Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Church Improv

General Association of Ministers in Connecticut
Silver Lake Conference Center, Sharon, CT
Sept. 23, 2013

(Every year since 1709 the clergy of the Missionary Society of Connecticut - now the Connecticut Conference of the United Church of Christ - have gathered for renewal and to conduct business.  This gathering is called, with no sense of poetry, the General Association of Ministers in Connecticut. It is even said that when the Congregational Church was linked with the governance of the state, that it was this body that nominated the governor!

Since its inception, the gathering now includes educators, members in discernment [those considering the ministry as their vocation], and church musicians.  This year I was asked to be on the planning committee and to give the Moderator's address.  The term 'moderator' simply means 'the one on the pointy end of  the ship'.  Anyway, here are the words I shared with my colleagues in ministry.)

Of the almost 22 years that I’ve been ordained in the ministry of the United Church of Christ, 16 of those have been spent in temporary ministry settings so that I could be home with my two daughters. I’ve served as an interim, filled in for colleagues on sabbatical, and offered pulpit supply in 24 churches in the CT Conference, not to mention a small handful in the OH Conference. I’ve had to remain light on my feet, be flexible, and willing. Maybe we ought to pronounce it ‘pulpit supplely’. You might say my ministry here has been a bit of an improvisation.

Our keynoter, Kirk Byron Jones, will be speaking about, among other things, stillness, awareness, and playfulness. Playfulness is something I can really groove with. A couple of years ago I read Tina Fey’s memoir Bossypants, in which she recalls her days as a member of the Second City improv theater in Chicago. Did you know that there are rules for doing improvisational comedy? You wouldn’t think so to look at it. There’s no scenery, no props, and no script; it’s just made up as the actors go along.

Even though the Christian faith has a script (holy scriptures—what we call the Bible), some fabulous scenery (the whole of creation and the living of our lives), and a few props (the cross, bread, juice, the waters of baptism), the religious establishment is sometimes accused of making it up as it goes along. Indeed there are some tenets of Christian doctrine that seem as though they were conjured from the human imagination: original sin, the virgin birth, even the resurrection. For hundreds of years there have been rules about what is orthodox belief and what is heresy; rules about what makes a faith community the Church rather than just a social club.

Thankfully, church life has loosened up some over the years. Indeed there are some who would say it has loosened up too much. In the United Church of Christ there are no tests of faith, no creeds we must adhere to. We recognize that everyone is on a journey of faith, that every relationship with God and with the church is unique. Yet there is also an ancient tradition that goes all the way back to Jesus and his disciples, and it is this faith and this community that we strive to emulate.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d think that Jesus knew the rules of improvisational comedy. Not that he was ever trying to be funny, sometimes I wish he was, but according to the comedy law laid out by Tina Fey, it seems like Jesus lived by these four simple rules. The rules of improv would also make for some interesting by-laws for what it means to be the church.

1. The first rule is to agree, to say yes to whatever is being created. So if your partner says “Freeze, I have a water pistol,” you can’t reply with “No, it’s not. It’s your finger,” because then the scene has come to a stop rather than going forward. This rule reminds us to keep an open mind to what is going on around us. Jesus is God’s big “yes” to creation. “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well-pleased.” And Jesus kept echoing that ‘yes’ throughout his ministry: yes to justice, yes to peace, to healing, to the poor and the marginalized, to women and children, to foreigners and strangers, to tax collectors and prostitutes, yes to the incarcerated, yes even to death on a cross and to those who died with him. And then that huge ‘yes’ to life and love on Easter morning.

And so we can experiment in church, we can say yes to what is being created and take a chance, risk looking foolish because we just might be surprised by the Holy Spirit, who is the queen of sacred improv if ever there was one. “Keep an open mind and remain supplely” helps us to be able to respond to the Spirit with a light heart.

2. The second rule to is to add something of your own, to say ‘yes, and’, to agree but to also go on with what has been handed to you. If I say, “Gee, it sure is humid,” and you say, “Yeah…”, then there’s really no where to go. But if you say, “What do you expect from living inside a giant rice cooker?” or “Yeah, it’s so humid even my wrinkles can’t hold out” or “I told you we shouldn’t have crawled into the belly of a whale”, then we’ve got somewhere to go. When Jesus says to Thomas ‘put your hand in my side’, Thomas doesn’t say “Eew, yuck! No, thanks!” Rather, he adds his ‘yes, and’, his confession of faith: “My Lord and my God!”

So someone suggests that the youth group hold a car wash to raise money. No, not very original. But what if instead of saying no, we said “Yes, and we’ll all dress up in costume or wear funny hats and take flyers to work, I know someone who could DJ, we could do a cookout too.” “Yes, and” allows the creative energy to flow.

3. The third rule is to make statements. If we ask questions all the time, we put pressure on our partner to come up with all the answers. If we point out all the obstacles, it then becomes up to our partner to solve them. Whatever the difficulty is, we need to be part of the solution rather than add to the problem. People were always asking Jesus questions, expecting him to have the answers. Sometimes he would ask a question in return but he usually would follow it up with not only a statement but a story. A story that left his hearers sometimes in a quandary, that is, having received an answer that sounded more like a mystery. Jesus reminds us that faith is not about what is certain but what is uncertain. Improvising is all about uncertainty and not knowing what is going to happen next. Which sometimes can turn all that vision planning on its head.

4. Finally, there are no mistakes, only opportunities. The disciple Thomas, who always gets a bad rap, wasn’t there the first time Jesus appeared to the rest of the disciples: rather than a mistake it was an opportunity for Jesus to teach and to help his friends understand what it means to believe and to be in community with those who may have doubts. Jesus and the disciples could have chastised Thomas for missing out the first time. Instead we have a beautifully improvised scene in which those who doubt are included and we receive the blessing of the words “come to believe”, illustrating that faith and living in community are not a place to arrive at but a journey, a process, an improvisation.

Like any good improvisation, Jesus worked with what he had and created something new. He had fishermen, tax collectors, zealots, a woman healed of her demons, sinners galore, and he made community out of them, community that would not only survive his horrific death, but would proclaim him risen from that death. He had some bread and wine and from them came a meal to whet our appetite for justice and righteousness and to remind us that we do not do this alone. He had a death that looked like a monumental mistake, the biggest failure history had even seen, but was actually a transformational opportunity for rebirth and the galvanization of a movement that has not seen its equal.

But do we leave room for improvisation in our faith communities? I often wonder if our expectations for worship and leadership have gotten a bit out of whack. We want to fill our spirits, what Anne Lamott calls our ‘God-sized hole’, but nothing ever seems to be enough. It feels like we keep upping the ante, increasing our desire for the transcendent experience of God, when the immanent is right in our face.

Worship is often more like a thoroughly-scripted performance, and when it’s not, we get nervous. We strive for perfection, when the Greek word for perfect is better translated as complete, and it is God who completes our improvisation, working with us like a jazz master. If we really want to have an experience of God in our worship, then let us be willing to tell the truth about ourselves and accept one another and ourselves as we are; let us forgive one another as God has already forgiven us; and if we really want to step up our game, let us love our perceived enemy for surely we have been a thorn in someone else’s side. Jesus heals us and sets us free to leave the armor and the weapons and the fa├žade at the door and then abandon them after our worship.

God is the one who completes our improvisation. If we want God to play with us, we have to leave some wiggle room, some room for stillness, some room for playfulness, to just be. Which makes it possible for us to become aware that the love of God has always been shining, just waiting for us to come out and play.

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