Monthly Archives: September 2012

The good, the bad, and the ugly

On the Princeton campus, glimpses of green.

I didn’t write about it, but last week my world, and it’s positively because I’m still betwixt somewhere between China and this country, came crashing down.

And I wept, and worried, and wondered what solace I could find in this place and these people who seem so far removed from anything of the experience I had in China, from the people who sometimes only seem to live on in my heart, but who I know from the wonders of technology continue to suffer, create, and go on in a way I never could in a life so much more valiant than my own.

And I struggled with what it means to love and minister without presence, what it means to leave people behind, how much these feelings are about me and my need to assess and feel my own impact in this world, and where God’s call is in this moment.

I shouldn’t write struggled, past tense, because I’m still struggling.

Fall leaves on the Princeton Seminary campus.

But I’ve been encouraged by your comments, your grace with me during this time, your encouragement that reverse culture shock is a messy, nonlinear process, and that narratives of struggle, like my own, can be meaningful to others, despite our disparate paths.

I guess that’s where I’m led this morning–to see that Jesus’ healing is the opposite of judgement, that we don’t grow by covering up our faults and our failings, but rather by bearing our scars to one another and finding that miraculously, by grace, in our imperfections, we find ourselves whole.

The choke holds I assert on myself when I find my own needs bubbling up in the midst of my fears and my prayers for my friends in China just don’t get me any closer to that wholeness.  And the older I get, I find the people I most admire in this life are not the ones who have these linear narratives of autonomy, success, and brilliance, but those who resolve to live in the space where mistakes are always imminent, where brokenness is the real human condition, and triumph is wholly and unabashedly attributed to God’s goodness rather than individual expertise.

So I’m feeling pretty good about being broken this morning, like both my dear friends in China and my understanding friends in this country.  The more I see how deeply we all need God’s restorative grace, the less alone I feel, and the more I can’t help but think we’re all inexplicably bound together in this wonderful, holy pursuit of our God in this life.

New York skyline at dusk.

And that, my friends, feels pretty much like the opposite of crashing.

So, thank you for catching me, once again.

Advertisements

Greeting the day

Photos from the end of summer on the D&R Canal, Princeton, NJ. By Evan Schneider.

It’s inevitably the case that I can rise and get myself going much better on the first few days of the week, and greet the day, just as the sun is rising and the crispness of the morning provides all the confirmation anyone needed that fall is here.

Photos from the end of summer on the D&R Canal.

As I run along the canal, I chase the fog, always visible out in the distance, yet elusive once I near it.  Still, it lingers over the waters, enchanting, haunting, tempting.

So I keep on, hoping to glimpse the heron take to flight like I did last week, its majestic wings flapping with exquisite rhythm.  Or stumble on the sun’s rays peeking through the towering, thin trees onto the dewy ground across the waters.

And I feel gracious for those moments, when I am alone with my thoughts, but hardly alone with all the birds, the animals of the forest, the life sprouting and fading in my midst.  I feel wild, too– free, and strong, if only for a moment.

And it is good.

My Spiritual Discipline: Centering Prayer

My friend, Mihee, writes a wonderful blog called First Day Walking, and she’s been so gracious to feature an essay I wrote on Centering Prayer for her Merely Beloved series on Spiritual Disciplines.  You can click over and read my essay here, or scroll down, and if you’re just joining us from Mihee’s blog, welcome, welcome, welcome!  

If you’re wanting to learn more about my practice of centering prayer, there’s a whole slew of posts here.  Also feel free to hunt around the blog and get to know me: my Two Years in China post has some highlights of what I’ve been up to these past few years and lately I’ve been blogging about reentry to life here in the United States and the people I love and miss in China.  Please leave your mark in the form of comments: I’d love to get to know you!

I remember vividly that my love affair with centering prayer began in my senior year of college.

I was pursuing a call to ministry, poised to move first to Puerto Rico and then onto Washington, DC to serve the poor, and becoming exhausted with finding myself betwixt and between empty praise and worship and stodgy skepticism.  I longed for a place where the presence of God, not our wanton human wisdom, was paramount.

The end of summer on the D&R Canal, Princeton, NJ.  All photos by Evan Schneider.

