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Once upon a time, nestled in the rolling hills of the Eastern Mediterranean, was a magical land called the Ice Cream Kingdom. This kingdom was beautiful—anytime visitors would stumble upon its beauty, they never wanted to leave.

Castles made of ice cream sandwiches stood tall and strong, rivers flowed of chocolate and caramel. It rained sprinkles and often, when it got really cold, frozen strawberries and blueberries fell from the sky. The hills and mountains were made of graham cracker crumbs and canyons were lined with waffle cones. Hanging from chocolate trees were red, stemmed cherries and the hillsides were filled with raspberries. The homes were made of peanut brittle and candy canes—and high above this land flew the rainbow sherbet flag that was adorned the letters “ICK.” (Ironically, the “ICK” stood for “Ice Cream Kingdom,” but sadly spelled the word “ick.” This irony was not lost on the people of ICK.)

The princess of ICK was a beautiful young lady by the name of Andrea. Every day, she read the book of Promise, which told her that someday her prince would come. Every day, sitting high atop the tallest tower in the Cupcake Castle, she would look out at the land, waiting for her prince. Every day, she waited in vain, because her prince did not show up.

Meanwhile, far across the kingdom, a young peasant named Austin fought one of his greatest challenges yet. He had been tending to his Oreo crops when he noticed, in the far fields, a mysterious creature that was devastating his field. He climbed atop his trusty horse, Eric, and raced toward the creature.

As he approached, he saw something far more disgusting than he could have ever imagined. It was the Rotten Dairy Dragon intent on making the Oreos soggy! The devilish, dour dragon was dastardly devouring the Oreo crops in a dervish of dairy disgust! Austin raced toward the creature, armed with baking soda and hot water to douse the dragon. The dragon noticed he was coming and, turning swiftly, shot a stream of unpasteurized milk directly at Austin. It was coming too fast, and Austin couldn’t dodge out of the way. He leapt from his horse, Eric, just as the horse got flooded with rotten yogurt. Sadly, Eric collapsed, dead. (Yes, I realize that Eric’s cameo in this story is short. I’m not losing sleep over it.)

Austin grabbed his baking soda, which had fallen from his hands, and began throwing handfuls of it at the dragon. Scared, the diabolical dragon flew off, screaming, “YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE LAST OF ME!!!” as he left.

Austin went over to Eric, who was covered in stinky milk. He sprinkled some baking soda on the corpse to reduce the horrid stench, and walked back to his farmhouse, lost in thought.

“When am I ever going to find the love of my life?” he wondered on the walk home. After all, he had read the book of Promise. He knew that it was proper for every young man in ICK to find a bride. But ever since his parents died and handed the farm over to him, he couldn’t leave it. There was too much work, too much to do.

Years had passed him by since they died. He read every night—Shakespeare, Artistotle, Socrates—and had grown wise. Hours and days of farm work had given him strength. But he simply hadn’t found the woman he was supposed to be with. Visitors were few in the outskirts of the Ice Cream Kingdom.

He was so lost in thought, he didn’t notice the black object sticking out of the ground until he had run into it. He tripped over the black object and fell to the ground in confusion. Looking down, he picked up the large object, which appeared to be wrapped in black paper. As soon as he picked it up, the paper began to fall away from the object. He began peeling it back, layer by layer, until he got to the last layer of black paper. Wrapped in all of the paper was a golden spoon, more beautiful than anything he had ever seen before.

He almost dropped it in surprise! “This is the fabled Golden Ice Cream Spoon! The one that belongs to the heir of the Ice Cream Kingdom!” He began shaking, because he knew what it meant: he had to get the spoon to the princess! She was the heiress to the kingdom, and the Golden Spoon could not fall into the wrong hands.

It was up to Austin, the simple Oreo farmer, to restore the balance of power in ICK by returning the Golden Spoon to Princess Andrea. He gripped it tightly and marched back to his farmhouse to prepare the long journey from his farm, on the outer reaches of the kingdom, to the Cupcake castle where the princess lived.

Meanwhile, the Rotten Dairy Dragon watched from a nearby hillside. He knew he had to get his moldy claws on that Spoon and become the King of ICK.

To Be Continued…

Excluded

A narrative has been percolating in my mind for several months now. I have spoken bits and pieces of it in random conversations and in various group settings, but I believe that it’s not going to feel complete unless I write it down. Hopefully, however, through the writing of this I can allow my thoughts to more neatly organize themselves in a way that is neither caustic nor judgmental—rather, I hope to bring to light a fresh view of something that is, well, really not so fresh.

This narrative begins several months ago on a Monday night.

I am a part of a young adult Bible study group that meets Monday nights. On this particular night, we were wrapping up the book of Ezra. I am not going to take the time or space right now for a background on the book (but I encourage you to read it and draw your own conclusions). At the end of the book, beginning in Chapter 9, an interesting theme arises: intermarriage.

The Israelites, led by the leaders and the priests, had entangled themselves with surrounding tribes and had not been faithful to the law that was set by God that strictly called them to not marry or make covenants with a long list of people groups (Exodus 34; Deuteronomy 7, 23). Ezra, being the spiritual leader of the people, was confronted by the leadership of the Israelites about this. They admitted that the people have been making covenants and engaging in the practices with these surrounding tribes.

Ezra was chagrined. The rest of chapter 9 is devoted to a mournful, apologetic prayer to God concerning the terrible transgressions of the people. Surely God was enraged at these practices, especially since He had finally allowed the people to go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. He publicly wept and prayed until a crowd gathered around him, also crying out with guilty tears. One man, Shecaniah, stepped up with a seemingly perfect solution: “We have been unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women from the peoples around us. But in spite of this, there is still hope for Israel. Now let us make a covenant before our God to send away all these women and their children, in accordance with the counsel of my lord and of those who fear the commands of our God. Let it be done according to the Law. Rise up; this matter is in your hands. We will support you, so take courage and do it.”

So they followed through with these plans. They kicked out all non-Jews. Mothers and wives and children were suddenly banished, homeless and destined for poverty. They dealt with the unclean men who were willing to engage in the intermarriage with discipline as well (but not banishment).

As we began to discuss this story that Monday night, the initial consensus was that the right steps toward purity had been taken. God had given them some fairly clear laws and the people had disobeyed. They remedied the situation by amputating the reason for the problem, right? In fact, they had very religious and Godly reasons for ostracizing the group of foreigners and half-breeds (which is what they called them)! God had called them to purity, and they were standing up for truth, for the law, for God. They were standing up for what was right.

In fact, it’s pretty straightforward. If you don’t fit within the confines of the law (and the half-breeds didn’t) then you were religiously ostracized. After all, it’s what God commanded. Sometimes standing up for truth is ugly, right? When people don’t fit within the plan, God’s people have to stand up and do something!

Flash-forward several hundred years.

One of these ostracized half-breed groups, the Samaritans, had long-since settled in the northern part of what is now the West Bank. They were, in fact, descendents of the intermarriage discussed in Ezra: modern day Y-chromosome studies and mitochondrial DNA analysis has shown that they descended from both Israelites (including priestly lines) and mostly Assyrian women.

And they were religiously hated. The full-blooded Israelite populations referred to them in derogatory terms and were not to speak to them. The Samaritans could not worship at the Jewish holy sites (though they considered themselves mostly Jewish). Centuries later, the Jewish community was still standing up for the purity and righteousness God had called them to—and they were good at it.

That’s what it takes to follow God’s law, right? An unwavering commitment to the truth that God had laid out for them—the impure be damned (literally).

It is in this context that a man who had been listening to Jesus preach asks him a question. It should be noted that this is no ordinary man—this is a man who Luke calls an “expert in the law.” This is a man who was very familiar with the story in Ezra–a man whose disgust with the Samaritan people ran deep. This is a religious man who had very religious and even godly reasons for believing what he did. In fact, being an expert, he could probably name the very spots in Deuteronomy in which God forbade marriage and covenants with the Assyrians, the very ancestors of the Samaritan people.
And this expert has one question for Jesus: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

And Jesus asks, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” It almost seems like he’s asking the man, “You are an expert—but let’s see if you really understand the ideas behind the laws.”

The man answers by quoting parts of the Law from Leviticus and Deuteronomy: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus responds positively: “Good answer, do that and you’ll live.”

