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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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The Repercussions of Pressing Start (Hebrews 11)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

WWE 2K18, Gideon, and the World’s First Wrestling Entrance Theme Music: Learning to Hope (Judges 6-8, Hebrews 11:1)

Of all the guilty pleasures that exist in the world of entertainment, pro wrestling fills a unique niche with a popularity that has continued for decades.  This unique combination of athleticism, ballet, soap opera, and gymnastic violence has ebbed and flowed through mainstream America’s consciousness and this is mostly due to the larger than life personalities that occupy the squared circle.  And in the strength of these characters a video game iteration of WWE 2K is released every year, which is noteworthy considering how difficult it is to pull off an annualized version of any game these days.  Granted, like most sports games the differences from year to year are not tremendous, consisting mostly of roster changes and new story modes.  But I have to give credit where credit is due… this “sport” has demonstrated a staying power that is rare and is worthy of investigation.

Since wrestling matches have pre-determined outcomes (I apologize if that required a spoiler alert for some of you), the draw is less about the physical act of grappling and more about the characters and their presentation before, during, and after a match.  If you have watched    a match (on purpose or accidentally, I’m not judging), then you have seen one of their elaborate ring entrances.  First, the music hits, typically with a wailing guitar riff or an epic orchestral note.  The ring lights pulsate, the background of the gigantic screen at the stage changes to showcase epic moments of previous clashes by the performer, and as the pyrotechnics and fireworks erupt a chiseled figure will emerge from behind the curtain as the crowd either erupts in cheers or boos depending on their current status.  With all of this pomp and circumstance, even the least talented wrestler appears to be several steps above mere mortals thanks to the audio/visual cues presented.

I will confess to having spent some time playing a few wrestling titles over the years, from the original Pro Wrestling on the NES (Starman for the win!) through classics such as WCW/NWO Revenge as well as some serious stinkers like several of the Smackdown Vs. Raw titles prior to the 2K rebranding.  But no matter what the title and its features are, my very first steps have never been to lace up the boots as one of the pro wrestlers du jour who grace the cover of the game.  No, that’s weak sauce, my friend.  Instead, I would spend several hours in the “create a wrestler” mode in which I would craft a character in my own image, only a lot more talented and with muscles in places that I’m not even sure my actual body currently possesses.  And as I labored over each move, mannerism, and nose contour I saved the most important part for last… the entrance. Despite the fact that this had zero impact on my character’s in-ring prowess or physical capabilities, I knew that for my wrestler to be a success they needed to have the perfect walk, ring entry, music and pyro to set the stage for the upcoming destruction that I was certain to rain down on my next opponent.

In retrospect, it seems kind of silly.  The whole rationale for the “ring entrance” is to create a sense of intimidation for the opponent, similar to the tactics of animals in the wild who create loud bellows or roars and demonstrate their dominance through violently pawing the ground or other aggressive actions.  But since my opponent was an unfeeling, emotionless computer AI construct it was unlikely that my athletic displays combined with a driving rock anthem would have any impact on the game console’s approach to the match.  I am quite sure that regardless of my exquisitely choreographed routine, the computer character I was about to face was not impressed.  They probably didn’t even watch.

What you may be surprised by is the fact that elaborate ring entrances are nothing new.  As a matter of fact, the very first recorded ring entrance occurred thousands of years ago and was staged by none other than God Himself.  Surprised that the Lord of Glory has the capacity for showmanship and a flair for the dramatic?  You shouldn’t be… after all, where do you think we get it from?  Our Heavenly Father understands the importance of presentation, and I invite you to join me in Judges 6 as we dig a little deeper into the story of an underdog character who blazed a trail for people like you and me who could use a little help with our “conquerors” vibe.

The book of Judges stands out as one of the most colorful books of the Bible, with a roster of characters who seem like they belong in the world of wrestling.  You have the epic strongman Samson, the wily assassin Ehud, the ageless Caleb, the prophetess Deborah… and sandwiched between all of these titans we find the story of a passive rebel named Gideon who fails to enter the stage with a heroic theme and epic fanfare.  No, we find him in Judges 6:11 secretly processing wheat in a wine-press so he could hide it from the marauding Midianites who were currently raiding the fledging nation of Israel and taking all of their food.  And in a comical scene, an angel sent by God greets this man who was currently hiding from his enemies with the phrase, “The Lord is with you, you mighty man of valor!”  Either this is the case of God showing His sense of humor, or more likely it is another instance of Him calling the things that are not as if they already are.  Gideon was not currently showcasing courage and leadership, but over the next few chapters we will see what the Father saw hidden inside him.

