My friend, Scott, and I sat down at a midway game during the Texas State Fair, the kind where the bell rings and you shoot water at a target as a balloon goes up.
It’s embarrassing to admit, but I always have a sense that something important is on the line when I play a game like that.
As the bell rang, I quickly established an optimal stream of water on the target, and the balloon ascended. There was no way I could lose.
When the game was over, Scott had won. The prize was a small, candy-striped unicorn, which he quickly gave to his wife, Kristi.
Even my wife wondered aloud how I had lost. For a moment, I felt less-than. How could I not succeed at such a simple game? For that brief moment, I felt measured and had come up short.
Sometimes, I think about what Jesus must have felt like when he came to earth. He left a place of intense communion with God, enjoying perfect love, unending emotional embrace and the privileges of heaven.
I imagine when he arrived as a baby (what theologians call the incarnation, meaning “to take on flesh”) and started growing up and interacting with humans, even though he got thirsty and hungry and needed rest, his experience was very different from everyone else.
He may have looked at the midway game and thought it was just fun, or he may have wondered, “Why do you do this?”
He had no regard for the trivial pursuits and worthless prizes that momentarily bring us happiness or cause us to feel shame when we don’t get them.
He believed in ideas that would have been considered ridiculous at the time, such as: Turn the other cheek when someone hits you. Love your enemies. If someone wants to take your shirt, give them your coat as well. Do all you can to be at peace with those around you. Love your neighbor as yourself.
He totally disregarded the comparative games of status and wealth because the prizes that people pursued weren’t worth winning. In every way, he seemed to fail at the kind of life we think matters most.
I recently heard a man say that while he entered the world with nothing and would leave with nothing, he didn’t come into the world alone, and he wouldn’t leave alone.
His mom was there at the beginning, along with many relatives. When he died, he anticipated being surrounded by family and friends. He was conveying the idea that life is relational, not consumeristic.
The incarnation, the heart of Christmas, is about relationship. It’s God’s move toward us with love.
I believe deep down if I could learn to live fully in God’s love, allowing God to establish my worth and fill my emotional needs for acceptance and affirmation, I wouldn’t be anxious, chasing cheap prizes.
I believe that if all of us knew that love, our world could be reborn.
Brent McDougal is senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee.