Reflecting on Good Friday

I will be the first to admit that I don’t often fully understand what Jesus did for us on this day. My mind often doesn’t fully register what went on. But the one thing I always do know? He died for me because He loves me. Here I often feel like Peter: I’m all in with my love and enthusiasm, but I’m usually slow to fully understand whatever it is that God wants to teach me.

But thankfully my mind is more clear today. On this day, Good Friday, Jesus took our place. He was punished by God for all of humanity’s sins on the Cross. I’ll go into a deeper explanation of just what this means later in this post, so others who may not fully understand it, can appreciate the true beauty of His sacrifice and love for them.

Whenever I am meditating on something, I try to imagine being there. At the time I’m writing this paragraph, it’s just past 9 AM. Which means Jesus probably wasn’t on the Cross yet, but may have been undergoing sentencing before Pilate and the Jewish people, with Barabbas opposite Him. Or perhaps He was being questioned by Herod.

But as the day goes on, I also remember other things, like the scourging at the pillar, where Jesus was severely beaten with reed sticks, whips, and the flagellum, a NASTY, cruel weapon of torture that was basically a cat o’ nine tails style whip. A whip with many strands, each lined with lead balls, pieces of broken glass and animal bone. This whip was designed to shred flesh and cause as much pain and bleeding as possible. If people were scourged with this whip repeatedly, they often did not survive long enough to make it to crucifixion due to blood loss.

But Jesus did survive. And afterward, he was crowned with the Crown of Thorns: A crown woven out of inch-long thorns that was jammed onto His head and beaten into His scalp. I cannot imagine how much pain He was in. And this was even before His Crucifixion. But He still carried on. For us. He could’ve quit and given out at any time, but He didn’t. He had to finish what He had come to Earth to do.

Sometime before noon on that first Good Friday, He began to carry his Crossbeam (or full Cross, depending on what you believe), on His shredded back roughly 600 yards to the outskirts of Jerusalem. At this point, not only was Jesus suffering serious blood loss due to the scourging and the Crown of Thorns on His head, He also was carrying either a crossbeam on his back that weighed roughly 100 pounds, or dragging a full cross weighing up to 300 pounds. And this went on as Jesus struggled through Jerusalem along what’s now known the Via Dolorosa or Way of Suffering. Along His way to Golgotha, Jesus has His face wiped by a cloth carried by the woman who would one day be known as Saint Veronica, He mourns for the women of Jerusalem, and falls three separate times. Eventually the Romans wanted to speed the process up. So they pressed a man named Simon of Cyrene into service to help Jesus carry His cross the rest of the way to Golgotha, a sort of cliff overlooking Jerusalem. It is here that Jesus will hang for the next three hours, struggling to breathe, and dealing with unimaginable pain from seven-inch nails that were driven into His hands and feet.

But instead of cursing those who crucified Him, like any normal person would have done, Jesus says something profound: “Father, forgive them. For they know not what they do.” It’s a simple saying. Only 10 words. But it shows how much love Jesus had for those who hated Him and wanted Him dead. Yes, Jesus loves us today. And He loves all those who trust in Him. But He also loves truly evil people too. He does not love sin. He hates sin, but looks beyond our sins and loves all of us for who we truly are. But He loved Caiaphas and the rest of the arrogant Pharisees. He loved the mob who delighted in seeing Him die. And He loved His Roman tormentors. He loved them all enough to die for their sins! No normal person would do what Jesus did!

The True Meaning of Today

While I wanted to get the point across concerning Jesus’ unimaginable physical suffering, there is incredible hope in the spiritual suffering He underwent for us. We are imperfect people, and God sees our sins. And while He loves us all since we are His most beloved creations, He is absolutely holy, good and just. Which means none of us are worthy of Heaven by the sins we have committed. And God knew this. So He sent Jesus to show us the way to treat and love each other, and then to die for us in the most painful way imaginable.

I do not, and would never, want to cheapen Jesus’ sacrifice. But for those who do not understand what happened, allow me to pull a page out of Jesus’ book, and use a sort of parable or example to explain what He did for us today.

Imagine two children. One who always gets into trouble, and another who always obeys and listens to his father. One day while the father is outside the house doing something, the disobedient child causes an accident in the house. The father hears it and comes running. He’s severely angry when he finds out what the child has done. He’s going to punish the disobedient child. At the last second, the good child begs his father not to punish his brother or sister. The father instead punishes the good child in the place of the disobedient one. This is what happened on Good Friday, but on a much grander and more beautiful scale! Jesus is perfect, but He was punished in our place since we are woefully flawed and sinful.

Dismas the Repentant Thief

Good Friday is already beautiful enough when you truly understand what Jesus did. But I also absolutely love the story of Dismas the Repentant Thief. Dismas was one of two thieves and murderers crucified alongside Jesus. But unlike his counterpart the unrepentant thief, who seeks to escape his agony, Dismas realizes that he’s being punished justly for his crimes. He endures his punishment willingly. This clip from the 1977 film Jesus of Nazareth always gives me a lump in my throat:

Dismas had no time to turn to God over a long life like we do. He was hours or minutes away from death. But the true sorrow in his heart for the wrong he had done in his life overwhelmed him. And something inside his heart showed him the truth. And struggling to breathe, he called out to Jesus, asking Him to simply remember him as he came into His Kingdom. He wasn’t expecting anything. Can you imagine his joy and relief at what Jesus said to him though?! My goodness! While Jesus offers to bring all of us home to Heaven if we turn to Him and trust in Him, it’s still mind boggling that the first person He took with Him to Heaven was a criminal! A KILLER! But that instance on the Cross shows the depth of His mercy and love.

Jesus offered to forgive even these two. Whether or not they accepted His forgiveness was between them and Him.

This might sound crazy to some. It still does to me. But imagine Adolf Hitler, Ted Bundy, Osama bin Laden, Josef Stalin and others. They’re some of the absolute worst people in history, right? Well, what if I told you that if they truly felt remorse for their sins, and recognized who Jesus is, that Jesus could forgive them too? If they sincerely were sorry for all the atrocities they committed and recognized Jesus, they would have a chance at Heaven just like we do. Jesus died for them too. That is the radical love that Jesus offers each and every one of us. Right up until our last breath on this Earth!

It is Finished

By this point, it’s nearing 3 PM in the afternoon. Jesus is absolutely exhausted. He can barely keep Himself going. He’s still in agonizing pain and can barely breathe. He’s slowly suffocating to death as He alternates between trying to prop Himself up, and allowing Himself to hang from the Cross. But He still has enough strength left in Him to ask for a drink since He’s thirsty. So one of the Roman soldiers keeping guard over Him grabs a spear, puts a sponge on it, soaks it in bitter vinegar, and raises it to Jesus’ lips.

After that, it’s time. With one final effort, Jesus completes His sacrifice: “Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit.” Then Jesus lets go. His final breath escapes Him, his eyes go dark and He bows His head and dies. The Lamb has been sacrificed for our sins. Our price has been paid in full.

This is the holiest day of the year. And for good reason. Jesus suffered and died willingly for you, me, and every human being on this planet. If we accept this sacrifice, we can be just like Dismas, and be welcomed into Heaven by our Lord. For He paid our price in full, out of a love for us that is unimaginable and endless. Have a blessed Good Friday, everyone.

Holy Thursday: Redemption Set in Motion

I don’t know about all of you, but whenever I think of today, and all that happened on that first Holy Thursday almost 2,000 years ago, I approach the day with a mix of emotions. Hope, knowing that my soul’s redemption would occur less than 24 hours later. Fascination, because even after almost 30 years on this planet, I still often struggle to fully understand the mystery of the Last Supper. And sadness. Sadness, because Jesus’ closest friends and followers abandoned Him. Judas betrayed him for a tiny bag of coins. Peter denied Him three times. And all of them ran off and hid. Even though I freely admit I would’ve unfortunately done the same thing.

Holy Thursday, for those who don’t know, most commonly is set aside to commemorate the Last Supper Jesus shared with the Apostles.

But the three most important things we commemorate today are the institution of Holy Communion (the bread and wine symbolizing the body and blood of Jesus), the washing of the disciples’ feet, and the betrayal of Jesus by Judas.

We have the luxury of better being able to study and learn what Jesus meant by all of the things He did on that first Holy Thursday. But I bet it was all a blur and confusing to His disciples back then. They probably were riding high honestly! They had just entered Jerusalem with Jesus four days ago, to the shouts of hundreds of thousands (or millions) of people proclaiming Him the Messiah and King of the Jews! If I had tagged along with Jesus, I would’ve probably just been awestruck by the reaction He received from the crowd!

The Last Supper: A Symbol of Salvation

Now fast forward four days. It’s quiet, dark, cool, foggy, and the only light they can see by are torches in the Upper Room. Quite the contrast! They eat the Passover Meal. Here is where Jesus shows the central and most beautiful aspect of Holy Thursday: He prepares the hearts and minds of the disciples (and billions of us far into the future) to receive Him by understanding His coming sacrifice using the symbols of bread and wine.

And He took the bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

In the same way after the supper He took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new Covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.” (Luke 22:19-20)

I imagine seeing that for the first time was strange. I bet not one of the disciples understood what had just happened until much later. Keep in mind that many Jews who had met or seen or traveled with Jesus probably expected Him to be a military leader. They expected Him to lead a rebellion to destroy the Romans. To them, if a person claims to be the Messiah and then dies, that is God’s sign to them that person wasn’t the Messiah. So nobody was expecting Him to die. Let alone willingly.

But the Communion of bread and wine serves as an outward symbol of what we must do in our hearts to be saved by Jesus: If we believe in His death on the Cross as our salvation from our sins, which required Him to be broken for us and to shed His blood, we are reconciled to God.

Washing of the Feet

But after the Communion, Jesus does something nobody expects: He pours water into a basin, wraps a towel around His waist, gets on His knees, and begins washing His disciples’ feet.

In order to understand how radical and unheard of that was, you have to understand a bit of the culture back in Jesus’ day. A person’s feet were the absolute dirtiest part of their body, and many walked barefoot. If someone was hosting a guest in their house, the host would have their slave or servant wash the guest’s feet first thing before they ate with them. It was a dirty job. But Jesus turned a slave’s task into the ultimate act of servitude. He turned it on its head.

If you accept that Jesus is who He says He is, God in human form, that may immediately make you be like, “Wait what? God doesn’t do THAT. Right? He’s God. That’s so far beneath Him! They should wash His feet instead!” I may still have a lot of studying to do when it comes to reading and understanding Scripture. But the one thing I’ve already learned? God often does not do what we would expect Him to do. This was certainly one of those times 😉

When He had finished washing their feet, He put on His clothes and returned to His place. “Do you not understand what I have done for you? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord.’ And rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master. Nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13:12-17)

This message still seems to be radical even today almost 2,000 years later! It goes entirely against the grain of what society seems to value. For whatever reason, society has always seemed to be built on status. In Jesus’ time a person’s status may have been measured by how big their houses were, how many servants they had, how big their flocks of sheep and cattle were, and how their neighbors saw them.

In our time, status is still measured in similar ways. Instead of servants we’ve got that new car or latest iPhone. Instead of flocks of animals, we’ve got closets full of expensive designer fashion and clothes. And instead of our neighbors judging us in the middle of some dusty Judean town square, they judge us over cyberspace and social media.

But by His humble and lowly act of servitude, Jesus showed what He truly values: Humility and looking to serve others before ourselves, and to do it in the spirit with which He served others.

The Kiss of Judas

But while we commemorate Communion and the washing of the disciples’ feet, we also remember the saddest part of Holy Thursday: The betrayal of Jesus by Judas Iscariot. I could not imagine being there for that, let alone being in Judas’ spot and betraying Jesus. Judas had traveled with Jesus for three years. He spent three whole years being with God every single day. He saw all the miracles, even the ones we don’t know about that weren’t recorded in the Bible. And he had been loved by God far more deeply than any human being can ever imagine! But he sold Him out for a small bag of silver coins. I still shake my head at it. It makes my heart sink. It’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard.

But out of the greatest and saddest betrayal in history, came the greatest sacrifice the world has ever known. After He was arrested and questioned by the Sanhedrin, Jesus was likely held overnight in a prison cell. The Lamb was held for slaughter. The next day, He would pay the price for our souls…

Holy Wednesday Thoughts

It’s amazing how I was raised as a Christian, yet I had completely forgotten about the Parable of Two Debtors that Jesus told on that first Holy Wednesday, two days before His death. Most remember this day as Spy Wednesday, because it is commemorated as the day Judas Iscariot struck a deal with Caiaphas and the other Pharisees to betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver.

But the Parable of Two Debtors seems to get lost in the shadow of that aspect of today. Or at least it has in my mind, unfortunately. But once I reread the parable and rediscovered its significance, I knew I had to share it with you guys!

Before you read the rest of this post, take time to read the parable. The Parable of the Two Debtors can be found here!

Everyone has their own personal interpretation of Scripture, so take from that what you will. But what I got from it was that when a person truly recognizes the depth of God’s forgiveness, as shown in the parable by the woman washing Jesus’ feet with her tears, not only are they saved by Him, outward signs show this to others as well.

When I was rereading this parable, I thought of two examples I’ve seen in my life that might illustrate the point Jesus makes: People raised in the Christian faith from birth, and people who weren’t raised as such, but who become Christians through being forced to lean on Jesus during extreme adversity in their lives.

I’m in the first category of people. I love my Mom and Dad to death, and am beyond grateful they raised me to know Jesus at an early age. But to me, there is something different and organic in people who find their way to Jesus on their own from life dealing them several bad hands. I envy them in the best way possible. True, I may have heard the Scripture stories several times. I may know a lot of the Bible and be able to quote my favorite verses or remember my favorite passages. But I am still not as close to Jesus as I would like to be.

I truly admire the people who weren’t initially Christians before encountering Jesus, but who became Christians later on. They seem to be where I want to be: They truly realize the depth of His love and forgiveness, and love Him with a true passion and fire in their hearts that I don’t feel as often as I would like. They are the people in the parable who owed the Debtor 500 Denarii. They love Him so much because they realized the depth of their sin, and the depth of His love without having to be taught by somebody else. God called to their hearts and they found Jesus. They were like the woman in the parable: It didn’t matter where Jesus was, she went RUNNING to Him because she knew who He is. Those people did the same!

