A New Recreation

How play, sport and Sabbath restore us to health in body and spirit

by Susan Martins Miller
Illustration by Terri Scott.

Two little boys are a ferocious force when they make up their minds to go to a Cubs game.

My dad immigrated to the US from Brazil in his mid-twenties. He could bounce a soccer ball off his head with the best, but he understood little about baseball. My two older brothers, growing up in Chicagoland during an era when Americans hardly knew soccer existed, eventually wore him down. Dad took them to Wrigley Field to watch the Cubs play the then Milwaukee Braves. It was 1962, and grandstand admission was $1.50.

But Dad also took the latest copy of Time to occupy himself. That’s how much he expected to enjoy Major League Baseball.

He didn’t read much of the magazine that day. Instead he fell in love with the Cubs and followed them faithfully and with zest the rest of his life. In one of my favorite photographs, my dad has my four-month-old son on his knee while he leans forward in his chair pointing at a Cubs game on television and explaining the action.

As the lowly little sister, I don’t recall being invited to that 1962 game, but the family story has become for me a picture of discovering the enduring joy of recreation. Not everyone watches baseball. Some watch birds, camp, knit, climb mountains, take photographs, write personal memoirs, train for marathons, coax gardens into bloom, go hunting for antiques, cry at sentimental movies, or wander art galleries. Among the myriad options for recreation, being startled by joy, as my father was that day, may be what propels us to further exploration.

In common parlance English-speakers tend to use the word recreation to describe a category of activities that amuse or refresh us—sports, hobbies, art, movies, and so on. The point is not work. Recreation is something we do apart from how we earn a living or run a household. (My personal favorite is swinging in a hammock, a vestige of my Brazilian DNA.) Few of us use the verb associated with recreation. For instance, we don’t ask, “How do you recreate?” but “What do you do for recreation?”

If we follow the etymology trail, both words, recreation and recreate, will take us back to a Latin stem that means “restoration to health.” As we ponder theological implications of recreation, that root meaning carries weight. Recreation is less about what we do and more about what results­—how our chosen activities restore us to health in body and spirit.

A New Thing

Where do we see God at work in recreation?

Jesus’ invitation for children to come to him (Matthew 19:14) is a favorite prompt for us to consider what we learn from the youngest members of our communities. From children we know that play is discovery. Through play children grow in their understanding of their environment and how they relate to their surroundings.

Is the same not true of our play as we grow older? In our recreation, do we not continue to discover the complexities of the world God created and the joy of knowing our place in it?

God worked for six days in creation and rested on the seventh. God saw the goodness of creation and stepped away from work. Thus began the rhythm of life that pervades Scripture. Sabbath becomes for humans time set apart for restoration and well-being of both individual and community. Many of us, if we are honest enough to admit it, struggle with Sabbath. We look around at what should be done and fail to see what could be done—or left undone. Why do we have so much trouble with doing something restorative without first justifying it with exhaustion? Perhaps we lose our way when we think of Sabbath as “time off” when we’re bone-weary and thus have earned it rather than time away with a purpose. God took delight in creation as “very good,” and Sabbath is meant to be time for us to take delight in the Lord (Isaiah 58:13). While the prophet Isaiah admonishes us not to falsely go our own way or serve our own purposes in the ways we observe Sabbath, he does not say that Sabbath means sitting still, being bored or reading heavy theological tomes because we think we should. Sabbath is a delight.

Sabbath may be a specified time in the calendar, but it is also a concept we bodily carry into our leisure. Some people are by nature more contemplative than others, but whether we are extroverts or introverts, unfettered demands of life erode our connection with the sacred. Technology helps us work differently, but not necessarily less. Sabbath, the call of God away from our labors, reminds us of our longing for significance by connecting our stories, as varied as they are, with the overarching story of God at work in the world we inhabit—which God created for us to inhabit—bodily—and encounter truth beyond our own making. Sabbath offers space in busy lives to recognize God’s presence and care in our world, to give thanks for creation, to participate in human-made beauty that reflects God’s creativity, to explore and appreciate the ways our bodies and minds work. Whether it’s in the form of sports, hobbies, shared meals, or a hammock, in recreation we take delight in God and open ourselves to the newness that refreshes.

Scripture overflows with imagery of God doing a “new thing” (for example, Isaiah 43:19), giving a “new spirit” (Psalm 51:10, Ezekiel 11:19), giving “new life” (Romans 7:6), bringing a “new covenant” (Jeremiah 31:31, 1 Corinthians 11:25), and even putting a “new song” in the mouths of God’s people (Psalm 40:3). God’s mercies are “new every morning” (Lamentations 3:23). The people of God are called to put off the old self and “be renewed” (Ephesians 4:22–24). The opening pages of the Bible tell us God made the heavens and the earth, and the closing pages assure us of life in a new heaven and a new earth.

God is in the business of making things new—including us. The apostle Paul wrote, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). It is God who brings the refreshment and restoration our bodies and spirits continually need. In our human experience, we know well the “old”—tiring work, disappointing relationships, failures in our thoughts and actions. We also know well our need of the “new”—reminders of God’s goodness, faithfulness, and abundance. God is the ultimate maker of newness and the source of renewal we seek in recreation.

The Song of the Redeemed

Our participation in newness, our curiosity, and our discovery of endless possibilities in the world point to God’s image in us. The play of our recreation draws us away from the insecurities and responsibilities we clench and invites us to let them go so we can see the “new thing” God will do in that moment. We may have a new experience of triumph in a softball game, a new breathtaking glimpse of beauty in a mountain view, a new satisfaction in the creative process in something we make with our own hands. Without space to step back and welcome being made new, we miss opportunities to also recognize our place of belonging in the joy and beauty God swirls in our lives.

In our recreation we give thanks for God’s presence and the wonder of being made new. For some, this will be an individual thanksgiving of renewal while enjoying the quiet space of solitude. For others, this thanksgiving will gurgle up through the recreation of hospitality, a team effort, or a group outing. Varied packaging wraps the gift of gratitude. Varied expressions of joy burst the confines of our physical and spiritual experiences.

Experiencing recreation—the restoration of health—in body and spirit is an embodied foretaste of everything Scripture points to in a redeemed new heaven and new earth. As we relish experiences of being made new each day, each week, and each year, we hear the new song of the redeemed calling us toward the heart of God.

I could say that perhaps in heaven the Cubs will win the World Series, but I hope it doesn’t take that long. In the meantime, excuse me while I close my eyes in the brand-new, straight-from-Brazil hammock my friend brought home from her travels because she knew it would startle me with joy, sway as I listen to the doves cooing, and dream of that day.


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