I was talking with a friend recently about a setback in her running. By the time it’s all said and done, she will be sidelined for half a year, unable to run at all, and the thought of having to start over is really bumming her out.
I could relate, having been through my own time of injury and rebuilding from scratch. And maybe we can all relate, whether we run or not. Pretty much everyone knows what it’s like to have plans derailed, to have to start over, or to find ourselves on a completely different path than the one we’d hoped to travel. I’ve been reading Sheryl Sandberg’s Option B, about coming to terms with the unexpected death of her husband. The book is full of wisdom for life’s adversities, however large or small. It also covers similar ground to my book on improv as a life practice, so it’s a good one to tide you over until mine comes out next year! (And if anyone knows Sandberg and could put me in touch with her, I’d love to give her an advance copy.)
I read recently about Willie Stewart, a young, talented rugby player until a horrific construction accident caused him to lose his left arm. For some two years, he laid about, devastated at the loss of the life he’d known, the life that would never be his. (Who could blame him?)
Eventually he found his way back into sports, this time setting his sights on triathlon. He learned to swim and bike with just one arm. This was in the 1980s, when there wasn’t as much support and encouragement for athletes with disabilities. He was determined to compete in the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii.
Finally in 2002, Stewart found himself in the front row of swimmers, determined to match his strength, endurance and focus against the most able-bodied athletes. He finished in the top third of competitors, and went on to have a fruitful career with many other honors and accolades, inspiring others.
Occasionally, a fan or friend will say to Stewart, “Imagine what you could have done if you hadn’t lost your arm!” Imagine, indeed.
And his answer is always the same:
“I wouldn’t have done any of it.”
To come to terms with life as it is, rather than life as we thought it might be, is a holy struggle and a lifelong pursuit. May we find the courage not only to survive, but to thrive.
By request, here is the sermon I preached on Wonder Woman two Sundays ago. This isn’t exactly what was said, but a close approximation. If you read my article for the Presbyterian Outlook, you will recognize some of those ideas, which I expand upon.
MaryAnn McKibben Dana
St. Matthew Presbyterian Church
July 9, 2017
31 ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.” 41Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”44Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” 45Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’
I had a friend some years ago, an older gentleman, who would answer the question “How are you?” with “Better than I deserve.” It always made me chuckle, wondering what kind of trouble he was getting into that he somehow escaped unscathed. I would also flash back to Reformed Theology class with George Stroup at Columbia Seminary and the idea of unmerited grace. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” Paul reminds us in Romans, and our Brief Statement of Faith bluntly agrees: “We deserve God’s condemnation.” The redemption Christ offers us is better than we deserve.
I was amused to hear my friend’s greeting echoed in the recent Wonder Woman movie, in a toast that three good-hearted scoundrels share with one another:
Wonder Woman, or Diana as she’s known in the film, is raised by a tribe of Amazons on the island of Themyscira, and their mission is to fight on behalf of humanity. Specifically, the Amazons believe that Ares, the god of war, has ensnared humankind in endless conflict, and once Ares is defeated, an era of peace will reign. Diana takes on this mission after meeting Steve Trevor, an American soldier who’s been spying on the Germans on behalf of the British in World War I. It’s “the war to end all wars,” Trevor tells Diana, and that’s all the invitation brave Diana needs to leave Themyscira and take on Ares—and thus, to defeat war itself.
Late into the movie, a character tries to convince Diana that humanity is not worth her heroism—they are savages, prone to tear one another apart, with or without Ares. They are getting what’s coming to them, the character says; leave them to their self-imposed suffering and don’t be sullied by their sins. Diana’s own mother says as much to her: “They don’t deserve you.”
Is that true? Do we deserve to be left alone in our suffering, forced to find our way without any higher sense of guidance or hope?
In my more cynical moments, and steeped in the news of the day, I can’t disagree. I look at each new atrocity we commit against one another—the erosion of kindness, our contempt for the natural creation, the -isms that stubbornly cling to us despite the fact that we should really know better by now—and I think, “Jesus died for this?!” Surely there’s some other two-bit planet in the universe that needs redeeming, and yet is slightly more worthy of the gift than we numbskull earthlings.
