Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Antichrist Has Risen

I hate for any blog I write about Jesus and the Truth to be too clever, so I am hoping that the title of this blog is the most clever part about it.  So now I’ll hopefully just talk as straightforward as possible.

This blog is about Easter.  One of my least favorite holidays recently.  Some people might ask why, if I love Jesus, I could be so adamantly opposed to a holiday that celebrates his resurrection.  So hopefully you’ll allow me to explain, because I do love Jesus, and if he doesn’t exist in the form of a resurrected Son of God, I am definitely someone to be pitied.

First of all, Easter bears all the hallmarks of a pagan celebration, from the rabbit and egg symbology, to the day being held in the spring, and even to the use of pastel colors to represent new growth.  Ancient Christians took pagan rituals and Jesusized them so that other people were forced to remember a deity from a separate religion every time flowers started to bud.  And I feel like this last trick is what bugs me about Easter the most.  More people attend church on Easter and Christmas than any other day of the year, whether they have a love of the truth in their hearts or not.  I feel like this sudden need to practice some kind of religious spectacle is worse for the weight of the truth than if they had avoided church altogether.


Because it feels fake.

It reminds me of the moment Bilbo turns to Frodo and tells him that his long life feels empty.  “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”  It’s like I’m watching an actor trying too hard to actually be his character.  No matter how hard he acts, he will never be the star he wants people to think he is.  

And this brings me to the title of this post.   I remember reading fervently the Left Behind series of books when I was a teenager, completely enthralled in the first book, and totally lost by the fourth.  I remember wondering how this could be the end of the world, and how the main character could possibly believe that by killing the Antichrist (capital “A”,) he could somehow be doing God’s will.  I wondered how the authors missed the central message behind Jesus’ sermons and actions, and even his image as the suffering servant, to turn their laughable “hero” Rayford Steele into a  caricature of fundamentalist America.  And when I got to college, I wondered how my evangelistic upbringing, based primarily around the teachings of Jesus Christ, had produced such egotistical and self-serving individuals like myself.  It was then that God began calling me back, I think, and it’s been a journey to discover His grace ever since.

The more I have buried myself in the life and teachings of Jesus, the more I realized that I may have been fooled for a very long time.  God is not, as I previously imagined, a doting and lovable genie that grants strength and bullets to the fiercest defender of some popular theology.  Men do that.  Men give honor and glory to the man who is the best at what he does.  And there have been some really fierce defenders of fundamentalist, evangelical America.  Notice I did not add Christianity to the end of that sentence.  These people have fooled MILLIONS in America, and I do not write that hyperbolically.  They have convinced so many people, including myself at one point, that they were defending the ancient tenets of the faith, that I wondered, “how could they be so wrong?”  And yet Jesus knew it would happen.  

For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect...Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.”
-Matthew 24

Pretty strong words.

And here is where the greatest irony begins, and where Easter has become something of a lukewarm celebration of my country’s gullibility.  Not that it is surprising, but simply disheartening.  Millions of people have professed to believe the Jesus of America, complete with flag and rifle in hand, and millions of people have come to believe in the antichrist through American politics, slapped with the image of Jesus on them.  Why is it that Christianity is the predominant religion of Republicans, the group most responsible for promoting self interests and the interest of the hard working individual, and the people promoting group interest is predominantly Democrats, a group of people whose religious allegiance is often questionable or even nonexistent?

I believe both groups are pursuing power for the wrong reasons, and they will never achieve the victory they think is so close all the time, but how can it be that the group who associates themselves with Christ is also the group who would be most likely to shoot you for being gay?  That is weird.  I think homosexuality is a sin, the same as adultery or greed, I just don’t believe that by forcing yourself to be heterosexual, you are somehow more holy.  

“For ALL have fallen short of the glory of God.”

Following God is hard.  That is what Jesus told us it would be like.  People are going to hate and despise you.  You have to deal with it.  Slapping a Jesus bumper sticker on a pagan holiday doesn’t make it real.  So I would like to urge people to be real.  I want people to attempt to struggle, at least, with the possibility that Jesus will not protect you from imprisonment or danger, and that serving him will often mean letting go of so many dreams.  It is very possible that the antichrists are here, actively working against the mission Jesus began with his death and resurrection on the cross so many years ago.  Don’t be fooled by them.  Don’t become twice the son of hell they are.  The kingdom of God, until He returns, will be fully resisted while the world continues to follow its own passions and desires, and that means followers of Jesus will suffer.

But that is hard teaching.  Hopefully the treasure is worth it.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

To Be Loved

Something good happened to me recently.  Some people would have seen it as a victory, but to me?  It felt hollow.  I didn’t understand.

But it was like a man who threw a party.  This man was me.  I put together a surprise party for someone I believed was special.  A good friend.  My best friend.  So I prepared the whole thing—got it all ready and invited people over.  I told them to bring gifts because, although it wasn’t my friend’s birthday, he deserved it.  And everyone shows up.  They’re all there and waiting.  They wanted to see this friend too, because he must be a great guy if I prepared a celebration for him like this.  It wasn’t a small gathering.  And these people show up and we wait. 

And we wait all day. 

Some people begin to wonder why I brought them here.  Was it a joke?  I say “no, it’s no joke.  He’s coming.”  But it’s too late, they tell me.  They have families and things to do.  They are polite as they leave, and eventually it is just me, sitting in this house, waiting for my friend to show up.  I keep running to the window when a car drives by, or a person walks past, or when a dog barks, or there’s a bump on the roof, despite knowing he wouldn’t come from that way.  (First, because he’s not Santa Clause, and second, there’s no chimney anyway.)

Three days go by.  I wait, just to make sure.  But every phone call that is not him, every wrong car, every false alarm—even the lack of emails in my inbox—eventually becomes too much.  I can’t sit there anymore.  I have things to do, too, and I have put them off for too long.  So I give up, and I leave.

Then I throw another party, this time for someone I know will be there.  And again, people come and join in.  The guest of the party shows up, and everyone has a good time, except me.  Because this time, the person we were celebrating?

That was me. 

The friend in my story was Jesus, and I have to ask—

Has this ever happened to you? 

Have you every approached a point in life where you wanted to see the power of God, but…didn’t?

I am no fool.  I know God didn’t have to show up to a “party” I threw for Him.  He’s God.  He does what He wants.  But what if you felt like God was the one who told you to throw the party in the first place?  Someone might say, “well if God didn’t show, obviously He didn’t tell you to do it, because He’s God.”  Again, God does what God wants, and God never lies.  But do you believe the Bible, I ask?  Because the Bible was written by people that believed God was speaking to them.  How do you discern the difference?  And if you were seeking God when a message came from who you believed God to be, and He had already made evidence of that by revealing His nature to you, how would you then abandon that belief?  And how long would you wait for Him to show?

You see, God spoke to me, a while ago, during a time in my life that I needed Him to.  It was the first time I had ever heard the Voice of God clearly.  In speaking to me, I finally understood the truth that the Bible had outlined for me my entire life.  God spoke, and there was light.  I cannot relate the joy and freedom that I felt during this time.  I decided I would never pursue the things in the world again.  I would live here, but I wouldn’t be from here.  An alien in a foreign land.

For awhile God continued to speak.  He continued to guide me and, even during many stupid mistakes on my part, be patient with me while he taught me a new reality.  God revealed a different kingdom than the one I had worked for my entire life; a kingdom that was infinite and beautiful.  God’s voice was a comfort I didn’t want to live without.

And then, one day, it just…stopped.

I didn’t understand.  I thought maybe I had some unrepentant sin I wasn’t confessing.  As though God were controlled in this way.  I tried changing the channel on all the old ways I had heard from him.  Adjusting frequencies here and there.  But all I heard were the echoes. 

“Be loved, son.  Learn to be loved.”

But nothing else.  So, I thought, maybe if I throw Him some parties, He’d show up.  He had to.  I gripped anything I thought would bring Him back.  So I threw Jesus a party, and I waited.

How long would you wait?

I waited three years to hear His voice again.  During those three years I tried to throw more than one party, all with the same result.  What was perhaps more confusing was that I saw the evidence that God was working in other people’s lives, even through the truth I shared with them during my walk with the Almighty God when He was speaking to me. 

I began to despair.   Once to a point where I thought I would not come back out a believer.

But finally, God did speak.  Perhaps the final time in a long time.

He was at the party, he said.  I responded that I never saw Him, but He assured me He was there.  Where?  I asked.  Where were you!?  Why would you come to a party disguised?  Or through the back, making me look like an idiot in front of my friends while I waited!?  How is that good!?  I didn’t understand.

“Son, I was at the party, but I was waiting for you.  A different party, in the same house.”

The parable of the prodigal son was suddenly so relevant.  I was the lost sheep that God found and rejoiced over.   I was the son who returned.  I thought I would arrive at my Father’s house and give Him something…anything.  Because I wasn’t worthy.  I wasn’t holding onto excuses, but I wanted to give something back to God, despite owning nothing of value. 

And instead God was waiting to take me inside to His celebration. 

I believe the way this plays out in the lives of Christians is that the Spirit, God’s gift to mankind through the cross of Christ, is available if we learn to be loved.  I never wanted anything except to inspire people to hope in Jesus, and I thought I would do this by creating a circumstance where God had to show up.  When He didn’t, I felt that maybe my radio wasn’t tuned correctly, or that the method I had used previously to communicate with Him was somehow broken.  But I knew that, if this were the case, then all the truths and joys I had learned about God during my walks with Him could also be called into question.  The freedom I found in God could be merely psychological, and the joy a result of manmade, selfish desires.  There was no way to prove otherwise.  But because the life of God was so beautiful when I knew it, and that hope began to look less promising when He didn’t show up to my parties, I began to despair.    

But the hope was always there.  In another room, waiting for me to respond.  God wasn’t speaking anymore because He wanted to reveal his Spirit in me, and He couldn’t do that if I was addicted to his Voice.  Like Peter, so bold when Jesus was alive, but a coward when his Lord died, I began to fear, thinking that maybe the Savior had died.  I didn’t realize that the Spirit was being hindered in my life as I desperately clung to the Voice, as I’ll call it.  Not that the Voice was bad, in fact it was incredibly good, but it was only the beginning.

Peter eventually was sent out to spread the Gospel, the Truth, even after he had denied knowing Jesus at all.  God, in his mercy, met Peter where he was in his fear, and called him home.  He gave Peter the robe and told him that He loved him, knowing that Peter would respond, and follow Jesus fearlessly.

If you are Peter before the return of Jesus, I want you to have that hope.  I cannot give it to you, and you cannot create it yourself, but we can both know that God is there and real, ready to accept you into the family and celebrate your return.

Maybe He’s just in another room, waiting to start the party.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

God's Not Dead, But Compassion Might Be

I saw the movie “God’s Not Dead” recently.  If you haven’t seen the movie yet and you want to, I would leave right now, as I will basically outline the plot in the next few paragraphs.  If you know anything about the plot, and about movies in general, then you should know basically what happens, but still…[SPOILER ALERT].

I want to preface my review of this movie with an apology.  The more I thought about this movie, the more I began to hate it, and I wish this wasn’t the case.  And I wish this because there are a few people who I really love, and would probably sacrifice my blood plasma for (which is huge considering my ludicrously unsubstantiated fear that the blood donation clinics are secretly run by vampires, and that I just generally hate losing any one of my humors,) and I wanted to enjoy this movie for their sake.  So I am sorry, people I love, for your sakes, that I couldn’t simply enjoy this movie.  I hope that you’ll give me a chance to explain myself, for I believe my reasons are not unfounded.

First of all, the contraction bothered me.  The actual quote is “God is dead.”  What?  That isn’t enough for you?  Fine. 

Actually, I think I’ll start out with what I really enjoyed about the film.  The first of which can be summed up in four, wait…five words: “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.”  Yeah that was definitely four words.  I love Kevin Sorbo.  He will forever sit in a special place in my memories as the helpful and lighthearted son of Zeus.  

