A playful spirit has rich avenues to explore faith and learning

I smelled God. Maybe you have too. It happened in northern Montana as I was making my way along forest and fire roads on my off-road motorcycle with my riding partner, Barry. We were on the Continental Divide trail that follows the Rocky Mountains from Canada into Mexico. Somewhere I missed a turn and we were lost—again. We asked for directions as we headed back into the mountains and a thunderstorm. We stopped and took shelter beneath some trees, reckoning on there being taller trees in the area for lightning to strike. The storm blew over and it was then that I smelled God.

It was an intense smell that filled not only my nose and lungs, but also my spirit and every fiber of my being. I hadn’t known: God smells like a pine forest freshly washed by a torrential thunderstorm. I wonder: What would God smell like for you? And how do you engage the senses in your teaching? A playful spirit has rich avenues to explore faith and learning.

In February, we’ll meet in Orlando under the theme: “Let Us Play!” Orlando—what a playground! As educators in the church, we remind ourselves that the ancient Greeks used the same word for play as for education: paideia (or paitheia). We want to participate in and encourage play, for in play we see glimpses of God’s reign of shalom. In both Isaiah 11:6-8 and Zechariah 8:4-5, two texts that give us a vision of what reality will look like when God’s reign has fully entered, play is prominent: “The infant will play near the hole of the cobra…” and “The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there.”1 What grace, that in our play we can taste the coming of our Lord.

For most persons today, I believe, life-giving play is something left behind in early childhood. Johan Huizinga warned us in 1938: “We moderns have lost the sense of ritual and sacred play. Our civilization is worn with age and too sophisticated.”2 You and I teach and lead in this world.

In this brief reflection, I want to hint at some of the themes we’ll explore at Let Us Play! and invite you to register for the APCE 2013 annual meeting.

Play is foundational to life and ministry

Play is foundational to life. This implies that, without play, one’s spiritual and religious life and one’s relationship with God, with the rest of one’s life, are negatively affected. Without a sense of play, life to the full as promised by Jesus (John 10:10) might not be possible. It is thus no surprise that play researcher Stuart Brown describes play in language that we would use to describe being in relationship with Jesus Christ:

I don’t think it is too much to say that play can save your life. Life without play is a grinding, mechanical existence organized around doing things necessary for survival. Play is the stick that stirs the drink. It is the basis of all art, games, books, sports, movies, fashion, fun, and wonder–in short, the basis of what we think of as civilization. Play is the vital essence of life. It is what makes life lively.3

Being foundational to life, we all know what play is. However, “play” is difficult to define for there are many forms of play, ranging from solitary play to social play to symbolic play and from verbal play to object play to imaginary play. All forms of play, however, seem to have a few things in common: Play is voluntary; it draws people to the activity; it suspends time; it diminishes consciousness; it encourages improvisation; it involves subjectivities and objectivities; and it creates a desire to continue playing.

Play is often seen as a purposeless, unproductive, even useless, yet restorative activity, an escape of sorts reserved for special moments such as weekends and vacations. It is also so much more. In my book, A Play-full life: Slowing Down and Seeking Peace, I draw on our Judeo-Christian roots and write about being play-full: “To be play-full is to imaginatively and creatively engage one’s self, others, God, and all of reality so that peace and justice reign within us and with others…”4 Just as we grieve differently because we have hope (1 Thess 4:13), we play differently too.

If play is the back-and-forth movement between another’s objectivity and one’s subjectivity, one might argue that ministry takes place in the overlap of two areas of playing, the parishioner’s and yours. Where in your teaching do you recognize the presence of play? Whether teaching or preaching or caring, ministry has to do with two people playing together or trying to find a way to play together. Still, some might ask: Why play?

Why play? And can we all play?

