Playing Games

game boardDuring my recent vacation, my side of the family gathered in my mother’s new condominium, which is very nice and comfortable. My nephews were there, and after dinner, my 12-year-old nephew Steffen wanted to play a board game. In times of change, even children turn for comfort to family traditions.  I rarely get to play board games, so joined in the old favorite “Monopoly.”

Steffen set out to purchase every property he possibly could, using the rule that allows unwanted properties to be sold to the highest bidder. Some players around the table took offense that Steffen was able to purchase a property at less than its stated price just because they had landed on the space, and didn’t want to buy it at face value. Steffen laughed; they frowned.

Quietly, I began to make strategic deals to acquire property groups so I could build income-producing little green houses and little red hotels. Soon, I was raking in the cash, and Steffen’s smiling exuberance turned to simmering anger.  Seeing Steffen’s plight, I offered to purchase certain properties from him at a price substantially more than he had paid. But he was mad about all the money I’d made, and the poorer he became, the more he resisted help.  As Steffen slipped into bankruptcy, the ladies around the table turned on me. I couldn’t hear exactly what they were whispering to each other, but I think I detected the word “smug.” They began to join forces, completely disregarding the rules, two of them all but giving away their resources to a third, who would challenge me for dominance. The game lasted late into the evening, with Steffen and others looking on, not because it was fun anymore, but because they were drawn into watching this spectacle work itself out to the bitter end.

Grassroots theologian that I am, the most interesting thing about this evening, I think, is not who won the game, but rather what the game reveals about human nature.  Games of all kinds, new electronic versions or tried-and-true ones like Monopoly, offer a distraction, an escape to a different kind of experience.  If the night feels dull and tedious, we hope a game will be exciting. If we’re feeling gloomy, we expect a game to lift our spirits. Yet, even when trying to have fun, we cannot always escape the problem of human sin.  Even while playing a game, we can be “playing games” with one another.

Twenty-seven-hundred years ago, the prophet Isaiah observed games being played in Jerusalem.  An elaborate system of religious sacrifice had become the focal point for worship in Israel’s temple.  There were rules about sacrifice for sin based on the kind of sin committed, and the status of the offending party. The entire economy of the community was dependent upon the institution of ritual sacrifice, and it is said that blood ran from the temple in a continual stream. Mystical ceremonies were held, and holy words intoned.  Animals and produce were bought and sold, and great quantities of money exchanged hands.

During these glory days of temple worship, the prophet Isaiah expressed grief that many people neglected some of their most basic ethical obligations.  Some of the most religious seemed least concerned about injustice, oppression, neglect of children and elderly, and mistreatment of those who were too weak to look after themselves.  Isaiah saw that Israel’s religion was rich in its experience of mystical feelings, but poor in morality.

Princeton professor Robert Wuthnow says that for many years, American society has had an exceptional interest in the mystical side of religion.[1] Spiritual guides, channeling, encounters with angels, and near-death experiences have become topics of conversation in mainstream culture. Once, I heard a Buddhist speak about people who experimented with Eastern religions. He called them “consciousness connoisseurs.”  By this, he meant that many look for maximum emotion with minimum responsibility. They are not willing to devote themselves to the discipline that is a part of sustaining faith in any great religious tradition. They are simply playing games, looking for an emotional high without paying an ethical price.

Throughout the long history of the Church, there has been a tension between religion that focuses on emotional experience, and religion that focuses on ethical obligation. In the time after the apostles, the Church developed two great seats of learning, one in Alexandria and one in Antioch.  In Alexandria, theology described the Christian journey as one of achieving “mystical union” with God.  In Antioch, theology described the Christian journey as one of achieving “moral progress” toward God.  Ever since, there has been a kind of pendulum swinging back and forth between the two extremes.

This tension points to a basic challenge of the Christian life.  On the one hand, we are to focus upon moral progress without neglecting our needs for the immediacy of a personal relationship with God.  On the other hand, we are to nurture mystical union without forgetting our obligations to serve God’s people and world.  If we’re honest, then we have to admit how difficult and rare it is to balance these things just right.

When I lived in another city, I became acquainted with a man named Warren, the owner of a popular bookstore. A local reporter interviewed Warren for a news article about his work, and he was asked how he managed to get along so well with people from such a great variety of backgrounds.  Warren was a Christian in the Greek Orthodox Church.  He was raised with the understanding that certain pieces of art were not just representations of Christ, but “icons,” contemplation of which led him to deeper knowledge of Christ.  Responding from his position in that tradition, Warren replied simply, “I try to see in everyone I meet an icon of Christ.”  For Warren, there was mystical meditation upon Christ, his life, sufferings, death, and resurrection.  But that path led him not just inward.  It also led him outward in moral engagement, to view others as a reflection of the Maker’s wisdom and glory.

What if we did the same?  What if, when we interact with a person, we would focus less on finding fault, or advancing our personal agenda, and focus more on how God’s creative spirit is revealed in the unique personality, talents, and gifts we see and feel.  How different might our lives be if, in every encounter – with friend or stranger or rival or enemy or estranged family member – what if in each one, we looked for the face of Christ?


[1] Robert Wuthnow, “After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950’s,” p. 115 ff.

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~ by JohnH1962 on August 11, 2013.

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