WLSU: Childish Things
I come from the first generation to play video games at home. I remember being very young and our family having an Atari set on which I played Pong and Pitfall. The first gaming console that was really mine was the Nintendo Entertainment System. But we all just called it Nintendo. Playing Nintendo was a hallmark of growing up in the 80’s and 90’s of course, but recently I’ve discovered something: the joy of playing Nintendo with my children.
A couple Christmases ago my kids got the newest iteration of Nintendo. They started playing a racing game called Mario Kart. Though the game has changed a little since I was playing it 25 years ago, it is essentially the same. My kids played for three days straight and then finally said, “Dad you have to play with us.” I said ok, but I have to warn you that I will beat you at this game. They were incredulous. They had been playing nonstop. I had not played in over 20 years. There was no way.
I grabbed the controller and before we began, just for good measure, I asked them to remind me which button did what. We began to play. As my little avatar rounded the corners of the animated racetrack on the screen, I could feel the years melt away. I proceeded to beat them. Decisively. Embarrassingly. Repeatedly. I showed no mercy.
After a few rounds proving my mettle, I noticed an internal shift. I realized that I was less interested in winning than I was in being with my children. This was new for me: Growing up, all that mattered was winning. But here I was being with these little people and simply enjoying them. And I know it wasn’t about the winning, because eventually one of them beat me in a race and I was proud of them!
A couple weeks ago I wrote about growing up, about maturing. And now we’re talking about playing Nintendo. But I’ve been thinking about the things that shaped us in our youth, about what we did with them as we grew up. In one of Paul’s letters to a church he (somewhat passive aggressively) tells them that when he was a child he did childish things, but when he grew up it was time to put childish things away. What did you put away when you grew up? What did you let go of?
Some people put away Christianity when they grow up. And I can’t say I blame them much of the time. I do not believe God is a fairy tale. I do believe much of the way we have experienced Christianity is childish. As a teacher of mine used to say, the church in America is structured for spiritual infancy. What he meant was that Christianity as we know it is often does not push us to grow. And when we do grow, our churches don’t know how to grow with us. So we abandon Christianity. Or, what’s worse, we hold onto a version of Christianity that doesn’t grow and mature even as we do.
I am fully capable of spiritual immaturity.
I can fall into the trap of thinking that prayer is primarily about asking God for what I want. Then when I don’t get the things I prayed for I stop praying, or I gaslight myself into believing I just wasn’t praying correctly. What if instead I sought to understand more fully prayer as setting aside time to be with and enjoy God?
I still often treat the Bible as a rule book. I use it to justify things I already believed or to give myself a false sense of certainty about how to be the right kind of person so that I go to the right place when I die. Then when my experience of life doesn’t line up with the rules, I put the Bible down; or diminish myself by saying I’m just not faithful enough. What if I sought instead to understand the narrative of love into which the Bible is meant to draw me?
I will somehow still think of worship as just a thing I attend on Sundays in order to be a good person. So when it gets boring or inconvenient, or when the Christians around me turn out not to be perfect, I get frustrated. What if I sought to understand that I am literally built for community and that God is glorified when I bring my imperfect self into proximity with you so that together we can strive to embody the love for which we were made?
Love. Not a childish thing. And prayer and the Bible and worship, these are not childish things. Yet I sometimes find myself trying to experience them just as I did when I was young. I tried giving up Christianity and it didn’t work. But neither does it work when I try to make it live in my life the way it once did. If I’m going to grow up, my faith needs to grow up too. Like playing Nintendo with my kids, if I’m going to reengage with the things that shaped me as a child, I’ve got to be prepared to experience them differently.
We take Paul too literally when he says to put childish things away – as if he meant we should no longer play, no longer be creative, no longer dream. But if you pay attention to the context of Paul’s letter, he’s telling Christians that the childish thing is to believe love is conditional, to believe that love dies, to believe that we are on our own, to believe that we are better than others. To Paul, territorialism and selfish ambition are childish. Love is mature. Love is not childish. Sacrificial love, the understanding that we belong to each other and the willingness to live into that understanding – that is spiritual maturity. That is growing up.
Love isn’t something you grow out of. It is something that, by the grace of God, you grow into.
Tags: Rector's Blog