Friday, April 26, 2013

Software Requirements

My day job as a software developer keeps me busy. Some jobs have the occasional lull or slow season, but it seems that in software development, there are always backlogged feature requests to work through, bugs to investigate, tooling to enhance, new techniques to practice. Therefore, while reading More About Software Requirements, I was surprised and somewhat dismayed to see the author argue that, on top of everything else I'm trying to do, I need to spend more time gathering software requirements (finding out and documenting what exactly people want the software to do). The author apparently anticipates objections, because he immediately adds, “High-quality requirements also ensure that the development team works on the right problem… Wasting less time implementing the wrong functionality accelerates the project” (p. 23-24). Having too much to do is bad, but spending time solving the wrong problems and working on the wrong functionality is even worse.

Of course, software development isn't the only field that faces the pitfall of being productive at doing the wrong things. Approaches such as pretotyping and the Lean Startup tackle this problem for innovators and businesses in general. But while businesses continue to look for ways to avoid the trap of spending time on the wrong things, doing the same in my personal life is at least as hard.

Once I get home from my day job, there's no shortage of things to do – a meal to help with, kids to put to bed, lunches to pack for the next day, and TV or computer games to relax and unwind. It's easy to not make time for prayer and devotions. Michael Mack writes,

Joel Comiskey’s survey of more than 700 small group leaders in eight countries revealed that the biggest factor in their “success” was not their gender, social status, education, personality type, or skills. Rather, it was the leader’s devotional life. He found that those who spent 90 minutes or more in devotions (prayer, Bible study, etc.) a day multiplied their groups twice as much as those who spent less than 30 minutes. Comiskey says the correlation is logical. “During quiet times alone with the living God, the leader hears God’s voice and receives His guidance.”

I don't know how to have ninety minutes a day for prayer and devotions along with everything else I try to do at home, but Mack and Comiskey report that that time makes a difference. Having too much to do is bad, but spending time on the wrong thing – by not taking the time to hear God's voice and receive his guidance – is even worse.

I was surprised to read Paul S. Williams, one of the editors for Christian Standard, say that he spent close to twenty hours preparing a single week's sermon. He seemed to consider this insufficient. I wondered if this was a fluke or an outlier, so I asked the preacher at my local church, and he said he spends close to that as well. (This kind of time investment isn't unique to the pulpit; Nancy Duarte, author of Slide:ology, estimates that a good presentation can take 36 to 90 hours to put together.) It's hard to imagine spending half of the work week for a single half-hour talk. How can you do that and still have time to do everything else that needs to be done during the week? On the other hand, that single half hour is the one opportunity that the preacher has to reach almost everyone in the church, to preach the Word and to convey its power to people's lives.

Having too much to do is bad, but spending time on the wrong thing – by not being in God's Word and making the most of an opportunity to impact others' lives – is even worse.

For much of my life, I've thought that making the most of time (Eph 5:16) was more or less synonymous with good time management: practicing discipline and efficiency with hours and minutes, avoiding obvious traps such as excessive leisure or sloth. But there's more to it than that. Good time management is valuable (as long as it doesn't become legalistic), but by itself, it doesn't save you from spending time on the wrong things.

There's an old joke about a wealthy man who can't bear the thought of leaving his wealth behind at his death. So, after considerable time and effort, he finally finds a way that he can take it with him. He shows up at the pearly gates with a suitcase full of gold bullion and asks St. Peter if he can take it in. “Well, okay,” replies St. Peter, “but why are you carrying pavement?”

I don't particularly struggle with materialism, so I don't plan on imitating this wealthy man. However, if I'm honest with myself, a lot of my life is focused on productivity (completing the next project milestone at work, marking the next item off my to-do list at home) or entertainment (catching up on my current TV series, reaching the next level in a computer game). What if, when I reach the pearly gates and tell St. Peter of all that I've accomplished, he replies, “Well, okay, but we have all the power in the universe up here, so if those tasks were all that important, we would have done them ourselves”? Or what if, when I review how I've spent my time, St. Peter replies, “Well, okay, but we have joy eternal up here, so why did you worry so much about consuming temporary entertainments on earth?”

