Olly Olly Oxen Free!

Hide and seek, capture the flag, red rover-red rover, tag or the variation – freeze tag? What were your favorite games as a kid? You know, before there was minecraft, or fortnight, or for us oldies, bejeweled; and xbox or playstation 1-100. Did you have a favorite? It probably depended on the day for me, maybe it does for all kids, but hide and go seek was my fall back I think. While someone was standing facing a tree with their eyes CLOSED, how often did that really happen, they would count to 100 and at 97 they’d start yelling 97, 98, 99, 100!!! Here I come!!! How many places would we look to hide before finding the exact best one? Behind a tractor tire, in the bed of the pick-up, behind mom’s peony bushes laying as flat as possible? That was outdoor hide and seek, the only real way to play the game from my perspective. You couldn’t go too far away, there were always boundaries, but no matter how close or far to home base, my heart would always be beating so fast while whomever was “it” started searching. And then if the place you found was good enough, or your mom hollered to come in for supper, the “it” would holler “olly olly oxen free!” Can you hear the sing-song nature of it? So I looked it up, the wisdom of google says it’s the variation of the German phrase “alle alle auch sind frei” loosely translated as everyone, everyone is free – in other words it’s safe to come in – you’re free to come back to home base.

Why is it this time of year, and maybe particularly THIS year, I get nostalgic and reflective about the years of childhood? It started cooling down and misting yesterday and today it’s even colder and still gray and coldly damp. What I’ve said numerous times during 2020 is that I don’t particularly think this virus deal has caused unique differences in who we always were, I think it has simply magnified certain parts of our lives at different times. Maybe our anger is a little angrier, our sadness a little more sorrow-full, and conversely maybe our happiness a little more joy-full – I hope and am more hope-full!

Looking back on the rhythm of hide and seek – it has an interesting adult-looking-back depth. You flee from the home base and the person at home can’t watch where you go. You hide trying not to be found so that you can perhaps run to home base safely before they either catch you where you’re hiding or race back to home base before you. And yet, when it’s time for the game to end, the yell is for everyone to come back in safely, that they are free. There are reasons children play games, even old-timey non-computerized kinds – we know that, but sometimes do we know that?

When I look at that game from a distance, it has the feel of the prodigal son story in the gospel of Luke, ch. 15. The father gives permission for the younger son to go and hide, when the younger son runs out of financial resources and safe places to be, he decides to head back home defeated and no small amount of humbled. And yet when the father sees him, he essentially yells, “olly olly oxen free,” it’s safe to come home! Maybe also the story of Zacchaeus hiding in a tree (and maybe behind his position as tax collector and sinner?) and Jesus seeing him and telling him he would be going to his home that day? (Luke 19). Or perhaps also the story of the Samaritan woman at the well – there at noon likely hiding from the other women who would have been at the well at first light – knowing they might deride her for having 5 husbands and the man she was living with currently was not her husband? (John 4:7). And Jesus offering her living water, and she running back to her hometown to tell them what Jesus had done for her? I think it could include Moses (Exodus 2 and following) put in a basket in the Nile to save his life, growing up in the Egyptian Pharoah’s Palace, reclaiming his heritage as a Hebrew, murdering an Egyptian slavemaster, running to the hills settling with the Moabites, and God calling him from the burning but not consumed bush to go back to Egypt to bring God’s people and his family to freedom – olly, olly oxen free . . .

Maybe the stories of hide and seek are unlimited in this book we call the bible and the living history of our faith. Perhaps human beings as a whole are pretty gifted at hiding . . . in our positions and titles, in our power and privilege, in our named (sometimes credibly sometimes not) and claimed status of victim, in our conviction that other people are either wrong and we hide in our rightness, or other people have it easier, usually unfairly, and we don’t. Am I hitting too close to home . . . for me and maybe a little bit for you? By the way, God knows we do our best at hiding in all kinds of ways – why else would the absolute verrrrry first story of the whole book of scripture called Genesis, be about the verrrrry first human beings trying to hide from God after they had done what they knew God had asked them not to do – what God had invited them to trust that God knew was better for them? In other words, God asking us (all human beings) to trust that God is God and we are not. But we couldn’t quite reach that level of trust, not then, and all too often not now, and so we attempt to hide behind our stuff and our appearance to the world and our selfishness and our outer over-security and our inner in-security. When God says to those first humans, “where are you” (like God wouldn’t know) And they say, “we hid because we knew we were naked.” In that moment when human beings became more focused on themselves than on the world God provided for them, they became afraid of their vulnerability with one another and with God, and we’ve sorta been trying to hide ever since. (That’s simply one pastor’s all too simple theology on this Wednesday 7 months into a pandemic).

What if God is still waiting at the end of the driveway like God was for the prodigal son? What if God is waiting at the well for those who don’t feel like they fit anywhere and wants to invite us to receive that living water? What if God is spying us in that tree no matter how diligently we’re hiding in the branches and is calling us to come down so we can share time at home together? What if God is in that weird looking bush or tree or flower or creek on that path you always take and is inviting us to take off our shoes right where we are because God’s presence makes right where we are, holy ground? What if the greatest good news is that God’s voice is the only olly, olly oxen-free we need to hear to know that we are free from all that oppresses and binds and causes us fear, we are free in our most vulnerable selves to be home safely with God?

Pastors, right? What are you going to do with us – it’s just a simple game called hide and seek . . . but maybe, just maybe, in this weird and wearying time we’re living, God is truly the place to call home . . . olly, olly oxen free.