Let Us Play

Photo credit: Mulan

Photo credit: Mulan

“You can be Jesus.”
 

My little boy says this to me last Advent, when we are playing together in my day room on a particularly dark and rainy day.
 
I can “be Jesus” – he wants me to pretend to be the Son of God, made incarnate as a baby. I sit on the sofa, and in the few seconds I have before I respond to him, I try to sort through the complex emotions surrounding his request.
 
His favourite thing in the world is role-play, and every day he finds stories to enter into – Superman rescuing an orphan girl, or Cinderella going to the ball, or Aladdin on a magic carpet flying all over the world. The nativity story is just one more story to enter into, and it’s a good one, with secondary characters of angels and shepherds and the best, most holy kind of magic.
 
He is already talking, bustling around with cushions as props, arranging a stable as he prepares to be Joseph, and I try to catch my thoughts. I can be Jesus. Why am I struggling with the concept? It still feels slightly blasphemous – I think that is my problem. How can I pretend to be Jesus? Am I breaking one of the ten commandments, making a false image of God? What if I get it wrong…?
 
And there, right there, I realise what is at the heart of my hesitation. Play is dangerous, because I might get it wrong. We might stumble into blasphemy along the way. I am someone who needs to get it right. It feels written through my identity, like a stick of rock: I am someone who does the right thing, and gets it right. I am the good girl.
 
Playing is a kind of rebellion. To pretend to be God, even in play with my three-year-old, shakes and challenges my very core.
 
***
 
It was about two years ago that I first came across Alice Buckley’s blog, Play on the Word. A friend had recommended it to me as a good resource for parents who want to introduce Jesus to their children. When I read her site, it was utterly revolutionary: at once intuitive and counter-intuitive.
 
Her thesis is simply this: Children love to play. So the best way to introduce them to Jesus is not just through books or discussions but through play, either with art and craft, messy play (don’t get me started on my hang-ups with making a mess in play…) or role play.
 
I read her website again: yes, she really did mean role play. But that meant not just acting out lines and the ‘right things’, but improvisation. And that meant departure from the Bible, a filling in of gaps as we explored together how it might have been. Again, that question – what if I get it wrong?
 
But it felt peculiarly liberating, as I read her website, to realise she was giving me permission to share my faith with my son in his native language, the language of play. I took a deep breath and entered into the story with him.
 
***
 
First I played Mary, and he was the angel Gabriel. This Gabriel was so excited to share the news that his eyes grew wide and he bounced up and down at the annunciation. Then he switched to Joseph, and he was a very protective and organised Joseph.
 
I was now Mary in the stable, so I dared to play: I groaned, I rubbed my back in agony, I moaned at Joseph to make the pain stop. I said I was worried about giving birth in the dirt.
 
Joseph, to his credit, stroked my hair and told me he had found a broom, and started sweeping out the stable. Then he stopped, because there, on our blue and white carpet, was a one-penny piece.
 
“Mary!” my boy exclaimed. “Look! I’ve found some money. I’ll just go out to the shops and buy a present for baby Jesus so he has a toy to play with!”
 
It was entirely anachronistic, and entirely perfect.
 
***
 
I am exploring what it means to have a theology of play. Alice Buckley is helping me with that, as is my now four-year-old. I am more relaxed about it than I was last year, and I am catching some of that excitement of what it means to enter into the story. Play is a rebellion, but not against God, against my perfectionist and control-freak tendencies.
 
I still can’t articulate it properly – I feel like I’m on the cusp of discovering something more about myself, and creativity, and meditation, and God. I am the person who likes to be able to explain everything – but I can’t talk it, and I can’t fully write it, but I feel it, and I am experiencing it.
 
I am wondering if we are designed for play, even as adults. I am wondering if God likes to play, too.
 
***
 
“You can be Jesus now,” he says, and in a matter of seconds before we start the next part of our play, I consider how to be Jesus.
 
Through my head runs the mystery of God who created outer space contained in a dark womb for nine months, God who shaped the blue whale gripping onto Mary’s thumb, the Creator who spoke roaring waves into existence screaming with tiny lungs.
 
