Friday, January 24, 2014

Live Your Life Like a Video Game



Talking about video games with my Mom really made me consider how we misuse the past.

You know that game Robot Unicorn that was popular a year or two ago? Or that game Extreme Pamplona? They're flash games in the style of 2d platformers, where you run forward trying to escape or chase things. If you miss an obstacle or a jump in Robot Unicorn you die in a splash of unicorn blood. In Extreme Pamplona they're not quite that harsh, but you know what both games have in common? You never retrace your steps. If you missed it, you missed it. If you made it, you don't spend a whole bunch of time saying, “man, that sucked that they had an obstacle there.”

Actually when you play any fast-paced video game you don't spend your time on the past. That guy trying to snipe you from over the hill? You don't sit there whining that he shot at you—you go take him out! If you take the time to stand there and feel sad and text your bff about it you're giving away a free headshot, and who does that? And if you lose a majorly important unit early on in your Starcraft match, you're either going to switch your strategy elsewhere or GG and hop into the next match. You're not going to sit there and just watch for the next ten minutes while the Zerg swarm devours you.

In video games, you live in the present and face the task at hand. Period.

Maybe I need to live life more like I play video games. It's not “no regrets”--Mamma Mia, Mario and I totally regret losing that fire-flower. But we can't stop to worry about it. That girl who rejected you? That job offer you missed out on? That really dumb thing you said to your boss on the way out of the bathroom on Friday? Sorry. It'll affect the game.

But it shouldn't affect the player.

“But real life isn't a video game, Jen.”

It is in the way that matters. You know what? The designers didn't make an impossible game. Their game might challenge you, frustrate you, and even hurt your feelings or frighten you, but in the end they made a game to excite, entertain, and—if it's an indie designer—maybe even inspire you. They get value out of giving you value, and you know that when you approach the game. You trust that. One might even say that if you finish a challenging game, it's your inherent faith in the designer that drives you on—you know the game's beatable, even if it's a new game and none of your friends have beaten it. In fact, you have so much faith that you don't even think twice about it! You just play! So, while you may occasionally curse the designer for that particularly unsolvable RPG dungeon, you're not going to take your hands away from the keyboard to sit there moaning in front of the computer screen about giant ant that just killed Ness for the billionth time. Nah, you know what you do then?

You go to google and you pull out a walk-through and you cheat.

In real life, God designed the levels. And they are really, really hard, because he knows you're worth your salt as a gamer. (Dude, he even calls you salt in the book of Matthew.) But they're beatable. They've been beaten before.

There is nothing new under the sun,” says Ecclesiastes: When you're at your wit's end, you've got walkthroughs. I'm not just talking about the Bible—it absolutely is a fantastic strategy guide—I'm talking about Jesus walking through the game with you just like that insane college kid with the squeaky voice you watch on youtube. The Bible promises that every single temptation or trial you've gone through he actually gets. “Tempted in every way as we are...” it says. “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man,” it says. “Do not be surprised when all kinds of trials face you,” it says, “for in this way they persecuted the prophets before you.” The book of Hebrews spends a whole bunch of chapters explaining how Jesus gathered his XP so he can help you get yours. And unlike that squeaky youtuber you follow, Jesus knows who you are, and he cares whether or not you win.

So maybe today, try living life like it's a video game. Don't stop. Don't obsess. Don't do that unforgiving bitterness thing.

Just play.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Poseidon...and My Prometheus

Mighty Poseidon, rising above the waves, trident flashing in the lightning and muscles rippling in silhouette against the red sky--the Greeks told of three brothers, Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon who divvied up creation, and this Water-God almost has a moral "middle" position, since Hades/death is traditionally bad and Zeus is good. Of course, you should know that Zeus is not good--he's a human-hating rapist jerkwad--but that's besides the point. The point, right now, is the story of the water-bending master, saved at birth by his mother from becoming the devouring delight of Cronus.

Cronus wanted to eat Poseidon, but Rhea, his mother, swapped him out for a colt and hid him among a flock of sheep. Cronus ate the colt, thinking she'd given birth to it, and Poseidon survived to become the Earth-shaker and Tsunami-maker of the Greek pantheon. As an adult, Poseidon spent most of his life punishing mortals who'd either cheated him (like the king of Troy, who got a multi-headed sea monster in return for refusing to pay Poseidon for the walls the god built) or simply ignored him (like the Athenians, who chose Athena as their patron god instead of Poseidon, who in return flooded them). When he wasn't punishing people, he was sleeping with his male or female lovers.

