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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

   

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

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

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

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

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

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Remembering Two Worlds: Lifestyles of the Poor and the Infamous and Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh (2 Cor 12:7-10)

Once upon a time, at a video game store far, far away a group of friends were anxiously awaiting the release of a new action RPG that promised to deliver the epic size of Elder Scrolls Oblivion with the gameplay and online multiplayer of World of Warcraft, right on their home consoles.  Excited wasn’t the right word… they were euphoric with the possibilities and eagerly preordered the SPECIAL edition of the game so they could have the full experience.  They lapped up each new screen shot, devoured every leaked detail, and on launch day they happily thrust their fistful of dollars into the game clerk’s hand and took home their new shiny copy of Two Worlds to embark on an epic co-op quest to save the world… or two of them if the title was to be believed.

Now for you young’ns, this was before the days of day one patches and title updates.  The game you bought and took home was exactly what your system would play, and you were at the mercy of the publisher if any bugs or issues existed post-launch.  The reason why that tidbit of information is important is about to be revealed.  We all loaded up our copies and immediately launched into the multiplayer, which was the whole reason we all bought the game.  And all of a sudden Two Worlds happened all over my TV screen.  It was not a good thing.

My generic looking hero had legs that wouldn’t move so I looked like a medieval Gumby just skating across the ground with immovable legs.  Everyone else would disappear and reappear at random.  I skated my way to an area that was covered with red boxes, which seemed like it might be exciting.  But as I tried to interact with the red boxes, I noticed my health bar kept dropping.  Confused, I tried another red box.  None of them would open, and I was nearing death.  At that moment one of my friends yelled over the headset that I was surrounded by monsters.  Not red boxes.  Not red boxes at all.  They were enemies that were killing me but I couldn’t see them because the textures would not load properly, so they appeared as red “place-holder” boxes that concealed their true identities as giant monsters of death.  I was not amused.  After a few hours of trying to love the game, we simply gave up.  Two Worlds never saw the inside of my console again.  I heard that patches were issued many moons later and the game can now be played as it was originally intended,  but I had already moved on.  I can play badly on my own, thank you very much.

It is one thing that be less than successful at playing a game.  I have personally made my opponents gaming experiences more enjoyable through my unintentionally less successful efforts a great many times.  “Making your game experiences better through losing since ’84” is my gaming motto.  At least that’s my earliest gaming memories… it may go back further.  Regardless, I have accepted that despite my best efforts there will be many times that I will fall short, and as a result my character will make the sad face of agony while I watch my opposition dance over my pitiful score.  That doesn’t bother me.

What is significantly less enjoyable is when I am placed into a position of losing and my skill (or lack thereof) is not even a factor.  Instead, the creator of the game either intentionally or unintentionally afflicted me with a losing scenario that makes my already limited chances for victory even less possible.  And while there are many games that lay claim to varying levels of unfairly challenging their players, in my personal experience none affected me as significantly as Two Worlds.  Maybe it was because of the early anticipation that went unrewarded, or perhaps it was influenced by the money I wasted that could have went towards literally anything else that would have been better.  Either way, it still sticks with me to this day, all these years later.

As we continue to move into the New Testament wing of our Survivor’s club, our charter member must surely be considered to be Paul the apostle.  We honestly don’t have to search too hard for the list of Paul’s losses, because he does an excellent job cataloging them for us.  We get a taste of this in 1 Corinthians 4:8-13, where Paul lays out a brief diatribe in what sounds like an episode of “The lifestyles of the poor and infamous: Apostles edition”.

Verse 9 is where Paul really starts to tell it like it is, saying “It seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena.”  Wow… tell us what you really think Paul.  In verse 11 Paul gives a very direct description of what this looks like:  hungry, thirsty, dressed in rags, brutally treated, homeless.  And in verse 14 he caps off the thought with the sentiment, “we have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world.”

At one point Paul was in a pretty good spot, at least from the ground floor point of view.  He was an upcoming Pharisee who had carved a niche out for himself as a special prosecutor for blasphemous cases such as these “Christ-followers” that were becoming all the rage.  He was well-educated and had been a student of one of the most prominent leaders of the time, which greatly improved his status. This man, who was in the midst of a rapid ascent into the good graces of the governing council of the Jews through his crusades, had a life-altering intervention with Jesus Himself and this changed the trajectory of his life forever.

As he grew in power and knowledge of the Lord, his worldly status crumbled in a directly proportionate ratio.  From prosecutor to prosecuted, he became a literal fugitive who spent the remainder of his days moving from one location to another to stay one step ahead of those who on multiple occasions swore to take his life.  Hell hath no fury like a group of Pharisees scorned it seems, as they deployed an incredible amount of resources and energy chasing this man who wanted nothing more than to share the love of Jesus with others.    The result?  Well, let’s let Paul give us the tale of the tape in 2 Corinthians 11:23-33:

Multiple stays in prison

Flogged (whipped) five times

Beaten with rods three times

Stoned with rocks once

Shipwrecked three times and an entire 24 hour period adrift in the sea

Gone without food, clothing, shelter, and sleep on countless occasions

And Paul hadn’t even wrapped up his evangelistic career at the point of that writing, so doubtless the list continued to grow up until his graduation from this life.  Doing the right thing and ending up on the short end of the stick is one of the most frustrating feelings I have experienced.  You spend years as a child having the thought reinforced that making the right decision pays off, and yet here we are in the middle of an epicly long list of losing on the resume of the world greatest evangelist.
One would think this would be enough.  A simple lesson in how we sow in sadness and reap in joy.  It all gets better for Paul, right?  But this is precisely where things get sticky… or more appropriately “thorny”.  We are not through with Paul’s indignities yet… not by a long shot.  In 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 we get one of the most intimate glimpses into the Apostle Paul’s life yet.  In the context of the chapter, Paul has been relating to his audience about some amazing revelations from God that have occurred.  And right in the middle of this celebration of the Lord’s gifts we have Paul confess a challenge he was “given”.  And he does not mince words… to keep him from becoming proud in what he has experienced, he was given a thorn in the flesh, which he describes as a messenger of Satan to buffet him.  Let’s slow down for a second and unpack what has happened before we go into Paul’s response.

Much has been written and spoken about Paul’s thorn in the flesh, but we will not engage in conjecture here on what it was.  Truly, the beauty of this remaining vague is that it insures that we can all imagine that Paul was afflicted with a similar challenge to what we personally endure ourselves.  The Greek word for thorn that is used here (skolops) is not used anywhere else in the Bible, and its definition is fairly accurately rendered as something with a painful point.  Additionally, when he uses the word flesh (sarki) he is speaking of a real, actual physical affliction.  The most enlightening area of the text for me is in the understanding that Paul is referring to an actual physical issue that is satanic in its essence but divine in its permission.  It was GIVEN to Paul purely for the purpose of keeping him fully reliant on the Lord and His grace to make it through each day.  Paul asked his Creator three times to let this cup pass from him, but God wasn’t budging.  The same Lord who personally turned Jacob’s hip in a wrestling match causing a permanent limp so he could finally walk in faith is now the same One who was allowing Paul to endure this unnamed affliction in addition to the incredible challenges he had already overcome.  It seems God has a special way of dealing with His strong-willed followers, but once again it serves a purpose.

My list of losing in life pales in comparison to all Paul endured.  But I believe we can all relate to the pain of fighting through so much adversity only to have one critical prayer for deliverance receive a “declined invitation” response.  After all the ways the Lord has shown His power and answered prayers in your life and the lives of those around you, to have such a painful and constantly present reminder of what He hasn’t answered is difficult to understand.   And the knowledge the He is not only aware of this, but intentionally allowing it is even harder to accept.

But Paul doesn’t leave us hanging.  He closes the loop with not only accepting that the answer to His prayer is, “No”, but records the Lord’s reason why.  And as we have observed with Job previously, we don’t often get to hear the reason why something happens so this is pretty big.  The answer is God’s grace is sufficient, but the reason why is because God’s strength is demonstrated through our weakness.  See, Paul the human being did not endure all of those trials we listed earlier.  He couldn’t have.  He should have been dead many times over.  It was the Lord and His grace that protected Paul even as he suffered, because these trials were the demonstration of God’s power in his life.

