Ashes, Hot Messes, and Creating Space for Each Other: Happy Lent!

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Ashes from Palms by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. CC via Flickr.

I’ve always had a bit of an uneasy relationship with Lent. Maybe it’s the weirdness of contemplating mortality on Ash Wednesday while walking around with dirt smeared across our foreheads. Maybe it’s the somber attitude of the season piled upon my already dreary snow-covered February spirit. Maybe it’s my notoriously harsh inner critic’s reaction to the season’s focus on lament and repentance. Maybe it’s because we live in a culture that doesn’t know what to do with grief and stillness and self-discipline. Maybe it’s got something to do with the social pressure to give up chocolate or social media or, heaven forbid, coffee. Maybe it’s the fact that Lent always seems to catch me by surprise before I have a chance to come up with the perfect Lenten discipline so that when people inevitably do suggest I give up chocolate or social media or my beloved coffee, I can wow them with the other super impressive, really creative Lenten practice I’ve picked up. (On a related note, be on the look-out for my next post, “Lenten Practices for Procrastinators.”) Most likely it’s a combination of all of the above.

 

Anyway, like it always does, Ash Wednesday rolled around again this week, ushering the church into the annual 40-day season of repentance and reflection and self-examination as we journey with Jesus toward the cross. And once again, I was left feeling unprepared and a bit flustered (and annoyed with myself for feeling unprepared and flustered when really Lent isn’t about me at all…it’s about, you know, Jesus. Which always then has implications for us and how we view ourselves and live in community with each other. But whatever. I digress. ) So, anyway, on Ash Wednesday my flustered self was feeling a little overwhelmed with my lack of Lenten preparedness as well and my quickly mounting pile of seminary homework and the overall weight of the world’s brokenness and was scrolling through Twitter (because that’s helpful) and I came across this gem from Kate Bowler, author and faculty member at Duke Divinity School.

 

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And I breathed a giant sigh of relief.

Lent is a season for repentance, yes. It is a season for mourning all that is wrong with ourselves and with the world and the awful ways in which we treat each other and our planet. It is a season of contemplating our smallness and our mortality and our sinfulness. It is a season for the hard work of truth telling. It is a season that calls us back to be the new created beings God has called us to be in the midst of our imperfect, messy realities.

But it’s not a season for shame.
It’s not a season for comparing my sin and guilt and brokenness to yours.
It’s not a competition for holiness.
And it’s definitely not a diet program or a guide for healthy living.

Lent is a season of holy room-making, as we bring our whole, messy, broken, hurting, confused, flustered, imperfect, angry, devastated, anxious, quirky, angsty, and wholly loved selves into community with each other. (Which, if it wasn’t for Jesus, would be a holy recipe for disaster.) We call each other into repentance, yes. But first, we make room. Because, let’s be real, we are all a bunch of hot messes. And we need space to acknowledge our collective hot mess selves before we can enter into the work of repentance and reflection to which Lent calls us. And, spoiler alert: we will still probably be hot messes once Lent is over. But maybe we will be hot messes who are just a little bit kinder to each other. Because, I am convinced, that whether it is in the ashes smudged across our foreheads or the bread and wine of communion or our voices joined in song or the clunky awkward silence for self-reflection that we aren’t sure how to handle, God meets us there — whether or not we have deemed ourselves properly prepared.

 

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Where I’m From

As an act of marking this semester’s writing journey, I’m bringing it back to the beginning for a moment. If I’ve learned anything from seminary, even more profound than fancy theological jargon or thousands of years of church history or a toolkit for proper biblical exegesis, it might just be the importance of knowing oneself. You must know yourself — your gifts, your quirks, your growing edges — before you can sustainably care for and accompany others. You must know the people, communities, and perspectives that have shaped you in order to wrestle with theology with integrity. You have to do the hard work of discovering where you’ve been and who’s come before you in order to enter into conflict or hard conversations about systemic change. You must know yourself in order to know your neighbors.

