Contending With Narratives (Luke 24:13-31)

The world of gaming has expanded to so many genres that you can hardly have a conversation with another gamer about the title you are playing without qualifying it with a comparison to a similar title.  Gone are the days of the simple explanation that you enjoy video games… now the culture within gaming compels us to identify ourselves into substrata such as first-person shooter fans, RPG buffs, sports enthusiasts, or the truly hardcore among us that choose to play Dark Souls because they enjoy breaking their controllers.  But within all of these distinct genres there are a few constants that we tend to appreciate in a great game, and chief among those is typically a compelling story.  And the story can make up for so many other shortcomings… just ask titles like the Last Guardian or even a sacred cow like the first Mass Effect.   I mean c’mon… you drove that stupid Mako.  Don’t act like it EVER went where you where trying to go.  It was like pushing a slab of pudding across a slick table… it went where it WANTED to go.  But I digress.

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When you connect with the narrative, complaints can be overlooked and even game-breaking bugs can be ignored in favor of the story that you have fallen in love with and the characters that compel you to complete their journey.  But while this is a wonderful way to overlook the fact that maybe you don’t enjoy quick-time events in your games (yet you still love Uncharted), there is also a clear and present danger in the real world when we fall for the narrative and fail to recognize the reality that surrounds us.  And as we will find in the text below, the worst part of believing the narrative is that it blinds us to the spiritual truth that is often right beside us.

The execution of Jesus was not simply an eternal life-altering event for everyone who has ever existed on this planet, it was also a historical moment that those living at the time had to endure.  It was a confusing time for those who had followed Christ but had not truly understood His message and His destiny, and two of those followers found themselves in a position where they couldn’t see beyond the story that they had convinced themselves was true.  Let’s peek in on their conversation… I don’t think they will mind…

Luke 24:13-21  Now behold, two of them were traveling that same day to a village called Emmaus, which was seven miles from Jerusalem. And they talked together of all these things which had happened. So it was, while they conversed and reasoned, that Jesus Himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were restrained, so that they did not know Him.  And He said to them, “What kind of conversation is this that you have with one another as you walk and are sad?”  Then the one whose name was Cleopas answered and said to Him, “Are You the only stranger in Jerusalem, and have You not known the things which happened there in these days?”  And He said to them, “What things?  So they said to Him, “The things concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a Prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how the chief priests and our rulers delivered Him to be condemned to death, and crucified Him. But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel. Indeed, besides all this, today is the third day since these things happened. 

So we find Cleopas and his unnamed friend walking down the boulevard of broken dreams, trying to make sense of the death of the Lord.  And the tone of this conversation is far from hopeful, as evidenced by their use of “past tense” statements in how they describe Jesus.  He “was” a prophet mighty in deed and word.  We “were” hoping that He would redeem Israel.  The narrative they were discussing was the one that the enemy was trying to project into their minds … that God had lost, evil had prevailed, and everything they believed in was wishful thinking at best or a complete subterfuge at worst.  And the irony of this is that the proof of God’s victory and provision was LITERALLY standing right next to them, walking the very same road that they were certain they were walking alone.

Jesus, with his impeccable sense of humor, prompts them to unload their hearts by acting as if He has no idea what events they are referring to.  I absolutely LOVE His response to their “Chicken Little/The sky is falling” routine.  In our finite view of the world it can be so easy to believe that everything is over, God’s promises have fallen short, and we have deluded ourselves into following a lie.  But then God walks up to us right in the middle of our pity party, full of omniscient knowledge and coyly asks, “What’s wrong?”, knowing full well every thought you have had or ever will have.

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I am going to challenge you today to look deeply at the narratives you have told yourself or allowed yourself to be convinced of.  Unworthy… unwanted… forgotten… alone.  It is our belief in the story that we have committed ourselves to that keeps that narrative in greater focus than the truth of God’s love and presence that is right beside us.  In Luke it says that their eyes were restrained so that they could not tell it was Jesus that they were speaking to.  But if they had their eyes on Jesus, instead of their problems and the story they had convinced themselves of, they would have had a much better walk.

