Category Archives: Spiritual Stuff

Why Improv? Five Questions for a Thursday

I’m speaking and preaching at Red Clay Creek Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, DE* in a couple of weeks, and one of their pastors, Nate Phillips, (who is also an author!) interviewed me as part of their publicity. I liked their questions and thought I’d share the answers here.

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.)

702But 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.

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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!

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*This event in Delaware will be my 26th state for speaking events! Woo-hoo!


Create Your Own Visited States Map

 

Ten Ways to Make New Year’s Resolutions Stick

6643498911_c37d05483e_bThis 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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?)
  8. 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!
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

Image is from elycefeliz on Flickr, used through a creative commons license.

Ten for Tuesday: Mood Brighteners and Inspiration

This morning was dreary. The weather is gray, Robert is out of town… plus, the state of the world. I told friends today, with tongue slightly in cheek, that it feels like The Two Towers meets The Empire Strikes Back, every single day.

So I challenged myself to come up with ten small-or-large things that bring a smile to my face. Most turned out to be small, but they are enough bread for today.

1. I have greatly enjoyed Story People by Brian Andreas. A friend of mine receives daily emails from SP and sent this one along because it reminded her of improv:

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2. Speaking of improv, mistakes and “failures” are inevitable when you’re improvising. And living. This week I was randomly reminded of this cartoon by Stephen McCranie about making friends with failure:

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More at the link.

3. At a time when fake news is in the real news, including speculation as to whether the outcome of the election was influenced by Russian meddling, I needed these words from Walt Whitman. I can think of worse criteria for discernment.

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4. My kids and I were fascinated by the discovery of a dinosaur tail, preserved in amber, that appears to have feathers.

5. Jolene, sung by Dolly Parton, Miley Cyrus (to whom I’m coming around) and Pentatonix:

And as a bonus, this “open apology” to Dolly Parton is wonderful. I will admit–I too thought she was a bimbo when I was much younger. I was so very wrong. Dolly is a national treasure. (Keep your hands OFF her, 2016.)

6. Santa has been in the news lately. Sadly, my second-favorite Santa story turns out to be a hoax. But my favorite one is 100% true. My friend Alex, who has three children who are Latinx and African-American, took them to visit a black Santa at Macy’s in New York a few days ago. She reports, “He listened intently to each of our kids, then told them that he loved them and that they were perfect just as they are. By the time we left, Brett and I were both crying. Don’t tell me that Santa isn’t real.”

Don’t tell me either.

7. These toffee cookies made with five ingredients: butter, brown sugar, saltines, chocolate chips, and pecans. I wish the recipe were a little more specific–I know my way around a candy thermometer–and I made them in a 13×9 rather than 11×17, so they cooled more into hardened caramel than with that crystalline toffee texture. Still, good and easy.

8. Christmas music. My love for “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” has been well documented, and I have almost two dozen versions of it. (Best one: John Denver and Rowlf the Dog.) But this year I am loving “The Christmas Waltz.” It’s not one we think about often or list among the greats, but it’s pure schmaltz. Here is a version from Tony Bennett that provides top-shelf cheese.

9. Readers and friends reaching out. I sent an email newsletter last week, and every time I do that I get some unsubscribes. No big deal, it’s the nature of it. But I got at least as many people saying “That is exactly what I needed.” That’s a ratio I can live with. And in response to yesterday’s very me-focused running post, I heard from a friend asking if I would support her through Couch to 5K.

Thankful for the ways we carry each other.

10. Where Is the Light? I posted this song to Facebook the other day but it’s a worthy addition to this list. As the days get shorter, this will lift your spirits and remind you where the light can always be found. Performed by LEA, a wonderful local singer-songwriter here in the DC area.

 

On Running and Rest (from the Archives)

I ran across this post on FB memories–it was posted to the now-inactive Sabbath in the Suburbs blog four years ago. Enjoy!

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My view from this morning’s run. Lake Anne Plaza, Reston.

I’ve been running for some 18 months now. Somewhere along the way, I transitioned from being someone who runs to being a runner. I now read about running, strategize my routes, have strong opinions about my footwear, blah blah blah.

I also seek inspiration from running and its connections to life, and even to the spiritual practice of taking time for rest and sabbath. See if you agree about the power of these connections in a quote I ran across recently:

For some messed-up reason, our athletic egos still feel that we only get faster as we pedal harder, run quicker and swim stronger. It’s athlete psychology—all of our confidence is built around the times that we actually destroy our bodies. But it’s only the rest afterward that makes our bodies stronger.

Because of this psychological dichotomy, when and how long to rest is the hardest decision to make as an athlete. It takes a level of confidence above even the level necessary to push your body to the limit. You don’t get the endorphin release, the feeling of accomplishment, and the external and internal praise and satisfaction. All you get are feelings of losing your edge, getting out of shape and nervous anticipation.

So the next time you need to rest, whether it be for a mid-season break, post-big race, or just an easy day or two between training blocks, remember that it takes confidence to rest. Remember that it is just insecurity and a lack of endorphin release that makes you feel like you’re getting out of shape. Know that when you decide to rest, you’re making the right call—the better, smarter decision. Feel good and confident about it. You’ve done yourself a favor—you have literally just made yourself a better athlete.

-Jesse Thomas, Professional Triathlete & CEO of Picky Bars, originally read on Gibson’s Daily Running Quotes on Facebook

George Washington, Race, Greatness, and Me (and You)

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Members of the original Broadway cast of Hamilton (Chris Jackson as Washington, far right)

The other day I listened to an interview with Chris Jackson, who recently wrapped up his time playing George Washington in the musical Hamilton on Broadway. Robert and I were fortunate enough to see him in this role last month, and wow. Wow.

The depth of talent in New York is so deep that I have full confidence in Nicholas Christopher, the next Washington, but wow. Charisma for days.

Jackson was talking to Gene Demby of NPR’s Code Switch, a podcast about race and culture (and an indispensable one in my opinion). Demby asked Jackson about the experience of being an African-American man who is playing a slaveholder. Jackson has said in the past that he’s not interested in “reconciling” those parts of Washington’s character, and here’s part of how he explained that:

He owned people.
He owned people that looked like my father and that looked like me.

I’ve made a compromise with myself. I haven’t compromised my principles. But I told myself, “You have to portray somebody that was behind so many unlikely, breathtakingly genius ideas and who found a way to enact them.” But I’m not the guy to see him as a god. There’s always been a movement to deify [the Founders], and that has its place and is important in terms of educating the public on what we should strive for…

But to almost a person, they were under the mindset that someone who looked like me was not capable of pressing a thought, not capable of civilized behavior, or who had no aptitude for greatness.

And I’ll never make peace with that. But I don’t have to.

I’ve just been editing a section of my book in which I talk about improvisation as having a spirit of “And” rather than “But.” When we learn to improvise, we learn to receive whatever our partner offers onstage (Yes), and then to build on it (And). That doesn’t mean we go along passively with that offer, by the way. If they pull an improv gun on us, we don’t need to let ourselves get shot. But we at least need to agree that the thing they’re pointing at us is a gun, and not, say, a banana.

We have to agree on the reality before we can move forward. (Another post, perhaps, in this era of fake news.)

I hear Chris Jackson talking about approaching the Founders with a spirit of And rather than But.

Because here’s the problem with But. When we use But, we have to figure out which part of the statement is primary. Consider:

George Washington was a wise and discerning leader, but he owned slaves.
George Washington owned slaves, but he was a wise and discerning leader.

Each of these statements suggests a different starting point. Was he a great man, who oh-by-the-way had this terrible blind spot? Or was he at his core a racist, but despite this tragic flaw managed to lead our country with wisdom and strength?

A spirit of “And” means we don’t have to make that judgment, because ultimately we can’t. They are both part of who he was.

Zooming out a bit, in my reading about leadership, I’ve studied some polarity management (enough to be dangerous). My understanding of it is that most problems aren’t really solvable. Rather, it’s more important to manage the various competing concerns so they complement each other in a healthy, balanced way. We seem to have lost the ability to do that in the US, which is odd considering that, at least on the national level, we are basically a 50-50 country.

Yes, there are some ideals upon which we cannot budge an inch and still maintain our integrity. With a president-elect who is appointing white supremacists to his inner circle and talking of a registry of immigrants based on religion, I realize that “And” may sound like capitulation. I’m not willing to go along with actions which, I believe, compromise fundamental American values.

Still I wonder, is there any way to move past this zero-sum mentality in which our leaders (and we the people) seem to have gotten stuck? Are there any issues on which people can come together?

As one of my favorite Presidents, Josiah Bartlet, once said, “Every once in a while—every once in a while—there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts. Other than that, there aren’t very many unnuanced moments in leading a country.” I’d like to see us find our way toward a bit more “And.”

Contradiction, polarity, “And,” whatever you want to call it–it’s been with us since the days of George Washington, patriot and slave-holder, slave-holder and patriot.

Happy Thanksgiving!