Monthly Archives: April 2012

Thought for the Day, on Writing and Life

Novelist Luis Alberto Urrea was one of my favorite speakers at FFW. I went to his session with Debra Dean and they were a hoot together.

Here’s a paraphrase of something he said:

If you’re writing about matters of faith, you have to be vigilant against cliche and grandiosity. 

So go through your work and look for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir—those moments with the angelic choir, bathed in light and going “ahhhhhhhhh.” Take those out. Faith is too messy and gritty for them. Instead, replace them with James Brown.

May your day be funky, friends.


Friday Link Love

For all your procrastination needs.


24 Hours of Photographs — Colossal

My obligatory Colossal re-post. This is the result of a thirty-hour photo shoot, stitched together.

The round green bit of terra firma in the middle reminds me of the Island in LOST. (I’ve really had LOST on the brain lately; maybe it’s the “writing about pop culture” presentation I went to last week at FFW. Dang, I still miss that show.)


No Red Ink on the Vision Chart — dmergent

This post is about casting a compelling vision for one’s church, and has sparked a twitter conversation that you can read here.

We know that it is not simple to find a vision, but it is just as important to realize when your ministry has lost or been burdened with poor vision. Just as I believed seeing double was normal, many churches and ministries keep going, not realizing they would have a difficult time reading the bottom line on the metaphorical eye chart.

Jan Edmiston had similar thoughts here, “Measuring a Year in the Life of a Church”:

What questions would you ask church leaders in order to discern if a congregation is “thriving” spiritually or if a congregation is merely “surviving“?

Here are some off the top of my head:

  • Can you identify an occasion in the last year when the congregation chose faith over fear?  Tell me about it.
  • Is the church living off an endowment or do the tithes and offerings of the congregation cover all expenses?
  • Can you name things your congregation tried that failed in the past year?  (Note:  if you didn’t fail at anything, you probably didn’t try anything new.)
  • Can you name ten people who were spiritually transformed in your congregation in the past year?  What did that look like?


I Learned How to Speak Four Languages in a Few Years — Lifehacker

OK, I haven’t even found time to read this post, so obviously Way Has Not Opened for me to do this. But maybe some of my dear readers will. In the meantime, I have saved this article in Evernote, tagged “bucketlist.”


Four Simple Solutions to Everyday Dilemmas — Improvised Life

Bread bag clips as labels for power cords, a sock over a vacuum nozzle to find small things—I love these tips, even if I have no use for them personally. Urazawa is a new term for me, and I love the art and craft involved in improvising solutions. Robert and I came up with a number of tips and tricks during our year of Sabbath; they’re sprinkled in the book under the heading “Sabbath hacks.”

What to Expect When Your Church Is Expecting

A few months ago I recorded a video for Bruce Reyes-Chow’s We Are Presbyterian project. It was fun, and I learned a lot in the process.

In the video I suggest that the Presbyterian Church (USA) is not “gravely ill,” as some have suggested.

Instead we are… well… take it away Barbie:

We’re not terminal. We’re just pregnant.

Apparently the video has hopped the Presbyterian fence and is wandering around other backyards, specifically Lutheran and Episcopal ones. It’s been fun to hear from friends and colleagues who’ve spotted it. I’m glad it resonates with others too… is there a baby boom happening in the mainline?

The video appears at the end of this post, but for those who prefer to read, here is essentially what I said:


Recently a group of pastors wrote a letter to the PCUSA, expressing concern about where we’re headed as a denomination. According to the letter, we are “deathly ill”.

The group has facts and figures to back up this–lots of numbers related to membership loss, the declining number of baptisms we do, and so forth.

Well look… the numbers are what they are.
I can’t argue with the statistics.
I only argue with the diagnosis.

We are not deathly ill. We’re…
we’re pregnant.

That’s right folks.
We’re Pregnant!
On the nest!
Knocked up!
With child!
Bun in the oven!

The symptoms are there, if you know what you’re looking for.

First, there’s the fatigue. I see a lot of tired people out there, trying to keep life going, keep ministries going, keep the sermons coming, the nursery staffed, the money flowing in, the furnace in good repair… often with fewer people–less energy–than before. It’s tiring!

I see some bad queasiness too: morning sickness, which folks will tell you doesn’t just come in the morning, but sometimes round the clock. There’s a sense that the world has changed right out from under our feet, and we don’t quite know how to deal with it. What is this “emergent” stuff? How do we deal with the internet and social media? What about this younger generation? How do we respond to the culture without being coopted by it? Not to mention our new Form of Government, the passage of amendment 10A, and on and on. It’s to be expected that we’d be feeling a little woozy, a little green, a little sick.

And there’s a lot of anxiety too… that question every prospective parent asks: Can we do this? Are we ready? Do we have what it takes to step into this new chapter of life?

So here’s a bit of motherly wisdom, a guide, if you will: “what to expect when your church is expecting.”

I offer these reflections knowing that the metaphor is complicated. Not everyone who’s pregnant wants to be pregnant. And there are many who struggle to become pregnant, or who grieve the loss of a child. So I just acknowledge that and tread as lightly as I can.

