the practice of improvisation: accepting and blocking offers

1 Samuel 3:1-20

We continue thinking in our worship about the insights and lessons
that the practice of improvisational theater and
the practice of improvisational actors might offer us
as followers of God in the way of Jesus.
And we consider today the alternatives of accepting or blocking offers.

And right off the bat I have to disabuse you
of what is probably (and understandably) the first impression
many of us here today have of blocking.
Because these days—today, here in Baltimore,
blocking is all about those big guys up front
who create a path for the runner to make forward progress.
Blocking enables—it facilitates forward momentum.
Blockers are those who deal with what would interfere
rather than those who themselves interfere.

So you need to get all that out of your head for now.
Think about football after church—pretty much right after church,
but not now!

Because right now we’re thinking about the stage, not the field.
And in improvisational theater,
an offer’s an initiative one actor offers another or others—
an introduction, an idea, an action, a possibility—a reality.
Accepting an offer means the other actor or actors go with that initiative—that offer.

According to David Alger, director of San Francisco’s Pan Theater,
an improv theater and school, the first and second rules of improv
(he offers twenty rulestwenty rules of improv)—
the first and second rules of which
can be summed up as, “yes, and ….”
You accept what’s offered (you say, “Yes”),
and then you build on it. You add to it. You say, “Yes, and ….”

So blocking, or denying an offer, is refusing to go with it.
It’s an initiative offered and rejected, the possibility not taken,
the road not chosen, the reality not pursued.

Blocking is someone with an idea fixed in their head,
and because they have their idea fixed in their head,
they reject anyone else’s idea,
and the scene, for such an actor, turns into a competitive struggle
for whose idea will prevail—who will dominate.

Now it might well be that there’s some, or even a lot of humor
in such rejection—in such blocking.
There might be some, or even a lot of appeal to such a development,
but it’s not humor or appeal conducive to the scene.
The laughter comes at the expense of someone who’s supposed to be a partner.
So it’s short-sighted humor.
It’s the appeal of immediate gratification.
And you may get those immediate laughs, but then you have nowhere to go,
and no one wanting to go with you anywhere anyway.

Sounds a lot like Washington, DC, doesn’t it?,
where the rule seems to be block anything and everything that’s not your idea—
that’s not in locked, goose-step to your idea.

But blocking’s a big no no in improvisational theater.
In fact, the third rule of improv is just don’t do it—don’t block.

Biblical scholars that you are, you’re probably all thinking
of Romans 14:13, aren’t you?
Where that master improviser Paul
wrote his own version of the third rule of improv:
“Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another,
but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block
or hindrance in the way of another.”

As biblical scholars who are theologians as well,
you’ve also no doubt made the connection
with the first stories of our faith—the genesis of our narrative—
in which God’s initiative—God’s offer—was extended to us—
but, in the unfolding of our primal narrative, was subsequently blocked.
Humankind, in the exercise of free will, blocks God’s offer.
Just don’t do that. Rule # 3.

You see, Paul knew, as does every good improvisational actor,
you really cannot afford to stop the flow
of relationship and dialogue and action.
Because if you do, then nothing develops.
Nothing flows.
And your top priority—your only priority, really,
is maintaining the flow—
keeping the action going—the story.
That’s your goal. That’s your hope. That’s your job.

In improvisational theater, if someone says something,
you go with it, and you go with it enthusiastically.
What do we do with this? How do we develop this?
What can I add to this?

A lot of the practice of improvisation actually consists of playing various games.
One of these games involves asking one actor to speak about something
he or she is passionate about,
but the other actor or actors are all instructed not to respond—
to return no emotional energy.
they are to remain neutral—
offer the occasional nod, a non-committal “Uh huh.”
You know, the basic, I’m sorta listening to what I don’t really care about.
And what becomes a monologue will begin to drag on the actor—
begin to feel heavy—as the weight of carrying the momentum of the scene
rests squarely on the one who’s speaking.
That’s hard to keep going.

This game is then turned on its head
when the reactive actors (who have been pretty much non-reactive)
are all told to respond enthusiastically to the one speaking.
And it doesn’t take long to feel the growing energy of “Yes, and ….”
the growing energy of acceptance and advancement—
of a monologue that becomes dialogue
as ideas are built upon and developed.
And you’re not just dealing with growing energy, but synergy.

