The Rules Of The Game

November 14, 2021
Psalm 16; I Corinthians 13:1-13

There are, in the end, three things that last: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.

What is it to love?

Love is vast and layered and wonderful and complicated and life-giving and it takes shape in our lives in many many ways. For instance, I love each of you! I love my child and my spouse. I love my extended family and I love my chosen family of friends and community members. I love God. Each of those loves is unique in how it expresses itself in my life and in what it means when I say I love. I also love potatoes – they are the core ingredient in tater tots and I especially love those. Yet loving tater tots is not the same as living out love for my family. So then, what is it to love? What I think the word love begins to get at – or point to – is connection – relationship. And, as humans, we are invited into all kinds of relationships in our living.

Some of our relationships are interpersonal – we engage in connection and community with others. Some of our experience in relationships is intrapersonal as we learn to love ourselves and connect with what it is that is meaningful to each of us in our own living. And we also have relationships with things – power structures, creation, and the tangible goods that we choose to engage with. For instance, I have a relationship with board games. You could even say I love board games – because I do. I have connections to boardgames and those connections bring me joy and make moments of meaning in my life.

Some of you might be thinking – come on now, Michelle – didn’t we just hear in the scripture that as we grow up it is time to put childish ways aside? Games are all fine and good for the young among us but isn’t it time you put your energy into something more valuable?! I will assuredly answer you with a resounding: no. First of all – children are amazing! And childlike living is what Jesus calls us to on several occasions. To be childlike is to be open to growing and learning and exploring and trying and being full of wonder and curiosity. It is to embrace life as a practice.

And yes, as we practice, we do grow and learn and change our behaviors in the world as we begin to get a sense of what it is to live in paths that are life-giving. So we do experience transformation and find new ways of relating and making meaning as we grow and experience different stages of life. In my life, I find that boardgames, while perceived to be childish things by many, are amazing tools for helping me explore and navigate the world within and around me.

Simon and I made a trip to our local library this week to pick up a couple of hold requests that had come in. As we were leaving we stopped to look at a display in the lobby showcasing one of the library’s newer lending collections: board games! Along with putting the bits and bobs of game components on display to entice people, there was also a small sign that said: Top 5 Reasons to Game! Now, I’m not sure these are scientifically the top 5 reasons to game – but there are some interesting details about the benefits of gaming in here that I want to share with you:

  1. Brain Boost – players learn to: find solutions, use trial & error, learn new strategies, and build skills and confidence
  2. Memory Aid – gaming increases cognitive processes and can help reduce the risk of diseases like Alzheimers.
  3. Sportsmanship – games teach us how to win and lose with grace – a lifelong skill.
  4. Social Interaction – plan a game night with family and/or friends and enjoy!! [To which I would add: games make space for connection and relationships]
  5. Fun – best of all – games are a blast! [For those that do not enjoy or find gaming fun – that’s okay…I would argue that you likely haven’t met your gaming style yet, but that’s another conversation…] [And as another side note for those who do like games or even puzzles – according to our celebration calendar this week – November 14-20 is games & puzzle week – so feel free to play along this week and send me photos of you and your friends/household playing and puzzling and we’ll make a photo collection! – now back to our regularly scheduled sermon…]

As you can see, it isn’t just me that can find motivating and worthwhile reasons to invest time and energy into playing games. As I said I’m not sure those are the ultimate top 5 reasons to game – but they do touch on some of what I love about gaming and I can offer even more reasons as to why I enjoy playing games. I love the tactility of board games. So much of our current culture is connected to a digital realm – and board games – even those that do make use of digital platforms as you play – still often have physical, tactile elements to them and can keep me grounded in the moment. At the same time that they are grounding me in the moment through their physicality – they are also transporting me into realms of imagination, play, and possibility. I can sit at my dining room table and be transported to ancient Egypt. I can build train routes across continents. I can run a chocolate factory that creates delectable treats to sell in boutique shops. I can fish in arctic waters. I can create a dinosaur theme park. I can solve mysteries. I can explore outer space. And all of this is aided through beautiful pieces of art and unique game mechanisms that work together to transport me, visually and mechanically, into those realms of imagination, play, and possibility. These are realms which offer safe spaces to try and to fail, to have agency and to be vulnerable, and to express and test ideas.

I think you are likely now beginning to understand a bit of how serious I am when I say I love board games. I do – they are a life-giving, spirit-growing, space of connection and relationship in my life. Which is why I was caught off guard and momentarily confused the other week when I heard something that I found startling about the nature of board games. I was listening to a conversation between two board game industry content creators. They were reflecting together on the last 10 years in the board gaming industry. At one point in the conversation one of them said to the other:

What breathes life into a board game is it’s ruleset.

I paused and listened a bit more closely as they went on:

Without a ruleset – a board game is a just box of stuff. Rulesets turn those bits of wood, plastic, and cardboard into the adventure I am about to have.

HHHHmmmm….I paused and considered this.

I am someone who was raised in a religious environment that taught me to be good, respect authority, and follow the rules. I am also a queer/trans person. Which means I have spent a lot of my life detangling myself from following complicated and sometimes convoluted rulesets that have attempted to restrict and invalidate my personhood. This has led me to be wary of rules. So it was startling and confusing to hear these voices say that the heart of boardgaming, something I deeply value, is connected to rules.

I admit I wanted it to not be true.

And yet as I thought about it I began to realize that there might be a stretching and life-giving message tucked within the statement: rulesets breathe life.

The more I thought about it in terms of gaming the more I began to agree – the rules of a game are indeed what provide the parameters for the components of that game to engage in relationship with each other in a meaningful way. If I were to hand you a box of game bits and did not tell you how the game worked, or what the goal was, and if I offered you no instruction sheet, it would more than likely lead to you either completely ignoring the game bits handed to you – or to an experience of deep frustration. Without any parameters it can be challenging to engage in meaningful relationships.

