Prior to today, a lot of you have asked me what is this sermon about? And the answer is simple – Yes, it is about the game of Snakes and Ladders that you played when you were 6 years old! For those of you who come here for intellectual stimulation, I don’t intend to make a tradition of preaching about Board games (I won’t be preaching about Twister next week, although, when you think about it, a lot of them lend themselves to further reflection. Twister, how we get ourselves tied up in knots and entangled with other people; Monopoly I’m sure could be cause for a little reflection on a few companies right here in Canada; Risk is a good description of the politics of intimidation presently being practised all over the world and I’m sure that Trivial Pursuits is descriptive of something going on in someone’s life. I could go on and on…
But the game of Snakes and Ladders, like all of the games that last, works because it is so recognizable as part of our human story. I read to you from scripture today to show you how ancient and powerful are these images – of snakes both as misfortune and danger, as well as of knowledge and wisdom, and ladders as symbols of good fortune and of powerful conduits or connection to God and the angels. In the Bible, depending on how you read it, and accepting the hierarchical metaphors for a moment – snakes take you down, and ladders take you up to heaven. We know this game because we have heard it before.
Snakes and Ladders is one of the first games you can play with small children. Even before they can count, children understand the thrill of landing on a ladder and vaulting way ahead of your opponents. “Look, you’re way up here now!” “I’m winning, I’m winning!” I think it appeals to their inherent sense of being small and powerless, like when you put them on your shoulders and say “Look, you’re taller than me!” and they are so happy about that! But there is nothing quite so disconsolate as the face of a three or four year old who has just landed on a big snake and has to slide all the way down. Their little faces fall like a cake that has collapsed in the oven. “No, no no, no! NO GO DOWN!” “No, no, you have to go down… that’s the game! Ladders go up, snakes go down, you hit a snake! Down you go…. Woooooo…”
At this point a resourceful four year old might miraculously find a nearby ladder to illegally zoom up, or make your piece slide down the same snake he hit, or better yet, upset the board. I have learned through hard experience that this is often when the game ends with a child who is just a little too young; not too young to understand the game or even always too young to count. But too young to handle the disappointment that you feel when random chance sets you back – just when it looked like you were getting ahead.
In order to navigate our way through this life, we must learn early that disappointment and setback are part of the game. If you’re not ready for that, you’re not ready to play snakes and ladders. Don’t take even one step onto the board.
Child development experts tell us that the ability to face loss and disappointment are key milestones on the road to maturing as healthy human beings. We need to understand early that things do not always go our way. We learn to share even though we want to hoard; we learn that although it’s more fun to win, sometimes we lose; we learn to eat the broccoli before the ice cream, even though we would rather start the meal with ice cream and run out of room for the broccoli! “If you don’t eat some more ice cream, you can’t have any broccoli!” is what we want to hear!
But we learn to live with it the other way around. Out of our own disappointments we begin to learn empathy, to feel for others when they too are disappointed. We learn resilience, that we can survive setbacks, that we are stronger than we think. And we learn resourcefulness, that we can gather our resources, make a plan, get help, put one foot in front of the other and go forward from loss and disappointment to healing or success. Part of this is what psychologists call “EQ” instead of “IQ” – emotional intelligence – which they say is actually a greater predictor of success in life than IQ. It’s the ability to learn and grow from whatever life throws at you.
This lesson is easier to learn if, like in the game of Snakes and Ladders, we can learn on small disappointments first. The way the game is designed, you can’t fall too far until you have risen quite a bit (although I believe there is one small snake in the second row – just to let you know what it feels like.) So if we are lucky, and only if we are lucky, we spend more time in our earlier years learning to climb, knowing what accomplishment and hard work, good fortune and a safe, loving environment can feel like.
The smaller snakes we encounter are good practice for us – teaching us the skills we need to keep moving forward. The first broken heart, the failed test, the change in our fortunes, the time a good friend really let us down, all teach us to look deeper into ourselves and into the heart of life for strength, for encouragement, for determination and resolve. I remember my mother’s advice to her girls following our first broken heart “Don’t be sad, be mad!” We laugh about it now, but it was her way of saying “There’s a way through this and it won’t always hurt this much. You have to change how you look at it.” Also, she didn’t like him anyway.
Some of life’s setbacks are like that – “Opportunity disguised as loss” as the Celtic runes say, although this is usually only visible in hindsight. Most of us can look back on our lives at the fortuitous twist in our road that has led us to where we now stand, and give thanks, as the country song says, ‘for unanswered prayers.” There’s also a way in which life’s smaller disappointments connect you to others and make life’s successes all the sweeter. So on some of those smaller snakes, there’s a part of me that wants to say “Relax and enjoy the slide! You know it’s just a temporary setback.” And you could be giving thanks for it before you know it!
The other part of life represented so well in the game of snakes and ladders are of course, the ladders – those wonderful and unexpected moments in our lives when we are given chances that we never expected or maybe even feel we deserve. These are times when opportunity opens out before us; when the blessings of health or the surprise of new love come upon us, moments when, as our own Jude Johnson sings, we should stop and “Count our blessings one by one.”
In the great scheme of life, many of us here in this room, and certainly most of us in North America compared to many places in the world land on more ladders than snakes in our lives. But the way we are constructed usually means that we are looking ahead to the next ladder, the place we want to be, or the thing we don’t have that we want to get instead of looking around us at what we have.
As I’ve joked before, nobody wins the lottery and says “Why me, O Lord? Why me?” We seem to accept the good fortune of our lives as a matter of course. So perhaps the first step in learning to gracefully climb those ladders is to notice them and recognize them for the blessings that they are. Never been hungry a day in your life? Go from square 10 to 28. Are you loved well by some dear heart? That’s a big ladder up – at least to 55 or 60. Got your health, up again you go. Got some great friends? Get them to hold the ladder to steady you as you go. Enjoy the view as you climb and remember to give thanks for your time overcoming some of the harder obstacles.
