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 ūüėÄ

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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‚Äôs 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!

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…

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‚ÄĒthrough 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.  

I’ve Got Two Tickets to Paradise: Uncharted, Thieves, and Gritty Salvation (Luke 23)

As gamers, we know how we like our scoundrels. The classic archetype of a suave, sarcastic, debonair con-man has been portrayed with excellence on screen by actors such as Harrison Ford in his iconic role as smuggler extraordinaire Han Solo, Nathan Fillion in his turn as the renegade captain of the Firefly, or more recently by Chris Pratt in his Star-Lord persona as he guards the galaxy. A thief we can root for in spite of their roguish behavior, they typically conceal a heart of gold behind their gruff exterior and while their actions may be occasionally deplorable we can’t help but to root for them to swoop in and save the day at the last second.
Nathan Drake embodies all of these while still managing to be his own man, and that’s saying a lot. While you can certainly find dashes and sprinkles of how each of these characters and so many more have influenced his persona, look, and approach there is no denying that he is a unique figure in the gaming landscape. And over the course of his hero journey in four console games, one handheld game, and a pending cinematic treatment he has lived up to both the best and the worst of what a treasure-seeking ne’er-do-well would do… he steals our hearts while simultaneously convincing us that we wanted him to do it. Well played, Mr. Drake… well played.
A clever con is typically most appreciated when the thief is taking from an “undeserving” source. From the morally ambiguous Robin Hood syndrome to the slightly more villainous approach of Captain Cold, many of our favorite “thief” characters earn points for their brashness in sticking it to the man even as they are clearly breaking the law. But truth be told, few of them get to ride off into the sunset with a happy ending. Sometimes it is their insatiable greed that proves to be their undoing, other times it is a sacrificial choice to save others and die as the hero that completes their path. But few have had as much of an impact as the thief we will discuss today…
He could have been nothing more than a footnote. In several texts he is just the background window dressing to a much more engrossing drama playing out on center stage. He doesn’t even get the dignity of a name, credited as nothing more than criminal #2. You could write him out as simply a fulfillment to prophecy, as Mark 15:28 does when it briefly mentions that Christ was crucified between two robbers to bring to pass the prophecy that Christ was “numbered with the transgressors”. But Luke digs a bit deeper in his account revealing that while this thief was unwittingly assisting Jesus in fulfilling His destiny by crossing one more prophecy off the checklist, good ol’ nameless faceless Criminal #2 was about to carve out his own destiny as well.
As Jesus was hanging from the cross, the sadistic crowd around Him began taunting and mocking Him with cruelty. They challenged Him to show His power and prove His divinity by coming off the cross, failing to understand that it was His power on display that was keeping Him there. And in an odd twist, one of the criminals joined in the heckling and told Jesus that if He was truly the Christ to come down and bring the two thieves with Him. So strange, that even as he is dying this criminal joins the wrong crowd one last time and echoes their hate, as if that might have some positive outcome on his situation. Isn’t it funny that it is often the people who are just as challenged and damaged as we are that still choose to use the last ebbs of their remaining strength to throw a few more rocks at us before they fall to the same fate we both share. The poor tear down the poor, the addicts insult other more unfortunate addicts, and sadly just like this thief many people barrel on unrepentantly to their final destination with both middle fingers pointed in the air at a God who literally died to save them just a few feet away.
Matthew and Mark each record that both criminals jeered Jesus from their equivalent positions on the cross, and it is possible for a time the second thief joined in. But in Luke 23:40 we see a whole new drama play out as he gathers himself for one final discourse, and three sentences that would change his path forever:
But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, ‚ÄúDo you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.‚ÄĚ Then he said to Jesus, ‚ÄúLord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom. And Jesus said to him, ‚ÄúAssuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.‚ÄĚ
Let’s dig into each of these three statements by the condemned thief and see how this led him to his ticket to paradise. This may mess with your “salvation theology” a little bit, and if it does I suppose you will have to take your grievances up with Jesus since He issued the ticket. But contained in these three sentences is the key to what true salvation looks like… bloody, gritty, and life-altering.

