[This is the Forward to my new book: “Up! – 313 Devotionals to Help You Start Your Day in a Biblical, Relevant Way.” You can buy it on Amazon here. For more purchase information and to read some endorsements click here. 100% of the profits will go to Fight4Freedom, an organization fighting human trafficking in the sex trade.]
Maybe it’s weird for a person to have a motto, but I do. And I’m okay with that. Here it is: “A pulse doesn’t mean you’re alive.” I just don’t think that having a heartbeat is enough. Life on this side of the soil is a short game—and all of us have one chance to do it well.
One of my favourite movies is The Shawshank Redemption. There’s a scene where Andy Dufresne, played by Tim Robbins, says “Get busy living or get busy dying.” He’s fed up with his situation and, as the viewers soon find out, has taken steps to break open his life to a whole new level. In other words, get on with what’s important or else you’re wasting what precious little time you have on earth.
In one of my first years as a pastor I went to the hospital to visit a man who was dying. I gathered around his bed with the family. We made a circle, held hands, and prayed together. The cardiac monitor—or whatever it’s called—was beeping away in the background. As we prayed, its beep-beep-beeping started to slow like a wind-up music box coming to the end of its tune. And then he took his final breath.
Only an hour later, in the very same hospital, I walked over to the maternity ward to welcome a new baby into the fold. The new parents cried tears of joy, took frantic pictures, and entered a new version of their own lives that they could never have anticipated or planned for. One person had taken their final breath and another gasped their first. That day reminded me that heartbeats come and heartbeats go—quickly. The events surrounding the start of life and the end of life are powerful moments you never forget. But my question for all of us is this: Are the moments in between just as powerful?
Ever since high school I’ve been captivated by Jesus. I had grown up in the church—although I must admit that it didn’t always beat out hockey or girls in the competition for my time, attention and loyalty. But it wasn’t really until my time in Bracebridge and Muskoka Lakes Secondary School that I started to examine him more closely.
Jesus was bold and fierce and loving and against-the-grain. The reason I eventually made him the number one priority in my life was because his words and actions gave me the most hope for my life and for the wider world. In John 10:10 (ESV) he says, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” In other words, a pulse by itself doesn’t mean you’re truly alive.
As I started to read the Bible during lunch hours and between hockey practices, and as I started writing spacey spiritual songs on my guitar with my friend Jeff,1 I became increasingly captivated by this God-Man Jesus. The great literary critic and author C.S. Lewis once said that in Christianity you’re not faced “with an argument which demands your assent, but with a Person who demands your confidence.”2 And I totally got that. I felt that Jesus, standing tall and radiating integrity, was a power unto himself of incomparable magnetism. It wasn’t about a religious system or a specific tradition or a set of well-oiled arguments—it was about him, someone who demanded my confidence, and someone who earned it.
But as the years grew—and as I went through the usual distractions, embarrassments and semi-successes of a young person discovering his way in the world—I kept coming back to the same spiritual frustration: Why did my day-to-day life sometimes seem so disconnected from this almighty and awesome God? If my faith was going to be meaningful, and if my journey with God was going to be meaningful, it needed to be tangible, immediate, and down-to-earth—something that would make a relevant difference in my daily life and in the lives of the people around me.
In 1930 King George was supposed to give a radio address to the London Arms Conference. Apparently, a few minutes before he was to begin, an important wire was broken in the CBS control room. But the chief control operator, Harold Vidian, grabbed the two wires and held them together to restore the circuit. As a result, the world heard the King’s speech. All the while, two hundred and fifty volts of electricity coursed through Vidian’s body!3 I wanted a faith with that kind of connection and power—but without the physical pain!
A faith that is powerful, practical and relevant to daily life. That’s what motivates me. And now that I’m a pastor, that’s what I try to do. I try to help people live out a powerful and relevant faith in practical ways today. Yes, Christians believe in life after death—but we also believe in life before life after death.4 It’s not just about waiting on earth for heaven—it’s working for heaven on earth. After all, our time in this world is a short game—and all of us have one chance to do it well. Get busy living or get busy dying.
One of the ways we can do that is to intentionally seek God. And when you intentionally seek God, you see God. Or, put another way, the more you actively seek God in your daily thoughts, the more see God active in your daily life. And that’s where a daily devotional can help.
