On Being (A Little Bit) Courageous

Our eleven-year-old son still likes being read to at bedtime. Right now he and I are making our way through The Fellowship of the Ring, the first book in Tolkien’s classic Lord of the Rings series. I’m a die-hard fan of the movies—various scenes have made it into countless sermons and writings over the years—but I've never made it through the books. Last time I tried, I got mired somewhere in The Two Towers. We’ll see how it goes this time.

We’re still pretty early in the story. Frodo has barely made it out of the Shire on his epic quest when he encounters a group of elves, including Gildor Inglorion, a friend of Frodo’s uncle Bilbo. Frodo and Gildor spend the night discussing the journey ahead and the perils that are sure to come. Gildor says:

I do not think the road will prove too hard for your courage.

Such a beautiful statement! On one level, it’s a flowery way of saying, “You have what you need.” (I wonder how to say “You’ve got this!” in an Elvish language?)

But I’m also thinking about it from the other direction: 

If the road you’re looking at seems way beyond your courage, maybe it’s a sign that it’s not your road. 

I don’t think I’m being overly partisan when I say that we’re living through a very challenging age. Climate change looms largest in terms of high-stakes emergency, but I can easily think of a dozen runners-up to it. Everything feels urgent to me right now, and way beyond my capacities. 

As I continue to ponder my trip to Israel/Palestine, I keep thinking about the people I met doing justice and peace-building work. Like Suhad Jabi Masri, the Muslim woman whose organization serves several hundred children living in Balata refugee camp, a space designed for 7,000 in which 30,000 currently reside. Or Mitri Raheb, the Lutheran pastor who went from small-church parson to running a college that trains artists and leaders under occupation. Or Gerard Horton, the former Australian lawyer who now tracks and advocates for the rights of Palestinian children being detained by the Israeli military. (Read also about the Nassar family, whom I highlighted a few weeks ago.)

I’ll be honest: I felt pretty small, even cowardly, in the presence of these people. My faith—my courage—feels so paltry next to their example. They would probably hate this, for at least two reasons. First, because I suspect they don’t see themselves as heroes. (As Dorothy Day is quoted as saying, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”) But second, the people we met have been at this for years, if not decades. They didn’t start out with fully-funded NGOs and daring, well-developed vision statements. They simply saw a need, and a road toward meeting that need in ways that were probably small and modest at the time, but that flourished once the journey got under way. Once their capacity for courage grew.

The Quaker writer Parker Palmer has a podcast with singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer called The Growing Edge. I was struck by this great image from Parker a few months ago:

“They say, ‘Don’t run ahead of your breath,’ or ‘Don't get ahead of your skis.’ My growing edge is full of potential. But if I try to go beyond it before I’ve grown there, before I’m ready to be there, I’m gonna start doing some damage to myself or other people, because I don’t belong there yet.” 

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The problems we face seem so large, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. I suspect many of us would benefit from “right-sizing” our work: to find those tasks that scare us just enough to energize us, but don’t scare us so much that we never get started. To find the roads that are just right for our level of courage.

I laugh every time I pass this sign on one of the trails where I run. It’s so… sensible. So antithetical to the Lean In, Just Do It mentality that permeates our culture. But it’s wise. As André De Shields said in his acceptance speech at the Tonys this week, “Slowly is the fastest way to get to where you want to be.”

This may sound like a bummer of a post. Be courageous… but not too much! Don’t dream big, dream small! But I think Gildor is on to something. The road Frodo took was incredibly hard, but it turned out not to be beyond his courage… partly because he started simply and slowly. Right now, he’s just trying to get to Bucklebury. From there, who knows?

What might your courageous road look like?

We Refuse to Be Enemies

I returned yesterday from a week-long pilgrimage throughout Israel and the West Bank, sponsored by NEXT Church. It was an unforgettable experience. We visited a number of the traditional Christian holy sites, of course, but more significantly, we got to know people living in the region, including a number of folks working for NGOs that focus on peace and justice work. We visited places as varied as Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Memorial), the Balata Refugee Camp in Nablus, the Old City of Jerusalem and the Western Wall, Hebron, and the archaeological ruins of the ancient city of Shiloh, including a Q&A with an Israeli settler that was, in a word, jaw-dropping.

I’m only beginning to get my mind around the trip and what it all means. It’s certainly too soon to even think about writing coherently about it. In the meantime, I will share a little bit about Tent of Nations, an initiative of the Nassar family—Palestinian Christians who have lived on their land for more than 100 years (and have the papers to document it). They are surrounded by Israeli settlements and have been pressured and harassed to leave their land so the settlements can expand. Roads have been blocked to limit access to the property. A few years ago, some 250 of the family’s trees were cut down.

