Faith Begins by Letting Go

A few weeks ago, I preached a sermon on the trust psalms, particularly Psalm 27, entitled, “Trust, Perseverance, and Doggedness.”  When I went hunting for a closing hymn for the service, I stumbled upon a relatively new one entitled, “Faith Begins by Letting Go.”

While I ended up selecting it for the service, I felt a bit puzzled by the title, the lyrics, and the sentiment.  The first stanza is as follows:

Faith begins by letting go 
Giving up what had seemed sure 
Taking risks and pressing on 
Though the way feels less secure 
Pilgrimage both right and odd 
Trusting all our life to God

I wasn’t sure I believed that faith begins by letting go of our foundation, taking risks, and that one’s pilgrimage should feel “both right and odd.”  Still, something about the hymn seemed to resonate with the content of my sermon, especially the ode to one of the great contemporary spiritual writers, Anne Lamott, on perfectionism and they way in which our writing cramps up around our wounds as in life.

These past few weeks I’ve encountered my own cramps and struggles to write, and am starting to believe in this whole wisdom of letting go.

You see I was having a lot of trouble getting my thoughts to find substance and clarity on the page, writing and rewriting pages and pages of an article on my research with foster mothers in China.  I kept thinking that despite my frustrations, I needed to have faith that these meanderings, however seemingly futile, had some semblance of progress and that I would eventually find my way if I kept at it.

However, this morning during my prayer time I realized that in the writing process, I’d started to lose the joy and excitement that is so genuine to my work with families in China. And I decided to give myself the freedom to reflect freely on what I learned and what I love about the families I worked with.  In a away, I decided to free myself from the burden of writing something smart and relevant and pertinent to the academy and instead tap back into what these families, this culture, and these people taught me about God and life.

And suddenly I was at no lack for thoughts, ideas, and even words on the page.  

I recalled, rather crudely, what these foster mothers had taught me about my own neediness for God and for others, and that true kinship, true family, is not about blood, choice, or even love, but our deep need for one another.

I love that as I yielded to venture away from what I think I know or how I think I should say it, God let me back to my own need for God and others, and this great sense of unity that in my deepest being I have for my vocation as both a scholar and a minister.

I’m so thankful for the wisdom of letting go today–not only because it’s getting me closer to getting this article down on the page, but because it’s taking me to a revelation that I couldn’t have found on my own, by my own strength, might, or wisdom.  It’s making clear my need to rely on God and others for insight, faith, encouragement, grace, and communion.

And despite how scary that is, it’s an an amazing place to be.

On big plans

The woods beside the D&R Canal.  My photo.
The sunny summer woods beside the D&R Canal. My photo.

It’s been quite awhile since I posted anything and to be honest, I’m not sure how much life this blog has left.  It’s been such a joy over the years to write about faith and anthropology and China and life and share, but when that doesn’t come easily or isn’t one of my first impulses, it makes me wonder if there is a new chapter on the horizon.

Lately, life has simply gotten in the way, and blogs that feel they have to make apologies for that have always been (for me) some of the most arduous reads!  So I will be praying and thinking about what this blog may or may not become and be faithful to you by giving an answer sometime in the near future.

For the moment, great changes are in the mix for our family and all in the span of a few weeks: a surgery for my daughter and recovery, packing and moving to a new apartment, my graduation from Ph.D. program, and a trip to the beach with my family.  Sometimes in the midst of all these things when I feel particularly out of control, I’m tempted to cry out, “God, what are you doing?  I’ve got big plans here!”

And then I realize how righteous and petulant and silly that must sound to God.  Sure, I have plans, but God has the present, the future, and everything between in God’s hands.  I’m still working to trust God with the big things rather than struggling to swim upstream and wrest control from God.  And to trust and believe that God’s plans include the impossible, the not-yet-dreamed, and goodness beyond my wildest imagination.

Where are you struggling to trust God these days?  What are you learning?

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Embrace YOUR life

My husband and I have both been reflecting on the amazing perspective afforded by gratitude and the way that reflecting on our blessings even in the midst of hardship, fear, and sadness can be deeply healing and refreshing.

But that perspective is often lost on me.

It’s really tempting to look around and idolize other peoples’ lives, to assume that they’re better, perfect, or more satisfying than my own.

But this is but a distraction from a vital, necessary, but often perplexing step to contentment: acceptance.

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It wouldn’t even matter how perfect someone else’s live is or isn’t, because it’s not mine.  

And while this kind of language often sounds like settling or becoming complacent with unhappiness, you’d be surprised how freeing it is to rule out the pressure of living anyone else’s life but yours.  We simply can’t be anyone else or live anyone else’s life but our own and by embracing that fact, suddenly a bit of the dissonance clears and we are free to focus on what we’ve been given, what we are thankful for, and what we might want to change.

