Everybody knows life is serious stuff often. Sometimes we hear of someone who is in the wrong place at the wrong time and life is never the same. School is harder today than it was in my day. Parents put a lot of pressure on their children these days. Even in a strong economy, people know they must take their job seriously and work hard to ensure they keep their job.
Religion is famous for being serious, overly serious many would say. There are rules and obligations, thou shalls and thou shall nots. Many folks don’t like church because they don’t like how serious and uptight church people are. God is the most serious of all. “Smite” is a verb used entirely in association with God and the power to do devastating harm to anyone who doesn’t know how to take the Lord and his will seriously enough.
Of course, today Christianity is different. It’s less serious. It’s lighter-hearted. It’s more feel good. Much less talk about sin and more talk about self-worth, which makes the more serious people cringe. God, it appears, has lightened up. Give me that old time religion means more than let’s sing some old hymns. It means let’s get back to a God who isn’t afraid of causing fear and calling a sin a sin. But not that many people want to travel that well-worn path of yesteryear. So, it doesn’t seem like it’s necessary to talk about finding your fun any longer at church. Some would say we have too much fun at church.
There are Bible passages and stories that go along with this serious at all costs view. Life was tough in the past, any time in the past you want to review. God clearly was tough also to let all that tough stuff go on. If life weren’t fun, how could the Lord of life be fun. The truth is at least to a significant degree the God we think exists reflects the world and times we live in. God can’t be unrecognizable to us. The Lord must fit the times.
But the Lord doesn’t always fit precisely. There is more God than any society can perceive, relate to, comprehend, or readily accept. This is the story of God in the Bible. There is the relatable God and then there is the God who is way more than can fit the times. They’re not two different ones. They’re the same one, but it seems as though only a minority of people sense and trust in a God larger than easily kept parameters. It’s that larger-than-the-times Lord of all creation that’s the most “fun” or interesting.
There’s a story in Hebrew Scriptures about a woman named Ruth. It’s hardly a fun little story. Two brothers married two women and neither of them are Jewish, like the husbands and their mom, Naomi. When the husbands die, one daughter-in-law went back to her own biological, ethnic, and cultural family. Ruth however didn’t. She stayed with Naomi, promising to be just like her, to stay with her, to integrate into Jewish society as best she could when they went back. Naomi couldn’t say No to this lovely daughter-in-law, who decided to take her chances with her and Judea. Perhaps you know that Ruth met Boaz, Naomi’s relation, and ended up marrying him. Boaz and Ruth were King David’s great grandparents. From David, came Jesus.
What you undoubtedly don’t know was that Ruth was written after David had lived and died—way after, 500 years after. In fact, the story of Ruth was written in age when Israel was decidedly anti-immigrant and very pro-Jew only. It was written when Jews wanted to keep only Jewish people in Jerusalem and kick out anyone who wasn’t Jewish, including non-Jewish wives and even children. This story was written and told because the author believed what was happening it his or her society didn’t speak for God, at least the larger-than-the-times God the author knew. Ruth is a rebel’s story; it countered the prevailing narrative of what would keep Israel safe and secure, a narrative that sound greatness was more important than goodness.
We ought to be careful about how much greatness we need. Goodness is next to godliness. Being good makes one strong, makes a family healthy, brings real ministry and purpose to a church, creates safer communities, permits prosperity to grow and be shared, inspires a nation to live to its ideals, and shows all humanity that a beacon of light shines and that it can be trusted and followed.
Ruth is a story written in a serious time. Times are always serious. But I can’t help thinking the author loved putting it together. There were already too many cheerleaders fitting God in a smaller-than-life box. She wasn’t going to be another one who made the Lord some kind of Jack-in-the-box used to jump out whenever someone didn’t like what they didn’t understand or couldn’t accept. To enjoy God’s greatness, you must love God’s goodness. To love God’s goodness, we need to love good people, like Ruth, like others who don’t fit into the easy story.
The Bible is the continuing story of God doing new things. At times, the new thing may involve the recovery of an old thing that has been
forgotten or set aside, but again and again God does something new. Sending Abraham and Sarai to a new land God would show them, or speaking to Moses in a burning bush, or leading the Israelites to the Promised Land, or calling for justice, mercy, and humility through the prophets, or telling a young woman named Mary that she would have a child who would be God’s Son. I know it sounds like hard work, but I think somewhere in all this God is having fun.
You know what fun is? It’s when something is more than we thought it was going to be, or expected, or even deserved. It’s the extra in life, in some activity, in some person, in some moment. The Bible is full of fun, of serious fun because fun isn’t always frivolous. God can’t help but have fun, to push beyond the expected, to get more out of someone than she or he knew was there, to be larger than life as perceived. There is no rut dug big enough, no routine done times enough that the Lord doesn’t know how to have fun with.
