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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Medpack Mindset in a Health Regenerating World (Exodus 16)

Please allow me to slip into my “old man rocking on my porch” persona for just a moment.  Back in my day, health in a video game didn’t magically regenerate just ‘cuz I was standing behind a wall, dagnabit.  We had to scour the earth to find them there “medpacks”, or “rations”, or “health kits” to heal ourselves because in the real world hiding behind a wall doesn’t heal bullet wounds, son!  Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to grab my water hose and tell those kids to get off my lawn…

   Ok, so maybe that’s a little tongue in cheek but the truth is that before we entered this glorious age of “auto-healing”, a gamer had to be much more cautious with their approach to a game because a mistake would send them on a long voyage to replenish their health.  And in some especially challenging titles, these health packs were so scarce that a critical mistake could result in needing to completely restart the game because you could not regain enough health through the available supply to make it to the end.

   Playing those older style games with limited health taught me to be cautious, strategic, and patient as I knew I had very little room for error.    I avoided unnecessary exploration and kept to the safe routes as much as possible to preserve my life force.  But something changed about my approach as I began playing titles such as Halo and Call of Duty that did not limit me to curing my damage via these Draconian methods.  I could race into rooms and take on challenges that may be larger than my capacity because I knew that if it got too hot in there I could simply hide behind a pillar until my screen stopped flashing red.  I became more confident, a little more daring, and quite a bit more adventurous since the rewards often exceeded the risks for the very first time in my gaming journey.

   As a believer, I have spent the majority of my life wresting with this “medpack mentality”.  And while there is certainly nothing wrong with discretion and caution in many aspects of life, when it comes to matters of faith in the Lord and His provision it is absolutely fatal to proceed in this manner.  Throughout the course of my walk with Christ I have struggled with releasing control of my life, my thoughts, my actions, and my circumstances to the Lord.  I yearn to roam carefree through each day just “leaning on the promises of God” and demonstrating faith in each and every challenge that comes up, but every time I try I feel the weight of the realization that I possess a finite amount of time, money, energy, and resources and immediately begin searching for “medpacks” to provide for myself.

   I have found it is easier to trust God’s choice in destination than it is his method of provision.  Like the nation of Israel in Exodus 16, I get very excited about the idea of traveling to the Promised Land.  But like them after the first few hours I begin to worry… what will we eat?  Where will the water come from in a desert?  Do we even know the right direction?  And when the the Father provided them with bread from heaven and a few simple rules of how much to gather each day as well as which days to gather they immediately demonstrated the “medpack mentality”.  He said to get just enough for each day, some of them gathered extra just in case there wasn’t any tomorrow.  He said there wouldn’t be any on the seventh day so grab double on day six, and some of them still chose to go look on the seventh day just in case they would have it all to themselves.  Thanks for the regenerating bread Lord, but if it’s all the same to you I kinda want to keep some tater tots in my pants pocket just in case you forget about lunch.

  This is still an area of challenge for me, but I will share what am I learning.  My stress and anxiety doesn’t seem to be making this bread from heaven come any faster or taste any sweeter.  As a matter of fact, it’s just getting my sandwhiches all sweaty.  Hebrews 11:6 says emphatically that without faith is is IMPOSSIBLE to please God, and while it may seem reassuring to hold onto my backup plans and extra rations for a rainy day, the reality is God laughs at my meager preparations because they would never be enough to save me anyway.  Like a child obsessing about a single dropped M&M while an entire one pound bag lies available at their side, there is so much more health, life, and provision when we walk in faith than we could possibly store up or conjure with our own capabilities.  And since only God knows our path as well as our destination, He is the only one who knows exactly what it will take to get you there.

   I still find myself tempted to solve my problems first and ask God about His opinion later, and when He provides guidance it is a constant struggle for me to not simply say, “Thanks Lord!  Now you go get some rest while I plan this out for us.”  But if I want to experience the joy of operating in the freedom that only true faith in God provides, then I must relinquish my feeble stack of medpacks and trust that his auto-regenerating powers will be enough to sustain me even in the places where I fear to go.  It is a bit scary to boldly run into the next room and see what happens, but it is only a fool-hardy move if you are acting on your own volition.  Where He guides, He provides… and if He said charge into that room with nothing but a plasma pistol then you can bet your last token it will be all you need to bring.  

