Category Archives: books

Who could have imagined?

Yesterday a woman who works at Barnes & Noble walked right up to Lucia and greeted her–she knew her but she didn’t know me.  One of Lucia’s favorite nurses, determined that she wouldn’t become isolated with our recent move to the country, regularly takes her on outings to book stores, walking trails, parks, and libraries, and this woman had read books with my child many times!

One day when I was working from home and a friend stopped by the house, Lucia was out on one of these excursions unbeknownst to me.  The friend was a little disappointed.

Lucia has her own social life, I chuckled.  Who would have imagined?  I thought.

Indeed, I think it’s easy given Lucia’s diagnosis, physical, and cognitive challenges to presume that she lives a limited life, but this is so far from the truth.  Precisely because we’ve been forced to rely on nurses, doctors, and therapists to help us care for our medically complicated child, Lucia’s social network has certainly widened beyond the typical two and a half year old.

At the outpatient facility where Lucia does her therapy she’s not usually interested in toys, but she always cranes her neck to see the other children running and jumping and shouting.  This morning Lucia’s nurse, having just returned from China, brought her a Chinese children’s book and Lucia cocked her head to listen as the two of us yammered on in Mandarin about her trip.  Several months ago, one of her nurses put her hair in Jamaican braids!

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Lucia taking a nap on the D& R Canal in NJ.  My photo.

I think about the incredible richness of the life Lucia leads and I am in awe.  Our minds, our predictions, our perceptions of life with disability often fail to see beyond the presumed downside of dependence, medical necessity, and constant care.  But Lucia’s needs have, in such a good way, forced us all to expand our very limited social circles and our very limited notions of what life with disabilities entails.

A month or so ago when I spoke on the phone with a parent advocate about Lucia’s impending transition out of the state’s early intervention program and into school, she compassionately yet inaccurately projected another presumption onto me:  “Oh I’m sure your heart is just breaking at the thought of her going to school all day, on that big bus.  I’m sure it is so hard to see her go.”

Perhaps it would be hard to see Lucia get on that bus if she hadn’t already been living her life so fully.  But knowing how much Lucia enjoys all of these people, adventures, and diversity in her life, my husband and I are decidedly eager and excited for her to start school.  Perhaps another thing all these doctors visits, nurses, and therapists have prepared us for is trusting others with our kid, knowing it’s so important to share her rather than shelter her from the world.

When I look in awe upon Lucia’s full life, I cannot fathom the wisdom of God.  This is precisely the life I would want for my child, and yet, who could have imagined this life in particular?  Who could have imagined this village that God has provided, this little social butterfly despite her lack of words and gestures?  Who could have imagined that it would take the world and its limitless possibilities to help us see how Lucia has expanded all of our lives?  Who could imagine that a life with disabilities could be so rich and nuanced and bold and grand?

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Every time I look at this photo of Lucia I can’t help but smile. (My photo.)

Well, God, of course.  

And thank God for that!

Virtual coffee date

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Main gates at Princeton University. All photos by Evan Schneider.

If we were having coffee today, I’d tell you that it’s been a thrilling week teaching in the Freshman Scholars Institute program at Princeton, talking with my new students (about Plato, Freire, Hitchcock, and Du Bois), and also hearing some of their stories and their passions.  When I sat with them on Sunday evening during dinner, I noticed that while they were saddened by the violence in their country, they were not defeated by it–their hope for the future is inspiring.

I’d tell you how challenging I think it may be for me to keep a handle on my writing projects and professional goals with this busy summer semester course.  A month ago at the Frederick Buechner Writer’s Workshop Institute at Princeton Theological Seminary, several workshop presenters talked about the efficacy of collaborative writing partnerships.  In one pair, two academics set quarterly writing goals and checked in with each other on writing schedules once a week, also exchanging work, and talking about writing over a weekly call.  I’m striving to set and keep writing goals myself and considering such a partnership as one possibility.

How do you keep your writing goals?  What are your best tips? Would love to hear from you!

Finally, I’d talk to you about all the excitement and anticipation my family and I have about moving into a new house in the coming weeks.  As you know, we’ve been living in other people’s apartments, and God’s been providing for us so effortlessly, but at this last stage, I feel the anxiety creeping over me.  It’s been easier, I think, to be faithful with little, and I struggle with the grandeur and responsibility of moving into a bigger place.  Also moving is just the worst, and the thought of that upheaval leaves me weak.

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Unconventional view of the Brooklyn Bridge.

But I’m going to do my best to continue with my summer strokes, taking in all the blessing along with the challenges, finding beauty and promise and goodness in each stage of life.

What about you?  What’s on your mind these days?

 

How to embrace summer strokes

There is this thing we do, especially over in academia, but also in life, where we presume that complicated, busy, and grandiose is better.

Especially in my professional corner of the world, people often speak in belabored language and write long-winded sentences, and it’s all emperors new clothes until we realize that nobody can actually understand what we’re saying, no matter how profound it may be.

In my personal life, that version of over-complicated also takes the form of swimming upstream, presuming that every moment needs to be set to a purpose, and that things like pause and sabbath, leisurely strolls, or even hearty laughs defy the Protestant ethic in a decidedly unfaithful way.  

But surely that’s not what God intended for us…especially in the summer!

I have to admit that I once looked at offices that recognized summer hours–leaving early on Fridays–as flat out lazy.  Sure, summers are afforded teachers for restoration given the demands of the academic year, but I always felt a little guilty about that, too.  Indeed, for professors, summers are not breaks or vacations, but our best research and writing is supposed to be scrunched into these three hot summer months.

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Summer on the D&R canal.  Photo by Evan Schneider.

But I’m starting to see the wisdom in simple, summer strokes, going with the flow, and finding a rhythm in this slower season of life that embraces restoration, intention, and the sacred pause.

When my writing time was cut in half these past few weeks because of nursing vacancies, I initially panicked, but as I let my pen wander between lofty goals of articles and future plans, ordinary blog posts like these, and my book project, somehow my productivity multiplied.  Somehow in the slower strokes of summer, the steady motions of my pen, however pedantic, became productive.

I’ve taken walks these past few weeks just to take walks.  I’ve read books just because they’re fun or because they speak to a deep but unexplored interest.  And I’m still plotting a spur of the moment (is that completely paradoxical?) trip to the beach, just me and Lucia, before the summer ends.

The less I’ve tried to fight this slower pace, the more meaningful it has become.  

And slow spirituality?  Oh yes.  

At church this past Sunday, when I had all the reason to worry about which word needed to be preached to our desperate and hurting world, the kids on our mission trip, coming off their retreat from their own realities and their own summer strokes, were spouting this wisdom about not necessarily getting to see a job completed but doing your part, or loving the person in front of you.  And that was precisely the word that God had prepared.

The second we start to believe that God can’t do anything with ordinary lives is the second we’ve lost faith in the extraordinary God we serve.  But the moment we start to trust in the slow, deep work of God, when we trust in the abundance of God’s divine work in the world, when we go with the flow, if you will, all those seemingly singular actions, persons, and moments start to add up.  We start to see them as not incidental or momentary or fleeting, but the real stuff of life and faith.  What if we treated sabbaths not as the mere moments between what we really matters, but as life-giving rhythms for our ordinary lives?

I know summer can’t last forever, but I’m aching to hold onto its cadence as long as possible.

The benediction this Sunday, reprinted below, came from Paul’s letter to the Romans, paraphrased.  May your “ordinary, sleeping, eating, going-to-work and walking-around-life” slow down just a bit this week to encounter and embrace God’s extraordinary brush strokes upon it:

So here’s what I want you to do as God helps you.  Take your everyday, ordinary life–Your sleeping, eating, going-to-work and walking-around-life–and place it before God as an offering.  Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for God.  Amen.

Virtual coffee date

I have been thinking lately about how helpful it is to reframe major challenges in life as adventure.  