Yet despite Poseidon's sordid story, there's something so charming, thrilling, terrifying about the sea that the ancient Greeks flocked to worship and honor its patron god. A man-shaped being who can calm the sea--

Wait, I've heard this before. But my man-shaped being who calms the sea doesn't just take the shape of a man--he is a man. He, too, has many lovers, but lovers of his soul, bonded at heart and united with him in faith. He, too, was saved from the ravages of time (Cron means time), for his body never saw decay, and at birth all the best-laid plans of men couldn't kill him--but instead of sacrificing a colt to save him among the sheep, his mother saw him lay down his life as a sacrificial lamb to save the world.

This is my Jesus, who calms the sea. When he stands, hands outstretched, to order about the sea--the scariest part of all Jewish history, the terrible dark force of water and Leviathans and nature so frightening that Revelation comforts Jews by saying "there will be no more sea" in the new heaven and new earth--when my mild-mannered lover orders the sea he is protecting his people. His is gentle power, gentle fingers, the rippling muscles of a carpenter in silhouette against the stormy sky while the disciples panic in the boat besides him. "A bruised reed he will not break"--he is like the Ying in Daoist ideology, the gentle river that bends around the mountain, submits meekly, washes feet, and yet conquers the world and wears away rock. My sea-god is kind, and what Poseidon's tale teaches me, by example, is the sublime attraction and power of my Messiah's gentleness and, if I will follow in his footsteps, my own.

Teach me, Jesus, to calm the winds and waves with love like you do.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Vector Physics and Self-Determination



You know the whole "don't make plans because God's gonna change them" thing? I hate it when people say that to my dreams or when they excuse their past inability to try with a "God closed that door." All they're really saying is that fate and destiny is inevitable, so we really shouldn't try to rock the boat, and our failures aren't our own responsibilities.

Well earthlings, I am here to rock the boat.

Gladys Aylward had merely heard about China, but she spent all her time slaving to earn enough to get there. She didn't believe God was "changing" the plan for her or "closing a door" when she found herself in Russia with no train forward. And thousands of orphans were glad she didn't. Can you imagine if she had been a modern American Christian? "I wanted to be a missionary to China, but God closed that door." Amy Carmicheal broke British Law in India and went through closed temple doors to kidnap the young temple slaves. Unloved orphans received homes and young girls were saved from the unspeakable. I'm sure they were glad Amy didn't give a rat's tail about 'closed doors.'

Sometimes God does close doors. But not getting into a certain school, not having money or transportation, your family saying 'no,' where a mission organization wants you, violence, what your church says, what your government says--all these things are not closed doors. Breaking a promise or throwing away a dream for an inconvenience or a calling--which for most Christians is just a feeling that you'll like something else better--is not God's closed door. It's weakness. Break down that door, soldiers!*

Let me illustrate with a common vector physics problem.

This is a river                         
__D_*\*/*____________ _B_/\_boatman's house__________Z_



<--------------   <------------ The river's got a strong current (Vector C)



____________________A<--->_this is the boatman's boat________
                         
      The boatman wants to get to his house. Which way should he go?

You may think he should aim straight for his house.  But physicists will often ask their students to calculate by vectors. And when you add the Vector line from AB together with Vector C, and you find the line that's Vector AD. The boatman would end up at Point D! That's not his house! There are spikey things there!

That's how it is often if we follow the most obvious (and easiest) plan. We end up somewhere entirely wrong. And sometimes that's what God wanted, and he'll make us drag our boat up the river bank back to point B to teach us something important along the way. But say I want to get to point B, and I trust God to get me there in the end--'cuz he gave me the desire to get there! I will keep my eye on point B, even though God asks me to aim for point Z, and the current and my effort will together bring me to point B. God will never tell me just to put my boat on the river and float off into oblivion while people suffer on the riverbanks. Either way, I will get to point B.

Read the promises of Revelations 2:17, 2:25-29, 3:5, 3:11-13, and 3:21. They speak about the one who overcomes, who conquers. This isn't someone who just holds on to their faith, enduring while God tosses them along the rivers of life. This is someone who prays, like Jabez, that God will "expand my territory" 1 Chronicles 4:9-10. Yes, Jabez wants to be kept from pain, but not because he's sitting around waiting for fulfillment of his "calling." He wants protection from pain 'cuz he's goin' out there to cause some!**

So please, people, stop telling us that God might change our plans, that we shouldn't want so badly to marry a certain person or do mission work in a certain place. God knows what he's doing with our dreams and he doesn't need your help: you're honestly just being like the dream killer in the movie Tooth Fairy, and it's really annoying. Tell me instead to love God with such an enduring passion that I will give anything and everything for his kingdom. Tell me to overcome my pride, my financial obstacles, my stubbornness--whatever might stop me from goin' up in flames for his cause. You either feed this fire, or step aside to watch the fireworks. You don't cast doubt on a phoenix.

