Monthly Archives: January 2014

Virtual coffee date

马年大吉!Happy year of the horse!  

The bustling night market in Nanning.  All photos by Evan Schneider.
The bustling night market in Nanning. Photo by Evan Schneider.

If we were having coffee today, I would tell you that there are several times a year I just ache for China (in roughly October, during the autumn moon festival, every lunar new year, during the spring festival, and the tomb sweeping festival in late spring).  And despite having fled the country several times during spring festival to be rid of the noisy fireworks and avoid the crowded trains, there’s just something so full of joy and promise about sweeping the dust from the corners of the house, remembering the ancestors and praying for health and happiness in the coming year, and feasting with old friends and family.

Ladies doing tai chi along the Li River in Guilin, Guangxi.
Ladies doing tai chi along the Li River in Guilin, Guangxi.  Photo by Evan Schneider.

This time around, sweeping the cobwebs and looking forward to the new year, is pregnant (hehe) with meaning, as I’ve been soaring through a dissertation revision this week and preparing for a baby due on Valentine’s Day.  I’m so proud to report that I did, indeed, revise all five body chapters of my dissertation this week, so I’ll have a full draft to present to my committee members to read before the baby comes.  I feel so blessed to have felt so energized and inspired, despite being nine months pregnant!

I’m so grateful to God for allowing me in lieu of stress to experience this time of much expectation and preparation, rather as fullness, in which my cup runneth over.  

The husband sipping on cafe alonge in Paris.  My photo.
The husband sipping on cafe alonge in Paris. My photo.

I feel so much joy to be writing about foster families who I love and who taught me so much as a vocation, excited about potential jobs and postdocs on the horizon, as well as ministry opportunities, and of course, terrified and overjoyed at the prospect of a new baby.  Sometimes I do sort of stop in my tracks and feel a bit paralyzed with fear that we’re not the least bit prepared for this baby, but then, I think that awareness and awe-inspired fear probably goes a long way.

This weekend we’ll be continuing the nesting process, packing up boxes, filing papers, and tidying up–a Chinese new year ritual and baby prep all rolled into one.  Also trying to get a couple evenings out in before the baby comes, and if there’s time in the next two weeks I’ll add an introduction and conclusion to that second draft.  Who says you can’t channel all that nesting productivity into your dissertation, right?!

What are you up to this weekend?

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What I know about God

Cemetery in Monmarte, Paris, France.  All photos by Evan Schneider.
Cemetery in Monmarte, Paris, France. All photos by Evan Schneider.

It is written that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8), and that “I, the Lord, do not change” (Malachi 3:6).  

Though we often feel as though it is so difficult to know anything definitive about God, it is we who are washed about like waves upon the shore, and God who remains, faithfully, the same.  It’s amazing that this journey of faith with God, this process of discovery, is one in which God remains fixed, stable, and still, as we sputter about, grasping for a glimpse.  We become dizzy with our movements, forgetting that we not only grasp for God, but God is ever grasping after us.

In Micah 6: 3, a perplexed God cries out to the people, “O, my people, what have I done to you?  In what have I wearied you?  Answer me!”  This verse and those that come after it remind me that we have such a gift in our God, because this is a God who desires a relationship, above all else, with a bunch of sinners, and that we need only accept the invitation to, “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).

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Saint Chapelle. Paris, France.

My friend and colleague, Erin Lane, recently published an article on Q about knowing God, a post in which she tackles the problems with gender exclusive language, and writing that, “God is more than, higher than, fuller than our human thoughts and ways of gender. I’ve come to believe that we worship a gender-full God.”

Erin’s idea of a “gender-full God” blew my mind.  

Sure, I believe in the importance of inclusive language, but I felt as though I learned something radically new about God as I read through her journey toward knowing God more fully.  As I reflect on her journey and my own, I realize how important it is for us to share with one another what we know to be true about God.

The view from Sacre Couer, Paris, France.
The view from Sacre Couer, Paris, France.

Maybe God isn’t changing, but as we learn more about God, as we grow nearer to God, we certainly are–we are becoming more aware of how God can be so fabulously constant and so wonderfully unpredictable.  We become more aware of how God loves us, and how that love can be both constant and radical.  And we find that while we may spin in circles, these circles can take us toward deeper and more profound intimacy in the greatest relationship of all time.

