E3 2017 Wrap-Up: Will Good Things Come to Those Who Wait (Until 2018)? (Psalm 13, Psalm 37)

Another E3 has wrapped and here we are at the end of an eventful week trying to digest what we have seen and heard and decide if all of our hopes and dreams have been answered with what we were shown.  There is a sad sense of melancholy at these events as they wind down and publishers being tearing down their elaborately built displays and the host site removes the larger-than-life banners and decorations that allowed gamers from around the world to become fully ensconced in their hobby for a few glorious days.  And as the lights dim and the music ends the expo space slowly disintegrates from a gaming mecca to a sparse and empty room, waiting for the next party to start.  Maybe a pharmaceutical company convention will take over, or perhaps the building will be rented to a traveling exhibit of some sorts… one way or another E3 is over and the attendees have nothing to show for it but their well-traveled swag bag full of goodies, a cell phone full of selfies with video game makers and the sights and sounds of E3 continuing to play on in their minds on the flight home as they unpack what was learned.

For me there seemed to be a recurring theme with this year’s announcements and if you are willing to play along I would love to share my feelings with you.  Let;s ee if you can pickup the same vibe I got… Bioware revealed an amazing gameplay video for their upcoming “Destiny-esque” title Anthem, which should be out Fall 2018.  Spider-Man 4 delivered on everything we collectively hoped would happen when a franchise like Spider-man meets an acclaimed developer like Insomniac… and we will all get our hands on it in 2018.  Nintendo finally answered the requests of gamers worldwide by confirming the development of a new Metroid Prime… coming sometime in 2018 or later.  Looking forward to a true Pokemon RPG for your Switch?  Ask us for more details in 2018.  Maybe you drooled over the idea of the Shadow of Colossus remake from Sony… hope you are looking forward to 2018.  God of War, Kingdom Hearts, Final Fantasy VII remake, the next Halo… all for your gaming delight sometime in the nebulous future of 2018 or later.  Catching a common theme?  (Hint: 2018).

Yes, we certainly received some good news about already known or leaked titles for 2017, and I don’t want to pretend that we didn’t.   We have a confirmed date on the XB1 X release and it is a pleasant surprise that Mario Odyssey will leap onto our Switch consoles this October.  Assassin’s Creed finally confirmed the worst kept secret in gaming and Nintendo debuted the Mario/Rabbids crossover we never knew we needed.  But with the sheer volume of highly anticipated games and major reveals that won’t be ready until the next calendar year or beyond it is understandable to walk away from this year’s E3 with a sense of mild disappointment as the message seemed to be “The Future is (nearly) Here!”  Many of these games will probably be back at next year’s E3 to tantalize us once again, and we will flip over the hourglass and start the waiting game once again.

As a Christian it can be incredibly frustrating to read amazing promises in the Bible, pronounce them boldly to world around me, and then watch as my problems don’t seem to change.  Many times I have claimed a promise as mine only to pray the exact same prayer the next day, the following night, and the following year as the answers to my prayers seem to have a release date around the same time that Half-Life 3 will finally be unveiled.  I don’t know if you have had similar experiences, but the time between the promise and the answer can be interminable difficult when the problem is much more serious and the issue much more pressing than the release date of a video game.  And as we will find in Scripture, our collective problem is quite common and there is some advice for us that can make the waiting a little more palatable.

King David is famous for many things, but among his many accomplishments was a truly epic collection of songs that he wrote across the many periods of his life.  From a shepherd boy to an unlikely hero, from a vagabond fugitive to the king, he lived an incredibly colorful life and fortunately for us documented it all in the form of song.  In Psalm 13 verses 1-4 we find an especially painful and pointed song that could have been ripped out of anyone’s heart:

“How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me? How long shall I take counsel in my soul, Having sorrow in my heart daily?  How long will my enemy be exalted over me?  Consider and hear me, O Lord my God;  Enlighten my eyes, Lest I sleep the sleep of death; Lest my enemy say,“I have prevailed against him”; Lest those who trouble me rejoice when I am moved.  

And that is just one example of the bitterness of soul that David endured as he walked through the valley of the shadow of death many times throughout his life.  A full perusal of the Psalms will find that this man with a heart after God routinely reached out in anguish as he feared that his prayers were not being heard and that the Lord did not see him or his struggles.  And compared to our daily problems, his loomed pretty large as he LITERALLY faced life or death struggles on numerous occasions.  And yet through all of this we see a beautiful sentiment reflect in the final two verses of his desperate prayer:

“But I have trusted in Your mercy; My heart shall rejoice in Your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, Because He has dealt bountifully with me.”

David wears the mantle of the man after God’s own heart because of statements like this.  Whether he was hiding in a cave for his life or running from his murderous son, David knew that his only hope in every situation was to turn to God.  This was not a guarantee of immediate results, but while we may prefer the quick fix in life so our pain will subside the Lord sees the entire situation from start to finish and has a plan not for our immediate comfort, but for the salvation of all who are involved.  The Lord could have given David victory over Saul quickly, but this would have resulted in a more fractured Israel than the one David eventually inherited after the entire nation finally saw the Saul/David conflict for what it was.

It is hard to wait when we only see the obstacles and the pressing issues of our lives from our vantage point.  Much like a driver stuck in traffic who makes the rash decision to take an alternate route rather than wait out the traffic, many times we confuse movement with progress.  Certainly there are times that going the long way around may result in a slightly earlier arrival time, but if the driver had the benefit of someone above the situation, perhaps in a helicopter, they could let him know that the issue causing the clogging up of traffic is resolved in a quarter of a mile, and his patience will be rewarded shortly if he simply holds his course.  Many times I have taken the detour (both in vehicles and in life) and found that they have only complicated my dilemma.  Because of my limited perspective, what appears to be a lack of forward movement can be misinterpreted as my prayers being unheard or ignored.  But as we learned in Daniel 10, Daniel’s prayer was heard by God the moment he uttered it but the response was delayed by a spiritual adversary for three full weeks.  There are many reasons why the answer to prayer can tarry, but none of them are because God hasn’t heard us or is unconcerned with our problems.

Maybe your problems won’t be resolved fully in 2017.  Your answers for what troubles you may be further in the future than you would prefer.  I struggle with this daily and when I reach the same place that David did I find solace in realizing he endured the same struggles and still found a place of peace in his storm.  I don’t have an evil king bent on murdering me or a son chasing me with murderous intent the way David did either.  My problems are a little more mundane.  But they still seem huge to me, and yours are just as important to God even if the fate of a nation is not on the line.  But like David, we can rejoice because the Lord has still shown us mercy that we truly do not deserve and given us the gift of salvation that we could not attain any other way.  Our biggest and most important life struggles are already resolved in those phrases.  And as we realize that He has never left us or forsaken us at any point and has actually ordered our steps just so we could receive His gift of salvation, that should encourage us that He does not view our salvation as a one-and-done process.  He continues to remain invested into our problems and our lives, and even if the eventual answer is further ahead than the release of Kingdom Hearts 3 it is still assured to be right on time.  Just ask David, who in Psalm 37 put the matter to rest once and for all:

”  Commit your way to the Lord, Trust also in Him, And He shall bring it to pass.  He shall bring forth your righteousness as the light, And your justice as the noonday.  Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him; Do not fret because of him who prospers in his way, Because of the man who brings wicked schemes to pass. Cease from anger, and forsake wrath; Do not fret—it only causes harm. For evildoers shall be cut off; But those who wait on the Lord, They shall inherit the earth.”

It may seem like a long way off, but I have a feeling I’m going to enjoy 2018.  And until then… I will be waiting on the Lord because He hasn’t let me down yet.

Star Wars Battlefront II: A Letter From The Empire and Hearing From the Other Side (Daniel 1-4)

Star Wars Battlefront 2 looks to be the title we all really wanted the first Battlefront to be… in addition to its expanded multiplayer we are finally getting an honest to goodness campaign mode, and it’s not just some lackluster play through the multiplayer maps but an actual fully realized story.  What excites me about this is that the other side of the story will be told… the story of the Empire troops who stood on the planet Endor and watched the Death Star along with all of their friends, comrades, and possibly family explode in the sky at the end of Return of the Jedi.  For them this was not a happy culmination of many years of battle erupting in a lively dance-off with the local Ewoks.  This was a stunning, unthinkable defeat that left them marooned on an even more hostile planet with no idea what to do next.  It will be a fascinating story to experience and present a point of view too rarely explored in almost all forms of media… the “bad guy’s perspective”.

The most compelling villains to watch, read about, or play against are the ones who truly believe they are the hero of their own story.  They don’t do things simply because they are evil or wrong.  They exhibit a rationale that makes sense from their side of the equation and when their story is written correctly they take the necessary actions to fulfill what they perceive as their destiny.  Their downfall is that they are typically on the wrong side of history and as a result we only hear the story from the side of the winning team, typically because the villains tend to meet their final end in a blaze of glory that limits their biographical options down the road.  As a matter of fact, many times the hero they are facing is just as morally compromised as the villain is, but our hero simply makes the right choices when it matters the most as the antagonist falls victim to their own machinations and selfish ambitions.

Maybe we see so few of these stories because it’s easier to root for the hero when his adversary is a moustache-twirling psychopath bent on killing innocent people while our hero is virtuous, kind, and helps the elderly across the street while assisting them with their taxes.  A villain who is more complex and walks the same path as our hero but does so on the other side of the street complicates things quite a bit.  But what if we could get into the mind of the bad guy and actually see the events play out from their perspective?  What would we find there and how would we use this to see everything from a much broader perspective?  What if, like in Battlefront, these enemies had simply enlisted in the military, believed the propaganda they were taught, and obediently fought for their current government against a group of rebels until their chain of command exploded in the sky above them?

The Bible, like most of our historical documents, was written by the victors and the survivors.  It is a collection of history, letters, songs and wisdom from people who were inspired by God throughout time to record the events of their day or the experiences of their lives.  As a result, we find the story of David and Goliath but it is only told from David’s point of view.  We learn about the fall of Jerusalem, but it is from the eyes and mouths of the newly incarcerated Jews and not their captors.  It is not often we get the viewpoint of the opposing side in the conflicts recorded in the Bible, so when we do it is important that we stop and pay attention because a special message is about to be shared.

In the first four chapters of the book of Daniel two figures loom large… the young and ultra-heroic Daniel and the conqueror of Jerusalem and king of the Babylonian Empire, Nebuchadnezzar.  Spell check, have fun with that one.  Babylon was truly one of the first “evil world empires”.  Before that there were great civilizations and powerful kings, but Babylon was on an entirely different level.  They were a conquering force that had never tasted defeat in their conquests, and their society was much more sophisticated than previous world powers.  Rather than simply destroying those they conquered, they took the best and the brightest from them and integrated them into the tapestry of Babylonian culture so they could continue to grow into the greatest empire on earth.  This is how Daniel and his friends end up in the courts of the king, and from the word go King Nebuchadnezzar exudes a level of brazenness and pride that threatens to completely undermine his vast accomplishments as the leader of the world.

