Playing in the Desert

Samantha L. Miller

[Note: My students all gave me permission to be named in this piece. In fact, they all asked to be named.]

My students and I sat in our sleeping bags facing one another in the dark, the twinkle lights we had found our first night on the trail—my co-guide called them “stars all wrapped up in a tumbleweed”—sitting on the student’s feet beside me, glowing light enough for us to see one another under the actual stars. We had been out a few nights now in the canyon on our “Backpacking with the Saints” January Term class. We were there to learn about wilderness spirituality and the desert saints both from books and from experience, but this night I heard reflections on something else that my students seemed to need. Something I then saw in them through the end of the trip: playfulness.

That day had been a rest day, and my co-guide had led most of them on a short, quiet hike through a side canyon to a natural arch. All of the students, on reflecting that night, talked about the moment they got into the side canyon and Aram told them, “Go ahead, find your own way to the top.” They couldn’t get lost, so he set them free, and all of them interpreted this as a chance to play. To hear them tell it, they frolicked through the streams and leaves up to the rock from which they would shout before beginning their silence for the day. The rest of the trip I noticed them playing, holding life loosely enough to make jokes, to play hacky sack, to splash each other during a river crossing, to smile mischievously at one another as they played harmless pranks on each other (and on me!), to play frisbee golf with a hat and make their professor’s head one of the holes. I saw a lightness in my students that I don’t see in the classroom.

Ironically, this playfulness happened in the desert, a place where life has to work hard just to exist. This irony gives me hope. My students’ lives as I meet them in my office and in classrooms are full of anxieties and burdens that dry the students up and press them into sandstone facsimiles of themselves. Homework and part-time (or full-time) jobs and too many extracurricular activities and investing in their friends and worrying about their vocation and trying to do everything perfectly and any number of other pressures we put on them and that they put on themselves mean that they have forgotten how to play.

But play is vital. In play, we human beings learn to laugh—and therefore to breathe deeply of the breath and Spirit God breathes into our noses. In play, we learn to hold mistakes loosely because the stakes are low. We practice being imperfect and being imperfect in front of others and letting others receive and forgive our imperfection. We get to remember that we are not responsible for making everything turn out right. That is, we get to remember that we are not Jesus. In play, we learn to risk and to risk well. In play, we learn to use our imaginations and see the invisible. Therefore, we practice theology, the art and discipline of describing, affirming, and living the invisible realities of the kingdom of God. Christ tells us we must become like little children to enter the kingdom of God (Matt 18:3). Who is better at playing than little children?

On this trip, my students learned to play again—and in a desert, no less. At a key moment when the canyon opened before us, Jacob laughed with a laughter that bubbled up from deep inside him. Luke enjoyed making sound effects for the pure fun of it. Lauryn made us laugh with a wit faster than lightning while she bounded across the river. Drew smiled in memorizing a poem for fun. Mac picked his own route all over the place, always just because he could. Elissa took a break from guiding trips herself to rest in others’ care and in being read a bedtime story every night. Nathan splashed deep into the mud and came up laughing about it. And Emma—Emma delighted in everything with a pure, child-like passion and joy.

My hope is that they took this playfulness home with them, that it rooted in their own sandstone like the greens rooting impossibly on canyon walls, so that on campus I see them playing even in their deserts. I hope to see them laughing, risking, receiving one another and others, holding life loosely, imagining the invisible until it is visible reality. I hope they come by my office to tell me how they have discovered an ability to play in their studies: to try out ideas or see how two very different things connect, or just to enjoy their work again. I hope to see them breathing and trying out new paths, boldly going in a direction that they find interesting, trusting that the stakes are not as high as they fear and that mistakes can be redeemed. I hope to see them sitting at table together again trading jokes and to glimpse Jesus smiling with them as they try again to hide the van keys from me. I hope they will come by for the frisbee I keep in my office and invite me to toss with them for a few minutes amid our collective rushing. Who knows? Maybe Christ will join us too.

Posted Apr 18, 2023

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