God can take it

I don’t know about you, but for me it’s been a particularly sobering Advent.

While we’ve entered this season of hopeful expectation sometimes I feel positively hopeless in the face of racial injustice, gun violence, and torture at the hands of our own government.  I want to believe that God is doing a new thing, but I am doubtful amidst the evils of the world.  My faith fails me.  I do not wait faithfully.  Instead, I heave great sighs, I mourn, I turn away from God.

But do you know what I’ve realized?

God can take it.

God can take our anger, our sorrow, our pain, even our distrust.  In a poignant reflection, Alece Ronzino talks about how even after several years of what she calls “spiritual detox,” God was still there, big enough to take her rejection, her skepticism, and her doubt.

Sure, Advent is our season of hopeful expectation in the Church, where we prepare our hearts for Jesus, where we wait as the ancient world once did for the birth of a savior, but isn’t it just as much about how God waits on us, faithfully and patiently, no matter how often we turn away in fear, anger, or sadness?  Even as the prophets and the kings and the ordinary people in the Old Testament waited on God, God out-waited them.  God out-waited their faithless acts, their petulance, their mistakes, and their fears.  Despite them, God made something new, God brought a savior to this world, God redeemed and redeems, so don’t you think God can take it?

Washington, DC.  Fall 2014.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Washington, DC. Fall 2014. Photo by Evan Schneider.

Sometimes I think we are the ones who can’t take it–we can’t take the paralyzing intimacy that God desires of us.  We’re the ones who back away, not only from God, but from one another, convinced that it would be better to give up, than to be failed or to fail one another.

But God does not fail us.

God waits on this world just as God prepared the ancient one for thousands of years.  God’s love is steadfast.  And no matter our sinfulness or our betrayal, God does not turn from us, but rather accepts, forgives, and waits out our indiscretion.  So as God waits on us and this fallen world, what would it be like this Advent if instead of turning from God, we turned toward God with all our anger, sadness, pain, fear, doubt, and even indifference?  What if we threw all of our hopes and fears onto God and waited for God to do a new thing in and amongst us?

God can take it.

God, making weakness holy for over 2014 years

Our church is quirky and I love it.

It’s a place where people show up late, they won’t stop greeting each other during the passing of the peace even when the pastor’s screaming to get their attention, and just about anything goes.

We also do cool things in the liturgy.  Our prayers of confession aren’t staid and silent, but often full of passion and hope.  This Sunday, as we read the following words, I realized something:

In this place of confession we are shaped by hope:

In our brokenness, we know your blessing.

In our pain, we touch your promise.

In our longing, we discover your love.

You are making things new in our lives and this world.

Merrill Creek Reservoir.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Merrill Creek Reservoir. Photo by Evan Schneider.

I realized that God’s love is transforming, because God makes weakness holy.  God doesn’t just give meaning to our suffering, but God enters into it and makes something new from the residue of despair, longing, and pain.

That’s why we Christians are people who live, especially in this season, with deep hope.  We know that it is not up to us to change the world or its brokenness, but that God, despite appearances, is already redeeming all that is messed up humanity and making things new.

It’s really hard for me to trust that on these dark days of injustice, but I imagine it was equally hard for the shepherds and the wise men and the Jews.  This season I’m asking God to give me eschatological vision: to believe that in great longing, there is great love, that in pain, there is promise, and that in brokenness, we will know blessing.

This week I have been struck by how deliciously novel Advent feels, despite it being the 33rd year I’ve celebrated it, and the 2014th year the world has done so.  I take this as evidence that 2014 years later, God is indeed doing a new thing.  We may not perceive it, we may not see it, but I’m praying that God will help me to believe, and to trust that our weaknesses will be made holy once again.

Amen.

There are typos in my dissertation

When I finished typing the last few words I set aside my dissertation for about a week.

I was afraid to read it, because I knew there would be typos amidst that sea of words.  It’s just impossible, not matter how many proofreaders, no matter how much time spent, to produce something perfect.  And while I know that, I didn’t want to experience the pang of how those mistakes would mar the crisp, white pages.  I wanted to believe that there was some way that all my hard work would pay off with perfection.

Like I said, that lasted about a week, and then I had to face reality.  I read through it, in preparation for my dissertation defense, and there were many typos.

And it was still okay.

One of my last dissertating sessions.  My photo.
One of my last dissertating sessions. My photo.

In fact, the typos reminded me that I’m not in pursuit of something perfect, but something human, something meaningful.  What’s more, I could see beyond the typos to those people in China who changed my life.  As I read, I was humbled to see and know that despite the congratulations that would be heaped on me and only me after the defense, this dissertation, was truly the work of many hands.  The typos reminded me that despite the perfection that’s so idolized in academic fields, we academics are imperfect people who rely heavily on the minds, kindness, and generosity of others to produce our knowledge.

