by Sylvia Miller-Mutia
The other day I convened the mid year meeting of the Youth & Family Ministry Team at our church, a team that includes everybody involved with or interested in ministry with children, youth, or parents in our congregation.
In light of our meeting, I found myself less interested in what the Gospel had to say about Jesus as the Messiah with a capital M, and more interested in what the Gospel had to say about Jesus as a young man who:
(1) was formed by a religious tradition and a religious community, and
(2) discovered & claimed his true identity and his true authority in the context of that religious tradition and community.
I am interested in what the Gospel says about Jesus as a young person who,through his presence & participation in his particular religious tradition and community both
(3) WAS transformed, and in turn
(4) DID transform that tradition and community
in ways that opened up new possibilities and new pathways for life and spirit for lots of folks (inside, outside, and beyond) his original community, for at least 2,000 years.
I am interested in the ongoing cycle of formation and transformation, of tradition and innovation, of individuals and community, of young people and elders.
And I am especially interested in what it all means for us, as communities of young people and elders and everyone in between, engaged in the work of forming and reforming, of being formed and transformed, by and with and through and for one another.
I spent the third week of January up at the Bishop’s Ranch in Healdsburg, CA, for a conference sponsored by All Saints Company on “Music that Makes Community”. As part of that conference, Donald Schell shared with us the wisdom of great jazz musician, Clark Terry, who summed up the process of improvisation and music-making this way:
“You’ve got to imitate, assimilate, and innovate!”
Or, if you prefer alliteration, you could say:
Copy… like you’re playing a mirroring game, matching the movements of the person across from you…
Claim…like you’re taking what’s outside and drawing it into your own body, your own heart…
Create…like a seed planted inside you is flowering, and flowing out into the world.
And so the cycle continues.
This is a process that characterizes not only jazz, but all art, all growth, all life.
I know it to be true as a mother…As my 18 month old, Lucia, is learning to speak she begins by imitating sounds. Ba Ba Ba. But now those sounds begin to take on meaning. They are not just my sounds. They are Lucia’s words. “No.” “Shoes.” “All Done.” And soon she will be using those words to create her own stories, and poems, and songs.
I know it to be true as a dancer…I began my training in ballet class, imitating my teachers, doing 800 million plies and 800 trillion tendus, until the technique worked its way into my muscle memory and became part of me…then I moved into choreography, the realm of creating something new, and eventually moved beyond the world of classical ballet entirely, into something more well-aligned with the true vocation of my heart.
I know it to be true as a priest…especially as a priest who enjoys the privilege of spending a great deal of my ministry with young people. The beautiful thing about working with young people is that you can sometimes witness this entire process (imitation, assimilation, innovation) unfolding in a relatively short period of time. I see it in Godly Play, and in summer camps, in the Christmas Pageant, and on retreats.
Because what is true in language and art is also true of the spiritual life.
It’s true for children & young people. It’s true for all of us.
We can’t skip to innovation in any meaningful way, without first imitating and assimilating a tradition.
On the other hand if we never move beyond imitation, to assimilation, our growth is stunted and our faith remains immature. It is always someone else’s story, someone else’s song, someone else’s prayer.
And if we never move from assimilation to innovation, our tradition is dead.
This is the pattern and process for art and for life.
This is our pattern and process for liturgy and spiritual practice.
And this is a pattern and process that characterizes the life & ministry of Jesus.
We can see the pattern unfolding, for example, in the 3rd & 4th chapters of Luke’s Gospel.
In Luke 3 Jesus is baptized, then in Chapter 4 he is led into the desert to face 40 days of testing. After this season of testing has passed, he heads home, and in Luke 4:16 we read, “When Jesus came home to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue as was his custom”, as he had since childhood. As a boy Jesus had heard the men of the community stand (day after day, week after week) and read from the scriptures, then sit to offer comments and interpretation. Even for Jesus—radical teacher, or revolutionary prophet, or incarnate Word of God—even for Jesus, the spiritual path started with imitation.
As a boy Jesus went to the synagogue, watched and listened. As he grew into a man he took his place alongside the other members of the community. He stood up to read the scriptures. He sat down to offer his own comment and interpretation. Up until a point, we can presume that Jesus went to the synagogue every Sabbath because it was the custom of his family…the custom of his community. But at some point, a shift takes place, and we hear in Luke 4 that when the Sabbath comes around, Jesus goes to the synagogue as was HIS custom. Imitation gives way to assimilation.
Then, as the chapter continues, we witness assimilation to such a degree that it becomes innovation…as the words of Isaiah roll off Jesus’ tongue, the words of Scripture become Jesus’ own words…
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon ME
because he has anointed ME to bring good news to the poor
He has sent ME to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind
To let the oppressed go free
To proclaim the year of the Lords’ favor”
Then Jesus rolls up the scroll, sets it aside, and says…
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Assimilation becomes innovation.
The response of Jesus’ community in the face of this innovation varies. Most are astonished. Many are delighted. Some are enraged. A crowd even hustles him to the edge of town in the hopes of throwing him off a cliff.
As spiritual communities this is the path Jesus invites us to walk with one another.
We must be generous and steadfast and patient at the stage of imitation.
We have one member of our church who regularly worships on Sundays at our 8:30 AM service. This person has a big voice. And he has been spending the past 20 months or so, since he was born, exploring that big voice in ways that are sometimes delightful, and sometimes excruciating for other members of the worshipping community.
About a month ago, something marvelous happened. What for months had seemed like a series of random vocalizations began to take on a recognizable shape…syllables began falling into place, one by one, and suddenly we could hear this little boy singing…Al-le-LU-ia…Al-le-LU-ia…Al-le-Lu-ia…
I went home and told my 7 year old daughter about it. “Well of course,” she said matter-of-factly, “He’s learning to pray.”
We must be generous and steadfast and patient—with ourselves and with each other-- at the stage of imitation.
And we must create space and time and encourage the practice that allows for assimilation.
Last April I went on retreat with our youth group, and two of our middle schoolers took responsibility for creating and leading a Saturday night compline service. What was so amazing about the service was that, while the content was original to them, the skeleton of the service was clearly derived from the shape of the liturgical practice of our church community. Our practice as a congregation had seeped into their bones, so that they were able to use the shape to create something new…something beautiful.
We must be generous and steadfast and patient at the stage of imitation.
We must create space and time and encourage the practice that allows for assimilation.
And we must be courageous and flexible and open in the face of innovation.
The people who study rites of initiation across cultures remind us that initiation is never complete until the initiate carries the community to a place beyond. So when we find ourselves at that ledge, on the brink of the unknown, on the edge of being carried to a new place, beyond what is known, we need to resist the urge to hurl somebody off a cliff.
It is a dance into which God invites all of us…toddlers & teens; first time visitors to church and old-time church members; students and teachers; individuals and communities.
This, I believe, is at the heart of our spiritual formation as Christians: When we heed God’s invitation to join Jesus in this dance, we receive and share the Word of Life until eventually we become the Word of Life and ultimately we transform the Word of Life for the life of the world.
Sylvia Miller-Mutia is a dancer, mother, and priest, serving as Youth & Family Minister at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco.