A Reflection for Confirmation Sunday

IMG_3423Today I had the incredible privilege of accompanying four young people as they professed their faith in an Affirmation of Baptism and became confirmed members of the congregation. As the families and friends of the confirmands gathered with the congregation to share in familiar hymns and liturgy and to celebrate with these young women and men this morning, I couldn’t help but recall my own confirmation day. I remember being fairly terrified as I stood in front of the congregation, desperately trying to remember each line of the Apostle’s Creed, worrying about where I was supposed to stand and which direction I was supposed to be facing and which responses I was supposed to say at which moment. Perhaps it was because I was one of only two students being confirmed that Sunday, but I remember feeling alone and a little exposed as I stood in front of the altar fidgeting in my white confirmation robe asking for God’s help and guidance. However, this morning as I stood with the assembly, watching the confirmands as they each made a public profession of their faith, I realized what I couldn’t see on my own confirmation day. Ten years ago, as I stood facing the pastor and the altar, I couldn’t see the congregation gathered behind me. I couldn’t see my family gathered around me. I didn’t recognize the significance of the entire congregation joining in with me as we said the words of the Apostle’s Creed. In the moment, it felt as though all eyes were on me; everything depended on my ability to articulate my faith. What I missed was the church filled with fellow journeyers who were not just there to celebrate that particular milestone with me but who promised to continue to walk alongside me as sisters and brothers in Christian faith and love.

Confirmation is a celebration of community, a celebration of the beautiful, messy Body of Christ. As I stood up front with sweaty palms and a wavering voice that day, little did I know that day that I was being enveloped by the faith of an entire community of people: A community whose collective faith would be strong enough to hold me up when my own faith was weak, when the questions were too big, when the mystery of it all seemed utterly impossible. A community that not only consisted of the individuals in the pews that Sunday, but a community of saints who came long before me and a community whose songs of prayer and praise will continue to exist long after me. A big, diverse community whose members would continue to accompany me in the midst of life’s most ordinary moments and some of life’s biggest adventures:

  • In the coffee hour conversations in the in the basement of my small, rural South Dakota home church
  • In the bonding that can only happen while swinging hammers, experimenting with power tools, and sweating under the hot Tennessee sun on youth group mission trips
  • In the camp songs sung around the campfire on the shores of Lake Shetek, in the water fights in the dish room, and the jam sessions in the camp vans
  • In the late night conversations in the campus ministry office over too many cups of coffee and never ending piles of homework
  • In the laughter and tears over happy hour drinks at a favorite bar in Denver and creatively cooked Urban Servant Corps meals largely consisting of expired food and bagels
  • In the wading in the waters of the Jordan River and adventures in the Old City of Jerusalem
  • In the sharing of bread and wine every Wednesday morning with fellow seminarians
  • In the phone calls to friends across the state or across the country that leave me feeling so incredibly loved

I often still find myself feeling as though I am alone before the altar, left to navigate the mystery and complexity of my faith on my own. But the reality is, a community of faith has always been standing behind me, beside me, and before me, to support and to inspire, to celebrate and to mourn, to share in the questions and to boldly proclaim again and again the good news of the resurrection.

Psalm 103: A Lenten Thanksgiving

The following  my Lenten sermon from March 16: a reflection on Psalm 103.

Psalm 103: 1-5

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and do not forget all his benefits—
who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the Pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good as long as you live[a]
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

Do not forget.

Memory is a fascinating thing. I’m beyond intrigued by the human brain, by the ways in which chemicals signal neurons to fire, creating a network of reactions that activate the visual or auditory cortex or our emotional processing centers or our language centers. To create a memory is a mysterious multisensory process involving not only the perception of everything happening around us in a given moment, but also in the connecting to previous information about people, places, and events already stored in our brains. Although I really don’t understand just how this all works, I am grateful that it does, for in many ways, individual and collective memories tell us who we are: from our own individual journeys of life and vocation to the shared family stories passed down every year at Thanksgiving; from the stories of our nation’s history to the grand sweeping narratives of our faith. These stories and memories provide us with a rootedness and sense of identity. Memory is important. Our psalmist this evening seems to know this.

As many of you know, I recently returned from a trip to Israel-Palestine, a holy land that is in many ways centered on this idea of not forgetting. Dedicated pilgrims from around the world flock to this small piece of land in the Middle East to touch, to see, and to remember these shared narratives of faith and to remember what God has done.
Pilgrims remember what God has done by visiting the cathedrals, both large and small, simple and ornate that have been constructed all across Israel and the West Bank to commemorate the sites where Jesus is believed to have walked. Some groups of pilgrims gather in these cathedrals to lift up their voices in familiar hymns in a myriad of languages to remember what God has done through song. Dedicated travelers come from across the globe to touch the rock of Golgotha inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, to kiss the anointing stone outside of the tomb, to step into what is believed to be the empty tomb itself and fall to their knees in front of the spot that commemorates where Jesus lay. Pilgrims make their way to the banks of the muddy Jordan River, some immersing themselves all the way under the water, others (like my own group of Lutherans) rolling up their jeans to step their feet into the gently moving current, to mark each other with the sign of the cross and to remember not only the baptism of Jesus but also how God’s bountiful grace and love that washes over each of us as well.

Golgotha

Travelers remember what God has done by simply being present: by soaking in and taking note of the Galilean hillside, the cobblestone Bethlehem streets, the rocky, barren desert in the Dead Sea region, the breathtaking view of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. As one visits the Mount of the Beatitudes, the shores of the Sea of Galilee, or the ancient ruins of Caesarea Philippi or Capernaum, one may pass groups of Christian pilgrims remembering their story, our story, by reading familiar passages from Scripture as their feet are firmly planted in the Galilean soil as the breeze rustles the leaves from the olive trees or as the waves of the Sea gently lap against the rocky shoreline.

Palm Sunday

For many people who live in Israel-Palestine, remembering what God has done is at the very core of their being, truly taking “all that is within them.” In a land that knows too well the reality of violence, oppression, and occupation, in the Palestinian West Bank where people are denied basic rights on a daily basis, in the midst of a political and religious situation so complicated and overwhelming that peace seems nothing more than a far off hope, “not forgetting” is of utmost importance. People of faith cling desperately to the God who promises to forgive iniquity, to heal diseases, to redeem life from the Pit, to crown with steadfast love and mercy and to renew one’s youth. For Palestinian Christians in particular, this hope, this promise, this memory is what sustains them.

The Holy Land is a place in which one can’t help but to remember the complex and interwoven narrative of peoples of faith. But, I do not think one has to hop on the next flight to Tel Aviv to resonate with our psalm this evening. For it turns out our God seems to be in the habit of making ordinary things holy. We come together to remember what God has done as we meet at the altar for bread and for wine, and we celebrate together at the baptismal font as God’s promises are renewed in the waters of holy baptism. Like many pilgrims in the Holy Land, we too remember what God has done through story and song, through the reading of Scripture and by sharing our own stories in the midst of God’s story. We remember God’s glory in the vibrant orange and subtle purple of the early morning sunrise, in the fellowship with our families around the dinner table (or the laughter over pizza in the youth room), in the life’s simple joys that catch us by surprise each day. However, we too are called to remember all that God has done and continues to do even when we are in the Pit of disease and injustice, of grief and in doubt, in those moments where our life takes an unexpected turn and nothing seems to make sense. The extraordinary events that took place in the little town of Bethlehem, in the region of the Galilee, and a hill outside of Jerusalem continue to transform our reality here and now, inviting us into new life and renewal. For we have a God who crowns us with love and mercy, who names us Beloved, calls us into community, and invites us into abundant life.

This is good news indeed. So, with the psalmist, let all that is within me cry, Bless the Lord, oh my soul. And thanks be to God.

 

On Remembering That I’m Not Superwoman

SuperheroesIt’s kind of the worst when your own words come back to get you. Like that one time a few weeks ago (okay one of the many times in the last few weeks…) when I got all worked up about life and vocation and announced that I was absolutely not going to be a pastor. And then I remembered how that one time I wrote a blog post that literally included “Why I Need to Be a Pastor” in the title. Or the time I wrote another post in which I announced that my New Year’s Resolution was going to be to learn how to fail, which seriously sends shivers down my spine at the mere thought. Failure? No thanks. I’m just going to pretend my WordPress account was hacked by another blogger. Or that time (like last night) when I heard myself say to a friend, “It’s okay to allow yourself to fail. Perfection is unattainable. It doesn’t exist. God’s grace is more than enough. You are so, so loved regardless of your achievements or your failures or literally anything you do.” My friend kindly told me to take my own advice.

The topic of perfectionism came up in a conversation with another dear friend last evening as well. “Your goal,” she told me, “is in the next week to turn one assignment in that you have not deemed perfect. Turn in something that is only ‘good enough.’ Write something that is mediocre.” I was appalled. Mediocrity? I suppose she wants me to make grammatical errors as well. The horror of it all. I mumbled something about how I would try but that I didn’t have any papers due this week, so, you know, it wasn’t really my fault if I couldn’t achieve said goal. (It’s a weird, weird thing when an overachiever is given a goal to do something imperfectly…)

And then I woke up this morning and realized just how tired I was. Not the “I didn’t sleep well” kind of tired but the exhausted to your core kind of tired. That kind of exhaustion that comes from running yourself dry, from pushing yourself just a little too hard toward that goal you can’t quite attain. I felt like my brain and my heart were in million different places: with friends dealing with some really hard problems that at the end of the day aren’t for me to solve (even though I love them so, so dearly), with a million papers and seminary assignments that always seem to leave just a little more room for improvement, with a ministry job in which I never feel even a little bit caught up or sufficient, with an ever-growing list of people and family members who I’ve been meaning to call, with a blog in which I keep promising to write more regularly, with a list of Lenten practices that I haven’t kept since a day or two after Ash Wednesday, with a Facebook page filled with invites to community life activities that I really should be attending but don’t quite have the energy, with an apartment that needs cleaning, with a summer that needs planning, with a messy vocation that I insist I should just be able to sit down and “figure out.” And of course, for me, it’s never enough to just show up or to do things well enough to cross off my list. If I’m going to do something, I feel like I need to do it perfectly. But the reality is, I just can’t, and just maybe, that’s not the reality into which I am called to live. And maybe, believe it or not, the world (or the Church) actually isn’t mine to save.

So, today, I’m going to try to do something crazy. I’m going to strive to just be good enough. Not perfect. Not superwoman. Not even above average. Just enough. And just maybe I’ll find that God’s grace surrounds me too.

 

 

 

Dusty Grace at the Jordan

IMG_3011There are many aspects of my youth director job that fall under the “other duties as assigned” category. Last night that included chasing after a three-year-old who decided she didn’t want “dirt” on her face during the imposition of ashes and decided instead to sprint (with the gusto only 3-year-olds can manage)  out of the sanctuary. I caught up to her before she made it too far, and hand in hand, we slowly meandered back toward the sanctuary find her dad and little brother. The scene was comical, but to be honest, I totally get it. My memories of Ash Wednesday growing up are not the most positive either. As a particularly self-conscious child to begin with, the thought of having an ashy cross smeared across my forehead was less than appealing. And, I mean who wants to sit around and talk about death and be told that all we are is dust? Not a 7-year-old Alex, that’s for sure.

What I missed (among many other really awesome theological concepts that slightly more grown-up Alex can nerd out about all day) was that the death we talk about on Ash Wednesday isn’t an all-conclusive, hopeless, final kind of death. It is a death, that though often painful, brings with it a sense of new life. A death that reminds us of our smallness, our limitedness, and our place in the infinite universe but also a death that is deeply tied to the promise of resurrection and hope. On Ash Wednesday we commemorate a death to our egos and grandiose perceptions of our own abilities and self-justifications and re-center to recognize the reality that our identity is rooted in something bigger and deeper than our individual selves. Ash Wednesday is affirmation that our identity lies in Christ crucified and risen, a humbling and life-giving reality.

Approximately three weeks ago, I stepped off a tour bus in the desert of the West Bank IMG_3001and trekked with my fellow seminarians down to the bank of the Jordan River. It had been an emotionally intense week to say the least. After conversations with Israeli citizens, Palestinian refugees, peace workers, and religious leaders, my brain was on overload. I was feeling entirely overwhelmed with the complexity and apparent hopelessness of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I was beginning to see the plethora of injustices happening in my own country under a new, increasingly disturbing light, and more than ever, I was feeling the weight of my own privilege and the recognition of my place in the world among the systems that serve me while simultaneously crushing my neighbors. After having spent about a week and a half walking in the footsteps of Jesus, I wondered how I could ever profess to know anything about this God who chose to reveal Godself among the shepherds and peasants, who could most often be found hanging out with those on the outskirts of society, who came “to bring good news to the poor…to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free…” (Luke 4:18). I had never been more aware of my place of privilege in the world—privilege coming more often than not at the expense of others. How could Jesus’ message of hope possibly be for me too?

IMG_2977My fellow students and I sat by the water’s edge, soaked in the hot, direct rays of the January sun and tried to wrap our tired minds around the fact that we were actually at the Jordan River. After a moment, we joined together in song and in prayer, letting the simplicity and stillness surround us. We then listened as our professors read to us the story of Jesus’ baptism and allowed the story to unfold before our very eyes among the palm trees, tall yellowish grass, and meandering muddy water. And there, in the middle of the desert, on the banks of what is actually a fairly unimpressive river, we were r
eminded of the promise of God freely given to us in our own baptisms.  We were reminded that through death to our own selves, we have been made into a “new creation” as Beloved Children of God, an identity that even the world’s most oppressive, devastating, hopeless systems cannot take away from us.

In his book, Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible Through Palestinian Eyes, Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb (current pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem) writes, “We must live with our feet firmly grounded in the reality of this world with its empires, yet, at the same time, be engaged in creating with our own hands a foretaste of the kingdom to come” (127.)  As much as I wish it would some days, our identity in Christ does not magically lift us out of the entanglement of the world’s messiness, the systems of violence, oppression and greed. However, it does invite us to live into a new reality: the reality of the inbreaking of God’s abundant life. And it is only by remembering my own insignificance, my own dustiness if you will, that I can see this bigger picture of what it means to be part of a global Body of Christ. A Body that is broken and messy and in many ways dysfunctional, but also a Body that is beautiful and hope-filled and entirely dependent on the One who calls life out of the dust. And it is only by recognizing my own smallness in the midst of this much larger, diverse Body that I can truly begin to live into God’s reality, seeking peace and justice for all people.

Thanks be to God for those little ashy crosses that put life into much needed perspective. Blessings on your Lenten journey!

 

Religion, Power, and the Radicalness of Jesus

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Art Display at Dar al-Kalima University College of Arts & Culture, Bethlehem 

One of the most painful learnings of my time in the Holy Land was recognizing the danger of religion getting wrapped up with power. One cannot hear the stories of the people of Israel and Palestine without glimpsing the dark side of religion, without witnessing the oppression, pain, and violence that emerges when one religious group fights to suppress the voices of another in order to secure their own place on top of the sociopolitical ladder. It is a vicious cycle; my own Christian heritage (particularly my German Lutheran heritage) cannot deny its own history of antisemitism and its devastating role in the Holocaust. Today, one cannot visit Jerusalem and the West Bank without coming face to face with the reality of religious and political groups vying for power and control in order to grasp their own freedom from powers of oppression that have been inflicted upon them. The weight of the horrors of what humanity can inflict upon each other in the face of fear is truly devastating. Mass annihilations of an entire people. Separation walls. Military check points. Denial of books and education. Suicide bombings. Occupation.

Despite my best attempts to avoid watching things that I know are undoubtedly going to make me angry, as I was flipping through the channels last night I got sucked into the tail end of the GOP Debate.  I was again struck with the entanglement of religion and power happening in my own country. Our own Christian history in the U.S. often looks a lot like this: We have faith in the Almighty to help us become a powerful nation, to grant us good fortune, and to side with us (and only us), to make us a superior people. In a season of campaigns, our conversations about religions are laced with war rhetoric. We are taught to fear the other: the immigrant, the refugee, our African American brothers and sisters, people whose gender identity or sexual orientation doesn’t fit into our neat definition of what love looks like. We are taught to fear those who threaten our [read: white, straight, upper-middle class, privileged] sense of identity by speaking their truth of oppression.

To hear another’s story, to see the humanity behind a label, to truly come alongside someone whose life experience differs from ours requires incredible vulnerability. It puts our own self-constructed identity at risk. (Allow me to indulge in my love of psychology for a second.) We like to think we’re good people; we construct narratives to understand who we are, and most of the time these narratives portray ourselves in a positive light. Having a healthy, positive identity is a good thing; blindly oppressing and inflicting violence upon fellow human beings for the sake of our own egos is not. Facing the reality of the oppressed and recognizing ourselves, our people, our histories among the oppressors puts us in a state of psychological disequilibrium. We are faced with cognitive dissonance: what we thought we knew about ourselves does not match up with the new information we are receiving about ourselves and our place in the world. It is an uncomfortable, painful place to be. Our natural instinct may be to resort to defensiveness, to restore our own sense of dignity. To justify our privileged place in this world, to excuse ourselves from the web of blame and guilt we are suddenly caught in, to insist that it is not our fault, that we really, truly are good people. We might do this by objectifying the very people we are oppressing, by writing their story off as insignificant, false, over-exaggerated. By assuming that “those people” are all the same: lazy, uneducated, violent, less sophisticated, two-dimensional. We certainly can’t be held accountable for their place in society.

Yet, I look at Jesus and nothing about this man, this God who takes on flesh and is born in a manger in a Middle Eastern town, who announces that he has come “to bring good news to the poor…to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18) cooperates with our traditional ideas of power. Nothing about Jesus lets me off the hook when I am forced to confront my own level of privilege, when I am forced to face the ways in which my actions oppress others. Nothing about Jesus allows me to ignore the cycles of fear and oppression afflicting my own country: Police brutality. Mistreatment of immigrants. Turning away refugees in desperate need of asylum. Dehumanizing our Native American brothers and sisters. Patriarchy that still infuses nearly every aspect of our culture.

I’m not saying any of these issues has a simple fix. I am only saying that if my faith practices do not call me into a place of discomfort as I examine the systems that serve me but inflict immeasurable pain on my sisters and brothers here and around the world, we have a pretty serious problem. If our Christian faith serves only to boost our own egos, to only tell us the ways in which we are right and superior and entitled, I think we need to ask ourselves if we really know anything about this Jesus of whom we speak.

Thankfully, the same God who calls me into this place of discomfort also provides me with abundant, overflowing, unimaginable grace even as I recognize my own status as an oppressor. But I think we can hardly comprehend the beauty of this grace, love, and mercy from our throne of privilege and entitlement. It is only when we recognize our own profound need for forgiveness that we can even begin to celebrate the radicalness of the Gospel message for both the oppressor and oppressed. And it is when we taste the abundance of grace that we are moved into action and are invited into God’s reality breaking into the here and now.  But more on the grace stuff later. I tasted a lot of it in the Holy Land. 🙂

Adventures in the Holy Land (Part 1)

As I’m sure many of you know (especially my Facebook friends who have put up with an obnoxious amount of picture posting), I just returned from the trip of a lifetime—a two week pilgrimage to the Holy Land. On January 15, thirty-two Luther seminary students, alumni, faculty, and significant others boarded a plane in Minneapolis and approximately 20 hours later groggily stumbled into the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv where our fabulous tour guide, Hussam, greeted us and ushered us to our tour bus. The following two weeks were filled with adventures all around Israel and the West Bank. We went on excursions in and around the Sea of Galilee and visited the ancient sites of Caesarea Philippi, Caesarea Maritima, Capernaum, and Megiddo. We stopped in Nazareth, Cana, Bethany, and Bethesda. We ventured into the desert to see Jericho, Qumran, and Masada. We floated in the Dead Sea, splashed in the Mediterranean, and remembered our baptisms in the Jordan River.  We visited the site of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem and retraced the steps of his final days before his crucifixion in Jerusalem. We ate copious amounts of pita, hummus, falafel, and fresh fruits and vegetables. We bought souvenirs made of the olive wood of Bethlehem, glass made in Hebron, and pottery painted in Jerusalem.

