To Divinity, and Beyond! Playfulness

By: Candace Chellew-Hodge

Preached June 12, 2011 at Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, SC

Readings:
Psalm 104:24-33: "The earth is full of your creatures!"
Mark 10:13-16: "...receive the realm of God like a child ..."
  Hear this sermon at the Jubilee! Circle Web site.

Our first song tonight comes from the British rock band Queen. Formed in 1971, the band consisted of lead singer Freddie Mercury, guitarist Brian May, bassist John Deacon and drummer Roger Taylor. Over their long career, the band amassed 18 number one albums and 18 number one singles. Tonight's song was not one of their top hits. "Play the Game" was on their 1980 album "The Game." Let's try it:

Open up your mind and let me step inside
Rest your weary head and let your heart decide

Chorus: It's so ea-sy when you know the rules
It's so ea-sy all you have to do
Is fall in love
Play the game
Everybody play the game of love ooh yeah

My upbringing was a little bit schizophrenic on the topic of playfulness. My father was a tireless prankster - always joking, always playing practical jokes on people. He loved to laugh and have a good time. But, there were some things that others may have considered fun or playful that were off limits to us. As good Southern Baptists, we were not allowed to dance - because moving your body in any way other than just walking across the room was of the devil.

Subsequently, my older sisters and brother were not allowed to watch American Bandstand - all that devilish wiggling would corrupt their young minds and make them want to have too good of a time. When we lived in Atlanta in the 1960s, my father even forbade my sisters from going to a Beatles concert - even though one of his closest friends - a radio news reporter got to interview the Fab Four and could have scored some tickets for the whole family. Nope, can't do that. It's of the devil doubly so - devil music and evil dancing. Nothing good could come of that.

So, on one hand, I saw may jokester dad, laughing and cutting up - that was fine - as long as your body only shook from a good belly laugh and not from a fine, grooving beat of that devil music.

My life makes so much sense as I reflect on this now. It means two things - one, I can't dance and two, I have a hard time really relaxing and letting myself play the game.

Just like that fundamentalist on the radio show, I had no idea about God's playful side. My father - ever the joke - neglected to tell me about the fun side of God - that wild and free Spirit that roams in, through, and around us.

Our ancient Hebrew kinfolk knew all about God's playful spirit, however. In today's reading from the Psalms, we even see God playing a bit of peek-a-boo, or hide and seek with Her children.

These all look to you
to give them their food in due season;
when you give to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust .
When you send forth your spirit, they are created;
and you renew the face of the ground.

Now, sometimes we don't feel like God is playing with us when He hides Her face. We are dismayed - but so is my granddaughter. If you hide your face from her, she gets this concerned look on her face, then when you pop back up again, she is delighted.

You can do it over and over again with the same result - concern and delight, concern and delight. This is our game with the Holy - we are concerned when we feel God is playing peek-a-boo, or hide and seek with us - and delighted when God's spirit reappears. In that moment, we are re-created, we breathe in the breath of God.

Our problem has been that we don't understand this game. Like that fundamentalist, we can't even imagine that God would "play" with us this way. Instead, we get all twisted into knots - our concern taking over - "God has gone away!" we moan. "When will the Holy return? Is She gone forever?"

But, God is never far, in fact, God never really leaves us - but is teaching us - in this game of peek-a-boo, or hide and seek - how to play the game - this grand game of love that we have been created to play.

When you're feeling down and your resistance is low
Light another cigarette and let yourself go

Chorus: This is your life
Don't play hard to get
It's a free world
All you have to do is fall in love
Play the game - yeah
Everybody play the game of love Ooh yeah

In the original Toy Story movie we see Andy's toys getting played with a lot. As the movie opens, Woody is in full play mode, guarding the bank from robbers. But, for Woody and his friend's it's not always about the act of playing - or seeing Andy's face as they enjoy the play. Often, the toys spend time on the shelf or in the toy chest. Andy often hides his face from them - but they know - they trust - that Andy will always reappear and play with them yet again.

