Imagining a playful faith

When our unchurched friends think about the Bible, they often picture a compendium of  “thou-shalt-nots”, “oughts”, and flat out “nos”. Deuteronomy 16 offers an unexpected command to give ourselves over to celebration, to feasting, and to renewal. The Passover Feast rules revisits God’s weekly calendar: “on the seventh day will be a celebration for the Lord your God. Don’t do any work.”  “Celebrate God’s presence and do not do any work!  God invites us into playful worship- free from the demands of work. Do we picture Christianity as a celebration or as a chore?

When do you give yourself over to “celebrating God’s presence and not doing any work?”  We clergy may have the hardest time letting go of self-improvement, judgment and perfectionism and simply celebrating God’s presence with God’s people in worship.  Systemic market-based mythologies like the Protestant Work Ethic lead us to view not working with a certain religious-like suspicion.  

Last week Keller Hawkins shared with our Young Adults a theology of play. “Stuart Brown says that when we lose connection to play, we pay a high price. In fact, Brown says, “The opposite of play is not work—the opposite of play is depression.”  For Brown “Play” appears purposeless, can’t be forced, is fun, is not regulated by time, frees us for self- expression, awakens our imagination, invites improvisation and makes us sad when it ends. Could we imagine God telling us: “Thus saith the Lord: “Today, Play! Celebrate God’s presence and don’t work!”?  Could worship, Christian ethics and spiritual living break free from a deadening sense of duty and liberate us to celebrate God’s presence above, around, under, through, and in us and in others? (patheos.com/blogs/paperbacktheology/2016/05/dr-stuart-browns-seven-properties-of-play ) 

We Americans can make almost any part of our lives into work: art, baking, careers, dining, exercise, entertainment, social media, and vacations!  When do we cease our preoccupation with productivity and fall into sabbath? When do we stop working and start celebrating God’s presence in and around us? I never felt less playful than during my one year playing the trombone, sitting seventh chair and playing the third part,  maybe that is why I loved sports growing up. At some point I “played” organized basketball, baseball, softball, volleyball, football, soccer, and from age 4 until 17 I was a competitive swimmer (when I quit I was running each morning and practicing 2 hours each night). However, my happiest athletic memories linger in riding bikes to nowhere, cannonballing off the high dive, sandlot wiffle ball, HORSE, pickle, roller skate hockey, 3on3 gym kickball (where a ball through the basketball hoop was ruled an automatic game winner), and living room crab crawl football (banned from even the den when we broke Mrs. Johnson lamp). We played without coaches, referees, teachers, non-negotiable rules, or clocks. I am thankful for lessons about teamwork, grit, and fitness I learned through organized sports but deeply treasure the purer joy of unstructured childhood play.  When do we stop working to get better or to win? When do we just play only to enjoy the game, the music, the moment or the Mountain range around us? When do we “Celebrate God’s presence and do no work”?

Can you imagine that God and your faith can make some space for theological playfulness or is God too stern and serious for some fun? Is God’s Love big and boundless enough to allow us some self-expressive wiggle room?  Can we imagine a relationship with God that is not rooted in duty, rules and work- but is joyful, fun, liberative, self- expressive, awakens our imagination,  invites our improvisation and is filled with celebration? If 1 John 4 is right that “God is Love… (and) There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love” then perhaps we need to reconsider any images of God that are contrary to Love. Love welcomes play:  who can resist playing peek-aboo with a baby or fail to rejoice when hearing children’s laughter on a playground?  Can we  imagine a faith that creates a safe space for us all to celebrate God’s presence given in Christ and  poured into each of us by God’s Spirit? Could we play with the notion of a faith that is not chore-oriented but instead an unfolding celebration?

