Monthly Archives: May 2013

The evangelist in me

“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”                              —2 Corinthians 3:17

The Japanese bridge at Giverny, France in Monet's Garden.  All photos by Evan Schneider.
The Japanese bridge at Giverny, France in Monet’s Garden. All photos by Evan Schneider.

A few days ago, I met with my spiritual director and told her about this restful trip to France, the adventure of following God, and the newfound freedom I’m experiencing in simply being who I am in God.

She’s been someone with whom I’ve laid bare my concerns about this dual calling to ministry and anthropology, with whom I’ve questioned, sometimes painfully, how I can do both–that is, academia and Church work– and how I can carve a space for myself that truly and faithfully integrates the two.

But as we spoke, that question started to sound so misplaced, so trivial…and even unfaithful.  As she repeated my own question about how I might synthesize these two callings back to me, it all suddenly sounded preposterous.

Because I’m not the answer.  

Of course, it’s just about the most basic truth in the book, but I marveled as I realized that I don’t do this work of integrating, synthesizing, or redeeming.  That’s all God.

Delaware River.
Delaware River.

And God is good at it.  

As I mentioned yesterday, God deals in abundance.  For God, there aren’t categories and confines, limitations and boundaries, but God is the very definition of holism, the place where our callings find perfect harmony and symphony.

And suddenly I feel so secure in all of that, and it’s effecting everything: the way I live, the way I speak, the way I rest, and the way I work.  This security in who I am in God has prompted me to share the faithful parts of me with my colleagues in anthropology and to find that they can not only understand, but also value what I’m talking about.  It’s pushed me to bring anthropology into the classroom at the seminary only to find that future pastors find it challenging, instructive, and meaningful.  And it’s shaped how I talk, write, and minister to foster mothers and brothers and sisters in China, the academy, and the Church.

“And that’s the definition of evangelism,” my spiritual director replied as she heard me muse on my newfound freedom in this God who is so perfectly gifted at integration.

A private courtyard in Paris, France.
A private courtyard in Paris, France.

I nodded, and tried not to gulp or cringe.

You see, I have an uneasy relationship to that word evangelism.  It’s partly my reverence for culture and diversity that makes me suspicious and uneasy of the hubris and insensitivity that often undergirds conversion.  It’s also my own experience–the fact that I’ve learned so much about myself, my faith, and my God from non-Christians– that makes me wary of anything that smacks of evangelism.  And finally, there’s the trappings of that loaded word evangelical and its problematic place in American politics and culture.

But if I’m honest with myself, those objections to the term or the project of evangelism are once again, more about me and my problems, than about God.  When it comes down to it, I’m all about ministry that’s outside the walls of the Church, prayer that stretches across boundaries of believers and nonbelievers, and beholding the sacred in everyday life.  I’m all about a God whose news is so good it doesn’t just dwell within the walls of the Church, the hearts of believers, or least of all, me.  

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More from Giverny.

I’m beginning to accept that God’s good news seeps out of me, in spite of me, and that is good, too.

So you heard it from me first.  Turns out I’m an evangelical who’s learning to love the evangelist in me, because God is abundant, faithful, and good.  Because I can’t do what I’ve been called to without God’s wisdom, patience, and grace.  And because I’ve been set free–from sin, fear, and death–and that’s worthy of a testimony or two today.

Amen.

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The God of Abundance

“My friend who is a Buddhist said once after coming out of a meditation retreat, ‘The colors were so much more vibrant afterward.’  Her meditation teacher said, ‘When you are present, the world is truly alive.'”  –Natalie Golderg, Writing Down the Bones

Monet's Garden at Giverny.  All photos by Evan Schneider.
Monet’s Garden at Giverny. All photos by Evan Schneider.

Sometimes when I take a vacation, my Protestant ethic won’t quit, and if I lounge in the sun without intention, sleep in, or indulge in some rich food, I can’t actually enjoy the stuff of life, because I’m too busy trying to tap into my greater purpose, honor my routine, and be intentional.

But the thing about the Protestant ethic, and the one that goes into overdrive for so many of us, is that it’s actually quite shoddy theology–theology that wrongly overemphasizes our small part in this big world, while deemphasizing God’s infinite wisdom.

Remember a few months ago when I blogged about the futility of swimming upstream versus the wisdom of going with the flow?  

Well, it turns out God lives in sweet rest, play, and adventure just as much as silence, intention, and purpose.  As my husband and I walked the cobbled stoned streets of Paris, marveling at all the amazing places we’ve been over these past five years together, we began to dream aloud about the next five, ten, and twenty years, and it was good.

Walking the streets of Paris.
Walking the streets of Paris.

