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I have realized that I am surrounded by incredible people. There are so many people in my life who are deeply thoughtful, compassionate, imaginative, soulful people. I’m not idealizing. Some of these people I can’t stand to be around. Others I can’t stand when I am away from them. Either way, it seems that I do a lot of falling over and these are people who meet me on those grounds.
Something these folks seem to hold in common is some capacity for play.
What do I mean by play?
In play, especially in games, we collectively agree to the process of playing together. Some of my young friends have been known to pull me into imaginative play, usually involving dinosaurs, crocodiles, or some other predatory critter. They or I will be charged with eating or being eaten. I recently walked into a friend’s home and promptly had my heart eaten by a
fourfive-year-old dinosaur. The only appropriate response to such an action was to collapse onto the floor.
But it never ends there. I have to get back up and be eaten again. That’s how the play works. There are agreed upon rules that I will die but then I get to come back to life and we go on from there.
The game can’t work if we’re both the most powerful dinosaur. It’s also no fun if we’re both just herbivores. We need a little friction and some opposition to keep it going until we dissolve into giggles or gasps or time out to recover. And then we can come back for more.
I must confess that I don’t always know how to play. Sometimes in play, I just want to quit–to die and fall on the floor and not get back up.
This is a dangerous place to be.
Namely because that’s when a five-year-old dinosaur will pile drive you in the chest.
Play is all about the timing, checking in, seeing if everyone is good to play or if somebody needs a break. Play can intersect with competition, but it’s different in that the goal is the game; the goal is enjoying yourself and the other players.
In play, I have to let go enough to lose my inhibitions and I have to be attuned enough to speak up about my needs and pay attention to how others are feeling.
And this is why children’s work is play. And this is why, when we forget how to play with others we have forgotten what it means to live.
This is perhaps, also, why some of my friends who are parents have suggested that most of parenting is parenting yourself.
When I die, I want a grave marker that reads, “Doesn’t play well with others.”
When I am playing with my young friend, I can stay dead for about two full seconds, and that’s my window. Beyond that, I’m in for any means of wild resuscitation he can design. And when I am done and need to take a breather, I say so. And after a little protesting (that lets me know I am being enjoyed by my friend) he lets me go–but not for too long, because he knows that playing is what’s important.
This friend’s older brother is seven. He and I play UNO and he knows that though he can win quickly, he doesn’t enjoy it when the game is over fast. He’d rather start with more cards, not play all his draw-twos and wilds at once, go the least expedited route, because he’d rather keep playing together–enjoying himself and me–than win.
I cannot help but believe that when it comes to understanding and living a thriving/abundant life, these lessons of play have everything to do with it.
I believe that God delights in us–that God engages us for the purpose of enjoying us. That is to say, God plays with us.
Play is not just about fun–play includes breathlessness and scraped knees and delirious laughter and collapsing and needing to take breaks and checking in with the other person and protests and winding up a sweaty mess piled across each other on the grass.
And God plays fierce.
God plays the long game; in it, not to win, but to keep in the game with us for as long as we are able. Squee [gender neutral pronoun] is self-regulated and capacious enough to take our most vicious dinosaur blows and let us kill God–if that’s where we are at and what we bring to the game. Squee will stay with us in the death, hearing our lament, and will also, inexplicably to us, draw us back up into resurrection–because it’s about being with us, being able to take all of the us that we bring; in all our joy and sorrow. And it’s about persisting to play with us.
This is what Sabbath is for. It’s a reminder that God delights in us and wants us to thrive and enjoy ourselves and each other–to live the life we have been handed.
Our conversations about sexuality and sexual desire aren’t a battle. They can be play, too. If we enter, not to win, but to enjoy one another, then the game is changed. The point isn’t to convince or persuade in any way that would (re)solve the conversation. The point is to keep the conversation going; to increase and prolong pleasure; to draw out our enjoyment of ourselves and one another in whatever state we are in. It’s a play-full conversation that can actually make us more whole, more alive, more human.