But perhaps most importantly we listened to people’s stories. We heard from Palestinian refugees, Israeli settlers, Lutheran pastors, Muslim leaders, and Jewish human rights activists. We caught a glimpse of what it is like to live under the heavy weight of occupation. We grew almost accustomed to seeing armed soldiers with machine guns on every corner. We grappled with the complexities of what it means for an oppressed people to become the oppressors and too often recognized ourselves among the oppressors as well. We visited the poorest areas of Palestine and tried to imagine living our entire lives inside the “open air prison” created by the dividing wall (constructed by the Israeli government), but just when we thought we knew who was right and who was wrong, we spent an afternoon at the Holocaust museum. We were confronted with our own privilege and were disturbed to see our own country’s oppressive systems reflected back to us, in ways even more obvious than before.

We felt the beauty of diversity and the dangerous tension in the Old City of Jerusalem in our visits to the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. We tried to understand what it means to have the identity and validity of entire groups of people so deeply intertwined with a particular piece of land—with the ancient stone and marble of the Old City of Jerusalem, with the lush, rolling hills of the Galilee, with the rocky desert surrounding the Dead Sea, with the countless groves of orange, lemon, and olive trees. We joined thousands of other pilgrims from around the world who travel to this very piece of land to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, to touch the sacred rocks, to visit the majestic cathedrals, and to try to understand the beauty and complexities of this holy, mysterious place. We saw the horror of what happens when religion gets intermixed with power and were crushed by the seeming impossibility of peace.

But just when the weight of it all seemed devastating, we would catch a glimmers of hope. The innocent giggles of Palestinian and Israeli children, the creation of prophetic art emerging in the midst of oppression, the resilience of the peace workers, the promise of the Gospel spoken to a church primarily composed of refugees, the goosebumps on our arms after singing hymns in a hodge-podge of languages with our brothers and sisters from around the world, in the remarkable hospitality we experienced nearly everywhere we went. The Holy Land is a deeply disturbing, incredibly beautiful place, and I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to go and experience it for myself. I have been changed in ways that I cannot yet fully articulate—but have no fear, there are plenty more blog posts to come.  Stay tuned, and thanks for joining me as I try to make sense of this crazy journey. 🙂

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Sea of Galilee

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Jerusalem

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Bethlehem

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Separation Wall in the West Bank

My New Year’s Resolution: Learn to Fail.

2015. What a year! It was filled with moments of adventure and moments of mundanity, promising new friendships, tear-filled goodbyes, and long-awaited reunions with old friends. I cried tears of gut-wrenching lament and tears of uncontainable laughter, and I traveled from the mountains of Colorado to the classrooms of Luther Seminary. I experienced moments of vocational clarity and even more moments of “what. the. heck. am. I. doing.” 2015 has been a beautiful, crazy, messy, bittersweet year, and I am so very grateful.

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Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at freedigitalphotos.net

And here we are, on the verge of 2016, a year that is yet to be lived and explored. It sits before us filled with promise and hope, anxiety and uncertainty. And in the meantime, the pressure’s on to make those dreaded New Year’s resolutions. It’s hard to ignore those “motivational” commercials urging us to embrace the mantra, “New year, new you!” The bar is set to strive to live and to be better: to be healthier, to make more money, to spend more time with family, to travel more, to accomplish more… the list is endless. Don’t get me wrong; there’s not necessarily anything wrong with any of these goals. The overachiever in me longs to make a nice, neat list of lofty New Year’s resolutions so I can achieve them (ideally even overachieve them) and cross them off one by one. However, I’ve come to the hard realization that maybe, at least for me, my New Year’s resolution needs to be one of a slightly different nature. I think my New Year’s resolution needs to be to embrace imperfection. To maybe even (dare I say it?) fail.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of perfectionism lately. The term “perfectionist” is often thrown around nonchalantly, oftentimes even being spoken of with a twinge of pride. We speak of perfectionism as though it’s a harmless personality trait, at its worst nothing more than a slight quirk. A minor annoyance at times for sure (particularly for those poor souls who have to work with us), but also often the key to one’s success in school, at work, and in life more generally. In fact, I would argue that we live in a society that praises perfectionism and consistently rewards the overachievers among us. Yet, we rarely speak of the darker side of this unrealistic (and straight up impossible) pursuit of perfectionthe side that speaks words of unworthiness and shames mediocrity, the side that leaves us always longing to do more and therefore to be more in order to prove to ourselves and others that we too deserve to be loved. Perfectionism is the villain that too often prevents us from fully showing up in community and from participating in activities that carry with them the possibility of failure, meanwhile creating a vicious cycle of anxiety and isolation. I know this because perfectionism is far too often the reality in which I allow myself to dwell.

