Thursday, July 28, 2005

Beyond The Game

What a magnificent weekend! The monsoon season has kicked off here in Tucson, and although it's yet to reach full force, the occasional storms so far have been very welcome. I love the moody skies turning moodier still until they break and pour out a deluge upon the city. The thunder crashed as the lightning struck the earth and I got the chance to be out walking when one of these storms hit.

I can safely say that the monsoons are the best weather Tucson has to offer. I'd almost recommend people pay a visit to Tucson just to experience them. In fact I think I will. If you have a spare week, come down to Tucson when the monsoons are on and just enjoy traveling round and walking during the stormy weather. Bring a camera, and bring a jacket!

Actually, it was during that walk in the rain this Saturday that I found myself praying as I went and after while the only prayer that was pouring out from my lips was a request for the Lord to take me around the world, forsaking all else, that I might be used as His tool to be used to do His will in the lives of others, wherever He might lead. I so strongly desired to see God's power at work and doing amazing and wonderful things in the lives of people from peasants to kings, businessmen to playboys, anyone, anywhere. I would rather be standing drenched, on rain soaked street, in some far reaching corner of the world, with nothing but the shirt on my back, hearing from God and seeing His kingdom advance, seeing lives change, than back at home, sat inside, doing nothing but eat, watch TV, play games, or even just sitting around and arguing the finer points of Bible controversies. There's just something about breathing the air, feeling the wind, and being in the midst of the rain, whilst walking before the Lord that just feels alive!

Skip forward now an hour or so. My brother and a friend are planning to go to the mall to walk around, check out some shops, and maybe pick up a DVD. Having been invited to go along, I joined them and what an hour it was. From the moment we got into the mall until the time we left I was struck by a sense of the lack of purpose in so many people's lives. Almost everyone there is decked out and dressed to impress. They are all trying to look their best, whether that's to be attractive or just plain impressive. I couldn't help but feel the hopelessness as it seemed that everything about the people there, about the whole place, is to look good, and acquire things. Rags and trinkets to be worn as badges of honour and achievement in the game of life. If you can't meet the standard then you wont succeed in the game - although there are those who aim their sales low to entice those who can't play in the majors. They offer imitations, alternatives and sneaky 'deals' the cost of which the hapless buyers don't fathom, and bless their hearts for doing so. I mean if they didn't help out these runner-ups, what would they do? They be out of the game, and to be out of the game is...well...unmentionable because the game - the game is everything!

As I watched I thought about it more and it occurred to me that the commercial world now sells so well that we don't even realise we're buying. We just see ourselves as living our lives, not thinking that there is anything else. We're taken in by an amazingly clever head-fake. Within the dazzling universe created by the money-making machine we're encapsulated with the millions of options offered us, think therefore that we're choosing when really it's a million versions of the same thing. We can't see the forest for the trees. We ask, "What today am I going to spend my money and my time on in this lovely shop?" and we do not realise that we do not have to spend anything in that colossal store, but can instead leave and shop elsewhere.

Thus we pay our tithes to the pop-culture pantheon and as we listen to their sermons in digital video with surround sound, we end up living our lives in as faithful a way as possible to honour the teachings of those fickle gods.

So I left the mall pondering all of this and headed on to H2O, our college-age ministry, to help set up for a worship concert. During the pre-service prayer I got quite inspired, and was looking forward to what was to come. It wasn't long before everything got going, and in the midst of the worship I started flipping through the Scriptures. The theme of love was on my heart so I turned over to the letters of John, and there in 1 John 2 I read it:

"16For everything in the world, —the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has, does —comes not from the Father but from the world. 17The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever."

In two simple verses the experiences of the day had been summarised. Truly the culture of the mall is defined by those three things - craving, lust of the eyes and boasting in the pride of life. Acquiring possessions, the pull of the new; to look good, attracting the looks of others and indulging the mind and eyes in the body; to attain prestige by means of labels - clothing gadgets etc.

It truly seems that nothing is new in this world. Yet it's not just the recurring desires, but also the experience of the temporality of it all. Who hasn't felt the regret or disappoint of longing after something so strongly, battling with whether to invest one's hard earned time and money in it, parting with the cash and then sooner or later realising that it was of little worth? Your purchased prize becomes either out-dated or you grow beyond it. It's value was little and short-lived.