Now, I will be the first to tell you that I often feel like a worthless sinner. I often despair over my sins, and feel unbelievably unworthy of calling myself a follower of Jesus. I am most definitely not worthy of Him. There have been times I have read the Bible or seen Jesus portrayed on TV, and I instantly start crying, because I know that I have failed Him. Time and again. Over and over.

But the thing is, this recognition, and the recognition of the depths of His forgiveness took far longer in my life because I was raised in the Christian faith from birth. I was definitely sheltered spiritually. I was asleep. I still don’t feel fully spiritually awake like I want to be.

I would go through the motions. I’d go to Mass every Sunday, but not often truly hear or notice God. I’d do good things for others because it was what I was taught to do by my parents and it made me happy, but I wouldn’t always recognize or remember that good things should humbly and intentionally be done for others to emulate Jesus and glorify God. I’d be happy if others saw me as a “good guy” but not really feel that way inside, and I certainly wasn’t following Jesus closely enough to make sure my actions consistently back that up. I still struggle walking the walk.

I was a person in the parable who owed only 50 Denarii. I don’t have less sins than other people. But I am still learning to love Jesus as passionately, truly and faithfully as others He has saved who are already doing so.

My prayer for all who read this, is that we be like the woman in the parable who washes Jesus’ feet with her tears, and dries them with her hair. I pray that we recognize our sins, and that we also recognize the depth of His forgiveness and mercy, and consistently go to Him. If you are trying to find Jesus, don’t seek Him halfheartedly. If you’ve found Him and He’s found you, don’t go through the motions in your relationship with Him. Don’t take His love for granted. Don’t think you’re good enough. Don’t be like Simon the Pharisee who viewed the woman as a worse sinner than himself.

Surrender yourself to Him. Spend true quiet time with Him. Go to Jesus today, and every day recognizing how much you really need Him. And ask for His forgiveness genuinely and from your heart. He is only waiting to give it 🙂

Answering Pain With Compassion

I was going to write a Holy Monday post since it’s the start of Holy Week. But I think God wanted me to focus on something else that seems more important right now. If any of you know me, you know that I’m not really a big follower of popular culture or what goes on there. Most of it seems trivial to me. Pointless. I don’t usually care what the big song is on the airwaves, what Hollywood thinks of me, or what reality show is big today. But something caught my eye on Facebook, and absolutely broke my heart:

Lil Nas X

When I first saw this, I was initially confused as to what was going on, and why he was responding the way he was. So I did some research into who Lil Nas X is, and then it became apparent to me what was going on. Lil Nas X is an openly gay rapper and musician who is probably most famous for the song Old Town Road. I guess he also just released a line of “Satan shoes,” and it’s got many people who call themselves Christians in an uproar. But here’s the thing: If he’s responding with the tweet above, that’s a cry from someone who needs truly Christlike compassion and help. He’s hurting. He’s in pain.

The normal, but shortsighted way many Christians would react would be to get angry at the satanic imagery on the shoes, or anything satanic that he puts out in his music, but miss why he said what he said. That’s similar to what Jesus condemned the Pharisees for doing. He condemned them for fulfilling the letter of the Law, but ignoring or missing the heart of it. The Pharisees did all the physical, outwardly holy things to please God, but they ignored the people who were hurting. They ignored those who truly needed His compassion.

I confess that I am this way sometimes. I fail at showing Christlike compassion as much as I should. But I think God opened my heart a little bit. I know I’ll never meet Lil Nas X in person. But according to Jesus, he is my neighbor and brother. Just as every member of the LGBTQ community is my neighbor, brother or sister.

I do not understand why we can’t love everyone for who they are, as Jesus wanted us to do. I often miserably fail at it for a variety of reasons. But when I feel closer to God than I usually am, I am more aware of how often and how badly we mess up at it. I am a straight man, but I cannot imagine what LGBTQ people feel like when they’re attacked by people for who they are.

I have never been under the kind of social persecution that community has been under. I will never make light of their situation. But allow me to use an example. What some so-called Christians tell LGBTQ people, would be like someone telling me I have Cerebral Palsy and crooked legs because I am being punished by God, that He hates me for who I am, and that I am going to hell after I die.

That would strike at the very core of who I am as a man and human being, and would likely cause me to hate them and question or hate God! No wonder so many people hate Christianity when they’re treated that way! Where is the love of Jesus in the anti-gay message, or in my example? It’s nowhere to be found, and woefully misses the standard that Jesus set for us!

The supposedly anti-gay passages in Leviticus and the Sodom and Gomorrah story are NOT justification for hating, mistreating, or worse, physically harming or killing our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. I can practically hear self-righteous holy rollers’ heads exploding as they read this. But those parts of Scripture are not justification, because God hates every sin of mankind. Every single one. He despises our sins.

If you’re legalistic and hypocritical with your faith (i.e. only going to Church to be seen as holy or doing good deeds for show), God hates that. (Matthew 6:1-18)

If you condemn someone else for not following Christ in the exact way you do, or at all, God hates that. (Matthew 7:2)

If you have a temper or lust after people you find attractive (things I have struggled with), God hates that. (Proverbs 14:17, and Matthew 5:27-28)

A particular verse about people who judge and condemn others hits the nail on the head. These are words from Jesus’ own mouth:

“Before removing the speck from your neighbor’s eye, remove the log from your own eye.” -Matthew 7:5

I do not believe being gay or anything on the LGBTQ spectrum is a choice or sin. But if it is a sin, that still doesn’t give me or any other Christian any right to condemn them. We will have to answer for our own sins when we stand before the judgment bench of The Almighty. There will come a day where we will have to give an account of our lives to God. And I imagine quite a few people who condemned others in life possibly being shocked and blindsided at their own condemnation by God after death!

So while we are here, we should focus less on quoting and remembering verses in the Old Testament that condemn homosexuality, and more on loving our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. That means going to them with an open heart, and listening to them if they are hurting like Lil Nas X is, seeing them as we see ourselves, loving them as we love ourselves, and reminding them that Jesus loves them just as much as He loves us. We’re ALL broken, wretched sinners in need of saving no matter how “good” we think we are. We are not good enough and are doomed if we’re on our own.

Thankfully, four days from now we commemorate that saving sacrifice on Good Friday, when Jesus willingly took our place at Golgotha on the Cross. He willingly took our sins upon His shoulders, and reconciled us to God through His death. And He did this for everyone. Absolutely everyone. Out of His immeasurable, incomprehensible love for all of humanity. I just hope everyone chooses it. As long as you are alive, it’s never too late!

A favorite film: The Last Temptation of Christ

I have always loved The Last Temptation of Christ by Martin Scorsese. I think I love and appreciate it the most, because it’s the most human portrayal of Jesus I’ve ever seen anywhere. Willem Dafoe’s portrayal of Him seems so relatable. He struggles with God’s plan for Him. He agonizes over things. He doubts. He goes through periods where we see Him as extraordinarily human, which He is. But at the end of the day, He overcomes those doubts and temptations, and takes our place on the Cross.

