Lord, Teach Us to Play

By Elaine Emeth

I sometimes have this fantasy that when we get to the gate of heaven, St. Peter will ask us a few questions about our earthly lives. One question will be: "Did you play regularly?"

"Oh, yes," most of us would answer, "I prayed all the time. I prayed when I wanted to thank God, or praise God, and I prayed hard whenever I needed something or if I was afraid."

"That's not what I asked," St. Peter would gently insist. "What I want to know is did you PLAY regularly?"

And most of us would have to say, "Play? I guess so. When I had the time. But not very often. Life was pretty serious most of the time, with all the problems in the world, and having to make a living and all. Why are you asking about play?"

We often think of play as kids' stuff, activities for fun in which adults may indulge only during leftover time, a kind of metaphorical "dessert" after life's no-nonsense "meal" of work, duty, and responsibility. Rather than thinking of recreation and play as appropriate only for leftover time, I suggest that we think of play as a primary responsibility, because it gives birth to our creativity. And creativity enriches all of life, making even the most ordinary, everyday activities always new.

It is not the nature of an activity but our attitude toward the activity that makes it play. We all know people who can make play into a chore, and others who can make chores into play. By having a playful attitude, I am not talking about clowning all the time. Clowning can be playful, or it can be a way of avoiding life.

A playful attitude is one that is open to life, willing to be surprised, and ready to delight to the new and unexpected. A playful person is one who seeks opportunities to give and receive joy in simple pleasures, who accepts things as they are, and who looks for ways to make things better. Playful people smile at life, shrug off small hurts, and forgive their own and others' mistakes.

Play is important as a creative and experimental activity for adults. Just as play is a way for children to rehearse for adult life, play is also a way for adults to rehearse for a better world. Through play new solutions to problems and new ideas can break through to our imagination.

Being playful lifts our spirits and brightens the day, enhances health and immunity against disease, removes barriers between us and others, and leads to creativity. And if we intentionally turn our minds and hearts toward God in our playtime, we will find ourselves basking in the sunshine of God's playful, creative, loving Spirit.

Playing can become a form of "extravert meditation." Usually when we think of meditation, we think of sitting still and focusing inward. It is also possible to meditate by moving and focusing outward!

Meditation occurs whenever we come in contact with the timeless and holy. This can happen whenever we become completely absorbed in what we are doing, concentrating our attention, losing self-consciousness, and losing our sense of the passing of time.

Play can be a form of meditation when our awareness becomes focused on what we are doing. It is prayer when we intend that this focused awareness be a way of opening ourselves to God.

When we cultivate in ourselves the openness and wonder of a child, we soften how we think things must be. We become willing to be moved from the known to the unknown. The raw material of life, events, memories, relationships, failures, successes, learning, unlearning, gains, and losses, give birth to dreams and visions. Out of temporary disorder comes originality and possibility.

If we look at the word recreation, re-creation, we see its links with creator, creating, creation, creativity. To re-create suggests either restoration, such as restoring wholeness, or creating anew, as in discovering new possibilities. Both restoration and new creation await us whenever we recreate through relaxation and/or play.

Through our play we can find healing and through imagination we will envision the fulfillment of God's purpose in creation: mercy, justice, compassion and peace. We can be playful, even in the midst of a broken world, because we can trust that God is God and that God is merciful.

Poets and mystics have always recognized play as a divine activity. God is always creating, always living, moving, breathing, dancing through creation. And we, like the Thirteenth Century mystic, Mechtild of Magdeburg, can know ourselves as God's playmates.

So, when is the last time you actually played? Do you have marbles, a magic wand, building blocks, cars and trains, a dollhouse, or puppets? Art supplies are fabulous playthings, a nice box of crayons or colored pencils and paper can provide many hours of play. We're never too old for play.

It's time for recess! God is waiting.

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