Mario’s Odyssey and the Bowser Within (1 Samuel 13)

It’s been a minute since we have had the pleasure of a true open-world Mario game (the last one was actually Super Mario Sunshine on the GameCube).  And fortunately for all of us my hands-on time with the new Super Mario Odyssey on the Switch tells me that this game will continue the epic winning streak Nintendo has been riding as of late.  We are all about to run and jump all over another bright and colorful playground as Mario sets his sights on saving his princess one more time from the clutches of the evil Bowser.  Now I know what you may be thinking.  At this point the only people who are kidnapped more often than Princess Peach would be someone related to Liam Neeson in just about any of his movies.  And you would be right.  While we need a reason for Mario to don his hero’s cap in order for the game to begin, the constant in most of these games is Bowser and his penchant for taking the Princess from her castle.

The big difference this time is it seems Bowser has an entirely different strategy beyond mere kidnapping… as we have seen in the videos and gameplay revealed to this point he is planning to MARRY the oft-imprisoned Princess Peach unless Mario and his cap have something to say about it.  Which they do, or else it wouldn’t really be much of a game.  But while jumping and stomping my way through foes both new and familiar I had a thought… do I have more in common with the titular hero of the story or the “Wont take no for an answer” Bowser?  The more I considered this, the more I realized that there is a little more Bowser in me than I care to admit.

Why does Bowser continue to snatch a princess that clearly wants nothing to do with him, considering it never works out for him?  And why would he expect her to marry him?  While it seems absurd on the surface, with some introspection I realize that he is not alone here.  I am, and have BEEN Bowser many times over.  Not so much with the kidnapping of royalty or the forced marriages, that would be weird.  But I definitely will raise my hand as the one with the stubborn desire to repeatedly go down a path that never leads to a positive outcome and actually feel a sense of surprise when it fails yet again.

I would like to say that I spend most of my time seeking God’s will and waiting patiently for Him to guide me into His perfect plan for my life.  I would LIKE to say that.  The unfortunate truth is I have been less than patient with His answers and many times when I see what I want I simply go after it while asking Him to bless my steps.  Someone else had that exact same strategy, and it worked out as well for him as it does for Bowser and I.  In 1 Samuel 13 the cautionary tale of King Saul demonstrates the folly of taking action on what you feel you are entitled to, even if it is something that the Lord has promised.  Saul was in his first year as king and his people were under siege by his lifelong adversaries the Philistines.  Saul got in touch with the prophet of God Samuel to seek God’s blessing on the pending battle, but Samuel did not arrive within the seven days he had communicated.  Saul, in a state of panic and driven by impatience, saw his people scattering and felt his time was running out so he decided to act.  He completed the act of sacrifices and offering that was supposed to be completed by Samuel upon his arrival in a vain attempt to curry God’s favor by a means other than patience and obedience.  And as soon as he finished lighting the fire, who should show up but a very disappointed and angry Samuel.

Isn’t that how it tends to go?  We feel we are running out of time and desperately need an answer, so we take an action that almost immediately reveals itself as premature.  I have made decisions on jobs, relationships, and yes even marriage from this position and I can tell you that the cost of disobedience is quite severe.  Saul found out the hard way as he was cursed to have his tenure as king ended early and his lineage removed from the monarchy in favor of the line of David, his eventual successor.  And while I haven’t got a king’s crown to lose, what I have lost through each of those poor choices as well as those who were the captive princesses during my misadventures has been far more costly than any position of leadership could ever be.

The good news is that the Lord is full of second chances, and even Saul was given multiple opportunities to choose obedience in his future wars with the Amalekites, the Philistines, and even his son-in-law David.  And while he didn’t make good on those decisions either, another Saul in the New Testament showed us exactly what can happen when we take the blinding message from the Lord that we are heading the wrong way and turn our lives around.  The man Saul in the book of Acts was a vile figure of persecution and torment for those who followed Christ, but when he was shown the folly of his ways he took the opportunity to cease his negative progression and chart a new course as the man who would evangelize the known world with the Gospel.  And that is the freedom each of us have, no matter how many times we have chosen to kidnap the princess in the past.  The Lord is not surprised by our mistakes… all of us are inherently broken from the point of conception.  He expected us to make the choices that we do and that’s why he had His Son prepared as a sacrifice to save us before we ever existed in the first place.

