The Candy Within: The Dark Side of Viva Pinata (Psalm 51)

I just couldn’t do it.  I knew it was the only way to move forward.  The game’s progress was contingent upon my willingness to make a sacrifice that I simply couldn’t bring myself to make.  The cost was just too great and as I looked in the eyes of little “Wormie”, despite what the game required, I chose to decline the choice presented to me and instead opted to simply stop playing.  These statements may need some context… allow me to explain.

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Viva Pinata appears to be a cheerful, family friendly gardening simulator.  “APPEARS” is the operative word in that sentence.  You start out with a small, humble plot of land to begin your garden and the first inhabitant of your little slice of heaven is a simple little worm.  It lacks color, has no home, and is pretty easy to convince to stay.  He has pretty low expectations, being a worm and all.  As you progress you can build your little worm a home so he can convince a second worm to build a life together with him in your cheerful little homestead.  You can name them, dress them with cute little scarves, and eventually the worms will do what two little worms are gonna do.  Next thing you know, you have a whole happy family of worms living together in your garden paradise.  So far so good, right?

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Unfortunately, this is not what the game considers progression.  Inside each of your little pinatas lies something very important… CANDY.  I know, that comes as a surprise.  But in order to access said candy, the pinata has to be “broken”.  And that is a more violent process than I was prepared to endure.  To get another type of pinata to come and stay in your garden, they will first need to eat a pinata that currently lives there.  For example, the bird will need to eat a worm.  And my worms had not been bred for being eaten.  They were a family with their little names and outfits and such.  But to get to the next stage of the game, I would have to accept that a moment of becoming “broken” was the price of admission.

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In Psalm 51 you can find the prayer of David after his moral failure with Bathsheba.  David is very direct with his words and paints a very visceral picture of this concept of “brokenness”.

Psalm 51: 16-17: For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart— These, O God, You will not despise.

David had to endure a season of becoming “broken” to advance to the next level with the Lord.  Now his was due to a sin he had committed, but as we will find this is not the only reason we encounter times of being broken in our walk with God.  Indeed, the act of being broken is a prerequisite to the final stages of fulfilling one’s destiny in multiple occasions.  Job exhibited exceptional brokenness as he cried out to the Lord in his suffering through his many trials.   Prophets such as Elijah, Jeremiah, and Isaiah each faced painful broken periods in which they asked for death, release, or at least a reprieve from the journey they were on.  But the fruit would only be exposed once they had been broken on the potter’s wheel.  Now I know what you are thinking…  how about one more for the road?

Asked and answered.  The most famous and well-known case of brokenness comes to us from our Lord and Savior Himself, the man Christ Jesus.  In a verse that is typically utilized in every instance of partaking Communion, we read how His body was BROKEN for us as a means of saving us:

1 Cor: 11:23-26 For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.”For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes.

Brokenness is not only the path… it is the destination.  It is where Jesus fulfilled his destiny and accomplished His purpose on this earth.  And no matter how you got to where you are now, through sin or obedience, it is the path to and THROUGH the broken place that the critical parts of you that are inside are broken and spilled out in a way that brings others to the garden.  Fortunately for all of us, our Heavenly Father loves us enough to lead us through the valley of the shadow of death.  He knows not only what we can endure, but He knows our true breaking point and what reaching that point will yield.  And He gathers exactly who will need the unique “candy” that our brokenness will generate to be there at the perfect time in our lives.  So don’t hide from the stick that breaks your pinata open… endure.  It is at the apex of your shatter point that you can truly feed those around you in need.

 

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Metal Gear Revisited: Right Card Key, Wrong Temperature (Jeremiah 1)

Not every game can stand the test of time.  Don’t believe me?  For every Super Mario Bros. or Legend of Zelda that looks and feels just as solid as you remember it, there are those poor monsters that simply were not meant to enter into this millenium.  Go ahead and dig that old PS1 out and give Bubsy 3D a try.  Wait… before you start place a wastebasket next to you just in case the motion sickness hits you too quickly.  So many games transported me to another place when I first played them, yet after all these years they are almost unrecognizable.  Fortunately, the original Metal Gear Solid is everything you remember, and the characters and the unique challenges they present still feel fresh even after all of these years.  But… that keycard backtracking though….

For those who have not indulged in this particular mission, a brief synopsis.  As you are attempting to stop a nuclear warhead launch you are tasked with inputting three card keys into three separate terminals.  Sounds easy, but the problem is you only have ONE key.  How can one key operate three separate terminals that each require a unique input?  And that’s where the twist comes in… your card key was actually ALL THREE KEYS.  In order to activate the terminals the key had to change shape and the only way to do this was to bring the key to areas that would change the temperature.  The key had to be entered into one terminal at room temperature, placed into another terminal after being exposed to high heat, and inserted into the final terminal after it had been frozen in an arctic environment.

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Now, this does result in some slightly unenjoyable backtracking to a couple of the areas that present the optimal environment to create the change in the key that would allow it to serve its purpose.  But it is all part of the process that allows this one key to serve each of these unique purposes while still being the same key the entire time.  It is the abrupt and distinct changes in the temperature and the pressure of the environment that alters the key into the shape that is required for it to serve it’s purpose.

