My Little Devotional #176: “Wake Up!”

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Inspiration for Today’s Devotional: “The End in Friend”

In this episode, Rainbow Dash and Rarity, triggered by an argument as to the validity of their friendship when they seemed to have nothing in common, ended up quite upset at one another and their hostility threatened to drive a wedge between them. To try and get the two to find common ground, Twilight suggested that they use one thing they mutually liked, reading, to do a book swap with one another in an attempt to get them to abandon their squabbling and reconnect.

However, both were mad at each other and, as many foolishly do, worked to keep their grudge going instead of turning toward reconciliation. Rather than even actually read the assigned book, let alone put any effort into the exercise to try and understand one another, both simply made a preconceived judgment about the selections that justified their own opinions, stood behind it, and even defended it as genuine criticism. At that point, one could hardly even argue that they had an opinion that was defendable. It was simply unreasonably hating something to begin with and shutting out any attempt to get them to think otherwise. Frankly, it was an act of being pigheaded on both of their parts.

There’s an urban lingo term thrown out around a lot nowadays…the idea of being “woke”. The term is a throwback to the movie “The Matrix” in which the majority of people on Earth are blind to the fact they are living out a digital computer simulation while being kept in suspended animation, and that when they “wake up” they become aware of how the world really is. What it means to actual society is the idea of someone becoming aware of how something really works or is when society/media/others say it functions a different way. (It’s somewhat analogous to the older term: “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid”, implying not to just go with the flow and buy into whatever people tell you about something.) Often this applies to cases of alleged racism, sexism, political bias, classism, etc.

Among the millennial generation, of which I am a member, “being woke” is a prized status symbol. Being woke, or aware of an incident of racism, sexism, political bias, classism, etc., that was “cleverly disguised” as being fully innocuous or normal, is considered to be a high point for one’s intellect. A person is smart enough to see the proverbial man behind the curtain. They are enlightened enough to realize what this is doing to other people. Most importantly, they are upstanding enough to present this “horrendous evil” to society so that it can be rooted out, and even better if they organize large public outcry about it. In other words, while on the surface this may appear to be purely public action or protest, it’s also a very uplifting and personally gratifying thing for those involved as it demonstrates to others how much more aware, upstanding, forward-thinking, and proactive they are.

The left gets the most flak for this nowadays, but really I’ve seen it on both sides of the political spectrum. (Honestly? If you want to see more of one or the other just get the opposite party into the White House…) To me, it all stems from the same thing I’ve hit on before: modern Internet culture. Everyone believes their opinion is worth more than it is and prizes people responding to it. The best way to make your opinion stand out is if it’s unique; and the easiest way to get it to be unique is to find some wrong in the world, whether it’s there or not, and shout about it.

I’m not trying to make the case that all of this is unjustified. Furthermore, the fact that a minority of people are particularly loud and even violent about it is no excuse for the majority of people to remain apathetic. What I am wanting to draw attention to, however, is how many of these individuals justify themselves; which ties into this episode. No one really cares about a fact that “is mostly correct, but occasionally doesn’t apply” or an injustice that’s only alleged. Likewise, no one wants to point out that they formed an opinion on something which is better in some ways and worse than others compared to what’s happening right now. People want to be right. They want to be fully justified. They want to have the one answer. They want to be the side that’s on top of things and not the side that’s stupid and clueless.

That leads to how modern debate goes about these sorts of things, if you can even call it that. Protesters, demonstrators, and proponents of an idea have no interest whatsoever in pointing out where their particular idea falls a little flat, talking about the tradeoffs, or seeing if there’s an element of their idea that applies and not the rest–let alone compromise. They don’t bother with the opposite side, and, in most people’s minds, they don’t have to. They believe they’re right already and that the other is wrong.

In this situation, when someone believes they are in the right and has some animosity toward an opposing viewpoint, debating with them usually not only doesn’t work but can’t work. That’s because people ignore anything good about the opposing viewpoint and embrace every bit of criticism and bad they can find and form their whole mental framework around that. Everything else is mentally excluded at the point of hearing it. Through a series of logical fallacies, they pardon away all other evidence that opposes their view and cement so much in their minds that such is reality that eventually they deceive themselves into thinking there isn’t an alternative viewpoint at all…just idiots who know nothing and people like themselves who are “woke”.

Worse yet, they do just the opposite with favorable evidence for their own point of view and let it all in without filtering or judgment. This is even if it’s based on nothing or is a bold-faced lie. I see this all the time on social media. As you may have guessed, I’m a conservative by nature as is most of my family, but some of the things they re-post as supposed “bombshells” or breaking reports are blatant misinformation. Some are clear photoshops while others are statistics that were pulled out of thin air or outright made-up fables. I don’t really care if they supposedly “support” my viewpoint when they’re blatant, obvious lies, as that not only doesn’t support my viewpoint but casts my viewpoint into doubt for people at large, but they go ahead and post them anyway simply because it justifies their thinking. And since they’re right, then anything that supports their view, even if it’s nothing but tripe, must also be right. Meanwhile, any genuine article that is against their viewpoint, even if backed with proper information and source, is either excused away or declared “just a lie”. It must be fake, because it doesn’t support their view, and therefore isn’t worth even considering.

As I’ve said several times before, we do not see the world as it is but as we are. If we choose to see something as good we will tend to overlook anything bad associated with it, whereas if we choose to see something as bad we will ignore anything good associated with it…all so that it perfectly fits our view of it. We’ll even claim the same is reality as I just illustrated. This sort of delusional thinking can lead to a lot worse than angry social media blogs and protesting. It can lead to totally warped senses of reality and even violent actions; all of which are assumed to be appropriate and justified. (Look no further than a group like Antifa, who prides themselves as being against any form of hate, violence, and intolerance…and uses hate, violence, and intolerance to supposedly “combat” the same.)

For the Christian, while there is always an element of social justice and a need to call out sin, in particular in individuals who are trying to justify themselves or behaviors for society at large, Lord Jesus had an emphasis on personal holiness and resolving the sin in one’s own life first. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3-5) This was especially true for those who claimed to be justified or “holy” without acknowledging their own evils and wrongdoing (see Matthew 23:1-33 for a lengthy condemnation of the self-righteous by Jesus). In the preceding passage, when taken with the Gospels as a whole, I want to point out that the priority is not so much on not condemning evil, but instead in being cognizant of one’s own evil as well. To not be so meticulous about finding what others are doing wrong that you ensure you are blind to what you yourself are doing wrong.

And that makes sense, because ultimately the only people we ever have control over is ourselves. And only to the degree that we are mature and complete will we be able to see not only the world clearly but also form relationships with others that are mature and complete, including with God. Most importantly, we will only see truth in regards to how much we keep our “lenses” free of warping, including truth God is trying to reveal to us.

Odds are if you ever hear criticism about your opinions or even behavior, your instincts are going to be to not take it well even if it’s justified. Particularly if it’s about a strong political or moral opinion you have. Admitting to yourself and acknowledging that you probably won’t like what you are about to hear can go a long way toward resolving your own bias; even if you don’t end up agreeing with it in the end. Owning up and taking control of one’s feelings and prejudgments is not only an important standard for a Christian, but for any mature adult. That means using our reason and self-discipline to realize when we truly see something that either supports or counters our strong opinions and when we are simply selectively listening to the messages that we want to hear, no matter how pleasant or unpleasant.

And that’s the kind of “woke” we could all stand to be.

Suggested Prayer: “Lord God, thank you for your Word, which emphasizes the need to never be so preoccupied with recognizing evil in others that we fail to recognize it in ourselves first. Where I have grown blind, ignorant, or have ‘fallen asleep’ in regards to my own wrongdoing or lack of ‘rightdoing’, please help me to awaken to that and enact the changes I need to make to better serve you and others. No matter how painful and uncomfortable it may be. Gratefully in Jesus’ Name, Amen.

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My Little Devotional #175: “Stuck Between a Rock and a Hard Place”

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Inspiration for Today’s Devotional: “Friendship University”

In this episode, Twilight Sparkle stages a not-so-secret infiltration of the Flim Flam Brothers’ “Friendship University” on a more-than-justified hunch that they’re running another money-making scam. Eventually, her overt espionage is discovered and exposed by the brothers, who threaten to go public with the information that the “Princess of Friendship” was so distrustful and unfriendly that she tried to ruin a legitimate rival school to keep it from competing with her own.

More interesting, however, was later in the episode when Twilight (and Rarity)’s work bore fruit and discovered how the Flim Flam brothers were charging exorbitant fees for stolen lesson plans. However, even now having evidence of the brothers’ wrongdoing, the crooked brothers still tried to use the fact they had caught her in the act spying as leverage to keep their own misdeed from going public.  It might seem like they don’t have a leg to stand on at first but, if you keep in mind the context of the episode as well as how things operate in real life, you can quickly tell that threat was all too real.

It should be more than obvious if you take a look around at news stories in the modern day or any day that sometimes all it takes is an accusation to ruin someone. It doesn’t matter if the accusation is totally untrue–all you need to do is have it look at least plausible, and then let gossip and society do the rest. This is especially true if, like in the case of Twilight Sparkle, you already have “enemies” in high places. Individuals like Chancellor Neighsay would have been all too happy to back and reinforce any claim on misconduct on the part of Twilight if it meant ruining the reputation of her alternative school, true or not, and given the profile of the new “Friendship University” it would have been publicized largely. She knew, and the Flim Flam brothers knew, that even if the truth came out that the newer school was a con-job the damage would have already been done.

In the same way, around the world, people every day manage to ruin others, shift blame onto their victims,  or sink their opponents by simply making accusations that are flimsy or blatantly untrue.

Politicians in America do this all the time; especially during election season. Even if they are unable to back them up in the end, they continue to say the mere “seriousness of the allegations” is enough to merit looking at a rival with distrust; even if it’s a total lie. (That’s like me being able to accuse anyone I want of murder and everyone should immediately distrust them because it was a “serious accusation”.)

While racism and sexism do indeed exist, people also make wild claims about them against innocent people to shift focus away from any misdeeds they are doing–sometimes going so far as to make outright accusations of heinous crimes because they know full well the victim will spend loads of time and money defending against it and still will never escape the stigma. (I find these particularly insidious, because that ends up hurting real victims of racism and sexism in the long run.)

Sensationalist stories continue to resonate with people’s memories far longer than the truth, especially in the case of people who have done past, lesser wrongdoings because if someone is guilty of one sin everyone is quicker and easier to blame them for greater ones. Take, as case in point, Ty Cobb. While his own behavior and demeanor were far from ideal, to this day he is still considered one of the most despicable players in the history of MLB for racist crimes, including a totally false one alleging he murdered an African American busboy, even though they’ve been proven to be nothing more than fabricated stories (later in life, Cobb was actually in favor of integrating baseball). As another example, Sarah Palin. After her gaff on answering a question asking which magazines she read, in which she said “all” the magazines, there were people who believed she also once declared: “I can see Russia from my house”…which was never her at all but rather a joke on SNL by Tina Fey.