This is terrifying–namely because this is what sex and intimacy is all about–it’s about increasing desire and enjoyment of self and the other. Sexual desire and sex are specifically focused locales of human sexuality, but sexuality is at play any time we are in relationship, sexuality is engaged with play.
That’s why it’s easier to have a battle about sexuality; to try to win the argument; to try to declare ourselves the supreme winner who is forever unchallenged and can never be questioned. Because that feels safer. Because if the conversation is about play, then it means we need other people who are genuinely different in order to keep the conversation going. We become dependent on others to engage our hearts and imaginations.
When we are exposed to those who are different, we are vulnerable and open to questioning and intensifying our own desire and we risk falling and scraping our knees and we risk intimacy. We risk enjoying ourselves and others immensely.
This kind of play is not safe. It pulls us into the matrix of death and resurrection. It demands that we allow others to call us to the edge of ourselves so that we can find life in places where we have been promised death.
Conversations of sexuality in the church have often been loaded with shame and death. Countless people have been sexually abused by church leaders, by family members, by spouses, by friends. Other people are shamed and condemned by their own churches and families for their sexual desire for people of the same gender.
In these situations, desire is shut down, frequently by twisting play into coercive abuses of power. Tapping into peoples’ deep human pleasure and sabotaging their enjoyment of their own bodies. This is the work of evil.
Given the reality of this landscape, when we attempt to have conversations about sexuality in the church, if we start from the position of competition–of moving toward a decisive end–we have already sided with death. If God seeks to play with us; to keep us in the game, then we must engage this conversation as a part of the game. We must be in it for mutual flourishing of all persons and that means we need enough difference (and differentiation) to keep the play going, and we need to surrender to what the play might ask of us–namely what it will ask us to face of our own sexuality in order to increase our own enjoyment of ourselves and each other.
Finally, if we are to play with God in the conversation of sexuality, then we must play with the aforementioned dynamics of death. We must courageously wail and lament the abuse and injustice. We must repent of our participation in our own diminishment and the abuse of others. We must take breaks and fall apart. We must heal and be moved with compassion at the pain in ourselves and others. We must repair and return to the game, sometimes pulled into it by those around us, before we even know we are able.
Mostly, we must honor our own “yes” and “no” and honor the “yes” and “no” of others. Play calls us into the game for enjoyment–it is not competitive coercion that seeks to find an answer. It is not about dragging in an opponent just to knock them down and declare myself a winner. It’s about staying in the game with them long enough that the tension of their difference calls me to the edge of my own desire and leads me into greater enjoyment of the life I have been given.
Play enters sorrow as the invisible thread of God’s Spirit, persisting in death, until we are ready for the resurrection that is already secretly at work within our own capacity for desire.
Mary Oliver says,
“Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.”
This too is play. It is the slow play of bearing wit(h)ness to the ache that is delight destroyed. It is essential to repair and the starting place of any hope for joining God in resurrecting delight in our sexuality.
We need to listen to the places others have been shut down, because it helps us access the places we have been shut down. Our liberation is intertwined with one another and the thing that we fear; being vulnerable about our own pain and shame around our sexuality–especially with people whose own desires and ways of understanding sexuality are different from our own–that’s the thing that, if engaged as play, can lead us into a fuller story of resurrection.
Finally, we need to play. UNO. Dinosaurs. Whatever.
Re-creation is a primary means by which we participate in the repair of the world.
In thoroughgoing play–I’m talking the silly stuff–we practice how to be with others and enjoy ourselves and each other, thoroughly in our bodies in a way that gets around the messages of shame and competition. Play pulls us down to the ground of our being and puts us in our bodies–the location where we hold shame, self-contempt, fear, and sorrow. By getting us into our bodies, play pulls us into the walking graveyard where we have buried our desire and reminds us that these bones can live.
If you’ve forgotten how to play, I’d recommend five-year-olds, garden sprinklers, and heart-eating dinosaurs as a place to start practicing.
Read part 5 here.