Courtney Ellis believes in the beautiful wisdom from Mary Poppins: a spoonful of sugar does help the medicine go down. It’s why she’s so passionate about God’s gift of playfulness—the joyful opportunity to connect, celebrate, and just have fun. Play is much more than a luxury item: it’s a necessity for healthy souls, families, communities, and churches. In seasons of difficulty, play can help refill our empty tanks, reenergizing us for the work ahead. She’s grateful to her three young children—her best playfulness examples!—as well as to her husband, Daryl, who often wakes her up with songs about breakfast ham. It’s a grace to welcome Courtney to the farm’s front porch today…

Guest post by Courtney Ellis

Oh, did you want coffee?” my husband Daryl smiled at me with our youngest baby, Felicity, on his hip. She’d woken up again at 4:45 am, a time of day that should never be witnessed by a human who isn’t either in A) college or B) active labor. He’d graciously taken her out for a post-dawn stroll around the neighborhood, but I hadn’t been able to fall back to sleep. I stumbled into the kitchen at 5:30, freshly showered, completely exhausted, and totally grumpy.

I stared blankly at Daryl. He held up the empty coffee pot.

“Coffee,” he said. “Did you want some?” I blinked and willed my mind to focus.

“Yes,” I said through gritted teeth. “Of course I want coffee.”

“I’m joking, Court,” he said, shifting our little rooster of a child onto his other hip. “I’m brewing it right now.”

“Oh,” I collapsed into a kitchen chair. “I’m sorry. I just… I am so tired.” This wasn’t the first morning that week we’d had a 4:45 am wake-up call. Nor would it be the last. We’d tried everything to put an end to these early risings, from giving Felicity an extra nap (was she overtired?) to taking away her nap entirely (perhaps she wasn’t tired enough?) to feeding her a high-fat, high-protein snack right before tucking her in (maybe she was just hungry?). No dice. Just misery.

He poured the water into the coffee maker’s reservoir and started the machine.

“I know,” he said. “I’m tired, too.”

“I  know,” I said. “I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

“I love you too, baby girl,” I said to Felicity, tickling her pajama-toed foot. “But if you want parents who are any fun at all, this has got to stop.

As I began seeking out a more playful existence, I quickly stumbled across what keeps so many of us from play: life can be quite exhausting. Time feels short, loads weigh heavy, and the immediate and important quickly drown out the ideal and hoped-for. It can seem formidable—if not impossible—to pursue happiness when there are so many other essential tasks begging for attention. How are we supposed to embrace play when finances are tight, friendships are strained, and flu season (or worse!) is here? What about when our boss is impossible? When the rent increases, the refrigerator breaks, or the student loans come due? When—and I’m speaking hypothetically here—a toddler decides that sleep is for the weak? Not to mention the difficulties we face in the more desperate or devastating seasons of life when grief arrives, illness turns chronic, or all hope seems lost.

And herein lies the first invitation of playfulness: to play well, we must rest well. It is nearly impossible to accept the invitations of play if we are completely exhausted. Without our most basic needs—food, water, shelter, and sleep—being met, playfulness becomes a serious uphill battle. First, we rest.

“And herein lies the first invitation of playfulness: to play well, we must rest well.

Because God knew we would need this spiritual reset, a regular, repeated break from the labor of our lives, he gave us the gift (and command!) to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. By engaging in regular Sabbath rest, we slowly learn that joy begins in acquiescing to our limits and accepting the invitation to let God restore our souls. This is, in its own gentle way, a type of play. On the Sabbath, we give ourselves permission to rest in the loving embrace of the Savior who created and sustains us. We release ourselves to God, in whom our happiness exists.

Even when we admit how very much we need it, it is hard to accept the invitation to Sabbath. Stress, trauma, and hardship easily fool us into thinking rest is a luxury, something we can finally get to when all the other work is done. Our default isn’t to stop or recalibrate, even when we have desperate need to do so. Yet crisis work is endless. The work of life, even relatively normal, everyday life, is ongoing. And when we fail to set our labors aside for even a short time, we will find that we are not endless.

And this is the true beauty of Sabbath rest—we don’t have to work at it; instead, it will work on us if we simply cease our labors. Letting God take the reins for the day is a profoundly playful act. (Of course, God holds those reins every day; but in acquiescing to Sabbath, we remind ourselves in an even deeper way that God is ultimately in control.) As we stop and rest, we take our hands off the wheel and leave the steering to the One who can see the whole road ahead. In leaving emails unsent, laundry unfolded, and errands un-run, we begin to learn that God can be trusted, that we aren’t what we do, and that our God-given limits are grace, not burden.

And this is the true beauty of Sabbath rest—we don’t have to work at it; instead, it will work on us if we simply cease our labors.

Our family’s weekly Sabbath reminds me in a profound and fundamentally important way that I am not irreplaceable, and that the work of God and the church—even without me! who knew?—will always go on. What grace to be reminded of our place in the world—infinitely loved and of priceless value, and yet not the only cog in the grand mechanism of God’s big, beautiful world or even our little churchy corner of it.

Much like our churches are sanctuaries in space—worshipful places to meet regularly with God—the Sabbath is a sanctuary in time. As Eugene Peterson notes, “Sabbath is the time set aside to do nothing so that we can receive everything.”[i] It is nearly impossible to overstate its gift and importance. If we never put down our heavy yoke of toil, worry, and striving, we will always struggle to play.

Perhaps that’s why God made the Sabbath an imperative—out of love, and knowing us a little too well. If a gentle invitation and a divine nudge won’t do, perhaps putting it in a list of commandments will. If permission isn’t enough, maybe requirement will be.

After all, what do you have to lose but your ragged edges?

Courtney Ellis is a speaker, pastor, and author of Uncluttered: Free Your Space, Free Your Schedule, Free Your Soul and Happy Now: Let Playfulness Lift Your Load and Renew Your Spirit. Happy Now chronicles her journey from all-too-serious to seldom-not-smiling as she learned to embrace God’s gift of play. Courtney lives with her husband Daryl and three young children in southern California, where, after 18 months, they finally returned the class parakeet they took home “for the weekend.”

[ Our humble thanks to  Tyndale House for their partnership in today’s devotion ]

[i] Peterson, Tell It Slant, 82.