My personal peeve in the modern day is the wave of anti-vaccination…which, much to my horror, is actually so predominant that proponents of it march on Washington. Many anti-vax claims originated from an unrepeatable, poor-founded study suggesting a link between vaccinations and autism. If you know anything about how viruses work, you know perpetuation of this ridiculous lie is harmful not only to people who don’t vaccinate but to people who have been vaccinated as well. That hasn’t stopped people from continuing to cite this bogus study and back it, however, because how sensational its claim was.

This is very serious business. People can forfeit their jobs, lose the support of their neighbors, friends, and family, receive constant death threats, or worse as a result of mere accusations. In some countries around the world, especially with partial justice systems that only allow certain people to testify, people are permanently robbed of their rights because all one has to do is accuse them and they’re guaranteed a conviction as they have no legal foothold to defend themselves.

Because of this, many people in the world protect themselves and their own bad behavior by taking a page from the Flim Flam brothers and threaten to accuse their accusers. And this threat is real enough to keep people very quiet. Adults often guarantee the silence of abused children by threatening to get them into deeper trouble on trumped-up charges; knowing that society will take their word over that of kids. Whistleblowers are discouraged from becoming public when an employer can make up any old excuse and claim it’s unrelated to the whistleblowing action to get them canned and rejected from any other business. And, once again, in some countries, simply reporting on a factual event is enough to get the government to accuse you of spreading inflammatory lies and being a secessionist…which in turn is enough to get you a jail sentence.

This is by no means a new tactic. On the contrary, it’s throughout the Bible from the very first book. When Joseph, operating as the slave of an Egyptian master, was encroached on by his master’s unfaithful wife trying to seduce him, she escaped her own wrongdoing by simply accusing Joseph of instigating the whole affair and got him thrown into prison for years (Genesis 39). When Jeremiah the prophet spoke against the corrupt actions of the ruling elite in Jerusalem, he was falsely accused of desertion in order to silence him (Jeremiah 37:11-15). Lord Jesus Himself was accused of being a revolutionary (Luke 23:2), a madman (John 8:48), and even consorting with demons (Matthew 12:24) when He began to call out the religious leaders of His day on their hypocrisy.

One account that always comes to mind for me in regards to false accusations is not from the Bible but involved the Israelites during the time of the Babylonian Exile. The story is about a pious and beautiful Israelite woman named Susanna. A pair of Israelite judges conspired to rape her in her husband’s own garden, and threatened her to either consent to the grotesque act or they’d use their own position to accuse her of adultery and have her put to death; knowing full well people would believe them as two witnesses rather than her. In that case, as in similar cases, a person was threatened to keep their mouth shut in regards to evil and submit to it, or be seriously hurt or even destroyed by a false accusation.

However, faced with this terrible option, Susanna was able to keep one thing in mind. For her, she realized this boiled down to a choice between being blameless before society or blameless before God. She chose to keep her eyes on the latter (screaming for help instead), and as a result not only preserved her integrity but was eventually vindicated from her foes (who themselves suffered the penalty they planned to inflict on her according to the Mosaic Law).

I have no idea where you are in life or if you find yourself in Susanna’s sort of situation–a time when we’re encouraged to overlook something or walk on eggshells around something because we fear the reprisal we’ll receive. Such a time is a true test of conscience and morality; a time when we have to decide if doing the right thing is worth it when there will be nothing but pain and personal hurt as a result.

For the Christian, if they intend to be able to do the right thing they must concentrate on doing what is noteworthy or blameworthy in the eyes of God, not man. In the end, it is what God thinks about us that matters and, as the Bible says, he always provides a way for those who trust in him (Psalm 91).

The more we are able to focus on that and adhere to it, the more our decisions will be based on doing the right thing no matter how people see it.

For those faced with a difficult situation in which they are in between “a rock and a hard place”, faced with two options that seem equally horrible and pressured by the threat of punishment to keep silent, my suggested prayer today is for you.

Suggested Prayer: “Lord God, I thank you for all the strong and courageous men and women of the Bible (and history) who, by their perseverance and example, showed us that it is ultimately more important to be clean in your sight and to stand by doing the right thing than to live in fear of human reprisal. When the world seems to turn against me for something I haven’t done wrong, to punish me for walking in integrity, or I am terrorized with what others will think of me or will do to me to cripple me from doing the right thing, help me to see only your face and to walk in your light. Gratefully in Jesus’ Name, Amen.”

Aqua Got Ten, We Got Seven… My Thoughts on “Kingdom Hearts 3”

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Well, it finally came. Seven years since their last entry in the main storyline of the franchise (“Dream Drop Distance”) and a staggering fourteen years since “Kingdom Hearts 2”, having skipped an entire console generation, Square Enix finally came out with “Kingdom Hearts 3”. To be honest, I really wanted to skip it. I was tired of how convoluted the plot had become and even more tired of being endlessly strung along on stories that seemed to resolve nothing and go nowhere. Nevertheless, when Square Enix desperately tried to court fresh blood for fans for their series by re-releasing remastered titles on the PS3 and PS4, I found myself eventually taking the bait. After binge playing through those, I took up KH3 and played it as well. It took me a bit longer than most to get through it due to school and life, but all things considered this is the fastest after a release I have ever beaten most games.

Square Enix has not done as good as it liked in those past fourteen years. It’s had some successes and some bombs, and has gotten a reputation for exceedingly long development times that nevertheless end up with games that feel only partially complete. With that in mind, there was quite a bit to worry about in this entry. Would Square Enix still have the “magic” or would it suffer as many of its other half-baked games had?

For my own take, I’m going to break down sections, but I’m also going to focus a lot of time on my reaction to the story. That was, after all, one of the main selling points of the franchise and this one ended up closing a huge story arc that had been building ever since “Kingdom Hearts 2”, so I feel it’s only fair when considering the merits of this game as a whole.

(WARNING: Spoilers will follow.)

GAMEPLAY

The gameplay of the Kingdom Hearts franchise has never been completely consistent. Whether due to limitations of the platforms or experimentation, every new game has been a little different than before. Some entries were pretty good, such as the PS2 and PSP entries. Other ones, such as the card combat system in “Chain of Memories”, were more ambiguous. And then there’s ones such as in “368/2 Days” we don’t speak of. I personally feel the series peaked in “Birth by Sleep” or “Dream Drop Distance”; incorporating the element systems to give you a limited list of custom-picked abilities that were easy to bring up and use on command.

The gameplay in this one didn’t go with that, instead returning to its roots from the original Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts 2. As a result, you either have to constantly customize your quick controls or get ready to stop moving to make ability, item, or spell selections a lot.

What it did end up taking from “Dream Drop Distance” was the whole idea of Flowmotion, which I can only see as Square Enix’s attempts to cater more to gamers of non-RPG genres. It’s no longer as good as it was for attacking as it was in that game, which, to me, leaves things a little awkward. You constantly have to “dash into walls” to get it started. Even in areas where you can chain it, it seems harder to use than in DDD because it also incorporates all of the special action moves you could do in “Birth by Sleep” such as air dashing, double jumping, and gliding. At times, it gets hard to use. I remember frequently getting frustrated trying to glide only to end up double-jumping, and whereas DDD allowed you to chain jumps against walls to get over any obstacle, in this one you can only do it once before you’re stuck. It’s not too terribly clunky, but it’s worse than DDD none the less.

Abilities in the standard set, being things Sora can learn and equip with AP, are largely gone. Now, instead, the game constantly bombards you with opportunities to do special attacks. You can trigger them yourself by simply continuously attacking with a Keyblade or with magic, which will eventually load a special type of super command for a wide scale powerful attack, or you can attack certain enemies at certain points to earn “Theme Park Attacks” which are wide-scale, powerful moves that utilize a type of Disneyland ride such as the Pirate Ship, Mad Tea Cups, or Splash Run.

In almost every situation, Donald and Goofy, as usual, are NPCs along with you to act as support. Occasionally, they let you do team attacks with them as well that wreck spectacular havoc. In most Disney worlds, you also get a fourth (and occasionally fifth) ally along for the ride with the same capability. If that wasn’t enough, the shotlocks and formchanges from “Birth by Sleep” are in this game as well and vary based on equipped Keyblade.

So while you may not have the ability to equip major attacks like Faith, Salvation, or Mega Flare, you’re constantly given wide-reaching attacks that can hurt everyone on the screen at a time in more than one capacity; most of which are either unavoidable or make you temporarily invincible. And when I say constantly I mean it. It’s not uncommon to have multiple ones stacked, or to be frustrated because they have to be processed in queued order so you are wanting to activate a formchange but are stuck with an amusement park ride before it.

As for enemies, their scripts and capabilities are pretty much identical to those of basic enemies in other games. You’ve encountered their ilk before and not much has changed. There are a few enemies that have moves that break through your defenses, but that’s nothing new. A handful of enemies, such as the Water Cores, can guard against your physical attacks too, but you can deal with them with magic. About the only enemies that can really give you trouble are the mech ones in the Toy Box world if they all gang up on you, but in that case the game provides you an out by allowing you to commandeer one of their mechs and then use it to beat up the others.

There’s a variety of bosses and many of them can break through your offense and defense, but nothing too overwhelming. In KH2.5, you had to be extremely deliberate about your actions with the harder bosses. You had to wait for them to make a certain move or mistake, seize your chance to block and counter, and then wait for the opportunity to arise again. In KH3, that’s out the window. Pretty much every enemy and boss can be beaten by relentlessly beating away at them. A couple have some tricks to catch you off guard if you’re too sloppy, but nothing major, and none of them are as overwhelming as the special bosses of KH2.5. Not even this game’s own special boss.

What that means is that, first and foremost, this game is a major scale back in difficulty compared to the previous titles. The Kingdom Hearts franchise has always been, in part, about “enjoying the ride”–experiencing what it’s like to simply cruise through these worlds and interact with these characters. To push that more in this entry, it appears as if that was their intention with reducing the difficulty and giving you no end of ways to trounce your opponents.

That’s the basic gameplay, but there’s lots more than that. The rail shooter aspect of Gummi Ships has gone by the wayside. Now it’s purely open-world. You get to explore in pseudo-three dimensions, looking for combat missions to complete, hidden crystals, secret treasures, and asteroid belts to pulverize for precious lodes. There are three zones in all, with the last incorporating an “Assault on the Death Star” element to it by flying into and through a giant ship. It’s not a perfect system, as often it’s very difficult to get your Gummi Ship to move up or down in three dimensions without a lot of leading space, but it’s nowhere near, say, “Superman 64” level frustrating. And the markpoint ability helps keep you from getting lost.

Not every world is lain out the same way either. Two worlds in particular utilize “condensed” versions of open world exploration: the Caribbean and San Fransokyo. The latter of the two is a very small cityscape and isn’t all that elaborate, seeming to be the one world that was distinctly hastily put together. The Pirates world, on the other hand, allows you to command your own pirate ship that can level up just like you can, and allows ship-to-ship naval combat to boot with special attacks just for your boat. (Being a Final Fantasy fan of the old school type, naming the ship the “Leviathan” is icing on the cake.)

