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Dr. Svenningsen to Class of 2017: You Are Known

Dr. Russell Svenningsen, assistant professor of Music, conductor of the Collegiate Chorale and the recipient of the Augustana Student Association (ASA) Faculty Recognition Award for 2013, delivered the keynote address at Augustana's Opening Convocation on Wednesday, Sept. 4, at Our Savior's Lutheran Church:

"We Are Known"
By Dr. Russell Svenningsen

Greetings Faculty, Administrators, Students, Parents and Honored Guests:

It is a great pleasure to speak with you this morning. This is, after all, a very special day when we are “convoked” or “called” to assemble, to gather. And so this morning you, the newest students of Augustana College, along with we, the faculty as well as the administrators and staff of this fine institution are called together at the outset of your collegiate academic careers as a way of extending welcome to one another and blessing this new academic year. Please allow me to offer you, the Augustana class of 2017, and on behalf of my esteemed colleagues on the faculty, a hearty “hello!” You are now Augustana Vikings — a most wonderful thing. You should know that we’re very happy you’re here and as you’ll no doubt come to understand for yourselves very soon … you’ve made a very wise decision.

In thinking about what it is I would say this morning I admit that I am somewhat nervous. Public speaking is not really my forte and in past convocations I have heard some wonderful addresses. So I am going to share with you a story that I told the most recent graduates of Augustana at a banquet in May. This is a story which until that night in May I had shared with very few people. It occurred over a decade ago when my wife Sarah and I lived in Cincinnati, Ohio, after I had finished graduate school but before our children were born.

At the time I had a wonderful position teaching middle school vocal music. I was also singing with a professional vocal group called Voicebox which performed all over the region at clubs, museums, concert halls and the like. There were eight singers in the group, four men and four women, all classically-trained, professional singers. The group performed lots of different types of music from chant and Renaissance polyphony to vocal jazz and contemporary choral music. I loved it — we all did — and we had a ball!

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At one point our manager, Thom, sat us down during a rehearsal break and talked to us about our “schtick.” He said that while so many aspects of our performances were very strong, one area that could use improvement was the ways in which we moved and used our bodies onstage; he said we tended to look stiff. Can you imagine that … a bunch of conservatory-trained singers looking stiff?! He told us that our performances could look more natural and thus, be even more enjoyable for our audiences, if how we looked and moved could be made to seem more informal, more comfortable and thus, more accessible to our audiences. And then he told us how he intended for us to learn to be this way onstage; Thom had booked a series of “movement classes” for us at a dance studio … with a dance instructor.

Now despite the fact that I am swaddled in the many yards of fabric that comprise my academic regalia, I doubt it comes as a surprise to you when I say that I am not a dancer; I don’t dance. Maybe at weddings but even then it’s only with the significant urging of my wife that I will venture out there and then, not for long.

I remember making similar breathless comments to Thom; “I’m not a dancer,” I told him, “I don’t dance.” Now Thom is a wonderful, patient guy and remains a dear friend. We had sung together a lot and worked together in various capacities for some time before he became involved with Voicebox. Thus, he knew me pretty well. He gently replied that we were scheduled for movement classes, not “dance lessons.” He explained that we would learn to be more comfortable with our bodies and that we would then be more natural onstage and with one another.

I was not soothed.  “Movement classes”; “comfortable with our bodies”; what does that even mean? I come from a long line of Swedes and Norwegians … Lutherans all … My people don’t talk like this. Ever.

As is becoming clear, I was terrified; these classes became all I could think or talk about.  “Why,” you might ask.

Well, first of all ...”movement,” in anyone’s book, equals “dancing.”  When you’re dancing, or “moving” in such a class, people — people who have eyes — are going to be looking at you. What’s more there was to be an instructor ... looking at me as I’m moving and instructing me how to move and adjuicating my attempts at doing so. All of this would take place with the rest of the group in the room. Worse yet ... what do they have lots of in a dance studio?

Yes, that’s right. MIRRORS.

I’m 6 foot 8 inches tall and I weigh ... a lot. I don’t do mirrors. Particularly not rooms filled with mirrors ... lined with mirrors.

To me this was not good and I was panicked.

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Look, I am not the type of person who can easily hide their feelings. I’m an emotional guy and I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve; if I’m happy you know it, if I’m annoyed ... guess what ... it’s clear. (It’s a tenor thing.) Thus, I was not able to hide my trepidation about these “movement classes” from anyone. I talked about it a lot. I talked to friends, colleagues, even my pastor. I was not in a good place. Most of all, I complained incessantly to Sarah, my beautiful, brilliant and as it turns out, very patient and wise wife.

I must have been talking about this a lot because I remember so clearly one particular night, over dinner, before “the classes” (as I had come to call them) I was again yammering on and on about how nervous I was, how uncomfortable it was going to be, etc. I guess I was driving her a bit nuts because at one point, Sarah put her fork down on her plate ... firmly. Any husband in the room knows what I’m talking about; she put her fork down in such a way to clearly tells you, “Shush.”

And so I did.

