All posts by Andy Geers

Review: The Roots of Endurance

The Roots of Endurance

Over Christmas I had a bout of man-flu and bravely put myself to bed for a few days. It turned out to be really good for my soul, since I was tucked up with a copy of John Piper’s heartwarming book “The Roots of Endurance: Invincible perseverance in the lives of John Newton, Charles Simeon and William Wilberforce”. Piper takes these three spiritual heroes from the 18th-19th century whose lives were at least loosely intertwined, three characters who were especially marked by perseverance: John Newton was a pastor in Olney and London for forty three years; Charles Simeon was minister at Holy Trinity church in Cambridge for fifty four years, during the first twelve of which he sustained incredible opposition from the wealthy and influential “pew holders” of the church but who ultimately could not be swerved from getting on with his job of teaching the whole counsel of God from the Bible; and William Wilberforce campaigned for the abolition of the slave trade almost from the age of 21, when he first became a Member of Parliament, to the year before his death, a total of almost forty six years during which the movement was defeated no less than eleven times in parliament. Piper’s aim is to get under their skin and examine exactly how they persevered in the face of such pressure, and what motivated their devoted service of the cause of Christ over all those years, and it should come as no surprise that ultimately it was their joy in a deep, personal relationship with Jesus himself.

I’m not afraid to admit that one of the things I loved most about this book was its length: at only 166 pages in total it needn’t take you forever to read it. It basically just has one chapter for each man, plus an introduction and an epilogue, and each chapter is easily read in a single sitting. They’re obviously not the most in-depth biographies you’re ever going to read, but in many ways Piper isn’t so concerned with the bare facts about their lives as he is in the underlying theology and practice that made them tick, so there’s still probably something to be gained here even by those who are fairly familiar with the characters involved. It might also be worth mentioning that of course these three men were all English, and John Piper is both American and writing to a predominantly American audience, which might have been a recipe for frustration for English readers like myself, but in the end I hardly noticed it.

I found reading the book to be really refreshing and encouraging in my Christian life. The essence of Piper’s analysis is that all three men knew exactly how much they’d been forgiven by Christ, and they reminded themselves of that fact daily. They didn’t shy away from shining the lamp of God’s word into every dark corner of their lives and naming sin as sin. Simeon in particular didn’t equate living by grace as being the same as “feeling good about yourself” – he looked rather to the model of passages like Ezekiel 36 where God says that in the day where He will wash his people’s sins away they will loathe themselves for the way they’ve treated God. Knowing how little they deserved produced a real gospel joy in the fact that God graciously accepted them as his children through the merits of Jesus’ life and death, which in turn motivated them to press on in faithful service.

In summary: read this book. Especially if you find yourself flagging in the Christian life and start wondering how you’re ever going to keep going. God is a faithful God, and it turns out that it’s not really about us at all, but about what Christ has done and how we can enter into that.

The King Who Fears God – Why Jesus is My Hero #3 of 52

Human beings love to be lead. We may treat our politicians with contempt, but it’s only because we desperately want someone with backbone to take charge and say “I’m here now, it’s all going to be ok”. Yet human leadership always seems to fall short. I only need to say the word “Obama” and you’ll know what I mean.

top-trumps-saul.png

The Old Testament is full of ‘shadows’ that hint at the shape that the coming Messiah will take, and few are as crucial as that of The King. Like a game of Top Trumps, the Bible encourages us to examine these human figures and compare them to God’s heavenly king, Jesus, and see how they stack up. As we do so, we see more and more clearly just how awesome Jesus is. So in today’s round of “Bible Top Trumps” we’re going to be pitting Jesus against Israel’s first king: Saul. Our chosen stat is going to be the fear of God.

I have a bit of a soft spot for Saul because he’s sort of the anti-hero of my Old Testament adventure game, Ebenezer. When he was appointed king, everybody was so full of high hopes, including us as readers. The people were under threat from all kinds of external enemies and feeling desperately vulnerable. Saul’s name literally means “asked for”: they urgently wanted God to provide a king for them, and it seems clear that Saul is God’s provision. Before the prophet Samuel first lays eyes on him, he is told by God that “Tomorrow about this time I will send to you a man from the land of Benjamin, and you shall anoint him to be prince over my people Israel. He shall save my people from the hand of the Philistines” (1 Samuel 9:16). And initially things seem to go well: anointed by the Spirit of God, Saul leads the Israelites to victory against the Ammonites and against the Philistines.

But in no time at all things take a nosedive. However physically impressive and strong in battle he may be, Saul turns out to be weak in the fear of God. When God has commanded him to go one way, his fear of man kicks in and overrides. Take the incident in 1 Samuel 15. God has commanded him to devote to destruction the Amalekites and all their livestock, in judgement for their opposition to God and his people several hundred years earlier during their wanderings in the wilderness. When Samuel shows up after the battle, Saul bounds up to him and proudly announces: “I have performed the commandment of the Lord.” In a moment of black humour comes Samuel’s unforgettable reply: “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears and the lowing of the oxen that I hear?”

It turns out that Saul has not performed the commandment of the Lord at all. Despite being clearly told not to spare any of the livestock, Saul is persuaded by the people to save the best of the sheep and the oxen. It’s okay though, he’s got a really godly excuse: “the people spared the best of the sheep and of the oxen to sacrifice to the Lord”. How he expected to get away with it is mind boggling – it’s not like it’s that easy to hide flocks and flocks of sheep! The explanation for his behaviour comes a few verses later in v24:

“I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice.” (1 Samuel 15:24)

Samuel has to remind him who he is: “Though you are little in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel?” (v17) He’s the king! He’s supposed to be leading the people in godliness and in the fear of the Lord, and yet here is is, desperately afraid of their opinion, desperately craving their recognition and approval. Instead of leading them, the people are leading him. The result is catastrophic.

What a joy then, when one thousand years later Jesus shows up and demonstrates his perfect fear of God. Time after time he refuses to bow to pressure from those around him who want to shut him up and rid Jerusalem of his teaching. The night before his crucifixion, at a moment when he had every reason to fear what man could do to him, he chose instead to perform the commandment of the Lord and walk willingly to his death. “Father, not my will, but yours.” In a game of Bible Top Trumps he absolutely wipes the floor with Saul in the fear of God. For fearful people like me, having a King like that is something that makes me very happy indeed.

Praying For What God Has Promised Us

Pray

What kind of things should Christians pray for? World peace? An end to poverty? For the perfect boyfriend/girlfriend to come into our lives? For help losing weight? I’m sure those are all fine things to pray about. But this week I’ve been thinking about one particular (and perhaps surprising) answer to that question: Christians should pray for the things God has already promised to give us.

My friend Dave reminded me of this the other day after studying 2 Samuel 7. His namesake, King David, decides that it’s quite inappropriate for God not to have a permanent home for himself whilst David lives in comfort in a house of cedar – this is in a time when the ark of the covenant, symbolic of the presence of God, still took residence in a tent. But instead of allowing David to build Him a house, God turns around and says to David, “No, instead I’m going to build you a house”. And then he makes a whole bunch of amazing promises to David, in what has come to be known as the Davidic Covenant:

“I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may dwell in their own place and be disturbed no more… Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom… I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son… Your throne shall be established for ever.” (2 Samuel 7:9-16)

They’re amazing promises to David, to establish his dynasty forever – promises ultimately fulfilled in the reign of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of David. What’s surprising about this passage is how David responds: he proceeds to ask God to do the things God has just told him he’s going to do.

“You, O Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, have made this revelation to your servant, saying, ‘I will build you a house.’ Therefore your servant has found courage to pray this prayer to you… Now therefore may it please you to bless the house of your servant, so that it may continue for ever before you.” (2 Samuel 7:27-29)

It’s a tremendous model for us, because it reminds us of the extraordinary privilege of prayer. David would never have dared to ask God to establish his dynasty for all eternity – until the moment where God promised to do exactly that. How lightly we treat it when we think we can just waltz into God’s presence and start asking for things! And yet asking for things is exactly what God encourages us to do: the gospel promises give us courage to pray, but specifically they should give us courage to ask for the things promised.

I don’t know what your favourite promise in the Bible is – but have you ever thought to ask God to fulfill it in your life? Here are just a few I’ve thought of whilst mulling this over this week – why don’t you post a few of your own in the Facebook comments thing at the bottom:

  • Romans 8:28: “All things work together for the good of those who love God” – when hard stuff is happening in our lives, rather than just assuming God will do it, we should probably try asking God to use it for our good.
  • Ezekiel 36:26: “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” – I find myself constantly exasperated at how little I seem to care about my sin. I’ve been really encouraged this week to ask God to make me careful to obey him.
  • John 4:14: “Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” – when we so desperately seek satisfaction in all the wrong places, how much refreshment do we miss out on by failing to ask Jesus for the water he offers?

I’m sure that these aren’t the only things we should be praying about. But we should definitely recognise how huge it is to be asking for anything at all from the God of the universe, and at the same time not take his promises for granted.

Overflowing Fullness – Why Jesus is My Hero #2 of 52

Red and White

So how are those new year’s resolutions coming along then? It’s now the end of January, and if you’re anything like me, you’ve probably long since forgotten that you even made any. We’re often so full of good intentions, and sometimes we even manage to put a few of them into practice, but eventually we always run into our own limitations – resolutions fizzle out, our energy ebbs away, we discover the limits of our own abilities. We’re finite creatures and ultimately, however much we might try and deny it, we’re fundamentally needy: we’re unable to be all that we want to be and we’re dependent upon grace from outside ourselves.