I can understand why the Roman Catholic Church, Greek Orthodox Church, and many Evangelical Christians got all worked up over the movie, though. People think a movie like this diminishes the God/Man nature of Jesus. And it’s scandalous to some to imagine Jesus having a wife and children, even though those scenes are a “what if” scenario taking place in Jesus’ mind as He hangs on the Cross. But I think The Last Temptation of Christ makes Jesus’ sacrifice all the more beautiful because it shows several things:

  1. Jesus is human like we are. He lived with the trials and tribulations of daily life as a human just as we do. Which means He loves us and truly understands our human struggles. So we can go to Him when we are at our lowest and most discouraged, knowing He was there too at one point.
  2. It shows the humanity of Jesus in a way that Scripture might not. People often might see a situation in the Bible like the Agony in the Garden the night before Jesus’ Crucifixion, yet if they’ve seen it or read it so many times, it might lose its meaning and power. Especially if people go through the motions. But when there’s a whole movie that shows Jesus struggling to realize the ultimate plan God has for Him, everything draws our focus back to exactly what He went through while He was here on Earth.
  3. The movie shows a scenario where Jesus DOESN’T die on the Cross. I always find it interesting as a sort of “alternate history” type of thing. But more importantly, it shows what would have happened if He hadn’t sacrificed Himself for us. Take a look at the video below. Powerful stuff!

I think we are often guilty of just seeing Jesus as God incarnate, which He is. But when we see Him as only God or only as a man, we get things confused. Sometimes in our minds He’s merely a flawed human and failed messiah. Or He’s a rigid, unfeeling God who doesn’t even remotely understand the struggle and pain that sometimes comes with being human. But when we accept that Jesus is both God and a flesh and blood man, this portrayal becomes one of the most powerful and beautiful things ever!

I find this movie fitting as we approach Palm Sunday this upcoming weekend. Palm Sunday is the beginning of Holy Week, the final week of Jesus’ life on Earth. On Palm Sunday, Jesus returned to Jerusalem and was hailed by huge, adoring crowds…knowing full well these same people who were shouting His praises and laying rugs and blankets before Him that day, would be howling for His blood five days later at Golgotha.

If He’s as human as we think, I’m sure part of Jesus wanted to avoid the inevitable. I’m sure part of Him however big or small, wanted to hide out and avoid going to Jerusalem. But He avoided that temptation, and took our place. He paid the ultimate price. He was made our scapegoat. And afterwards, God glorified Him by raising Him from the dead on Easter Sunday!

I encourage everyone to see the Last Temptation of Christ if they haven’t watched it before. If you’re someone like me who struggles, despairs and doubts often, it is one of the most comforting things ever. Jesus loves you more than you can ever possibly know. Whether you know Him, or believe in Him or not. He knows where you hurt, sin and fail. He knows where you struggle and doubt with life. He knows your thoughts, and the deepest desires of your heart, and wants to be an active part of your life. All you need to do is ask Him to be part of it. He is waiting for you with open arms 🙂

There’s one warning I have for people though: Do not go into watching The Last Temptation of Christ with a closed mind. Do not hold onto your preconceived notions of Jesus while you watch this movie. Trying to fit Jesus into what we think He should be or is, will not work here. But if you can keep an open mind and heart, I promise you it will be one of the most powerful and moving films you will ever see!

Browns Free Agency Frenzy!

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! And no I’m not talking about Christmas or getting the #1 pick in the NFL Draft. March 17th marked another critical point in the NFL offseason. Free Agency is upon us!

It truly is uncharted territory here. Usually, the Cleveland Browns might be focused on signing a veteran leader, drafting a Top 5 pick, and letting the chips fall where they may.

No more. After coming off a season which saw them post a stout 11-5 record, and knock the AFC North Champion Pittsburgh Steelers out of the Playoffs, GM Andrew Berry and his team are playing for keeps now. While it is true that division titles, playoff games and Super Bowls aren’t won on paper, many would say the Browns are on the doorstep of seriously chasing the Lombardi Trophy for the first time since 1989! Provided they make the right moves.

But before a team can make the right moves to put themselves in contention to chase a Super Bowl title, they need to know what their biggest needs are. I’m not a General Manager. I’m merely an intelligent fan who always tries to learn new things. But in my opinion here are the Browns biggest needs heading into 2021: Safety, Cornerback, Linebacker, Defensive End, Wide Receiver.

The Browns finally found some firepower in 2020, averaging a healthy 25.5 points per game last season according to ESPN. Baker Mayfield had a breakout year, throwing 27 touchdowns to just 8 interceptions, and bruising running back Nick Chubb ran for 1,067 yards behind one of the top offensive lines in the league.

However, even though the offensive explosion was refreshing to see, the Browns struggled mightily on the defensive side of the ball, giving up an average of 26.2 points per game. They gave up more points than they scored. A lot of this had to do with an extremely weak secondary. If the defensive line didn’t get to opposing quarterbacks, or stop the run, there wasn’t much to stop an opposing offense from routinely gashing the Browns for a big gain or touchdown once the linebackers and defensive backs were called on to make a play. Poor open field tackling was also an issue. If an opposing quarterback was pressured, and they decided to throw the ball, the Browns also found themselves routinely getting burned when trying to defend the pass.

Through the legal tampering period on March 15th-16th and the first two days of Free Agency on March 17th and today, the Browns have made a few key roster moves. The move that I am the most impressed with so far, addresses one of their biggest needs by strengthening the secondary. Enter John Johnson III.

John Johnson III

A safety’s job in the game of football is a kind of jack of all trades position. They team up with cornerbacks in covering wide receivers, come up and tackle the opposing running back in run support, and they often serve as “enforcers.” If a receiver catches a pass over the middle, good safeties are hard hitters who make the receiver think twice about holding onto the football and absorbing the hit. They’re good at intimidating opposing offensive players with their physicality.

John Johnson III brings all of these things with him to Cleveland. Last season, he served as the captain and play caller of a Rams defense that was ranked 1st in total defense and pass defense. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Johnson led the Los Angeles Rams in tackles with 105, allowed only one touchdown in one on one coverage, and was rated the 4th best safety in the league in terms of coverage and 3rd best safety overall. This was a solid first step in turning the Browns’ biggest weakness into a future strength. Hopefully Johnson has some productive years in Cleveland after inking a 3-year deal worth $33.8 Million.

Takk McKinley

In addition to shoring up the secondary, Browns GM Andrew Berry also opted to sign former Raiders defensive end Takk McKinley to a one-year deal worth up to $4 Million. At first this move didn’t make much sense to me, since at the time we already had a defensive end and pass rusher in Adrian Clayborn. It seemed like more of a lateral move than an upgrade.

But now after reading up on him a little bit, I think it’s a solid signing for several reasons. First, signing McKinley to a deal worth only $4 Million keeps the Browns out of salary cap trouble compared to if they had gone for a bona fide big-name pass rusher. Sure they could’ve gotten a star to put on the other end of the defensive line across from Myles Garrett, but it would’ve broken the bank and not allowed them the flexibility to make other moves later in the season.

