Monthly Archives: December 2012

Minor delays and major miracles

So here’s what happened on the way home: we checked in at Tucson only to find our flight to Chicago was delayed, so we went out to lunch and got back to the airport only to find as we were boarding our flight to Chicago that our flight from Chicago to Philly had been cancelled.  So Tucson rebooked us on another flight to Philly via Minneapolis.  Then we waited in Minneapolis for at least five hours, finally got into Philly, and home to Princeton around 3 am, all without our bag of Christmas goodies, which is currently lost somewhere in the continental United States.

We were a little grumpy and a lot tired today, but the whole saga gave us an excuse to sleep in, to hunker down in our little apartment, to reacclimatize to real world issues–investments, insurance, and bag searching (it’s still MIA…hmmm)–and gain some perspective.

Sunset above the earth.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Sunset above the earth. Photo by Evan Schneider.

Here’s the perspective I was granted today…

“It is a miracle if you can find true friends, and it is a miracle if you have enough food to eat, and it is a miracle if you get to spend your days and evenings doing whatever it is you like to do, and the holiday season—like all the other seasons—is a good time not only to tell stories of miracles, but to think about the miracles in your own life, and to be grateful for them.” —Lemony Snicket, The Lump of Coal

As I sat in church on Christmas Eve and heard the scriptures read, especially the one from Luke where Mary and Elizabeth greet one another, where we get the first glimpses of the savior of the world by way of two humble women gathering together, I got another sense of how miraculous this age old story is and how lowly, ragamuffin, and misfit its origins–the pregnant, engaged couple, likely late with their legal registration, put out in the barn for their social sin, yet called Holy by angels, God, and today, humanity.

In the midst of the sorrow and the brokenness of this world, too, there must be miracles enough for all of us.  

When we pause, or we’re granted a pause to collect these miracles, to ponder them like Mary, in our hearts, I think we’d do well to name them and give God glory for not only the major miracles but also the minor delays which make them visible.

What about you?  Are there miracles in your midst this season?  Will you ponder them, name them, and glorify God?

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The Embodiment of Hope

Today I’m over at Grace and Hope for Children’s blog, writing about my experiences working alongside their organization in China and the hope that their staff and the foster parents they support bring to children, their communities, China, and abroad.

I’ve written a fair bit about my research with foster parents on this blog, but without the support from folks at Grace and Hope none of it would have been possible!  They’re a great organization that are supporting the work of foster care in China, which is so important.  You can learn more about their organization via their website, or you can read the post below and click over to the blog to finish.  If you’re joining us from Grace and Hope today, thanks for your support of foster families, and I hope you’ll enjoy browsing the blog for other posts about China, foster families, and faith.

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Nanning
Farmers on the outskirts of Nanning’s modern skyscrapers in the Guangxi Autonomous Region. All photos by Evan Schneider.

Nearly three and a half years ago I came to China hoping to do dissertation research with foster families.  I remember vividly the first few moments in the Nanning airport, where my halting Mandarin got a pungent taste of Southwest Guangxi’s linguistic plurality and thick Southern accents (yep, there are Southern accents in China, too!).  I remember not only this cacophony of languages upon touching down in Nanning, but also the pervasive smell of mildew, the sea of e-bikes stretching across the broad avenues, and my first forays through neighborhood markets searching for foster mothers alongside a friend who swore they could be found.

I met not a single foster mother that first summer.  Instead, I met many people, all Chinese, who told me, emphatically, that they did not exist.  Our research design is open-ended in anthropology, meaning that we spend a lot of time in the places where we study and live, and we often expect even the topic of our research to change along the way.  People who I met in Guangxi apologized obsessively for the “backwardness” of their region, and urged me to go somewhere of real importance in China.  Chinese professors of anthropology wondered why I wanted to study foster mothers, rather than the Zhuang minority culture, for which Guangxi is famous.

But oddly, for some reason, it never occurred to me to abandon the project.  I had this strange, absurd, yet resilient hope that foster mothers were out there somewhere, and that they were worth studying and worth knowing.  So my husband and I moved to Nanning the following summer, on a wing and a prayer.  And then finally, in March of 2011 in an unassuming concrete office, buried in the middle of the city, and through a roundabout network of friends and acquaintances, I was introduced to a small NGO staff who told me they supported hundreds of families in Nanning and thousands outside of the province who took orphaned and abandoned children into their homes.

Their name was Grace and Hope.  That April, in a nearby city orphanage, an elderly woman with a kind smile told me how she’d started foster care projects in Guangxi in the early 1990s out of necessity, poverty, and concern.  Guangxi, it turned out, despite the naysayers, and in no small part due to Grace and Hope, was at the center of a disperse, yet expansive foster care movement.

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The author with members of the staff of Grace and Hope for Children in China.

Keep reading at Grace and Hope for Children

This Advent, Share joy.

This time of year there’s always a flood of meditations on Christ and Christmas, on what counts as consumerism versus what counts as Christmas, what is profane and what is sacred.  Last week, I appreciated thoughts on the subject from a Lutheran advent blog which pointed out the vehemence with which we attempt to divide Christ from culture can become an obsessive act, the focus of devotion in and of itself.

