Monday, August 09, 2010

Sermon: "A Theology of Playfulness" (Delivered 8-8-10)

Reading
The reading before the sermon was Anne Sexton’s poem, “The Rowing Endeth”

Sermon
Together, we had a joke contest, and I told the only three jokes I know. We sang songs—some together, some as rounds, some solos, some English, some Spanish. We had a morning yoga class. We did the “UU Hokey Pokey,” where we put our open minds, loving hearts, helping hands, and whole selves in and shook them all about.
These words are from the blog of my friend Leslie Mills. Leslie is studying to be a Unitarian Universalist minister at United Theological Seminary in the Twin Cities. The words that I have just read are excerpted from an account of her night in the jail of Sheriff Joe Arpaio after being arrested for civil disobedience in Phoenix ten days ago. Her blog continues,
Girls and women wearing black-and-white striped shirts and pants. They are being brought in and ushered out; the guards shuffle the prisoners frequently. I’m guessing it’s so that the prisoners can’t form community, get to know each other, or offer one another support.

The problem today is that they arrested so many protesters, wearing their bright yellow t-shirts, that they don’t have enough cells to keep us all separated. And we are offering our community to everyone who comes through the door.

Sometimes, the guards make us all go stand in the hallway. Our friends in the cell next to ours are being made to stand in the hallway, and the guard is yelling at them to keep their backs to the wall and not talk. We stand in the window of our cell, looking at our sisters in the hallway, and we do the chicken dance for them. The guard doesn’t notice, but our sisters have smiles on their faces again.
Now, I have just shared with you the most light-hearted part of Leslie’s blog post. I don’t want to give you the impression that the jail is at all a pleasant place. In fact, the Sheriff of Maricopa County is infamous for devising methods to systematically intimidate, humiliate, and dehumanize those who have been detained.

But, what I want to focus on is a phrase from Leslie’s blog in which she writes, “We are offering our community to everyone who comes through the door.” Offering that community through hospitality, through song, through prayer, and through moments of lightheartedness and tenderness intended to get your cellmate to crack a smile.

My sermon this morning is about playfulness. More specifically, it is about the role that playfulness can have in shaping our lives and, it is about how practices of playfulness can lead us to a deeper understanding of ourselves, of others, and of our worlds. And, what I hope the example I just shared shows is that playfulness is something that we can draw upon during serious parts of our lives as well as in casual times.

Earlier this week I reached out to L., a beloved member of this congregation. L. is a psychologist who incorporates play therapy into her practice. I said, “You’re an expert when it comes to play. Tell me something I need to know about play.” She responded in a way that was humble and true. “Honey, in play there aren’t any experts. That is kind of the point of play. ‘Play expert’ is an oxymoron.”

Even though L. has said that there are no experts when it comes to play, I decided to ask a number of people in our congregation to say something about play and playfulness.

B. and T. wrote to me and said that they try to live their lives according to core values of happiness, gratefulness, and thankfulness. They went to on to describe that they found “attraction” to be a powerful concept. What they wrote, though, reminded me of another word, “invitation.” They told me that they found truth in the saying that “a smile is the best accessory anyone can wear.” A smile is, as they put it, “An outward expression that is the key to unlocking the door in any relationship.” I think back to what Leslie wrote about the fellowship that they created during their night in jail. With their yellow shirts proclaiming that they were standing on the side of love, Leslie’s cellmates offered community to everyone who came through the door and got their comrades in the hallway to smile.


During the month of July I spent a week in Wisconsin serving as a presenter at the Unitarian Universalist Midwest Leadership School. Part of the learning experience included worship twice each day, with each worship service planned and executed by a small team that included adults and youth. What’s more, each team worked under pressure. Each small group was given less than twenty-four hours to create a worship service from scratch. Not every single worship service was my speed, but not a single one failed to be deeply creative. The worship experiences included: liturgical dance, a stand-up comedy routine, a marshmallow s’more communion, two worship services interrupted by spontaneous dance parties (or, maybe they were dance parties interrupted by worship), and lots and lots of hugs and holding hands.

After I announced that I planned to preach on the subject of playfulness, I began to feel a sense of cognitive dissonance. This doesn’t feel like play. I stand up here protected by an ugly, wooden podium and hogging the microphone. You sit out there in mostly orderly rows. What’s up with that? Maybe we should clear the room and tell jokes, do the UU hokey-pokey and the chicken dance, and play poker. If I were really to suggest it, I’m sure that many of you would volunteer to stack the chairs. But, our Sunday mornings are different than the community at leadership school, where there is the necessary intimacy that comes through rooming together, eating together, and learning together. And, we are different than a group of people who have been thrown in jail together for proclaiming our beliefs.

L. did loan me a book that I skimmed over the last several days. Playing by Heart is by an apparently wonderful man named Fred Donaldson who spends his life doing play research with human children as well as with dolphins and wolves. Now, I have to admit that I was really curious about how play with wolves works so I went to that part of the book and the author offered these words, “Before going in a wolf enclosure for the first time, I spent two weeks of long eight-hour days on the outside of the their enclosure. I sat next to the fence so the wolves and I could get to know one another. I touched, groomed and watched; they licked, sniffed and watched. It was a time for building trust.” This is only to make the point that some of us take to playfulness very easily while others of us need a little time to come around.

