Monthly Archives: August 2011

Faith and Fieldwork

Yesterday’s USA Today article, “Why Certainty About God is Overrated” has still got me pondering not only connections between science and faith, but also between anthropology and ministry.  As a PhD student and a preacher, I can’t help but go there!

Particularly the part about philosopher Polanyi (whom we read in our Anthropology proseminar!), who speaks of “motivated belief” and questions objective facts, and the lines about the similarities in bias between people of faith and people with faith in science are striking: “People of science are motivated to believe certain things as they proceed with their experiments, and people of faith are motivated to believe certain things as they proceed with their beliefs. Living with doubt leaves one open to additional discovery, both in science and faith.”

And this all led me to thinking how unique anthropology really is (among the social sciences) with its emergent model of research, with the researcher being the chief instrument, and the process of participant observation being one that the researcher has to submit to, rather than try to wrestle toward a certain hypothesis, because the researcher believes there is a particular knowledge to be gained when the research is led by the informants rather than the anthropologist.

Now this isn’t to say that anthropologists don’t form hypotheses, that they don’t participate in, and therefore influence their research, and of course, anthropologists have their own biases, their own “faith convictions,” if you will.

But I think when anthropology is at its best, it is this faithful experience of being in the field, and submitting to the process, trusting that there is something wholly unique, wholly transformative to be gained in intimacy with other human beings, and that research designs often transcend the limits of our understanding, so there is true knowledge to be gained in the experience of letting go, of being open to one’s informants, and acknowledging that one path to understanding involves abandoning what one previously knew to be facts or fiction.

And this to me, couldn’t be any more of an allegory for the journey of faith, for the importance of submitting our plans, our knowledge, ourselves to God in order that we might be shaped not by the ways of this world, but by something transcendent. Now this is a familiar theme for meI’ve said before that I’m convinced that there’s something spiritual about cross-cultural encounters, and that’s no accident, because I believe we worship a God who loves and made diversity and made it good!  

But it is a powerful thing to find oneself transfixed, suddenly head-over-heels in love again with a calling and a vocation to two disciplines that so desperately need one another, challenge one another, and complement one another.  And to feel these things when just a week ago, I was seriously doubting myself, my work in China, and my research is such a blessing.

The peptalk or prayer I wrote myself at that time, looks surprisingly like the musings today, which I take to say that doubt, in all its agony, truly has something to teach both scientists and spiritual beings.  I share those scribblings that came from the depths of doubt with you today, to give you hope in the process, in the emergent, in God, and all that God is beyond our knowing or understanding, and I thank God for that!

It won’t be easy, I think, to settle back into life in China, and really roar into the research, which brings out all my insecurities, control-freak, language inadequacies, etc.  It’s a scenario in which I literally have no idea what to expect (yet I’ve been here a year!), and so my mind threatens to run wild with imagination.  And I’m so mystified, when I conceptualize it, about the dilemmas of fieldwork–the ‘me’ time versus the immersion in the field (I’ve a marriage to keep up after all!), the dual identity of anthropologist and minister and the ethics there, etc., etc.

And then I’m reminded that, it just can’t be intellectualized, and therefore, it can’t be figured out in any other way than by doing it, and fumbling and flexing, flailing, and even faithfully following the steps that we trust lead somewhere beautiful, epiphany-filled, honest, and exceedingly difficult.  I’m not about to give up before I’ve started, dammit, but sometimes the strangeness of it all is enough to induce paralyzing fear.

Yet, for me, these are when the crossovers between faith and fieldwork, anthropology and spirituality, are less a hindrance than a help, a patient teacher in times of tribulation.  It’s this voice that says, you of all people, you person of faith, who is wont to be dependent on God, know all too well that you can’t, you shan’t, you won’t will antyhing on your own, and that the romantic, saint-like posture of ‘waiting on God’ is in actuality much the posture of being reduced to tears and frustrations over our own inabilities, and finally looking up in time to notice God has been present all along.

