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.
This weekend I had two experiences that perfectly encapsulated both the missed goals and my upcoming hopes.
New Year’s Eve was the Fairfax Four Miler, a night race around downtown Fairfax. Love the sweatshirt!
For the race I decided to wear my SportKilt: clergy tartan. Because why not:
I knew it was going to be a fun night before I even got out of the car. They’d given out glow sticks at packet pickup, but mine didn’t have a connector to make it into a necklace. Fortunately I rummaged through the detritus in my car and found an old drinking straw:
MacGyver Runner! Let’s do this!
As for the race itself, I wasn’t particularly fast. I wasn’t fast on an absolute scale, and I wasn’t fast for me. But I felt great about this race. Before I got injured, I ran faster. But now post injury, I’m running smarter.
Since I’ve been back to running I’ve been working hard on run cadence. Many coaches and running experts encourage a faster cadence (close to 180 strides per minute) as a way to avoid overstriding, heel striking, and other form issues that can lead to injury. My cadence pre-injury wasn’t great–in fact I’m guessing it contributed to my stress fracture–so I’ve been intentional about increasing it by about 10 strides per minute.
Here’s a bit of a screen shot from my Garmin at Thursday night’s race. See all that green? That means I was in an ideal cadence for much of the race–and I wasn’t thinking about it. Yay!
I have no idea what the red is.
I wrote last week that my goal is to run races without checking my Garmin, instead running by feel. This was my first experience doing that and I really liked it. My goal was to run easy, which I did, but I was excited to see I maintained a consistent pace throughout. I often go out too fast and flame out midway through.
Part of the reason I took the race easy is because I wanted to have fresh legs for a mile time trial on my birthday. So Saturday morning (in 27 degree temperatures) I met a bunch of other intrepid ladies at a track in Springfield. We shared birthday treats, laughs, fleet miles, and some bleachers afterwards.
This was my first time running a mile time trial with other people around, and with all the excitement and energy I went out way too fast. Like, more than a minute per mile faster than I should. I paid for that in lap three, which is always the one where I want to cry and die.
I finished my mile about 12 seconds slower than a year ago, 26 slower than six months ago. That’s better than I feared, though worse than I secretly hoped. But it’s a snapshot in time–and it was fun to do it on my birthday.
Most importantly, my leg didn’t hurt, at the race or during the mile.
Most MOST importantly, I experienced both the race and the mile surrounded by the most supportive, courageous, badass runner girls you can imagine.
I wish you the best in your own fitness goals–whatever they are.
Today we welcome Ryan Bradney to The Blue Room! I met Ryan two years ago at an event I led in Kansas City and we bonded over our mutual interest in improv. Today he shares about an exciting ministry he’s involved with:
On Thursday mornings, I teach an improv class with the men and women of Wainscott Hall, a transitional residence for the homeless in Winchester, Kentucky. In the class, the residents, along with their fellow actors from First Presbyterian Church, take turns playing and observing bold, gracious improv. Some games require a few actors, others the whole class, but all of the games are participatory in that the class provides the needed resources for the game. It could be quotes, quirks, settings, or even a visual storyboard. Whatever the elements, I invite the actors to engage with what is present in the hope that we open ourselves up to new possibilities.
In between games, we reflect on what we’ve learned, share stories, and laugh about our favorite moments. We also identify the ways in which the games empower us to creatively engage in problem solving and build community. Janet Ballard, an actor with the group, has observed that “the games have opened up the residents to share their joys and struggles. I am seeing them build confidence and friendships.”
As we engage a variety of creative quirks and scenes, Janet Robinson has noticed that the joyful and resilient voices of our improv class can sound a bit unusual, saying, “when you are walking the halls during improv, you will hear BAM, Quack, Barking, Tapping, Spanish, and best of all, the laughter. I have seen the concern that they have for each other and friendships formed through play. I have come to look forward to the Thursday morning meetings with our friends in the group.”
Participants in the Community Improv class at Wainscott Hall, a transitional residence for the homeless.
As we create unusual characters, quirks, and settings, we are often surprised by the unexpected ways in which the scenes play out. One of the actors, George Ballard, Janet’s husband, ran out of the classroom during a scene, sprinting into the hallway, his steps thundering like a thoroughbred. Following his bold exit, George’s fellow actors were startled with surprise, many with laughter and some even wondered (as they shared in our reflection after the game) if he was overwhelmed by a fear of improv. The clamor of his booming feet continued until he returned with a smile. It turned out that George ran not out of fear, but, in response to his given quirk, “Running”.
Weeks later, I spoke with George about his convincing portrayal running through the halls, and asked what the experience meant to him. Embracing the improv principle “yes and” (building creatively on what’s present) George responded in a way that I couldn’t have expected. “If I would have known that the residents would look outside, I would have run downstairs, out the door, and would have continued running on the sidewalk.” There’s power in recognizing courage in one another, seeing those who are willing to go to great lengths, several laps in George’s case, to speak a word of hope. George’s commitment to fully embrace his quirk, no matter how foolish it may have looked, allowed his fellow actors to witness the power of trust, that in loving community, we are free to embrace our own quirks and experience acceptance, imperfections and all.
