Lessons Learnt From My iPhone Development Sprint

Intro

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

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

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

The Planning Stage

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

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

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

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

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

Clearing the Stones

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

Designing the User Interface

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

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Coding a Fake App

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

Where Would I Be Without Stack Overflow?

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

The Value of a Day Off

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

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

The “It’s Mostly Done Phase”

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

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

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

Kicking It Out The Door

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

King Of All, Slave Of All

Why Jesus is My Hero #14 of 52

The Experience of Human Leadership

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

A Different Kind of Ruler

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

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

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

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

The King Who Came To Serve

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

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

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

Giving His Life as a Ransom For Many

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

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

An Invitation

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

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

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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.”

The Boss

Why Jesus is my Hero #13 of 52

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Over the Easter weekend I’ve been reading Matthew’s account of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. I must confess that I often fall into the trap of feeling a little underwhelmed on Easter Sunday: I tend to be all about Good Friday. Good Friday is when we remember the cross; Good Friday is when we remember that Jesus died the death that we deserved, taking the punishment that was our due upon himself so that we could be set free; Good Friday is where God’s justice was satisfied so that I can be sure of a “not guilty” verdict when I stand before the judgement seat of God. Need I spell out why I find all that pretty exciting?

But Easter Sunday… Sometimes I make the mistake of thinking of Easter Sunday as a mere epilogue to what was achieved on Good Friday. I roll out the resurrection in apologetics situations as evidence of Jesus’ identity, and I guess it’s nice that the story of Good Friday has a happy ending because the poor man on the cross didn’t stay dead and what have you, but as absurd as it sounds, I don’t often really think in terms of anything being achieved on Easter Sunday.

Well in that respect I couldn’t be further from the gospel writers and the rest of the early church. What a rebuke it was to me to read Matthew 28 this morning, and hear these words from the lips of the risen Jesus:

“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.'” (Matthew 28:18-20)

So yes, it was on Good Friday that the price for my sin was paid in full, but without Easter Sunday that becomes a mere transaction as cold and remote as the body that would still be lying in that garden tomb in the rock. It sounds kind of obvious when you spell it out, but without Easter Sunday Jesus would still be dead! Maybe I fail to get excited by Easter Sunday because in my heart of hearts I live as though he may as well be – I fail to believe his promise that “I will be with you always, to the end of the age.” Jesus lives! He is risen! He stands before the throne of God making intercession for those who trust in him, pleading our case before the Ancient of Days, and through his gift of the Holy Spirit he is with us still today so that we are not left alone as orphans.

It’s Easter Sunday which shows that Jesus was victorious over sin and Satan – death could not hold him because he defeated sin once and for all. And with Satan defeated, he was able to declare that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Jesus is now lifted above every power and authority, he rules as king over every nation and tribe and tongue. Because of Easter Sunday there is now nothing outside of his dominion. He deserves allegiance from every creature in existence, whether on earth or in heaven. He is the boss. And that’s why the mission that he gives to his disciples makes such perfect sense: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations”. Because he’s the boss of all the world – all authority has been given to him – of course they’re to go and call all the world to follow him. The Christian message isn’t just about Good Friday and a great offer of free forgiveness for you to take or leave as you see fit – it’s also about Easter Sunday and a risen and ascended King who deserves and demands your allegiance. To stand against Jesus now isn’t just to miss out on a wonderful opportunity, it’s to set yourself up as a rebel force in defiance of your rightful ruler.

Jesus is the boss of everything and everyone. That’s why he’s my hero.

Why We Need to Be Born Again

Why Jesus is My Hero #12 of 52

Do you ever have days when you wonder if you’re good enough to get into heaven? You look at your
life, and all you see is your apathy and spiritual half-heartedness. You know you don’t love God
nearly as much as you ought and you love your neighbour even less than that. Compared to some of
the heroes of the faith that you find in the pages of scripture, your life looks like one big compromise.

Where exactly does God draw the line? You know he’s merciful, so surely he’ll be willing to overlook
some of your flaws – after all, he knows that you’re only human, doesn’t he? To find out, it’ll be
instructive for us to look at the entry exam for a character called Nicodemus in John chapter 3. If
anybody was going to get let into heaven, you’d expect it to be Nicodemus. He’s a leading Pharisee –
a religious group utterly committed to radical holiness in all areas of life; he’s described as “a
ruler of the Jews” – an important man who is clearly respected by many; he’s polite and clearly
recognises something special in Jesus. His spiritual credentials look seriously impressive – if
anybody was going to pass the test and get into heaven, it would surely be Nicodemus.

Yet Jesus’ first words to him are these: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he
cannot see the kingdom of God.” The image of being ‘born again’ has become a bit overfamiliar to us
so it’d be easy for us to miss the impact these words would have had on Nicodemus, but it’s a bit
like Jesus saying “your chances of getting into heaven are so far gone that you’d need to have
lived a different life – you need to start again from scratch if you want to see heaven”. You’ve
missed your chance, Nicodemus – you’ve stuffed up. You’ve blown it, you’ve failed the test. In fact,
Jesus goes further: Nicodemus was never really in the race to start with. “That which is born of the
flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Nicodemus is made of entirely the
wrong kind of stuff to get into heaven – he’s “fleshly”. It’s a bit like if I wanted to be King of
England, I’d need to be born again into an entirely different family. The Geerses are never going
to be monarchy, because we’re not in the royal line. I’d have to have lived an entirely different
life, be born again, if I wanted to be King. Only people born of the Spirit can get into heaven,
and that rules out all of us born into Adam’s sinful race. And if Nicodemus can’t enter the kingdom of
heaven then there’s no hope for any of us. No amount of human effort and trying harder and seeking
to “be a good person” can fix the fact that we’re fleshly people and not Spirit people. I prove that
fact every day by my failure to be a good person – by the fact that despite my good intentions I
simply cannot fix my innature predisposition towards doing the stuff God hates.

So what hope is there for any of us? Thankfully, Jesus doesn’t end his conversation with Nicodemus
hanging there – he goes on to describe God’s wonderful plan of salvation for sinful people, with
these words:

“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that
whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15)

He’s making an allusion to Numbers 21:4-9. The people of Israel had rebelled against God in the
wilderness, and so in an act of judgement he sent poisonous snakes amongst them. But in his mercy,
God also provided a means of salvation: he instructed Moses to make a bronze statue of a snake and
put it on a pole and lift it up; all the Israelites had to do was look at this snake, trusting in
God’s solution, and they’d be protected against the snake bites.

Jesus says he himself will be like that bronze snake: he will be ‘lifted up’, and though we are
under God’s judgement and barred from seeing his kingdom, all we need to do is look to Jesus and
believe in him, trusting God’s solution for our sin, and we can be forgiven and receive eternal
life. What is this ‘lifting up’ that Jesus will experience? Well, it is both his exultation – that
he will be honoured in the sight of all who believe in him, as we look away from ourselves and our
sinfulness and instead look to him – and his humiliation, as he is nailed to a cruel wooden cross
and left to die, naked and bruised for all to see.

