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s151e03 21/12/2003 Advent 4

"I have come to do your will" Hebrews 10.7

W. Wayt Gibbs, writing in the "Scientific American" (International Edition) pp72-81 September 1994, gives the following statistics for projects involving computers: "On average, large projects take 50% longer than they were planned to do; Three quarters of large projects are operational failures; One quarter of large projects are cancelled."

It was on the morning after our November Vestry meeting, as I ate my "Fibre Plus" and drank my OJ, I happened to pick up the book lying on the kitchen table: "Using UML Software Engineering with Objects and Components" by Perdita Stevens with Rob Pooley (Addison Wesley Longman Limited Updated Edition 2000) and read these words. I must have been desperate :-) I have bad remembrances of Fortran in the early '70's - ALL of MY attempts at programming were operational failures - and I haven't picked up a programming book since. It is one of the reasons I use Macintoshes - one doesn't need to read a manual.

I didn't get very far into the book, but another sentence "jumped out" at me in addition to the statistics above. It read: "Small systems, in which category we included almost everything university students normally build, can be built by "heroic programming" in which a single person does attempt to have in mind everything relevant about the system; but in general it is impossible for a developer or a maintainer to understand everything about the system all at once." (page 6)

One of the useful things about computers is that they are upgradeable. It is good that when advances in technology come along they can be incorporated into the existing systems, rather than the whole system thrown out and replaced. To take a simple example, the change from imperial to decimal currency happened in Australia on the 14th of Feb. 1966. Just think of the changes that this caused to be made in society. Existing stocks of financial ledgers would have been thrown away unused. Adding machines, still entirely functional, became redundant, instantly needing to be replaced.

Now, generally computers, do predictable things. If something changes, generally the response will be predictable. Generally, but not always. The high proportion of system breakdowns means that this can't be said with certainty even with computers. But when you are considering human beings, cause and effect are entirely unpredictable. When dealing with computer programs "Identifying which remote pieces of code could be affected (by making a change elsewhere) was not always easy. The term "spaghetti code" was coined to describe systems in which the flow of control and dependency was too complex to understand." "Understanding ... software engineering" becomes an oxymoron - at least for me :-) I didn't get past page 6! Computers are easy in comparison with human beings!

But as I reflected on our Vestry meeting, I took some heart that even professional computer systems designers find the complexity of what they are dealing with way beyond them, so when we are trying to deal with human beings, any suggestion that anyone is "in control" of others and their reactions, is laughable to say the least.

Everyone who came to that Vestry meeting came knowing that they wanted to do the will of God. Here we are, Anglicans, through and through. All of us sincerely believing we know and want to do the will of God, yet we disagree over what that will is. Here we are, people who sing lustily "they'll know we are Christians by our love, by our love" and are surprised when others seem a little bemused. I sometimes get a little surprised when people try to promote a faith "relevant to modern life". The fact that we disagree and are able to put our views stridently shows that the issues we deal with are matters of life and death. It is important to us to be right and others to be wrong.

It was easy, in the past, because everything the church said was right and everyone who didn't agree was outcast in this life and going to hell in the next. Not only did we have to do the right things, but we had to believe the right things, and a core part of this belief was the eternal blessedness enjoyed by the compliant and the eternal damnation awaiting the sceptical.

Control and dependence were clearly set out. The church was "in control" and you and I were entirely dependent.

I think that now we are beginning to realise that not only does the world not work this way any more, but that it was never designed by God to work that way ever. If you start thinking that perhaps it was, think about how you would feel being controlled? It might be all right if we are in control and others accept their dependency on us.

God does not want compliant robots. If God wanted compliant robots, God could have made us like that in the beginning. And I should add, God doesn't want compliant and silent female type robots but doesn't care what the male versions get up to :-)

That phrase "heroic programming" stirs the thought of the lone prophet, crying out in the wilderness, doomed to failure, because there is no one there actually listening. We are not called to do anything alone. The best parts of life are when we find companionship and understanding. There is a delicate balance between others understanding us and others doing what we want. Everything is based on our willingness to listen as well as put our own point of view. This cannot be forced by anyone. Everyone is free to respond or not as their own circumstances direct.

We might have a version of the truth, but the complexity of human beings and the society around us means that we cannot grasp the fullness of everything.

We have to be able to adapt as others change. It is not easy, but it is also life giving. To not do this is death.

Our world has changed, and changed for the better in my point of view, because we now theoretically have the ability to choose. This ability to choose means that life may be "messier" but that is precisely because no one is in control.

But it is important to see that neither is God in control. God does not want to control you or me or anyone. God's plan for humanity is entirely about us realising the extent of our freedom. So we do God's will when we allow others to realise the extent of their freedom, along with our own.

One of the (mercifully few) times when I think that I do have to exercise my authority is in the conduct of worship, and yet properly this control is only exercised to avoid others taking over. The most important things that happen during worship are not the words that I say - which God has heard countless times before - but what you say to God in your hearts - which God may not have heard.

All of this means that you and I, if we want to get our own way, have to bring others along with us, and we do this, not with the force of our arguments, but by the quality of our love for others - demonstrated by our preparedness to listen. To invoke the authority of the Bible, the tradition or the clerical collar is to avoid the need to bring others along with us using the quality of our love - demonstrated by our preparedness to listen. Nothing is more important than our relationships - one with another - and this is what God wants for us and for all.


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