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The Importance of Play

I have been informed on numerous occasions that I am a rather serious person. Occasionally this comes as a compliment, but generally it is a statement of vague concern. Often, the implication is concern for me personally (“I hope you do not spend your wholeThe Kelleys existence without ever relaxing and enjoying life”). Other times, the concern is more for those around me (“I really wish you would stop expecting everyone to be as earnest and serious as you are”).
For my part, I do not generally see seriousness as a fault. I would rather call it sobriety, which is a trait that my spiritual ancestors valued very much indeed. And if I am deemed too serious, well, then perhaps the rest of the world is too glib.

Nevertheless, while I do see great value in sobriety and single-mindedness, the many people who have questioned my sometimes overly-serious demeanor were on to something. The way to the Kingdom is a winding, often non-linear path that involves a lot of things that might not occur to us. The way from here to there is not always straight. We often arrive at our destination not by coming at it directly, but through relationships that take us in directions we did not anticipate or intend.

Human relationships are a good example. We do not come into relationship with others by simply willing it into being. The child’sChristmas question, “will you be my friend?” reveals the naïveté of the idea that we can create deep connections simply by choosing to have them. Most of us eventually learn that relationships take time, persistence and self-denial in order to develop to maturity. We grow in relationship by sharing life together – work, meals, worship and play.

For a relatively serious person such as myself, work, meals and worship are high priorities. I can see the practical value of each one. Play, though, is more difficult. I have often found myself feeling vaguely guilty for spending too much time at play or just hanging out with friends. There is serious work to be done! Do I really have time for these non-essential activities?

As I grow in the Lord, though, I am learning that fun and play are not luxuries. Rather, they are an essential ingredient in developing RISKand sustaining the life of the Kingdom. Just like work, meals and worship, play can be used to build up the Body of Christ. It is a vector for the experience of Christ’s presence among us, and in play we can be drawn out of ourselves and into relationship with one another in the Spirit. By taking the time to simply be with one another, without any apparent objective to be achieved, we can make space to grow closer to one another, and to God.

When my wife Faith and I were engaged to be married, a friend of ours gave us this counsel: Take time to have fun together. Though it sometimes takes a lot of conscious attention, we are learning to take our life together little less seriously. We do our best to take time to just be together, even in the midst of our very full schedules. And, for me, our relationship often serves as a refuge from the need to always be serious. With Faith, I can risk being a lot less guarded than normal. Sometimes I can be downright silly. Our Monopolymarriage is a training ground for me as I learn to open up in this way to a wider circle of people.

Faith and I do what we can to provide opportunities for the kind of fun that not only strengthens our marriage, but also nurtures the seeds of our community. For some time now, Faith and I have been hosting a Friday game night. It is a very simple thing, but this regular opportunity for gathering to eat homemade pizza and play board games has been a positive force in strengthening our community here in Washington, DC. Hilarity has been known to break out.
What has been your experience of play – in your family, your neighborhood, your local church? What are faithful ways of playing that you have experienced? What are ways that play can be twisted and damage the life of the Spirit?

  • Play is where learning begins, where we start making sense of our world. The rigid compartmentalising of play (as distinguished from “work”) can deprive us of motivation, meaning and the capacity for physical, emotional and spiritual growth – a common failure of formal education systems.
    My dad was a trained teacher but I learned far more from his playing with me than from his attempts to teach me school maths which turned me off for life!
    Play can also creatively transform destructive human traits – well illustrated by your photos. You could play a game of world military domination or competetive property acquisition, to prepare children for their roles in the ‘real world’ or… you could play Risk and Monopoly “knowingly” as adults ‘playing’ at conquering and ruining each other 😉