Author Archives: MaryAnn McKibben Dana

Monday Runday: From PR to DNS?

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Been wearing my running shoes around the house as I rest and recover.

This Saturday I’m signed up to run the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon here in DC. It will be my third time running it.

Or… it could be my third time.

It might be?

I’m having trouble with the verbs here, because I’m not sure whether I’ll be at the start line. And if I get to the start line, will I get to the finish line?

Last Tuesday I went out for a six-mile run. Half a mile in, I started to feel a dull ache in my shin, disturbingly similar to the sensation I got eighteen months ago.

Back then, I didn’t know what it was, but little aches and pains happen all the time in running, so I kept going. I logged at least another 25 miles before I ultimately got diagnosed with my tibial stress fracture.

But when you know better, you do better. Last Tuesday I stopped immediately, walked slowly home, and haven’t hit the pavement since. I’ve been icing and rolling, and I’ve done two pool runs (a great non-weight-bearing activity) and a little strength training, but that’s it. I need to rest it if I have any hope of running RnR on Saturday.

It’s an example of the hard thing being the easy thing. It’s really hard for me to put my training on hold and rest, when I really want to run, try it out, or do the hop test to see how things are healing. But the harder thing in the short term is much easier than taking 6-8 weeks off because I couldn’t leave well enough alone.

So I’m doing all the good things I know to do.

But it may still not be enough. I will find out tomorrow, when I go for a test run. And even if tomorrow goes well, 13.1 on Saturday might still be too much.

I was training for a personal record, a PR. Now I’m hoping I don’t get a DNS or DNF–did not start/finish. I’ve had a few DNS’s, most of them when I was injured. I’ve never had a DNF.

Experiences like this can bring to light deep spiritual clutter we didn’t know we had. As a pastor and spiritual companion for all kinds of people, I’ve spent a lot of time with the question, “What did I do to deserve this?” Most of the time, there’s nothing the person did. I don’t believe that if we behave well we’ll get rewarded with a cancer-free life. Kindness to animals or paying our taxes on time doesn’t inoculate us from a job loss or a divorce.

Yet I think deep down, many of us do believe we are rewarded or punished based on our actions. We just don’t realize we believe it until something happens to us and we start casting about for explanations, or maintaining our innocence.

Eighteen months ago, I did a lot of things wrong. It was a perfect storm of ignorance, slightly worn out shoes, too many miles, and cambered streets. So yes–sometimes we suffer as a result of our actions. No denying that.

This time, I didn’t do anything “wrong” in my training. I’ve gone over it all in my mind and am fairly confident I didn’t make any egregious errors. Besides, I came back from an injury, stayed injury free, and ran two half marathons, a marathon (which I PRed) and a Ragnar relay. That’s a success!

Rather than be comforted by the fact that I did everything right, it annoys me that I may be injured anyway. (My annoyance is compounded by mildly injured runners all over the Internet who do stupid things, and yet somehow their bodies let them get away with it more than mine seems to.)

But ultimately, what does any of that matter? Would the fact that I did everything right change anything? Tomorrow’s outcome is gonna be what it is. Sometimes stuff just happens. Things go down that are out of our control.

I hate this, by the way. But it’s reality. I study and write about improv, not because it comes naturally to me, but because it doesn’t–I fight the unforeseen every step of the way, and denial + bargaining is a favorite tool. I did everything right, universe! Shouldn’t that count for something?

No, it doesn’t count for anything.

The only thing that matters in the end is what we do with the stuff life hands us. Where is the Yes-And? That is my question, or will be, if tomorrow doesn’t go well.

If RnR is off, I get to attend a workshop on Civic Engagement with some friends.

Instead of the sprint triathlon in May, I’ll sign up for the aquabike (which sounds like a fun contraption but is just a swim + bike event).

And I’ll take several weeks off, and I’ll start over. Again.

I’m not thrilled about it, but it’s all there is.

