Friday Link Love

And they’re off!


Blind Runner’s Despair Turns to Joy at Paralympics — NBC

After suffering a devastating loss in the 400M, Brazilian runner Terezinha Guilhermina and her guide Guilherme Soares de Santana win the Women’s 100m at the Paralympics. Great photos there including this one:

So much to love about this. The guide had fallen in the 400 which cost them the victory, and you can see the joy here! Also love that this year, guides are also receiving medals.


Gym-Pact — RunKeeper

I have joked about there needing to be a system that penalizes you financially for not keeping your fitness goals, and here it is, from the good people at RunKeeper!

Earn real money for making your workouts — paid for by those who missed theirs! With cash on the line, you’ll find it easier than ever to get to the gym and see real results.

Somebody try it and let me know how it goes. Although, so far I have been able to keep myself motivated because of…


The Benefits of Middle Age Fitness — New York Times

What [researchers] found was that those adults who had been the least fit at the time of their middle-age checkup also were the most likely to have developed any of eight serious or chronic conditions early in the aging process. These include heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and colon or lung cancer.

The adults who’d been the most fit in their 40s and 50s often developed many of the same conditions, but notably their maladies appeared significantly later in life than for the less fit. Typically, the most aerobically fit people lived with chronic illnesses in the final five years of their lives, instead of the final 10, 15 or even 20 years.

There’s some insightful discussion in the comments about whether the study says what it claims to say. An example:

What if those middle-fit people had been fit their whole lives and it was their youthful fitness that gave them the real benefit?

I’m going to keep being fit, just in case the article is right, and because nobody has invented a time machine yet. And also because I feel much, much better in every measurable way.


The Invisible Bicycle Helmet — Vimeo

Got this video about these two inventors from Brene Brown, who said, “I love these women’s daring!” Yes indeed.

The Invisible Bicycle Helmet | Fredrik Gertten from Focus Forward Films on Vimeo.


The Pleasure Of… — Vimeo

Already shared this early in the week but it bears repeating. It will make you feel good. What pleasures would you add?

The pleasure of from Vitùc on Vimeo.


On Christian Platitudes — Captain Sacrament

During the FB discussion about “God has a plan” (which helped inform this) a friend shared this blog post. I appreciate this critique from someone within the church:

It may not be immediately obvious, but when people offer these phases, these stock answers, it sends a clear and demoralizing message: “I don’t take your struggles seriously, and I’m not prepared to muster the theological depth to share them with you.”

This might be a harsh assessment, but this is a great problem, and worthy of such consideration. If you use these Christian platitudes, these unholy clichés in your care for your brothers and sisters, I urge you to carefully consider dropping them. If you find your friends using them on you, forgive them, then challenge them. Muster some courage and tell them you find those words to be theologically empty and pastorally cold. It’s the only way we’re going to grow and learn to struggle together.

I think there can be another, more benign message in these platitudes: I love you so much, and am so hurt that you are hurting, that I will seek to reduce the hurt any way I can. It’s just that platitudes aren’t effective in reducing the hurt and in fact can make things worse.


A Chronological New Testament — Marcus Borg

Not really new stuff here, but it’s good to be reminded (and help people who didn’t go to seminary to understand) that the New Testament we have is organized by genre rather than chronologically. And Paul’s letters were written earliest, before the gospels.

Seeing and reading the New Testament in chronological sequence matters for historical reasons. It illuminates Christian origins. Much becomes apparent:

  • Beginning with seven of Paul’s letters illustrates that there were vibrant Christian communities spread throughout the Roman Empire before there were written Gospels. His letters provide a “window” into the life of very early Christian communities.
  • Placing the Gospels after Paul makes it clear that as written documents they are not the source of early Christianity but its product. The Gospel — the good news — of and about Jesus existed before the Gospels. They are the products of early Christian communities several decades after Jesus’ historical life and tell us how those communities saw his significance in their historical context.

More at the link.