We cannot recognize that it is Jesus walking with you if your vision is too firmly entrenched and focused on all of the problems we face and our hopes that have been dashed.  This story didn’t turn out the way Cleopas and his comrade had wanted… it was messier, bloodier, and full of more hurt and pain than they would have ever imagined occurring.  But it was the ONLY way Jesus could achieve His destiny and save the world.  And similarly for us, if we allow a myopic view of our cross to cloud our ability to see Christ walking alongside us we will also fall prey to listening to the narrative instead of the one true Narrator.

Your story is not what you think it is.  The story you tell yourself when walking alone is not what He has in mind.  Just like with these two broken disciples, He has already overcome the very thing you are worried about.  They were bent out of shape about Jesus being dead and He was standing right there.  And your solution already exists as well, even if it is currently transparent to you.  He fulfills all His promises and one of those is that He will NEVER leave us or forsake us.  Deny the narrative the power over your mind that it craves, and instead focus on the truth of the Lord walking with you each and every day.  Your story was not written by your family, your friends, your enemies, or even you.  It was written by Him… before you ever existed.  And He will see you through to the end of the road.

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The Ever Decreasing Circle: PUBG, Fortnite and Pressing Forward (1 Kings 19)

So it seems this is officially a thing… the battle royale concept that has spawned two incredibly successful titles and will likely influence or birth several more if the video game industry lives up to the parity it is so well-known for.  I will give credit where credit is due.  Both Battlegrounds and Fortnite are well made titles with an easy drop-in concept to attract new players and a long learning curve to keep veterans busy for hours, days, and perhaps years.  This is gaming’s version of the “Hunger Games”… drop a bunch of people into a giant warzone with nothing but the clothes on their back and fill said warzone with weapons and armor.  Matches vary from a mad scramble for equipment to the never-ending struggle to find a safe spot to survive in, and only one will claim the chicken dinner that awaits you at the end.  Frantic, unpredictable, and spontaneous are the names of the game as every match plays out entirely differently each and every time.

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I will confess this is not exactly my cup of tea, and I will tell you why.  It is all because of that stupid circle.  You know… the one that is slowly decreasing the size of the battlefield to press the combatants together and keep them from simply holing up somewhere and passively waiting out the finish of a match.  If you haven’t played the game, let me enlighten you… as the game moves on the game space shrinks and you must race to stay within the ever-constricting parameters of the gaming area or you will perish outside of it.  This means you can never simply just get comfortable in a well-fortified structure and snipe your way to victory.  You can’t simply hide until it is all over.  You are constantly moving to stay within the circle and your foes are doing the same.  And as the game reaches its climax the few remaining players are pushed ever closer to each other to insure that it is impossible for the conflict to remain unresolved for long.

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If I had my way, my life would play out a lot like the most boring match of PUBG or Fortnite EVER.  I would procure only what I needed to survive, find a comfortable little place to make my own, and peacefully ride out the match in blissful happiness as the sun sets over the trees.  I will be honest and say that I don’t actively search out conflict or even most growth opportunities because of the inherent risks and dangers associated with taking such chances. It is so safe and warm inside, why risk my meager collection of things and stuff?  Unfortunately, such thoughts are the breeding grounds for complacency in both life and our walk with God, and He has a pattern of taking people out of their comfort zones through an ever decreasing circle of His own.

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Elijah was one such man who experienced this.  Now, you might say “WHOA.. hold on.  Elijah was one of the most powerful and well-regarded prophets in the entire Old Testament”.  And if you said that, I would agree with you and also ask you to please stop saying “WHOA” in all caps.  It’s kind of weird.  But even Elijah, a man mightily used by God in so many ways, hit his point where he simply wanted to get away from the battle and call it a day.  Interestingly enough, it happened right after what might be considered one of his greatest triumphs.  Elijah has just finished calling fire, yes ACTUAL fire down from heaven and then slaughtered hundreds of false prophets who were misleading the people of Israel.  It was a pretty amazing scene that culminated in a mighty victory as the people’s hearts returned to God (at least for a moment) and the drought that had plagued the land was lifted.  Elijah was riding a pretty good high and had just updated his social media accounts with pictures of the whole thing.  Good times were being had by all… and then all hell broke loose.