We all go through phases of life that are meant to mold and make us into the people we are meant to be.  But these phases are rarely what we would choose or imagine.  In Jeremiah 1 we find the man who would go onto become the infamous “weeping prophet” receiving his commission from the Lord in verses 4-8:

Jeremiah 1:4-10: Then the word of the Lord came to me, saying: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; Before you were born I sanctified you; I ordained you a prophet to the nations.”  Then said I: “Ah, Lord God! Behold, I cannot speak, for I am a youth.”  But the Lord said to me: “Do not say, ‘I am a youth,’ For you shall go to all to whom I send you, And whatever I command you, you shall speak.  Do not be afraid of their faces, For I am with you to deliver you,” says the Lord Then the Lord put forth His hand and touched my mouth, and the Lord said to me: “Behold, I have put My words in your mouth.     

Sounds pretty inspiring… who wouldn’t want to be told that they were chosen and formed from the point of conception for such an important mission?  And given the words to say for each situation fresh from the throne of God Himself?  Sounds pretty reassuring, right?  Pretty grand destiny ahead for this young man… unfortunately his path was not as smooth as this start may have seemed to imply.

Jeremiah was given the challenging role of preaching to a people who would never listen to him, as evidenced in Jeremiah 7:27  “Therefore you shall speak all these words to them, but they will not obey you. You shall also call to them, but they will not answer you.”  He had what may the most undesirable position in the entire Old Testament… a front row seat to the fall of Jerusalem.  But it would be from this pressure cooker that he would both preach and write the definitive tome on the fall as well as prophecy the eventual rise of the nation of Israel once again.

Much like the key cards in Metal Gear, it would be the rising temperature of the challenges he faced that would shape Jeremiah as he proceeded with the message he was burdened to deliver.  And this path took a heavy toll, with Jeremiah proclaiming in chapter 20:

Cursed be the day in which I was born! Let the day not be blessed in which my mother bore me!  Let the man be cursed Who brought news to my father, saying, “A male child has been born to you!” Making him very glad.  And let that man be like the cities Which the Lord overthrew, and did not relent; Let him hear the cry in the morning And the shouting at noon, Because he did not kill me from the womb, That my mother might have been my grave, And her womb always enlarged with me. Why did I come forth from the womb to see labor and sorrow, That my days should be consumed with shame?

When you are hating your own birthday party, you know you are having a rough day.  And in all seriousness, I have been there more times than I can count.  But whether it was the high heat of enduring the pain of delivering an unpopular message to a hostile audience or the ice-cold feeling of being all alone in his predicament, his key card was still exactly what it needed to be for the moment he was in.

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I don’t know which season you are enduring… the pressure and heat of the furnace or the frigid cold of loneliness and despair.  But I DO know that the word that the Lord gave you when everything was room temperature has not changed. And in order for you, the key, to be effective in each season of your life He may change the environment enough for you to be shaped into exactly what your current situation needs.  Different times and different places will require different growth and changes from you, just as Jeremiah found as his situation continually deteriorated.    He was in and out of prison, forsaken by all at various points, and his pulpits ranged from the king’s palace to the stocks in the public square.  In the end, he delivered the message he was given and fulfilled his calling regardless of his external situation fluctuated.

Jeremiah may not sound like the most reassuring story, but it is a true, real-world example of what being a follower of Christ actually looks like.  And we can find encouragement in how he endured these seasons even as his card key had to painfully adjust to an ever-changing set of external factors bent on tearing him down.  In the end, these challenges were what shaped him into exactly what the situation called for.  And it is the same way with each of us.  Don’t resist the potters touch as he shapes you into what your path calls for.  And He may reshape you several times as your journey continues based on the unique needs of your mission field.  Just hold fast to the knowledge that He chose you for this because for someone you are the ONLY key that will fit when the time is right, and it will be BECAUSE of the heat/cold you endured that you are now in the right place at the right time.

Game Of The Year? A Game For Every Season (Ecclesiastes 3)

We have finally reached the end of the year, and what a year it has been for the gaming industry.  There was truly something for everyone in 2017… do you like brand new technological advancements?  If so Microsoft dropped the most powerful console ever made with the XB1X and Nintendo revolutionized the industry with their hybrid console/handheld dubbed the “Switch”.  Maybe epic gaming is more your fancy, and this year certainly didn’t disappoint with massive franchise releases such as Legend of Zelda, Mario Odyssey, Destiny 2, and Call of Duty.  VR came to life with new releases that are finally starting to deliver on the lofty promises of this promising new tech, retro gaming is running wild… and if you like awful, horrible abominations of games there were even titles for YOU such as Marvel Vs. Capcom Infinite.  Because… well, it’s just terrible.

So as we wrap up 2017 it would be kind of apropos to think about what would set one game apart from the rest and earn the honor of being named “The Game of the Year”.  All the cool blogs and websites are doing it, so why not?  Everyone loves a good, healthy internet list populated with opinions by “professional critics” on why your game is not as good as you think it is, right?  But as I pondered the idea of what would constitute the best game release of the year, a more subtle truth surfaced.  What your interpretation of the best title of the year was is really going to be determined by your personal experience… not just with that particular game, but with where you are in your particular season of life when you played it.

For example, if you have a great deal of friends to play with then perhaps a title such as Destiny 2 or Call of Duty gave you your favorite gaming moments of the year.  Maybe this year was an emotional rollercoaster for you and a connection to a moment in a title like Horizon Zero Dawn truly resonated with you.  Whatever the moment, whatever the feeling, your game of the year may be totally different from mine because you walked a different path and were in a different place mentally and emotionally when you experienced it.  And in Ecclesiastes 3 we find the wisest man of all time facing a similarly personal introspective moment in which he looks back at not just a year, but his entire life…

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8: To everything there is a season, A time for every purpose under heaven: A time to be born, And a time to die; A time to plant, And a time to pluck what is planted; A time to kill, And a time to heal; A time to break down, And a time to build up; A time to weep, And a time to laugh; A time to mourn, And a time to dance; A time to cast away stones, And a time to gather stones; A time to embrace, And a time to refrain from embracing; A time to gain, And a time to lose; A time to keep, And a time to throw away; A time to tear, And a time to sew; A time to keep silence, And a time to speak; A time to love, And a time to hate; A time of war, And a time of peace.

