Musing About Amusement

October 7th, 2009

I'm sitting at one of those minuscule tables at McDonald's across from two guys in my youth group, watching them vacuum up their supersized combo meals. They've already grunted through my regular gauntlet of questions about their classes, hobbies, and the weather. Sensing an awkward lull rearing its ugly head, I want to keep the conversation moving (or at the very least breathing). I ask them if they are having fun at youth this year. “Uh huh. It's great,” they mumble through a mouthful of beef substitute. But then I wonder: Was that such a great question to ask?

Later on I flip open my NIV exhaustive concordance and discover that the word 'fun' isn't in the Bible. Hmmm. Does that mean the Bible isn't any fun? That God is boring? Or is it because God doesn't value the same things we value? I notice that words like joy and peace are common in God's vocabulary. Looking in the mirror, I ask myself: If Jesus was doing my job, would He ask kids if they were having fun? Would He care about that? My gut tells me no, and yet something inside of me isn't satisfied yet. It can't be that black and white, can it? I'm determined to make my faith fun, so I decide to dig deeper.

Webster helps me take the next step. I learn that fun means “what provides amusement or enjoyment,” and that it “usually implies laughter or gaiety but may simply imply a lack of serious or ulterior purpose.” Hey, that doesn't sound so bad. Some things are fun because they…well, they just are. Right?

But now I wonder: What does 'amusement' mean? The dictionary mentions something about a “pleasureable diversion,” or “to entertain or occupy in a light, playful, or pleasant manner.” That's OK, isn't it? I think so. But apparently it also refers to times when “one's attention is engaged lightly or frivolously.” Lightly is a neutral word, but I'm not sure the words faith and frivolous line up very well, at least not in my little brain. I keep reading, and when I see the origin of the word 'amuse' I almost fall off my chair. Can this be? “To divert the attention of so as to deceive.” That's pretty scary stuff! So who's the deceiver and who's the victim, exactly? And didn't someone out there write a book called “Amusing Ourselves to Death?” Yeesh!

The definition of fun also included the word 'enjoyment,' so I look that up, too. Webster tells me that enjoyment is “something that gives keen satisfaction.” Hey! Isn't there a verse in the Bible somewhere that has the word enjoy in it? Yes…a few of them, in fact. Here they are…enjoying long life…enjoying work… enjoying good health…enjoying the pleasures of sin…Oops! Scratch that one. There's got to be more, though. Oh, I found it! “God…richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” (I Tim. 6:17). See? There! I can hang my whole theology of pleasure on that verse, can't I?

Then it dawns on me. The word joy is the root of 'enjoy.' To enjoy something, apparently, is to find joy in it. And to rejoice is to express that joy. Sounds like fun to me, and now I think I'm on the right track. Someone once told me that joy isn't necessarily related to fun at all. James agrees, telling me that it's even possible to find joy in difficulties and trials of many kinds. Paul instructed me to be joyful all the time, in other words, to develop the art of finding joy in whatever is around me. Could that be it? Hmmm. Now that I think about it, finding joy in things around me sounds like an important life skill. Something I ought to be learning to do and teaching others to do too.

Like the kids I work with. They're good at finding joy in entertainment, but what about worship? Or prayer? Or reading the Bible? Personally, I think worship is piles of fun. I find joy in it. But that kid sitting on the couch over there doesn't. He's bored silly. Poor guy. Somehow I have to teach him to find joy in the things that matter most. But is what I'm saying lining up with what I'm doing? On one hand I tell him that he doesn't need alcohol (a frivolous diversion) to have fun, but I've been peppering our youth events with frivolous diversions of other kinds for years now.

You know what I think? I think that whether or not we need fun in our ministries isn't the point. The real issue is what we think fun is and where it comes from. Do we really need to throw a lot of money at something for it to be fun? Do we need to have indoor fireworks or top notch entertainment or a mindless diversion to enjoy ourselves? Technically no, but actually yes, because we aren't very good at finding joy in the good stuff yet. And we don't spend much time teaching youth how. I recall those two guys in my youth group a decade ago who had their own half-pipe, tree fort, zip line, pinball, basketball hoop, foosball table, multiple video game systems, yada yada yada. They were bored stiff no matter what we did at youth group because they hadn't learned that happiness is wanting what you have, that joy can be had in every circumstance. And they weren't the only ones.

But that's changing. I remind myself that now when we plan a big swimming party or glo-bowling event and one quarter of the kids don't show up. Then we do a worship-small groups-teaching night a week later and fill every chair. Nobody wants to miss it. So maybe I'm selling the kids short. Maybe they really do want to learn how to enjoy what matters. Maybe they do know the difference between amusement and enjoyment. Maybe they already know all this stuff without being able to articulate it like I can.

Sure, diversions can be fun, but does fun have to be a diversion from something serious or ulterior in purpose? God is the ultimate purpose. So am I inadvertently teaching kids that to have fun they need a diversion from God? That could very well be the deception Webster warned me about. Maybe Satan is diverting our attention from what and Who really matters, and maybe (gasp!) I'm helping him along! Maybe he's fooled us all into thinking that fun is more important than joy and has us barking up imaginary trees and eating fruit that dissolves almost as soon as we sink our teeth into it! I hope my youth group isn't a reality TV sitcom on the demon TV network!

The bottom line, I'm beginning to see, is about being able to find enjoyment in whatever I'm doing, whether I'm river rafting or washing dishes. The Bible teaches me that the fruit of walking with God like that through all parts of my life (not just the church ones) is soul-filling joy. So I guess you could say that joy comes from planting ourselves in the middle of what matters most and finding pleasure in it. Teaching our youth to do that is far more important than catering to their appetites for the 'wow factor'.

When we're not experiencing joy, I think it means we're looking at life from the outside in. No amount of fun, amusement, or entertainment can fix that. If I blow a kid's mind with amusements for three hours, she might even go home feeling more empty than when she came. The Bible says I can probably expect that. I still think peanut relays, PS2's, and grand prizes have their place. It's just about time I kept them there.


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