Prayer for the Nation — Jena Nardella

The benediction from night 1 of the Democratic National Convention. This has been shared widely but it’s here in case you missed it. Excerpt:

Give us, oh Lord, humility to listen to our sisters and brothers across the political spectrum, because your kingdom is not divided into Red States and Blue States. Equip us with moral imagination to have real discourse. Knit us, oh God, as one country even as we wrestle over the complexity of how we ought to live and govern. Give us gratitude for our right to dissent and disagree. For we know that we are bound up in one another and have been given the tremendous opportunity to extend humanity and grace when others voice their deeply held convictions even when they differ from our own.


And my last link is especially for you church folk…

A Growing Church is a Dying Church — Street Pastor

So much to love here.

Whenever a congregation goes looking for a new pastor, the first question on their minds when the committee interviews a new candidate is: Will this pastor grow our church?

I’m going to go ahead and answer that question right now: No, she will not.

No amount of pastoral eloquence, organization, insightfulness, amicability, or charisma will take your congregation back to back to its glory days.

Read the whole thing.


Breaking in Interesting Ways

Katherine Willis Pershey is hosting Any “May” a Beautiful Change, a blog carnival to celebrate the launch of Any Day a Beautiful Change through Chalice Press, which is also my publisher for Sabbath in the Suburbs.

This month, Katherine’s friends and colleagues are writing about a beautiful change they have experienced. Here is mine:


Just so we’re clear: that’s not me.

My friend Keith Snyder, a music geek, recently tweeted a line from Brian Eno: “Analog synthesizers break in interesting ways. Digital synthesizers just break.”

Keith has made that line into a prayer:

May I continue to break in interesting ways.

That may be a strange place to start talking about a beautiful change, but stick with me.

I hit two personal milestones recently. First, I ran a 10K race. That was big for me. Until a year ago I had never run for more than a few minutes at a time. Ever. I was the smart one, you see, and the musical one, but never the athletic one. My body was the thing that carried my brain around. Aside from the occasional mountain hike while on vacation, and an intermittent practice of walking to stay in basic shape, I was a sedentary type.

But at 40, with a father who dropped dead from cardiac stuff at age 56, getting in better shape felt non-negotiable—the reasonable thing to do from an actuarial standpoint. That’s how the running started. Of course, it’s become something deeper than that.

Before I ran the 10K (6.2 miles for the metrically challenged), I’d never run farther than 5 miles in training. When I reached mile 5 at the race, I thought, This is as far as I’ve ever gone. Beyond this point, it’s all new. That’s a wonderful thing.

Indeed, my whole life feels that way in this, my fifth decade. I’m not a rookie in ministry anymore; I’m not the mother of little ones anymore; as of this fall I will be a published writer. Lauren Winner talks in her latest book about reinventing oneself every ten years. That’s happening, through my own volition and beyond it.

Among other things, running for me means embracing a blessed mediocrity. I’m not a fast runner; Robert has described my gait as “a bit loping.” I’ve never experienced a runner’s high. I like races because the crowd and the music provide a boost that my body chemistry seems unwilling to muster. I love the feeling of having run, but running itself is frequently a chore. At last month’s race, I was second to last in my age group, and way down in the bottom third overall.

Yet I do it. And there’s something liberating about doing something badly by most objective standards. I’m a perfectionist, you know. I like setting a goal and reaching for the top, and if I’m not good at something, eh…easy come, easy go. With so many luscious possibilities in this life, more than I could ever undertake, such a standard may not be the best way to discern what’s mine to do, but it’s what works.

Or has worked in the past. Something in me had to “break in an interesting way” for me to start running—to do this thing that’s never been part of my self-understanding. Something shattered in my brittle, do-it-well-or-don’t-do-it exoskeleton.

And thank heaven it did. I’m healthier than I’ve ever been, in more ways than one.

I now ask myself: What else could I do badly for the sheer satisfaction of it?


The second health-related milestone happened a few days ago. I hit my weight-loss goal of 40 pounds.

I’m no numerologist, but there is significance in the numbers. James weighs about 40 pounds, so every time I pick up his stocky four-year-old frame I think to myself, This is the weight I carried around all the time nine months ago. It seems fitting somehow: in another year, James will be in kindergarten. There are no babies or toddlers in my house anymore. It feels right that as I move into another phase as a mother, my body would look different.

