Tag Archives: improv

Go Until No

The Steeple Chasers, 2015

It’s September, which means it’s Ragnar Relay time for me. Ragnar is an event in which teams of twelve people take turns running for some two days straight, through day and night, rain and shine, cold and heat. As I write this, our team is preparing to run next weekend from Cumberland, MD to Washington DC, a distance of 200 miles. Each of us will run three legs for a total of thirteen to twenty-plus miles. (I’m somewhere in the middle at eighteen.) As each runner completes their leg, vans carry the other runners to the next checkpoint, along with a considerable amount of gear. When the previous runner reaches the checkpoint, that person passes along the metal bracelet to the next runner, and off they go.

This is my fourth year to captain a Ragnar Relay team, and as I prepare this year, I can’t help but remember two years ago, when we made our race preparations with one eye on the Weather Channel. Hurricane Joaquin was wreaking havoc on the Bahamas and threatening the mid-Atlantic—exactly where we’d be running in a few days’ time. Forecasters were having a hard time predicting exactly where Joaquin would go, but it was looking more and more like we were in for a soggy race.

Rain we could handle, but what about winds? Flying debris? Flash floods? One member of our team was blunt: “I have serious concerns about doing this race.” Another quickly jumped in to agree. Others weren’t sure. They were willing to try it, but this is a team event, and they didn’t want to appear to be strong-arming the reluctant folks. Besides, wouldn’t Ragnar personnel cancel such a large endeavor if it were unsafe? They were certainly watching the weather at least as closely as we were!

Finally, as captain I felt I needed to make a call. “Anyone who feels uncomfortable with moving forward is welcome to back out with no hard feelings,” I said. “We’ll miss you, but we’ll muddle through. But as a team, we are going to proceed until it becomes clear we shouldn’t. We don’t have enough information to make the call to cancel. Things could work out fine. Or we may reach a decisive point at which it’s unsafe (or no longer fun), at which time we will stop. I trust that we’ll recognize that point when we get there. Until that time, we are moving forward.”

So we packed our vans, just like we’d planned, and we headed to Maryland. Only one of the 36 legs ended up being canceled due to water. The rest were soggy, and some were cold. But we completed the relay. One foot in front of the other, one runner at a time, with a van leapfrogging our path, we did it.

I have since come to call this approach “Go until No.” It happens often in life, that we have to make a decision without having the whole picture. My natural inclination is to stay put until I work out all the details so I can make a risk-free decision. Or I pre-emptively say no to an exciting possibility if there’s a chance it won’t work out. But sometimes we don’t get the full picture until we commit ourselves and take a step forward. As has been attributed to St. Augustine, “solvitur ambulando”: it is solved by walking.

Go until No requires you to trust that your intuition will tell you what you need to know even if it hasn’t yet. It requires you to have faith in the future—not that the future will work out the way you hope, but that it will provide the clarity you need to either keep going, change direction, or turn back.

We’ve had plenty of people come and go on our Ragnar team over our four years together. But I think it’s significant that of those twelve runners in 2015, fully seven of them have been back every year since, and an eighth one is only missing this year’s race due to a family conflict. Certainly, doing something crazy under adverse conditions—and living to tell the tale—bonds a group like few other things do. But I also like to think we grew closer because of our commitment to “Go until No.” What we did was take a leap into the unknown together—and we not only survived, but we thrived. For 200 miles.

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Here are my recaps about the 2014 and 2015 Ragnar experience.

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

 

“Something That Happened”: A Spiritual Micro-Practice

Watch the video–the story is better coming from his own mouth, and only 90 seconds long. Plus you get some Miles Davis horn in the background. But in case you’re not in a place to play it:

Musician Herbie Hancock remembers a mortifying moment while playing onstage with jazz legend Miles Davis. The band was hot that night, he recalls, and Davis was in the middle of a solo in the song “So What.” Out of nowhere, Hancock played the wrong chord—it wasn’t just slightly off, it was horrifyingly wrong.

