Thoughts on Devoted to the Service of the Temple: Piety, Persecution, and Ministry in the Writings of Hercules Collins

This is a little gem of a book.

The opening biographical essay sketches the history of the Particular Baptists clearly and helpfully. It also gives the reader a foretaste of Collins’ warm and experiential style. Hercules Collins, though largely unknown today, was an important figure in the Particular (Calvinistic) Baptist community in the 17th century. These Baptists were part of the Dissenters, a larger group of Christians that, for one reason or another, were not in the Church of England.

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I found it interesting that in the body of Collins’ work was an early defense of religious liberty, where he argued that compulsion cannot bring about true spiritual enlightenment. Indeed, force cannot change the heart, and heart change is at the very core of Christianity.

His is a legacy where his teaching is highlighted, underlined, and put in bold by the powerful testimony of his life. Imprisoned for his opposition to the prevailing religious and political authority of his day, in abysmal conditions (two fellow pastors in prison with him died while in captivity), he remained faithful and wrote stirring letters to his congregation while in chains. This harrowing context gave his writing a kind of Pauline grittiness and verve.

The selections, well picked and edited, give the reader a real sense for his style and substance. The length of the book makes this long-departed brother’s words accessible, portable, and edifying. What a gift! How else is a 21st-century Christian going to encounter such material?

For those in ministry and leadership, there were a number of selections specifically dealing with the realities of ministry and the task of preaching. While all the selections were good in content, some of them were simply stellar. My favorites were #s 5, 6, 8, 9, 12, 20, 21, 24, 28, 30, 35.

The last selection was actually a poem that Collins wrote. This third stanza I thought was really quite good:

Come haste that blessed break of Light,

Let shadows flee away;

When ordinances all shall cease,

Come on Eternal Day.

Then through a glass shall look no more,

Unless the glass divine;

We shall through human nature see,

The blessed Godhead shine.

I highly recommend getting a few volumes in this series. There is nothing like reaching across the centuries and reading the words of a fellow Christian from another age. There is blessed similarity and blessed dissimilarity. Similar because the experience and convictions of true Christians have a common thread wherever they are found; dissimilar because we have lost much in our day and are blind in ways they are not.

If I was to try and find one thing to quibble with, it might be the title. Having finished the book, I now get it. At first glance, however, it was not a title that drew me in towards the book or piqued my interest.

Flashback: 1984… and the Gospel

I’m going back through my old blog posts and tagging them appropriately, categorizing them for the sake of organization. This is forcing me to read over some old posts I had forgotten about. And some of them are better left forgotten, or they feel dated, or fall short for any number of reasons.

But some are not that bad! So I thought I’d recycle some of these a bit and throw them back on top of the pile once in a while.

Here is one that draws a tangent between the perpetually relevant dystopian 1984 by George Orwell and the gospel.

Chronological Snobbery – Part 2

In the first post on the topic of chronological snobbery we looked at what C.S. Lewis meant by the phrase and we considered two reasons for its particular prevalence in our own day. In this post and the next I would like to explore related ideas from two thinkers that have been helpful to me, René Girard and Craig Carter.

Girard was a profound and original thinker whose work ranges over many disciplines. I am familiar with only a few small slices of that work, but some of those slices have been eye-opening. Consider his reflections on the words of Jesus in Matthew 23:29-30.

29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, 30 saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 

Girard focuses in on the attitude of the scribes and Pharisees as they built tombs and monuments for prophets who were harassed, persecuted, and killed by their forefathers: “If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” He considers this as a kind of spirit, an attitude of the heart that any of us can adopt.

In the context of his broader theory of mimetic desire and the scapegoating mechanism, he describes this impulse as a mob of the living scapegoating the dead. For our purposes, we can simply say it is the attitude whereby one generation or group condemns those who came before them, exonerating themselves.

Girard points out one historical example of this in the phenomenon of Christian anti-Semitism, the kind that blames the Jews for killing Jesus. It says “if we, who are the spiritual children of Abraham, had been there when Jesus was crucified, we would not have joined the actual children of Abraham in condemning and killing Jesus. We are better than them. We alone would have resisted the mob. We would have stood by him when all had deserted him. We would have been willing to be killed with him rather than deny him.”

