That day I have been waiting for is finally here. MaryAnn McKibbon Dana’s book God, Improv and the Art of Living has been released and is available for sale on Amazon and Barnes & Noble (or wherever fine books are sold, I suppose). I highly recommend that if you want to be challenged and have fun at the same time, you buy, beg, borrow, or steal yourself a copy as soon as possible.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you might remember my post Now Playing: The Theo Tacos. That post touched on my experience at an improv and God workshop at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta co-led by MaryAnn. Our group of mostly pastors laughed and cried our way to a deeper place of understanding our ministry, our faith, and our lives. Thinking in an “improv” way has helped me go deeper in my spiritual life and make some big decisions about my work and family.
I was lucky enough to get to read the book before it went on sale. I love how MaryAnn wrote when she asked a few of us to read it and, if we wanted, to put a review on Amazon. In her very down to earth way, she said we should not just all give it five stars – who would trust us if we did. Unfortunately, I am going to break her rules, because it’s a five star book all the way for me. I’m already trying to figure out how to use it for Openings: Let the Spirit In. Can I do a workshop that ties in improv and prayer? Is improv a good topic for my Eco-Spirituality book club?
Here’s what I love. As I read the book, it was as if I could hear MaryAnn teaching our workshop once again, but with even more details and depth and stories. She tells anecdotes from the real world, drawing in one book on ancient Greece, NPR, The Hunger Games, 9/11, and hundreds more sources. And these are stories from the world; when she really goes deep, she draws on the stories from her own life as a wife and mother, marathon runner, the daughter of an alcoholic and the pastor of a couple who lost a child. This is not just a book about fun and games, and there is so much hope, even in the saddest stories, that I am inspired in the face of adversity to go one more time (and probably a time or two after that) wherever God is leading.
But just because I start with the “real world” things, don’t think there isn’t plenty of fun and games. Each short, readable, and accessible chapter has a corresponding “Try It” activity, often a spiritual exercise that allows readers to move a little deeper into understanding how improv can help make their lives better. These only take a minute or two if you’re in a hurry, but some of them caught me up and I found them to be a subject for much longer meditations. These individual-appropriate “Try It” exercises are then paired with improv games that you can use with groups to explore even more.
What truly keep the book light and flowing is MaryAnn’s remarkable humility. This is not false modesty, but recognition that some of what she is saying requires hard work – hard work that she is STILL doing. “Yes, and…,” a baseline principle of improv, seems easy when the going is good, but it is a real challenge when we apply it to tough issues of faith and life. She writes:
“I’m drawn to improv not because I’m an effortless improviser, but because my default position is to resist Yes. I’m often tired or fearful of doing the new thing. I’m too worried about waste—wasted time, wasted effort. When I do muster up the gumption for a Yes, I can be reluctant or tentative, wondering what the neighbors might think. Or I say Yes with the posture of a martyr: I’m agreeing to this, but I hope you can tell from my aggressive sighing that I’m not happy about it.”
I’m more of a natural improviser, always ready to fly by the seat of my pants. What this book does for me is provide some needed structure so that my improvisations are not just wild and all over the place, but part of what, I hope, is God’s desire for my life. Get ready to be challenged and lifted up into new courage with God, Improv & the Art of Living. And if you have a chance, let me know what you like about it!
Have you ever read a book that changed your outlook on what’s important to you – your faith, your approach to life, your understanding of the world? What kinds of stories draw you in? Stories from an author’s life? Stories from people who think like you or who live and think very differently than you do? Have you ever tried ‘improv’ in music, theater, or another type of art form? MaryAnn points out in the introduction that life rarely goes exactly according to plan, so we all improvise. Do you enjoy improvising? Do you find it very stressful? What would “improv prayer” be to you?
If you have ideas about how I might use God, Improv, and the Art of Living in my ministry at Openings, please let me know. And don’t forget that I am available to do a retreat of workshop on prayer, ministry, envisioning the future, or whatever your group might need bringing some of these improv tools to you.