As I’ve reflected on who God is these past few years on the blog, here are a couple things I know to be true:

1.  Our God is a God of possibility.

2.  God is the God of all of us.

3.  Our God is sturdy.

4.  God is the God of abundance.

5.  God sometimes works behind the scenes.

6.  God laughs.

7.  God dreams.

8.  God is good.

9.  God is the God of challenges.

10.  God lives both inside of us and outside the walls of the Church.

What do you know about God?  Who is God to you?

The challenge of following

Remember how I said I love a good challenge?

Well, operation-complete-a-revision-of-the-first-draft-of-the-dissertation-before-the-baby-comes is in full swing!

On Friday, armed with decaf coffee and hot cocoa, I tackled the first chapter and am happy to report that while it’s not perfect, it’s light years from where it was.  I have a lot of motivation, of course, with a baby on the way.  Plus, I’m signed up for a dissertation bootcamp through the writing program next week, and I really believe I can do this.

Still, there’s nothing like a baby to put your plans in perspective–to help you realize that your plans are yours and well, God’s are God’s.  I sometimes imagine God chuckling, “Just try to control the timing of this baby, just try.”  

I’m sure God very much wants me to finish this draft of my dissertation, of course, but I’m also certain that following God has to happen on God’s time and with my full commitment. Babies and due dates remind me that following God involves submitting all my plans to God’s wisdom and supervision, learning how to be content in all circumstances, and trusting God to provide possibilities beyond my wildest imagination.

Fading sunset on the River Seine, Paris, France.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Fading sunset on the River Seine, Paris, France. Photo by Evan Schneider.

And that’s actually a pretty good deal, if you ask me.

I’ve remarked before how the true liberation of the spiritual life is to live a life free from our control and instead, fully committed to the adventures God has in store for us.  When we relinquish our expectations and allow God to dream, the results are life-changing.

With a baby on the way, I certainly expect no less!

 

 

The God of possibility and present

Remember how I shared with you that God has been teaching me a bit this past year about how to be content, like the apostle Paul, in all circumstances, and how I’ve learned that life is so much more full of possibility with God at the reins?

I’m happy to report that I have a draft of my dissertation–all five body chapters–and am working to make revisions to these before the baby comes.  Throughout the pregnancy, even though I haven’t felt great, I’ve been really active, continuing my normal runs (albeit shorter and slower) along the canal, and I’ve had a fair amount of energy, which I’ve been really thankful for.

The D & R Canal in the snow.

Still, it’s been discouraging to hear unsolicited advice and comments from strangers or acquaintances warning that I’ll “get nothing done after the baby comes,” or that the energy, productivity, and passion that I have for my dissertation project will necessarily fall by the wayside.

 I can’t anticipate what it’s like to have a baby.  

I imagine it will be an uncanny mix of exhaustion, joy, and fear, and schedules and priorities will necessarily have to shift, but I have no way of knowing what’s really coming.  It’s a completely new experience for my husband and I, and so these comments have, on occasion, sprouted little seeds of doubt about myself and the life and passions I seemingly will have to give up for a new baby.

I’ve been noticing, however, that I’m not a stranger to the unknown, and that through all the unknowns in my life, God has been decidedly faithful, providing possibilities I, myself, could have never foreseen.  It’s been helpful as I approach the unknown of having a child to remember how my husband and I felt, for instance, before going to live in China.  We had no idea what to expect, and yet, we prepared as best we could, seeking counseling, reading books, imagining potential conflicts, difficulties, and pitfalls, as well as looking forward to the excitement of a new experience.

My family hiking in the rice terraces outside Guilin, Guangxi.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
My family hiking in the rice terraces outside Guilin, Guangxi. Photo by Evan Schneider.

Those of you who have been reading my blog for sometime may recall how much the experience of living in China surpassed my expectations and deepened my relationship with my husband, God, and others.  There were definitely moments that my husband and I didn’t anticipate (stressful visa issues, our entire apartment flooding, the general wear and tear of trying to assimilate to a culture and speak a language that wasn’t our own), but overall, I felt closer to God in China than ever, I made lasting relationships with incredible people, and I think that challenge even strengthened my relationship with my husband.

