“Pondering Playtime” by Mark W. Harris

 June 2, 2013 – First Parish of Watertown


Call to Worship –  from R. Tagore


Where have I come from,

where did you pick me up?” the baby asked its mother.

She answered half crying, half laughing, and

clasping the baby to her breast,–

“You were hidden in my heart as its desire, my darling.

You were in the dolls of my childhood’s games; and when with clay I made the image of my god every morning, I made and unmade you then.

You were enshrined with our household deity, in his worship I worshipped you.

In all my hopes and my loves, in my life, in the life of my mother you have lived.

In the lap of the deathless Spirit who rules our home you have been nursed for ages.

When in girlhood my heart was opening its petals, you hovered as a fragrance about it.

Your tender softness bloomed in my youthful limbs, like a glow in the sky before the sunrise.

Heaven’s first darling, twin-born with the morning light, you have floated down the stream of the world’s life, and at last you have stranded on my heart.

As I gaze on your face, mystery overwhelms me; you who belong to all have become mine.


Sermon  “Pondering Playtime”


I have a reputation around here. I continue to be known as the anti-technology guy.  I have gained this reputation because I have refused to have a cell phone, and have occasionally pointed out to people that it is impossible to multi-task effectively.  In fact the reputation is a myth.  I am actually the technology guy. Believe it! Who do you think posts the newsletters and sermons on our website? Who do you think taught online for ten years, and is about to do so again?  Who spends all day on the computer, and then when he goes home, immediately, much to the consternation of his wife, climbs the stairs to see if any new emails have arrived?  And then summer comes.  My family goes to Maine, and the first question I ask Andrea is NOT, let’s play badminton, or go for a swim, or just sit on the deck.  No, the first question is, is the Wi-Fi turned on?  Hour after hour, I rush back into the house to check my emails. There is no such thing as playtime because playtime is work time.  Everything I do becomes work.  This summer each of us can make something wonderful happen in our souls by riding the wave, by sailing the boat, by dancing in the moonlight.   Here is summer’s first lesson:  Surfing the net is not the same as surfing the wave.  It’s not play.

Summer is coming and the living is often planned – read these books, visit this museum, go to this camp, do this on vacation, or maybe . . . we could just play.  Play is something we typically associate with children, and thus it seems like an appropriate topic on a day when we have a child dedication.  A traditional reading often used on such an occasion is one where Jesus gathers the children around him and blesses them.  This reading also includes Jesus’ own admonition that unless you become like a little child, you will not be able to enter the realm of God.  Does this mean give up convention or be open and innocent?  Jesus was trying to convince his followers to stop being rule bound, and therefore reject legalistic ways of doing things, and follow your heart.   Children certainly help us rediscover the spirit of play.  When I was a theological student many years ago, I used to earn some income by being a part-time nanny to two three-year-old girls.  Like my own children later in my life, they taught me to let go of my rational, ordered and up tight life, even if only briefly, and helped me play again.  At the time, I wrote a little reflection on this experience: “A little child somewhere, dances, doesn’t have to hear the music, doesn’t care how she looks, doesn’t think about it. A little child dances, no special reason, not a night on the town, not to get away from it all, not to lose that extra pound. A little child, in us all, dances, somewhere, a little child.”  Of course many of us do feel the freedom to dance, sing, runaround, pretend to have magic powers, or whatever, when we have a child to participate with.

Yet if Christianity implies through the example of the child that innocence and openness is good, the ability to play and enjoy life often fail to be conveyed as part of that. A child’s ability to play spontaneously, or even to use play as something where we learn how to be together in the world with others is lost on us.  Structure, rules competition and ultimate success often become the guidelines for childhood games.  For many of us, the pick up games of baseball became organized leagues with schedules, uniforms, and threatening coaches who wanted to win.  So the ability to play fades as we mature to the adult world.  One can certainly see this in children’s lives these days.  They are often overscheduled with karate or dance lessons, and even in summer it is camp or tennis lessons or sailing.  And the drive to excel is even worse. The news recently has carried several stories of coaches who shamelessly abuse players with slurs on their character or ability, especially at the college level. Somehow they believe that forms of punishment will bring about success. Why not pursue an activity for the sheer enjoyment of it? Where is the balance?

While liberals often decry the competition of children’s sporting activities, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we know how to play. No one has embraced the Puritan work ethic of having a purposeful life more than liberals.  Every wasteful action or indulgent bite seems to be accompanied by a wave of guilt that we are adversely affecting the planet or our bodies, and we then put the hair shirt back on for more guilty whippings of the soul. Can’t we live right, but enjoy doing it?  Even if we do pursue playful type activities they always seem to have a purpose.  I love to play tennis for instance, and often have done so with my younger sons.  People used to play tennis, but now they work on their backhands or their serves.  Somehow we can’t just throw on a pair of sneakers anymore, but instead need the right outfit, the right racket, and then we have to perfect our game or not participate at all because we are not good enough. In other words we often pursue play as if it were work.

Look at the YMCA.  I can’t just go and flop around the pool.  All the time is taken up with lap swim, or classes.  Who ever heard of fun in the water?  Instead I need goggles, a Speedo, and a different body. With play one should be free of conventions or rules, the need to lose weight or get in shape.  We should swim, run, play for the love of those activities, and not for some greater purpose like winning or playing well, or looking good.  Sometimes a well ordered life is too well ordered, and perhaps we need to give ourselves permission to simply do nothing or do something for fun, and not for a reason.

The problem is that this purposeless spontaneity is perceived as dangerous to a productive society.  We sometimes think that Jesus was holding up the example of children as people to emulate because of their innocence.  We make children holy exemplars of life because we imagine them as pure and sinless. Yet as Herman Melville showed in his classic work Billy Budd, innocence is no great trait to possess because it keeps us witless and without knowledge of the world.  We must take innocence and learn morality and understanding towards others.  For Jesus then the example of children we might pay attention to is freedom.  They will not be defined by convention or rules, but instead will let the heart’s freedom guide them to such things as enjoyment or openness to new experience.  Of course society has feared this aspect of play because there is a letting go of control and convention.  There is a fear that when we abjure everyday behaviors that provide boundaries to life, play will lead to sinfulness and immorality and society will be ruined.  Baptists were warned not to dance because it led to immorality.  At Woodstock, young people danced naked and listened to rock music.  Society often tries to keep people from defying social conventions and playing a new song.  Thus play is not harmless. It can signal rebellion or a new order or change.  Think how with dancing or painting we can simply let ourselves be absorbed in the activity.  When we play ego is forgotten and time disappears.  We let ourselves go free.

In the context of Western religion we should note that traditionally we consider the creation of the world as God’s work, for which he rests on the seventh day.  One could assume that the goings on in the Garden of Eden are the metaphorical equivalent of play, where there is sexual activity, eating, and what is eventually called misbehavior as a result of human freedom. Alan Watts tell us that “Hindus, when they speak of the creation of the universe do not call it the work of God, but they call it the play of God, the Vishnu Lila.  Lila means play. And they look upon the whole manifestation of all the universes as a play, as a sport, as a kind of dance — Lila perhaps being somewhat related to our word lilt.” Hinduism more than any other major religion is based on action.  What one does is as important as what one thinks.  While we might think this was true of Christianity, it is not entirely so.  One can get to heaven, even if one has committed a crime, a long as you repent afterwards. But in Hinduism, there are always consequences to your acts.  Successful reincarnation is built upon the karma you build through your deeds.  One seeks the centrality of action over the centrality of belief.  This is at the heart of Unitarian Universalism, too.  We worship the oneness of creation, and we resolve to do good.  It is a pure faith, not in the sense of pure moralism that decries play, but in the simplicity of action, while eschewing belief. I believe this kind of life includes pure enjoyment and play, too. We know from experience that when play becomes work it is often a competition to be better or more successful than someone else or to reach some standard, but when play remains play it is about a simple engagement with life and the people we are in relationship with.  It must mean living with joy, as well as with duty.

The approach of summer reminds us of the soul’s need for free play. Warm breezes remind us that our sails need to be filled.  Cool water tells us that a refreshing swim will renew us. Badminton nets and croquet mallets are testaments that our bodies can’t see straight or hit in a line, but they love being with others laughing and enjoying the evening’s balmy twilight. We become separated from life joys when we neglect being playful with our bodies.  Summer is a time to open all the windows of your being and join in the dance of life.  There is an invitation to play that we should not turn down.  It is not counting the miles or the pounds, it is counting clouds in the sky and seeing and discerning their shapes.  Zorba the Greek was a free soul who felt he must embrace life’s yearning to play.  Nikos Kazantzakis wrote, “Once more there sounded within me the terrible warning that there is only one life for all men [and women], that there is only one life for all men [and women], that there is no other and that all that can be enjoyed must be enjoyed here. In eternity no other chance will be given to us.”   In Hinduism people realize the consequences of their actions directly, as do we, if we forget our need to play.

Children remind us often of the sometime foolishness of schedules, agendas and work demands, and how we let spontaneity and playfulness slip away in our lives.  Summer gives us an opportunity to embrace activities that have no real purpose, except fun and delight.  Our souls dry up when we don’t pause to reenergize. One great consequence of being a parent was participating in the joy of childhood play, and I got to do it three times, first as a care giver, and then with my now older child, and finally with my younger trio.  If we are not around children, we may need to remind ourselves how much we need to play. We all can rediscover the spirit of play by recalling what once gave us joy, and where we can still lose ourselves in art or fantasy or fun.  Play can happen with those we love.  Play happens as we teach a new baby how to be in the world.  Play can happen with the time we may find in retirement.  Oliver Wendell Holmes reminds us with these words, Men (and women) do not quit playing because they grow old; they grow old because they quit playing.”

The reading from George Colt’s The Big House reminded me of my own playtime in the house I grew up in.  There was a basketball hoop in the barn that was the scene of my arching shots over the rafters, magically rattling off the backboard, and the cheers that reverberated all the way into the main house.  Here was the swift back and forth of  a ping-pong ball, and as in the reading, the magic of a pool table with its rich velvet rug and the flurry of activity to pull out the balls hit in the pockets by the elders.  They were our heroes with their bank shots and ricochet efforts, like the atoms in the universe banging into one another and giving the world energy to burn.  I too, remember all the details of the table and its cues, and the blue dust of chalk.  May you have a life that balances work and play, that you pay attention to the little details and can play enough to see the dancing leaves on the tree that move in rhythm with you, and that you can dance with the music of your life, feeling the wind on your face, and the water rushing between your toes.

Closing Words – from Annie Dillard

There is always an enormous temptation in all of life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for itsy-bitsy years on end. It is so self-conscious, so apparently moral, simply to step aside from the gaps where the creeks and winds pour down, saying, I never merited this grace, quite rightly, and then to sulk along the rest of your days on the edge of rage. 

I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright. We are making hay when we should be making whoopee; we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus. 

Go up into the gaps. If you can find them; they shift and vanish too. Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock-more than a maple- a universe. This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.”