the practice of improvisation: incorporating gifts

Psalm 111

We’ve mentioned before in this worship series,
as we’ve explored some of what we might have to learn
from the world of improvisational theater,
that much of the practice of improvisation
consists of games—consists of playing.
You’ve no doubt heard that playing is the work of children
and we are all children of God(!),
so I want to tell you this morning about the “It’s Tuesday” game:
a game about overaccepting (and we’ll come back to that—overaccepting).
“It’s Tuesday’s” a game about overaccepting
consisting of a series of innocuous statements—
dull offers—mundane—inconsequential,
yet received ever so dramatically.
So the game begins with one actor uttering
that most unremarkable of statements, “It’s Tuesday.”
and a partner might respond:
“Great heavens! Don’t you realize what day this is?
It’s my coronation! All my life I’ve waited for this day!
I had the tattoos done, the circumcision’s almost healed!”
(Keith Johnstone, Impro for Storytellers
[New York: Routledge/Theatre Arts Books, 1999] 110-111)
Or “No … it can’t be …. It’s the day predicted for my death
by the old gypsy!” That actor then dies horribly.
But you can’t leave it with that. That dying actor has to conclude
with his or her own innocuous statement:
“Feed the gold fish”
(Samuel Wells, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics
Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2004, 132).
And then that’s the innocuous statement that the other actor must overaccept.
And it goes back and forth between the actors. You get the idea?
It’s your job as actor to receive all offers playfully—with enthusiasm.

And in the case of such intentional enthusiasm,
you, as actor, and those watching—those witnessing
begin to sense an heretofore unsuspected expansive scope
to the possibility unfolding before us.
There is more that is possible than we thought.
The story is bigger than we supposed.

In the old Monty Python sketch: the four Yorkshiremen
(all of whom, interestingly enough, have biblical names:
Joshua, Obadiah, Josiah and Ezekiel)—the four Yorkshiremen
lounge around enjoying a good glass of Chateau de Chasselas
at a tropical resort, reminiscing about their youth.
It was probably on a Tuesday!

“Who’d have thought, forty years ago, that we’d be sitting here,
drinking Chateau de Chasselas …?”
“Aye! … In those days we were glad to have the price of a cup of tea.”
“Aye, a cup of cold tea ….”
“Without milk or sugar ….”
“or tea …!”
“Aye, and a cracked cup at that!”
“We never had a cup. We used to drink out of a rolled up newspaper.”
“Best we could manage was to chew a piece of damp cloth.”

They move on from the tea to their old accommodations.
“We used to live in a tiny old tumbledown house with great holes in the roof.”
“A house! You were lucky to have a house.
We used to live in one room ….”
“You were lucky to have a room! We used to live in the corridor.”
“Ooooh! I used to dream of living in a corridor….”
“Well, when I said house … it was only a hole in the ground
covered by a couple of foot of torn canvas, but it was a house to us.”

And then they move on to their lifestyle.
“We used to get up at six, … work fourteen hours at the mill,
day-in, day-out, for sixpence a week ….”
“Luxury! We used to get [up] at three …, work twenty hours at the mill
for twopence a month ….”
“Aye, well, we had it tough. I had to get [up] at midnight, …
work twenty-three hours a day at the mill for a penny every four years ….”
“Right …. I had to get up in the morning at ten o’clock at night
half an hour before I went to bed …,
work twenty-nine hours a day at the mill and pay the boss to let [me] work ….”
the sketch concludes with one of the Yorkshiremen saying,
“Aye, and you try and tell the young people of today that,
and they won’t believe you.”
Read the entire sketch.
See the sketch.

Initially perceived as oneupmanship (or onedownmanship, as it were!),
it’s so much more carefully conceived than that.
There’s a story they all four have in mind—a bigger story.
There’s an end and none of them can jump to that end prematurely.
The actors have to agree to move incrementally
through the three verses (the tea, the accomodations, the work)
and allow the sense of scope to grow
until even the movement from credible to incredible is enjoyed and anticipated
and somehow even perceived as inevitable.
Of course he ended up working twenty nine hours a day!

