Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Dracula - and how not to take up your enemies' weapons

I am re-visiting Bram Stoker's inspiration for his world-renowned vampire, Dracula - Vlad Tepes [pron. tse-pesh], the Wallachian Prince who protected Europe from invasion by the Ottoman Turks. Infamous for his brutality, his delight in impaling his foes by the THOUSANDS, and for having a nice meal where he dipped bread in the blood of his victims, one cannot imagine a greater villain in the late Middle Ages.

One of the things I could not help but notice was that he was raised by the Turks, being sent off as a young boy by his father as ransom, an assurance of peace, along with his other brother, Radu.

It was there he saw public executions, learned warfare and got a taste for human brutality. Once he came back, he wanted nothing to do with Islam, and kept his faith [so to speak] in Roman Catholic Christianity, but with a sadistic twist that was utterly un-Christian. His father had been part of the "Order of the Dragon" - an order of knights dedicated to stopping the spread of Islam. His dad was a "Dracul" or "dragon" and so he was, as his son, "Dracula" - Son of the Dragon.

He certainly was. We Christians know that another name for Satan is "the great dragon". In Romanian, the word for dragon and devil are the same by some accounts I have read. So, truthfully, Vlad was a "Son of the Devil" - and proved it by using devilish cruelty to halt the spread of Islam into Europe.

It did, in fact, work. The Ottoman general who marched in with three times the men to crush Vlad, was greeted with a horrific sight: Vlad had impaled every dead, every wounded soldier of his last battle on pikes. Some 23,000 corpses, making a FOREST of human desecration.

The Turkish general was awed by this horror and its magnitude. "What can you do against such men?" He turned and left, leaving Radu [who'd converted to Islam] to pursue his vicious brother.

Vlad escaped him, but was soon captured by a neighboring ally, imprisoned for 12 years, got out briefly and was so feared by his own people, he got no aid to fight the Turks later. He fell in battle and his head was IMPALED and sent to the Sultan himself!

A very unhappy ending.

The lesson I want to leave you with is this:


Jesus rebukes Peter for pulling out his sword. "All who live by the sword will DIE by the sword!"

Right now, Christians are under attack by gay rights activists for standing for the traditional, Biblical definition of marriage. We are not talking about love or sex, but what constitutes a marriage and by extension a family.

I am watching many Christians get overworked about this issue. I am listening to hateful words being spewed on them for this. "Bigot" is the mild one.

It goes downhill from there.

If we want to disobey God, to deny Jesus Christ's commands, we can. We can strike back -hard.

Or we can simply love our enemies, pray for them and show compassion in all the OTHER areas we can agree with. Miss California who appears to have lost her chance at the crown by standing with her faith in God's Word (she is a Christian), shows how it is done in this interview:

I have an opponent who is GBLT Activist, and I have an old friend who is gay, and we just re-connected.

What am I going to do?

Well, I am not going to pick up Satan's weapons. I'm going to point out that EVERY TIME I disobeyed God, I got hurt - badly. I will show the truth from God's Word, but I expect anger and ridicule for that. It's an occupational hazard.

"God came to save sinners, of whom I am chief!" wrote Paul.

I did not obey God until I knew the love of Christ. I think showing that has got to be the hardest mission of all. [If it makes anyone feel better, keep in mind God is so serious about sin He killed His Son to pay for it, to enable us to be free from it. No one is going to "get away" with defying God, I assure you.]

We, who call ourselves followers of Christ, must also obey His commands.

We must never use our enemies' tactics. We do so at the peril of their souls -and ours.


Monday, April 27, 2009

Victims and Villains, Pt. 2

The greatest villains of all time are simply are mirror-reflection of the hero. They both have similar qualities, similar goals and even perhaps a close friendship: father/son, mentor/disciple, partners in work/play/life, and then - KABLOOIEEE!

Something explodes or fails and one can take it and the other cannot.

It is one of the most used dramatic tropes, and I never tire of it. I loves it, precioussss.

But why does a hero's story arc turn out so good and a villain's so bad?

I think Robert McKee said it in his book about Story, but I could be wrong. It may be just a proverbial rule of storytelling. It goes like this:

Always give the audience what it wants, but never the way they expect it.

What does that have to do with villain origins? This mirror-reflection of the hero? This other side of the coin, as it were? Simple.

The same loss or temptation happens to both the hero and the villain; they both at some point, get what they want, BUT NOT THE WAY THEY EXPECTED IT. The problem is one can accept the weirdness and loss, because they believe it can be used for good, in time.

Tragedy will be transformed into something powerful.

The villain refuses to accept this. He wants it the way it WAS or the way he thinks it should be ON HIS TERMS. He becomes cruel as he begins to control and demand control over other lives. He will not be a "victim" to "the fates" again!

You see, the villain cannot accept a change in plans, a change in fortune. First they are victims - and that is understandable - but then they become villains.

I have seen loss of a spouse make men crazy. I've seen divorce embitter souls. I've seen betrayal after betrayal turn decent men into robots, their spirits crushed by injustice.

But to go from victimhood to true villainy takes something special. A level of self-rightness (not self-righteousness - that has too many religious connotations) but a level of "My way was right! I was right! You did me wrong! Life is unfair!" and so on and so forth until the anger and rage and bitterness coupled with pride explodes outward in "I'll show you! I'll show you ALL!!"

The "audience" did not get what they wanted and they will make the "director" pay.

The Director of Life that permits loss and failure and bad things to happen. It is unspoken and in fiction we say "the fates" or "the cosmos" or "the gods" but we know Who they really mean.

The Creator of the universe. God. El-Shaddai. YHWH.

He also, however, permits miracles and wonders and guarantees eternity for those who accept and trust Him.

A villain cannot see past his own pain, and a victim is still experiencing it. So how do you prevent a victim from becoming a villain?

By helping them. By saying "I understand. I know how you feel. I too was beaten up by a family member. I too was betrayed by a Christian/pastor/minister/priest. I too lost all my money, my friends, my wife. I too am a stranger in a strange land. I too have an alcoholic brother/father/mother, etc. I too have a family that rejects me for my lifestyle."

You see a villain believes he was used by others. His plans were stopped by men. With no faith in God (or even karma or a source of metaphysical justice), he believes he must wring out what is just by his own two hands, his own words, his own power, etc.

The hero aids the victims and confronts the villains. That's their job. That's their calling.

Having suffered, they understand what is needed. Having survived, they can give hope.

But both sides live in us -the hurt who became a hero, the victim who became a villain.

How do you know the difference? I mean isn't the hero for the Conservatives the villain for the Liberals and vice-versa?

Sure. There's a way you can know.

How they treat their enemy when they are on the ropes.

The villain will chortle and laugh and make snide remarks, dehumanizing their opponent further.

They did not want their foe stopped as much as humiliated.

Strangely, this is their goal - not just a tactical victory, but an emotional satisfaction. It is seen perfectly here, in the humiliation of Jesus Christ:

Mark 15:16-33
The soldiers led Jesus away into the palace (that is, the Praetorium) and called together the whole company of soldiers. They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him. And they began to call out to him, "Hail, king of the Jews!"

Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spit on him. Falling on their knees, they paid homage to him. And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.

In the Pixar movie, The Incredibles, Frozone and Mr. Incredible are laughing at the need of their arch-villains to "monologue". To exposit for several minutes on the failure and weakness of their enemy, the hero.

I think we understand it. I think we see the rage and anger that literally possesses the villain. They need something bubbling in their soul to be lanced. They want the hero to feel the despair and alienation they have felt; the humbling and humiliation they have let simmer in their proud heart.

They didn't become super villains for any rational reason. Why should they end the life of their foe with cool dispatch?

Why were these Roman soldiers beating Jesus like this? Because they were stuck in Judea dealing with rebellious Jews and insurrectionists and were sick and tired of it.

They poured out their rage on this ugly itinerant preacher; the self-proclaimed "King of the Jews"! (I know Jesus was asked and simply told the truth - but how ARROGANT He must have seemed to these soldiers!) There were over 200 men in that Praetorium that Jewish holiday (some commentators place the number up to 600). They beat Jesus so badly they needed another man, Simon the Cyrenian, to carry his crossbeam for him as they left the city.

They were insane -enraged and merciless.

And they fulfilled prophecy.

Villains do not care who they hurt as long as they get what they want.

Heroes do not care how much they ARE hurt as long as they achieve their goal.

That's what Jesus did.

"For the joy set before Him, He endured the cross and its shame."


Friday, April 24, 2009

Vamps and Villains, Pt. 1

Yeah, I'm out twirling my moustache, trying to create some recognizable-yet-not-total-ripoff villains for my Supers RPG, Criminals and Crusaders.

Years ago, when my dream was to make it big in comics, I had a Note/Sketchbook that had an area you could draw on and a lined column to the right. It was perfect to work out my ideas, blending both sides of the brain: the written word and the visual concept, enabling one to feed off of the other.

My latest ceration? Fiendess, the Cackling Comedienne of Crime. Just think of Phyllis Diller or Jenny McCarthy meeting the Joker and you've nailed it.

Her backstory was a little rough, but I took a hint from Alan Moore's origin of the Joker and realized that an entertaining dame could conceivably get very close to a mob boss or one of his lieutenants.

"Hey, big Mickey. Whatcha' doin' with a broad heah?"
"She makes me laugh. Shut your face."

And when everything goes south as this Las Vegas/Comedy Central girl who started her own cosmetics firm gets asked by the Feds to spy on the Giaconni family? Well, you just knew it had to happen, right? A firefight in the middle of a "Killer Looks" [her legitimate corp] Board meeting and suddenly she is going backwards through a sliding glass door, over a railing and down two stories onto shelves of chemicals?

What's that? A little too Joker-like?

Hey - I SAID it had to be recognizable! ;)

The funny/sad/scary thing was that I felt the pathos of the character - this crazy woman who entertained everyone to be accepted and loved. Classic movie star type, and tied to the Mob. It was inevitable and tragic.

There are bad girls who have had enough - and bad girls who never say "Enough!"

Both are found in the Bible, you know. Here's Rahab the prostitute telling the Israelites, the good guys, she will work with them.

Joshua 2:1-15
Then Joshua son of Nun secretly sent two spies from Shittim. "Go, look over the land," he said, "especially Jericho." So they went and entered the house of a prostitute named Rahab and stayed there.

The king of Jericho was told, "Look! Some of the Israelites have come here tonight to spy out the land." So the king of Jericho sent this message to Rahab: "Bring out the men who came to you and entered your house, because they have come to spy out the whole land."

But the woman had taken the two men and hidden them. She said, "Yes, the men came to me, but I did not know where they had come from. At dusk, when it was time to close the city gate, the men left. I don't know which way they went. Go after them quickly. You may catch up with them." (But she had taken them up to the roof and hidden them under the stalks of flax she had laid out on the roof.) So the men set out in pursuit of the spies on the road that leads to the fords of the Jordan, and as soon as the pursuers had gone out, the gate was shut.

Before the spies lay down for the night, she went up on the roof and said to them, "I know that the LORD has given this land to you and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. We have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. When we heard of it, our hearts melted and everyone's courage failed because of you, for the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below. Now then, please swear to me by the LORD that you will show kindness to my family, because I have shown kindness to you. Give me a sure sign that you will spare the lives of my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and that you will save us from death."

"Our lives for your lives!" the men assured her. "If you don't tell what we are doing, we will treat you kindly and faithfully when the LORD gives us the land."

So she let them down by a rope through the window, for the house she lived in was part of the city wall.

Rahab helped them and ended up being the great, great, great grandmother of King David and the ancestor of Jesus Christ.

In stark contrast, we see the ruthless Jezebel, widow of weak-willed King Ahab, gets her come-uppance after making sure she was "presentable" - and snide.

2 Kings 9:30-37
Then Jehu went to Jezreel. When Jezebel heard about it, she painted her eyes, arranged her hair and looked out of a window. As Jehu entered the gate, she asked, "Have you come in peace, Zimri, you murderer of your master?"

He looked up at the window and called out, "Who is on my side? Who?" Two or three eunuchs looked down at him. "Throw her down!" Jehu said. So they threw her down, and some of her blood spattered the wall and the horses as they trampled her underfoot.

Jehu went in and ate and drank. "Take care of that cursed woman," he said, "and bury her, for she was a king's daughter."

But when they went out to bury her, they found nothing except her skull, her feet and her hands. They went back and told Jehu, who said, "This is the word of the LORD that he spoke through his servant Elijah the Tishbite: On the plot of ground at Jezreel dogs will devour Jezebel's flesh. Jezebel's body will be like refuse on the ground in the plot at Jezreel, so that no one will be able to say, 'This is Jezebel.' "

Ewwwwwwwwwww- the dogs ate her FACE!!

Maybe Maybelline tastes good?

Anyway, my mother had a saying: "Pretty is as pretty does."

When you are crafting your villains, keep in mind that they must have very desirable qualities - beauty, intellect, education, wealth - that THEN become twisted.

'Almost good' people make the BEST villains, I have found.

Have fun creating yours.


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Origins: When Do We Want Heroes?

Last night I sat in stupefied horror as I watched the newest incarnation of Batman in the animated series The Brave and The Bold.

Evidently, Batman seemed too dark to the show's creators and they decided to regress him back to the non-offensive, the Joker is just a prankster, every hero is a buddy, Adam West and Burt Ward days.

At first glance, I was impressed, since I saw an unusual episode where Batman had gone back in time to meet Sherlock Holmes. He fought alongside Etrigan - the half-demon, half-human rhyming powerhouse (kudos for that) against a soul-stealing demon of Hell. It had a solid grim lesson: demons lie and trusting them will bring you horror not power.

So I watched another episode and went "GAHHHHHHHHHH!!" It was bad.

I tried another. "Uhrk..." It too was bad.

Just like that, the Powers that Be decided to undo 12 years of coolness, the coolness we had gotten from Bruce Timm.

Now Timm had gotten his lessons the hard way: he was self-taught and was in love with the genre. He was unable to become a regular artist for DC or Marvel, but ended up getting the opportunity to create with all of DC's main characters and then some! He even got to "back-pollinate" by creating Harlequin, the Joker's girlfriend, and did such a fine job, DC made her part of their youth market line of comics - Batman Adventures.

Timm got his inspiration for his dark urban landscapes and epic heroism from the old Fleischer cartoons of Superman, done waaaaayyyy back in the 1940's during World War II.

They are in the public domain, I believe, and in watching them, you see the heavy dark areas, the fluidity of movement, the expression of line, etc. They are amazingly good artistically. They have some whimsy that is not too oppressive and - since this is the Superman of yesteryear - Supes really has to hammer away and work to defeat his villains.

But why did we want Superman? Why did he succeed and Captain Marvel did not - oh, he outsold Superman for a little while, but the Big Red Cheese never captured America like the Big Red S.

For that matter, why did Batman also succeed under Bill Finger's hand (the real genius behind Bob Kane's creation)?

Why does Spider-man rule in all sales? What makes these guys so good - so iconic they can survive anything but a personality change?

Answer: loss. Real, understandable loss.

How many boys of European descent read Superman "strange visitor from another world" - dressed like everyone else but not like everyone else?

How many boys in the late 30's were orphans or friends of orphans? Who had lost either one or both parents in the Great Depression - or later in World War II?

The same with Spidey - only we add in the self-focus of the Beat Generation. Poor Peter - he never had a chance to be the super star he wanted to be.

But he could be a hero.

I think when we lose the idea of loss - of alienation - we cease to be able to understand the heroic trope. You see a hero is not a person who does great deeds or has great powers.

A hero is a person who has suffered great loss and refuses to fall down and die over it.

An anti-hero is nearly the same persona, except they work not for the good of others but their own power base. They heroically survive to defeat their foes, but they have no goal outside of that.

When do we want heroes - even anti-heroes? In wartime, in a time of great depression, in any time of great loss.

We don't want just straight fantasy, though that is fun for the moment. We want to see someone survive and make it - and make a difference in the world.

If you forget that, you lose your audience.

And you lose your hero. Something we can never afford to do.


Monday, April 20, 2009

Columbine Tragedy and "I Am Death"

I had just begun working with kids in the inner city of Memphis at a Christian private school when I heard the news. I had quit working for O'Connor Kenny and Partners, Inc. as a Web Designer in November, hoping to get by on freelance. No such luck. By January, I was volunteering at The Neighborhood School, in two weeks I was offered a job as an After School Program Assistant and by two months I was asked to be the first "House Father" for 4 At-Risk boys.

Then we got the news.

Some young emotionally disturbed teens - evidently of the angry atheist variety - had gone into Columbine High School and begun shooting the students. Early reports said one girl, Cassie Bernall, had been asked "Do you believe in God?" to which she replied "Yes." The shooter then said "Why?" and blew her head off without giving her a chance to reply.

That was the story. Now, 10 years later, on several atheist websites that is being challenged. In fact, the FBI has accepted the testimony of other witnesses that this is not what happened.

She was simply shot in the head for no other reason than being there.

But Cassie was indeed a Christian. She had very much been changed by coming to Christ earlier. Another girl it seems was asked the question and her response, AFAIK did not elicit a gunshot.

Here's what's tragically amusing.

The atheists are slobberingly angry that 'one of them' was accused of killing Cassie Bernall for her belief. In fact, she was just casually murdered.

By atheists. By godless boys with deep anger in their hearts, hurt over their perceived rejection by peers.

Now not all rationalists, naturalists, etc. who place no faith in God or Christ are murderers. It is not a sufficient cause to prompt anyone to go shooting.

But I think losing all faith in God and His ultimate justice is a necessary cause to become a murderer. You have to think 'I'll fix this problem with my own two hands!' You have to believe there will be no Greater Authority who will fix it other than yourself.

"If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself!"

Ever hear that?

You see, I think these boys were damned angry - and wanted to express their pain on as many people as possible before ending their own lives. We see the murder/suicide pattern often. First, you kill others. Then, you kill yourself.

Recently, I read the novella I Am Death by Gary Amdahl. Its the story of a Chicagoland reporter who is invited by a legendary mob boss to help him write his biography. Without giving too much away, lets just say it ends surprisingly, as surprisingly as Joe Pesci's voiceover ended in the film GoodFellas.

I have to go, and I guess I will finish this blog later today, but for now, the facts of life and death point to our hearts as the biggest factor in deciding who lives and dies. We have enough freedom and ammo - metaphorically and physically - to kill lots of souls.

There is a reason Judas hung himself.

There is a reason Pilate washed his hands and capitulated to the mob and let Jesus be crucified.

Atheism lives in each one of us. We have to decide whether there is justice and judgment by a righteous Judge or not.

If we trust Him, it tends to work out. Even death cannot end our journey.

If we do not trust Him, it tends to come to great evil. Even death cannot end our pain.


Maybe I do not need to come back after all. Jesus said "Whoever believes in Me shall not die but live."

Cassie knew that. Her life on this Earth was only a few hours shorter than her attackers, but she lived far better.

And is far happier - right now.


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Criminals & Crusaders (or "How to make your very own Christian RPG")

Dean Zachary's fine work from Night Man #17I mentioned in yesterday's post how I loved Dungeons and Dragons back in the day. Along with comics, it was my escape, my "booze" as it were, to grant me some relief from all the "trials and tribulations" of dealing with my teen years [insert pathetic musical string here].

But just so's you know, that in and of itself was not a bad thing. The bad thing was not knowing the better comfort in Christ, knowing the love and joy of a personal relationship with Jesus himself.

I am grateful for role-playing games simply because they gave a physically safe outlet and enabled me to meet and play with a wide variety of friends I NEVER would have met without them. Sports fans who play fantasy football or baseball know exactly what I mean. You gather and converse and eat and drink and have a lot of fun and then go home to wife/kids/jobs/studies.

Hobbies are good. They just should not be a replacement for the better.

We humans can deify anything except God, it seems. We can deify romance ["Without you, I will die!"], objects ["You touch my car and you're dead!"] or family ["I don't know what I'd do without my wife and kids."] These sentiments - even some of the over-the-top ones - are perfectly understandable to us. We've had them ourselves and heard them expressed them a hundred times in movies, in novels, etc.

But deify an invisible God and you are a freak. You are nuts.

