Category Archives: just thinking

Is technology morally neutral?

Last year I did a talk on “How should Christians engage with technology?“, largely based upon Tim Challies’ excellent book “The Next Story“. A year down the line, I’ve been asked to give this talk again, and in preparation I decided to read another book that I’d been recommended, John Dyer’s From the Garden to the City – and I have to say, I think this is one of the best books I have read in a long, long time.

Dyer’s conclusions are very similar to those reached by Tim Challies, but his book has really helped add depth to my understanding of this topic – I’m really thankful to God for the gifts he’s given to both of these men in understanding both his word and his world!

Is how we use our technology all that matters?

Last year I said this:

“technology by itself is what we might call “amoral” – that is, it is neither overwhelmingly good nor inherently evil. Like lots of things in this world it’s something with great power for good but which is also deeply affected by the fall. What’s important is how we use that technology – what we use it to do, and what we allow it to do to us.”

Reading “From the Garden to the City” really sharpens this idea up. Dyer uses the example of a shovel: of course a shovel is amoral, neither overwhelmingly good nor inherently evil. You can use it in all sorts of different ways – to dig wells in remote villages, or to hide the body of the person who you’ve just hit over the head with it. You have a great responsibility to use your shovel in a constructive rather than a destructive way. But don’t underestimate the extent to which the shovel will change you in the process – completely independently of whether you use it for good or for evil. Dyer says this:

“stop for a moment more and look down, turning our palms towards our eyes; we’ll see that our hands, too, have been changed by the shovel. They will be rubbed raw, exposing the first sign of the blisters that are sure to develop while we sleep.”

Technological Determinism vs Instrumentalism

If we simply say that how we use our technology is what matters, then that would be to fall into the trap of what Dyer calls “instrumentalism” – technology is merely an instrument in our hands, and all that counts is what we do with it. This other end of this spectrum would be “technological determinism” – the idea that “technology is an unstoppable power that has become the driving force in society. Whilst instrumentalism claims that technology is completely inert and has no operative power in culture, determinism makes the opposite argument, saying that technology operates completely independently of human choices.”

Dyer encourages us to chart a middle way between these two extremes, and to recognise that “people are free to choose how they will use their tools, but that the tools themselves are oriented toward a particular set of uses that will emerge when a large number of people use them” “A person is free to use a phone as a paperweight, doorstop, or hammer, but people will tend to use phones to accomplish what they were designed to do– communicate with people”. Determinism says that all of America’s guns are the reason their murder rate is so high, whilst instrumentalism declares that “Guns don’t kill people, people do”. I think Dyer is trying to say that whilst it’s true that guns themselves don’t kill people, they do have a certain in-built natural tendency. “Whatever our beliefs about guns in society, we must acknowledge that a home with a gun is a different place than one without a gun. When we bring a gun into a home, we also bring with it a set of cultural practices… such as keeping it locked away, never pointing it at anyone, and only touching the trigger when you are ready to fire. Even if the gun is never taken out of its case, the presence of a gun commands a different way of life than a life without guns.”

God uses technology too

Dyer gives several examples from the Bible of God making use of the innate values of particular technologies. In a particularly fascinating chapter, he talks about the first tablets in the Bible – not iPads, but literal stone tablets, when God gave Moses the law on Mount Sinai. He points out that at the time Israel was in the wilderness, “alphabetical writing was still a bleeding edge technology”. He goes on to say that “people could only afford to write down what was of the highest importance to them… This meant that when people invoked the words ‘It is written,’ they were appealing to the authority of the medium. After all, it wouldn’t be written if it weren’t important… God was giving the world his final, authoritative, and unchanging Law. And he chose a technological medium that reinforced those values.”

By literally setting the law in stone, God was telling Israel something important: that his word would stand forever, and was to be passed down from generation to generation.

How to be a responsible technology user

My conclusions from last year still stand:

“My goal here is to encourage us all just to be a little more thinking in our attitude to technology – not to reject it outright, nor to embrace it unquestioningly. Instead, to try to see beyond the superficial and to think a bit more about how it affects us, and why we feel about it the way we do.”

If all technologies have their own built-in tendencies and values, then thinking through what they are likely to do to us becomes extremely important. In what seemed to me like possibly the most crucial sentence of his entire book, Dyer writes this:

“Instead of living our lives according to the values of new technology, [Albert] Borgmann urges us to determine what our values are first and attempt to use our tools in service of those values.”

I said last time that the mobile phone was invented to keep businessmen in contact with the office at all times, so it shouldn’t surprise us if one of the effects of a mobile phone is that suddenly we find ourselves connected to the office at all times. But realising this in advance helps us to be prepared – and to decide if we really want this to be the case. Now we are free to make choices – to turn it to silent at the dinner table or when we meet our friend for coffee, allowing our own values to control our technology and not the other way around.

A story of technology

“From the Garden to the City” constructs it’s argument through the Biblical story from Genesis through to Revelation, under the heading of four ‘R’s: Reflection, Rebellion, Redemption and Restoration.

Reflection is the world of Genesis 1+2, as human beings are made in the image of their Creator, reflecting his character – they are in turn little creators themselves. Dyer says “Steve Jobs, Michael Dell and Bill Gates don’t claim to be Christians, but their products reflect the creativity of God as well as the longings of the human heart.”

Rebellion is what happens in Genesis 3 in the fall, as humanity turns its back on God. We see such an example of the fall working its way out in technology, distorted and used against God, in the cross of Christ: “Jesus and his father would have been ‘doing technology’ when they used tools to transform pieces of wood into something useful” “In another strange irony, the technology with which Jesus worked– wood and nails– was the technology on which he died– a cross. Jesus could have been executed using any number of more ‘natural’ means, but in God’s great plan the way he died was decidedly technological.”

Redemption is what happened at the cross – though humans were using wood and nails in rebellion against their Creator, God in his wisdom was using this very act of rebellion to redeem the world and make a way for us to be brought back into relationship with him. God has often used technology in this process – e.g. Noah’s ark, which is one of the very earliest examples of technology in the Bible.

Finally, Restoration – looking forward to the New Creation that God promises to bring in. Dyer points out that the New Creation is described not as a garden – a return to Eden – but as a city, “full of human creations like buildings, roads and trumpets”. There we will relate both to God and each other without mediation – no more flickering screens or priests going between us.

I found this framework really helpful in thinking about technology from a Biblical perspective – it helps guard us against a shallow approach that simply embraces technology wholeheartedly or rejecting it outright.

Conclusion

Dyer closes his book with various recommendations about how to engage with our technologies – and I don’t want to steal his thunder by repeating them all here. Buy his book and read them – they’re really helpful! Ultimately it comes down to actually thinking through the impact our technologies are having on us, and as we said before “determine what our values are first and attempt to use our tools in service of those values”.

How to support a new Dad

I hope this post won’t sound too self-serving, seeing as I am a new dad myself and all, but our church has a growing number of new mums & dads with teeny tiny little babies, with more on the way, and for I while I’ve been thinking it would be helpful to write a post on how to support the new dads in particular. Lots of what I have to say applies to the mums too, and of course in many ways mums need even more support than the dads – but my general impression is that girls are much better at both providing support and asking for/accepting support than blokes are, and as a result I think sometimes the dads suffer a little bit because people don’t realise their distinctive needs or know what to do about them. (That said, I’m extremely thankful for how well people have looked after me & my wife – so don’t go feeling guilty when you read this if you know us personally!)

So here goes…

1. Make contact during the early days and weeks

The early days of having a new baby can be quite stressful, worrying about whether your baby is feeding properly, whether they’re gaining enough weight, whether they’re healthy, not to mention worrying about the mum and how she’s recovering from the birth. In general the first six weeks are the hardest and it can feel literally touch and go whether your little one is going to make it (or whether you’re going to survive as parents!) What’s more, new parents are in a bit of a time warp – they’re probably awake for at least 22 hours out of every 24, compared to a normal person who’s only awake for 17 or so. This means that time moves more slowly for a new parent and the days stretch out forever. So those scary six weeks really last a long time.
Girls are great at talking to each other, so the mum’s phone is probably buzzing non-stop all day long, and then she’s probably chatting to her friends on Facebook during the midnight feeds as well. Boys on the other hand are often a bit rubbish at communication and feel a bit awkward about whether it’s ok to be in touch with a new dad with a new baby.
My advice is to get in touch with dad, get in touch early and get in touch often. If you wait until a month has gone by then by then it’s too late – the hardest part is over and dad feels like he hasn’t heard from anybody in an age. To send a text message every couple of days or so will probably feel a lot more often to you than it does to him, because he’s been awake for a lot longer than you have in the mean time :) He’s just been through the biggest ordeal of his life and can’t really leave the house to see anybody. Dads feel like they have to be strong on behalf of the mum, but sometimes that leaves a lot of pent up emotion and giving a big hug can go a long way.
Good questions to ask in a text message are “How is it all going today?” “Are there any specific prayer requests today?” Send an encouraging Bible verse or a hymn that made you smile.