And so it is with the Holy. In those times when we feel like our lives are anything but play time and we can't seem to find God anywhere - much less stir our souls to go to divinity and beyond - we must remember that we are never truly alone. That Spirit that lives and moves and breathes its life into this world is ever present - if only we'll recognize it and breathe deeply of it.

In those moments we have to let ourselves go - stop worrying about the darkness of the toy chest - and remember that to play the game, all we have to do is fall in love - fall in love with the Holy, fall in love with the world, fall in love with each other, fall in love with ourselves - and know that whether it's dark times or good times - it's all part of playing this Holy game of love.

When we realize we are part of this Holy game of love, we can truly let ourselves go. True play is an expression of freedom and joy, and if we can find true play, even in the dark times, then it will be no problem to go to divinity and beyond. Because when we truly learn how to play this game of life and love with joy then we glorify our maker. It was Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyons, who remarked many years ago that, "The glory of God is man fully alive."

We cannot be fully alive until we can play, until we can dance, yes dance, with delight at in the presence - and even in the absence - of our Creator. This is the mystery of our faith, Jubilants, that we can play in both the presence and absence of the Holy. This is going to divinity and beyond.

Breathe deeply.

Bridge: My game of love has just begun
Love runs from my head down to my toes
My love is pumping through my veins (Play the game)
Driving me insane
Come, come play the game
Play the game play the game play the game

Chorus: This is your life
Don't play hard to get
It's a free world
All you have to do is fall in love
Play the game - yeah Everybody play the game of love

Sam Keen writes in his poem Godsong:

I will be serious, I solemnly swear;
To tell the whole truth
and nothing but the (literal, constipated) truth.
To smile only on off-duty hours.
To do my duty to God and my country.
To think in straight lines.
To keep my hands above the table at all times.
To joke only about matters that are of minor import.
To take cold showers whenever I have warm thoughts.
To disregard the seduction of unconscious associations.
To keep the faith of my fathers,
and If I should die before I wake, I prey the Lord my soul to take
(if he can still find it once the laughter is gone).

This sounds like a recipe for what we need to make it in this world - to be Very Serious People - dedicated to God and country, to tell the literal, constipated truth and keep our smiling to ourselves. This is what it takes in this world to win the game. My fundamentalist friend truly believes this is how to win the spiritual game. Our capitalist friends tell us this is how to win the money game - to climb the corporate ladder, to look out for number one. There is no room for laughing and giggling or childish play.

Stand up straight, eat your vegetables, do your duty, and don't talk back the world tells us - and you will be a winner.

Yet, the Holy calls us to a different game - a game where we're not out to win. Instead, the Holy calls us to play to lose.

Breathe deeply.

Our next song comes from singer/songwriter Tom Petty. "Even the Losers" appeared on his third album "Damn the Torpedoes." Let's try it.

Well it was nearly summer, sat on your roof
Yeah we smoked cigarettes and we stared at the moon
And I showed you stars you never could see
Babe, it couldn't have been that easy to forget about me
Baby, time meant nothin' anything seemed real
Yeah you could kiss like fire and you made me feel
Like every word you said was meant to be
Babe, it couldn't have been that easy to forget about me

(Chorus) Baby even the losers
Get lucky sometimes
Even the losers
Keep a little bit of pride
They get lucky sometimes

In our Jesus story, we find our guy in Judea hanging at the house of one of his disciples. People from the town were trying to bring children to see Jesus, but the disciples, being Very Serious Men, weren't going to let Jesus be troubled by some trifling, noisy, romping, rug rats. No, their man Jesus was a Very Serious, and Very Important Man. He couldn't be bothered with children and their childish concerns.

Jesus saw this and got angry about it. He told them, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

Children, we are blessed. We don't have to be Very Serious People to enter God's realm - instead we must be as little children - open, honest, vulnerable, trusting, seeking, joyful, playful, and full of innocence. For really, true play presupposes innocence. Watch kids playing together and you see pure innocence, pure openness to the excitement and fun of play.

