Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Problems with Christian Video Games

I’ve been an avid gamer my entire life. And over the years I feel like I’ve seen it all, from the action-packed cut-scenes of a triple-A title to the quirky stylings of an indie puzzler. Yet despite a lifetime of searching I have failed to find what has begun to feel like the holy grail of gaming: a decent video game based on the Bible.

Shouldn’t the Bible be obvious gaming material? After all, in Scripture we have the greatest story ever told. It tells of God’s love for humankind, demonstrated through the dynamic personality of Jesus, who (spoiler alert!) dies and then rises from the dead. If that’s not an ending with punch then I don’t know what is!

And regardless of your spiritual background, there is no denying that the Bible is great source material. It covers the full gambit of human experience, from the most grueling lows to the most ecstatic highs. Its themes are timeless and universal. Plus, the Bible has more action and adventure in a few pages than most games have in their entire storylines.

Am I crazy or are gaming studios missing out on a tremendous opportunity? The popularity of recent Bible-based movies shows that the market is viable. Gamers would flock to the store to try out a quality Bible game. I stress the word quality, though. In order for a gaming studio to design a great game, they would have to answer 5 questions in the design process:

1.     How does the game handle moral choice?

A vital aspect of any successful game is player autonomy. Gamers want the freedom to make their own choices. Yet if a game were truly focused on the Gospel message, the underlying hope of the game would be to encourage players to make faithful and God-honoring choices.

Would a Bible-based game allow the player to go through the full consequences of their decisions? Or else, how does the game keep the storyline on track without taking away the player’s ability to reject certain options?

My suggestion: don’t make the player any of the named figures in Scripture. Instead, the player should be the “everyman” that is able to choose how to be involved. Leading up to the crucifixion, for example, a temple guard might choose to hang out with Christ’s disciples or else take the alternative quest line with the priestly leaders of the Pharisees.

What do you think – how would you handle moral choice if you were designing a Christian video game?

2.     How much violence should a Bible-based game contain?

A Bible-based game with no violence is being disingenuous. In order to stay true to Scripture, a game should at least acknowledge the violence that takes place in biblical events. The difference, though, is that describing violence is not the same thing as prescribing violence. The Bible often depicts violence that is outside God’s desired plan.

This question encroaches upon one of the age-old debates we see in video games: does allowing a player to be violent in the game constitute encouragement of that violence? In other words, do violent games create violent kids?

My suggestion: as best as possible, try to resist pressure to make the game more or less violent than the actual biblical text. Every detail in the Bible is there for a reason; there is nothing gratuitous. So in the case of violence, context and proportion are your friends.

3.     How does the Bible avoid info dump?

The Bible is a big book with lots of dates, places, and names. It is no wonder the majority of current Bible games is trivia based. If our hypothetical game attempted to teach the player all these facts exhaustively, the player would get bogged down and never get past the prologue.

A common “solution” to this problem is to compress the story of Scripture into a more universal, summarized form. This approach leads to a whole different set of problems, however, because the final product ends up vague and preachy. Have you ever watched a cheesy Christian film that attempts to summarize all of Christian belief in a couple compact speeches? Doesn’t the result feel didactic? I agree.

My solution: tell a specific story with lots of up-close details. We learn more about love when we see it demonstrated by a single person than we do hearing abstractions about love. The player can pick up additional background by exploring the environment and straying from the main quest.

4.     How does the game visually represent God?

This is a toughy. God is the main character of the Bible so surely He has to be shown visually? But to be honest, this question is exactly why God sent Jesus. When we look at Jesus we see not only a perfect example of what an Israelite was supposed to be, we also see God represented physically.

Jesus came to give us a better idea of what God’s love looks like. Otherwise, when God the Father or the Holy Spirit were being revealed to a human, it was done in a shrouded or symbolized way. God was not the burning bush in front of Moses, for instance, but He was representing His power in a way that Moses would understand and appreciate.

My suggestion: don’t show God as a bearded man on a cloud. Show God as the Bible shows God.

If you have read this far, and particularly if you are a gamer, I would love to hear your thoughts! What other challenges do you see in making a Christian video game? How would you go about designing a game that answers these questions?

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

Last week my town celebrated the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Every day, the town was invited to attend a noon meal at one of the churches. These are always wonderful times of fellowship and prayer.

I had the honor of leading the Wednesday service at our church and it prompted me to look back at the sermon I shared a year ago. Reading over it now, a year later, I am able to recall the strong emotions that were running through me when I wrote it.

It's hard to believe my mother-in-law has been gone less than a year. In some ways it feel likes longer, and, in other ways, it feels like her passing was just yesterday. Grief is strange like that; it comes in waves and hits at random moments. She is missed.