That’s why I love one of the big themes of John’s gospel: Jesus’ fullness. We are empty and needy, but Jesus is the one who is full within himself, and he longs to share that fullness with us. John 1:16 puts it like this: “from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”

This fullness of Jesus is beautifully illustrated in John chapter 2 at the wedding in Cana. The bridegroom is at risk of being seriously embarrassed: his need and his finiteness is brought to the fore when he runs out of wine, a serious faux pas at a Jewish wedding at that time. Jesus’ mum throws him in the deep end and gets him to help out, and so reluctantly he tells the servants to fill six stone water jars with water, which he promptly transforms into wine of outstanding quality – so good that the master of the feast can’t help but comment on it. This is no Chateaux Le Plonk. And how much does Jesus make of the stuff? Well, we’re told that each of these jars holds between 20 and 30 gallons, and there are six of them. Let’s call that 25 gallons each, or about 680 litres. That’s 900 bottles of wine!!! And people think of Jesus as a party pooper!

It’s an absurd volume of wine, and I think the picture is abundantly clear, isn’t it? Life with Jesus is one of overflowing grace. Ludicrous fullness that can hardly be contained. It’s a little picture of what heaven will be like – a glorious banquet, a place of abundance where sin and death and sadness and emptiness is no more. Listen to these words from the prophet Isaiah:

“On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,
of rich food full or marrow, of aged wine well refined.
And he will swallow up on this mountain
the covering that is cast over all peoples,
the veil that is spread over all nations.
He will swallow up death for ever” (Isaiah 25:6-8)

Jesus gives out of his fullness: “from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” And so my emptiness and my neediness and my finite limitations are irrelevant. In fact, recognising them is a positive thing, since they serve to make me all the more ready to receive what Jesus has to offer. It’s wonderful news for needy people like me, and that’s why Jesus is my hero.

Review: Redeeming Singleness

Redeeming Singleness

At Euston Church we recently had a provocative Sunday sermon series from 1 Corinthian 7 by Charlie Skrine listening to what God says about marriage and singleness. It’s one of those subjects that everybody has an interest in, and also one of those chapters of the Bible that everybody has a different opinion on how to interpret. Yet however ambiguous some aspects of Paul’s teaching may be, it’s hard not to agree that at the very least Paul sets forth a radically positive view of singleness. In a sex-obsessed culture which pretty much assumes it’s a fundamental human right to fall in love and pursue a fulfilling sexual relationship with that person, whoever they might be and whatever your situations, the idea of being content to accept a single lifestyle and refrain from marriage just seems bizarre.

On the back of that sermon series, I decided to read Redeeming Singleness by Barry Danylak. It’s a Biblical theology of singleness, tracing the theme through the Bible timeline and showing how the idea is developed over time, and how it’s affected by the coming of Christ. It consists of six chapters, each of which I managed to read in a single sitting, making it quite achievable to read the whole book in a week. Starting with the book of Genesis he shows how the promises of the Abrahamic covenant with their emphasis on offspring play out in the rest of the Old Testament. He does a tour of the prophets, then shows how things are changed by Jesus’ arrival, and what Jesus himself taught on the subject. He then ends up with a look at 1 Corinthians 7 itself.

I particularly enjoyed his overview of the theme of ‘offspring’ within Isaiah, and how with the coming of the Suffering Servant there’s going to be a fundamental shift in how people become part of God’s family: now the children of the barren woman will be more than the children of she who is married (Is 54:1), and to the eunuch who chooses the things that please God will be given a name that is better than sons and daughters (Is 56:5). It’s not just that their reproach is taken away, but their situation is in fact better than those who simply have large earthly families.

He also uses the example of Daniel (for whom he presents evidence that he was probably made a eunuch in Babylon) to paint a truly compelling picture of the eunuch as the king’s loyal servant – without any chance of a dynasty of his own he poses no threat to the king, and also without children to look after him in his old age he is entirely dependent upon the king’s ongoing support and hence his own welfare is wrapped up in the welfare of the king – and so he faithfully serves his king undistracted by family concerns. The only question in Daniel’s case is which king is he serving – when the rubber really hits the road it turns out that it’s not King Nebuchadnezzar after all but the King of Heaven.

You can tell that the book is written by an academic and at times you have to do a bit of the work yourself in figuring out why the things he’s teaching you are so encouraging for daily living as a single person, yet at the same time he writes from personal experience as a single person himself, and you can tell that these are truths that matter to him. All in all it was a very helpful read that has done me a lot of good, and I highly recommend it.

I’m no hero – Why Jesus is My Hero #1 of 52

superman-emblem.jpg

I admit it: I want to be a hero. I love the sense of smug self-satisfaction I get after successfully leaping out of bed before 7am. I love anything that marks me apart from the rest of humanity and helps me feel like I might be special after all.

The trouble is, in lots of ways, I’m pretty mediocre. I’m downright average. In fact, in some departments I’m full on sub-standard – just ask my physiotherapist about my weak knees! One of the things that going to university in Cambridge does to you is that it quickly shatters any illusions you may have had about being exceptionally clever or talented – every day you’re bumping into people a hundred times smarter than you, and they almost certainly play the piano like a pro too. God makes each one of us differently with a unique set of gifts, and the simple fact is that some of us get a fuller measure than others. We may be equal in dignity, but that doesn’t mean we all stand the same chance of being hired by NASA to help send a rocket ship to Mars.

One of my common responses to my own limitations is to seek to live vicariously through other exceptional individuals. I think that’s what lies behind my choice of blog subscriptions: many belong to obscure software developers toiling away in unglamorous roles, but boy do they get stuff done. These guys know how to code! And maybe they’re hot on the accordion too just for kicks. I’m almost certain that’s why I follow Apple’s every move with such baited breath: it’s pure and simple hero worship, basking in the glory of geniuses who consistently manage to design things people want to own.

Thing is, my desire to be a hero brings me into conflict with the God who made me. I want his job, wanting people to worship me and recognise how special I am. There’s only room enough in this universe for one Supreme Being, and that makes me God’s enemy. That’s why this week I’m loving Romans 5:8-10:

“But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us… while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son”

It turns out I’m not a hero, I’m a sinner. But it also turns out that I don’t need to be a hero to find value and worth – Jesus is a hero in my place. Without doing anything to deserve it or earn it, whilst I was still God’s enemy, Jesus died to rescue me. I don’t need to stress about not being a hero, or try desperately to prove to myself that I am – he’s already accepted me by dying for me. No striving necessary, only simple, humble trust.

That’s why I’m starting to write this new series of blog posts, 52 reasons why Jesus is my hero: to help myself recognise just how much of a hero Jesus really is, and to try to turn my gaze away from myself.

Jonathan Edwards on Procrastination

A Summary of “The Sin and Folly of Depending on Future Time” by Jonathan Edwards

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately on the theme of procrastination and how hard it is not to waste the precious time we’ve been given. A friend of mine put me on to a very helpful essay by Jonathan Edwards, the latter day Puritan who lived during the 18th Century. The essay is absolute gold dust and well worth a read first-hand, but for many of us accomplished procrastinators, it’s simply too long! It’s also in somewhat antiquated English which doesn’t make it all that easy to read if you’re not used to the style. So I thought it would be helpful to write a little summary of the essay in simple English – I hope fans of Edwards won’t find this too offensive!

Though it’s of value to all people, whether religious or not, the essay is essentially a sermon on Proverbs 27:1:

“Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring.”

Even if you’re not normally a fan of the Bible, I think there’s some real wisdom in here that bears a moment of consideration – so do keep reading.

Three quick words of explanation:

  • The verse starts with basic principle: “Don’t boast about tomorrow” – don’t rely upon there being a tomorrow; don’t act as though you own the future, as though you’re sure it exists and that you have control over what you can do with it
  • It ends with a reason: “You don’t know what it will bring” – anything could happen: you might die, you might get sick, the London Underground might be shut down by a snow storm, rendering your plans moot.
  • Edwards offers a caveat: in saying “don’t rely upon there being a tomorrow”, he doesn’t mean “rely upon there not being a tomorrow” – if you knew that today was your last day on Earth for certain, you’d neglect lots of responsibilities that are really important to take seriously (like paying off your mortgage), and perhaps do some things that aren’t the highest priority (like choosing the hymns for your funeral)

What It Means to Follow the Principle

To put this into practice (“Don’t boast about tomorrow”) will involve two things:

  1. Don’t rely upon certain things happening tomorrow, and put things off until they do – “I’ll finish off this essay during that free slot tomorrow”, “I’ll wait until my student loan comes through and then do X Y Z…”, “I’ll survive until the Christmas holidays and then get my morning Bible reading back on track” – who knows if the situation will really be as you expect by that time, and if you’ll still be inclined to do those things when that time comes around
  2. Don’t rely upon having a tomorrow at all – life is a mist, and who knows if you’ll still be here?

Some Examples

Here are some examples of what it would look like to rely upon future time:

  1. You might be obsessed with ‘things’ as though your happiness depended upon them – if only I have that relationship, that gadget, that job, then I’d be fulfilled. Of course we’re to enjoy stuff where possible, but we must hold them lightly as fleeting gifts from a good God, who himself is the only lasting source of fulfilment and happiness. Those other things might be gone by tomorrow, and can never bring lasting joy.
  2. You might be proud of your circumstances, your possessions or your good looks – but you ain’t gonna be able to keep them!
  3. You might envy other people for how easy life seems for them or how much people admire and respect them – but their situation might be changed by tomorrow, so isn’t worth craving.
  4. You might merrily continue a way of life that you need to be rescued from – presumably because you imagine you can be rescued another time?
  5. You might fail to do something that must be done before you die – this is the classic “I’ll repent on my deathbed” fallacy
  6. You might do stuff today which is going to need undoing – perhaps you’re busy defrauding someone on the hope that you can make restitution later?

Why We Shouldn’t Rely on Future Time

The reason why it’s daft to rely on future time is simple: we have absolutely no grounds whatsoever for relying on that future time existing. God hasn’t promised that we’ll live to see tomorrow, and nor can we rely on it. As much as modern medicine may have lulled us into a false sense of security, people still get sick and die suddenly, even at a young age. Accidents happen. There’s simply no reason to presume that we’ll still be here tomorrow.

