Finding the Redemption in Your Cup of Red Dead (Luke 19:1-9)

Red Dead Redemption 2 is a notable release for a huge amount of reasons, but one of the most well-known reasons may be the sheer amount of WAITING that fans have been enduring as the title slipped from one release window to another and finally to an entirely different calendar year before finally gracing us with its presence.  A delay of that magnitude gives this title a lot to live up to, and only time will tell if it delivers on all of the promises made so long ago.  Now as a disclaimer, this title is not my particular cup of tea and I am making no statements in regards to the appropriateness of its content for you or those you game with.  So this is less about the game and it’s gameplay and more about the central conceit of this story… the idea of what we do with the “irredeemable”, the “fallen”, and the “failed” among us.  Despicable people with a desire to change their trajectory in life is not only the story at the core of this game, but this is the world that surrounds us each and every day.

Dmcjcl1X0AA2Zsg  A few toes dipped into this pool quickly reveals the temperature of the water… cold to the touch.  Which is ironic considering that many of our favorite “heroic” characters in gaming and cinema are what we would have to label as “works in progress”, and that’s if we are being polite.  I mean seriously… Iron Man is an egotistical, self-absorbed billionaire who made his money off of supplying arms to shady organizations.  Batman is a self-appointed vigilante who breaks any laws that get in his way in order to impose martial law as he sees fit.  The Guardians of the Galaxy are rogue smugglers and thieves with criminal backgrounds a mile long.  Kratos from God of War or maybe even Solid Snake from Metal Gear?  Don’t even get me started.  Those guys have ISSUES.  But in each of these stories we find people who have been chosen to do something bigger, something world or maybe even galaxy altering… in spite of their backgrounds, their track records, and their need for a path to redemption.

rdr2The irony is that we love to inhabit these people in our games or watch their hero’s journey over and over again on the big screen… but in the real world we don’t seem to know what to do with those in need of a second, third, or maybe even hundredth chance.  We love our “outlaw with a heart of gold” in CONCEPT, but in actuality we seem to have no place for them in society.  And the truth is every single one of us is in need of redemption… and while we love to receive it we don’t always know what it looks like to GIVE it.  How do we give someone a chance to be something more while reconciling the missteps that they have taken?  And fortunately there is an answer… not in Marvel comics or in RockStar’s next magnum opus… but in the book of Luke.

You may think you are familiar with the story of Zacchaeus.  The short little tax collector who climbed the tree to see Jesus.  But I want to walk in his tiny shoes for just a few moments as we consider the response of Jesus to a man who was considered a plague to his fellow citizens.  I will spare the long history lesson and simply say that the position of tax collector in that era was even worse than how we look at the IRS now.  Tax collectors were considered so low that the phrase “tax collectors and sinners” is found multiple times in the Bible because they were considered equivalent insults.  Tax collectors were considered betrayers of their own countrymen… gathering taxes for the hated Roman Empire, choosing to work for the oppressors who had conquered the world and provide them with the funds to ensure they stay in power for a long time.

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As a result of becoming the outcasts of society, tax collectors went rogue.  They could charge a higher amount of taxes from the citizens without consequence and would pocket these funds for their own benefit.  As a result, tax collectors became wealthy but hated individuals and had no real place in their own society.  Caught between a rock and a hard place, we find a tax collector named Zacchaeus who has heard about the man Jesus passing through town and is eager to catch a glimpse of Him.  We don’t know what has placed this in his heart… all we know is that as Jesus is passing by Zacchaeus is desperate to see him.

Luke 19:1-10 Then Jesus entered and passed through Jericho. Now behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus who was a chief tax collector, and he was rich. And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not because of the crowd, for he was of short stature. So he ran ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him, for He was going to pass that way.And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and saw him, and said to him, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.”So he made haste and came down, and received Him joyfully. But when they saw it, they all complained, saying, “He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner.”Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.”And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham;for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”

I hope you caught all of that, but if not let’s sum it up.  Jesus didn’t find Zacchaeus and tell him that he needed to make some major changes in his life before he would grace him with His presence.  No, He simply went to his house and in the presence of an opportunity for redemption ol’ Zach made the decision to change his life and offered what he had without asking anything in return.  He received grace freely and in return he showed it to others.  And in our modern society that is so quick to demand the complete destruction of people’s lives for their mistakes, I think there is a powerful message here.

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So often it seems we feel the need to act as judge, jury and executioner in people’s lives while wanting to fall on God’s grace for our own failings.  You don’t have to look much farther than your most recent social media feed to see us descend upon those who have committed any variety of indiscretions being EVISCERATED by the public… including those who may have committed those very same offenses but are either less famous or simply committed their sins on a much less visible stage.  But Jesus clearly demonstrated that as we offer grace we will see those who have fallen rise beyond even our highest expectations of them and benefit others in return.

The bottom line is we have the opportunity to offer grace or a sword to those we have deemed to be “outlaws”… and how we respond to these opportunities has far-reaching implications for them as well as for us.  We were given the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5), not the license to determine who is worthy of the opportunity to try again.  We would all do well to remember the words of Jesus Himself when considering how we respond to the opportunities for redemption that surround us…

Matthew 7:1-2: Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.

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CAUTION: Obstacles Ahead May Be More Vital Than They Appear (Judges 14-16, Acts 13, Luke 9:51)

This is incredibly painful for me to admit.  As a red-blooded American male what I am about to say is anathema, and may be grounds for me to lose my “dude” card forever.  I hope I can at least cash in the points before my membership is cancelled.  But in the interest of transparency I have to be honest… sometimes (most of the time, actually) I don’t know where I am going.  My navigational skills are not as potent as I would like to believe.  There, I’ve said it.  For all of those poor misguided souls who have ridden shotgun with me over the years… I admit it.  I have no idea where we are, I have no idea where we are going, and NO I don’t want to ask for directions.  I just want to keep moving in a direction that “feels” like the right way until we reach one of the oceans, then we will at least know where we are.

If the option is to turn left or right, I have the unique ability to take a 50/50 opportunity and make it 100% incorrect every time.  This is true in both real life as well as many of my gaming experiences.  So many times I stubbornly refuse to look at the “mini-map” in the game because I am so self-assured of my innate sense of direction, and twenty minutes later I am all alone in an area that I am quite certain I have passed through about twenty minutes earlier.  How can I tell?  Because all of the chests have been opened, the items have been looted, the enemies have been dispatched, and there is typically nothing left to do but go somewhere else.  Most likely any direction but the one I just came from.

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The funny thing about video games is that even if an in-game map or waypoint is not directing you on where to go, there is always one thing you can count on to light your way.  And I have leaned on this trope over and over and over again to get my bearings when it seems I am at a dead-end or simply can’t find north on a compass.  And what is that tell-tale sign?  You can tell you are heading the right direction because you will start finding enemies again.  Anytime I am trying to figure out which direction I should go in a game I simply have to look for where the action is, where the opposition is heaviest, and I will find my way to the next spot on my map.  The amount of conflict you face is the KEY to knowing you are heading the correct direction.

Similar to how the quantity of opposition and obstacles lies in a direct ratio to our next destination in a video game, life is much the same.  But we are often trained to think the opposite.  The closer we grow to God and the more careful we are to follow His direction the easier the path should get, right?  Just walking on sunshine, one gently placed cloud after another appearing beneath our feet as we head towards the Promised Land?  Unfortunately, this is not the case and as we shall see in these verses it is the law of opposite momentum that rules the day both in gaming and in life… the more treacherous the obstacles you face, the closer you are to where you are heading.