First, the thief makes a public statement of his belief in God. This was not passively whispered in his mind, but was delivered as a direct verbal rebuke to his tag team partner in condemnation as he clearly and vocally states his position on Jesus. Next, he acknowledges his sins and understands that he is receiving a fitting punishment for his crimes against both man and God. And finally, he demonstrates his understanding that salvation can only be found in Christ by confessing that He is the sinless King who alone has the authority over who receives eternal life. In those few short sentences, the thief earned a ticket to paradise courtesy of Christ’s personal invite from His blood-stained hand.
It’s a great salvation story that demonstrates how easy it is for someone to choose to be saved, but I want to move in a little deeper than that. Into something a little more personal. In a Roman crucifixion it was customary that the offenses of the guilty were written out and nailed above their head, ostensibly to act as a very visceral deterrent to those who may consider committing those same crimes. This is why they nailed the “King of the Jews” statement over the head of Christ, because he was found guilty of insurrection. If the Roman soldiers followed protocol, the criminal offenses above the two thieves was also posted above their heads as they received their punishment. This would mean that although our good friend thief #2 has received the most important pardon any human can ever receive, his crimes were still posted over his head as a shaming reminder to all those who walked by.
So let me ask you something. What is still posted over your head? You may be saved and have truly received Christ’s forgiveness, but if you are like me there may still be some offenses that remain nailed to your cross as painful reminders of the mistakes you have made. Maybe you have not let that sign come down because you know you are guilty and you struggle with removing it as a result. Or perhaps others refuse to take the sign down and continue to point out your past failures even as you try your best to start over. Either way I want to encourage you with something extraordinary… at the moment that Christ chose to grant entry to heaven to this condemned criminal it no longer mattered what his rap sheet contained. His sign and all it contained was no longer able to define him. He was granted eternal life with Christ, and now he is forever remembered as the penitent thief who stuck up for Jesus when it appeared He had nothing left to give in exchange.
Whatever has been hung over your head, I am asking you right now to tear it off your cross and throw it away. Your sign now simply reads “Paid In Full” and is signed by the nail-scarred hand of Jesus Himself. You are not who you were, even if you are still not yet all that you will become. If others still laugh and point at the sign that lists your former failures, remind yourself that Christ never asked the thief what sins he had committed before offering him pardon. He simply offered him eternal life for his confession. Of course you are guilty of sins… we all are. Innocent people don’t need forgiveness, only the guilty do. So rip that sign down along with the nails that were holding it in place over your head, damaging your witness and making you feel dirty and unworthy. Join the thief from the cross, the adulterous woman, the greedy tax collector, the demon-possessed man, and all of the rest of us sinners who Jesus took time out to save.
Salvation is not a fashion parade down the catwalk full of the Hollywood elite while paparazzi snap photos with light bulbs flashing everywhere. It’s a victory party in which the red carpet we walk on is drenched in blood and covered with tears. It’s for all of us damaged and broken sinners who chose to fall on His grace and realize He loves us in spite of our record. We can all celebrate that despite our lengthy history of poor choices He has chosen US. True salvation is a gritty experience in which dirty sinners are washed clean through the bloody and violent execution of our Savior. And now we can replace that laundry list of sins over our heads with “Forgiven by the King of the Jews”. See you in paradise!

Grace vs Justice: The Dishonored PredicamentÔĽŅ

Sneaking in under the radar this season is a new entry into the Dishonored franchise. Both titles in the Dishonored series have become critically acclaimed titles that touch on a theme that resonates with most of us: the story of a character who has been wrongfully accused and has set out on an adventure to correct this.  In this case, as the former protector turned assassin Corvo you are implicated in a murder you did not commit and spend the majority of the game tracking down those who are responsible for the assassination you are framed for.  This is a familiar trope in many game and movie experiences, and few feelings are more rewarding than when the protagonist finally stands tall in the end, typically having redeemed their good name while insuring justice has been served.  But this self-gratifying journey for justice almost always involves a great deal of violence, collateral damage for other innocent parties, and rarely comes without a great deal of additional loss begging a critical question:  was it worth it?  Was clearing your name and taking your adversary down truly the right thing to do, or was it the thing that “felt” right to do?

