"Most middle class Americans tend to worship their work, to work at their play, and to play at their worship. As a result, their meanings and values are distorted. Their relationships disintegrate faster than they can keep them in repair and their lifestyles resemble a cast of characters in search of a plot." (Gordon Dahl. Work, Play, and Play in a Leisure-Oriented Society. Minneapolis: Augsburg-Fortress, 1972.)
Economist Gordon Dahl was describing the disorder in middle class American society back in 1972, my sophomore year in high school. It still holds today. I’ve used the "work, play, worship" trichotomy myself on many occasions, most recently at the Higher Things Sola – San Antonio conference where I exhorted the kids to "work at work, play at play, and worship at worship."
I like the phrase. It’s catchy, tidy, memorable. Like so many categorical distinctions, it sounds profound and everyone nods their heads. But what exactly does this mean? And do I really believe it? (Speaking to high school youth is always a good test of whether or not you believe what you are saying.)
I’m having second thoughts. It’s time for a reality check.
[I had an afterthought after posting this article and rewrote the next two paragraphs. I'm keeping the originals for the sake of comparison.]
I certainly think it’s important to keep work, play, and worship distinct in our minds, but I don’t think they can be so neatly divided as three separate boxes in our lives. As we Lutherans like to say, "Distinguish but don’t divide." The problem is not so much with the mixing of the three verbs but with their distortion. We have distorted notions of work, play, and worship and therefore have to tuck them safely in their own box so we don’t get them mixed up. We tend to think of "work" as something we do for wages. "I owe, I owe, so off to work I go." We think of play as entertainment and amusement. Disneyland. And we think of worship as, well, worship. Smokey cathedrals with thunderous pipe organs. Something wholly other. These, I would maintain, are narrow distortions of these verbs
I certainly think it’s important to keep work, play, and worship distinct in our minds, but I don’t think they can be so neatly divided as three separate boxes in our lives. As we Lutherans like to say, "Distinguish but don’t divide." The problem with Dahl’s distinctions is that the verbs and the nouns, which are the same words and make for a clever cliche, don’t have the same connotations and denotations. The nouns work, play, and worship denote spheres of activity; the verbs denote the activities themselves with various connotations.
The sphere of work is where we earn our living. Play is where we recreate and relax. Worship is where we engage God and God engages us in a particular way. However the verbs work, play, and worship are not so easily confined to their noun boxes.
Here’s what I mean. I work at play. I work at my scuba diving, not only for the sake of safety, but also for the sake of enjoyment. I work at my wood craft. It’s even called woodworking and you do it in a workshop at a workbench. When I used to downhill ski, I worked at that too and did a lot of working out at the gym in order to enhance my skiing. I know guys who work on their cars, their dirt bikes, their Harleys, all for the sake of play. Any play worth engaging seriously calls for some serious work.
I play at work. I daydream. I write blogs. I skim books. I play with words. Creativity is a form of play; ask any artist or musician. Poetry is playing with words. God’s work of creation is very playful. Consider the clownfish or the peacock. Look at the absurd lion fish and the gaudy parrot and tell me God isn’t playing around. Look at what He came up with when He played in mud! Even manual labor has an element of play. When I worked in the seminary bookstore, we used to have collating contests. When I worked in a lab, we used to drop things in liquid nitrogen and then toss them out the window. We’d blow things up for fun. Some experiments were "just playing around," which occasionally led to discoveries. Work without play is called drudgery or better slavery.
What about worship? Worship involves receiving – hearing, eating, drinking – passively being given to. It also involves prayer, praise, thanksgiving, hearing, thinking, confessing, which are all work in some sense. Try singing one of those Reformation rousers and tell me worship isn’t work. I broke a sweat by stanza eight of Salvation Unto Us Has Come this past week and it wasn’t from the Texas heat. I Bind Unto Myself burns about 100 calories per measure. Look at all the preparation that goes into presiding well. It isn’t easy making it look easy. Let’s talk organ practice, choir practice, acolyte training, ushers. OK, let’s not talk about ushers. Yes, I know that "Gottesdienst" is God’s service, at least sacramentally speaking, but God works in, with, and under instrumental means, and He presses those means to work in His service.
Can one also play at worship? I think so. Well, the organist plays the organ and all the music. The preacher plays with words. I occasionally play with harmony when singing a hymn. Our problem is that we have a distorted and narrow view of play. We think play means being silly or childish or simply amusing oneself. Play can also mean recreation, and there is nothing more recreating than our being new creations in Christ in worship.
One definition of the verb "to play" really stands out when it comes to worship: to move about freely. Now there’s a good definition of "liturgical worship." To move about freely within the fixed boundaries (fences) of the tradition. If there is going to be relaxed dignity in our services, we need to see the liturgy as a "playground" where the children of God are free to play in God’s presence, respecting the boundaries but also enjoying the freedoms.
I’m starting to think that worship involves work and play and offers them up for divine service, just as we offer the gifts of bread and wine for God to give us Christ’s body and blood. Yes, God provided our daily bread too, but we also worked for it. And if there is one thing that characterizes a marriage feast, it’s a sense of play. Worship takes elements of work and play and lifts them up, consecrates them for holy use.
As long as I’m at it, what’s wrong with worshipping at work and play? Aren’t all things consecrated by the Word of God and prayer? Aren’t we supposed to pray without ceasing? There is a liturgy of life beyond the benediction, and it embraces our work and play as praise to God who has redeemed the world. Isn’t our priestly life a lifting up of our work and play an offering of our bodies as living sacrifices that are holy and acceptable to God through the mercies of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice? Play and work that do not worship are forms of idolatry.
The problem with rigid categories is that they tend to become a law unto themselves, defeating their purpose of clarity . Work that is nothing but pure work is sheer drudgery. Play that is all play is empty amusement. And worship without elements of work and play would be like a Zen Buddhist meditating on nothing.
I think a more apt metaphor would be the juggler who keeps a toaster, a bowling ball, and a chain saw in motion at the same time. He treats each thing for what it properly is, but keeps all three working together at the same time. Work, play, worship – all in motion around the Christ-center in one sanctified life.
So I guess you might say, we work, play and worship at our work, play, and worship. Holy juggling.