Work and Play

A New Unity Sunday Gathering by Andy Pakula


Humpbacks, by Mary Oliver

There is, all around us, this country of original fire.
You know what I mean.
The sky, after all, stops at nothing 
so something has to be holding our bodies in its rich and timeless stables 
or else we would fly away.

Off Stellwagan, off the Cape, the humpbacks rise. 
Carrying their tonnage of barnacles and joy

they leap through the water, they nuzzle back under it
like children at play.
They sing, too.
And not for any reason you can’t imagine.

Three of them rise to the surface near the bow of the boat,
then dive deeply, their huge scarred flukes tipped to the air.
We wait, not knowing just where it will happen; 

suddenly they smash through the surface, 
someone begins shouting for joy and you realize it is yourself 
as they surge upward and you see for the first time
how huge they are, as they breach,
and dive, and breach again through the shining blue flowers
of the split water and you see them for some unbelievable
part of a moment against the sky —

like nothing you’ve ever imagined —
like the myth of the fifth morning galloping out of darkness, 
pouring heavenward, spinning; 
then they crash back under those black silks 
and we all fall back together into that wet fire, 
you know what I mean.

I know a captain who has seen them
playing with seaweed, swimming through the green islands, 
tossing the slippery branches into the air.
I know a whale that will come to the boat whenever she can, 
and nudge it gently along the bow with her long flipper.
I know several lives worth living.

Listen, whatever it is you try to do with your life, 
nothing will ever dazzle you like the dreams of your body,
its spirit longing to fly while the dead-weight bones
toss their dark mane and hurry back into the fields of glittering fire
where everything, even the great whale, throbs with song.

In A Handful of God, by Hafiz

Poetry reveals that there is no empty space.

When your truth forsakes its shyness,
When your fears surrender to your strengths,
You will begin to experience

That all existence
Is a teeming sea of infinite life.

In a handful of ocean water
You could not count all the finely tuned

Who are acting stoned
For very intelligent and sane reasons

And of course are becoming extremely sweet
And wild.

In a handful of the sky and earth,
In a handful of God,

We cannot count
All the ecstatic lovers who are dancing there
Behind the mysterious veil.

True art reveals there is no void
Or darkness.

There is no loneliness to the clear-eyed mystic
In this luminous, brimming
Playful world.


Message, by Andy Pakula

I get up here just about every Sunday morning and I have something to say. I’ve done it well over three hundred times now. Every one of those messages has been different. And every one of them has involved a lot of work to create.

I hope it doesn’t look like it takes a lot of work, but the truth is that it does.

For the next three months, we are going to be talking about work - and we’re going to talk about play. 

Play is a topic that I would never have chosen. One of you suggested it to me and - as I read it in an email - I felt anxious - felt really unsure and really conflicted - which suggested to me that, yes, that’s a topic I and we need to talk about.

I work alot. Some people have called me a workaholic, and it’s probably not too far off. On the other hand, some of my work feels a lot like play, and I feel very fortunate that this is the case. 
Many of us wind up doing work that doesn’t interest or engage us - work that we suffer through so we can have housing and food and maybe the occasional holiday. We can’t wait until we can finally retire and be free of work. That kind of work certainly doesn’t feel much like play at all. If we have a moment of play at that kind of work, it’s probably something we can get in trouble for or at least feel guilty about.

But play is important. We know it’s important for children, but more and more, it’s becoming apparent that play is also essential for adults. We need play to stimulate our brains and touch our hearts in special ways don’t disappear as we become grown-ups, even though we sometimes think that the essence of being a grown-up is the absence of play. 

Without play, creativity suffers, mental health suffers, and relationships suffer. Author Joe Robinson described this disease in a  Huffington Post article a few years ago:
“It’s a vision problem that no laser surgery can cure, a hyperopia that keeps us from seeing the central source of happiness right next to us. That problem is called adulthood. Those who are afflicted with this condition have trouble focusing on nearby objects of amusement and the realm that delivers the most enjoyment per square inch: play. Adults are oblivious to what they knew as kids — that play is where you live.”