When one lays out what such an attitude really claims, as I did above, it starts to be seen for what it is. But usually the claim to superiority is not parsed and exposed for what it is. A claim like that is really more about the person making it than about the people he or she is supposedly superior to. At bottom, such statements are saying something like: “If everyone was as innocent as I am the world would be better. Therefore they must not be innocent like me, because someone has to be responsible for all this mess.”

Ask any high school class if they think they would have stood up against the Nazis if they had lived in Germany leading up to and during WW2. Most will say they would have resisted, which is to claim that if Germany had been populated with 21st-century North American teenagers instead of Weimar-era Germans, Hitler would not have done what he did. More pointedly, it is to claim that each of those students raising their hands, students who allow their wardrobes, attitudes, mannerisms, and vocabulary to be dictated by the passing fads and peer pressures of their social peers, yes these paragons of strict moral virtue, would have had the backbone to stand against what was an immense amount of social pressure and very real threats to their reputations, social standing, finances, and very lives.

In Romans 2:1, the apostle Paul writes “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.” We live in a time when forces all around us seem to be working hard to whip up offense, outrage, and judgment towards the other. But not all judgment is the same. Some judgment is warranted and needed, but a lot of it is spiritually dangerous.

What do I mean by spiritually dangerous? Well, I mean that it is dependent on sin and it fosters sin. To judge others for what I am guilty of is to reinforce my own blindness to that sin, thereby distancing myself further from the truth about myself that might lead me to repentance and freedom. It is much harder to admit to a sin that I have clearly – and perhaps publicly – judged another for. I am less able to see it in myself when I get a kick out of pointing it out in others.

So this leaves the one judging further from the grace of humility, further from the grace of gospel sanity, further from the grace of honesty about my sin. These are graces that flow from Christ and to Christ.

When one takes this principle and applies it, what happens? It becomes very difficult to stand in judgment over our historical predecessors, because we now see that to do so is to fall into a very dangerous spiritual trap. It is the trap of saying that we are better and we would not have done what they did.

But does this rule out any and all criticism of the past? Quite the opposite: It allows for the kind of criticism that is good for us, rather than a danger. When I recognize that in the garden of my own soul grows the same root that in others bore such heinous fruit, it motivates me to weed it out. When I recognize that there is more than a little family resemblance between their sin and my own – if not in the fruit, then in the root – this encourages humility.

Indeed the effect is precisely the opposite of what self-righteous criticism produces, namely a deepening blindness with regard to my own expressions of whatever fault I am pointing out in others married to a swelling pride at being found so much superior.

The best writers of history intuitively (or perhaps intentionally) treat their subjects with this kind of moral sensitivity. They do not fall into moral relativism, which may be an enjoyable intellectual hobby for rich and comfortable Westerners, but is insufferable in the face of actual evil. Neither do they unleash a full one-dimensional moral tirade against historical villains, painting them as uniformly evil characters. Rather they preserve the humanity of both heroes and villains, allowing for nuance and being honest about the shortcomings of the heroes as well as the positive qualities of the villains, all while writing with a sense of moral clarity. This kind of history proves informative and beneficial to the reader. It is humbling, sobering, inspiring.

Moving from history to the contemporary, we can apply this idea to so many current cultural issues. For example, I see a lot of folks these days eager to tear down statues of people who, terribly flawed and implicated in evil as they may have been, are nevertheless in many ways their betters. Leaving aside the specific arguments for or against any particular monument, or even for the taking down of statues in general, I just want to point out that this kind of fury, this kind of one-dimensional judgment of those in the past, is spiritually dangerous for all the reasons described above.

To take an example from the opposite side of the culture wars, we have the phenomenon of so many conservative religious leaders who were so thundering in their denouncing of sexual immorality being revealed to be sexually immoral themselves. Zacharias, Falwell, Hybels, and the list goes on and on. We all know such failures do not happen overnight. So we have someone publicly denouncing a sin in others that they are not just struggling against but positively nurturing in their own hearts.

This can happen on the political left as much as on the right, both inside and outside the church. But from my perspective, which is admittedly conservative, it does seem to be a particularly fashionable attitude among progressives on the left these days. If you think I’m wrong about that, let me know why in the comments.

