Frayed Threads and Saliva: On Knitting and Life Changes

I’ve often said knitting is the most theological of the fiber arts. (Knitting shows up as a metaphor in both the Psalms and in Paul’s letters!) 

Case in point:

I’ve been going through some stuff lately. Someday I’ll write about it, but not now. I’m trusting it’s all in the service of good and positive transformation, though that trust is easier said than done.

In the meantime, for the past year I’ve been making a temperature blanket. It’s a large project, but really easy:

  • One row for each day of the year (so the blanket will be 365 rows when I’m done).

  • Color of the row is determined by the temperature that day. For my blanket, 91-100 degrees is red, 81-90 is pink, 71-80 is purple, etc.

And since I’m running All Of The Miles this year in anticipation of my 50 miler, I’m also adding one simple lace stitch for each mile I run:

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The only tricky part is changing colors, sometimes on every row. There are a variety of techniques I looked at, but many of them involved more sleight of hand than I could manage. (There’s a reason my bio calls me a “haphazard” knitter.) The easiest method is to cut the previous yarn and tie it to the new color, but then you have a weird bump in your project and loose ends to weave in.

My mother the master knitter recommended something called spit splicing. I love this technique, not only for the ease and fun of it, but because it feels exactly like my life right now.

With spit splicing, you basically cut both the old and new pieces of yarn and fray the ends like this pink piece:

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Then you put the two frayed ends in your mouth and get them nice and slick, then twist them together so they’re wrapped around one another:

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Finally, you rub the twisted piece vigorously for a good 20 seconds up against something a little coarse. Denim is great for this, and since I wear jeans most of the time, I can spit splice anywhere. The result is a new single strand of yarn that consists of the two colors tangled together: 

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Every time I knit a new row, I think about my life and the transformation that's happening. I think I’m leveling up, spiritually speaking. It’s also possible this is a lateral move. Not all change is change for the better. Sometimes it’s just… different. Sometimes it’s worse, to be perfectly frank.

Jury’s out on all that. For now, I see a lot of spit splicing going on, both in my life and in the lives of people around me: loved ones, friends, and people I coach. Here’s what I’ve noticed:

Change isn’t “clean.” According to the YouTube video I consulted, saliva works better than tap water. I haven’t tried anything but spit, and why would I? I’ve knitted this blanket on planes and trains, while watching movies with family, and on a camping trip. Water isn’t always available. But also, there’s a stickiness to saliva, so I believe the YouTube is right. 

Change ain’t pretty, friends. It’s made of sloppy stuff.

Change isn’t comfortable. When I first started spit splicing, I was way too ginger about it, and when I would gently tug on the new strand to make sure it was properly spliced, it would often come apart. Friction is a part of the process. Lots of it, sometimes. It’s amazing how strong the resulting piece can be… but you really have to do the work.

The raw materials matter. My mother gave me the yarn to make this blanket, and it’s a nice-quality wool. Good thing, as it turns out: synthetic fibers cannot be spit spliced; only the natural stuff will do. Similarly, I’m realizing that for me to weather this change well, I have to lean into my authentic self. That means feeling what I feel and embracing the messiness. Being as real as I can. (I hate this a lot of the time, to be honest.) 

Change is incremental. In seminary we learn the phrase “liminal space,” then overuse it within an inch of its life, then make fun of ourselves for using it. Maybe I’m coming back around to the term though. Liminal space is that in-between time when the old and the new mingle together: 

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I like that the beginnings of rows show a bit of both colors. That’s where I am right now—the new color is emerging, but little tufts of the old ways are still poking out quite a bit. That feels true to me, and I think that’s OK. As a mentor used to say when asked how she was doing, “I’m in the process of becoming wonderful.” 

Where do you see change in your life? How is it emerging?

Onward,
MaryAnn

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Note: This message was sent to my email newsletter this morning. Subscribe to receive these dispatches straight to your inbox.