Things get really uncomfortable when my perfectionistic tendencies come into direct contact with my faith and theological convictions. I profess in a God whose unconditional love and overflowing grace knows no bounds, yet I continuously get caught up in my own desire to be good, to prove my own worthiness. Sure, grace is a beautiful concept but do I really believe it for myself? On my especially perfectionist driven days, I’m not so sure. And I believe in the importance of community and the beauty of the diversity of vocational gifts poured out through the Spirit, yet I so often insist on doing everything myself—to make sure everything is done “just right” and to again make known my own worthiness in my own eyes and the eyes of those around me. Yet, it is on the foundation of imperfection that community is built. Where one person lacks, another can provide. My lack of skills in one area can allow for the empowerment of another person’s gifts. When I am struggling, a friend is strong, and other times I get to be the strong one. To live in community is to claim and embrace imperfection, inviting others to see the imperfect pieces of ourselves as well. And to live faithfully is to show up amidst the risk of failure and to even embrace failure as the place where grace meets us most profoundly.

It is a strange concept to pursue failure, or at the very least to welcome it. But perhaps it is exactly what I need to embrace my own identity as a child of God and to dare to believe that maybe, just maybe, I am enough even without my good grades and list of achievements. And maybe, in embracing my own imperfection, I can grant others the permission to do the same.

Here’s to 2016!

Peace,

Alex

For some really great reading/listening on the less than glamorous sides of perfectionism check out the following:

http://www.stuffmomnevertoldyou.com/podcasts/little-miss-perfect/

http://brenebrown.com/2009/03/18/2009318perfectionism-and-claiming-shame-html/

http://www.apa.org/monitor/nov03/manyfaces.aspx

http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/perfection-community

 

 

 

 

A Friendly Reminder on Cobber Ring Day

RingsIt’s that time of year again: my social media feeds have officially exploded with photos of excited Cobbers flashing their new, shiny class rings. It is a day of celebration of Concordia pride for both current students receiving their rings and for alumni who get to glance down at their own rings and reminisce about the glory days on campus. Don’t get me wrong—Cobber rings are a fun tradition. I wear my own ring with pride every single day, and it has served as a conversation starter with fellow alumni on more than one occasion. I’m proud to wear a piece of jewelry representing an institution I love, and I enjoy the friendly banter that ensues with students who attended rival colleges once they notice the flash of maroon and gold on my right ring finger. The ring represents tradition, community, and a dedication to the breadth and depth of a Concordia education. However, on this Ring Day, I would like to offer a friendly reminder: This ring also symbolizes an incredible amount of privilege.

I think it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we’ve earned this ring, that the fact that we’ve put in hours and hours of our lives into studying and probably put a nearly equal number of hours over-dedicating ourselves to a whole host of extracurricular activities requires a reward. I think it is easy to think that once we have this ring on our finger we are “true Cobbers,” that we have been initiated into the elite class of students and alumni who have earned the right to this Cobber identity. Trust me, I know how challenging a Concordia education can be. I know the sleep deprivation that comes with it. I get the unrealistic expectations often placed upon Concordia students in terms of extra-curricular involvement. It’s a lot. And as a student (or as an alum), your achievements should be celebrated.

But the reality is, a Concordia education is a remarkable privilege in and of itself. To be able to take four years of our lives and devote them to studying, especially at a private liberal arts college, is something the majority of the world’s population only dreams of. And then to be able to have resources to purchase a (let’s be honest—really expensive) class ring on top of that is actually kind of crazy.

So, why do I bring this up on a day of ring-filled celebration? I’m not trying to be a total downer, I promise. I’m also not trying to make you feel guilty. Let me say again that I too have a Cobber ring that hardly ever leaves my finger. Three years ago today (or whenever my own ring day was), I too was completely caught up in the hype, ceremoniously opening my own ring box with my friends, and posing for a ridiculous number of photos. If I could go back in time, I doubt I would do anything differently. So, I write this not to bring a sense of shame upon all of us ring-wearing Concordia students and alum, but to gently remind ourselves of our own privilege. I think we all need to be careful with our assumptions about Cobber rings, on this day in particular. The reality is not everyone has this same level of privilege, and Cobber rings are simply not a realistic part of a Concordia education for all students. It is never fun to be the odd one out; in fact, it can be straight up humiliating. I can only imagine how it feels to watch your friends join in a community-wide celebration to which you are simply not invited.

Celebrate your education. Celebrate your Concordia community. Celebrate the awesome things you are going to do in this world. But in the process be careful to notice those who are not invited to this particular party. Take note of your own privilege, and recognize that you most likely did not get here alone. And a note to non-Cobber ring wearing Concordia students: You still matter. You are still a valued part of this community. A ring, or lack thereof, does not define you. I believe that Concordia’s mission and values are worth celebrating—but it’s better if we can all celebrate them (and live them) together.

Why Christian?

