Want to try camping?” I asked my family. “It’ll be fun!”
I had no firsthand experience with camping, unless you count that one time I stayed at a run-down motel. But other people we knew loved communing with nature, so we borrowed some gear from them and headed to a campground about two hours from home. The way I now remember the trip, the temperature was around 127 degrees, with a humidity score to match. It took several hours (and two rolls of duct tape) to get our tent to remain upright. Just as we finished, a ferocious summer storm boiled up, spawning a small tornado that hit a nearby town.
Remarkably, our tent remained standing, but our gear got soaked. By about 8:30 p.m. all three of our young kids were begging to go home. Not even the promise of s’mores could convince them to stay. I didn’t argue. I was ready to call it quits the moment we broke into the first roll of duct tape. We threw our wet gear in the trunk and headed home so we could camp in the comfort of our dry, air-conditioned house.
That trip has become a metaphor for my relationship with “fun” in recent years. I stink at having fun. I know how to strategize, schedule, and work—then work some more. I have a habit of turning vacations into to-do lists to be conquered (duct tape optional) and allotting little time for play.
So when I was tasked with keeping a diary for two weeks to capture my strained relationship with fun, I jumped at the assignment. I hoped I’d discover why spontaneity and delight were MIA in my life, and maybe even have some fun in the process.
Week 1, Day 1
I began my search for fun in the most obvious place possible—by writing a review of a theology book. While other fun-seekers are bungee jumping, I find delight in reading and writing. I wonder if I can log this as fun, even though it is my work.
I have a habit of turning vacations into to-do lists to be conquered and allotting little time for play.
Our culture’s approach to recreation had convinced me that in order to have fun, I needed to spend some money to purchase a kayak or join a bowling league. Recreation is big business in this country. One study reported we spend more on recreation than on internet access.
For years, my friend Karen was a recreation therapist—a job title that sounded as if she was paid to party. She told me her job was fun with a purpose. She worked with nursing home staffers to ensure there was a broad menu of activities, games, outings, and events tailored to the residents’ social, emotional, and spiritual needs. Recreation made space for those residents to be more than patients. Recreation, after all, is by definition re-creation. While few nursing home residents were having fun by kayaking, tapping into the relational component of recreation was core to their wellness. Those afternoon Bingo games did more than pass the time. They were meant to facilitate reconnection to God, others, and themselves.
I don’t live in a nursing home, but bingo! I’m starting to realize there are dormant parts of my soul that could use some recreation, too. What will facilitate reconnection with God, others, and myself in my life here and now? I think about making a list, but realize that on Day 1, I’m pretty much drawing a blank.
Week 1, Day 2
I was a bookish, klutzy kid, so I was usually chosen second-to-last for sports teams and pick-up baseball games on our block. I didn’t grow out of my clumsiness during adolescence. Altogether, I spent nearly a year on crutches during high school, the result of not one, but two separate PE accidents. At one point, Mom told me she’d be happy if I aimed for a “D” in gym class—just so long as I could avoid getting injured a third time. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that had been my plan all along.
Our culture had convinced me that in order to have fun, I needed to spend some money to purchase a kayak or join a bowling league.
I’m usually focused on discipline and “getting things done,” but today I decided to treat that klutzy kid to a spontaneous bit of food fun—a red velvet donut. I grew up eating 1960s processed snack foods like Twinkies and Oreos (and am still a fan of the latter!). A donut pit stop wasn’t on my day’s agenda, but I realized the spontaneity made it taste even better. And I didn’t trip once leaving the store. Maybe at age 57, I’m finally outgrowing that youthful clumsiness.
Week 1, Day 3
Tonight my husband and I binge-watched several episodes of a Netflix series called Abstract: The Art Of Design. The documentary profiles the process and work of eight innovative creators across a variety of disciplines from architecture to shoe design. I was struck by the way childlike curiosity was at play in their work. Our world is richer because these adults never lost their ability to imagine, What if … ?
Coincidentally, I ran across an article in Psychology Today titled “The Importance of Play: Having Fun Must Be Taken Seriously.” Dr. Marc Bekoff contends play is essential to healthy physical, emotional, moral, and intellectual development in children. He notes societal changes are squeezing time for unstructured play out of their schedules. Those play-deprived children grow up to be adults who aren’t able to access the gifts play imbues in us. Bekoff notes, “Play is a banquet for the brain, a smorgasbord for the senses, providing nourishment for body and spirit: sad then that as a society we seem to be starving ourselves of it.”
Fun is serious business. Who knew?
Week 1, Day 7
Today begins with corporate worship at church. My husband and I are relative newcomers in our congregation, which means we’re somewhere between first-time visitors and part of the family. Being “new” means people are starting to recognize us and greet us by name, but we’re still outsiders with no substantial friendships in the group. We’ve been newcomers before, but it never gets easier. In other words, church isn’t especially fun right now.
A friend recently shared this quote from theologian Simon Chan on Facebook: “Christians who do not play together do not worship well together either, since worship is a ‘religious form of play.’ Both at play and at worship the Christian community enjoys its Sabbath rest.”
The phrase “worship is a religious form of play” took me aback initially. After all, we are gathering to worship a holy God—what could be more serious than that? However, there is a different dimension to corporate worship when genuine friendships exist within a congregation and extend beyond scheduled church services and activities. We aren’t yet at the “play together” level with our fellow worshippers. Fun, then, is one helpful measure as to my level of trust and fellowship with those worshipping beside me each week.
Week 2, Day 8
The last decade has been filled with significant losses, including my mom’s death, a painful divorce within my family, the short sale of our home during the housing market collapse, and, most recently, a life-altering diagnosis. Ecclesiastes 7:4 says, “The mind of the wise is in the house of mourning,” and I do believe I’ve grown in wisdom as I’ve grieved. But to be honest, I’ve neglected the Proverbs 17:22 treatment that brings life in the midst of sorrow: “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit dries up the bones.”
No one else can tell a grieving person when it is time to cheer up already.
The tricky part of this prescription is that no one else can tell a grieving person when it is time to cheer up already. The mourner has to be ready to laugh again.
I think I am. I was not expecting this journaling assignment to awaken me to the fact that I’m beginning to feel a new restlessness on this long trek through the Valley of the Shadow. As I’ve been paying attention to the paucity of fun in my life, I am sensing that restlessness may really be a mark of emerging, maturing joy.
Week 2, Day 11
I watched my grandson today. Because of heavy storms, I brought him to a fast-food restaurant’s indoor play area. It’s always amazed me that a child who doesn’t know anyone can find a new pack of best buddies at a loud, plastic playground, and within minutes they get busy making fun together.
Watching him play is pure joy for me, too. For a few moments, I put the phone away, stopped making lists, and was fully present while some experts—a bunch of little kids—reminded me what having fun can look like, regardless of age. His waves and smiles involved me in the raucous games at the top of the slide. Seeing this little one I love laughing and playing was even better than being part of the game myself—it was fun, Grandma-style.
Imagine that: no lists, no expectations, no deadlines.
Week 2, Day 13
My 30-year-old son is a professional artist. He was in town for a visit, and, as is his custom, he brought some of his art supplies so he could work on a commission. He invited my husband and me to sit at the kitchen table with him while he worked so we could experiment with his watercolor paints. He offered a bit of instruction and then encouraged us to experiment with pigment, water, and paper. Imagine that: no lists, no expectations, no deadlines.
It was a sweet moment, having him share his space and talent with us. (All those years of art lessons paid off!) We laughed and made a mess together, three adults at play.
Week 2, Day 14
I discovered today I still remember how to skip. I haven’t used that skill since I was a clumsy kid, but the know-how was buried deep in my muscle memory. After last night’s painting session, I felt a new freedom to skip down the driveway, just because I still could. My lungs filled with oxygen, and a few happy endorphins shot through my system—an added benefit of fun.
Journalist H. L. Mencken once famously called Puritanism “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” He was describing his perception of a joyless Christianity in both his own time and our country’s history. Many of us have experienced that kind of Christianity. There’s no room for skipping in this sort of faith.
Those two-dimensional pages of our Bibles don’t allow us to hear Jesus’ laughter.
When we read our Bibles, we see those sacred black-and-white pages. The words are eternally important and, yes, deadly serious. But they also remind us that life’s a gift, and enjoying life well is one way we honor the Giver. The writer of Ecclesiastes said, “Here is what I have seen to be good and fitting: to eat, to drink and enjoy oneself in all one’s labor in which he toils under the sun during the few years of his life which God has given him; for this is his reward” (Eccl. 5:18). God Himself has wired us to long for pleasure in our earthly life. Certainly we know this desire gets twisted in dozens of unholy directions, but in His goodness, the Lord gave it to us to point us toward Him.
In addition, those two-dimensional pages of our Bibles don’t allow us to hear Jesus’ laughter, but I believe laughter marked the ordinary moments of His daily life. (Sorry, H. L. Mencken!) His delight in being with friends and His joy at stealing away to commune with His Father both characterize the abundant life He promises us. This abundance by definition contains joy and joy’s child—fun.
So as I’ve savored the sweetness of an impromptu donut run, listened to the laughter of children at play, drunk deeply of the happy endorphins released after a successful writing session, or made a mess at the kitchen table, I realize maybe I’m not as awful at having fun as I thought.
And thankfully, I didn’t have to go camping to figure it out.
Illustrations by Joel Holland