Theological Improvisations

Ancient Testimony - Isaiah 64:8

June 20, 2010

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

I have spent most of this week with people in Arizona who are opposing law SB 1070, which would give police even more freedom to round up those whom they suspect might lack documentation.  I wish I could tell you that the open-minded, Open and Affirming members of the United Church of Christ are resoundingly in favor of immigrant rights.  They are not.  In fact, many congregations are split right down the middle about this law. Their neighbors and government join the American people in being favor of this law.  At least the UCC was fully split.  I spent the week facing what is going to be an ongoing series of political defeats around immigrant rights.


Then, on Thursday, something got in the way of my simple plan to do what I could about what was happening in Arizona.  It changed me.  I was filling up the car with gas, and when I put the pump back, I realized that I had oil and grease all over my hands.  Whoever had previously gassed up had spilled, and there was greasy oil something on my hands, under my fingernails, and achieving access to my nose.  I completely overreacted and went looking for who might have done this.  No one was to be found.  I so wanted to find someone to blame for the inconvenience of grease under my fingernails while I filled up my rental car.  No culprit was to be found.  Thus, I improvised.  I washed my hands, but the grease abided.  I wrapped my hand in a paper towel and drove on.  I didn’t want the grease all over the economy rental.  Nor do I want it all over the Gulf of Mexico.  But I can’t seem to figure out whether the government or big business or both are responsible for the spill that is becoming all our spills, and so after I look around to find someone to blame, good and proper, I have to go on.  I go on with a bandaged soul, so as not to be an active part of the spread of the mess.  I improvise.  Oil spills.  Things happen.  And we can’t find someone to blame.  They have already sped off.  It is almost amusing the way people are beginning to find out who is in charge here?

This was supposed to be a different sermon.  You have to pick titles way in advance, and this was to be a praise of improvisation.  Then the Gulf oil spill happened and I just haven’t been able to be as improvisational.  If there is any truth at all to the rumor that improvisation is an art, then you also have to be free sometimes not to improvise.  Sometimes you have to stick with the basics.  Like oceans.  Or people.  Or fish.  Or birds.  I have often said that the best people make it up as they go along.  But some things you just can’t handle that way. Some things are larger than the moment.  Some things you can’t just make up as you go along.  Some things stop you dead in your tracks and say, Notice meNotice me now.  Don’t think you can fake your way around this.  Who is in charge of this mess?  Besides me and you and God?  And BP and the citizens of Arizona and the Gulf with whom we might not agree?

How the spill connects to the coming immigrant rights defeats is simple.  People are afraid about the economy and the environment and they, too, need someone to blame. Immigrants are convenient, especially as they represent the seeming scarcity of jobs.

Many of us don’t have the joy of growing up till we stop blaming our fathers (or mothers) for our lives.  Happy Father’s Day to all who have come to appreciate their fathers and removed them from the blame cycle!

I so wanted to sing the praises of the improvising cook and the improvising journalist who spends evenings in church basements instead of going to Beltway galas.  I wanted another way.  But, as I said, some things are too big to extemporize.  Both the past and the future just don’t fit in the blue jeans of the present.  Some things merit a longer look.  What I used to like about improvisation is that it is all about the short look.  So extemporaneous.  So in the now.  But we don’t need any more short-term anythings.  We are desperate for a long-term look at long-term situations.  At this moment the New York City immigrant rights movement is rapidly looking for a longer-term situation.  Many of us think it is time to address the economy and the environment, if indeed these are the root cause of anti-immigrant hate speech.  We can’t just be reactive to the current realities; we need to look deeper at them.

Radical sculptor Alan Thornhill actually agrees with the old me, the one who thought she could just make it up as she went along.  He really wants sculptors to abandon maquette or armature, the form underneath the form that gave sculptures a place to start.  Why?  He says that as long as you have the form there, you become dull.  You lack creativity.  To him the best sculpture comes without any basis at all.  Today, as a post-improvisonist, I am going to respectfully disagree with him.  I believe we need form and that God used form to create us.  I believe there is something at the bottom of the bottom to things and that it is earth and sea and sky.  They are the maquette or armature of our worlds.  Instead of making us dull, they make us interesting.

