Category Archives: Ministry

Fight the Power: A Sermon Preached at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church

360625-nyc-power-outageThis fall, the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church has been engaged in a sermon series, New York Gods, about the idols and false gods we often construct for ourselves. I was invited to preach the final sermon in the series. It was also Christ the King Sunday, so I chose to talk about the idol of Power.

You can also listen to the sermon here.

MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church
November 22, 2015
Christ the King Sunday

John 18:33-38a

33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ 34Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ 35Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ 36Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ 37Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ 38Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’


The year was 1925. The place, Italy. A new prime minister named Benito Mussolini was orchestrating a series of steps to increase his power. He and his National Fascist Party had overthrown the existing prime minister a few years earlier, and he had convinced the legislature to give him dictatorial powers. Using both military might and parliamentary maneuvers, Mussolini and the fascists were consolidating their power, demanding absolute allegiance, and systematically destroying their opposition.

That same year, 1925, an encyclical was published by Pope Pius XI. This little document, nothing more than a pamphlet really, did two primary things: one, it announced to the world that there was only one supreme ruler of the world, and that ruler was not Mussolini, not a political party or fascist ideology. That supreme ruler was Jesus Christ: Christ the King.

The other thing that the pope’s statement did was establish a holy day in the church, a day in which the church would proclaim with one voice that Christ is Lord of our lives. That day is called Christ the King Sunday, and 90 years later, Mussolini is long gone, but here we are, still singing majestic hymns about Christ the King, still reading scriptures affirming the kingship of Christ. As my friend Joe Clifford tells his church in Dallas every year on this Sunday, “Grace and Peace in the name of Jesus Christ, the leader of the free world.”

Is that who Christ is? That’s what Pilate is trying to find out. He asks him point blank, “Are you a king?” They have a little back and forth and still Jesus doesn’t answer the question… but then he does, but in a strange way. He doesn’t say “Yes,” he doesn’t say “No,” he instead describes his kingdom. He says twice, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Only when Pilate asks him again, “Are you a king,” does Jesus say yes, sort of: “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, to testify to the truth.”

It’s as if Jesus is saying, “It’s less important to me whether you think I’m a king, and more important that you know the dimensions of my kingdom… in fact, don’t call me a king unless you understand what kind of king I am.”

So what kind of king is he? What kind of power does this king have?

It’s an important question, this question of power. Because here we are in one of the power centers of the world. I happen to live in another of those cities, Washington DC. And I stand here today very aware, one week after Paris, that your city and my city know something, perhaps, of what the people of Paris are experiencing right now. In these incredible seats of power, we know that while we live in hubs of business and finance and global communication and politics, we are still fragile human beings, flesh and blood and bone, and tears. Our prestigious positions, and our advanced degrees, and the majestic buildings in which we live and work and worship, will not ultimately protect us from harm.

We know that what happened in Paris and Beirut, and then Mali this week, is not just an affront to the Prince of Peace and the King of Glory whose praises we sing here today. What happened in those places, and in too many others to mention, is an affront to basic human decency and it must be resisted with every bit of courage we have and fought with every bit of peace-building energy we can ask God to grant us.

But how? If we are subjects in a kingdom that is not of this world, what kind of power do we wield?

I keep thinking about 1920s Italy, Mussolini’s incredible rise to power, and it seems so strange and touching that the church responded to this… with a position paper. What kind of power could a church policy paper have in the face of such twisted evil? It seems like such a feeble protest. The rise of Fascism, and what does the church do? It institutes a new holiday.

What kind of power is that?

I don’t know how many scientists we have here, but I hope those who are here will permit me to borrow some of their language as we unpack this business about power. Because physicists will tell you that there are two primary equations to describe power.

The first one is
Power = Force x Velocity. Force x Velocity.

So power comes when we push something with a certain amount of oomph (that’s the scientific term) and we do it with a certain amount of speed.

So by this equation, if we want to maximize our power, if we want to be power-full, we want to push hard, and we want to push fast. The harder we push and the faster we go, the more power we yield.