To be honest, the first three chapters show Nebuchadnezzar to be a raging psychopath of a tyrant who is simply impossible to understand or relate to.  He brings evil moustache twirling to a whole new level as he does typical villain things such as threaten to kill all his advisors because they lacked the capability of knowing what he had dreamt of that night or when he builds a gigantic golden statue of himself and demands everyone to worship it or be burnt alive.  Pretty horrible super-villain stuff, right?  And you would be correct in saying that at this point, Nebuchadnezzar is just another stereotypical evil bad guy who is out of control and needs someone like Moses to come in and take him down a notch.  But that isn’t quite what happens…

In Daniel chapter four the authorship of the en tire book switches… to the perspective of King Nebuchadnezzar himself.  And we are about to finally get an auto-biographical look at the man behind the monster.  And the interesting thing about this is that what is found in the first three verses doesn’t sound like something a depraved king would write, but rather sound like something we would find in one of David’s Psalms as he praises the one true God and extols His kingdom.  Wait, WHAT?  How did we go from “burn them alive” to this?  Fortunately, the full scene will be laid bare before us, and once again is starts with a dream.  This time Nebuchadnezzar actually remembers the dream, but his advisors are still unable to interpret it. The king summons Daniel (side note: why didn’t he just call him first, since this is his specialty?) and the Lord reveals the meaning of the this new dream as well.  The prognosis is not positive.

The king’s dream is about him, as the Lord uses the figure of a giant tree being cut down to symbolize the fall from grace that was about to occur for Nebuchadnezzar.  And as he finishes telling the king what the dream meant, Daniel finishes with a plea for the king to change his ways and walk away from his sinful life so that this would not happen to him.  For an entire year after the dream the king continued to build his empire, expanding his influence and gaining riches and power.  But it seems Daniel’s words of caution did not penetrate the king’s heart, and the dream that was so real just a year earlier now was a distant memory.  Blinded by the success he had experienced and the incredible kingdom he had built, the king decided to talk a walk and survey his accomplishments.  While staring out from his palace over his majestic city in Daniel 4:30 he utters these fatal and arrogant words, “Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for a royal dwelling by my mighty power and for the honor of my majesty?”.  Even after seeing the power of God exhibited so many times through Daniel and his friends, Nebuchadnezzar failed to give the God of heaven credit for all he had received and the Lord finally had enough.

In perhaps one of the strangest riches-to-rags stories in the whole Bible, the Lord teaches the king a lesson he would never forget.  He stripped the king of his mental faculties and gave him the mind of an animal, and this great king was run out of the palace to eat grass from the ground like a cow and live with animals in the fields.  For a period of time the Bible records as “seven times” he lived as an animal, until his hair grew long like feathers and his nails like the claws of a bird.  This could have been seven years or seven seasons or some other manner of measurement, but the bottom line is for an extended period of time the king ceased to be an actual human, much less a king.  Can you imagine?  What a fall, from the heights of glory to a common animal.  That has to be hard to explain on your resume… “This gap in my employment?  Oh, ummmm, I kinda did this natural lifestyle thing for about seven years.  Really became one with the land, you know?”

It is pretty hard to relate to Nebuchadnezzar on the surface.  I mean, I haven’t had too many opportunities to build giant golden statues, but I am pretty sure even if someone came up to me and asked if I would like to make the world worship golden statues of me, I would say no.  That seems like a reasonable response.  But let’s look beyond the actions and into the motives, because buried within the actions of the king are the motives of a person no different from you or me.  The king had accomplished many great things in his military and political career, but he made the fatal mistake of believing that he was responsible for them in spite of all of the evidence to the contrary.  The key difference between our hero and our villain is that one was aware of where his preferential treatment came from and gave thanks to God for it, and the other took all the credit for it.  And that is a battle we all grapple with, each and every day.  I know I do, and I don’t even accomplish anything of significance beyond doing my job and trying (and often failing) to meet the demands of being a husband and a father.  It can be easy to take the credit for your achievements and believe that something about you made good things happen, but the truth is that while God gives each of us talents and opportunities to use them He is still the reason we experience any success in life, small or large.

So then we get this incredibly unique chapter in Daniel, this letter from the other side.  Nebuchadnezzar provides us his unique perspective on these events as only a man who has shared a buffet table spot with the cows and enjoyed some quality rest with the local wildlife can do.  He tells us of his dream and his warning from Daniel, and how he failed to heed the warning for an entire year.  After twelve months of patience the Lord fulfilled His promise and stripped the king of his humanity, but after the king had learned his lesson the Lord restored not only his mental faculties but upon Nebuchadnezzar’s repentant acknowledgment of the Lord as the one true God he received back his kingdom and all he had lost.  Only now he was a wiser and much more appreciative king who understood that all that he had accomplished and all he possessed were merely a gift that could be very easily taken away.

I find that the incredible thing about this story is not Nebuchadnezzar’s fall from his lofty position and his eventual redemption, although that is pretty remarkable.  What I find most amazing about this is that the eternal God, the One who was the true recipient of the king’s insulting world view as well as the Lord of the servants that the king had been attempting to murder, chose to give this evil king an opportunity to change.  Granted, the method was pretty severe, but after all Nebuchadnezzar had done to Daniel and his friends not to mention the entire nation of Israel it is stunning that God did not simply wipe this man off the face of the earth for his insolence.  But God saw within this arrogant king a heart that had the capacity to repent and do right, and the long-suffering Lord that we serve gave him a space to do exactly that.  And He still does the same for each of us each and every day.

We all fall.  We all make poor choices, and while most of these will not reduce us to the mental acuity of livestock they certainly come with their share of challenging repercussions.  But as Nebuchadnezzar’s experience showed us, the Lord eagerly awaits for us to come to our senses and recognize His authority over our situation as well as His ownership of all that we call ours, including our accomplishments.  I still need this lesson regularly, but I am thankful that I serve a God who knows my frailties and provides an opportunity to seek repentance to me and each of us no matter how far off the path we have fallen.  If Nebuchadnezzar can find his way back, then there is plenty enough grace available for all.  No matter what you have done or how far away you are, if a man who inhumanely conquered and devastated God’s own people and attempted to murder and/or flame-broil the survivors can come back, you and I can too!

 

E3 2017: Escalating the Console Arms Race and a Plea Against Denominationalism (1 Cor 1:10-17, Eph 4:1-6)

We are days away from this year’s E3 Expo and the expectations are that Microsoft will finally fully unveil their new hardware code-named “Scorpio” in their most recent attempt to claim console superiority in the marketplace.  As we all buckle up for an exciting ride, I can’t help but think about how many times I have been in this exact same position doing this song and dance before.  I remember attending E3 the year the Xbox 360 was first shown and simply being over-whelmed by the spectacle.  It could do everything… online dominance through an enhanced version of Xbox Live, improved graphics, and boasted a library of games coming from developers all across the world.  It was promoted as the Sony killer… only it wasn’t.  As a matter of fact, it was the technically under-whelming but vastly popular Nintendo Wii console that dominated that generation in terms of raw unit sales, and with Sony and Microsoft they have remained engaged in a head-to-head battle for superiority to this day.

In my youth the war was choosing between the NES and the Sega Genesis, followed by years of tug-of war as Nintendo and their cartridge based systems did battle with Sony and their army of Playstations, Microsoft and their avalanche of Xboxes, and the sad also-ran Sega platforms that were essentially dead on arrival.  And now we head into this year’s E3 Expo with three distinct and viable platforms that are ever evolving as Microsoft takes aim at showcasing the most raw power ever found under the hood of a console, Sony continues to deliver on exclusive gaming experiences and the possibilities of their VR headset, and Nintendo looks to continue their newfound momentum with a first party library that has never truly been topped.  With all of these choices many gamers are torn between supporting one platform or another, not only based on price but also on principle.

Sony has their dedicated fans who refuse to accept that they are on anything other than the superior console, Microsoft is supported by an incredibly loyal fanbase, and Nintendo?  They are in the midst of a renaissance in which it seems every idea they touch is turning to gold right now.  Nintendo fans are constantly coming out of the woodwork as the big “N” is taking over mobile gaming, re-releasing specialty retro consoles, displaying unquestioned dominance in the handheld gaming market, and now has the hottest console on the market with the Switch.   With this wealth of choices you would think we would all be satisfied as everyone can find something that makes them happy, but most of the time when I am in my local gaming store I find this is not the case.  Many times I observe a chaotic scene as an employee is attempting to moderate a friendly but serious debate between two or more loyal gamers who are 100% certain they are playing games on the one true pure gaming platform, and everything else is just a blasphemous pretender to the throne.  Publishers even play into this by offering incentives to purchase major titles such as Call of Duty or Destiny on a select console platform and receive benefits such as early access to downloadable content or exclusive features.

But we are all still gamers, and we all support the same industry and celebrate the same hobby, so one has to wonder why can’t we all just get along?  As we and our hobby finally start to gain mainstream credibility and terms like “nerd” and “geek” are no longer hurled like hateful insults but are actually badges of honor worn with pride, one would think we would celebrate having the inside track on an exploding medium.  But it is human nature to look for the differences within our similarities and square off accordingly, and instead of enjoying a robust buffet of choices that allows all of us to have our cake and eat it with a helping of Mario-flavored ice cream on the side we still choose to draw battle lines and even question the gaming credentials of those who disagree with us.

While gaming console preferences make for entertaining discussions and lead to verbal discourses with such exciting terms as teraflops, GPUS, and memory bandwidth there are much more important battle lines that are drawn across our cities, country, and the globe that carry eternal significance.  I’m talking about the denominational divide that has accomplished more to damage the church than the devil could ever hope to.  Jesus Himself famously said in Mark 3:23-24 that a kingdom or a house divided against itself cannot stand.  And yet the very kingdom we were entrusted with, the kingdom of heaven itself is currently divided by every difference that one human being can have with another instead of realizing the power of uniting under the most powerfully good news that has ever existed.  We have divided on just about every issue of doctrine that can possibly exist, and I intend to demonstrate precisely how foolish and potentially fatal our path is if we do not choose a better one.

Have you ever been to the DMV?  It is definitely not my favorite place to spend time, and I have never had a visit that did not extend into at least an hour of my life span.  Crowded in a room of people who are sitting in the same awkward silence that I am, we come from all walks of life and have gotten here in a variety of different methods.  Some of us are veterans of the DMV like me, who are over-prepared and arrive with all of the required paperwork (and a little extra just in case) just waiting for our number to be called.  Others may be there for the first time, nervously awaiting their first driving test and praying not to fail.  Some walked, some drove, some were driven but all arrived here to take their place in line.  Many are well-dressed for their photo, others like me are in work attire, and a large contingent appear to have fallen out of bed and into their chair without any thought to appearance at all.  But whether you are young or old, rich or poor, first-timer or old-timer we are all occupying the same uncomfortable chairs and clutching our number in our hands as we await the sound of freedom when C62 is called.  Well, that’s my sound of freedom.  Yours may vary.

In this room in which every age, race, background, and gender is represented we are all seated together with a common goal and an unstated but evident desire for each of us to get through quickly and efficiently.  We are actually rooting for each other to have a quick and painless experience because the faster C61 gets through the sooner I get to the window as well as each person who arrived after me.  This remarkable unity of purpose despite our lack of other commonalities unites us and as a result we each march towards the endgame successfully.  I am perfectly fine sitting next to the nervously sweating teen who is frantically studying his driver’s manual one last time because his eventual success is also mine.  We are not so different… just at a slightly different place in our DMV needs at this time.