The Up! Devotional
Over the years I’ve subscribed to a few different devotionals. Some of them were great. But the thing that didn’t sit well with me was that many of them were too theoretical and abstract—and too long. I was often left wondering, ‘So how does that apply to my daily life?’
So as I went about my days as a pastor, husband and father, I started to write my own daily devotionals in my head. I didn’t realize I was doing it, but that’s what was happening. And then one day the idea became a little more concrete. I prayed about it and felt God giving me a nudge. So I cobbled together a crude logo and asked my wife, Laura, what she thought of the name “Up!” “I like it,” she said. “Kind of like, ‘Get up, look up and be up!’” As you can tell, she has a way with words. (Thanks honey!)
So in April 2015 I started sending out devotionals through an email subscription list. Over the past three years, the list has grown every month and now has multiple platforms. (See the “Connect” page.) It comes out five mornings a week and the goal is simple. I want it to be something you can read, generally in a minute or less, that will help you start in each day in a biblical, relevant way.
In 2015 people started asking if the devotionals would ever be published as a book. I hadn’t really thought about it until recently. But since I’ve always wanted to write a book, and since three years of writing were already in the bag, it made sense. Even though I do a lot of stuff online, I still like to hold a book in my hands, mark it up, and put it on a shelf. A hard-copy book of devotionals could be another means to accomplish the same end.
Through leadership in the church I got to know Matt Brough, a creative pastor in Manitoba, Canada, who hosts the Spirituality for Ordinary People podcast,5 writes theological books as well as the Del Ryder fantasy adventure series, and who owns Thicket Books along with his wife Cheryl. At first I had some conversations with Matt simply to find out more about publishing. But then I started to wonder if he could coordinate the project himself. After all, we already knew each other, he had the know-how, and Matt was a subscriber to the devotional. He agreed.
The subtitle of this book is, “313 Devotionals To Help You Start Your Day in a Biblical, Relevant Way.” So what’s the deal with 313, you might ask? It’s one devotional for every day of the year minus Sundays. 365 – 52 = 313. It’s my way of encouraging us to worship and rest one day a week.
The style of the devotionals is conversational. I break some grammatical rules (sorry Mom), because I want you to read what I’m writing as if you’re hearing me say it. I just think that a conversational style makes something more ‘real,’ down-to-earth and personal. I also don’t use conventional paragraphs. Since “Up!” began and continues as a web-based devotional, it’s roughly organized on a line-per-thought basis instead of a paragraph-per-thought basis like you might find in a novel. I think that the internet is changing how we read. We tend to ‘scroll.’ So that’s how the text appears in the book too. I wanted to preserve that same experience.
Use of Scripture
Every daily devotional includes at least one quote from the Bible. I think that’s important because the Bible is the primary place where we learn about God’s will. But a devotional is different from a sermon. A sermon includes sustained study of a biblical passage to uncover some meaning and includes an application to daily life in a specific context. But each devotional isn’t the result of that kind of sustained study. Some of them are; but the majority are inspired by, or related to, a biblical passage or theme. In either case, I’ve done my best to be faithful to the spirit of a passage and never misrepresent it. Throughout this book I usually use the New International Version of the Bible, quite simply because it’s the version most English readers have. When I quote another version I make a note of it in brackets.
A Broad Audience
Generally speaking, when I write the devotionals I have a broad, mostly middle-class, Western audience in mind. These are people—probably like you and me—trying to navigate modern life in a changing time. Some readers are in their teens, some are seniors, some are in-between. Some are mature Christians, some are new Christians, and some are just curious. Most are in North America, some are in Europe, and some are from who-knows-where. In light of that diversity, I try to get as specific as I can on certain topics, but not so specific that what I say wouldn’t apply in a variety of situations. I also tend to include a fair amount of conditional language (i.e. “such-and-such might mean that…”). I do this because each reader is unique and may be in very different circumstances than the next person. Just as I have all this in mind as a writer, I think you should have it in mind as a reader too. So if you are navigating a specific and difficult situation or question, I suggest you do some sustained biblical study, pray, reach out to some wise friends, and speak to your pastor for more guidance.