The exchange between the angel and Gideon was refreshingly honest and direct.  Gideon pulled no punches as he brought the angel up to speed on the current Midianite predicament and his personal view that Israel had been forsaken by the Lord.  He had given up on hope and accepted the current reality of his situation as all that would ever exist, choosing to spend his energy on the best solutions he could devise to just keep food on the table one more day.  Ever been there?  I know I can seriously relate.  And when the angel tries to confirm the message, Gideon reminds them that he is the lowest member in the lowest family of a lowly tribe.  Gideon attempted to disqualify himself before phase one of the project even began, but the Lord was having none of it.  For his first mission, Gideon was tasked with tearing down the pagan altar to Baal that had been in use by the backslidden people of Israel.  Gideon did so, but once again in his own way… in verse 27 he tore down the altar, but he did it in the cover of  night for fear of what his family and his community would do if they caught him.  Let’s put some obedience points on his skill tree, but leave the courage points at zero for the moment.

If you have heard of “Gideon’s fleece” before, brace yourself because here it comes.  Before Gideon was prepared to engage with the vast multitudes of the Midianites, he sought the Lord once again to confirm His plan.  Gideon placed a wool fleece on the threshing floor, which is the place he should have been processing the wheat, and asked the Lord two separate times to make it wet and make it dry.  There is a significance to this… Gideon finally went to the location where he should have been in the first place and asked the Lord to show He was with Him.  And when Gideon stood in the place of obedience, the Lord met him there.  Now right now you might be saying, “This is all nice and exciting, and I’m very happy for Gideon.  Where is this wrestling theme music you promised?”  Fair enough,  let’s fast forward to Judges 7:16, where we find that the Lord has whittled the already out-numbered Israeli army down to just 300 men to take on the sprawling multitudes of Midianites.  But this story of “The 300” will finish with a much happier and more victorious ending, and as we catch up with Gideon he is readying the theatrics that will start the attack.

 

He places an empty pitcher with a torch inside of it into each soldier’s hands and equipped them with trumpets.  After splitting his men into three companies, he surrounded the Midianite camp at night and waited for the perfect moment. At the changing of the guard Gideon gave the signal and in a move that would make Stone Cold Steve Austin proud (shattered glass, anyone?) every soldier smashed their jars and the sky lit up with fire all around the camp amid the sound of breaking pottery.  Then the theme music hit as every man blew their trumpets and shouted, “The sword of the Lord and of Gideon!”  Not a great way to wake up if you are an enemy soldier, and a pretty impressive way to stage the battle to conceal your limited numbers and yet appear to have your adversaries surrounded. General Gideon obeyed the Lord, and the Lord put such a fear into the Midianites that they were killing each other in a panicked attempt to flee.  The victory was overwhelming, and the oppression of the Midianites was ended after this mighty battle waged by an underdog challenger, his small group of soldiers, and a mighty God who keeps His promises even when you are making bread in a juicer.

Confession time… I have a lot more in common with the Gideon who continually needed God’s reassurance that He was still with him than I have in common with the victorious leader who stood tall over his enemies at the end of his story.  And I believe I know why… unrewarded hope is one of the saddest and most painful emotions I have personally experienced.  I have prayed prayers that seem to hit an iron curtain in the heavens.  I have laid claim to miracles that never materialized.  I have trusted God to make a bad situation right, only to eat the bitter bread of shattered dreams when my hopeful visions were forced to face my stark and unchanging reality.  Gideon, I feel you, brother.  Pass the fleece, because I’m not sure if I am ready to hope again.

An angel of the Lord appearing to someone in the Bible typically had an overwhelmingly positive response, but Gideon had been defeated and living a shadow life for so long that even this supernatural event failed to impress him.  Accepting his lot in life as a person of no consequence in an existence spent in hiding, he had such a jaded worldview that despite the angels positive greeting and assurance of victory Gideon simply couldn’t bring himself to hope in a better outcome to his situation than the reality he had finally accepted.  Have you been there?  So beaten down by the day-to-day reality of a hopeless situation that even a light at the end of the tunnel fails to excite you because you are certain it’s just another freight train headed your way?  If so, we are on the same wavelength, my friend.

Hebrews 11:1 may be the definitive verse on hope.  It reads, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”.  I’ve heard that verse so many times, memorized it in Sunday School, and got my gold star and a jolly rancher for the effort (watermelon flavored, in case you were wondering).  But putting it into practice can be much more difficult, and to truly understand it I had to break it down for myself and found that in the Greek this powerful verse is actually only nine words long and translates directly as:

“Now is moreover faith of things hoped for assurance of things the conviction not being seen”



I know that doesn’t read well… but if you bear with me we are going to unwrap this once and for all.  The Greek word translated as “faith” here is the word “pistis”, which may have a different interpretation than you may assume.  This is not blind faith or wishful thinking… this word refers to the faith that God places into us as redeemed believers (see Romans 12:3 for an example).  This is not some personally generated faith we manufacture.  This is something Divinely implanted into us, something heaven-born that confirms to us the existence of something not yet visible.