It’s at that point that the man seems to notice his hypocrisy. He looks for a loophole, a way out—it’s almost as if it suddenly dawns on him that he hasn’t been living this way. You can almost imagine him going through the people in his life, gauging whether or not he has loved them, and hoping the people he hasn’t loved weren’t his “neighbors.” He responds with, “And who is my neighbor?”

You can see him trying to justify his way of life. This devoutly religious man, who has undoubtedly spent his life trying to understand and study the law of God, has had religious reason to follow through with his marginalization of others (read: Samaritans). He has been standing up for God’s law, right? He has been standing up for truth, for purity! He is an “expert” on what it means to follow God’s law!

And Jesus responds with one of the most well known stories in the Scriptures.

He begins the now familiar story with a man who is walking on a road and then getting robbed, beaten within inches of his life, and stripped naked. He is left for dead. A priest sees the man and passes by, unwilling to help. In fact, he doesn’t just pass by; he walks to the other side of the road, perhaps so that he didn’t have to be bothered by having the man in his sightline. (I’d imagine that puzzled looks would be exchanged from the people listening to this story—was Jesus calling out a religious leader? Can you imagine the modern day equivalent to a priest? A mega-church pastor, maybe? Or another kind of Christian leader—an evangelist, maybe, or an author?)
Then a Levite does the same thing. A Levite was someone who worked in the temple. Again, people would have been shocked and even angry. Was he just going down the hierarchy of the religious elite, calling them all out as being someone who doesn’t love their neighbor (which, you remember, he said was how someone gains eternal life)?

But then, truly the most shocking aspect of the story is spoken. Let’s be honest, Jesus could have picked anyone to be the hero of his story. He could have picked a Jewish man. He was, after all, talking to an expert in the law. Why not make him the hero of the story? Instead, he does something far more controversial—and I hope you can grasp just how controversial it is, given the preceding two pages of context I have given. In fact, what Jesus says is nothing short of game-changing.

The third man to pass by helps the beaten, bloody man. The third man is the hero. He is the one who exhibits the love that neither church leader was willing to. He is the man who, according to Jesus, is going to inherit eternal life by loving his neighbor. Who is this third man?

A Samaritan. Jesus, speaking to a Jewish expert of the law, picks a Samaritan man to be the hero.

A half-breed. A man who has been ostracized and condemned the church in the name of truth and purity—yet will inherit Eternal Life ahead of the church leaders.

And why? Because he loved his neighbor.

He may not have belonged in the church, but he loved like Jesus calls all of us to.

This story prompts two questions. Primarily—what people groups today do we (as the religious folk) ostracize/marginalize/criticize/hate in the name of truth and purity? Muslims? Gays? Liberals? Evolutionists? Democrats? Postmoderns? Younger generations? Atheists? Would Jesus, if he was telling the story today, pick someone from one of these groups to be the hero? Who have we decided to separate ourselves from for the sake of being godly—only to miss out on the true message of Jesus?

Second—what can we do about it? How can we begin looking less like the church leaders of Jesus time and more like Jesus?

I think the first step is this: we need to begin making these people the heroes of our stories. Like the church leaders, we may have had some very “godly” and religious reasons for marginalizing some people. But like Jesus, we need to stop marginalizing and start interacting. Stop hating those that are different and begin loving them as people who, like the Samaritan, are just as capable of loving God and people.

We need to begin thinking less about who is “out” and who is “in” and more about what we can do to make sure that all people are viewed as “neighbors.”
The truth is that Jesus preached a message of love, not religion. We are all connected as neighbors in humanity.

I hope we can begin tearing down the walls of injustice and intolerance so that people can see Jesus’ love, not the stale religion of exclusion.

I am sitting at a computer and realizing the inevitable truth that the internet is far more entertaining when I have things to do than when I’m bored.

I am wondering why it is always easier to point out others’ selfishness at the times when I am being selfish.

I am dwelling on what it means to truly stand up for the oppressed when the oppressors are not people, but ideas and maxims.

I am trying to understand the tension between two uncertain truths…and yes, I realize the impossibility of what I just typed.

I am curious as to why it’s far simpler to view the world as black and white–especially since the people who view things as black and white tend to make problems more complex.

