Learning the Prayer of “Yes, And”

By David Westerlund

“You are not the God we would have chosen / Had we have done the choosing…”

So goes a prayer written by Walter Brueggemann in his book Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth. I wonder if Martha and Mary thought something like this about Jesus?

Something like: “The Jesus I would have chosen would have been here four days ago and kept my brother from dying. If You had been here I wouldn’t have to deal with this pain of loss.”

We may resonate with Martha and Mary. We often wish God would act on our timeline. If we only had more control, then things would be better. Our society’s technologies, so intertwined in our lives, shape the belief that more control is the way to a better life. Yet what if it’s a lie—that more control leads to Life?

This week I’m teaching theatrical improvisation (aka improv). In every improv game and every improv scene, we face the unknown. If my partner and I both try to control the scene, it falls apart. If instead we tune into each other, support each other, and develop trust, the story actually goes somewhere. Joy often emerges.

 

“What if it’s a lie—that more control leads to Life?”

In every day and every moment of our lives, we face the unknown. If we feel alone and gripped by fear, trying to maintain control of things we cannot, then we become paralyzed in the face of the unknown. However, if we risk vulnerability and feel supported by a community of trust, then we can face the unknown with resilience and without being controlled by fear.

One of the core ideas of improv is embodying a posture of “yes.” “Yes” means accepting the reality that’s unfolding in the scene. “Yes” means accepting the reality of what’s before us in life.

The temptation here in accepting reality is assuming we know how a present situation will unfold. As Mary and Martha waded through their grief, they understandably wanted a different reality.

“If You had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21). I wonder if Mary and Martha were projecting their story forward as well as backward, imagining: “Now that our brother is dead and gone, our lives will certainly unfold in this way.” Even subconsciously, we often create a narrative in the midst of difficulty in order to feel some sense of control amidst the chaos.

Jesus arrives. Maybe four days late according to Martha and Mary, but he does arrive. And Jesus is deeply present to their sorrow, just as he is present to his own sorrow. He doesn’t spend time in the what ifs or think, “If only I had been there.” He doesn’t linger on how the story will certainly unfold now that Lazarus is gone.

 

Yes,” my friend is dead. “Yes,” my friends and I are gripped by sorrow. And I am the Resurrection and the Life. Jesus, as Master Improviser, asks: “What’s the opportunity now?”

Bessel van der Kolk in his book on healing from trauma entitled The Body Keeps The Score says that for those who have endured trauma, “We need to provide experiences that deeply and viscerally contradict the helplessness, rage, or collapse that result from trauma.”

I think Jesus understood this. He didn’t rush to resurrect Lazarus all on his own. Just like he enlists servants to help him turn water into wine, he involves his friends in the work of resurrection. He is with them, enacting a New Reality.

“Just like he enlists servants to help him turn water into wine, he involves his friends in the work of resurrection.”