Somehow I found my way to the little Catholic circle on my Presbyterian campus, a motley crew led by a renegade lady who didn’t seem to think it weird that everybody called her Pastor and who was convinced that service and contemplation went together.  In the little workshop in which she roped me in, she taught us the ins and outs of lectio, the intentional listening for God while reading scripture (in contrast to the very real Bible school temptation to try to unravel the whole meaning of the verses in just a few minutes).

Mandarin Bible with Dai language translation notes.

We were reading Ephesians 3:14-18, incidentally one of my favorite passages since youth, closing our eyes and earnestly seeking God, and then going around and sharing the words or the phrases that stuck out to us.  When the Pastor got to me, I shared my word, “grasp,” only she revealed to me that that word wasn’t actually in the text for today.

“Don’t worry,” she said, “that happens frequently,” with a smirk and a chuckle, and I was awestruck by how nonchalant this Catholic woman could be about minor miracles in our midst.

It turns out that repeatedly hearing the NIV version of that scripture growing up probably put that word in my head, but maybe God wanted me to hear it, too.  When I began to come to the Catholic circle with regularity, where they not only closed their eyes and listened to scripture with their hearts, but sat for thirty minute silent prayer sessions, I also began to use grasp as my prayer word, to which I could return my heart, as I did with my eyes to the candle burning in the center of the room, if my mind wandered.

Pastor Barb, despite her high energy and her electric personality, had this ease about her, this sense that prayer was about so much more than words, and that communion with God was meaningful even when it didn’t feel like anything, even when nothing happens.

As far as my own life is concerned, the mystery of centering prayer seems to be just as much about what happens outside of the prayer as in it.  During nearly six years of practicing centering prayer in the barrios of Puerto Rico, in our nation’s capital, and on the campus of Princeton Theological Seminary, that word grasp took me on a journey from grasping for God, to realizing that God has been ever and always grasping for me.

Shortly after moving to China, I felt compelled to choose a new prayer word, and whereas grasp at least implied God’s action, if not my own, the word to which I was led, abide, seemed to denote the essence of passivity.

Cars whiz by in Nanning, the capital city of Guangxi, China.

But as I’ve lived and breathed and been silent with it a bit more (and trust me, silence was something I craved in a city of nearly 7 million!), and as life in China unfolded to show me that not only is control merely an illusion, but that God is also greater and more faithful than I ever imagined, I realized that abiding is quintessentially the opposite of distraction, and centering prayer not only the art of intention, but the willingness to let God lead the way.

As J. David Muyskens writes in an eloquent little book on the topic,

“Maybe I am getting in best when nothing happens. Maybe I am on to something when there is no reward for me. Maybe the closest I can be to awareness of holy is just to be with the mysterious attraction that the Creator put in me. And, maybe when I don’t even sense that, still the transforming work of Christ goes on, unknown to me. Maybe that’s just the point: no effort on my part, only divine action.”

Sacred Breath: Forty Days of Centering Prayer, p. 87

Incense labyrinth in a temple in Kunming, China.

Maybe the reason lectio and centering prayer have been so profound throughout the ages (some say they date back to the Desert Fathers, at least to the Benedictine monastics, and amazing people of faith like Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and modern-day monks in American Catholicism like Thomas Keating) is because they’re not just a different way of praying, but the opposite of what we as human beings would normally do.  We’ve been trained, in the West, if not hard-wired, to dive into scripture and faith and religion with our minds.  As an M. Div grad and a Ph.D student, I especially struggle with the mind’s endless critiquing, probing, meandering, and if you will, having a mind of its own!

But what’s active in centering prayer is explicitly not the mind–the mind’s to be quieted to allow for the Spirit to grow, reside, and even meander.  My discipline has changed as I’ve grown.  Whereas earlier on, I was very conscious of clearing the mind and letting go of all thoughts, I’ve become less legalistic and more open to some of the lingering, nagging voices that exhibit themselves in that silence, more open to the myriad manifestations of God’s presence.

Young minority Christians at a Bible training school in the mountains of Yunnan province.

I’ve closed my eyes in just about every fabulous place I’ve ever had the privilege of traveling to.  But I’ve never regretted those moments of silence, nor have I ever been really alone.  You see, doing centering prayer in community way back in my college days always made sense to me.  It’s not an easy thing to commit to those fifteen or thirty minutes on your own, but with safety in numbers, it’s somehow easier to open up to God fully and freely.