Metroid Prime: Solving the Problem of a Powerless Power Suit (1 Peter 4:12-13)

It’s a great time to be a Metroid fan… from the recent re-release of Metroid: Samus Returns, the inclusion of the masterpiece Super Metroid on the upcoming SNES classic, as well confirmation from Nintendo that a new Metroid Prime is finally in development… let’s just call it an embarrassment of riches that we should all be grateful for.  The original Metroid Prime games still stand up today and are well worth tracking down if you have the hankering for some excellent first-person exploration.  Just do yourself a favor and avoid the abomination that is Metroid Other M.  Please.  Think of the children…

   The original Metroid Prime starts off with a bang, as everyone’s favorite bounty hunter Samus Aran takes down enemies and searches for clues within a derelict space station. All of your suit’s powers are on full display as you fire missiles, transform into a ball and roll around, fire your grappling hook to navigate… you are an unstoppable force of nature laying waste to all who dare oppose you.  But at the end of the first level an event occurs that strips you of ALL of your suit’s special abilities, and you spend the entirety of the rest of the game slowly putting yourself back together so you can take on the final boss.  After getting spoiled to all of these powerful abilities, you suddenly find yourself quite under-powered for the journey that lies ahead and without the full arsenal of options you had just become accustomed to the world seems a little more hostile and dangerous than it did when you were at full capacity.

   Many games have taken this approach over the years, giving you a tantalizing taste of your character with unlimited capabilities and then using a plot device to remove most or all of those abilities so you can spend the next ten to twelve hours gaining them back.  This is also common in many theatrical releases, as super heroes such as Iron Man or Thor spend an entire movie trying to get back to a place that they had originally possessed and perhaps had taken for granted when they had it.  It almost seems cruel if you think about it.  Why give me the taste of the good life if you are just going to rip it away and make me fight to earn it back?  But whether you are trying to rebuild your Iron Man armor, prove yourself worthy of wielding Mjolnir once again, or simply trying to get your super suit firing on all cylinders we can all agree that this part of the process is the most time-consuming and painful yet ultimately necessary part of the hero’s journey.

   Walking the Spirit-filled life has been a lot like this for me.  I remember the glorious feeling of being born again… the excitement of knowing that I was finally who I was meant to become. The world looked and smelled different and I felt connected to God in a way that was impossible to describe.  For days I felt a unique euphoria as I listened to praise music in my car and it seemed like the trees were singing along with me as I drove past them.  When it was sunny it felt like the Lord was smiling on me.  When it rained I just sat and was amazed at how He continues to nurture His creation.  And I thought that I would just dance this dance with Him all the way up to the pearly gates.  And then, much like our Metroid Prime power armor, it felt like all of it was ripped away piece by piece.

   The rain that I previously admired is much less desirable when it is intruding in your home and creating mold that makes your family sick.  That glorious sunlight just feels hot and angry when you are sitting on the ground next to your new car that someone just plowed into while you were in a stopped position.  Slowly I found myself driving with the radio off and my mind preoccupied with much more mundane considerations such as how to schedule contractors and which credit card has enough room to pay for groceries this week.  All that power and joy I had been walking in was stripped away so quickly and replaced with fear, anxiety, and anger.

   1 Peter 4:12-13 sheds a lot of light on the issue of power suit problems:

” Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy.”

   Of all the people who experienced this transition into losing power, it is Jesus who understands it best.  From having legions of angels to attend to His every thought to transitioning into consciously choosing the challenges of such activities like hunger, pain, homelessness, wood splinters, and (gasp) using the bathroom without the conveniences of indoor plumbing… He dropped his super suit off in the tutorial level and chose to face life the same way we must.

   Now to be honest, at first this knowledge didn’t make me feel any better.  Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t get hyped thinking about suffering.  I gave my life to the Lord, I’m praying and walking in obedience, and I’m putting on the armor of God as defined in Ephesians.  And then it hit me…

The armor of God does not keep you from getting hit… it protects you from being destroyed by the inevitable hits that are coming.

   

   I was disappointed and frustrated that my service to God did not prevent these events that seemed tailor-made to steal my joy and break my spirit.  And I was misguided in thinking I was going to bounce from cloud to cloud just because I have chosen to serve the Lord.  My armor is protective, but it is not a repellent.  And as I walk through life I will continue to achieve growth that unlocks greater capabilities to serve the Lord, and along with that stronger armor will come even greater challenges and trials.  In Gamer language, our enemies level up with us. But the joy of my salvation that I started with?  That’s mine to keep, as long as I choose to use it. 

    So if you have been facing tough opposition and have been wondering why everything seems harder now than it did before, don’t panic or give in to stress.  It’s not an error in the program and we didn’t make a mistake by choosing to serve the Lord.  And He certainly has not forgotten us or is unaware of our struggle.  It’s simply our path to assemble our armor.  And we can grow in power and in our Spirit-filled walk each day by accepting that our challenge will grow each day as proof that we are growing too.  I think I just unlocked the Morph ball… bet that means I’m about to have a use for it!

