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Quelling Our Fears

SPOILER WARNING FOR WILD ARMS!

Fear—our society seems to be obsessed with it. Most commercials and  political ads are  pushing people to do something to play off the fears of that person. Some fear being left behind or fear missing out on gadgets and experiences when compared to their peers. These fears push people to go into debt to purchase items they may not need. Other fears, such as stage fright, can cause a person to falter in their performance despite hours upon hours of practice time. 

Fear also manifests itself more profoundly at the individual level. We all have different fears of both physical things and metaphysical things. Some are afraid of spiders or snakes, while some are afraid of heights, and others yet are afraid of death.

Some fears—such as being wary of other drivers on a busy interstate—are natural and not necessarily bad. But other concerns can ingrain themselves into a person so much that when they need to act, they suffer paralysis, becoming frozen in fear. Fear can also give birth to negative emotions such as despair, hatred, or anger. These issues often lead to nasty places that we would not like to find ourselves. It is here where we find the people of Filgaia, the world of the JRPG Wild Arms for the PS1. 

“If all the people in Filgaia had thoughts of Courage, Love, and Hope… The world would not have fallen. But, the weakness of their thoughts have brought Filgaia to its knees.” – Guardians of Filgaia

Wild Arms is a turn-based RPG that follows the adventures of three protagonists: Rudy, Cecilia, and Jack. Rudy is a young wanderer who seems to be trying to find his place in the world. Cecilia is the princess of the kingdom of Adlehyde who just finished her training in the magical arts. Jack is a treasure hunter looking for a great prize. The setting is an exciting mix of heavy western and fantasy theming. Prior to the time setting of this game, there was a great war between the citizens of Filgaia who were allied with the Guardians, or deities, and the Metal Demons. The Metal Demons are a faction of monsters that came to Filgaia from a different planet that had been destroyed. They waged war against the citizens of Filgaia to conquer the planet and make it their own. The citizens of Filgaia won that war, but barely. In the time after the war, people had started to lose their faith in the Guardians. These folks were becoming increasingly fearful. Due to this, the Guardians’ powers began to weaken; this weakened state is how we find the Guardians and Filgaia during the opening of Wild Arms.

The Golems being stolen by the Metal Demons
Our Protagonists and Their Fear.

The protagonists meet on seemingly coincidental terms: they go on a singular adventure together to uncover one of the many Golems, large robotic weapons that were used in the great war against the Metal Demons. Our protagonists are unaware that this one adventure would be the catalyst for their adventures to come. The Metal Demons then attack, stealing the Golems, and destroying the kingdom of Adlehyde. Soon, our protagonists join in an epic struggle to  save the world from the Metal Demons.

As one progresses through the story, you find numerous themes that revolve around the dangers that come from harboring fear. Rudy is cast from the village that had taken him in because he is able to use the fabled ARM, and the villagers are afraid of that power. The ARM is a type of ancient firearm that can only be used by certain people, but those who can use the ARMs are scarce in the current time. Knowing that he is different, Rudy becomes afraid of trying to enter society. Cecilia rebels from her position as the princess of Adlehyde due to her fear of people only loving her because she is a princess. Jack’s entire arc revolves around him seeking ultimate power and “courage” due to his fear of inadequacy stemming from the pre-game events where he fails in protecting Arctica Castle in Northern Filgaia. These events include the Metal Demons breaking into the castle to revive their fallen leader, Mother. These characters’ fears cause much sorrow and hurt and prevented them from moving on into their rightful duties and roles.

Rudy leaving his village after being ostracized.
Did They Overcome Their Fear?

The protagonists spend the story learning how to overcome their fears. Rudy conquers his fear by finding friendship with Jack and Cecilia. Cecilia learns that she can still be loved as a regular person, even though she is a princess. Jack learns what true courage is by fighting alongside the other protagonists and learning that true courage stems from love. They learn that their fears were lying to them. Being different does not prevent Rudy from finding kinship. Cecilia learns that she could find people who love her for who she is as a person, rather than her title as royalty. Jack learns that failures occur, but they don’t always paint us as completely inadequate. Not only do these characters counter the fear in their own lives, but they also help spread hope and help to stop the spread of fear in the lives of the citizens of Filgaia.

 “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid,” John 14:27.

These are promises that Jesus gave his disciples when they had become worried after Jesus gave predictions about his upcoming crucifixion. Humans today harbor a lot of fear. Fear can leave a person feeling as if they don’t belong, as if they don’t have any chance of forming real friendships. It can make one feel that they aren’t loved, and push them into situations that make things worse, such as into bad relationships or “friends” who take advantage of them. Fear can even cause a person to abandon their friends and family and push them into solitude. These pathways that fear paves only lead to destruction and isolation.

Is There Any Way We Can Stop This?

Much like the protagonists of Wild Arms, we must first start with ourselves. We must realize that fear is not always the truth. A fantastic song that helps me to see this more and more is “Fear is a Liar” by Zach Williams. I highly encourage folks to go and listen to it! When we realize that we can overcome these fears, we begin to heal ourselves. A big step in this is learning to trust in our God. Our God is not a God of fear, and numerous verses confirm that God will protect us.

One such verse is Isaiah 41:10: “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God.  I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” When we place our trust in Him, we invite His peace within us. This peace helps to quell our fears and allows us the courage to press on and begin the healing from our fears. By trusting in God and understanding our fears may genuinely be lies told to us, we can start walking forward in courage.

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Christian Music Reviews

Review: Fear

Artist: Citizens (formerly Citizens & Saints)
Label: Citizens, in conjunction with Rainbow Records and Humble Beast Records
Genre: Indie Pop-Rock

Kicking off a U.S. Summer Tour, Citizens released their 4th studio album, Fear, at the beginning of May 2019. To say that I’ve been anxiously awaiting this album since I first discovered Citizens in 2014 is an understatement. The rawness of their lyrics and the refreshing harmonies they created with the previous album, A Mirror Dimly, had me hooked. Citizens’ members have a background in worship ministry, having once been on the worship team of Mars Hill where the band was originally formed. Their longing to use music to be close to God and experience His presence is evident in Citizens’ newest release, even more than the previous three albums.

Content Guide

Spiritual content: The band is a Christian band, so most spiritual content is directly related to Christ, even if the name is never specifically mentioned.
Violence: No violence, no curse words, a couple references to “blood”  (“Forget the blood, just give it time” in the track “Out of Sight”)
Sexual content: None
Drug/alcohol use: None specifically, but since the songs are open to a lot of interpretation, some phrases could make listeners think of battling an addiction in some form.
Other negative themes: None that are specific. The album is about dealing with fear/anxiety so some of the imagery in the lyrics may be slightly unnerving, but only to those who are extremely sensitive to those struggles.
Positive Content: The language on this album is incredibly deep and emotional. It outlines the struggle of anxiety and/or grief that relates to so many of us. It is very encouraging, especially in the last three tracks.

Review

In September 2017, Citizens signed on with the label Humble Beast. This was surprising since this label mostly features Hip Hop artists, like Jackie Hill Perry and Beautiful Eulogy. That signing made Citizens the first rock band to join the label, and Fear their first album with Humble Beast. On Fear, you can tell they are trying new things, experimenting with new techniques, and moving toward a more synth-pop sounds instead of just indie rock. This might be coincidental, or it might be influence from the new label. Either way it’s a nice change of pace, even if some prefer the indie rock more.

Right from the title track, we’re given a vision of how the lead singer, Zach Bolen, pictures himself in the midst of his pain. He begins talking about being locked inside a prison he created for himself out of good intentions and fear. The music is strangely reminiscent of an 80’s Sci-Fi movie. It’s haunting without slowly dragging and the chord progressions are melodic and major, sounding uplifting despite the emotional content. It works for the mood of the album.

The album art, red with seeming indentations or maybe puddles of water across it, leaves a lot to be desired. On a Facebook video posted by Zach, he explained that he wanted to leave these songs “open for interpretation.” Perhaps this extends to the cover art since it struggles to make a statement of its own. Otherwise, with so many bands who have already used the cliche “blank album cover” stunt it fails to resonate. Luckily, the ambiguous cover art is not indicative of the careful thought put into the music and lyrics.

Lyrics are the driving force on Fear. The imagery used illuminates the cages we create in our minds when we’re afraid. Inversely, the faith of the author shines brightly despite the struggle. While listening through the album, one can empathize with the author easily and understand how they are trying to reconcile faith and fear. Ultimately, it’s established that faith triumphs over fear, but it’s so important to experience the process. This album articulates the process wonderfully.

Each track has an individual sound, even while still using the synth and reverb throughout the album. The first half  is a bit softer and sad. The lyrics refer to fear and anxiety while soft guitar, piano, and synth play in the background. At the second half it takes a turn, beginning to shine out the artists hopes of being redeemed and freed, from the weight of his past mistakes and the cage he built around himself. The rhythms pick up and  echo back to the indie-rock roots Citizens has always leaned on.