Second, according to Doug Lesmerises of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Browns have tried to get Takk McKinley on several occasions in the past. Obviously Andrew Berry and Co. see something they REALLY like in him, or they wouldn’t have gone after him this hard. And I think I know what that might be, which leads me to the third reason I now like this move: His speed coming off the edge as a situational pass rusher.

McKinley, a 2017 first round pick, has 17.5 career sacks, so he’s definitely shown that he has the ability to get home and sack the quarterback. He’s been dealing with some recent injury issues, but when he is healthy, he is supposedly faster than former Brown Adrian Clayborn when coming off the edge. He has a quicker first step off the ball.

When you consider that the Browns already have one of the top pass rushers in the NFL in Myles Garrett, putting McKinley across from him makes sense. Opposing offensive coordinators already have to game plan around slowing down Myles Garrett. Adding another player who can generate more pressure on opposing quarterbacks from the opposite direction will make it that much tougher to stop the Browns’ pass rush. I still think the Browns will draft a pass rusher who is intended to be a future star alongside Myles Garrett, perhaps with their first overall pick at #26. But for right now, McKinley makes sense.

Troy Hill

The Browns also addressed a weakness at the cornerback position by signing former Rams cornerback Troy Hill to a four-year deal worth $24 Million. While the price tag seems high, after reading up on him, I agree with ESPN’s analysis of the move: He’s insurance as a reliable starting cornerback if stars Greedy Williams and Denzel Ward can’t stay healthy. While I still think the Browns need to find another star cornerback somewhere, this is definitely a step in the right direction. Hill, who is 30 years old, could provide veteran leadership to the younger guys on the team. He also rejoins John Johnson here in Cleveland, as the two were teammates with the Rams in Los Angeles. A good move in several ways: getting a reliable starter, adding insurance, and continuing to build a winning culture based on prior connections and veteran leadership. I like it!

Hollywood is Back!

The one re-signing that has so far pleased me the most has been Rashard “Hollywood” Higgins, who signed a one-year deal worth $2.3 Million in guaranteed money. You’d think a guy with the nickname “Hollywood” would be more flashy and in your face. But that’s definitely not the case with Higgins. He’s just a quiet, humble guy who simply goes about his business, which is catching the football.

Fortunately for the Browns, he lets his actions and play on the field do the talking. Not to mention he catches just about everything thrown his way! Last season, Higgins caught 37 passes for 599 yards and four touchdowns. 2020 was a career year for Higgins in many ways. He nearly equaled his career high for catches in a season (39), equaled his number of touchdown catches in a season, and his 599 yards receiving was a new personal best.

He is a solid, reliable receiver. But he also seems to be the guy Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield goes to the most when the offense needs kickstarted by a big play, or to keep a drive going. That’s the reason he averages over 14 yards per catch. He might make the occasional spectacular play. But his true value lies in the fact that he’s Baker Mayfield’s security blanket. He’s a young quarterback’s most reliable receiver when all else fails.

Key Losses

Free Agency definitely drives home the point that the NFL is first and foremost, a business. And like any business, sometimes employees leave to find work elsewhere. A few players left the Browns and found new homes with other teams such as:

  • DE Larry Ogunjobi: Signed with the Cincinnati Bengals on a one-year deal
  • OT Kendall Lamm: Signed with the Tennessee Titans on a two-year deal worth up to $8.5 Million
  • Special Teams players Tae Davis and Tavierre Thomas signed with the Houston Texans.
  • CB Terrance Mitchell signed with the Houston Texans for two-year deal worth $7.5 Million.
  • CB Kevin Johnson signs with the Tennessee Titans on a one-year deal.

So far, I like the moves Andrew Berry has made. He’s filling team needs while staying within the team’s budget. While I know most fans, myself included, love to see their team make a mega splash in Free Agency, I agree with the approach the Browns have taken so far. Hopefully Andrew Berry and the Browns front office keeps building something special. Stay tuned everybody!

Learning from Leviticus

I’ve surprised myself! Haha. I’ve read completely through the books of Genesis and Exodus. But I was definitely feeling burned out by the end of the 40 chapters of Exodus. Plus a lot of Exodus after the Israelites are freed, focuses on the food regulations and general life laws besides the Ten Commandments, and it’s hard to remember all of them. Things got a little dry. I wasn’t exactly itching to continue reading and studying the other day. So I took a day off. But after getting back at it today, I think God may have revealed something to me that I never really focused on before.

Chapters 1-4 of Leviticus specifically deal with animal sacrifice. I already knew that the Israelites routinely performed animal sacrifices as an offering for the cleansing of sin. But as I read the opening chapters of Leviticus, I had a thought: Animal sacrifices, while necessary to the Israelites of Moses’ day, are not a natural part of things. They are unnatural. And it all goes back to the beginning of Genesis. Death and sin were never part of the original plan God had for any of us.

In a perfect Earth, Adam and Eve would have obeyed God. They would have physically been able to continue talking with Him every day since they would’ve stayed in perfect harmony with Him. We would’ve been able to physically converse with God as well! Can you imagine physically hearing God’s voice on a daily basis?! There would’ve been no war, diseases, animals wouldn’t need to be used for food or sacrifices, and nobody would’ve died. God would have sustained everything and everyone.

But because of the first sin by Adam and Eve, our world entered its broken state we see today. And one of the things the Israelites had to do back in Moses’ day to cover for their sins, was to slaughter an innocent, blameless animal (usually a young lamb, goat or bull) in the prescribed way dictated to Moses by God. I’m not going to put those verses here, as they are pretty graphic. They can be found in Chapters 1-4 of Leviticus.

Animal Sacrifices vs. The Sacrifice

But the description of animal sacrifice opened my eyes a little bit. It kind of shocked me in its graphic nature. But knowing what we know about the Earth as it should have been, the deaths of young, innocent animals was never supposed to happen. Not one of God’s creations, human, animal or otherwise was ever supposed to die or be destroyed. But I think God showed how unnatural sin and death are through animal sacrifice in Leviticus.

But animal sacrifice was the way people atoned for sin in the days of Moses. They either had to sacrifice blameless animals, or suffer the wrath of God for all of their wrongdoings. God required a steep price. And, in the Christian view, it’s the same choice, except it’s either accept Jesus’ death on the Cross and believe he’s the Messiah, or suffer the wrath of God, as that is what humanity has earned by our sins.

I know what some of you may be thinking: Some ultimatum. God isn’t all loving if He’s going to force us into a situation like that. Here’s the thing though, He doesn’t force us into making that decision, and gets no glee out of punishing us if we choose to reject Him. He’s not sadistic or evil. All the traits people choose to understandably, but wrongly attribute to God are entirely human traits. They’re evil.

But God is not like us. Or rather we are not like Him. His holiness and goodness is at such a level, and our sinfulness is at such a level, that we cannot approach God in Heaven as we are now: filthy dirty in terms of being flawed and sinful. However, if we accept the one-time, all-encompassing sacrifice of Jesus, we are spared the fate we all deserve and eventually made perfect through Him.