Square Enix is rather infamous for minigames nowadays and, while this game doesn’t go as elaborate as other entries, it has quite a few. One of the more notable ones is a cooking minigame designed to get you special food rewards that you can eat as part of a meal to give you bonuses. Another is a large amount of “portable” games scattered around similar to old Game and Watch entries that feature Sora and Mickey in hours worth of minigame fun. There’s also a minigame that allows you to engage in mech combat, an ice slider challenge, and the “Flantastic Seven” challenges. As in earlier Kingdom Hearts entries, you are required to get a high score on many of these in order to unlock special equipment. While some of them can be rather frustrating, none of them are overwhelmingly so or require a fixed strategy followed to the letter (such as the Underdrome special challenges in KH2), so they’re quite doable.

Almost a little too doable, in fact. Completing these challenges will eventually net you the game’s ultimate weapon, the Ultima Weapon, which contains a nigh-unbeatable shotlock and formchange that renders even the game’s optional boss defeatable with minimal effort. The era of Sephiroths and Lingering Wills is long gone in this game. As a result, this game is far more appealing to the brand new gamer, but those who expect at least some real challenge may walk away disappointed.

In addition, the gameplay isn’t quite as tight as it was in earlier games. There’s a lot of three dimensionality in this game, but Sora moves just a bit too fast in between control pushes to stand on the edges of cliffs. That’s a problem when trying to seek secret emblems to photograph for prizes or get items that are on the edge, as one wrong step will send you falling down for a long climb back up. Sora tends to get stuck from time to time in areas where he can’t stand, and recapturing targets is rather difficult: leaving Sora wasting a combo hitting nothing but air and getting further and further from the battle.

Overall, however, I’ll rate it as good. None of the downsides are negatives that will keep the game from being enjoyable, at least until you level up enough, and in general it’s a very fun romp. The primary fun part of a game should be the gameplay, beyond the story, graphics, music, or anything else, and this one manages to deliver pretty consistent Kingdom Hearts standards.

GRAPHICS

Oh boy…the graphics.

Kingdom Hearts made a name for itself on the PS2 and pretty much limited itself to sixth generation standards for the entire franchise until KH2.8, when it started to utilize the Unreal Engine. Now it explodes on the screen gorgeously. Everything is so colorful, fluid, expressive, and detailed. The water shimmers, the fire gleams, the frost casts a mist, the oceans lap…it’s wondrous to behold.

Until this point in the series, cutscenes and gameplay were often done in different formats; with higher graphics being saved for cutscenes and less resolution going into boss battles. Not here. The two are virtually indistinguishable in most scenes. It’s fantastic. The worlds of Disney are brought into such stunning light there are times you’d almost swear you were in the movies.

It’s not flawless, however. At this point, the KH franchise has moved almost entirely to the 3D entries of Disney, and those translate well on the Unreal Engine. By comparison, the few characters who are still around who are traditionally 2D suffer a bit. The same engine erases what little crudeness they had to them that, ironically, made them resemble more their 2D counterparts. As a result, they look more rounded and “rubbery”. While the 100 Acre Wood level managed to compensate for that by applying borders to make the characters look more like they were from a book, the same didn’t extend to the rest of the game.

That’s a minor complaint, however. It’s a real treat just to enjoy how beautiful this game is. In previous games, the worlds of Disney films were largely “rectangular rooms” that were painted and given objects to make them appear almost like performance stages of Disney films. Now they’re brought to life more than ever.

MUSIC

To me, the music was a tiny bit hit-and-miss. However, the misses weren’t too terrible, and the hits were all out of the park.

Most of the game, in particular the Disney worlds, has mediocre music at best. Good enough to get the job done but not iconic enough to stay in your head as other infamous tracks from the series. However, there are a few entries that stick out noticeably. The composer wisely decided to incorporate the more famous pieces from the respective movies into the game themes, so you hear lots of vibes of “You Got a Friend in Me” in Toy Box and lots of tones from “Let It Go” in Arendelle. Furthermore, what few tracks make a return appearance, such as the theme from Olympus Colosseum, have gotten a nice update to sound more majestic than ever.

Yet where the soundtrack really shines is in the final area. In that part of the game, there are a number of battles and interactions between various characters, and to perfectly supplement that the music not only brings out old character and battle themes, not only updates them into newer and more epic versions, but actually blends them together, such as the fusion with Roxas and Xion’s theme for their return and the fusion of final boss themes for the three-way battle with Ansem, Xemnas, and Young Xehanort. In addition to epic moments, it’s walks down memory lane. It’s fantastic.

If the whole soundtrack could be that epic this would be unequivocally one of the best soundtracks of the eighth generation. As it is, I’ll just have to put it down for having a lot of nice hits.

WORLDS

I can’t discuss this game without gushing on the worlds. Until now, like I said earlier, worlds were mostly a handful of “rooms” painted to look like Disney movies. In this one, they’re fully fleshed out. While DDD tried to make them bigger and better, this game goes all out on it.

The biggest way to describe how much has changed is comparing the world of “Olympus” to “Olympus Colosseum”. In KH2.5, they made Olympus Colosseum wide enough to encompass a standard sized level in the Underworld, but the fact of the matter was in most games Olympus Colosseum was just that…Olympus Colosseum. One of the laziest worlds in the franchise was “Birth by Sleep”‘s Olympus Colosseum, which was no more than adding a single Thebes square “room” for regular enemies.

In Kingdom Hearts 3, Olympus is three separate, fleshed out stages in one. Thebes is as big as some of the worlds in other games and has a huge and diverse landscape in three dimensions to explore, complete with full sized temples, gardens, and hilltops. But that’s only one part of the world. There’s also Mount Olympus itself, a continuous stage that, like a real mountain, you keep climbing to ascend to the top and can always see where you’ve been and how far you have to do. It’s not just background design now…it is the stage. And when you get to the top, then you get to roam around the Realm of the Gods itself, again in a 3D environment, including finding secret paths to hidden areas.

On top of all of that, there’s a rather landmark innovation in this world…NPCs! Yes, technically even the original game had NPCs in Traverse Town, but this is something else. Most worlds of Kingdom Hearts are dead zones. The environment is beautiful but, aside from enemies and four to eight main characters, the worlds are empty and void of life. At last, the game adds enough NPCs to flesh it out and give even more definition to these worlds they’ve created.

Now the world of Olympus feels like just that…an actual world.

That’s just one of the nine worlds available. In all fairness, most of them are still void of life like other entries. Some of them are also a bit unbalanced. As I mentioned earlier, Olympus and the Caribbean may be wide and expansive, but San Fransokyo is essentially one giant map with a day and night mode. Still, between the detail, the amount of exploration to be done, and the size and scope of everything, this game has a fun element to it just from how much the worlds have been upgraded. If there’s anything this game deserves an outstanding on, that’s it. It’s a trend I really hope continues in the future.

STORYLINE

I’m going to go a bit in depth in this one.

Pre-Climax

Pretty much ever since Kingdom Hearts 2 came out, the past fourteen years has been setting up one cliffhanger after another in their respective games. “368/2 Days” got by as a stand-alone story and folks assumed that was the tragic end of Xion, but “Birth by Sleep” set up the fate of Terra, Ventus, and Aqua, and “Dream Drop Distance” (and, to a lesser degree, “Re:Coded”) set up the idea, in spite of the upbeat ending to KH2 in which Roxas and Naminé seemed happy and content to become part of Sora and Kairi respectively, that the objective now was to reconstitute them both as independent individuals. And, of course, the games also set up who the original Master Xehanort was and paved the way toward the inevitable Second Keyblade War between the seven Keyblade Light Wielders and his thirteen copies (although don’t think too hard about how or even if they ever really arrived at those numbers…).

In short, this game had a lot to wrap up. How did it do?

In my opinion, a mixed bag. I feel, at the end, it as 80-90% successful. But that last 10-20%…

The Disney worlds have always been pretty clearly nothing more than RPG padding; analogous to any towns or countries you have to progress through in an RPG to reach your final objective. In a sense, they’re both better and worse than ones in a normal RPG. Worse in the fact that, since they all have in common being condensed versions of Disney movies, they stand out as almost totally self-contained entities that are easily interchangeable. What you do to help Rapunzel in the Kingdom of Corona, for example, has absolutely nothing to do with saving Boo in Monstropolis. On the other hand, it’s better because each world is a nostalgic trip through memory lane of some Disney/Pixar classic goodness. At this point, the only non-3D movie left in the lineup was Hercules, so the 3D nature flushed very well in the worlds you visited. And the fact that the game was able to virtually recreate shot-for-shot key scenes from both “Tangled” and “Frozen” is testament to how far technology has come.

That being said…the padding element of the Disney worlds is, sadly, more evident than ever. While the worlds and time spent in them is now large enough to where you can get engrossed in an individual world, the fact of the matter is Square Enix has been setting up the grand finale for years and none of these worlds do much to get the player closer to it. Instead, we get more of the same: guys in black cloaks showing up to taunt you and Sora, like Charlie Brown with a football, doing his standard gig of trying to rush them while they simply step back into a doorway of darkness and disappear. At this point, it’s almost painful to watch.

At the end of “Dream Drop Distance”, what needed to be done was Sora had to go rescue Aqua and Ventus so they could join them for the final battle, and then go fight it, and Sora also made it a goal of his to restore Roxas and Naminé. Yet rather than find a way to space that out throughout the game, they leaned back on the idea of the ‘Power of Waking’, which at this point seems to have whatever power is necessary to get through a given situation (including time travel and resurrection), and used that as a plot device to prevent the main storyline from progressing. Once you’ve cleared the last world, Sora simply gains it automatically and, at that point, the plot not only progresses but goes straight from there to conclusion.

Until then, what we have to rely on for plot progression are the side protagonists, and that’s even worse. Riku and Mickey pretty much spin their wheels going nowhere in the Dark World. Kairi does pretty much what she does in every game when she’s not being a damsel to save–sits around and talks about Sora. This time it’s worse because Axel/Lea, one of the more colorful original characters of the series as well as arguably the most proactive, is sidelined with her.

Who is the most active on the side of “Team Sora”? Shockingly enough, Zexion/Ienzo. Originally the member of Organization XIII who was so unimportant that you didn’t even have to fight him to beat him in the original GBA “Chain of Memories”, he’s suddenly the guy who makes stuff happen. And not only him, but most of the older Organization XIII guys. Probably the biggest surprise of all is one of the most fan-hated members of Organization XIII, Even/Vexen, ends up being one of the “nicest” and making not only personal sacrifices but risks to life and limb to try and help out the protagonists.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this. It’s a bit of an odd turn and subverting expectations, but it’s welcome enough. I will say it makes me grimace a bit. These are folks who betrayed and thought they murdered their master and were cool with the destruction of countless lives and worlds, but suddenly they’re supposed to be “good” because they found out Xemnas planned to turn them into Xehanort copies the whole time? What about their original motivation to backstab Ansem and gain power through genocide? The fact they were willing to do that isn’t negated by the fact they were tricked. Isä, Lea, and Ienzo all have excuses. Isä and Lea had no interest in universal domination but wanted their friend back, and Ienzo, as we saw in “Birth by Sleep” and as he himself spells out, was still a kid who didn’t have the fortitude to stand up to the others. But what about the others?

Aside from that, there’s something else in the Radiant Garden that seems to be missing. Hmm… What, or rather who, could it be…?