The exception to this would be the second to last track “I Will Always.” While the song itself is slow and primarily piano driven, its beautiful lyrics remind us that no matter what negative things come our way God is always by our side and He will never leave us. The song starts with a melancholy tone, but quickly turns uplifting once you get into the bridge:

It’s a battle in my head
To believe I don’t need to architect
A fortress full of dogs
A defense that doesn’t last at all
It’s a funeral of sorts
I die each day for something more
This re-genesis in my blood
It’s the whispering voice of a holy dove

Zach, in a quote posted on the label’s website, states “You can share as much as you want about the Gospel on Biblical terms, but the true power of the Gospel comes from you telling your story.” This album tells a story. A story of how fear can take over our hearts and cover us in darkness. Fear has this ability to take your breath away when you didn’t know you were holding it. Fear is painful, often invisible on the outside, and debilitating. But there’s still hope, a way out, peace beyond all understanding to which we have been granted access. Citizens uses this album to be honest about the struggle with fear, and where to turn for hope and rescue. At the end of the album, the song “Take Heart” has a line straight from the Book of John:

“I have said all these things so that in Me, you’d have peace. In this world you’ll have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world.”

Citizens reminds us that in Jesus, we will have peace because He has overcome. “Take Heart” is an anthem for those who have forgotten that Christ has already conquered the grave and death. We can walk in victory because the war has already been won. This album is a reminder that we who suffer are not alone. Not only is this album evidence that other humans are dealing with similar thoughts or emotions, but it points back to the one who lived as one of us, yet died to know us and save us.

I appreciate Zach and Citizens for being open and honest on Fear. I would expect nothing less after listening to their other three studio albums. I highly recommend this album to anyone, especially those who deal with fear and feel alone or like there’s no help for them. The music is great and Zach’s voice is beautiful, but the lyrics are what makes this album stand out. Time to look on up and take heart.

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When It’s Hard To Be Still

I’ve never been able to get into the Grey’s Anatomy, House, or other medical dramas. Not because I don’t think they’re objectively good shows, I’m sure they are, but I just could never deal with all of the…well, medical drama.

For the past 15 years, I have been a major hypochondriac. I can’t watch or read any stories about people undergoing medical procedures or contracting mysterious diseases without becoming convinced I, too, have what they have.

In fact, if a series I enjoy has one episode or even a moment in an episode that brings up some kind of disease or condition, I might not go back to that series because I associate the whole thing with one particular mention of an illness I’m now convinced I have.

Whenever I see this content even in passing, I find myself developing “involuntary superstition,” if you will. I’ll think to myself, “If I worry about this, then maybe it will keep it away?” Or on the inverse, “If I stop worrying about this, it will happen! Or something worse…”
I’ve mentioned multiple times before that I’ve had issues with anxiety for a number of years. Something I experience along with this is racing thoughts. Once I get a bad thought in my head, it sets off a marathon of other bad thoughts, all running in a circuit, passing batons to each other in an endless loop, with seemingly no way out.

Of course, logically I know better.

I know there are things that make sense to be worried about. After all, if we didn’t ever experience worry, we wouldn’t have the drive to keep ourselves safe, meet our deadlines, etc. But, it’s when we let this constant worry consume us that we’re inadvertently telling God  we do not trust Him.

“You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on You because he trusts in You” Isaiah 26:3. I’ve gotten in a terrible habit of letting my thoughts run away with me. I need to retrain myself to keep God in the forefront of my mind and trust in Him all the way. I need to remember He will keep me safe, and even if something bad does happen, it’s all a part of His plan, and He has something better in mind for me.

Of course we all know the Bible tells us we should not fear. You may have seen the classic Pinterest post say there’s a verse for every day of the year telling us not to fear, although that number, as it turns out, isn’t entirely accurate. Regardless, the bible does mention it, and multiple times, so we know it to be true.

That being said, does this mean we have license to go about our lives without a care in the world? Proverbs 21:5 seems to state otherwise: “The plans of the diligent certainly lead to profit, but anyone who is reckless only becomes poor.” Just because we should not have fear doesn’t mean we should be completely careless. As I mentioned before, some level of concern–diligence, if you will–keeps us on track.

As with all things, it’s not good to be any extreme in this case. It’s all about finding that balance, and asking God for guidance when we find ourselves teetering on either end of this fear/carelessness spectrum.

In other words, we shouldn’t necessarily give up going to the doctor, especially if there is a legitimate concern. At the same time we can’t waste our lives with the weight of worry knowing God has perfect plans for us.

