Cloud Complex: Cherishing the Struggle (James 1)

Cloud Strife, the heroic protagonist from the beloved classic Final Fantasy VII and all of its myriad of slightly less beloved spin-offs, may be among the most enigmatic gaming heroes I know.  Aptly named to suggest the combination of the murky impenetrability of a cloud with a profound inner conflict (hence “Cloud Strife”), he is a conflicted and typically reluctant hero trying to find himself while being thrust into world-saving predicaments.  Suffering from partial amnesia layered with some serious anti-social tendencies, Cloud is better known for his sense of style and his larger-than-life sword than his personality.  While he is far from emotionless, he stands in sharp contrast to the very defined and outspoken party that joins him on his quest.  This is further explored in the spin-off movie Advent Children, which gave Cloud the opportunity to add some much needed depth to his character while facing his eternal foe Sephiroth one final time.

Ahhh, Sephiroth.  Now here’s a character that knows how to own a room.  Brash and over-confident, the “One-Winged Angel” never missed a chance to showcase his over-the-top personality, and could not provide a more stark contrast to his protagonist counterpart.  As Cloud battles with who he truly is and struggles to find his place in the world, Sephiroth basks in his full realization that he is a destructive force who truly wants to watch the world burn.  Interestingly, their climactic battle in the game did not bring the expected outcome to either of these individuals, as the movie finds Cloud operating a delivery service of sorts and keeping friends at arms length while the essence of Sephiroth still swirls with all of the venom and force of an F-5 tornado filled with deadly cobras.  ( I could have done the Sharknado reference there, but I think that ship has finally sailed.  For all of our sakes).

So at the end of Advent Children we find Cloud and Sephiroth locked in one final epic duel to the death, which is less of a mere sword fight than it is a decision point for Cloud.  His battle with Sephiroth is really just forcing him to face his internal demons of self-doubt, fear, and the emotional/physical disconnection he displays with those he cares for.  And it is in the climax of this battle that Sephiroth taunts Cloud with perhaps one of the oddest questions I have ever heard in such a circumstance.  For years I blamed it on either a poor translation from the original Japanese, or perhaps just another odd phrasing that occurs often in the Final Fantasy series.  Sephiroth, with victory nearly in hand, asks Cloud, ” Tell me what you cherish most.  Give me the pleasure of taking it away.”  But now, after all these years, I believe I finally get it.

The book of James contains many of the most challenging verses to live up to in all of the Bible, and it starts with a doozy.  Right there in chapter one, James gets to the heart of the matter by encouraging us to “count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience.”  Now there are some words that rank among my least favorite to find in proximity to each other.  Enduring tests and trials is certainly unpleasant enough, but to find “joy” in them? To actually treasure these horrible experiences?  With my limited perspective using my carnal mind, that sounds both preposterous and impossible.  When I am suffering pain, dealing with a loss, or perhaps struggling through a difficult personal situation I will confess that joy is pretty far from my thoughts.  I just want to cocoon myself in my misery, throw myself a pity party, and  give up.

I don’t know about you, but I get exhausted from all the conflict and it is honestly so tempting to just let the devil win so the battle will cease.  And it is in that moment, the point of certain defeat, that victory is truly found.  See, James never tells us to find joy in our trials because enduring them yields victory.  No, quite the opposite.  Enduring our trials produces PATIENCE, not satisfaction or a sense of winning. And this patience has a very specific purpose, found in verse 4: that YOU may be complete. Our trials are not intended to cause pain, although they will.  But is through enduring these that we will receive the promise found in verse 12, the crown of life the Lord has promised to those who love Him.

Cloud, physically dying of an incurable disease, emotionally unable to cope with the losses of those he cared most about, and now run through and dangling precariously at the end of his adversary Sephiroth’s sword has all the reason in the world to give up.   But as his enemy gloats in his pending defeat, Cloud finally experiences the breakthrough that changes NOTHING about his situation and EVERYTHING about how he looks at it.  His loved ones are still gone, he is still going to die of a disease if this battle doesn’t finish him first, and his defeat is imminent.  But as he mentally reviews his situation he achieves the realization that there is not a single part of his life, not even those that have created the physical and emotional scars he carries, that he does not cherish as part of the tapestry that is his life and shaping him into the soldier he has become.

That is the moment when this all makes sense.  The devil has a very clear mission statement:  to steal, kill, and destroy.  He will never stop, and he will forever search for the trigger that will break you once and for all.  The peace we are promised is protection “IN” the storm, not “FROM” the storm.  By realizing that the trial is only making us stronger, we can find joy not in the pain but in the knowledge that we are growing in our patient dependence on God and becoming less self-sufficient and more Christ-reliant with each successive challenge.

