Useful Fictions

As I get ready for the release of God, Improv, and the Art of Living (have you pre-ordered?) I've been asked, in both interviews and regular conversation, “How has improv changed your life?” It’s a big question with a lot of small, everyday answers. Here’s just one: We all make assumptions about the people and circumstances around us, often without thinking critically about those assumptions. The improv principle of yes-and (to receive what is offered and to build on it) invites me to lean in the direction of compassion for others and myself in the assumptions I make.

For example, on a recent Saturday morning I was in a coffee shop, waiting my turn and growing increasingly late as the person in front of me placed a large and complicated order—about six hot beverages to go, each with some specific, nit-picking substitution or adaptation. Moment by moment, my irritation grew: I have somewhere to be. What is taking so long? Why do we all need these special snowflake drinks anyway? I fumed, preparing to order my decidedly uncomplicated tea.

Then I noticed that the man was wearing a suit. To pass the time, I found myself thinking of reasons why someone would be dressed up at 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Job interview? Stayed out all night and on his way home? Laundry day and everything else was dirty? I finally decided he was attending a family funeral, and had decided to pick up beverages for his fellow bereaved loved ones. And those picayune order details? Rather than being indulgences of an “I want it MY WAY!” society, they became a means for this gentleman to show care for people who maybe needed a little comfort on a very difficult day.

I obviously have no idea whether he was really going to a funeral. But ultimately, what does it matter? My little moment of improvisational imagination allowed me to breathe deeply, to relax into the waiting, and to beam a little love toward this stranger—and don’t we all need love? Making a decision to move toward charity helps me be the kind of person I would like to be—who I feel called to be. 

To be clear, I have to work constantly at this practice. My mind often wants to go to the least charitable interpretation of events. But improv reminds me that while I can’t always change or control the circumstances of my life, I have full control over my own yes-and.

Last week I was with 16 clergy colleagues for our annual “preacher camp,” called The Well. During our time together we delve deeply into scripture and theology through papers and sermons we share with one another. It’s always one of my favorite weeks of the year.

My friend Andrew Foster-Connors shared some ideas from philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah and his book As If: Idealization and Ideas that intersect with this idea of “yes-anding” in a positive direction. Appiah talks about the concept of “useful fictions.” No world of ideas can possibly represent the full truth, because our minds aren’t big enough to encompass it. So “there is a gap between what is true and what is useful to believe,” writes Appiah. This is even true with certain scientific principles, which are helpful in predicting outcomes, but are not always 100% accurate. Such principles aren’t strictly “true,” because they can’t predict outcomes in all times and all circumstances. They are “roughly right,” however, and therefore a useful belief.

I wonder what kind of beliefs you are currently clinging to, and whether they help you live as the person you are created to be. How might you alter those beliefs in the spirit of yes-and? What kinds of “useful fictions” might you play with? I’d love to hear your thoughts.


This post was shared with my email subscribers this morning. Would you like to receive these messages right in your inbox? Subscribe.

What I Dream About When I Dream About Running

Friends... I'm low on hope today. I'm still pretty sick about Newtown. And while I'm glad for developments like Sen. Bob Casey's change of heart on increased gun regulation, and I wish Vice President Biden the best, I have little hope that meaningful change will happen. The NRA bills itself as an organization that's all about the rights of individual gun owners, but it is increasingly funded by and cozy with the gazillion-dollar gun industry. I don't care how many earnest Facebook updates we write. It's about money and it's about clout.

I sent some money to Gabby Giffords, but still... I'm low on hope.


I woke up on this mid-January morning to discover that after three days of unnerving fog, we will now have three days of rain and ominously mild temperatures.

We have not had meaningful snow in three winters. Our normal average is 15 inches.

This is not the climate I moved into almost ten years ago. Yes... things have noticeably changed in less than a decade. Meanwhile, 2012 was the hottest year ever recorded.

Again, I don't have much hope that our leaders will do anything to combat climate change... despite this:


It just feels stacked against us, you know? We face difficult problems, and big debates need to happen. I may be wrong about stuff. I need to be called on things. But I don't like the feeling that might equals right and that the ones with the money call the shots. Yet that's what we're dealing with.

