If you have any different insights on these topics, please share them. Maybe some day some of these ideas will make it to the big leagues and become pro-verbs. I also have a blog for technical computery stuff - zachstechnotes.blogspot.com.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

perfect performance

The symphony of God's love requires a perfect performance.
Who can be in His orchestra?
Who can play the part?

[If you haven't already, read this post first. It lays out the analogy that I am about to expand upon.]

The symphony of creation was written by God to proclaim the glory of His love and goodness. We can hear parts of it being played as we look around and see the world. But where do humans fit into this analogy? Are we the players, or just the listeners. Do we fit in anywhere? This is how I see it:

Humans were meant to be the most important performers in the orchestra that plays the symphony. We were supposed to be the leading instrument section, merely backed up by the sounds of the rest of nature. The melodies of the stories of love that God wrote were designed for us to play in our lives. Our ultimate purpose is to participate in this perfect performance.

But the problem is that we decided not to play it. Every one of us has thrown down our instrument. It is broken and out of tune. Some of us start trying to play other things; some of us listen to the small, inferior jingles that others come up with; Some of us just try to ignore what is going on. We listen to our ipods on the side of the stage. We have sinned and fallen out of the orchestra. We cannot play in the perfect symphony like this. And if we cannot play, we have no purpose. We deserve to be cast out because we are ruining the perfect performance.

What are we to do about this? It is a dire situation indeed. The symphony is in progress, but the most important section in the orchestra is rebelling. Some of us try to play the part. We use legalism so that we look like we know what we are playing, but we don't play it all right. We need to play it better! But our heart is not invested in the symphony, so even if we appear to hit all of the notes, the music is not played with passion and is worthless. How can we fulfill our part in the orchestra if we cannot play the symphony right. How can this tragedy be fixed? Who will play the part? We deserve to be thrown off the stage by the disgusted Conductor/Composer and forgotten.

The Composer will not let his will be compromised so easily, though. He will have his symphony played. Since we have failed so miserably, He Himself will play. This is the most important part! The Creator has himself become a man, our Savior, Jesus Christ. The Composer has picked up an instrument at the climax of the piece and is playing our part for us. He is playing the perfect performance. And His new part covers ours, so that, if we rely on his playing, we can be brought back into the orchestra.

He did this because he loves us. He does not love us for what we are now - wretched slobs who always rebel, but He loves us for the potential we have to receive and show love - to play His symphony in His orchestra like no other part of His creation can.

For the rest of this movement of the symphony, all we have to do is listen to Jesus and learn from Him. The music does not rely on us. We have the teaching of the Holy Spirit to help us learn to play, and some of us are able to play a few notes, but we still mess up all the time and we can barely get a taste of what it is like to play the melodies of true love. We don't have harmony and we mess up the rhythms, but we are learning.

However, when the next movement comes along, we will again be able to play our full parts. We will get new instruments and will fulfill our original purpose. I am speaking of heaven here. Tragically, the players who continued their whole life to rebel against the Composer and did not rely on and look to Jesus will still not be fit for the orchestra. They will be thrown off the stage. They cannot be accepted because they have not proven that they can perfectly play the music of God's perfect love.

So will you be accepted into the orchestra at the end of your life on Earth? Do you want to play a symphony authored by the same mind that created the stars, life, and the love that you and I experience on earth? All that we are required to do is to recognize that we fail in this life - that we have failed to play our parts perfectly here - and then look to Jesus to meet this requirement in our stead. I am no longer speaking metaphorically. In real life, the historical Jesus lived a perfect life, but he was killed in our place, and God punished Him for our sin. This allows us to have a relationship with God as if we were perfect, and one day we will move into heaven into a new life where we can be perfect and fulfill our purpose.


