Picks from the Pews: “God at Play”

These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church family. While effort is made to give credit for work done by others, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given. Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered. Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation. 

Matthew 19:13-14
Genesis 1:1-8, 24 – 2:4

I don’t know how many times I’ve read the creation story in the beginning of the Bible… but this may be the first time I’ve read it and realized that our God is a God who likes to play.

Maybe I missed it because we in the church are so serious about God. Maybe it came from our serious Calvinistic or Puritanical sort of background. Maybe it is because we simply don’t equate play and fun with God. Some are even suspicious when the two are thrown together. Maybe it is because we, in the western world especially, value hard work. We even use this language in the church—  we often call your activity: church work (never “church play”). I wonder if a lot of people even realize that church work can be fun! Or if it is, they feel guilty!

But read the creation story again and it seems to me that while God is working… it is work that God is enjoying… and the more I read it, it seems to me that the Lord’s work looks a lot like play to me. Genesis describes a God who creates raw materials out of nothing… and creates light, darkness, waters, land, gardens of all sorts of vegetation, fruit trees, animals, fish, birds… and finally, God makes us.

And several times we hear God pause for a moment—as if to stop and reflect upon what he has made – seeing that it was good, very good – as if God was having fun!

This tells us quite a bit about the nature of God— the creator, a craftsperson, an artist, who seeks to paint—using the palate of the universe… who creates each and every one of us—seeking human company— relationship— wanting to spend time with us– while not forcing it upon us. God is one who loves to create and who takes time to enjoy the fruits of his creative and playful labor. After it is all said and done—God stops working… stops creating for a moment and simply rests to enjoy what God has made. 

The creation story teaches us a lot about God. It also teaches us about ourselves. For if we are created in the image of God—play and rest are also part of our very nature.  A playful, creative spirit brings joy to God.

I think this is what Eric Liddell was trying to tell his sister. You remember his story told in Chariots of Fire, don’t you? I was thinking of him as I was running in my first half-marathon.

The story is set in Scotland and is about  the 1924 Olympic Games and two athletes – Harold Abrams, an English sprinter who is Jewish, and a Scottish sprinter, Eric Liddell. Liddell is the son of a Presbyterian minister and a theological student preparing for mission work.  In order to train properly for the Olympic Games, Liddell must take leave from his seminary studies. His sister, Jenny, is not at all pleased with this decision. They argue over his decision.

Jenny says that her brother ought to forget about running and listen to God’s call to the mission field. Liddell is torn. “I believe God made me for a purpose,” he said. “But Jenny, God also made me fast, and when I run I feel his pleasure.”

And so Liddell decides to run – to honor God, to feel God’s pleasure, by running fast. 

I love that line: “God made me fast and when I run, I feel God’s pleasure.”

Funny that it is a serious Scottish Presbyterian teaching us this truth about pleasure!

Part of what we were created to do was to play, to run… this also gives pleasure to God.

How could we have missed it? Well, speaking for me—I can tell you how.

The culture that raised me did not value play very much— it valued work.

Play was a waste of time. Work is what God cared about. To be faithful was to be driven.

And work is important… don’t get me wrong. God worked but God also enjoyed his creative work.

But we forgot that God also rested… and created time—a whole day—to sit back on what had been achieved, to delight in it and enjoy all God had made. I forgot that God created us not only to be companions in work but also in rest and in the enjoyment of God’s creation.

I love the story a minister told at Iona Abbey a few years ago. He pointed out that above the communion table in the Abbey there are two discreet medieval carvings- a monkey and a cat. Strange carvings to find in a sanctuary. He said they are there to symbolize the two sides of the monastic life: the active, relentless busyness of the monkey- the world of work and service—and the contemplative, restful life of the cat—the world of prayer and renewal.

Today they offer the two contrasting sides of every Christian life: the busy, giving, serving side; and the quiet prayerful absorbing side. One balances the other, to make the complete and rounded life of a servant of Christ. Be busy, with no time to pray and reflect, you get burn-out. Too much reflection and otherworldly holiness and you’re too heavenly minded to be of any earthly use.

The monks of old knew that.

So did a woman named Mrs. Renton. She was a member of this pastor’s church.

Mrs. Renton came to church before everyone else. She was always up early and wanted the best seat in the church. She was in her place 45 minutes before worship began every Sunday… in glorious isolation, sucking hard candy, idly thumbing through her hymnal—while around her, flowers were put in place; colors were changed to the appropriate season, the choir rehearsed, and the minister—rushed around at a frenetic pace… as worship approached. He would say “hello” to Mrs Renton… “good morning” on the way back to the office; “hello again” as he returned;’ nice day” as he went up to the chancel… it was the same every Sunday.

One morning Mrs. Renton, stopped him in his tracks. “Excuse me,” she said. “Have you got a moment?” He skidded to a halt- like Charlie Chaplain in a silent movie- and asked what she wanted.

“Sit down here”, she replied, patting the seat beside her, impatiently.

The minister did as he was told!

“Well?…” he asked, with barely concealed irritation. There was  a long silence.

“Well?…’ he offered again, as an encouragement to her to get on with things.

“You wanted a word Mrs. Renton?”

The old lady turned to him and smiled. “No” she replied. ‘Actually, I just wanted to see if you could sit down.”

Mrs. Renton was a wise woman. She would have done well as an ancient monk.

Mrs. Renton knew that we were not simply created to work and to produce like a cog in an industrial machine. We were created for more.

We-  who were made in God’s image… we who are, according the Genesis—made in the spittin’ image of God… We were made to create as well and to enjoy the creation.  We were made to be partners in God’s creation… we were made to take pleasure in God’s creative work and our own creative work. We also were made to enjoy and play!

I like the way one person put it:

One of God’s great gifts to us is play…  We are meant to work, but also to spend time doing something else, being absorbed probably with other people, being curious and learning new skills. Play is not just for children. Even parents who play with their children need time alone for their own growth.

Perhaps we should set aside time each week for our own Sabbath, a time to come aside, to rest, relax and play, to delight in God’s gifts of creation and creatively, with others and in the company of God.

Jesus our model for how to live, knew the songs of the children and told jokes and funny stories to illustrate God’s desire for us. Jesus enjoyed work, but also enjoyed rest, meals with friends, time alone praying, and time together with his closest friends.

Time for work, time for relaxing, time for life with families if we have them, time for prayer, and time for play We need them all.

There is an old Jewish story that when we meet God at death, the first question will be: “Well, did you enjoy yourself?”

Well…. did you? Did you? Amen.

Note: this sermon owes thanks to the devotion given by Rosemary Power for the insights on play and the story of Mrs. Renton. It comes from “Gathered and Scattered” Iona book of devotions.

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