Here is the sermonette from last year. The theme of the day was "walking with the broken" and the passage was Psalm 22, verses 1-8

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
    Why are you so far from saving me,
    so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
    by night, but I find no rest.
Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
    you are the one Israel praises.
In you our ancestors put their trust;
    they trusted and you delivered them.
To you they cried out and were saved;
    in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
But I am a worm and not a man,
    scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
    they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
“He trusts in the Lord,” they say,
    “let the Lord rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
    since he delights in him.”

     In less than a month, my mother-in-law Janis will be dead. She’s 64 years old, and for a little over a year has been going through every imaginable treatment for lung cancer. And when I share that with people, most are extremely compassionate, kind, and loving -- but the truth is, they don’t know exactly what to say. I think emotionally they’re feeling, “Aw, feel better! Don’t worry!” and so it ends up popping out of their mouths in cliches. The truth is, it’s tough to walk alongside the broken, isn’t it?

I know it’s worse for Janis. When she first started losing her hair, it was like this social barrier went up around her. No one would come within 10 feet, and those who did break the barrier were really full of emotion. They’d say things like, “Janis, you are so brave! You are my hero.” And later she’d say, “Well that was ridiculous.”   When tumors started growing visibly on the outside of her skull, and on the neck, little kids would ask their parents, a little too loudly, “Mommy, what’s wrong with that lady?” And the parents would shush. See, it’s hard to walk alongside the broken.

I had the chance to spend a week with her back in October. She was going through radiation treatments at the time, so every day we’d bring her to the cancer center and wait in the waiting room. And day after day, my eyes kept getting drawn to this little green chalkboard that had been propped up on a table. Probably 8 1/2 by 11 inches. And when I got close, I saw there was a little card with it that gave instructions, “Every day we write an inspiring quote. If you know any, share them with us so we can post.”

I thought, great! I work in a church where a big part of my job is sharing hope. I’ve read countless books on theology, counseling, philosophy. Surely I can come up with something to lessen the fear and confusion that the patients around me were feeling! I mean, surely I could come up with one tiny phrase that wasn’t shallow or meaningless.

This little green chalkboard became my obsession. I stayed up late at night thinking, what words could explain cancer? What words would show these amazing people that they weren’t alone? At the end of the week I still only had one word that made sense for that board. Jesus. That’s it - nothing else made sense for that room, for that chalkboard.

In Psalm 22, David is facing his own little green chalkboard. He’s felt the fear of running from a madman that wants to kill him. He’s felt the tension of a nation that couldn’t seem to figure out what they really wanted. And so now he’s wrestling with the big questions, “Why, God!?” and doesn’t seem to be making much progress. He shouts out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Shocking words to read in our Bibles, if we think about it. I mean, imagine David has come to your small group Bible Study. And as the group starts to pray, you’re sitting there in the circle, and someone in the group cries out that God has forsaken them. 

See, it’s one thing to tell people to cast their burdens on Christ. It’s quite another to actually see it happen; when they don’t just give their best to God but they also give their worst -- anger, frustration. And if you’re like me, part of you would feel strange, after the prayer you’d want to walk up to him and defend God. You’d want to say, “God never forsakes us, don’t worry.” 

So what do those honest, raw, hurting prayers teach us about unity? What do we share? Well first, David’s prayer shows us that we all share in some level of doubt. In verse 2 he admits, “My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest.” David has unanswered questions. And keep in mind, this is King David, a man after God’s own heart. He was a celebrity in his time. And to this day if you walk up to a Jewish believer and ask who the greatest king who ever lived was, they’d say King David, of course. So if it’s okay for King David to express his doubts, then maybe it’s okay for us to express our doubts as well.

Because as desperate as these first two verses get, notice they both begin the same way. “My God...” That’s important. David doesn’t allow his hurt to become a closed loop, self-focused, but instead invites God into the pain. “My God, my God.” And that’s the difference between a doubt that will take you closer to God, and a doubt that will take you further away. If your prayer begins by looking towards God, then no matter how ugly the words get, you’re showing that you want to be united with Christ.        This is a freeing truth -- it means we don’t just need a Savior that first day we believed, and then are expected to have all the answers forever after. Instead, it means we need to lean on our Savior every day: that’s why belief in Jesus is not about a concept, it’s about a relationship.

So David is staring into the blank emptiness of his own little green chalkboard. The first two verses show he’s got nothing. This tough season of his life has wiped away any answer he thought he had. So in verse 3 he falls back upon the one and only thing he knows to be 100% true and trustworthy. He says, “YET, you are enthroned as the Holy One.” That’s the thread he clings to. That’s the answer he writes on the chalkboard for all to see.   And immediately that connects him to the larger narrative. He remembers experiencing God’s goodness in his youth, when things weren’t so tough. He remembers God’s faithfulness to his ancestors. And in the final verses of the Psalm, he even looks ahead to the future, proclaiming, “Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: He has done it!”