I am curious as to why those that read the Bible are quick to point out certain Scriptures as true for today, like Leviticus 19:28 (Do not…put tattoo marks on yourselves) but disregard other verses, like the verse before it (Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.)

I am trying to figure people out. I’ll get back to you on that.

I am tired of the vitriol between political parties. What’s the point of “democracy” if everyone hates each other?

The other day, a friend and I were texting. It was a simple conversation—simple topics that spawned simple questions which beget simple answers. And then, quite randomly, she asked me a question that was very…well…not-so-simple.

She texted, “What is the purpose of art?”

I was thrown off guard. My mind spun for a second, trying to come up with grandiose language to describe something that people have spent entire histories trying to explain. I thought about all of the cliché answers, things like “art allows people to express themselves” and “art is something that creates honest dialogue” and “art is a manifestation of the creative spirit.” These answers are good, don’t get me wrong. But I felt like they were somewhat incomplete.

I don’t fully understand why humanity creates/produces/needs art. For that matter, I don’t even think I know a good, all-encompassing definition for what art is. In fact, the reason I don’t like trying to answer such a giant question with the cliché responses above is because the term “art” is so inherently nebulous to begin with.

I visited the Seattle Art Museum a couple days ago. It was my first visit, despite having lived in Puget Sound for nearly eight years. I found myself unsure of the proper etiquette of an art museum. There were elementary school kids on field trips and hipster twenty-somethings and older couples and people who seemed like serious art connoisseurs and people who never stopped texting long enough to pay attention to anything. There were people who stood closely to examine brush strokes and pointillism and people who stood far away to better grasp an entire piece.

There were beautiful, giant paintings and haunting, dark paintings. There were pieces of Florentine religious art and Greco-Roman pieces filled with nudity and awkwardness. There were giant metal sculptures that hung from the ceiling and looked like nothing more than glorified wind-chimes. There was a room sparsely filled with junk—old tennis balls and dirty cardboard boxes and notebook paper with scribbles. (It was called modern art or something.) There were photographs and screen prints and blown glass and African masks.

And I found myself again thinking…what is the purpose of this stuff? Why do we do art? And why don’t the cliché answers seem to embody the full experience of artistry?

When my friend asked me that question, I thought about all of those well-worn explanations for the role that art plays in the narrative of humanity. But then one answer seemed to emerge into my consciousness: that a painting isn’t art simply because it’s a painting. And a photograph or a sculpture or a musical piece or a dance—those things are not “art” simply because they fall under categories of more recognized artistic mediums.

And, to take that logic further: things that don’t seem like “art” can be done in an “artistic” way, can’t they? I mean, when we see an amazing feat of athleticism, don’t we use the phrase “poetry in motion?” Isn’t there an “art” to relationships? An “art” to conversing? An “art” to cooking or speaking or understanding or reading or running or discovering? Isn’t everything that we do in life open to being called “art?”

Can’t we pursue beauty, wholeness, expression, artistry, and creativity in all that we do?

I have a theory. We are all born—and in that sense, we are alive. I’m alive, and if you’re reading this, you are too. But part of what it means to be human is to pursue life—a second birth, so to speak. We are alive, but we seek real, honest Life. We may have life, in the sense that our organs are functioning properly to keep us breathing, but we pursue Life—an ever-changing idea of what it means to feel truly alive. And yet, as I write this, I realize that there have been times in my life in which I am physically alive, but I have felt dead. I haven’t been able to reach this thing I’m calling Life.  And so I do things to try to feel alive. In a way, I spend my entire life trying to bring myself back to Life.

Isn’t art really just our attempt to bring ourselves back to life? We navigate pain, joy, peace, and discomfort in all that we do. But when it comes down to it, aren’t we all just trying to Live?

One person tries to resuscitate himself by playing basketball. Another tries to bring herself back to life by singing. Yet another pursues Life by engaging in many meaningful relationships, while someone else might pursue Life in just one relationship. And isn’t all of this “art?” In a way, isn’t art the fabric of the human experience?

