Monthly Archives: June 2013

God’s sturdiness

When my spiritual director asks me what God feels like during trials or joys, it’s a hard question for me.

I’m a thinker.  

Ferreting out the feelings buried beneath all those lofty thoughts (ha!) does not come all that easily to me.

Hydrangeas in bloom.
Hydrangeas in bloom.

But I practice a lot.  

Just like any other discipline, I practice faith to grow in faith.  I practice the rhythms of letting go and listening, that also do not come all that naturally to me.  And gradually God makes it clear that God’s been there all along, and yet, I come to experience God in new ways.

“Sturdy,” was my reply the other day, when my spiritual director asked about who God is to me lately.  It’s not in the Bible, although a host of other like adjectives– steadfast, firm, unshaking–do come to mind.

A church door in downtown Princeton.
A church door in downtown Princeton.

Sturdy feels humble, though, like it might have fit neatly into Jesus’ Aramaic vocabulary.  In the dictionary, one who is sturdy is strongly and solidly built, capable of withstanding rough work or treatment, and showing confidence or determination.

And when you think about it, despite some of the depictions of his fragile frame, withered on the cross, Jesus walked everywhere during his ministry, and he shouldered that heavy cross without complaint.

Jesus was rugged, dependable, and sturdy.

And I think the miracle of faith is that we, who are weak, whiny, and worrisome, we are invited to share in that sturdiness.  We carry it within us when we dare to give and receive love, when we refuse to abide by the ways of this world, but abide in God instead.  We become sturdy when we see and believe that God is making us new, by living in us and through us.

Walking with family in the desert.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Walking with family in the desert. Photo by Evan Schneider.

We become confident, not in ourselves, but in the sturdiness that inhabits hearts, hands, and feet.  Our fragile frames can endure great trials because of who God is, what God has done, and who we are becoming.

So this weekend, look for signs of sturdiness in those around you, in your life, in you.  You’re stronger than you think, because you carry not only the cross, but the resurrection within you.  

You, too, are a sturdy child of God.

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Why I don’t regret the regrets

“Normal day, let me be aware of the treasure you are. Let me learn from you, love you, bless you before you depart. Let me not pass you by in quest of some rare and perfect tomorrow. Let me hold you while I may, for it may not always be so. One day I shall dig my nails into the earth, or bury my face in the pillow, or stretch myself taut, or raise my hands to the sky and want, more than all the world, your return.” ― poem by Mary Jean Irion*

When I hear people proclaim the motto “no regrets,” I can’t help thinking that it’s a little prideful, short-sighted, and disingenuous.

I’m not advocating for living life on the bench, or engaging in some sort of flagellation that leaves not only the body, but the soul with real wounds.  And I appreciate the zealousness of trying to live life with vigor and intent.

But I think a healthy dose of introspection, when it comes to our mistakes, can also be enlightening.

With a foster family in Hubei.
With a foster family in Hubei. Photo by Jason Fouts.

Last night, as I realized that it’s been almost a year since we left our life in China, all I could think is if I had it to do over again, I would have spent more time at the feet of the foster mothers, hearing the trials of their lives during the Cultural Revolution, the story of each baby they’d raised, and their fears about the future.

I wish I’d looked out the window more often at those soaring karst peaks and endless fields of green rice paddies, because who knows when I’ll see them again?

Guangxi1

I wish I’d accepted every invitation to a bowl of rice noodles, a strange feast of chicken feet, or a home out in the countryside without running water or electricity.  It was in these places that I saw life lived with an irrepressible human spirit…and ate some of the best dumplings of my life.

With a dear friend.
With a dear friend.

I wish I’d told my friends all my fears and hopes and dreams, because I treasure the secrets they shared with me.  I recall them and revisit them like precious gems when I miss their friendship and their confidence.

I wish I’d made far more trips to the market, taken many more jogs around South Lake, and sat many more hours peering into the square from our balcony, and all despite the sticky heat.

Beside South Lake Park in Nanning, China.
Beside South Lake Park in Nanning, China.**

In short, I wish I’d slowed down to only love the people in front of me and nothing more.  I wish I’d treasured the normal days, for one knows not how many there will be.  I wish I’d known how extraordinary China and its people were before I left it.

One might call them regrets.

But I’m also left with gratitude for the simple joys God afforded me while I was there and some wisdom for living this life tomorrow.

*Special thanks to my friend, Kate, for posting this poem the other day.
**Bottom three photos by Evan Schneider.**

Opening Prayer

Here’s the opening prayer* from yesterday’s worship service that really spoke to me.  

The whole service did, actually, and I’m still mulling over the sermon and the challenges and that Bible that never ceases to upset the apple cart.

