That being said, AWANA shouldn’t have tried so hard to break me. I was only 10. I wasn’t cut out for this.
We did some cool stuff, for sure. There was the day we broke the world’s record for the longest banana split, laid out in the church fellowship hall like a long snake made out of PVC pipe halves and aluminum foil. Hundreds of gallons of ice cream. A truck full of bananas. Hershey’s syrup in gallon jugs. Whipped cream and cherries. Good times.
I also remember the relay race where we were given straws, and told to run the full length of the gym to a 2 liter bottle of A&W Root Beer sitting at the other end. We were supposed to drink it as fast as we could through the straw we had been given, and then sprint back to our sweaty, belching elementary school aged teammates at the other end. Do you know what happens when you sprint 94 feet, slam a bottle of A&W in 14 seconds of frenzied frothy sucking, and then run BACK across those 94 feet? Three things are a certainty… (1) You will have root beer in your sinuses. It has to go somewhere. This will make you sneeze, which will hose anyone in the vicinity with a sharp spray of carbonated snot. (2) You will belch. Long, sonorous, resonant belches that will echo off the walls of said gymnasium with an echoey fortitude that should garner the respect of any 7th grade boy. Unfortunately, you will be surrounded by 74 other elementary students of both genders whose own fortuituos uncontrolled belching will drown out the magnificence of your own. Add to that the sound of all the 3rd and 4th grade girls who are crying because they have root beer in their sinuses, and you have a cacophony through which the most violent of belches has trouble being singled out. (3) Bloating. Enough said.
So that was awesome. High fives all around to the dudes who thought up that relay race. Good times.
But the bulk of my memories from my days in AWANA are more sinister in nature. I still break a cold sweat when I hear a coach’s whistle blow. Sure, they sold it to us as a “game.” Sure, it was supposed to be “fun.” But it was genius in its calculated simplicity. Profound in its energy-quelling capability. Rendering us limp and compliant, it became the favorite “warm-up activity” for all of our bible coaches. Perhaps you, too, have been subjected to its soul-crushing efficiency? Many of you former Puggles and Cubbies and Sparks know EXACTLY what I’m talking about…
The Circle. *ominous tones here*
Basically, four students are fitted with flags hanging from a belt around their waist. They are squared off at a co-equal distance from one another at four points around a large circle on the floor. There they wait. Breathing heavily. Dreading the sharp blast of the coach’s whistle that will signal the start of their Ordeal. The running of the proverbial gauntlet.
A clock ticks. Somewhere overhead, the distant screech of a bird of prey. Muscles quiver. A whistle pieces the silence. It has begun.
What follows is basically 12 minutes of sprinting. The goal is simple… be the last guy with a flag still attached to your belt. We set off at a dead run, counterclockwise, scrambling and striving to grab the flag of the poor victim in front of us. Meanwhile, we are being chased from behind from the captain of the track team. I mean, if there were 3rd and 4th grade track teams… that’s who is behind you. This is not a game of wolves chasing geese. Oh no. This is a game of wolves chasing more wolves. Carnivorous, snarling, hungry wolves. Wolves scraping and clawing at that little red flag hanging from your belt, like the last vestige of your dignity. The physical manifestation of your athletic prowess.
I hated the circle.
We played this game for 45 minutes. Set. Breathe. Whistle. RUN! Fail. Set. Breathe. Whistle. RUN! Fail. All roads leading to fail.
So this is coming to mind now as I start my Seminary year because I’ve been reminded again of a core, absolute, life-changing truth about the Gospel that I will give my life for.
Jesus comes to us.
Let’s make the AWANA Circle of Pain a picture of spiritual well-being. It’s a giant circle, with all of your friends and family and preachers and teachers and youth group leaders and your brother who is agnostic. They are all lined up around that circle ready to run – to prove their worth in the spiritual arena. Except for your agnostic brother, of course. He’s just siting there in the path – he’ll probably trip up a number of those who try to run by. But everyone is there. Breathing hard. Clock ticking. Waiting for Jesus to blow His whistle. Ready to run to protect their flags – the true measure of our spiritual wellness in America. The flag that shows everyone that we’re just as spiritual as the next guy. We try just as hard as the guy in front of us. At least we’re not like that guy behind us, struggling to catch up. Everyone is getting tired, sure. We’re exhausted. But we can’t lose our flag. We can’t show everyone our weakness. Got to run a little harder. Catch the guy ahead. Try harder. Strive. More.
Hear this. If you don’t know Jesus yet – really know Him – then don’t think this is what the Christian life is all about. As if we all are measured against the morality norm of the church culture. As if we have to run the race like we’re trying to beat the saints alongside of us. As if its all about us doing this thing we have to do.
And if you DO know Jesus, you may need to remember this… it’s time to give up. Get out of the circle. The standard is not whether or not you maintain your flag anymore. You have no flag. Jesus took your flag with him to the cross. In this race, you don’t compete against men. Your standard is perfection. The goal is unattainable perfect holiness. You can’t win. It’s too hard. It’s actually impossible.
Jesus comes to us.
The measure of our worthiness has nothing – nothing – NOTHING to do with how fast we run the race. We don’t need to try to catch up to the spiritual superstars running ahead. We don’t need to fear the jaws snapping from behind.
Jesus brings rest. Jesus brings life. Jesus gives you an identity, a hope, a future. Jesus ran the gauntlet in your place. By His stripes – not your striving – you are healed.
AWANA leaders, hear me now. You have my sincere thanks for the Bible lessons. Thanks for the ice cream. Thanks, too, for the uncontrollable belching and sinus headache. But you did not break me. You and your circle of shame. A substitute has stepped forward to take my place. I see him over there walking the circle – talking to everyone by name – collecting their flags. The scramble is over. I’m not running anymore, always struggling to maintain position, and never reaching the goal. It’s over.
Thank God Jesus comes to us.
“AWANA tried to kill me :: carnivorous wolves and the gospel” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.