You know how sometimes you’ll be going through something and someone will try to comfort you by saying, well, it will make a great story later, won’t it?  What if we could embrace the great story now?

It sounds crazy, but I think my life is just as much, if not more of an adventure, here in the everyday with a baby, classes, and trying to be faithful to God as it was living in China and traveling the world.  I’m trying to be grateful for the adventure as I’m living it rather than tomorrow or in a couple years.  I’d love to hear how you do that in your lives!

Amazing islands of Hong Kong.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Amazing islands of Hong Kong. Photo by Evan Schneider.

I’ve also been reading Sacred Pauses and just hit the chapter on silence, which you know is my jam.  My mind was kind of blown by the idea that none of us have actually ever experienced silence, the true absence of sound, and that silence in general actually makes us more attuned to the presence of small, overlooked, everyday sounds.  The author used this to encourage us that God is always working, especially in the silence, a truth that has been powerful and poignant for me over the years, too.

An illustration from Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day.

It’s finally a little warmer, though there’s still heaps of snow on the ground.  Yesterday our little family took a lovely, cozy walk through the snow.  I just love how it crunches under your feet.  About a year ago, a friend gave us the children’s book, The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, because our daughter, who will turn one next weekend, was born in between two snow storms.  It is my favorite children’s book that we own, and I’ve been reading it to her a lot lately and reminiscing about her coming into the world amidst slow flakes coming down in the wee hours of the morning.

Yes, I’m adult, yes, I was raised in Wisconsin, but there’s still something so magical to me when it snows.  I remember my husband trying to describe snow to his students in South China who had never seen such a thing.  They were incredulous and full of wonder.  I wonder if they will ever see it snow in their lifetime.

Sure, it gets cold out here.  But life is quite the adventure anyway.

Happy weekending.

Love these two...my photo.
Love these two…my photo.

 

 

 

 

 

The morning: my sacred space

The other day I read a post from one of my favorite blogs, Zen Habits, entitled, “Creating a Lovely Morning.”  In it, Leo Babauta talks about how he combines just a few tasks, something to look forward to, and mindfulness to create a lovely morning.

If you read my blog with any frequency, you’ll know that I’m a self-proclaimed morning person, like Babauta, and that I get such an inordinate pleasure out of greeting the day that I relish knowing I have the whole morning in front of me at five or five thirty am.  Mornings have all the joy of possibility, confirmed by the beauty of morning light, the emptiness of the world, and the solace of the silence when the world has yet to wake.

Simply put, mornings are my sacred space.

Coming off of a relaxing vacation, however, I’ve been sort of lacking the energy to jump into action in the am.  So, following Babauta’s lead, I’ve put some thought into what my lovely morning might entail in an effort to to reframe those early hours.

5:00/5:30

Rise and watch the sun rise with a tall glass of water, some music, and my latest devotional read, Ellen F. Davis’ Getting Involved with God.

6:00

Brew a mug of decaf espresso and begin writing my introduction to my dissertation (this is the project I’m currently putting off because it scares me, but in my ideal morning, I tackle it head on!).

7:30

Take a break to peruse websites, blog, or pray.  Make a nice plate of scrambled eggs and grab a second mug of coffee.

8:00

Wake up my daughter and feed her out on the porch in the open air!

9:00

Take a long walk with my little girl, in which we get to see turtles, lots of birds, deer, and a great blue heron on the D& R Canal (even in my dreams, I’m greedy about my nature!).

10:30

Visit with a friend on the porch while my daughter naps (it’s my lovely morning, so in it, the little girl naps!).

Are you a morning person? If not, when’s your sacred time and what would your lovely morning/afternoon/evening look like?

 

 

 

 

An invitation to listen

As many of you who have been reading my blog during Lent have apprehended, I’ve been pretty transfixed by the simple instructions on spirituality in Richard J. Foster’s Celebration of Discipline.  But the other day as I read through the final chapters of the book as I nursed my baby before sunrise, I realized that in the busy-ness of my mind and the eagerness of my heart, and despite the silence, I’d forgotten about listening.

