I had a great time last weekend with the folks at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlotte. For their all-church retreat they chose the theme The Improvising God: A New Theology for an Imperfect World.
For many people, the struggle to understand God’s presence and work in the midst of suffering is THE sticking point for faith. For some people, they’re led to dismiss the idea of God altogether. Others grab onto notions about God’s plan and purpose. I find the latter rather unsatisfying, not to mention problematic to the idea of God as love: it requires us to believe that God would bring about God’s purposes by employing all manner of terror against the people God claims to care for. As David Bentley Hart wrote after the devastating tsunami several years ago, “It seems a strange thing to find peace in a universe rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome.”
I’m still working on a nuanced middle. As a follower of Jesus who finds truth in the stories of scripture, I see God’s nature as one of self-limitation. Jesus wasn’t just a piece of God, or God in disguise: Christ was fully God, which means it is fully God’s nature to limit God’s power and sovereignty. That’s what I see in the gospel story again and again.
What God does is work improvisationally with us to say “Yes, and” in a way that moves us in the direction of the best wholeness possible for all. And how can we participate in that Yes-Anding?
I like to mix things up in my retreats and workshops. Lots of interaction, video, and music along with straight-up “lecture.” We watched clips of people performing improv comedy, a speech by Stephen Colbert, and even a scene from The West Wing.
But the piece that really grabbed people was this TED talk by artist Phil Hansen, called Embrace the Shake. In it he talks about how a nerve injury destroyed his ability to make the kind of pointillist art he felt so drawn to. Instead a doctor advised him to receive that limitation as a gift, to embrace the shake… which led him to find gorgeous (and FUN) new ways of doing art:
Hansen is describing the fundamental task of improv… and of life: to take what is offered and build on it in a way that brings about the best Yes for all concerned. It’s well worth ten minutes of your time.
During the retreat I leaned a good bit on Brené Brown’s latest book, Rising Strong, that talks about how we come back from failure–how failure becomes a source of our power instead of something we need to run from. For the Trinity group, Embrace the Shake became a kind of shorthand for that process.
When have you had to embrace the shake? I’d love to hear about it.
As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m recovering from a stress fracture in my tibia. It’s my first running injury in almost five years of running.
Three important things have happened recently:
1. This weekend I missed my first scheduled race as a result of this injury. I hated it. And there will be manymanymore.
2. I reached the halfway point of my 12-week recovery time last Thursday. I am now closer to the next time I will run (November 5) than the last time I ran (August 13).
3. After several weeks with zero pain, my leg has started hurting again. It comes and goes and is a 1 on the pain scale, but still–it aches.
Obviously #3 may impact #2. And that sucks.
My current theory is that I’ve been walking too much. “Every step you take will set you back,” the doctor said ominously when he gave me the diagnosis. I’m certainly not walking for exercise, but come on. I chase around three kids and just moved to a four-level townhouse in a walking-oriented suburb. We walk our kids to school and back. The commercial center is pedestrian-friendly and ringed by parking garages. There’s Target and the grocery store and Costco.
I may be the only person in the market for a Fitbit so I can limit the number of steps I take.
I’ve been doing too much.
That’s the thing about recovery–whether it’s from injury, illness, childbirth, maybe addiction recovery too.
You don’t get to decide how much your body or spirit can take.
You don’t get to decide what you can get away with.
You don’t get to decide what “too much” is.
I loathe that.
Meanwhile I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a runner. I have friends who run but don’t claim the name because they think they’re not fast enough / dedicated enough / knowledgeable enough. I used to be that way. I ran, and that was enough. I didn’t need the noun, the verb worked just fine for me.
But at the heart of it, I agree with those who say “If you run, you’re a runner.” There’s no entrance exam or minimum pace or uniform. If you lace up shoes and hit the road or trail or track, you’re a runner.
A runner is one who runs.
Except now I’m not running. Therefore…
Lots of runner friends jumped in to reassure me. You’re still a runner! You’re recovering from an injury, but you fully intend to get back to running. You’re doing everything in your power to be back out there again! (Including pool running, which is the most ridiculous-looking exercise that doesn’t involve Sweatin’ to the Oldies.)
My friends are right. I’m doing everything I can so I can resume this unexpected passion of mine. And I love them for those affirmations. But I finally figured out something important: I wasn’t needing reassurance that I was still a runner. I was wanting to try on the identity of not-runner, at least for this 12 weeks.