It is remarkable how God reminds us of what's important. Before I wrote this, I had been thinking quite a bit about where humans fit into this analogy. Are we players, or are we just the audience? I kept thinking about how some people - the good people - get to enjoy the symphony by playing, but others do not. I had also been thinking about my life quite a bit - my poor performance - how I was messing up all the time, how I am not the perfect student and not a perfect friend. I was feeling down. How could I do any good? Then as I was sitting there at Breakaway, a song reminded me that I was missing the most important thing. Jesus makes up for my shortcomings in real life, and he is the key to the analogy. It is not the good people who get to enjoy playing the symphony, it is those who rely on the Word, the Logic of Life, Jesus Christ.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

wasted time

A wise man does not fill all of his days with work;
The fool worries when he is doing nothing.

I think that we need to let more time get "wasted" doing nothing. Down time is really important for figuring out the important things in life. Recently I got an android smartphone. It is a really awesome tool and I am amazed by what it can do, but it makes me feel like I need to be doing something productive all the time.

The other day I was picking up my suit after getting it adjusted. They accidentally double creased one of the pant legs, and the manager said it would take five minutes to fix. I had left my phone in the car, so I just stood there for a minute feeling uncomfortable that I wasn't accomplishing anything. I finally decided to run out to my car and grab it, but by the time I got back, they were bringing out my suit. All of that time was wasted. I could have spent it instead thinking about something important, taking a step back and looking at my life, or in prayer, but instead I wasted it by trying to convince myself that I wasn't wasting it. What foolish priorities!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

cynicism and followership [read "leadership" first]

A cynic protects himself, but in doing so he stifles progress;
The best followers passionately promote a leader's plan.

[continued from "leadership"]

The thing that makes leadership so difficult for good people is that their followers are cynical and selfish. Negatively minded people (I am among the worst) protect themselves by criticizing leaders and institutions. That way, when the leader or institution fails (and nearly all do eventually), they can lift themselves up by saying "I was right all along." One of my best friend's parents once told me "being cynical is easy" and that drastically changed the way I think about the role of a follower. Our culture makes a hero out of the cynic, the one who dismisses authority and defames leaders and institutions; the office worker who makes fun of his boss and disregards all of the rules.

But cynics are not heroes. It does not take any bravery to tear down a leader or an institution or a tradition. The brave ones are the good followers who promote the good ideas of their leaders. When the leader presents a good plan, they passionately say "Yes! That's a good idea!" There is nothing more encouraging to a leader than to hear that one of their followers thinks that they did a good job. And when the leader makes a mistake, the great followers do not ridicule him personally for it. They will say that it was a bad decision, but recognize that it took courage to follow through with that decision.

What if, instead of being cynical, people made a conscious directed effort to support the good things about our leaders? How much more could we collectively accomplish if we all supported the leaders in our everyday lives - our teachers, bosses, parents, and others? If, instead of complaining, we followed the rules that they have laid out to help us in respect, wouldn't we be better off as a group?

One specific thing related to this that really bothers me is when people claim that our leaders are bad people. For example, I have heard many people say that President Bush or President Obama is an evil person (or something close to that). I of course think that they both have made some bad decisions, but to those people I say "Do you really think that either of those men were not doing what they thought was best for the country? You can argue that their policies are wrong, but you should still respect the courage that they have had to lead." Instead of being ceaselessly critical of our leaders and institutions, we should work with them and passionately support their good decisions regardless of political boundaries. It benefits everyone when we follow well.

I think that this is one of the main things that sets Texas A&M apart from other schools. Aggies are good followers. There is very little cynicism here. Even when our football team is really bad, we still come out for the games and promote the school. Some say that we follow things blindly (and I agree that it is bad to err in that direction), but by following something well, we can accomplish extraordinary things.

leadership [continued in "cynicism"]

Leadership is taking responsibility for a plan that might fail.

The real weight of leadership is in accepting the risk that comes with it. A leader can never know for sure whether his plan will work, but it is his responsibility to make the best decision he can and pursue the actions he has decided on. This is a heavy responsibility, and it's what makes being a leader hard. It takes courage to be a good leader because it is so easy to attack a leader. True leadership is selfless because it requires that the leader take on a burden for the sake of others.

