When the World is Overwhelming

Greetings from St. Louis and the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly, a biennial meeting of pastors, elders, young adults, advisory delegates and more, who will deliberate and make decisions about the church, its mission and its future. I’m here on behalf of NEXT Church, talking up our coaching initiative, and offering free coaching sessions for people throughout the week. Some people are feeling stuck in their lives or ministries; others just want to debrief the events of this week. It’s always a holy task, this ministry of deep listening and asking important questions. 

The decisions made at GA include plenty of picayune insider stuff about the Presbyterian Church’s governance and structure. But we will also take stands and make statements addressing a number of issues facing our world, hopefully in ways that lift up justice and liberation. Yesterday we marched en masse to the St. Louis City Justice Center, carrying $47,000 to bail some 36 people out of jail. These are folks who are simply awaiting trial, but because they are too poor to afford bail, they are languishing in jail. 

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It was inspiring to put faith into action, and to do something public and specific to set captives free. 
It also feels like not nearly enough. 

It’s surreal to observe committee meetings and have conversations in hotel lobbies and a fancy convention center, knowing there are children along our southern border who have no idea when or whether they will see their parents again. News broke just last night of so-called “tender age” shelters for infants and toddlers. It is projected that some 30,000 children could fall victim to the family separation policy before the end of the summer. There are various proposals floating around Congress to end the practice, and as I write this, there are reports that the president will be signing a statement to that effect. Time will tell.

Immigration is a tough, tangled issue, befuddling countless presidential administrations, both Republican and Democrat. But as a Christian, this one isn’t hard. Jesus said in Matthew 25, “that which you did to the least of these, you did to me.” And he didn’t stutter. 

Many people I talk to are numb right now—the onslaught of news feels relentless, and it’s hard to even figure out what’s accurate, let alone what to do about it. And the actions of an informed citizen—writing a letter, casting a vote—feel so paltry in the wake of political forces that are much bigger than all of us. 

In the midst of this numbness, I keep thinking about an interview I heard with Lin-Manuel Miranda and Thomas Kail, the creative team behind the musical Hamilton. They were reflecting on the early days of working on Hamilton—writing, editing, and refining it—and how overwhelming it seemed. They adopted a motto, co-opted from Jerome Robbins when Fiddler on the Roof was in previews in Detroit. Things were not going well for the fledgling production. Kail says:

There’s this moment when Fiddler is really struggling, and Austin Pendleton, a young actor at this point, said, “What are we doing to do?” and Robbins said, “Ten things a day.” 

Just do the thing. Do the stuff that’s in front of you: “What can we accomplish today?” So we would come in after a show, and Lin and I would talk to each other… and we’d say OK, what can we accomplish at this time. And you just start chipping away.

 

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In my experience as a coach, many clients know where they want to go, but they’re paralyzed with the tremendous size of the task. So we work together on the principle of “ten things a day”—small, bite-sized pieces that slowly but surely move us forward. It's a way of staying present to today's work instead of tomorrow's results, which we can never control.

We live in chaotic, perilous times. Regardless of your particular convictions and beliefs, numbing out is a luxury we cannot afford. No one can do everything, but everyone can do something. At times, the “something” is to pull back and rest—but always in the service of a deeper engagement, one small act at a time.

What might be today’s “ten things” to help bring about the world for which you hope?
Five things?
One thing?

Onward,
MaryAnn

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The Secret of Really Successful People

Sure, I'm a big fan of Yes-And... but a faithful No is a part of that Yes.

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I saw this quote earlier this week and thought "Ooh, that's good..." Then within hours of reading this, I received an invitation to do something that would be fun and stimulating and meaningful, but that I suspect would be tangential (at best) to some of my most important personal and professional goals. 

Hmm. And ugh! 

What are you feeling called to say No to today?

Ten+ for Tuesday

This week I actually have more than ten good juicy links to share, so I'm grouping some of them together my topic, and not even trying to number them. Onward.

COMMENCE COMMENCEMENT

I love graduation speeches. Abby Wambach's address to graduates of Barnard College is totally fantastic--powerful and poignant, especially for the ladies. "GIVE ME THE EFFING BALL." 

And Jake Tapper provides an urgent reminder to Dartmouth seniors: "Mean is easy." 

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OTHER QUOTABLE QUOTES

What does Bill Murray do when he's feeling stuck? Find out here. And learn how improv can be a tool for putting people at ease... even on an elevator.

