The kingdom of love

Kunming, China.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Kunming, China. Photo by Evan Schneider.

A friend of mine compiled this prayer of approach from various sources for last Sunday’s service, and something about the compassionate being expected and the kingdom of love on its way touched me deeply.

May you experience the kingdom of love this week wherever you find yourself:

Come into this place, where the ordinary is sanctified,

The human is celebrated, the compassionate is expected.

Come into this place.

Together we make it a holy place, with our every act of worship.

God, help us to listen to our inner spirit;

To the inner yearning to belong to something greater than ourselves.

Help us to listen to our inner spirits

And find there the presence of your good encouraging spirit.

The kingdom of love is coming because:

Somewhere, someone is kind when others are unkind.

Somewhere, someone shares with another in need.

Somewhere, someone is patient- and waits in love.

Somewhere, someone returns good for evil,

Somewhere, someone serves another, in love.

Somewhere, someone is calm in a storm.

Finding rest

I read this the other day and found it to be incredibly insightful, complex theology with good news for the weary.  Reprinting this with permission from Kayla McClurg at Inward/Outward Ministries and hoping you find rest in the Lord:

Finding Rest

Reflections on the Lectionary, Kayla McClurg

For Sunday, July 6, 2014 – Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

 We are rarely satisfied. We tend to be continually busy yet jealously guard our down time. We are both generous and self-serving, overly confident and doubting. We are buried in things and see more that we want. We want to join the dance; we want to be a recluse. We judge ourselves and yet are slow to change. We want, we know not what. Anything other than the way it is.

 We are a bit like those spoken of in the scriptures: “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn. John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard.’” We are rarely satisfied.

We even change our ideas about God to match our current moods. The God of our making rarely gets to be simply who God is, any more than we get to be who we are. Jesus knows us well. He knows what we want and what we need, and he knows what a heavy load we have made of our lives. So he says, “Come to me, all of you who are weary of carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

How will he do this? Oddly enough, by putting something more upon us-his yoke, which he says is easy, and his burden, which he says is light. Not weighted by a lack of satisfaction, a tendency to criticize and want always more, his burden is made light by being carried together. Yoked to him the weight is evenly dispersed; we walk in balance, steady, no longer swayed by mood. We begin to know what it is to be satisfied. We find rest for our souls.

On learning

A few weeks ago in a teachers training, we read the first few paragraphs of Friedrich Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense.”  In it, Nietzsche outlines the bleak philosophy (Nietzsche, bleak?!) that all (human) knowing is but prideful deception.  As is my typical reaction to such existentialism (and which tapped into my fears that my life spent as a graduate student has been little but frivolity), I sensed a dark cloud hovering.

But as I’ve ruminated on the depth of Nietzsche’s claims these past few weeks, I’ve realized with deep refreshment, that while perhaps knowing often goes hand in hand with self-deception, learning can remain a joyful, humbling pursuit.  

Over those next few weeks of teacher training, which I had dreaded for their presumed repetitiveness and monotony, instead, I discovered how much I was learning from my peers about both teaching writing and my own writing process.  Diving back into my dissertation project and having others read and respond to my work has positioned me not merely in the realm of expert but also budding novice.  Finally, in composing a sermon this past week, in which I imagined reading the story of the Good Samaritan from the perspective of the wounded man rather than the thoughtful Samaritan, I was reminded that seeking to serve others often begins with listening, receiving, and learning.

The D&R canal in the summer.  My photo.
The D&R canal in the summer. My photo.

I remember in college, when I took an elaborate spiritual gifts inventory, how surprised and rather deflated I was to find one of my top gifts listed as curiosity.  Is that really a spiritual gift, I mused?  What good is curiosity about others and about the world to God?  Many years later, after pursuing higher education for nearly fourteen years, I often wonder the same thing.  I worry that the career of a graduate student, at which I have spent almost the last decade of my young life, is not an exercise in self-deception, futility, or frivolity.

But when I think on what fascinates me about the world, what drives my curiosity, and that is not a deep understanding or knowing, but a desire to know and understand, I consider that anthropology might just be my calling.  When I recall that being in the position of graduate student, one is always in pursuit of knowledge, but never quite the apprehender, the expert, or the master of that knowledge, I relish the deep passion and humility one must have for apprenticeship and learning to be a student.  And when I remember that all ministry begins from a place of common humanity, and how much I learn day in and day out from others, I feel quite at home.

I realize how blessed I have been to be able to be a diligent student of ministry and anthropology all these years, and how essential it is that when I step into those roles of preacher and teacher that I do so with the heart of a student.  God is always teaching, and we are always learning.  It’s when we become certain of our knowledge and prideful of that fact that life, as Nietzsche warns, and we, become a tangle of twisted lies.

