When I started this blog I said I wasn’t going to limit it to any specific topic, but that anything I think is worth sharing is fair game. So far, I’ve mostly written about matters of faith. Actually, that’s all I’ve written about, save the first paragraph of one post in which I got into a bit of a technology tangent. You probably didn’t notice, but I added a Technology category that I used on that post alongside my standard Christianity one. As I was writing that post, I had the thought that I just might get into that area a little more in the future. Now I’ve decided that I will.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I am a bit of a nut about gadgets and stuff. I keep up with happenings in the tech world (lowercase t, not to be confused with Tech, that is, Virginia Tech) the way normal people follow sports or politics, and with the same intensity. My biggest time waster is not Facebook but sites like Mashable, TechCrunch, and various individual tech bloggers. Which often include news about Facebook. So this isn’t the first time I’ve thought about doing some of my own tech blogging. I’ve never gone through with it because I didn’t really feel like I had anything to add. There are plenty of sites out there to get news. Mashable and TechCrunch are just two of them. The individual tech bloggers generally don’t break news but weigh in on it, giving their own insights, predictions, etc. But I didn’t really feel like had anything to add in that respect, either. Then the other night it hit me. Reviews. I enjoy trying out new apps, and when I can, new devices. And I can be very opinionated about what I like and what I don’t. Apple has left me with a deep appreciation for design—in aesthetics, functionality, and overall experience. As have many of the great iOS developers out there.

In the technology/startup world, a pivot is a company’s change in direction or focus from their original product or service. I’m blanking on an example right now. In the case of this blog, a pivot would be if I were to turn it into a technology blog. But don’t worry, that’s not what I’m going to do. What I’m doing isn’t really pivoting, in the strictest sense of the word. I will still be posting along the lines of what I’ve written on the blog before. That probably will remain my primary focus. I believe that matters of faith, of Truth, are the most important things I can discuss and share. That’s why so far that’s all I’ve written about. But I think there can be value in discussing technology as well.

So what you can expect in the future: as I said, I will keep writing about stuff God is showing me much, if not most, of the time. But I will also start posting reviews now and again. Unfortunately, unlike the tech blogs I read, I don’t have access to review units or the money to buy every new gadget that comes out. When I do get new hardware, I may decide to write a review. But I think the most valuable opinions I have to give in this area are on apps—specifically of the iOS variety. I’ve gotten comments about the number of apps I have on my home screens (although my brother beats me by a factor of…a lot.) (Update below.) Because most apps are free or cheap, I download new ones a lot to try out. Some become essential to my daily life, others find a place on my last home screen, so I can access them if I ever find a need for them. Others I get rid of. All that to say, I think it might be interesting for others out there to hear my thoughts on the apps I use, because we’ve entered an age where a significant percentage of the population of the developed world (and a growing number of people in the rest of the world) depend on pocket-sized computers that moonlight as phones, and on the apps that run on them. After all, smartphone sales have overtaken PC sales around the world.

This tech reviews thing might expand from here. It might get to a point where I decide to spin it off into its own blog. We’ll see. This is just another step in this big experiment that is this blog.

To whet your appetite a little: I downloaded a new iPhone app the other day called Moves. It’s basically an app that tracks your activity—walking, running, and cycling—as you go throughout your day. I’ve been using it the past few days, and while I have some initial impressions, the nature of the app is such that I want to get a good week of use out of it before writing about it—probably until next weekend. If you want to see it for yourself in the meantime, check it out on, and on the App Store. Stay tuned.

If you’ll excuse me, I have a Super Bowl party to get to.

Update: The results are in: my brother and I have compared numbers and it turns out I was wrong—more like using outdated information. I’m still pretty sure a couple years back he had a lot more apps than I did, but somewhere along the way the tables turned.

Forth, and fear no darkness!

When I last posted I was nearing the end of The Two Towers. I’ve finished The Return of the King now, and I’m working on the appendices. And yes, I’m going to write about The Lord of the Rings again. (Don’t be surprised if this ends up becoming a series.)

Something I’ve noticed this time through the books and the movies, more than before, is the theme of despair. I saw looks of despair and horror on characters’ faces time and time again, as things go from bad to worse. I saw characters lose all hope in the face of overwhelming odds—Denethor is the prime example of this. Even Sam, arguably the most courageous and hopeful character of them all, begins to doubt that, even if he and Frodo make it to Mount Doom, there will be a return journey.

Despair is a key weapon of the Dark Lord. His nine deadliest servants are masters of driving their enemies to fear and despair:

In vain men shook their fists at the pitiless foes that swarmed before the Gate. Curses they heeded not, nor understood the tongues of western men, crying with harsh voices like beasts and carrion-birds. But soon there were few left in Minas Tirith who had the heart to stand up and defy the hosts of Mordor. For yet another weapon, swifter than hunger, the Lord of the Dark Tower had: dread and despair.

The Nazgûl came again, and as their Dark Lord now grew and put forth his strength, so their voices, which uttered only his will and his malice, were filled with evil and horror. Ever they circled above the City, like vultures that expect their fill of doomed men’s flesh. Out of sight and shot they flew, and yet were ever present, and their deadly voices rent the air. More unbearable they became, not less, at each new cry. At length even the stout-hearted would fling themselves to the ground as the hidden menace passed over them, or they would stand, letting their weapons fall from nerveless hands while into their minds a blackness came, and they thought no more of war; but only of hiding and of crawling, and of death.

Or take the words of the Witch-king, the greatest of the Nine, to Gandalf, when they come face to face on the streets of Minas Tirith:

“Do you not know death when you see it, old man? This is my hour…You have failed. The world of Men will fall.”

Cloaked in black, faceless, mounted on winged steeds, with piercing cries that drive man and beast to madness and despair, the Nazgûl are pure evil. I can think of no better picture of our own opponents.

For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.

Ephesians 6:12

And like the Nazgûl, one of their favorite weapons is despair. Despair that the evil in the world could ever be made right. Despair that the evil in us could ever be made right.

Take these two songs. The first is a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow during the Civil War. It has become the Christmas carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” (By the way, the Casting Crowns version of this is awesome.) It tells the story of the competing sounds of the church bells ringing for Christmas day, and the cannons being fired in nearby battlefields. As the cannons drown out the bells, he loses hope.

And in despair I hung my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men”

But it doesn’t end there. Listen to the finale:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor doth he sleep
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, goodwill to men

The other is the well-known hymn, “Before the Throne of God Above.” Here is the second verse:

When Satan tempts me to despair
And tells me of the guilt within
Upward I look and see him there,
Who made an end of all my sin
Because the sinless Savior died
My sinful soul is counted free
For God the just is satisfied
To look on him and pardon me

In the midst of despair, hope shines through. Indeed, we have more reason to hope than the free peoples of Middle-earth did. Because we know that God is firmly in control, and Jesus already won the decisive victory at the cross and at the tomb. And while the war rages on, we await the return of the King, when he will finish the enemy and establish his reign forever.

Then I saw heaven opened, and a white horse was standing there. Its rider was named Faithful and True, for he judges fairly and wages a righteous war…The armies of heaven, dressed in the finest of pure white linen, followed him on white horses…

Then I saw the beast and the kings of the world and their armies gathered together to fight against the one sitting on the horse and his army. And the beast was captured, and with him the false prophet who did mighty miracles on behalf of the beast…Both the beast and his false prophet were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur. Their entire army was killed by the sharp sword that came from the mouth of the one riding the white horse.

Revelation 19:11-21

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”

And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!”

Revelation 21:1-5

Or, as Théoden says to his niece before leading the Rohirrim to the aid of Minas Tirith, “You shall live to see these days renewed, and no more despair.”

Going back to that scene where the Witch-king confronts Gandalf: Gandalf is thrown from his horse, and his staff explodes in his hands. Even as the Witch-king raises his sword to strike, a horn is heard. The horns of Rohan.

As the Rohirrim come over the hill, with the rising sun, and look at the vast army of Orcs before them, Théoden gives his six thousand horsemen a rousing speech, building to the most epic charge in movie history. One line sticks out to me, in the face of despair:

“Forth, and fear no darkness!”

It’s like in the great stories

I’m listening to the soundtrack of The Two Towers right now. I was just reading some more of the book. Suddenly, in the past few weeks, I’m crazy about Tolkien again. I blame The Hobbit. Since I saw a trailer for the first installment a year ago, I couldn’t wait. To return to Middle-earth, and explore it further; to be reunited with familiar characters, and introduced to new ones. So when it finally hit theaters, right before Christmas break, I was at the midnight opening—I couldn’t wait a minute longer. (Now I can’t wait for the next one.) It had been several years since I last read The Lord of the Rings, and even longer since I’d read The Hobbit, and watching the new movie whet my appetite. So at the beginning of the break I started The Hobbit, and I’m almost done with The Two Towers now. I also watched The Lord of the Rings (the Extended Editions, of course) and the accompanying documentaries in the newly-added iTunes Extras. And I listened to all four soundtracks a bunch.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I love The Lord of the Rings. In recent years, I’m more into Christian literature than novels. I’m not a huge fan of the fantasy genre, in particular. But Tolkien is the exception. And while other movies have come along that I’ve really enjoyed and would consider among my favorites, these movies stand on their own. I’ve read the book several times (and many of his other books, which together tell the history of Middle-earth.) I’ve watched the movies again, and again, and again. There’s just something about them that captivates me. Certainly, Tolkien was a genius, creating this entire world, its history, its languages. Part of what makes Tolkien’s work stand apart from all the fantasy stories that have followed is the incredible depth. He didn’t write some stories, inventing aspects of a world as needed to fit the stories. He created an entire world, and then set his stories in it. And the stories themselves are incredible.

And then Peter Jackson and his team did an incredible job of bringing Tolkien’s epic novel to the screen. The movies themselves are stunning, but also impressive is the work that went into making them—from creating the illusion of the size of the hobbits and dwarves, to recreating battles on the scale of Helm’s Deep and the Pelennor Fields, to bringing Gollum to life. Just as Tolkien’s work is a literary masterpiece, Jackson’s work is a cinematic masterpiece.

But I think there’s a deeper reason yet. They’re so relatable, and so true—not in the sense that they actually happened. But in the sense that they offer a glimpse into reality that we miss most of the time. Even though Tolkien was adamant that The Lord of the Rings was not allegorical, there’s still so much truth in them. Like the hobbits of the Shire, most of the time we’re completely absorbed in what we see around us, our own day-to-day, mundane lives, which don’t seem all that glamorous or that big a deal, really. We live our lives completely unaware of the bigger picture, and we need a reminder of the truth. The truth that, like Middle-earth, our world is locked in an epic war, where the forces of good and of evil battle for its fate, where the evil one will stop at nothing to have dominion over all life on this earth, and seeks to destroy all who oppose him. And so much of the time it looks like he is winning. The world seems dark and hopelessly evil when we hear news of the senseless killing of children, or when, from half a world away, I watch the country I call home falling apart because of extremists and corrupt politicians.

But in the midst of this battle, we see heroism where least expected—including in ourselves. We find ourselves called to a mission of utmost importance, and even deadly peril. We find fellowships that stand with each other through thick and thin to carry that mission out. But then those fellowships are broken, as friends, though eternally bound by friendship and love, must go their separate ways. We live in a tale of friendship, and loyalty, and sacrifice. Of danger, and betrayal, and darkness. Of epic battles, and courage, and hope. Of fell deeds and heroic ones. I see myself in these characters, and the story unfolding around me in theirs. And that gives me hope, and courage, and a desire to rise up to the calling on my life. Why do I love The Lord of the Rings? The best answer comes from the movies themselves. When hope seems lost for Frodo and Sam, captive in Osgiliath, Sam nails it:

“It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end, because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines, it’ll shine out the clearer. Those are the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going, because they were holding onto something.”

“What are we holding onto, Sam?”

“That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.”

Flashback: Purpose In Every Step

I need to write a short essay for a scholarship application. They gave a few typical prompts, and the option to write about a topic of my choice, or to reuse an essay I wrote for class or for a college application. Being a junior in an engineering major, I haven’t exactly written many essays in the last few years. Several for psychology my freshman year, and one about the environment in geology. After staring at my cursor blinking for a good while, I decided to go back and dig through my old college applications for some inspiration. Not to straight-up recycle one. A lot has changed in the three years since I was writing those. But I thought I might find one that would be a good starting point. I came across a document named “Personal statement”—I apparently hadn’t bothered to specify what I was writing it for. But between the essay itself and the prompt, which I also had (but which didn’t say specifically what it was for, either) it seems that I was writing this after having been accepted to Tech, for something related to financial aid. Anyways, it really struck me. But I’ll let you read it, and then add some comments at the end (where I pick back up in italics.)

Purpose In Every Step

Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win! All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. So I run with purpose in every step. I am not just shadowboxing. I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified.

