“Yes, and…” Those two words are the summary of the acting method in improvisational theatre. Saying “yes, and…” to someone else’s idea in the scene, no matter what it is, keeps the scene alive and growing. If another actor says, “Watch out, there’s a dragon!” and you say, “no, there isn’t,” you kill the scene. But if you say something like, “yes, and he seems to have a cold,” you’re off and running, creating something together that you really couldn’t do on your own.
So, a good improviser is not really someone who’s particularly imaginative and witty in themselves, but rather someone who can be fully present in whatever moment they find themselves in, absorb whatever is given to them, and then build upon it in a way that is both coherent and meaningful. And like anything else, the more you say “yes, and…” to whatever comes your way, the better you become at building on it, even when it seems like something that is disruptive.
Wynton Marsalis is one of the best jazz musicians alive today, which obviously means he’s excellent at improvisation, saying “yes, and…” with his trumpet to whatever the music offers him. One night in 2002 Marsalis was on stage playing one of the most melancholy jazz standards there is, a song called “I Don’t Have a Ghost of a Chance With You.” As he approached the emotional climax of the song, the notes hanging with aching beauty in the air, someone’s cellphone began to ring loudly, one of those rapid electronic singsong tones common in the early 2000s.
It completely disrupted the performance and shattered the ambience. Many performers would have scolded the audience member or simply walked off the stage. Instead, Marsalis stood silently for a moment, raised an eyebrow, and then repeated the ringtone, note for note, with his trumpet. Then he repeated it again. Then he began to improvise off the ringtone, and went off into a glorious extended improvisational solo, changing keys and tempos until he finally brought it back down and around to exactly where the phone had interrupted him in “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You.”
The room exploded in a standing ovation. By giving a musical “yes, and…” to what seemed to everyone like a disruption, Marsalis ended up creating a moment far more powerful and beautiful and moving than anything he could have possibly done if everything had gone in its expected and orderly fashion.
This passage from the prophet Joel is the same one that the Apostle Peter quotes to the crowd on the day of Pentecost, according to the book of Acts. As you might remember, Jesus’ disciples were underground hiding in fear of the religious and political authorities. But on Pentecost, the Spirit descended on them and they spilled out into the street, miraculously being understood by everyone regardless of their language.
People responded in different ways to that disruption: many were amazed, but some sneered at the disciples, accusing them of being drunk. Peter cited this passage from Joel to explain what was going on, which talks about God’s Spirit being poured out onto all flesh, in which sons and daughters prophesy, and young people would see visions.
Which is disruptive, because it means that God’s truth and Spirit are not limited to the expected channels of the religious hierarchy or even established prophets. On the contrary, the Spirit would empower people of all ages and stations in life to bring prophetic wisdom and insight to their elders and leaders, who were not used to things working in that direction at all.
It’s an easy trap to fall into, back then as well as today; adults often dramatically overestimate their own wisdom and understanding. “We admire your enthusiasm, but you’ll see when you’re older that things are a bit more complicated than that,” is often the adult response to prophetic youth. Which is just a fancy way of saying “no” rather than “yes, and…” to something that’s not in the script that adults want to follow.
But Joel’s prophetic vision upends that whole idea. It’s not about who has the age and life experience to be wise, it’s about who has God’s Spirit. Or perhaps more accurately, who God’s Spirit has: who God chooses to fill with the Spirit and speak to and through. And, according to Joel, that means young people at least as much as older ones. The question for the rest of us, then, is what we will say in response.
I learned that myself when I was still pretty young, serving as a youth minister before I went to seminary just a year after I had graduated from college. I was in Jamaica at the time, sitting on the rooftop terrace of a simple brick school building. Next to me, all in a semi-circle, was a group of 25 teenagers that I had led there on a mission trip. All their eyes were directed to the other end, the open part of the semi-circle, where one girl sat facing them: we’ll call her Mary. Mary was the daughter of a Kenyan pastor who was in the States for a few years to pursue an advanced degree.