FullSizeRender (1)This weekend I had the incredible privilege of attending the Why Christian? conference hosted by Rachel Held Evans and Nadia Bolz-Weber, two of my modern day heroes of faith. Eleven incredible (and completely badass) women of faith were invited to publicly answer the question “Why Christian? Why, in the wake of centuries of corruption, hypocrisy, crusades, televangelists, and puppet ministries do we continue to follow Jesus? Why amidst all the challenges and disappointments, do we still have skin in the game?” Excellent question indeed.

So, three weeks into my seminary journey, I showed up at the entrance of St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral for the conference feeling exhausted, frazzled, and deeply questioning what in the world I was doing in seminary. For the most part, I was really enjoying my classes and was starting to feel at home the seminary community; I couldn’t point to anything in particular that was going poorly. However, I was feeling overwhelmed and frustrated with the uncertainty of ministry in a rapidly changing church and was growing increasingly more terrified as I tried to envision myself in the role of anybody’s pastor. The initial excitement of new people and a new place was starting to wear off, and I was feeling bogged down with the realization of the commitment I had just made to theological education and the scary unknowns that follow. I had been putting on my brave, strong, positive attitude persona for three straight weeks, and quite frankly, I was worn out. Mostly I just wanted to curl up in a ball on my couch and watch Harry Potter, but I reminded myself that I had paid for this conference and I had been looking forward to it for months on end and like it or not, I was going to show up and participate. So I did. And I am so very grateful.

At the expense of sounding incredibly cheesy, each conference speaker spoke light, love, and wisdom right into my soul. I was challenged, confronted with my own privilege, and deeply inspired by Austin Channing Brown’s sermon on race and the God who promises death is not the final word. I was left in awe of Nichole Flores’s deep theological wisdom and passion for human dignity. I was touched by Mihee Kim-Kort’s dedication to social justice and hospitality for all. I was moved to tears by Rachel Murr’s vulnerability and authenticity as she shared her story of heartbreak and hope as a gay evangelical Christian. I joined the chorus of laughter as Jodi Houge lifted our spirits with her dry humor and felt empowered by her dedication to God’s call as she leads her church called Humble Walk right here in Saint Paul. I was blown away by Kerlin Richter’s seemingly effortless ability to connect her passion for liturgy and sacraments with social justice, selfless love, and thoughtful accompaniment. I was left blown away by Allyson Dylan Robinson’s profession of God’s infinity and mystery. I was grounded by Tiffany Thomas’s spunk and courage as she seemingly fearlessly lived into her vocational call as a young, African American pastor. And I was amazed by how deeply Emily Scott’s words resonated with me as she shared her story of finding her voice and living into her gifts for ministry. (Note: The incredible Winnie Varghese and Jes Kas-Keat spoke as well; I just missed their sessions. But you should still check them out because they’re awesome.)

Each of these women, in their beautiful diversity, are living unapologetically into their vocational calls. Each woman spoke with her own voice, from her own perspective, sharing her own personality.  With each speaker, I regained the courage to keep going and to trust that I am enough, that maybe, just maybe, God can use me too, right where I am. With each speaker, I was reminded that I am not on this journey alone. And with each speaker’s profession of faith, I began to remember not only why I am in seminary, but why I claim this crazy Christian faith in the first place.

So, why do I call myself a Christian?

I call myself a Christian because as much as I try to be, I am not superwoman. I need the constant support of my brothers and sisters in faith, and I need to be reminded, sometimes on a daily basis, that the world does not in any way, shape, or form rest on my shoulders. I need to know that I am part of a story way bigger than myself, a story that I quite frankly do not have the power to mess up or to save.

I am a Christian because I am a perfectionist who messes up all of the time. I am in desperate need of God’s grace and mercy, a God who meets me where I’m at in the midst of my imperfection and messiness and stubbornness and reminds me time and time again that I am loved. So dearly loved. I am loved by a God and a Love that is so infinite that nothing, nothing, can ever separate me from it. And I so desperately need to trust that this is enough, that I am a Child of God and therefore I am enough.

I am a Christian because in the midst of a broken society filled with racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty, mental illness, violence, and religious intolerance, I need to know that this is not the end of the story. I need to know that there is another story line, a story of death, yes, but also of resurrection and new life. I desperately need to believe not only in the promise of a more beautiful future, but in the promise of a God whose Kingdom is breaking through in the here and now. A Kingdom that turns our world upside down and challenges the harmful, hate-filled divisions we have created between black and white, rich and poor, male and female. I am a Christian because when I look at Jesus, when I see a God who makes a move so radical as to put on flesh, I am filled with hope for this Kingdom that just might have a chance after all.

I am a Christian because despite the brokenness and messiness and divisions and countless mistakes we have collectively made, I love the Church, and I have been woven intricately into this big, beautiful Body of Christ. It is a Body that has existed long before me and will continue to exist long after me, and thanks be to God, I am not a central character.

I am a Christian because every time I get frustrated with the Church, which is a lot, I still find myself almost inexplicably drawn to the sacrament of communion. I just can’t keep myself away from a God who tears down our social constructs and is always making room for more people at the Table—even, especially even, the people who I don’t necessarily like, the people who make me uncomfortable, and the people who make me recognize my own privilege and biases when I would much prefer to look in the other direction.