There were moments where the typos made me wonder whether I had any business defending a dissertation toward a Ph.D., but I’ve also realized that it’s great to recognize that while you have learned a lot, you still have much more to learn.  It’s not so bad to see typos and be humbled and recognize that you’d rather be transformed and human and vulnerable than perfect and magnificent and independent.

This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful, in all circumstances, for typos, for friends, for family, for foster families in China, for dissertations, for new journeys, for imperfection, for growth, for love, for peace, and for God.

What about you?

Virtual Coffee Date

Princeton University campus.  Gest Asian Studies library.  My photo.
Princeton University campus. Gest Asian Studies library. My photo.

It’s bad blogger etiquette, isn’t it, to post about this season of fullness and never fill one another in on what the true challenges and joys are, and generally how it’s going?  

For me, fullness is a mixed blessing.  It’s been finishing the writing and revising of my dissertation on Sunday mornings, which has been necessary and fulfilling, but has taken us away from our dear church community and made me wander a bit from God.  So fullness, ironically, in the vein of confession, has included a spiritual desert for me, in which I’ve been reticent to go to God with all of my worries and concern, for fear of finding answers that I haven’t wanted to hear or face.  Fullness, though, has also been the everyday work of plodding along with life, filled with the everyday joy of seeing our daughter and our family grow together.  It’s included brave car trips with a screaming baby, on the end of which we were fortunately met by treasured friends.

I’m starting to come to terms with the idea (and this was evident to me as I peered through tears writing the acknowledgements to my dissertation in the wee hours of another Sunday morning feeling so humbled by so many people who had a hand in it) that when we are in the blessing and sacred presence of others, despite our own penchants to push God away, God is never far away at all.  I am amazed that despite my tendency to drift in this season, God keeps close through the ministry of others.  As our pastor reminded us this Sunday, “that’s how God gets things done.”

I’ve been so focused on getting my own things done in this season of fulness that I often forget how faithfully God has stood beside me at this time and all along.  In returning to acknowledge God, it makes sense that my first action, before repentance even, would be praise.  Even as this makes cognitive sense to me, I’m still struggling a bit this morning.  I pray that I find those words of praise even as my spirit is weak.

Where has God stood beside you in your life?  What is God doing for you now?  How is your season of fullness coming along?

On fullness

Fall in Guangdong province, China.
Fall in Guangdong province, China.  Click for photo credit.

Psalm 23 (NRSV)

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. 
   He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
   he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
   for his name’s sake. 

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
   I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
   your rod and your staff—
   they comfort me. 

You prepare a table before me
   in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
   my cup overflows. 
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
   all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
   my whole life long.

 Psalm 23 is so short and sweet and familiar that for many of us the words tumble off our lips without a thought.  But it’s no wonder that so many have clung to it over the ages, repeated its promises in the darkest hours and been comforted by its imagery in the depths of despair.  Its simplicity and eloquence are timeless and poignant.

And yet, there’s more to it than comfort and consolation.  There are practical assurances that we will walk through dark valleys in this life despite our faith, that we will encounter enemies, and that these hardships are not mutually exclusive from goodness and mercy.
Red Beach, China.
Red Beach, China. Click for photo credit.
These past few weeks I’ve been a little overwhelmed by the busy-ness of my life: childcare and feedings crammed between preparing for classes, editing my dissertation, and applying to jobs.  And since I’m so averse to busy-ness, somewhere along the way, it occurred to me that framing that stress and pressure not as busy-ness but as fullness allow me to better see and experience the wash of blessings, difficulties included, in my life.
In the psalm’s narrative, it is following the darkest valley that the table is prepared, the psalmist’s head is anointed, and his “cup overflows.”  Therefore, when our cup overflows it doesn’t necessarily speak to the ease of life or conventional happiness, but a life well lived, a deep, resounding, and mature joy, and a conviction that God has been and will be there despite the valley, the enemies, and the fear.
Fall in gorgeous Jiangxi, China.
My favorite season in gorgeous Jiangxi, China. Click for photo credit.
There is so much comfort for me in sleepless nights and rushed days to trust and believe that this season is not simply busy, but wonderously full. Full of hard work and deep joy, full of hard decisions and deep love, and full of uncertainty, but filled with grace.  I take heart and solace in the fullness of life and the promise that goodness and mercy are not fleeting, but that I shall forever dwell in the house of the Lord.
Amen.

An attitude of abundance

The other day I was sitting with a new colleague talking about the competitiveness and anxiety that fills the air this time of the year, especially for those of us who are “on the job market” in academia.  I found myself urging him to adopt a mentality of abundance, rather than one of scarcity, and he was pleasantly shocked by the advice.

