Today we welcome Ryan Bradney to The Blue Room! I met Ryan two years ago at an event I led in Kansas City and we bonded over our mutual interest in improv. Today he shares about an exciting ministry he’s involved with:
On Thursday mornings, I teach an improv class with the men and women of Wainscott Hall, a transitional residence for the homeless in Winchester, Kentucky. In the class, the residents, along with their fellow actors from First Presbyterian Church, take turns playing and observing bold, gracious improv. Some games require a few actors, others the whole class, but all of the games are participatory in that the class provides the needed resources for the game. It could be quotes, quirks, settings, or even a visual storyboard. Whatever the elements, I invite the actors to engage with what is present in the hope that we open ourselves up to new possibilities.
In between games, we reflect on what we’ve learned, share stories, and laugh about our favorite moments. We also identify the ways in which the games empower us to creatively engage in problem solving and build community. Janet Ballard, an actor with the group, has observed that “the games have opened up the residents to share their joys and struggles. I am seeing them build confidence and friendships.”
As we engage a variety of creative quirks and scenes, Janet Robinson has noticed that the joyful and resilient voices of our improv class can sound a bit unusual, saying, “when you are walking the halls during improv, you will hear BAM, Quack, Barking, Tapping, Spanish, and best of all, the laughter. I have seen the concern that they have for each other and friendships formed through play. I have come to look forward to the Thursday morning meetings with our friends in the group.”
Participants in the Community Improv class at Wainscott Hall, a transitional residence for the homeless.
As we create unusual characters, quirks, and settings, we are often surprised by the unexpected ways in which the scenes play out. One of the actors, George Ballard, Janet’s husband, ran out of the classroom during a scene, sprinting into the hallway, his steps thundering like a thoroughbred. Following his bold exit, George’s fellow actors were startled with surprise, many with laughter and some even wondered (as they shared in our reflection after the game) if he was overwhelmed by a fear of improv. The clamor of his booming feet continued until he returned with a smile. It turned out that George ran not out of fear, but, in response to his given quirk, “Running”.
Weeks later, I spoke with George about his convincing portrayal running through the halls, and asked what the experience meant to him. Embracing the improv principle “yes and” (building creatively on what’s present) George responded in a way that I couldn’t have expected. “If I would have known that the residents would look outside, I would have run downstairs, out the door, and would have continued running on the sidewalk.” There’s power in recognizing courage in one another, seeing those who are willing to go to great lengths, several laps in George’s case, to speak a word of hope. George’s commitment to fully embrace his quirk, no matter how foolish it may have looked, allowed his fellow actors to witness the power of trust, that in loving community, we are free to embrace our own quirks and experience acceptance, imperfections and all.
In addition to our weekly improv class, the Clark County Homeless Coalition (CCHC) offers financial literacy, attentive case management, and additional educational opportunities with the goal of empowering their residents with long-term self-sufficiency. Terry Davidson, executive director of CCHC, says that in her work she is inspired by “Seeing God at work. Seeing our client’s successes.” Serving a vital role in the community, Wainscott Hall is only one of a few homeless shelters in Kentucky that welcomes both families and individuals.
In his book, The Crucified God, Jurgen Moltmann writes that, “one of the basic difficulties of Christian life in the world today is clearly the inability to identify with what is other, alien and contradictory.” The quirks, imperfections, the seemingly disconnected scenes of our lives, all of it belongs to God’s story. Jesus assures us to be unafraid, saying, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world!” Christ overcame the abandonment of the cross, and through him we have been resurrected into eternal life. As we share the Good News, let us not forget our charge to take courage and creatively engage the suffering of this world.
To learn more about Community Improv and how to creatively engage suffering in your community, be sure to check out our blog at Community Improv.
Ryan learned about the power of improv from his High School English teacher and lifelong mentor, Ken Bradbury. Through this gracious form of improv, Ryan learned to listen, to build creatively on what’s present, and boldly fail. Ryan now integrates improv into his ministry as the pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Winchester, Kentucky.
Ryan enjoys sharing the practice of improv at conferences, churches, schools, and Clark County Homeless Coalition, where he is joined by church members, who serve as regular actors with the class.
Ryan and his wife Andrea share their home with their two loving rescue dogs, Winnie and Gracie, whom they adopted during seminary. The Bradneys share a deep love of basketball, cooking, the outdoors, storytelling, and yes, improv.
Thank you, Ryan! That’s beautiful stuff. Now, dear readers, do you know someone who’s improvising their life? I’d love to feature them here, so let me know!
 Jurgen Moltmann. The Crucified God. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993) p. 25.
This past weekend I had the joy of preaching for two friends who are on sabbatical/away for the weekend. Here’s the sermon:
MaryAnn McKibben Dana
July 19, 2015
Trinity Presbyterian Church – Herndon
“Moral Bucket List”: Feeding the 5,000
13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ 16Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ 17They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ 18And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ 19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
It is wonderful to be here as a guest preacher for Becca and Stephen, two of my most treasured colleagues.
One of the things that the churches I used to serve know about me is that I often get hung up on very small things in the scripture. So when I was talking to Becca this week, she said, “What will you be preaching about?” There are so many possibilities in this text—Jesus’ healing, the miracle of more than 5,000 people being fed—but I told her I would be be preaching on the words “this” and “it.”
When Jesus heard “this,” he went away to a deserted place.
Then it says the crowds heard “it” and followed him.
What did they hear? What are the “this” and the “it”?
Well if you skip back a few verses, you know it’s terrible news.
It’s the death of John the Baptist. He’d been imprisoned by Herod Antipas and according to Mark, his wife asked for his head on a platter… and she got it.
Why? Because that’s what unchecked power does.
That’s how power proves its own dominance and might.
They did it for entertainment.
They did it because they could.
That’s the “this” and the “it” that got Jesus and the crowds to their feet and on the move: the death of a prophet at the hands of the state.
It’s the kind of news that would get its own graphic on CNN.
It’s the kind of news that starts trending on Twitter: Hashtag Hebrew Lives Matter.
When Jesus heard this—when Jesus received the news about the death of his cousin—he went away to a deserted place. And when the people heard “it,” they went after him. Jesus’ flight into the wilderness is understandable—he probably needed some time and space to grieve and collect himself. But we don’t know why the crowds went. Maybe they’re feeling scared for Jesus—maybe they worry he’ll be next and they want to protect him. Maybe they’re curious to see what he’ll do. Maybe they’re frightened for themselves. All kinds of possibilities there.
I was drawn to “this” and “it” this week, because of all the “thises” and the “its” that we’ve been confronted with lately, that we’ve been hearing. For us this summer, IT is Charleston. IT is the confederate flag. IT is Baltimore on fire. Just this week, IT is six deaths in Chattanooga in an act of horrific violence. IT is a black woman in Texas who died in jail under suspicious circumstances after being arrested after not using her turn signal. IT, by the way, is also the realization that Atticus Finch may not have always been the shining paragon of virtue we thought he was or wanted him to be.
And in the midst of the thises and the its—here we are, like that crowd, come from our homes and towns, for our own various reasons, but maybe because we really need to be close to Jesus. With so much horror in the world at the moment, I’m calmed and oddly cheered by this image of people flocking to one another in the wake of John’s dastardly execution by Herod. Coming together, clinging to one another, receiving Jesus’ healing and the bread from heaven. What else can we do in these dark days?
Since I’m not your regular preacher, I can tell you that we pastors have our version of gallows humor. When terrible things happen in our world—things that demand a comment and a gospel response from pulpits like this one—one of the things we grouse to one another about is why they so often seem to happen on Friday and Saturday?! …usually when the sermon has been written and finished. Or even if it isn’t, you’ve been working with a gospel text that seems to have nothing to do with the tragedy that has just happened. It leads to a lot of late Saturday nights and a lot of laments: Why couldn’t it have happened on Tuesday? Tuesday’s good.
I know it’s silly and sad. When bad things happen, the least important part of it is whether it inconveniences the clergy. But make no mistake—over email, and in private Facebook spaces, the pastors like to feel a bit sorry for themselves.
And yet, if terrible things are going to happen, maybe Friday/Saturday is the right timing, so people of faith can come to their churches and synagagues and mosques, can draw together and pray to God, and receive comfort and strength for the living of dark days.
Back in the late 1950s, a researcher named Stanley Schachter conducted an unusual experiment. Schachter convinced college-aged women that they would receive a series of electric shocks about 15 minutes later. Some were told that these shocks would barely tickle, and others were told they would be very painful. Participants were then asked whether they wanted to wait for their shocks in a room alone, or with other people. Those who believed the shocks would be mild generally did not care whether or not they had neighbors in their waiting room. But people who believed that shocks would be painful strongly preferred being near others, On Schachter’s logic, this exposed a powerful rule about social behavior: in times of anxiety, people seek each other out. Like penguins in February, we tend to face adversity by gathering up.
This summer, you all are in a sermon series of sorts, consider elements of the “moral bucket list.” Today I want to suggest another one:
Find one another.
But not just any kind of gathering will do.
When the people flocked to Jesus, they came on foot. They didn’t bring their donkeys and camels, assuming they even had those things. They came only with what they could carry, which probably wasn’t very much. As we’ll find out later in the story, the didn’t even bring that much food with them.
When the people came, they just brought themselves. They went to a deserted place, in search of compassion and healing. They came in their weakness.
And then after Jesus is finished with them—dispensing a little teaching, offering a little healing, notice what the disciples say. Ok, it’s over now. They’re hungry now Jesus, so send them out to buy food. To buy food. Send them back into the marketplace; throw them back into the machinery of commerce. We don’t have anything for them here, but that’s OK, they can buy a little food, a little sustenance, buy a little comfort.
Becca mentioned to me that some of you attended the Taylor Swift concert earlier this week. Anyone? Guess what, I was there too with my two daughters. One of the things I love about concerts is this feeling of community. And she talked about that on stage. She said, “I need you all to know, that when I have tough days, I will remember this time we spent together.”
I believe that’s true… and at the same time, let’s be honest that this is a community that was created because we all bought very expensive tickets, and came together for the purpose of being entertained by a 26 year old pop star. And entertained we were. But that’s not the kind of community I’m talking about.
One of the seductive challenges of our culture is how many opportunities to have that Taylor Swift kind of experience. It feels like community, and on some level it is—but it’s not long-standing, and it’s not on the deep level that we need to confront the “thises” and the “its.” The disciples’ quick fix solution—send them out to go shopping—reveals how conditioned we are to transact our way into a sense of security… whether it’s a gated community, or a concealed weapon, or just surrounding ourselves with people who look like we do, think like we do, earn what we do, come from where we come from, shop at Trader Joe’s and listen to NPR.
And Jesus will have none of that. He rejects the disciples’ suggestion that the people engage in a little retail therapy. He sees that solution for the failure of imagination that it is. He says, Don’t go out and buy something. Everything we need is right here. Have you even taken stock of what we have? Can you trust that God can work with what’s already here?
And when he takes those gifts and cradles them in his hands, he looks to heaven and he gives thanks. Not a magic trick. What Jesus is doing is putting the focus on God, where it’s supposed to be. He’s modeling what we are called to do when we find one nother, when we come together. It’s not about saying, OK, we’re going to be all right because there are a lot of us. If we just huddle up, we’ll make it through. It’s not about strength in numbers. It’s about weakness in numbers. It’s about God doing something amazing in that weakness.
We must find one another—not in our strength, but in our vulnerability, trusting God, not our own abilities, to bring us through every this and it life may throw at us.
Nadia Bolz-Weber writes in her book about the worst Rally Day EVER. She had worked her fingers to the bone, rented a cotton candy machine, helped pull together all the needed stuff for a burger cookout in front of the church…all to attract new folks to join the journey of House of All Saints and Sinners. And 26 people showed up. And nobody put one red cent in the donations basket. So no new people came, and those that did were cheap.
It was a whole lot of nothing.
Until she remembered the joy of the people who came, because they started serving food to folks on the street. And the prayers she had received for her aching back. And she remembered that nothing is God’s favorite building material. When she shared the story at a Lutheran conference that same week, community was built over lunch on shared stories of failure, failure that God somehow transformed into a feast for thousands. And that was enough. That was five paltry loaves and two measly fish feeding 5,000 grieving and shell-shocked people.
Joy Harjo writes in one of her poems about the power of people coming together around the simple human vulnerable act of eating. She says, “The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.
“The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.”
But then she makes a shift away from joy:
“At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.
“Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.”
Sometimes it feels like the world’s coming to an end. Or maybe just the world as we know it, though that can feel just as cataclysmic. How vital, then, that we find one another.
John Lewis was about four years old, growing up among the pine forests and cotton fields of Pike County, Alabama, all the neighbors of his family were sharecroppers, and most of them were relatives. Every adult he knew was an aunt or an uncle, and every child a first or second cousin. One Saturday afternoon about fifteen of those children were outside playing in his Aunt Seneva’s dirt yard. Lewis remembers:
The sky began clouding over, the wind started picking up, lightning flashed far off in the distance, and suddenly I wasn’t thinking about playing anymore. I was terrified.
Lightening terrified me, and so did thunder. Aunt Seneva was the only adult around that day, and as the sky blackened and the wind grew stronger, she herded us all inside. Her house was not the biggest place around, and it seemed even smaller with so many children squeezed inside.
The wind was howling now, and the house was starting to shake.
We were scared. Even Aunt Seneva was scared. And then it got worse. Now the house was beginning to sway. The wood plank flooring beneath us began to bend. And the corner of the room started lifting up.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. None of us could. This storm was actually pulling the house toward the sky. With us inside it.
That was when Aunt Seneva told us to clasp hands. Line up and hold hands, she said, and we did as we were told. Then she had us walk as a group toward the corner of the room that was rising. From the kitchen to the front of the house we walked, the wind screaming outside, sheets of rain beating on the tin roof. Then we walked back in the other direction, as another end of the house began to lift.
And so it went, back and forth, fifteen children walking with the wind, holding that trembling house down with the weight of our small bodies.
It feels like a fragile house we’re living in, folks. But we live in it together. It’s the only way.
 Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, Jericho Books/Hachette Book Group (New York, 2013), p. 105. Quoted by Michael Kirby in a paper for The Well preaching group.
Robin Williams in The Birdcage, one of my favorites.
I don’t feel a need to comment at length on the events of last week. Many have already done so, and done it better than I could. But I did want to share two links that, taken together this morning, gave me a bit of hope and perspective.
The investigation began with rail and bus commuters travelling into Chicago. Dozens of them were recruited into one of three conditions – to engage in conversation with a stranger on the train, sit in solitude, or simply behave as they usually would. Afterwards they mailed back a questionnaire in which they answered questions about the experience.
The returned questionnaires showed it was those commuters who were instructed to strike up conversation with a stranger who’d had the most positive experiences (sitting in solitude was the least enjoyable, with behaving as normal scoring in between).
We tend to avoid conversation because we think the other person won’t want to engage—but the research showed that was not the case: “[Study participants] predicted that over 50 per cent of strangers would likely rebuff their attempts to talk – in fact, this didn’t occur for any of the participants who were instructed to chat to stranger in the earlier studies.”
I’m pretty introverted in public spaces. And it’s taken some time to feel OK with that. I’m a mother of three and a pastor—I engage with people a lot; I don’t need to do it everywhere. Still, I sometimes challenge myself to strike up a short conversation with a stranger, and it always feels good to do so.
We are made to connect.