Also, it took me nine months to lose the weight. Is it an exaggeration to say that a new person has been born? Perhaps. But as with the running, something in me had to break in order for this change to occur. Caring for myself—I mean really caring, not punishing myself until I shrink down into some “acceptable” size—requires a certain vulnerability. I can do all the right things, as many people do, but there will always be aspects of our health that are beyond our control. Life is a genetic and environmental crap shoot. That’s an uncomfortable truth to face. Denial feels easier sometimes.

Another thing that had to break: a rigid expectation of what I would look like as a 40 year old with a normal BMI.

Hint: it’s not like a 20 year old.

Don’t get me wrong, I look different than I did when I was a new mother, with all my ample post-pregnancy curves. But as I’ve left 40 pounds behind on so many jogging trails and city streets, I’ve been amazed at the parts of me that haven’t been magically transformed. There is still…a thickness. A settledness. This body will never be that of a college student. Or a newlywed. Or a non-mother. As that great philosopher Indiana Jones says, “It’s not the years…it’s the mileage.”

And I’m grateful for every one of those miles.

That’s the beautiful change.

What to Expect When Your Church Is Expecting

A few months ago I recorded a video for Bruce Reyes-Chow’s We Are Presbyterian project. It was fun, and I learned a lot in the process.

In the video I suggest that the Presbyterian Church (USA) is not “gravely ill,” as some have suggested.

Instead we are… well… take it away Barbie:

We’re not terminal. We’re just pregnant.

Apparently the video has hopped the Presbyterian fence and is wandering around other backyards, specifically Lutheran and Episcopal ones. It’s been fun to hear from friends and colleagues who’ve spotted it. I’m glad it resonates with others too… is there a baby boom happening in the mainline?

The video appears at the end of this post, but for those who prefer to read, here is essentially what I said:


Recently a group of pastors wrote a letter to the PCUSA, expressing concern about where we’re headed as a denomination. According to the letter, we are “deathly ill”.

The group has facts and figures to back up this–lots of numbers related to membership loss, the declining number of baptisms we do, and so forth.

Well look… the numbers are what they are.
I can’t argue with the statistics.
I only argue with the diagnosis.

We are not deathly ill. We’re…
we’re pregnant.

That’s right folks.
We’re Pregnant!
On the nest!
Knocked up!
With child!
Bun in the oven!

The symptoms are there, if you know what you’re looking for.

First, there’s the fatigue. I see a lot of tired people out there, trying to keep life going, keep ministries going, keep the sermons coming, the nursery staffed, the money flowing in, the furnace in good repair… often with fewer people–less energy–than before. It’s tiring!

I see some bad queasiness too: morning sickness, which folks will tell you doesn’t just come in the morning, but sometimes round the clock. There’s a sense that the world has changed right out from under our feet, and we don’t quite know how to deal with it. What is this “emergent” stuff? How do we deal with the internet and social media? What about this younger generation? How do we respond to the culture without being coopted by it? Not to mention our new Form of Government, the passage of amendment 10A, and on and on. It’s to be expected that we’d be feeling a little woozy, a little green, a little sick.

And there’s a lot of anxiety too… that question every prospective parent asks: Can we do this? Are we ready? Do we have what it takes to step into this new chapter of life?

So here’s a bit of motherly wisdom, a guide, if you will: “what to expect when your church is expecting.”

I offer these reflections knowing that the metaphor is complicated. Not everyone who’s pregnant wants to be pregnant. And there are many who struggle to become pregnant, or who grieve the loss of a child. So I just acknowledge that and tread as lightly as I can.

But here’s what pregnancy offers us that “deathly ill” doesn’t.

1. It’s deeply biblical. Scripture is full of images of pregnancy. The whole creation groans in labor pains, Paul writes in Romans 8, and he uses the image again in I Thess 5. Even Jesus couldn’t resist using the metaphor: “When a woman is in labour, she has pain. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy.”

(That’s not true, by the way.)

The Bible is also full of women that society had written off as barren, women who thought their time had passed. And similarly, some say this whole PCUSA thing doesn’t have much life left in it. And that may even be true on some level. Maybe we are in our declining years. But guess what? Sarah and Elizabeth were in their declining years too, and yet God used both of them to grow new life and give birth to a whole new world.

