top of page

"Yes, and...": Counting All Joy, On One Middle Finger

A Glimpse into the Mess

of Spiritual Deconstruction and Repatriation

TW: Evangelical Deconstruction Zone! Religious trauma, immigration, and a bad terrorism joke to prove an awkward point

Yes and” is an exercise and rule in improvisational acting whereby participants learn to cooperate in a pattern of acceptance and expansion, which keeps dialogue rolling and interesting to the audience. To introduce the concept, acting students are instructed to engage in improvised dialogue. After the first statement, they alternate responses, beginning each line with “Yes, and...”

Actor 1: (out of breath) Whew! We made it back safe!

Actor 2: Yes, and I just narrowly missed falling into that giant pothole!

1: Yes, and the man with the torch fell right in!

2: Yes, and the whole mob has dispersed now.

1: Yes, and that’s the last time I wear my Naked Pastor t-shirt to the Southern Baptist Convention!

“Yes and” illustrates and practices the general rule-of-thumb for improv, until embracing the scenario and moving the dialogue forward can occur naturally without the need for explicitly saying, “Yes, and.”

The rule is to accept what the other person has said, or what is happening on stage, no argument or change, then build upon the given situation with a plausible and appropriate response. Good improv requires good cooperation; the actors must open up the scene they’ve set in their minds to receive the modeling influence of the others. If one refuses to accept a fellow actor’s direction of the dialogue, it gets stuck in a loop, or shuts down. There’s little entertainment value in a dead-end conversation. A “No, but” dialogue is called debate, and just makes everyone uncomfortable.

Actor 1: (out of breath) Whew! We made it back safe!

Actor 2: We just went around the corner, I don’t know why you are so wound up.

1: Well, that angry mob was chasing us!

2: It wasn’t a mob, we passed by the Boston Marathon!

1: I thought I saw a terrorist in there.

(super… awkward… silence…)

Audience cringes. Show is canceled.

Oscar Wilde opined, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life,” and I wish in the case of good improv, that was true. I wish we could see that all of life and relationships are improvised in the moment, and learn the value of “yes-and”-ing each other, of opening our stages to unexpected dialogue, with grace and expansion. At the very least, I'd have us fill the space of forgotten lines with a simple accepting “yes.” (I speak of validating each other’s experiences and views, not of becoming people-pleasers who can’t say, “no” or set boundaries, and certainly never of coerced consent.) As it is, many of us are stubbornly planted in our own script, imagining ourselves in the director’s chair and trying to feed lines to everyone who enters our set. We are a society screaming, “No, but!” It always ends up inappropriate and uncomfortable. Our audience is cringing. The show of humanity is on the chopping block (see: 2020).

This perhaps explains why I was not particularly adept at this exercise as an acting student (besides glaring insecurity). “Yes and” was simply not a pathway that was wired into my brain. This game, which seemed so simple and easy in the classroom instruction, ended up, on the spot, to be a lesson in neuroplasticity, with a brick wall of a learning curve. When childhood is hearing, “no, but that’s dangerous” and adolescence is “no, but that’s forbidden” and adulthood is “no, but that’s unconventional,” and Christianity is “no, but that will send you to hell,” how does anyone open up to the “yes-and” of improv? My defense mechanisms were wound so tight, acceptance and lack of control was too dangerous, even for playing pretend. I liked the mask of acting, the freedom to be myself under the guise of “just kidding.” When I found out it actually takes vulnerability and trust and cooperation… let’s just say I haven’t been on a stage in fifteen years.

In my mental health and trauma work over the past few years, I’ve come to explore and accept the very necessary concept of non-dualistic thinking; yin and yang, opposite but essential, both true… “yes, and.”

Don’t mistake the yin and the yang for “black-or-white.” Notice the circle, notice the cycle, notice the flow. Notice that even the black contains a piece of the white, and the white has a piece of the black, and if you were to remove one, the other would cease to have any shape or form. Yin and Yang create each other, they control each other, and they transform into each other. The duality is two separate entities but essentially so inseparable that they are actually all one (non-duality). It’s one and the other and opposite and both and two and one. Yes and.

Western thought, especially Evangelical Conservative thought, tends to be firmly polarized: black or white, right or wrong, good or evil, heaven or hell, “with us or against us.” And it can be so, so, so damaging, to souls that are complex and diverse, and supposedly made in the image of a God who is male and female, who is God and human. The Bible is full of non-duality, full of the celebration of mystery, full of the love of the unknowable, and salvation in one-ness that is both self-honoring and self-dissolving. So how is it that Evangelical Christianity is full of dichotomous rules, fear of the unknown, desperate for safety and assurance in complete separation from the world?

It doesn’t make sense. Something is off in a religion of love that is so full of fear. Something must be misunderstood when the followers of the man who said, “Judge not,” “Condemn not,” are especially known for judgment and condemnation. Christianity, it seems, has written a script for what was meant to be improvisation, written the rule book for grace; it “no but”s where it was given the wonderful freedom to “yes and.” (And personally I think the missing element in this generation is self-awareness and trauma-informed care; it was so with myself.)

I often say Lyme Disease was the best thing that ever happened to me. And I don’t have to “no but” myself. I’m thankful for my illness. Yes!... and… it was also the worst thing that ever happened to me. It broke apart everything I knew of my life and exposed an infected wound I never knew I had. It was horrific. Yes!... and… that allowed me to begin the work of healing and rebuilding.

I love James 1:2-4: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” I love this verse. It says that the purpose of this trial is to make me perfect and complete. That the shaking of my faith to its core means a stronger faith. That for all that was taken away, I will be earning everything! What a joy! What a wonderful gift!

Yes and… I hate James 1:2-4, because this verse can also be an incredibly painful invalidation of the hell on earth that I’ve suffered. I’m meeting evil in the face, and my faith is tested to the breaking point, and “Count it all joy!” sounds like one hell of a “no but” to me. Sure, I can count all my joy… on one middle finger. About the man who stated, “I loathe my life; I will give free utterance to my complaint; I will speak in the bitterness of my soul,” God Himself (Herself? Themself?) said he had “spoken of Me what is right.”

When you have spiritual guides with no trauma-informed training, the Christian faith becomes a script, used to “no but” all the spur-of-the-moment trials and hardships you present in this vulnerable improv. My unexpected pain and anger and sorrow get spirit-washed with scripted lines like joy and hope and faith… words I don’t even know the meaning of, but am somehow supposed to know how to play along. Words that stop my dialogue in its tracks and make me cringe and want to exit stage left-and-never-came-back.

When the Bible is used as a script rather than a rule-of-thumb, the vulnerability and trust and cooperation of improv Grace goes out the window. The Bible as a “no but” script looks something like this (based on 2 Corinthians 4):

Me: I feel broken.

Church: No but don’t worry, you have treasure in your earthen vessel!

Me: I feel weak.

Church: No but you don’t need power, you have God’s power.

Me: I am afflicted.

Church: No but at least you’re not crushed!

Me: I don’t understand.

Church: No but don’t despair; God’s thoughts are higher than ours, we’re never going to understand! (Though questioning is a sign you’re in danger of falling away… let’s unpack that!)

Me: I am being persecuted.

Church: No but you’re not alone! God is with you and all the other martyrs being slaughtered right now!

Me: I have hit rock bottom.

Church: No but at least you’re still here! (By the way, you’re coming to the volunteer training on Saturday, right? What a way to honor God with that broken body!)

Me: I don’t think I’m going to survive this.

Church: No but this life is only temporary, so let’s clap our hands for heaven!

A script closes the door on “yes and” mercy, but we in the Church tend to like it because the script protects us from surprises, embarrassment, uncomfortable emotions, and humbling speechlessness. If we forget our lines, we can open up the Bible or sing a little song to jog our memory. But it kills the real improv dialogue and invalidates Actor #1, driving them to shame and insecurity, right off the stage.

The improv of Grace requires “Yes and”: that we acknowledge what we didn’t see coming, accept what we didn’t expect, and surrender to the force pushing us into scenes we never wanted to appear in. Sure, improv can highlight our incredible talent and quick-thinking, but more often than not, for the untrained, it exposes our rigid minds and weak adaptation skills. The pause for effect lingers into awkward silence.

You will never make a good improv actor out of someone who is afraid of “Yes and.”

You will never make a good Church out of a system that is afraid of validating humanity's value without judgment.

When I realized I was too afraid to be seen, I had no choice but to leave the stage.

When I realized I was too afraid to be me, to love and be loved, I had no choice but to leave the Church.

What if we saw the Bible as the inspiring improv performance we are to observe and learn from, and not as the word-for-word script we need to follow? What if we took the lines to heart, but instead of reciting them, used them as needed for gentle “yes and” exercises in the messy improv of life? What might that look like instead?

Me: I feel broken.

Church: Yes, and “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit,” so we will stay close to you, too. Yes, and we can only comfort you if “We [too] were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we [too] despaired of life itself.” We will find you someone who has shared your sufferings.

Me: I feel weak.

Church: Yes, and we will honor your weakness, “for the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor.” Yes, and God’s grace is sufficient; His power is made perfect in our weakness. Yes, and we will learn valuable lessons from you, and thank you for your sacrifice, which gives us the privilege of seeing God’s power in things we would rather look away from.

Me: I am afflicted.

Church: Yes, and “if one member suffers, all suffer together,” so we will fight for you. We will be “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” for you.

Me: I don’t understand.

Church: Yes, and “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses… let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Me: I am being persecuted.

Church: Yes, and yours is the kingdom of heaven. We will not shut the door in your face.

Me: I have hit rock bottom.

Church: Yes, and we are here to restore you in a spirit of gentleness.

Me: I don’t think I’m going to survive this.

Church: Yes, and “Jesus wept.

Not “no but” rejoice in your sufferings. “Yes and.” Yes, your pain is valid and it is a great injustice against you. Yes, it is evil and you are not. Yes, I see you suffer, and we will suffer too, with grace and patience and solidarity, even when that makes us uncomfortable.

