Monthly Archives: September 2016

On heavenly gazes and wisdom

I have a friend that has a decidedly childlike twinkle in his eye (even though he is in his sixties) and a deeply committed, dry sense of humor.  Because of his multiple sclerosis, he’s also in a wheelchair.  And so it was only a few months ago that it occurred to his friends and family that while everyone else at church had probably gotten to hold Lucia, he hadn’t.

When we placed her into his arms, she settled into his lap and nestled onto his chest and began to make great Herculean gestures to crane her neck to see this new person who was holding her.

That’s how you know Lucia likes you.  That’s how you know she’s interested. And then, she began to gaze up at him adoringly, an intensity of steadfast looking upon that exudes an otherworldly contentment (and that she doesn’t do for just anybody either).

A few weeks later, my friend came to me and talked about that heavenly gaze.  “For just a moment, I would really love to see what she sees,” he mused.

And his words touched me deeply.

You see, given Lucia’s vision challenges, we can’t be certain that she often sees much of anything.  And given her cognitive differences, there’s all sorts of reasons to believe she experiences the world in a limited capacity.  But those are just doctors’ and experts,’ and perhaps even cynics’ hunches.

None of us has ever seen or experienced the world through her eyes.

And here was someone who recognized (perhaps because of his own experience with disability) that able-bodied, neuro-typical people may see and experience the world in one way, but that’s just one way of seeing things.  Here was someone who looked on Lucia and didn’t find her deficient or lacking or wounded but a person of great depth, worthy of interest, and even admiration.

My friend’s words touched me deeply, and something leapt inside of me, because someone seemed to be really seeing Lucia for Lucia!  While we go about our busy days, Lucia finds great contentment in being still and listening.  While we go through days and weeks without touching or holding one another, Lucia finds her greatest comfort and joy in being close.  While we bury our heads in our desks and flitter away our hours with meetings, Lucia has finally mastered looking at people she knows, making small noises, and generously allowing us to brush her teeth.

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One of Lucia’s heavenly gazes.  My photo.

This past weekend when we talked together at church about wisdom, I was rather at a loss.  Wisdom is such a slippery thing to pin down.

What can you say about wisdom that rings true?

But we generally agreed that wisdom doesn’t come from us, it comes from God.  It doesn’t come from our trying and working and hustling and struggling and toiling but seeps into our souls, patiently waiting for us to pay attention to what whispers rather than what is clamoring for our attention.

And so I think about my friend’s words, his desire to know more about what Lucia sees, his childlike heart and humor, and I think how paradoxical and playful wisdom also is.  Wisdom comes to us in the ways of a child, mocking our pursuits, beckoning us to simpler, truer ways.

And it dawned on me: however mysterious and unknown and beyond us, Lucia’s ways are decidedly true.  Lucia’s time is time well spent.  When we try to capture Lucia in diagnoses or deficiencies or developmental charts, the efforts are colossal failures, crude renderings of a life well-lived.

But in gazes and touches and whispers?  Well, I’m with my friend, I want to know more of those.

Embracing difference as a spiritual discipline

We Christians have not been known, especially in recent years, for our ability to embrace difference…but what if we were?

A few weekends ago I listened to a podcast on the enneagram, the typology of nine interactive personality types that supposedly traces back to the desert fathers, and have been fascinated ever since.  But while I have loved learning about my type, where I’m prone to stress and poised for growth, what I’ve loved most about the typology is the window of empathy it has given me into the way I view my friends, family, and co-workers.  The enneagram, at its best, celebrates the differences that make us human, and instructs us not to try to change but to further understand and know one another.

But what about when people are really, really different from us and those differences confront what we think we know about ourselves, our culture, and even our faith?

As an anthropologist, I’m not only attracted to, but trained to appreciate differences in all their human forms.  When I meet someone who tells me about a different upbringing, worldview, or belief system, my ears perk up, and my intellectual curiosity sparks.  “How fascinating,” I think.  Tell me more,” I often blurt out instinctively; I listen and wait and expect…to grow.

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JingPo Christians in Yunnan, China.  All photos by Evan Schneider.

This robust respect for difference is entangled with one of the controversial, central tenants of anthropology–the notion of cultural relativism, or the belief that you kind of have to know a bit, well a lot, about another culture to understand it and to see and understand how they value what they value.  All cultures contain truth and integrity, but we rarely stop to pay attention and try to see things the way others might see them.

As I mentioned, this tenant is controversial because it’s really challenging.  Especially in the course I teach on disability, it’s almost impossible for our ableist and intellectualist-coded minds to stretch ourselves to consider disability as yet another element in human diversity.  When I assign a provocative chapter that references the very title of our course, “Disability as Difference,” students are wont to collapse the tension, to find the differences of disability clearly lacking or deficient, or at the very least, to assimilate the disabled to be “just like us.”