Sunshine and Rainbows vs. Fire and Brimstone

This problem pops up when we start reading the Old Testament. And I think what God says and does confuses many people. It certainly has confused me at times. Most also struggle to strike a good balance between the qualities above. I still fail at it more than I’d like. But when believers only focus on one or the other, they both fall short. If someone purely focuses on preaching fire and brimstone, but not Jesus’ endless love for lost souls, they come across as cold, modern day Pharisees whom nobody listens to. On the flipside, when someone only shares the love of Jesus, but willfully ignores what the consequences of sin are for fear of offending people, they’re not telling the truth.

When sharing the Good News of Jesus, and when trying my best to love those in my life the way He would, I don’t often preach (or in this case write) fire and brimstone. And that’s not because I am afraid of offending people. Those who truly know me know that I am bluntly honest. If something really bothers me, I am as subtle as a sledgehammer about it!

I normally focus on sharing the love of Jesus because I want to be different from so-called “holy rollers” and “Bible thumpers.” Many seem too judgmental and fixated on the wrathful aspect of God to truly show His love to others. All they preach is fire and brimstone. They miss the point that God is both complete justice, and everlasting love. Not to mention the fire and brimstone aspect is also the main negative quality that many nonbelievers understandably associate with Christians. I want to be different from the stereotypical Christian, as someone who is more understanding, kind and approachable.

I want people to know who Jesus is, and how much He loves all of them. Which is why I try to be friendly, loving and have an understanding heart for those who talk to me, whether they are Christians or not. Plus I also freely admit and show my brokenness and flaws, and try to meet people on their level. After all, we’re all sinners. I want to love people in spite of their brokenness, since I have been loved by others in spite of MY brokenness.

But at the same time, and pardon my language here folks: I won’t feed people sugarcoated bullshit. I love them enough to tell them the truth. Without Jesus, we are in trouble. We all have the opportunity to accept His sacrifice as long as we’re alive. And His love is boundless. He patiently waits for all of us to go to Him.

But Jesus also loves us enough to allow us to say no. When we use our freedom of choice to say no, we are sending a message to God: “You know, God, your sacrifice sounds wonderful. But I don’t need it. I’m just fine on my own.” At that point, God leaves us alone just like we want. Even though it leads to nowhere good.

The beginning of Leviticus showed me the second major connection from the Old Testament to Jesus, but I first found Him in the story of Jacob’s son Joseph, which you can read here. He calls out to us from everywhere in Scripture. We just need to be willing to open the book, have the patience and humility to keep our hearts and minds open, and genuinely look for Him. For He is always there 🙂

Chronicles of Brothers: Part 2

Okay it’s official: Chronicles of Brothers is my favorite book series! For those of you who don’t know, Chronicles of Brothers is a Biblical/Fantasy series written by British author Wendy Alec. The timeline begins well before the creation of Man, and is supposed to extend to Revelation and the end of the world. For some backstory on the series, check out my previous post I wrote on New Year’s Day here!

I just recently finished the second book of the five-book series, Messiah: The First Judgement. The book depicted the earthly life of Jesus from a fictionalized account of His boyhood years (ages 3-8), to His ministry, Crucifixion, Harrowing of Hell, and Resurrection from the dead. For someone who knows the Gospel, and who has heard the stories several times growing up as a Christian, listening to Scripture can get a little monotonous and stale at times. But that’s not because Scripture itself is stale. After all, it’s the most beautiful true story ever told! But I think sometimes God allows us to see His message in new ways, and with a new pair of eyes.

That’s where Chronicles of Brothers has changed things for me! In order to understand the series in a nutshell, imagine a retelling of the Bible, crossed with vivid spiritual warfare, and relatable human characters who have to navigate life’s trials and tribulations. The series has a little bit of everything in it!

End of The Fall of Lucifer

I’m quickly noticing a brilliant thing used by Wendy Alec in her writing. She is a master at creating hope and expectation in her readers. In the first book, The Fall of Lucifer, she shows just how ugly sin is, particularly the sin Lucifer committed when he attempted to overthrow God. She also shows how hopeless humanity is after the fall of Adam and Eve, and before the birth of Jesus. For most of the first book, the Devil gloats at dooming mankind, thinking he has full power over us. And for a while, he does. But then, Jesus (or Christos as He is called in the book) freely offers to leave Heaven for Earth to save humanity. He offers to leave a place that is free of suffering, pain, heartache and sin in order to become one of us.

Wendy Alec builds up to Jesus’ birth by doing several things in the final few chapters of The Fall of Lucifer. In her first step to that, she shows the need for a pure, blameless sacrifice for the sins of humanity by creating a dramatic, grand courtroom scene. Millions of angels are present before God. Lucifer (temporarily returned to his beautiful state before he fell from Heaven) is there as well. He states that we have broken Eternal Law by our sinfulness, and that we are his property. There is a somber, sad mood in the room. All the angels, including Lucifer’s brothers Michael and Gabriel and a wise old angel named Jether, realize that Lucifer is correct. Unless someone undefiled with the sinfulness of mankind offers themselves freely as a sacrifice, there is no hope for God’s most beloved creation. No one seemingly fits the criteria for wiping mankind’s slate clean with God…

In the second step to Jesus’ birth, Jether and the other wise old angels see that God has chosen Mary to be Jesus’ mother, and that He has placed Jesus’ star in the sky as a sign to all (the angels in Heaven, mankind on Earth, and the demons in Hell) of the impending arrival of the Messiah. From that point, Wendy Alec picks up her pacing, but keeps that climactic moment from reach. Until suddenly, we unexpectedly stumble upon Jesus like the characters themselves do. Folks, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t emotional when King Aretas, his servant Ayeshe (the characters), and the Three Wise Men found Jesus. I definitely did not have dry eyes. It made me cry! Everyone, even non-Christians, have heard of the Nativity story of Jesus. But it takes a new angle on the story by a skilled writer to draw out such a reaction!

Messiah: The First Judgment

While The Fall of Lucifer almost exclusively focuses on Lucifer’s rebellion, and the consequences incurred by mankind for following him, Messiah: The First Judgment focuses on the life and miracles performed by Jesus. The neat thing though is when Jesus performs a miracle, or other great feat, we are taken BEYOND the Gospel story, and into the realm of angels and demons. What Jesus does reverberates not only on Earth, but in Heaven and Hell as well. The three most powerful examples of this are the Resurrection of Lazarus, the Crucifixion, and the Harrowing of Hell.

When Jesus goes to raise Lazarus from the dead, He comes across a whole battalion of demons guarding Lazarus’ tomb. Naturally even though they are fearsome, the entire battalion of demons is no match for Jesus, and they are banished back to Hell while Lazarus is raised from the dead. Once banished, the demons tell a stunned Lucifer what happened. After this, Lucifer makes it his goal to find a way to kill Jesus. Cue Judas’ betrayal, the Agony in the Garden and Caiaphas’ questioning of Jesus after His arrest. During these events, it’s clear that demons are at work. Wendy Alec added an extra, spiritual layer to the Gospel story to explain why Judas and Caiaphas did what they did.

