Sunday, February 19, 2017

a disturbing parable

The following is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
What do you think? A man had two sons. One son said, "Biggest crowd in school history at my speech today!"

The other son said, "How could that be? A third of the students were home sick with the flu."

The first son said, "And as soon as I started speaking, the rain stopped!"

The second son replied, "But I saw the video; rain continued to fall during your speech."

If these were your boys, what would you do? If one of them were running for political office, would you vote for him? If he won the election, what would you think and feel?

Saturday, February 11, 2017

We have sinned, and the world suffers

Today's “This American Life” portrayed life at a transit center in Kenya shortly after Donald T signed his travel ban but before it was put on hold. “George” was leading what Ira Glass referred to as “the worst town hall meeting ever” because each person would stand up, say something horrible, and George would have to acknowledge that it is a bitter pill but the boss changed in the US, and the boss decided this, and that's “final for me, final for IOM (the refugee agency), final for you. We cannot do anything about it,” George says.

What kind of horrible things? One man had been in the refugee camp for 26 years, and within the past few weeks finally got his approval to come to the United States. He bought clothes on credit (how much credit? Over a month’s pay for the most highly-paid person in camp!) and now how can he repay the shopkeeper? This man’s travel permission will expire well before the initial 120-day period, and he would have to reapply, putting his dream on hold for perhaps years. Another man declined offers to settle in Canada and Germany(?) because he was set on coming to the United States. Full citizenship was on offer from Canada, I think. How he must rue his faith in us!

I listened to George as he addressed these refugees. He told the debtor that he would have to talk to the shopkeeper and explain what happened, and tell him that he would work to repay him. “That is something explainable to anyone,” he said. I thought about how terrible it must be for him to have to deal with the tremendous disappointment, and I have to say he's got my respect. I thought, “Here's a Real Man, so unlike the adolescent in our White House. We are so impoverished here in America,” and I just started weeping. How did we do this to ourselves? Not just to ourselves, but to the world? And I remembered this:

I prayed to the Lord my God and confessed: “O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with all who love him and obey his commands, we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes and our fathers, and to all the people of the land.

Lord, you are righteous, but this day we are covered with shame--the men of Judah and people of Jerusalem and all Israel, both near and far, in all the countries where you have scattered us because of our unfaithfulness to you. O Lord, we and our kings, our princes and our fathers are covered with shame because we have sinned against you. The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him; we have not obeyed the Lord our God or kept the laws he gave us through his servants the prophets. All Israel has transgressed your law and turned away, refusing to obey you ….

from Daniel 9:4–11
We are a nation racked by violence and injustice; we have racism and sexism and ageism and lookism; we have not embraced the alien and the orphan and the widow and the poor as we should. And so God says to us, as he did to the Laodiceans:
You say, “I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.” But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.
Revelation 3:17
Lord have mercy on us, and not on us only, but also on the world that you love better than we do.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

“Did my best” doesn’t mean “Time to slack off”

Did I work hard for my success, or have I just been lucky? Have I always done my best? And will I tomorrow?

These ideas aren't fully developed, but here's where I'm heading: Looking back, I see that I have been astonishingly fortunate in life, but that doesn't mean I should rely on that luck to continue; if I want to continue being fortunate, I need to be diligent and alert to make the best of my fortunate circumstances. Similarly, if we think everyone is pretty much always doing their best, as Brené Brown and others say, that doesn't mean I shouldn't try to grow so that my 2017 best will be better than my 2007 best, say. And since I always like to think of what this means for those who follow Jesus, it struck me that the preceding is similar to the point that just because my past sins are forgiven, that doesn't mean I should just sin when I feel like it (Romans 6:1).

David Brooks writes in a 2012 NY Times op-ed column, “The Credit Illusion”:
You should regard yourself as the sole author of all your future achievements and as the grateful beneficiary of all your past successes.

As an ambitious executive, it’s important that you believe that you will deserve credit for everything you achieve. As a human being, it’s important for you to know that’s nonsense.

What does he mean by all that? I can’t improve on Brooks’s writing, but I can summarize: Looking backward, you should recognize that a lot of your success is more about pure dumb luck—being born to the right parents, taking a class from the right teacher/professor, etc.—than it was about your brilliance and hard work, as I’ve written elsewhere. But looking forward, you need to focus on what you need to do to make the best use of the advantages that have fallen into your lap.