The church only exists because of the broken people who make it up and are made complete by the Lord and His forgiveness.  No matter how many Bowserly actions you have taken, every day and every decision is a chance and a choice to wait for His will and allow him to light your path.  What God has promised WILL come to pass as sure as Mario will take a break from plumbing to save his princess one more time.  And if she is in another castle?  Then he will march on to the next castle and keep heading towards the promise.  Waiting for the promises of God to come to pass may be one of the hardest things we do, and the strategy of satan is to convince us that we must take action so he can deny the Lord His victory.  When it seems like it is too late… wait.  When it truly is beyond hope… pray and be still.  And when it seems like your promise is getting away… have faith.  Not a single word He has spoken has fallen to the ground yet.  If we take it before we are meant to have it, it will fall apart quicker than Peach’s forced nuptials with Bowser.  It is when we are standing still on the promises of God that for the first time we actually begin moving forward.

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Gaming’s “Pay to Win” Dilemma: Pulling Zacchaeus Out of the Tree (Luke 19:1-9)

It started off small and innocuously enough… first it was the over-priced and fairly pointless horse armor in Elder Scrolls: Oblivion.  It was a moderately innocent attempt to create additional revenue for the game developer through offering items of cosmetic personalization or moderate in-game buffs.  Online games would utilize features such as auction houses to allow gamers to offer their hard-earned in-game items for real world cash to other players and enabling them to use items that they had not been unable to obtain through natural in-game means.  But then the flood gates opened… completed games were shipped with entire segments hidden behind a pay wall requiring the purchaser to fork over additional currency to unlock what was already included on the disc.  So called “Free to Play” games online are anything but.  And now we have a true crisis… games such as the recently released NBA2K and Middle-Earth: Shadow of War as well as the upcoming Star Wars Battlefront II that essentially rewards those with the most real-world money to spend on upgrades and the equivalent of in-game lottery tickets with advantages over those who merely bought the game.

On one hand, developing games is an expensive business. And as we unfortunately have seen over the last few years even the largest studios are one under-performing title away from closing their doors for good, so wringing every last dollar out of their investment is the new normal.  But that extra channel of income has typically come through the veins of new content such as multiplayer maps or expansions, or perhaps in-game items that only impacted the single-player experience.  Now that studios are offering game players the ability to supplement their online abilities by simply purchasing the skills that they have not developed through natural means, the world of online gaming is rapidly shifting into a dangerous model that threatens to break the competitive environment into a real-world class system… those who have the money to purchase the best stuff, and those who could barely afford to pay for the game in the first place.

Is this a case of the “have-nots'” rebelling against the “haves”?  An extension of the revolt against those we deem as “over-privileged” finding yet one more advantage in life against those of us below their strata?  Or is there something further beneath the surface that causes us to react so vehemently against the concept of “pay to win”?  As always, the answer to even these seemingly futuristic and technological dilemmas can be found in Scripture.  In Luke 19 we find the familiar story of Zacchaeus.  Yes, that Zacchaeus.  The short one that you may have sung songs about in Sunday School.  But let’s look a little bit deeper at the issues that simmered beneath the surface and we might just find answers for our own responses to our “modern-era” struggles.  If you are not familiar with his case, Zacchaeus was a tax collector.  In our day and age that would not make you the winner of any popularity contests, but in his era he was considered less of an IRS agent and more of a traitor.  Collecting taxes for the evil Roman Empire from his own subjugated people placed him in a special realm of hatred by the Jewish people, and the common practice of tax collectors leveraging their position to line their pockets by over-taxing the people was the icing on a pretty bitter cake.

