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Childhood Games

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Somewhere in the middle of the last century when children played outside with little or no adult supervision, my brothers and sisters and I played a variety of games whose origins I have forgotten. Here for posterity I will recall and explain them as best I can.

The earliest game I played with my older sister, Marsha, is one I don’t even remember. It became family legend, though, because of how Marsha described what we were doing. I was maybe 2 or 3 years old, and Marsha was a year and a half older. We had an imaginary playmate we called James John Willum. We had recently been to a cookout that my mom and dad called a weeny roast. A few days later while Mom was doing dishes she noticed Marsha and me carrying armloads of sticks and dead leaves past the kitchen window. Wondering what we were up to and perhaps fearing we were making a mess, she came outside and saw us holding sticks over a pile of brush. She asked what we were doing, and Marsha replied, “We’re weesting roanies with James John Willium.”

Like many children in the early sixties, we had tricycles. Perhaps unlike most children, however, we did not merely ride them. Sometimes we flipped them over and used the pedals to spin the wheel as fast as we could. Somehow, this activity led to imagining that we were making ice cream. We would hold an imaginary cone close to the spinning wheel to collect the ice cream and then hand it to a playmate who would carefully lick it, checking for drips as they did so. I never heard of anyone else turning a tricycle into an ice cream maker, but we did.

As our family grew, we added games that required forming teams. Two of our favorite games were Red Rover and Lemonade. I don’t recall ever learning these games. They were not games we played at school as far as I can remember. Our parents may have started them with us. I don’t know.

For Red Rover, there were two teams. One team would hold hands and form a line facing the other team. Then they would call out, “Red Rover, Red Rover, send [name] right over.” The named person would then run headlong into the line and try to break through it. If they managed to break through, they could select one of the opposing team members to join their team. If not, they had to join the opposing team themselves. Play would continue until everyone was too tired to keep it up, it got too dark, or we were called in to supper. There was never a clear winner, and, despite the inherent violence of the game, few injuries. Each team had a captain who would advise other players where the weakest point in the opposing line was or whose name they should call. If two smaller kids were holding hands and saw a bigger kid barreling down on them, they would offer very little resistance. Nobody wanted to get hurt, and nobody wanted to let anyone get hurt.

The other team game was Lemonade. It was a kind of combination of charades and tag. Two teams faced each other. The first team would decide on a profession to mime, then they would approach the other team. On seeing them approach, the other team would yell, “What’s your trade?” To which the first team would respond, “Lemonade.” Then the second team would say, “Go to work and show your profession1We might have used a different word. My memory of this is hazy..”

The first team would begin miming the profession they had chosen while the other team would yell out guesses. As soon as someone yelled out the correct guess, the whole first team would run away with the other team in hot pursuit. Anyone tagged before they reached the predetermined safe boundary would have to join the other team. Then play would begin again with the other team becoming the first team.

As with Red Rover, there was usually no clear winner, although sometimes the game would end with only one team. I can imagine adults would have found it highly entertaining to see children miming occupations such as bus driver or postal carrier, to say nothing of accountant or project manager.

One game I played with my brother Mark, I will call Ketchup Wars. I’m not sure how it started. Mark was always good at miming or playing a part. I’ve written before about how good he was at dying. He was also good at throwing gobs of ketchup. We always started small, with just a dollop of ketchup, maybe less than a teaspoon. He would toss it to me, and I would catch it and throw it back. With each pass the amount of ketchup would grow until we were lobbing huge masses of the stuff and getting splattered from head to toe with imaginary ketchup. I would throw a baseball-sized gob, and he would catch it like a baseball catcher with his hand in front of his chest. He would stagger backwards a step from the impact, and return the throw with imaginary ketchup that was now the size of a bowling ball. We played until the ketchup grew to such a quantity neither of us could lift it any more.

When I think back, I realize that most of the games we played required no equipment of any kind. Sure, it was a bonus playing Good Guys and Bad Guys with soft pellet guns. There was never any argument about whether or where you had been shot. But when we didn’t have guns, we just used our fingers and had just as much fun. Most of the games were more about cooperating in imagining a world rather than competing for some prize or achieving a goal. Fun was the goal, and we had plenty of it.