Is it a marketplace of ideas? OK fine, it's a marketplace. And some ideas are crackpot, and some are well-intentioned but based on bad data, and some are good but need some work. The problem is, there is no correlation between the validity of an idea and the amount of money behind it.


What do you listen to during your morning run when you're convinced the world is screwed? You listen to Krista Tippett. Krista will make it OK.

Boy howdy:

January 10, 2013

Compassion's Edge States: Roshi Joan Halifax on Caring Better

 It's easy to feel overwhelmed by all the bad news and horrific pictures in the world. This is a form of empathy, Joan Halifax says, that works against us. The Zen abbot and medical anthropologist has bracing, nourishing thoughts on finding buoyancy rather than burnout in how we work, live, and care.

Touché, Holy Spirit. Touché.

I will include the pertinent bit at the end of this post, because maybe you're feeling low on hope too.

The other part is that I had a dream last night that I was running a half marathon. But it was a ridiculous one. We were running up and down the ramps of a parking garage, again and again, for 13.1 miles. There were no water stations. It was too crowded. Some of the inclines were so steep I had to use my hands to hoist myself along.

I woke up irritated and griped to Robert about this blatant anxiety dream. But then while I was running with Krista and Joan in my ears, I realized something.

I didn't stop running.

No wait---I did stop. I had a hissy fit because this wasn't what I expected and it shouldn't be this way and who's the idiot in charge and I didn't even SIGN UP for this stupid race!!!

But then I started running again. And I didn't reach the end before I woke up. But I knew I was capable of keeping going. And it was enough just to know that. That's enough hope for today.



Here's the bit from the On Being show:

Ms. Tippett: And, you know, what I was thinking as I was reading this is it touches on something that's happening even also to us as citizens to a different degree. It's come up here at Chautauqua this week. Compassionate people are overwhelmed now with the deluge of terrible news. The pictures are too present and too vivid, you know, the news cycle is too relentless. I see pictures of children in faraway places that wreck me for a day, right? So the question that's in this room and I think is out there in the world and in this country right now is how do we find the courage? How do we heal enough? How do we be present to that and not be overwhelmed by it?

Ms. Halifax: Well, I think this is one of the reasons why I identified these edge states because, when you realize — and the issue that you were bringing up, for example, about violence toward children, whether subtle or direct, and also that we are subjected to these images through our media, bombarded, is, I think, a more accurate statement. So we enter into what we would call a state of moral distress and futility. And the moral distress is something that where we see that something else needs to happen.

Children need to be protected, we have to stop rape and violence toward women in the Congo, and we feel this profound moral conflict. And yet we can't do anything about it and we enter into a state either of moral outrage or we go into states of avoidance through addictive behaviors where we just, you know, don't want to deal with it or we just go into another state of withdrawal, a kind of numbness, or …

Ms. Tippett: Tune out, right?

Ms. Halifax: Into freeze. And I think a lot of this world that is hooked up in the media right now, that a good part of the globe is going numb. And I don't really agree, Krista, with the term "compassion fatigue." I think what we're seeing actually is not compassion fatigue, but empathic distress where there's a resonance, but we're not able to stabilize ourselves when we're exposed to this kind of suffering. When we are more stabilized then we can face the world with more buoyancy, we have more resilience. You know, we've got more capacity to actually address these very profound social and environmental issues. So that's why I call these things edge states because they really call us to our edge.

Ms. Tippett: I remember talking once to Ingrid Jordt who's been a student and a practitioner in the Burmese Buddhist tradition. She talked about a teacher of hers who had also been a teacher to Aung San Suu Kyi who talked about how the great virtues have near enemies. Do you know this teaching?

Ms. Halifax: Oh, yeah.

Ms. Tippett: And that a near enemy to compassion is sorrow and that's that sorrow, that's me getting wrecked by the picture of the child in the newspaper so that I can't actually help them.

The One Thing Job Didn't Lose

Things are very raw around Tiny Church right now with the death of our sweet J. It is particularly devastating given his big brother's death just three years ago at the same age (8).

