Why It’s Such Good News to Have Jesus Praying For Us

Why Jesus is My Hero #16 of 52

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel like a total failure as a Christian. My love for God seems so cold; my actions seem a million miles from how I know God would want me to be living; I care so little for other people and ultimately only seem interested in seeking my own comfort. Why on earth would God let me into his New Creation, and how am I going to keep going as a Christian until I get there?

Well, there’s a million different ways that the Bible gives us hope to keep trusting that God can get us there, but one in particular that has really encouraged me recently comes from Hebrews 7:23-25:

“The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but [Jesus] holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues for ever. Consequently, he is able to save to the the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.”

Jesus isn’t just lounging about by the Father’s side in heaven drinking pina colladas – he’s busy praying for us. Have you ever thought about that? Jesus prays for us! There really couldn’t anyone better for the job: Jesus never skips a day; he never gets tired or bored; he never oversleeps and decides to skip his quiet time because he doesn’t want to miss the bus. And he doesn’t need help from an iPhone app like PrayerMate to help him remember us – as great an app as it may be!

But best yet, nothing can stand in the way of his praying for us – not even death. You might have a real friend somewhere or an elderly relative who is faithfully praying away for you day by day – and what an encouragement it can be when that’s the case – but even they can’t pray for you forever. But Jesus has already conquered death – he’s risen from the dead never to die again – and so he always lives to make intercession for us. What an amazing reassurance!

Day by day Jesus stands before the Father in heaven and reminds him that he died for us. “Forgive Andy, Father – remember how I died for him. Forgive Sarah, too. And Jeremy.” Left to our own devices we might wonder how on earth we can hope to persevere until the end. But if we lift our eyes to this heavenly reality, we can have real assurance – who could possibly be a better advocate than Jesus Christ? That’s why Jesus is my hero. Hurrah!

The Search for the Serpent Crusher

Why Jesus is My Hero #15 of 52

Why is the Bible So Full of Boring Genealogies?

Have you ever wondered why there are so many genealogies in the Bible? They just seem to boring – why were the authors of the Bible so interested in who begat who? It’s these kinds of things that give rise to responses like this scene from the Monty Python film “The Meaning of Life”:

Why are these genealogies there? Well, I can’t answer that question in the general case – you have to read each one on its own terms. But I know that more often than not, there’s nothing boring about them once you begin to get into the mindset of the people writing them. One of the best talks I ever heard was on the genealogy in Genesis 5:

“When Adam had lived for 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth. The days of Adam after he fathered Seth were 800 years; and he had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days that Adam lived were 930 years, and he died.

When Seth had lived for 105 years, he fathered Enosh. Seth lived after he fathered Enosh for 807 years and had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days of Seth were 912 years, and he died.

When Enosh had lived for 90 years, he fathered Kenan. Enosh lived after he fathered Kenan for 815 years and had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days of Enosh were 905 years, and he died…”

…and so the list goes on. In all we’re given eleven generations of mankind in this same formulaic structure. BOR-ING! Except it’s really not. When you get into the story, it turns out it’s absolutely riveting stuff – it’s edge of your seat material.

You see, God made a promise back in Genesis 3:15:

The Lord God said to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”

We’re living after the fall. Adam & Eve have rebelled against God’s command and eaten of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They’ve suffered the consequences by being banished from the garden, and now we’re seeing God’s first promise coming to fulfilment: “in the day you eat of it you shall surely die.” You cannot read the genealogy on chapter 5 without noticing the tragic refrain coming over and over again: “and he died.” It’s miserable reading – just as God said would be the case, by disobeying God, Adam & Eve have brought death into the world, and it’s utterly unnatural.

But we also have the promise of 3:15 ringing in our ears – the hope of an offspring who will do battle with the serpent. It’s only a vague and ambiguous hope, but at this point in the story it’s the only hope we have! So when we read in chapter 5 that Adam and Eve have a son, Seth, it’s a very exciting moment! But then he dies. It’s not going to be him after all. Well maybe it will be his son, Enosh? But no, he dies too. Well what about Kenan? Dead. Mahalalel? Dead. Jared? Dead. Each time our hopes are raised, only to be dashed again. The pattern is only broken with Enoch who “walked with God, and he was not, for God took him” – somehow Enoch escapes death. But he doesn’t remain to bruise the serpent’s head, and our search for the saviour continues.

Things seem pretty hopeful when Noah shows up – he’s described as the most righteous man of his generation, and as a result is rescued from the flood when the rest of mankind perishes. Yet even he turns out to be a disappoint, when we find him drunk in his vineyard a few chapters later. The search for the serpent crusher carries on, and by the time we reach the end of the Old Testament it would be easy to think that God had forgotten that obscure promise he made all those years ago.