I recently read a blog post about productivity from Zen Habits in which the author describes anxiety as a lack of trust in the future.  While I think this makes sense, I don’t necessarily see a reason to trust the future per say, but I do want to be a person who trusts God with my future.  God sees possibilities for us that we can’t, but we often struggle to let God be God when it comes to the future.  For instance, the teaching experience that I just completed at Drew that was so formative for me wasn’t even on the radar until summer last year.  If I had panicked and chosen something else, I would have missed out on one of God’s possibilities.

It’s funny how this kind of trust in God can impact not just the future, but the present.  For instance, when I realized that the negative voices of strangers often came from a place of anxiety themselves, I gradually began to also hear the confidence and encouragement of friends who know me well.  My spiritual director told me she’d never been more productive than when she had a newborn who slept all the time, my advisor never wavered from believing that I could complete both a dissertation and have a baby, and my friends only seem to be more supportive of me now that my husband and I are embarking on this new season in life.  It means so much to have God using these friends and mentors to remind me who I am during this time.

Walking on the towpath in Princeton with a dear friend.  Photo by Schneider.
Walking on the towpath in Princeton with a dear friend. Photo by Schneider.

I love a challenge–I always have, from that first trip to Mexico in high school to our life in China, to writing a dissertation, and finally having a baby–these are all things that at one point seemed impossible that God made possible.  And so here I am, over eight months pregnant, working on a dissertation, expecting a baby, and wondering what possibilities God has in store for this coming fall.

And with God by my side, I hardly feel anxious.  

It’s this challenge of faith, trusting the future to God, and leaning on God to yield contentment and peace in the present, that’s keeping me grounded, confident, and filled with gratitude.  I don’t think contentment is about sliding into complacency.  On the contrary, it’s about living faithfully with the uncertain, another challenge that God’s been guiding me through these past years.  I just keep marveling on how much God can do with our lives when we bow them at God’s feet rather than wresting them from a God who wants to show us possibility.

How do you trust God with your future?  How do you find contentment in your present?  How do you worship God with your life?

Frederick Douglass: The enduring call to wakefulness

DC Teacher and Davidson Alum, Clint Smith‘s moving spoken word on zip codes, food desserts, and injustice entitled, “Place Matters,” is lighting up my facebook account and provoking some important conversation about the battles young children are fighting everyday against drugs, poverty, and obesity.   Click here to hear what he has to say!

Over ten years ago now, I spent a formative summer in Anacostia working with a youth missions organization, and it breaks my heart to hear how much the children there are still struggling to survive.  In a spiritual autobiography class at Princeton Theological Seminary,  after we read Frederick Douglass’ biography, I wrote a piece about my time in Anacostia and Douglass’ house, which stood high on a hill just down the street from the church we lived in, and from which you can get a glimpse of the capitol.  I want to add my voice to Clint Smith’s this morning in an effort to raise awareness about the state of education, poverty, and injustice just a few miles from our nation’s capitol.

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I held Terrance and Talib’s small brown hands in my white ones as they dragged me toward the convenience store, expectantly bouncing up and down toward sodas and candy.  But in a matter of seconds the rusty van with its side door missing came careening around the corner, flying past us and I had just enough time to shove their little heads to the ground—trembling, we were, amidst the sound of screeching tires, hugging the hot pavement.  Two weeks prior a local gang from our neighborhood had accidentally killed a kid from Congress Heights in the crossfire, and here the gang from Congress Heights was now, circling the neighborhood for easy targets.  Terrance and Talib all too casually rose from their prostrate positions and turned their backs to the street, peering through the great iron bars that lined the sidewalk right where we had fallen.  They raised their eyes to look at his house, broad and grand, the only three story house that hadn’t slumped to two under the weight of poverty and decline, the only porch that held pristine rocking chairs, the only grassy hill for miles of pavement.

 “Whose house it that?”  Terrance asked.

There is no Frederick Douglass in Anacostia today, I thought, instead of mouthing the words.

