Monthly Archives: January 2013

Called to this life.

Blurry shot of beauty this morning.
Blurry shot of beauty this morning.

It’s been another full week: the United States celebrated the second term of its forty-forth president as Princeton Seminary ushered in its seventh president.  In both personal and public places, and in the first month of a new year, we’re in the business of reflecting on where we’ve been and where we’re going.

This weekend, I was challenged by the words of Dr. King, as he embraced the present moment despite its imperfections, as his moment, to which he was called.  On Tuesday, as I heard the new president preach at the seminary, I was moved by his charge to allow God’s dreams to interrupt our small goals and to use our limits as a way back to God.  As he mentioned his thirty-one years in ministry, and as I looked around the congregation filled with pastors and hopefuls, I felt that call, as I’ve felt it many times over the year, to serve, to lead, and to minister.

But then I realized: talking to a Chinese friend that morning, and forming words in another language that might provide some comfort, some empathy, some peace–I felt myself called to that.  Discussing anthropology and faith earlier this week with my faculty mentor at the seminary, I felt myself called to that.  And worshipping God on Tuesday in community and feeling free and full, I felt called to that.

Princeton Seminary from afar.

And I wondered, perhaps we are the ones who put the limits on our lives, who cling to small calls when God has wider, fuller dreams?  I feel gratefulness choking me up when I realize that a life where every moment is spent in service and praise of God makes ministers of us all–no more, no less.

My expectations brim with faith these days, faith that our definitions of call are too narrow for God’s infinite wisdom and abundant vision, faith that my limits speak of possibility when they draw me nearer to God, and faith that the kingdom of God isn’t fleeting or futuristic or finite–it’s here and it’s in you and me and all around us!

May you go this weekend in the knowledge that you are imperfectly, humbly, yet emphatically called to this life.





In praise of the weekend

It was an invigorating, pedal-to-the-metal kind of a week, full of early mornings, course planning, expectations, connections, and preparations.  

The weather finally turned cold over here in NJ: I took a run in the freezing temperatures on Friday morning feeling quite at home, and yet I’ve also relished the opportunity to rest inside while the wind swirls outside this weekend.

This weather calls for stew, about which my husband, thankfully, knows plenty!
This weather calls for stew, about which my husband, thankfully, knows plenty!

What have you been up to?

I’ve been contemplating these words about doing less, these from the always wise and timely Anne Lamott, and wondering how I can make a visit to this amazing sounding coffee shop sometime in my future?

On Saturday morning I grabbed coffee with a seminary alumnus friend for some good, hearty conversation about academia, life, and faith.  Yesterday afternoon I combed the UPenn Anthropology museum with some friends and then went to a lovely cocktail party to celebrate another friend’s birthday down in Philly.


Finally, this morning, Evan and I attended church and got to listen to reflections on faith and history.  The pastor read from Dr. King’s “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” speech which he gave the day before he died.  You can listen to it here.  His words are on my heart and my mind as we honor his memory and his dreams tomorrow.

I’ve been praying for wisdom as I begin to teach, for China, and for grace.  I keep hearing from other wise voices and God’s that I need to continue to let go and live into the harmony of the present, embracing and remaining open to what can and will be.

I’ve been missing walks in the village, the families I grew close to, even the misty sweltering Southwest China weather as of late!  But I am comforted when I see God’s hand in leading me back to this concept of harmony, so woven throughout the fabric of Chinese life and morality.

Guangxi foster family friends.
Guangxi foster family friends.

Could it be that God weaves a harmony in our lives that we are created to crave but in our sinfulness also so easily dismiss?  And could it be that fulfillment and life-giving transformation often involve minute acts of yielding to God’s harmonic rhythm rather than moving boulders, mountains, or dreams with our own two hands?

I hope your Sabbath has been restful…may you yield to God’s perfect harmony this week and give God praise for mountaintops, dreams, and the present. 

The laughter of God

Do you ever feel as though you’ve been working so hard and yet accomplishing so little?  Or perhaps with all you get done, you only find more angles from which to quest, judge, and quibble with the likes of your own insights?

Riverwalk with my family in Nanning, China.
River walk with my family in Nanning, China.  All photos by Kelly Bettner.