It makes for thrilling reading then we finally meet the person of Jesus Christ at the start of Matthew’s gospel, and he goes head to head with Satan in the wilderness. Where Adam & Eve failed to obey God’s word and ate the fruit, Jesus resists Satan’s temptation and clings to God’s promises, trusting in his word when every instinct must have been telling him to listen to the Devil’s lies and eat. Finally the serpent crusher is here – and on the cross we see that promise fulfilled: they each destroy the other, as Jesus is nailed to a cross and killed, and Satan’s mortal power is swallowed up as the penalty for sin is paid once and for all. Only, thankfully, that’s not the end of the story, as Jesus is raised to life on the third day, triumphing over evil forever. That’s why Jesus is my hero, and why I’m persuaded that there’s nothing boring about a Biblical genealogy.

Lessons Learnt From My iPhone Development Sprint

Intro

What with Easter and a certain wedding here in the UK we’ve had a lot of Bank Holidays lately, so I had the opportunity to escape to my parents’ home in the Gloucestershire countryside for about 10 days. I decided I wanted to make the most of the time to develop an iPhone app that I’ve been thinking about recently. Last night at 11pm I submitted a binary of that app to Apple for approval – it’s called “PrayerMate” and it’s designed to help you organise your prayer life. In this post I want to write up some of my experiences and what I’ve learnt from it all.

Before I go any further, I should explain that I have a very poor track record of actually shipping anything. It’s taken me many years to catch on to the huge chasm that exists between “knowing Objective-C” and “raking in the profits from a successful app that is actually available for purchase on the app store and that people enjoy using and want to recommend to their friends”. You’d have thought it would be obvious that those two things are not the same, and yet I think a lot of us probably fall into the trap of thinking that “I theoretically know what would be involved in making something” is conceptually identical to having actually gone ahead and done it.

Recognising this about myself up front, I realised I was going to have to take special measures to make sure that this didn’t end up as yet another half-baked piece of code festering on my hard drive because finishing it off proved too much like hard work. Which leads to my first point: planning

The Planning Stage

Long before the holiday began I tried to plan out what I would and wouldn’t do during those 10 days. The product I had in mind was really well suited to a short development sprint, since the Minimum Viable Product was extremely simple, yet the scope for adding extra features over the long haul is vast. I made myself a list of all of the features I could think of, and was absolutely ruthless about what would make the cut for version 1.0. And I mean ruthless – initially I hadn’t even planned to allow people to delete prayer points once they’d added them to the database. This paid off in spades later in the development process, when it quickly became apparent that even the simplest feature has acres of hidden complexity lurking beneath the surface. Admittedly I ended up adding one or two of those features that I initially rejected later on, once I felt confident that they wouldn’t make shipwreck of the whole enterprise, and that whilst perhaps not essential they were nonetheless pretty important.

Having made my list of features, it broke down nicely into about four key areas, so I made myself a schedule for how I would use the 10 days. It worked out like so:

Thursday 21st (travelling): UI Design
Friday 22nd (Good Friday): Basic navigation
Saturday 23rd: Manage categories
Sunday 24th (Easter): DAY OFF
Monday 25th: Manage subjects
Tuesday 26th: Prayer mode
Wednesday 27th: In-app payment upgrade
Thursday 28th: Testing, bug-fixing
Friday 29th (Royal Wedding): Icon design, screenshots, writing blurb

I made sure I knew which days were going to be taken up with other stuff like Royal Wedding celebrations and so on, and deliberately scheduled a lighter workload for them. You’ll also notice I planned to have a full day off on Easter Sunday, the benefits of which I’ll talk about later on.

With hindsight, making this schedule was probably one of the most important factors in my success. I’ve spoken previously of the crippling effect of uncertainty in my life, and having this schedule meant that I always knew what I was supposed to be working on at any given point in time. It helped that it was more or less realistic – the first few days I finished nice and early and was then able to take the evening off to spend time with my parents, and one or two days I was still coding away at 10:30pm trying to get something finished when I’d much rather have been heading to bed – but by and large I was able to stick to that schedule right until the end, and it was a huge help.

Clearing the Stones

I deliberately didn’t start on the project in earnest before heading to my parents’, but for the week or so leading up to it I did try to clear the ground a bit so that I could get off to a running start. I knew that I wanted to base the project off one of the samples that Apple provides, so I made sure that was compiling and running properly on my iPod Touch. Perhaps that all sounds a bit meaningless and insignificant, but it had been a significant mental barrier to my starting earlier – I’d formerly tried to get that particular sample running and had broken it with some changes I’d made and didn’t really understand why it wasn’t working properly. I wan’t to make sure my first day of my sprint wasn’t going to be wasted faffing about stuff that I didn’t really care about.