So here’s where I stand this fall, at the precipice of this towering project, aware of God and yet in spite of myself, filled with human emotion and anxiety, faithful and yet flighty, eager and yet fearful, ready and yet never ready for what God, and yes, anthropology, have in store.  Amen.


Unconventional Wisdom

So my normal routine goes something like this: roll out of bed, morning run around Nanhu Lake, quick shower, lots of coffee and breakfast (this morning more of that toasted wheat bread with honey from the valleys of Yunnan, and yogurt with raisins and sunflower seeds-yum!), prayer, check email and news, and dive into the day’s work.

Foot bridge over Nanhu Lake in Nanning.

This morning’s news included fascinating stories from East (education gap between rural and urban students at the college level here and China) and West (apparently there is no scientific basis for that whole visual learner/auditory learner divide, but variety and repetition are viable learning strategies). And then, a wonderful thing happened- that prayer and news portion of my morning sort of blended together.

A really powerful article from USA Today entitled “Why Certainty About God is Overrated” chronicles the experiences of world-class physicist, John Polkinghorne, who thinks God is as good a bet as any, and that includes what we normally consider scientific facts, quarks, and the like.  What I like about this article is that it not only expresses what we people of faith know about faith–that it is like iron, steely, yet bendable, and brittle–but that we humans are at our weakest, in terms of learning new things, learning more about one another, and growing in faith and wisdom, when we don’t allow room for doubt.

It’s important and moving to hear one of the smartest men in the world admit the he doesn’t know everything, in fact that he may not be certain of anything, but that is precisely where faith and knowledge both begin, right? I appreciate that the article concludes, “It may be OK, finally, for people to admit that they don’t know things for sure — whether it’s about quarks, light, God or the best way forward for the nation’s economy.”

Stateside Living

We’re in China for at least the next year as I do my fieldwork for my dissertation, but thereafter is a big question mark.  While my husband and I really like Hong Kong, and think this might be another good location for me while I’m writing up given its vicinity to the mainland and its excellent libraries, we’re also open to returning to the United States for awhile.

So that, a conversation with friends last night where they were nudging us to include Washington, D.C. in our search (Zack and Kristina, see #5!), and an article in the Times that touts the merits of Portland, Oregon, has got me thinking about some of the places in the U.S. I’d like to spend a bit more time.

So here are a few thoughts, and of course, let me know yours!

1.  Portland, Oregon:  It’s not just the Times article, I swear (although that was pretty alluring), it’s the whole culture of the place, the climate, and the location all rolled together.  My husband and I both recently took this rather extensive quiz about ideal living locations in the U.S., and the only matching one in our top five was Portland, so we’ll have to check it out.

2. Boise, Idaho: Keeping with that granola, Northwest theme, I’ve been impressed by Boise (and most people are shocked by that statement) since I visited in 2005 to consider a youth pastor job that I didn’t end up taking. While it’s not as close to the coast as I would like, the town itself has a terrific little downtown, where you can walk and bike pretty much everywhere, walk to the Boise State stadium, and hike up into the foothills.

3. Louisville, Kentucky: Perhaps another shocker, here. My husband and I spent a summer in Louisville, working with Youthworks and the PCUSA, who has its national headquarters there. We were really enchanted by the small town feel, beautiful Louisville Seminary campus, the riverfront area, arts community, the excellent Cuban food (who knew?!), and the eccentric, cool people we met.

4. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Now, my husband hasn’t weighed in on this one at all, but I am always nostalgic for North Carolina’s rolling hills and beautiful coasts (none of which are exactly in Chapel Hill, I’m aware), and my Davidson days. I don’t mean to be a traitor, but Davidson is just a bit too small for me. Meanwhile, Chapel Hill, although much larger, has a small town feel, and a really engaged local food and culinary arts community, that my husband and I both love (we are good eaters!). Finally, pork barbecue, um, yes please!

