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Play and Healing

Healing scriptures in relation to Jesus are many. It is clear that, however you understand these to have happened, the well-being of people was a priority for his ministry. I, personally, believe that Jesus wasn't a rigid, serious, stick-in-the-mud kind of guy. The Jesus I know laughed, drank, and poked fun at people and situations, so I feel fairly confident that Jesus would completely understand the healing benefits of play.

Until this sermon, I can’t say that I truly put any thought into the concept of play and healing. Laughter and healing, yes, but not necessarily play. Now, I see how the two fit together really well.

Let me begin by saying that I’m not necessarily talking about physical healing. Although technically play reduces cortisol, which is the stress hormone that, in excess, can cause issues like heart disease. And play releases endorphins which helps with depression, improves your mental health, and lowers the risk of developing neurodegenerative conditions like dementia.

Spiritually, healing is usually less about the physical aspect and more on about the soul or emotional aspect. Play is perfect for this because it takes us out of our rational mind for a bit, it gets us off the hamster wheel of worry and sets us free for a time. Play lightens our hearts, brings connection, gets us out of ourselves so perhaps we can see things from a different perspective. It brings us into the present without attachments, reminds us that life is good, that laughter is possible, and that we still have life inside of us to give and to celebrate.

Brittany Rouille, a 28-year-old travel blogger based in Oregon, says she made a point of incorporating more play into her life a few years ago after her then stressful and rigid lifestyle left her depressed. “It wasn’t until I reintroduced play into my life that I started to feel like myself again,” she says.

“Now I play every day, whether it’s roller blading, painting or playing my harmonica, even if it’s only for an hour, because I know how important it is for me to let go and not think about anything except for the fun thing I’m doing in that moment,” Rouille says. “I find play so crucial to my well-being that I have built my life around playing outside.”

Play can also help us deal with uncertainty, fear and the unknown. I read one story about a child named Timmy who was born with a cleft palate. In the first few years of his life, he had already endured three or four surgeries. Most of these were done when he was too little to understand the separation from his parents, the pain the strange place and strange people.  But when it came time for the next surgery, Timmy was old enough to know what was coming. In anticipation of the next operation, Timmy spent a lot of time talking about it and asking questions, and an equal amount of time playing about the operation. He became the doctor and his teddy bear became the patient. His bear got the shots, had the blood tests, had his temperature taken, was put to sleep, had his mouth cut open and sewed back up. That teddy bear went through the entire routine over and over again – before and after the actual operation. Timmy’s play helped him to face all of his fears: the pain, being alone, the fear of not waking up, the loss of control. He played his way through. 

We may not use teddy bears, but I’m sure all of us, at one time or another has said, “If I don’t laugh, I’m going to cry.” As Charlie Chaplin once said, “To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain, and play with it!”

Instead of keeping our fears, grief and stress bottled up where it can wreak havoc on our bodies and spirits, it helps to poke fun at our trials and tribulations. It helps us feel less alone, it takes some of the fear out of whatever is happening and gives us a little bit of perspective. The old sitcom MASH was a classic example. I’m sure you remember that it was about a medical unit in the middle of the Vietnam war, constantly bombarded with the horrors of injury and death, who dealt with it through humor and play. The characters showed us how to laugh and joke, cry and reach out to one another, and how to remain human in a dehumanizing situation. 

Play is an important part of our development because play teaches kids to regulate their emotions, establish empathy, and to develop trust in one’s companions. And when you miss out on that, you miss out on much of what it is to be human.

Dr. Stuart Brown, was part of a ground-breaking study in the 1960s. As a young psychiatrist, he was assigned to study the causes behind one of the country’s first mass shootings.  Brown led an in-depth study of the perpetrator’s physiology, toxicology, and personal history. Among other causes, Brown discovered that the shooter, due to his father’s overbearing and intense personality, had been deprived of the opportunity to play at virtually every era of his life, including his early infancy.

Brown found this shocking, so he conducted a vast follow-up study. He led a team that interviewed all the young murderers in the Texas penal system and compared them to as well-matched a control population. “And, lo and behold,” Brown says, “we discovered that the majority of them — in fact 90% — had really bizarre, absent, deficient, seriously deviant play histories.” 

Do you remember how Mary Poppins used play not only to help the children, but to help their father, George Banks, regain his perspective on what was truly important in life? Flying a kite brought him back to his humanity. It freed something in him, opened him to understanding his children better, and made him more empathetic.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there are therapists who specialize in using play to help their clients unlock deeply rooted memories and emotions. These therapists use a variety of techniques including art, storytelling, sand trays, role-playing, dance and other games.

Dottie Ward-Wimmer tells the story of a client who had worked at the city morgue for years retrieving bodies. He should have been used to all the gruesome scenes he’d encountered over the years, but this time it was different. This time he couldn’t stop pacing and he would not talk about it. He also made it clear that he was “not about to draw any pictures!”

After looking around the room for a while, he decided to throw clay (the therapist had a wall in the office for this purpose). For a long time, they were silent, simply throwing. The therapist followed the rhythm and intensity of his throwing. Eventually, he started to talk about how good it felt just to throw something. They remained in parallel conversation, making little eye contact. As they continued throwing, the story unfolded, each time bringing another detail of the specific event and important side issues clearer into focus.

After about 45 minutes, he simply looked at the therapist and said, “Oh my God!” Then he sat and wept. Not just because of the story, but rather because he was so relieved to discover that he wasn’t “crazy.” As he threw and retold the story, he had found the answer. He was simply an ordinary guy who had been caught in a confluence of extraordinary circumstances.

Let me be clear that the play I’m talking about is not escape or numbing. It isn’t about going out drinking and dancing until you have numbed to the point of forgetting. It’s not about becoming a vegetable playing video games. This is play that invites access to joy, that heals isolation, that can help us destress, increases empathy and encourages a sense of well-being.

My hope with this sermon series is that we will recover the value of play in our lives. I hope we’ll dare to risk appearing foolish, that we’ll allow our inner child out to play, that we’ll celebrate life through pure play and fun with no agenda, and no need to be perfect. My hope is that play will help us enjoy the moment, even when times get difficult. My hope is that play will reduce our stress and heal our hurts. My hope is that play will creatively enhance all the different areas of our lives.

Love & Light!