Monday, February 25, 2013

A Lenten Commitment to Give Up the Fear of Failure (Brian E. Konkol)

The following was published on the Sojourners' God's Politics blog on February 25, 2013, and can be found at

If one were to conduct a nationwide survey to learn the most common human fears, it is safe to conclude that failure would be near the top of the list. Due in part to the high value that North American society places upon success and achievement, we recognize through the twists and turns of daily life that everyone has – in some shape or form – firsthand experience of the fear of failure. We often fret over falling short, we agonize about disappointment, and we even lose sleep from the potential shame of letting others down. With such thoughts in mind, as a Lenten discipline we can make a commitment to give up the fear of failure, for such fears are too often personally devastating and publicly debilitating if left ignored or unresolved.

As one considers the fear of failure, a helpful starting point is to examine its multitude of sources. For example, those afraid of failure might be perfectionists who see anything less than full flawlessness (on the first attempt) to be humiliating, or perhaps they are victims of perfectionism peer pressure from obsessive parents, strict teachers, demanding friends, or pessimistic colleagues. In addition, some view unrealized goals as a definitive statement about who they are as a person, and others have experienced deep embarrassment by an actual or perceived failure at some point in their life, feel insecure about their worth and dignity, or perhaps lack a healthy sense of self-confidence due to the unrealistic images of success that are often portrayed in popular media. All together, while there are many more sources that one could list, we recognize that our various fears surrounding failure can arise from a wide variety of aspects in our lives.

In reflection on the numerous sources related to the fear of failure, we immediately recognize the vast consequences of such fears. For example, those who are afraid to fail often refuse to be pushed to new limits, take risks, or embrace the fullness of their God-given capabilities. In addition, those fearful of failure too often pass up opportunities to thrive, withdraw from uncertainty, and even remove themselves from the path of creativity or leadership.  And from a spiritual perspective, those with a fear of failure too often find it difficult to love others, receive love from others, and may even refuse to accept the abundant grace that comes with the belief that God accepts us as we are. And so, perhaps the greatest consequence of the fear of failure is the destructive enslavement of feeling unacceptable to oneself, to others, and even to God.

While the fear of failure has many sources and consequences, during this Season of Lent we recognize that Jesus sets us free from the fear of failure and offers the freedom to embrace life in its fullness. While societal pressures can be cruel and unforgiving, in God’s eyes we are received as we are, accepted regardless of our shortcomings, and fully included as members of God’s all-encompassing beloved community. While these realities do not minimize or disregard the pains that moments of failure can bring, the recognition of God’s love provides us with a larger-picture perspective to see that various failures do not make someone a failure. As a result, we are given the wisdom to learn from our mistakes, the guidance to resist repeating them, and the strength to live our lives to the fullest and move forward in a collective search for the common good.

All together, while we make numerous missteps with each passing day, we need not be afraid of failure, for we are loved and accepted by God for who we were created to be. We can take risks, step outside of our comfort zones, freely love others, and openly be loved by others, all while embracing that which God is calling us to be and boldly following where Jesus is leading us to go. In other words, while the Season of Lent helps to expose our various imperfections and limitations, it is also meant to show us the completeness and fullness of life we receive through our faith journey alongside a loving God. And so, as we continue our movement through the Season of Lent, we can be honest about our various shortcomings, but we can also be set free through the gift of forgiveness, and in response to this unconditional acceptance, we may give up the fear of failure and dare to reflect God’s outpouring of love through service for the sake of others.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

SERMON: Comfort Zones (Brian E. Konkol)

The following link provides audio and a written transcript for "Comfort Zones", which was delivered at Lake Edge Lutheran Church (Madison, WI) on February 10, 2013.

Among other things, this sermon focuses on the ways in which travel serves as a metaphor for our lives of faith, as "...the presence of Jesus brings comfort" yet the "...path of Jesus brings discomfort". With a biblical focus on the Transfiguration of Jesus narrative found in Luke 9:28-43, this message reflects upon recent travels in South Africa and considers the ways in which Jesus pushes us outside of our "comfort zones".

Sunday, February 10, 2013

An Alternative to American Apartheid (Brian E. Konkol)

The following reflection, which was written during a visit to the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Pietermaritzburg, South Africa), was published on the Sojourner's God's Politics blog on February 1, 2013, and can be found at

A heavy and cruel hand has been laid upon us. As a people, we feel ourselves to be not only deeply injured, but grossly misunderstood. Our white countrymen do not know us. They are strangers to our character, ignorant of our capacity, oblivious to our history and progress, and are misinformed as to the principles and ideas that control and guide us, as a people. The great mass of American citizens estimates us as being a characterless and purposeless people; and hence we hold up our heads, if at all, against the withering influences of a nation’s scorn and contempt. 

– Frederick Douglas, in a statement on behalf of delegates to the National Colored Convention held in Rochester, New York, in July 1853

When Frederick Douglas assembled with other representatives at the National Colored Convention of 1853, they collectively condemned the nationwide epidemic of racial discrimination. As the gathering intended to discuss the circumstances and possibilities of “coloreds” (as they were called then), they recognized the various ways that “scorn and contempt” was heaped upon them – for no justifiable reason – by the white-skinned racial majority. In remembrance of Douglas’ critique surrounding his 19th century “white countrymen”, and in recognition of our annual celebration of Black History Month, we in the U.S. continue to mourn the deep divisions that occur due to racial misunderstanding.  In other words, as we take an inventory of race relations roughly 195 years after Frederick Douglas was born, we recognize that racial ignorance among far too many of our citizens continues to result in a disturbing level of collective indifference and social inequality.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, our nation displays deep forms of inequality that are directly related to skin color. With all other demographic factors being equal, those with white skin tend to enjoy higher levels of income, better forms of education, more advanced access to healthcare, less interaction with the criminal justice system, and many other areas of social opportunity when compared to those whose skin is either black or brown. While there are many reasons that one can cite for the ongoing levels of inequality, we can begin with the sociological fact that many racial groups continue to reside in physical isolation. In other words, while apartheid is typically used to describe pre-democracy South Africa, one recognizes that such a term (which means, “separateness”) can also illustrate contemporary life in many areas of the U.S., for racial integration within our various urban and rural communities is – for the most part – alarmingly rare.  
In response to the ongoing realities of racial separateness in the U.S., our response is to affirm that we are created to be connected as companions in community.

As a theological foundation of Christian faith is the belief that all people are created by God, the sociological implication is that every member of humankind shares a sacred identity, and the result is a spiritual connection that is expressed through companionship in community (Genesis 2:18). And so, whereas isolation leads to ignorance, indifference, and injustice, those who embrace being created to be connected as companions in community move past destructive generalizations and dehumanizing actions, and instead accompany others in solidarity and mutuality for the pursuit of a common good. All together, those who affirm being created to be connected as companions in community are more likely to understand than ignore, serve rather than sever, and advocate instead of overlook.

While racial inequality has no simple solution, one can argue that our first steps are quite straightforward. In order for equality to become our reality, we must be committed to reconciliation, transformation and empowerment, and such movements cannot take place unless people move from personal isolation toward public companionship. In other words, people who have children in the same schools, appointments with the same doctors, walks in the same parks, carts in the same shopping aisles, jobs in the same office buildings, homes in the same streets, and seats next to each other in the same churches are more likely to put aside the labels of “us” and “them” and instead see others for who they truly are. And so, in order to eliminate the various racial inequalities that continue to exist, the starting point is to move past isolation and embrace multicultural companionship for the sake of restoring our communities and promoting life in its fullness.

Instead of existing as social strangers and misjudging others as a result, the time is upon us to move past so-called racial tolerance, go beyond our traditional comfort zones, and actively seek out cross-cultural interactions and relationships. As we learn to accompany one another across racial lines through the twists and turns of daily life, we experience God as alive and well in the midst of our diversity, and the result is various opportunities to join together in ways that replaces exclusion and isolation with embrace and companionship for the promotion of equal opportunity. In order to take these important steps forward as an alternative to American Apartheid, we are called to transform the present, empower each other for the future, and through a commitment to companionship, boldly restore the human community into that which God has created us to be.