Having too much to do is bad, but spending too much time on the temporary and the unimportant is worse. I pray that I can spend my time on relationships with God and people, instead of merely on my own agenda; on serving, instead of merely on productivity; on enjoying all of God's gifts, instead of merely on entertainment.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Prayer Will Make the Sick Person Well

We had a healing service at our church this week.

To fully appreciate this, you have to understand that the kind of church I usually go to doesn't really do healing services. In fact, in a display of the denominational snobbery that so often affects Christendom, a lot of us would probably look askance at the kinds of churches that do do healing services. But James 5:14-15 says that “if anyone among you is sick, let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well.” And my wife is sick, so when our senior minister offered to have the elders pray for my wife, we accepted. (To be fair, he never referred to it as a healing service, but when James 5 was quoted, that's where my thoughts immediately went.)

My wife has a couple of chronic health issues, but lately her health has been particularly bad. She's had maybe three weeks total of good days spread out over the last eight months. Her spirit is worn down enough that she's almost afraid to leave the house for fear that something will go wrong with her body and ruin whatever activity or errand she was planning. My kids and I bear some of the cost too, as we go through daily life without my wife and their mother able to participate with us and as we cover for daily tasks when she's unwell. As far as health problems go, it could be a lot worse. No one's going to die. But we're weary.

The service was a small affair: just my wife and I, our kids, the senior minister, and two elders. No anointing with oil was involved. Maybe that means it wasn't really a healing service. I don't know if the service worked or not; there was, at least, no immediate improvement in my wife's health.

This is the second healing service I've been to. At the first one, a little over ten years ago, my future wife was healed of crippling shoulder pain.

We did anoint with oil that time. Maybe that's why it worked.

My wife was not the only person for whom we prayed for healing ten years ago. For the second person, however, it did not work, and he had to resort to major surgery and a lengthy recovery period.

It is, of course, incredibly presumptuous to talk about whether or not requests for God's help “worked” as if the sole criteria of their value is the degree to which we get our immediate wants met.

While driving my family to the healing service this past Sunday, I was surprised to find within myself a somewhat vehement opposition to the idea. Over the past eight months, I've learned to some degree to live with my circumstances. I don't like them, but I'm becoming resigned to them. But once we start talking about James 5's promise of healing, that opens the door for hope, and hope opens the door for disappointment.

I don't want more disappointment.

In my head, I believe that God can do anything he wants, including healing those for whom we pray. As I look at the world around me, though, it seems that God rarely choses to do so. I can't point to a book, chapter, and verse of Scripture that says this; it's merely my observation over the last thirty-plus years of my life as I watch the prayers, lives, and deaths of people around me. Jesus says that, when we pray, we need to believe that we have already received it (Mk 11:24). How do I do this, when I think that odds are that God won't grant certain prayers? (Talking about the odds of God doing something is almost as presumptuous as talking about whether or not asking for his help “worked.”)

I'm not sure how to live in this tension, of believing that I've already received while understanding that I may never receive, of believing that God can act and hoping that he will act while accepting without disappointment or bitterness when he doesn't. I know all the church explanations for why a good God permits bad things to happen – the fallenness of the world, his decision to grant us free will, and so on. On top of all of these good church explanations, I have all of my own answers to the question of why God doesn't always act – how God is more interested in our spiritual growth than our physical comfort, how we shouldn't presume to know reasons why, how life is often more about being faithful in the midst of problems rather than solving problems, how Jesus' resurrection and the promise of heaven offers an ultimate solution that's far better than a temporary physical fix, how Kierkagaard's story of the king and the humble maiden helps explain why God limits his power. But how do I know that all of these answers and all of my thinking and explaining and writing and all of my words are true seekings after God's ways instead of merely rationalizations, intellectual barriers that I've built to protect myself from disappointment when God doesn't act, when my wife goes for months without healing?

Bible scholars disagree on why James instructs the elders to anoint with oil. Some scholars point out that oil was commonly used as medicine in those times, so they argue that James is simply saying that, along with prayer, the sick person should seek medical help. “Have the church pray for you, and go see a doctor.” This is easy for us today; Western medicine and technology are impressive, and we sometimes demonstrate more faith in them than in God.