Here is the hard truth… most of my disappointment with God has come from times that I had faith for something to happen that He never actually promised.  Gideon became disillusioned with God and thought his people had been forsaken, when the truth was they had erected an altar and were in a state of idolatry.  They were the forsakers, not the forsaken and they had removed themselves from the protection He offered as a result.  He never promised them He would protect them while they were living in an open state of sinful rebellion.  And He was clear in the ten commandments that no other gods were to be served but Him. Once Gideon pulled down the altar to Baal deliverance could begin.

Much of my broken hopes are not founded in a true promise from the Lord, but in my broken interpretation of the Scriptures to best suit my situation at the time.  It’s easy to claim the provisions of God, but He promised us daily bread, not crab cakes.  He didn’t even provide His own Son with a permanent roof over his head, so as long as I am indoors as I lay my head down I am blessed.  He promised to supply all my needs… but His definition and mine are not always aligned.  The more I reflect on areas where I have experienced damaged faith or lost hope in God, the more I realize that I built expectations on Him that He never actually guaranteed.  His promises sound more like this…” In this world you will experience tribulation… both the house built on sand and the house built on the rock endured heavy storms….”  He promised challenges, battles, and daily warfare with an enemy bent on our destruction.

As we close this up, I take heart in the fact that Gideon was used by God to bring a great deliverance when it was the right time and done the right way.  His ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts… His history is to deliver His children IN the fiery furnace and the lion’s den, rather than FROM them.  And our faith must be based on a true knowledge of what He has ACTUALLY promised us, rather than what we may have selfishly misappropriated to ourselves.  Armed with this new knowledge, it is easy to restore hope to even the most hopeless situation because the problem you are experiencing is not proof that the Lord does not see or care.  To the contrary… as Gideon found out God is simply allowing events to exist in our lives to propel us into a place of truly recognizing Him for who He is as well as who we truly are in Him.  Gideon saw a hopeless situation thanks to a God who had failed His people.  Gideon saw himself as a cowardly insignificant speck within his nation.  The truth was the nation was reaping what they had sown, God was continually there waiting for them to return in obedience, and Gideon truly was the mighty man of valor that the angel proclaimed he was.
Your situation, no matter how challenging it is, is meant to bring you closer to your true calling as well as into a deeper understanding of the true nature of God.  And you may think you have been defeated because the enemy just hit their finishing move and you are on your back looking up at the ring lights… but like all the best wrestling moments His theme music will hit right as you reach your most desperate point.  So don’t tap out yet… He has a history of making grand ring entrances that might seem too late but always turn out to be right on time.

Comic-Con 2017: The Empire Always Strikes Back (1 Peter 5:8, Eph. 6:10-13)

What E3 is to gamers, Comic-con is to the worlds of cinema, television, comics and so much more.  Fans of virtually any form of media worldwide have descended on San Diego in hopes to meet their favorite actor (for a healthy fee), purchase unique collectibles that you will never find anywhere else (unless you want to take out a second mortgage and find them on eBay later), and be the first to observe new unreleased footage on their favorite franchises (as long as you pinky swear not to record any of it).  And few franchises have built more interest at this point than Star Wars and the highly anticipated second release of the newest trilogy in this storied franchise, The Last Jedi.  Details on the plot have been incredibly scarce, and as we eagerly await this critical second entry in one of the highest-grossing movie series in the world I can’t help but wax nostalgic on the ORIGINAL second entry in the universe that is Star Wars… the classic, the unmatched, the perfect middle chapter that is The Empire Strikes Back.

 

A long time ago in a cinema far, far away, well before there was the silliness of Gungans, midichlorians, and petulant wanna-be teenage Jedi (looking at YOU Anakin), there was the original Star Wars trilogy.  And if taken out of the context of the greater Star Wars universe and simply measured on their individual cinematic achievements, one would be hard-pressed to argue against the excellence of the space opera that is episode IV or the masterpiece that is episode V, the Empire Strikes Back.  Episode IV, A New Hope, really checks all the boxes of what a great stand-alone sci-fi epic should include.  It has a fully completed story arc, complete with a hero’s journey for each of the film’s lead characters as Leia completes her mission to use the stolen plans to destroy the Death Star, Han gains a modicum of redemption by choosing to stay and fight, and Luke fulfills his destiny by completing his trench run and firing the kill shot.  As the curtain falls we get a satisfying shot of all of our heroes receiving medals as they toast their victory, and with the Star Wars fanfare theme blasting through the speakers it would be easy to see this as a nice, neat ending all tied up with a bow.

