Author Archives: MaryAnn McKibben Dana

Tips for the Work-at-Home Crowd, and Other Monkey-Mind Procrastinators

Tips for the Work-at-Home Crowd and Other Monkey-Minded ProcrastinatorsRecently a friend asked for advice on staying focused and organized while working from home. I’ve been doing that for several months now and have some practices that work well for me. If you work from home, or if you work for yourself and find it hard to stay motivated, or if you suffer from monkey mind/lack of focus, perhaps some of these things will help.

A caveat. I like to joke that every parenting book should contain the words “My Kid” somewhere in the title.

What to Expect When You’re Expecting… My Kid.
Parenting My Kid with Love and Logic.
Etc.

What works for one person doesn’t work for another, and this list is not one size fits all. That said… this stuff works for me and maybe it will for you too.

I also accidentally stood someone up on a phone call this morning. So clearly I have room for improvement.

Anyway:

It starts with a comprehensive to-do list. The to-do list is the backbone of getting stuff done. Notice I say “a” to-do list. If you’re using your email as an adjunct to-do list, you’re bound to miss stuff. (Plus you’re forever combing through your inbox, leading to distraction and inefficiency.) Get all of your items into one place. I use Things from Cultured Code and it’s simple and clean and functional and let you organize by project. But there are probably shinier new tools out there. And a paper to-do list gets the job done fine too.

But the to-do list is useless by itself. To-do items must connect with your calendar or they will sit on that list, stubborn, refusing to budge, forever. So each evening I look at the next day’s scheduled items in Google Calendar, then I look at the to-do items I want/need to tackle, and I merge them into a single written document. I use a small sheet of paper—the size of a grocery list, something I can carry in my pocket or purse so I don’t need to have my phone or laptop handy—and write out an agenda. For each block of time I will list an appointment or a task.

Think in terms of 90-minute blocks. I recently heard a podcast lifting up 90 minutes as the magic unit of time in terms of productivity. That’s about how long we can focus on a task without needing a hard reset. Since then I’ve been trying to think in these terms. I used to covet 3-4 hour blocks for writing, and I’d smoosh the rest of my life together to give myself those long expanses of time. I no longer do that. If I have the luxury of 3-4 hours, I still break it up into 90 minute chunks.

Break your time blocks into Pomodoros. Sometimes 90 minutes is too long to focus on one thing without getting distracted. The task is hard or unpleasant, or you feel scattered in your thinking. I love the Pomodoro Technique, in which you work for X amount of time and reward yourself with a short break. I like 12 minutes of work, 3 minutes of break. Pomodoros trick your brain by breaking a large scary task into small pieces. You can do anything for 12 minutes, can’t you? And I often find by the fourth or fifth Pomodoro I’m so immersed in the task, I bag the break when it comes.

And yes, there’s an app for that.

Celebrate what you accomplished–specifically. I like the sheet of paper for the feeling of crossing stuff off. But sometimes interruptions rule the day, or your energy takes you in a different direction than you’d planned, and it’s discouraging to look at the day’s agenda and see how many things did NOT get crossed off. To combat that discouraging feeling, at the end of the day I will turn that piece of paper over and make a list of things I DID do, even if they were things I hadn’t planned to do. (I think there’s a spiritual practice in there somewhere—one side, your best intentions; on the other side, the reality. Then you recycle the piece of paper and start anew.)

Think energy management as much as time management. This is an idea I got from Dan Blank. You only have so much control over your time. But you have more control over what you give your energy to (although that too is often dependent on other people). And when you’re energized by certain kinds of tasks, you can pursue them all day without feeling as drained–giving you some fuel in the tank for stuff you aren’t as jazzed about. For example, today I was meeting with several moving companies. I knew that process would drain me (in addition to taking time) so I decided to keep the rest of my goals modest. So instead of tackling that article I needed to write from scratch, I decided to do some editing instead. I’ll tackle the article another time. And I know it won’t fall through the cracks because I:

Do a weekly review and schedule blocks. Because I do both freelance writing and author-based projects, it has helped me to take 20 minutes every Friday to look at the following week’s appointments and to-do items. Then I will designate certain days as “freelance days” and others as writing/speaking work days. Do they often bleed into one another? Do I find myself swapping and adjusting? All the time. But even if your intentions get shot to pieces, I find this weekly big-picture time to be essential.

Answer yesterday’s email today. I know lots of people who claim to check email just once or twice a day. Frankly I think they’re lying. Or they have way more self-control than I do. I haven’t been able to kick the habit of checking email frequently, and honestly, I’m tired of expending the will power necessary to try and pull it off; it can be put to better use, like keeping me away from the canned frosting aisle of the grocery store. Instead, I check email at idle moments throughout the day and answer truly urgent ones then and there. Everything else gets a response the next day. I answer them all at once, which is more efficient than working in dribs and drabs all day long.

I can hear the protests from here. Yes, you are so very indispensable, or your industry is so fast-paced that it would never, ever work. OK fine. But some of you can do this. And believe it or not, you can train people to expect an answer the next business day. If it really can’t wait, they can use that old-fangled thing called the phone.

Put together an ad hoc staff. One of the hard things about working for yourself is the lack of accountability. Especially as writers. Nobody’s clamoring for that article I want to pitch to a magazine (though I hope they’ll love it once I do!). So find a writing group, or a bunch of fellow entrepreneurs, or whatever you need for your situation, and set up some accountability measures. I’ve got a small group of writers and we share weekly goals on Facebook. It’s just enough structure so I feel like I’m not out there all by myself.

Well, there you have it. My best wisdom (largely gleaned from others) that helps me get stuff done. What helps you? Would love to hear.

~

 photo credit: ABC-Analyse via photopin (license)

Find One Another: A Sermon on the Feeding of the 5,000+

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This past weekend I had the joy of preaching for two friends who are on sabbatical/away for the weekend. Here’s

MaryAnn McKibben Dana
July 19, 2015
Trinity Presbyterian Church – Herndon
Matthew 14:13-21

“Moral Bucket List”: Feeding the 5,000

13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ 16Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ 17They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ 18And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ 19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

~

It is wonderful to be here as a guest preacher for Becca and Stephen, two of my most treasured colleagues.

One of the things that the churches I used to serve know about me is that I often get hung up on very small things in the scripture. So when I was talking to Becca this week, she said, “What will you be preaching about?” There are so many possibilities in this text—Jesus’ healing, the miracle of more than 5,000 people being fed—but I told her I would be be preaching on the words “this” and “it.”

When Jesus heard “this,” he went away to a deserted place.
Then it says the crowds heard “it” and followed him.
What did they hear? What are the “this” and the “it”?

Well if you skip back a few verses, you know it’s terrible news.

It’s the death of John the Baptist. He’d been imprisoned by Herod Antipas and according to Mark, his wife asked for his head on a platter… and she got it.

Why? Because that’s what unchecked power does.
That’s how power proves its own dominance and might.
They did it for entertainment.
They did it because they could.

That’s the “this” and the “it” that got Jesus and the crowds to their feet and on the move: the death of a prophet at the hands of the state.
It’s the kind of news that would get its own graphic on CNN.
It’s the kind of news that starts trending on Twitter: Hashtag Hebrew Lives Matter.

When Jesus heard this—when Jesus received the news about the death of his cousin—he went away to a deserted place. And when the people heard “it,” they went after him. Jesus’ flight into the wilderness is understandable—he probably needed some time and space to grieve and collect himself. But we don’t know why the crowds went. Maybe they’re feeling scared for Jesus—maybe they worry he’ll be next and they want to protect him. Maybe they’re curious to see what he’ll do. Maybe they’re frightened for themselves. All kinds of possibilities there.

I was drawn to “this” and “it” this week, because of all the “thises” and the “its” that we’ve been confronted with lately, that we’ve been hearing. For us this summer, IT is Charleston. IT is the confederate flag. IT is Baltimore on fire. Just this week, IT is six deaths in Chattanooga in an act of horrific violence. IT is a black woman in Texas who died in jail under suspicious circumstances after being arrested after not using her turn signal. IT, by the way, is also the realization that Atticus Finch may not have always been the shining paragon of virtue we thought he was or wanted him to be.

And in the midst of the thises and the its—here we are, like that crowd, come from our homes and towns, for our own various reasons, but maybe because we really need to be close to Jesus. With so much horror in the world at the moment, I’m calmed and oddly cheered by this image of people flocking to one another in the wake of John’s dastardly execution by Herod. Coming together, clinging to one another, receiving Jesus’ healing and the bread from heaven. What else can we do in these dark days?