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Let’s look at our first example… the most famous/infamous strong man in the Bible, Samson.  Samson was ordained to be the one who God had chosen to free His people from their oppression under the Philistines, and without him even seeking out conflict it continued to find its way to him as he marched towards his endgame.  Samson chose a wife… and is attacked by a lion on the way to see her.  He had to kill the lion with his bare hands, because that is a thing normal people do.  Samson threw a bachelor party that went a bit awry… it resulted in 30 Philistine casualties.  No matter how badly your pre-wedding festivities went… I think Samson has you topped.  His marital life didn’t fare any better… after his wife is given to another man, Samson’s former fiancee and Samson’s father-in-law are both tragically murdered… 1,000 Philistines paid the price with their lives this time.  And finally the infamous Samson/Delilah affair goes down, and from his position of imprisonment Samson takes down 3,000 Philistines in his final act.  As Samson drew closer and closer to his destiny the amount of enemies he faced multiplied and the difficulty level climbed as well… and the body count exponentially increased as he achieved what he had been chosen to do.

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Not everyone is called to a path of war… the Apostle Paul may be the poster child for an obstacle-laden path that probably feels a little more similar to what we feel that we face on a day to day basis.  Paul and Barnabas are freshly commissioned in Acts 13 and then immediately run into a face off with a sorcerer.  Sounds like something straight out of a video game, right?  Paul moved on to Antioch and after his first few sermons he was exiled from the area.  Tough sledding… but each step that led Paul deeper and deeper into ever more challenging environments are now what we simply know as “Paul’s missionary journeys” and are usually found in a nice, colorful map in the back of your favorite Bible.  The funny thing is Paul didn’t have that map at the beginning of his journey.  He didn’t have pretty little red and blue arrows pointing him towards his next stop either.  We look at those now and see a nice, coherent, well-planned out voyage but the reality of his life was moving from one stop to the next with constant opposition lighting his way.

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It is often our enemies that show we are going the right direction.  The fact of the matter is that both in video games as well as life, enemies don’t spawn behind you, but rather shine the way towards your next destination.  If you are lacking in obstacles, you are likely either backtracking or moving in a circle.  Head towards the battle… towards the danger… towards your next step in your destiny.  Charge forward as Jesus demonstrated in Luke 9:51 when it was time for Him to face the cross and His destiny…

Luke 9:51 Now it came to pass, when the time had come for Him to be received up, that He steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem

Set your face towards the combat.  If there are enemies there, then your final steps towards the boss fight awaits.  Your progression is dependent on facing these enemies down.  This is what you have been building for, preparing for, and leveling up for the entire time.  Why keep them waiting…

The PlayStation “Classic”: You Can’t Give What You Don’t Possess (Acts 19:11-20)

Retro gaming may be bigger than anything NOT named Fortnite right now, and I for one am about as pleased as a duck swimming in a lake full of Frosted Flakes (The intent with that sentence is to imply my approval, just in case that was not clear.  I am a big fan of Frosted Flakes.  And I am of the opinion that a duck would feel similarly if given the chance.)  Gamers worldwide are getting to enjoy many of the experiences that ruled many of our adolescent lives with pixel perfect versions of titles such as Super Mario Bros 3, Legend of Zelda, and Donkey Kong Country lighting up your high def televisions in all of their 8-bit and 16-bit glory.  With the monstrous success Nintendo has enjoyed with the releases of both the NES and the SNES classic models, it is safe to say that this is a wave of enthusiasm that has not yet crested.  Need proof?  Look no further than the most recent nostalgia-based console heading to a video game store near you, the PlayStation Classic.

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Retailing at a robust $99.99, this newest entrant into the classic console phenomenon will also be the highest priced yet.  Boasting two controllers and a library of 20 pre-installed games, the intent is clear.  Sony plans to make a dramatic statement and cut a slice into this lucrative business with a re-release of their own original, beloved, industry-changing console. But there is an inherent problem in their plan, and I will let you come with me on the journey as we discover what that is.  As soon as the machine was announced the very first question should be obvious… what games are coming with it?  Since Sony has already announced there will not be any post-launch support for the system (meaning no future games will be added to it), the true value of this system is in what you can actually play on it.  Are you ready for the list of the games announced so far?

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Do you remember me? No? I get that a lot, actually…
   First, let’s get Final Fantasy VII out of the way.  A classic if there ever was one, albeit a game that has already seen re-release in multiple forms over the years.  Definitely a seminal title that belongs on the list of all-time great PS1 games.  But then the list gets considerably… well let’s just be kind and say “less classic” than one would hope.  Of the remaining four titles that have been announced we have Wild Arms, Ridge Racer 4, Jumping Flash, and Tekken 3.  Maybe it’s just me, but I’m feeling slightly under-whelmed at the list of “classic” titles I can finally play again for the now not-so-low price of $99.99.  I mean let’s be honest… have you actually ever played Wild Arms?  Or even heard of it?  Did you ever own, borrow, or rent Jumping Flash?  (Renting is another relic of a bygone era… rest in peace Blockbuster).  Are you planning to invite any friends over you can settle that long-standing beef you had with them over Ridge Racer back in the day?  No?  Hmmm… me neither.  And herein lies the problem.

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WILD ARMS… In all of its nose-less, mouth-less glory.  But those eyebrows tho…

The issue is that many of the titles that we possess the fondest memories of playing are simply not owned by Sony and thus will be unlikely to appear on their classic console.  Unlike Nintendo, which owned and maintained many of the most popular intellectual properties in gaming at that time, Sony had a pretty limited well of first party titles.  What are your favorite memories on the original PlayStation?  Crash Bandicoot?  Spyro?  Madden?  Metal Gear Solid?  Unfortunately, without substantial negotiation it is unlikely these will be showing up on the “Classic” any time soon because those titles are not “owned” by Sony.   And you can’t give what you don’t possess.

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RRRRRRRRrrrrridge RACER!!!! C’mon man… I was a big deal. I promise.
   In Acts 19 we find a grim yet fascinating story regarding the early church and a group of seven men who similarly had a grand plan but lacked the minimum requirements to enact it.  This occurs smack dab in the middle of the Apostle Paul’s ministry and just as he is being used by God to work miracles of healing and spiritual freedom from demonic oppression, others want to get in on the act.  These gentleman, sons of a chief Jewish priest named Sceva, are going to attempt to imitate the Apostle Paul without actually possessing the relationship with God that has enabled Paul to perform these miraculous acts.

Acts 19:11-16 Now God worked unusual miracles by the hands of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs or aprons were brought from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out of them. Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists took it upon themselves to call the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “We exorcise you by the Jesus whom Paul preaches.” Also there were seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, who did so.  And the evil spirit answered and said, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?” Then the man in whom the evil spirit was leaped on them, overpowered them, and prevailed against them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded. 

Now I will not attempt to assume these men’s intent, as it is possible that they were either over-eager, ill-informed, misguided, or merely counterfeit opportunists looking for fame, fortune or both.   But regardless of their motives, the results are pretty chilling.  When the men attempted to trade on a relationship that someone else possessed, they received a rude awakening and after the demonic spirit informed them of who he DID know (Paul and Jesus), he then dropped the hammer and informed them that he did not know (or evidently fear) THEM.  The result was a group of seven men getting beat down and chased out of the house, exposed in just about every way a person can be.