In response, the Nassar farm has become an education center and camp as much as a working farm, teaching non-violent resistance and seeking to model a different way of engagement with one’s neighbors. Their motto is emblazoned on a rock near the entrance:

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We refuse to be enemies.

As they wrote recently in an Easter message:

We are people of the resurrection, we are people of hope, we are people of light. We don’t know what tomorrow will look like, but our call will remain to change hearts even in times when we feel that we are still in the dark tomb.

Here’s a short video about Tent of Nations featuring Daoud Nassar.

Incredible people. Difficult challenges. Beautiful region.

Gratitude... and a Pre-Announcement Announcement

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“Increasingly I discover that being alive involves taking a chance, acting on less than certainty, engaging with life. All of this brings change, and for me the process of change is life. I realize that if I were stable and steady and static, I would be living death. So I accept confusion and uncertainty and fear and emotional highs and lows, because they are the price I willingly pay for a flowing, perplexing, exciting life.” 

-Carl Rogers

I heard this quote on a podcast while driving to a women’s retreat I led over the weekend. Carl Rogers was an American psychologist and one of the founders of modern psychotherapy as we know it. I was so struck by this quote that I pulled over to jot it down so I could refer to it later. It seemed a perfect segue into a weekend of considering improvisation as a spiritual and life practice. When we say Yes-And to what the world offers us, in a spirit of curiosity and possibility, we often find ourselves in a life that’s flowing, perplexing, and exciting. 

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It’s also a deeply meaningful message for me personally. This week marks the beginning of my fifth year of ‘free-range’ ministry. That ministry has included writing, speaking, a couple years of managing social media and communications for a global non-profit, and now, approaching my third year of leadership and ministry coaching. Not to mention running coaching, the side hustle for all my side hustles. Life is often hectic, but it’s a grand improvisation and I love it all. 

Over the last four years I’ve spoken at some 70 retreats, conferences, workshops, and guest preaching opportunities. Wow! That’s a lot of seeing the church in action, and I’m grateful for the bird’s-eye view. Add to that the wonderful perspectives I get teaching medical students at George Washington University once a month, and a new role as parish associate at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Herndon.

There’s plenty to fret about in the world, but spending time with so many fine groups of people, and being inspired daily by coach clients, reminds me that, as Carrie Newcomer says, the things that have always saved us are still here to save us. 

Speaking of those connections… I’m excited to offer a teaser of a new initiative I’m rolling out in March, called Living Improv. These are short video conversations about how people engage with the challenges and perplexities of life in a spirit of improvisation. Some are clergy, some are not; some have studied improv, but many have not. These videos will be accompanied by a short reflection by me, plus some questions for reflection/discussion. You don’t need to be reading God, Improv, and the Art of Living to engage with these videos… but if you’ve been looking for an opportune time to get a book study going, this is it!

The videos will be released via email newsletter, so subscribe if you want to receive them.

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I am beyond grateful to each of you for these bonds of connection and curiosity we’ve forged over the years. Thank you for your wisdom and companionship.

Onward!
MaryAnn

The Joy of Yes-And

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You may have seen the amazing video of UCLA gymnast Katelyn Ohashi absolutely nailing her floor routine—with precision, energy, and sass. If you haven’t, please check it out, and the Washington Post story about this amazing athlete.

My friend and colleague Kathryn Johnston summarized what was so powerful about Ohashi's performance:

What really caught my attention is how Katelyn Ohashi stepped back from training to be on the Olympic elite level because it was breaking her body and spirit. She decided to focus on her college career instead, and have fun doing it. Obviously from the video you can tell, she's still pretty damn elite. There's a sermon in there about going for our joy even when it's not what society says should be our joy. 

I need that sermon, as I’ve gotten myself in a bit of trouble with Yes-And lately.

Many of you know Yes-And as the cardinal rule of improvisation—we receive what is offered on stage (or in life) and build on it in some way. I’ve written about this, I speak about it, and it’s the place where I start in God, Improv, and the Art of Living.

And it’s something I still get turned around about. Too often, Yes-And becomes an excuse to add more and more to my schedule without removing anything.

We had our first snowfall in the DC area this past weekend, which meant a snow day for my kids on Monday. Meanwhile I had a number of phone calls scheduled, and a lot of “thinking work” I really needed to do.