I felt these insecurities creeping up on me in China, threatening to rob me of any joy, satisfaction, or truth, so seductive were their persuasions.  But I’m realizing that these voices aren’t just seductive or corrosive, they’re actually instructive, because there’s truth in them:

If you’re aiming for perfection, accomplishment, and brilliance, it’s no secret that you’ll always be let down.

The problem is that when you start to realize, slowly and painfully, (as if this is the stuff of mind-blowing revelation!) that you’re not perfect, that you’ve got a lot to learn, that you’re not “there” yet, all you can see is how far you are from your outlandish goal rather than how far you’ve come.

I wonder how God feels when I throw up my hands because I’m tired and I’m disappointed and I’m doing it again, that is, picking goals that have no ends in sight and lingering on their pursuit, as if salvation’s down that path.  I know how I feel–frustrated, let down, and anxious.

Climbing the rice paddies in Guangxi, China.
Climbing the rice paddies in Guangxi, China.

But somehow, I can only hear God chuckling.

When we weave elaborate webs of disillusionment and get all tangled and worried and bewildered, doesn’t it make sense that God finds light-hearted gentle giggles for us?  That’s how I imagine my God–so close, yet so removed from my anxiety and neuroses that God refuses to validate them by feigning disappointment or invalidate them by mocking me, but simply lets me know with dancing eyes that, Erin, there is certainly more to life than this.

It doesn’t help that sometimes we even know “why” we do things, that we realize with all the suffering and the hard things that happen around us that we’re turning inward with an impulse to control the little we can and to retreat from what doesn’t make sense.  It doesn’t help, because explanations, and sometimes therapy, are not all they’re cracked up to be.

Remembering to enjoy the view...
Remembering to enjoy the view…

Instead, I was reminded this week that the gift of faith is not that bad things pass us by, or that we’re freed from our old ways of thinking, but that God abides with us through it all.  If we just open our imperfect little arms and ears, we get to live in relationship with a God whose grace is simply more totalizing than death or anxiety or security.  And it’s in moments such as these where the gentle, rippling laughter of God is the sweetest music, and suddenly everything else is just piddly background noise.

Fallen limbs and crevices

It hasn’t been a particularly harsh winter here in New Jersey.  I suppose it never is when you grow up in Wisconsin.

I hadn’t been out to one of my sacred spacesthe Delaware Raritan Canal pathmuch since Hurricane Sandy passed through these parts in October.  When my husband and I walked the canal path on New Year’s Day, I kept thinking of a friend of ours who took a walk with his toddler through the streets the morning after the storm.  When his son asked what had happened to the trees and if someone was going to fix them, he didn’t have the heart to tell him that the uprooted trees, the cracked bows, and the bare stumps were now a permanent part of the scenery, and that trees are breakable, fragile, and mortal, just like you and me.

Some local damage after Sandy.  All photos by Evan Schneider.
Some local damage after Sandy. All photos by Evan Schneider.

As I run on these slightly colder days down the path and my eye takes in these changes to the scenery, I think of how hard it is for we as humans to accept such destruction, and what kind of fear it drives into our hearts.  Suddenly as we look at the world around us, we feel everything’s brittle, nothing is for certain.  The bare insides of great trees are marked by great scars, and some of the loftiest, burliest ones plummeted in the storm.

If we can hardly trust that the same tree bows that framed these lovely paths won’t crumble above us, in what can we trust?  Is there no permanence on this earth?

Snow in Princeton, NJ this winter.
Snow in Princeton, NJ this winter.

My generation’s experience of such vulnerability is marked not only by storms (we’ve seen some of the greatest destruction done by tsunamis and earthquakes in our time), but also a terrorist attack on our own soil.  Shortly after 9/11, I read an essay by Rabbi Arthur Waskow in which he preached the scary truth that what the attacks taught is that not even the steel towers we stretch to the sky can protect us from destruction, heartache, and pain.

Waskow reminds us,

There are only wispy walls and leaky roofs between us. The planet is in fact one interwoven web of life. The command to love my neighbor as I do myself is not an admonition to be nice: it is a statement of truth like the law of gravity. However much and in whatever way I love my neighbor, that will turn out to be the way I love myself. If I pour contempt upon my neighbor, hatred will recoil upon me. 

