Risk, Reward, and the Kingdom of God

I preached a sermon Sunday where I used the metaphor of a swing set to make a point. It was an image that connected with lots of people in my church; lots of people have fond memories of swinging in their childhood, and lots of people also have fond memories of getting hurt because of doing stupid things on the swings.

After the service was over, however, my education began.

Things have changed since I was an elementary student.  Did you know that things like Merry-go-rounds, see-saws, and even swings in some cases, have been banned from school properties all over the state, if not the country?

Apparently the risk of lawsuit is so high when a kid does something stupid and hurts themselves, that it’s just safer for the school to not have the equipment.

So rather than letting risk and pain be a teacher, we remove the risk of pain altogether.

I have to wonder, in what way is this preparing our children for ‘real life’, where risk and pain are unavoidable realities that we face every day?

You know, I truly do  empathize with school systems and legislation that rolls over for fear of being sued. I don’t blame the leaders at all. I actually blame the parents that would sue the school because Jimmy jumped off the swing too high.

But the whole current state of playground equipment is still somewhat offensive to me, because some of the most important lessons I learned in school were on the playground.

It was on the playground where I learned how to gauge which risks I would take and which ones I wouldn’t.

I learned how to hold the chains when swinging so that I wouldn’t get pinched.  Today they cover them with plastic so nobody gets pinched.

I learned how to jump on and off of a merry-go-round to hopefully impress a girl I hoped was watching.  Today there is no merry-go-round.

I learned how high I was comfortable going on the monkey bars, and that height increased year after year.  Today…are there still monkey bars to climb?

The whole situation has me wondering when sticks and rocks will be banned.  After all, sticks and stones can still break bones.

I think of recess today and I envision a bunch of kids standing around looking at “that one kid’s” cell phone (“that one kid” who always had the cool stuff in his backpack, you remember exactly who I’m talking about).

Whether or not my mental picture is correct, when I mentally fast forward 20-30 years, I silently shudder for two reasons.

First, because “that one kid” with the cell phone hasn’t done anything to earn the other kids ‘awe’ except having the phone and controlling access to the video or the game or the pictures that the other kids want to see.

In other words, he (or she) attracts people to him (or her) not because of anything they’ve done; but rather because they possess an object that offers an escape or a distraction from the bleak surroundings of a desolate playground.

But we don’t just see this on the playground.  We see this every time a new technology promises escape from the desolation of our lives. People are quick to gather ’round because we’re always looking for new distractions. The people in power, then, are the ones who possess and control access to the technology. They are the ones “leading” on the playground in my mind.  Not necessarily the wise ones or the brave ones or the honest ones or even the smart ones…but rather the ones who own technology and therefore control access.

Secondly, I shudder because if kids aren’t learning how to interact physically, by taking risks together, daring each other, pushing each other to go beyond their comfort zones even to the point of getting hurt…if they’re not doing that and learning those things in school…then what kind of adults are they going to become?

It’s one thing to fear risk. It’s another thing completely to be unacquainted with it (and therefore unprepared to manage it).

The God I encounter in scripture, in faith, in life, and in relationships is a God who is the swing sometimes, who swings with me sometimes, and who even dares me to do some things that could get me hurt sometimes.  He’s not just the playground monitor (though He can and does fill that role); He’s also the playground!  He is the risks and the rewards and the wounds and the elation, and all the rest.

We learn nothing and fail to grow when we avoid this God or the risky playground He’s in. God is a risky mess; and too often we think we are janitors.

Aren’t we really more like children? Or at least, shouldn’t we be?

Hey, you wanna meet me by the mud puddle behind the slide later?  I’ll bring the sticks if you bring the rocks.  It’ll be a good time, I promise.

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