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.
Oh my goodness. J J Baskin, a great man and a good man, has died.
Every now and then someone offers the gift of letting us witness their journey through illness, and their transition from this life to the next. Steve Hayner was one of those people. So was J J, though the tone of his public posts was different than Steve’s. He was defiant and feisty, evidenced by his invoking of Friday Night Lights’s signature slogan and the way he refused to dwell on medical details publicly. He fiercely kept private things private.
I didn’t know J J well. I write this not as an intimate friend but as a friend on social media and a fellow Texan/Presbyterian, which is a smaller tribe than you might think. This tribe knows well that God lives at Mo-Ranch and Montreat is at most her summer home. Like many, I was a proud member of J J’s Fight Club. Like many, I wore the shirt as a defiant F U to cancer.
A friend and I were texting back and forth this morning. This one hits hard. The last journal entry on J J’s CaringBridge site reports that the boys are doing OK; they were currently snuggled up with their mother watching Pokemon. No one young enough to watch Pokemon should be without their father today.
For her part, my friend said she couldn’t get “His Eye is on the Sparrow” out of her head.
That’s just right. Just right.
I can never think about that song without remembering this rollicking bit of audio by Anne Lamott, Knocking on Heaven’s Door. Take 18 minutes and listen, or at least listen to Anne’s friend Renola sing it at the end. I post it in gratitude for J J and in hopes that Anne’s irreverent reverence would please him.
Here in the Northern Hemisphere we’re winding down to Sunday, the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. Here in the DC area, the sun will rise that day at 7:23 a.m. and set at 4:50 p.m., giving us just 9 1/2 hours of light.
I know a good number of people who are having a tough time this year. There are family dramas and medical setbacks and stresses at work, not to mention the chronic struggles and annoyances that will always be with us. Those don’t take a break simply because Andy Williams calls it the most wonderful time of the year.
There’s the torture report, and the painfully raw conversations around #BlackLivesMatter. There’s a bungled Rolling Stone story that threatens to distract us from the disgraceful stats about sexual assault on college campuses.
There’s the two year anniversary of Newtown, which came and went with so little notice, and certainly no new laws regarding gun regulation, nor much of anything else, for that matter. (Where are all those people who claimed the guns weren’t to blame but rather the state of mental health services in this country? Have they been out there crusading without my knowledge for increased support for people with mental illnesses? Or is the death of 26 people and a school shooting every week the price we are willing to pay for “freedom”?)
Where is the light? This week, it is seeping away, a few minutes at a time on the margins of the day.
Many churches, Tiny Church included, have special gatherings for people who aren’t feeling the holly-jolliness. We have ours on a Sunday evening in December, and we’ve always called it “Blue Christmas.” This year, the solstice is on a Sunday, so we’ll be able to call it what it is: A Service of the Longest Night. It’s one of my favorite services of the year.
I must admit, though, as the darkness grows:
The light is absolutely beautiful this time of year.
Yes, there’s less of it than in the summer, with all its full blazes and its squat, sharp noon shadows. But what’s here right now is dynamic and textured. It’s brilliant and full and filtered through bare branches rather than blocked by leafy trees. Then it’s smudgy and silver when the clouds roll in.
And then it’s full of color. The sunrises and sunsets can be stunning. It feels strange liturgically to be preparing for a Service of the Longest Night when we are gifted with this:
Many Decembers ago, I was awake before dawn with a teething Margaret. I was wishing I were back in my warm bed in my dark room instead of trying to entertain a cranky toddler when something caught my eye outside the east-facing window. At first I didn’t understand what I was seeing. There in the otherwise dark sky was a vertical streak of light, jagged like a bolt of lightning, but it hung there for the longest time, frozen like a still photo.
Finally something in the scene shifted enough so I could realize: there was a massive cloud taking up half the sky. The cloud was invisible in the pre-dawn sky, until the sun rose behind it. What I was seeing was the side of the cloud, tinged with light.
The winter light is surely less abundant. But it’s startling and strange and exquisitely beautiful. We dare not blink or we will miss it. And we need it; we crave it.
It feels sometimes like our world is in a season of diminishing light. It’s felt that way for too long a while. Part of the invitation is to see gifts in the darkness, as Barbara Brown Taylor argues in her book. But we also have to keep alert and awake to see the fleeting brilliance when it comes.
A couple of Sundays ago, in those restless moments before the alarm goes off but you know it’s about to, Robert and I heard a large thud and the power went out. It came on 30 minutes later.
We assumed that a transformer blew, but later we saw one of the entrances to our subdivision was blocked off. Beyond the barricade was a police cruiser, repair truck, and a car. Or half a car. The front was completely smashed.
We later learned more about the accident. Or at least, the two pertinent facts. There was alcohol involved, and a person died.
Someone was driving drunk at 6:00 in the morning.
A person died at the entrance to our subdivision.
The next day, when the street had opened, I was taking the girls to choir when I saw the crowd of people at the crash site, with flowers and stuffed animals and notes. And, I saw tonight after dark, electric candles.
I’ve long been fascinated with roadside memorials. And this new one, so close to where my kids walk to school and where I begin almost every one of my runs, reminded me of the following poem, which I wrote about a different roadside memorial many, many years ago.
It seems appropriate to share it before Ash Wednesday.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
To dust all things return.
you are remarkably sober
as you assemble what you need,
a strange array of supplies:
glue, feathers, cardboard, flowers, wire;
and you fashion a set of wings
and a funeral bouquet,
and a sign that says Rest in Peace
in black marker
in your best script,
and you take it to the tree
with the bark ripped off,
at the ruthless bend in the road.
you hang the wings
well above the tree’s white wound,
and nestle the bouquet
between two roots,
and as you affix the sign
a car speeds by,
slicing the air as it goes.
another car passes, and another,
and at first
the gusts knock you off balance,
but you learn to adjust,
to brace yourself,
to stand firm and lean in.
how dare these people
floating on the waves of radio songs,
laughing into their phones?
you think about the place often,
but you don’t return for some time.
you can’t, because
the busyness of your mourning has tipped over
into the business of your
getting back to
getting on with
moving forward with
it’s embarrassing, all your grief on
so you leave the site untended;
it’s just easier.
sooner or later you must return,
straighten the feathered wings,
remove the sign that bled black letters,
and clear out the wilted blooms,
or maybe just crush them into brown confetti
that trembles into the road.
fresh flowers were the right decision at first
(vibrant, real, momentary, like she was)
but now it’s time for practical silk, and you cry,
not because she deserves better than fakes, though she does,
but because silk lasts awhile, and you know now,
this is going to take much longer than you thought.
so you secure those wings even tighter,
and you plant those silk flowers
secure, for the long unchanging time.
now’s the season
when nothing much happens.
you glide by the place, just like the others;
though you slow and breathe, you don’t stop.
as time goes on, you notice:
the bright, fake flowers grimace on, stupidly,
as if put there only yesterday,
the cardboard wings have aged:
the feathers are dulled,
the edges are worn,
the fringes are ragged;
despite all your hard work,
they are becoming more and more
an organic part of things.
it is the paradox of grief,
always and ever new.