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Passion Week Pwnage: An XBOX Live Experiment

Wow, that hurt.

See yesterday, I experienced a rude awakening: I realized I’m no longer any good at video games.

This was a painful realization to me, as I’ve thought of myself as being good at video games for a long time. I grew up playing them, and I’ve enjoyed video games in one form or another (PC, Playstation, XBox, now XBOX 360) for most of my adult life.

But yesterday was the last straw. Between rounds of Halo 3 and NBA Live ’08 I lost something like nine times in a row. And it wasn’t just that I was losing, but how I was losing. I was finding new ways to lose. Last second nailbiters and double-digit blowouts, I was losing matches every which way. I was a controller-holding monument to The Sports Guy’s 13 Levels of Losing.

And as one might imagine, this did not sit well with me. I was gettin’ pwned big time, and I was not happy about it. (It’s spelled ‘pwned,’ pronounced as “owned” and if you don’t know, just read about l33t-speak here.)

Thing is, nobody who likes competing ever likes to lose, but I really hate losing. Sometimes I hate to lose more than I like to win. And there’s a fine line between being a passionate competitor upset about losing, and being full-on, out-of-your-gourd, mad-as-all-get-out, I-cannot-believe-this-garbage-give-me-a-[BLEEP]ing-break, nuclear meltdown STEAMED.

Yesterday afternoon, I was definitely in the latter category.

So now it’s Passion Week, and I’m passionate, alright. So much so that I’ve got a problem on my hands. My passion is threatening to derail everything I really care about. And because I’m a Christian, I guess what I’m supposed to do is pray about it. But how can I pray about this? What scriptures can I turn to for guidance? Where in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John does Jesus address the inner turmoil of trying to attain the next skill ranking in NBA Live ’08 (and getting creamed in the process)?

In my morning devotion, the fog started to clear a little. The answer was there the whole time. I just needed to look, and listen.

See, the story of Passion Week that culminates in Resurrection Sunday (a.k.a. Easter)… it’s a story of similarly rude awakenings. Of delightfully mordant comeuppance. Of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords toying with our preconceived notions and cheerfully dashing them against the rocks.

Consider the beginning of the story. In a passage that many refer to as the Triumphal Entry, Jesus rides into Jerusalem, riding on a young donkey. And many surrounded him and followed him, shouting “hosanna” (loosely translated: ‘save us!’) and blessed him with audible praises.

Now this right here is a set up.

Starting with the donkey. On the face of it, the donkey seems like an odd choice. Like a presidential candidate who arrives on the scene, but instead of a motorcade he rolls an ’89 Corolla. If you saw Hillary Clinton or John McCain riding in one of those, you’d shake your head in disbelief. What’s wrong with this picture?


But what if that’s exactly what you were looking for? What if, for generations, your parents and their parents and grandparents had been lamenting the current state of political affairs, and wishing for a leader who represented their people and stood up for what they believed in? And what if your cranky old great-grandfather had always said things like, “I’d rather vote for a man with big plans and a small car than the other way around!” What if they valued humility so much that they measured it by the symbolic stature of their vehicles?

In that case, you might be downright impressed by a presidential candidate in an ’89 Corolla.

For the Hebrews of Jesus’ time, that’s exactly where they were coming from. Because the ones who knew the scriptures and the prophecies (and what good Jew didn’t?) knew the passage in Zechariah 9 where a King would arrive on the foal of a donkey, a gentle King who would usher in a new era of peace and prosperity. This King was to be the antithesis of all of the warmongers who previously held the throne.

So when they saw Jesus, their hearts leaped inside them.

Is it really happening… ? … Yes, it IS!! Jesus is coming into the city on a donkey! He will be our new king! He’ll put those Roman dictators in their place! And wow, I bet if I act now and try to get on his good side, maybe he’ll appoint me to some important position of prominence within his administration. Maybe Executive Scribe or Assistant to the Primary Cupbearer. I better revamp my resumé.

This combination of relief and pride and ambition was fueling all of the adoration that Jesus was receiving. And Jesus knew that, which was why he promptly began to dismantle their expectations, one by one. Yeah, he rode into Jerusalem, but instead of going to the royal palace to confront and depose the incumbent king, he went to the temple. And instead of being all meek and gentle, he walked in and started tearin’ $#!+ up, smashin’ on all the shady money-changing schemes that had infested the temple.

In his first act of confrontation, Jesus ignored the political leaders and instead went after the religious leaders.

Which was not at all what the people wanted or expected. They saw the donkey and already had the scene mapped out in their heads. So Jesus came in and flipped the script on ‘em.