2. Another way pregnancy connects with our church right now: Pregnancy ain’t pretty. As much as we talk about women glowing, it is not a glamorous time. Your face breaks out. Your joints go slack. You get gas. You can’t sleep at night. You have to pee every 10 minutes. And let’s not even talk about the dreaded “cankles”:

It’s a bit of a freak show, to be honest.

And yeah, this period we’re in right now as a church? It ain’t pretty. We’re cranky and itching for a fight with one another. We used to be young and fresh, the belle of the ball. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, we were thriving. People were flocking to our doors. But we’re not there anymore.

Now we’re in tremendous upheaval as a denomination. It seems like almost everything is on the table–our practices, our polity, our way of worshiping, our music, our structure…
But what’s not on the table for us is whether God is working.
What’s not on the table is what kind of God we serve: a living God, an incarnate God.
God is capable of doing a new thing: it springs forth, now, in nine months, in nine years, over a lifetime.
New life is what it’s all about. It’s the business we’re in.

3. Your sense of time is all messed up in pregnancy. On the one hand, it’s a quiet, slow, lumbering time. The nine months pass slowly. You can’t move as fast as you did. I had sciatica that would act up whenever I was walking too quickly; I finally decided it was God saying, “Slow down! Don’t go through this time at a breakneck pace. Stop, look, listen and feel.”

Even mental processes seem to slow down. Nouns and verbs come more slowly: “Honey bring me that, that… what is that? That thing! Beside the doohickey?” And maybe we as a church need to move beyond words for a while. Maybe we need to just be silent for a while, stop making so many pronouncements about the church. Sure, Mary sang, but she also pondered in her heart. Maybe it’s OK to shut up and let God do what God’s gonna do.

The time goes slowly… but it’s also an incredibly busy time. There’s a lot to learn, and pregnancy is a great time to do research. Hospital or birth center? Epidural? C-section? Breast or bottle? Stroller or sling? Pacifiers or thumb-sucking, cloth diapers or disposable? Television: harmless, or idiot box that will keep your kid out of Stanford?

And we’re doing the same research in the church. Every week I hear about a new group that’s meeting, a new conference to attend, a new website to keep track of. And the books! Oh, the books! Each one promising to give you that just-right approach to ministry, promising to grow your church, keep session meetings joyful and productive, and so on and so forth.

And any parent will tell you, that research is all well and good. But then the child is born. And it all comes down to that child’s personality, that child’s gifts, what that child needs. The books, ultimately, don’t tell you what you need to know. Your child does. So we in the PCUSA need to learn flexibility. We need to learn to respond to this thing being birthed, whatever it might be, instead of some idealized notion of what it might be. Is it a bunch of new churches? Ministries beyond the traditional church? Who knows, but as any parent will tell you, our kids are not carbon copies of us. They are their own people and they deserve to be treated as such. What is being born in the PCUSA is going to look different everywhere. We’re not all going to win beautiful baby contests. We are not birthing many 1950s Presbyterian churches anymore. No more perfect Gerber babies.

5. The final and, I think, most important parallel is this: Pregnancy, labor and parenthood are all embodied experiences–blood, sweat, tears, vomit… and poop. Once that labor starts, you can’t think your way out of it. You don’t do the work up in your head. You’ve got to participate in it with every bit of your being.

And that’s what this new phase of our Church is going to require too. It’s not enough to think about stuff. It’s not enough to talk about mission. It’s not enough to claim to value diversity. It’s not enough to give lip service to evangelism. We’re going to have to practice these things that we believe. To jump in, body and soul.

But I think the best thing pregnancy offers us as a metaphor is this: it’s hopeful. It’s a great big crazy leap into the unknown. It’s a vision for the future. It’s something you grow into. Nobody’s “ready.”

The question is, what are we going to do during this time of gestation?

Thanks for listening, and a special thanks to my friend and colleague Elizabeth Goodrich for the pregnancy metaphor.

We Are Presbyterian 2011 — A New “Diagnosis” for the Church from MaryAnn McKibben Dana on Vimeo.

A Pastor’s Kind of Creativity

The tagline for the Blue Room is “a space for beauty, ideas, creativity, and the life of the Spirit.” I tagged it thusly because that’s the purpose of the Blue Room in our house. It’s my home study, the homework place, the kid arts and crafts room. But it feels high-falutin’ to have that tagline. I don’t feel worthy of it.