In Writing to Change the World, Mary Pipher argues that the most meaningful writing comes from those who know themselves deeply. She suggests several exercises for getting to know oneself as a writer, but one of my favorites is the “Where I’m From” poem. Check out my poem below– and then I’d love to hear your own version! Where are you from? Who or what has shaped you? Click here for a template (but totally feel free to adapt. There are no rules here.)

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I am from Bensons and Steigers, Lebers and Kreins.

I am from South Dakota corn fields and prairie sunsets, from expansive skies and starry nights, and from Minnesota lakes and the Red River valley, from “uffda” and tater tot hotdish, and from the Rocky Mountains and Denver sunshine, from bluegrass music and hipster coffee shops.

I am from sturdy maple trees and stacks of hay bales, from a garden filled with tomato plants and rows of apple trees whose tart fruit might make you pucker – but they are perfect for pies.

I am from anxious and stubborn and stoic and practical. I am from creative and generous and kind and witty. I am from white privilege and gendered stereotypes and feelings-hiders and quiet strength. Together, we’re learning.

I am from early risers and diligent workers, from colorful talkers and strong coffee drinkers. I am from grand storytellers, green thumb gardeners, and masterful cooks. I am from “Find your smile!” and “Don’t hurry, start early!”

I am from John Deere and NPR. I am from hot fudge sundaes and corn on the cob, from German dumplings and prune kuchen.

I am from sticky orange and black pom-poms, bright yellow Nancy Drew mystery novels, and that old black couch that sucks you all the way down in the center. I am from skinned knees and long bike rides on gravel roads and Friday afternoon piano lessons.

I am from Lutheran liturgy and silly camp songs, from church picnics and Christmas pageants. I am from youth gathering altar calls and contemporary Christian radio and crinkly Bible pages with lots of neon highlighting.

I am from more questions than answers and communities of thoughtful accompaniers.

I am from adventures yet to unfold. I am from dust and breath and contradictory wonder.

Pour yourself a cup of coffee, and pull up a chair!

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Hi there, beautiful friends!

It’s been a while, but I’m back on the blog. As part of my own personal “It’s my last semester of seminary. How do I want to grow?” initiative, I am taking an independent study course exploring the intersections of spirituality and writing, which largely includes posting to this site! And, I’d be honored if you joined me along the way.

Upcoming pieces will include reflections similar to what you’ve seen from me before, but will also include shorter updates with questions I’m pondering, bits of poetry that have enlivened my imagination, and links to articles or music or videos that have piqued my own curiosity. I’d deeply appreciate your feedback, your questions, and your perspectives as well. In a world that is increasingly hostile and polarized, I’d love nothing more that to create a space for honest conversation (even when it’s hard) and a space to practice holy reverence – a space where we can slow down enough to notice the beautiful and ordinary and the divine, a space to sit with questions, a space to wonder and celebrate and be curious about this world together. I don’t promise to always get it right, but I do promise to do my best to write with integrity, respect, and curiosity.

So, pour yourself a cup of coffee and pull up the comfiest of chairs. Let’s wonder together!

Feel free to follow this blog on your favorite social medial platform (Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram…I’m not cool enough for the others…) or subscribe by clicking on the “follow” button in the bottom right hand corner of this site.

 

Peace,

Alex

On Coming Back to Myself

On Coming Back to Myself

“The thing that is really hard and really amazing is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.”   – Anna Quindlen

“You are enough. You are so enough. It’s unbelievable how enough you are.” –-Sierra Boggess

IMG_4978The demons had been sneakily making themselves at home for a long time before I finally caught onto their game last winter. I was tired. I was overwhelmed. I was anxious. I was in desperate need of sunlight and fresh produce and laughter. I felt small and stuck and scared.

There was the Demon of Imposter Syndrome. The nagging voice that kept insisting, “You don’t actually belong here.” “Your call isn’t valid.” “You’re not brave enough, outgoing enough, funny enough, smart enough, old enough, wise enough to be in this place with these people. You’re a fake, and everyone knows it.”