Because while I expect to make a full recovery–in the universe’s timing, not mine, dangit–there’s a possibility that I will not be able to run as much as I did before. Or I won’t run at all. That’s not the injury talking. That’s life talking. No guarantees, folks. That’s what item #3 above has reminded me–you can do the best you can and still, the hand gets dealt to you.
So rather than find a way to continue to claim the title runner for the next six weeks, what’s exciting me more is to let a beloved part of myself go and realize that the world doesn’t end. There’s great freedom in trying on new things. Swimmer. Biker. Spectator. Cheerleader. Person who sleeps in on the weekends instead of lacing up shoes at 5 in the morning.
Let me be clear–I’m not saying other injured or sidelined runners are no longer runners. I’m saying for me it’s been fun to live my life independent of that identity I jumped headlong into five years ago.
I ran into this Roald Dahl quote recently:
As a high school senior I had a teacher for AP English that I absolutely loved. I remember asking her to sign my yearbook at the end of the year. I secretly hoped she’d write that I was her star student, the best student she’d ever had. Instead she wrote, “It’s rare to have a student who loves the class as much as I do.” In retrospect, that affirmation has probably served me better.
Go at it full speed, even if it’s swimming speed.
Embrace it with both arms, even if “it” is a set of handlebars.
Lukewarm is no good.
Many years ago, when I was actively thinking about seminary, I remember hiking in Colorado with some college friends. One of these friends, a confirmed agnostic/atheist, was trying to get his head around this vocational choice of mine–but even more broadly, why an intelligent, educated person would have need for religious faith at all. “I guess I get it,” he said. “Your faith provides solace for you.”
I shook my head. Solace wasn’t quite right; in fact, I bristled against it. Solace was too limiting, like the spiritual equivalent of a pint of Ben and Jerry’s after a breakup. Solace felt like a pat on the simpleminded head in the wake of life’s mysteries and griefs. Solace made you feel better, but had no other utility. A faith that’s all about solace, I argued back, doesn’t change the way you look at the world, doesn’t move you to action, doesn’t transform a life.
Right or wrong, I heard insult in the word “solace,” like my friend was quoting the Apostle Paul, knowingly or unknowingly, ironically or unironically: When I was a child, I thought like a child; but when I was an adult, I put away childish things.
Anyway, the word solace came up again last night in a conversation between Stephen Colbert and Joe Biden, a conversation they were gracious to let millions of us eavesdrop on during night three of The Late Show. Both Colbert and Biden are men of faith, liberal Catholics, it’s safe to say; both have experienced terrible losses in their lives.
Their conversation about faith was nothing short of astounding. Colbert asked about Biden’s belief in God and how it helped him grieve the death of his beloved son Beau this summer. Biden gave a thoughtful and heartfelt answer that was full of solace but completely free of Sky Fairy.
He didn’t say, Well, God needed another angel in heaven. Or I guess my son’s work on earth was done.
He didn’t say, God has his purposes; we’ll all understand the plan someday.
He said–and I’m paraphrasing:
The rituals of the church sustain me and give me the strength to go on.
I pray the rosary, and it gives me comfort.
When I’m in mass, I am surrounded by a community people, yet I feel completely alone.
The last one was most remarkable to me. Isn’t it terrible to be alone? No–not if you need space to grieve, or just to find quiet in your own heart. There are so few places where we allow ourselves that space. Religion done well is one of those places.
Colbert and Biden, and so many others of us, aren’t in it for the Sky Fairy. It’s never been about the Cosmic Daddy for us, no matter how much the anti-theists want to make it about that. It’s certainly not about finding pat answers, from our Bible or from our God. It’s in the living. It’s in the struggle. It’s in the community.
Last night’s interview helped me articulate a more nuanced view of solace as one of the fruits of religious belief. I still think solace doesn’t fully encompass it. But nor does solace mean platitudes and cheesy explanations that somehow make the horrors of our lives less horrible because somehow God’s gonna make it all better. That’s not what Biden showed us last night. He’s still deeply broken in his grief–that’s evident. His faith is equal parts Psalm 22 and Psalm 23. And comfort and solace are nothing to scoff at.
One the gifts of doing the speaking work I do is getting to learn from other great leaders in the church. I preached at a conference with the great Eugenia Gamble some years ago and she closed with these words of blessing. I’ve used it far and wide since then, crediting her when practical to do so, though she thinks it came from the Franciscans first.
The words of this blessing came to me again while listening to the Late Show interview. To me they’re what good religion is all about. Forget the Sky Fairy and simplistic explanations and hollow solace. This is the nature of any religion or worldview worth its salt:
May God bless you with discomfort with easy answers and half truths and superficial relationships, so that you will live deeply and from the heart.
And may God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and the exploitation of people, so that you will work for justice, freedom and peace.
And may God bless you with tears to shed for those that mourn, so you will reach out your hand to them and turn mourning into joy.
And may God bless you with just enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you will do those things that others say cannot be done.
Stephen and Joe have been so blessed. So may we all be.
There are two big things that make Colbert who he is:
1. His father and two of his brothers died in a plane crash when he was 10 years old.
2. He discovered improvisation as a young man and continues to thrive on it.
Those things are related.
He unpacks that in the article.
He was tracing an arc on the table with his fingers and speaking with such deliberation and care. “I was left alone a lot after Dad and the boys died…. And it was just me and Mom for a long time,” he said. “And by her example am I not bitter. By her example. She was not. Broken, yes. Bitter, no.” Maybe, he said, she had to be that for him. He has said this before—that even in those days of unremitting grief, she drew on her faith that the only way to not be swallowed by sorrow, to in fact recognize that our sorrow is inseparable from our joy, is to always understand our suffering, ourselves, in the light of eternity. What is this in the light of eternity? Imagine being a parent so filled with your own pain, and yet still being able to pass that on to your son.
“It was a very healthy reciprocal acceptance of suffering,” he said. “Which does not mean being defeated by suffering. Acceptance is not defeat. Acceptance is just awareness.” He smiled in anticipation of the callback: “ ‘You gotta learn to love the bomb,’ ” he said. “Boy, did I have a bomb when I was 10. That was quite an explosion. And I learned to love it. So that’s why. Maybe, I don’t know. That might be why you don’t see me as someone angry and working out my demons onstage. It’s that I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.”
I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.
He doubles down on this point, quoting a letter JRR Tolkien wrote to a priest:
“‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” Colbert knocked his knuckles on the table. “ ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” he said again. His eyes were filled with tears. “So it would be ungrateful not to take everything with gratitude. It doesn’t mean you want it. I can hold both of those ideas in my head.”
He was 35, he said, before he could really feel the truth of that. He was walking down the street, and it “stopped me dead. I went, ‘Oh, I’m grateful. Oh, I feel terrible.’ I felt so guilty to be grateful. But I knew it was true.
“It’s not the same thing as wanting it to have happened,” he said. “But you can’t change everything about the world. You certainly can’t change things that have already happened.”
What Colbert is describing is saying “Yes-and,” of receiving what life offers and building on it, which is the basic rule of improv. Sam Wells calls this process over-accepting in his book Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics. When life deals us a hand, we can:
reject it (deny it)
accept it (acknowledge that it’s happened and live in it), or
over-accept it (take what’s happened and build on it, which in some ways requires making friends with it).
I don’t love over-accepting as a term, but I think Wells’s framework is right on.
Acceptance is not defeat. Acceptance is awareness.
Why am I so drawn to improv? It’s not because I want to join a ComedySportz troupe. I’m not really interested in performing improv at all. It’s because improv is the basic human task—to make something beautiful with what’s been given to you, and to leave life better than you found it, which is the “and.”
Colbert doesn’t connect the dots between life and improv in the article, but he nods in that direction with this quote, which is practically a koan: “The end product [of the show] is jokes, but you could easily say the end product is intention. Having intentionality at all times… The process of process is process.”
I’m also drawn to improv because it scares me. I’m really good at planning. Organizing. Anticipating several steps down the road and developing contingencies. You have to, to some extent. But life happens. Bombs drop into the lives of 10 year olds.
I could reject it: keep on running, and injure myself further.
I could accept it: stop running, rest, do what the doctor suggests, try not to lose too much ground. (I kept it together pretty well, but when the doctor said, “You’ll start running again 1/2 a mile at a time,” that’s when I started to cry.)
But I’m trying really hard to over-accept. I’m trying to LOVE it. If Colbert can use that word to describe a life without his father and brothers, I can use it to describe a silly three-month running hiatus. This morning I started a separate page on my mama runners Facebook group for those of us who are injured to support one another. I hope that will grow into something long-term. I’ll be writing about what I’m learning, maybe just for myself, maybe for a wider audience. And I don’t want to spend the next three months “not losing ground.” I want to gain ground–maybe not physically, but mentally and spiritually. I’m still exploring what that means–it will be a process.
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.