Since I’m not your regular preacher, I can tell you that we pastors have our version of gallows humor. When terrible things happen in our world—things that demand a comment and a gospel response from pulpits like this one—one of the things we grouse to one another about is why they so often seem to happen on Friday and Saturday?! …usually when the sermon has been written and finished. Or even if it isn’t, you’ve been working with a gospel text that seems to have nothing to do with the tragedy that has just happened. It leads to a lot of late Saturday nights and a lot of laments: Why couldn’t it have happened on Tuesday? Tuesday’s good.

I know it’s silly and sad. When bad things happen, the least important part of it is whether it inconveniences the clergy. But make no mistake—over email, and in private Facebook spaces, the pastors like to feel a bit sorry for themselves.

And yet, if terrible things are going to happen, maybe Friday/Saturday is the right timing, so people of faith can come to their churches and synagagues and mosques, can draw together and pray to God, and receive comfort and strength for the living of dark days.

Back in the late 1950s, a researcher named Stanley Schachter conducted an unusual experiment. Schachter convinced college-aged women that they would receive a series of electric shocks about 15 minutes later. Some were told that these shocks would barely tickle, and others were told they would be very painful. Participants were then asked whether they wanted to wait for their shocks in a room alone, or with other people. Those who believed the shocks would be mild generally did not care whether or not they had neighbors in their waiting room. But people who believed that shocks would be painful strongly preferred being near others, On Schachter’s logic, this exposed a powerful rule about social behavior: in times of anxiety, people seek each other out. Like penguins in February, we tend to face adversity by gathering up.[1]

This summer, you all are in a sermon series of sorts, consider elements of the “moral bucket list.” Today I want to suggest another one:

Find one another.

But not just any kind of gathering will do.

When the people flocked to Jesus, they came on foot. They didn’t bring their donkeys and camels, assuming they even had those things. They came only with what they could carry, which probably wasn’t very much. As we’ll find out later in the story, the didn’t even bring that much food with them.

When the people came, they just brought themselves. They went to a deserted place, in search of compassion and healing. They came in their weakness.

And then after Jesus is finished with them—dispensing a little teaching, offering a little healing, notice what the disciples say. Ok, it’s over now. They’re hungry now Jesus, so send them out to buy food. To buy food. Send them back into the marketplace; throw them back into the machinery of commerce. We don’t have anything for them here, but that’s OK, they can buy a little food, a little sustenance, buy a little comfort.

Becca mentioned to me that some of you attended the Taylor Swift concert earlier this week. Anyone? Guess what, I was there too with my two daughters. One of the things I love about concerts is this feeling of community. And she talked about that on stage. She said, “I need you all to know, that when I have tough days, I will remember this time we spent together.”

I believe that’s true… and at the same time, let’s be honest that this is a community that was created because we all bought very expensive tickets, and came together for the purpose of being entertained by a 26 year old pop star. And entertained we were. But that’s not the kind of community I’m talking about.

One of the seductive challenges of our culture is how many opportunities to have that Taylor Swift kind of experience. It feels like community, and on some level it is—but it’s not long-standing, and it’s not on the deep level that we need to confront the “thises” and the “its.” The disciples’ quick fix solution—send them out to go shopping—reveals how conditioned we are to transact our way into a sense of security… whether it’s a gated community, or a concealed weapon, or just surrounding ourselves with people who look like we do, think like we do, earn what we do, come from where we come from, shop at Trader Joe’s and listen to NPR.

And Jesus will have none of that. He rejects the disciples’ suggestion that the people engage in a little retail therapy. He sees that solution for the failure of imagination that it is. He says, Don’t go out and buy something. Everything we need is right here. Have you even taken stock of what we have? Can you trust that God can work with what’s already here?

And when he takes those gifts and cradles them in his hands, he looks to heaven and he gives thanks. Not a magic trick. What Jesus is doing is putting the focus on God, where it’s supposed to be. He’s modeling what we are called to do when we find one nother, when we come together. It’s not about saying, OK, we’re going to be all right because there are a lot of us. If we just huddle up, we’ll make it through. It’s not about strength in numbers. It’s about weakness in numbers. It’s about God doing something amazing in that weakness.

We must find one another—not in our strength, but in our vulnerability, trusting God, not our own abilities, to bring us through every this and it life may throw at us.