I don’t identify with famous celebrities who have endless sums of money and the world at their feet.  It simply doesn’t connect with me.  But when a fellow “loser” tells me how they are fighting their flesh daily and building a stronger relationship with God through their adversity, I can relate and I leave that experience inspired and re-energized.  It is their weakness that shows how strong God is in their life.  And in verse 10 Paul finishes the thought by saying he takes pleasure in both his life challenges and his daily thorn because it is THROUGH these that he is able to show God’s strength to others.  An apostle who traveled in a golden chariot, ensconced in velvet robes and being fed grapes as he reclined would have never accomplished what the beaten, damaged, and wounded Paul was able to achieve.

It is right to pray to God for deliverance, but when the answer is “no” we must not become bitter.  That thorn you hate so much might be attached to the life-bearing stem on the rose of your ministry.  Jesus accomplished His greatest and most critical mission not when He was at His best marching in a triumphant entrance into Jerusalem amid praise and adulation, but when he had been carelessly hammered to a pair of boards and hung naked and bleeding for others to mock and insult.  Paul was at his most lethal position to the gates of hell when he was at his lowest points.  And you are also the most dangerous when the losses begin to overwhelm the scoreboard.  Because that is when God, and only God, can step in and use this to serve His higher purpose.  Don’t bitterly endure your weakness… embrace it and allow God to use it.  Your ability to minister for God is often found at the point of what you believe is your greatest setback.

Portrait of a Team Killer (Matt 26:48, John 21)

Finally, after a long hard week at work you settle down to enjoy a few brief moments of gaming with your online friends.  The need to mow the lawn in the morning hangs over your head along with a variety of other errands that will eat away at your weekend, but right now all that matters is the joyous leisure activity that awaits you as you hear your console powering up.  Your game loads (and probably updates), your friends join your party, and you perform a few final tweaks to your load out before starting your first match.  The rest of your squad list populates with unknown gamers from around the world, the countdown commences, and now it’s time.  It’s finally time to have some fun… Until you hear that tell-tale sound of grenades landing at your feet.

With just enough time to pan the camera towards your recently spawned teammates you can identify the culprit immediately.  He’s the one cackling like a maniac in your headset while jumping on your head.  Your team explodes, the team killer gets booted off your team to go ruin someone else’s match, and you just spotted your adversaries a small lead to start the match.  But regardless of whether this match ends in a likely defeat or a rousing victory, the sophomoric actions of your former teammate can really get under your skin.  What is this guy’s problem?  With the limited amount of time you have to enjoy gaming with your friends, why did he have to come along and ruin it?  What is this guy’s story?

Whether you are playing the Division and getting gunned down by a former comrade in the Dark Zone for a piece of loot, or maybe your Halo match was just foiled by the prank listed above, there is a larger lesson to be gained from this experience.  And as we shall see from our reading in Matthew and John, there is an inherent danger in trusting any form of loyalty that does not have the right components at it’s core.  Let’s begin in John 21, where a peculiar exchange between Jesus and Peter sheds some light on this subject.  On the surface, Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him, and Peter responds three times by responding that he does, with the verse recording that he was grieved by the request on the third time.  What a curious conversation.  It is not typical for Jesus to repeat himself, and since John felt the need to record this conversation we should feel certain that there is value in understanding it.  So why would Jesus ask the same question three times in a row?

I have heard it taught that this was because Peter denied Jesus three times, and now Jesus is affirming his restoration three times.  But Peter’s response on the third time is not that of relief, but of sadness. And to understand this I will have to ask you to join me in a critical dive deeper into the text, into the original Greek that this was translated into English from.  In the English language we have the very generic word love, which can be applied to everything from French fries,  a child, a spouse, or a sunset and while the word “love” is the same the implication clearly varies based on use.  I love my family and would give my life for them without a second thought, but though I also love French fries I do not plan to sacrifice anything beyond $1.50 on their behalf anytime soon.  Our English word love has many definitions, and it is the context that helps us understand it’s meaning.  The Greek language, however, is not so limited, and had many different words for “love” that each have a very clearly defined usage.  Here are a few examples:

Eros – Affectionate love, typified as a romantic love

Storge – Family love, as between parents and children

Phileo – Friendly love,  typically between equals

Agape – Preferential love,  used for the love of God towards man and man towards God

So now that we have done our introductory Greek lesson for the month, let’s gaze a little deeper into the subtext between Jesus and Peter and what was really being asked here.  The first time Jesus asks the question, he asks Peter if he “Agape” loves him.  Peter’s response?  That he “Phileo” loves him.  Did you catch that?   Jesus asked Peter for the preferential love that has it’s basis in God, and Peter responds with a friendly love that has its basis in human feelings.  This exact same sequence is repeated in the second question from Jesus to Peter, but then the third time something different occurs, and we will understand why Peter is torn by this question on the third go round.

The third time Jesus asks “Do you love me?” He uses the “Phileo” form of love, the lower class version of love.  And at this we see the distraught response from Peter as he sadly asserts for the third time that the caliber of love he carried for Jesus was less than what was desired.  So now for the big question… Why does this matter so much?  Why isn’t Jesus satisfied with the level of love Peter was offering?  The answer may surprise you, and it is revealed in a selection of text that you may be familiar with, but have  never looked at this deeply.  The answer lies with one of the most infamous team killers of all time… Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Christ.

In Matthew 26 we get the account of Jesus and his betrayal by one of his own, a member of his own team.  But it is the actual betrayal event itself that reveals the duplicitous and easily manipulated danger of the love Jesus was dissatisfied with.  When we read the text in English we see that Judas  informs the soldiers with him that he would identify the Christ with a kiss.  But in the original Greek, the actual word used is not kiss, but, you guessed it, “Phileo”. And just to save you time, it is recorded the exact same way in the account of Mark and Luke as well, that Judas chose to betray Jesus by means of “Phileo” love.  And this is why Jesus simply cannot accept this level of love from Peter or any of us.  Because is is too easily faked, too deceitful to trust, and proceeds from emotion and outward display instead of from the Spirit of God within us, which is the root of the “Agape” love he is seeking.

This preferential love would be the only kind that would lead Peter where Jesus explained his path would carry him, as the remainder of John details.  Agape love, preferential love from God’s own heart, would one day lead Peter to pick up a cross of his own, a far cry from the Phileo love he currently carried that led him to deny Jesus three times a few days prior.  Phileo love is what team killers are capable of both possessing and displaying, but it will always favor its own interests and needs at the expense of others as Judas and Peter demonstrated in Matthew.  

Honestly, I shouldn’t have been surprised that my team mate betrayed me while playing the game:  he was arbitrarily assigned the color Blue and grouped in with me and my friends simply by random chance.  We had nothing more in common than a shared color of uniform, and a similar random twist of fate would have placed him in the opposing color of Red where he would have likely done the exact same thing to a different set of squad mates.  The issue wasn’t in his behavior, but in my false assumption that our shared enemy gave us a common goal and a reason to co-exist and work together the same way my existing squad of loyal friends had been doing.  But his level of commitment to me and my comrades was only at the surface level, and once the game started his true colors and destructive agenda were manifested.

The team killer in the group of disciples who followed Jesus was not revealed by his lack of friendliness or brotherly love, but by the lack of this “agape” preferential love that is only in our hearts when God reaches in and places it into the hearts of His children.  It is this love that Jesus was asking Peter for, the only love He will accept, and this love that He is asking us to offer both Him and all those around us.  He knows all to well the deceitful nature of any love that is less than this.  

Do You Believe in Cake? (1 Kings 22, 2 Chronicles 18)

Portal.  A game that began as a simple tech demo and became a franchise all of its own, complete with memorable characters, one of the great ending theme songs of all time, and quite possibly one of the most enjoyable antagonists in the history of gaming.  The wry sense of humor interwoven through the ingenious puzzles added an underrated but needed storyline that compelled you forward even when a particular test had you at your wits end.  As your player character wordlessly moves through each challenge armed only with the “portal gun”, a bizarre yet perfect reward is repeatedly dangled before you… The promise of cake at the end of your testing.