Some Tests

Edwards offers the following tests for whether we might be relying on tomorrow:

  1. Do you set your heart on ‘things’ more than you would if you knew this was your last day?
  2. Wouldn’t you stick your nose in other people’s business less if you knew that you were going to have to give an account of your own affairs tonight? Wouldn’t you be a little more concerned about how things are going in your own life?
  3. Wouldn’t you be less obsessed with rivalries between the various clans you support and oppose? What does it matter whether iOS is better than Android or Arsenal is better than Chelsea if there might be no tomorrow? Even the most fierce rivalries will be ended by death: dead men are entirely at peace as they lie side by side in the cemetary
  4. Do you ever do things, coming up with arguments to convince yourself that there’s nothing wrong with them, that you’d never dare to do if you knew you were facing judgement tonight?
  5. Do you do stuff on the assumption that you’ll repent afterwards?
  6. Do you fail to make the most of today as though it might be your very last opportunity?
  7. Do you base your security for eternity on less-than-certain foundations? Have you ever really looked into Jesus’ claims firsthand before deciding there’s no hell? If God were to ask you “Why should I let you into heaven?”, is the answer you’d give certainly going to be enough to get you in?

If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these things, it’s probably a sign that you’re relying upon there being a tomorrow.

How to Spend Every Day

So how should we live our lives? Well, the massive advantage of not being told exactly how long we’ve got left is that it enables us to live every day as though it could be our last – that we should be ready for the end to come. You could be dead by this time tomorrow – you’ve no reason at all to rely upon it being otherwise. As you’re about to open that Facebook tab or check your email one last time, remember that it might be the last thing that you ever do.

Here are two motivations to stop relying on future time:

  1. If you really lived as though today might be your last, imagine how much more peace and security you would feel (and genuinely possess), both about your life and your death. No more feelings of guilt about the things you haven’t done, no more danger of meeting God unprepared.
  2. How much unnecessary stress is caused by our procrastination, and how many souls are needlessly condemned to eternal judgement because people keep putting off the inevitable and relying upon future time. Consider the five foolish virgins in Jesus’ parable: when the bridegroom showed up they were surprised, and found unprepared, having no oil in their lamps. And while they were at the shops to buy more, the five who were ready went in with him to the marriage; and the door was shut against them, and they came afterwards crying in vain, “Lord, Lord, open to us.”

You Can’t Have it Both Ways

Earlier this term, we were preaching through the book of James at the Cornhill Training Course (where I’m studying). James is writing to a church that seems to be in a real mess: there’s infighting and jealousy, the rich are given preferential treatment and people seem to be arrogantly going about their business with no reference to God. In diagnosing their situation, one of the phrases James comes back to a couple of times is “double-mindedness“. These are Christians who are trying to live with a foot in two camps: they claim to be those who follow God and want to go his way, yet they’re also often living by the world’s standards, playing by the world’s rules and judging things from the world’s perspective. It’s fair to say that James doesn’t mince his words in response – he lets them know in no uncertain terms what he thinks of their two-timing ways:

“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” (James 4:1-8)

How often we fall into this trap! We wonder why we’re so discontent, while all the while we’re being torn between two competing desires – trying to please God whilst secretly also trying keep all our idols happy at the same time. I make a priority of going to Bible study and then grumble that I have no time left over for my hobbies. I make a commitment to financially support my church, and then grumble that I don’t have enough money to buy the latest gadgets. I make a decision to tell all my colleagues I’m a Christian and then feel frustrated that everybody thinks I’m an idiot. I feel guilty about persistent sin in my life, but ultimately I love indulging it too much to give it up. The list goes on and on – there are so many different situations where I’m trying to be friends with the world whilst also trying to please God.

But James says you just can’t have it both ways. To be a friend of the world is to be an enemy of God. Trying to keep them both happy is like expecting your wife to be supportive of your adulterous relationship with another woman – James says we’re cheating on God if we’re double-minded and God won’t stand for it. He calls us to repent, and then holds out the amazing hope of grace: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” How merciful God is for not giving up on us, with our foolish ways!

So I’ve been really challenged this term to take a long hard look at my life and stop trying to have it both ways. To follow God means to forsake the ways of the world – to make a deliberate choice to reject its values and its priorities, essentially to become an exile and a fugitive. But there remains a better home to look forward to, a new creation for which I wait with baited breath.

Old Testament Adventures Podcast #3

This is the third episode of the Old Testament Adventures Podcast, discussing the development of my Old Testament adventure game, Ebenezer. It’s just under 45 minutes long.

Show Notes

Scheduling

  • The next goal for the project is to get some users to test it
  • We discuss ways of avoiding the danger that the project drags on in the absence of hard deadlines
  • Andy talks about some practical things that have helped him, such as storyboarding each section as a separate exercise from coding it up
  • We’re still looking for Blender artists to help model the environments
  • It’s a challenge to make long-term goals that are big enough to challenge you yet still attainable

Going for Glory

  • When does the desire to make the best possible game for God become more about personal glory?
  • In 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 Paul talks about deliberately not being impressive so that it was obvious that it was the word of God doing the work
  • Does this mean its okay that so many Christian games are poorly polished and unengaging for non-believers?
  • Ultimately, even if you made the most amazing game ever, people would still hate it because of its association with Christianity, so if you do it for the glory you will be disappointed

Thinking of Random Uses for Items

  • Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers” discusses the difference between “convergent” and “divergent” questions in intelligent tests
  • An example of a divergent question would be to come up with as many different uses for an item as possible, the quirkier the better
  • As practice for our puzzle-writing, we discuss some uses for a lemonade bottle or “War and Peace”
  • It’s surprisingly hard to acquire items in a Christian game if you rule out theft, making item-based puzzles rarer than usual

Old Testament Adventures Podcast #2

This is Episode 2 of our podcast where we talk about the development of Ebenezer, my Old Testament adventure game. You can leave comments using the Facebook widget at the bottom of the entry page for this blog post. Episode 1 can be found here.

The show is about 55 minutes long.

Show Notes

Environment Concept Art

  • Andy recently sent out some of my new concept artwork to the mailing list (sign up now!)
  • We discuss the challenge of turning concept art into 3D content, particularly given the cartoony style we’re seeking
  • The cancelled LucasArts project “Sam & Max: Freelance Police” had amazing (2D) concept art but ugly (3D) screenshots, and that’s frustrating
  • Andy is on the look out for 3D Blender artists to model the environments – get in touch if that’s you!
  • We discuss various 2D/3D hybrid approaches, such as limiting the camera angles or using 3D models but rendering them as 2D images
  • A good example of one approach is the Monkey Island Uber Edition tech demo (here and here)
  • The original motivation for going 3D was from “Simon the Sorceror 3D”: despite being unbelievably ugly it demonstrated the superior potential for drama from a 3D game

Character Design

  • Work is now underway to design the characters
  • Though 1 Samuel 8-12 makes excellent game material, it features all Israel gathering, which means a large number of characters
  • Part of the process involved writing a description of each character
  • It revealed how shallow and ill-defined most of those characters are at the moment. They exist to serve a function within the story but as yet have no clear personality.
  • Great quote from Ron Gilbert on adventure game design: “World, character, and story. In that order. Create a compelling place people want to visit, populate it with compelling characters, and then tell a good story.” (read it here)
  • When developing Psychonauts, Tim Schafer apparently wrote Facebook profile pages for each of his characters to help him give them personalities (podcast here)

Anachronism

  • The game used to be much longer than it is now, since a lot has been cut out
  • The original story had a lot of anachronism in it, like the complicated nation-wide communication system: Quail Mail, and related internet cafes
  • Andy’s approach to anachronism is similar to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books: reimplementing modern concepts with the technology available to them
  • As part of all that, there is a coffee shop in the game, despite the many centuries between when the game is set and when coffee first started being drunk.
  • However, so much has now been cut out that coffee has become the only anachronism left.
  • Should we remove the coffee or add in more anachronisms elsewhere?

Marketing

  • How do you describe a Point & Click adventure game to people who have never played one? How do you explain the concept of a “puzzle”?
  • We discuss what the target audience is and what kind of devices they’ll have: do we need to worry about the game working on the early versions of the iPhone / iPod Touch, given that it will probably be another 18 months or so before release?
  • Given we’re targetting a niche market, we don’t want to make it any smaller than necessary by requiring cutting edge hardware.
  • Using the Unity engine to target the iPhone has also become a potentially risky venture due to Apple’s recent Terms of Service changes. We discuss the pros and cons.

A reminder that you should sign up for the mailing list for all of the latest news

West Cornwall Pasty vs the Big Mac

I think most of us instinctively know that a Big Mac is not exactly going to be healthy for you. But how does it stack up against a Large Traditional steak pasty from the West Cornwall Pasty Company? I suspect that many of us think of the pasty as a slightly healthier alternative. As a lover of Cornwall and Cornish culture it pains me to say this, but the results are not good:

Typical Values Units Per Big Mac Big Mac & Large Fries Per Pasty
Energy kCal 490 950 1040
Protein g 28 33 36.3
Carbohydrates g 41 101 94.5
of which Sugars g 8 9 4.2
Fat g 24 47 57.5
of which Saturated g 10 12 24.2
Fibre g 4 10 6
Salt g 2.1 3 5

The large pasty has over twice the calories, over twice the saturated fats and over twice the salt content of the Big Mac. Even once you add in a large fries, the pasty comes off worse.

No surprises then that it’s surprisingly difficult to get access to the nutritional information for the West Cornwall Pasty Co. I had to email them to find this out.

Edit: If you ever want to find a gluten free pasty in Cornwall, check out Harbour Lights in Coverack.

Old Testament Adventures Podcast #1

This is our inaugural Old Testament Adventures podcast, which I hope may become a semi-regular feature discussing the ups-and-downs of developing our Old Testament graphic adventure game, “Ebenezer“. We’ve none of us done this before, so it takes us a few minutes to warm up, but we tackle some really important and interesting issues that hopefully you will find thought-provoking.

