Monthly Archives: August 2010

Last Sunday’s Sermon on Park51

Several people have asked to read the sermon from Sunday. I’ve been waiting for it to go up on the church website, but until then, here it is.

It’s funny, looking at it now. It really doesn’t feel all that controversial.

MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
August 22, 2010
“God’s Greatest Hits”: Sermon Series
Baby Moses: Exodus 2:1-10

Among the Reeds

We’ve heard a lot of great stories this summer in our series, many of which were chosen by members of the congregation. Today’s text is one of my choices. I distinctly remember learning this story as a child in Sunday School, and can picture the coloring page that our teacher handed out with an adorable baby Moses nestled in the basket while his big sister looks on.

As I learned the story, Moses’ sister (Miriam) was the clear hero, quick to jump in with a solution, ready to manipulate Pharoah’s daughter into not only allowing their mother to continue to nurse him, but to get paid for it! Quite a clever girl indeed. In my childhood remembrance of the story, Pharoah’s daughter has a less prominent role.

Now, it’s certainly possible that Pharoah’s daughter is “played” by Miriam. It could be that she’s set up to be nothing more than a dumb member of the ruling class. This is a well-established framework for these kinds of stories, from the book of Exodus to Br’er Rabbit. But I think Pharoah’s daughter knows exactly what’s going on. I think she understands the situation quite well: that this baby, and the young girl looking on, and the woman who will nurse him, are all part of the same family, victims of a heinous plot cooked up by her father to decimate the Hebrew people by eliminating the sons (see Exodus chapter 1).

But what is it about Pharoah’s daughter that gives her the generosity to let the woman nurse the child—and pay her for it? Where does she get the compassion to let this Hebrew child, a child of another race, not only live, but be raised as royalty?

The other night I was working on the computer and a friend (who’s a big fan of musical theater) sent a message: “Hey, South Pacific is on Live at Lincoln Center!” I had some laundry sitting in the basement to be folded so I thought Sounds good! Many of you know South Pacific; it’s one of the great musicals from the 20th century. It takes place during World War II and addresses themes of racism.

I tuned in just in time to see the scene in which Nellie finds out Emile (her love interest) has fathered two children. Nellie, from Arkansas, just cannot handle the scandal of this news. In the next scene, another character (dealing with his own prejudices) says such feelings are “not born in you” and he sings the famous song:

You’ve got to be taught To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught…

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

I’ve read that Rodgers and Hammerstein were under great pressure to change the song and to soften the themes of the show. In fact the Georgia legislature wanted to outlaw entertainment they saw as sympathetic to communism. One legislator said interracial marriage was “implicitly a threat to the American way of life.”[i] Sad, isn’t it?

Somehow, Pharoah’s daughter was not taught to hate the people her father hated. For whatever reason, she missed that lesson. Which is amazing, really. Her father had a campaign underway to slaughter the Hebrew sons, because he felt threatened, because he hated and feared the people, but somehow his daughter didn’t get the message. Something in her took pity on the baby in the reeds. Something in her heart softened toward him and his plight. And thank God for that, because if Pharoah’s daughter hadn’t done what she did, the little baby among the reeds would not have grown up to be a man who would one day stand before Pharoah’s corrupt regime and say, “Let my people go.”

I remember watching South Pacific as a teenager in Dallas—and I specifically remember this scene in which Nellie finds out about Emile’s interracial relationship. And I remember thinking Really? This was an issue? Thankfully we’ve moved on though. How quaint this show is—a period piece, for sure—but how relevant really is this musical to the world that we live in now?

Oh, how naïve I was… to think that we were past all that.

You only need to listen to the rhetoric of the past several days, over the so-called “ground zero mosque,” and the fact that many think anti-Islamic sentiment is on the rise, including a Christian church that is planning a “burn the Quran” party[ii], to see that issues of race, and culture, and how we accept people who are different, are absolutely still of utmost importance today.

I’m going to thread the needle as best I can with this, because tempers are hot around this one, and a sermon is intended to start a conversation, not finish it. This conversation takes place among you and me and scripture and the culture, with the Holy Spirit knitting it all together.

I must first say three things:

  1. 9/11 is a terrible wound. The trauma of that day may never fully heal.
  2. There are people in the world who want to do harm.
  3. Good people can have different ideas about the appropriateness of Park51 (the community center and mosque project) at this particular place and at this particular time.