Now, my kids are old enough to entertain themselves, and also entertain one another. I could have made those calls. I could have sequestered myself for a couple of hours and gotten the work done, popping out from time to time to make sure everyone was OK. And I have done that—it’s a staple for working parents, and a Yes-And of a sort… to say “Yes, this is a lot, and I’m going to embrace the chaos, juggling these handfuls of Jello as best I can, and being kind to myself when some of it splishes through my fingers.” A full, abundant life is a gift.

But for whatever reason, this time I took my own internal temperature, looked at the bigger picture, and Yes-Anded in a different way. I rescheduled my calls and subbed in some less taxing mental work. This enabled me to help my eldest with a looming school project, consult with the middle child on making the traditional snow-day pocket pies, and when my youngest came back in the house, stomping snow boots and shedding gloves and coat, I was ready with the hot chocolate. Most importantly, I saw this as a faithful expression of who I am and who I wanted to be that day.

Now, as Kathryn points out, Katelyn Ohashi is still performing at an extremely high level. But too often, our culture looks at people who take a step back in terms of what is lost. Maybe Ohashi will not end up at the Olympics as a result of her choice... but it’s clear from that performance how much has been gained.

Sure, sometimes Yes-And is a process of sheer addition, and making it work imperfectly and beautifully.
But other times—maybe more often—it’s about subtraction. Clarification. Deepening. 

One of my favorite follows on social media is elite runner Tina Muir. Tina is a serious athlete, logging hundreds of miles a month, and winning and placing in all kinds of races (she won the Army Ten-Miler here in DC in 2015). 

A couple of years ago, she left running altogether—arguably at the pinnacle of her own physical conditioning—because she hadn’t menstruated for nine years and had simply had enough of putting her body through that. She and her husband Steve wanted to start a family. 

Now, a couple of years later, she has a baby daughter, Bailey. She’s training again, but she trains differently. Her body has changed. She logs a bunch of her training miles with a jogging stroller. The demands on her life are more complicated. She’s also happier than she’s been in a long time.

She entered this weekend’s Disney Half Marathon with no expectations, but determined to run the 13.1 miles as best she could—to run them hard, and to run them joyfully.

Well… she won:

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...Now, just because you Yes-And and shift priorities and embrace the journey and all that stuff doesn’t mean you’re going to “win,” whatever winning means in your context. Results not guaranteed; this isn’t a formula.

But using Yes-And as a way of aligning with your deepest purpose means that winning no longer matters. The joy is its own sweet reward.

We Begin Again--A Workbook/Playbook for 2019

As many of you know, I love this time of year as a chance to ponder the previous year, clear out what needs to be released, and set some intentions for the year to come. Do I keep all of my intentions? Not even close. But that's not the point. The point is the practice itself--a process which may include self-reflection, celebration, lament, hope for the future, or all of the above at once.

Many of you have asked whether I would be creating another workbook/playbook for the new year. Well, here it is! I’ve been creating these for at least four years now, and I'm glad people find them helpful. This year's workbook/playbook is called “We Begin Again,” inspired by a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye.

In the spirit of World's Okayest, some of the pages are the same as in past years, but I’ve also added some new features and prompts. One of these days, I’ll partner with one of my graphic design-oriented friends to make it extra pretty. But in the meantime... use this with my blessing.

The workbook/playbook is a PDF file in Google Drive. Once you click on the link, look in the upper right corner of the window--there are options for you to download, print (it’s formatted for front and back), or other actions. Let me know if you run into problems.

I know some of you share this resource with friends, or complete the exercises with a small group--I’d love to hear how it's being used!

May your 2019 be filled with people and things you love, and that love you back.

Onward,
MaryAnn 

P.S. Technical note: If you use this link on your mobile device and it launches the Google Drive app, you may receive an error. In that case, please copy the link and paste it into your browser rather than clicking on it:
https://drive.google.com/file/d/1qj02y2doiZrJ3LQdxEHfCA56T-hV-_gd/view?usp=sharing 

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Wisdom for Times of Anxiety (with bonus playist just for fun)

The following was sent to my email subscribers this morning. To receive articles like these in your inbox, twice a month (at most), click here.

A coach colleague recently recommended the wisdom of psychologist Dr. Rick Hanson, who does a lot of work around anxiety. I caught an interview with him on the Anxiety Coaches podcast, which is a decent resource for people who struggle in this way. (There are a TON of episodes.) 

In his interview on the podcast, Hanson offered a mental trick for dealing with anxious moments. As I’ve pondered it and worked with it myself, I’ve come to appreciate it as one of those simple-but-not-easy things: Let Be, Let Go, and Let In. 