She looked at me and ... dropped a bomb.

She said, “Russell, all you can talk about are these movement classes, the instructor, your friends in the group, the mirrors and why? It’s not the movement you’re scared of, it’s not the dancing. It’s because you don’t want them to know what you look like. Russell, I’m going to tell you something and I want you to listen very carefully: these people — me, your friends, Thom, the instructor, all of us — we already know what you look like. In fact, we know what you look like better than you know what you look like.

I must have been unable to process what she was saying because as I recall I replied with something not-too-brilliant, something along the lines of “Huh?”

She continued, “Russell, unless you possess some magical abilities, can you see yourself from 10 feet away; have you ever seen yourself from 10 feet away ... from behind? We have. And we know. We know what you look like from 10 feet away. From behind. And guess what ... we don’t care. Why? Because there’s nothing new to see. Nothing you do in that dance studio will be news to anyone; no one cares because they already know you. They know what you look like better than you know what you look like.”

As Sarah spoke to me I realized, "Oh my goodness ... she was right!" I had never thought about it that way. No one “really” knows what they look like, do they? Have you ever seen yourself from a distance? Nope. From behind? Barring a physiological miracle which my esteemed colleagues in Biology have assured me is impossible, it can’t happen. That means that other people know what you look like better than you know what you look like. Sure, we can look at ourselves in a mirror or see a picture of ourselves but it isn’t really the same thing. And we certainly cannot remove our eyes from our head, place them on the dresser and step away to get a real, hard, objective look. Thus, we’re not hiding anything from anyone. It’s seems so obvious but do we ever really consider that no matter how we dress, stand or otherwise position ourselves the ones who truly know what we look like is ... everyone else and not us.

After I had a chance to think about it ... and the paramedics had re-started my heart ... I realized that Sarah was right and it made me feel so much better; she had awakened me to the truth that was always there, that everyone else already realized and more importantly that I needed to hear.

I was able to go through that experience not fearfully and anxiously but honestly, wholeheartedly and with much greater conviction. As a result I gained far more from it than I otherwise would have. I was able to be honest, to be real; to offer what I had, to accept criticism constructively and ultimately to grow. In the end, the movement classes ended up being a marvelous experience and our group performed better than ever.

2 Timothy, Chapter 2, Verse 15 reads: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.”

As you sit here today, about to undertake a new journey here at Augie, you may be experiencing many emotions, some of them conflicting: excitement, fear, anticipation, joy, anxiety, what have you. As a proud faculty member of this fine institution I can tell you two things that may offer some solace; two things of which I’d like you to remind yourself from time to time.

Number one, I’d like you to know that I ... that we and your families are praying for you. We are thrilled that you are here and you will be in our hearts and minds each day as you go about making yourselves a place in this wonderful community. You are not alone; you are alive in someone’s heart at every moment of every day. Don’t forget that; it’s real and it matters.

Number two, as I learned from my wife, those that are close to you and love you; your family, your friends as well as those that are going to become close to you; new friends, professors and advisors; they ... we ... all know what you look like better than you know what you look like but more importantly, we know you — your heart, your desires, your feelings, what motivates your actions — you, at times, better than you know yourselves; we human beings cannot hide much from one another and I think that is a wonderful thing. We are for one another, as the Scripture says, in a constant state of becoming “approved.” We know the other and the other knows us; there is freedom in that because there is honesty in it. Accept that knowledge. Accept the truth of one another and in so doing, honor it.

And yes, as the Scripture infers, there is work to be done; go forth, make a piece of this world your own and others better for you having done so — be, as Paul wrote in the Scripture, a “workman.” The world can be a confusing place and there is much to be done — but you, you are now an Augustana Viking and folks, we Vikings ... we who “Go Viking” ... do not shy away from a challenge — so be a “workman.”

The Scripture also admonishes us to be one who “…correctly handles the truth,” that is, stays close to and honors it. Know the truth — that you are a sinner, we are sinners but are redeemed through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ when we embrace the truth of what that sacrifice means for us. And remember, the blood of the lamb is not a cudgel but rather an open hand or an honest word spoken in kindness. Be honest and loving with yourself and others, as my wife was with me. Be honest and loving with yourself and others even when it is difficult to do so, even when challenging ideas must be shared. This is part of what I think Paul means when he writes that we are to “correctly handle the truth.” We are to embrace the knowing of the truth of ourselves and one another and use that knowledge correctly, that is, with the same compassion and grace with which it was first offered to us by our Lord and Savior.

Further along in the same passage, in verse 19, Paul writes that “The Lord knows those who are His.” Revel in that fact. The Lord, our Creator, knows us; there is nothing we can hide. We cannot be “found out” because we are already known.

Dear future graduates of Augustana College, 2017, you are children of God — you are beloved, you are known and you are approved. You are known by those who love you and by the Lord our Creator, our Heavenly Father who sacrificed His Son to atone for our sinfulness; we are known — hallelujah for that! Go forth now, be workmen, be unashamed and honest and be truthful; God’s richest blessings to each and every one of you. Thank you.