  First of all, if you aren’t humming that song right now I will confess to being mildly  disappointed.  I feel like I set that up pretty well for you there.  But secondly, within these moderately well-known verses lies the entirety of the human experience… the highs, the lows, the joy of victory, and the agony of defeat.  At this stage in King Solomon’s life he had amassed incomparable wealth, conquered or made peace with the entire known world, and was globally renowned for his wisdom and greatness.  And even with all of the advantages and unparalleled successes he experienced over the course of his life, he endured seasons that were diametrically opposed to each other.  He enjoyed times of building, but he also endured times of tearing things down.  Sometimes he danced (Just Dance 2018 anyone?), and others he mourned (pretty much anyone that has tried to play Cuphead).  His life was not one of constantly ascending perfection, but rather a running river that ebbed and flowed between the agony and the ecstasy of life in the real world, even for a mighty king.

The segment of this chapter that speaks to me the most is in verse 11, when he writes:

Ecclesiastes 3:11 He has made everything beautiful in its time.

This means that both the good and the bad, the weeping and the laughing, the winning and the losing are all beautiful in their own way because He made them that way.  Just as there is a game and an experience that can be perfect for each individual at the right time in their lives, the truth is that each moment of our life on this earth, each challenge, and each tragedy are also part of that beauty that makes up our existence on this plane.  And while I know that can sound a bit trite for those who are enduring the negative side of the equation right now, the beauty is not always revealed immediately.  It is revealed “In Its TIME”.

A seed that eventually sprouts into a tree goes through some incredibly “un-beautiful” times.  First, it is a small seed that gets buried alive.  Then it is smothered and covered with fertilizer.  When it finally emerges it will tenderly exist for multiple years in a state of weakness and vulnerability, with only a handful of leaves adorning its small weak branches swaying in the wind.  And yet one day it will be a mighty oak tree that is played in by generations of children and used as a background in wedding pictures.  It was not always pretty, but it was beautiful in its time.  Maybe right now you feel like your life is… well, a seed that is covered in “fertilizer”.  I’ll let you insert your own picture there.  Or maybe you are feeling buried alive under the pressures of this life.  Many times I feel like I am scarcely strong enough to endure the next strong breeze… but even these moments will one day be beautiful in their own time, when they are viewed through the lens of eternity.

The funny thing about the choice of “Game of the Year” is that it is not only subject to the user’s experience, but it also rarely endures the long-term test of time.  Even the greatest games are eventually confined to the dusty corners of a bookshelf, a box in the garage, or in the used game section of your local gaming store.  They live on, but it is less through their own merits as a title and more through what they inspire in the next generation of games that come after it.  This year’s Legend of Zelda owes its greatness to everything from Skyrim to Cooking Mama for crying out loud.  And the same is true for you.  2017 may have been the best year of your life so far, or it may have been your greatest challenge yet.  Odds are you had periods of each of the areas Solomon described peppered throughout your experiences.  And while some of these periods may seem confusing, painful, or downright wrong I can assure that they will eventually prove to be beautiful in their own as well.

So here we are, embarking on a new year with a new set of games on the horizon.  Last years “Game of the Year”, no matter which one you chose it to be, is simply a snapshot in time that can now only be used as a stepping stone to tomorrow’s future.  Twenty years from now it is unlikely we will be talking about any of these titles, but their influence will be seen and felt for generations to come in the games that follow.  And no matter what your trial is right now, this too shall pass.  And if your life felt a little more like “Prey” than you care to admit, don’t worry.   Your “Odyssey” has just begun.

Reaching For the Fast Travel Button? When Getting There is None of the Fun (2 Cor 11:23-27)

As our games grow larger and open-world gaming via an overworld map or at least a hub world has become the standard operating procedure for almost every major title that releases, a new experience has become just as standard… the fast travel button.  When you have areas to explore that can literally take over an hour of real world time to traverse, or in the case of select titles areas that simply do not connect to each other without the fast travel method, this has become less of a convenience and more of a necessity.  Could you imagine walking across the world of Skyrim each and every time a quest requires you to deliver medicine to someone in another zip code?  Or enduring the travel time it would take to fly from one planet to another to participate in an event in Destiny?  Suffice to say many of our favorite titles would become virtually unplayable without this built-in “cheat” that allows us to bypass the mundane requirements of physically moving from one place to another to progress.

Have you ever wondered what your character does during the fast travel time?  I know this is a fairly abstract thought, but hear me out.  While you check your phone for text messages or grab something to drink while waiting for the next screen to load, your character is doing the long, painful, virtual walk across the map that you chose to bypass.  Did they run into any friends?  Enemies?  Battle a giant crab?  Stop to smell the roses?  Accidentally walk past a sweet chest to loot that they didn’t see containing the boots you have been waiting for?  Who knows what you missed while they made like the Flash and zipped from one city to another?  What you just walked past may be more important to your story than the side-mission that had you traveling in the first place… but you didn’t catch it because of the convenience of fast travel.