We human beings are simply not very good at seeing difference as valuable or even neutral. We’re constantly shaping, skewing, explaining, and evaluating differences (and different people) that we come into contact with everyday.

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The great Buddha at Lantau, Hong Kong.

But what if we added to our spiritual disciplines the act of allowing space for difference and even appreciating difference before we try to so hard to reform it, judge it, or rehabilitate it?

I think Christians especially have been afraid of the costs of such a foray.  We are afraid of where an appreciation for difference may lead us–astray from our Christian beliefs, our Christ, our God, our truth.  But if we are so easily lead astray from our faith when we value the differences of others, do we not serve a God who is small to begin with?  If our faith falters at the very introduction of contradiction, tension, and diversity, is our faith not flimsy and perhaps very worthy of being discarded?  Might we find a more robust faith, as Jesus did, in accompanying and learning from those who are different from us?

As an anthropologist who has learned so much from others about God precisely because of this openness toward difference, I seek a faith that is deep and profound and hearty because it is constantly probed and reevaluated and tested by what I am learning.  At every angle, when I exclaim, “That’s fascinating,” and sit at another’s feet to listen, I may risk something, but I also stand to gain so much.  I find this openness to difference, this grappling with diversity, to be a spiritual discipline because God is nothing if not miraculously incarnate and yet profoundly different from us at the same time.

But often we forget that truth.  

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Family out at a restaurant in Cairo, Egypt.

We presume God to belong to us, to be just like us, to be ours, to be with us and for us.  But I think God wants us to read scripture against the grain, to consider the rich diversity among its pages and in our lives, and to explore with abandon, making ourselves profoundly open to others and to God in unlikely and unexpected people and places.

We can’t do that if we’re afraid and closed off to those who are different from us, though.  We can’t grow if we don’t allow difference to disrupt our neat beliefs and convictions.  We can’t truly know God if we confine ourselves to that which is similar, expected, and narrow.

Do you do this in your life?  How do you embrace difference as a spiritual discipline?  How has it enabled your faith to grow, even if it has been tested and tried?

My husband often talks of how our seminary professors challenged us to discover a second naiveté after the faith of our childhood failed us and here Cornel West talks about a healthy atheism. I’m really interested in exploring how vulnerability like this to difference, especially, can help us to grow in our love for one another and God.

 

 

On enjoyment and spirituality

Can I confess something?

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Lucia and I on the patio, the leaves catching the first glimpse of fall.  All photos mine.

I really, really, really love our house.

That may seem like the most obvious thing to say.  I’m supposed to love it, right?  When you spend months and months anticipating something, it seems inevitable that your spirit would sigh a bit when you finally experience and live into what you’ve been anticipating.

Maybe it’s my Protestant ethic or my missionary soul, but it feels like a confession to make and it’s been a little hard to let me give in and love this house, because I have a hard time loving any-thing so much.  Things aren’t supposed to make us happy, I scold myself. Happiness should be intangible, inwardly grounded, yet that which sets its sight on lofty and pure ways–contentment in all circumstances.

But it just makes me so deliriously happy to share this place with friends; to sit on the porch and watch my daughter, despite her limited vision, explore the beauty of the trees and the dappled light and shift her head from one side to the other in search of birds and cars and sounds; to watch my husband cook for friends and for me in the light-filled kitchen; to linger on the porch into the evening enjoying being outdoors and in one another’s company; to work fervently inside my office these days and creep down to watch Lucia solider on in her therapies in her new room; and to dream about the times that will be had here, the way we can share and reinvent and live into and enjoy our space.

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Lucia on the patio and my prosecco and grapefruit juice ready to greet the weekend.

And suddenly enjoyment of this space, the way in which it invites me to hope and dream and pray, doesn’t seem so bad, so ill-advised, decidedly worldly, so spiritually vapid.  I find that my spirituality these days is constantly unfolding, being remolded and reshaped to see God in more places, and I think that is good.  I find that my Puritan tendencies that push back against my instinct to revel in this place and its grandeur cannot always be trusted.  Indeed, my own sense of what is good and pure and right can sometimes lead me astray, whereas Lucia, nature, sharing, my marriage, and life well-lived can be much better guides.

There’s no way I will ever shirk my missional aspirations, nor do I want to fully.  I remain convicted that this house is not a final destination or a treasure to be hoarded, but a beginning and a challenge that must be regarded with care, responsibility, and humility.

What will you do with this great blessing?  I often hear God asking.

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Exploring one of the lush country roads together.

And I am intent to respond, share it freely, use it to bless others, and remember that it is not my own.

But somewhere in there, I think God wants us to enjoy it, too.