In 1 Corinthians 1:10-17 Paul addressed the schisms that had already presented themselves in the newborn church.  He begins this entire epistle pleading with the church to eliminate divisions and to be joined together in one mind.  Humanity hasn’t changed too much, as we see the various believers split between those who called themselves followers of Paul, followers of Peter, or followers of Jesus.  It sounds kind of silly if you think about it, since they are all on the same team.  And yet here we are, in our refined and sophisticated era of enlightenment in which we have splintered off into hundreds of denominations and even managed to split hairs within our chosen brand of Christianity.  I mean, seriously, how many flavors of Baptist exist?  Why are Pentecostals unable to swing from the same chandelier together?  Why is a group called Church of God fractured?  Methodists, Presbyterian, Lutheran…. I could go on and on but I think you get the point.  And now we come to the truly difficult but most important questions…

In the DMV I can successfully sit and wait my turn surrounded by people who do not necessarily support my beliefs or even accept my views.  We do not listen to the same music, share the same doctrinal concepts, or enjoy similar dietary patterns.  And yet none of us feel compelled to leave the room simply because of our differences.  We are all here in one accord and with one goal… a shared desire to get our license needs resolved.  So why is it that I can sit next to people for an hour in the DMV with nothing in common but our time of arrival but I cannot sit next to someone in a pew for an hour that likes a different tempo of song than I do?  How can we accept the differences of opinion when we are standing in line at the grocery store but not when we are in a church building?  I don’t question my server’s view on the second coming of Christ before gladly accepting an order of fries… but when it comes to the church body we demand uniformity or we simply can’t get along.

Now you may tell me to pump the brakes and say I am over-simplifying some very complex issues.  But I am planting a flag in the ground right here and joining Paul in saying that it must not be this way.  If we can accept each other’s differences while standing in line at Disney World then why do we allow ourselves to jump out of a church because they dress differently or wear their hair differently than we would like?  As long as we are worshipping the same God and His Son Jesus Christ why does our different levels of understanding and conviction preclude us from enjoying fellowship?  At Disney two young girls from two different continents will see each other wearing the same Cinderella dress and excitedly point to each other.  They don’t even speak the same language, but they will stand in line right next to each other as their parents snap pictures of them side by side, united by this very simple commonality.  But in our churches we have drawn battle lines on everything from music to miracles and we have divided the body as a result.

In Ephesians 4 Paul repeats his plea for unity, saying  “I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.”  Bearing with one another implies difficulty will be involved.  I have never had to “bear with” an ice cream sundae.  Nobody had ever said to me, “Please bear with me while I deposit millions of dollars into your bank account”.  It isn’t easy to create unity, but if we are aligned on our purpose we can see past the differences and align on our mission.  We are all going to the same place, and we are all on assignment to bring everyone we meet with us.  I hate to break it to you, but there is only one heaven and it doesn’t have separate subdivisions.  Might as well learn to  get along with your new neighbors…

Now before we finish, this is not in any way a support that all religions eventually lead to the one true God or that all paths lead to heaven.  There is only one way to heaven, and that way is through Jesus Christ (John 14:6).  But this is absolutely a plea to put away our divisions on doctrinal areas that do not pertain to what Paul listed above as the fundamental areas of unified doctrine:  We serve one God, the God of the Bible, and we have one Lord, His Son Jesus Christ.  We have one Spirit, the Holy Spirit, who indwells and guides each believer.  And we follow one faith as outlined in the Word of God and believe in being baptized under the only name given to men by which we can be saved, Jesus Christ (Acts 2:38).  So can we agree to allow the person on our left to worship differently than we do and accept that the person to our right chooses to worship the Lord on a different day of the week?  Can we put away the differences in eschatology that divide us and unify on the similarities in purpose that unite us?  The world is waiting for the proof that we are a family worthy of joining, and with all of our infighting I suppose if I was not a believer I would not want to spend eternity listening to us dispute Calvinism and rapture views either.  Let’s tear down the walls and give them something worth being a part of… One unified church body, serving the Lord and each other in love and understanding.  Even when they person across from you has a PS4.

Tekken 7: Been Spending Most My Life Living in a Button Mashers Paradise (1 Samuel 9-15)

It’s ok to admit it. We have all done it at some point. Maybe it was your first time and you wanted to look cool to your friends. It could have been a moment of frustration or a lack of familiarity that led to this unenlightened choice. Perhaps it was a moment of weakness when you were alone in your home and you finally felt the freedom to try it without judgment. Or perhaps you simply didn’t know better and did it right in front of others, to their immediate horror and dismay. But it happened, and I have done it too. I have button mashed my way to victory on Tekken and many other fighting games over the years, and as much as I hate to admit it there was something intensely satisfying about dominating a more seasoned opponent who knew all of their combos by simply spamming my controller and getting exceptionally lucky.

 
It all started in childhood… trips to the arcade on the weekend in which I would slap my quarters on the cabinet of the local fighting game du jour and wait patiently for my chance to take down my more cerebral opponent with an unpredictable attack pattern that had more in common with attempting to kill ants on the buttons than an actual strategy. (For those of you of a newer generation, arcades were places where video games were played in public as a social experiment, and quarters were units of physical currency that powered these machines. Pictures of them can now be found in history books and if you are lucky you may spy one on the ground outside of Walmart). As I grew older I did achieve a higher level of sophistication in my playing style, but more often than not my default fighting game plan is to mash buttons first and learn the actual moves later… or never, whichever comes first.

 
I admit I am an ashamed member of Button Mashers Anonymous. I understand this is blasphemy to most fans of fighting games, and even those who have similarly danced in the moonlight here will publicly express disdain at my admission. But in my defense… if I can crush someone with Eddy on Tekken simply by spamming his kicks it is very hard not to give into that temptation when I know I am outmatched. Maybe that’s not a great defense, but it’s the best one I have. The only other option is to do all of the hard work learning a character, practicing with them, learning which combo ends with a juggle set-up and which has more frames of animation and… you know what, I think I will just stick with good ol’ Eddie Gordo thank you very much.

 

The funny thing is many times my walk with God approach is not much different from my fighting game approach. I am well aware of all of the essentials necessary to maintain my relationship with God and I have an embarrassing level of resources available to support me in following Him the right way. But if I can get a similar result simply through spontaneously mashing my way through situations, it is so tempting to just wing it. I mean after all, I’m just trying to make it to heaven. I’m not worried about the style points. But there is a fatal flaw with that thinking that I would like to delve into as we consider what button mashing looks like in the real world.

 

The history of Saul, the very first king of Israel, is well-known to be a tragic story on par with a Shakespearean epic. But it didn’t start that way… in 1 Samuel 9 it actually begins as a classic “diamond in the rough” tale. Saul is the very definition of tall, dark, and handsome as he enters the scene. He is actually described as the most attractive and tallest man in the land. But as a member of the lowly tribe of Benjamin, he did not have a status of significance and he is literally searching the countryside for lost livestock when we catch our first glimpse of him. His ascension from just a dude running errands to becoming royalty occurs in a whirlwind of activity that deposits him into the throne with a list of urgent issues to handle before he even has a chance to file his change of address forms. Let’s see how he does…

In 1 Samuel 13 we find King Saul two years into his reign when he enters into conflict with the Philistines, a nation that he would be at war with for the entire duration of his life. Saul actually provokes the conflict when his son attacks a garrison of troops stationed in Israeli territory, and this does not sit well with Philistia. They rally their war machine and put together 36,000 chariot and cavalry troops as well as an unnumbered multitude of front-line soldiers to march on Saul and his 3,000 man militia. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out this doesn’t bode well, and Saul’s bravado disappears quickly as all but 600 of his troops run and hide from the inevitable slaughter. As the enemy prepares to engage in battle, Saul impatiently waits for the priest of Israel to show up and present the customary sacrifices and prayers to God before engaging in battle.
Prior to moving forward with any action of significance it was an expectation that the favor of the Lord would be sought by the priest of God and a sacrifice offered as well. But Samuel, the very prophet who chose and announced Saul king in the first place, was taking his sweet time getting there and Saul got antsy.

Rather than wait for Samuel to come and seek the blessing of God on their over-matched endeavor, Saul button mashed his way through the situation by offering all of the sacrifices himself.  Why is this a problem? Because the Lord had very strict protocols on who offered sacrifices and how they did so and Saul did not meet the criteria to perform these functions. Demonstrating that he failed to understand the heart of God and focusing on only the outward result, Saul finishes his impulsive act of impatience just as Samuel finally shows up. Needless to say, Samuel is pretty upset and challenges the king quite directly on why he didn’t simply follow the process God had laid out. Saul’s response reads an awful lot like one of mine, “When I saw that the people were scattered from me, and that you did not come within the days appointed, and that the Philistines gathered together at Michmash, then I said, ‘The Philistines will now come down on me at Gilgal, and I have not made supplication to the Lord.’ Therefore I felt compelled, and offered a burnt offering.” Let’s unpack that just a bit..

 

On the surface Saul’s rationale seems almost justifiable. Samuel was running late, the enemy invasion was imminent, and without the blessing of God Saul knew that there was no hope of victory. Out-numbered, over-matched, and out of time Saul grabbed the controller and frantically pressed buttons hoping he could fake his way into survival. But God is less interested in outwardly obedient actions and more concerned with the attitude of the heart, and this is where Saul is found lacking. In all points he looked like a king, sounded like a king, and took action like a king. But those fancy three-button combos didn’t impress the Lord one bit because he knew there was no substance underneath the facade. Saul’s rush to offer the sacrifices showed that he didn’t truly have faith that God was in control of the situation. He saw God’s favor as something to be compelled through an action rather than received through patient faith. He underestimated the Lord who had an innumerable number of angelic warriors at the ready and saw only that God had not met Saul’s deadline for action.

 

Sounds familiar to me, how about you? I know many times I have shown the outward obedience of praying and waiting for an answer, but inwardly I am churning and my mind begins plotting a course of action “just in case God needs my help”. And when, by my definition, His response seems to be running late there are so many times I have simply taken action and made a decision that I would regret in the future. Truth be told, I have become a proficient button-masher in my life choices because sometimes cleaning up my mess seems preferable to the challenge of patiently waiting on God. But by winning the battle Saul not only loses the war, but his reign as king. Samuel pronounces, “You have done foolishly. You have not kept the commandment of the Lord your God, which He commanded you. For now the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. But now your kingdom shall not continue. The Lord has sought for Himself a man after His own heart, and the Lord has commanded him to be commander over His people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you.” And Saul would go on to demonstrate throughout his days that he never learned the lesson the Lord was trying to teach him, as he continued to impulsively follow his flawed instincts to button-mash instead of seeking God’s guidance and following His commands.