Switching Teams: NBA 2K18, Moses, and the Cover Athlete Conundrum (Exodus 4:24-26)

You may have heard of the “Madden Curse”, which is the theory that athletes who grace the cover of the annual football gaming release tend to experience unprecedented setbacks in the form of injury or simply poor play immediately after receiving this honor.  But this year’s basketball release, NBA 2K18, continues an almost just as interesting coincidence of seeing its highly prized (and well-compensated) poster athlete in the wrong jersey on their cover.

This seems to happen frequently for this series… it started with the release of 2K14 when Lebron James suited up on the cover of the game in a Miami Heat uniform only to leave that team and play for Cleveland instead.  Kevin Durant was chosen for the 2K15 cover as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder and promptly took his skills to Golden State to attend back to back finals for that team.  2K17 cover athlete Paul George won’t be seen in a Pacer jersey again as he is now a member of those same Thunder, and this year Kyrie Irving may be on the cover of 2K18 in a Cavalier jersey but the only time he will be seen wearing one of those is in the video game as he has joined the Celtics for this season.

But enough of the history lesson… the more interesting question is why these athletes tend to switch teams immediately after they are chosen to wear the mantle of the most recognized player in the league?  NBA2K games are a sales juggernaut each and every year and being on the cover grants the cover athlete an incredible amount of marketing and exposure.  Why does the choice oftentimes precede a departure?

For many, Moses is the first “Cover Athlete” of the Bible.  I mean, he wrote the first five books and delivered Israel from their Egyptian captivity.  He was there when the Ten Commandments were given.  He’s a legend.  But did you know that God was going to kill him before he even got started on his journey?  This particular event is not as well publicized as the burning bush or even his attempts to pass his destiny off on his brother or someone else.  In this incident, Moses tried to wear his old team jersey while playing for a new team and the Lord was having none of it with nearly fatal consequences.

In Exodus 4 Moses has accepted his destiny as the Deliverer, albeit reluctantly.  The Lord gives Moses the ability to perform specific miracles to support his message and has sent Aaron, Moses’s brother, to support the mission.  All systems appear to be go for launch… until verse 24:

 “And it came to pass on the way, at the encampment, that the Lord met him and sought to kill him.”  


Ummm… what?  God just spent all this time convincing Moses to take this role and then preparing him for success, and then out of the clear blue nowhere he is going to kill him?  That seems a little harsh… but there was a reason behind this that is critical to understand and this is revealed in the next two verses.  To stop God from taking Moses out, his wife immediately performs an emergency circumcision on their son and hurls the… ummm… let’s just say “evidence” since this is a family column, at the feet of Moses.  Stay of execution granted.

What does this all mean?  The requirement was for all Israelites to be circumcised as a sign of their unique relationship with the Lord.  Moses had chosen not to follow this, and while his life of obscurity had permitted this indiscretion to exist his new status as the leader of the people would not permit this to continue.  Now, one may wonder how was anyone going to find out?  I mean, seriously.  His son’s private parts were likely to remain private unless there is some strange clause in wilderness deliverance leadership that would reveal this secret.  But the Lord knew.  And the presence of this not only disqualified Moses from proceeding until it was dealt with, it was serious enough that God was prepared to put the kibosh on the whole plan unless it was made right.

This was not merely a case of legalism and God needing everything “just so”.  The Lord knew the path Moses was about to walk… it would be treacherous and difficult and he would be under a constant assault from enemies both without and within.  He could not succeed or even survive while carrying this one area of disobedience… he would be eaten alive by his adversaries and the entire deliverance would fail.  Too much was at stake.

We all have a mission from God to accomplish on this planet, and over the course of learning it, preparing for it, and accepting it we will be challenged by God to do things that may seem of little significance in the moment or perhaps feel unnecessary or even unfair.  But He knows your full journey, and the jersey you were wearing when He called you won’t be the same one you will be wearing when you reach your launching point.  He knows exactly what your cover will look like, and only He knows what you will need to bring as well what you will need to leave behind in order to accomplish your mission.

The Repercussions of Pressing Start (Hebrews 11)

I guess I’m kind of a hero.  I don’t mean to brag, but I HAVE kind of saved the planet and at times even the universe more times than I can count.  I have persevered against insurmountable odds, faced off against monstrous enemies who should have surely ground me into a pulp, and through it all kept my sense of style without wrinkling my clothes or messing up my hair.  I am a video game hero… nay, LEGEND.  I have a feeling you are probably pretty famous in the right quadrants of the galaxy as well.  Now pardon me while I pause the game and go dust and vacuum.  These dishes won’t wash themselves either.

While that was obviously meant in jest (except for the household chores, those are definitely REAL), some of that may sound familiar to you, and some of it may not.  We all game for different reasons, after all.  For some of us it is the thrill of competition, for others it is the ability to play through a story and inhabit a character we could not be in the real world.  Some of us live out our fantasies, and others find real-life connections.  It may be a way to pass the time on your phone while waiting in line or it could be the reason you race home just in time to join your friends on a raid.  Whatever your reason, we have all joined together in this hobby that is dictated by our interactions with it.  And it all begins the moment you press “Start”.

Join me with an abstract thought for a moment.  What if, in that video game’s world, you had never pressed start?  Pretending that the environment within that game exists outside of your choices until your moment of interaction, many times the game world was in a pretty good spot until you joined in. If you never press start, your character never initiates the action that causes war to begin.  The choice you made to start the game has dramatic repercussions on all of the characters within…. some will get hurt, others will die, and princesses will move to another castle.  All of the chaos and collateral damage that exists throughout the game is all due to the choice of the player to begin the story.  And it all could have been avoided if you had simply chosen to leave that game on the shelf and let the characters within continue living their lives without your interference.  Suddenly, I’m not feeling quite so heroic.

The great thing about gaming is that our choices exist within a realm of little to no actual consequence, providing ample room for mistakes and a large canvas on which to tell a story that can be restarted at any time.  Despite the emotional attachments that can be made to these fictional characters, it is nice to know that no actual lives have been harmed by my gameplay.  Real life is much less forgiving.  And just like my choice to begin a gaming adventure will have a massive ripple effect on each and every character in that gaming world, my choices on what paths to take and what adventures to explore in the real world have a cause and effect that often times keep me up at night.  Just like pressing start in a video game, my decision to begin a life of serving Christ has had both immediate and long-reaching repercussions that have not only affected my life, but the lives of others around me.  And unfortunately, not all of the effects are positive because not all of my choices have been good ones.

There have been times I have wondered if the world was better off without the testimony of a flawed believer like me.  I have been concerned that each time I press “start” on one of these columns that I am extending my failure into the lives of those that read it.  But if the enemy has ever tried to use your past or current mistakes to cause you to second-guess what you are able to do for the kingdom of God, this is for you.

Hebrews 11 is famously called the “faith chapter” in the Bible and contains a listing of some of the heroes of the faith… a “Hall of Fame” or “High Score” list, if you will.  And the names on this list are quite daunting… Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, Samuel… this is the Who’s Who of famous biblical characters right here.  And they have epic stories of faith in the Bible that make it easy to understand why they are included.  But their stories would not be complete without the missteps that they took as they walked their paths, and the Lord did not wait for them to become “perfect” just so He could use them.

Let’s start with Noah, the man of God who was hand chosen as the only one worthy to repopulate our sinful planet.  But it wasn’t long after he parked the ark that His sons found him drunkenly passed out without so much as a pixelated loincloth to cover him.  Or maybe father Abraham is more your speed… just don’t bring up the whole “Ishmael” episode or it will start him and his wife fighting again.  Jacob was a special kind of scoundrel that only a mother could love (and it seems only she did).  Moses fulfilled his mission of freeing the people from Egypt even as he complained that he was under-qualified and out of his league.  The list goes on and on as these and so many others dared to press start on their stories even while they still struggled with internal issues that often came to light at the worst possible time.  Samuel’s ineffective parenting of his corrupt sons led to the dismissal of the judges and the anointing of a king.  David sat the wrong war out and got himself into a heap of trouble with a showering woman that had massive collateral damage including costing his own infant son his life.

None of these are good things, and each of these had consequences that dramatically impacted each of these men and many others around them. But these followers of Christ did not allow their weak humanity to prevent them from pressing start on their journey.  You may have committed none of these sins listed above, or you may have committed all of them.  Wherever you find yourself on the spectrum, you have a mission and a purpose and if you are waiting to press start until you are “holy” enough… well, let’s just say it’s going to be a long wait.  Satan is counting on us to disqualify ourselves from service through our mistakes and guilty consciences, and I will raise my hand and say that he has used that exact strategy to silence me more times than I care to admit to.

The truth is God uses us in our WEAKNESS to display His strength.  It is not an encouragement to sin, but simply an acknowledgement that we will sin, we will fail, and we will reach out for that “restart mission” button many times over the course of our lives.  But we must get back up and press start again and continue saving the world around us.  If God was looking for a perfect vessel He wouldn’t have chosen a human, because there has only been one perfect one so far.  He chose you, just as you are, and He needs you to save your world.
Yes, pressing start has repercussions.  It puts things in motion that cannot be put back in place.  Everyone around you will be affected by your choices, both wise and unwise.  But don’t let fear or regret keep you from acting on what the Lord has placed in your heart.  If Abraham had stopped at Ishmael he would have never had Isaac.  Samuel could have quit when his sons turned out to be some real pieces of work, but then he would have never found and annointed David.  If David had quit on life after the Bathsheba catastrophe he would have never fathered Solomon.  And it goes on and on.  People you may have not even met yet are counting on you to press start.  I can guarantee you that I am as unqualified as you are but with the Lord on the inside of us we will accomplish our purpose.  After all, this world isn’t going to save itself.  Let’s go be heroes…