Nadia Bolz-Weber writes in her book about the worst Rally Day EVER. She had worked her fingers to the bone, rented a cotton candy machine, helped pull together all the needed stuff for a burger cookout in front of the church…all to attract new folks to join the journey of House of All Saints and Sinners. And 26 people showed up. And nobody put one red cent in the donations basket. So no new people came, and those that did were cheap.

It was a whole lot of nothing.

Until she remembered the joy of the people who came, because they started serving food to folks on the street. And the prayers she had received for her aching back. And she remembered that nothing is God’s favorite building material. When she shared the story at a Lutheran conference that same week, community was built over lunch on shared stories of failure, failure that God somehow transformed into a feast for thousands. And that was enough. That was five paltry loaves and two measly fish feeding 5,000 grieving and shell-shocked people.[2]

Joy Harjo writes in one of her poems about the power of people coming together around the simple human vulnerable act of eating. She says, “The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.

“The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.”

But then she makes a shift away from joy:

“At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.

“Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.”[3]

Sometimes it feels like the world’s coming to an end. Or maybe just the world as we know it, though that can feel just as cataclysmic. How vital, then, that we find one another.

John Lewis was about four years old, growing up among the pine forests and cotton fields of Pike County, Alabama, all the neighbors of his family were sharecroppers, and most of them were relatives. Every adult he knew was an aunt or an uncle, and every child a first or second cousin. One Saturday afternoon about fifteen of those children were outside playing in his Aunt Seneva’s dirt yard. Lewis remembers:

The sky began clouding over, the wind started picking up, lightning flashed far off in the distance, and suddenly I wasn’t thinking about playing anymore. I was terrified.

Lightening terrified me, and so did thunder. Aunt Seneva was the only adult around that day, and as the sky blackened and the wind grew stronger, she herded us all inside. Her house was not the biggest place around, and it seemed even smaller with so many children squeezed inside.

The wind was howling now, and the house was starting to shake.

We were scared. Even Aunt Seneva was scared. And then it got worse. Now the house was beginning to sway. The wood plank flooring beneath us began to bend. And the corner of the room started lifting up.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. None of us could. This storm was actually pulling the house toward the sky. With us inside it.

That was when Aunt Seneva told us to clasp hands. Line up and hold hands, she said, and we did as we were told. Then she had us walk as a group toward the corner of the room that was rising. From the kitchen to the front of the house we walked, the wind screaming outside, sheets of rain beating on the tin roof. Then we walked back in the other direction, as another end of the house began to lift.

And so it went, back and forth, fifteen children walking with the wind, holding that trembling house down with the weight of our small bodies.[4]

It feels like a fragile house we’re living in, folks. But we live in it together. It’s the only way.

[1] http://dish.andrewsullivan.com/2013/11/29/what-draws-people-together/

[2] Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, Jericho Books/Hachette Book Group (New York, 2013), p. 105. Quoted by Michael Kirby in a paper for The Well preaching group.

[3] Joy Harjo, “Perhaps the World Ends Here”

[4] John Lewis, Walking with the Wind.

 

For Those Who Run at 5 AM (We Salute You)

This post is dedicated to my local chapter of Moms RUN This Town. 100 days to Marine Corps Marathon!

One of the things that inspires me about my MRTT group is the number of mamas who get up for 5 a.m. runs. A year ago I couldn’t imagine doing that. Now it’s something I do 3-4 times a week. (I take naps in the afternoon–a benefit of working from home.) Some of us meet even earlier, at 4:30 or 4:40 for some extra miles. Yikes!

I used to think people who ran that early were crazy, or way more accomplished runners than I was. Some of them are the latter, to be sure. (And maybe the former!) But now I realize, running early is usually out of simple necessity: the workday doesn’t allow running at other times, or we have little kids we’re taking care of at home, or we’re just trying to beat the heat. There are times when I don’t absolutely need to run that early, but the prospect of meeting a bunch of funny, fierce gals is enough to set my alarm.

Back in June, a friend of mine ran mid-morning, and when she stopped by Starbucks later, she got lots of concern from fellow customers about how hot and flushed she looked. “You need to run earlier!” one man chided. Because my friend is nicer than me, she didn’t say “Are you going to come over and get my kids ready for school for me?” We run when we need to run.