In addition to our weekly improv class, the Clark County Homeless Coalition (CCHC) offers financial literacy, attentive case management, and additional educational opportunities with the goal of empowering their residents with long-term self-sufficiency. Terry Davidson, executive director of CCHC, says that in her work she is inspired by “Seeing God at work. Seeing our client’s successes.” Serving a vital role in the community, Wainscott Hall is only one of a few homeless shelters in Kentucky that welcomes both families and individuals.
In his book, The Crucified God, Jurgen Moltmann writes that, “one of the basic difficulties of Christian life in the world today is clearly the inability to identify with what is other, alien and contradictory.” The quirks, imperfections, the seemingly disconnected scenes of our lives, all of it belongs to God’s story. Jesus assures us to be unafraid, saying, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world!” Christ overcame the abandonment of the cross, and through him we have been resurrected into eternal life. As we share the Good News, let us not forget our charge to take courage and creatively engage the suffering of this world.
To learn more about Community Improv and how to creatively engage suffering in your community, be sure to check out our blog at Community Improv.
Ryan learned about the power of improv from his High School English teacher and lifelong mentor, Ken Bradbury. Through this gracious form of improv, Ryan learned to listen, to build creatively on what’s present, and boldly fail. Ryan now integrates improv into his ministry as the pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Winchester, Kentucky.
Ryan enjoys sharing the practice of improv at conferences, churches, schools, and Clark County Homeless Coalition, where he is joined by church members, who serve as regular actors with the class.
Ryan and his wife Andrea share their home with their two loving rescue dogs, Winnie and Gracie, whom they adopted during seminary. The Bradneys share a deep love of basketball, cooking, the outdoors, storytelling, and yes, improv.
Thank you, Ryan! That’s beautiful stuff. Now, dear readers, do you know someone who’s improvising their life? I’d love to feature them here, so let me know!
 Jurgen Moltmann. The Crucified God. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993) p. 25.
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
“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.
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.
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.”
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.
It feels like a fragile house we’re living in, folks. But we live in it together. It’s the only way.
 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.
Robin Williams in The Birdcage, one of my favorites.
I don’t feel a need to comment at length on the events of last week. Many have already done so, and done it better than I could. But I did want to share two links that, taken together this morning, gave me a bit of hope and perspective.
The investigation began with rail and bus commuters travelling into Chicago. Dozens of them were recruited into one of three conditions – to engage in conversation with a stranger on the train, sit in solitude, or simply behave as they usually would. Afterwards they mailed back a questionnaire in which they answered questions about the experience.
The returned questionnaires showed it was those commuters who were instructed to strike up conversation with a stranger who’d had the most positive experiences (sitting in solitude was the least enjoyable, with behaving as normal scoring in between).
We tend to avoid conversation because we think the other person won’t want to engage—but the research showed that was not the case: “[Study participants] predicted that over 50 per cent of strangers would likely rebuff their attempts to talk – in fact, this didn’t occur for any of the participants who were instructed to chat to stranger in the earlier studies.”
I’m pretty introverted in public spaces. And it’s taken some time to feel OK with that. I’m a mother of three and a pastor—I engage with people a lot; I don’t need to do it everywhere. Still, I sometimes challenge myself to strike up a short conversation with a stranger, and it always feels good to do so.
We are made to connect.
The second link is this video from The Dish, called Suicide Breeds Suicide. Jennifer Michael Hecht, who wrote the book Stay: A History of Suicide and Philosophies Against It, addresses the issue of “copycat behavior” following a suicide. For example, she reports that young people whose parents commit suicide can be three times as likely to attempt suicide as a result.
I don’t like the phrase, “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” Robin Williams suffered from a life-long illness. His struggle, while it seemed to wax and wane at various times, was as permanent a condition as he could possibly imagine. Still, there are folks out there who believe that the world will be better off without them in it. That’s demonstrably false, according to the research about suicide contagion.
Hecht puts it like this: “If you don’t kill yourself, you are saving someone’s life. …I don’t want to dwell on the guilt of what you do if you harm yourself, I want to dwell on the wonder of how much you meant to people you don’t even know. …The one thing we need to add to that is gratitude, and I don’t mind starting it: I’m grateful. You’re my hero. Thank you for not killing yourself.”
One of Andrew Sullivan’s readers, who had experienced suicidal feelings, responded to the video:
When I was at my lowest ebb, I definitely knew that if I ended my life I would hurt others around me – my family, my friends. But in the two or so years I struggled with those feelings, I can tell you it never once occurred to me that killing myself might lead someone else to end their life. Such a thought would have been abhorrent to me, and I couldn’t help wondering after I watched Hecht’s video whether suicide prevention counsellors make that point to those at risk of harming themselves. I think if they did, some of those people would step back from the brink. It’s one thing to hurt yourself and rationalize that your pain is greater than the pain you’ll cause others through your death; it’s quite another to think you might be compelling some of those who knew you to step into that abyss themselves.
Watch the whole thing here—it’s short:
We are made to connect.
And we are made connected. There’s no avoiding it.