Many times in life I yearn for a fast travel button.  I have a feeling I would use it way too often though.  Long line at the grocery store?  Fast travel.  Traffic snarled up on the way home?  Mash that button.  Long angry conference call from the boss?  See you on the other side of Winterfell.  I have a feeling most of us would be all too happy to have this option in real life to speed through the painful times, the boring times, or the waiting periods we all endure.  When you have a clear idea of where you want to go, and the only thing between you and the completion of your goal appears to be heartache, difficulty, or a bunch of wasted time it is easy to want to speed up the process and simply GET there.

If you open your Bible to the area that is typically in the back labeled “Maps” or something similar, you will typically find a map of Paul’s missionary journeys.  This is assuming you still use a physical Bible… for those of you who have already bypassed the need for the physical medium of books, they were something the ancient races used to record events using an archaic form of communication know as writing.  We physically held these items while perusing them, flipped through literal pages of words, and if you were lucky sometimes there were pictures.  Maybe hunt one down someday as a fun little history lesson… but I digress.  On these maps you will find the path the Apostle Paul took on his three missionary journeys:

    Having these nice, neat colorful maps with all of the accompanying arrows helps us understand the path Paul as he took the mission of taking the gospel to the entire known world quite literally.  But there is a funny thing about these maps that can be easy to forget… they weren’t in Paul’s copy of the Bible when he started out.  Would have been nice, but no such luck.  As a matter of fact, since he was responsible for physically writing much of the New Testament, his personal parchments that contained his version of the Word of God would have been limited to only the works of the Old Testament and perhaps an early version of a Gospel account.  Suffice to say, he did not possess this road map when he started each of these journeys.  To him… the fast travel option did not exist because he didn’t even know where he was going to end up much of the time.  And he certainly did not plan for how he would be received during each of these visits.

Sometimes he would set a plan to travel to a certain place but was prevented by the Spirit of God from going there (Acts 16:6-7).  Other times he would travel to a destination but was unable to start the ministry he had planned because of the hostility of the locals to the message (Acts 14:8-20).  He did not have the benefit of large, bright, flashing arrows guiding him where to go to next.  And his path was not a fun walk across the beach with footprints in the sand tenderly placed as he and His Savior enjoyed a leisurely stroll across the sands of Asia minor.  No, this is how Paul described his path:

2 Cor. 11:23-27 “I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again.  Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones,three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea,  I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.”

This was not a path of fast travel and comfortable amenities.  Paul’s walk was not clearly scripted with continental breakfast int he morning and the light left on for him at night.  It was a messy, painful, and challenging journey and at the time of the writing above he still had some of his largest challenges still remaining before him, including lengthy imprisonments, tragic betrayals, and eventually his reported death as a martyr.  And this is a man who at the end was able to say that he had run his race and finished his course.  And our path and our journey will be much the same… and bypassing it would mean that we missed out on the parts that were most important.  Paul was not on a march to his end point simply to complete his race… his race WAS his purpose. Fast travel would have saved him from the pain and challenges he described, but he also would have never planted half of the churches that he setup or reached many of the lives that he bumped into along the way.

In our real world, the road less traveled by is the long one.  The painful one.  The one that seems to be nothing more than a waste of our time and our precious energy simply to survive it.  But your path IS your missionary journey… you just can’t see it yet because it isn’t over yet.  Like Paul, you are still making your “arrows” in your journey right now.  Sometimes that arrow takes you somewhere you never planned (or wanted) to go.  There will be times the arrow doesn’t even seem to be moving.  But the process is too important to skip through, and that is why we don’t receive a fast travel option.  The Lord sent Philip on a long walk simply to reach one man traveling to Ethiopia in Acts 8.  Philip didn’t get to fast travel there… he had to WALK.  But it placed him in a position to intersect with that man at the EXACT point and time that he was ready to receive the message Philip had for him.  It may seem long and unnecessary from your perspective, but stay strong during this long, long, loooooooong walk and resist the urge to fast travel.  It is the path, not the destination, that holds the story that will be your testimony.  What’s that you say?  There’s a public event incoming on Nessus?  Hmmm… I think I will take the scenic route and just walk there this time…

 

 

Yes, But How Many Rupees Can It Hold? A Question of Capacity (2 Kings 4:1-7)

When you think of great games and your favorite parts of them, a few things come to mind.  Interesting characters with realistic dialogue, incredible graphics that transport you to another place or time, and an epic soundtrack that sweeps you up into a story that grips you from the title screen to the closing credits.  We celebrate dynamic combat systems and physics engines that duplicate reality, but for years there has been an unheralded but incredibly necessary part of our gaming experiences that makes up an important backbone of most games… the inventory system.  It’s not exciting, and in many games it may look like a poor man’s version of Oregon’s Trail, but it is necessary and when executed correctly adds depth to the strategy and decisions that ultimately determine how your experience plays out.

For years our protagonists operated without a concern for how the size or weight of the physical items they were carrying would impact them.  They could carry infinite amounts of weapons, food, keys, or other equipment without any regard to how this would burden them from running, jumping, and fighting their way through the level.  But finally game developers caught up with the limits of the bottomless duffel bag, the infinite wallet, or the absurdity of a character somehow carrying fourteen rocket launchers in their pockets.  For goodness sakes, I am pretty sure as I was wandering around in Oblivion I was carrying at least 60 different 500 page tomes while climbing mountains and swimming through rivers.  Fun certainly, but not terribly realistic.

Games finally began to launch with real inventory management systems which began creating limits to the size and weight of what a gaming character could lug around with them while traversing their planet of choice.  Players finally had to make some hard choices… should I carry more healing items or make room for some heavy weaponry?  What can I sacrifice so I can carry this necessary quest item I just found?  With limited capacity the decisions that are made to determine what is necessary versus what is superfluous are vital, and the wrong choice in a game may result in mission failure but the consequences in how we deal with our limited capacity as real-life human beings can be much farther reaching in their impact.

