God as My Improv Partner

Appreciating faith’s unscripted moments

These days, my spiritual life unfolds like it might on an improv stage. Both improv and spirituality have organic qualities, great depth and playfulness, too. And looking at my faith life through the lens of improv comedy helps me reclaim unscripted moments in new ways.

I began attending improv classes in Chicago as a new hobby. Some of the most basic rules of improv are that you have to listen, you have to be able to become a “yes and” person, and you celebrate your mistakes. In both my prayer life and improv, there are moments of uncertainty and a little bit of fear of what will unfold. I must listen to God, trust in what will unfold before me, and sometimes celebrate my mistakes.

I’m not Second City worthy yet or even polished enough to perform occasionally on small stages. Like most people with improv as a hobby I need a good laugh and an excuse to be as outlandish as a lime-green fur-coat wearing czar of Laughoutloudastan. Yes, I just made that name up. But that’s the point — improv gives me a chance to just make things up as I go along.

I stumble on stage when I’m not listening to scene partners. Once a partner and I were staring at a Mayan calendar and he said, “Our children’s birthdays are on here.” Instead of responding to his line, I mentioned something about our house. Ridiculous to begin a scene with such a line, but instead of playing along with the scene I decided to take it where I wanted it to go instead of riffing on the idea that children’s birthdays could be recorded on a Mayan calendar. Improv teaches you to listen and also absorb what another person is doing with their bodies. Is this scene a silly scene because of a person’s reactions or comments? Is it one that evokes anger from your character? Is it a one that plays to our compassion?

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Similarly, in order to be engaged listeners in a conversation with God, it’s important to pay attention. God speaks to us every day in small and large ways. Are we hearing what God needs us to hear? Or what we want to hear? It becomes our job to listen closely for the clues that are pushing us into deeper conversation and relationship with God.

In another scene, I walked up to find my scene partner with her hands in front of her face and her fingers formed in what I saw as a Rubik’s cube. My first line was, “Teach me to be a Rubik’s cube champion just like you.” Instantly, she agreed and then our scene quickly became about a Rubik’s cube champion and her biggest fan.

This Rubik’s cube scene illustrates the “yes, and” rule in improv. As an improviser, you are taught to agree with what goes on in your scene. I threw out the Rubik’s cube bit and moved us from two people on stage to two people who were creating a relationship. God asks us to do the same thing in our relationships. Living out the idea of the “yes, and” rule in our own lives moves the scene (aka life) forward. We come to an intersection in our lives and do we say, “yes, and” to God or do we want to pull ourselves in another direction? Listening and moving forward can bring us closer to God.

Among one of the most memorable lessons of improv is the celebration of my mistakes. In some of our warm-up exercises, I remembered celebrating bloopers when I hesitated too long to give an answer or went completely blank. When my classmates and I flubbed in class, we clapped in celebration because our instructor encouraged us to accept our mistakes humorously. Sometimes a mistake between partners became a funny revelation down the line and added another layer to the scene. After a few classes, I laughed more and learned to accept the hiccups and bumps that came with the unexpected. Looking back now, I know my mistakes in front of my peers helped create a stronger bond between us as performers.

In a very real way, improv helped me rediscover laughter and finding joy in my mistakes. For the next few days at work, I wanted to do a fist pump at my desk when I forgot to respond to a message or misplaced something in my office. Humor reminds me that it is healthy to be lighthearted. Laughter slows me down and helps me appreciate the unexpected especially when it comes to my spiritual journey, which is oftentimes a bumpy road. Ideas of perfection surround us at work and in our personal lives. But perfection is not necessary when we come before God. If we take one too many wrong turns and find God patiently waiting on the next corner, it is worth a smile and a sigh.

I am a long way from any real career in improv, but that doesn’t matter. Life’s a journey and I’m here to listen, agree, and celebrate all that is my life. I’m ready to bend and twist with the best of them knowing that I can’t fall flat with God as my scene partner.

(Previously published April 2012)