In the next and last post on chronological snobbery I’ll discuss some ideas I’ve appreciated from the writing of Craig Carter.

Peter Nimble

There is lots to love about this book. A great title, a great first line, and moments of brilliance throughout. The story moves at a fine clip and carries the reader along to an exciting finish. My kids read this book as part of their schooling and they adored it, so I wanted to read it also. I can see why they were taken with it! It certainly leaves the reader wondering what will happen next at each chapters’ end. And while I enjoyed reading this book, I wanted to enjoy it more. There were a few hindrances and shortcomings that impeded that enjoyment. As a debut novel, I say bravo and well done! If I were to write a first novel this good, I’d be a happy man indeed. And so I offer some thoughts – in a spirit of constructive criticism – on what kept this book from being, to my mind, on par with the classics.

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First, while the breadth and playfulness of a fertile imagination is on display throughout the book, there is a certain lack of cohesion and gravitational center to that imagination. The worlds, characters, landscapes, buildings, and monsters are all fantastical and creative, but it felt like there was something lacking that would draw them all into a narrative that fit together well. This unpredictability can give the reader a kind of whiplash as she tries to keep pace with the story. A few unexpected twists and turns makes a story interesting; but constant unexpected turns undermines the stability of the narrative and gives it a chaotic feel.

Second, and related to the first point, is the issue of world-building. This is the bread and butter of all fantasy-fiction. The author must build a world that is believable. But believable does not mean it must conform to our world. As Tolkien said, the key is that world must be internally consistent – what happens there must make sense within the framework of that world. This is the secret ingredient that explains why some fantasy worlds feel real, like Middle-Earth, Narnia, and Aerwiar, and others don’t. The author here shows real promise in the world that he creates, and yet fails to fully convince the reader that this place is so real in his own mind that all this could really take place.

Third and last, stories are irreducibly moral. The best stories are deeply moral, for it is the moral instinct in myself as a reader that makes me care deeply about the characters. On this point, once again, the author does a good job with some characters but does not quite pull off a complete victory. We see some development in Peter Nimble, but not a whole lot. His moral character remains quite static, while his self-understanding grows as he discovers his true identity and steps into the role he has been destined for. Sir Tode seems to me to be more promising, for we find out he is largely a fraud and has not truly earned his knighthood. Yet this assumed persona of a brave knight seems to draw out his courage and moral fibre and self-sacrifice. By the end of the book, despite the dubious origins of his knighthood, he has grown into the true picture of knighthood. This seems to exemplify something that C.S. Lewis pointed out: when growing in virtue, we often start by behaving as if we were more virtuous than we really are, which can feel like a kind of pretending or false persona. But if persevered in, this is often the route by which we do really become virtuous.

The best stories have a moral depth that speaks deeply to the reader about right, wrong, goodness and evil. While the book had a pretty clear moral compass (unlike the nihilistic morally-relativistic nonsense that sometimes gets passed off as modern fiction these days), it would have been improved, and would leave a deeper impression on the reader, if the characters’ moral trajectory had been explored more deeply.

All in all, a very fine book. I look forward to reading some more of Auxier’s fiction and seeing how he has grown as an author over the years.

A Baby’s Stare

Have you ever thought about the uniqueness of a baby’s stare? Since having our 4th child in November 2020, I have been thinking about this. Of all our children, this one is the stare-iest. She just loves to look; she’s glad to gaze and gape and gawk! Yes our little Lucy is simply obsessed with observing everyone and everything around her.

“I see you.”

I have spent many luxurious minutes returning her stare and wondering what might be going on in that adorable little head of hers. I realized that I could not exchange a stare like this with just anyone in the street. Could you imagine silently staring into the eyes of a stranger on the street for even 15 seconds? 30 seconds? An entire minute? Try it. Folks nowadays hardly make eye contact at all, never mind a sustained stare. “Do I know you? Is there a problem?” … “I’m calling the police.” Heck, even my other kids wouldn’t stand for that: “Dad, stop being weird.” Or my wife: “What are you doing? Do I have something on my face?!”

