Wonder Week 2: The Importance of Play The Rev. Megan Collins
Last week Dave and I joined our older son Mac at a college football game. I’ve been to other college football games but for this one we were invited to sit in the student section, and it was fantastic. The energy of the kids around us was electric, and we stood up on the bleachers with them for the entire game. We yelled until we lost our voices. We danced to the music and jumped up and down a lot. We gave strangers around us high fives every time the team scored.
It felt so good to play, to be loud and crazy and silly. And the next day, when we woke up, it felt so good to take some Advil.
But it got me thinking. We, as adults, just don’t play as much as we used to. When was the last time you played hide and seek? Or laughed until you cried and your sides hurt? Or sang really loud or danced around the living room? We played all the time when we were kids. Anything could be a game. But then we grow up. Life gets really busy, and often, really hard. Our days are full. There is so much to do all the time. Our lists are too long and the stress is too much. We get sick and tired and cynical. The world is a mess and our own lives are falling apart. Life, as adults, is really serious business. We don’t get to play anymore. That’s kid stuff. But it turns out, it’s not. There’s a lot of research that points to the importance of play for us adults. Play changes us. At a biological level, it releases chemicals that make us feel happy and strengthens our bonds to other people. In our work, play makes our thinking more innovative and gives us perspective and new ideas. That’s why some of the big companies have crazy things like ball pits and game tables. Play can improve sleep, it decreases stress and it make us happier overall. That’s all great. Clearly play is good for us. But what does play have to do with our faith?
Mike Yaconelli writes in his book Dangerous Wonder:
“Play is an expression of God’s presence in the world; one clear sign of God’s absence in society is the absence of playfulness and laughter. Play is not an escape; it is the way to release the life-smothering grip of busyness, stress, and anxiety. Playfulness is a modern expression of hope, a celebration of the flickering light of the gospel that plays with the dark by pouncing on the surrounding darkness like a cat toying with a mouse.”
Play is an expression of God’s presence in the world. We are in a sermon series called Wonder here at the church during Advent. We’re taking a few weeks to look at what it means to have faith like a child, and how we can rediscover the wonder we see in children in our own lives. Today, I would like to make a case that play is not only good for you, and it’s not even just a good way to reclaim your sense of wonder leading up to Christmas. I believe it’s also a sort of spiritual practice. Spiritual practices are actions we do to help us feel closer to God and to practice our faith. Play can do this for us. But there are two things that get in our way.
Let’s take a look at a story about Jesus from the gospel of Matthew, chapter 14, versus 22 - 33.
"Immediately he made the disciples get into a boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
I love Jesus in this story.
Matthew tells us it is Jesus who made the disciples go out into a boat and out into the sea in the first place. Then after waiting a while he casually comes walking up next to them on the water. I picture him walking by with a grin saying “Oh hey! How’s it going?” And the disciples freak out. The disciples are afraid. They are so afraid they don’t even recognize Jesus and they think he is a ghost. Even though they had spent all of this time with Jesus, they still don’t trust that he was taking care of them. No matter how much Jesus did in their lives, right in front of them, they still think they are in charge. They still believe their lives are completely in their control.
You and I do this too. God has done things in your life. I don’t know what they are (and maybe you aren’t even always sure what they are) but God is there, with you. But no matter how close you are with God, it will always be tempting to hold onto the reigns of your life, to think that you can control all of it.
Maybe you used to trust God, but as time went on, you have forgotten. Life got busy and difficult and you started to believe that it really is all up to you. Somewhere along the way you stopped truly believing that God is here (or you never really believed it to begin with). You stopped playing because we didn’t have time when you are too busy keeping an eye on everything.
Control is seductive for us. When things are good and we think we are in control of our health and our future and our kids, we chalk it up to our diligence. But then the wind picks up, and life deals us a blow, every illusion we had of control is shattered. Of course we are afraid.
But you don’t have to be. To have faith like a child, you let go of that control. God can be trusted. The fate of the world really isn’t up to you. There are some things you can do to plot the course of your life, but at the end of the day, the big stuff - it’s all in God’s hands. Play reminds us of this, and makes us stop taking ourselves so seriously. We can play because we know God will keep an eye on things while we do. We can take our hands off the wheel for a while. We were never really in charge anyway.
Our story goes on:
"28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
We give Peter a hard time in this story when he struggled, but let’s remember he was the only disciple with the courage to get out of the boat. When Peter saw how hard it would be to walk on the water and that he might fail, he started to sink. We have a lot in common with Peter here too. It’s much easier to stay in the boat than to take a risk, especially if that risk means we might fail. We are much more comfortable sticking to things that we know we can be successful in. Failure makes us feel awful about who we are. It makes you question yourself. But to have faith like a child, you have to be willing to fail. The best things God will call you into won’t happen in the safety of the boat. The good news is that God loves us in spite of all of it, including our fears and our failures.
Play, by definition, requires a willingness to fail. If you laugh you might snort. If you dance you might fall down. If you play a game, you might lose. If you sing, you might be terrible at it. So when we play, it challenges us to let go of our fear of failure, and trust God’s love for us as enough.
