The God of Play

May 1, 2022 by Beth Richardson

I’m now in my 36th year as a staff person of The Upper Room, an inordinately long tenure in these days. If you asked me why I’ve stayed this long at The Upper Room, I would tell you that my work is fun. Strange as it may seem, it’s important to me that I am able to play at my work. During difficult seasons of my employment, I would ask myself, “Am I still having fun at my job?” And the answer has been, “Yes.” 

I know that I’m extremely privileged to have had work that is fulfilling to the point of fun. There are so many in the world who, if they are able to find employment, find themselves in days of drudgery, or even danger. So I count myself fortunate to be able to play in my work.  

In my early days as an assistant editor at Alive Now magazine, I played with combining images and words, music and poetry, color and white space, to craft content for left-brained, creative types. It was so rewarding to receive the hot-off-the-press, unique creation that was each issue of the magazine. 

In the mid-90s, I had the fun of creating The Upper Room’s first web presence. We were so early in the internet era that IT had to run a phone line to my office for dial-up internet. We shared the daily devotional, took prayer requests, showed off The Upper Room Chapel, and invited youth to subscribe to the brand new magazine, devozine. I played with images and HTML, thinking about how to present spiritual formation resources and experiences in this new way called “the world wide web.” 

Beginning in 2009 with SoulFeast (The Upper Room’s conference at Lake Junaluska), I began to have the opportunity to immerse myself in liturgy, crafting worship services, letting the Holy One lead through me. I ended up serving as Dean of The Upper Room Chapel for the last several years, playing with music and words, fabric and candles. And in the last two years, helping to take our worship services online so that we are, in a new way, offering a place for the whole world to come together to play and pray.  

I believe that the Holy One, Creator of the Universe, creator of us, delights in play. All over our planet, we see this God who formed such a diversity of strange and wonderful things, must be a God of play. From the African savanna elephant to the pygmy possum, from snow-capped mountains to coral reefs, from the majestic redwoods to the dwarf willow tree, God delights in the creation.  

When I think of God at play, these scriptures come to mind.  

  • The creation story – God divides the darkness and the light and flings the stars into the great void. And calls it all good. God creates human beings in God’s own image.  
  • Abraham and Sarah visited by angels – Having provided hospitality to the guests, Sarah laughs at hearing that she will have a son. What a cosmic joke that two people way beyond child-bearing years should bring forth Isaac – our spiritual ancestor.  
  • God delighting in us – “I will rejoice in doing good to them, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul” (Jer. 32:41). 
  • God created music and dance – Music and dance become expressions of delight in our bodies, our surroundings, our love of the Holy One. “Sing to God a new song” (Ps. 33:3); “David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals” (2 Sam. 6:5); “Miriam … took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing” (Ex. 15:20). 

We are invited to participate with the playful God; to observe play around us. This God created play to help “reset” our wounded spirits during times of stress. Play brings us near to God. When we participate in play—music, dance, laughter, celebration—our attention is turned away from anxiety or despair. Play doesn't deny our worries or the gravity of a situation, but it can reframe our worry, turn us to gratitude and delight. 

I see play at work in my friend who regularly sends me jokes via text. I see play in my dogs, “JJ the Scottie” and “Arya Warrior Princess.” I see play in those who share with the world their gifts of music and dance. I see play in the antics of the backyard squirrels, shifting my feelings from anxiety to joy. I see play in a shooting star flying across the night sky, shifting my feelings from grief to hope. I see play when I laugh with my co-workers, my friends, my family. I’m wondering—where do you see play—in your life? In the world around you?  

John Mogabgab, of blessed memory, said, “Play is a sign of God’s nearness, a mark of fulfilled time.” Our creative, amazing God invites us to delight in creation, to celebrate life and each other, and to feel the nearness of the God of play. Go forth, beloveds, and play! 

Beth A. Richardson serves as Dean Emeritus of The Upper Room Chapel. Her latest release from Upper Room Books is Walking in the Wilderness: Seeking God During Lent. 

Photograph by Sam Balye / Unsplash 

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