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The spiritual fruits of play

Play isn’t just for kids. It offers spiritual benefits for all ages, advocates say. Imagine Jesus as Jester.

Faith is serious stuff – right? Not always, it turns out.

Whether in hard times or ordinary ones, playfulness can yield important spiritual benefits and even serve as a powerful witness for faith. So says Don Richter, associate director of the Valparaiso Project on the Education and Formation of People of Faith.

Play is so important that a whole chapter is devoted to it in Way to Live, a book/website geared toward teens that is part of the Valparaiso Project’s main website, Practicing Our Faith. Both sites provide resources to help Christians grow in faith in their everyday lives.

Many of the traits fostered in healthy play – honesty, fairness and teamwork, to name a few – dovetail with teachings imparted in character formation. Play allows us to put those teachings into practice, developing lifelong habits in the process.

“We hone our skills, we rehearse the moral life through play,” Richter says.

Games that make people think differently can be particularly instructive spiritually. Richter recalls, for example, that he included juggling and improvisational theater games in the curriculum when he directed a summer theology program for teens. The activities helped prepare the students to “juggle” new concepts introduced in the program.

“Theologically, you learn to play with different ideas and frameworks that are not familiar to you through things like improv games,” he says. “It stretches you beyond your current way of seeing the world and opens you up to new insight, new revelation.”

The games also provided a framework for applying the lessons once the students returned home.

“So much of our ethical day-to-day life is not predictable. We constantly have to improvise, to come up with fitting responses in situations.”

Of course, play is also a great stress reliever, helping to renew and re-center us. In that way, Richter says, it fits well with the practice of Sabbath.

“Sabbath opens the door for play. You have to cease work and resist endless commerce in order to genuinely play.”

Richter isn't the only one to call attention to the benefits of play. Krista Tippett on Being, the American Public Radio show, has also explored the topic. The show’s July 24, 2008 episode featured Stuart Brown, director of the National Institute for Play, discussing how aimless relaxation builds character and promotes healthy human interactions.

Despite all the connections, illustrating the link between Christian faith and play for the book Way to Live was challenging initially for Richter. Finally, he settled on Jesus as jester.

“We talk about Jesus as prophet, priest and king, and there are all kinds of other images,” he says. “But … what does it mean to think about Jesus as court jester, who can, with a twinkle in his eye and a sense of humor, disarm a situation and overturn expectations?”

So, does that mean God is playful? Richter thinks so. How else to account for the wondrous diversity of species, from whales and worms to laughing hyenas?

“There’s an amazing playfulness about the nature of creation. Scriptures such as Psalm 104 testify to that,” he says.

Seriously.

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