Show Notes

Concept artwork

  • Andy is struggling with the question of how to set a budget and exactly what to spend it on
  • we discuss how to tap into the vastly under-served Christian market whilst battling the perception of “Christian naffness”
  • Dave asks if we can use the low budget as a strength rather than a weakness, by choosing a deliberately simple art style like South Park, or Time Gentlemen Please by Zombie Cow Studios.

Women in Bible games

  • our Bible passage is one of many that doesn’t explicitly feature any women, meaning that any female characters are going to have to be ones that we create. We discuss some potential candidates
  • Monkey Island seems to have a disproportionately large number of female fans compared to other games/genres, so it seems to be an issue worth spending time on
  • all the actors we’re mates with are actresses, so it’s decidedly inconvenient that the cast of the game is balanced the other way
  • but that’s okay, because Dave Hall (the narrator for my video “The OTHER Secret of Monkey Island“) apparently sounds just like the actor Bill Nighy from Pirates of the Caribbean

Making God’s involvement clear

  • the vital role of the narrator in Biblical narrative
  • how to get the Bible into the game itself without ramming it down the player’s throat
  • Dave has no idea how great coffee is because he has no sense of smell
  • we discuss means of making God’s involvement in the events clear without sending the wrong message about how he works in real life

What is the game teaching?

  • how do you avoid merely teaching a moral lesson about “treating God a certain way”?
  • how do you keep the focus on God: what do we learn about him through this passage?
  • what difference does Jesus make to the application? How do we avoid directly applying the OT to us as NT believers without considering the implications of Christ’s coming
  • How do we draw out the ways the narrative points us forwards to Jesus?
  • Are there examples in non-interactive media that does this well?

Unity iPhone Capabilities

Some Initial Impressions of Using Unity iPhone

For a while now I’ve wanted to develop a version of my Old Testament adventure game for the iPhone / iPod Touch using the Unity game engine. But it requires so much initial upfront investment that I’ve been endlessly putting off the decision, particularly since I had no idea exactly what an iPhone was really capable of – would it be able to handle a bunch of animated 3D characters without grinding to a halt? Well, in the end I took the plunge, and here are my findings!

The True Cost of Unity iPhone

Firstly, though, let’s just sum up exactly what an upfront investment we’re really talking about here. It turned out to be rather more expensive than I’d anticipated!

  • Unity iPhone Basic License: $399 – this cost is pretty transparent, no surprises here.
  • Mac Mini: $599 – in case it wasn’t clear, Unity iPhone requires a Mac development environment, since you need to be able to run Xcode from the Apple SDK. If you’ve already got one you can obviously discount this cost. The cheapest piece of Apple kit is probably the Mac Mini starting at $599, I personally got a discount on a 13″ Macbook coming out at about $800.
  • iPod Touch: $199 – I’d hoped I could do all my development in the Unity development environment and then borrow my housemate’s iPhone to do some occasional performance testing, but it turns out that a physical iPhone/iPod touch is essential for your ongoing development: all interaction takes place using an actual device which then sends signals back to your dev environment. For performance reasons you may be best off buying a second-hand 1st generation iTouch from eBay or something – mine set me back about $100.
  • Apple iPhone Developer Program: $99 per year – again, because of the way you need a physical device for development purposes, you can’t leave signing up for the Apple dev program until the end. You have to pay the annual fee before you can even get started using Unity in earnest.

Total cost: $1,398 (minimum $498 if you already have a Mac and an iPhone).

The Software Itself

The first big surprise for me when firing up Unity iPhone was the extent to which it is an entirely separate product from the normal Unity. This may be a versioning thing – I’ve only ever seen the latest version of Unity – and the iPhone version may just be a version or two behind, perhaps. For now, at least, many of the interface elements are quite different if you’re used to the standard Unity. For example, the widgets for rotating game objects work differently – not necessarily worse, just differently. The whole thing just looks a lot blockier and more old-fashioned, for some reason.

Secondly, as I’ve already hinted at in the costs section, the workflow isn’t entirely what I’d expected. There’s a great little summary of this on GameDev, but here’s a brief outline:

  1. Rather than running an iPhone emulator on your Mac, you actually run a Unity emulator on your iPhone!
  2. All the code is then executed on your Mac during development, and Unity just streams low-quality images to your physical device. Touches / tilt readings are then fed from the device back to Unity. This means that (apart from GUI interaction) mouse clicks on your Mac are ignored – you really need a physical device if you’re to test any kind of interaction with the user.
  3. When you’re happy with your code, Unity builds an Xcode project which can then be compiled like any other iPhone app and downloaded to your device for testing. This can be done in a single click from within Unity, but takes a few minutes to happen.

In case you missed the small print, there are a number of important pieces of .NET (C#) functionality that are not available in Unity iPhone:

  • Anything that uses System.dll or System.Xml.dll. This includes reflection, but also things like System.Collections.Specialized – you’ll have to stop using HybridDictionaries and things like that.
  • Anything from .NET 2.0, like generics

(Update: Unity 1.6 was released today that actually fixes all of that – you can now use .NET 2.1 functionality and System.dll)

Unity iPhone also has no support for programming in Boo, for reasons that I’m not sure of.

Hardware Capabilities

For me, at least, the million dollar question was regarding the hardware capabilities of the iPod Touch/iPhone – especially the first generation ones. The iPhone 3GS is a seriously powerful computer, but if you make your game so that it only runs on the latest hardware then you’re ruling out a large proportion of your potential audience. I deliberately bought myself a first generation iPod Touch off eBay – apparently the first generation iPhone has very similar specs in terms of CPU speed.

I have to say, my expectations were not very high when I finally got to the point of being able to test. Since I’m developing an adventure game, I need to be able to have a good number of animated characters on screen at the same time, and I’d feared that the iTouch just wouldn’t cope, particularly by the time you’d added in a few particle effects and background scenery.

But I was totally wrong – these devices are remarkably capable, and the guys from Unity have clearly done a great job of optimising their software to squeeze out every last drop of speed.

For testing purposes I used a character model with 738 vertices and 692 faces. The armature featured about 30 bones, and here you can see the frame rates I was getting as I added more and more of these characters on screen, all running the same animation but out of sync (just in case Unity tries to do any clever optimisations for characters at the same frame of the same animation):

Characters Total Faces Total Bones Frames Per Second
1 692 30 30
5 3,460 150 25
15 10,380 450 8.5

Even with 15 characters, running just above 8 FPS, it didn’t look so jerky as to be unplayable – at least not for an adventure game like mine. Exactly what framerate you need probably depends on how important fast responses are to your game.

The scene below with 5 characters, a relatively simple environment mesh and a particle simulation ran quite happily at about 22 FPS.

UnityiPhoneTest1.png

Conclusion

All told I’m immensely positive about what Unity iPhone is capable of, and have high hopes for what I’m going to be able to achieve with it. The engine is a real joy to work with, and the capabilities of the hardware far exceed what I’d expected from it. The Unity community is incredible, and help is always available when you need it.

If you’re thinking about taking the plunge, I hope you’ve found this article helpful. Feel free to Twitter me if you want to ask any further questions, or check out the UnityAnswers website.


The OTHER Secret of Monkey Island

Ever since I first read Jorrin Quest’s article, Monkey Island: The Revelation, I’ve been fascinated by piecing together a coherent explanation of what’s going on behind the scenes of Ron Gilbert’s two great masterpieces: The Secret of Monkey Island, and Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge. The article presents a conspiracy theory that suggests that the whole world these games take place in is actually a themepark, and that Guybrush is really a lost little boy with an over-active imagination.

There are three main problems with this theory:

  • There is strong counter evidence – which some dismiss as just being attempts to throw us off the scent – such as the fact that Elaine seems to continue to exist in some sense “outside” of Guybrush’s fantasy. She suggests that LeChuck has put some kind of spell on Guybrush.
  • It ignores many other clues about Guybrush’s family history. At best, it can only be a partial explanation of the facts.
  • Ultimately, many people find it deeply unsatisfying – it seems to take the essence out of this world that they have derived so much enjoyment from.

In response to the feedback that I received from my last video – The TRUE Secret of Monkey Island – I have put together a sequel which attempts to do justice to ALL the facts. Behold: The OTHER Secret of Monkey Island (direct YouTube link here).

One of the key writers on Ron Gilbert’s Monkey Island games was Tim Schafer, who alongside Dave Grossman wrote a substantial portion of the dialogue for the games. Whilst it’s not generally believed that he knows the full details of Ron’s master plan, he must have been given a certain amount of information in order to be able to do his job. It provides a fascinating perspective on the world of Monkey Island to examine one of Schafer’s own games: Psychonauts.

In Psychonauts, the player meets various disturbed individuals. The hero, Raz, is able to “enter” their subconscious minds, and each level of the game is then a physical manifestation of the various neuroses and traumas of those characters. Take, for example, the asylum warden haunted by his poor performance at war strategy games despite his descent from the line of Napoleon. His mind then takes the form of one giant strategy game that must be won in order to free him from the tyranny of his failure.

psychonauts.jpg

Although it’s generally accepted that Psychonauts was inspired by a scrapped scene from Schafer’s Full Throttle game, it’s not impossible that there could also have been some cross pollination from Ron’s games. At the very least, it provides a fascinating lens through which to view the world of Monkey Island.

Could it in fact be a representation of Guybrush’s mental baggage? Might he be haunted by some past trauma that took place whist visiting a themepark?

LeChuck then truly does represent his mean older brother, Chuckie, with his “evil eyes” at the end of the second game indicating some kind of temporary triumph of this inner demon over Guybrush’s sanity.

Could the Voodoo Lady’s guiding presence represent some kind of psychiatrist helping Guybrush search out the suppressed secrets of his past and destroy his mental cobwebs?

Guybrush’s Traumatic Past

In a notorious interview on IRC, Ron Gilbert made the following comment about Guybrush’s relationship to LeChuck:

<Ron-G> In one sense, yes they are brothers, in another way, they are not. If you get what I mean.