5. Washington, D.C.: I loved the year I spent in D.C. working with Bread for the World and the ONE Campaign, and have always wanted to get back to what I believe to be one of the most approachable, beautiful, diverse, and interesting cities around. I loved living on the hill, running on the mall and past the capitol, walking to work, trolling Eastern Market, taking advantage of great food, free museums, and local bars, and getting to know all of the passionate people who live here. Previously I’d been a snob about living within the District, but I’ve really enjoyed my time in Alexandria and some of the surrounding areas in Maryland (even Baltimore), so I might even be happy to call myself a commuter at some point.

What’s on your list??


Jingpo Christians sing a hymn in a church in Yunnan.

My husband, who grew up Southern Baptist, often chides me for not recognizing the hymns he heard over and over as a boy.  It’s been neat for him as we’ve traveled into minority churches in Yunnan with Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship, to hear these hymns sung in fresh harmonies in the Lahu, Lisu, and Jingpo languages.

It’s not that I didn’t grow up in the church, it’s just that my church took a liking to contemporary music when I was in high school, and a lot of the old hymns just don’t have the familiarity and the meaning to me that they have to those in the Bible Belt or those from my parents’ and grandparents’ generation.  At seminary, I’d habitually skip the “hymn sings” at chapel, preferring a good scripture reading and a sermon (what a Presbyterian dork) to a service entirely built around requests from the congregation for the good ol’ songs they loved to sing.

But recently while in Nanjing for this summer’s Outreach Foundation English Exchange Camp, we taught our Chinese brothers and sisters two simple hymns, with which we Americans were all familiar.  One of them was How Deep the Father’s Love for Us, and we sang it practically everyday, slowly, and with intention, in order that our Chinese brothers and sisters, who are learning English, would have an opportunity to not only learn the words but also soak in their meaning.  In my husband’s small group, the Americans and the Chinese poured over the hymn, line by line, dissecting the old English and the theological meaning laden in the three verses.

As a fan of meditation in my prayer life, I shouldn’t have been surprised to find (but I was) that the hymn seemed to move me more each time it was sung.  There’s something so humble and real about the words “it was my sin that held him there,” and something equally powerful about the image of “the Father turns His face away” from the suffering Jesus on the cross.

In a world where anxiety over sin and urgency to preach the truth often leaves a trail of destruction, there’s something so earnest and personal about this hymn that cuts through the mess our best-intentioned theologies often make.  And despite its personal quality, singing it alongside my Chinese brothers and sisters is where it made the most sense.  Perhaps that’s what’s so powerful about hymns, is that while written by one person, they’re meant to be sung in community.

We can’t bear our souls to one another, without another to behold them.  And while we can worship God in solitude, worshipping God with others, and lifting our collective, imperfect voices in the presence of the Spirit–well, that’s where I want to be.

Maybe I’ll be at that next hymn-sing after all.

How deep the Father’s love for us
How vast beyond all measure
That He would give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure

How great the pain of searing loss
The Father turns His face away
As wounds which mar the chosen One
Bring many sons to glory

Behold the Man upon a cross
My guilt upon His shoulders
Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice
Call out among the scoffers

It was my sin that held Him there
Until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finished

I will not boast in anything
No gifts, no powr’s, no wisdom
But I will boast in Jesus Christ
His death and resurrection

Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom

A taste of Vietnam

Ben, Emily, and I sipping on Vietnamese coffee in the loft of Cong Caphe, Hanoi.

There are some travel locales that just linger in your mind, and for me, Hanoi, despite its rough-around-the-edges-24-hour-hawker-identity is one of those places.  

And the taste that lingers with me is that of the Cong Caphe I brought back in humble brown bag sacks.

I mentioned in an earlier post that the first taste of Vietnamese coffee was a revelation, the bitter strength of the brew cut by the sticky, sweet and condensed milk.

There are many places that claim to do Vietnamese coffee in China, but hardly do it justice (in fact this was something that made me outright suspicious of every coffee shop we saw with umbrellas emblazoned with the Trung Ngyuen label, the same one that has let me down so famously here in Nanning).