Lately I’ve been trying to be passionately committed to embracing my own life as it is.  And when I look around with eyes for only my life, I realize how richly God has blessed me and how thrilled I am to be living this life that is uniquely my own.  I try (though I don’t always succeed) at even embracing the hard stuff, the bad with the good, praising God for it all.  And when I reflect on who God has uniquely called me to be in this life, there’s also some wonder in the clarity.  Things that do not help me fulfill that purpose can fall by the wayside; things that can help me serve God more fully can be added.

Try it this weekend.

Take a few moments to let the lives of others’ around you fade into the background and focus on embracing  your life as it is.  What can you see that perhaps went unnoticed before?  Where is God fiercely, actively, passionately loving you in your life now? How can you better serve God with the life and the resources you have?  How can you maintain that attitude of gratitude everyday?

Everyday listening

Our church has been focusing on ways of connecting with God and one another during Lent.  And instead of giving up something for Lent over the past few years, I’ve also tried to make a concerted effort to pay attention to God’s work in my life and the lives of others.

But it’s not that easy.

This past weekend, instead of a sermon, our student pastor led us in an Ignatian Examen prayer practice where we reflected on the day prior, examining our emotions, our failures, our desires, and God’s calling on our lives.  It was such a simple gift–those fifteen music-filled moments during which I shut my eyes and reflected on all that God is doing.

But I’m often missing it.

Like so many of us, I’m a do-er, a thinker, and in my eagerness to use my time wisely, I forget that listening to God is time that is never wasted.  I’ve been doing  a spiritual discipline during Lent where instead of jumping into tasks when I arrive in the office, I put on music and write for just one minute, reflecting on my fears, worries, and where God is in the midst of my life.

And God is there.

Beneath all of those very present needs and fears, God is always there–working and patiently waiting for me to quiet myself and connect.  In my own Ignatian Examen last weekend, I realized I’m missing valuable moments of connection with others and with God in my life.  In this week, I haven’t made great strides, but I’m thankful to God for making me aware of this connection that exists even when I fight or ignore it.

What’s so powerful about the Ignatian Examen is that while our moments of reflection are but fleeting, God’s call and action on and in our lives is omnipresent.  I realize how, not just during Lent, but everyday, I need to commit to turning off my mind and using my heart to listen to what God is doing.

What about you?  How do you connect with God?  How do you listen and find meaning in the everyday?

Practicing Gratefulness

If somebody had told me even a few years ago that gratefulness is a skill, like dribbling a basketball or tying knots, and you have to hone it if you want it to stick, I’d have been unconvinced.

But while we might assume that gratefulness comes naturally, in a world where ambition is praised, we’re constantly in pursuit of more, and success is golden, gratefulness often falls by the wayside.  I think we often confuse gratefulness with complacency; we think that if we become grateful, filled with praise for what God has done and what God is doing, something of ourselves, our own unique gifts and promise in this world will be lost.

A friend of mine wrote a little post the other day where she warned of the danger of “all or nothing” thinking, the kind of thinking that makes us worthy and good when we are at our best but turns us to nothingness, lousy, and down and out when we inevitably fail others and ourselves.  She talked about the goodness and meaningfulness instead of living in the in between, especially during this muddy season of Lent.

God's beauty.  Rice terraces in Guangxi, China.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
God’s beauty. Rice terraces in Guangxi, China. Photo by Evan Schneider.

A practice of gratefulness affirms that our worth is not based on our own failures or successes but upon God’s gracious and everlasting love for us.  Being grateful in the “nothingness” teaches us that despite the in betweenness of life, God’s love is constant.  Instead of doing, being, and having it all on our own and for us, we rejoice in our own need for God, the beauty of relying on others, and the wisdom of finding joy in the everyday.

So often I am astonished to stop and realize the things I working so hard and aiming for (a job, a house, stability and security) will not actually make me all that happier in the long run.  The danger of this kind of thinking is that by focusing on future happiness and success, the gift of the present passes us by.  Instead, at this moment, praise God, I really have all I need–a God who loves me, faults and all, and people around me who feel the same and who I am blessed to love.  Isn’t that what life is really about?

As you can see, gratefulness, for me at least, requires great practice.  It’s a mental practice that requires turning from the things the world preaches to the things that God teaches.  It’s a practice where God quietly reorients my will to God’s service and God willing, I obey.

Photo by Evan Schneider.
Photo by Evan Schneider.

How do you practice gratefulness?  What is God showing you during Lent?

On worshipping false gods

1 Corinthians 13:1-10

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,but do not have love, I gain nothing.