I’d forgotten that what sent me on this deep spiritual quest during Lent was the increase in silence in my life since the birth of this baby, and the subsequent invitation to let God fill those silences.  Since that realization, I’d picked up Foster’s book in an effort to be more intentional about my spirituality, and therefore, I’d been the one filling the silence with all sorts of things, from counting precious hours of sleep to pondering the tasks for the day ahead, and even my devotional study.

This is not another mommy guilt blog about how I should have been treasuring the moments with my infant suckling at my breast, but rather a mere realization that I hadn’t been faithful enough in those moments to allow God’s voice to be louder than my own.  In a previous post, I shared Foster’s words about how our fears about entering into the silence often reflect a distrust of God, and for me it’s no different.  I recently read this post from the author of the blog, Becoming Minimalist, in which he ponders our collective societal aversion to silence.  Joshua Becker writes, “While anyone can experience silence at any time by finding a quiet place to sit for an extended period of time, I have found solitude does not occur naturally in our noise-centered world. It must be intentionally pursued by each of us.”

In my own post on “The God of Silence,” I talk about the value for me in practicing centering prayer and reframing the experience of silence not as one of absence but of presence.

But I still struggle.

I still doubt over and over whether God will truly meet me in the silence.  

But what if God was already there?  What if the essence of God was that God goes before us, is ever-present, always waiting on us when we call?

My sister's photo of the first flower of 2014 in her neck of the woods.
My sister’s photo of the first flower of 2014 in her neck of the woods.

Perhaps that was why some of the words from the liturgy this weekend at church seemed to jump off the page.  We prayed together, confessing, “Fear and worry hold us back.  We confess that we try our very best, carrying the weight ourselves.  We gladly hand some of our worry and fear to you today.”

What a simple action, I thought, handing our worry and fear over to God, and yet we cling to these things as if we love them more than peace, hope, and love.

And as we took communion, we spoke, “When we come to this table together, we trust God will satisfy our hunger and our thirst.  Jesus shared this meal with a hungry crowd long ago and he shares it with us today.  Let us bring our hunger and our thirst to the table of the one who called himself the Living Bread.”

Fear and worry, hunger and thirst, these are the little that Jesus asks of us, and yet we cling to our noisy lives with such cowardice.  I don’t know about you, but the thought that our mighty God wants our heartache, and that God is so pure and humble and innocent and present, moves me.  The least I could do is listen, right?

And so I’m returning to that simple message on this foggy Tuesday morning.  I’m returning to the silence with my ears attuned to the presence of God.  I’m bringing my fear and my worry, my hunger and my thirst, and I’m trusting that God is already there, listening, as I listen for him.

 

Where is the joy?

I’m nearing the end of my Lenten devotional, Richard J. Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, so besides needing another short book to fill the rest of April (any suggestions, guys?), I’m also finally starting to discover the meaning behind the curious title.

As Foster writes, “Joy is the end result of the Spiritual Disciplines’ functioning in our lives.  God brings about the transformation of our lives through the Disciplines, and we will not know genuine joy until there is transforming work within us…Celebration comes when the common ventures of life are redeemed” (Foster 193).

Plymouth, MA.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Plymouth, MA. Photo by Evan Schneider.

Foster describes how we can’t take a shortcut to experiencing and exhibiting joy, but we can certainly experience joy through seeking God in prayer, confession, service, and worship, and it is God who is the source of this great gift.

That last line, “celebration comes when the common ventures of life are redeemed,” reminds me of a reflection I read this morning from Micha Boyett where she discusses the ordinary tasks of readying her two boys for school alongside the rather extraordinary miracle that Jesus does by turning water into wine.  Boyett’s pastor described the miracle as Jesus “replacing the joy,” and then points to our own lives, saying, “Look where you’re frantic and that’s probably the place where you’re trying to find joy.”