In 2 Kings 4 we find a widowed woman in a state of crisis.  With her husband deceased and her family severely indebted her two sons were about to be placed into slavery in order to pay off the debt that the struggling family had incurred.  The prophet Elisha asked her what her current capacity to pay off her debt was, and she was limited to only a small vessel of oil.  Elisha instructed her to get as many containers, pitchers, bowls, and whatever else she could get her hands on from friends and neighbors and specified that these must be EMPTY.  Once she had gathered them together, she was instructed to fill them with the oil that she currently possessed.  She continued pouring until she ran out of empty containers to fill, and when it was done she had enough oil to sell to pay off her debt and even live off the rest.  A remarkable miracle to be certain… but what does this mean to us?

Let me keep it real for a minute.  I tend to read my Bible on my phone because it is convenient and it is typically with me at all times.  But this can be a snare as much as a convenience, because on this very same device that houses an app that opens up a digital version of God’s Word lies all of the distractions that threaten to fill my vessel with anything other than his oil.  Emails pop-up compelling action, text messages bombard me with a variety of requests ranging from the urgent to the pointless, and sometimes, on very rare occasions this object that is still technically considered a “phone” actually completes its original purpose and rings with an incoming phone call.  Probably just someone offering yet another week-long cruise that surely has no negative repercussions as long as I act now…

I would like to say I come to the Lord with an empty vessel for Him to fill, but more often than not I am already packed full of thoughts, items, and a menagerie of tasks that prevent me from having an inventory screen that He can actually fill.  And sadly enough, I often treat my time like my loadout in a video game, meaning I simply cut items out to make space for the presence of the One that I claim is the most important of all in my life.  I drop a few meaningless items from my bag (maybe some time surfing the web or reading the back of a box of cereal) and add some time with God in its place.  And then I wonder why I carry such a heavy burden and feel so little of God’s presence, love, and joy in my day-to-day life.

When I ask the Lord for more of His presence in my life I remember that it is critical to note… the widowed woman in 2 Kings 4 was not provided more oil than what her capacity was to contain it.  When she reached the limits of her vessels, she reached the limit of the oil.  Many times I reach out to God in prayer and ask Him for guidance, wisdom, or provision, but when I don’t provide an empty vessel for Him to fill I limit His ability to answer my prayers and requests.  And the oil He plans to use is readily available to me in the form of His Word, but it only truly activates when it is poured into an empty vessel prepared to receive it.

The more space I make for Him in my daily life, the more He will be able to pour into me and pour out through me to others.  So before you ask God to be more present in your life, you must truly look deep into your inventory and ensure you have made space for Him to appear.  If you feel like you can’t hear what the Lord has to say, consider if you have too much in your way to give Him the room that He needs.  If you make room for the oil first, you will find that it absorbs into everything else that you are carrying…

AC Origins and A Leap of Faith: “Doubting Thomas” or “Hurting Thomas”? (John 20:24-29)

The leap of faith is probably present in most gamer’s lexicon due to the Assassin’s Creed series, and for good reason. Whether it is your first time or your thousandth, the leap of faith is a thing of beauty.  After a long, arduous climb to a height from which a fall would be more than fatal, your character scans the horizon and then performs an acrobatic dive into the safety of a bale of hay or something else similar in purpose.  From the challenge of the climb to the breathtaking view that typically unlocks additional areas of exploration once completed, the leap of faith is both an exciting and vital part to not only the Assassin’s Creed experience, but many other games as well.

Remember the first time you had to make that massive jump in world 8-1 of the original Super Mario Bros.?  It just kind of came out of nowhere… as you are speeding towards the castle with your eyes on your final confrontation with Bowser you suddenly saw a giant gap appear in front of you, longer than any gap you have had to face up to that point.  In uncharted territory and with trembling hands you take a running leap towards the jump without any idea what lies beyond it.  These leaps of faith are quite common in games, but they are just as prevalent out here in the real world.

It is highly likely most of us have heard the phrase “Doubting Thomas” at some point in our lives.  Regardless of a person’s belief in Christianity or the Bible, this nickname found its way into the modern vernacular with a staying power that rivals that of any current catch phrase.  Think about it… we may not remember what a “lol” is or what “doing the stanky leg” means two thousand years from now, but a full two millenia later Thomas’s nickname yet endures.  Why is that?  Was it truly doubt, or something far deeper that Thomas experienced?  Let’s find out…

The root of this story comes from John 4, when Jesus has just been unjustly tried, savagely executed, and his followers scattered for fear they will face a similar fate.  Thomas, one of the disciples of Christ, has just witnessed all of these things come to pass thanks to the cruel betrayal of one of his fellow followers, Judas,  After three years of eating, sleeping, and traveling together with Jesus, Judas, and the rest of the disciples his entire world has been turned upside down and it was impossible to know if anyone could be trusted right now.  He had given up his job, left his home, and was now potentially on the most wanted list.  Suffice to say, Thomas’s frame of mind was a bit mired in darkness at the moment.  So when the surviving ten disciples came to Thomas and told him that they have not only seen Jesus but are certain that He is alive, they are met with one of the most infamous phrases in the Bible…

John 20:25 So he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”

Now it would be easy to immediately judge this statement and Thomas along with it and classify him as “Doubting Thomas”, but is that really true or fair?  Did any of the other disciples believe when Mary told them about her tomb experience with Jesus previously?  Not so much.  The others only believed because they had personally interacted with Jesus previously.  So the real question then becomes why wasn’t Thomas with the other disciples when they saw Jesus?  And now we get to the heart of the issue.  This was not a case of Thomas deciding he did not want to believe… Thomas was simply too hurt to launch out on another leap of faith after hitting the ground so hard the last time.