* * *
In today’s scripture, we’re told that there will be a grand sorting in the kingdom of God. Some, like sheep, will be gathered to Jesus’ right hand, having succeeded to feed the hungry and visit the stranger. Others, the goats, will be on his left hand, punished for having failed to feed, clothe and visit.
So… the question inevitably hangs in the air at this point…
Which are we? Sheep or goats?
Well, let’s find out. Should be simple enough. I’d like you to raise your hand if you’ve ever given food to a hungry person, or offered clothing to someone who had little, or if you’ve visited a stranger or someone who was sick, or given water to a thirsty person.
Impressive show of hands.
Now I’d like to ask you to raise your hand if you’ve ever failed to give food to a hungry person, or failed to offer clothing to someone who had little, or failed to visit the stranger or the sick, or not given water to a thirsty person.
So many hands! Well, this complicates things. And if I’m honest, I’ve been in the second category way more often than the first.
We don’t “deserve” saving… and yet the gift is given nonetheless.
Diana feels a sense of responsibility to protect humanity—it’s her reason for being, the pivotal moment she’s been training for her whole life. “Who would I be if I stay [on Themyscira]?” she asks her mother. For Diana, whether the world “deserves” her is irrelevant. She loves the world, and has the power to intervene on its behalf, and so she will. (Sound like someone we know?)
At a pivotal moment in the movie, Diana takes a stand against this business of deserving. She says, “It’s not about what you deserve. It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love.”
* * *
Gerard Hughes writes a little piece about God, comparing him to a character Hughes calls Good Old Uncle George. I wonder if he is a familiar character to some of you:
Good Old Uncle George is the relative that our parents takes us to visit, who they describe as very loving and very powerful. And when we come to visit, he tells us how happy he is to see us, and then says, “Now I want you to visit me every week, and let me show you what will happen if you don’t.” And he takes us down to his basement, where we hear the most awful screams and feel the heat of his fiery furnace, and we see the torment on the people’s faces. And then we head home clutching our mother and father’s hand, and they say, “Oh, don’t you just love Uncle George with all your heart and soul, mind and strength?” And the truth is that we detest the man, but we know we can’t say that. And from a young age a strange “religious schizophrenia” sets in. We know we are supposed to love him, but in reality, we are terrified and repulsed by this man. (paraphrased from Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God by Dennis, Matthew and Sheila Linn)
If you have a view of God that looks like Good Old Uncle George, you’re going to read this text as a warning of what will happen if you stray just a little bit from the right path.
But if your view of God is different—if you believe that it’s not about what you deserve, but what you believe, and if you believe in the power of love—you’re going to read this text differently.
Maybe Jesus preaches a strong word about sheep and goats, NOT because he’s Good Old Uncle George trying to smite us the minute we slip up.
Maybe he preaches sheep and goats because he cares so much about this world that he really, really wants us to know: You are always called to be sheep. You are always called upon to feed and clothe and comfort and visit. That is never not your job. That task is going to be yours for as long as you draw breath.
* * *
Several years ago, I was preparing to preach for Easter, and I had two stories I wanted to tell, and couldn’t decide which one to go with. Both helped flesh out the Easter message, that new life we yearn for, the new life that’s promised in the resurrection. One story was modest and small in scope. It was an ordinary tale of kindness, neighbor to neighbor. The other story was grand and sweeping, a dramatic tale of daring sacrifice and transformation. I became curious—what do people want to hear? The relatable tale, that feels like something we can relate to, or the dramatic story that can inspire us to risk greatly? I took an informal poll, and found that—of all the luck!—people were equally divided on what kind of stories resonate with us.
I saw a similar tension play out in the story of Wonder Woman. When Diana first meets Steve Trevor, he explains why he is fighting in the war: “My father told me once, he said, ‘If you see something wrong happening in the world, you can either do nothing, or you can do something.’ And I already tried nothing.”