But the challenge is that finding joy, requires little of us and so much of Jesus, that we often spend the better part of our days scouring and scrubbing only to miss the promise of the dirt, the simplicity, the ordinary holiness of our bent up, misshapen lives.

Foster goes onto discuss a spirit of carefree celebration where we rely completely on God, and experience radical joy through our trust in God’s greatness rather than ourselves.  I look at the last few weeks and this controversy over World Vision’s decision and retraction for hiring gay staff in committed relationships, and I wonder, where is the joy?  I look around me at churches working arduously and desperately to spawn last ditch ministries to save themselves, and I wonder, where is the joy?  I look at each of us going about our busy lives, failing to truly see those in front of us, to listen, to love, and to rely on God and one another, and I don’t see strength or independence or carefree celebration, but fear and greed and angst.

I certainly don’t see joy.

The Sonoran Desert.  Tucson, Arizona.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
The Sonoran Desert. Tucson, Arizona. Photo by Evan Schneider.

The Church in America is in need of God’s joyful transformation.  We need less of us and more of God, less of our will and more of God’s grace and love and mercy.  And it’s only by way of the cross, that we are found by grace, and the we experience such true, unadulterated joy.

We don’t often think of Lent and the journey to the cross as a journey toward joy.  We often place the story of Jesus turning water into wine and Jesus’ death on the cross in two completely different literary categories, but what if we are called to live out the whole of our faith as ordinary, yet joyful people?  What if the transformation God enacts on the cross and in each one of us amounts to replacing the joy of humanity, and we’ve been missing something as we try so hard to just “get things right?”

We need look no further than our ordinary lives to answer the question, “where is the joy?”, and yet we struggle against what God has done for us.  We need look no further than the cup of wine to remind us of both Jesus’ holy sacrifice and great joyous celebration.  Let us accept the joyous transformation that Jesus brings to our lives, and let us live with great reliance on God, great grace for one another, and above all, great joy.

A photo so full of joy.  Bridal party at my friend's wedding on Chesapeake Bay.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
A photo so full of joy. Bridal party at my friend’s wedding on Chesapeake Bay. Photo by Evan Schneider.

Amen.

 

 

The God of silence

“One reason we can hardly bear to remain silent is that it makes us feel so helpless.  We are so accustomed to relying on words to manage and control others.  If we are silent, who will take control?  God will take control, but we will never let him take control unless we trust him.  Silence is intimately related to trust.”

—Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline, p. 100-101

Have you ever doubted whether God was really there because God’s silence seemed to indicate otherwise?  Have you ever cried out to God, wondering how God could remain silent in the face of hardship, pain, or injustice?

Conversely, have you ever sat in a car or beside a friend or a family member in complete silence and felt deep companionship and comfort, but hardly any need to speak?  Why is it that we can trust others with such deep, holy silences, and yet when we encounter silence in our spiritual lives, we assume that God is woefully absent?

Merrill Creek Reservoir.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Merrill Creek Reservoir. Photo by Evan Schneider.

One compelling aspect for me of adopting the discipline of centering prayer has been this reframing of the concept and experience of silence as the presence, rather than the absence of God in our lives.  As Foster writes above, in the silence, God takes control from our greedy grasp, but God cannot do so if we refuse to trust God.

During this time of Lent, I invite you to reflect on where God has been silent in your life, and how you might cede some control and trust to God in those areas.  As you do so, imagine God’s hands, busily, yet quietly working.  Believe that silence does not indicate God’s absence, but rather God’s presence, God’s faithful accompaniment to you, in deep, holy, silent communion.  Trust that after those dark nights of the soul, the sun will rise on another, better morning.  And find it in your heart to let go and trust God with all of your life.  Even and perhaps, especially when you feel weak and utterly helpless, our God may be silent, but God is there.

Amen.

Lent in the everyday

In a cemetery in Paris, France.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
In a cemetery in Paris, France. Photo by Evan Schneider.

