Off-Key Hymns and Laughable Promises

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“Methodist Church, Battle Center, Iowa” by keeva999.

I’m sure I’m not the first seminarian to suddenly find herself critiquing every sermon, analyzing hymn choices, questioning the use of the worship space, exegeting the lectionary texts, and evaluating each and every transition, but I have to admit that seminary has turned me into a bit of a worship snob. Over the past few years I’ve been lucky to be able to worship with a variety of communities that have taught me much about intentionality, creativity, and beauty. Some meet in grand cathedral-like sanctuaries, others feature impressive works of art, top notch preaching, powerful choirs, or creative twists on ancient tradition.

This Holy Week, however, I find myself plopped down in a pew next to my family in my tiny home congregation in rural South Dakota. The contrast is stark: our sanctuary is simple and small, our singing is sometimes painfully out of tune, transitions between different parts of worship can be rough. We all know way too much about each other. We get nervous any time the order of service is switched up or we have to sing a song out of the dreaded baby blue hymnal. Our paraments are sometimes the wrong color. Last night we had a couple mishaps in communion, culminating with a chalice of wine nearly ending up all over the floor. Announcement time can feel like a chaotic town hall meeting. As a general rule, we aren’t fancy or polished or detail-oriented. We are stoic and stubborn and, like any church I suppose, we argue about the newsletter and who put the utensils in the wrong drawer in the kitchen and, lord have mercy, what if the kids spill on the carpet?

It drives me crazy, and I love it.

Because, like it or not, this is the particular messy and imperfect human family who welcomed me into this beautiful and sometimes straight up contradictory faith tradition. These are the people who promised to walk with me in faith at my baptism. These are the patient Sunday school teachers who told me stories about Jesus over plastic cups of Kool-Aid and paper plates stacked high with Oreos. This is the community who has held me in prayer and showered me in endless support and encouragement as they sent me off into the world, to college, to camp, to Urban Servant Corps, to seminary. These are the people who assure me that there is always space for me here, always a place to be seen and known and loved, however imperfectly.

This a community made up of stoic farmers who might not talk about Jesus a whole lot, but who embody Christ’s command to love the neighbor through endless property upkeep and sidewalk shoveling and Easter breakfast cooking and community fundraisers for people who are sick and visits to folks in prison. It is a community comprised of faithful women who patiently piece together quilts for Lutheran World Relief, who prepare meals for funerals and treats for fellowship hour, who organize meal serving at the local soup kitchen, who make it a priority to keep the Sunday school program up and running, teaching kids songs and stories and reminding them over and over just how loved they are. It is a community who, despite declining membership, persistently gathers together each week for worship and prayer, who might not talk about their faith in regular conversation, but who know that for some mysterious reason, it is important to keep gathering to hear these ancient stories and to cling to the stubborn hope that the Spirit still moves among us.

It is a community who gathers these three days to remember the stories of Jesus’ death and resurrection. To touch, to taste, to see, to hear the strange and beautiful promise of Christ’s body and blood broken and shed for us. To witness anew the horror of the cross. To be comforted by the hope that there is no place too lonely or dark or horrifying that God has not already gone. And to gather together once again on an otherwise ordinary Sunday morning to remind each other of the seemingly impossible: that Love gets the final word, that the darkness does not overcome the Light, and that death has been defeated.

And because of all this, we cling to the otherwise laughable promise that God dwells among us here, even in our off-key hymns, clumsiest of worship services, and most imperfect attempts at loving each other. After all, from the manger to the cross to the road to Emmaus, our God has a habit of showing up in the places we least expect.

Blessings on your Holy Week. ❤

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Social Anxiety, Dreaded Microphones, and Upside-Down Wisdom

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“Palm Sunday” by Fred Dawson, LRPS

Lately I’ve been stuck in a sneaky psychological trap that has left me feeling invisible and unknown. It’s largely a prison of my mind’s own making; in reality, I am surrounded by incredible community of friends, family, and mentors who give my life meaning, purpose, and so much joy each day. And yet, as someone who is relatively quiet, who is a total internal processor, who has always been more of a listener and a writer than an eloquent speaker, and who has just enough social anxiety that my cheeks turn a bright shade of pink and my palms start to sweat any time I’m in the center of attention, it can be easy to get a little lost in the shuffle. And lately, my anxiety in the face of the world’s conflict and clamor has fed into my own vicious cycle of self-doubt, self-silencing, and generally making myself small.