Fungi in the forests of New Jersey.  Photos by Evan Schneider.
Fungi in the forests of New Jersey. Photos by Evan Schneider.

But more on that later.

For now, just the simple gift of prayer.

Maybe you’ll use it to pray over your week.  Maybe you’ll use it to bless your table this evening before you sit down to eat.  Maybe you’ll whisper it to your children, your spouse, or your friends over the phone, as you ease into bed, or as you lay awake with worry or fear.  I don’t like that you might worry, but I love imagining how prayer is private, yet corporate, spoken both in times of great joy and great pain, inhabiting the many shades of our daily lives.

The confession in this little prayer made my eyes widen.  So often we are the people who find lack in the midst of abundance.  May we feast on God’s grace this week and find ourselves fulfilled, content, and brimming with peace.

Most loving God,
among us there are many shades of both strength and need.
We are the people of much knowledge who lack wisdom,
the people of many possessions who lack fulfillment,
the people of abundant technology who lack hope,
the people of pleasures who lack contentment,
the people of many comforts who lack peace,
the people of much pride who lack dignity,
the people of ideals who lack vigor,
the people of belief who lack faith,
the people of faith who lack love.
Whether we have journeyed a long way
or have just come down the street,
we come seeking spiritual food to feed our spirits. Amen.

*Borrowed from Seasons of the Spirit

Ballpate Mountain Park, NJ.
Ballpate Mountain Park, NJ.

On community

When I came back from China I was really hurting.

I miss my life there, I would tell people with great drama, but it was how I felt, as though something had been ripped from me, because I’d had friends who knew my heart even though we spoke another language together.  I’d seen strength of character like no other in the foster mothers I’d met, and I wasn’t all that hopeful that I’d find it again in this land of affluence and privilege.

Statues in Paris, France.  All photos by Evan Schneider.
Statues in Paris, France. All photos by Evan Schneider.

But I was drawing these lines around communities the way God never does.

It was easier for me to compartmentalize and think in binaries: China was a place where great struggle and sacrifice produced something real and holy, whereas in the United States, life was hollow and stuffy, less shot through with God’s work, because there was less need, less contrast.

It wasn’t true, of course, but it seemed to make the ups and downs of culture shock more justifiable.  But I was insulating myself from life here by thinking and dreaming about China and logging many hours in Mandarin on skype.  Although I gradually reentered the world of academia and my husband I began to reconnect with friends and find a church community, deep down I still doubted whether these communities would ever compare to what I had in China.

Prayer candles in a cathedral.
Prayer candles in a cathedral.

This past weekend, my husband and I took a great leap and joined a church community that has gently, yet firmly demonstrated God’s faithfulness over the months of culture shock in this land.  What’s so powerful to me is that over those months, I haven’t particularly mentioned my doubts and fears to many people there.  We’ve told people that we spent time in China, but I haven’t asked for their prayers.  I didn’t really know how when sometimes the very prospect of being in community here seemed the last thing I wanted.

But as I’ve listened to the prayers of this community over the last few months, I’ve noticed something.  Before I went to China, I used to lead prayers of the people in my previous congregation, separating the joys from the concerns, but the people at our new church let them bravely comingle.  They don’t seem to worry that the praise of one might smart in the wounds of the suffering, or that great needs might rain on the parade of another’s blessing.  And that’s what life is like, what hope is like, not some naive optimism, but a conviction that suffering exists, and yet, God is very much present.

I realized, I’d been doing it all wrong.  

Not just the prayers of the people, but this theology of parsing the real from the ordinary, the needy from the privileged, and of course, the praise from the pain.  It makes sense to me now that as much as I’d seen and experienced God in China, China itself had become a hollow idol threatening to separate me from the real people in front of me.

Sacre Coeur at night.
Sacre Coeur at night.

This Sunday there was a family in front of us who’d lost a mother and a grandmother and there were painful tears shed as they asked for prayers of comfort and support from the church.  But there were also their arms draped around one another’s shoulders, and deep, heartfelt prayers of praise to a God who they know to be real, powerful, and present because they have each other, their friends, and their church community.

As Evan and I joined the church, nearly every member of this tight-knit family came and congratulated us, personally welcoming us to their community.  How people show that kind of hospitality and peace and love in the midst of loss is the best testimony I have to a God who is real, and who embodies hope and holism and life over death!  It’s that honesty in which people lay their hearts before community, but also the practice of hope and resurrection that’s healed me and freed me even though the people in the pews didn’t particularly understand my struggle or my pain.

Atop a grave marker in a Paris cemetery.
Atop a grave marker in a Paris cemetery.

Thank God they didn’t draw lines around their community.  Thank God there is room at the table.  And thank God for great, audacious hope in the midst of suffering.

Amen.