Category Archives: Spiritual Stuff

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



What’s Saving Me: The Five Minute Journal

This week I’m over at the NEXT Church blog. This fall they’ve asked a number of leaders to respond to the question, “What is saving your ministry right now?” Here’s my offering.

What’s saving my ministry these days is a five minute journaling practice I’ve been doing each morning (and most evenings) for the past few months. I’ve tried various journaling methods off and on for years. Something about holding the pen in my hand allows me to focus my prayers in a way my monkey mind can’t do by simply sitting quietly. And now that I work from home “for myself,” I have lots of possible things vying for my attention and time. I was looking for something short and focused that could bring clarity and discernment to my day.

8Y0EDX4VP9Many of us are familiar with Julia Cameron’s morning pages, which she calls her “spiritual windshield wipers.” This practice serves the same purpose, but instead of writing stream of consciousness, I write short pithy statements. Whereas morning pages are like an epic poem, this is journaling as haiku. I adapted it from Tim Ferriss, an author and entrepreneur. He’s a little too “guru” for me, but I think he’s hit upon a good structure to get the day started with intention.

Here are the questions for the morning:

Three things for which I’m grateful:

Three things that would make this a fruitful day: These don’t have to be things I want to accomplish, but they usually are. Most of us have way more than three things on our daily to-do list, so it helps to be clear on the most essential items.

An affirmation: 
I am…
I have three kids, so “patience” shows up a lot here.

I’m curious about:
This is something I’ve added recently, thanks to Brené Brown’s work. This is often where I think about my reactions to things and wonder “What was THAT about?!” 

As for the evening practice, it is similar:

Three things to celebrate about the day:

One thing I could have done better:

Those of you who know the Ignatian examen will recognize threads of this practice in these questions. The questions are framed in terms of gratitude, and there is ample space to acknowledge the times I’ve fallen short—to see them written in my own hand, and to let those moments go—to let God absorb and hopefully transform them.

Read This Now: Brené Brown’s Rising Strong

Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 2.11.38 PMBrené Brown certainly doesn’t need me to hawk her books–she is dizzyingly popular right now. But her latest book has been my favorite by far. It is Rising Strong and deals with how people come back from failure in a creative and healthy way.

In some ways, the book covers similar territory as her previous ones, especially Daring Greatly. There are a few basic themes that come up again and again in her research and writing:

  • Wholehearted people are able to face their dark places in their lives, because they know deep down that they are worthy of love and belonging.
  • Our power comes from living authentically, not from hiding our faults and flaws and hoping nobody notices.
  • We can’t numb the negative emotions without also numbing the positive ones.

Chapter Six, Sewer Rats and Scofflaws, is funny and profound and is worth the price of the book in itself. In it Brown talks about her own tendency to judge others and stew in her own self-righteousness. She describes an encounter with a boorish roommate at a conference–a conference she didn’t even want to speak at in the first place, but felt guilted into saying yes to. (This is an important detail; more later.)

I’ve said many times that Brené Brown is the older sister I never had. I suspect a lot of us feel that way. Given how much this roommate raised MY hackles, and how cringingly funny Brené’s subsequent reactions were, it was clear this chapter could have been written for me. How dare she trash the couch in the hotel! And smoke in the non-smoking section! She might as well have titled the chapter “Sewer Rats and Scofflaws: Listen Up, MaryAnn.”

The roommate experience lands her in her therapist’s office, who asks her to consider a simple question: Are people basically doing the best they can? And her therapist admits that for her, the answer is yes: while we can always grow and improve as people, and we should, it’s possible that the boorish roommate is using the tools and resources she has to try and make her way in the world.

Brown is disgusted with the thought: how can wiping Cinnabon icing on a hotel couch be one’s best? (Preach it, sis!) And then she starts asking around, hoping to bolster her own view: Do you think everyone is doing the best they can? She begins to notice that everyone who thinks people aren’t doing their best are hard, unequivocal and judgy in their responses. By contrast, here’s what she says about the people who believe people are doing their best:

They were slow to answer and seemed almost apologetic, as if they had tried to persuade themselves otherwise, but just couldn’t give up on humanity. They were also careful to explain that it didn’t mean that people can’t grow or change. Still, at any given time, they figured, people are normally doing the best they can with the tools they have.

Every participant who answered “yes” was in the [research] group of people who I had identified as wholehearted— people who are willing to be vulnerable and who believe in their self-worth. They offered examples of situations where they made mistakes or didn’t show up as their best selves, but rather than pointing out how they could and should have done better, they explained that, while falling short, their intentions were good and they were trying.

In short, Brown realized that the people who were willing to extend grace (my language) to their fellow human beings–and to themselves–seemed happier, better adjusted and wholehearted. It almost didn’t matter whether people really were doing their best–treating them as if they were, deciding to view life that way, led to better outcomes. By contrast:

Self-righteousness starts with the belief that I’m better than other people, and it always ends with me being my very worst self and thinking, I’m not good enough. 

Now, Brown is clear that just because people may be doing their best doesn’t mean you must let them walk all over you. You need a combination of boundaries, integrity and generosity (what she calls living BIG) in order to deal with people whose “best” is in some way harmful to you. Remember when I said she was feeling resentful about having been guilted into doing this conference in the first place? She set herself up for the self-righteous loop she got stuck in by not practicing self-care, by not setting good boundaries.

This chapter spoke to me because like Brené Brown I’m a recovering perfectionist, and perfectionists are all about the Not Good Enough that then gets projected onto everyone else. But I’ve also been struck by how much this dynamic is reflected in how we treat one another these days, particularly online. Since reading this chapter, I’ve realized that virtually every snarky, vicious, graceless comment can be traced to this same self-righteousness.  I refuse to give the negativity a signal boost, but look for yourself.