And so, the next best thing to a return trip to Vietnam (which we hope to do next year for our anniversary), is a cup of home-brewed Cong Caphe, with sweet milk out of Chinese cardboard cartons and some sugar.

This morning’s breakfast: wheat bread with butter and honey my husband brought from a beehive in Yunnan, a fried egg, and you guessed it, a cup of Cong Caphe.

A lovely way to start the morning, if not a mite short of a revelation.

Photo Taken by Evan Schneider, Courtesy of Ben Robinson.

Modern Curses and Blessings

When my mother-in-law came to China to visit recently, she brought with her from the U.S. one of my self-proclaimed guilty pleasures–my favorite magazine, whole living.  Inspired by their 10-day action reboot camp, I set some goals for myself (run 30 minutes with ease, increase upper body strength, establish a regular exercise pattern!), and began completing their daily workouts. I had remarked to my husband that one thing I like about whole living is rather than the normal “look good by bikini season” slogan, the magazine seems to remain more focused on increasing one’s awareness of one’s eating and exercising patterns, and regularly emphasizes spiritual health as well.

I set myself up to succeed, picking a hotel in Hong Kong with a gym, waking up early, drinking plenty of water…and although it took me more than ten days, I did it! Now I am more in less in an exercise pattern, definitely have increased my upper body strength, and can run forty-five minutes with ease.

But the awareness that this reboot brought me was not limited to my own bodily in/abilities, or what I ate for lunch or dinner, but a profound experience of being blessed to move and exercise with this body that God gave me. I’m a healthy young woman, and most days my body hardly aches and will do what I ask it to, and I thank God for that.

Often when I run the streets of China, people stare at me, and while part of it is the color of my skin, and part of it is that running is more a pastime of my grandpa’s demographic, I think much of it is that people here who work so hard everyday that they don’t have the time, the luxury, or the endurance for taking a brisk jog in the morning. It’s a curse of modernity and affluence that we in the West bemoan our lack of time to “workout,” or our inability to carve a firm line between our work and home lives. It’s not that people here in China don’t have the need to move their bodies or to find some “me” time, but in order to provide for others, many simply can’t find the time to acknowledge, let alone, fulfill those needs. Others toil in the fields for a living: exercise is not a practice of self-enrichment, freedom, or joy so much as a back-breaking necessity that leaves many a body weary and broken at a tender age.

While I recently read an excellent post about the danger of being passive and conflating privileges with blessings, I’m counting this health and the freedom to run and do yoga for just for fun this evening both a blessing and a privilege. I’m thankful for this connection with not only my body, but also the ability to use it for challenge, fun, and doing things that bring me joy. And in the same breath, I’m aware that not everyone has this experience.

Lord, grant that others might feel this joy and this connection, and grant me the courage to work for change in this world.


So maybe it’s just because the weather since I’ve returned to Nanning has been unseasonably not humid and pleasant, with lovely cool breezes, and slightly overcast skies, that I’m becoming newly enamored with my home city.  Moon cakes are being sold on every corner in preparation for the fall festival, and despite the people staring at me in the street, it’s pleasing to live in a place where there are free outdoor elliptical-type machines right outside our building, and where I can be entertained by grandmas and grandpas dancing in rhythm, walking backwards (not aware of the health benefits here, but apparently everyone else is!), or doing tai chi while on my morning run.

When my husband and I swung by the market yesterday (and seriously you would think he is a celebrity the way the vendors look at him so endearingly and exclaim, “Oh, it’s been so long since you’ve come by?  Where have you been?  How are you?!  Surely you need some potatoes!”), another blessing of living in South China wafted over us, and that is, the selection of fruit.  Now, I’ve never been a fruit-person, especially compared with someone like my little sister, who would skimp on dinner, and then heap spoonfulls of fruit salad into her bowl until her stomach hurt.

Fruit market during naptime in Nanning.

