A child turns over a bucket of packed sand on the beach to add a third turret to an elaborate sand castle. Margaret has been building that castle for hours but it seems like only minutes to her. Familiar with the rhythms of the ocean, she knows the tide will soon pull the castle into the ocean. Still, she builds. And when today’s castle is gone, she will imagine her next creation. It, too, will be washed away. What will remain is the memory of a world of castles and the queens, kings and jesters that inhabited them. What will remain is joy.
Margaret is playing, engaging in activity that is apparently purposeless, voluntary and fun. Time melts away. It is a world that is paradoxically much like the real world yet utterly different. While play eludes definition, we innately know when someone is playing. Could it be that the earth is God’s playful creation? Perhaps you have blown over water to see it ripple.
In Psalm 104:6 God is our playful creator who made the Leviathan for the sport of it. Sophia, rejoicing before God at creation, was God’s delight (Proverbs 8:30). As people made in the image of God we share God’s playfulness. The writer of Zechariah tells us that in God’s imagination of the Kingdom, “the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets” (8:5). Play is part of the Christian life. In “Play: A Theological Perspective on Recreation,” Joyce Mercer tells us that “playing constitutes a crucial aspect of how we live as God’s called people in the world” (Mercer, 15).
Science reveals that play is embedded in our bodies and shapes our brains. In Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Stewart Brown, M.D. says, “We are built to play and built through play. When we play we are engaged in the purest expression of our humanity, the truest expression of our individuality” (Brown, 5).” Play stimulates nerve growth in areas of the brain that develop empathy, regulate emotions, and make executive decisions. Play is a moral act. And play isn’t just for children. Our brains continue to be shaped throughout our lives. Can you imagine a world without play? Without books, music, leisurely walks, and hikes just for the fun of it?
Play is a spiritual act. It opens our imaginations and allows us to see a reality outside the everyday. Margaret Guenther in Holy Listening sees a relationship between prayer and play and encourages directees to play with their images of God. In The Spirit of Liturgy, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) makes a connection between play and liturgy: “Children’s play seems in many ways a kind of anticipation of life, a rehearsal for later life, without its burdens of gravity. On this analogy…liturgy would be a kind of anticipation, a rehearsal, a prelude for the life to come, for eternal life” (Ratzinger, 14). Imagine entering liturgy as a playground of God’s kingdom, an “as if” world that enacts the wholeness of creation. In this Holy playground we practice Holy habits of peacemaking, gathering around one Table and gratitude, practices we can back into the world of the everyday so that the world can look more like God’s playground. Play is serious work!
So, let’s play! Let’s incorporate theologically grounded and open-ended play into Christian formation programs for all ages. Go through the Bible to see how many playful names for God you can find. Lauren Winner in her new book, God as a Cardigan Sweater, points to a number of Biblical metaphors for God—beekeeper, comedian, tree and dog. Look for humor in Jesus’ ministry (See Between Heaven and Mirth by James Martin, SJ), learn to tell Biblical stories by heart intermixed with contemporary culture (see #BibleUnplugged in YouTube), or take a Bible journey in the style of Chutes and Ladders by Adelaide Diaz (see myfaithmylife.org). Invite children, youth and adults to create playful, Christ-centered rituals based on scriptures that draw us toward a playful God. Or, as Lisa Brown does, plan unstructured time (See buildfaith.org, 9/23/15). Doing so will bring joy that God desires for us and widen our imaginations of the Kingdom of God.
Let us join Margaret in fashioning sandcastles, unafraid to have them claimed by the tide of God who invites us to take part in building the very kingdom at the core of God’s imagination.
Jenifer Gamber is the author of My Faith, My Life and Call on Me: A Prayerbook for Young People (with Sharon Pearson) and popular speaker in the Christian formation community.
Brown, Stuart, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. New York: Penguin Group, 2009.
Guenther, Margaret, Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction. Plymouth, UK, Rowan Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1992.
Mercer, Joyce, “Play: A Theological Perspective on Recreation,” in Focus 17(1), Summer 2015: 12-17, Union Presbyterian Seminary, Richmond, VA.
Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal, The Spirit of Liturgy. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000.
Winner, Lauren, Wearing God Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God. New York, HarperOne, 2015.