As long as Nicodemus thought it was all about him and his good works and his religious credentials,
he could never see the kingdom of God. But for all who are prepared to forsake their efforts to
earn their way into heaven, for all who are willing to recognise that they can contribute nothing
to their salvation except their need for it, and who will look to Jesus and place their hopes for
eternal life upon his shoulders, there is the hope of being born again by the Spirit and
receiving the free gift of life in God’s kingdom. That’s why Jesus is my hero.

Jesus the Pre-Eminent One

Why Jesus is My Hero #11 of 52

Podium

The aim of this “Why Jesus is My Hero” series has been to make a big deal about Jesus, to help me think more about him and less about myself. It’s hard to imagine a Bible passage which does that better than Colossians 1:15-20. According to the apostle Paul, Jesus is kind of a big deal:

“He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities- all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”

Basically, when it comes to life, the universe and everything, it’s all about Jesus! It was made by him, it was made for him, and everything that happens takes place to make him look good. It’s God’s intention that he should be pre-eminent – that is, that he should be seen to be front and centre, that nobody should be thought more significant than him. Everything that we have comes from him: he sustains the universe moment by moment and prevents it from flying apart, and it’s only because of him that we can have the least hope of a restored relationship with God. The hope of eternal life is ours only because he went before us and rose from the dead himself.

But above all, he was far, far more than just a mere man. In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell – that’s a LOT of fullness. Where we are flawed and weak and fail to honour God in the way that we should, he is perfect and flawless and mighty and, above all, holy. For sinful man to stand in the presence of God would mean instant death for us, yet all the fullness of God can dwell in Jesus because he is the righteous one.

This is reality. Jesus is the pre-eminent one, whether we recognise it or not. So it’s such a tragedy when we ignore him or think of him just as a means to an end. “Thanks for dying for me, Jesus! Now I’ll just get on with my life, see you later!” So often I live as a “functional unitarian” – I’m not sure you could tell that I believe in the Trinity just by observing my actions or even by hearing my prayers. Jesus is so small in my thinking compared to this vision of him here in Colossians. That’s why it’s my prayer that I would begin to make much of Jesus, just as the Bible does. He is absolutely the most important man in the universe. That’s why Jesus is my hero.

Review: Amusing Ourselves To Death

Every now and again you find yourself coming across a particular book being mentioned over and over again in various different settings, until you eventually succumb and go out and read it. One such book that I’ve just reached the end of is Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves To Death“. Originally released in 1985, it’s a treatise on how television affects the way we think as a culture, and particularly on how we engage with and discuss important subjects like politics, religion and education.

It opens with a compelling comparison of two grim predictions of the future made in the mid 20th century: those of George Orwell in his book 1984, and Aldous Huxley in his book Brave New World. Here’s a little snippet:

“Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared that the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”

Postman then goes on to argue that Huxley’s fears were well-grounded, and that the age of the television has, to a large degree, brought them to pass. His argument is essentially that the medium used to communicate information always shapes how that message is received and understood. Just as the invention of the printing press created a culture dominated by “typographic thinking”, where sustained and reasoned arguments prevail and the aim is to establish the veracity of a particular truth claim, so the invention of the telegram and then television has ushered in a new era of show business where entertainment is king and truth is irrelevant. Commercials for products today rarely spend much time setting forth actual arguments related to their product for why it’s worth your money; instead they focus on you, the viewer, and seek to make you recognise what your life is missing – what void their product can supposedly gratify.

Lots of the illustrations Postman uses are fairly dated and also from a US context, and I generally didn’t recognise the names of the particular TV stars he was referencing. But I think the actual arguments he makes are more relevant than ever, and are as true of the internet as they are of television, if not more so. Two points in particular really stood out for me:

  1. One is the way that television eliminates any sense of context. No prior knowledge is assumed, and you can often pick up a show even when you switch on part way through. TV news shows are a selection of entirely independent slots, and all it takes is a brief segue “and now…. this” to get from some horrific news of an earthquake in Japan to some utterly banal segment about a talking dog in Montana. No response is required of you as a viewer, and even the bad news ends up becoming a disturbing form of entertainment. The fact that it’s all put side by side as though it were equally important ends up reducing it to the level of trivia. Postman suggests that it’s no coincidence that the rise in popularity of the crossword came at the same time as the invention of the telegram, as people had to find a use for all this irrelevant information they had now gained access to. As much as I enjoy using Twitter, it really is everything Postman warns against on steroids, as serious news items are squashed between photos of people’s dinner and a YouTube video of a machete-firing crossbow. Context is impossible on Twitter, so providing a quick laugh is by far and away the easiest way to engage your followers.
  2. The other thing that got me thinking, particularly as I work on my Old Testament adventure game, is how the medium always shapes the message. Since television is all about entertainment (and the shows that fail to entertain, nobody watches) it is impossible for it to portray subjects such as religion without ultimately distorting them into something entertaining. A religion that makes demands of you – such as Jesus’ description of the Christian life as the way of the cross, with the daily need to die to self – simply doesn’t play well on television. It’s too easy just to change the channel. It’s no surprise then that the importance of theology and of making actual truth claims about the nature of God and man has waned, and loud and showy rock concert-style church services has risen instead. It’s really given me pause for thought about what I’m at risk of communicating in a video game based on Old Testament passages – not that it’s impossible to do it faithfully, but just that there will be real challenges involved, since the very fact that it’s being presented in a different medium means that the message will be heard differently.

Is Neil Postman just a grumpy old curmudgeon? I don’t know. Maybe he does overstate his case at times. But I think his aim is simply to make people aware of the effects of television and not to be blind to them, and in that I think he definitely succeeds. There’s a lot of great food for thought, and being more aware of the quality of the air you’re breathing can’t be a bad thing.

Who Do You Fear?

Why Jesus is My Hero #10 of 52

As I sat down to try and decide which Bible passage to blog about this week, I thought it was about time I did another Old Testament passage. What sprang to mind was Nehemiah 6:1-19, since I’ve recently had to preach on it, but I realised how similar it was to the previous Old Testament passage I used, in “The King Who Fears God“, since Nehemiah 6 is also about the importance of the fear of God. But if the fear of God is such a common theme in the Old Testament, then who am I to differ?

Fear is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, partly with the assistance of the excellent book “Running Scared” by Ed Welch. It’s so easy to be controlled by fear – indeed, we live in a scary world, and sometimes that fear is well justified. Fear of what people will think about us; fear of what people might do to us; fear of what the future will hold; fear of how we’ll have enough money to get by; fear of what will happen to our family; fear of what will happen if this thing I’m working on isn’t as good as I want it to be; fear of what I’ll do wrong next.

