By Dr. Lewis F. Galloway,
Senior Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church
My grandparents were wonderful loving people who devoted much time and attention to their five grandchildren. They took us on outings to introduce us to the new things going on in town. They taught us many things including how to fish, model with clay and even play games such as Chinese checkers. When it came to Sundays for these devout Christians, all play was out.
“If somebody is having a good time, there must be something wrong. Such a caricature is far from good theology of any stripe.”
I remember riding with them in the car on a Sunday afternoon. When we saw a group of boys about my age playing ball at a high school practice field, I wanted to get out of the car and join the game. Then I heard my grandmother say, “Those who play on Sundays will never prosper.” At the time it seemed like an uncharacteristically severe remark; maybe that is why it has stayed with me so long. The theological implication is that the Sabbath is a day for worship, rest, family visits and charitable acts, but not a day for play. Beyond that, the remark suggested that there is something intrinsically wrong with play. God and play don’t mix.
This childhood experience represents one very strong theological stream within the Christian tradition. Play, like folly and idleness, are not productive and therefore to be avoided. We all have images of dour Calvinists sitting on hard chairs in cold rooms trying with all their might to be virtuous and miserable. If somebody is having a good time, there must be something wrong. Such a caricature is far from good theology of any stripe.
The Christian tradition affirms the goodness of life, the delight in all things beautiful, the rhythm of work and rest, and the balance of labor and play. Play comes naturally to animals and to children. The Bible even says that God made the sea monster Leviathan to “sport” in the sea (Psalm 104:26). We learn essential social skills and life responsibilities through play.
“Play is like a spiritual discipline. We learn how to become more fully human through play.”
Play is like a spiritual discipline. We learn how to become more fully human through play. The Bible is full of humor, feasting, music, dancing and celebrations that all involve some form of play. When we look at some of God’s creatures, including human beings, we know that God has to have a sense of humor. Many of the stories of Scripture have a playful dimension. Behind the tent, old Sarah nearly falls down on her face laughing when she hears the angel say that she is going to have a baby. Decades before, she had already turned the nursery into a guest room. Many of the sayings of Jesus reveal his playful nature and sharp wit. On the 8th day of creation, I like to think that God said, “Play on!”