I was recently asked to serve as the assisting minister at a chapel service on campus. Although it might be borderline heretical for a seminarian to admit, I have a serious love/hate relationship with worship leadership. I love worship itself. I love thinking creatively and theologically about liturgy. I love being a part of a community that slows down enough to feel the embrace of holy presence through proclamation and prayer and song and sacrament. But put me in front of a crowd and give me a dreaded microphone and pretty soon I’m a sweaty, shaky mess counting down the seconds until I can literally be anywhere else. (I swear, seminary seemed like a good idea at one point…) Also, factor in an alb or any type of vestments or tricky steps of any sort or, I don’t know, a chalice filled with red wine and then the klutz in me teams up with my anxious hermit spirit, and I’m pretty much done for.

But I said yes to the whole assisting minister gig, and this morning found myself in an alb that was slightly too long, a scary microphone strapped on my ear, a worship leader book in my hands, and a room full of expectant worshipers—worshipers, mind you, who also happen to be studying theology and preaching and, well, worship. So, you know, no pressure.

But, as the assembly began to join in the opening hymn, instead of the expected instant dread or paralyzing fear or the gut instinct to run as fast and far away from the chapel as possible, I felt something different begin to stir within me. The fear-filled narrative I’d been carrying with me was flipped on its head, and I knew that my very presence in that space and in that moment was an act of resistance against my own anxiety and the “powers and principalities” that perpetuate it. Showing up in a space that intimidates me and stepping in front of the community to be seen and heard when I’ve been stuck in silence and fear became an act of reclaiming. Reclaiming my voice. Reclaiming my call. Reclaiming my place within God’s story and among God’s people.

As worship continued, I felt empowered to take my time in my words and movements, to take up space, and to simply make sound. To pray, to bless, to proclaim Scripture, to offer the promise over and over again that “This is the blood of Christ, shed for you.” And, while I still breathed a huge sigh of relief when I safely got back in my car after the service, I almost – dare I say it? — enjoyed myself.

Because in that moment, it wasn’t about me at all. It wasn’t about my insecurities or anxiety. It wasn’t about my confusing sense of call. It wasn’t about any of the papers I had written or the projects I’d completed or the positive feedback I’d received or the classes where I’d been too afraid to speak or the church politics that make me want to pull my hair out or my persistent state of over-thinking myself into a theological or vocational crisis. It wasn’t about anyone else’s assessment of my abilities or my gifts or my call. It was simply about Christ’s presence and promise and unfailing, spacious love.

A Love that welcomes all, uniting an unlikely hodgepodge of messy and anxious people into one Body.

A Love that enters into the most painful, isolating, and seemingly hopeless places of this world.

A Love that turns the powers and hierarchies of the empire on their head.

A Love whose wisdom is the world’s foolishness.

A Love that will stop at nothing to stir up new life. Even if it means giving the quietest and most anxious among us the mic.

 

Female, Awake, and Empowered

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I’m currently in the middle of the book Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kidd. It chronicles Kidd’s journey of “waking up” to the host of ways patriarchal culture has shaped her identity, her relationships, her work, and her faith. It’s a thought-provoking read to be sure and has urged me to consider my ever-unfolding process of waking up to the forces that have sought to suppress my own sense of empowerment. As I consider my own journey, I’m realizing that it’s not only patriarchy, but a duo of patriarchy and white supremacy that have created a deadly combination for all of us as we seek to be whole and vibrant human beings. Depending on who we are and where we come from, we experience the effects of these intersecting systems differently, but all around, they are forces that seek to silence and separate and reduce us to a one-dimensional existence. I can only speak from my perspective as a white woman, but here are a few of the ways I’ve uncovered white patriarchy trying to shape my mind and body.

It’s taught me to be suspicious of my body, even to the point of self-hatred. It’s encouraged me to refrain from food, not for the purpose of seeking out nutrients that are more life-giving, but to restrict, to punish, to literally erase my physical existence. It has taught me that I cannot trust what my body wants, that there is nothing more disgusting than a woman who indulges. It stimulates a toxic diet culture that clothes itself in the semantic disguises of “Discipline.” “Self-control.” “Being good.” It has turned the Body Mass Index into a measure of morality. It has created a world in which women are literally praised for being “Tiny”. For being “Cute.” For being childlike.

It’s taught me to mistrust my own inner wisdom, to ignore that feeling in my gut that something isn’t right and to instead attempt to reason it away. It masks intuition with belittling words: “Overreacting.” “Emotional.” “Too sensitive.” “Hysterical.”

It harbors itself in my posture, in the way I physically move about the world. It’s in my instinct to make myself as small as possible, to keep my belongings neat and tidy and close. It’s in the way I avert my gaze, in the little ways I try to avoid drawing attention to myself. It’s in the way I am terrified of being “Bossy,” “Overbearing,” “Too Much,” or a “Know-It-All.”

It’s taught me to fear sex and intimacy, to equate sexual “Purity” with “Goodness” and “Holiness.” It’s fostered a culture of Shame and Fear and Silence and Submission. It’s in the way I experience Freedom and Pleasure bowing to Restraint and Denial. It’s behind the societal disgust with the miracle that is the female body, the taboo around women’s blood, and the discomfort about the astonishing potential of the creation of new life inside the womb—all the while paradoxically wrapping up women’s identities almost solely with that of motherhood.

It’s a script that was given to me by Disney princesses whose bodies are so disproportional their waists likely wouldn’t even be able to house their internal organs and whose lives are void of meaning and purpose until the prince comes to save the day. Its tone is set by the music that becomes a never-ending soundtrack objectifying women’s bodies, robbing women of their names, of their strength, of their agency. It’s a culture of petty competition in which women are turned against each other, competing for men, for employment, for limited power outside of traditional “women’s spaces.”

It’s a whole web of meaning-making embraced too often by my own beloved Christian tradition: of masculine names and conceptions of power and European male experiences. It’s in church hierarchy and the voices celebrated in academic theology and the deciders of church orthodoxy. It’s in the teachings that women’s submission and obedience and personal sacrifice are to be revered above all else.

It’s destructive. It’s repulsive. It’s evil.

But, despite all of this, I’m clinging to hope: for me, for my sisters, for the Church, for society. Because it turns out Scripture is also bursting with a life-giving, mother-hen God, with Sophia-Christ-Wisdom, with a diversifying, multi-faceted, mysterious, space-creating Spirit. It’s filled with wombs creating life against all odds, with Mary’s Magnificat and Hannah’s song and Miriam’s and Deborah’s and Lydia’s leadership. It’s overflowing with the intelligence of Esther, the love of Ruth and Naomi, the reverence of Mary Magdalene, the audacious faith of countless women whose names we aren’t given but whose stories live on in our collective memory.

And this God who holds all of the feminine experience and the stories of these powerful and passionate women will not be silenced, constrained, shamed, or dieted into non-existence.

And neither will I.

To the Women

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To the women who write. To the women who choose their words with poignancy, grace, and hilarity. To the women who breathe life into characters like Nancy Drew and Ramona Quimby and Anne Shirley and Jo March and Hermione Granger. To the women who courageously offer up their truths, even when there’s a chance that no one might listen.

To the women who make music and art. To the women who sing and dance and act and dedicate themselves to their instruments day after day. To the women who trust that the sweet notes they have to sing or the beat they are about to lay down or the message they have to proclaim can change this world’s song just a little bit for the better. To the women who show up to their canvases with patience and passion, who offer up their own splash of color as a precious gift to us all.

To the women who preach. To the women who return again and again to the complicated and messy stories of Scripture, to the very words that have been used to silence and shame for centuries. To the women who offer words of hope and declare Christ’s promise in the bread and the wine and shout their prayers to the heavens. To the women who stay up all night at a lock-in and to the women who meticulously organize the bulletin and to the women who slide in the back pew late with toast in their hair and a rowdy family in tow. To the women who couldn’t bring themselves to show up at all.