But as we find the high on life but short in stature Zacchaeus on this day, he is just another face in the crowd desperate to see Jesus as he was walking through town.  And nobody was going to allow this already disliked tax collector a spot at the front of the line.  So he improvised by racing ahead and climbing a tree so he would not miss his moment to see who Jesus was.  When Christ passed by his way a stunning and remarkable thing occurred… Jesus saw beyond the wealthy robes of a tax collector who had been fleecing his people and into the heart of someone who was risking their reputation just for the chance to see the Son of God.  And that spark of faith was rewarded when God decided to come and stay with Zacchaeus in his house that day.

Now that was not met with cheers by the crowd.  No, they were none too thrilled about the idea that this guy who had scammed his way through life was not receiving the ultimate reward, and they quickly made their discontent known as they complained that the Son of God was staying as the guest of a man who is a sinner.  Rather than seeing the opportunity for this man to make a life-altering decision to turn to Christ, the mob only saw that he was once again receiving something he didn’t deserve.  But a funny thing happened as the scenario unfolded… the “evil” tax collector pledged half of his belongings to the poor and then an additional repayment of four times what he had overcharged anyone.  And as the story ends with Christ explaining that He had come to seek and save the lost, the reality of this hits home.   Where others only saw what he was, Christ saw what Zacchaeus would become.  He didn’t see his riches, as ill-gotten as they may have been, as a liability but rather as an opportunity.  Many people would become blessed by the outpouring of wealth that resulted from that day, and most importantly a lost child of God was found.

It is easy to become frustrated when others have advantages in a game simply because they have the ability to pay more than I do.  But the truth is that they are funding the games that I love in a way that I can’t, even if it is giving them a competitive advantage by doing so.  The truth is I don’t want any more gaming studios to close their doors, and I want more games like Star Wars Battlefront to continue to be made.  And while I may disagree with how they are funding their future growth, if I stop supporting the games that I love simply because they make creative choices I disagree with than those games and the studios that make them may disappear entirely.  And from the point of view of Jesus and his view of Zacchaeus, it is clear He identified Zacchaeus as a sinner.  A person deeply flawed and unworthy of even a moment of God’s time.  Guess what?  So am I.  We all are.  And if we were discredited for salvation based on our status as lost children of God, none of us would ever become saved.   And yet Jesus looked past that the same way He does with each of us and saw the sheep He was sent to save.

I am thankful that the Lord doesn’t listen to those that we have wronged in our past when they complain that we are unworthy of His love or His blessing.  None of us deserve a single one of God’s gifts.  And like the brother of the prodigal son, many people will take umbrage when God lavishly blesses His fallen children.  My eternal destiny is based on the unwarranted and unearned grace and love of God, and so I have no right to resent the gifts that others may receive even if I feel that they received them more freely than I did.  We are blessed to have one more breath, one more heartbeat, and another day of life from the Lord.  Not everyone received those gifts today.  And in a world where “pay to win” is becoming more of the rule than the exception, it is important that we never forget that we have been living off of house money the whole time.  So if you want to buy your way to success, I won’t be one of those hating on ya… your funding made it possible for both of us to see this game grow and continue into the future and insure my children and grandchildren get to enjoy an icy battle on Hoth in Star Wars Battlefront 28.

Destiny 2 and Life in the Crucible (Psalm 103, James 1:2-4)

If you are playing Destiny 2, then it is highly likely that you have already completed the primary campaign and perhaps even completed the Leviathan raid with your chosen fireteam.  But as you continue to amass new weapons, armor, and shaders it is highly probable that you have also spent a little time in the competitive multiplayer realm within Destiny known as the Crucible.

For those who haven’t taken the Destiny dive, this a is pretty standard multiplayer mode in which you and your comrades take on another squad in a variety of matches meant to build your skills as well as open up some fresh loot options.  But a funny thing happens in the crucible that I find fascinating.  You DIE when you are killed.