As Cloud unleashes an epic Omnislash that sends his enemy into oblivion one more time, I am inspired to consider my own responses to trials and the disappointments inherent in living this Christian life.  The devil has certainly stolen from me, tried to kill me, and continues to make numerous attempts to destroy me and my faith.  My story is not unique… we are all enduring trials that are designed by our enemy to destroy us but used by our Father to build us.  But to truly endure these the way we were intended to, we must embrace them as Christ embraced the cross He was given to bear.  As Cloud seemed to discover, the joy is in cherishing each step of the journey for what it is… one step closer to completion.


Grace vs Justice: The Dishonored Predicament

Sneaking in under the radar this season is a new entry into the Dishonored franchise. Both titles in the Dishonored series have become critically acclaimed titles that touch on a theme that resonates with most of us: the story of a character who has been wrongfully accused and has set out on an adventure to correct this.  In this case, as the former protector turned assassin Corvo you are implicated in a murder you did not commit and spend the majority of the game tracking down those who are responsible for the assassination you are framed for.  This is a familiar trope in many game and movie experiences, and few feelings are more rewarding than when the protagonist finally stands tall in the end, typically having redeemed their good name while insuring justice has been served.  But this self-gratifying journey for justice almost always involves a great deal of violence, collateral damage for other innocent parties, and rarely comes without a great deal of additional loss begging a critical question:  was it worth it?  Was clearing your name and taking your adversary down truly the right thing to do, or was it the thing that “felt” right to do?

I personally often feel a great sense of satisfaction when I see a wrong being made right.  Many times I have felt the dark joy of observing a guilty individual receiving their come-uppance, or the rare occasion when a punishment actually fits the crime. Seeing the innocent suffer just begs the emotional response to see their tormentor receive the equivalent treatment, and we often celebrate fictional anti-heroes such as the Punisher, Batman, or the assassin Corvo for doing what we often secretly desire to do ourselves:  make the bad guys pay. Sometimes it’s as simple as seeing the car that just passed you going 90 mph a few miles down the road having a chat with the local highway patrol, and other times it may be much more serious like the sentencing phase of a trial for a murderous criminal… either way these moments generate a profound emotional response that must be investigated.

As a Christian, I have often considered the implications of being a “vigilante” and weighed this against Scripture to find God’s opinion on the subject.  And while there are certainly many entries in the Bible in which He has tasked an individual with carrying out his divine retribution (see Samson, Ehud, David, and so many more), I find quite consistently that with each of these individuals they were tasked by God specifically to perform these actions.  These were not revenge missions taken on for any sense of personal gain, but rather were divinely orchestrated events to alter the course of history in a meaningful way.  So to get a full Scriptural idea of God’s feelings on the subject, we have one principle place to turn… the man Jesus Christ.

Charged with FRAUDULENT IDENTITY:  in Luke chapter 4 we find the familiar account of Jesus being tempted by the devil in the wilderness.  What is notable here is that the devil was not content to merely tempt Jesus, but he introduced it with the mocking question, “IF you are the Son of God”.  The temptation was not merely for food to ease His hunger, or to showcase His power… satan was directly confronting Christ with a challenge to prove He was not a fraud, but in fact the Son of God.  It had to be quite tempting for Jesus to simply squash satan like a bug right there and drop the mic with authority, but He showed restraint.  Jesus knew who He was, and that He did not have to prove that to satan or anyone else.

Attempted MURDER by his HOMETOWN:  Luke chapter 4 is just not a good time to be Jesus.  After enduring the wilderness battle Jesus goes to church and reads a selection of Scripture to the congregation.  After informing them that He was the fulfillment of the prophecy He just read, the incredulous audience turned from passive listeners to violent murderers.  In verse 28 we find those who knew Him only as the son of Joseph the carpenter leading Him to the top of a mountain to throw him off to His death.  If you are a preacher, take heart… it is unlikely you will ever have a worse reaction to a sermon than the one Christ is having here.  But rather than unleash the power that once swallowed up naysayers into the earth, He simply passed through them and went on His way without a word.

DISRESPECTED by family:  This time, it’s personal.  In John 7 we find the very kin of Jesus, his brothers by blood advising Him to leave home and go to an upcoming festival to proclaim His message.  On the surface this would seem to be a bit of positive encouragement… until you read verse 5.  In cold letters we see their true motivation, as Scripture flatly stated that even His own brothers did not believe in Him.  So, if they didn’t believe in His message why were they sending Him away to speak it?  I don’t want to engage in too much conjecture here, but if their motives were not altruistic to benefit His ministry than the most obvious consideration is that they were setting Him up for failure.  Did Jesus “go off” on His family for not realizing who He was or genuinely supporting His ministry?  No, in a theme that we will continue to see reinforced, He did not even confront their unbelief but simply informed them why he would not do what they suggested and encouraged them to go without Him.  He DID end up going to the festival separately of them, but He went on His terms.

