by Ben Groth
Lutheran Year student at LSTC
On the day in October 2008 that I Facebook friended the contact person for my candidacy committee, I decided that it was time to clean up my Facebook profile. Going through my whole wall and profile and picture history, I disappeared several stupid things I’d posted on other people’s walls, I erased any pictures that I thought looked unflattering, I took down any and all status updates that had used the word “butt.” I did all this because I had been accepted into the candidacy process and thought that from then on, I had to carefully control my public image lest I find myself deemed unworthy to continue by shadowy operatives of the candidacy committee. I realize now that this was the beginning of an infection, a disease I like to call “PSS” or “Perfect Seminarian Syndrome.”
Has anyone else had this feeling that because you’re in seminary you’re supposed to have an impeccable exterior to show the world? How many of us suffer from Perfect Seminarian Syndrome? Certainly cleaning up our facebook profiles is one of the early-onset symptoms, other more serious ones might include update letters to your candidacy committee consisting of nothing but awards and highlights, nodding along in a lecture or conversation even though you have no idea what that phrase means in Greek, and referring to The Lutheran Confessions as a source of authority any time someone questions you, (about anything!) even though you have nothing more than a vague impression of what lies hidden in the book of Concord.
In the candidacy process it is so tempting to feel that we’re being judged on everything we’ve ever done. It makes me think of when I used to lie awake at night in elementary school and worry that my school would do DNA testing on the various boogers I’d left around the school, terrified that when they tracked them to me, I’d be arrested. As silly as that memory may be, that childhood fear of discovery strikes a chord for me when I think of the experiences some of my friends have had in the candidacy process – especially those who have been asked or forced to hide their sexuality, those who have felt the need to hide their family histories, those who have been made to feel shame for their academic background or previous careers . And in the face of the anxieties about seminary and candidacy that so many of us have experienced, it is tempting to think that our only defense against this scrutiny is to pretend that we conform to other people’s ideas about what would make us perfect.
But recently I read The Poisonwood Bible for the first time, and one line in particular stuck out to me: “the mistakes are part of the story.” Ignoring this is the exact problem that leads to Perfect Seminarian Syndrome, we get trapped into thinking we must write the mistakes out of our story. And as we look to our scripture readings today, we see that God is well aware of our tendency to clean up history in order to show what we think is the best version of ourselves.
In our passage from Isaiah 58, the prophet announces that mistakes are part of the story for all who worship God.
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
This passage is most well-known for the beautiful words about fasting and justice, but in it Isaiah points out that even the most well-intentioned worshipers of God fall short. But this isn’t about God seeing through our worship to the evil heart within – it is the old, old Lutheran paradox that at the same time, we are sinners and we are saints. No story that hides the sinner in us is accurate, just as no story that hides the saint in us is complete.
This theme comes back in the Gospel reading. Now it is easy to assume that when Jesus talks about Law, he is only speaking about a list of commandments and a whole bunch of purity codes. But the Jewish law is the Torah, the first five books of the Bible which contain all the messy stories that tell of the history of God, the world, and God’s people. And so when Jesus says that not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished, it is a strong statement that the uncomfortable parts of the Bible ARE a part of the story, that the story of God is not complete without all of the sinners and all of the saints.
What I’d like to suggest this morning is that the mistakes are part of the story, and that we should go beyond that to say that the story must not be told without the mistakes.
So far, we’ve been talking about stories in mostly individual terms, but just as important are the stories we tell about our community, and so just as Perfect Seminarian Syndrome is something many of us struggle with on an individual level, another danger is what might be called PCS, or Perfect Church Syndrome.
Perfect Church Syndrome is what happens when we as Christians care more about the image of our church or denomination than we care about following the Gospel call in our lives – when our public identity becomes more important than God’s invitation to discipleship. How many churches do you know where they seem to think there are no alcoholics in the congregation, or where no one acknowledges the poisonous internal conflict, or no one admits there are people living in poverty within the congregation? One of the other side effects of Perfect Church Syndrome is that church history gets told only by those with power and education, and these kinds of histories frequently leave out the profound contributions that women and people of non-Northern European descent have made to Lutheranism around the world. Perfect Church Syndrome also leads to the uncomfortable parts of our church’s history being swept under the rug. In the research I’ve done for my Th.M. degree this year at LSTC I’ve focused on the intersection of Lutherans and race in North America, and I’d like to briefly highlight one of the stories I’ve come across that I believe must not be ignored.
The first record of a slave baptized by a Lutheran church took place in 1708 in New York City, and in that ceremony, Tom, the American Indian slave, was required, as a condition of baptism, to make a public promise in front of the congregation that he would continue to serve as a slave to his master just as faithfully as he had before his baptism. It was English tradition that a person who was baptized a Christian could not be a slave, but as the rewards for the economic exploitation of Africans increased, this tradition fell to the wayside, but only for non-white people. Consequently for a white person to be baptized in colonial America meant that they were free from any legal status of slavery, but for black people and American Indians, baptism was often used as a means to publically reinforce legal slavery. This was a practice that was widespread in Lutheran and other Christian churches in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Baptism then, the great sacrament that we Lutherans continually talk about in terms of freedom, was far from being a liberating force in the colonizing of North America. Instead it was the location of an incredible legal double standard.
Now it should be noted that there were many American Lutherans who were courageous in their opposition to slavery; in fact there were Lutherans in New York who started their own synod in which the abolition of slaves was the central tenant. But the real story of Lutheranism in America has to include both the inspiring side of history and the discomforting. The multitude of stories like this in American Lutheran history make me think we would have a much better understand of why the ELCA remains over 95% white if we looked more closely at our own history. Our story must not be told without the mistakes.
But rather than being a final condemnation on ourselves and on our church, knowing this history is critical for us to understand the good news in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Good news that tells the world there is room for each one of us in God’s story. Good news that tells us God’s relationship with the church has enough grace to hold even the misuse and abuse of baptism. Good news that assures us that the failure of our theology in the face of slavery doesn’t have to define us. Good news that promises the racial prejudice that has too often accompanied Christian theology doesn’t have to have the final word.
Our God is a God of resurrection, but resurrection could never happen if death were not a part of the story. And that isn’t some platitude about how bad things are in our lives so that we can appreciate good things, but a manifestation of the incredible power of a God who loves us no matter what our past holds. We may all struggle at times with Perfect Seminarian Syndrome and Perfect Church Syndrome, but Jesus frees us from those by insisting that nobody’s past be re-written or forgotten. So even though Jesus’s birth and death redefined history as we know it, Jesus is clear that the Torah, the beautiful and complex story of humanity’s good and evil must not be thrown out. Through this Jesus signifies that God wants our whole selves, not our ideal selves, that God wants the whole church, not some ideal projection, that God wants the whole story, not the tidied up version.
And so, while this is good news for each one of us here, it is also a challenge not to be satisfied with the idealized version of ourselves or of our church – because in ignoring the mess we lose sight of God’s work in, with, and through the very mess that has brought us to where we are today. This means that the best version of ourselves and our church is not a fantasy facade of perfection; our best self and our best church are marked by honesty, faith, and the knowledge that no matter where we have been or where we go, God’s grace is big enough, bad enough, and complete enough for all of us.
Isaiah 58:1-2, Matthew 5:13-20