2. Send cards

When you’re more-or-less housebound for two weeks, the daily trip to the letterbox can be a real highlight.
Like the text messages, girls are often great at sending cards, so the mums get lots of cards from their friends, but dads might be at risk of feeling a bit left out if none of their mates remember. You may have at least eight months in advance to prepare for this, to find out your mate’s address and buy a couple of alternative cards / chocolate and some stamps, so you don’t really have any good excuses.

3. Don’t expect too much

Looking after a new baby is pretty all-consuming, so don’t expect too much from a new parent. In particular:

  • Don’t expect promptness from a new parent coming to a church service or other meeting. Something as seemingly simple as leaving the house can be a huge effort when you have a newborn – just as you’re about to hop in the car they fill their nappy, then as you change it they pee all over themselves and need an outfit change, then by that stage they’re hungry again and need another feed before you’re finally ready to give it another shot at getting out through the front door.
  • Don’t expect replies to your emails. You may think “they’re at home all day long, I’m sure they’ll be checking their email”, and that may well be true, but they’ve probably got hundreds of emails that they haven’t got the time or energy to reply to, and you shouldn’t take offence if yours is one of them. This applies to those thoughtful text messages you send – don’t interpret a lack of response as an indication that they weren’t very gratefully received!

All of this probably applies in the few weeks prior to the birth too – so if you’ve asked the dad-to-be to perform some role in a church service or something like that then make sure you have a backup plan in case he has to vanish at short notice to attend the birth!

4. Leave space

When it comes to a new baby, establishing patterns takes time and space. Often you’re on a mission to get as much milk into the little one as possible, and it’s hard to do that if you have visitors coming and going all the time. Of course you’re desperate to meet the little one as soon as possible, but if you can wait a couple of weeks then it’ll probably be a lot less stressful – and if you do visit, make sure not to outstay your welcome. Dad’s job is to be the “rottweiler” who keeps the visitors at bay and makes sure the mum isn’t overstretched, but he’s not always very good at it and finds it hard to say no to all these lovely people who want to come and express their love for his family. Some days they’ll be longing for some visitors and actually your company is very welcome – other days not so much. The best approach is to ask.
One great way to get a cheeky visit and to leave space at the same time is to offer to take older children to the park for a couple of hours – that way you get to meet the new arrival and mum & dad potentially get to have a nap too. If you want to offer to hang up the latest load of washing on your return as well then so much the better :)

Some brief ‘rules’ for visiting new parents:
  • Try to be punctual and arrive when you say you will. Feeding babies is a complicated and time-consuming business, and to get ready for a visit at a certain time may take many hours of preparation. If you then show up half-an-hour later than expected then that beautiful window of opportunity where the the baby is clean and well-fed and awake enough to be interesting will be missed, and depending on how comfortable mum is feeding in front of you then it may cause a fair amount of stress once you do show up.
  • Embrace the chaos. Be prepared for carnage – breakfast left unwashed-up on the kitchen table at 5pm, mum & dad still in their pajamas; teeth unbrushed and showers skipped – all of these are normal for new parents. Some days they’ll be on top of it all, other days they’ll be feeling completely overwhelmed. So if you do visit, make sure you’re not seen to be tidying up with your eyes (feel free to tidy up with your hands though!)

5. Remember that the first two weeks aren’t necessarily when help is most needed

We’ve been so thankful for our church family and neighbours rallying round and offering to bring food and so on in the early days, but sometimes this kind of enthusiasm risks being a bit overwhelming at first and then sometimes fizzles out after a couple of weeks. This will depend upon the exact circumstances of the particular family, but in many cases it’s actually once dad’s paternity leave has come to and end and mum suddenly finds herself on her own (in some cases looking after multiple children if there are older ones too) – that’s when the help is most needed.

6. Understand how your comments might be interpreted

Please don’t feel like you have to walk on egg-shells, but at the same time, understand that new parents are massively sleep-deprived and probably feeling desperately neurotic about all kinds of issues related to the new baby. Well-meaning comments on the look / size / weight / spottiness of their baby may hit on exactly the topic they happen to be anxious about on that particular day, and the problem you’ll have is that there’s no way you can know what topic it happens on be on the day you see them. So rather than saying “she’s so tiny!” or “he’s so huge!” try something a bit more objective or neutral like “you’re so young!” or “isn’t she cute!” You won’t believe the range of potential topics that parents are able to stress about. “Do these bendy legs mean my child has rickets??!”

7. Pray!

Bringing up children is hard work, and you are utterly dependent on God’s help. It may not feel like much, but to pray for new parents is actually one of the best things you can do to help. Pray that they’ll get just enough sleep to keep going. Pray that the baby will feed well and grow properly. Pray that older siblings will adjust well to the new arrival. Pray for gospel opportunities with family members, midwives & health visitors. Pray for joy in the midst of pooey nappies and midnight feeds. And pray that the new mum & dad will keep walking closely with God even though quiet times may be hard to come by and concentration spans may be limited during sermons.

Conclusion

Don’t let all that scare you or make you nervous – ultimately new mums & dads just need the same kind of loving friendship as anybody else. Know that your words and actions can make a real difference during this particularly intense season of their lives. And remember that new dads need support just as much as new mums.

Online Reviews, Jesus Style

What Would Jesus Do when it comes to leaving online reviews on the App Store or Google Play? What does the Bible have to teach us about how to review apps in an Internet age? It turns out, quite a bit!

I think the clearest bit of teaching on the subject comes from Matthew 18:15-17:

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

Ok, so I’m stretching it a little. But notice that in disputes (particularly between believers) Jesus describes a clear process of escalation:

  1. Start by telling the person who has offended you in private. This is just good manners. It’s easy to take offence at someone, but there’s a good chance that they weren’t acting maliciously or with evil intent – and raising the matter privately avoids unnecessarily trashing their reputation and giving them a chance to repent.
  2. If that fails, bring in a couple of others. Sometimes our hearts are stubborn, and it takes a little social pressure to make us see the situation clearly. This still allows for the situation to be dealt with privately and without airing the dirty laundry in public, but helps show the seriousness of what’s going on.
  3. Finally, if and only if there is still unrepentance, get the whole church family involved. If even the whole body of Christ can’t help this person see what’s wrong, then there’s something really wrong.

So how would Jesus review? Here’s what I reckon:

  1. He’d begin by raising any issues privately with the developer. If it’s a bug in an app, then the best way to help the developer fix it is to get in touch and give helpful background such as your operating system version and the exact steps you went through. A 1-star app review isn’t the right place to report bugs.
  2. If reporting the issue fails to produce any response, he’d probably try to discover if it’s a widespread issue, to help the developer see the seriousness of the issue. Maybe he’d tweet or post on Facebook – “anybody else had this issue?” Most app developers are super busy with all sorts of competing priorities, and bugs that are affecting several people are much more likely to get attention than one-offs that are hard to reproduce.
  3. If the bugs persisted, then he might politely warn others in a review. Sometimes in good conscience you want to leave a negative review of a product, to warn others not to waste their money on something that doesn’t work. But you can still be polite about it! “I wanted to love this product, great concept, but sadly, after long conversations, the developer was unable to resolve some serious flaws”

Some examples of a really bad review:

  • 1 star – no explanation. Not even an “I hated it!”. This serves nobody – the developer has no idea how to improve her product, and other potential customers can’t tell whether they’ll hate it too for the same reasons. I’d suggest that this is pretty lazy.
  • 1 star – “the app crashed on launch, sort it out, waster!”. If this was the only review left on an app, this might be within the realms of the useful to other potential customers, but (apart from being pretty rude!) it’s very unlikely to actually help you get the app fixed, since the developer has no information to go on. If it’s the only such review amongst hundreds of very positive reviews, then it’s not even all that useful to other users since it’s probably a fairly specific issue that relates to your particular setup (as an aside, I might gently request that if you’re running a beta version of iOS then you should please refrain from leaving reviews about app crashes)

There are some cases where a negative review is appropriate, but I think one should always aim to be courteous, and remember that the person at the other end is a real human being who probably works hard and isn’t deliberately setting out to create rubbish apps:

  • Make a clear distinction between the app in general and specific updates / issues. Every app has its catastrophic update that goes disastrously wrong. This is inevitable from time to time. But I’ve also seen excellent reviews in such situations, along the lines of “This is one of my favourite apps but this particular version has serious issues”

What do you think? How do you think Jesus would review apps?

How should Christians engage with technology?

Computer keyboard

The other weekend I went to speak at a men’s breakfast at St. Luke’s Wimbledon Park on the topic of “how should Christians engage with technology?” It’s something I’ve been wanting to put together a talk on ever since my time studying on the Cornhill Training Course and working as their IT guy, a period of my life which gave me plenty of time to think about how theology and technology interact (this was also when I first developed the PrayerMate app).

