Did you know that there are now apparently playground police officers? I got stopped by one yesterday. She was in full uniform. The real deal: a City of Atlanta officer with badge, belt and holster to show for it.
And she summoned me like a real officer would. Stern, formal, with a tone of authority laced with suspicion. From across the playground she called, curling her index finger with enough gravitas to elicit some concern that my kids and I had done something very wrong on this inner-city playground in downtown Atlanta.
“Mam, are you this boy’s mother?,” she asked, with a hint of suspicion and threat in her voice.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Your son has been throwing acorns. One of those could take a child’s eye out. He’s not allowed to throw acorns, understand?”
No matter that my son had been acting like a regular four-year-old boy. No matter that he had not been throwing acorns at anyone or anything in particular. No matter that all of the kids together had collected a whole pile of acorns at the top of the slide. No matter that one of them might be a budding naturalist. A future conservationist, maybe.
No matter that just the other day my neighbors’ house was broken into and their stuff stolen. Or, that our neighborhood has seen a spate of home invasions in the last few years. Or, that Atlanta’s murder rate was up.
“Okay,” I said. (The last time I gave lip to a cop hadn’t gone well.)
“Mam, is he your only child here or do you have another one?” The tone was officious and the inflection on “only” that of a distanced professional with a very important job to do.
“She’s mine as well,” I said, pointing to my two-year-old daughter, all the while wondering if now was the time when the cop called Defax and whisked my children off to child services.
The cop nodded, as if to say, “I’ve got your number.” She wouldn’t be calling Defax this time at least. She turned to apprehend the parent of another acorn-wielding child.
The episode has me thinking about the way we human beings find the smallest, most nit-picky matters to prattle on about when there are real criminals to catch, real emergencies to attend to and people out there who really could use our help. And we see this everywhere. Not just on the playground. When millions of Americans are out of work and precariously hanging on to some shred of economic hope, our political leaders spend their time on legislation to keep “In God we trust” in our national motto. When the poor, the oppressed, and the blind of our world cry out for a little Good News in the form of a hand up or a new lease on life, our churches waste precious time jabbering away about what to do about the prickly issue of homosexuality (an issue that by the way never made Jesus’ own hot-button list).
“Playground police” are everywhere, and I wonder why. Is it because of that thing Christians through the ages have called “sin”? Is it because of our built-in propensity to miss the mark? Is it because our world’s problems and our inadequacies at resolving them seem at times so overwhelming that we would rather concentrate our efforts on something that while frivolous is at least manageable? Sometimes when my “to do” list is so long that I feel overwhelmed about where to start, I do something that is not on the list: I clean. I clean when I really don’t have to.
I wonder if the same principle applies here. As human beings we harbor an innate desire to be in control when all around our world threatens to implode. We like our kingdoms- even if they’re only kid-sized in the form of jungle gyms. We like to make rules- even if the rules miss out on where the real-life, high-stakes drama is. We like to justify ourselves- because if we didn’t, we’d have to depend on Someone else to do it for us, and that scares us. Or, if it doesn’t scare us, it asks too much of us.
But what if when we prayed the Lord’s prayer, “thy kingdom come,” we really meant it? What if we prayed that prayer every day, and in doing so, asked ourselves what God’s kingdom looked like in the day before us? What if we asked God to forgive us of all the times we seek to be playground police in our marriages, families, places of work, politics and churches? What if we asked God to reveal God’s kingdom to us, so that we could be available to the persons really in need of our help?
I suspect that we would become bigger. Bigger people with bigger hearts. With a bigger Gospel and therefore bigger things to attend to than acorns at the jungle gym.