Falling Out of Love and No Man’s Sky: The Struggle is Real (Rev 2:1-7)

I’m not sure if you have had a chance to notice this or not, but we as gamers can be a fairly critical collection of people.  Games that have been crafted through years of 80 hour work weeks as a labor of love by an under-staffed development studio are delicately sniffed by one of our own on a store shelf and then immediately tossed into a bargain bin because the frame rate is too low, the voice acting is sub-par, or the story isn’t long enough.  And such is the unfortunate fate of the industry darling turned critical scapegoat No Man’s Sky.  Once hailed as the new standard in open world games thanks to it’s procedurally generated galaxy full of planets and life forms, it quickly ran aground against a wall of inflated gamer expectations in a sea of disenchantment.

While I don’t intend to act as a gaming defense attorney, I would like to point out that the game absolutely delivers on it’s promise of a nearly infinite, unique galaxy to explore with lush visuals and solid if unremarkable gameplay.  But this column is not a review site, and I am less interested in responding to the critiques of the game and more interested in probing the gamer response to this title.  This game had massive anticipation from gamers all over the world, and with each delay in release date it seemed the enthusiasm was only increasing.  When it finally launched this title nearly sold out across all gaming platforms and was difficult to find in stock at almost every gaming retailer.  So how does this incredible amount of love turn cold so quickly?

To explore this phenomena further I am going to turn, as usual, to the Bible and specifically the book of Revelation chapter 2.  Revelation is most popular for visions of the apocalypse and end-time activities, but before the book gets into all of that there are some very critical messages given to the churches of that day… Messages that are just as relevant and pertinent to the body of believers in Jesus today.  While reading this please keep in mind that these are all the actual words of Jesus Himself (red letters give it away) as He is giving this information directly to John for dissemination to each of the churches, and I have confidence we will find that the letter from John to the church in Ephesus is just as timely now as it was back then.

The message begins with effusive praise, as Jesus compliments them on their patience, perseverance through trials, and discernment of false teachings.  He congratulates them for all of their labor on His behalf, and for three blissful verses this is just as favorable as the pre-release articles on No Man’s Sky.  But then the hammer drops, and with authority.  Jesus starts with a group of words that nobody ever wants to hear Him say… “I have this against you”.  And what follows is a challenge that reverberates throughout time to where you and I are both sitting right now, as He speaks the heartbreaking words, “You have left your first love”.  Ouch.  And to fully understand what this fall encompasses, we must return to that blissful place where first love began.

For many of us our point of reference for understanding “first  love” has its roots in romantic love and those butterfly feelings that occur at the blossoming moment of infatuation.  For others it may be the first time you held your child in your arms and silently pledged to protect them with your dying breath if need be.  But if you are believer then we are all familiar with the euphoria of standing tall for the first time with the knowledge that your sins, every last one of those haunting burdens, have been forgiven as we place our hand into the nail-scarred hand of our hero and Savior who paid for our freedom.  That moment of pure, unfiltered love and appreciation for what Jesus did for us, not two thousand years ago but right then I’m that moment as He held us and forgave us… That’s a powerful first love without equal.  So what happens to us as we move from that place of unspeakable joy and love to the place where the church of Ephesus found itself occupying… A church doing all the right things but lacking the passion they once possessed?

To really solve this predicament, I can only use myself as the example.  When I first felt the touch of His forgiveness and love, my heart melted and I fell in love with the One who saved me.  The next day I couldn’t wait to wake up in the morning and talk to Him, and for days and weeks I was hopelessly devoted to Jesus.  But as the weeks grew into months and extended into years, all of that excitement slowly faded into a commitment that I was compelled to fulfill out of obligation more than desire.  I am ashamed to say that my relationship slowly deteriorated until it was little more than prayers in the morning, night and at meals, or perhaps in times of extreme need.  My discipleship became monotonous and my daily time with God more closely resembled a life-support machine that I was merely keeping plugged in for survival than the living, breathing relationship it once was.  I hope this experience is unique to me, but if the church at Ephesus is any indication, I believe this afflicts more of us than we care to admit.