Superficially, the evidence within the game backs up LeChuck’s claim: how else would Guybrush be able to use his own father’s bone to make the Voodoo doll that defeats LeChuck? Except that we only know he calls this man “Dad” – we have no proof that he is a blood relation of Guybrush. It’s interesting that Guybrush always chooses his Dad’s bone – is it possible that had he chosen his Mom’s bone, the doll would not have worked?

I believe so: Guybrush and LeChuck are step brothers. When you purchase the (otherwise useless) feather pen from the antique shop on Booty Island, Guybrush exclaims that it is “just like the feather pen from Mom and Dad’s wedding”. In other words: his parents married within his lifetime. We know that LeChuck is “Dad”‘s son, meaning that Guybrush’s mother must have married LeChuck’s father.

other_secret_married.gif

What’s more, when hanging above the acid pit in his dungeon, LeChuck claims that Guybrush was an orphan, meaning he must have been adopted by his Mom at some point before she (re-?)married.

other_secret_orphan.gif

In my view, frequently overlooked is the fact that Guybrush’s parents now appear to be dead. They turn into skeletons during his dream, and it’s their skeletons that you find in the Lost and Found at the end. Guybrush lives with the belief that they abandoned him, a claim that they strenuously deny. I’m now far into the realm of speculation, but given their warnings at the end about the presence of “murderers and white slavers” at themeparks, could it be possible that they were in fact MURDERED? Their sudden disappearance might appear to Guybrush as though they had abandoned him. It is, after all, curious that they should be found in a “Lost Parents” area – more naturally they are for “Lost Children”.

other_secret_murderers.gif

Such a traumatic event taking place whilst visiting a themepark would inevitably leave it’s mark on a young boy growing up. Who could blame Guybrush for having to do battle with the demons of his past in the arena of the Big Whoop amusement park?

But Who Is Elaine?

I’ll be honest that for me the big unresolved question is the identity of Elaine. Also in the IRC interview, Ron Gilbert says this about her:

<Ron-G> Elain never really liked GB and thought of him as more of a little brother.

Could she be some relation of Guybrush? Before you throw your arms up in the air in disgust at this idea, given her romantic involvement to Guybrush, just remember that Ron Gilbert was heavily influenced by the Star Wars movies – and who could forget that unfortunate kiss between Luke and Leia?

Guybrush does make a passing reference to having a sister in Wally’s house – although he could just be blagging in order to cover up his having owned a dolls’ house (he also says he has a lot of hairy cousins when you read a particular library book!)

other_secret_sister.gif

In truth, we shall probably never know. But perhaps all this brings us one step closer to finally answering that great mystery: what IS the Secret of Monkey Island?

If you found this interesting, please watch my other video: Monkey Island meets the Old Testament.

The Valley of Vision

I came across this prayer from the Puritan book “The Valley of Vision” this week over on Justin Taylor’s blog, and it has spoken really powerfully to how I’ve been feeling lately:

Lord, high and holy, meek and lowly,
Thou has brought me to the valley of vision,
where I live in the depths but see thee in the heights;
hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold
Thy glory.

Let me learn by paradox
that the way down is the way up,
that to be low is to be high,
that the broken heart is the healed heart,
that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit,
that the repenting soul is the victorious soul,
that to have nothing is to possess all,
that to bear the cross is to wear the crown,
that to give is to receive,
that the valley is the place of vision.

Lord, in the daytime stars can be seen from deepest wells,
deepest wells,
and the deeper the wells the brighter
Thy stars shine;

Let me find Thy light in my darkness,
Thy life in my death,
that every good work or thought found in me
Thy joy in my sorrow,
Thy grace in my sin,
Thy riches in my poverty
Thy glory in my valley.

Sometimes as Christians it’s all too easy to fool ourselves and each other that all is fine, that we’re all basically doing alright, until we all appear so “sorted” that we’re each afraid to admit to the other just how desperately messy our lives are and how much life really gets us down. Well, this week God has really reminded me that that’s not Christianity – far from it. True Christianity is a message about a saviour who came to a people who were far from sorted – why else would they need rescuing? God didn’t send his son lightly – he sent him because there was no other way: we cannot fix ourselves or dig ourselves out of this hole we’re in. Our sin is too severe for that – too all encompassing and destructive. Even if we were to build for ourselves a perfect world, our sin would keep us from enjoying it – why, even the good already in this world I can’t seem to appreciate without screwing it up somehow or other. Yet Jesus came as the rescuer who reaches out with open arms to pull us from the miry bog and out of the clutches of the tangled weeds of sin. He DIED for my sin and PAID the price. In him I am made perfect even whilst I am yet such a messy work-in-progress. And at the very point where I am brought so low by awareness of my sin and my helplessness that I can barely dare to hope that Jesus would want me – in the valley, so to speak – that is where I find the vantage point I need to see things clearly, that is where I feel my need keenly enough to cry out, and so the broken heart becomes the healed heart.

In the words of Horatio Spafford:

My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!

My sin, not in part but the whole,

Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,

Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

Amen.

Doing Things Badly is the First Step Towards Doing Them Well

Whenever an idea for a project first starts to germinate, it’s inevitable that it contains a lot of holes and flaws. If I were really smart I’d accept that fact, write the idea down and begin to slowly work on those holes and polish the idea up until it was really great. But in my pride I object to the fact that it’s not perfect straight away, and the fear of failure often makes me give up prematurely. As consumers we tend to only ever see the finished product – be that a movie or a novel or a piece of music that we’ve particular enjoyed. We tend to think of them as though they’d been spun out of the author’s mind in that completed form, directly onto paper. But such thinking is fatal to creativity. As a creator, it just makes me wallow in self-pity rather than getting on with things.

Whilst working on my Old Testament adventure game, Ebenezer, I’ve been struggling with this problem on and off. I’ve spent the last few months sketching out a very rough version of the game in Unity, but I keep being hindered by doubts that it’s not up to scratch. Well, buddy, it’s not supposed to be perfect! Having a bad version of a project together in working form is an important first step towards making it better. It doesn’t matter that it sucks – that just helps me know what areas to focus on so that the finished product doesn’t suck.

To that end, today has been an incredibly helpful day. I talked a friend through my prototype version, and it both helped me realise that it’s not half as bad as I thought it was, and also showed me that with a few simple tweaks suggested by my friend, it instantly became a whole heap better. So consider that my tip of the day: doing things badly is the first step towards doing them well.

The True Secret of Monkey Island

What is the Secret of Monkey Island? Created by Ron Gilbert and his team in 1990, in my opinion the greatest video game of all time, the Secret of Monkey Island, teased us with the notion of a great mystery, but never actually reveals what it is. As explained in this interview, Ron Gilbert planned to make a trilogy of games, and it was the third that was to explain the secret to us. But he left LucasArts before ever getting to make it.

For years various theories have circulated on the Internet, and by far the most popular view is explained by an article by Jorrin Quest. I’ve put together the following video to explain (Warning – contains BIG spoilers to MI1+2):

I hope you enjoy it!

To God Be the Glory

It can’t be denied that as a species, human beings have an enormous capacity for kindness. Time would fail to tell of the occasions when friends of mine have gone far beyond and above the call of duty in their love for me and for others. So perhaps it’s no surprise that we sometimes feel these good works of ours are grounds for pride, as discussed previously. But the gospel destroys our grounds for pride by reminding us that these good works of ours are really God’s works, prepared in advance for us:

“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10)

In the sovereignty of God, he planned where we would end up, and the circumstances in which we would find ourselves. Both the specific needs we will be confronted with, and the gifts and resources we will be equipped with to meet those needs are ordained by God. Instinctively, I think we recognise that fact when others help us out of a situation of dire need – at least for the Christian person, it feels natural to thank God for their support.

We see this illustrated for us in the Old Testament, where even the greatest victories of the people of God are not attributed to them and their strength, but to the Lord and his mighty power. Take, for example, one the best-known victories in the Bible: that of David over Goliath. The situation makes it clear that the credit doesn’t belong to David – this young, scrawny shepherd boy armed only with five tiny pebbles and a sling clearly didn’t stand a chance against the gigantic Philistine, the shaft of whose spear was as thick as a weaver’s beam. But David never doubted what the result would be. His motto:

“All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves; for the battle is the LORD’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.” (1 Samuel 17:47)

For sure, David was the human agent God used to deliver his people from the Philistines. It was David who had to gather up his pebbles from the stream; it was David who had to make the effort to stand up to Goliath and confront him when nobody else would dare; it was David who had to take aim and sling his pebbles and slay the mighty tyrant. But David saw the truth throughout: the battle was the LORD’s. Without the Lord governing and directing his every step, David would never have been so confident of a favourable outcome for the Israelites. If God could subdue the mighty Philistines by the hand of this single shepherd boy, then he could do it with anyone – David knew it wasn’t his right to take the credit for himself.

We see the same story over and over again in the Old Testament. Gideon is another example, where God deliberately thins out the Israelites army again and again until only a few hundred men remain, “In order that Israel may not boast against me that her own strength has saved her” (Judges 7:2). The victory had nothing to do with Israel, and everything to do with God.

So next time you find yourself tempted to feel proud about something you’re doing for God, ask yourself who put you in this position? Who gave you the gifts and abilities that made you able to do this? Who instilled in you the desire to serve in this way? And just see if the credit isn’t really due to God, and not to you.

Balsamiq FTW!

I’m really behind the times here, but in the last few weeks I’ve been playing around with a great little product called Balsamiq Mockups. It’s dead simple, and allows you to quickly and easily create… well… mockups, be that for your user interfaces or your web pages or whatever it is that needs designing. I’m currently using this to sketch out what kind of content we want on the new Proclamation Trust website before we let some designers work on the look and feel. Doing mockups like this is a great way to help everybody on the team understand what I’m up to and to give their input, even the totally non-technical ones.