P.S. Bonus link! I wrote recently about new ways to think about goal setting for the International Coach Federation blog.

Rumors of the Church's Demise Are Greatly Exaggerated: An Interview with Nate Phillips

 coverEvery so often I have the fun opportunity to highlight some great writing, or a good book I think people need to know about. Today we talk to Nate Phillips, a pastor and the author of Do Something Else: The Road Ahead for the Mainline Church. This post is primarily addressed to people in the church, especially mainline churches such as the Presbyterian Church (USA). But I hope others will read on---especially if you think the culture has "moved on" from Christianity and religion in general. There's life and transformation in the old girl yet.

In our interview, Nate also talks about the vulnerability and courage required in writing a book like this--or any book, really. I resonate with that so much and thank him for naming it.

1. What inspired you to write this book?

On the one hand, it was personal. I’m about to wind up my first decade of ministry and I have so much gratitude for the privilege of being a pastor. As a kid, I never could’ve dreamed that I would have the honor to do what I am doing today. I take some time to write about that in the first chapter of the book.

That said, there is a part of me that finds the preconceived expectations of ministry, and church leadership in general, a tad misleading. In the book I say,

I long to rediscover a real, maybe even cosmic, purpose in my work. Did I really take those ordination vows to referee squabbles over Styrofoam cups, worship service times, and the color of the carpet? Did I take on seminary and the clerical robe so that I could take out the old sound system and the grumpy antagonist? Did I master the theological and exegetical so that I could manage the janitorial and administrivial? That is where so many of us are.

On the other hand, I had a corporate reason for writing the book. Mainline denominations are coming off a pretty difficult season of disruption and schism. Several of my friends are included among those who left my denomination - PC(USA) - and took their church with them.  Maybe it is me, but it seemed as if some did so while looking down their nose at those who stayed, in a sort of delegitimizing way.  

That agitated me. 

Writing the book was a way for me to say, “No, you’re wrong.  We are doing good work in our churches. We are shaped by the gospel. We profess Jesus as Lord, albeit clumsily at times. Here’s proof.”

2. What will people gain by reading this book that they won’t get anywhere else?

People are going to get to know some really great characters in mainline church leadership - a healthy hodgepodge of Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Episcopalians.  As I put it in the book,    

I went on a journey, for all of our sakes. It was a treasure hunt, of sorts. Along the way, I met the most fascinating people. They have bright faces. They are taking risks, building favor, listening well, and creating community in ways that remind me, and will remind you, of why we got into all of this in the first place. 

But, more than that, they are going to read about what makes their ministry tick.  I really tried to balance the inspirational and the practical.  I want people to read the book and say, “You know, I think Becca is great AND I see how she got things started.”  Ultimately, I want church leaders to feel like they can use this book to leverage their own ideas.  My hope is that people will run to their governing boards and say, “Here, look at how Mike is doing this in Texas!” or “Jessica is pulling this off in New Jersey, why can’t we?”

Finally, you are going to get a glimpse of my story, one of growing up as a church-kid in the woods of rural Maine.  Mission at the Eastward (a nine-church cooperative parish) shaped me in a profound way and, so, this book is a love note to that expression of the church.  

A love note to the church?  I’m not sure you get much of that anywhere else these days!

Nate Phillips

3. Your book is chock full of encouraging stories about real people doing incredible ministry. How did you find connect with all of these folks?

Several of the folks that I profile in the book I knew personally, so asking them to be part of the project was a way for me to affirm them and for them to support me.  That was the easy part.

After that, things were a bit more work.  I was really committed to making this a book for the mainline - not just my little corner of the Presbyterian Church - and so I reached out to a handful of networked leaders.  This is where Bruce Reyes-Chow (Presbyterian), Ian Markham (Episcopal), Tom Dickelman (Presbyterian), Drew Dyson (Methodist), and Jessicah Duckworth (Lutheran) were especially helpful in suggesting names to reach out to.