Long time series fans recognized right off the bat that Square Enix gave the axe to the Final Fantasy cameos, aside from a toy display in Toy Box and various items related to Gummi Ships. At first I didn’t think much of this, but after completing the game…yeah, it’s a problem. It would have been one thing if all of the characters were like Cloud, Auron, or Zack, who showed up just to be a brief side character and then disappeared again. At this point, however, Squall, Aerith, Yuffie, and Cid have done more for restoring and defending the Radiant Garden than the former members of Organization XIII even if they haven’t shown up since Kingdom Hearts 2. Square Enix has seemed to try and distance itself from the aspect of KH that ties into the FF universe since then, but that doesn’t change the fact it’s already part of the foundation of the series. You can’t just “ignore it hoping people will forget about it”.

The stories in the worlds themselves aren’t entirely done well, either. Olympus is pretty good, allowing Sora and company to help out with the climax of “Hercules”. Toy Box, Monstropolis, and San Fransokyo set up their respective stories outside of the plots from their movies, so those work out pretty well too. But the Kingdom of Corona, Arendelle, and the Caribbean are so intent on replaying, both in style and substance, the stories for “Tangled”, “Frozen”, and “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” respectively that there’s really not much room for any new characters like Sora, Donald, and Goofy. They managed to at least make Sora relevant to the plot in the Caribbean by replacing “Bootstrap” Bill Turner’s role with his at a key point in the climax, but for the Kingdom of Corona and Arendelle it felt as if George Lucas had gone into the plots of “Tangled” and “Frozen” and digitally added Sora and company in the background as they have little to do with their plots other than to fight enemies who themselves were inserted. Ironically, this is summed up perfectly by Square Enix doing the iconic “Let It  Go” scene: an unnecessary retread of territory Disney fans are aware of that slips new characters into scenes that don’t effect how things play out.

There is one good thing about this setup, however. Square Enix’s constant rereleases and combo packs of the KH games have made it clear they’re trying to woo new gamers who have a lot of ground to make up. However, what they were really betting on drawing in new gamers, and which was successful in at least one case, was the same thing as the first: nostalgia. They want to “sell” these Disney worlds and bring in audiences to experience Disney movies. The more elaborate individual worlds and even the fact that the game more or less plops you right into the thick of things for the very first stage in Olympus testifies to that. The front load focusing on the Disney aspect does give the game a bit more of a lighthearted feel and, more importantly, a “simple” one as opposed to how convoluted the lore became in the past two entries.

Climax

However, the big part that older fans wanted to see was the climax; the point in which all of the plot threads come together to be resolved. And what ends up happening? They get blitzed through like a series of dominoes.

One of the big shocks in the trailers for the game was Anti-Aqua, making people wonder if Aqua had really succumbed to evil or, worse yet, had actually been taken over by Xehanort the same as Terra. What was this going to mean for the rest of the game? Or for her? Aqua had gotten considerable focus at this point. She ended up having the most predominant role in “Birth by Sleep” and the entire “KH3 demo game” in KH2.8 focused on her in the last few days leading up to the climax of the original KH, so she had become a fairly noteworthy character in her own right.

So what happens with Anti-Aqua? Nothing. It’s an excuse for a boss battle similar to one in KH2.8 against Mirror Aqua. It seems to only be there to give a bit more tension than simply “Sora and Riku pick up Aqua from the Dark World”, which is all that would have happened otherwise.

After that, it’s straight to waking up Ventus, then straight to the final battle and after a long (and largely irrelevant) detour which does nothing but set up more lore for Kingdom Hearts 4 the rest of Organization XIII falls one after the other while plot points keeping Roxas and Xion from returning are instantly resolved in seconds by more Wizard of Oz logic (especially in the latter case) and Terra comes back pretty much so the game can say Terra came back. After that, we shoot right to the final battle with Xehanort and one final plot device to ensure only a mostly-happy ending instead of a completely happy one that leaves an opening for the next game.

What do I think of all this rushing? I’m torn between hating it and a voice in my head saying: “be thankful“.

On the negative side, Square Enix may have ultimately never intended anything else for most of the cast than to pad Sora’s numbers so it wouldn’t just be 1 against 13, and it sure seems that way as not one of them defeats any of the thirteen on their own but needs Sora’s help for all of them. However, they deserved more than that. At this point, a lot of the characters are as beloved, if not more so, than Sora. Many of them have had to go through a lot worse than him. They “earned” their resolution. They earned their decisive battle. Ventus has earned his final defeat of Vanitas. Roxas and Xion have earned their triumph over Xemnas. Aqua has earned the right to take out Xigbar for good. And frankly? Terra’s earned a rematch against Master Xehanort. Heck, I even wanted to see Naminé lend a hand against her former oppressors beyond “calling someone else for help”. They’re just window dressing. Many of them don’t even get a crucial moment that helps out.

Sora, on his part, earned the right to make Young Xehanort eat his words for calling all of his concern for the well being of his friends and others weaknesses and foolishness…and he didn’t even get to do that.

Yet on the other hand? This is honestly a much better ending than I expected. All three of the Nobodies, Roxas, Naminé, and even Xion, which should have been impossible, end up being their own persons at the end. Sure, it was perhaps a bit convenient that Organization XIII somehow knew to presumably pull her out of the time period where she still existed to recreate her in the modern world when all record of her existence, even physical evidence, was supposed to disappear after “368/2 Days” but, hey, I got misty when she, Lea, and Roxas were reunited. I thought they’d have to kill Terra to win. And even if the developers seemed to nearly forget about the Lingering Will only to forget about him again after he showed up, Terra still came back at the end of it.  Aqua got rescued and Ventus woke up, and we get a nice little scene of all of them on the beach (including Hayner, Olette, and Pence…fulfilling Roxas’ dream from way back in KH2). Heck, even Isa returned. Frankly, I’ve been complaining for several games now about all the meandering and plot complications I have to go through only to end up with a subpar ending where a sacrifice has to be made. And, yeah, while that happened here too, overall a lot of the “bad” was undone by it, and without having to wade through a whole lot of nonsense that I claimed to hate. So really, I have no reason to complain that much.

But that being said, there’s one other downside to the final “rush”, and that’s that it renders all of the ending a bunch of noise to anyone who is just joining the series or hasn’t kept up on all the games, and that’s counter-productive to this game’s own theme of trying to make it appeal to newer audiences. Case in point: I have a friend who stopped playing at “Kingdom Hearts 2” although she looked up the plot for “368/2 Days”, so she knew all about Roxas, Namine, and Xion. Aqua, Ventus, and Terra, on the other hand, were a mystery to her. So she was able to really enjoy the reuniting of Roxas and Xion, but saving Aqua, waking Ventus, and Terra’s redemption? Just noise. Because the characters are just blown through without much to contribute, the only way you can appreciate them is if you already played their game.

What that means is this doesn’t really feel like a game that wraps up these people’s respective stories but more of a “bonus chapter” that gives them a touch of closure then shoves them out of the way.

And finally…

Conclusion

Again, I only partially liked it…but not for the reason you’re thinking.

Believe it or not, I’m not all that upset about what happened to Sora. I was expecting that. My real surprise was that the ending wasn’t even worse than that. This is Square Enix. Square Enix is infamous for not having satisfying resolutions even in stand-alone games, let alone ones they want to string along to the next entry in the series. Ever since “Kingdom Hearts 2” every resolution in a game has been unsatisfying; designed to get the player to move on to the next game searching for a grand finale. In the original “Kingdom Hearts”, Sora ended up stranded on an unknown world with Donald and Goofy and Riku had vanished. At the end of “Chain of Memories”, Sora was stuck sleeping for one year and Riku’s future was still in doubt. Things did seem to be at a nice “stopping point” for a new story arc at the end of “Kingdom Hearts 2”, but it ended up only being used to extend the Xehanort plotline. “368/2 Days” led into KH2, while all other games since were leading into “Kingdom Hearts 3”. Of course they were going to prep for KH4.

Besides, as I said, many of the characters had suffered more than Sora and deserved their happy ending, and they got it. That really dilutes the sad parts.

The question is how are they going to move on from here? They left themselves far more leeway in this one than any others and this is a chance for the series to break the mold and branch out in a way that’s logical rather than inserting plot complexity. In my opinion, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. The wrong way would be to pick up with Sora in the video game world he ended up in. As for the right way? I’ll get to that in a minute.

What I am truly upset about is how things were wrapped up with two of the other characters. First on that list…Xehanort.

On one level, I did feel his “end” was appropriate and realistic. Based on what we know about his character, his total sociopathic nature, amoral demeanor and world view, and his mindset that everything in the world is a series of cause and effect reactions that can be controlled and accounted for, probably the most dignified and appropriate way he could go out would indeed be to simply admit defeat. He thought he had planned for absolutely every outcome and he still lost. And seeing as he’s not the type of character to throw a tantrum or fly into a rage given his demeanor, nor would he think there’d be much to be gained by sulking or being petulant, it made sense that he would quietly hand Sora the χ-blade.

That, however, is where my satisfaction with the ending is over.

One of the big things this game tried to do was pull the same deal the “DISSIDIA” series did and tried to make all of the villains sympathetic or misunderstood in a last ditch effort to make them more than one-dimensional. They even went so far as for Ansem and Xemnas to say to the very protagonists they pooh-poohed as pathetic and meaningless since day one that “we really knew you were stronger than us the whole time and we respect you”. That doesn’t really work with Xehanort, in my opinion.

We never really see a side of Xehanort that really reflected the idea of the “misunderstood villain”. On the contrary, he’s gradually become the one force of true evil in the series. Even with the chess cutscenes, there’s never any sense that Xehanort ever saw Eraqus as anything more than an obstacle to overcome. There are times he seemed to respect him, yes, but see him as a friend? No. And that should be rather obvious because Xehanort literally stabbed him in the back to get him out of his way the moment he became a nuisance to him.

They try to sell Xehanort on the idea that he thought it was his responsibility to recreate the world and guide it, but the series has made it abundantly clear Xehanort cares absolutely nothing about the world or its denizens. If he cared so much about world order, why did he go about destroying so many worlds? If he cared about the well being of people, why did he never regard anyone else as anything but chaff, spawn for Heartless, or tools to manipulate and use? Xehanort’s own writings showed he didn’t care about the world. All he cared about was furthering his own knowledge…seeing what would happen after he destroyed all worlds. To want to cause the apocalypse just to learn what comes after it? Is there anything more selfish and insane than that?

Xehanort, over the years, has incorporated the worst aspects of Darth Sidious, Lord Voldemort, and Agent Smith. The one that stands out above all is his sociopathy. In everything Xehanort does, from greatest to smallest, he makes it clear all other people are not individuals to him. They’re either irrelevant, problems on paper to solve, or tools to use. At the end of the day, only him, his own knowledge, and his own plans matter. Does this sound like someone who could be sold as truly having everyone’s “best interests” at heart, even grossly misguided?

Even the writers didn’t seem to believe it. Xehanort never asks for Eraqus’ forgiveness. He seems to still treat his actions as simply having beaten Eraqus in another chess game, only to see Eraqus still had another hidden move. Xehanort never apologizes for anything he did to Terra, Ventus, and Aqua, let alone everything he put everyone else through. In short, he never seems to see anything that he did was “wrong”; only that he wasn’t good enough to succeed in spite of everything he tried.