But South China is enough to convert me.  With the changing of the seasons come new, wonderful piles of bounty– yesterday’s discoveries: pomegranates and round, voluminous Asian pears, both 3 for a $1!  My husband and I strolled the stalls as if it were our first time in the fruit market, marveling over the selection, the mangos that make the most divine smoothie on the planet, the mangosteens, which turn your fingers a bright purple, the lychees (which I can now NEVER ever eat out of a can, because it’s just wrong!), and the exotic dragon fruit.  I have had a fruit reeducation since I’ve been here, being introduced to species I didn’t even know existed.  Looking forward to the fall season, I said to my husband, “Oh, I can’t wait for strawberries!”  “And I can’t wait for those tangerine-thingies!” he replied giddily.  The strawberries here are sweeter than regular ones, and they make my breakfast yogurt positively sing.  And those tangerine-thingies, well, of course there’s no English name to describe their sweetness, and the way we ate them by the bushel last fall.

My husband peeling a mangosteen.

So after being in Hong Kong for the past few weeks, and eating many of the comforts of home, let’s just say, I’m glad to be back to my very own fruitopia here in South China.

Photos courtesy of Ben Robinson

Life in balance

I’m pretty sure it was on that trip that my husband and I took to the Philippines in February that I had a me-revelation:  My idea of the perfect vacation isn’t really laying out on the beach without any cares in the world, reading magazines, and overeating.  Oh, I thought it was for quite sometime, and then I thought there was something wrong with me, some underlying anxiety that I needed to deal with, for not wanting the ultimate relaxation vacation.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed that trip to the Philippines, and I really enjoyed the time on the beach, the eating, and the magazines.  But what I discovered about a vacation is that rather than shirk my spiritual, health, and emotional disciplines, I’d rather use the time to get into the rhythm of a balanced life.  I don’t desire to take a vacation from God, or a vacation from my relationships with friends and family, or from treating my body with respect.  In fact, during a vacation, I desire to have the time to do these things more thoroughly, without the rush and roar of daily life that makes them difficult.

I haven’t been on a vacation here in Hong Kong, as I’m doing library research at University of Hong Kong and Chinese University of Hong Kong, but in planning the trip, I looked for a place to stay with a gym, a desk to do my writing and correspondence, and a quiet environment to find connection with God and myself.  And it’s been great.  I’ve rejuvenated to the point where I can’t wait to get back to my busy life, but I’m also rooted in a routine, a balanced lifestyle that I’ll try to keep (imperfectly, I’m sure) when I return to the mainland.

What does vacation mean to you, and what disciplines keep your life in balance?

My Top 10 Places

So every year the NYTimes puts out a list (41 this year, to be exact) of exciting spots to travel to around the world.  After having a conversation with a friend this morning (over skype mind you, because we are on two different continents!) about our collective wanderlust (yes, I know I live in China, but I’ve been oohing and ahhing over her photos of her recent trip to Europe, while she thought my jaunt to Southeast Asia looked quite enticing), I decided to embrace my own world travel dreams and make my own list.  Check marks this year go to Hong Kong (of course, I’d been there before but it’s great every time!), the Philippines, Vietnam, and Laos.  These locations, in no particular order, soon(er) (or later, who really knows?) to follow!