The other morning as I spoke the language of my heart with a dear friend, I confided in her how delicious it has been to dream with God by my side, and how when so many things are wrong and scary and negative in our world, that blessing of vision that sees opportunity and possibility and goodness is from a God so worthy of praise!   

The best thing about this break is that coming home, it felt as if the colors here didn’t dull in comparison to those in Paris (although the coffee really did, but that’s for another post…),  but rather had blossomed and become more vibrant in my absence.  The air smelled clean, the sunrise eager, the sunset gentle and delicate, and I looked around and found my friends flourishing in their lives, too.  

Paris in bloom above the entrance to the subway.
Paris in bloom above the entrance to the subway.

And I rejoiced.

You know that real leap your heart does when it knows something to be good and you can barely contain yourself from jumping up and down and yelling like a little child?  I’ve felt that numerous times in just the past few days listening to my friends tell me that they’re thriving, and I see them following God with such earnest devotion.  And I realize that life is simply more exciting when you’re letting God call the shots, take the reins, and lead you in directions that you never could have dreamed.

I don’t think abundance is fleeting.

I think God is a God who deals in abundance, but our glimpse into understanding that abundance is limited and finite.  So today while I’m granted this vision, I’m filled with praise, joy, and reverence.  And I’m going to take in those vibrant colors, rejoice in who God is, and pray with dreams, conversations, and this precious life I’ve been given.

Stained glass in Saint Sulpice, Paris, France.
Stained glass in Saint Sulpice, Paris, France.

Amen.

The merits of doodling

“I was in love with reading and literature. There were stories only I knew about my family, about my first kiss, last haircut, the smell of sage on a mesa and my kinship with the flat plains of Nebraska. I had to get slow and dumb (and not take anything for granted) and watch and see how everything connects, how you contact your thoughts and lay them down on paper.” –Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

I’ve just started reading Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and I love the way she talks about writing as practice and meditation, and all the things that you, and only you know.

A view of Rodin's thinker.  Paris, France.  All photos by Evan Schneider.
A view of Rodin’s thinker. Paris, France. All photos by Evan Schneider.

Sometimes I think everything that’s good and true in my life and the direction thereof, I owe to my mother–especially that ninth grade world lit class that she pushed me to take when I wondered why anyone would take two English classes at one time (!) and whether it was kosher for a lowly freshman to enroll in a senior-level course.  And then, there I was with that young, handsome teacher and a classroom of older students that I found so momentously  my equals, but most importantly, with a stack full of books from authors like Camus, Achebe, and Shakespeare, who I began to believe  might actually want something to do with me.

Looking back, however, I question where or how I lost that enthusiasm for books or English and somewhat, history.  Or writing, for that matter–where did I become convinced that the few things I loved and was good at paled in the shadow of the world’s more noble pursuits of science, objectivity, and real life?  I think it was Clifford Geertz who said that all anthropologists are really just wanna-be, disguised, or failed writers, and I suppose the real question is, can we be both?

Light bulbs over a Paris cafe.
Light bulbs over a Paris cafe.

I have not read like I did since that high school English class, or written the sonnets, the stories, and the prose that used to win me awards, even.  Anthropology, yet another pursuit that my all-knowing mother launched me toward, has opened up so many doors and windows into my soul and others, brought me to so many corners of the Earth, and taught me new languages, and not just the ones we speak with words, but the deeper meanings of life, culture, and spirituality.  But what doors has it closed?  As I began to call myself an anthropologist, rather than a reader, a writer, or a poet, did I, in some ways, surrender the creativity in my mind to the limited ways of being found in this world?

View of the city from the dome of Sacre Coeur, Paris.
View of the city from the dome of Sacre Coeur, Paris.

In Paris this past week I’d see people painting scenes of the city and the gardens, scribbling into notebooks in cafes as I imagine Hemingway doing, or even doodling shapes and faces while listening to lectures at a conference at which I was presenting.  I used to doodle, I thought, as I watched the glamorous professor from Milan to my left sketch the contours of others’ cascading hair, sloping shoulders, and curved backs.  I don’t anymore.  In fact, my second thought was to wonder how an assistant professor can doodle, so juvenilely, during a conference presentation to which I assumed she’d be rapt with attention.  Perhaps that’s what the Italians do, I thought, but then I glanced around the room and the other scholars–French, Portuguese, Brazilian…all doodlers.

The fact is, it seems novel to realize that I, the committed anthropologist, can pick up a pen or a pencil and create something other than empirical social science, and that I want to.  In many ways that’s what this blog has been for me, a place to doodle a bit and without crafting a conference paper or treatise, dream something a bit more “inner worldly” rather than the worldly travel notes, kinship charts, or ethnography I’m used to writing.  Perhaps that’s why the words have often so hungrily leapt onto the page, why posts can feel effortless even while the conference papers won’t come.  They are vestiges of that innocence, that playfulness and self-discovery that led me to read in the first place and to even dare to call myself a writer.