I personally often feel a great sense of satisfaction when I see a wrong being made right.  Many times I have felt the dark joy of observing a guilty individual receiving their come-uppance, or the rare occasion when a punishment actually fits the crime. Seeing the innocent suffer just begs the emotional response to see their tormentor receive the equivalent treatment, and we often celebrate fictional anti-heroes such as the Punisher, Batman, or the assassin Corvo for doing what we often secretly desire to do ourselves:  make the bad guys pay. Sometimes it’s as simple as seeing the car that just passed you going 90 mph a few miles down the road having a chat with the local highway patrol, and other times it may be much more serious like the sentencing phase of a trial for a murderous criminal… either way these moments generate a profound emotional response that must be investigated.

As a Christian, I have often considered the implications of being a “vigilante” and weighed this against Scripture to find God’s opinion on the subject.  And while there are certainly many entries in the Bible in which He has tasked an individual with carrying out his divine retribution (see Samson, Ehud, David, and so many more), I find quite consistently that with each of these individuals they were tasked by God specifically to perform these actions.  These were not revenge missions taken on for any sense of personal gain, but rather were divinely orchestrated events to alter the course of history in a meaningful way.  So to get a full Scriptural idea of God’s feelings on the subject, we have one principle place to turn… the man Jesus Christ.

Charged with FRAUDULENT IDENTITY:  in Luke chapter 4 we find the familiar account of Jesus being tempted by the devil in the wilderness.  What is notable here is that the devil was not content to merely tempt Jesus, but he introduced it with the mocking question, “IF you are the Son of God”.  The temptation was not merely for food to ease His hunger, or to showcase His power… satan was directly confronting Christ with a challenge to prove He was not a fraud, but in fact the Son of God.  It had to be quite tempting for Jesus to simply squash satan like a bug right there and drop the mic with authority, but He showed restraint.  Jesus knew who He was, and that He did not have to prove that to satan or anyone else.

Attempted MURDER by his HOMETOWN:  Luke chapter 4 is just not a good time to be Jesus.  After enduring the wilderness battle Jesus goes to church and reads a selection of Scripture to the congregation.  After informing them that He was the fulfillment of the prophecy He just read, the incredulous audience turned from passive listeners to violent murderers.  In verse 28 we find those who knew Him only as the son of Joseph the carpenter leading Him to the top of a mountain to throw him off to His death.  If you are a preacher, take heart… it is unlikely you will ever have a worse reaction to a sermon than the one Christ is having here.  But rather than unleash the power that once swallowed up naysayers into the earth, He simply passed through them and went on His way without a word.

DISRESPECTED by family:  This time, it’s personal.  In John 7 we find the very kin of Jesus, his brothers by blood advising Him to leave home and go to an upcoming festival to proclaim His message.  On the surface this would seem to be a bit of positive encouragement… until you read verse 5.  In cold letters we see their true motivation, as Scripture flatly stated that even His own brothers did not believe in Him.  So, if they didn’t believe in His message why were they sending Him away to speak it?  I don’t want to engage in too much conjecture here, but if their motives were not altruistic to benefit His ministry than the most obvious consideration is that they were setting Him up for failure.  Did Jesus “go off” on His family for not realizing who He was or genuinely supporting His ministry?  No, in a theme that we will continue to see reinforced, He did not even confront their unbelief but simply informed them why he would not do what they suggested and encouraged them to go without Him.  He DID end up going to the festival separately of them, but He went on His terms.

ATTACKED for an act of kindness:  Few frustrations match the feeling of trying to do something genuinely helpful with the purest of intentions only to have it blow up in your face.  If this has happened to you, don’t worry, you are in good company.  In John 5 we have the scene set for a miracle, with a healing pool surrounded by the sick and the disabled waiting for something supernatural to happen.  Enter Jesus stage right.  With the words, ” Get up, pick up your mat and walk” Jesus accomplished two things.  He performed a life changing miracle for this disabled man, and he infuriated the Jewish leaders for performing this kindness on the wrong day of the week, namely the Sabbath day.  Verses 16 to 18 record this as the point that His persecution by them truly began in earnest, with the chilling phrase that they now “tried to kill Him all the more” because He both healed on the Sabbath and claimed God as His father.  And for doing nothing more than telling the truth and altering a man’s life through a miraculous healing He became public enemy number one.

