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Finding God in the Story of Your Life

The Spiritual Practice of Play by Keri Wyatt Kent

One of my favorite spiritual practices is one you don’t hear much about: the practice of play. But it seems an appropriate topic to consider during summer.

Play is an important part of what I call Sabbath Simplicity—a sanely paced, God-focused lifestyle. To live in Sabbath Simplicity means we have slowly crafted a life-giving way of life—and it may look different in your life than it does in mine.

But this lifestyle includes spiritual practices that create some space for God. So along with prayer and meditating on God’s word, I include other spiritual disciplines like service, and play. I don’t serve all the time, I don’t play all the time. It is the rhythm between these things that creates a cadence I can dance to.

Play helps us fight the temptation of sins Jesus prohibited in his teaching—things like worry, fear, lack of joy. You’ve perhaps not thought of play as a spiritual discipline, but then again, perhaps you didn’t consider worry a sin, even though the command most often repeated in the Bible is “do not be afraid.”

The Bible tells us that one day, Jesus’ disciples came to him and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

In response, 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. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (Matthew 18: 1-5).

Jesus said we are to be like little children. What does that mean? Is Jesus advocating humility? Or playfulness? Isn’t there a certain humility in playfulness?

Little children are dependent, needy, immature, sometimes selfish. They are also, at times, carefree, trusting, humble. There is a difference between childish and childlike.

Brennan Manning, in his book The Importance of Being Foolish, helps us understand the cultural context of Jesus’ remark about being childlike.

“There is no mistaking that one must learn to resemble a child in order to enter the kingdom,” he writes. “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.”

How can we cultivate humility but still be people who exhibit the “joy of the Lord?”

I believe the answer lies in our ability to play. Play forces us to loosen our grip on our ambitions, and our worries. It is a call to trust.

Summer lends itself to play—although few of us have the luxury of doing nothing but play. And like a child on endless summer vacation, we may find ourselves ready to complain of boredom if we have only play and no work.

I believe God calls us to live our lives in a rhythm of work and rest. We do our work heartily, as if we were doing it for him, but then we enjoy the rest that comes in relationship with him. (see Matthew 11:28-30)

Rest is not just collapsing. I believe many of us work so much because we don’t see the value of play. We don’t know how to play, or bring such an intensity to it that it is not joyful, relaxing or replenishing. If you are taking a vacation this summer, will you come home refreshed? Or more stressed?

Play is part of my Sabbath practice. In winter, that might mean a walk in the snow, or playing Scrabble in front of the fire. In summer, play shifts to outdoor activities that bring me joy while building relationships.

My husband and I play together by racing our small two-person sailboat. Racing is exhilarating, and requires strength and stamina. We have a blast doing it, even as we are exerting ourselves. Our boat is the oldest one on the lake, we have not spent the money to replace it. At this season of our lives, the boat is more recreational than competitive, but we enjoy it. We escape the cell phones, the computer, the bills and stresses of daily life. Together we focus on a goal, but still just have fun.

My kids and I play together in various ways—going for bike rides, or going on adventures. The other day we went to Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry to see some special exhibits. Other times, simple pleasures like walking the dog together or playing a board game provide time to just connect.

To play alone, I go to my garden, where I putter and plant, and notice the amazing creativity of God in everything from bugs to basil.

As I write this, I am facing some major deadlines, and getting ready to go on a vacation. The purpose of vacation is to play for several days—but trying to get everything done is stressing me. I am wondering whether the work involved in preparing for a vacation is even worth it. But God calls us not just to serve, but to rest. To play.

Play is an essential component of Sabbath Simplicity. If you’re not sure how this would look in your life, ask yourself this question: what do I like to do for fun? What’s rejuvenating and enjoyable? What activity, when I do it, causes me to forget about my stress and lose track of time?

If you don’t know the answers to those questions, well, that’s something to pay attention to, because it may give you some clarity about where you are on your journey.

Take some time to play this summer, and to see it not as a mindless escape or guilty pleasure, but as a spiritual practice that will help you grow in joy.