A helpful visual aid.
It was so strange watching him be the bad guy.  Sorbo, if you’re reading this—awesome!  Please send me an autographed 8x10 so that I might frame it and put it on my wall, and fully creep out my girlfriend.  I felt he did the best he could with a relatively weak script, and he was ultimately the only character in the movie I truly felt any connection with.  He was the most human, even during the moments we were supposed to hate him.  He was also the atheist professor.  I felt this ironic, given the title of the movie.

Other things I enjoyed were the philosophical debates between Josh, who I assumed was the movie’s protagonist, and Kevin Sorbo.  Most of these arguments I also wrestled with as God began to reveal His Son in my life.  I like the truth, and the genesis of the universe has always been an incredible source of evidence for an eternal, all powerful creator.  Had Sorbo’s character been given the chance however, we as the audience could have been treated to dozens of arguments more intriguing than the Anthropic Principle.  But that wasn’t the message of the movie, so I get that the directors didn't include these so as not to confuse their audience.  They were out to convert…*

…Aaaaand here’s where it starts to roll like Jack and Jill down a steep embankment.

First of all, storytellers, tell your story.  The movie bounces between six almost completely unrelated narratives, all of which come together in a very superficial and anti-climactic way; at a Newsboys concert.  And I love The Breakfast Song, ok?  I’m not anti-Newsboys.  I just don’t think a bunch of rock stars singing in front of sparkly lights can encapsulate the relational power behind the true deity of the cosmos.  God speaks on the wind in a whisper. I feel like subtlety is often lost on our culture.  Anyway, Crash was pretty good, so occasionally multiple threads can create a compelling narrative, so maybe I'm wrong here.

But storytellers of Christian propaganda, please, PLEASE don’t make the most relatable and/or intriguing characters your antagonists.  You started off right.  Josh, the protagonist, is set up from the beginning to be a mythical superhero, an underdog set to take on the “hero’s journey,” against the evil and soul-crushing Professor Hercules.  He is given a tool—the podium, from which he can do battle, and a wise counselor—the pastor, which he can turn to for guidance, and finally a noble goal—to defend what he believes is true for the sake of his people.  All of these should be able to turn his story into something the audience can root for.  Go Josh!

But then we learn that Sorbo’s character has actually been greatly traumatized as a boy upon the death of his mother.  His heart is hardened, not out of a selfish desire to exert superficial control on his classroom philosophy noobs (or freshman, as he states derisively,) but because he has experienced great loss and come to the conclusion that a loving God could not possibly allow his servants to die.  Josh shows an amazing amount of hubris (something mentioned by the professor) and insensitivity, when after learning of this uses it against him during a debate.**  (At this point in the movie, the protagonist became to me, the ultimate villain.  The idealist who, with good intentions, has now used the weaknesses of his enemies against them, turning the would be hero into the greater tyrant.)  What has Josh lost?  His blonde girlfriend?  Oh I’m real shaken up.  I was actually a little annoyed that Josh wasn’t a little more honest with her about his intentions anyway.  And also that he somehow missed her incredibly glaring personality flaws after being together for SIX YEARS.  C’mon bro. 

Also bear in mind that Josh’s advice from the pastor was to “Just tell the truth.  Don’t try to be clever.”  Josh apparently forgets immediately the profound implications behind this impressively insightful advice, mind you, and proceeds to be clever.  In every.  Subsequent.  Argument.

So now for the coup d'etat.  The movie builds with all the grace and poise of the Kool Aid Man attempting ballet (seriously, I cringed in parts), and has now brought its audience to the end where, we hope, the professor is either defeated in single combat, like a boss in a videogame (which is sort of how it goes down), or redeemed.  And OH, was I hoping for redemption.  The movie made it clear that the man was struggling with inner demons the entire film, and that his wonderful, educated life with his hot mistress wasn’t as cracked up as he hoped it would be.  He has moments where he’s cartoonishly villainous, but I was willing to forgive those points because it looked like he wanted to change.  It was his time. He could do it.  He didn’t have to be the Smaug to Josh’s cocky Bilbo.  He could be like Darth Vader at the end of Star Wars.

…which is exactly what happens.  He’s on his way to,what we assume is apologize to his girlfriend(?), when it starts to rain.  There’s an “oh great, could this get any worse?” expression from Professor Strong Arms when…BAM!  OH YES IT COULD!  He’s struck by a car.  And it’s fatal.  *sigh

I was seriously devastated at this point.  I had sat through two hours of painful acting and occasionally even painfuller dialogue, only to watch as my one hope became a hood ornament on a hit-and-run.  There’s even a bizarre slow motion scene where we see him doing a back flip over the car.  But not to worry!  The purpose of the story of a pastor and his missionary friend (the only Christian character I actually cared for) is finally revealed, and it’s to…lead him into the afterlife…with his dying breaths?  Hercules hasn’t shown even an iota of interest in the person and work of Jesus, and suddenly, with seconds to spare, he decides a life of hating the very idea of God was a terrible mistake?  This is where the mistake of telling multiple stories begins to hinder the movie’s credibility.  No self respecting atheist I know would deny their beliefs.  They would take it to the grave, unless someone convinced them, through incredible self-sacrifice on their part, that God truly loved them.  I guess God only knows the condition of Kevin’s heart, and maybe he had changed, but we didn’t witness that as an audience, and it was to the detriment of the entire final section of the film. 

To make matters worse, as the man I had hoped would redeem himself to the people he had wronged lay dying on the rain soaked asphalt outside, Willie Robertson of Duck Dynasty fame tells a whole crowd of people at the Newsboys concert to text the words “God’s Not Dead” to all their friends, chain-letter style.  Ha, that’ll show those pesky atheist professors from coming up with genuine arguments against the existence of a benevolent creator!  The power of a text message will show everyone how we care for them and our God, while a man literally dies outside the walls of our shiny stadium.  It was so weird.  I felt like the makers of this film didn’t live on the same planet I did. 

Anyway, rants are over.  I actually had other problems with the film, like why the good guys came out so successful, when the ancient defenders of our faith suffered so much at the hands of truly evil men, but I’d be here for days if I started on that.