Trust me. Never say "Isn't God good?" in front of a person who is defying Him. They should be deifying Him but somehow they missed a letter.

And so, with my love of RPGs, and love of the superhero genre, I want to make my very own role-playing homebrew called Criminals and Crusaders: A Classic Supers RPG (tm). [The artwork is lifted straight form The Night Man, issue 17. I know the artist Dean Zachary and he has graciously allowed me to use some of his work inside. This cover is merely a sample of his excellence.]

My problem is that I know human hearts like mine, hate any mention of "religion" in their "free time" - as if God is bugging them while they are trying to play. And, truth be told, it should not - at least not that way.

But the Bible is so full of superheroes and the genre was crafted and built by so many Jewish and Christian men using Judeo-Christian morals, I am burdened and compelled to put as much faith and truth in it as possible. Not preaching, but rather messages - just like all good movies and plays and novels do.

Should I include Bible passages? Afraid I will offend the non-believer?

I think, "Yeah. When cool and appropriate. Why not? Plenty of RPGs don't care."

Will I lose mass appeal by doing it this way? Maybe. Like I said, this isn't an evangelical tract, but it will point to faith in God indirectly. Like C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, it will be infused with it without being terrifically overt.

I guess the hardest thing to do is to be just like Jesus. To show by example, by story and by amazing events that there is more to life than just going to work, getting some tasks done and then dying, uncertain of eternity.

I think I will treat it more as a child of my heart, not my head, hoping someone else will fall in love with the Author of authors.

Who creates heroes to face criminals, who is not afraid of drama or conflict, who decides in the end that the good guys always win - even if a few die on the way to victory.

For games are God's way of revealing our soul - of letting us briefly pretend we are someone different. Someone we WANT to be.

I think it'd be nice to craft a game in which a person can pretend to be a hero when all the world says they are not.

Perhaps escaping from that message of the world is not the worst thing we can imagine.


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The King is Dead, Long Live the King!

Dave Arneson, the man who co-created Dungeons and Dragons with Gary Gygax, has followed him into eternity. He passed away at the age of 61 one week ago. (See Dave's Wiki article here.)

I loved playing AD&D in high school, being able to be creative and adventure in strange lands with fighters, mages, clerics and thieves.

But as a Christian in a household that read the Bible nightly, I had trouble with the non-Christian aspects, and simply accepted that using myth and magic was far more entertaining than not exercising my creative mind and imagination. It was the only way to escape the drudgery and duties I was given day after day. [Insert suburban youth sob story]

To say I was a compliant Christian with no real spiritual interest does not begin to tell the whole story. Suffice to say I thought I was a Christian because I held certain concepts about the death and resurrection of Jesus and tried to be good - most of the time.

I had no desire to be a "born again" Christian nor did I have any desire to have Jesus (who seemed pretty tame and a bit wussy) as my Lord. He did not keep the bullies off of me at school and having sex with my girlfriend was a bit more important than reading the Bible. I was in fact, a white-washed loser of a Christian.

I held the precepts as "true" like I held my AP Math as true. Yeah, its true, but it doesn't do much for your heart or soul or change your life, really.

So I knew more about the Dungeon Master's Guide than the Bible, and turned there for my release and my entertainment, my comfort and my excitement.

There was, however, an exception in my Christian faith that did awaken me that it could be more glorious than sitting half-awake in a liberal church listening to short homilies. There was, just a few years before I was introduced to AD&D, a Christian artist, a musician, who stunned me with his powerful songs about Jesus. They were not mooney, pie-in-the-sky "You Are the Light of My Life" songs.

No, they had punch and drama. They hit hard, and I liked them. The problem is, I did not know I was supposed to respond by giving my life fully to Christ. I thought that was covered when I got baptised and told everyone I believed. There is a VAST difference between the two, as I now know.

"Its like the difference between a night light and a strobe light," I told one inquirer.

The artist who awakened my hunger to know Jesus as the King who was ALIVE was Don Francisco. I heard this by song back in 1978, when I was 13 and newly baptized, and in 1998, after I knew Jesus as my True Lord and God Incarnate, I bought the CD with his greatest hits the moment I saw it. The song answers the shame and pain of Peter who denied Jesus and his joy and release at finding out his best friend in the world is not dead.

Swords, soldiers and tombs could not stop this King.

When I heard the Voice of Christ after my divorce, immediately after telling a girl we would not be sleeping together (and her angry exit), I discovered the very joy Peter felt that morning - and an utter realization of how badly I stank: morally, ethically and relationally.

But Jesus did something crazy: He forgave me and embraced me.

If you do not know Him, I cannot tell you how good that felt.

Believe me, Jesus is good and forgiving. He is alive.

I know it for a fact. I hope you will too.

Here's a simple prayer if you wish to know Him:
"Dear God, I humbly ask Jesus to pay for my sins, both the ones I know and the ones I do not remember.

I believe He died on the cross and rose from the dead to do this.

I want to know Him and the power of His resurrection.

Thank you. In Jesus' Name, Amen."

Jesus know ALL the ways you have abandoned Him.

He doesn't care. Come back.



Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday with Lars and the Real Girl

Today we remember the crucifixion of Jesus Christ -the mock trials that were a travesty of justice, the beatings and spitting and humiliation heaped upon Him, and finally, the capitulation of the ruling governor to have him publicly executed in the most shameful and degrading fashion possible before a sneering mob.

As we have been finishing the Gospel of Mark in our Tuesday night fellowship, we have been focusing not on the theology of the atonement, but rather on the emotional strain and cost this had on Jesus as a son of Man, a real human being. How often we so easily mistake His use of scriptural principles and obedience as a mechanical device to save us, totally forgetting His heart!

As a teacher, and a student of scripture, I was amazed at how often we blow past certain nuances all because we know how the story ends. We get blase' because we have heard the facts so many times. I'm trying to put a stop to that - to have our group experience and empathize as much as their sanctified imaginations will allow.

We all believe God is mean-spirited at some point in our lives, because of inaction in some injustice or another. But He Himself used the very act of injustice to save the world and the souls of those who would listen to Him. When Jesus is hanging on the cross, He says many things that are immortalized - but one thing is blown past: his compassion for his widowed mother and his beloved disciple, John.

He's dying. He can no longer live here, but only visit us after the resurrection. So He must make sure Mary is taken care of physically. And John, hot-headed and full of rage (you are reading an account from that wounded man after 50 years of healing), who's brother was beheaded just as they were beginning to reach the world with the Gospel, John will need the nurturing and gentleness he never received. Jesus knows John will do anything He asks him to do. Of all the disciples, John's the only one gutsy enough to be right there at the foot of the cross with the women.
John 19:25-27
Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.

When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby [John], he said to his mother, "Woman, behold your son," and to the disciple, "Behold your mother."

From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.

John took care of Mary.

And Mary? She got another son.

It is precious to me, this verse, because I too am a 'son' to a second mother. I too have issues and did not realize it until I was getting better. Funny thing is, that is when you can see how bad you've been.

John loved Jesus and obeyed Him. But what he discovered was Jesus loved him so much He gave him the ministry, the so-called 'duty', that would also be a benefit to his heart.

I have an old saying I think I got from Steve Brown of Reformed Theological Seminary. "You cannot minister to others where you have not been wounded." Ministry - effective ministry - requires woundedness.

If you are an alcoholic and get well, you get to minister to other alcoholics. If you were part of a very dysfunctional family and have overcome it, you get to help others in the same situation. Its the principle of "I've been there and I understand. Here's what helped me through it."

John's gospel has so much relational love because that was where he was wounded - and that's where he was healed.

Now, about Lars and the Real Girl.

The concept: lonely guy gets an anatomically correct life-size doll and believes her to be real. In response, the community around him, who loves him, accepts her and treats the doll as if she is real, with very moving consequences.

This is a precious film and it is remarkable because one of the agents of healing is the Christian church Lars attends. Yes, they have a meeting to discuss this and yes, there are some stunned looks, but that is very minor part of the story.

As it progresses, you find that kind, gentle and very polite Lars - a good-looking boy, who when asked, says he is not gay - has a reason for avoiding human contact.

It is, like so many things in life, not immediately obvious. It is an 'emotional mystery' you have to see unfold. Why is he like this? Why did he get that doll? Does he really believe she is real? How in the world could ANY community - office co-workers and church friends - accept this weird behavior? How can he rationalize her immobility? And, worst of all, how can any sane friend who WANTS to help 'go along' with this farce?

It is masterfully told. Just enough restraint is used in all the performances (with a gentle musical score) that when the ensuing conflicts come - as they MUST even with the most idyllic relationships - we sit in awe at how the heart and souls of everyone who loves Lars is revealed.

The "better than the real world" aspect of this film is the lovingkindness everyone shows towards Lars. When Lars brings "Bianca" his "girlfriend" to a party to show his co-workers, they act towards her without benign superficiality or rank judgment. They say things that are true and let the rest lie still. "She has beautiful hair!" "Lars - Bianca is hot and what's even hotter is she doesn't know it!" By the end of the party, she is being 'danced with' in her wheelchair as Lars (with eyes shut) moves serenely by himself, untouched and untroubled, a pleased half-smile upon his face.

He is happy. He - and his unusual girlfriend who cannot walk - have been accepted. We sit in awe as we watch, amused and amazed at the story we are being told.

Then the stakes ramp up as we learn why Lars is this way. What human touch means to him, and it is not comfortable.

There comes a time for all humans to be greatly wounded. It is unavoidable. Some of the most brilliant people I know have some of the most God-awful childhoods you can imagine. It is almost as if they decided to develop their mind because they COULD NOT develop their heart. It was too dangerous. So instead of hitting people, they hit the books.

But there also comes a time to be healed. By other humans.

Even while dying on the cross, Jesus expressed this. "Woman, behold your son. Son, behold your mother."

It is relational, is it not, this command? He could easily have said "Take care of her -and you do the same." That would have been fine. But He had to make it relational, familial. "Son", "mother".

Jesus knew their losses. He would not prevent them. But He would answer them.

I guess we all want answers to our pain. But the answer we need - the answer we are given - is relational. When we are well-related to someone who loves us, we get healed. We can move on past the person who did not.

"For God so LOVED the world, that He sent His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save it through Him."

We are saved from this world by love. But it must be a very, very powerful love to change us. Life-giving, compassionate and willing to suffer greatly just to see you face-to-face.

That's Jesus.

If you do go to him, please let Him love you. You can achieve this by accepting a relationship with Him, not just a philosophy or a religious observance. Jesus can no longer be a doll in a wheelchair. He must become real to you.

For He is not only the King of kings, and Lord of lords, but the Human of humans.


Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Last Unicorn

Last night I watched the second half of The Last Unicorn, 25th anniversary edition. I HAD to buy it the moment I saw it on DVD, remembering how precious it was to me the first time I saw it. Like all cool geeks in the early 80's, we were playing Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (Second Edition) and were, as a group, mesmerized by the elegance and humor and beauty of Peter S. Beagle's tale. (By the way, he not only wrote the original work but also the screenplay. That's rare.)

It's a very romantic story, with the pure and untouched maiden-like unicorn being harshly contrasted with the darker world -a world that has lost the ability to see a "true immortal" like herself. They do not see her as she is, but only as a horse, a white mare.

Here's the breathtaking opening, sung by the group America:

In her quest to find if there are any other unicorns, she encounters a witch, a would-be magician, a Harpie (another "true immortal") a ragtag band of thieves who model themselves after Robin Hood, a damaged woman who's lost her youth with said band, a grim king and his heroic adopted son and lastly the demonic Red Bull, who is responsible for chasing all the other unicorns away. [Also included is a frivolous butterfly who's as A.D.D. as they come, a pirate cat and an undead skeleton guard who wants merely a drink of real wine. Of course he cannot taste it - but "he can remember!"]

Beagle writes from the heart about loss and it shows. Each character is unforgettable, and each rises from self-pity and anger to his destiny in just a few short scenes. It has a brisk pace. It has so many deeply true things in it, I have been looking for the spiritual meta-narrative to pull it together, as I have done so often in the past here. The one-to-one metaphor that reveals the truth as expressed in Christ.

It's not quite there in this case. All the ingredients are there, surely - there is an heroic death and resurrection and warfare against the demonic - but those don't quite fit together as they should.

It's as if Beagle wrote from his heart, utterly and shamelessly, but had no other goal than to speak of innocence lost and of damning corruption that is slowly taking over this world. How evil is nearly unstoppable and innocence is for the sheltered or ignorant.

In other words, it is a bit of abstract theodicy. A fantastic metaphor about how awful a world is without magic, since only magic can change people and give them hope. Like all fairy stories, it can help us see what we feel to be true. We can educate our minds after we have intuitively grasped a truth. How we process THAT truth though, varies from person to person, woundedness to woundedness, story to story.

I will tell you that I thought for a moment the unicorn could stand for the Church - the invisible and immortal bride of Christ whom He sacrificed Himself for. Her isolation and slow loss of identity as she becomes more like the world. If she refuses to give in, she will be attacked until she is run away. This isn't too bad an analogy, I guess, but that is not the heart of the film. Besides, the Hero is the immortal in Christendom, not the Beloved. Not yet, anyway.

No - the story is more about loss and learning to deal with loss and when to fight so we do not lose any more. It is more about realizing that there IS magic in the world - what C. S. Lewis would call the "Deep Magic" - and it is still at work, though we do not know it or cannot see it.

I saw a video last Sunday at Life Changers Church in south Barrington, IL. Reinhard Bonnke, a German-born evangelist of some fame, is at work bringing the continent of Africa to Jesus Christ.

"So what?" you may say. "We hear about evangelists all the time."

So do I. ;)

But he was having open air meetings with 1.4 million people coming to Christ. This number is from decision cards that have been filled out, so we do have an exact count, not just a wild guess. And even more impressive, it is those who are leaving the Muslim faith to embrace the hope that is in Jesus Christ.

This clip is from Lagos, Nigeria:

And that is merely one event. There were four others shown, each with numbers like 2.6 million, 3.1 million, 1.8 million. You can see the cameras on a crane do a slow reveal as they rise up over the crowds and you see, I kid you not, a veritable SEA of people, praising the name of Jesus.

I have met people who are 'burned out' of the ministry. I understand them.

But when you see this type of event, you realize that God is just working somewhere else. That a supernatural God is real and changing a continent even as you read my blog.

Sometimes we feel we are the last of our kind. That we are all alone. Elijah did and threw himself a nice pity party. So did Jonah, but for another reason.

The fact is, the magic of salvation is still there, "doing as it will" grabbing and transforming lives wherever there is faith.

I think that's what I learned from watching that video and The Last Unicorn this week.

On Friday, Jesus Christ was killed.

On Sunday, He rose from the dead.

That is Deep Magic indeed. World-changing, life-changing magic.

I hope you agree. I hope you want to see an innocent immortal change the world.

But first, you must see Him as He really is.


Monday, April 6, 2009

Seven Pounds Pt. 2

*major hints and spoilers - stop if you haven't seen the movie*

I thought Seven Pounds was very moving -and very dark as well.

When you discover the reason Ben -Will Smith's character -is auditing people's souls, you accept that he has the right to judge them -for what he is giving is indeed priceless.