A rude awakening.

If you continue reading the following chapters, there are many other instances of Jesus deftly subverting the established protocols of the day, amazing the crowds and infuriating the Pharisees. They tried to trap him again and again, and each time he left them arguing amongst themselves and looking stupid in the process.

But his final subversive move blew them all away.

He allowed himself to be beaten, and ultimately crucified to death. His enemies thought this would be the ultimate way to vanquish his influence and quiet his followers. Instead he descended into hell, took the keys away from Satan, and broke the power of sin and death by coming back to life and appearing in the flesh to multitudes.

Essentially, he told death: “I own you.” And then he went out and proved it.

By this point, you might be reading this and wondering, what does this have to do with Jelani playing his XBOX?

Well, this is the hard part.

There are many reasons why I play my XBOX 360, and probably the biggest one is the same for most players – because it’s fun. It’s also a social outlet, and a point of connection for me, a way to relate to people who are my age or younger. (What else am I going to talk to a 15-year-old kid about? Rising mortgage rates?)

But none of this explains why I hate to lose so much.

The thing is, I’m not a particularly competitive person across the board. I’m generally pretty happy at being good at the things that I’m good at and sucking at the things I suck at. At 31 years of age, I like to think that I’ve come to terms with the kind of person I have become, good and bad.

But right now, I’m in a particularly difficult stage of life. You wouldn’t know it from looking at the externals, because by most worldly measures I’m doing pretty well. I have a really good-looking wife who is by far my best friend in the whole wide world. I get paid to do music ministry, which is something I’ve dreamed of for awhile. I drive a pretty nice car, and I have a pretty nice apartment.

But I am struggling right now. I’m trying to grow a fledgling business, and I did not enter into adulthood with many role models that have good business acumen. In addition, my church is going through a lot of upheaval right now. As a longtime member and part-time staff, that is particularly difficult for me. There is change and struggle and uncertainty and confusion in many of my day to day tasks and interactions with people. And I know that I’m not alone in this. But some days – many days – are filled with an overwhelming sense of shame and inadequacy.

And as a young man brought up in a solid Christian tradition, as a traveling musician and minister, as a “professional Christian” … I know that my response to these feelings of shame and inadequacy should be to run to God, immerse myself in His presence, and feed on His Word.

These are the things that I know I’m supposed to do.

And sometimes, I do them.

But many times, I don’t. Instead, I choose to escape. And rather than escaping through the typical vices of our day (alcohol, weed, porn, gambling, etc.) I often escape to the world of video games, where there is no moral ambiguity or emotional murkiness inherent in dunking a basketball, swinging a sword, or shooting a bullet. It’s all a safe way to relieve myself of stress.

Except for when I lose.

Because when I lose, then my cloud of shame and inadequacy follows me right into the game.

And then it REALLY sucks, because video games are the one arena where I enjoy an aura of supreme confidence, since I’ve been playing all these years. Before there was Halo, I played Marathon, Marathon 2, and Marathon Infinity. And not only have I played EA’s NBA Live series since it’s inception in 1995, but I played most of their previous titles in the ‘80s and ‘90s, right down to their landmark game One on One: Dr. J vs. Larry Bird. I grew up loving basketball and playing video games, so why shouldn’t I be exceptional at it?

Now I know the answer:

Because I have a life now, and I can’t spend every waking moment practicing and getting better.

Getting broadband cable installed, buying an XBOX 360, and getting an XBOX Live membership has been really exciting. But it completely shattered my facade of invincibility. Because every time I log on, I get matched up with someone who is just as good, if not much, MUCH better. As a result, I get my behind handed to me on a regular basis. From an intellectual standpoint, this is good because it’s the only way that I’ll get better so that when I take on one of my friends I’ll have a decent chance at winning.

But emotionally, it’s a rude awakening every time I sign in.

‘Cause it sucks gettin’ beat down by some 12-year-old in another time zone. It just does. And every time it happens, I get more and more determined that next time I’m going to win one, so I get more and more tightly wound, and the more tense I get the more I lose. It’s a vicious cycle. By the time I’m done, my muscles are all tense and I’m barking at my wife when she asks me to help her make dinner.

I hate getting beat so much because when it happens I feel completely helpless. Some preteen just kicked my ass again and there’s nothing I can do about it. It’s probably the same way the Trail Blazers felt after losing to the Phoenix Suns again last night. Or like what Pedro Martinez said about the Yankees in 2004: “What can I say? I tip my hat and call the Yankees my daddy.”

For a proud competitor, nothing could be more humbling than experiencing that moment.

But what if that’s the whole point?