When my husband and I walked that path on the first day of a new year, I grimaced at the branches laid bare and broken around us.  He remarked that animals and insects had found new homes in their fallen limbs and crevices.  Yesterday when I ran along the canal waters, the geese jubilantly honked at me and took to flight, their bulbous, awkward bodies somehow capable of both buoyancy and soaring into the skies.  Later a bluebird fluttered alongside me and took shelter in one of the tattered trees.

Fall on the D&R Canal, Princeton, NJ.
Fall on the D&R Canal, Princeton, NJ.

Life buzzes amidst the changed landscape with an audacious, oblivious vigor.  Where we see scars and imperfections, animals and insects make their homes.  Death will eventually give birth to new life, and yet, how we remove ourselves from this interdependence!  How we seek to believe that if we just build bigger, better towers, stronger, sleeker fortresses, we can insulate ourselves from the pain, the destruction–the humanity of it all!  

When we let fear drive how we live, we seal ourselves off from one another, from the fragility, yet also the incredible resilience of interconnectedness.  We forget that the lessons from nature, the way she rebuilds with the scarred timber, the tattered landscape something even more beautiful, are demonstrative of the fact that we need one another more than we know.

Summer on the D&R Canal.
Summer on the D&R Canal.

What if we accepted the fact that we can’t do anything to protect ourselves from storms and began to worship vulnerability rather than permanence?  What if we found salvation in the new life springing from brokenness and accepted brokenness as our common bond?  What if we found our strength in a God who offers us not permanence or immortality or insulation, but deep vulnerability, interconnection, and communion?


It’s just one of those weeks where despite the busy-ness, and the ups and downs, I’ve felt God’s presence so palpably, and I’m giving God praise.

On Plymouth Harbor.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
On Plymouth Harbor. Photo by Evan Schneider.

I give God praise for speaking into the silence, for meeting us simply and whole-heartedly.

I give God praise for listening ears and spiritual guidance on the journey.

And I give God praise for fellowship.  

Last night I had a phone call with a few girlfriends from seminary in which we got to affirm one another’s call, talk through challenges, and pray together.  It reminds me how much we were meant as human beings to rejoice together–in community.  And it made me realize all over again how powerful experiencing grace is, and how deserving of praise our God is for granting us grace.

When we look around and can see God’s hand in our lives, let us not take that for granted–let us praise God.


Virtual Coffee Date

If we were having coffee this morning I would tell you that I love this time of year, because the year, stretched out before us, firmly in the future, is full of possibilities.

Perhaps you would remember that I love to set goals, but this year as I prayerfully considered what God was calling me to, I found myself penning more general statements about how I want to live my life, Pray Audaciously.  Be Gracious of Heart.  Approach teaching as service and writing and learning as discipline.

A few nights ago I sat in silence, and I felt my heart racing.  I felt insecure.  I’m insecure, because teaching is a new experience for me this semester, and when I think about needing to prove myself, I’m crestfallen.  In my heart, I’m still yearning for China, and when I think of learning and serving, I often picture being hungry and cold with people somewhere else in the world, or preaching from a pulpit in a congregation.  But I sat there and I waited for a word from God, and I heard that what God’s calling me to is, “sitting at your feet, childlike, attentive, waiting.  It’s being a servant,” and my heart leapt as I thought, “and even I can do that.”

Approaching teaching as service reminds me that Jesus’ teaching was never about proving himself, or even about being right, but it was wholly relational, progressive, and above the fray.  And because Jesus relied on God for the balance between these qualities in teaching, his teaching was life-changing.

Yesterday as I talked through some of these fears and excitements with my spiritual director, I realized that if I could just listen to my students with love and attentiveness, if I could just learn with them, I think I’d be doing enough and serving well.  In the language of servanthood, teaching becomes less about doing things right or perfectly or best, and more about regarding the people in front of me with respect, reverence, and a gracious heart, and again, I think “even I can do that.”