Considering the life-threatening dangers that you must overcome in each room to progress, the cake that awaits you upon success seems  to be a petty reward by comparison.  And as the true motivation for your nemesis is slowly revealed, a budding awareness occurs that the cake you have been promised is likely non-existent anyways.  The bitter irony is that the cake, which in and of itself was an inadequate motivating factor to begin with, is in actuality a lie that was promised not just to you, but also others who had attempted the same set of trials before you.  I have faced the potential disappointments inherent with cake many times in my life to this point… Too little frosting, overly dry, cake that has been accidentally sneezed in, cake that secretly has carrots in it… But at least in each of these instances the reality of the cake’s existence was never something I had to question.

“The Cake is a Lie” has more to offer than a simple inside joke for gamers or a meme-worthy catchphrase, and my search for substance under the subtext led me to one of the most interesting yet difficult to process chapters in the Bible.  This chapter challenged me for many years, because it seemed to lie in conflict with the character and operating style of the Lord as I understood Him from my studies to that point.  Just so we don’t miss it or chalk it up to poor translation, this event is captured in both 1 Kings 22 and 2 Chronicles 18 virtually identically, and it is here we catch a glimpse of heaven from a decidedly different view point than we may have ever considered possible.  But let’s start with the context here on good ol’ earth, where we find the wicked King Ahab of Israel, the good but improperly aligned King Jehoshaphat of Judah, and a sarcastic prophet named Micaiah intertwined in a decision with fatal repercussions.

Ahab has beef with the king of Syria, and despite the fact that they had been in a state of peace for three years to this point there is a contested city that Ahab believes is worth going to war over.  During his recruitment effort to convince Jehoshaphat to align forces for this battle, the God-fearing Jehoshaphat agrees to provide support as long as the will of God is determined first.  Ahab acquiesces as he needs the additional manpower, and brings together 400 “yes men” to sway this potential alliance.  But Jehoshaphat, discerning enough to see through this manipulation, pressed for an actual prophet of God to be consulted.  And this is where things get really interesting, as Micaiah enters the scene and his answer pulls back the curtain on the workings within the heavenly court in a way not seen since the first chapter of Job.

In response to the question of the outcome of this proposed war, Micaiah describes this literal event occurring within the throne room of the Almighty, as God sits on His throne surrounded by the angelic beings He created.  While I will not be dogmatic on this point, the text says ALL the hosts of heaven, and I interpret ALL the host of heaven to mean ALL both good and evil, as it is the same word “all” that is used to describe God creating “all” things repeatedly throughout Genesis and is translated as “every” or “all” throughout the Old Testament.  So if “all” means “all” here and everywhere else this particular Hebrew word is used, then ALL the angels, both fallen and obedient, are present here much as satan was present in a similar gathering in the book of Job.  The description of being gathered to the right and left sides of His throne also references the separation of the just and unjust, similar to the way Jesus describes man standing at the throne of God in Matthew 25.  I would not typically belabor a point like this, but it is critical to the understanding of the remainder of this passage that we have the correct interpretation of who is present here.

God asks a question to this gathering that at first took me aback… “Who will convince Ahab to enter this war so that he will die in the battle?”  Now that sentence deserves a very Keanu Reeves-style “Whoa.”  God is actively sourcing ideas on who will take the responsibility of persuading Ahab to follow his doomed course of action to the grave.  But before we get caught up on the implications of this, we see the attendees present idea after idea on how this could be accomplished to the Lord until one spirit suggests a method that meets His approval… this spirit would deceive Ahab by becoming a lying voice within the mouths of the 400 false prophets Ahab consulted.  God saw that this would be a successful approach and commanded the spirit to proceed.  We can now fast forward to the end of the chapter, where the spirit did exactly what he had proposed and Ahab indeed marches defiantly into the battle.  Bolstered by the lying voices surrounding him promising victory as well as his confidence in a subterfuge in which he would enter the battle incognito while Jehoshaphat would be the only participant decked out in kingly garb, Ahab thought he could deny the outcome God could not have been clearer in defining.  I cannot imagine why Jehoshaphat would be so naive as to make himself the largest target on the battlefield, but God and His plan were not fooled and it was Ahab, despite his machinations to deceive, who fell prey to the plot hatched in God’s court room, meeting his demise just as Micaiah predicted.

So many questions come to mind after reading this chapter, and I would encourage everyone to read it in its entirety for yourself as there are even more details than I have space to elaborate on here.  But the core issue I am going to focus on is the idea that God did not only allow this deception to occur for Ahab, but He was an active participant and initiator of this situation.  Fortunately, when we put this together with the rest of Scripture some very interesting truths emerge quite clearly.  First, to be clear, James 1:12-14 tells us that God does not tempt any of us, but that we are tempted when we are drawn away and enticed by our own desires.  God did not put it in Ahab’s heart to enter this war, Ahab did that to himself.  Secondly, in Romans chapter 1:24-32 we see that if we choose not to glorify God in the way we live our lives, He will give us over to pursue our sinful desires or as Paul describes it, a “reprobate mind”.  And in perhaps even stronger language, Paul writes in 2 Thess. 2:9-12 that God will send a “strong delusion” to those who are insistent on denying the truth and instead take pleasure in living an unrighteous life.  And just to round out this concept, in 2 Timothy 4:3-5 Paul reminds his readers that even within the church that people would have “itching ears” and surround themselves with false teachers, hearing only what they want to hear and as a result will be turned away from God’s truth by “their own desires”.

Ahab chose to believe in the cake, and in point of fact chose to be deceived.  He wanted to believe the lie, and God created the situation in which He both heard the truth of God’s word from the singular voice of Micaiah and the deceptive voice of destruction from the 400 false voices he had surrounded himself with.  His Twitter followers and Facebook friends praised His courageous decisions and inflated his ego all the way to his bloody end.  The frightening truth is that if we are committed to following a lie, God will not only allow us to pursue it, will actually empower our enemy to enhance the deception through the enabling processes we provide ourselves.  It’s a sobering thought, but Ahab was no innocent victim of deception here.  He made the choice to surround himself with false voices to support his sin, he made the choice to imprison Micaiah for daring to tell him the truth, and in the end he got the cake that these ingredients combined to make… A lying cake of his own design.

This cautionary tale that provides such insight into the supernatural realm really makes me reflect on how many cakes I have chased in my life that ended in disappointment, and the reality that I am the architect of my own deception.  The path to avoiding the pitfalls of false cake pursuit lies in knowing and removing the areas that both provide and enable us to deceive ourselves.  It is clearly not God’s will for us to be deceived, but He will absolutely allow us to follow our desires to their ultimate result if we insulate ourselves within the lies we embrace.  It is almost as if God said to Ahab, “Fine.  I sent Elijah and Micaiah and so many others to guide you but you just won’t listen, so let them eat cake.”  The cake is a lie, and one we more often than not tell ourselves, and it is only by giving our life and thoughts daily to Jesus that we find His way, the real truth, and the life He has planned for us.

Coping With Permadeath in the Real World (Rev. 21-22)

These are the times that try the soul, as unspeakable tragedies rock our news headlines and each of us look for answers, justice, comfort, or simply a measure of hope that these harsh reminders of the delicate nature of life will result in something positive, somehow, some way.  I am very poorly qualified to provide any of these things, but I feel compelled to share a few thoughts that are stuck in my head.  Remaining sensitive to these very real and painful experiences that impact us each differently requires a column that will be much lower key than usual.  Death is one of the most challenging words in any language to read or write because of the serious connotations that exist, and I will not take this subject lightly.

A rising trend in the world of gaming is the existence of “Permadeath”, a state in which the player character is permanently and irrevocably gone and while the game may continue the participant must choose a new protagonist to carry on the campaign.  No cheap continue screen or a mission reload to pretend that this never happened…no, just as in our real world death in these instances is final.  One of the more popular titles to use this device is State of Decay, a zombie apocalypse simulator that embraces the unforgiving dynamic of Permadeath in perhaps one of the most challenging scenarios in which to have to come to grips with it.  As I pondered this, my musings turned towards the entire apocalyptic zombie genre and its sudden emergence in mainstream popularity.  Television, cinema, literature, gaming, comics and more have been swept into a tidal wave of fascination with the undead.  So what drives our society and our culture towards these themes?