Incorporating gifts, overaccepting, you see,
is not just about receiving gifts instead of givens,
but also about offering gifts back in response.
And it’s not just about making things up—getting ever more incredible.
In fact, most significantly, it’s not about making things up at all.

There’s the story of the concert pianist
about to start a performance “when there was a scream from the audience.
A child had left her seat beside her parent and was running
around the auditorium. The concert pianist stepped away from his instrument
in order to maintain concentration. The child ran up the steps onto the stage,
sat herself down on the stool, and began to play discordant notes
at random as she pleased. The hushed audience gasped in horror
and embarrassment. The pianist walked toward the child
and stood behind her as she played. The pianist leaned over her
and, without disturbing her, placed right and left hands outside
her two small hands on the keyboard. The pianist then began to play
in response to her notes, weaving their discordant sounds
into an improvised melody. To have thrown the child out
would have been to block;
to have let her play on would have been to accept;
to weave a wonderful melody around her was to receive her as a gift,
to overaccept”
(Wells, 131-132).

Or the story is also told of Itzhak Perlman playing a violin concerto
when “one of the strings snapped in the first movement.
He continued as if nothing had happened,
playing on with just the three strings.
Speaking to the audience afterwards, he said,
“Our job is to make music with what remains”
(Wells, 230 fn. 6).

Now do notice how much skill all this presumes—
how much practice, how much discipline, how much work—
these musicians have put into their craft to have these options.
But it’s not all about technical skills either.
It’s about the willingness to risk something new—
something that could fail most dramatically.
And sometimes the risks don’t involve technical skills at all.

The ski slopes are a great context for overaccepting.
Listen to Chris Waddail sometimes, tell about the time he fell and lost a ski.
Now that happens, not infrequently.
But Chris didn’t just lose a ski when his boot popped out of his binding,
he lost his ski when his boot slipped off his foot!
So listen to him talk about his ski with the boot still in the binding, mind you,
zipping down the slope into three feet of ungroomed snow off to the side
right under the chair lift!
Listen to him talk about walking down the slope in the snow in his sock
into the ungroomed snow right under the chair lift
to the great enjoyment of the people directly overhead.
It’s a great story of fun and community and laughter
and a reality bigger than one particular set of circumstances within it.
And the skills are that of a good nature
and a willingness to see the humor in your own circumstance
and laugh with others at what was also, indubitably, misery—
think wet sock, freezing foot.

So we come to our text this morning, with overaccepting in mind.
Samuel Wells suggests, in fact, that “[o]veraccepting imitates
the manner of God’s reign. For God does not block … creation:
… does not toss away [the] original material.
Since Noah, [God] has refused to destroy what [God] has made.
But neither does [God] accept creation on its own terms.
Instead, [God] overaccepts … creation.
One can see the whole sweep of the scriptural narrative
as a long story of overaccepting” (Wells, 134).

Psalm 111 is an acrostic
which there’s just no way for us to know
looking at our translation,
but in the original Hebrew, the psalm’s lines
correspond with the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
Acrostic psalms are typically instructive.
The structure (with the alphabet) serves in part as mnemonic device
(to help remember the psalm),
in part as building block development—
start with the basics and build from there.

So in our psalm, we start with praise offered in the congregation,
and the psalm then unfolds with all for which we give God praise
as we consider the works of God—
full of honor, majestic, righteous, wonderful,
gracious, merciful, faithful, just, trustworthy,
holy, awesome … to name a few!
Not a bad list, huh? Good list!
So we start with praise and build from there.

I want you to notice verse two:
great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them.
I want you to study that word studied!
The great works of God aren’t just noticed—
aren’t just appreciated—celebrated,
but studied.
There are things to learn in considering the works of God.