And from the Impossible Cool tumblr:

 “Love takes off the masks we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” -James Baldwin

“Love takes off the masks we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” -James Baldwin

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ANTHONY BOURDAIN

I wasn't a big follower of Bourdain, but I was touched by the outpouring of emotion after his death, and I'm eager to dive into some of his work. Here are three lovely tributes:

First, an article about his special bond with a Grand Forks ND restaurant critic who wrote an infamous review of the Olive Garden.

Second, the Very Smart Brothas (always essential reading) weigh in on his greatness:

That he chose, when coming to the ’Burgh, to speak on our cavernous racial disparities instead of just our cool, new downtown eateries and bizarre pierogi races is what made him who he was. He was a rich and powerful (and white) man who used the privilege that his riches, his power, his whiteness and his maleness provided to shed a spotlight on those without it. He was a tourist of the world who still treated people and cultures like people and cultures and not pamphlets.

And third, How Lebanon Transformed Anthony Bourdain:

In the episode [of his show], he talked about how he had come to Beirut to make a happy show about food and culture in a city that was regaining its reputation as the party capital of the Middle East. Instead, he found himself filming a country that had tipped into war overnight. Filming on the day the violence broke out, he managed to capture that split second where people’s faces fell as they realized their lives had been upended.

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MISCELLANY

First, a series of Twitter posts from a woman whose friends took a risk and swooped in when she needed it most:

  Click here for the full story.  This one resonated because the year my dad died, I had a newborn, we moved to DC, and I was ordained as a pastor. I don't think I was depressed to the level of this person--probably by outward appearances I was functioning fine--but I was completely overwhelmed and pretty deadened emotionally. So actually, who knows? Maybe it would have taken me months to unpack. But I'll never know, because when our stuff arrived on the moving truck, a crew from the church where I'd been working for just a few weeks showed up, with food and willing hands. By that evening they'd completely unpacked a three-bedroom house, down to the shelf paper in the kitchen cabinets. Beds put together. I'll never ever forget it.

Click here for the full story. This one resonated because the year my dad died, I had a newborn, we moved to DC, and I was ordained as a pastor. I don't think I was depressed to the level of this person--probably by outward appearances I was functioning fine--but I was completely overwhelmed and pretty deadened emotionally. So actually, who knows? Maybe it would have taken me months to unpack. But I'll never know, because when our stuff arrived on the moving truck, a crew from the church where I'd been working for just a few weeks showed up, with food and willing hands. By that evening they'd completely unpacked a three-bedroom house, down to the shelf paper in the kitchen cabinets. Beds put together. I'll never ever forget it.

Next, the power of doubt: it gives us alternate ways of seeing the world.

Giant Humans Take Over Landscapes in these collages. I get worried that photoshop and other editing technologies will soon make it impossible to tell fact from fiction, even in photographs. But these tools also create lovely images of whimsy like these: 

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A jolting image for our times: "Refugees: La Sagrada Familia," by Kelly Lattimore:

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Mari Andrew, being brilliant and funny as usual:

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And finally, in honor of Pride month: The American Revolution’s Greatest Leader Was Openly Gay. Who knew?

To the revolution!

My Friends Make Stuff

I've got two books on my nightstand that I hope you'll add to yours... they're even more meaningful to me because I know both of the authors!

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First: Patrice Gopo's All the Colors We Will See: Reflections on Barriers, Brokenness, and Finding Our Way is available for pre-order. I met Patrice at a Collegeville Institute writing workshop last summer, and was touched by her warm spirit and sharp, elegant prose. The book is a series of essays from her experience as a child of Jamaican immigrants, who grew up in Alaska, and later traveled to South Africa. They now live in Charlotte. This is a book about race, immigration, identity, nationality... everything we need to be talking about right now. But it's told through a personal lens, which makes it both intriguing and relatable. 

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Second, Chris Holmes's The Art of Coaching Clergy: A Handbook for Church Leaders, Clergy, and Coaches. OK, maybe this will only make it onto certain nightstands, but if you fall into any of those categories, this is one to check out. Chris led my coach training last year and I value his wisdom and guidance so much as I dig into this emerging vocation. I do find myself coaching a lot of clergy (and writers!) Coaching is a powerful modality for ministry, because it provides tools for walking alongside and helping people churn their way to solutions, action, and accountability. It gets people MOVING, in other words, not in a top-down way, but in a playful, exploratory, client-driven way. I'll be honest: I love it when a client says "Good question... I never considered it like that." But I really love it when that conversation leads the person to action in a way that deepens a sense of faithfulness, purpose, and joy. Looking forward to digging into this book.