Balsamiq comes with a great big palette of common UI elements, and then you just drag and drop them as you want. It all has a pleasing hand-draw feel to it, which helps remind everybody that this is just a mockup, not the real thing (you just know how managers love to assume you’re nearly finished once they see an authentic-looking UI screenshot!)

balsamiq.jpg

Best of all, the team at Balsamiq are mad about customer service: they respond to support requests quick as a flash and are obscenely generous!

You can try it for free online, and if you haven’t yet taken it for a spin then I highly recommend you do!


No Room for Pride

In our sinfulness, we humans can be very quick to turn the good things that we do into grounds for pride. Maybe it’s just me, but it’s disturbing how many times somebody has politely thanked me for some inconsequential act of kindness and I’ve immediately become puffed up, thinking “yes I know, I am pretty special, aren’t I?” To my shame, I suspect that sometimes I even do those things in deliberate anticipation of the nice things people will say about me afterwards. It’s not just the praise of other people that we enjoy, however: don’t we often expect to impress God with our good behaviour? How often do we start thinking “God must be really pleased with me this week, I’ve done so well, he’s sure to bless me now!” When we fall into sin, often the thing that upsets us most is that our grounds for pride have been whisked away from under our feet, and instead we’re left feeling stupid, humiliated. We are prone to turn the good things that we do into grounds for pride.

Jesus destroys such grounds for pride in one of his parables:

“Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.'” (Luke 17:7-10)

“So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty‘”. It’s a staggering change of perspective, isn’t it? Even if you succeed in doing all that you were commanded to do, what are you boasting about? That was merely your duty! It was the least you could do, to do what you were told.

The stakes are really raised when you realise just how much God has required of us: firstly to love him, the Lord our God, with all of our heart, all of our soul, all of our strength, all of our mind, and secondly to love our neighbour as ourselves. That’s a pretty comprehensive set of commandments with very little wiggle room. It leaves no scope for believing that our efforts to love and serve God and others are somehow exceptional, above and beyond the call of duty. So you battled your way through rush hour traffic in the pouring rain to go and do some shopping in a crowded supermarket on behalf of an elderly friend? Well done, but you haven’t loved her any more than you love yourself, nor have you loved God with anything more than all of your strength. You have only done what was your duty. Or you resisted that constant temptation that is daily nagging at you to give in, and instead you spent the evening in prayer and joyful meditation of God’s word? Terrific, but don’t for a minute think that in that moment you were loving God with anything more than all of your heart and soul.

Our trouble is that we measure ourselves against the standard of other people. We look at others, and we’re good at noticing how half-hearted they are in their love for God or their service of others. We see their reluctance to go out of their way, or their failure to notice somebody’s moment of need. Then we look at ourselves, and we ignore or make excuses for all of the failures in our own life, and we see only the good. And compared to what we’ve seen in others, sometimes our assessment of ourselves comes out looking pretty great. But that is not the standard we’re called to: God calls us to nothing short of perfection. We’re to be measured against the awesome purity of his own holiness – spotless and without blemish. It’s a standard that we can never attain – only one person who ever lived hit the mark, the Lord Jesus Christ – and even if we were to get near, what would we have done besides what was asked of us?

If you are trusting in your good works as grounds for pride – beware! We are but unworthy servants – even perfect obedience to God’s will is merely doing our duty and merits nothing from God in return.

Why Our Best Works are but Filthy Rags

Do you ever have that feeling where you look at other people and secretly feel really smug about your own righteousness? Do you ever derive some perverse sense of pleasure when others screw up, because it makes you feel that little bit better about yourself knowing that at least you’re not quite as bad as that? I suspect that most of us go through life with a sense that we’re basically pretty good people – we’ll admit that we’re not perfect (we’re only human, after all!) but we’re mostly decent and upstanding in the grand scheme of things. We often do good, lending others a helping hand, giving money to those less fortunate, allowing that pregnant woman to take our seat on the crowded train, sacrificing our time and energy to support a struggling friend. These are all wonderful things to be doing – and let’s strive to do so more and more – but the Bible warns us that we’re in real danger the minute we start relying on these good works of ours to justify ourselves, that is, to start thinking that God must be really pleased with us because of all the great things we’ve done. If we start thinking our good works are grounds for pride, we’re in real trouble.

Just as last week we saw that the Apostle Paul counted all his righteous deeds as loss compared to the righteousness of Christ, so the prophet Isaiah spoke of our good works in these stark words:

“All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away.” (Isaiah 64:6, NIV)

In the sight of God, even our best deeds are like filthy rags compared to the awesome purity of his holiness. His holiness is like a consuming fire that burns up all impurity in an instant. When Isaiah was confronted with a vision of God, he was so overcome with a sense of his guilt and unworthiness that his immediate reaction was to cry out, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5). Likewise the prophet Malachi describes the coming of God’s presence in these terms:

“But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver” (Malachi 3:2-3)

Here and now we may be tempted to take pride in our good works, but when the Lord Jesus comes in judgement all of the secrets of mens’ hearts will be laid bare, and all of our motives will be exposed. It won’t be enough to show what we did: we will be required to explain why we did it as well. How many of our good deeds will really stand up to that level of scrutiny? How often did we really have mixed motives for our righteous acts, perhaps seeking to look good in the eyes of others or to avoid being thought of as selfish? Often when I fail to do the right thing in a given situation, my first thought is not of how I have wronged God and others, but rather fear that others will think less of me. That can be a powerful motivator to try harder next time. But if we think we can be made right in God’s eyes by doing things purely for the sake of upholding our reputation, then we’re sorely mistaken. That’s not serving God – that’s serving ourselves, and that is the essence of sin.

I remember finding that thought quite shocking as a young Christian: the idea that a seemingly good deed could be as sinful in God’s sight as something obviously wrong like theft or adultery. But that’s because I was defining sin in terms of external actions rather than as an attitude of the heart. It is striking that the first of the 10 Commandments is entirely an internal action: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength”. And that explains why idolatry is such a serious offence to God: it is loving something created in place of loving the creator. If you do outwardly “good” things out of love for your favourite idol, be that the desire for reputation, for status, for money, for security, or just to impress someone special to you, no matter how seemingly good the act, if it’s done for the wrong motives it’s still deeply offensive to God and in fact is tantamount to adultery.

When I was a first year student at university, I did all manner of crazy things in order to try and impress a girl I was rather fond of. I even went as far as taking ballroom dancing lessons so that I could spend more time with her (I would say that it was an opportunity to demonstrate to her how suave I was, but that would require me to have had some skill on the dance floor!) My desire to please her overcame my natural desire to avoid dancing like the plague, and made me act in all sorts of out-of-character ways. It’s exactly the same with all our idols: what we love will always show itself in how we act, and that will often manifest itself in very respectable looking acts of apparent righteousness. But in God’s sight they are but filthy rags, symbols of our betrayal of him.

The prophet Jeremiah portrays it like so:

“Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the Lord,
for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves,
broken cisterns that can hold no water.” (Jeremiah 2:12-13)

When we act to please our false gods, it’s like sticking two fingers up at God and saying that he’s not worth pleasing – at least, not as much as our idols are. Throughout the Bible, God frequently uses the image of a marriage covenant to describe his relationship with his people Israel. Their idolatry is then compared to the actions of an unfaithful bride – sometimes in quite brutal terms! Take the next chapter of Jeremiah, for instance:

“Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and there played the whore?” (Jeremiah 3:6)

So be careful of resting on your good works as grounds for pride – they may not be quite as good as you think they are!

Pride and the Example of Paul

Why the Apostle Paul’s Example Removes Our Grounds for Pride

Last week I showed that if anybody has grounds for pride, it is surely the Lord Jesus Christ. But maybe the fact that Jesus is such a special case means that you find his example hard to relate to. Of course I don’t have as much grounds for pride as Jesus – he’s God! – you might say. But as far as ordinary people go, I’m pretty special. “God, I thank you that I am not like other men”, as the Pharisee prayed in Luke 18:11. Other men are far worse than me: “extortioners, unjust, adulterers” But as for me, I’m so much more religious than them: “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” But if we want to play the religion card as our grounds for pride, there’s another very strong contender in the race that we’ll find ourselves competing against: the apostle Paul.

Before his conversion, Paul was an incredibly religious man. He was the absolute model Jew. “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh,” he writes in Philippians 3:4-11, “I have more.” If you’re feeling smug about your good works, I can assure you that they’re not a patch on mine, says Paul. Then he goes on to list his religious qualifications: “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews;” Paul’s heritage and pedigree are absolutely top notch. He’s a bona fide, full-blooded Jewish male, raised according to all the laws and customs passed down from God by Moses. But he went far beyond the call of duty: he continues, “as to the law, a Pharisee”. The Pharisees get a pretty bad wrap these days, but at their core they were a group of people who were fanatical about holiness – they were absolutely devoted to obeying God’s law in all of its minutiae, even down to the level of tithing the herbs and spices that grew in their window garden. That’s how committed they were to keeping God’s law, and they were great at it: “under the law, blameless” writes Paul. From what he goes on to say next, Paul clearly isn’t suggesting here that he kept the law perfectly and could have earnt his way into God’s good books, but he is saying that as far as the external, outward requirements of the law went, he was unrivalled. And it wasn’t just a dry formalism, either; Paul’s was a religion full of zeal and vigour in the service of God: “As to zeal, a persecutor of the church.” He may have been mistaken about the right way to do God’s will, but once he’d identified what had to be done there was not a shred of hesitation or holding back in how he went about it. Paul had Christians firmly in his sight and he wasn’t going to lose track of the scent until he’d completely eradicated all hints of this terrible heresy.

Paul was exactly the kind of believer you’d want to have in your congregation. He’d never skive off synagogue on a Saturday morning because of an important football match; he’d never be distracted from what he was supposed to be doing by some pretty girl; he’d never be bribed into making compromises; he’d never shrink back from speaking the truth from fear that it might make him unpopular; he’d be the first one there at the monthly prayer meeting and the last one to leave; he’d be the most generous of your regular givers and would contribute hefty sums to that one off appeal to raise money for a new roof; he’d be on every committee, even the truly tedious ones; whatever religious works you find yourself tempted to take pride in, Paul would be there doing it better and more energetically, leaving you and your paltry efforts in the dust.