Consider this… Thomas had already performed a mighyt leap of faith.  He jumped in with both feet when Jesus called him to follow him.  He followed Jesus in John 11 when the disciples went to go see the recently deceased Lazarus, even as he stated in John 11:16 that this would likely lead to his death.  The issue was not merely doubt… it was that Thomas was not prepared to believe again because of the hurt that he was carrying from the disappointment he endured.  Judas didn’t merely betray Christ… he betrayed Thomas and each of his fellow disciples as well.  It was hard enough to know and witness that his Lord had died, but to endure this due to the betrayal of a friend was even more unbearable.

I am sure each of us can relate to this.  It is easy to make the climb and take the leap when your heart is full of hope and your spirit is buoyed with faith while triumphant music blares in the background.  It is even easier when you have loyal comrades marching with you to take the leap by your side.  But that is so rarely the way this Christian walk works.  More often it is a lot more like the path of Thomas…  your way becomes blurry because the hopes and dreams you were holding onto were murdered before your eyes and someone you trusted the most betrayed you when you least expected it.

In that situation, it is not your doubt that is blinding you, but your PAIN.  Doubt is merely the symptom… a natural response similar to when you instinctively move your hand away from a hot stove because it has burned you before.  The fear of taking that leap of faith only to fall painfully to the ground again is a powerful deterrent that paralyzes many of us and locks us into a holding pattern at the top of the pyramid.  Just like in Assassin’s Creed, we can see the places we would like to go from this vantage point and the world of opportunity that awaits us, but the pain of our previous hurt can keep us too grounded in our pain and disappointment to try again.

So maybe we can cut Thomas a little more slack.  Perhaps even remove the label and just call him “Thomas”, because if we were in his shoes it is entirely possible we would have had a very similar response.  I know I have.  The first leap of faith isn’t the hardest… it’s the second one.  It’s the one after the betrayal and the heartache.  It’s the act of choosing to reach beyond your pain and making the decision to climb back up and leap once again.  The fall was not fatal, because you are still here.  And our Lord, in His ever abundant grace did not condemn Thomas for his human frailty.  He came specifically to see Thomas and invited him to placed his hands into the Lord’s nail scarred hands.  And if you look carefully, you will see He will do the same for you.

The fact that you are still here, living and breathing, means your story is not yet over.  And while he may not show you in the way that Thomas experienced it, His nail scarred hands are still holding you, even now.  So go ahead.  If He told you to jump, then prepare to make the leap.  Everything you see from this vantage point is merely enlightening your next destination.  As Thomas was about to find out, this was nowhere near the end of his story, nor is it the end of yours.  There is still so much left to do.

Green Reticle, Red Reticle: When to Fight, When to Ignore, When to Endure (1 Sam 17, 1 Sam 24, 2 Sam 16)

In an ever-changing sea of faster frame-rates, dramatically upgraded hardware, and technological upgrades there has been one constant in many of our gaming experiences… the targeting reticle.  This little icon on our screens has partnered with us through galactic exploration, underwater worlds of wonder, and through just about every battle that has occurred through history, fictional or otherwise.  It is an unsung hero through most of our gaming experiences, providing an idea of what your character is looking at or targeting as well as typically changing colors to identify the difference between friend or foe in the chaos of a firefight.   It often helps differentiate between items that can be interacted with in the gaming environment and supplies that can be picked up versus items that are just part of the background by highlighting these areas.  I can only imagine how much more difficult playing many titles would be without this handy little guide lighting the way.

Imagine a gaming session or multiplayer match in which you could not identify your teammates from your adversaries.  Friendly fire would abound, objectives would become even more difficult to complete, and trial and error would become the new strategy as chaos would ensue.  Friendships would fray as you firmly plant one shotgun shell after another into the back of your buddy, and frustration would compound as you frantically search for which terminal out of all of these similar looking but non-functioning computers can actually be interacted with.  While it may hold our hand a little bit, I for one appreciate the way that the reticle has become a standard part of many of my favorite gaming experiences.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a little reticle in the real world?  Something that would highlight what is actually beneficial or mission critical around you and ignoring what is superfluous to your journey?  And most importantly to me, to have the ability to instantly tell the difference between someone who is truly aligned with your goals and on your side versus those whose dialogue makes them seem like a teammate but their true motivations fill your reticle with the color red reserved for dangerous adversaries.  Imagine how many problems or pitfalls we could avoid if we were able to easily identify people and situations through simple reticle identification.

Unfortunately, life is much more complex and relationships and circumstances very rarely present themselves in primary colors for easy translation.  And as our examples today will show, it is of critical importance that we are able to discern when we are facing a giant that must be toppled, when we are being pursued by an enemy that we are meant to endure, and those times when we should simply ignore adversaries because they truly cannot stop you from achieving your destiny unless you stop to address them.

Let’s start with the easy one.  In 1 Samuel 17 David enters the world stage in dramatic fashion in a story almost everyone should be familiar with.  A simple shepherd, David was making a lunch delivery when he crossed paths with the giant Goliath and immediately recognized this monster as a foe.  A rock from a slingshot later and David was standing over his fallen opponent victoriously as the Lord delivered a dramatic and shocking victory.  David did not come looking for a fight, but when he saw the people of God oppressed he responded to the call of God on his life to defeat this blasphemous barbarian.  Call this a clearly red reticle.  Oh, how I wish that it was always this easy.