I think this is a topic which Christians ought to be encouraged to think about a lot more than we do, because it’s something that’s both really important and all too easy not to think about all that hard. For that reason, here are my notes from my talk.

The fact is that technology is absolutely everywhere. Even if you think you’re a luddite who’s hopeless with technology, there’s a chance that you own a pair of glasses – well, that’s technology. There’s a very good chance that you use electric lighting to stay up beyond sundown – that’s certainly technology. Even if you go to bed at 5pm in the winter, you’re certain to have read a book or two in your lifetime (though frankly, if you’re going to bed at 5pm, I don’t know where you find the time!) The humble book employs an enormous amount of technology – from the paper it’s printed on, to the printing press used to copy it (perhaps one of the most revolutionary pieces of technology ever invented), to the alphabet itself, which believe it or not hasn’t always existed and once upon a time somebody sat down and invented.

“Technology” is basically anything that is created by human beings to help us reach beyond what we would be able to do without it – whether that’s just doing an old thing more efficiently, or whether it’s doing something that was entirely impossible before. Technology is all around us, and it’s so deeply woven into the very fabric of our lives that we barely even notice it’s there. That’s precisely why it’s so important that we do take time out to consider it from a Christian perspective – because the technology we use always changes us.

There’s masses and masses I could say on the topic, but I’m going to basically address three areas: technology is not morally neutral; technology changes how we think; and some practical thoughts on using technology.

Technology is not morally neutral

When it comes to technology, it’s very easy to respond in one of two ways:

  • There’s the approach that just rejects all new technology outright – we don’t like the change it represents, so we reject it en masse as evil. It took me years and years before I got my first mobile phone, and in the mean time I stubbornly rejected it.
  • The other common response is that we embrace it wholeheartedly as an unambiguously positive force for good. The culture around us often portrays all technological progress as a step forwards – newer is always better, and just because something can be done, then that something should be done.

But if we look at what the Bible has to say, then I think we can say that both of these approaches are lacking. Have a look at Genesis 1:27-27:

“So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.'”

So we see that God is a creator – he makes things. And one of the pinnacles of his creation is that he creates men and women, and he creates us in his image, so that we too will be creators who in turn like to make things. As we master the world around us and bring our ingenuity to bear on the problems that we face, we’re actually reflecting something of the image of God, and that’s a good thing and a right thing. It’s part of how we’re going to fulfill that creation mandate that God gave to Adam and Eve, to “fill the earth and subdue it” and rule over it.

So our ability to create technology is a good and a positive thing that reflects something of the image of God. But we also need to recognise that we live the other side of Genesis 3: in Genesis 3 we see humanity rejecting God’s good purpose for our lives, and in judgement God puts a curse on his creation.

“Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:17)

So things are now distorted and warped. The creation order is turned upside down, the things we created to help us master the creation now try to master us. It’s a few chapters later that we get the first clear example of technology in the Bible, in the hands of one of the murderer Cain’s descendants, “who forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron” – it’s not loads clear, so don’t attach too much weight to it, but it’s not presented as entirely positive. Then you get the first major building project in the history of humanity in the form of the Tower of Babel, which again is not exactly portrayed in an overwhelmingly positive light. There it’s an example of technology being used to exert independence from God – making a name for ourselves apart from our relationship to God.

So the basic principle which we need to establish when thinking about technology is this: technology by itself is what we might call “amoral” – that is, it is neither overwhelmingly good nor inherently evil. Like lots of things in this world it’s something with great power for good but which is also deeply affected by the fall. What’s important is how we use that technology – what we use it to do, and what we allow it to do to us.

Technology is neither overwhelmingly good nor inherently evil – it’s how we USE it that counts.

Some of the benefits of technology are easy to spot – maybe it’s an app like PrayerMate that can help you in your prayer life, maybe it’s a Facebook message to a struggling friend that gives them the encouragement they need to keep going, maybe it’s just the way that electric lighting and central heating helps our midweek Bible studies go better, or the way that the printing press has enabled the Bible to be distributed far and wide and put into the hands of ordinary people. Technology has enabled some wonderful things.

But technology can also very easily become an idol in our lives. Most of what I have to say here is really inspired by Tim Challies’ book “The Next Story” (which you should all go out and read immediately), and he says this:

“Though the devices and tools we create are inherently amoral, at the same time we would be foolish to believe that they are morally neutral. The things we create to assist us in overcoming the consequences of the curse also seek to dominate us, drawing our hearts away from God rather than drawing us toward him in dependence and faith.”

Anything created has the potential to become an idol in our lives – something that we put our trust in instead of God. And technology has perhaps a greater-than-average risk of being turned into an idol because it is so powerful in extending our abilities and what we’re able to achieve – it promises to help make us a little more like God, and overcome our finiteness and weakness. And that’s something we need to be aware of and pray against. It can be that the technology is an idol in itself (the latest iDols from Apple, perhaps?) or they can enable other idols, such as my pride, as I project an image of living the most remarkable life imaginable on Facebook, or lust, in the form of Internet pornography and so on.

My goal here is to encourage us all just to be a little more thinking in our attitude to technology – not to reject it outright, nor to embrace it unquestioningly. Instead, to try to see beyond the superficial and to think a bit more about how it affects us, and why we feel about it the way we do.

Technology changes how we think

It’s really important to recognise that our technology has the power to radically alter how we perceive and think about the world around us. If you’ve ever read Neil Postman’s book “Amusing Ourselves to Death“, he argues that the advent of television completely revolutionised how we engaged with everything from politics to education (had the internet been invented at the time he was writing, I’m sure he’d have said his hypothesis was even more true of that). Because of the television, we’ve become a very visual culture. Postman talks about how important it is these days for politicians to look the part if they’re to get elected, because so much is decided by the public watching them on telly. He asks how many of the great leaders of the past would still have been elected if they were to run for office today?

So, technology can change how we think. How many of you have ever made a decision about what to wear or what to do, because you’ve been thinking “how will this look on Facebook?” Or maybe that’s just me!

Let’s briefly consider just two examples of ways that technology changes how we think. Even if you don’t think these are relevant to you, they’re sure to be relevant to your children or the people that we’re trying to reach in our churches.

1. Technology means we’ve redefined community

In the old days, your community was defined by your physical geography – where you lived – and primarily that usually meant your family who you shared a house with. So if you wanted to contact somebody, you’d call the family telephone, or you’d write a letter to the family address. Now it’s shifted from our geography to being much more about the individual, and our preferences – so our community can be a virtual one defined by common interests. You email me as an individual, you send me a text message as an individual – and it’s all completely cut off from my geographical context, my family context.

So does that mean I should throw away my mobile phone, close my GMail account and refuse to communicate with anybody except by snail mail? Of course not! Apart from anything else, it’s probably too late for that! But being conscious of the way that our technology has changed us, we can be armed to think about how this might have a knock on effect for our godliness, how we relate to God and to one another. There’s no doubt that this is one of the reasons why as a culture we increasingly find church so hard work these days, because very often we don’t have a whole lot in common with the other people we go to church with, we’re not that bothered about our local community, and it all feels a little bit too much like hard work. We’re going to need to go back to our Bibles to figure out why we should bother with church, and how to persuade the next generation to bother with church in a world where meeting together physically in one place is increasingly less interesting. Communication is increasingly about “mediated” contact these days – it’s much less daunting to send a text message or an email to somebody that they can read at their leisure than it is to look them in the eye and give them my full attention and require their full attention in response. Going to church is such an alien concept in a world of mediated contact!

2. Technology means we’ve redefined truth

I don’t know if you’ve ever tried anything on Wikipedia before – but there are very strict guidelines that determine what you’re allowed to say on Wikipedia. It’s all based around the concept of “consensus” – everything you write has to have a citation from another source, everything has to be backed up by somebody else who agrees with you. They explicitly say that it’s not a place for original ideas or new thinking.

Or if it’s not about consensus, it’s all about “relevance”. As sites like Google and Facebook have to deal with larger and larger volumes of information, they’re getting more and more sophisticated in filtering things out so that they only show you what they think you’ll consider “relevant”. You’ll see more and more content from the friends that it thinks you engage with and less and less content from the friends that it’s decided you’re not really that interested in, and it’s all very self-reinforcing.

Both of these ways of defining the truth – consensus and relevance – have problems for the Christian, because we believe in revelation. Biblical truth often clashes with consensus, and doesn’t necessarily seem all that relevant to an outsider who’s thinking superficially. But it’s the ultimate truth, and it’s supremely relevant because it’s about our eternal future – if only we have the ears to hear.

Obviously there’s loads more we could say on that topic – plenty of further examples of ways in which our technology changes how we think. But in summary: be on your guard! Don’t engage with technology unthinkingly and expect to come away unchanged.

Some practical thoughts on using technology

Really I just want to talk about one thing under this heading, and that’s distraction. Our technology these days increasingly leads to distraction. If we allow it to, our technology can really begin to own us, with all of the beeps and buzzes and notifications that constantly vie for our attention and drag us away from the real interactions with the people right in front of us.

