Monthly Archives: March 2012

Friday Link Love

If you haven’t already, check out my previous posts from this week (spiritual genius and mentoring) for additional links.



My friend Susan shared this on Facebook yesterday:

Excellent reminder.


Showing Death with Humanity and Dignity — New York Times

A photographer in Mexico City documents the effects of Mexican and North American policies on the border region where he was raised. I appreciated this interview about one of his heartbreaking images:

I shot the scene a bunch of different ways, but the way that worked best was just showing it from the front. These people were killed by one single bullet. The woman is far into her pregnancy. The hit man came in from the left-hand side of the car and fired a bullet into the man’s head when they were embracing and killed both of them.

I don’t know. It seemed appropriate as we move into Holy Week.


Religion for Atheists — Alain de Botton

I know I’ve linked to his work before, but I find it fascinating as an agnostic theist (I don’t know but I believe):

The French atheist and proto-fascist Charles Maurras, an admirer of both Comte and Nietzsche, was an impassioned defender of the Catholic Church. John Stuart Mill – not exactly an atheist but not far off – tried to fuse Comte’s new religion with liberalism. In marrying atheism with very different ethical and political positions, none of these thinkers was confused or inconsistent. Atheism can go with practically anything, since in itself it amounts to very little.

Most people think that atheists are bound to reject religion because religion and atheism consist of incompatible beliefs. De Botton accepts this assumption throughout his argument, which amounts to the claim that religion is humanly valuable even if religious beliefs are untrue. He shows how much in our way of life comes from and still depends on religion – communities, education, art and architecture and certain kinds of kindness, among other things. I would add the practice of toleration, the origins of which lie in dissenting religion, and sceptical doubt, which very often coexists with faith.

Today’s atheists will insist that these goods can be achieved without religion. In many instances this may be so but it is a question that cannot be answered by fulminating about religion as if it were intrinsically evil. Religion has caused a lot of harm but so has science. Practically everything of value in human life can be harmful. To insist that religion is peculiarly malignant is fanaticism, or mere stupidity.


Language Cop: Christian — The New Republic

In November I introduced a periodic blog feature called “Language Cop” to “keep track of unacceptable words and catchphrases that enter the political dialogue.” In that column I exiled the terms “optics” and “inflection point.” Earlier this month I inveighed against “pivot,” and last week I suggested this euphemism be replaced with a new term, “shake,” in deference to America’s first multiplatform gaffe. Today I banish “Christian ”—not the word itself, but a specific, erroneous usage.

In other words, a usage that implies that Christians are all conservative/fundamentalist. A- to the -men.


And on a whimsical note:

Frame of Mind — Vimeo


Frame of Mind from Steven Alan on Vimeo.

Have a great weekend. I’ve got a session retreat on tap as well as a visit with my cousin B.

Needing a Mentor, Being a Mentor

Ah, Generic Stock Photos. Where would blogs be without them.

I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about mentors lately. I thought this article was awesome: Get Ahead with a Mentor Who Scares You:

“You’re the best!” the four American Idol contestants cried to their voice coach Patty after narrowly escaping elimination, “We couldn’t have done it without you!” As they celebrated, I couldn’t help but notice that their hero was the same irascible, no-holds-barred woman who had been shown yelling and screaming at the same contestants just minutes earlier, leaving her devastated charges in tears.

With the group’s success, Patty’s tough-love approach was validated (much more clearly, perhaps, than that of the show’s previous tough-love artist Simon Cowell). Though her tactics were questionable, they certainly brought out the best in her team; she truly helped them to become better singers and performers. I’m not saying that you should go out and be like Patty, but if you’re young, ambitious and motivated, you should take a page from that foursome.

Go out and find the most qualified or talented mentor, coach, or manager you can, and subject yourself to everything they can throw at you.

The comments rightly caution against a mentor who is abusive. I’m not interested in being yelled at. After all, my kids will be teens before I know it…

But I love the basic idea. Over my 12+ years in ministry, lay and ordained, I’ve had a number of nurturing and supportive mentors and guides—spiritual directors, coaches and professors.

Now I’m ready for someone to scare the bejesus out of me. Or scare the Jesus into me.

I’d like a mentor who assigns me challenging work to do. Who is constantly reinventing herself in ministry. Who understands that good pastoral leaders are as much futurists as they are caregivers and consensus-builders. Who is where I’d like to be on this writing/pastoring journey.

‘Trouble is… I’m not sure I know anyone who fits that bill. Or who would be open to that kind of relationship. Do you? If not, I wonder what it says about the church that that’s the case.


On the other side of the equation, I will be mentoring a woman who is newly graduated from seminary. I’m not interested in scaring her. She’s looking for someone to guide and hold her accountable to her own goals and process. I’m excited, because she’s an awesome person and is going to be an incredible minister, and to the extent that I can help her along her way, it’s a great honor.

As I begin this process, though, I have a couple of questions for you, Gentle Readers of all persuasions:

Have you had a mentoring relationship that was helpful? Would you be willing to talk to me about that?

Have you ever wanted a mentor and not been able to find one? What stood in the way?

Have you ever been a mentor? If not, what has stood in your way?

If you’d like to talk off-blog, e-mail me at maryannmcdana (at) gmail (dot) com.

A Pastor’s Kind of Creativity

The tagline for the Blue Room is “a space for beauty, ideas, creativity, and the life of the Spirit.” I tagged it thusly because that’s the purpose of the Blue Room in our house. It’s my home study, the homework place, the kid arts and crafts room. But it feels high-falutin’ to have that tagline. I don’t feel worthy of it.

Then yesterday I listened to Creativity and the Everyday Brain, an interview with neuroscientist Rex Jung on Being. And it encouraged me.

You can read the whole transcript, but here’s the pertinent bit for me, and I suspect, for many of you who plan worship, education and mission in the church. Prior to this, Krista Tippett and Rex Jung had been talking about Einstein’s term, “spiritual genius,” and what it meant:

Ms. Tippett: One of the people I’ve interviewed is Jean Vanier. Are you familiar with him? He started the L’Arche Movement, which is a global movement of communities centered around people with mental disabilities, especially Down syndrome. I think, if Einstein had known him, he might have said ‘there’s a spiritual genius.’ But even if you put that language to one side, I think that’s a form of creativity — there’s socially useful, novel and useful, creativity.

Dr. Jung: Yes.

Ms. Tippett: Right, that — that fits your definition, but it’s not immediately what comes to mind. We think of artists, we think of scientists.

Dr. Jung: It’s not, but I totally agree that that is a form of creativity and a very valuable form of creativity and perhaps something that we’re moving towards in our increasingly complex society. It’s not just going to be a product. It’s not just going to be an artifact like a painting or a dance number. It’s going to be moving groups of people together and motivating groups of people in certain ways, and that’s a creative endeavor in this L’Arche Movement that you’re talking about. This is a kind of — sounds like a new creative endeavor that we should start to recognize.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah. I mean, people think differently and live differently as a result of this.

That’s the goal, isn’t it, of that kind of creative endeavor? That people think and live differently. That’s why we worship leaders pore over books to find just the right prayer of confession. Or comb our archives looking for a quote for the bulletin cover that will set the right tone. That’s why groups of pastors fly off for a week of lectionary study with other trusted colleagues every year. (OK, one of the reasons.)

The transformed life is the artifact we’re looking for.

But works of spiritual genius also happen on a level that’s beyond us and our efforts. During Sunday’s service I saw at least three people with tears in their eyes. That’s not all that unusual, in my experience. Church is a place where people can tap deep wells of emotion. You don’t force it or manipulate it. You just create a space where it can happen.

What was a bit unusual is that all three of these people were big strong men. It was holy ground.

In my work with NEXT Church, I’ve sometimes felt an insecurity among pastors of mainline churches. Are we dinosaurs because we offer a more traditional worship experience? Sometimes, yes, if it’s not indigenous to the people we serve. But it’s like we equate spiritual genius with tattoos and funky glasses. I feel this sometimes myself. I am in awe of the way some people think. I am creative, but within a form. I’m not nuking the Presbyterian order of worship, as many have (faithfully). It’s the sandbox I’m playing in.

For others, there is no box.

But artistry comes in many shapes and sizes. During the NEXT conference, we sang a setting of “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” that was utterly fresh and new, with guitar and percussion. And the music we made was like a wall of sound—I’ve never heard a congregated people sing that song like that. And at the end of the conference, the organist played the Widor Toccata, and dozens of people stood and soaked it in… even came up into the chancel to behold an artist at work.

Both experiences were traditional. And both were of the moment. Both were moments of spiritual genius.