By giving his pain to God, and not keeping it for himself, he realizes he is part of a much larger story, and a much larger community. And truly, David learns to walk alongside the broken because he realizes God’s been walking alongside the broken this entire time. 

Which leads me to my final point. You may recognize this first line of David’s -- My God, My God, why have you forsaken me. -- from another part of the Bible. In Matthew 27:46, Jesus prays these words while dying on the cross. Why, in that moment, in that place, would Jesus quote this ancient poem full of pain and brokenness?

Some say Jesus was just fulfilling prophecies, showing his connection to the regal line of David. Others say Jesus was just saying it for our sakes -- like an object lesson, to show us it’s okay to feel awful sometimes. I think the truth is so much more powerful than that.

In crying out those words, Jesus revealed that He experiences David’s pain, the pain of the ancestors, and whatever questions or hurts you might be experiencing today. We’re united by the truth that Jesus walks with the broken.

Over the last year, as cancer took more and more of my mother-in-law, she didn’t want to talk about Jesus, or the meaning of life and death. She turned away from the chalkboard completely. Two days ago, while lying in bed in the intensive care unit, having just had a liter of fluid taken from around her heart, she turned to her son and said, “Don’t be sad when I’m gone. I’m not scared of death anymore, I believe and trust in Jesus.” We’ve waited a lot of years for those words. Praise Jesus, the Lord of Life, who walks with the broken until they’re broken no more.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

5 Things Pastors Wish you Knew about Worship Services

 Photo Credit: S I G U R via Flickr

Leading a worship service is no easy task. Even when a worship service goes off without a hitch, there are few experiences as uncomfortable as speaking in public.

Fortunately, pastors stand up because they have found a cause bigger than their fear. But do you ever wonder what goes through a pastor's mind?

1. You do not gain temporary invisibility when you yawn.

Sorry, but when the pastor is looking in your direction, he can see you having a conversation with your friend, flipping through pictures on your phone, or yes, even when you're in the back pew and you grab the opportunity for a little shut eye.

Now don't get me wrong, pastors would rather you come to the church yawning then stay at home and miss out on worship. Worship services are valuable because they give us all a chance to glorify God and to deepen meaningful community. God takes you as you are.

But if you're going to do something distracting during service, please try to wait until the pastor is looking in a different direction or down at his notes. There is nothing that saps a speaker's energy faster than hitting the crescendo of their story and looking up to a sleeper.

2. The Style of Music isn't a Big Deal.

Pastors attend all the worship services so they enjoy the full range of worship styles that your church offers. As a result, most pastors learn to express their heart in each of these styles. Even if a pastor grew up in a non-traditional environment, it doesn't take long for the pastor to fall in love with the depth of certain hymns and their ability to showcase our praise.

If the pastor is caught up in some kind of 'worship war' between different styles, chances are high that it has little to do with the actual music. Someone has probably approached the pastor during the week and shared, "Everyone hates you for your recent song choice."

Give the pastor, and give yourself, a break. Go along with the music style even if it isn't the first thing you would dial to on your car radio. The music is for your enjoyment, yes, but it is also a gift we offer to God, and a way we show support to one another. If you're still having trouble enjoying the music, find joy in the fact that the music is helping others in the congregation to praise.

3. You can disagree!

Good pastors want you to wrestle with the sermon. Have a different perspective on a point the pastor shared? Great! Have serious doubts about a certain aspect of Christianity? Fantastic!

For some reason it is often kept secret that doubts and dialogue are a healthy and necessary aspect of our spiritual growth. Thoughts we have during the sermon can be shared open and respectfully in a small group environment. And disagreements can only hurt you if you keep them bottled up.

4. Pastors are Morons!

That's wording it strongly. Maybe I should tone it down slightly: pastors are... human. Which means that pastors make mistakes, they change opinions, and some sermons are going to be better than others.

The good news is that your pastor is fully aware of this. When he prepares for a sermon, he feels overwhelmed by the breadth of knowledge that is beyond him. Reminders of his shortcomings come in the form of biblical commentaries, famous pastors online, and the church down the street.

This is actually quite exciting. Ignorance is an opportunity to learn and there is nothing more fun than making new discoveries about the God of the universe.

5. Worship Services are a Tiny Part of your Pastor's Job

Every pastor has an anecdote of being approached by someone who thought his only job was to prepare a weekly sermon. Some well-intentioned person will ask, "Yes, but what is your real job? Like, where do you go to work during the week?" >-<

In Seminary, pastors are taught to prepare an hour for every minute of the sermon. The reality is that most pastors are lucky to find 10 hours during their work week to research, draft, and write their sermon. The rest of the time is spent in meetings, serving needs in the community, and orchestrating other ministries of the church.