And that brings me to the one issue with the series overall that still lingers at the end of this game, which is an issue I pointed out with anime and manga earlier: characters as ideals. The KH series still hasn’t seemed to decided whether or not its concepts of “Light” and “Darkness” are synonymous with “Good” and “Evil”. Early in the series, they seemed to equate light and darkness with creation and destruction–one is generally associated with good and the other with evil, but they themselves are immoral and can be used by both. Yet on the other hand, all of the evil characters consistently rely on darkness, and all of the good characters consistently rely on light. What few times a character tries to invert that trend usually end up bad and, in “Birth by Sleep”, any notion that someone who was morally good could use darkness was blown away when it was revealed Xehanort was tricking Terra into using darkness just so he could control and manipulate him.

Pretty much the only character who has been able to show the light/dark duality of morality in the series has been Riku, but one character does not a trend set. While it seems the newer content with the “true” Keyblade Masters might show individuals using light for evil ends, the fact remains its only the pure evil characters in KH that fully embrace the idea of darkness. The one totally irredeemable villain in KH3 was Vanitas, and he clearly stated that he was “darkness”. As a result, you can’t really say that Xehanort was ever pursuing good or even things from an amoral perspective. He was devoted to darkness, and so he was devoted to evil. The fact that he created Vanitas implies he’s an even greater evil than him.

The second character is synonymous of a greater problem in this entire game that I’ve already touched on, which is that adding more characters simply meant less for individual characters to do or impact the plot. Yet there is one who has gotten consistently bad since her first appearance all the way in the original game: Kairi.

At this point, Kairi is, in my opinion, a fail character in the tradition of great anime/manga female “protagonists” who ultimately were there to make the hero look good when he jumped in to save her. And in this game, it starts coming out clearly to the point of degeneration.

There are two ways in a narrative to endear a character to the audience. One is the make the character themselves endearing. (This likely explains why Lea is still in the series. As the most entertaining out of Organization XIII by far, he’s carved himself a niche into the plot.) The other is to make the character important to someone else who is endearing. This is how Kairi managed to introduce herself in the first two games. And at the end of KH2, the idea that she was setting out to take a more active role made her a bit more appealing and had hope for her character.

However, there are two kinds of ways to be “active”: reactive and proactive. Reactive is when a character responds to a situation, whereas proactive is when a character takes the initiative. In all fairness, there is very little proactivity in Kingdom Hearts. Sora is constantly reactive. He is told what to do by Yen Sid and he does it. However, he has key moments where he is proactive. In his case, it’s usually of the reckless kind and often gets him in trouble, but it is him going beyond what he’s told.

Kairi, on the other hand, spends part of her time being reactive and part of her time living up to her “Princess of Light” title in the worst way: being a damsel. Kairi cares so much about Sora and his well being that she constantly sits on tree log and stares at oceans or writes letters she never even sends and waits for him. That is the textbook definition of a “damsel” or a fairy princess who endlessly waits for “her prince to come”. It’s ironic that Disney lived up to that ideal not through their modern princesses but by collaborating with Square Enix.

Now, she did try to do more in this entry. However, the one contribution she ended up successfully making was a largely passive one and part of her nature. She didn’t require a Keyblade, training, or anything other than to “exist” in order to help Sora in The Final World. Furthermore, if you have a sequence in a game that you can entirely cut out, which in this case is Sora and company’s temporary deaths before they came back for “round two”, and it doesn’t change the ultimate plot in any way…that’s a clear sign it was inserted in there by force. You could remove that whole sequence and still have the game play out the same way.

Kairi’s real “contribution” was the only thing she ever contributes to any game: being a plot device to get Sora to do something. The problem with that is that it’s starting to fail. The amount of time Sora and Kairi have spent interacting on screen in the entire series put together amounts to an hour at most. We constantly see scenes of Sora or Kairi longing for the other one, but we don’t see why they are longing for each other. What exactly is in their relationship other than “they look cute together”? Why is Sora this devoted to her and why is Kairi (supposedly) so devoted to him?

Kairi’s status as a plot device is cemented by the ending. Note that we never actually see how Sora rescues Kairi. Why? That part wasn’t important. All that mattered was Sora got into the setting for the next game. If that doesn’t make a character a plot device, I don’t know what does. And on top of all of that, Kairi is back to sitting on a beach waiting for him.

FINAL THOUGHTS

As a game, I rate Kingdom Hearts 3 an A. As a plot, particularly one that wraps up the so-called Xehanort Arc, I rate it a B-.

The good news is there’s a lot of opportunities to fix these issues if Square Enix will wisely focus on character development and progression and not on tidbit teasers for their next game. A “Kingdom Hearts 3.5” will undoubtedly come in the future, but more than that is the fact that, based on Square Enix nowadays, a lot of DLC content is likely on the horizon.

Furthermore, the next “intermediate” entry has a lot of good stuff to work with. Roxas and Xion are real humans now, and while Xion understandably would enjoy living just a normal life free of a need to fight endlessly to survive, Roxas might see how much Sora did in order to give him a life of his own when he shouldn’t have ever existed to begin with and be intent on repaying him. Terra, Ventus, and Aqua all owe Sora everything as well and they might be more than intent on making sure an incident such as happened with Xehanort never happens again.

Last and most of all, Kairi, as indicated until now, might continue with her trend of not wanting to just wait for Sora to come home and go after him. Better yet, go after him without the blessing of Yen Sid, King Mickey, or even Riku. Basically “going AWOL” like Ventus did in “Birth by Sleep” (maybe she can find a way to snatch a suit of armor from Aqua?). Try following that up with a Kairi stand-alone game where she’s forced to grapple with the idea if she can truly be anything more than an “encouraging smile” to Sora and if she truly deserves to even wield a Keyblade, or if her role as “Princess of Light” relegates her to always simply being “someone for others to die protecting”? That could be great. That would actually be a crisis of character and an opportunity to grow.

About the only way Square Enix could mess this up is if they ignored all this and went with more teasers to the original Keyblade War. (Really, guys…this doesn’t have to be complicated.)

So, all in all, this game gave a more than satisfactory conclusion for a lot of things and has the opportunity to mend a lot of others if Square Enix is smart about it. But even discounting the plot, if this is the kind of gameplay we have to look forward to from now on, I think the series is in good shape…er, so long as Disney keeps making movies to be turned into worlds.

My Little Devotional #174: “Subbing In”

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Inspiration for Today’s Devotional: “The Hearth’s Warming Club”

In this episode, a student purposely vandalized the School of Friendship on the eve of Hearth’s Warming, when all of the “international” students were eager to get home for their respective festivities. Angry at this, Headmare Twilight Sparkle threatened the group of students with being forced to stay over break for remedial friendship lessons unless the true culprit either confessed or was found. The one responsible, Gallus Griffon, did the deed as he had neither a home nor family to go to for the holidays and considered his own friends his family, and therefore did this to hopefully get them to stay longer and spend more time with him. Yet on hearing them get angry over missing their respective holidays and accuse each other, he realized he was hurting them and confessed everything.

While Twilight definitely felt sympathy for him and appreciated him coming forward, she stated that nevertheless he still had to face the punishment for what he had done. He still would incur the penalty of having to stay over break for remedial lessons. However, his classmates, on seeing how lonely he was, purposely volunteered to share his punishment so that he wouldn’t have to be by himself that holiday. As a result, Twilight decided they didn’t need the remedial lessons after all and invited them all to spend Hearth’s Warming with her.

What does all of this have to do with Christianity?

One of the big questions non-Christians might ask in regards to Christianity is why mankind needs a savior at all. Why Jesus? If God is truly all-powerful, truly has the ability to write the laws of the universe, and, perhaps most importantly, is truly all-loving, then why can he not just bring everyone into Heaven? Or, at minimum, if they ended up doing more good things in their life than bad, or are really sorry and tried to make up for anything bad they did; i.e. they’re a “good” person, why can’t that be sufficient for entry into Heaven?

In this episode, Gallus did what he did out of feelings of loneliness and unhappiness. It was a bit selfish and thoughtless, but it was also understandable, and once he realized the impact it had on his friends he confessed and was truly sorry. Nevertheless, although she understood and sympathized, Twilight wouldn’t let him off the hook. She had stated that there would be consequences for what had happened, and she wouldn’t go back on them regardless of the circumstances.

Similarly, in the Old Testament, God gave mankind, through the Israelites, the Mosaic Law. The Law set out everything that was good and everything that was evil, with the instruction that if you were able to keep the Law perfectly then you would be a “good person” and would receive eternal life (Leviticus 18:5), but whoever violated it would one day die for their violation, or sin (Deuteronomy 27:26).  However, no one was able to keep the Law or is able to keep the Law, because the Law is perfect just as God is perfect, but people are not.

Jesus Himself pointed out just how hard it was to keep the Law during His time on Earth. That to be able to keep it actually meant going far beyond just following the literal interpretation but inward to one’s very thoughts, heart, and even nature…something no human being can carry out.

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” (Matthew 5:21-22). “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” (Matthew 5:27-30)

So since everyone will eventually violate the law and be susceptible to its judgment, all are doomed to die for their sin and spend eternity separated from God in Hell.

Also similarly, God is indeed all-loving and understands us completely, but, like Twilight in her role of headmare, he can’t just ignore wrongdoing. God is perfect and just and he created a perfect order, including what is good and what is evil. For God to truly be perfectly just, good must be good and evil must be evil regardless of extenuating circumstances, motives, or regret. If God fails to reward good or punish evil, he is no longer just and no longer God, and good and evil themselves are purely arbitrary. Therefore, all people are doomed because of their own sins, because they cannot keep the law and the law demands that all who violate it be punished for it, and God must enforce this for the law to be perfect.

However, in this episode, the rest of the Student Six sympathized with Gallus so much that they volunteered to take his punishment on themselves for his sake. As a result of that, Twilight considered the conditions of the punishment satisfied, and what was supposed to be Gallus’ sentence for what he did ended up alleviating his loneliness and desire for a “family” for the holidays.

Similarly to this, God provided a way “around” this mortal dilemma in the form of his Son, Jesus Christ. A key part of the Mosaic Law is the idea of “sacrifice”; the ability to atone for minor misdemeanors and infractions that weren’t mortal by offering a sacrifice of equivalent value in its place (usually presented by a priest in the form of a sacrificial calf, goat, or the like). Once the sacrifice is offered, the terms of the law are fulfilled, and an individual is now “clean” with God. Hence, if the punishment for sin is death, then if a person was able to offer a sacrifice equivalent to their own life to be put to death in their place, God would now consider them clean and just in his sight because the terms of punishment would have been fulfilled. However, there was no sacrifice of equivalent value for a person’s life because all other people also sin and therefore need sacrifices of their own…at least until Jesus Christ came to Earth.

Jesus was fully mortal, and while fully mortal lived a perfect life according to the Mosaic Law. He fulfilled all terms of it and was considered pleasing and perfect in God’s eyes and eligible for the eternal life it brought. However, He, sympathizing with humanity and its plight just as God did, instead carried out God’s will by allowing Himself to be put to an unjust death. He was never eligible for death because He lived perfectly according to God, but He submitted to it so that He could die in place of all others who had committed sin. In doing so, He became the sacrificial offering for all mankind and cleared their records with God. “He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.” (Hebrews 9:12) “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:2).