Such good practice.
Because we don’t always get the option of blocking
so much of what life sends our way, do we?
We get the diagnosis.
We’re told what the decision was.
These are the circumstances.
This is the reality of our living.
Yes, and ….
Yes, and how do we keep going?
Yes, and how do we bring ourselves to what life throws us
and participate in a synergy of positive possibility?

We’ve noted before, do you remember?,
that verse from Romans—that oft misapplied verse from Romans—
Romans 8:28—actually reads: there’s a synergy for good
within the experience of those that love God.

So it is that we, biblical scholars and theologians, come to our text for today
thinking already of the consistent initiative of God—
remembering how God’s initiative was blocked
in one of the fundamental, primal stories of our faith.

Now this text begins with the statement
that the word of God was rare in those days.
If we read the preceding chapter,
we know that those who were to represent God (the priests, Eli’s sons)
had not done so—had not represented God, but their own desires and greeds.
So God was again, blocked.
And Eli’s own eyesight had begun to grow dim
so he could not see.
Visions were not widespread.
That’s where we start this morning.
That’s the reality with which we start this morning.

But we believe in the persistent offer God extends,
and God called out to Samuel, “Samuel! Samuel!”

And we have the boy, Samuel accepting God’s offer—
waking up to possibility.
“Here I am!”

Now Samuel did run to Eli, thinking it was Eli calling, but that’s not a block.
Samuel doesn’t reject the late night offer.
He just misidentifies it.

Eli’s response is though—a block.
“I did not call; lie down again. It’s nothing. Go back to sleep.

It happens again—the same exact way.
God’s initiative—God’s offer.
Samuel’s acceptance.
Eli’s block.

The third time though—God still offering, Samuel still accepting,
Eli accepts too.
He perceives that it’s God calling.
Samuel didn’t know to identify God.
Eli did, but had gotten used to not seeing and not hearing.
To his credit, as soon as he perceives God,
he identifies God for Samuel.
“Go back. Lie back down; and if God calls you again,
you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’”

And then, as we keep reading,
something fascinating happens!
Because God has some pretty harsh words for old Eli.
God takes the behavior of his sons so seriously and personally.
And what happens?
Did you see it?
Samuel blocks, right?
Doesn’t want to tell Eli God’s word.
And now Eli’s the one who accepts God’s offer.

So within our practice of Scripture—
our practice of learning not to block,
we learn that we do block.
We learn that no one’s exempt—
that in our Scripture text two prophets of God both block the word of God!
Both the one rejected (Eli) and the one anointed (Samuel).

The third rule of improv may be don’t block,
but, as a rule of life, we do.
Everyone does—even God’s chosen.
That’s another aspect of the reality with which we start this morning
and every morning.

Which brings us to the big question of the day—
shouldn’t we? block.

I mean, don’t block anything? Don’t get in the way of anything?
Surely not.
That’s not it. That can’t be it.
Clearly there are things—lots of things in our experience
we’re to say “No” to not “Yes, and ….”
I’m sure you, like I, have received lots of offers
it was appropriate, necessary, healthy
to completely shut down.

Here’s the thing: you have to pick what it is you want to not get in the way of.
You have to decide what story unfolding you don’t want to impede.
You have to identify your priority and then get out of its way.
And that may well mean you do get in the way of another story.
You do impede other priorities.

Susie and I love the deep imaginative play of our girls.
They’ll get to going and the living room is transformed into a class room
and dolls and stuffed animals become students,
or the front porch becomes a family’s house—
each imaginative offer accepted taking them deeper and deeper into another world.

A while ago, we were amused overhearing them
out on the front porch playing with a neighbor.
The three of them were all members of a family.
Sydney and Callie, the older sister and the mom.
Audra was, apparently, at times, assigned the role of the baby,
and, at times, that of the family dog—
both characters, I’m sure you notice, relegating her to pretty much non-activity.
She was blocked from full participation …
which didn’t sit well with her.
She had a dream, you see,
of being fully included—
of being recognized as a contributing member of the family—
valued and honored as much as anyone else,
and so in the unfolding of their story,
she kept throwing curves into the imaginative play.
We’d overhear her, to Sydney’s growing exasperation,
making these dramatic offers:
“Let’s pretend our mom is sick.”
“Let’s pretend one sister died.”
Completely changing the tenor of the game—
the direction of the focus—
claiming a power that had been denied her.
Sydney wanted to block.
Audra kept offering.
And they surfaced out of deep imagination into sibling bickering.