“Goo goo, ga ga,” I said, and as I look up at my son from the carpet, I gaze with fresh wonder.
 

For further reading: 

 

Tweetables:
 
“You can be Jesus.” – @Tanya_Marlow . NEW post –  Let Us Play:
 
“I’m wondering if we are designed for play, even as adults. I’m wondering if God likes to play, too.” – @Tanya_Marlow
 
“She gave me permission to share my faith with my son in his native language, the language of play” – @Tanya_Marlow
 
“Play is dangerous, because I might get it wrong.” @Tanya_Marlow on perfectionism and rediscovering God:
 
Do you have a theology of play? NEW post: Let Us Play – @Tanya_Marlow
 
Over to you: 

  • “I am wondering if we are designed for play, even as adults. I am wondering if God likes to play, too.” – what do you think about this? Do you have a theology of play?
  • What things help you see the Bible story with fresh eyes?

 

 

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18 Responses to Let Us Play

  1. Mark Allman 19th November, 2014 at 3:02 pm #

    Are we not Jesus in a sense that He has sent us out representing Him? We may be the only Jesus someone sees. Certainly makes me want to get it right like you.

    We are all players on this stage of life creating stories to be told. Stories of triumph and tragedy. Stories hopefully fully woven with God throughout so people can see Jesus in us and in our stories.

    • Tanya 20th November, 2014 at 11:14 am #

      I love these thoughts, Mark. Worthy of an additional blog post, methinks!

  2. Liz 13th November, 2014 at 12:39 pm #

    How wonderful. Children have this way of getting right to the heart of things don’t they? Mine are growing up – teen and tween – and I miss this sometimes. They still love play though, in their more grown up ways – let it ever be thus.
    Liz recently posted…Trust in the Lord with all your heart?My Profile

    • Tanya 20th November, 2014 at 11:15 am #

      Thanks Liz, and amen to that prayer for forever-play

  3. Alia Joy 12th November, 2014 at 5:42 pm #

    I love this. I love watching and listening in on my children as they role play, the funny little conversations they have and the way their stories wind around and include so many things. It’s been a long time since I’ve joined in but this has given me something to think about.

    • Tanya 20th November, 2014 at 11:16 am #

      Thanks so much, lovely Alia. I wonder if it makes a difference that mine is an only child? I suspect I’d be less likely to join in if he had a ready-built playmate. I guess kids need both – the parental interaction and the peer interaction.

  4. Alice 12th November, 2014 at 5:16 pm #

    How do you manage to get it so right?! I think we fear the fact that play has no purpose except to entertain – and that our children are in charge – they’re SO much better at it than we are!

    Thank you for this – from a mummy who has grown tired of playing and wants to begin again! xx
    Alice recently posted…Writing a book during depression and doubtMy Profile

    • Tanya 20th November, 2014 at 11:17 am #

      I’m relieved that you feel I got it right! thanks for changing my life, girl. 🙂

  5. Rebecka 12th November, 2014 at 4:57 pm #

    Ooooh, I loved this! Let’s see if my foggy brain can write something that makes sense 😉
    First of all, “I am someone who needs to get it right. It feels written through my identity, like a stick of rock: I am someone who does the right thing, and gets it right. I am the good girl.” This is me! This is absolutely me and I too worried about getting it wrong when I was cast to play Jesus in church once. (I probably did get it wrong, haha.)
    Sometimes I think that the ME has somehow made me even more afraid of getting things wrong, or perhaps I just have more time to worry about it now, which is why I loved this line: “Play is a rebellion, but not against God, against my perfectionist and control-freak tendencies.” I need to play more, that’s for certain!

    I could picture your boy as Gabriel, bouncing up and down. It was absolutely delightful and it really made me smile!

