As the calendar page is about to turn once again, a new chapter in my life is beginning. Over two months have passed since I last tried to get this blog a sense of regularity, and who knows, maybe one day it will find that. But rather than apologize and give weak excuses for my lack of activity I am just going to push forward.
A new address, a new school, and a new quarter is about to begin. Yet, despite its newness, this is a continuation of something that I began four years ago. The rest of my week is going to be filled with two days of orientation and an opening service all leading up to next week when classes resume. Only, this isn’t my first orientation or opening service or even my first quarter here. In the fall of 2008 I began work toward my M.Div. at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. I had no idea what would happen over the next two years, but at the end of my second year I left. Two more years pass, and my journey here resumes.
It is tempting to want a fresh start, to put all of the past hurt and anger behind me as if it didn’t happen. But to do so would be to ignore everything I have experienced throughout the past four years. So rather than want a fresh start, I want to pick up here I left off with an informed mindset, ready to continue having spent time on the other side of the street. I don’t know what my future will hold here but I do know, for maybe the first time, that I belong here, and that makes all the difference.
If I were to be honest about my last trip down seminary way I was unsure of my place. I could barely stomach calling myself a seminarian much less a Lutheran one. I wasn’t comfortable in my identity nor my place in the institution. So rather than look for the best in those around me, I found it much easier, and much more entertaining, to find the worst. It became commonplace for me and my close group of friends to sit outside the chapel or in an archway, have a drink, and scoff. We took pride in it. Classes and the lunch table were places we found our material, and at night it became our own little version of stand up comedy. It was as cathartic as it was corrupting. I don’t regret those times because they gave rise to now cherished memories and lasting friendships. I do, however, need to be honest about them because this time around, the scoffers club is no more.
I wish it were that easy to say my attitude is completely different. To be sure I do not hold the grudges anymore no do I look for the worst, in fact, I have a sense of belonging there I didn’t have before. But that doesn’t mean the nicety of the campus is what I expect. My experiences cause me to fear what might be coming down the pipe. Apprehension may be a better world but the idea is the same. I know what this was like the first time around and I am leery that it is waiting for me just around the corner. I am happy to say that as of now, I haven’t come face to face with the problems of my past. My experiences in my returning to the seminary are decidedly different than those of my initial venture. I am continually met with warmth and care and I hope this community continues on that track.
But what if it doesn’t? What if three weeks in it morphs into the beast of my past experience? Should I run? Do I fight? How do I move on if it turns out this is just a facade? Frankly, I don’t know and I hope never have to. But in reality not every day will be the warm and comforting sort. As is normal in life, stress will mount, things will be said, opinions expressed and feelings hurt. That is simply the nature of humanity. We care more about ourselves than the person next to us. Sure we all have our moments of piety, care, and concern but by and large my opinion is always more important than yours simply because it mine. My life is more important than yours because I am the one living it. Don’t mistake what I am saying, I don’t mean that I am actually more important, only that as I walk through life I live as though that were true. All humanity does. And it is precisely this reason that makes me happy I don’t have a fresh start, not here on campus or in my everyday life.
Fresh starts are funny things. With the past removed we finally have the chance to do things right. But the fact is, we will never do things right. We may choose a better option, but perfection is impossible. I’ve heard it put many times that the Gospel, that the forgiveness of sins is like a do-over, like a fresh start, but I don’t like that phraseology. It implies that by being forgive I can actually move forward and do things right this time, and if I don’t, I get another chance. Truth be told, I don’t want the chance to do things right. That is too much pressure. That is too much stress. If God is giving me a chance to be perfect I better not blow it. Because with every chance to be perfect, with every fresh start, is the crushing reality of imperfection and failure.
So, how then do I live my life? If I know that with every fresh start is the reality of failure life seems pretty pointless because I’ll never get it right. But here is the difference, and the reason why I think that phraseology does no good, forgiveness is not a do-over, it is a promise. It is a promise that no matter how many times you do or don’t make the right decision you are forgiven. It is a promise that no matter who we help, ourselves or our neighbors, at the cross we were all worth it. It is a promise that no matter where we do or do not belong, in God’s eyes we are always His children. And here comes the reality that reshapes our identity. Because my life isn’t about living right or wrong, it is about living, period. It is about having the freedom to care for others because I know I am cared for. It is about recognizing my place in the world and living in that place gladly. It is about the fact that the good and bad I do don’t matter to God, they matter to my neighbor.
Gustaf Wingren once wrote, “God does not need your good works, but your neighbor does.” And here I think we find the middle ground for that problematic notion that faith without works is dead. Because in faith we are freed from the bonds of life that push us to be better for ourselves. Free from the bonds of having to prove our worth to God and our place in society. Free to love and serve in the places we find ourselves with the work that is before our hands. This is why a fresh start is a bad idea, because I will never get it right, and the beauty of it is, I don’t have to. I don’t need a do-over, I have a promise. A promise that lasts longer than my ability to do things right. A promise that allows me to live and love despite hurt and pain, fear and sorrow, struggle and corruption. A promise given to me in the waters of my baptism where God claimed me as his own. A promise spoken in absolution and preached in a sermon. A promise I taste in bread and wine. A promise that frees the conscience and unburdens the soul. A promise that, as the Word of the Lord, endures forever.