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Confronting my biases: Lessons Learned at Synod Assembly

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This past weekend my husband and I attended the Eastern North Dakota Synod Assembly of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.)  Over the two days, I heard Pastors speak who came originally from Peru, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico.  I heard prayers said in the Native language of Lakota.  Hymns sung in Vietnamese filled the air.  A Roman Catholic Bishop delivered the homily.  I witnessed the ordination of a Pastor who is from South Sudan.

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This is NOT the Lutheran church I grew up in. 

It is so much more beautiful.

The stereotypical stoic Nordic Lutheran Church congregation is transforming into one of a multitude of heritages, stories, languages and colors.

The Church is inside and outside of walls. It is generations deep and of displaced refugee status.  It is male and female, straight and gay.  It is Hispanic and Nordic and Asian and Native American.

If I am honest with myself, the diversity I experiences this weekend, did not always sit well with me.  Upon hearing of a group of undocumented teen entrepreneurial Lutherans who are succeeding and tithing part of their income, the word “undocumented” hung in my ears, tolling its ugly sound.  All of the white privilege rationales I tell myself attempted to cry out in my brain, trying to tell me all the things that were wrong with this success story.  To be brutally honest with oneself is hard.  To lay my own opinions and stories I tell myself out on the table and accept that some thoughts are racist and incorrect and unacceptable and completely un-Jesus-like is incredibly hard.  But as the Catholic Bishop pointed out, that only out of discontent does change begin.  To wrestle with the icky feeling of realizing the unjustness of some of my own stories is the only way to truly change.

The Catholic Bishop and Lutheran Bishop, leading a service, together.

The Catholic Bishop and Lutheran Bishop, leading a service, together.

I heard one refugee teen speak of hiding in the bush of the Congo to escape being killed by gunfire, when he was 6 years old.  I thought of my own 6 year old splashing around in the pool and my tears fell.  He will never live in constant fear of being shot as he walks the streets of our small town.  This teen did not come to America to “live off our system” as we may say about “those refugees.”  He came to America for a chance to survive. Plain and simple.

 

We like to define ourselves by the titles, labels and stories we tell ourselves.  To challenge any of those is not comfortable.  We want to be right not wrong, and if we change our story, maybe our initial beliefs were wrong?  And Lord knows we hate to be wrong.  But it is only when we choose to sit in the discomfort of a viewpoint that makes us uneasy that we can grow.  A pearl is the beautiful result of an incredible discomfort.  Acknowledging that maybe we actually have some unloving thoughts and judgements of others is the first step to growth in becoming a church that is truly one, together.  When we maintain our static beliefs as to what we feel the Church or Lutheran should look like, the Lutheran Church of our youth,  we maintain an outdated and dying model. When we focus on the similarities that bind us rather than the differences that isolate us, we learn and grow.  It is only through acceptance and evaluation of our own hang-ups, curiosity for those different than us and love for ALL our neighbors that we will grow and change into a compassionate, diverse and global Church.

There exists an I in Marriage.

I have a close friend who is getting married this month.  I am wondering if there is any wisdom I can offer as the Hubby and I approach our 17th married year together.  (I was obviously a child bride.)  My friend isn't a naive 20 something.  She has been through a number of her own ups and downs in relationships and life, learning a lot along the way. So I honestly wondered what advice can I offer her from the other side?

As I sat tonight staring into the flames of a bonfire pondering marriage with my head on my Hubby's shoulder (ignoring the marshmallowageddon enveloping me from smores gone wild) it became clear: There IS an "I" in marriage, and it lies right smack dab in the middle. 

Over the last few years, my romantic "love can conquer all" heart has taken a beating, impacted by the stream of marriages dissolving around me. 

Fifty percent of them do, my brother reminds me. 

Some divorces I get, they make sense, and some leave me bewildered and confused.  I am left with a sense of sadness because LOVE did not win.  Because so much of my being naively wants to believe it really can.

I only know our story, and "I" definitely lies in the middle.  If I share one tidbit of advice with my friend it is this: most of marriage comes down to meeting somewhere in the middle.