BETRAYED and ABANDONED by His friends: Everyone has experienced the bitter pain of betrayal by either friends, family, or a significant other at some point.  But to be setup by a member of your inner circle for false arrest and imprisonment while simultaneously being deserted by almost every other friend you have is a special level of pain that few can imagine, much less tolerate with patience and grace.  And yet this is exactly what we find Jesus doing as He calmly explains to Peter exactly what he is about to do and even encourages Judas to move quickly with his forthcoming act of betrayal while feeding him one final time.  Knowing what was coming from each member of His traveling group of disciples, Jesus enjoyed one final meal with them and chose to serve them by washing their feet one by one, lowering Himself like a household servant to honor those who mere hours from now will completely abandon Him.
FALSELY ACCUSED of blasphemy and EXECUTED:  It is unlikely any of us have experienced this exact same situation or you probably wouldn’t be reading this, but this is the grand finale of Christ’s mistreatment during His pilgrimage on our planet.  After multiple sham trials, physical abuse by both the police and the military, false accusations from multiple witnesses who could not even agree on their testimonies, and finally being sentenced to death by the entire representation of countrymen when clemency was offered, His path of disgrace and shame finally ended in a humiliating public death.  As He was passing from life to death, He could not even receive the dignity of a quick and merciful end… no, He was displayed like a bloody trophy and continued to be mocked and verbally assaulted by those who watched Him give His final breath on their behalf to mutter the words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”.

After a full review of not only these examples but so many more, it becomes obvious that clearing His good name was never on Jesus’s to do list.  He was frequently misunderstood, often misquoted, and ultimately murdered, but when He was met with irrational hate He chose to show love.  When His name was slandered and His good deeds questioned He let His loving, peaceful actions speak for themselves.  When the choice to call 10,000 angels to save Him was present, He opted for sacrifice. He made the decision to die condemned rather than live justified, knowing that if He humbled Himself and carried the bitter cross He was given that our Father would honor this choice and that trillions of lives would be forever changed as a result.

Jesus died what was considered one of the most dishonorable deaths possible at the hands of the Romans.  And while it is almost impossible for me to fathom the kind of strength that would allow someone to show such weakness and vulnerability, He did it. I struggle on a daily basis with the desire to seek justice for myself when I have been maligned, but Christ showed us how to absorb those attacks by offering grace to those who hurt Him even in the act of suffering.  I hope that this encourages you in whatever way you may currently be suffering.  We do not follow a Savior that cannot understand the pain and frustration that accompanies the disgrace of being dishonored.  He knows, He understands, and He is a living breathing example of how we should deal with these situations as they arise.  Whether your battle is with family, friends, your hometown, your neighborhood, your church, your government, or satan himself… Jesus has the same response for each and every situation:  show grace to them and don’t seek to right the wrong yourself.  Jesus stands tall at the end of His work on this Earth without any shame despite His mistreatment.  And if you choose to follow the path of grace to those that wrong you, you will be standing right alongside Him sharing in His victory.

A Retro Revolution?  The NES Classic and the Nostalgia Syndrome (Phillipians 3:12-14)

If you have a gamer on your Christmas list this year, odds are the NES Classic is on THEIR list and you have been frantically searching retail stores attempting to hunt one down while promising yourself you will not overpay on eBay for the most sought after hardware this holiday season. ¬†This tiny little console houses a¬†smorgasboard of the greatest hits from the 8-bit Nintendo days in all their glory: Mario, Zelda, Samus… the gang’s all here to be explored by both first timers and those old enough to have bought these in their original cartridge form like me. ¬†But expect to have a hunt on your hands if you have the fortitude to track one down… retailers are typically out of stock and Internet scalpers are taking advantage of the high demand and limited availability by snatching them up and putting an unthinkable price tag on such a simple nostalgia trip.

Rather than focus on the difficulties associated with acquiring the hottest gaming gift of this fall, I am more interested in exploring the desire to take a walk down memory lane with these golden oldies one more time. ¬†Certainly this device is a museum that contains many gamers fondest childhood memories in one sleek package, but what fuels this urge to go back in time to gaming’s yesteryear? ¬†With all of the amazing new experiences available on current platforms supporting 4K output and VR headsets prepared to literally explore entirely new horizons, how is it that this year’s “Gamer’s Most Wanted” is simply a collection of retro games that can often be found at your local flea market or through download on the eShop? ¬†A deeper dive beckons…