May we always be curious, may we always be humble, may we always be eager to hear the voice of God in those around us.  May we be life-long students who never tire of the mysteries of God and life and the joys of learning.  Amen.

The morning: my sacred space

The other day I read a post from one of my favorite blogs, Zen Habits, entitled, “Creating a Lovely Morning.”  In it, Leo Babauta talks about how he combines just a few tasks, something to look forward to, and mindfulness to create a lovely morning.

If you read my blog with any frequency, you’ll know that I’m a self-proclaimed morning person, like Babauta, and that I get such an inordinate pleasure out of greeting the day that I relish knowing I have the whole morning in front of me at five or five thirty am.  Mornings have all the joy of possibility, confirmed by the beauty of morning light, the emptiness of the world, and the solace of the silence when the world has yet to wake.

Simply put, mornings are my sacred space.

Coming off of a relaxing vacation, however, I’ve been sort of lacking the energy to jump into action in the am.  So, following Babauta’s lead, I’ve put some thought into what my lovely morning might entail in an effort to to reframe those early hours.

5:00/5:30

Rise and watch the sun rise with a tall glass of water, some music, and my latest devotional read, Ellen F. Davis’ Getting Involved with God.

6:00

Brew a mug of decaf espresso and begin writing my introduction to my dissertation (this is the project I’m currently putting off because it scares me, but in my ideal morning, I tackle it head on!).

7:30

Take a break to peruse websites, blog, or pray.  Make a nice plate of scrambled eggs and grab a second mug of coffee.

8:00

Wake up my daughter and feed her out on the porch in the open air!

9:00

Take a long walk with my little girl, in which we get to see turtles, lots of birds, deer, and a great blue heron on the D& R Canal (even in my dreams, I’m greedy about my nature!).

10:30

Visit with a friend on the porch while my daughter naps (it’s my lovely morning, so in it, the little girl naps!).

Are you a morning person? If not, when’s your sacred time and what would your lovely morning/afternoon/evening look like?

 

 

 

 

On true love and throwing progress to the wind

I’m slowly realizing that one of the most challenging parts of parenting is that it’s incredibly difficult to predict or gauge progress.

The Delaware Raritan Canal at the height of spring.  My photo.
The Delaware Raritan Canal at the height of spring. My photo.

I’m so eager to know what I’m doing, the energy that I’m putting into my daughter, is being directed toward a purpose.  Perhaps this comes from years of being a student, where hours of reading and writing usually directly translate into better grades, admittance into higher education programs, or awards and grants.  I am addicted to progress, but I’m realizing that it’s a worldly ideal that can often be crippling in its hegemonic and normalizing ways.

That led me to thinking the other night, what if we threw progress and developmental markers and perfect sleep to the wind as parents and focused on loving the children in front of us?  I remember when I was awaiting this baby my spiritual director told me that children first and foremost need love, and I remember feeling empowered, thinking, now that I can do.

But love isn’t always easy.

There are a million human ways we  complicate and condition and crowd out love.  Suddenly love begins to look and feel more like precision, weight, or caution, because we’ve replaced it with our own ideals, our desires, or our own assuming needs.

But true love is life altering in that it demands a total shift in the way we view and live life.  We must change if we are to love graciously and selflessly rather than greedily and humanly.

D&R Canal.  My photo.
D&R Canal. My photo.

This is why, I think, with parenting the “progress” is always paradoxically barely perceptible and earth-shattering.  We find that simultaneously across the long nights and endless crying, both nothing and everything has shifted.  We realize that despite our being wedded to a hegemonic view of progress, change and growth took their meandering course.

Not surprisingly, no amount of sheer human will and determination moves our children to progress, but rather the painstaking effort of love nurtures their being.  Our children rely so perfectly on us, but we come only by struggle to rely on God.  And yet the release of our lives to God is simply the greatest source of change imaginable.

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No longer searching or bound by our desire for progress, we are released into grace and love.  We are able to love because God first loved us.  And when we live with the knowledge of that fact, we find joy and contentment in the children that we have, not merely the people that they are becoming.

The Art of Living Abroad

 

Nanning's ultra modern and traditional landscapes side by side.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Nanning’s ultra modern and traditional landscapes side by side. Photo by Evan Schneider.

It’s been nearly two years since my husband and I moved back from living in South China (how time flies!), but there’s rarely a day that goes by that I don’t think about the people, the place, or our life there.  Moving to a foreign country as a young couple had its growing pains, but ultimately it brought us closer together and is an experience that we treasure and hope to repeat someday with our children.

I have some friends and acquaintances who are getting ready to make the move across the ocean or halfway around the world and it got me thinking about what lessons I can draw from our own experience.  So, here are a few suggestions for how to make the most of that international living experience, which is definitely more of an art than a science.

My husband plays volleyball with the teachers from his college.  My photo.
My husband plays volleyball with the teachers from his college. My photo.