As a result of all this distraction, we’re less and less able to concentrate for long periods of time, we find ourselves less and less able to do something simple like just sitting and reading a book. It can even get to the point where we find ourselves feeling quite anxious and fidgety if we have to sit with our own thoughts and nothing to distract us. It can draw us away from the people we’re face-to-face with, and be a disaster for our working productivity.

Our hearts long for that little beep, so we feel like we need to leave the volume turned up. But the reality is that the world will still go on if our emails go unread for 30 minutes, and we’d be much better off if we just turned the notifications off and instead just checked in every once and a while.

All this can be a real issue for habits of personal devotion like having quiet times where we spend quality time in God’s word and praying. So many times I’ve been trying to read the Bible, only to find myself checking my phone or my iPad because some idea has occurred to me part way through, and before I know it I’ve completely forgotten what I was looking at.

I think if we’re going to be serious about putting God first in our lives, we have to be pretty radical with our technology.

For myself, it’s a real discipline of trying to make sure that my Bible reading is the first thing I do in the morning, rather than checking my email. It just feels to me like it says a lot about my own priorities that I’m more excited to know if anybody around the world has sent me a nugget of novelty in my inbox, than I am to hear from the Creator of the Universe who has some eternal truth to share with me – and trying to make sure I hold off checking my email until I’ve listened to what he has to say just feels like the right thing to try and do. Apart from anything else, often I’ve only got about 3 minutes of peace and quiet before the baby wakes up, and if I use it to check Facebook then the quiet time may never happen!

Coupled with the short attention span, we have less and less need to exercise our memories, as we become more and more reliant on Google to give us the answers. We don’t know how to memorise scripture any more, because we know we can just look it up on Bible Gateway instead. How much the poorer are we for it?

So let me urge you: keep reading your Bibles, keep reading good Christian books, and why not try to memorise the occasional Bible passage?

Questions to ask our technology

I am aware that this was a bit of a whirlwind tour, with lots left out. However, I hope there’s been something there that was vaguely useful, and some fuel for further thought on the subject.

To close, let me leave you with some questions from Tim Challies that we should ask of any technology. You’ve heard of the discipline of talking to yourself – well here’s some ways you can talk to your mobile phone instead:

Why we’re wrong to fear opposition

Opposition in the book of Acts

I’ve just recently finished reading reading my way through the book of Acts. A big theme of the book struck me afresh this time, which I’m not sure I’d really noticed in quite the same way before.

Acts is a book filled with examples of opposition to the gospel. The chief priests and religious leaders oppose the early disciples and try to stop them preaching. The Jewish people largely seem to reject their message, often hounding them out of their synagogues. The people of Ephesus even start a riot because they’re so offended by Paul and his gospel. And yet time and time again, we see that the disciples are unfazed by these responses. Indeed, in Chapter 5:41 we read that “the apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.” They rejoiced that they got to suffer on behalf on Jesus. What on earth is going on?

Opposition is God’s plan

Right near the start of the book and right at the end of the book we have a couple of quotes from the Old Testament that I think help explain this a little. In Chapter 4 we have a quote from Psalm 2:

“Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth rise up
and the rulers band together
against the Lord
and against his anointed one”

In Psalm 2 we see the powerful ones of the earth attempting to rise up against God, and what does God do? He laughs. Even the mightiest people on the planet are like puny ants trying to start a fight with the Creator of the Universe, and it is laughable. Peter goes on to say “Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.” When the kings of the earth conspire against God, all they end up achieving is bringing God’s purposes to pass.

Then at the end of the book, Paul gives an extended quote from Isaiah 6:

“Go to this people, and say,
You will indeed hear but never understand,
and you will indeed see but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and with their ears they can barely hear,
and their eyes they have closed;
lest they should see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
and turn, and I would heal them.”

In other words, God knew that the Jewish people would reject the message of the crucified Messiah Jesus. It wasn’t a surprise to him – it was in his plan all along. Paul concludes: “Therefore I want you to know that God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen!” This rejection that we’ve been seeing right through the book of Acts is all part of the master plan to fulfil Jesus’ promise to take the gospel to all Jerusalem, Judea & Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

Not fearing opposition

This encourages me. What is the number one reason I don’t share the gospel with more people? It’s got to be the fear of rejection. But the book of Acts tells me that when opposition happens, God expects it, and indeed God uses it to further his purposes. The Apostle Paul knew with certainty that if he went to Jerusalem, he would be bound hand and foot. But did that stop him going? No! He was compelled to preach the gospel whatever the cost – sometimes even because he knew that the opposition he received would only help him preach the gospel in even more places. When he does finally get arrested in Jerusalem, it allows him the opportunity to go to Rome to speak the gospel before the Emperor himself.

So don’t let the fear of opposition stop you from speaking up about Jesus. Know with conviction that God is in charge, and God is bigger than any opposition we might face. His will is that the gospel will go out to all the earth, and it’s a privilege to get to be part of that work.

Double-Minded

I’ve been thinking lately about the idea of “double-mindedness” in the life of the Christian. What Jesus calls “trying to serve two masters”. Trying to be a faithful Christian, but all the time looking over our shoulder at all the things we’re missing out on, all the opportunities missed, all the ways we could find more success in the eyes of the watching world if only we weren’t so “restricted” by our convictions.

It’s a topic that the New Testament book of James tackles head on, and it’s worth hearing what he has to say on the topic. Here’s how he introduces the idea:

“If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.”

The double-minded person prays to God for wisdom, but then doesn’t really like what he hears back in return. He doubts that what God recommends will really work out. “Are you sure, God?”

What God says is often very counter-cultural. He values different things to what our friends do. His wisdom is frequently surprising and very often not what we want to hear.

“You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.”

When we start to listen to the world, we enter into an internal conflict. We try to live with a foot in both camps. We want to be successful by the world’s standards, whilst still clinging onto God’s truth and God’s priorities. But the world is opposed to God and his truth. The one who lives a life wholy faithful to God will rarely be able to find ultimate success in the eyes of the world. It simply requires too many compromises, too much time and attention invested in the wrong things.

When we start to embrace God’s approval as its own reward, suddenly it matters less what the world thinks of us in the process.

“Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business.”

There is hope for us who fail at this every day. It is never too late for repentance, and indeed the Christian life is one of daily repentance. Daily confessing our failings, including our double-mindedness.

“But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says:
‘God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.’
Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.”

And so we have to make a choice: will we seek above all to be successful according to the world’s priorities, or will we seek first the kingdom of God? To choose the latter doesn’t necessarily mean some of us won’t also be granted the former. But it does mean to accept the possibility that we will have to forego success in this life, to stop chasing it as the number one purpose of our existence.

Waiting for a baby

It turns out that waiting for a baby to make an appearance in the outside world really is a great analogy for waiting for the return of Jesus. You know it has to happen at some point, but you really have no idea when it’s going to be. You keep getting little signs that it might be imminent, and then it turns out to be a false start. You kind of have to get on with real life, rather than just sitting around all day until it happens. But at the same time, you have to make sure you have your mobile phone on you at all times when you go to work, and you know not to book any foreign holidays any time in the next couple of weeks, and of course you have your hospital bag carefully packed in a corner – in other words, you need to be ready for it to happen at any moment. It’s given me a much better appreciation of the emotions of Romans 8:18-27:

18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.

I’m waiting eagerly for the arrival of Mini-Geers, but how much more should we be waiting eagerly for that moment when Jesus comes back, and those who trust in him will get brand new bodies, freed from our bondage to sin and decay! The Mrs and I are eagerly longing to meet this little person, but how much more should we be longing to meet the one who made them and us!

So, we do our best to wait for it patiently (but boy is it hard!!)

How much good can a good God do with a healthy dose of Man Flu?

duvet day

If we believe in a good God who is in control of his world, then presumably his promise to “work all things for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28) extends even to man flu. So what good is God able to work in the midst of illness? I can think of at least three:

  1. Illness is good for giving us opportunities to patiently wait in humble dependence on God. Every night it’s the same: will I sleep well tonight? Will I be better tomorrow morning? And every time the answer is ‘no’ we have to practice patiently trusting God. I want to be better straight away, but God has other plans that are bigger than mine, and I must wait until he is ready to make me better.
  2. Illness is good for showing us that we’re not superheroes and we need to stop every now and again. Sometimes it’s easy to overdo it in the short term (even if that’s a six month ‘short term’) and convince yourself that it’s sustainable and you’re doing ok. But then eventually you crash and burn and get stuck in bed for a week, and it can be a good way for your body to say “you are going to stop and rest whether you like it or not”. There’s a famous story (does anybody know where it’s from?) of a busy pastor who never quite managed to take a day of rest each week, and then after a few years ended up with a serious illness that lasted basically as long as all of those skipped rest days strung together.
  3. Illness is good for reminding us that our identity is not in what we can do or how we can serve. Every day you think to yourself “I’ll be well enough tomorrow to fulfill that commitment I made to so-and-so” or “I’ll be well enough by church on Sunday to do the powerpoint”. Then when you’re not, you have to ask other people for help and the body of Christ kicks in to action and everybody rallies round and copes pretty marvellously without you and it turns out you weren’t quite as indispensable as you thought. And that’s ace, because it brings conviction of ways in which you’ve started to define yourself by what you do and the ways in which you serve, and find your value in the contribution you make rather than simply your standing in Christ as a precious child of God. Occasionally having to allow others to serve you rather than trying to do everything for yourself can be humbling in a really helpful way.