We had a prayer service last night. I envisioned it as a place for people to grieve and to express sorrow, but also to begin to be equipped for the task of supporting B and L as they come home from Minnesota with their daughter in the coming days.

I want to thank my Facebook friends for helping me think through the phrase "God has a plan." I have never found that phrase helpful, and while I still don't, and don't keep it in my pastoral toolkit, many of you helped me understand what it can mean to people who use it. Those thoughts helped shape what follows.


As I think about this tragedy, my thoughts go inevitably to the book of Job. Job, you may recall, lost his children, he lost his fortune, he lost even his own physical health. Here is what happens next:

Job 2:11-13 Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They met together to go and console and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.

As you can see, one thing Job does not lose is his friends. And notice what they do. They go to him. They weep. They seek to console and to comfort him. They tear their clothes and throw dust upon their heads—that sounds weird to our modern ears, but in Job’s time, tearing one’s clothes was a sign of great distress. It shows that the fabric of life is somehow broken by this tragedy and cannot be easily repaired, if ever.

Then they sit with him in silence, for seven long days and seven dark nights. They refuse to leave his side, but they also do not feel the need to speak. Their presence is enough.

Then, something happens to Job’s friends and the story takes a sour turn. Maybe they themselves become uncomfortable with the silence and want to find an explanation. Maybe they think Job should be “getting over it” by now. Maybe they genuinely want to help their friend. But whatever it is, the friends begin to speak. And they speak for chapters and chapters, heaping on words that do not help, words that are not healing like that silence and their presence was. Words that say that Job must have sinned to incite God's punishment.

As the speeches go on, Job's friends increasingly call him to task, urging him to confess his sins, although they themselves are at a loss as to which sin he has committed. In their view of theology, God always rewards good and punishes evil, so on some level, Job must have invited this punishment. Through it all, Job refuses to accept their view of things, and the arguments continue for pages and pages.

Thankfully, our view of God has shifted, and is not that of Job’s friends. We know that there is nothing that J, or his parents, or his brother E for that matter, did to deserve the difficulties that they have faced.

And yet it is human nature to try to make sense of such tragedy. It is human nature to want to try to tie it up in statements about God’s plan, or God somehow needing more angels up in heaven, or God never giving us more than we can handle, or any of a number of statements we might make that appear to speak for God and God’s will.

I have a friend who is a chaplain at a children’s hospital, and she spends a lot of her time  with families who have lost children, trying to undo the hurt that is unwittingly done by friends whose intentions were good... but who, like Job’s friends, seem to get too uncomfortable with the silence and the questions, who need to insert their own interpretation on these matters. Who feel the need to defend God and God’s action, or lack of action, in the difficult events that have transpired.

Let me be clear: it is not bad to try to make sense of the events of our lives. "Where is God in this?" is a good and faithful question. And many of us have seen the ways that good can come out of even the most terrible of circumstances. But here's the thing: we cannot do that work for others. Any meaning that B and L wish to make of this event is theirs to make. We stand beside them and support them mightily through our love, and our prayers, and our tangible signs of support, and our witness to the love of God that we know in Christ.

Someone asked me the other day what to say. "I don't know what to say," she told me.

I love you, I care, I am praying for you, I am sorry, I am here for whatever you need.

That’s all that need be said.

You may also add, if you so believe, that God is working out God’s shalom, God’s peace, God’s healing in our lives, and that the suffering of little boys is not part of God’s intentions for this world. That God promises never to forsake us or leave us. That the death of Jesus means that there is no sorrow and suffering that God has not also participated in. And the resurrection of Jesus means that we live as people of hope, that death is not the end.

Our job is simultaneously very hard and very easy.

It is hard not to want to put our own interpretation on these events. To try to make sense of them as somehow God’s will, or part of the divine plan. It is hard to let the questions linger in the air, to live with the mystery, because mystery is painful. Why do children sometimes die? Why do others live to a ripe old age? Why are good people not rewarded with a long and untroubled life? These are painful questions and it is tempting to wrap them up. It’s hard to avoid that temptation.

But our job is also much easier. All we need to do is provide our presence. Like Job’s friends. That presence is enough.

Friday Link Love

Good morning! ...And away we go.


