By Ben Cachiaras
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. Paul”s ability 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 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 with games is I almost 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, and 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 he doesn”t WIN the game.
There is something different and more beautifully important about engaging in an activity, especially with others, when it doesn”t involve crowning a winner or loser, but is for the sheer 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 that tend to make us feel like winners or losers.
And this is coming from the guy who loves to keep score when playing tennis, golf, volleyball, and other sports. 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.
Chained Swing Sets
The church hasn”t always embraced play very well. A few years ago Michael Marra claimed there were still communities in Scotland 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 adults often feel they aren”t allowed to play anymore. We know 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 alone. 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 . . . 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 the person actually allows himself to experience the vulnerability of wholesome play?
We have “Fifteen Commandments of Culture” at Mountain Christian Church, and one of them is not to 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.
Running on Empty
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 players. But then life sucks the God right out of us, it seems.
Over time we become depleted, discouraged, diseased, and diluted. Running on empty, we may not even realize the breath of the creator has been 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, Godlike people who know how to work and rest, pray and play.
If you have experienced your cup being refilled, your lungs being repumped, you have experienced re-creation.
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 mind-set 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 nonspiritual things (like eating and sleeping, picking up groceries, taking a shower, making the bed).
At the bottom of the barrel are those everyday, mundane pursuits that are the really nonspiritual 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 there is a longstanding 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. Johnston writes, “An all work and no play lifestyle was one of the evidences that God had truly redeemed a person.”
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?
Do you think anyone is being attracted to the faith because of your joy or the way you play?
This article is adapted, with permission, from Ben Cachiaras”s blog, “Out of My Mind.” See http://outofmymind.cc/thoughts-on-play-part-i/ and search “play” for four more posts about play.
Ben Cachiaras serves as senior pastor with Mountain Christian Church, Joppa, Maryland and one of CHRISTIAN STANDARD”s contributing editors.