This I Believe: Lisa Sem (2016)

I’d like to start by saying that, if I had another year to prepare for this talk it might be very different.  With another year I may have been able to write a few more drafts, explain things from a few different angles, challenge myself to divulge more, and to find a way to say everything I wanted to.  Maybe.  As it stands, there is only so much time. So there is much more to this story, which will remain untold.

Today I’ll start by sharing a little of my religious history…

I grew up Catholic. The parish I was raised in, on St. Paul’s West Side, was pretty diverse ethnically and economically and our priest had fairly progressive views on issues that were controversial within the church.

Both my mother and father’s families were “practicing Catholics,” though my upbringing didn’t feel overtly religious. We faithfully attended weekly mass, we prayed together each night before dinner, and we celebrated all of the sacraments, but there was no real joy about it.  There was very little talk of God and no talk of Jesus in our home. Even during the holidays. And one of the only times I remember opening a Bible prior to college was when one of my sisters received a beautifully illustrated children’s bible for her first communion.

When I was growing up, most of my friends were either Catholic or Presbyterian. The girls who went to private Catholic grade school were pretty naughty. And yet, ironically self-righteous about what they assumed were their places in God’s pecking order. The Presbyterian girls were better behaved; they were full of God-talk and scripture at just the right times and appeared quite confident in their understanding of things.

I felt no certainty about God or my religious beliefs as a child. I had a lot of questions and reservations, but I didn’t know how to talk about them. Most of the time I think I felt “quietly curious” or “confused.” I went to church—along with my family—out of obligation, but I didn’t feel particularly moved or convinced by what I experienced there. I was skeptical about the teachings that defied logic and disparaged and invalidated other religions.

So, when I started college and I had the choice I stopped going to mass.

On campus I was in the religious minority—a Catholic at a Lutheran school—and the church was an integral part of campus life. The chapel was located in the center of campus. There were “chapel talks” every weekday—where everything shut down and the church bells called students and faculty to the chapel for a 25-minute mid-morning message. If you sang in a choir—which I did—the choirs took turns singing at Sunday service. Bible studies were regularly advertised on message boards in the student center. And for the first time I could recall I heard people use “Christian” in how they described other people. (As in, “Do you know Kristen Anderson? She’s got long blond hair, she stands in the front row in Chapel Choir, and she’s an English major?  She’s a Christian.) It was a new cultural experience for me. I found it all rather fascinating from a distance and was committed to remaining an onlooker. So other than my monthly choir commitment, I didn’t really participate in much church while I was in college.

All that said, going to a church-affiliated school, I had to take religion courses to fulfill graduation requirements—three courses over 4 years— and it was in those religion classes that I was able to participate in meaningful discussions about God, religion, and being human for the first time. It was also in those classes that I was introduced to exciting, thought-provoking, radical ideas—like Liberation Theology and the controversies over biblical translations—that became definitive discoveries for me. I felt like I’d received an invitation to a whole new way of thinking about Christian teaching, moral obligation, and the humans who wrote the Bible…  And I had a lot more questions.

For about 10 years following college, I wavered on the matter of church. I felt a persistent need for connecting with people in a spiritual community of some kind, but I didn’t have any idea what I was looking for, and I had serious doubts that I could find a place that would be right for me. I rarely felt inclined to go to mass, and the Lutheran services I attended on occasion with some college friends served as more of a conduit to the coffee-and-bagel gathering that followed.

Then I bought a home in Como Park. And my first summer there I noticed on Sunday mornings that several of my neighbors were walking to the Catholic church just up the street a few blocks away.  It really was a lovely sight; a sign of community that I hadn’t experienced for a long time and really wanted to be a part of.  So, while I hadn’t reconciled what didn’t work for me previously in Catholicism, I embraced the idea of having a spiritual community in my neighborhood. I decided to swallow hard and give it a try.

I was just a few months into this trial—not wowed by the experience but not yet ready to throw in the towel—when I met a fascinating man named Jason Sem… who brought me to this little church in the woods less than two months after we’d started dating.  On my first visit to the church, the service was in the old meeting room, Victoria was speaking, and Visible Signs of Inward Grace was on display.  I don’t remember what the sermon was about, but I remember being moved. And I remember talking about the sermon at length at brunch later that morning. Being moved to conversation…I knew that day that this was the place for me. I’d found my church home. Being in conversation is what I’d been seeking all along.

(Now it hasn’t been a completely effortless transition… There were big things that I really struggled with letting go of even though it made sense to; now, I’m working to find ways to bring back and to celebrate those things that I still remember with fondness from my childhood.

So what do I believe?  That’s a daunting question.  And up until about 3 days ago I had 13 pages of answer.  I decided to whittle it down for today…

I believe in being intentional with the words, actions, and things I send into the world.

I believe in doing my fair share.

I believe in acting and speaking with integrity.

I believe in the healing power of nature… A walk through the woods, the scent of snow, a pair of loons, the feeling of warm earth in your hands…

I believe that a peaceful world will require a lot more listening and a lot more compassion. I believe we have a lot more listening to do.

I believe in the existence of a force large than myself, larger than what I can comprehend.

I believe that children are the hope for the world we want to see. I believe in their wisdom, and their idealism. And I have immense respect and gratitude for the work that’s being done here in our RE classrooms (and hallways) to cultivate and nurture that wisdom and to help turn those ideals into action.

I believe that a divine presence lives in everyone and everything. We need to honor that divine presence in each person.  And I believe that we have an obligation to take care of each other while we’re here.

I believe that the most important thing I can do on any given day is to sit down with my son and a book.

I believe in the work of this church. I’m grateful for this building as a gathering place for community, conversation, reverence, and reflection. And I have great hope in the work its people aspire to in the wider world.

In closing, I’d like to share a poem by Mary Oliver.

“Mysteries, Yes”

Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood.

How grass can be nourishing in the
mouths of the lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
in allegiance with gravity,
while we ourselves dream of rising.

How two hands touch and the bonds
will never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the
scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.

Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.

Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.

This is what I believe today.