Just as Twilight now saw Gallus’ record “clear” because of the rest of the students taking his punishment on themselves, God now sees everyone who accepts Jesus’ sacrificial offering in their place as “clear” according to the law. In his eyes, that person now lives as if they too have never committed any sin, and are now able to share in eternal life as well (once their own bodies are subject to mortal death just as Jesus’ own was before He inherited eternal life).

“‘Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?’

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:55-57)

This is the core of Christianity, the idea that separated it from its Judaic roots and why we preach the sacrifice of Lord Jesus. His gift is now free to all. The obligations of the law and the insurmountable task of living a perfect life has already been fully satisfied by Him. The only thing that remains for us is whether or not we wish to accept that sacrifice. If you are interested in doing so, you can through the following.

Click here.

Otherwise, if you have already accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior, you might try praying the following.

Suggested Prayer: “Lord God, I can never thank you enough for the matchless, perfect, and incomparable gift of your Son, Jesus Christ, by whom and for whom I now am freed from sin and have eternal life. Please grant that I may live for Him today and share this gift with all others. Gratefully in Jesus’ Name, Amen.”

My Little Devotional #173: “Oh Come On!”

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Inspiration for Today’s Devotional: “A Matter of Principals”

By the time this episode rolled around, most fans were, to put it bluntly, getting tired of Discord’s nonsense. The ponies certainly were too. Long after Twilight made her sacrifice for him at the end of Season Four, his behavior and demeanor were still largely antisocial and selfish, he continued to suffer from a severe lack of empathy for other individuals, and his constant “pranks” were often only to get a cruel laugh at the expense of the misery of others.

As a result, a number of viewers were a bit upset when, after Discord made a constant and even dangerous nuisance of himself around the School of Friendship during Starlight Glimmer’s brief tenure as headmare (which in and of itself ended up being the result of one of his acts of trolling), she nevertheless chose to sympathize with him on realizing he had acted this way out of feeling left out and acquiesced to it by letting him assist her as “vice headmare”. Some saw that as tantamount to him getting away with murder–actually being rewarded for his atrocious behavior and his utter lack of concern for the welfare or respect of others. I have to admit I was one of those folks.

But after a particular sermon in my own church this past weekend and thinking it over, I began to see Starlight’s point of view.

I took up a habit last year of praying for countries where Christians are persecuted, choosing one a night to pray for. As part of that, I look up the country in question and research it a bit to see what the situation is. I’d like to warn anyone in advance who wants to do the same thing that it requires a bit of a sober mind. (It will quickly make you very grateful for just how much privilege Christians in the Western world enjoy and how not to take that for granted.) I am often horrified, shocked, saddened, and even discouraged when I read just how much Christians have to endure in other parts of the world with little to no means of redress.

Most of the times that I’ve prayed for these people I’ve focused on the victims, i.e. Christians. I’ve asked them to be delivered from their oppressors, for God to manifest his power on their behalf (as indeed they have no human help to rely on), and, occasionally, that they will find opportunities to share the Gospel even in their dire situations. By comparison, when it comes to their oppressors, I often ask that Christians be shielded and delivered from them and that’s about it. And honestly that’s usually the best I can manage…especially on some nights when I read about oppressors who engage in religious apartheid or conduct acts of violence and terror like ISIL. (In fact, on those occasions, I have to struggle particularly hard to even think of the oppressors as human as well as several other, shall we say, severely “Un-Christian” things.)

It wasn’t until this weekend, however, thinking about this message and this episode, that I began to wonder if some nights I’m praying for the wrong people.

When I, or most of us, pray for people, it’s usually for believers in need or friends and loved ones in need. Occasionally it’s for nonbelievers if they’re close to us. However, it’s rarely for the “Discords” of the world. Not for those who stubbornly cling to “doing bad”, who go out of their way to oppress and hurt others (Christians or otherwise), who have no desire to repent or change, and are generally people that we believe the world can do without. These are the sort of individuals who, like with Starlight, we would question the sanity or even fairness of others who endeavored a kind word or favor to them; knowing they did nothing to merit it and will likely continue on whatever wicked or harmful way they’re on in perfect ingratitude when they receive it.

Yet as I stopped to think, I realized that the very Christians who I was praying for had their own salvation assured. No matter what evil or wickedness befell them, at the end of the day they had a crown of glory and eternal life to look forward to. Their oppressors, on the other hand, were walking a damned path that would lead to destruction…not only of others but to their own harm in this life and eternally to come. Each act of violence, repression, hate, and unrepentance they committed would end up hurting themselves far worse and far longer one day. And the worst part was many of them, especially ones who subscribed to religious terrorism, had been deluded into thinking they were somehow doing acts of righteousness.

Lord Jesus Himself stated that He came not to call the righteous but sinners (Luke 5:32). He also stated that those who were well didn’t need a physician, but the sick did (Mark 2:17). On the Cross at Cavalry, one of the last things He was ever recorded saying in His mortal life was calling for forgiveness of His executors (Luke 23:34). Lastly, one of His greatest challenges to His disciples was to be generous and loving to their enemies.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:38-48).

Lord Jesus never went around preparing vengeance or justice to unleash upon the wicked and unrepentant of the world, and He never encouraged His disciples to do so either. Instead, He commanded His disciples to rise above their own hate and fear in their treatment of their own enemies. After all, even sinners are the creation of God and his beloved children. A very sobering, and potentially difficult, thought to meditate on is that God is the God of both the righteous as well as the wicked.

Even if love for one’s enemies fails to win them over, it’s still the “god-like” thing to do; showing love, care, and concern for everyone whether they appreciate it or not, just as God does. It also frees us from what is binding us in the same situation; such as harboring anger, resentment, bitterness, and a desire for revenge. As such, loving and caring even for one’s enemies is both for the benefit of the sinner as well as the “saint”.

Now, this isn’t to say that I can expect to go up to someone who is a mass murderer with a big hug and a “Jesus loves you!” and expect them to miraculously see the light and convert on the spot. What it does mean, however, is that I should show more concern for the truly lost in this world. Perhaps the ones that, secretly or not so secretly, I wish would stay lost. It means that I should open my own heart a bit more to the hope of those same people coming to Christ and keeping them in my prayers. And, as in the case of this episode, perhaps it means I should be mindful for what opportunities I can find in which I can show the love of Christ to those who seem to deserve it the least.

After all, that’s exactly how I hope Christ deals with me every day of my life.

Suggested Prayer: “Lord God, thank you that you have always heeded my prayer and granted me forgiveness in spite of my own mistakes, no matter how terrible, whenever I have come to you with sincere repentance asking for forgiveness. Thank you also that you are the God of the just and the unjust. Please help me to remember your boundless love is not limited to me at my worst but to everyone at their worst and, as Lord Jesus has said, you give the sun and rain in due season to both the good and the bad. As you are generous and merciful to all regardless of merit, grant that I may be likewise. Gratefully in Jesus’ Name, Amen.”

My Little Devotional #172: “Could Be Worse”

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Inspiration for Today’s Devotional: “The Mean 6”

They say ignorance is bliss. They also say what you don’t know won’t hurt you. I’m not sure if either of those are absolutely true, but today’s episode made a strong case.

From the perspective of the girls, they simply thought that their short camping trip to the Tree of Harmony ran into some snags and mishaps. There were some arguments from misunderstandings, a few blow ups, and at the end of the day they saw that their prearranged campsite had been ruined.

In most situations, people in similar circumstances might say such constituted a “bad time”. They might even go so far as to call it a disaster when everyone kept arguing, the hike ended up being miserable, and the place where they stopped ended up being ransacked.

Those of us at home, however, knew that the girls had little reason to complain. Unknown to them, all of their mishaps and near scrapes with danger were the result of Queen Chrysalis and their clones’ machinations to try and steal the power of the Elements of Harmony for themselves. The small amount of misfortune and anger they had to deal with was an excellent alternative to what she would have done if she had her way, and yet they will likely go the rest of their lives chalking that up to being one of their bad days–never knowing, in the grand scheme of things, how lucky and fortunate they were.

The problem of evil has plagued Christianity as well as all religions for generations. If there is an all-knowing, all-powerful, benevolent God, then why do such senseless acts of evil, misery, and disaster happen? The oldest book in the Bible, the Book of Job, has this as its main topic, and yet thousands of years later it remains a topic for debate. The only real answer that book itself seemed to offer was that mankind can’t know why, at least completely, evil happens and in particular to good and innocent people. Many athesists, and even religious scholars, have been unsatisfied with that answer for years; especially when the bad incident is truly senseless. Even for those who still have faith, however, eventually the time will come in our lives in which we turn to God and ask: “Why did this have to happen to me?”

I don’t know if any of us will ever have the full answer, whether in this life or the next. Yet as this episode illustrates, there is at least some courage to be taken in knowing that one might never know just how much evil one is being preserved from…even in a seemingly rotten situation.

For today’s message, I would like to paraphrase a tale concerning the Prophet Elijah from the Books of Kings–a figure renown in Judeo-Christianity as one of the most pious and zealous men of the Old Testament. According to the Bible, Elijah never died but was instead taken up to Heaven while still in the body, and ever since then continues to wander the Earth to this day doing the Will of God.

There is a fable that the Rabbi Joshua ben Levi was a friend of Elijah and asked if he could join him in his wanderings. Elijah agreed on the condition that the rabbi never question his actions.

The two set out and first came to the house of an elderly couple. They were very poor, their only possession being a single cow, but they welcomed the two and offered them the best hospitality that they were able. The next morning, Elijah prayed that their cow would die and it did.

They next came to the house of a wealthy man. When they asked to stay, however, he chased them off and dismissed them both as lazy beggars. As they were leaving, they saw that one of the walls of the man’s property was crumbling. Elijah prayed that the wall would be repaired and it was.

After that, they came to a very rich synagogue. They were allowed to stay, but only with very poor and meager provisions. When they departed, Elijah prayed that every member of the synagogue would become a leader.

Afterward, they next came to a very poor synagogue, but one that welcomed them with great hospitality and courteousness. When they departed, Elijah prayed that the synagogue only be given a single wise leader.

At this point, the rabbi could take no more and demanded an explanation. Elijah answered:

  • The Angel of Death had come to the house of the elderly couple to take the wife. Elijah prayed that he would take the cow instead and he did.
  • The wall of the miser’s house had concealed a great treasure. Elijah prayed that it would be repaired and remain hidden from him and so it was.
  • A synagogue with many leaders would be ruined from the arguing and infighting, but a synagogue with only a single wise leader would go on to prosperity.

The moral of the story: don’t think that every time an evil-doer is seen prospering that it’s necessarily to their advantage, or that every time a good and righteous person suffers that it is because God is unjust.

Suggested Prayer: “Lord God, in my darkest times, when my doubts and fears overwhelm me, and everything in the world says to me that God has abandoned me and does not hear, grant that I will continue to cling to you and have faith in you. And I thank you for all of the unknown evils and dangers you have preserved me from without my ever knowing, as well as any act, even if it felt terrible at the time, that helped me to grow as a person and becomes a better follower of Christ. Gratefully in Jesus’ Name, Amen.”