But with baby Lucy, there is no such reaction. Why is that? For one, she can’t talk. So while she’s staring at me, I can’t engage her with a question. If I try to stare at anyone verbal, they will inevitably engage me with words quite quickly along the lines described above. But if they know I can’t speak, they will intuitively put up with a much longer gaze. In the absence of words, we find other ways to communicate.

She’s especially expressionless soon after waking up, as seen here.

Still, it’s more than that. A non-verbal person of normal intelligence will use hand signals and facial expressions to communicate. But a baby can’t do even that. And this gets to the heart of the vulnerability and magic of babies. They come into the world with no ideas about how the world should be. A baby simply takes in the world as it is. And to do that, a baby stares. (Babies also put every single possible thing within their reach into their mouths like some kind of overzealous Roomba, but that’s not the topic of this particular reflection.)

So we have the situation that we embrace from infants what we would never accept from anyone of an older age – long silent stares. As you may know, babies don’t really make facial expressions in reaction to visual stimulus for the first few months. It’s hard work to get that baby to smile back at you. So the stare I’m talking about is wide-eyed, mouth slightly open, and expressionless. Which goes back to my previous point: a child simply takes in the world around it without making any value judgement on what it finds. It has nothing to compare to, no way to evaluate. The mother it has becomes the idea of Mother; the father it has becomes the idea of Father; the family and home it has likewise. I often imagined Lucy saying to herself, when she was in one of her gazing moods, “so this is what life is like.” This open-hearted receptiveness contributes to the weightiness of parenting; who is equal to this task?

So the next time a baby stares at you, don’t look away, don’t feel awkward, don’t laugh it off. Something momentous is happening. This child is taking in everything it can through the windows of the mind we call eyes. The open-hearted receptiveness you see on display will not survive the next two decades of various pains, disappointments, losses; no – it will give way to some level of guardedness and maybe even cynicism. While that may be inevitable, maybe this beautiful stare can remind you of a time when you were less guarded and cynical. And if you can, use that moment to let down your guard and stow your cynicism: that would make the world just a little better for this baby and for you.

Reflection on The Strange Death of Europe by Douglas Murray

Say what you will about Murray, he is a pretty honest guy. And these days that is a rare quality. He is willing to say what many are not, and willing to ask questions which make people squirm. The on-the-ground feel of the book was one of its strengths. Murray draws on his travels and conversations for first-hand experience of the realities on the ground. Upon this foundation he builds his arguments using carefully researched statistics and citations.

I think there is a counter-argument to be made, and I hope it is made publicly. The problem seems to be that these important conversations and debates are so often being shut down with slurs and slanders before they can even begin. Despite the fact that Murray everywhere rejects far-right nationalism and racism, a quick glance at the reviews in major outlets shows that these accusations are often made.

While the entire book was interesting, the most fascinating part to me, as a Christian, was chapter 16, titled “The feeling that the story has run out.” In this chapter, Murray delves into the big questions: “What am I doing here? What is my life for? Does it have any purpose beyond itself?” and reflects on the inability of modern Western Europeans to come up with satisfying answers: “the answers to these questions that we have held onto for centuries seem to have run out.” With striking clarity, Murray argues that modern Europe, with its culture of human rights and freedoms, is built on “beliefs that we have left behind…” And yet, despite acknowledging that this has prompted some “to become better acquainted with our own traditions,” such as Christianity, he says multiple times that modern people “cannot force themselves into sincere belief.” It is clear that he finds this to be true for himself as well as others.

In another striking part of this chapter, Murray reflects on a quote by Richard Dawkins to the effect that the theory of evolution bequeathed to us by Charles Darwin has solved ‘the greatest of all mysteries’: “Right there is the gulf that now exists between the accepted secular-atheist world view of our culture and the reality of how people live and experience their lives. Because although Dawkins may feel that our mystery has been solved – and although science has indeed solved part of it [notice how Murray is more modest in his claim than the ever-bombastic Dawkins] – most of us still do not feel solved.” Turning to the fact that humans are now shown to be highly evolved apes, he says “we also know that we are more than animals and that to live merely as animals would be to degrade this thing that we are. […] We know we are something else, even if we do now know what that else is.”