Other Bible scholars argue that James intends anointing with oil as a sort of sacrament or ritual. I don't know how to know which interpretation is correct, and if James did intend it as a ritual, I'm not sure how to explain what purpose (for lack of a better word) that ritual serves. It honestly seems a little odd to me. At the healing service I attended ten years ago, the minister didn't even try to explain it, and I got the impression that it might have seemed a little odd to him too; but we were told to do it, so he did it.

It takes a certain degree of trust to do something without understanding why. There's a certain amount of vulnerability and risk, even if it's just the risk of finding out you made a mistake and looking silly. But it seems to me, in dealing with a God who chooses, for now, to be invisible, who is always beyond our ability to fully understand him and his reasons, that there's always an element of doing something without understanding why. It has to take a certain degree of trust. Maybe that's part of the reason for the oil – to remind us to trust God, to remind us to be vulnerable enough to hope.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Problem Solving

(I wrote this a couple of years ago. Some of the examples are out of date.)

Much of my job as a software developer consists of solving problems. If there's a request for a new feature, we implement it. If there's a tricky design issue, we resolve it. If there's a bug, we fix it. If a customer calls with a problem, we not only solve the problem, we try to figure out how to make sure that the problem never recurs. And, in case I ever feel like I'm not solving problems well enough, there are countless blog posts, books, articles, techniques, and methodologies on how to do it faster, easier, or better. In my professional life, problems exist only to be solved as quickly and efficiently as possible.

It struck me while listening to prayer requests at church one evening how many of the problems that people brought up simply could not be solved. The lady with ALS? Unless a miracle occurs, she's not going to get better. That man's unbelieving spouse? If the past is any indication, she's never going to change. If she does change, it will be because of the Holy Spirit and because of an act of her will, not because her husband applies the proper problem-solving techniques. The couple's son who's in Afghanistan? There's a good change he'll be okay, but thousands of other American soldiers haven't been. In our personal lives, often the best we can do is to remain faithful in the midst of our problems – keep doing right, remain thankful, and keep trusting in God's goodness, whatever unsolvable and sometimes heartbreaking problems are around us.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Applied Atonement

For Easter, I've been looking at the theology of the Atonement – our understanding of why Jesus died and rose again and how this brings about our salvation. This kind of study can be helpful, but good theology should never be merely academic. It should have application; it should affect our lives. So, as we better understand the theology of Jesus' death and burial and resurrection – the cost and the greatness of what he did for us, the love that he showed and its moral influence, and his victory over sin, death, and Satan – how does it impact our lives?

First, and most obviously, understanding Jesus' death and resurrection should lead us to love and worship Jesus for his love and his sacrifice, for offering us “so great a salvation” (Heb 2:3).

And the resurrection in particular means that this isn't just a historical event, something that we need to merely give intellectual assent to. If Jesus was raised from the dead, then he's alive today, and we can know him just as surely as Peter, John, and Mary Magdalene did in Jerusalem on Easter. We can know the living Christ, instead of merely studying the historical Christ. And we have to know Jesus. Jesus says, “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’” Jesus doesn't deny that they did any of these good actions, but his response is utterly devastating nonetheless: “I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ ” (Mt 7:22-23). Good actions are ultimately meaningless if we don't know the living Christ.

Second, our understanding of Jesus' death and resurrection affects how we live our lives. I went to Johnson Bible College (now Johnson University) for undergrad, then I went to UT for grad school. Johnson's a small private college; it had around 400 students at the time, we had chapel two or three times a week, we opened every class with prayer, and so on. UT has somewhere around 27,000 students, and it's just a bit less religious than Johnson. So I had some culture shock, to say the least, when I started school there. One of my fellow students had heard about my background, and so he emailed me to let me know that if I ever wanted to talk or if there was anything he could do, to let him know, and I really appreciated this.

One part of his email really stuck out in my mind, though. My friend said in his email that he himself was Methodist, but that he wasn't particularly devout. I don't understand. I can understand being an atheist, not believing in God at all. But I can't understand believing in God – believing that the Creator of the universe loves you, that God loves you so much that he'd rather die than live without you – and not being devout about it. I can't understand believing it and not really responding, not having it affect your life from top to bottom.