1 Corinthians 9:24-27

Throughout the New Testament, the Apostle Paul repeatedly compares the Christian life to running a race. As an athlete myself, the analogy has special significance to me. A lot of people talk about “chapters” of their lives. I would be more inclined to see my life as a series of races in some sort of Olympic track event, all striving for the great prize my King will award me at the end of it all. The problem with the chapters analogy is that you read a book kicking back in a hammock, flipping the pages and watching the story unfold without exerting yourself in any way. The life of faith, though, is a serious business. It is not something you live out in a hammock. It requires all the devotion, discipline, and focus of training for and running a marathon. So “I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us” (Philippians 3:14). The finish line of high school is rapidly approaching, and before I know it I will hear the gunshot telling me to lunge across the line into yet another race—college. I am somewhat unsure about it, not really knowing what is in store around that curve in the track up ahead, but I have motivation to keep running no matter what.

I have come to see myself in my proper place—part of the grand, epic story starting with the narrative in Genesis and that will eventually finish as foretold in Revelation. In this story every one of us has a role to play. Living just for my story only motivates me so far, but to be caught up in a story that transcends my life gives me a cause worthy of every moment of my life. I have a reason to get out of bed every morning. In Hebrews 11, Paul lists many people in Scripture and the legacies they left behind. Each of them has played out their role and left their mark on history. Then he brings it back to us, saying, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race that God has set before us” (Hebrews 12:1). This verse has been recited so many times it has lost a lot of meaning, but just the other day it clicked. It makes a world of difference to read it in the context of the preceding chapter, instead of reading the verse in isolation as is so often done. Paul is saying, “Look at the people I’ve just listed. Look at all God accomplished through them because of their faith. They are your heritage, they’ve handed off the baton to you, and now they are sitting in the stands cheering you on as you run your leg of the race. You’re one of them; their God is yours. You will see God work powerfully in your life if you let yourself be caught up into the epic that they were living in—His story.”

So with that mindset, I keep running no matter what is ahead and I trust God to be faithful, as He has been faithful so far. This track has had plenty of uphills and downhills, but God’s hand has been in it all, and in retrospect I wouldn’t change a thing if I could. He has been with me through countless transitions, upheavals, and storms, and He has blessed me beyond measure. As the prophet Isaiah said:

Even youths will become weak and tired,
And young men will fall in exhaustion.
But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength.
They will soar high on wings like eagles.
They will run and not grow weary.
They will walk and not grow faint.

Isaiah 40:30-31

Through everything, God has continued to give me new strength for each step, for each new difficulty. When the deteriorating situation in the country we live in brought my family’s annual trips to the mountains to an end and later made us move from our home of twelve years to another city, God was still there. When my heart was broken in ninth grade and I was left devastated, God took my by the hand and helped me back up, and gave me strength to keep running. Time and time again, God has carried me over each hurdle that crosses my path.

So as I once again face an uncertain future, it is God whom I will continue to trust my life to. He is the One laying out the path before my feet. He has given me the passions and characteristics that have led me to choose a career in engineering—a love and gift for physics and math, an instinct for problem solving, an fascination from a young age with designing and building bridges and buildings out of Legos, playing cards, and anything else I could find that would do the trick—and has opened the door for it to happen. As I hear about Virginia Tech’s reputation and look at the Blacksburg area, all of which is very appealing, I believe that if Virginia Tech is where he wants me he will open the door financially. The race is in His capable hands.

The first thing to hit me was how little has changed after all, in terms of the themes I was writing about. If you read my blog regularly, a lot of what I wrote in this essay should sound familiar. I’ve come back to this analogy time and time again over the years. I gave a talk in my Engage Group towards the end of this past semester about this. While some of these concepts have developed further in my mind since writing this, I used a lot of the same points and these same verses in that talk as I did in this essay. Reading it in an essay I wrote three years ago was kind of crazy.

The second thing to hit me was what wasn’t in that list of difficulties, because it hadn’t happened yet. I knew I was facing a huge transition and an uncertain future, but I don’t think I really knew just how tough it would end up being. Since writing those words, I went through what is to date my greatest trial yet. And yet again, God proved that he is worthy of my trust.

Going To Hell with Ted Haggard

Going To Hell with Ted Haggard

This is grace. Beautiful, scandalous grace. The grace we should be living out.