That said:

What an opportunity this public discussion could have been—an opportunity to talk with one another about who we are and who we want to be as a society. What is appropriate? What does sacred space look like? If not a community center, built by a Muslim group (with the approval of rabbis and clergy, by the way, who will serve on the board), then what do we want to see in that space? How do we react to the two mosques that are already in the neighborhood? If there can be a Muslim place of prayer at the Pentagon, how is Ground Zero different? Is it different? How do we uphold the values of our nation while acknowledging the pain of those who grieve?

That would have been an important discussion, a healing discussion.

That is not what has been happening.

Instead, most civil and respectful debate has been drowned out by fear-mongering and scapegoating. One person has called the planned project a “command center for terrorism at the 9/11 site.” Imam Rauf, who has a long history of interfaith work, who attended Daniel Pearl’s funeral and spoke as an honored guest, who is widely considered to be a moderate Muslim, who somehow earned the trust of two administrations such that he is on a State-Department-sponsored speaking tour, has been branded as a radical. An extremist. Someone who is out to get “us.” The evidence for this is sketchy, to put it kindly—the best people can do is a kind of guilt by association.[iii] One person even said, “after you’ve killed 3,000 people, you’re going to now build your mosque?”, as if the 9/11 terrorists and the Muslims involved in the Cordoba Project are one and the same.[iv]

To put it bluntly, the Muslims we know in our workplaces and neighborhoods have as much complicity in 9/11 as you and I do for the KKK. Our former President, George W. Bush, said, “Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don’t represent the best of America, they represent the worst of humankind, and they should be ashamed of that kind of behavior.”[v] He said that six days after 9/11.

Salman Hamdani was a police cadet, part-time ambulance driver, incoming medical student, and devout Muslim. When he disappeared on September 11, law enforcement officials came to his family, seeking him for questioning in relation to the terrorist attacks. His remains were finally identified 6 months later. He was found near the North Tower, with his EMT medical bag beside him, presumably doing everything he could to help those in need.[vi]

The God I believe in was as heartbroken at the death of Salman Hamdani as with the death of any other innocent victim that day.

Pharoah’s daughter peeked through the reeds of the river and looked into the face of the stranger. The other. Different race, different culture. It would have been no skin off her nose if she had just put that basket back and tiptoed away. Let someone else deal with him, or not. It’s not her problem. But she couldn’t ignore him. She couldn’t leave. I hope we as Christians, who are supposed to be about loving our neighbor, would be no less compassionate with the other than she was.

“You’ve got to be taught…” the song goes. What are we teaching as this debate rages? What are we teaching about Jesus? What are we teaching about hospitality? There’s a lot of heated rhetoric, not just about the Park 51 project, but all kinds of issues of the day. And as I said, good people can disagree. But are we going to add heat or light? Are we going to speak out against the hate and noise? Are we going to bear witness to the Prince of Peace? You’re a teacher. I’m a teacher. What are we teaching about the God we follow?

. . . . .

My poor children have my seminary training inflicted on them from time to time.

Years ago I was reading this story to Caroline from a children’s Bible. The last line was “and she named the baby Moses.”

What I said was, “she named the baby Moses, which is Hebrew for ‘pulled out,’ because she ‘pulled him out of the water.’ ”

From the other room I heard Robert say, “Give the poor child a break, she’s four!”

But you see… the name of Moses is the key to the whole thing.
This business of being “pulled out”—that’s the beauty of the whole story.

And you know, it wasn’t Moses who was pulled out.
It was Pharoah’s daughter who was pulled out.

Somehow or other God reached into her sheltered upper-class existence and pulled her out to a new place.

God pulled her into a place of empathy for the oppressed.
God pulled her out of the cocoon of self-interest and said, “This foreigner needs your care. ”

And God’s pulling us out—
pulling us out of our own agendas,
our own tightly-held prejudices,
into a new place, an uncomfortable place, to be sure, a vulnerable place, where not everybody looks like us or dresses like us or thinks like us or worships like us.

But it’s a good place we’re being pulled into.
It’s a place that looks a whole lot like the kingdom of God.

This I believe.

[i] references the following article:

Andrea Most, “‘You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught’: The Politics of Race in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific” Theater Journal 52, no. 3 (October 2000), 306.

[ii] Religious Freedom, Free Speech Face Off Nationwide, by David Shaper on NPR,

[iii] For Imam in Muslim Center Furor, a Hard Balancing Act, New York Times, August 21, 2010




Technology and Preaching

You might want to read yesterday’s post on Evernote to get some context.

All this business about technology and preaching has me thinking random thoughts…

First thing is the positive stuff: because I am anal retentive hyper organized, it is a relief to have all of my ‘output’ in one place. This is the basis of David Allen’s Getting Things Done—get all your tasks and reference material into a system you trust so it’s not taking up space in your psyche. There’s nothing worse than that low-level anxiety from fear you’re forgetting something. GTD and my Evernote system take a load off my mind. (Yes, that means I would be even more high strung if I were less organized. Did I just blow your mind?)

I also think the way we are writing sermons is changing. Spirit works in many ways. If faithful sermons were written by a pastor in the 1950s, working in his [and only occasionally her] study while consulting a stack of commentaries, I absolutely think the Spirit can work in my clipping an article on stewardship in May for use in October. (Anyway, haven’t we always done this? We just used folders and file cabinets before.)


Just as all technology has a shadow side, so does this organizational system. In a busy week of ministry, it can be very tempting to do a paint-by-numbers job on the sermon using bits and pieces I’ve collected from random places, rather than really delving into the text. Nick Carr is right—having information at our fingertips means that we can forgo deep reflection for the sake of readily available data.

I’m not one for self-punishment over this, by the way. Weekly preaching (as opposed to monthly) has meant lowering my standards a bit… which is a gracious thing to do for yourselves, fellow perfectionists. It’s meant trusting the preaching relationship more than the power of a single sermon. But I can tell when the work is getting superficial, when I feel like Bilbo Baggins, “Sort of stretched, like… butter scraped over too much bread.”

As with most things, the fact that something (in this case, a certain technology) can be abused isn’t an excuse not to use it. It’s a discernment process.

I also think a lot about hoarding. Because Evernote makes it so easy to save stuff, it can be easy to overdo it. Do I really need to clip and save this bit about Lent in the middle of August? Can I not trust that when Lent rolls around, there will be something provided right when it is needed? Am I hoarding by saving this? [Separate but related issue: The importance of reading for its own sake, not thinking about how I might “use” it later.]

I recently read about the difference between hoarding and saving. The former is done haphazardly and with a scarcity mentality. The latter is purposeful. It seems that storing up tidbits, stories, archives of stuff, can go either way, into the realm of hoarding (I’m going to hold onto this because I’m fearful about the future), or purposeful saving (the Boy Scout motto comes to mind).

Final thought: there’s something bizarre about having an archive of sermons that, at their core, are very of-the-moment pieces of writing. I believe and was taught that sermons are events. After I preach one, I tend to obsess about how it could have been better, so I often do a mental exercise in which I imagine myself flying a kite, and I cut the string and let it float away. It doesn’t belong to me anymore. It’s over.

This is all true, and yet… I have a record of every sermon I’ve ever preached. They don’t really go away. Strange, no?

Preachers: how has technology changed how you write and (more deeply) how you think about what a sermon is? Sermon listeners, and writers of other stripes, chime in too.

Evernote for Preachers and Other Smart People

UPDATE 8/23: Someone requested that I share the list of Evernote notebooks I use. I’ve added that to the end of the post.

I wrote this for our presbytery’s monthly newsletter several months ago…

“I read a great story a few months ago that would fit perfectly in this weekend’s sermon… now where on earth did I read that? A blog? CNN’s site? I wish I could remember.”

A good organizational system needs to be easy and fun, otherwise people won’t use it. I also think a good system doesn’t take over your life, but it works for you. (What’s that thing about the Sabbath existing for humanity and not the other way around?)

Evernote is the system I use to store sermons, stories and quotes, prayers, orders of worship, and anything else I want to keep in an archive. It has a desktop application, a smartphone app, and a web client you can access anywhere. It’s a free application (with a paid version) that stores text files and web pages. You can cut and paste into Evernote, type directly into the program, or “clip” websites with the touch of a button. Evernote also accepts  photos and images, the text on which is searchable through some voodoo I don’t understand.

You can sort these items into “notebooks” depending on your own needs. For example, I have a notebook called “quotes and stories” (e.g. that great human-interest piece I heard on NPR) and another called “general ministry” (e.g. a blog post I ran into on how to run a good meeting). Not only can you sort things into these notebooks, but you can tag them with searchable keywords. So if I am doing officer training and I need stuff on “change,” I can find that easily.

The paid version of Evernote allows you to load PDFs, so I’ve uploaded all of my past sermons, and they’re (of course) searchable. I don’t do complete re-preaches much, but I have adapted old stuff for a new occasion. And Craddock says if a sermon’s not worth preaching twice, it probably wasn’t worth preaching the first time, so there!