Jezebel, an evil queen who hated God and Elijah, immediately put out a hit out on Elijah and set a 24 hour target for his execution:

1 Kings 19:1-4 And Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, also how he had executed all the prophets with the sword.  Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time.”  And when he saw that, he arose and ran for his life, and went to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he prayed that he might die, and said, “It is enough! Now, Lord, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers!”

I have walked this path many times, and I have a feeling you have walked a similar one.  Fresh off of a great day, maybe an incredible success at work or a major milestone at home, and then the bad news HITS.  The circle closes in on you as a bill you hadn’t planned for is due immediately.  A friend calls and you get in a huge and unexpected fight.  Maybe a family member or even you yourself are suddenly diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.  From the dizzying heights of success to the pit of despair in 30 seconds.  And simply sitting where we are at is not an option… as much as we would like to simply sit here and cry we can feel it.  We can feel the circle constricting around us so we do just like Elijah did… we RUN.

Where are we going?  Nowhere in particular.  What do we plan to do when we get there?  I dunno… maybe throw a pity party and ask God to let us die?  If you have never been here, cool.  It must be nice.  But I sure have.  A LOT.  Hot on the heels of every happiness has been a lake of discomfort that immediately challenged me and kept me from simply building a white picket fence around my current sanctuary and instead compelled me to keep on moving.  And that extreme swing from ecstasy to agony is completely normal, completely human, and completely able to be overcome.

First, an important truth.  The truth is Elijah didn’t really want to die.  How do I know that?  Because if he wanted to die he would have stayed his happy butt right where he was and let Jezebel kill him.  He wanted to live… he wanted to move forward but the circle was freaking him out a bit.  And then he ran off alone, leaving his support group behind just as we many times do as well.  So often we isolate ourselves in our pain instead of allowing God’s love and warmth to be shared by a fellow disciple.  And once Elijah ran into the desert, alone and afraid, he found God and His provision waiting there for him… with a new mission meant to take him even further out of his current discomfort zone.

I love how tenderly the Lord reached out to his fearful servant.  He remembers that we are but dust, and he simply asked Elijah, “What are you doing here Elijah?”  And after Elijah gave God his “Woe is me” speech, God gave Elijah his marching orders for his next three actions and moved him back into the play area.  Jezebel never got close to harming Elijah despite her threats.  God still had plans for him, and the circle that was closing in around him was simply guiding him to his next destination and all of the things God had left for him to accomplish.

I still don’t like the circle.  It doesn’t ask you… it doesn’t prod you… it simply compels your forward progress without emotion or prejudice.  But without this constant pressure towards the end goal it would be easy to get distracted from the things that are of eternal significance.   And it may seem many times in life that a similar feeling surrounds you, never allowing you to reach a point of comfort.  But this is not some uncaring, emotionless force pushing you forward.  It is the hand of a loving God who knows where you need to be and how to get you there and planned this out before you were even born.  Those things that feel random in your life were carefully orchestrated before you even had fingers to feel them.

So I encourage you to keep moving, even when you just wish the world would stop spinning for a second so you can catch your breath.  Keep pressing forward when you can’t see the forest for the trees.  He has a glorious destiny that He built specifically for you.  Ignore the death threats,  the hate mail, and the trolls who want to distract you from your purpose.  The circle is not there to ruin your life… it is there to push you forward to the place you where your life truly begins.

Shadow of the Colossus REDUX: Release, Remaster, or Remake? (2 Cor. 3)

Not many games get the opportunity to have a THIRD life, but of all the games that deserve this chance to breathe again Shadow of the Colossus is certainly one of the most deserving.  Beloved for its low-key telling of an incredibly personal story that involves almost zero dialogue and copious amounts of moody atmosphere, the fact that this game every existed once is a miracle in and of itself.  Originally released on the PS2, Shadow did not fit into any easily characterized “genre” specification.  It’s not really an action game per se, but one could hardly call a game with such limited exposition a story-driven title.  It is partially an adventure game, but devoid of all of the item collecting that typically populates such titles.  It is truly a swan among ducks, not quite fitting into any particular box yet resonating in such a way that it occupies a space all of its own.

shadow-of-the-colossus-listing-thumb-01-ps4-us-17oct17.png   That such a unique beast could exist was incredible, but then the powers that be granted it a resurrection of sorts on the PS3 to reach an entirely new audience in a remastered form.  Updated graphics, textures, and cleaned up animations took this title to new heights as it finally appeared to encompass the creators original vision.  But this game had one more trick up its sleeve… Sony continued to believe in this title and felt it still had not reached its full potential.  It still had an untapped audience who had not yet discovered its grandeur, but a simple re-release was not enough.  The game was REMADE from the ground up… the same concept, story and gameplay conceits but still a completely new creation by a whole new group of creators.  And now it sits on shelves at your favorite neighborhood gaming store, waiting for you to either discover it or “re-discover” it and the journey it has been waiting to take you on.

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Most Christians and non-Christians alike are familiar with the idea of being “born again”.  Jesus shared this concept and blew the minds of the religious leaders of His day with the idea that one needed to be “remade” in order to see the Kingdom of God.  At the time, it was considered enough to merely follow the rules and do your best to be pleasing to God in whatever way you could.  To be “born again”?  It sounded a little bit sci-fi… and it definitely threw organized religion out in favor of an experience that did not require a lengthy membership statement to join.

But there is a substantial difference between a “remaster” and a “remake”.  I have experienced this myself in my own life as I spent many of my first 30 years of life in a church-like life trying to be a “remastered” Christ follower.   I was still the same person by and large, just “sanitized”.  Scrubbed down, a little cleaner around the edges… but underneath I was simply a more restrained version of my original self.  I read the Bible a lot, prayed more often, and built my life around church activities.  And for a while I was not only able to convince others but also myself that I was a new creation.  On occasion the whispers of the old life would get loud enough to distract me from my desired path, but as a whole I adhered to a lifestyle that seemed to meet the criteria of being “born again”

What I missed was that I was not in need of a remaster, but a “REMAKE”.  All the original parts had to be removed and replaced with superior technology to provide the full experience that was originally in my Creator’s mind.  I am not sure if you feel the same way, but this path can be much more frustrating because my repeated failures cause me to challenge whether I am actually on the right path.  But in 2 Cor. 13 Paul enlightens us on what the life of one undergoing the “remake” looks like:

2 Cor 3:18 But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.

I hope you caught it here.  If not, let me point it out for you.  It does not say that we WERE transformed (past tense), but rather that we are BEING transformed (present tense).  It is not a one time act in which we become all we were ever meant to be… it is a voyage that we will under-take over the course of our entire existence on this planet.  As we look to the Lord we are constantly compelled to become ever more like Him, and by spending time in His presence through prayer, Bible reading or worship we are on a continual path of being remade into His perfect design for us.

It would be nice if this was as simple as a fresh coat of paint, but His work takes place from the inside out and will take time.  Be patient with the process and understand that as you spend time with Him and draw near you will see the progress from remaster to remake occur in your heart, and this will reveal itself in your life.  And the best part about this is that just like the Shadow of the Colossus… you are still YOU.  You are simply the best version of you… the one that He created you to be.  The one that can accomplish His purposes for your life.

Know that the work you will do for Him will take place ALONG the journey, not just at the end of it.  You will not be fully remade before He starts to use you.  In truth, it is the vulnerable and wounded version of you that may reach others along your way.  But as you are being remade others will be compelled to join this journey with you as we are all being transformed by His Spirit to be more like Him.  So don’t be disappointed if your “born again” experience didn’t quite remake you the way that you had hoped.  This is a life-long remastering project, and you are safe in the Potter’s hands.

Nintendo Labo: When the Unqualified Meets it’s Purpose (Judges 4)

Only Nintendo could do this.  After years of the underselling WiiU console, Nintendo has hit jackpot after jackpot with the worldwide hit of Pokemon Go on mobile platforms, the national Easter Egg Hunt that was the release of the NES and SNES classic,  and now the record-breaking sales of the Switch console.   Add to this incredible run the “Game of the Year” releases of both Zelda and Mario Odyssey, and it is clear that everything Nintendo has been touching has fully turned to gold.  But this new idea is not only the largest example yet of Nintendo thinking outside of the box… this is Nintendo thinking about the box ITSELF.

