In 1989, Mary Catherine Bateson (daughter of anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson) wrote a book titled Composing a Life. Among other things, Bateson proposes that life is not a straightforward path, but more like an “improvisatory art.” As explanation, she notes that “improvisation doesn’t mean you don’t practice. I have a cousin who is a jazz flutist. And I know that jazz musicians practice improvisation by the hour.”
I am intrigued by this concept. Looking back over 70+ years I see a path that I never could have planned. Improvisation has been key as I grew up in dysfunction, married, had children, moved, divorced, remarried an African-American, faced his illnesses and my own, moved again, made three major career changes, retired, made another career change, and retired again. What a fascinating life it has been! Instead of having a career, I see now that I composed a life.
Composing a life can seem threatening to those of us who have been taught to chase achievement or success or to live a circumspectly respectable life. To improvise is to create or invent or even ad lib. Those of us who are afraid to compose our lives (as opposed to planning our lives), or who are afraid to improvise ( as opposed to staying in our box), need to look again at Jesus. He never did what was expected. Instead he created a with-God life of “improvisatory art” which had never been seen before nor will ever be seen again.
Composing a life is also a solid description of the life of an Apprentice of Jesus. Spiritual growth doesn’t just happen, but it isn’t necessarily planned either. However, training and practice are as crucial for Christ-followers as it is for Bateson’s jazz musician cousin. We can’t be “Jesus with skin on” in our world if we have never worked at being like him. As open as we need to be to the call of the Holy Spirit, we still need to undergird our vision with a solid framework. I choose to call that framework spiritual formation – and to practice it by the hour every day.
image of jazz musician by wwwallreeds.com