Then it was just a matter of sticking my neck out and asking.  This whole process has been a battle with my fear of rejection and waiting on return phone calls and emails was  nerve-wracking. I thought that people (especially these brilliant people) would be more skeptical of my idea, but I only had one person turn me down.  When you think about it, most of these people are doing what they are doing because they are willing to put themselves out there, so taking an interview with me wasn’t a huge stretch.  I am really grateful for their trust in me and I hope readers will appreciate them as much as I do.

4. Share one story, quote or section in the book of which you are particularly proud.

You are going to make me pick!?

Each chapter shares pretty much the same format.  I begin with an open-ended illustrative story, do three or four profiles, and then close with the ending of the opening story.

Each one of my little profiles has its own identity and I allowed myself a lot of creative license in building them. That is, I want people to be able to pick up the book and not feel like they need to read the whole thing or even a whole chapter to get something out of it.  It might even be best to just read one profile at a time and chew on it for awhile.

Here is a taster for the profile on The Slate Project out of Baltimore, Maryland:

With a flick of her wand, the Blue Fairy gives Pinocchio a mouth to speak and hinges on his wooden limbs so that he can dance. In his great excitement at this gift, Pinocchio makes the mistake of believing he is real. 

“To become a real boy,” the Blue Fairy corrects Pinocchio, “you must prove yourself brave, truthful, and unselfish.” 

She knows that a little puppet can be alive without being real and, to be real, there are certain, specific conditions that Pinocchio must meet. Sometimes the church falls into “Blue Fairy Syndrome” when it assesses new creations in ministry. Does it meet our standards for legitimacy? Can we measure it in the way we always measure things? Yes, it is “alive,” but is it “real”? Jason Chesnut, the Gepetto of the online ministry The Slate Project, hears the “Blue Fairy” interview regularly and he’s surprising her with his answers.

Jason’s work began through a generous investment by an ELCA  …

5. Dream time: where would you LOVE to see this book get covered? (Krista Tippett? Colbert?)

Maybe it is because this is my first book project, but there is part of me that is terrified that it could be covered in a super-public way. I’m not sure I want to trust my vulnerabilities and half-formed notions with an audience outside of the (hopefully) forgiving church world. I suppose that is no longer in my control!

I would LOVE to hear that this book is being used by people I admire - like George Anderson who is doing amazing work with the Trent Symposium or Landon Whitsitt who always seems to be discovering a new way of inspiring the church. If, for instance, Kenda Dean, used this book in the innovative work she is doing at Princeton Seminary, I would be over the moon. When I read her endorsement of the book I thought I might pass out.

~

Best of luck to Nate on the release of this book! I hope you'll check it out.

On Caitlyn Jenner, and Pastoring a Transgender Person

150601-caitlyn-jenner-jsw-1240p_f905633d5cc73c24b5c0da7bc2ade414.nbcnews-fp-1200-800The Internet is awash with reactions to Caitlyn Jenner's photos in Vanity Fair magazine. Some thoughtful stuff, and plenty that's predictably... less than thoughtful. I write this post with some trepidation, because there's still much for me to learn, and I hope those who have walked this road will offer correction with a generous spirit, for it's in that spirit that I write this. This tip sheet from GLAAD is helpful. I had the opportunity to provide pastoral support to someone as she made a male-to-female transition. Her story is hers to tell, but this is a little of mine as I walked with her. (She was not on the membership rolls of any church I served. I say that to protect her identity and so people don't go wondering and digging. I'll call her Jade.)

I felt this person's anguish as we met over a period of months. It seems hard enough to be gay or lesbian, to go against society's default expectations and perhaps one's upbringing, to experience discrimination and sometimes harassment. But to be transgender--for one's body not to conform to what one knows so deeply to be true of oneself--seems a particularly tough burden. Violence against transgender people is proportionally high. For many (though not all) transgender people, the answer is surgery, or as I learned, surgeries. And of course, these procedures are expensive and very involved, and thus out of reach for many people.

The person I met with asked me over and over again, "Am I a mistake? Does God make mistakes?" As someone who tries to be not only a straight ally, but a straight Christian ally, these questions felt important and agonizing. I read up on Christian resources for transgender people, and we talked a lot about Jesus' ministry with society's "misfits and outcasts." We read the story of the Ethiopian eunuch, which to me is a clear sign that grace is a gift offered to sexual minorities too. Mainly I told her that the God I believe in loves us all unconditionally and wants shalom--wholeness--for us all.

The first time we met, when she was still contemplating a physical transition and what it might mean, I prayed for her by name---her female name. When she raised her head her eyes were filled with tears. "I am Jade. That's who I am."

I'll be honest. It didn't feel comfortable---I previously knew this person by a male name. But it was right. And this is what we do as pastors, isn't it? It's not about our own comfort. It's about naming the grace of God that we are all living toward. It's about claiming the abundant life that Jesus promises.

And Jade claimed that abundant life. It wasn't easy and it still isn't. Loved ones don't always get it. Family systems are complicated. But when I saw her after one of her surgeries, I couldn't believe the transformation. I'm not talking about breast augmentation and a reduced Adam's apple. I'm talking about the peace that radiated from every pore. I'm talking about the way she carried herself. I'm talking about the carefree smile she gave me. You'd have to be blind not to see it.

Maybe, maybe, my prayer in which I invoked her new name was a gift to her. But that last meeting we had was a gift to me, because I saw wholeness and transformation in the flesh. I still don't understand being transgender. Is it a quirk of evolutionary biology? But I don't have to understand it. My job is to point to abundant life, and then to celebrate as Jade and others seek to embody it.

In the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, there's a saying, "Happy, joyous and free." The gospel isn't the gospel unless it moves us toward happy, joyous and free. That's all I know.

What Will Be in 2015?

The week of New Year's is one of my favorites of the year. The run-up to Christmas is over but schedules aren't quite back to normal, so things are quieter, more relaxed. The kids are out of school (though they've been driving me a tidge crazy at times). And my birthday so close to New Year's invites reflection and taking stock. I love the idea of the new year being a clean slate. I need that every year. (I need it more often than that, actually---thank heaven for the weekly prayer of confession in worship, when we let go of the brokenness and ask that it be healed and renewed.)

As I think about what 2015 might bring to birth in my life, the following video came my way, "Acorn" by Madeline Sharafian. I love the story that's told in just 4 beautiful minutes. I'm touched by this little acorn's attempt to fulfill its destiny of "acornness," yet in its own unique way. That is our human calling, is it not? I heard Jesuit priest and writer James Martin tell Krista Tippett this week:

As [Thomas] Merton said, for me to be a saint means to be myself. ...I remember in the novitiate, there was a young novice who would get up in the morning at 6:30 and pray all the time. And I thought well, gee, to be holy, I guess I have to do that. So I'd get up and I'd pray, and I was falling asleep all the time. And then there was another novice who was super quiet, so I thought oh I have to be really quiet, and diffident. And, sort of soft spoken. And my spiritual director said to me, what's wrong with you? You're so quiet. I said, well, so-and-so's quiet. And he's really holy. And he said, you know, in order to become holy, you don't become someone else. You just become yourself.

Whether you're a resolution/intention-maker like me or not, I invite you to watch this in with a seeker's heart and consider the hard work of transformation and the grace at play as well. What might 2015 hold for you?

http://vimeo.com/86362805

As the artist says in her description: "Growing up is hard, but it's also beautiful. We can do it!" Indeed.

Art to Inspire... Plus a Giveaway!

The Blue Room is undergoing a few changes. No, not this website---the actual blue room, our dining room-turned-office and craft space for which this website is named. The Blue Room is a symbol for the stuff in our lives that doesn't work that needs to be reimagined to embrace the way things are, not the way we think they should be. With three young children, we never used our formal dining room. But I did need a study at home. And the kids would benefit from a place where they could play around with glitter, paint, glue and stickers. Preferably a place without carpet...

