Let’s talk about pogo and Jesus. No, not the Pogo Stick craze that rocked the socks off of your childhood and no, I’m not talking about Jesus jumping on one either…although that image is pretty funny.
The pogo I’m talking about haunted my pre-adolescent waking life like a canker sore for a long time. A very long time. At-least-a-year long time (which, to a 12 year-old, is about 8-16% of their entire life-span).
Pogo was a “game” that was really a form of sociological torture, likely invented by an alpha-dog monarch who used it to stealthily sift his like-minded allies from the clueless peasantry. I was first introduced to pogo as a wee-lad in Boy Scouts where said sifting was enacted on a frequent basis. We met on Tuesday nights in a church hall that, for two-hours, became an independent nation in which we lowly younger Scouts were subjugated to the authoritarian elder Scouts and their bidding.
Such bidding sometimes involved keeping them entertained. Keeping them entertained sometimes involved pogo. And pogo always involved anguish and madness.
Here’s why: Pogo was a “repeat-after-me” game in which the initiating player would draw in the dirt with a stick while saying the phrase, “Do you know pogo like I know pogo?” The observing player would then have to mimic their sequence. What made the game “fun” was that there was a secret action included in their sequence that the observing player would have to repeat in their performance in order to win. As far as I know, the gesture was always the same in every game. In my experience, gameplay typically went as follows:
“Do you know pogo like I know pogo?”
<rhythmically chanted while drawing patterns in the dirt with a stick…hands stick to me>
<takes the stick>
“Do you know pogo like I know pogo?”
<said in the same rhythmic speech while drawing the same patterns I observed>
<turns to another guy>
“Do you know pogo like I know pogo?
“Do you know pogo like I know pogo?”
<said while sort of mimicking the patterns, but not entirely accurate>
“You got it dude!”
<hi-fives, chest bumps, and hoots of celebration>
<a year of wallowing in despair for want of forsaken knowledge>
Do you get the point? There was a secret society and I was not in it. And, technically speaking, that was really lame. On two accounts. One was the secret; the fact the I couldn’t figure out the answer to the puzzle and it stuck in my head like a bad riddle. Second was the society; the feeling of exclusion from the in-crowd who was having a grand old time with their warm and cozy “in-the-know” status while I was shivering outside in the cold.
I wanted to solve the riddle and join the party. I meticulously studied the way they played the game, perfectly repeated every lilt in their voice as they spoke the words, and precisely reproduced the minutiae of every dot, dash, and swoop of the patterns they drew with the stick. I would always be crushed because I just “didn’t get it.” I begged them to tell me the secret. In one impassioned moment, I even shed tears while imploring for the answer. My pleas succeeded only in causing the pogo-knower before me to repeat the game slower and louder. Needless to say, that’s not what I wanted.
The torment ended one day when my friend Ben decided to tell me the answer. I have no idea why he did or how he found out. Ben and I were the same age so he had no need to establish age-based dominance over me. Perhaps he was let in on the secret and wanted to share it with me in the same way a prisoner shares rumors of coming rescue with his inmates. We were on a campout and I suddenly found myself in conversation about the game with him. He happily told me the secret and when I heard it, it was as though a river of living water was poured into the parched mouth of my soul.
What was the secret? It was simple: To clear your throat.
That’s right. The secret that kept me in bondage for all that miserable time was the little that preceded “Do you know pogo like I know pogo?” In the arena of pogo, once you got that little cough out into the air, you’ve won the game.
Everything that follows, hinged on that one little gesture.
Just like Jesus.
Let me explain.
In high school, I wanted to get to know Jesus. I started reading about him, thinking about what he’s like, trying to be like him, asking myself things like “what would Jesus do in this situation?” and then trying to do it. Yet I still had a hard time wrapping my mind around the concept of trying to get to know someone that I couldn’t physically hang out with in the same way that I could with my friends. I could call a friend of mine on the phone, go over their house, hi-five them, hear the inflections in their voice, see what color shirt they were wearing, see their facial expressions in reaction to what they were feeling. I couldn’t do the same thing with Jesus.
High school saw me changing in terms of personality, behavior, and beliefs. Yet at the same time, problems arose from a combination of confusing elements: some long-held struggles with obsessive compulsive disorder, guilt and fear over my recent understanding about sin and hell, and an apparent inability to call Jesus on the phone and talk to him directly about my worries.
Things got more confusing in college when I would find myself with people that spoke a different spiritual dialect than what I was used to. I would hear things like, “I was talking to God yesterday and he said that ____ (insert deep spiritual truth here)” or “I don’t know about you, but when I ____ (insert regular spiritual practice here).” It is certainly not wrong to express one’s experience this way and I’m certain that the impact those folks had on me was unintentional. But, due to the personal complications I mentioned earlier, this was the beginning of a long and difficult journey.
And this has what to do with pogo?
I felt like I was on the outside. It seemed I was perpetually on the losing side of a spiritual pogo game. Whether this was their intention or not, it seemed as though someone had just scribbled some cryptic script into the sand and chanted, “Do you know Jesus like I know Jesus?” and was now offering the stick to me. But I couldn’t do it. I didn’t know the secret trick. I wasn’t at a point where I could confidently affirm to other people, “God told me ___” or claim to have unshakeable confidence in areas where I still had doubt. I didn’t know what that meant. But I was trying. I really wanted what they had. I really wanted to talk to God, tell him how insecure I was, and have a back-and-forth dialogue serve as evidence of the fact that he cared about me and loved me. Something must be so terribly wrong with me that my time with God doesn’t resemble theirs.
The more I began to feel excluded by those around me, the more I began to feel excluded by God. I started to feel like God himself was now handing me the stick, after writing the complexities of the bible and life itself into the sand, and was now expecting me to figure it out. In my mind, God became the frightening leader of a confidential club and I didn’t know the secret hand-shake to be admitted. Initially, things like reading the bible, going to church, and praying were the natural result of a blossoming and relational faith. However, they were quickly becoming forced attempts to learn the trick and gain acceptance.
Eventually, this all began to change. Whereas pogo changed for me in an instant, my poisoned thoughts detoxified over time with steady doses of truth.
It’s a long story and I’m sure you’ll hear more about it in later posts. For now, I’ll summarize:
The contrast between the God I claimed to believe in and the God that I actually believed in became increasingly obvious. Jesus said he was the one and only necessary ingredient for our sin records to be wiped out. I, however, lived as though it were up to me to clean that slate and that the single ingredient of Jesus was too simple, too elementary to apply in my case. There must be something else, like praying more, being more devoted, or helping every old lady within a 10-mile radius cross the street. Jesus blew the cover off of religious secret societies who treated God’s acceptance like a trophy to be won or bought by the rich, strong, popular, and morally impeccable. He freely offered it to the poor, the weak, the nobody’s, the disgraced. Yet I was living as though God was an untouchable celebrity who would never in a billion years even know who I was until I had somehow worked my way into his circle of influence.
I think Jesus came to simplify and broaden the accessibility of God to people, not to complicate and constrain it. Sure, there are spiritual complexities that are not easily clarified and there are practices like church-going and praying that are helpful. But if Jesus is only the subtle <ahem> that is quickly forgotten in the grand display of our devotion, then we’re going to miss the point of it all.
And so will the watching world around us.
No games. No tricks.