In improv comedy, there’s a lovely little principle called “yes, and.” When you’re in the middle of a skit, you never question what your co-actor does. If he says, “I hate this Georgia heat,” you don’t say “Seriously, honey? It’s winter and we’re in Maine.” As an actor, you know that the best way to create an engaging story with believable characters is to go along with the reality your co-actor is creating. You say yes to the new reality and you build off of it. So when he complains about the Georgia heat, you don your Southern drawl and tell him you’ll be right back with some sweet tea. To refuse to say “yes, and” breaks the flow of the story and puts the focus on you, the actor, rather than on your character.
The Office’s Michael Scott is a perfect example of what happens when you don’t follow the “yes, and” principle. In his improv class, he hijacks every scene by yelling, “I have a gun!” Whether a little girl is skipping down the street or a fortune teller is reading his future, the invisible gun comes out. He thinks he’s bringing energy and excitement to the skit, but in reality, his scenes are boring, repetitive, and to top it off, his classmates can’t stand him.
Michael Scott’s antics might seem to win the gold medal for bad improv, but I’m pretty sure I’m a worse offender than him. In almost every scene that God has started writing in my life, I’ve acted a lot like Michael. But instead of saying “I have a gun!” I say, “Am I finally going to get what I want?”
In junior high school, I wrote obituaries for me and my friends. In bubbly cursive on wide-ruled paper, I inked stories in which our every hope and dream was fulfilled. Dream job. Check. The perfect spouse. Done. That dog you’ve always wanted. You got it.
Mine read something like this:
“Hope Johnson lived a truly adventurous life. She majored in youth ministry in college and fell in love with an aspiring youth pastor named Jeremy who loved Russia just as much as her. Immediately after college, at age 22, Hope and Jeremy got married and moved to Russia to do mission work. They had three beautiful children on the mission field. After 10 years, they were called back to Hope’s home church in Hampden, Maine, where Jeremy became the senior pastor. And they lived happily ever after.”
You can probably tell by now that a.) I was a strange child, and b.) the obituaries didn’t spring from an obsession with death, but an obsession with life.
Life on my terms, that is.
From age 13 on, I lifted this story I’d penned up to God again and again, asking him to bring it all to pass. And my dreams were good, I reminded God the closer it got to “crunch time” (i.e. the end of college when there was still no husband in sight). I wanted to do missions and ministry with a godly man, for heaven’s sake! Of course God could get on board with that.
But He didn’t.
I didn’t meet the love of my life in college.
I did go to Russia the year after I graduated, but it was the loneliest year of my life.
I struggled with depression for 3 years after I returned from Russia and wondered if I would ever feel “normal” again.
Things in my twenties were clearly not going according to that obituary I had written years before. My response: clench my fists and deny reality. Each time a self-imposed milestone passed, I would lift up the story I had written, a story as tired as a crumpled, yellowing piece of wide-ruled paper, and beg God to tell me that the reality I was experiencing was just a dream.
At the same time, I knew at my core that God himself was truly better than any plans I could imagine, and that he deserved my trust and allegiance regardless of what happened. And I have followed God in this crazy journey full of the unexpected, and let me tell you, He has done amazing things! He’s given me precious friends, brought me to places I’d never imagined, carried me through depression and walked me into joy. He’s orchestrated opportunities for me to speak the truth and grow and change that I never would have had if my plan had worked out. But still, until now, I’ve never quite let go of that “perfect plan” I had outlined for my life.
This unexpected pandemic and all that has come along with it reflects this battle that I, and so many others I know, fight daily. We all had plans that seemed, good, very good, yet we were pushed into a reality that we hadn’t imagined or planned for. Weddings, postponed. Jobs, lost. Parties, cancelled.
And it struck me that perhaps I’ve been living a little bit like I’m in quarantine, hunkered down, waiting until everything is over so that my real life can begin.
A beautiful pattern in Scripture recently leapt out at me. The lives of so many who were intimate with God and saw Him do amazing things in their generation had this common denominator: they had a plan for their lives, God called them to something radically different, and they said “yes, and.”
Here are just a handful of these amazing stories:
Daniel’s plan: live out his life in his homeland.
God’s call: be taken captive by a pagan nation, learn the language and literature of his captors, face a grisly death (being eaten by lions) for refusing to stop praying to the one true God, see God’s power in a miraculous rescue from that death, and by God’s power, interpret the king’s dream, and prophesy about the coming of Jesus.
Joseph’s plan: enjoy a life of comfort as his father’s favorite
God’s call: be sold into slavery by his brothers, gain the respect of the pharaoh only to spend years in prison, but ultimately be a huge part of saving not only the nation from famine but the very brothers who had sold him into slavery.
Noah’s plan: live a godly life with his family in an ungodly world; be a witness to those rebelling against God.
God’s call: be a witness, for sure, but do it by building an ark for and having those around you think you’re crazy.
Ruth’s plan: live out her life with her foreign husband in her homeland of Moab.
God’s call: go to a foreign land widowed with her mother and law, work long hours gleaning in the fields to make a living, be united with a kind, godly husband, and ultimately, be part of the line of Christ.
The list goes on and on: Paul, Esther, Moses, Samuel, David, Jesus’ disciples!
And as this beautiful pattern has come into focus, for the first time in my life, I feel the courage to give that open-hearted “yes and” to God whatever comes. It’s true, each person I listed above experienced more pain and suffering than they would have had their life gone according to their expectations. But the reward was so much greater than the pain: they were swept into the epic story of God’s love and redemption, and they knew Him personally with ever-growing intimacy. I don’t think they would have traded that for anything. And I don’t want to either.
One of the key reasons behind the “yes, and” principle is that if I take over the scene with my own reality, the focus is now on me, the actor, rather than on my character. This metaphor extends to the Christian as well. If I refuse to say “yes, and,” I’m going to obsess over self rather than reflecting Christ. I will spend my days walking in ineffective, repetitive circles when God is offering me the chance to join him in the great adventure of His kingdom work.
The most beautiful “yes, and” to me in Scripture is that of Mary. I imagine she had a simple, peaceful plan for her life. Marry Joseph, live quietly, and raise lots of children. But when face to face with an angel who told her she was going to bring the Messiah into the world, she said yes, and her life was never the same. She spent day after day in the presence of Jesus, saw him fulfill the prophecies she held so close, watched him brutally murdered but gloriously resurrected. She surrendered the life she had planned willingly, and God gave her meaning and joy and abundance that made those plans pale in comparison.
So I’m setting that old obituary on fire* as a 29th birthday gift to myself, and if I try to go pawing through the ashes, remind me of how two-dimensional and lifeless it was, of how quickly it burned up, and then remind me that real, vivid, colorful kingdom life is right in front of me. So year 29, here we go… God, you have my “yes, and.”
I’d love to hear from my readers: What’s your “yes, and” story? What was your plan, how was it changed, and what did God do?
*Not really, I’m not that dramatic 🙂
*Update 1/26/21: When I wrote this at the beginning of the pandemic, I had no idea just how many “yes, ands” were to come. Although we may be (very!) weary, let’s continue to refuse to be Michael Scott and be more like Jim and Pam–when the Dwight of our circumstances invites us to the unexpected, let’s grin, nod, and say, “absolutely I do.”