“But,” says Paul, “whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” After his conversion, Paul now sees all of his religious works as a complete waste of time – indeed, as loss, because all they did was put up a smoke screen that prevented him from recognising his need of the Lord Jesus. “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish (lit. dung) in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith”. By trusting in his own efforts, all Paul was doing was digging himself deeper and deeper into a godless hole. His own righteousness seemed incomparably cheap and shabby next to the perfect, spotless righteousness of Christ, a level of righteousness that could be found only by forsaking his own efforts to make himself right with God and trusting wholeheartedly in Christ’s finished work on the cross.

Even the mighty Paul, impeccable, immovable, incorruptible, even Paul recognised that his own religious works were but a pale shadow next to the righteousness of Christ. They were worthless, the sort of thing you’d take about as much pride in as a pile of horse manure. Boasting in your own works would be like taking a bunch of used nappies along to the Antiques Roadshow and trying to argue that they were worth as much as some centuries-old Ming vase: you’d be laughed off the show and told to never come back. “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him… that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” For all his religious works, even a zealous Pharisee like Paul would still one day die and rot, and without Christ there’s not a thing his good works could do to save him.

We see this same attitude of Paul’s played out in 2 Corinthians 11:21-33. Comparing himself to the false “super-apostles” who boasted in their works, Paul begins to mock them by adopting their own false logic:

“But whatever anyone else dares to boast of- I am speaking as a fool- I also dare to boast of that. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one – I am talking like a madman – with far great labours, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepness night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.”

Paul shows that whatever grounds for pride the super-apostles of Corinth thought they may have had, he had more. Nobody had gone to greater lengths for the sake of the gospel than him. And yet there is nothing arbitrary about the list of things Paul has chosen to mention here. As heroic as they may make him look, there’s also something slightly pathetic about the list, don’t you think? Earlier the Corinthians have described Paul as a man whose “bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account.” (2 Corinthians 10:10) and here we read of him being beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, cold and exposed. This small little man seems to spend his whole life in constant shame, always one step away from disaster, whilst the cosy super-apostles get on with their comfortable lives in Corinth at the expense of the church there. The explanation comes in v30: “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” Paul chooses to boast not of the things that show how great he is, but of the things that show how small and weak and pathetic he is. He boasts of the things that show that all he has accomplished could not possibly have been accomplished in his own strength, but in the strength and power of the Lord his God. The God who says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). When the human vessels that God works through are so obviously mere clay pots – cheap plastic cups that are used once and then thrown away – well it’s then that God’s infinite power is most clearly perceived. “Therefore,” says Paul, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

If you think you have grounds for pride, surely they are nothing compared to the apostle Paul’s? And yet he knew it was utterly vain to try and boast in his own righteousness – even as great as his was – and chose instead to boast in how utterly weak and pathetic and dependent on the God of grace he was.

Pride and Christ’s Example

Why Jesus’ Example Removes Our Grounds for Pride

All of us love to feel good about ourselves. Some of even have a few reasons: perhaps we have a great skill or talent, perhaps you’re just a really stand-up chap. If there was one man in the history of the world who had grounds to be proud, surely it was the Lord Jesus Christ. There were many reasons why he might have been inclined to exalt himself:

Jesus could have been proud because of his earthly heritage. Firstly he was Jewish, a member of God’s chosen people to whom were entrusted all the oracles of God (Romans 3:2). He was born into a devout family who brought him up according to all the laws that God had instituted, such as taking him to the temple as a baby to present him to the Lord (Luke 2:22). More than that, he was “descended from David according to the flesh” (Romans 1:3) – as if being part of the chosen people of God was not noble enough, specifically he was from the house and line of David, the great king of Israel to which all other kings were compared, the one after God’s own heart, and whose reign marked the glory days of Israel’s history as a nation. To David was given the promise that God would establish the throne of his kingdom for ever, and that one of his descendants would forever rule over God’s people. You can imagine people clamouring to establish direct descent from David and the substantial prestige that would be associated with that. My family once got really excited at the discovery that there might be a link between my Grannie and Lord Kitchener (the guy with the amazing moustache in the original “Your country needs you!” posters). Given my complete inability to grow a moustache I suspect there wasn’t much truth behind the claim, but we love the idea of being related to important people, and the more important the person the more pride we feel at being associated with them. As a descendant of Israel’s greatest king, Jesus had great grounds for pride.

Jesus could have been proud because of his existence since times immemorial. Before the foundations of the world Jesus existed along with his Father: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” (John 1:1-2) He existed before all others and so is greater than all others. Coming after King David was enough to receive the reflected glory of his ancestor, and yet how much more is coming before David? As Jesus points out in Mark 12:35, even David submits to the Christ as his Lord. That would have been a shocking idea to the people at the time, since in Jewish thought the order in which you were born establishes a hierarchy: children must always honour their parents, and the eldest child always received the largest share of the inheritance. Yet Jesus existed long before David, in fact he never had a beginning, and so David calls him his Lord. Or take the most revered figure in Jewish history: the patriarch Abraham, from whose line came the whole Jewish race. In Jesus’ day, just as now, the Jewish people took great pride in their relationship to Abraham, and yet Jesus says to them, “Before Abraham was, I am”. Jesus precedes all the greatest figures of Jewish history by virtue of the fact that he existed long before them. In a game of Bible hero Top Trumps, Jesus would win hands down against all the others. As the one who alone was with God since before the world began, Jesus had great grounds for pride.

Jesus could have been proud because of his eternal destiny. He is the anointed king to whom God promised: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” (Psalm 110:1) His position as God’s Christ makes him the ultimate king before whom none can stand: those who continue to oppose his rule he shall break with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel (Psalm 2:9).
He is the one at whose name every knee shall bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Philippians 2:10-11). He is the lamb upon the throne, before whom shall stand for all eternity a great multitude that none could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, forever praising him and giving him great glory. These are things which he knew full well throughout his earthly life, and indeed we are told that it was because of the joy set before him that he was able to endure the cross (Hebrews 12:2). Jesus’ favourite way of referring to himself was as “the Son of Man”, a phrase which brings to mind Daniel 7:13-14, and the one like a son of man presented before the Ancient of Days, to whom was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed. Imagine how Barrack Obama must have felt the night after he was elected as the President of the United States of America – and yet that was only for four years, and as much as he might like to pretend, Obama doesn’t really have control over America’s enemies. Even Obama has a long way to go before being nominated as the President of the Whole World throughout all of time, and yet that’s exactly what Jesus is, with supreme authority over everything and everyone. As God’s supreme king, Jesus had great grounds for pride.

Jesus could have been proud because of his magnificent works. He was the author of all creation: “For by him, all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities- all things were created through him and for him.” (Colossians 1:16) We’re told that through him God created the world, and that even now he upholds the universe by the word of his power (Hebrews 1:2-3). Think of the most majestic thing you have ever seen in all of creation – maybe it’s an incredible sunset, or a stormy day on the Cornish coast, or a geyser spewing out steam, or that amazing “pop” you get when opening a jar of marmalade for the first time, or a mighty blue whale, or an exotic bird of paradise, or maybe your husband or wife – Jesus created that in all of its glorious intricacy and beauty. As John 1:3 puts it: “All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” Whilst on the earth, Jesus demonstrated his lordship over creation again and again. He stood on a boat in the middle of the perfect storm: as the winds howled around him and the mighty waves threatened to sink them, Jesus merely had to speak and the storm immediately ceased, running away with its tail between its legs. He healed every kind of sickness and disease, such that those who moments before were at deaths’ door were suddenly running around serving him dinner. He even raised the dead, calling the rotting corpse of his friend Lazarus out of the grave so that he might live again. Not surprisingly, Jesus attracted huge crowds who were constantly banging on his door and hoping to see what he might do next. As the mightiest miracle worker of all time, Jesus had great grounds for pride.

I hope you will agree that the Lord Jesus Christ had every reason to be proud. Yet the great surprise is that he was not, and indeed was the humblest man ever to walk the earth, and came to the human race as a servant. “Though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:6-7). If you think you have grounds to be proud then I can assure you that they are nothing compared to the reasons that Jesus had to be proud, and yet he felt no need whatsoever to boast or stand on his rights. Instead he emptied himself of all that he was, condescending even to come in to the world as a naked, screaming baby born into a smelly stable. “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) Even this mighty king, the eternal ruler, the one who was and is and is to come, greater than Moses, mightier than David, more majestic than the Grand Canyon – even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many by his gruesome execution on a Roman cross. It should make us ashamed for all our pathetic attention seeking, to think that we have more reason to boast than the Lord Jesus, to think that somehow we deserve recognition, when even the King of Kings lived and died in such obscurity and shame.

The Transforming Gospel

Yesterday marked a profound turning point in history for me and my housemates. Someone did for us something that we could never do for ourselves. Oh yes, theoretically we could have done it. There was nothing physically stopping us. But though the spirit is willing the flesh is weak, and in our sinful nature we were powerless to change ourselves. We needed someone else not of our household to take the initiative and rescue us: to make us clean. Yes, we had a cleaner visit our house yesterday.

As soon as I stepped over the threshold I could tell that something had fundamentally changed. There was a new force at work in our house that was immediately evident. It was all encompassing – it affected every area, wherever you looked you could see evidence of the transformation that had taken place. And it empowered us to change, too: there was a new joy in our hearts that meant we wanted to live in the light of what had taken place and keep things clean. Tomato sauce stains stand out a mile against a background of perfect cleanliness, just asking to be mopped up in a timely manner. The accumulation of dirt and grime over time has a peculiarly numbing effect that makes it so much easier to ignore: you grow complacent and start not even to notice the condition of your home. But when it’s all washed clean and wiped away, suddenly you have fresh eyes to see how repugnant dirt is and how out of place it is.