It involves things you would really, really rather not do.  It is doing that thing asked of you, with a sigh and groan, but you do it because it makes your spouse happy. It is tucking your ego into your spanx and playing nice. Plain and simple.  (No I am not talking about weird bedroom things, or dangerous or illegal things.) I am referring to touring a decommissioned missile silo command center when you are starving and ready to eat your own arm, the kids are crabby and tired and hungry and just want to go home.  You do the tour, because he really wants to and you know what? It was actually pretty cool, you learned a lot and the kids thought it was amazing. It leads to watching War Games as a family and the kids actually understand the fear we grew up with; the Russians blowing us off the map. 

It looks like him making hotel waffles for 3 kids and accidentally buttering the middle child's waffle, much to her utter dismay. He watches in bewilderment as she dissolves into a flailing pile of torment because on this particular day, she didn't want butter and insists him to "SCRAPE IT OFF!!! SCRAPE it off!!!! scraaaapppeee iiiiiiit offfffff.........!!!!!!" melting off the chair into the floor. 

... and make sure you get it out of all the holes too!

... and make sure you get it out of all the holes too!

All of this occurring 2 hours after you literally ran away to run 13.1 miles.  You actually PAID MONEY to run for some reason unbeknownst to him. Yet when he sees you coming down the road, cursing the stupid idea yourself, he says you are doing great with undeniable pride.

The natural tendency of a person is to want to be right or correct (and damn the consequences). We can act as stubborn as trying to move a goat from a pile of corn.  Marriage is a bigger picture painted more vivid and exquisite when we practice some compromise and grace.  

This is what I know.  If the "I" lies on one side or the other, MARRIAGE doesn't work. 

 

Imarriage

a bad Apple App bound to crash after the first update.

Marriagei

a strange Italian dish made with remorse and chutzpah that leaves a bad aftertaste.

I have done a lot of things for my husband that weren't on my list of "Things I would love to do!"  You know what,  it didn't kill me, and more often than not, some part of it created a great memory.  Whatever it was, it is important to HIM, and HE is important to ME, and that is reason enough to go along with his plan.  That doesn't mean I probably won't protest, complain, even use creative language to predict how terrible it is going to be... but I'll do it. 

The reality is, sometimes the plan completely falls apart.  Like when we found ourselves stuck at a-sure-to-get-you-killed-motel-that-still-uses-an-actual-key, we end up in a giggling fit.  Laughing in the parking lot, the theme song to National Lampoons Vacation sung between us, wondering how five of us will share a full size bed.

The years and experiences we have shared have prepared us for the fact that life never plays out how we think it should.  Marriage can find us in the middle of a F5 CrapStorm, on a four-wheeler, two miles from our property in a pasture. As flood waters are rising and icy sleet is falling hard and cold, we are on the only mode of transportation other than horses that can take us to our property.  My husband stops, looks at me and starts laughing. "THIS! This is our life!"

We share an ability to laugh at the absurdities that are often created when we are each willing to walk through the barricades of self toward that place in the middle...

the "I" in the middle of our marriage.

 

 

Lessons from the Pasture

I realize my writings are not consistent, not due to the chaotic nature of my life, but rather because I can not force them. For me, a piece will just come to me, usually as I am busy doing something else, and it just starts forming; sentences, thoughts, maybe images start to bubble in my mind. It will just continue to roll around up there, rewording, rephrasing ideas until I finally carve out some time to put my fingers to the keyboard and let it out... like releasing a valve under pressure.  Usually this occurs in the stillness of late night, when I am surrounded by the quiet sounds of purring or snoring.

Late one afternoon recently I was outside, camera in hand, and I started to wander.  I was hoping that if I found crocuses, I could actually let myself believe that maybe spring had actually arrived.  I seem to experience Stockholm Syndrome with winter where I live and am slow to believe.   The chirping birds in the morning have been trying to convince me, but I am hesitant to believe, having been deceived almost every March/April of my life.

I meandered up into the pasture and was hopeful to see tiny blades of grass starting to turn green.  In the vastness of beige the undertones of emerald made my heart happy.  By last fall, the horses which were contained in the fences had done a great job of trampling and grazing a pasture that was long, long overdue for those tasks.  As I wandered through the piles of horse manure and dead plants this composition began to take form in my brain. 