Find Some Structure

It’s essential when you arrive to start building a community, through which you can learn about the culture, and among which you can begin to build relationships and feel at home. When I was doing my fieldwork in China, my network of informants was free-floating and dispersed, so it really helped that my husband was affiliated with a local university for his work, through which we met a mix of Chinese professors, students, and even expats.  Finding a community–a housing complex, a company, a school, or a place of worship–that has some structure and rituals to it helps a lot when you’re struggling to learn the ins and outs of daily life in a brand new place and ensures that you won’t feel isolated despite the isolating experiences  you’re often up against.  Even setting up a weekly meeting with a language partner or a friend to explore the city can give you the motivation to get out there and get to know your new surroundings and help you feel more at home.

Communicate

Speaking of isolation, a great piece of advice I received from a couple before moving abroad and back was to be mindful that despite your commonalities you won’t be experiencing a new culture in exactly the same way.  It’s imperative that instead of assuming cross-cultural experiences resonate or rub against us in exactly the same way as family or friends that we allow for multiple feelings and interpretations of the same events and experiences.  When I was living in China, I often assumed my husband to be my cultural confidant who shared my frustrations, joys, and complaints, but that wasn’t always the case.  It really helped to talk through those disconnects and resist making assumptions so that we could be sources of support to one another in a challenging experience.

Even locals have to study the bus routes in Nanning!  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Even locals have to study the bus routes in Nanning! Photo by Evan Schneider.

Become an Anthropologist

Now I’m completely biased, but I think it’s also important to suspend judgment and try to look past first impressions when you’re getting to know your new country and culture.  Spend your time observing people, listening, and participating in life the way they live it.  If you consider yourself a student of culture, it’s also a lot easier to tolerate and maybe even embrace differences that might be initially repulsive or confusing.  As a student, you’re only responsible for asking good questions, applying yourself and learning to the best of your ability, and respecting your teachers, which is a wonderfully fresh and un-stressful way to relate to your new, and sometimes jarring, world!

On a trip to Hong Kong.
On a trip to Hong Kong.

Indulge

There will be times where you need a psychological or even a physical break from the fatigue of speaking another language, being a foreigner in a strange land, or adhering to customs and pleasantries that aren’t your own.  It’s important to take these much needed breaks so that when you are with your new neighbors in your new country you can be the best version of yourself.  For my husband and I that meant brief sojourns to Hong Kong every once in awhile, evenings every few weeks with expats, or simply alone time on our balcony where we allowed one another the freedom to speak candidly about some of our frustrations and fears.

Beautiful Guilin.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Beautiful Guilin. Photo by Evan Schneider.

Explore

Don’t pass up the opportunity to explore your new country and culture while you have it.  My fondest memories of China are the weekends and weeks where I made spontaneous research trips to the countryside with new friends, and the trips to Southeast Asia with friends and to the wildest parts of Guangxi with family.  And I regret never making it to all the other places on our list–Harbin, Sanya, Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar just to name a few!  Exploring the country with new friends deepens your understanding of the idiosyncrasies of what it really means to live in that place, because there’s nothing like long hours spent on buses and trains to bring people together.  After all, the art of living abroad is about taking care of yourself but also taking chances!

On risking earthly things

It sounds so simple, this business of trusting God.

But even when I’m wracked with uncertainty and brutally aware of my own need for God, I often fail to understand how exactly we go about being faithful.  Even as I strive to know and trust God with my present and my future, I discover that once again I’m going about it all wrong.

Chesapeake Bay.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Chesapeake Bay. Photo by Evan Schneider.

I’ve placed my trust in earthly things instead of in who God is, has been, and always will be.

When we’re reticent to truly trust God, our vision is limited.  We place our trust in human endeavors–promotions, houses, even people–but earthly securities are but illusions.  They crumble, they fall, they fail us.  At those moments of despair we often cry out to God, feeling betrayed.

But it is God whom we have betrayed.  

We’ve put our trust, our devotion, and our service in the things of this world instead of our creator, redeemer, and sustainer.  And when God doesn’t have our whole trust and our whole lives, God can’t grant us the vision and possibilities and promises that lie beyond our own limited perspective and imagination.

I heard a great sermon yesterday challenging us to faithfully cast out our nets as the disciples do in the last chapter of John and trust Jesus to fill them with provision that defies common sense.

The Yong River.  Nanning, China.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
The Yong River. Nanning, China. Photo by Evan Schneider.

But we’re so stubborn.

We human beings cling to our common sense like it’s all there is, like we’d rather settle for our own plans and dreams and ideas rather than God’s expansive vision.  Have the Biblical stories taught us nothing?  Has the promise of Easter fallen on deaf ears?  Do we truly believe Christ has been raised from the dead, and with him, we, too have been given eternal life?

