The words “play” and “important” don’t seem like they go together.
But I think they do. Playing is important.
I know that sounds funny coming from a “grown up.” That’s because we’re conditioned to think of play as childish, a frivolous waste of time that could be better spent on something more productive and useful and, well, important.
Christians especially seem attached to seriousness and hurry, both stern enemies of play. We tend to honor busy heroes who are productive for God. The result is a life that leaves little room for rest and play, imagination and creativity. At best these are seen as luxuries or leisurely extras to be worked in as one is able, but mostly for the purpose of returning us to our work a bit more refreshed so we can really buckle down. For God, of course.
But I think that’s all wrong. Playing is important in its own right. It is supposed to be a part of our lives. And when we squeeze play out of our schedules, something important is squeezed out of our souls as well.
In fact, when it comes to keeping my soul intact, I’ve learned that playing is as important as praying. Play has hidden powers. It is surprisingly effective at reconnecting me in unexplainable ways to God, others, and myself.
Maybe it’s because in play we enter into something for the sheer joy of it. The innocent experience of it. The embracing of life inherent in it. Maybe it’s because play is connected to gratitude and inner peace. The ability of Paul to be content in a Philippian jail is the same ability that allows us to enter into a game, a party, or a meal with friends with uninhibited joy and undiluted celebration. Contentedness, joy, and play are triplets that are hard to tell apart.
The kind of play I’m talking about isn’t necessarily about “playing a game” although it can be. The problem there is that I pretty immediately start thinking about how I can win (I love to win). But in sheer play the emphasis is not on keeping score or winning, but on embracing life, celebrating, engaging our senses in a God-honoring way.
A kid needs to learn to have fun and experience joy in playing a game of checkers with a friend – even if she doesn’t WIN the game.
I’m not the sort that thinks we should give every kid a trophy for signing up for Tee-ball or that we should prevent our little darlings from ever experiencing competition. Everyone needs to know what it’s like to finish last, and that only a few finish first. But there is something different and more beautifully important about engaging in an activity, especially with others, without it having to be about winners and losers, but for the enjoyment of the activity. This is why things like riding a bike, going for a walk, baking cookies, making music, writing a funny letter, playing Frisbee, building a birdhouse, skiing down a slope or behind a boat, or playing charades can better release the joys of play than activities which tend to make us feel like winners or losers. And this is coming from the guy who loves to keep score at my tennis, golf, volleyball and all the rest. I have just come to recognize there’s something qualitatively different about play itself, which may or may not be grasped in traditional sport or competition.
Play insists we focus on the experience of joy that comes by being intrigued, amused, interested and involved with others or God’s creation in wholesome activity.
How much of that sort of thing do you do? I mean really? Checking your phone for messages doesn’t count.
The church hasn’t always embraced play very well. Michael Marra says that in Scotland today there are still communities that chain up swing sets on Sunday – because after all, Sunday is the Lord’s Day, and what would the Lord think about us playing?
An added problem is that adults often feel they aren’t allowed to play anymore. We know that play is a good way for children to learn in early childhood education. But when we want to teach adults we tend to stuff them in a classroom and drone at them with words only. This may be why many feel adulthood is so profoundly disappointing. It’s just not very fun when you have to “act all grown up” all the time.
Is this the way it’s supposed to be? Who says?
If you do play as an adult, you’re often made to feel ashamed or guilty, like you’re a bit of a slacker. So we learn to limit our “play” to a few acceptable outlets. Unable to find healthy avenues for play, many adults engage in unhealthy (secret) escapes instead. Getting buzzed with booze, escaping with pills, chasing risky behavior or having an affair gets substituted for real play. In play’s absence we instinctively attempt to replace it, but often wind up inventing a poor substitute, inventing some adrenalin rush or other activity we hope will entertain us, but which usually reinforces our passivity, boredom, and consumer mentality. Increasingly it seems we are resorting to video games, fantasy sports, TV, or maybe gambling. Do I need to point out why none of these come close to approximating what happens in a person’s soul when they actually allow themselves to experience the vulnerability of wholesome play?
