A Whiff of the Divine: Lent at Tiny Church

Here at Tiny, our focus in worship this Lent has been the last week of Jesus’ life. Using Borg and Crossan’s book, we’ve been look at the stories leading up to the crucifixion. The sermon series is called Journey to the Cross.

The ‘journey’ bit ties into another initiative here at Tiny, the Journey to Jerusalem. We are encouraging folks in our church to walk, run, bike, etc., then submit their mileage each week. We’re trying to make it to Jerusalem before Easter!

So far so good. We set a modest goal of 100 miles a week, which when multiplied by 10, will hopefully get us there. But the initiative has been so popular we are using a factor of 5 instead… and we may still make it to Jerusalem and back. Check it out:

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Just a small way we’re trying to encourage health and wholeness here at the church.

And yes… as the map indicates, we walk on water here.

I’m also making an effort to change up the look of worship each week, primarily on the communion table, but also through the kids’ activities in the Upper Room. Of course I haven’t thought to take pictures—sorry, I’ll do better!—but I’ll describe what I’ve done in case others want to adapt:

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The first week, we looked at Jesus’ “cursing” of the fig tree (Peter’s word, not Jesus’, which I talk about in the sermon). For that Sunday, I had a black piece of fabric laying flat on the table with a vase with several nice branchy twigs sticking out of it, sort of on the left, with the communion elements towards the right. I had a long piece of purple fabric that I snaked around the table, with one side wrapping around the vase, then curved around the communion chalice/plate and hanging off the  front. (By the way, you need to experiment with levels when you do focal point stuff. You can use books and things underneath the cloth to create some variations in height.)

We invited the kids to do this simple activity (sans leaves) in the Upper Room, which was meant to represent the withered fig tree:

Paper Bag Fall Tree2

The kids took these home to have on their dinner tables during Lent.

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This past weekend was the anointing of Jesus. I used a different multi-colored cloth for the table and put a large glass bottle (actually a decanter) on the table, along with a copy of the St. John’s Bible (which I talked about in the sermon), propped open to the gospel of Mark. I also included this figure I got on a trip to Mexico during seminary:

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We’re fortunate at Tiny that we’re, well, tiny, so people can see what’s on the table pretty well. Also, folks came forward during the prayers of the people and we did an anointing with oil, so they could see the table elements even better.

For the kids in the Upper Room, I gave them a bit of nard (the oil mentioned in the story), which is smelly stuff. They were invited to make cards for each person in the church service, using construction paper, markers, stickers, etc. I asked them to put a little smear of nard on each paper so people would have the scent as a reminder of this story of extravagant love.

The children did a wonderful job of this, and stood with me at the door following the service, handing them out. Most of the notes were small, but Caroline did do an oversized one for Robert and me:

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It has been a very good Lent so far.

Can Sabbath Be Productive?

woman-running221Play is a key component of Sabbath, it seems to me. Especially play for its own sake—“play without purpose.” But what does it mean for something to be purposeless?

People sometimes ask me whether certain activities are acceptable for Sabbath because they accomplish something useful. Weeding the garden, for example, changes one’s environment. It’s work. It’s something a gardener has to do even if she isn’t seeking Sabbath.

I always start by saying, What am I, the Sabbath police?

But it’s a good question, and one I think about too.

I waffle on whether running is a Sabbath activity. It’s fun (sometimes); it’s playful (in its own way). It’s spiritual time for me, to be sure. And it’s a wholesome activity. But it’s a tremendous expenditure of energy. Right now I’m training for a half marathon, and I have to run if I’m going to pull that off. Exercise in general is non-negotiable at this stage of my life, like eating and sleeping and brushing one’s teeth.

Have to doesn’t seem very Sabbathy to me.

This article by Mark Rowland helps tease this stuff out. The idea of a “second childhood” doesn’t resonate with me, but I appreciate the way he approaches categories of work and play.

Today’s world is a deeply utilitarian one, where everything must have a use or be ‘good for something’. Our lives are dominated by work and, unless we have been extraordinarily lucky, we work not because we particularly enjoy it but to get paid — payment that keeps us and our loved ones alive for a while and, if there is anything left over, allows us to do something more interesting than the work. Our lives are spent, largely, doing one thing for the sake of something else, which is in turn done for something else.