I mean, we just saw all but one of their enemies vanquished, the space station has been obliterated, and the Rebels won, right?  Party at the Organa’s house!  And if the story ended there, we would be basking in the glow from C3-PO’s newly shined gold armor while Leia teaches Chewie how to dance.  But that final frame of a furious Darth Vader spinning in an out of control TIE fighter was a cruel reminder that the danger was not past, and it returns with a vengeance in the next chapter.  After their glorious and hard-fought victory, we find our Rebel friends still in hiding and the true scope of their adversaries fully coming into view as the opening crawl unveils the opening scene of Empire.

The disappointment of the Death Star destruction was little more than a setback for the Empire, and for the first time we get a full view of what the Rebels are truly up against.  As the monstrous AT-AT walkers thundered across the movie screen in the Empire Strikes Back, I remember feeling a sense of hopelessness as a child as the reality of the enemy forces finally began to set in.  There was SO many more of them than I had thought.  They had more in their arsenal than just a floating space station of doom.  And they were not going to be denied… not today anyway.

From the debut of the infamous “Imperial March” theme to our first views of the Emperor and everyone’s favorite bounty hunter Boba Fett, the Empire Strikes Back is almost 100% dominated by the villains.  They overrun the rebel base, capture and freeze Han, chop off Luke’s dueling hand… I mean for goodness sake C3-PO was literally chopped into pieces and spent the rest of the movie dragged around in a bag.  As the credits rolled on this one I felt the complete opposite feeling I had from the end of a New Hope.  Everything seemed to be coming up Dark Side, and our battered and damaged heroes were a far cry from the fresh-faced victors shining their medals as Chewie roared his approval just a short time before.

It’s a feeling that is all too familiar for me, I’m afraid.  Maybe you have been there too.  Every time it seems like I am progressing in an area that I typically struggle in, I find another Death Star is being built right around the corner.  I taste victory in an area of personal need only to find that the entire enemy armada is about to unleash hell on my previously secure position and send me running for the hills.  My episode IV snaps into episode V without even the benefit of the medal ceremony, and I am left wondering “What Just Happened?” Why did the epic victory from yesterday turn so quickly into “abandon ship” today?  Am I doomed to forever endure the futile dance of one Death Star forward and two Death Stars back?

Do you feel the same way sometimes?  You get the alternator replaced on your car and then the starter goes out.  You feel like you have made significant headway on repairing a broken relationship only to see all your progress whither under a new firestorm.  Or maybe you are like me and you believe you have a certain arena of battle in your life licked only to see it return with a vengeance to your horror and disappointment.  1 Peter 5:8 spells out our struggle in no uncertain terms, stating “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.”  The evil empire is on a constant prowl, requiring neither sustenance nor sleep.  While we rest, recuperate, and prepare to walk in victory our adversaries are actively building the next Death Star and formulating ever more elaborate plans to trip us up.  They have had millennia to perfect their approach, and much like the Rebel Alliance we are hopelessly outnumbered, outgunned, and capable of hit-and-run guerilla warfare at best if left to our own devices.

Ephesians 6:12 may provide the clearest picture of our predicament, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”  This word “wrestle” in the Greek means exactly what it implies… a constant exhausting battle between two competitors with the goal of wearing down the opponent into a state of submission.  While Christ has indeed purchased our victory with finality over the devil and his minions, we still have a daily war to fight with enemy forces described as the “rulers of the darkness of this age”.

These “rulers” are here to do more than make a shopping cart scratch the paint on your car door… these are not just impish tricksters with plans to merely annoy you.  These are beings of immense intelligence and power with an infrastructure designed to tear every believer apart methodically and with finality.   They are playing for keeps, and while we should never fear our enemy we would do well to understand that there is a reason this is called spiritual WARFARE.  They may have already lost the war, but that has only served to make them more determined to make us earn our victories each and every day.  Like the infamous quote from Obi-Wan Kenobi in reference to the sand people in Episode Four, after each defeat we can be rest assured that “they will be back, and in greater  numbers”.  This is a Biblical principle,  as Christ gave as an example in Luke 11:24-26 when a defeated evil spirit returned to its old stomping grounds with SEVEN spirits even more wicked than itself in order to regain victory over the previously delivered man in question.