But to Hancock’s amazement, “Miles didn’t hear it as a mistake. He heard it as… something that happened. Just an event. …[It] was part of the reality of what was happening at that moment. And he dealt with it.” Davis reproduced Hancock’s chord and somehow incorporated it into the solo itself: “Since he didn’t hear it as a mistake, he felt it was his responsibility to find something that fit,” Hancock says.

“That taught me a very big lesson about not only music but about life.”

I shared this video on Facebook a couple of months ago, but I haven’t blogged about it, because it’s taken me awhile to take this to heart–and I’m still working on it. Robert can attest that I am trying!

Example: I can’t tell you how many times a child will spill something on a tablecloth that I literally put on the table mere hours before. (OK, adults too.) It’s not that we spill a lot. We don’t. It’s just some weird Murphy’s Law thing: fresh tablecloth, OOPS goes the milk.

I have taken to announcing in times like this:

THAT IS A THING THAT HAPPENED!

Or the shorthand:

AN EVENT!

I find the more dramatic the voice, the better.

It’s a nod to Herbie and to Miles, both of whom have much to teach me about improv and about life.

Try it!

When Your Energy is Low

This was sent to my email list this morning. To get these messages in your inbox twice a month, subscribe here

Long time no email. But I’m happy to report that the manuscript for Improvising with God is DONE and turned in, so the editor can do her magic. So grateful to have the book finished. One giant step down, eleventy-seven (admittedly smaller) steps to go before it’s published next summer/fall.

I’ll be getting back to my regular practice of twice-monthly reflections to you all, and I’m kicking things off with something my husband taught me recently about life and improv that has really stuck with me.

Robert is one of those people that picks up new hobbies, pursues them obsessively for a while, and then moves on to new things. I think he feels bad about this, like he should stick with stuff for the long haul, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. Life is full of great adventures to pursue; why not try as many as possible?

About three years ago, he decided he might like to get a fish tank. He researched and planned and ended up with some small catfish, rasboras, and the queen of the tank, a pearl guorami we named Frederica:

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And with the exception of the untimely death of one of the rasboras, Joe Pesci, the fish have thrived. When we moved last year, we made a plan for bringing them with us, and the tank is currently in the corner of our dining room, to the entertainment of our kids and especially our cats:

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I even wrote a blog post about the stress-relieving effects of the fish tank.

Well, over time, a few more of the fish died, and the tank started to feel like a burden. Life got complicated as life does, until the fish hobby became nothing but a weekly chore: changing out water, scraping algae off the sides of the tank, etc. Every time Robert looked at the tank, he felt the weight of not taking better care of it, which made him want to devote even less time to it. (Negative feelings aren’t great motivators, are they?)

I expected him to keep the tank minimally functioning, but phase out of this hobby over time as the remaining fish died. That’s probably what I would have done.

But he didn’t do that. Instead, he doubled down on it.

First, he bought more fish for the tank, and we all watched with delight as the rasboras schooled with their new friends almost immediately. They even pinked up in color, which apparently is a sign of contentment in fish:

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Robert also made the move from plastic plants to live ones. And he acquired some snails and small shrimp, which are theoretically supposed to help with algae cleanup.

In the short-term, all of this involves a lot more work—acquiring the new items, introducing them to the tank, and cleaning it even more often, since the live plants required better lighting, which can encourage algae to grow, and the snail population isn’t quite… how should we say… abundant enough to keep up with their cleaning duties.

But over time, the investment seems to be paying off—the tank still needs maintenance and always will, but the fish are happier, and the shrimp and snails are chomping away at the algae.

This strikes me as fundamental to living improvisationally—to saying Yes And to the circumstances of our lives. When we’re feeling bored or disconnected from something, the temptation can be strong to walk away from it. That’s fine sometimes—energies shift, and Robert is under no obligation to be a fish owner for the rest of his life. But maybe that sense of disconnection isn’t a sign to let something go, but to go deeper with it: to invest more time, not less; to find creative new ways to engage the situation; or to change something about it, even if that requires more energy than you think you have.

I’m curious if you’ve ever experienced this in your own life.

Peace, Joy and Yes,
MaryAnn

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!