The Steadiness of Improvising - Reservoir Church
Image Map
Image Map


Prophetic Living

The Steadiness of Improvising

Ivy Anthony

Jun 09, 2019

Happy Pride! Happy glorious sunshine and happy morning!

This morning I want to start with some words that have helped me, specifically over the last year, that have really been a guiding force for me in my vocation as a pastor, but really in all of life—words that came to me long before we thought of this “Prophetic Living” sermon series that we are in. They are words from one of the world’s greatest teachers on the prophets, Walter Brueggemann.  I read at some point last year a great swath of his work and I felt like he spoke directly to me when he said that good preachers and teachers help other people make sense of God by helping them “pause long enough” to take in who God is to them. And he said to do this, we need to indulge the metaphors and imagery of God that we’ve gleaned from scripture: “the giver of the biggest dinner party ever,” “father,” “mother,” “divine,” “king,”  “ a powerful sea monster,” “a gentle nursemaid,” a tender friend “who wipes away every tear from all faces” and so on (December 20, 2011 On Being).

Mr. Brueggemann says that what preachers and teachers and the church as a whole succeed at doing however, is often flattening out “all the images and metaphors of God,  to make it fit in a nice little formulation” that works within creeds and doctrines ⁠— a little cleaner. But of course, a formulaic approach to God comes at a loss, because it allows for no flexible, relational connection to God, who we hope is a real and living, loving, moving spirit in our midst.

So his real charge, to me, was that we have to figure out a way to “take time to sit with these images and relish them and let them become a part of your prayer life and your vocabulary and your conceptual frame,” if we want more than a formula bound God. The use of poetry and imagery that scripture and people around us and the whole of this life offers us demands our imagination, and, if we can call it forth, will actually give us more access to God!  It’s the pathway to growth, the deep spiritual formation we are seeking and wanting.

But this growth won’t abide by a linear graph. It’s not a straightforward trajectory, an “up and to the right” picture.

This spiritual life ⁠— that Jesus absolutely calls us to live ⁠— is far beyond what could be mapped out.

It requires us to go into spaces unknown, to take a journey, to open doorways that haven’t been opened, to say things that haven’t been put to air and imagine and explore new ways forward that have not yet been carved into the ground in front of us, to listen and pay attention to the fullness of the world around us (as it’s ever-changing).

This life, with God in the mix,  requires us to IMPROVISE. And this is what I want to spend some time digging into this morning, this improvisation life we get to live.

I’ve been surprised at how defensive I am to this word “improvise.” it calls up so much fear. My most vivid nightmares to this day are walking up on stage without a plan, no sermon text, not knowing where I’m going.

This is just unwise, and disrespectful, and irreverent.  

So I want to clarify today what holding our lives open to improvising can look like ⁠—to dispel the sense, maybe, that it’s a complete free-for-all, and to pitch that to improvise calls us into deep listening of one another and God and allows us to create new pathways.  We can draw from a rich, vibrant history, a bedrock of faithful improvisors ⁠— the prophets and prophetesses that have gone before us, who held their lives open to God’s story in a way that steadied their posture for the future unseen, in an unpredictable world.

Jesus calls us to this life ⁠— a life designed to be improvised ⁠— because our foundation is as true as the great prophets, with this knowing ⁠— the knowing of who we are and who God is to us, (as best we can tell).  This is all we need for the script of life, to move forward with improvisational and transformative ways… that gives shape to our days and the world around us.

Young Ivy ⁠— Improviser

The first two years of my elementary education were spent at a Christian school – where my main takeaway after that time was to memorize everything I could. That seemed to be what we spend most of our days doing! We memorized multiplication tables, and nursery rhymes, and songs, and chapters upon chapters of the Bible, and some poetry.

To visually take in our growth in these areas, the teacher displayed construction paper cut-out balloons on the wall, for each student in a multitude of colors, with our names on each of them.

If you succeeded in passing your oratory tests with the teacher in front of the class, than your balloon moved in an upward direction.

If you did not succeed, your error would be represented by a tack* in your balloon.

And if you got three tacks in your balloon in one day, you got a spank with a wooden paddle.

((*you could also get tacks for lots of other things – beyond just getting things wrong on a tests.))

I was TERRIFIED of getting spanked ⁠— what humiliation.  So I always studied the crap out of whatever we were tasked with memorizing.  