Here’s the bottom line… we cannot give to others what we do not possess.  It is impossible to lead someone into a relationship with God if we don’t have one of our own.  We cannot demonstrate the freedom that exists in Christ if we are not living in it ourselves.  We cannot expect answers to our prayers from a God who we don’t truly know and serve.  Much like the problem Sony has with a system that does not have the games we are looking for, so too are we unable to give the love, peace, and joy that exists in the life of Christ’s followers if we are not partakers of that life ourselves.

The Christian life is not something we can simply imitate from someone else.  In this day and age of people looking for something real and authentic, spouting a few Biblical catchphrases without any substance may be the worst thing we can do.  There IS a real power that comes with serving Jesus… the power to have your prayers heard and answered, to help others, and to heal hearts, minds and bodies.  But we cannot wield that the way these men tried to, like a set of secret code words that exist to be manipulated and abused.  A welding torch in the hands of a skilled professional can be used to hold giant metal beams together that supports a massive skyscraper.  But when carelessly handled by an untrained novice it has the potential for destruction and even fatalities.

Hebrews 4:12 compares the Word of God to a sword, unmatched in its sharpness and ability to sever.  It is not a weapon to be taken lightly.  Prayers are powerful, the words printed in the Bible are literal weapons against a spiritual enemy, and when combined with a real relationship with the Creator who has protected these words from the sands of time for thousands of years just so you and I could read them… they can change someone’s life.  But without being plugged in to the electrical power source that is the Spirit of God they are as empty as the games list for the PlayStation Classic that everyone thought they wanted… until they saw it didn’t have as much to offer as one had hoped.

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Maybe Sony will turn it around and make the deals necessary to add the content players actually know and love.  It’s not too late, and I truly hope that they do.  I would love to see a console that actually delivers on the promise of recreating the glory days of the PS1.  And if you are looking for something REAL from God that moves beyond the old songs, stale-smelling pews and ‘lather, rinse and repeat’ church services… it’s not too late for that either.  There may be a “counterfeit”, weak, powerless version of Christianity that you have observed, but there is a REAL one as well.  One that involves ANSWERED prayers and CHANGED lives.  And it all starts with asking God for that authentic, real, powerful relationship and choosing to live it AND to give it.

One final note… if you have become disenfranchised with God because of the flawed, weak religion you may have observed from others… remember that the counterfeit only proves the existence of the genuine.  Counterfeiters do not produce and flood the marketplace with fake thirty-dollar bills because they are obviously not real.  There isn’t a REAL thirty-dollar bill, so nobody would believe in their worthless one.   No… they mimic a real, authentic bill with a copycat that looks similar but has no actual substance behind it.  The difference between the fake bill and the real one is the authentic one was crafted by someone who has the means to authorize its use and value.   I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions there…

The Rise and Fall of Telltale Games: The Dangers of Over-Encumbrance (1 Sam 17, Matthew 11)

The surprising and bitter ending to the story for Telltale Games is ironically in keeping with the way many of my decisions have panned out when playing one of their games over the years… shocking, seemingly unnecessary, preventable, and sad.  Smack dab in the middle of the final season of their critically acclaimed Walking Dead series, Telltale Games has closed their doors leaving the final episodes of not only this series but all of their upcoming titles in limbo, perhaps never to be completed.  While the full details of the studio closure remain murky, it appears highly likely that the incredible success story of “the little company that could” finally ran out of continues.  One can only hope Clementine will still remember this.

In an era in which point-and-click style adventures were long dead and cutting edge graphics and blistering fast frame-rates were the only qualities worthy of investing a studio into, Telltale bucked this trend and focused on character-driven narratives and offered gameplay that was just as simplistic and accessible as their game engine and visual style.  And for quite a while, it worked.  Telltale danced with the type of licenses that would make any developer jealous… just look at a few of these brands.  Walking Dead.  Batman.  Minecraft.  Borderlands.  Game of Thrones.  Jurassic Park.  Back to the Future (okay, maybe not so much that one).  Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy.  STRANGER THINGS was up next, for crying out loud.  The opportunity to make a game out of any one of these juggernaut properties would be considered a once in a lifetime opportunity for just about any game developer out there.  So what went wrong?

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The truth is this exponential success came at a heavy cost for the small studio.   Developing one or two quality titles a year is a challenge for any major gaming studio, and the popularity of their games combined with their copy-and-paste game engine made it easy to continue to release title after title based on multiple franchises without addressing many of the key desires from their fan base such as an updated engine or graphics that were more in line with current industry trends.  They got bigger, but they didn’t GROW.  And as a result, Telltale finally ran out of financing even as one of their most viable licenses was up next for release (Netflix’s Stranger Things), which surely would have changed this narrative tremendously.

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A more tragic truth is that many of us are living this same lifestyle every day.  The “Over-Encumbered Life”.  Never before has a civilization of people had so many options and opportunities to live life on their own terms the way we do now.  Any human being on this planet is potentially one second away from becoming a viral sensation.  Fame, wealth, power, and success are all more accessible now than at any other time in recorded history.  So why are suicide rates up, violent crimes rampant, and social unrest and depression at all time highs?  It is this very “over-encumbering” that is taking over and threatens to close the doors on the happiness and fulfillment we all crave.

Not familiar with the concept of over-encumbrance?   Let me tell you a personal story…. many moons ago, I was putting way more hours than I care to admit into Elder Scrolls: Oblivion.  I was exploring a cave that was far above my current capabilities and I had only managed to find the spoils inside by running and hiding from the enemies rather than dispatching them.  Within the cave I found a suit of armor that was far better than what I was carrying and I was SUPER-pumped… but I had a problem.  It was too heavy.  Even if I dropped everything that was unnecessary to my journey, the armor itself weighed so much more than my character could handle at that time that the only way I could leave the cave with it would be to drop all of my weapons and take my chances with the enemies I had been unable to defeat on my way in.

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As much as I craved this particular set of armor, I was not in a place where I could carry it.  Even though it represented an improvement, it would actually have been a weight beyond my capacity at that time.  I would have spent hours trying to escape in an “over-encumbered” state, walking slowly, unable to jump or run, and completely ineffective for defense or offense.  The armor I had entered the cave with was simply a better fit for me at the time, and travelling light suited my abilities at this stage in the game.  So as much as it pained me to do it, and as much as it seemed like the entire cave excursion was now a waste of my time… I left it behind.

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Have you been there?  Thanks to the onslaught of expectations we all endure from family, friends, social media, or ourselves I think we all face this at some point or another.  We are so concerned with not only achieving success and happiness, but documenting it and proving it through our posts on Facebook, our photos on Instagram, or in our resume and as a result we continue to take on additional weight without accounting for our ability to carry it.  We are trained to start young and fast… achieve a degree, get married, start a career, have kids, buy a house, go on a fancy vacation… all very honorable and worthy pursuits but much like Telltale Games we just keep running and adding to our load without considering our capacity.  And the end result is tired, exhausted, depressed, worn out people who are disappointed with themselves and what they have accomplished.