And so for a lot of the movie. Diana is kind of tagging along, as the various characters put these little plans in place to try to do their own small part, to do something to try to help end the conflict. They come to a place along No Man’s Land in an entire town is suffering and held captive. Diana desperately wants to help this little town, but the other characters, armed with their “something,” tell her no. We need to keep going. Let’s just do our small part. Let’s stay focused on our own contribution. We can’t save everyone.
And Diana says No: I’m tired of doing Something. I’m tired of playing small. It’s time to do everything. All of the things! It’s time to give everything I have to the people who need me right here, right now.
And she steps out of that trench and steps into her own power. She becomes who she was created to be—she becomes Wonder Woman.
And later in the movie, the man who was content just to do something, ends up making a profound sacrifice. Because she gave everything she had, he was inspired to give everything he had.
And so, are we called to the small faithful gesture, or the bold sacrifice of faith? It has to be both. We live in the space, the “no man’s land,” between Something, and Everything… knowing we can only do what we can do, but knowing there will be times when we’re called to sacrifice everything we can possibly give.
Jesus sets a high bar in this text. Everyone we feed, or fail to feed, or clothe, or fail to clothe, or visit, or ignore, is Christ himself. And that is the challenge of our faith. But the one who judges us was also himself judged, found guilty, and suffered the depths of human pain. He was arrested in prison—sick from being beaten—and nobody came to visit him. He was thirsty on that cross and they didn’t give him water, they gave him sour wine. He was naked, and they did not clothe him, in fact they divided up his clothes to keep for themselves. He was a stranger to them.
But his story transcends all of that. His resurrection doesn’t just change some of the things. It changes everything. We need not fear death and darkness and deserved judgment, because they are not the whole story.
The whole story is love and life and transformation and hope.
It’s a story we know well, and one we can never fully know, but we glimpse just enough of it to feed and clothe and quench and visit and heal another day.
The story lives in the words of preacher William Sloane Coffin, who used to bless his congregations at the end of worship with these words:
May God give you grace never to sell yourself short.
Grace to risk something big for something good.
And grace to remember that the world is too dangerous for anything but truth,
And too small for anything but love.
I’m a sucker for the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. So many iconic scenes, but probably my favorite is one that goes by in an instant. I love it because I can relate to it so strongly.
George Bailey lives with his family in a big drafty house that’s got its share of quirks. And because George is an Order Muppet (as opposed to a Chaos Muppet), these quirks cause him no end of frustration and angst. The scene I love is when he goes to walk upstairs but the bannister knob comes off in his hand:
The picture doesn’t do it justice, but George looks at that knob, and you can see on his face that the knob isn’t just a knob. It represents everything that is messy and slapdash about his life. It is a symbol of the utter pandemonium he lives with, as a father of four who doesn’t make quite enough money to feel secure, and who feels the weight of the family business and indeed the whole community on his shoulders. How can I save the Building & Loan when I can’t even get this stupid home repair done??
A bannister knob represents all that? Yes, because Jimmy Stewart is a great actor and he makes that three-second scene work.
And because I’m an Order Muppet too and I have worn that look.
The house we inhabit is in pretty good shape–lots of pending and possible projects, as always, but basically fine. Still, the disorder takes over sometimes, usually when I’m feeling tired and overwhelmed. That’s when the pile of unfolded clothes becomes The Pile of Unfolded Clothes: a visual reminder of life’s tendency toward a chaos that will never be tamed.
My most acute source of angst has been the water/ice dispenser on our fridge. It’s one of those single-spout things in which you must press the button indicating what you want, water or ice. 90% of the time, one wants water from the dispenser, which in my mind means you should flip it back to water after you’ve dispensed ice. To me it’s the equivalent of putting the seat down on the toilet. Restore it to its default position.
The people in my house are either agnostic on this point, or they agree with me. But they do not do it, or perhaps not consistently. So I’ve been battling my family over this irritation since we moved into this house. Just switch it back to water! I say, ice all over the floor because the cubes don’t fit in the narrow top of the water bottle I’m trying to fill. With water.
I tell you this, not because I’m right and the family is wrong and I want to enlist you on my side. But to confess to you that I have carried around frustration over this issue since August of 2015.
Think about that. This has been a source of annoyance and griping for almost two years. And at some point it ceases to be my family’s problem. It’s my problem.
Or it was, until I remembered a section of the improv book I wrote (yes, I am audience member #1 for my books). It’s about the serenity prayer:
In addition to being a vital mantra in twelve-step programs, I’ve decided that the serenity prayer is also the prayer of the improviser. To me it’s the essence of yes-and: What can we change? What can we not change? OK, now what?
For some bizarre reason, my constant nagging has failed to alter behavior. (What?!? But it seemed so foolproof!) So now I’m working on reframing, like George Bailey does at the end of the movie, when he’s had his epiphany and he goes bounding up the stairs, but pauses to kiss that damn bannister knob. Because now it represents home and family and messy reality that he wouldn’t trade for the world.
Now when I go to get some water and I hear that familiar grinding of the ice machine, I think about the smoothies Robert makes in the morning, full of protein powder and fruit and kale (KALE?!?), and how they give him energy to work out and thrive at work and be present for our family. And I think about my kids, and how they drink ice water without complaint, despite probably preferring us to stock a bunch of soft drinks. I think particularly about my nine-year-old son, who comes home from school, gets himself some graham crackers and a string cheese, fills a big glass with cubes of ice, and proceeds to suck on them while he reads, his legs tucked underneath him on the couch.
I would say this reframing is successful 42.7% of the time. But it’s a start. And major progress for this recovering Order Muppet.
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I recently got back from a week in the Texas Hill Country, where I was keynote speaker for the Mo-Ranch Women’s Conference. We had a Tuesday-Thursday session and a Friday-Sunday one, with about 300 women total between the two groups. (I also got some running done, as you can see!)
I usually prefer it when event planners come up with the theme themselves, and this one was a winner: A Durable Fabric: Frayed But Not Afraid. The fabric imagery provided numerous opportunities to explore the theme—threads, if you will…
Our leadership team (music leader, worship leader/preacher, and me) met several times via conference call. From the beginning, we knew we wanted to do something with burlap. We ended up cutting a bunch of burlap squares, which we gave to the participants on the first night of the conference. The first night’s keynote was titled “A People A-Frayed,” and we explored various aspects of our frayed-ness: a polarized country, brokenness in relationships, information overload, the pace of change, and a sense of overwhelm. Participants were encouraged to “worry” their burlap cloth—fraying the ends, removing strands, creating holes.
At the end of the first evening, our worship leader invited us to hold the burlap up to the light and look through. It is in our frayed places, she said—the holes, the unraveling spots—that the light is able to shine through the brightest. (A nod to Leonard Cohen!) And for the remainder of the conference, we made an intentional choice not to talk in terms of repairing our frayed places. Instead, we explored various tools that we have at our disposal as we live within the frayed-ness that on some level is always with us. Our lives are complicated and imperfect—there’s no simple way to patch them up. Better to embrace what is, and to seek God’s healing and grace in the midst of it all.
These tools for the journey included faith, empathy and courage. I talked about faith as a practice—a process of embracing mystery and living within limitations. After all, if we know exactly where we’re headed, and we have everything we need to get there, we don’t need faith!
We viewed and discussed the wonderful TED talk from artist Phil Hansen, called Embrace the Shake. If you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth the ten minutes to see it. (It’s also very entertaining to watch!)
For the next keynote, we turned to the practice of empathy. I told the amazing story of Keshia Thomas, an African-American high school student from Ann Arbor who threw her body on top of a white supremacist and shielded him from attack during a protest. And we watched a video featuring Brené Brown in a discussion of empathy, and talked in small groups about how to show authentic compassion for ourselves and others:
The final tool we explored for living within frayed-ness was courage. Our worship leader/preacher took the lead on this session and preached a dynamite sermon based on the Pentecost scripture text—the story of the Holy Spirit being poured out upon a bunch of unwitting disciples.