This is a kind of instrumental thinking. Something has instrumental value if its worth lies not in itself but in something else that it can get you.

He contrasts these instrumental activities of our lives (in which A produces B) with intrinsic ones, in which A may produce B, yet we do it for the sheer pleasure of it. Maybe that’s the key to what makes something a Sabbath experience. It’s pretty simple: does it feel like Sabbath to you? Does it somehow honor God, however you understand God? Does it simultaneously take you out of yourself and connect you to your truest self?

Mark Rowland describes it thus:

There comes a point during a long run, perhaps at the limits of my endurance, when I am no longer running for any reason other than to run. There comes a point in karate — perhaps when I am in the middle of a kata, and each movement flows thoughtlessly and seamlessly into the next — when I am no longer acting for reasons, but acting without them. There is a point in tennis, when I thrust aside as irrelevant all thoughts of point and games and sets, and am absorbed instead in the sheer and savage delight of swinging at a moving target. These are all moments when the endless round of doing one thing for the sake of another comes to an end — however briefly. In these moments, I am acquainted with what is worth doing for its own sake. In these moments, I experience intrinsic value in my life.

What do you think?

When Sabbath Just Isn’t Possible

urlHello friends.

It was a very good weekend with my extended family in Arizona. It was fun to get reacquainted with my uncles, aunts and a few cousins, and to have some good conversations with Grandpa. It was also hard. My uncles look (and in some cases act) so much like Dad that I was doing emotional double-takes all weekend. It is cruel, how quickly and mercilessly he left us 10 years ago.

Grandma’s funeral was lovely, and I was humbled to be able to preach. As we made our way to the columbarium, we were treated to a bright Arizona sun and snow flurries at the same time. Wonderful.

But now I am back, and desperately tired. And the busyness has only just begun—I won’t bore you with the litany of stuff on the Dana family/career to-do list, but our calendar doesn’t give us an exhale until March 6 or so. It will come, but it’s gonna be Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride until then.

And let’s be honest: some times are like that. I have many friends who are asking me with all kindness when we will have a Sabbath. And the answer is, over the next several weeks, we will be measuring Sabbath in hours, not in days. And that’s just the way it is.

And I feel OK with that, because I am keeping two things in mind:

1. Living Sabbathly. When I was writing the book I was frustrated that there was no adverbial form of Sabbath, so I invented one. Sabbathly means “to live in the manner of Sabbath.” One can live in the busy times with a spirit of attentiveness and freedom. One can hurry without haste. One can move in time and space with a sense of openness and flow. One can laugh at the sheer too-muchness of it all. And one can trust that the crazy time will end.

2. Doing nothing extra. I picked up that phrase in a book about labor and childbirth. I think it had something to do with not tiring oneself out during early labor by obsessively cleaning house, etc. Rest up for the marathon that is to come—not just the labor but the baby boot camp that will follow. So for the next few weeks, I will do nothing extra. The non-essential tasks can wait, or I can delegate them to the floor.

What gets you through Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride?

Goodbye to Grandma

Lake Palestine, East Texas

Lake Palestine, East Texas

My father’s mother, Grandma McKibben, is dying today. Her name is Mary Ellen, and the Mary in my name comes from her. (The Ann comes from my other grandmother, Betty Ann.)

Grandma is 88 years old and said two weeks ago that she’s ready. I’m thinking a lot about my grandfather today, who is saying goodbye to his love of 70 years. How do you do that?

We didn’t see each other much in recent years. The relationships in our family are complicated. But we talked by phone every few months. They were so over the moon about my book—and especially loved that I kept the McKibben in the byline. (Always.)

I wrote this a couple of years ago on St. Patrick’s Day. For some reason it is one of the most-read pieces on my blog.

My father’s family is big and Irish and Catholic. My dad was supposed to be the priest in the family. He even went to seminary for a time; it didn’t stick. Exhibits A, B, C, and D: my siblings and I.

He died a Presbyterian seeker, heavily influenced by the spirituality of Alcoholics Anonymous.

The summer before Robert and I got married, we were at a McKibben family event and someone asked us whether our wedding was going to be in the church. I said yes, seeing as how it was a verbal question… I didn’t pick up on the capital letters. Yes, we’re getting married in the church as opposed to Hermann Park or VFW Hall. 

They were asking about The Church.

My grandparents are as staunch as you can get in their Catholicism. I’m sure it grieves them that few to none of their dozen-plus grandchildren are Catholic.

But I got a letter from them recently, and it was addressed to the Rev. MaryAnn Dana.

In it they shared a hope that they could someday come and hear “their number 1 granddaughter preach the Word of God.”

My grandparents had a lake house in East Texas. I have so many memories of that place, although many of them run together.

I remember a particular sunset over the trees across the lake one evening. It was like a very wide, flat rainbow, reds to oranges to greens to blues. (My cousins and I have been sharing MacShack stories on Facebook today, and we were laughing over the gravelly smokers’ voices of our uncles in the morning, murmuring over their morning coffee as they looked out the window: “Lake looks like glass.” I’m sure the lake was like glass that evening.)

When I got home to Houston, I tried to recreate it with pastels, but I just couldn’t do it. The bands of color didn’t blend right, and I kept adding more and more layers of color, hoping to capture what I’d seen. The paper got heavy with chalky dust and I never got it right. It was beyond me.

I don’t know what heaven is, or even if there is a heaven. But I like to think that for Grandma there will be a sunset just like that one. Or more appropriately, a sunrise.

I love you, Grandma.

Newtown, Noah Pozner, and a World Reborn

Tikku olam

Tikkun olam

Some of my Facebook friends have been posting beautiful, excruciating articles about the loss of Noah Pozner, the youngest victim of Newtown. He was a twin. He was a darling child. And his family has been thoughtful, yet unflinching, in their mourning of him.

You can read the articles here and here—please be warned that they are wrenching. You may forget to breathe.

But as I read them I kept thinking about an interview I heard years ago on Speaking of Faith (before it became On Being) with Laurie Zoloth, a Jewish ethicist who studies the issues around human cloning. As you might imagine, she writes with a great deal of concern over the prospect of cloning a human being, and the tangled web of issues such a possibility would raise for society.

During the interview, Zoloth shared her experience of being part of a volunteer Jewish burial society. Jewish custom requires bodies to be buried before sundown if at all possible. Several years prior, on the day of Passover, she was called to take part in the burial preparation for a four-year-old girl. The girl had been running across the street to her father’s waiting arms when she was hit by a car. Zoloth arrived at the funeral home with the other women to prepare the body, which was horribly, heartbreakingly broken. The preparations for burial included washing the body with water, and dozens of other careful, ritualistic details. “This little girl was the tiniest person we had prepared,” Zoloth says. “I and all the other women there were frantic with grief.”

And then, this Jewish ethicist who has spoken out against human cloning went on to say, “I knew at that point that I would have cloned her. If I could have. If I’d had the technology… I didn’t care if it was risky, I wanted that baby girl back.”

And yet the mother of this little girl, a woman of deep Jewish faith, said, “If you want to bring my daughter back, I need you to go to work in the world, to do acts of loving kindness and mercy, of justice and love. That will bring her back.” This is the Hebrew concept of tikkun olam, or “healing of the world.” In Jewish theology, it is this healing, this repair of the world, that will bring the Messiah. This is what will bring the lost ones back. The mother believed that completely.

Only through a radically altered world, a world of justice, peace and mercy, would her daughter be restored.

And Zoloth realized, “It is not the body that this little girl needs, it is a world reborn that this little girl needs.”

It is a world reborn that Noah Pozner needs.

My Interview with PBS

photoI’m back from Chicago, where I led a group of lovely Presbyterian pastors in a Sabbath retreat on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. I learned while I was there that next year’s speaker will be Phyllis Tickle. Boy howdy! As I told the participants, I do not have anything close to Phyllis’s depth of historical knowledge and insight. Rather, I am a generalist. With me you get a weird synthesis of Bible, art, theology, folk music, brain chemistry research, low-impact crafts, and clips from The Office.

