Moving Forward in Faith
As the cantankerous Red River threatened to reclaim the cities along its banks, its volatility merely inserted an exclamation point to an already uncertain and fearful time. Unemployment in the U.S. has hit a crest of its own, soaring to its highest level in decades. Few have escaped the jolts of a global economy that stands as fragile as a Tinker Toy tower.
Even before a record-setting flood struck, it felt like Americans were wandering in the wilderness, President Pamela Jolicoeur told Concordia students, faculty and staff during a chapel service to celebrate their return to campus after it was evacuated in late March. She compared the modern-day woes to the experiences of the Israelites who complained about their misery in the desert, forgetting their exile from Egypt.
"We are in an unfamiliar place and because we haven't been here before, the path forward is not clear," she says. "We haven't walked it. We haven't mapped it."
But, still, we are not left hopeless. Wilderness times can be moments in which community is strengthened, Jolicoeur says. They are times that remind us we are part of something bigger than ourselves.
"They are times we must recognize the power of God's gifts we don't deserve," she says.
Consider Christie (Strecker) Nelson '00. This summer, she will quit her job and trade her modest Mankato, Minn., duplex for a tent. She will pack a few belongings into waterproof bags and swap her car for a tandem bike called JoJo.
For the next year and a half, she and her husband, Eric Nelson, will pedal toward the southern tip of Argentina – their own version of the wilderness. They don't know exactly what they will do along the way, but expect to use their skills as a nurse and an engineer to serve the people they meet. The Nelsons, who spent two years in the Peace Corps and a summer hiking the Appalachian Trail, look forward to how the adventure they planned for five years will boost their relationship and faith.
"We set out to escape routine, what is safe, and what is known in order to grow as individuals, as a couple, and to serve where we are called along the way," Christie Nelson explains. "We are addicted to God's mysterious, omnipotent, creative, and many times humorous paths ... "
Not everyone is called to the same journey as the Nelsons', but their adventure reflects that God doesn't promise security, but asks us to live abundantly despite anxiety.
The Rev. Timothy Megorden, campus pastor, describes it this way: During spring break he and his son snowboarded in Montana. As they rode the ski lift to the top of the mountain, they passed over a terrain park where snowboarders practiced jumps. They watched as a young boy, about 8, hit a jump, fell onto his face in the snow and started crying. An hour or so later, they saw the same boy doing the same jump. This time the boy's dad was watching. The child hit the jump and crashed. The boy's dad helped him up and Megorden heard the child say, "It wasn't pretty, Dad, but I did it!" There's a lesson in that, he says.
"You can't learn to do that jump without crashing and falling," he says. "I wonder if God doesn't call us to do the same – to live on the edge where there's a potential for bruising. But God is also there to provide parental love and comfort."
People have an interesting call in wilderness times to discover what's important and to live their lives with wild abandonment and trust, says the Rev. Tessa Moon Leiseth, campus pastor. That's not easy. She admits that she lives her life much like she skis: Stopping at the steep spots.
"Our culture has taught us that we can buy or work our way to success. Then suddenly, something happens – a job loss, an illness – that makes people feel more vulnerable," Leiseth says. "I admire those who go and trust that if they wipe out, there will be somebody along the way to help them."
Logan Richman '09, Tower City, N.D., is comfortable with that view of life.
The accounting and religion major has a job offer in hand, but acknowledges that's no guarantee of security. As an intern last summer, he watched a Fargo, N.D., colleague break her apartment lease and quit a second job so she could accept a promotion to a Twin Cities office with the same company. She was in the car with all her belongings when her employer called to say the new position no longer existed.
Still, Richman confidently steps into the future. During the recent flood, he says he saw God at work through volunteers who helped strangers. It only reinforced the biblical message to serve your neighbor, he says.
"I don't have control over the economic situation, but I truly believe no matter what we do or where we go, God is present," Richman says.
"My job is to be attentive and open to the places where I can be of service by bringing my skills, my abilities and my passions."
That place right now is Boulay, Heutmaker, Zibell and Co., a certified public accountant and financial consulting firm in Eden Prairie, Minn. Richman was drawn to the job largely because he felt the company's values lined up with his own. In particular, he's attracted to working with nonprofit organizations and the alternative energy industry.
"For me, it's a matter of conscience. I'm not the only one here," he says. "I have to watch out for my family and neighbors. It's helpful to remember that, especially in hard times."
For Anna Rohde '09, Sioux Falls, S.D., faith in challenging times calls her to connect with others who can support her and for whom she can do the same. Sandbagging with friends and professors reaffirmed her belief that faith calls her to respond to those who struggle with unfortunate situations.
The English literature major will spend a year cooking at Holden Village, an ecumenical retreat center tucked deep into Washington's Cascade Mountains.
"It's very easy for us to make the economy our God," she says. "But this is a time that reminds us of our need for God, not our need for a strong economy."
Rohde expects the communal experience at Holden will complement what she has learned at Concordia, including wisdom gained from a study abroad experience in Costa Rica. "It's about community, it's not about me," she says. "If you look at the world in that way, you realize we can face the complexities together."
Those personal connections are what Nelson hopes to build as she and her husband bike to Argentina. The irony of the timing of their trip isn't lost on her. At a time when some people struggle to keep their jobs and homes, they are voluntarily giving up theirs. Yet, the couple has planned for years to travel this path, she says.
"You need to plan for the future, but you need to balance that with the adventure and journey of life," says Nelson, who credits a Concordia volunteer experience with new Americans for initiating her interest in service and world issues. "Our lives are bigger than we think."
And more full, in contrast to the shrinking value of retirement accounts and structures left ruined by the receding waters.
When overmatched by forces we can't predict, much less control, we must remember we are part of a community that cares for each other, Jolicoeur told the Concordia community during the early part of Holy Week. Not only are we part of something bigger than ourselves, but we have been saved by the unearned gift of Christ's death on the cross, she says.
"What gift is greater, as we face down our fears, than the gift of love?" Jolicoeur asks. "Let us give thanks for the gracious gift of God's love for us and live in fearless confidence of that love."