The kingdom of God is like a practical joke

Leaves are falling here in the Brandywine Valley, carpeting everything in a lovely, multicolored chore.

This time of year always reminds me of one of my favorite church high school youth group activities from when I was growing up in a fundamentalist, nondenominational Baptist church in New Jersey. This one didn’t involve passing out gospel tracts. It was stealthier than that, which was why it was so much fun.

This was one of the things our church got right, and it’s something almost any church youth group could do as well. I recommend it because, again, it’s about as much fun as you can have on a Saturday in November. All you need is: a church van and a driver, a bunch of teenagers with rakes and tarps, and a list of addresses of older folks no longer able to rake their own leaves.

The idea was to get in and get out as quickly as possible — a blitz attack that was over before they even realized what was happening. The van pulled up and then Go, go, go. A flurry of raking until the lawn is pristine and then — quick! — everyone back in the van and get away before she catches us.

We’d drive away laughing and delighted, as though we’d just pulled off a terrific prank. In a way, I suppose, we had. Sometimes the kingdom of God is like unto a practical joke. And it’s a really good practical joke.

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  • The thing, Tonio, is that people who want to do others a favor sometimes like doing it anonymously. I’m not sure how you think someone raking your lawn equates to someone casing the joint for stuff to steal or an occasion for them to point and laugh.

    And usually dogs are on leashes and so poop with an owner nearby, meaning someone’s likely stood near your lawn, wishing the little barker would get it over with already.

  • If it bothers you that much, then put up a sign if you know these things occur regularly. Have it read “Thank you for your desire to in good faith help others; however a person already comes to clear this lawn.”

    Or if a person, like someone else suggested, fixes these things in advance, just make it clear you’ve got someone doing the lawn already. The problem of unintentionally causing problems in an act of good faith is not insuperable.

  • Tonio

    I’m not sure how you think someone raking your lawn equates to someone
    casing the joint for stuff to steal or an occasion for them to point and

    They’re only equivalent in that all involve people being on one’s property uninvited, thus creating a sense of vulnerability, and that feeling can easily lead to rumination on bad outcomes. Sort of like preparing for a storm – it’s better to get the generator and canned goods and then not need them than to avoid taking preparations and then wish you had. There’s a possibly apocryphal story about soldiers huddling in twos in sleeping bags to protect against the cold, and the enemy waging psychological warfare by sneaking in at night and killing one member of each pair, thus traumatizing the survivors.

    And I assumed the dog poop example involved something like a lone dog on the loose going through people’s back yards.

  • Lori

    I think that the fact that we’ve gone from leaf raking to psychological warfare via improbably stleathy murder indicates that leaf raking is not remotely the issue. 

  • WingedBeast

    Actually, doing stealth favors has been used in psychological warfare.  It’s a statement.  “We can come here.  We can do this.  You can’t stop us.  You want to make sure we stay nice.”

  • Lori

    Yeah. I don’t think there’s much of a connection between that and an ordinary person living an ordinary life in current day America finding that someone has raked some leaves. Or at least the connection says more about the person than about the leaf-raking. 

  • Tonio

    Or at least the connection says more about the person than about the leaf-raking.

    That was my point. I wasn’t claiming that the stealth raking was wrong. My point was that if if this was done on my property, I would be justified in feeling vulnerable. And no, I wasn’t accusing anyone of saying that my feeling would not be justified. The possibility of the raking being a psychological game didn’t occur to me until I started typing, as a “what if” scenario. But I might still react the way WingedBeast described, concluding that I couldn’t stop them and I should stay on their good side. In part, it would evoke bad memories from living in the dorm in college.

  • Dan Audy

    I agree with most of what you wrote but must quibble about:
    I am slight jealous (though admittedly somewhat patronizingly) of
    people with religious beliefs for the simplicity of having someone else
    just give you the moral answers and tell you how to act and how very
    lovely the world would be if (some) of their beliefs were true.”
    Religious people are just as diverse as atheists, and for many of us
    finding the moral answers is just as hard as for atheists. And many
    people, religious or not, just accept the moral/political/social
    assumptions of their neighbors.

    I’m definitely aware of that, which is why I acknowledged that my attituted is patronizing (and unfair) to those that do struggle with how to balance their faiths moral positions amongst each other and what they believe to be true in their hearts.  It was mostly a jab at RTCs and other people who accept authoritarian decrees about what and how they should believe without putting them against the actual scripture which they preport to follow.  A site like this shows exactly how difficult some of those answers are and Fred does a lovely job illustrating that people ostensibly following the same faith reach wildly differing conclusions, though often doesn’t treat (fairly I think) the opposing viewpoint as being reached in good faith.

    Thank you for calling me out on that though, I should have been more careful and clear about not putting all people of faith in the same basket when I had just finished complaining about someone else doing the same for all people without faith.

  • Lindenharp

    If it bothers you that much,

    You’ve used this phrase twice in replying to me.  *resists temptation to do a bad Catherine Tate impression*  I’m not bothered.  Not annoyed, anxious or worried.  I simply provided a real-life example of how this intended kindness could have unintended consequences.

    then put up a sign if you know these things occur regularly

    I’ve never heard of such a thing before — a stealth, blitz clearing of multiple yards.  If done either by prearrangement or with knowledge of the homeowner’s situation, it could be very, very helpful.

    My husband died (many years ago) in early spring, when our yard was full of leaves that had been finally uncovered by melting snow.  After his death, I was away from home for a week, staying with other family members.  I came home to find an immaculate yard.  A neighbor who owns a landscaping business had sent a team of workers to clean up.  She told me, “It’s not much, but it’s what I could do.”  I assured her it was that much.  I was very grateful to have one less problem on my plate.