What if God has allowed me to indulge my obsession with XBOX Live in order to bring me to the point of realizing that there are no areas of my life where I am capable of mastery apart from Him?

What if all my attempts to stop being pwned are fruitless, because I truly am owned by someone greater than any video game nemesis?

And what if, instead of being bent on winning to prove to myself that I am, in fact, good at something, I chose to trust Him with my life during every single moment of it … even the times when I choose to play games for fun?

These are the questions I have felt blowing into my consciousness when I listen to the still small voice of the Holy Spirit.

The truth is, I can’t afford to be obsessed with winning every time I play, because I’m supposed to be having fun when I play, and it’s no fun getting your teeth kicked in. I also can’t afford to be obsessed with winning because I have other things I need to attend to, and sometimes that last one-more-game becomes three more games because it took that many times to come out on top with a victory.

So I’m going to try a little experiment. I’m going to have to cut back on my XBOX 360 time in the next week or so anyway because my schedule will be much busier… but when I do play, I’m going to do something very simple.

I’m going to pray first.

Not for a win … though yeah, that would be nice.

I will pray because I want the Spirit of God to inhabit me, even as I’m trying to figure out how to beat my opponent. I want to be a good example to the myriad of teenagers who don’t know how to play with any semblence of dignity or honor. I want to show others the power of the cross in an unexpected venue.

Or, failing that, I’d like to get to the point where I can be summarily defeated and not want to unleash a string of obscenities.

So that’s my experiment, and if you find yourself in a similar place as I, then I suggest you try it too.

Because the enemy of our souls, the accuser of the brethren, the father of lies… he would like nothing more than for us to focus all our attention on trying to achieve momentary pleasures while we ignore the One who can truly give us peace and rest.

But I’ve decided enough is enough.

And if he thinks he’s gonna get me with that again, he’s in for a rude awakening.

I’m Jelani Greenidge, and thanks for Mixin’ it Up with me.

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An Ash Wednesday email: to God from Jelani

Hey Dad.

I know it’s been awhile since we’ve been in close communion. I’ve been busy, uh… doing your will, I think. Okay, that sounds bad. Lemme try that again. I’ve been busy, umm… living up to commitments I’ve made. I’m grateful that you’ve given me a chance to minister at my local church. I’m still getting used to juggling all the various relational dynamics that come with ministering with close friends and family. But still I’m grateful. It’s been a mile a minute since I’ve gotten here, and it doesn’t look like it’ll slow down any time soon.

And I’m excited about this potential job opportunity. But it’s still a few months down the road, and I don’t even know if I’m going to get it or not. And in between now and then, I just have to work. And that doesn’t seem particularly appealing to me right now, even though I know it’s what needs to be done.

I’ve been thinking alot about this whole Lent thing, being Ash Wednesday and all. I decided today that video games were the thing I needed to abstain from for awhile. I’ve actually been thinking about it for a long time. It really makes the most amount of sense. I don’t really spend very much time or money on anything else that’s not a utility bill. But the very thought was so dangerous and heretic-sounding to my flesh that I didn’t dare speak it to anyone because I really resisted the idea of being held accountable to it. But today, after the day I’ve had, I just couldn’t push it down any longer. I could tell it was where you were leading me. So I blurted it out to Holly over dinner, with no segueway or anything. Just vomited it out, and.. wouldn’t you know, I immediately felt better afterward.

Before I let my wife know about it, I was trying to figure out a way to work in a provision so that I could play this new “Christian” video game I heard about today, based on the Left Behind series. Then again, I was never a big fan of the Left Behind series, so that’s probably a bad idea on several counts.

I just found out that Tonex has retired from the music biz. I heard his interview on LA’s Radio Free KJLH.I admire Tonex for a lot of reasons, but he’s really hurt right now. I guess I’m realizing more and more how much the industry has a tendency to chew up artists and spit them out as hollow shells of their former selves. I don’t want that to happen to me. I don’t want to get a divorce. I don’t want to have to endure all that drama on a national scale with everyone scrutinizing my every move. I have enough drama just with church family and family-family. So I guess I’m grateful that you’ve been protecting me from all that, even during several seasons of my life when I was pining for it more than anything else. So thanks for coming through again on that one, Dad. I guess that’s why You’re God and I’m not.

Yet, this whole I’m-not-God thing… I have trouble with that.