So what do we do?  If each step we take simply puts a larger bullseye from hell on our back, it is tempting to back off to at least reduce the escalation of hostilities.  And that is exactly what the enemy wants, to make us so fearful of the consequences of obeying God that we choose to simply carve out a meek peaceful existence in Dagobah as Yoda did.  Far from the conflict, hidden from the danger but also from those who need our help, simply existing in a swamp of our own choosing.  The truth is Christianity is not merely a belief system, it is a call to arms.  The only response to the steady onslaught of the forces of hell is to pick up the weapons of our warfare that Paul described in the rest of Ephesians 6 and join the battle, understanding that we will be engaged in this conflict until the day the Lord calls us home.  We cannot allow ourselves to be bullied by the relentless forces of evil or be intimidated by the knowledge that the evil Empire will only raise their game each and every time we take one of their strongholds.  And while our enemy is strong and numerous, the truth is that only one-third of the angelic host defected and joined satan in his rebellion.  Two-thirds remain on our side, and I call that a pretty definitive majority.

I wish I could tell you that becoming a believer is a non-stop dance from victory to victory in which you only touch the ground long enough to take a fresh leap into the stratosphere.  The truth is that the followers of Jesus such as Paul and Peter were consistently harassed, falsely accused, arrested, beaten, attacked, plotted against, and according to most historians eventually murdered for their persistence in the faith.  Most of the New Testament was written from prison cells.  We should not have an expectation that our path will be easier or more comfortable, and each time we enjoy a victory we can be rest assured the enemy will not be taking it lying down.  When the seven sons of Sceva attempted an exorcism in Acts 19 the evil spirit answered them saying, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know, but who are you?”  Paul was so well-known by the hounds of hell that his name was on their most wanted list.  But rather than allow that knowledge to intimidate us, like John in 1 John 4:4 we can say with confidence that greater is He that is in us than he that is in the world.

 

We do not have to live life reeling from the continual pummeling worried about where the next hit will come from.  That’s what our enemy wants, for us to live paralyzed by fear.  We can and MUST choose to fight back, and take down a Death Star each time the enemy raises its ugly head by refusing to back off or even take one step back.  We have been called to take down the strongholds of the enemy, and in Revelation 12:11 Scripture states that we overcame him (meaning the devil) by the blood of the Lamb and the word of our testimony.  Or in simpler terms, claim daily the victory that Christ’s sacrifice has provided us and refuse to remain silent.  Your testimony IS your weapon.  If you were saved from an addiction, wield that weapon of deliverance against your enemy and use it to bring others to Christ.  If you have struggled with a particular darkness, thrust it into the light and allow your struggle to bring strength to others.

 

The devil wants us to suffer in silence, ashamed by our battles and afraid to admit our pain.  But when we choose to wave our deliverance like a victory flag and proudly proclaim that even in our imperfect state we are all children of the King dedicated following Christ we refuse to wear the cloak of shame that the enemy wants us to hide under and bring our light out into the open.  The world does not need to see perfect Christians (because there are none), but honest ones.  And when they see that we are open about our struggles and our failures they will want to know how we cope.  All of the drugs, the booze, the sex, the entertainment, the money, the power, the success… none of these are working for any of them.  They are looking for something more, and that is the one thing we have.  And when they see that REAL thing, the only thing that is capable of taking down a Death Star, they will BELIEVE.  So what if you were a dirty smuggler before you joined the alliance, or if maybe Vader is your father.  You can still be a hero for our side, and encourage others to join the fight and choose Christ.  Bulls-eyeing womp rats was only your training for your Death Star trench run my friend…

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

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

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

How to Know if Your Metal Gear is Solid: The Choice We All Make (2 Samuel 6)

I can remember the scene vividly… I was standing in front of the glass display cabinets at Target staring at my video game choices and trying to make a decision that may very well have changed the course of my life.  On one hand, there was this game with an interesting sounding name and a slick-looking cover that many of my friends told me would be all the awesomeness I could handle.  It’s name?  Syphon Filter.  It’s entirely possible you have never heard of it since this was way back in the PlayStation One days, but at the time it was a bit of a big deal.  And in the next showcase over sat a game that I knew nothing about, with a nondescript simple white cover bearing red letters that simply read, “Metal Gear Solid”.  As I was torn between the two choices I decided to try the interactive demo conveniently located in the store to make my final choice.  As fate would have it, Metal Gear Solid was available in the unit for a trial and I launched into it with reckless abandon.