I still believe that my texts for the day tell the truth.  The Meditation Quote is about the glory of the ordinary person.  It is best to hang out in church basements and to be skeptical of the experts and the fancy people.  The CEO of British Petroleum may think that the ordinary Gulf Coasters are “small people.”  In one “small” way, he may be right: they people who are thinking short-term because they are scared.  The people are not always right, sometimes they are just plain scared and see only the short-term, the next meal, the next job, the next shrimpboat payment.  Sometimes, when the grease gets under your fingernails, you don’t feel like improvising.  Or being in the moment.  You feel like looking longer and seeing more fully.  For me, the creation story is a kind of armature of the great potter.  It is basic.  God made six days for nature and one day for humanity.  You don’t mess with Mother Nature.  If you do, all the shrimp in the world can’t save you or the next generation.  There is more to the people than their next meal or next check.  The great potter loves them to and through their armature in creation.

I also believe that Julia Child was right when she said that the best meals come when you have to improvise.  A gumbo that uses peas instead of okra is not a classic gumbo but every now and then the guests say Brava when you go ahead and serve it up with flare.  There are times when improvisation is a very good idea.  But sometimes you have to go out and get the okra.  Short-term thinking people may not be acting in their best interest.  Improvisational cooks may find that the classic gumbo recipe is also pretty good.  Sometimes all you can do is improvise.  But that may not be the best you can do for creation or yourself.  Sometimes you just need to flip out when there is grease under your fingernails and on your birds.

I also fully believe that we are the clay and God is the potter.  And the best part of that little text is that we are held in God’s very hands.  I believe that in the most fouled moments of existence there is a deeper gladness, underneath the spilling oil and polluted birds.  We are the work of God’s hands.  Creation is the maquette or armature of faith.  The good sculptors use form as well as freedom from form.  Another way of saying that, for me, is that there is no place outside of the creation story.  The earth.  The sky.  The sea.  These are non-negotiables.  They are not improvisations so much as providences.  Forgive me for going from post-denominational to post-modern, and now back to post-improvisation.  If we are truly free of the past, we are not also truly free of creation.  And to be fully free, we have to be able to choose some form as well as choose against some form.

I don’t find this a good moment for the short-term thinking of improvisation.  This is a good moment for the long-term thinking of creation and the creator.

Alex Tabarrok calls this moment one the size of September 11th.  He has quipped that this is the “war on error.”  You will remember the war on terror as an improvised response to some very bad things that happened.  All my friends are huffing and puffing about whether this is fundamentally an environmental or an economic crises.  I find that argument bewildering.  I mean, who cares?  And aren’t all environmental catastrophes economic ones as well, and vice versa?  Which leads me back to what I said about immigrant rights.  Many of us are fighting the last battle, whether it is for immigrants, or queers, or poor people, or jailed people who bought and sold drugs from Mexicans whose economy depends on our buying their drugs.  Instead, we need to fight a longer-term battle, one whose origin is in creation and whose destination is in salvation.

Actors tell me that the secret to improvisation is to go only just as far as you have to and not a step or second more.  That keeps the story moving.  They also argue that it is a great idea to make your partner look good when you speak.  Jazz musicians say the same thing.  What was that you just played, we ask?  Just a little something, they say, something that the first chord told the second chord to say.  Improvisation is interactive.  It is not something we do on our own so much as something we do with an unlikely partner.  You might call God, the Potter, an unlikely partner, and we, the clay, an unlikely potter, acting upon each other, finding our next line, trying to make each other look good, letting the last note tell the next note what to say.  But in our partnership with God there is a larger, longer story involved.  We don’t just say what comes next, or fight the fight that landed on our doorstep.  We engage the form of long-thinking.  Of remembering how important a sea really is.  How a sea is not just a Gulf but also the water that separated from the dry land, the firmament that separated from the water and the dry land.

Potter, meet clay.  Clay, meet Potter.  In a way, I could just stop here and let you think about what oil got on your hands this week, if any.  Then you come up with the next line.  God is working on God’s response to our next line, I am sure.  It might be something like, What the…?  Or it might be, How could you?  Or it might be, Twenty billion?  You sold my sea for twenty billion?  Maybe God says something more tender: How can I help?  Or begs us to try to understand how the people of the Gulf Coast could still want oil drilling after this.  Or how the people of Arizona, who stole the land from the Mexicans, could dare to call them illegal.  They do, you know.  Ordinary people in the Gulf see oil and fishing as partners.  They want an oil economy to continue.  They think of this spill as an aberration.  Arizonans think that creation started with their occupation of the Sonoran Desert.  It did not.

Improvisation is the art of the short-term.  God knows we are in the deep short-term right now.  Improvisation is when you go with short, not long.  Improvisation always has a good, groovy sound.  I think its day may be over.  The sea cannot be sacrificed to the short-term.  The immigrants cannot be sacrificed to the short-term.

