Message 24, Let’s Play, 6-18-10  

download program: Service Program, 6-20-10

© Pastor Doug Slagle, the Gathering UCC, All rights reserved

A famous quote in the Bible, from the Book of Ecclesisastes, speaks of a time or a season for every purpose in life.  There is a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to harvest, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.  The ultimate purpose for humans, according to the book, states that “there is nothing better than to rejoice, and to do good in their lives and that every person should eat and drink and enjoy the good of all his or her labor…”

On this cusp of summer solstice and on a day when we acknowledge and celebrate men and fathers, I want to encourage us to embrace the theme from this month – summer fun.  As much as we have examined over the last two weeks getting out into nature’s church and basking in its wildness or participating in the sacred ritual of baseball – as a player or a participant, my message today is a fitting conclusion to this series.  We spend so many of our Sundays here deep in reflection and serious thought.  The point of this series is intended to not only be light and fun – to coincide with the beginning of summer – but to also speak to the spiritual truth that fun, play, laughter and recreation are spiritual values and they are important for our well-being.  As much as life can be a struggle for many people, we know that is not how it should be.  We are to build and help create heaven here on earth for all people and all creation.  It is a purpose to which Jesus set as his goal – to remind us that “the Kingdom of God is at hand”.  We are each little gods who not only work for the good of family, friends, and the world at large, but we are to seize this time, as the Bible says, to eat, drink and rejoice in the glories of life.  We are to have fun.  We are to laugh.  We are to play.  These are spiritual truths for all of us and, I think, particularly so for men and dads who too often see life as serious, agenda driven and time constrained.

And those are attitudes I too often exhibit myself.  With my two girls here, whom I love more than my life itself, I must admit that one of my shortcomings as a dad was to not play enough with them.  Looking back, I wish I had not taken the responsibilities of being a dad so seriously – to work, save money, plan, and structure their lives in order to prepare them for the hard realities of life.  Those are important to be sure and I don’t want to diminish the idea of responsibility.  Into that mix of roles that a dad can serve, however, is one of playmate, laugh leader and fun creator.  Indeed, for all men and for all people, the enjoyment of life is an essential principle to embrace.  The Divine creator has given us life not to dwell on how difficult it is, but to use the fruits of our labor to help others and, importantly, to play.

Believe it or not, there is a National Institute for Play whose director asserts that for adults, play is an essential ingredient to a successful and happy life.   Participating in regular play inspires resilience, patience, flexibility, creativity and intelligence.  Far more than mere rest or recreation, active and fun filled play – for the child or adult – is an emotional re-set button for how we think and act.  As Erna Olafson recounted in her message to the congregation about a year ago, there is a lot more involved in playful activities than just fun.  Adults and children consciously and unconsciously learn about the ways of life in the midst of play.  We learn in playing how to cooperate and how to negotiate with others.  We also learn how to be persistent in our tasks and to discover activities that make us happy and satisfied.  As noted earlier, we are creatively inspired from play.  Sigmund Freud asserted that humans require “Spielraum – a German phrase for room or space to be creative and curious.  This involves the freedom to be creative by acting out fun-filled daydreams, fantasies and make-believe play.

Fathers and men can be particularly helpful to themselves and to children by encouraging such behavior.  With children, men and, indeed all adults, must not simply promote play but we should be willing to actively engage in it – amongst ourselves and with our children.  Too often adults say they are too busy or too mature to engage in simple games of tag, make-believe or hide and seek.  Children, as a result, get the message that their activities are not important or that they are simply immature and must instead try and act like an adult – serious and business like.

But the exact opposite is true.  In a day and age when I believe far too many children are being robbed of their childhoods by over-regulated and scheduled lives – ballet lessons, math tutoring, second language classes, soccer leagues, etc. etc. – we have devalued the importance of and the spiritual ethic of joy, happiness and pure, un-regulated play.  Even in pre-schools and kindergarten classrooms, children are pushed to learn academic skills at earlier and earlier ages.  They are denied, in the process, the essential activity of play during which they learn life skills necessary to be fulfilled and happy.

Men and women should engage in play with children and not try and direct it through rules or suggestions.  Dads should be willing to play doll with their daughters and their sons.  Indeed, it is seen as extremely important that boys be allowed to play with dolls as this does not necessarily indicate feminine or gay tendencies.  Playing with dolls is a part of make believe and such activities promote creative thinking and the cognitive skill of “executive function” which enables one to self-regulate regarding rules, discipline, anger and behavior.  In make believe, children talk to themselves about what is appropriate speech and attitude.  Indeed, one psychologist suggests that adult self-talk is directly the result of childhood make-believe play.  When we internally think about certain situations and how to handle them, we are acting out what we hopefully enjoyed as children – how to employ reason and common sense in everyday life.

But play for fathers, men and women need not be all about what we learned from it as children.  Playful activity needs to be a part of adult lives.  I am far too serious for my own good.  I need to let go sometimes and be willing to make a fool of myself.  Play for adults reduces stress, encourages empathy, allows for the creation of community, fosters a better sense of humor, generates optimism and improves our immune systems.  Being playful and fun spirited enables intimacy between friends and partners and it is a vital ingredient in healthy romantic relationships.  We’re encouraged by many therapists not to be so serious about love and sex and to instead add elements of playfulness and role-playing into those areas of our lives.  All of this is to promote play – especially for men and dads – not just as a command or as something that is good for us.  Finding joy, fun and celebration in life is perhaps more importantly a spiritual ethic.