 

The Lord sent Samuel to select a new king and he found a replacement in David. He was still flawed to be sure, and he made several decisions that are impossible to reconcile. But he was described as “a man after God’s own heart”, which is to be preferred even over outwardly displayed obedience. As Christ Himself lamented that the people praised God with their lips but their hearts were far from Him, God makes it clear that it is not how things look externally but what is in our heart that he judges us by. I will admit that this is still a daily struggle for me and I am even wrestling with this as I write this sentence, but I know that if I continue to seek the Lord’s blessing on my decisions after I have made them instead of patiently waiting for Him to show up I will continue to simply jump from ditch to ditch, never moving forward. And I am aware that He is quick to forgive, but that is not exactly Plan A. After all, just because He forgives our sins that does not mean that we don’t have to deal with the ramifications of our choices.
As I mentioned, this is still a daily battle for me but I hope that this has opened your eyes to areas where you may be skipping the painful but necessary waiting/learning season and heading straight into battle on a wing and a prayer. The Lord orders our every step, and the timing on his button presses may seem like they are too late but He has the perspective to know how each match ends. The secret to a life lived under His perfect plan is to pursue HIM, and all of these other challenges and problems will work out as He intends them to. If Saul truly trusted the Lord, he would have waited on Him even if his enemies had a sword at his neck. I’m putting my controller in the hands of the Creator today, and I’m going to do my best to resist the urge to snatch it back. See you at the character select screen… I think I will skip Eddie this time.

Superman on Trial:  A Question of Injustice (Matthew 5, Romans 5, Genesis 4)

With Injustice 2 now out on store shelves I think it should be considered safe to open up the plot on the first game and how it intersects with this newly released fighting masterpiece.    And there are some intriguing and highly resonating questions that are presented in both of these games that do not have easy answers.  As a warning, spoilers for the original Injustice as well as a healthy dose of Biblical introspection follow…

Let me start by admitting that I am personally not Superman’s biggest fan.  Nothing against those of you whose heart swells every time you hear his theme music, but for me everything just seems to come a little too easy for the son of Krypton.  He lacks both the pathos of Batman as well as the humanity of the Flash.  Lois Lane dies?  No problem, he just flies around the sun, reverses time and course-corrects.  When Flash does something similar he nearly destroys the multiverse by creating Flashpoint, but for Superman it’s just business as usual on a moderately busy Tuesday.  And while Batman toils in the shadows doing the dirty work without a single superpower to his name, good ol’ Supes flies around with his bulletproof self enjoying the benefits of super-human strength without too many drawbacks.  So when the original Injustice title released it wasn’t much of a surprise to me that when he was finally faced with an unthinkable loss he became a violent global dictator.  Honestly, it was what I had worried was inside of him all along.

If absolute power corrupts absolutely, than Superman completely lived up to this mantra by turning on all those who disagreed with his tactics as he made the decision to prevent any further evil by taking complete control of the planet and destroying all those who stood in his way.  Heroes such as Flash and Batman tried to guide him away from this self-destructive course, but honestly how do you stop an emotionally damaged, nearly invulnerable alien who is convinced that humanity lacks the capacity to chart their own course and must either accept his rule or perish?  A combination of heroes,  villains, and a Superman from another universe are forced to put aside their grievances and work together to finally end the tyrannical rule of Kal-El.  This leads directly into the new story in Injustice 2 as Batman and company face an incredible difficult choice… when faced with an unstoppable threat do they unleash Earth’s mightiest hero knowing that they were barely able to subdue him the first time?  Or do they attempt to face this new threat and leave their greatest hope of victory on the sidelines?  Decisions, decisions… and this leads us into deeper pondering of more eternal significance.

One of the most poignant questions asked by those who have difficulty believing in God is, “If God is all-powerful, why does he permit evil exist?”  Why is there so much pain and suffering, death and loss when a good and just God could stop it all with just a word?  And I believe that within this question one has to take a long hard look and determine what manner of Divine Being we truly believe in so we can have a fair answer to these questions.  When children senselessly die in our streets and so many people of all ages face the threat of violence simply because of their beliefs, skin color, or place of birth it is a question we MUST be prepared to answer as followers of the one true God.

Let’s start by considering what someone is really asking when they challenge the reality and goodness of God by pointing to the bad that surrounds us.  To live up to the unstated inference, anytime someone asks this question they are requesting a dictator god similar to what Superman became in Injustice.  Crushing all evil sounds good in theory, but in order to fully suppress it one must control all thoughts, actions, and decisions of those who are incapable of making the right decisions on their own… meaning US.  The only way to remove our ability to make evil choices is to remove our ability to make choices at all.  And to be blunt, that would not work too well for any of us and would make God a pretty difficult Being to follow, much less love.

Time to look to the Bible for answers on how a just God permits injustice to exist.  First, we will divide the question into three parts:

1) How does Scripture define justice?

2) Why does injustice exist?

3) Why doesn’t God stop it?

To start with, let’s find what God has to say about the evil things people do to each other.  And before you crack your Bible open to the Old Testament and prepare for a boring discussion on old commandments and laws and how far away you have to walk from bacon-wrapped shrimp, let me stop you right there and bring you to a much more relevant group of verses straight from the tongue of Jesus Christ Himself.  In Matthew 5:21 we find Jesus in the middle of the discourse called the Sermon on the Mount, and it is within this we gain full insight into how God views sin and what an absolutist view of sin prevention actually looks like.

Jesus uses two distinct and very different sins from the Ten Commandments to give a God’s-eye view perspective of right and wrong.  First, He unveils God’s position on murder, issuing equivalent judgement to those who speak hurtful insults to others with hatred in their heart to those who actually follow through on the evil thought with murder.  Then He follows with an example of someone who looks at another person with lustful desire, explaining that this conscious act carries the same consequences as physically committing the act of adultery.  And if that doesn’t challenge you enough, he finishes by explaining that if your eye or hand causes you to sin, it is wiser to remove it from your body than to persist in sinning and face the judgement for those sins.  Interestingly enough, I don’t bump into too many people who have removed their hands and eyes.  They must not struggle with the same things I do, I guess.

So when we look at justice from a Holy God’s perspective it becomes painfully clear that we are all guilty of not only physical sins, but also sins of thought that carry equivalent sentences of punishment.  If we faced the consequences of these actions (both were punishable by death) at the point of our sinful thoughts humanity would cease to exist in short order.  The truth is we all want justice when we or a party we consider innocent have been wronged, but for justice to truly be served we would all face the exact same fate.  Scripture records that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and more to the point based on these parameters we are all guilty of thought crimes punishable by the death penalty.  So to answer the first question, justice is defined as punishment for even the thought of committing sinful behavior.  I don’t know about you, but I’m going to cast my vote on mercy and grace because if we stick with justice as the cure I won’t be here to finish writing this.  Or at the very least it would be much, much harder without my hands and eyes.

So let’s move on to question 2.  Now that we know none of us are truly prepared to exist in a world of immediate justice based on God’s standards, why does this predicament exist to begin with?  The birth of original sin is recorded in Genesis, but I would like to look a little deeper than the origin story by going to Romans 5:12-21, where something very critical emerges.  In these verses as well as several others it is made clear that it is through Adam’s sin that death entered the world.  Punishment that previously did not exist was created as a just response to the sin that occurred.  But why Adam’s sin?  Why was it his mistake that caused this when it was Eve, not Adam, who took the first bite of the forbidden fruit?  The Injustice plot thickens…

What was the principal difference between what Eve did and what Adam did?  One could make all manner of theological arguments based on Adam’s role as the first member of mankind or his status as head of household on their tax return that year, but the truth is they both took the exact same action.  They both held the same fruit and took the same bite.. so why the difference?  And Scripture is quick to point out that while Eve was deceived by the serpent, Adam had the luxury of observing that Eve did not suddenly drop dead at the moment of her sin and made his decision accordingly.

It is crucial we catch this because it is the answer to the question of why injustice still exists… Adam sinned by eating the fruit, but it was a conscious choice he made after determining that the consequences of the sin did not appear to be fatal.  Just like Adam, we sin because we think we can get away with it.  The consequences are not immediate in most cases so for a brief period of time we can make the wrong choice and continue on about our day, covering it up about as effectively as the fig leaves from Adam and Eve’s new fashion line.

Injustice at every level exists because God’s mercy in allowing us the opportunity to recognize our sins and repent prior to judgment is often misread as a lack of consequences.  And as humanity becomes ever more clever in our methods of hiding from our mistakes and covering up our shame, we mentally divorce ourselves even further from the actual long-term ramifications of wrong-doing.  So now that we know that we God’s standards for justice are actually much higher than we are prepared to operate under and we as humans are solely responsible for the presence of injustice on this planet we have to answer the final question.  Why doesn’t God stop it?

For our final Scripture we turn to 2 Peter 3:4-9, as we pull back the curtain on why God doesn’t do more to stop the injustice in the world.  Now while these verses are specifically referring to why the Lord has not yet returned to complete His judgment of the world, they also give insight into why the Lord appears to hold back His hand when He could just as easily unleash His giant fist of justice on evildoers.  Peter records that “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.”  In order to give each and every one of His children the opportunity to repent He stays His hand to a degree that makes many of us uncomfortable and as frustrated as the older brother of the prodigal son.  You remember him right?  The one who was frustrated that his younger brother had taken his inheritance and wasted it on a sinful life, and yet his father welcomed him back home with open arms upon his repentance.  The older brother fumed and refused to join the party because he wanted his younger brother to pay for his choices and this simply wasn’t fair.  But God values each and every one of His children, as hard as it is to believe.  He loves those who have committed even the vilest of sins and is giving them every opportunity to get their lives right with Him.

As our final case study we will jump all the way back to the book of Genesis as our Injustice tour of Scripture comes full circle.  We reviewed the original sin committed by Adam and Eve, and now we will go straight to the crime scene of the first murder committed by their son Cain.  In Genesis 4:6 we find God attempting to reason with Cain, who is upset that his brother’s offering to the Lord was accepted while Cain’s was not.  Like most of us, Cain is pointing his anger and frustration outward (in this case at his completely innocent younger brother) rather than dealing with the root cause issue in his heart with God.  And we find that rather than condemning Cain, the Lord is incredible reasonable in His dialogue stating. ”  Why are you so angry?  And why has your countenance fallen?  If you do well, will you not be accepted?  And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door.  And it’s desire is for you, but you should rule over it”.  There is a lot to unpack there, but for today we will simply look at how patient and long-suffering God is with Cain who is currently mulling actual MURDER in his thoughts.

God, who knows all things, knew what Cain was thinking and knew what he was planning to do.  God could have stopped him.  He could have struck him down before he even had the chance to commit the act like an evil dictator Superman.  He could have waited until Cain was in the act and THEN he could swoop in with a Divine force field and save Abel’s life.  But He didn’t stop it… He allowed Cain the opportunity to choose the right choice all the way up to the end, and then after the horrible deed was done He approached Cain and gave him the opportunity to tell the truth about what had happened and to repent.  This remains the Father’s modus operandi with each of us… He chooses not to remove our free will in making choices and even provides a space for us to repent and own up to our choices.