And I think this is the way we usually think of power. This is the equation of overwhelming force. Quick action. My way or the highway. Get on board or get out of the way. Flatten the opposition. Push. Achieve. Mission accomplished. Close our borders, shut down the mosques, and flatten Syria into a parking lot.

That kind of power can feel very satisfying. But to borrow Scott’s language from earlier in this series, this kind of power can whispers false comfort in our ears.

Force x Velocity is a particularly potent temptation on days that end in body counts.

Barbara Brown Taylor has pointed out that “Jesus is not brought down by atheism and anarchy. He is brought down by law and order allied with religion, which is always a deadly mix. Beware of those who claim to know the mind of God and who are prepared to use force, if necessary, to make others conform. Beware of those who cannot tell God’s will from their own. Temple police are always a bad sign. When chaplains start wearing guns and hanging out at the sheriff’s office, watch out.”[i]

The Reign of God does not run on that kind of power. It does not run on Force x Velocity.

In fact, Jesus’ kingdom has none of the usual stuff we think of when we picture a kingdom. There is no opulent palace, royal intrigues and scandals, no power plays, no aristocratic class. No, the chief currency of Jesus’ kingdom is this weird idea of truth. “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” And Pilate asks him the famous question, “What is truth?”

Frederick Buechner imagines this conversation taking place between Jesus and Pilate and says, “Jesus doesn’t answer Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” He just stands there. Stands, and stands there.[ii]

Truth is not a what, as Pilate’s question suggests, but the truth is a Who.
The Who is the King of the Jews, not a ruler from on high, but a Palestinian Jew who spent his toddler years as a refugee in Egypt.

And right there is the paradox of Christ the King Sunday:
Not a posturing king on a throne, but a peasant on a cross.
Not a military general who calls us to arms,
but a nomadic carpenter who said “take up your cross.”
Not a political leader with his own platform and campaign website,
But a person who said, “I am the truth. And I am the life. And I am the way.”

I am the way, and the world you see around you, churning along dysfunctionally, is not the way the world should be. Look at my life, Jesus says, and you will see a template for how the world is supposed to be.

Theologian David Lose suggests that we have to look at the action in this scene to get at what’s really going on. If it were playing out on a stage, “the stage would be split in two. One half would be occupied by Pilate’s headquarters; the other half would be devoted to the portico, or patio, just outside his headquarters.” Standing on the patio are the religious leaders who have brought Jesus to Pilate. Standing inside is Jesus.

The scene begins, then, with Pilate coming out to greet the religious leaders. And then Pilate goes back in to Jesus. Then he goes back out to the mob. Then back to Jesus. All told, Pilate moves between his headquarters and the patio not once, not twice, not even three times, but a total of seven times. “That’s right,” David Lose says, “Pilate wavers back and forth between Jesus and his accusers like a drunken sailor trying to walk from the pub back to his ship.”[iii]

And that’s just the point. Pilate wavers: he knows what is right…but he also knows what is easy, what is politically expedient.

The crowds are shouting:
Hit him hard!
Hit him fast!
Crucify him!
Force x Velocity!

And then there’s Jesus. Just standing there in a different kind of power.

The physicists know. I told you there were two ways of calculating power. The first as we’ve said is Power = Force x Velocity.

The second equation is Power = Work divided by Time.
Work divided by Time, or in the shorthand, Work Over Time.

Now we’re getting somewhere! Work over time does not posture. It doesn’t bluster. It doesn’t favor the quick forceful action over everything else. Work over time is Jesus’ way of wielding power.

Force x Velocity would be Jesus punching Pilate in the throat and escaping the palace, gathering his followers and taking up arms, staging a surprise guerrilla uprising against Rome. But that’s not the equation of Jesus.

Instead, power looks like a last supper with friends in which Jesus breaks bread and pours wine and says all the things that need to be said. Power means not resisting when the mob comes to arrest you. Power is declaring forgiveness in the final faltering breaths. Power is new life bursting forth from the grave; power is a church that gets it wrong sometimes but oh when we get it right you’ve got to shield your eyes from the brilliance of it; power is that we’re still here 2,000 years later, fighting evil with good, feeding the hungry and caring for the stranger. Work over Time… Work over Time.

