Tag Archives: theology

Improvising Life: Embrace the Shake

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.


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Beyond “God’s Plan”

This weekend I’m headed to Montreat Conference Center (aka God’s Second Home) to learn, teach and play with the good folks of Trinity Presbyterian Church–Charlotte. Topic is The Improvising God: A New Theology for an Imperfect World.

Through conversation, scripture study, video, and some interactive stuff, we’re going to move from this:



To this:


Sometimes, the only way to discover who you are or what life you should lead is to do less planning and more living — to burst the double bubble of comfort and convention and just do stuff, even if you don’t know precisely where it’s going to lead, because you don’t know precisely where it’s going to lead.

This might sound risky — and you know what? It is. It’s really risky. But the greater risk is to choose false certainty over genuine ambiguity.

-Daniel Pink, in a commencement address
to Northwestern University’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Read more about the theology of improvisation here. Or join the Facebook group. Or heck, invite me to come lead a workshop or conference for your group! Get in touch.


*Mo-Ranch in the Texas Hill Country is God’s True Home.

When Bad Theology Happens to Good People

The news from Moore Oklahoma is almost unfathomable.

I lived in Tornado Alley during my teenage years, but they were quiet years for tornadoes. Honestly, I never took them seriously. Teenagers are invincible, after all. Whenever the subject came up we’d make jokes about trailer parks. It was classist privilege—I know that now, wrapped in a candy coating of “it couldn’t happen to me.”

It could. It certainly could.

I don’t know if crazy stuff is happening more frequently or if it just seems like it because I’ve been on this earth long enough for stuff to accumulate. Not to mention the effect of cable news and Twitter. But it’s tiring. It’s not even happening to me and it’s tiring. I’m tired of telling my kids to find the helpers. I’ve included the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance donation info so many times in emails to Tiny Church that I might as well incorporate it into the template on MailChimp.

But this post isn’t about parenting or logistics. It’s about bad theology that creeps in, even among those who studiously try to avoid it. My cousin lives in Moore, OK. For a little while folks didn’t know if he was OK. He is. In his message he said that they’d recently moved to a new house. The new house is fine, but the old house is destroyed. Whoa.

And there it was, like a flash: Man. Someone’s livin’ right, I said to myself.


No no no.

This is a good call for greater compassion on my part toward people who blurt out bromides in the wake of disaster, illness or suffering: God needed another angel in heaven. Everything happens for a reason. We’re being punished for our sin. (Really. It’s only a matter of time.) 

Linda Holmes, writing in a completely different context today, talked about the difference between a reaction, and a thought, and a conclusion. A reaction is just that—an initial response, easily tweeted but not much of substance, unless we examine it, test it, develop it into a thought, and maybe in time, a conclusion. If our reaction doesn’t survive that scrutiny, we should let it go.

The trouble with a lot of our public discourse, whether we’re talking about Sunday night’s episode of Mad Men (I gather something bizarro went down?) or dozens of people perishing in an F5 tornado, is that we don’t get past the reaction stage. “Someone’s living right” is a reaction. It’s an understandable one—even though I don’t see this cousin much, I don’t want to see him suffer—but it’s ultimately false. It’s a product of the lizard brain.

So what do we do with our reptilian reactions? We hold them under the microscope. No, maybe they are the microscope, or the telescope, and we peer through to see if they bring other parts of our lives into sharper view. If they do, maybe they are worth keeping.

And if we’re religious, we also press them like flowers between the pages of our sacred texts, and see what happens. Sometimes they crumble from the pressure. And sometimes they hang together.

But “someone’s livin’ right” doesn’t hold together. Neither does “it’s because of gay marriage.” (Because seriously. In Oklahoma?)

The trouble is, when it comes to suffering, the more we work with our reactions and our thoughts, the less conclusive we become. Christian Wiman’s latest book, written about his struggles with faith in the midst of cancer, is an elegantly devastating case in point. He writes in My Bright Abyss:

If God is a salve applied to unbearable psychic wounds, or a dream figure conjured out of memory and mortal terror, or an escape from a life that has become either too appalling or too banal to bear, then I have to admit: it is not working for me.

I laughed out loud when I read that. Yes: Who is this God who makes it all better? Who punishes the wicked and rewards the good with uncanny precision? Tell me, New Atheists, about the God you don’t believe in. I don’t believe in that God either.

And yet, like Wiman, I continue to wrestle in faith, even though conclusions are increasingly hard to come by. I continue because there is heart-wrenching beauty happening in Oklahoma tonight—it’s in the caring efficiency of hospitals and shelters; it’s in the scrabbling through the rubble; it’s in embraces between neighbors. That beauty is not the work of God. That beauty is God. That’s all I can say for certain… and even that’s not very certain at all.

Friday Link Love

Can you believe this is my 108th Link Love? That’s about 2 years of collecting bits and pieces of stuff. Like a magpie. I should probably go on hiatus at some point. Don’t want to get stuck in a rut. Maybe this summer.

In the meantime… here we go!


Modern Art Desserts — Brain Pickings

This is from a few weeks ago–I’ve been saving it.



More at the link.


Perfectionism as Paralysis — David Foster Wallace

Courtesy of The Dish and a good adjunct to my post about perfectionism and failure the other day, an animated clip of DFW talking in 1996 about perfectionism, ambition… and tennis:


The Good Kind of Crazy — David Lose

After filling me in on some of the latest and greatest ideas she’s had about the church she leads, she stopped and said, “You know, you’re about the only person I know who doesn’t think I’m crazy when I talk this way.”

