I’m a playful man. I am at times a bit loony, a little teasy, and some would say, a tad sarcastic. I don’t like that word. I don’t want anything to do with it, actually. “Sarcasm” is a Greek word from two words joined together: “Sarx”, which means “flesh”, (a clue to the name of the town in my new book, Life According to Perfect), and “chasm”, which means, well, you know what it means. Combined, “sarcasm” means “the tearing of flesh”. It’s a word that means deep pain—a torn apart, chasm of pain. I know how that feels. I know how long it lasts. I don’t want anything to do with causing that in you. I prefer the word, “witty”, which means clever, with a touch of humorous.
But I’m not playful only. I’m playful with a cause. We’re missing something—most of us—and I want it back.
Thinking back to my childhood, everybody played with everybody on the playgrounds of my elementary school. Recess meant games and frolicking galore. It was magnificent—the best image of humanity I can think of. None of us cared about anything except playing together. We laughed, shrieked, burped, giggled, kid-style flirted, and got along beautifully because we were playing together. The most common, least threatening, most effective introductory way to relationship and friendship was, “You wanna play?” We talked about everything and anything because we liked each other because we played together.
Fast-forward through middle school, high school and college, and the expansive fields of my friends are terribly diminished. We stopped recess. We stopped playing together. The demands of education confined to the classroom played the largest part in the winds that winnowed us apart. Most of us now do the winnowing ourselves by figuring out who we agree with before we’ll be friends and play together. Education did that to us—education absent play, and the grace and love that came from it.
So I’ve returned to the playgrounds.
I know scads of people in my city through the grace of play. There’s the beer maestro at the big box, local liquor store, who recently moved away, but not before I hugged him and told him how much I admired and enjoyed him through the banter and blather of discussing beer over several years. He applauded my self-appraised beer tastes when we first met and I answered his dignified “What kind of beer do you like?” with, “I am a beer snob, with loads of arrogance to go along with it.” “Well”, he answered, “shouldn’t you be by now, at your age?” We were friends immediately, and we talked about a lot more than beer because of beer.
There’s the tatted-up, shaved and colored hair gal at the gym who, along with the diminutive Hispanic gal, has playfully sparred with me for 2.5 years. I once entered the gym with my arms outstretched and exclaimed, “My people!” And now that’s the nickname I have because she insisted. The staff yells it whenever I walk in. She once pinned my arm to the counter and, eyes piercing all the way to my heart, demanded to know if I was a pastor—“Yes or no?” When I answered, “Pretty much. Um, yeah, although I’m not at a building”, she poured out hot and ancient rejection from others like me, who had rejected her for her exterior. Probing my heart through my eyes, she said, “You’ve been fascinated with my tats and piercings—never once did you reject me. Always you have made me feel alive and normal. You’re the first ‘man of God’ to ever do that. Thank you. Thank you, Ralph.”
I cried right there in front of her and the staff and the workout world. We’ve had incredible and meaningful conversations since then because we first played. We still do. And now there are many more at the gym who know that I’m a funny, but safe “man of God.” We talk because we play. Just yesterday the staff got me to take a loonie picture with them. I pretended to resist them, but they knew I loved them and would do it.
Then there are the two gals who work at the post office annex in a local Ace Hardware store, who mess with me every time I ship copies of my books. That’s a lot, as you might suspect. I’ve been successfully playing with them for years with helpful comments when in line, like, “Gosh, service is sooooo slooooooow around here.” They’ve left their positions after quickly putting up “Sorry. We’re closed” signs, only to return after letting their joke age a bit with others in line. They’ve threatened to call the cops. Our play is famous, especially during the holiday crush. But they’ve come to know all about my daughters—“Have any of them come home yet to dry your eyes, daddy?”—they know about wife, Sarah—“She must be amazing, but maybe a little dumb to have married you”—and about the content of my books—“How are sales? Are people getting the message?” Yes, actually. They are.
Okay, enough. But do you see? I’m not gifted or talented in this—I like people on the playground! Some of my most enduring friendships began there, and some of my playground friends even made it into my book. Names only, but still. Some of my playground friends grew up and became loonie liberals and uncaring conservatives; got married and divorced and married again . . . and again. Some of them claim to actually enjoy cigars and burn-your-mouth-out, single malt scotch. Some of them don’t know Jesus at all, but will talk with me because they know I don’t demand anything from them. We met on the playground. Sarah and I have several people we’ve just met joining us for Thanksgiving day. They don’t even know how much fun they’re going to have, but we do. We’re going to play.
If this seems shallow and silly, I suppose it is. Or at least it began there, because it isn’t now. I want people to know Jesus more than anything—I haven’t found anything better to give ‘em! Hang around me for very long, and you’ll figure that out. Jesus thinks that He is the cure for what ails people, and I agree. That outta be good and fun. He is. They’ve got no reason to fear Him—I know that—but they’re not yet convinced. I think they can better discover that out on the playground.
I want to encourage you to go back to the playground and have fun with people. Enjoy them. Some will be “flash-in-the-panners” and not last more than a meeting or two, but so what? You’re not trying to hold on to them and make something happen. You’re not The Grand Orchestrator. You’re simply playing. A lot can come from there.
Enjoy your playground this week. See you later.