“Readers are leaders, and leaders are readers” was the advice an old mentor, Charlie Bell, gave me years ago. It’s a bit of a cliche statement, I suppose – but if it is, that’s only because it rings of truth. I’ve always been a reader, and a voracious one at that. I remember distinctly the look of shock on the new librarian’s face when she told me, at age 10, that I’d checked out over a thousand books from the library – and the look of amusement from the other librarian, who’d seen me dutifully coming in and out of that branch since I was four.

That pattern of eagerly reading everything I could get my hands on continued throughout my teenage years, but at some point – I’m not sure when – I stopped reading books at the breakneck pace I used to. A couple weeks ago, I realized (with no small amount of horror) that I’d only read six books cover-to-cover in all of last year. That’s one every two months – this from a guy who used to average a book a day! In its place were thousands of blog posts, news snippets, forums, and discussion threads.

What’s interesting is how I see myself having changed during this time. It could be a result of this, or something else entirely – correlation does not equal causation, after all – but I honestly don’t feel as smart or as sharp as I did. I don’t feel like I’m sharpening myself as much as I was before. It appears there is some loosely scientific evidence to back this idea up – but regardless of what caused it, I do miss reading as much as I used to. That said, I’m making it a goal to read actual books significantly more than I have been, lately – I’ve gotten two down already this year, and I’m about halfway through a third right now – “A Feast for Crows,” by George RR Martin. Up next are A Dance With Dragons and then the Hunger Games series, but I’m open to suggestions as to what to read next – fiction or non, just so long as it’s a book and not a blog. So, what say you, my readers?

I’ll close with a video of a vaguely on-topic poem that I enjoyed.

The Law, the Gospel, and You

Today’s passage: Galatians 3.

As I referenced in my previous post, grace is a key concept in the Christian faith. The idea of God’s holiness is so overpowering that grace is the only solution by which an imperfect being can be allowed into God’s presence – without grace, there is simply no mechanism for us to have salvation, or hope. Incidentally, the concept of grace lays waste to the idea of “losing your salvation” – if you can’t do anything to improve your status with God, and didn’t do anything to attain your salvation, then how can you do something to lose it?

So, what is the Law? The Law is God’s standard. It’s a catechism that explains what “perfection” means, what standard we are held to. Take note that the standard is perfection – anything less, and “cursed be!” And unlike in college, God doesn’t grade on a curve. This means you’ve already failed before you even knew the rules. The Law exists, in essence, to show you that you’re screwed. “The only way to win is not to play,” and that’s the option that grace gives us. Interpreted through the lens of grace, the Law is now, as Paul says, a tutor, something that directs us to God.

But, if doing those good works has no effect on your status with God, if you can’t do anything to improve your standing, then why do good works? We shouldn’t do them to improve our standing, we should be doing them out of love. “If you love me,” Jesus said, “keep my commandments.” Not “if you want to get in good with me,” or “if you want to get into Heaven,” but “if you love me.” If that doesn’t make sense to you, let’s try analogy.

Say you’re someone who’s worked their way into an incredibly deep debt – the kind of hopeless, crippling debt that prevents you from doing anything else. Then one day you get a call from your dad: “Hey, son, I just wanted you to know, I love you. Don’t worry about the debt, it’s taken care of.” You later find out that your father sold everything he owned to pay off your debt, and was living in a small apartment. What’s your reaction to this? Do you immediately go back into debt? Or do you make sure to do right by your dad from here on out?

Or what if you had screwed up your lungs from years of smoking, to the point where you needed a transplant – but no medical board would ever give you one, because you refused to quit. So your friend, without you asking, gives you his. Do you keep smoking? Or do you refuse to touch a cigarette ever again?

Analogies for God are never perfect, but I hope you get the idea of the dynamic here. That’s why James is able to say that faith without the accompanying actions is dead. If you really had that happen to you, if you really had that faith and love, then something would happen. You’d keep his commandments.

So take a look at your life. If you call yourself a Christian, do you really believe that enough to have it show evidence in your life? If not… why?

Fighting for Grace

Saint Paul, generally considered one of the greatest heroes of the Christian faith, called himself a “wretched man” and the “chief of sinners.” I sometimes wonder if he’d still say that if he’d met me.

We’re in a series titled “Fighting for Grace” at church, which looks a lot better on an overhead than “A Study in Galatians,” and also paints a nice picture of the way a Christian should view this doctrinal issue. Too often do we look at grace as some vague construct of theology, some abstract idea that God must be calling upon as an excuse to get us into heaven. It’s a very easy thing to ignore when you’re either not thinking about your spiritual state, or thinking about it a lot.

The way I see it, self-examination is a difficult thing when you’re called be holy, because all you will ever find is a flawed human being in place of that holy creature you dream of being. You see your mistakes, your shortcomings, your failures, and they dwarf your victories. It’s a small comfort than in Romans 7, even Paul shares this perspective for a brief moment – but if Paul had moments like that, who am I to think I will ever get past them?