We so often read in the Bible about Jesus the man who comes across as dour, serious and a major kill-joy.  Adults often see spirituality in any form as involving deep introspection, prayer, sacrifice and acting respectable.  We come to church, we dress appropriately, we sit quietly and we do as we are told.  And we often listen to a minister who tells us how awful we are and how much we need to try and act better.  How many of us have listened to a minister wag his finger at us as we literally squirmed in our seats and were filled with guilt and shame?  You are welcome to boo and hiss if I ever come across to you as a so-called Preacher or self-righteous moralizer.  Believe me, I am as in need of growth in life as anyone else…

I believe, however, that Jesus was often a wild and crazy guy!  The Bible says that many people of his time commented that he was a glutton and a drunkard because he enjoyed parties so much.  Many of his parables included great parties or lavish feasts.   In performing his first public miracle, he turned six, twenty-gallon pots of water into the finest wine – all to be drunk at just one wedding celebration.  He hung out with prostitutes.  He allowed one to use her hair to wash him with oil.  He told little jokes and spoke in puns as when he told Peter – a name that literally means pebble – that upon this rock – upon Peter –  he will build his church.  Or when he told many of his disciples who had worked as fishermen, that he would turn them into fishers of men.  He used funny put-downs of hypocrites when he compared them to whitewashed tombs – clean and fancy on the outside but dirty and full of death on the inside and when he humorously told the wealthy that it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of needle than it would be for them to enter heaven.  Imagine picturing that scenario in your minds!

Alone among history’s prophets, Jesus celebrated children and proclaimed that anybody who wants to be a part of God’s Kingdom – heaven on earth – he or she must approach God like a child.  As is so often the case, man-made religions and creeds have turned Jesus into a stern but often sad taskmaster.  He was, instead, a champion of life, of joy and of a playful spirit.  Kids were his models for how we should act and that says everything about what Jesus valued.

But Jesus is not the only spiritual figure to promote joy and playful celebration.  The Buddha frequently spoke of the value of a happy heart.  He proclaimed that being joyful was not only a balance against negative attitudes and experiences but that acting in a joyful manner actually transforms our minds.  The Buddha said we are to actively cultivate happiness, compassion, love and generosity towards others.  When we do, we also become joyful.  And this is most exhibited by the Dalai Lama who has suffered greatly in his life yet who is playful and seemingly always happy.  Indeed, he states that, “The purpose of life is to be happy.”

We also see that a playful spirit was encouraged by great spiritual thinkers.  St. Augustine and St. Aquinas each promoted play and joke telling as important for spiritual relaxation.  The Bible describes, in one of the Psalms, God as playfully using clouds as his chariot and sunlight as his shiny clothing.  God brings forth grain for nourishment and wine for our pleasure.  And, in a remarkable scene that is endorsed by the Divine One, King David is described as one day joyfully stripping down to his undergarments and then dancing through the streets of Jerusalem – all in praise for the gifts of the God.  I cannot imagine a leader of any nation doing such a thing without large numbers of the population immediately declaring him or her insane!

I chose this topic on play for this Sunday – Father’s day – because I believe it is particularly important for men and dads in our culture to be more involved in the lives of children.  The arc of progress is moving ever forward in that direction – men of my dad’s generation would rarely involve themselves in regular and daily child-care.  The mere idea of a house-husband who stays home to raise his kids while his wife works was virtually unheard of, whereas today it is more common.  Men are getting more involved in the lives of their children – from diaper changing to feeding to being quite active in their lives.  Even more, however, I call on myself and other men to get involved in play with kids – to encourage it, engage in it and value its importance.  And, as much I say this to men – and to myself, I say it is so for all people.  Play is important!

We see, therefore, that play and playfulness in people

  • Is a Divine ethic because it helps us be more sensitive to others, to focus on issues outside of ourselves, and….
  • It is a Divine ethic because it leads us to enjoy the here and now and to be thankful and to rejoice.

When my two girls were younger, I one day decided that our family needed to build unity and spirit and laughter.  And, in some silly inspiration – a time when I took to heart the need to be playful – I invented with my girls what I called the “Slagle family cheer.”  It is totally ridiculous, non-choreographed and literally a stupid thing – hopping on one leg, flapping my arms, barking like a seal and shouting “Go Slagle”!!  I sometimes did the cheer in front of my girls because they would at first laugh and then would become mortified that their dad could do something so totally lame and “un-cool”.   I even threatened to force them to do the cheer with me in public settings or even at the worst of all places – someplace where their friends or peers would be watching!  Of course I would never have done such a thing but, at a few places like the mall or a restaurant, I would begin the cheer and my girls would look at me in horror and then quickly run away as if this idiot of man could not possibly be related to them.  Secretly, I hope, they thought it was funny, totally silly and, while dorky, also endearing.

I hope on this Father’s Day, on this day we celebrate all men, that we can fully embrace this June theme of summer fun.  Whether that involves heading out into nature to witness the Divine hand of creation or venturing to a ballpark and enjoying the slow rhythm of baseball, I hope the motivating factor in those endeavors is to have fun, to rejoice, to play and to find in ourselves a place of peace and total contentment.  Life is not without its trials and our moral imagination encourages us to serve the needs and cure the hurts of others.  In doing so, however, we find that play and merriment and celebration are spiritual practices.  Let us find our inner child, let us dream of fantastic worlds and let us play silly and funny games.    May we each – fathers, men, women and children – enjoy this great big playground called life.

Talkback questions to ponder… As we often do here, I open things up for your comments, thoughts or opinions.  As a part of that, you might consider some of these questions: 1) What importance does playfulness have in your life? 2) What is it about children that allows them to be playful and creati