The power of divine play at Sophia’s Theme Park

Concerned with reports of increasing numbers of pastors experiencing burnout and depression due to exhaustion during the COVID-19 pandemic, McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago invited church leaders to Sophia’s Theme Park: Recess Time 2021. This virtual retreat, held from June 8 to June 12, 2021, offered church leaders a chance to experience rest, renewal and spiritual direction, nourish their inner child and gain Divine Wisdom.

The virtual retreat was an example of the power of play in Christian life. The retreat began and ended with playful worship services. Each day, participants engaged in spiritual practices, the serious work of play, reflection, improvisation, movement, imagination, fellowship, interaction with biblical stories and ongoing vocational discernment. These gatherings helped participants to rest and renew themselves in a supportive community. Play was the main strategy driving the activities, which were designed to connect participants with each other and with the Divine.

Playful worship

Worship was playful in many ways during the virtual retreat, however this article focuses on an improvised communal sermon and a joyful feast that was part of the closing worship.

This service demonstrated the power of play through a communal sermon composed of collective improvised storytelling. The facilitator invited worshippers with these words: “With an anointed imagination we invite one another to join in labor; to play together, to co-create the kin-dom of God that is already among us … the ‘Childom’ of God” (“childom” was used to suggest a community of children under God’s leadership).

A popular improvisation game: “Yes, and…” served as the structure that guided the communal sermon. Using the game, the participants described the Childom of God: how it looks, sounds, tastes, smells, feels and the emotions it elicits.

The closing worship included a joyful feast in which participants celebrated a meal ritual. After the sermon, one woman invited worshippers “to a celebration for the co-creation of the delightful Childom of God, right here, right now.” Another liturgist invited participants to sit at the table. A minister blessed a star-shaped cake (in reference to Daniel 12:3) and a cup of milk with honey (God’s provision in the Promised Land), cut the cake and poured the milk, and distributed them among those present in her household. Meanwhile, everyone consumed what they had brought to the ritual meal in their own homes. Rihanna’s song “Diamonds,” played in the background, encouraging worshippers to shine brightly. The meal ended with impromptu expressions of joyful praise and thanksgiving.

Playing with tradition

The improvised communal sermon and the closing feast of the virtual retreat reinforced the Reformed tradition’s emphasis on Word and sacrament. The communal sermon was the Word proclaimed. The collective improvised story was full of imagery from Scripture. During the retreat, participants “met” and had conversations with an array of biblical figures, which brought Scripture to vivid life. These reflections filled participants’ thoughts with God’s kingdom, kin-dom, Childom. With the emphasis on the inner child as a framing element, the participants’ description of the Childom of God was focused on the well-being of children. According to the worshippers, it was a place where children were safe from harm: from being caged, separated from their parents or even drowning in a river while swimming toward better living conditions. “Childom of God” was just another name for the heavenly realm that, according to the synoptic Gospels, Jesus proclaimed.

Similarly, the joyful feast resembled the sacrament of Communion. As participant Brenda Montgomery noted, the joyful feast “looks like a new way to do Holy Communion.” She “saw equivalence between the bread and wine of the Eucharist and the cake and milk and honey beverage served at Sophia’s Theme Park,” and she typed in the chat box during the conference that she “heard some of the Scriptures – [including a] paraphrase of Luke 13:29 – that are read when we celebrate Communion. It was a unique experience.”

However, instead of saying, “People will come from north and south and from east and west,” the minister said, “People will come from India and Puerto Rico, from the United States and from all over the world,” thus honoring the places of origin of those present in worship.

Another participant, Magdalena García, a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and alumna of McCormick Theological Seminary, recalled a story in the conference chat that served as a warning. She told of the objections that the “watchdogs of the denomination” often had to reimaginations of religious rituals. She shared that some time ago, Presbyterian Women were criticized for a ritual similar to the joyful feast of the retreat. In spite of the painful memory and possible negative consequences, she stated, “Yay for the courage to re-envision God and God’s blessings for the people of God.”

As part of the Reformed tradition, the PC(USA) has a mixed history with play. In the words of German Reformed theologian Jürgen Moltmann, “The Puritans used to tell their children, ‘You haven’t come into the world for pleasure.’ ” In “Theology of Play,” he goes on to explain, “The notion that enjoying God implies enjoying our own existence has been obscured by our Puritan training in self-control.”

Still, play is an important part of being a healthy human being. Sophia’s Theme Park intended to reassert the value of joy against the absolute claims of deontological ethics (the emphasis on rules without consideration of context, mitigating factors or the values that the rules are trying to protect) and against the puritanical traditions that attempt to keep us from enjoying and thanking God in new and creative ways (as the Shorter Catechism encourages).

The joyful feast at the Sophia’s Theme Park retreat intentionally avoided using the words: Eucharist, Communion, Lord’s Supper or the words of institution. However, it also intentionally used the structure and much of the language from the Book of Common Worship’s Eucharistic liturgy. This was a way to live into the liberation of Easter. As Moltmann explains, “Easter opens up the boundary-crossing freedom to play the game of the new creation.” The serving of cake and milk “played” in celebration of the new creation and was also a new creation itself. Making the feast celebratory – like a child’s birthday party – rather than a solemn and serious Communion that feels like a funeral, was a preview of the heavenly banquet we imagine each time we celebrate the Eucharist.

God’s Childom

The concept of “God’s Childom” is an expansion of the language used in reference to the divine realm. According to the Gospels of Mark and of Luke (for example, Mark 4:30 and Luke 17:21), Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus spoke of the kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 18:4). The Gospel according to John omits the topic.

Feminist and mujerista theologies have expanded the language around God’s kingdom. In her book “In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins,” theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza consistently prefers the term basileia to “kingdom.” Though she notes that the term translates as “kingdom” or “empire,” she explains that Jesus’ vision of the basileia is a practice of inclusive wholeness, of equals sharing a festive meal as the central image of the community.

Mujerista theologian Ada María Isasi Díaz, drops the “g” in kingdom and proposes the use of “kin-dom.” In her book “Mujerista Theology,” Isasi Díaz views the language of kingdom today as sexist, hierarchical and elitist. Instead, kin-ship conveys that people are kin for one another, that they are the family of God, “when the fullness of God becomes a day-to-day reality in the world.”

Expanding the work of Schüssler Fiorenza and Isasi Díaz, “Sophia’s Collective,” a network of artist-theologians in the U.S., proposed “Childom of God.” Through collaboration, the planning team of the virtual retreat focused the closing worship on the human condition as children of God. This emphasis of the worship service, which was also present throughout the retreat, was the catalyst for coining the phrase “Childom of God.” One participant stated, “Thank you for reminding us of our status before God: children.” The phrase conveys the heavenly realm of the synoptic Gospels, where God is parent and people are all children in a Christian discipleship of equals sharing a festive meal.

Playing purposefully

As children of God, church leaders gathered to renew their energies. They attended the virtual retreat, seeking rest and wholeness. They played games that nurtured the inner child and enjoyed the presence of Spirit.

All this play would have been in vain if participants did not worship and connect with God, others and self. By God’s grace and the power of play, they did. In the words of one of the participants: “I feel so free … this was effective in naming our pain, and improving self and our relationships with the community and God. I am grateful for the experience!” During their virtual retreat at the Sophia’s Theme Park, the retreat facilitators offered many opportunities to play, but the key was to adapt the games to accomplish an objective: whether that is connecting with the Divine, self and others; worshipping, growing in knowledge of Scripture; or nurturing one’s spirituality.

May God’s play be with you!

Lis Valle-Ruiz is assistant professor of homiletics at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. Her research interests lie at the intersection of preaching, worship and performance studies.