My introduction to play happened during a season of exhaustion. As the solo pastor of one church and session moderator of five others, I drove all over central Illinois to keep the promise I had made to my colleagues at my ordination: “Will you be a friend among your colleagues in ministry, working with them, subject to the ordering of God’s Word and Spirit?”
In my attempt to live into the “I will” with my colleagues, I began to neglect saying “I will” to myself. Exhaustion starts small. Then it begins to creep into other areas of our lives. Not only were the energy, intelligence, imagination and love waning in my ministry, but they were also becoming more absent in my personal life. My busyness (a temptation I’m prone to fall into to fit in with my peers) left me unmotivated to exercise, disinterested in hobbies and creatively dry. By constantly comparing myself with others, I left little space to love myself. In my attempt to be the best moderator in the Midwest, I somehow forgot my identity as a child of God.
On the brink of burnout, I approached my therapist for some insight. My therapist asked me a question that shifted my perspective: “What does little Adam need?” In addition to bringing tears to my eyes, this question stopped my overthinking. My answer was as simple as her inquiry: “Little Adam needs to play.”
What does it mean “to play”? My response came from a stanza in Thomas Merton’s poem, “Hagia Sophia,” a work that celebrates Divine Wisdom as the feminine manifestation of the Holy One. In the poem, the Divine comes to us without reserve and enters the stream of our humble tasks, decisions and everyday commitments. Merton scholar Christopher Pramuk puts it this way: “Such a God – Sophia – would ignite our hope, the capacity to breathe and to imagine again.”
Merton poignantly describes Sophia, our collective inner child: “We do not see the Child who is prisoner in all the people, and who says nothing. She smiles, for though they have bound her, she cannot be a prisoner. Not that she is strong, or clever, but simply that she does not understand imprisonment.”
Within each of us is an inner child: a youth that does not know imprisonment. Over time, in our attempts to be the best adults we can be, we forget this child. For me, this inner being is who I am at my core: a beloved child who is fully known and welcomed by God.
How then do we return to this child? By playing.
Play is integral to human development; children learn primarily through play. Play accomplishes something unique: it creates a space for us to be honest with ourselves about what we don’t know and to practice new things (and fail!) without interference from our egos. Play represents a safe space — a padded room with low stakes where we can create, make a mess and explore new ways of doing things.
For adults, play accomplishes an even more important task: it takes us to realms that are preconscious and prejudgmental. We return to the wildness of our inner child and enter once more our creative identity as children of God. Play allows us to let go of our restrictions and frees us to tap into our imagination. In this way, play stands in direct resistance to our adult expectations. It challenges our impulse to stay busy, to fret about how others perceive us, to maximize commitment and structure in all areas of our lives. Play is natural. It is the mechanism for exploring our imagination by tapping into Sophia, the divine inner child living within all of us.
So how do we create space for play in a very adult world? The congregation I pastor contemplated (and subsequently answered) this question by creating the Center for Creativity and Community. Through a grant from the Presbytery of Great Rivers, we became home to a space that focuses primarily on creating community through creativity, inclusivity and – ultimately – play.
The Center is a ministry for middle school-aged students (grades 6 through 8). While all students are certainly welcome, the Center is designed specifically as a space for those who may not fit in with the athletes, thespians and musicians, or with any other group society tends to define as the “in group.” The Center has evolved to respond to common, negative and untrue narratives that we consistently hear from students: that because they may not excel at the arts, they are not creative people — and that creative validation is derived from likes, comments, followers and feedback on their social media platforms. Particularly in this age group, we realized students had become consumed with living up to standards that defined them based on validation through competition.
To counteract this narrative, we invited the students to play. We bought art supplies, found old magazines and books for black-out poetry, and gathered a variety of items to create games. It didn’t take long for the students to realize what author Brené Brown reminds us, “There is no such thing as creative and non-creative people, only people who use their creativity and people who don’t.”
Our makeshift art studio was transformed into a creative space where community naturally formed. As the students began filling their blank canvases, they also genuinely connected with one another. Students who thought they were alone began to see that they had companions in their journey. Play allowed them to remove their culturally imposed masks and create a new narrative — one that was empowering and enlightening.