  1. Bali, Indonesia:  Some friends of mine recently made the trip (Beth and Vic, you need to get your photos up if I’m going to link to your blog!) and declared it as glorious as everyone (including Eat Pray Love) makes it out to be.  Getting here, unfortunately, looked rather expensive the last time my husband and I googled flights from China, but we will try again!
  2. Italy:  My husband and I honeymooned in Southern Spain, and would love to go back (see number 8), but lately I’ve been thinking Italian- food, wine, and countryside that is.  The friend who’s as much responsible for this list as I am recently made it to Positano, and found it her favorite city, of the 9 European cities she and her boyfriend visited in 28 days.  May just have to check it out myself.
  3. Cuba:  Okay, this may be a bit far-fetched at the moment (have to find a legal way in and all), but the Anthony Bourdain episode was too good to pass up.  The architecture, colors, and flavors in Cuba remind me of my beloved Puerto Rico, that, and their Spanish may be the next hardest to understand!  Do I smell a challenge?  I’m in!
  4. Singapore:  This one will have to wait until my husband and I are not on such a strict budget, as I hear Singapore is a comparable pricey, cosmopolitan, Asian city to Hong Kong.  And yet, the meshing of Asian culture there lures, as well as its beautiful views.
  5. Thailand & Cambodia:  Now these are more our speed, and our budget, for the moment.  Friends of ours went onto Thailand and Cambodia after Vietnam and Laos, and you can check out some of their photos on Ben’s photo blog.  Their recommendation: spend your time in Siem Reap- unspoiled, scenic, and haunting.
  6. Romania:  Speaking of recommendations from friends, these same world travelers recommend Eastern Europe (but it wouldn’t really be fair or practical to list an entire region, would it?), particularly Romania.  As a gymnastics lover, I’ve been curious about the Cold War, comback-kid, castles-laden land for decades.
  7. Argentina:  I hear the architecture of Argentina (Buenos Aires) is partly European, and wonderfully South American, the men are gorgeous (just looking!), the accent lovely, and the climate, fantastically diverse.  My brother-in-law touts it as a great location for back-country skiing, but I’ll probably stick to sampling the fabulous wine (tried this Catena Malbec recently and loved it), thank you very much.
  8. Spain:  We can’t wait to go back!  My husband and I enjoyed our honeymoon in Andalucia (Malaga, Granada, Cordoba, and Sevilla), the only regrets being not enough time, and we didn’t make it north to cities like Madrid and Barcelona.  Oh, to have a month in Spain, now that we know what to eat (tapas tapas tapas) and what not to (um, too much mayonnaise), as well as where we’d want to spend our time (Granada!).
  9. Turkey & Greece:  I recently asked a well-traveled older friend of mine, where some of his favorite trips had been to, and he picked Turkey for its religious pluralism, and fascinating mix of historic and modern.  We had a similar appreciation for the history of Spain, and I’ve tacked on Greece here, because the islands, the blue of the sea, and the white of the cities, just looks too beautiful to miss!
  10. Australia:  Within range of China, Australia looks like it has so much to offer in terms of climate, nature, and people (we love our Aussie friends here in China!).
Well…what’s on your list??

Experiences of the Sacred

I’ve been in conversation with a number of friends lately about the spiritual life and our in/ability to discern who is God and how God is active in our lives.  An older acquaintance recently mentioned his inability to discern God’s movement earlier in his life, but the present conviction that looking back God was guiding him all along.  This is a very familiar experience for me of God–the overwhelming feeling of blessing and smallness, when I can step back and see God’s plans despite feeling as though I might have been alone at times along the way.

Another conversation led me to feeling that experiences of God often have to do with feeling a sense of deep connection with human beings, or an experience of deep disconnect.  The first seems obvious, while the second is less so.  For instance, the experience of being in the Philippines last February is still unnerving for me, because I was confronted with my own privilege, as I tried to relax and vacation in comfort, while others around me lived in supreme poverty.  The persistent nagging of those images, that experience, though, I also think is God.

God doesn’t introduce disconnection with other human beings into our lives for sinister or evil purposes, but yet that evil exists in God’s world, and to experience it is to know the challenge that God has put forth for us to work for greater justice, peace, and connection among human beings and with God.

It is refreshing for me to marvel that our God does not merely provide reassurance but disturbance.  God disturbs our worlds when they become too much our own, havens we have put up to shield ourselves from the goodness of fellowship with others who are different from us, and yet wholly created in the image of God.  God disturbs our worlds when they prevent us from growing in humility, faithfulness, and goodness.  God disturbs our worlds to be closer to us, and because God truly knows our needs.

How have you experienced God in the past or in the present?  How does God disturb your world, how does God know you as no one else does, and how have you experienced the grace of God through connection with others?