On our group’s Facebook page, we share inspiration and encouragement. This commercial came across the page recently:

 

Whether you’re a runner or not, the message is spot on—it’s the little choices, often when nobody’s looking, that make us who we are.

If I had skills in video editing, I’d put together a spinoff of this commercial, in honor of the MRTT 5 a.m. crews. But I’d want it to show the awkward side of running so early… such as stumbling downstairs and stepping on an Iron Man toy that starts talking to you. Or putting on your running clothes in the dark and later realizing they don’t match. Or stopping by the grocery store after a run and being puzzled that it’s closed, then realizing it’s not even 6 a.m. Or being the first one out on a trail, which means you get a face full of cobwebs.

In that spirit, I posted the following on our MRTT Facebook page a year ago when I first started running at 5 a.m. Thanks, you guys, for inspiring me every day.

Top 10 Reasons Why Running at 5 a.m. is Awesome

10. You’ve officially accomplished something, even if you sit around in your pajamas the rest of the day.
9. If you puke, no one sees it.
8. It’s good for the environment: only one shower per day.
7. If you go with [one of our chapter leaders] you’ll get a muffin.
6. The sense of adventure that comes from wondering whether that hulking object in the shadows is a serial killer… and realizing it’s a trash can.
5. If you use MyFitnessPal, running first thing means you know how many calories you have for the entire day. This is known as The Donut Rule.
4. People’s head lamps and glowing phones look like little fireflies dancing in the night.
3. Sunrise and moonset.
2. Saves you money: no need for silly things like sunscreen, hats, visors, sunglasses.

And the number 1 reason why running at 5 a.m. is awesome:
1. When it’s dark, everyone looks like a badass.

Whether you run early, late, or not at all—go make one good small choice today.

~

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Improv in Action: Guest Post from Marthame Sanders

1-faith-450x300I met Marthame Sanders a couple of years ago at an event at Columbia Seminary. Since then we’ve followed one another on Facebook and shared a mutual interest in improv and the spiritual life. Marthame was lucky enough to receive a sabbatical grant last summer which allowed him to study improv at Second City. Right now I’m working on a grant application for a similar purpose myself, but in the meantime, it’s great fun to see what Marthame and others are doing to encourage an improvisational “posture” in worship and think about how to expand those skills into the larger church. (Church of the Pilgrims in DC is also doing great work in this–see Ashley Goff’s blog for more.)

Marthame wrote recently on his blog about an anthem the congregation composed in the middle of worship. So rad. I especially love the acknowledgement that while there are many more polished, technically “perfect” pieces of worship music out there, there’s something powerful about creating something right in the moment. And it sounds like he provided just enough structure for this creative work to happen.

Thanks for sharing this inspiration, Marthame!!

~

An Improvised Anthem–guest blog by Marthame Sanders

Pulling the weekly bulletin together is always an act of improvisation.

It rarely looks like it; after all, it is the planned order of worship that the congregation receives a few days later. And yet, there is always something that we hadn’t anticipated: a hymn we chose that’s unfamiliar; a special litany that needs to be included; a Scripture that doesn’t speak to the moment…There are always last minute adjustments. This past Sunday, however, stood apart.

Tim, our Music Director, was returning from a month-long sojourn in Europe. Our worship planning had gotten us through his absence, but we had not planned for his return. Tim and I agreed that the two of us would “do something”, and that was as concrete as it got.

Then it hit me: why not improvise? After all, I have been spending the better part of a year learning about the habits of improvisation; why not put some of that into practice? Using my own children as my willing improv guinea pigs in the days before (with different results each time), I hatched a process.*

Last Sunday, our Scripture was Psalm 146 from the Narrative Lectionary. During our time with children, I told them how the psalms were meant to be sung, and that Tim and I had nothing planned. And so we needed their help figuring out what it was we were going to sing.

I read the Psalm, asking them to say something like “I like that” when I read something that grabbed their attention. Then I told them we needed to figure out our key: I needed a letter between A and G and two numbers between 2 and 6. After one child asked if it needed to be a whole number, we got our suggestions: A, 3, and 5. That became the chord progression.

Tim and I began playing our three chords on piano and guitar; eventually, a melody emerged, which became a simple chorus:

I will sing my praise to God;

I will sing my praise to God;

I will sing my praise to God all my life.