The temptation to live in the part is not new by any means… Scripture has multiple accounts of people just like you and me who for a variety of reasons would rather return to the “good ol days” than move forward into the brave new world of tomorrow. ¬†The Israeli people are the most obvious reference as they spent much of the Exodus looking back and complaining about how good they used to have it when they were slaves in Egypt as compared to their freedom in the challenging and difficult desert before them. ¬†For Lot’s wife it was the inability to let the past go that compelled her to turn back towards Sodom, with some salty repercussions. ¬†King Solomon spends a decent chunk of time in Ecclesiastes lamenting how youth is wasted on the young as he takes a hard look back in the mirror of regret and realizes how many foolish pursuits he chased in his past. ¬†While there are certainly times we should take a moment and reflect on how good God has been to us and celebrate the victories He has provided as well as to reflect on lessons learned, there is also a pronounced danger in allowing what should simply be a monument to become a dwelling place.

In Phillipians 3:12-14 we find what is perhaps the most straight-forward and poignant statement on this topic from none other than the Apostle Paul. ¬†If there ever was a servant of Jesus who deserved to take a break and reflect on his accomplishments it was this man. The first verses of this chapter provide much-needed context to understand his mindset when framing this study… Paul has just finished explaining his credentials as both a Jew and a Christian, and as always they are quite impressive. ¬†It is unfortunate that he had to do this several times in various epistles, but it just goes to show that even the mighty Apostle Paul received little respect while he walked this earth so we should not be surprised when we face similar challenges.

After documenting his pedigree, Paul does a curious thing…. he throws it away. ¬†In a world obsessed with branding, marketing, and building the perfect resume this is hard to understand. ¬†As a culture we populate our social media pages with accomplishments and document the various checkpoints of our lives. ¬†We blanket our homes and even tattoo our bodies with the souvenirs and reminders of our adventures. ¬†So to see Paul so callously consider all of it garbage to be tossed certainly runs counter to our modus operandi. ¬†But rather than be defined by what he has done, Paul chooses to be characterized by what he is CHASING.

With the phrase “forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead” we get a very clear view of how Paul accomplished such an incredible amount of evangelism and missionary work in his life span. ¬†He did not allow himself the luxury of coasting on his successes when there was still so much left to be done. ¬†He had a myopic focus on what he termed “the prize”… the upward call of God in ¬†Christ Jesus. ¬†Or put even more simply in verse 8, “to gain Christ”. ¬†Paul was not satisfied with merely receiving Christ… No, he chose to make the daily¬†seeking of Jesus his driving force as he relentlessly marched across the continent.¬† And his dogged¬†and relentless pursuit¬†of his Savior both defined him as an individual as well as informed his decisions and choices.¬† And when he tells us later that he has¬†finished his¬†race, he can say that with the confidence of a man¬†who had truly¬†chased and caught his Lord in the end.

I can honestly say, unfortunately, that this has not been my approach to my Christian walk.  I have been content to look at my conversion to Christ as a totem that I can reflect on when concerned about the state of my salvation, rather than a continual journey towards Him that is never fully completed until I have finished my course here.  I am ashamed to say that I have lived a NES classic life, hanging my hat on old accolades and choosing to allow a handful of correct decisions to create a comfortable sense of standing with my Lord.  But if I continue to live there, existing in the museum of my faith instead of pressing towards the untapped potential that lies ahead, I deny myself the potential that God has planned for me.

We each have a destiny greater than a mere salvation decision, as important and life-altering as that is.¬† We have a relationship with God that is designed to grow daily, a path that is only lit up upon each step of obedience completed, and each day is another opportunity to expand His influence in our world.¬† The danger of living in the glories of yesteryear is an ever-present snare that limits our futures.¬† I have visited this more often than I care to admit, and as a living, breathing NES classic version of a believer intend to take bolder steps into seeking not just God’s plan or his will, but God Himself.¬† Because if I stay close to Him in my thoughts and actions, the rest of the path tends to illuminate on its own.