Most people say that they respect a leader who practices what he preaches, but I think that it takes more bravery for a leader to preach something that they cannot practice. It takes tremendous courage for someone to encourage or tell someone to do something that he has not done themselves. Should a person who has never done drugs tell her friend who is addicted to stop? If she does, she risks being called a hypocrite because surely she has never faced a challenge like her addicted friend is about to face. She does not know how hard it is to quit the drug. But asking her friend to stop is true leadership. True leadership is to say to someone "I know that what you are facing is difficult - I don't even know how difficult because I have never experienced it - but you need to do the right thing - not for my sake but for yours." That is selfless leadership - taking on the risk of criticism for the sake of another.*

This is the most difficult task of leadership (at least for people wired like me): to hold someone to a standard when they don't see why they need to hold to it. I see this challenge all the time in engineering work in classes. The leader knows what will be best for the team, but the team does not know. For example, if there is a design practice (like using an object-oriented coding scheme) that will make a job much easier, but some of the team members don't understand or are too lazy to follow the practice, they might ridicule the leader. A good leader will maintain the standards that he thinks are right in spite of this.

But the catch is that he cannot be 100% sure that his way is the best. It may turn out that his disgruntled employees were correct that they were wasting their time by following the standard. However, to give in to the employees at the beginning of the project is selfish. It is selfish because the leader is only protecting himself. Even though he thinks that following the standard is the best way, he is saying to the employees "Ok, have it your way, you take the blame if it fails" expecting that their way is going to fail all along. A good leader has only one course of action - to make the best (unselfish) decision he can and stick to it even when others do not understand. If he is wrong in the end, he will admit it and bear that burden.

[continue in "cynicism"]

*Of course this does not mean that a leader should be domineering or controlling; there must be a balance. It is not right to hold someone else to one of your personal standards or to any standard if your motive is selfish. This issue is a much larger topic beyond the scope of this post.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

perfect composition

The symphony of creation echos the glory of the LORD;
He has composed the story of His love with perfect skill.

[I couldn't get the large version of this picture to stay, so go here to view it]

Creation is like a huge symphony composed by the Creator. The most basic components of creation are indeed very much like musical notes. Every elementary particle has a frequency (de Broglie wavelength) related to its energy, just like each note of a symphony has a sound frequency related to its pitch. But when we listen to a symphony, we don't think about the frequencies of the notes; we hear each note as an individual object in a phrase, like a pearl on a string. We imagine the universe around us the same way. We think of particles interacting to form the things we see, but their frequencies (energy) that make them what they are are hidden from the mind.

A human composer uses chords and phrases to build his symphony. He chooses notes that have special interacting frequencies to form chords. God has designed the laws of nature such that the electrons of certain atoms with special energies (related to their frequencies) interact to make molecules and crystals. He uses these "chords" to build "phrases" that are the objects that we see and interact with. The difference is that, while a human composer uses hundreds or thousands of notes in his compositions, our creator uses 10^25 (1 with 25 zeros after it) particles. A biological system with DNA, protiens, buffers and hydrocarbons all interacting to do something amazing like turn sunflowers to follow the sun for example, are infinitely more complex than a musical phrase.

Now I know that many of you readers (if there are in fact many readers of this blog) did not revel in the beauty of what I was talking about in those last two paragraphs. That means you are a normal person. Normal people do not love music for the technicalities of individual notes or chords, they love it for the entire song. Only musical theory geeks love the notes and the key signatures, just like people who study physics love the quantum mechanics and chemistry that governs the basic elements of creation.

The real beauty that everyone can appreciate is in the music and the song as a whole. The real beauty that can be universally appreciated in creation is the personal stories that God writes. I think that God works personally in every person's life, and he uses this creation that he has composed so brilliantly to teach them about himself (Romans 1:20), so, using his already beautiful chords and phrases, he writes symphonic movements in everyone's life. Each of these movements is filled with expressions of his love.

The symphony of God's love is the whole of creation and history, and its parts come together beautifully. He wrote the story of Israel as a microcosm of the human experience (credit John Piper) to show how much humans fail at being good. He made the stars and galaxies so vast that we can barely comprehend them and can see his power, and he defined the physical laws for the universe so that physicists would be dumbfounded by their complex and simple elegance. He made the planet earth special to provide for his composition of life, and envisioned DNA to store all of the information needed for a human to spontaneously grow inside a mother's womb.

