“Provide for me someone who can play well.”
I can think of a few different scenarios where one might hear these kinds of words. These could easily be the words of a high school coach speaking to his team during a timeout of a close ball game, trying to motivate someone to step up and take leadership so the team can come together and pull out the win in the final few minutes of the game.
Words like these could come out of the mouth of an orchestra conductor during a tryout session, looking for the best players of the various instruments to fill out the available chairs and produce the best overall sound.
“Provide for me someone who can play well,” could be the chant of discontent fans after another rough season, getting more impatient with the team and hoping that soon a new player or a new manager will come along and turn things around. I will refrain from making reference to any local teams in this case.
A situation where these words appear that I wouldn’t think of right away is the one that comes from the scripture reading from 1 Samuel. Here the plea to “provide for me someone who can play well” is not related to competition, winning, or assembling a successful ensemble, but, strangely enough, has to do with healing. The physical act of playing is directly connected to mental and emotional restoration. King Saul is in anguish, afflicted by an evil spirit as the text describes it, and his preferred medicine for regaining his health is someone with the gift of play.
Of all the subjects we’re touching on this summer – Eat, Work, Play, Pray, Rest – play may come off as having the least amount of substance as it relates to our spirituality and relationship with God. It has the feel of being light and fluffy and fun like cotton candy without a whole lot there for any kind of real sustenance. How serious can play really be, after all?
I read a couple articles this week that talked about some of the research that has been done on play from the perspective of evolutionary psychology. The puzzle for these folks is why something that seems to be as useless and unproductive as play has come into existence in the first place. Since the process of evolution is pretty good at selecting out these kinds of behaviors as unnecessary to survival, it’s surprising that an activity that uses up our limited time and energy, and can even make us vulnerable to injury, is still going strong in our species. Perhaps we are evolving away from play as we grow more efficient and productive in how we live, leaving behind this lower form of interaction. But what these researchers find is that in the animal kingdom, play increases, rather than decreases, with increased complexity of the brain, with humans being the most playful of all creatures. One article even went so far as to say that “It can truly be said that we are made for play; after all, humans are among the very few animals that play as adults. What the evidence adds up to is this: we are most human when we play—and just because we play.” “ http://psychologytoday.com/articles/pto-19990701-000030.html
So play may be in itself something that has developed that helps us survive – and to thrive as human beings.
This story of King Saul and the young David is an example of this. The story is only the second time we meet David, a part of a series of stories that tell about the rise of David and the decline of Saul. We’re first introduced to David as a shepherd boy, the youngest of eight sons of Jesse who, despite his youth, is selected by God through the prophet Samuel to be the next king of Israel. The king he’d eventually be replacing, Saul, had been successful early in his reign but had come to be mentally unsound, going into fits of rage and living in torment. As a way to remedy this, Saul’s servants tell him, “Let our lord now command the servants who attend you to look for someone who is skillful in playing the lyre; and when the evil spirit from God is upon you, he will play it, and you will feel better. Saul agrees to this plan, and, commands, “Provide for me someone who can play well, and bring him to me.” Of all the people who could have been selected, they bring the young David into the court to be with Saul, who, aside from being a shepherd, we now learn is also a musician. The plan works well. Whenever Saul was afflicted by this tormenting spirit, David’s music would relieve him and make him better.
What would Saul have done without someone who could play well? Would he have been able to survive and have any kind of sanity during his remaining years as king?
Since I married a music therapist I have been more sensitized to the ways that music and other forms of play are healing agents. Abbie has worked with art therapists, play therapists, and other music therapists who are using the power of play to relate with kids and adults in ways that open up new forms of communication and expression and health that wouldn’t happen otherwise. Even though Saul’s servants had the right idea with David 3000 years ago, these are fields that are fairly new in our culture and are continuing to grow as they learn about the possibilities that play has to offer.
Expanding play beyond music, I also relate this story of King Saul and David with my friend Shem whom I speak about from time to time. Shem took his own life about four years ago and the year that we were living in Atlanta together was a year when he was starting to enter into some of the darkness of depression and emotional volatility. Every once in a while the five of us housemates would go out to a local park and get a game of ultimate frisbee going. I remember one time specifically when Shem made the off hand comment that he found it troubling that the only time he ever felt really alive was when he was playing ultimate frisbee – running around, throwing and chasing down and sometimes diving after the disk. At the time the comment sounded like him saying that he just really had a lot of fun playing, but now I’m convinced that this activity of play meant something far deeper for him than just a fun time.
Play is woven in to the very fabric of creation. After six days of work, God took a seventh day and made it holy, a Sabbath whose purpose is purely for the act of rest and enjoyment, of which play is a part. Creation’s climax is when God and creatures have no other duties, except the holy duty of enjoying the world together.