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Nintendo Labo is an idea that could only work in the world that Nintendo has created.  Multiple accessories made completely out of cardboard are the name of the game here, and with this upcoming product it is safe to say that gaming will truly never be the same again.  I mean seriously… all of the accessories are being made out of one of the least expensive and readily available substances on the planet, and yet I can’t imagine too many Switch owners who would not be compelled to at least give this a try.  From a mock piano to a fishing pole, the sky is the limit for these low-cost but high-concept cardboard based accessories designed to enhance the already stout capabilities of this hybrid handheld/console into yet another incredible experience that defies both imagination and the traditional confines of retail.

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Cardboard may be one of the most unlikely materials to create new video game experiences from, and I can’t imagine too many gaming companies that were having serious conversations about its potential applications with their high-tech gaming systems.  But this incredibly unqualified substance is about to have its date with destiny thanks to Nintendo’s belief in its hidden capabilities.  Many of us are often in a similar situation… at times feeling like cardboard standees on a field of battle that we frankly don’t feel like we belong in.  With all of our dreams of accomplishing great things in our lives and for the Lord it is easy to feel overwhelmed by our lack of qualifications for the path we dream of walking.

In Judges 4 we find one such “cardboard soldier”.  Presumably, this is the story of Deborah, the first and only female judge of Israel and her right hand man Barak.  At least that’s how it starts.  Deborah has been tasked by the Lord to send an army into battle against Canaanites and she recruits Barak to lead the army into battle.  But Deborah is quite clear from the word go that he will NOT be the one laying the fatal blow to the enemy.  Rather, it would be an unheralded non-combatant who would provide the deliverance for all of the people of Israel.

Fast-forward to the battle and we find the enemy general Sisera running from the field of battle to regroup.  Both sides were locked into fierce combat and Sisera’s army was being completely overrun.  In his exhaustion he stops at the tent of a family that has been an ally to his people previously.  With a little rest and an opportunity to create a new plan of attack he may be able to turn the tide of the battle, and as he approaches the tent he is greeted by the “cardboard” hero of our story.

Jael, who had no previous involvement in the war effort, who was not part of the planning meeting earlier, and was not featured in any of the promotional marketing is about to step into not only her destiny, but become the hero of the whole campaign…

Judges 4: 17-21  However, Sisera had fled away on foot to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite; for there was peace between Jabin king of Hazor and the house of Heber the Kenite. And Jael went out to meet Sisera, and said to him, “Turn aside, my lord, turn aside to me; do not fear.” And when he had turned aside with her into the tent, she covered him with a blanket. Then he said to her, “Please give me a little water to drink, for I am thirsty.” So she opened a jug of milk, gave him a drink, and covered him. And he said to her, “Stand at the door of the tent, and if any man comes and inquires of you, and says, ‘Is there any man here?’ you shall say, ‘No.’”Then Jael, Heber’s wife, took a tent peg and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple, and it went down into the ground; for he was fast asleep and weary. So he died.

Jael was not a soldier.  She was not a judge.  She was not even allied with the Israeli army.  But she was the wild card that the Lord had chosen to deliver the killing blow to the enemy.  She was not even in pursuit of her true purpose when this story started.  The Lord brought her destiny to HER.  And when it was time, she played the part of charming hostess long enough to take down an enemy that only she was in position to defeat.  It was the very unassuming nature of her position that made her the PERFECT weapon against her foe.

I have struggled, as I am sure many of us have, with my lack of qualifications to do the work that my spirit compels me to complete.  I have often felt that I am little more than a cardboard soldier in a war meant for those who can drive tanks and fire heavy artillery.  But the Lord does not always use the qualified, the skilled, or the warriors to do His work.  As a matter of fact, more often than not He does not choose the qualified, but rather He qualifies the CHOSEN.  Jael was not most people’s first choice for delivering her people.  I will bet most of her people didn’t even know her name or who she was.  But the Lord saw her as his perfect weapon and she did the job that ONLY she could do.

I would have never picked cardboard to be the next innovation in gaming.  But yet here we are.  And whatever your past, your present, or the outlook on your future is… you are more than the sum of your parts and experiences.  They merely brought you into the position for you to defeat enemies that others can’t.  Because of your path you have been placed into the IDEAL position to deliver others from what oppresses them.  You are the “Jael” for someone in your life… so take joy in the “cardboard” that you may feel you are.  That is why your enemy underestimates you.  And THAT is why the Lord will use you to defeat him.