Last week I was in Collegeville, Minnesota for a week of writing. I made some great progress in starting to shape what I hope will be book #3. This is the exciting part because it can go in so many different directions, but it’s not without its stresses–it can be hard to find a foothold with something so nebulous. My mantra at this stage is Augustine’s “It is solved by walking.” The only way out is through.
Currently I’m on a road trip with the kids and my father-in-law through the upper Midwest and a bit of Canada on our way to Maine, where Robert will join us for a week. Can’t wait to see him!
So without further ado–here’s what’s been interesting me lately:
A coaching client sent this to me, perhaps knowing that it’s like catnip for me:
So what is motivation, exactly? The author Steven Pressfield has a great line in his book, The War of Art, which I think gets at the core of motivation. To paraphrase Pressfield, “At some point, the pain of not doing it becomes greater than the pain of doing it.”
In other words, at some point, it is easier to change than to stay the same. It is easier to take action and feel insecure at the gym than to sit still and experience self-loathing on the couch. It is easier to feel awkward while making the sales call than to feel disappointed about your dwindling bank account.
Emotional and physical abuse are clear-cut grounds for divorce, but they aren’t the most common causes of failing marriages, at least the ones I hear about. What’s the more typical villain? Change.
Feeling oppressed by change or lack of change; it’s a tale as old as time. Yet at some point in any long-term relationship, each partner is likely to evolve from the person we fell in love with into someone new — and not always into someone cuter or smarter or more fun. Each goes from rock climber to couch potato, from rebel to middle manager, and from sex crazed to sleep obsessed.
Nostalgia, which fuels our resentment toward change, is a natural human impulse. And yet being forever content with a spouse, or a street, requires finding ways to be happy with different versions of that person or neighborhood.
I genuinely like the mid-40s version of the guy I met more than half my life ago. That’s a good thing.
tl;dr is that teens spend way more time alone than they used to, and they report being much less happy. There’s more, but that’s a big finding.
This has inspired some conversation with my co-parent, who read this and was ready to chuck our kids’ devices out the window. I expect a more measured but decisive response from us. This article paints a serious picture. Disclaimer that I hate the sensational title, and I just now realized it’s by Jean Twenge, whose stuff about the narcissism of millenials has always felt suspiciously convenient to me. (Incidentally, we’ve already implemented the nighttime charging station for all the devices. It’s a positive change all around.)
Is racism in law enforcement the problem of a few bad apples, or is the system as a whole rotten?
A new working paper looking at police officer discretion in speeding tickets in Florida tries to answer this question — and it finds that the answer is somewhere in between. In total, the number of police officers who show racial bias in the study is around 25 percent — not all cops, but still a fairly high number.
One finding of note: the fine for a speeding ticket goes up if you’re going 10 mph or more over the speed limit. White people were much more likely to get tickets for going 9 mph over the speed limit than people of color.
10. The World as 100 People, Over the Last Two Centuries
Let me leave you with some reasons to cheer. Not everything is getting worse. In fact, many things are much much better. A reason for celebration, but also for vigilance to keep it that way.
I’ve just finished up a week of improv classes in Chicago. I attended one of Second City’s immersions, then tacked on a two-day workshop called The Art of Slow Comedy. I learned a lot in both venues, which I’m eager to share with my readers and the groups I speak to. (By the way, have you registered for my fall workshop yet? Yes, And: Improvisational Leadership in Times of Dizzying Change is in October at Columbia Seminary, co-led with Marthame Sanders, whose aijcast podcast is well worth a listen.)
Last week at Second City we did an exercise called improvising within a premise. I was in a group of three—two men and me. We had two minutes to come up with the basics of a scene: who, what, and where. Then we would get on stage and bring that scene to life. We were told not to pre-plan dialogue or other details of the scene.
Our group kept our premise fairly simple: a mother was taking her child to the doctor, but the doctor ignored the kid and persisted in hitting on the mother.
One of the underlying rules of improv is to “follow the fun,” and as we waited for our turn, I realized two things simultaneously:
a) Because I was the only woman in the group, it was clear they assumed I would be the mother.
b) I did NOT want to be the mother.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve played this kind of scene, and it can be fun. That day, though, I was not feeling it. And I was pretty glum about the scene as a result.
Until I remembered the beauty of improv: There’s nothing that says I have to be the mother.
Improv is powered by imagination! And people play a different gender all the time. All I had to do was go out there and make it clear that I was someone else. So I did. When it was our turn, I plopped down on a chair and said, “Mommy, I can’t bend my knees and I really hope the doctor can fix it.” And BOOM, just like that I was the child.
Honestly, I remember very little about the scene (and besides, explaining an improv scene is never as funny as seeing it live). But it really doesn’t matter. For me, the victory was tuning in to myself enough to know that I needed to change something, and taking steps to change it. And sure enough, my scene partners said, “Yeah, we thought you were going to be the mother.” And I got to look at them, smile cryptically, and say, “Why would you assume that?” Powered by imagination.
I’ve always loved the so-called serenity prayer:
Our group had agreed on the premise; that’s not something I could change. But the assumption that I would play a particular part, that I would conform to expectations, was something I could change. I love improv because it helps me practice courage to change what I can, when the stakes are low, so that maybe I can do it more easily when the stakes are higher.
The world is way more complicated than an improv class. And we can’t always follow the fun—sometimes life is simply a slog. But how often do I accept a premise that is foisted upon me, rather than pushing back? How often do I assume a role I really don’t have to play?
I don’t want to do that anymore.
Peace, Joy, and Yes,
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Wonderful oral history about a fantastic, quotable movie.
We were shooting part of the Christmas scene, and this was in the dead of August, and we were sitting out on the porch of Truvy’s beauty shop. We were waiting, and there was a lot of stop and start. The women were dressed for Christmas, and Dolly was sitting on the swing. She had on that white cashmere sweater with the marabou around the neck, and she was just swinging, cool as a cucumber. Julia said, “Dolly, we’re dying and you never say a word. Why don’t you let loose?” Dolly very serenely smiled and said, “When I was young and had nothing, I wanted to be rich and famous, and now I am. So I’m not going to complain about anything.”
This has been shared widely among my circles, but in case you missed it:
Long story short, my parents are leaving AUMC.
Here are some things you should know: we’ve been members for 13 years, since I was ten years old. My brother and I were confirmed there; I preached for the first time there; until recently, I thought I would get married there.
Another thing you should know: I am a lesbian. I came out this year, after many years of trying to deny who I was. My parents love me unconditionally. My mom cried through your sermon last Sunday. My dad calmly collected his things and told the choir director we wouldn’t be back.
I have read some good critiques of these kinds of lists. The fact is, we need to make huge system-wide changes, rather than make this an issue of individual virtue. And not everyone has the means to make these changes. Still–I’m a fan of giving everyone some skin in the game.
Don’t be shy about asking your teen where she has been, who she has spent time with, or why she has receipts from Cypriot bank wire transfers hidden under a false bottom of her jewelry case. If you discover a folder marked “parental Kompromat” try to stay focused and not act emotional. Think about her point of view and why she would consider it important to have your social security number, Gmail password, and Pornhub search history in a secret folder. Take advantage of these “teachable moments” to have meaningful discussions about colluding with Russia with your teen.
In the wild, when a mama elephant is giving birth, all the other female elephants in the herd back around her in formation. They close ranks so that the delivering mama cannot even be seen in the middle. They stomp and kick up dirt and soil to throw attackers off the scent and basically act like a pack of badasses.
They surround the mama and incoming baby in protection, sending a clear signal to predators that if they want to attack their friend while she is vulnerable, they’ll have to get through 40 tons of female aggression first.
Little good comes from being distracted yet we seem incapable of focusing our attention. Among many qualities that suffer, recent research shows creativity takes a hit when you’re constantly busy. Being able to switch between focus and daydreaming is an important skill that’s reduced by insufferable busyness.
Guilty as charged. And with that… I’m back to improvising, running along the Chicago lake trail, and making withdrawals from the Cupcake ATM.
I was talking with a friend recently about a setback in her running. By the time it’s all said and done, she will be sidelined for half a year, unable to run at all, and the thought of having to start over is really bumming her out.
I could relate, having been through my own time of injury and rebuilding from scratch. And maybe we can all relate, whether we run or not. Pretty much everyone knows what it’s like to have plans derailed, to have to start over, or to find ourselves on a completely different path than the one we’d hoped to travel. I’ve been reading Sheryl Sandberg’s Option B, about coming to terms with the unexpected death of her husband. The book is full of wisdom for life’s adversities, however large or small. It also covers similar ground to my book on improv as a life practice, so it’s a good one to tide you over until mine comes out next year! (And if anyone knows Sandberg and could put me in touch with her, I’d love to give her an advance copy.)
I read recently about Willie Stewart, a young, talented rugby player until a horrific construction accident caused him to lose his left arm. For some two years, he laid about, devastated at the loss of the life he’d known, the life that would never be his. (Who could blame him?)
Eventually he found his way back into sports, this time setting his sights on triathlon. He learned to swim and bike with just one arm. This was in the 1980s, when there wasn’t as much support and encouragement for athletes with disabilities. He was determined to compete in the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii.
Finally in 2002, Stewart found himself in the front row of swimmers, determined to match his strength, endurance and focus against the most able-bodied athletes. He finished in the top third of competitors, and went on to have a fruitful career with many other honors and accolades, inspiring others.
Occasionally, a fan or friend will say to Stewart, “Imagine what you could have done if you hadn’t lost your arm!” Imagine, indeed.
And his answer is always the same:
“I wouldn’t have done any of it.”
To come to terms with life as it is, rather than life as we thought it might be, is a holy struggle and a lifelong pursuit. May we find the courage not only to survive, but to thrive.
By request, here is the sermon I preached on Wonder Woman two Sundays ago. This isn’t exactly what was said, but a close approximation. If you read my article for the Presbyterian Outlook, you will recognize some of those ideas, which I expand upon.
MaryAnn McKibben Dana
St. Matthew Presbyterian Church
July 9, 2017
31 ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.” 41Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”44Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” 45Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’
I had a friend some years ago, an older gentleman, who would answer the question “How are you?” with “Better than I deserve.” It always made me chuckle, wondering what kind of trouble he was getting into that he somehow escaped unscathed. I would also flash back to Reformed Theology class with George Stroup at Columbia Seminary and the idea of unmerited grace. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” Paul reminds us in Romans, and our Brief Statement of Faith bluntly agrees: “We deserve God’s condemnation.” The redemption Christ offers us is better than we deserve.
I was amused to hear my friend’s greeting echoed in the recent Wonder Woman movie, in a toast that three good-hearted scoundrels share with one another:
Wonder Woman, or Diana as she’s known in the film, is raised by a tribe of Amazons on the island of Themyscira, and their mission is to fight on behalf of humanity. Specifically, the Amazons believe that Ares, the god of war, has ensnared humankind in endless conflict, and once Ares is defeated, an era of peace will reign. Diana takes on this mission after meeting Steve Trevor, an American soldier who’s been spying on the Germans on behalf of the British in World War I. It’s “the war to end all wars,” Trevor tells Diana, and that’s all the invitation brave Diana needs to leave Themyscira and take on Ares—and thus, to defeat war itself.
Late into the movie, a character tries to convince Diana that humanity is not worth her heroism—they are savages, prone to tear one another apart, with or without Ares. They are getting what’s coming to them, the character says; leave them to their self-imposed suffering and don’t be sullied by their sins. Diana’s own mother says as much to her: “They don’t deserve you.”
Is that true? Do we deserve to be left alone in our suffering, forced to find our way without any higher sense of guidance or hope?
In my more cynical moments, and steeped in the news of the day, I can’t disagree. I look at each new atrocity we commit against one another—the erosion of kindness, our contempt for the natural creation, the -isms that stubbornly cling to us despite the fact that we should really know better by now—and I think, “Jesus died for this?!” Surely there’s some other two-bit planet in the universe that needs redeeming, and yet is slightly more worthy of the gift than we numbskull earthlings.
* * *
In today’s scripture, we’re told that there will be a grand sorting in the kingdom of God. Some, like sheep, will be gathered to Jesus’ right hand, having succeeded to feed the hungry and visit the stranger. Others, the goats, will be on his left hand, punished for having failed to feed, clothe and visit.
So… the question inevitably hangs in the air at this point…
Which are we? Sheep or goats?
Well, let’s find out. Should be simple enough. I’d like you to raise your hand if you’ve ever given food to a hungry person, or offered clothing to someone who had little, or if you’ve visited a stranger or someone who was sick, or given water to a thirsty person.
Impressive show of hands.
Now I’d like to ask you to raise your hand if you’ve ever failed to give food to a hungry person, or failed to offer clothing to someone who had little, or failed to visit the stranger or the sick, or not given water to a thirsty person.
So many hands! Well, this complicates things. And if I’m honest, I’ve been in the second category way more often than the first.
We don’t “deserve” saving… and yet the gift is given nonetheless.
Diana feels a sense of responsibility to protect humanity—it’s her reason for being, the pivotal moment she’s been training for her whole life. “Who would I be if I stay [on Themyscira]?” she asks her mother. For Diana, whether the world “deserves” her is irrelevant. She loves the world, and has the power to intervene on its behalf, and so she will. (Sound like someone we know?)
At a pivotal moment in the movie, Diana takes a stand against this business of deserving. She says, “It’s not about what you deserve. It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love.”