Things get a little more complicated in 1 Samuel 24.  We find an older and more seasoned David on the run for his life from King Saul, the leader of the entire nation of Israel.  Saul had attempted to murder David on multiple occasions and was now concentrating his entire army on finding and killing the man who had once been the hero of the country.  Saul had pursued David and his band of followers and was closing in for the kill.  As a matter of fact, Saul was so close to David that he could practically smell him.  Saul had to take a break and use the little boy’s room, and the exact cave he chose to do his business in was the same place David and his men were hiding.  As Saul was… let’s just say distracted, David had an opportunity to end this feud once and for all against a defenseless enemy.  But the reticle did not turn red.

David stubbornly refused to take the life of or even harm the man who would gladly gut him where he stood if the shoe was on the other foot.  David even had a second identical opportunity a few chapters later when he could have murdered Saul in his sleep.  In both of these situations, the reticle never changed colors from green to red and in turn David provided an incredible example of when we are to endure our adversaries rather than defeat them.  David did not know the whole story or how this would end, but he knew that the Lord had not given him permission to take Saul’s life or even do him harm.  So why was it acceptable for David to engage and slay the giant Goliath but when it came to the evil, murderous, and occasionally demonically possessed Saul the answer was to stay his hand?

To understand this we have to dive a little deeper beyond the events and into the subtext.  In the case of Goliath, the giant was not an actual enemy of David, except by circumstance.  We see in 1 Sam 17:26 and again in verse 36 that in this challenge David was standing up for God against an enemy that threatened both the people of God as well as dared to defy the Lord Himself.  David was not fighting a personal war because he was defending himself from a vendetta or personal attack, but was acting as an ambassador of the Lord similar to the way Jesus Himself created whips and drove the corrupt businessmen out of the temple many generations later.  This was not the case in his period of running from Saul, in which David stated clearly that despite his mistakes Saul still was the Lord’s chosen and anointed king for that time and David had not been authorized to harm him.  In 1 Sam 24:8-15 David explains to Saul the reason why he did not attack him when he clearly could have ended things was because he identified that it is the LORD’s place to judge and avenge, not ours.  The Lord delivered Saul into David’s hands twice, but in each instance David understood that when it comes to our own personal battles and grievances, these are best left to the Lord.

And finally, some enemies are simply meant to be ignored, and even pausing to give them your attention would be a mistake. In 2 Samuel 16 an even older and wiser David is on the run yet again, this time from his rebellious son Absalom.  On his way to safety, a man named Shimei takes this opportunity to follow David and pelt him with rocks while hurling insults at the fleeing king.  When David’s loyal men ask permission to settle this annoyance, David shuts them down cold with an incredible response:

“If he is cursing because the Lord said to him, ‘Curse David,’ who can ask, ‘Why do you do this?’” David then said to Abishai and all his officials, “My son, my own flesh and blood, is trying to kill me. How much more, then, this Benjamite! Leave him alone; let him curse, for the Lord has told him to.  It may be that the Lord will look upon my misery and restore to me his covenant blessing instead of his curse today.”

That’s… frankly that response is hard to fathom.  And this gives us huge insight into why David was called a man after God’s own heart.  In all these circumstances, from the giant Goliath to the scheming Saul to the shifty Shimei David never viewed his situations from his own personal perspective, but from GOD’S.  Instead of seeing Goliath as an evil enemy soldier, David saw someone who was blaspheming God and had to be stopped.  When he could have viewed Saul in a similar light, David looked at the situation from a God’s eye view and realized that only the Lord could choose when his annointed king was meant to be dethroned, regardless of his evil intentions.  And when it would have been easy to take out one lone griefer who was insistent on trolling David during one of his darkest days, David saw that even this was both permitted and possibly even guided by the Lord and recognized that God is his defense.

If he had chose to slay Saul, he would have shown himself to be no better than the man he was slaying.  If he chose to silence Shimei, he would have lowered himself to the level of his insults and ironically proven him right in those actions.  In each of these circumstances, David found that it is the Lord who defends us from wrongdoers.  He alone avenges us, He alone clears our good name, and when the time is right He and only He will resolve our conflict.  Enemies and adversaries come in many forms, but through the Spirit of God we can properly identify when we are meant to slay the giant and when we are meant to ignore or endure the threats and the insults until the fullness of time has come.

Don’t let the griefers distract you… they aren’t worth it and are only trying to slow you down from reaching your destination.  And don’t give in to the temptation to fight your own battles… the battle is always the Lord’s.  He will guide you when it is time to do battle on His behalf, and it will always be a battle you never intended to take on and it will be done in a way in which He and He alone will receive the glory for the victory.  Easier said than done, I know.  It can be almost impossible to discern the difference between Goliath and Saul unless we bend our desires for justice and vengeance to the will of the Lord and allow Him to fight for us.  And in the world we live in this has become even more difficult than it ever was before.  But the message is clear… engage Goliath when the Lord leads you, spare Saul even when the Lord delivers him into your mercy, and for goodness sake don’t waste another breath on Shimei.  The truest test of what is in our heart is in how we treat our enemies…

Matthew 5:44-45: “But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. “

COD WWII: Rebuilding After Disappointment (Joshua 7)

Call of Duty is not only back, but it’s gone back to its roots in the newest entry to this long-running series simply titled WWII.  Everything old is new again as Activision and Sledgehammer Games try to breathe new life into the largest gaming franchise on the planet by returning to their roots and abandoning the futuristic trappings of their most recent installments.  While the jury is still out on whether this title will put COD back on its lofty pedestal, one thing is for sure… the future of this franchise is definitely on the line after several critical missteps and Activision is pulling out all the stops to insure this release is built on firmer ground.