My Little Devotional #171: “It’s a Group Thing”

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Inspiration for Today’s Devotional: “Marks for Effort”

A good portion of this episode focuses on the Cutie Mark Crusaders’ desire to find a way to attend the School of Friendship; in spite of the fact the three are somewhat “overqualified” for enrollment. After failing to be able to get in themselves, the three attempt to attend vicariously by helping out an existing student, Cozy Glow, in her own friendship assignments. Yet things get problematic when Cozy, recognizing their desire and in an attempt to get them enrolled, purposely flubs her assignments so that Princess Twilight will think the CMCs are, in fact, “bad at friendship” and let them join in. After a mishap in which the girls get temporarily banned by Twilight for thinking they intentionally tried to ruin Cozy’s progress by mis-teaching her, everything gets sorted out and the girls end up finding a way to be included at the school by being tutors for all friendship students.

What underlies this entire storyline is one central idea: a desire to belong. Wanting to belong to a certain group or social order is one of humanity’s greatest needs–perhaps its greatest after satisfying all physical needs (such as food, water, and shelter). We seek to identify with others like us and to be around them, and, very often, we change our own behavior in order to conform with others we wish to be with…whether those changes be for good or bad.

I would contend it is very, very rare that you will meet someone who doesn’t want to find other like-minded individuals like themselves to interact with and talk to. Even if someone describes themselves as unique or a loner, at the bare minimum they will want to know people who understand and appreciate their uniqueness or who love and accept them even if they aren’t around them all the time. How the process seems to work from my perspective is that we’ll first try to find others like us who like what we like and are interested in what we’re interested in. If that fails, we’ll settle for individuals who accept whatever personality and behavioral quirks we possess. And if we can’t even find that, then we start making changes to our behavior, interests, or even thinking in order to be a better fit for others.

This third step is what I want to focus on. From one perspective, you could say that’s a bad thing as that it’s often the source of social conformity and peer pressure. Generally speaking, however, it’s a good thing for society as a whole and usually for individuals.

Think of children. Very little children might, when their parents won’t buy them something they want, pout, scream, whine, or throw a fit. Adults don’t often do that because they know that doesn’t gain anything and most people find it childish and inappropriate. A person who is accustomed to swearing like a sailor, on entering a more conservative environment, might quickly find they get dirty looks or uncomfortable glances; prompting them to stop swearing. It’s also prevalent in much bigger issues of society at large. Divorce rates haven’t gone up in this country so high simply because couples stopped being faithful (although, considering the current attitude toward sexual relations nowadays, I contend that remains a big factor) but also because society used to frown on the idea of divorce so much that even couples in an abusive or toxic marriage would refuse to get one.

As another benefit, while trying to fit into a society can definitely encourage one to adopt a universal societal viewpoint it can also encourage them to do the opposite. One would probably say the best way to get rid of racial bias is to interact with a diversity of people from a particular race. Or the best way to be more accepting of a certain religion is to actually get into a group that has a diversity of members of that religion. On the other hand, if a certain individual has the sort of mindset that promotes violence or suppression of another group of people by force, but they live in a society that strongly discourages that, they’ll likely not act out that behavior even if they don’t change inwardly because they know they’ll get the condemnation of those around them.

So while it is not good in all situations, and in many situations might actually lead to negative behaviors and traits, as a general sociological rule this sort of tendency we have to want to fit in can be beneficial. Unfortunately, in our modern world, there’s something that confounds the good side of this adaptation toward social inclusion: the Internet.

I have a maxim when it comes to the online world: “Be careful what you go looking for on the Internet, because you will find it.” The Internet is a tremendously advantageous tool for getting access to information…both good information and misinformation. It’s also a world-changing way of connecting with people…whether those are “good” people or “bad” people. Applying it to what I outlined above changes the whole dynamic. Before, we would expect societal pressure to keep certain tendencies and ideas down (for better or for worse). The Internet eliminates that. Now, we no longer have to worry about failing to fit into a group. Whatever type of group we already are can be identified, located, participated in, and, most importantly, can provide an environment of encouragement and support for that behavior or mindset.

Again, this isn’t a totally bad thing as it’s an opportunity to break down prejudices and walls and connect people. (I’m 100% sure I would have never become a fan of MLP:FIM without the Internet, as it allowed me to see others like me watched it and weren’t “weird” or “perverted” or anything.) On the other hand, it also makes it easy to adopt all sorts of lifestyles and behaviors, including self-destructive ones, while being encouraged by others doing the same. It also makes it easy to connect to a lot of hate groups who will be all too happy to confirm that one’s racism, sexism, prejudices, etc. are all perfectly justified and logical. It can even twist facts to the point where large groups of people think they’re being rational by totally ignoring facts and science. (Look no further than the preponderance of “flat-Earthers” and “anti-vaxxers” for that.) In some situations, it might even go so far as to encourage people to throw the “bratty tantrums” I mentioned in my original example well into adulthood. (Want proof? I suggest looking on Youtube for “r/choosingbeggars”.)

In the Old Testament, the Bible warns: “Walk with the wise and become wise, for a companion of fools suffers harm.” (Proverbs 13:20) More succinctly, in the New Testament, it reads: “Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character.'” (1 Corinthians 15:33). In both instances, the idea is the same–like it or not, the company we keep will define who we are. Whether we consider something good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate, moral or immoral, will ultimately be colored by the lenses of whatever group we happen to belong to or try to belong to.

Because of that, we should all take care to be mindful that what we consider a standard for good and evil isn’t simply what society accepts or rejects at the time. It’s important to assess, evaluate, and maintain our own morals–to know what they are, why they are what they are, and to keep that in mind whenever we’re examining not only what groups of individuals we wish to associate with but ourselves. For the Christian, this means anchoring on the Word of God and Jesus Christ.

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” (Matthew 7:24-27)

Suggested Prayer: “Lord God, thank you for the ‘firm foundation’ that is your Word, the Bible, and the assurance that those who build their lives on it will not be shaken. No matter where I find myself in life, both physically as well as emotionally, please help me to always set my eyes on your Word and Truth and to keep focus on it whenever I am being pressured to go one way or another; especially if such pressure to belong with others is prompting me to change my thinking and behavior toward condoning wickedness, hate, or immorality. Gratefully in Jesus’ Name, Amen.”

My Little Devotional #170: “Shed My Skin”

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Inspiration for Today’s Devotional: “Molt Down”

In this episode, Spike undergoes a bit of a transformation in which, after an assortment of uncomfortable and awkward physical problems, he molted to become a winged dragon. Getting there wasn’t an easy time. Not only did he suffer a large amount of physical stress through the process, he had to suffer from emotional and mental stress as well when he realized the scent he was giving off would attract all manner of violent beasts–making him a threat to others around him. In other words, the old adege of “change is painful” definitely held true here. The only way he could get the benefit of his new winged self was through a tremendous ordeal that left him discarding his outer skin in a gray pile on the ground.

While this change was physical and the situation was rather outlandish compared to real life, it does have some real implications for the idea of “change” and even Christianity.

It’s not unusual for people to use the term “shed my skin” when talking about going through a major change to their demeanor, outlook, or even personality. That ties into the same topic covered in this episode and in the world of biology: “molting”. In nature, many creatures that don’t periodically lose skin or hair (like we do) but instead shed it all at once go through the process of molting. Normally it’s associated with reaching a new life cycle or a time of growth, such as once a year when food is plentiful or scarce to allow it. There are a variety of kinds of actions that could be considered “molting”. The most extreme example could take place in butterflies. In their case, once the larva is large enough its skin will split and the “insides” will wriggle out as a new pupa. Yet those, in turn, will solidify and harden only to be split and discarded by its insides, which is a new adult butterfly. However, there’s much lesser examples, such as birds shedding their bright “breeding plumage” during the winter to look duller and harder for predators to find, deer shedding a thicker winter coat during the spring, or snakes, when big enough, going through the long process of rubbing against rocks to peel off their old skin.

Humans, in fact, do “molt” all the time, but it’s gradual and not dramatic. (We only shed hair and skin cells periodically rather that all in one go.) But whether it’s humans, birds, or caterpillars, the very idea of molting is an interesting concept. Essentially, animals must let their old bodies die, sometimes their old ways of life as well (such as how a caterpillar is concerned with eating and growing while a butterfly is concerned with breeding), in order to enter the next phase of life. When that happens, their old selves are literally cast off like so much rubbish.

That gets into today’s message. This central idea behind the process of molting is likewise true for Christianity and the idea of being “born again”.

Jesus emphasized the idea of being “born again from above” early in His ministry, and then (as it does now in some cases) it led to a great deal of confusion. As evidenced in his talk with Nicodemus, some people took it in the literal sense of the current physical body.

“Jesus replied, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.’ ‘How can someone be born when they are old?’ Nicodemus asked. ‘Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!'” (John 3:3-4)

Jesus was, in fact, talking about the spiritual body. Sin is corrupting. It’s evil, it’s wicked, it brings pain, sadness, and sickness, and ultimately is brings death both physically and spiritually (Romans 6:23a). This nature of it caused some of the Apostles to term it “corruptibility” or perishability–an innate corruption in the body that is passed on and inherited from one generation to the next through all of humanity. The reason we die is because we sin, and sin is a part of mortal existence and inescapable as DNA. Part of the “broken” human condition and part of life.

When Jesus Christ came to the world, he came in a purely human body that was subject to all physical stresses, strains, toils, tears, and cares all people face; only in His case He endured it all but committed no sin. In doing so, He became the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world. When He was unjustly put to death on Calvary, He paid the price for your sins, my sins, and everyone else’s past, present, and future. But to accomplish that, His own physical body was destroyed–taking on our nature that leads to inevitable death and destruction and suffering in full for all of the evils of the world simultaneously placed upon Him. However, because of His sinlessness, He was resurrected and came back to a new and glorious eternal life completely opposed to the rules and conditions of the previous body. All that was weak, mortal, and subjected to the pain, sadness, sickness, and death of this world was now liberated from it forever.

In the same way, Jesus has promised the same for all who accept His offer to take away their sins and become their personal Lord and Savior. Just as Jesus had a mortal body but His Spirit was from God and eternal, in the same way those that accept His Gift will cast off their own corrupted, perishable selves when their own physical suffering and death is at an end and will gain the same eternal life. And just as Jesus’ own mortal body passed away only to be resurrected in an incorruptible eternal life, the same will happen to all who put their faith in Him.

“We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Romans 6:4)

For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’

Where, O death, is your victory?

Where, O death, is your sting?'” (1 Corinthians 15:53-55)

There was a wonderful picture I had in college that sadly I ended up ruining illustrating this. It was a sculpture of an iron statute “shedding” off its iron coating to reveal one made of crystal beneath it. It’s a great metaphor. Iron tarnishes, rusts, erodes, and wears away, and in order to be cast aside it has to be rent and peeled off. Yet when it’s gone, all that’s left behind is beautiful and perfect. The old state crumbles away and the new life endures.  “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17)

If you would like to experience this “shedding of skin”, there is an excellent resource for how you can do it right now right here: https://www.thoughtco.com/a-prayer-of-salvation-701284

If you are already a Christian, here is today’s suggested prayer:

Suggested Prayer: “Lord God, I can never thank you enough for the wonderful gift of your Son, Jesus Christ, by whose blood and sacrifice I am now a new creation set free from sin. Now that I have the blessed assurance that I have been born again, please help me to use my life always to seek your will and live for you today and every day. Gratefully in Jesus’ Name, Amen.”