So maybe we start with the wonderful works of God and build from there.
Whether those are wonderful works associated with the exodus:
God leading the people to freedom,
providing for them along the way,
fulfilling the ancient covenant and making a new one—
mutual promises and expectations.
Whether that’s reflecting on the presence of God with the people in exile
and then the return from exile.
Whether that’s the presence of God we affirm in our own living.
Wells was considering the works of God throughout Scripture, no?
to make the claim that the sweep of God’s word is about overaccepting.

Then we get to the line in the last verse, verse 10:
“the beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord”:
a proverb associated with the wisdom tradition.
Comes up three other places in Scripture (Proverbs 1:7, 9:10, Job 28:28),
but doesn’t seem to fit here—within our flow of praise.
So what do we do with that?

We could just say the poet really needed something
beginning with the Hebrew equivalent of the letter “r!”
More to it than that, don’t you think?
The word “awesome” (in verse nine) actually looks ahead to fear
as they both have the same root in Hebrew
(James L. Mays, Psalms in Interpretation:
A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching,
[Louisville: John Knox, 1994] 357),
and the last line looks back to fear as
all who practice it (the fear of God) have a good understanding.
So there is a flow to this,
which leads to God’s praise enduring forever.
So is fear of God the starting place from which everything else builds?

We tend not to think in terms of the fear of God.
Not a good thing, we think, what with
what a friend we have in Jesus and all.
So we block that fear—deny any anger—as theologically inappropriate.
And there’s something to that. We’re not to fear the arbitrariness of God.
We’re not to fear the power of God imposing the will of God.
But does that mean not to fear God?

Because we can, alternatively, accept the fear of God and live in fear.
There are plenty of preachers and congregations that expect the fear of God—
expound upon the fear of God—use fear as motivation and inspiration.
“Where will you spend eternity?
in the fiery furnace of the eternally stoked flames of hell?”
… Yuck.

Andy Lester taught at Southern when Greg, Carole and I were there.
he wrote and taught a book entitled Coping with Your Anger: A Christian Guide.
His basic premise was that fear and anger were always
the response to the perception of a threat to something important to us
(Andrew D. Lester, Coping with Your Anger: A Christian Guide
[Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983] 19-22)—
a very helpful way of looking at both anger and fear.

Here’s the question: if fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
how does God threaten something important to us?

And one answer is so basic and fundamental that we overlook it regularly.
God poses a threat to us because the Lord takes us out
as lords of our own lives. We’re removed from the center.
And again, we can deny that—block that in anger.
We can accept that and live with it in resignation.
Or … what if … do you think maybe …
if we don’t deny it
and if we also don’t simply accept it,
we overaccept our fear in praise?

Fear is the starting place.
But God considered and self displaced and considered—
fear overaccepted—
all leads to praise and the scope of my story stretched to the scope of God’s.
Something to contemplate.

Now let’s get real!
Several of in the last few weeks have asked, “How?”
“How do I do this?”
“How do I take a given and receive it as a gift?”
“I have a job I hate.”
“I live with stress that is undermining my relationships.”
“Circumstances have been tragic.”
“I live with physical pain that undoes me.”
“—emotional pain that cripples me.”
“And you’re saying, somehow, all this can be transformed?
I want to know how.”
Fair enough.

Remember the building block development of our psalm.
We start with the basics and build from there.
And to think back through our series so far,
overaccepting is not going to just happen (Jonah reminds us)
but it can be done (testify the Ninivites).
It has something to do (suggests our psalm)
with not just naming God’s deeds great,
not just appreciating them as great because God did them, but studying them—
reading your Bible to find all the various tellings—
talking to other followers of God in the way of Jesus
not just to marvel at the deeds of God,
but to try and find in them a way for you to be—
assuming there’s something to learn from the way God acts.

It has to do with not blocking the fear of acting like God acts—
being like God, but also not just accepting that fear
and living with fear,
but boiling it down in the reframing of my story into God’s story,
discovering the expansive scope of it all,
and taking me out of the middle of my own story—overaccepting—
receiving with enthusiasm and a sense of boundless possibility and wonder.