What, that doesn’t sound strange to you?  Maybe I need to lay a little foundation.  In most multiplayer shooters we take for granted that we die when our health is depleted and then we magically “respawn” and get right back to the action without a second thought.  In Destiny this works functionally the same, but the Crucible is not designed to kill Guardians.  It is a training ground for Guardians to battle each other.  And the idea is that it is meant to hone your skills for actual combat with the enemies outside of this “safe learning environment”.  So when you are fatally wounded your “Ghost” AI partner does not merely revive you… it essentially rebirths you as the same character you were when you died complete with all the previous equipment and skills but without all that pesky death.  Pretty handy, huh?

It would be appropriate to ask why the defenders of Earth are engaging in live-fire exercises to achieve the combat preparedness necessary to save the world.  Since, you know, they are actually DYING during this training each time they fail. It would be equally appropriate to ask that same question about each of us in this live-fire exercise called life on earth.  Both of the answers are the same, and both can be found in Scripture.  But to get there, first I have to be pretty honest with myself and with you as well.  I make some pretty serious mistakes.  And no, I’m not talking about “forgetting to say grace before eating a meal” mistakes.  I’m talking about SINS.  Sins that shame me.  Sins that hurt others.  Sins that I wish with all my might I could undo.  Sins that in my darkest moments make me question my salvation, my character, and my destiny.

And it is in those moments that the Spirit of God reminds me of an equally flawed man who was also a man after God’s own heart.  And in Psalm 103:8-14 David reminds us that:

The Lord is merciful and gracious, Slow to anger, and abounding in mercy. He will not always strive with us, Nor will He keep His anger forever. He has not dealt with us according to our sins, Nor punished us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, So great is His mercy toward those who fear Him; As far as the east is from the west, So far has He removed our transgressions from us. As a father pities his children, So the Lord pities those who fear Him.  For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust.

The truth is we are growing and learning how to behave as the children of God in this life, and the growing pains aren’t pretty.  Sometimes we will do damage to ourselves, and unfortunately many times we will do damage to others as we train and fight in this crucible to rise above our sinful flesh and its desires to move closer towards the portrait of Christ we are all trying to emulate.  We can fall into patterns of failure, as I have done many times in my online gaming sessions as well as in real life, and in our frustration continue to replicate those mistakes over and over until we finally make the necessary adjustments to our strategy to achieve success.  Other times, we may experience long periods of winning that fall apart in an instant with one poorly placed grenade laid at one’s own feet.  And the wonderful part of all of this battling, trying, fighting, and dying is that each time regardless of how poorly we have performed we are resurrected and given one more chance to grow and learn from our most recent failure.

The Lord knows who we are (dust) and what we are (sinful by nature), and He is not surprised when we fall.  And the Spirit of God is waiting right there to resurrect us back into His plan for our life when we submit to Him and allow Him to do His cleansing work.  It is a process, and it is not without pain.  But He removes our last failure as far as the east is from the west, and will continue to do so as a loving Father does for His often exasperating and ornery children.  The crucible is a necessary and critical part of the growth of each of us, and it is through this that He purifies His children.  Sometimes you are being purified through your own actions and mistakes, and just as often you are being purified as you endure the choices and mistakes of one of your fellow guardians.  But either way, the refiner’s fire that we all must continue to endure is only meant to do one thing…

James 1:2-4 Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way.

  On to the crucible, Guardians… today’s trials await!

I Feel The Need… The Need to Speed With Reckless Abandon (Acts 1-2)

There are a few constants in the video game racing world… Forza will release an excellent title like clockwork, Gran Turismo will take forever to arrive but will always be worth the wait, and I will be terrible at both of them. You know that guy who throws caution to the wind and refuses to slow down before the turn because he intends to use the vehicle in front of him as a cushion? He’s also the same guy that wouldn’t know the correct approach angle to any of the curves in the course because shunting into other cars achieves a nearly equivalent result. And when he finishes sixth with a vehicle that looks like it is about to explode at any moment and barely resembles an automobile… well, I think we all know who that guy is. Two thumbs pointed right here. 
  
