The Blog

By @ 08/30/11 in Faith

One bored Sunday in Church, I got to thinking about parts of speech and who I am. I know it’s kind of a strange intersection of thoughts but I promise you I’m not the first to cross the paths. As I sat in the pew and pondered these things, I thought of the name God uses in Exodus in a dialogue from chapter 3:

Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.'” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.

In High School, I was fascinated that God called himself I AM WHO I AM. For a teenager struggling with identity, and a programmer fascinated by recursion, the name was deeply satisfying. I continue to experience great mystery in this name God uses for himself.

Now, on identity and parts of speech. “I AM WHO I AM” doesn’t seem like much of a noun to me. No, it’s somewhere between a noun and a verb. So on my little bulletin, I scribbled “noun + verb = norb.” Norb is God’s part of speech. He is a noun, to be sure; an entity in eternal existence. And he is also a verb; a being that implies action, even movement.

From C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain, we read his take on the matter:

They wanted, as we say, to ‘call their souls their own.’ But that means to live a lie, for our souls are not, in fact, our own. They wanted some corner in the universe of which they could say to God, ‘This is our business, not yours.’ But there is no such corner. They wanted to be nouns, but they were, and eternally must be, mere adjectives.

In his view, he paints a picture of God as a noun and we as adjectives. I like this idea but I was also partial to a character I played in a musical in High School. The character was Buckminster Fuller and the musical was Godspell. I distinctly remember the line: “I think I am a verb.” And so, I mixed two words together again on my bulletin and wrote, “verb + adjective = verjective.”

And so the intersection between God and us is a verb. We are human beings.

By @ 08/26/11 in Faith

Each morning, Shannon and I say the serenity prayer from Celebrate Recovery. It goes like this:

God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as a pathway to peace;
Taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that God will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.

–Reinhold Niebuhr

(Some may be surprised to see that the serenity prayer is longer than it’s popular first four lines.)

As we say the serenity prayer each morning, sometimes very early, I’m inclined to keep my eyes open. If I let my lids droop I zone out and head back to zzz. As I have my eyes open, I’ve come to notice two things: flowers and the clock.

About weekly, Shannon buys flowers and puts them in a vase in the center of our kitchen table. They’re very pretty and I like them very much. Problem is, they rarely last more than a week. With refreshed water, they’ll hold out an extra couple of days but they just weren’t meant for vases. Over time, they drop their petals and die. With this, a lot of men find flowers rather pointless. Why buy something that’s just going to die a week later? But I doubt it’s a week to the flower. For the flower, it’s likely been a rather full life (even with some travel). And eventually it returns to the dirt that previously sustained it. As I sit at the breakfast table, I think to myself, am I really that different? In my time, I will grow and flourish and whither and die. The flowers are a beautiful, sobering reminder that I live a mortal life. We all do.

And the clock. If I could only think that I had all the time in the world… But there the clock is, always ticking away, always at the same rate. I don’t think the phrase for time is “running out.” Certainly, I don’t feel that way. But it’s another sobering reminder that life moves forward. Forward is a positive thing, though. As time moves forward, it’s worth looking forward. And as I look forward, I’m hopeful.

I know it’s kind of all silly but the flowers and clock contain a very real reminder.

What do you see as you eat breakfast? What do those things say to you?

By @ 08/26/11 in Faith

Last weekend, Shannon and I had the honor to visit friends in D.C. for their wedding. The occasion worked nicely so that we could travel to New York thereafter to visit with family for a memorial service for my Grandfather, Jim Jenks. As part of our trip, we stayed with friends of the bride and groom who live in Arlington, VA. How it was exactly, my wife and I still don’t know, but we connected very quickly with our hosts and their community of friends. E and R were fantastic hosts and we owe them a great deal of thanks for giving us a place to stay. Over the course of our visit, we discussed a great many things.

Soon after we arrived back in the Northwest, we got an email from E just saying how fun it was to get to know each other a bit and thanks all around. In the middle of her email was a great compliment: she said they admired how intentional we were about life. Intentional. I had never thought to compliment someone with that word before but now I see how very nice a compliment it is.

The truth is, if Shannon and I are intentional, it’s because we try. We try very hard, actually. And I suppose that’s the point.

What are you intentional about?

By @ 08/26/11 in Python

I’m excited to release my first Django-powered website: Pursue Your Wife. The idea is pretty simple: semi-weekly reminders to do something special for your wife. It began one night in a church small group when a handful of husbands all confessed that pursuing our spouses while dating was much easier than while married. The site aggregates ideas for “pursuits” and keeps a history of what you’ve done.

While I’ve enjoyed learning Django, I must admit it’s pretty complex. And it let’s you do such powerful things that it’s easy to dream of far too many features. My original concept of the site was Stackoverflow-ish with voting and editing and the like. But those features are tricky and I’m just one person! Finally, I had to do one of the most painful things as a developer: I deleted code. Lot’s of it. I just needed to get something out the door.

I welcome feedback. But be gentle! I’m too sheepish to share the code right now but eventually I will.

The technology stack is mostly Django but a few supporting packages make it work: psycopg2 and uwsgi.

I’m a bit sad to say that the site is mostly a glorified email system. A cleverly designed Google calendar reminder would’ve gotten me 90% of the way there. I’m learning to be lean but I have a long way to go. Hopefully the repository of “pursuits” will one day make the site really valuable. The weekly reminders are a clever way to continue engagement. And eventually monetizing the site with offers and advertising is probably possible. I have so many ideas but so much to learn.

Python is a wonderful language to program. It’s really amazing how much more efficient I am in it than in C++ or even C#. Though I like the compilation and JIT nature of C#, the syntax of Python is better. I was resistant the idea of white-space enforcement initially but it really helps code from different authors look similar. Diving into Django source was really pretty painless. There’s some features I don’t understand yet but there’s no macro-obfuscation.

By @ 07/11/11 in Faith

Recently, I finished “Till We Have Faces” by C.S. Lewis. I will admit that even now, I’m not exactly sure what the title means. None the matter, I’ve posted two parts on my wiki that I wish to remember. Here, I’ll attempt briefly to explain what they mean to me. In reverse order:

Of the things that followed I cannot at all say whether they were what men men call real or what men call dream. And for all I can tell, the only difference is that what many see we call a real thing, and what only one sees we call a dream. But things that many see may have no taste or moment in them at all, and things that are shown only to one may be spears and water spouts of truth from the very depth of truth. [p. 277]

These sentences are like old familiar friends. I recall the time when I first started to dream. Around that time, I came to believe what Shakespeare said best with:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. [Hamlet Act 1, scene 5]

At the risk of sounding too “out there,” I’ll admit that there are things that I feel I have “dreamed” and which were very real and very true. Some of the greatest of these have been in relationship with God.

The second and far more meaningful section is longer so I’ll reproduce only the couple sentences that stand out:

I perceived now that there is a love deeper than theirs who seek only the happiness of their beloved. Would a father see his daughter happy as a whore? [p. 138]

Isn’t that God’s predicament? I want God to settle. We want God to settle. If only he could be proud to see me achieve the success I desire. But that’s asking too little of him and he won’t compromise. He needn’t compromise.

So, give it a read. What stands out to you?

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.”