It has to do with assessing my habits—what are they? And do they help me?
Or do they get in the way?
It has to do with questioning some of our givens
because we have a story bigger than that of our circumstance,
but how well do we know it?
Do we know it well enough that it’s the story
we go to in the midst of our circumstances?
We have a story better than those of our society—
we have a story better than those of our culture—
we have a story better than those of our country,
but how many of us tell it with pride?

Do we regularly contemplate our own circumstance
to claim our status as children of God—
participants in a story with God at the center (and at the beginning and at the end)!
letting go of any fear (or trying to let go of any fear!)—
telling ourselves “God’s story—God’s love—God’s presence,” over and over again?

Now do notice how much skill all this presumes—
how much practice—how much discipline—
practicing the scales of justice …
forming the habits of grace …
putting in the hours to form the habits of compassion …
working to form the habits of love …
risking what it takes to form the habits of truth …
putting all that at the beginning, continuing to practice it all the time,
building on it in and through relationships and circumstance
laughing because the story is always bigger and better than right now.
Never denying what is, but not simply accepting it either—as is.

It’s an observation not just people of God are making.
Anita Flowers, wife of our friend, Don Flowers,
writer, career counselor, posted a very interesting article on her webpage
a reference to Oliver Segovia writing for the Harvard Business Review:

“Like myself, today’s twentysomethings were raised
to find our dreams and follow them. But it’s a different world.
And as the jobless generation grows up,
we realize the grand betrayal of the false idols of passion.
This philosophy no longer works for us, or at most, feels incomplete.
So what do we do? I propose a different frame of reference:
Forget about finding your passion. Instead, focus on finding big problems.
Putting problems at the center of our decision-making changes everything.
It’s not about the self anymore. It’s about what you can do
and how you can be a valuable contributor.
People working on the biggest problems are compensated in the biggest ways.
I don’t mean this in a strict financial sense, but in a deeply human sense.
For one, it shifts your attention from you to others and the wider world….
You become less self-absorbed.
Ironically, we become happier if we worry less about what makes us happy.
The good thing is that there are a lot of big problems to go by:
climate change, sustainability, poverty, education, health care,
technology, and urbanization in emerging markets.
What big problem serves as your compass? ….
We don’t find happiness by looking within.
We go outside and immerse in the world.
We are called to a higher purpose by the inescapable circumstances
that are laid out on our path. It’s our daily struggles that define us
and bring out the best in us, and this lays down the foundation
to continuously find fulfillment in what we do even when times get tough.”

Those of us familiar with Frederick Buechner
may remember his way of putting it,
“The place God calls you to is the place
where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet”
(Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC
[SanFrancisco: HarperCollins, 1973] 95).
We may have just tended to focus more on our deep gladness
than the world’s deep hunger.

Segovia goes on:
“Happiness comes from the intersection of what you love,
what you’re good at, and what the world needs.
We’ve been told time and again to keep finding the first.
Our schools helped developed the second.
It’s time we put more thought on the third.
What big problems are you trying to solve?”

And we add, with God
what big problems are you trying to address working with God?
And I’ll tell you the problem we’ve been assigned:
it’s no less than the redeeming of all creation
one relationship at a time—one prayer—
one set of circumstances overaccepted into unimagined possibility.
The joy of improv, you see, is the fun, the humor, the laughter.
The joy of our faith is the boundless transformative possibility of redemption.

So it’s not your circumstances, we remind each other (because this isn’t easy!).
It’s not your circumstances, we affirm—
based on the story we tell—
the story we believe—
the story we try and live.
It’s not your circumstance, we repeat, as many times as it takes,
minimizing neither you nor your circumstances.
It’s not your job … it’s not your stress … it’s not your fear …
it’s not your embarrassment … it’s not your loss …
it’s not your wet, cold foot … it’s not your—whatever.
it’s not your circumstances,
but rather God with you in and through those circumstances.
Doesn’t change the circumstances,
but it can change you within those circumstances.

You ready?
My line … then yours.

“It’s Sunday!”


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