So during Snowpocalypse of 2010, our Blue Room was transformed from a useless place to a space for life and creativity.

I realized recently that despite the symbolism of the Blue Room, the walls have been adorned with the same artwork I've had for a long time. I don't remember when I got this labyrinth poster (scroll down for the only image I can find online), but it was well before the 1999 gathering being advertised.

And Jane Evershed's First Supper has been with me for many years. As a former Baptist who grew up with a blond Jesus and very male-centric images of God and Jesus' closest followers, I love Evershed's table, with 12 multi-racial and beautifully adorned women raising their glasses into the air. (Which one is the host at the table? Which one is Jesus? None of them. All of them.)

But life moves on. And now I have one of these, a rendering of the cover of Boston Magazine from last spring:

o-BOSTON-MAGAZINE-570_original

Peace, love, and running.

Here's poster #2. Brain Pickings is one of my favorite sites, and Maria Popova recently published Seven Life Lessons from her work on the site. The folks Holstee Company came up with a beautiful graphical rendering of it. It arrived last week and is hanging on the nail I used for the Evershed poster. The placement isn't quite right in the room, but I love it. A closeup from their website:

holstee_7things5

Which brings me to the giveaway. The Holstee company initially sent me their manifesto poster by mistake. The corrected the order, and asked me to keep the poster. But I want to share the love. So comment here or on my Facebook page with a recent "Blue Room" experience: either something you've reconfigured to fit your life as it really is, or something you know you need to reconfigure. (Or a general "hi" is fine too.) Each comment will be entered once. Submissions are due by Friday August 22 at midnight EDT.

Here's Holstee's manifesto poster (actual size 18x24"). Good luck to everyone!

Holstee-scan

What's Your Pain Tolerance? Essential Questions for Leadership

I meet monthly with a group of pastors to talk about ministry, leadership, family systems stuff and more. (We also catch an occasional Nats game.) Today our facilitator shared this handout which inspired much discussion:

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The most effective leaders strive to be in quadrant B: high "pain tolerance" in self and in others. Pain tolerance in this case means willingness to experience discomfort in order to move a system forward, fostering growth and needed change.

I'd argue that quadrant C and D leaders are rare---if you have a low pain tolerance for yourself, you're not likely to want to attempt the work of leadership. But many of us probably cluster in quadrant A: willing to endure plenty of personal discomfort, but less willing to inflict it on others. We squirm when we have to hold people accountable and support them as they risk and grow.

Being a pastor undoubtedly compounds this quadrant A dynamic: we are tender-hearted types who want to comfort the afflicted. And news flash: everyone's afflicted. (Philo reminds us to be kind, for everyone is fighting a great battle.) So quadrant A leaders can come up with every excuse in the book for letting people off the hook.

And yet, for us Christians anyway, transformation is the name of the game, and that means some pain. Flannery O'Connor writes, "All human nature resists grace, because grace changes us and change is painful."

What do you think? And where do you see yourself in this diagram?

Source: Leadership in Healthy Congregations

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By the way, are you signed up for my monthly-ish newsletter? Next week's edition will include a preview of my latest book in progress, Spirituality in the Smartphone Age. Sign up.

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.

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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...

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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.

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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. [vimeo 43038579 w=500 h=281]

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

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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?

[vimeo 48236494 w=500 h=281]

The pleasure of from Vitùc on Vimeo.

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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.

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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.

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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

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.

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... well... we're pregnant.

That's right folks. We're Pregnant! Expecting! On the nest! Knocked up! Preggers! 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. [vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/25360983 w=400&h=265]

We Are Presbyterian 2011 -- A New "Diagnosis" for the Church from MaryAnn McKibben Dana on Vimeo.