Perfectly anticipating my exasperation at his clear-headed insights and half-answers, the next line is: “Of course religious people find talk like this frustrating because for real believers the question will always be, ‘Why do you not just believe?’ Yet this latter question ignores the most likely irreversible damage that science and historical criticism have done to the literal-truth claims of religion and ignores the fact that people cannot be forced into faith.” He is exactly right that I find it frustrating, but he is exactly wrong about the question I would pose. ‘Why do you not just believe’ is a stupid question to ask someone whose intellect and reason have raised objections to the content of Christianity. Real faith does no violence to the intellect, although it may transcend it.

The most crucial part of the quote above is Murray’s listing of his two main intellectual objections to belief: ‘science’ and ‘historical criticism’. So the questions should be: ‘Why do you believe science and historical criticism make belief impossible? Have you taken the time to read the best responses to those objections? Why is it that there are leading thinkers in nearly every advanced field of scientific knowledge who are devout Christians? Do you understand the science better than them?’ It’s almost like he’s read the pamphlets put out by the atheists and thrown up his hands and said “so it’s hopeless – no intelligent person can believe this God stuff!”

But Murray is certainly correct that one cannot simply choose to believe. There is a mystery to true conversion; as Jesus explained to Nicodemus: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8). Even once the intellectual objections are dealt with, there is a surrender, a yielding, an unveiling, an inner transformation, which only the Spirit’s work can accomplish.

My Big Beef with Car Culture

Ever since I can remember, I’ve loved cars.

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They’ve always been able to tug at my imagination, to capture my fascination, and I’m not sure why. Other people don’t seem to have this reaction at all when they encounter a motor vehicle. To them it really is just a collection of metal, rubber, and plastic. Perhaps the simplest way to describe what it means to be a car person is that a vehicle is more than the sum of its parts, and that it evokes something from within.

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A car, as a product of engineering and design, is not merely functional, but a work of art. It may be a poor work of art, or the art may be more in its functionality than anything else, but the shaping and moulding of panels, the calculating of proportions and angles and sight-lines, the tone and growl of the engine and exhaust, all require at least some measure of esthetic intentionality. It may look like a cross-eyed bullfrog but you know that someone somewhere presented that design to some decision makers who decided to make that hideous car.

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This is why we can begin to speak of a car’s personality, stance, face, rear-end, or ethos. Some cars exude power and aggression, others confidence and class, and still others just scream “I’m a Korean-made sub-compact from the mid-90’s and I’m utterly terrible.” Don’t get me wrong – I’ve got nothing against the Koreans – in fact they make some very fine cars now – but don’t ever buy a Daewoo, or a mid-90’s Hyundai. When you contact Daewoo to tell them that your driver’s seat fell through the floor of the car and the gear lever came off in your hand, they will simply laugh at you and say: “Hey! What you expect? You buy Daewoo!” Or that’s the rumor at least.

We all know that cars can be an endlessly fascinating subject of interest and conversation among men. The majority of those people who have an above-average interest in cars are indeed men. But like anything in which the majority of participants are men, there are some problems, and I’d like to talk about one of the major ones.

For a long time, I’ve wondered why it is the case that many magazines and websites which feature nice pictures of nice cars, will also contain sexualized pictures of women models. This is predominantly true of anything in the tuner culture, but is also more broadly applicable. If it isn’t outright portrayals of women in sensual poses, the same spirit is there in the sexist jokes and comments that presenters or writers make. Regardless of the form it takes, there is a pervasive attitude in much of this sub-culture that women, like cars, are pretty playthings that exist for men to enjoy.

This is done so casually and thoughtlessly, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world to have some woman in her underwear standing beside a car. As the father of a daughter, I feel very strongly that this is not a natural thing at all. Say what you will about the decisions and career choices that these women have made, but I wouldn’t wish for any woman to have to take off her clothes in front of leering men in order to make a living, or to have worth in people’s eyes. I want my daughter to be valued for her character, personality, and spirit. For a long time, I didn’t really understand why this association between cars and women was so ubiquitous in car culture.

Then one day it hit me.