* * *
Gerard Hughes writes a little piece about God, comparing him to a character Hughes calls Good Old Uncle George. I wonder if he is a familiar character to some of you:
Good Old Uncle George is the relative that our parents takes us to visit, who they describe as very loving and very powerful. And when we come to visit, he tells us how happy he is to see us, and then says, “Now I want you to visit me every week, and let me show you what will happen if you don’t.” And he takes us down to his basement, where we hear the most awful screams and feel the heat of his fiery furnace, and we see the torment on the people’s faces. And then we head home clutching our mother and father’s hand, and they say, “Oh, don’t you just love Uncle George with all your heart and soul, mind and strength?” And the truth is that we detest the man, but we know we can’t say that. And from a young age a strange “religious schizophrenia” sets in. We know we are supposed to love him, but in reality, we are terrified and repulsed by this man. (paraphrased from Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God by Dennis, Matthew and Sheila Linn)
If you have a view of God that looks like Good Old Uncle George, you’re going to read this text as a warning of what will happen if you stray just a little bit from the right path.
But if your view of God is different—if you believe that it’s not about what you deserve, but what you believe, and if you believe in the power of love—you’re going to read this text differently.
Maybe Jesus preaches a strong word about sheep and goats, NOT because he’s Good Old Uncle George trying to smite us the minute we slip up.
Maybe he preaches sheep and goats because he cares so much about this world that he really, really wants us to know: You are always called to be sheep. You are always called upon to feed and clothe and comfort and visit. That is never not your job. That task is going to be yours for as long as you draw breath.
* * *
Several years ago, I was preparing to preach for Easter, and I had two stories I wanted to tell, and couldn’t decide which one to go with. Both helped flesh out the Easter message, that new life we yearn for, the new life that’s promised in the resurrection. One story was modest and small in scope. It was an ordinary tale of kindness, neighbor to neighbor. The other story was grand and sweeping, a dramatic tale of daring sacrifice and transformation. I became curious—what do people want to hear? The relatable tale, that feels like something we can relate to, or the dramatic story that can inspire us to risk greatly? I took an informal poll, and found that—of all the luck!—people were equally divided on what kind of stories resonate with us.
I saw a similar tension play out in the story of Wonder Woman. When Diana first meets Steve Trevor, he explains why he is fighting in the war: “My father told me once, he said, ‘If you see something wrong happening in the world, you can either do nothing, or you can do something.’ And I already tried nothing.”
And so for a lot of the movie. Diana is kind of tagging along, as the various characters put these little plans in place to try to do their own small part, to do something to try to help end the conflict. They come to a place along No Man’s Land in an entire town is suffering and held captive. Diana desperately wants to help this little town, but the other characters, armed with their “something,” tell her no. We need to keep going. Let’s just do our small part. Let’s stay focused on our own contribution. We can’t save everyone.
And Diana says No: I’m tired of doing Something. I’m tired of playing small. It’s time to do everything. All of the things! It’s time to give everything I have to the people who need me right here, right now.
And she steps out of that trench and steps into her own power. She becomes who she was created to be—she becomes Wonder Woman.
And later in the movie, the man who was content just to do something, ends up making a profound sacrifice. Because she gave everything she had, he was inspired to give everything he had.
And so, are we called to the small faithful gesture, or the bold sacrifice of faith? It has to be both. We live in the space, the “no man’s land,” between Something, and Everything… knowing we can only do what we can do, but knowing there will be times when we’re called to sacrifice everything we can possibly give.
Jesus sets a high bar in this text. Everyone we feed, or fail to feed, or clothe, or fail to clothe, or visit, or ignore, is Christ himself. And that is the challenge of our faith. But the one who judges us was also himself judged, found guilty, and suffered the depths of human pain. He was arrested in prison—sick from being beaten—and nobody came to visit him. He was thirsty on that cross and they didn’t give him water, they gave him sour wine. He was naked, and they did not clothe him, in fact they divided up his clothes to keep for themselves. He was a stranger to them.
But his story transcends all of that. His resurrection doesn’t just change some of the things. It changes everything. We need not fear death and darkness and deserved judgment, because they are not the whole story.
The whole story is love and life and transformation and hope.
It’s a story we know well, and one we can never fully know, but we glimpse just enough of it to feed and clothe and quench and visit and heal another day.
The story lives in the words of preacher William Sloane Coffin, who used to bless his congregations at the end of worship with these words:
May God give you grace never to sell yourself short.
Grace to risk something big for something good.
And grace to remember that the world is too dangerous for anything but truth,
And too small for anything but love.