Not long before he died, Jesus made a pretty bold claim. He claimed that his path (which was about to lead to death!) is a path of Life. Not being alive (the people he was talking to were already alive) but rather, the Life I mentioned earlier. He said “I am the way, the truth, the life.” Those words are often used to defend an exclusive view of who gets into Heaven or out of hell or whatever, but Jesus is making no such claim! What he’s saying is, “my path, my reality, is one that will bring you back to Life.” He’s not talking about heaven or salvation in the afterlife—he’s making a claim on how we can, even now, have Life—we can live lives that are artistic, lives that are creatively seeking Life.

And how do we do that? By living like Jesus. By providing life to others, even to the point of giving up our own life for such a cause. The best kind of art, after all, is the kind that resonates with others.

Not long before those words came out of his mouth, Jesus knelt down and washed his friends’ feet. And, in a way, I think that was pretty artistic.

For a full discussion on John 14:6, and a beautiful analysis of this idea of Life that is being discussed, visit http://www.brianmclaren.net/emc/archives/McLaren%20-%20John%2014.6.pdf

February Sunshine

February always has a way of teasing us here in the Puget Sound area. While the rest of the country is engulfed in blizzards and snow flurries and wind and rain (Florida and Texas get snowed on! Airports are shut down!), we got sunny skies, starry nights, and temperatures that topped out at 60. I even got into the habit of wearing shorts and drove with my window down for about a week!

In fact, it even seemed like the plants and animals weren’t aware that it was only February. I awoke to birds singing, providing a melody to the warm sunshine streaming into my room. My car was covered in light dustings of pollen—cherry blossoms turned bare trees into eruptions of white and pink. For a short period of time, nature decided that the calendar didn’t matter. Time went into fast forward and plants and animals adapted.

The irony is that, as I sit writing this, the rain has returned. The weeklong oasis of temperate weather and cloudless skies has passed, making way for dull, depressed gray clouds and rain drops. The air, full of its pollen, is being scrubbed clean by thousands of gallons of water. The songbirds are retreating back to their nests—the sun is hiding cowardly behind blankets of clouds. February is ending, March is upon us, and the familiar spring showers are here. Spring cleaning has begun.

And all of this leads me to one thought (and bear with the cliché, if you can): seasons of life come and go just as quickly, and can be just as drastic, as our environmental changes. Just when it seems like summer is right around the corner, cold and rainy weather returns to the forefront (get it? “Front,” as in cold front? Never mind…)

The other day I ran five miles. When I was done, I felt like I could run ten more. I didn’t hurt, I wasn’t tired, I felt great. A couple days after that, I ran four miles. I ached all over. My legs hurt from the first step to the last. I felt like I was running uphill and against the wind with weighted shoes on. Something that felt painless only days earlier became a bitter struggle.

About a year ago, I was writing blog entries a couple times a month. I had a lot to say. And then I didn’t. For no real discernable reason, I just stopped writing. Something that had come so naturally became a struggle. I would have ideas of things to write about. I would even sometimes think about sitting down and writing.

But I wouldn’t.

I thought to myself, “I’ll do it tomorrow. Or the next day. Or next week.”

And every night I would fall asleep thinking about how I wished I had set aside time to write something that day.

Then a couple days ago, a friend read me a quote by Picasso:

Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone.

And I remembered a story that I heard about a ten year old boy who died from complications of swine flu and asthma. He collapsed while playing. And then I remembered a friend of mine who had an infant family member die in a car wreck. The boy never made it past his third birthday. And I remembered the story of a classroom in Haiti that collapsed and killed every person inside of it. They were studying to become preachers.

And those lives were taken much too soon. They had things on this planet to accomplish. They had gifts to give. They had love to share. They had relationships to build. They had things to write and to build and to paint and to compose and to design and to dream and to create.

And here am I, assuming that tomorrow is going to exist for me. Assuming that I’ll just wait for some other time to do something. Assuming that I’ll have plenty of time to accomplish what I want to. Assuming that there will be time, in the future, to do everything I dream of.

But the seasons don’t last. At some point, the February sunshine will give way to March rainclouds. For some it happens with expectation. For too many, though, it happens without warning.

So here I am, finally writing. But writing just for the sake of writing is pretty unimportant. Because, truth be told, there are a lot of things I am putting off in my life. There are a lot of things I am assuming that I just have time to do in the future.

Maybe I can take a lesson from the plants and animals that came to life in the sunshine—how they sang, how they blossomed, how they took advantage of the season they were in because they had no idea when it was going to end.

Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone.

Social media users (like me) need to proceed with awareness and caution.

You know the old adage, “actions speak louder than words.” Thanks to social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and blogging, we need a new one: “words speak louder than action.” Allow me to elaborate.

I haven’t blogged in a while. It’s not that I haven’t had anything to say. Rather, quite the opposite. I have had quite a bit of things to opine, whine, and wax eloquently about. I simply lacked a whole lot of motivation to write about such things. For one, others often end up putting my thoughts into better words than I can (hence my constant postings of columns by Nicholas Kristof). Also, I was getting somewhat dejected by the amount of argumentative responses I would receive about certain…um, controversial things I would write about.

So…I watched. I read. People posted statuses and blogs and tweets and links to things they felt were important. And I began to notice a trend in my way of thinking toward people. My opinions toward people would suddenly reflect what their statuses revolved around. Their online presence became a major factor in the overall composite of who I perceived them to be. And, unlike any time in history, we can now “listen” to people (through statuses and updates) daily, or hourly, without ever having to interact with them in person.

In fact, we can feel like we know exactly who someone is without ever seeing them physically interact with the people and world around them. We can form opinions about their communication skills without ever hearing them talk. We can make evaluations about what people value without ever seeing them spend time doing something. And all of this is quite dangerous to our overall impressions of the people around us. Because, the truth of the matter is, actions speak louder than words. But what if we never see people’s actions? What if all we have are words?

A person’s words become their identity to a whole population of people that only interact with them online.

And so, Francis (a made-up name) can spend all of his free time volunteering at a homeless shelter. He can donate most of what he has. He can be one of the most selfless people on the planet. However, if Francis spends all of his online “real estate” (i.e. statuses, tweets, etc.) complaining and whining about others, then a perception will (quickly) grow: Francis hates people.

For the first time in history, words speak louder than action.

Another example: my grandfather is one of the most loving people I have ever met. He gives of his time and money more than anyone I have ever witnessed. In fact, virtually everyone that ends up spending any amount of time with him comes to the same conclusion. He is one of the best examples of selfless living that I’ll probably ever encounter. However, he also sends me quite a few email forwards. These forwards typically consist of very politically-charged diatribes against Pres. Obama. Often, these diatribes border on the absurd. They can be hateful and most of them are utterly fictitious. Let me reiterate that these are not things that my grandpa writes, he just forwards them.

However, if someone on his email forward list never spent time with him, they could get a very strong impression that he hates all Democrats or all liberals. Based on his email forwards, such a conclusion is only natural. But I know this is not the case. I know that 96% (roughly) of my grandfather’s thoughts and time are spent looking for ways to help and love people. But one wouldn’t know that by his email forwards. In a world where online presence can often exist in a vacuum, perception is reality.

An unfortunate side-effect of the social networking that most of us engage in is that it creates a barrier between us and the person with whom we are trying to communicate with. So, instead of erring on the side of niceness and polite conversation, we are more likely to speak more strongly and forcefully, often to the point of speaking much more freely (or meanly) than we ever would in person. In light of everything else I have talked about, this is an incredibly dangerous way of communication. There have been people in my life who are incredibly nice in person; however, as soon as they get online, they can be mean, argumentative, and offensive. If someone’s online communication is more frequent than the “in-person” communication, then it doesn’t take long for the perception of the “online self” to override the perception of the “real-life self.”

All that said, I am incredibly thankful for social networking. If you are reading this, then you probably know that Facebook and Twitter are things I use quite often. There are some incredibly good things that can come about as a result of the flattening of the world because of online media. But, like any form of communication, it must be navigated with care and precision.

