“We’re going to dress up as what?”

“Shepherds.”

Those words from my husband made my heart start beating faster. The idea of walking into a room full of new people dressed in a shepherd costume made me start to panic.

“And this is the first I’m hearing of it? As we’re driving there right now?” My tone was accusatory. I had found a target for my anxiety. It was my husband sitting behind the wheel of our rental car. Perfect. He couldn’t escape!

“You got the same texts I did yesterday,” he replied.

What? I yanked out my phone. Sure enough, I had missed the messages that said our meeting that day was going to involve a halloween costume contest and our whole team was going to dress up as shepherds. Well. There went my full-proof plan of triangulating to deal with my stress.

All of this happened this past month as my husband and I traveled to California to visit our new team and other ministers in LA that are working with college students. It was going to be my first time to meet most of the people in that room for our all day gathering. I was nervous. I felt vulnerable. And then I found out I was going to be dressed as a shepherd. Double the nervousness. Double the vulnerable feelings. Double not wanting to appear like either of those emotions were dominating me. You now have a picture of the inner workings of me on the way to my shepherd costume meeting.

As the day started to unfold, I quickly figured out that the whole costume gig was a part of a much broader story that the director of all the LA staff was trying to teach everyone. She was learning from the Lord that, because ministry is by nature never-ending and the work so pressing and urgent, it is important to be a community that knows how to play. A community that knows how to not take itself too seriously. A community that, through the discipline of play, can be reminded of the bigger kingdom narrative that God is on the move making things right…with or without us.

So here were some of my lessons from my shepherd costume wearing day:

Vulnerability is required to play in community. This seems like the key to most relationships and community, doesn’t it? Because I didn’t know anyone in the room and was hoping to be accepted, the thought of not being dressed like myself made me feel out of control and, well, vulnerable. To play in community means to drop pretense and let people see you as you are (while dressed up as a sheep herder, ironically). This requires trust. I had to decide how I was going to walk into the room that day. I decided to learn to play.

Playing in community requires safety. I’ve been struggling with this a lot  lately, wondering if places are safe or unsafe. In all honesty, not all communities are safe for ethnic minorities so it often leaves me initially cautious. I also once read a Research study about Hispanics and identity that said Latinos are statistically less trusting of others than the broader population. I cringed when I read that, knowing the description was definitely true of me.  My gut reaction in most new communities is to distrust and keep a safe distance from people until I know I can trust those around me. Walking into that room of new relationships and having to play, though, threw all my strategies out the window. I figured out immediately that you can’t stand back in a room when you walk in wearing a costume. It was a brilliant move on the part of God to make me face my fear and be forced to let go of my self-protective tendencies. While those protective skills have served me well at times, I have sensed God asking me recently if I would be willing to entrust myself to him, the guardian of my very life.  My answer to his question doesn’t always come easily.

Authentic play requires capacity for grief. What really made the whole day possible for me, though, was that through my interactions with the handful of people in the room I had met before, I knew it wasn’t a place that was using the guise of play to hide the truth of grief. I’ve noticed sometimes in ministry contexts that struggle with dealing with pain or sadness that play is used to silence whatever grief is in the community. The group has no capacity to mourn so they force people to have fun together in order to yell out to the masses, “See! It’s all okay! Peace! Peace!” In settings like that, I rebel against play. I hate play because it isn’t real and isn’t genuine.

I’ve noticed sometimes in ministry contexts that struggle with dealing with pain or sadness that play is used to silence whatever grief is in the community.

This community, though, wasn’t like that. This place had already shown me in small and big ways that they were willing to “mourn with those who mourn”. The play that we did together that day was more like the play that invites people to imagine that things could be okay again, even if they aren’t right now. It was the kind of play that holds the sadness and the celebration in tension. I remember reading a book by Father Virgilio Elizondo where he talked about how Latinos are people that know how to throw a party and celebrate in life, but we are also people that know how to enter into grief. Latinos can lean into the suffering Jesus because it reminds us that our crucified and risen Savior has compassion for us in our pain.  We can embrace loss and joy simultaneously. We are, as Elizondo labeled, a festive prophetic people. The kind of play that invites me to hold on to both the prophetic and the festive is a place I will gladly minister within.

Will you join me in learning the discipline of genuine play?

Image credit: Daniel Hoherd