His house was right there over the bars and I longed to tell that to Talib and to Terrance, but without “the sliver trump of freedom” it would mean nothing.  No soul can rouse itself to eternal wakefulness without a light to summon its attention.  Much as the bondage Douglass experienced gave the white man’s salvation a distinctly bitter, putrid taste, a message of spiritual liberation so trite meant little to this neglected community and to these boys who were starving for the sustenance of life itself—their own humanity. 

 

But this is where Douglass’ struggle ends, not where it began.  He begins his story with all that he does not know, all that he has lost because he was born a slave, far beyond Tuckahoe, Easton, and Talbot County.  And it is in this way that the children who came to Renaissance Baptist Church simply because we were there to listen, told their stories.  Absent of any detail, a parent completely unknown to them, a knowledge of nothing beyond the W, the street on which they lived. 

It is called W Street—like many city streets in southeastern D.C., in what is known as Anacostia, it seems downright generous to give alleys littered with burnt out cars, bottles, and buckling houses even a letter to their name.  On one end of this winding road is the metro station which connects this landmass on the other side of the Anacostia River to the rest of the capitol and congress buildings, and at the other end lies his house, statuesquely seated upon the only hill for miles, looking across the water to the capitol, yet directly down upon a city of shambles. 

These are the tangled roots of America and American Christianity, that though “all men are created equal,” the marble of the congress buildings was laid to bear by the hands of slaves, that though the Christian scripture might have harbored a message of liberation, the harshest slave owners were the ones whose whippings were steeped in scriptural righteousness.  This Christian and public alliance with slavery is what pushed Douglass not only to flee the plantations of his youth northward, but to flee (temporarily) the faith as well.  His anger, though, represented his hope, the fire of freedom that refused to accept a religion promising only spiritual, not physical liberation to its people. 

But the anger in Anacostia today fractures the community as brothers and sisters thrive off the exploitation of one another.  Even Renaissance Baptist Church was just another haven for drug trafficking—our pastor drove an olive green jaguar and came once a week to look out at the streets with a smug, careless glance.  It was Frederick Douglass who attacked this kind of religion, the kind of Sunday holy-rolling that slinked away to prostitute itself during the work week, from the very offering plate that the faithful had filled.  “What!  preach, and kidnap men?/  Give thanks, and rob the own afflicted poor?/  Talk of they glorious liberty, and then/  Bolt hard the captive’s door?”  While Douglass spoke of a new paradigm for salvation from his house on the hill, those in Anacostia found the captive door bolted, and traded the hope of glorious liberty for a hellish day-to-day hardened existence. The black church in this place had lost Douglass’ fiery ambition, becoming a cult of complacency in a community of need.

Perhaps all that is why the Nation of Islam temple two blocks up the street was so popular, boasting the likes of Louis Farrakhan, who preached twice within its tattered walls that summer.  The police barricaded off blocks up and down the street and black men with bright bow ties marched past the Frederick Douglass house, the Renaissance Baptist Church, and into the temple.  It was one of these nights in July that a young Anacostia man held his pregnant girlfriend hostage in a car across the street from our church; it was a scene unlike anything I’d ever experienced, police lights flashing, sirens and blow horns thundering, bow ties aflight from the area, fleeing across and out of Anacostia.

And this was what I observed: nobody, nobody wanted to be in Anacostia. The church was two blocks from murder row; the Salvation Army and the Red Cross had moved out.  The Venus and Serena Williams Tennis Center was a gleaming, marble monument in the neighborhood over, but it was a testament to the Williams sisters’ ability to get themselves out of Anacostia, rise above these God-forsaken streets.

The nights were bleak despite the joyful cries from the children frolicking on the steps of the church.  They were there because no one cared where they were, least of all their parents.  For the first few nights, I tried to walk these children back to their homes, meet their parents, and let them know that we couldn’t care for them at these hours of the night.  But from within young Terrance’s house came the notable shrieks of his mother prostituting herself in the upper room, and suddenly babysitting on the steps seemed the only thing to do.

A young Frederick Douglass.