Be of good cheer, friends who work in the church. There is an artistry to what you do.


Image: from the New Yorker article referenced in the On Being program, about how brainstorming doesn’t work. Off topic for this post but worth a read.

Ten on Tuesday: Updates, Tips and Miscellany

It’s all a rich lather of lateral thought here at the Blue Room today. I’m actually not sure there are 10 items here, but I like the alliteration… plus it’s a shoutout to my friend Katherine, whose book comes out soon. Have you pre-ordered?


I’m over at Fidelia’s Sisters today, which has a spiffy new look. Check it out.

I also had a good initial conversation last week with a member of the planning team for the Young Clergy Women’s conference, Sabbath in the City. If you’re a YCW or know someone who is, mark your calendars — we’re going to have a great time in Chicago, July 30 – August 2.


Let me be an encouragement to anyone facing a weight-loss plateau. You can get through it. After losing the same pound three times, I finally broke through. I’ve got less than five pounds until I reach my goal of 40 pounds, normal BMI. Then it’s M&M’s from here on out.

Maintenance and Muscle. Wait, what did YOU think I meant?

Here’s a little something I whipped up the other day. We had some leftover spaghetti I’d made with a little olive oil and garlic. I put a serving in a microwavable bowl. Then I added a dollop of Boursin cheese. Nuke and stir and presto! A reasonable facsimile of fettucine alfredo.

Oh, and Carb Police? Just keep on walking. Disperse. There is nothing to see here.

OK OK, as penance for that glycemic abomination, here are eight foods you should eat every day.


Something very strange is happening at Tiny Church. These random people we don’t know keep showing up. On Sunday we had 6 visitors, which in a worshiping community of 50 is disruptively delightful. Three of them have been very regular for several weeks; three were brand new.

I can’t account for the sudden influx. We don’t advertise. These visitors are not friends of church members who invited them. We’re not the kind of bells-and-whistles church that most people are looking for. Our banner stand out front has been empty the last several weeks.

But it’s a great time for people to be visiting. After 2 1/2 years as pastor of Tiny, things are clicking, you know? It’s just that all the clicking has been internal and under the radar. They would have no way of knowing from the outside what’s going on inside.

Whatever is happening, it’s a holy mystery that makes the people of Tiny Church very, very excited. And their pastor too.


My love for Evernote is deep and abiding. Hey, they almost made it into the acknowledgements of my book. But have I mentioned the beauty that is Evernote Clearly? Clearly isolates articles on webpages and filters out all the clutter, ads, and sidebar junk, so you can read the article on a nice clean page. (This is great for those of you who are easily distrac– SQUIRREL!)

So instead of reading this tiny cramped mess:

You can read this:

I also found a new use for Evernote. You know those Entertainment books that kids are always peddling for school fundraisers? We bought one from our girls, but there are very few coupons in there for stuff we use. Consequently, I forget about it and end up not using any of them. Instead, I tore out the coupons we are likely to use and created an note in Evernote that lists these coupons. So if we’re on our way to a restaurant or a water park, I can just check the list to see what we have.

And while we’re doing product endorsements: Clinique Black Honey Almost Lipstick. Where have you been all my life?


I’ve gotten a lot of questions from friends and family, asking me what my next book will be. My first reaction is to be touched by their kindness to suggest that after Sabbath in the Suburbs comes out, that people will actually want to read more from me. But the answer is no, I have no idea what I will write about next. Any suggestions?

A New Heart: A Sermon

A heart of stone... the cover of our bulletin on Sunday.

Here’s what I preached on Sunday. It is inadequate for the occasion, but it is something.

MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
March 25, 2012
Fifth Sunday of Lent

Jeremiah 31:31-34: The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt–a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

My girls came bounding off the bus Tuesday afternoon, full of news. A sixth grade boy had been walking to school and had been stopped by a man driving a white van. The man had tried to get the boy to get into the van. The boy had refused, and run all the way to school. Police were called; procedures put into motion. “We’re going to have a lockdown drill on Thursday!” the girls clapped. They were concerned for the boy and a little wary, but mainly they were excited about a break in the monotony of the school day.

I was so grateful for their innocence — that they say something so potentially serious as a festive occasion and not one for fear.

But the other side of me, the side of me who’s seen too much, who had that innocence taken away long ago simply by living in the world for four decades, sucked in her breath.