It also touches the heart nerve of all humans, if you will accept the mythical quality of the story. The heart nerve that we all need help - big, awesome help - and we know in our best moments, we have no right to it. We're both ashamed to ask and afraid of rejection but we are forced to hope, to wish that somehow, someone would change our lives.

From The Princess Bride to The Matrix, we hope our bad circumstances will change, and we'd be rescued from despair by someone stronger or wiser than us.

We slowly lose this hope as we grow older. We begin to accept that we are on our own and no one will save us. We'll just have to "do the best we can."

That sounds heroic, but it is a form of fatalism. "Most men live lives of quiet desperation." is a true sentiment. The fact is, if you are willing to sacrifice, you can do just about anything.

Just be careful what you sacrifice. You can have a successful career -if you sacrifice your integrity or your children or marriage or whatever. You can be the gold medal Olympian -if you sacrifice a normal high school life. By the way, I am not saying all successful businessmen or Olympians are utterly dysfunctional -but there is a price to be paid. The question is "How bad do you want this?"

You can have this or that -depending on what you sacrifice.

And the reason this is so is because OTHER humans are so competitive, and some have made a greater idol of the object desired than you have. They are more intent on the goal and more ruthless in their sacrifice.

Will Smith's character is on a road to redeem himself by sacrifice. No one is even near him in the mortal realm.

I loved it, and I was very moved (i.e. crying like a baby) when he makes his final decision. His gift does indeed change many lives.

I've been hinting at what he does and you might have guessed it by now, but there is a firm reason I think his character is Christ-like. And unfortunately, due to necessary constraints of the story we have been given, he is not.

You see, Ben only wants to give his gifts to people he deems worthy.

Christ gives his gifts to the unworthy.

Ben is trying to redeem himself. Christ was sent to redeem others. Unworthy people - like you and me.

This story - and the difference between Ben and Jesus is found in one stunning passage in the Bible:

Romans 5:6-8
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.

Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die.

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

When we realize we are the powerless people and also the REBELS that Christ died to rescue, if there is any love or romance or awe left in us, it should take our breath away.

We think we are good because we try - sometimes - to be good.

Jesus says we are not. And that's OK. He knows how to solve it: He moves first.

"The son of Man came to seek and save that which was lost."

We are not searching for God as much as He is searching for us.

"Adam? Where are you?"

We are ashamed and powerless and wish things were different and we KNOW we are not good enough - look at all those 'holy-rollers' and the Pope and Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama and etc, etc.

Jesus KNOWS we are ashamed. He knows we are embarrassed. He knows we need help and strength and power. He also knows we do not have the heart to sacrifice anything else to "succeed" - whether it be in marriage or relationships or health or whatever.

We need someone to love us enough to sacrifice EVERYTHING to save our hurt and angry souls.

We don't deserve it.

He knows. He comprehends that. He also knows one touch of His hand will cure the leprosy of our hearts, our minds, and even, in some cases, our bodies.

If you find yourself strangely moved by scenes of self-sacrifice and radical love - that often ends in the death or near-death of the Lover, you are in great danger.

Jesus is after you.

By the time you read this, it is probably too late.

He's got your heart. He already knows what you love and has beat you to the punch by becoming the Very Person of Sacrificial Love.

To escape Him, you will have to rip out your heart, your deepest longings and all you know down deep to be true.

That's a sacrifice you cannot make -you dare not attempt.

Whisper His name, and He will come even closer.


Friday, April 3, 2009

Seven Pounds

I finally got the chance to watch Seven Pounds, Will Smith's latest inspiring-yet-tragic character arc last night.

The movie hinges on the mystery of why Will Smith - "Ben Thomas" - an intense (but obviously haunted by his past) professional is going around to a variety of people and confronting them at their work. He challenges them, even stalks them, presenting himself as an IRS agent doing audits.

He's auditing all right. He's auditing their souls.

Ben has something - shall we say - unique to offer each person he meets. He can change their lives.

The gift he ultimately gives is priceless. It is handled so well with the performances, with the editing and build-up, that even though you may very well figure out what he is going to give (we are savvy movie-watchers, are we not?), you cannot stop watching.

In lesser hands, the story would be pure romantic fluff. For those who are "realists" you may not be touched by the message (Rotten Tomatoes critics: 32% / RT Community: 74%).

But if you are, as I am, a believer in Jesus Christ ( -or find Him attractive - or Christianity compelling -) you may be doing the same thing as I did by the movies' end - weeping in awe.

Its Easter season folks.

If you won't watch The Passion of the Christ, then do yourself a favor and watch Seven Pounds.

"Love never fails."


Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Remodeling 101 - by Jeff Foxworthy

Today I remodeled my landlady's kitchen.

Well, really just the part under the sink.

It was very dark under there - and my landlady always mentions it she can't see anything - so I made it brighter by adding white contact paper and spraying the back wall and pipes white. Came out pretty good, if I say so myself.

I guess that should be a Redneck joke:

"If you're idea of remodelin' a kitchen involves contact paper and a can of spray paint, you might be a Redneck!"

I qualify.


Have a great April Fool's Day everyone.

I did.