I didn’t intend to lose my first love… in fact I wasn’t even really aware I was losing it for quite some time.  I certainly never believed that my devotion could somehow devolve into drudgery, but it happened and I had to resolve it.  And while my departure from devotion was unintentional, my return to “first love” had to be incredibly intentional.  I would be lying if I said that I am anywhere near where I want to be here, but God makes the path to reconciliation remarkably simple in verse 5: remember, repent, and return.  First, we have to make a conscious decision to “Remember” where we have fallen from.  Mentally moving back to recalling all He did and continues to do for me is a critical step to complete.  That is why He encourages us to ‘remember Him” through the act of Communion regularly… so we never allow His act of sacrifice to become a mere historical moment in our lives.

Next, we are to “Repent”, which is a somewhat controversial word that requires us to actually acknowledge our failings and take an active step to turn away from them.  For those who believe that repentance is a one-time event in the life of a believer, I would encourage you to look at these verses and see that this is a group of believers being commanded to repent at the penalty of having their candlestick removed.  And finally, we are to “Return” to their first works… the things that they were doing when they took their first steps into the relationship.  This isn’t about following commandments or rules, as He already made it clear they were still doing all of those things and more.  No, this about those things that came from our HEART that we did out of love for Him.  To devour His word with the hunger of someone who has never tasted it before… to call out to Him like a child desperate to feel His unconditional love… to seek Him with the desperation of a soul with no hope but to reach out for His saving grace.

To circle back around to No Man’s Sky as I wrap this up, as gamers we can be quick to discard and dismiss any title once our initial curiosity has been satisfied.  As consumers we always have the right to move on from a title, but the question remains the same… Did the game actually change or did it simply lose it’s luster once we have experienced it and the newness has worn off?  Our relationship with God, like any other relationship, requires constant communication and upkeep.  Keeping it fresh is a challenge that each of us must undertake, and I am right here with you in this struggle.  Remember, repent, and return… I am going to repeat that to myself anytime I feel my love growing stagnant and I hope these three simple words will benefit your walk as well.

 

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When Mickey Mouse Met Cloud Strife:  Why the Church Needs to be More Like Kingdom Hearts (Romans 12, 1 Cor. 12)

In their high school yearbook photo they were voted the least likely properties to find their way into a video game franchise together, but in this East meets West collaboration the minds behind Final Fantasy and the house that Walt Disney built formed an organism that for gamers rivals the sweet, sweet combination of peanut butter and chocolate.  This unforeseen merging of all things Mickey Mouse into the unique worlds and depth of gameplay that Square Enix creates has generated a massive and fervent fan following, and few upcoming games are more anticipated than the (hopefully soon) release of Kingdom Hearts 3.

On paper, the idea seemed destined to fail.  Disney has had a fairly spotty track record in the gaming industry despite numerous attempts to gain traction in the field.  Other than the recently cancelled Infinity series, few titles have achieved critical or financial success under the Disney publishing banner, with most titles falling into the dreaded “licensed game” abyss.  But one thing Disney has been very cautious with is their intellectual properties, and very few developers have had the opportunity to play in the Disney sandbox because they are so protective of their characters.  So what are the odds that they would throw open the doors to the Disney vault to a company that could not be more different than the the Disney corporation, a company like Square Enix?  

Square Enix, on the other hand, was an established game developer with an exquisite  portfolio of titles such as Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest that would make most companies quite content.  But their attempts to swim in larger waters such as feature animation were unsuccessful (You try watching Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and tell me what in the world was going on there), and all attempts to dabble in projects outside of their core franchises fell on deaf ears and closed wallets.  Yet, against all common sense and industry odds, a franchise that sounded like a gaming magazine April Fool’s joke became a reality that gamers were all too eager to devour.  Kingdom Hearts has now spread from consoles and handholds to manga and collectibles, and it shows no signs of stopping.  The story of Sora, Donald Duck, Goofy, and an unforgettable cast of dozens and dozens more will continue for years to come all because two companies that could not have been more different became an unstoppable juggernaut when they joined together Voltron style, and we are all better off for it.

It seems that the church has struggled with the desire for uniformity ever since its infancy as evidenced by the Apostle Paul’s epistles, and I believe that the lessons learned from observing the merger of Disney’s licensed properties and Square Enix’s development capabilities would benefit all of us as we consider the unique organism that is the body of Christ.  In both Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 Paul presents the concept of the “church” as a literal body made up of different members.  In Romans 12:4-8 he explains that we have each been given specific “gifts” that are meant to provide support, encouragement, leadership, discipleship and more to our fellow “members”.  But it is in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 that Paul really draws out this metaphor in a way that should help us understand how Mickey Mouse and Cloud Strife can not only co-exist but also add meaning and value to each other and the world they jointly occupy.