A similar oddity applies to the concept that people do the best they can; Curt Thompson writes in The Anatomy of the Soul (2010) about his mother, orphaned at age three. He had been angered, he said, by his mother’s passivity and resignation, but as he listened to her with a willingness to be touched by her story, he began to weep.

As if the proverbial scales had fallen from my eyes, I saw that she had not simply chosen to live her life the way she had. She had done the best she could without anyone to attend to her heart, to her emotional states, to her distresses and hopes. Her anxiety, fear, and passivity were not intentional; they were her coping strategy. Beginning at age four, she had developed strategies to ensure she didn’t tick anyone off, and this eventually included God. It was the only way she knew to ward off the overwhelming feelings of desertion, and she had maintained this defensive posture into adulthood. She had not actively chosen this path but rather had reacted unconsciously.
Curt Thompson, The Anatomy of the Soul (xv)
It was not only Thompson’s mother who had done her best, he realized: “I began to see that I, too, had lived my life as well as I could. No longer was I so ready to condemn myself as being not quite enough.” (op. cit., p. xvi).

Brené Brown presented a more generalized conclusion: that basically, everyone is doing the best they can. MaryAnn McKibben Dana writes about this, summarizing chapter 6 of Brown’s Rising Strong. One of Brown’s big ideas is, those who agreed that “everyone is are doing the best they can” were also on her list of “wholehearted” people: those willing to be vulnerable, and who believed in their own self-worth.

One such person is her husband, who says life works better if you think that way.

I say it’s similar to the luck “vs.” hard work thing, because when we think about the future, we need to make the effort to do our best, to be our best selves, to step up and, as New Testament authors write, “make every effort” to be our best and to do our best.

Speaking of the New Testament, we find there a similar division in how we think about the past vs. the future: in John 5, we’re told that (Jesus speaking) “he who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come into judgment; he has passed out of death into life.” In 1 John 1 we read that “if we walk in the light…the blood of Jesus… cleanses us from all sin. …If we confess our sins, he… will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” So we are forgiven.

But how am I to live today? I should make every effort to obey what Jesus said—not because I won’t be forgiven, but because I am forgiven and because I’m also adopted as a child of God, and hence I want to be like him: to be characterized by love and mercy and justice more than by intelligence or competence or good looks.

So looking back, I want to be at peace that I did the best with what I had and who I was at the time. Looking forward, I want to grow and change to become the best person I can be—the best husband and father and brother and son, the best employee and mentor, the best neighbor and friend. So that, in the future, “the best I can” will be better than my best was last year, or what it is today.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

THREE recipes for apple pie?

The recipes are linked in the table headers, but I noticed some difference in the relative amounts of various ingredients.
   Betty Crocker    Taste of Home   Pillsbury 
oven temp 425°F 375°F 425°F
sugar ⅓ ~ ½ cup ½ cup +
½ cup brown
¾ cup
flour ¼ cup 3 Tbsp 2 Tbsp
cinnamon ½ tsp 1 tsp ¾ tsp
nutmeg ½ tsp ¼ tsp +
¼ tsp ginger
⅛ tsp
salt ⅛ tsp - ¼ tsp
apples 8 cup 6–7 cup 6 cup
butter 2 Tbsp 1 Tbsp -
lemon juice - 1 Tbsp 1 Tbsp
egg white - 1 large -
Enough of this; time to bake. (I'm going with Betty Crocker.)
Update: It went well. A few more points:
  • The crust. The lovely Carol froze two crusts’ worth of pastry dough, which she kindly thawed for me. I rolled one out and laid it in a deep dish 24cm (9½-inch) pie plate. (plate?? It was glass, otherwise I'd have said "pie tin")
  • Apples. I used a modern convenience, an apple peeler and corer like this one; it worked wonderfully. We had four fairly small "Granny Smith" apples. I found one apple-like fruit, which I also peeled/cored/sliced. It was a pear, but I threw it in anyway. Then more random apples, for a total of about 7 cups. yes, I slacked off...
  • Oven. Preheated to 425°F.
  • Everything but the butter got combined in a big bowl, then piled into the empty pie shell. Then melt the butter and dot the filling with it.
  • Rolled the other pie crust out (remember to roll from the center outward), laid it on top, and tucked it under the bottom shell, trimming the excess. Poke some holes in the crust
  • Cover edges with foil strips, about 3" wide, and bake 25 minutes
  • After 25 minutes, remove foil and check occasionally for the pie crust to brown and the juice to appear in the holes.
    At about 40 minutes, the crust was brown but juice wasn't coming out. So I turned the oven off and checked it maybe 10 minutes later, when I removed it.
It tasted pretty good to me :)

Sunday, January 22, 2017

What makes a good programmer? Or an enjoyable career in programming?