Yes and… I will have my healing words, even if the “no buts” force me into a monologue.


This reflection is brought to you today by 6-23-2021 – the 6-year anniversary of the day I migrated back to the United States from Hungary. The day I “moved back home.”

I woke up this morning and I cried. For the first time, I said, “I left Europe and moved back to the US,” and didn’t “no but” myself into pretending I was happy about that. Rather, I “yes and”-ed my way to accepting the multiplicity of my emotions surrounding immigration, and allowed myself to feel and honor them all, the good and the bad. I finally “yes and”-ed my life, and improvised the most beautiful dialogue of lines fed from the heart of reality, not the script of expectation: Living in Europe is the most amazing experience I ever had. I found love, I found art, I found culture, and I found a huge missing piece of myself there. I feel incredibly privileged.

Yes… and

living on my own for the first time was a milestone which happened for me in a foreign country, in which I was broke, lost, confused, bored, scared, traumatized, unemployed, and had no friends. I earned my degree, in my element and waaaaay out of my comfort zone. The paperwork and bureaucracy and corruption is enough to drive anyone insane. I spent half my time there missing America. I lost a huge piece of myself there. I felt incredibly deprived.

Moving back to the United States was an enormous victory, the fruit of incredibly hard work, blood, sweat, and tears of getting my husband through the immigration system. It is the Land of Opportunity, to drive a car again, speak my language again, work again, be independent again, to be myself again, with that rugged boot-strap American responsibility to launch my career and pay off my student loans. I hit the ground running, breezing through the relative ease of paperwork, online banking, and the glorious treasure-trove that is the American garage sale. Family picnics, singing in church, beach vacations, all the good things in life, I’d get back with the American Dream.

Yes… and

it isn’t home anymore. I found less of myself here now than I left 10 years ago. My friends and family moved on, personally and geographically; I don’t laugh at the same jokes, I don’t eat the same food, I don’t “get” TV. I fell down the rabbit hole of unfathomable corruption in the healthcare system, politics, economics, religion, society, and almost died. I had to quit my job, lost my career, and could hardly get out of bed for months. The American dream has been an unspeakable nightmare.

I spend 90% of my time missing Europe, after spending 90% of my time in Europe missing the US.

YES. And... that’s okay.

Why wouldn’t it be? Because my awkward working out of this non-duality was met with a “no but” script almost every time I opened my mouth.

Me: I miss Budapest.

Them: All you talked about was coming home, and now you wanna go back, you’re just never happy.

Me: I don’t think that’s the best way to do it anymore.

Them: Oh, you think you’re too good enough for us now!

Me: (driving 15 minutes through traffic just to buy a vegetable) I wish I could walk across any street and find a produce stand again.

Them: If you hate America so much, just go back to Europe! Enjoy your socialism!

Me: Why are there only 2 candidates on stage when there are 25 people running for president?

Them: No country is perfect but America’s the best there is! Go back to your communist dump if you don’t like it!

Me: It’s so cold in here my bones actually hurt.

Them: Well my dogs prefer the air conditioning to be set at 65 degrees.

Also them: Why are you always wearing a sweater?!

I have had very few “yes and” dialogues to validate my dual-residency. In a “with us or against us” culture, I don’t know where my spike tape is. Furthermore, while I myself am desperate for a “yes and,” I struggle most ungracefully with “no but”-ing myself, and my husband’s misunderstandings (no but of course a softball isn’t soft, no but of course you can’t intercept it with your ankle like a soccer ball, no but your health insurance doesn’t cover x-rays until you meet your deductible) while simultaneously wanting to validate the confusion of his own immigration experiences (You do have an amazing car, yes and insurance is insanely expensive, yes and gas is so much cheaper, yes and I miss walking to the Metro too, yes and I’m glad we don’t live on top of it anymore!) Our experiences are really hard to process some days, and really rewarding, and really depressing and really fun.

This anniversary is a day to celebrate. Yes… and a day to grieve.

Yes, and that’s okay.

Living in a foreign country is hard. You have to “yes and” everything to be a polite guest, while getting only “no but” in return. Repatriating is in many ways even harder. I drop my lines and keep saying “igen, és...” “da, şi...” and the dialogue often melts into awkward silence and I can’t figure out why people don’t understand me. I say things like “us foreigners” and “where are you from?” and “no ice, please” and I forget that some people find that offensive, rather than the way of life I knew for half a decade. And even worse than the “no but” is that insidious American script “Hey how are you?”

Yes, it has been hard. And it was necessary. And I wanted to come home. And I want to go back.

Yes, and I’m still an American.

Yes, and I have a European soul.

Yes, and I adhere to Chinese Medicine.

Yes, and I’m chronically ill.

Yes, and I am healthier than I’ve ever been.

Yes, and I’m grieving more than I ever have.

Yes, and I am deconstructing my faith.

Yes, and I love Jesus more than ever.

Yes, and my life is full of pain right now.

Yes, and it’s the most beautiful one I ever lived.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” Ecclesiastes 3:1

bottom of page