No cheap continue screen or mission reload to pretend this never happened…

I believe finding this answer will provide some insight on our opening subject, as it is often through our chosen entertainment that our true selves and secret internal battles are revealed.  In the 80’s we dealt with Cold War fears with escapist, feel-good themes of American heroes triumphing over ridiculous odds as Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Willis, Norris and more filled cinema screens with heroic conquests and the A-Team saved the day each week on TV.  The 90’s emerged with sarcasm and humor to deal with our jaded views on society and government as sitcoms stormed the airwaves.  In this millennium the craze of reality television was simply the reflection of the desire to matter as an individual, and our society has unfortunately continued to gorge ourselves on the desire for instant celebrity ever since.  So why zombies, and why now?  What does this reveal to us about ourselves and our culture, and what do we do with this knowledge?

It would be too easy to dismiss this as a fad or cultural phenomenon without significance.  As we increase our technology and capabilities we grow more and more frustrated as a society with our inability to halt the steady march of our inescapable enemy, death.  Scientifically we can do and create so many wondrous things and our capabilities grow by the day, but we still cannot add one minute to our life span.  And just like the unending, mindless march of a horde of zombies, death continues to bear down on each of us without discrimination.  The good, the bad, the famous, the anonymous… We all have an appointment we are not permitted to be late for, and none of our toys or our tech can do more than delay the inevitable.  And I find that our grim acceptance of this fate powers our fascination with the undead, as it gives us a more tangible adversary to paint our frustrations on.  In a strange way a zombie humanizes death, giving it a face that we can fight against even with our knowledge that resistance will ultimately prove futile.  And in these tales of an undead apocalypse, whether gaming or non-interactive media,  the characters are all equalized by their common enemy regardless of their previous societal standing.  Convicts lock arms with lawmen and fame is as useless as the celluloid a movie is printed on as life is reduced in complexity to the simple desire to survive another day.

Our railing against the slow stalking menace of death is natural and expected.

Scripture is not silent on the topic of death.  As a matter of fact, it is one of the most consistent themes layered thoughout the text.  Starting with Genesis 4 there is scarcely a chapter within the Bible that does not include this in concept or in actuality.  The severing of a life here on earth was never the design for any of us, and as we see in Genesis 3:19 it was a result of the choice Adam made to disobey God in the garden that this process entered our reality.  Romans 6:23 illustrates it quite clearly by stating that the wages of sin is death, and Romans 5:12 narrows it down further by stating that death entered the world through one man’s sin.  Death is unnatural for us to consider because we weren’t designed for it.  Our bodies were engineered for constant regeneration, but this miracle has been sabotaged by the presence of sin that has brought death into the machine that is our bodies.  Our railing against the slow stalking menace of death is natural and expected.

Many kind-hearted believers have attempted to comfort me during times of loss over the years with Scriptures that are meant to encourage, but honestly ring a bit hollow when you are the one doing the mourning.  I am aware that the death of a saint is precious to the Lord, and that He is in control of all things, with a date and time for our departure already determined before we even take the stage for the first time.  I can’t say that those thoughts are always tremendously comforting, and to be honest we should never accept death as anything less than how God views it: an outcome of sin that was never meant to exist, and as such is marked for a final judgement of its own.

God ‘s view of death:  an outcome of sin that was never meant to exist.

The Apostle Paul describes death quite succinctly in 1 Cor. 15:26… Our final enemy.  A boss fight with no cheat codes that can seemingly enter the game at will.  Yet this same Paul in Phillipians 1:21-23 did not view this enemy like the relentless Nemesis from Resident Evil plaguing him throughout his life journey, but rather as a necessary separation from those he would leave behind so he could begin his eternal life with the Lord beyond death’s grasp.  This was not a fatalistic view, even in the light of his statement “to live is Christ and to die is gain”, because he clearly demonstrated that he understood the impact his departure would have on those he would leave behind, and as they still had need of him he was satisfied to remain here on earth until his time was truly up.  As hard as it is to accept the finality of death as it relates to us remaining on this plane of existence, the truth is every day we are here is a gift meant to be used, as Paul demonstrates to us here, to build up others and prepare them for both this life and its continuation on the other side of the looking glass.  Paul could hold death in such a view because he exhausted himself daily in his endeavor to share the life and message of Jesus, holding at its core the beautiful truth in 1 Thess. 4:13-14 that reanimation and final victory over death awaits each of us who have chosen Christ.

It is high time we show the world that the truth about how the dead WILL walk the earth again…

Death is our enemy, and it is right that we should mourn the evil it afflicts upon our world and our loved ones.  And because the hourglass for not only ourselves but all those around us is perpetually decreasing in volume we are compelled to use each day and hour wisely… To care enough to share God and His love liberally with all, allowing our life to reach its fullest potential by following His plan for our lives.  Permadeath can only be avoided by bringing those we meet into contact with the One who described Himself as the way, the truth, and the LIFE.  Our world has reached the point of obsession with the dead coming back to life… It is high time we show them that the dead WILL walk the earth again (Rev 21 and 22).  But this time there will be no more death (21:4), the tree of life will be opened for our access once and for all (22:2 and 14), and all are invited to the party  (22:17).  All that’s left to do is to extend the invitation to everyone you know and in so doing rob death of one more eternal victim at a time.  That is how we can claim victory here and in the life to come as well as wipe that smug grin off of death’s face.  I don’t know when or how the final number will be called for you or me… But thanks to the victory of Jesus over death we WILL be back!

 

Much Ado About Minecraft: When You Just Don’t Get It (John 21, Acts 9)

It is embarrassing to admit this, but I have a somewhat sketchy track record when it comes to predicting the success of a gaming franchise.  On one hand, I was strapped into a front row seat when the release of potentially niche titles such as Bioshock and Guitar Hero were originally launched and I was a charter member of the fan club at the ground level of their explosion into full-fledged blockbusters. But on the other hand, I have a very specific and distinct memory of sitting in a presentation room as Activision unveiled their plans for a bizarre concept that involved consumers purchasing a game that required additional purchases of all these bizarre little figures in order to progress, and I recall turning to my peers with a confidence born of pure stupidity as I dismissed the idea as one of the worst pitches I had ever heard.  I mean, seriously, who is going to pay almost 80 dollars for a game, and then turn around and pay hundreds more for all these little pieces of plastic just so they can experience the entire story?  Well, it appears the answer would be everyone, myself included, as the launch of this “doomed” concept became the multi-million dollar juggernaut known as Skylanders, which in turn created the entire toys to life gaming category that now includes Lego Dimensions, Disney Infinity, Nintendo’s Amiibo characters, and of course the continuing iterations of the Skylanders franchise.  I guess the lesson here is don’t invite this guy to your video game brainstorming session.  Your mileage may vary.

The lesson here is DON’T invite this guy to your video game brainstorming session.

So it is again with great shame that I admit that I totally missed the boat on Minecraft.  I would never classify myself as a graphics snob, but this game took ugly to a whole new level. It actually embraced the concept of jagged textures and simple color palettes and looked like something a friend of mine could design in a few hours during a computer science class in high school.  And then there’s the story.  As in, there isn’t one.  Instead, upon loading the game you receive a completely open world with almost none of the trappings we are all so familiar with in a “traditional” video game.  No plot, no character development, no exposition… Just go dig up the ground.  Then make something.  Dig up new stuff to make better tools so you can dig up more stuff.  Then make something else.  Oh, and there’s a pig.  Also, cows happen.

Here’s my REAL admission… I just don’t GET IT.

So here’s my real admission:  I just don’t get it.  This game simply does not appeal to me in any way, shape, or form. I know that billions of people around the world love this game dearly, and the success of this game has created billions and billions of dollars in revenue as it’s simple unassuming visuals combined with the “Legos on Steroids” gameplay hook  has taken the world by storm.  Creativity abounds as people around the world craft ever more intricate structures, limited only by their imagination.  And the kids, they LOVE IT.  Retail shelves have become crowded with foam facsimiles of the in game tools and weapons, shirts and other forms of wearable merchandising are everywhere, and ironically the success of the game has even spawned the launch of a spin-off story based franchise.  I guess the jokes on me again.

The Bible is FILLED with one stunning move after another as God laughingly defies our human attempts to put Him in a box.

