It’s September, which means it’s Ragnar Relay time for me. Ragnar is an event in which teams of twelve people take turns running for some two days straight, through day and night, rain and shine, cold and heat. As I write this, our team is preparing to run next weekend from Cumberland, MD to Washington DC, a distance of 200 miles. Each of us will run three legs for a total of thirteen to twenty-plus miles. (I’m somewhere in the middle at eighteen.) As each runner completes their leg, vans carry the other runners to the next checkpoint, along with a considerable amount of gear. When the previous runner reaches the checkpoint, that person passes along the metal bracelet to the next runner, and off they go.
This is my fourth year to captain a Ragnar Relay team, and as I prepare this year, I can’t help but remember two years ago, when we made our race preparations with one eye on the Weather Channel. Hurricane Joaquin was wreaking havoc on the Bahamas and threatening the mid-Atlantic—exactly where we’d be running in a few days’ time. Forecasters were having a hard time predicting exactly where Joaquin would go, but it was looking more and more like we were in for a soggy race.
Rain we could handle, but what about winds? Flying debris? Flash floods? One member of our team was blunt: “I have serious concerns about doing this race.” Another quickly jumped in to agree. Others weren’t sure. They were willing to try it, but this is a team event, and they didn’t want to appear to be strong-arming the reluctant folks. Besides, wouldn’t Ragnar personnel cancel such a large endeavor if it were unsafe? They were certainly watching the weather at least as closely as we were!
Finally, as captain I felt I needed to make a call. “Anyone who feels uncomfortable with moving forward is welcome to back out with no hard feelings,” I said. “We’ll miss you, but we’ll muddle through. But as a team, we are going to proceed until it becomes clear we shouldn’t. We don’t have enough information to make the call to cancel. Things could work out fine. Or we may reach a decisive point at which it’s unsafe (or no longer fun), at which time we will stop. I trust that we’ll recognize that point when we get there. Until that time, we are moving forward.”
So we packed our vans, just like we’d planned, and we headed to Maryland. Only one of the 36 legs ended up being canceled due to water. The rest were soggy, and some were cold. But we completed the relay. One foot in front of the other, one runner at a time, with a van leapfrogging our path, we did it.
I have since come to call this approach “Go until No.” It happens often in life, that we have to make a decision without having the whole picture. My natural inclination is to stay put until I work out all the details so I can make a risk-free decision. Or I pre-emptively say no to an exciting possibility if there’s a chance it won’t work out. But sometimes we don’t get the full picture until we commit ourselves and take a step forward. As has been attributed to St. Augustine, “solvitur ambulando”: it is solved by walking.
Go until No requires you to trust that your intuition will tell you what you need to know even if it hasn’t yet. It requires you to have faith in the future—not that the future will work out the way you hope, but that it will provide the clarity you need to either keep going, change direction, or turn back.
We’ve had plenty of people come and go on our Ragnar team over our four years together. But I think it’s significant that of those twelve runners in 2015, fully seven of them have been back every year since, and an eighth one is only missing this year’s race due to a family conflict. Certainly, doing something crazy under adverse conditions—and living to tell the tale—bonds a group like few other things do. But I also like to think we grew closer because of our commitment to “Go until No.” What we did was take a leap into the unknown together—and we not only survived, but we thrived. For 200 miles.
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Here are my recaps about the 2014 and 2015 Ragnar experience.
For the past two weeks, I’ve been mulling over something I wanted to share with you.
That will have to wait for another time, because the city of my birth is underwater.
Houston is where I was born, where I went to college, where I met Robert, where we were married, where I felt the call to ministry, and where I was ordained as a minister. Those are the big life moments, but as I see pictures of submerged landmarks and read stories of heroism, I think about the countless ordinary memories that made up a pretty great life there: Humid Friday afternoons at picnic tables on the patio of the Gingerman pub, shaded by live oak trees. Heaping bowls of food at Lai Lai’s Dumpling House, with bags of leftovers at the end. The carefree joy of hopping in the car and, 45 minutes later, being on the sandy shores of the Gulf.