At Princeton Seminary, we’d sit in my crowded dorm room and attempt to block out the stress and the theology and the gods we often worshipped to welcome God in a very intentional way.  And in China, my dear friend joined me over skype, across an ocean, and a twelve-hour time difference, and yet the practice couldn’t have been more fruitful.  She says that after all these years, because we both still have a hard time with silence, it sometimes helps her to look up and see my peaceful face, the ups and downs of the breaths in and out of my chest, and my eyes closed, and and I feel the same way.

Believe it or not, silent prayer isn’t meant to be a solitary, distant practice.  As Pastor Barb made clear back in the day with her penchant for social action, it’s meant to take us from detachment, to intention, to communion with God, and into community.  I know it sounds impossible, bogus, even, that a practice of silence and contemplation would awaken Christians to community, to love and to justice.  And I know it’s not for everyone, my own husband doesn’t take refuge in silence the way I do, and I think that just speaks even more clearly to God’s myriad of manifestations.

Rice terraces in Guangxi, China.  All photos by Evan Schneider.

This one, this discipline, is not for everyone.  But if you’ve ever struggled to hear God above all the other voices, if you’ve ever lost touch with your heart or your spirit, or wondered about the work of the Holy Spirit, you may want to start closing your eyes and listening to your breath, reading scripture with the eyes of your heart, seeking communion rather than answers, and being open to God’s presence not just in these times of silence but everywhere in the world.

For further resources on the discipline of centering prayer, consult J. David Muyskens’ Forty Days to a Closer Walk with God, Sacred Breath, or Richard Rohr’s Simplicity for more on contemplative action.

Comfort foods

Well, I’ve been stricken with the sniffles here in NJ.

I’m pretty certain it’s just allergies, but those of you who have allergies know that there’s no such thing as just allergies.  I keep wondering where this special kind of torture came from (ragweed? pollen?) and thinking rather indignantly, China never did this to me!

The special kind of gorgeous on the D&R Canal, Princeton, NJ that may just be responsible for these allergies. Photo by Evan Schneider.

Of course, it’s funny the ways in which China has rubbed off on me.  For instance, I’m fairly convinced these sniffles are caused by the weather, and a dramatic change in pressure, and I stood around for at least a half an hour last night in order to avoid going out in the rain, in which I was convinced I’d catch a cold!

Yes, China has either made me into your grandmother, your mother, or…Chinese!

But as I dragged by tired self home last night (in a cab with a new Chinese friend I’d met on the side of the road, no less!), and I thought of what to cook up that would make right these snuffles and sniffles, I realized that my comfort foods are still decidedly American.

Last night I sauteed up some onions, garlic, spinach, mushrooms, and zucchini with olive oil and soy sauce, which I added to a steaming bowl of chicken ramen soup.  I also like the accoutrement with a bowl of rice, but last night I needed the chicken soup!

Vegetables and rice.

And if you read this blog with any regularity, you won’t be surprised that I made peanut butter and banana oatmeal for breakfast this morning.  We’ve been trying almond milk in our coffee, so I boiled the oatmeal with the almond milk this time and it worked nicely.

My love affair with peanut butter and banana oatmeal that began in China…

That’s something China doesn’t have–almond milk…or allergies.

What are your favorite comfort foods?

Old haunts and anticipation

It was a peculiar morning here in Princeton, punctuated by torrential downpours and now engulfed in a balmy, saturated wind that makes one question entirely any rhyme or reason to the seasons.

But the slightly ominous weather didn’t keep me from taking joy in my old haunts.

The Princeton Seminary campus with a few fall leaves this morning.

This is the first morning I’ve really stepped foot on the Princeton Seminary campus since we’ve returned from China, the first morning that I’ve stumbled upon professors’ familiar faces, students, and felt the enthusiasm regarding the course I’m to teaching in the spring on families and culture and ministry (something I probably would have told you about if we’d really been able to have coffee a few days ago like I’d suggested).