I probably won’t start binge-watching GA or House anytime soon, but at least if I happen to see any scary medical articles pop up on my social media, I know where to turn for perfect peace.

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Overcoming Your Greatest Fears: Scarecrow in Batman Arkham Asylum

This bodes ill…

Most people know about the Dark Knight’s beginnings. Little Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered in front of his eyes and he was unable to stop them. Growing up, he trained with ninjas and eventually donned the cowl and became Batman. Now, he fights to rid Gotham City of crime and the supervillains who want control of it.

Descent into madness

In Batman: Arkham Asylum, Batman captures his arch-nemesis the Joker and returns him to the asylum. Joker gets free and with the help of other villains, he swiftly takes control of the asylum. As Batman makes his way around Arkham to recapture all of the free inmates, he runs into one of the most fearsome villains he’s ever faced: Dr. Stephen Crane, also known as Scarecrow.

Scarecrow likes his dramatics

To bring his victims to their knees, Scarecrow exposes them to a deadly airborne gas that affects their brain and causes hallucinations, usually involving their worst fears. Once exposed to the drug, he continually exposes them until it overwhelms them or they die from shock. He catches Batman off guard a total of three times, sending him into a downward spiral of madness.

Do you need some Tylenol?

Batman is forced to face his greatest fear: not being able to save his parents from death or any one else in need. In the first sequence, he finds his close friend Jim Gordon’s body. He was not able to get to Jim in time, it seems. Batman continues into a morgue and finds both his mother and father’s dead bodies. They both cry out to him, asking him why he was not able to save them. In a third body bag, Scarecrow pops out and exposes Batman to even more gas, sending him deeper into madness and careening him into Scarecrow’s world.

The Scarecrow scenes show Batman’s reality as he knows it destroyed, and he is forced to traverse platforms while hiding all throughout the level to escape Scarecrow’s piercing gaze. His goal is the bat signal, a beacon of hope not only for the city but seemingly for himself as well. Once Batman reaches the beacon, he aims it at the giant villain and wakes up from the nightmare.

Well, this does not look good…

This happens two more times, Batman foiling his adversary’s plan every time. At the end of the third time, Scarecrow is confused and flustered, claiming that Batman should be dead with the amount of toxin he has pumped into his blood. Batman gives no explanation because none is needed.

Flustered and confused, Scarecrow runs away in horror

If you listen to Scarecrow’s interview tapes, the final tape contains a recording of Batman foiling the villain’s experiments with innocent people. A minor scuffle can be heard and Batman speaks to Scarecrow, telling him that he has developed an antidote and that the drug is now ineffective. Batman continues in a taunt, “How does that make you feel, Crane? Threatened? Humiliated? Scared?”

Batman clearly knows fear and knows how to navigate it well. But of course, this is fiction. How does this relate to us, normal human beings who were not trained by ninjas and are so fearful of every little thing that comes our way? Can we easily overcome fear the way Batman so heroically does?

One of the most powerful things in the world is fear. Fear renders us immobile and completely vulnerable. When overwhelmed with fear, at most, we are left powerless, often frozen out of indecisiveness and a failure of knowing how to react. Fear can bring any person to their knees, no matter how strong they think they are. Everyone can be affectedyes, even Christians are vulnerable to fear.

Batman seeing himself in bondage, because that is what happens when we give fear a foothold in our hearts.

Scarecrow magnifies fear with a drug that messes with your head, making your worst fears real. If we buckle under the weight of hypothetical fears, imagine if those fears became a reality; we would be completely overwhelmed. How can we hope to resist?

Batman doesn’t do it alone. Despite him typically being a lone wolf, in order to overcome Scarecrow’s tactics, he is forced to use his ultimate weapon and rely on the basis of everything he does: hope. For him, the bat signal represents hopehope for things to come and hope that someday things might be better. What drives Batman is the hope that he will one day be able to fix Gotham, even if it means sacrificing himself. Despite it killing his parents, Batman still cares about Gotham City and every single one of its inhabitants, which explains his conviction of not killing any of the criminals he captures.

What hope can we have? The same.

We can have hope for things to come and hope that things will be better. We can have hope that Jesus saves and he has already defeated the enemy. We can be confident in this hope, especially in the reminders and promises He makes to us throughout His Word. In Deuteronomy 31:8, Moses reminds the Israelites that God will “never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” Even in the darkest, most hopeless times, God is still near.

There is no escape from fear…or rather, no escape for fear from you and the Lord.