Sometimes it can be confusing to attempt to balance the concept that  we serve a God of order with the reality that His idea of order and ours look totally different.  It is almost impossible to predict what He is going to do, and the Bible is filled with one stunning move after another as He laughingly defies our human attempts to put Him in a box.  Scripture is filled with examples of our fellow believers who “just don’t get it” as time and time again He defies our expectations.  I will provide a few examples of His stubborn refusal to allow us to give Him “structure”:

  • We expect God to make things “fair”.  In John 21 we get some of our last glimpses of Jesus before His ascension.  As Jesus is having a conversation with Peter about his destiny, including Peter’s eventual death by crucifixion, Peter has a wonderfully human response as his gaze lands on a fellow disciple.  Pointing him out, he asks Jesus a simple question… “What about him?”  The implications are clear, but Jesus refuses to take the bait as He challenges Peter on why it matters in what manner another disciple serves Him, in life or in death.    I can almost hear Jesus smile as He replies “If I want him to live until my return what is that to you?”  Different crosses for different folks.  God has an entirely different perspective on justice and fairness than we can comprehend.

 

  • We want God to “make sense”. In Acts 9, the fire-breathing, venom-spewing, death-dealing Saul of Tarsus is on a crusade to take down followers of Christ anywhere he can find them.  In the midst of his hunt an all-too informed disciple named Ananias, who happens to live in Saul’s next target city, is told by God to go find Saul and pray for him. It is not often that someone tries to ensure that God knows what He is talking about, but Ananias is afraid some critical info about Saul may have slipped through the cracks of God’s social networking app.  Ananias dutifully informs the Lord that Saul happens to be a bad guy… A very bad guy.  Who does bad things for bad reasons and has bad intentions towards all who follow Jesus.  And God gently reminds Ananias to GO, because God has His reasons. Saul then went on to write most of the New Testament and evangelize the world.  God sees beyond what makes sense right now.

 

  • We try to provide God with a “flow chart”.  In Acts 2 Peter instructs a group of potential converts to “Repent, be baptized, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”.  Ahhh, nice clean structure to put on a Sunday School wall.  Until you get to Acts 10, where Peter is again preaching to a different group but God decides to jump the shark and the Holy Spirit falls on them completely out of “order”. Almost like He was deliberately mixing up the order so we couldn’t have a “recipe” that is one size fits all.  Cue Peter’s head scratching, followed by their baptism in water. Sorry to mess up your plan of salvation hand out…  God just can’t be contained by our outline.

 

  • We attempt to enforce our membership guidelines on Him.  It would make things so much less complicated if we could just get everyone on the same page, and the disciples felt the exact same way.  In Mark 9:38 we hear John informing Jesus that the disciples had come up on someone using His name for their ministry, but they were not a part of the “official fellowship”.  Maybe he didn’t fill out his membership card, or perhaps he was attending the wrong denomination.  Either way, they provided him with a cease and desist.  And Jesus immediately corrected them all, informing them that whoever is not against Him is for Him.  Like it or not, heaven will be populated with many people you may not expect.  God didn’t make denominational subdivisions in our eternal neighborhoods either, so we may want to break down those walls before we get there.

 

  • We at least need Him to be “consistent” so we can mimic Him.  But Jesus refuses to make this as simple as “wax-on, wax-off”, because there is simply no rhyme or reason to His healing process.  Jesus fluidly rotates from using physical touch (Matt 8:1-4), verbal commands (Matt 9:1-8), long-distance proclamations (Matt 8:5-13), receiving a touch through indirect clothing contact (Matt 9:18-22), and in one special circumstance made mud with His spit, stuck it in a man’s eye, and had to pray twice for the healing to occur because it didn’t heal completely the first time (Mark 8:22-25).  God clearly is not interested in giving us a nice, clean process that allows us to stop depending on Him for constant direction as each situation we face will require a unique, God-directed response.

I still don’t “get” Minecraft, and I suppose I probably never will.  And that’s okay.  And if I am being honest, I feel the same way many times with the things God says and does.  I don’t always get it, and I am becoming okay with that too.  When I want Him to follow a rigid structure He takes the role of a whimsical artist, coloring outside of my deadlines and painting the sky green and the ground blue in His perfect solution.  He is rarely the answer that I want, but He is ALWAYS the answer that I need.  And as Job found out so succinctly in Job 38 through 40, God has plenty of answers for this who dare challenge His plans with their supposed “wisdom”.  So I suppose I am glad now when I don’t “get it”, because that puts me in pretty good company.  Keep building those Minecraft worlds that I don’t understand, and I will keep trying to beat that stupid octopus in Donkey Kong Tropical Freeze.  And along the way let’s enjoy the guidance and direction of the unpredictable Lord that made us all one big, crazy, happy family.

The Man in the Iron Mask: Cyborg Ninjas Need Forgiveness Too (1 Tim. 1:12-16)

When you are introduced as Cyborg Ninja, you are sort of destined to be remembered more for your suit than who is inside it.  Nameless and faceless for much of his violent journey through the story of the one and only Metal Gear Solid, he literally carves his way through the campaign offering very little to explain his agenda or motives, seeming content to simply leave a trail of carnage in his wake as he progresses towards an impossible to determine end goal.  Neither friend not foe, this enigmatic warrior seemed to be the only character who was not interested in a lengthy dialogue with your player controlled avatar Solid Snake.  But this being a video game, we know the reveal of who he is and what he is really after is going to be revealed in due time.

Neither truly alive or truly dead, this conflicted individual seems to be scarcely in control of his actions despite the incredible lethality he demonstrates.

Clues are peppered through his brief appearances, and within these glimpses the pieces begin to fall into place.  Neither truly alive nor truly dead, as much machine as man, this conflicted individual seems to be scarcely in control of his actions despite the incredible lethality he demonstrates.  The conscious choice of seeking out pain is but one crack revealed in his armor, and the phrase he whispers while slamming his head into the ground still haunts me with sadness as he confides to his former comrade turned enemy Snake, ” I am losing myself”.  Sadder words may have never been spoken, as this nearly invincible juggernaut reveals that his greatest battle lies within.

It is not until you are knee deep in the final boss battle with Metal Gear Rex that he chooses to show his physical face, and within this reveal he chooses to shine a light on his full motivations and the struggle inside.  In a heartbreaking revelation we learn that the poor soul trapped inside this machine is none other than an old friend, Gray Fox.  His indestructible exterior merely hides his pain as he recounts his unwilling rebirth as a machine human hybrid, scarcely in control of his mind and actions.  But this is not what haunts him… As a former soldier turned villainous vigilante this is not the source of his internal conflict.  Something much deeper and more relatable to all of us lies at the heart of his pain.

“I am losing myself…”

Gray Fox has lived his life on the battlefield, and the collateral damage of his exploits was merely part of doing business for a professional soldier.  Until his hardened gaze fell on a child who was now orphaned because of him.  Responsible for the death of her parents, for perhaps the first time the realization of the consequences of his actions causes the sharp pain of regret to override his training.  He chooses to adopt her, whisk her away from the battlefield, and raise her as his own.  But these actions do not dull the pain, as he lives with the constant daily reminder that the life she now lives without her parents was because of HIM, and his shame at the role he played in their deaths caused him to never reveal this truth to her for fear that she would see him as the monster he truly is, instead of the kind benefactor he is striving to become.

This is where the rubber meets the road for me.  I can’t relate to being a genetically enhanced super human robot ninja, but the inability to move forward from past mistakes is all too real.  Others may see the ruthless efficiency of the machine I have created to house and protect my shattered soul, but within lies a shell of who I once was, a force that leans towards self-inflicted pain and destructive behaviors, a person very much in danger of losing myself.  So now to the real question:  How is it that a child of God, born again and in a committed daily relationship with Jesus, can forgive others and offer grace to everyone but their own self?

How is it that a child of God, born again and in a committed daily relationship with Jesus, can forgive others and offer grace to everyone but their own self?

Have you ever felt that way?  A facade built to showcase strength and confidence merely masking the uncertainty and self-loathing contained within?  I’m preaching to the choir on this one, because I will confess that I have spent much of my life trying to foolishly earn the forgiveness and grace that has been provided to me for free.  It is interesting that in our current day and age every bookstore, Christian or not, has a massive self-help section and many of these books are written to provide assistance with the challenge of forgiving your self.  I say it is interesting because the Bible seems to be largely mute on this topic, almost as if the authors never appeared to consider this to be an area we would struggle with.  With all the wisdom provided to us from writers such as Paul and Peter, men who were clearly familiar with the concept of past failure on a magnitude far greater than most of us will ever taste, why do we see so little on this subject?  Surely the Bible, the source of all answers, has within it a response for the challenge of forgiving yourself, right?

