The Playfulness of God

This article first appeared on Church Anew.

The following is a lightly edited transcript and a video of a talk  Ophelia Hu Kinney gave at Church Anew’s 2021 Enfleshing Witness gathering.

Ophelia most frequently speaks to peoples who may misunderstand each other. She is a queer Asian American who belongs to Hope Gateway, a progressive congregation in the whitest state in the country. There she serves on staff to open the pulpit up and all facets of Sunday worship to all, bringing forth the collective and unique wisdoms of the community.

Ophelia preaches about a creator who is kin and parent alike to our inner children, a god who is playful, imaginative, queer, and courageous. To Ophelia, preaching is an act of translation. She preaches because she externally processes the divine, and because the news is good indeed.

My name is Ophelia Hu Kinney.

She, her, and hers are my pronouns.

I am a child of emigrants from China, and I am a sister and a wife. I come from many streams, many traditions of playfulness, from peoples for whom play is part and parcel of survival and heritage and meaning making.

There is the high art of Chinese opera, for example, an extravagant commitment of imagination to fantastical storytelling, lavish makeup, exaggerated vocal performance, the whole nine yards. Of course, of only the most exquisite fabric.

And I also come from a queer lineage, a people who, like many peoples, have responded to marginalization with audacious joy. One public expression of that joy is pride festivals. which began as, and still are, riots against normativities, against marginalization and oppression.

And another public expression of that joy is drag. This is a performance, or a mythology, of gender. And I can't speak of a divine, of play, or of drag, without invoking the poetry of the great Sufi Muslim poet Hafiz, who said, “You are the sun in drag. You are God hiding from yourself. Sweetheart, oh sweetheart, you are God in drag.”

I come, as I've said, from traditions of play, of playfulness, and sweetheart, oh sweetheart, I believe that you do too. Deep and alive and co-mingled like the mycelia, that oceanic neural network that connects fungi and plants, that is the vastness of our respective traditions of play, of imagination, of exploration and fantasy and curiosity.

Play is how we first made sense of the world into which we were born. It was how we explored ourselves and our worlds, our divine outer and our divine inner realms. Unless we change and become like children, right? Then perhaps we will find our hands cupped and overflowing with the kingdom of God. Above this mycelium, Above the vast and rich traditions of playfulness that buoy and connect our cultures is what is visible on the forest floor of our existence.

Up on the forest floor, we are planted in churches and communities where playfulness too often has little value, and where play itself is subject to judgment. Leisure is what we call the play of the wealthy and the powerful. And laziness is what we call the play of the poor and the disempowered. Up on the ground level, our peoples are held captive by the belief that some of us are permitted to be playful, and some of us are not.

We may even believe, about ourselves, that we are not allowed to be playful. That as people of the global majority, as people of color, our nobility and our worth are inextricable from our productivity. We may believe that we are only as valuable as what can be extracted from us.

This is not a message about rest, which is also vital, and which is very different.

To be playful is to be wasteful, to be unproductive in the colloquial sense of the word, to be uninhibited by the immediacy of what is, and to have little ulterior motive. Up on the ground level, far from our roots, we are susceptible to commodifying even our joy, a hustle culture that lures us to ossify our happiness into an income stream.

We live in a culture where people of color must achieve far more than white people do in ministry, in our careers, and in our academic lives to compete for this seeming scarcity of empathy, respect, and opportunity. So what, then, is the purpose of play in a world that strips us of our playfulness, that profits off of, even banks on us, forgetting that we were ever a people of play?

Consider Jesus in his first act of public ministry. A party, a wedding, where he turned water into an overabundance of wine. This lavishness and playfulness, cupped and overflowing. There is the kingdom of God.

And then consider the woman with the alabaster jar of expensive perfume poured out over Jesus' feet the night before he was betrayed. A wastefulness, someone called it. A foolishness. And there too, overflowing, is the kingdom of God.

In our propensity for playfulness, in our childlike capacity for delight and mischief and wonder, is something like the image of God. A God who exhibits what we might call lavish and playful and wasteful and foolish.

That image of God remains unextinguished by the puritanical anti-tradition in which we live. And that deprives us, especially people of color and other marginalized peoples, of play and its associated innocence, youth, and grace.

In the realm of psychotherapy, there's an approach to viewing the mind called Internal Family Systems, or IFS. And IFS imagines the mind as an interactive system of parts protecting a truer self. And what our truer selves have in common is our propensity for playfulness, openness, and curiosity. Our response to subjugation is to suppress that inner child so that it cannot be hurt or exploited. But at our core, the theory implies, when we are unguarded, we are playful.

And when we forget the value of play, we forget God in us, and we lose a vital mode of connection to the divine. In the miasma of this puritanical anti-tradition, do we dare to encounter God playfully? Do we believe that God has room for our questions, our what-ifs, our unorthodox methods of reaching for God's self?

What God has called playfulness, let us not call a slippery slope or an idle or heretical simply because it balks against the anti-tradition of an unadventurous fundamentalism. Therein is the possibility of finding a God and an us that cannot be so easily controlled or manipulated.

So people of the global majority.

People of God's deep delight.

We were once children, too, made in the image of God. We were playful and imaginative and full of trouble.

And may it be that we recollect that we are cast in the image of God the child, full of mischief and wonder; God of a thousand stories, some of which we have called silly make believe through our collective history; God the child who dressed themselves up in the drag of human flesh.

And aren't creation and recreation a form of play?

God of joy, holy child, who breathed us into becoming, saying,”hmm, I wonder…”

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