The conflict and rising action in this symphony is man's rejection of God. From Adam to Noah's contemporaries, to Israel, people have rejected him. We deserve no good and kindness from him. Yet the climax of the symphony comes as a stunning surprise. In the central act of God's love, he sent his son into creation. His son, though human, could compose parts of the symphony of nature and history. He was born impossibly from a virgin; he changed molecules of water into the alcohol of wine; and he gave life to dead bodies. And then this composer sacrificed himself to be punished by death for our transgressions, so that we, undeserving scum, can taste a relationship with him. The resolution of the symphony has yet to come, but the composer has told us that he will one day come to punish the wicked and give joy to those who know him. The timpani of the stars are rolling in anticipation of this finish. It is going to be epic, and those who are listening are excited.

This is the most beautiful song ever written. In the words of Switchfoot, it is all around us and running through us. In some ways, the meaning of life is simply to hear it.

Now that I have gone on about this for a while, I will get to the picture above. It is a picture of hurricane Earl taken from the international space station. It certainly displays an epic part of the symphony. But what I want to point out is the audacity of some common Christian beliefs. I say, and I hear other Christians often say, things like "That was a hard thing and it stressed me out, but God did it to teach me something." Does God really orchestrate entire movements in his symphony - hurricanes (figurative, and sometimes even literal) - just to teach someone a lesson? Has he really arranged the components of the universe from the beginning just to humble you? That is an extremely audacious thing to believe - that he would make all this happen for one simple human who might even reject him. If we just sit down and consider the epicness of that thought for a minute - that God created galaxies hundreds of lightyears across and atoms less than a nanometer in size all to show us his love, can we still believe it?

I do, and it makes me love my creator more every day.

An ancient king of Israel did, and he wrote this (Kevin, thanks for having it tatooed on your arm, or I probably wouldn't know of it):

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.

There is no speech or language
where their voice is not heard.

Their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.

In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun,
which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.

It rises at one end of the heavens
and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is hidden from its heat.

The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.

The precepts of the Lord are right,
giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the Lord are radiant,
giving light to the eyes.

The fear of the Lord is pure,
enduring forever.
The ordinances of the Lord are sure
and altogether righteous.

They are more precious than gold,
than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
than honey from the comb.

By them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.

Who can discern his errors?
Forgive my hidden faults.

Keep your servant also from willful sins;
may they not rule over me.
Then will I be blameless,
innocent of great transgression.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be pleasing in your sight,
O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.

- Psalm 19

Saturday, August 28, 2010

simple answers

The ways in which the universe works are not obvious. The things we think about rarely have simple thinkable answers.

When we talk about the issues that are important in our lives, it seems like we work under the assumption that there is a simple answer that we can work out with our minds. When we argue about whether there is a God or whether an ethical issue is wrong or right or whether something like global warming is really a problem, we think that we can prove that we are right by just stating a few facts. The fact is that people have been arguing about these issues for years. Are we really going to solve them with our limited minds?

I have come to believe that we are not able to know the answers to many of these questions. Can we know for sure that there is a God (we can, of course, declare this plausible because of evidence and accept it by faith) or what He is like? Why should we believe that we can comprehend Him or the reason for His existence? One thing that I learned this summer in my modern physics class is that the universe itself is fundamentally incomprehensible.

Any chemistry student will tell you that there are about 6.022 x 10^23 atoms in a 26 gram sample of iron, but can anyone really comprehend that number? I doubt it. Even if you say that you understand it, I would say that you cannot even come close to imagining that many of anything. There are less than 10 billion people on earth. 10 ^ 23 is ten billion times ten billion times 1000. It is impossible for the human mind to imagine this number.