The professor who I gabbed with said the seminary culture makes her feel young, and I couldn’t agree more that the bustle and hustle of universities in the fall and the silver lining of stress and naivete and wide-eyedness is that when it really sticks (into your thirties in my case) it continues to awaken the mind, the senses, the spirit.

That’s what I’m feeling on this dreary morning: anticipation, not unlike the expectation, of which I wrote, and the thrill of being back in a couple places, the seminary and the university here, that do, finally, feel like home.

One of the more famous arches on a grey morning at Princeton University.

Expect everything.

With foster children and parents in Guangxi, Nanning.  Photo by Evan Schneider.

It’s an interesting thing, this business of homecoming, because at a point when you feel quite vulnerable, listless, and perplexed about how to reknit yourself into the fabric of this place and these people, others seem to be prolific with giving advice.

I had been hanging onto some of those pieces of advice as of late, not quite knowing what to do with them, but succumbing to their power nonetheless.  I was told by several people after coming back from two years in China to simply take some time, not to dive into my notes, and to not move on or forward too quickly lest the disorienting power of culture shock creep up even more over me and paralyze me with a vengeance.

And I think those well-meaning people were onto something there.  

Gorgeous morning on the Princeton campus in the President’s garden.

I have discovered along the way that it’s been important for me to be cognizant of the illusion of control not only in China but in this place, for me to seek God especially when I’ve failed him, and for me to convene and to trust that God is the same here as God was in China, or anywhere else for that matter.

But somewhere along the way I also took the advice given to translate as the supreme surrender that this time of culture shock and readjustment would be a period of great unknown, and therefore I should have no expectations of life, God, others, or myself.  There have been times in my life where expectations proved seriously unhelpful, and where tossing them into the ocean has taken great faith and conviction and produced great peace and comfort.

Halong Bay, Vietnam. Photo by Evan Schneider.

But I hear God telling me that this is not one of those times.

Instead, I hear God reminding me that we are a forward people, that I’m cut from the cloth of other pilgrims, seekers, and dreamers, and that making a life in a new place comes easier if I believe, I trust, and I expect God to go ahead of me.  In fact, I hear God saying that in this moment, that’s what faith looks like, a daring openness to those and this life around me.  I hear God reminding me that even though many of my expectations of China were bowled over by the sheer unpredictability of life there, God’s faithfulness certainly wasn’t.

With friends in China. Photo by Evan Schneider.

And I’m reminded how sweet it is to be a person of faith and to find that even when many around you will tell you that there’s no rhyme or reason to this season, that you can’t count on anything at all, we can.

We can trust God to be there.  We can trust God to move.  And we can expect everything, because of what God has done for us.

Amen.

Virtual Coffee Date

There’s a blogger I read and like who does an occasional, reoccurring post entitled Virtual Coffee Date.  She borrowed the idea from another blogger, and I, who love coffee, also love the idea of pretending we’re sitting down here for a sacred cup and gabbing like old friends.

I admit, in the same breath, that I’m kind of intimidated about a post whose very premise seems to suggest that I have this busy, interesting, important life to keep up with, but then I’m reminded how instrumental this blog has been to process this (and many of life’s) transition(s), and I’m thankful for a space to spew some of these fears, hopes, and prayer requests, and especially humbled by readers who attend to them!

A typical morning scene for this gal.

So if we were sitting down to coffee I would tell you all about the dissertation, how much it strikes fear into my heart when anyone mistakenly asks if I’m done yet (I’ve hardly just begun), and how paralyzing it is to think of synthesizing a life–anyone else’s or the one that I had in China–into a word document.  It’s mostly difficult for good reasons: my life in China taught me so much, not just about culture and childrearing, but about God and humility and faith everyday.  So I’m a ball of nervous energy and excitement when it comes to this daunting project!

I’d tell you how much I’m looking forward to fall here in Princeton, how welcome the crisper, cooler mornings are to a girl who was previously living in the tropics, and how I can’t wait to bring on the pumpkin spice, the leaves on the tow path, chunky sweaters, my October birthday, and getting cozy with warm coffee.  I love and have missed all of that!

A foster mother and her daughter in Guangxi, Nanning.

