I’m now reading his memoir, Born a Crime, about growing up colored in apartheid-era South Africa. The book is light, winsome, and heartbreaking at equal turns. I’m learning a lot about what life was really like for people under apartheid, and Noah is a likable, capable narrator.
Noah went to Catholic school, one of only a few colored students in a sea of black and white, and a non-Catholic. As a poor child of a single mother, he didn’t have much to eat, and it always bothered him that he couldn’t even partake of the bread and juice in the sacrament. This bit made me laugh, then took my breath away.
“Only Catholics can eat Jesus’s body and drink Jesus’s blood, right?”
“But Jesus wasn’t Catholic.”
“Jesus was Jewish.”
“So you’re telling me that if Jesus walked into your church right now, Jesus would not be allowed to have the body and blood of Jesus?”
They never had a satisfactory reply.
One morning before mass I decided, I’m going to get me some Jesus blood and Jesus body. I snuck behind the altar and I drank the entire bottle of grape juice and I ate the entire bag of Eucharist to make up for all the other times that I couldn’t.
In my mind, I wasn’t breaking the rules, because the rules didn’t make any sense. And I got caught only because they broke their own rules. Another kid ratted me out in confession, and the priest turned me in.
“No, no,” I protested. “You’ve broken the rules. That’s confidential information. The priest isn’t supposed to repeat what you say in confession.”
They didn’t care. The school could break whatever rules it wanted. The principal laid into me.
“What kind of a sick person would eat all of Jesus’s body and drink all of Jesus’s blood?”
“A hungry person.”
“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
I wrote a couple years ago about my five-minute journal practice. It’s a morning check in (with optional evening one) that’s short enough not to be too burdensome every day. (Confession: I don’t do it every day.)
I made the changes in response to an interview I heard with Evie Serventi on the RunnersConnect podcast. She is a sports psychologist and has her clients do a number of things to get mentally prepared for races. One is to have them check in with themselves each day and write down how they feel physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.
I decided this is something worth doing for me. I’m a 3 on the Enneagram, and it’s easy for that type to get focused onproductivity and achievement, to the point that we lose touch with our own inner life.
So here is my new five minute journal. (It still only takes about five minutes!)
For me, the beauty of Sabbath—a time set apart for rest, recreation, and renewal—has been the interplay between More and Less… between Yes and No.
Sabbath provides space for us to say Yes to things we normally don’t give ourselves space or permission to do.
Sabbath also gives us license to say No to things that drain our energy or distract us from our true north… or simply things that we get enough of the rest of the week!
Anyway, Seth’s words led me to create my own “more and less” list for this season of my life:
First off, what is “improv” and how did it become an interest of yours?
When we think of improvisation, most of us think of jazz improv, or the comedic performances we see on Whose Line Is It Anyway and similar shows. I’ve been captivated by improv for years, but always as an observer. I love being around people who can create on the fly like that—as if from thin air!—but it never felt like anything I could do.
I did a lot of theater in high school and college, but those experiences centered around scripted shows and musicals. We’d do an occasional improv game or warmup, but I always found them painfully hard. So I come to improv as someone who’s not naturally oriented that way. I often joke that organizing is my true superpower. I like knowing what’s going to happen. I appreciate planning and deliberation. Flying by the seat of my pants feels deeply uncomfortable to me. (I’m a Presbyterian after all.)
But the older I get, and the longer I serve as a pastor and spiritual leader, the more I realize that life rarely conforms to our carefully laid plans and expectations. When the unexpected happens, we can cling ever harder to illusions of control, or we can learn to be flexible and open to the mystery as it unfolds, trusting that a gracious and creative God is with us. I started to dabble in improv because I suspected that the things we learn in an improv class might serve us well in our everyday lives. And those suspicions have been proved right again and again. Improv requires good listening, collaboration, humility, and risk—which are all things that make for an invigorating, fruitful life. It’s also a whole lot of fun.
When did you begin to see connections between improv and the work of the church?
