A couple of summers ago, during what seemed to be an endless summer (joke was on me it seemed; 2020 was just around the corner), I dragged my kids and own parched self to hang with the animals at the local pet shop for some much-needed relief during a long summer day. While the children ran off to the fish, I spied a large blue bird in a glass enclosure. Curious, I walked closer. A beautiful blue hyacinth macaw sat alone, not a single feathered friend in sight. Looking at the bird, I thought about how lonely that must be, and me being the parent I somehow always am now, I started to get concerned about this bird’s mental state and emotional outlook. You read that correctly, I was concerned about a bird’s emotional health. Moving on, having nothing but time and slight boredom on my hands, I started walking around the cage, seeing if I could get this bird to engage with me. A peek around a corner garnered a semi-interested glare back from the bird. Perhaps, also semi-strange looks from the pet store staff, but I wasn’t paying attention. The bird had peeked back at me, so now I was involved. It was my turn to peek around again. And this is how I found myself in the middle of a hot summer day playing a hide-and-seek game with… a bird.
Playing and smiling like a gleeful fool, I briefly wondered what was wrong with me. I quickly pushed the thought aside: after all, it was my turn again to hide from the bird. Clearly unconcerned with what people thought about my sanity, I continued to interact with the bird until my kids found me and pestered me about the fish. That day, I walked away from the bird, both happy and sad. I was having, it seemed, this thing called fun. In the back of my head, the thought nagged though: What was wrong with me that playing with a bird brought so much joy? And the other bigger, more pressing thought: Did I even want to know?
According to Dee Cooper, who recently completed serving as interim executive presbyter of Heartland Presbytery in Missouri, nothing is wrong with these sorts of interactions — just a normal human being looking for connection, with yes, an animal. Not too strange at all, considering that scientists in psychology are now debating whether there’s a third animal response: fight, flight or play.
In fact, Cooper believes that this search for a connection – this sense of play – is so universal that it extends to the animal kingdom. She should know, as her company, Adventures for the Wild at Heart, speaks to this need, this connection between animals and humans, and yes – their innate ability (uptight Presbyterians included) to connect with each other playfully. She has vast experience chartering these animal and human connectional experiences and recalled a trip (before COVID-19) that she charted with dolphins. According to Cooper, watching this wordless connection between people – and in this case, dolphins – was “profound … watching dolphins choosing to connect.” Especially seeing as Cooper’s company has rules around these trips – that not any animal or human is forced to interact with each other – makes this more meaningful.
The animal kingdom connecting with humans is not something new; it’s something we have become more familiar with as time has passed. Who could forget the heartbreaking images of people sharing bottles of water with koalas during the Australian wildfires of 2019? Animals and humans, while not entirely strangers or enemies, have, in a way, mostly figured out how to get along. If you have ever had a dog and a small child at the same time, well, you know what sort of force of cuteness that can be when they put their heads together. Likewise, if you lived with a pet during the trying, lonely times of 2020, you understand what a special balm their presence gives.
Perhaps it’s not a surprise that animals want to connect and play, but what about us? What about serious, Presbyterian humans? After more than a year of a social distancing during the pandemic combined with deep social, economic, political and racial divides being forged, it almost seems easier to connect to animals as opposed to the real, live (sometimes irritating) people in our lives. Given the last year and a half we’ve had, connecting, especially with anyone not like us, can seem daunting. But the question remains: How do we work toward togetherness and being the one body of Christ? And is play, perhaps, part of that answer?
Play as a spiritual practice
It’s hard, is what Chris Lee, the first “pastor of play and discipleship” at Canyon Creek Presbyterian Church in Richardson, Texas, will admit. But not impossible.
In fact, Lee argues that the theological goal of play is not all that different from mission work — in fact, he argues that play is missional, just hidden under the guise of having a little fun. Play may look like all popsicles and rainbows from the outside (and some of it is silly, light fun), but is also good, theological work.
“Play is countercultural,” Lee says. He adds: “Play raises an eyebrow. And I’ll argue that play, and only through play, do we see each other’s humanity.” In essence, in playing with others we drop the masks each of us spends a lifetime developing. In acts of play, we’re able to see beyond the racial, social political and economic profile of the other person. Lee goes on to say what we all know to be true: “If I’ve played with you, we’re less likely to judge each other; we’re more likely to try to understand each other, give a little grace, build a bridge.” He also adds that, as a Black male in a predominately white denomination, having played with someone (a tennis game being his favorite way to play), then because of that play interaction, he’s freer to have harder conversations with that person. And, while the concept of theological play sounds silly, it’s proof that there’s something more under the surface.