We had a good time.

The retreat had a strange dimension to it. A couple of our sessions were filmed by a camera crew for Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, a public television show. (Check local listings.) I’m very grateful to Judith Valente, a correspondent for the show, whom I met at the Festival of Faith and Writing and who saw the potential for a story about Sabbath-keeping in our 24-7 world. I’ll let you know when the segment airs—it’ll be a while, since they also plan to come to our house and film our family on one of our Sabbaths. I find this ridiculously fun, although I’m worried about Caroline—apparently it is one of her life’s goals to appear on television, and I don’t know what it does to a kid to achieve a life goal at the age of 10. Anyway.

In addition to filming parts of the retreat, I was also interviewed about Sabbath: how our family does it and how others might take it on. It was, frankly, harrowing. The inner critic was on the prowl, taunting me with a voice that sounded suspiciously like the mean girls in my fourth grade class. Oh my God… who cares what YOU have to say?

Ah well. I did it, and during my run 30 minutes later I was SO much more brilliant, but at least I didn’t die, so there’s that.

After we finished the interview the audio guy said, “Time for room tone. Everyone be still for 30 seconds.” They explained later that room tone is a recording of the room, which they use when they need to edit dialogue together.  They record the quiet room using the same mic configuration so that the sound has the same quality to it.

After talking for almost 40 minutes non-stop, it felt downright contemplative to sit, and be quiet, and listen to the silence that was not really silent. I began to wonder about room tone as a spiritual practice.

In fact, I looked up room tone later that day and learned that it goes by another name:

Presence.

Face Time — A Guest Post by the Righteous Jan Edmiston

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Jan Edmiston, pre-broken nose.

Jan Edmiston is the ‘curator’ of A Church for Starving Artists — which is a must-read if you are passionate about ministry and church transformation — and a great friend. We decided to do a blog swap this week. That’s like a pulpit swap, but in our pajamas. My post is here. Take it away Jan!

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Note:  MaryAnn and I first met as pastors in National Capital Presbytery, quickly meeting regularly in a group we called Lex Girls.  Later we were in an excellent writing group together.  I consider her a hero and treasured friend.  -Jan Edmiston (Aww thanks! I’ll always be grateful to the Lex Girls because I walked in to the first meeting, VERY new in ordained ministry and in the presbytery and feeling unsure of myself. Within minutes one of our members had shown us her skydiving video and another had dropped a choice expletive, and I thought, “These are my people.” -MA)

I broke my nose Wednesday, so my mind’s been on Face Time – not just in terms of the temporary new look on my own face.  Ministry involves using more than using a phone and computer.  We who do professional ministry are pastorally and institutionally required to do lots of Face Time with our people.  Even Skype falls short.

Actually my favorite part of ministry is the Face Time.  I love talking face to face with pre-inquirers pondering professional ministry. I enjoy the face time with elders trying to be faithful as they look for fresh ways to expand their ministry.  Face time with pastors excited about a new call is like dessert.

What’s also true is that Face Time is:

1) elusive because the administrative tasks overtake our lives

2) emotionally draining because that’s what it means to be compassionate.

We need to pace ourselves.

If you’ve ever been at the hospital bedside of your own child or parent or spouse, you know that you wouldn’t be anywhere else but holding that beloved person’s hand.  But it wipes you out.

People in pastoral ministry – pastors, deacons, Stephen Ministers, elders – do this with multiple families at the same time.

If you’ve ever had a vision for What the Church Could Be, you know that you wouldn’t do anything else, but shifting a church culture or starting something totally new can be exhausting.

People in church development and re-development – church planters, core leaders – know that this is relentless work.

Real Life Ministry demands some serious Face Time in which we must be focused wholly on other people.  To avoid utter depletion, we need to figure out how in the world we can cling to and practice our Sabbath.  You could start by reading this book.  And I’m not just saying this because I’m guest blogging on her site. (Heh. -MA)

It’s a holy thing when we pace ourselves. My hope is that my medically required Ice-Bag-On-My-Face Time will also prove to be a holy thing.

How is the Administrivia-Face Time balance going in your life?