 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogantor rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.

Sonoran Desert.  Tucson, Arizona.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Sonoran Desert. Tucson, Arizona. Photo by Evan Schneider.

I’ve heard these verses countless times–at weddings, from the pews, we even memorized them in Sunday school.  But I hardly noticed the clanging of my own symbol or the noise of my own gong  until the words were already out of my mouth, until it was too late.

I don’t think I’ve experienced such peer pressure since high school but I didn’t recognize it as such because I was in the company of adults.  The trite laughter at the expense of others, the insider-outsider politics, and the meanness of it all should have made it clear.

But I played along.  

I laughed with those mean-hearted academics, albeit with a sinking feeling in my stomach.  I became a clanging symbol, a noisy gong, a person I, myself, despised.

What I did that evening over a lovely dinner with not so lovely company is that I bowed before the god of knowledge, success, and reason rather than the wisdom of grace.  Feeling myself seduced by the grandeur of expertise and success I felt ugly, false, and fearful.  These are the feelings that make me question how I can ever live out this academic vocation while remaining true to a God of love and grace?

In sharing this crisis  with others around me, I’ve been reminded that while love, wisdom, and grace are certainly counter-cultural to the academic hustle-and-bustle, they’re not wholly absent.  As one of my colleagues pointed out, if we hate these types of dinner conversations, it’s up to this next generation of scholars to believe that there’s room enough for us all to be smart and succeed, and we don’t have to do it by stepping on one another to get there.  Success is also something that seemingly looms large and scarce, but as it turns out success can mean fulfillment, and fulfillment takes many forms.  There are also bullies like these everywhere, not only in academia.

The moon over the Catalinas.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
The moon over the Catalinas. Photo by Evan Schneider.

I just don’t want to be one of them.

At the end of the day, I felt so blessed to come home to my husband and daughter and see that in spite of my antics that evening, their grace and God’s grace embraced me fully.  At that moment my efforts to fit in and be smart were a farce, and forgiveness made me feel low and humble, but fully at home and free.

The scripture above says that even knowledge will come to an end!  And when knowledge fades, it is only faith, hope, and love that remain.  I am inspired by this pursuit of knowledge in my life, but the other night was a good reminder that it should not consume me.  I will not be consumed by worshipping these false gods of knowledge, success, and self-aggrandizement.  Instead I will rejoice in worshipping a God who wants more for me and for all his children, a God whose grace is sufficient, a God whose love is everlasting.  I will struggle to be faithful and I will call myself blessed.

Amen.

Will you let go?

We take God for granted.

We take it for granted that God is always standing there with arms wide open, poised and eager to receive our burdens.

Eager to receive our burdens.

Who in your life is truly eager to share your burdens?  Eager to gather all your hurt, your pain, your fears, your worries, shoulder them, carry them away, and all you need to do is let go?

But we don’t.

We cling.

We cling stubbornly to our ways.  We try to make it on our own.  The world feeds these desires, telling us that independence is the height of satisfaction and success.  That dependency, vulnerability, and weakness can be conquered if we just ignore them and push on.

But this type of pushing will drive you insane.

This type of pushing will deny you your true self, will keep you from honest relationships with others, and will keep you from a God who merely wants to share your burdens.

So try it this morning.

Try letting go.

Lamps in Istanbul.

Let God see your fears, your pain, and your hurt.  Let God walk alongside you, accompany you in the darkness.  And finally, let God take all those things to which you’ve been clinging and bear them, as Jesus did the cross, so that you can be free.

You may weep.  

You may weep because this type of grace does not come easy.  Not because God is not willing but because our flesh is weak.  You may weep because this grace is deeper, wider, bigger than the satisfaction we may feel at our own successes.  You may weep because to be in the presence of God is holy, astounding, and awe-inspiring.

You may weep because tomorrow God will be standing there once again with arms wide open, eager to receive our burdens.

Will you let go?

 

Virtual coffee date

I have been thinking lately about how helpful it is to reframe major challenges in life as adventure.  

You know how sometimes you’ll be going through something and someone will try to comfort you by saying, well, it will make a great story later, won’t it?  What if we could embrace the great story now?

It sounds crazy, but I think my life is just as much, if not more of an adventure, here in the everyday with a baby, classes, and trying to be faithful to God as it was living in China and traveling the world.  I’m trying to be grateful for the adventure as I’m living it rather than tomorrow or in a couple years.  I’d love to hear how you do that in your lives!

Amazing islands of Hong Kong.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Amazing islands of Hong Kong. Photo by Evan Schneider.