Not-Quite-Ten for Tuesday: Book Deadline Edition

The next round of edits for Improvising with God is due on Friday, so I’ve got just a few to share this week in lightning-quick fashion:

1. This quote from George Saunders, shared by my friend Sharon Core on Facebook last week:

So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it: What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering and I responded … sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.

The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

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2. This image posted by Rachel Hackenberg on Instagram:

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This is #lifegoals.

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3. Pinhole Camera Made from 32,000 Drinking Straws. Because people are fascinating.

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4. Ana Marie Cox’s New Podcast on Crooked Media called With Friends Like These. I haven’t listened yet, but here’s part of the description:

Ana will talk to liberals and conservatives, religious leaders, writers, activists, and people you should know for a show that’s about listening instead of arguing. And this isn’t just about figuring out why some dude in Michigan voted for Trump. Though that’s part of it. We should figure that out. It’s about actually exploring division instead of putting it in side-by-side boxes on television, whether it’s a conversation about politics or religion, race or gender, or belief itself. Ana has accrued a bunch of unlikely friends in politics, and she has strong disagreements with those friends, like this one guy whose name rhymes with “whoa far borough” for example.

*Joe Scarborough.

The first episode is with a Wisconsin pastor who talks about how his community voted for Obama… before voting for Trump. Now doesn’t that sound interesting? And maybe even a little healing to listen to?

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5. 17 Times Texas Was Completely Freaking Badass

A little Lone Star braggin’, but this entry relates to the previous one, actually. Consider #5:

5. When New Hope’s mayor, Jess Herbst, came out as transgender and the extremely conservative town of 600 was like *shrug*.

I heard Ana Marie Cox interviewed about her new podcast, and she talked about the disconnect between how mean we can be to one another online v. how much we take care of one another in our physical communities, even across political divides. Certainly there are exceptions to this, but I’ve found it to be generally true. She said, if we were as nasty to one another face to face as we were online, maybe there’d be no hope for us. But we’re not. So there is hope.

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What has inspired you this week?

Ten for Tuesday: Here’s Your Joy Inoculation!

Let’s get going:

1. All That We Share: courtesy of Denmark TV, the best three minutes you’ll spend today.

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2. Things You Can Control, courtesy of Think Grow Prosper (posted on Improvised Life)

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3. Teen Suicide Attempts Fell as Same-Sex Marriage Became Legal

Teen suicide attempts in the U.S. declined after same-sex marriage became legal and the biggest impact was among gay, lesbian and bisexual kids, a study found.

The research found declines in states that passed laws allowing gays to marry before the Supreme Court made it legal nationwide. The results don’t prove there’s a connection, but researchers said policymakers should be aware of the measures’ potential benefits for youth mental health.

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for all U.S. teens. Suicidal behavior is much more common among gay, lesbian and bisexual kids and adults; about 29 percent of these teens in the study reported attempting suicide, compared with just 6 percent of straight teens.

Love wins.

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4. Using Improv to Help Kids with Autism. Yes!!

“What improv really does is create a safe and fun and authentic environment in which to practice, where mistakes really don’t matter,” says Jim Ansaldo, a research scholar at Indiana University.

Ansaldo runs Camp Yes And, an improv summer camp for teens with autism. He says improv-specific programs for children with autism are rare — he knows of about a half dozen — but their number is growing.

He refers to improv as a technology for human connection and communication.

And Janna Graf, Shaw’s mom, says she has seen how it has helped her son.

She says he can ramble, but recently she saw him introduce himself at a church group: “He said, ‘My name’s Shaw; I’m 8-years-old,’ and then he actually took his hands and waved it to the next person,” Graf says. “He’s learning to wait.”

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5. A UFO Abduction on the Streets of Dresden by OakOak

Speaking of improv, I LOVE OakOak’s art, and I share it often in my improv workshops–it’s a great example of taking something mundane or even ugly and “Yes-anding” it. Here is one of his latest:

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6. How Much Do Cats Actually Kill? by The Oatmeal

We like to call Baxter and Rey “God’s Perfect Killing Machines.” Of course our cats are inside cats, so the most they’re killing are catnip toys, dustbunnies and laser pointers. But I maintain that you can tell if someone’s a cat person based on whether they see this quality as a feature or a bug:

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7. Alan H. Green sings “Nobody’s Listening.” 

I’m sinfully proud of my friend Alan Green, Broadway actor. (We were in a show together in college and he graciously calls me his “first leading lady,” but we all pretty much basked in his incredible talent.) Here he is singing a song from a show amusingly called “How to Steal an Election.” Start around 3:00 to get right to the song.

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8. Cookies! I continue to bake my way through Dorie Greenspan’s Cookies cookbook, which is delicious fun. But I’m also keeping track of what I bake each week and for whom–which has been a great way of marking the weeks of this year. Our latest was Two Bite One Chip Cookies, which are fun to make with kids.

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9. Building a Park: Tons of us love Humans of New York on Facebook and Instagram. This one from Brazil touched me especially.

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10. Superheroes! Japanese photographer Hotkenobi has put together some whimsical shots using action figures. Many more at the link, but here’s my favorite:

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Ten for Tuesday: Pure Unbridled Joy and Hope

I hope I’m not overpromising here. But I think there’s especially good stuff this week.

1. Jake Gyllenhaal sings “Finishing the Hat,” and does it well. (Hat tip to Michael Kirby, my source for all things musical.)

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2. ‘I know they are going to die.’ This foster father takes in only terminally ill children

Radiant. Excruciating.

“The key is, you have to love them like your own,” Bzeek said recently. “I know they are sick. I know they are going to die. I do my best as a human being and leave the rest to God.”

The man is a Libyan-born Muslim man, by the way.

This is Islam.

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3. Photos of Waves Crashing in Australia, by Warren Keelan and featured on Colossal.

It’s a beautiful world:

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Many more at the link.

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4. Mari Andrew’s Instagram feed is full of drawings conveying simple wisdom. Her recent rendering of grief is right on:

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5. This Dictionary Keeps Subtweeting Trump and Here’s the Full Story. This is about way more than the Trump administration’s creative (some would say sinister) use of language, and how Merriam-Webster is handling it. It’s about creating a social media presence that’s sharp and authentic. The descriptivist stuff at the end is interesting too.

As anyone who studied linguistics in college may remember, most modern dictionaries embrace what is known as a descriptivist view of language. Rather than insisting on the so-called proper usage of a word or phrase (an approach known as prescriptivism), today most lexicographers (i.e., people who work at dictionaries) study the way words are actually being used and make note accordingly. That’s how you end up with, for example, dictionary entries for “they” in the third-person singular form or “heart” as a verb.

Inherent in this descriptivist approach, then, is the notion that a dictionary is a rather passive creature, monitoring the public conversation but not injecting itself into it.

That, of course, is being somewhat challenged by Merriam-Webster having a Twitter account with such a forceful public voice.

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6. Mary Oliver reads “Wild Geese.” (h/t Brain Pickings)

Make this poem your mission statement. My personal one is The Journey, but this one’s a close second.

“You do not have to be good…”

7. A Longtime Fitness Editor Does Some Soul Searching (h/t my friend Alison)

Our culture is drowning in listicles and fad approaches to nutrition. The truth is, we know what constitutes a healthy life, and the rest is commentary (and maybe even clickbaity propaganda).

In an email, Michael Joyner, a physiologist at the Mayo Clinic, told me that we overcomplicate everything when it comes to health. He then pointed me to an obituary in the New York Times of Lester Breslow, a researcher who, the Times reported, “gave mathematical proof to the notion that people can live longer and healthier by changing habits like smoking, diet and sleep.” Breslow identified seven key factors to living a healthy life:

Do not smoke; drink in moderation; sleep seven to eight hours; exercise at least moderately; eat regular meals; maintain a moderate weight; eat breakfast.

The rest is commentary.

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8. Book Pairings for Every Flavor of Ben and Jerry’s I’ve Ever Eaten, by Tracy Shapley on Book Riot.

Yes, I just posted a link about fitness like three seconds ago. But there’s physical health and there’s spiritual health.

I love that the list is presented without commentary, prompting me to make the connections myself.

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9. How Black Books Lit My Way Along the Appalachian Trail, by Rahawa Haile.

I’m still making my way through this beautifully-written essay about books, blackness, femaleness, and hiking. But I feel confident recommending it because it was recommended by Linda Holmes on Pop Culture Happy Hour and she’s never steered me wrong.

For many, the Appalachian Trail is a footpath of numbers. There are miles to Maine. The daily chance of precipitation. Distance to the next campsite with a reliable water source. Here, people cut the handles off of toothbrushes to save grams. Eat cold meals in the summer months to shave weight by going stoveless. They whittle medicine kits down to bottles of ibuprofen. Carry two pairs of socks. One pair of underwear.

…Few nonessentials are carried on this trail, and when they are — an enormous childhood teddy bear, a father’s bulky camera — it means one thing: The weight of this item is worth considerably more than the weight of its absence.

Everyone had something out here. The love I carried was books. Exceptional books. Books by black authors, their photos often the only black faces I would talk to for weeks. These were writers who had endured more than I’d ever been asked to, whose strength gave me strength in turn.

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10. “Let America Be America Again,” by Langston Hughes. 

Behold, the only version of #MAGA I’m on board with. Excerpt:

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

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Hughes gets the last word this week.

“Do the Hustle”: Life as a Free-Range Pastor

A version of this article appears at the NEXT Church blog today.

This month I enter my third year as a pastor without a congregation.

For my first twelve years of ministry, I served two congregations, following one of the traditional paths of a seminary graduate: associate at a medium-sized church, then a solo pastorate. It was a joy, a challenge, a growth experience, and a chapter I wouldn’t have traded for anything.

The “typical” next step is to become a head of staff somewhere, right? I certainly thought about it. But sometime during those twelve years, a new element got introduced into my ministry that led my path to diverge from what’s typical. I will never know what the decisive element was. Maybe it was when I got asked to write a monthly Bible column, or keynote a conference. Maybe it was the book. Of course, lots of parish pastors write and lead conferences as an adjunct to serving a congregation. But somewhere along the way, those activities became not an add-on to my ministry, but the heart of my ministry. So two years ago this month, I left the solo position at the lovely small church, and struck out on my own as a writer, speaker, and conference leader. Now I write books and articles, I do a little freelance writing for non-profits, and I speak to some eighteen to twenty-four groups a year.

As I pause and take stock of that decision, I think about what has been gained and lost in terms of my pastoral identity.

What I’ve gained:

Freedom. I never fully glimpsed how much pastors sacrificed until I was no longer doing it. Evenings, weekends, even vacations can be compromised by the needs of the congregation. It’s a call that most of us find to be worth the sacrifice, but it’s a sacrifice nonetheless.

Our family hasn’t settled on a church home yet—we’re taking our time. In the midst of our exploring though, I can now run an occasional race on Sunday morning without taking a vacation day, or attend the 24-hour Best Picture marathon with my mother, which we’ll do in a few weeks. (Nine movies shown back to back. It’s a bleary-eyed blast.) I also have freedom to attend and lead worship in a variety of settings. I recently preached and presided at table in a Lutheran congregation; breaking bread at another denomination’s table will put you in touch very quickly with what you take for granted in the Eucharist!

Appreciation. With that freedom comes great appreciation for the work of local church pastors. As a writer, I hope my work reaches as wide an audience as possible. At the same time, over these last two years I have come to see my vocation more and more as that of supporting church leaders. When I preach or lead an event in a congregation, I’m not just sharing what I’m passionate about. I’m serving as a “relief preacher” for church professionals who may be feeling tired or stuck, or who may just need a fresh arm to take over for a while. I pray for my colleagues and check in with them more than I did when I was in the trenches myself.

