June 8, 2014

Playing for Life - Worship leader: Dave Becker

There are some Bible verses that get quoted so much and so often that even if you never read the Bible you would have heard them and would be familiar with them. They have become integrated into our culture. One of those is 1 Corinthians 13:11 which says, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish things”.   In other words, being an adult is serious business. Time to stop playing and get to work.  This month we are exploring the theme of communal play in our worship services, and today I would like to explore the role of play in adulthood, and play as both spiritual and religious practice.

When I was a child, we had a regular bedtime routine that involved one of our parents saying our goodnight prayers with us, “ Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep”, and we would end the prayer by naming all the people we wanted blessed, “Bless Mommy, and Daddy, and Grandma, and Grandpa,” and we would keep naming different people, family members, friends, people we knew and loved, and the very last line would always be , “ and bless all the people of the world.”  I was blessed with a playful Dad who has his own variation on this ritual. On that very last line, he would grab our toes and wiggle them, “bless all the little piggies of the world!” Then he would leave the room, put a pair of underwear over his head, with one eye peeping through the leg hole, and come back in, “Argh! I am the one-eyed monster! Argh!”  We would laugh and laugh.  And so from a very early age I learned that prayer can be play, and play can be prayer.

I recently saw a sign that said, “ Don’t grow up. It’s a trap.”  Perhaps written by someone who wasn’t so thrilled with “ saying goodbye to childish things.”  Or, perhaps a reminder that adults need still need play, even in adulthood.  In recent years, this has become a topic of serious study, both in the study of humans and the study of other animals.  Animal behaviorists who study animal play have been documenting that play continues along an animal’s lifespan, and have been documenting evidence of animal play between different species, as well as animals engaging in solitary play.  These play behaviors are essential to animal health, well-being, and survival.  Ethologist Robert Fagen spent 15 years studying the play of Alaskan brown bears, documenting how bears play in the wild. He found that bears that played more often throughout adulthood lived longer and healthier lives, and left behind more offspring.  That ‘s a pretty good thing if you’re a bear. Gordon Burghardt, author of “ The Genesis of Animal Play” has documented play behaviors among ants in anthills.  Remember that story about the hardworking ants that worked and worked while the grasshopper played? Turns out that ants like play just as much. 

This isn’t something that is just being studied by scientists, everyday people are providing evidence of this as well. In this age of social media, where everybody has a camera and can post pictures and videos in seconds, you have probably seen photographic and video documents of animal play. Perhaps you’ve seen the popular photos of a polar bear and sled dog playing together. Or the video of the crow that uses a container lid to sled down a snowy roof, over and over. Or the photos of hippos body surfing on waves of water. If not, do just do an internet search on any of those topics. I could have easily filled our entire time together just showing those kinds of photos and videos, there are so many available.

But what about us human animals? For many years, the study of human play focused on childhood with play being the way that children learn, play being the way that children make sense of the world around them, play being the way that children prepare for adulthood.  Dr. Artin Goncu, who is a developmental psychologist known for his studies of childhood play, has in recent years begun to study play across the lifespan and pretend play in adults.  He started with a very simple premise; if play continues throughout the lifespan in other animals, why would it stop after childhood for humans?  Here we are not talking about structured forms of games and recreation, but that spontaneous pretend play, that imaginative play, that is such a noticeable form of childhood.  Yes, it is something that adults sometimes engage in when interacting with children, but is it part of our everyday lives?  His conclusion is that these forms of improv play continue throughout adulthood, but we often use other words besides play to describe this.  Pretend play and imaginative play exist on a continuum across our lifespans, it is not a childish thing that we say goodbye to, nor should we.

So what does this have to do with spirituality and religion?  I would suggest that play is a vital part of our spiritual expression and spiritual being.  Play is prayer,

play is spiritual practice.   Our spirits need celebration, and to connect to the joy and wonder in the world around us.  I have a simple idea for all of us. In the upcoming week, let’s all find ways to explore and engage in the spirituality of play. Get out a Frisbee, or hula hoop or jump rope. Play in a mud puddle, make mud pies. Go cloud watching.  Grab a hair brush and use it as microphone while you dance and sing to your favorite song, preferably played really loud.  Get out some legos, or tinker toys, or other favorite childhood toy that you haven’t played with for years.  Whatever feels joyful to you.  It is not a childish thing. It should not be put away.  It is what our Spirit needs to thrive. 

This is not a new or original idea. It is in fact, ancient wisdom.  There was a series of articles in Psychology Today, entitled, “Play Makes Us Human”. Part III was on sacred play as the foundation of religion.  Peter Gray, the psychologist who is the author of this series, points out that the role of sacred play in religion was especially evident in many hunter-gatherer societies, and communication with the sacred often involved joking, teasing, laughing, singing, and dancing, along with requests for healing.  He argues that in many ways, religion has devolved by moving away from sacred play and toward that in which the sacred became a power to be feared. 

Yet, remnants of this wisdom live on in religious traditions and practices around the world.  In the trickster stories about coyote.  In feasts and celebrations. In dance and song and stories. In the images of laughing Buddha and of Jesus laughing. I would like to close with this retelling of Proverbs 8, written by Joyce Rupp, in which the essence of wisdom is playfulness and we are invited to embrace the spirituality of play. In doing so, we move towards wholeness, toward a deepened sense of the Sacred in our lives.  We claim and reclaim the wisdom of [1]sacred play in our spirituality and in our religious practice.


I am Divine Wisdom.

I was brought into being a long time ago,

well before the Earth got its start.

I arrived on the scene before Ocean,

Yes, even before Springs and Rivers and Lakes.

Before Mountains were sculpted and Hills took shape,

I was already there, newly born,

Long before the Earth’s Horizons took form,

before Soil and Weather,

before Sky was firmly in place,

I was there.

I was right there with God, making sure everything fit.

Day after day I was by God’s side,

a skilled artisan.

I was God’s delight day after day,

ever at play in God’s presence

at play everywhere in the world

rejoicing in the whole world

and delighting in humankind.

When you find me, you find life, real life,

to say nothing of God’s pleasure.

Service Date: 
Sunday, June 8, 2014 - 12:00am
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