In 1 Samuel we find a simple solution from the shepherd-king David.  About to face his biggest test yet in the form of Goliath, David was gifted an armor set from King Saul to provide him with protection and a greater chance for success on this suicide mission.  But David did not possess the size, age, or strength of Saul (who had been described as one of the tallest men in the nation previously).  The armor, which to be honest had not really done Saul any favors here either, was clearly not a fit for David.  Whether Saul was genuinely trying to help David, intentionally over-encumbering him to sabotage him, or was simply trying to take some of the future credit for David’s success by loaning him his armor is a discussion for another day.  But here is what went down:

1 Sam. 17:38-40 So Saul clothed David with his armor, and he put a bronze helmet on his head; he also clothed him with a coat of mail. David fastened his sword to his armor and tried to walk, for he had not tested them.And David said to Saul, “I cannot walk with these, for I have not tested them.” So David took them off.  Then he took his staff in his hand; and he chose for himself five smooth stones from the brook, and put them in a shepherd’s bag, in a pouch which he had, and his sling was in his hand. And he drew near to the Philistine.

David took stock of the situation, realized his actual capacity, and chose to travel light.  He knew the Lord had nudged him to accomplish the task of slaying the giant, but David had to make the choice of what to bring with him into the battle.  He trusted that the God who can do much with little would be able to use him more successfully by simply bringing his sling and some rocks.  And by choosing not to engage in the over-encumbrance that was being thrust upon him by those who may have been considered older, wiser, or more successful, David found his success.

It is a common misunderstanding that David only used a sling to end this battle… no, you have to finish the story to find the end result for Goliath.  After David dropped the giant with a stone from his sling, he raced over to the body, pulled out GOLIATH’S massive sword and used THAT to sever neck from shoulders and end the battle with authority.  And there is a valuable insight here… if you trust that the path God placed you on is the right one and He has adequately equipped you for it, then anything you may need to finish the job will be available to you right when you need it.  Even if that sword is resting in your opponent’s hand right now.

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If you are feeling beaten up, exhausted, over-whelmed or simply over-encumbered, I would encourage you to take off the armor that others have told you that you are expected to wear and stop worrying about how that may reflect on you.  There is no value in being a great-looking corpse.  If David had made the wrong choice and worn the king’s chain mail nobody would have said, “Yeah, David got his butt kicked.  But did you see that armor?  While he was flying through the air he looked FANTASTIC.”  Strip off all of the expectations you have placed on yourself or that others have burdened you with, even with the best of intentions.  See your path through the eyes of your Creator and what He actually wants you to carry.  He never intended for you to live an over-encumbered life…

Matt. 11:28-30 Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

Spider-Man: Swinging Right Past the Origin Story (1 and 2 Samuel)

Origin stories.  They are not only an expectation, they are practically a rite of passage.  If you want to get to the part of the game where your character can execute their coolest moves and demonstrate the abilities you saw and drooled about in all of the game trailers, then you better buckle up for a long ride because the person you will start the game as is rarely that person.  They tend to lack all of the powers you associate with them, possess a small and insignificant life bar with an equally empty skill tree, and can scarcely hold their own in a fight with a common street thug when you first get started.  We have come to expect that we must slowly BECOME the acrobatic and skilled hero we originally imagined over the course of many hours of learning moves, unlocking attributes, and finding gear. And IF we have persevered, by the end of the game we just MIGHT look like, act like, and fight like the superhero we planned on playing as for the last twenty hours.

After many years of the same pattern in video games, Insomniac Games took the bold move to shoot a string of web and swing right past the expected origin story of Peter Parker and give us a fully capable, combat ready, mature(ish) Spider-Man for their first foray with this license.  And it is a move that has been received warmly and enthusiastically across the board, as critics and gamers alike have been reveling in the simple joy of having a ready-made Spider-Man, just add controller.  After all, who wants to play out sequences where Peter can’t quite get the grip of shooting webs and destroys everything in his bedroom?  (Insert “Goo Gone “product placement here).  Or slam into buildings repeatedly as he works on his timing?  I think we would all gladly skip past the tedious amount of research needed to formulate his webbing solution.  And only the heartless would want to once again fail to reach Uncle Ben in time because we were foolishly exploiting our powers for personal gain.

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The truth is origin stories are messy.  Painful.  Full of mistakes and embarrassing moments that nobody really wants to relive.  It is ever so much easier to take on the life of our hero once they have moved past all of the drama, awkwardness, trials and scarring that accompanies the beginning of their journey.  It is refreshing to see the hero show up at just the right moment with battle scars across their face because you know this isn’t their first rodeo, but the truth is the story in those scars probably tells a narrative that indicates that their first rodeo went really, REALLY poorly.

In many ways King David might be considered the quint-essential action hero of the Old Testament.  I don’t mean to put down the amazing accomplishments of so many other men and women who boldly and heroically carried the torch when their time came, but his story hits all of the beats and between the very fair mix of his exploits and failures captured in the books of 1 and 2 Samuel combined with the deep glimpses into his very soul we find throughout the Psalms, there are simply very few individuals who were so deeply honest about their shortcomings while also fairly capturing their legacy quite like David.

The harsh truth about David is his origin story isn’t all about slaying giants and choosing honor over justice.  It’s messy, often bloody, and full of mistakes both obvious as well as less apparent until his story plays all the way out.  I would like to follow him as the bold young man who kills bears, lions, and Goliaths, but I’m not so sure about the coward who literally faked mental illness to avoid confrontation (1 Sam 21).  I dig the love story between him and his first wife Michal, but as he accumulates additional wives and concubines he seems a little less romantic and a little more of a playboy (2 Sam 3).  I love that he follows a code of honor in his stubborn unwillingness to harm Saul, but he allows a man like Joab, his nephew (2 Sam 8), to be his right-hand man and captain of his army in spite of his clear lack of fitness for the position evidenced by how often he contradicted David’s guidance or enabled his poor decisions (Joab murdered Abner, Absalom, Uriah, and was eventually put to death by David’s son Solomon).

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The truth is that the origin story of David isn’t much different from yours or mine, it just played out on a larger screen.  But it is in those very origin stories that he becomes the man who unites Israel and conquers Jerusalem.  Flawed?  Absolutely.  Morally compromised?  Often, unfortunately.  In our day and age he would have been massacred on the internet, forced to delete his Twitter, made his Facebook private, and probably been recorded by TMZ on his rooftop scoping out Bathsheba.   But without these failures he would not have been able to write the many Psalms that we reach out to in moments of crisis or utilize as prayers when our own words fail us.  Your origin story is likely just as messy… I know mine certainly is.  And I would never have chosen my path and the mistakes I made to bring me to the place I am now, and I regret every one of those poor choices as much as any of us ever could.  But please listen to me carefully here… our individual origin story is ESSENTIAL to the path we are meant to walk, even if the decisions made had negative repercussions.  It doesn’t make them good or right, but they were still a required component of the path necessary to reach your destination.

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Every choice Peter Parker made, good or bad, led him to become the Spider-Man we are all playing as right now (if you have a PS4 and a legally obtained copy of Spider-Man, that is).  And while it is awesome to get to suit up as this seasoned and capable Spider-Man, we don’t truly get to start out that way in life.  Nobody does.  It is through the mis-steps, the accidents, and even the brazen failures that we learn to be the hero that someone else will need.  Whether you wear your battle scars physically or buried deep in a place no one else can see, it is your origin story that will be what connects you to someone else in need.  Don’t be ashamed from it, hide from it, or run from it… simply be the person who lived it, survived, and is here to fight another day.

Embrace the Spider-Man you are now even if the path you took to get here was not optimal.  You cannot undo the past anymore than Peter can bring back Uncle Ben.  But what you CAN do is start using your powers for God’s glory.  You can stand up for those who are in need.  You can empathize with those who have failed and point them back on the path.  You can stop regretting how you got here and start figuring out what you are supposed to be DOING here.  That bite that should have been fatal may have been what placed you on the path of your true destiny.

