

First off, I owe you an update on The Next Story, the book I’m writing. To this point, progress has been slow—discouragingly slow, really. Yet I’ve got hope that things will pick up soon. I have been focusing on gathering and pondering ideas more than actually putting ideas into words. So while the manuscript still has a word count of approximately 0, I think I’m getting to the point where the ideas are coming together in my mind. That means that I’ll soon be ready to write. In fact, I plan on spending most of today working my way through a couple more books with the hope that tomorrow I’ll have enough firm ideas in place that I can begin to work on some of the chapters. In the future I’ll try to write an article on the actually process I’m going through as I put this book together. For now, though, I covet your prayers and hope to have some good reports soon.

February 09, 2010

Yesterday I wrote about my desire to be a doer when it comes to the convergence of technology and theology, media and Christian living. I do not want to write a book full of prescriptions that I choose to ignore. And so, as I’ve dedicated increasing amounts of time to research, I’ve begun to examine my own life, my own use of technology and ultimately, its use of me.

Today I’d like to give three quick examples of the ways I’ve had to change my own life as I’ve thought about what it means for me to live in a distinctly Christian way in this media-saturated world. Maybe in the book I’ll write about some of these in greater detail. For now, I will be brief. Each of these is simply a way I’ve found that I can step just a little bit outside the torrent of media and information that always seems so close to overwhelming me.

I recently came to the realization that email owns me. A good technology that should be at my disposal has instead taken over and put me at its disposal. And if you’ve read Postman you’ll know that technology is very good at this. No sooner do we put a technology in our service than we find that it has so changed our lives that suddenly we have become enslaved to it.

When I find myself compulsively glancing at my screen every time I walk by, hoping to see an icon telling me I’ve got a new message, when I unthinkingly pull out my iPhone to check to see if I’ve got any new email, I realize I’ve got a problem. When I sit in meetings with email open, glancing as often to the screen as to the person speaking, I understand that something has gone wrong. Somehow I’ve given email more than it deserves. In my mind I’ve made it into something it is not and something it should never be. Email was never meant to be the first thing I look at in the morning or the last thing I look at before bed.

Hear me when I say that email is not a bad thing. It’s not a good thing either, really; it’s just a thing. I wouldn’t want to say that email is somehow innately destructive. It is an excellent medium for communication and one that serves many purposes very well. It is exceptionally efficient, at least when at its best, and gives us amazing levels of instantaneous access to one another. I wouldn’t want to cut it out of my life and certainly do not intend to.

But email is demanding, especially when given the reins. Recent scientific studies show that there may well be some kind of a correlation between the psychology of email and the psychology of slot machines. A variable interval schedule, as psychologists might know it, draws us back time and again, hoping for the occasional payout. Though most of the time there is no payout when checking email, just like there is usually all cost and no payout when playing slots, there is always the promise of something great. Occasionally we may win a jackpot and occasionally we may get a bit of very good news by email. But most of the time there is no payout at all. Yet our brains seem hard-wired to keep searching, to keep driving us back to the inbox, hoping against hope.

So what have I done? I’ve made email something that I’ve scheduled into my life. Let me back up just a little bit. Thinking about the nature of email and the kind of messages I receive via email, I realized that my mind had been tricking me. Really there was only very, very rarely any exceptional good that could come to me via email—the news that my book proposal had been accepted, the news that a friend had safely delivered her child. Far more often than not my email varies between junk and normal—spam and interesting yet ultimately non-urgent and non-life-changing communiques from friends and family. Such emails are easy to schedule into certain times of day; there is no reason to monitor them on a constant basis. And so I now check email only occasionally—two or three times a day seems to be sufficient. So far I don’t see that it’s had even the smallest amount of negative impact. I do not access email at all in the evenings and have cut far back on the weekends (by way of example, I checked once this past Saturday and not at all on Sunday).

It has shocked me to see that the world keeps turning even when I don’t constantly monitor email. Who would have thought it could be possible? Life goes on.