“Actually,” I replied with a smile, “I think you’re crazy too. But the church needs crazy right now.”

…My friend is perceived as a little crazy. She’s not content with the same old thing, only better. She wants something new. So she has the youth of her church lead worship and participate in the sermon. She doesn’t do confirmation anymore, but instead finds ways to gather her youth around conversations about faith, life, and life lived faithfully. And this summer they’re not singing hymns at her church, but pop songs. And talking about popular YouTube videos. And other crazy stuff.


On that note… maybe this is an example of the good kind of crazy, albeit from another era:

100 Years Later, a Time Capsule is Opened — Yahoo! News

The First Lutheran Church of Oklahoma City dug up and opened its Century Chest, a time capsule that was buried under the church 100 years ago.

The artifacts inside the copper chest were remarkably well intact. Credit for that goes to the church’s Ladies Aide Society, the group that buried the capsule a century ago. The group buried the chest in double concrete walls and under 12 inches of concrete, according to Fox News.

As my friend Alex Hendrickson said, “Varsity level church ladies.” Seriously.


For a Student of Theology, Poetry Reverberates — NPR

My favorite class in seminary was The Preacher and the Poet, so Robert sent this to me with the subject line “MaryAnn bait.”

I read a lot of theology, both for my degree and for my professional track, and sometimes I think poetry, whether or not it’s explicitly religious, is one of the best modes that theology, or talking about God, can take. … Poetry is a form where the language is under so much pressure, and that can really bring about these wonderful surprises and insights in our ways of talking about God or thinking about our faith.


The Best Lesson My Kids Ever Taught Me — Practicing Families

The author describes the experience of having a newborn and always having to think about the next thing. Ohhhh yeah. That kind of extreme time maximization is part of what led us to Sabbath, when we can turn off (or at least mute) those endless calculations:

I was always planning ahead for the next step of the operation. It’s breakfast time. Eat because we have to get dressed! Get dressed because we have to go to baby class! Finish baby class so we can get home for nap! Get nap started so I can have writing time! Hurry, hurry through writing before the baby wakes up! Get ready so we can go to the park! Finish up at the park so we can get home so I can make dinner! And on and on…We were still on that hamster wheel, still always urgently moving forward to the next item on the agenda.

It wasn’t my schedule that was the problem. It was the fact that during every activity we engaged in, my mind was already on the next one.


Journey to the Center of the Earth: Glimpse Inside an Active Volcano — Colossal

I didn’t do Kid Link Love this week but if I had, this would’ve been featured. Volcanoes are so awesome. This planet is doin’ stuff:




Speaking of Kid Links, I shared this one with my girls:

A Wet Towel in Space is Not Like a Wet Towel on Earth — NPR

I’ve gotta think that zero gravity tourism will happen in our lifetimes. Which is irrelevant for me since I get motion sick on a porch swing. So I’ll have to content myself with videos like this:


Have a wonderful weekend, everyone. We’ve got a party Saturday night and I’m leading a retreat after church on Sunday. A full weekend but a good one. Peace.

A Much Better View of the Moon


I was googling around the other day and I came across a live version of one of my favorite songs, by George Wurzbach and Karen Taylor-Good. Here’s George and Rob Carlson (and friends) performing “Much Better View of the Moon”:

If I lose my job… I’ll sleep ’til noon.
If the news is bad… I’ll watch cartoons.
If my house burns down… I’ll have lots more room
and a much better view of the moon.

It’s a song about improv, which is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Life is just one big improvisation, isn’t it? Even meticulous organizers like me know that deep down, planning is akin to rocking in a rocking chair: it gives you something to do—and there’s something soothing about it—but it’s not going to get you anywhere. Things happen that you didn’t anticipate, and you have to adjust. With luck and grace, you “yes-and” the thing, accepting and building on whatever gets thrown at you. Accepting something doesn’t mean you have to like it, by the way. But a spirit of improvisation leads us to be curious, to ask, “Well, OK. Now what?”

We are made in the image of God, and God is a master of improv. This I believe. I don’t know what that means when stacked up against sturdy preacherly words like eternal, immutable, absolute, all-knowing, perfect. I just know that when I look at the sacred texts I see a God who iterates. Who pivots. Who encounters the world as it is, not as God planned it to be. Who yes-ands all over the place.

When I spoke to NEXT Church in Rochester last November, I described this God not as a planner, but as one who is reactive, who sizes up the situation and engages. Someone came up to me afterwards, bristling at the term: “Reactive sounds like a knee-jerk position. What about responsive?”

Maybe. Maybe. No, he’s right, responsive is good. The family systems folks would approve. Still, I like reactive because there’s something automatic in the term. Instinctive. Unpremeditated. If God is love, then love jumps into the mess without a lot of careful consideration, using whatever’s on hand. A socially awkward ex-con. An unwed teenage mother. Twelve Galilean knuckleheads.

Our congregation was rocked last year with the death of eight year old Jacob. He died of ALD, which took his older brother Eric’s life just three years before, also at age eight. The family grieves, the church grieves, and different people wrestle with the loss in different ways. From where I sit, there’s no making sense of something like that. It’s terribly sad. It’s a planet-sized loss. And no God I want any part of willed that to happen.



What happens next in that family’s life is not my story to tell at this point. It’s still unfolding anyway. But let me say, it’s a hell of a yes-and.

It’s a brand new view of the moon.

I used to walk through this world cautious and oh-so-serious
‘Til the life I was living was merely a near-death experience.
Then I changed my story when I finally saw
Where I was wasn’t where it was at
And now I’m alive, I let destiny drive
And I’m stretching out in the back.

Image source