Phil Jackson - Sacred Story Sermon – Spirituality of Play
Since "retiring in 2016, I have gotten very involved with our local Congregational Church. I was asked to speak with the Confirmation Class of teenagers about the Spirituality of Play. Our Minister, Amy, thought it was a great message and asked me to deliver it as a summer sermon. Here's what I came up with...
Good morning! Thank you Amy for inviting me to share my story today. My story is about the Spirituality of Play and I hope to share my thoughts about how, through Play, we praise God.
A Career at Play
I am a lucky guy. I had a 30 year career in the Game and Toy Industry. And although it’s not all fun and games, it’s as close as a business can get to it. I worked for Coleco on Cabbage Patch Kids and that’s where I met and married Mary. I worked for Milton Bradley, Parker Brothers, Mattel (I have to admit that I do have a Barbie collection, it comes with the territory), and Hasbro Games. I worked on terrific new products and household brand names like Shark Attack!, Ready Set Spaghetti, Yahtzee, Monopoly, Sorry, Uno, Scrabble, Twister and Scene It? My specialty became Games and my job entailed traveling the globe, immersing myself in foreign cultures and working with tons of dynamic and talented people, all while creating and selling FUN!
So, what’s in a game and why do I love games so much? While you are gathered around the kitchen table with your family and friends playing games you are having a good time, you are having fun. But, just under the surface of that fun there is a whole lot more going on. You are learning. You are learning strategy, teamwork, how to be a good loser, how to be a gracious winner, linear thinking, lateral thinking, fairness, patience, creativity, turn taking and respect. You are also making memories, storytelling, creating family rituals and building lasting bonds. We try to encapsulate it with slogans like “when fun comes first, learning comes naturally” or “It’s like Chocolate and Vitamins, stories and stuff” or “When you play games, everyone wins” and in working a job in the Toy business, “we’re not doing this for fun but we’re going to have fun doing it”.
And, it is a universal thing. Did you know that Play is found in most of the animal kingdom? Particularly but not limited to mammals, birds and reptiles. Studies have shown that animals derive the same benefits from Play as we humans do. I see God’s hand at work when puppies or kittens tumble together, Chimps “play house”, dolphins surf alongside people at the beach or when a parrot engages in friendly, playful banter, in Our language.
As you can see, there’s a lot of what we learn in church and in the bible, even from God, in these experiences, in these lessons, in these moments that we share together. I truly believe that with all that God wants for us, God wants us to have fun! One of the ways we praise God is to Play and to have Fun together.
For me, the best part of my job was finding new game concepts and bringing them to life in the market. Such a thrill to see your “baby” on the store shelf or on-line. And if the game takes off it is so satisfying to know that you had helped bring fun, entertainment, family bonding and moments and memories to kids and families, sometimes even around the world. Of course, there are some realities to this rosy picture. As I said, it’s not all fun and games. At times it’s grueling hours, frustrating processes and the low “Hit” rate of new products in the market can be heartbreaking. There is also a tendency to forget the true meaning of Christmas and get caught up in the commercialization of the season. But all in all, I loved my job and consider myself truly blessed to have found my “calling” in business. It is an incredibly rich experience, this “fun thing”.
So, there was this one game…….
I am a race fan but in New England in the late 80’s and early 90’s there was very little awareness of NASCAR or The Daytona 500. I could see the popularity growing nationally and started looking for a game to market to race fans through our national retailers and in 1991 we came out with The Daytona 500 Race Game. One of the benefits of my job was to bring games home and play them with family and friends to get feedback and insights. Even though the game is themed around NASCAR you really don’t have to know anything about NASCAR to play it. It’s just a great game. We started playing this game regularly and over time it became The Family Game, a true family ritual. We created SFX for drafting and passing, nicknames for the cars (Boo Hoo Blue), lots of trash talk and we kept detailed records of wins and losses. As nephews and nieces came along, they would be fascinated to watch and listen as we played, standing with their big eyes barely able to see over the edge of the table. And then, at about 8 years of age, it was a family rite of passage for them to have a seat at the table and play. My mother played it as enthusiastically as the kids! She was kind of a card shark and right up until the end of her life at 88 she’d put on this puzzled face and say “I’m not sure how this game is played anymore but with this card, I think I win”. And she did.
Mary and I were living in LA in 2005 when my dad died from complications during heart surgery. We flew home for the service in CT and Don Peterson, a good friend of dad’s, delivered the eulogy. He started by referencing a sermon from a few weeks back that introduced the congregation to the idea of “Thin Places”. A “Thin Place” is a place where the distance, the veil between heaven and earth is so thin that you experience both the physical and spiritual world at once. “Thin Places” are all about connection, connection with God, with the other world, with all who have lived, are living and will live in the future to come.
In ancient times, the Celts first identified and named “Thin Places” as being mountain tops, wind swept isles, places where sea and land collide, ruins where many had once come to pray. Over time, the definition of “Thin Places” has expanded to include any place where you experience the energy, the transformational quality of physical and spiritual as one, as the thinness. Some people find their garden to be a “Thin Place” and others might name a favorite museum or library as one. In Psalms 148 we heard of a multitude of places where Heaven and Earth, the physical and the spiritual, meet. And we can find “Thin Places” in moments as well. Sometimes fleeting, sometimes prolonged. I imagine some of our Winter Olympians had some Thin moments as they brought all of their hearts and souls to bear.
Don Peterson then went on to describe my father’s “Thin Place”; the cockpit of a sailboat. It’s a simple place with 2 bench like seats facing each other, much like taking 2 pews and turning one to face the other. Put a steering station in the middle and you have a cockpit. It was there, in that cockpit, that everything my father believed in, everything he stood for, everything he dreamed about, everything he cared about, everyone he loved could exist together at once and share the experience. It was the adventure, the energy, the spirituality, the sea, the sense of eternity; heaven on earth, earth in heaven.
Those words really resonated with me and I have often thought about what my “Thin Place” is. I love boating but not to the degree that my dad did. I have hiked many a mountain and walked on many a beach. I guess I have experienced some “Thin Places” like the Knife’s Edge Trail on Mt. Katahdin in Maine but maybe only because it really is a thin trail with steep drop offs on either side. Maybe I was trying too hard or maybe not hard enough to find my “Thin Place” but it always seemed elusive, just out of reach….
And this is where the 2 stories come together.
For years we have taken a family vacation in Maine with my family and my sister’s family and my parents. It is a great tradition and we’ve never missed even when living in CA. We lost mom in the fall of 2016 so the summer of 2017 was going to be different. We all gathered in Maine and we brought mom’s ashes to put on the mantelpiece, which was of some comfort. When your parents are gone there is a sense that You are now the elders, the leading generation, the keepers of the flame and I was glad she was with us in spirit.
It took a couple of days to get into the vacation groove but then, one night after dinner, we all went out to the screened in porch and broke out The Game. All the banter, the ritual SFX, the alliances, and the nicknames started to flow. I looked around the table at nephews who are now in their early 20’s and who still wanted to vacation with their family and play the game. I looked at Mary as she juggled game playing and serving homemade strawberry shortcake, happy as can be. I looked at my sister and saw the twinkle in her eye, just like my mom’s. Then up came a soft summer breeze and in that moment, the screens of the porch became the veil of my “Thin Place”, the intersection of my life’s work, my life’s loves, my memories, my family past and present, my beliefs, my spirit and my God. I had found my “Thin Place”. I hope you all have or will soon find yours too.