*When your action will harm someone else--for example, if your mission to China will sacrifice healthcare for your handicapped child--then we can talk about closed doors. But even then, remember that David Livingstone buried two wives and several children on his mission to save Africans from slave traders. If the person affected by your choice is willing and able to sacrifice, then so, too, should you. If not--then sure, you may have a closed door. Then again, William Carey had a wife who went insane because she couldn't handle his mission work in India. He stayed in India anyway, translated the Bible to several languages, and began the movement ending the practice of sati, or widow burning. Was it worth it? He thought so. Women saved from sati thought so. "Whoever does not hate his father and mother for my sake is not worthy of me," Jesus said, not to say that we ought to hate our families, but to say that our love for Him should so far exceed anything else that all other emotions seem base in comparison. A calling should not revolve around what we like or don't like. It should revolve around meeting other peoples' need.



**Please understand this sentence in light of "for our battle is not against flesh and blood..."

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Medical Science in Space: Your Joy in God and Muscular Atrophy



When astronauts go into space for a long time, they often come back weakened, and they need months of therapy to regain normal muscle function. This is called the Trepp effect, and it usually means the strength of muscle contraction's as little as half of that muscle's previous strength.

What do astronauts have to do with our beloved Prometheus?

There's a lovely quote by C.S. Lewis,

“A perfect man would never act from sense of duty; he'd always want the right thing more than the wrong one. Duty is only a substitute for love (of God and of other people), like a crutch, which is a substitute for a leg. Most of us need the crutch at times; but of course it's idiotic to use the crutch when our own legs (our own loves, tastes, habits, etc.) can do the journey on their own!”1

He's right of course. But it follows that if we decide to use the crutch all the time, even though we could walk, the leg we're not using will eventually undergo the Trepp effect, just like those astronauts. If we always rely on our sense of duty to do the right thing, eventually we'll find it very, very difficult to love anyone.

So what then? Should we just do the wrong thing until we feel like doing the right thing? Sin, that grace may abound? In one of his letters, Paul answers no. He says the fundamental thing is that we've been set free, not to sin, but to grace. Set free from sin, so the glory won't go to abounding sin on the planet, but to abounding love. How are we free?

Because of fire. Because there's a Spirit of fire, brought by our dear Prometheus, to whom all our meditations must return.

We must pray more earnestly for fire to arrive, that we may burn our crutches and walk in the light.
1Excerpt from letter to Joan, July 18, 1857, in C.S. Lewis: Letters to Children, de. Lyle W. Dorsett and Marjorie Lamp Mead (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 276, quoted in John Piper's When I Don't Desire God: How to Fight for Joy

Saturday, March 10, 2012

How God is like your hypothalamus, revised (why we do and don't suffer)

Someone asked on fb the other day,
"What's so horrible about the possibility of a world without God?" To me, this query is only the aroma, the light fragrance of the deeper question: "what is God?" What attributes of this being make his absence a tragedy? For the God of the Bible does not linger out in space with super-god-powered binoculars, a cosmic voyeur, a scientist observing the experiment he established. He's not even up on a high mountain, like Mount Olympus, coming down every few years to rap a taste with the mortals. He's a lot more like your hypothalamus.

Did you know that your neurons are actually always sending pain signals up to your brain? You aren't writhing in constant agony right now only because your hypothalamus blocks them out. You're completely oblivious to everything except the comparatively rare, more extreme signals your hypothalamus lets through. The God of the Bible (specifically the Holy Spirit of John 16 and 2 Thessalonians 2) is like that: without him, we wallow in the evil we create, drowning in our own terrible decisions and in the pain of the things other people do to us. Not only is he the source of all happiness--without him, we would experience the consequences of everything we and others do to this planet and to each other, but "in his great mercy he has given us life." Hell is what happens when he takes his hand away, and lets us feel the entirety of a world without him (a world in utter sin and destruction). Hell is the removal of our spiritual hypothalamus.

What happens when your hypothalamus, or something else in the pain-train doesn't work, and you don't experience any pain at all? Something like this girl's disorder--you harm yourself over and over and have no idea you're doing it. We often consider suffering in the world as the root problem, but actually, it's the symptom, the warning pangs of the much deeper, spiritual problems that are eating us like a fungus, multiplying like a cancer, day by day within our souls. The mother of the little girl in the link says she wishes nothing more than that her little girl would feel pain, not because she hates her child, but because she loves her and wants her to keep herself safe. When God allows suffering, he allows it for the same reasons your hypothalamus allows it, and for the same reason that mother wishes her daughter knew suffering: so that you avoid harming yourself. God sometimes allows us to suffer the consequences of our sin so that we learn not to destroy ourselves and others by doing evil or stupid things--other times, he shows us generalized, non-specific suffering to make us consider the results of sin in creation, so that we might learn to defend ourselves from it (Luke 13:1-5). God does not allow earthquakes and tornados so we can say, "haha, you're suffering, you must be an especially bad sinner" but so we can protect ourselves from doing evil, for while suffering in the world exists because of sin, not all suffering results directly from sin. (John 9:1-3) Your hypothalamus also allows you to feel pain for things that are not directly unhealthy; likewise, especially for Christians, suffering's often that burn in your muscles as you're getting stronger, those growth itches in your legs that you have at night as you're getting bigger--symptoms of your immortal soul outgrowing this little world we live in. God allows Christians to suffer sometimes that they might become who they were meant to be (James 1:2-4): the humble "gods" of Psalm 2, the glorious overcomers of Revelation 1-7.