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certainty faith jesus law persecution righteousness sin suffering theology violence

Faith and Certainty

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Ἔστιν δὲ πίστις ἐλπιζομένων ὑπόστασις, πραγμάτων ἔλεγχος οὐ βλεπομένων.

Hebrews 11:1 (Original Greek)

The New Testament makes very clear how damaging doubt can be to faith. For example, Jesus tells his disciples that they can move mountains with the smallest amount of faith, provided their faith admits of no doubt. What is less clear, however, is that certainty can also damage faith.

The author of Hebrews is a careful reasoner who leads his readers step-by-step through an argument to show that Jesus’ sacrifice for sin makes the Jewish sacrificial system obsolete. By the time he gets to the end of chapter 10, he is applying what he has taught to the lives of his readers, and he is exhorting them to persevere in their faith despite ongoing suffering and persecution. This leads him to consider the nature of faith and how it has influenced the behavior of believers who have gone before. He starts chapter 11 with a definition of faith: “Faith is what supports our hopes, what proves matters that can’t be seen. (My translation).”

He identifies two areas where faith is essential: things that don’t yet exist because they are future events, and things that exist now but can’t be discerned by our five senses. He then lists several champions from Jewish history, all of them commended for holding on to what they believed despite opposition from those around them and despite having no tangible proof. He says that they were “looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” and “looking for a country of their own.” They were holding on to hope for a better world, a better future which they glimpsed by faith but which they never attained. Instead they were

tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.

Hebrews 11:35-38

In a word, they suffered without obtaining what they hoped for. He goes on to refer to them as a “cloud of witnesses,” like spectators at a marathon, cheering and encouraging the participants to keep going no matter how hard it might seem or tempting the desire to throw in the towel.

Faith, because it grasps what doesn’t yet exist and perceives what is invisible to the senses, is essential to every creative endeavor. Creating something—anything from composing a symphony, to writing a novel, from proposing a new philosophy to propounding a new theory—requires faith, a grasp of the not yet, a vision of the invisible. Faith will endure suffering, even face setbacks and failures, to procure a better future that the believers themselves might never see.

Certainty, by contrast, is thoroughly grounded in what is. It focuses on the past, on what has always been true, on what is incontestable, on what can be seen and touched and heard and smelled and tasted. In Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees and religious leaders, we can see their certainty, their conviction of their own rightness. They have devoted themselves to meticulously keeping the law, structuring their lives to maintain the smallest observances like tithing their mint, dill, and cumin because they believe that flawless adherence to the legalistic requirements of the law is the way to have life. In their myopia, they give their attention to minutiae and completely miss the main point of the law, which is love.

When Jesus healed a man born blind on the Sabbath, the religious leaders were divided by their certainties. Some, starting from Jesus’ violation of the Sabbath, declared him to be “not from God.” Others, beginning with the incontestable fact of the healing, asserted that such miracles could not be performed by sinners. The one thing they did not do was question their own preconceptions about what constitutes godliness. Yet that is precisely what Jesus’ miraculous healing invited them to do. Jesus had already told them that the sabbath was instituted for the benefit of people, not to force people into honoring God’s rest after creating. In doing so, he put human needs ahead of legalistic proscriptions of the law. But for those leaders, the law was holy, and any infraction was dishonoring to the law and to the Lawgiver. That is why they plotted to kill Jesus: they were certain that he was dishonoring God.

Certainty is empowering because we will fight for what we believe is true and right. We will commit violence. We will hate. We will kill, as long as we are certain that what we are doing is right, perhaps even God-ordained. Faith is empowering because we will suffer for what we believe is true and right. We will endure violence and still love those who persecute us. We will die rather than give up our hope for a better future and a better kingdom. The devil loves certainty because he is risk averse. God loves faith because he accepts risk in order to access possibility. Certainty is content to leave mountains where they are, accept the status quo, and deal with reality as it is. But faith imagines mountains cast into the sea, yearns for a better world, and reaches for a reality that is still to come.