There was the Demon of Perfectionism. My old bestie. The demon that immobilizes out of fear of making a mistake. The demon that keeps me from showing up out of fear of judgment, fear of losing, fear of being anything less than the best, fear of not meeting my own unattainable standards, fear of confronting my own humanness. The demon that runs me to the ground as I try to package all of life into a neat little box because heaven forbid if this isn’t the best paper I’ve ever written or someone drops by for a visit and my dishes aren’t done.

There was the Demon of Smallness. The demon whose best friends are Invisibility and Silence. The demon that has me second guessing every word before I speak, the demon that tells me that my experiences are less than someone else’s so I probably don’t have anything to add anyway, the demon whose worst enemy is being seen—and who tries to convince me that that is my worst enemy too. The demon that fears my own strength and will do everything it can to convince me that I am weak and small and only capable of what I know.

There was the Demon of Scarcity. The demon that steals gratitude and contentment and joy and instead tricks me into thinking that I can never have enough money or time or energy or courage for the people and causes and experiences I love. The demon that turns my focus inward, prevents me from seeing the people right in front of me, keeps me from the countless adventures that beckon. The demon that automatically turns my attention toward the things or people or experiences I don’t have, as opposed to the overflowing abundance of family, friends, and experiences that have been and continue to be the source of so much joy.

The demons are a sneaky bunch, and before I even knew their names, they had tried to lay claim over my identity. Before I knew it, I had submitted myself to the soul-sucking fate of perfection and silence and smallness and trying to fit myself and my vocation into some elusive framework that I assumed was expected of me. And it was exhausting and disheartening and totally and completely unattainable.

But, thankfully, I did learn the demons’ names. And when I discovered their names and began to learn their tricks, they became weaker and weaker as Love grew stronger, as the Holy Spirit filled the places the demons once occupied with the breath of new life. And the demons stood no chance against the Spirit’s whispers which gently led me to the people and experiences that had the power to call me back to myself and to the only identity that actually holds any claim: Child of God.

The Spirit embraced me through the late night laughter over glasses of wine and coffee dates in hipster coffee shops and post-confirmation happy hours and shared home-cooked meals and nerdy theological conversations and 140-character inside jokes shared over Twitter and phone calls with friends far away. Each moment of connection drawing me back slowly, reminding me that I am loved and that I am enough and that sometimes all I have to do is show up.

The Spirit soothed my soul through the wisdom and encouragement of professors and mentors who saw me, even when I tried so desperately to be invisible.

The Spirit nudged me in my yoga practice, as I learned to trust my body and appreciate its strength and elegance and wisdom. (Yes. Elegance. I said it.)

The Spirit guided me into the arms of a community whose rhythms of grace and love and messy chaos invited me to breathe deeply, share of myself fully, and laugh unabashedly as we sang and danced and canoed and made friendship bracelets and tried to share the love of Christ with kids and with each other in a million imperfectly beautiful ways. (Shout-out to you, SLM 2017!)

The Spirit called me into holy discomfort as I sat in a circle with a bunch of strangers turned colleagues in Clinical Pastoral Education and we took turns revealing our most vulnerable places and stories to each other—an experience that at the time I was convinced was my own personal introvert hell but was actually the start of some pretty profound healing.

The Spirt brought me back to myself in time spent with family, in conversations around the kitchen table, in lazy summer afternoons on the farm, in summertime picnics with cousins and grandparents and friends who are family even if they’re not related by blood.

And the Spirit stirred two weeks ago as I sat in an office with three female deacons and an incredible faculty mentor for my endorsement interview and tried to hide my shaking legs and sweaty palms as I was seen and heard, and my gifts and imperfections and vulnerabilities felt painfully exposed and I was told “You have a very clear and powerful sense of call. We’re excited for you to be a Deacon in this church.”

And then I tried not to turn into a bumbling mess right then and there because suddenly I knew I was back. And quite frankly, it has been a really, really long ride, but I am beyond grateful for this crazy, beautiful journey that continues to take me by surprise.

