05 February 2018

2017-2018 Philadelphia Eagles, Super Bowl LII Champions: "In all that he does, he prospers"

Bob Dylan's classic song, "With God on Our Side," resounds with cynicism.  It's an anthem against religious justification for acts of violence, racial subjection, and blind obedience that supersedes rational thought and conscience.  It exposes a sentiment that can be ultra-personal ("God won't judge me for this tiny infraction"), denominational ("Anabaptists deserve execution"), cultural ("God has called us to subject and educate the Native Americans"), or national ("The United States is the Promised Land").  Some of it takes the self-righteous positive stance, and some of it takes the damning negative stance against the other.  People often speak of God as a celestial cheerleader who lends support to a cause or grants divine favor to a particular group or movement.

More accurate is the position of Romans 3.10: "As it is written: 'None is righteous, no, not one.'"  Therefore, God's "position" is much more akin to the sentiment Treebeard expresses to the Hobbits in The Two Towers: “Side?  I am on nobody's side, because nobody is on my side, little orc.”

All that said, as a battered but hopeful Eagles fan, who has been soaking in all the hype leading up to and surrounding this phenomenal Super Bowl LII victory, the season has been a fascinating insight into what God does when people seek to worship Him in their personal lives.

It would, of course, be poor theology to suggest that God is an Eagles fan (despite jasper stones around the heavenly throne, just sayin'), and just as ridiculous to impose that God's attentions are riveted to our modern-day gladiator competitions.  But at the forefront of the 2017-2018 Eagles team are three incredible leaders (Pederson, Wentz, and Foles), surrounded by a united body of brothers in Christ, who have collectively gone out of their way to proclaim their love for and devotion to our Heavenly Father, giving Him the glory for their skills and their victories.  That is something absolutely extraordinary -- not just within the NFL, but in all pro sports.

It's one thing to have the stereotypical "I thank God and my family" media soundbites from your super-star.  It's a rare but great thing to have a single, sold-out believer on your team who radically speaks to the media about his or her faith.  But it's another thing entirely when you have a core group of player and coaches who -- in every single interview with the media -- unanimously credit Jesus Christ not only with gifting them with talents, but also with changing their lives and motivating them to humility, self-sacrifice, and servanthood.  The Eagles are on a whole other level with this.  The testimonies of Pederson, Wentz, and Foles have all received attention simply because they're the ones most often confronted with microphones, but there are so many others -- among them, Stefen Wisniewski, Jordan Hicks, Trey Burton, Chris Maragos, Torrey Smith, Marcus Johnson, Zach Ertz, and others.  This is a team where players like Chris Long not only donate their paychecks to charity, but also do short-term missions work (Carson Wentz, Torrey Smith), and aspire to become pastors post-NFL (Nick Foles).  This is a team where players not only attend team chapel (out of devotion rather than obligation), but also preach at team chapel.  These are teammates who have held baptisms in their locker room, who have taken every opportunity after games to pray on the field with members of the opposing team, and who deflect media ego-stroking with humble recognition of God's sovereignty.

And there's plenty to brag about, of course.  Their athleticism, team play, and individual stats -- setting franchise and league records -- all speak for themselves.  In fact, if the Eagles were just a bunch of decent players surrounding a star quarterback, there is no way their season could have continued after Wentz's injury, much less secured a Super Bowl victory.  Instead, they fought on, adapted, and continued to play their absolute best, having some incredible fun in the process, and proving that they truly had greatness.  In the process of losing key players left and right all season long yet going on to defeat the greatest team in recent NFL history, there have been plenty of opportunities for self-pity and arrogance alike, but so many players' testimonies of faith -- though tested by fire -- have all proven strong.

The implication of this is certainly not that God is an Eagles fan or that He's "on our side" simply because Eagles players repped Him in postgame interviews.  But it is certainly a biblical principle that God blesses the work of the faithful.  Psalm 1.1-3 attests to this: "Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.  He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers."  The beauty of this principle is that, in terms of God's kingdom, such prospering is both micro- and macroscopic.  It works like this: God shows Himself to be faithful by honoring the work of a righteous man's hands (i.e. career choices, ministry involvement, and even skill development).  As God shows Himself to be faithful, the righteous man gives God glory and worship and praise, not mistaking the tangible blessing as his ultimate reward, but as a small display of God's unfathomable grace.  As he does so, others see and testify, and they too give God glory and worship and praise.  And so the cycle continues.  It's not about God blessing the temporal things we do on this earth, it's also about Him blessing our eternal investments into His Kingdom, which isn't primarily about the big stuff -- missions trips, social work, etc -- but about our every-day, Romans 12:1-2 worship.  Don't make the mistake of seeing this as the absolute nonsense of prosperity doctrine: God does NOT always make us wealthy and healthy just because we're obedient or have strong faith.  He does, however, honor the righteous who aren't looking for an immediate reward, but who do their very best to worship God in everything, whatever the consequence, and keep their eyes on the REAL reward of eternity with Christ.

