Author Archives: MaryAnn McKibben Dana

Grace in the Running Magazine


I’m a regular reader of Runners World. Like most special-interest magazines, there’s a lot of repetition of ideas if you read long enough, but it’s excellent monthly motivation and entertainment for this unexpected hobby and lifestyle of mine.

At times the magazine is downright inspirational. This month’s issue has great profiles of “runners of the year,” including a Kenyan distance runner who is blind. He convinced a childhood friend (who’d never run, in a country where children routinely run to school every day!) to train to be his guide, and now they’re winning races. (As someone who picked up this sport less than four years ago, I may be more inspired by the never-runner than the blind runner.)

But here’s the piece I’m pondering days later. It’s at the tail end of the celebrity runner column, called I’m a Runner, and this month it profiles Brooklyn street dancer Storyboard P:

A lot of dancers don’t like running because they think it’s painful and that dancing is only about being graceful. But grace is acquired strength. You’ve got to run and work out to get to that.

Grace is acquired strength.

Of course, he’s talking about “grace” in terms of beautiful and fluid motion.

Or is he?

I recently heard an elite runner talk about the importance of running for the joy of it. If you’re constantly stressed and focused on your metrics, your run won’t be smooth and fluid, and you won’t be as effective. Your run will lack grace. But it’s also true that the more miles you put in, the stronger you’ll be, and there will be an ease to your running. It will be grace-full.

Christians are used to talking about grace as a gift freely given from God. There’s nothing we can do to earn or deserve this gift. The only thing we can do is receive it and steward it responsibly and joyfully.

I also give thanks that in this age we are moving beyond faith as intellectual assent and instead are reclaiming the importance of practice, of Christianity as a pattern of life. I myself struggle with all kinds of questions and doubts, and have a special affection for skeptics both inside and outside the church. I’ve had more than one non-churchy (or even atheist) Facebook friend call me their pastor. I am honored and take that call seriously!

Amid all my questions, I’m heartened by the biblical meaning of believe, which is akin to giving one’s heart to something. Giving one’s heart is not primarily about agreement. It’s about participation.

So yes, grace is a gift from God. But that gift comes in the midst of striving to live in the manner of Jesus, or the way of love, if you prefer, for I believe they are one and the same. And getting it wrong 95% of the time. But oh, that luminous 5%…

I know people who are shouldering tremendous burdens right now. I know people who’ve been dealt the crappiest hand you can imagine. Their ability to not only get up in the morning but to give a damn about the problems of others, and to refuse to let their defeats define them, is grace… wherever it comes from.

That kind of grace is not a sweet and delicate thing. It is strong. It is muscular. It is acquired strength, obtained over many years of practice and stumbles and I don’t know how I got through that day, but I just saw the sun rise so I must have done it. And it is beautiful.


Image: Storyboard P

More Light for a Dark Week

I wrote the other day about how dark the world seems lately. Thank you to those who’ve read, commented and shared that post. It’s a comfort to know we’re all seeking the light together.

Sadly, I wrote that before 145 people—132 children—were killed by the Taliban in an attack on a school in Peshawar. And before I received this update in my Facebook from a missionary member of National Capital Presbytery, where I serve:

Please pray for parents and families of the Ayotzinapa School in the State of Guerrero where 43 students have “disappeared” by local police and criminal drug lords. One of them has been confirmed dead and burned.

Part our Longest Night Service on Sunday will be to lift up prayers for places of terror, death and brokenness in the world. How I wish the list weren’t so damn long.

So where is the light?

Here’s some light that came to me quite indirectly yesterday. A friend shared this article about late-night TV personality Craig Ferguson, who is going off the air this week. He talked about interviewing Archbishop Desmond Tutu several years ago and this liberating and formative moment:

Ferguson said Tutu told him during a commercial break, “I think you’re crazy.”