Next on Good Friday, Wendy Alec paints a picture of the scene before Pilate decides to hand Jesus over to be crucified: Most of the people in Jerusalem actually seem to want Jesus to be released from custody. They view Him as a holy man, healer. and hero. But once Lucifer and his demons arrive on the scene, a kind of virus is released in the air by the demons. And once the crowd inhales it, we get the original Gospel scene: people howling for Jesus’ blood.

Michael the Archangel and his army is also present at Jesus’ Crucifixion. But they are not there to fight Lucifer and his army. The angels are merely there to watch things unfold, and encourage Jesus to complete His sacrifice.

Once Jesus dies, He is taken to Hell as a prisoner of Lucifer, who thinks he’s won the ultimate trophy. But after a huge amount of gloating and bragging, and crowning Jesus with an iron crown of thorns similar to the one He wore in life, Lucifer is shocked to find that Jesus has disappeared as soon as he turned his back on the shackled prisoner.

The next time Jesus appears, He is wearing the purple robe of a king and slaying demons with a silver cord of rope (a nod to the cord he used to drive money changers out of the Temple). He also frees MILLIONS of righteous souls. The scope of this whole scene is like something you’d find in an epic fantasy movie!

The final message in Messiah: The First Judgement

The Resurrection of Jesus is not covered as much in the book as His Crucifixion and Harrowing of Hell, although He does appear to the daughter of King Aretas (the man who found Him in the manger about 30 years earlier), after His Resurrection. King Aretas himself is old and bitter. He’s in his early 70s, dying, unbelieving, and angry at Jesus for the death of his son.

But in his last moments before dying, King Aretas and his daughter, Jotapa are visited by Jesus, and the King’s son, Zahi, who died as a martyr for Jesus. At the sight of Jesus, King Aretas’ heart softens as he sees his old friend. He cries as he recognizes Jesus as that same little three-year old Hebrew boy who he protected, and he comes to faith at his last breath on Earth.

That emotional scene hit me like a ton of bricks. The message at the end of this book is clear: God offers His mercy and forgiveness to all of us. Even at the hour of our death, no matter how lost we are. I think we all need reminded of that constantly. I know I do. Even though I am a Christian, I often feel like I am a lost soul who is in trouble with God.

Wendy Alec is an amazing writer, and her books have helped to reinvigorate my faith the more I read them. I know they don’t take the place of Scripture. But I think they help shed light on Jesus’ message, and what He’s all about in a new way. They refresh my enthusiasm to continue to try to follow Jesus. I encourage all people, Christians and non-Christians alike to read these books. You might find yourself as moved as I was! Next up for this guy? Book 3: Son of Perdition.

Later, everybody! God bless you all! 🙂

A Puncher’s Chance

I love many different movies. But I’m a sucker for inspirational sports films. Remember the Titans, The Blind Side, the Rocky series to name a few. But even though Cinderella Man is an inspirational sports movie, it just seems to hit me differently. I normally don’t get emotional at movies, but by the end of Cinderella Man I’m at least misting up if not flat out crying. Every time. That’s when you know a movie and its actors and crew, have done the job that art is supposed to do. Music, dance, art painted on a canvas, and truly great films all touch something deep at our core. They touch our humanity. They touch the deepest part of our souls and resonate with us.

Russell Crowe, Renee Zellwegger and Paul Giamatti are masterful as Jim Braddock, Mae Braddock and trainer Joe Gould. They make the characters they’re portraying relatable. The desperate boxer just trying to do his duty as a father and husband. The loving and devoted wife who cannot bear to listen to her husband’s fights on the radio, let alone watch them in person. And the salty trainer with the mouth of a sailor, but a heart of gold who loves his friend.

It’s that relatability that keeps bringing me back to the story of a tough as nails boxer from North Bergen, New Jersey. Relatability resonates with me when it comes to the story of James Walter Braddock. I certainly did not live during the Great Depression. Let alone try to provide for a wife and three children in that mess. The people who lived during the Great Depression are the toughest people I’ve ever heard of. Jim Braddock was one of those people. People who are part of The Greatest Generation will always have my utmost respect.

But I relate to Jim the most on a human level when he waits for his big break and is struggling to find work or another fight. He simply wants another opportunity. Another chance. While the Coronavirus pandemic is no Great Depression, I realize that I am one of millions struggling in the same situation, like Jim was back in his day.

The importance of having family and friends in uncertain and rough times also hits home for me. As much as I have struggled to get a lucky break and find a job, I have always had my family and friends behind me. In the same way, for as much as Jim struggled before he got his chance, he always had the love and support of his wife Mae and three children Jay, Howard and Rosemarie.

Jim’s big break comes when he fills in to fight John “Corn” Griffin on a day’s notice. He’s expected to be little more than a glorified sparring partner for Griffin, who is a serious contender for the World Heavyweight Championship. Instead, Jim knocks him out cold! This also resonates with me personally, because once Jim got his big break, he was hungry, ran with it, and made good on it. Before long he gets on a winning streak, knocking out fighters such as John Henry Lewis and Art Lasky which catches the eye of the World Champion, Max Baer.

I wonder what went through Jim’s mind as he was preparing for the biggest fight of his life? He was simply trying to feed his family with the Corn Griffin fight. He didn’t expect it to go anywhere. But yet here he was. A crowd of 50,000 or so saw him swap punches at Madison Square Garden with a big, powerful, hard-hitting man who had at least 20 pounds on him, under the brightest lights in the world. After 15 brutal rounds, Jim Braddock was declared the winner by unanimous decision, and the new Heavyweight Champion of the World! This scene in Cinderella Man always gets me choked up:

Watch that and tell me you have dry eyes. The beautiful music, gravity of the moment, and the fact that a heavy underdog won, always gets me. So many people also saw Jim’s win as much more than simply winning a boxing match. People needed a hero. They needed someone to root for and place their hope in. Especially at a time when America was really struggling and down on herself.

45 years before the United States Hockey Team defeated the Soviet Union in New York, Jim Braddock defeated Max Baer in one of the greatest upsets in sports history. But in both cases, Americans were given unlikely heroes they could rally around at the time they needed them the most. Perhaps our country will be given a new hero for our time? We can only hope. We certainly need one.

Cinderella Man is a complete movie. It shows the tough and gritty atmosphere of 1930’s New Jersey, presents Jim Braddock and his family and friends as everyday people, and shows just what somebody can do when given an opportunity. I highly recommend that people watch this. Especially if they’re feeling down on their luck in today’s uncertain times. If Jim Braddock made his way out of his struggles, we all can make it out of our struggles too!

My Time in the Galaxy Far, Far Away

I will always remember the first time one of my teachers in preschool called me Skywalker when I was a little boy. Although what I don’t remember is when or exactly how I became a fan of Star Wars. I’ve just always seemed to love it ever since I can remember. From my earliest, happiest childhood memories, I have always followed the adventures of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia and others. Even though I wasn’t as fortunate to see the original Star Wars movie back in 1977 (like both of my parents did), something just draws me to Star Wars. I can’t quite put my finger on it though.

I think as a kid what drew me to Star Wars was the sense of adventure. What wide-eyed kid didn’t dream of flying an X-Wing, shooting down TIE Fighters and saving the day? Plus the countless worlds and creatures just blew my mind. All these years later, I still can’t wrap my mind around how huge the Star Wars universe is. All of this came from one man’s mind. Thank God for George Lucas!