The second link is this video from The Dish, called Suicide Breeds Suicide. Jennifer Michael Hecht, who wrote the book Stay: A History of Suicide and Philosophies Against It, addresses the issue of “copycat behavior” following a suicide. For example, she reports that young people whose parents commit suicide can be three times as likely to attempt suicide as a result.
I don’t like the phrase, “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” Robin Williams suffered from a life-long illness. His struggle, while it seemed to wax and wane at various times, was as permanent a condition as he could possibly imagine. Still, there are folks out there who believe that the world will be better off without them in it. That’s demonstrably false, according to the research about suicide contagion.
Hecht puts it like this: “If you don’t kill yourself, you are saving someone’s life. …I don’t want to dwell on the guilt of what you do if you harm yourself, I want to dwell on the wonder of how much you meant to people you don’t even know. …The one thing we need to add to that is gratitude, and I don’t mind starting it: I’m grateful. You’re my hero. Thank you for not killing yourself.”
One of Andrew Sullivan’s readers, who had experienced suicidal feelings, responded to the video:
When I was at my lowest ebb, I definitely knew that if I ended my life I would hurt others around me – my family, my friends. But in the two or so years I struggled with those feelings, I can tell you it never once occurred to me that killing myself might lead someone else to end their life. Such a thought would have been abhorrent to me, and I couldn’t help wondering after I watched Hecht’s video whether suicide prevention counsellors make that point to those at risk of harming themselves. I think if they did, some of those people would step back from the brink. It’s one thing to hurt yourself and rationalize that your pain is greater than the pain you’ll cause others through your death; it’s quite another to think you might be compelling some of those who knew you to step into that abyss themselves.
Watch the whole thing here—it’s short:
We are made to connect.
And we are made connected. There’s no avoiding it.
I’m back from Collegeville and a fruitful week of writing. I’ve now got a very (very) rough draft for book two, currently titled Spirituality in the Smartphone Age. It’s a shorter book than Sabbath in the Suburbs, and I’m still planning to publish it via e-book, though a print option will be available. I’ve been in touch with an editor and a friend who does e-book production for a living. This thing will happen.
In The Hour of Our Death (1987), Philippe Ariès argues that an “invisible death model” has dominated twentieth-century American life. In this model,
Death’s medicalization distanced the community from the dying and the deceased. Individualism ruled, nature was conquered, social solidarity waned, and not the afterworld but family ties mattered.Western society surrounded death with so much shame, discomfort, and revulsion that Gorer (1965) even spoke of a pornography of death. Death became concealed in hospitals, nursing homes, and trailer parks. Yet, the death of death remained, a fear corresponding more to people’s social than biological death.
Accompanying this dispossession of the dying person is a “denial of mourning” and the subsequent invention of new funerary rituals in the United States (Philippe Ariès, “The Reversal of Death,” Death in America, ed. Stannard , 136). Excessive displays of emotion both by the person dying and those they leave behind are considered taboo and “embarrassments.” …
What interested my students, however, was the impact of the internet on the “invisible death model.” Have we entered a new era regarding death and loss? They noticed in particular three results of the internet.
And in case you missed it, Katherine Willis Pershey also sent this along–a beautiful expression of solidarity and care for bereaved parents. Their little one spent her entire life in the NICU and they wanted to see her pretty face without the tubes. Members of the Reddit community responded:
I like the middle one, but they are all haunting. And they are all an offering to total strangers, which makes them beautiful.
John Green is like Colbert to me: someone who’s extremely good at what he does and who brings a joie de vivre to his vocation. I can’t help but root for him.
The church is awash with concern these days about the so-called “nones”: people who are not affiliated with any religion, who may (or may not) consider themselves spiritual but not religious… many of whom are in the millenial generation—aka many of John Green’s fans.
How can we “get” more young people? churchy people ask. Is there a way we can “appeal” to them? The format of the questions reveals their purpose—to find more members so that our churches won’t decline and die.
Guess what? Young people don’t care to be our institutional life insurance.