But it is his house, the Frederick Douglass house, which stands so solemnly and out of place amidst this sobering circus.  And there are tourists who come to D.C. and come all the way out to Anacostia to see the yellow house with green shutters and experience the world of Frederick Douglass.  Perhaps what they do not expect is to have to use their imagination to see past the reality of Anacostia.  They have to wonder, I think, how St. Michael’s, where Douglass worked the plantation, is one of the loveliest portions of the Eastern Shore, whereas his own home attests to the height of urban poverty, institutionalized racism, and neglect to the ideals of freedom and equality he sought so desperately to instill in all people. 

All people have souls, Douglass’ biography teaches, even the slave.  But does Anacostia itself have a soul?  Or has it sold its soul, sold these children, Terrance and Talib, into a new irreversible, urban bondage of poverty?  Who will tell Douglass’ story, not just with words, but with his life?  Where is hope when there is none to be seen, when the house on the hill can stand so tall but its presence is not enough to triumph over today’s complicated systematic evils? 

Sometimes in my dreams, I imagine those children from the church steps playing on the Douglass lawn, on the porch, living in that big unlived-in museum of a house.  I imagine it all with anger, helpless anger, until I remember the real lives lived on the streets.  You see, it’s easy to equate the decay of buildings and structures with the decay of souls. 

At an after school program in Anacostia, DC.

The story I have not told is the one in which the community on W Street took us in and protected us from all the danger they lived with everyday of their lives.   Gert and Bill, the couple who lived across the street from the church, came over the very night we moved in, promising to be there, whatever we needed.  That eventually came to spiritual conversations, much needed showers in their cramped bathroom, and ever-important information about the needs of the community. By their generosity of spirit, their hospitality, and their care, we touched one another in a community that frequently felt bullets graze by, felt the emptiness of hunger, but rarely felt the “silver trump of freedom…rousing one’s soul to eternal wakefulness.”  Douglass recalls this moment for him, when “freedom now appeared, to disappear no more forever.  It was heard in every sound, seen in every thing…I heard nothing without hearing it, and felt nothing without feeling it.  It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm.” 

Douglass looked out from the plantation’s slave barracks on a bleak future yet all he could hear and taste was the cry and the thirst for freedom.  Perhaps looking for hope against the dingy backdrop of Anacostia is to place too much faith in appearances, to place too much acceptance upon the reality that seems irreparable.  If Douglass’ deepest longing to learn, to know freedom, and to live, reverberated from deep injustice, perhaps Anacostia does have a soul after all.  Anacostia could not be so desperately in need of salvation without a soul to yearn for grace.  A great injustice remains in the blocks surrounding the Frederick Douglass house, but the justice to redeem it will come from within.  The Frederick Douglass house stands as a reminder that freedom calls us all to wakefulness, but not a freedom from oppression or poverty arranged at the hands of white men in congress, but a freedom for humanity rumbling in the depths of the depravity in which Anacostia toils on day after day.

Paris: eating, sleeping, and reading

Paris, France.  Photo by Evan Schneider.Paris, France. Photo by Evan Schneider.

Perhaps because it’s a particularly gloomy morning here in Princeton in the dead of winter, or perhaps because the NYT’s thrilling 52 Places to Go in 2014 just came out this week, I’m finally wanting to return to those Paris files that never made the blog, and some of the best eating, sleeping, and reading that we did on site.

I mentioned in another post that just after touching down in the city of light my husband caught a nasty cold, and so we decided to forgo our travel plans to the countryside and spend the full two weeks in Paris.

The River Seine at night.  Photo by Schneider.
The River Seine at night. Photo by Schneider.

And we never felt like we were missing out.

The welcoming lobby at Hotel Sainte Beuve.

When we had to scramble to find another hotel for the time we’d planned to be outside the city, we stumbled upon this gem, the Hotel Sainte Beuve, nestled right off the Luxembourg gardens in the 6th arrondissement.  Walking off the chilled streets into the warm living room with its burgundy and pink color scheme and crackling fire place afforded all the warmth of a cozy cottage, and the rooms were a soft mix of comfort and sophistication, much bigger than the closets you get in many areas of the city, featuring floor to ceiling windows, airy balconies, and spacious bathrooms with eclectic black and white tile.  The staff spoke a myriad of languages, booked us at many of the local eateries, and the hotel even had its own fragrance, that we bought and often spray around our bedroom to recall our memorable time there.

