The First Miracle: Why We Desperately Need Play, Especially in Pain
The Sacredness of Glitter
If you were to come by the counseling spaces where I work as a school-based trauma therapist, you might find the carpet liberally coated with glitter, a garbage bag full of blown-up balloons hidden in a corner, or an in-progress Lincoln Log creation waiting on a shelf.
Daily I drive home with Play-Doh beneath my fingers and sore knees from crawling around on thin carpet enacting scenes with dolls and racecars. In the past two years as a clinician, I have played Sorry at least six or seven times a week.
The walls of the rooms where I work in three spectacular public elementary schools are not exactly Pinterest-worthy, but to me, they are perfectly decorated with an ever-growing collection of wild and beautiful works of art—daily reminders of healing moments with the kids I am so lucky to know.
These playful rooms are sacred spaces.
I am, in all honesty, a very new therapist. If you know me well, you have probably seen me wearing a sweatshirt with the phrase, “I Did My Best,” screen-printed across the chest. On the days when I am certain I have failed and that I have bitten off far more than I can chew, I come home and put on this sweatshirt—because even if I had years of this work under my belt, the truth is I am not sure entering into trauma with school-age kids, their parents, their caregivers, and their teachers will always be more than I can chew.
So, I put on my tongue-and-cheek cozy sweatshirt, pop some popcorn, and take heart in the words of one of my favorite professors, “We are in this together, and together we’ll find our way.” When I get lost in the midst of the pain, confusion, and adversity that unfold at work, all I can do is turn towards these incredible kids and follow their lead.
Together we will find our way.
And more often than not, that way is through play.
Finding My Way Through Play
While I only recently added the “MA, Licensed Mental Health Counselor Associate” to my name, if there was a credential for playing I would have it (well, technically I can become a certified Play Therapist, but for the purposes of this essay, I am implying something far less formal and far more innate). Because, you see, much like the kids I work with, play was a vital outlet for me too. When I think about my own childhood play, I think of my room, another sacred space where I found my way in the midst of pain.
In this room there was cheap shag carpeting, woven in shades of brown, black, tan, and cream; thin sepia paneled walls that echoed when I tapped my knuckles against their textured surface; and glowing copper blinds to block out the ripe urban orchard below. On a dusty set of powder-pink milk crates sat my very own Sony boombox where I played Debbie Gibson tapes or waited tirelessly for my favorite singles to finally come up on 93.3 KUBE. Cabbage Patch Kids—my ‘adopted’ family—gathered on the bed and at night they would crowd around me under my folksy Mother Goose quilt and hand-me-down sheets.
Down the hall was a playroom where my brothers and I played restaurant, dress-up, and school. At Christmas time, we would squirrel away with our cousins and scheme up plays and musical revues we could perform for the grown-ups. I was often the boss, the director, or the teacher. Beyond affording me the ability to be creative, play also offered me a chance to be in charge and exert control over something when so much of what went on in our family felt out of control.
When the world around me was too much, play was a grace. Within the copper, brown, and tan box of my youth, I was able to create, imagine, move, and wonder. I had choice.
But the gift of play was all too often a brief reprieve from a world in which I felt compelled to be perfect. While alone or in the comfort of friendship with my siblings, I felt more free to engage as God created me to be. But out of that safety bubble I was exacting and afraid.
Last week at work, I assisted in an art project with one particular student who is more fond of glitter than all the rest, while he—for the third session in a row—spilled a lavish amount of it on the floor. It was flowing like very sparkly milk and honey.
“What’s going on with your face? Are you mad?” he asked me, slightly unnerved.
“Oh,” I replied, “You know what? I’m not mad at all, but ever since I was a kid, I have been afraid of getting in trouble. So, while most of me loves making these glittery creations with you, apparently my face still shows that part of me.”
My whole life, God has been drawing me—even in the middle of impossible brokenness—to himself through the gift of play.
I am still learning, and these kids are some of my best teachers.
The First Miracle
It does not surprise me then that the first miracle Jesus performs during his time walking and talking among us is to turn water into wine at the Wedding in Cana.
On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”
“Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”
His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.
Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.
Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”
They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”
What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. (John 2:1-11)
God is a creative and playful God. This passage packs so much, but when I think about the ways God has often shown up for me in the darkest of times, it has often been through experiences of delight, play, and unexpected abundance.
Healing happens even in, or rather especially in, an unexpected abundance of glitter.
Now, as I am really zoning in on the final few years of my thirties—married with two playful kids of my own—I am starting to grasp more of what it means to pause and pay attention when God invites me to play. And, I am certain that entering into my own brokenness these past few years, allowing God to journey with me to depths I did not even know were there, that I have a much greater appreciation for my need to play.
Play reminds me of the first miracle, where Jesus showed up to an epic party and made something out of nothing. Six years ago my family suffered tremendous loss, and this loss opened up something staggering within me—it knocked me flat out and completely reoriented me in ways that were both terrifying and beautiful. In the midst of this, I still showed up for weddings. People had birthday parties. There were BBQ’s, grocery shopping, school, work, bills, and all the ups and downs of normal life. I can only imagine that at the infamous Wedding at Cana, that even though folks came to celebrate, that did not mean their lives were all cheery. But, yet, in the midst of life, when we pay attention, there are moments to pause for play.
God’s creative, playful, unexpected work of making something out of nothing is the first miracle.
Jesus knows we need the unexpected. He knows we need play, and he knows when we need it the most.
What does it mean for us to engage God through moments of respite and relief, without diminishing the experience of suffering? How do we hold play without avoiding facing our pain? How does God meet you in play?
Thank you for sharing. I am reading this on the last day of my first time in Hawaii. my husband and best friend surprised me on my 45th birthday with this trip. The whole adventure has been amazing
The fellowship with our friends, exploring God’s beautiful creation here, but honestly the most influential, restful, healing of the soul part of the trip, has been just playing in the waves. Here we have been, 4 adults, body surfing and jumping around playing in the water like a bunch of kids. It has been the most relaxing, freeing vacation I have ever been on, and I can’t wait to come back and share this with my adult children.