At the same time, those who have experienced the things of God, who have felt His permanent work in one's life, to be transformed, to see others grow and break free, know the immensely pleasurable joy of having received, or invested in, something worthwhile - the eternal. Something that will last and has meaning. Even to have received the gifts of God (not speaking spiritually now), in relationships and even material things - which have really satisfied, been of use, and a true blessing. There is another way to live - beyond the game!

As I continued to pray that night, it occurred to me that time is like a horse race. God set it up, He started it, and He was the first horse on the track. As time unravels other horses enter the fray, many looking stronger and moving faster than the original. Each generation we all get to come to the tracks and choose a horse to bet upon. Each generation has it champions, and for the time those new and exalted rivals draw the money, glory and indulgences of many. However, for those with the patience and wisdom, who have watched and studied the race over any period of time, it becomes evident that many such horses have come and gone, soon falling out of the race they entered oh so proudly. As the glitter and the dust settle, one horse remains constant on the track, enduring all that can be thrown at it and the ravages of time; and only one horse is going to finish.

So many of us live in the world of the loud-mouthed vendors. Most are born into it, hearing their exaggerated sales pitches about the latest mares and the most impressive stallions. All many of us know is the world of new contenders. Yet if for a second we can pull away from the smoke filled lounge, and sit quietly at the track, watching the race. If we can look at the unglittered schedule. We'll see that we have an option. We can choose to step into an often empty betting booth and put all of our money on a lone runner, who shows up in every round and never drops out. Who is occasionally featured in the reviews and debates of the loud-mouths but never enters the self-aggrandizement or merry making. We can put our name by that booth and in doing so enter in the forgotten back area of the track to stand and share friendship with those who are patiently waiting for the day the race ends.

So it was that I fully rejoiced in the worship that night; surrounded by those who had all placed their bets in the same booth as I - inspired to praise with a joy and commitment not always felt. On my lips, some words of encouragement for my companions who sometimes, like that night, seem to have forgotten what they were a part of; wondering about the things they've missed, or tired from enduring the jeers of the revelers outside. The song of those who have seen things rightly, a passage with which God had touched me only a few days prior.

1 Chronicles 29:10ff

"Praise be to you, O LORD,
God of our father Israel,
from everlasting to everlasting.
11 Yours, O LORD, is the greatness and the power
and the glory and the majesty and the splendor,
for everything in heaven and earth is yours.
Yours, O LORD, is the kingdom;
you are exalted as head over all.
12 Wealth and honor come from you;
you are the ruler of all things.
In your hands are strength and power
to exalt and give strength to all.
13 Now, our God, we give you thanks,
and praise your glorious name."

Wealth has it purpose, as do strength and youth, and possessions are a blessing. Only though, when they are in their place. The service of the Lord is primary. Offer up praise to Him, and lay all things openly before Him. Then, when His purposes are served and all due honour and sacrifice are given to Him, life will find its fullness, and joy will not disappoint.

Two final words then. First, to those who seek to maintain their laughter and their joy, filling their lives to distraction with every form of entertainment, James would speak:

"1What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? 2You want something but don't get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. 3When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures...

...9Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom." 4:1-3 & 9

There is joy to be found, and an end to the game, but it is not through cheers and smiles of entertainment, the volume of avoidance or the stiff upper lip. It is found in a seeking of reality, and the discovery of a grave truth. It is, then, in the resolution of which truth that the joy and freedom are found.

Second, to those who have already mourned and entered that oft forgotten place, some words of encouragment from the brave who went before:
14 "But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand. 15 We are aliens and strangers in your sight, as were all our forefathers. Our days on earth are like a shadow, without hope. 16 O LORD our God, as for all this abundance that we have provided for building you a temple for your Holy Name, it comes from your hand, and all of it belongs to you. 17 I know, my God, that you test the heart and are pleased with integrity. All these things have I given willingly and with honest intent. And now I have seen with joy how willingly your people who are here have given to you. 18 O LORD, God of our fathers Abraham, Isaac and Israel, keep this desire in the hearts of your people forever, and keep their hearts loyal to you.

And now, to return to the rain, the thunderstorm is calling... :)