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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