alec golf“What did ‘play’ mean for you as a boy? What does it look like now?”

Those were the deceptively profound, seemingly innocent, questions posed to me, and a group of men, at a Brotherhood Adventure last week in the Poudre River Canyon, west of Fort Collins, CO. By the end of the conversation I thought, I wish Beryl and every woman I know could have heard what I just heard.

We were men from all over the country, meeting as board members and advisers for Restoration Project, a wonderful partner men’s ministry with Peregrine, started by Chris Bruno and Greg Daley. The question posed by Chris, opened up surprising responses, including my own.

My responses:
• Play was initially about dirt and mud. When I was 5 my dream career was to be a ditch-digger. I longed to be just like the men I saw tearing up dirt and laying sewer lines in the countryside of Glenview, IL in 1958. That eventually got “civilized” out of me. Boys in the northwest suburbs of Chicago aren’t supposed to get dirty.
• Play became about sports—dodge ball, softball, cannonballs in the local swimming pool, touch football, and “Red Rover.” That eventually got trained out of me. Sports became less about play and more about competition, performance and winning. I still wrestle to redeem the “play” of competitive swimming.

Other responses courageously offered by the men present:
• “In Junior High play with other boys was full of bullying and embarrassment.”
• “I learned that other boys aren’t safe. And, eventually, that men are dangerous.”
• “When I compete with men, I want to kill them.” (This from a guy who brought a handgun that afternoon to a 4-wheeling jaunt. Judging from past observation, we knew he was comfortable using it.)
• “I’m not sure I know how to play any more. Something got lost.”

There were more, deeply honest and revealing, comments from a room full of men who, by appearance, age range and by geography from across the country, looked like a typical male sampling. Almost invariably the comments revealed pain, embarrassment, uncertainty, loss, fear and shame. And we were talking about play, for Pete’s sake!

Of course, on the surface we all know how to play Texas Hold ‘Em (except for me; I re-learn the rules every 5 years, or just say, That’s OK, I’ll watch.); we all know how to recite the expected familiarity with the NFL, NASCAR, the NBA, NHL or MLB. We all have our selected few sports in which we will confidently engage.

But just beneath the surface “play” reveals the emotions mentioned above, and one more even deeper thought, “I’m not sure I really measure up as a man.” That’s what I wish women could have heard: the subtle, competitive, pain-tinged, and sometimes abuse-filled memories that the word “play” brings to honest men.

Even a sport as typically innocuous as golf is filled with both longings for the joy of nature and male brotherhood, along with abject fear of how that first drive on the first hole is going to go.

Men, does it do that for you? Me, too.

One of the men, whose “play” is both adventuresome and safe, more so than just about any other man I know, is my college friend and sister’s husband, Mike Anderson. Mike helped re-introduce me to “dirt” on fishing expeditions in Canada with our kids a number of years ago. I’m indebted to him.

Take a look at the pictures included here. They are of this same group of men mentioned above, having the time of their lives, fly-fishing on the Poudre River. To me they reveal what “play” ought to be: unbridled; slightly dangerous; safely inclusive; non-judgmental; accepting and supportive; joy-filled; communal; in harmony with creation, soul, heart and body.

JPaul and JesseCraig laugh

JesseBart and CraigCraig mentoredRestorationProject2013 group













This great commercial from Guinness sets a new standard for communicating the joyful play of men being rough and goal-oriented, yet communal and inclusive. Good for them. That’s play I want to be involved in.


Women, I want you to know that this is what your husband, brother, son or male friend is looking for in play. But for many of those men it is endangered or entirely lost. Probably for most.

Did Jesus play? I don’t know. I can’t think of a playful moment in Jesus’ life. Can you? In the end, that wasn’t really the reason he confined himself to flesh and blood, crawled onto the cross and took on the sins of the world.

But I’m certain there will be a lot of play in heaven. Unbridled fly-fishing. Joy-filled golf. Shameless dodge ball, if there is such a thing. Mud-filled, sewage-smelling, ditch digging. Who knows, maybe even Texas Hold ‘Em. Heart-filled, fully expressive play.

Men, what does play mean for you?