Throughout the weekend, participants were invited to embellish their burlap with buttons, beads, feathers and yarn. We displayed these burlap creations, which turned out more beautiful and poignant than we could possibly have imagined:
One woman who had recently been laid off decorated hers with detritus from her purse, including a now-outdated business card (obscured for privacy) and a bandaid to represent the need for healing:
Another woman came to the conference with a knitting project, a prayer shawl for a loved one. During the weekend she felt moved to knit strands of the burlap into the shawl—a visual representation of the frayed-ness we all experience, and the ways that those frayed places can still be woven into something whole.
This is why I love what I do. During retreats, people leave their everyday world behind, breathe deeply, and engage their lives completely differently, and I hope, return home renewed and ready for the transformation of the Spirit. It was a joy to be part of this gathering!
No retreat on the calendar? How about a DIY option? I invite you to spend some time thinking about your own frayed-ness. Maybe find a piece of cloth and “worry” it. Decorate it with symbols of your life. And consider the tools you might need to move forward: faith, empathy, and courage.
This reflection went out to my email newsletter last week. I can never predict which reflections will touch a nerve, but this one did–I received a lots of responses, so I thought I’d share it here as well.
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It has been a lovely and full spring. I am currently with a group of clergy for “preacher camp,” a week of study using papers that we write about the scripture texts for the coming year. It is a rich week, with lots of laughter. We begin each morning with a short informal worship service, which I’m leading this year. The theme is PLAY, and we are doing improv games together! It’s been a fun experiment to get out of our heads and into our bodies.
Speaking of bodies…
I wanted to share with you a moment that won’t let me go lately. I recently took my kids to see the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, starring Emma Watson. I was expecting to enjoy the movie for what it was—a fun diversion on a low-energy afternoon of Spring Break. I didn’t expect to receive a deeper back story for many of the characters, including the staff of the Beast’s household, now trapped in the form of various household objects. There’s even an explanation for why they were cursed along with the Beast. And unlike the 1992 animated movie, in which these talking objects were kind of cute and funny, I found myself feeling great empathy for these people whose flesh and blood had been taken away from them and who were now… a clock. A feather duster. A harpsichord.
My empathy came to a head at the end of the movie, when the teapot, Mrs. Potts, is released from her curse. Her son Chip, who has been a teacup all this time, is nowhere to be found, and Mrs. Potts begins desperately searching for him. Finally they find one another and collide into one another’s arms, overjoyed to be whole again. In the flurry of this reunion, Mrs. Potts (played by the amazing Emma Thompson) says a line—so fast that you could easily miss it—that made the breath catch in my throat and tears spring to my eyes. (Darn you Disney!)
The line was, “You smell so good!!”
Like Mrs. Potts, I am the mother of a young boy, and the top of his his head is one of the best, sweetest, earthiest smells I know. And for now, my nine-year-old’s crown of tousled hair reaches right under my nose—I know in time I will need to ask him to bend down to let me have a whiff of it, and by then, he won’t want me to. I have also known parents who have lost children, who miss so many things about them, and who would give anything for one more inhale of their child’s fleshy uniqueness.
For much of my life, I was oriented toward pursuits of the mind: I was diligent in school. I’m a writer. I study theology and scripture. I also grew up in a church whose theology taught that the body was connected to sin and shame. As a result, I often viewed my body as merely the container that carried my brain around. Now I am a runner and triathlete, and I do improvisation, a very body-oriented pursuit. I reject that body-shaming theology of my childhood.
Part of that journey has been coming to terms with my body’s limitations, which only increase as we age. I’m spending way more time with doctors on preventive medicine than I used to! But there is also great joy in becoming more “embodied”—in enjoying simple physical pleasures of life. A perfect little piece of dark chocolate. The feel of cool bathroom tile under bare feet in the morning. Laughing so hard with friends that I literally fall onto the floor. (Those were all this week!)
What about you? What simple embodied joys are catching your attention lately?