Shortly before I began the fourth grade my mom, dad, sister, and I took a trip to Kansas City. We spent the night at the airport Holiday Inn. I remember us sitting around the pool and every time a plane flew overhead my mom would cry. The next morning we took my dad to the airport. He would spend the next year in Viet Nam. My mom, sister, and I would live in my mom’s hometown. A year later Mom, Michelle, and I went back to Kansas City. This time my sister and I went to the airport with homemade signs saying, “Welcome home Dad! We missed you and we love you.” Mom cried again. We all did.
Dad has never talked much about where he was or what he did in Viet Nam. He and I have had a couple of conversations about it but I never really understood Viet Nam or what happened. I recently attended a conference that gave me new insight into what happened.
The speaker, Simon Sinek, was talking about leadership. He said there are two kinds of games in life. He wasn’t using the word games pejoratively. He was describing two aspects or ways of approaching life. He said there are finite games and infinite games. Finite games have fixed rules; known boundaries in which the game is played, a board, a field, a time limit; and the number and identity of the players are known. There is a winner and there is a loser. The object of a finite game is to win. And when someone wins the game is over.
Infinite games, however, are different. There may not be rules and if there are they often change during the game. The playing field is boundless. There’s no time limit. The players are numberless and often unknown. The object of an infinite game is not to win but to keep playing, to keep the game going. He said that America went to Viet Nam playing a finite game with the intention of defeating the North Vietnamese and winning the war. North Viet Nam, however, was playing an infinite game. They were fighting for their lives, and they made very different strategic choices than did the Americans. America, he says, did not lose the war, we finally lost the will or resources to keep the game going.
I tell you that not to explain the Viet Nam war but as a way of entering into and thinking about today’s gospel (John 6:51-58), as a way of reflecting on our lives, as a way of helping us find the bread that sustains and nourishes life, what Jesus calls “the bread that came down from heaven.”
Now remember, heaven is not a place. It’s not up there somewhere. It’s a quality of life, a way of being. The bread that comes down from heaven is the people, relationships, experiences, practices, beliefs, attitudes, teachings, love, and anything else that nourishes, sustains, strengthens, energizes, empowers, and encourages us to remain in the game, to continue playing, and to become more fully alive.
We are always stepping into the infinite. Our lives are always opening up to the more of life. Even when we don’t know it, recognize it, believe it, or understand it the more of life is always before us. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10), Jesus says. And yet, we tend to play the game of life as finite, as fixed, as limited, as defined by winners and losers, success and failure, those who are in and those who are out. We do that even when we don’t want to or say we’re not.
When my younger son, Randy, played little league basketball they were supposed to play for the fun of playing. Scores were not kept. There were no winners or losers. It was supposed to be about playing the game and not about the scoreboard. And yet, all the kids, and their parents in the bleachers, knew who had won and who had lost. Each one of us was keeping score.
We wanted to play a different game, a better game, but we persisted in and insisted on a finite game. That’s the game most of us have been taught to play. It’s the only game many of us know. No one told us there was another game. You’ve got to be number one, be successful, be a winner, earn a title and recognition, gain wealth, achieve, stay young and beautiful, be productive, work for approval, prove yourself. And the list goes on and on.
You know what that’s like, right? Haven’t you played that game? I have. There’s nothing wrong with working hard, achieving, or being successful. But ultimately it never seems to fill or satisfy. It never seems to be enough. We get some, but we want more. We are left hungry and wondering how much is enough? That’s not the bread that comes down from heaven. That’s manna. And if that’s all we eat then we too will die as did our ancestors.
The week before last my wife and I spent five days with Randy and his wife. They were in Texas for about three weeks to see family and friends. We had such a good time. It was an amazing five days. We experienced our kids as adults. We loved, laughed, and told stories. We dreamed. We celebrated the way they had grown up, the people they had become, and the life they had created together. They were for us bread come down from heaven. It was a feast and together the four of us were stepping into the more of life. And all the while I’m thinking to myself, “Are we the better parents? Do they like us best? Are they having more fun with us than their other family and friends?” I was still playing a finite game. How crazy is that?
You don’t win parenting. You don’t win your marriage. You don’t win your friendships and relationships. You don’t win your career. You don’t win your life. You don’t win love. You don’t win your faith. You don’t win God. Those are infinite games. You continue, you remain present, you grow, and you step into the infinity of your life. You show up in all sorts of circumstances, the good and the bad, the difficult and the easy, the desired and the unwanted, the joyful and the sorrowful, and you keep the game going. It’s about becoming fully alive, becoming more and more our truest and most authentic selves.
Throughout the gospels Jesus is playing an infinite game. It’s about living forever. It’s about having life within us. It’s about having eternal life. It’s about being raised up. It’s about abiding, remaining present in Jesus and him remaining present in us. It’s about feasting on the bread that comes down from heaven.
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” Jesus says. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you have no life in you.” This isn’t about separating those who eat and drink Jesus from those who don’t. That’s just another finite game. Jesus is an infinite player. Everything he says and does is an invitation to play the infinite game. He is always pointing us to the more of our lives. Infinite players like Jesus speak and act in such a way that they invite a response from others, from you and me. He challenges, provokes, and calls us into a new game, a different way of being, a new life. He wants us to stay in the game and keep it going.
It’s most often the religious people who don’t get it. The religious leaders and authorities of Jesus’ day didn’t get it. They’re arguing among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus doesn’t fit within the rules and boundaries of their game. How could he? He’s playing the infinite game, they’re playing the finite game.
He eats and drinks with sinners and tax collectors. He heals on the sabbath. He declares the kingdom to be within us. He says the first shall be last the last shall be first. He spends his time with those the world excludes and declares to be losers. He prioritizes human life over the law. He comes not to judge but to give life. He forgives sins. He brings life out of death. He continues the game when others have declared it over. Jesus is in it for the long haul and he wants us to be a part of that.
Today’s gospel is an invitation to play the infinite game, to eat the bread that comes down from heaven. Do you have life in you? That’s the question behind today’s gospel. That’s the call of Jesus in each of our lives, to have life.
Are we eating the bread that came down from heaven or are we settling for manna? What game are we playing? Are we playing to win and end the game, whatever that might mean for each of us, or are we playing to live, to become fully and forever alive?