I love movies, and I love Jesus, and I know it’s probably cliché at this point to criticize Christian movies, but I also want to believe that there is room for reform.  The message is still good.  God is still good, and He still has cards He’s preparing to play even now.  I hope that one of those cards, in the future, is a movie with Christian influence that more deeply reflects the infinite love and inescapable beauty of the one Creator, and that His people are able to be excited about such a film.  I hope for real characters and empathy for a world dying without the freedom found in Jesus Christ.  It’s possible.  I know it is because I’ve read the Bible.  David didn’t stick Saul in the face with his own spear, even though he could have.  He also wasn’t spotless, despite being known as the man after God’s own heart.  Jonah delivered the message of God, and was sad when God didn’t destroy an entire civilization.

I don’t want to be like that, but I am, and have been.  But I am also redeemed because God reached out to me in my bitterness and fear and saved me.  Can we send that message?

*(or convince for the purpose of conversion)
**(Look for the moment when Josh is practically yelling in the professor’s face “Why do you hate God!?”)

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Father's Day

I like to believe my life is not dictated by a calendar, but as of this Father’s Day, I find myself finally writing a story about my dad, and one which I had planned on penning before this period of the year arrived.

When I was little, as in shorter than my dad (and it isn’t hard to be bigger than him,) I had a little man’s appreciation for the world.  I saw everything as an extension of a Disney movie, where danger and a willful lack of respect for it ultimately led to the prince getting married to a mermaid.  Reality and fantasy were often the same, partially because I had a healthy imagination, and partially because I hadn’t experienced reality for myself.  Not that my dad didn’t do his best to teach me.

Perhaps ironically, it was the lessons rooted in reality that helped me even better appreciate fantasy.  And one of the first lessons was how to build a fire.  And as most of my good friends can attest, I love fire.  I like the smell of wood smoke, possibly due more to nostalgia than the actual scent, I like the snap wood makes as pockets of superheated air and moisture are released, and I love the way a superior burn can make or enhance a mediocre story, and bring a small community together.  But it’s still dangerous.  A lack of respect for this ancient element can raze entire cities.  And it was here I remember some of my father’s sage wisdom; an insight into reality.  “When building a fire, only make it as large as you can control.”

Me controlling the third element of Captain Planet.

Recently, I went for a jaunt into the wilderness, another remnant of my dad’s influence.  From an early age, my father reveled in taking his whiny children into the relative isolation of the forest and leaving us there, only with slightly more supervision than the parents in Hansel and Gretel.  And we grew to love it.  My brother would probably live out of a tent if he discovered it was feasible to raise a family this way.  Roasting ‘mallows around the fire, listening to my dad embellish a story of his childhood, and doing it all under a night sky where the band of the Milky Way was visible, is an experience I wish was available to every kid.  Chiggers be damned.  And again, this can be dangerous if you don’t have respect for where you are.  If you forget your tools, if you neglect your clothing or your equipment, if you even neglect obvious necessities like water and food, your hike could turn south in a very short time.  Dad made sure we were prepared.  And to this day, the lesson stuck.

Danger is always a reality.  Sometimes it is even addictive, and though my brother and I have often pursued fantasy, we always try to go prepared.  Even though I’ve never experienced debilitating hypothermia, it’s possible I haven’t because my dad properly warned against the dangers of neglect.  And this brings me to lesson number two.  “Always be prepared.”

Me enjoying how prepared I was by taking a picture with my iPhone.

My dad was an Eagle Scout.  I was in the Boy Scouts for about a month.  I learned almost nothing from this experience.  In fact, I’ve probably learned more about survival watching Bear Grylls eat a monster sized caterpillar and praising its protein content than I did during my stint with the Boy Scouts.  But with my dad it was a different story.  He was always prepared.  Even if his only prize for being such a forward thinker was having to carry everyone else’s water because he was the only one who brought a backpack, he never left without planning ahead.  Because again, reality has a way of sneaking up on you, and this can be dangerous.

Me beholding the, uh...danger.

Sometimes, tragically, reality is unavoidable.  I’m sure everyone would love to exist on this earth in the prime of their health for as long as possible, but there is probably no greater fantasy.  People get old.  People get sick. 

My dad is sick.  He has a disease that eats away at his muscles, and the doctor sounding term for it is mitochondrial myopathy.  Planning and healthy living could not have mitigated the impact of this genetic abnormality.

I love my dad.  I had the fortunate advantage growing up to have a dad who stayed with my mom his whole life, and did so joyfully and diligently.  But even perhaps more importantly, my dad loved his Dad, and it was because of my earthly father that I learned of my heavenly Father.  There is no greater introduction than this.  I like to believe my Dad in heaven orchestrated this first love. 

When I was young, I pursued fantasy in this world without regard for reality.  My earthly dad taught me this reality, so I could better understand the fantasy.  But when I grew older, I almost lost this fantasy, because as time and experience seemed to repetitively intone, fantasy was an extravagant joke.  It was untouchable.  It was fantasy for a reason.   But my Dad pursued me.

Like my earthly father, by heavenly Father wouldn’t let me get lost so easily.  He taught me the benefits and dangers of fire, and also how to enter into the wilderness prepared.  As I exist here in the world, the line between fantasy and reality occasionally blurs, and the reality beyond this one is revealed.  I have seen this in my dad.  Though he is weak, his strength is revealed to be not of this earth.  My dad is not flawless, and though I cannot say he is the best father in the world, his faith is not his own, but given to him by his Father, and this gives him an infinite type of strength. 

I am sure Jesus loves my dad, and it’s hard to watch sometimes, but I know he will not let us get lost. 

Me, Jesus loves.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Shepard, Master Chief, and How Their New Games MAKE NO SENSE

Mass Effect and Halo: two series of video game franchises that have defined their genres.  When a person talks about video games (and have no idea what they’re talking about), it’s almost always Halo, despite that being one game inside a massive subgenre, and not even the highest selling game at that.  When people who know games talk about games, Mass Effect is often mentioned as one of the most influential role-playing action shooters ever.

But I don’t really care about that.  I care about how awesome it was to be a super soldier fighting against, literally, galactic sized odds.  For the few people who have been living behind a rock for the last 10 years, I’m going to give some background on the two characters of two of my favorite science fiction series.  First, I’ll describe Shepard.

John Shepard (as he is in my game, since my originality machine was broken at the time, and I stuck with the first name offered to me in the beginning) is the main playable character in the Mass Effect series of video games.  Unless you chose the “Soldier” class (and if you did, I think you’re boring,) then your Shepard was one of the most kick-ass biotics in the known galaxy.  My character was a Vanguard, and had the ability to what essentially boiled down to punching people really hard.  Apparently my subtlety machine was broken as well, but I didn’t care, because it felt awesome.  Easily one of greatest moments in the game is when I charged up my biotic fists for the first time and slammed into a computer generated bad guy with the force of fat man through a crowd of unwary office workers when someone brought free donuts.  After I had pummeled enough alien grunts, the SECOND greatest moment is when the game first allowed me the freedom to explore the stars.

You see, I have always had a desire to travel throughout the galaxy, but bonus points if I don’t have to leave the comfort of my home.  Hey, space is dangerous, and it takes FOREVER to get anywhere.  Seriously, who has time for that?  Being in space also takes chutzpah, which is why I’m writing about it instead of actually, you know, flying around in it.  Anyway, almost immediately after the first mission in Mass Effect you are given command of a ship, and then sent on various errands throughout the galaxy to promote justice (or something, since I was normally too busy hitting the “smash” button to notice a lot of the boring…what were we talking about?)

Wait…what was the mission again?  Diplomacy?

Just the idea of looking at a star map and choosing which system to travel to was enough for my nerd brain to implode into a supermassive black hole.  I was boldly going where no one had gone before.  I was a hitchhiking galactic traveler.  Or, wait…maybe something more grand and romantic.  I was a god.  A demigod.  I was the hero in a galactic opera, imposing my will where I saw fit, which was normally as just as I could make it, since you didn’t get points for being neutral.  In Mass Effect, you overcome enslavement and evil with skill and wit, or in my case, my right army and my left army.

No, I don't need tickets.  I brought my own gun show.

(Now granted, there was this whole “love interest” thing, which I admittedly got more emotionally involved in than my dignity likes to admit, but it wasn’t the central theme.) 

Based on the astronomical sales of this sci-fi action RPG, it can be assumed that people like being a god.  We want obstacles to overcome, and we want them to be heavy, important ones that put the weight of the galaxy on our shoulders…and which we can solve during the weekend or after work.  And this is an inherent trait in every person ever born, save one perhaps.  We don’t just want to solve problems, we want our problem solving to mean something.  Doctors don’t go to school for 10 years because they just love looking at naked dead people.  They do it because there is inherent worth in saving someone’s life (well…that and the money, but my argument will break down if I scrutinize too much.)  The risk is worth the reward, and the reward is being a savior.

[Spoiler Alert]

The main antagonist in the first game is a giant ship, referred to as Sovereign.  It broadcasts a signal that “indoctrinates” any organic life form that attempts to control it, essentially brainwashing them.  This is the problem.  Nobody wants their brains scrubbed!  Solving this problem saves billions of sentient lives.  Demigod status has been established for the entire trilogy.  One of the best scenes in the game is when you first learn that the ship, though a machine, is completely self-aware and hell bent on controlling and/or wiping out all other sentient life.  From this moment on, you learn the incredible dangers of acquiring power for the sake of power itself.  For every ounce of power gained from Sovereign, you lose a pound of will.  In the end, even the strongest succumb to the onslaught of Indoctrination (and the reason I’m holding out for Mass Effect to redeem itself.) 

And here is where the science fiction epic begins to break down.  If you’re sharp, you might notice a bit of irony here.  Remember, you’re supposed to be the good guy (even if you filled out the Rebel bar completely,) but you can’t be a good guy without indoctrinating some people yourself.  But I’ll discuss Mass Effect’s fatal hypocrisy later.

I’ll come back to this after I bring up my other favorite sci-fi epic trilogy.  Halo.


Bungie doesn’t bother to disguise their Biblical references.  The Flood, the Covenant, the Ark, and even the Haloes themselves are all pointing to a central theme.  Master chief is a hero of Biblical proportions.  A demigod.  You are a hero, and you lay the smack down on a bunch of sentient zealots hell bent on converting and/or destroying all life in the universe.  You survive countless waves of enemies due to your skill and wit, or your guns (if you know what I mean.)  You’ll notice a theme building.  It’s almost as if this desire is written into the fabric of humanity.  Think back to some of the earliest myths; Gilgamesh, Moses, Hercules, Achilles, Beowulf, and King Arthur, to barely scratch the surface.  We want demigods to be real.  We want them to be a little out of the realm of our reality.  And we want to watch them blow their space loads all over some stupid, alien heads.  Why?

Previously an alien head

Because ka-boom.  That’s why.  The most basic human need of taking evil's lunch money.

So along comes Halo 4 to throw that shit right out the window.  Master Chief is a silent sentinel, capable of demolishing armies with nothing more than a little luck and Cortana’s sarcasm.  But in the new game [more spoilers!], during an intense conversation with a character called the Librarian, we learn this; “Reclaimer, when I indexed mankind for repopulation, I hid seeds from the Didact. Seeds which would lead to an eventuality. Your physical evolution. Your combat skin. Even your ancilla, Cortana. You are the culmination of a thousand lifetimes of planning.”  The culmination of a thousand lifetimes of planning.  What?!  In their desperate bid to make John 117 more human, 343 Studios recreated him to be nothing more than a really expensive, complex robot.  Because that’s all you are.  A really smart robot with the ability to shoot things.  (I realize that, in some ways, this might be their point, but...did they not play the previous 3 Halo games?)

I have a total lack of understanding of how the real world works, because I live in a computer.