God of War, Letting Go, and Moving On… (2 Samuel 12)

With the spring/summer gaming drought in full swing per the usual seasonal release schedule, there really isn’t much out there to distract one from the awareness of the launch of Sony’s blockbuster franchise “God of War”, now without all those pesky Roman numerals.  Sony has opted for a fairly bold move by significantly aging their signature hero, but we have seen that done before with Metal Gear/Solid Snake as a means of conveying a newfound sense of maturity and perspective for our hero, so that isn’t exactly breaking new ground.  The interesting choice, and the more compelling change, is in the addition of not just a companion, but a young SON for the previously “I walk alone” Spartan.  And that significantly changes the status quo, as any parent will gladly agree.

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This added sense of responsibility is obvious on the face of Kratos… this is a man who previously only wore the perpetually angry scowl of one who has been crop-dusted by an exceptionally lactose-intolerant man drinking a milkshake in an elevator going up to the 100th floor.  But now we see a very different side of him.  His growth as a character is predicated not on simply building up his skill tree of abilities and gaining additional strength or stamina, but in the act of allowing himself to be the protector and guardian of this young life.  Most of Kratos’ previous exploits had dealt with the ending of life, not preserving it, and with that Kratos has to finally let go of his stringent requirements of how life is supposed to be and allow for the chaos that an unpredictable addition such as this boy trying to become a man creates for both of them.

With the path Kratos is on, it would be easy to see the child as a liability in battle and a burden during travel.  Weaker, more vulnerable, and without the battle savvy forged from years of fighting countless wars with both men and monsters, one could be forgiven for considering that this puts a significant crimp in ol’ Kratos’style.  He isn’t exactly known for being a “team player”, after all.  But while he is far from a perfect father figure there is an important message found in the way that he not only accepts the challenge of shepherding this lightning rod for trouble that is his child,  but seems to find a way to thrive on it.

Now, I am going to jump somewhere with you, so buckle up.  Because I believe many of us (raising my hand here as well) often feel like that tag-along in our walk with God.  Our flimsy arrows seem so puny and pointless compared to His incredible power, and we so often can’t seem to stop mucking things up despite our very best efforts to please Him.  I snatch defeat from the jaws of certain victory on a DAILY basis.  And many times the hardest thing for me to do is to let go of the mistakes I have made and try to learn a new lesson from my Father because I can’t stop dwelling on where I have failed.  So while He is eager to show me a new skill or bring me into a fresh battle I am still hung up on missing that deer with my bow and arrow in the tutorial.  And there is a solution…

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In 2 Samuel 12 we find the fallen King David fresh out of the darkest moments of his life.  He has sinned egregiously… lust, adultery, stealing, lying, murder… I’m pretty sure almost every one of the seven deadly sins was committed in the previous chapter during the Bathsheba affair except for maybe gluttony.  And that’s only because he was so busy with all the other sins he probably didn’t have time to pour himself a dozen bowls of Frosted Flakes.  But rather than focusing on his exceptionally heinous sins and the fallout from that, I want to draw your attention to how David responded to the aftermath…

2 Samuel 12:20-25 So David arose from the ground, washed and anointed himself, and changed his clothes; and he went into the house of the Lord and worshiped. Then he went to his own house; and when he requested, they set food before him, and he ate. Then his servants said to him, “What is this that you have done? You fasted and wept for the child while he was alive, but when the child died, you arose and ate food.”And he said, “While the child was alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who can tell whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.  Then David comforted Bathsheba his wife, and went in to her and lay with her. So she bore a son, and he called his name Solomon. Now the Lord loved him, and He sent word by the hand of Nathan the prophet: So he called his name Jedidiah, because of the Lord.

I want to untangle this for a moment… the quick context is that after David stole a man’s wife, committed adultery, and then had her husband murdered the Lord declared a punishment for David… a life for a life.  For the life he took and the shame he brought upon the Lord’s name, the child born from this affair would not live.  For an entire week David fasted and prayed for mercy from the Lord, but his prayers were not answered and the child passed away.  His servants were terrified at what would happen to their beloved yet flawed king at hearing this news… would he freak out?  Go on a rampage like the previous king and try to kill the messenger?  Fall into a bottomless depression or even attempt self-harm?  There was no telling… and no predicting what happened next.

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David MOVED ON.  He accepted both the punishment AND the forgiveness from the Lord given to him in verse 13.  He took a shower, changed his clothes, spent some time with God in WORSHIP (not whining)… and then he ate breakfast.  I’m guessing pancakes, but I will allow for it to be waffles depending on your Bible version.  And once he took care of that business, he went in to his new wife and “comforted her”… and we will just fast forward through that and say that they had another child shortly after the “comforting”.  This is a family column, after all.  Read Song of Solomon if you want THOSE kind of details.  The bottom line is that David did not spend the rest of his life wallowing in his terrible choices or even the consequences of his mistakes.  He truly repented before God and was TRULY forgiven.  And his next steps were exceptionally blessed by the Lord as his next child grew up to be the wise and wealthy Solomon and immediately after this David began his next successful military campaign.

His servants were astonished at how quickly he moved on, but that is the most important part to stop and consider.  Like David, most of us have no problem believing in God’s punishment.  To be honest, sometimes I actually WANT it because it satisfies my need to be chastened for my sins.  But David took one extra step that I know I personally miss so many times… he ALSO believed in the Lord’s forgiveness just as readily.  And he accepted that at face value and moved on with his life because he still had stuff to do.  I mean, he is the KING after all.  He has an important job… a war to win… and a destiny to fulfill.  And none of that was going to be accomplished by continuing to mourn over the sins he had committed and what that had cost.

It does not reduce the severity of our sin nor does it downplay the terrible repercussions of our sins to move on.  But continuing to live in that place DISRESPECTS that sacrifice of Christ on the cross to remove our sins from us as far as the east is from the west as well as prevents us from accomplishing what the Lord has for us next.  We all have sinned and fallen short, but we cannot remain in the tutorial level simply because we failed.  God knew the mistakes we were going to make when He planned our future as well as our destiny.  God knew it would be SOLOMON who took David’s place as king.  And he knew how David was going to get there, even if it was a horrific path he took.

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We have a loving Father who is guiding us on our path despite how useless we may seem in battle and how errant our arrows seem to fly.  If you are able to believe in God’s punishment and wrath, then you must also accept His love and forgiveness… for yourself as well as for others.  And He is ready for you to move on… you have so much left to do.  So don’t allow these bad decisions to join you on your next steps… go take a bath.  Put on a clean shirt.  Eat some pancakes.  Kiss a cheek and hug a neck.  And go take on the next boss fight without allowing that sin stain to linger in your mind.  Jesus’s blood was sufficient to remove all of it… past, present and future.  And you still have many more battles in your future that we need your head in the game for.

A Bad Memory is Hard to Find (Isaiah 43:25, Hebrews 10:14-17)

Within all of the sub-genres in video games there is a very specific style of gaming that belongs almost solely to a developer named Telltale Games.  Their releases are a collection of cinematic, choice-driven, narrative-focused games that seem to pride themselves on being distinctly different from all the other titles that clog the shelves at your local game store.  Leveraging such venerable franchises such as Batman, Guardians of the Galaxy, Minecraft, Back to the Future and so many more… these can definitely be a bit of an acquired taste for those who prefer their games either a little more action-oriented or perhaps with a more realistic visual style, but for those who have endured the dive into these unique waters there is truly nothing like these games on the landscape right now.