Men like cars for many reasons but one of the main ones is that they are good looking objects. Well then it only makes sense to have another good looking object to go with it.

Never mind that this second ‘object’ is a really a human being with a heart and soul and is of precious worth far beyond that of any Ferrari of Bugatti.

Never mind that all the men leering at the pictures of these girls wouldn’t want their own sisters, wives, or daughters displayed like that for all to see.

It’s just one of a hundred thousand ways in which our world doesn’t see or portray women as full and complete human beings, worthy of dignity and respect. It’s not right, and it’s not okay.

I’ve always told myself that I would love whatever my kids love and not try to get them to be interested in my own interests. So I don’t know if I failed at that or if my son really came to love cars by himself, but anyways he really loves cars and trucks. He’s only two and a half, and already (with a bit of coaching from me) he can tell the difference in his toy car collection between the ‘Porsche Nine Elebben’, the GT-R, and the Audi, as well as between the Jaguar E-Type and the Toyota 2000GT, which look quite similar at 1:64 scale. I want to be able to take him to the annual Auto Show when he’s a bit older, but it makes me sad to think that I will have to explain to him why there are women dressed in really small, tight dresses standing around in the modified cars section.

We need to do a better job of guarding the honor and dignity of all human beings, especially those whose honor and dignity and humanity are so often dismissed.

And we also need to treat objects as objects. I did go to the car show this year, and although I really loved seeing all those gorgeous cars, pulling open the back door of a $500,000 Rolls Royce (I wasn’t supposed to, but how often do you get the chance?!), climbing into the trunk of a Toyota Echo to test out the emergency release cable they’ve installed in there in case of kidnapping, and pushing all the buttons and knobs in the Jaguars and Audis, I left the conference center feeling quite flat about the whole thing. At the end of the day, it really is just metal and rubber and really nice leather, and we would do well to remember it.

The sad reality is, for many people walking through that auto show, they had a far more human interaction with their dream cars than they did with the ladies who were put on display. They were far more conscious of the personality and soul of that new Audi than of the eternal value of each of those girls.

Dear car culture, you’ve humanized the object and objectified the human, and that is my big beef with you.

Just Keep Swimmin’

It’s been a few weeks of straight-piped no-foolin’ craziness around here. Kids and babies getting sick and spewing bodily fluids in every direction. Parents going down in tandem like tightrope walkers tied to each other with electrified bungee cords. Why gosh darn I tell you it’s a front-line field hospital that’s as messy as a school cafeteria after sloppy joe Wednesday and national food-fight day happened to be on the same day.

Just when you make it through one endless day and have some time to recalibrate your sanity-machine by injecting it with coffee and multi-syllabic ‘grown-up’ conversation, you realize you have less than seven hours before the one that can walk gets up and walks out of his room, demanding sustenance and entertainment. And those less-than-seven-hours are by no means guaranteed or uninterrupted – nooo – expect to be called upon more than once to get up, make a bottle, change a diaper, fill up a water glass, paint a picture, and wax the car. Well maybe not those last two. So with the prospect of not very much not very good sleep, here I am throwing an open-house pity party with free whine and cheese.

One does well in times like these to remember those words which alone can summon that superhuman level of commitment and perseverance:

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Alright I think I got it out of my system now. Some weeks are just like that, you know? We seem to be making a habit of taking about a month of winter around the January-February mark and just writing it off with a self-propagating cycle of sickness through mutual infection. We even took our little show on tour this year and went to Ontario and visited a whole bunch of our friends, making sure that they were left with something to remember us by such as laryngitis.

But although it’s been hectic, there have been many recurring evidences of profound blessing. Life is such that while you’re trying to tear your hair out you can also have your heart melted by the precious sweetness of family life. Love also shines a little brighter in dimmer circumstances: selflessness, service, hugs, life-giving words of affirmation, these things are that much more special when you really need them.

Friendship, too, is that much more meaningful in such times. I’ve had the words of author Tim Keller on the subject of spiritual friendship in my mind lately. He says that friendship blossoms out of commonalities, but that spiritual friendship in a Christian context can happen between any two believers. The strongest and most fulfilling friendships, however, are when those two aspects dovetail together so that not only is there a spiritual bond borne out of similar beliefs and experiences, but also that simply human connection that happens when personalities and passions agree. It is a rare gift but one that I have had the great fortune of experiencing repeatedly along our journey – foremost with my wife, who is my closest friend in all the world, but also with others. These kinds of friendships are worth nearly any amount of time or money required to keep them alive, and the dividends are not measurable in this life.