It is easy to accept His mercy when it is showered upon me, and I appreciate that He has chosen not to slap the death sentence on me each and every time I have deserved it either through sins of action or sins of thought.  But I also must accept that He extends that grace to those that I would rather He not, because they are His children too.  The Lord does not support Injustice, but He has made the decision that His children will be free to serve Him, themselves, others, or the devil if they so choose.  And His patience with each child extends much farther than we would often prefer.  If we were God we would have spared the righteous Abel by stopping the murderous Cain in his tracks.  But that is why it is good that we are not God, because our justice is biased by the sins we understand or find more acceptable than others.  By that logic all of us would already be in our graves to prevent us from committing the sins that each of us have.  God sent His Son to a world populated by sinners so that we would not perish, but so that like the thief on the cross next to Christ we would inherit eternal life, even if it comes in our final breaths.  It may not seem fair, but God’s ways are higher than our ways and His thoughts higher than our thoughts.  And His justice is much higher than our thoughts can understand because His love for us is deeper than any of us can truly comprehend.

The Stigma of a Negative Rating and the Untold Story of The Sneak King (Genesis 35)

It is a mixed blessing living in this digital age of immediate accessibility to information combined with an endless stream of content being generated by people across the planet.  While it is certainly handy to be able to get directions at the push of a button and find answers with a simple query on the nearest smartphone, as a society we have lost something incredibly valuable in the exchange… the ability to discover something new without already having an opinion formed by another’s experience.

Think about it… before you go to a new restaurant you read the ratings to see what others have thought about it.  Maybe you peruse pictures of what the plates of food look like or check social media to see if your friends have tried it.  They may all have completely different ideas on what tastes good but it still influences your decision-making process before you have even gotten in your car.  And it’s no different in the world of gaming, as everyone from official gaming sites to individual personalities on social media forums have a review of each and every game complete with a rating and story synopsis before you have had a chance to consume the experience for yourself.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it can be quite convenient to avoid wasting your valuable currency on a game stuffed full of bugs, or to check the content of a game prior to purchasing to insure it fits what you find appropriate for yourself or your family.  But if one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, it may be possible that a game that you would truly enjoy may simply suffer from negative press and poor ratings from people who simply don’t have the same taste as you.  As a case in point, I would like to present to you in all of its jumbled and unappreciated glory, the magnificence that is Sneak King.

If you are one of the multitudes who missed this, you have denied yourself the opportunity to play as the one and only Burger King in a stealth adventure that requires sharp reflexes, cunning, and a burning desire to surprise your hapless victims with a delicious croissanwich sandwich.  As the titular Burger King, you will climb scaffolds, infiltrate buildings, and most importantly deliver your concealed chicken fries and whoppers to people who must be snuck up on and forcibly given your fast-food offerings.

Not enough for you?  In addition to this awesome setup, you are also tasked with performing a celebratory dance after each successful food attack, which is set up in a risk/reward structure that requires excellent timing and rhythm to pull off.  But if you are truly elite and worthy of wearing the crown that only a true Sneak King can possess, you will not only successfully sneak up undetected on a construction worker as they exit a port-a-potty to hand deliver a tasty whopper sandwich but also top this off with a well-choreographed dancing flourish.  If that synopsis doesn’t make you track down a second-hand copy of this game which is one part Splinter Cell mixed with a healthy dose of budgetary limitations and complete insanity, I’m just not sure we have the same palette for video games.  I hope we can still be friends.

The truth is this game is not for everyone, and reviews for it were pretty unkind.  But because of my love of many terrible games along with the absurdity of the concept I loved it.  And there are many other titles that I have found delightful and entertaining but other gamers and reviewers have not shared my enthusiasm for them. If I had listened to others opinions before forming my own, I may have been steered away from many incredible and unique adventures that I really enjoyed.  But when reviews and previews and just plain VIEWS are so prevalent it’s very difficult to indulge in anything without finding someone else’s opinion on it first and having your outlook adjusted accordingly.

As we have been finding over the past two weeks, names have a special significance in the Bible and in many ways acted as a “preview” of the individual and their path in life.  But sometimes the name can be given unfairly based on the skewed viewpoint of the individual providing the christening, and in the case of Genesis 35 we will find an individual who was on the wrong end of the naming process before they even had a chance to launch.

BEN-ONI/BENJAMIN: Let’s briefly  fill in the background of the situation so we have some context to this tragic story.  Jacob, who has been renamed Israel, has two wives named Leah and Rachel.  They are sisters who have had a fairly bitter rivalry ever since they became “sister wives” and a primary source of competition between the two of them was childbearing.  Simply put, Leah had been tremendously successful in providing her husband with multiple sons but to this point Rachel had achieved a grand total of one.  This was a great source of frustration for Rachel and as we find her in Genesis 35:16 her seeming success with delivering another child would sadly be her swan song in the Scriptures.

This labor was an incredibly difficult one, and giving birth to this child that had meant so much to her just a few short verses earlier brought her to a place of incredible pain and unfortunately to a bitter ending.  As the midwife attempted to provide some good news that Rachel had successfully delivered another male child, all Rachel could see was that this final act would come at the cost of her life.  Drawing her final breaths, the last recorded actions of Rachel was to name her newborn son Ben-Oni, which translated means “Son of my sorrow”.  As her soul departed this plane of existence she placed a horrific burden on this innocent soul who had yet to even open his eyes.

A tragic end to the life of Jacob’s most desired bride, but more importantly a doomed beginning for the infant child who would carry this name for the remainder of his days.  This name would be a constant reminder that his birth had cost his mother her life, and robbed his father of the love of his life.  What an awful amount of baggage to heap on such tiny shoulders.  With no concept of the language he was hearing as this name was uttered, he was already a failed man walking.  And just like an unfair review or a misguided opinion about a game, movie, or any other area of life that can be rated and scored, this happens to us and around us all the time.

Maybe it’s not your given name on your birth certificate, but it was branded on you just the same.  Maybe it was a moment when your parent told you that you would never amount to anything.  Or when a partner in a relationship let you know how much of a failure and disappointment you are.  It could be an employer who destroyed your confidence by informing you that you simply aren’t good enough.  And more to the point, it happens each and every day as people hurl racist, sexist, body-shaming, and hurtful labels and names at others either in person or in an even more cowardly fashion over social media.  And we carry these burdens that were unfairly thrust upon us not realizing that just like Rachel and Ben-Oni, this did not come from an informed place, but a place of pain.

Rachel was reacting to a pain that little Ben-Oni wasn’t even aware of, and he became an unwitting target due to his proximity and inability to resist.  Slapped with a negative review before he had a chance to breathe, this could have cursed this poor child’s entire existence as he wore this shame and was forced to acknowledge it each and every time his name was called.  But this might be where you stop me and say, “Wait a minute… I know all the names of the 12 tribes of Israel and I don’t remember one called Ben-Oni”.  And you would be correct.  Here is your bonus gold star for paying attention in Sunday School.

See, the child’s father knew that this was not who he was and would not let him remain in this cursed state.  While Ben-oni’s birth inadvertently led to Rachel’s death, his father neither blamed him for this nor wanted him to spend his life agonizing over it.  He looked at his child and proclaimed that his name would be Benjamin, which is translated as “Son of my right hand”.  This was a name of strength and confidence.  The right hand represented a favored spot, and was considered a place of honor in seating arrangements.  Jesus is seated at the right hand of God, and when the Father divided the sheep and the goats the sheep were placed on his right hand side.  Jacob refused to let his child be defined by the negative review of one dissatisfied person as he saw something worthy of receiving the favored position in this previously poorly named child.

Like Benjamin, we were born into a cursed name, and I don’t simply mean as sinners although that is also true.  No matter how wonderful or well-meaning the people who raised us have been, at points throughout our lives we have been the recipients of negative reviews, unfair characterizations, ignorant stereotypes, or trapped in a moment where a mistake was made that we cannot remove from our profile.  And each day we carry that 1-star rating over our heads, a neon sign flashing the name we were given that simply won’t stop following us around.  Failure.  Liar.  Thief.  Adulterer.  Loser.  Addict.  Hypocrite.

Now for the good news.  Your Father does not call you by those names.  You are not the child of His sorrow, even though the requirement for you to be birthed as His child did cost the life of His Son. You are also the child of His right hand, and He renamed you as He held you for the first time covered in the blood of His precious Son who died so you could be born.  Gone are the reminders of the pain you didn’t mean to cause.  Erased are the references to a moment you didn’t intend to create.  Banished are the negative attempts to define you from people who lashed out from their pocket of pain to spitefully label you.  He sees beyond the moment to the real you, the one you are becoming and one day will fully be.  And when we choose to call ourselves by that name and see ourselves the way our Father sees us, we can see that those old labels are only used by the misinformed who are still unable to see past their pain.

I hope this encourages you to move past the reviews you have received, even if they are fairly earned.  He was not surprised by how much you cost to become His child, and He considers you well worth the sacrifice.  He has a special name for you… you are the child of His strength, His favored child, the child of His right hand.  Allow His love to erase the damage done by carrying these unkind labels.  He has a better name and a better future chosen for you!

What’s in a Name? Part Two:  The Thor/Loki Dynamic (Genesis 32)