Get into the Holy Spirit’s spirit. Be a rebel with a cause, and that’s to have more faith, and because of it have more fun. Being serious is important but the heart is so expansive and possibilities so unlimited. Let go of some past. Accept forgiveness for mistakes and even pain you’ve inflicted. Let someone go. Being trapped means never to live a larger-than-life life. Too often we hold onto a balloon but it’s a lead balloon. We think being rooted in our wrongs, either perpetrated by us or against us, keeps us rooted in what’s real. But God is beyond that. Live a larger, more fun, life, an expanded life, an unexpected turn type of life.
Children have so much fun because they use their imagination. They’re not stuck and penned in by what’s “real.” They go bigger than that. Probably the saddest scene in the movie Inside Out is when Bing Bong, the 11-year-old Riley’s childhood imaginary best friend, sacrifices himself so Riley’s capacity for Joy can get out of the memory deletion pit they’re both stuck in. As Bing Bong, a pink stuffed talking cat-elephant-dolphin creation, who cries tears of candy, and his rainbow powered red flyer wagon begin to disappear from Riley’s memory, he’s still wishing that Joy will bring Riley the happiness he used to when they played imaginary games together for hours. If you’ve never experienced the power of a cartoon movie to bring you to tears, and you want to, watch Bing Bong, well, I’ll stop because I don’t want to spoil if for you.
Being creative, using imagination, expanding our minds and hearts are more than child’s play. A failure of imagination, failing to have fun in God’s
way, may lead to things we don’t think would happen. They’re core possibilities and necessities to be happy and good people. The Lord imagines better things for us and others. We fit a better world than the one that is. Make it happen for you and others.
A pastor talked about his first student church in East Tennessee. “It was during the time that Oak Ridge was just booming, with all kinds of building activity with the atomic projects there. There were construction people who had come from everywhere to turn this little town into a thriving city.
It was a nice white frame church, very classic building with nice people, lovely people. The newcomers were living in tents and trailers. Many had families with them. The pastor suggested to the church board they reach out to these folks. It looked like this was the church’s mission. ‘Oh, I don’t think so,’ said the board chair. ‘They won’t fit in. After all, they’re just here temporarily, living in trailers and all.’
The pastor responded, ‘Well, they may just be here temporarily, but they need the gospel and a church.’ There was discussion about this and in the end, there was a resolution for the board to vote on, a resolution moved by a relative of the board chair. The resolution essentially said, ‘Members will be admitted to this church from families that own property in this county.’ The vote was unanimous except for the pastor, and the pastor was reminded that as pastor he was not a board member and could not vote.”
Well, years later this preacher was teaching at Candler School of Theology at Emory University, in Atlanta. He wanted to take his wife to visit the site of his early failure. The church was hard to find because I-40 had been built since then, cutting off a lot of county roads, but they finally found it. There it was, nestled in pine trees, just as he remembered, still a beautiful white frame building, except now there were cars and pickup trucks parked everywhere. A big sign out front said, “Barbecue. All you can eat, chicken, ribs, pork.”
The pastor turned to his wife, “Well, we might as well go in for lunch.” The beautiful oil lamps were still hanging on the wall and the pump organ was still there as decoration. The pews that had been cut from one giant poplar tree were still there but now they were on the side and people sat on them while waiting for a table. Above all, the pastor noticed the place was filled with people, all kinds of people from all over the place. “It’s a good thing this place is not a church now. These folks wouldn’t be welcome. They wouldn’t fit in.”
Peter went to Caesarea. He came to the Roman soldier Cornelius’ home, paused for a moment at the doorway, crossed the threshold, and entered a Gentile’s house for the first time. Cornelius had gathered friends and family. Peter spoke to them about Jesus, beginning with John the Baptist, then about Jesus’ life, what he taught, how much, when and who he healed, and how he had been condemned as a criminal to death, crucified, dead and buried. But on the third day he was resurrected, and now forgiveness and a new life with God in the name of Christ could be lived by all who believed in him. Peter didn’t say “all from the nation of Israel who believed,” but simply “all who believed.” It was the start of a brand -new thing for God and the world. This was a message that was larger than life, as large as God’s gift of eternal life.
Gain greater faith. Imagine a new world, a new life, better relationships, a more loving way of living, greater generosity, a willingness to serve and sacrifice. Find your fun, big fun, good fun, God’s fun.
Can the church say Amen?