Then yesterday I listened to Creativity and the Everyday Brain, an interview with neuroscientist Rex Jung on Being. And it encouraged me.

You can read the whole transcript, but here’s the pertinent bit for me, and I suspect, for many of you who plan worship, education and mission in the church. Prior to this, Krista Tippett and Rex Jung had been talking about Einstein’s term, “spiritual genius,” and what it meant:

Ms. Tippett: One of the people I’ve interviewed is Jean Vanier. Are you familiar with him? He started the L’Arche Movement, which is a global movement of communities centered around people with mental disabilities, especially Down syndrome. I think, if Einstein had known him, he might have said ‘there’s a spiritual genius.’ But even if you put that language to one side, I think that’s a form of creativity — there’s socially useful, novel and useful, creativity.

Dr. Jung: Yes.

Ms. Tippett: Right, that — that fits your definition, but it’s not immediately what comes to mind. We think of artists, we think of scientists.

Dr. Jung: It’s not, but I totally agree that that is a form of creativity and a very valuable form of creativity and perhaps something that we’re moving towards in our increasingly complex society. It’s not just going to be a product. It’s not just going to be an artifact like a painting or a dance number. It’s going to be moving groups of people together and motivating groups of people in certain ways, and that’s a creative endeavor in this L’Arche Movement that you’re talking about. This is a kind of — sounds like a new creative endeavor that we should start to recognize.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah. I mean, people think differently and live differently as a result of this.

That’s the goal, isn’t it, of that kind of creative endeavor? That people think and live differently. That’s why we worship leaders pore over books to find just the right prayer of confession. Or comb our archives looking for a quote for the bulletin cover that will set the right tone. That’s why groups of pastors fly off for a week of lectionary study with other trusted colleagues every year. (OK, one of the reasons.)

The transformed life is the artifact we’re looking for.

But works of spiritual genius also happen on a level that’s beyond us and our efforts. During Sunday’s service I saw at least three people with tears in their eyes. That’s not all that unusual, in my experience. Church is a place where people can tap deep wells of emotion. You don’t force it or manipulate it. You just create a space where it can happen.

What was a bit unusual is that all three of these people were big strong men. It was holy ground.

In my work with NEXT Church, I’ve sometimes felt an insecurity among pastors of mainline churches. Are we dinosaurs because we offer a more traditional worship experience? Sometimes, yes, if it’s not indigenous to the people we serve. But it’s like we equate spiritual genius with tattoos and funky glasses. I feel this sometimes myself. I am in awe of the way some people think. I am creative, but within a form. I’m not nuking the Presbyterian order of worship, as many have (faithfully). It’s the sandbox I’m playing in.

For others, there is no box.

But artistry comes in many shapes and sizes. During the NEXT conference, we sang a setting of “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” that was utterly fresh and new, with guitar and percussion. And the music we made was like a wall of sound—I’ve never heard a congregated people sing that song like that. And at the end of the conference, the organist played the Widor Toccata, and dozens of people stood and soaked it in… even came up into the chancel to behold an artist at work.

Both experiences were traditional. And both were of the moment. Both were moments of spiritual genius.

Be of good cheer, friends who work in the church. There is an artistry to what you do.


Image: from the New Yorker article referenced in the On Being program, about how brainstorming doesn’t work. Off topic for this post but worth a read.


I’m here at the NEXT Conference, which means a very full schedule the next few days. I brought along a big spiral notebook that I use to take graphical notes. I thought in lieu of blogging the conference each night I would upload a photo or two of these notes.

The image below is actually from Saturday’s transformation training, but it’s an insight I’m bringing with me today:

Love the questions today.


Robert and I went to see Moneyball last night. Excellent flick—I can see why it’s 95% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.

I was bowled over by how the story resonates with issues of leadership and church transformation.

Anyone? Anyone?

Please tell me someone has already written this post so I don’t have to.


Beyond Shepherd

I was given a great gift on Saturday. It’s the kind of gift that makes a person feel humble, blessed and profoundly grateful. (I’m not even talking about the wonderful meal Robert cooked for me—it was our anniversary—although that was fantastic too.)