I may be in the minority here, but of all the conflicts that have been setup in the Marvel Cinematic Universe I have found the interplay between the heroic Thor and the villainous Loki to be the most human and compelling. For one, sibling rivalries are always bitter feuds in which neither side ever truly wins. The impact of a falling out between family members unfairly divides the entire family even when those without a dog in the fight attempt to remain impartial. But more than that, it is the juxtaposition between two very different and complex personalities, skill sets, and outlooks on life that sets apart this epic struggle for supremacy between the muscular and manly Thor and his trickster younger brother. And the more I dig into it, the more I realized that I have heard this story before… in the book of Genesis to be specific.
Not sure what I am referring to? Maybe this will help… the story starts with the older brother – a rugged, outdoorsy hunter who was truly a “man’s man”. The heir to his father’s substantial wealth, he was his daddy’s pride and joy. Like a walking Old Spice commercial, he SMELLED like the great outdoors. A little crass and impetuous perhaps, he had little time for household tomfoolery and chased food and wives when he wasn’t chasing down wild game. But this isn’t Thor the heir of Odin’s throne, it is Esau, son of Isaac and heir to the covenant of Abraham. And just like Thor, he has a conniving younger brother who is all too eager to outwit his older sibling and take the throne that he believes is better suited to him. And so it begins…
JACOB/ISRAEL: Now for the entrance of an incredibly complex individual who undergoes one of the most substantial personal arcs in the whole Bible. He explodes onto the scene in Genesis 25 with a birth that announced his nature to the world right from the start and earned him his name. The second born of twins, his hand was clasped to his older brother’s foot as the stronger brother emerged first to presumably claim the birthright as the oldest and dominant brother.
As the younger twin emerged from the birth canal still grasping his brother’s heel he was christened “Jacob”, which literally was defined as “he grasps the heel” and carried the meaning “he deceives”. And as Jacob would live up to his “trickster” reputation for the majority of his days, one has to wonder how much of what comes next was already built into his DNA and how much was the result of receiving such a branding before he even opened his eyes for the first time.
Jacob proceeds to play the “Loki” role to his older brother’s “Thor”, tricking his stronger but less tactical brother into selling him his birthright in a moment of weakness, and then claiming the blessing of his father through an elaborate facade that would make the shape-shifting Loki jealous. Preferred by his mother, the two work together to take advantage of his father’s blindness and through their subterfuge convince Isaac that Jacob is actually Esau. Jacob lies, cheats, and steals the Abrahamic covenant blessing from his own flesh and blood. And much like Loki, his outright theft of the throne was the final nail in the coffin for an already strained relationship between the two brothers, and the trickster chose discretion as the better part of valor and fled, never to see his beloved mother in this life again.
But this wouldn’t be much of a story without a redemptive arc, would it? Despite the despicable means by which he procured it, the blessing was always intended for young Jacob. It was prophesied before his birth that the older brother would serve the younger, but Jacob seemed convinced that he would only achieve the promises of God by taking matters into his own hands. Much like the prodigal son, Jacob didn’t trust the process and made the decision to take by craftiness that which was already His by promise.
Jacob was truly living up to his name, and continued to leverage his deceptive mental acuity rather than lean into his spiritual faith as he made things right for himself through trickery and misdirection. He escaped his childhood home with both the blessing and the birthright, and used some mad science to unscrupulously build himself a fortune in livestock right underneath the nose of his equally duplicitous uncle. And once that jig was up, Jacob made a midnight escape from ol’ Uncle Laban’s farm with a large amount of ill-gotten gain to set him up for his next escapade. But unbeknownst to Jacob, his time was up and the day of reckoning was at hand.
Jacob escaped the wrath of Laban only to find himself heading directly towards his older brother Esau, who was approaching him with four hundred men and twenty years of unresolved issues. Anticipating the worst, Jacob immediately began doing what he does best: calculating the odds of survival and trying to cheat one final victory out of this apparent no-win scenario. After splitting his family and belongings into two separate camps to give at least one group a fighting chance to escape, Jacob prepared two lavish bribes and sent them ahead to soften up his older brother ahead of their meeting. And after having done everything he could think of to survive and fight one more day, he offered a prayer to the Lord, sent his family across the river for safety, and spent his final night before the confrontation alone.
When it is the night before an important meeting at work, a major event like moving, a critical medical exam, or when you are about to be murdered by your enraged older brother and his private army it is very important to get the right amount of rest. Knowing that this was quite possibly the final day in the life of Jacob, you would think he would at least get a final night of peace before walking the green mile. God, however had other plans for this night. There would be no sleep on this night… this truly would be the last day in the life of the conniving Jacob, just not the way he was anticipating.
The Bible captures what happens next with enough ambiguity to keep Bible scholars busy for decades, but the result is still crystal clear. The NKJV says that a “Man” wrestled with Jacob until the breaking of the day. The capitalization of “Man” implies deity, and theories abound as to whether this was an angel, a pre-incarnate manifestation of Jesus Christ, or perhaps God the Father appearing as a man similar to how He appeared to Abraham when discussing the future of Sodom. Rather than engage in a lengthy treatise on the identity of who this mysterious midnight wrestler was, I believe we will benefit more from unfolding the story from Jacob’s point of view. The truth is that regardless of who decided to grapple with him that night, Jacob didn’t know who it was either and was simply responding to an unprovoked attacker on that night. At his breaking point and out of room to retreat, Jacob found himself in a life-or-death struggle that made the problems of tomorrow meaningless. If he didn’t survive this surprise encounter he wouldn’t be around to worry about Esau and what fresh problems the new day would bring.
Jacob may have mentally surrendered to the idea of sacrificing himself to Esau so his family would survive, but he had no intentions of losing this battle and a wrestling match ensued that literally lasted until the sun was coming up. I’m not sure what experience you have with wrestling, but I was on the wrestling team in high school and typically a match wouldn’t last more than a total of six minutes, and that included two time stoppages. And at the end of those six minutes, I would feel like my entire life-force had been drained from my body. It was a battle to see who would either make a critical tactical mistake or reach their exhaustion point first, and literally every muscle in your body was used in your attempt to subdue your opponent. I can only imagine what an all night royal rumble with a divine being would feel like when I was exhausted after six minutes with a 125 lb. high school athlete. Jacob reached deep down and found that there was more to him than being a savvy con man, and at the point that it would have been easiest to give up and simply let this unwinnable situation become the end of his story Jacob persevered and finally took the first step into becoming who he was truly meant to be.
Jacob refused to submit, and the Scripture records that the Being with whom Jacob was engaged in mortal combat with saw that the sun was coming up. This iron man match was running out of time. He then dislocated Jacob’s hip and instructed Jacob to let Him go. Wait… what? Jacob was now the aggressor here? Even with a dislocated hip and no chance of winning? I’m not sure at what point this happened, but somewhere within Jacob’s Wrestlemania matchup with God a moment occurred in which Jacob decided that for the first time he wasn’t going to run and neither was his opponent. This would not end the same way it always had in the past. And when the Lord looked at Jacob, he no longer saw the trickster and deceiver named Jacob. He saw something more. He saw ISRAEL. And when Jacob flatly stated that he would not release his opponent until he received his blessing, Jacob finally received the blessing that he had been searching for his whole life. Not the blessing that he stole from his brother and impersonated to receive from his father. Not the blessing he connived from his uncle. Those blessings didn’t change Jacob, nor did they satisfy him. But with one sentence, the Eternal Potter finally took this difficult lump of clay and transformed it into what it was destined to be.
With the announcement, “Your name will no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have struggled with God and man and have prevailed”, Jacob the heel-grabber finally died and someone new was birthed. As Jacob and his still displaced hip was now left alone to ponder this unique event in human history, he began to realize something had changed and stated that he had a face to face encounter with God and survived it. And even though Esau was still on his way and nothing visibly changed about Jacob’s situation, HE was now changed as he took his first steps in the shoes of Israel, which means, “prince with God”.
Jacob may have been his birth name, but the God who calls things that have not occurred as if they have already happened saw Israel in Him before he was even born. So what name have you been saddled with? What future was baked into you from childhood, even if you were partly to blame? I know many times in my life I have become so tired of being called something negative or accused of doing something wrong that I finally got tired of it and decided if that’s how they see me, then I guess that’s who I will be. It’s a horrible response to be sure, but if I am already labeled as a failure, a loser, or worse than my motivation to prove that person wrong can only go so far before I finally succumb to the weight of the label.
As we saw with Jacob/Israel, it may be human nature to lean into the groove that others have carved for you but God has other plans… He sees the potential within the prodigal. He has a name for you based on the finished product you will be, not the lumpy clay you may currently resemble. He looked at Jacob and saw the nation he was destined to birth and the generations of men and women who would proudly call themselves Israelis in honor of their flawed but determined patriarch. We cannot control the labels others place on us, and it is even harder to remove the stigma attached to the names when we have lived up to those negative attributes previously. But I encourage you to keep on wrestling… keep holding on to the Lord and refuse to quit.
Jacob did not win the fight… he simply never stopped fighting and that was all it took to achieve victory. You may already be exhausted and your situation may be both as urgent and hopeless as Jacob’s… just endure to daybreak. The night will undoubtably seem forever long and your opponent may feel like you are struggling with God Himself… but don’t give up. And when you suffer a seemingly game-changing setback the way Jacob did when had his hip dislodged… pray and fight even harder. Your true nature and destiny will finally emerge as a result of the conflict you are currently battling, and as Jacob learned it is only when you make up your mind that surrender is not an option that the victory can finally be found.

What’s In a Name?  Part One: Scorpio, Switch, and The Labels We Wear (Genesis 17)

Branding is an exceptionally powerful part of the gaming medium, and licenses have either succeeded or failed many times simply due to the effectiveness of the marketing campaign and a catchy title.  The console side of the business is no exception, and over the years you can really gain a lot of insight into both the mindset and the future of a company by how they choose to identify their signature product.  Take Sony for example.  Their very disciplined approach to their brand is exemplified by the simplicity of their naming system, forgoing any sense of creativity and simply labeling each successive system PlayStation 1, 2, 3, 4 and so on.  Simple, easy to understand, and a reflection of their straight-forward consumer approach.

Nintendo, on the other hand, prefers to match to the beat of their own drum with mysterious code-names such as the “Revolution”, “Dolphin”, and “NX” before finally settling on unique constructs such as the Wii or the Switch.  Their playful and creative approach is clearly reflected in their branding choices.  Turn your gaze to the past and you will find the bold but slightly over-reaching gallery of console names from my favorite mistake, Sega.  The promise of names like Genesis, Saturn, and Dreamcast conjure up larger-than-life visions that unfortunately none of these products were able to live up to.  And then you have Microsoft, the company that continues to try to think outside of the box despite literally naming their product a box.  While the Xbox brand name was certainly a catchy start, I’m still trying to figure out what exactly they were trying to accomplish with the “360” moniker and now the even more confusing Xbox 1, which is actually either the Xbox 3 or even higher if you are counting the various redesigns they have created.  And now with the project code-named “Scorpio”, they are poised to release an even more powerful version of their very successful Xbox one, but once again the final name that is chosen will have massive repercussions for years to come.

I am certain that we will have that answer within the next several weeks, and it will be interesting to see if the Scorpio code name actually sticks or if there is a superior branding plan that will more adequately describe this system to prospective buyers.  But this actually reminded me of some Scriptures where God chose to rebrand people by literally changing their name that aligned them with their true purpose.  You may be surprised at how often this happened, and anytime you see God do something more than once there is a pretty good chance there are some insights to be gained from it that we can apply to ourselves.

ABRAM/ABRAHAM and SARAI/SARAH: In Genesis 17 we find that the Lord is in the midst of making a covenant with Abram that would dramatically affect the course of human history.  This was not immediately apparent at the time though, as Abram was nothing more than a financially successful nomad without a single heir to his name.  But the Lord sees all the way through to the endgame, and despite  Abram’s advanced age and Sarai’s empty womb a promise is made.  And to seal the deal on this, God decided that a full “under new ownership” sign would be planted on the birth certificates for each of them.

Abram had the misfortune of having a name that meant “exalted father”, which is a bit rough when you consider he was rocking an empty cradle with Sarai.  And the meaning of names held great importance in those days as we will find over the next several examples, so each time Abram had to introduce himself as the “exalted father” it is likely that he would be asked, “Oh, really?  How many children do you have?”  Probably not ever a fun question to answer.  I am assuming it would be kind of like me introducing myself to everyone with the name “Brad Pitt”, then watching their amused looks of pity as they compare me to someone who I have very little in common with visually.  Other than the fact that we both have the same number of limbs, it’s a bit of a poor match.  And Abram was reminded every day when he heard his name that he was a walking oxymoron, a complete photo-negative of what his name implied.

So when God makes this covenant with Abram, He goes beyond mere words.  The Father changes both the names of Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah with the explanation that simply being exalted father was setting a low bar.  The Lord saw that empty womb as the birthing point for not just many children, but a NATION.  Indeed, Abraham’s new name meant “father of many nations”, and the genealogy of much of the world can be traced back to this one man with the seemingly embarrassing and   deceptive name.

We may not put as much emphasis on names and their meaning as a society, but we are all familiar with LABELS and how they can have a very similar impact on how we perceive ourselves, how we perceive God, and how others perceive us and our relationship with God.  For example, if I say the phrase, “Unmarried pregnant teenager” that conjures a certain mental picture in many people’s minds, and it is probably less than flattering.  But labels can be deceiving, because I was actually referring to Mary the mother of Jesus Christ right there.  Funny how a preconceived notion about a label can skew your viewpoint, right?  Or what if I asked you how you felt about racist, hypocritical, occasionally vulgar outdoorsman and whether he should be a pastor?  What image comes to mind?  Is it the apostle Peter, who along with the other apostles looked down on Gentiles and Samaritans as lesser people and denied his Lord with curses?  Probably not, but the label is accurate.