Of course, this system takes time to set up, but not as much as you think. Loading past stuff into Evernote is very easy to do and doesn’t require a lot of brain cells. (Do it during commercial breaks of your favorite show.) Of course, if you’re not fundamentally an organized person, Evernote isn’t going to make you one. What it does is maximize the impact of your organizational efforts.

It sure beats manila folders that are never where you need them and that require you to make decisions (does this poem about the mother of Jesus go under “Mary” or “Advent” or “Gospel of Luke”?).

And it beats the heck out of metal file cabinets.


As I read this article, having spent more time with Evernote, I’m thinking more philosophically about technology and its impact on preaching. Think I’ll share that in a separate post.

And finally, no, I do not get a commission from Evernote. Don’t I wish!



Here is the list of notebooks I use. It works for me, but there are many ways to slice and dice it.

Sermons: I actually have two separate sermon notebooks, one for my previous call and one for this one.

Papers: I’m in a lectionary group with some clergy and I have all their papers loaded and tagged in Evernote.

Orders of Worship: This is contains complete bulletins from past worship services. This is nice as a kick-start, like if I’m preaching a text and want to recall what hymns I used last time. (Hymn-picking is the bane of my existence. That and prayers of confession.)

Prayers and Liturgies: Stuff I’ve written or picked up along the way. Eugenia Gamble’s fantastic benediction, the Brief Statement of Faith of the PCUSA, some hymns written by my friend Michael.

Church Members: I have a separate file for each member of the church, where I put grandkids’ names and similar stuff I want to remember. I also keep track (very imperfectly) of pastoral calls and visits.

Each file within these notebooks is tagged topically: everything from Ash Wednesday to conflict to eschatology to grief to tithing to Zechariah.

I also have some personal notebooks:

Crafts: stuff I can do with the kids

Recipes: self-explanatory

Personal: gift-giving ideas, restaurants to try

how statistics lie

There’s an old episode of the West Wing in which a pollster is trying to get the President to sign onto a measure that would ban flag-burning. It’s an easy way to gain a few votes, the pollster said. A constitutional amendment to ban flag burning is never going to happen, so what’s the harm? It shows the POTUS to be a patriotic American. Is there anything wrong with that?

The president’s staff arranges for Bartlet to sit through various town hall meetings with people hectoring him over the issue. Finally he asks, “Is there an epidemic of flag-burning I don’t know about?” and walks out.

Later, a couple of staff people are talking about the polls in which a majority of Americans support a constitutional amendment prohibiting flag-burning. A cool-headed pollster points out the flaw: that figure may be true, but the percentage of people who rate that issue as important or very important is low. Very low. A simple yes-or-no question is not going to capture the intensity of the opinion.

I’ve been thinking about this since the controversy over Park 51 has begun.

Apparently, around 70% of Americans think that the community center and mosque shouldn’t be built so close to Ground Zero. Let’s set aside whether constitutionally protected actions should be subject to the will of popular opinion. (Here’s a thought: No.) What I haven’t seen is anything about the intensity of that 70%. People are certainly pontificating about it in the media and on the Internet, and unfortunately, it’s the panderers and bigots who seem to be loudest. And those folks keep trumpeting the 70% figure, as if every one of that 70% is as deeply offended as they are. I would be willing to bet good money that they aren’t.

My guess is that if you take out the members of Shoutytown, and the people who have been convinced by them that this is a “victory mosque” or that all Muslims are evil, that much of the opposition is somewhere in the universe of “I know there’s no rational reason why this should bother me, but I have to admit it does. 9/11 is such a profound psychic wound for our nation that we need to proceed with utmost caution. If another site could be found that wouldn’t jeopardize the project’s mission, I would favor it. But if this is the location, eh, the world will go on.”

The only thing I have found that even comes close to addressing this is a poll of New Yorkers. A majority favor another site, AND a majority agree that the Cordoba folks have a right to build there. This suggests to me that people are able to separate their personal feelings about the project from whether it should be allowed to continue.

Absent some nuance, we will continue to have political figures exploiting this for cheap electoral gain and using this as a litmus test to show who’s more patriotic and reverent toward the events of 9/11.

Meanwhile, some more people starved to death in flood-ravaged Pakistan today.

Photo: Off-track betting; one of the many businesses located near Ground Zero. More here.

writing practice

Bruce Reyes-Chow and I got into a brief exchange on twitter about writing practices. He’s feeling angst, though I have to disagree with his blog post–he is anything but lame. He’s a rock star who just happens not to have written a book (yet).