So much for email. I’ve also stopped gratifying my urge to instantly search for anything that interests me. Very often I find my mind wandering to a person or a topic and before I know it, I’m sitting at a computer and typing the search into Google. Just this evening I had the urge to search for information on Elizabeth Edwards, a book titled How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read and feedback on the new Facebook upgrade. I would then have blown fifteen minutes satisfying these impulses. I have seen that in this wired world knowledge about has become far more important than knowledge of, that the great virtue is in instant access to information. I’m going to try to stop catering to that desire. Instead, I’ll scratch things down in a notebook and look them up later. Or, more often than not, I’ll forget to look them up at all and be no worse off for it. I want to spend far less time searching out new information and more time reflecting on the information I’ve already got.

And this feeds into the third change I am making. Yesterday I went looking for books dealing with distraction. As I did so, I had a video clip playing in a different window and found that I was constantly flipping back and forth between them. The irony was not lost on me. For a long time I’ve been conflicted about A La Carte. It is a feature of this blog that has become quite popular—when people talk to me about what they like about the blog, it is probably second from the top of the list (immediately after book reviews). When I began it, some 1050 posts ago (the first one was in the summer of 2005 and I’ve been quite regularly updating it five times a week since then) I saw it as an opportunity to share a few of the things that had caught my attention the day before. To be honest, it did not evolve much beyond that. It continues to be a bit of a brain dump, or a link dump, if you prefer.

Two things have come to bother me about it. The first is the regular juxtaposition of information. Here I’ll have a story about a terrible natural tragedy that brought about massive loss of life, and right below it I’ll have a link to a silly video parody of something completely unrelated. Somehow that doesn’t seem right to me. The second thing that bothers me is the way it has become a force for distraction. I don’t think any of us really need most of the information we can find through A La Carte. It’s mostly just mindless entertainment, even the best of it. The messages implicit in A La Carte are that we can skim lots of things, but really read nothing; that all news is really just a form of entertainment. It downplays thought and reflection at the expense of immediacy and variety. The messages get lost in the medium.

So here is the plan for A La Carte. It is not going away; it is just changing. What I want to try is to post a single link every day through A La Carte. Rather than posting a list of links that caught my eye, I’ll post a link to a single story along with an assessment of why it is important. If I haven’t found anything particularly important, I won’t post at all. I do not want to be another force of distraction. I want you to know that if I link to something, it is worth your time and attention. Stay tuned tomorrow for the first iteration of the new A La Carte. We’ll see how it goes.

So those are the three changes I’ve already made. They are small things, I’m sure, but they are not without significance. Like so many people, I feel as if technology owns me as much as I own technology. More so, even. I’ve got amazing gadgets and gizmos available to me and each of them plays its own role in my life. I just need to make sure that they are in my control, rather than handing them the reins and following blindly behind them. I think I’ve done far too much of that already.

February 08, 2010

I graduated from college in 1997 (Or so. To be honest, I don’t even remember exactly what year it was and didn’t bother attending the graduation ceremony or picking up my diploma which undoubtedly recorded the date). My history degree did not open up the world of possibilities I had obviously thought it might when I first chose history as my major three years before. With few options available to me, and suffering from a lack of motivation, I decided I had better find some kind of employment, even if it did not incorporate my training. I learned that a new Starbucks was opening nearby and quickly made my way through the interview process. The day the store opened I was there, and I stayed at that job, putting in my forty hours a week, for what must have been a year—possibly more.

I’m not sure if this is still the case, but back then every store was required to select one “Coffee Expert,” the one person on staff who would receive a bit of extra training in the world of coffee and who was required to know more about the various flavors of coffee than anyone else. This person had to be able to identify the differences between the types and to teach others how to do the same. He was responsible for brewing different kinds of coffees in order to educate both the employees and the customers. Through some strange twist of fate I was appointed to this position by the manager.