I became very, very good at memorizing.  I loved words, and I loved having my aptitude tracked!

But as my 2nd year at that school went on, I was tiring of straight memorization. I started to imagine and mingle selections that we had to memorize.  I once took the story of the disciples in the boat during the storm and inter-wove it with a poem we had to memorize called Wynken, Blynken and Nod.

And I remember so clearly, reciting the verses in King James Version, :

24 “And, behold, there arose a great tempest in the sea, insomuch that the ship was covered with the waves: but Jesus was asleep”.(Matthew 8 KJV)

And then going off script (a little bit):

The old moon laughed and sang a song,

  As they rocked in the wooden shoe;

And the wind that sped them all night long

  Ruffled the waves of dew;

The little stars were the herring-fish

  That lived in the beautiful sea.

“Now cast your nets wherever you wish,—

  Never afraid are we!”

  So cried the stars to the fishermen three,



           And Nod. – (Eugene Fields)


I’m not sure if I was testing the limits or not, but it kind of made sense to my 2nd grade imagination to try to make a scary, fearful scene of waves and storm where Jesus is asleep be a more expansive scene where God could be the moon or stars, touching and talking to these fisherman in their little wooden boat.

And I remember those words like they were yesterday, but that little creative burst, that shining moment of improv got me my first ever 3rd tack in my balloon.

Now, I actually didn’t get spanked. The teacher did take me out back, but had mercy on me for my good track record.  But it instilled in me a fear of going off script. And my teacher gave me a distinct lecture of how to think about “learning” and “knowing” specifically, God. Growth on those fronts, could only be found in following and keeping to the plan.

The sting of that moment wore off as I left that school and continued my education elsewhere. And I actually warmed to the idea of taking control of my own trajectory.   It seemed easy enough ⁠— learn material required, demonstrate proficiency, move balloon higher than the rest ⁠— a workable formula for a great life.  Get yourself into this school, get this degree, get this job,  gain power, knowledge and success, which then equals triumph of this whole arc and produces a sense of well-being, ease, and prosperity.

Of course as I grew up and experienced more of life and witnessed the reality of life for a lot of my friends, I realized that this way of thinking and living was actually quite privileged ⁠— this linear advancement.

It assumes at its baseline that things will go our way, things will be in our control (and that we all have equal access to resources). And this is just not reality for most people.  God calls us into an improvisational way of thinking and living because God knows that to be made human, means our life comes with limitations, whether we are born into them, or crash into  them ⁠— a life where things go wrong, off-plan.

And so the the credentials that God wants us to come around to, that are required for this life, are a deep yet evolving knowing of ourselves and God.

I’m so helped by revisiting the stories that still live on in our midst ⁠— the lives of those who took in God’s story in ways that shaped them, and the world around them. And it’s why today I’d love to look at the prophetess Miriam.

Miriam ⁠— Improviser

We are going to read a bit of her story here on your program in Exodus… And where we enter this story is a setting found in ancient Egypt, where the Pharoah of the time, has become frustrated with the rising Hebrew population.  He’s concerned that they are becoming too powerful, despite his efforts to keep them down through forced labor and slavery…. So his next attempt, as we enter into here, is that he has just ordered midwives to kill all male babies born to Hebrew women – by drowning them.  

So let’s read this together:

Exodus 2:1-9 (NLT)

1 About this time, a man and woman from the tribe of Levi got married. 2 The woman became pregnant and gave birth to a son (the son’s name was Moses). She saw that he was a special baby and kept him hidden for three months. 3 But when she could no longer hide him, she got a basket made of papyrus reeds and waterproofed it with tar and pitch. She put Moses in the basket and laid him among the reeds along the bank of the Nile River. 4 The baby’s sister, MIRIAM, then stood at a distance, watching to see what would happen to him.

5 Soon Pharaoh’s daughter came down to bathe in the river, and her attendants walked along the riverbank. When the princess saw the basket among the reeds, she sent her maid to get it for her. 6 When the princess opened it, she saw the baby. The little boy was crying, and she felt sorry for him. “This must be one of the Hebrew children,” she said.

7 Then the baby’s sister, Miriam, approached the princess. “Should I go and find one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for you?” she asked.

8 “Yes, do!” the princess replied. So the girl went and called the baby’s mother.