Not “I have trouble with that” in the sense that I don’t agree with it (you made me, you know I’m not an idiot like that), but that I have a problem really internalizing that sometimes. I have a deep desire to be in control. I have a deep desire to maintain an air of competency, even if I’m in a difficult position. I want to act like I’m the master of my own fate. I guess it’s the responsibility thing that’s had to beaten into my head by my parents and other mentor figures throughout my life. It’s like, in my mind “being responsible” equates to “having everything under control.” I have a hard time living with the fact that sometimes there is nothing I can do but do my little part and trust God for the rest.

And it’s not even the idea itself, but rather the walking-it-out part that I struggle so much with. Because I’m fine telling people, “sure, if I trust God everything will work out fine.” But if they ask me how things going, I have to say something like, “Well… I’m in between jobs.” I can’t just come right out and say, “I don’t have a job . Do you have any good leads? My wife needs a roof over her head.” It’s the perfectionism inside me that I have to conquer if I’m going to be effective.

But that’s just it, God.

I can’t conquer it.

I need You to do it.

There’s nothing in me that will get the job done. Like Paul said in his epistle to the Romans, the stuff I don’t want to do? Yeah, I usually do that. And the stuff that I want to get done? Doesn’t quite happen.

So God, can you come through? I’m not asking in a factual sense. Of course you can. You’re God. That’s like asking if Shaq can dunk a ball, or if LeBron can get a major endorsement. But I’m asking… pleading… can you do it for me? Like… in the here and now? Can you fill me with Your Spirit and help me to keep pushing? Like that Peter Furler tune, as I lift up my hands, will you meet me here?

Because that would be awesome.

That would really make my day.

My year.

My life.

Crazy things are afoot, God.

My relationships with my spiritual mentors are changing. They’re becoming less like centralized server-based downloading, and more peer-to-peer sharing.

(Pardon the geekspeak, but again — you made me. And you made the internet. Or at the very least, you made Al Gore.)

And while I love the spiritual intimacy that I’m starting to develop, I can’t shake the feeling that we’re all just the blind leading the blind, and if you don’t lead us, we’re ALL jacked. It’s really good, and really scary, all at the same time.

I’m grateful — like a mug! — for my marriage. My wife Holly is wonderful, and yet she’s only another fallable human like me — capable of sin, of imperfection, of making mistakes. But the more I see those things in her, the more I want to hold her… help her… love her. And I think when she sees those things in me, she feels the same way. And that… is… amazing. That’s something only You could do, God.
So thanks for that.

And thanks for taking me through these inevitable life changes. Over the last few months, I’ve had the unmistakable feeling that, little by little, the ground has been crumbling underneath me. And yet, somehow, I haven’t gone under. Your hand has sustained me. And yeah, I’ve had some ups and downs. But I get the feeling that the best is yet to come. I yearn to see more of Your plan unfold. But until then, I just have to rest with the assurance that it is unfolding. Like Shamgar, I just gotta start where I am, use what I have, and do what I can.

So thanks for that. That’s a plan I can actually execute. Maybe You could use that.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by the idea that You could show up and save the day with something crazy. It’s what You love to do. It’s the story of Bible, for goodness Christ’s Your sake.

And I’ve been seeing You do it all around me. So I guess if the previously cursed Red Sox and White Sox can both win the World Series in consecutive years, the Seahawks can go to the Super Bowl, and some autistic kid named “J-Mac” can score 20 points the first time he gets a chance to shoot a basketball… then anything can happen.

So thanks for helping me see You at work.

And Thanks for being God.

I’m so glad I’m not.

But thanks for mixin’ it up with me anyway.

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But Wait, There’s More…

During my daily commute, I’ve had some deep thoughts. Thoughts that beg for expression and reflection. Ordinarily these would be relegated to mumbling to my cousin Nikki in between bites of food, but since I got such a good response from my last column, I figured – hey, why not.

So here they are, in all their glory:

Deep thought #1: God is good. (With me so far? Okay, good.)

Deep thought #2: God is in control. Of everything. (Still there? Read on.)

Deep thought #3: If God’s in control, then He can do whatever He wants to– and there ain’t nothing you or I or anyone else can do about it.

Now I don’t know about you, but that one scares me. Because I know that our God is an incredibly creative God, and He can think up some pretty wild stuff. Even if neither His Word nor His natural creation testified to that end, I would know this to be true simply because I know that I’m pretty creative, and I was created in His image.

Unlike me, though, God’s creativity is never restricted by deadlines, budgets, logistical issues or emotional doldrums. He never gets tired of enjoying His creation of humanity. And the only way I can wrap my mind around that concept is to imagine God as an 8-year old, sitting in the bathtub and playing with a veritable battalion of human action figures that He made Himself. (Uhh, not that I ever did that or anything.) He’s just splashing away, twisting, dropping, flipping, contorting, and generally running his figures through a gauntlet of stunt moves that would make Jackie Chan wince in pain at the thought.