Several years ago I saw a YouTube video of Stephen Colbert speaking to a group of graduates about the basic rule of improv, which is to say “Yes-And.” When people are on stage together, their job is to accept what their partner offers and to build on it: “To build anything onstage, you have to accept what the other improviser initiates on stage. They say you’re doctors—you’re doctors. And then, you add to that: We’re doctors and we’re trapped in an ice cave. That’s the ‘-and.’ And then hopefully they ‘yes-and’ you back.”
He concluded, “By following each other’s lead, neither of you are really in control. It’s more of a mutual discovery than a solo adventure. What happens in a scene is often as much a surprise to you as it is to the audience.”
Stephen is a good Catholic boy at heart, and I realized he was describing faith as well as improv. The deeper I get into studying improv, the more captivated I am at what a profound spiritual practice it is.
The contemporary church finds itself in a time of profound and dizzying change. Neighborhoods are changing right out from under us. Congregations are shrinking. Old notions of “if you build it, they will come” no longer work. The younger generation has less and less connection to and interest in organized religion.
Congregations can respond to this reality in a number of different ways. We can keep doing things the way we always have, hoping for a miracle, or dwindling bit by bit until we die. Or we can improvise. We can look at the world around us—as it really is, not as it used to be or as we wish it would be—and figure out a “Yes-And” that is faithful to who we are and our gifts as a people.
Can you give a couple of examples of how embracing improv might be important for today’s church?
Church of the Pilgrims in Washington DC is a great example of a congregation that’s been implementing improvisational elements into its Sunday worship services. They serve a relatively young, increasingly diverse population in the inner city, including many people that did not grow up Presbyterian. The services typically follow the basic structure of our Service for the Lord’s Day, while allowing for creative expression at various points in the service. Liturgy is defined as “the work of the people,” and that work is sometimes unscripted and messy—but always grace-filled.
That’s a clear example. But any congregation that is embracing something new, with a spirit of risk, as a response to the world as it actually is, is improvising. And it doesn’t happen instantly—the change can come after many years of discernment. I think about Arlington Presbyterian Church in Virginia, a congregation that recently sold its building and will be renting space in a new multi-purpose space that includes affordable housing. After many years of “business as usual,” with ever-shrinking membership, this congregation decided not to die a slow death. They realized that their neighborhood had changed and had new needs, and that they still had a ministry there—but it would require a new way of being. They found a bold “Yes-And,” and are pursuing it with renewed vision and vigor.
You will offer a class/ workshop at 9:30 on January 22. What can folks expect if they attend?
Folks can expect a combination of presentation and conversation, with some video, art, pop culture, psychology, theology and more. I like to introduce an improv exercise or two, but these are always simple and completely voluntary. I expect us to have a playful spirit even as we learn together.
I know that you have a book on all of this coming out soon – could you tell us a little bit about it?
The book is tentatively titled Improvising with God, and considers improv as a spiritual and life practice. I explore seven basic principles of improv and how they might guide us into more creative and faithful living. And I consider the ways in which God improvises with us. As Presbyterians, we hold up the sovereignty of God as paramount, which I understand as the sense that “God’s got this.” At the same time, scripture is filled with stories of God changing course, experimenting, and collaborating with humanity in surprising ways. That’s a God I want to know better! Improv is both a tool and lens for engaging with that God.
Are you looking for a preacher or speaker for your event? Check my Events Calendar to see what I have coming up, and contact me. The winter and spring are pretty booked, but I’m scheduling fall 2017 and beyond. I’d love to come meet you!
*This event in Delaware will be my 26th state for speaking events! Woo-hoo!
This is an annual post, with a new bit at the end!
Resolutions get a bad rap. There’s a lot of guilt in play, as people feel like they should make them. Other people make them and quickly break them: more guilt. Still other folks genuinely want to follow through but don’t know how.
As for me, I love setting a direction for the upcoming year. (I created a whole workbook-playbook for this purpose, called “Still Possible”! If you subscribe to my email newsletter you should have received it. It’s available to new subscribers too; click here.)
If you want to make some New Year’s goals stick, here are some tips that have worked for me and other people I know:
Set an intention instead. Resolutions have always felt too brittle for me. (After all, when we don’t follow through, we say we broke them.) Intentions are more flexible. Listen to the difference between “I resolve” and “I set the intent.” The former feels like one of Harry Potter’s Unbreakable Vows; the latter points you in a worthwhile direction. Maybe you need the force of the former, but I like the latter because it can bend as our lives shift. And we can set intentions again and again. There’s a reason people in 12 step programs take things one day at a time.