ATTACKED for an act of kindness:  Few frustrations match the feeling of trying to do something genuinely helpful with the purest of intentions only to have it blow up in your face.  If this has happened to you, don’t worry, you are in good company.  In John 5 we have the scene set for a miracle, with a healing pool surrounded by the sick and the disabled waiting for something supernatural to happen.  Enter Jesus stage right.  With the words, ” Get up, pick up your mat and walk” Jesus accomplished two things.  He performed a life changing miracle for this disabled man, and he infuriated the Jewish leaders for performing this kindness on the wrong day of the week, namely the Sabbath day.  Verses 16 to 18 record this as the point that His persecution by them truly began in earnest, with the chilling phrase that they now “tried to kill Him all the more” because He both healed on the Sabbath and claimed God as His father.  And for doing nothing more than telling the truth and altering a man’s life through a miraculous healing He became public enemy number one.

BETRAYED and ABANDONED by His friends: Everyone has experienced the bitter pain of betrayal by either friends, family, or a significant other at some point.  But to be setup by a member of your inner circle for false arrest and imprisonment while simultaneously being deserted by almost every other friend you have is a special level of pain that few can imagine, much less tolerate with patience and grace.  And yet this is exactly what we find Jesus doing as He calmly explains to Peter exactly what he is about to do and even encourages Judas to move quickly with his forthcoming act of betrayal while feeding him one final time.  Knowing what was coming from each member of His traveling group of disciples, Jesus enjoyed one final meal with them and chose to serve them by washing their feet one by one, lowering Himself like a household servant to honor those who mere hours from now will completely abandon Him.
FALSELY ACCUSED of blasphemy and EXECUTED:  It is unlikely any of us have experienced this exact same situation or you probably wouldn’t be reading this, but this is the grand finale of Christ’s mistreatment during His pilgrimage on our planet.  After multiple sham trials, physical abuse by both the police and the military, false accusations from multiple witnesses who could not even agree on their testimonies, and finally being sentenced to death by the entire representation of countrymen when clemency was offered, His path of disgrace and shame finally ended in a humiliating public death.  As He was passing from life to death, He could not even receive the dignity of a quick and merciful end… no, He was displayed like a bloody trophy and continued to be mocked and verbally assaulted by those who watched Him give His final breath on their behalf to mutter the words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”.

After a full review of not only these examples but so many more, it becomes obvious that clearing His good name was never on Jesus’s to do list.  He was frequently misunderstood, often misquoted, and ultimately murdered, but when He was met with irrational hate He chose to show love.  When His name was slandered and His good deeds questioned He let His loving, peaceful actions speak for themselves.  When the choice to call 10,000 angels to save Him was present, He opted for sacrifice. He made the decision to die condemned rather than live justified, knowing that if He humbled Himself and carried the bitter cross He was given that our Father would honor this choice and that trillions of lives would be forever changed as a result.

Jesus died what was considered one of the most dishonorable deaths possible at the hands of the Romans.  And while it is almost impossible for me to fathom the kind of strength that would allow someone to show such weakness and vulnerability, He did it. I struggle on a daily basis with the desire to seek justice for myself when I have been maligned, but Christ showed us how to absorb those attacks by offering grace to those who hurt Him even in the act of suffering.  I hope that this encourages you in whatever way you may currently be suffering.  We do not follow a Savior that cannot understand the pain and frustration that accompanies the disgrace of being dishonored.  He knows, He understands, and He is a living breathing example of how we should deal with these situations as they arise.  Whether your battle is with family, friends, your hometown, your neighborhood, your church, your government, or satan himself… Jesus has the same response for each and every situation:  show grace to them and don’t seek to right the wrong yourself.  Jesus stands tall at the end of His work on this Earth without any shame despite His mistreatment.  And if you choose to follow the path of grace to those that wrong you, you will be standing right alongside Him sharing in His victory.

A Retro Revolution?  The NES Classic and the Nostalgia Syndrome (Phillipians 3:12-14)

If you have a gamer on your Christmas list this year, odds are the NES Classic is on THEIR list and you have been frantically searching retail stores attempting to hunt one down while promising yourself you will not overpay on eBay for the most sought after hardware this holiday season.  This tiny little console houses a smorgasboard of the greatest hits from the 8-bit Nintendo days in all their glory: Mario, Zelda, Samus… the gang’s all here to be explored by both first timers and those old enough to have bought these in their original cartridge form like me.  But expect to have a hunt on your hands if you have the fortitude to track one down… retailers are typically out of stock and Internet scalpers are taking advantage of the high demand and limited availability by snatching them up and putting an unthinkable price tag on such a simple nostalgia trip.