Two of the core truths we find in the Scriptures are that God is in charge (which means we are not) and that God meets us right where we are to save us, because will all fail, at lots of things. Play is how we practice these two truths. Can you imagine how this story would have gone if the disciples believed this?
They are out in the boat and they see someone walking toward them on the water. They are curious and start hollering questions at the figure. They aren’t too scared because they know there’s nothing they can really do even if it is a ghost - they are stranded out in the water. So they’ll trust God and see how it plays out. Then they realize it’s Jesus and they start cracking up as he moonwalks by them on the water. When Jesus gets closer they climb over each other trying to be the first one out of the boat and onto the water to try it too. Peter makes it out first, and then with a huge grin, does a cartwheel. He gets a little too confident and tries to leapfrog over the boat and then crashes into the water and starts to sink. But it’s okay.
Because he knows Jesus loves him anyway, even if he fails. Peter starts climbing up into the boat and then capsizes the whole thing and the disciples are splashing and swimming around, trying to fix the boat but they are laughing too hard. They trust Jesus enough to play.
Now I may be losing some of you by this point because play sounds great but you have suffered an awful lot so this all seems a little ridiculous. And here’s the truth - suffering does that to us. When we suffer, play is one of the first things to go.
In college I volunteered in a children’s hospital with the chaplain department. We visited some of the sickest children in the hospital to offer prayer and support for their families. And it was then that I met the Child Life Specialists. One part of their job was to help sick kids remember how to play. The suffering they were facing made them grow up too fast, and play was one of the first casualties. The specialists help them try to remember how to play, even in hospital rooms.
I know you have suffered. All of us have, in one way or another, and some of you more than others. The call to play as a spiritual practice is not asking you to pretend things are not difficult, or to lie and put on a happy face even when you are hurting. That would be cruel. It’s not asking you to shove down the pain and emotions you are having. Instead, it is giving you permission to play in spite of it all. In fact, those of you who have really faced hard seasons may find you are the best at play. Courtney Ellis writes this:
“Christians can engage in whimsy not because life is easy, but because life is difficult. Paradoxically, feelings of sadness, loss, longing, and even pain can—and often do—coexist with playfulness. Often it is suffering that breaks our hearts open to the human necessity of play. People who have it all together—or appear to—love to take themselves much too seriously. But those who know of their desperate need for God and their own fallibility and foibles can begin giving in to the release of playfulness. What grace! What relief! It is perhaps for this reason that Jesus speaks so strongly of the place of sinners in the kingdom of God and the struggle the self-righteous will have in entering it."
I do not believe all suffering is put into our lives by God to teach us something. But I do believe we learn things about God during difficult times. The hardest situations are often when we realize we truly don’t have control over our lives. We see just how much we need God. We realize how broken we are, how much we can’t do, and how real failure is. When we really let go of our illusion of control and our desire for perfection, we may find we can play, in spite of it all. Play isn’t something we do only when we are happy. Play can be something that breaks into our suffering as a testament of who God is in our lives.
Play isn’t just important for us, it’s a part of our witness to the world. Christians don’t have a great reputation for being a lot of fun to be around. We take things pretty seriously. Yes, our faith is a very serious business. What Jesus has done for us is real. The sacrifice of the cross was costly for God. But God’s love for us, and what that means, is also the best news in the world. Which means the church, a people who fully acknowledge our failures and sin and our dependence on God, who are completely saved by grace and given a fresh chance everyday, should be some of the most fun people there are to be around.
We can play because God’s got it, and we are a mess but we are saved anyway. If we took that seriously, if we really believed it, we might laugh easier and play a whole lot more, which might make other people be curious about why we are having such a good time, especially when things are hard. Play is a spiritual practice, and it’s a part of our witness.
So where do we start? How do we start playing?
First, we have to remember how to play. The best way to do that, is to spend time around some play experts. Kids are really good teachers for play, because it’s super contagious. The next time you are around a kid, put down your phone, and be really present in whatever game they are playing. Let yourself get all caught up in it. When our kids were little, Dave’s dad offered to watch the boys for a bit. So we left them on the floor with him, happily building a lego tower. An hour later we came back, and there was a very impressive lego tower with a grandfather very engaged in play…..and the kids were no where to be seen. Play is contagious, and if you’ll let it, it can sweep you up in it, even as an adult. So let someone younger remind you how to start.
Second, look for any opportunity to play. You don’t have to wait until you are done at work or at the doctor’s office or the grocery store to play. We can play anywhere. A few years ago here at church, we got into a sort of game on the staff playing small pranks on one another. It started when I heard giggling in the hall outside my door, and a fake roach went scooting by. Then one day when Dave and I came in to our offices, and all of our furniture was missing. We found it wrapped up like Christmas presents in the narthex. You don’t have to wait for the perfect opportunity. You can play anywhere.
Third, remember you are never too old, or too important, or too serious or too smart or too adult, to play. According to expert Stuart Brown, the more advanced the species, the more it plays. If he’s right, play doesn’t mean you are being childish. It means you are the most advanced person in the room. You are never too important to play. As we move toward Christmas, we will be remembering again the incarnation, this moment when the all powerful, all knowing and amazing God, became human, became a baby. If the great God of the universe, who really is in control of everything and is entirely perfect, can stoop down to be a human, you and I are not too big or too important to stop for a minute, and play.