I am a Christian because I was claimed by God in the waters of baptism and quite frankly there’s not much I can do about it. 🙂

Peace,

Alex

Disorientation, New Adventures, and an Attempt to Articulate ALL of the Feels.

LutherWhat a ride! Exactly one month ago today, I completed my last day of service at The Gathering Place. Two days later I shared a bittersweet goodbye with my Urban Servant Corps housemates and fellow volunteers, packed up my car (how I managed to accumulate that much stuff during a year of full-time volunteer work is completely beyond me), and watched the Rocky Mountains disappear in my rearview mirror as I began the trek back to South Dakota.  (Thank goodness for NPR, podcasts, and 90’s music. I also may have spent a good 45 minutes trying to learn all the words to Lutheran Swag. I did not succeed.)

Three days after that, my family and I packed into the car again and spent a week enjoying the lake life in northern MN. Upon completion of a successful family vacation, I spent a couple of days in my beloved Fargo-Moorhead reveling in the company of some pretty fantastic people. Then I returned home, spent a couple more days sorting through everything I own, packed my car to the brim again, and took off for St. Paul to begin the next leg of the journey: seminary.

After putting a whole lot of time and energy into fighting the mere idea of seminary just one year ago, I still have a hard time speaking of “the s-word” without a little bit of sarcasm and a lot a bit of sass. The reality is that overall, I am thrilled to be here and am incredibly excited to delve into classes and embrace this new community. However, the other simultaneous reality is that I am utterly terrified and continually find myself on an emotional rollercoaster peaking at “This is the absolute best! These are my people! This is where I need to be!” and quickly making the seemingly vertical drop to “What in the world have I gotten myself into??” and the ever dramatic, “What have I done?!” (I have also been informed by multiple sources that these feelings will probably not go away. Ever. So that’s neat.)

I also find myself struggling to process my Urban Servant Corps experience along the way. After spending a year living in the center of Denver, just a couple blocks off of one of the city’s most notorious streets, I now find myself living in a fairly well-off, quiet, residential neighborhood in Saint Paul. After spending a year working full-time with women and children in the clutches of some of life’s worst nightmares (homelessness, poverty, domestic violence, mental illness, etc.), I am now working at a Lutheran church in the same, comfortable neighborhood in which I currently live, composed of nearly all-white, very Norwegian middle-class individuals and families. After spending a year living in intentional community with seven other housemates in a 115 year-old house where we shared a budget and deliberately explored what it meant to live simply and sustainably, I now live with only one roommate in a fairly modern, comfortable, quiet apartment. I spent a year celebrating with folks who were finally able to find employment at a gas station or fast food chain, and I’m now surrounded by people with enough privilege to spend 2-4 years in graduate school, contemplating the meaning of “vocation” and “calling.”

In some ways, I feel like I have returned home. To “my people,” to my reality, to my comfort zone. And somehow in the midst of it all, I feel completely lost.

I feel especially disoriented every time I try to pick apart the pieces of my year in Denver that I want to carry with me. What elements of simplicity are sustainable for me?  What things can I leave behind? Which pieces of my year at The Gathering Place were life-giving? Which pieces of my service experience had me on the fast track to burn-out? How can I possibly begin to apply all (or even just a few) of the lessons I learned in the realm of social justice in my new context? How do I keep my own level of privilege in check when it’s not being blatantly handed to me every single day? How can I share my experience in a way that is helpful to both myself and others without becoming accusatory, preachy, one-sided or simply bursting into tears? How can I look upon this “new” context, this context in which I have largely called home for over 20 years, with grace and love, but also with a willingness to challenge the status quo?

And then there are the community life withdrawals. I, a proud, self-proclaimed introvert, was not prepared to miss the constant bustle and chatter of intentional community life, but here we are. I miss house dinners and creative cooking endeavors, breakfast table vent sessions, well-deserved coffee and frozen yogurt runs, mountain excursions, and spontaneous late night adventures. Intentional community life was challenging, beautiful, raw, and at times all-consuming. I hated it and loved it at the same time, and now I’m not quite sure what to do without it.

And then there’s this whole seminary roller coaster I seem to be on and this thrilling, terrifying gut reaction I still have to the word “pastor.” Sometimes I think it might take me all four years (or an entire lifetime?) to simply come to terms with that.

How exactly this all fits together, I’m not sure. The past, present, and future are so intricately connected, but right now I feel like I’m bouncing back and forth between all the three, getting a little more uncertain with each passing moment. The last thing I want is for my Urban Servant Corps year to be an isolated experience on which to look back with fondness (or frustration or wonder) every few months or years. It needs to come with me into each new context I encounter, but right now, how that will look is a mystery. Right now I have way more questions than answers…about everything. But maybe for now, that’s okay. Maybe for right now it is enough to try to embrace the uncomfortableness, the disorientation, and the questions. Maybe for now it is enough to admit that I still do not have all the answers, and that I still have so very much to learn. And maybe now is as good of a time as any to practice granting myself, and others, lots and lots of grace.