This post isn’t really about anything, so I’m having a hard time drawing any satisfying conclusions about it. But there you go, another life lesson: sometimes things just happen and the purpose is inscrutable.

That’s okay, some blog posts are like that too.

On the Writing of Novels

I joked about writing a novel a few days ago, but the truth is that I feel as far from writing a novel as ever before.

Seriously, just thinking about it makes me feel like this:

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It’s similar to a one-legged man who has always dreamed of climbing mount Everest. He arrives at base camp and gets a taste for the effects of high altitude and the difficulty of, well, climbing the world’s highest peak with half as many legs as is typically needed. In other words, he gains an appreciation for the immensity of the task, and the romantic glow which accompanied the thought in his mind is replaced by a stagnant dread.

Recently I discovered that my brother is into writing electronic music, and being musically inclined myself, I asked him to show me how he does it. I figured I could take a look at the interface and whip up something decent sounding in a few minutes. Well, not so much. He uses an online interactive in-browser set of tools that is as expansive as it is complicated and intricate, from mixing boards to effects pedals to wave synthesizers and loops, each with dozens of settings and adjustments. I didn’t even know how or where you could even start putting notes down, never mind putting together something with any more complexity than The Itsy Bitsy Spider in C major.

Even if I could manage to produce a sound that I liked, and wrote a little hook, to think of building upon that layers and layers of individually tailored sounds and beats and loops, each requiring a mastery of minutiae, is just overwhelming. The effort required to focus all your faculties on tiny details all while holding in your mind a vision of the entire piece so that each created section fits cohesively within the whole is simply staggering. And writing a novel is just like that. In that sense, even the most basic and formulaic novel is an impressive achievement, never mind creating believable characters that draw you in emotionally, scenes that play out in the readers’ minds with 1080p clarity, story arcs that are suspenseful and thrilling, and a depth of humanity and honesty that moves the work from mere entertainment to literature.

Maybe, I hope, I’ll get there someday. But for now I’m sticking with bite-sized pieces that my mind can wrap itself around. I’ll leave the grand weaving to others who feel so inclined, and heartily cheer when they do it. It is no small task. My humble goal this month is to submit a short story I’ve written to the CBC Canada Writes Creative Non-Fiction Competition. All the previous winners seem to be legit published authors with actual credentials so my expectations are low, but that’s not a reason not to try!

So here’s to you, novelists: well done, well done indeed.

*slow clapping*

Of Interrupted Date Nights and Spiritual Pathologies

We had it all planned out:

A stay-at-home date.

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Put the kids to bed at 8pm sharp, dress up a little bit (as in something you could wear to an upscale mall but which would make you look only slightly overdressed at Wal-Mart), throw some product in the hair, get out the coffee and chocolates and curl up on the couch to watch a mutually favorite show; which, I don’t know about you, but that in itself is nearly a miracle – usually there is some measure of compromise from one party which will be leveraged later when the viewing options are discussed anew. In this case, we were watching the HBO Sports special series 24/7 NHL Road to the Winter Classic, the fourth and final episode. The reason we both love this show is that it happens to feature both our favorite teams: The Toronto Maple Leafs (hers) and the Detroit Red Wings (his).

Things were just lovely for the first while, and then we heard our 3-month old daughter crying continually for a few minutes. Finally Kaitlyn got up to go and get her, but as these things go, the girl quieted down at that very moment and my wife stood listening just outside the door and then we looked at each other and shrugged and she came back to sit down. About 37 seconds later our daughter was screaming again and Kaitlyn went to get her.

Sit. Rep.: Extraction successful, but child #2 still fully awake and witnessed the entire scene. Given the child’s current mental capacity for comprehension, logical inference, and imitation, we have only a few minutes before child #2 attempts a re-negotiation of bedtime terms.