Going through my old magazines, I found What Makes a Good Programmer? by Cegielski and Hall. My nephew is considering a career in software, so I cut it out from my dead-trees issue and brought it with me on a visit. The article is rather academic, and in my mind the title is a bit ambitious. Here's the short version.
Students who took a course in object-oriented programming were given psychological tests before the course began, and the test measurements were compared with their performance in the (16-week) class. The authors concluded that three psychological factors correlated well with student performance in the OO programming course:
  • Theoretical value belief, a personality trait that values proof during the problem-solving process. Basically, theoretical value belief means you think the scientific method (form a hypothesis, run experiments to test your hypothesis, etc.) is worthwhile; you don't put much weight on ideas that aren't proven.
  • Cognitive ability, basically you're smart enough.
  • Personality, and these traits in particular:
    1. High self-esteem
      basically you think well of yourself. This might be important if, when you face a problem, you think you're smart enough to figure it out (rather than give up).
    2. High self-efficacy
      meaning you believe you can apply the resources needed to push through challenges.
    3. "Locus of control"--
      you see yourself as being able to make things happen; you don't see yourself as just a victim of circumstance.
    4. Low neuroticism
      meaning you don't focus excessively on negative aspects of yourself.
The authors had some assumptions, which have escaped me, but I think the surprising thing was that theoretical value belief was a better predictor of OO programming performance (in the class anyway) than raw cognitive ability.
Naturally I have a few comments on the article. Although performance in an OO programming class is easier to measure than success in a multi-year programming career, it really is a different thing. Come to think of it, studies have been done on longevity—comparing for example the proportion of male and female programmers who are still in the field N years after graduation, and so on. It might be interesting to correlate that with the psychological parameters mentioned in the 2006 article.

And as I mentioned to my nephew, one thing that wasn't studied, but makes for an enjoyable career in programming is, well, enjoyment of the programming process! This includes analysis, design, coding, testing, debugging, and documentation.

I obviously enjoy the craft; my latest recreational thing has been hacking a Python script to solve the soma cube. (I hesitate to mention this because you really don't have to enjoy it that much, really…) I was quite pleased to find that my script found 240 unique solutions. But that's already more than you wanted to know.

I also obviously enjoy writing about programming and debugging, too, as shown in this 2014 blog post about a freebsd kernel panic and other posts related to computers.

Oh, and this post from last August about my life as a computer guy.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Why follow God if he doesn’t guarantee health or wealth?

During a spiritual conversation, I happened to mention that God doesn’t guarantee career success or wealth or health or those things people often call “the good life.” He said, “Then why should I follow God?” I emailed my answer, a trimmed version of which follows.
Dear Luke,
I’ve given more thought to your question, “Why follow God, if there’s no guarantee that things will go well?” We already talked about the inevitability of certain problems and the uncertainty of life, but I remembered this passage.
I have seen something else under the sun:
The race is not to the swift
or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
or wealth to the brilliant
or favor to the learned;
but time and chance happen to them all. 
Ecclesiastes 9
There is no course of action that guarantees wealth, health, happy children, etc., but I can do things that make those outcomes more likely: love my wife (Ephesians 5), not exasperate my children (Ephesians 6), listen before speaking (James 1) and so on.

But the main thing I want to emphasize is the passage which says that in all things God works to make us more like Jesus (Romans 8:28-29). Just a simple example: suppose I was getting killed by a bunch of people. That happened to Jesus, and he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing” (Luke 23). Or, back to Ephesians 5:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body.
So, I want to be like Jesus, who gives his life for the church; who prayed, “Father, forgive them.” Sure, it’s nice to be rich and to have a good job, etc. But when I die, will I be happy to see God?

Will I hear him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant”?

Will I have real life (Jesus said in John 17: This is life eternal, to know the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom he sent)?

If I say I want that, then I’ll want to follow him today.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

How is Jesus Christ the Savior? How does he save?

This time of the year, many of us sing or speak of the birth of Jesus Christ the savior. O Holy Night begins with these lines:
O holy night,
    the stars are brightly shining.
It is the night
    of the dear Savior’s birth.
One verse of Silent Night has a verse which ends: “Christ the Savior is born; / Christ the Savior is born. ”

Even a television show, A Charlie Brown Christmas, broadcast annually for the past half-century, includes an excerpt from Luke’s gospel:

8And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
So what do we mean when we speak or sing of Christ the Savio(u)r?