I’m heartened, but not surprised, to read stories of Houstonians coming together as a community. As heartbreaking as the devastation is—multiple dear friends of mine had to flee their homes clutching a backpack of possessions—there’s also something comforting in these stories of neighborliness. Our culture seems so rife with rage and rancor these days; I wonder sometimes whether we can ever be whole again. (Were we ever?) Yet as singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer likes to say, “The things that have always saved us are still here to save us.”
One of the things that saves us, again and again, is ordinary people stepping up and doing hard things. I read a story of a pastor who was stopping at every submerged car he encountered to make sure nobody was trapped inside. Recognizing the parable of the lost sheep when I see it, I shared it with the comment, “Friends, meet Jesus.”
We crave such stories. But here’s the thing. We’re in the story too. Sometimes we’re the ones needing rescue. Other times we’re the ones offering a hand. One thing we cannot afford to be is on the sidelines. Not now, not really ever.
Many Houston friends have been sharing the photo of the beloved graffiti above I-45:
I don’t know whether the message is visible in the wake of Harvey, or if it is hiding under slowly receding waters. But it’s a good reminder. There will be no superhero rescue. Yes, it’s valid to expect our leaders to be more courageous, to uphold the values we hold dear. At the same time… we’re it. We, the cranky and the capable; the MAGAs and the bleeding heart liberals, the fearful and the hopeful.
How will you be someone today? May I suggest one small action? My dollars are going to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, an organization with good transparency and a record of effectiveness. It offers resources that are practical, non-sectarian, and inclusive to all—and their work persists for years as they help communities recover and rebuild over the long haul. If not PDA, give what you can to the relief organization of your choice.
Note: This message was sent to my email newsletter this morning. If you’d like to receive twice-monthly reflections right to your inbox, subscribe.
Three weeks ago I was in the Collegeville Institute for a week of writing. It was a beautiful and restorative week, and I made some headway on book project #3.
Although the schedule in Collegeville was mostly unstructured, the group did get together in the evenings to talk writing: art, craft and business. One recurring theme was imitation–the tendency (conscious or unconscious) to emulate writers we admire. Consensus seemed to be that imitation was an inevitable part of the process of finding one’s own voice.
One morning I listened to a podcast in which Brian Doyle read from one of his novels. A character, close to death, was asked, “What mattered to you?” He proceeded to offer a litany of ordinary and extraordinary pleasures. I decided to imitate that format as a warmup exercise later that day, and here’s what emerged. I offer it to you unedited.
The crinkles around my husband’s eyes.
The shower as hot as I can stand.
The thin pink insole that slides into every brand-new pair of running shoes.
The dimple on my oldest daughter’s cheek.
The rainbow-colored array of cat ears sported by my middle daughter.
The color blue on the walls in my study.
The coarse earthiness of my son’s tousle of hair.
The hot sun slicing through a cold breeze.
The plop of almond butter into the smoothie.
Real butter melting unapologetically on the muffin or biscuit.
The word “Yes” from my mother’s mouth.
The assurance that we get better.
The bounce of patio chairs.
The words that come, sometimes haltingly, but reliably.
The sacred text that will never stop revealing something new.
The clank of the race medal placed around the neck.
The unrelenting comfort of the training.
The grunt that’s required to get out of a sweaty sports bra.
The grapefruit half, gleaming like a rose window.
The acoustic dampening of a layer of snow.
The comforting heft of a lead apron at the doctor’s office.
A row of canoes and kayaks.
The snap of a swim cap.
The text messages that pick up again no matter how much time has elapsed.
Any green-blue body of water.
A boarding pass.
Books, and books, and books.
The new New Yorker.
Sunrise on the Lincoln Memorial.
The good question.
The fragrance emitted when the bread is broken.
Views from any high place.
November, which begins with a riot of color and ends with subtle brown beauty.
The weathered Dutch oven that never leaves the stovetop.
The crowd in airport baggage claim clothed in hijab, dashiki, sari, turban, flipflops, tattoos.
A dead tree, splayed open in an autopsy of decomposition.
What matters to you?
Peace, Joy and Yes,
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Photo taken in Collegeville and posted to my Instagram.
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.