The Blog

By @ 06/16/11 in Faith

On June 14, 2011, I was honored and humbled to be able to speak on “Victory” at Celebrate Recovery at Overlake Christian Church. Here’s a snippet to pique your curiosity:

Victory. Tonight’s lesson and acrostic is titled Victory. Principle five of eight principles, step seven of twelve steps, and the lesson title is Victory.

Isn’t this a bit strange? I mean, I’d expect “Victory” to be step twelve of twelve, principle eight of eight. Doesn’t Victory come at the end? Well, no. Not in this story. A little more than half way through, and we’re telling you: you win! There’s no “if”, “but”, or “except”, after that. It’s the truth. With step seven in the twelve step process, we realize Victory in our lives.

Read the full talk on the Victory wiki page.

By @ 05/13/11 in Faith

For over a year, I’ve been reading through the whole of the bible. I use no study tools but the brief notes at the bottom of the ESV. Treating the bible like a novel has often been unpleasant. I had hoped to study Acts over a year ago when I finished studying Luke but felt directed by God to read through the whole bible instead. I don’t know what he was trying to teach me. A year later, with all its ups and downs, I’m not sure it’s been worth it. (Don’t worry, I often think God’s leading isn’t worth it. But God has a different value system and vision than I do. I doubt he’s ever been wrong.)

So now I’m in the epistles. Aside from Hebrews, I’d say the format has been pretty much the same over and over again. It may sound blasphemous but at best I think of these letters as bad sermons. I can appreciate their format and design but a lot of it comes across as blabbing. If I wanted to sit in lectures, I’d go back to college. Today, a distinct difference between the epistles and gospels stood out to me.

The epistles are very deductive. You can see the writers construct arguments based on principles and derive new theologies from those arguments. Certainly, Paul had a deep understanding of Jesus’ theology. Not  a perfect understanding but a deep one. In contrast, the gospels are much more inductive. Jesus tells a lot of stories and often doesn’t directly answer the questions he’s asked. The reader is left wondering. Paul left no room for wonder though he often described the mysterious of the faith. In software lingo, we’d say the epistles are more “meta”. They speak about the theology. The gospels are the theology.

And after the epistles, comes Revelation. That’ll be a trip. Hope it’s a good one…

By @ 05/12/11 in Faith

I’ve now seen a few churches that have a Christian store somewhere about them. I’m not sure this make a whole lot of sense. Am I the only one who feels uncomfortable with things being sold in church? So much of the gospel and early church displays a level of radical sharing that is antithetical to consumerism. Even when the store is in the lobby of a big church, I don’t like it. You wouldn’t have a store on the property of your home. Were not churches at first homes?

I also believe these stores often play upon our guilt. After a strong sermon, a pew-sitter feels motivated to make a change. They however have the wrong impression that something they can purchase in that store will change things. Believing they’re following up, they buy a book, journal, trinket, etc. and bring it home. Maybe I’m cynical but I’ll bet in the majority of those cases, that purchased item just collects dust.

Far more attractive to me is the idea of a library. I believe a library without fines somewhat models the radical sharing found in the Christian faith. Going a step further: churches could be so radical that their stores would simply give away goods. What we really want is a library that quickly forgives the loans people make against it. Critics may cry that people will take advantage of the situation. So? If the thing is really so meaningful, how can we insist on having it back?

Bringing it home, I’m sometimes tempted to sell Christian software. I’ve made a handful of tools which I could possibly sell; generally things that provide hyperlinks to cross-references or concordance lookups. If I did push out some shrink-wrapped software, it could even end up in one of these stores-within-a-church type places. And maybe the pastor would give a rousing sermon on the importance of going back to the Greek or Hebrew words and people would be encouraged to buy my software. However, I don’t do this, and today I don’t want to do this.

Throughout the gospel Jesus warned of the taint that money could cause.  Some of his strongest sayings were against storing up treasures that could rust or be stolen on this Earth. Money is critical as a means of providing but I personally have to be careful not to become so distracted by it that I forget the ends. The ends are loving God and loving others.

(I’ve used the term “Christian” here as an adjective. I hate doing this as it comes to classify things rather than people. There’s really no way a store or book can be Christian. The term Christian refers to a miniature of Christ. It was first probably meant in a derogatory way. Using the term as an adjective encourages a dichotomy of cultures that is hard to overcome. I wish there were no Christian culture. Only to better express my ideas to others, have I here used the term as an adjective.)

By @ 05/10/11 in Faith

I got together with two friends last night for drinks and the conversation rolled around to service and selfishness. One of my friends felt strongly that we ultimately give for selfish reasons. She explained that we want to feel good and achieve that by helping others. Why helping others would feel good, I forgot to ask. The point was plain though: whatever you do for others also benefits you in some way. For that reason, you do it selfishly.

I can understand this. Back in college, I bought into it too. Now I think it’s wrong.

Simply because an act of kindness or service benefits you too doesn’t make that benefit the reason you do it. I know few people that, when considering to help someone else, first consider how good it will make them feel. No one drools over that good feeling that comes after helping someone; maybe there are some but it’s certainly not me. The good feeling that comes (if it does come) is kind of ancillary in my experience. In many more cases, it feels that “no good deed goes unpunished.”