Madden NFL 18: Greatest of All Time? When ESPN NFL2K5 Ruled the World (Matthew 13:43-46)

The year was 2004. Long before Madden and video game football were terms used interchangeably the way we use “Band-Aid” to describe all bandage products regardless of branding, the realm of gridiron greats was an open playing field. The 2K football series had existed for several years alongside EA Sports annual Madden offering and both sides seemed to have settled into a comfortable yet competitive status quo. Until 2K flipped the entire game on its ear and put Madden on notice in a way that has changed the gaming landscape around football as well as many other sports titles forever.

  To adequately understand what was about to occur, a brief historical diversion. 2K football was one of the last remaining remnants of Sega’s final console, the ill-fated Dreamcast. Each year Visual Concepts produced a quality sports title across most of the major sports franchises, but few people noticed because they were buried on the Dreamcast system. With the death of the Dreamcast the 2K sports games navigated over to the PlayStation and Xbox, continuing to release well-regarded titles that were mildly successful, but not enough to put significant pressure on the world’s leading developer of sports gaming, Electronic Arts.

   EA may have viewed this competition as unwelcome, but they didn’t make any major changes to their game engine or respond in a way that would indicate they viewed 2K sports as a legitimate threat. And then, it happened… the moment that altered it all. 2K snatched up the unbelievably available rights to the ESPN license, made massive overhauls to the presentation, graphics, and game play of their title, hired one of the most outspoken and well-known stars in the game in Terrell Owens to pose for the cover, and in the final coup de grace released their vastly superior title for the meager price of $19.99. The impact was immediate.

   While their competition released yet another tired, old, complacent football game for $49.99, 2K had suddenly trumped them in every department and released a game that featured such first-time occurrences such as a halftime show that showed your real in-game footage with commentary, first-person mode, actual ESPN music and personalities… and all for the price of a pizza and a 2-liter. This was the most immersive, realistic, and exciting football game that had ever been released and even non-sports fans were picking it up to try it due to the low price of entry. And EA realized very quickly that immediate action would be necessary to protect their empire from being erased by this unprecedented assault on their bread-and-butter.

   What did they do? If you are a student of gaming history then you already know the answer, but for those of you who may not what happened next was unthinkable… they BOUGHT the exclusive rights to make games based on NFL football. And just to keep 2K out of their honey pot in every conceivable way, they also purchased the rights to NCAA college football and even Arena League football. Seems a little bit like overkill, but after paying the NFL an exorbitant sum of money to be the exclusive developer of games based on professional football they were leaving nothing to chance. They left 2K games literally zero options, and after an ill-advised attempt at a football game that featured old retired players absent any of the licenses that would give their game credibility, 2K football died and Madden stood alone, once again, as not only the definitive game of football but also the ONLY game in town. They effectively excised their competition by making a massive commitment that seemed like a huge amount of money at the time, but they deemed the risk of being pushed out of their own comfortable position as being worth the investment and the results speak for themselves.

   What would have happened if EA didn’t step up and shut 2K out of the game? While conjecture is easy, the truth is as close as the other sports juggernaut series, NBA 2K. This series has easily eclipsed the rival basketball series produced by EA (NBA Live) and has consistently sold in the top 10 of total video game sales each year as a result of their excellence in-game development. It is not too hard of a stretch to imagine that this same scenario could have happened in the football gaming sector. If EA hadn’t acted with such an extreme decision, the gaming landscape could have shifted to eliminate Madden from the store shelves permanently. It took an incredibly expensive, seemingly desperate, but ultimately necessary move from EA to save their franchise and here we are over a decade later about to play the only licensed football game in town one more time.

   Now that’s what commitment looks like… EA put a ring on it as they understood that this was a relationship they could not afford to lose or even see diminsh. In my day to day walk with the Lord, I am challenged with realizing that I may have felt this way at my point of conversion and had the flames of that feeling fanned once again after a particularly moving sermon or service, but am I truly sold out for the Lord in this desperate of a manner? In Matthew 13:43-46 Jesus tells two short but significant parables to guide us in understanding how we should respond to His call to our lives.

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

   In each of these settings the message could not be more clear, but it’s application can be a tad bit more difficult. Much like EA in our previous example, there must be a recognition that what is on the other side is worth giving up everything in order to possess it. EA forked over millions of dollars to the NFL and in the end they not only survived, but thrived. The investment seems paltry now compared to the payoff.
 