Someone recommended The Artist’s Way to him and suggested morning pages as a way to get unstuck. I have a complicated relationship with The Artist’s Way. I have several of Julia Cameron’s books, and even facilitated a writing group at Burke Pres. using bits of TAW. I think many of her principles are right on, and I’ve have gone in and out of morning pages for years. It’s as good a way as any for clearing the clutter out of one’s mind. But I think my sister-in-law, speaking as a fellow writer and mother of young children, put it best: “If I have 30 minutes on my hands, I’d rather spend it polishing a great paragraph than doing morning pages.” For multi-vocational folks, unless you absolutely can’t get unstuck any other way, MPs can become a practice that just eats into your writing time.

After trying to explain this ambivalence to Bruce in 140 characters, he asked, “So what’s your writing practice?”

I responded: “Writing.”

I was glib partly because I don’t feel like my practice is all that great. My friend and former Writing Rev Carol gets up at 5 a.m. to write every day. Let’s just say that’s not my fruitful time of day. I like to quote a preacher who said, in response to an invitation to lead an Easter sunrise service, “Sorry, I don’t even believe in God until at least 10 a.m.” Then again, Carol’s written two books, so there you go.

My life doesn’t work like that—could be lack of discipline, could be the three amigos, could be both. But I do have certain practices and rhythms that have been indispensable. I offer this to anyone who wants to do creative work but must find ways to do that work around the edges of other vocations and in the nooks and crannies of one’s schedule. No claims of uniqueness, by the way:

  • The most important thing I’ve done is join a group. Our poor Writing Revs have been stricken with illness and injury this summer but I really hope we get back into it. We meet twice a month (ideally) and e-mail each other stuff to read beforehand (ideally). It’s love, accountability and feedback with a tall decaf latte on the side.
  • Thursday is writing day–especially sermons but also other projects. Not that I don’t write on other days, and [sadly, perhaps] my writing day does get supplanted by other stuff. I also write many evenings after the kids are in bed.

Those are the big things, but there are a few medium-sized things too:

  • I am a Getting Things Done fanatic, and I’ve got all my writing tasks integrated into my to-do list. David Allen recommends breaking projects down into manageable chunks and making to-do items as specific as possible. So I rarely have something as general as “write article” on my list. Instead it’s a bite-sized, achievable piece like “read scripture and jot down notes on it.” (This is a classic Bird by Bird maneuver.)
  • I picked up a trick from Lauren Winner, who picked it up somewhere else. She suggests that when you’re ready to finish writing for the day, you should stop your writing mid-sentence and/or at a point where you know what you’re going to say next. It’s the equivalent of parking downhill; it’s going to take less mental bandwidth to get started the next day.
  • Along those lines: I’m writing a memoir-type thingy at the moment, which I made amazing progress on during a writing retreat in Collegeville, MN. Near the end of the week, I free-wrote about 50 opening sentences that are the beginnings of vignettes. Now when I find myself with a free half hour or so, I find these prompts, write one down at the top of a clean page, and go. My current favorite: “On the upside, my mother’s divorce lawyer lent our family a full-sized Donkey Kong arcade game, which we set up in a corner of our living room.”
  • Hanging around with writers: In addition to the Writing Revs, I attend writing conferences and workshops whenever I can. It’s good for the mojo.
  • Sh*tty first drafts. This is a bit of genius from Anne Lamott and is the single most important thing in my own psychological arsenal. All I have to do is write something, anything, no matter how pathetically bad it might be. SFDs are a way of pulling a fast one on my internal perfectionist, who would much rather keep the stuff in my head, where it can be flawless (yeah right).
  • I also am a big believer in this mental hack for those days when I’m on a deadline but the lure of the Internet and its shiny objects is just too great to ignore. I’ve adjusted it slightly; I will write for 12 minutes, then goof around for 3. Lather, rinse, repeat until the job is done. I’ve written entire thousand-word articles this way.

In the spirit of disclosure, here’s some stuff I need to work on:

  • being more disciplined about personally imposed deadlines. If nobody else is expecting the finished product, if it’s just something I want to do, it’s too easy for everything else to take precedence.
  • spending more time reading about writing than actually writing. There are so many great books out there about the writing life and/or the practice of writing. That’s another reason I have shelved Julia Cameron for the moment.
  • setting aside longer periods of time to think and write—an entire day or more. It’s like prayer and meditation—you can only get by with short bursts for so long without feeling scattered and the work becoming superficial. My friend Ruth is really good about this; she books writing time at the monastery pretty often.

So, that’s what I do. What do you do?