The main difference, though, between the creativity of (okay, I’ll admit it) me at that age and God is that He is creatively judicious. In other words, God not only does it with our best interests at heart, but ultimately to bring glory back Himself. And everything that will happen to each of us in this short span of time we call ‘life’ will ultimately testify to His victorious plans, whether or not we can see those plans at the time.

Several weeks ago, I endured a crushing trial that shook my faith in God’s provision for my life. I had an incredible business opportunity slip through my fingertips because of a clerical issue that, while egregious in its severity, was nevertheless not my fault. Not even a little bit my fault. It felt like my very destiny was being robbed from me. And you know what? I was pissed. I was mad at the person whose wrongdoing caused me to miss out, but I was also angry at God. It felt like He led me down a dead end just so I could ram my head against the wall.

I prayed that night, it sounded a lot like this:

Me: “Okay, God – do you know what you’re doing?! You’re supposed to be providing for my needs, not creating more of them!”

GOD:

Me: “I mean, really! If you didn’t want me to be in that situation, why did you throw it in my lap like that? I wish you would just make up your mind, because I’m tired of this garbage.”

GOD: “Are you done complaining yet?”

Me: “No, I’m not! … uhhhmmm…. My feet hurt. Okay, yeah, I’m done.”

GOD (rolling eyes): “Good. I’ve got four words for you – ‘but wait, there’s more.’”

I’m not ashamed to admit that I had no idea what He was talking about. Great, I’m thinking. I’m sitting here pouring out my heart and He’s tossing out infomercial clichés for consolation. If my life was a commercial, then maybe that would help. And then, during a later conversation with my girlfriend Holly, it started to hit me. I wondered what if my life actually was a commercial… but for God? That would explain a LOT.

Have any of you actually watched one of those infomercials that come on at like 2am on Friday nights? They’re actually pretty entertaining, because they’re always going to these ridiculous lengths to prove how good their particular product is. If it’s knives, they won’t simply cut an old grapefruit – they’ll cut through an old boot. If it’s a vacuum cleaner, they won’t just spill a little dirt on the floor. No, they’ll dump a bucket of marbles on the floor, cover it with it flour, and then pour dirt on top of THAT. They go to such lengths so that when they vacuum it all up, nobody in the audience can say, “Yeah, well my vacuum cleaner can do that.”

That’s just the way God is. Yes, He is going to meet my needs – but it will be in His timing. Which means, in this case, He ain’t gonna do it the easy way. He wants to go all out to prove what a truly awesome God He is. It’s His way of exclaiming to an astounded studio audience, “No credit, no full-time job, no degree? No problem.” And every time He pulls off another miraculous feat of divinity, He delights in being able to say to our slack-jawed faces, “but wait, there’s more.”

As Christians, our lives have been put on display for the world to see. And He, in His divine construction shop of eternal destiny, has been masterfully creating scenarios, situations and trials that bear His unmistakable signature. Then he sets us up and runs us through them, so that when our lives are over, if someone were to objectively examine the facts in detail, they would find themselves bereft of any response except to say, “There’s only one conclusion, friend. God is good.”

The sad thing is, we don’t always recognize His redemptive work in the middle of all the drama. That’s why the Apostle Paul, in the beginning of his letter to the church at Philippi, had to remind them of this.

“Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel…and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance.” – Phil. 1:12,19 (NIV)

Two things about this passage strike me. First, Paul’s trials weren’t just misunderstandings. They were major, life threatening trials. The man endured more concussions than Steve Young, and more character assassinations than Ray Lewis at a Bob Jones University gala.

Secondly, Paul was incarcerated at the time he wrote this. He wasn’t sitting at home, reflecting on past events while sipping on a mocha. He was on lockdown. He probably hadn’t had a good night’s rest in ages, yet he still had enough inner peace to see God’s hand in everything.

And now, in the grand tradition of columnists comparing themselves to legendary figures, I feel I’m in a similar place. More importantly, I know I’m not the only one. Many of us are going through these burdensome, weighty, life-shaking trials. We find ourselves “hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8-9).

(I’m gonna let Paul preach it from here.)

“Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” – 2 Cor. 4:16-18

God knows what He’s doing – and He’s got more in store. The only question that remains is whether or not we’ll be patient enough to wait and find out what it is. Most of the time, I’m not. I flip out, and cry out to Him in desperation. Yet every time I do, I hear the voice of God amidst all the drama, echoing the words of many a television voiceover:

“But wait, there’s more.”