I guess only people my age and older can remember playing conkers at school. Sometime after I left school conkers were banned from the playground. I guess we all know why!
Looking back, I remember with horror now all the children who were injured at my school during the conker season. You only had to miss, when you were taking a swing at the other person’s conker, and you could easily crack their knuckles. You can imagine them all sitting at their desks with plaster casts on their hands, unable to hold a pen.
And then there were the unfortunate children - not so many as the ones with broken knuckles - who were hit in the eye by flying fragments when their conker was smashed to pieces, not to mention the unwary dinner ladies who were knocked out by conkers flying through the air when the person holding the string had it knocked from their grasp as a well-aimed blow struck their conker with devastating force.
Of course, I’m joking. Nothing like that ever happened. I never saw a single accident, although we did get our knuckles wrapped occasionally. However, I wouldn’t really have minded if conkers had been banned when I was at school. Playing at conkers was always a grave disappointment. It promised much but delivered nothing!
I used to spend ages collecting conkers, sometimes helped by my grandfather who would turn up with a bag full of them. I would carefully select the best ones, polish them up, even sometimes get my mother to bake them in the oven or give me some vinegar to dip them in - both of which were supposed to be ways of making the conkers harder. Then my father would help me drill holes in them and string them. I would turn up at school, confident of victory, only to miss my opponent’s conker and have them ruthlessly smash mine to bits with their very first swing.
I never got to swagger round the playground boasting that I was the conker champion. That was the kind of feeling that James and John were hoping to get by sitting on Jesus’ left and right when he was put in charge of everything. They wanted to be his enforcers, like the mean-looking polar bears and timber wolves in the film Zootopia.
But in the world that Jesus wants to usher in, power and influence don’t work like that. It’s the opposite of our kind of world, where kings and rulers get to lord it over everyone. Instead, people only become important by serving others. Jesus said that he didn’t come to be a slave master, but to be our slave.
Someone in Sydney complained the other day that he had waited hours at the roadside to see the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Harry and Megan to you and me, only for them to glide quickly by in an official car. It didn’t even have an open top. We had a similar sense of disappointment when we asked the Duchess to come and speak at an event we were organising in Sheffield, only to be told that she’d already had some special charities chosen for her by her royal minders. And that was within days of starting the job! We had to write and say we would be her most obedient servants, not the other way round.
That’s the opposite of what makes people important to God. We’re supposed to make ourselves available to as many people as we can, and the more ordinary they are, the fewer friends they have, the better.
Being other people’s slave is a pretty extreme idea, an exaggeration perhaps, because we’re not supposed to behave like doormats. But we do have to try to be friendly, helpful, obliging, open, kind and considerate. We have to be enablers rather than enforcers. That’s how we get to be best friends with Jesus.