But, play as a ministry takes a bit of planning and thoughtfulness on how to enter into it as a church body. And harder still, is the work toward being a church where play as a theological concept is not only allowed but celebrated. Canyon Creek Presbyterian Church agrees whole-heartedly. While not only standing behind Lee and this concept of play as a spiritual practice, they’ve also created administrative and foundational supports, including a committee dedicated to play, and assigned two ruling elders to the committee, tasked with bringing play to life in the congregation and beyond the doors of the church.
Play as theological work
While the concept of play seems rather new in application to adults in a ministry setting, play is not new in theological community. In fact, several books go over the spiritual concept of play like Stuart Brown’s “Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, Invigorates the Soul.” While these aren’t new concepts, to enact play as a ministry with adults, and convince an entire congregation that play is just a part of a healthy spiritual diet, is quite another thing entirely.
Julie Gruber Delezenne, pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Warren, Michigan, strives to convince the congregation about the value of play on a regular basis during her sermons — including a recent worship service for adults using puppets. Play, it seems, is woven into the DNA of the church already. Case in point: One of the church’s members, Waunita Flint, at age 94 started a water gun fight in the church parking lot after a baptism. Of course, Delezenne, described Waunita as “having the biggest grin on her face.”
While play initially might seem like just having fun and being silly, at its core it’s deeper than that, reminds Lee. “We need it now more than ever,” he says. We have lost so much the past year that perhaps, play, although seemingly the antithesis of what we need at the moment, is the path back. Play, it seems, can bring a joy and lightness to everything it touches, while at the same time striking a deeper chord within all who interact and play together.
“Play and joy go hand in hand,” Lee adds. And, play “is where our sanity lies with other human beings and perhaps, medicine.”
In a world where we’re rethinking everything and creating anew after a long year of grief, loneliness and, perhaps, exhausted resilience, perhaps play and playful Christians will be just what this weary world needs.
The “rules” of play
Play really has no formal rules, but here are some guidelines that Dee Cooper shared around entering into play.
- To be entered into voluntarily (there’s no forcing play!).
- The state in which you are most relaxed.
- Space with no set “goal” or objective.
- Time without a clock — in other words, a bit of aimlessness with no specific time to complete the activity.
- A lost consciousness of self — not self-conscious about what you’re doing and why.
- A sense of improv; you can wander and make up your own play or how you want to play or explore.
Tips for sharing play with a congregation
Looking to introduce more levity into the congregation? Here are some tips from a couple of congregations that have encouraged playfulness, including some tips from the first-ever Play Committee from Canyon Creek Presbyterian Church in Richardson, Texas.
Go slow and keep it simple. This is hard to do when there’s so much excitement and energy around a new idea (especially one called play), but going slow is the best way to keep the concept of play in a congregation moving forward.
Lean into mistakes. Take gaffes for what they are: opportunities to learn. Be open-minded to feedback, as not everyone intuitively understands the point or theological work of play. Also, people play and enter into the concept of play in various ways and at different speeds. How you handle criticism is important. And, sometimes the best critics may make the best play committee members — and might just want to be involved from the get-go.
Enjoy it. Whatever play looks like for the congregation, lean into what makes it fun for you. You enjoying yourself, no matter what this concept of “play” turns out to be (even one you may not love), will in turn spread the joyfulness like wildfire.
Remember the holiness of play. Regardless of frivolity and silliness of play, it is a holy path to enter a sacred space with God. Be open to curiosity, freedom and exploration, and be ready to be surprised by what play looks like in you and others.
Don’t be afraid to say no. Another piece about play is that sometimes the congregation thinks it just means parties and celebrating, and might pigeonhole you (unintentionally, of course) into a party planning committee. While celebrating is important on its own, the true call of play is the restorative and relational work of relating with each other as humans — beyond the social facades, political parties and other masks we all wear as we walk through our daily lives. Play is less about balloons and more about connecting to the heart and spirit of God’s children.
Most times, play involves movement. This makes sense, as our bodies harness joy and openness usually through the body. Mobility limitations? Not an issue — be creative in how you use activities and movement to connect. Everyone is invited, even those with mobility concerns. The great thing about play is that there is no one way to enter into it, and everyone’s invited.
Lastly, get used to the eyeroll. Julie Gruber Delezenne offers this solid advice. Play doesn’t come naturally, especially for some people or congregations. But getting used to the eyeroll and carrying on anyway, is one of the best ways to communicate to the congregation that the idea of play isn’t all that bad, and also that it’s here to stay.
LIZ RASLEY is an elder and occasionally leads children’s moments at her church in Richardson, Texas. Her latest book is “Levity: Humor and Help for Hard Times.”