Every decision within these games create a splintering effect that leads you down a different path, but what may be the most interesting aspect is how every character in the game responds to your choices in their own unique way. Each time you reach a “decision point” the screen notates when you have made a decision that will have a future impact and perhaps serious consequences with the haunting caption “Insert name here‘ will remember that”.  And with those simple words in the top left hand corner of the screen, the worries and the regrets begin.  Did I make the wrong choice?  What will this end up meaning, either now or in the future?  Are they happy?  Mad?  Constipated???   It’s hard to say.  Whatever this ends up impacting in the future, one thing is for sure… they are going to “remember” what you either said or did and it will invariably come up in some way later on down the line.

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This concept of “remembering” has a bit of a negative connotation to it, doesn’t it?  Even in the instances where you made a choice that seemed to generate a positive reaction, there is an under-lying concern that even the right call may not end up coming out in your favor.  What is this other character “truly” thinking?  What are their motivations and how have they changed based on my dialogue choice?  And while this makes for a compelling gaming experience with a ton of replay value, it’s a scary and stressful way to live your real life.

For many years this represented my view on God, if I am being honest.  After reading countless Bible verses on how Holy and Righteous He is, it was hard to escape the idea that He is sitting up in heaven receiving daily reports on my wickedness from my guardian angel/tattletale and keeping a ledger of each and every stupid choice I make.  And each time I am given a branching path in my life, I would look up in the left-hand corner of my screen after I made my choice to see those fateful words “God is going to remember that”.  Doesn’t that send chills down your spine?  Every word, every action… every THOUGHT?  He is aware of ALL of that and more.  He knows the total count of the amount of the hairs on each of our heads, and in my case He is subtracting from that count DAILY so I know He has an active challenge there.

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But here is the wonderful thing about all of this.  The God who knows ALL things has made a CONSCIOUS choice to NOT remember our sins.  The omniscient Creator has chosen to “forget” the sins of those who have chosen to receive this gift of not just forgiveness, but FORGETNESS.  And yes, Mr. or Mrs. Dictionary, I know that’s not a word.  But can I be honest for a second?  Forgiveness IS a beautiful thing, but the ability to completely ERASE what I did wrong from someone’s memory?  That’s a super power I would give ANYTHING to possess.  And I have a feeling I’m not alone there.  Check out Isaiah 43…

 

Isaiah 43:25 “I, even I, am He who blots out your transgressions for My own sake; And I will not remember your sins.”

Blot out… that’s sounds pretty final if you ask me.  But the actual Hebrew word used here is “machah” meaning to ABOLISH or “DESTROY”.  So if “blot out” doesn’t sound aggressive enough for you, try that one on for size.  It is actually the same word used when describing how God destroyed or “blotted out” all living things during Noah’s flood.  Check it out in Genesis 7:23… He is not merely offering forgiveness for sins… we have been telling people this all wrong for so many years.  He is offering “forgetness” for sins… and yes, I’m still trying to make that word happen.  They are GONE.

But how does this work, you may ask.  All these years I have been praying to God for forgiveness and failing to realize that it is His forgetting of my sins that He has promised, not just forgiveness.  The writer of the book of Hebrews delivers the final piece of insight on how this is possible…

Hebrews 10:14-17: And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God, from that time waiting till His enemies are made His footstool. For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified. But the Holy Spirit also witnesses to us; for after He had said before, “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws into their hearts, and in their minds I will write them,” then He adds, “Their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.”

He starts by explaining that the Old Testament method of atoning for sins provided forgiveness, but they did not TAKE AWAY sins.  Only in Jesus Christ’s act of sacrifice on the cross and our reception of His blood was sufficient to erase every sin that had or ever would exist.  And with our acceptance of His sacrifice He has not only removed our sins, but erased them from His memory.  Abolished.  Destroyed.  Purged from existence.

I’m going to challenge the way you have been thinking about the Father’s forgiveness of your sins.  Do you truly look at the mistakes you have made as something that has been destroyed, just like everything that was wiped out in Noah’s flood with a full reset?  Or do you still feel like in the corner of your screen in life it says “God will remember that”?  Because if you have nailed them to the cross, then my friend… they have been FORGOTTEN.  Totally and completely.  And while the devil would like nothing more than to keep you locked in a fear pattern of your old sins hunting you down to destroy you, that is simply some old-fashioned screen burn (remember when PC monitors used to do that?) and it is NOT reflective of the reality of a life lived in the FORGETNESS of our Lord.

Yes, I used it one more time.  And I hope this repetition has made this sink in for you.  He does not remember your sins.  And you don’t have to either… walk in freedom.

Can I Get a Checkpoint? (1 Chronicles 13 and 15, 2 Samuel 19)

I HATE making decisions in a video game.  It’s a bit ironic, really.  I find myself compelled to play and enjoy games that have a meaty story full of dialogue trees and a variety of options, but I still can’t help but wonder what lies beyond on the road less traveled.  Sometimes it is as simple as choosing between which character you believe is telling the truth, and other times it is the difficult decision to proceed down one path knowing full well that it closes all other options down entirely.  Some games give you a warning, like Mass Effect 2.  As you approach the point of no return this game will politely ask you if you are SURE you want to enter the Omega relay, because there is no going back once you launch that mission.  But most others do not play nice and instead allow you to freely and blissfully march on ahead without the luxury of realizing the consequences you have blindly triggered in your future.

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If you are old and have “seen many moons” like I have, you may remember an old book series called “Choose Your Own Adventure”.  It was a personal favorite of mine because after reading a page of the story there would be a choice at the bottom of the page, giving you the option to turn to one page if you made one choice and an entirely different page if you chose another.  This splintering “butterfly effect” of your choices would go on and on until you reached the unique ending for your story based on the choices you made.  But… I have a confession.  I was a coward and ALWAYS hedged my bets.  I would keep my fingers on the original “choice” page and as I flipped forward to the next section I would quickly scan it to see if it ended in my demise or mission failure.  As soon as I felt things were going the wrong direction I would hurry and flip back like it was merely a bad dream, and I would continue to move on through the story as if I HADN’T just been cut in half by an airlock door.

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The same experience happened the first time I played Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic.  As I reached the endgame I found myself being forced to choose between the competing desires of my party members.  I made a choice that I thought was the correct one and then stood helplessly by as my party members turned on each other and began fighting until only a handful were left.  Mortified, I dove across the room and pressed the eject button on my disk tray to stop the carnage.  And then, just for good measure, I powered the system off and unplugged it from the wall.  I sat there for quite a while, shaken and disturbed at what had unfolded before I got the courage to reload the game and ensure that this horrific decision had not been fully saved onto the hard drive.

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It can be easy to try to play this exact same game in life.  We can read the Bible for guidance and pray without ceasing for the Lord’s will, but we are also confronted with distinct choices along our path that will ultimately shape not only our futures but the futures of countless others that we may not have even met yet.  With such high stakes riding on every decision we make, it is easy and even natural to pray that God makes the decision for us or at least gives us a “Checkpoint” so if we make the wrong decision we can try again.  And the answer to this question is both Yes and No.  Come with me to 1 Chronicles and we will discover the truth behind this conundrum…

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In 1 Chronicles 13 we find King David riding a high of victories and his kingship finally secured after years of life as a fugitive.  To show his appreciation for the Lord and all He had done for him David sought to bring the ark of the covenant, a physical symbol of the Lord’s presence amongst the people of Israel, to Jerusalem and place it in a position of prominence.  His heart’s desire was to bring glory to God and build a temple worthy of his Creator, but he did not follow the PROCESS that the Lord had designed to transport the ark from one place to another.  As we will see, this had dramatic and fatal repercussions…

 1 Chron. 13:9-10: And when they came to Chidon’s threshing floor, Uzza put out his hand to hold the ark, for the oxen stumbled. Then the anger of the Lord was aroused against Uzza, and He struck him because he put his hand to the ark; and he died there before God. 

