Actually, to say that “I learned to play the game” is to put it mildly; the truth is that for a period of time while I was in junior high school, I was passionate about chess! Those of a certain age will remember that for a very brief time during the early 70’s, it became extremely “cool” to play chess: the American Bobby Fischer was playing Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union for the World Chess Championship, a long and intensely emotional confrontation between two chess grandmasters, rich with the kind of social and political undertones of the cold war. Over the course of one summer, the whole country was caught up in this competition, and so was I (Hey, I even owned a dog-eared copy of the official “Learn to Play Chess with Bobby Fischer” paperback)! Suffice to say that for a while there, I was eating, sleeping and breathing chess, coercing matches with just about everyone I knew, from friends and family to the retired farmer who lived down the road from us on the lake! And it paid off; I became fairly skilled at the rudiments of chess game, though as I think back on it now, I never actually won a game all that often!
And here’s why: as you probably know, the object of chess is to move your pieces in such a way that you can capture your opponent’s king, all the while protecting your king from the attack of your opponent! I was very good at protecting my king; I easily positioned all my pieces in such a way that it was virtually impossible for my opponent to make an attack, at least not without losing his Queen or a Rook or Bishop in the bargain. In my 13-year-old brain, this was a great defensive strategy, and, admittedly, it worked. The only trouble was that this impenetrable chessboard fortress was built at the expense of my offense; since I’d used up all the important pieces to defend my king, I had nothing left to go after my opponent without opening myself up to attack!
I couldn’t win because I wasn’t willing to move my chess pieces in an aggressive and strategic way; and anyone who’s truly good at this game will tell you that in order to win, you have to be willing to risk yourself for the sake of getting at your opponent’s king. Oftentimes the best moves involves leaving yourself open for attack and even potentially losing a few of key pieces in the attempt! This choice of gameplay is risky, indeed, and the challenge for any chess player seeking victory is to find the right balance between dwelling in safety and acting with boldness!
It seems to me that there’s a similar challenge before any of us who seek to follow Christ and walk the walk of discipleship.
So many of us, and I would include myself in this, began the journey of faith at least in part because we knew that we were not setting out on the journey alone, but in the safe and warm embrace of God. To follow God’s own Son along life’s pathway with a true purpose grounded in hope, joy and above all, love, is to answer a call that’s both exciting and awesome; and then, to know that as we go God’s protection and care is such that we are, as the old hymn puts it, “safe and secure from all alarms,” well, that’s almost irresistible!
But then, when we actually start to follow Jesus, we find out that there’s more to discipleship than merely passing the days wrapped up in God’s graceful, enveloping and saving love; there’s also the matter of living openly and boldly out of that same love! Spend much time with Jesus, you see, and you quickly discover that his way is the way of the cross and that if we’re truly going to follow him we’ll need to take up our own crosses as well. And that means we’ll no longer have the luxury of sitting on the warm and comfy sidelines of life, but to confront the world’s evil and its injustices head on with the kind of boldness that can only proceed from faith. It will often require “speaking the truth in love” when most others around you will insist on remaining silent; sometimes it’ll lead to taking a stand that most certainly will not appear beneficial by worldly standards; and yes, if we’re being honest, there may well be the rare occasion when living with true faithfulness will lead to some sort of sacrifice: a relationship, a job, or at the very least, the status quo. You might not actually have to bear the cross, but to be a true disciple you most certainly will walk in its way.
The thing is, not unlike how I built those “impenetrable fortresses” on the chessboard as a new and inexperienced player, each of us always has the choice to keep our faith journeys safe and easy. Certainly, if we choose merely to regard our faith in God as a warm and fuzzy blanket that shelters us from all harm, we do manage to avoid many of the difficulties that life inevitably sets forth. However, as Jesus might put it, at the end of journey we’ll also find ourselves that much further from the kingdom of God; and moreover, we’ll miss the experience of that kingdom coming to fruition both around us and within us.
The question is: how willing are we, after all is said and done, to truly follow Jesus and walk the way of the cross? Can we embrace God’s promises, even if we cannot yet see clearly the fulfillment of those promises? Can we make the necessary moves in our lives and living to bring us closer to God’s kingdom, or is the truth of it that we’ve merely positioned ourselves only to the extent that we’re where we want to be positioned and that we’re where we’re feeling safe and comfortable? These are no small questions; and our answers have everything to do with the place that faith holds in our lives, and by extension, the quality and utter impact of the lives we lead!
It is no coincidence that each year in the lectionary cycle for Lent, we return to the Old Testament story of Abraham, which the story of a journey that begins with a call and a promise. “’Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you,’” says the Lord to Abram (whose name will soon be Abraham). “’I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.’” (Gen. 12:1-2) Never mind that Abram is given scant details as to what direction he should go, nor is he offered any prospectus or timeline for the journey ahead. Assurances for the safety and security of kith and kin? Nothing of the sort; just the call to go!
But here’s the thing, simply stated in Genesis: “So Abram went, as the Lord had told him.” (v. 4) And, you and I, we shake our heads in wonder at the boldness of such a move. Rev. David Steele, in a book of poetic essays entitled, “History, Herstory, Ourstory,”speaks for most of us, I suspect, when he writes that “we’re pretty sure that if a person has faith, he’s gonna be pretty well off. She’ll have a nice family, the kids will turn out well . . . but most of all, [they’ll] feel secure and know PEACE OF MIND.” But here’s Abram, who, when he responds to God’s call “to leave the familiar and set off on a great adventure . . . takes on new challenges, new headaches. His life becomes more complicated, less secure. He moves into the unknown. God never lets him settle down. And the Bible calls that Faith!”
Indeed, Steele concludes, “our ideas that faith means a whole lot of peace and quiet, prosperity and tranquility don’t hold much water when we get to looking at Abraham.” But it was faith – faith alive, bold and trusting, and risky to the point of what some in the world might even consider reckless – that led Abram forward on a pathway that led ultimately to God’s righteousness and blessing. Do we dare risk ourselves and our lives to a true faith in God, moving more fully into life, discovering untold blessings and becoming a blessing as we do?
Seems to me, where true life is concerned, that’s what it takes for check …and mate.
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry