Last Sunday afternoon, I spent about forty-five minutes under the tutelage of my fourteen year old son. He was attempting to “set me up” as a character in one of his video games. To his credit, he remained patient with me as I selected all the traits and skills that would be a part of my video game persona (for this game, I chose to be “a dark elf”, skilled in sword fighting and with some proficiency in magic). Once my persona was created, then my son started the game for me.
I was lost immediately. I couldn’t keep track of when to push, pull or toggle the array of buttons, triggers and joysticks on the game controller. I ran my character into walls. Tripped down steps. And spent a fair amount of time trying to turn around and backtrack from a dead end. I won’t even begin to describe my comedic fist fight with giant rats!
Finally, my son couldn’t take watching my ineptitude any longer. He said, “Let me help, you, Dad.” I turned the controller over to him, and within a few minutes, he had loaded my character up with all sorts of equipment. He was flashing through screens so fast, my astigmatism was in overdrive. At the end of a couple of minutes, I was told, “Maybe you should search online to see if you can find some written instructions to help you with this.” Clearly, the lesson in gaming was over for the day.
To his credit, my son really does want to help me. He truly wants to share this game with me, and I want to share playing it with him. For this experiment in father/son bonding to succeed, though, I’ve got to take on the mind of a beginner and he has to learn the patience required to teach a beginner. I have to learn the language of the game. I have to develop a facility with the controls. I have to invest time. I have to practice. I have to be willing to be taught and to go through the process of making (many) mistakes and learning from the mistakes I’ve made. I have to take the risk of looking inept. And I have to remember that all of this “work” is part of the joy of the game.
I confess, as an adult, I value competency. I like knowing what I’m doing. I’ve mostly forgotten what it’s like to learn by trial and error. At this point in my life, I’ve gotten comfortable with the skill set I have. I am quite adept at avoiding circumstances which may demonstrate incompetence. As I thought about my experience at the video game controls, I couldn’t help but think of the ways I’ve self-limited my own opportunities for spiritual growth because such growth might require developing a new skill, investing time reading texts that aren’t interesting, or running into a metaphysical wall here and there.
The early followers of Jesus were called “disciples” (literally, “students”). A close reading of the Gospels reminds us that these folks struggled. They made mistakes. They failed. They often didn’t seem to understand the lessons Jesus was attempting to teach them. Their ineptitude is plastered all over the New Testament. But Jesus never took the controls away from them. He didn’t give them shortcuts. He simply walked with them while they walked into walls of misunderstanding. Somehow, though, in spite of their sputtering, bumbling, halting and confused attempts to live the Good News Jesus shared with them, they managed to do enough right, didn’t they? After all, in spite of their ineptitude (and generations of inept Christians after them!), in only twenty centuries, there are now billions of Christians living throughout the world. Yet, for all these billions of Christians, there isn’t an expert in the bunch. All of us are still learning; still making mistakes; still walking down blind alleys and into dead ends. Maybe the grace for the Church isn’t that we have finally gotten it all right, but that we keep getting some things wrong.
After all, how can the Church to be a place of practice and a laboratory for learning this way of Jesus if everyone is consumed with the fear of making a mistake? How can we expect people to participate in our parish communities if we set everything up only for the benefit of those who already know the rules? How do we create a culture in which failure and “learning by making mistakes” is seen as a valuable part of growing in “the knowledge and love of the Lord”?
The game my son is attempting to teach me is a quest. My job is to enjoy the journey through the game, unlock the mysteries in it, collect a few unexpected treasures, learn from my mistakes, become more skilled as a player and accept the expertise (and help!) of my son as a guide to assist me in the process. It sounds a bit like the spiritual life, I think. We need companions, an inquiring heart, a discerning mind, a willingness to admit our weaknesses and a desire to have fun along the way.
I wonder if “church” would be more fun for folks if we made it a point to say from time to time, “All of us are beginners. None of us has all the answers. We’re figuring some of this out as we go. We have the benefit of learning from those who have gone before us and from each other. This is the quest of a lifetime!”
Engaging the quest — that sounds much more interesting (and fun!) than going to church.