 I come by my terrible racing instincts honestly. At a local game store many years ago I purchased my first racing sim, a PS1 title called Gran Turismo 2. I had always enjoyed arcade racers such as Daytona USA or kart racers like Mario Kart and Diddy Kong Racing, so I figured it was time to grow up and play a big boy racing game. And the follies began. Since the game I purchased was Preowned, it did not come with any instructions. And without the wonderful world of internet accessibility waiting to give me a free download of the instruction booklet, I was on my own. I passed the first few license tests just fine and thought, “This isn’t so hard. Why didn’t I try this sooner?”. As if it was an answer to my internal musings, my fatal flaw quickly an painfully revealed itself. 

   The next test required me to reach a certain level of speed and then stop within a predetermined stretch of track, essentially validating my ability to stop on a dime. On my first try I achieved the requisite speed but well over-shot the target. Second try, same result. Third, fourth, fifth, seventieth…. all failures. And not the kind of failure that gives you hope that the next time would be better… no, these were horrific “epic fails” that would bring shame to generations of my family line that are yet to be born. Why couldn’t I do it? It wasn’t for lack of desire or will. The problem existed within my mind… a lack of knowledge. See, without the instructions I was unaware of the button configuration. The button I was pressing to decelerate was actually the EMERGENCY BRAKE. Because it slowed down my vehicle, albeit slowly, I thought it was the actual brake button, never realizing the “X” button was the actual brake. I was using an ineffective method of braking that could never accomplish the desired result, and after many tries I became frustrated and gave up. And from that point forward I gave up on the brake button all together and became an all-in, pedal to the metal grinder with a terrible strategy built on misinformation.
 
  I have found many times I approach life decisions in the same reckless and misinformed manner. As a believer, I know I must bring my problems to the Lord and gain His guidance and direction if I am going to make the right choices. However, my patience with His response more often resembles this:

“God, if this is your will then show me. If you don’t want me to do this cause my car to have problems starting. Well, my car started so this must be God’s will!”
   And off I go… full speed ahead without even the concept of hitting the brakes. And once I get in over my head, I frantically press the emergency brake and cry out to God wondering how He could abandon me and forsake me on my road trip of doom. If any of this sounds familiar to you, I have good news. We aren’t the only ones…

  The Apostle Simon Peter truly exemplified a man who lived a life without brakes. This is the guy who was the first to talk in almost every circumstance, whether he was proclaiming Jesus as the Christ when nobody else would dare speak it or confronting Christ on His mission to the cross (which did not go well). When the Transfiguration occurred Peter was the first to speak, with a plan to build tents for Moses and Elijah because, well… reasons. When it was time to walk on the water he was the first one in, and when Jesus appeared on the beach after His resurrection Peter dove headfirst into the water to meet Him even though the boat he was on was very close to the shore. That’s Peter… no brakes. And I love him for that.

  But something happened between this impulsive “If you ain’t rubbin’ you ain’t racing” behavior Peter was known for throughout the gospels and the man who gave the first true sermon in Acts 2. And that something was the presence of the Holy Spirit finally assuming control of this man and using his natural gifts in concert with God’s divine will. Once he finally yielded himself to the will of the Spirit of God, the results he had desired and the path he was designed for began to reveal itself. The man with no brakes became the Apostle Peter, leader of the church.

   Sometimes we have to slow down to speed up. For Peter he spent weeks praying prior to the sermon he preached that brought over three thousand new believers into the church, and when the Spirit of God finally filled him Peter accomplished more in that one chapter than he had in his entire life to that point. So while it is easy to say and harder to do, I am learning that there are strategic benefits to hitting the brakes and letting the path develop in front of me before I move forward. The mission is not always the mission… sometimes it is just a lesson in yielding to God and showing we trust Him by submitting patiently to His plan. I guess even with all of my years of racing the wrong way, it’s never too late to learn what these other buttons do. Well… until they make another Burnout. Then all bets are off 😀