Nehemiah lived in a time when fear was well justified too. He’d just returned from exile in Babylon to oversee the other Jewish people who had returned to Jerusalem to help rebuild the city walls, destroyed decades earlier by King Nebuchadnezzar’s invading army. The people of Judah were a laughing stock amongst the surrounding nations – they were a tiny remnant of the people they’d once been, they were intensely vulnerable should anybody wish to attack them, and it must have been so hard for Nehemiah and his countrymen to persevere instead of being crippled by fear. The enemies of God are represented in the book of Nehemiah by Sanballat and Tobiah and Geshem the Arab. They’ve tried to stop the rebuilding effort earlier in the book through intimidation tactics, but under Nehemiah’s able leadership the people of Jerusalem rose to the challenge and struggled on. As we reach Chapter 6, the miserable threesome try a different tactic: they’ve realised that in order to halt the building work, they’re going to have to take out Nehemiah. As long as he’s around to keep the people focussed, they’re always going to struggle. But if they can disable Nehemiah then the building effort is sure to fall to pieces. So they try to kidnap him and they try to discredit his name with a false rumour. Their goal is the same in each case: “They all wanted to frighten us, thinking, ‘Their hand will drop from the work, and it will not be done.'” (Nehemiah 6:9) But each time they are thwarted.

Finally, they try one more thing: they try to intimidate Nehemiah to the point where he sins against God to protect himself. If they can’t discredit his name through a false rumour, maybe they can generate a rumour with some actual merit to it. So they hire an inside man to tell Nehemiah that his life is in danger, and to encourage him to seek safe-haven inside the temple. This is Nehemiah’s reponse:

“‘Should such a man as I run away? And what man such as I could go into the temple and live? I will not go in.’ And I understood and saw that God had not sent him, but he had pronounced the prophecy against me because Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him. For this purpose he was hired, that I should be afraid and act in this way and sin, and so they could give me a bad name in order to taunt me.” (Nehemiah 6:11-13)

It’s not exactly clear why, but Nehemiah sees that for him to hide inside the temple would be a grave sin against God. It’s possible he’s referring to the inner sanctum of the temple, the Holy of Holies, where only the priests were allowed to enter. It’s also conceivable that having worked as cup-bearer to the King of Babylon, Nehemiah may have been made a eunuch, making it a sin to enter anywhere into the temple grounds. But whatever the reason, Nehemiah recognises it as a sin, and rather than fearing Tobiah and Sanballat, he makes a choice to fear God instead. His fear of what man might do to him was driven out by a greater fear of what God might do to him.

The result is striking: a great reversal takes place, as the people persevere to complete the rebuilding of the city walls, and it becomes their enemy’s turn to fear: “And when all our enemies heard of it, all the nations around us were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem, for they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God.” (Nehemiah 6:16)

It’s a great object lesson in the importance of fearing God instead of man. As Jesus told his disciples: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” But fear isn’t always entirely rational, and so often we find ourselves intensely afraid of those who could kill the body (or our reputation, or our job prospects, or whatever it might be). The great encouragement of Nehemiah 6 to me was the way that it points us to Jesus: God’s enemies knew that they couldn’t stop the people building the city walls until they took out their leader, and his resolute devotion to fearing God meant that ultimately they failed. Likewise for us, all kinds of enemies, both physical and spiritual, might wish to assail us, but as long as our leader, Jesus, stands firm on our behalf, ultimately they will not prevail. We need look no further than his forty days of temptation in the wilderness, remembered by many at this time of lent, to see in Jesus the perfect fear of God that we so desperately need. It doesn’t mean that bad things won’t happen – according to Jesus, our enemies do have the power to kill the body, and for some of our brothers and sisters around the world, refusing to sin against God may well cost them their very lives – but ultimately we can trust God to preserve our souls to eternal life, so long as Jesus stands to make intercession for me before the throne of heaven.

That’s why Jesus is my hero, and why I need not be afraid any longer.

How to Install PythonMagick on Mac OS X

I’ve been having a bit of a headache trying to install PythonMagick (the Python bindings for ImageMagick) on Mac OS X Snow Leopard, so having eventually had a modicum of success I thought I’d post my adventures here.

Problems Building From Source

But first, let me outline the problems I was having. Initially I tried building ImageMagick from source. That meant first downloading and installing Boost, which again I tried doing from source (1.46.1). When it became time to install the Boost::Python module, I tried following the instructions in the documentation:

$ cd libs/python/example/quickstart/
$ bjam toolset=darwin --verbose-test test

However, I’d find it would get so far and then just hang – I left it for about 24 hours with no progress. If I hit Ctrl-C and then tried again, it just sits there saying this:

...patience...
...patience...
...found 1603 targets...
...updating 8 targets...

Problems Using MacPorts

Since I couldn’t get very far that route, I decided to try the MacPorts approach, which makes installing these kinds of things very straightforward.

Again, first I had to try and install Boost, with the Python module enabled:

$ sudo port install boost +python26

So far, so good! That installed the package “boost @1.46.1_0+python26″. Next was to install ImageMagick:

$ sudo port install ImageMagick

Again, nice and smooth! That installed “ImageMagick @6.6.8-1_0+q16″. Now came the hard part: building PythonMagick. I used v0.9.3 since that seemed the latest version compatible with Python 2.x. The first step is to configure it. Reading around it became clear that I needed to specify the MacPorts include and library directories, like so:

$ ./configure --prefix=/opt/local CPPFLAGS=-I/opt/local/include LDFLAGS=-L/opt/local/lib

But no matter what I tried, I kept getting the message “checking whether the Boost::Python library is available… no”. Eventually I figured out that you can get more information by reading the config.log file. I was getting all sorts of error messages like this:

configure:14953: checking whether the Boost::Python library is available
configure:14983: g++ -c -g -O2 -I/opt/local/include conftest.cpp >&5
In file included from /opt/local/include/boost/python/detail/prefix.hpp:13,
from /opt/local/include/boost/python/module.hpp:8,
from conftest.cpp:23:
/opt/local/include/boost/python/detail/wrap_python.hpp:50:23: error: pyconfig.h: No such file or directory
/opt/local/include/boost/python/detail/wrap_python.hpp:75:24: error: patchlevel.h: No such file or directory
/opt/local/include/boost/python/detail/wrap_python.hpp:78:2: error: #error Python 2.2 or higher is required for this version of Boost.Python.
/opt/local/include/boost/python/detail/wrap_python.hpp:142:21: error: Python.h: No such file or directory

These pyconfig.h and Python.h files and so on are usually installed with the Python development package, but supposedly MacPorts just installs everything all together under /opt/local/include/python2.6, so I wondered what was going on. But somebody put me on to a good way to find out where MacPorts has put stuff:

$ port contents python26 | grep pyconfig.h

That revealed that the include files were being installed in /opt/local/Library/Frameworks/Python.framework/Versions/2.6/include/python2.6. So let’s try the configure again with that new information:

$ ./configure --prefix=/opt/local CPPFLAGS="-I/opt/local/include -I/opt/local/Library/Frameworks/Python.framework/Versions/2.6/include/python2.6" LDFLAGS=-L/opt/local/lib

Success! All seems to have worked this time – it picked up Boost::Python and no more errors showed up (I have secretly skipped a step where I installed the MacPorts python_select package to make sure that it was definitely using Python 2.6, but hopefully you can figure that one out on your own).