My mom always would tell me how her little brother, my uncle Scott had all the Star Wars toys when the original trilogy first came out. I think he had a bigger collection than I did, although I certainly had plenty of toys of my own! A green lightsaber, X-Wing, A-Wing, mini versions of the Y-Wing and B-Wing, and a HEAVY Millennium Falcon were definitely a few of the toys I can remember.

Not to mention I played quite a few of the games growing up, like X-Wing, TIE Fighter, Dark Forces, and Rebel Assault II. I remember first playing X-Wing on the computer, and thinking it was the coolest thing ever! The missions allowed the player to fly several ships, and gave a cockpit view. Pretty cool for early 90s gaming! Sure, it probably looks and sounds cheesy now. But back in 1993 when it first came out, it was the first Star Wars flight simulator of its kind! I remember hogging the computer, and begging Mom and Pop to use it, so I could play this thing. Check out the intro!

Recognizing deeper themes within Star Wars

As I’ve gotten older though, I think I appreciate Star Wars more for the mythology, deeper themes, and nostalgia. As a little kid, I could not have grasped the “Skywalker Saga” or the story of Anakin Skywalker, and what it meant to Star Wars as a whole. Even though Anakin eventually became Darth Vader, he is still the central, messianic figure of the whole thing. He fell to the dark side, but through the love he had for his son, Luke, he eventually fulfilled the Jedi prophecy by sacrificing himself and destroying the Emperor, allowing good to ultimately triumph over evil.

That should’ve been the end of the story. I do not think the sequel trilogy was necessary. Things should’ve ended with Return of the Jedi (Episode VI). Especially since I believe the story in the sequels could’ve been told much, much better. But that’s another story for another time and another blog post 😉

But as an adult, I’ve really come to appreciate the philosophical themes of Star Wars, and watching how the Jedi, and their ancient enemies, the Sith, operate. I see the Jedi as like warrior monks, and the Sith as completely given over to their passion and power. To me, these two extremes represent two ways of life, but they both miss the mark. The Jedi practice the light side of the Force, but they don’t acknowledge and study the dark side to understand how it works, because they’re too scared that they’ll be sucked into it. On the other side of the same coin, the Sith give into their passionate emotions (fear, anger, hate, pain), but they don’t practice any self-discipline or restraint.

Even though these are obviously fictional things, they remind me of the approaches people might take to how they live life in the real world, and show me what NOT to do. On one side, there are people who attempt to live life in an unrealistic, idealized way like the Jedi do in the prequel trilogy. A sunshine and rainbows approach I suppose. Their hearts are in the right place, and they are genuinely good people. But they deny that the darkness exists, and try their best to avoid having to go through the darker times in life.

On the other side, there are people for whom nothing is off limits. They go with their passion, emotion and heart 100% of the time like the Sith, which isn’t always with good intentions. Sometimes the intentions are far from noble or good. Sometimes they’re downright selfish and evil. But living like this sometimes gets people into serious trouble.

In order to fully embrace the human experience, we must be willing to fully understand both the good and the bad within life, while aiming to stay on the right path. Even while there is light and darkness within all of us. There are characters within Star Wars who see life like this. They are called Gray Jedi, and they study both the light and dark sides of the Force. The Jedi Code, Gray Jedi Code, and Sith Code are all pretty interesting too!

The Sith Code (left), Gray Jedi Code (middle) and Jedi Code (right)

Star Wars Audiobooks

Fairly recently, I’ve also really gotten into Star Wars audiobooks. I finished Heir to the Jedi, and I’m currently in the middle of Dooku: Jedi Lost. I’ve lost count of how many Star Wars books are on Libby (my app), but there is something for everyone. Whether you’re looking for nonstop action and adventure, or something deeper, I’d venture to say there are at least 100+ books on there. Easily. I don’t know how long it would take me to read or listen to them all, but I’ve definitely enjoyed the ones I’ve checked out.

Heir to the Jedi is set almost immediately after the original Star Wars film. Luke Skywalker is still very young, and riding high from blowing up the Death Star and becoming a hero to billions of people. But he is soon sent on another daring mission: opening up a supply line DEEP in Imperial territory in order for the Rebel Alliance to smuggle weapons to their troops. He soon realizes how key a successful mission is to achieving total victory over the Empire.

He grows up a lot both as a freedom fighter, as well as his training in the Force. The character arc of Luke is really well written in this book. Plus it is one of the only Star Wars books told entirely from Luke’s point of view. We hear his thoughts on his mission, missing Obi-Wan since he died in the original film, his curiosity about the Force, and his budding romantic attraction to his mission partner Nakari Kelen. He slowly grows attached to her through their shared experiences. This is definitely a classic Star Wars story full of action!

Dooku: Jedi Lost, definitely has its share of action. But its focus is on showing how Count Dooku, one of the main villains of the prequels (played by the late Sir Christopher Lee), fell to the dark side in spite of being a very gifted Jedi trained by Yoda himself. I’m more than halfway through, and I can already see Dooku starting to doubt his Jedi path. He bucks his training at certain points, feeling like Yoda and the other Jedi masters are ignorant of the growing darkness that surrounds them.

Plus he holds a lot of deep-seeded anger at a number of people in his life. His father hates the Jedi and thinks he’s a freak because he has Force powers. He doesn’t claim Dooku as his son. Dooku is also angry at the Jedi Order for commanding him to cut all contact with his sister, Jenza, whom he loves and cares for deeply. The Jedi are not allowed to have emotional attachments of any kind. None. Which is why they’re often taken from their families as babies or very small children by the Jedi, before they can really form emotional attachments with anyone. I find myself sympathizing with Dooku here. If I were in Dooku’s shoes, and reunited with a long-lost family member, and somebody told me to cut off all contact with them, I’d rebel against them too!

So far it’s been a great book though. Cavan Scott does a great job of showing how Dooku struggles to follow the Jedi code, while he also tries to follow his heart and be a good man. I definitely see a little bit of myself in Dooku. What people teach or dictate is not always right. One must sometimes follow one’s heart. Dogma be damned.

What’s so great about Star Wars?

Some may scoff at Star Wars as being a nerdy thing. But there is a reason BILLIONS of people love it passionately. It’s a classic story of good vs. evil, but set across a HUGE galaxy and timespan that is so much fun to explore! However, where I think it touches people the most, is that they may see themselves in the characters. Some may identify with Han Solo if they are adventurous, brash, confident and looking for a good time. Women and girls may identify with Princess Leia (and her mother Padme) because the characters are independent, strong women who stick to their morals and convictions in the face of overwhelming evil or political pressure. They do the right thing no matter what the cost is to them. I, along with probably many others, identify with Luke Skywalker.

I identify with Luke the most because we share the same name. We are also both restless farmboys who are impatient, waiting for the next big break in our lives to happen. And we both try to do the right thing, and see the good in everyone regardless of who they are.

Regardless if you’re a fan of Star Wars or not, there is always room for everyone in the Galaxy Far, Far Away! 🙂