Because here they come… you keep playing, take one step off your ladder, roll the dice and ‘Wooooooo, BIG SNAKE!’ Down you go, further than you were before. These bigger snakes are a little harder to deal with. The nasty divorce, the loss of a dear friend… the health scare that still has you a little frightened and makes the future feel very uncertain. These snakes can come in many forms.
Maybe they arise from bad luck or bad choices, or come in the form of people who “vex your spirit” as the Desiderata says, or perhaps they come from nature, or seeming random misfortune. Former parishioners of mine in Boston tell the story of losing everything, literally everything, when a hurricane destroyed their home in the Virgin Islands. All of their grown children and grandchildren were safe in New England, but every sentimental trinket or memento of their lives together, every photograph and all the negatives of over 50 years of marriage, every card or letter sent, everything of meaning that they had was gone.
These kinds of snakes can cause you to reconsider things that you thought you could count on, like your safety or your judgment, or what you do with your time and energy – as Joni Mitchell says “Things that you held high, or told yourself were true, lost or a changin’ as the days come down to you.” Big snakes mean big decisions, sometimes life-changing decisions. They also might mean that it’s time to borrow a ladder from a good friend and get climbing. Gather your strength and hope and start believing that you can surmount even the biggest downward slides.
And what about that BIG, BIG snake about ¾ of the way up? I remember playing the game and spending most of my time worrying that I would hit that giant snake, the one that takes you from very high up and far along – to almost the bottom. In fact, even while sprinting up ladders in triumph, all the while I was fretting about the possibility of hitting that giant snake! Even if you get past it, there is a another snake right at square 98, 2 spaces from the top! You’re never safe playing snakes and ladders. The only way to avoid the snakes is not to play at all.
The strangest thing about fearing that giant snake is that sometimes your fears are realized, and you land on it. People do land on that giant snake! Just when everything is going great, life is good, health and blessings are yours, something happens and down, down, down you go, to lower than you’ve ever been before. We know it happens, and we know it happens as randomly as it does in the game. It happens to three year olds, and good people and our next-door neighbor, and us. It happens right after you’ve stepped off the top rung of your latest ladder and think you’re on top of the world!
What happens when you hit that big snake? The horrible accident, the unthinkable loss, the unexpected tragedy that pulls the rug right from under your feet and shakes the foundation of everything you thought true and right?
The amazing thing about the way our souls are made is that you cannot live in abject misery forever; it is a place that you may visit, but it is not a place in which you can stay. It is not a place we can live, and so, somehow, we do not. Even in the depths of despair, life has a way of moving you gently forward, into the arms of those who love you, forward into nature whose lessons of life, death and renewal bring a strange comfort, forward into aspiration or action to try and make the world a better place for those who suffer, forward into healing, although never in a linear or continuous fashion.
The small ladders that appear at such times – the kindness of people, the existence of beauty, the unexpected lightness of heart that appears for a moment against all odds – these are the respites that allow us to go on believing that life is worth living. If the snakes are the harsh realities of life, the ladders are the hopes that keep us going – the hope of connection with God or life or the angels or just the great, good souls who find you.
The great Indian poet Rabindrath Tagore wrote these words about the endless striving we feel in our search for ultimate meaning:
The song that I came to sing remains unsung to this day.
I have spent my days in stringing and unstringing my instrument.
The time has not come true, the words have not been rightly set;
only there is agony in the wishing of my heart.
The blossom has not opened; only the wind is sighing by.
I have not seen his face, nor have I listened to his voice;
Only I have heard his gentle footsteps from the road before my house.
The livelong day has passed in spreading his seat on the floor;
but the lamp has not been lit and I cannot ask him into my house.
I live in the hope of meeting with him, but this meeting is not yet.
In the Bible, after he has his dream, Jacob is still beset by troubles, and he wrestles all night with a being that is variously translated as an angel, God, or the devil; and if truth be told, we also do not always know with whom it is we are wrestling. He is wounded, but survives, as the being tells him, “because he has striven with God and man” and he is renamed Israel. He walks with a limp for the rest of his days, but he survives and his people live on and remember him after he dies. Whatever your theology, we are these people, who wrestle with God and human kind, who are wounded but still dream of a ladder connecting us to heaven, with the angels ascending and descending.
And what of our snake? The lowly creature who simply asked us to eat of the tree of knowledge? In Matthew, Jesus says we are to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” The realities of our lives, the hard realities, are a call to greater understanding, greater wisdom, greater knowledge of this world.
The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins. You may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled by the deceitful or the cruel. There is only one thing for it then – to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you.” (T.H. White, The Once and Future King, adapted)
Get out your hammer and learn how to build ladders. I was listening to the CBC years ago when they were interviewing the two Canadian families who took up something called “Pioneer Quest” – the challenge of living for a year with only the resources and implements a pioneer family would have had. “We had to build everything from scratch” said one of the men – our own fences and shed and barn and house – but we didn’t realize that before we could build the house, we had to build the ladder!”
When life gives you snakes, build ladders. Perhaps the first rung is telling your story to one safe person – opening your heart enough to let a little of its pain out and a little of someone’s kindness in. Perhaps another rung is trying to change the world for the better. Another rung is being gentle with yourself along the way. Let your friends come over and build a few more rungs, until one day, there is a way past the place you’ve been, and you’re back in the game.
Courage to you all. May you find the blessing in good fortune, the wisdom, knowledge and comfort of good friends in defeat, and may there be more ladders than snakes in your life. So may it be. Amen.