9 “Take this baby and nurse him for me,” the princess told the baby’s mother. “I will pay you for your help.” So the woman took her baby home and nursed him.

Miriam was born at a time when the bitter enslavement of her people was reaching its depths of despair. The constraints of her life by the hands of the Egyptians were strong with inequity, entrenched in power dynamics, and systems that were oppressing and abusing her people. Any concept of a linear path for her life was certainly not in the cards! Her credentials were only, it seems, this deep knowing of God.  A God that maybe her mother had whispered to her of a God that loved her and her people, one that would provide and raise them up out of slavery one day to become a great nation.  Her only training seems to come out of that foundation, the steadiness of who she can believe God to be. And so she trains her imagination as a young girl without pedigree to imagine a world where someday these promises could be true. And it seems that this foundation, of tradition and imagination  is enough to propel her into the Scriptural canons of high regard as the first female prophet, and the mother of all female prophets to come.

And it seems to me, she gets there by improvising.  Holding her life open, flexible, just as it is – to the story of God.

In the world of music, most notably jazz, to improvise is to not be a showy, solo act, that attracts all the attention. It doesn’t rest on one’s ability to be original, or clever or witty or spontaneous. It’s about being so steeped in the foundation of the musical structure that its rhythms and patterns and harmonies and melodies become and shape a known & familiar inner voice of the musician, from which they then can create new shapes and forms of music, from.

And all of that doesn’t come from only practicing scales and memorizing music ⁠— it comes from the steadiness of watching and listening.

Miriam in this scripture does just this ⁠— she watches and she listens. It’s the first thing we see her do 4: it says she stood at a distance, watching to see what would happen to the baby.

And she stays there, observing the scene ⁠— taking it all in. And she doesn’t move until the other player comes onto the stage ⁠— the Pharaoh’s daughter.
And she listens to the Pharaoh’s daughters words, who when she sees the baby says, “This must be one of the Hebrew children”.

It’s so wise that Miriam listened. There’s a lot of information in that one sentence that helps Miriam know how to improvise.

If the Pharaoh’s daughter had said, to her attendants,  “oh! – a baby – check to see if he’s circumcised or not,” it wouldn’t have been good if Miriam had jumped in and said, “Oh do you need a Hebrew woman to nurse this baby?” because Pharaoh’s daughter wouldn’t have known that information yet, and Miriam’s approach and words would have been suspicious.

Or if the Pharaoh’s daughter had said, “Look! One of the Hebrew children, KILL HIM – carry out my father’s orders.”

Miriam’s reality would have been different, and required a different action.

To improvise in life requires great listening to others and the spirit of God. This listening allows us to create new ways forward ⁠— paths unseen. I can imagine that Miriam’s first steps into the Nile River were taken from listening to God, where God nudged her “go, Miriam, go” and all of the steps to follow, unknown and unpredictable, were bolstered by this knowing of  God’s steady voice. It allows her to work within the limitations of her reality as a slave, and yet utilize a social structure that she knows where royalty, upon seeing a baby, would need a nurse-maid.

Our life with God is a life where we are welcomed into a story that is continually being created in the moment with players and actors that we have never met. And yet the call, that I think Miriam responds to and that we are all invited to, is to say “yes” to all of that before the plans are laid out and to take what we do know of ourselves and God with courage to the scene, and trust that that is enough to create something we can’t predict.

Miriam wasn’t concerned about being “clever.” In improv, this is the number one ticket to becoming paralyzed on stage ⁠— this preoccupation of being clever. But she was listening to the voice within herself, and the voices on the scene, and responded to a call that was greater than herself and her own understanding.  

A sister in the Catholic order, Joan Brown, who’s voice I love says, “We are called to be larger than who we can imagine being in the moment.” This is the call of the Spirit of God.

Who knows if Miriam understood as a little girl that her actions would open the gateway for the great Exodus and liberation of her people. She might have just wanted her baby brother back, but her willingness to listen and improvise allowed her to be a large force for her people.

Sometimes, though, our moves to improvise fall flat. We get tacks in our balloons and we plummet hard to the earth. But I can look back at my moment of co-mingling scripture and poetry in the 2nd grade, and see how clearly God was moving and laying a firm foundation (even through memorization) ⁠— a steady foundation of a knowing, a knowing of who I was, what I loved, what mattered to me, to see that I still love words and metaphors and text, and also a knowing of who God is to me ⁠— an encourager of growth, of creating new things ⁠— and God’s deep desire to partner with me in all of it!