We resumed watching the show and then about ten minutes later we heard the kids’ bedroom door open. I got up quickly to intercept child #2 before he could come out and decide for sure that he was going to join us, but as I thought about how ridiculous this date was already, I decided to throw in the towel and bring him out with us too, to watch the last few minutes of the show.

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We all had a good laugh and then after a while we chucked those kids back into bed. That’s when we shut off the TV and really started talking. What a thing. It really is remarkable how long the substance of life and relationships can be kept beneath the surface by the tag-team of responsibilities and distractions. Run around for most of the day caring for two kids with runny noses and dirty diapers and empty stomachs and then when the few spare moments come you turn to a book or a computer or a TV show to relax and before you know it it’s 11:30pm and the whole thing is slated to start again in less time than it takes to be rested enough to face it all. It’s enough to leave you out of breath and begging for more punctuation.

So that’s why it was remarkable to have long uninterrupted conversation with my wife on the couch. We talked about life, our goals for this coming year, and our feelings about where we’re at as a couple and as a family. We talked about faith and our relationships with God, the striking difference between the palpable intimacy we felt after our conversions and now. It was good, very good.

And then Kaitlyn said that she had read something yesterday on facebook that had been oppressing her ever since, and as she said this, tears came to her eyes. It was a quote from that venerable 19th century theologian, J.C. Ryle, that I had also read. It is basically a clarion call to fight against any spiritual apathy. It is an excellent quote from an excellent teacher and preacher of the Bible, but – and this is where I’ve been going with all of this – in my wife’s case it was being used to beat her down and condemn her. Here’s a woman who sacrificially loves and serves her children and husband from dawn til dusk and has a profound love for God and the Bible, but who is also seriously sleep-deprived, prone to processing things emotionally, has a tender conscience, and is still recovering from a severe burnout in ministry. All that to say, she is ripe for discouragement.

She shared with me that she had recently been enjoying a measure of peace, learning to rest in God’s grace, and that through this quote she felt she was being told that all that peace and grace she was enjoying was not rightfully hers because she wasn’t fighting enough. But as she told me this, she also realized that the voice was one of condemnation, not loving conviction. It was life-robbing accusation, not life-giving correction. And with that distinction clearly made, the source of it all was evident.

When I first became a believer, I devoured books, articles, and sermons like a Grizzly bear with a glandular problem devours salmon; or, apparently, like I devour White Cheddar Quaker Crispy Rice Cakes when I’m writing a blog post at midnight. I just could not get enough, and the more intense the better. My kindred spirit during this time was my cousin Joel, and we were always on the hunt for the next hammer-dropping, pride-shattering sermon to rock our worlds. After a while we came to see that there was an imbalance in our pursuit. He put a name to it and called it an addiction to conviction.

It was a pathology born out of a personal zeal for growth and a love for good teaching, especially reformed teaching which places a heavy emphasis on the holiness of God and conviction of sin (and rightly so, I might add, for these are the necessary preconditions for spiritual renewal). At that point in my life, one of the main ways that I felt assured of God’s working in me was when I felt convicted, guilty, and humbled. The problem was that I was exposing myself to so much conviction-inducing teaching that it was really impossible to even begin to process all of that truth, internalize it, and make the necessary course corrections in my heart and life. Make no mistake, that is hard work.

I can imagine that to many people this would seem like a strange problem to have, but from what I’ve seen it’s not as uncommon as we might think, especially among younger people.

There is something in the desire to have a teachable heart that can make us vulnerable to the evil one’s ministry of accusation and condemnation, especially if we have a lingering insecurity about God’s unconditional love for us.

Many a Christian has been brought low to a state of weakness and defeatedness that was neither born of the Spirit nor led to growth in grace because the whole thing wasn’t rooted in the gospel. If feeling convicted and guilty is a way to ingratiate ourselves to God, then there can be no fruit in it because in its essence it is works, it is meritorious, it is anti-gospel, and it calls for that searing insight from the apostle Paul: “if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”

Let the seeds of conviction and zeal and sanctification be planted not in a dry bed of insecurity and doubt but in that fertile soil of a heart fully resting in the irrevocable forgiveness we have for all our sin and the unimpeachable righteousness which is counted as ours.