Liberated to Play
Recovering Jürgen Moltmann and a paradigm for living into God's victory.
We all have attributes, traditions, and beliefs passed down to us from our ancestors. My own sense of duty and hard work has Protestant roots, with the horsepower of middle-class American optimism giving me the confidence to chase my dreams. This cultural marriage births a moral logic that yields what most would recognize as a distinctively American gospel, and it goes something like this:
- To be good is to work hard and go to church.
- If you are good, then you will have a successful life.
- When everyone becomes good, then evil, injustice, and suffering will no longer exist.
With this formula you have a nice narrative of self-efficacy, a motivation to persevere when the going gets rough, and a framework by which to judge the world. Failure is a lack of hard work. Depression is a lack of faith. Poverty is an unwillingness to try.
But it’s not so easy when the story and status you inherit or the circumstances surrounding you do not afford access to empowering opportunities. A reimagining seems necessary. Here is one attempt.
We are then no longer playing merely with the past in order to escape it for a while, but we are increasingly playing with the future in order to get to know it.
Parwana is someone whose bright smile and gentle laugh brings joy to the most unbearable situations. She started school for the first time in her life at the age of eighteen, one month after coming to America. We often laugh now, astonished at how she was able to manage high school those first few months knowing only two English words, “yes” and “no.”
We met a few years ago after her teacher reached out to me seeking algebra tutorials for Parwana. Our lessons after school were interrupted from time to time by children barging into the room looking for a friend, wanting to draw on the board, or asking if we could play a game. Such bombardments were not entirely helpful for learning, but the playfulness seemed to ease the serious business of learning eleven years’ worth of education for a test the next day. Parwana would often mention how she liked this place. The happiness of the children and the tutors gave her hope. I often wondered how it juxtaposed her childhood in Afghanistan.
I work in an area of west Houston, where over four thousand apartments and condos are nestled in the midst of middle- to upper-class homes, just east of the Energy Corridor. FamilyPoint Resources, a non-profit serving to break cycles of poverty in our community, began when neighbours saw neighbours struggling. While the median household income is $100,000 in our zip code, the statistics also highlight families making only one-third that income. We create bridges between children and opportunities, intentionally using the time together to build supportive relationships in order to best discover how to meet needs.
Parwana’s family came to this community seeking refuge and opportunity. Her father was killed in Afghanistan, forcing her mother and siblings to flee to Egypt while awaiting residency papers from America. She and her siblings all work part- to full-time while in school to support their mother, who has disabilities. Parwana, like so many others who come our way, is willing to work hard and to try.
They all have so much faith to continue on after encountering unfathomable loss, sadness, and fear. Yet there are circumstances beyond their control—for some, a lack of education opportunities or jobs with living wages; for others, difficulty finding reliable transportation or affordable housing—and so they join other families in the struggle, unable to know for certain whether they will be able to buy groceries or pay their bills each month.
I thought I knew how to play the game, how to “win” at life. But if the advice to be good, work hard, and go to church hasn’t somehow led to the fulfillment of the American dream for everyone, where is the new rulebook?
It often seems that play marks the bookends of life rather than being interwoven as an exploratory tool throughout.
The community served by FamilyPoint is home to people from over twenty-six nations, each family with a unique and powerful story. Our organization has been shaped by these families as we discover how to love and empower their children through an intermingling of opportunity and something rather countercultural: play.
Over the past sixteen years of working with children in a variety of settings, I have been astounded by the power of learning through play. The benefits of play in children—its ability to enhance learning, problem solving, socio-emotional skills, and happiness—are so overwhelming that I continue to struggle with the lack of play in adulthood. If anything, it often seems that play marks the bookends of life rather than being interwoven as an exploratory tool throughout. How can it be so influential, yet not necessary? Is there a time for play and a time for work? And what does it really mean to play?
Jürgen Moltmann’s Theology of Play suggests that true play is only possible when God is over all and through all and in all in the new heavens and the new earth. We have a historical account of this kind of play in the garden of Eden when man walked with God, and we have the anticipation of true play in the eschaton when we will walk with God in the new heaven and new earth. But play isn’t only limited to the past or distant future. We have simply lost sight of it for the present.
Our existence is justified and made beautiful before we are able to do or fail to do anything.
Individuals—you and I—are in tension with God, because after creation our ancestors disobeyed God, seeking enjoyment through something other than God’s provisions in the garden of Eden. Ever since Adam and Eve were sent out from the garden, humans have worked the soil, hoping to restore our relationship with the Creator. We cultivate in order to become good, constantly striving to be forgiven and justified. As a result, our identity has become rooted in our purposefulness and productivity—our hard work.
Because the current rulebook says our existence and worth are based on the contributions we make to society that can be measured, we must constantly defend our own usefulness, competing with others over this. “A man who values himself in terms of his usefulness to society must consider his life useless when he is no longer needed,” writes Moltmann. When our focus is on productivity, anyone who is unprepared or unable to meet our demands—or even if we are simply incapable of seeing their potential growth over time—is cast aside and forgotten.
My friend Mohammad was fired repeatedly his first year in America because he was late almost every day. His family, along with a few dozen others, came to our community through a refugee placement program in 2015. He would leave his house in the morning for work, and, when he encountered someone from Syria in the apartments, he would stop for a conversation, perhaps a cup of tea, because not to stop would have been an insult in his culture. In one sphere of norms, he was doing good, but according to the North American rulebook, he wasn’t being useful. His intentions endlessly frustrated those helping his family. We struggled to comprehend the choices that flattened his capacity to provide for them.
Our mantra—show up on time, do honest hard work, and get paid—is useful to society and necessary for participation in a free-market democracy. However, when that becomes the entirety of our purpose, we can experience isolation and the breakdown of community. Mohammad’s presence in our community taught us something important. Even as he adapted, he reminded us to slow down and find time to be together, to find purpose beyond work in our friends and family. What we often consider vulnerabilities or insufficiencies in those we encounter are actually invitations to learn from the immeasurable beauty of their being.
One afternoon, Farhad and Faisal, twin brothers with matching bright blue eyes, were introduced to FamilyPoint by a neighbour. Refugees new to America, they did not yet speak English, making school and social encounters an anxious and frustrating ordeal. In an effort to welcome them, we gathered a group to play Connect Four. The rules were simple enough to learn by watching, and the challenge against your opponent exciting enough that they eagerly joined in. After a few rounds, the anxiety, doubt, and worry on their faces were replaced by smiles. This time of play overcame the language barrier, allowing us to connect. In that moment, the most important action was being together for no other purpose than to enjoy one another. I believe that when we encounter others it is good to start by enjoying their presence, which leads to listening to their story, and may even reveal to them their worth.
The creation proclamation of Genesis reveals that man is meaningful, but not necessary. God is all complete, an end in and of himself. The creation of the world, the creatures upon it, even man and woman, are not needed by God. They were all created in God’s good will and pleasure. God’s great love, declared good. This truth frees us from our worldly confines, turning our possessions into tools to enjoy God and to love our neighbours. It allows us to be vulnerable and admit our limitations, leading us to cultivate supportive relationships that meet collective and individual needs.
Competition between individuals to be the best, biggest, and most useful is no longer necessary. The Easter event is a kind of cornerstone here, redefining what “winning” means. Jesus took the throne not through a top-down power structure, but in allowing himself to be lowered into death for the benefit of all creation. True winning, then, is God dwelling among us, wiping away our every tear, awaiting a time when there will no longer be death, or mourning, or crying, or pain. The new rulebook must include liberation of the individual and the church to participate with God in cultivating and imagining this kind of world.
When we encounter others it is helpful to see them as God’s good creation, showing them love through a desire to know each other, learning and growing together in ways that enrich our entire community. We are individuals in one body, collectively winning the game against injustice. If one person suffers we all suffer, and if one person is honoured, we are all honoured.
We can think of our relationship with God in much the same way. Moltmann urges participation in church not for our advantage, but rather for our enjoyment of God, citing the Augustinian reversal where the world becomes a means to enjoy God rather than God serving as a means for men to enjoy the world.
Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, the Easter event, made works a meaningful expression of God’s grace, but not necessary for that forgiveness, grace, and salvation. The church is the assembly of people that demonstrates God’s winning plan by welcoming all people, providing for their needs, and worshipping with gratitude. We the church are free to exist, intentionally gathering for the enjoyment of God and discovering how to love so as to lift each person above their earthly distinctions.
Life as rejoicing in liberation, as solidarity with those in bondage, as play with reconciled existence, and as pain at unreconciled existence demonstrates the Easter event in the world.
Parwana’s hope to become a nurse is now a communal effort. When we receive calls from friends that the car is broken again, our community goes to work. A father whose hobby is fixing cars shows up, a mom offers a ride. There are neighbours who teach, others offer work, and some give money. Often we encounter a problem we can’t fix quickly, so we will cry or laugh but always pray. Graduations, birthdays, and potlucks bring us together to celebrate. As the personal connections and caring relationships develop, we see a reduction in poverty. Our diversity and collective abilities are strengths; when resources are lacking, our ingenuity prevails. When we encounter others, we trust that the Holy Spirit will equip us to work hard and love them according to God’s plan to win.
When we encounter others it is good to start by enjoying their presence, which leads to listening to their story, and may even reveal to them their worth.
Each person has a purpose, and everyone’s work is important in our struggles to overcome present injustices. We are surrounded by division, police brutality, hunger, racial tensions, politics, separated families, poverty, homelessness, costly medical care, education inequalities, abuse, and economic uncertainties. It is in and through our work-play balance that we cultivate and build winning, hope-filled strategies in our world.
Often paying bills, climbing the ladder, and providing for our families puts an end to play. We become serious, driven to achieve, or hopeless. We work hard, becoming exhausted and overwhelmed until the appointed winter or summer holiday. Moltmann suggests that our vacations tend toward imitations of our work, differentiated only by who we serve: the other or the self. And perhaps this time of vacation is actually playing into the prevailing systemic demands by merely relieving us of our hard work so we can return to be more productive.
In contrast, authentic play allows us to make mistakes, imagine possibilities, and think outside the box. It is an inbreaking of the Holy Spirit, through which we experience the reality of our reconciled futures and collaborate with God’s plan. Play cannot wait for Christmas or the Fourth of July because if we only rest or play on sanctioned holidays, we can hinder our collaboration with God’s restorative plan. A vacation might allow us to rest to improve our work, but play completely invigorates our work as we experience the possibilities of the gospel, reimagining our work as a healing and reconciling process that brings us closer to heaven on earth.
Each of us is uniquely knit together by God for good, and Jesus has broken down the barriers for transforming this world. The greatest act you and I can do every day is show up as people liberated by faith, motivated to help others, and loving, not judging, the world. We contribute to God’s restorative process through small acts of kindness, patience, humility, tolerance, love, and peace. It is in culminating all of the smallest ordinary acts of love that we win.
If the Christian faith is fundamentally liberation from the works of the law into the liberty of the children of God, then faith itself must constantly press for practical steps which lead men from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom.
There is a rhythm of worship we must adopt to appoint a time for work and a time for play in our lives. Purposefully choosing time to interact with God fosters playfulness: an hour each day, half a day each week, one day a month dedicated to prayer, hymns, and worship. These practices invite the hope and reconciliation of heaven into the present, helping us to use the world to fully enjoy God.
Moments of spontaneous pleasure—enjoying a cup of coffee with a friend, reading a poem, playing a card game, dancing, or singing—connect us to God and to others, reminding us of the reconciled future to come. These things give praise to the good, showing gratitude. And they help us reimagine the solution to a problem, see a different approach to an argument, listen for the unexpected, and act with love. Play fills us with aesthetic truths so that we can amend our ethical playbook as we learn, grow, and discover together how to properly win the game of life.
So sit with me. Turn off all the distractions. Imagine yourself as truly beautiful, lovely, and adored by God your creator. Surround yourself with community. Imagine peace and harmony. Create with me. Gather your tools of love.
Let us be intentional in our play and our work so our imaginations will stack blocks of time and paint our screens with love, hope, and joy for the good of all people.
Image courtesy of FamilyPoint Resources.Subscribe