by Colleen Derr
I don’t enjoy basketball. It is not a sport I would ever choose to watch on television or pay to watch in person. Perhaps my lack of appreciation is because I don’t know very much about the game. I never conquered the three-step sequence for a lay-up in gym class, I don’t know the rules, and I don’t fully grasp the physical requirements to succeed. For the most part I don’t know the names of the players, the coaches, or their teams.
I do, however, enjoy watching my daughter play her clarinet in the pep band. Therefore, on occasion I find myself at a basketball game for the sake of the band. Friday night I found myself at a high school basketball game in order to watch the pep band. Prior to the game I didn’t know the names of any players, I didn’t know their record for the season, and I didn’t know who they were playing – I did know that the pep band was playing.
My husband and I arrived early and took up a position in the bleachers where we could see the pep band. It was the pre-game warm ups and the band wasn’t yet playing so I watched the young men practice their shots. My husband informed me major college teams had recruited two of our players – they were considered two top recruits in the state. I didn’t know those boys’ names or their basketball abilities, but I could tell that was a big deal and was proud that they were on our team.
The other team arrived and began to practice as well. Their fans were quite vocal and appeared to have far more spirit than our reserved fans. Again, for whatever reason, that increased my passion – as if my school spirit needed to match theirs. The competition had begun and the game hadn’t yet started.
Both teams began the game cautiously, with limited scoring in the first quarter. I enjoyed the time outs when the pep band would play and spent most of my time watching the fans engage the game. Their fans were quite enthusiastic and it was almost comical to watch how excited they were over such a trivial thing. They acted in unison and as a whole, feeding off each other and growing together in their frenzied excitement.
The second quarter began to heat up, however, and as the baskets were exchanged our fans’ passion grew and mine did as well. By the third quarter I had completely forgotten about the pep band and became incredibly focused on the game. I cheered loudly when one of our boys scored, I waited in anticipation for our stars to shine, and I complained about the referee’s calls – echoing the complaints of others in spite of my ignorance. I made fast friends with the people around me and found myself sharing high-fives as our team surged ahead in the fourth quarter. A fast break-a-way that resulted in a slam-dunk by one of our stars erupted in me such joy that I jumped to my feet and raised my voice with our now equally enthusiastic fans.
In the middle of the uproar a scene unfolded – barely noticeable to most. There was a dad with his three little girls making their way down the sideline of the court and headed out of the gym. While everyone else was focused on the game, their focus was on something completely other. Their little faces were alight with incredible anticipation and excitement. It was as if they knew there was something far greater than what the rest of us were experiencing. Where were they headed and what were they expecting?
I was reminded of a similar scene and Jesus’ words in Matthew 11: “To what can I compare this generation? It is like children playing a game in the public square. They complain to their friends, ‘We played wedding songs, and you didn’t dance, so we played funeral songs, and you didn’t mourn’” (v. 16-17, NLT).
There are a few different perspectives on the purpose of this illustration and its meaning. Jerome Berryman suggested one that has merit of consideration. He suggested that these children – the ones in the Scripture and the ones in my story – demonstrate a child’s independent spirit. They wouldn’t go along with the crowd and do what was expected; they didn’t get caught up in all the hype. Rather, they got caught in the anticipation of “what if”.
Berryman posited that the children in Jesus’ story and in my story demonstrate a lesson about Kingdom living: The children in the market were invited to engage in “as if play” – mimicking adult situations of the wedding feast and the funeral, but instead the children created their own play – “what if play”. “What if play is needed to know the unknown. You cannot enter the kingdom by patterning your life after the ordinary adults around you. Ordinary adults don’t get it” (p. 14). Berryman suggested that this illustration of how children play is a testimony to us all on how to enter the Kingdom – through creative “what if play” as opposed to mimicry in “as if play”.
I was guilty of “as if play”, getting caught up in the excitement of the moment and going along with the crowd. I mimicked the actions and attitudes, but without a true grasp on the meaning and significance.
Are there times when we are guilty of “as if play” in our spiritual lives as well?
Is our participation in worship and discipleship driven more by the expectation of the crowd and the hype created in the moment without a true grasp on the meaning and significance?
Or do we enjoy “what if play” living in enthusiastic anticipation about what God will do?
 Jerome W. Berryman, (2009) Children and the theologians: Clearing the way for grace. Harrisburg, PA: Moorehouse Publishing. Graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, an Episcopal priest, and founder of the “Godly Play” spiritual practice for children.