The Allure of the Quest: Mark 16

read Mark 16.  Why do men love xbox?  William Bennett recently whipped gamers up into a blogging frenzy with an editorial on CNN in which he challenges men to “man up”.  He notes that women surpass men in college degrees now by 3 to 2.  He says 18-to-34 year old men spend more time playing video games than 12-to-17 year olds.  He concludes his editorial with the battle cry: “Get off the video games five hours a day, get yourself together, get a challenging job and get married.”  Gamers responded by telling Mr. Bennet to “shove it before I use my Dragon Age Mage abilities on you.”  The Gaming Addiction.

Just last week I heard Mr. Bennett discuss his opinions in NYC on the decline of manhood at my friend Eric Metaxas’ series, Socrates in the City.  Mr. Bennett admits his own sons played some xbox, but that he and his wife monitored it.

You kind of have to.  Why?  Because xbox is fun.  Xbox provides quests that make the blood quicken, the heart throb, and the mind come alive.  My teenage son and his friends have long intricate discussions in which they compare strategies, exhort each other, and trade barbs like: “Dood.  What are you using THAT weapon for?”

Mr. Bennett’s solution includes men having better role models.  While helpful, I think that’s just a start.  You also need to ask why xbox games are so compelling.  You need to show people how the kind of adventure you find in an xbox can be yours for the asking in the real world.

In quest literature, the unlikely heros are given a commission and then equipped for the trials to come.  On their journey, they encounter hardships which draw from them their most hidden inner resources.  They discover the reason for the magic rings, swords and suits of armor with which they have been equipped.  They will have to figure out how to use each piece of equipment in order to conquer evil. No power is wasted.  Every piece of equipment is required. In the end, the unlikely heros triumph against all odds and carry out their commission, which usually involves rescuing people from the grip of evil.  Robert McKee, author of STORY, the definitive guide to modern screenwriting, claims that every story is at heart, a quest.

Perhaps the allure of Xbox, and the reason that every story can be boiled down to a quest, is that our hearts were made to long for this kind of a quest.  Our hearts resonate to the strains of this story.  Our hearts are longing to be given a quest of our own – and not just in Skyrim.

Is this just a coincidence?  Is it a trick of DNA?  Is it an evolutionary necessity, in which people who longed to be heroes squashed the DNA (i.e. murdered) their cavemen compatriots who were happy sitting at home in aprons?

Or is it because the Lord God Almighty created us this way?

Have a look at the last chapter of the gospel of Mark.  In it, we discover every aspect of quest literature.  Mark ends with the quest of Christ accomplished, and the challenge to each of us to embark on our own quest.

Every human in this chapter is an unlikely hero.  No one seems to be asking: “I wonder when Jesus will rise from the dead as He told us?”  No one believes Jesus has risen from the dead.  No one believes anyone else who claims they have seen the risen Jesus.  Finally, Jesus appears to the eleven remaining disciples and rebukes them “for their stubborn unbelief.”  No human here is a hero.

But instead of telling them to “go away,” Jesus tells the eleven: “Go into all the world and preach the Good News to everyone.  Anyone who believes and is baptized will be saved.  But anyone who refuses to believe will be condemned.”  This is known as the Great Commission.

Jesus then tells the disciples of the miraculous signs that will accompany them – a list  that, at first glance, makes it sound like He is turning them into Indian snake charmers.  He says they will survive snake bites and drinking poison.  Are these gifts for show?  Does Jesus want the disciples to wow people with special effects?  As the book of Acts will demonstrate, Jesus is equipping the eleven disciples in very particular ways for the trials to come – including a snake bite that Saint Paul survives.  Jesus never does anything unnecessary.  He commissions his unlikely disbelieving heros, and equips them with the particular powers they needed to accomplish their quest – the quest to rescue people from slavery to evil.

The same quest is offered to each of us 2000 years later.  We each have the choice to be lifted out of an ordinary humdrum imperfect life into a life of adventure and quest.  We are each an unlikely hero – full of disbelief and stubborn hearts.  We, too, often think God is far away.  Sometimes we may wonder if God is dead.  But God is alive.  He is walking in the midst of our lives.  All He asks is that we believe.

If we accept His commission, God will equip us with the tools we need for the journey.  The tools are free for us, because God paid the price for them on the cross.  As with all quests, the key to the quest God offers us is to accept that we need the tools He offers us.  He will give us power in place of our weakness.  He will give us stillness in place of our anxiety.  He will give us love in place of hate.  He will give us trust in place of envy.  He will give us whatever we need to accomplish the tasks he assigns us.  He offers us the “full armor of God”.  Eph 6: 10-17.  We need it: “For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.”  Eph. 6:12.