The method for transport for the ark was to place two poles through the rings located in the four corners of the ark and for it to be carried by four priests.  David had the right motive, but made the wrong choice and brought the ark on cart manned by non-priests.  When a “stumbling block” came along the untrained man guiding the cart instinctively tried to protect the ark from falling and when he touched the Holy presence of God he was struck dead instantly, bringing the parade to a standstill.  A fatality tends to do that, don’t you know.  That’s a pretty heavy penalty for an act of disobedience.  But in 1 Chronicles 15 we find a repentant and still determined David bringing the ark to Jerusalem once again… and this time he does it the RIGHT way.  A huge celebration ensues, the ark is safely brought home, and this time NOBODY gets struck dead by God which is really the best possible outcome.  David was given a second chance by the Lord, but not without consequence.

This plays out once again in David’s life during his sin with Bathsheba.  He impregnated another man’s wife, has her husband murdered, and because of his sin the child that was born did not survive.  But the God of second chances once again confronted David, He accepted David’s repentance, and the next child born to David and Bathsheba happens to be Solomon, the wisest and wealthiest king who ever lived and the continuation for the lineage that would lead to the birth of Christ.  Go figure that it was THIS child, the child born out of a forbidden tryst,  that God chose to be the great-great-great grandfather to Jesus Himself.

Sin always has a consequence.  I am sure you have found this out without me telling you.  There are no “free checkpoints” in life to see what lies around the corner without committing yourself to the direction.  But we also serve a loving and forgiving God who knows we are but dust and knew from our beginning what choices we would make before the option even existed for us to make them.  He cannot bless your attempts to bring the ark to Him in disobedience.  And He will not bless the fruit of something that exists in a state of sin.  These sinful choices always end in a consequence that can never be undone.  But He will ABSOLUTELY turn his ear to a repentant heart and will give you another chance to make His vision for you a reality, just as He did with David.

You make have allowed the lies of the enemy to encroach on your heart and deceive you into believing you have walked too far off of His path for your life.  You may be struggling to move forward under the burden of guilt you carry for the unintended outcomes of the choices you have made and those who have been hurt by them.  But you don’t have to STAY there.  You CAN rise up as we see David doing in 2 Samuel after the death of his illegitimate child..

2 Sam 12:19-24 When David saw that his servants were whispering, David perceived that the child was dead. Therefore David said to his servants, “Is the child dead?”And they said, “He is dead.” So David arose from the ground, washed and anointed himself, and changed his clothes; and he went into the house of the Lord and worshiped. Then he went to his own house; and when he requested, they set food before him, and he ate.  Then his servants said to him, “What is this that you have done? You fasted and wept for the child while he was alive, but when the child died, you arose and ate food.” And he said, “While the child was alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who can tell whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.”  Then David comforted Bathsheba his wife, and went in to her and lay with her. So she bore a son, and he called his name Solomon. Now the Lord loved him, and He sent word by the hand of Nathan the prophet: So he called his name Jedidiah,because of the Lord.

Whatever the choices you have made and no matter how horrific the consequences, the Lord STILL loves you and has a plan for you even in your current state of chaos.  Rise up, seek and receive His forgiveness, and go to Him in worship and gratitude because as long as you are still here He still has a plan for you.  God does not create redundancies.  He has a plan built from the beginning of time itself and it will unfold exactly as He has designed it to.  Your continued existance is PROOF POSITIVE that you still have a calling to fulfill and a Solomon to birth.

It would be nice to go back in time and make different decisions.  It would be wonderful to see into the future and know what the consequences will be before you make a choice.  It would be amazing to create a “save point” before making a critical life decision so you can go back and make a different choice if this one doesn’t pan out.  But the Lord has a better plan and even your mistakes, as painful as they may be for you and those who share the consequences with you, are part of your message and testimony to others about the greatness of the God you serve.  We can share and celebrate His forgiveness with others beacuse we needed it and used it ourselves.  We are both the fishers of men AND the fish, because He caught us with the same amazing, unconditional, and promiscous love that we now offer to others.  Your message of righteous living may convict those around you, but it is what He has saved you FROM that will make an unbelievers heart yearn to experience that same forgiveness and freedom that He has freely given us.

Share your broken checkpoint with someone today…

Super Smash on Switch: A New Hope… Planned All Along (Romans 8, Jeremiah 29)

If you are a Switch owner this week’s Nintendo Direct could not have come at a better time.  Perhaps you have already collected all of the moons in Super Mario Odyssey or you have discovered every shrine in the Legend of Zelda.  Maybe you are just tired of shooting the odd squid children that inhabit Splatoon with ink and you were starting to get filled with the old panic.  The panic that is ONLY known to a long-time Nintendo aficionado like myself… is this it?  Is there going to be anything else?  Nintendo may be my favorite gaming company of all time, but they have a very unfortunate track record of providing a handful of truly innovative titles on each platform they launch and then seemingly forgetting it exists for the remainder of it’s life cycle.  As a result, hardware such as the N64, GameCube, Wii, and the recently dearly departed WiiU (you went too soon!!!) seemed to have been abandoned prematurely with large holes in its library that were simply never filled.

That old feeling was starting to creep in again.  That sinister worry that this time would be the same… that Nintendo had front-loaded it’s year one launch for the Switch without properly preparing for the future.  Such a break in momentum for the record-breaking Switch would have all of us pondering the worst… but then Nintendo swooped in with the reveal that one of their most recognized and beloved properties was on its way to the Switch.  And not just another rehash of an old WiiU title like Pokken Tournament or Mario Kart… no, this would be a fresh experience built from the ground up for the Switch.  And it had been in the plans all along.

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I have to confess that this feeling of worry is not limited to video game releases in my life.  To be fair, in this realm that is the least of my concerns.  What is more pressing is that many times I have had this urge to panic when my life seems to have very little hope on the horizon and all of the warning signs that another system crash is imminent are being displayed on the dashboard of my world view.  Like a blinking check engine light on a vehicle that has smoke coming out of the hood, it is easy to lose faith when you see that a familiar pattern is emerging in your life that has always ended in failure or destruction before.  Perhaps you have felt the same?

It is funny how I am quick to grasp the reins of my life and take credit for my success when positive momentum has been established and then hurriedly throw the reins up in the air and ask God to catch them when the bottom drops out.  Like riding a roller coaster in the dark, this life can make it difficult to even brace yourself for impact because you never know when that slow rise up is about to result in a dramatic two-story plummet.  And this is where we find out if our trust is truly in the Lord… or if it is in the vehicle that we are riding this roller coaster in and our pathetic grip on the safety harness to keep us safe if something goes wrong.

Fortunately, I am not the first to have these feelings as revealed by Paul in the book of Romans as he wrote to the believers located in Rome, the heart of the evil empire that was currently oppressing Christians anywhere they could be found.  And it is here we find his encouraging words that should help everyone on this roller coaster to relax, throw their hands up, and enjoy the ride…

Romans 8:28-30 And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.