As a fun opening to last Saturday’s transformation training, the teams from the four participating congregations were given a list of fanciful titles (Empress, Chief) and were asked to give each other titles, which we wrote on name tags for one another. Our team’s names included Charioteer, Scribe, Sprite, Sage and Attaché. I’ve bragged before about the team from Tiny Church, how open they are to new ideas, how willing they are to ask difficult questions, to pray for each other and to go the extra mile with the work they’re doing. They’re also delightfully creative.

The other teams that were present gave their pastors the title “Shepherd.” It’s a perfectly good title, and not one I disparage. It’s biblical, and suggested right there in the name “pastor.” One group embellished the title and added “Sheepdog trainer.” I know that pastor was proud! That’s a huge part of transformation work—for churches to see the pastor not as someone who does the ministry for the congregation, but who trains other leaders to do ministry too.

My team gave me a different title. I looked it up later because it was intriguing to me. It has philosophical and mythological overtones. It speaks of a person who brings about transformation of something ordinary into something extraordinary. And it resonated with me because part of my work has been to help Tiny Church see, or remember, that though they are small, and their building is showing its age, and they never have quite as much money as they’d like to, they are mighty people indeed.

It should be said that the title they gave me, like shepherd, is not really mine. It actually belongs to Jesus, who’s the one who does the work; as pastors, we simply bear witness. We notice and name what God is doing.

The title is Alchemist.

Again… it is God’s work that I hope I am doing. But I am happy to be a part of it and to be given such a winsome title.

“Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.”

Image: Nicholas Flamel, alchemist.

Can You Love An Institution?

I don't know. Really?

A word of caution: the thoughts are not fully baked on this post. The toothpick does not come out clean. I’m hoping for some back and forth.

Rob Bell did an amazing series on forgiveness two summers ago, and one of the things he said repeatedly is that you can’t forgive an institution. You can’t forgive the company that fired you. You can’t forgive The Church. You can forgive the people who wronged you, and that can include people within that institution—possibly even most of the people in that institution, either for wrongs done or complicity through silence. I think what he’s getting at is that forgiveness is a relational thing. Forgiveness requires a face.

What do you think?

Some of our Reformed theologians talk about societal-level sin, the “isms” and idolatries that pervade an entire people, that are built into unjust structures. I resonate with this, and yet I am intrigued by Bell’s assertion about forgiveness being personal. Do you think these two thoughts are mutually exclusive?

There was a short but interesting discussion on Twitter yesterday about whether it is possible to love an institution. I know (and love) people who say, “I love the PCUSA.” I feel like that needs some unpacking. Is “love” the right word? And what is meant by “the PCUSA”? Its connectional structure? Its history? Its theology? Its people?

I do love the people. And I think our theology is rich. Our history is complex, instructive. And our connectionalism is pretty rad as a guiding structure. Or some might say, “connectionalism is the worst system of church government, except for all the others.”

But something in me stops short of saying that I love the PCUSA. That, to me, is like saying I love capitalism, or representative democracy. Does love, like forgiveness, require a face? Does love presuppose at least the possibility of being loved back? The institution has been good to me. But the institution does not love me. People within the institution love me.

There’s a lot of anxiety in some quarters about the future of the denomination. The impetus behind our proposed new, smaller, more flexible Form of Government is in part an acknowledgement that the bureaucracy that has been built up since the 1950s no longer serves us. Some find that shift necessary. Others find it simply scary. Some find it scary AND necessary.

Will the PCUSA as we know it cease to exist? It’s worth remembering that the PCUSA is younger than I am. As I said yesterday on Twitter, our history, our theology, will live on in this Reformed branch of the tree. I don’t worry about that.

Anyway. If it is possible to love an institution, how does that love play out with an institution that needs to (and will) change, or maybe even cease to exist in its current form? It could be a positive or negative effect.

On the positive side, love requires attentiveness, intentionality. Real love is not blind. Real love calls forth our best selves, not to get too Oprah-ish. So maybe that love of the PCUSA could call forth something really exciting.

But on the negative side, loving an institution is fundamentally different than loving a person or a pet, who have a finite life cycle. At some point, the object of our love must die. Institutions, on the other hand, can theoretically be immortal. So love could also compel us to keep the denomination on life support way beyond what is helpful or faithful.


Do Reptiles Play?

Recently I had a chance to hear Cindy Rigby speak about her recent work on “the theology of play.” She has an incredible mind and is really drilling down deep with this stuff, but her basic thesis is that play is incredibly important to our spiritual lives and vital to a healthy understanding of God and of ourselves.

Some time ago she was asked to speak at an event, and she proposed the theology of play as her topic. The planners of the event balked: these are serious times we live in, after all, and play is something frivolous, a luxury we can’t afford. So Cindy did something that was in itself playful: she tweaked the titles of her talks to be palatable to the organizers, and went ahead and presented the play stuff under these new headings.

I think this story is OK to tell because there is no identifying information about the organization… but also because there’s something universally recognizable about it. We all know people who are Too Important to Play. These people will tell you that, like the Apostle Paul, they’ve put away such childish things.

What a shame.

I was reading Edwin Friedman’s book A Failure of Nerve recently (short review here) and he suggests that unwillingness or inability to play is a symptom of a regressive/unhealthy/anxious system:

Systemic anxiety… locks everyone into a pessimistic focus on the pathology within the [system] and it becomes almost impossible for such systems to reorient themselves to a focus on their inherent strengths.

What also contributes to this loss of perspective is the disappearance of playfulness, an attribute that originally evolved with mammals and which is an ingredient in both intimacy and the ability to maintain distance. You can, after all, play with your pet cat, horse, or dog, but it is absolutely impossible to develop a playful relationship with a reptile, whether it is your pet salamander, no matter how cute, or your pet turtle, snake, or alligator. They are deadly serious (that is, purposive) creatures.

I’m pretty sure salamanders are amphibians, and maybe some owners of pet reptiles will come along and correct Friedman’s/my assumption, but I found this fascinating. The group I was with during Cindy’s presentation talked about purposelessness being an important (though perhaps not essential?) component of play. My kids and I watch the reptiles at the pet store a lot, and there is nothing purposeless about these creatures. Contrast this with the kitties waiting for adoption, batting at children’s fingers poking into the cages, or even the ferrets, piling on top of one another. (And c’mon, are these mice having a ball or what?!)

We even have a term, don’t we: Lizard Brain, to refer to that irrational, hyper-reactive state in which minor roadblocks become life-shattering tragedies, in which knee-jerk black and white thinking trumps nuance, in which life’s normal adversities become evidence of abject victimization.

Now that I think about it, that term might be maligning our reptilian friends…

At any rate, it’s a sad way to live. It’s sad when politicians, reporters, pundits play off that anxiety to appeal to the lizard brain. And it feels to me like a lot of us have gotten pretty good at leisure but aren’t particularly good at play.

The transformation team at our church does something unusual at every meeting: we play a board game together. We take about 20 minutes and do Taboo, Cranium, or other lighthearted fun. It is a great bonding activity and helps loosen us up for great conversation. (I can claim no credit for this idea—it was a team member’s idea and the rest of us ran with it.)

Some time ago we attended a training with teams from other congregations. We talked about the fun we’ve had playing games together and how it has emerged as an important spiritual practice for us. The reaction was fascinating—people pushed back at the idea! “Well, we’d all have to agree on the rules.” “It would get too complicated trying to keep score.” “People would get too competitive.” (We don’t keep score, by the way.)

One of the trainers heard this discussion, stopped everyone and said, “Isn’t it interesting how quickly we go from hearing a new idea to listing all the reasons why it won’t work? And that’s exactly why we’re all here. To train ourselves to be open to new things in our congregations. Because the fact is, the way we’ve always done things doesn’t work in a culture that is increasingly non-religious and even hostile to Christianity.”

Now, board games are not the only way to be playful. And I am certainly not diagnosing the makers of those comments as anxious or captive to the lizard brain; I don’t even know them. But it was a striking moment. It led me to consider the times that I have been disdainful of purposelessness, of play.

My point of anxiety is always around the issue of time: There isn’t enough time! I need to be a “good steward of my time”! I’m the task-master that keeps this two-career-three-kids machine on track! So I find that my play needs to have a point. A product.

Something to keep my lizard eye on.