For the twenty-some years prior to this past summer, this pasture had just grown.  It was overgrown, under-grazed, thick and unruly.  We knew it needed help and had gotten our first grazer, Bill the Goat. He did well, but it was too much for one lowly goat to handle. 

I can only do so much. I am only a goat... who likes bananas and Cornnuts.

I can only do so much. I am only a goat... who likes bananas and Cornnuts.

 

Last spring, we were contacted by neighbors to rent the pasture and gladly welcomed their two horses to do what they do: run and eat.

Fast forward to this spring and the field is trampled, grazed and so different.  But the amazing thing I realized is what actually become visible thanks to this transformation.  We had long suspected there was a spring, and thus the cause of the basement seepage, in the pasture hillside.  Thanks to the horses, the drain-field of the spring is clearly visible. 

 

Even in the dry months of August, their hoof marks could be seen in wet mushy soil. 

The grazing has clearly outlined which shrubs and weeds are inedible and will need to be removed by other means. 

 

It has allowed for the visibility of the emerald green sprouts that are beginning to shoot up that would previously had been invisible until much taller.  And, the trodden earth exposed what I was searching for, the crocuses.  On the hillside, with their faces to the dusky sun, they sat.  Some still waiting to unfurl.  And they have always been here, but there was too much clutter, too much overgrowth to have been noticed.

 

I realized the pasture is a lot like us.  We become too cluttered, overgrown, busy and chaotic.  At times life will crush and trample us.  We will feel squashed and exposed and what remains are the weeds.  But then the beauty is revealed.  Literally new growth comes from a pile of crap. 

 

We see what we overlooked and passed over.  We see what needs to be removed and pruned because it is not of use to us, and in fact may be harmful.  We realize how much love is around us.

 

And in the end we are left with rebirth of something beautiful and regrowth of something sustainable.

The Tools in our Toolbox

I recently finished reading Brene' Brown's book Rising Stong. It is a book that should be read by anyone and everyone.  It was that amazing.  Read it, I promise, you will find insight in her words.

Brown talks in the book about a study in which she asked a plethora of subjects the question, "Do you believe most people are doing the best they can, given the tools they have."  The responses and their correlation to their own feeling of "wholeheartedness" are quite intriguing. Ask yourself the question and see what you answer.  Then read the book. Trust me.

The first time I heard this expression of people functioning the best they can with their tools they have was back in one of my nursing classes.  I remember hearing it and it just stuck. It was one of those expressions that honestly changed the way I looked at people, their reactions, and their behaviors.  When I worked in an ICU, I witnessed a multitude of behaviors and reactions.  Experiencing an ICU setting often tends to bring out the least desirable traits in humans, because of the unexpectedness, tragedy, or finality that often seems to accompany the experience.  I encountered family members that were clueless, unrealistic, angry, resentful... the emotions went on and on.  There was really only two choices I could make. Judge them for their current actions, or acknowledge they were doing the best they could with the tools they were given.

The more I embraced this thought pattern, the less judgement lived in my thoughts.  We like to judge, as humans. Oh... we like it. It makes us feel powerful, superior, BETTER.  When we judge, we make the assumption that everyone was handed the same tool box at birth.  Which frankly, we weren't. The reality is some of us have a huge shop, walls lined with standing tool chests filled with every Snap-On, Dewalt and Craftsman tool known to man.  Some of us have that little wooden toolbox we got as a child, that has a hammer and a screw. 

                                             All of our tools are not the same.

                                             All of our tools are not the same.

Some of us, through education, privilege, luck, and hard work acquire tools as we grow.  Some of us will suffer through addiction, tragedy, loss and abuse, misplacing some tools along the way. 

I firmly believe there is truth is the statement "You can not know, what you do not know." So does this excuse behavior or actions? No. However, if someone has never been giving the proper coping tool to deal with defeat, or a humility tool to accept praise, they simply do not know better.  If someone has never received the tool of accountability or responsibility, can we fault them for feeling a sense of entitlement? 

Sometimes we are offered a tool, and we proudly say "No, No! I don't need that! Thanks anyway." Recently I was offered a tool for one of my children and instantly felt guilt and shame because I obviously have screwed them up before they have reached puberty, and they were going to move out and go find the Fuller House gang to move in with.  When blathering about how I'd messed up as a mother, and Jesse, Joey and Danny were far better parents than I, a couple people, who I respect and love, gently reminded me "This isn't about you. It is about them." Oh yeah...