That’s as far as I’ve got so far – maybe you’ve got some suggestions of your own?

P.S. Free special bonus treat: Jonathan Edwards’ resolution No. 67: “Resolved, after afflictions, to inquire, what I am the better for them, what am I the better for them, and what I might have got by them.”

5 Years of the Geero.net Blog

bg5th.jpg

When I went to dig into all of the historical stats for my blog the other day, little did I know that it was at such a well-chosen moment: it turns out that today, Friday 30 November, is exactly five years since I first posted to the Geero.net blog (that post was “And now for something completely different“).

In that time there have been some highs and some lows, some periods of regular posting and some times of hardly posting at all. It’s largely been a real blessing to me to write all this stuff, even if nobody has really read any of it, and I’m thankful to God for the opportunity. If all you want to know is what the most popular posts have been during that time, skip to the end. But for those who are interested in a little more detail, I reckon there were about six eras in the life of Geero.net:

  1. Beginner’s luck (Nov 2007 – Apr 2008) – initially I was mostly posting all of my pent-up ideas about making Bible-teaching computer games. I would write several drafts of each article and post infrequently, but they were probably more interesting posts as a result. Most of these are now found on my separate Old Testament Adventures blog.
  2. Relative obscurity (Apr 2008 – Feb 2009) – by this point I’d run out of interesting ideas about Bible games and was having to make stuff up as I went. Unsurprisingly, nobody really read my blog during this period.
  3. LucasArts nostalgia (Mar 2009 – Jan 2010) – I slightly changed tack at this point and started posting more generally about the Point & Click adventure games that inspired my Bible games, with posts about games like The Secret of Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle. These proved fairly popular amongst a wider audience and brought in a few extra visitors.
  4. Randomness that worked (Feb 2010 – Dec 2012) – somewhat depressingly, the period that brought in most visitors to the blog was filled with totally random posts about some really strange things that weren’t necessarily all that exciting to me. My biggest hit of all time was created during this period, which was very much one of my passions and not too surprising to discover it was well-received: The OTHER Secret of Monkey Island, helped by a massive boost from Hacker News (and a great voice-over by David Hall). But other big hits include West Cornwall Pasty vs the Big Mac and some stuff about programming Unity games on the iPhone. These were mostly good for ongoing Google traffic rather than for regular readers of the blog.
  5. Why Jesus Is My Hero (Jan 2011 – Oct 2011) – I think this was the real high point of the blog, with the most regular readers tuning in for actual blog content rather than random nutritional information. I got into a good rhythm of posting an article on “Why Jesus is My Hero” every Sunday (starting with I’m No Hero). I think I was generally managing to post these at Sunday lunchtimes which seemed to be a good time for various reasons. It’s well known that regularity really helps when trying to build blog traffic, and my experience totally backs that up.
  6. On the wane (Oct 2011 – Oct 2012) – for various personal reasons, blogging fell somewhat lower in my priorities during this period. I was still posting my Why Jesus is My Hero posts right up until June 2012, but I shifted to a Sunday evening pattern which suited me better, but perhaps accounts for the decreased response. In case you were wondering, I finally finished the series this week, with The First and the Last, an article that I had been dying to write ever since I started the series but which I knew had to be the last instalment.

Most Popular Posts

Here’s the bit you’ve all been waiting for – the hall of fame of the Top 10 pages of all time on Geero.net:

  1. The OTHER Secret of Monkey Island – my followup video to the big conspiracy theory The True Secret of Monkey Island
  2. My version of the open source DirectX Exporter for Blender – yes, depressingly boringly. But apparently quite interesting to those who need such a thing.
  3. The Bible Games tab – now it just redirects you to the Old Testament Adventures blog, but once upon-a-time this page used to host details of my game.
  4. West Cornwall Pasty vs the Big Mac – one day after watching Super-sized Me I just really wanted to know how many calories there were in a West Cornwall Pasty, only to discover that that information wasn’t online. So I emailed them and wrote this slightly random post, only for it to turn into one of the most read things on my entire blog. Weird.
  5. Why Programmers Find it So Hard to Be Christians – this was the product of various observations I’ve made over my life, and seemed to strike a chord with some people. I got a lot of emails about this one.
  6. How to Install PythonMagick on OS X – yes, another really depressing entry in the hall of fame. After spending several days trying to overcome problem after problem installing an image manipulation library on my Macbook, I wrote this post listing all of the errors I got and how to solve them. Google loves that kind of thing.
  7. Tips for Taking Over Someone Else’s Code – inspired by my work on the Blender Exporter, this was a fairly general interest article for all programmers, and seemed to be fairly popular.
  8. Programming under the Lordship of Christ – one of the first blog posts I ever wrote, this was about how being a Christian changes the way you work. Even now people still email about this every now and again, and by God’s grace people seem to have found it helpful.
  9. Why Our Best Works are But Filthy Rags – part of a little series I was trying to write on humility, this turns out to be a phrase that people Google for surprisingly frequently.
  10. Why God Is Better Than the Chairman – Thoughts on ‘The Adjustment Bureau’ – some reflections after watching the disappointing movie.

Some of those posts were really random, and aren’t going to make much of an impact on the world. But I hope and pray that one or two of them will have helped even just a few people love and follow Jesus a little better than they did before.

Your skills are a gift – how will you use yours?

A few years ago, I read a blog post somewhere bewailing what an injustice it was that Google should hire some of the greatest minds on the planet and then squander that talent by putting them to work on problems like… well, let’s face it… advertising. I’m not sure I was all that persuaded at the time (I’ve always rather fancied working at Google) but the last few months having given me reason to reevaluate my position.

It’s the 21st century now, and whether you like it or not, we live in a world that is built on software. A huge proportion of our lives interact with computer systems at some point or other – whether that’s directly using a website like Facebook on your PC or your phone, whether it’s firing up an app to check the weather forecast, or whether it’s the automated billing system working out how much to charge you for the electricity you’ve used. It’s hard to imagine anyone going long without having their lives affected in some small way by a piece of software.

That means that software developers have the potential to make a huge contribution to people’s quality of life. How much frustration are you caused each day by those little quirks in the way your Word processor works? And what a breath of fresh air it is when you find yourself using a website that “just works”? If you’re a talented developer who has an instinct for what’s going to make a better experience for the end users and the technical know-how to make that happen – well then you’ve been entrusted with a precious gift, the opportunity to bring a little happiness into people’s lives. How are you going to use that gift? What are you going to channel your energies and your talents into?

A few months ago I did something I thought I’d never do – I turned down a further interview with Google to go and work for a little startup company called Hubbub, doing their best to change their little corner of the world by letting people shop online with their local independent shops, allowing the little guy to compete with the big supermarkets. I’m having the time of my life doing exciting work with wonderful people, and helping make people’s lives a little better in the process, all whilst eating amazing lunches from incredible local suppliers – and it’s such a frustration to see how hard we’re finding it to hire extra developers to support us in our work. I reckon Google will survive without two developers they might otherwise have been able to nab – but what a huge difference those two developers would make to Hubbub, and in turn to our passionate and dedicated customers and the independent shops they seek to support.

So go on, I dare you – put your skills to work somewhere where you can make a real difference. Maybe that’s Hubbub, maybe it’s continuing to do what you’re already doing, maybe it’s getting involved in some kind of Open Source project. But whatever you do, remember that your skills are a gift. How will you use yours?

Fretting and Procrastination – What They Have In Common

anxiety disorders

I’m an accomplished procrastinator, and yesterday I did a fair bit of fretting as well, and I’ve come to an important realisation about what these two traits of mine have in common, with some big implications for how to deal with them: both procrastination and fretting ultimately involve wasting time being anxious about a problem rather than dealing with a problem.

Firstly, some definitions:

  • Procrastination is when you know you’re supposed to be doing something, but it just seems too much like hard work, so you put it off and waste time doing something less important that you’d rather be doing instead.
  • Fretting is when you’re anxiously thinking about a situation and all the ways in which it might go wrong and all the problems that might arise and what about this and what about that and… agh, make it stop!