Designing the User Interface

Again, because of the crippling effect of uncertainty, I knew that an important first step was going to be to mock up the user interface. If I didn’t know what I was supposed to be coding then there was no way on earth I was going to succeed in getting on with it. So whilst I was on the train from London Paddington to Kemble I fired up Balsamiq Mockups on my MacBook and worked out what the workflow was going to be. Nothing very fancy or very complicated – but I would have spent the rest of the week floundering if I hadn’t done this first.

iPhoneUI.png

Coding a Fake App

Over the next few days I then had to get on with the coding. The first day I created all of my view controllers, populating all of the tables with hardcoded data and allowing the user to navigate between it all. This worked out really well over the rest of the week – it meant that it felt like a working app right from the start, and every little bit of code I added could be seen in action as soon as it was written. It was basically a case of eliminating friction later in the week – there was none of the hassle, however small, of creating new classes and so on, because it was all there ready and waiting on day one.

Where Would I Be Without Stack Overflow?

I have to say, I would have been utterly lost without Stack Overflow. I must have used it about half a dozen times a day – it seemed like every time I Googled a problem I was having, somebody had already asked a question about it on Stack Overflow and there was already a bunch of awesome answers explaining how to solve the problem. In a few rare cases where a question didn’t already exist, I got some excellent answers promptly. Kudos to Jeff Atwood and the rest of the team involved in developing such an awesome site and community – in my experience it really works.

The Value of a Day Off

As I mentioned previously, I planned right from the start to have a complete day off on Easter Sunday, and get away from the computer as far as possible. Partly that’s because I think that’s the way God’s designed us – he set the pattern of working hard for six days and then having a day off himself, and who are we to work harder than God? But my experience bears out the wisdom of that. Quite apart from feeling more refreshed off the back of it, it meant that by Monday morning I was chomping at the bit to get back to work – I literally couldn’t wait to get on with it. Speaking for myself, if I work flat out without a break I’m rarely doing my best work, and usually end up wasting so much time that I would have been better off taking a day off anyway, so I don’t think you lose anything by trying to be a hero.

In a similar vein, I also made a point of going for a walk for about an hour every afternoon. I got through a lot of 5by5 podcasts during the week! The one day I failed to do that, my eyes were throbbing by the end of the day and I seriously regretted it. I should have listened to my mother – there’s no substitute for eating well and getting good exercise!

The “It’s Mostly Done Phase”

I found that by far and away the hardest phase of development was that penultimate day I scheduled in – “testing and bug-fixing”. I quickly realised that this is were 90% of my failed projects come to die. The product feels finished, although admittedly I had a list of about a dozen little niggles that needed fixing before I could launch. And, of course, being me, there was about a dozen other little niggles that I kind of knew about but hadn’t bothered to write down on my list.

This is where the schedule really broke down. Suddenly I was back in the land of uncertainty – which of those things should I tackle next? How am I going to solve that really hard-sounding one? Aghgh! It only makes matters worse that so many of them seem quite simple – all the more reason not to bother tackling them, since “I can always do that later, it’ll only take a minute”.

In the end I just had to bite the bullet, choose the hardest problem and crack on with it. I often find that once you actually start on something, it’s not nearly as bad as you think. Beginning is often the most difficult step.

Kicking It Out The Door

Once the holiday was over, I put the app to bed for a week whilst I got on with real life. I did show it to a few friends during that time and got a bit of user feedback, but I didn’t do any coding at all. I decided that if I was going to get this thing finished, I just needed to set myself a deadline and say that I was going to submit it to Apple no matter how many little niggles remained unfixed. Yesterday was clear in my diary, so I decided I’d just have to get as much done as I could and then live with the consequences for the rest. That turns out to be a really helpful motivator!

Even so, it amazed me how much courage it seemed to take to go ahead and submit the app. “How can I be sure if I’ve done enough testing?” “What if they find some really obvious bug right off the bat?” Well, you know what – it’s free to submit it, and you can always resubmit it later if they find something! It was a tremendous relief to finally get the thing submitted (even if it did require a complete reinstall of Xcode to overcome an annoying Java error – thanks again Stack Overflow!) and now I just have to work frantically on all of the marketing material whilst I wait to hear the result.

Conclusion

Overall, I’m so glad I decided to get on and make PrayerMate. I feel like I learnt loads about myself and why I find things hard and what I can do to help myself. And hopefully I’ve made a useful app that people will get some genuine benefit from as well. Here are my top five lessons:

  1. Clarify what you’re supposed to be doing at any given moment as much as possible
  2. Never believe the lie that something is “almost finished” until it is actually finished
  3. A very simple app that is finished is a lot more useful to people than a “fully featured” app that isn’t available for purchase
  4. Know when to stop working as well as when to get on with it
  5. You can get an awful lot done without the commitments on your time of “normal life”!

