For twelve years Troy Cady and his wife, Heather, faithfully served as missionaries in Europe, planting churches and creatively engaging their neighbors. In this second part of our Zoom conversation, I asked Troy about his experiences as a man of faith and how these came to inform his love of “play.”
JPD: Tying into your work on PlayFull, you served overseas as a missionary in Spain for many years. Could you give a brief overview of that experience and what drew you overseas?
There are many reasons my wife and I felt drawn to overseas work. First of all, she grew up in Ecuador as the daughter of parents who served as missionaries. Because of this, she had always had a desire to live somewhere besides the United States or Canada (where she is from). Secondly, we wanted a mission agency through which I could use my drama experience in a ministry setting. The organization we served with was a perfect fit because at the time they were starting churches that drew upon all kinds of creative arts in their programming, including theater arts.
Personally, my desire to work overseas started growing when I was in high school. I went on a short-term trip to England and the group I was with had the opportunity to teach religion classes for upper level students who were about the same age as we were. Think of it as a “youth exchange” kind of program. The whole thing was led by adults, of course, but as teenagers we had a key part in leading classroom lessons, discussions, and activities.
While I was there, I saw how hungry young people were for authentic expressions of faith and how they were looking for a way to relate to God that was relevant to their everyday life. Though the people I met were disillusioned by the institutional church, they still had a desire to connect with God in ways that were more personalized. And so we went to Europe as a way to try and connect (especially with young people) to help them discover a way to relate to God and tend to their spiritual inclinations.
To do this, we had to experiment with different ways of being the church. We asked ourselves, “What could ‘church’ look like? How could ‘church’ be approached in a different way for postmodern people who are institutionally disenfranchised?”
So, we tried all different kinds of approaches to “church.” In a couple of our churches we didn’t even have weekly church services. In one of our churches we came to the conclusion that “church services” were getting in the way of us really being the church.
So, as we were coming to the end of our time in Europe, I reflected back on what we had learned about ourselves, about God, about the world, and about faith. And I realized that what we were doing was “playing” (in a good way) and experimenting. We’d try to offer experiences that were enjoyable for people and often we’d try to just have fun with it. We were improvisational and highly relational. Those are some of the markers of playfulness. Whenever you’re playing, that’s essentially what you’re doing: you’re improvising, experimenting.
So, as I realized we had (basically) been “playing” all that time, I realized something about myself, too. I realized that play is my voice. I often put it this way: when it comes time for me to leave this earth, if I could know that someone would write “he played and he helped others play” on my tombstone, I would die a happy man.
Of course, you can tell that I use the word “play” in a broader sense. It is in that broader sense that I think of myself as someone who likes to play in all kinds of ways and to help other people play (that is, to approach life playfully).
So, when that epiphany hit me around 2011, I began to dream about a ministry devoted to promoting play and playfulness, especially when it comes to how we live out our faith. I wrote the book PlayFull to describe all that. In some ways, I wrote it so that if someone were to ask me to describe what I do in ministry and why I do it, I would be able to say, “You can read about it in my book.”
And my poetry is part of my way of playing, too. I think of poetry as a linguistic way of playing: you’re working with rhyme and meter, the sound of words and certain feelings associated with concrete images. It’s a playful form of communication even if it’s serious, you know? At its core, poetry has a playful quality to it.
I started dabbling in poetry about fourteen years ago, but the poems from the book are really drawn from about the last eleven years. About a year and a half ago, I realized that I had about 400 poems in my bucket that I had written over the years. For the book, I selected 100.
JPD: What is your current role in the church?
I have two part-time jobs in ministry. First, I serve as the Director of Teaching and Training at Grace Covenant Church here in Chicago. It’s like an assistant pastor job where I do a lot of things like discipling, training, teaching, and creating resources for the health of the church and for our outreach. My heartbeat is to help the church reach out into the community and bless the world.
My other part-time job is for PlayFull, which I started in 2014, and for that I do all kinds of things. I offer spiritual direction. I facilitate “play dates” where people grow and learn through playful methods and experiences. For example, about a year ago I hosted a prayer retreat in which folks had opportunities to experience prayer in ways we may not be used to. The idea was to experiment with different ways of praying to cultivate a sense of freedom (and even fun!) when it comes to prayer.
I also do some writing, video storytelling, and teaching for PlayFull’s ministry. I’m developing a faith curriculum for all ages that uses materials similar to this object here (holds up a wood carving of Jesus from his desk, arms outstretched in the shape of a cross). I use wooden materials like these for telling the stories of the Bible in very hands-on kinds of ways. The stories are designed to articulate what Jurgen Moltmann calls a “theology of play.” The stories are engaging for children, but I also try to craft them so that adults will be enticed to practice being a little child-like in their faith and to learn new ways of relating to God.
That’s some of what I do for PlayFull, but I only do that part-time. I’m fortunate in that my two jobs fit together pretty well.
JPD: How would you say being a Christian impacts your writing as opposed to someone who isn’t coming from that frame of mind?
Well, with my poetry, the process of writing starts with an awareness that God is real and that God is present. More specifically, I want everything I write to be based on the reality that God loves his creation and every person. Related to this is the idea that God is joyful and invites us to freedom. I would hope that everything I write, whether poetry or prose, stems from those convictions.
The reason I like poetry is that it helps me to practice my faith by slowing down, being silent and looking with the eyes of my heart. Poetry is my way of listening, exploring, and wondering. If God is real, and if he is as I have described, then we will never be able to finish wondering about the mystery of who God is and God’s work in the world and the paradox of life.
A couple of poems in my book deal with the mystery of how we can experience joy in suffering. That’s very much a faith question and it even explains why I’m a Christian. Jesus shows us that God can take something as ugly and painful as the crucifixion and make something beautiful and life-giving out of it. It’s because of the crucifixion that we have forgiveness and that we’re assured that God is a God of grace and redemption. The prophet Isaiah tells us that God brings beauty out of ashes. How God accomplishes that is a very hopeful and beautiful mystery to me.
And so, to a certain degree, my poems are all dealing with the notion of mystery, which is such an integral part of faith. Writing poetry is my way of wondering about the mystery of God and the mysteries of life. This practice of wondering is right at the center of my faith and of my vocation in life, so I want my poetry to tap into that, reflect it, and help nurture it in others.
I know Troy personally through our church in Chicago, and as our interview concluded, I had thoroughly enjoyed it. Troy is compassionate, creative, and overflowing with energy, and full of stories that have shaped him both as writer and disciple. Europe may now be “post-Christian,” but a thirst for joy and connection remains – and not only on that side of the Atlantic. To learn more about or to stay abreast of ways you can participate in PlayFull’s ministry, follow PlayFull on Facebook or visit the PlayFull website. To read some more of Troy’s writings, visit his blog. To reach Troy, you can email him.