We are formed by that which we think on, that which we encounter, that which we respond to each day. We know it’s transformative to enter into spiritual disciplines for they help us create holy habits which, in turn, move us deeper to the heart of our God.
We also know that to get good at anything requires practice. To learn the piano, we run through the scales. To complete a marathon, we run, run, run. To become a writer, we run our fingers up and down the keyboard as we craft line after line.
Have you ever experienced a closeness with another person without having a relationship with them? No? Neither have I.
To grow deeper in intimacy with God, we need time to be in His presence. Such intimacy involves frequent connections over extended time. In other words, I need time and space to build a relationship where God and I can know one another, converse over the things in my life and His that matter, and walk through thick and thin together.
My early Christian life held healthy patterns of prayer, Bible reading, fellowship with other Christ-followers, and worship with the communion of believers. Yet I longed for more of God and didn’t quite know how to get there.
When I first read Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, the idea of spiritual disciplines sparked inspiration. Over decades, other writers like Dallas Willard, Donald Whitney, Ruth Haley Barton, and Adele Ahlberg Calhoun added wisdom to the subject.
Where Foster categorized the Spiritual Disciplines into inward, outward, and corporate disciplines, Willard looked at the disciplines of abstinence and the disciplines of engagement. Barton expanded the conversation by reminding us that spiritual rhythms can be invitations toward spiritual transformation. Then Calhoun compiled a heart-healthy handbook to guide us upwards into God’s heart with her field guide of faith practices.
If there’s anything I know about myself, it is that repetition creates growth and variety helps me stay steadfast in my journey towards Jesus.
From early days of following Christ, going on 54 years now, I’ve been an explorer in search of More of Jesus, More of Father, More of Spirit. Practicing the spiritual disciplines exercises my soul, stretches my mind, challenges my heart, and brings me reliably into the presence of God.
As a Spiritual Director, my directees yearn to hear God’s heartbeat and to see changes in their own interior landscape. So spiritual rhythms, disciplines, and practices become part of our conversation and prayerful space in spiritual direction gatherings.
Play seems an odd spiritual discipline in some ways, yet I am discovering it to be a grand one as I move into the decade of my 70s.
Age can be daunting. Age can be freeing.
And really, isn’t all of our life with Christ to be about true spiritual freedom?
So when I engage with the habit of play, I am moving into the state of freedom most often seen in a little child. And wasn’t that one of Christ’s invitations? Become like a little child. What are children great at? Play.
Why, when we hear the word “play,” we think of children for this is the perpetual state in which they engage! Giggling, romping, splashing, tumbling, climbing, creating, exploring, building. Kids run. Kids jump. Kids delight in wild romps.
Anybody else ready to join in Aslan’s grand romp while reading C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe? Some of you may be taken back by this idea. Aslan, the God figure in the book is God who plays?
Yet don’t we see God’s playfulness everywhere we look? And if there is playfulness, it comes from the Creator who invented such delights.
Tell me you have never smiled with delight watching dolphins ride a wave. Tell me you have never wished to join them. Tell me you have never laughed out loud at the antics of a penguins or the way a panda bear will engage in silliness in a panda habitat.
Sarai laughed at God’s promise to bring forth a son from her aged body. God gets in on the joke by telling Abram to name the little one “Issac,” whose very name means laughter.
Psalm 104:26 says,
There is the sea, vast and spacious,
Teeming with creatures beyond number—
living things both large and small.
There the ships go to and fro,
and the leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.
If there is frolic, there is a Frolic Maker!
The Westminster Confession declares that “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” One of the Spirit’s fruits is joy. As we read Revelation, we find that there is joy in heaven, a restoration of all that was lost in Eden.
So, in some sense, play as a spiritual practice prepares me for the delight we will find in heaven.
We are told to “Serve the Lord with gladness.” (Psalm 100:1) As far as I’m concerned, gladness certainly rings loud amid a good time of playfulness.
For this, I look to Dr. Stuart Brown, author of Play: How It shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul and founder of a nonprofit called the National Institute for Play. He states, “Play is state of mind that one has when absorbed in an activity that provides enjoyment and a suspension of sense of time. And play is self-motivated so you want to do it again and again.”
He explains, “Play is something done for its own sake. It’s voluntary, it’s pleasurable, it offers a sense of engagement, it takes you out of time. And the act itself is more important than the outcome.“
Dr. Brown goes on to say that play has certain characteristics such as:
- Apparent purposelessness
- Not bound by time
- Body and movement play
- Object play
- Imaginative play
- Social play
In reading about play via Dr. Brown and other sources, I discovered that play:
- Acts as a creativity stimulator
- Improves brain functionality
- Boosts well-being
- Aids physical health
- Releases endorphins that help reduce stress
Play leads to delight, freedom, lightness, exuberance, and is pleasurable. These dovetail with what I want in connecting with God. I want to be absorbed, lost in time, enjoying God’s very presence.
I desire to live and move and have my being in God in ways that engage my entire being: body, soul, mind, spirit, and my laughing place.
I want a literal active faith, where I build a sandcastle as part of a way to be with God and listen in to how He creates within my soul.
I want an imaginative heart that allows me to enter stories of Jesus as if I was there and grow in new ways because of this playful perspective.
So, here’s what I’m doing more of these days. I’m heading into play as my spiritual practice of being with God. I’m practicing the presence of God in a glorious romp of delight as I play. Join me by exploring play in some of these ways:
Let’s keep experimenting. Let’s play and enjoy God with child-like wonder. Want to join the fun? Come on along. May it lead us deeper and wilder into:
Books Worth Exploring
- Barton, Ruth Haley. Sacred Rhythm: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation. Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2006.
- Brown, Stuart, MD. Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. New York: Avery Penguin Group, 2009.
- Calhoun, Adele Ahlberg. Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us. Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2015.
- Eldredge, John. Beautiful Outlaw: Experiencing the Playful, Disruptive, Extravagant Personality of Jesus. New York: Faith Words, 2011.
- Foster, Richard J. Celebration of Discipline: The Path of Spiritual Growth. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1978, 1988, 1998.
- Lindvall, Terry, PhD. Surprised by Laughter: The Comic World of C. S. Lewis. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1996.
- Martin, James, S.J. Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of he Spiritual Life. New York: HarperOne, 2011.
- Willard, Dallas. The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988.