First, let’s review some groundwork.  1 John 1:8-10 makes it painfully simple for us, establishing that everyone of us have sinned, but if we are willing to confess these to God he is faithful and just to not only forgive us, but to purify us as well.  So does that mean I will forget what I’ve done?  Let’s see what Paul has to say in 1 Cor. 15:9-10, where in the middle of his magnificent epistle he stops to remind us and himself that he once was the enemy of the church, and active persecutor of this he now calls family.  But just as quickly he allows the grace of God to not only cover his sin, but to free him from his guilt as he points past his failure to what God’s grace is doing in him now.  It is through, not in spite of his previous failure that he is able to offer grace freely to every one he meets.  And finally, the erstwhile patron saint of those who have made mistakes but earnestly desire to move forward, King David himself writes the famous words found in Psalm 103 stating that God removes our transgressions as far as the east is from the west, meaning that our failures are moving in a continual direction of separation from us and where we are going with our lives.

Paul shines a light on his shortcomings, using them to illustrate the depths of the mercy of God.

So if all this is true, why don’t we feel any better?  Why do we still struggle to move on, to forgive ourselves, to accept the grace of God we freely offer others?  Perhaps because we missed a crucial point found in the correspondence between Paul and his protege Timothy, found in 1 Timothy 1:12-16.  Paul, clearly remembering all that he was, not only accepts the forgiveness of God but sees that in this Paul is made into an example for others, a case study that Christ came to save ALL, without exclusion.  And in that context Paul chooses to denies his failures the ability to define him, but instead allows them to showcase to others the incredible grace he was shown. He shines a light on his shortcomings, using them to illustrate the depths of the mercy of God.  This is the secret that David found, the mystery that pulled Paul and Peter out of self-loathing and into full service.

Our enemy would like nothing more than to silence is through our guilt and shame, reminding us of all the reasons we should be disqualified from service.  He knows our true value, and the last thing he wants is a bunch of Pauls and Peters running around changing the world with their testimony.  Like our cyborg ninja friend from earlier, we can choose to allow our guilt to occupy our thoughts until they consume us, or we can choose to celebrate the freedom we have received and shine the light for others to follow. It took a long time for me to realize that all of my failures were actually taken into account by God when he forged my destiny, and that His plan for my life was built with those in mind.  When you see your mistakes, transgressions, and sins as a vital part of how you can share the full depths of the love of Christ to others, you are set free from all the chains the devil uses to keep them holding you down.  Don’t hide the pain, embrace the grace that has freed you from that life and shine the light in every dark secret you have tried to keep!

God knew your past when He chose you, because when he prepared your path all your mistakes were still in the FUTURE. 

God knew your past when he chose you, because when he prepared your path all your mistakes were still in the future.  And just as He did with Paul, He still chose you as the perfect vessel to do what only you, complete with all of your perceived baggage, would ever be able to do.  I have been a rebellious son, an ungrateful boyfriend, a selfish husband, a misguided father, an absentee friend, and so much more.  But I will not be confined to those descriptions or allow my future to be defined by these failures.   Rather I will accept the myriad of moral failures in my past just as the woman who washed Jesus’s feet with her tears did in Luke 7:36-50…  I have been forgiven much and I will choose to serve Him and love Him much!  If you look hard enough, there’s someone who will cross your path in life with a matching set of luggage to what you used to carry.  Go ahead and show them how to be set free…

Plants, Zombies and Sacrifice: When the Needs of the Many Outweigh the Needs of the Few (Acts 5-7)

I have a special place in my heart for the original Plants vs. Zombies. I know there have been two new releases that took this brand in a multiplayer shooter direction, but the original had all the elements of the gaming experience that I was looking for:  a fun and simple gameplay hook that allowed for experimentation and multiple ways to win which could be enjoyed alone or with a partner.  I remember the exhilaration of the combination of impending doom as the zombies marched tirelessly onward towards our floral defense array as we worked together to balance the need for continuing resources (my sunflowers) with the demands of an effective defense and offense (her pea shooters and melon catapults).  As we each passionately explained to the other the demands of our needs in the heat of the battle the sight of the final combatant being eliminated just on the nick of time was a feeling of relief mixed with the satisfaction of working out yet another solution by the skin of our teeth (or sunlight as it were).

I have a great deal of difficulty investing into items that are one time use or meant to be destroyed. 

There is a good reason that I am entrusted more with the resource development of planting and protecting sunflowers than with building a defensive barricade.  See, I have a great deal of difficulty investing into items that are one time use or meant to be destroyed.  Maybe it is my inner frugality, or perhaps a sense of empathy for the plant who is about to be offered for the cause, but the concept of using resources for something that is simply an obstacle that slows down one of the invaders is just hard for me to embrace.  I understand the potential impact each of these plants will have on the battlefield, but when playing by myself I tend to proceed with a very safe and consistent approach that involves the least amount of plant loss or resource use.  However, my co-op partner plays much more aggressively and uses a strategy that involves greater risk, but higher reward, and while our combined efforts have proven very successful, inside I still have a difficult time committing to intentional sacrifice as a battle strategy, regardless of the success rate.

I will confess that it is very hard for me many times to understand why the terrible things that happen in the world occur, and many times to people who I would hope would be under some form of protection from such tragedy.  When the innocent suffer, when children are hurt, when even the God fearing feel the pain of this world we all share, it is understandable to wonder why God doesn’t stop the pain.  Why does the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent God of the universe allow such things to occur when we know He can stop them?  I know I have pondered such thoughts on many occasions, and I doubt I am alone in this.  Volumes have been written by men and women much wiser and more articulate than I on how a good and loving God can permit evil things to happen to His children, but I believe a very simple yet profound principle can be understood in what occurs in the tiles between a group of plants defending their lawn from the undead who would wreak havoc if they are not repelled, at any cost.

Why does the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent God of the universe allow such things to occur when we know He can stop them? 

We have to start in the book of Acts chapter 6, where the early church has just started to emerge into a cohesive unit.  As the church grows seven people are chosen to provide a vital support role in the budding church infrastructure, and one of these was a man named Stephen.  His story doesn’t last long, just two scant but impactful chapters in which he goes through a process of being falsely accused, given a sham of a trial, and then summarily executed by the same religious organization that shouted “Crucify Him” only a few months prior.  As the final stone thrown takes this man of God’s life, a footnote in chapter 7 launches a new figure into the spotlight, the man who would one day become the apostle Paul.  But on this day, he was on the side of the angry mob who just sniffed out Stephen’s life, and what he just observed galvanized Paul into an even more aggressive and heinous action.

As if the death of this good and innocent man was not enough for the young church to absorb, this was merely the launching point for a crusade of persecution against the followers of Jesus.  Without so much as a respite to mourn their loss, chapter 7 records the panicked scattering of the believers  all across the region as Paul and those who followed him began a campaign of terror seeking out Christians in their homes and hiding places and arresting them.  But what appears to be a failure on the part of God to protect his sheep from attack is actually all part of His plan to spread the good news of  Christ to the world.  See, it was through this threat that the message of Jesus was now being dispersed to regions that would never have heard otherwise.  And this experience was also the catalyst for bringing the misguided Paul into the fold, as his murderous campaign brought him to a confrontation with Jesus on the road to Damascus that changed the entire world.  It was witnessing the death of Stephen that placed Paul on the course that would change his destiny and lead him to become the most prominent missionary and evangelist for our faith of all time and inspired almost all of the books which comprise our New Testament.  It was the necessary, yet painful sacrifice of one life that launched all of these actions into place, saving millions of souls in the process, mine included.  There are parallels in Stephen’s death to the crucifixion of Christ, and the reality is that the message of the Gospel has in its foundation the blood and sacrifice of all that have gone before us.  It is in the DNA of our belief system, and it is through this that the Kingdom advances.

Stephen’s life was not wasted, it was INVESTED. 

