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Monday, November 9, 2015


Lagom: "just right, not too much, not too little"

"Please describe your perfect date," the judges ask candidate Cheryl Frasier, in "Miss Congeniality."  Absolutely oozing sweetness and light, this hapless belle from Rhode Island, has to think about it. 

Then she finds her voice, "That's a tough one. I'd have to say April 25th. Because it's not too hot, not too cold, all you need is a light jacket." 

It's funny to most people because she missed the point of the question.  

It is funny to Swedes and Swedish-Americans also because we recognize what she's saying, "not too..."   It's called lagom in Swedish. We are lagom. 

Lagom:  "It's not too hot, not too cold, all you need is a light jacket."  We are 'not too ..."  

Swedes are lagom. They are famous for it. Swedes speak of it often among themselves. Both lamenting it, at times,  and freaking out when they fail the lagom test. "I got a...!" She was too excited. A bad thing. "I got carried away!"  Bad boy. 

Swedish-Americans have inherited this trait from the homeland perhaps even more than any other. We joke often:  "but, but you can't do that!  ...we're nice here!"  

In fact, that was the punch line in the homecoming play at my very Swedish-American college. And it brought down the house. Because we all knew: Yep. That's the rule.  It is simply too true to be understated.   Be nice.

Even-tempered, not too enthusiastic, certainly not allowing very much, if any passion, to sneak past your internal censor - we all have one. And use it often. 

We didn't swoon. We didn't gush "I just love your new hat," or your cherry pie. We noted that "it was good." "Oh, you have a new hat." Effusive approval was rarely expressed. Just the fact. "It's very nice." 

Our favorite joke was about the Swedish man who loved his wife so, so so very much that, after much hemming and hawing, he thought about it long and hard, and so he almost, almost!  came close to telling her once.  Tell me, friends, Swedish-Americans, you have your variation on that one. "He almost told her once."  Yep. That's us. 

Temperance. Balance. 

This can be taken to extreme:

You don't even need to love your neighbor, as long as you can be nice, fake it, or cover up the tension that may be between you. Our cardinal sin may well be the sin of not being nice. 

So, of course, it follows,  "But you can't speak up! No protests!  No speaking out!  It's not nice.

The cloud of living witnesses looking over my shoulder included a very large extended family, all within watchful range, made me extra cautious: beginning with Frank, Johanna, Amelia, Adolf, Olaf, Anna-Brita, Anders, Johanna, Esther and Frieda, Lillian, Helen, Anna, Gladys, , Oscar and Lily, Elsie, Harriet, and Hannah, and August and Hilda, Agnes, Lucille, Beulah, Belva, Violet - a shipload of cousins, second cousins and aunts and uncles plus my own immediate aunts -- there were many many Ruth's. Point being, lots of pressure!  It was a much bigger issue with the women and children than the men, in part, because as I child, I was rarely around the men. And women were held to a higher standard of niceness. Much higher. 

I was smothered - I mean, surrounded by three elder generations, equaling dozens of respected relatives, to whom I was as accountable as to my parents to "be nice." It never even occurred to me NOT to be nice. Nice. 

Niceness was next to - and certainly, in the course of daily life, better than godliness. Superior to godliness. I'm serious. Be ye nice, said Jesus from the cross.  Or so I assumed. Was led to believe. And the point was reinforced with, ironically, a cruel cut. One could be banished for not being nice, for not being lagom. 

That dictum applied especially within our circles of family, friends, church folks, and all the regulars with whom we interacted commercially. And it really only applied when we were encountering them directly.  The old folks who were nice all the day long in public, ripped each other to shreds when safely ensconced with just one trusted friend or sister.  And they tossed around a whole passel of shit, not talking nice about the folks who were absent, perhaps not even really related. You knew if you had to miss a family gathering, you would be scrutinized and judged and found wanting. 

And, when it came to 'odd' persons, those persons who were not exactly like us (perfect, of course!) -- persons who were African American, Mexican, Asian, poorer, much much richer, Catholic, Jewish, the rare Italian, alcoholic, pregnant outside of marriage...  none of these persons were due any but the sparcest token of logom, and often not even that. I watched this double standard for years,  "we don't have to be nice to those people."  

Swedes even today are determined to be logom. There is more than just a shred of truth in that view!  I, too, grew up with lagom being the first virtue. "Now, be nice..."  

Even among themselves, Swedes talk quite a lot about their quietism and lack of emphatic communication. They have opinions, for sure! And it is important to Swedes to have carefully considered points of view. But heaven forbid they tell you what they are!  Whatever they think, Swedes are more likely to express them in even, measured tones and, frankly, they'd just rather not have to get too involved at all in pressing a point in public. Heaven help you if you are passionate!     Mercy!  

So, those of you who think of me as a mouthy broad, (as we used to say), outspoken about some things, bold, "a sentinel," as a friend was kind to describe me the other day, have got to be wondering,  "how did she fall off the truck?"  The 'nice' truck. 

One simple response would be to say, blame it on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It's all his fault. His, and my teacher of Bonhoeffer, F. Burton Nelson.  Burt was among the very first to discover DB (as we refer to him around home). A pre-eminent Bonhoeffer scholar, Burton was very close to Bonhoeffer's closest friend and correspondent while in prison, Eberhard Bethge. And to other members of the Bonhoeffer family. His writings on Bonhoeffer are the clearest, most useful and true 'take' on the life, inner life, and intentions of DB.  