Nowhere is that principle more clearly illustrated than in our franchise quarterback.  Since Carson's injury in Week 14 against LA, I've been telling friends and family that he has an even greater testimony to give from the sidelines than he does from the pocket.  For a man whose love for Christ and joy in everything he does are so obvious to go out with a season-ending injury, but still maintain his demeanor and remain committed to being a coach, leader, and teammate from the sidelines -- and to rejoice with his backup as he assumes leadership and brings the team to a championship...  This is a much more powerful statement to who Carson Wentz is as a follower of Christ, and how awesome is the God we serve!  Interestingly enough, that's exactly the biblical model of discipleship: one leading and instructing while another watches and learns, then humbly stepping aside to allow the other to take the helm and become the leader.  Sometimes circumstances demand that the transition happens sooner than expected, and the real test of a man's maturity is in how he responds when things don't go the way he planned.

Dylan was right to criticize sins justified by religion and race.  The only one who can justify is God, and He didn't sweep our sins under the rug and pretend like they didn't happen.  Instead, He came in the form of a man to pay for all of our misdeeds, and to graciously give us His own righteousness instead of the eternal death we deserved.  The beauty of entering into new spiritual life with Christ is that He engages with us as we, by His Spirit, align ourselves to Him -- to be on HIS side.  He blesses the work of our hands for His glory and for our good.

I believe that's what we witnessed with this Eagles team all season long: God's blessing for honest and visible faith on the field.  While that doesn't guarantee a Philadelphia dynasty or even a repeat Superbowl run for 2018-2019, it does mean that God has always honored and will honor humble, righteous men for their love, devotion, and service to Him -- either in this world or in Heaven to come.

04 January 2018

Spirit-Mindedness and a New Year

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.
- Romans 8.5-6

It's easy to blame a lack of peace on our circumstances.  If only I wasn't up against this issue, if only I didn't have to do that thing, if only I wasn't so (fill in the blank).  We tend to deflect responsibility onto the things that are outside of our control rather than acknowledging the things that are inside our sphere of influence, because it's easier on our pride to be an innocent victim than it is to be guilty.

A big reason we struggle with ingratitude and anxiety throughout the year, and then feel communally guilty around the holiday season about not being more consistently thankful, is that we tend to set our minds on things of the flesh.  We allow ourselves to buy into the frenetic pace of life and wonder why the chaos has crept from our color-coded, spreadsheet calendars into our hearts.

"If only I weren't so busy!"  "If only I didn't have to get all of that stuff done!"

Poignantly, after encouraging believers to "set their minds on the things of the Spirit," Paul goes on in Romans 8 to say that minds set on the flesh instead are actually openly hostile toward God, because they submit only to their own laws and desires, not to His.  Ultimately, in this idolatrous and distracted state of mind, we render ourselves incapable of pleasing Him.

The Greek word translated as "set their minds" is "phroneo," which means to possess a consistent attitude or a certain view.  Therefore, if I'm "setting my mind" on the Spirit, it's something characteristic and ongoing, not an on-again/off-again thing.  Note that we can do this either with the Spirit, or with the flesh, which means one way or the other is my consistent attitude or certain view.

Setting my mind on the flesh isn't merely a distracted thought life, it's a distraught thought life, and Paul warns that this practice is akin to spiritual death.  That's a big deal, because we as Christians have been bought and justified through the blood of Jesus Christ and deemed eternally righteous before God the Father on the account of the Son.  It's therefore a HUGE problem for us to go back to old ways of thinking, to characteristic types of feeling and operating we did while we were still spiritually dead, because that's no longer who we are.

Do you, like me, sometimes lack peace of mind?  Do you, like me, sometimes focus more on the negative circumstances and heavy demands of life on earth rather than orienting your heart on the character of God and His calling for your life?  Do you, like me, wrestle with a spirit of ingratitude?  If so, then here are three steps we both can take toward Spirit-mindedness in this new year.