Look back to the story of creation – which began with the Spirit of God hovering over chaos and breathing life into it through defining parameters. These parameters do not restrict creation and confine it to one specific form or another – instead – they give shape to creation and offer paths of meaningful interaction and open the possibility of relationship.

The more I thought about this the more it made sense and I began to gently embrace the idea of exploring rulesets as a positive thing. Which of course I know because we have all sorts of rulesets in our society that are positive things – that work towards keeping us safe – like the rules of the road [not that everyone follows them but you get my meaning]. It has been helpful to remember that rulesets are not created only to impose restrictions, they can also be a framework that offers insight and clarity of intention and potential. And as Brene Brown would put it: Clear is Kind.

To be clear about intentions, parameters, motivations, and expectations is an act of kindness. It invites and makes space for relationship in authentic and life giving ways. Especially when there may be conflicting intentions, motivations, and expectations. Clearness not only frees us to invest in relationships – it can also empower us to put in place healthy boundaries.

Dynamic rulesets breathe life into relationships. They offer some parameters for how and why the interactions of those relationships will take shape.

We here at HMC have recently revised our mission statement and because of my recent brainwork in embracing rulesets as life-giving, I have been thinking about that new mission statement as a dynamic ruleset for our congregational life. Now, if you are like me and have forged negative associations between religious communities and rules within your being through past experiences, I see you! And I ask you to stick with me as we explore this because I am not thinking of our mission statement as a set of rules that have been established to box us in, measure our worth, or create expectations for how each of us should behave in the world.

Unhealthy rulesets are not life-giving. If you want a simple example of this in the history of boardgaming – we need look no further than Candyland. An entry-level game for children that should be a joyful experience of learning to socialize, match colors and shapes, and follow directions. Only, the creators included a fuzzy green monster named: Plumpy. The whole goal of the game is a race to be the first one to make it to Candy Castle at the end of a rainbow path. Plumpy – was a character, right near the start of the journey, happily at rest under a plum tree after having eaten his fill of delicious treats. The problem with Plumpy was that, if you drew the Plumpy card, you had to go back to almost the beginning of the path and start again. For kids almost at the end of the rainbow road, drawing the Plumpy card was like getting kicked out of Candy Land. It almost ensured your loss and it took away the joy of the journey.

We have some friends who had a young child that was severely anxious about Mr Plumpy, as they called him. She had drawn the Plumpy card too many times and had experienced the disappointment and feelings of failure brought on by having to go back to the beginning and start the long journey again. Instead of letting the rules of the game drive them, her parents and older sibling decided to turn the Plumpy dilemma into the whole goal of the game. If the youngest child drew Mr Plumpy – the whole family would cheer: “YYYAAAAAYYYYY!!! You got Mr Plumpy!!!” and instead of focusing on winning only when someone made it to the end of the path – the whole family took joy in the journey and lived into the time spent together; especially the moments of supporting and encouraging one of their beloveds. They made the choice to reframe the restrictive ruleset into an opportunity to embrace each other through supportive relationship.

I don’t see our mission statement as a ruleset that is restrictive and binding. I see it as descriptive and inviting. Our mission statement is an attempt to concisely and clearly express what it is we are about as a congregation – or we might say the mission statement is a snapshot of how we as a community attempt to live love into the world. It offers a glimpse into the intentions, motivations, and expectations that we root ourselves in as we journey the path of being church together. It also offers those who are not part of this community some handles on what they might experience if they join in relationship with us – and on how/why we live into relationships in the world around us in the ways we do. Our mission statement breathes life into us as a community; transforming us, when we join together in the work of this church, from individuals into a collective body in relationship with each other and the world.

For those who haven’t read it yet – or for a couple of months – it starts like this:

We are an inclusive Anabaptist community of faith, hope, and love, following Jesus and seeking equity, justice, and peace for ourselves, our communities, and our world.

The official statement goes on to further detail the central tenets of our faith as a congregation, our hope for the community, and our love for the world. And while I won’t read all of those details here (you can find them on the church website) this opening statement alone begins to paint the picture of who we understand ourselves to be:

A community
Exploring the ways of Jesus
Who place value on equity, justice, and peace
For ourselves, for communities we are part of, and even for those we do not know personally (the whole world!)
Rooted in faith, hope, and love

To me, that sounds a lot like a dynamic ruleset at work communicating the shape of our congregational life in the world. Perhaps all of those words don’t fully fit well for each of us as individuals – yet as a collective, the individual elements we each bring to the communal effort join together and begin to form the shapes of connection and relationships these words describe. We are like the bits and pieces of a board game – none of us as individuals are the whole of the game, none of us can take every action – it is the interaction of all of us, in relationship with each other and the world that brings the shapes of our living ruleset to life.

Shapes that do not restrict and bind us – but are themselves dynamic. Because just as our mission statement breathes life into us as a community – we also breathe life into the mission statement as we put it into action. It is through our active living out of faith, hope, and love that the forms that the mission statement describes begin to take shape. The shapes they take are the life-giving connections and relationships that grow and thrive as we live love into the world.

Living our faith, hope, and love into the world is the active ongoing work of our community. The ruleset of a game may be what opens the possibility for relationship and meaningful interaction of the game pieces – but those possibilities only come to life when the ruleset is put into action as the game is played. We have crafted a beautiful, dynamic mission statement. It is like we have before us a brand new board game just waiting for us to put time and energy into the possibilities it might offer. The opportunity before us in the season ahead is to peel the shrink wrap off the box and join in the adventures of connection and relationship made possible by actively exploring and living our faith, hope, and love into the world.