Last weekend a new craze burst into our lives. If a couple of weeks ago anyone had said that I would have been sitting in a meeting this week discussing a strategy to respond to Pokémon Go with two education officers, a safeguarding officer, two communications officers and a director of operations, I would have been surprised to say the least. You will no doubt have seen groups of teenagers and others walking round glued to their phones as they go in search of Squirtles, Pidgeys, Magnemites and Zubats.
For those in blissful ignorance of all of this, Pokémon Go is a mobile app game which lets players find the animated creatures called Pokémon (short for pocket monster) and once caught by flinging balls at them on the screen, they can train them and then battle with them. The game takes place in what is called augmented reality, which combines real life places with virtual gaming. It uses the GPS signal on the phone so it knows where you are and can locate you on the map. Various buildings and features have been tagged as Pokéstops that gamers need to visit to find the Pokémon and pick up various other items to play the game and St John’s is one such Pokéstop. Some places are gyms where the battles can take place, and the Lido is one of these. The game has labeled us as “One of Jesus’ Houses”, which is pretty accurate, and the gateway to the Cathedral is “Gateway to Jesus Mansion”, which has a certain humour to it.
One of the benefits of the game is that it gets people out and about, looking at what is around them. And those who are playing it are very happy to talk. It is social and engaging, it provides an opportunity to point out what the place they have visited is for. I was talking to a group of young people in the cathedral grounds the other evening and they had been out for 2 hours walking round different places in search of the creatures. In the Cathedral we have decided to work with this and are setting up a phone free Pokémon trail around the inside for the school holidays. We have also had to put up a few notices to let people know if they are about to stray off the right path and that there is no way through. We are concerned for the safety of those who play it and so are alert to some of its darker sides. We are on the look out for anyone trying to use it to lure young people into danger. We want to be a place of safety.
Augmented reality; searching, meeting and finding; a place of safety: these are themes that connect with our Christian faith.
The creatures which are seen on the screen are not there, they only exist in a cyber world; a world that augments the real one. But they spark the imagination. It entices a question: what lies around us but is hidden? In a much more enchanted age, where the popular consciousness felt the presence of demons and angels, spirits and forces at work unseen, the concept of augmented reality would have readily triggered in ways it doesn’t tend to for us. We are familiar with the use of metaphor: a word picture to help us express what we can’t quite get hold of in any tangible sense. These can help us give form to forces at work that we don’t readily see but want to talk about. A community can have a corporate way of being and the writer of the Book of Revelation referred to this by addressing his comments to the ‘angel’ of the churches of particular places, the ‘angel’ being the metaphor for the corporate character. Some of those were not very virtuous angels. So augmented reality can be similar to metaphor, the representations we use to express the deeper dynamics and drives which we can’t see.
We can ask what are the forces that are at work beneath the surface of our corporate character. How are these expressed as we struggle with how we view the stranger, the vulnerable, the struggling? How do we relate to those who have a very different picture of what kind of society they would like to see? Do we look for a ‘gym’ where we can do battle with our metaphors or instead find a place to understand one another more deeply? The overriding aim for a Christian character is to seek God’s Kingdom and that should aim to bring us together in love and hope, to reconcile the differences and bring peace. The Christ who died and rose for us draws us closer to one another and to him.
Secondly, searching, meeting and finding; these were in our Gospel reading (Luke 11:1-13). If we search we will find; there is something to look for (v10). It began with Jesus teaching them how to pray (v1-4), with words that connect with the hidden and unseen reality that is God. It was relational, because just like it is unthinkable that a child asking for an egg would be given a scorpion (v11-13), so God as Father can be relied on. It has been a central theme of the spiritual quest down the ages that we have to go on a journey to find what we seek. Just as Pokémon Go players have to walk around to find the Pokémon and play the game. It is readily available but we do have to move in order to connect with it, be that physically, emotionally or mentally. It rarely leaves us where we are or as we are. The hymn ‘Just as I am’ is not a statement about how God leaves us but that in the state of being ‘without one plea’ we are met and drawn into the reality that is God’s love for us. God, who accepts us as we are, transforms us into the image of his glory that he would have us be. It is one of the fallacies of our age that thinks there is no need for redemption, confession or indeed resurrection. How we are is not how we will be and the true spiritual paths disrupt us and change us. The Lord’s Prayer asks for forgiveness to be given and received.
In that changing, the social element of the game has a further level for us. It is connecting people, getting the hard to reach to open up so that a point of contact to talk, however briefly, can be found. And the “hard to reach” might be us. It breaks down barriers as people compare their excitement and discoveries. God the Holy Trinity is our ultimate model of social living. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit relate to one another and exist in a harmony of love and purpose. So anything that promotes breaking down barriers and drawing people closer together is to be welcomed. In providing a common topic, Pokémon Go can be an icebreaker as those engaging with one another find a point of contact from which a conversation can develop.
As people play the game we can also recognize its dangers, not least being so absorbed in what’s on the screen that we don’t notice what we are about to walk into or be hit by. And the game begins with a warning to stay aware of your surroundings. Providing a place of safety, of sanctuary, my third theme, has been a feature of churches since very early days. It can be a refuge from the pressures and noise as we enter its calm and stillness. One of the things I was reminded of on the clergy chapter quiet day last week, as I read TS Eliot’s poem Little Gidding at Little Gidding, was that poetry requires us to slow down and savour the words at a more measured pace. That can be difficult for the restless soul, but doing it stills the inner mind and brings refreshment. Safety also brings protection from the evil that would assail us, and there is a link between spiritual anchoring and calming a turbulent mind, as well as safeguarding.
So Pokémon Go is this summer’s brain rest and fun feature for many people around us. We are involved in it, whether we like it or not, because the game has tagged us as “One of Jesus’ Houses”. That brings an opportunity to explain what being one of Jesus’ Houses means and I have put a poster in our outside noticeboards. It can also prompt us to look more deeply at what is real as we play with augmented reality: the reality of faith, hope and love, and how we live these. We search, we meet and we find: we find God who is looking to connect with us and we find one another as a point of contact opens up what may have been closed. Love of God and love of neighbour are after all linked. And we find our ultimate safety in the love of Jesus Christ, who died and rose again for us. In augmented reality and real reality, this is one of Jesus’ houses because here we search, we meet and we find.
Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 24th July 2016