Did you catch that?  Our enemies are not other people.  Our enemies are the powers and principalities of darkness.  That leap in your heart when you “kick some butt” in Call of Duty is there for a reason.  You are made to long to battle the powers of darkness.  But if we step off the grid – if we think we can conquer the powers and principalities of darkness all on our own – we’ll end up powerless and gasping for air.  Hopefully we, like my teenage son, will have friends journeying with us along the Way, who can say to us: “Dude.  Why did you choose THAT weapon?”

The key to success is to choose the right battle, and along with it the right weapons. Do we want to be the unlikely heroes who are given a commission, equipped for the journey and vanquish the powers of evil with God’s love?  Do we want to be the person God is calling us to be?  Do we want to fulfill the destiny for which, deep down, we know we were created?

Listen to your heart.  It already knows the answer.

And as for the issue of how we solve the crisis of manhood… well, I couldn’t even get my son to read this blog.  I waved it under his nose (granted he was on the xbox at the time, which was a poorly chosen moment on my part).  I rewaved it under his nose, however, when he was off the xbox.  He still evinced zero interest in his mother’s thoughts on quests.  But that’s okay.  Because I truly believe that the best thing we can do for the men in our lives is pray for them.   Prayer unleashes all the powers of heaven’s armies.  I don’t need my son to read my words. He needs to experience the living God on his own.  And he will. Somewhere there lies a sword in a stone that only he can wield.

My heart quickened when I read The Lord of the Rings as a teenager. I knew that Tolkien had tapped into eternal truths. When I met Jesus, I thought: “oh so YOU’RE what I sensed in all those fairy tales, fantasy novels and books, and in those majestic mountains and crashing waves.”  So go ahead, xbox.  Bring it on.  You’re onto eternal truths, but you are not eternally true.  Only God is.  And only His quest can satisfy our heart’s deepest Call of Duty.  Xbox is no match for the One True God.  I’m not afraid.

posted by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks.com on December 22, 2011

how to live free of envy: Mark 15

read Mark 15.  With just a few days left to go until Christmas, many of us are still wondering why we’re not leaping for joy with the ten lords, twirling our five golden rings.  Is it because we’re Scrooge?  Or are there some little thieves at work in our hearts, quietly robbing us of our joy?  Today the chapter at hand leads us to consider the master thief known as envy.

We tend to minimize the problem of envy.  Every now and then the Bible will make a list of Really Bad Things.  We hone in on the Big Bad Ugly Obvious sins – like drunkenness, gluttony, adultery or orgies.  Our eyes skim over envy.  But envy is almost always on those lists.  Why?  Doesn’t everyone feel a little jealous every now and then?  Doesn’t envy just mean you’re alive?  Who could live without an occasional twinge of envy?  Is it really so bad?

Envy is the enemy of joy.  You can’t be content if envy is eating you alive.  I’m not talking about wanting your legitimate needs to be filled.  There’s a difference between need and envy.  Need is requirement we take to God and others.  Envy is a bitter poison with the power to destroy us.  If you want what someone else has, you can never enjoy what you have.  If your eyes are on someone else’s blessings, you will literally be blind to whatever God is trying to do in your life, through your circumstances.  Envy, therefore, is a form of pride.  It’s a way of saying that we know what God should give us, better than God does.  As always, such pride is delusional.  We don’t know.  We’re not God.  God is good.  He loves us.  He gives good things to his children.  His timing is different than ours.  His perspective is different than ours.  He works “all things” together for good for those who love Him.

Bah, humbug.

Reminding ourselves that God is sovereign is where it’s easy to turn into Scrooge.  Sometimes it works.  But often we can tell ourselves to count our blessings, to trust God, and to not be envious until we’re blue in the face.  Killing envy all by ourselves is doomed.  We might manage to drive our envy a little deeper, but it will remain there, lurking, ready to sabotage our joy when we least expect it, unless we discover how to kill it dead.  Clearly, it’s time to for some supernatural help.  Luckily, we have Mark 15.

Envy runs like a varicose vein through this moving, hard to read, chapter in which Jesus is brutally murdered.  The religious leaders arrested Jesus “out of envy.”  v.10.  Just sit with that for a moment.  Jesus was crucified because of envy.  Envy is not a small problem.  It caused murder.  It caused the murder of an innocent man.  It caused the murder of God.

