Improvisation and Emergent Revelation

In a recent interview, singer Bobby McFerrin said something rather surprising (to my ears) about improvisation. He said essentially that that the trick to improvisation is simple: keep singing. You keep singing. Don’t think. Don’t spend an inordinate amount of time evaluating the past. Instead, follow the wave, the trajectory of the music, and find the next note. He said it was like singing in the dark. You don’t know what the next note is until you sing it. So, sing.

Welcome to Emergence. Welcome to the Church.

What people have shared in their permission slips is inspiring and heartbreaking. We should not doubt for a moment the depth of love leaders feel for God’s Church and God’s World. Leaders want to respond to their vocations. We want to respond to God’s leading, too. Many of us, however, feel like we’re in the dark somehow. And maybe we’re afraid. One permission slip spoke directly to this reality asking permission “to be fearless about stepping into the unknown.”

We are stepping into the unknown. Fearful or not we are doing just that. Another permission slip spoke to the spirit of such stepping: “to be motivated by hope and not by fear.” So, I return to improvisation.

Every musical composition we know and love was once an improvisation, a hopeful attempt to make music. Similarly, every prayer book service (even if we have to reach far back in human history to find the root) began as someone’s liturgical improvisation. The forms and structures were someone’s improvisation. Jesus was a liturgical improvisor. Jesus took dirt and spittle and improvised a healing service. Jesus turned the tables on the disciples in John’s Gospel as he stripped down to his loin cloth in a moment of Holy Improvisation and washed their feet. “Likewise, after supper…” Holy Improvisation.

Too much? Perhaps. But again and again Christ greets the fearful with a spirit of improvisation. “You have heard it said, but I say…” This statement rings true for our theologies, our ethics, and our institutions. How easily we forget this truth about our well-loved structures and institutions. They are the fruit of improvisation. The Church is actually very good at improvisation though over time we become comfortable and we sometimes forget.

Emergent Christianity is simply the reminder that improvisation is a fundamental spiritual posture of God’s Church.

McFerrin has a lot to say about singing. All you have to do is go to YouTube and search for him and you’ll find interview after interview. He said one more thing that I think may prove helpful to those of us improvising in the spirit of Hope. The song, he says, always finds him. As he’s simply singing the next note he will realize that the song has found him. He never captures it. It captures him.

The Church, its Spirit, is not silent. God is not silent. God is singing and though we may simply be looking for the next note we can sing with hope knowing that God, the one who sang out over the deep, is Singing for us. So, my encouragement to all of us is to keep singing and have hope. Do not be afraid. We’re actually quite good at this.

–Tripp Hudgins

3 thoughts on “Improvisation and Emergent Revelation

  1. Yes, I’ve often thought that living in the Reign of God is like playing good jazz. You need to be deeply grounded, maybe even classically trained, but then you need to be free to do the kind of improvisation, “following the wave” that McFerren describes. Who’da thunk it — McFerren and McClaren both preaching the Gospel!

  2. I like the correlation, Christopher. There’s a great book out there, The Jazz of Preaching, that I turn to from time to time. It’s about freedom *and* groundedness. It’s always both. The only way to take a step forward is to keep the other foot on the ground.

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