For the many years I’ve thought about content or spiritual growth in any capacity as a community group leader or as a parent or as a friend, I am always weaving poetry and scripture together. Ask my kids ⁠— they might roll their eyes, they’ve gotten a taste of it for sure! And this requires great listening in those spaces where I put out content, because I have no plan of how it is going to land (whether that is a strength or a fail, i’m not sure). But I don’t have an end result in mind, and so listening is crucial and this is growth,  is to watch for the spirit of God, and move from there ⁠— to improvise from there in the moment. I think it’s the most dynamic gift that we can bring to wherever we are (this Sanctuary space, your work places, your homes). We get to bring the improvising personality of the HOLY SPIRIT  ⁠— always working among people ⁠— and bring that out among people who are learning to see and know and trust one another in community and witness the extraordinary things that God can create with quirky and limited resources. That is spiritual growth, and WOOO! It’s not linear.

“There is a yearning – for energy in a world grown weary” (Walter Brueggemann). We long for a life that is improvise-able. And wouldn’t it be amazing if God invites us to energize our world — our future — to invite people to wade in the water with us, to bring out the mystery of  how and where we find the Holy Spirit, whether it’s through a gesture, or an act, or a collection of words mingled.

Or through Broadway musicals.

Lin-Manuel Miranda — Improviser

I want to show you a video clip of a master improviser — one who I think you’ll recognize! Lin-Manuel Miranda:

This clip is from 2009, six years before Hamilton ever hit Broadway.  No one had heard that song other than his wife, and he said if that song had landed flat in that room that evening he was going to scrap the project and start something new.

The reason Hamilton works is because through Lin-Manuel’s improvisation, there is no distance between the story that happened 200 some odd years ago and now.

Because it looks like America now.

It creates a connection from the stories of old, to our stories now.

And isn’t this what we can hope for with scripture — that the stories of the Bible would be connected to our stories, in ways that continue to open and open the image of God in each of us.

The way Lin-Manuel Miranda improvises in so many ways — the music, the cast (nearly all people of color), the language — allows our history to be opened up with a new lens, new energy.

He imagined that Hamilton was a hip hop story and that wasn’t just a random stroke of genius (well certainly not random!) — but it was an evolving concept built upon the foundational traditions that Lin-Manuel treasured so much. He said, “It wasn’t enough to rhyme at the end of the line, every line had to have musical theatre references, it had to have other hip-hop references, it had to do what my favorite rappers do, which is packing lyrics with so much density, and so much intricate double entendre, and alliteration, and onomatopoeia, and all the things that I love about language”

And the result is this powerful mingling, connecting musical pasts with the musical present, and the historical past mingles with our present realities.

This mingling, through improvising, allows a process of constant growth and invites us to create too.

There’s a principle in improv, that I’ve been learning about this week from many people I’ve talked to in the performance arts — this principle, called “yes…and…” It’s the nexus where all creation is birthed from!  It’s this idea that you validate what is coming at you in a scene as true. You say, “YES – I receive this as reality”. And you agree to become a partner in that, to add your “AND” to whatever that reality is.  You’ll build upon it, whether it’s messy or imperfect (or incredibly off-script). And you trust that this is actually the growth and the beauty of the scene — the new creation.

With God, I feel like this principle applies. It’s a journey of “yes – ands”…  and it’s certainly a journey of messiness and imperfection!

And of course the stakes feel higher in real life!  There are lots of things that we don’t want to say “yes” to — circumstances that surround us that are unjust and unfair. So when we say “yes” we aren’t saying that we agree or like it, but the invitation of God is to consider “how can I improvise and bring to this circumstance the most wholeness?”  How can I create new goodness, and love here?

After the scripture we read about Miriam we don’t see her enter the scene again until decades later.  When we greet her again, she’s a grown woman.

On your program is the later part of Exodus — Chapter 15 — where she is a central force of this historical exodus of her people from slavery.  She leads her people in dancing and song and celebration, as they cross the Red Sea. We don’t know for sure what she did for all the years in between, but we do know that Moses went into hiding for decades, building a new life with no intent on returning to his people.  So we can assume that during that time Miriam was the people’s prophet, their only prophet. 