This is my first-ever NFL preview article, so I am not totally sure how to go about it. With that caveat, let us begin with my picks to win each division in the NFC:

minnesota-vikings-logoNFC North—in potentially the strongest division in the NFC, it’s hard to pick against the Vikings (and no, not because of Brett Favre.) This was the team to beat with Gus Frerotte/Tarvaris Jackson under center. Adrian Peterson is, barring injury, going to have the best year of his pro career. He is stronger and faster than he’s ever been, thanks to a more diligent offseason. The Bears will also be contenders, and it seems that Green Bay’s offense is somewhat unstoppable. However, in the division games, Minnesota will eke out wins by controlling the clock and wearing down opposing defenses. Top of the division: Minnesota. Bottom of the division: Detroit Lion Cubs.

atlantafalconslogoNFC South—this is also a tough division. Tampa Bay, with confusion at the coaching level and indecision at the quarterback level, will have no problem assuring its fans that they have nothing to cheer for. The other three teams, however, will be better. This may sound crazy to some, but the Falcons will repeat their playoff season and win the division. The Panthers, with Jake Delhomme having an identity crisis (Do I suck, or do I really SUCK?) will barely beat the Tampa so-five-minutes-ago-Bucs (didn’t they get the memo that Pirates are out, Vampires are in?) in record. The Falcons will win a close race with the Saints, who will not make the playoffs despite improving on last year. Top of the division: Atlanta. Bottom of the division: Tampa Bay Sea Thieves.

23374_Dallas-Cowboys-LogoNFC East—this is still the toughest division in football overall. The Redskins are the worst team, and they could easily give every other division winner in the NFC a run for their money. However, this division will only send two teams to the playoffs, despite the fact that three teams will have as good (or better) records than all of the NFC West teams. The New Jersey Giants will have a difficult time putting yards on the board after losing some offensive weapons to friendly fire (Plaxico Burress) and trade (Derrick Ward). Dallas, after giving Diva the boot, will rise to the top. Despite some defensive back depth issues, the Boys’ defense will rise above last year’s level with Wade Phillips’ play-calling and the best defensive player in the league (Demarcus Ware). The Boy’s minus-T.O.-offense will be more of a balanced attack with the best tailback tandem in the league (Marion Barber III and Felix Jones, who will also do their fair share of receiving.) The Philly Puppy-Killers, though a preseason favorite, will fail to gain traction on offense, despite their up-and-coming wideouts. Michael Vick will struggle—causing rifts in the locker room and national drama as sportswriters everywhere call for the Eagles to throw Vick to the, um, dogs. Top of the division: Dallas Homeboys. Bottom of the division: Washington Political-Correctness-Fighters.

SeahawksLogoSmallNFC West—this will (still) be the weakest division in football, and the winner will take the division with a measly 8-8 or 9-7 record. The Cardinals, last year’s improbable Cinderella team, will fail to meet last year’s middling success (they only went 9-7) and Kurt Warner will finally show his age by a) getting hurt or b) insisting that all the offensive linemen meet him for coffee at the local Phoenix McDonald’s every morning so they can talk about the good old days. The Rams will again wonder who took Marc Bulger’s place during his 2006 Pro Bowl season because the REAL Marc Bulger will inevitably get hurt, play less than sixteen games, and not reach 3,000 passing yards (like 2002, 2005, 2007, and 2008). San Fran, despite Crazy-Eyes’ first full season as head coach, will not be able to inspire his team by pulling his pants down and yelling about “butt-whuppins.” Shaun Hill will perform admirably, though, and have a solid Aaron Rodgers-circa 2008 year, all the while having John Mayer’s song “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room” stuck in his head. The Seafowl, despite a high-school level running game, will elevate their offense thanks to the addition of Pony-Tail Housh just enough to win the division and be one-and-done in the playoffs. Best in the division: Rain-town Seahawks. Worst in the division: The “Why-Are-We-Still-in-St. Louis?” Rams.

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Wild Card predictions: The Green Bay Cheeseheads will rebound after last year’s drama-filled snafu and barely lose the division to the Vikings. They’ll play in Atlanta in January. As will the New York Football (duh!) Giants. They will not be able to repeat their division crown because no NFC East team in the last 5 years has. But they’ll be ready to play in Seattle in JaPackers Giants Footballnuary.

Playoff game predictions: Atlanta will beat the Packers and the Giants will beat the Seahawks in the first weekend. Dallas and the Vikings will enjoy first-round byes. The Giants will go on to beat the Vikings by haranguing Brett Favre. Dallas will beat Atlanta. The NFC Championship game will be in Dallas’ new stadium in a rematch of the Boys’ home season opener. The scoreboard, contrary to popular opinion, will not be a factor.

felixjones2The Cowboys win the NFC Championship in a game that isn’t as close as it should be: 31-14.