A new “parish.” Pastors like to joke about the fibs we tell when people ask us on airplanes, “So what do you do?” As an introvert, and one whose job it was to provide spiritual counsel for so many years, I often demurred on such questions, rationalizing, “I gave at the office.” I no longer shy from claiming my identity, though our Presbyterian terminology trips me up. “Pastors” are tied to congregations, and I am not; “teaching elder” is meaningless to people outside the PC(USA) as well as many people inside it. I’ve gone with “minister” or “pastor” because it’s understandable to most people.

I love my quirky unofficial parish. I’ve been called upon to pastor people in a whole range of settings: walking the kids home from school with a gaggle of parents, via Facebook message, and even while running—trying to explain the Reformation while running a hilly eleven-miler was a special challenge.

A highlight in this new free-range ministry was leading a service of dedication of a memorial bench for a friend whose baby died after three days of life. I was called upon to acknowledge the mother’s Christian identity while also being expansive in my language to welcome the wide variety of faith traditions of the people present. It’s a muscle we all must exercise from time to time in the church, but one we’d do well to strengthen as our culture becomes more and more diverse.

I rejoice at all of these gains!

What I’ve lost:

hustleIncome. Free-range ministry is a constant hustle, and I’ve taken a pay cut moving to a “fee for service” model (to say nothing of the lack of benefits and pension). I am constantly trying to balance asking for honoraria that I feel I am worth, while understanding that most congregations aren’t exactly flush with cash.

I also have to name that I can do the work I do because our household expenses are not wholly dependent on steady income from me. I have a spouse whose vocation is one that our culture happens to compensate well. Facebook memories just reminded me of this article, “Sponsored” by my husband: Why it’s a problem that writers never talk about where their money comes from. I wrote at the time how I cringed when people said how “brave” I was to strike out on my own. I am in a privileged position, and I never want to sugar-coat that.

As NEXT Church considers transformation in the church, including alternate forms of ministry, we must always keep this economic piece at the forefront. How can we support people doing good work for the church whose spouses don’t work in computer security, for example? Or who don’t have a spouse?

Focus. With the flexibility of my new vocation comes a major need for focus. This need plays out in many ways, from deciding which articles I write to what kind of speaking engagements to take. Writers don’t make much money from books—the income mainly comes from speaking. Yet books are the engines that fuel the speaking opportunities. So it’s a balance.

Going to the women's march, January 21, 2017

Going to the women’s march, January 21, 2017

Further, as we settle into a new presidency, many of us have come face-to-face with the reality that democracy is an active enterprise. We must all do our part to make our values and aspirations known, so that our government may reflect those values and aspirations. I could spend all day, every day on activism if I let myself. I miss having a regular community to provide structure to my work in the world. A church is a ready-made place for such accountability and focus. In lieu of that, I’ve shepherded the formation of some groups that provide a place for support and common action for the greater good. It’s interesting to do so as a pastor. Our gatherings aren’t explicitly religious, nor do we want them to be. But there’s a general sense of something deeper undergirding our work—even if I’m the only one perceiving things on that level.

Patience. At the same time, the moments when I do dip back into church work I find I have less tolerance for much of the nitty-gritty that consumes the time of a average pastor. Every institution has its necessary maintenance tasks—there’s no denying that—but we spend an awful lot of time on items that the rest of the world couldn’t care less about.

After twelve years of ministry, I was thoroughly sold on why the church matters. I remain sold, but I understand much better why many people see little need for it. It’s not just the endless committees or the busyness. It’s not even the judgmentalism and hate that seem to dominate the headlines. It’s also the fact that community, and the opportunity to give back in meaningful ways, can be found in so many different places now. (I wrote about this on my own blog last year.)

I don’t know how long this chapter of my life will last. Like the aspiring improviser that I am, I’m taking things one step at a time, without needing to know what’s coming down the road.