My goodness, 2017 really got away from us, huh? Just me? I haven’t written a word on this site since January, evidence of this year’s disorienting nature. Luckily, this one’s just about done. As much as I’d like to avoid writing some cliché New Year’s resolution post, it appears I simply can’t help myself. I mean, what better way to start writing here again, then by thinking of a few things I’d like to leave in 2017, and laying out some commitments and goals for the coming year?
THINGS I’D LIKE TO LEAVE IN 2017
Either/Or Thinking: If this hasn’t been the year that best highlights our current cultural climate’s dependency on either/or thinking, then I don’t know what is. A miserable Presidential election in 2016 gave the necessary shove to spiral 2017 into a year of tribal thinking, political and ideological purity requirements, and a whole lot of nastiness and division. In fact, division may be the legacy of 2017 when it’s all said and done. The constant barrage of political and ideological division has often contributed to or exacerbated divisions in our families, friends, and faith communities. And, I think most of us have also encountered this division in ourselves in one form or another.
The truth is, I haven’t really avoided the nastiness of division, in fact, for much of the year I’ve been eating it up. I think the underlying fear is that I don’t have a place to belong. The election, all the theological and political fights within the church, and the jarring realization that things I thought were one thing, are something else entirely, left me scrambling for a grip on some sense of belonging and security. Everything felt uncertain in January, and a whole hell of a lot feels uncertain now. The easy fix was to define myself by what I am not, and in this regard, I bit down hard. I dismissed other human beings based on single comments, actual or perceived difference, and straight up assumption.
When a class of mine descended into arguments and shame filled rhetoric following a #DecolonizeLutheranism event, I made a list in my head of all the people I was simply done with. No need to interact with people who say repugnant and offensive things. Rather, I could dismiss them completely, feeling totally righteous about where I claimed belonging. I’m THIS, not THAT. Easy. Unfortunately, this IN/OUT, either/or thinking limited my ability to accurately see both the other person, and myself. I was too busy denouncing the thoughts and actions of other people, to truthfully consider all the ways in which I was complicit in the church’s continued attachment to white supremacy and patriarchy, which #DecolonizeLutheranism seeks to weed out. I fed into this notion that you’re either good or bad, right or wrong, guilty or innocent. Unfortunately, it is simply not that easy.
This either/or thinking also expressed itself in the ways in which I tried to engage the work of justice. Most often this was encountered in the tension between contemplation and action. Do I lean in to the work of inner transformation, or do I get to work on campaigns, community organizing, and direct action? Rather than holding these two interdependent forces in healthy tension, I most often found myself tempted to dismiss one in favor of the other. When I got burnt out from going to protests, writing letters, or sitting through community meetings, I would react with bitterness and frustration. I’d let my spiritual practice and theological investigation serve as excuses to not engage, to not participate, rather than allowing them to renew, heal, and inspire me towards compassionate action. I often felt such a sense of urgency to act that I failed to allow time for those practices of reflection and presence to deepen my engagement, and to ground my action in God’s work, instead of relying on my own.
The relationship between contemplation and action is what I will spend most of my remaining seminary career examining, and I pray that I will continue to live into the healthy tension, and beautiful mutuality of these two gifts. There is no contemplation without action, and no action without contemplation. Indeed, the contemplative life is always pushing back against a dualistic world, expanding our perception beyond an either/or paradigm towards a world of both/and. A world where “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”.
Perfection: More false thinking that I’d like to leave behind. My dependence on some perceived sense of perfection in all things is killing me. This is related to either/or thinking, in that I often find myself thinking, for example, that to be the perfect contemplative one rejects the world. Or, to be the perfect activist and advocate, one rejects oneself. There is no room for anything other than the absolute. The trouble is, there is no such thing as perfection. There is no perfect student, contemplative, activist, church worker, husband, son, brother, friend, Lutheran, Oblate, or any of the other aspects of my life. There is only me, and there is only you.
One of the more damaging ways I’ve experienced the destruction of perfectionism is in my academic work. My obsession with good grades, and my fear of being seen to not understand something completely, has limited my willingness to take intellectual and academic risks. I’ve often failed to expand my understanding, or to challenge my biases, by focusing instead on perfecting the perception that I already know it. It means I don’t ask questions, or seek clarification, because somewhere I learned that the perfect student already knows the answer. I want to know myself and others better. I want to follow those moments of curiosity, and I want to be transformed. The three vows of Benedictines are to Stability, Obedience, and Conversion of Life (conversatio morum). Conversion requires a commitment to curiosity and taking risks. Each day is a chance to try again, and to learn from the day before. By daily dying and rising, living into the promises of my baptism, and remembering that my belonging does not ultimately rest on my ability to perform perfectly, I pray that 2018 might be a year of growth, conversion, and creativity.
