“I love to watch you play.'"
According to Rachel Macy Stafford, an author and special education teacher, those six words changed the way she related to her children. Rather than praising or critiquing their performances at swim meets, recitals, and soccer games, she began pulling her children close, and simply whispering, “I love to watch you swim,” “I love to hear you sing,” “I love to hear your read,” “I love to watch you play.”
Their reaction to these words, she said, was telling:
My child's face broke into her most glorious smile -- the one that causes her eyes to scrunch up and become little slices of joy. And then she did something I didn't expect. She threw herself against me, wrapped her arms tightly around my neck, and whispered, ‘Thank you, Mama.’ And in doing so, I swear I could read her mind: The pressure's off. She loves to hear me play; that is all.
"The pressure’s off. She loves to hear me play; that is all."
Even as someone who is not yet a mother, I see the wisdom of this approach. And as my eyes scanned the article, I thought of how desperately we adults need to hear these words too, perhaps most especially from the God who identifies as our Father and who is often compared to a Mother.
What a relief it would be to know the pressure’s off. God delights in our living and breathing and working and praying and that delight is not something we have to earn by doing everything right.
God just loves to watch us play.
Too many corners of the Church have been infected with a legalistic, performance-based view of God in which God stands over our lives with crossed arms and a disappointed scowl, applauding only when we get everything just right and rendering judgment on everything we do wrong. Some pastors seem to thrive in lording this disapproving God over their parishioners. As one pastor put it: “Some of you, God hates you. Some of you, God is sick of you. God is frustrated with you. God is wearied by you. God has suffered long enough with you. He doesn’t think you’re cute. He doesn’t think it’s funny.” He then proceeds to explain how to win back God's favor.
For too many Christians, God’s unmerited favor is a one-time gift that applies exclusively to eternal security. In the meantime, God’s favor has to be earned. It has to be fought for with one flawless performance after another. The Family of God is a competitive, disciplined, performance-based family that runs on the economy of gold stars, rules and shame. God is rendered into the classic nightmare sports parent whose favor has to be earned, who is always, always, always disappointed in us.
But this is not the God we encounter in Scripture or in Christ or in the Eucharist. The God we encounter there is the God in whom we live and move and have our being, the God who rejoices over His children with signing, the God who spreads Her wings over Her children like an eagle over her chicks, the God who loved the world enough to experience all of its pain alongside of us, the God who—as Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it—“would rather die than be in the sin accounting business anymore,” the God who loves to watch us play.
God doesn’t love us because we’ve earn it. God loves us because we are God’s children. God created this world and everything in it—don’t you think God delights in it? Don’t you think God loves us at least as much as a good parent who delights in the activities of her children, regardless of whether they get everything right?
This isn’t a performance-based relationship; it’s a relationship based on unconditional love and endless delight. We can breathe a deep and long sigh of relief because the pressure’s off. We’re not here to impress or perform; we’re here to revel in God’s delight.
So hear these six words from God today:
I love to watch you play.
I love to watch you write.
I love to watch you bake.
I love to watch you nurse.
I love to watch you read to your kids at night.
I love to watch you care for the sick.
I love to watch you take pictures.
I love to watch you study.
I love to watch you laugh.
I love to watch you seek the truth even when it’s hard.
I love to watch you be the church together, even when it’s imperfect.
I love to watch you love one another, even when it seems impossible.
I love to watch you eat and drink and dance and explore and worship and pray and get out of your car to move that poor little turtle out of the road…not because you do any of these things perfectly, but because you do them as my children.
Now sink into that sigh of relief and believe this today:
The pressure's off. God loves to watch me play. That is all.