Let Go and Let In both made immediate sense to me. When we’re anxious or stressed, to the extent that we can, we should Let Go of the self-defeating thoughts or behaviors that aren’t serving us. Hanson is gracious in his guidance on this one: not everything can be let go of in the moment. Don’t worry about that. We should simply see if there is something, however small, that we can release. (As I like to say, quoting Anne Lamott, “Everything I ever let go of has claw marks on it.”)

Similarly, Let In seemed intuitive enough: when we let go, we create space to let in various positive thoughts and behaviors. What helps us feel calm and centered? Breathing? A walk? Talking with a friend? Laughter? Hopeful words? Welcome those things in, Hanson says, and they can help shift us away from acute anxiety. And even if they’re not effective in the moment, they help us build habits so maybe next time, the positive behavior can defuse the anxiety before it takes over.

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It was Hanson’s first step, Let Be, that was the new revelation for me. Before we can Let Go or Let In, we need to acknowledge where we are and receive it non-judgmentally. “Observe [your experience] and accept it for what it is, even if it’s painful,” he writes

Recently I was talking with someone who had gotten tightly coiled into their own anxiety. I found myself (gently) arguing with what seemed to me like a completely irrational series of thoughts. Of course, at the time I never would have called it arguing. I was “bearing witness to the truth!” or “holding hope when they could not!” or whatever flowery language we use when justifying ourselves for trying to fix someone.

It will not surprise you to know that my assurances did nothing to calm my friend. In fact, they seemed to make things worse. Finally I said quietly, “OK, you’re right. Sounds pretty bad.” 

I wish I could say I was pulling a Hanson and letting it be, when in reality I was simply frustrated and fresh out of arguments. But wonder of wonders, the person visibly relaxed, as if relieved that what they perceived really washappening in their head, and it really was pretty bad. And fairly quickly, they were able to come to a different, slightly more centered place. 

Let Be, Let Go, Let In. 
I’m a believer!

I'd love to hear what this stuff evokes for you.

And just because it’s fun, I put together a three-song playlist on Spotify to help reinforce Hanson’s idea, and to give you a little soundtrack to try this out yourself. See if you can guess what the songs are before you click through—it should be a pretty easy quiz… 

Onward,
MaryAnn

I'm currently booking speaking engagements for fall 2019 and beyond. To find out more, or to see if I'll be coming your way, check out my Events page.

Image is from the movie Inside Out. Sadness was pretty good at "letting be" with Bing Bong. 

Traffic Jams

I love the speaking work I do, because even when I’m presenting about a topic I’ve addressed before, I always learn something new. 

I was recently with a group of church leaders, exploring improv as both a spiritual practice and a tool for good leadership. We were talking about the pace of change and how overwhelming it can seem. As a visual parable for this, I showed the short video Rush Hour. In this clip, a normal intersection has been creatively edited to heighten the traffic congestion, with lots of near misses and narrow escapes. (Click on the video below, or use this link.)

People usually resonate with the video immediately, with most folks feeling some level of stress at all the close calls. One person in this group loved it, though, as an example of a well-run system: Congestion is inevitable, but if nobody collided, and traffic kept flowing, that’s a GOOD day indeed! 

We reflected on the ways in which ministry leaders must manage complex systems involving staff, volunteers, church members, the community, and more. Then one person made a point that will forever change how I see this video. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but here’s what I heard and have continued to ponder:

We deal with other people all the time in our work. And it’s easy to imagine each of us as one car, or truck, or pedestrian in that intersection. But actually, each of us is our own intersection. Each of us is managing untold roles, responsibilities, and relationships. Our traffic is both internal (did I lock the front door? why is my teenager ignoring me this time?) and external (I’m two days late on that report; the dryer is making that weird sound again). 

Boom!

I felt the deep truth of my colleague’s observation. At the same time, I felt that familiar “ker-plunk” in my gut as I realized how much more complicated this makes our task. It’s hard enough to navigate the perils of leadership when you see each person in the group as its own moving part. But team members are all a network of moving parts. And leaders are their own intersections too. I imagined one intersection superimposed on top of another, endlessly, like those clear plastic pages in science books that show individual systems of the body.

I’m still pondering the implications of this insight. I also know that, as a leader, I can’t be other people’s internal traffic cop. The best I can do is keep my own intersection running as smoothly as possible—and keep an eye out for potential fender benders—even as I try to be compassionate toward other people’s internal gridlock, collisions, and close calls.

I’ve long loved the quote, attributed to countless writers and philosophers, “Be kind, for everyone is fighting a great battle.” I recognize the truth of it, though I’m not always the best at living it. Maybe we could alter it slightly, to “Be kind, for everyone is fighting traffic.” 

Onward,
MaryAnn

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