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In Our Element: when work is play

As I plunged into the cool blue water for the first swim of this pool season, I caught myself smiling through sealed lips and thinking… Ha, if this doesn’t prove we humans emerged from a primordial soup, I don’t know what does. I was in my element. Gliding along effortlessly, or so it felt, churning the water and propelling myself along stroke by stroke.

These strokes, long-practiced in childhood, are something I will never forget. Because I don’t think about them; I just know them, as if handed down from generations past. They come naturally in the wonderfully watery environment which always makes me feel at home, as if its been waiting its whole life for me to come. It welcomes me as one of its own. My friend. My comfort zone. My Zen. My element.

{This, of course, is not so of folks who did not get an early introduction to the water. They are likely less than enthusiastic about jumping in. Primordial soup, I guarantee you, never crosses their minds. Their element is elsewhere.}

But very soon, okay on my second lap, when my arms grow heavy, my breathing becomes labored and my feet start to cramp up from kicking, I begin to wonder about this element. This venue I used to own. What used to be second nature to me is now an effort to sustain. How out of shape I am. How long it has been. How I have let myself go.

And this gives me pause. Mind you, I’m not beating myself up about this, but it does get the attention of my responsible self which realizes that those in-your-element moments don’t happen by themselves. One prepares for them. While there is perhaps a hint of DNA-delivered know-how, for the most part they are a product of a lot of practice. After all…

  • The chef learns the chemistry of cooking, the blending of tastes and flavors, and the enhancements of spices, before his creation of a culinary masterpiece puts him in his element.
  • The lawyer studies the law in careful detail, does her research, prepares her briefs, and tries many cases before she is in her element standing before the jury for closing argument.
  • The golfer only hits it straight and true after many hours of doing otherwise. On rare days when she is in her element, she hardly feels the club strike the ball when she launches it on target.
  • The teacher must master his field and the management of his classroom before he can supply description and explanation which has his students nodding in understanding when he is in his element.

We learn, we practice and we sharpen the tools of our trade for that elemental moment when it feels like no effort at all. Yet it is full: full of preparation, trial-and-error, draft and re-draft, all hidden yet on display.

Could it be that this is what our earthly lifetime is for? to seek and to experience precious in-our-element moments. That through our work, we achieve play.

Children are so good at this because they don’t yet bear the burdens of age: expectation, peer pressure, performance-anxiety, patterned behaviors and responses, worn-out joints and inflexibilities. They bring childhood exuberance and endless energy, rubbery joints and not far to fall. Lacking the experience of “that won’t work,” they give everything a try. They are as delighted with knocking things down as building things up. They do for the sake of doing. It’s not about product, it’s about process.

What a gift it is that as adults we can re-discover this in our elemental times. When our prepped minds and bodies allow our spirits to take over and we can release ourselves into the work prepared for us to do; work that feels nothing at all like work. And very much like play.

It is not effortless but rather on purpose. We initiate it and then let it loose. We don’t push it. Don’t try to better it. Don’t compete it. Don’t compare it. It’s not a sprint to the finish, rather, more like the flip turn our body somehow knows how to do. We … duck/twist/tumble/slap/push/glide/stroke/stroke/breathe….

And time falls away. This is me, surely, but also something else entirely. A glimpse. Of thee, in me, and me in thee.

How delightful life would be if every day we gifted ourselves just a moment of this.

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Palm Shreds

Here in Florida — the land of palm branches a-plenty — one can actually find them scattered about to wave for Palm Sunday. Even if it’s only one palm frond you find in your backyard and you wave it as a personal worship celebration, and incidentally, for the amusement of your two young pups.

It is so much fun to watch their delight as you wave it to and fro. “Hosanna,” you say. “Hosanna.” You say this quietly, hoping the neighbors are not bothered by your odd behavior. But wave it you do and wave it some more as you see how delighted your pups are to play with it. Like kittens with a ball of string, Brittany Buddy and Retriever Lily, jump and frolic and lunge for the fronds. Finally, you give in and toss it in the air for them to catch. They each grab an end and tug and tussle, happily pulling it from each other. What fun! A new toy!