It makes me wonder, are these Judgy Judgersons as pinched and self-righteous in real life, with their spouses and children and coworkers and aging parents, or have they found a convenient outlet for their negativity? After all, if all you have is a name and a thumbnail, you can project all kinds of evil intent on them.

The good news is, if self-righteousness can get you into a death spiral of “I’m not good enough, nobody’s good enough,” then whole-heartedness can get you into a “life spiral.” (I just made that term up.) But making a conscious decision to give people the benefit of the doubt helps us treat ourselves more graciously, which then extends back to others, and on and on in a positive way.

I’m trying!

What do you think? Have you read the book?


Image is from Rising Strong.

Take Your Day Off. It Will Keep You Honest

13426114I’ve been doing the 2015 Reading Challenge this year, and I just finished my Book with Antonyms in the Title: The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone–Especially Ourselves by Dan Ariely. It’s a fun read, with a lot of studies to back up Ariely’s assertions, which are pretty intuitive: everybody cheats on various levels, and we have lots of ways to rationalize it.

I was especially interested in the final chapter, which addresses the role of religion in matters of honesty and integrity:

During one of our conversations, I asked Rabbi [Jonathan] Sacks to tell me which of the Ten Commandments I should keep, if I were going to focus on just one. It was another way of asking him which commandment is the most important one. What do you think his answer was? The one about not worshipping idols? The one about murder?

His answer wasn’t at all what I expected— he said that if I kept only one commandment, I should observe Shabbat. “If you keep Shabbat as a day of rest and reflection,” he said, “the rest of the commandments will most likely follow.” 

Shabbat affects those who observe it in a few ways. First, it offers an opportunity to stop and reflect. In observing this day, we can remind ourselves what we have done in the last week, what we want to do next week, and what our true values are. We can pay attention to our less-than-perfect behaviors that otherwise might go unnoticed, keeping ourselves from sliding accidentally into moral dangers.

This reflective work is exactly why so many of us resist it. Who wants to be confronted with all of our stuff!? But there’s more:

The second way Shabbat propels people to observe the other commandments is by restoring our moral energy. It’s no secret that at the end of a day or week, people often let loose (getting drunk and so on) by allowing themselves to do what their impulsive id-side has been screaming for while they were stuck in their cubicles. We saw this kind of moral exhaustion in the depletion experiment [described earlier in the book]. In that experiment, participant cheating increased after a more difficult writing task, suggesting that in daily life (even without hard writing assignments from social scientists) exhaustion can wear us right down to our ids. Ego depletion (as we call this draining effect), it turns out, affects not only whether we make good or bad decisions, but also whether we obey our consciences.

So having a time of rest gives us a spiritual reset, so our personal integrity and sense of self-control isn’t working out of deficit.

Ariely writes a lot about the financial meltdown from several years ago and scandals such as Enron, Madoff and the like. He talks about what makes it possible for someone to make catastrophic and downright dishonest decisions. He doesn’t make the connection in this chapter, but it seems clear that a culture of overwork creates a ripe environment for dishonesty.

Among industralized nations, the United States is notoriously bad on the scale of paid time off, family and sick leave and the like. This lack of policies doesn’t just make us sick, tired, less creative and less productive. It can also contribute to a sense of moral decay.

What’s the Difference Between Family Time and Sabbath?

The seven year old, reading the holy texts on a recent Sabbath...

The seven year old, reading the holy texts on a recent Sabbath…

Three years after the publication of Sabbath in the Suburbs, I continue to speak to groups about our family’s experience of taking a day each week for rest and play… which looks very different now than it did during the year-long experiment, but that’s another post.

People who’ve read the book will notice that we didn’t spend the day doing “holy” activities. We didn’t read scripture together or pray (except before meals) or even talk about God all that much. We often lit a candle to designate that this time was somehow set apart, but otherwise, there was nothing particularly religious in our observance. So what gives?

Or as many people ask me, “We already have family time together; what makes Sabbath different?”

First, I don’t believe in creating a division between so-called secular and sacred activities. In my tradition, we believe and profess that God is the Lord of our whole lives. Yes, there are times that we intentionally focus on our spiritual lives, through study or prayer or small groups or a worship service. But all of life is (or can be) an act of devotion to God as we understand God.

That said, I believe the language we use matters–in fact, what we name something changes the nature of the thing we’re naming. It’s great to have family time, and there’s nothing wrong with calling it that. But invoking the word Sabbath acknowledges that God is also present, and that the things we do during this time can nurture our spiritual lives as well as our sense of family connectedness. It gives us a different vision and perspective on that time.

The other day I was listening to Krista Tippett’s On Being interview of social scientist Ellen Langer, and they were talking about this exact phenomenon. In one study, subjects were asked to evaluate a series of jokes and cartoons. For half the group, the researchers framed the activity as work; the other half, play. Those who were told to play reported a much greater enjoyment than those who were “working” at the very same activity.

Similarly, Langer referenced a study of chambermaids–women who are on their feet all day doing constant physical labor. This group experienced actual physiological changes when they named their daily activity “exercise” rather than simply “work.” Fascinating!

So here’s an easy experiment for those of you who want to connect with this old, ancient practice that has such resonance for Jewish and Christian communities but don’t know where to start. Put the label of Sabbath on something you already do: family time, your daily ritual of tea and Sudoku, even your workout at the gym. See what changes, what feels different. See if the activity resonates on a different level. And report back!


By the way, the entire interview with Ellen Langer was fascinating. Did you know mindfulness is possible without a meditation practice?