Building PythonMagick

But alas, not so easy. Next I had to actually compile the thing. And of course, it failed:

$ make
_Image.cpp: In function 'void Export_pyste_src_Image()':
_Image.cpp:89: error: address of overloaded function with no contextual type information
_Image.cpp:90: error: address of overloaded function with no contextual type information
_Image.cpp:97: error: address of overloaded function with no contextual type information
_Image.cpp:114: error: address of overloaded function with no contextual type information
... and many more such errors ...

It would seem that the ImageMagick API has changed a little, but thankfully the PythonMagick guys have patched that in the latest version. So I had to download PythonMagick 0.9.5 and copy the following files from it into the ‘pythonmagick_src’ directory of 0.9.3:

  • _Image.cpp
  • _DrawableDashArray.cpp
  • _DrawableMiterLimit.cpp
  • _DrawableViewbox.cpp
  • _Geometry.cpp

Installing PythonMagick

With that done, it then compiled quite nicely. So I run ‘sudo make install’, but then when I actually try and load it into Python, I get this error:

>>> import PythonMagick
Traceback (most recent call last):
File "", line 1, in 
File "PythonMagick/__init__.py", line 1, in 
import _PythonMagick
ImportError: No module named _PythonMagick

Hmm… So close! Yet so far away. Okay, well maybe I should just try adding the path where the module is installed to my Python path:

>>> import sys
>>> sys.path.append('/opt/local/lib/python2.6/site-packages')
>>> import PythonMagick
Fatal Python error: Interpreter not initialized (version mismatch?)
Abort trap

D’oh! Well, a quick look at the crash log revealed that it was now trying to use the version of the Boost libraries that I’d manually installed from source from ‘/usr/local/lib’ (rather than the MacPorts version in /opt/local/lib) so I deleted the unwanted versions and tried again. Then I got this error:

>>> import PythonMagick
Traceback (most recent call last):
File "", line 1, in 
File "/opt/local/Library/Frameworks/Python.framework/Versions/2.6/lib/python2.6/PythonMagick/__init__.py", line 1, in 
import _PythonMagick
ImportError: dlopen(/opt/local/Library/Frameworks/Python.framework/Versions/2.6/lib/python2.6/PythonMagick/_PythonMagick.so, 2): Library not loaded: libboost_python.dylib
Referenced from: /opt/local/Library/Frameworks/Python.framework/Versions/2.6/lib/python2.6/PythonMagick/_PythonMagick.so
Reason: image not found

Well that one’s obvious: I needed to add the MacPorts directory to my library path:

$ export LD_LIBRARY_PATH=/opt/local/lib
$ export DYLD_LIBRARY_PATH=/opt/local/lib

That gets me a little further:

>>> import PythonMagick
Traceback (most recent call last):
File "", line 1, in 
File "/opt/local/Library/Frameworks/Python.framework/Versions/2.6/lib/python2.6/PythonMagick/__init__.py", line 1, in 
import _PythonMagick
ImportError: dlopen(/opt/local/Library/Frameworks/Python.framework/Versions/2.6/lib/python2.6/PythonMagick/_PythonMagick.so, 2): Symbol not found: __cg_jpeg_resync_to_restart
Referenced from: /System/Library/Frameworks/ApplicationServices.framework/Versions/A/Frameworks/ImageIO.framework/Versions/A/ImageIO
Expected in: /opt/local/lib/libjpeg.8.dylib
in /System/Library/Frameworks/ApplicationServices.framework/Versions/A/Frameworks/ImageIO.framework/Versions/A/ImageIO

A bit of searching on Google eventually turned up this page that involves an egregious hack relying on case-insensitivity in Mac OS X:

sudo ln -sf
/System/Library/Frameworks/ApplicationServices.framework/Versions/A/Frameworks/ImageIO.framework/Versions/A/Resources/libPng.dylib /opt/local/lib/libpng.dylib
sudo ln -sf
/System/Library/Frameworks/ApplicationServices.framework/Versions/A/Frameworks/ImageIO.framework/Versions/A/Resources/libTIFF.dylib /opt/local/lib/libtiff.dylib
sudo ln -sf
/System/Library/Frameworks/ApplicationServices.framework/Versions/A/Frameworks/ImageIO.framework/Versions/A/Resources/libJPEG.dylib /opt/local/lib/libjpeg.dylib

Still…. it seems to work, and I can now import PythonMagick into Python! Now I just need to test it.

Why We Can Know That God Exists

Why Jesus is my Hero #9 of 52

Life in a Closed World

Imagine that you’d lived your whole life inside a well-lit room without windows. There’s a door in one wall, but it has remained locked your entire life, and there appears to be no key to it. Your whole experience has been lived out inside this room. From time to time you speculate about what’s outside the room – is there even an outside? A storybook you used to enjoy talked about these things called ‘trees’ and the ‘sky’, and they sound great – but you have no idea if they really exist or if it’s just fantasy. And what on earth do they really look like? All you have is a kind of cartoon representation of them. Are there other people outside the room? How many? What are they like? These are important questions, but whatever answers you can come up with are mere speculation – you simply cannot see beyond the four walls of the room in which you live.

In many ways that’s a fair picture of our musings about the divine. We live within this physical world of what we can see and touch, and though we might speculate about a spiritual world beyond, our inability to see it means we can never really be certain. As long as that door remains locked, agnosticism about life ‘outside the room’ is the perfectly logical state of mind – any claims I might make about “knowing the truth” is sheer arrogance.

Why Agnosticism Is No Longer a Tenable Position

But now imagine somebody bursts through the door – a man who has seen the outside world and lived in it his whole life, and who knows exactly what’s out there. That totally transforms things, doesn’t it? You might still have plenty of questions about this man’s trustworthiness – is he telling you the truth? Is he a reliable witness to the world outside? But now the debate is centred on this man and his character – the possibility for knowledge now exists in a way that it never did before. If the man could prove that he came from outside – if he brought with him a bunch of flowers, say – then to refuse to believe him and to sit down on the floor in a huff and never discover the wonders of the outside world, well that would be a real tragedy, wouldn’t it?

The Apostle Paul claimed that we have had just such an eye-opening opportunity in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Previously it made perfect sense to be uncertain about the existence of God and exactly what he’s like – we could make guesses but we could never be certain. But Paul says that in Jesus, God has broken into his world, he’s become visible and taken on flesh and blood. He’s told us what’s “outside the room”, what God is like. And he invites us to come and know him for ourselves. He puts it like this:

“The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30-31, emphasis mine)

Why Christianity Is Easy to Disprove

As far as I’m aware, Christianity is the only religion in the world that can be easily disproved: all you have to do – all the authorities at the time of Jesus would have had to have done – would be to find Jesus’ body, and we can all pack our bags and go home. Christianity is rooted in a falsifiable historical event – the resurrection of a man from the dead. That’s something that either did happen or did not happen. And if it did – well then that changes everything. It means we can know the truth for certain – we can know that God exist.