In these devotionals I tend to stick to the basics. Much more could be said about all of these topics, but here I keep it fairly simple. You won’t find me getting into the specifics of the lesser-known spiritual disciplines, the nuances of building relational trust with those who live on the street, or the five points of Calvinism. My personal passion is to help people live out their faith in a practical way today. So in these devotionals I tend to focus on short bursts of the basics which can be clearly applied to daily life.
If you don’t personally know me, this is the point in the Forward when you usually tune out. Why? Because you probably don’t know the people I’m about to name. (And I admit it. Up until now I’ve been a book-Forward-thank-you-skipper too.) But don’t do it! These people are awesome.
Thankful people thank people. And I am very thankful to the many people who have supported me and this project since it began in April 2015.
I thank my wife Laura because she has always and whole-heartedly supported this devotional and what it’s about. Her faith in me never fails; and more importantly, neither does her faith in God. She is the heart of our home, and her generous attitude and honest feedback help cultivate a climate of creativity without which nothing I do would be possible.
I thank my children, Sarah, Ben and Anna, because they have given me new eyes to see the world. And that kind of gift is beyond value for someone who likes to create. I love to watch who they are becoming as our Creator God crafts them and calls them forward in life.
I thank my mom, Donna, who always encouraged me to do my best and whose unwavering support is the stuff of legends. And I thank my dad for his unconditional encouragement, and who taught me to treat each day like a new life, and to live it like it is.
I thank my brothers, Deric and Jason, who I’ve always looked up to, and who are consistent pillars in my life. It’s rare to have loyal friends as brothers, but I do.
I thank my feedback writers who I ask to give me occasional feedback about whether or not my writing is clear and makes sense. Sean O’Toole was my high school English Teacher at Bracebridge and Muskoka Lakes Secondary School. Andrew Faiz was the Senior Editor of the Presbyterian Record magazine. Brian Irwin is the Associate Professor of Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures at Knox College, at the University of Toronto. And Jeff Loach is the pastor at St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church in Nobleton, Ontario, and is a spiritual director who formerly served as Central Ontario District Director for the Canadian Bible Society. I consider all of them friends and value the helpful wisdom they’ve given over the past three years.
I thank my friend Jeff Einboden, Professor of 19th-century American Literature and Comparative Literature at Northern Illinois University. His friendship and meaningful encouragement have buoyed me along the way. Plus, he’s way smarter than me—and it’s always good to have someone like that around to both keep you humble and at your best!
I thank Lauren Walsh and Caitlin Cone, members of the congregation at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Barrie, Ontario, who have kept records of the themes, Bible verses and quotes from each daily devotional over the past three years. This has been very helpful as I’ve tried to find past content, stay organized, and assemble this book.
I thank the elders and congregation at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Barrie, Ontario where I’ve served as the pastor since 2008. Their support and enthusiasm for the “Up!” devotional has been steadfast—and I continue to learn so much from them. Plus, their prayers have surrounded me every single day.
I thank Jeff Walther, also a member at Westminster Presbyterian Church, whose love for “Up!” has brought it to many more thousands of listeners through the Life Radio Network in Central Ontario. I love his outward-focussed mind.
I thank Matt Brough, the co-owner of Thicket Books, for his enthusiasm about this project, for his intelligence and sense of humour, and for how his eyes light up when he gets a creative idea for connecting more people with God.
I thank you, the readers, not only for your confidence, but for your commitment to the kingdom come, and to God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.
And I thank Jesus. He is everything.
Enjoy, be lifted Up, and remember: A pulse doesn’t mean you’re alive.
- You can buy the full book on Amazon here. For more purchase information and to read some endorsements click here. 100% of the profits will go to Fight4Freedom, an organization fighting human trafficking in the sex trade.]
- Sign-up for the free, daily e-version of “Up!” here. It’s delivered to your email inbox five mornings a week.
- Follow “Up!” on Instagram, or Twitter, or Facebook.
- This is my good friend Jeff Einboden who I mention later on in this same forward.
- C.S. Lewis, “On Obstinancy in Belief,” C.S. Lewis: Essay Collection (London: Harper-Collins, 2000), 213-14.
- I had originally thought this statement was by English bishop and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright. But I can’t find where he said it, so perhaps I made it up. I’m not sure!
- As told by Donald W. McCullough, The Trivialization of God: The Dangerous Illusion of a Manageable Deity (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1995), 127.
- You can find Matt’s podcast here.