"If we let Him - for we can prevent Him, if we choose - He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what He said." --C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity


It's a wonderful thing to have a hypothalamus. It's an even greater thing to have the One who made it.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Mario and God--what they have to do with each other

It's been a while, hasn't it?

It feels quite pleasant to write about this again. For a variety of reasons. Not the least of which is all the other writing I've focused on.

In the last level of the newest Super Mario Brothers for the Wii, just before you fight the very large and imposing Bowser, you hop into this chamber of slowly sinking lava. You stand on this platform that sinks faster than the lava does, dragging you down in the goopy orange that makes Mario shout "oh no" and Luigi yell "ow ow ow" before sealing your fate in failure. Just before your platform sinks into the lava, a new platform appears. The lava keeps sinking and you keep moving down the chamber that way, trying to find a new platform before your current one sinks into the fire. (It reminds me of a scene I wrote in a book, actually.)

I realized midway the key to the level was faith. If you wanted to live, you had to jump in the air towards the area still covered with lava, believing that the game creators had put a platform there that would emerge from the orange death-trap before you landed in it. It became easy to guess where they'd put the platforms just based on the distance between previous platforms, but you never actually know where you'll land until you land.

God has treated me like those game creators treat us lately. It's lava, and I have no idea where to land. But I knew that the game creators didn't make an impossible game. There had to be another platform in that chamber SOMEWHERE, and I sure as the lake of fire couldn't keep standing on the same platform, so I had to jump.

I guess I just have to trust that God didn't make an impossible game, and that as I step forward into craziness, there's going to be a place to land.

I'll try to remember that next time I'm on a sinking platform in a chamber of lava.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Excerpts from a Trip Beyond the Equator


"This place feels like such a home to me. Every little thing, from our bus (tetanus waiting to happen) to my moisture enhanced bedroom (the brick holds in water really really really well...way too well) to the night sky chock full of stars I´ve never seen before somehow just welcomes me. The people are so real here--the world is awfully dark, and to hear the stories people have about their lives is to cry inside (one of my friends here was very surprised to find that both of my parents attend church...that´s not normal here), but God is working in the church here, and that is absolutely amazing. I really would like to live here as a permanent missionary after medical school.
Now to the pictureless picture. The team went to visit Iguazu falls, the biggest waterfall volume-wise in South America, and I did not want to go. Thank God my parents encouraged me to tag along. We went and looked down into this huge Sarlaac pit of water just pouring into it by the tons, thundering so hard that a huge white mist arose to be seen from at least a mile away. We went and stood practically underneath one of the falls, and I got soaked just by the cloud that rises from the impact of the water hitting itself on the bottom. Being there I almost felt I was going to collapse with wonder...on the way back I couldn´t speak, or even really think. On the little train away from the falls we girls rode in the back, and they asked me what I was thinking. I started crying. This was and is quite embarrassing, but I am sharing it because I want to let you know what the waterfall asked me.
If this massive, immense, majestic, powerful, simply awesome moving formation came from the hand of God...and if compared to Him it is as nothing...than what is He? We are told so much about who He is, but compared to the reality it´s so obvious that we know absolutely NOTHING of His Holiness, His Power, His worthiness to be feared above all things, and so loved! And what of me? What of His relationship with me? If just the MIST of the waterfall could soak me, what of just the slightest nearness to God? As I write this I wish you could see how hard it is for me to find words, because this is so much more than I can possibly express. There is absolutely nothing that I can give a God like that. If I tossed a cup of water into the fall, it would make more so little difference...how much less can I add anything to God!!! I have nothing to give!
Except my heart. My heart is everything that I am, all my life, all my soul, my strength, the way I move when I´m working, the steps I take when I´m dancing, the vibrations in the air when I´m singing, even how I sleep...To me, it seems like it would just be His due. To me, the miracle is that He would accept it as the most precious gift in the world.
I feel like a thousand gazillion tons of water shattered everything I ever thought I knew yesterday. I want this more, so much more...I want to know and serve the God of the waterfall, here, and now!
And THAT is what I need you to pray for.
Much much love,
... "