Some people would dismiss all this talk as complete nonsense – obviously people don’t rise from the dead, so to say it’s a “historical event” that really happened makes me a loon. But that’s a logical fallacy. Of course dead people usually stay dead. Of course it would be absolutely extraordinary if even one man in the entire history of the world failed to stay dead. But in the highly unlikely event that Jesus did rise from the dead, then we have to revise our understanding of the world: maybe there is life beyond death after all.

There are still plenty of important questions to be asked, like did he rise from the dead? Even if he did, can we trust what he tells us about God – is this man Jesus a reliable witness? But the debate is now centered around the person of Jesus, it’s no longer mere speculation in the abstract. To refuse to engage with the question of Jesus’ identity now would be desperately tragic.

The Urgency of the Question

And it’s a particularly important and urgent question to investigate, because of what Paul tells us: God has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed. There’s a day of judgement coming, and how we’ve responded to Jesus is going to be top of the agenda. Don’t stick your head in the sand and pretend we can never know whether God exists. If Jesus is who he says he is then we absolutely can.

Jesus is the man who shows us that God exists, and that’s why he’s my hero.

Way More Than An Angel

Why Jesus is my Hero #8 of 52

Just how special is Jesus? Was he just a man – a good teacher, an all round nice guy, someone with some pretty smart things to say? Was he something more than that – a kind of heavenly being, some form of angel sent from God to show us the way? The model of the “ideal man”, but still something less than God himself? Was he content to be thought of as an ordinary human being before some of his early followers came along and hijacked the discussion and made him out to be God himself in human form?

top-trumps-angels.png

You come across those kinds of different ideas about Jesus all the time – whether from atheists or from Jehovah’s Witnesses or wherever it might be. I think my normal reaction would be to turn to the New Testament and show some of the ways in which Jesus himself spoke about his identity, or where Paul speaks of him in divine terms. But chewing over the first chapter of Hebrews recently I was struck by the slightly surprising approach the author takes: to turn to the Old Testament and see how God speaks about his Messiah. As he does so, he shows us that Jesus is far more than just a man, far more even than some kind of super-angel – he is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” – the creator of the Universe himself.

It’s another round of Bible Top-Trumps as the author of Hebrews takes us back to a number of Old Testament passages that clearly speak of the coming Messiah and plays him off against the angels – and he wins every time. He is addressed as God’s unique and only-begotten “Son” – something that is never applied to the angels. All the angels are told to worship him. So far so good – but I guess he could still be some kind of angel himself, just one who is vastly superior to all the others. But then it starts going really off the scales:

“But of the Son he says, ‘Your throne, O God, is for ever and ever, the sceptre of uprightness is the sceptre of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions'” (Hebrews 1:8, emphasis mine)

He is addressed by God as God. And then in the next one, we’re told he is the creator of the universe:

“You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of your hands; they will perish, but you remain” (Hebrews 1:10-11)

As someone who grew up in a Christian home, I sometimes take it a bit for granted thinking of Jesus in divine terms. But I imagine that for a Jewish audience, some of this stuff would be mind-blowing and almost blasphemous when they first heard it. But there it all is, in the Old Testament scriptures, in black and white. God refers to his Messiah as though he is also somehow God himself. This is no last minute addition, a bolt-on that Jesus himself would have been horrified by, had he known. This is central to Jesus’ understanding of his own identity and mission.

The implications of all this for the author of Hebrews is clear:

“Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.” (Hebrews 2:1)

Angels in the Bible are pretty scary creatures that strike fear into the hearts of all who meet them. How much more should we therefore stand in awe of the Lord Jesus – the exact imprint of God’s nature! Jewish tradition held that the Old Testament covenant was delivered to Moses on the top of mount Sinai by angels, and so the author of Hebrews uses his comparison of Jesus with the angels as a way of saying that the New Testament covenant must be even more glorious, and even more worthy of our attention and obedience. It’s no trifling matter to hear the gospel message and then ignore it.

Jesus is God in human form – the Creator of the Universe come down to earth. That’s why he is my hero, and why he really deserves my love, my devotion and my utmost attention and obedience.

Why God Is Better Than the Chairman – Thoughts on ‘The Adjustment Bureau’

The Adjustment Bureau

I’m not going to bother writing an all-out review of “The Adjustment Bureau” – I’m sure many people have already done a better job of that than I ever could. But in summary: as somebody who finds it very easy to enjoy even the worst of films, I rather liked it! Yes, the script was a bit shoddy in places, and yes, the final chase was perhaps a bit lacklustre.

But at the end of the day, what I enjoyed about it was that it’s a film that makes you think. It’s a film that none-too-subtly explores some favourite themes of mine – the meaning of free will, human choice & responsibility, the sovereignty of God, etc. – and in the process reveals a lot about what our culture believes and cherishes on these issues. Here’s a great quote from Russell Moore’s theological ruminations on the film:

“This film might, though, prompt us to see in our neighbors a sense of helplessness, a sense of captivity, and a rage that, just maybe, is misdirected toward God. And, perhaps, the film will spur us to wonder whether our neighbors are feeling something of what is true for all of us, apart from the liberating power of the devil-defeating Cross: We are being chased.”

I’m not sure the film was really good enough to actually make me feel any of that. But what I did feel, after seeing the film, was profoundly thankful: thankful that the God of the Bible is nothing like The Chairman. God would beat The Chairman in a fight without even breaking a sweat. Let me explain why (warning: spoilers ahead)

First, consider for a moment the nature of the Chairman:

  • The Chairman exists in a deistic universe – the kind of “clockwork universe” that by and large works itself out according to the laws of chance. Every now and again the Bureau has to make a little nudge to adjust its course and make sure that things stick to The Plan, but as far as possible they allow it to take care of itself.
  • The Chairman has to constantly revise his plan in the light of new data – he’s constantly at risk of being outwitted and having his plan overturned by pesky humans, and his minions seem pretty inept at preventing this from happening. He seems to have aspirations for how he hopes things will turn out rather than sovereign authority to make sure that they do.
  • The Chairman thinks we’d be better off without him – this is the ultimate message of the film: rather like training wheels on a bike, The Chairman’s influence is designed to be only temporary. He’d much prefer it if humanity was able to take responsibility for itself and its choices, and indeed seems confident that we’d be better off if we could. He only reluctantly steps in when it seems that we’re making poor use of the privilege of free will.

In this way, The Chairman is, of course, a product of our age – a profound confidence in the innate goodness of humanity if only we would be true to the potential within ourselves; and free will and the right to choose as the most cherished possessions we have. As Norris says in one of his early campaign speeches: “the most important thing is the choices we make”. Within this worldview, for God to impose his will on us would be cruel and inhumane – making us paramount to slaves.