This is even a very simple example of something we cannot comprehend. At the subatomic level, nothing is really intuitively comprehensible by the human mind. the states of subatomic particles are governed by probability distributions only. We cannot define the exact position and momentum of an electron at a given moment*. Physicist Werner Heisenberg said
"The atom of modern physics can be symbolized only through a partial differential equation in an abstract space of many dimensions. All its qualities are inferential; no material properties can be directly attributed to it. That is to say, any picture of the atom that our imagination is able to invent is for that reason defective. An understanding of the atomic world in that primary sensuous fashion . . . is impossible."
and Richard Feynman said
"I think it is safe to say that no one understands quantum mechanics. Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possibly avoid it, 'But how can it be like that?' because you will get 'down the drain' into a blind alley from which nobody has yet escaped. Nobody knows how it can be like that."
If we cannot understand or comprehend the most basic pieces of the universe, why should we expect to be able to understand everything else? Perhaps God did not intend for us to be able to prove Him or understand His thoughts and motives. There is so much knowledge that we do not possess; we should not presume to know so many of the answers. We can only stand in awe of the infinite greatness of the mind of God. As the apostle Paul says in Romans 11,

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!

“Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?”

“Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay him?”

For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen.

*This doesn't simply mean that we don't have accurate enough means to measure the position and momentum of an electron, it is a statement about the very fundamental nature of an electron. Even if we were the size of an electron we wouldn't "see" a ball flying through space - we cannot even imagine what we would see.

Published with Blogger-droid v1.5.5.2


A man rarely has all of the guidance that he needs to make a decision beforehand, but a wise man still decides without worry.

Earlier in my life, decisions were really troubling for me because I don't have all the information that I would like to have before making them. "How will it turn out if I go this way?" and "What will I feel like if that does not work out?" are the kind of things I would ask myself. Of course I can't know these things, so I must make a decision without knowing these answers.

In a graduation address at Stanford, Steve Jobs (Apple computer founder) said "You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something
: your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever." He is right that you do have to pursue a path and trust in something. As Christians, we have something to trust in that is far more trustworthy than the things he mentioned. We can trust that the Creator of the Universe is going to use our lives for His Glory. So should we not be totally confident in our decisions? That is one thing that I have seen clearly in my life. Even when I have not known what decision to make, or even made the wrong decision, I have been put in the place where I need to be, so now I don't worry (as much) about those things.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

artificial barriers

A wise man only considers the the truly relevant facts when he makes a decision.

"Don't let artificial barriers get in the way." This is something my dad always told me. What are artificial barriers? Its anything that your mind or the culture, or any other entity puts in the way of the right decision that is not really important. Things like "I can't marry the girl I love because we're still in college" or "I can't get accepted into that research program because I won't get the application in on time" or "I can't exercise because I don't have enough time" could all be examples. Your mind can put artificial barriers in the way when you are uncomfortable with something, and others can put artificial pressure on you when they are not comfortable with it. If you want to do great things with your life, you need to push these things aside and be radical in making the best choices based on truly relevant facts. If you are late in getting that research program application in, petition the people in charge anyways. If you are passionate, they might let the deadline slide. If you know that you want to marry someone, but you're still in college, don't let only cultural norms stop you; it has worked many times before. If you have a good plan, don't let artificial barriers stop you. You can always come up with a reason not to do something, but wise people only consider what is truly important.

supporting ideas

If an idea lines up with the ultimate conclusion a man wants to reach, he will believe it even if there is little real evidence that it is right.

The other day, a friend and I were going mountain biking at a trail that we knew probably had rattlesnakes. The best time for us to fit it into our schedules was at about 4pm. We reasoned that the rattlesnakes would probably go back into their holes around this time, so it would be a safe time for us to go. Did we have any real evidence to lead us to believe that rattlesnakes really do go back into their holes at 4? No. Did we want this to be the case? yes.

One issue where I think that this principle can be seen over and over again is with regard to global warming. I don't know for sure if global warming really is a problem (I think that it probably is), but on both sides people grab onto any data that seems to support their conclusions, even if it is barely valid and not conclusive. The argument has devolved from considerations of facts leading to conclusions to a battle between people with entrenched conclusions selecting data to try to support themselves.