See if you can remember when and where you first heard these phrases:
“Ready or not, here I come.”
“Red Rover, Red Rover, send Boudreaux right over.”
“Come out, come out, wherever you are!”
Many of us first heard these phrases as children. We were playing outside.
Kick the can, tag, Red Rover, and hide and seek. At the end of long summer days our parents would call us back into the house as the sun was slipping below the horizon.
Sometimes that call sounded something like, “Jacob Wayne, don’t make me call you in here one more time!” We were having too much fun to stop. That’s what it’s like to play.
God created us in his image. And we most closely resemble God when we’re at play. That’s because God is playful.
That may sound odd. Play just doesn’t sound serious enough for God. It’s so, well, unproductive. It seems almost frivolous. And yet, our God is exactly that. Playful to his very core.
And here’s the kicker for the Church, that is, for you and for me and for our congregations. God bends down to touch the earth through his Church. God intends for his Church to be the means by which heaven infiltrates our very ordinary lives.
So if we are going to be the conduit through which God makes his presence felt and known, then we will do well to get our head around God’s playfulness. Because only a playful Church can make the playful God known.
Let me explain what I mean by addressing a couple of questions:
How is God playful?
What does having a playful God mean for us as the Church?
Work and Play
We’ll start with our concept of God. How is God playful?
Typically we use the word “work” to describe God’s activity. There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s downright biblical.
And yet, the word “work” connotes some qualities that have nothing to do with God, and it fails to convey some essential characteristics of divine activity. That’s because of how we think about work. We often contrast work with play. We say things like, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”
In other words, the word “work” suggests toil: a draining, somber activity. Work is serious business. Too much of it makes us a workaholic. Some people define the good life in terms of leisure activities and actually strive toward the goal of early retirement. They set as their longterm goal a life free from work.
My mother used to say that if you love what you do you’ll never work a day in your life. There is real truth in this. And the truth is this. When we love what we do, we’re not actually working in the way we so often think about it. We’re playing.
When we’re working, we watch the clock. Time drags on. We look forward to happy hour or to an after-work tennis game or to the weekend.
By contrast, we lose track of time when we’re playing. Think about those times you were doing something you really love to do. Maybe it’s making music or putting together a special meal or talking with someone who captivates you.
Suddenly you come to yourself and quickly check your watch. Where has the time gone? You suddenly remember that you’ve got all these things you need to do and you feel the press of your schedules and plans and commitments.
For just a moment there, you had stepped into that place where eternity intersects time. You had become most fully yourself by losing yourself in something beyond yourself. You weren’t chasing joy and significance and security. You were inhabiting them. In other words, you had actually lived into being the image of God.
You see, God doesn’t merely love what he does. God is love doing what love does. God is always losing himself in something, in someone, beyond himself. That’s the nature of the Trinity. The Father loses himself in his love for the Son. The Son loses himself in his love for the Father. And that is how they are most truly Father and Son.
In his own inner, triune life, God is essentially playful.
And that’s how God first introduces himself to us. He is the Creator of all things.
Listen to how the Bible begins. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:1-2; NRSV)
Okay, maybe that doesn’t sound especially playful. Try Eugene Peterson’s amplified version of the same passage. “First this: God created the Heavens and Earth—all you see, all you don’t see. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss.” (Genesis 1:1-2; The Message)
God loses himself in the most fantastic act of play you could ever imagine.
The earth was a mess: a dark, formless void. God was already moving over it, in it, around it, and through it. When he speaks, God does not shout commands from the safe distance of his perfectly ordered heavenly courts. He speaks goodness and beauty into life from the inside of life itself.
God leaves his comfort zone. He goes outside to where things are messy and unpredictable and imperfect. He goes outside to play, knowing full well that he will get dirt under his fingernails.
God did not toil with furrowed brow to bring about a clockwork creation. He played. With peals of laughter he scattered stars in the sky, tossed fish into the sea, and formed human beings in his image so that we could join him at play.
Playing with Jesus
And that brings us to our second question. What does having a playful God mean for us as the Church?
It seems only natural to turn to Jesus to answer that question.
When Jesus arrives on the scene, things have not gone so well for the creation. In our fragile, imperfect hands, the universe has gotten more than a little shopworn.
What was once an elegant, seamless garment of many-colored threads bears burn marks and stains, tears and moth holes. Things have come apart so frightfully that the once dazzling garment sometimes more closely resembles a heap of discarded rags.
Some people feast while others starve. Wars rage over old enmities and newly discovered natural resources. The planet is strewn with broken hearts, shattered bodies, and fractured relationships.
Jesus has come to reweave the fabric of all things. And he means for us to join him. Now that probably sounds like work to you. But listen to what Jesus says to his disciples, to us:
“I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” (John 15:15)
The Church–you know, you and me and all of Jesus’s followers–is Jesus’ circle of friends. He wants us to go outside and play with him, to take part with him in the ministry of reconciliation. He wants us to be ourselves by losing ourselves in something, in someone, outside of ourselves.
That is the lesson of the playful God for God’s Church. Learn to play, and learn to do so outside the comfort zone of our own buildings and programs and safe circle of church friends.
God doesn’t want a latchkey church, a church that stays inside the safe confines of church property. Jesus wants us to go out into the chaos to play, to catch his redeeming wave, to embody his good news.
A common practice in our liturgy illustrates what I’ve been getting at. Think about the meaning of what we do with the processional cross.
At the beginning of worship, we process in following the cross. After we have been shaped by the Word and strengthened by the Sacrament, the cross leads that same procession back out.
The symbolism is clear. We are in the world with Jesus throughout the week, joining him in the playful ministry of reconciliation. All that play wears us out. So, to begin a new week, Jesus leads us back in to worship. We come for comfort, rest, and consolation, surely. But we come also for instruction, encouragement, and strength for the play in which he is leading us.
God himself sends the Church into the world. His son Jesus is out ahead of us. He’s out there right now. He’s calling. “Come out and play!”
Preached during 34th Annual Convention Eucharist at Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Lafayette.