I’ve heard others talk about attitudes of abundance before, but I never knew quite what they meant by them and wondered if such mentalities weren’t just convenient excuses to escape from reality.  But as this colleague and I talked more and more and I reflected on my experience these last seven years (!) pursuing a Ph.D., it occurred to me that the generous and treasured relationship I have with my own cohort of budding anthropologists is one of abundance.

Since early on we have endeavored to build one another up when other cohorts around us succumb to insidious competitiveness and one-up-man-ship. We have believed that we’re not really competing for the same jobs, because it’s all about fit–what would work for me necessarily wouldn’t work for many in my cohort and in vice versa.  On the flip side, many academics ascribe to an economy of scarcity in which there aren’t enough jobs to go around and one must fight tooth and nail, whatever the cost, to wrest them from the hands of others, even if they’re valued friends and colleagues.

Lantau Island, Hong Kong.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Lantau Island, Hong Kong. Photo by Evan Schneider.

“But isn’t that reality?” my new friend asked me. “At some point don’t you have to admit that there actually are less jobs out there than there are people and accept that reality?”

But is that reality?  Might the reality be that there if there are but a small number of “good” tenure-track jobs, those jobs probably aren’t a great fit for most people, because there are also a lot of wonderful babies to be had, which require time off, there’s wonderful family to enjoy in life and they’re not always next to the “good” jobs, there’s wonderful students in many, many, places, there’s other great career tracks that lead outside of academia, and suddenly there aren’t so many people clamoring for the same jobs and they don’t look so “good” anymore?

This type of abundance isn’t illogical or idealistic but very practical.  When we sacrifice what we truly  want or need to what the world tells us, we end up with scarcity, but when we pursue our career with a passion for serving others, the opportunities abound.  What’s more, it is actually possible to rejoice when others succeed, rather than just in one’s own successes. It not only makes us better people to be able to enjoy the success of others, but it makes for a better world! Finally, I think that’s what’s often getting edited out of these grand discussions on academic job markets–that teaching is a service vocation, that when it comes down to it, it’s not even about us and what job we want, but what job we can use to reach the students who make our jobs necessary and possible.

The view from Lantau Island, HK.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
The view from Lantau Island, HK. Photo by Evan Schneider.

My new friend stared blankly at me and commented that it was refreshing to find someone with this kind of attitude, but talking about this kind of abundance with him was also rejuvenating for me.  It reminded me why I do what I do, that numbers and markets are not so straight forward and they don’t have to rule my life, and that everyday is a choice.  Everyday we choose whether to live in a world of abundance or one of scarcity.

Today, I choose abundance.  What about you?

p.s. For more on where this abundance comes from, see my post on the God of Abundance!

Breath by breath, bird by bird

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table, close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’” –Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

I remember the first time I walked out of the air-conditioned airport in Puerto Rico, and as the dense, humid air filled my lungs I began to panic that I couldn’t breathe.

PR
Arecibo, Puerto RIco. My photo.

That’s kind of how I felt the other day when other graduate students and faculty started to infiltrate the premises of my previously quiet and calm office space and chatter away about how crazy things were about to get with the students arriving in the next few weeks.  The other night after I put my baby to bed I found that despite my body’s exhaustion, I couldn’t sleep because my mind was racing.  When I find my stomach in knots, I wonder if the stress will every dissipate, whether I’ll ever be able to take joy in my work without a pang of guilt, or whether concentration will ever return.

I’ve been lucky enough to evade this kind of stress for most of my life, and I think that’s why I’ve come to think of it as somewhat of a weakness.  I’ve come to think that it’s my fault when I succumb to that stress, when I feel it, and when I panic.  I think a lot of us find ourselves thinking that the presence of stress indicates God’s absence or God’s displeasure with our sinful lives.

But as I took some deep breaths the other evening and the air patiently filled my lungs, I discovered that God desires to sit right beside us in the stress.  I remember this moment when I was a little kid and my grandma, who was a little gruff and aloof and kind of scared us as kids, plopped right down beside us and played with our fisher price little people in the living room.

And I think that when we release ourselves from the fear, responsibility, and guilt that often comes along with stress, we find God sitting in it, right beside us.  I think that ugly, insignificant, stress-filled lives are also beautiful and holy, because God is present even in the thick smog of stress enabling us to breathe.

Breath by breath, bird by bird, isn’t that how anything ever gets done anyway?

“Bird by bird, Erin,” God says.  “I’m sitting beside you.  I’m already there.  I’m present and I’m able.  So are you.”

Amen.

Fall is coming to Princeton.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Fall is coming to Princeton. Photo by Evan Schneider.

