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The Restful Practice of Play
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The Restful Practice of Play

Play can restore our souls from the damage done by our accomplishment-driven, workaholic culture.
Keri Wyatt Kent

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Once, Jesus' disciples—who were beginning to realize that God's kingdom was not like earthly kingdoms—asked him to clarify: Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? In other words, how do you move ahead? By way of reply, Jesus "called a little child, whom he placed among them. And he said: 'Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes a humble place—becoming like this child—is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven'" (Matt. 18:2-4, NRSV).

You minister to children, so you know all about play. And while our job of leading and serving kids is important and, in many ways, serious, we can sometimes lose some of our joy. Ironically, we ignore the example of the children right in front of us and get way too serious about everything.

What does it mean to play, to be childlike (which is a bit different from being childish)? And what did Jesus mean when he said that the greatest in his kingdom were those who chose to be like little children? Did he want us to be playful? Does that mean we all ought to play more dodge ball?

While we may have a different perspective on childhood than Jesus' contemporaries did, he continues to call us to trust him. And to realize we're not "all that." Leadership often tempts us to believe too firmly in our own importance. Play stretches our ability to be a fool, to engage in that which has no purpose other than simple joy. Play forces us to loosen our grip on our ambition for a while. It trains us in humility. We often want to avoid the risk involved with being silly. It's odd, since Jesus said we ought to be humble, that we seem to find it difficult to let go of our self-importance and image management—especially if we are leaders.

One way to get more play time in our lives is to practice Sabbath-keeping—taking one day a week to rest from our work. Play can definitely be a part of that rest, and it is necessary to restore our souls from the damage done by our accomplishment-driven, workaholic culture.

Do you know how to play? Often adults engage in sports, but it is with a sense of competitive intensity. Or, perhaps you are in a sports league, but you have to justify it as "relational evangelism." You're not just playing; you're building bridges to share the gospel. But what if "just playing" is what God invites us to do as part of our Sabbath practice?

Many adults see exercise as drudgery rather than play. Or it becomes an obsession, a god they compulsively sacrifice large amounts of time and energy to. They don't play for fun; they exercise in an attempt to look younger, to stave off the inevitable aging process. Or it becomes a stimulant, another addiction. Rather than just enjoying a game of catch with the kids or a walk through the woods, we feel the need to engage in extreme sports.

Sabbath is a spiritual practice, of which play is a quintessential part. In play, we shed the shackles of schedules, efficiency, even purpose. The playfulness of Sabbath is the key to its ability to restore our souls.

The ancient Greeks distinguished between two types of time. Chronos (or kronos), named for the Greek god who swallowed his children, is linear time, chronological, measured, logical. How apt a picture of our driven society—our playfulness swallowed and destroyed by our busyness. What we carefully track with watches, clocks, and calendars is chronos (clock) time. And though we seem to control it by measuring its minutes, hours, and days, it does seem to threaten to swallow us up, to keep us running in fear and anxiety.

But a second word, kairos (pronounced "ky-ros"), has to do with those moments when we lose awareness of the ticking clock. It's when we are in the moment, when time passes and we are unaware of it. It means "at this moment" but also "the fullness of time." Like Sabbath time, it is sacred time.

Interestingly, the New Testament, which was written in Greek, makes much use of this distinction. Specific moments in history when God steps in are considered kairos moments.

Have you ever engaged in something so enjoyable that you lost track of time? Something fun or absorbing? Something that didn't have a point or a purpose, other than itself; something you did just for the fun or interest or excitement of it and you forgot about yourself and your to-do list? In other words, did you ever just play? In the losing track of chronos time, we touch kairos time.

Having a deep conversation with a dear friend, reading an absorbing book, or engaging deeply in some creative endeavor can usher us into kairos time.

Play is a path to kairos. It puts us in touch with the fullness of time, it refreshes our souls. While prayer is an important spiritual practice, so is play.

Do you take time for Sabbath each week? If you feel that Sunday is the day you "work" the most, then give yourself another day of the week to rest. When Eugene Peterson pastored a church, he took his Sabbath on Monday. He and his wife would go hiking or simply relax. And he asked his congregation not to call him on Mondays. He humbled himself enough to admit that he needed rest.

If we long to experience kairos time, we can begin by learning to play. Play often opens up time in a way that allows us to shed the chains of chronos.

If playfulness puts us into kairos, if it somehow loosens the grip of our demanding schedules, then it is an appropriate and indeed helpful part of our Sabbath practice. Pastor Mark Buchanan writes in The Rest of God:

"Play is subversive, really. It subverts business as usual. It subverts necessity. It subverts utility. It subverts all the chronos-driven, taskmaster-supervised, legalism-steeped activities that mark out most of our lives—that make us oh-so-useful, but bland and sullen in our usefulness. Sabbath is for play."

If you think you could never take a whole day to rest, then start smaller. Consider the possibility that you will make a journey toward a more restful lifestyle, that it may take some time to move forward on that journey, that recovering your life may require you to make some changes, some decisions.

You do not have to be an Olympic-level Sabbath-keeper. The Sabbath was made for people, Jesus said. It's a tool you can use to become healthier spiritually—more connected with the God who loves you, more peaceful, more joyful. Not perfect at any of those things. Just healthier.

If you had some time to do something you enjoy, what would that be? If you don't know, then perhaps the journey toward Sabbath play will begin for you with this simple question: What do I love?

Go for a walk, putter in the garden, read a book that would be of absolutely no help for your next sermon or ministry talk. Have a family meal, and linger over it, rather than running off to a committee meeting or retreating to your office. Go for a bike ride or hike with your family. Enjoy a conversation with your spouse without trying to fix them. Leave some things undone. Embrace play as a form of rest.

This article is adapted from Keri's book, Rest: Living in Sabbath Simplicity (Zondervan, 2009).

Keri Wyatt Kent writes and speaks about spiritual formation. Learn more about her ministry at

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