There was just one small problem. I hated coffee. I still do. I am convinced that it is a vile, evil concoction and one that has cruelly enslaved much of the human race. I despise the stuff, even in what I am assured is its finest form by the hoards of brainwashed Starbucks robots. I can barely stand even the smallest taste of it. It curdles my tongue, makes my eyes water, and leaves me gagging. I find it utterly revolting.

And yet I was the coffee expert. When customers wanted to know about the different kinds of coffee we offered, it was my job to lead them through the various options available to them and to help them select the coffee that was suited to their tastes. A customer would choose a package from the counter and I would say, “Oh, now that’s a great choice. It’s a delicious, full-bodied roast that you can taste all over your tongue. Look for the flavors of oak and a subtle hint of the spring flowers that grow in the mountains of Peru.” I had the routine down pat and helped sell a lot of coffee—more than anyone else in the store, I’m sure. The facts were all true; it’s not like I was some kind of used car dealer covering up a vehicle’s flaws and hoping to make a sell to some poor sap who would be stuck with a useless hulk. I simply relayed information I knew was true. But I hated the product. Had I been entirely forthcoming I would have said this: “It mostly tastes like cigarettes. When I drink it I detect mostly the flavor of charcoal mixed with dirt—and not the nice dirt I used to eat as a kid, either. It tastes like burned, charred, nasty, ugly hot dirt. It’s loaded with caffeine and I’m sure it’s going to shorten your life. If you enjoy the smell or taste of manure, I’m sure you’ll love it. Would you like me to grind it for you?” It always struck me as just a little bit odd that I would champion something I disliked so much.

Since I wrote my first book I had quite a few people ask when I would begin a second one. My response was that I’d write another book when I had lived another book. When it comes to writing it is always a temptation to relay information I know is true, even if I have not incorporated it into my life. I’ve had to confess that I’ve done this in the past right here on this blog. I can sometimes content myself with knowing that something I am writing is true and biblical, even if it has little resonance in my life.

When I worked at Starbucks I had absolutely no passion for coffee. Though I could talk a good line, I always felt a bit like I was lying. Customers would ask, “What’s your favorite?” and I would just blurt out a flavor based on my favorite packaging. I had no favorite coffee anymore than I had a favorite flavor of cough syrup or a favorite kind of kick in the teeth. I don’t want my life to be like this. I want what I say and what I write to be a reflection of who I really am—or who I really want to be through the power of the Spirit.

I want to be a Christian who doesn’t just do a smooth job of selling the Christian life. I could probably sit down and write a book that would say all the right things and make me feel very happy when I had typed out the last word. But it wouldn’t satisfy because it wouldn’t be genuine.

Recently I read through a part of Michael Emlet’s book Cross Talk and came across these words. Though targeted specifically at ministers, I think they are applicable to any of us.

A temptation in ministry is to think that just because we prepared a Bible study, a sermon, or a discipleship appointment (or wrote a book like this!), we are deeply engaging with the God of the universe. But that’s not necessarily true. It’s easy in ministry to live more as a ‘pipe’ than a ‘reservoir.’ That is, it’s easy to live merely as a conduit to others of the transforming truths of God’s Word, rather than as a changed and transformed reservoir who overflows with lived-out gospel truth. You wouldn’t imagine cooking meal after meal for your family without sitting down to enjoy that nourishment, would you? To paraphrase James 1:22, let’s not merely be hearers or speakers or counselors of the Word, but doers, first and foremost.

I know that in writing a book I could easily be a hearer and speaker but not a doer. But that isn’t who and what I want to be. As you know, I’ve begun work on The Next Story. And already I’m seeing how I have to make changes to my life based on what I am learning. Some of these will be experimental, trying to live out different ideas on a trial basis. Though totally unrelated to the book, I did this with vegetarianism recently, going two weeks without meat just to try it out and to see what life is like with a whole new set of tastes and flavors. There are things I will try out just for the sake of the book, with no intention of maintaining them long-term. But other changes are going to be permanent, coming on the heels of necessity or conviction. I will introduce you to a couple of these in the days to come. (Hint: you may have noticed I didn’t post an A La Carte today…)

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