I recently felt God’s delight while I was building a pirate ship. My friend Tim and I went to Home Depot on Labor Day and came home with about $85 worth of scrap lumber. We repurposed the old stoop that used to be at our side door before I pried it up. It would now be a ship deck. Naturally, it has a plank. Like any respectable ship, it has to have masts with sails (spray-painted old shower curtains) and topped with flags. I would not have known all that is needed for a pirate ship if it hadn’t been for the project foreman, my not-quite 3 year-old son, Henry. I would like to say that the reason we build the ship
was for his pirate-themed birthday party but it would be more accurate to say that his birthday party was the excuse for Tim and I to play. I have more extensive plans to add on to the ship. Hopefully I can get them done before Henry outgrows pirates because then I would just be the neighborhood weirdo who likes to build pirate ships in his backyard.
We live in a society where play is ubiquitous and yet, as a spiritual practice, it is highly underrated. Play is built into fabric of Creation. Animals play. Instinctually they play to build strength, to develop skills for survival, and to feel out their world. On the whole modern human’s play muscles have atrophied for the sake of specialization and efficiency in work. We have outsourced play to the margins of our schedules – weekdays and vacations – where we binge on it because we are so starved for it. Once play could be found unexpectedly springing up in the course of everyday routines. This is the kind of play that refreshes the spirit and connects us deeply to others and to the world. We must recover the deep spirituality of play.
Have you noticed how much of our life has been turned into games? I have a workspace app that shoots unicorns across the screen when I check off a to-do list. I can see the number of likes, comments, and shares in my social media timelines. Exercise and health apps track our work and goal progress. There are apps that are designed to make our brains sharper. A new video game helps people recovering from brain trauma. Gamification, turning everyday activities into games through point scoring or competition or unlocking rewards, is growing in schools and workplaces. We are more likely to work harder with more sustained attention if we can turn the task into play. The desire for play is universal. Playing with God Click To Tweet
If we love to play, it is because God loves to play. Just look at the anteater or the mantis shrimp! Creation was a playful act of dancing particles cloistering into worlds that teem with life. Still not convinced? God promises elderly Abraham and Sarah will have descendants more numerous than the uncountable stars. Sarah gets the joke. Isaac means laughter. Still not convinced? God becomes a fetus in a virgin’s womb. Jesus borrows a kid’s lunch and feeds thousands with baskets leftover. Jesus walks on the stormy water past the boat as if he was going to keep going past. Jesus strolls through a field, shucking grain on the Sabbath with his disciples. It makes you wonder if our Christianity is a tad too morose for God’s taste. Perhaps God looks at the Church and wonders, “Why aren’t they playing more?” Perhaps God looks at the Church and wonders, “Why aren’t they playing more?” Click To Tweet
This playing that I am suggesting is not in opposition to holy reverence. G.K. Chesterton wrote, “I for one have never left off playing, and I wish there were more time to play. I wish we did not have to fritter away on frivolous things, like lectures and literature, the time we might have given to serious, solid and constructive work like cutting out cardboard figures and pasting coloured tinsel upon them.” Chesterton is trying to correct our misunderstanding about play that it majors in the trivial and banal. There is certainly a profane play that dehumanizes but there is also a holy play that awakens us to the world and deepens our awareness of God and one another. Whatever you love, you will play with.
Jean Vanier says, “True belly laughs are important in community life. When a group laughs in this way, many pains are swept away.” Jean Vanier also said, “There are a thousand and one gateways into the garden of prayer.” Play is definitely one of those gateways.
Invite God into your play and watch your play become prayer.