Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Playing the Field, Part II

Playing is itself a therapy. ~ D.W. Winnicott

Play is extremely important to child and adult alike. Winnicott describes health as “a state of being able to play”. Illness is “not being able to play.” Play therapy is used around the world to help many children (and adults as well) move through difficult issues in their lives emotionally and mentally as well as being used to help those with physical handicaps.

Play can also bring us to the edges of life. There is often a fine line between playful connection and destructive aggression, as there is between laughter and ridicule, sport and torment, or competition and combat. Kids and adults often use creative play and games to simulate a cosmic struggle between good and bad or life and death. Play exposes us to failure, loss, finitude, and destruction without serious risk.

Adults think that by becoming a man, we are to put away childish things.* However, play is just as therapeutic and joyful for adults as it is for children. Think about the last time you ran, jumped, swam, rode a bike, laughed until your sides hurt. Adulthood and age can inhibit play. Adulthood by definition involves growing up, out, and weary of play. Adults outgrow some of the best kinds of play, in much the same way that our capacity for wonder fades, as part of living longer and growing older, assuming responsibility for others, or maybe as part of human fallenness itself. But then along comes a child, not simply reminding us but inviting us to play. In other words, playing draws us into creation, heals, and resurrects. It re-creates.

When we truly enter into a game, we lose our usual self-consciousness.

The author goes on to write about how play can be “abused”. Once play is controlled by an adult or structured for the sole purpose of promoting the success of our child, it becomes work and you lose out on the benefits of free-flowing, creative play. Distorted motives, especially promotion of one’s own kid and oneself through a child, distort play and prevent play from serving any positive role in fostering joy, freedom, or faith. This kind of “play” takes a lot of time and energy and drains life from you and your family rather than recharging you/your family and fulfilling the basic play needs of your child. Think about those families where each member has two or three clubs/organizations/teams that they participate in, and yet no one feels like a member of the Family as a team anymore. As there are different forms of play, we need to be careful about which kinds we encourage. Revitalizing play as a practice of faith today calls for a steady and demanding discernment, moderation, proactivity, and repentance. These four steps constitute the recovery and transformation of play as a focal practice of faith. The author goes on to say the wrong kind of play can have a negative impact and we need to find appropriate uses of many forms of play. We must proactively and conscientiously pursue alternative forms of play that shape a richer household ecology and work against those that breed isolation, self-centeredness, and violence. Ultimately, we must repent and acknowledge our tendency toward perverting the best qualities of play, whether in response to social pressure or as a result of our own brokenness.

Play as a faith practice involves the whole person in body, mind and spirit; it brings meaningful connection to nature and other persons; it allows us to confront life’s limits and failures; and it offers a glimpse of grace. In its unique power to create, re-create, and resurrect, play embodies essential facets of God’s relationship to the world and of our relationships with God and each other.

Play recharges our batteries emotionally and refreshes us spiritually. So how many reasons do you need to make time for play? Go ahead and have some fun!


All green text comes from Chapter 7 from In the Midst of Chaos by Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore.

* Taken from Paul’s verse in I Corinthians 13:11 – “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Playing the Field, Part I

All life begins with play.

There are times as parents when we spy the sacred in our ordinary living. You know what I’m talking about – those moments when all of a sudden it hits you that this moment is a holy moment. Many of those moments may come when your child is finally asleep and looking like an angel when you know they’ve acted quite the opposite all day, but many moments seem to come when your child is in the midst of play. And whether you are actively playing with them or simply watching them play, you become aware of holiness in your midst – how blessed you are, how beautiful your child is, how joyful you/your child is at the moment, etc. In fact, play is in it’s essence joyful, is it not? But have you ever thought of play as holy or spiritual?

Play involves immense pleasure, even joy, of a holistic sort. Mind, body, spirit – all are engaged together. Sometimes play results in the visible, tangible sensations of a smile, laughter, muscle ache, or cleansing breath. Play has rich interpersonal and intergenerational potential, connecting us deeply to others, and is wonderful when done together in a communal or cooperative context. But play also involves activity done by oneself. One must be able to play well alone in order to play well with others. Play sparks and fuels imagination and creativity. It suspends reality but doesn’t supersede it. It can transform reality. It involves an attitude of delight and enjoyment – an embodiment of joy – as much as specific activity. In fact, any playful act can become work if the pleasure dissipates. Everyone should have equal access to play, regardless of talent, wealth, or the right outfit. Genuine play does not harm those playing or others around them.

Throughout history, play has been denounced by many parents and pastors alike. Think back to what church services were like even with children involved – 3 hour long sermons with not a felt board in sight (!), Sundays where no fun activities were allowed (unless you considered reading and studying the Bible for a large portion of the day fun), and Sabbaths when corporal punishment was deemed appropriate if you became too silly. Not surprisingly, few theologians over the course of history have considered play a component of creation and a practice of faith. This is a shame, perhaps owing to the association of God with rest or stasis and play with forbidden sensual pleasure or indulgence and pampering.

Johan Huizinga sees play quite differently and more of a foundational element to adult society. We may all know and believe that play is a fundamental component of childhood, but we may not realize from that component has come “adult forms of law, politics, art and religion. Practices of faith, even the liturgy itself, exist in direct continuity with play.

I began with the quote, “All life begins with play.” How many times have you witnessed an adult (it could be a complete stranger) come near your child with the main objective of getting them to smile? Our first true interactions with our child are forms of play – making silly faces, singing songs and bouncing them, waving rattles in their face. The play of early eye contact between parent and infant creates a trustworthy world for both participants. This playful ritual actually enhances our potential to experience religious transcendence later in life and shapes our images of God.

Scripture also envisions play and child play in transformative roles at the beginning and end of time. In hymns of creation, the Psalmist pictures God as a God of play, a God who laughs, plays, and cavorts, not just a God of "rest."

Is it possible that Jesus himself welcomed children precisely because they play? Doesn't the imperative to "become like children" (Matthew 18:3) have something essential to do with prizing playfulness as a part of rejoicing in God's love? With children in play, we practice the freedom of the Garden and the laughter of resurrection, imaginatively resisting the powers that seek to define, capture, and destroy us.

More to come on the subject of play next week...


All green text comes from Chapter 7 in In the Midst of Chaos by Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore.

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