Likewise, we are in the position of the man looking at real estate or the merchant searching for the perfect pearl. Once we have found the truth and the reality of the life we are meant to live, we have a choice to make. The value of the prize is much higher than anything we could ever generate on our own. Even after my conversion as a believer, if you are anything like me you have wasted too much time in relationships and activities that leave us unfulfilled and often more damaged and worse for the wear. And in my case, it was my fault for expecting people, places and things to be able to fill a God-shaped hole inside me that nothing else could ever hope to come close to. But if you asked me to give up those things for something better at that time I would look at you like you were crazy. Like a child stubbornly clinging to a mold-covered teddy bear while being offered a shopping spree at the Build-A-Bear Workshop, for years I failed to recognize the value of the life being offered to me while over-estimating the worth of the life I was living.

   As believers, we must understand that our commitment to Christ requires 100% of ourselves… every thought, every desire, every possession. He can only deposit His free grace into an empty account. What He offers is priceless, with a mortal life directed by the Creator as He walks with us side by side followed by eternal life in the world to come. The very best this life offers is worthless by comparison. Sell out, and sell out fully. This is not a one time act of belief, but a commitment each and every day. But not only is it worth it, it is the only thing that is truly of worth both in this life and the life to come.

Shattering the Facade: The Truth Behind Super Mario Bros. 2 (Romans 7:15-25, Romans 8:1-2)

As a self-proclaimed Nintendo fan-boy, it almost hurts to make this admission. I suppose I should have been able to figure it out on my own. Maybe I didn’t want to believe it, but deep down in my heart I knew. Like a mother hen gazing down at her newborn chicks and seeing that one of them is green, reptilian, and carries a mouthful of sharp teeth I likewise felt that something wasn’t quite right about this one. But I wanted to love it, I wanted to call it mine, and this crocodile became a member of the Nintendo family whether it belonged there or not.

   I suppose the first sign should have been when I jumped on an enemy’s head and it had no effect. That didn’t seem very “Mario-ish”. Or the lack of the standard power-ups that littered all of his other adventures. The absence of Bowser and his kin was a red flag. And if that wasn’t enough, the sudden obsession with throwing vegetables, something that never occurred to Mario in his previous or later adventures, just seemed out of place. And now I know why. It’s because the Super Mario Bros. 2 that we all know and love is in fact a LIE.

   Well, maybe a lie is a tad bit harsh. It is not what you think it is, that is for sure. Now for the history lesson. In 1988 Nintendo released the Super Mario Bros. 2 that we are all familiar with to a Western audience who was desperate for a new Mario adventure. But the truth is this was not Super Mario 2 at all. That title was released in the East and determined to be too difficult for a Western audience, so instead a game titled Doki Doki Panic was re-skinned with Mario and his friends and released as the next chapter in Mario’s saga. A simple google search will uncover the truth that the screenshot below reveals:

   The truth is the Super Mario Bros. 2 experience we received was another game entirely, which is why it never really felt quite right when compared to the other games in the series. Nintendo slapped Mario on the cover, replaced the main characters with Luigi, Peach, and Toad and hoped we would never know the difference. And for many of us, we may never have known until the harsh truth was presented to us. And while this was a harmless facade that most people have given very little thought to (and honestly the game is just fine even if it isn’t a TRUE Mario title), this brings me to the thought of the masks that we wear so we can continue providing the output we are counted on delivering without risking disappointment with what actually lies within.

   In my life I battle daily with the facade I have built to show the world versus the reality the exists inside me. I work feverishly to present the right face and demeanor at work, home, and in public so I can continue to provide for my family, meet their needs, and co-exist peacefully in society. But as it is written in Romans 7:15-19:


“15 For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. 16 If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. 17 But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. 18 For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. 19 For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice.”

  There is a wealth to unpack in those few short verses, and when you realize that this is none other than the Apostle Paul himself sharing this it becomes even more critical to process this. Suffice to say, even after all of his missionary journeys around the known world preaching the Gospel Paul still found that he struggled each day to stifle the sinful desires that run contrary to the good that he truly desired to do. I don’t know if that speaks to you, but to a broken and frustrated sinner like me it helps knowing that the greatest preacher of all time was able to be honest and admit that he has something inside him that wants to do, say, and think things that he knows he shouldn’t.

   
Now you might be thinking at this point that this is not terribly helpful information. I mean, the whole point of this is to get rid of the mask and live boldly in freedom from sin, right? And it’s hard to do that when you are struggling in areas that nobody expects you to struggle in. Christian “pride” kicks in as we realize how others would judge us if we admit that we are struggling with an addiction, have issues dealing with anger, or have made mistakes that we carry with us deep inside so nobody else will find them.