Over the next three months, we'll explore many aspects of work and play, and we’ll not just work at it - we’ll play at it too.

As we sit in this place with its very long history - I wonder how much play has gone on here through the years. I presume the children played, but I rather doubt the adults played very much at all for most of the 308 years this building has stood here. Maybe that’s completely wrong and play is just something we’ve come to struggle with more in the past century? We need more silliness - more taking the chance of appearing foolish - and maybe even more trying to appear foolish!

Q: Why did the Unitarian cross the road?
A: To support the chicken in its search for its own path.

People don’t expect much humour or play in places of religion. A member of this congregation once told me how before he first visited here about 10 years ago - he passed by here every day in his commute. As he saw this building each day, he developed a mental image of the people of this congregation. He imagined them all dressed in black. They would be wearing sombre hats and sombre expressions on their faces that matched their sombre behaviour.
Religion has a reputation for being serious - worthy - earnest. I can’t imagine a whole lot of playfulness in most churches, mosques, or synagogues.

To be fair, though, that characterisation is incomplete. We heard a poem from Sufi mystic Hafiz earlier. Rather than the sobre words we might expect, he talks about a myriad of intoxicated musicians in a handful of ocean water. He talks of ecstatic lovers. He talks about the world as playful. 

The mystical traditions have had much joy and play and fun. You can find it in the Sufis, like Hafiz and Rumi. You can find it in the Hasidic Jews who, despite their very sombre appearance, value laughter and dance as religious experiences.

Mary Oliver - who is a very religious poet to me - describes of a world of wonder and a sacredness as she writes about the joy and play that is seen in the playful behaviour of some of nature’s most majestic creatures - the humpback whales. 

Many folk-religions and mythical traditions tell of tricksters - characters whose playful or foolish behaviour and words teach important truths.

Nasruddin, from

One foolish character - also from Muslim lands - is Nasruddin. He plays many roles and there are many stories about him, but - in the end - he seems to be something that appears impossible in our “work vs play perspective” where serious is good and playful is bad. He is the divinely inspired fool, who teaches and inspires through his own strange idiocy.

One day, Nasruddin was walking in the market followed by a large number of people. Whatever Nasruddin did, the crowd behind him immediately copied. Every few steps Nasruddin would stop and shake his hands in the air, touch his feet and jump up yelling "Hu Hu Hu!". So his followers would also stop and do exactly the same thing.
One of the merchants, took Nasruddin aside and whispered to him: "What are you doing my old friend? Why are these people imitating you?"
"I have become a spiritual teacher," replied Nasruddin. "These are my followers; I am helping them reach enlightenment!"
"How do you know when they reach enlightenment?"
"That’s the easy part! Every morning I count them. The ones who have left – have reached enlightenment!"

Humour, play, trickiness, foolishness, wisdom, and anti-authoritarian subversiveness all combine to make Nasruddin the least likely and most effective of sages.
Humour and play carry truth.

How many Unitarians does it take to change a light bulb?
Three - one to write a solemn statement which will affirm the following:

  • This light bulb is natural, a part of the universe, and evolved over many years by small steps.
  • There must be no discrimination against dark bulbs in any form, and means must be found for all "dark" bulbs to take their place alongside light bulbs on a basis of equality.
  • We affirm the right of all bulbs to screw into the sockets of their choice regardless of the bulb's illumination preference.
  • Unitarians seek for each light bulb the fullest opportunity to develop itself to its full electrical potential.

A second Unitarian who will read this statement, even if s/he is the only human being to do so, and then to write the obligatory criticism and dissent.

A third Unitarian to light a candle instead of cursing the darkness.

So, we begin this three month theme on work and play by noting that we are not talking about virtue and sloth, as though work is all we should do and play is only for children and fools. Play and humour enrich our lives. They enrich our relationships. They change the way we see the world and see ourselves.

In the words of Oscar Wilde, “Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it.”


The message was followed by the meditation pictured below: