The bane of every parent’s existence during a summer beach vacation is a rainy day. For an adult overcast skies may mean reading indoors, a long nap, more time for baking or cooking. For a child, they are catastrophic. This summer on one of the rainy days during a week at the beach, our family headed to the local arcade, affectionately known by us as ‘The Noisy Store.’* While my kids dropped tokens into game slots, I wandered listlessly around the arcade aware of the many spiritual lessons on display. For those with eyes to see (beyond the flashing lights) and ears to hear (beyond the cacophony of bells and whistles), the Noisy Store offers a lot to think about.
At the beachfront arcade you see, first of all, the worst of parenting and, not un-relatedly, child-ing. As if urged on by the incessant noise of the arcade, kids turn into incessant whiners, begging for more tickets, complaining that one game or another was not fair. Meanwhile, passive aggressive parents, like me, attempt to steer their kids away from certain games and towards others (typically the ones that actually involve at least some modicum of skill or action on the player’s part). Admittedly, it’s a strange calculus that figures losing your money to a round of Skee Ball is somehow more noble than losing your money to the chance of Mega Truck Coin Drop.
What really stood out to me, however, was the power of prizes at the Noisy Store. A deep truth of human psychology is revealed: the yearning for reward--something tangible, something immediate. My kids love playing games that spit out tickets (haphazardly it appears, although allegedly due to some advanced arcade algorithm). They also love the games where the prize is immediately visible, like the Mechanical Claw Game that drops a grasping hook into a sea of worthless stuffed animals.
The most striking feature of this particular arcade is the Redemption Counter. There, lurking behind a glass case is a sullen teenager, apparently acclimated to the lights and buzzers of the Noisy Store, keeping watch over the “prizes” like an apathetic flea market vendor. Most of the prizes (plastic baubles and tchotchkes) are worth little more than the paper tickets themselves: bubble gum that loses its flavor after 30 seconds of chewing; toys that break apart after 30 seconds of playing. The whole scene is such cruel deception in its suggestion that redemption can come so easily, so cheaply.
Redemption at the Noisy Store touches something deep inside us. As my children act out this farcical transaction, I see how it is like much of the redemption that we seek spiritually. Often we, like them, approach God clutching a handful of yellow paper tickets, offering them up and hoping for reward. Redemption at the arcade mocks true redemption--the redemption offered in the good news of Christianity. Often, like my children, I am entranced by the offer of redemption that is, in fact, no real redemption, but rather an exchange of form of meager worthlessness for another.
In gospel redemption, we don’t ‘earn’ by depositing tokens, scoring points, and harvesting tickets. We come empty handed, dependent wholly on divine gift. We don’t exchange our earnings for a flimsy and transient reward, like some balsa wood hang glider. The redemption offered by the gospel is weighty, lasting, and true. It comes to us by faith, as we are counted righteous because of the righteousness of Another. As Paul writes in Colossians 1: “[God] has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his Beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” [link to Bible Gateway]
In reflecting on the meager promise of redemption offered at the beach town arcade, I couldn’t help but think of an oft-quoted passage from C.S. Lewis’s The Weight of Glory, where he scolds us for the weakness of our longing. It is a fitting conclusion to this thinking about redemption:
“If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
*The arcade was assigned this moniker by our oldest child--now 9--when he was 4 because of the wall of sound that meets you when you enter an arcade.