There is a strange irony at work here that lies at the heart of all envy; the people were envious of the wrong thing.  Here’s what I mean.  The leaders were envious of Jesus.  But why?  Jesus did not come to earth in His full glory.  Only during the transfiguration did He stand on earth as He could have – shiny and bright.  He didn’t come wearing a crown.  He didn’t come with legions of angels to minister to His every need; the only time we hear about the angels ministering to Him is after He fasted in the desert and withstood the devil’s temptations.  Instead, Jesus was born as a defenseless naked baby into a poor family.  He was wrapped in rags.  He took his first breath among animals.  He grew up a carpenter’s son.  He walked instead of flew.  He was just another human being.

And that’s the problem with envy.  Why are we envious even for a moment of another human being?  We all breathe the same fallen air.  We all have parents suffering from the same problem of selfishness.  We all have relationships with imperfect people.  We are all slaves of sin, buffeted this way and that by our relentless senseless desires.  We are all, as James Joyce put it: creatures “driven and derided by vanity.” We all grow dissatisfied with our achievements, possessions and relationships the moment we secure them.  We all want what we don’t have.  We should we waste even a second being jealous of anyone else?

We shouldn’t, but it’s easier said than done.  We are slaves to our envy, just like the crowds in this chapter.  And like the crowds, not only is our envy misguided, it causes us to act in ways that don’t make any sense.  Here, for instance, the crowds beg Pilate to release Barabbas, a murderer, instead of Jesus. They wanted a murderer out on the streets instead of an innocent man who healed their diseases.  Then the very people Jesus healed shouted at him in mockery. None of this makes sense.  How is it possible that the same crowds that cheered his entry into Jerusalem are now taunting him?  How do humans turn like that?

Envy blinds us.  It dehumanizes the person of whom we are jealous.  We no longer see them as fellow servants of God.  We see them as objects – as something standing between us and what we want.  Other people become just something reminding of us of the disparity between who we are, and who we think we ought to be.  People who have what we want can put us in a blind rage – with blindness being the key component.  Envy means we are incapable of loving other people.  But even if we kill the person of whom we are envious, we discover we’re no better off than we were before.  We still don’t have what we want – and now we have guilt on top of everything else.  So how can we heal ourselves of this blindness?

Luckily for us, there is another strain running through this chapter, one that stands in direct opposition to envy: we see a calm sense of God’s purpose.  Jesus doesn’t feel the need to explain himself.  He doesn’t yell about the crowds’ insanity.  He doesn’t cry out when he is whipped.  He doesn’t scream at the mocking people things like: ‘of course I could save myself, you idiots – I’m doing this for you!’  When a Roman centurion “saw how he had died, he exclaimed, ‘This man truly was the Son of God!'” v. 39.

Jesus truly was God’s Son.  Jesus’ reaction, in its own way, made as little sense as that caused by envy.  Jesus didn’t let the envy of the people destroy His love for them.  God has a love for us irrespective of our behavior.  If envy means we can’t love the person of whom we’re envious; the cross means Jesus loves us even in the very moment that we don’t love Him.

This kind of calm purposeful love from God on the cross provides the solution for envy.  Through the cross, God makes His glory available to us.  Jesus offers us the crown He chose not to wear.  Jesus let his robe be stripped from Him, to clothe us with His righteousness.  Jesus died alone and rejected in order to invite us into his family. There is a supernatural sense in which God meets all our needs, right now.  He offers to be friend, sibling, parent and lover to the lonely. He offers us the joy of a relationship with Him.

But our enemy wants to suck the joy from our lives by focusing our eyes on other people instead of on God.   Our enemy is a liar.  We don’t need to live in envy.  Instead, we can ask for God’s help.  If you feel a lack of joy today, and you don’t know why, ask God to show you what’s eating you up.  If you catch yourself doing things that don’t make sense, ask God what is controlling you.  If you find yourself wishing you had someone else’s house, car, children or spouse – tell  God you’re sorry and that you don’t want to be that way.

God already knows how you feel.  Chances are, the other people in your life already know, too. We can see envy on the faces of other people.  Our eyes are the windows to our soul.  We know when people say, “Congratulations” with their lips, but their hearts are far from us.  We can sense it.  God can, too.  If we let God cleanse us, we can finally start to see.

If we do, we discover that it can be Christmas every day.  With our hearts overflowing, we can love other humans the way God loves us – with a supernatural love based not on their actions, but on the simple fact that they are.  Envy withers in the face of the golden ring with which God woos each of us – the ring of His eternal love.  Slip it on.  No one can ever take it off. It was sealed with dying love.

posted by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks.com on December 21, 2011