The congregation soon joined in; I used the “liked” phrases to build verses. It took a while. The melody wandered on- and off-key, but we always returned to the chorus with full energy.

I have heard prettier and more interesting melodies. I have encountered more poetic lyrics. This was no Coltrane or Davis. And yet, there was something about this particular piece of music that “worked”. Along with everything else, the whole process invested the congregation in the anthem in a unique way. It wasn’t just Tim’s music or the choir’s music or my music; it was our music, our praise. Our shared creation had them “rooting” for the music in a new way.

We will definitely do this again.

One final note: our worship recording failed Sunday; so here’s my rough re-creation with guitar and voice:

~

Marthame Sanders is pastor of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. His 2014 Sabbatical in Chicago focused on the intersection of Spirit, creativity, and improvisation, including classes at the Second City Training Center. Since returning to Atlanta, he has continued with classes at Dad’s Garage and has incorporated improv exercises into congregational leadership training. His website is www.marthame.com.

A Racist Atticus and a Mess of a Book? Bring It On.

15.-Matar-un-ruiseñor

I was skeptical when news first broke that Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s long-shelved novel, would be published. Lee has famously refused to let her manuscript, written before To Kill a Mockingbird, ever see the light of day.

Why did she change her mind? Did she change her mind? Given her advanced age and failing health, people are concerned she’s being taken advantage of. While I know people who can’t get past those concerns, I’m willing to proceed as a reader; an independent investigation involving two Alabama agencies has found her competent to make decisions about her work.

Now as the book is being released and reviews begin to surface, people are nervous for a new reason: apparently this novel does not measure up to the near-perfection of Mockingbird. And perhaps more heartbreakingly, neither does Atticus. It seems unthinkable that a man who would single-handedly take on the Alabama justice system on behalf of an innocent black man would attend a Klan meeting, or denounce the Supreme Court who decided Brown v. Board of Education.

But I say: bring it on.

Don’t get me wrong. I condemn the sin of racism, collectively, individually and in my own heart. I don’t relish an Atticus Finch who harbored paternalistic attitudes toward African-Americans in the South, or fretted that white schools would decline in quality once they were integrated.

I don’t delight in such a portrayal of Atticus, and will likely read the book with a sick feeling. But I suspect 2015 America needs this Atticus. I’ll be reading the book, not as a novel, but as an historical document. Go Set a Watchman gives us a peek into the mind of a young, inexperienced writer who would go on to write the Great American Novel. But more importantly, it will give us a glimpse into our own soul as a nation.

We’re struggling with a legacy of racism in this country. Condoleezza Rice, no bleeding-heart liberal herself, has called racism our country’s “birth defect.” The last several months have revealed to many of us what others have known their whole lives. So now what? We need to be talking to one another about this legacy. It’s painful and important.

But how? We can start by being honest about our history, ourselves, and yes, our heroes. The problem is, we like our heroes untouchable. We want Atticus to have “cute” flaws, like exasperation over Scout’s mischief, or a nervous fumbling with his eyeglasses as he shoots a rabid dog. But Atticus, at least as Harper Lee envisioned him, was a complicated, deeply conflicted man. How do his (considerable) blind spots in Watchman influence how we understand the whole character?

In my tradition, and many other Christian traditions, we recite the Apostles’ Creed, including the line, “I believe in the communion of saints.” What do we mean by that? Presbyterians don’t have an elaborate process of canonization like the Catholic Church. Rather we believe in a “great cloud of witnesses,” people who’ve gone before us who have shown us what it means to live faithfully and well. We call them saints, even though not a single one was perfect—indeed, many of them were deeply flawed indeed. And yet occasionally, they got it right. Beautifully, shiningly right.

Atticus may still be that kind of saint for us—not because of his racist tendencies in Watchman, but despite them. If it were not so, would there be hope for any of us? Our ability to succeed and thrive as a nation depends on imperfect people coming together around a painful conversation and movement: warts, flaws, biases and all. I have them; apparently Atticus had them too.

As Dorothy Day has said, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” An Atticus as preserved in Mockingbird is so perfect as to be unreachable. An Atticus whose story straddles the two novels is like us. And in aspiring to be our best selves, we can be like his best self. When the heavy machinery of upbringing and personal comfort and culture grinds against what’s right, we can stand up. We must.

~

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