Be sure to watch out for PrayerMate in an App Store near you in the coming weeks!

King Of All, Slave Of All

Why Jesus is My Hero #14 of 52

The Experience of Human Leadership

Royal_Balcony.jpg

What’s your experience of those in power? Here in the UK we love to moan and complain about our political leaders, but by and large we have reason to be tremendously thankful for the kind of leadership we enjoy. But that’s not the case in many parts of the world. For many people, their experience of government is of corruption and of power-hungry dictators abusing their position for their own ends. A longing for something better is what’s driven so many in the Arab world of late to risk their lives in protest against oppressive regimes. Figures like Mubarak in Egypt and Colonel Gaddafi in Libya – history is rife with examples of people who’ve used their positions of influence to line their pockets and inflate their egos. Even in places where the government is democratically elected and accountable to the people, our leaders generally profit from the experience – just think of Tony Blair and the enormous consulting fees he now commands.

A Different Kind of Ruler

In Mark 10:35-45, Jesus speaks about his leadership style, and the contrast is stark. It’s clear right from the start of the passage that we are to think of Jesus as a ruler. Two of his disciples, James and John, approach him in v35 with a request:

“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.. Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”

They know that Jesus will one day be seated in glory as God’s king over the universe – he’s the ultimate ruler. And naturally, they want to make the most of their connection with him, and get some cushy cabinet positions in the new regime. When the other ten disciples find out that they’ve missed the boat in v41, they’re indignant that James and John beat them to it, and Jesus uses it as an opportunity to teach them all a lesson about what leadership looks like in his kingdom. He tells us what we already know about earthly kings, and then shows how the value system of heaven is completely different – have a look at v42:

“You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.”

The King Who Came To Serve

Greatness in God’s economy is completely backwards – the one with the highest honour is the one who is the lowest of the low, the one who has to clean the communal toilets just inside the pearly gates. The places of honour are reserved for those who make themselves slave of all – the very bottom of the heap. And beneath all of them, down on his hands and knees scrubbing away, is Jesus himself. Check out v45:

“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus is God’s King – that’s what the Son of Man means according to the Old Testament – all the disciples know he’s going to be enthroned in glory in the New Creation, and yet this king came to earth to serve. He’s the one who will ultimately be shown to be slave of all – the lowest of the low – who as a result is crowned with the greatest honour of all. He didn’t come driving an enormous limo with attendants feeding him grapes and fanning him to keep him cool; he lived in poverty and relative obscurity before ultimately giving his life to die on a cross.

Giving His Life as a Ransom For Many

But how is his death on the cross an act of service? Isn’t it just a tragic waste of life? Well, Jesus insists that his death had a purpose, and here he explains what that purpose was: he gave his life as a ransom for many. A “ransom” is a term from the slave market – it’s a price paid to free someone from slavery. The most famous ransom in the Old Testament is when God “ransomed” Israel from their slavery in Egypt and set them free to be their own independent nation again – it’s described in those terms again and again throughout the Bible, as a ransom. Jesus says his death will have that same effect: he will give his life to ransom many from slavery. Only the slavery he’s talking about isn’t physical slavery like the Israelites suffered in Egypt. He’s talking about our slavery to sin – the way that we’re held prisoners in bondage to our sin and its consequences. Earlier in Mark’s gospel Jesus has spoken of the blackness of the human heart and how it constantly pumps out selfishness and greed and evil desires like sewage. Even when we try to do right we find that we can’t, and besides, it’s far too late for us to change – even if we could stop disobeying God and start living perfectly the way he intended right now, we’d still have a mountain of debt we couldn’t possibly hope to pay – God would still be rightly angry at the way we’ve treated him. We are slaves to our sin and there’s nothing we can do about it.

But wonderfully, Jesus tells us here that by his death he can ransom us from sin – his death sets us free to live for God the way we were designed. He died the death that we deserved; he took all of God’s just anger at our sin upon himself; he paid our debt for us upon the cross. We have been ransomed from our slavery to sin. We are free.

An Invitation

But notice the qualification – he died for many, not all. An invitation has been extended to you, Jesus wants to serve you. But you need to accept that ransom on your behalf – you need to commit your life into Jesus’ hands. Don’t expect it to be a shortcut to glory and riches in this life – after all, to follow Jesus is to walk in his footsteps, a path of suffering and service of others – but make sure you accept this offer whilst it’s still open to you. One day Jesus will be seen to be crowned with glory and honour in God’s kingdom, and the recent celebrations on the streets of Egypt will be as nothing compared to the party on that day.