An Improvising God

Many years ago I worked for an interfaith organization that did work in the Third Ward of Houston. One of the congregations there overlooked a building that had been tagged with graffiti. Various people had painted over the graffiti, but it always came back with a vengeance. So the congregation worked with an artist to design a mural that incorporated the graffiti into the design. The wall was never bothered again.

I can’t find a picture of the wall, but a Google search suggests that this is a common approach to graffiti. I remembered that today when I saw this piece on Colossal: Brilliant Urban Interventions by OakOak Turn Crumbling City Infrastructure into a Visual Playground. Click the link for more, but here are two of my favorites:









I’ve been thinking for some time about the rules of improv as they relate to life, church work, and even our ideas about God. The basic rule of improv is to yes-and—to accept what is offered and to build on it. That’s what I see in these images, and in the Third Ward mural. (Listen to Stephen Colbert talk about yes-and in this YouTube video; skip to minute 18:00 for the pertinent bit. Or just watch the whole thing, because Colbert.)

This is a personal journey for me—I’m such a planner at heart. If I can plan it, I can control it. If it all fits on the calendar, then it will fit in real life. But life doesn’t work that way, and the older I get the more I see the limitations to planning. It’s not that planning is useless. But what’s more important is cultivating the grace and especially the skill to adapt to changing situations. Like Eisenhower said, “Plans are nothing; planning is everything.” I take “planning” to mean preparation, analysis, skill-building, and discernment.

This improv stuff is also a pastoral thing. When I arrived at Tiny, there was some discussion of making a five- or ten-year plan. It just didn’t seem right. Especially in a small church, where deaths and departures of just a few key leaders can fundamentally alter the makeup of the church. Plus I think the world is changing too fast. You have to know your values and your purpose, but a ten-year plan? Makes no sense to me.

And all of this has theological dimensions. As I’ve written here before, the idea of God’s Plan doesn’t work for me. It really never has. And it doesn’t work for a great many people. But an improvising God… that’s a God that intrigues me. And I think we see some of that God in scripture.

I’ll be thinking and writing about these things a lot in 2013. (I’m also trying to figure out how to get myself into an improv class, which will take some MacGyvering of my schedule.) In the meantime, I began work on some of these ideas at the NEXT Church regional gathering in Rochester last November. Click here to get to the audio of that presentation.

Incidentally, my friend Ashley Goff is also doing some work with improv as it relates to liturgy. She will be speaking about this at the NEXT Church National Gathering in Charlotte in March. She rocks, and the conference will rock.

9 thoughts on “An Improvising God

  1. Trudy

    Mary Ann, if your birthday was Jan. 2 then you must be a capricorn. And they love to plan and organize, but God has a way of saying not so. Sometimes it can be a traumatic event. Thanks so much for your insight and your gift of words.

  2. jennifer juniper

    Hi there – I love this right here: “But what’s more important is cultivating the grace and especially the skill to adapt to changing situations.”

    So, I’ve always been a total NONplanner – feeling my most fulfilled in those fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, deal-with-whatever-comes-at-ya situations.

    Kind of considered myself the queen of the yes-and, which I think is one of the things that really drew me to ministry. One good thing about this is an ability to roll with the punches, and to expect and enjoy change.

    Inspired very much by your writing and examples, though, I’ve started to realized the serious limits of this method. Many times, I’ve lost the forest for the thrill of the trees (or, as you said recently in a post that was deeply convicting for me in a good way, for the “low hanging fruit”). Also, I’ve yes-and-ed in situaitions where that was neither helpful nor practical (piles of clothes on the floor vs hung up in closet, for ex). In the last couple of years I have been practicing more planning and preparation as a way to be able to, as you say here, cultivate more grace.

    Also, both my husband and I had somewhat chaotic childhoods so we have been very intentional with our 10-yo about being very structured and stable. This has backfired in the sense that he cannot deal with a change of plans or logistics very well at all. So, while I’m stepping back from my own tendency to yes-and to every situation, I’m also trying to help him lean into the yes-and a little more. Tricky.

    No answers, I guess, just some reflections on what I’m still figuring out. Thanks for the opportunity to spill some here.

    Love this art, btw.

    1. MaryAnn

      This is so cool, because last time Ashley and I talked about this stuff, she was sharing some learnings from artists and other folks she’s been interviewing about improv, and she kept saying, “structure promotes safety.”

      So the trick is to find the right amount of structure. Obsessive planners like me might need to back off, whereas you need to lean in a little more.

      Nice comment!

  3. Bob Braxton

    process, yes; preparation, yes; vision, yes; for me the vision precedes the improv (which is how I write)

  4. marciglass

    I took an Improv class last year for this very reason. (and a few others). I’m always trying to plan enough to allow for spontaneity. Hard balance to achieve.

  5. Susan

    I love these ideas.
    Especially the idea of an improvising God. Really love that.

    Until you find an improv class for yourself, feel free to stop by my classroom any morning. 🙂 Plenty of yes-and happening there, within structure of course. Pretty sure I couldn’t do Kindergarten any other way.

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