Friday, February 1, 2013

In Search of The Real World (Brian E. Konkol)

The following was published on the Sojourners' God's Politics blog on January 28, 2013, and can be found at:

This is the true story... of seven strangers... picked to live in a together and have their lives taped... to find out what happens... when people stop being polite... and start getting real...

The Real World was – and continues to be – a popular television show, and its influence is far greater than its core MTV viewing audience. Through its collection of diverse personalities and with a willingness to address controversial social issues, when The Real World first aired in May of 1992 it started what many would describe as our modern-day reality TV phenomenon. In doing so, not only did The Real World spark a new entertainment genre, but its impact was far greater, for it helped blur the lines between authentic and artificial. In other words, one can argue that The Real World sparked an ongoing transformation of what we perceive as real in our world.

As is the case with other reality TV shows, The Real World has received numerous allegations of being simulated and/or staged. Due to such accusations, some viewers are not convinced that The Real World is fully real. In addition, some accuse MTV of shoddy and selective editorial choices that take events out of context, and as a result give false impressions of what actually occurred in real time. And of course, some perceive the very concept of The Real World as a grand misnomer, for in the real world people do not live like those in The Real World, as few people in our world can claim to live in cost-free luxurious dwellings in awesome cities under the watchful eye of camera crews who broadcast their daily actions for millions of viewers to see and scrutinize. For many, The Real World does not seem real at all.

While the various criticisms of The Real World (and other so-called “reality-based” shows) are indeed valid, what is striking is that such questions surrounding what is “real” can also be directed at our own perceptions of reality.

Similar to the criticisms often directed at producers of reality-based TV, we in the general public often “edit” our intake of public information based upon a wide variety of personal choices, public influences, and political agendas.  However, all too often we fail to recognize the various influences that we allow to shape our perceptions, and in doing so, we too often assume that our views of reality are universal or superior. As a result, when we view our personal perceptions as common sense or unanimous, we tend to judge alternatives not merely as different, but simply wrong. And so, one of the keys attributes toward the pursuit of common good in our real world is recognizing the countless public influences that shape our personal views of reality. For example, as each person is shaped every day by (among other things) public influences and political agendas, some important questions to consider are: “Who are my closest friends and colleagues, how do I spend the majority of my time and money, where do I receive my information and entertainment, and what are the values and priorities that my elected leaders try to promote through their policy implementation and proposals?” While there are many more questions to consider, within such inquires we find the keys to unlocking a more faithful awareness of the influences that shape our deep-seeded views of God’s real world.

In response to the above questions, one of the striking characteristics of our modern existence is that while technology allows for countless local, national, and international connections, far too many people seem to be increasingly isolated from alternative points of view. Instead of exploring the mass diversity of beliefs and opinions that fill our human community, an alarming amount of citizens would rather use the tools at our disposal to close-in upon a narrow view and grip-on to that which is most common or comfortable. And so, perhaps the time is upon us to open our hearts and minds to the possibility that what we perceive as real in our world may not be the full story, but that which we often experience each day is more like watching The Real World, for our personal observations are often more like an edited view of God’s larger and more complex narrative. As a result, instead of trying to sink deeper into a limited and incomplete concept of reality, we should find joy and excitement in looking beyond our comfortable information sources, and instead seek alternatives views, new understanding, and as a result, fresh and multifaceted concepts of diverse realities in our world. In doing so, instead of labeling that which is different as wrong, we will find that which is different is often an important piece of God’s global narrative.

In order to search for the real world in which God intends for us, the key may be to begin with an embrace of alternative perceptions, and by doing so, allow God to work within the interaction of ideas, shape new perceptions, and thus create new and faithful realities. In order to search for such a real world, we can embrace unity instead of uniformity, grow more aware of the influences that shape us, and as a result, learn to understand those whose perceptions may be different from our own.  The results of such a search can help us to embrace the full story of what God has done, is doing to, and will continue to do through our lives, and thus produce a real world in which real reconciliation and real transformation is our remarkable reality.