Monthly Archives: April 2013

My cup runneth over

Did I mention these days that I just feel so full?

So full of inspiration, joy, and even need that I could burst?  

Spring foliage on the East coast.
Spring blossoms on the East coast.

My cup runneth over when I have conversations with students and colleagues who are discovering the beauty, the power, and the importance of culture, or when I hear the testimonies of people at our new church that affirm the importance of community and relationship.

My cup runneth over when our eyes are opened to the truth that relationships trump ambition, and so we lay down our fears, our brokenness, and our vulnerabilities for one another to bear.  My cup runneth over when I pray for the deep needs of people I love, and when we speak together holy words of comfort, hope, and peace, our voices breaking, this world brimming with the subtle work of the Holy Spirit.

My cup runneth over when I hear how my sister serves as a woman called to ministry, as we in Princeton plan to receive Chinese friends and pastors from a faraway land, and as I speak with a young woman who has left behind a foster family in China and cleaved, beautifully and powerfully, to a new one in America.

Lord, we are the works of your hands.  You lead us beside still waters, you restore our souls, you anoint us with oil, we bow before you, you dwell within us.

We are full.

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God behind the scenes

A few weeks ago a well-known anthropologist whose most recent book is about how evangelicals hear God speak came to campus.  It was pretty thrilling to hear scripture read in the lecture hall where I’ve given fieldwork proposals and heard anthropological theory, and it was exciting to see my colleagues take seriously questions of faith and practices of prayer.

But seeing as how evangelicals are claiming to hear God speak into their lives, and this has prompted Tanya Luhrmann to develop a new theory of the mind, in which people of faith train their minds to hear voices outside of their pysche, friends and colleagues eventually did ask me whether I hear God speak, audibly, as well.

Spring on the Princeton campus.
Spring on the Princeton campus.

I don’t really.  Not audibly.  No burning bushes…yet.

Sometimes, in fact, I don’t feel God at all, and I wonder if I’m “doing it all wrong.”  If my faith tells me that God doesn’t draw lines between sacred and profane, like anthropologists, but that the Holy Spirit is in everything and everywhere, then why don’t I hear God speak like my evangelical friends?

It probably has something to do with my prayer practices, as Luhrmann has posited, but it also probably has something to do with God’s great, unchangeable nature, a theology of waiting, and God’s work being not only life-changing, but counter-cultural.

I’m not contesting a God who speaks–the Bible gives us plenty testimony to that effect, but I’m attempting to testify to a God who also speaks in the silences, in the pauses, through others, and behind the scenes.  Did you ever wonder what happened in between Moses and God’s holy rendezvous, or Peter’s visions, or John’s breakfast with Jesus?  Oh yeah, that’s right, the Israelites built a golden calf, Peter’s faith failed him in God’s darkest hours, and John and the others were straining to see the future of a movement that had lost their leader to death on a cross.

But God, God hadn’t forsaken them.  God was behind the scenes.  And so, even as the Bible tells the story of God’s relationship with God’s people, our humanity makes us gravitate toward the loudest voices, the greatest triumphs, rather than the trials, the silence, the humility, the work behind the scenes.

Water lilies in Kunming, China.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Water lilies in Kunming, China. Photo by Evan Schneider.

What God does behind the scenes, however, is great, too.  When we release ourselves to both God’s on stage and off stage work God subtly equips us in ways that go unnoticed until we find ourselves in our times of greatest trial, need, or joy.  God’s work is not always showy or attention-grabbing, but if you look for it, it’s everywhere, in the little acts of kindness and justice that people lend to one another without fanfare or media blitzes, but with great humanity and care.  There were handfuls of people healed in the Bible, whom Jesus had humbly go on their way, while he continued his own humble journey to the cross.

I’m not suggesting that the God who speaks to you in prayer isn’t the same one that heals in secret, prays for us with sighs too deep for words, or equips with patience and diligence.  Quite the opposite– they are, miraculously, one and the same.  And yet, it’s simply clear why the loud, thunderbolt one gets our awe, astonishment, and praise.

A view of Cairo, Egypt.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
A view of Cairo, Egypt. Photo by Evan Schneider.

For me, God, especially of late, is more behind the scenes, subtly, yet faithfully equipping, and speaking through those around me in voices of care, concern, and affirmation.  I imagine that God was very much behind the scenes those horrific hours after the bomb blasts at the Boston Marathon.  I pray deeply that God is behind the scenes for families in China who struggle to care for special needs children, or for places where bomb blasts are the stuff of everyday life.

For me, knowing and believing that God is behind the scenes is the hardest part of faith and prayer and life.  But it can also be the greatest comfort to find that even when God isn’t speaking, God is always there, behind the scenes.

Holy everything

Nearly a week has passed since Christ rose from the grave, since we celebrated Easter with trumpets and sunrise, communion and hallelujahs, feast and fanfare, and I still feel resoundingly full.

It’s not just the ham that’s still in the refrigerator or the earnest celebration of new life that felt so different from the traditions of revering the ancestors and sweeping the ancestors this time of year in China.  In fact, it’s the same story, from my youth, of Jesus riding in triumphantly on the donkey, of black Friday, of brutal death on a cross, and an empty tomb.

Nothing has changed in the Biblical story, so how do I account for what feels so different, so breathless, so heavy, so alive about Easter this year?

First signs of spring on the university campus.
First signs of spring on the Princeton University campus.

Last Sunday as the pastor stood in the pulpit, she reminded us that for Christians, we have no tomb, no cross, no holy place, hill, mount, or edifice to go to pay homage to Jesus, but that we ourselves are the embodiment of the resurrection, the Living Stones (1 Peter 2), the Easter people.  There are no holy places and so in resurrection, we are made holy people.

But our pastor also stepped off a white-cloaked altar into the sea of faces dressed in their best that morning and invited us to share our joys and concerns like we do on ordinary Sundays.  We were reminded that in earnest celebration there is still loss, and fear, and pain.

I think it’s this fact that accounts for the fullness of this season for me, the fact that the communion we take symbolizes not only life, resurrection, and the miraculous, but human brokenness, betrayal, and violence.  Likewise, the Easter story we celebrate leaves the women and the disciples not only full of hope and promise, foreshadowing the incredible growth of the church in history, but also anguished by the death of their savior, and bewildered and fearful at the sight of an empty tomb, a dwindling faithful, and an impossible truth.

This Easter I’m reminded that God doesn’t change, but the resurrection changes us, often and endlessly.  

C.S. Lewis wrote, “I pray because I can’t help myself.  I pray because I’m helpless.  I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping.  It doesn’t change God.  It changes me.”

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We don’t become Easter people in a flash, jubilant and freed from this world, but we become Easter people when holiness leaves the altar, the cross, the tomb, and steps firmly into our midst and settles into our bodies and life rhythms.  Our circumstances don’t necessarily change, we still look like the flawed people that we are, but we become Easter people when our hearts, our eyes look upon this world and find everything holy.  We become Easter people when we behold what is holy in one another as though we are making a pilgrimage to somewhere sacred, because the Kingdom of God is here, in you and in me.  We become Easter people when we stop parsing what’s God and what isn’t and relish that the Earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.  We become Easter people when death is always with us, and yet, we experience life anew.

We become Easter people each time spring and hope return to a desperate world, and we’re left full, changed, and holy.