Rather than focus on the difficulties associated with acquiring the hottest gaming gift of this fall, I am more interested in exploring the desire to take a walk down memory lane with these golden oldies one more time.  Certainly this device is a museum that contains many gamers fondest childhood memories in one sleek package, but what fuels this urge to go back in time to gaming’s yesteryear?  With all of the amazing new experiences available on current platforms supporting 4K output and VR headsets prepared to literally explore entirely new horizons, how is it that this year’s “Gamer’s Most Wanted” is simply a collection of retro games that can often be found at your local flea market or through download on the eShop?  A deeper dive beckons…

The temptation to live in the part is not new by any means… Scripture has multiple accounts of people just like you and me who for a variety of reasons would rather return to the “good ol days” than move forward into the brave new world of tomorrow.  The Israeli people are the most obvious reference as they spent much of the Exodus looking back and complaining about how good they used to have it when they were slaves in Egypt as compared to their freedom in the challenging and difficult desert before them.  For Lot’s wife it was the inability to let the past go that compelled her to turn back towards Sodom, with some salty repercussions.  King Solomon spends a decent chunk of time in Ecclesiastes lamenting how youth is wasted on the young as he takes a hard look back in the mirror of regret and realizes how many foolish pursuits he chased in his past.  While there are certainly times we should take a moment and reflect on how good God has been to us and celebrate the victories He has provided as well as to reflect on lessons learned, there is also a pronounced danger in allowing what should simply be a monument to become a dwelling place.

In Phillipians 3:12-14 we find what is perhaps the most straight-forward and poignant statement on this topic from none other than the Apostle Paul.  If there ever was a servant of Jesus who deserved to take a break and reflect on his accomplishments it was this man. The first verses of this chapter provide much-needed context to understand his mindset when framing this study… Paul has just finished explaining his credentials as both a Jew and a Christian, and as always they are quite impressive.  It is unfortunate that he had to do this several times in various epistles, but it just goes to show that even the mighty Apostle Paul received little respect while he walked this earth so we should not be surprised when we face similar challenges.

After documenting his pedigree, Paul does a curious thing…. he throws it away.  In a world obsessed with branding, marketing, and building the perfect resume this is hard to understand.  As a culture we populate our social media pages with accomplishments and document the various checkpoints of our lives.  We blanket our homes and even tattoo our bodies with the souvenirs and reminders of our adventures.  So to see Paul so callously consider all of it garbage to be tossed certainly runs counter to our modus operandi.  But rather than be defined by what he has done, Paul chooses to be characterized by what he is CHASING.

With the phrase “forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead” we get a very clear view of how Paul accomplished such an incredible amount of evangelism and missionary work in his life span.  He did not allow himself the luxury of coasting on his successes when there was still so much left to be done.  He had a myopic focus on what he termed “the prize”… the upward call of God in  Christ Jesus.  Or put even more simply in verse 8, “to gain Christ”.  Paul was not satisfied with merely receiving Christ… No, he chose to make the daily seeking of Jesus his driving force as he relentlessly marched across the continent.  And his dogged and relentless pursuit of his Savior both defined him as an individual as well as informed his decisions and choices.  And when he tells us later that he has finished his race, he can say that with the confidence of a man who had truly chased and caught his Lord in the end.

I can honestly say, unfortunately, that this has not been my approach to my Christian walk.  I have been content to look at my conversion to Christ as a totem that I can reflect on when concerned about the state of my salvation, rather than a continual journey towards Him that is never fully completed until I have finished my course here.  I am ashamed to say that I have lived a NES classic life, hanging my hat on old accolades and choosing to allow a handful of correct decisions to create a comfortable sense of standing with my Lord.  But if I continue to live there, existing in the museum of my faith instead of pressing towards the untapped potential that lies ahead, I deny myself the potential that God has planned for me.

We each have a destiny greater than a mere salvation decision, as important and life-altering as that is.  We have a relationship with God that is designed to grow daily, a path that is only lit up upon each step of obedience completed, and each day is another opportunity to expand His influence in our world.  The danger of living in the glories of yesteryear is an ever-present snare that limits our futures.  I have visited this more often than I care to admit, and as a living, breathing NES classic version of a believer intend to take bolder steps into seeking not just God’s plan or his will, but God Himself.  Because if I stay close to Him in my thoughts and actions, the rest of the path tends to illuminate on its own.