Getting too Close to The Razor’s Edge: the Samson I never knew (Judges 13-16)

I have danced this dance so many times… health depleted, screen bathed in red to warn me of exactly how close to death I am, and the incessant pounding of my heartbeat drowning out all other sounds. ¬†Logic would dictate that my next move would be to find the sweet embrace of cover, heal, and live to fight another day. ¬†But I KNOW that my dance partner on the other side of the ¬†battlefield must be equally damaged and taking a respite now would also afford my foe the opportunity to reload and regroup, and in a matter of seconds I must make the decision to risk myself to land the kill shot or allow discretion to be the better part of valor today. ¬†If you have been following along with me to this point you probably already know what’s going to happen next…

Swapping weapons to avoid the downtime associated with a reload I burst out from cover recklessly and defiantly. ¬†Lobbing a grenade beyond my prey as a tactic to drive them towards me I let the bullets fly towards and watch with grim satisfaction as most reach their intended destination. ¬†As they collapse I savor an all too brief moment of relief… which is promptly ended by an unaccounted for enemy off to my left who had been patiently stalking me undetected while I was engrossed in my conflict with their fallen comrade. ¬†With nowhere to hide and no time to even turn and see where my fatal blow would be coming from, I succumb to the inevitable much like the grizzled hunter in the original Jurassic Park who successfully tracked one velociraptor only to realize a second too late that he was the one being hunted all along. ¬†“Clever girl” indeed.

I hope you are less brazen than I am, but whether we are talking video games or real world decisions there are many times that we can allow ourselves to lose sight of the big picture while pursuing a goal and in doing this we can create a very dangerous situation as we tiptoe too close to danger in our search for victory.  While I have discussed Samson in other places briefly, I am going to dive deeper into his stubborn insistence on playing too close to the razors edge, which in his case turns out to be quite literal.  But before we jump to the ending that most of us are familiar with, we need to understand his beginning: his birth and consecration as a Nazririte.

In Judges 13 we find the extraordinary account of Samson’s origin… a literal gift from God to a childless couple who were given the very specific guidelines to raise him as a Nazirite, an exceptionally special distinction reserved for those who were taking a vow of utmost dedication to God. ¬†The full details can be found in Numbers chapter 6, but the essential rules were that someone who had taken this vow could not drink wine or even eat grapes, they could not touch any dead bodies, and they could never cut their hair. ¬†The significance of the wine and the dead bodies clearly refer to refraining from touching what was considered unclean as both fermentation and decomposition are forms of decay. ¬†Combining this with the significant cultural statement of long hair would clearly set an individual apart from all others, even fellow followers of God who were not restricted by these rules. ¬†So let’s see how Samson does with these guidelines…

In chapter 14 we see that we don’t have to wait long to see Samson’s true nature revealed. ¬†Against the commandments of God and the advice of his parents he chooses to pursue and marry a Philistine woman, a culture awash in idol worship and currently in a state of conflict with the nation of Israel. ¬†But if sleeping with the enemy wasn’t enough of a dance with the devil, Samson decides to push his luck. ¬†In a previous trip to see his bride-to-be, Samson was confronted by a lion which he subdued and defeated thanks to the superhuman strength he was gifted with. ¬†But on a followup visit he saw that a swarm of bees had made honey in the dead carcass of the lion. ¬†Ignoring his commitment to avoid dead bodies, he allowed this previous place of victory to become a step towards his eventual fall by scooping up the tempting honey that had been so cleverly placed in an unclean place he had been forbidden to touch. ¬†He was not restricted from honey… but he was absolutely not allowed to interact with a corpse.

This particular story ends with unthinkable tragedy, as this event with the lion becomes the impetus for an il-advised riddle that Samson leverages at his wedding festivities into a gamble with the attendees. ¬†The lion and the honey riddle had multiple unforeseen consequences culminating in the murder by arson of Samson’s espoused wife and her father. ¬†So now let’s unpack this a little bit… long before Samson gave away his secrets to Delilah he revealed a pre-disposition for playing too close to the fire. ¬†By choosing a partner from an idol-worshiping nation and accepting sustenance from a cursed place he developed a false sense of immunity to the dangers around him that would ultimately lead to his dangerous game with Delilah later on down the line.

Much like my ineffective gaming strategy, Samson continually lived on the razor’s edge and became more emboldened with each apparent success. ¬†Failing to recognize that his enemy was luring him ever closer to his final fall, we see the pattern emerge that I know I have seen many times in my own life. ¬†Satan specializes in putting the honey right in the middle of the forbidden, dressing up the one fruit in the garden that we cannot consume to lead us to a fatal mistake. ¬†The presence of an apparent blessing is not necessarily a sign of God’s approval, and can oftentimes be the smokescreen that conceals the hidden danger waiting for us. ¬†I have spent most of my life viewing the story of Samson through the lens of his singular act of folly with Delilah and failed to recognize that his dalliance with the razor began many years prior.