I’ve written before that the root of so much of my procrastination is uncertainty – for example why I never seem to be able to bring myself to wash up my parents’ teapot when I go to visit:

“The reason I always left the teapot is that I never quite knew what to do with it – it clearly needed some kind of cleaning action applied to it and yet it was so grimy and dirty inside and I didn’t really want my future cups of tea to taste of washing up liquid and I don’t really know what I’m supposed to do with it and – Agh! Uncertainty. My brain gets scared and shuts down and prefers to leave it rather than figure it out and deal with it.”

For me, procrastination is a fear of what would actually be involved in solving the problem I’m avoiding. It’s running scared instead of embracing the problem and getting on with it.

And I’ve realised that fretting is exactly the same. When facing a potentially stressful situation, there are two possibilities:

  1. The situation is entirely outside of my control, and no amount of fretting is going to prevent the situation going wrong. In this situation I just need to pray and entrust it to God, knowing that he is good and that he loves me and that if things go wrong it’s only because he permitted it.
  2. Or maybe there is something I could do to address the situation, maybe being prepared for some of the ways it could go wrong, maybe asking some sensible questions of the people who know the situation better than I do, anything at all to actually get on with addressing the source of the anxiety. In this situation, I should probably just get on and deal with things.

But in neither situation is anything achieved by sitting there and fretting! Just like procrastination, fretting is running scared instead of embracing the problem and getting on with it.

Being anxious isn’t just a personality quirk – I firmly believe that it is an expression of my sinfulness. It’s a failure to trust God for the future, and to get on and do what I can to serve him in the present. Realising this fact has been a helpful step towards growing less anxious, by his grace – even if there is still an awful long way to go!

Life Without Guidance

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Me and my flatmate Dave watched the movie “Ghost World” tonight. It’s really depressing. It’s kind of a commentary on the angst associated with growing up, growing apart, dealing with the vacuum of life without guidance and any moral framework.

It relates to something Dave has blogged about recently about what a disaster it is to follow your heart, seeing as how it’s deceitful above all else and all that:

“I think the Bible’s teaching can be summarised like this: the heart is an unruly child – capable of good things, but if you leave it to its own devices, you will be in a pickle.”

I really like this quote by John Newton which isn’t entirely relevant but which is really great so just needs to be shared, and it kind of sums up the experience of one of the characters in the movie:

“Whatever we can see with our eyes and touch with our hands shrinks upon trial, and will not fully answer the expectations which the prospect raised. It quickly ceases to be new, and then we secretly say to ourselves, Is this all?”

How Photoshop Denies the Generosity of God

Airbrush-Pistole Typ: Badger 200

Came across this must-read article on The Satanic Ideology of Photoshop by Mike Cosper that ties in really well with a lot of stuff I’ve been thinking about recently about thankfulness and contentment. It talks about the lies that feed and are fed by the culture of photoshopped beauty that we see all around us in magazines and on billboards. He says that ultimately, it’s all a Satanic assault on our contentment in God and what God has given us:

“When Satan came to Eve in the garden, his assault (amongst other things) was an attack on her contentment. “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1) To paraphrase: “Has God held out on you? Has he given you less than you need, less than you deserve?” The temptations of Jesus in Luke 4 are likewise assaults upon contentment. For Jesus to turn stones to bread would have been to deny the sufficiency of God’s provision. To worship Satan in exchange for the kingdoms of the earth would have been to deny the sufficiency of Jesus’ inheritance to come. In these cases, Satan’s message was the same: God is holding out on you. You’re lacking what you really need. You don’t have what will really make you happy.”

Our ideas about what is beautiful are so distorted that we become unable to accept aging with grace. But more than that, our self-centredness and pursuit of pleasure means that we elevate outer beauty to the point where it makes us miserable, unable to rejoice in the reality of how things actually are.

Yet the Bible reminds us that we are fearfully and wonderfully made. Exactly as we are, God knew what he was doing! We need to keep remembering what life is all about, that we’re here for God’s glory and not our own pleasure or our own egos, and that even as we wrinkle and sag we will continue to grow more and more beautiful if we persist in seeking first the kingdom of God. There’s a glory to a person’s godliness that cannot help but shine.

We might wish to be eternally youthful, but instead we need to keep trusting that our God is generous and good, and rejoice in how things actually are today.

(-HT Justin Taylor)

Busyness and Rest

I’ve been really enjoying the “Life of a Steward” blog recently – a stimulating resource for anybody thinking about productivity and wise stewardship of our time from a thoroughly Christian perspective. Yesterday’s post was titled Jesus and Rest: The Mater’s Way of Refocusing. Here’s a little excerpt:

“Rest has a way of refocusing us… When we live at a busy pace, rest is the chance for us to rejuvenate and avoid burnout. But it goes beyond that. Rather than simply recharging us so we can tackle our work week, rest can change how we fundamentally view our lives. Rest gives us the ability to refocus.”

For a few years now I’ve been a big fan of David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” approach to time management. I’ve long thought that one of the most valuable and foundational components of his method is the regular review – taking time out to consider what you’re working on and what you should be working on. I’m rubbish at being proactive enough to make it happen. But reading that post above made me think that it’s invaluable in other areas of life as well to take a step back every now and again and ask ourselves what’s going on.

When we’re busy we tend to become more reactive and less pro-active: in mathematical terms, we look for a local maximum, becoming hyper-focussed on where we are at the moment and responding to the demands being placed on us, and so we fail to notice that if we just zoomed out a bit we’d realise that the real answer lies elsewhere in doing something else entirely.

Read the whole thing here.

An Object Lesson of How To Get Smart Developers To Apply For Your Job Opening

There are a few companies out there who are overwhelmed with applications from amazingly talented individuals, but more often than not that’s not the case. Smart people get to choose where they work, and to recruit for the best talent companies need to sell themselves to the candidates just as much (or even more) than the candidates need to sell themselves to the company. My first employer learnt this the hard way when they had job openings sitting unfilled for months at a time because no decent candidates were ever applying.

Today I came across an awesome job advert for a position that I just couldn’t resist applying for: the post of Web Developer at Hubbub. This job advert makes me smile on so many different levels:

  • These guys show that they’re serious about only hiring smart people – by showing that the bar is high, it makes you as a candidate want to take on the challenge of proving you’re good enough. Requiring a JSON hash is a really simple but effective way of immediately screening out the vast majority of potential applicants who really haven’t the first clue about web technologies. Not to mention those pesky recruiters :)
  • Having a sense of humour – nobody who has a choice in where they work wants to work for a dull and boring corporate machine (well, maybe a few do – but certainly not me!) and this job advert oozes a sense of a company culture that is a lot of fun (and without simply faking it)
  • Reflecting the company’s values – it’s obvious just from reading the job advert that this is a company that is serious about food, and they’re obviously going to want to hire somebody that’s serious about food too.
  • Bacon – what more needs to be said?

The health of a company depends entirely upon the quality of the people that work for it, and in this day and age you can’t expect to just post a bland notice about a job vacancy and expect to get anyone remotely exceptional applying for it. Big kudos to Hubbub for making something that really stands out from the crowds.

Pleasing God

Greek Temple Ruins

I’ve been blown away recently thinking about the Bible’s teaching that Christians are able to please God through their lives and their actions. Allow me to try and explain.

A little group of us were studying Haggai chapter 1 the other day. The prophet Haggai was living in a time after the people of Israel had begun to return from exile to a Jerusalem that lay in ruins. They started to rebuild God’s temple there, destroyed by the Babylonians seventy years earlier, but a combination of opposition and general selfishness meant that they gradually lost enthusiasm for the project and it more or less ground to a halt. Along comes Haggai and delivers this message from God:

“Thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider your ways. Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may be glorified, says the LORD.” (Haggai 1:7-8)

“Get off your lazy backsides and get building!”, says God. But in doing so, he says something which seems to me to be quite remarkable: “I want to be able to take pleasure in this temple you’re going to build – this tangible symbol of your obedience and your love for me.” God will look at the temple and heave a big sigh of contentment and delight, taking pleasure in his people who built it.

Amazing! I tend to think of God in a very “static” kind of way – he is who he is and that’s just the way it is. But the Bible consistently teaches that the way we act matters to God – we can grieve him by our sin and we can delight him by our acts of faith. Now, of course, it’s important to say that we can’t “please God” in the sense of earning his love by trying really hard to be good. Hebrews 11:6 reminds us that “without faith it is impossible to please him”. Or as Romans 8:8 puts it, “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”

But we mustn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Through faith in Christ, united to Jesus, we can actually bring pleasure to God by living godly lives in line with his will. Ephesians 5:10 puts it like this:

“Try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.”

That’s a pretty good life motto. Try to figure out what’s going to please the Lord. In whatever situation I’m in today, how can I please the Lord in this?

I think it gives real meaning to even the most mundane of moments. Struggling to find joy in your work? Well, try to discern how you can do your job in a way that is pleasing to the Lord. Finding relationships difficult? What’s going to be pleasing to the Lord in this situation? Finding church a bit of a battle at the moment? What’s going to bring pleasure to the Lord in the way you relate to your brothers and sisters there? Battling away with a particular sin that never seems to go away, and wondering why you’re even bothering? Take heart – when you overcome by faith in the power of his Spirit, you can pleases God.

What are you living for at the moment? Who are you trying to please? I’m very challenged by all this to try day-by-day to fix my eyes on God and how I can live in a way that pleases him, and it really encourages me to keep on battling sin even when it seems like an utterly thankless task. What a thought, to know that God might actually take pleasure from those little acts of obedience prompted by my faith.

How To Spend Every Day

Clock

I’ve been revisiting recently the excellent essay by Jonathan Edwards, “The Sin and Folly of Depending on Future Time“. In his characteristic style, Edwards diagnoses and dissects the problem of living in the future instead of being content to get on with making the most of the present moment that God has given us. This may sound over-the-top, but I’m gradually coming to realise that this is probably the biggest battle I struggle with in my life, the prior cause from which many of my other battles originate.

The Symptoms of Depending on Future Time

Let me illustrate with a couple of examples. God willing, I’m getting married in 172 days’ time, and I find it all too easy to just wish away the days and resent the fact that it’s so far away in the future. As at many other times in my life, I’ve fallen for that lie, that what I need is a change of circumstances – if only this were the case or if that were different, then I’d be able to get my life sorted out. Maybe it’s a change of jobs, maybe it’s living in a new place, maybe it’s graduating from university. Whatever it is, you look at your present situation and see all of the difficulties and downsides, a kind of “informed pessimism”, whereas you look at the grass on the other side and all you can see is potential and exciting opportunity – the optimism of ignorance. Instead of getting on with growing and serving in the situation God has currently put me in, I look to the future and imagine that I could serve him much more contentedly once I arrive at the next place. If prior experience is anything to go by, that’s absolute nonsense! Why should the next situation be any different from the current one, or the one before that? What possible grounds do I have for imagining that I’ll be any more content, until I learn to cease living in the future?

The other example I could give is in the daily battle to work productively, on whatever project it is that I’m currently struggling with. A piece of work that I need to tackle comes up, and instead of just getting on with it, I worry about how hard it might turn out to be. Or even sillier than that, I worry that I might actually finish it, and then what on earth would I do with myself? Anxiety about what the future might hold makes me shy away from fulfilling my responsibility in the present. It’s similar to the battle for patience regarding my wedding day: the thought of continuing to fight for another 172 days just seems too overwhelming – how can I possibly stay now-focussed for such a length of time?? And so it seems hardly worth even trying to battle in the present, and I give in.

An Alternative Way of Living

Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:25-34 seem very pertinent: “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on… which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? … But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”

Do not be anxious about tomorrow – sufficient for the day is its own trouble. In other words, leave the future for God to worry about. Your job is just to make the most of today, to fight sin today, to figure out how to love God and love your neighbour today. Now is the only moment of time God has actually entrusted to you to use – all the rest belongs to him.

A Personal Response

So what am I going to do in response to all these swirling thoughts?

Firstly, I’m going to try and take the issue more seriously and put some proper prayer into it each day.

Secondly, I think I’m going to try and start a journal. Try and write something each day, maybe one thing to be thankful for from the day that’s just passed, something that’s encouraged me from God’s word, maybe jot down a few thoughts about what the day ahead will hold and how I hope to make the most of it. Something, anything, to try and keep me rooted in the moment and encourage me to enjoy it and make the most of it rather than wishing I was somewhere else.

Thirdly, and I don’t really know how this one will work out, I’m going to try and slow down and enjoy life a little more, rather than always rushing from one thing to the next. Maybe make myself a cup of tea in the morning with my breakfast. Have a decent quiet time. Put a little music on when I get home from work. Enjoy doing my laundry and hanging out my socks to dry, rather than just resenting it. Hang out with Christian brothers and sisters after church chatting about the sermon. Basically, prayerfully seek to make the most of the situation God has put me in at that moment, rather than killing time until I’m somewhere else.

Re: The best way to stop your child becoming an athiest – a Christian Response

I came across something desperately sad this morning and felt compelled to write a response. It was David M’s cynical (atheistic?) answer to the question “What is the best way to stop your child from becoming an athiest?” (sic) and assuming that it reflects the respondent’s view of what Christianity is, it was truly tragic. Below is my own answer, adapted directly from the original.

Begin by educating them, expose them to critical thinking, logic and science. Teach them how to think and the history of thinking, to show its immense value and also its limitations. Talk to them about important contributors to science like James Maxwell, people whose Christian faith was the whole reason they believed science was worth studying in the first place – because they trusted in a God of order and a world of reproducible results. Make them read the great Christian thinkers of the past and the present, people like Jonathan Edwards, Jim Packer, Don Carson. Show them that Christianity can be intellectually credible and stands up to scrutiny.

Encourage curiosity about how the world works. Show them that the Bible has things to say about every aspect of life – use everyday experiences as an opportunity to encourage meditation about God and his word.

Make them hold their own natural bodies and functions in high esteem. Show them that they can admit that they are small and weak, but that despite all that, they are of supreme worth in the eyes of their Creator and He longs to redeem them from their failings – they don’t need to fix themselves before He’ll love them. Tell them everything enjoyable is given by God for their good, and that when it’s used rightly and kept in its proper place it can be even more fun. God invented sex! God invented good wine! In fact, the Bible’s description of heaven is a great banquet with the best food and drink, at a wedding.

Ensure that they respect everyone and anyone as individuals made in the image of their Creator, and therefore born to be in relationship with Him – it doesn’t matter what their skin color, nationality, political opinion or even their creed, they are still precious to God and therefore worthy of your respect. Even when their differences might tempt you to be afraid of them and think them less than human – teach them that Jesus came to seek and save the lost, and it was for such as them that he died. Teach your child to love them enough to long for them to come to know their Creator and be the people they were made to be.

Teach them to laugh at themselves and not take themselves too seriously. Teach them to respect their church leaders, but also not to believe everything they’re told. Encourage them to keep going back to the Bible for answers, but also to ask questions of the Bible – who wrote it? can I trust them? is it reliable? what is the manuscript evidence for it? These are all vitally important questions, and finding the answers can only strengthen their faith. From an early age, teach them to identify superstition – received wisdom that has no basis in fact. And teach them that there is such a thing as error – a false view of the world can be dangerous and crippling. Teach them the whole Bible, Old Testament and New Testament – show them that there is no contradiction between them, and that the God of grace and love who sent Jesus is the same God who will judge and punish sin. Teach them to weap over those who will be lost, just as God himself does not delight in the death of the wicked – but also to rejoice in God’s justice, and that there will be an end to sin and wrongdoing. It will be a good lesson that sometimes the truth is hard to swallow, but it’s far better than living a lie.

Instruct them and discipline them so that they know you care – but don’t be too severe. Import to constantly question for themselves – to think for themselves – to live for themselves – to want to own this faith for themselves, and not just because their parents believed it – but knowing that the Christian faith is built on solid foundations: encourage them to keep coming back to the person of Jesus, his life, death and resurrection, whenever they get lost. Either he did rise from the dead or he didn’t – and if he did then it’s really worth trusting him.

And one more thing – though I wouldn’t want to overemphasize this – try to make sure they can spell, use correct grammar, and understand basic English words. It is actually spelt “atheist” and not “athiest”. God is a God who speaks, and language matters – though he won’t love you any less if you struggle with it.

There are no tricks, but by God’s grace, they’ll come to know and love the Saviour you so cherish yourself.

On Teapots and Procrastination

I’ve learnt a lot about myself lately by thinking about teapots. You know, those kind of round things with a handle on one side and a spout on the other; you put teabags in them and then fill them up with hot water to make a brew – I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. I’ve got a whole lot of insight from teapots.

It all began in Southampton. Over the past few years I’ve developed links with a little church plant there now known as Christ Church, and I’ve had the privilege of preaching there from time to time. On the first few occasions I went down there it always seemed to come at a bad time and I ended up getting a bit behind on my sermon prep, and had a bit of a last minute stress getting them written on time. The next few trips after that I’d been asked to speak on particularly tough passages that I really struggled to make much headway on, meaning it was a bit hit or miss whether I’d have a sermon ready to preach come the Sunday morning. Then the next time I was distracted thinking about some relationship issues and, as shameful as it sounds, writing a sermon wasn’t at the forefront of my mind. There always seemed to be some excuse for why this time I was a little behind on my preparation – next time would always be better, it seemed.

Then 18 months ago my excuses came crashing down around my head. I began studying at the PT Cornhill training course, the highlight of which is being made to regularly prepare and deliver short talks and then getting feedback from your peers. Now I was having to try and write a sermon every fortnight or so, and it quickly became apparent that my difficulty in finishing sermons in good time for my visits to Southampton had nothing to do with the particular circumstances of that specific week – I just sucked at writing sermons. When you only do something occasionally it’s easy to think that your experience is just a one-off, but being made to do it regularly made it abundantly clear that it had nothing to do with that particular sermon and everything to do with me.