But this could not be more different from the God of the Bible:

  • The God of the Bible sustains and upholds the universe every minute of every day – without his constant intervention the sun would not rise in the morning, nor the moon by night. The early scientists were given confidence to trust that the laws of physics would stay constant from day to day because they trusted in a sovereign God who never changed and who was able to sustain the movement of the planets and the spinning of the atom. There is nothing “hands off” about the way God runs his universe.
  • The God of the Bible cannot be thwarted – contrary to the assertions of Open Theists, the Bible teaches that there is no Plan B: what God has purposed always comes to pass. “I declare the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose'” (Isaiah 46:10). The real decisions that we make every moment of the day are all part of his plan, not in opposition to it.
  • The God of the Bible knows how much I need him – the Bible says that to be rid of God’s influence in my life is not to be free but to be desperately lost without hope. By nature I am a slave to sin, following the futile desires of my darkened heart and mind. Thank God that he doesn’t step back and leave me to it! And thank God that his involvement in my life isn’t some temporary state of affairs that might be revoked at any moment – it’s painfully obvious to me that without God’s constant moment-by-moment intervention in my life, even when I least deserve it, I would be utterly ruined.

As finite human beings existing in a single moment of time, we can only see one minuscule portion of the picture. What’s more, even if I could know what the best choice in any given situation was, I’m far from rational – we constantly choose the things that are against our own best interests based on misplaced affections and sinful desires. Now, I need God’s intervention in my life. I hope I come to depend on his direction more as time goes by, not kid myself into thinking that I can do without it. To surrender to his sovereign will, even when it seems directly opposed to the things I would have chosen for myself – now that’s true freedom.

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.

Old Testament Adventures Blog Roundup

This is just a friendly reminder that I’ve started a new Old Testament Adventures blog recently, and all of the Christian video game-related posts that used to appear here on Geero.net are now to be found over there (RSS feed here).

Here’s a roundup of some of the posts that have appeared over there since it was set up:

Do take a moment to update your feed reader with the new blog feed if you want to stay up to date with Ebenezer and other Christian video game-related thoughts.

Subduing The Forces of Chaos and Evil

Why Jesus is My Hero #7 of 52

The Perfect Storm

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Imagine the scene: you’re on a little fishing boat out on the middle of the sea. Only it’s not a tranquil afternoon pleasure cruise – you’re caught in the midst of a violent storm. The thick clouds in the sky above are pelting you with rain so heavy that you’re drenched to your very skin. The boat is lurching violently from side to side as the waves crash against it, and it’s quickly filling up as water pours over the sides. You hope against hope that it’s merely passing by and that the storm will subside before it utterly sinks you, but then you notice that the hardened fisher men who own the boat – men with plenty of experience of violent storms who know how to tell when they’re in danger – well they’re utterly terrified and yelling about how we’re all going to perish. Now you know you’re in trouble.

As you claw your way towards them to check if perhaps you misheard them against the raging winds, you notice an unusual scene. Despite the chaos all around you, there’s a man sleeping peacefully upon a cushion. When the fishermen wake him, he seems annoyed that they’ve disturbed his nap for no good reason – as though he’s completely oblivious to the danger he’s in. The fishermen are pointing him towards the water pouring over the sides, which he finally seems to acknowledge with disinterest. And then, with a little yawn, the man turns towards the raging sea and says to it, “Peace! Be still!”

At once, in an instant, the rocking of the boat stops, the clouds part, and the sea becomes flat like a mill pond. The man turns to the fisherman and says, “Why are you so afraid? Have you no faith?”

How would you expect the fishermen to respond? This man has just rescued them from the most fearsome storm they’ve ever experienced, merely with a word. He’s rebuked the raging wind like it was a naughty puppy, only for it to retreat with its tail between its legs.

Well, those events really happened, and one of those fishermen recounted their response for his friend Mark to write down for us:

“They were filled with great fear and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?'” (Mark 4:35-41)

If they were afraid before, whilst in the middle of the storm, that’s nothing to how afraid they were now, to witness this man whose very words had the power to rebuke the utter chaos of the seas.

Taming The Hulk

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It doesn’t get much better when they land. They moor their boat near a graveyard, and are immediately greeted by a man who has his home amongst the tombs. The locals were terrified of him – all night long they could hear him howling like a zombie as he cut himself with stones. They’d tried subduing him and binding him in chains, but he seemed to possess super-human strength, and broke his bonds in pieces as if they were made of string.

The man seems to recognise Jesus, and at once he runs towards him and bows his head low before him, begging for mercy. He claims to be possessed by an army of demons – they call themselves Legion – and everything the disciples’ eyes and ears tell them support the veracity of his unusual claim.

Having witnessed Jesus calming the storm, the disciples no doubt wondered what fireworks they were about to see. Jesus speaks directly to the demons and commands them to come out of the man, giving them permission to enter a herd of pigs nearby. Everybody watches in amazement as two thousand pigs suddenly rush down the steep bank and over the cliffs into the sea below, demonstrating the incredible destructive potential of this legion of demons.

Once more, how do you suppose the locals responded? When they see the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, they are afraid. They recognise in Jesus a power greater than two thousand demons, and they shoo him away, desperately seeking to get as much distance between him and them as they can. This man Jesus has a power over the forces of evil that is truly terrifying if you’re not sure he’s on your side.

A Power Not To Be Trifled With

The wonderful news of the rest of Mark’s gospel is that this fearsome man, Jesus, is willing to be on the side of all those who will trust in him. He came to earth to defeat the forces of chaos and evil, to usher in the Kingdom of God in which Satan’s power is bound up and brought to an end, and all this through the ransom he paid by his death on the cross. That’s why Jesus is my hero – he has a power unlike no other man, and yet he wields it for the good of those who love him.

Humility in the Search for God

N.B.: This is a follow-up post to Why Programmers find it hard to be Christians.

Last week’s post on Programmers and Christianity generated quite a lot of debate, both here on the blog and over on Hacker News. Obviously when you write a post like that and post it to a secular programming forum, you expect a good deal of disagreement and healthy discussion. But even so, I still found myself surprised at how dismissive many of the commenters were. The most common response to the post is exemplified by this comment:

Why do programmers find it hard to be Christians? “Simple answer: it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore reason and logic when you spend most of your time using it”

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In other words, you have to dispense with logic and reason to be a Christian, and that’s not in a programmer’s nature. Many people resorted to a kind of ad hominem retort: the very fact that I’m a Christian seemed to disqualify me from being worthy of their attention, because it inherently demonstrated a poor grasp of how logic works (in fairness to Hacker News, the quality of the debate over there was much higher than on my blog itself, but some of the same attitude was still evident).

Ultimately, I think that kind of attitude is arrogant – it assumes that we know it all already and that there might not be another side to the argument that we hadn’t considered. But had I stopped and thought for a moment, I shouldn’t have been surprised at that response at all. And I don’t just mean because this is the internet! Jesus himself taught that this is exactly how the world works:

“Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.'” (Luke 10:21)

According to Jesus, to have too high an opinion of ourselves – to think of ourselves as being “wise and understanding” – is a serious barrier to seeing clearly. If God does exist, then he isn’t there as some kind of logical equation that we can just figure out if only we put enough thought into it. Jesus says that it requires revelation for people to come to know God – the fact that he isn’t visible to the naked eye means that he is impervious to even the greatest systems thinker on the planet. We can only know as much about him as he has chosen to reveal to us.

