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‘Messy play’ is an important part of growing up. With a toddler, it refers to playing with different media such as paint, glue, playdough, glitter, sand and water, all of which have the capacity to be messy. Messy play usually ends up with paint daubed everywhere and bits of playdough stuck to the carpet, however many protective layers have been used!

It’s no surprise that I don’t much like messy play, especially when it comes to cleaning up afterwards. But it strikes me that that says more about my obsessive need for control than it does about the value of the play itself.

I don’t like mess, but life is messy. It’s colourful, vibrant and wonderful, but it’s indisputably messy. Last week I watched a group of children take hold of pots of playdough and roll them into different shapes. They used cutters to produce animals, food shapes and vehicles. They squeezed and squashed the playdough into what they wanted to create (‘Grandad’s car’), and the end shapes were indubitably more interesting than the original lumps of the material. That is a parable of life: God squeezes and moulds our lives into the shapes He wants our lives to be, like a potter working with clay (see Jer 18).

But then the unthinkable happened. Instead of being content with the pristine colours, making green cars and blue elephants, some of the children began moulding the colours together to create a mishmash of playdough, a rainbow-coloured gloop which could no longer be separated back into its constituent parts. I was horrified. If I’d thought the play was messy before, now I’d lost total control!

Life can seem like that to us. Not only does it feel like God’s squeezing us and moulding us and we’re being pressed into shapes we don’t like, it can feel like we’ve lost our identity entirely and we are being moulded together with other people into something that looks, to us, messy and ugly. I loved the definition of the separate colours, all in their separate pots. I didn’t like the multi-coloured mush at all. But this parable reminded me that God is building people together into His church in a way that is more concerned with the finished whole than the sensibilities of the constituent parts.

The analogy doesn’t work entirely, of course, for God never crushes our identity in the way those children worked tirelessly to blend the playdough colours together. But this scenario did remind me of the need to relinquish control in order allow the Master Potter free rein (and reign!) and the fact that a jumbled-up whole is not necessarily a bad thing. Messy play will never be the same again!