At some point, we seem to outgrow this - we grow up into Very Serious People - because we come to believe we are no longer innocent. Indeed, like our fundamentalists friends, we begin to believe we're seriously flawed - seriously sinful, and seriously in trouble with our Maker unless we straighten up and fly right. No more playing - we're grownups and we must be Very Serious.

Jesus says no - unless we receive the realm of God as little children, we'll never find it. Now being childlike and childish are two very different things. The disciples were childish - protecting Jesus from the children like he was their property. And our modern day disciples play the same childish game - telling some of God's children that the Holy is off limits unless they get their act together first. That's just childish, and that's not what gets us to the Holy.

Instead, it is understanding our innocence that makes us childlike. The Spirit sent to us at Pentecost assures us of our innocence. We are not blessed by our childish behavior - instead we are blessed simply because we are. Grace has assured our innocence, and if we really understand that, then play comes as naturally as breathing - because we can live fully as the person God created us to be. In that one act - of acknowledging our own innocence - we can go to divinity and beyond.

Breathe deeply.

(Bridge)Two cars parked on the overpass
Rocks hit the water like broken glass
Should have known right then it was too good to last
God, it's such a drag when you live in the past

(Chorus) Baby even the losers
Get lucky sometimes
Even the losers
Keep a little bit of pride
They get lucky sometimes

It is this grace, Jubilants, that leads us to understand that this game we're playing - this game of life and love - is not one to be won, but to be lost. This is a game of grace, writes theologian Jurgen Moltmann, "in which the loser wins and the lost are saved, the poor are filled and the rich are left empty-handed."

This game is the true gift Jesus has given us in the days after Easter - and the Holy Spirit continues this work even today. This is where the game of liberation really gets good - where we can throw of the bondage of being Very Serious People and get into the sandbox of life and build a few castles.

Moltmann writes: "Here indeed begins the laughing of the redeemed, the dancing of the liberated, and the creative game of new, concrete [co-occurance] of the liberty which has been opened up for us, even if we still live under conditions with little cause for rejoicing."

This moment, Jubilants, is where we can begin to lead the way for those Very Serious People who think playing is a frivolous waste of time. We can lead them to rebel against these Very Serious ideas that keep them bound to the powers and expectations of this world. We can lead this revolution because we, ourselves, have been Very Serious People, and we know, intimately, the pain and torture that this world can cause to our free, unfettered, childlike souls.

We have felt, deeply, the pain of this world, and for that reason, we can laugh. We have mourned, and for that reason, we can hope. We have been outcast, and for that reason, we can take in the world. When we are the losers in this world - we are ultimately the winners in God's realm.

Moltmann writes that "Life as rejoicing in liberation, as solidarity with those in bondage, as play with reconciled existence, and as pain at unreconciled existence, demonstrates the Easter event to the world."

We must play, Jubilants - we must embrace our divine playfulness because the world depends on us. Our games point out the hypocrisy of the Very Serious People of this world, it undermines their power over us, and breaks the chains of bondage. We are called to engage this world in "serious-merry play." This is the kind of play that the world sees as losing - but in reality - it "patiently brings about change in the world so that it may become a place of freedom" for everyone.

And that, Jubilants, takes us to divinity and beyond!

(Chorus) Baby even the losers
Get lucky sometimes
Even the losers
Keep a little bit of pride
They get lucky sometimes

Oh, Yeah!

Candace Chellew-Hodge is a recovering Southern Baptist and founder/editor of Whosoever: An Online Magazine for GLBT Christians. Her first book, Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians, published by Jossey-Bass is now available at http://www.bulletproofbook.com. She currently serves as the pastor of Jubilee! Circle, a progressive, inclusive community in Columbia, South Carolina. She is also a spiritual director and is currently taking on new directees. She blogs regularly at Religion Dispatches. She can be reached by email at editor-at-whosoever.org or by using the suggestion box.

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