A truly heartfelt thanks to each of you for being a part of it. ❤

 

 

 

 

We did it! A Reflection for Closing Worship

SLM 2017 Staff Closing Worship Reflection

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To my dearest Summer 2017 Water of Life seekers:

What a ride. Although my body aches literally everywhere and I’m up to about 10 cups of coffee a day and I’m in dire need of a pedicure, I still can’t believe we’re already here. Week 9 (or week 11 if you count staff training) staff closing worship. I want to say “Alleluia. Thanks be to God!” and turn into a bumbling weeping mess all in the same moment. Maybe you can relate.

Making it to this moment is no small feat. You’ve put in a ridiculous amount of work, a crazy number of hours, and have impacted a truly amazing number of campers. You’ve shared yourselves—your gifts, your personalities, your energy, your love—with wild and over the top energetic elementary and preschoolers, with awkward and desperately searching middle school and high schoolers, with growing leaders in CITs and Agape, with ever loving and challenging adults with disabilities, with grandparents and entire families. It’s kind of incredible how much life happens in the course of 11 weeks.

When we arrived in May, some of us were already friends, some of us were even siblings, but at first as a community we were uncertain about each other and let’s be honest, most of us rocked that nervous awkwardness as we worked hard to learn each other’s names, figure out who had what job, and tried desperately to remember basic things about each others’ lives. “So, where are you from?” “Where do you go to school again?” “Remind me what your major is?” And then in the baptism by fire whirlwind we call staff training, you were bombarded with information, songs, games, schedules, curriculum, and expectations. From Mopping with Marv and Canoeing with Dana to lessons in learning styles and cabin management to trial runs of Day Camp and late night campfire jam sessions, those two weeks somehow managed to feel both like two years and two seconds and you probably knew each other better than you could have anticipated. Next thing you know, we were giving each other pep talks on Sunday afternoon as we nervously paced around in the dining hall before the first batch of campers arrived. And just like that, the race began.

On this race, your feet have carried you on countless adventures. You’ve made about three million circles around Keeley Island: from your cabin to the dining hall to back to your cabin to the chapel to the AC or Red Cloud to the playing field to low ropes, back to the dining hall, to EE, to Washishi or the beach or the Gaga ball pit to Good Earth or Pelican and back to your cabin to do it all again. You’ve probably made several laps around Boy Scout, hauling wood packs and coolers and tents and dry bags, all the while instructing and caring for your campers in your calm but “seriously you have to do this now” counselor voice you’ve all perfected. You’ve traveled across Minnesota and South Dakota on Day Camps, you’ve taken your feet to the river on Wet & Wild, you’ve wandered around Walmart in Marshall, you maybe went to Luverne for a fairly silent drive in movie and you ran all around Slayton for a goofy picture scavenger hunt. You’ve played some intense beach volleyball, you’ve attended a luau or two, and you’ve paraded around camp dressed up as your favorite sea creatures. You’ve also cleaned this place from top to bottom, put in a solid chunk of time doing dishes, and taken on a whole assortment of oddball tasks—each in itself an act of hospitality, big or small.

From the first day of staff training, we’ve been reflecting on our theme verse from Isaiah. You can probably recite it in your sleep. “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. And the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.” Our Bible study days have become a steady rhythm: Creation, Baptism, Woman at the Well, Blind Man, Still Waters. Created, Claimed, Invited, Healed, Renewed. Repeat. Together, we have lived this liturgy, this constant song of praise and worship and wondering and laughter and tears and questions and prayer. The Spirit has truly made these stories and promises come alive this summer—turned these ancient words into the very breath of our life together: Created, Claimed, Invited, Healed, Renewed. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. And I really do think that together we have indeed been quenched by the Living Water.

Not that the path to Living Water isn’t totally exhausting, but the ways in which God manages to renew my own soul in the midst of the chaos and busyness never ceases to amaze me. Perhaps you’ve experienced God the Creator’s renewal and constant presence in quiet moments on the dock, or in a sunset on outcamp, or in the crackling campfire. Maybe you’ve encountered Christ just when you needed him in kitchen dance parties or in heart to hearts in couch tub or in an affirmation from a friend.  Maybe the Spirit has sustained you through profound “I wonder” statements in Bible study, through the tear-jerking prayers earnestly lifted up by campers at campfire, through their energy and joy while singing Psalm 150 or The Rock when you roll into worship exhausted, wondering how you are going to make it through the next couple hours let alone the remaining weeks.