It was not love at first sight.  The unique nature of the controls of this Japanese developed game meant that the button I would typically use to confirm something (X) was reversed with a different button (O).  This was critically reflected in my gameplay as I would see an enemy guard and attempt to attack him, but when I pressed the button that in most games would be used for an attack my character would lay down in front of the guard and crawl on his belly instead.  Believe it or not, this was not as fatal to the guard as I had hoped it would be.  As I valiantly attempted to crouch and crawl my adversary to death,  I died embarrassingly multiple times as those who were walking by stopped their shopping to watch my pitiful efforts.  It was not the best of times.  I can imagine the patrolling guards in the game talking to each other during their next coffee break… “Man, this guy had the drop on me and could have totally choked me out, but then he just started crawling around on the ground in front of me. It got pretty weird and uncomfortable.  Then he put a cardboard box over himself and tried to climb into the back of a truck.  What could I do?  I put him out of his misery… what a poor misguided soul.”

Believe it or not, my initial failures did not deter me from making the correct purchase that day.  I kept playing that demo until I finally taught myself the controller inputs and was able to sneak, crawl, and knock guards unconscious with ease.  And once I had finally turned the corner and achieved a modicum of success I realized that this was the game for me.  Sure, Syphon Filter looked like a pile of big dumb fun that I would be able to excel in and have a good time with, but the challenge of Metal Gear drew me in and all these years later it has still never let go.  Nestled comfortably next to Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Super Tecmo Bowl in my personal top games of all time list, the original MGS complete with all of its over-the-top characters and one of the most compelling protagonists in all of gaming is still etched into my memory as one of my seminal gaming experiences.

The choice between these two titles was not necessarily an earth-shaking decision, but it is certainly reflective of choices we make each and every day.  My temptation was to lean into a genre I was familiar with and fully capable of achieving success on without too much difficulty, or to choose the path that was more challenging and demanding.  This second choice involved a good bit more embarrassment and struggle,  but also carried with it a much richer reward at the end.  And as the subject of our study will find out, it is the less traveled path of obedience to God that may seem less flashy and more constricting that is the only path we should consider.  The consequences of mission failure on this one turned out to be much higher.

In 2 Samuel 6 we find King David in pretty high spirits.  He has just claimed the unified throne of Israel after a tough period of civil war, and immediately after that he scores a military victory and conquers the city of Jerusalem, making it his new capital by defeating the Jebusites who occupied it.  Not enough?  After these two major wins in his column, he faces down his old adversaries, the Philistine army, who immediately amassed their forces to test the new king only to taste a massive defeat as David and his forces routed them twice and sent them back home in shame.  What an epic trifecta…  after years of struggling, running, hiding, and barely surviving David finally reaps the rewards from his season of suffering by gaining his promised crown, taking the city that would house his throne and carry his name, and defeating his life-long enemies.  Life was finally looking good for King David, and in celebration of all the promises of God that had finally come true David decided this was the perfect time to return the ark of God to prominence by bringing it home to Jerusalem.

The ark had been nestled away in the home of a man named Abinadab, where it had been stored after its capture and subsequent relinquishment by the Philistines many years prior.  The ark of God (also referred to as the ark of the covenant) had its origins back in Moses’s day, in which it occupied a consecrated place as the centerpiece of the tabernacle of God where the nation would come to serve and worship the Lord.  The ark was placed in the most sacred area of the tabernacle named the “holy of holies”, and it was so special that only the high priest himself was permitted to enter the area where the ark was contained.  And through a crazy series of events this physical token of God’s covenant with the nation of Israel was about to leave it’s private resting place and become reacquainted with the well-meaning but ill-advised people on the other side of that covenant.  It would be an entrance that nobody would ever forget.

David setup an epic celebration to provide this momentous occasion with the pomp and circumstance it deserved.  Over thirty thousand people all turned out to attend this invitation-only soirée, and live music was provided by none other than the shepherd king himself.  The music was happening, everyone was singing and shouting, and the parade was rolling.  There was only one small problem.  See, God had some pretty particular rules regarding the care and transport of the ark.  He designed it specifically with large rings in all four corners so it could be carried via two long poles by four men, each holding one end of one pole that was threaded through the rings.  And these could not simply be any random person… only the Levites, the tribe of the priesthood were permitted to interact with this sacred object which contained the original tablets of the Ten Commandments, a jar of manna, and the rod of Aaron the first high priest.

David did not appear to have performed the requisite background reading that would have informed him of the rules and requirements of the transportation of the ark, or at least he did not bother himself with following them.  Whether he deliberately disobeyed God’s command or simply permitted his excitement and enthusiasm to over-shadow the protocols, the result remains the same.  By choosing to have two men lead the ark on a cart rather than have the Levites carry it on poles per the requirement, he created a situation in which a disaster could strike, and boy, did it strike.  As the oxen were pulling the cart one of them stumbled and caused the ark to tip.  One of the men guiding the cart reached out to steady the ark and prevent it from falling, but upon placing his hand on the sacred ark of the covenant the man fell down dead.  Now that will end your party real quick.  The parade came to an immediate halt and the ark was remanded to the nearest local residence while David processed what just went down.