Our pastor’s message at the contemplative Ash Wednesday service last night was simple, yet profound: what might we do during this season of Lent to follow God wholeheartedly in the everyday of our life?  Instead of giving up one sinful practice, one favorite food, or even adding one daily activity, she challenged us to let Jesus dwell in our every step, our every breath, our every word.

In Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, he describes meditation much the same way.  Meditation is not a specific time set apart from our daily lives, but a way of life, a way of praying without ceasing, a way of bringing the spiritual into communion with the profane, so that the two intermix powerfully and prayerfully.  Additionally, Foster points out that the difference between Eastern and Western meditation is that while Eastern meditation seeks removal from the world and emptiness, Western meditation seeks communion with God that ultimately leads into service to others (this is not to say, of course, that Eastern meditation can’t lead to service as well!).

I’ve talked incessantly on this blog about my love affair with centering prayer, but these are the tenants that so challenge and convict me about the practice.  We may just be beginning this journey of Lent, but I am reminded this morning that we are headed not to a holy place but to a holy transformation.  We are becoming Easter people, through this process of reflection and action, and while God effects those changes in our lives and our hearts, we do the walking.  

We put one foot in front of another.  We follow.  We accept our sins and repent.  We resolve to let God into the everyday, and it is in the everyday that we truly encounter our deep depravity and God’s transformative love for us.

May we seek God everyday in this journey of Lent, leaning on one another for encouragement, and trusting God’s transformative love.  Amen.

Lent: An invitation to righteousness

Those of you who read my blog regularly know that I have a restless streak in me.  And despite being overjoyed at the birth of our daughter and blessed to have the time to take off to get to know her, I’ve discovered that it’s still there.

When I find myself feeling restless, I’m reminded of the perpetual invitation to rest in God, but that often sends me off chastising myself for forgetting such wisdom and promise in the first place.

And I don’t think that’s where God is truly leading.

As I’ve discovered over and over on this blog, finding rest from restlessness for me consists of embracing who I am, and then tapping into what’s truly restful and restorative for me.  It’s an awesome thing that God has given me this spirit of curiosity, and to glorify God, I’ve got to use it, not suppress it.

As I started reading Richard J. Foster’s Celebration of Discipline the other day, I started to be inspired by reframing this time of maternity leave and rest with my husband and my daughter as invitation to go deeper and connect with God.  I began to become enthusiastic about the invitation to breathe deeply in prayer while I’m nursing my baby, to turn the pages of the Bible rather than jump on facebook in the wee hours of the morning, and seek rest, comfort, and epiphany in God and not this world.

As Foster begins his treatise, “Superficiality is the curse of our age.  The doctrine of instant gratification is a primary spiritual problem.  The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people” (A Celebration of Discipline 1).  I desire to be one of those deep people, who studies and explores the spiritual life “with as much rigor and determination we would give to any field of research” (3).

Finally, as I kept reading I was struck by Foster’s use of the word “righteousness.”  I may have mentioned before that my church hands out epiphany stars with words on them to each congregant at the beginning of the calendar year and challenges us to reflect on how God might be using the word to teach us throughout the year.  When I looked at my star this year and saw “righteousness” scrawled upon it, I practically rolled my eyes.  There’s a word that I fear Christians have become problematically known for, and I wondered what good could come of it.

Yet, Foster’s use of this word was revelatory to me.  He points out that our method to confronting sin through our own use of willpower leads to a false sense of righteousness, let alone the perpetuation of that sin.  Instead, if we practice the spiritual disciplines, prayer, fasting, fellowship, etc., we might open up ourselves and our lives to receive the gift of righteousness.  Finally, I love the fact that he counts himself a beginner in this process, just as Thomas Merton once pronounced us all beginners for life.  None of us is too great or too mature to enter into these disciplines anew and receive righteousness afresh.

As you enter this holy season of lent, I encourage you to honor who you are, encounter God in the discipline of spirituality, and receive the gift of righteousness, humble, holy, and free.

 And I’d love to hear: what are your lenten disciplines, and how do you honor God by embracing who you are?