I’ve also been reading Sacred Pauses and just hit the chapter on silence, which you know is my jam.  My mind was kind of blown by the idea that none of us have actually ever experienced silence, the true absence of sound, and that silence in general actually makes us more attuned to the presence of small, overlooked, everyday sounds.  The author used this to encourage us that God is always working, especially in the silence, a truth that has been powerful and poignant for me over the years, too.

An illustration from Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day.

It’s finally a little warmer, though there’s still heaps of snow on the ground.  Yesterday our little family took a lovely, cozy walk through the snow.  I just love how it crunches under your feet.  About a year ago, a friend gave us the children’s book, The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, because our daughter, who will turn one next weekend, was born in between two snow storms.  It is my favorite children’s book that we own, and I’ve been reading it to her a lot lately and reminiscing about her coming into the world amidst slow flakes coming down in the wee hours of the morning.

Yes, I’m adult, yes, I was raised in Wisconsin, but there’s still something so magical to me when it snows.  I remember my husband trying to describe snow to his students in South China who had never seen such a thing.  They were incredulous and full of wonder.  I wonder if they will ever see it snow in their lifetime.

Sure, it gets cold out here.  But life is quite the adventure anyway.

Happy weekending.

Love these two...my photo.
Love these two…my photo.

 

 

 

 

 

Virtual coffee date

“I think I just love ideas,” I said to my husband dreamily the other evening after a particularly rousing conversation with a colleague.

It didn’t seem like much a revelation, but I may have mentioned that defending my Ph.D. last year has seemed to open up all this conceptual space with which to dream about vocation both in and outside of academia.  It’s been at once exhilarating and daunting.  There’s so much freedom that I’m almost paralyzed by it.

Halong Bay, Photos by Evan Schneider.
Halong Bay, Photo by Evan Schneider.

But to acknowledge and relish that I really get a kick out of talking about theories, ideas, and people is a small start.  And then the other day as I chatted with a colleague on the seminary campus who turned to go into her office, I turned to head back to the university campus, to my syllabi, articles, and ideas.  And I was so thrilled and so grateful to have that desk, that community, and those ideas.  I realized as scary as it is to admit, I’m not ready to give up on the academic job search yet.  I want to see it through a bit longer.  I want to continue to pursue these possibilities, because I have so much passion for the work I did with foster families and children with disabilities in China, for China itself, for students, and for anthropological knowledge and those ways of thinking.

Things seem positively turned upside down in my life right now and I have no idea what God is doing.  But I’m trying to learn (again) to be content with that– to embrace the thought that this not knowing about the future is not really so bad and that life is an adventure that is so much better when we let God lead.

The other morning I saw the sun for the first time in a long, long time, and some words from good ol’ Anne of Green Gables came to me as I happily thought, “Today is fresh, with no mistakes in it yet.”

Trying to live in that freshness, faithfulness, and fullness that God so generously provides.

Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi. Photo by Evan Schneider.

Have a good weekend.  What are you up to?

On righteousness, misunderstanding, and weakness

In our church, we do epiphany stars every January.  We select stars with words on them out of a basket and reflect on them over the year, seeking to be open to what God might be teaching us.  Usually there’s some sort of reversal: the meaning of the word originally seems straight forward, obvious, or even kind of narrow, but as the year goes by the star often becomes imbued with a deeper meaning or revelation.

My word for 2014 was righteousness and to be honest, it kind of repulsed me.  When we think of a practical, secular application for righteousness, we’re left with something like self-righteousness, and the theological definition, while presumably positive, brings to mind zealots, judgment, and unattainable holy perfection.

Jersey shore, May 2014.  Photos by Evan Schneider.
Jersey shore, May 2014. Photos by Evan Schneider.

It occurred to me recently that we all spend a lot of time reacting, rather senselessly to one another rather than living with intentions such as kindness, gentleness, and patience.  So much pain and hatred that is spewed is not about us, but very much about the private suffering of others.  The question then becomes, do we choose to spend our time arguing over the validity of that suffering or rather enter into it?

I think Jesus was different because he entered into the suffering of some of society’s seemingly most “deserved”–tax collectors, thieves, and prostitutes, to name a few.  He did not judge their worth by the pain they may have inflicted upon others or the validity of their suffering, but rather, their need for him.  This is a theme I was meditating on a bit a month ago–that it is in our neediness, in our weakness, that we are made holy.

I’m wondering if it is we who misunderstand righteousness to be an elevated, holy ground, whereas it is God who humbles us by making us righteous precisely in our weakness.  I am trying to adopt an intention of kindness, gentleness, and patience in the new year, remaining aware of the illogic of deservedness and the wisdom of grace, the reality of suffering, and the opportunity to be made low and righteous and whole.

Clouds

Amen.