I would go on to tell you that I intend to sit in silence this year to listen to God more often.  I would tell you that I plan to say audacious prayers for China.  Somewhere along the way, I think my heart became so troubled by not being there and not being able to “do” anything, and I think deep inside me, a little part of my faith died, when it comes to the people I love there who I feel are very confined by their circumstances.  But lately I’ve been remembering that God changes hearts and lives, which is pretty much the greatest path, perhaps the only, toward changing circumstances, and I’ve resolved to pray boldly for China and its people.

And finally, I would tell you that yesterday I had a meeting with a professor who somehow saw through all my meandering writings of late, that my heart lies with foster moms and disabled children, and he encouraged me not to look for ways to make my dissertation topic bigger or more important, but to trust that this small topic can become bigger and greater and more compelling than I ever imagined.  It was both overwhelming and heartening to hear such critique and advice–heartening because these are the stories I collected and want to tell, and overwhelming because I need to start a bit fresh with some applications and outlines and etchings.

But it’s a new year, and what better time to start fresh, right?

What’s on your mind in 2013?

Small World


Happy 2013 (a look back).

This past year was filled with so much wonder, discovery, challenge, and I hope, growth.

Exiting a mosque in Cairo's City of the Dead.  Photo by Ben Robinson.
Exiting a mosque in Cairo’s City of the Dead. Photo by Ben Robinson.

I can’t hardly believe that we began the past year in Egypt, on the anniversary of their revolution, traveling with good friends in Cairo and then in the UAE.  I wasn’t sure I’d ever return to the Middle East after such a whirlwind trip, but lately I can’t stop thinking about that trip, the people, the cities, the mystique of it all.

My friend, Emily, and I above Tahrir Square on the anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution this past January.  Photo by Ben Robinson.
My friend, Emily, and I above Tahrir Square on the anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution this past January. Photo by Ben Robinson.

My fieldwork really began to pick up in 2012 as I traveled frequently to a new foster care project for disabled children in a village several hours outside the capital city.  I wrote one of the most popular posts on the blog that month, describing some of the lessons I’d learned from doing fieldwork in China, and tried to give you a glimpse of what I really did everyday!

In March, Evan and I spent 72 hours in Hong Kong, where I presented some initial findings of my research to the Department of Anthropology at Chinese University of Hong Kong.  It was one of my favorite trips to one of my favorite cities!

The view from Lantau Island, Hong Kong.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
The view from Lantau Island, Hong Kong. Photo by Evan Schneider.

In May, our friends Zack and Kristina joined us in China and we did another tour of Hanoi and Halong Bay.  Soon, Evan was finishing up teaching, and I was wrapping up fieldwork.  My family joined us in June, and we all traveled to the breathtaking rice terraces outside of Guilin together.  Finally, at the end of July, we left China, and I’ve been looking back ever since.

This is our guide, Xiao Pan, looking out on the rice terraces outside her Yao village, Zhongliu, in the Guangxi mountains.  Photo by David Raffety.
This is our guide, Xiao Pan, looking out on the rice terraces outside her Yao village, Zhongliu, in the Guangxi mountains. Photo by David Raffety.

Back in the US, challenges took a different shape–moving, readjusting to our home culture, academic culture for me, a new job for Evan (yay!).  The last few months feel as though they’ve flown by even faster than our time traveling the world and living in China.  We love being back in Princeton, because our friends seem to enjoy coming back here, too, and we’ve had countless visits from dear friends these past few months.

And though I never thought I’d get there, but I’m starting to ache again to set flight for somewhere new and exotic.  Guess that’s just the anthropologist in me!

My friend, Abbie, and I walk on the canal path this fall in Princeton.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
My friend, Abbie, and I walk on the canal path this fall in Princeton. Photo by Evan Schneider.

2012 was also the five year anniversary for this blog.  Five years of anthropology and ministry, Spanish, Chinese, world travels, centering prayer, physical and spiritual journeying, and gratitude–gratitude for you, dear readers, and gratitude for God’s blessings upon this past year and the next.  Thanks for making this journey with me!

In Cairo, with my husband.  Photo by Ben Robinson.
In Cairo, with my husband. Photo by Ben Robinson.

Happy New Year!

What would you like to see more of on the blog in 2013?