I also asked D. to share his thoughts about playfulness. He sent me a beautiful message that included this wonderful nugget,
William Saroyan wrote about comedy, “Comedy is where you die but they don't bury you because you can still walk.” So maybe, we can modify the idea to say that playfulness is where you act foolish but they don't reprimand you because you are offering love.
“Because you are offering love.” It is this notion of playfulness as a way of offering love that brings me to raise this to the realm of theology. John Buehrens and Rebecca Parker recently published a wonderful book on progressive theology. (I found it fascinating and I will be teaching a class on this book on Wednesday evenings beginning in September.) In the section of the book on progressive theologies of human nature, Rebecca Parker shares an interesting story. Parker is President of the Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California, a school that trains Unitarian Universalists for the ministry. Rebecca Parker holds dual credentials as a Unitarian Universalist and a United Methodist minister. In the book she shares a story about serving on a Methodist task force that was called to make recommendations to the United Methodist denomination on controversial issues related to human sexuality. She describes a minister named Sam, one of her colleagues on the task force, who approached their work from a conservative bent based on his negative theology of human nature. Sam believed that human beings are naturally sinful and disobedient. Because that is the way we are, Sam believes that God has established very clear and firm rules about how we are supposed to act. God has given us those rules out of love and for our own protection. For Sam, “God’s love was embodied in the ‘orders of creation’… and deviate from it would be to turn away from God’s love.”

Rebecca, needless to say, came to this task force with a very different understanding of human nature. She believes that we are born blessed with potential. Imagination, joy, creativity, and free will are gifts that we have been given and we are called to use those gifts well for the purposes of love. To quote Rebecca, “God’s love is experienced in unexpected surprises of grace and new insight. It stretches me and my community beyond our established norms into adventures in inclusiveness [and] greater solidarity.”

I share with you this example because I think if we asked Sam and Rebecca to talk about play, I suspect we might get two very different responses. Sam might describe a game with clearly established rules and a referee whose job it is to make sure that everyone plays by the rules correctly and penalizes those that do not. Rebecca might envision a form of play “that surprises, disrupts, and alters the status quo; that expresses itself in diverse ways; that comes in rainbow colors.” In this form of play, the main thing, as D. puts it, “is that you are offering love.”

Playfulness, with its mixture of imagination, creativity, joy, freedom, surprise, disruption, and love can describe human relationships. Fred Donaldson would say that these same playful behaviors also exist in the animal world. I would add that this same kind of playfulness is useful and even necessary in our understanding of God. In the poem “The Rowing Endeth” Anne Sexton is extremely playful in the image of the divine that she presents; a God of laughter and surprises.
Dearest dealer,
I with my royal straight flush,
love you so for your wild card,
that untamable, eternal, gut-driven ha-ha
and lucky love.
When is comes to the vicissitudes of human relationships and of the very core nature of our humanity we know that Sam’s approach will lead to a diminishing of our humanity and that Rebecca’s approach will lead to health, wholeness, and well-being. The same approach is just as needed when it comes to faith. Limiting rules and “correct play” lead to finitudes and platitudes. Like Rebecca, we need an approach to the questions of faith that is every bit as creative, imaginative, and truly loving as we would hope to be.

I want to conclude by offering just a few thoughts on the experience of play. J. wrote to me with these words, “I think playfulness is an essential component of our emotional toolbox. It helps us take each other and especially ourselves less seriously, and when done well, to forget our ‘self’ entirely. What a restful break that is.”

Lo, and behold, the exact same point appears in Fred Donaldson’s book. Donaldson argues that play has a circular structure. Play involves a kind of spinning; you might imagine an excited dog that races around you in a circle and jumps into you. Donaldson contends that this kind of play involves the integration of playmates into a super-individual that provides a balance to the self-assertive tendencies of the individual. If play draws us into one another then contest and competition has a centrifugal force that pushes us away from one another. Play, in the end, is a force that draws individuals and groups into a deeper sense of union, unity, and interconnection.

While not precisely a story about play, I leave you with this powerful story from Leslie's experience in the Phoenix jail:
“It’s him! It’s him!” Excited whispers rouse me from my drowsiness in the evening.

I look up and see a man surrounded by guards standing outside our cell. He’s looking in through the window, observing us as though we were dogs in a kennel. Sheriff Joe Arpaio, come to observe the prisoners that got in the way of his plans to raid innocent people’s homes that day.

One of my sister protesters walks slowly up to the window where Sheriff Joe is looking in. She is smiling, and her hands are formed into the shape of a heart. She, like most of the rest of us, is wearing a bright yellow t-shirt that reads “Standing on the Side of LOVE.”

Through the window, she shouts to him in her Spanish accent, “I love you, Sheriff Joe!”

He blinks. I could have sworn he took a step back, as though she had dealt him a blow. He points to himself. ”You love me?”

“Yes,” she says. ”I love everybody—all my brothers and sisters. I even love you.”

Sheriff Joe does not appear to know how to handle this; he turns and leaves.
So, put your thinking minds in…
And, put your helping hands in…
And, most of all, put your loving hearts in…
And, shake them all about!