I know I have made the Samson mistake many times in my life, and found that every time I have scooped up a handful of honey out of a forbidden place it has led me down a path of regret and ruinous decisions. ¬†Fortunately, Samson’s story is ultimately one of redemption and I take heart that God both accepted his genuine repentance and restored his destiny by using him to strike a fatal blow to the Philistine infrastructure in his final act of sacrifice. ¬†This cautionary tale of following the specific and oftentimes restrictive path that the Lord has placed us on is for the protection of ourselves, others, and our destiny. ¬†What may be permissible for others may simply not be in your path, and what may not be dangerous for you may prove fatal to me.

As we circle back to my gaming experience that began this story, the truth is in my heart I knew my risky decision to run out of my protective cover for the easy score was an unwise choice. ¬†It rarely works, and yet I was successfully tempted to pursue it because I thought maybe this would be the time that I would get away with it. ¬†I’m sure Samson thought something similar… who would know? ¬†What was the risk? ¬†Nobody was around, the honey was there, he was hungry… but God saw and He knew. ¬†The wages of sin is death regardless of who is present to observe it. ¬†And his life and death is a stark reminder that we cannot achieve God’s plan through any other means than along His chosen path.

Through a Glass Darkly:  Adventures In Babysitting (In Space) 1 Cor 13:12

“Shoot the red eye! ¬†No, the RED eye! ¬†RED! ¬†RED!!!! ¬†Ok, shoot the Middle eye! ¬†The MIDDLE eye! ¬†The RED MIDDLE eye! ¬†See, now you are dead. ¬†I hope you are happy. ¬†I told you to shoot the stupid red eye.” ¬†Confused? ¬†Don’t worry, I will explain what all this means in just a minute. ¬†But first, let’s jump ahead into the present before I explain the meaning of this frustrating exchange.

We have come a looooong way. ¬†Thanks to devices like the Kinect I can simply bark out commands to my console and voila! ¬†The system switches shows, searches the web, snaps between applications… I can’t wait until this technology is integrated into my lawn mower. ¬†I can tell you from experience, it wasn’t always this way, and the path to the caliber of voice recognition we enjoy now was certainly a rocky one. ¬†And to illustrate this, I am going way back into my archives into the PS2 era and a game that was both incredibly obscure and ahead of its time. ¬†If you have heard of it then I grant you 20 bonus nerd cred points on the spot… It is called Lifeline.

Lifeline has a concept that honestly needs to be revisited, because it certainly had the potential to be amazing if it wasn’t limited by the technology of the time. ¬†To play this game you had to have a headset, which is incredibly common now but this game launched way back before online gaming had hit home consoles in a ¬†meaningful way so just getting a compatible headset was an obstacle. ¬†Slipping your headset on, the game thrusts you into the control of a character who is locked in a secure room on a space station, a room which you are unable to leave. ¬†Your full interaction with the game is through your voice, and in this confined position you are stuck observing the story play out through cameras which you are monitoring from your security station.

While that may not sound exciting, it is here where the action really picks up.  The primary protagonist of the game is the person you are speaking to through your headset, and it is your responsibility to guide them safely through the dangers, enemies, and obstacles that they will face as they discover the truth about the outbreak on the station as well as assist both you and all of the other survivors in escaping the horrific monsters who are running rampant.  You are helpless to assist with anything other than your voice, which creates an entirely different form of exhilaration and excitement as you do your best to keep alive the only person who can free you from lockdown.  With only your verbal commands and your ability to see ahead through the camera system to aid you, this creates the potential for a tense thrill ride as you work together to survive the ordeal.

