Wiffle Ball, Parenting, and Child’s Play


Our back yard is almost too small for Wiffle ball, nevertheless we pull off epic games with the neighbor kids. The fences are close, so home runs are frequent. The base paths are short, so small-ball runs are just as frequent. The trees are big and plentiful, making fielding a challenge. To make the games move fast, and to limit scoring, I devise a laundry list of impromptu rules each weekend. For example, pulling the ball hard and hitting the neighbor’s house down the left field line is frowned upon — an automatic out. Three strikes are an out. Catching a ball after it has zigzagged down through tree branches, is an out. But each team is allowed only one out per half inning. Base runners are out if they get soaked (hit by the ball off base). Games end when the first team reaches 10 runs. Also, there’s one all-time pitcher who doubles as the umpire and scorekeeper (me). Etc.

I’ve set the rules to fit the small yard, and in setting these rules, I’ve also been able to make a fast-paced game.

This is the daily work of fatherhood.

One of the most unrelenting demands I feel in parenting is the agility required to move from, on the one hand, a dad who sets rules, to being a dad who enjoys and encourages play and fun. To only warn and set rules and punish violations is not healthy fathering. To only play is worse. To me it seems like both must be done well, and done frequently, leading to a sort of sanctified schizophrenia, calling for a personality that quickly bounces from warning to play and back to warning and then resuming play.

But there’s something of this back-and-forth in the nature of wisdom, taking Proverbs as one example. In Proverbs 8:22–31, Wisdom is personified as Yahweh’s child, playing at his feet. And as we see a child playing at the feet of her father, our imaginations enter into “Wisdom’s playhouse,” the phrase of William Brown in his book, The Ethos of the Cosmos: The Genesis of Moral Imagination in the Bible.

Brown explains:

The bookends of Proverbs, chapters 1–9 and 31:10–31, have aimed at naturalizing Wisdom and lodging her within a domestic world that also embraces the larger community, the city, and, indeed, the cosmos. Unlike her archenemy, who is also competing over the son’s allegiance, Wisdom is the archetypal kin and friend (7:4). She is the spousal paradigm for his maturity. Wisdom’s ethos, more broadly, is familialized for a community constituted by justice, righteousness, and equity (1:3; cf. 28:11, 7, 9). . . .

As Wisdom’s play constitutes her mode of interaction with Creator and creation, so the moral self’s engagement with the world is informed by Wisdom’s recreation. The one who fears Yahweh is the one who exercises virtue, remaining in the secured and stable world of Wisdom’s ethos. “The wicked are overthrown and are no more, but the house of the righteous remains” (12:7).

Wisdom’s play is not carefree, for lack of restraint ushers in the fool’s demise (14:6), and lack of self-control is like a “city breached, without walls” (25:28). But neither is her play, and thus her follower’s, simply an act of subordination to the created order. To be sure, Wisdom is not an autonomous agent, an independent deity in her own right, but neither is she Yahweh’s slave. She is God’s playing child, not some static or abstract order. . . .

She is God’s prime witness and partner. Her ways are recreative within a relationship of reciprocity. Unleashing chaos is fool’s play (10:23), but wise conduct is literally “child’s play” to the discerning, both a calling and an avocation, the wellspring of joy and the way of integrity. As the irrepressible moral agent, Wisdom confers fervent life to the one who exercises virtue. (312–313)

In summary:

Wisdom’s engagement with her followers is recognized as play from a particular perspective. As the father enables the son to step back and witness the self-destructive conduct of his peers, however enticing and egalitarian their invitation may appear, Wisdom’s activity in and with the inhabited world is perceived as play from a cosmically comprehensive perspective. . . . Although Wisdom is first introduced as a veritable prophet, hurling indictments against her detractors and the immature (1:20–33), sternness gives way to joy, Wisdom’s delight in engaging the willing student. (301)

Parenting is never anything less than prophetic warnings and discernment and rules and discipline. But these things exist — not unlike the special boundaries and rules around backyard Wiffle ball games — in order to carve out space and rules in order for the delight of play to flourish in the boundaries of obedience (taking its cue from Proverbs 8:22–31). This is the place of Wisdom’s word to parents. Use the warnings to protect a space as wide as possible, where the God-honoring “play” of wisdom is cherished and where it flourishes.

On Decision Making

“Proverbs, and the wisdom literature in general, counter the idea that being spiritual means handing all decisions over to the leading of the Lord. The opposite is true. Proverbs reveals that God does not make all people’s decisions for them, but rather expects them to use his gift of reason to interpret the circumstances and events of life within the framework of revelation that he has given. Yet when they have exercised their responsibility in decision-making, they can look back and see that the sovereign God has guided.”

Graeme Goldsworthy, in the New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (IVP 2000), p. 210. See also Gospel and Wisdom in the Goldsworthy Trilogy.

Restoration Experts and Sharpshooters

The famous American flag Francis Scott Key watched flap in the sky as he wrote the national anthem (“O say, does that Star-spangled Banner yet wave”) is housed in the Smithsonian Museum of American History in D.C. It’s the first square flag I’ve seen, measuring about 30 foot by 34 foot in size, shortened horizontally by over 10 feet due to people cutting it into squares of handkerchief-sized keepsakes. And if that wasn’t bad enough, someone knifed at the middle to cut out one star, a brazen act that has left a sloppy haphazard hole right in the middle of the flag.

What was not sliced apart by its fans looks to be in good shape for an old flag that lived through a war. Which is to say it’s now tattered to threads, and has deteriorated badly, resembling a favorite t-shirt I wore in college on a regular basis until it took on semi-transparent qualities. It was a shirt I enjoyed wearing as a bachelor and probably would still be wearing had that shirt not experienced a post-marriage disappearance.

Like my t-shirt, this flag is irreplaceable, and in recent years restoration experts have worked carefully in the hopes of stabilizing the flag’s condition and preserving it for centuries of future visitors. The last time I saw it, the flag was behind a special glass-encased room under dim lighting and positioned so the restoration experts could easily inspect each square inch of cloth. Although I’ve not seen anyone working on the flag, I imagine a careful worker with white gloves, a magnifying glass, and tweezers.

Step outside the museum, walk down the street a few blocks away, look up, and you will see sharpshooters walking around on the roof of the White House. These men are standing atop the most iconic building in the United States and home to a few of the most powerful men and women in the world. From the roof, these shooters have a nice 360-degree panoramic view of the surroundings and can watch for anything out of place. Their perch positions them for a clean shot.

So what do restoration experts and sharpshooters have in common? Well, nothing really, except they are both in the business of protecting. The one protects through detailed examination and restoration. The other protects with strength by standing on top of what is protected. For me, both of these protective agents come together in Proverbs 4:6,

Do not forsake her [wisdom], and she will keep you;
love her, and she will guard you.

Wisdom “keeps us,” a term that emphasizes wisdom’s subtle, careful, and delicate act of protecting us in the details, evoking an image of a restoration specialist replacing weak threads in the fabric, strengthening frail cloth, and initiating chemical processes that will protect the flag from invisible corrosive dangers. Wisdom is at work in subtle ways, making small but strategic actions to protect us.

But wisdom also “guards” us, which is to say She protects us by standing over what is being protected. This is the image of the White House sharpshooter. I think of things less subtle, of broad protection, and clean sightlines to approaching temptations.

Whether it’s by protecting our hearts from subtle corrosive temptations or by standing over our lives with a loaded rifle on the hip, wisdom is working to protecting us. A precious promise straight from scripture to those who love and cherish God’s wisdom—that wisdom is living and active.