A Glorious Sight -- Andrew Sullivan

There's an article up at Scientific American about "glories," a quantum mechanical effect called wave tunneling:

The article is beautifully written, tracing the historical significance of glories (they can only be seen against one's shadow and thus may be one reason that holy individuals are seen with halos)...

Sadly, the article is behind a paywall, but what a lovely concept.


Move On -- Bernadette Peters, Stephen Sondheim

Yesterday was the King's birthday and many of us were gushing about him on Facebook. I remarked that this song is one of the best manifestos for art and life that I've found. Give it a listen.



The Scale of the Universe (Flash)

I'm certain I've posted this before, but it came my way again, and boy howdy. Spend some time with this.


Instructions -- Sheri Hostetler

Beautiful poem:

Give up the world; give up self; finally, give up God. Find god in rhododendrons and rocks, passers-by, your cat. Pare your beliefs, your absolutes. Make it simple; make it clean. No carry-on luggage allowed. Examine all you have with a loving and critical eye, then throw away some more. Repeat. Repeat. Keep this and only this: what your heart beats loudly for what feels heavy and full in your gut. There will only be one or two things you will keep, and they will fit lightly in your pocket.


Rachel Maddow and My Lesson in Civility -- Cal Thomas

A man apologizes, sincerely and humbly, for the red meat he threw at CPAC regarding Rachel Maddow:

The next morning I felt bad about it, so I called Maddow to apologize. It wasn't one of those meaningless "if I've offended anyone ..." apologies; it was heartfelt. I had embarrassed myself and was a bad example to those who read my column and expect better from me.

Maddow could not have been more gracious. She immediately accepted my apology. On her show, she said publicly, "I completely believe his apology. I completely accept his apology." To be forgiven by one you have wronged is a blessing, it's even cleansing.

More of this, please. From everyone.

And on the flip side of that...


The Internet Has Failed -- Bioethics Bulletin

Specifically internet comments:

Time was when ‘disabling comments’ on a blogpost was at best an indication of arrogance and at worst an indication that the author was an anti-democratic elitist who did not value the opinions of his or her readers. It is time, I think, for us to accept that disabling or deleting idiot comments is no more anti-democratic or elitist than refusing to engage with a person harrassing you on the street. Just because everyone is allowed to have their say, it does not follow that the bilge they say is worth listening to.

As I've said many times, anyone who rejects Calvin's doctrine of total depravity has obviously never spent time reading Internet comments.

What do you think? Is it time to disable comments at the "big" sites? (I am blessed with smart and civil commenters here at the Blue Room. Huzzah.)


Peace be with you.

When Helping Makes It Worse

The other day I heard this NPR story about the new trend in "voluntourism," in which folks combine vacation with mission by traveling to other countries and volunteering in orphanages in Asia and Africa. The story centered around one particular orphanage in South Africa. "We're here to try and give them good memories for the rest of their lives," according to one volunteer. The foreigners play with the kids, help with homework, maybe even provide medical support, if they have that kind of training. But the steady stream of strangers coming and going can be harmful for kids who have trouble building attachments. The constant abandonment can be detrimental to their ability to form deep relationships. An emotional callus forms.

These voluntourists provide unmistakable benefits to the orphanage, including much-needed support and yes, additional funds. The murkier question is whether the benefits outweigh the costs.

(As an aside, I also have to say that while I genuinely think that folks' hearts are in the right place---and travel and mission work can be so helpful to provide us with a broader perspective of the world---there are at-risk kids in every neighborhood in America that need to be played with and read to.)

I wonder where congregations fit into this. I can't count the number of churches I know who do mission work that includes working with orphans and children's homes. The best partnerships are ongoing and deeply relational. The church gets to know the staff and kids and are there to learn nad serve. Some of these partnerships have gone on for decades. Maybe it's not the exact same group of people coming from the church every year, but some folks do come year after year, so there is a consistency that might mitigate the abandonment dynamic.

Certainly the church is not immune from the dangers highlighted in the article. The potential is there for a drive-by dynamic that makes the volunteer feel good and useful but that doesn't honor the dignity of the other. But I think that congregations who have formed good and healthy partnerships could be a resource in this discussion.