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Psalm 19:8-15 (Inclusive Psalms Translation)
Philippians 2:12-18 (New Revised Standard Translation)
In her book, Bossypants, comedy legend Tina Fey (BIG fan) gives the “rules of improvisation.” I am reminded by my children that she did not write these rules, they are just “THE rules,” widely in use in theatre circles. Here’s what she writes: The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES. When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, “Freeze, I have a gun,” and you say, “That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,” our improvised scene has ground to a halt. But if I say, “Freeze, I have a gun!” and you say, “The gun I gave you for Christmas! You jerk!” then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun.
Now, obviously in real life you’re not always going to agree with everything everyone says. But the Rule of Agreement, she writes, reminds you to “respect what your partner has created” and to at least start from an open-minded place. Start with a YES and see where that takes you.
The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND. You are supposed to agree and then add something of your own. If I start a scene with “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you just say, “Yeah…” we’re kind of at a standstill. But if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “Yes, this can’t be good for the wax figures.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “I told you we shouldn’t have crawled into this dog’s mouth,” now we’re getting somewhere. To me YES, AND means don’t be afraid to contribute. It’s your responsibility to contribute. Always make sure you’re adding something to the discussion. Your initiations are worthwhile.
The next rule is MAKE STATEMENTS. This is a positive way of saying “Don’t ask questions all the time.” If we’re in a scene and I say, “Who are you? Where are we? What are we doing here? What’s in that box?” I’m putting pressure on you to come up with all the answers. In other words: Whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles….Speak in statements instead of apologetic questions. No one wants to go to a doctor who says, “I’m going to be your surgeon? I’m here to talk to you about your procedure? Make statements, with your actions and your voice. Instead of saying “Where are we?” make a statement like “Here we are in Spain, Dracula.” Okay, “Here we are in Spain, Dracula” may seem like a terrible start to a scene, but this leads us to the best rule:
THERE ARE NO MISTAKES, only opportunities. If I start a scene as what I think is very clearly a cop riding a bicycle, but you think I am a hamster in a hamster wheel, guess what? Now I’m a hamster in a hamster wheel. I’m not going to stop everything to explain that it was really supposed to be a bike. Who knows? Maybe I’ll end up being a police hamster who’s been put on “hamster wheel” duty because I’m “too much of a loose cannon” in the field. In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents. And many of the world’s greatest discoveries, she finishes, have been by accident. I mean, look at the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, or Botox.
Now what, you may be asking yourself, does this have to do with a letter that a first century Jew wrote to a group of people in Philippi? Or, for that matter, the writings of some person we loosely call the “psalmist” from an even earlier time talking about the precepts of God? Good questions. We begin in Paul’s letter where we left off last week, with this powerful instruction to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” a phrase that has held a lot of weight in Christian theological circles, and not only because it suggests a salvation that isn’t entirely wrapped up like a Christmas package. Despite Martin Luther’s call for salvation by grace alone that has so dominated our protestant world since the Reformation, the thought of our participation in God’s work, our involvement in the task of liberation that lies all about us today – both literally and figuratively – that thought may be making a comeback, and for good reasons. It’s clear that the world needs our participation. It’s no longer, if it was ever, OK to just say “Yes” to your faith. The world needs your “Yes, AND” as we seek to work salvation out, which is not a clear path. We have to wrestle with it, to discern it, to improvise our way into a world of justice and peace that none of us knows how to get to or to make happen.
Paul is saying the same thing to the Philippians, worried about how they relate to the Holy and, by extension, each other. He says it this way – “Do all things without murmuring and arguing,” a word in Greek that means something more like “talking something to death.” Paul then encourages the Philippians to a very high ideal – to be Children of God, “without blemish” in a twisted world. He doesn’t mean perfect, though the English translation might leave us thinking so. That word in Greek really implies harm. He’s asking them to be harmless, to be helpful, to say “Yes, AND,” participating in the act of improvisation that God is up to in the world.
Paul suggests to the Philippians that they make statements about who they are. To bring it back home to us, it would mean that we don’t say, “I am Christian?”, but rather assert our faith, claiming it boldly when we serve at meal at the Day Center, or sign a petition asking for criminal justice reform or when we hang a rainbow flag on our sanctuary.
As we face new challenges in our lives, at work, in our relationships, with our responsibilities, we might think of it as an exercise in improvisation, where God is trying to help the scene move and grow and it is our responsibility to say “Yes,” and the “Yes, AND,” as we respond to the energy that may surely be taking us to a place we feel unprepared to go – like a hamster cop, or Dracula in Spain. Our answers, our responses, may not always be the best – anyone who has watched improv has watched a scene go horribly south in a hurry – but the point is to participate, for nothing is created if we don’t. In church language, we call this the Holy Spirit. As we study the Book of Acts on Sunday mornings, we’ll get a glimpse of what happens when church is dynamic, more of a movement than an institution, listening for and guided by the Spirit which takes the early followers of Jesus FAR outside their comfort zones.
Perhaps not only as individuals but as a church we have some space to grow. How often do we “process” our future plans, or take surveys seeking the “will of the majority” in our decision-making but make no space to seek the call of the Spirit, no place to pray for guidance or discern where the Spirit is directing us, seeking to create a beautiful, improvised scene if we will only take the prompts?
Learning to trust in the guidance of the Spirit means we must also learn that we don’t have to have all of the scenarios worked out, all our “t’s” crossed and our “i’s” dotted. In the words of Dr. King, we don’t have to be able to see every step on the dark staircase in order to take the first one, this is the basis of faith. When we learn to listen to the Spirit, to trust the improvisation, participating in the dance, seeking something beyond our own comfort all the time, that is when we are capable of working out our salvation with a big capital “S.” That salvation is much bigger than what happens to us after we die, it’s bigger than even us and it does not lie in the safe and neutral places, but waits for us on that next step of the staircase, in the beautiful, happy accidents that help us to understand that there is no old man with a beard above us pulling the strings, but rather a God who walks beside us, weaving in and out of our own actions, giving us cues, sending us the Spirit to offer possibilities, to push our own borders, transforming our mistakes into beautiful accidents and waiting for our “No” to turn to “Yes,” and then to “Yes, AND” as we respond to God’s creative power, shining like stars in the world.