Sarah Wilson writes,

“There’s a lot of self-righteous delight in pointing out how far the culture has traveled from Christmas’s authentic meaning. There’s a snide pride in saying ‘my liturgical year kicks your practically non-existent liturgical year’s butt.’ There’s a temptation to make Advent our own good work of getting December right and being really properly set up to get the most out of Christmas. Then it’s about our coming rightly to Christ and not about his coming graciously to us.”

Wreaths on the door of Miller Chapel.
Wreaths on the door of Miller Chapel, Princeton Theological Seminary.

I’ve been reading a lot this week in preparation for my course about how the images of the manger scene we cling to are not really all that Biblical or culturally accurate.  They’re inaccurate because they present the manger family as nuclear, quiet, and sterile, which neatly represent ideals we import from Western culture, not from Israelite or Biblical culture.  On the other hand, my Mexican friend told me the other day how their nativity scenes are kind of like our Christmas villages here in the states–kids relish the opportunity to add new characters (Biblical and extra-Biblical!) to the scene every year, creating elaborate vistas of mountains, crowds of children, lakes, dance floors, and parking lots!

Shifting our focus to the futile act of seeking cultural purity in our faith also causes us to miss what might be surprisingly central to both Mary and Joseph’s pilgrimage and Mexican nativity scenes (and problematically absent from ours, it seems), and that is community.  One of the important reminders for me this season, whether it comes from the Lutherans, the Mexicans, the Pagans, or the tribes of Israel, is that joy is best when it is shared.  

Joseph and Mary were probably not alone on the journey to Bethlehem or in the manger that evening–the joy of Jesus’s birth was shared by cousins and aunts and uncles and shepherds and wisemen.  And then Jesus, despite the very real sacrifice, left his family to walk door to door sharing the good news with people.  Finally, the disciples took that joy, not always bravely or diligently, but they did it–to the corners of the earth.

Now I’m not an especially evangelical Christian, but I feel God’s call during this season to share joy with those who I meet.  Of course, in my mind, joy is a lot like love–it doesn’t impose, demand, or judge–it, like the birth of our Lord, is not about us, but about Christ graciously coming to us and living within us.  I feel God’s call to let others in on this gift and especially not to worry who was really there in the manger or who belongs there today.  I feel blessed to live in a time and a place where great diversity exists from door to door, and where life is fuller because you and I are both in it.  And most of all, I feel humbled to realize that this joy is not my own.

Isn’t joy meant to be shared?  Pass it on!

Advent and Breaking In

My husband and I attended an Advent service on Sunday evening: candles were lit, we sang “This is Christ the King,” and there were repeated prayers that God, hope, and power would break into our lives this season.

Stones for the foundation of a church in Yunnan, China.
Stones for the foundation of a church in Yunnan, China.

For some reason these words, these prayers for “breaking in” caught my ear.  As I’ve ruminated over them the past few days, I’ve come to see that there’s inherent violence to the language, the request, and the action: we’re asking for God to shatter our present reality and its comforts and even our sense of justice.

In reality, being broken into is a terrifying experience: I recently retold a story to family and friends about a time I awoke at four am in a strange hotel room in Yunnan, China to see a hand reaching out of the curtain towards me!  And brokenness, the type our God suffers on a cross all because we could not receive him as King, is the shattering of bones, spirit, and blood.

So why do we pray for brokenness?

I think while we ask for our worlds to be turned upside down, we’re often a lot more like Herod in the Biblical story than the shepherds who make their way to the manger.  We don’t like to think that when threatened we’d come up with some power-hungry, violent plan to preserve ourselves, but the flesh in me questions just how open, how cognizant, or how hospitable we might really be to a new order, a new truth, a baby King.  

Something tells me we’d be more likely to go kicking and screaming to the manger, if at all.

Sometimes I went kicking and screaming to the people I came to know in China.  I resented that my time had to resolve around them, I got hungry and tired walking from house to house, from field to field, and I dreaded those hours of buses and trains with little sleep or comfort.  I tried to put up walls that would preserve my sense of control, my time, and my culture.  Because to me, the Chinese life felt incredibly inconvenient and uncomfortable at times, and I didn’t want to let my sense of culture, right and wrong, or justice be disrupted by their messy worlds.

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But in breaking is a lot like living in China, I think.  

It’s the opposite of convenient, because it’s revelation where God doesn’t ask us to give way–God simply shoves us and all our convictions aside.  I saw a meme this week that said, “the world needs a stable influence,” but as long as we think of the stable as stabilizing, quaint, or even hygenic, we lose sight of the meagerness of the manger, the upheaval of nations and kings wrought by it, or the savior that made his way into the world only to be rejected, broken, and burdened by our sin.

It’s not that this season isn’t about joy and hope and power–the Christ story is ultimately a story of redemption from sin and evil when all seemed to be lost.  But given what God has done, I’m not so sure we need to pray that God breaks in.  Instead, I wonder if our prayer shouldn’t be that God make us willing and able to recognize and receive revelation, inconvenient as it may be, or seemingly out of place in a season we’ve chosen to decorate with candles and Christmas.

Bringing the water buffalo home for the day in Yunnan, China.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Bringing the water buffalo home for the day in Yunnan, China. Photos by Evan Schneider.