What I failed to realize is that they weren't really handing the tool to me, but those near me, those who may benefit from the tool: our kids, our students, our spouse.  They may be the one who will actually benefit from the offered tool.  We need to take the tool, and realize it wasn't made exactly like ours, but just ever so slightly different for those it is intended. 

In interactions we encounter, instead of jumping to judgement, what if we actually considered offering a tool we may have of our own? Insight, knowledge, experience or even something as simple as a hug may be the exact tool someone else needs.  When offered a tool, instead of quickly refusing it because we think we don't need it, what if we looked around us to see if it is actually tailored for those little sticky hands we hold?

I was discussing this "tool" concept with my friend Dr. Heather (lesson plans, not stethoscopes) and she told me of a phrase she heard in graduate school: "If the only tool in your toolbox is a hammer, everything will look like a nail." Wow. Mind blown again.  The ability to acquire different tools allows us to adapt and use the best tool for the job.  A hammer does not effectively work on a screw.  It can be done, but not with any form of finesse or skill. 

As we approach experiences and individuals with this tool concept, it is vital to realize that though you and I may both have a hammer, they may appear differently.  This doesn't not make one better or worse; make one right or wrong.  They are just the tools that work for each of us, and as my dad emphatically yelled, I mean stressed, (after finding pliers, hammers and screwdrivers strewn about the yard) we must respect others tools,  because they are valuable and we have no idea the the cost at which that person attained the tools they have.

 

 

The Promise of Dormancy

It was one of those days that I felt like a frayed wire.  I was exhausted, overstimulated and crabby.  It was also a beautiful rare 40 degree day in January.  I grabbed my camera and wandered off into the yard.

"What are you going to take pictures of?"  My husband voice trailed after me as I trekked up into the pasture. "I dunno." I said truthfully.  But I had my macro lens fitted on my camera and I knew well enough if I wandered a while, the urge to punch someone in the neck would drastically lessen.

As I wandered through the pasture, the neighboring cattle lowing in the distance, I had challenged myself to find beauty in the the drab dormant surroundings.  Most think it ugly, bleak, harsh in contrast to spring or summer.  It is no surprise that most people love spring and summer: the rebirth, the colors the vibrancy (and the heat.)  For the most part, winter is harsh.  But as I slowed down, and looked, really LOOKED, there were amazing things to be discovered in that dismal setting.

Dormancy, that period of waiting. Why is it necessary? What's the big deal?  I read some about dormancy after my wandering and found the science surrounding it fascinating, and applicable to life as I know it.  Dormancy allows the conditions become ideal for new growth and development. Without dormancy, the plant sprouts too early in less than ideal conditions and die.  Dormant seeds allow plants to give rise to new species.  The white spruce requires a chilling period before it can continue new growth and development.

In contrast, human society thrives on and encourages constant motion. Development, advancement, success, exhaustion and popularity are benchmarks of doing it "right."  Being "busy" is our most prized adulting merit badge.  News syndicates throw out ill-prepared stories to get clicks and likes.  People tweet poorly-thought out messages to cause pain before they are pained.   We are becoming programmed to rush, to react, never to pause and wait, because "doing nothing" is a lazy crime.  This constant, self imposed activity is what had lead me to standing still and alone in this pasture.  Anxiety and stress started to fall from me like the helicopter seeds my children throw in the air, spiraling away in the breeze. ,

But nature waits. When we don't interfere with nature, she seems to handle things pretty well.  For say, oh, thousands of years.  She takes some time to rest.  She insists her plants and trees indulge an idleness that allows them to function again, sometimes even better than before. 

We could learn from observing her.  There is beauty in the pause.  It is reparative.  It is necessary.  Dormant periods allow timing to synchronize with the environment that is the most beneficial and ideal for our growth. We must be willing to slow down, suspend the need to "go, go, go" and risk exposure, weathering to allow ourselves to mature and blossom.

*Disclaimer* I realize some of these may not be dormant seed/seed pods/plant in dormancy.  For the sake of poetic creativity, please don't feel the need to point that out. Just enjoy the images! :)