So why didn’t this unique game find its way into the greatest hits section of your local game store? ¬†With such a novel approach and the innovative use of voice control surely this title was destined to become at least a cult classic, right? ¬†Unfortunately, the genius concept was built on flawed execution, and this is where we return to the beginning of the column. ¬†The voice technology simply didn’t do a great job translating what I said in my headset into action by the protagonist. ¬†I would tell them to turn right, they would open the door to a bathroom. ¬†I would scream at them to run away, they would look at a picture on the wall. ¬†I would beg them to turn around and shoot the monster sneaking up behind them, and they would tell me they aren’t thirsty right now. ¬†You get the picture. ¬†What should have been an enjoyably tense experience due to the challenge of keeping another character alive without having direct control became an entirely different kind of stress as I finally reached the point of grim satisfaction watching my disobedient partner fall victim to the very dangers I had been shouting for them to avoid. ¬†On an unrelated note, don’t pick me as your partner in any activity in which you are blindfolded and following the sound of my voice. ¬†It may be hazardous to your health it seems.

Understanding what God wants us to do in a specific, day by day way is one of the most challenging subjects for Christians to discuss, and one of the most common questions believers both new and seasoned grapple with. ¬†If you are like me you yearn for God to make it as simple as a GPS barking directions… “Turn right in 500 feet. ¬†The destination is on your left”. ¬†And while it is true that the closer we draw to God in prayer and through reading His Word the easier it becomes to hear His voice, there are many times that despite my most earnest prayer sessions and focused attempts to seek Him the clear and direct answers I seek remain elusive. ¬†Much like my gaming example, I feel that I am only hearing part of the guidance and I find myself wildly flailing about trying to shoot a door and open a third eye instead of the other way around. ¬† So while this is not a comprehensive list by any means, I would like to share some of the areas I have found that make my “headset connection” with God a little more clear.

First, we have to realize that God is a Spirit, and while He may choose to communicate audibly or through other physical means His primary communication is through His Spirit.  1 Corinthians 2:6-16 unloads a treasure trove of help to understand the communication breakdown and why we may all hear the same thing but each respond to it differently.  Verse 12 tells us that as believers we have received the Spirit of God so that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God.  And verse 14 explains that the very wisdom of God is received as foolishness by the natural man because the things of God can only be SPIRITUALLY discerned.  So if we try to use our natural mind to rationalize the wisdom of a Spiritual God we will find His commands confusing and counter-intuitive at best.  And that is by design, because we have chosen to follow the paradoxical teachings that include concepts such as the first will be last, bless those who curse you, and lose your life to find it.  Sometimes the disconnect is by trying to hear and comprehend a spiritual message using only our natural mind, leading to misunderstanding and frustration.  By disconnecting our rational response and allowing His Spirit to speak to ours, the signal will finally become clear.

But there is another challenge, one that we cannot escape that is found 1 Corinthians 13. ¬†While most recognize this as the famous “Love Chapter” in the Bible, it is also the source of another critical insight from the Apostle Paul. ¬†Verses 9-12 explain the simple truth inherent in our mortal human existence…. We only see in part, as if we were looking through a glass darkly. ¬†It is the image of having too little light, a surface that obscures some of the message, and a limitation on how much is actually being revealed to us. ¬†No matter how spiritual we become, even Paul shows us that the path won’t always be crystal clear. ¬†Here are a few examples from the diary of Paul that shows us that he knows what he is talking about from personal experience:

Acts 16:6 Went to Galatia as a missionary but was forbidden by the Spirit to preach in Asia.

Acts 16:7 Attempted to travel to Bithynia to minister but the Sprirt of God did not permit me here either.

Acts 16:9 Finally,given guidance in a vision to preach in Macedonia, where I was promptly beaten and thrown in prison.

Sounds like a frustrating series of events for certain, much like my experience while playing Lifeline.  While there are many things we can do to make our daily leaning on God for guidance more productive and insightful, the truth is there will always be a vast expanse of knowledge that will remain beyond our reach.  Even as a veteran missionary Paul was receiving mere glimpses of what to do next, and at times it seemed that he was running around in circles.  And I know I have been there many, many times.  The good news is that the path to hearing God clearly is a process that we will be mastering throughout the course of our lives.  I wish it was easy as buying a specialized headset once I got saved, but it takes time for us learn to follow the simple advice provided in Proverbs 3:5-6:

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do NOT lean on your own understanding. ¬†Submit to Him in all your ways and He will direct your path.”

If each day and every choice I make is processed not through my flawed and biased intellect but rather through the Spirit I will easily and more readily submit my will to His desires.  And while the verse does not promise He will draw out an itinerary for you, as Paul found He will continue to gently course correct you until He has you right where you are needed as long as we remain submitted to Him.