    • Tanya 20th November, 2014 at 11:19 am #

      Hey you – I knew we were kindred spirits! I’m sorry that the ME has made you more afraid of getting things wrong. I think it’s done the opposite for me, curbed some of my perfectionist ways. But I do know how it can be torturous to spend so long in solitary confinement – it can seriously mess with your head. Praying that the perfectionist monster releases its grip on you and you can play more! do things BADLY and HALF-DONE and WRONG.

      and I’m SO glad to have made you smile! 🙂

  6. Gayl 12th November, 2014 at 4:29 pm #

    This brings back memories to when my girls were young. One of their favorite things was to act out Bible stories. It’s a great way for kids to learn 😉
    Gayl recently posted…Let’s Celebrate!My Profile

    • Tanya 20th November, 2014 at 11:20 am #

      So glad i got to bring back some happy memories for you!

  7. Sipech 12th November, 2014 at 3:17 pm #

    It’s an interesting idea and I think play can be quite powerful. My hypothesis (based on little more than anecdotal play with my nieces & nephews) is that when people cite the idea of justice being inherent, they are overlooking the phenomenon of play and in particular the breaking of the rules of the game. i.e. When a child shouts “that’s not fair”, it is a consequence of the notions of fairness they have learned whilst playing, rather than something innate.

    With such power comes responsibility. One thing that irritates me is the traditionalism in the telling of the advent story rather than a reasonable theological (or even textual) literacy.

    For example, you made reference above to a stable. Yet I would challenge you to find any mention of a stable in any of the nativity narratives (and if you’ve not read it, try Kenneth Bailey’s ‘Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes’ – you’ll also like his section on Jesus and Women). This is an example where we have used play to ingrain into the narrative something that was never there. The story gets embellished and then it becomes plastic rather than elastic. As soon as we do that, play has gone from something explorative to something potentially misleading.

    So if anything, our play should be more original, if only to avoid the trap of tradition and make it clear that we are exploring possibilities, rather than using it as a means of teaching doctrine. If, like Frost, we take the road less travelled by, then even if we hit a dead end, we will have explored further than those who walk in a circle.
    Sipech recently posted…Book Review: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary WollstonecraftMy Profile

    • Tanya 20th November, 2014 at 11:29 am #

      “when people cite the idea of justice being inherent, they are overlooking the phenomenon of play and in particular the breaking of the rules of the game. i.e. When a child shouts “that’s not fair”, it is a consequence of the notions of fairness they have learned whilst playing, rather than something innate.” – this is really interesting, and something I hadn’t considered before. I’m trying to remember which comes first, the game-playing, or the ‘not fair’ comments. I am wondering if ‘ownership’ precedes this kind of game-playing? Ie kids cry when other kids take their beaker. That, I suppose, is ‘breaking the rules’, but it’s of ownership and property, their awareness that ‘I am me and this is mine’ – is that not a cry of injustice?? Is a baby’s bewildered cry at being smacked when it doesn’t know why also not a cry of injustice? Hmm, I think I may be arguing that there is some kind of earlier sense of injustice, before they are even verbal. What do you think?

      Yes, I’m totally with you about the stable thing. (And the inn keeper? It’s not HIS stable!) BUT. It could have been a stable. It could have been open countryside. Most likely some kind of cave or shack. To justify myself, I think I did have conversations with my boy about whether it was a stable or not. But kids’ impressions are governed by the pictures they see in books, and the plays they see acted out (which are ALL stables, more’s the pity).

      ” This is an example where we have used play to ingrain into the narrative something that was never there. The story gets embellished and then it becomes plastic rather than elastic. As soon as we do that, play has gone from something explorative to something potentially misleading.”

      Plastic rather than elastic. I think this is a really profound thought, and not just for children, but for adult theology as well, a warning against becoming dogmatic on areas of theology that we can’t be too sure on. The next generation inherit the plastic, and don’t realise how elastic it truly is, and it all has to be broken again. Maybe we should be encouraging theologians to play? I really love sitting with this thought – thank you.

  8. Michael Wenham 12th November, 2014 at 3:13 pm #

    Simply beautiful!
    Michael Wenham recently posted…Making spaceMy Profile

    • Tanya 20th November, 2014 at 11:29 am #

      Thank you, Michael. I’m really glad you stopped by!

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