Work over time takes the long view instead of being seduced by the idol of the quick fix. It’s hearts and minds. It’s a pamphlet proclaiming Christ as King in the wake of a Fascist dictator rising to power. Today it’s the Catholic Bishops and the mainline denominations, and the National Association of Evangelicals speaking with one voice about the plight of Syrian refugees (and when have we ever gotten the evangelicals and the mainliners to agree about anything?!), and they’re saying that we may be scared, and we need to be thoughtful and thorough in our processes, but we cannot close our hearts and doors to those who are vulnerable and literally running for their lives.

Jesus’ power, Work over Time, is what Eugene Peterson has called a long obedience in the same direction. It’s figuring out what our work is and doing it quietly but relentlessly day after day, because Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, which means it’s just beyond our grasp… but not beyond our imagining.

I’m always interested in what gets passed around social media following a major world event such as the Paris attacks. You often see Mr. Rogers quote about finding the helpers. But the other one I saw a lot this week comes from Rabbi Tarfon, who says, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

That is the power of the kingdom of God. Work over Time.

It’s the power of a man named Jadav Payeng, whom some people know as Forest Man. You can learn about him in a short documentary of that name.

Forest Man lives on Majuli Island in India, nothing more than a sandbar, really, home to about 150,000 people, but due to terrible erosion, it’s half the size it used to be.

Spurred by the dire situation, Payeng transformed himself into a modern day Johnny Appleseed and singlehandedly planted thousands upon thousands of plants, to try to halt the erosion. He started this work in the 70s.

Payeng’s work has been credited with significantly fortifying the island, while providing a habitat for several endangered animals which have returned to the area; a herd of nearly 100 elephants (which has now given birth to an additional ten), Bengal tigers, and a species of vulture that hasn’t been seen on the island in over 40 years.

Imagine a forest that’s larger than Central Park, all planted by one man, living a long obedience in the same direction.

That’s power. Work over time.

You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.

Do justly, now.

Love mercy, now.

Walk humbly, now.


Image: View from the Empire State Building showing the power divide in New York City after Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Picture: Tom Hussey.



[ii] from Buechner’s Peculiar Treasures



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


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

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.


[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.


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

On Being a Nerd Pastor


A while back I led a retreat with some United Church of Christ pastors and asked them the icebreaker question, “What’s saving your life right now?” (Thank you for that, Barbara Brown Taylor.) One of the women said, “Just a few more days until I get to go to Comic Con!”

Pastors are naturally bookish sorts–in many cases, our training involves an advanced degree, often including the study of ancient languages. But I meet a lot of pastors who are also interested in things that have been traditionally classified as nerd/geek things: comic books, cosplay, science fiction/fantasy, and so forth. I haven’t quite parsed whether pastors are more nerdy overall, or my pastoral circles happen to trend that way, or whether the culture at large is becoming more embracing of nerd culture, or at least, diversifying enough that nerds can find one another.

The other day I posted to Twitter that I was thinking about writing an article about nerd pastors. Who do I need to talk to? I asked… and was flooded with responses. One person said, “@RevHez1 has been working on a theory that fandom = ekklesia.” Another sent me a keynote address he’d offered to a group of pastoral counselors called “Confessions of an American Nerd.” Aric Clark has his LectionARIC YouTube channel that promises to meld scripture with pop culture/”geeky” content. There’s the Church of the Geek podcast. There’s GeekdomHouse, which has this to say on its About page:

Our belief is that by engaging and participating in all aspects of life—physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual— we can strengthen and enrich communities that already exist through our love of geekery. George MacDonald, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis are prime examples of people who contributed excellence to the community while allowing for things like faith, ethics, and creativity to interact with one another.

Tolkien and Lewis: serious church nerds.

From time to time, the annual gathering for NEXT Church (which I co-chaired for two years) gets called “the cool kids conference.” This always makes me laugh, because in my entire life, I have never been cool.

That said, I sometimes hold off on calling myself a nerd/geek. Not because I’m too cool for that, because see above, but because nerd/geek sometimes implies a level of knowledge I don’t feel I can claim. I love the Lord of the Rings movies, and have preached sermons on them, but I couldn’t make it through the books. I love a good superhero blockbuster (and preached a series called “Parables and Pop Culture,” which included two weeks on comic book superheroes) but I don’t read comic books myself.

