Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Playful Faith

By Keri Kent

The stakes in children's ministry, if you think of it, are high. We are responsible for the next generation of God's faithful. Based partly on our input, these young charges will follow Christ—or not. There are so many temptations vying for our children's attention and allegiance. This is serious business.

Consequently, we too can be tempted—to the sin of taking ourselves far too seriously. While our calling to minister to children is important and significant, it is also provides us an opportunity to engage in the spiritual practice of play.

Would anyone you work or minister with describe you with words like "playful," or "child-like" or "fun"? How about your family?

Once, Jesus' disciples—who were beginning to realize that God's kingdom was not like earthly kingdoms—asked him to clarify: who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? In other words, how do you move ahead? By way of reply, Jesus "called a little child, whom he placed among them. And he said: "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes a humble place—becoming like this child—is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18: 2-4).

Children are playful. What does it mean to play, to be childlike (which is a bit different from being childish)? What did Jesus mean when he said that the greatest in his kingdom were those who chose to be like little children? Did he want us to be playful? Does that mean we all ought to play more dodgeball? Or was he talking only about humility?

"There is no mistaking that one must learn to resemble a child in order to enter the kingdom," writes Brennan Manning in his book The Importance of Being Foolish. "But to grasp the full force of the phrase 'like little children,' we must realize that the Jewish attitude toward children in the time of Christ differed drastically from the one prevalent today. We have a tendency to idealize childhood, to see it as the happy age of innocence, insouciance, and simple faith. In the Jewish community of New Testament times, the child was considered of no importance, meriting no attention or favor. The child was regarded with scorn."

Manning notes that a humble attitude allows us to see God's grace for what it is: pure gift. But how do we cultivate humility? It's not easy in our culture, which lauds individual opinions and accomplishments, which teaches that self-esteem and self-confidence are of the highest value. It's not easy when you are supposed to be a "spiritual leader"—which some folks (sometimes even those leaders) think that means you have to be "deep" or serious all the time. But what if playfulness is a path to humility?

While we may have a different perspective on childhood than Jesus' contemporaries did, he continues to call us to trust him. And to realize we're not "all that." Leadership often tempts us to believe too firmly in our own importance. Play stretches our ability to be a fool, to engage in that which has no purpose other than simple joy. Play forces us to loosen our grip on our ambition for a while; it trains us in humility. We often want to avoid the risk involved with being silly. It's odd, since Jesus said we ought to be humble, that we seem to find it difficult to let go of our self-importance and image management—especially if we are leaders.

The pressures of ministry—counseling, teaching, caring for people—can be overwhelming. We forget how to play, or think it a waste of time. We worry what people would think. But play is necessary to restore our souls from the damage of our accomplishment-driven, workaholic culture. Play is a spiritual practice.

Kids "play" soccer, baseball, lacrosse, or whatever else their parents sign them up for, but these sports seem to have become a business, which costs money. Some children play video games, which do more damage than good, and certainly offer none of the health benefits of tag.

Many kids and parents use the word do rather than play. "Billy does football in the fall and hockey in the winter," we'll say. We don't say our kids are going to play a game; we say they "have" a game. Rather than playing, our kids have obligations. Though we may use such language unconsciously, our word choices are stunningly accurate.

Do you know how to play? Often adults engage in sports, but it is with a sense of competitive intensity. Or, perhaps you are in a sports league, but you have to justify it as "relational evangelism." You're not just playing, you're building bridges to share the gospel. But what if "just playing" is what God invites us to do as part of our spiritual practice?

Many adults who exercise see it as drudgery. Or it becomes an obsession, a god they compulsively sacrifice large amounts of time and energy to. They don't play, they work out (again, an interesting word choice). They exercise in an attempt to look younger, to stave off the inevitable aging process. Or it becomes a stimulant, another addiction. Rather than just enjoying a game of catch with the kids or a walk through the woods, we feel the need to engage in extreme sports.

True playfulness, on the other hand, brings joy; it teaches us trust. We can believe God is able to keep the universe humming right along without our help. Play is truly an act of trust, and trust is a key part of childlikeness.

Do you ever feel as if the joy has been squeezed right out of you? Do you think that the kingdom of God will fall apart if you don't keep working very hard? In many ways, church culture mirrors the world's culture: accomplishment-driven, workaholic, stressed. Such an environment gets a lot of tasks done, but destroys souls. What would happen to our ministry if we valued "being with God" as much as we did "doing for God"? And what if that "being with God" included not just times of soulful reflection but also, childlike playfulness?

Perhaps you think you don't have time to play. Could you play one day a week—on the Sabbath, when your focus is on loving God and loving others? Sabbath is a spiritual practice, of which play is a quintessential part. In play, we shed the shackles of schedules, efficiency, even purpose. The playfulness of Sabbath is the key to its ability to restore our souls.

Keri Wyatt Kent is a speaker, freelance writer and author of six books, including Rest: Living in Sabbath Simplicity, (Zondervan 2009) from which this article is adapted.

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