My life is utterly crippled by debilitating procrastination. I wrote that about myself in my school self-assessment aged 7, though perhaps not in those specific words – I’ve always known how bad I am at getting stuff done. Trying to write a sermon, staring at a blank piece of paper, knowing I’ve got to catch a train in four hours time in order to stand before the expectant congregation of Christ Church, and yet somehow being utterly unable go bring myself to do anything. It’s not even as if I’m able to enjoy my procrastination by using the time to watch DVDs or play video games – I just sit there feeling guilty about not working and wishing I were one of those people who can crank out a novel in a week.

But then I remembered the teapots.

Whenever I visit my parents I try to do the washing up after dinner, model son that I am. And I began to notice a pattern: I’d always end up leaving the teapot for my Dad to deal with once I’d finished with everything else. I’d have loaded the dishwasher and washed all the glasses and scrubbed all the pans and wiped down all the work surfaces – but there would be that teapot, sitting there, untouched, waiting to be emptied out by my poor old Father.

I often think about those teapots. It’s almost as if I were blind to them. Except I wasn’t – the nagging sense of guilt about leaving it for my Dad demonstrated that. So why would I never complete the job and clean out that teapot?

The answer is the same as why I find sermons so hard to write, and it boils down to one word: uncertainty. Uncertainty. The reason I always left the teapot is that I never quite knew what to do with it – it clearly needed some kind of cleaning action applied to it and yet it was so grimy and dirty inside and I didn’t really want my future cups of tea to taste of washing up liquid and I don’t really know what I’m supposed to do with it and – Agh! Uncertainty. My brain gets scared and shuts down and prefers to leave it rather than figure it out and deal with it.

It’s the same with a sermon – what exactly am I trying to say? How can I express that clearly? Every time I finish a sentence I’m having to make a decision all over again – what sentence shall I write next? Where shall I go from here? Agh!

99% of my procrastination boils down to uncertainty – not understanding the problem clearly and not knowing what I’m trying to achieve. Realising that fact has made an enormous difference to my ability to get stuff done. Now when I recognise the brain freeze I try and stop and acknowledge where the uncertainty is – sometimes I even write down the implicit question that’s hanging in the air. Usually the solution is embarrassingly simple as soon as you’ve realised what the problem is and then you can move on. For my sermon writing, I’ve tried to reduce the feeling of constant decision making by writing a bullet point outline of what the logical flow is before turning it into prose. In my programming I’ve started to write out a clear description of what problem I’m trying to solve at any given moment.

It’s still a constant battle. Working hard takes hard work. There are no quick fixes on the road to productivity. Buy I thank God for those teapots and the small contribution they’ve made to my ability to get stuff done.

5by5 Podcasts and the Book of Proverbs

b2w-itunes.jpg

If you’re a software developer and you’ve not come across Dan Benjamin and his awesome 5by5 network of podcasts, then you really ought to check them out. I’ve never really got into the habit of listening to podcasts (save for the occasional episode of the Stack Overflow podcast that particular interested me) – partly it’s the practicalities of how to find an hour or so to listen to people talking, especially since it’s hard to concentrate on anything else whilst also paying attention to what’s being said. But the 5by5 shows are so good that they were enough to push me into figuring out how to get podcasts set up on my iPod Touch so that I can now listen during the odd long tube or train journey, or whilst going for a walk.

So far I’ve tried The Talk Show with John “Daring Fireball” Gruber, although he talks so slowly that I’ll probably just keep to reading him for the sake of efficiency, and Build & Analyze with Marco “Instapaper” Arment, which is probably particularly of interest to other iPhone/iOS developers. But by far and away the best thing I have listened to, which I’ve been subscribing to right from the start, is Back To Work with Merlin Mann. I am a huge fan of Merlin – probably best known for his “Inbox Zero” material. Whilst being an absolute nut case, the guy just talks sense. So much of what he talks about on his show really meshes with a lot of stuff I’ve been thinking about lately about genuine productivity and how to actually get on and “ship” stuff.

I’m finding it an interesting experience listening to Back To Work, since it seems like there is real wisdom there – these guys really seem to have an insight into how the world works that is far beyond the superficial understanding you tend to find in a lot of “productivity porn” (as Merlin would call it). I’ve been studying a course recently on Wisdom at the PT Cornhill training course looking particularly at the book of Proverbs, and it seems to me there’s a real tension going on: on the one hand, “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (where ‘LORD’ in capitals refers specifically to the covenant God of Israel), and as far as I can tell Dan & Merlin wouldn’t exactly fit that description; yet on the other hand, the editors of the book of Proverbs seemed to feel quite happy including what is essentially secular wisdom literature into their book – there’s a whole section of Proverbs which is lifted almost verbatim from the Egyptian “Instructions of Amenemopet“. Of course you don’t have to be a Christian to be able to carefully observe how God’s world works and how we as human beings function within that world, so it makes perfect sense that there would be wisdom beyond the people of God. Yet without the fear of the LORD, it seems inevitable that your conclusions are going to diverge from the path of godly thinking at some point. Dan & Merlin really seem to get the fact that we as human beings are deeply flawed – deeply flawed – and that a lot of getting stuff done boils down to recognising that reality and working within the confines of how things really are rather than kidding yourself that you “ought” to be able to be more productive. But I guess that ultimately their motivations for getting stuff done – the whole reason they want to be productive in the first place – is man-centred and not Christ-centred, and that’s where it departs from genuine Wisdom.

I don’t really know – I’m still figuring out what I think about all this. Any thoughts would be welcome – feel free to post them below using the Facebook comments thingy. In the mean time, I’ve been dwelling on this verse from Colossians 3:17 lately:

“And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

iDolatry

I admit it, I’m a total sucker for the Reality Distortion Field. Who would have thought that a little aluminium box, just 9.5″x7.3″, could have captivated my heart to the extent that it has. I find myself scheming ways to cobble together enough money, how to get one on the cheap. Maybe this is what it feels like to be mentally ill? Yes, of course I’m talking about the iPad 2.

The stupid thing is that I know it can’t make me happy. Far from it. The very fact that I’ve imbued it with such mythical properties means that the reality is guaranteed to be a let down. It may be a better way to casually browse the internet (which in itself is far from certain) but it will still be the same old internet – promising so much and yet delivering so little. I still won’t be productive or fulfilled. I’ll still be the person wishing I was publishing all this cool stuff instead of simply reading about it. In the end the iPad is just a really expensive equivalent to the new pen or the Moleskine.

Even if I wasn’t disappointed with my purchase, iPads don’t last forever. Huh, come to think of it, I won’t last forever. But let’s suppose medical science stumbles upon the secrets of eternal life next year (spoiler: it won’t), does that make the iPad a good investment? Of course not: give it six months and there’ll be a new, even more gorgeous version just around the corner, and you can bet your life my heart will be after that one too. All I have to do is think about how much disdain I hold right now for the first generation iPad and I’ll have a good feel for how far the magic will have worn off.

iPad 3 Tweet

Jonathan Edwards, the preacher from 18th century New England, had a good understanding of how the fleeting nature of life drastically undermines the wisdom of resting our happiness on gadgets and other possessions. In his essay “The Sin and Folly of Depending on Future Time“, he writes this:

“It is most evident, that if the enjoyments of this world be of such a nature that they are not to be depended on for one day more, they are not worth the setting of our hearts upon them, or the placing of our happiness in them. We may rejoice in the enjoyments of the world, but not in such a manner as to place the rest of our souls in them.”

To live as though a lump of metal and glass has the power to make me happy, when I might die this very night and have to give an account to my creator, is simply daft. It’s one of the oldest mistakes in the book: bowing down and worshipping something that’s been made by human hands in a factory somewhere in China, instead of worshipping the one who made us, the one who made Steve Jobs.

As a Christian, that’s what makes iDol worship especially ridiculous. I know that I’m already rich beyond my wildest dreams, spiritually speaking – in Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, says the apostle Paul – and it’s a treasure that will never perish, spoil or fade, never be superseded by Heavenly Treasure v2.0. I have the treasure of a relationship with the creator of the universe, something which gives me a sense of worth way less superficial than being a member of the Apple Owners Geek Club.

Now if only my heart would catch up with that.

New Old Testament Adventures Blog

I’ve been doing a bit of thinking lately about my blog and the direction it should take, and I’ve decided to split it into two. It seems unlikely that any one person would be interested in all of the random topics I post here, so I’ve decided to try and be a bit more focussed. From now on I will be maintaining two separate blogs:

  1. Old Testament Adventures will be a blog dedicated to the development of Christian video games. All news related to Ebenezer will be posted there in future (RSS Feed here)
  2. Geero.net will then become more focussed on issues relating to living out your Christian faith as a computer programmer and general geek (Atom Feed here)

If you experience any problems with either blog in the immediate future, please let me know.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.