The paradoxical nature of pain and sacrifice giving way to new life and joy is observed in every time a seed is planted and dies to become something more, every time a mother endures the pains of labor to add a new soul to our planet, and every time a believer’s hard-earned testimony inspires another to join the faith.  Stephen’s life was not wasted, it was INVESTED.  And while it did not feel like a victory at the time, over even for quite a while afterwards, now that we have the benefit of viewing this through nearly 2,000 years of hindsight it is clear how his sacrifice, tragic as it was, birthed the expansion of Christianity across the globe.

I know that these words provide little comfort to those enduring pain or loss right now, and I would never dare to insult another’s crisis with a phrase so trite as “God is in control” without balancing it with the reality that we may never understand the impact of the events of our lives within our lifetimes.  When God answered the plaintive cries of Job for understanding in the midst of his incredibly trying circumstances, God’s answer was void of the comforting reassurance that all would be all right.  Instead, He challenged Job to change his view and recognize that as the architect of all time and space, He has more considerations than we can possibly fathom.

He challenged Job to change his view and recognize that as the architect of all time and space He has more considerations than we can possibly fathom.

Fortunately, I don’t have to answer to the plants that are ultimately sacrificed for the greater good of clearing the board.  I am reminded of a phrase in the greatest Star Trek movie of all time, The Wrath of Khan, in which Spock as he sacrificed himself for his comrades rightly asserted, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.”  The needful placement of a plant, even if it involves its demise, may stem the tide of the invasion and ultimately be the turning point in a victory for the entire team, even if the plant that held that critical role never gets to participate in the celebration.  There are no easy answers for why so much suffering exists, because we lack the perspective that will provide clarity to why things happened the way they did.  The message of Jesus, of Stephen, or of modern day martyrs for their cause such as Dr. Martin Luther King are all solidified in the value of the sacrifice that was made to give those messages.

I hope this inspires you to look at the world through the eyes of what has yet to have been revealed, to see that the losses we all endure serve a higher purpose than our finite lives on earth may ever reveal.  Your life is a message to others who are observing you, maybe completely unbeknownst to you, and you may change the course of history by actions that may seem inconsequential at the moment.  Stephen had no idea that he was the plant that would change the lives of so many, and ultimately the world.  There is a purpose, difficult as it may be to understand,  and each of us as the unique plants we are play a vital role in the plan to bring souls to the saving knowledge of Jesus.

Finishing the Fight: The Bittersweet Taste of the End Game (2 Timothy 4)

I have fallen prey to this more times than I can count… that deep feeling of melancholy associated with reaching the final endgame sequence in a well-told video game story.  After spending dozens of hours trying to stem the Reaper threat in Mass Effect, dispatching hundreds of enemies en route to a final Warthog run across a disintegrating Halo ring, or simply seeing the words “World 8-4” on a Mario title, for some reason I feel less than elated to have reached what I realize is the end of my journey with these characters and the world I have inhabited vicariously through them.  It is that moment when all of your party members have received a nice tidy bow on their story, all the lower level enemies have been dispatched, the side missions have all been completed, the musical score has changed to a more subtle, haunting refrain of the battle music that has pumped you up across your journey thus far, and all that remains is your final boss on the other side of the last door.  You know that moment.  It is the point of no return.  I have sat holding the controller many a time simply soaking in this moment, not because I am excited to reach the finale, but because now that I am at the threshold I am not sure I am ready to cross the line that will trigger the final sequences of a voyage I am not prepared to let go of yet.

I am not sure I am ready to cross the line that will trigger the final sequences of a voyage I am not prepared to let go of yet.

I could have chosen a myriad of titles for an example, but I landed on an old classic that occupies a special place in my heart, Final Fantasy X.  This is an experience that is near and dear to many gamer’s hearts but there is a unique reason why it stands out for me.  See, I went into this game already determined to dislike it because I was late to the party.  It was already at greatest hits status when I begrudgingly gave it a chance, sourly approaching the turn based combat and awkward dialogue as one would sniff at a gallon of milk that is beyond it’s expiration date.  Cautious pessimism was the name of the game as I mocked the game’s protagonist and his random childish outbursts.  But over the hours something happened.  I began to find a rhythm within the combat structure, I warmed to the characters and began to gain tremendous interest in the over-arching story, and as I approached the climax of the adventure I realized I had become invested in their plight and engrossed in their world, as alien as it is to our actual physical existence.  I wasn’t ready for it to be over yet, and as the ending drew near I found myself engaging in countless small diversions to prolong the inevitable.  I have never pretended to be a 100% completionist on most titles, but for the ones I truly love I do it not for pride or status, but simply because I want to delay the finale for just a few more minutes.

As the ending drew near I found myself engaging in countless small diversions to prolong the inevitable.

So here I was, on the precipice of the final battle and the series of cutscenes and events that would put a period on this story and potentially end the stories and maybe even the lives of several of my virtual friends.  In a world where true heartache exists around every corner and actual tragedy strikes far too often I will admit I feel guilty for having feelings associated with these lines of code that make up a gaming character, but I also believe it is through these stories and yes, even these virtual people that many profound thoughts and emotions can connect with a heart and help us make sense of many real world struggles.  So please indulge me as I draw a few parallel lines from these “scripted moments” to an actual heartbreaking scenario that played out about 2,000 years ago in a cold prison cell as an imprisoned, aged, abandoned man of God named Paul wrote his final recorded words in one last letter to his protege.

You can sense the urgency mixed with an awareness that the end was near as Paul states, “The time of my departure is at hand.  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race.  I have kept the faith.”

I feel the same sense of sadness I discussed earlier when reading through the book of 2 Timothy.  My favorite way to read it is to imagine I am there in the cell with Paul as he delivers this heartfelt message to the man who was the closest person he had to a son, to family, in his final dark days.  As he explains in the text, he is now alone as his fellow missionaries have moved on to other places, and an air of finality is couched in every paragraph as he provides encouragement, guidance, protective words, and a few final personal requests to his co-worker and friend Timothy.  Feel the passion in his voice as he warns the young pastor about those who are spreading false doctrines while encouraging him to keep to the faith he was hand taught by the Apostle.  Listen to the wisdom of a life lived in committed service to God as he admonishes Timothy to avoid the entanglements that will prevent him from fulfilling the entirety of his calling.  You can sense the urgency mixed with an awareness that the end was near as Paul states, “The time of my departure is at hand.  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race.  I have kept the faith.”  And as we move to the final words of this mighty man of God who sacrificed all of the comforts of a family, a safe career, and a simple life for the pursuit of an adventure that would travel most of the known world as the greatest evangelist who ever lived, we see the humanity of Paul peeking out from behind the page.

Gaze into his final requests and see that this man who through Christ changed not only the world of his time, but for all time, as he humbly requests a coat he had given to someone else to keep him warm and a few books  to study in his last days.  As he lists those who have either abandoned him, moved on, or actively fought against him my heart aches, and despite already knowing how this story ends I find myself hoping against hope  that Timothy arrives in time with a warm coat and a hug for this faithful warrior, and that Paul escapes his death sentence just one more time.

Paul rises up with conviction even in the midst of his current affliction and says “This is not the end!  There is a crown waiting for me on the other side, and the Lord who gave me the strength to fulfill my destiny here on earth is the same Lord who will carry me not to the end, but through it to a new beginning  in a heavenly place.”

In my minds eye I grab Paul’s hand and encourage him, “Timothy is on his way!  You have survived much worse than this so many times, this prison will not be your final resting place!”  But Paul, clearly knowing this is the last walk down the green mile, has a simple message not just for me, but for all of us.  In 2 Timothy 4 verses 7-8 and 17-18 his  words stretch across time to every heart that is either at the end of their race or perhaps struggling to watch as a loved one begins the final journey home.  Paul rises up with conviction even in the midst of his current affliction and says “This is not the end!  There is a crown waiting for me on the other side, and the Lord who gave me the strength to fulfill my destiny here on earth is the same Lord who will carry me not to the end, but through it to a new beginning  in a heavenly place.”

The final steps for every life will always have a taste of the bittersweet, and in our society that is bent on finding new ways to cheat the aging process and even death itself the message from God’s word still resolutely stands that it is appointed to all mankind to die, to return to the dust we came from.  The mortality rate remains at 100% after all these years, but much like the final steps I was taking towards the final boss in my gaming experience, I take comfort in knowing these real world steps were also orchestrated and structured to lead me to my final “appointment”.  My final breath will not be random, regardless of how it may appear to those I leave behind.  My story was built along with the endgame sequence before I drew my first breath by the Master script author, and the Spoiler Alert here is that the story will continue on an entirely new platform once these credits roll.