“This is a man who talked to some crazy motherf****rs,” Ferguson said. “He said to me, ‘You’re crazy – I don’t mean to be rude.’ I said, ‘I thank you, Father Tutu.’ He said, ‘No,  you are crazy, but the type of crazy we need.’ And, this is not your agent, you know, he’s not like, ‘Keep doing the crazy thing!’ It’s Desmond Tutu saying ‘Be as authentically crazy as you are.’ It was kind of like God saying ‘Just be as crazy as you like.’ I felt weirdly released by that.”

This article led me to the interview itself, which won Ferguson a Peabody award. It’s fantastic. Of course Tutu is always brilliant to behold, but these words about good and evil and compassion and justice spoke directly to the events of this week, this month, this year.

Is it possible for light to be fizzy? Tutu’s light is fizzy.

Here it is.

Part 1:

Part 2:

There’s also a Part 3 and a Part 4. Behold… behold.

A Sermon for Every Sunday: A Resource for Small Churches

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One of the reasons I’m drawn to NEXT Church is an awareness that we need to be both honest and creative about the cultural shifts affecting all of us, including the church. The same-old same-old is not going to work in sharing good news with a world that needs it. Everything is on the table: staffing models, leadership, building or no building, schedules and activities. And I think we need to try everything as we live toward a renewed mission in our time and place.

I met Jim Somerville, a pastor in Richmond, at the Festival of Homiletics this spring, and here’s his contribution to this spirit of experimentation: A Sermon for Every Sunday. There are tons of small churches out there who are doing great ministry, but who lack the resources to call a pastor. Jim has brought together preachers from around the country to record sermons for each Sunday of the year. These sermons can be purchased for a nominal fee and then played on a screen or a TV set, in worship or at other church gatherings.

Good preachers know that good sermons are contextual—they speak to a particular people in a particular time. Jim understands this as well, and envisions these sermons as the beginning of proclamation, not the entirety of it. So he encourages congregations to watch the sermon and then talk about it how it connects to their lives and ministries, perhaps guided by an elder or other church leader. Why not?

Churchy folk, I invite you to spread the word to colleagues who might be interested in it. And I look forward to seeing how A Sermon for Every Sunday takes hold as a resource, especially in smaller churches!

Where Is the Light?

Here in the Northern Hemisphere we’re winding down to Sunday, the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. Here in the DC area, the sun will rise that day at 7:23 a.m. and set at 4:50 p.m., giving us just 9 1/2 hours of light.

I know a good number of people who are having a tough time this year. There are family dramas and medical setbacks and stresses at work, not to mention the chronic struggles and annoyances that will always be with us. Those don’t take a break simply because Andy Williams calls it the most wonderful time of the year.

There’s the torture report, and the painfully raw conversations around #BlackLivesMatter. There’s a bungled Rolling Stone story that threatens to distract us from the disgraceful stats about sexual assault on college campuses.

There’s the two year anniversary of Newtown, which came and went with so little notice, and certainly no new laws regarding gun regulation, nor much of anything else, for that matter. (Where are all those people who claimed the guns weren’t to blame but rather the state of mental health services in this country? Have they been out there crusading without my knowledge for increased support for people with mental illnesses? Or is the death of 26 people and a school shooting every week the price we are willing to pay for “freedom”?)

Where is the light? This week, it is seeping away, a few minutes at a time on the margins of the day.

Many churches, Tiny Church included, have special gatherings for people who aren’t feeling the holly-jolliness. We have ours on a Sunday evening in December, and we’ve always called it “Blue Christmas.” This year, the solstice is on a Sunday, so we’ll be able to call it what it is: A Service of the Longest Night. It’s one of my favorite services of the year.

I must admit, though, as the darkness grows:

The light is absolutely beautiful this time of year.

Yes, there’s less of it than in the summer, with all its full blazes and its squat, sharp noon shadows. But what’s here right now is dynamic and textured. It’s brilliant and full and filtered through bare branches rather than blocked by leafy trees. Then it’s smudgy and silver when the clouds roll in.