But here’s what pregnancy offers us that “deathly ill” doesn’t.

1. It’s deeply biblical. Scripture is full of images of pregnancy. The whole creation groans in labor pains, Paul writes in Romans 8, and he uses the image again in I Thess 5. Even Jesus couldn’t resist using the metaphor: “When a woman is in labour, she has pain. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy.”

(That’s not true, by the way.)

The Bible is also full of women that society had written off as barren, women who thought their time had passed. And similarly, some say this whole PCUSA thing doesn’t have much life left in it. And that may even be true on some level. Maybe we are in our declining years. But guess what? Sarah and Elizabeth were in their declining years too, and yet God used both of them to grow new life and give birth to a whole new world.

2. Another way pregnancy connects with our church right now: Pregnancy ain’t pretty. As much as we talk about women glowing, it is not a glamorous time. Your face breaks out. Your joints go slack. You get gas. You can’t sleep at night. You have to pee every 10 minutes. And let’s not even talk about the dreaded “cankles”:

It’s a bit of a freak show, to be honest.

And yeah, this period we’re in right now as a church? It ain’t pretty. We’re cranky and itching for a fight with one another. We used to be young and fresh, the belle of the ball. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, we were thriving. People were flocking to our doors. But we’re not there anymore.

Now we’re in tremendous upheaval as a denomination. It seems like almost everything is on the table–our practices, our polity, our way of worshiping, our music, our structure…
But what’s not on the table for us is whether God is working.
What’s not on the table is what kind of God we serve: a living God, an incarnate God.
God is capable of doing a new thing: it springs forth, now, in nine months, in nine years, over a lifetime.
New life is what it’s all about. It’s the business we’re in.

3. Your sense of time is all messed up in pregnancy. On the one hand, it’s a quiet, slow, lumbering time. The nine months pass slowly. You can’t move as fast as you did. I had sciatica that would act up whenever I was walking too quickly; I finally decided it was God saying, “Slow down! Don’t go through this time at a breakneck pace. Stop, look, listen and feel.”

Even mental processes seem to slow down. Nouns and verbs come more slowly: “Honey bring me that, that… what is that? That thing! Beside the doohickey?” And maybe we as a church need to move beyond words for a while. Maybe we need to just be silent for a while, stop making so many pronouncements about the church. Sure, Mary sang, but she also pondered in her heart. Maybe it’s OK to shut up and let God do what God’s gonna do.

The time goes slowly… but it’s also an incredibly busy time. There’s a lot to learn, and pregnancy is a great time to do research. Hospital or birth center? Epidural? C-section? Breast or bottle? Stroller or sling? Pacifiers or thumb-sucking, cloth diapers or disposable? Television: harmless, or idiot box that will keep your kid out of Stanford?

And we’re doing the same research in the church. Every week I hear about a new group that’s meeting, a new conference to attend, a new website to keep track of. And the books! Oh, the books! Each one promising to give you that just-right approach to ministry, promising to grow your church, keep session meetings joyful and productive, and so on and so forth.

And any parent will tell you, that research is all well and good. But then the child is born. And it all comes down to that child’s personality, that child’s gifts, what that child needs. The books, ultimately, don’t tell you what you need to know. Your child does. So we in the PCUSA need to learn flexibility. We need to learn to respond to this thing being birthed, whatever it might be, instead of some idealized notion of what it might be. Is it a bunch of new churches? Ministries beyond the traditional church? Who knows, but as any parent will tell you, our kids are not carbon copies of us. They are their own people and they deserve to be treated as such. What is being born in the PCUSA is going to look different everywhere. We’re not all going to win beautiful baby contests. We are not birthing many 1950s Presbyterian churches anymore. No more perfect Gerber babies.

5. The final and, I think, most important parallel is this: Pregnancy, labor and parenthood are all embodied experiences–blood, sweat, tears, vomit… and poop. Once that labor starts, you can’t think your way out of it. You don’t do the work up in your head. You’ve got to participate in it with every bit of your being.

And that’s what this new phase of our Church is going to require too. It’s not enough to think about stuff. It’s not enough to talk about mission. It’s not enough to claim to value diversity. It’s not enough to give lip service to evangelism. We’re going to have to practice these things that we believe. To jump in, body and soul.

But I think the best thing pregnancy offers us as a metaphor is this: it’s hopeful. It’s a great big crazy leap into the unknown. It’s a vision for the future. It’s something you grow into. Nobody’s “ready.”

The question is, what are we going to do during this time of gestation?

Thanks for listening, and a special thanks to my friend and colleague Elizabeth Goodrich for the pregnancy metaphor.

We Are Presbyterian 2011 — A New “Diagnosis” for the Church from MaryAnn McKibben Dana on Vimeo.

Word to the Impatient

This meme has overstayed itself by about three weeks, but I couldn't resist. Inexplicably, this came up when I googled the phrase from Romans, "hope does not disappoint us."

There were many nuggets, stories and quotable quotes from last week’s Festival of Faith and Writing, and I’m sure some of them will make it into sermons and future writings. Here’s one.

