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When I last wrote here on the Twelve, I wondered about the role of play in faith development and becoming disciples of Christ. Specifically concentrating on a recent study of toddlers playing with their food where they learned the names for such foods much quicker, more rapidly expanding their vocabulary because of the tactile play involved, I wondered if there was a kind of corollary in the discipleship process. As I said a month back, this inquiry was coming out of a concentrated pondering of the prologue of the Gospel of John and especially the verse, “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” I postulated, “If we are born again, if we are to become like children, if we are disciples—students and followers and learners of Jesus—it follows that there are ways that our development as such happens. And not trying to force it here, but how does play—something that is so basic, so common, and so important in child development—factor into our spiritual development? If playing with our food as toddlers facilitates cognitive abilities and language acquisition, can play also—or even, need it—function in our becoming better disciples?”
Some were quick to point to Godly Play, a tool used in many churches’ children’s ministry programs. As defined in its website:
Godly Play is based upon the recognition that children have an innate sense of the presence of God. All they lack is the appropriate language to help them identify and express it so it can be explored and strengthened. The Godly Play approach teaches classical Christian language in a way that enhances the child’s authentic experience of God so it can contribute to the creative life of the child and the world.
As when children “play” with their food and thus more readily expand their worlds by expanding their language for that world, Godly Play does likewise for Christian language expansion.
That was indeed what I was initially wondering. However I also wondered if there is more to this, “but if play hasn’t ‘played’ a role in one’s development, is the church worse off because of it? Are there many of us who have stunted development because of this?” If one thing to wonder about ways to enhance children’s discipleship, but what about adults who have delayed or stunted Christian formations in their past?
Which is why I want to jump from the foundational aspect of play to the equally relevant aspect of imagination. It seems trite to say, but I’d reckon many of us would confess it to be true, that something happens to us in becoming adults, that something is lost along the way, and that is our ability to imagine, and we are much the lesser for it.
Robert Krulwich of NPR’s Radiolab comments on this wonderfully in a piece on Krulwich Wonders: Robert Krulwich on Science, a NPR blog:
There’s a book by the novelist China Mieville that describes two cities plopped one on top of the other. One is large-scale, the other smaller-scale, and while they live in entangled proximity, both cities have the same rule. Each says to its citizens, pay no attention — on pain of punishment — to what the “others” around you are doing. See your own kind. “Unsee” the others.
In the novel, most people comply. They may be in the same place at the same time, but learn to not notice. A few, of course, break the rules and watch — even talk to one another — but they are cursed with restless, wandering eyes.
When I was seven, I had those eyes. I was keenly aware of a world superimposed on mine. It was littler than mine. But I knew it was there. I could imagine it at will. In my version, I could see my little people. But my little people rarely saw me.
I’d be in my bedroom with a toy speedboat. I’d add passengers – small railroad figures (also from the toy store), the ones sold by model railroad companies. I’d place my little people on the boat, or into the “water” (made of crinkly cellophane sprayed with Gillette “foaming” shaving cream to make tumbling waves, which hid tentacles of giant squid — my dad’s pipe cleaners — looking scarily for something to squeeze to death). And I’d watch beautiful ladies with luggage spilling into the sea, getting oh-so-close to disaster … unless I decided to rescue them, which, sometimes, with my giant hands, I did.
I spent hours and hours with my little people. That was my world.
“That was my world,” Krulwich says. Which speaks volumes on the loss of imagination as one grows up. But he contrasts and compares it with the world in which two Parisian artists are living, Pierre Javelle and Akiko Ida, who have “wonderfully ridiculous imaginations” and use them to create wolds of ship captains and sea monsters out of dinner table settings of spaghetti and meatballs. They create intricate photos of little people, figurines of soldiers among pomegranate bombs and workmen blowing up shriveled raisins to become plump grapes. Tap on the above link to see the photos and I dare you not to have a glint of a smile at their creations.
We need imaginations to see the world more fully. Even to see the worlds! Perhaps that is the reason why God sees fit when gifting us with the Spirit that “the young shall see visions, and the old shall dream dreams.” Dreams and visions, while not the same as imagination, incorporates it muchly, and is a basic gift of life in the Spirit. Not to even mention Jesus’ own admonition, “unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (I’d certainly want to be careful of proof texting here but imaginations is at least a small part.)
I think Jesus himself had to use his imagination as he grew up and most especially in his ministry as he learned what it meant for him to be the Christ. But I think it was also necessary for him as the son of God to use as he learned to be fully human. And for us too, as children of God! And especially as the church, what does it mean to be salt and light, to be a blessing, to be holy and righteous? It takes imaginations able to dream and have visions of God’s actions in our world.
Perhaps you saw the internet sensation a few months ago of the Kansas City couple, Refe and Susan Tuma, who pose their children’s plastic dinosaurs each night in November so that their children can awaken to see what mischievous play their toys have gotten into each evening. Refe explains their reasoning: “Why do we do this? Because in the age of iPads and Netflix, we don’t want our kids to lose their sense of wonder and imagination. In a time when the answers to all the world’s questions are a web-search away, we want our kids to experience a little mystery. All it takes is some time and energy, creativity, and a few plastic dinosaurs.”
What I’m getting at is the wonder and imagination of our God. Even the mystery.
Could we imagine it?
I am a kindergarten teacher, so what you wrote resonates with me. Something I've been pondering as well is the way practices shape belief. Maybe including these "practices" as children and into adulthood grows us the way play does: not just talking about praying, serving others, singing, really hearing Scripture, etc. but actually doing them daily and with great joy.