Preaching as an Art of Playing
Preaching as an
Art of Playing
Beautiful playing presupposes an intuitive, childlike awareness of the essence or center. . . of all things. It is from this center, from this beginning and end, that I hear Mozart create his music.1
Many of us know we are called to proclaim the Word of God because we have, at one time or another, had the experience Karl Barth describes in the above quote. That is: we have preached with an "an intuitive, childlike awareness of...the center...of all things." And so we have had the experience of being perfectly free, of knowing we are creatures who belong to the Creator God in life and in death, of resting so securely in our identity that we have become the creative agents God intends us to be–the experience of purely, transparently, joyfully, and beautifully proclaiming the majesty of God.
But we have not had this experience often enough. If our first love for Christ, having dwindled, is ever in search of renewal, our preaching can only gesture toward that which lays claim to us, ever-yearning for conscious participation. "I shall again praise God,"2 is, after all, sometimes the best we can do. If we can keep hope alive, in this war-ridden, terrorist-stricken, globally warming, Blackberry-pressing context in which we live, we have done well (we tell ourselves). If we can just keep the center in sight, directing our parishioners toward it, we will have been good pastors (we try to convince ourselves).
Except that proclamation is not about giving directions. It is not about exhorting people to be oriented toward the center, but to live out of it. And it must be done by those of us who have "been there" or, at least, have some recollection of "having been there." It is only from the context of the center that we, as preachers, may bear witness to the truth of the Gospel, to the transforming power of the Word of God. It is only from the context of the center that we can talk about God and God’s work, rather than about ourselves and our work.
So–why isn’t preaching more often characterized by the freedom, joy, and beauty we associate with its proper identity? Why is it so difficult to preach from the "center"? Why is it so hard to stay in touch with this center that we know is the source of all life, the originator of our very words?
One reason why we do not preach freely, joyfully, and beautifully is because we have forgotten that our work, as preachers, is play. It is play in the sense that it follows from and bears witness to God’s grace-full action on our behalf. It is play because it neither accomplishes, nor itself contributes to, the salvation of ourselves or our hearers. And it is play because God has ordained that preachers who can contribute nothing are at the same time integrally involved in the creative, salvific work that is all God’s and– as it turns out–also ours. Preaching as an art of playing faithfully mimes and mimics God’s actions even as children rehearse the life of their parents’ world. I watch my three-year-old son, Alexander, pretend to fry an egg and serve it to his one-year-old sister, Jessica. He serves it from the center of what he knows to be true. He is an egg-receiver who reaches out of his participation in what is real to include his sister. His play creates a space for her. The eggs, the frying pan, and the burner are made of wood–he is a child incapable of breaking and frying real eggs in a real pan– but the play in which he engages invites her into the reality of the center in which he, the child, stands.
I hear that kids are forgetting how to play. We have so over programmed them, with sports and classes and development centers and computer games, that they don’t know what to do with an unstructured hour. One of my friends went to her second-grade daughter’s "parent-teacher’s nite" and was shown a bulletin board on which the kids had posted their New Year’s resolutions. My friend was shocked by one child’s resolution, written in the scrawling hand of an overextended seven-year-old: "to spend more time with my family." A seven-year old has to work at spending more time with her family? How much space, my friend wondered, does this child have to explore and discover the world?
It seems clear to me that we are robbing our children of their time to imagine, their time to play, their time to create a world consistent with the center in which, at best, they stand. This isn’t really surprising, I suppose, since the world our children inhabit is the same world in which we ourselves live. A world in which everyone unrepentantly describes themselves as "stressed," or "tense," or "tired." A world in which everyone, it seems, is "crazybusy." And preachers, perhaps, are among the crazybusiest.3
The thing is, to be "crazybusy" is a sin.4 It is keeping us from playing–from participating in, and inviting others into, the center. It is symptomatic of the fact that we have forgotten we are children living in a world that is beyond our comprehension, the world that is our true home, the Kingdom of God.
Taking ourselves too seriously means we are not taking God seriously enough.5 Preaching from the center, as those committed to understanding this task as an art of playing, requires a "fundamental rediscovery."6 It requires returning, again and again, to the truth that our work, as preachers, is creaturely work that is at once both not the work of God and integral to the divine work. It is only as such that it is free, and joyous, and beautiful. It is to be engaged in with the great fervor and seriousness of children who serve up their wooden eggs with the confidence of those who have been served, with the confidence of those who are at this very moment eating at the table, with the confidence of those who will inevitably be served again. It is to live and work with the conviction that our wooden eggs and frying pans, our words and our pulpits– finite, creaturely, limited playthings that they are– make a real contribution to the one work of God by way of the Creator become creature. In and through our Lord Jesus Christ, our preaching as play is a holy thing used by the Spirit to bear God to the world. In and through our brother Christ, we children are brought into the life of God as creative agents whose imaginative work expedites the coming of the Kingdom to earth, as it is in heaven.
Let us position ourselves for a fundamental rediscovery, renewing our commitment to preaching out of the center. Let us repent of forgetting that we are children, creative creatures held by our Creator God. Let us consider, together, how we might make time, in our crazybusy preacher’s lives, for play. Let us insist on knowing, again, what it is to preach freely, and joyously, and beautifully.
Cynthia L. Rigby
1. Karl Barth, Walfgang Amadeus Mozart (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 1956), 16.
2. See Psalm 42, Revised Standard Version.
3. This word is the title of Edward M. Hallowell’s book, CrazyBusy (New York: Ballantine Books, 2006).
4. For more on this, see Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/4 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1961), 552 ff.
5. Barth, CD III/4, 553.
6. Paul Lehmann, Forgiveness: A Decisive Issue in Protestant Thought (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, 1941), 4-5.