Of course this experience totally converted us into Paris snobs, who were quite unwilling to venture too far outside the city center, much less stay on the outskirts.  Why would we, when some of our best meals consisted of picnics cobbled together from local cheese, cured meat, and wine vendors, and then enjoyed on the lawn of the nearby Luxembourg?

Picnicking on the lawn of the Luxembourg.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Picnicking on the lawn of the Luxembourg Gardens. Photo by Evan Schneider.

The neighborhood had plenty other charming spots, including Cafe Vavin, where we’d enjoy heaping plates of charcuterie, foie gras, cheese, and wine around 5 or 6 pm before we’d enjoy a late dinner at the teeny, white-tabled clothed Le Timbre, or the bustling Julien Pattiserie around the corner where we’d grab an exquisite espresso and croissant before heading out to the day.

Appetizers!
Appetizers!  Photo by Schneider.

These were some of the cheap thrills of discovering the neighborhood around the hotel, but for some other memorable meals, I scoured the Paris By Mouth blog, which helpfully lists restaurants by arrondissement, and provides detailed, accurate reviews.  This is where we discovered the delightful Semilla, in the much-adored Saint Germain de Pres neighborhood.  The menu changes daily so each experience was different, but the food was rich, delicate, and refined.

Another great meal, or should I say the best buttery, melt-in-your-mouth plate of scallops I ever had, took place on a friend’s recommendation at Pramil, the tiny, yet cozy wood-beamed restaurant off the quiet rue Vertbois in the third arrondissement.  If you go, be sure to make a reservation (we didn’t, and we almost missed out as it quickly filled up!).

A bustling intersection in Sainte German de Pres.  Photo by Schneider.
A bustling intersection in Saint Germain de Pres. Photo by Schneider.

Besides the food there were two books I enjoyed reading that were set in Paris and provided a virtual and ethereal tour as I read along.  One was the frivolous Lessons in French by Hilary Reyl, the other Kati Marton’s sophisticated and bittersweet Paris: A Love Story.  I’d recommend both for your touring pleasure.

Photo by Schneider.
Photo by Schneider.

Of course, the sights and sounds of the city nearly rivaled the food and the flavors–that first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower coming up from the subway that I didn’t expect to care anything for, the quaint courtyard and the sounds of the organ in Saint Suplice, the eerie beauty of the cemetery at Montmarte, dotted with the tombs of artists and saints, or even Monet’s sprawling gardens, packed with tourists, were as beautiful as everyone says they are.  We can’t wait to go back and lap up escargot and enjoy wine by the carafe, but for the moment, especially on a day like today, Paris remains but a wonderful, distant warm memory in the dead of winter.

The view from Sacre Coeur.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
The view from Sacre Coeur. Photo by Evan Schneider.

Epiphany: Pondering it all in our hearts

Christmas has come and gone.

In this season, paradoxically called epiphany, we ask our neighbors, “how was your holiday?,” we un-trim the tree, dismantle the decorations, put away the nativity, and resolve to return to our regularly scheduled lives.

But what are our regularly scheduled lives and how do they fit with the violent breaking in of our God in advent, the not so sterilized versions of that stable birth, a season of unadulterated joy, and a baby savior who takes away the sin of the world?  Isn’t the meaning of epiphany, “the manifestation of God,” enough to send us on grand pilgrimages like the wise men and change us forever?

This past advent, our pastor preached passionately about the need to take the nativity off the mantle, to become acquainted with a rather inconvenient and culturally inappropriate pregnancy, the messy squalor of the stable, and welcome this paradoxical savior and all his rupture into our neat, little worlds.  It pains me that we, who have experienced the greatest hope and joy of this season, can think of nothing to ask our children but “what did you get for Christmas?”  How have we really taken the nativity off the mantle if our lives look the same in this holy season of epiphany?  And how can we welcome epiphany if we resolve to go back to our regularly scheduled lives?

In this holy season of afterbirth, joy, and wonder, I encourage you to stop and reflect on the gift of a savior.  I encourage you to ask not just about travel, family, and presents, but the epiphanies that others have experienced in light of the grace we have received.

As Mary pondered all these things in her heart, so might we ponder how Christ has been reborn in us, and how because of this, 2014 will never be the same.