The view inside Notre Dame.
The view inside Notre Dame.

I’m not wanting to part with ethnography–in fact, I’m writing one, and I love reading them because they capture some of that creativity, that art that life clearly has and science tends to stifle.   I often tell people that I love anthropology because it’s deeply concerned with culture but at such a fundamentally human, relational level.  I love ethnography because it doesn’t efface the author, but brings he or she into view, into relationship, if you will, with the other subjects and cultures and problems.

But the anthropologist isn’t her own protagonist; she relies on others.  And she doesn’t write about all the little things, the things that I and only I know so firmly.  She doesn’t write about her mother, her freshman English class, Camus, Achebe, Shakespeare, or a life trajectory that includes physics and Puerto Rico, ministry and China.  Those kinds of stories, I’m realizing, are left to be written and pursued, by doodles, scribbles, and practice, one word, dream, and recommitment to the world of imagination, at a time.

What about you–do you doodle? What stories do only you know and have left to tell?

C’est la vie.

“Paris is… the best city to wander around alone because it’s so beautiful you feel like it’s hugging you.”   —Lessons in French, by Hillary Reyl

This is just a quick update to say that the blog’s been ho-hum as of late because we’re in Paris on a fifth year anniversary/conference/stuff your face food tour, and while we’ve been seeing lots of lovely things like cathedrals and art and cobbled streets, the photos are firmly in the digital camera (and subject to my husband’s critical editing eye) until we return, and I’ve been doing that thing lately where you soak it all in before you muse onto the page.

Still, just a few updates: we’re spending the full two weeks in Paris, because Evan caught a nasty cold on the plane, so we’ll save the trip to Burgundy, the Loire, and Normandy for another time!  That means we’ve been scrambling to book hotels last minute, but that we’ve also experienced the personalities of several different arrondissements intimately.  And I finally get the flaneur thing: it is so wildly freeing and delicious to just stroll about leisurely in this beautiful city, though it has also been predictably disorienting not to be able to speak the language, my heart still leaps a bit every time I hear Chinese, and Paris feels so decisively more foreign to me than Asia!

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Fuzzy photo (courtesy of a friend’s iphone) of some strolling down those magical streets.

I’m convinced that I’m not sophisticated enough for all this, and yet I’ll–we’ll–continue to fake it, muddling through in our best attempts at French and French accents, which has gotten us some memorable and satisfying coffee, food, and views.  And faking it isn’t so bad really– I’ll take satisfaction over sophistication pretty much any day.

Outside the walls

A few months ago I overheard my husband counseling a friend who was going to accompany us to a party thrown by a bunch of my colleagues in anthropology.  “You don’t have to worry with them,” my husband assured our friend, “anthropologists are interested in everything.  Watch, whatever you say they’ll find it interesting, they’ll talk about anything forever.”

It’s evidently what makes us quirky party attendees or hosts, but I like to think that our curiosity as anthropologists is also one of our best qualities.  We find the world more interesting, more beautiful precisely because of diversity and difference.  Life is more intriguing because of culture, because your corner of the world doesn’t look talk, or act, like mine.  And yes, I could talk about those fascinating differences in culture, well…forever.

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A foster mom in Anhui, China embraces her foster son. Photo by Jason Fouts.

On the last day of the class I was teaching at the seminary this semester, when I felt like I’d earned the right to speak a little of my own passion into my students’ lives, I challenged them to believe that they might learn just as much about God outside the Church walls or the seminary campus as within.  I asked them to dare to believe that pushing their faith to include, behold, embrace, and learn from people from a wide variety of cultures and backgrounds–pushing their faith to be real outside the Church might actually make it deeper, more powerful, and more poignant.

You see, I think that while it’s human to be curious, it’s also human to be really freaked out by difference.  And when we Christians get skittish, we often take a lot of the beauty and truth and goodness that God has blessed and made and called good and try to cram it into our manmade boxes.  I think good theology and good anthropology teach us to do just the opposite (like reminding us that Jesus blew the chains off women, tax collectors, diseased men and women, and prostitutes,  and included us Gentiles in salvation) (or anthropology that shows us how insightful, productive, and healthy cultural differences are), but we humans also like to be in control.

