All the pews are filled and the sanctuary is silent. Every person holds a noise maker. We clasp old plastic bottles filled with beans, last year’s plastic Easter eggs filled with rice, little sticks decorated with Crayola markers, or even our own keys. We all listen, because we are about to pray. The pastor asks for prayer requests. “For my friend, Karen, who just got a job!” The prayer is lifted in a cacophony of hoots and shouts and the noise of 100 clanging plastic bottles, Easter eggs, sticks, and rice! Then, another request. “For my son who is dying of AIDS and in hospice care.” The noise takes on a different tone—a rumbling of sound when there are no words.
It’s Thursday afternoon and I stand at the baptismal font in our empty sanctuary with a child who is old enough to be nervous about what might happen in front of a whole congregation on Sunday, but too young to understand how exactly all of this water and prayer could be comforting. I have given her a present, a little yellow lion. She grasps it firmly in her hands. I try my best to explain in toddler terms what it means to be baptized. However, I decide quickly that it is best to show her. “See, we will take this water and put it on your head and it means God loves you and you are God’s child.” I reach toward her to practice putting the water on her head. She ducks just in time to miss it. So, I dip my hand in the water again and say, “Let’s baptize this lion!” Fortunately, she thinks that is hysterical. In a matter of moments, this little girl, her parents, the little lion and I are drenched as we splash into God’s grace. That moment transforms into the holy moment of baptism on Sunday when she looks me in the eyes as I say the words, “I baptize you.” Each time I dip my hands in the water, she does the same. Each time I put my hand on her head, she puts her hand on mine. She gets it. And she is not at all concerned about all those people out there watching with tear-filled eyes.
We are gathered in a circle. It’s benediction time during the last worship at the end of a mission immersion with Asheville Youth Mission. I hold six rag balls in my hand. “What blessings would you say to each other as you leave this place and go home? Think of a word or phrase to express your blessing.” We play the game of “Group Juggle” as a warm-up to God’s benediction. Then, the benediction begins. The rag balls start flying. When a ball comes to someone, that person shouts their message to the group. Rag balls are flying everywhere. After all, we are juggling as a group. Everyone is shouting blessings to each other. One shouts, “You are the hands and feet of Christ!” Another proclaims, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord!” The words are like a rain storm falling all around us as the rag balls fly. Slowly as each rag ball comes back to me and we end the juggling session, the storm wanes and we hear the blessings one by one. A holy moment. Everyone is smiling and we are ready to go home. We are ready to be sent back out into the world to do God’s good work.
It is true that often worship and play on their own get a bad rap. I have heard it a million times: Worship is boring and filled with stodgy people and too many long words. And: Play is just silly games; it has no meaning beyond that. Worship and play get branded as opposites. Worship is serious. Play is silly. Worship is ordered and respectful. Play is just chaos. Worship is peaceful. Play is disruptive. Worship is focused. Play is distracting. Worship is for people who can sit down for an hour. Play is for little ones who cannot be still.
So, where is the worship and where is the play in each of these stories? Each story holds both. One without the other would make no story at all. The worship and the play are intertwined with the Spirit and in this three-fold connection we find prayer, baptism, and benediction.
Worship and liturgy are the work of the people in the praise and worship of God. Play is the experience of recreation or, better understood, re-creation (renewal). The intertwining of worship and play is a place where holy renewal is possible. The intertwining of play and worship create an environment where courage to dip into the holiness of sacrament can be found. This intertwining provides space where blessings, which might be withheld for any number of reasons, can be given in wild abandon.
The noisemakers provide words when there are no words. Splashing in the water provides a holy prelude to the mystery of a sacrament that can feel too vulnerable and scary in front of so many people, whether we are 2 or 82. Tossing rag balls and shouting blessings empowers us to “benedict” each other in the spirit that moves through us.
In my spiritual life and leadership, I cannot imagine the practice of worship without the practice of play. Each is too important to the other. I also cannot imagine the concept of play without it living inside the value of renewal and re-creation. So, try more play in your worship. Try more worship in your play. I am certain you will find the spirit in it all.
Aimee Wallis Buchanan is a co-founder and the program director of Asheville Youth Mission where mission, creativity, and transformation are happening with young people. She is a graduate of Presbyterian School of Christian Education and Columbia Theological Seminary. She is the co-author of All That We Are and Making Worship Real. For more information about AYM, see www.ashevilleyouthmission.org.