Ah, but then Lily gets a strong grip; she grabs and runs. Buddy gives chase. Lily spins, Buddy misses. Buddy grabs, Lily latches on and tugs it away again. Buddy gets frustrated and growls at Lily. She romps away to sit with her acquisition and rip, rip, rip the fronds. Buddy snarls and bites at her back. Not so playful anymore. Lily protects and defends what’s left. The palm branch is now in shreds.

On any other day, these two are inseparable. Where one goes the other follows. If one leaves, the other whines in protest. They share a common water bowl. They will eat from the same food bowl without complaint. They take turns when snacks are offered, never denying the other his due. And yet… when there is one treasured prize, the mild manner is left behind.

This is mine. Not yours. Because this is mine, it cannot be yours.

Somehow, this seems an apt and unfortunate metaphor for what can be divisive and ugly interactions between Christians in our day. As if there weren’t enough palm fronds to go around. As if Jesus were a limited or scarce commodity. As if my claim on Him meant you couldn’t have Him.

Nope. Today’s palm branches signify the welcome of a humble king and invite a willingness to follow. Wherever He leads us. No one said that Christ-following would be easy, not the least of all Jesus who rode into Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey, knowing for certain what lay ahead. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Matthew 21:9)

So soon they would ring out, “Crucify him!” (John 19:15)

As we enter into this Holiest of weeks and follow Christ through the most harrowing of circumstances, let us give grateful thanks for His life, His ministry, and the way He made for us to follow. A way that promises abundant life with plenty to share.

Let’s not fight over who gets to wave the palm branch.

Playing to win a game we all know we will lose: It’s the game that makes winners of us

I just love to compete! folks say to me, pretty much never.

I’m not the competitive type, they say, pretty much always.

And then they cut each other off in conversation. One-up each other in accomplishments. Go off about something on Facebook. Cannot believe that offending patron! Swerve around that maniac who is texting while driving. While on the way to run this place the way it should be run. Every day. Even on Sundays.

Not competitive, though. We’re above this. Don’t dirty my hands with that sort of thing. It will all work out in the end, they say. Always does, right? Let’s not keep score. That way, everyone wins. Everyone goes home happy.

Nope. Not the competitive type.

Watch out for these folks. Don’t let ’em fool you. Because last time I checked we were all doing the same thing: playing to win at a game none of us can avoid losing. 

What these people who ‘don’t like to compete’ are really saying is that they don’t like to keep score. They don’t want to be measured, because measuring shows where we stand. It tells how we’re doing, how far we’ve come, and which direction we’re moving.

It shows us who is ahead which is, for now, who is winning.

Oh, but quantifying this makes it so cold and unforgiving, they say. Where is your compassion? your kindness? your empathy? Where is your humanity, woman?

***

Daniel Murphy just loves to compete.

As he strides to the plate we know his current batting average, his on-base percentage, his tally of homeruns, RBIs, and extra base hits. We know how well he does with runners in scoring position, how many times he’s walked, been hit by a pitch and scored. We know how many times he has faced this particular pitcher, how he’s fared, and therefore, how this particular match-up is likely to go.

We love measuring. we love predicting. we love evaluating the odds to see what the chances are. These days we know everything because we measure it. everything, that is, except what will happen this time.

Daniel_Murphy_on_March_18,_2016_(2)The only one paying no attention is Daniel Murphy. He’s just looking for a hit.

He’s not thinking about the hours of preparation that brought him to this moment. He’s not worrying about the last time he faced this pitcher. He’s even immune to the boo’s from the crowd (which, may I say NY, is poor form?) which actually signify how well he’s done against his former team.

No. Murphy has one thing on his mind: this pitch. And with all of the wizardry he can muster and all of the artistry at his command, he is focused on getting his bat on this ball and putting it somewhere where no one can catch it. He’s looking to get on base. And then to get to the next base and the next and then finally home.

Daniel’s serious about this game. He plays to win it. And he seems to be having the time of his life!Daniel Murphy 1 - USA Today

Fast balls, curve balls, splitters, cutters and change-ups. Bring ’em high and tight or low and outside. Throw ’em all. The best in the game do, as the best in the game will. That’s what he knows will make him the best in the game. That’s the fun of it.

Who’d want to play a game where there was no winner? We’re made to measure.

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