So now for my question to you.  What labels do you carry, fairly or otherwise?  Maybe you earned your poor reputation like Peter, or perhaps you were unfairly mis-characterized like Mary.  Either way, you are not bound to those or the shame they carry any more than Abram was left to carry the ignominy of a name that may have matched who he was, but not who he would BE and how he would be remembered.  If that hits you on the nose, rest assured it does the same for me as well.  And in our next case study we will dive into someone whose name may have been accurate, but it also invites a “what came first, the label or the behavior?” question.

Until next week, remember that the label you were born under and have carried for your entire life does not define you, and it’s not how God sees you.  To the world Abraham was anything but a father, but to the Lord he was the father of many nations.  Just because it hasn’t happened yet has no bearing on the view of the One who sees the end from the beginning.  And He sees the finale to your story from the start as well and  has rejected the cruel inferences of how you have already been cast.

You are not the divorced one, the broken one, the abused one, the angry one, or the useless one, even if you have experienced these things.  You are not defined as the convict, the hopelessly addicted, or the lost cause.  You may have betrayed some people, disappointed others, and you have probably failed multiple times… welcome to the party.  I’ll join you at that table.  Those labels are not your future and they aren’t going on your name tag.  Embrace the name He has given you, even if you don’t look like it yet.  Abraham didn’t suddenly have a nation of children surrounding him when the Lord renamed him, but I have a pretty good feeling you know many of his children now.  There’s  not a corner of this earth that has not been impacted by the nations of children that were just waiting to be birthed from Abraham, and He has called you to birth something on this planet as well.  The Lord didn’t fashion a single cell of our body that does not serve a purpose, and He didn’t waste a single day of creation making something simply to say, “Never mind on that, what was I thinking?” and wad it up and toss it away like a poor sketch on a piece of paper.  He is very intentional about each life He grants, and while your purpose may not always be apparent it is still baked into your name just the same.  As we will see next week, who you have been isn’t always who you will be…

Inconceivable:  Mario Party Shenanigans and The First Time God Lost (Ezekiel 28:11-19)

There are certain consistent laws within the world of gaming that are not written in any tech manual nor are they engraved on stone tablets hidden somewhere in Silicon Valley, but they exist nonetheless.  For example, it is a universal law that all gaming villains must have a burning need to import wooden boxes and explosive barrels and to scatter these liberally wherever they go.  It is an unwritten requirement that any keys for doors should always be placed as far as possible from the lock they open and whenever possible stuck in an incredibly difficult position to reach without risking severe pain or death.  Not sure how the enemies planned on opening that door in the future, but I suppose we all have our idiosyncrasies.

But more than any other gaming trope such as protagonist amnesia, the villain was your best friend, or that your princess is in another castle there is one constant.  One law that cannot be broken.  And that rule is that no matter how skilled you are, and no matter how well you play…. all Mario Party games hate you and will steal all your stars right before the end of the game.

I am a Mario aficionado, and I have faithfully purchased each and every Mario Party console game in the hopes that this time we will achieve balance in the Force.  When played with your family or a group of friends Mario Party is crazy fun, and well worth repeated play.  But if you are that poor, lonely soul who is attempting to play it solo or if you are trying to unlock certain features by playing against the computer AI… you are hopelessly doomed to the curse of having all of your hard work erased by one unlucky roll of the dice.

It never fails… I will set every AI player to the lowest possible difficulty setting (on the intelligence scale something between carpet fiber and taco shell) and proceed to dominate the mini games and collect star after star in my chase for the prize.  And then… it HAPPENS.

Lying before me are LITERALLY twenty safe spaces that I can happily land on and Toad will bring me cookies and milk while Yoshi gives me a deep cranial massage.  All but one numerical combination is completely and utterly safe. But nestled inconspicuously in the middle of all those pleasant, happy, non-controller throwing spaces is the one space I cannot afford to land on… the Bowser space of doom. There is literally only one roll of the dice that will land me on that terrible space, but like a moth drawn to its fatal flame my dice roll has only one number on its mind.

The dice roll of doom commences, my character gleefully marches to his destruction, Bowser stomps me into oblivion and gives me negative stars while lavishing untold riches on all of my competitors, and the cycle of Mario Party robbery perpetuates for another day.  As the rubber band nature of the game insures that once again I snatch defeat from the jaws of certain victory, I am left considering how my utter domination in all of the mini games and superior strategy in board movement was obliterated in one moment.  My prowess simply did not prevent me from succumbing to the inevitable… the free will of the computer AI to completely alter my happily ever after into another nightmarish loss.

Over the last several weeks we have reviewed multiple lives across numerous Scriptures and found how the Lord used each of the losses that occurred for each circumstance to serve a particular purpose. As we reach the end of this collection of thoughts on the lives of a few individuals from the “Bible Hall of Fame” throughout the centuries, let’s take a moment and recap what we have uncovered

  • Job lost his children, his finances, and his health so God could REPLACE them and establish who gives and who takes away.
  • David and his men lost their wives, children, and all of their belongings so God could RESTORE them and show His protection.
  • Ruth lost her husband and had to move away from her people and her entire way of life so God could REDEEM her and all of humanity.
  • Jacob lost his son Joseph so God could RESCUE him and his entire family in the future.
  • Abraham lost his dream and offered his son Issac as a sacrifice because the Lord REQUIRED his obedience to enact the blessing.
  • David lost his baby, his reputation, his protective blessing and several sons so God could REPROVE him.
  • Hosea lost the innocence and purity of his marriage so God could teach him and all of us RECONCILIATION.
  • Nehemiah lost his nation and his city so God could show him how to REBUILD.
  • Lazarus lost his life so God can prove He RESURRECTS.
  • Paul lost daily to his thorn in the flesh so God could demonstrate that sometimes He REFUSES, but always with a purpose.
  • John the Baptist lost his freedom and eventually his head so he could learn that God REASSURES.
  • Leah lost the love of her husband so God could REWARD her for her faithfulness.
  • John the Revelator lost everything he called home so God could RESTRAIN him long enough to receive the book of Revelation.

I have found myself reflected in each of these cases of loss at some point or another in my life, and I am enduring some of them right now. But simply relating to each of these lives and the challenges they faced is not the purpose of reviewing these circumstances. It is nice to know that others have felt the same way that we are feeling, and it is very important to learn from their stories so we can overcome these challenges positively and productively in our own lives. But to treat the Bible as a self-help book is to miss the point entirely. It is a GOD-help book, and it exists to guide us in our understanding of Him. So to dig a bit deeper it is time to dive into the final subject on our countdown… the Father Himself.
When I got to the end of this last group of studies, a picture of God as one who has endured loss, suffered pain, and is reaching out for love has emerged.   But to be honest, it almost seems sacrilegious and borderline blasphemous to consider the idea of God losing anything. I mean, He’s God right? The Creator of all things, the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent Lord. How can He possibly experience loss? The truth is that He was the original member of the Survivor’s Club before mankind ever came on the scene, and He has been getting hit with losses ever since. Not sure what I’m talking about? Time to explore…
In Ezekiel 28:11-19 we find the prophet Ezekiel being directed by God to take up a lamentation for the king of Tyre, but it becomes clear very quickly that this is no mere flesh and blood human that is being described here. This Scripture is pointing to the being behind the earthly king, Lucifer himself. Let’s break this down… he is described as the “seal of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. ” He was in Eden, the garden of God. He is described as being covered with every precious stone and his voice is described as having being “prepared for him on the day he was created”. This was a hand-crafted being of surpassing excellence, the “annointed cherub”.  Bear in mind this entire section of Scripture is defined as a lamentation. In Hebrew this word (qinah) means a dirge, a sad and melancholy song of loss that is used to mourn a death or impending doom. God is instructing Ezekiel to record this bitter melody that comes straight from the broken heart of God. His best and brightest creation, the one He designed flawlessly decided in Isaiah 14:12-14 to raise himself up and lead a rebellion against His loving Creator. And he gave the Lord no choice but to punish him and cast him out of heaven, taking one-third of his fellow angels with him on the way out.
Before Adam took his first breath, God had already lost a third of his created beings and the one he had placed in the most prominent position, the one He called “the son of the morning”. The fall of Lucifer clearly hurt, but this was only the beginning of the pain for our Lord. He created a man and a woman and placed them in a perfect world, and they too rebelled and He lost His previously untarnished relationship with His children. And because of their choices man lost authority over the planet God had given him and gave it directly to Lucifer. The Father then chose one nation to be His own special chosen people, and He lost his fellowship with them more times than I can count. And when He sent His Son down to make peace between God and man, well… He lost Him too because we crucified Him.
God’s story is one of experiencing more tragic losses than one human lifetime can possibly imagine. The losses we experience in this life actually brings us closer to understanding the nature, the character, and the very heartbeat of God more than anything else we experience. The truth is the love story of the Creator and His creation is a story filled with a whole lot of losing. He lost his angels, His first man and woman, His chosen children, His planet…. His Son. And is through our losing that something truly impactful happens: God RELATES to us. The same Jesus who wept over Lazarus, the same Father who wrote a lamentation over the loss of his angels, the same Holy Spirit who is grieved by our actions… He feels ALL of the same feelings that we do. He has been feeling them for all eternity. He understands loneliness, betrayal, heartbreak, separation… all of these and so much more. And when we experience these times in our lives our loving Father can put His arm around you and truly say, “I understand. I have been hurt the same way too”.
Realizing we serve a God who fully relates to us is the most important of all of these lessons to learn. And once we fully grasp that, we can begin to make progress on what the true plan of God is for each of us. He didn’t send His Son to save you from hell, though that is an awesome part of the benefit package. And He didn’t send Him just so He could bring you to heaven, although that’s also part of the deal. He made mankind for a RELATIONSHIP. He sent His Son to restore that relationship by reconciling the sin problem that separated us from a Holy God. Becoming “saved” is kind of like walking into a house. You are simply inside the house now, whereas you were previously outside of the house. But the reason you came in was to have fellowship with those who are inside the house, and becoming saved is just a first step towards creating a day-in, day-out growing relationship with the Lord.
He is seeking that relationship. The losses we experience help us understand Him better and grow closer to Him.  He is available right now, and He is asking us to place our trembling hands into His nail-scarred palms. He has felt your pain. He has cried your tears. He has lost in the same ways and deeper than any of us will ever know. He has been cheated on and betrayed, lied about and lied to, beaten and murdered, hated and mocked…. He understands, and He relates to everything you will ever go through. And now He is reaching out to each and every one of us, all fellow survivors in this Survivor’s Club for Losing, to give your life fully and truly to Him. Not in an abandoning, “Here you go Jesus, see what you can do with this mess” sort of way. But in the way that a husband and a wife give themselves to each other… in an active daily relationship between two hearts that grow together not only when things are good, but in the winning AND the losing.

