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We were trying to have a serious conversation, but she kept interrupting us. A little girl—maybe two or three years old. We made the mistake of picking the table in the coffee shop close to the corner with kids’ toys. This little girl would play for a bit, and then come over and pester us.
It was difficult to be too irritated—that precious smile and sweet little voice. Still, it was hard to get our work done. Then her mother came over and apologized for her daughter disrupting our meeting. Before they left, the little girl went to the toy shelf, picked something in each hand, shuffled over to our table and sat a toy fire truck in front of my friend. She sat a toy motorcycle in front of me. She stood there, smiling at both of us as if she knew something we didn’t, and then toddled away grasping her mother’s hand.
My friend and I looked at the toy in front of each of us, then looked at each other and just laughed.
When Jesus sat a child on his lap and insisted that if anyone wants to enter the kingdom of God they must become like one of these, I wonder if one of the things he had in mind was that we must rediscover a childlike capacity to play.
In his thought-provoking book Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, psychologist Stuart Brown talks about just how essential play is for adults as well as children. He writes:
“Life without play is a grinding, mechanical existence organized around doing the things necessary for survival. Play is the stick that stirs the drink. It is the basis of all art, games, books, sports, movies, fashion, fun and wonder—in short, the basis of what we think of as civilization. Play is the vital essence of life. It is what makes life lively…. Is it any wonder that often the times we feel most alive, those that make up our best memories, are moments of play?” (pp.11-12).
Brown’s book is insightful on many accounts, but this key notion that “play is the vital essence of life” is not some new discovery thanks to the disciplines of psychology and neuroscience. We learn this right away in the opening pages of the Bible.
In the first chapter of Genesis we see that God is a playful Creator! Even as God goes about his work, God plays and delights with childlike wonder in the goodness of creation. To be created in the image of God means that all of us have an innate capacity to play and a need for play. G.K. Chesterton was on to something when he famously quipped: “Perhaps God has the eternal appetite for infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we!”
It’s not just in the Old Testament that we see God’s playfulness. We see it in the New Testament as well, when God becomes flesh in the person of Jesus. Most often we depict Jesus as a serious man who was all business. A man praying, teaching, healing, casting out demons. A man who was on a mission from his Father, and he carried it out with a no-nonsense determination.
And all of these pictures are true. But they are not the complete picture. What’s missing is a man who, revealing the very heart of the playful God of the Universe, was filled with joy and liked to play. Jesus laughing. Jesus telling a good joke and delivering the punch line right on cue. Jesus teaching about the kingdom of God with imaginative stories called parables. Jesus gathering people around him and having a good time, turning water into wine, multiplying fishes and loaves, delighting in good company.
“Where is the Life we have lost in living?” asked the poet T.S. Elliot. In our many tasks and constant seriousness, we’ve taken the life out of living and made it dull. Rediscovering playfulness, a playfulness that ultimately only comes in union with Christ, puts the life back in living. No wonder we call it recreation. That’s what the Spirit does with play at its best: re-creates, revives, renews.
The great 20th century theologian Karl Barth put it this way: “Humor means the placing of a big bracket around the seriousness of the present.” He goes on: “Like art, humor undoubtedly means that we do not take the present with ultimate seriousness, not because it is not serious enough in itself, but because God’s future, which breaks into the present, is more serious.”*
Playfulness, humor and recreation can be an escape from pain and a way of avoiding the seriousness of the present. That’s true. But when taken in proper perspective, like Barth says, it can be the key to not taking ourselves too seriously. Instead, we take God seriously. We trust that God is God, and that God is working all things together according to his good purposes, and so we can bracket our own seriousness and laugh. Jesus Christ is Lord. Your future and my future, the world’s future, is secure. In this way, play is also subversive because it hints at this hopeful future that comes to meet us here and now.
As we begin 2018 and there remains so much in our nation and world that is scary and uncertain, I realize what a gift it was to be interrupted by that little girl a few weeks ago in the coffee shop. I realize how much I need a theology of play in my own life and ministry, even as I go about the serious work of bearing witness to the Light in a dark and broken world. Maybe you do too.
So how about it? When’s the last time you laughed, took a break from your work, and just played? If you’ve forgotten how, find a child or let a child find you. I bet they can help you remember.
*Quoted by John Bernstsen. Cross-Shaped Leadership (The Alban Institute, 2008), p.105.
Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa.