Loving God on Fridays (10-23-11)

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Oct 232011

Loving God on Fridays:

Play as Spiritual Discipline


Patrick Vaughn

TGIF, Thank God it’s Friday.  Most people love Friday.  It is the beginning of the weekend.  The end of drudgery, school, cubicles, commutes and the beginning of fun, diversion, the weekend.  Chores can wait till Saturday morning and homework till Sunday night.  Friday is reserved for fun.  Thank God it’s Friday.  But, that begs the question, do we really thank God for Friday?  Can Fridays and all that Friday stands for be an act of loving God?  Can we love God in our diversion and play?

If you were applying for the job of being a child, how would the job description read?  Not a job description written by adults, but a true job description of a child, written by children.  I think it would read something like:

The job requires first and foremost an unwavering commitment and desire to play.  The applicant must be creative, full of imagination, and filled with a spirit of discovery and wonder.  This person must be able to celebrate and be awestruck by the simplest and most mundane discoveries.  They must be amazed by a plane flying overhead, seeing the bigness of Lake Tahoe and find dirt incredibly interesting.

Children play.  They major in play.  Why?  Because it’s fun, because it gives them pleasure, because it is enjoyable.

The other day I was playing with Whitworth out in the front yard, or I was actually just observing him play with his little plastic lawn mower, which he absolutely loves.  Playing with the lawn mower means just pushing it around, every once in a while pausing to look up at the tree or check out some grass or asking for help when he runs into an insurmountable obstacle.  While observing him play, of course I got antsy and decided to actually push around my lawnmower, to get something done to be productive.

Here’s the question?  Why couldn’t I just be content watching or even better playing with  Whitworth?  It’s not because it wasn’t fun or because I’m afraid of looking silly pushing around a plastic lawn mower, come to Munchies or Crew and you will see me being silly.    Really its because I have a drive to get something done, I have an almost constant nagging feeling that I need to be productive, and make good use of my time. 

This is one of the sicknesses or idols of our culture, productivity.  The ability of an action to produce something is what makes it valuable.[1]  American culture places high value on our ability to produce and consume.  So much value that it becomes what defines us.  The ability to produce and consume, to earn a living, to buy what we need or even better what we want, and to buy what we want for our children is the lens through which we determine the value of our activity and our self-worth. 

And, so I couldn’t just sit there and just play with Whitworth because I needed to be productive, to do something of value.  Which, tells me that I don’t value play?  And, I would venture to say that most adults formed by a culture that worships a person’s ability to produce and consume, at the very least under value play.

Now some of you may object and say, I love my Fridays, I can’t wait for the weekend so that I can play.  But, are we really engaging in play on Friday nights or any other night for that matter?  Or are we just exercising our abilities to consume leisure activities with the hopes that they might give us some peace or pleasure after a long week.  Is leisure really play or is it just another product offered for our consumption, that is if we have been productive enough to get the means to be able to consume it.  Brazilian Theologian Rubem Azevedo Alves challenges us to think about if our entertainment and leisure activities really qualify as play.  He writes:

Indeed, one of the contradictions of our time is that exactly the society dominated by the logic of production and consumption (which is the negation of play), presents itself as the only one able to deliver play—as one of its products, to be consumed. It brags about its power to transform the world into a play ground (although tickets are required. . .). But play is no longer play. . . It is delivered as a product of the consumption society. And play . . . becomes entertainment, the filling of empty time, fun for a dwarfed imagination, escape from boredom. Is not this the promise which is behind the leisure promised by guaranteed income?[2]

Is leisure really play?  Is going out for drinks really play or is it just an escape? Is it just an artificial means for connection, for the connection that we really desire in deep relationships. 

Is sitting in the same room as our children all fixed to different screens engaged in our own virtual worlds, movies, facebook and games really play?

Is entertainment in the form of sitting on the couch vegged out in front of a TV really play?

Entertainment and leisure activities offered for our consumption reinforce our need to be productive and many of them only provide temporary escapes, fleeting moments of pleasure and short-lived connection with others.

What we need is not to be entertained but to play.  What we need is to be unproductive and to play.  What we need is to become like children, whose job it is to play.

When we play, we don’t worry about producing.  We simply revel in in the pleasure that comes from playing, unconcerned about whether or not our activity produces anything at all.  True play has no prerequisites or standards.  And in this way true play, invites us to receive the Kingdom of God like a child.

You see children, especially in Jesus day, were of no value.  They occupied the lowest rung on the social ladder.  So the disciples sternly spoke to them and told them to leave Jesus alone.  Jesus, in their minds, didn’t have time for these insignificant little children. 

And, then Jesus, as is his custom, blows their minds.  Jesus, Mark tells us, was indignant.  In other words, Jesus was angry, not at the disciples thickheadedness, which would have been justified, but at the injustice.  That is what it means to be indignant , to be angered by an injustice. 

Jesus lets the little children come to him because justice in the Kingdom of God turns our world on its it head.  In the Kingdom of God, those who are unproductive, those who haven’t earned it, those who have nothing to show for themselves, they are the ones who are justified.  Those who are like little children, to them belong the Kingdom of God.  One commentator puts it this way, “The Kingdom belongs to [children] because they have nothing on which they base a claim, but are content to receive the Kingdom as a gift; their attitude is akin to what Paul describes as ‘faith’, which humbly receives God’s grace.”[3]  Little children have the right attitude, they receive God’s kingdom as gift rather than something deserved or earned.

Why is God so often seen by us and by those looking in on the church as a demanding Father, wrathful Lord, uncompassionate or uncaring distant deity, judgmental and unmerciful to those who don’t get it right? 

Because, we relate to God, we read scripture, we pray through our cultural lenses.  We understand God and evaluate our relationship with God through the lenses of productivity and consumption.  Our faith must be productive and result in goodness so that we can earn or consume salvation and good standing with God.  We turn our relationship with God into a transaction.  That is justification by works.  That is the attitude of a self-centered adult who needs to be in control, not a child. 

How can we become like children who run to Jesus with abandon unconcerned about whether or not they’ve earned it, done enough or are good enough?

We need to play.  We need to take the advise of Richard Foster who says, “We who follow Christ can risk going against the cultural tide.  Let’s with abandon relish the fantasy games of children .  Let’s see visions and dream dreams.  Let’s play, sing, and laugh.  The imagination can release a flood of creative ideas, and it can be lots of fun.  Only those who are insecure about their own maturity will fear such a delightful form of celebration.”[4]  At the heart of play is celebration and enjoyment.  The Westminster Catechism says that our chief end, our sole goal and purpose in life, is to glorify God and fully to enjoy him forever.  When we play we free ourselves from the idol  of productivity.  We go against the cultural tide that defines worth based on production and achievement.  When we play we practice a spiritual discipline that teaches us to fully enjoy God, and to receive the Kingdom as a gift rather than something earned.  In short, play strengthens our faith.

So here are some ground rules[5] on how to play:

1.  Stop taking yourself so seriously and simply enjoy God’s gift of life.  Enjoy the creation, people, and the gifts God has given you.  James Bryan Smith who writes on spiritual disciplines, describes play as an act of self-abandonment.  He says, “When we play, we are training our bodies and souls to live with genuine excitement.  That is what the Kingdom of God is all about.”[6]  Do you believe the Kingdom of God is exciting, a place of joy and abundance?  Do you believe the Kingdom of God is to be enjoyed, now, that it is near as Jesus said and not fluffy clouds, harps and angel wings? 

When Jesus speaks of the Kingdom, he’s not talking about heaven.  He’s talking about a reality that is bursting forth, he’s talking about God’s rule over all things that will result in the renewal and restoration of heaven and earth.  God’s Kingdom is a present reality, it is a given fact, and all of creation is moving towards that day when all things will be made new.  Nothing can stop its coming, and I can say so with confidence because the tomb is empty.  The Kingdom life is a life that not even death can threaten.  The Kingdom of God is here already but not fully arrived and we are invited to receive it now, today, as children.  To begin living in it here and now like children.  To be filled with excitement and joy, now. 

Self- abandoned play invites us into the excitement and joy of the present Kingdom reality and it invites others to join with us in our play.  One of my heroes of the faith, Lesslie Newbigin, calls the church a sign and foretaste of the Kingdom of God.  Our witness needs to be flavored by joy and excitement.  After all one of scriptures favorite metaphors for the Kingdom of God is a giant banquet and feast.  Our life together in community as the church is an appetizer of the Kingdom reality that is on its way, already taking shape in our midst.  The Kingdom is worthy of more than ruffles, cheese dip and tortillas chips thats not very exciting.  So rule number one, stop taking yourself to seriously, discover the excitement of self-abandonment in your play.

2.  The second ground rule is:  Be open to spontaneity.  Wisdom is found in unexpected places, like PBS documentaries on crows.  It turns out crows are some of the most intelligent animals on earth and one thing they do well is play.  The narrator of the documentary noted, “play allows the mind to learn unexpected things.”  I would add the heart and soul to that, “play allows the mind, heart and soul to learn unexpected things”, to be surprised by grace.  To truly play we might start with a plan, but we must be open to the unexpected, be willing to change course, to be spontaneous.  In this way play trains our minds, hearts and souls to be more open to the movement of the spirit in our everyday.  We are more attuned and willing to be interrupted by the Kingdom popping up in front of us on the way to work, at work, in a PTA meeting, and in our living rooms.

3.  The third ground rule is:  Use your imagination.  True play engages our imaginations and creativity.  God is incredibly playful.  Read Genesis 1 and think of how much fun God must have had creating the world.  Think about the imagination and creativity that went into it.  Creation was and is an act of play.  Imagination opens us up to the impossible, it frees us from our controlled realities.  In this way play serves as a reminder that all things are possible with God, play invites us to imagine a day when every tear will be wiped away and death will be no more, a playful imagination dares us to be a sign and foretaste of the Kingdom of God now in a culture that is prone to say the world is going to hell in a hand basket.

Self-abandon, spontaneity, and imagination.  If you want to learn these ground rules, then go watch kids at play.  Go play with your own kids, grandchildren, neighbor kids.  Walk to a neighborhood park and just observe kids at play.  Go to the zoo and watch kids as they are surprised and filled with awe by the simplest things.  Children are the great sages and masters that we need to learn from if we want to be good at play.

Here is my challenge for you, and this is a challenge that I give myself as well, go play this week.  It doesn’t have to be on a friday but set aside a few hours to simply play.  I have to  confess I have not been very good at play lately, I need to practice this spiritual discipline in my life.  So the challenge is an invitation to join me in practicing play as a spiritual discipline.  I don’t have a whole lot of guidance for you other than the ground rules I’ve already mentioned.  In addition to those:  try to stay away from leisure and entertainment activities that just fill time, don’t engage your imagination or are in clear opposition with ways of the Kingdom.  Be unproductive on purpose.  And, finally, God created us for relationship and to be in community, so much of true play is done in community.

“Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”  Become like a child, deny the idols of productivity and consumption, and play.  Play in the abundant grace of God and fully enjoy Him forever.  Amen.

[1] “This is why play implies a radical negation of the dominant logic of the modern adult society, which accepts as its central dogma that action is justified by its product. Ours is a world controlled by two poles: production and consumption. The best (no matter whether man, machine, or social system) is the one which produces the greatest number of objects. And the degree of self- realization (here comes its ‘mature’ humanistic philosophy!) is measured by power to consume.”  Rubem Azevedo Alves, Brazilian Theologian in article titled, Play or How to Subvert the Dominant Values

[2] Rubem Azevedo Alves, Play or How to Subvert the Dominant Values

[3] Morna Hooker, Commentary on Mark

[4] This quote is from Foster’s chapter on celebration as a spiritual discipline in his book, Celebration of Disciplines.  It is a great chapter that reminds us that joy is ultimately the result of obedience to Christ.

[5] I wish I was original enough to come up with these myself but I was inspired by James Bryan Smith’s description of play and how it relates to the Kingdom of God in his book The Good and Beautiful Life.  This book is part of a great series of books on spiritual disciplines that you can practice in your everyday life.  In the The Good and Beautiful Life, the chapter titled “The Gospel Many People Have Never Heard” talks directly about play as an act of trusting God.

[6] James Bryan Smith outlines some helpful ways of practicing play as a part of soul training in the chapter I mentioned in the previous footnote.