A Church That Reinvents Itself

I guess it’s partly because I’m a hopeless foodie, but I seem to find bizarre connections between restaurants and the church. I’ve explored before the trend of tiny restaurants as they relate to the gifts of the small, intimate congregation. Today it’s Grant Achatz’s new place, called Next, previewed in the NYT. (NEXT Church people: how can you not be intrigued? It’s right there in the name.)

From the NYT:

When a chef has nothing to prove and nothing to fear, what does he cook?

Now that is a compelling question!

Now 36, Achatz is at the top of his profession, having achieved his lifelong ambition last fall when Alinea was awarded three Michelin stars. He has the sober perspective and what-the-hell attitude brought on by a near-death experience.

That’s right. Achatz had advanced throat cancer and was told that his tongue would need to be amputated. His life would probably be saved but he’d be a chef with no ability to taste.

He sought a second opinion and is cancer-free today.

(Does it belabor the metaphor by pointing out the diagnosis some have given the church? Yes, some have called us “deathly ill.”)

His food at Alinea is already highly inventive; now, Mr. Achatz has set out to reinvent the restaurant itself.

Achatz felt he would be bored and complacent simply changing the menu every so often. So they will be changing the actual restaurant each season:

So, rather than the earthbound categories of Japanese, Italian or Peruvian, the food will evoke cloudier concepts: Kyoto in springtime; Palermo in 1949; Hong Kong in far-off 2036. A menu might be designed around a single day — say, the Napa Valley on Oct. 28, 1996, the day Mr. Achatz started work at the French Laundry, where he remained until 2001.

…All involved insist that Next will not be a kind of Disneyfied time-travel restaurant, but a serious exploration of culinary history and creativity, executed with the perfectionism that is entwined with Mr. Achatz’s intense personality.

Now on one level, there’s something crazy about this kind of restaurant—the prices are truly mind-boggling, and there are people who can’t afford to eat, after all. But there is something powerfully spiritual about a beautiful meal, be it in your best friend’s kitchen or a lovely restaurant. I remember hearing about a restauranteur that planned an autumn menu and somehow filled the restaurant with the faint aroma of burning leaves. People were in tears, remembering childhood days gone by and dearly departed parents and grandparents. (See Big Night and Babette’s Feast for more about the spiritual resonances found in food and drink. See also the stories of Jesus.)

So. When a church has nothing to prove and nothing to fear, what does it do? Maybe it does something radically new each season.
…Not as a gimmick, but as a challenge to innovate for the sake of the gospel.
…Not out of desperation, but out of an awareness that we, as a community are always changing.
…Not to be clever, but because people are starved for a real, authentic experience of God and community,
and maybe sturdy, reliable liturgies that change only imperceptibly over time aren’t going to cut it anymore.

We already have an incredible scaffolding at our disposal: the liturgical seasons. I’ve appreciated for years the fact that the Presbyterian order for worship is, basically, set. It’s the skeleton on which we put the skin and sinews each week. Which sure makes life easier in the throes of worship planning. Then again, should the season of Lent and the season of Eastertide really have the exact same skeleton, just with different hymns and prayers?

Random additional thoughts:

Maybe it’s a crazy bad idea. My nonagenarians would rise up and ride me out of town on a rail… joined by several Boomers and probably a Gen Xer or two.

Or maybe we already do this seasonal reinvention, sort of: sermon series, small group studies for Lent. I don’t know though, it feels like we could be even more daring.

This would take an incredible amount of effort. But it’s effort that could energize folks in very powerful ways.

Small churches seem ideally suited for this—it’s easier, perhaps, to be responsive to the real shifts going on in the community rather than changing for change’s sake. On the other hand, I’m talking about the layout of the worship space, liturgical art, music, maybe even lighting. You need people for this, not to mention some Benjamins to pull this off.

Would it create rotating congregations? People who check out until the new “menu” appears because they don’t like the current one? On the other hand, how is that worse than sticking with a single menu that appeals mainly to folks who’ve grown up eating that kind of food?

People who need church to be a rock, a place of consistency, would probably hate it… Unless the core values and practices could somehow remain constant and consistent. And they still might hate it.

Unless they absolutely love it.


Image: Testing oeufs Bénédictine for Next.