Laughter accompanied the students’ playfulness, and as the walls began to fill up with art, their hearts began to expand for each other and the community. Providing space for students to play – without grades, scholarships or other incentives – opened them to their creative natures. They began to learn how to meet challenges; that they were enough, and that their story was beautiful. Play liberated our students from the imprisoning idea that they somehow weren’t creative people, and it led them to a place of true community. In their play, they embodied the reality that we are co-creators — a people with a creative spirit that seeks mercy and love. All it took was space to explore their curiosity and interests, tools to play and a place for them to be themselves. Sophia could not be imprisoned; she would not be restrained.
The theology of play also found its way into the life of the congregation. I realized that if I became overwhelmed with the demands of life and the struggle to live from my baptismal identity, surely others must be struggling, too. We began to integrate practices from the Center into the worshipping life of the church. For the prayer of praise, we held space for people to compose their own prayers in haiku form. During Bible study, we began writing acrostic poems as we studied Lamentations. As we played with words, our hearts were freed to share the things that were currently breaking them.
The theology of play gave way to a theology of witness — showing up and listening to one another. Last spring, during the pandemic, we wanted to find a way to connect with each other and have fun while doing it. We purchased basic watercolor sets for every household and invited them to paint whatever they felt that week leading up to worship. Eventually the bulletin board in our parlor became a beautiful tapestry of creativity, and when we finally returned to in-person worship, the works of art became conversation starters — and community happened.
The process of integrating play into the life of the church didn’t come without reservations. Some folks wanted to know why we were creating, and their biggest concern was often what we would do with the final product. “This is a great idea, preacher, but what are we going to do with them in the end? Will they be bulletin covers or what?” These sentiments spoke to how conditioned we are as adults to be perpetually focused on tasks and deliverables. We forget that not all we do needs to be about production. In the face of our capitalist impulses to be busy all the time for the sake of consumption, play slows us down. Yet, play in community brings us back to the foundation of who we are as God’s people: creatives.
The congregation’s renewed focus on play has also yielded unexpected outcomes. Despite being geographically positioned in a rural community with little population density, we have seen a steady growth in attendance and an increase in membership over the past three years. Many of our new members were specifically drawn in by our playful and creative approach to ministry. One family found their way to us through the Center, where their children experienced firsthand how safe spaces can become brave spaces through creativity. Another family found the playful art prompts helpful in keeping them grounded during the pandemic and brought them together as a family. We inadvertently discovered, as part of our own creative congregational journey, that when we created a space to engage the child who lives in all of us, we drew in others who were seeking to explore their own creativity and humanity.
Each Sunday, we pour the waters reminiscent of our baptisms. We make it a point to play in the water — to splish-splash and make a mess. We do this to remind ourselves of the way God played in the waters of creation: delighting in everything that was being created, especially humanity. The water of our baptism is where God claims us and where we are known. From the waters, we receive our original name; Sophia invites us to join her as she plays in creation. The play she inspires isn’t one of domination or competition. Rather, she invites us to play with mercy and gentleness, tenderness and love! When we play, we put down our expectations and set aside our fears. When we remove our masks and let go of our restrictions, we enter deeper into the mystery of the Trinity and receive a renewed sense of God’s nearness and friendship.
I am slowly beginning to see how the theology of play opens us to the creative Spirit —the Wisdom of God. Our time together is rooted in creativity not as a verb or a noun, but as a place where we can be ourselves, existing at the intersection of God’s creativity and our imagination.
It is at that intersection where I find my identity, as a playful, creative, beloved child of God. It is there where I find little Adam at play and where I find the mercy and love I need to say “I will” to my colleagues, congregation, community and to myself! Take time to play; that’s when we encounter God pouring God’s self into us. Play is where love emerges.
Adam Ryan Quine is pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Lincoln, Illinois. He is a dog dad, seeks to live into the questions and reflects creatively upon community. Whether he is at the church or not, one often finds him with a cup of good coffee, a book in hand and a desire to listen to the stories that make people sing hope.