Season 10 - Week 4
“On the fly”
When was the last time you had to do something on the fly, with no preparation?
Perhaps it’s a lifestyle for some of you, and a source of terror for others.
Maybe you had to start something with no idea how it was going to end, or had to alter everything because conditions had changed, there were more people than anticipated, less space or a different age group.
I have the amazing opportunity to visit and support many different churches and groups, leading games, Bible studies and other activities. I am often unfamiliar with the dynamics and structure of these groups and this can lead to me changing my plans and trying to come up with something amazing on the spot (no pressure).
When put on the spot I usually reach for what is familiar – a game I have done in the past, a well-known story through which I can find something worthwhile to talk about, hopefully providing a creative spin on something familiar to suit the situation. But as I reflect, that doesn’t seem like Jesus’ way.
I’m thinking of how Jesus seems to improvise as he communicates - drawing on what would have been commonplace to the people he was with, setting a familiar scene, but then delivering a creative twist about the nature of God and salvation. On one occasion, recounted in Luke 15, he is being questioned by the Pharisees on why he welcomes tax collectors and sinners and why he chooses to eat with them, and he responds with three parables - each taking ordinary scenes familiar to all who heard them and using them to introduce an unexpected paradigm: the idea that God is actively and urgently seeking out those who are ‘lost’, not waiting for them to look for him.
I don’t know how much he had thought about those three things before – lost coins, lost sheep, lost sons – but he can’t have known what question was coming next. Yet he is able to use the stuff of their common culture as a way of bringing alive something that he suddenly needs to get across. It feels like a beautiful improvisation.
Improvisation is something theologian NT Wright has written about in an even broader sense when thinking about the whole story arc of the Bible. He describes the entire biblical narrative as a play consisting of 5 parts, or acts. The first act is creation, the second is the fall and human rebellion, the third the story of Israel and the fourth the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The final act in this great divine narrative is the mission of the church of which we are all part as a collective of believers. Wright argues that we as the church are like a troupe of actors improvising the final act of the drama, working out what it means to live as part of the new creation. There is no script already written, even though we know where the story is headed. He writes:
Those who follow Jesus are to be equipped with his spirit to be God’s new creation people. They are people who are put right, so that the world might be put right. And when we get that vision, we not only have a way to read the Bible, we have an extraordinary energy for the mission of the people of God in the world. This is what it means to be renewed human beings.
As new creations we are improvising the work of God - but that doesn't mean just making everything up, because we are shaped and directed by everything that has happened in the story so far.
So what does it mean to live as improvisers? It doesn’t mean doing everything on the fly. But it does mean looking for new ways to embody and communicate the ancient story in which we are living. Jesus knows what he needs to get across when he hears the Pharisees’ muttered accusation. And then he looks at who is in the room and gets creative. There’s a story of a man with a hundred sheep – which meant something to the wealthier people there, the ones judging Jesus for eating with ‘sinners’. And there’s a story about a woman who loses a single coin and turns the whole house upside down to find it, because she needs that coin. Sheep and coins don’t mean much today when most of us are in towns and cities and we use contactless cards to pay for everything. But how we might improvise around that same idea today? How are we called to bring alive the eternal story in new ways?
Listen to the Open Me Disruption podcast with Jenny Flannagan exploring the reflection from this week.
Season 10 Episode 4
“Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls her friends and neighbours together, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the piece which I lost!’ Likewise, I say to you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
It's good to know what comes most naturally to us - planning things out or leaving them open. And even to understand why the opposite approach can feel so challenging. Our call to be improvisors doesn't mean an absence of any plans - because Wright's concept of the 5 Act Play situates us in a larger plan, a larger structure. But it also offers us freedom as to how we discover and embody the calling to be part of the new creation.