The reason that’s relevant is because when our group arrived in Jamaica for the mission trip, Jamaican immigration officials said there was a problem. Her father, despite swearing otherwise, had failed to provide her with the correct paperwork to show that she was in the U.S. on her father’s valid student visa. “She can come in,” they told me, “but the U.S. will probably deport her at the border if you try to take her back.”
That was a pretty big disruption, and what was worse was that when she called home, she learned that her father had returned to Kenya for a brief trip while we were gone and couldn’t be reached (this was 1994, way before FaceTime or email or anything else like that). In the span of the next week, I spent nearly all my time working political connections in both the U.S. and Jamaican governments trying to get Mary back home, leaving the actual leadership of the trip to volunteers, while the youth group tried to show their support and concern for Mary. But with only three days left before our return, I still hadn’t gotten anywhere, and her father still hadn’t resurfaced, and I didn’t know what to do.
That’s when I learned about the thefts. One of the advisors came to me and said that things were disappearing from the girls’ dorm room: money, personal items, clothes, all couldn’t be found by several girls. Later that afternoon, another advisor came back and told me that she had seen Mary’s suitcase lying open with some of the items inside. I think she wanted to be caught; aside from leaving the suitcase open, when we confronted her, she readily confessed.
There are not really words to describe how angry I was at that moment. I had spent all day, every day, for most of the trip trying to get her home. The group had rallied around her in this difficult situation, especially the very girls she had stolen from. How could she do this?
Outraged, I told her that normally I would put her on the next flight home for something like this, but since that wasn’t an option, she would have to give an account of herself to the rest of the group that night and I would let them decide what should happen to her. And in a place deep inside me that I didn’t really want to acknowledge, I was looking forward to them letting her have it.
So there we sat, on that rooftop terrace, listening to her speak. She was apologetic in her tone and in her words, but not enough for my liking. When she finished, there was silence for a full minute or two. Then, one by one, they began telling her how hurt they were by her behavior, how violated and betrayed they felt. But they didn’t stop there. They decided that doing extra work instead of going on our trip to the beach on our day off was fair, but they also agreed that, since she had sincerely apologized, they had a responsibility as a group and as individuals to bring her closer in rather than push her out, not just because of what she was going through but because that’s what they thought Jesus would want them to do.
I was flabbergasted and a bit ashamed. I had been almost gleefully waiting for them to demand satisfaction and pass judgment, but that’s not what they did. They accepted her repentance when I didn’t want to do that myself; they owned their own shortcomings when what I wanted was vindication; they offered reconciliation when what I wanted was come-uppance, which is what I wanted.
The sons and daughters in that youth group were prophesying, just as Joel had promised, and the only question was how I would respond. Finally I said, “Yes, and..we’re all going to use this as an opportunity to consider more deeply what it means to be a community of people trying to live out the gospel with each other, not just talk about it. Starting with me.”
And it became a defining moment for that group; when we got back to the States, Mary was quickly pulled out of line by immigration and we spent hours trying to talk them into letting her through. They finally did so, and when she and I finally came through on the other side, the whole group was still waiting for her and exploded in cheers and hugs when she walked out.
We’ve identified ministry with children and youth as one of the mission priorities of this congregation over the next few years. But not because they represent the future of the church, or we need them for the institutional health of the congregation, or anything along those lines.
It’s because God has poured out God’s Holy Spirit on all flesh, and our sons and daughters are prophesying, and our young people are seeing visions; right now, not just in the future, even if that’s not the language they would use to describe it. And this congregation both needs their witness and has a responsibility to empower them in their ministry right now.
To do that faithfully and well is going to require some improvisation on our part, absorbing the disruption of how we think things are supposed to go instead of resisting it. But that’s how it always is when we’re responding to God’s Spirit at work, saying “yes, and…” when the Spirit presents us with things that we might want to say no to.
But if we are faithful in that together, we will end up creating something far more powerful and beautiful and moving than anything he could have possibly done if everything had gone in its expected and orderly fashion. And thank God for that!