The last presentation I attended was by Paula Huston, who presented on the topic “Writing as a Spiritual Practice”—incidentally, she did so with laryngitis. There was something fitting about preparing to leave the conference, about shifting my energies from festival to home… just as the words were diminishing into a whisper.

Huston spoke about waiting many years (thirteen?) for her novel to be published, and talked about struggling with impatience. I listened, but with a detached and clinical interest since impatience isn’t  something I ever have to deal with.


She finally decided to get some spiritual counsel and talked to one of the monks at a monastery she often visited for retreats. She asked, “How can I have more patience?” He replied, “Your problem isn’t a lack of patience. Your problem is a lack of hope.”

There was a palpable “aha!” that reverberated in the room when she said that. She elaborated: if you trust the process, and you trust yourself, and you trust that all things are working together for wholeness and good and abundant life, then patience and peace are the truest response.

I think I love this, even though I want to test the limits of her view against the kind of impatience that presses for change. We’re seeing that with the Columbia Seminary situation. Truth be told, I think the policy will change soon so that committed same-sex couples will have access to campus housing. Not soon enough, I know, for current students who are paying more for housing because they can’t live on campus, and not soon enough for people who’ve been waiting for justice for years. Agitating for change seems like a holy impatience to me, a faithful discontent with the way things are.

Even so, I wonder whether it’s possible to cultivate a patient impatience.

I’ve been tired and full since the Festival. Last night I wanted nothing more than to get the kids to bed and settle into my own with a book or two. But the kids were slow and needy, and every room I went into had yet another thing that needed to be done before I could read and rest. I know about resting when it’s time to rest and not when the tasks are all done—I wrote a book about it—but this was stuff that couldn’t wait. Like, giving the cat her medicine so she doesn’t seize.

I was testy and impatient over all of these things. So I began to mull Huston’s statement. What’s going on when I am impatient? What’s happening internally when I just can’t wait to get to the next thing?

Maybe I am acting, in the words of Paul, as one without hope. Maybe I need to cultivate hope. But not hope that everything’s going to be OK. I’m a fan of Vaclav Havel’s understanding of hope, which is not the assurance that things will work out, but a conviction that things make sense, regardless of how they turn out.

My life—cat medicine and all—makes sense. There is a strange coherence to it. And there is no next thing. There is only the current thing, whether it’s brushing James’s teeth or writing a blog post or reading My Life in France. This I believe.

Frick and Frack: A Tale of Justice

Below is a letter I am sending to the president of Columbia Theological Seminary, Dr. Steve Hayner, and members of the “cabinet”:


I know you have been receiving countless communications about your recent announcement regarding Columbia’s housing policy. One of these letters is from my friend, Michael Kirby.

I write now, with his permission, to tell you a part of the story that he did not.

Michael and I were friends long before seminary. We met in Houston, Texas, both former Southern Baptists who attended the same church, St. Philip Presbyterian. Michael was an elder; I was a deacon and later a staff member. We were in Sunday School class together. We sang in the choir together. We went on young-adult retreats together (back when we were young adults). And, nurtured in the loving care of that amazing church community, we felt God calling us to ministry—not exactly together, but in parallel.

We were interested in some of the same seminaries, and happened to attend the same CTS Inquirer’s Weekend in November 1999. We didn’t talk much that weekend, giving each other space to discern, but I found myself wondering whether he was as lit up with excitement as I was over what Columbia had to offer. He was.

I still remember the tentative conversation with Michael the day the scholarship announcements went out, and the explosion of joy when we found out that we had both received identical scholarships. Over the years at Columbia, it’s fair to say that we competed, but in the best possible way: We drove one another to do our absolute best. We supported and encouraged one another and studied together. We gave each other tips for navigating our home presbytery’s Committee on Preparation for Ministry. We each found our own niches and leadership opportunities while drawing closer to one another. We remain close to this day. I celebrate his ministry in Chicago and across the larger church, particularly as a voice for justice and for the compassion of God that knows no bounds.

I’ll be honest. In my early stages of discernment, when I pictured myself in seminary, I imagined striking out on my own, not with someone from my hometown. But I cannot imagine my call story without Michael Kirby.

Our stories diverge in one important way. Michael, a gay man, arrived at Columbia unpartnered, whereas I came with a husband. And therein lies the cruel twist: despite our similarities in background, despite our mutual commitment to academic rigor and excellence in ministry, and despite our shared love for the church, had Michael been the one to arrive with a husband instead of me, he would have been barred from campus housing.

That, in short, is a travesty.

I do not envy you the many constituencies and interests you must consider in stewarding Columbia Seminary, an institution we all love and revere. But as you listen to the myriad voices on this issue, don’t forget the future Michael Kirbys out there:
folks who are just now feeling the Holy Spirit tug at them,
folks who feel most alive when they are serving the church,
folks for whom a seminary education may be out of reach financially if they are forced to live off campus…
And folks who will not consider Columbia Theological Seminary so long as they and their families are excluded from a vital part of campus life.

What profoundly gifted servants of God will you never have the opportunity to nurture and grow with as a result of this policy?

Thank you for listening.

Peace of Christ,

The Rev. MaryAnn McKibben Dana
M.Div. 2003