I imagine that many programmers reading this right now will be utterly riled by such a claim. It seems so convenient! But take a deep breath and think for a moment. Be humble enough to admit that you might not have all the answers. It has to be this way, doesn’t it? Jesus rejoices in the fact that it takes revelation to know God. It’s a great leveller that means we’re all on equal footing before God – nobody can claim to have figured it out by their superior intellect. And it means that we’re not reduced to mere guesswork – hoping that we’ve not made any errors in our deductive reasoning and ended up with a completely false view of who God is.

None of this is to say that Christianity is irrational or based on mere superstitious belief. As far as I’m aware, it’s the one religion in the world rooted in falsifiable, historical events – the life, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Present the dead body of Jesus and we can all pack our bags and go home. But reason alone can only take us so far, and unless we acknowledge that fact and seek God with an attitude of humility like a helpless child, then Jesus says we will never be able to know God for ourselves.

Film review: Paul

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I recently got to see Paul, the latest film by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. It’s a wonderfully self-indulgent romp by two evident sci-fi fans clearly making the most of their excuse to have a total geek out, and the result is a lot of fun for anybody who shares their love of sci-fi. The film is chocked full of film references, to everything from Star Wars to Men in Black – some relatively subtle (such as the choice of background music in one of the bars they visit) and some not-so.

It was particularly interesting watching the film as a Christian, however. If you can’t stomach large amount of swearing, then this is definitely not the film for you. But that’s not really what I want to focus on in this review. What I found particularly intriguing was the apparently mixed messages that the film was sending about the nature of faith.

One of the main characters in the film is a caricature of hyper-conservative “Bible-belt” evangelical Christianity, a girl with a repressive father who initially declares the alien Paul to be some kind of evil demon. They’re evidently poking fun at the idea of “blind faith” – her encounter with Paul leaves her enlightened both physically and mentally, able to see the truth about reality with a new clarity that leads her to disavow her faith and embrace a new life of “cussing and fornicating”. At the end she thanks Paul for how he has “freed” her from her life of being repressed by her father’s religion. Let’s all have a laugh at those stupid Christians for their outdated and unscientific beliefs.

And yet, one of the other messages of the film was the idea of maintaining your faith even when everybody else laughs at you. Another character essentially has her life ruined by her dogged insistence that aliens are real, and endures decades of ridicule for her belief in Paul. She is vindicated in the end – he is real, whatever anybody else may have said, and no matter how many stones she’s had thrown at her – and ends up being rewarded with a better life beyond the stars. Never give up believing, even when your beliefs cause you to be shunned by others and excluded from normal society. Something doesn’t cease to be true just because it’s socially unacceptable.

So why are Christians to be ridiculed whilst those who believe in the existence of aliens are to be encouraged? I still can’t make up my mind whether the film was deliberately sending these mixed messages, or whether they’re just utterly blind to the inherent contradiction in what they’re saying. Are we supposed to be going away wondering whether we were right to laugh at the evangelical Christians after all, or does it just demonstrate the inherent prejudices people hold against Christianity?

What do you think?

The Man Who Made Me Rich

Why Jesus Is My Hero #6 of 52

Seeing Wealth With Spiritual Eyes

Money, money, money. Money makes the world go round. We measure people by their wealth- by their car or by their phone. If we have money we fear losing it; if we don’t have it we dream of how life would be different if only we could get our hands on some. We live as though our happiness depends upon having money, and preferably lots of it.

So I’ve been challenged recently by some surprising words of the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians. The life of an apostle was hardly a shortcut to wealth – Paul suffered constant opposition, he was shipwrecked, he was beaten and stoned and on several occasions came within an inch of his life. And yet he writes this:

“We are treated as…having nothing, yet possessing everything” (2 Corinthians 6:10)

To look at him, Paul had absolutely nothing – not a penny to his name. Yet with the eyes of faith, Paul recognised that he possessed everything that mattered – spiritually speaking, he was rich beyond his wildest dreams. He had a relationship with God through Jesus Christ – a treasure far more tangible and lasting than any iPad.

Through the book of 2 Corinthians, Paul invites us to look at the world through spiritual eyes. To live by faith and not by sight – seeing things as they really are. We often think of the “spiritual” as being somehow less tangible, more airy fairy. But Paul tells us what nonsense that is – this world is a fleeting fancy in comparison with the eternal realities that Paul invites us to consider.

It’s into this context, then, that Paul speaks this beautiful gospel summary:

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9)

Our Poverty

The first thing I noticed when reading this verse the other day was the implicit assumption that without Jesus we are poor. So what does Paul mean by that? Compared to him (and a lot of people in the world today) I’m incredibly wealthy, if he’s just thinking about my bank balance and the quality of my life. Well, with our gospel spectacles on, he’s clearly talking about our spiritual state. Earlier on he talks about those without Christ as being “blind” and “perishing”: the god of this world has blinded our minds, to keep us from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. Naturally we’re cut off from God by our sin – we want nothing to do with him, preferring to invent our own version of God or rejecting him entirely. We’re unable to recognise the good in him, we have no spiritual sight. Without Christ, we are spiritually bankrupt.

His Wealth

By contrast, Paul says that Jesus was rich. Jesus lived in perfect relationship with his Father since all eternity, standing in his presence, unblemished by any hint of sin. Spiritually speaking he had it all.

He Became Poor

The glory of Jesus Christ in this verse is that completely of his free grace he chose not to stand on his rights, but for our sake he gave it all up and became poor. He took on flesh, and lived in poverty – being born in a mangy stable. He didn’t come to a wealthy family, being born the son of an earthly king. Instead, his earthly father was a humble carpenter. But more than that, he became spiritually poor. On the cross he was cut off from God, suffering his wrath in our place. Paul puts it like this:

“For our sake, he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

On the cross, Jesus was spiritually bankrupt in our place. The full extent of God’s wrath was poured out upon him, just as we deserved.

We Can Become Rich

The wonderful truth is that as a result of Jesus’ willingness to go to the cross for us, we can be restored to a right relationship with God. We can “become the righteousness of God” – treated as though we were perfect like Jesus. He became poor so that we through his poverty might become rich. I can enjoy an eternity with God, without deserving it in the least.

Having nothing I possess everything. I am rich beyond my wildest dreams. That’s why Jesus is my hero.

Why Programmers Find It So Hard To Be Christians

Say anything related to Christianity in an online community of programmers and you’ll quickly discover how unwelcome you are. Partly this is due to the influence of secularism – there’s an implicit understanding that Christianity has absolutely nothing to do with programming and therefore you’re simply way off topic (a subject I intend to come back to on this blog). But is there something more going on? Is there something about the programming mindset that makes us especially resistant to organised religion in general, or evangelical Christianity in particular?

Faith and the Fear of Inconsistency

Michael Lopps has a brilliant summary of nerds as essentially being “systems thinkers” – we love to analyse complex systems and figure out all the rules that make it work, what’s going on underneath the surface to produce the behaviour we observe on the outside. We feel safe in the world by constructing these mental models to explain things, and when they deviate from our expectations – when something breaks one of our rules – that’s when the nerd rage kicks in and we start to panic, as though our safety net is beginning to unravel. Nerds love consistency, because where consistency exists there can be understanding, and where understanding exists there is security.