Again, in Isaiah 43:1, God tells his people, “Do not fear for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine.” If we are God’s and He is omnipotent, what have we to fear? Joshua 1:9 says, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.” We have something much greater than a bat signal. We have God himself as our strength!

It might sound weird, but one of the greatest weapons Batman has is not only hope, but love. Because he loves and cares for Gotham, he is willing to lay down his life for it. In 1 John 4:18, John writes, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love” If we truly love Jesus like he first loved us, then we can easily overcome fear.

Interestingly enough, the phrase “fear not” is in the Bible 365 times—one for every day of the year. With all those times God tells us to not fear, how foolish it would be of us to give in to fear! And yet, we often forget the Lord, and fear comes and settles in and we fall to our knees, defeating ourselves in the process. For you see, fear is actually powerless; it has only the strength that we give it. Once we realize this, we can take hold of God and stand back up to watch fear cower away from us. Then, like Batman, perhaps we ourselves can ask fear what it is so afraid of? For it truly has something to fear if God is for us.

The inescapable destiny of fear…light overcomes the darkness.

In the end, Scarecrow escapes, kind of like how fear is driven away. It runs and cowers into a dark corner, waiting to blindside you sometime soon. Yes, fear will attack again, usually, catching us off guard when we are unexpectedly vulnerable. But we can live with the hope that fear has already lost. Fear can be overwhelming, but fear has already been overwhelmed. Once we believe that wholeheartedly, only then can we overcome our greatest fears.

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You Can’t Save Everyone

Tell me if this synopsis doesn’t sound familiar:

The hero is just starting to get the hang of this gig. Saving lives is starting to become systematic, even normal somehow. Sure, there have been a few close calls, but the hero has learned from these and has taken them to heart – and it’s showing. The support team is running like a well-oiled machine, and before long, it seems like nothing can go wrong.

Until it does. Not only do things go wrong, but they go horribly astray. A crisis that seemed simple and straightforward suddenly pitches sideways, and the hero squad is scrambling with everything they’ve got to save the day – but this time, even their best efforts are not enough.

After the dust settles, they make their way back to headquarters, heads hanging low. The team’s wise old sage pats the hero on the shoulder and says consolingly, “You can’t save everybody.”

Failure is part of life, but it stings particularly badly when you’ve put in all your best efforts on something that is actually worthwhile and meaningful . . . and it tanks anyway. All of us have experienced this – the feeling that no matter how hard you try, sometimes all it takes is one little thing spinning out of control to bring everything to a crashing halt.

I’m no stranger to it, either. Thankfully, most of my crises have been far less than life-threatening, although they didn’t feel like it at the time. It took nearly failing out of graduate school to realize being a middle school music teacher wasn’t a good fit for me. Even though I wanted it so bad and tried so hard, I felt like my whole world was cracking apart around me. The hard truth looked me dead in the eyes and said, “You can’t do this.”

What I didn’t see was I had allowed school, teaching, and music – my world – to get in the way of God.

I came up with a thousand ways I’d fix things if only I could go back and do it again. I dreamed and schemed of how to get what I wanted without the degree I was denied. I got mad at my teachers, at myself, at God. I wondered in the wee hours of the morning where I had gone wrong to get on this dead-end road, and how I was ever going to get off it.

The real problem was, even if I had done everything right, there was nothing I could do to change the outcome. If this was an episode from one of my favorite superhero shows, there was no way to bring back the lost comrade – at least, not short of some wild plot twist.

What is God trying to teach us in these no-win situations? Sometimes well-meaning friends and family offer advice along the lines of “God is in control,” or “It’s just not in God’s plan,” or “God will work good out of this.” While those and other lessons might be true in whatever situation we’re faced with, one thing ought to rise above the rest: We were made to love God above all.

Everything else falls away, as the old song goes, when we “turn our eyes upon Jesus.” There is no way to know how things might have turned out differently, or how different things are going to be now – and that knowledge may not have changed things even if we had it. The need for control over one’s circumstances is an earthly desire borne of pride, and completely unattainable. 1 Corinthians 13:12 says, “Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.”

This is different than a cheap platitude. God recognizes our lack of understanding, and promises us that in our failings, we don’t need to know everything. Knowledge will not change the facts. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My word will never pass away,” and His Word says He is all we need, all that matters (Matthew 24:35).

We can’t save everyone. We don’t have the power in ourselves. We don’t have control. However, when the world blows up in our face, all we really need to do is put our focus back on the only One who matters.

“Yours, Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor, for everything in heaven and on earth is Yours. Yours, Lord, is the kingdom; You are exalted as head over all.” 1 Chronicles 29:11