1. Maintain a proper focus: I can't control my circumstances, but I can control my attitude.

I might not always like what comes my way, but I can control the ways in which I speak of my circumstances, how much and in what manner I dwell on them, and altogether be proactive to manage my time and resources well.  The struggle to maintain a spirit of gratitude is greatly augmented by a proper focus: God is good, He has blessed me abundantly through His Son, and He has a plan that I might not yet comprehend.  To set my mind on the things of the Spirit is to focus not on how difficult things are, but to choose to see God's hand in everything and trust Him with the outcome.

2. Maintain a proper thought life: I should be sober-minded, not absent-minded.

Eastern meditation practices are all about emptying the mind in order to find inner peace.  This is where Biblical principles of meditation part ways with Zen culture: our goal as Christians is not to be absent-minded and thereby open ourselves to temptation and forgetfulness, or to relinquish control of our often sinful imaginations, but to do the exact opposite.  1 Peter 5.8 warns Christians to be vigilant and sober-minded because the battle to maintain Spirit-mindedness requires us to be cognizant,  level-headed, and in control of our faculties as we face all manner of choices and temptations.  If I don't strive to control my thoughts and my feelings, I will inevitably drift into self-centered patterns of thinking, giving myself over to a complaining spirit and any anxieties that might come my way.  That's neither a recipe for knowing God's peace, nor is it even remotely what righteous living should look like.

3. Maintain proper self-discipline: Prayer and the Word must be priorities.

Lastly, it is virtually impossible for me to truly be Spirit-minded, knowing peace and gratitude, if my personal fellowship with God isn't truly a priority.  In the same way that I can't maintain a healthy relationship with my wife if we spend all of our time together in front of the TV or focusing on our hobbies, I also can't have intimacy with God if I allow my schedule and my concerns to take precedence over my regular, focused prayer life and study time in His Word.  These disciplines are just that -- practices that require time, work, and attentiveness -- but they are instrumental in maintaining Spirit-mindedness and orienting us away from our human tendency to focus only on the things of this world.

Each of these principles is but one step.  If you think of them like stepping stones crossing a river, you know that it will take more than just three to make it safely to dry land: you must repeat those steps.  Again.  And again.  A new year might represent a fresh calendar start, but all of those cares and concerns you had before the holidays began are already audaciously un-pausing themselves and leaping back into view, I'm sure.  Maintaining Spirit-mindedness across each proverbial river is to take careful steps, navigating the inevitable circumstances of life with renewed focus, thought life, and self-discipline.  Don't make the mistake of seeing yourself as a victim, no matter what's in your past: instead, proactively take responsibility to respond well to stress and challenge, no matter how unfair, by leaning into the grace and wisdom of God, both of which are readily available to us as we make each crossing.

20 December 2017

Star Wars: State of the Union, Pt. 2

In case there was any mystery about it (but probably not), I've loved everything Star Wars since before my age reached double digits.  I grew up with the Original Trilogy, and then the first round of Special Edition releases on VHS -- the ones with those 30+ minute George Lucas documentaries that were, for some self-egrandizing reason, placed BEFORE the feature film.  I've faithfully followed EU content since I found Michael Stackpole's The Bacta War (the fourth X-Wing novel) in 1997 while walking through a random book store with my dad, and my mind was completely blown that there were MORE STAR WARS STORIES than just what was on film.  I suffered through the prequels when they were released with some enormous internal love/hate conflict, because a) MORE STAR WARS STORIES, but because b) bad acting and poor retconning.  And the same could be said of my current predicament with Episodes VII and VIII: a) MORE STAR WARS STORIES, but b) not at all what I'd dared to hope for.

Those of us who come from decades of EU fandom are probably at a huge disadvantage compared to those who are new fans, or those who never delved into that treasury.  Viewing these new movies with a more or less blank slate for post-ROTJ material is definitely a leg-up toward appreciating the new direction of the franchise.  And even with my scruples, there's lots of stuff to like about these new movies.  Granted, I had a lot less to complain about with The Force Awakens than I have with The Last Jedi, but for the most part, I've ridden the wave of excitement surrounding all of the new and upcoming Star Wars films.

Why?  Because I've loved everything Star Wars since before my age reached double digits.

