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Spirituality and Play

So, I discovered a sad fact this week: play is sorely lacking in the area of spirituality. It’s hard to find play in the Bible unless it refers to playing an instrument. It’s also hard to find in other religious scripture. The word fun doesn’t occur in the Bible, either. So, you know what happens when it isn’t there, it doesn’t get talked about. It isn’t considered appropriate. Geez, if Jesus didn’t talk about it… or Moses, or Elijah, or Abraham… then it must not be important.

Personally, I think this makes for a serious hole in church and worship and study. Church has become a serious business, with no place for play or frivolity of any kind. Sure, we make concessions for play with kids in Sunday School. And, I do think most churches no longer ban dancing, drinking, cards, movies, or anything that might be considered fun, and therefore, sinful. However, at my previous church, we couldn’t even shake hands at the traditional service because it caused too much chaos… people actually got out of their seats and moved, crossed the aisle, and sometimes (heaven forbid) even walked across the church to hug someone they hadn't seen in a while. And that was just being friendly… it wasn’t actually play.

In Umberto Eco’s  book, The Name of the Rose, the dour monk Jorge tells the slightly-more-jovial Franciscan William of Baskerville that the world is supposed to be a somber place. “Laughter kills fear and without fear there can’t be any faith,” Jorge says. “Because without fear of the devil there is no more need of God.” 

Wow. I just don’t roll that way at all. Fear may be effective at keeping people in church, but it should not be the root of our faith. Jesus certainly never painted it that way.

I firmly believe play and fun are just as important as seriousness and solemnity when it comes to our spirituality. A balance is important. Yes, I hope we would take our spiritual journeys seriously and intentionally. I hope we would study and practice connecting with the Divine however that works for us. But we can’t ignore play as a sacred way to appreciate life and to live abundantly as Jesus hoped.

Geri Larkin, an ordained Buddhist teacher who began a Zen Center in inner-city Detroit, tells a story in her book The Chocolate Cake Sutra, about a woman in their community named Brahana who was committed to her meditation, to learning, to serving their community. She was wise, her eyes shone and her laughter was instant. One year Brahana heard of a pilgrimage to Korea and decided she wanted to go. To help her raise money for the trip, their small community threw a dharma combat party. About 40 of them gathered, Brahana sitting in front of them with a bowl before her. The rules were that they could ask her anything related to dharma, the wisdom of Buddha, and other enlightened teachers. She would spontaneously respond out of her awakened heart. Seeing her crazy wisdom in action, they would respond by putting money or an offering in her bowl reflecting their level of satisfaction with her response.

Well many questions were thrown at her. Does a dog have a Buddha nature, yes or no? What do children know? Why are dinosaurs so big? And then a young man knelt in front of her wearing plastic glasses with googly eyes. He moved her bowl aside and placed the glasses in front of her and said loudly, “What is this? If you say it is a pair of googly eyes, wrong! If you say it is not a pair of googly eyes, wrong!”

Larkin writes, “Brahana looked at him and grinned. Before we knew it, she had put them on and was bouncing around on the cushion, a wild woman. Everyone laughed. For extra credit she shot the young man with a rubber band. By then we were laughing so hard some of us were coughing.”

This is play and serious spiritual learning merged together. Isn't it beautiful?

In 2 Samuel 6, King David was so happy that he finally had the Ark of the Covenant back in Jerusalem after a horrible war against the Philistines, that he took to the streets dancing in a loincloth! Dancing is playful, it is exuberant. And dancing before God in gratitude as he was, was also worship and connection with Spirit. Oh, but he got in trouble with his daughter for it. She felt embarrassed and disgraced and she chewed him out. Apparently children have always been embarrassed by their parents!

In thinking about David's wild, crazy, playful dance, I went to my bookshelf and pulled off Karyn Kedar's book, The Dance of the Dolphin. Have you ever seen dolphins in the wild? The one boat tour I took for sighting dolphins was a failure, we didn’t see any dolphins and I spent a lot of time leaning over the back of the boat. My contact with dolphins in the wild has been limited to watching videos, but even that makes my heart lighter. I watched one video of a woman who grew up on a fairly isolated island and had a pod of dolphins that she swam with from the time she was little. She would jump in the ocean with her snorkel and they’d appear and play with her. In the video she had brought a leaf into the ocean with her and they played catch with it, pushing it with their nose, or catching it with their tail. She said they loved to play.

In The Dance of the Dolphin, Kedar writes, “The dolphin dances because to survive she must live simultaneously in two elements that are seemingly incompatible. She must live in both water and air, and she must dance between the two.” And then she compares this to our need to live in the world of reason, work, taking care of our homes and families, but our need to also live in the world of the Spirit, a place beyond reason, a place of lightness and deep inner joy. It feels to me like pure play is one of the ways to touch this world of the Spirit.

Pure play is not productive, it is often spontaneous, it is fun. There is no agenda, competitiveness, or judging in pure play. It is done simply for the sheer fun of doing it, with no expectations or agenda. And, it does not require alcohol!

Pure play lifts our spirits, lightens our load, frees us (at least for the moment) from the things of this world that we get mired in, and brings us back to life.

Sadly, we adults aren't always very good at playing. We blame work, a lack of time, and old age for our lack of play time. Or, maybe if we're really hones with ourselves, we're worried about what other people might think of us if we appear too silly.

Perhaps, as we get older, we look forward to having grandkids because they give us an excuse to play! Honestly, it’s good for our souls to play and we need to stop thinking we need kids to do it. When was the last time you had a belly laugh, or laughed until you cried? When was the last time you let go and blasted music and danced around the house, or belted out a song with the radio in your car? When was the last time you said to someone, hey, let’s play a game? Or colored? Or danced in the rain?

We need to balance our seriousness with lighthearted leaping and dancing like the dolphins or like King David (whatever that looks like for you). If you do this, then great! Recognize it as a sacred, holy endeavor. And if you lean a little too heavily to the serious side, perhaps it is time to add some play to your life. If it is hard for you to do, engage a friend who is more playful and ask them to help you. Some days play makes all the difference.

Light and Love!