May our churches never put all their focus on "The Big Show" of Sunday. Following Jesus is an all-week thing; It is not part of our schedule, it IS our schedule. If your pastor could express one thing to you about worship services, it would probably be this -- that worship can continue in your workplace, as you hang out with friends, and as you grab dinner at a local restaurant. God's desire is to draw you deeper into that vibrant, joy-filled, Christ-centered life.

Monday, January 6, 2014

January 6 marks the Day of Epiphany

How quickly we let the excitement of Christmas fade. Not too many days ago, we shared gifts, rested, and reflected upon that powerful moment when the baby Jesus was born.

Fast-forward to today and most of us are busily shifting out of the holiday season and into work.

Except, not every country out there is done with the festivities. In fact, in many countries, the party is far from over. The nativity scene of Dec. 25 was only the start of 12 days that culminate in a holiday called Epiphany on Jan. 6.

What is Epiphany?

The word epiphany means ‘revealed’ and that is exactly what the holiday celebrates, when God made Himself known to the world. For countries in the West that means celebrating the arrival of the wise men who came from a great distance to discover the good news of Christ.

Countries in the East put the emphasis more on the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, since at that moment all three members of the Trinity were represented at once. In either case, the central focus is on God’s desire to be known.

Not all of the celebrations would look familiar to us.

In Bulgaria, a priest throws a wooden cross into water and young men race to retrieve it. Other details hit closer to home - in Latin American countries the children do not leave milk and cookies, but they do leave fresh grass and hay for the wise men to give their donkeys.

Does it encourage you to know the Christmas story is celebrated in such rich and diverse ways throughout the world?

The differences in celebrations remind us to take a second look at the seemingly familiar story. For example, perhaps we put too little focus on the role of the wise men. They are more than pretty decoration in the picturesque manger scene.

Though they were scholars from outside the Israelite setting, God used their scientific interest in astrology to guide them into the story. God will go to any length to draw someone into a relationship with Him, even those we would not automatically think to include.

Which leaves us with a challenge - and an opportunity. Have we put the Christmas story into a box and placed it back onto the shelf? Or, are we ready for Epiphany to lead us into new and unexpected places?
May we never get used to the incredible message of God’s love: “but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” (2 Timothy 1:10 NRSV).

I pray that you and your family have an incredible year in 2014 and that these stories of Epiphany cause you to take a second and third look at the ways God has made Himself known. Blessings.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Happy New Year

Did you set New Year's resolutions this year? The sad truth is that only 8% of people who make New Year's resolutions actually keep them. Why do so many fail to do what they know would be good for them?

I think there are a few common reasons:
     *We tend to make resolutions about our weaknesses/shortcomings rather than our strengths.
     *We set unrealistic goals. Going from never working out to working out every day? Hmm.
     *We don't consider what we'll have to give up in order to fit something new into our schedule.

And the top reason is that we don't truly care about the resolutions. If we did, we would re-prioritize our lives. Carrie and I have set a lot of new goals for 2014; some we'll achieve and others will drift because they're not as important. That's okay. New Year's resolutions are a bigger blessing when partnered with grace. 

Hopefully our resolutions will inspire us to do more of the activities we love:  
Encourage others in the Lord: This is a (low quality) picture from this past weekend. Fifteen of us jumped on a bus to head to Branson, Missouri, where 5000 of us gathered to worship God. There were great speakers (like David Nasser), great bands (like Newsong and Skillet), and great bonding with our youth group kids.

My highlight, though, was praying with one of our youth group members, Larry, as he prayed to receive Christ. I'll be sharing more of that story in this weekend's sermon at our church.

All you married folk out there -- have you set goals for praying with your spouse? Have you considered doing a devotional together? Carrie and I are so hopeless without a system that we even split up the chores around the house; this last year taught us that I'm better doing laundry than I am keeping the kitchen area clean. Sigh.

Travel: Carrie and I like to experience new things but we live in a homogenous town. The occasional get-away is great at keeping our energy lifted. This picture was taken a couple months ago at the famous 'gum wall' in Seattle.

Eat well: There are some days when 'eating well' means healthy, and other days when 'eating well' means something really delicious. Ha, whatever, the point is that we like food.

So we should have known better when we recently asked for gyro meat at our local grocery store and the clerk said, "I would never eat this stuff but here you go." He then instructed us to cook it like bacon. Hmm. And there were no regular pitas so we got Italian Herb pitas. Hmm. At least we had something in the end that sorta kinda slightly reminded us of the gyros we used to love getting in a bigger city.

So how about you? Have you considered how your resolutions lean into your strengths and interests?