As the weeks have gone on, I’ve watched your fake it ‘til you make it strategy shift to real confidence. You’ve discovered that you’re stronger than you thought you were, and you’ve uncovered hidden talents: 80’s water aerobics, worship leading, praying in public, guiding Bible study conversations, caring for people with special needs (and all that entails), canoeing, fire building, conflict resolution skills, castle building (both sand castles and stone bunker castles…), and a million and one ways to get kids’ attention or fill ten extra minutes. Through it all you’ve wrestled with your own faith questions and exploration while accompanying campers on their own faith journeys. You’ve had to dig deep and have discovered that sometimes even when you feel empty, the Spirit sustains you so that you have just enough left to give.

Created. Called. Invited. Healed. Restored.

And now, my friends, even though this liturgy, these stories, and these promises do not end here, our time together has drawn to a close. It is time for each of us to be sent back out into the world. We have been changed by each other and by our experiences throughout this sacred time together. None of us are exactly the same as we were three short months ago: we leave with new perspectives, new skills, new questions, new ideas, and a million new memories. Most of your clothes now probably smell like campfire, your hair might be a fancy new shade of copper, and you probably have some stellar tan lines. It will likely take a while to relearn that it’s okay to have more than two people up from whatever dinner table you happen to be sitting at, that you might not have to wait for someone to call seconds to get more food from your own kitchen, or that it’s okay to leave your bedroom before someone rings an obnoxious bell to wake you up in the morning. It might feel weird to drive your own car instead of a camp van with, shall we say lots of character, to not dress up like a disciple every Thursday night, or to cook for just a few people instead of an entire camp. You’re bound to be the person who responds with a camp style “We will! Thanks be to God!” after the dismissal at church at least once, and you’ll probably spend your first few weeks at school constantly trying to count your friends or classmates to make sure everyone is accounted for—after all you don’t want to have to do a missing camper drill in the middle of your bio class.

I hope and pray that this summer, you’ve discovered more deeply who you are and have a new appreciation for the truly amazing gifts and talents you each have to offer the world. I hope you’ve discovered that you’re stronger than you think you are and that you’re capable of more than you could have ever imagined, but I hope you’ve also experienced what it means to lean on and be supported by others—and that it’s okay to not have all the answers, to not be able to do it all on your own, that you are deeply loved even in the midst of your own brokenness and imperfections. I hope this place and this community has challenged you, but I also hope that it has become a sanctuary and a place that you know that you can always, always return and can always call home.

Whether you are ready to be done or whether you want to hide out in the boat shed and never leave or if you’re just so tired you don’t even know how to feel, know that you each were and always will be an essential and beloved part of this community.  As we look forward to the next adventure, whatever that may be, we trust that the living God, the very same God who meets us at camp, goes with us. Christ is present not only on Keeley Island, but throughout the whole world. The windy uncontrollable wild Spirit already awaits us on our next adventures and continues to call us to be the light of the world, no matter what waters we pass through. So shine where you are, my friends. Keep your eyes and your hearts wide open—continue to seek Living Water, trusting that this Living Water has already claimed you and called you Beloved. And that is always and forever enough.

On the first day of week 1, I shared this prayer from Philippians. Let it be our prayer once again, for this time and space:

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God. (Phil. 1:3-6, 9-11)

Amen.

 

Beatitudes for Week 9: Blessed are Your Dirty Camp Feet

SLMBlessed are you who love your campers, even when it’s hard. Blessed are you who wait for that last camper to tie their shoe, who sit by the homesick one at mealtime, who offer to be their canoeing buddy so that they don’t feel left out or afraid. Blessed are you who work hard each week to learn each camper’s name, you who patiently say “if you can hear me clap once!” five million times so that you can start the next activity, you who after a whirlwind of adventures find yourself saying a series of bittersweet goodbyes at the end of each week.

Blessed are you when you stick with and show grace to this beautiful, messy community, even when someone forgot to do their outcamp dishes and someone else didn’t show up in time to help lead worship and someone else forgot to clean up their mess in the staff lounge and really all you want to do is find a quiet place of sheer solitude.

Blessed are you who continue to offer yourself in worship and prayer and Bible study, even as you wrestle with your own big questions and doubts and insecurities.

Blessed are you when you find yourself pushed outside of your comfort zone: when you end up leading songs even though you have never considered yourself a musician, when you are trying again and again to get your fire started to no avail, when you are suddenly left in charge with other people’s children or adults with disabilities and wonder who the heck ever thought this was a good idea.

Blessed are you who feel like you can’t make it one more step and yet you dig deep to welcome another batch of campers—each with their own gifts and quirks, joys and insecurities, expectations and surprises.

Blessed are your dirty camp feet, blessed are your muscles that are sore from playing running games or hauling canoes, blessed are your fingertips calloused from playing the guitar. Blessed are you who got acrylic paint on your favorite shirt, you with campfire scented hair, you with bags under your eyes from too little sleep. Blessed are you with rockin’ Chaco tanlines, with Gaga ball battle wounds, with a sunburn from a long afternoon lifeguarding, or with a hoarse throat from leading the Hammer Song one too many times.

Blessed are you in your mountaintop joy, in your total camp glory, in your laughter, in your newfound friendships, in all of your gifts and passions and each act of service. Blessed are you in your exhaustion, in your frustration, in your anxiety, in your questions. Blessed are you, for you are a wholly loved, claimed, and called child of God. Blessed are you, good and faithful servants.

Amen.

25 Nuggets of Mom Wisdom

I12004692_10152983122672191_6993991532165851134_n’ve reached the ripe old age of 25 now, and with each passing year I’ve become more and more aware of the fact that, well, I’m basically my mother. My siblings, cousins, and I like to joke about the random quirks we’ve picked up from our own family systems (and trust me, there are plenty!), but every time I shrug and say, “Just call me Gwen…” I have to admit, I say it with a significant amount of pride. So, in honor of Mother’s Day, here are 25 lessons I’ve learned from my mom. Thanks, Ma! (#FavoriteChildStatus)

  1. Hold your head up high, and always be true to who you are.
  2. It’s okay to be weird.
  3. Color coordination is important. Like, really, really important.
  4. Hospitality is in the details.
  5. Pretty much any room can feel like home with proper wall decor.
  6. We can uncover some of life’s greatest truths by digging around in the dirt.
  7. Cook with and eat fruits and vegetables fresh from the garden whenever you can.
  8. It’s okay to make a mess and have several works in progress at the same time. (Relatedly, it is okay to be a work in progress.)
  9. Sometimes you just have to start compulsively cleaning at weird hours of the night.
  10. It’s okay to be a little bit stubborn.
  11. True service often comes without a lot of fanfare. So does true leadership.
  12. You don’t have to be the loudest voice in the room to practice integrity and compassion.
  13. Cheerleading is still the best sport.
  14. Art and music are gifts to cherish and practice, not tools for competition. (But also, don’t wait to practice your piano music until an hour before your lesson starts. And, let’s be honest, it’s okay to hold tiny grudges against those people who just seem to be really good without ever having to practice…)
  15. It’s okay to cry in movie theaters (even during Disney animated films).
  16. You can never own too many books.
  17. Whatever you do, do it to the best of your ability. But even if you mess up (or heaven forbid, you miss a word on a spelling test), trust that you are loved anyway.
  18. Always show compassion, and give others the benefit of the doubt (even when it’s really, really hard.)
  19. Say yes to the things that matter. Say no to the things that aren’t life giving.
  20. Everyone should have recipes for a good cookie and a good cocktail at the ready.
  21. Also, one should always have ice cream and red wine on hand.
  22. NPR actually isn’t so bad. Turns out, it’s rather delightful.
  23. Say thank you.
  24. Feeding people and eating together are profound acts of love.
  25. For the love of all that is holy, refill the ice cube tray before sticking it back in the freezer.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom!!