And then it’s full of color. The sunrises and sunsets can be stunning. It feels strange liturgically to be preparing for a Service of the Longest Night when we are gifted with this:


Many Decembers ago, I was awake before dawn with a teething Margaret. I was wishing I were back in my warm bed in my dark room instead of trying to entertain a cranky toddler when something caught my eye outside the east-facing window. At first I didn’t understand what I was seeing. There in the otherwise dark sky was a vertical streak of light, jagged like a bolt of lightning, but it hung there for the longest time, frozen like a still photo.

Finally something in the scene shifted enough so I could realize: there was a massive cloud taking up half the sky. The cloud was invisible in the pre-dawn sky, until the sun rose behind it. What I was seeing was the side of the cloud, tinged with light.

The winter light is surely less abundant. But it’s startling and strange and exquisitely beautiful. We dare not blink or we will miss it. And we need it; we crave it.

It feels sometimes like our world is in a season of diminishing light. It’s felt that way for too long a while. Part of the invitation is to see gifts in the darkness, as Barbara Brown Taylor argues in her book. But we also have to keep alert and awake to see the fleeting brilliance when it comes.


Choose your own confounding streaks of light. Here are some of mine: a lone senator still banging away at gun reform after Sandy Hook. The Richmond chief of police who marches with protestors affirming that #BlackLivesMatter. The wave of people in Australia offering to ride public transportation with frightened Muslims as the hostage situation inflames anti-Islamic sentiment. And—it must be said—the police officers who put their bodies on the line to end that terrible standoff not long ago.

And if people let you down, consider the creation—this world we are privileged to inhabit and make a tiny bit better.



Where is the light?

Where is the light? Here is an answer I like, courtesy of Peter Mayer (who wrote the song) and LEA (who performs it).


Thanks to my friend David Ensign for giving me permission to use his photos.

Emailing Beyond the Grave

medium_15612803237I’m a big fan of David Eagleman, author, neuroscientist, and fellow Rice grad (peck ‘em Owls!). His book Sum: Forty Tales of the Afterlives is one of the most imaginative, dare I say spirit-filled books I’ve read in recent years. And he’s a mainstay on Radiolab.

Eagleman has a startup venture (a few years old by now) called Deathswitch, which lets people schedule various technological actions that occur in the event of their deaths. You set the system to contact you every so often and ask for a password in reply. If you do not answer, the system assumes you have died, which triggers whatever actions you designate—sending password and bank information to your executor, say, or emailing crucial files to co-workers. But the beauty of the system is, you can set any action or message you want. So you can write a note to your spouse that gets sent on your 50th anniversary, for example—or get the last word in an argument. (Or both: Happy anniversary, my darling. You’ll always be my lobster. And we WERE on a break.)

One of my favorite chapters in this tech book I’m writing (Lord will it ever get done?) is the one on death, and how technology impacts the way we grieve. I find the idea of a deathswitch fascinating. And Eagleman’s jovial optimism is appealing: he “likes to imagine the many sensational messages, waiting to be delivered: unexpected declarations of love, confessions of secrets or crimes, or the location of buried cash.”

It also raises some compelling questions.
What would it be like to receive love notes from a long-deceased spouse who remains frozen in time, as the recipient ages and changes?
Would these messages become a burden?
If this technology takes off and someone declines to participate, will the absence of a message at key moments cause further sadness?
How does a continued “relationship” help or hinder the grieving process?

On a positive note, what a gift it would be to think about what you’d like to say to your children and loved ones in the future. You can do this “legacy” work regardless of technology, to be sure, and many people do… but knowing that these messages will be delivered (rather than forgotten in a desk drawer somewhere) gives the task an increased sense of purpose and urgency.

What do you think? Would you partake of this technology? What would your deathswitches be?

photo credit: via photopin cc