My sister is in her fifties and signed up for a kickball league in her community. Other than pulling a hamstring, she’s having a blast – a throwback to her elementary years when play was not only allowed, but structured into every day at recess. There is something elementary about play, indeed.
Play is something human beings were created to do!
One intense perfectionist had a tendency to take herself too seriously. But God has been upending her outlook by telling her to “lighten up.” God has told me the same thing. And God has used play to tell me.
We have “Fifteen Commandments of Culture” at Mountain and one of them is to not take ourselves too seriously. Jesus was the Son of God, which is kind of a big deal. But he still went to parties and banquets and hung out with people. He took great joy in life in the midst of a very evil world. But even the evil world did not destroy his joy or his celebration of life.
That’s why yesterday at Staff Meeting before we spent time on vision and strategy and downloading information, we took half an hour to play. It’s amazing what some corn hole and charades will do for a team.
I think we need to recognize that play has restorative power. God made us in his own creative image. He breathes Living Breath into us and off we go. You see the beautiful creative imago dei in unadulterated children who are expert play-ers. But then life sucks the God right out of us, it seems. Over time we become depleted, discouraged, diseased, and diluted. Running on empty, the breath of the Creator gets knocked out of us. We long for the filling of God again. Every adult knows what I’m talking about.
God in his grace has given us the gift of re-creation! New breath! New life! Dry bones dancing again! Re-creation is an act of mercy to return us to the way we were meant to be – creative, filled up, God-like people who know how to work and rest, pray and play.
If you have experience your cup being refilled, your lungs being re-pumped, you have experienced recreation.
One of the chief ways God does this in my life is through play. Play is important for my soul. It rejuvenates me and reconnects me with God. Recreation re-creates me.
A problem that keeps us from embracing this way of thinking is our latent dualism. This pesky old mindset values certain things as super spiritual. This is a short list of activities you usually do around church and may even include hard work. These serious matters should get our highest devotion. The next tier we begrudgingly tolerate as necessary even though they are the non-spiritual things (like eating and sleeping, picking up groceries, taking a shower, making the bed). Then at the bottom of the barrel are those every day, mundane things that are the really non-spiritual activities. These are considered frivolous, questionable, and maybe even sinful – like playing, recreation, having fun, partying (and depending on who your theological heroes are, sex). Play comes in at the bottom of the list, down there with other unimportant things.
That kind of dualism teaches us that real Christians should flatten out life’s experiences, that spirituality has to be a bland vanilla. Don’t engage your senses, don’t trust experiences, don’t let your body be part of your spirituality. And don’t put hot sauce on your tacos.
And it’s flat out wrong.
In The Christian at Play Robert Johnston reminds us that there is a long-standing suspicion about play among Christians. The influential theologian Augustine thought conversion to Christianity meant a conversion from a life of play. To him, even eating was sinful if done in a spirit of pleasure. Then along came the ideals of the modern Protestant work ethic to further feed this notion. “An all work and no play lifestyle was one of the evidences that God had truly redeemed a person.”
Christians are famous for being all-business, un-fun people. I’d swear some Believers I’ve met were baptized in lemon juice, based on the sour look on their faces.
In stark contrast theologian Robert Hotchkins insists: “Christians ought to be celebrating constantly. We ought to be preoccupied with parties, banquets, feasts, and merriment. We ought to give ourselves over to veritable orgies of joy because of our belief in resurrection. We ought to attract people to our faith quite literally by the fun there is in being a Christian.”
How often do you truly celebrate in a wholesome, God-honoring way? When is the next time you will do so?
How full is your “joy” tank? If it’s below half, what kind of ful-FILLING play can you think of that would help replenish it?
Do you think anyone is being attracted to the Faith because of your joy or the way you play?
How could you make play happen in your life in the next seven days?
In my next few posts I will chase down the idea of play a bit further. (Chasing … doesn’t that sound like fun?)