That said, what I forgot is that -- in this day and age -- you're not allowed to hold a critical opinion or you're automatically intolerant and shortsighted (even if you love the very thing you criticize).  And you're especially not allowed to be critical of anything touting itself as progressive, and TLJ makes no bones about its attempt to radically challenge the established "rules" and tropes of a 40-year-old franchise.  I'm exceptionally critical of TLJ because I think it was radical simply for the sake of being radical (my thoughts on the movie itself here).  But I'm also exceptionally critical because I've loved everything Star Wars since before my age reached double digits, and when you love something, you truly want it to be the best it can possibly be.  Unfortunately, the modern mindset can't comprehend how you can possibly say anything negative about anything deemed to be progress.

In that regard, this followup post really isn't about Star Wars movies.  It's about Star Wars fandom.  And I wouldn't feel the need to bring up the issue, except that media everywhere and even voices from within the franchise itself have backlashed against the backlash against TLJ (did you follow that sentence?).  Fandom itself has been on trial in the weeks following the release of TLJ, because people no longer know how to disagree about things without drawing battle lines -- not even when it pertains to space operas about space wizards and laser swords.  Joanna Robinson put it best in this great Vanity Fair article about the same topic: "We are, these days, a culture of extremes."  Therefore, it's become virtually impossible for any kind of disagreement to be cordial.  That's why articles upon articles are being published, and even the Alt-Right has been brought into the conversation about maliciously impacting reviews.  A strong variety of passive aggressive memes are right now being rampantly shared by official pages and fans alike, criticizing the fanbase for claiming The Force Awakens was too much like the original trilogy, and then claiming The Last Jedi wasn't like them enough.  In other words, casting the filmmakers and writers as victims: "They've done what you wanted, what more do you want?"

There will never be a perfect conclusion to this trilogy.  I don't say that because I'm a crotchety EU fanboy, but because there is realistically no way any filmmaker can touch any kind of original material by addding onto it or changing it in some way, and not expect somebody somewhere to have contrary opinions.  Not with the amount of time that has passed between the release of ROTJ and today, a time period in which so many stories and theories and ideas have become entrenched, and not everyone is capable of letting their imagination go so easily.

And to retreat to my intial point, that SHOULD be okay.  We should all be allowed to have our own opinions and disagree on which movie is the best in the Star Wars universe without being cast as ungrateful children.  I'm not sure why the fanbase (or subsets of the fanbase) should be labeled fickle for disliking the direction a particular franchise film went, especially when -- by virtue of writing more stories -- you are narrowing the scope of the myth and the mystery surrounding a story by locking it into a defined narrative with defined events and defined results.  If you write the followup story, you inveitably take away theories and possibilities and cast the older material in new light.  That is inevitably going to irritate some people who feel as though well enough should have been left alone, while simultaneously catapulting other people with fewer preconceived notions into new heights of imagination.  The novels did the same thing back in 1978 when Alan Dean Foster's Splinter in the Mind's Eye first hit the shelves; Lucas' prequel trilogy did it again with The Phantom Menace in 1999; the Disney franchise is treading the same lonely paths of mixed reviews with The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.

When you love something, you want it to be the best it can be.  As someone who's loved everything Star Wars since before his age reached double digits, and as someone who enjoyed TFA but particularly disliked TLJ (maybe -- maybe -- almost as much as Attack of the Clones), I've also REALLY enjoyed discussing the particulars of this movie with both my friends who share my opinion and also those who completely disagreed with me.  It's helped me to see things in a different light, to better articulate my qualms with the new brand of storytelling, and to talk about space wizards and laser swords with people who care as much about them as I do, albeit from different perspectives.

In sum, I'm not sure why the filmmakers and critics and media reps are so offended and disheartened that some fans strongly dislike their movie and not everyone is head-over-heels for it.  I mean, there is that one idiot who started a petition to have The Last Jedi removed from the canon, so maybe it's all his fault?  Furthermore, I really wish people who all love Star Wars could stop drawing lines in the sand of what constitutes "true fandom" and together embrace the pros and cons of the imperfect art that is storytelling.  No franchise is flawless, and that's the beauty and integrity of what makes even space operas about wizards and laser swords ultimately about humanity.

Maybe The Last Jedi isn't the story I wanted, but it is the story I got.  Perhaps Episode IX will collectively bring TFA and TLJ into a much stronger, much more cohesive focus.  We won't know until we get there.  And since I've loved everything Star Wars since before my age reached double digits, and because I want Star Wars to be the very best it can be...  I'll wait with eager expectation.