If I'm honest with myself, though, I have far too many not-particularly-devout moments in my own life. If I think about how complacent I so often am with my spiritual life, how selfish I so often am with my time, how unmotivated I am to make changes that I know would be worth making, and if I compare all of that with what I believe about what Jesus did for me, it's disgusting. It's simply inexcusable. I'm not trying to lay a guilt trip or set up some legalistic standard of “This is what following Jesus really means” or any of that – I've done that and seen it done enough to know it's not the way to go – I'm just trying to say that our beliefs need to affect our actions, that this kind of love deserves a response. And, really, this kind of love is the best motivation for our actions; our devotion should be motivated by our love and should be a response to Jesus' love.

Third, Jesus' death and resurrection affects how we think about Christianity and how we present Christianity. It's so incredibly easy to get confused in our priorities here. In Searching for God Knows What, Christian author Donald Miller talks about how, as an experiment while teaching a class of Bible college students, he presented “a form of the gospel but left out a key element”:

When I was done, I rested my case and asked the class if they could tell me what it was I had left out of this gospel presentation. I waited as a class of Bible college students… sat there for several minutes in uncomfortable silence. None of the forty-five students in the class realized I had presented a gospel without once mentioning the name of Jesus… Nobody noticed, even when I said I was going to neglect something very important, even when I asked them to think very hard about what it was I had left out, even when I stood there for several minutes in silence. To a culture that believes they “go to heaven” based on whether or not they are morally pure, or that they understand some theological ideas, or that they are very spiritual, Jesus is completely unnecessary. (p. 157-159, emphasis added)

Jesus' death and resurrection, and his invitation for us to know him, needs to form the core of our Christianity, but instead of presenting Christianity as Jesus, we so often present Christianity as Jesus plus something else. Francis Collins is a world-renowned scientist who led the U.S. research efforts for the Human Genome Project. He's a Christian – he wrote The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, which spent several weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list – and he believes in evolution. He said that there are students who grow up being taught that Christianity is Jesus plus a seven-day, 24-hour-a-day creation. Then, when they get to high school or college and start learning more about science and the evidence for evolution, they feel like they have to choose between Christianity and science, so a lot of them end up choosing science. In You Lost Me, David Kinnaman explains how this perception that the church is anti-science, the perception that Christianity is Jesus plus a particular view on science, is a major reason that nearly three out of every five young Christians disconnect from church life after age 15.

This is messed up. People are turning their backs on Jesus – turning their backs on the One who died for them – because we've decided to make an argument over how (not whether) God created the earth, because we've said that God had to create the earth in a particular way and that, if you don't believe that, you're not a real Christian, or you're an inferior Christian, or you're just plain lacking in common sense. And the question of origins is important, and it has consequences for how we understand God and the world and the Bible, and it's worth studying and debating, but it's not as important as Jesus. It's not something you reject this kind of love over, and it's not something that we should demand that someone accept before they can receive this kind of love.

Daniel B. Wallace, professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, suggests that we sometimes make the same mistake with our view of the Bible: instead of presenting Christianity as Jesus, we present it as Jesus plus a particular conservative or fundamentalist view of Scripture. Then, when Bible students who've been taught in this way go to seminary and get exposed to a wider variety of scholarship that challenges their particular view of the Bible, Wallace says all of their beliefs fall like a row of dominoes. This happened to Bart Ehrman, one of the better known Bible scholars today (his book, Misquoting Jesus, has been a bestseller on Amazon), who considers himself “a fairly happy agnostic.” Just as some people do with evolution, others are turning their backs on Jesus because of their view of their Bible. They're rejecting a Person because of a Book – and it's an incredibly important Book, and it's worth studying and debating and figuring out how to view it, but no good to turn your back on this kind of love over the question of how exactly to view this Book.

The theology of the Atonement can help us in many ways, but most importantly, it reminds me to hold on to Jesus' love. It reminds me that, even if “the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines [and] the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food” (from Hab 3:16-18), even if “I doubt my heart, I doubt my eyes” (Rich Mullins, “My Deliverer”), I must never turn my back on the love of the One who died for me.