If Burton (FBN, as we refer to him on occasion) was an ardent, dare I say, passionate interpreter and advocate for Bonhoeffer, then I was among the keenest disciples. As early as 1974, midway through college, I took my first DB course. No one has influenced my understanding on Christian discipleship more than Bonhoeffer. And no one has offered as clear a word about grace, either. 

My DB library sits just a few feet from the bed. Once you have encountered "The Cost of Discipleship," you learn that the occasions to not be 'nice' are legion. 

For example, when you learn about apartheid. American racism, especially as systemically rooted in Chicago's (where we lived) structural policies, programs, and in evidence all of the time, wherever you happened to be was reason to hit the streets. And a military / nuclear policy that I believed was entirely immoral, begged a response. 

This did / does not come naturally or easily, even today, to a Swedish girl whose blood courses with lagom. It was always agony to decide to speak out -- about anything. This is not something I relish.  

"It's not easy being me, but I make it look that way."  

I was a mouse for my first 18 or 19 years. A real mouse. I would have never called anyone out. Not even when my own mother stood up to her brothers who had made vile racist comments at the Christmas dinner table. I was so proud of her but so blown away, the nerve!   But I loved it. Quietly. 

So here I am. Prompting some folks to ask, "why do you need to say stuff (about ongoing injustice) in public?" 

Well, the real culprit is Jesus. He taught me too well. He let nothing pass. He spoke 'truth to power' so often that we hardly notice anymore. But we can't ignore him. Jesus was indeed a shepherd. He found that last missing sheep but also exhorted the rest of us to get out there and hunt 'em down. 

"Follow me," Jesus said, meaning, 'do as I do.' I simultaneously hear John 10:10 and Mark 8, ringing in my ears. Both make sense. Held in a single peace. 
Jesus was not lagom. 

In the next weeks you will have the opportunity to see two powerful films about women and men who were not preoccupied with being 'nice,' and getting along.

The women in Suffragette were at their wit's end. They had tried for decades to gain the vote by using gentle, nice tactics. But no one even listened to them, much less gave due consideration to their cause. So they moved on to plan B. I do not condone their violence. And it is tragic that history can only render the facts in one way: that an escalation of their tactics finally gained women the vote. I rather strongly doubt that I could have been a part of that militant wing of the movement. But you come away thinking:  so this, this, violence! , it took this!  

The second film, Spotlight, I urge caution: to prepare your spirit, to guard your soul, when you see it. It is, from all I've read, a truly excellent film. I will go. But not alone. It is a battle between overwhelming power and intransigence on the one side, to cover up terrible things, against another powerful force that accompanies those who seek to unmask such evil deeds. That sexual abuse is evil is not a question. 

If the movie is as good and as true to events as I've heard it is, there is the chance that we will all find ourselves becoming impatient and irritated with those who relentlessly seek to unmask the violence (abuse is violence). Because they are so relentless. Because they seek to expose and make transparent that which even we -- in spite of ourselves, knowing that truth will set us free -- wish not to know about. It is ugly and we would rather not confront it. Yet it is so important that we do, that the secrets do find the light of day, the healing light and spotlight of truth that sears out the wound and begins to heal  it, from the inside out.  It will test your spirit. 

The abuse, and even the careless misuse of power by officials who have the added cachet of 'representing God' is unbelievably soul-scorching to see. Those who seek to expose it cannot be lagom. 

It was never my job to go 'on a tear' as these reporters and editors must. But I did have the responsibility for responding to clergy sexual abuse in the ELCA for almost ten years. It was an agony, soul-scorching in every way. 

We did not go hunting down perpetrators. There were no witch hunts. We simply responded to victims. And sought to care for them, and then to remove from the 'field of play' those who could not be entrusted with the power that is conferred by identity as a "Man of God." 

And we sought to do whatever seemed possible to deter and make it harder for perpetrators to use their wiles to create more victims. One of the strategies was to be transparent about what had happened, what does happen when power is abused. 

So. When I am asked, even now, why go public with concerns, even different concerns, about power and its use or misuse, I can only respond that light is good, transparency is important, and healing is possible when the light gets in. 

This is not lagom. This is not 'me,' the Swedish up past my eyeballs, me. I would rather go on field trips and find the Aurora Borealis and eat raclette and play in the leaves and serve runaway, abused teen-agers their Thanksgiving dinner. 

But for some reason, that is beyond my understanding, God has chosen to entrust me -- that is what 'call' means, in part, -- with this thankless and very painful task of carrying a flashlight. 

I ask you not to judge what I do, but to ask why it is necessary. 

And I ask you to do what is within your power to do, to stop the abuse from continuing. 

It is ultimately not a flashlight, or two, or ten that is needed, but, within the church, a bathing cleansing flood of light that shines in the whole system. 

Pray for those who have power, to use it for good alone. And pray for light to shine throughout the system so those of us with candles and flashlights can put them down. 

Pray for us too. This is terrible work. Because I really don't like doing this.  Nor does any victim of injustice. They/we need to be bathed in light. 

Not just carry a torch. 

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