Rev. Paul Escamilla, Senior Pastor

“It’s a poor cook that can’t improvise.” Never in my life has my mother’s saying been so present in my mind as in this season of disruption and response. Her aphorism applied to all sorts of things through my childhood years—certainly what to fix for dinner when we didn’t have the ingredients we needed for the recipe we had in mind, but also what to do when that happened in the wider sphere of life. My siblings and I were encouraged to discover alternative paths to reaching a goal when the intended path was obstructed. With those wise words, my mother gave us the gift of a lifetime. Improvisation is also a gospel trait—cultivated of necessity in all who would follow the one who improvised his way through ministry, and invites us in endless ways to do the same—laying down this, taking up that.

The word “improvise” comes from a fusion of Latin cognates meaning “not to see ahead.” You can glimpse the word “see” in the end of the word: vise (from which, visual, vision, and video). And we know the middle consonant “pro” means ahead, or in front, or before. To im-pro-vise means, literally, not to see ahead.

How does the community of faith function when we can’t see ahead? More specifically, how do we improvise in a time when, due to a pandemic, we cannot be the church in the usual ways?

This is how we have done so: As doors have closed to our conventional place of prayer, we have created an outdoor prayer wall. As our public singing has been silenced, we have pealed the tower bells instead, and sung our songs from home. As our worship gatherings have been on hiatus, online services have sprouted to take their place. Congregational dinners have been suspended, but community meals, served from the parking lot, have fed many a hungry soul. In-person meetings for Sunday school, prayer, choir rehearsal, programming and management have become prohibitive, yet we have found our way to video-conference praying, singing, sharing, and decision-making. Improvisation has become the operative word in this season of disruption; the operative word, and the operative behavior.

What I’ve come to discover is that we are doing in real time what we often speak of conceptually in faith language: living by faith in God’s provision. (Provision, from the Latin to see ahead, is the complement of not seeing ahead.) “Give us this day our daily bread,” we often pray, our freezers filled with a month’s worth of food. That phrase has taken on a less metaphorical meaning lately. We may not be starving, or worried about our next paycheck, but our hearts are burdened by the keen awareness of many who are; and some of us are taxed in other ways by the stresses and strains, the challenges and emotional freight of this ordeal. To a degree many of us have not known in our lifetimes, the prayer “give us this day our daily bread” has become real.

And so the cooks—that means you, Laurel Heights—are improvising. We are trusting God in new and risk-taking ways to provide our daily sustenance; to strengthen us for an arduous journey whose end point is not yet clear; to open our hearts more broadly than ever to the neighbor next door and the neighbor across the planet; and to gift us with ears to hear the grace notes, eyes to see the human goodness, and hands to offer care and kindness in places formerly beyond our notice.

Thank you, Laurel Heights, for your agility, and for being such grace notes to one another and the community. I am grateful to serve among you just now, and I draw strength and inspiration for my own leadership from your faithfulness. With you I seek to trust more and more that whatever we need in this improvisational season, God will provide.

Grace and peace.