THINGS I’D LIKE TO CARRY WITH ME INTO 2018
Authenticity: I’m praying that 2018 might be a year where I get to know myself a little bit better, and allow that person to show up in ways that I might otherwise suppress. This fear over our sense of belonging can so easily push us to twist and contort ourselves into acceptable and presentable ghosts of our actual selves. This is something I have struggled with mightily this past year, and something that I have been actively working on. It may feel good to be seen as someone who knows all the answers, or who never tires of the workload, but the truth is so much more interesting and opens the door for so much growth. I trust that God knows and loves me as I am, with all my faults, all my sins, and all my quirks. And I know that I endeavor to love the people in my life as whole persons. I pray that I can extend the same grace to myself.
For me, this means letting go of my need to be perceived as the smartest person in the room. Somewhere along the line I learned that my belonging was dependent on my intelligence and on my ability to speak shrewdly about any and every topic. As I mentioned above, this means that I stop asking questions, and I refuse to admit when I don’t know something. “I don’t know”. That’s my mantra for 2018. It might seem like a small thing to admit that I don’t know something, but if I can reveal more of the person who doesn’t know the answer, but is curious to find out, then I’ll have accomplished something I can be proud of.
This also means leaning into those practices and presences that affirm and reveal my Belovedness, and my true self. Centering Prayer has been an incredibly powerful tool in this regard. Thomas Keating mentions often that Centering Prayer is a practice of intention not attention. It’s not about perfection, it’s about relationship with a God who truly sees me, and loves me. Centering Prayer is about letting go of our attachment to our thoughts, to those narratives that turn us inward, towards hiddenness and distance. Each time I sit down for those twenty minutes of silence I am reminded of God’s immense expansiveness, and unconditional love, and I come away feeling courage and peace, which allows me to show up as myself, and for others.
Curiosity: One of the symptoms of dualistic thinking is the loss of curiosity. Either/or is all about certainty, which means that once I know the answer I no longer need to think about the question. This is part of why dualistic thinking is so damaging to our relationships and our communities. We just aren’t curious about other people beyond those boundaries we’ve designated to identify who’s in and who’s out. Moving beyond the tumult and anger of 2017 is going to require that we get curious about one another.
A woman in the class I mentioned above, who had said some of the most offensive and upsetting things amid the conversation about #DecolonizeLutheranism, was a reminder for me about the power of curiosity. A week or two after the initial conflict I saw her sitting alone at a table in the lunchroom. Everything in my body said, “Avoid, avoid, avoid!”. But, I took a deep breath and made my way over to her table. I forced myself to become curious about her, even though I was certain that I knew everything I needed to know. After the initial introductions and some conversation about home towns we began talking about our call to ministry. She told me about how she had wanted to be a pastor for some time, but that her family and her church had both told her that because she was a woman, this simply wasn’t a possibility. I could see how painful this was for her, and I let her know that I was glad she was at seminary, and was pursuing this call despite her community’s resistance. That she was able to feel the injustice of her church’s unwillingness to support her call to ministry opened the door for a conversation about the pain that other’s have experienced at the hand of the church. It opened the door for a calmer conversation about #DecolonizeLutheranism, and for some reflection on our class’s experience.
I’m not suggesting that this one conversation somehow led to a miraculous conversion event on the part of either of us (in fact, not a week later she was back at it in class and during lunch). I’m not suggesting that curiosity will lead to people seeing the error of their ways, or rejecting ideas and words that are harmful. I’m saying that my curiosity allowed me to listen to her without being gripped by an apoplectic fit. It allowed me to have a conversation with her that didn’t end in angry words or utter dismissals. I still think she’s absolutely and fundamentally wrong, but my curiosity (however forced it may have been) challenged me to commit to seeing her first and foremost as a Beloved, complicated, and complex person.
I’ve been trying this tactic out more and more. When I find myself engaging someone challenging, I start to get curious and ask questions about their experience, their background, their feelings. I’m not suggesting we let folks get away with being openly despicable, but at the very least we must be able to talk without our teeth bared from the start. I’m convinced that this curiosity will be part of the slow and painful process towards a more peaceable world, and I’m going to challenge myself to get curious in 2018.
I have hope for this coming year. In this moment, hope is the greatest act of resistance we can participate in. God is always creating a more just and creative world, despite our inability to see it, and whatever we can do to deepen our awareness of this fact will go a long way towards our ability to embrace this hope. Carry those things that give life and spark your curiosity into 2018, and leave behind those things that don’t. Tomorrow’s a new day. Thanks be to God.
 NRSV Galatians 3:28
Picture courtesy of Kristin Tangen Photography