My Little Devotional #169: “Nice Guys Finish Last”

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Inspiration for Today’s Devotional: “The Break-Up Break Down”

Spike and Discord’s discourse in this episode made me think of something. Even though it’s one of the most basic feelings of humanity, after thousands of years of human civilization we still ask ourselves the same question: “What is love?” What constitutes love? Is it an agreement? It is a partnership? Should it only be unconditional to a point? Or, as Spike and Discord themselves debated, is it even real or just some giddy emotion we feel from biological functions? And I have a feeling most people have felt like siding with Discord’s viewpoint over Spike’s in their lifetimes.

I come from a family that has had some successes in love but also a ton of disastrous failures. On top of that, I’ve seen more than my share of divorcees and I can tell you it hasn’t been pretty. I also know a couple individuals who meet that classic formula for having “struck out” at love. While I myself don’t have a succinct answer from my own life experiences (and I will be the first to admit that I’m more of a person who strikes out than succeeds), these instances have helped me at least get a definite picture of what love is not.

There’s an old adage that’s gone around for years: “Nice guys finish last.” However, it’s only been in recent history that this has taken on a dark new meaning. In modern lingo, the label of “nice guy” (or girl) is something to avoid like the plague. A man who is one of these “nice guys” initially approaches a woman behaving very politely, friendly, suave, and genteel. (Occasionally, they are a bit too polite and genteel, speaking almost like an 18th century nobleman, but that’s besides the point for now.) They offer compliments such as they have a lovely smile or they admire their work or laugh or how they performed at some public game or function, and then ask if they might go on a date sometime. At this point, the woman, who has likely just met this individual, usually politely declines until they get to know them better or apologizes and says they have a boyfriend.

Then things do a 180. The “nice guy” reveals their true colors; petulantly whining, moaning, swearing, and raging about how girls never want a nice person. They immediately accuse the woman of being sexually prolific and vilify them, insulting them in the most crude and disgusting of terms, mocking them as being cheap or any other vulgar thing, and then storm off. And worse of all, when this is all done, they insist that they are still a genuine “nice guy” and that women just won’t give them a chance.

Needless to say, you do not want to be known as a “nice guy”.

There are obviously a few things wrong here. The first is that these people are sick. They weren’t trying to form a relationship; they wanted someone to pair with to make them feel good about themselves by telling them what they thought they wanted to hear and, when that failed, they tried to make them feel bad about their own natural rejection. At both points they were emotionally manipulative, first in trying to charm and then in trying to tear down. Such individuals need to maturely face up to their own insecurities and low self-esteem and perhaps seek professional help, or they (and their partners, for that matter) will never be in a healthy relationship.

The thing I want to draw attention to, however, is a misconception that many have to a lesser degree. These people think of love as an equal exchange. They thought that, in exchange for not being vulgar, offering polite compliments, and essentially treating a person with basic decency, they were now entitled to love. And while most of us are neither “nice guys” nor “nice girls”, odds are at one level or another, especially if we’re currently single, we buy into this idea. That love is a matter of goods and services–you give something out and you’re guaranteed something back.

This may be a hard pill for many to swallow, especially for those who keep striking out, but the truth is you are never “entitled” to love. No one owes it to you based on the amount of good deeds or pleasant gestures you perform. And frankly, if you stop to think about it, you’ll probably realize that’s a good thing. Would you have wanted your parents to only care about you when you did all your chores perfectly and got good grades in school? Or would you want your friends to only desire to hang out with you when you’re buying them things or taking them places? Ultimately love is a choice. You either give it or you don’t. And true love is based on an understanding of everything about another person and accepting and loving them because of it.

The overall story of the Bible illustrates the difference between the two very well in a history that spans both Old and New Testament over hundreds of years. The ancient Israelites received two things from God when he chose them to be his own people: his Love and his Law. The latter of the two formed the basis of a covenant; in which both parties were expected to give something. Israel was to follow the letter of the Mosaic Law carefully and obey it completely, and in return they would receive the Promised Land and God’s material blessings. However, they violated that covenant by embracing idolatry and breaking the commandments, and as a result God withheld his own end of the covenant and allowed them to become prey to the Babylonians and for the ancient nation of Israel to cease to exist. At that time, many of the scattered Jewish people equated the Love and the Law. They believed that God had now fully rejected them because the covenant was broken.

The truth was God’s love remained even once the covenant was gone under a “greater” Law, because while the Law demanded certain obligations in exchange for certain favors, God’s love was always a conscious choice. God himself likened his Love for Israel as a parent for his child. “‘But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me.” Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!'” (Isaiah 49:14-15) And just like a parent can’t ever stop loving their child no matter how disobedient they behave, the same was true for him. And that eventually manifested itself in the form of Lord Jesus Christ, who Himself gave the ultimate expression of God’s Love by being sacrificed for the sin of the world…even when the world put Him to death themselves and sought no mercy or absolution for it. “Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:7-8)

Now please don’t take this to the extreme and think that means that to truly love someone we have to put up with abuse. While being in a loving relationship is a matter of choice and not favors, any individuals who truly love and care about each other will demonstrate that by tangible acts of affection naturally (and if they consistently do not, that might be a genuine problem), and they won’t willfully try to mistreat or control their partners. Yet just as everything in Lord Jesus’ life was a model for us, this serves to show us  true love is given, not earned. Therefore, we can’t think that by performing a set of purely external actions like showering people with compliments, pretending to be more pleasant and polite than we are, or otherwise subscribing to some “magic formula” we will ever gain true love. We must be honest with ourselves and our feelings first, and frankly we must also love ourselves first. And if we find that we really are doing something that we don’t like and can’t expect others to either, then we need to focus on improving that before trying to cover it up.

On a final note, if you find yourself in an unfortunate place where you yourself are believing that “true” love is a matter of pleasing someone, I strongly urge you to take out whatever time and assistance you need to grow to love yourself first; whether that be a true friend, a good church community, or a counselor. And if there are any non-Christians reading this who would like to experience more of the Love of God firsthand, I strongly suggest that you seek out a good church in your area and inform the pastor you’d like to learn more.

Suggested Prayer: “Lord God, thank you for the love of your Son, Jesus Christ, who demonstrated to the world the ultimate act of perfect love. Grant that I might be as selfless in the love I give to others, and deliver me from the folly of treating love and affection as matters of obligation and exchange. And if I find myself caught in the trap of believing that love is something that can only be earned, please help me to experience your true affection for me and deliver me from my emotional bondage. Gratefully in Jesus’ Name, Amen.”

My Little Devotional #168: “I’m Not Touching You!”

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Inspiration for Today’s Devotional: “Non-Compete Clause”

To say that Applejack and Rainbow Dash’s behavior in this episode is frustrating is a bit of an understatement. Their normal competitiveness, this time taking the form of wanting to be the School of Friendship’s teacher-of-the-month, caused them to ruin both of their respective activities through their arguing and fighting. However, what was even worse and more unbearable was that after Twilight called them out on their selfish desires to get the award they began to compete for it in a different way…namely by trying to make themselves look the most gracious, friendly, and deferential so that they, in turn, would appear more selfless and therefore more deserving of the award.

Dealing with people who let competition and personal pride cause them to constantly butt heads with each other is fairly frustrating, but it can get downright unbearable when they attempt to mask it, as in this episode, under a guise of faux beneficence. That’s especially true when that sort of behavior is targeting us and, I imagine, when we find ourselves doing it to others. And even more so when this sort of behavior is somewhat or entirely subconscious. At that point, it turns into something called passive-aggressiveness.

Passive-aggression was originally classified as a mental disorder, but actually encompasses a wide variety of behaviors that anyone can produce. In layman’s terms, it’s a way of acting out in hostility and anger toward someone or something without actually acting that way. Examples include purposely procrastinating, intentionally making mistakes, disguising criticism with compliments, harboring a sullen, stubborn attitude, mentally keeping score in histories of arguments, slipping in that one “last word” as an insult, and, perhaps most prevalent in the modern age, sabotage.

The primary reason behind using passive-aggressiveness is to avoid an overt confrontation over feelings or a disagreement. Sometimes this is because the person is being devious and malicious; purposely seeking to undermine or take jabs at their opponent. In other cases, it’s not ill-intended but is rather a way to try and avoid having to face up to someone or something. In either case, however, the reasoning in the same: to avoid getting into an overt conflict and/or appearing to be an instigator, hostile, or unsociable to others. It allows a person to “be the bad guy without looking like the bad guy”. And in my opinion, at least in some cases, I believe some individuals have fooled themselves into thinking that by not being openly aggressive or hostile that somehow they aren’t being that way at all, and therefore are absolved of all wrongdoing.

This is especially true in the modern day with our access to social networking and the like. Say, for example, two friends went out to a meal and one was supposed to pay but ended up forgetting about it and only had enough to pay for themselves. Rather than confront the person about it, the other friend gets onto social media and says something like: “I learned a life lesson about how thoughtless some people can be today. It really helped me see who my real friends are and who is just taking advantage of me.” They basically just attacked their friend indirectly and exposed it for the world to see, but they can claim that they didn’t do anything and that they could have been talking about anyone because they didn’t “name names”. Or if two people are angry at one another and one gets, say, a promotion at work and announces it, they might reply: “Congratulations on the new title! I guess all the smarter people at work quit by now, huh?” When it comes to online arguing, it’s positively vitriolic. The posts are endless as everyone tries to get in the last word with that one last jibe and, in the case of Christians, they make it worse by appending a “God bless!” to the end of it as if that somehow magically makes it not an insult. (Which is why I find if you get yourself caught in one of those, the best thing to do is simply “ignore the last post”…let them get the final word without feeling the temptation to respond.)

Colossians 3:8 reads: “But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.” In numerous lines of the Bible I myself tend to focus on the overt actions and sins, but passages like this take it a step further and say to get rid of even the “inner” ones such as rage and malice. It’s not enough to try and just be externally “good” while you still have desires for evil and sin inside you, as this episode illustrated when Applejack and Rainbow Dash tried to work together and defer to one another yet still harbored their desire for the award inside of them. In the end, it became not only obvious but totally unbearable.

We all have a responsibility to be honest and truthful with our own feelings so that we in turn don’t act passive-aggressive ourselves as a way of hurting other people and saying we did nothing wrong. And we might not be able to control when other people are being passive-aggressive as a way of getting to us, but we all can control how we respond to it and, more importantly, keep ourselves from doing it.

As our Lord says: “All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” (Matthew 5:37)

Suggested Prayer: “Lord God, thank you for all the opportunities for me to resolve difficult situations in my life; for they teach me discipline and help me grow in maturity and responsibility. When I am angry with my situation, grant that I may always be honest about it to myself, especially if it involves someone else, and thereby deal with my anger in a constructive way. And please help me always to respond appropriately when, either directly or subtly, a person is seeking to get the better of my own emotions. Gratefully in Jesus’ Name, Amen.”