Anyway, I said these things to my students not only because they’re my truth but also because the next generation of spiritual leaders just might be our politicians, professors, doctors, lawyers, philosophers, non-profit managers, prison wardens, and community organizers.  A friend of mine had a conversation last week with a faculty member at the seminary who said her greatest concern is that we are preparing seminarians for jobs and a world that doesn’t exist.  A few days later, that same friend asked me whether I claim my Christian faith in community and what that means.

Being introduced this fall by my professor at the university for a presentation.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Being introduced this fall by my professor at the university for a presentation. Photo by Evan Schneider.

And I realized for the first time in years of discerning and seeking and praying that I can say that I’m “out,” for lack of a better term, in my department at my university, as a Christian, a minister, a person of faith, and it finally feels right.  My colleagues happily introduce me as their resident pastor, they call on me for counsel in difficult situations because they know I’m not afraid of the messiness of life, and they even appreciate being told they are prayed for.

But it doesn’t just go one way–these same colleagues hold me accountable when I begin to complain or gossip, they counsel me through life’s big decisions, and they rejoice and grieve with me.  Both these experiences close to home and those afar of being ministered to by those supposedly outside the fold have taught me that the Spirit isn’t limited to the walls of the Church despite our unconscious, subversive efforts to confine it.  The prophetic isn’t limited to God-fearing people, and Christians don’t have a monopoly on Truth.

A temple in Luang Prabang, Laos.  Photo by Ben Robinson.
A temple in Luang Prabang, Laos. Photo by Ben Robinson.

Perhaps this is where my anthropology meets my theology so nearly, neatly, and dearly–in the enmeshing of the sacred and the profane in the everyday lives of people in culture, relationship, and meaning-making.  Real salvation is transcendent in that it seeps out of our pores to touch everyone we meet and everything we do.  And so I think theological education has to change to respond to not only this reality, but this Truth.  It has to equip all these people who are going to be outside the walls of the Church institution, and who will be ambassadors of faith and hope and love in this world.

I look around and I value and am inspired by both forms of leadership, service, and ministry–those inside the Church and out–but I believe the Church and seminaries have often been focused on internal ministry at the expense of the external, and our lives are lived, made, and redeemed in the everyday.

A Lahu church congregation in Yunnan, China.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
A Lahu church congregation in Yunnan, China. Photo by Evan Schneider.

Thanks for letting me talk forever and ever this morning about what I really find interesting in this beautiful, strange, sacred world.

P.s. You may notice the blog has a new look.  About time, right?  Everything’s pretty much the same except some of the links are to the right and on the bottom.  Thanks for stopping by and let me know what you think of the facelift.   —Erin

What it means to be a child of God

Yesterday the minister stood in the pulpit putting plainly the state of this world, from attacks in Boston and Syria, gun violence, earthquakes in China, and buildings collapsing in Bangladesh, and the words rippled and reverberated like aftershocks through my fragile heart.

And on top of all these things, the passage for the day (John 14: 23-29) was one in which Jesus speaks about leaving his disciples and the world behind.  At a moment of great uncertainty not unlike this one in our own world, what must it have felt like for the disciples to hear that Jesus was leaving them far behind?

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Sure, Jesus promises the Holy Spirit and peace, Jesus says, “I am going away, and I am coming to you,” and Jesus urges them to not let their hearts to be troubled and to not be afraid.  I’m sure they felt like very empty words and promises to those left behind.  There are times when the most brilliant, comforting words feel hollowed out of all holiness, because life has delivered such a bitter blow.

Perhaps that’s why Jesus sends his Holy Spirit to advocate and to teach, and leaves a peace that’s unlike the hollow, bitter circumstances of our lives.  I’m sure the disciples didn’t realize it at the time, but Jesus’ leaving, his death, would unlock for them a new identity, a whole new life.

I feel like I’ve been picking on Tanya Luhrmann a bit lately, but she’s right about this: being a child of God makes all the difference in the world.  When darkness enfolds you and nothing in the world speaks of grace or hope or beauty anymore, it is an enormous truth to know that we’re not defined by this world, but by God.  We’re not only created in God’s image, and children of God, but we’re being made new.  We are new creations in the midst of destruction, desolation, and brokenness.

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As the minister spoke this Sunday he encouraged us to reflect on the grandeur of the gift of peace.  It’s been said many a time that peace isn’t the absence of war or violence or pain, but the presence of God in the midst of these things.  But I think it’s even more powerful to reflect on what a gift peace is and those in our lives who give us this holy peace and not as the world gives.

The minister spoke of peace as what allows you to keep your footing in the midst of the tremors.  Peace is the people who sit beside us, taking deep breaths with us when even breathing feels like work.  Peace is companionship and grace and abundance in a world of scarcity.  But most of all, I think peace is the eternal Spirit that allows us to marvel at ourselves as children of God even when the world is crumbling.

Amen.