Games, Sports and Comedies
Now to return to where I left off with Barclay and simplicity. The final subject that he deals with on this general topic is what he refers to as “games, sports, comedies and other such things, commonly and indifferently used by all the several sorts of Christians under the notion of divertisment and recreation...” He wishes to examine these and see if they are consistent with “the seriousness, gravity, and godly fear which the Gospel calls for.”
As far as this goes, he finds no difference between Protestants, Catholics or heathens. They all engage in the same folly, vanity and abuse of precious and irrevocable time. He finds that this is inconsistent with Christianity. “The apostle commands us, that 'whether we eat or drink, or whatever we do, we do it all to the glory of God.' But I judge none will be so impudent to affirm that, in the use of these sports and games, God is glorified.”
He points to 1 Cor. 7:29, “The appointed time has grown short.” So why do men invent games to pass their time away as if they lack other work to serve God or to be useful to creation. We are called to fear the Lord but “if such as use these games and sports will speak from their consciences, they can, I doubt not, experimentally declare, that this fear is forgotten in their gaming; and if God by his Light secretly touch them, or mind them of the vanity of their way, they strive to shut it out, and use their gaming as an engine to put away from them that troublesome guest, and thus make merry over the Just One, whom they have slain and crucified in themselves.”
Clearly modern Christians are more impudent than those in the 17'th century. I just point you to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. It has become commonplace to see athletes pointing skyward after a success as if our God is a God of the victor and the strong and not a God of mercy to the powerless, the weak and the oppressed. Jesus came for the losers and not the winners in this world.
I suspect that most modern readers would challenge his assumption that the Gospel calls us to “seriousness, gravity, and godly fear.” We like to think that the Gospel also calls us to a life of balance where we have times of relaxation as well as exertion. And Barclay does not disagree with that. He explicitly recognizes that people cannot be always at the same “intentiveness of mind.” But he is arguing that we should cultivate the habit of attentiveness to the Divine so that we do all things, no matter how mundane, in the service of the Lord and so secure a blessing. What he opposes are those things which are “totally superfluous,or in their proper nature and tendency lead the mind into lust, vanity and wantonness, as being contrived and framed for that end.”
The measure by which I am to judge my activities is what effects do they have on me. Do they serve to bring me closer to God or do they lead me away from an awareness of God? What we are called to is a life of constant attentiveness to God and what we are doing. I see it as similar to the practice that the Buddhists refer to as mindfulness. My experience is that I can carry this off for a while, sometimes longer, sometimes shorter, and then I dive straight back into distraction. Even while I am writing this, I find myself drawn to leave the writing and play some of the solitaire games so conveniently installed on my computer. On those occasions when I am taken to deep or painful places, the desire to run away becomes all the stronger. Now there have been times when I have felt grounded in a deep place, and in those moments, I cannot conceive of doing anything that would take me out of that place. It is the place that confirms for me that it is possible to be so filled with the Spirit that sin is not a possibility. But for me, after I have been in that place, I often have a reaction and run from it.
When I come to God, I find myself centering and being drawn down into myself. After a while I seek out things that hide those feelings. I have discovered that there are many things that work to change my internal state. Of course strong drink or drugs can do it. But eating too much can do it as well. I can stay up late playing solitaire on the computer so that I am only half awake the next day. I am coming to see that one of the appeals of doing things that I know that I shouldn't is that it carries with it a little bit of an adrenaline rush that takes me up and away from those deeper places I want to avoid. I suspect that this adrenaline rush is also part of the appeal of gambling. I know people who use shopping as a similar sort of drug. There is no shortage of alternatives available to us since so much in our culture seems to be chiefly contrived and framed for the end of leading the mind into lust, vanity and wantonness.
The attitudes of early Friends towards recreation was deeply influenced by the Puritan movement. I suspect that we are equally influenced by the hedonistic society that we are surrounded by today. The goal here is not to reject activities for the sake of austerity. Rather it is to organize all of our activities so that God is in the center of our lives. It is to make our spiritual development the primary focus of our lives and not just one of a number of activities or hobbies that we undertake when the fancy strikes us.
We are told that we have an inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. Where is the happiness in a dour and somber approach to religion? I cannot speak from an abundance of personal experience on this. I am not one who lights up a room with my bubbly personality. Certainly the last few months have not been filled with an excess of joy and happiness. My faith is that the joy comes in the morning. We have to experience the cross before we can experience the resurrection. But I also want to share with you the words to a short song I learned in YFNA (Young Friends of North America) long ago.
I'd rather be a jolly St Francis
Singing his canticle to the sun
Than a dour old sober-sides Quake
Whose diet would appear to have been