Thirty or even twenty years ago I probably would have spouted some evangelical jargon about what happens after you die, the summary being that because of Jesus, your eternal soul’s prospects can be good rather than bad.

Today I think I’d begin instead by talking about life here and now, because that’s what Jesus spoke mostly about. The short version would be that by following him, I can live a fruitful, meaningful life and become a good (well, better anyway) person. After explaining a bit more about that, if by then you don’t think I’m a total whack job, I might mention the hope that I can be with him in the world to come.

I might begin like this. You can read a lot these days about paths to success. Recent articles on Linkedin and in print media describe ways to appear more competent or intelligent. The power of such suggestions comes from the nagging doubts we have: Am I really okay? If I do these things that make other people think I’m competent and intelligent, maybe that will quell my own fears.

Such doubts also energize advertisements: maybe I can feel better about myself if I have these gadgets or clothes or this car, or if I live in this neighborhood. And maybe I can overcome my doubts about parenting if my kids get these grades or go to these schools.

These doubts, these insecurities, can poison my life and my relationships. Maybe I’ll pressure my kids to go to absurd lengths in pursuit of some name-brand school; maybe I’ll try to enhance my self-esteem by taking on a mortgage I can’t afford, or spend so much on cars or clothes or gadgets that my family faces constant financial stress.

About those kids: maybe they’ll rebel against the pressure; maybe they’ll crack; maybe they’ll buy into my anxieties and make them their own. So that when they’re at that name-brand school—or even if they aren’t—they’ll contantly wonder, “Am I okay, really? Am I good enough?” That way my destructive legacy can live on—not a happy prospect.

What I’ve described is a kind of life that we need saving from, and by “we” I mean people like you and me. So how can that happen? How can you and I escape the pressure brought about by our doubts and insecurities?

The promise of salvation in Jesus Christ begins, for me at least, with the knowledge that I’m forgiven. Consider that famous verse from John’s gospel, “God loved the world so much that he sent his only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). I’ll write more about eternal life in a bit; let’s consider the word “perish.”

When I think about “perish,” the image that comes to mind is an overripe banana. Now that’s perishable! In a way, all of us are perishable in the way that a banana is; one day, you and I and everyone we know will get to room temperature, and unless our bodies are burned or something, they will all rot.

There’s a picture, then, of a useless life: we live, we accumulate possessions, we become room temperature, and our bodies are burned or buried. That’s “perish.”

About “believe”: What does it mean to believe in God’s Son? What must we believe when we “believe in” him? Among many things said of Jesus in the gospels, the claim that he takes away sins is pretty important. In John 1:29, John the Baptist refers to Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” I’ve written about this elsewhere (also here) but the short version is that unless we believe his promise enough to act on it, then it won’t have much of an effect on our lives.

In other words, it’s not magical in the sense that if I say some special phrase, the gods are compelled to do something; it’s more like if I’m hanging off a cliff by my fingernails and someone dangles a rope in front of me, the rope won’t do me any good unless I believe in it enough to grab it. The promise of forgiveness in Jesus doesn’t do me any good if I’m trying to find redemption through buying a bigger house or more toys, or by pressuring my kids to get better grades to get into a better school, or by looking smarter or more competent. I’ve got to accept forgiveness and stop my frantic pursuit of the false promise of so-called “success,” or I’ll continue to poison my life and relationships…

OK, now about eternal life. I don’t quite understand what form our immortal souls take, or what the world to come is about, but the New Testament authors make quite a big deal about it—almost as big a deal as modern evangelicals do!

All kidding aside, though, something I think of is the promise from 2 Peter 1, which talks about adding knowledge and other virtues to our faith; in verse 8 he writes “For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they will render you neither useless nor unfruitful…” Let me invert that and say that we can be fruitful and useful with the qualities he mentions: faith, knowledge, goodness, brotherly kindness and so on. The point I want to make, though, aside from those qualities, is the goal of all that, viz., to have a fruitful, useful life.

If my life is fruitful and useful, then the effects will remain after I’ve left this earth. Which may not be eternal life exactly, but would, I hope, be better than having a life whose effects all perish with my corpse.

And that in the end is what I want to be saved from: a life that ends when the undertaker’s bill is paid off. And that’s what Jesus saves me from: by assuring me that my sins are forgiven, he makes it possible for me to become something useful, rather than the alternative of poisoning everything in a wrong-headed attempt to escape my demons.