During the month of August, while the Chapel is closed, we are reposting sermons that we hope will inspire you to embrace play, rest, and recreation.
If we consider how often the word “play” figures into English discourse, “play” is obviously important to us. We play games and sports; we play musical instruments; we play cards; we play with our pets. We watch actors play their parts in stage plays. And, just for fun, there’s all kinds of word plays, like “I used to be indecisive. Now I’m not so sure.” (1) We can play an important role in life. But then, playing can also become quite complicated, like in a power play, or playing up to someone, or playing something down. One can play fair, or play foul, or play safe. One can also play along, or play favorites, or play the field, or play politics, or play into someone’s hands, or play with someone’s head. Complicated play.
In the beginning, playing is not complicated. Our capacity to play manifests how we have been created in the image of God. Imagine creation as God’s play at work. In the beginning, God created a sunrise. And it was so much fun that God said, “Let’s do it again.” “And again.” “And again, day after day.” The same thing about the first wave in the ocean. God said, “Oh, let’s do that again… and again… and again.” The same thing about tulips. Again, and again, every spring, and God never tires of it. In the beginning, God created a donkey. And it was good. “Well then,” God said, “how about straightening the swayback, lifting the head, making the flanks a little more sleek. Perfect! We’ll call this a horse. Now God is on a roll. Just for fun: stripes. We’ve got a zebra!” Just let your imagination go as you picture God in creation, having more and more fun. “I’m going to make a creature that can fly.” We’ve now got a sparrow! And then, ooh, God changes the paint palette and the brush strokes, just for fun, and we’ve got a cardinal. Pulls out the stops and we’ve got a flamingo, then a bird of paradise. God in creation displays so much wonder. And little babies’ capacity to play get it all from God. A baby’s innate inclination is to find delight in life, to do something with their hands, to see something with their eyes, and to do it again. And to do it again. And again, and again for sheer delight. This is not something that even the smallest babies need to be taught. It’s their discovery, mirroring how we have been created in the image of God, the Creator. Babies are co-creators, and as we grow up, we never lose this innate capacity for play… but we may lose track of it.
Learning theorists will tell us what’s going on in the various stages of play how a baby is learning inductively through experimentation and testing, stimulus and response, doing something again, and again, for sheer pleasure. The baby is also forming their identity and capacities and relationships to the world. Young children will eventually learn about rules, so that other people can play, too. I’ve found quite fascinating the research of Dr. Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist who has devoted his career to studying play. (2) By definition, play is often purposeless, all-consuming, and yet, play is anything but trivial. It’s a doorway into the experience of joy, to be sure; however Dr. Brown makes the case how play, for young and old alike, is as integral to our wellbeing as sleep and nutrition. His prescription: particularly in tough times, we need to play more than ever because it’s the very means by which we prepare for the unexpected, search out new solutions, and remain hopeful. Play is essential to our social skills, adaptability, intelligence, creativity, and our ability to problem solve. The opposite of play is not work; the opposite of play is depression. (3) Play invigorates the soul. Dr. Brown’s conclusion: we are designed to flourish through play. I’m calling God the designer.
In the early desert tradition of Christian monasticism, there are delightful stories about the desert mothers and fathers able to laugh and to laugh at themselves. Abba Simon, when warned that some admirers were coming out into the desert to seek his blessing, would invariably sit in front of his cell, stuffing himself with bread and cheese, or climb a nearby palm tree, polishing its branches for all he was worth. The visitors would then look with disdain on the glutton gorging himself with food, or gaze up at the fool hanging unceremoniously from the tree, and wonder where the great Abba Simon had gone. In our own Rule of Life, we speak of how “we can all contribute to the sanity and balance of our life together by allowing playfulness and humor to keep us in touch with our humanity and to release tension.” (4) I remember some years ago our late Br. Paul Wessinger was asked by some guests what he thought to be the secret for thriving in life. Br. Paul was a holy man, a real patriarch to so many of us, and I expected he would respond, speaking about the discipline of prayer, or the practice of forgiveness, or the grace of compassion, all of which are important. But that’s not what he said. Br. Paul said his secret for thriving in life was a sense of humor. Br. Paul was mischievously playful.
Jesus said adults need to become again as children to enter the kingdom of heaven. (5) What is it about children that so captured Jesus’ imagination? Why are children so “iconic” to Jesus? Why do they point to the way? Two reasons. One, because they are so abjectly dependent on their parents or caregivers to supply their every need. We are children of God, all of us, whatever age. Jesus saw children as living reminders of our abject dependence on God. The other reason children so captured Jesus’ imagination is because of play, because of the child’s innate capacity to delight in life, to laugh, and be full of wonder and amazement. A child knows what it is to be really present to life, to the grace, and glory, and gratitude in the moment. Jesus pointed to children, Jesus said look, let them come to me and watch how they get it, how they are so fully alive. You become like them again.