Paul challenges us to move far past the concepts of mere tolerance and acceptance and into the understanding that we are literally co-dependent on each other for success and survival.  Each of us as unique individuals, diverse in background, capabilities, languages, education, and even in spritual gifts form a body that is as intentionally engineered as our physical bodies. Think about that for a minute.  Almighty God, in His infinite wisdom, designed the human body to be the perfect mechanism for our souls to interact with this planet.  He planned our ability to navigate through our muscle and skeletal structures, supplemented by our ability to see.  He designed a process to provide energy both efficiently and enjoyably through our senses of taste and smell combining with our digestive and circulatory systems.  We were not given superfluous appendages that do not serve a purpose on this planet, only what was needed for us to survive and multiply.  I submit to you that the body of Christ is just as deliberately designed as this collection of tissue and bones I use to walk the earth each day, and we are each vital and necessary BECAUSE of the unique value we add as distinctly different members of this body.

I have had the benefit (or misfortune depending on your point of view) of being a part of many different churches over my life span so far and I have experienced times when I have felt integral and desired as a contributor to the needs of the body.  Like a kidney transplant that couldn’t happen a moment too soon, I have been embraced and plugged into the body and felt the warmth of being not only wanted, but NEEDED.  But sadly, there have also been numerous occasions that my attempts at integration have felt more like I was trying to be a third ear right on top of someone’s foot, and those moments have resulted in some tough soul-searching as I grappled with feelings of inadequacy and insecurity because of the rejection.  I left these churches wondering if maybe there was something wrong with me and that’s why I didn’t “fit in”.

And that’s why it is so important for us to see the truth, as  Paul so eloquently helps us to see that each of us have very specific gifts and that our role in the body of Christ is perfectly designed for us. The foot has to to be strong, stable, able to absorb constant pressure while making continual progress.  It doesn’t have to be pretty or soft, and it may not always smell too fresh.  But that is not it’s purpose.  It is a perfect fit for its role.  The eye, on the other hand, is seriously high maintenance.  It needs its own built in moisturizing station, it won’t accept more than the most gentle of pressure applied, and the dust and dirt that would go unnoticed on the bottom of your feet would completely incapacitate the fuctioning of your eye.  They are unique in design but completely co-dependent on each other for their survival.  Don’t believe me?  Try walking through your home with the lights out as your toes find every hard and pointed object to ram into.  The body of Christ needs EACH of us… And it needs us to be who we were designed to be, complete with your specific history and capabilities and (gasp) even your past failures.  

Maybe you are an ear or a mouth, meant to be highly visible and integral to communication within the body, extroverted and loving it.  Or perhaps you are a liver, persistently and patiently dealing with all the garbage that nobody else wants to handle in obscurity and silence.  Some of us are arms and hands doing the heavy lifting while others are the fingers, tenderly dealing with the delicate needs of the body.  But no matter what your role is, what you look like, or what you perceive your value is, you are NEEDED.  And we aren’t a complete body without you.  You were born for this time, chosen for this purpose, and designed for this challenge.  And parts of the body that may never even see you are counting on you and they may not ever even know it.

So exercise those gifts you were given.  Have confidence that you belong and your contributions are not only desired but necessary for the body to function correctly.  And just like our example in the Kingdom Hearts game, it is only together as a church without borders, racial lines, economic barriers, denominational prejudices, or status divisions that we will be able to succeed as a functional body of Christ here on earth.  There will not be subdivisions in heaven for those with an Ivy League education.  God isn’t building Section Eight housing up there either. He loves and cherishes me and you equally, and he expects us to view each other the same way and to see the value only the other can add to His kingdom.  This Kingdom is made up of each of us, and whether you are a Donald Duck like me or maybe you are just a little Goofy, we need each other.  Be the member He crafted you to be and share the unique gifts he placed inside you, and I promise you I will do the same.  And the next time you reach up to scratch your nose or look down just in time to avoid stubbing your toe, just remember that if we all commit to being satisfied with the role He has given us that somewhere in the body of Christ someone is doing that exact same thing for you.