I want to tell you about Salvatore Regan, a seventy-year-old Mexican American, who runs the organization Tonatierra in Phoenix.  He is the person responsible for the 100,000 people who marched in Phoenix against SB 1070.  His place is an ochre and blue colored prefab in central Phoenix.  When I visited on Thursday, he took me straight to the altar at the center of the prefab.  It had assorted dead flowers, images, rocks, and cacti around it.  It was clearly an altar in flow, used and rarely cleaned up; just used and then used again.  It was an improvised altar.  He said to me, “When the highway went through, they just plowed through the bodies of the people in the barrio.  We brought the remains here.  They are under the adobe altar.”  This was the second sentence he said to me.  He was not improvising.  He was basing.  He was not trying to make anybody look good; he was telling me the truth.

Bill McKibben is arguing a similar basing when he explains why he himself uses a lot of carbon to travel the world, trying to wake people up to the joy of creation.  He says that he lives his life 80% of the time relocalizing, trying to become more at home in his time and place, living a life that is light on the land.  Then the other 20% he hits the road to fight like heaven for the earth, politically, spiritually, and economically.  I suppose you could say this is an improvisation.  Extemporaneous, in the moment, making it up as you go along.  Making your partners look good.  It is also long-thinking.  It is also acknowledging that the way it is now has no future.  How can you live in the present without a future?  Or without a form?  Or without a base?  Or an armature, a maquette, a something underneath the something that keeps you from flipping out when oil gets under your nails?  I think McKibben’s way has a good balance.  Why?  Because it has a serious humility as well as a serious thrust.  Both are necessary.

McKibben also talks about the nurse log, in the way that Salvatore Rega made sure he brought the bones of the dead with him.  When the highway came through, they just dug up the dead—and the memories.  And the base.  And the continuing.

It is time to reconsider the nurse log.  Sally McFague puts their role this way: nurse logs are lying-down trees—some would say dead trees—that, having lived several hundred years as standing trees, are now into a second career as homes for other trees.  The body of the nurse log provides a warm, nutrient-rich birthplace for young saplings of all sorts to grow.  It is not just seeds from the nurse tree that grow on it, but anything and everything.  All are welcome!  The nurse log can live another several hundred years as the giver of new life from its body.  A new tree stretches its roots around the nurse log and still retains this odd position after the nurse log disappears.  With the hole between its roots, it is a visible sign of the invisible tree that nurtured it.  I think many fathers are nurse logs, making way by getting out of the way. 

The “way” of Jesus, the geography of the life he calls us to, is rather like an old-growth forest: marvelous, muddled, and messy.  It works by symbiosis—living off one another.  Nothing in an old-growth forest can go it alone; nothing could survive by itself; everything in the forest is interrelated and interdependent: all flora and fauna eat from and live from the others.  That’s why the Gulf is so disturbing.  We live off it.  It lives off us.  Not in a way that is paycheck to paycheck, but on that longer timeline that is the creation line, the Grail, the center at the heart of the muddled middle.

We who have oil under our fingernails can get unsullied and grow again if we take a long, long look back toward creation and forward toward salvation.  Amen.


For Your Meditation

“I missed all the fun. As the cocktails were being served, I was in a Greenwich Village church basement with a group of diehard Dissent-ers, listening to scholars Michael Walzer, Robin Blackburn, Sheri Berman, and Michael Kazin discuss liberalism, socialism, social democracy, and their relationship (or lack thereof) to the present state of politics.  No moguls, no celebrities and no (evident) lesbian bondage; just a group of unfashionable folk trying to figure out how to be good citizens in an age in which America's political class has all but abandoned the idea as, sadly, passé.”

~ Eric Alterman, on not going to the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner (“Party Every Day,” The Nation, 24 May 2010)


Modern Testimony

As good advice as any comes from (of all places!) the classic cookbook The Joy of Cooking.  Here is what the authors say about what to do when something goes wrong while entertaining: “If, at the last minute, something does happen to upset your well-laid plans, rise to the occasion.  The mishap may be the making of your party.  Capitalize on it, but not too heavily.  Remember that in Roman times the poet Horace observed, ‘A host is like a general: It takes a mishap to reveal a genius.’”  What works for a dinner party works for liturgy, too.  When things go wrong, go with the flow, keep your sense of humor, and cover all things with grace . . . .

~ from The Worshipping Body: The Art of Leading Worship, by Kimberly Bracken Long

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