I pray more than anything else that this helps you reassess the nature of your relationship with your Creator just as it has challenged mine. I have carried a negative view of those things I have lost and allowed myself to think of myself as a “loser” as a result. But now I see much of my pain reflected in a God who is anything but a loser.  I have found that it is not my circumstances that always need to change, but my understanding of what losing really is. And in the eco-system of the Kingdom, it takes LOSING your life to find it. It takes coming in LAST place to truly take first prize.  By the world’s definition, we have all chosen the path of losers and follow a God who not only allows this, but is an active participant in our losses.

Now while I am still personally turning the corner in my thinking on a daily basis, I am finally coming to understand that not only do these all serve a greater purpose, but they help me truly understand my Lord for maybe the first time. He is the Man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. And He wants to grow closer in relationship with me through my tragedies and setbacks. He aspires to be more than my Provider, even though He surely is that. And Savior is certainly in His job description, but that was not why He made me. That’s how He bought me back. He is the lover of my soul, and He longs to be that for you as well. Let your sorrow, your grief, your disappointment and your pain push you into the arms of the One who truly understands. And like those brave souls who blazed the trails before us, we can be proud to wear our Survivor’s Club badge as a true achievement as we join with Him both now and into the age to come.

Achievement Unlocked?  How to Know if You Are Marrying God for the Money (Numbers 22-25)

It’s time for a confession.  It’s a dark secret from my past that haunts me to this day, and I have tried to run from it but it is branded into me like the proverbial scarlet letter.  It brings me great shame, but I simply cannot erase this from my history… my hope is that you do not judge me when you read these words.

I was once an achievement hunter.  And no, not one of those people who tried to get all of the achievements in good games or spent extra time searching for skulls on Halo.  I had it BAD, man.  I bought and played ALL of the Burger King games.  On PURPOSE.  I played Avatar: The Burning Earth just for the easy 1000 points exploit.  I played through GUN on each difficulty level to get all of the achievements.  And to my shame, I have achievements in awful games such as Vampire Rain and Lost: Via Domus simply because of my addiction.  I intentionally bought and played terrible games and titles I wasn’t even interested in (hello hockey) just for these “achievements”, or trophies in the vernacular of our Sony friends.

I drove through the slums of gaming to gain these arbitrary measures of accomplishment, and now these are forever etched into my gamer score for all to see.  Instead of playing games I really enjoyed regardless of the reward, I spent countless hours trying to score a handful of points that at this stage of my life have absolutely no meaning or value whatsoever.  I haven’t paid attention to an “achievement unlocked” notification in years.  My gaming opportunities are so limited now I simply have no time for anything less than an experience that me and my family truly enjoy together.

While this is obviously being treated humorously, I have stumbled upon a much more serious truth that I believe warrants examination.  When I was playing these games, I wasn’t playing them for their designed purpose of enjoyable entertainment, but instead for what they could give me in the terms of gratification in my gamerscore status.  And when I consider my relationship with God a similar thought occurred to me… why do I serve God?  Simply to avoid hell?  For a ticket into heaven?  For the benefit of easing my guilty conscience and freedom from my sin burden?  Am I marrying God for His money?  Do I serve Him for the benefits, the health plan, and the pension?  Do I truly know Him and love Him for who He is?

This next man we will review as we ponder this is a very curious figure in the Old Testament, a prophet of God who seemed to be guided by two very different and conflicting priorities.  Nowhere in Scripture is the visual of a double-minded man more clearly demonstrated than in this text.  Jump with me to the book of Numbers chapter 22 as we find the prophet Balaam ready for his close-up…

King Balak, the ruler of Moab, realizes that the Israelite people who have recently escaped slavery in Egypt are now on a collision course with his nation.  Aware that he is no match for them in battle, he asks for a little over-the-counter help in the form of a curse from the local prophet Balaam.  But when Balaam goes to the Lord for His word on the situation, Jehovah is more than clear whose side he is on and refuses to give Balaam anything that would hinder the Israelite approach.

Balaam declined the king’s request, but Balak was not going down that easily.  He sent a more substantial celebrity entourage along with the promise of a lavishly rich payment, and Balaam asked his distinguished guests to stay the night so he could “see what else the Lord will tell me”.  Balaam is quite obviously torn, as he says the right thing by informing his audience that he can only say what he is given by God, but his desire for the fame and fortune that await him if he finds a way to comply with the king’s desire has him asking God if He is sure about this whole blessing Israel thing.  Beware of going back to God when he has already clearly and cleanly given an answer… as Balaam is about to find out there are consequences for pushing God for a yes when he has clearly said no.

The next morning Balaam sets out on his road trip of disobedience, packing up his donkey for the journey ahead.  But verse 22 captures the very concerning statement, “Then God’s anger was aroused because he went”.  Balaam was trying to have his cake and eat it too, and the Lord was having none of it and sent an angel to block his path.  Balaam stubbornly pressed his donkey onward despite the even more stubborn animal doing everything in its power to avoid the path that led to a sword-bearing angel and what would appear to be a fairly brutal death.  The donkey, seeing more clearly than the money hungry Balaam, finally laid down in the road and the furious prophet began beating his disobedient animal in a rage.  And then, as if this whole debacle wasn’t already absurd enough… the donkey spoke.

It’s a sad day for Balaam when his lust for money and success have blinded him to the point that a jackass can see his folly more clearly than he can.  And when the voice within this poor animal emerges Balaam isn’t even surprised.  He actually begins a conversation with the beast, as he questions the animals recent actions and the donkey replies with some fairly reasonable logic… you know, for a donkey.  And when the Lord opens Balaam’s eyes to see the angel that is blocking his path, he finally seems to see the light and realize his itinerary was not in keeping with what he had already being clearly instructed by God.

Balaam is permitted to continue on towards Moab, and I have a feeling there was pretty awkward silence between him and the donkey for the rest of the trip.  Upon his arrival King Balak begins to light into Balaam for the delay, but Balaam is a bit ornery from this whole thing and pushes right back, telling this powerful king that he is essentially powerless in this whole equation and can do nothing more than speak what he has been given.  Balak seems to sense the tension and drops his complaint, and together they proceed to their first stop with a perfect panoramic view of the people of Israel.

Now the sense of humor of God is clearly demonstrated.  After going through all of the motions of altars and burnt sacrifices to get the Lord’s attention, Balaam returns with an oracle to share.  To King Balak’s utter dismay, Balaam issues a four verse blessing on the very people Balak was paying Balaam to curse.  Talk about a bait and switch!  Furious, Balak takes Balaam to a new location where he can only see a small portion of the Jewish nation. It seems his logic was that if he can’t get them all, maybe he can get just the weak ones on the outer perimeter.  But this time Balaam returns with a SEVEN verse blessing even more substantial than the last. That seems to be counter-productive to say the least.  But Balak is not a man to stop while he is behind… no, he is going to double down until he loses the house.

Balak’s online course in real estate continues to pay off as he decides the issue must be location, location, location.  This time he takes Balaam to a wilderness outlook, where he won’t be able to see the Israelite people at all.  I suppose he figured out of sight, out of mind, out of blessing range?  Considering we have had everything from angels of death, talking donkeys, and now three different changes of venue I suppose we can’t be surprised that he is following his foolish thought process to its inevitable conclusion. He’s in too deep now.  Balaam on the other hand, he is harder to figure out.  He knows the score here, yet he continues to play along hoping that at some point something will work out and he will be able to get that elusive forbidden payday.

Attempt number three nets an additional seven verse blessing for the Jews and later in the chapter nine more verses spelling disaster for the remaining enemies they faced in the land. Balak has reached his boiling point and informs the prophet that he has had enough, and the deal was off.   Balaam seems to have come to his senses and explains to the king one final time that he is a servant of the Lord and can only speak what he is told, and they prepare to go their separate ways.  Time to wrap this one up and head to morale of the story, right?  Balaam and the donkey leap in the air and share a high-five as the scene freezes and their theme music hits?  If only we had such a happy ending.

Immediately in the next chapter, just as we see Balaam riding off into the sunset after unloading days of blessings in the people of Israel we find the Jewish people begin to commit harlotry with the women of Moab.  Yes, King Balak’s Moab, for those of you keeping track of such things.  And as they fell into sinful debauchery they began worshipping  false gods as well, giving God no choice but to punish them.  Twenty-four THOUSAND were killed in a plague sent by God for their sin.  What Balak couldn’t pay Balaam enough for, namely to curse the children of God, sin would accomplish for free.   The question is, where did this come from?  And to find that answer we have to turn all the way to Revelation 2:14 for the final twist to be revealed.

Let’s let this verse stand on its own in full quotation.  “But I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality.”  Whoa.  While this is clearly being written to a church in the New Testament, a light is shown on the mystery of how Balaam found a way to curse the Jews after all.  Balaam could not curse them personally, but he knew that their sin would bring a curse that would far exceed anything he could generate.  He TAUGHT Balak what they were susceptible to, Balak sent some people to lead them astray, and Balak got the curse he wanted after all.  It doesn’t say if Balaam got his payday, but I highly doubt he did any of this for free after all he went through.

So now back to us.  As I question the nature of my commitment to God, I have to genuinely ask myself if I am headed towards the path of Balaam.  Do I serve Him regardless of His blessings, or is what I gain from this relationship the primary motivation in my heart of hearts?  He is not merely a “get out of hell free card”, nor is He our Sugar Daddy to give us a mansion just over the hilltop. He is our Creator, and He yearns for a personal, one-on-one, daily relationship with each of His children. As we grow, endure, and overcome the challenges of our lives He desires to be our friend, our Father, and our primary source of comfort and sustenance.  And the only way to avoid the epic fail that is Balaam is to allow Him to redirect us when we start to drift the wrong direction and to serve Him for the RIGHT reasons in the first place.

Yes, He is rich beyond our wildest dreams, more powerful than we can comprehend, and He is serious about what is recorded in His word. But we are invited as the bride at the marriage supper of the Lamb because we have fallen in love with Him over the course of our lives here on earth. This is not one of those “arranged marriages” where we will meet Him for the first time when we get there. He is available NOW, and He is asking us to truly get to know Him and follow Him because of love, not for gain.  As Balaam shows us, following God for the benefit package and trying to use our relationship with Him for selfish gain never ends well.

As we close, a few parting thoughts.  When the Lord redirects us from something that appears to be a highly lucrative opportunity, it is not because He is issues with blessing us.  But if those blessings for us will result in potentially damaging others, in this case His chosen people, He will do everything in His power to turn you away from that path.  It is at these forks in the road that we make it clear where our loyalty lies… do we follow Him even as it leads away from fame and fortune, or do we use the gifts He has given us for selfish benefit to appease the desires of the world?  Can we cling to Him when a life of luxury is waved in our face?

The health of our relationship with God is revealed by how easily our head can be turned towards sin, and as I am left to consider if I am truly serving Him fully and for the right reasons I have to look deep into these questions for myself.  I do want to go to heaven, and in comparison hell seems like a highly undesirable plan B.  But not because of streets of gold or an excellent dental plan.  I want to spend eternity with the Creator who listens to me when I am driving in my car and need His comfort, or when I am struggling with anger or depression and need His peace.  And each day I want to build on that relationship.  I don’t want a surprise when I meet Him… I want to embrace the One who I have been having a long-distance relationship with all along.