There are many reasons why we need to play and be play-full. At Let Us Play! we’ll explore a range of them, including:

  • Play cultivates imagination, curiosity, and instills problem-solving skills.
  • Play awakens the mind and lets us feel alive.
  • Play meets specific emotional/relational needs, such as the need for friendship and community.
  • Play allows for destructiveness and aggression in fantasy.
  • Play is a form of knowing; it educates.
  • Play can deepen our spirituality.

In her book, Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction, Margaret Guenther names play as central to her discipline. “Directees who resist play in spiritual direction often combine a poor self-image with a tendency to “spiritualize” everything,”5 Guenther writes. Likewise, pastoral theologian Bonnie Miller-McLemore reminds us that playing is a spiritual practice. “In the best moments,” she writes, “[play] opens up space for an encounter with God.”6

Creative and play-full living, however, is a developmental achievement. Envision a child playing without a healthy imagination, or an adult who cannot hold the inevitable tensions play brings to one’s body. And, can a community built upon rigid cognitive-rational foundations smell God? When we lack a healthy capacity for play our play can become corrupted. As educators, of course, we create a habitus where persons can risk playing and discover self, other, and God anew.

Play licks the real world hollow

If to be play-full is to imaginatively and creatively engage one’s self, others, God, and all of reality so that peace and justice reign within us and with others, singing and dancing and playing board games and play in general receive new meaning. Imagine worship with its liturgy and ritual through the lens of play. As educators, we empower persons and communities to play together, for in a world of only winners or losers, everyone suffers. We encourage persons to play with paradox, for the Covenantal God of the generations and the God-man, Jesus Christ, demand such a view. We invite persons and communities to slow down, providing a labyrinth for their walk through life. We practice hospitality and place ourselves in situations where we can experience awe and wonder. We practice a play-full life, which is an empowered life.

Puddlegum, the Marsh-wiggle, in C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair, confronted the Green Witch when she stated that they dreamt up a world in which Aslan rules. Puddlegum stated:

We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world [sic]. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.” 7

Play creates a world for us, a world in which God’s reign “licks [the] real world hollow.”


It was the theologian Harvey Cox who suggested that thinking of others as persons who can imagine, hope, and play, instead of seeing others exclusively as sinners or even creatures, could lead to new insights.8 How might play enrich your teaching or your ministry? Come February and we meet each other in Orlando, we are going to explore many aspects of play, including the neuroscience of play and the natures of playing alone, with others, and being play-full with God. I pray that God will provide us all many new insights to inform our lives and ministries. Most of all, I look forward to worshipping in the Spirit and experiencing that part of the Body of Christ that calls itself APCE.

1 The Holy Bible: New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984.

2 Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. London: Maurice Temple Smith Ltd., 1970, p. 158.

3 Brown, Stuart, and Christopher Vaughan. Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. New York, NY: Avery, 2009, p. 11-12.

4 Hamman, Jaco J. A Play-Full Life: Slowing Down and Seeking Peace. Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2011, p. 7.

5 Guenther, Margaret. Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction. Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1992, p. 61.

6 Miller-McLemore, Bonnie J. In the Midst of Chaos: Caring for Children as Spiritual Practice. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2006, p. 128.

7 Lewis, C. S., and Pauline Baynes. The Silver Chair, The Chronicles of Narnia. New York: Macmillan, 1953, p. 155.

8 Cox, Harvey, Theology Today, Vol. 25, No. 3, October 1968 (pp.320-332), p 332.


Jaco J. Hamman is professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at Western Theological Seminary. He received his theological training at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (BA in Psychology and Theology) and Stellenbosch University (BTh; MTh) in South Africa and at Princeton Theological Seminary (PhD). He holds certificates in marriage and family therapy, pastoral psychotherapy, and group therapy from the Blanton-Peale Graduate Institute in New York City and is a fellow in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. Jaco has written three books, the latest being A play-full life: Slowing down and seeking peace (Pilgrim Press, 2011). His research interests include: the impact of loss on congregations, the formation of pastoral leaders, play, and becoming a real person in the virtual world. He is an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America. His hobbies include long-distance motorcycling, photography, and travelling.