There are a lot of big “religious-sounding” words in these verses that may make this verse feel more like a Sunday School lesson than something that is going to dig you out of your hole of worry, so let’s break this down for a moment.  The word “predestined” is not something you will hear on the radio in your current musical rotation and it is unlikely you find a great many reasons to interject it into a discussion with your friends (Dude, I ran the ball straight up the gut of the defense like I was PREDESTINED to score man!  Predestination for the win!!!).  This is the Greek compound word proorizō which is made up of the root words pro (meaning before) and horizō (meaning to define or determine).   This word literally means to determine before hand, which may not jive with your world view that you have a great deal of choice in your life path.  But once you divorce yourself from the feelings of helplessness that a dust-being (yeah, we are actually just made of dust you know) has when confronted with the reality that your choices are far more limited than you realize, a peace can finally wash over you.

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The reason we (typically) do not panic when riding a roller coaster is because even though we don’t know the path it will take or the manner in which it will arrive at its destination, we have faith that those who created the structure did so not to kill us, but to deliver us there safely and entertained as well.  That gift shop at the end of the ride would not be very well patronized if all of the riders arrive at the end in less than optimal condition, you know.  And our knowledge that many other people have successfully disembarked the ride and may actually be lining up to ride it again encourages us to joint with the others who have shelled out a decent sum of money for the feeling of losing control for just a little while.

The Lord has not only a plan for your life, but a very specific path for each and every one of us.  There is no random chance that caused your circumstances to fall the way that they did… it was “determined” before you took your first breath.  And when you feel that old familiar panic that the ride is about to fly out of control the same way it has before, it is in that moment that the Lord is able to live up to His promise in Jeremiah 29:11..

 Jeremiah 29:11 For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope. 

He spoke to the Israeli nation as they were about to head into captivity in Babylon, very much like their slavery in Egypt many years before.  And through this eerily similar experience He reassured them that He still had a plan that involved peace and hope, not pain and suffering.  A plan that was written before the stars existed.

Nintendo may have seemingly let us down in the past, but every step they have made brought us to where we are now, complete with the bizarre stylings of the Wii remote and the poorly received WiiU tablet controller that are both quite obvious in their impact on the design of the much more beloved Switch.  And just when we thought there was nothing on the horizon to look forward to, we see the light at the end of the tunnel for yet another potential masterpiece to fall into our hands.  And I would encourage you that no matter what darkness you are surrounded by and how familiar this pain feels to keep faith and remember that your Father has the same plans for you… plans He pre-determined for peace and hope, and a future with Him in eternity.

Guiding While Being Guided: The Discipleship of a Guardian (Matt. 28:16-20)

After four long months I was finally ready… I had maxed out all of my characters, unlocked every weapon and armor type including all of the exotics, and even “MasterWorked” all of my armor and weapons for maximum effect.  I was ready for a new challenge… one that I did not feel I was ready for until now.  The challenge of taking a new, fresh Guardian under my wings and guide them from a level 1 noob into an effective member of the fireteam.  They will definitely need your prayers…

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We had the discussion about which class would be the best fit for their play style (they went the TOTALLY wrong direction in my opinion, but what do I know), ran through the tutorial levels and then… it was time.  Time to take on the enemies of freedom across each planet as a cohesive unit… as a fireteam.  And as I explained the subtle nuances between weapons, armor items, and how to turn public events into “heroic” events an interesting thing happened… I found myself repeating the things I was previously told by an old Guardian friend of mine who had once blazed this very same path for me in the exact same manner.

I am by no means a great player or even a very good player, as most of my friends will attest.  I have EARNED the nickname “Guardian Down” through blood, sweat and… well, mostly just blood I guess.  Actually, it was ONLY my blood, if I am being truly honest.  But in this scenario, even my limited knowledge and capabilities were still beneficial to the new Guardian that I was guiding through their first play experience.  And despite my shortcomings, I was able to inform them of areas where I had previously failed to watch out for as well as opportunities to improve that I wish I had known about on my first go round.  I may not have achieved all I need to or become the Guardian I hope to be some day, but I was the Guardian they needed right then.

destiny_2_pc_4k_1Guiding while being guided is the true nature of discipleship… as Paul surmised in 2 Cor. 3:18 we are being changed from glory to glory, or in layman’s terms we are moving and growing from one level to another in our Christian walk throughout our span on this planet.  If you are waiting to achieve a certain level of “readiness” or perfection prior to being used by the Lord to disciple others you are falling prey to a key attack of the enemy… that of the unworthy servant who must achieve a certain level of “Godliness” before they can do anything for God.  It’s a way that we are kept on the sidelines under the pretense of “growing in the Lord” prior to allowing Him to use us to fulfill the great commission.  Let’s look at the great commission in detail…

MATTHEW 28:18-20:  And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.

What we call the “Great Commission” are the final recorded words of Jesus in the book of Matthew.  The key area I want to focus on is the combination “make disciples” which is the crux of the dialogue.   The Greek word here is mathēteúō which is a derivative of the root word mathétés meaning a disciple, learner, or pupil.  Simply put, we are to produce “learners” of the way of Christ wherever we go and to teach and mentor them in the path.  Now an interesting thing exists here that I did not include in the first quotation, but I would like to point it out now…

MATTHEW 28-16-17: Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had appointed for them. When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some doubted.

Hold on… this is the verse RIGHT BEFORE Christ gives the Great Commission.  He was speaking to the eleven remaining disciples (scratch one Judas), and not all of them were even fully unified in their beliefs yet.  But this does not deter Jesus from proclaiming their mission to them, even in their current state of incompleteness and doubt.

d2_pvp_heroic_01.0It would be DURING their fulfillment of the Great Commission that they would be refined through the Father’s crucible of development.  They were sent to Jerusalem to wait for the Spirit of God to fall on them and give them power to accomplish His mission (Luke 24:49), but once they had received the Holy Spirit they were still not yet fully perfected.  Peter and Paul would still have an epic throwdown about the integration of the Gentiles with the Jews.  Barnabas and Paul would split paths over the inclusion of John Mark on the missionary journey.  But even in their imperfect and growing states they were sent and used to perform the work of the Lord and make disciples/learners of those they met.

This is the true work of the church and of those who follow Christ.  Discipleship is an intimate, personal interaction that cannot be accomplished in giant sanctuaries or through intricate sermons.  It is a joint walk, shoulder to shoulder, between two members of the faith in which one has already been where the other is headed.  Like my example of my new and impressionable Guardian following me through the basic steps of Destiny 2, it is highly likely there will be a day they will surpass me.  Just as I hope one day to reach past the one who originally mentored me.  But we all disciple each other, one hand reaching up to those ahead of us on the path and the other reaching back to pull someone along behind us.  And in this unbreakable chain, this three-fold cord of believers united in purpose, the world can be changed.

We are both disciples and in the process of being discipled throughout our time here.  It is not only possible, but NECESSARY to be both simultaneously.  Please, please, PLEASE do not let your lack of “full perfection” restrain you from being used by the Lord to fulfill the commission.  None of them were perfect either.   They were simply Spirit-filled believers in Christ who decided to share the Good News as they had been instructed.  The rest is up to God to do the work.  And you are the Guardian someone else needs, even if your light level isn’t fully maxed out yet and you are still hunting down that auto rifle that everyone else has three of.  You are both discipler AND disciple for the entirety of your journey here, and the Lord has made you qualified for both.  Oh look… I just heard “Guardian Down” and it isn’t me this time…  maybe I can lend a hand…