Monthly Archives: November 2012

Advent: Reorienting Expectations

Advent is the season of waiting and expecting.

Candles on Christmas. Photos by Evan Schneider.

And I realize I’ve written a lot about expectations on this blog.  Inspired by a post on Zen Habits and shaken by a professional disappointment, in China I wrote about the freedom that comes with tossing one’s expectations into the ocean.  Then, a year later in the midst of culture shock and making a new life in this country, I wrote about the sense of hope that comes from being a forward people and being able to rest in a God who promises more than we can possible imagine…or expect.

Lately in preparation for the courses I’m teaching on Cross-Cultural Family Systems, I’ve been reading a lot about lowering one’s expectations when it comes to dealing with difficult family members.  Such a directive doesn’t seem to jibe with the orientation I want to take to humanity and family, which is more along the lines of investing in people, and sharing real struggles in order to reach a place of deep communion and better communication.

As this dissonance swirled in my mind, it also brought up the varying engagements with expectations that I’ve been pondering and writing about–tossing, lowering, and raising–and I wondered what this range says about theology, consistency, myself, or God?!

Boats on Plymouth Harbor.

At present, I’m drawn to the conclusion that not only are tossing one’s expectations into the ocean, lowering one’s expectations, and expecting everything perhaps relevant to different life seasons, but they all clearly involve a reorienting of expectations, in which we hopefully allow God to return to the center of our lives.  To explain, are not tossing one’s expectations into the ocean, lowering one’s expectations when it comes to family members satisfying all our needs, or expecting faithfulness and promise from God all deep acts of faith that recognize God’s supremacy and our humanity?  

It’s funny, because taken from this angle, lowering expectations, when it comes to family (which is particularly relevant during this season!), is perhaps neither glib nor maudlin, but rather a recognition that our tendency to attribute our failures or unhappiness to others is our problem, not theirs.  Investment in our friends and family, then, becomes the radical practice of sharing, not because we expect others to fix problems for us or fix themselves, but simply because we love and trust that relationship itself is life-giving.

Our bonzai Christmas tree in China, decorated for the holidays.

So this Advent, whatever your expectations may be, whether you’ve tossed them, lowered them, or raised them, may God be your guide and your center.  May God be at the helm of your reorienting and may we all be powerfully changed by a God who is wholly and holy relational, and with whom, we find both radical hope and freedom this season to love those in our midst.


P.s.  This great little post on five advent reflections may have gotten buried in a previous post.  There’s so much about God’s reorienting work in these reflections- enjoy.

P.p.s.  Gretchen Rubin’s tips for getting along during the holidays!


On language and faith

Despite the title, I don’t have anything groundbreaking to say this morning, except that fellowship breaks into the most unlikely of places, and that yesterday was a reminder of all the possibility that exists not just in thinking but in listening.

Downtown Nanning. Crowds watch the dancers in the square. All photos by Evan Schneider.

I had my first meeting with my new language partner.  It had been difficult for me to commit to finding someone to chat with in this language that means so much to me–it felt like replacing all the amazing people I’d met in one place, and the choice needed to be just right.

But I didn’t have the time for that or the money, and so I chocked this one up to the universe, letting the university arrange the placement for me.  And yesterday a woman who’s about five years ahead of me in life greeted me by the coffee bar with the abrupt, halting speech patterns only reminiscent of a Chinese speaker of English, and as she began to unload copious amounts of unsolicited advice despite what little she knew of me, something in my spirit leapt and my heart warmed.  

See, I may have mentioned that there’s a love language in China to do with giving advice–giving advice shows you care, and so people take and give as much as is humanly possible!  And as my new language partner and I settled so effortlessly into a pattern of her speaking English and me speaking Mandarin, each pausing to correct unfamiliar words, I think not only my ears, but my heart recognized something as familiar and began to open.

A couple dancing in the square.

Last night I read this piece from Amy Lepine Peterson, “Speaking Faith as a Second Language,” and it resonated so deeply with not only my cross-cultural experiences but the goals and hopes I have for the courses I am teaching next semester on culture and family ministry.  Peterson writes eloquently about the process of learning that neither her native language nor her faith truly belonged to her:

“I was also learning that English–though my native language and one of the great loves of my life–didn’t belong to me. It didn’t belong to me, or to America, or to England, or to native speakers. As a language, it is a tool to be used, not wielded in domination or colonialism, but used for negotiating meaning. Together. Yet the transformation of my English has forced me to realize something even more important: that the language of faith needs to undergo the same kind of reconstruction for me to love it and use it rightly.”

As my language partner so openly told me about her struggles with depression in this country, her indecision about having a second child, and the pressures of work and family, I had to marvel as the intimacy that simply being present for one another, speaking the same language, introduces.  I suppose because language-learning is essentially about vulnerability, being willing to stumble as you’re trying to express some of the deepest parts of you, it’s also about faith, as you surrender your dignity, and putter along like a child.

Children playing outside a school in Yunnan, Kunming.

When it comes to this course I’m teaching next semester and my partnership with my language tutor, the goals seem akin to Peterson’s:

“Letting go of your ownership of the language of faith can be frightening, unmooring. Instead of being the person with the answers, you become a person with questions. Instead of colonizing, you work to cooperate. But in seeking to agree on the most basic of things, like the meaning of the word ‘prayer,’ you find a simplicity of language which lends itself to coordinated action. Your words take on gestures, form and meaning in the real world, incarnating the love you once only spoke of. Surrendering ownership of the language of faith means recognizing that I can only speak it as a second, and learned, language.”

So letting go, relearning, and listening.  That’s what God’s got on my heart this morning…what about you?

Thinkers Abound

When I hit the button to publish yesterday’s entry on thinking and advent, I’ll admit that I wondered if I’d just alerted the universe that I’m far less competent than I appear and whether I’d be able to live with the thought that my last post wasn’t really about advent at all, but yet another version of navel-gazing in a process of cultural shock that needs to end soon before all my readers abandon ship!

And then I read this little essay in the opinion section of the New York Times by Pico Iyer, where he talks about how he managed to distort the very paradise God had laid before him…with his mind.

The Delaware Raritan Canal in the fall. All photos by Evan Schneider.

Iyer writes,

“Yet still it’s uncanny how often we let ourselves out of the Garden by worrying about something that, if it did happen, would quicken us into a response much more practical than worry. All the real challenges of my, or any, life — the forest fire that did indeed destroy my home and everything in it; the car crash that suddenly robbed dozens of us of a cherished friend; my 13-year-old daughter’s diagnosis of cancer in its third stage — came out of the blue; they’re just what I had never thought to worry about (even as I was anguishing over whether they’d serve spinach when my friend visited the retreat house). And every time some kind of calamity has come into my life, I and everyone around me have responded with activity, unexpected strength, even an all but unnatural calm.

It’s only when we’re living in the future, the realm of “what if,” that we brilliantly incapacitate ourselves.”

Of course when you worry like that it’s simply miraculous to find others around you responding with unexpected strength to the real disasters…but why worry?  As Iyer continues, “Nowadays my one, obviously flimsy, response to all this is to try to bypass the mind if I can’t control it and at least not take my anxiety so seriously.”  

I was heartened: thinkers abound!  I’m not the only one who struggles with control!  (I knew this, but I guess I had to see it in the NYT to be truly comforted…)  Iyer even mentions that he does his best writing when he’s not even thinking about writing–how’s that for a dissertating strategy?  Confounding but true, I think.  And he concludes the essay by recognizing that we’re fallen creatures, grasping for something larger than ourselves:

“We worry only about exactly those things we can never do anything about. And then that very fact becomes something else we worry about. The cycle goes on and on until we let the mind give over to something larger — wiser — than itself.”

The gates of Princeton University on a fine autumn day.

Are you a thinker?  Does your mind undo the paradise and the blessings God faithfully throws your way?  So how do you let your “mind giver over to something larger — wiser –than itself?”

Thinking on Advent

I am self-described morning person.

I think better in the morning, savoring my morning cup of coffee and basking in the morning light.  I love to write in the morning when meandering subconscious thoughts of sleep reappear as precious gifts of creativity.  And especially over the past few months, despite the difficulty of leaving and missing China, it’s been impressed upon me, back in the rhythms of university life, how blessed I am to genuinely love what I do.

Architecture on the Princeton campus. All photos by Evan Schneider.

But there are also plenty of mornings where despite the time of day, I’m not sure I’m at my best, because I have trouble prying myself from the warmth of the covers, my to-do list looms large and formidable and my usually disciplined morning mind wanders uselessly.  I start to doubt the magic of the morning light, routine, or worse, my abilities.

Over the past few months, my spiritual director has helped me to see the perils and the promise of having one’s primary mode of being as thinking.  I get so jazzed by good intellectual conversation, ideas, accurate writing, and scholarly innovation–there is a euphoria that often hits me in the midst of reading, writing, and talking that is real, sincere, and good.  In fact, it’s my commitment to learning, teaching, and growing, not just as a scholar, but as a person, that has gotten me to where I am today.  It’s humbling and inspiring to be blessed with gifts that serve the pursuit of knowledge.

Plymouth Harbor in the late morning.

But the other sides of being a thinker are over-thinking, brooding, retreating into oneself, paralysis, and judgementalism, just to name a few.  They’re not pretty because they’re a rare combination of self-serving and self-reviling behaviors, and they are so because they’re a whole slew of thoughts that attempt to rationalize an elementally indiscriminate and spiritual world and stand in for feelings, needs, and the other great stuff about being human.

So if you’re like me, sometimes you rise in the morning with the best of intentions and find God spooning you healthy doses of humility, reality, and surrender.  And when you finally get over yourself enough to realize that the sun is still shining just as brightly as on any other morning, and there’s more to life than your own thoughts, you find yourself writing this kind of a blog post, sheepishly grateful for the most seemingly inconvenient reminders of grace.

Last year at this time of year I found myself feeling ill-prepared for the advent season, disoriented, perhaps, by the solitary business of celebrating Christmas in a foreign land.  This year I’m unsettled by the feeling that China is slipping further away from me everyday and by the perpetual uncertainty of what a life in this country–books, people, faith–truly entails.

Ellisville State Park, Plymouth, MA.

But this season, I recognize that unsettling and I embrace it as emblematic of the advent ethos and I take heart in waiting.  I’ve gotten better at it with the practice of gradually finding a rhythm in China, which at one point seemed altogether impossible.  I’ve gotten better at recognizing that my future rests firmly in my God, not myself, or others, or my failing plans.  And I’ve gotten better at seeing my thoughts for what they are–gifts of inspiration and expressions of joy–and what they aren’t–wisdom, fate, or altogether important.

What appeals to me, then, about seemingly wasted mornings and the advent season, are the faultiness of our minds and God’s power to do great things and break into the ordinariness of ours, Joseph and Mary’s, and the world’s expectations.  It’s like that mantra I found in the midst of my re-acclimation, not to let go of thoughts or dreams, but rather to resolve to listen, to feel, and to expect everything.  

So as the sun blazes on this winter morning, and the seasons and China retreat as distant memories, I resolve to trust in the certainty that things are not quite what they seem, just as a baby was not the expected valiant king, but God’s perfect answer to humanity’s quest for peace, love, and joy.

Low tide on the harbor.

And so it begins again, our story of redemption, unsettling, unconventional, and really, when you think about it (haha), beyond all imagination.

Armfuls of grace and mashed potatoes

I feel like I’ve entered a phase where I’ve been forced to live here a bit more, to let others care for me, and receive the grace and abundance of this community.

The gates of Princeton University. Photo by Evan Schneider.

And while sometimes I feel sad and confused that China and her people are feeling more distant to me day by day, at my wisest, with God’s presence near, I realize it’s not an either/or.  God doesn’t want me to or ask me to choose between people in China and people here, but to believe that God’s omnipotence leads to impossible community and connection.

Not last night’s presentation but another one from this season.  Photo by Evan Schneider.