It seems like it all it takes is one underwhelming release to put an entire studio under these days.  The margin for error is razor-thin, and as we just saw with the closure of Visceral Games (a team known for quality titles such as the Dead Space series) sometimes your project gets shelved and your studio closed right in the middle of working on your next big thing (the sadly cancelled Star Wars spin-off).   And with such a thin line between success and closure, rebuilding after such a powerful disappointment (Infinite Warfare anyone?) has to be an incredibly difficult challenge for gaming studios just as it is for us in the daily struggle of the real world.

When Call of Duty struggles, it struggles in front of an entire world of gamers and gaming critics who can quite honestly be less than forgiving.  Taking chances on creating new experiences, going to new locations, or even falling back on the safety of the tried-and-true all have inherent risks.  And each of these titles are released to a public that can make you or break you with very little concern for the long-term repercussions of their criticism.  And while that may be easier to absorb when you are a giant gaming company with broad shoulders and another game on the horizon should this one fail, it is quite a bit different for us when we attempt a similar challenge with perhaps a smaller scope but also with less of a safety net should failure occur.

Most of the time when you take on a new challenge you will be forced to do so on a grander stage than you anticipated.  And every misstep or faulty judgment call feels magnified under the ever watchful eye of friends, family, acquaintances, and social media as we attempt to do things we have never done before in front of an audience that may not be as supportive as one would hope.  Picking up the pieces after the disappointment of a failed marriage, a bankruptcy, a lost job, or taking on a new opportunity that simply didn’t work out can be a devastating experience that is hard to come back from.  I have experienced many of these situations, and I can say from my personal experiences that it can be scary to try again after a very public disappointment or failure.  Critics are difficult to ignore, support networks seem to disappear, and it can honestly feel like you would have been better off if you had never even tried.  And I have just the medicine for that feeling.

In Joshua 7 we find Joshua and his Israelite army fresh off their victory over Jericho.  You know… the “Walls of Jericho”… that Jericho.  It was a pretty sweeping and miraculous victory that was meant to be the beginning of a massive victorious march across the land as the Israeli people finally laid claim to the long awaited “Promised Land”.  But immediately after this epic victory a dreadfully disappointing defeat was awaiting the entire army in the slightly less well known city of Ai.  Joshua, the newly placed leader of the country, sent his spies to scout out their next conquest and they returned with an outstanding report.  In verse 3 the scouting report came back so positive that the  leadership council made the decision not to send the entire army due to how easy this battle should be.  All systems were go, many of the troops were going to get a well-deserved rest while a few thousand troops took out what should have been an easy target.  Only not so much…

The small city of Ai laid what The Rock would call “the Smacketh Down” on the Israeli army and sent them running for the hills.  And having tasted the bitter fruits of defeat for the first time, Joshua ripped his clothes and immediately fell into deep mourning.  And in so doing he went through the exact same process I have went through and I am confident many of us have gone through as well.  First, he asked God, “Why have you brought us here just for us to fail?”   I know I have asked that many times.  Lord, why did you even let me try if you knew I was going to fail?  Next, he said “Oh, that we would have been content to dwell on the other side of the Jordan!”  Ever been there?  Why did I try to fly so close to the sun?  I should have stayed where everything was nice comfortable and safe.  And finally, he cries out “What shall I say when Israel turns its back before its enemies?”  After asking God why, and then asking yourself why, finally it comes down to the most important question… What do I do now that failure has happened?  What am I going to say to everyone who saw exactly what happened?

The Lord does not disappoint with his response.  As a matter of fact, this may be one of my all-time favorite responses to a prayer in the entire Bible.  I am not going to paraphrase this at all because I want to do this justice… this is a direct quote:

Joshua 7:10 So the Lord said to Joshua, “Get up!  Why do you lie thus on your face?”

And just like that the pity party is over with authority.  The Lord explained to Joshua that due to the sin of a man named Achan the protective blessing the nation had been enjoying to this point had been removed.  Through no fault of Joshua or any of the rest of the troops, the mission was a failure before it had even launched.  And once that problem was resolved, the conquest of Ai could be relaunched successfully.  I can say that many times when I have poured my heart out to God in pain and frustration He has provided the gentle comfort that only He can give.  But sometimes… sometimes I feel Him say to me just as He did to Joshua, “Get up!  Why are you lying on your face?”  And when He tells you to get up, fix the problem, and try again its a pretty good idea to take His advice.  He didn’t waste time worrying about what anyone else would think or if this failure would follow them any further.  He simply said Get Up.

I experience many more periods of disappointment than I do victory.  Sometimes it is my fault, and my sin and mistakes sabotage my attempts to serve the Lord.  Other times it is the choice of someone else that sinks my efforts and sends me crawling back to the Lord in shame.  But either way, there is only one eventual solution that each of us have before us… to get up.  Will others talk?  Probably.  Will your enemies laugh and taunt?  Count on it.  Will you lose the support of fair-weather friends, especially when you make the difficult decision to try again?  That’s about as certain as the release of yet another Call of Duty around this time next year.  Disappointment, even for those who serve the Lord, is going to happen.  It is not a sign that you are going the wrong direction or have misheard the Lord.  Ai was the correct destination, and Joshua was simply unaware that his first run at it was doomed to failure before it even got started.  And the answer to his disappointment and ours is two simple words… Get Up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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