I’d tell you about my friends in China, and my best girlfriend who is in crisis and constantly on my mind, and how hard it is to be away.  Please pray that she feels closer to God and God’s peace and also pray for the mothers, fathers, children, and orphanage workers there.  Pray especially for a twelve year-old girl who will be adopted in the coming weeks to a loving family in the states and for the joy-filled foster mom who has raised this soulful, mature young woman.

I’d tell you (and thanks in advance for listening) all about this course I’m excited to take at Princeton on modern Chinese intellectual history in Chinese that I’ll use to work out my Chinese and my mind this semester.  Feeling pretty blessed to be at one of the best Chinese language program’s in the country and looking forward to speaking and writing more competently about my research in Chinese through this course.

And finally, I’d tell you about the brokenness in my home church, where huge changes are stretching everyone’s patience and faith.  I grew up there and out of that wonderful place of diverse thought and acceptance sensed my own call.  And my deepest prayer is that those in the church find a way to love one another and be one in Christ despite the hurt and the pain.  Healing takes time, and as a child of the church, those suffering are ever in my thoughts and prayers.

My lunch view here on Princeton’s campus. Gorgeous!

And I’d ask you to praise God for finding me here in New Jersey, for God’s persistent call on my life, for the depth and the breadth of experiences these past few years, and the possibilities that remain. 

Crumbs, interference, and sincerity

One of the things that comes to mind in reverse cultural shock, or in this life of faith, especially for me, is a struggle for sincerity.

I’ve mentioned that cultural shock for me, thus far, has been marked by a listlessness, a restlessness, a disturbing but incoherent ‘feeling out of sorts.’  And that makes sense when you consider that the gifts and the fruits of living life in another country, in another culture, and learning to love those who are different from you are not necessarily all that useful or relevant to what’s familiar.

Stunning rice terrace landscape in Guangxi.

But I also know that coming to terms with that restlessness, that incoherence, involves acceptance that things won’t be perfect and an openness to experiences and moments that may seem totally unfamiliar on the outside but smack of transcendence and truth when I simply let them be.

For instance, in my advisor’s office this past week when I began to tear up over the people and the places and the life I miss in China, she echoed my emotions and her own eyes welled as she recalled her time in India and her research.  “Those were some of the happiest, best moments of my life, even as it was so hard,” she said, “or just holding someone’s hand, seeing them smile back at me so purely brought so much joy.”

I’m thankful for this woman in my life who hasn’t been afraid to treat me like a real, whole person, and interfere in my life a little bit.  Perhaps we Americans, in our busyness and our importance and our struggles, often do this work of insulating ourselves, when all we really want is for people to interfere.  

The foster mothers I studied in China interfered in my life in ways I could have hardly imagined: they thrust their snotty-nosed children into my arms because they didn’t have enough hands to boil rice, shoo away the chickens, and shuck corn at once.  They called me with requests I couldn’t fulfill, they asked me to adopt their kids, they held my hands and cried on my shoulders, and they pleaded with me to teach their children English.

And somewhere in the midst of that life I made in China, it started to feel right and good to be needed, to be imposed upon, to be a part of someone else’s life.

This morning, in downtown Princeton, I heard a sermon on the Syro-phonecian woman (Mark 7:24-30) and the varied scholarly efforts to justify Jesus’s brusqueness toward her.  And then the pastor suggested that as Mark seems to intend, we make the focal point of the story not Jesus, but this woman, to whom the crumbs for the dogs would suffice.  And the pastor asked us whether we can live that promise, that just a morsel of the gospel will produce life-changing power.

A foster mom and her daughter in Guangxi.

And I couldn’t help but think of these women in China, who truly live their lives beneath the table, scrounging for crumbs, and yet to them, these children, abandoned, disabled, and broken as they are, are not just enough, or will suffice, but to them, these children are priceless.  And I think it is because of them, I can live with bold conviction that there is redemption for us all, and that God’s goodness is not just for a few.

This learning to live sincerely though, in a new place, will take time.  Because these women have humbled me, interfered in my life, and I am changed because of them.  They have made me believe that in such crumbs, lies abundant life, and God’s claim on that life, when it comes to mine, couldn’t be stronger than in this moment.  

And yet, I’m learning, the hardest part, ironically, is that living a life that honors what those foster mothers have taught me, that rings sincere, seems to involve letting others interfere in my life in this new place.