It’s grace that must be called upon to bring context to these failures and hope to the wretched man. As hard as it is to admit, we must admit that our sins are no worse – and no better – than any other person’s. That cute girl at Bible study? Just as wretched and damned as you, apart from Christ – and so is that jerk you work with and can’t stand. And so is Hitler (because no internet discussion is complete without at least one Hitler reference). The homosexual in the pride parade is in no worse a state of sin than the pious preacher who “borrowed” a few dollars from the offering plate. Sin isn’t about shades of gray, it’s about being either perfect, or imperfect. Holy or not holy. Black or white.

In that context, grace makes sense. It’s the force of spiritual nature that turns black to white, dark to light – it’s a reversal of spiritual polarity, so to speak. You couldn’t be any worse off, and after grace, you couldn’t be any better off. Grace obliterates everything you’ve done and replaces your karmic score with that of Jesus Christ, the perfect savior of mankind and son of God.

But that’s not fair, we spoiled Americans cry out. The idea of free, total salvation for any who accept it, regardless of history or future, regardless of action – a completely equal status before God? Why, that sounds downright communist. I earned this, we cry out, I can be better, just give me more time…

But remove grace from the picture and you’re back in black, shining your keychain flashlight into the night sky and pretending it’s the sun. You’re deluding yourself. All your “good works” are of no greater value than the diapers in the church nursery’s trash can – at least that’s how Isaiah put it, more or less.

Accepting grace means accepting your weakness. Accepting your complete and total lack of power to do anything about your eternal scenario. Accepting your spiritual impotence. Fighting your pride, fighting your sense of self-worth, fighting the messages of the world, fighting the status quo…

Fighting for grace.

Get it now?

SWTOR First Impressions

Warning: Excessive geekery inside. Continue at your own risk.

So a few weeks ago, I picked up Star Wars: The Old Republic after constant poking and prodding from several of my friends to come play it. Having now hit 50 on my Jedi Knight, and having created a couple of alts as played the early levels, I’ll go ahead and submit my thoughts on the game so far.

TOR was hailed, as so many MMO’s are, as a WoW-killer. That’s simply not true. There is no WoW-killer, and there will be no WoW-killer, at least not until Blizzard comes out with WoW 2. It is simply far too good at what it does and has far too established a subscriber base and IP for it to fall to an upstart of the same genre – at least anytime real soon. Now, that said, TOR has what it takes to match WoW’s numbers, if they fix the bugs they have and – here’s the important part – churn out good content at a breakneck pace for the forseeable future. It looks like they have the next few big content patches already mapped out, which is good news, so hopefully they don’t slack on that any time soon.

TOR is, as any new MMO, buggy and far from perfect – but overall, I think it’s the best out of the box MMO I’ve played yet, except perhaps WoW. The reason I give that caveat is that WoW released with the general idea of giving players more freedom, and then reigning in what they needed to – TOR comes out with a deathgrip on the experience. I think WoW had the better philosophy, though both have merits. Let’s explore a little deeper. Continue reading SWTOR First Impressions

SOPA/PIPA – Why is everyone talking about it?

I realized today that there are people who are still unaware of the SOPA and PIPA acts currently trying to make their way through Congress. While it’s hard for me to imagine, apparently there are people who still just watch CNN and so have no idea this exists. To those people, here’s the moral of the story: government does scary things when you are not watching.

People far better at this sort of thing have said everything there is today in all sorts of ways, so rather than discuss the details of what this will do and why you should care, here are some of the more excellent sources I’ve seen:

Now let me tell you why I care.

I believe that the internet is probably the single most game-changing invention in the last hundred years – maybe more. It’s radically changed the way human beings interact with each other, given humanity new access to information and communication that was before undreamed of. The last time there was a game-changer this big, it was Gutenberg and his printing press allowing people access to literature they’d never dreamed of.

Like the DMCA before them, SOPA and PIPA seek to give the American government more and more power and control over what can and cannot happen on the internet. It’s done in the name of “fairness” and “copyright” (an abused term unto itself!) and the phrasing is so poor and permissive you’d think they were trying to upset anyone who’d read the bill. It was written by lobbyists for organizations like the RIAA and MPAA, whose histories show them to be firmly entrenched against progress or free speech, and more than willing to use outright lies to extend their spheres of influence. SOPA and PIPA are two sides of the same ugly coin, and as long as people remain unaware of what is going on, politicians will keep grabbing at power in this arena, because the lobbyists are paying them well to do so.

I have yet to meet someone, even trolls on internet forums, who think SOPA is a good idea. The closest thing I’ve heard to support from anyone outside Washington is, “I hope it will pass so that people get pissed off enough to start a revolution.” I’m a pessimist when it comes to politics, but I don’t want a bloody revolution. I’m not even looking for a candidate to make things better at this point – I’ll gladly settle for someone who won’t make things worse. Stopping SOPA and PIPA are part of that agenda, for me.

For the record, Gingrich and Paul both oppose SOPA.  Romney and Santorum both have given wishy-washy non-answers when asked about it.