Still, I think you could argue now that I underestimate the power of the subconscious desire and recognition of the “feel good” that comes with helping others. Well, I don’t and I still think it’s wrong.

To me the issue with this thinking is that service is seen as a transaction. It’s not surprising that in our consumer and capitalist society, this has become our lens. If service to others simply is giving financially then it can often be reduced to a calculation. For many who give, I think they fall in this bucket. If times were to get tough, giving would stop first.

In my view, service and giving are not transactions. I’ve walked a road to get here but I’m pretty convinced. Rather than seeing service as a transaction, I see it as a relationship. Sometimes that’s a relationship where love and kindness is reciprocated and other times it’s not. Service as relationship doesn’t have neat boundaries. It isn’t easily cataloged or reported like a transaction. Whether you get something good or bad out of it is generally difficult to know. Relationships require something of us and our identity becomes enmeshed with them.

This road I’ve walked has been one of following Jesus of Nazareth. In his life, Jesus served many. I don’t see any evidence that he did it to feel good.

By @ 05/09/11 in Software

My wife teaches Chemistry at a local Public High School. With that, we often discuss the schooling and education systems in America. I’m fascinated by many things in the broad subject. Last weekend, my wife commented on how difficult it is to have large classes. My wife explained that students do better in smaller class sizes. The extreme however: 1 student per class is not optimal. Students need a social atmosphere but at 30 students per class, teachers struggle to maintain an orderly classroom and grade assignments.

I started doing some math (just back-of-the-envelope stuff) to determine why class sizes are so large. A startling realization was how little schools benefit from increased production. Most manufacturers will recognize the biggest profits in economies of scale but for education this doesn’t work so well. The issues are numerous: locality, non-linearity (students learn at different rates), quality/standards, etc.

Having come to a realization that most educators already have, my wife further explained that the tradeoff is usually: smaller classes or cut after-school programs. In her experience, parents would be livid to learn that sports programs or special-interest clubs had been cut. But their not so upset to learn that class size has increased from 30 to 35. Reflecting on this, I realized that we’re most sensitive to the absence of a thing than to a degrade in quality.

There are interesting implications to this: you’ll pine for something you don’t have more than you’ll want a higher quality thing already in your possession. Not only is this exhibited in education but also more broadly in products.

I work at Microsoft and one of the best things we’ve got going for us are features. Features. Features. Features. Our big product units are all centered around delivering good customer experiences which we deliver through features. Compare our products with another software line and we’re likely to go straight to the features for a comparison. This strategy has been wildly successful. I think, in part, I now know why.

As much as we have features, we have bugs. Microsoft is always getting lambasted for poor quality. Though we work very hard to produce high quality products, we don’t always meet the bar. But somehow Microsoft is still making billions. The reason is this: too many missing features and you won’t buy but all the features you could dream of at poor quality and you’ll just buy it and complain.

I’m reminded of a story I heard about a conference that took place years ago. An upset man in the audience called out, “When are you going to stop producing this crap software?” The speaker responded, “As you soon as you stop buying it.”

By @ 12/18/10 in Faith

This is, by far, my favorite Christmas song:

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny
From depths of Hell Thy people save
And give them victory o’er the grave
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, O come, Thou Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes, on Sinai’s height,
In ancient times did’st give the Law,
In cloud, and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

By @ 11/30/10 in Parables

I first heard this poem on a CD made by Los Altos United Methodist Church titled “Sing with the Angels”. John Dodson read a shortened version that has always stuck with me.

Before the cathedral in grandeur rose
At Ingelburg where the Danube goes;
Before its forest of silver spire
Went airily up to the clouds and fires;
Before the oak had ready a beam,
While yet the arch was stone and dream —
There where the altar was later laid,
Conrad the cobbler, plied his trade.

It happened one day at the year’s white end —
Two neighbors called in on their old-time friend;
And they found the shop, so meager and mean,
Made gay with a hundred boughs of green.
Conrad was stitching with face ashine,
But suddenly stopped as he twitched a twine:
“Old friends, good news! At dawn today,
As the cocks were scaring the night away,
The Lord appeared in a dream to me,
And said, `I am coming your Guest to be!’
So I’ve been busy with feet astir,
Strewing the floor with branches of fir.
The wall is washed and the shelf is shined,
And over the rafter the holly twined.
He comes today, and the table is spread
With milk and honey and wheaten bread.”

His friends went home; and his face grew still
As he watched for the shadow across the sill.
He lived all the moments o’er and o’er,
When the Lord should enter the lowly door —
The knock, the call, the latch pulled up,
The lighted face, the offered cup.
He would wash the feet where the spikes had been,
He would kiss the hands where the nails went in,
And then at the last would sit with Him
And break the bread as the day grew dim.