In our efforts to bolster the good and necessary church work, we preachers have been guilty of focusing too many sermons on church work.  My seminary taught us to preach with a purposeful action point in mind.  Could such a work focus run contrary to the sabbath goal of simply dwelling in God’s presence within the community of faith?  It is easy to trade  the celebration for a series of religious tasks. The Gospels describe Jesus going to parties with strangers, sharing meals with friends, “chatting over coffee” with followers, riding in boats, and getting away to pray.  We usually focus on the important theological takeaways- not the importance, hidden in the setting of conversations during dinner or while walking together to the next village . The Gospel tells us how Jesus spent significant time talking to Peter, John, the woman at the well, Martha, Mary, Zacheaus, a Pharisee named Simon, Niccodemus, Thomas and many others.  Maybe giving ourselves away in honest conversations is as holy as walking on the water or opening blind eyes?  Jesus was so comfortable with people, so comfortable with the party people that the busy church workers considered Jesus as sinful. “Why do your disciples not fast- why do they eat and drink?” (Luke 5) Jesus loved a party. Jesus’ first miracle was making wine for a feast and Jesus often described God’s kindom not with streets of gold but as a weekend long wedding feast, with mingling, dancing and laughing. (Matthew 22) Luke 15’s story of the Lost Young Addict ends with a welcome home party including barbeque, loud music and dancing. The story ends with an image of God as Parent telling the hardworking but deeply unhappy older sibling: “we had to celebrate and be glad because your kindred was dead and is alive. They were lost and are now found.” Come celebrate- not achievement but home-coming, fellowship, forgiveness, faith, hope and Love.  Feasting, joyous music, and giving ourselves to others in conversations are essential to spiritual living. Hear the commands and invitations:  “We have to celebrate. Every seven days, celebrate God’s presence and do not do any work! “ 

We might best understand Deuteronomy’s command to “celebrate God’s presence without doing any work” with the pedagogy of our  Godly Play children’s Sunday School curriculum. We might simply put out boxes of biblical customs, dinnerware and water-to-wine jugs and host a theological dress up party, where we remember how Jesus made everyone feel so deeply welcomed, accepted, and free, that they went back home and told their friends about “Come and see this one who talked to me about everything I’ve ever done!  Could this be The Christ?” (John 4)  

Indulge me if you have heard this story before, but I think I was in the ninth grade and I was sitting atop the green felt of the pool table in the youth room, drinking a Coke.  The sign on the door read: “No food or beverages allowed in the game room”.  The sign on the pool table below me read: “Do not sit on the pool table”.  There I sat as our youth director Greg Northcut walked in followed by a redheaded guy who had to be his brother. Greg greeted me that night with such acceptance I still feel it today:  “Paul, this is my brother Kent. Kent, this Paul, my main man!”  Greg could have told me to get off the pool table or reminded me of the no food or drinks rule, but instead in the cool 1983 lingo Greg named me as his own: “my main man”.  Greg called me, “his main man” and helped me believe something good about myself. I jumped up from the table and engaged in popular 1980’s hand locking rituals.  I wanted to be around Greg, I wanted to be like Greg, whose lightness somehow deeply reminded me of Jesus- and gave me a sense of my sacred worth. 

Could we embrace Christ’s Love so fully that we open up and give ourselves fully to God? Could we give our wrong notes, bad moves, missed cues, failed assignments, and awkward stumbles over to God’s boundless playful Love? Could we believe with the Apostle Paul “that nothing in the whole world can separate us from the Love of God?” (Romans 8) Could we celebrate with and serve such a God?  Once we have encountered such absolute Love will we ever never misunderstand faith as a chore, worship as a performance, or Christlikeness as a burden.   Dutiful children of God, do you hear Jesus calling: “we have to celebrate and rejoice” Beloved ones, come celebrate God’s presence and do no work”

I love how this passage in Deuteronomy invites us to imagine God and worship not with a series of chores but  with life-giving celebration.  “Celebrate God’s presence as do not do any work! “ Jesus shares many stories about people who skip the party God is throwing, maybe thinking they will not be welcomed, there are streets of gold, they can’t be themselves, or they are too busy. Maybe they imagine a party where no one is laughing, dancing, or feasting. Maybe we have given the world a version of Christianity that is more a chore than a celebration.  Maybe we have focused on work instead of dwelling with God. Next week, we will revisit this passage and talk about  how giving is essential to celebration and how God calls us to welcome everyone to the party. For this week, perhaps it is enough to imagine what might happen if we embraced worship, Christian living, and Christlikeness with a sense of celebration: playfulness, hopefulness, acceptance and freedom from work, judgment and shame.  The Kin-dom of God brings feasting , laughing, dancing, fellowship, dreaming, and rejoicing.  Like Jesus, Let us give ourselves over to the party.  “Come celebrate God’s presence and do not do any work.”  Amen.

One thought on “Imagining a playful faith

  1. Hello, Paul. Wanted to request prayer for Richard as he is going through treatment for cancer.

    Hope you guys are doing well – we still miss you and think of you often.

    Sending love –

    Kathryn Spry 615-969-9858

    But God has already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women. It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, And don’t take yourself too seriously – take God seriously. Micah 6:8

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