My oh my, we live in a fallen creation.

We live in what our Presbyterian Statement of Faith calls a “broken and fearful world.”

One of my disciplines this Lent—in addition to fasting from dessert, fourteen more days but who’s counting—is to look around me to try to find just one scene of beauty: each day, to find one thing that takes my breath away that I might have missed if I hadn’t been looking, really looking for it.

I need that discipline right now. I need to look at the world in that way. I need to be a detective for beauty, a sleuth for grace. Because right now the world is a dead black boy in Florida and mean Internet comments and a law student from Georgetown who was called a prostitute for having an opinion. The world is protesters slaughtered in Syria and dead Jewish children in Paris and a soldier gone mad in Afghanistan.

I think Jeremiah would understand the need for some beauty. Jeremiah’s prophetic words were uttered in a time of crisis: Jerusalem has been destroyed by a foreign power; the people of Israel have been deported. Most of the book contains a harsh judgment on the leadership, who have not been faithful to God by maintaining justice and obedience. Exile is seen as a punishment for this failure.

The world is a mess, says Jeremiah.
But let me be more specific: we have made it so.

And then comes chapters 30 and 31, right in the middle of the book, two luminous chapters called the Book of Comfort. That’s where we are today, nestled in that comfort, and it comes just in the nick of time.

The days are surely coming… I will make a new covenant.
I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Just one chapter later, we are told that Jeremiah responds to these words, personally and powerfully, by buying a field at Anathoth. This field, it should be said, was occupied by a foreign power; it had fallen to the Babylonians. And yet Jeremiah stakes his claim on that land. The time will come when this land will be God’s again, and I will plant and build here, he says, and in so doing, he claims that covenant hope that God expresses in today’s passage. Jeremiah’s purchase of the land is more than a prophetic move; it is an act of daring, reckless hope.


Friday I took a trip downtown to see the cherry blossoms at their peak. As I walked around the Tidal Basin, I happened upon the Martin Luther King memorial. Amid the beauty of cherry blossoms floating down from the trees like pink snowflakes, and branches dipping into the water, the King memorial offered a different kind of beauty, a stark, stony beauty.

King of course was a prophet, as surely as Jeremiah was a prophet. He described the world that is not yet ours, but could be. Should be. Will be. And as I read the various quotes etched in stone on the inscription wall, I couldn’t help but see the sweet face of Trayvon Martin.

“If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class…”

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

The fate of Trayvon Martin affects us. Whatever investigation takes place—and an investigation is sorely needed—whatever truth comes out, whatever happens next—his death diminishes us.

We will never know what a grown-up Trayvon Martin might have contributed to his family and his community and the world. He was an A and B student who according to his teachers “majored in cheerfulness,” who had no criminal record and was studying to be an aviation engineer. He wanted to fly.

He is gone. And it falls to us then, the living, to say a reckless YES to the covenant God describes and promises, here in the Book of Comfort. Even if the world God describes seems so far from our own, we are called to step out in faith. The new covenant God promises Jeremiah hasn’t happened yet. The restoration has yet to occur, and God is speaking in the future tense. Here is what I will do, God says.

The when is not clear. But God’s intention certainly is.

There have been many versions of the covenant before this in scripture: covenants to Noah and Abraham, and covenants handed down to Moses in the Ten Commandments. But here there is a shift. The covenant will not be spoken to patriarchs, nor will it etched on stone tablets. It will be written on human hearts. Our hearts. Hearts that don’t just weep at the death of an unarmed black boy, but who work for a world where such a tragedy is a thing of the past.

In a moment, we will hear from John Dearie, a board member of the Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness.

That sounds impossible. End homelessness? It seems laughable in its audacity. Surely the problem is too big, the problem is too complicated, the problem is too expensive. If there were a way to end homelessness, we’d have done it by now.

But I invite you to listen with the ear of Jeremiah:

Jeremiah, who in the midst of the exile of his people said, “God is not finished with us yet.”

Jeremiah who saw the despair and the destruction all around him and dared to announce that there is still hope.

Jeremiah, who wrote 50 chapters of prophetic judgment but had the good sense to include 2 chapters of comfort. But the comfort doesn’t say everything’s going to be OK, that God’s going to swoop in and fix everything. The comfort comes in the form of a new heart beating in our chests, a heart that beats for justice and hope and abundant life for everyone. Everyone.

“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”