While the cobbler mused there passed his pane
A beggar drenched by the driving rain.
He called him in from the stony street
And gave him shoes for his bruised feet.
The beggar went and there came a crone,
Her face with wrinkles of sorrow sown.
A bundle of faggots bowed her back,
And she was spent with the wrench and rack.
He gave her his loaf and steadied her load
As she took her way on the weary road.

Then to his door came a little child,
Lost and afraid in the world so wild,
In the big, dark world. Catching it up,
He gave it the milk in the waiting cup,
And led it home to its mother’s arms,
Out of the reach of the world’s alarms.

The day went down in the crimson west
And with it the hope of the blessed Guest,
And Conrad sighed as the world turned gray:
“Why is it, Lord, that your feet delay?
Did you forget that this was the day?”

Then soft in the silence a Voice he heard:
“Lift up your heart, for I have kept my word.
Three times I came to your friendly door;
Three times my shadow was on your floor.
I was the beggar with the bruised feet;
I was the woman you gave to eat;
I was the child on the homeless street!”

By @ 04/08/10 in Faith

I am not the first to think that at some point after this life we’ll stand in something like a courtroom and give an account to a judge. The bizarre thing, to me at least, is the Christian account of how this will go. As a Christian myself, that’s probably the wrong thing to say. But throughout the bible, God appears more concerned with people’s hearts than with people’s actions. Don’t get me wrong, if you do rotten things with a rotten heart, you’re missing the mark wide. But if you do rotten things with a contrite heart that begs forgiveness, God is pleased to redeem you. I’m reminded of this parable from Luke’s Gospel:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themsleves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

So I see the courtroom scene like this: when asked by the judge, “How do you plead?” Some answer: “Guilty, your Honor, I beg your forgiveness and accept the full cost to make restitution,” and others answer: “Not guilty, it’s not me you should be going after.” Surely, only the one who answers truthfully can be redeemed.

I had a wise brother tell me last year that in his experience, God is more concerned with how he responds to a situation than with the situation itself. I have tried now, this year, to make that a New Year’s resolution. It’s a bit strange but in light of how powerful God is, situations are rarely difficult for Him. My own heart seems a much greater stumbling block to God’s power.

By @ 03/25/10 in Faith

I’ve now finished Leviticus in my journey through the entire bible. Not surprisingly, Leviticus didn’t captivate me. The book reads more like a legal prescription of “dos and don’ts” than anything else. In fact, I became particularly frustrated as I read through all the various sacrifices and their meaning. As part of a people now who don’t ritualistically slaughter animals and spread the blood on the altar of our local church, being knee-deep in Leviticus was just confusing. It was confusing because I didn’t understand God. I didn’t understand God until I read this:

And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and his sons and to all the people of Israel and say to them, This is the thing that the LORD has commanded. If any one of the house of Israel kills an ox or a lamb or a goat in the camp, or kills it outside the camp, and does not bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting to offer it as a gift to the LORD in front of the tabernacle of the LORD, bloodguilt shall be imputed to that man. He has shed blood, and that man shall be cut off from among his people. This is to the end that the people of Israel may bring their sacrifices that they sacrifice in the open field, that they may bring them to the LORD, to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and sacrifice them as sacrifices of peace offerings to the LORD. And the priest shall throw the blood on the altar of the LORD at the entrance of the tent of meeting and burn the fat for a pleasing aroma to the LORD. So they shall no more sacrifice their sacrifices to goat demons, after whom they whore. This shall be a statute forever for them throughout their generations.”

Yep, I read that and it all made sense. Did you hear the end? “So they shall no more sacrifice their sacrifices to _goat demons_, after whom they _whore_.” Wait, what? This is the LORD speaking and in his estimation of the situation, the people are whoring after goat demons. He’s serious. Up until this point, I thought God was a weirdo for painstakingly describing how everything from grain to bulls were to be sacrificed as offerings to Him. But to these people, God isn’t introducing a new concept. If we jump just one book back, the people are worshiping a golden calf just after God parts the red sea and crushes one of the largest armies. God’s not the weirdo. We’re the weirdos. We’re the ones that are sacrificing to demons and God’s had enough of it.

I wonder what goat demons I sacrifice to in my life?

By @ 03/24/10 in Parables

For a while now, I’ve had something like a recurring dream that happens while I’m awake. Generally it occurs during a Spiritual Discipline. In my mind’s eye, it goes something like this:

Behold! a book, new and huge. Nothing is written in it when it opens before you. But looking closely, you see lines. Now a pen with an unseen hand is put to the page. It begins to list. Something is twisted about this book because it’s rapidly looking aged. After listing just the first thing, the spine breaks. By the tenth, the pages are becoming frayed and the binding is giving way. The book looks like death. I’m afraid it might crumble to dust as the pen starts writing faster and faster. I hurry to take a look at what it says before it’s gone. They’re ugly things.

From above, a drop of liquid hits the book. The ink smears and the page dyes red. I look up but I don’t see anything. Another drop and the dye is sinking through the pages. Another drop, the spine is restored. Another drop, the frayed edges are clean cut. The red dye isn’t dye at all. Another drop, it’s erasing the ink. Another drop, You can’t read what’s written any more. Another drop, the page is white again.