What's on your nightstand?

World's Okayest, Japanese-Style

Happy June! Summer is here… almost. My kids still have two weeks of school left. As I watch Facebook friends post about vacations and lazy afternoons, we’re still in the thick of exams and projects. We’re so ready to be done. It feels like we limp across the finish line every year. Meanwhile swim season has begun, so the house is cluttered with backpacks and math packets AND goggles and wet swim suits. It’s chaotic and cluttered—not my favorite mode of being.

I wrote to you a couple months ago about #WorldsOkayest, which is my latest spiritual challenge. As a recovering perfectionist, it’s a constant struggle to remind myself to accept, and even love, the ragged edges of my life. Hence my interest in improv, as a way to confront that tendency in myself and transform it in a playful way. The fact is, perfectionism can keep us rigid and stuck. As I write in God, Improv, and the Art of Living: “Given the choice between the perfect action that remains in my head and the imperfect action that’s actually lived out, my natural inclination is to choose the former almost every time. But improv doesn’t allow for such theoretical perfection—messy reality is always the better course.” 

Turns out there’s an ancient Japanese philosophy at work here, known as wabi-sabi. It’s more of a sensibility than a doctrine, but as I understand, it’s about seeing beauty in simplicity, the ordinary, and the imperfect. 

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A friend recommended the book Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers, and I’ve been reading and re-reading the slim volume as I consider the wabi-sabiness of my own life. Here are a few nuggets that resonate with me right now: 

“Greatness” exists in the inconspicuous and overlooked details.

Beauty can be coaxed out of ugliness.

A wabi-sabi state of mind involves acceptance of the inevitable and appreciation of the cosmic order. 

Wabi-sabi is exemplified in that which is irregular, intimate, unpretentious, earthy, and murky. (Oh how I love the sound of the word “murky”!)

Where do you see wabi-sabi in your life? Here are a few of mine:

  • The raggedness of my son’s hair. He refuses to get it cut and it’s driving me crazy… except it’s lovely and thick and perfect for ruffling, which he still lets me do at 10 years old.
  • The remnants of a pedicure I should really get redone, but I got it the week I was with my beloved clergy group, and it’s a sweet, imperfect reminder of that time.
  • This post. I feel like I should write more, write better, write meticulously. But it’s bedtime for the kids, and a glass of wine with my husband is waiting, so for this moment I will trust the spirit to speak through quick words.

Onward,
MaryAnn

Image is from the charming children's book Wabi-Sabi by Mark Reibstein. Wabi-Sabi is the name of the cat.

Order God, Improv, and the Art of Living 
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Ten for Tuesday

Onward!

MY FRIENDS MAKE STUFF

My friend Bobby Williamson has a book coming out in August--Forgotten Books of the Bible. I can't wait to read it. Here's a teaser--the introduction is available online. Pre-order from Amazon here.

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Second, my ludicrously talented friend Alan H. Green just collaborated a bunch of other musicians to record this sweeeeeet cover of Luther Vandross's "Never Too Much":

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FIGHT BACK WITH BEAUTY

Next, three stories about luminous empathy:

While out for a jog, she discovered a baby buried alive. Twenty years later, they reunite.

Woman becomes best friends with a bee she rescued. (Video)

Dog rescues his pooch friend from drowning in a pool. (Video)

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NEWS YOU CAN USE

Instagram, Snapchat, Fortnite: The distractions are endless. Here’s how to help kids cope. (WaPo)

The Fun Scale (REI) Three types of fun. What do you think?

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LADY GEN-XER INSPIRATION

Two articles that came to me this week--both resonated:

How to Survive Your 40s (NYT)

The Midlife Unraveling (Brene Brown) This is stellar.

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AND ONE FINAL WOW

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If Planet Earth can still be a work in progress, maybe each of us can be too. 

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REMINDERS

We're running a selfie contest through this Friday! Take a picture of yourself with a copy of God, Improv, and the Art of Living, then post it to social media, tagging me and/or using the hashtag #improvliving. You'll get entered into a contest to win a signed copy of the book for yourself or a friend.  

Aaaaaaaand, for runners, or people who'd like to be: I'm running a fall race special and have a few slots left:

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Read This Now: Denial is My Spiritual Practice

Some book ideas are so brilliant, you kick yourself wishing you’d had them. Eat Pray Love was one of those. (Convince a publisher to pay you an advance to travel around the world to get over your divorce? I’m all in for that... except the divorce).  