So never mind that the Forerunners were supposed to be humans that greeded themselves into extinction.  (I mean seriously, was I the only one who wanted the Reclaimer to mean that humanity was approaching a technological zenith again, and that Guilty Spark was actually there to warn the humans about the abuses of power?  That the irony of the Covenant’s zeal was due to their mistaken assumption that the ancient Haloes did not, in fact, originate from a superior race promoting a “Great Journey,” but were human in construction.  That the Flood was a metaphor for mankind tinkering too deeply into its own DNA, in attempts to become gods themselves?!!!  I refuse to believe I am, but obviously not among the writers of Halo 4.)

What happened to this quote?  “They let me pick, did I ever tell you that?  Choose whichever Spartan I wanted.  You know me. I did my research.  Watched as you became the soldier we needed you to be. Like the others, you were strong and swift and brave.  A natural leader.  But you had something they didn't.  Something no one saw... but me.  Can you guess?  Luck.”

Money.  Money money money.  Money.
(Transcript of Microsoft's executives discussing another Halo sequel) 

What makes a true hero?  Is it strength or speed?  Is it because they are "broken?"  (A reference to the beginning of Halo 4, when the higher ups are trying to figure out if Master Chief succeeded because he had feelings.)  Or could it be the most ambiguous and reputably arbitrary of traits, luck?  Do you know how many times my fists let me down in Mass Effect?  Or my rifle in Halo?  Well a lot, actually.  If the game actually ended the first time I died, I never would have finished the fight.  Within the story’s universe, the only possible way Shepard ever made it through the hordes of husks thrown at him is if he was, in some ways, lucky.  He made the right choices, sure.  But unless you are Dr. Manhattan, your skill with a rifle is not going to save you during the impending zombie uprising.  Luck will.  You will be one of the few immune to the virus.  Someone will warn you ahead of time that the government is “containing the situation,” which we all know is code for “there’s about to be a bunch of hungry zombie soldiers.”  This person might even sacrifice their own life in the process.  It is here that the new Halo and Mass Effect conjoin to create an abomination of fandom duplicity.

Throughout the entire game, Mass Effect promotes diversity of choice, and the appeal is that your choices have an effect on the universe.  But the main antagonists, the Reapers, are the antagonists solely because they are heartless machines that simply want you to become a slave to their will (and at least they want this for the greater good of the galaxy.)  Shepard represents freedom of choice, but if every choice has a consequence, and not all the consequences allow for freedom of choice, but your goal was to ensure they do (imagine if he simply walked into every scenario and said something to the effect of “do what you want.  I believe in your freedom to do it,”) it would make for a really boring game.  In order for him to be the hero, he has to ensure that some people DO NOT have freedom of will, and others do.  This is the central conflict in the genophage (a virus that restricts a warlike civilization’s ability to reproduce.)  So essentially, Shepard is working against his own belief system.  The irony being that he wouldn’t be a hero unless he worked against his own belief system, (“the only thing necessary for evil to triumph, is for good men to do nothing.”)  The Reapers are evil, but we don’t know why.  We are given freedom of choice, but no explanation as to why we should ever cheer for Shepard in the first place.

At the end of the game, you are given a measly three options, all of which are equally depressing.  Some say that this is Shepard fighting indoctrination, which I’m hoping is still true, but seriously…he never would have even made it to that point unless there was something on his side.  Cerberus even thought he was valuable enough for a second game.  But why?  Like Jesus, Shepard dies and comes back stronger than ever, frightening the bejeezus out of his friends, who thought him dead.  How did that happen?  Why does the universe unite to ensure one man’s survival?

"I guess you could say survival is relative."

Master Chief, Shepard, and probably all other video game characters including Mario, are appealing because they have beaten the odds by the end of the story.  But they have beaten the odds because their survival intersected with their fortune.  Not everyone wants to know all the answers.  I know we clamor against stories that don’t tell us everything, but the truth is we want our heroes to have some sort of mystery.  I don’t need to see Master Chief’s humanity to know that I like him.  Leave that to the Sergeant Johnsons and Amanda Keyeses of the universe.  I like him because he’s mysterious.  Because he doesn’t represent all the answers.  I like him because he’s lucky.  Which means I could be lucky. 

People want to believe that they are the lucky ones.  People want to believe that at some point in the future, the world will need them, and the universe will somehow come together with just the right circumstances to give them the edge to destroy a common enemy.  But the truth is sadder, isn’t it?  The truth is that not everyone can be lucky.  For every John Shepard, there are a billion computer technicians just waiting to become cannon fodder to Reaper drones.  For every Will Smith, there are a million Harry Connick, Jr.’s (Independence Day, for people that don’t immediately get my movie references.) 

I think one easily forgotten fact of life is that the odds are stacked against you.  Just ask someone who has been buying lottery tickets their entire life.  It is far more likely that you will be a zombie.  It is far more likely that you will get squashed by an alien spaceship during the initial invasion.  It is far more likely that you will never be a god.  Or even the friend to a god. 

Unless there was a god already, powerful enough to invite everyone who wanted to join him to a battle of truly epic proportions.  The question is: what would that god look like?  Could he ever overcome the laws of thermodynamics and create a situation where there could be many heroes, and one great enemy.  Would he even want us on his team?

You’re damn right, he would.  Give me my assault rifle.  Time to show those sissies whose boss.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Infinite Power

If you were Nicolas Cage and found the treasure at the end of your appropriately titled movie, would tell someone? 

What if you learned, that hiding among this treasure, was a key to human understanding?  I mean, no big deal, but after only one use, you were hooked.  If that were made into a movie, then suddenly Cage’s character is possibly an anti-hero who questions his sanity, and wonders if he can trust the world with this newfound power.  At the end of the Sphere (a book by Michael Crichton or a movie starring Dustin Hoffman), the three main characters sit down and purposely forget about an ancient artifact they found on a futuristic spaceship sunk in the ocean.  Don’t question it, just know that the Sphere allows the three to do whatever their hearts can conjure, and it gets ugly, so they all take hands and forget they ever knew about it.  The end.  We can all sit cozy knowing no one has the power to do whatever they want.