You have to pick what it is you want to not get in the way of,
and thus what you will get in the way of.
You have to decide what story unfolding you don’t want to impede,
and thus which ones you will impede.
You have to identify your priority and then get out of its way
and into the way of other priorities—blocking them.
And if you identify the God story as the story you want to see unfold,
then you block what’s not the God story.

Clarence Jordan, great Baptist that he was, observed
living as he did in the Bible Belt down on Koinonia Farms in Georgia,
an interracial, Christian farming community
he and his wife founded with another couple in 1942.
As you might imagine, it was the target of much local ire and even violence
in the fifties and early sixties.
In that environment, Jordan observed how many parents
raised their children in the church—
how many parents raised their children
in the language and practices of the faith—
how many parents wanted their children involved in youth group—
involved in choir and worship—
how many parents wanted their children to walk the aisle—
how many parents wanted their children to be baptized,
but when their children began to live into the implications of our faith—
began to live into the implications of justice and equality—
began to live into the implications of a radical concern
for the poor, and the outcast—the excluded, the widows, orphans and aliens—
how many of those parents then wanted their children to,
in effect, say “no” to God, by saying “no” to what God wants and expects,
even while still saying “yes” to church and worship and Sunday School.

So it’s really not so much don’t ever block.
Sometimes it’s important—sometimes it’s vital to block.
It’s don’t block without knowing what you’re doing.

In fact, Paul, that great improviser,
early composer of rule # 3 of improv,
also wrote, you know what’s coming, don’t you?
also wrote—in his first epistle to the Corinthians—
wrote of Jesus as—what? a stumbling block (1 Corinthians 1:23)!

For the message about the cross is foolishness
to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved
it is the power of God. For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?
For since, in the wisdom of God,
the world did not know God through wisdom,
God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation,
to save those who believe.
For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom,
but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews
and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called,
both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom,
and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters:
not many of you were wise by human standards,
not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.
But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise;
God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;
God chose what is low and despised in the world,
things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are,
so that no one might boast in the presence of God”
(1 Corinthians 1:17-31, excerpts).

So maybe we’re back to that image of blocking
with which we want to leave here to go to our TVs—
Jesus throwing down blocks on all that would get in our way
as long as we’re running in the way of God.

And that means throwing down blocks at wisdom and strength and power
as interpreted by the world.
That means running in the face of the priorities of the world,
and that’s kind of scary

And it’s the scared improviser who just says, “No”
(remember Samuel was scared when he blocked God).
It’s the scared improviser who shuts down the story—
suppresses the possibilities.

Because it’s about control, or, at least the perception of control.
When we’re nervous, when we’re defensive, when we’re feeling out of control—
which is—what?—usually, right?
We want to impose control on the story.
We want to make sure we make it turn out right.

We may have the best of intentions,
but the deeper question then becomes:
what do you trust?
Ultimately, what do you trust?
Do you trust your control of what’s to come?
Do your trust your skill—your skill at manipulating
events and people to make them do what you want?
Do you trust your knowledge and training?
Do you trust your wisdom to know what’s best?
Or do you trust the unfolding story and the God
we believe is a part of that unfolding?
Do you give up to it? Give yourself up to it?
Let go and let it go?
Do you trust the relationships and what will develop in their synergy?

The truth of the matter is that most often
I trust me more than I trust God.
There’s good reason for that.
God’s more invested in the God story than in me …
unless God’s investment in the God story is also God’s investment in me.
But I know how the God story can turn out—
not so good for the me story …
unless the God story’s more important to me than the me story …
unless I want the God story to be the me story.
What a me story that would be.
What a mystery that is!

Our text concludes with the affirmation
that as Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him
and let none of his words fall to the ground.
None of his words were blocked.
And everyone knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of God.
And the word of the Lord was not rare anymore.

It never had been, had it? we believe.
Just blocked.
Which left the story—God’s story—unable to develop.

But God persists.
And God will prevail.
This we believe.
That’s the story we believe.
Don’t we?
Then embrace rule # 3: get out of its way.


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