By MaryAnn McKibben Dana, MDiv ’03.
April 6, 2017—For the past several years, I’ve been fascinated by the connections between improvisation and the spiritual life. The more I study and play with improv, the more I see it as a powerful metaphor it is for faith.
The basic rule of improv is to say “yes-and”—to accept what life offers us and to build on it in the most creative and vibrant way we can. Accepting doesn’t mean we always like what happens to us, but improv means we look for the best “and” possible, even if we wouldn’t have chosen our circumstances.
I study improv, not as someone who comes naturally to it—I’m a type A organized person, whose backup plans have backup plans. (I’m a Presbyterian, for heaven’s sake! Give me the strategic plan.) But the older I get, and the longer I serve as a pastor, the more I see the need for tools to help us live faithfully and improvisationally in a world that rarely goes according to plan.
A yes-and approach helps us strive toward wholeness in a messy, unpredictable world. But there’s another benefit: when we approach life as an improvisation, we tap into a source of creativity that is much larger than ourselves.
I sensed this divine creativity at work recently read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic. Gilbert makes the fanciful argument that ideas have consciousness: ideas want nothing more than to be made manifest. So they will zip around trying to find a human that will bring them to life, and leave that person if she refuses to bring the idea to life. She tells an incredible story about getting an idea for a novel several years ago: a “spinster” (her word) who’s in love with her boss gets sent to the Amazon to clean up a big mess, and drama ensues. Gilbert got right to work on the novel, until life intervened such that Gilbert wasn’t able to give the idea the attention it deserved. When she returned to the project, she found that inspiration had left her. It was as if the idea had snuck out of the house in the dead of night, and try as she might, she could not coax it back.
Readers of a different writer, Ann Patchett, may recognize that novel synopsis as the basic plot of Patchett’s book State of Wonder. No, Patchett did not steal the idea from Elizabeth Gilbert—in fact, they didn’t even know each other when Gilbert was working on the book. At some point, Gilbert muses, the idea must have left her and gone searching for another writer to make it manifest. The two writers, who met much later, were astounded to discover the connection over lunch one day. “Like pregnant women eager to recall the exact moment of conception— we each counted backward on our fingers, trying to determine when I had lost the idea and when she had found it,” Gilbert writes. “Turns out, those events had occurred around the same time. In fact, we think the idea might have been officially transmitted on the day we met.”
Who knows, friends… who knows. That would be big magic, indeed!
As Christians, we might frame things a little differently than Gilbert. But is it really so impossible? We talk about the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and isn’t that Spirit one of creativity and life? Doesn’t the Holy Spirit show up and nudge us in the same way Gilbert describes ideas nudging us?
The question, at the heart of faith, is whether we will hear those nudgings, discern our response, and throw ourselves into that call with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength. The more I study and play with improv, the more I find the tools I need to say that faithful “yes-and.”
MaryAnn McKibben Dana is a writer, pastor and speaker living in Northern Virginia. She is author of Sabbath in the Suburbs, and the forthcoming Improvising with God. She was recently featured on PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly for her work on Sabbath and was recognized by the Presbyterian Writers Guild with the 2015-2016 David Steele Distinguished Writer Award. She is a sought-after speaker, preacher, conference leader and writer around issues of leadership, faith formation, technology, and congregational transformation. She is a mother of three, a haphazard knitter, and an occasional marathoner. Connect with her at her website, The Blue Room.
MaryAnn McKibben Dana and Marthame Sanders will lead Yes, And: Improvisational Leadership in Times of Dizzying Change, October 10-12, 2017 for the Center for Lifelong Learning. Registration is open now! Join us to explore what it means to be “reformed, always being reformed” in the 21st century.