I take comfort in knowing these real world steps were also orchestrated and structured to lead me to my final “appointment”.

I still feel the gentle tug of sadness every time I reach the end of a story that I care about, or when the inevitable ending of a journey I have thoroughly enjoyed draws near.  But for those of us who have placed our trust in Jesus Christ we can rejoice in knowing this life was merely the beta version of our future experience with Him in eternity…  a life where all the bugs and glitches have been removed and the full vision of His plan for us is realized in a glorious paradise that He has been preparing for us from the moment He ascended back to Heaven.  The final boss in our game has already been defeated and we are merely finishing our race like the Apostle Paul so bravely demonstrated for us.  So I encourage you to run your race in such a way that you, like Paul, can also say at the end that you have finished the destiny that was laid out for you and you can almost see the crown that awaits you on the other side.

 

 

When the Ending Really Matters: Mass Effect and the Difficulty with Pre-Destination (Romans 8)

Obi Wan Kenobi said it best when he sadly intoned “It was as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced”.  But I am not speaking of a galaxy far, far away… no, this was much closer and much more personal in our gaming worlds.  This was the ending of the Mass Effect trilogy, and as the short cut-scene played out as a whimpering finale to the epic struggle to save the entire known universe gamers around the world let loose a collective cry of outrage, anger, and frustration.  Why you ask?  Well, let’s keep it real for a moment.  How many names of the characters in Call of Duty or Battlefield do you actually remember?  If you are like me, not too many.  But in Mass Effect, this wasn’t just the story of Commander Shepard saving the universe… this was MY Commander Shepard saving MY very unique universe.  I crafted his face, chose the backstory of his life, made the dialogue choices that shaped his character, wrestled over the tough decisions that saved some and doomed others… this was a very personal character who reflected countless hours of investment and to see an ending that was little more than color variations between endings to separate one user’s end experience from another was impossible to fathom.  All of the minutiae that made the series so compelling was lost as the credits rolled and the player was left to wonder what became of my crew, my friends, the very universe I sacrificed everything to save?  How could all of this come down to a simple decision to choose right, middle, or left… control, synthesis, or destruction?

This was MY Commander Shepard saving MY very unique universe.

From the Garden of Eden to the tower of Babel and all the way up to our present day and age, our species has shown a consistent pattern of needing to define ourselves on our own terms, rejecting any attempt by our Creator to guide us to our future destination.  We look for the individualized version of God’s plan for our lives, rejecting His definition of right or wrong in favor of a path that allows us to retain our goal of remaining unique and in charge of our destiny.  In most cases, we have even chosen what we know is an inferior option simply so we can say that it was OUR choice (See worshiping a golden cow in Exodus 32, choosing Saul as king in 1 Samuel 10, releasing Barabbas over Jesus in Matthew 27, or that time you watched X-Men 3 Last Stand over doing literally anything else on the planet).   Why are we so determined to live life on our terms, even if it is to our detriment?  Is it our collective ego, perhaps the knowledge that lessons hard earned are well learned, or is there more at play here?It is difficult for many of us to accept the concept of such limiting or binary choices.  In our current world of gaming open world environments and endless online experiences are not only par for the course but expected, and this pattern carries over into the way we approach our lives. The idea that we are presented with only the illusion of choice challenges us at the core of our humanity.  Few words in the English language conjure up as much conflict and debate as the concept of “pre-destination”, and I believe this is largely due to something within us that refuses to accept a pre-defined course for our lives, a need to feel we are in control, and a desire to believe that our choices truly are our own choices to make.

In many cases we have even chosen an inferior option simply so we can sat that it was OUR choice.


So now we get to pre-destination.  It is not hard for most of us to believe that we are individually designed and uniquely different, but when you start discussing the idea that your path was set and your future determined before you made your first steps is an entirely different beast.  I mean, what about my free will?  Isn’t that why God made man and woman in the first place, because we could choose to love and serve Him in a way that the angel’s service simply didn’t satisfy?  And for the really big questions… if my path is already established then what does that make me?  Am I am mere puppet on strings, singing that I am a real boy in defiance of my reality or is there something more to this?  And how does my deeply held belief that I am unique, special, and carefully designed by God turn into such a simple yet eternal outcome as a future in heaven or hell?
To start at a common place of reference, we must see what the Bible has to say about individuality.  Psalm 139:13 tells us that God knitted or weaved us together in our mother’s womb, and Jeremiah 1:5 gives us the example that he was not only formed in the womb, but that he was known to God BEFORE this even occurred.  It goes on to say that he had his mission in life defined before he was even born.  Let’s ponder that for a minute… you were KNOWN by God before you even existed, and he intimately built you throughout your formative stages.  Have you ever weaved or knitted something or watched someone do so?  It is a very personal act of creation, melding artistry with technique, and it leaves the literal imprint of the maker upon the article being crafted – this is no mere mass production on an assembly line, and God didn’t delegate you to random angel #43 to put your pieces together like a Lego factory… you were DESIGNED by His very hand.  And not just designed as a show piece, but for a PURPOSE that was also determined before he made you.  This isn’t the actions of an over-bearing Creator… this is a loving Father who crafted you specifically for what your optimal path through life would be.  Much like my pain-staking creative process with my Mass Effect doppelganger, you have God’s fingerprints all over each part of you, because He knows where you are going and what you will need when you get there.

Let’s start with Ephesians 1, where the Apostle Paul tells us that we were chosen before the foundation of the world, pre-destined for adoption according to His will, and going on to say we are pre-destined according to His purpose.  He elaborates much deeper in Romans 8, starting with one of the most popular verses in the Bible which states “that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose”.  So we see that before the world began we already were marked for adoption by God, as He already knew what was going to happen in the Garden.  He also had a particular purpose designated for us that would keep us in His will, and by following that destiny every even in our life would work in such a way that it would benefit us in accomplishing His perfect plan for our lives.  Soooo…. what is His plan?  He continues in Romans 8:29-30 with the crux of the message… we were pre-destined to be conformed into the spiritual likeness of Jesus, calling us to a specific mission, and justifying us (a fancy way of saying he qualified us for the purpose).  The key to a purpose-filled life then is to understand that we have a mission to save the world, literally, and God’s pre-ordained path for our life prepares us perfectly for the completion of this mission that we were made for.

God’s fingerprints are all over each part of you, because He knows where you are going and what you will need when you get there.

Accepting the reality that my commander Shepard was destined to come down to a very simple choice regardless of the path I took him down seemed restrictive at first, offensive even.  But the more I reflected on the game I realized that the story was never about my character… it was about the fate of the galaxy.  And I as I looked for meaning and a sense of permanence in the small choices I had made for my character it revealed to me that I have lived my life in much the same way.  We are offended when a barista dares to put the wrong flavor shot in our cappuccino, but we stride past the woman who is at the point of break down and simply needs a friend to pray in line beside us.  We spend an hour trying to find just the right outfit before we leave the house, but completely miss the value of the souls we are driving past on the way to a restaurant.  We pore over the little details of our lives and miss the reality that a world around us is crying out for help, truth, and for someone to shine a light in the darkness.  I was more concerned about the fate of my gaming character and his fictional world than the real souls in my contact list right now that are heading towards an eternity without Jesus.

We all have a destiny and a purpose for our lives, and we have been gifted the exact skills and designed to achieve those.  But this is not our story, and we can never lose sight of that.  This is the story of God… a God who loved this world and all of the people in it so much that he sent his very Son, Jesus Christ, into the world he created so that if anyone of the people He made would believe in Him they would not only escape punishment, but receive eternal life.  It is a simple choice, a binary choice, and one that requires us to accept there is more going on here than just you and me.  You have a place in this story, just as I do.  How we get there is as varied and unique as each of us are, but just as my Commander Shepard faced his destiny with the grim realization that he was chosen simply because he was the only one who could perform what the destiny he was charged with required, you too are here to save YOUR world in a way that only YOU can. Have a “Mass Effect” on your world… I am working on doing the same in mine!