   

   Fortunately, Paul never brings up a problem without also offering up a solution, typically from his personal experience. And as he goes on in his discourse with the Roman believers…

“21 I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. 22 For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. 23 But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. 24 O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin. 8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus,who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death.

   So what is the answer to the sin problem that plagues us all… sinful and holy, rich and poor, regardless of environment or upbringing? First, we must accept the reality of our situation. We can slap a picture of Mario on the cover of the box all day long, but the game inside is still Doki Doki Panic and anyone can see that now. We are all fighting to do what is right while we are internally driven towards particular weaknesses that threaten to bring us down. These are different for all of us, just as we each have different blood types and genetic data we also have spiritual challenges that operate under the surface that are as unique as our physical DNA. Let’s admit it as boldly as Paul does… I have a war inside me and it wants to win.  

   Now for my choice… I choose to accept that there is no condemnation for me for my past transgressions as well as for the truth of my current struggles because I am making the conscious choice each day to win this war by living according to the will of Christ, not my flesh. I do not have this ability inside me, and if I try to do it myself I am doomed to fail. But when the war for my mind, my heart, my body or my mouth is waged I can make the choice to call on Him for the strength I do not possess and claim victory for that battle. If you are disappointed that belief in Christ did not remove all of your sinful desires, you are not alone. And don’t for a moment believe your conversion was ineffective simply because the war inside you still exists. The war is the PROOF of the Spirit inside you. You would not be battling with sin if you had not chosen Christ. Sin does not battle those it already possesses. The existence of a fight proves the presence of the Spirit of God in your battle.

   Don’t be ashamed of your battle. And don’t photoshop a grinning picture of Mario on yourself as an attempt to convince yourself or others of a “normal” that does not actually exist. Inside me I am Doki Doki Panic all the time. I wish I was Mario… heck, I wouldn’t mind being Toad. But rather than try to look like a Mario title that I am not, I going to stick with my fight to engage with the Birdos and Mousers that dwell inside me. And if you have any leftover vegetables (otherwise known as prayers outside of the Mario realm) that I can throw at them, I’ll be happy to take them off your hands because our friendly neighborhood plumber is off to find his princess in another castle. But you and me and Jesus makes three, and that’s more than enough to beat this level.  

Delay of Game:  Ark Delayed, NCAA Derailed, and (almost) The End of the Summer Gaming Drought (1 Kings 17-18)

We are finally nearing the end of the dog days of summer, when the gaming drought lifts and we see out on the horizon the finish line for the highly anticipated titles that have been years in the making.  It seems like it has always been this way as each June, July, and August become a barren wasteland of new releases that ends with a bang as the annual Madden release signals the existence of rain clouds in the horizon.  Sure, sometimes a nice little indie title pops up to tide us over and occasionally a high-profile beta will run to keep us satisfied, but by and large the rule of thumb has been that the gaming industry hits the recess button about the time that the kids head home from school for the last time.

Sometimes you have a title like Ark: Survival Evolved, which should be out on shelves now but hit one final snag on its long ride home to completion. Or you have the tragic case of NCAA Football, which was long counted on to carry the month of July but is now forever mired with a licensing issue that does not appear to have a potential fix in sight in our lifetimes.  In each of these cases it is not a lack of desire for the title to exist or be completed, but rather the existence of unforeseen challenges and external battles that delay their launch or sometimes derail them permanently.  So as these heavy hitters either step back or go down for the count gamers around the world twiddle our trigger fingers and play through our back catalogue as we impatiently wait for something truly worth our time to emerge from what appears to be an inactive geyser.

The funny thing is that out here in the real world it feels like the great video game machine has ceased operations, yet behind the scenes in each developer’s cubicle the action is at a frenetic, break-neck pace as these days are anything but a summer vacation for them.  This is the most critical part of game development… the final steps to going gold.  The title has long since been set in stone, the voice acting work is completed, the marketing budget is being spent as we speak… as bugs are getting squashed and final multiplayer stress tests are being completed the last months of getting a game out on the shelf is the most challenging, frustrating, stressful, yet critical portion of the game’s journey.

What began as a gleam in the creator’s eye years prior is about to come to fruition, and not a single area in need of polish can be overlooked.  Companies literally rise and fall based on the success or failure of one software title these days, so a rough launch may not only be the end of one developer’s dream… every employee on the payroll is deeply connected to the need to put the very best version of their product out there for public consumption.  And while this process may be invisible and mildly frustrating to most of the video game purchasing public, those who are intimately attached to the long-term success of their game are pulling twenty hour days to insure everyone is satisfied with the final experience.

Waiting through interminable periods of time when nothing seems to be happening is a fairly unenjoyable process.  Having patience is much easier when there is a finish line you can point to or a pre-determined point you can press towards that represents relief.  And in 1 Kings 17 and 18 we find the story of an entirely different type of drought, and within this we will find  some interesting parallels that reflect on our ability to endure the barren plains and empty skies we all must endure at certain seasons in our lives.