Families in a church in Yunnan province. Photos by Evan Schneider.

And so I take a deep breath, let my eyes water, and gasping through prayers in my heart, I extend my hand to a few people on the way out of church, all the while thinking of those foster moms, those kids, and somehow feeling strangely whole like I did in my professor’s office that afternoon, and I expectantly pray for God to make me whole over (and over) again.

On gratitude and sacrifice

I finally listened to the speech Michelle Obama’s gave at the DNC this morning.  

My husband and I have been largely hiding behind a rock this election season, avoiding politics talk, genuinely overwhelmed by the spars, the divisions, and the pettiness when just a month ago we were living in a nation with five times as many people as this one, and where poverty, human rights, and children’s lives hang in the balance.

But, perhaps predictably, (and don’t worry, I’m not about to really get political here), the First Lady’s speech did strike a chord with me today.  Ironically, the narrative of sacrifice and commitment that she and President Obama expressed in regards to their parents reminded me of some of the culture of filial piety, once so vibrant and pervasive, that is beginning to erode in China today.

But her words about gratitude and sacrifice and humility, about learning from their parents that “so many people had a hand in our success, from the teachers who inspired us, to the janitors who kept our school clean” also reminded me of my own family.

My Grandfather and I this past November.

The story she told about her father struggling to walk with MS and shifting uncomfortably out of bed each morning reminded me of my grandfather who prayed everyday on his knees despite the paralysis in his own legs.  My mother has MS, so she not only knew what it was like to watch her father struggle with his paralysis, but I know what it is like to know and be inspired by someone who does not let her physical disabilities hold her back from serving others.

The sacrifice Mrs. Obama mentioned that her parents made to send her to college reminds me of my own father’s years of getting up before the sun came up and coming home after it went down, all so my sisters and I didn’t have to struggle to pay for school.  It, this gift of education, was my parents’ ultimate gift to their children and only later in life do I relish what a sacrifice it meant and what devotion it took.

My parents on Thanksgiving, 2011.

Mrs. Obama’s stories remind me of the way my dad’s parents’ scraped together during the Great Depression, their determination to live and make do with what they had, and the money my maternal grandparents left to me as they passed on, despite the fact that they always lived with so little themselves.

As Mrs. Obama spoke I realized why these stories are so powerful: they bind us to one another.  They express the gratitude to those who came before us for the lives we live today.  They recognize that the strength of humanity, not just Americans, but of all people, is this willingness to submit that perhaps their dreams won’t come true in their lifetime, but they can come true in the lives of others.

Thank you, Mom and Dad, Gramma and Grandpa, Grandma and Grandad, for loving me so unconditionally, for giving me a life full of possibility and joy, despite what your own lives may have lacked.  Your love inspires me everyday, and I hope when people compliment me on my successes, I remember the people, you, who made them possible.

Who inspires you today?  Who do you thank for your successes?  Who taught you about gratitude, and humility, and sacrifice?

You never change

Watching the rain come down in Yunnan, Kunming, China, May 2012.

It’s amazing what a quiet moment, a rainy Sunday, and a good friend can do for the soul…and the book of James.

“Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change,” my friend and I read during our time of centering prayer this Sunday from James Chapter one, verse seventeen.

And so it is that God reminds me that as often as I oscillate between those shadows and those mountaintops, from the villages of China to the streets of Princeton, New Jersey, as much as all that seems relevant in my life might change and shift and move, our God stays the same.

In Lion Hill Park, Guangxi, Nanning. January 2012.

Yes, the same God who knew me and was with me through the challenges of living and growing in China is the same God who finds me here.

It is so easy to become distracted by the circumstances in which we find ourselves, so easy to think our best maneuvers will help us find success, peace, or resolution.  But I’m learning time after time, day after day, that God remains my resting place, and if I earnestly seek God during these days, I’m bound to be found by God, bound to be in the realm of blessing, comfort, and peace.

A withered lotus flower.

And I’m slowly relearning, in this context, just like any other, what it means to live a life of faith, that along the meanderings of my thoughts yesterday, James says that, “if any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.  Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:26-27).

The author with a foster child in Guangxi, Nanning. All photos by Evan Schneider.

And that challenge, although I know I will fall short, is one I am humbled to accept.