To the women in the lab and the women in the corporate office. To the women in the gym and the women hidden behind a pile of books. To the women at the makeup counter and the women at the construction site.To the women who teach and the women who heal. To the women who listen patiently and the women who speak boldly. To the women who cook and clean and the women who run barefoot through the grass and tend the earth with curiosity and care.

To the women who lead the long march toward justice and peace. To the women who challenge us all to recognize the ways we fail to honor the humanity in each other. To the women who help us to see when we would rather turn away. To the women who give of their wisdom, their voices, and their very bodies as we stumble toward a kinder world.

To the women who love and the women who are hurting and the women who are barely keeping it together. To the women who dare to dream big and the women who are holding onto others for hope.

To the women who know how desperately we need each other.

Happy International Women’s Day.

 

My Beautiful, Totally Curated Life

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image by Marina Stroganova

Last night, after I had long given into the homework struggle and headed to bed, I instinctively picked up my phone off of my nightstand and began to scroll through Instagram. My feed was filled with sandy beaches and tasty tropical cocktails posted by friends on recent spring break travels, picturesque portraits of gentle snow falling across the Twin Cities (but like the really pretty kind of snow that would never delay traffic or turn gray and slushy after a couple of days), smiling selfies accompanied by inspirational quotes, groups of friends headed off on spectacular adventures, magazine worthy images of homecooked meals, giggling babies with chubby cheeks, and the world’s most adorable puppies. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for some solid cute puppy or giggly baby or tropical cocktail photo inspiration, but with each image, I was confronted with the painful disconnect between these photos and my own reality. Maybe these images represented my friends’ lives that particular day, but they certainly didn’t represent mine.

I recently listened to an episode of the NPR podcast “Hidden Brain” exploring this very phenomenon. One woman interviewed on the podcast reflected on the images she shared of her view from her new home. “If you looked only straight you could see mountains,” she said. “If you looked to the left you’d see a factory, but of course I didn’t take pictures of the factory, because why would you do that?”

Lately I’ve been wondering more and more what it looks like when we zoom out of our own carefully curated Instagram frames, when we include the mountains, yes, but also the unsightly factory. I’ve been wondering what captions might more accurately portray the whole reality of our lives, alongside the inspirational quotes and witty taglines. I’ve been wondering about what we do to ourselves and to each other when we only include the most socially acceptable and, let’s be honest, most enviable highlights of our stories, portraying who we so desperately want to be instead of the full messy reality of who we are.

My perfectly Instagrammed morning coffee might also include a selfie with red eyes and a lens widened to include the stack of theology books I was up reading way too late because I procrastinated all week and didn’t get my homework done. It might include a messy pile of blankets kicked to the end of my bed from tossing and turning over the anxiety of upcoming life transitions and my ever-growing to-do list and my meal plan for the rest of the week and work and money and a bleak-looking future of the church and my latest theological crisis and the list of people I’ve been promising to call but haven’t.

The selfie with my giggling friends might include a caption about how lucky I am to have such amazing people in my life and how they add depth and meaning and fun and overwhelming joy, certainly, but it also might include a story about how hard friendship can be and how sometimes despite our best intentions we make mistakes and hurt each other and stay stupid or petty things.

Maybe the picture of the march I attended or the social movement I support would include a time lapse to show all the other marches or events or causes I haven’t shown up for, either out of selfishness or fear or uncertainty or pride or exhaustion.

Maybe my cute date night photos should be paired with totally unexciting snapshots of solo Netflix watching or lonely Facebook scrolling.

Maybe the image of the pristinely presented vegetable-laden meal should also include the stack of dirty dishes, a stove splattered with tomato sauce, and a secret stash of Oreos in the cupboard.

Maybe the picture I posted simply because it was good hair day or because my makeup is on point are proud proclamations of self-love and acceptance, but maybe they should really include a caption about my deep desire to be seen and to take up a bit of space in a world that seems all to eager to render us invisible and pass us by without a second glance.

Maybe there is more to my own identity than I’m willing to make room for. Maybe I need to start examining my own life and creating space for others’ lives through a wider lens.

So, what would your honest Instagram feed look like? What would you notice if you zoomed outside of the frame? What more is there to your story?