What God does

When there is violence and hunger and fear and suffering on the news and in our lives, it is easy and natural to question where God is and what God might be doing.  Many things in this world keep us in suspense, and God’s wisdom and mercy are often counted among them.  I continue to find my relationship with God challenging, stretching, and arduous.

But a few weeks ago as I sat in church and heard brothers and sisters lifting their voices around me in song and found it beautiful, moving, and humbling, it occurred to me that in our eagerness to fully understand, we often miss out on the everyday work that God does and is doing.

Scenes from the neighborhood.  A field of wildflowers.  My photo.
Scenes from the neighborhood. A woodsy meadow and a field of wildflowers. 

20140810_184402

Those ordinary voices were broken and imperfect, but God made them melodious and harmonic.  Similarly, the people in my life are scarred and wounded, but God uses them everyday to minister to me.  Nothing about being a parent is easy, but God grants me grace for the journey.

In fact, every morning we wake up with breath in our lungs, beats in our hearts, and thoughts in our heads are gifts from God, but we don’t always attribute those everyday, powerful miracles to our God.  I heard a song on the radio the other day that reminded me that God is already awaiting us to arrive at that future we’re so worried about.  It reminded me that we serve and worship a God whose very being–past, present, and future–is far beyond the confines of our thoughts and prayers.

There’s nothing wrong with seeking to calculate, plan, and understand.  There’s certainly nothing wrong with mourning the problems in this world, and seeking to effect change.  But I wonder if when we put our minds so feverishly to change what’s in front of us that we often falter because we fail to see what God is already doing and what God has already done.  We forget that life itself, with God, is the point of living.  We don’t get to embrace what God is already doing in our lives and learn from that wisdom, grace, and beauty.

So this morning if you can, alongside prayers for a fallen and broken world, give thanks for breath and for humanity, for beauty and for hands and feet, and for God’s presence in the everyday.  May we all feel it a bit stronger these days.

Amen.

Signs of a life well-lived

I remember before Lucia was born pondering the items we put on our baby registry and strategizing with my husband about how we could keep the baby stuff to a minimum.  We have a really small apartment and we didn’t want to buy all sorts of unnecessary items that would clutter our space and our lives.

Nearly six months after her birth, I would say we’ve stuck to that minimalist lifestyle rather faithfully–we have a few larger baby items, but most of those are borrowed or used, and we’ve been calculating regarding the toys and small items we’ve acquired over time.

However, keeping all of those items we use daily in their right and perfect place in another story and a losing battle.  Inevitably pacifiers, books, toys, and burp cloths clutter the coffee table and couch, Lucia’s play gym remains on the guest bed in her bedroom, and the bathroom becomes overladen with washcloths in the sink and hanging to dry.

What’s funny is this very thing that we agonized about–having Lucia’s clutter take over our apartment and our lives–is something that now brings me great joy.  Now that she’s here, I don’t mind living with her stuff, being reminded of who she is by the things that mark her very central place in our life.  In fact, I’m very happy to let her things lay strewn about our apartment as a sign that we’re living life with her, not perfectly, but with deep commitment and love.

This is one of the things that’s surprised me about life and parenthood–learning to love the mess of it all more than I imagined I could.

What wisdom of the messes in your own life have surprised you?

**I liked my friend Erin Lane‘s post on a related topic, and this Washington Post article by a man who admits blaming his wife for a messy house and being in the wrong.

 

Dreaming boldly

Still can't believe I've been here.  Twice.  Halong Bay, Vietnam.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Still can’t believe I’ve been here. Twice. Halong Bay, Vietnam. Photo by Evan Schneider.

Perhaps all of my original thoughts are being zapped up by my dissertation writing at the moment.  Or maybe there are just some really inspiring things on the internet as of late.

Whatever the case, this Huffington Post meditation from Sir Francis Drake really struck a chord with its admonishment not to limit God by dreaming too little.  Such a reminder has been instructive for me in the past when it comes to praying audaciously for China, or in recognizing how God desires to dream with me.  And in the age of helicopter parenting and facebook bragging, it’s so poignant to realize that dreaming boldly for my daughter is always a good thing.

What I like most about these words from Drake is the refrain, “Disturb us, Lord,” because they remind me that it is God who places those wild dreams in our hearts and who can do immeasurably more than we ask or imagine.

May you take heart in these words this morning and invite God to “push back the horizons of your hopes and your future.”  Amen.

 

Disturb Us, Lord by Sir Francis Drake

 

Disturb us, Lord, when
We are too pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true
Because we dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to the shore.

 

Disturb us, Lord, when
With the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life,
We have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.

 

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wilder seas
Where storms will show Your mastery;
Where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars.

 

We ask you to push back
The horizons of our hopes;
And to push back the future
In strength, courage, hope, and love.

 

This we ask in the name of our Captain,
Who is Jesus Christ.