Where do you need permission or encouragement to claim time for play?
- Undoubtedly some of you are already quite playful. Keep it up! It’s good for you; and if it’s good for you, it’s good for those who live around you, too.
- Some of you may trip over the word “play.” For whatever reason, “play” is not a word in your soul’s vocabulary. So find a synonym for play that does fit: perhaps enjoyment, or wonder, or delight, or amazement, or hilarity, or jubilation, or recreation. Claim a playful word that fits your soul, and then fit it into your calendar. You’re worth it.
- Some of you may find play unreachable because of suffering – your own suffering or the suffering of someone you carry in your heart. Serious suffering. But you can do both. You can both weep and laugh, one after the other. This is what St. Paul has in mind when he says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” (6) Earlier this year I sat beside a man in a hospital intensive care ward. I knew him well, for many years. He was dying but still conscious. I anointed him and prayed for him, and we both shed some tears. Because of a breathing tube he could not speak, so he scribbled notes on a little pad of paper. He scribbled; I talked; he scribbled; I talked. Finally he wrote, “Is it happening?” I said, “Is what happening?” He scribbled, “Dying?” I said, “Are you dying right now? Is that your question?” He nodded, “Yes.” And I paused, then responded, “I don’t know. I haven’t done this before. I don’t know.” Then he shrugged his shoulders and rolled his eyes. I said to him, “You don’t know either, do you? Your first time?” He nodded and rolled his eyes again. And then, simultaneously, we both got the giggles. He was shaking with the giggles, happy tears coming from his twinkling eyes. I just laughed out loud. It was so silly, and such a wonderful parting. If life is really tough for you now, find something, claim something that will make you laugh, that will fill you with delight, and then enjoy the moment. You really can experience the best of times amidst the worst of times.
- If your prayer feels dried up just now, if your prayer is boring, if you can’t bear one more earnest prayer practice – you just can’t do centering prayer right now; and you’ve done icons; and you’re well-practiced in silent meditation and with a straight posture and measured breathing; and you say, please no more lectio divina – if your prayer feels boring or dead, try some humor. I don’t necessarily mean laughing in your prayer, though that might not be a bad thing. I do mean to bring some humor, some playfulness, some delight into your life, and this will prime the well of your prayer. You will remember why life is worth living and why you are grateful. The great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said “Humor is a prelude to faith and laughter is the beginning of prayer.” (7)
- Lastly, you might find it helpful to claim your own play history. Go back in your memory to a time when you could play. Some time, some setting, some event that was sheer delight, so much fun, fabulously enjoyable. Claim that memory, then trace that memory. Carry that memory toward the present. What’s happened to it? If, at some point, your playfulness got derailed, what happened? Did you get hurt, did you learn to be earnest, or to focus on results, or be incredibly responsible? Did you always have to get the best grades? Did something kidnap your playfulness? If you can remember that playfulness, it’s still a part of you. Reclaim the memory. Reclaim how that unscripted playfulness can figure into your life now. Start where you are.
“I had a dream and I heard music.” This is a mostly true story by Brian Andreas. “There were children standing around, but no one was dancing. I asked a little girl why not? And she said they didn’t know how, or maybe they used to but they forgot, and so I started to hop up and down and the children asked me, Is that dancing? and I laughed and said, No, that’s hopping, but at least it’s a start and soon everyone was hopping and laughing and it didn’t matter any more that no one was dancing.” (8)
Go do it! Have the time of your life. Play it up. You’re worth it. Do it for your sheer delight, and to God’s glory.
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For more on the sacred dimensions – and divine origins – of play, check out Br. Jonathan Maury’s article, “Divine Leisure: Joining God in the Cosmic Sandbox,” which recently appeared in Diolog magazine, from the Diocese of Texas.
- I particularly enjoy “paraprosdokians,” word plays where the latter part of a sentence is surprising, causing the listener to re-interpret the first part, e.g., “I used to be indecisive. Now I’m not so sure.”
- I recommend Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, by Stuart Brown M.D. and Christopher Vaughan.
- Stuart Brown MD, Ibid.
- From The SSJE Rule of Life,” Chapter 10: “Celibate Life.”
- Matthew 18:2-4, 19:14; Luke 18:15-17.
- Romans 12:15.
- Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) was an American theologian, ethicist, and a prolific author, having taught at Union Theological Seminary, New York, for more than 30 years.
- from Mostly True; Collected Stories and Drawings, by Brian Andreas (1993).
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