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fear kindness leadership love magic strength struggle suffering theology violence war weakness

The Strength You Have

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The story of Gideon found in Judges 6–8 is one of my favorites from the bible. Gideon is not handsome or charismatic like David. He doesn’t have superhuman strength like Samson. He’s not chosen from birth like Jeremiah or Samuel. He’s just a regular guy, frightened like everyone else by the Midianite marauders who roll into town on their Harley camels. Like the banditos in The Magnificent Seven, they take whatever they want and leave so little for the Israelites that the people are doomed to perpetual poverty and hide their families and belongings in caves.

Gideon, too, is hiding from the Midianites when the angel of the Lord first approaches him. He is threshing grain in a wine press. Grain is usually threshed on a threshing floor—a wide, open space where the wind can carry away the chaff as the grain is tossed in the air. A wine press is an especially poor place for threshing. It was usually a large pit lined with bricks with a smaller hole in the center. The grapes were dumped in around the center hole and crushed by stomping on them. The juice would flow into the center hole. During threshing, the walls of the press would block the wind, making it harder to separate the chaff from the grain, but they would also block the view of any passing Midianites who might come and seize the grain as soon as Gideon was done with the threshing.

I can imagine Gideon suddenly being hailed by the angel, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.” He freezes with fear but relaxes when he realizes the angel is not a Midianite. His fear turns to anger.

“Excuse me,” he says. “If the Lord is with us, why has it been decades since we saw any evidence of it? We hear stories about God’s wonders, but we never see them, and right now we are being savagely oppressed, and God does nothing.”

Then the angel of the Lord gives him a most extraordinary command. “Go in the strength you have and save Israel from the hand of the Midianites. Am I not sending you?”

Gideon is dumbfounded. “Me? You want me to save Israel? I’m the least influential guy from the weakest clan in Manasseh.”

“Oh, that,” says the Lord. “Not to worry. You’ll have me with you.”

As the story unfolds, however, God shows Gideon that he means exactly what he says. Gideon does save Israel using only the strength he has. The only wonders God performs are signs to reassure Gideon that he is really hearing from God rather than hallucinating or going mad. His military strategy is insane. He attacks with 300 men armed with—swords? no—trumpets and torches hidden in clay jars. The plan is to scare the Midianites into killing each other, and amazingly it works. Once the Israelites see the Midianites are on the run, then they are emboldened to pursue them until there are none left. Then peace and prosperity return to Israel for the rest of Gideon’s life.

God didn’t equip Gideon with special powers or abilities. He didn’t provide him with overwhelming force, an army to match the size of Midian’s invasion. He called Gideon to use the strength he had to relieve the suffering of the Israelites. The Apostle Paul makes it explicit:

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are.

1 Corinthians 1:26-2

God can call you and give you a mission now, where you are, with the strength you have. You can begin where you are to express his love. You can join with others to oppose injustice. You can alleviate the suffering of those in pain. You can be kind. Kindness requires no preparation or training or special talents or gifts.

Here are three things to keep in mind if you feel God is calling you to do something.

  1. Check your motives. God didn’t call Gideon to make him rich or famous or powerful. He called him to relieve the oppression of his people, to correct an injustice, to right a wrong. Gideon did become rich and famous and powerful, but that was a by-product of God’s mission, not the main event.
  2. Make sure it’s God. God provided signs that he was one speaking to Gideon, signs that made sense to Gideon. He burned up the meal Gideon brought to the angel. He did the thing with the fleece, wet with no dew all around one day and dry when the surrounding ground was wet with dew the next. He also gave him intelligence about his enemy in advance of his attack. All of these things served to reassure Gideon that he was acting as God intended.
  3. God isn’t magic. God’s presence with Gideon did not make Gideon’s task easier. It made it possible. Gideon still had to deal with smashing idols, raising an army, selecting an elite force, planning his military strategy, pursuing the enemy, and cleaning up after all the slaughter. He had to deal with self-doubt and fear. None of those things were easy. Easy would have been staying in the wine press threshing.

God may have a special mission for you, a unique calling to a particular task, but if he does not, he still expects all who belong to him to follow his commands to love others, to do good and act with kindness even toward those who scoff at your beliefs or persecute you, and to pray for the coming of his kingdom. These things are a general call to all his followers. Go in the strength you have and do them.

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