Mike's Sunday Letter

Taken last Sunday:  grandson Sean on my dad's lap.  A good time was had by all.
--with personal notes
  • The magnolia trees are in full bloom here.  So are the daffodils.  The first tulip has bloomed in front of the house.  Rhubarb plants are six inches high, and the grape hyacinths are running rogue through the vegetable garden.  The grass is about ready to have its first mowing.  And we are past the point where warm weather merely teases us.  We are believers these days:  even a frost or two will not subvert our expectations of a glorious springtime.
  • Our weekend guest is Yiming Liu.  Yiming was the very first Chinese scholar to help Jie and I start Grace's Chinese ministry here...back in the spring of 2011.  He became a Christian that summer and helped us welcome our first group of Chinese scholars that fall.  It is great to catch up with him.  He is now a post-doc in Denmark, working on developing a superior solar panel.
  • I'm about finished with Walter Wink's autobiography, Just Jesus. Walter was the most influential of all my teachers, influencing the way I read, teach, and preach the Bible.  He also shaped the bent and energy of my theological thinking. And he encouraged me to integrate the Christian life with honesty, ethics, and psychology.  He died in 2012. And so it is both edifying and emotional to be reading his autobiography.

April 3, 2016
Time to Play...
The word "play" is one of my favorites.  It ranks right up there with "sleep."  

Of the two words, "play" is obviously the more playful, boasting 94 definitions in my unabridged dictionary.  "Sleep" on the other hand only has 22 definitions (and most of those have more to do with "play," if you know what I mean.) Since the purpose of this epistle is to play with your mind (rather than put you to sleep,) I think I'll play around with "play" today "sleep on" sleep until next week.
According to my philosophy of "play," we need four essential things:  a capacity to pretend, a lack of inhibitions in order to have fun, toys...and the free time to experiment with everything.  

(You do realize, of course, that I'm not really a philosopher; I'm just playing with you there.) ...(But then again...maybe I really am a philosopher, but in the parenthetic sentence above I'm playing like I'm not one.  Gotcha!)  But I digress.  
Children are better at play than adults.  They can make a toy out of almost anything.  They can moments things that terrify us (like being examined by a doctor) and turn the experience into something fun (for the participating kids anyway, if not their horrified parents.)  And kids have no qualms about pretending.  

When I was seven I pretended to be a star home run hitter for the Chicago Cubs.  By the time I was ten I was pretending to be the whole team.  By the time I was 14, I had developed an elaborate scheme pretending to be the omniscient and omnipotent god of a whole imaginary baseball league.  

But by the time I got into high school, the adult world was bearing down on me and I was embarrassed to let anyone know that I was caught up in so much pretending.  I'd become convinced that "growing up" means that one must cease and desist from all pretending.
As for toys, I'm tempted to say that we didn't have as many toys as kids today.  But that would be wrong.  A toy is very simply this:  an object transformed by human imagination.  When you are a kid, everything in the world might be your toy.  

When I was in the 5th grade, I remember amusing myself one afternoon by pretending that my bike was a school bus.  I got my brother Jim to fantasize that his bike was a bus too.  We imagined that our house was the school.  And then we tricked our two little brothers into being "passengers" by making them run along behind our bikes while we rode down the street.  

When the little brothers got exhausted from running, we gave them a break by stopping and filling the "buses" up with gasoline.  You may be wondering what toys we used for gasoline and credit cards.  Well...your mouth sort of makes a good gas pump.  So it does' t take a brain surgeon to figure out that spit can pass for gasoline.  And the rear bike fender is pretty close to where you'd fill-er-up.  

Of course you have to have money to pay for the gasoline.  We preferred cash instead of credit cards,.  Everyone know that when you're a normal kid money really does grow on trees.  Actually, bushes:  we plucked the green leaves off a neighbor's bush to pay for the gas.  

We could have spent all afternoon driving our buses around town if Steve and Jay had been a little more stupid.  But they quickly got worn out and decided the game wasn't fun anymore.  They quit. We tried to shame them back into the back of the bus by pretending to be truant officers.  But they caught on fast.  Like I said, they were' t stupid enough to give us a roaring good time.   

We tried to replace the little kids with a couple of our dogs.  But our dogs never seemed to get the hang of pretending.  They just wanted to chase cars, not bikes.

When the fun stops, the experience goes from being play to being drudgery. I use the word "drudgery" rather than "work."  Work is odd.  Sometimes it's drudgery and sometimes its play.  (One of the things I like about being a pastor is that much of what I do feels like play...like writing these letters to all of you.)

You may not realize it, but before I started working as a pastor, I spent years playing at it.  About the time my brothers and I were driving our school bus company, we also started up a church.  Old Miss Loving was our babysitter one night...and we talked her into playing church with us.  I (of course) was the preacher.  Jim was the song leader.  Steve and Jay collected the offering.  We couldn't believe our luck when Old Miss Loving actually put some hard cash into the (cereal bowl) offering plate.  Wow!  It was actual money...not the kind that grew on that silly bush outside.  
I got to playing with this topic because of an article I read this week on children.  (from Quartz, a digital news service.)  The authors were concerned about children and youth...and how they are not doing so well...mental health wise these days.  The number of high school students seeing a mental health professional has doubled since 1980.  The number of students who have trouble sleeping has risen 73% in that time.  The number of kids reporting depression has risen since 2008.  Reported levels of happiness among kids has been decreasing since the late 1950s.  

Various psychologists have differing theories.  Some sound valid to me.  The sources of the problem, in my opinion?  Not enough play.  (Structured sports is not play, not by my definition.)  

Peter Gray, a psychologist at Boston College, suggests that the increase of anxiety, depression, and stress is caused by a lack of free time.  Quality play only occurs when children escape adult structures and are free to pretend, re-image toys, and gravitate toward whatever seems fun to them.  

Real play is not trivial.  It is the arena where human beings develop resourcefulness and creativity and relationship skills.  

We live in a world where relationship skills and resourcefulness and creativity is in sometimes short supply.  In both politics and church life, adults often act like children who never learned how to play well.  How many times have you listened to a political debate (or been in a church meeting) and wished there would have been an adult in the room.  

The only way to become a mature adult is to have a childhood which allows time and space to work through those childish behaviors...in play.  

But even a good childhood does not always prepare us for the way the world is changing. The old things we learned don't always work in this modern culture.  So we need to keep learning: over and again.  In other words, in churches, family life, politics, and even business...we need to go back to square one:  play.  

Perhaps a "professional consultant" would help.  Where might we find a professional consultant to teach us how to pretend, use a toy, have fun, and demand some free time?  Ah:  a child!  Maybe its time to get down with the kids again...and let them lead us.  Seems like Jesus said something like that.  And I don't think he was just playing around.  --Mike

 The Sunday letter is something I have done now for over 20 years.  It is a disciplined musing:  mindfulness, memory, and imagination.  I write it when I first wake up on a Sunday morning and then share it with the congregation.  The letter you see published here is usually revised from what the congregation receives.  This discipline of thinking and writing puts me in the place of describing rather than advising.  It prepares me to proclaim the gospel rather than get preachy with the souls who will sit before me.  --JMS




J. Michael Smith | 2508 S. Cottage Grove | Urbana | IL | 61801