September 7, 2023 • Life for Leaders
Scripture — Psalm 104:24-26 (NIV)
How many are your works, Lord!
In wisdom you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
There is the sea, vast and spacious,
teeming with creatures beyond number—
living things both large and small.
There the ships go to and fro,
and Leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.
Even as God created a world in which work is good, God also wove play and delight into the fabric of creation. Surely play and delight is good for me also, and it even reflects something of the nature of the God whom we worship who fashioned all creation. We worship a God who delights in play, and who made a universe where work is balanced not only by rest, but by the need to frolic.
In yesterday’s Life for Leaders, I introduced a theme and Biblical motivation for my next several bi-monthly pairs of devotions. If you haven’t done so yet, I encourage you to read that devotion first before continuing with today’s.
By the standards of higher elevation tundra in Alaska’s Katmai National Park, it’s a hot August day—especially for a creature wearing a fur coat. After a morning feasting on salmon in the nearby river, a brown bear sow has led her three cubs out onto the remnant snowpack in a shady gully to cool off and rest. Mama bear now lies sprawled out on the snow napping. But at least one of her cubs is not ready to nap. It’s pestering its siblings. Soon two of them are rolling on the snow, wrestling and playing bear-cub games.
The cubs are little furballs of fun. I would love to climb down and hold one or join in the games as I do with my black lab at home (who is always up for a game of “tug” using one of his stuffed animals.) But with a six-hundred-pound sow keeping guard a few yards away, I suspect such an attempt would be the last thing I did. I will wait for the day in the new kingdom when the wolf lives with the lamb, the leopard lies down with the goat, the calf is safe with the lion, and brown bear mamas allow humans to pet their cubs. Now I watch with delight from a safe distance atop the bluff.
As I watch with delight, it’s impossible for me not to see the activity as play. Some would argue that I’m anthropomorphizing: imagining human thought that isn’t really there. Others might point out that such “play” is merely training for the rough-and-tumble world bears grow into as adults. They’re probably correct. Adult bears compete physically for prime hunting spots on salmon streams. I’ve also learned that female brown bears nurse their young for up to three years, and male bears will eat even their own cubs to get the females estrous again. So females aggressively chase off even much larger males that come near their young. And combat among males to mate is even more intense. Does the playful swatting, biting, rolling, and wrestling of the young cubs prepare them for the harsh life when no longer under their mother’s protection? I have no doubt it does. It may be a matter of life and death.
Yet I still delight in the playfulness of these cubs, just as I have watched otters play in the snow, porpoises surfing the wake of a large boat, and crows repeatedly tumbling head-over-wings in an updraft of air. In calling such activity play, I take to heart the words of the Psalmist who speaks of the “sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number—living things both large and small” including the “Leviathan, which [God] formed to frolic there.”
I love the word “frolic.” It’s so evocative. And, yes, as the Psalmist points out—and as the bear cubs reveal—God made creatures to frolic! He put playfulness into their hearts, even as he put it into our human hearts. My pastor, who has a doctorate in Biblical Hebrew, told me about the “frolic” verb in this passage, and the form in which it is used. The lectionary definition gives three meanings: 1. “to make sport”, 2. “to jest”, and 3. “to play (including instrumental music, singing, dancing.)” Although definitions have slightly different meanings, they all carry the sense of doing something whose main purpose is not “practical”: not work-related or done for productivity. The activities do not put food on the plate, or income in our pockets. The purpose seems to be something more like delight.
What the psalmist said of the leviathan surely is true of the bear cub, the kitten, and my dog who comes running down the stairs with a toy in his mouth asking me to play whenever I walk in the door. There is delight in that play. And maybe even something deeper: something in the very nature of the delight that comes from play. In many ways, frolic is fundamentally incarnational. The play of animals—bears, otters, crows, porpoises, and the leviathan of the deep—is done with physical bodies, and with the material substance of creation. God created the world and our bodies. He made it all good, even as both work and rest are good. When we play, we delight in the goodness of our bodily existence.
God made us to play and to delight. This is evident in creation. Surely play and delight is good for me also, reflecting something in the nature of the God we worship who fashioned all creation. Including the Leviathan. Including the bear cubs. We worship a God who delights in play, and who made a universe where work is balanced not only by rest, but by the need to frolic.
Where have you seen play and delight—or frolicking—in creation? How have times of play and delight in your own life impacted you? Do you need to make more time to frolic?
In each of my forthcoming devotions, the central call to “Act” is to set out some time in the coming week—half an hour to even an hour would be great—to find a place to reflect intentionally on creation. This begins with quiet observation. Don’t rush too quickly to a conclusion. Listen. Smell. Watch. Be silent. Let God speak to you. That speaking need not be in rational thoughts or conclusions.
If you have not taken time to play lately, make some time for it! Find delight in God through your play.
Lord, I laugh at the antics of playful bear cubs, of otters in the snow, of my dog playing tug-of-war with me, and of crows playing tricks. Thank you that you have built time for play and delight into creation. I pray that I would find refreshment in times of frolicking that would help my times of work also to be more meaningful and glorifying to you. Amen.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Human Creativity With God (Psalm 104).
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Matthew Dickerson’s books include works of spiritual theology and Christian apologetics as well as historical fiction, fantasy literature, explorations of the writings of C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien, and books about trout fishing, fly fishing, rivers, and ecology. His recent books include: Disciple Making in a Culture of Power, Comfort, and Fear and The Voices of Rivers: Reflections on Places Wild and Almost Wild. He was a 2017 artist-in-residence at Glacier National Park. He lives in Vermont with his wife, dog, and cat, not far from three married sons, and is an active member of Memorial Baptist Church. Matthew is also a professor of computer science at Middlebury College in Vermont.