(Neither do 42 year old mothers of three, actually.)
That said, being interested in young people isn’t necessarily opportunistic. Jesus calls us to love our neighbor, and young people are our neighbors. (So are old people, married people, single people, LGBT people, poor people, Muslim people…)
Jesus also calls us to serve, and that’s something that motivates millenials a great deal. (As the saying goes, they love Jesus; they don’t love the church.)
So. In the spirit of connection rather than conversion, friendship rather than membership, partnership rather than fixing, here are some things we can learn from John Green and his tremendous appeal.
He isn’t trying to “reach” young people. Green reportedly hates being called the “teen whisperer,” which is to his credit. His crazy popular vlogbrother videos were not started as some calculated attempt to build his fan base. (Well, not primarily with that purpose, though you can’t argue with success.) Rather, he and his brother Hank started them in order to play with the online video format, which was pretty new back in 2006. They created something winsome and irresistible and the fans thronged to it.
Do we in the church see millenials as a means to an end? What are we doing that is winsome and irresistible?
He takes young people seriously and learns from them.The Fault in Our Stars is filled with wickedly good dialogue, pitch-perfect one-liners and deep wisdom. Some have criticized him for this because “Teenagers don’t really talk like that.” I read somewhere that Green doesn’t try to duplicate the speech patterns of teens. He tries to write the way teens sound to themselves and one another—clever, weird, and wise, assured sometimes and sharply insecure at others. It’s like teen-speak, boiled down to its essence. You have to love and admire and understand young people to pull that off.
Also, the protagonist in The Fault in Our Stars was inspired by an actual teenager with thyroid cancer, Esther Grace Earl, whose experience helped shape the book. Four or five times a month, Green talks on the phone with kids who have cancer, sometimes through Make a Wish, sometimes not. He is also fluent in social media and engages folks on Twitter and Tumblr. And once every few months, he Skypes with teens who are struggling with serious illness.
Is your church present where young people are present, whether online or in person? Are you cultivating actual relationships with them, not so you can bestow your wisdom, but so we can all grow together?
He’s created a tribe. There are traditions and catch phrases and a shared history—not all of which were created by him. (This is important.)
Last year I checked out a John Green book from my local library and when I got it home, out fell a note that had been tucked into its pages: “Hey, nerdfighter! Don’t forget to be awesome!”
DFTBA is very big with this tribe.
And there’s a focus on giving to others. Esther Day is a holiday that Esther Earl asked people to observe on her birthday. According to the New Yorker, “Her idea was that it could become a celebration of non-romantic love—a day when you’d say ‘I love you’ to people who don’t often hear it from you.” And check out the Project for Awesome that has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for worthy causes.
How does Christianity help people (of all ages) become a part of something larger than themselves? (Hint: as the Project for Awesome demonstrates, they don’t need us in order to feel this. Still, what is our distinctive gift in the midst of the broader culture?) And are people encouraged to bring their own energy and ideas to the table, or are we the keepers of our traditions and norms?
He’s a learner. Check out his Crash Course videos. In these, he (and Hank) are teachers, but he comes at his topics with the posture of a student. And my kids love his Mental Floss videos in which he tests out various lifehacks:
Do we have all the answers, or are we willing to learn?
He employs humor with substance. From the New Yorker profile: “In a post advising boys on how to charm a girl, John jokingly said, ‘Become a puppy. A kitten would also be acceptable or, possibly, a sneezy panda’—an allusion to a popular clip on YouTube. But he also said, ‘If you can, see girls as, like, people, instead of pathways to kissing and/or salvation.'”
As communities of faith, do we offer meaning and substance… while taking ourselves lightly?
He loves the grand gesture. Again, the New Yorker: “Many authors do pre-publication publicity, but Green did extra credit: he signed the entire first printing—a hundred and fifty thousand copies—which took ten weeks and necessitated physical therapy for his shoulder.”
Which leads to my final question for the church: When’s the last time you undertook an extravagant gesture for the sake of this world God loves?