She continued to improvise during those years. She continued to listen to her people, to live alongside of them, to reassure them and offer them the steady story of God. A God who was real and did hear their prayers — that would bring them freedom and liberation.  She continued to usher in the wholeness and goodness and love of God, even when freedom was not yet found.

And I think this is exactly what is so compelling to me about Lin-Manuel Miranda — his flexibility to use the platforms that he has, beyond the Broadway stage, to offer wholeness to the world around him. He doesn’t just vocationally exercise improvisational methods — but he is someone who embodies an improvisational way of life.  Who walks and engages with the world, and asks us to play, to create and to imagine.  A writer friend of mine, Jessica Kantrowitz, wrote an article for Sojourner’s magazine  where she talks about the priestliness of Lin-Manuel.

And I agree with her!  His twitter account is one of the most WHOLESOME twitter feeds that I follow. He calls out the reality of life, acknowledging its complexity and harshness and it’s non-linear paths.

And over the last three years this has become more of a regular pattern in his tweets.   They have become known as “gmorning” and “gnight” tweets. And often they are a reprise of each other.  

My friend Jessica says, they have become a structure of her days, like a liturgy, where she can receive blessings and benedictions for her day. To me, they are a capsule of the Holy Spirit, deposited to me on my phone in less than 280 characters. There is a generative energy that comes and invites me to say “yes…. and,” to keep moving and creating in this life — a gentle nudge of the spirit of God, as was to Miriam, “go, go, go”.

It was hard for me, in those early years of memorization,  to tap into the spirit of God, to understand what a relationship could be with someone I couldn’t see! I think that’s why I started looking for other sources, other words that would bring story and life to my imagination — that would unlock the mystery of the verses that felt flattened out and life-less.  It’s why I’m thankful for voices like the prophet Miriam’s and Lin-Manuel’s to remind us of God’s steady goodness — to keep opening it up in new ways. Because it’s STILL sometimes not that easy for me to feel like God’s steady voice or heart or love is easy to tap into.

This is why we need to keep improvising. Because God is not a static being — one who sits in one specific pew or chair on a Sunday morning — or one who is only found in the memorized lines of scripture. But God is one who is found in the living love of the Holy Spirit, nestled in the corners of our days, and found in the most expansive of places and people!  And its why Walter Brueggemann’s words hit me so hard, because it’s up to us to keep opening and opening and opening those places up — to roam around in them whether it’s found on our phones through tweets, or through wading in the waters of our unknown life, or stopping at a monastery on Storrow Drive… or playing on a soccer field with 200 kids!

We need to lead a prophetic life of improvising so that we don’t give way to dying, flattening metaphors of God. We need to do the great work of living this life as fully as we can, as we see it with our limited perspectives in the hopes of untangling God from the one-dimensional graphs we try to place Him on.

I’d love for us now to improvise a little — nothing crazy or zany — but to play with the words of both Miriam and Lin-Manuel Miranda here.

There are two tweets and one verse which holds the song of Miriam.

We are going to do a simple writing exercise called erasure, which means you will circle words or phrases that stand out to you and erase/ cross-out all the others.  Don’t over think this process, trust that you are connected to God and that God can highlight words for you:


Pain, joy, frustration, euphoria, everything.

It all passes. It all keeps moving.

Wherever you are is temporary.

Let’s go!

Oct. 20, 2016, morning tweet


Rage, bliss, fatigue, rapture, everything.

It all passes. It all keeps moving.

Wherever you are is fleeting.


Oct. 20, 2016, evening tweet

And  Miriam’s song found in verse 21 of Exodus 15, that last verse where she sings:

“Sing to the Lord,

   for he has triumphed gloriously;

he has hurled both horse and rider

   into the sea.”  Miriam – Exodus 15:21

As a spiritual practice this week:

Take these words with you, whether they make sense to you right now or not, and hold them loosely, and improvise from them as your week goes on.  Offer them as a prayer to God and offer them to the world around you, watch to see what it yields, how it expands and evolves.

And as a way to end and as a whole life flourishing tip to take with you, let me pray for  us:

May you let the steady story of Jesus be the story that gives shape to your life.  And may you live out this story with other people as best you can, at Reservoir, in your neighborhood and in your city.  And trust that you hold within you the perfect script for life — the ever-evolving/improvising story of Jesus.