  • Anonymous

    Dan, thanks for clearing that up. 

    Somewhere, could it be on Fred’s blog? I am sick in bed so not sure, I saw a remark that instead of shades of gray, things were all sorts of colors — I like that  Dawkins and the Dalai Lama (and the late Jacques Derrida, just to keep the D thing going…) are atheists, and well, I can’t think of alliterative examples here, Fred Clark, the Pope, lots of Wiccans, Shinto mountain devotees, are all theists… means I’ll never run out of interesting stuff to think about, or books to challenge my assumptions. 

    But to speak more directly to the point (sorry I’m kind of wooly minded at the moment) yes, authoritarianism is a pretty strong strain in religion, esp. in places like the American Bible Belt at the moment. It’s sad that like the US Republican party, the most extreme strains seem to be taking over. In the 19th century, evangelical Christianity was often very progressive. Sigh. Fred has an uphill struggle.

  • Anonymous

    Your pseudonym fits your comment.

    But I’d add that sometimes best kindness–the grace, for those who want it in religious terminology; the thanks, for those thinking in terms of community–one can offer those who are offering a kindness is to gracefully accept the role of recipient. And I agree that it can be very hard to do.

  • Liz Coleman

    A dear friend of mine just did this last weekend at a convention. It was four in the morning, everyone had gone to bed, he was drunk and still full of energy. Wandering through the lawn in front of the hospitality suite, and seeing the tables covered in cans and bottles and junk, he thought, “heh heh. Wouldn’t it be hilarious if the volunteer staff got up in the morning, and didn’t have as much cleanup work to do?” 

  • Rikalous

    I think people like Nance believe in this sort of Schroedinger’s Charity
    effect: Until the federal government steps in, there’s no need to talk
    about how the church should be the ones to provide this charity, but
    once the governemnt *does* step in, the superposition collaspes and you
    find that the church was *just about* to start such a program but was
    forced to give it up because the government had stolen their thunder.

    Well, if they’ve already got the momentum going, it should be trivial to shift it to some other charitable goal. Everyone wins, especially the people in need. Unless you’ve got some some baffling notion of charity being a zero-sum game, somehow.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart


    Dan, it sounds like you are actually patronisingly jealous of people with black-and-white worldviews. I’m religious and moral questions keep me up at night. Many of my atheist friends sleep fine.

  • I’ve been reading my replies here and I kind of feel bad. I was being dismissive, I think, so Tonio and Lindenharp are due apologies, if you’ll have them.

  • Anonymous

    That’s different because the dog’s motives have nothing to do with me.
    Highly unlikely that the dog would seek to steal from me or ridicule me.

    Tonio, you make my daily Internet-browsing experience at least 17% percent more worthwhile.  And I mean that absolutely sincerely.

    My dog has never sought to steal from me.  I sometimes worry that she might want to ridicule me, but upon reflection I think it’s an article of faith with her that I’ll always be In On The Joke.

  • Tonio

    Why not assume we’re nice in person until otherwise indicated?

    The short answer is that it’s too good to be true.

    The longer answer, which I alluded to earlier, is that the most prudent option is to expect and prepare for the worst. This doesn’t mean assuming that everyone is mean in person. It means that assuming the opposite can leave one vulnerable to the percentage of people who are mean, since one has no way of knowing for sure whether someone will be nice or mean. If something bad happened once, it could happen again. If some people are mean, then anyone can potentially be mean.

    “Mean” is actually somewhat of a misnomer here – I’m talking about behavior and not mindset. The real problem is that often I don’t know what sets people off, so if someone is mean to me, I’ll usually wonder, “What the hell did I do to provoke that?” Even then I feel like I’m giving myself too much credit by assuming I acted out of ignorance, instead of considering the possibility that I was being a jerk.

    So if I woke up one day and found that my lawn had been raked and had no idea who had done it, I wouldn’t automatically assume that someone was playing a game with me. I would probably consider it a possibility, and I would be reminded of the times in the college dorm when I felt afraid and vulnerable. Ultimately it would confirm my experience of people as somewhat inscrutable, where I don’t fully understand their motivations and am unable to reliably predict their behavior.

  • Lindenharp

    Invisible Neutrino: Thank you for that.  I didn’t take (much) offense.  Mostly it felt as through we were having two different conversations.  Apology accepted.

  • Anonymous

    Ultimately it would confirm my experience of people as somewhat
    inscrutable, where I don’t fully understand their motivations and am
    unable to reliably predict their behavior.

    Yeah, but you’re pretty consistent in applying that attitude to all other people.  It seems like Marshall would conclude that Christian kids who raked his lawn were being nice and having a fun team-building exercise, while atheists kids who raked his lawn were trying to demonstrate their smug superiority over non-rakers and their militant intolerance of scattered leaves.

  • My dog has never sought to steal from me.  I sometimes worry that she might want to ridicule me, but upon reflection I think it’s an article of faith with her that I’ll always be In On The Joke, even if she’s not.

    I have had dogs steal from me before.  Like that time we left a blueberry cobbler cooling on the kitchen counter, only to come back a little while later with the cobbler messed up, and a line of blueberry paw prints leading out of the kitchen, into the living room, and right up to the chair upon which sat our dog with his blueberry-stained snout…  

    I am sure he could not figure out how we unraveled his perfect crime.  

  • Anonymous

    Hmm. I agree that “it would confirm my experience of people as somewhat inscrutable, where I don’t fully understand their motivations and am unable to reliably predict their behavior”, but I don’t know that it’d make me feel insecure about anything — that is, I KNOW people are (to me) as inscrutable and unpredictable as Midwestern weather, and I’d just be happy that it’s pleasant outside today.