We have traces in the way that our own language has developed that capture the connection between creation and play. A common word for play is recreation, simply adding to the word “creation” the prefix that means “again.” To experience play is to undergo re-creation. To be made new, to start over fresh. When we play well, our play re-creates us.
One of the ways play may be so necessary for adults is that it frees us from being stuck in the same patterns of living day after day. To play is to step outside of the norms and rules that we are used to living by and to take on an entirely new set of rules. We also get to step outside of our social roles that we act out every day and take on other roles. When we are playing, we are suspending the world that usually defines who we are, and allowing ourselves to be something different entirely, with a whole new structure of relationships. Play reminds us that the rules and norms of the world that seem to control our lives are not absolute. They don’t control every part of us. Sometimes there are other rules, and it is possible to live under other norms as long we are all agree to play that way. And this is a very freeing, very liberating thing to experience. It’s one of the most powerful aspects of re-creation.
Maybe the reason kids play so freely is because they’re not yet caught up in any set pattern of how they are “supposed” to order their lives, and they haven’t settled into any single identity that supposedly defines who they are. For them the world is soft and flexible, wide open to new possibilities. So they’re constantly creating new worlds through their play, making believe that they are different characters. When we age we come to believe that the world is less and less flexible, and we, in turn, become less flexible. If we aren’t careful, we stop playing, and accept that we are destined to live under the one set of rules that have been given to us. And we become, in a way, trapped, imprisoned, and enslaved.
To talk about play as re-creation, and as a way of keeping us being enslaved is to begin speaking theological language. This borders closely on one of the ways that the Apostle Paul speaks of salvation in his second letter to the Corinthians. He says, “So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” In this, I find play to have a rich connection with the meaning of Jesus’ ministry and the creation of the church. What if we were to think of Jesus’ ministry as an invitation to play the game of life by an entirely new set of rules? We’re all trapped in the rules of self-preservation, survival of the fittest, and might makes right, thinking this is the only game in town, and then Jesus the game master comes along and says that he’s creating a new game that we can start playing right now if we so choose. The game is called “The kingdom of God” and, like every good game, demands that the players step outside of the roles and patterns of relationships that usually define them and accept new rules. It’s an extremely challenging game because so many of the rules are counter-intuitive, almost like reverse of the rules we’re used to living by. Like what kind of a rule is “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will wear?” Or what kind of a rule is “Do not judge?” Or “take up your cross and follow me?” The players have to keep relearning and rehearsing and practicing in order to unlearn the standard rules and act these out. In case in our growing up we have become too rigid to be able to imagine that a game like this is even possible, Jesus teaches that no one can get started in the kingdom of God unless they become as little children.
Once we do get started we should know that some people will be at an advantage over others. Everyone who wants can play, but certain people will have an easier time catching on. Jesus calls them “Blessed.” For example. “Blessed are those who mourn.” If you’re mourning the loss of a family member, a broken relationship, loss of your own health or a certain ability, or if you mourn your own failures, you’re going to “get” this kingdom of God game better than those who aren’t mourning. You’re also at an advantage if you hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice. If your soul is discontent with the way the world is, if you hunger for fairness in our laws, you’re going to do well in the kingdom of God. If you’re merciful, if you’re pure in heart, if you’re a peacemaker, you’re blessed and will better intuitively grasp these strange rules that Jesus teaches. Those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, harmed and treated poorly because they have chosen to do what is right, these people will understand how this game works.
At the end of Matthew chapter 11 Jesus puts out an invitation that starts like this: “Come unto me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Given the picture of Jesus as the gamemaster, here’s a paraphrase of that invitation in this light: “Come unto me, all you who are tired of the same tired rules that seem to be running the show and I will give you new joy. Play the game that I have created, and try out my rules. For I am humble in heart and ask only that you come ready to learn. For my game will be a delight to your soul and my rules will nudge you toward wholeness.”
Play is powerful. It opens us up to new possibilities and carries with it a healing power that puts us back in touch with the purposes of creation.
In closing I need to point out a problem with what I’m saying. Actor Steve Martin has said that talking about music is like dancing about architecture. I think play could be substituted for music – talking about play is like dancing about architecture. Talking is just a very limited and incomplete way to communicate its meaning. The best way to know the gift of play is to do it, to be re-created through it. Break out the instruments, the balls, the frisbee, the cards, the gameboard, and that kingdom of God game that doesn’t seem to come with any accessories except a guidebook. And maybe, to our great surprise, we’ll find that we are most alive, most human, and most close to God when we are playing together.