But wait…isn’t that exactly what everyone wants?  Were the actions of these people selfish, or noble?  Because if the three could have learned to control their power, they would have been the greatest beings to have ever lived.  They could have ended war.  Invented a food that was easily grown and easily distributed.  Who knows?  The possibilities are only limited to their imagination.  Which is also the scary part.  How many people do you know, that when given power, are happy to abuse it?  When they know they are powerful, are suddenly fond of proving it?  Isn’t this the heart of man, and the reason there isn’t world peace right now?  It’s not because the few people with noble hearts simply don’t have enough power, but because there is no one noble.  Given the opportunity, we’ll abuse authority.  It’s in our genetics, written right into the fabric of our DNA.  We want power so that we can abuse it. 

So back to the artifact question.  If you found this artifact, would you share it?

Here’s a secret that I’d like to share.  I found such an artifact.  It is ancient and eternal, and allows the user immense and unrivaled power.  So much, in fact, that to be without it is almost like becoming an animal in the presence of humans.  It is that great.  The difference between this artifact and the Sphere, however, is that I can trust the population of the world with it.  I know that I can freely hand it out and never be afraid of the consequences becoming adverse.  And the reason I know I’m okay to share this power is because it’s sentient.  It thinks for itself, and will never favor one human being over another, because it is their creator.

You probably knew that was coming.  This is God, people.  A being of immense and perfect power, willing (and actually hoping) to give that power to the people that ask, because that is His heart.  The problem is that not everyone wants it, because the cost of infinite power is also infinite, and we are finite beings.  The real problem facing humanity is not in our effort, or lack thereof, to improve the world, but our inability to view it differently.  We have a finite view of mortality.  A finite view of corporeality, and therefore, reality itself.  We don’t want infinity because we can’t see into eternity.  We think we want to be all powerful, that our lives would cease to experience triviality and drama, if only we were gods, but that’s not the case.  The truth is, without a vision of a new reality, omnipotence would bring with it an all consuming sadness.  The realization that there is no longer any obstacle to overcome, no enemy that couldn’t be dealt with, would be devastating for the heart, because a trial gives us a finite goal, and your heart needs a goal to continue beating.  In real life survival situations, it’s often not the elements that claim the lives of people, but simple nihilism.  It is the will to survive that falters.  If your mind wasn’t infinite before your power, you wouldn’t care about anything.  Look up the character Dr. Manhattan.  An infinite goal is essential, and that is what God is.  Alpha and Omega.  Beginning and end. 

The scariest reality of them all is not that we might lose what we’ve worked for in this life, but that we might have been working for the wrong things the entire time and never known it. 

So does infinite power bring infinite responsibility?  Absolutely.  And this is another aspect of eternity that causes our mind to reject God.  And also where many people wander away from God who originally thought He was worth it.  People often can’t believe that God would ask them to be infinite.  So they settle for less, which ultimately means an infinite loss, since you can’t count to infinity.  Would you take the key to human understanding if it meant you would know the intentions of all men everywhere, including yourself?  Would you share it knowing they would see the same things you do?

This is God.

His reality is different from ours.  Infinite.  Accepting Him means losing the part of your humanity that makes you finite.  That allows you to be accepted.  It’s hard.

But to do so is worth it.  Can you imagine if you learned to fly, and then had people tell you to stop acting different?  Would you stop flying?  You couldn’t, could you?  In fact, you’d probably begin to wonder if there were other things you had been missing out on, because you were determined to be a slave to the ground.

This is a superficial example of what following God is like.  But to chase Him is freedom on an unimaginable scale. 

“Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found, and hid. In his joy, he goes and sells all that he has, and buys that field.”

Running into Heaven is so great that selling everything else isn’t even an afterthought.  It’s your first reaction.  But it comes with a heavy price, and one that must be paid in order to obtain eternity; anger and resentment from a world jaded by your apparent dissatisfaction.  Sometimes, no matter how much you intend to convince them that this new reality is worth it, and that it is available to them, they will still hate you for leaving, unwilling to believe.

“Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.” 

Jesus knew the consequences of revealing himself to his people.  But he also believed, even to the cross, that it was worth every ounce of the life he possessed to bring them this new reality. 

So…is it worth it?  I want to believe it is.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Will You Follow Me? Part II

Who are you God?  Where are you?

Have you ever felt like asking these questions?  I think I ask them all the time.  Is God about us?  Or is God about Himself?  If He’s about us, is He worth putting our trust in?

How would you ever know if you were supposed to put your trust in God?  How would you know with absolute certainty?  Would you look for evidence in the world?

“Well God seems to be working things out in this area.  He must want it to happen.”

Is that faith?  What is real faith?  What does it look like?  Because I would like to give an exasperated EFF in saying I wish I knew with certainty what the will of the Lord is. 

I mean, should we even desire to know the will of the Lord?  How does that play out?  I think people desire to know the will of the Lord, not necessarily out of their desire to know Him, but so they might mold that vision into something they can get behind. 

“Oh yeah God?  Cool plan and all, but imma do this over here and say I did it for you.  Sound good?  Awesome.”

I’ve never pursued something as passionately as I have God, so what do I have to show for it?  (That was a rhetorical question.)

Could you ever prove that God exists?  I mean empirically, could you ever bring evidence into a court room that would prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that God was real?  “You see your honor?  A cow that makes chocolate milk and a baby with wings that swears God is legit.”

Who is God?  I’m under the impression that if you say in your heart there is no god, you will never believe he exists, no matter how outlandish or incredible the evidence.

But what about people that swear God is real already?  Maybe they don’t need proof, you say.  But ask one why they believe in God, and nine times out of ten you will get an answer that is this in some form or another “God has done [this] for me.”  Why is God real?  Because he gave me a new heart.  Because he gave me what I asked Him for.  Because he did this in my life.

Is that really belief?  People always tell me that faith is believing in what you can’t see.  But couldn’t I “see” your new heart?  Couldn't I see peace?  Couldn't I look into someone’s mind and find the brain waves that represent tranquility as the psychologist defines it?  Is your God experience unique?  How do you know?

What if you simply believe a lie?  What if you are your own thoughts… and nothing else?  Do you rely on what other people say about God?  Do you rely on your own experiences?  What happens when those people leave, when your experiences run out?  Will you still believe?

I think I was at that point when I stayed in this motel called the BUDGET INN (second word at an angle, likely because they ran out of room on the sign.)

There’s this voice in my head telling me to do things, telling me there is a greater reality than the one I am accustomed to.  But this greater reality doesn’t exist in its fullness here on earth, because the planet is broken, and its people are dying, metaphorically and physically.  Every moment they ignore the One who placed them on this rock called Earth, they pass on life.  Man is cursed, it says.  They will run after all these things which will die, and then they will die. 

But God is life, this voice says, and it’s worth giving up everything for.  Even sanity.

If you start listening to voices in your head, aren’t you essentially schizophrenic?  It’s okay, you can nod your head in agreement.  To be honest, I’ve never once spoken with someone who’s said they’ve spoken with God, and not come away thinking they were a little bit off.  “Voices, huh?  You may want to get that checked out.”  If you want to live a normal life, you never admit to hearing voices of any kind.  That shit gets you a quick trip to the hospital, and not the kind with stethoscopes.  The kind with crayons and daytime TV.

So when I say I hear things from God, I do it knowing it could get me in trouble.  I wonder how Paul or Barnabas felt before they met each other after the road to Damascus.  Do you think they questioned whether they actually heard a voice?  Nobody else heard it.  Paul’s group only saw a bright light, and suddenly their friend was blind.  Most of Barnabas’ friends didn’t even believe he actually heard correctly.  “So let me get this straight…God told you that the dude murdering all our friends is actually a good guy?  Just give me a few hours head start before you invite him over for lunch.  I’ve got some stuff to pack.”

So again.  How do you know God is real?  If you say you know God…why?  Could you strip away everything that earth offers for believing in something and still come away with belief?  If you can’t, do you really have any belief to begin with?  What if some tragedy hits and your answer is simply “welp…God has a plan for everything.”  Really?  No offense, but this just sounds like a kind of denial to me.  If you’re going through a trial or a tragedy, this is close to the last thing you want to hear, and I’m going to assume it’s because this is an incomplete answer.

I think a better answer is “God saved me.  I believe because, in His grace, he gave me belief.”  My faith comes from the only one capable of providing true faith.  Any other kind is a false belief, a false gospel.  Any other kind allows for boasting.  You can’t save yourself.  In fact, I think the more we pry away the reasons for this, you realize that you never wanted to save yourself to begin with.

This brings me to a story in the bible that has traditionally given me some trouble.  It’s the parable of the workers in the field, Matthew 20.  In this story an owner of a field hires groups of workers at different times of the day, and at the end, although the men hired last only worked a couple of hours, he pays them all the same amount.  Imagine if you were the guy hired at the beginning.  You woke up at six in the morning to get a job and worked through the afternoon sun, and on into the evening, and when you go to get paid, the guy who showed up two hours prior gets the same paycheck.  Are you going to show up at 7am tomorrow?  Hell no!  I don’t care how you spin this story, it sure sounds like God is encouraging laziness. 

Some people say that the workers’ jealousy is wrong, and I would agree, but why?  Some people say we don’t want God to be fair and again I agree, but we already know how long they all worked.  It doesn’t say that the ones who worked through the afternoon sun were actually playing sand volleyball.  They all worked.  It’s just that some worked less.  And at the end?  Jesus tells us “the last shall be first, and the first shall be last.”

Do you really want to follow a God like this?  Someone who lets you work extremely hard for Him and then gives his stuff out equally anyway?  Does that inspire perseverance?  Or loyalty?  Or joy?

Do you think God is actually talking about work in this passage?  Is this about our salvation?  Or something else?

It’s true that I don’t want God to be completely fair, because I want mercy, but if you know anything about working with kids, you know that if grace is defined as rewarding placid behavior the same as selfish behavior, you’re going to end up with one entitled little punk.  One that will eventually make you redefine grace as “punch in face.”

What if this story is actually about the source of our value?  In the next few verses, we hear about how one mother desires for her two sons to be at the right and left sides of Jesus, and He asks the sons if they will be able to drink from the same cup He will, to which they of course answer “yes.”  To which His answer is “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”  Yeah okay, you will get what you said you could handle, but not what you asked for.  Welcome to my kingdom suckers.  You get the crap without the throne to sit on.

What was Matthew trying to illustrate here?  Because it sounds like, in God’s kingdom, you want to be last.  Welcome to insanity, friends. 

Enter intrinsic value. 

What gives something innate value?  Do I prize my horse more than my daughter, because the horse actually makes me money?  If one was about to get hit by a bus, which one would I save?  Unless I was a sociopath, the answer would always be my daughter.

God, a master of irony, turns insanity into common sense.  My world is flipped as he uses my own logic against me.  I want the worker who worked longer to receive more, but only a truly depraved individual would say that a horse is worth more than their child.

You see, I believe this parable is actually about the worth of the workers, and where they are able to derive their value.  They want to believe that through their work—their ability to act humble, their natural talent, their genius, their perseverance through hardship, or simply their knowledge of some truth—they have saved themselves and can bring this before God as evidence of their devotion.  They want the cup, so that they might sit at the right hand of God in some future kingdom.

I struggled with this reality, and still struggle, as I realize the source of my value.  Ironically, the BUDGET INN was expensive.  Ironically, my worth could not be measured by my weight.

My worth could only be found in the one who called Himself “Savior.”  It is external and immeasurable on Earth, which according to definition means it is also crazy.  Strip away everything I have on earth.  My voice, my patience, my pure heart, my wisdom.  Pull back the layers of self worth I’ve placed on myself, and unless I have the infinite weight of the Messiah weighing on me, I am worthless.  I am only heavy if God chose to make me so. 

You can’t DO anything FOR God, just like you can’t prove God loves you any more than you can bring evidence of His existence into a court.  You can’t prove you love God.  But your inability to provide evidence is freedom.  Freedom from the burden of proof. 

You don’t need to convert X number of people before you die.  You don’t need to preach X number of sermons.  God isn’t an equation waiting to be balanced.  He simply is.  And that’s all you need to be.

God, proof or no, is worth racing after.  I pray that all the earth opens their sail in that direction.