Denial is My Spiritual Practice: And Other Failures of Faith is another one of those “wish I’d thought of that” titles. But my admiration goes way deeper than my envy over Elizabeth Gilbert’s book. Here is a book that deeply resonates and that I gratefully admire. I’ve been on somewhat of a personal crusade to embody “World’s Okayest” lately, and this work shares a similar ethos: life is messy, grief-riddled, traumatic even. It is also beautiful, interesting, and grace-soaked.

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Martha Spong and Rachel Hackenberg are the co-authors of this book of essays, weaving together scripture, personal narrative, and spiritual reflection. Works by multiple authors can be a tricky business; sometimes readers find themselves adoring one and merely tolerating the other. These two wise and funny clergywomen are well matched while being distinct voices from one another. Rachel* previously authored Writing to God and Sacred Pause, and Martha edited and contributed to There’s a Woman in the Pulpit. (I’ll admit, I’m longing for a solo effort from Martha. Pretty please?) 

The book is organized into nine sections, with twin essays in each section. The format makes it easy to read in small doses, but the writing is so immersive, you may find it hard to put down. Many of the experiences described in this book are harrowing—an abusive ex, a terrible car accident, a rape during college—but because Martha and Rachel are skilled narrators, the book is no parade of woe. They both embody the preaching dictum to “preach from your scars, not your wounds,” without sacrificing the immediacy and authenticity needed for such explorations to edify, encourage and illuminate.

Many readers know my deep love of singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer, bard of the sacred ordinary, whom I’ve credited with providing the soundtrack of my life for some two decades. The careful observations and warm turns of phrase in this book struck me as very Newcomer-ish. Many ideas here made me mentally (and in some cases audibly) gasp. Martha writes about the reaction of extended family when she comes out to them and observes, “Maybe it shouldn’t have surprised me that the people who expressed the least interest in my inner workings were the most put off by knowing something true about me.” Boom, ouch, and wow.

Denial is My Spiritual Practice bills itself as a "companion for the wondering and struggling... The authors offer their own stories as evidence that God remains, both when faith fails and when faith finds new understanding.” It is, and they do, and God does. 

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*I hope they’ll both forgive the informality of my referring to them by their first names. Part of this is that I’ve known both of them personally and as colleagues for many years. The last name convention feels a little distancing. I admire them both for what they write and who they are!

Surf the Problems

Recently I read an interview with George Miller, co-writer and director of 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, a phenomenal but brutal-to-watch film. Miller was talking about a pivotal scene in which Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron, receives some devastating news: the Green Place of Many Mothers, where Furiosa had lived as a child, and the place to which she and Max (Tom Hardy) have been trying to escape, no longer exists. Furiosa had been clinging to hope that they could find refuge there from the dystopian hellscape that had bound them. The destruction of the Green Place is also the destruction of her hope.

How would Miller capture Furiosa’s reaction to this news? He knew he wanted to film her from a distance, with barren sand dunes all around her. Unfortunately, the wind in the African desert where they were filming that day was blowing, well, furiously.

“Instead of cursing the wind,” Miller says, “I looked behind us and saw that the dunes had this wind blowing sand across them and the sun was getting low in the sky. I thought, ‘She could walk across the bridge of the dune and into the sun and just respond however she would, having completely lost all hope.’” 

With that vague instruction, and not much of a plan, Theron staggered onto the dune like a wounded animal, dropped to her knees, and screamed into the sunset. In an epic film, full of bizarre and arresting images, this one may be the most iconic—and wrenching:

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What struck me is that Miller called this approach “surfing the problems.” The expression resonated with me instantly. I also realized, it’s probably my biggest growing edge as I think about what it means to improvise life.

I know people who surf the problems well—I’m married to one, in fact—who come alive amid a certain amount of chaos, who are at their best when things are at their worst. Sadly, that is not me. In my good moments—in my very good moments—when life is going well, I can approach my life with flexibility, playfulness, and intuition. But what about when everything’s going haywire? That’s when improv is needed the most, and that’s exactly when my resistance takes over, when my need for control and my sense of justice flare up. (Who cares what’s “fair”? What’s happening is what’s happening.)

Today’s reflection doesn’t have a pithy wrap-up, because it really is something I struggle with. Instead I’m wondering, what comes to your mind when you think about “surfing the problems”? When have you done this well? What resources helped you along? Who are the people in your life who show you the way? And what might the world around us look like if we embodied this approach more fully? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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