Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Are We Having Fun Yet? Rest, Joy and Play in a World of Trouble

Christians generally don’t take much convincing that life is serious business. But what about the idea that life could be—or even should be—fun? Is that even a legitimate theological question? And who gets to ask questions like that in this troubled world? In the wake of floods, fires, earthquakes and tsunamis, it might seem frivolous, insensitive or even sinful to inquire about such things. Certainly, there is a question of timing—“rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep”. But perhaps this is in fact an ideal time to consider the place of fun. If, after all, Australian Christians live in an affluent culture that more or less takes it for granted that space for fun should be a given (some may even say ‘a right’!), looking at a theology of the enjoyment of life ought to have one eye on the realities of suffering and struggle.

We can expect too much from life in the present. But it is also possible to hope for too little. Any Christian assessment of life exists in the messy middle between two horizons: behind us, God’s good creation and benevolent intentions, including human flourishing; and, before us, God’s intentions realised in the renewal of creation, or ‘a new heavens and a new earth’. It is possible to get so caught up in the messiness of the middle—where work can become toil, where delight meets disappointment, where friendships can be fractured—and lose sight of those framing horizons that remind us that the world is not out of control but our patient, faithful God remains in charge and will accomplish all He has set out to do.

In the opening story of Genesis, we are invited to see humanity enter the scene on God’s day of rest. Rest is a necessary precursor to work, just as it is a proper end or goal. Living without an appropriate sense of Sabbath rest distorts human life. How many people feel crushed under the weight of workloads that seem to pile up without end, weight that stays with them even when not in the office or on the job site? And what of ministry-without-end? A failure to rest ultimately takes its toll on our productivity but there are more than utilitarian reasons to rest. Marva Dawn speaks of Sabbath practice entailing ceasing, resting, feasting and embracing. ‘Ceasing’ opens for us a fresh space to see a world outside, beneath, above and beyond the logics of economy, productivity and growth. ‘Resting’ renews us. (For women as well as men—let the reader understand.) ‘Feasting’ shows us there is time to celebrate and be thankful. Unthankfulness is a fundamental sin in the progression of the world’s distortion and depravity in Romans 1, leading to a ‘futile mind’. ‘Embracing’ reconnects us with our primary community and family, ties of baptismal water and ties of blood rather than commercial exchanges. It is the time and place of generosity and hospitality.

We need to be released from a false sense of guilt for not being productive, even “for the kingdom”. Even theologies of ‘vocation’ can become complicit in a drive to work, to perform, to achieve. But the One who sought labourers for an imminent harvest in Israel also called those who were “weary and heavy laden” to find “rest”. The Suffering Servant was paradoxically known as one who frequented celebratory feasts as signs of the inbreaking reign of God.

Space to rest is one component of a life that flourishes as God intended. Delight is another. It is ironic that a culture like ours devoted to entertainment finds itself continually bored, avoiding feelings of futility, and looking for the next big thing. The entertainment culture is itself driven and without rest. There is an excess of stimulation and titillation around us—but little delight in the excess of God. Real enjoyment is thus threatened and fun becomes fleeting and unsatisfying. Delight cannot be contrived. If there is such a thing as ‘faithful fun’, then space to cease, rest, feast and embrace and so to cultivate moments of delight in God and God’s world must be a part of that. We must intentionally and regularly seek out this space. And having found it, let intentions fall to the side and let the freedom, spontaneity and surprise of play to take over.

False guilt for enjoying life does nothing to help those in less happy circumstances. It can even reflect a profound lack of thankfulness for being the particular creature you are in a particular time and place. Be thankful for the blessings that you have. And in the space of ceasing, resting, feasting and embracing, delight in the Lord, play before him, and be re-energised for your small part in the ongoing work of justice in the world. Enjoy that which God has allowed you to enjoy with some ‘faithful fun’.

And then think how you might generously share the joy of rest with those who go without.

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