But it’s not just God, it’s God’s people who do that kind of work–the people in my life who generously let me babble about the foster mothers I’ve met until I’m breathless, the people who sat through my presentation last night and inspired and encouraged me with their enthusiasm for my study of families in China, and the people who value and understand that work is not just work to me, but the stuff of vocation, passion, and calling.

Photo by Kayla Nymeyer, Yunnan province.

And so as we enter this season of giving thanks season, and China feels further and further away, I count the blessings so near and pray for God to come closer.  Not just closer to me and mine, but to God’s people in China and people everywhere, because that’s God’s thing–doing the impossible globe-trotting ministry of presence.  

More beauty in Yunnan.

And the rest–the believing and the boldness and the taking in big armfuls of grace just as we do extra helpings of mashed potatoes and turkey–well, that’s all up to us.

Who is God to you?

The past couple weeks have been so chocked full of life, but there’s been this incredible peace that God has granted me despite the ongoing lesson in waiting, uncertainty, and the not-yet.

As I reflected on the gift that peace is during tumultuous times the other morning, my spiritual director also called me to reflect on who God is to me.  A week ago while the East Coast was being ravaged by Hurricane Sandy, and I was hundreds of miles away in Tucson dealing with a personal crisis, I had one of those endless nights where I couldn’t sleep.

After a hurricane, snow! Last night’s snowfall looking out across our courtyard.


When I got up, for what seemed like the umpteenth time and made my way, bleary-eyed and fatigued into the hallway, I noticed a light coming from the living room.  I peered around the corner to see my father reading the newspaper at 3 or 4 in the morning with his feet propped up on the coffee table, as if it were any other reasonable hour.  I didn’t let him know that I was wandering around sleepless, although the next morning he said he thought he thought he heard me. But the image of him sitting up, keeping watch, alert, yet calm in the wee hours of the morning was oddly comforting to me.

And as I reflected with my spiritual director on who God is and how it is that we experience peace during restless times, it occurred to me, like an epiphany, that God is not merely a helper in one aspect of our lives, but desires to help us with every aspect of our lives.  This is the wholeness that I had been seeking, and yet my tendency is to allow God to oversee one aspect of my life, while I anxiously thrust my hands into the others.  

Now I know in my head that peace is not the absence of uncertainty but God’s presence in its midst, and yet I often live as though that presence is partial.  

I am the one who makes it so, because I don’t really surrender all aspects of my life in order to receive.  I don’t really believe that God is sitting up in the wee hours of the morning, or that God is in the business of being concerned with all the fears and hopes that concern me.

But what a blessing and a truth and a comfort it is that our God is concerned with our lives!  What a comfort it is that God’s peace encompasses every aspect of our lives, if we only let it in!

The winter wonderland in the light of this morning.

And what a blessing it is to know that in the darkness, we’re never alone.

Sandy update

It’s been radio dark on the blog, and a bit like that in real life, but all things considered, we’re doing just fine over here in Princeton.

Since I spent most of the storm week in Tucson, stranded there because flights weren’t going into East Coast airports, I certainly can’t complain.

The lovely view of the Catalina Mountains from my parents’ backyard in Tucson, Arizona.

And despite the huge trees that came crashing down on our street, tearing the power lines and poles with them, and keeping us without power for nearly a week (check out these photos on my friend’s blog), Sandy proved to be only a minor inconvenience for us, and we know it’s going to be a long haul and heartbreaker for many.

And because we were mostly dry and not too cold throughout, our perspectives over here in seminary housing were altered in some surprising ways.  My husband made a slew of new friends as residents clustered in the lounges that had generator power, making meals together and playing games.  With nothing else to do in the evenings, Evan and I would curl up on the couch and have heart-to-hearts about our days.  And people in little Princeton seemed generally concerned about one another, going out of their way to ask for what they might be able to do to help.

Many are still without power and homes on the East Coast this evening, and there’s another storm brewing.  If you’re a praying person, pray for those who have been hit hardest by the storm.  And if you’re looking for some perspective, consider the goodness that’s in all of us, and why we don’t show it all the time.

I’m thankful for neighbors, shelter, and connection this week.