I’m realizing that living as Easter people means risking the earthly things for the eternal ones, and relying on God to provide possibilities that we cannot fathom or imagine, but that we earnestly trust come from the hand of the creator, redeemer, and sustainer who never fails us.  For me, this requires daily commitment.  It requires me to continually let go of my plans, however seemingly perfect, and find rest and peace in who God is.  My restlessness, in fact, is a good sign to me usually that I’m relying on my own vision rather than seeking God’s.  

So may you find rest in who God is, has been, and always will be this morning.  May you seek eternal rather than earthly things, and may you be raised alongside Christ to taste and see the possibilities that only God has in store for you and your life.  Amen.

Scripture: Colossians 3; John 21

Weekend Links

It’s been a fabulous weekend celebrating my husband’s 35th birthday and enjoying the company of lots of friends and the lovely spring weather in NJ.  In addition to a photo from one of those lovely walks with the babe, here are some great stories and posts around the internet for your enjoyment this weekend:

“The Five Lessons of Good Friday,” a great article to ponder during Eastertide: I love the nuanced points about suffering and the proclamation that suffering does not have the last word!  For my own reflections on how to live in light of Easter, see last year’s post, “Holy everything.”

On the subject of men, women, and the workplace, “The Confidence Gap,” was a lengthy, but good read about what may be holding women back.

“Saving Minds Along with Souls,” the latest installment from Anthropologist of Religion, Tanya Luhrmann, provides a great challenge to the church to love, include, and care for the mentally ill.  For other posts on Luhrmann’s work, see  “What it means to be a child of God” and “God behind the scenes.”

“China On Track to Become the World’s Largest Christian Country by 2025, Experts Say,” …and in my non-expert opinion, it may be even sooner.  For more posts on Christianity in China on this blog, see “Chinese churches” and “Church Renewal from Below.”

FInally, another gem to ponder this week from Zen Habits, “The Reality of This Moment.”

What if we lived in this moment rather than the fantasy of our worries and fears about the future? 

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Have a wonderful weekend! 

On unconditional love

Since Holy Week, I’ve been thinking about unconditional love.  

Do you have someone in your life who loves you unconditionally, for whom you could do no wrong, or even if you did, every wrong would be and is forgivable?  Do you have someone who knows all your faults and flaws and seems to love you the more for them?  Do you know someone whose love for you is constant, not based on what you do or what you achieve, but comes from a seemingly endless and otherworldly source?

If so, how do you respond to such love?

As I continued to ponder unconditional love, it occurred to me that there seems to be but one human response to it, which is fear.  When you discover that someone loves you unconditionally, you also discover that such love cannot be earned, achieved, or repaid, and it’s a scary feeling to find  yourself forever indebted to another.  That fear can turn toward denial and betrayal as we try to run as far away from such love as we can, in order that we can establish our own independence and find a life free from obligation or humility.

It’s what happened to Judas, Pilate, even to Peter.

Spring on the Princeton University campus.
Spring on the Princeton University campus.

But if we recognize our own humanity, our own futility, and instead of running, revel in the awe and wonder that such love exists, and turn to acceptance as opposed to denial, the only response to such love is praise.

We are not like the women at the tomb that morning who did not know that he had arisen and yet, faithfully returned.  We are children of the promise, filled with the knowledge that his command to love one another at that fateful last supper would be fulfilled by his ultimate act of unconditional love on the cross.  

We love because He first loved us.  May we spend our lives pondering not only that love, but how to serve Him with a life full of praise.

Grace for eternity

Spring on the university campus.  Iphone photo by the husband.
Signs of spring on the university campus. Iphone photo by the husband.

There is a mantra among new parents, oft repeated and spoken with a mix of exhaustion and hope, that “everything is temporary.”  

That is, the sleepless nights, the afternoons filled with crying, the growth spurts, they’re all necessary phases, but blips on the map of childhood so quickly turning to youth and adulthood, and life.  Young parents remark that if you can keep this perspective that everything is temporary, you can endure anything…temporarily.

I do find this advice helpful and comforting, not only for parenting, but for other aspects of life.  And I find it similar and perhaps more poignant alongside the wisdom that we are to abide in God as God abides in us.

Abiding has always been instructive to me, because it reminds me not to project outward from my fears, but to trust that there is more than this moment.  Rather than the existential promise of all of life being temporary, abiding reminds me of the importance of choosing and praying for faithactive, strident faith–that humbly believes and resolute, unswerving hope to accompany it.

It is only through abiding with God, gladly placing some of my fear and worry at his feet, and coming plainly to him with my raw hunger and thirst, that I am reminded that God abides with me not temporarily, but for eternity, ordering all moments around a life-giving sacrifice that brings eternal grace and peace.

This is what I choose and try to fixate on when life seems mundane and contrived, that what is extraordinary about the ordinary is God’s grace that makes each morning fresh and new, grace for more than this moment–for eternity.