So now to the questions that deal with us.  We all have areas of our life that the Lord has called us to obedience in… our “ark” or “cross” to carry.  But how we carry it is just as important as choosing to carry it.  David chose the easy path, making the oxen do the heavy lifting to pull an ark that was meant to be shouldered by the people of God.  He neglected to provide the proper environment for the successful transfer of the ark and opted to do it his way, dong the right job but using the wrong people and the wrong tools to do it the wrong way.  His intentions were good, and his passion for God was undeniable. But he did not read God’s Word and realize that loving God is not something that can be done with ignorance of God’s will.

Like the rich young ruler in Mark 10 who came to Jesus with an honest desire to achieve eternal life, we are all presented with a choice.  And like my gaming choice at the beginning of this study, one path will typically require an extended period of struggle, sacrifice, and change.  The easier path is low risk but also low reward, and in the case of the rich young ruler he opted for the “Syphon Filter path” because the answer he received from Christ was more than he was willing to pay.  In his case, his “ark” to carry was to sell all that he had, give it to the poor, and come follow Jesus.  He was offered eternal life in exchange for the temporary life he currently possessed.  Sadly, he balked at the cost.

Interestingly, he was the only documented person that Jesus made this specific command to.  We each have different arks to carry and unique crosses to bear.  That’s why we can’t compare our Christian walk or the sacrifices we must make to anyone else’s path.  When the demoniac man in Mark 5 asked specifically to leave everything behind and follow Christ,  Jesus informed him that was not his ark.  He was instructed to go back home and minister to those from his hometown about his deliverance.  Your ark is different from mine, but we both have one.  And there is only one way to carry it… by following God’s individual plan for each of us as well as obeying the written Word of God as His instructions for our lives.

King David setup one more ark delivery attempt, and this time he followed the instructions of the Lord to the letter.  And because of his obedience the ark was safely brought to Jerusalem without any fatalities this time, which is really the optimal mortality rate if you are operating an ark delivery service. As Scripture says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but the end thereof is death”.  There are serious and potentially fatal consequences for disobedience, even when we are attempting to do the will of God.  As we wrap up, I would like to leave you with the positive image of David dancing along the road to Jerusalem as the ark is CARRIED, not pulled, to its resting place in the City of David.  His heart was right with God and his method of service aligned with God’s will as defined in the Word of God… both of these are equally important in serving the Lord.  The easiest path is rarely the correct one, and obedience may be less convenient but it is walking this path that leads to the both rewards in the present as well as in eternity.

Changing the Past?  The Revisionist History of Prey (2 Kings 20, Isaiah 38-39)

One of the most interesting concepts within the recently released Prey (not to be confused with the original Prey on the Xbox 360) is the decision to base their story in an alternate timeline in which John F. Kennedy was never assassinated.  In the game’s fiction this led to incredible advancements within space exploration that places us light years ahead of where we currently set.  It’s certainly an interesting hook, and it provokes some real world consideration as to what the actual differences would be on this planet if JFK had lived and continued to impact the planet as the leader of the free world.  And while the game only used this concept as the backdrop for their story of space exploration gone wrong, I believe we should dive a little deeper and consider the real world implications of changing a moment in time.

Many times in business meetings the facilitator will engage the attendees in an “ice-breaker” activity with the intentions of causing the participants to reveal personal aspects of their lives and create a more open and dynamic meeting atmosphere.  In many of the meetings I have attended one of the questions asked during this is “If you were a super-hero, what would your super-power be?”  Some people would choose generic super-powers like the ability to fly or possessing super-strength, and others may take a more practical approach such as reading minds or telekinesis.  But for me, there has only ever been one correct answer… the ability to control time.  To me, that is the holy grail.  Want to stop a problem before it starts?  Hit pause and fix it.  Want to see if you are making the right choice?  Move a few hours into the future and see what happens.  Make a critical mistake?  Hit rewind and course-correct as needed.

To me, all other super-powers would be irrelevant to this.  Who needs super speed when you can simply stop time and travel at whatever pace you want?  Why would you need super-strength to solve a problem when you can simply go back in time and stop it from ever occurring in the first place?  Reading minds would be less powerful than being able to move into the future and see both the thoughts and the consequences of your rivals.  But my chosen super-power would not be the cure-all I wish it was, and there are some very important reasons why time travel is not the answer to our problems.  For years television and movies have explored the implications of traversing time, giving is everything from the time paradox issues in Back to the Future to the fatal problems generated by Flash when he created Flashpoint.  Intentionally or accidentally, meddling with the timeline has never ended well for those doing the tinkering, and the inevitable solution always comes at a heavy cost.