If you want to find a person in the Old Testament who has done some stuff and seen some things, there are few that can hold a candle to the prophet Elijah.  These two chapters contain an amazing event that is worthy of its own separate column, but for today we will focus on the ending of the drought found in 1 Kings 18:41.  After years of zero rain, the prophet of God Elijah returned from his disappearance and proclaimed to the king that there was the sound of the abundance of rain.  And as the king went off to eat, Elijah prayed and  sent his servant out to survey the horizon for a sign of potential precipitation.  And… there was nothing there.  Not a cloud, bo change in the barometric pressure reading, not even a shadow indicating a potential cooling off of the sun… nothing externally showed any sign of this “abundance of rain” Elijah had just proclaimed.

If Elijah felt any panic he sure didn’t show it.  He sent his servant back to check again.  Again he returned with the news that there was no evidence of an answer to Elijah’s prayer.  He sent him a third, a fourth, a fifth… in total he sent his servant seven times to look for any indication that the promised rain was on its way.  Finally, on the seventh time the servant returned with this meager report… “There is a cloud the size of a man’s hand coming out of the sea”.  Have you ever prayed a prayer and when you finally saw an answer on it’s way it was so small and insignificant that there was simply no way it would be sufficient for your need?  Well, that’s what Elijah is looking at here.  He promised an outpouring and was looking at a speck.

Elijah, to his credit, was undeterred.  He knew an answer to prayer when he saw one, and he also knew firsthand how the Lord of little was the same Lord of much.  Elijah took the message of that tiny cloud to the king and informed him to “Ride like the wind, Bullseye”!  Well, your translation might have it recorded it a little more like, “Prepare your chariot and go down before the rain stops you”.  But I’m pretty sure that’s how it was said in the original Hebrew.  At any rate, Elijah saw the answer in its fullness before it had even fully arrived, and he responded in faith to it even when the answer tarried and its arrival lacked the overwhelming proof that you would like to see when making a report of this magnitude.

The answer to your prayers may seem like a dot in the distance, or perhaps they are not even visible yet, but as sure as EA will launch a new Madden game each August our Heavenly Father will always have a rain cloud that will show up for you right when it is needed most.  It may not be there the first time you look, the second time, or the fifth time, but it’s coming.  It may look like it’s the size of a man’s hand, but many times our answers to prayer will be delivered through the man-sized hands of others.  And much like the development cycle of your favorite game franchise, the silence you are hearing is not an indication that progress is not occurring.  To the contrary, the most critical work on the project and the final steps of the process are the portions that receive the least amount of fanfare and are accompanied by the least amount of updates.  If a developer is talking then they aren’t working, and if they are busy polishing those last touches on your next addiction then they probably aren’t updating their Twitter.

 

Take heart when you see an absence of clouds in the sky and don’t hear any sounds of thunder.  Elijah, in faith, heard the sound of the abundance of rain while looking at a cloudless sky.  And his faith was rewarded with the opening of the heavens and a refreshing outpouring that answered not only his prayer, but the prayers of the entire nation.  God does not delay our responses as an act of control or cruelty… the truth is there is more at stake in your situation than you are privy to, and a prayer answered at the wrong time is worse than an unanswered prayer.  There is a crucial difference in blessings and curses, and much of this has to do with timing.  Let’s look at one final example…

In 1 Samuel 8 we find the sad story of Samuel, the mighty prophet of God, being asked by the nation of Israel to appoint them a king.  To this point the Lord was their King and He would periodically appoint people to act on His behalf such as Moses, Samson, Deborah, and now Samuel.  But the people demanded a king, and in spite of Samuel’s stern warnings and the clearly stated will of God against this their prayers were answered.  The solution was Saul, a horribly flawed monarch who caused great distress to the country and if it had not been for God’s deliverance by the hand of David they would have re-entered a life of slavery, this time to the Philistines.  If they had only waited, David would have been the first king and would have spared them a great deal of problems.  So we see that a prayer answered in the wrong time can be worse than the situation we currently occupy, and while we may see a clear solution to our predicament, the Lord sees all of the spinning wheels and is determined not to release the response until the fullness of time has truly come.

I have many prayers lifted up right now, and many of them feel like their situation is already past the point of expiration.  But when the Lord says rain is in the forecast, you can take that to the bank.  He may not hit your desired street date, but you can be assured that small cloud on the horizon is the proof that the abundance of rain is coming.  Don’t lose hope… the absence of proof and the lack of audible confirmation is simply the sound of progress in a realm beyond our comprehension.  Ask a tomb that’s sat silent for three days what happens when it finally becomes time for the stone to move…