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The Sacred Act of Play

Sep 14, 2023 | Outdoors and Wilderness, Theology and Culture

I looked out through the tree branches and stifled a laugh building deep in my belly.

It was late October in Wisconsin, and I was fifteen feet up in a tree stand. The first snow of the season was slowly accumulating on the leaf-covered ground. The sight was breathtaking, and I felt privileged to be there. Apparently, I was not the only one. Thirty yards in front of me, a doe and her two fawns were in the field. The doe was calm and collected, but the fawns looked agitated, almost unable to stand still, as large snowflakes fell around and upon them. 

Suddenly, one of them took a clumsy bound and ran several steps before sliding to stop. It repeated the move in the other direction. Hesitantly at first, its sibling followed suit. I watched as they ran back and forth, sliding in the freshly fallen snow. I almost laughed out loud. They were playing! I traveled in my mind’s eye to the snowy days of my childhood and felt a deep connection to these two fawns, playing in the snow for the first time in their lives. I opened my mouth and felt the familiar tickle, as I caught a fat snowflake on the tip of my tongue.

It is no secret that we believe that playgrounds can be sacred. Play is fundamental to life. We do not always think of it in this way. Sometimes, we dismiss play as immature, something reserved for children. But that is far from the truth. Play is universal. Play is sacred.

Think of your pets. You know something is wrong when they do not play. The same is true with children, of course. Those who have experienced trauma or are not confident in their secure base (trusted relationships) are reluctant or even unable to play. Adults are no different, even if they claim to be. While most adults are not swinging on the swing set, there are plenty swinging golf clubs or tennis rackets. When we stop playing, it is an important warning sign of despair.

The Lie About Play

There is a pervasive and dangerous narrative popular among some adults that equates leisure with laziness and portrays play as the antithesis of production. In this worldview, our value is grounded in our productivity. This is what leads some to calculate the value of “lost production” during the March Madness tournaments. It is what drives millions to overwork and refuse to take days off. It is what justifies employers exploiting their workers through long hours, limited vacation, and low wages.

In our society, overwork is generally rewarded with more responsibility and even more work. In this worldview, having time for play and leisure is a sign of success and great wealth. Only the successful can afford things like paid time off, family leave, and retirement. Work hard enough, the thinking goes, and you might get there, too. The successful can golf whenever they want, buy a sailboat, charter fishing trips, go skydiving, spend hours in the salon, and enter high-stakes poker tournaments. Play is reduced to a luxury.

This is a lie. Play is sacred. It is a universal need, an expression of life. In the face of the lie, it is resistance.

Play as Resistance

Consider the famous Christmas truce. In December 1914, the worst war in human history had descended on Europe. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers were dead, and millions more would die in the brutal trench warfare that had only begun. On Christmas Day, in defiance of orders, French, British, and German soldiers got out of their trenches and exchanged gifts of food with one another in no-man’s-land. They buried their dead and exchanged prisoners. Then they played football (soccer) together. It is one of the most famous acts of defiance in military history. It certainly did not end the war, but it reminded everyone of their shared humanity.

Three decades later, an even more terrible war came to a brutal end with the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan. The enemies saw each other as sub-human, with both sides displaying a willingness to exterminate the other. After Japan’s unconditional surrender, American troops occupied the home islands, and something amazing happened. Instead of subjugating them, as the Japanese had expected, the Americans taught the prisoners of war how to play baseball. Soon, the two mortal enemies became allies, and baseball became the most popular sport in Japan.

The act of playing subverts the lie that our worth is dependent on our productivity. It reaches across seemingly unbridgeable divides and brings people together. We see it in these famous examples from human history, and we see it regularly among children who defy social conventions to reach across the arbitrary lines of race, class, and gender with those beautiful words, “Do you want to play with me?” They can teach us how to be human again. They can remind us that play is sacred.

Play as Sabbath

Human societies have such an aversion to leisure and play that God actually commands it. As the world demands non-stop work, God commands Sabbath. In the face of the slave-drivers (literal and figurative), Sabbath is resistance (as Brueggemann has so eloquently put it), a decisive no to the lie that our worth is dependent on our productivity. And yet, how many of us work anyway, profaning what God has set aside as holy?

This may strike some as peculiar, placing play in the realm of Sabbath. After all, doesn’t Sabbath mean rest? That is, of course, an oversimplification. Just consider the act most associated with the Sabbath day: worship. Certainly, worship is not rest (at least not for those of us who stay awake during the sermon). So, what is Sabbath? God’s command specifies that the Sabbath is to be kept holy. That is, it is to be set apart, honored, sacred.

Play and Sacred Space

Christians too often equate holiness with purity. Many demand an austere attitude before God, as if worship must be serious and unsmiling. Approaching God with fear and trembling is biblical, of course (Psalm 2:11), but so is approaching God with joy, thanksgiving, and dancing (Psalm 100, 2 Samuel 6:14).

Can worship be play? Of course, it can. That is why we infuse worship with music, musings on the biblical texts, and the mysteries of the sacraments. We play instruments. We play around with our understandings of God. We join together in community. Like our childhood playgrounds, worship is a space where we come alongside those who have different viewpoints or come from different backgrounds. This is sacred space and sacred time. It is set apart from the everyday, the expectations of a work-oriented, divisive society. It is holy.

Sacred space is not limited to houses of worship, and houses of worship are not limited to carefully constructed, spotless, single-use buildings (whether austere or ornate). Sacred space is where the people of God gather. It is where arbitrary lines of division are crossed. It is where we dare to worship alongside and play together with those we are told are enemies or rivals. It is the place where traditions are held dear and new traditions are formed, as our play opens us to new ideas and ways of being. 

Sacred Playgrounds

Ceasing to play is to become stagnant, set in our ideas of how the world works and in rigid perceptions of others. As with animals and children, ceasing to play is a sign of ill health and a portent of death. We need to rediscover the playground.

We discover that play itself is a sacred act. Sacred space is where the Spirit moves in and among us. It is where life is celebrated. We find it not only in worship but also from the deer stand, in no-man’s-land, on the playground, and at our summer camps.

We discover that the most sacred space might just be the sacred playground.


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