But so often faith is presented as the enemy of consistency. Programmers absolutely hate it if you ever say “I don’t have all the answers to this theological conundrum but I trust that God is good and so I’m content to believe his word on it” because it allows God to have a “get out of jail free” card that lets him bend the rules of the system whenever he pleases. If there is a supernatural world out there – a world where divine beings exist who we cannot see and therefore cannot understand, and where dead people come back from the grave – then that’s a world which defies all my mental models and lacks the consistency I crave. It’s a world I cannot control, and therefore can never feel entirely safe in.

Not Invented Here Syndrome and Organised Religion

Our ability to grok an overview of a complex system also tends to produce a certain amount of smugness in your average programmer. We like to think we’ve arrived at a level of understanding inaccessible to lesser mortals, and although we’re eminently open to argument if someone wishes to present new data we hadn’t factored into our models, the idea of buying wholesale into somebody else’s model doesn’t sit easily. Partly that’s because half the fun is in the challenge of working it out for yourself, but also because the effort involved in fully understanding their solution often seems like more work than just figuring it out for yourself. It’s classic Not Invented Here Syndrome. I believe that’s why it’s easier either to dismiss organised religion as unnecessary or deride it as being motivated by factors less worthy than the pure quest for truth. We come up with further models to explain away why people believe things that to us seem so obviously false – “it helps them feel superior to others”, and so on.

But as any seasoned developer will tell you, starting again from scratch is rarely the wisest course of action. God is the ultimate geek, the systems thinker extraordinaire, and so if he’s provided documentation for why the world is at it is then the competitive advantage will be with those who pay attention to it. But more than that, he’s invited us to hang out with him at the launch party – and I, for one, don’t intend to miss the opportunity.

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.

The Man in Whom Heaven and Earth Meet

Why Jesus is My Hero #5 of 52

HEAVEN

When life throws you yet another curve ball and everything seems to be going wrong, even the strongest faith can be tested, wondering if God can really be out there and in control. Something within us longs to know for certain – if only we were able to reach out and touch him, to have a tangible experience of his presence, like Adam & Eve as they walked with God in the garden of Eden and spoke with him.

But, of course, things aren’t as they were back then. Adam & Eve may have spoken with God but they certainly didn’t listen, and their act of rebellion – the very pattern of sin that we repeat for ourselves in our own lives day after day – caused a rift between God and man that could not easily be repaired. Sin introduced a seemingly impenetrable barrier between heaven and earth – humanity was kicked out of the garden and the Cherubim was placed by the entrance with his flaming sword to make sure they could never get back in.

It’s a moment of earth-shattering significance, then, when that great chasm between heaven and earth is bridged at a particular point in space-time in the holy of holies at the heart of the temple in Jerusalem. God is present in the midst of his people – tangibly present, though it proves to be highly dangerous for such sinful people. The Cherubim still symbolically guards the way, his image embroidered into the curtain to warn people against entering uninvited. But then once again humanity’s endemic rebellion proves to be their undoing, and God’s glory departs as the temple is destroyed and the people of Judah are carted off into exile. The bridge between heaven and earth is broken down.

Enter the stage, then, Jesus of Nazareth. Early on in John’s gospel he delivers this cryptic statement:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (John 1:51)

It’s a reference back to Jacob’s ladder – the patriarch’s dream about the gates of heaven, where angels ascend and descend on Bethel: “the house of God”. Jesus is making a startling claim which he repeats numerous times throughout his life: he himself is the true temple – heaven and earth meet once again in his body. His disciples could literally reach out and touch God – experience God in a tangible way.

So when we’re doubting if God is really there, when we’re wondering what he’s really like, we can turn to the eye witness accounts of the life of Jesus and encounter the one in whom heaven and earth meet – the answer to all our doubts. That’s why Jesus is my hero.

The One Who Succeeds Where Others Fail

Why Jesus is My Hero #4 of 52

We all know that sinking feeling of an opportunity missed. I’m not much of a sports fan, but I ended up watching a bit of the Six Nations rugby yesterday – in sports you’re forever getting your hopes up as you see someone making a break from the opposing players, your heart is in your mouth with anticipation as they run towards the line, you’re convinced they’re going to make it, and then AGH! they’ve lost the ball and all yours hopes are dashed.

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They Bible is full of moments where God’s people have an opportunity to do something amazing, and our sense of anticipation makes us read on with baited breath to see what’s going to happen. Then time and time again we find ourselves disappointed. Yet the fact that it keeps on happening somehow never seems to dampen our expectations that this time they’re going to get it right. From the very first moments of Genesis we find Adam & Eve facing such an opportunity – they’re living in the Garden of Eden in relationship with God, walking with him and enjoying all his good gifts. It’s paradise – surely these are a people with an amazing future ahead of them. But only a few verses later we find ourselves bitterly disappointed as Adam fails to obey the command God gave him and he eats of the fruit that Eve offers him. He could have been the ruler of the world as God’s ambassador, and yet he chose to throw it all in in a vain attempt to be god himself.

History repeats itself in the book of Numbers, as Israel are on the verge of entering the promised land – it’s the moment where it feels like we’re about to get back to Eden. God’s people back into God’s place, in relationship with God. And once more our hopes are dashed as they chose to disobey God and doubt his goodness, and as a result they’re forced to wander in the wilderness for forty years until that generation has completely died out.

What wonderful breath of fresh air it is then when we reach Luke chapter 4. Luke sets us up for two simultaneous rounds of Bible Top Trumps: his genealogy at the end of Chapter 3 names Jesus as “the son of Adam, the son of God”, so Jesus is presented both as a second Adam and as a second Israel (rather than necessarily being a reference to his divinity, the language of “the son of God” can also be used as a reference to the nation of Israel, God’s “firstborn son”). As the Spirit leads him out into the wilderness to be tempted, Jesus is about to face the same test that Adam faced in the garden of Eden and that Israel faced on the edge of the promised land. Will he manage to succeed where they failed, or will he be just another disappointment in a long line of disappointments?

As Luke narrates Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, it’s thrilling to see this character responding to the Devil’s seductive offers. Just as the serpent offered Adam & Eve the chance to be independent of God, knowing and deciding good and evil for themselves instead of having to listen to God’s commands, so Satan offers Jesus the authority and glory of the nations, if he’ll only worship him. And yet, at exactly the point where Adam & Eve failed the test, Jesus stands firm: where Adam & Eve doubt God’s word (“on the day you eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall surely die”) Jesus believes God’s word (“It is written, ‘you shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve'”). At exactly the point where Israel doubted God’s provision, complaining about their lack of food and water in the wilderness, Jesus trusts in God’s goodness, knowing that “man shall not live by bread alone”.

Where humanity stubbornly and sinfully rejects God’s word, Jesus is the one man who consistently obeyed his Father’s voice. That’s why we need a hero like him – our new representative, our second Adam.

Review: The Roots of Endurance

The Roots of Endurance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Praying For What God Has Promised Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Red and White

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Redeeming Singleness

Redeeming Singleness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts of a Christian Software Developer