But is nerddom about a specific body of knowledge, or is it an orientation? Glen Weldon, a frequent panelist on Pop Culture Happy Hour and author of Superman, The Unauthorized Biography, is writing a book about nerd culture through the lens of Batman fandom. He says the basic quality of the nerd is enthusiasm–a pure joy that makes you want to delve deep into your particular area of interest. Nerds aren’t posers–those people who scoff when “everyone” has discovered the obscure band, TV show or book that they loved and considered special because it was obscure and quirky. Nerds want to share the object of their enthusiasm with the world. Operating under that definition, incidentally, we need more nerd pastors in the church.

What do you think? Where do you see intersections between nerddom/geekdom, spirituality and faith?


Image is from XKCD.

On Caitlyn Jenner, and Pastoring a Transgender Person

150601-caitlyn-jenner-jsw-1240p_f905633d5cc73c24b5c0da7bc2ade414.nbcnews-fp-1200-800The Internet is awash with reactions to Caitlyn Jenner’s photos in Vanity Fair magazine. Some thoughtful stuff, and plenty that’s predictably… less than thoughtful. I write this post with some trepidation, because there’s still much for me to learn, and I hope those who have walked this road will offer correction with a generous spirit, for it’s in that spirit that I write this. This tip sheet from GLAAD is helpful.

I had the opportunity to provide pastoral support to someone as she made a male-to-female transition. Her story is hers to tell, but this is a little of mine as I walked with her. (She was not on the membership rolls of any church I served. I say that to protect her identity and so people don’t go wondering and digging. I’ll call her Jade.)

I felt this person’s anguish as we met over a period of months. It seems hard enough to be gay or lesbian, to go against society’s default expectations and perhaps one’s upbringing, to experience discrimination and sometimes harassment. But to be transgender–for one’s body not to conform to what one knows so deeply to be true of oneself–seems a particularly tough burden. Violence against transgender people is proportionally high. For many (though not all) transgender people, the answer is surgery, or as I learned, surgeries. And of course, these procedures are expensive and very involved, and thus out of reach for many people.

The person I met with asked me over and over again, “Am I a mistake? Does God make mistakes?” As someone who tries to be not only a straight ally, but a straight Christian ally, these questions felt important and agonizing. I read up on Christian resources for transgender people, and we talked a lot about Jesus’ ministry with society’s “misfits and outcasts.” We read the story of the Ethiopian eunuch, which to me is a clear sign that grace is a gift offered to sexual minorities too. Mainly I told her that the God I believe in loves us all unconditionally and wants shalom–wholeness–for us all.

The first time we met, when she was still contemplating a physical transition and what it might mean, I prayed for her by name—her female name. When she raised her head her eyes were filled with tears. “I am Jade. That’s who I am.”

I’ll be honest. It didn’t feel comfortable—I previously knew this person by a male name. But it was right. And this is what we do as pastors, isn’t it? It’s not about our own comfort. It’s about naming the grace of God that we are all living toward. It’s about claiming the abundant life that Jesus promises.

And Jade claimed that abundant life. It wasn’t easy and it still isn’t. Loved ones don’t always get it. Family systems are complicated. But when I saw her after one of her surgeries, I couldn’t believe the transformation. I’m not talking about breast augmentation and a reduced Adam’s apple. I’m talking about the peace that radiated from every pore. I’m talking about the way she carried herself. I’m talking about the carefree smile she gave me. You’d have to be blind not to see it.

Maybe, maybe, my prayer in which I invoked her new name was a gift to her. But that last meeting we had was a gift to me, because I saw wholeness and transformation in the flesh. I still don’t understand being transgender. Is it a quirk of evolutionary biology? But I don’t have to understand it. My job is to point to abundant life, and then to celebrate as Jade and others seek to embody it.

In the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, there’s a saying, “Happy, joyous and free.” The gospel isn’t the gospel unless it moves us toward happy, joyous and free. That’s all I know.