Have you ever wanted to go back in time and change just one moment?  I’m not talking about small things like stopping dinner before it burns or realizing your pants have an embarrassing stain in the posterior region a little too late… I mean a moment that changed your life forever.  Maybe it was a bad decision you made that ruined lives that you can never take back.  Perhaps it was a sentence you uttered that had larger consequences than you realized.  It could be the job interview that would have changed everything that you declined or an accident that altered you physically in a permanent way.  And I’m not simply talking about regretting personal mistakes either.  I think we all wish we could go back in time and invest a little money into good ol’ Apple before they hit it big, or do something even more impactful like stop national tragedies before they happened.

Before we answer the questions posed by such thoughts, did you know that the Bible has a chapter on time travel?  We have explored 2 Kings 20 previously but this time we are going to take a look at it from a different point of view.  Thousands of years before comic superheroes learned of the dangers of creating alternate timelines King Hezekiah would learn the hard way the time travel is not the answer to your problems.  As we enter the chapter we find the king on his literal deathbed as the prophet Isaiah informs him that the Lord has determined that this will be his method of passing on.  But rather than heed the Lord’s command to get his affairs in order and prepare for graduation, Hezekiah pleads for healing and an extension of his life.  The Lord grants his request, but Hezekiah wanted proof and was given the choice of time moving forwards or backwards as evidence that he would be healed.  Raise your hand if you think he voted backwards.  Of course he did.  The Lord literally turned back the clock, Hezekiah’s fatal illness departed, and the timeline resumed without any consequences.  Well, not exactly….

As we find over the next several verses, Hezekiah turns his time travel and new lease on life in a very poor direction.  The eventual conquerors of the southern tribes, the nation of Babylon, sent an envoy of ambassadors to check on the king after his illness.  The king used this as an opportunity to show off the treasures of the kingdom, and upon the ambassadors return to Babylon the prophet Isaiah informed Hezekiah that this seemingly small and innocent act would be what eventually brought the destruction of the country and the downfall of Israel for thousands of years.  All because Hezekiah thought his situation should have played out differently and literally turned back the clock to reset the game.

There are so many moments in my life I wish I could go back and change.  Maybe avoid a temptation that would eventually ensnare me, definitely close my mouth before I said something I could never take back, or stop a problem before it even started by making a different decision.  But this example shows me that while the path I have walked has not always been optimal and I am responsible for much of my suffering through my own poor choices, the reality is I would make an even BIGGER mess of things if I got another chance to live through these circumstances.  I may not make the same mistakes… Instead I would make entirely new ones that could be even more devastating than the current outcomes my original choices generated.

Fortunately for us, going back in time isn’t in the cards for any of us.  Our choices may not have been the best at the time, but reversing those would remove the learning experiences that they created as well as change the future for not only us, but generations to come in ways we could not possibly imagine.  As the Babylonian army descended for its final fatal attack on Jerusalem, all of those people who either died or were led away captive were a direct result of the choice Hezekiah made many generations prior during a time period he should have no longer been present for.  And none of them were aware that their fate was sealed by a long dead king who simply reversed time a little bit and bit off a few more years of life than God had originally given him.

As we wrap up, I hope this encourages you to stop beating yourself up for the present you have inherited either through other’s poor choices or your own.  The rear view mirror should be broken off of our life’s windshield because we can’t affect it anyway, and we would only make things worse if we could. Time machines are not the answer to anyone’s problem and changing the past runs the risk of removing the only good things that have come out of your predicament if you alter them.  There is a reason only the Lord exists outside of time and rules the past, present, and future.  He is the only being wise enough to see how each domino affects others thousands of years down the line.  The butterfly effect of our choices are much larger than our circumstance may divulge at the time.  A few hours back in time and a few extra years of life brought about the destruction of an entire nation.

So rather than continue to wish we could take a few things back or alter our decisions in the past, let’s spend our time using even our shortcomings and mistakes to the glory of God.  The apostle Paul was never shy about his past as a Christian bounty hunter… while he was certainly ashamed of his past sins he chose to use it to encourage others that no matter how sordid their past was it could not compare to his, and yet the Lord chose him to be the greatest evangelist in the history of the world.  I have made horrible, embarrassing, disqualifying mistakes in my life that have led to multiple sinful choices.  Perhaps you feel the same way.  But instead of allowing those defeats to exist in my past, present, and future I have a choice to accept God’s mercy and forgiveness and then extend the same to others who have fallen into similar sins.  Don’t let your past exist in your present except to remind you of how epicly awesome God’s love is and how important it is to share that good news with someone else.  See you in the future!