Of Scripts and Improvisation

If you have ever watched a Christopher Guest-directed film you know what a treat the experience is. Waiting for Guffman is about a small-town community theater troupe the members of which think that a Broadway producer is going to attend their production. Best in Show is about dog owners who have entered their pooches in a major dog competition. A Mighty Wind is about a memorial concert bringing three old-time folk groups together. And For Your Consideration is about the effect that the Oscar buzz surrounding an independent production called Home for Purim (the title of which is changed to Home for Thanksgiving to attract a broader audience) has on the cast, crew, and various interested parties.

The scripts of those good-naturedly satirical films are supplemented by a lot of improvisation; the cast members are very accomplished at such improvisation because they have practiced it a lot. The ways in which the actors play off of the script, off of situations, and off of each other is truly remarkable, not to mention frequently hilarious.

passion_play_smIt seems to me that a life well lived involves both following the script and practicing improvisation.

The problem with our script is that we don’t know exactly what it says. Oh, people will certainly offer suggestions as to what it should say, suggestions that will range from helpful advice based on real interest in our lives to harmful interference rooted in a desire to run our lives. In some ways our paths are at least partially predetermined by accident of birth: for example, we don’t choose our family background, our genetic makeup, or our social and religious context.

Then there is God to consider. By faith we believe that God in God’s grace has a purpose toward which the ongoing events of creation and history are moving and that the coming of Jesus Christ into the world was, is, and will be the pivotal event in God’s working out of that purpose. By faith we believe that by God’s grace we are caught up in and play a role in the working out of God’s purpose. The truth is, though, that we know more about where the script leads, at least in a general sense, than we do about the details of how it gets us there.

Gone_With_the_Wind_smWhen Scarlett, the sequel to Gone With the Wind, was published my Good Wife acquired a copy and immediately turned to the last chapter. “What are you doing?” I inquired, shocked that someone would forego the excitement of reading that revolves around not knowing what will happen. “If Rhett and Scarlett are not going to get together in the end,” she replied, “I’m not going to waste my time reading the book!” Well, they did and she did. It was not a total waste of time, though, since she didn’t know how they would get to that point of resolution.

We trust that there will be a resolution but we don’t know how we will get there.

And that is where improvisation comes in.

Budaörs_Passion_Play_smNow, some people would say that the Bible is our script, but that’s not accurate. The Bible offers the record of the interplay between God and people who came before us but who were trying to find their way just like we are. As such, it provides a reflection on the choices they made and on the results of those choices but leaves us aware that there were other choices they could have made along the way that, while they would not have changed the ultimate purposes of God, would have changed many actions, events, and relationships along the way. The Bible is an excellent guide—indeed, the best one available—but it is neither a road map nor an instruction manual, much less a script. It is, rather, a reflection on the struggle of other people to live faithfully and creatively under God in their historical, social, and religious setting and is thus a help to us in our struggles. As such the Bible provides us with a necessary and dependable foundation from which we can work as we live our lives.

But the life of faith is not about knowing and keeping all the rules in the Bible or in tradition; it is not even about reading in our Bibles about how the heroes of the faith lived their lives and then trying to emulate them. The life of faith is rather about living as close to God as we can, paying as much attention to our own spirit as we can, learning as much about the world as we can, trying to live as fully and attentively in the moment as we can, and adjusting to developing situations as much as we can—practices in which we are helped by the Spirit, by Scripture, by experience, and by sisters and brothers in the faith.

We can rest in the knowledge that God knows the ultimate outcome and is moving creation toward it.

We can also rest in the knowledge that God is with us as we engage in the risky but rewarding practice of improvisation….

This post originally appeared at On Jericho Road.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra; father of Joshua and Sara. He pastors First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald, GA and a graduate of Mercer University (1978) & Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (1982 & 1986). He is the former Pastor of First Baptist Church, Adel, GA, former Associate Professor in the School of Religion at Belmont University in Nashville, TN, and former pastor of The Hill Baptist Church in Augusta, GA.

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