What’s more, we’re all profoundly aware that the whole reason this bringer of grace and restoration has visited her kindness upon us was to make our lives clean again. Not to change our behaviour in the light of her coming would be the most unbelievable insult to all her work on our behalf. What disrespect it would be not to clean up the crumbs after making my sandwiches in the morning! What cruel laziness not to wipe down the hobs after making bolognaise! It would be so incongruent for us now to continue living as we used to, as though she had never come into our lives.

If all that’s true, how much more should I be living in the light of Jesus’ coming and his death in my place! As Titus 2:11-14 says:

“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.”

The whole purpose of Jesus’ death and resurrection was to redeem a people for his name who would live transformed lives in the power of his Spirit. And just like my cleaner (praise the Lord!) he is coming back soon!

Geero’s Garden Update No. 2

Small_Carrot.JPG

It’s been a while since I last posted about my gardening endeavours, but today I saw the first fruits from my labours in the form of the carrot you see here. It is, shall we say, somewhat stunted in its growth. It’s definitely recognisable as a carrot though! There are at least another two carrots growing, albeit somewhat small ones from the looks of them, and potentially one or two parsnips as well. Not exactly enough to live off, but better than I’d feared!

The RPG of Life

Perhaps somewhat unwisely, I installed the Role-Playing Game Baldur’s Gate II on my laptop a month or so ago. I’ve found it really fascinating to observe how so many of my personality traits are drawn out and highlighted by playing the game. Take, for example, my constant desire to avoid confrontation. I’m constantly fearful of saying the hard truths that might make people within the game attack my party. Or my unwillingness to head into the future without knowing what I’m about to face: I’ve found myself frequently wanting to turn to an FAQ to find out what’s about to happen rather than being content to discover as it happens. That’s just like me in real life, where I always want to know the end from the beginning rather than being willing to trust God and get on with it even when the outcome is uncertain. Or the really big one – indeed, one of the main attractions for me of playing a game like Baldur’s Gate II – that insatiable urge to accumulate “stuff“, even if it’s not actually going to be useful for me. The whole point of many of the side quests is just to pick up these cool magical items and feel the satisfaction of levelling up and gaining reputation. The thought of making choices in the game that will shut down options, making it impossible to gain certain items, well that’s just intolerable.

There are a few ways, however, in which playing the game has brought home the meaning of certain Biblical illustrations in a whole new way. Take Psalm 119:162, for example:

“I rejoice at your word
like one who finds great spoil.”

It makes me imagine my Level 12 ranger stumbling upon some amazing treasure trove full of wonderful, wonderful bounty. Discovering profound truths from God’s word should bring far greater joy than any magical Short Sword +3.

Letting Others Shine

Why Service Is the Heart of the Universe

A few weeks ago I came to the end of a very happy time working for the VFX company Framestore as a software developer in their Production Tools group. We were basically responsible for the various databases and other software systems that keep a company like that running smoothly, enabling other talented folk to focus on doing their jobs well so that they could get on and make fantastic movies like Where the Wild Things Are. As I was leaving, I pondered how that mentality – the unknown and out-of-sight software servants nobly doing battle with the evil forces of SQL and PHP, so that others might be rescued from a slow and certain death by data – well, that mentality reminds me a lot of my king, Jesus. In a particularly poetic bit from the book of Philippians, the Apostle Paul writes this about him:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself and became obedient to death–
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Jesus is in very nature God – the eternal Son of God – deserving of the same glory and honour as God the Father himself. And yet rather than standing on his rights and putting his feet up and having people feed him grapes all day long, instead he looked down at the plight of our world – a world ravaged by sin and under the righteous judgement of God – and he rolled up his sleeves and took up his mop. He came to deal with our sin by becoming a man and dying in our place to take the punishment that we deserved – my sin was counted as his sin, so that his perfection might be counted as mine – and he suffered the most humiliating death humanity could devise: even death on a cross.

But the result? It was for this reason, because of his willingness to suffer in our service, that God exalted him to the highest place, and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow. The route to true glory isn’t to go seeking it out, to puff up your chest and say “look at me, everybody!” (Twitter, take note!) The principal at the heart of our universe is glory through the ultimate sacrifice of self-interest.

It’s also worth pointing out, in closing, that if Jesus Christ is Lord, if his is the name that is above every name, well then that leaves little room for me to try and be lord of my little empire, for me to try and make my name the one that everybody praises. Any attempts to usurp Jesus’ throne and glorify the name of Andy Geers will ultimately be thwarted when the true king returns. Why not save yourself the bother, and get in line with the future right now by submitting to Jesus’ lordship? It’s not the valiant software developers of Production Tools who get their names up in lights when the film comes out at the cinema, but the Director. The great news of Christianity is that when the True Director, Jesus Christ, arrives on the red carpet, those who trust in him will get to marvel at and share in His glory for the rest of eternity.

The Working Christian’s Guide To Twitter

Chirping at the sun

Like Marmite, Twitter is one of those things that people seem to either love or hate. It’s notoriously hard to explain to those who just don’t “get” it: the hopelessly literal explanation is that it’s a bit like Facebook status updates, but without absolutely everything else that makes Facebook worth using. That’s a bit like describing a movie as a few patches of different colours moving around on a two-dimensional surface whilst the air vibrates around you, and wondering why you’ve failed to excite anybody’s enthusiasm. Personally, I find a more helpful approach to explaining it to people is to talk in terms of micro-blogging: it’s a way of lowering the barriers of entry to running your own blog by limiting the scope of each post to 140 characters. People also find it a brilliant way to make connections: one minute you’re tweeting about an independent film you just watched at the weekend, and the next minute the film maker is tweeting you back saying he’s glad you enjoyed it. Twitter Search also makes it incredibly easy to find out what everybody is talking about this second, an invaluable tool for both journalists and businesses trying to interact with their customers.

How should Christians use Twitter?

But how should Christians be thinking about and using Twitter? There have been some really helpful posts on the subject from Christian leaders like John Piper and Al Mohler. But perhaps it’s easy to dismiss their words as being just for people like them whose job it is to teach the Bible, and so I thought it would be helpful to jot down a few words from an average congregation member like myself about my own experiences using Twitter, and how it can be a help or a hindrance in the Christian life. I’m not writing this as an expert or as somebody who’s got it right – I’m writing this as somebody who’s conscious that I’ve probably got it all wrong and need to think further on the subject! So rather than having a whole bunch of rules (after all, Christianity isn’t about “do’s and don’ts”!) I thought I’d just ask one big question as a starting point for further thought:

What Story Does Your Twitter Feed Tell?

If somebody were to open up your Twitter Feed right now and read your tweet history for the past few months, what kind of picture would it paint of you: of your hopes and fears, your passions, your hates, your character and your temperament? What kind of inferences would they make about your beliefs, and about the God in whom you claim to believe?

  • Vague Thought No. 1: Would it even be at all obvious that you were a Christian? The danger of narcissism is often cited with reference to Twitter, and I think for many of us this is a real concern: is your tweeting all about you and what you’ve been doing, without reference to your creator? Does your faith make the least bit of difference to your tweets? I guess that for some of us, the obsession with boosting our “follower” count means we’re afraid to be open about our faith in case it scares potential followers away. Some aspects of Twitter culture can foster this obsession with popularity in a really unhelpful way.
  • Vague Thought No. 2: What kind of a God does your Twitter feed show you’re placing your trust in? Is his faithfulness and commitment to his people put on display, demonstrated by your confident trust in his good providence, or do you come across as completely neurotic and worried about all the minor details of life? This is probably as much of a personality thing as a Twitter thing, and I’m not saying that it’s wrong to have worries. But why not make a commitment to use your tweets to publicly entrust your anxieties to God rather than just using them to stress? When I was regularly blogging over on LiveJournal a few years ago, I used to try to make sure every blog post contained at least one “thank God”, a habit which really helped me to lift my eyes a little when I would otherwise have just been wallowing in my problems. That’s harder to do in 140 characters, but maybe it could be reflected by the balance of your many tweets instead – one “thank you God” for every “aghghg!!!”.
  • Vague Thought No. 3: This follows on from the last point, but what attitudes is your Twitter Stream characterised by? Thankfulness and positivity? Or disgruntlement and anger at the world? This may come down to having an explicit aim for your Twittering: instead of just posting whatever random thought is upper-most in your mind (“grrr! my trains were late, again!”), think about who might be reading your tweets, and why you would want them to be reading it. It’s a bit like that time after church, where the sermon’s finished and you’re starting to think about food. What do you choose to talk to your mates about? Do you just aimlessly drift into talking about the football, or do you have a bit more clarity of purpose and try to edify those around you by chatting about what you’ve just heard from the Bible and how it’s going to shape the rest of the week? It’s easy for us as Christians to just slot into the culture around us, rather than being proactive and standing out from the crowd, showing our distinctive values and a radically different purpose in life.

As I said at the start, all that is really just a starting point for further discussion. Feel free to chip in using the comments section below, or drop me a Twitter message @andygeers.

P.S. I always like to recommend Michael Lopp’s The Art of the Tweet when I’m talking about Twitter – well worth a read. Twitter in Plain English is also helpful when explaining it to friends.

The Theology of Underwear

May our confidence be based on more than this!

“Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”

Now there’s a hope that will last today, tomorrow, next week and on into an incredible eternity in God’s new creation! I’ve been challenged recently that perhaps I don’t talk about these positives enough. Yes, Jesus’ death on the cross does save me from the terrors of a real Hell, but God always saves us for something better – life forever with him! Not a nervous day-by-day “have I been good enough to escape the clutches of hell today?” but a bold, assertive “praise God!” for doing everything on my behalf that was necessary to secure my eternal future. My primary identity as a Christian is now “in Jesus” – i.e. it’s Jesus’ obedience, Jesus’ excellencies, Jesus’ perfect sinlessness that is the deciding factor in whether I’ll be admitted to heaven. If Jesus is in, and I’m in Jesus, then I can be sure that I’ll be there with him – that’s what being in him means!