My plan was to go to graduate school and pursue a career in academia. I wanted to continue studying theology, philosophy, and history (all of which I still do, just not within an academic program) and pursue work within a university. I was (and still tend to be) a ‘serious’ guy, interested in things that are theological and ‘spiritual.’
I may return to school in the future; I’m not sure. But I’m convinced that it was God’s intention to place me among youth and children. As serious as I was, I was unprepared for the undignified, beautiful gift they presented me; learning how to play again. Somewhere along the line in my studies and circumstances as a student, I’d forgotten how to have fun. I had almost completely forsaken play. Whether in the form of sports, games, jokes, or general silliness, I had somehow convinced myself that I just wasn’t the kind of person who needed those things.
But you don’t last long in youth ministry of any kind if you don’t learn how to play. So as uncomfortable as it was, I started playing basketball, tag, Frisbee, and whatever other spontaneous activity occurred. I began allowing myself to enjoy a good joke and appreciate a good hard laugh. I started realizing how hilarious kids actually are, not because they are the objects of laughter but because they are actually funny! Many young people have become for me living sermons of God's joyful and playful nature!
I remember giving my most heartfelt and serious explanation of the parable of the prodigal son to a young man in a residential facility during my first months with Days of Hope. When I had finished sharing, he looked at me somberly. His eyes were huge.
“That’s dope!” he exclaimed. It was quiet for a few moments. Then he concluded, “But if my old man ever welcomes me back, he better have some cash to throw my way because I’m BROKE!”
I sat there totally confused while the young man laughed hysterically. In all my seriousness, I was totally caught off guard. What the heck is this kid thinking? Didn’t he hear this profound story?! What kind of response is that?
After a minute of his ecstatic laughter, it became impossible to continue taking myself so seriously. I started laughing too. I couldn’t stop. What was going on?! After thinking further on it, I believe this kid took the parable quite seriously but when he related it to the brokenness of his own family, he could only express his experience through humor!
This is just one of the many peculiar moments that have formed within me a deep value for playfulness. I’ve started to see it as essential to my spiritual life. I’ve begun to notice that things that I have deemed ‘unspiritual’ or ‘immature’ in the past were often just ideas that challenged my view of God and myself. Somehow, I’ve picked up this image of God as someone who never smiles, laughs, plays, or does anything funny. It is this rigid, unbiblical vision of God that kids have challenged in me and I am still learning to let it go.
In contrast to such a rigid vision, I love the way that Meister Eckhart describes the playfulness of God:
“Do you want to know what goes on in the heart of the Trinity? I will tell you. In the heart of the Trinity, the Father laughs and gives birth to the Son. The Son laughs back at the Father and gives birth to the Spirit. The whole Trinity laughs and gives birth to us.”
If Eckhart is right, then to be created in God’s image means that we were not only created for serious work, but also for play and laughter! In the Gospels, we see Jesus welcoming children, even as the disciples seek to remove them to get back to the “serious” work of ministry. We see Jesus make strange statements that we miss the humor of because we’ve been so conditioned to sit up straight and keep our grins at bay. If you don’t think so, read Jesus teachings to a five-year-old. A kid can’t help but catch the playful humor of casting pearls before pigs, straining out a gnat to swallow a camel, having a log in your eye while trying to get a speck out of your brother’s!
If such playfulness is necessary to be whole as human beings, we deny our innate playfulness and hold back our laughter to our own detriment. When we refuse healthy play and recreation as nonspiritual or immature, we only reject a God-created piece of ourselves. Refusing to enjoy something as simple as a game of tag with one’s kids only dams up the need for play that the human soul knows as an eternal quality. Rejecting silliness and good hard laughter doesn’t dull our innate need for it at all. It only distorts it and pushes it into the darkness.
If we insist on being incessantly serious people, we will seek to fill the need for play in some hidden, controlled, and ‘mature’ way, such as having a few too many drinks, surfing the internet for pornography, binge-watching a favorite Netflix series, or finding some other release valve for all the seriousness of life. The presence of these hidden habits are signs that we are so ashamed of having fun that we can only do it in the darkness when we are isolated and away from the community that God’s placed us in.
Increasingly, I’m coming to see myself as God’s kid on God’s playground. This newfound awareness of the playful nature of God does not negate the profound and serious reality of his call to discipleship. Certainly, the infinite God cannot be reduced to being some kind of cosmic comedian. I must continue in my responsibilities and take seriously the things that God has called me to do, while encouraging others to do the same. But I am free to minister joyfully, not in a way that treats the beauty of laughter or the relief of a pick-up game of basketball as immaturity. To be whole, one must play!
I’m still learning to stop being so serious and enjoy the playfulness of the Gospel. I’m extremely thankful for the ministry of children and youth who never cease ministering this hilarious, good news to me.