Make it a story. Most resolutions are vague goals that lack context. Donald Miller suggests we come up with stories instead. Stories are compelling, and they take us somewhere. According to Miller’s definition, a story involves a character who wants something and overcomes obstacles to get it. What could be a better framework for a New Year’s improvement project? “Lose weight” is a worthy goal, but without a concrete story to hang it on, it’s too easy to give up. So instead of getting in shape, a story-based resolution might be to complete a road race or do a big hike with friends.
Explore the 5 W’s. In ninth grade journalism class I learned the basics of a news story: Who, What, When, Where, and Why. (Also How.) If you want your resolutions to stick, you need to spend some time with these questions. Say you want to cook at home more instead of eating out. Who will support you in this effort, and whom will be impacted by this lifestyle change? What will you do to make this happen? When will you plan, shop and cook? Where will this happen—do you need to de-clutter the kitchen? Stock the pantry? And most importantly, Why is it important that you do this?
Take things monthly. Gretchen Rubin is a pioneer of this approach. Her book The Happiness Project chronicles a year-long self-improvement project with a different emphasis each month (money, home, family, etc.). Why not pick something modest to work on in January? Then on January 31 you get to celebrate your success (or shrug off your failure) and move on to something new in February.
Pick a word. Many of my pastor friends hand out stars with words on them to their congregations on Epiphany Sunday—I’ve done it myself. These words become a prayer or meditation focus. For folks who find self-reflection tedious, there’s something serendipitous about being given a word to live with for a whole year.
Let the resolution grow out of a deeper reflection. Ideally, a resolution, intention, or story will grow out of a period of reflecting on the year to come. In other words, don’t go for the same knee-jerk resolution you pick every year—it may not fit your life right now. If you’re about to move across country or get a promotion at work, it’s probably not the right time to take on a new hobby or join that CrossFit class. Or because of those changes, it may be the perfect time to take care of yourself. But the point is, your resolution needs to grow out of a realistic assessment of the year to come. I’ll be using the workbook I created to say goodbye to 2016 and hello to 2017 (see above or subscribe here), but there are tons of tools like this on the Internet.
Build in some No with your Yes. I’m convinced that a lot of resolutions fail because people add on habits or practices without taking other things away. So you want to spend 20 minutes each morning in prayer or meditation. OK… but what are you willing to give up in order to make that happen? (Additional sleep? that bleary-eyed early morning Facebook session?)
Tell people. Every December my writing group would get together for a Christmas luncheon, and we would go around the table and share our writing goals for the coming year. Stating our goals aloud in the company of trusted friends was powerful. We are communal creatures—only the most disciplined among us can make a major life change without any support, encouragement or accountability from friends and family. If you’re one of those rocks or islands that Simon and Garfunkel sang about, congratulations. If you’re like the rest of us, tweet or Facebook your goals. Blog about them. Tell a friend. Heck, tell me in the comments—I will cheer you on!
Take two steps, not just one. According to the Journal of Consumer Research, people who take only one step toward an exercise or weight-loss regimen (like joining a gym) were more likely to engage in activities that were counterproductive (like bingeing on brownies). Meanwhile, their peers who took a follow-up step (working out right after joining the gym) were more likely to stick with their plan. So while Lao Tzu is right that the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, don’t neglect the second step either.
Focus on systems, not goals.I love this reflection from James Clear, in which he talks about the process as opposed to the destination: “I’ve found that goals are good for planning your progress and systems are good for actually making progress… Goals can provide direction and even push you forward in the short-term, but eventually a well-designed system will always win.” For example, the one year I set a mileage goal for running (1,000 miles) I got injured. Coincidence? Perhaps. But since then I’ve adjusted my approach and set different kinds of intentions: to run three times a week and to participate in various races along the way. In James Clear’s parlance, those are actually systems I’m putting in place rather than goals. I suspect they will result in a great end-of-year total mileage, but if they don’t, the journey still took me to great places, and that’s more important.
Do you have intentions or hopes for 2017? I’d love to hear.